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U3A Writing: Kotie

Is Kotie really the sort of friend that a young girl should have?

Ida Smith tells a subtle tale about learning to survive in a hostile world.

I am in the shop. It’s in the afternoon. I have a clear conscience as I’ve done my homework for Ou Meneer; the few sums completed hurriedly without too many blots and the hard English spelling words. They’re not easy to get into one’s head.

I’m here to arrange the showcase. I was thinking about it at school and planning how I was going to do it today. It has always been my job to keep the showcase neatly arranged.

“You do it so well,” my mother praises me. I love working at the rectangular glass box, placing the two pocket watches in the centre, with the strings of coloured glass beads looped on either side of them. There are lots of other jewellery items, brooches, bangles and the box of rings which are heavy and feel huge on my fingers. I have stopped trying them on, preferring to wear some of the metal bangles while I work. I like their clicking sounds.

Here comes Kotie. She is carrying that deep straw basket of theirs. Today she is bringing eggs. I can tell because she puts the basket on the counter so carefully.

“Middag Tannie,” Kotie says to my mother.

“Sugar, please Tannie – for the eggs.”

Kotie has spotted me busy at the showcase. “Oh, you’re there!” She sidles up to me at the corner of the counter. She peers in through the scratched glass of my showcase.

“Mmm,” says Kotie. “I like those green beads. They’re nice. I wish my mother would buy them for me. They must cost a lot.”

Kotie is eleven. She is two years older than me but two classes below. She isn’t even in the same classroom as me at our small country school. When she comes to the shop, or to play with me, she is pleasant and friendly, so different from what she is like at the school.

We live in the house right next to the little stone building with its three classrooms, on the other side of the wire fence that separates us. Just past the tall, creaking windmill.

Each morning when my brother and I arrive quite early for school, Kotie is already there on the long verandah, always at the same spot, next to one of the wooden poles supporting the verandah roof. Now and then she will grab the pole firmly and swing herself from side to side, her dress billowing out around her. She does this several times.

I usually walk towards her and wait until she has completed her little performance. I have already learnt how to interpret her reactions. If the tone of her customary greeting is kind, it means that she will be friendly to me at school that day, but if it is abrupt, she’ll be nasty, and that fills me with despair.

Here is an example. This took place some weeks ago.

“Morning!” she’d called brightly. “Oh my! You’ve got new shoes!” pointing to my white sandals. Everyone around us was staring. She peered down at my feet. I felt afraid of what might happen next. “I like them!” she pronounced at last. She has approved. The others nearby took their cue from her. I felt a sense of relief for it never takes much instigation to cause a sudden bout of merciless taunting and teasing which always seems to follow the slightest pretext and causes in me a feeling of utter desperation.
Here now is Kotie watching me at the showcase. She is brimming with kindness which I have learnt not to trust. I see that my mother has unpacked the basket. She places the package of sugar inside it.

I walk over to the open wooden box under the counter on the grocery side and take several of the pale, hard sweets which are always presented to customers on leaving. I hold them out to Kotie.

She pops some into her mouth. “Come!” she urges me, talking through her teeth, “Walk a little way with me!”

I can’t refuse because inwardly there is always the hope that she will become more supportive towards me at school, and perhaps, hopefully, the next time there is another unprovoked attack on my brother and me, she might just for once, not stand wordlessly by, her eyes blank. “Why doesn’t someone stop them?” We ask ourselves.’

“Why don’t you stop them Kotie?” I think bitterly to myself.

I follow her out of the door. “Don’t be long!” my mother tells me. Kotie turns towards my mother. “Middag Tannie!” she calls, always so polite. She’s holding the basket over her arm. “We must walk quickly,” she says. “My mother will be cross.” Beside her, I’m half running to keep up. We reach a patch in the road which is smooth and sandy.

Kotie stops. “Hold this!” she commands, thrusting the basket into my hand. I wait, in awe, watching her as she unfastens her shoes and shakes them off her feet. What on earth is happening? Fascinated, I watch as she plants the cracked brown heel of her bare right foot into the soft soil, arches her feet downwards and hopping jerkily around on the spot, describes a perfect circle with her poised big toe in the sand. Then, that one completed, she moves over and continues drawing several more.

I watch, with great admiration, as she crouches down over her circles. “Look, this is a plate,” she chatters, “a big plate for cake,” and using two fingers of her right hands, she draws a design in each of them.

How clever she is, I think enviously. “Kotie, how nice! You draw such pretty things! I wish I could. Show me again! I want to try!”

Before I can remove my shoes, Kotie is busy putting hers back on and without a word, she grabs her basket from me. With two great shuffles of her feet, she wipes out her works of art.

“Ag,” she says, “I’m tired of this now, and it’s getting late. Ma will be cross. I’ll see you tomorrow!”

“Will you play with me at school?” I ask earnestly.

“Ag, man. Yes!”

“Will you? Say you will!”

“Man, my Ma will smack me! I must run!”

She rushes up towards the barbed wire fence on the side of the road. Deftly she climbs through taking a short cut to her house through the veld.

I’m left behind, standing in the road. The sun is setting over there behind the school. I don’t like the quiet and the loneliness at this time of the day. I walk quickly past the shop. It’s shuttered front windows and firmly closed door give it an eeriness which fills me with anxiety.

I hurry now and soon I am on the footpath leading to the house. Past the big tree, I can see onto the verandah of the school. Its many windowpanes stare at me through black opaque eyes, ugly and menacing.

At last I enter the yard and hurry towards the back door. I know my mother is in the kitchen for I can already her walk and the clatter of dishes. She’s getting the supper ready, beating up eggs. On the coal stove, I see as I walk in, stands the big frying pan with its lump of yellow butter angrily sliding about.

My mother is pleased I’m back. I feel the comforting roar of the flames in the stove, and the warmth and love. Kotie and those school children don’t belong here.

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