He is yelling. I know it because I can feel the rush of air on my face with each bellow. His breath is hot and stale, but my eyes are drawn to his lips. They are thick and they curl and catch in the spaces between his teeth. They act as mufflers making nearly every word unintelligible. But I sense what he is saying and I know what he wants. The cold metal nuzzle pushed against my throat is enough to decipher his flying spittle.
The street is empty. Of course it is. The long row of duplexes, identical in shape and size, but painted in an array of mismatched colours looks like a badly sewn quilt. Most of the people, people I have known my entire twenty-two years, are indoors sitting in front of their televisions watching McGyver get himself out of another tight situation while they enjoy their supper. I would have been one of them had I not missed the early bus. I ran as fast as my spindly legs could carry me but it drove off. I watched the faces of the passengers disappear in frozen expressions: some with pity and most with unhidden amusement. I took the last bus which left two hours late due to a flat tyre. But that did not surprise me. I did not kick the stones or swear out loud. No. I waited patiently. Being unlucky has become a constant companion.
My mother took me to a Brahmin the year before to ‘open book’ as the expression goes. The ‘book’ being an astrological chart based on time, date and place of one’s birth. I had never been to a Brahmin for that purpose before. I suppose because my mother had always considered herself a lucky woman, and mostly that was true. My oldest sister married the local builder, Bobby (he is responsible for the mismatched chaos on our street) and my youngest sister is engaged to a bank clerk with whom she works. I, on the other hand, have battled to find a good job and as for marriage prospects – well, they’re non-existent, hence our trip to the temple. We took a taxi and my mother being a woman who hates to keep things to herself, informed the other thirteen passengers where we were going. And after a few clucks and a few ‘shames’, they advised my mother on the best temple to visit. Apparently not all Brahmins are equal.
The highly-rated Brahmin was an old man with a wiry grey beard. He sat cross-legged at a coffee table. He was quite a solemn man, not that gurus are happy-go-lucky. But he was particularly stern. He studied me with a thoroughness that left me wondering if he could read my thoughts. And all I could think of was that he was ancient and that he smelled ancient. If he could read my thoughts then I was in trouble. “She’s not getting any offers, Guru,” my mother said and dabbed her eyes with the edge of her sari, “Not for marriage and not for the job.” My mother is very good at crying at the drop of a hat. My sisters and I have nick-named her drama-queen, for her eyes swim with tears especially when she wants to get her way. She is never called that to her face though. “She is going to be twenty-two in a few months and her youngest sister is getting married soon.”
After much scrutiny which left me squirming in my uncomfortable lotus position, he consulted the many books that were strewn across the table. Then he sat back and simply said. “She is very unlucky.” His right hand swept the air. “She will not get married and she will not get a good job. She will have a long unlucky life.” Then he pointed to me, swayed his head from side to side and said again, “She is a very unlucky girl. Most unlucky girl in the world.” He said it as if the best thing to do would be to drag me onto the street and put me out of my misery. At this revelation my mother’s crying became a howls of despair.
It is this very memory that occupies my thoughts as I contemplate my present situation. The man pushes the gun into my neck and I can feel it stick to my skin. My first instinct is to give him my bag. After all it contains only four items: my purse with perhaps R5 and some change, my identity book, a name-tag which I am obligated to wear at the factory where I work and a chocolate bar – probably the only thing I will miss. He begins to yank it off my shoulder but something makes me hold onto it. I remember the words of the Brahmin, ‘… long unlucky life …’ What if I prove the prophecy wrong? I decide right there and then that I will not live a long unlucky life. I pull at the bag and scream as hard as I can. I can see the brief confusion in the man’s eyes which are so close together he looks cross-eyed. “You want to shoot me, shoot me!” I yell. He freezes only for a second and then tries one last time to grab my bag.
The sound is deafening and leaves an annoying ringing in my ear. I think of fireworks and Diwali and my brother-in-law’s obsession with the loudest crackers. He calls them thunder bombs. It was as if he lit one right next to my ear. It is then I realise that I must be shot. I smell blood and I taste its saltiness. I slide to the ground. If I’m shot then I must be dying. I hear footsteps running off into the distance. I hear dogs baying and doors opening and voices. Their words seem to drift into another world because I cannot understand them. The sky is dark and the light of the streetlamps weak, but I don’t close my eyes. The voices become distinct. A man with a mane of white hair bends over me. He has a surprisingly young face for someone with such shocking white hair. He must be an angel, I tell myself. Then I hear my mother. She is crying. She hovers over me trying to push the man aside. “My baby. Oh nooo … my baby is dying.” She has the ends of her sari over her mouth. Someone pulls her back and she shoves them aside. Someone else says, “Call 9-1-1.”Another says, “What are you talking about. You watch too much American television. It’s 1-0-11.” I know those voices. It is uncle Ram and aunty Dolly, our neighbours. They are always fighting. I want to smile but my lips are numb. Someone has brought a cushion and places it under my head. Another tells me to keep my eyes open and that the ambulance is on its way. “My unlucky child is dying …” my mother cries.
I am ready to die, I think to myself. The grim forecast of my life has not given me much motivation to live. I also realise that proving the prophecy wrong has become quite important to me. I don’t know why. Perhaps being labelled as the unluckiest girl in the world has become too much for me bear. Or maybe it’s the sad pitying looks that everyone feels compelled to send my way whenever they see me (my mother informed everyone on our street of my fate). Or perhaps it is the fact that my mother’s eyes fill with tears the moment she sets them on me.
I hear the wailing sirens get closer. I am surprised they have arrived as quickly. In our neighbourhood that is a rarity. I overhear the reason, “My cousin brother is a paramedic. I knew if I call him he’ll come. He’ll do anything for me.” I recognise this voice too. It is Ricky, unemployed Ricky who stands at the corner taxi-stop during the day and waits to help the aunties with their parcels. “I should have kept watch,” he says.
I wonder why I have not died yet. My head feels as light as aunty Dolly’s queen cakes, a fact I have never voiced to my mother as she loathes those queen cakes, and my body as heavy as Bobby’s cement bags. I search the sky to find the divine light, maybe I watch too much television, but all I see are faces hovering over me. Some I recognise easily, and others take a little more effort to remember. Then they all disappear and two new faces come into focus. The paramedics examine me. I am surprised that I am still conscious. I search my body mentally to discover the real source of my pain and realise that there is none, except for the numbness around my mouth area, I don’t feel any other pain. “She’s bleeding from the mouth,” I hear one of them say. “No other injuries,” says the other. “Please help my child,” sobs my mother.
“She’s going to be fine.” I hear the paramedic tell my mother. There are a few whoops and cat calls from those gathered around me. “The bullet did some damage to her mouth but I think it’s just a graze.”
“She bit the bullet,” someone says. And there is more chatter. More sirens wail and the police arrive. But I am exhausted and close my eyes. It seems like I did not prove the prediction wrong. I was unlucky in getting even that right. But as exhaustion or perhaps the drugs injected into me claims my consciousness and as I slip away, I hear, “That is one very lucky girl.”
Days later there are still reporters knocking on the door. The Chatsworth Sun and The Daily News featured the story of my lucky escape from death with headlines like ‘The Girl Who Bit The Bullet’ and, ‘Lucky Girl’. My mother does not feel that these headlines are true. “How can you be lucky now with that smile?” she points to my face. “You used to have such a lovely smile, the only thing that made you pretty. Now look at you.” The tears pool in her yet again and she wipes them away with her sari. “What the Guru said was true.” I agree with her. My reflection in the mirror agrees with her.
For days I mope about the house. My mother refuses to send me back to the factory. She is worried that I might miss my bus again and find myself in the same situation, although everyone in the street has agreed to keep a vigilant watch over me. I find out later that while I lay there on the street that night, some of the neighbourhood boys and men went in search of the thick-lipped assailant. They caught him that very night and dragged him to the police station. I did not tell anyone that I had actually told him to shoot me. He was arrested and according to the policeman who came to take my statement, he will spend a very long time in prison.
I try to search the piles of newspapers, courtesy of the whole street that brought extra copies of the editions that featured my story, for jobs. Aunty Dolly tells me about a job opening at the crèche her sister owns a few streets away. My brother-in-law Bobby thinks it is perfect for me. With my front teeth missing I would fit in with all the other toddlers, he says. He is hilarious, that Bobby. I need some fresh air and volunteer to go to the shops for my mum. She objects at first but I tell her that it’s ten in the morning and nearly everyone is outdoors. “No one will dare harm me again,” I say.
My neighbours wave at me as I walk down the road. Some tell me that I should be resting. “It’s been four weeks,” I say. I try to keep my lips sealed when I smile. Maybe leaving the house is a bad idea. Uncle Joe’s is just up ahead. It is a supermarket, small but well-stocked and has been there since before I was born. Uncle Joe is well known to us all. He is a very short fat man with a quick smile and quicker temper. No-one has ever asked him to buy on credit. He has a big board outside his shop-window that says, “NO CREDIT.” A few people complained about it but he is a man who stays true to his word. His son and an African boy of about 15 help him run the shop. They say he has other sons but I have never seen them.
Uncle Joe’s is quiet this early in the morning. The young African boy stands behind the counter wiping it down and Uncle Joe’s son sits on a stool reading a newspaper. I have seen him a few times but I have never really spoken to him. He doesn’t look like Uncle Joe. He is taller, maybe by a few inches, and he is not fat. He has a pleasant face. I think he looks a little like McGyver, maybe an Indian version of him. But my sisters have told me that McGyver is much more handsome. He smiles when he sees me. I give him a half smile making sure my lips do not part. I head toward the shelves and choose the items on my mother’s list. It is a short list. I take the items to the counter where the boy rings them up. Uncle Joe’s son is still watching me and I feel my face heat up. “You’re the girl who bit the bullet,” he says as he folds the newspaper he is reading and places it back on the pile next to the till. I smile again. “The luckiest girl in the world.” I have become as sick and tired of this title as I had of my previous one. I place my hand over my mouth and say, “No, I’m not.” He looks a little put out. “Of course you’re lucky. You escaped death.” I am tempted so say that I would have been luckier if I didn’t when I decide to do another rash thing. “You think I’m lucky, the whole of Durban thinks I’m lucky, but I’m not.” I remove my hand from my mouth and reveal my two missing teeth. He looks shocked. Then he starts to laugh. He is bent double with laughter and he does not stop. I have just humiliated myself again. I march out of the shop and leave its two occupants laughing their heads off.
“Wait!” he shouts. He runs behind me. I realise I am almost home. Maybe I can outrun him. “Wait,” he calls again, “You forgot your parcel.” I stop then. I wouldn’t know how to explain it to my mother. He catches up to me. I am reluctant to turn around. “Look, I’m sorry.” I hold out my hand. I want to grab the parcel and leave. “That’s nothing,” he says as points to my mouth, “Your teeth can be fixed. My brother is a dentist. He had an accident years ago and lost some of his teeth. They’re all fixed now.” I listen. It gives me some hope. “If you give me your number, I’ll let you know when you can see him.” He finally hands me the parcel. “I’m Joshan, Joe, named after my father.” I’m still pretty embarrassed, so I keep silent. “I know you like chocolate. You always buy chocolate when you come. I put in a few bars. No charge.” I smile my thanks, nod my head and walk away.
“My name is Suradhya, it means lucky,” I say as I walk off. He chuckles.
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