Nandi felt the dry chaffing of hemp over her fingers. The tattered rope slipped from her hands and she was flung into space. The humid afternoon clustered in her nostrils, the air a cloying contrary measure to her temporary detachment. She half closed her lids in naked enjoyment. The multiple shades of light green, terracotta and sunburnt yellow on the dam shoreline meshed. She revelled in the sense of freedom before gravity would inevitably intervene and pull her downward. Drunken by flight Nandi considered whether a journey far from home would also propel one into such satisfaction. Does distance liberate? How far does one have to travel for your past to become a hazed teal horizon, a meaningless flicker in time and space, and what is lost along the way?
The indignity of muddy warm water. Open your eyes, goddamit! Tread! Nandi fought with herself and her surroundings to gain control. She kicked wildly at a conglomerate of slimy weeds, thrashing to be rid of it only for a tangle to attach itself to her toes. The verdant appendage shadowed the movement of her foot. With a dramatic gasp she emerged from the surface. Her afro was flattened and sloppy. She was immediately aware of it. She knew it would both absorb and wick moisture. No smooth, domed otter-like head for Nandi. She also knew she’d have difficulty opening her eyes. Nandi sank back beneath the surface. Was it fear or lack of experience, or training, or breeding? Probably all of the above she concluded. Frustration continued to fill her lungs until eventually the burning sensation of necessity, or inevitability, propelled her upwards.
From a moon shaped patch of sand nearby, Mieka tossed her a khakoi. The vermillion red thick cotton weave absorbed moisture as soon as Nandi hugged it to her belly. Emergent from the muddy waters, she knew without even looking that her one piece costume would now be revealing two dark proud nipples. It was a no-nonsense kinda cozzie with mid-blue and cream stripes. Annoyingly, the cream slicked over her boobs and left nothing to the imagination. It was an old, unstylish, but workable swimsuit. Good enough for someone who rarely swam. A second-hand steal from the ‘vintage’ shop on High Street, one of only three commercial drags in Grahamstown. Before enveloping herself completely in the cotton swaths, she paused in the warm midday sun, closing her eyes with innocent pleasure. An Indian minor bird swooped over head. The breeze dusted the surface of the dam and left a scattering of unhurried movements amongst the shrubbery on the embankment.
Norman leaned back on his brown and yellow patterned towel, his sinewy legs, covered in coils of corse black hair, splayed out in front of him. His belly, usually a neat package of defined lines, protruded comfortably, filled with boerewors, peri-peri sauce and bread rolls. He was half shrouded in the unreliable shade of a crippled stinkwood. Unlike Mieka, who was now spread-eagled on the sand, offering herself up to the sun with unthinking abandon, like a chicken sausage on the braai grill they’d brought with them, he sought to find as much cool relief as possible.
He locked his eyes on the bare breasted - or near enough, he thought - Medusa. Her generous hips and short powerful legs were draped in that red cloth. Her hair was drying quickly and unhindered in its roaming, its wilful protrusion into space. Her soft folds of belly, breasts and arms were glistening, shining in the sunlight. He slipped his sunglasses on to prevent Nandi from noticing him staring, not because he minded that she knew he was staring, but because once she knew, she’d become self-conscious and the texture of the moment would be lost. He lightly rubbed the rough surface of his fingertips together. His hands itched to work, to capture the softness of her youth, the rich brownness of her skin, the smoothness of her contours. More than anything he wanted to dwell in the way the light seemed to not fall on her, but to exude from within her. She was not a subject of happenstance, barefoot on this soil, beneath this sun. To Norman, she was an ever-present creature of origin. He wanted to inhabit the way she belonged.
The girls lazed on the sand side by side. They fell in and out of slumber, carelessly letting the weekend afternoon slip over their backs, their bums, Mieka’s long legs. After about an hour, Mieka propped herself up on one arm, her attention sweeping over the embankment. The dam water had dried on her skin in light beige rivulets, marking her in memory of a Sunday idly spent.
Not another student or Grahamstown resident in sight, she noted with satisfaction. Just their crew of three. Norman’s friend J was supposed to have joined them, but he’d been too hung over to make it. Norman had discovered J earlier that morning, sprawled over the edge of a couch. A half-eaten cold bowl of noodles balanced a few centimetres adrift of his hand. The edges of the tomato sauce and cheese infested mess had gone hard, the starch congealing and solidifying at random peaks and troughs. J seemed surprised at both Norman’s insistence that he had actually confirmed he’d come to their braai at the dam, and that he’d offered his car as transport for the group. He could recall none of these commitments. J was equally perplexed at the origins and proximity of his noodle bowl. J’s absence had caused no little annoyance for Nandi and Mieka. Not because they wanted to spend time with J particularly (he was Norman’s mate after all), but because they’d have liked a lift, and a car sound system to add to the afternoons’ vibe. But both of their moods quickly shifted once the walk to Grey Dam began. It was one of those sparkling, cloudless days - effortlessly joyous once spent outdoors. Norman, feeling responsible for the cause of their disappointment, had carried the bulk of the packets and bags for them in any case.
The closeness of their bodies was comforting to Mieka. She felt compelled to share something with Nandi now, to touch her skin, to close their circle of awareness. The afternoon air a cloak of intimacy, perhaps even secrecy, that made her want to bond more meaningfully. Nandi and her hadn’t been friends for more than a few months but the isolation of Grahamstown and the intensity of university residence life encouraged companionship to flower in ways many of the young students had never before experienced. Hesitating over what nugget of information to share, Mieka wondered if Norman would overhear them, and try to intrude on the moment. She flicked her hair back and checked he was still prone and dozing, which he was. Mieka had not been close to many people in her young life. Nandi was an effervescent presence. She attracted people naturally, and her warmth, her perceptiveness to Mieka’s needs eased the relationship forward. The fact that Nandi was black made her all the more intriguing to Mieka. Her first ever black friend. Of course, Mieka had known black people when growing up - house workers, the odd kid at school, filling some or other quota in the elite boarding house dorms - but she’d never imagined wanting to be close to them. She’d never imagined they’d know more than her about stuff, in the way Nandi knew stuff. It was revelatory. Plus, Nandi provided a social buffer for Mieka’s awkwardness, her coldness, her self-aware and self-restrained Afrikaaner-ness. Mieka’s first year at Rhodes was surprising to her in so many ways.
‘Did you bring chips Nands?’
‘Hmm? Ah, yes - they’re there, by Norman.’
Mieka fingered the edge of her khakoi, pointlessly pressing the edges of stark black lines woven over a faded green and red block pattern into the sand. It was an empty question, not meant to invite resolution, not posed because Mieka actually wanted chips, but rather meant to coax Nandi into conversation.
‘Do you need to do your nails later?’
Nandi opened an eye, her lips pursed in a conceal smile. Mieka read this to be vaguely patronising but also indulgent. She knew Nandi would be game.
‘I’d love to try your new polish! Do you still have that foot file thingy?
‘Yes! I’ll do you. You do me.’
‘Deal’ Nandi winked and sat up. Her sunglasses were 1950s knock-off black cat’s eyes. She’d spotted them on the edge of a Nigerian tradesman’s perfume stand at a weekend market. Nandi had haggled with him for a solid half hour, playing her trump card by walking haughtily away at a pace slow enough for him to loose his nerve and call after her. Mieka had stood nearby nibbling the edge of a Styrofoam cup of cheap takeaway coffee, simultaneously aghast and impressed at the elaborate commercial exchange. A week later Mieka had asked Nandi if it was possible the tradesman didn’t actually stock and sell sunglasses, but that someone had mistakenly left them on the edge of his stand. They were the only sunglasses he’d displayed, after all. Why one pair only? Surely she’d been ripped off, and bought stolen goods. Nandi had been unwilling to entertain this possibility. She cut Mieka short and defended the tradesman by pointing out that all his goods were to some degree or other stolen.
Regardless, the sunglasses looked hot. Mieka reached for her mobile phone. Without a word Nandi knew to ready herself for a photo. She arranged the khakoi over her thighs (flesh always seemed to dimple and expand when seated), then placed one leg over the other (both thighs together under the khakoi would be like a red expansive sack of colour at the bottom edge of the photo), then leaned slightly back to her left side, thereby rotating her profile to the mobile phone camera just enough to reveal its pleasing edges, and hide her plump cheeks. Mieka then took a few selfies. The girls flicked through the photos. Mieka was displeased with hers.
‘I’ll do it Mieks - its the angle - you’re always taking selfies from below’.
Nandi manoeuvred about on the embankment with Mieka’s mobile. Roused from his shady retreat, Norman felt compelled to join in. He sprinted from beneath the tree and dive-bombed into the water, managing to ruin Mieka’s modelling opportunity (in her words), and make both girls keel over with laughter. Nandi flung her legs in the air, her throat revealed to the sun, disarmed and inviting.
They lingered on the edges of Grey Dam for as long as the light lasted. They feasted on the stream of easy conversation, on the sunlight, on the intimacy of their companionship. An afternoon so indulgent, so perfect, as if all their lives had been leading to this moment, and they wanted desperately for it to not end. And yet, these moments when all elements in the environment and in the heart intermingle with beauty and bounty must end. It always comes to an end. Monday, assignments, lectures, proposals, awaited them all.
With reluctance, Nandi, Norman and Mieka turned their attention to the retreating shadows. They packed up their small braai, their empty beer bottles, their towels and jammy donought packets, still exhaling sweet breaths of cinnamon and comfort. They fell into silence on the walk back into Grahamstown. Not wanting the day to end, the girls said goodbye to Norman with a faintly tinny and forced exuberance. Norman lived in his own apartment on the fringes of campus - the advantages of MA funding scholarships he had been a recipient of. Nandi and Mieka then stood outside their residence dinning hall. Neither were hungry, neither wanted to sample the sloppy grey mess of lasagne and melting remnants of green beans that was on offer (Sunday nights always provided the very worst of a sad weekly selection of meal options). Both Nandi and Mieka could still feel the sun glowing on their faces and they chatted, churning over vapid topics and regurgitated quips. They wasted time with the abandon of those who have not yet been brought to map out the future with a concretised pragmatism, have not yet decided on what they seek to achieve other than the vague constellation of horizontal and luminescent dashes that is adulthood peered at from far off.