The Dark End of Our Street

“Do you recognise the handwriting?” Detective Nkosi asked Sipho.

Detective Nkosi was one of three police officers in what had until very recently been Sbu’s Leo Marquard Residence room. The second police officer, Detective Nhlapo, and Uncle George (Sbu’s uncle) were busy packing Sbu’s belongings into two large cardboard boxes. The third officer, Detective Sithole, was standing on the balcony. He was busy making some measurements from where they thought Sbu had jumped to his death the previous night.

Sipho looked at the piece of paper that had been handed to him by Detective Nkosi. He was convinced that the writing belonged to his friend. They had almost everything in common: they had started at the University of Cape Town in the same year, attended the same courses and stayed at the same residence. They had often compared lecture notes, but when Sipho looked at the words in front of him, it was as if the person who had written them was drunk or under the influence of some drug.

“Well . . .” Sipho started in a stammering voice. “I think it is Sbu’s writing.” “Are you sure?”

He looked at the paper again.

“Yes . . .”

“What makes you so sure?”

“Because we used to lend each other our lecture notes every Friday, and I’m quite used to the way he writes.”

At that moment Sipho was struck by the fact that 13 November, that very day, was supposed to have been the day they celebrated Sbu’s twenty-third birthday. He was convinced that his friend hadn’t expected to die. It had to be a mistake. The previous afternoon, Sbu had even proposed a party to celebrate his birthday and the end of exams. If he knew that he was going to commit suicide, why then would he invite all of his friends to come to his birthday party the following day?

“Did your friend have any enemies?” asked Detective Nkosi.

“I don’t think so. Why?”

“Was your friend suffering from depression?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Was he expecting any visitors after you?”

“I don’t know.”

“What about his girlfriend? Do you know her, by any chance?”

“Yes,” Sipho said doubtfully, “but as far as I know they were no longer going out. They broke up last month.”

“Aha, is that so?”

“Yes, as far as I know.”

“Did you know that she was here yesterday?”

“Who, Zanele? Was she?”

“By looking at his suicide note, do you suspect that Sbu was under some form of pressure when he wrote it?”

“Well, I can’t tell that. But I can’t rule out the possibility either.”

“Look carefully. The words are not exactly between the lines. Can you see? Did he sometimes used to write like this?”

“Only when he was in a hurry, during note-taking in class.”

“Thanks a lot for your time,” said Detective Nkosi, handing his card to Sipho. “Please let us know if you think of anything that might help our investigation into this matter.”

The following morning, Sipho didn’t get up. He had no idea how he had managed to walk to his room the previous afternoon, but his body felt heavy, as if he had been carrying bags of cement the whole night. It was even difficult to open his eyes. He turned over; his stomach felt empty, but he had lost his appetite the moment he had received the news of his friend’s death.

As Sipho slept a shaft of midday sunlight penetrated his room, roasting him. He had forgotten to close the curtains when he had come back from talking to the police.

Suddenly, he heard a knock on the door, followed by someone calling his name.

“I know you are there, Sipho. It’s me, Zanele. Please open the door.”

Sipho shifted the sheets and rolled to the other side of the bed. Some tobacco fell out of the pocket of the old brown leather jacket that he was still wearing as he stood and realised for the first time that he had slept with his shoes on. As he walked to the door he noticed a can of Black Label lying on its side on the floor. The whole room smelt of stale beer.

Zanele was carrying a blue sports bag with the varsity logo on it. She was studying at the drama school and was in her second year, but she had deferred all her remaining exams the previous day after hearing of the death of her ex-boyfriend.

“Hi,” she said. “What smells so awful?”

“Eish. Maybe it’s the beer . . .”

Sipho walked to the window and opened it.

“You know, I’ve been here since eleven this morning, and I’ve knocked on your door several times.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t hear you,” Sipho said, yawning.

“If it wasn’t for the security guy downstairs who insisted that you were in, I would have left without seeing you.”

Sipho went to the kitchen and plugged in the kettle to make coffee. The sink was full of dirty dishes and pots that had remained unwashed for about a week, and as he opened the fridge for some fresh milk. Sipho could smell that the eggs had spoiled. He ignored the smell and took out the milk.

With a mug of coffee in each hand, he went back to his room. Zanele was sitting on his bed.

“When I saw that bag I thought that you were coming to give me a beer to kill this babalas,” Sipho said, trying to make a joke. There was silence for a while inside the room. A rill of slowmoving tears rolled down Zanele’s brown cheek. She slowly wiped it away with the back of her hand.

“Sipho, can you do me a favour, please?”

“You know that you can always count on me.”

“This bag belonged to Sbu. He gave it to me last night. I still had some of his things from when we were together, and he wanted me to drop them with him this morning. I’m asking you to give it to his family.”

“So, you were with him before he died?”

“Yes.” Zanele paused, the look on her face unreadable. “Why? What are people saying?”

“Nothing. I just hear rumours that you were in Sbu’s room yesterday, before he died.”

“Well, they aren’t rumours. It’s the truth.”

Zanele finished her coffee and prepared to leave.

“Please, Sipho,” she said as she stood up. “Just do this one thing for me. Make sure this bag gets back to Sbu’s family.”

“I’ll see what I can do.”

Sipho started to search the bag as soon as Zanele had left. Inside he found a washing rag, a pair of underpants, some books, a toothbrush and an envelope with a letter inside. The envelope was postmarked 11 November and was from Johannesburg Hospital. Opening it, Sipho could not believe his eyes when he read the word Positive in the Status section.