I am Shafieq.
I was in a dark room. It was nighttime. I looked out through windows and saw thick, rolling, gray storm clouds, low in the sky, lit from underneath by the city. A large, bright light outside the building, shining in through the crosshatched, security mesh covering the windows, cast a skewed, crisscrossed shadow across the ceiling of the room.
I looked down, and saw a hospital bed. It was the only bed in the room. A small, thin, frail girl lay under the covers, only her head, shoulders and arms visible.
She opened her eyes and looked up at me.
“I am Kiska,” she whispered to me.
“I am Shafieq,” I answered, also whispering.
“Are you one of the voices I always hear?” She asked tearfully, her hands clenched into the bed covers.
I thought about that for a moment. “No, I don’t think so. I think I’m here to help get you out of this place.”
“I don’t think you are, either,“ she said, her hands relaxing on the bed covers. “I can see you. I’ve never been able to see any single voice before. Sometimes I see things, but not the way I’m seeing you.”
I looked down at my body. It didn’t look completely real. “Where are we?”
“Groote Schuur Psychiatric Ward. I attacked one of the nurses so they locked me in this room, alone. They will let me out in the morning, for a bath, and to speak to the doctors. They always do.”
I woke up with a gray, early dawn light slowly filtering into the room. This time I was lying under the bed covers. I looked up, just behind my head, behind the bed stood Kiska.
Keys jangled in the lock, and a moment later the door opened and a nurse strode into the room.
“Good morning Mercedes, how are you feeling this morning? Are you ready to eat anything today?”
I looked up at Kiska enquiringly. “Who’s Mercedes?”
“I don’t know. That’s what they call me. I’ve told everyone that my name is Kiska, but they still call me Mercedes.”
I sat up in the bed. “Good morning Auntie,” I said politely. “Yes please, I am hungry.” I was starving.
“Oh that’s good,” the nurse replied, “we can’t have you wasting away forever. But just a little, we don’t want to upset your stomach.”
She stepped outside, locked the door and walked away, down the hallway. She returned a few minutes later with some fruit salad, and toast on a tray. The cutlery was plastic.
“Thank you Auntie.” I ate everything.
“Time for a bath now.” She cleared away the tray.
“Yes Auntie.” I climbed out of the bed, and followed her out of the room to the bathroom. In the bathroom, I stripped off the hospital gown I was wearing and looked in the mirror. A small, skinny, 14 year old boy, with short, spiky black hair, and light, caramel skin looked back out of the mirror at me. Kiska was standing next to me, with long blonde hair, and pearly, white skin, not completely solid; a ghost almost, disembodied.
I jumped into the bath and soaped myself clean. Afterwards, I toweled myself dry, and put on a fresh, clean hospital gown that the nurse had left in the bathroom for me. I opened the bathroom door and wandered out.”
“Mercedes, let’s go back to your room, and wait for the doctor.” A nurse appeared from down the corridor and led me back to my room, locking the door behind me.
I kept pretending to be Mercedes whenever the nurses or doctors were around. I tried to be polite, do everything asked of me, and cause as little trouble as possible. At first it was difficult responding to the name Mercedes, but after a few days, it became easier.
When we were alone in the room, I’d put Kiska back in charge of the body, and we’d talk. She told me as much about herself as she remembered, and she told me about the voices that kept tormenting her.
I grew more convinced that I was here to help her. It was easy helping her – I didn’t hear any voices; I didn’t want to hurt myself; I wasn’t paranoid; I was always hungry.
I was sitting in the doctor’s office one day, a few weeks after I’d first appeared in Kiska’s room. Kiska was standing, in the corner, disembodied, watching both of us.
“Mercedes, how are you feeling?” the doctor asked.
“I feel good.” I did, I always felt good.
“Have you been hearing any voices recently?”
“No, no voices,” I answered truthfully. I knew the voices still bothered Kiska, but I didn’t hear anything.
“Do you still feel everyone wants to hurt you? Do you want to hurt yourself?”
“No one wants to hurt me. I don’t want to hurt myself, Doctor. I’m happy.” I smiled at the doctor, sitting softly on the edge of the chair.
The doctor smiled back at me. “I think it’s time you come out of that room. We’re putting you back in a general ward. If you do as well there as you have been, you’ll be ready to go home soon.”
Kiska smiled at both of us from the corner.
I stayed in a general ward for a few weeks. It was a lot harder pretending with so many other people always around. I had to stay in charge more often, only letting Kiska take over for a while when everyone else was asleep, or when we were alone in the bathroom.
One morning the doctor came into my room. “Mercedes, your Mummy is here. You’ve gotten much better and we think you’re ready to go home. We’ll give you some medicine to take home with you. You must take it everyday. And you must come back to the hospital regularly and talk with a psychologist. I’ve explained everything to your Mummy.”
“Thank you Doctor”
The nurses gave me some normal, street clothes to put on. They were girl’s clothes but I didn’t complain. I was going home – we were going home.
I’d done my job. I’d helped Kiska… I thought.
I am Shafieq.
Bang, bang, smash, glass from one of the front door window panes shattered, and fell onto the lounge floor, just inches from the worn, old, single chair that sat in the corner by the entrance.
I jumped in my seat across the lounge, frightened, pulling my legs up into a protective ball. A dark arm pushed through the broken windowpane, feeling around for the door handle, pulling on it, and trying to open the door. It was locked, the key sat in a tray on my side of the lounge.
On the other side of the door stood a large, dark man, Somalian features, and tight, black curls on his head, bright white teeth shining as he grinned through the broken windowpane.
Kiska started screaming loudly in my head. “It’s him. It’s him. He’s coming back for me. It’s him.” She pushed me out and I was looking down at her from just above her head. She was screaming hysterically, staring fixatedly at the arm coming in through the broken window, jerking on the door handle.
“Mercedes, open for me. It’s me. I just want to talk to you. I won’t hurt you. Please let me in.” The thick, Somalian voice sounded from outside, on the front step, just on the other side of the broken front door.
I gently pressed Kiska out of the way, trying to soothe her while I did. “It will be OK. He can’t get in. You’re safe now. He’s not coming in.”
I stood up and walked to the front door. “Fuck off, jou ma se poes. Get the fuck out of here.” I shouted angrily at the front door, hitting the arm sticking in through the window.
I shouted, swore and hit some more. Eventually, he withdrew his arm, and ran off, down Fifth Avenue towards the open veld.
Kiska was still sobbing, but she slowly started to calm down. This was the third time that bastard had come back to the house looking for her. Ma had reported it at the Athlone police station, just as she’d reported the initial rape. They were still looking for him, but they hadn’t found him yet. We knew where he lived, but the police never found him there when they went looking for him.
I had to sort this out. I had to help Kiska again. I spoke to two of my friends. They were still young, my age, I’d known them for years; we’d been to school together at some point, but mostly, we’d lived in the same neighborhood our whole lives. They were already becoming gangsters, nothing serious yet, just small-time, still too young for anything serious. They were happy to help me – it would probably give them a lot of street credibility.
We walked down to the Vlei one day, the three of us, and some hardcore gangsters that my friends had brought along, looking for Zachariah. We had something planned for him. The asphalt at the bottom of Veld road stopped, giving way to gravel and worn down grass – the Vlei, an anarchic, informal settlement growing on the open veld in Vygieskraal. Corrugated iron shacks were hammered and tied together with all manner of leftover building material. Some were large, with full-sized doors, others little more than a crawl space for one person. Shacks leant up against each other, following the curve of the land. Their roofs were mostly covered in plastic sheeting, held down by rocks and cinder blocks, to keep out the rain. Sandy paths snaked their ways through the shacks, sometimes just barely squeezing between two shacks, other times coming together into a small clearing. Dirty water and stinking refuse muddied up the paths. When it rained, water would pool in the lower lying areas, flooding out those unfortunate enough to have built below the water-line.
We found Zachariah drinking at one of the informal shebeens. We sat down with him, and started talking. He was happy to see Mercedes, and drunk enough not to be suspicious. After a few drinks, we said we were going for a walk out in the veld. Zachariah asked if he could come with us. We agreed, and the group of us meandered out through the surrounding shacks to the open veld.
Some distance into the veld, over a few small hills and out of sight, we stopped, as we’d planned to. “My bra, you just sommer leave this girl alone.” I said, stepping forward and punching Zachariah in the face. My friends started beating on him too. We beat him to the ground. I kicked him in the head as we left him, moaning in the dirt.
He never bothered Mercedes, or Kiska again.