The Final Option

Posted on: October 1, 2012
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By Mike Shafto
 
 
He was forty that year and his life was shot to pieces. He was probably dying and seemed to know it but not to care. He was often to be seen these days staring into space – a vast abyss, a dense impenetrable mist of emptiness.
 
 
He had dragged himself out of bed twenty minutes earlier. It was already well after eight. He was in the kitchen of the cheap flat he rented in a rundown area of the Eastern Cape town where he’d lived for the past thirteen years. The last ten saturated with drugs, booze and women. It was a marvel how many of them threw themselves at him. Though this seemingly endless supply of them – this army of female admirers – had all but dried up now.
 
 
His hands were shaky and he was having trouble removing the lid of the round tin in which he kept the coffee. At last, with a sudden jerk, the lid came away and as the tin tilted some of the grains spilt onto the draining board alongside the counter where he’d switched on the kettle to heat some water.
 
 
“Suka!” he blurted angrily.
 
 
His shaky hand made it difficult to spoon the coffee into the china mug, but he managed it without spilling any more. That pleased him. Jomo’s laminated face smiled up at him from the mug’s surface. Yes, that Jomo – the great Sono who shot accurately with both feet, who owned his own club, and who at one time had wanted him, Solomon Mpofu, to join him on the Bafana Bafana coaching panel.
 
 
He lit a cigarette and almost immediately began to cough. An awful, hacking cough that tore at his throat leaving it raw and painful.
 
 
Today, he promised himself, he’d give up cigarettes. This, or the one after the pap and fried egg he intended to cook himself for breakfast, would be his last. He’d kicked drugs. He could kick cigarettes, too. He’d been clean now for three years.
 
 
Clean! That was something to be proud of.
 
 
He moved about the kitchen, trying to alleviate the pain in his side. It hurt as it always did, early in the day. Later, after a couple of drinks, it’d be better. At least he hoped so. His liver was the problem, of course.
 
 
The last time he’d consulted the doctor he was told to quit drinking as a matter of urgency. At least to cut out spirits. He’d been sent by the Blazing Stars chairman, Wenzani Zondo – known to one and all as “Champ” – to see the doctor, a tall storklike Afrikaner with hornrimmed glasses and a lined doleful face, and a good friend of the club over many years.
 
  
“Listen, Solly,” Dr Carel van Rooyen said, looking at him levelly across the top of his old walnut desk, “the blood tests aren’t good, man. You going to be in a bad way if you don’t stop.”
 
 
His glasses were perched almost at the tip of a long bony nose. Solomon couldn’t help smiling to himself, thinking how many of the boys at the club referred to the old doctor – well into his sixties now – as Old Four Eyes. It was because of his way of looking at patients over the rims of his glasses.
 
 
“It’s no laughing matter,” the doctor said. “If you don’t listen, a year from now it could be too late!”
 
 
“Eish, Doc Van! I’m sorry,” Solly said with a contrite dip of his head, wondering if the doctor would be offended if he were to tell him the true reason for the smile.   

 
 
He was specially fond of the doctor. It was he who had helped him kick his addiction to crack; had even come to the flat to sit with him through the worst of the withdrawal symptoms during that first crucial week.
 
 
“I know it’s not possible to stop right away. But at least cut out spirits. Stick to beer. Limit yourself to a couple a day, and I’ll help you get through this. But you have to listen or…” He raised his long leathery palms helplessly, letting the warning hang in the air between them. “Or a year from now,” he went on, “when you come to me and say, ‘Doc Van, help me please!’ It’ll already be too late!”
 
 
That was a year ago – almost to the day.
 
 
He moved to the bathroom to wash his face. Bloodshot eyes looked back at him in the mirror. His skin, which once had been a taut shiny brown, was slack and had an unhealthy greyish tinge. He was drying his face as the kettle began to sing. He returned to the kitchen. He tipped the boiling water into his mug, added a heaped spoon of powdered milk to the mixture, stirred it, and as soon as it was bearable, began tentatively to sip at the mug.
 
 
HIS thoughts kept returning to the woman of last night. He’d met her at the dilapidated shebeen on the far side of town, where he was still able to run up a little credit, just as the owner, Mama Yafele, was pouring him a vodka special. She was in her early thirties maybe, a cheeky type who spoke her mind. But she’d made an indelible impression on him. It was a long time since he’d been that impressed by a woman. He wanted to know her better – all the more because she’d been so dismissive of him.
 
 
She came in alone. It was about seven. She stood next to him at the counter. He wasn’t aware of her at first. Then, turning, saw her face: the good bone structure, the dark piercing eyes. Her hair teased, with plenty of body. A good figure, too. He’d started to flirt, the way he always did.
 
 
“Hullo, darling!”
 
 
She ignored him.
 
 
“Have a drink. What’ll it be?”
 
 
She shrugged, looked at his glass. “What’s that?”
 
 
“Smirnoff.”
 
 
“That’ll do.”
 
 
“Make it a double,” he told Mama Yafele, ignoring the owner’s disapproving frown.
 
 
“I’m Solomon,” he said as they waited for her drink. “Solomon Mpofu. My friends call me Solly.”
 
 

“I know.”
 
 
He gave a double-take.
 
 
“I’ve heard all about you.”
 
 
“Who told you about me?”
 
 
“For me to know and you to find out.”
 
 
“Oh, I see.” He liked this kind of talk. It meant the game was on. That, anyway, was what he thought. “Another drink?” he asked. “What’s your name, by the way?”
 
 
“Liza Ndhlovu, if you must know. As regards the drink I’ll buy my own, thanks. From what I hear you can’t afford it anyway.”
 
 
That pulled him up short for a moment, like a horse feeling the pinch of a curb chain beneath its chin.
 
 
“What you know about my finances?”
 
 
“A great deal, if you must know.”
 
 
“Like?”
 
 
“Let’s just say I know,” she answered, the teased hair dancing as she tossed her head, “– and skip the sordid details.”
 
 
Later, trying to detain her as she was about to leave, he asked where she lived? Could he see her again? The shebeen door was just four paces away.
 
 “Clean up your act and we’ll see,” she said, over her shoulder, not stopping as she crossed to the threshold. He followed her outside, where a small car – a nicely-kept Volkswagen Beetle – stood in the shadows under an acacia tree. “I’m told you’re throwing your life away. I’ve no time for men like that,” she said through the car window before driving off.
 
 
Then later, when he got home and at last fell asleep with the help of a pill, there was that absurd dream. He was back with Blazing Stars as coach: something he’d wanted so badly for many years. But it was absurd because Champ Zondo, who had finally lost patience with him, had made it clear a long time ago that he was finished as far as the club was concerned.
 
 
HE was still sipping his coffee when his cellphone began to ring. It played the first bar of Nkosi Sikele iAfrika. He went to fetch it from his bedside table.
 
 
“Mpofu.”
 
 
“Solomon, how are you?” Solly’s heart gave a lurch. That deep, warm voice belonged to only one man. Champ Zondo himself! Thoughts of last night’s dream flashed through his mind, but he thrust it away. There was no point thinking about it. “You still there, Solly?”
 
 
“I’m here, Champ. Are you well?”
 
 
“Just fine. But it’s you I want to know about.”
 
 
He and Champ Zondo went back a long way. Millionaire businessman, one of the few successful farm owners of the district, a man of influence, Champ’s hobby was breeding great footballers. He took it as seriously as a breeder of great racehorses. He would scout the country for young lads and other players of promise for his club, Blazing Stars, and build them up. It was a good business. He made good money when an outstanding player was later bought by one of the major PSL clubs.
 
 
Solly had gone very close to a Bafana national cap in those days. Then, partly out of disappointment, he’d begun to fall apart and the drinking, the drugs and the womanizing had begun to tell and his football career hard started its long agonizing descent.
 
 
During his good years Blazing Stars had remained unbeaten for six consecutive seasons in the local league, and were beaten only once in the province’s Knockout Cup. As they  talked now  Solly remembered how for a year after retirement he dropped out of sight. At  the  end  of the following season, needing a striker for the Knockout Cup final against Karoo Cavaliers, Champ Zondo had sought him out. In ignorance of one important factor – the extent to which Solly, without football to sustain his ego, had fallen apart – he’d called on him to fill the gap. He looked pretty fit, and chairman Zondo was confident it would work. But it was a disaster. Solly had a shocker. He arrived half-drunk and was so bad Zondo had to replace him before halftime.
 
 
Stars went down 5-1. Zondo swore he’d never speak to Solly again. But that was five years ago. One gets over disappointments.
 
 
“ARE you working?” Zondo asked abruptly.
 
 
“Well, of course,” Solly replied, affronted. “I’ve still got the tractor tyre agency.”
 
 
“Haven’t sold many lately though, have you?” Zondi had done his homework.
 
 
“Business is slow, Champ.”
 
 
“Not that slow. Spoke with Mama Yafele the other day. Tells me you’re a daily regular at opening time.”
 
 
“I go there for coffee.”
 
 
“Yes… with vodka, I’m told.”
 
 
Solly still had his pride. This was getting him down. “Champ, it’s nice of you to phone. But I’m sure it’s not out of concern for my health.”
 
 
“As it happens your health does concern me – very much.”
 
 
That absurd dream returned to him again. But he wouldn’t go there. He made a joke of it instead.
 
 
“Didn’t know you’d gone into the medical aid business, Champ.”
 
 
“Let’s stop messing about,” Champ Zondo’s rich voice boomed in his ear. “What I want to know, Solly, is whether you’re fit enough to take over as coach at the club on a fulltime basis?”
 
 
There it was finally. After all the stuff-ups of the past – the chairman was handing him another chance. But then Zondo’s deep voice cut in once more. “This isn’t another chance, Solly, in case you think I’ve gone soft in my old age. This is your last chance. Screw it up and I’ll personally put you on the first bus out of here. I mean it.”
 
 
He didn’t know what to say. He muttered a choked thanks.
 
 
“See you at the field. Four o’clock sharp. Not a minute later. We need to talk before the players assemble,” Zondo said; then rang off.
 
 
Solomon Mpofu’s hands started to shake again. He closed his eyes, gradually bringing himself under control. This was important. He had to hold himself together. He’d take a long walk to the foot of the mountains – the dragon-like range that ringed the top end of the town. Did the woman, Liza – Liza Ndhlovu, the name had suddenly come to him – have anything to do with it? Or was it just coincidence? From what she’d said, if he made good he might have a chance with her, too.
 
 
He gritted his teeth. He’d do it. He’d make good. He’d show them. There were just two exits to this place he was in. They were marked “success” and “failure”. There’s just one option for me, Solomon thought. He took a deep breath, squared his shoulders and stepped out into the first day of the rest of his life.

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