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Thursday, 02 March 2017 18:30

Cosmo's Return

Cosmo was released from prison after three years.

Talent, called such because he was a former soccer player of great renown, met him for the first time in the week that the ex-con resurfaced into societal life. But Talent had also recently returned to the Hollow City; he loved this name for the Pietermaritzburg where the mist lifted late and departing vehicles crept up steady inclines to reach the wide runway to the coast or the highway to Johannesburg.  Talent had been away for over a decade and half, playing soccer at Durban Callies, a top pro club based in Durban. When he looked in the mirror, it seemed as if the time in the seaside town had added to the lines of manhood. As he walked the neighbourhood streets, he could feel energy flowing through his body. His step was sure.

One was chalk, the other cheese. Talent’s head almost touched the lintels of doors. The eyes were gentle. Cosmo was stocky and his muscles ballooned against the sleeves of his t shirt. He had an unflinching gaze. He walked slowly, led with his chest and leaned his head back ever so slightly. The package made others give way when he walked into a place. Talent’s eye caught these moves on the first day they met. “That’s him”, the Kaddies barman said to Talent as Cosmo walked in. Talent gave a glance but he turned back to chat to Vanessa and Bianca, old school friends. The three perched on high stools.  A few minutes later, Talent’s hand flashed out, catching the arm of someone about to swing an empty beer bottle against the head of a man seated nearby. “Hey, fuck you, Talent.”  Talent twisted the arm until the bottle fell to the floor. Cosmo was on his feet. He realized the bottle has been aimed at his head. “Hey. Come here. Coward!” he shouted. But the attacker crashed towards the door, disappearing through it.  Cosmo came over to thank Talent. “I am Cosmo. Let me buy you a shot.” He felt Cosmo’s strength as they pressed their fists against each other.  Thereafter, often in this same pub, Cosmo always summoned the barman to pour two glasses of tequila, rum or and well-aged brandy for the former soccer star. They yapped about soccer, cars and women. Up close, Talent could see how a barber’s electric clippers had carved a sharp border between Cosmo’s dense curls and his light brown forehead. The small scar just above the upper lip made him look amused, possibly even cute. But Talent wondered how it would look when Cosmo sneered or when his eyes blazed.

Before Talent and Cosmo met, stories about the man abounded in the local shebeens[1], at the pool table at Kismet Hotel and at the local garage cum car-wash where former players bumped into each other. How Cosmo’s girlfriend, Rita, had given birth to his child days after he was sentenced. How Cosmo’s father, Milo, a square shouldered but stocky former boxer who blocked the light when he stood in a doorway, had begun a relationship with Rita. How Cosmo had killed many but often got away through threatening to murder those who laid charges or testify against him. Such stories had reached Talent’s ears.

There were rumours about rumours. Some tongues wagged about how Cosmo would fight Milo when he was released from the prison at the city’s edge. But his exit from the prison was much more mundane, quotidian. Cosmo went to live with his sister, Lala, in the eastern section of the huge city township where he began to concentrate on selling drugs. Divorced, unemployed and seldom without a smouldering cigarette between her fingers, Lala had once enjoyed brief fame for stellar performances in the race track during inter-school events. These days she smiled generously and her heart swelled when people gushed about her curries, or when they beseeched her to cook at their weddings.

Now with Cosmo’s return, Lala’s home grew in comforts. It flashed a super-sized flat screen TV and boasted a newly built outside braai, a new brown leather lounge suite and a large wooden structure in the yard. And, as told by Talent, Cosmo tried to be the suave gentlemen at pubs. As Talent would have it, the gangster had great respect for women. Sitting at the bar at the Kaddies night club, Cosmo waved at women he knew and frequently asked the barman to deliver Hunter's Gold or Bailey's to them. Cosmo would also regularly stop his Ford Ranchero, red with gleaming wheels, in the street to greet someone he knew, sometimes getting out to bear-hug a closer associate.

One day the 35-year-old got himself a new hat. A Stetson, with a small feather on the side. No more peaked caps. Asked why, he told Talent: “When you wear that cap, the security guard at Eddies or Game will follow you around the shop. I rather change my hat than be tempted to slice a security guard”. Talent could see the sun glinting off his new-found friend’s gold tooth. “Dignity matters, man,” Talent said, landing a friendly punch on Cosmo’s bicep.

A week later a steady KwaZulu-Natal rain drenched the streets. Grey skies and sporadic growls of thunder. Cosmo walked briskly from Talent’s house back to his sister’s duplex. A group of men had come from Johannesburg looking for someone – one who had worked in their auto-spares shop. Their man had stolen from them over many years, tens of thousands of rands, but they had only discovered this when checking the books a long time after, when their quarry had quit and relocated to the Hollow City. Driving in their black Mercedes 280SE, they came looking for their man. They man they wanted frequently wore a Stetson, Talent said, and matched Cosmo’s muscular stature. The sedan cruised up the street, a short cul-de-sac with a boomerang-like bend in the middle, and had made a U-turn. Cosmo was walking back to his sister’s place with its external lounge constructed from wood panels and iron. The shots rang out and Cosmo fell in the street. The sky was clearing a little, although an intermittent wispy drizzle persisted. The body lay there   –  “like a dog”, the gossipers would later say – until someone drew a green plastic sheet over it and till, hours later, a mortuary van drew up to cart it away. The locals heading home saw it, stopped to look and – a few young bucks aside – moved on, eager to get out of the rain. It lay there on the road that had been laid down by the old government and never re-tarred over thirty years; a kind of radial-point for the rows of cramped houses, the rusted swings in the park, the uncovered manholes, the sporadic gardens and the broken gates; a marker for the everyday truths of neighbourhood life.

Many months later, Talent tells anyone who will listen: “Cosmo is a legend in our area and in our world”. He explains that the Cosmo had showed human beings could change and it becomes clear that the gangster’s shift had made Talent overcome – this one time only – his deep dislike for gangster types. Talent speaks animatedly about the late gangster’s way with women, the “charm and respect”. Sure, Talent would never condone the fact that he dealt in drugs. But, said Talent, surely it counted for something that the new Cosmo no longer causally killed those who annoyed, insulted or defied him. He also helped community members, like the single parent who lived next door and could not afford to pay her electricity bills. In the street, one day, Cosmo had peeled off three thousand rand from a roll of notes in his jacket pocket to give to the woman. Talent likes to drive his view home to others, especially to women, many of whom can’t see any heroism in a killer who progresses to become a drug dealer and to those who make it clear they see Cosmo’s death was ‘good riddance’. With a fervour that suggested he was trying to bolster a failing conviction, Talent insists that the ex-con be remembered as a businessman and a gentleman of note.

Many community members still wonder about the friendship of Talent and Cosmo because, on paper, they had nothing in common. In bonding, what was their game: one dealing with being a has-been, albeit a huggable one; the other scrounging for credibility and acceptance by the decent people of the neighbourhood? A case of fading fame and persisting notoriety embracing each other in a marriage of expedience?

Weeks after the slaying of Cosmos, Talent sat in Lala’s house where the late gangster had at some point commissioned a painting job to brighten the whitewashed walls. As Lala prepared some leftover curry and rice for him and the aromas wafted in from the kitchen, Talent surveyed the lounge. A square wall clock ticked loudly. His eyes fell again on the mantlepiece; his gaze rested on the small urn that held the ashes of his buddy and a Stetson with a small red feather on the side. As he leaned back against the puffiness, moving and still image flashed in his mind. That first meeting with Cosmos and, weirdly, the times when he scored winning goals before the Callies home crowd.  As Lala returned with a plate in hand, he looked up; he could feel his face thawing into a smile.

[1] An unlicensed establishment or private house selling alcohol.

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Frank Meintjies

Frank Meintjies works in the development field and is a visting research fellow at Wits School of Governance.

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