“So, you’re not going to take the sock off.” The balding man shook his head in disbelief.
“John, you realise that it’s a little hard to take you seriously for the position if you wear a sock on your hand.”
John looked at the sock. “I really need this job, sir.”
“I’m sorry, but I don’t think we’ve got place for you at this company.”
“Please, sir. Please-”
“We’re done here, Mr Black.” The man’s suit pulled skew as he twisted towards the door. “Ms Epworth, you can call the next candidate!”
John stood up, picking up his cracked leather folder.
Back in the bachelor’s flat’s tiny bathroom a tired face stared back at John in the cracked mirror. Deep lines were etched under his eyes and the corners of his mouth were turned down. His shirt looked like he had slept in it even though he hadn’t…yet.
Better luck tomorrow, buddy.
With a sigh he carefully pulled the two elastic bands over his left fist. The red grooves in his skin tingled as the blood started circulating again. The sock came off next and with it the cocoon of hot air that had gathered around his hand. Carefully and slowly he opened his cramped fingers and transferred the two blocks to his right hand. They were slick from his sweat. He closed his fingers over them and pulled the sock over his fist.
“There, safe again, Janey,” he cooed to them.
The blocks had left dark indentations in his left palm. The marks itched even more as he started washing his hand on the threadbare facecloth stuck to the basin. He pressed down harder to scratch it with the cloth’s rough surface. He’d have to replace it soon. The glue was coming off.
With his supper consisting of a bowl of two-minute noodles in hand, he sagged onto the creaky old folding chair in front of the TV and pressed play on the remote.
There she was, smiling into the camera. “I’m standing here, in Nelson Mandela square, just a face in the gathering crowd…” Janey scratched her nose and continued with the script.
John smiled at her image and felt a tear leave a cool track down his cheek. She always did that. Scratched her nose at him on TV. “It’s so you know I’m thinking of you when I go away on assignment,” she would say with a pout when he taunted her about it. He wished he could see her pout at him like that again, but she didn’t ever do that on the recordings he had. And if he didn’t get a job soon, he would lose the TV and DVD player along with the flat. Then all he would have left of her would be the dice. At least no one could take them away from him.
A muted ringing came from a pile of clothes on the mattress. His stomach tightened and he felt nauseous. It sounded just like when she had called him that day. That day…
She had made him promise that day that he wouldn’t go to the casino while she was in Somalia, but he was at the craps table just after work. How could Janey expect him to stop if the next roll could be the one? He picked up the two red blocks and rattled them in his left hand. All eyes were on him. But, just as he was about to release them, his phone gave a muffled ring from his pocket.
That would be Janey. She had said she would call once they had shot the piece at the docks.
With the dice still in his hand, he quickly moved to a quieter spot and answered the phone.
“Hey, babe.” He could hear her smile in her voice. “We just finished getting some footage on the docks. You wouldn’t say that there are pirates around here just by looking around here. It looks kind of normal.”
He laughed. “Just make sure Chav is looking out for you, I don’t want anyone stealing you away on the high seas.”
“How long did you say you’re away for again?”
There was a pause and for a moment he thought she had lost signal. Then he heard loud cracks over the receiver and screaming. He pressed the phone to his ear.
“Janey? Janey! What’s happening?”
“Oh god, John! They’ve got guns. Oh no-“
Another shot fired.
His chest clenched and he felt his knees giving way.
In that moment he knew. He knew she was gone. The dice cut into his hand as he sat there shaking. He couldn’t let go. He couldn’t let Janey go.
* * *
He was going shop to shop on 4th Avenue in Parkhurst to ask for work again. They would give his hand one look and, when he wouldn’t talk about it or take it off, they would send him off. At the next corner he turned back into suburbia, having given up for the day. There was a small park off to the left.
A ray of early afternoon sun broke through the clouds, brightly illuminating the little swath of lawn with its swings, slide and merry-go-round. A pregnant mother was pushing her son on a swing. She swayed a little as the swing moved out of her hand. The little boy laughed as the swing tilted up. She smiled tiredly.
John watched them and wondered if he would ever laugh like that again. The carefree laughter of sheer enjoyment of the now. Even the mother, who was obviously worn out, looked happy.
Then the woman cried out, clutching her protruding belly. The boy stopped laughing and jumped off the seat to run to his mother as she sagged to the ground.
“Mommy! Mommy, what’s wrong? Is Thumi hurting you?”
She groaned as her body spasmed. “No, baby,” she panted as the spasm passed, trying to reassure him. “She’s not… I think your little sister is coming.”
John knew he had to help.
“Who’s that man, Mommy?”
The woman looked up at him as he came closer. She recoiled slightly when she saw his hand, but then her body spasmed again.
“Mommy! Mommy! What’s happening?” The little boy started crying.
The woman panted as her muscles relaxed again. She looked up at John, giving him a pleading look.
“Please, sir. I need to get to the hospital. My baby is coming.That’s my car there, by the side of the road. Please. I can’t drive like this.”
She turned back to her son before he could answer. The little boy was crying and clutching at her. She put an arm around him and tried to calm him down. “Come, Bongi,” she coaxed. “Show Mommy what the reporter lady did when we went to Madiba’s statue to see Daddy at work. Remember how you laughed?”
He looked up at her with big teary eyes. He reached with his finger and made a rubbing motion by his nose.
“That’s right.” She rocked him side to side. “She was scratching her nose at the camera.”
They had seen his Janey that day at Nelson Mandela Square.
He reached for the woman’s handbag that had fallen to the ground next to her and dumped its contents on the ground. He grabbed the key from the heap and ran to the car.
As they came hurtling around a corner, John tried to change gears, but his socked hand couldn’t grip the gear shift properly. He frantically punched his foot at the break.
Bongani gave a little shriek at the jerking motion and his mother grabbed the front passenger seat to stop herself from falling off the back seat.
“What are you doing?” her voice demanded from the back seat.
“I can’t grip the gear shift. I can’t shift the gears properly.” His voice was becoming strained.
“Why? What’s in that sock? Is your hand…normal?”
John looked at his sock hand. “No. I-” He looked at the sock. Why had he done that? Why was it so important to cover his hand like that? Was it really to keep the dice in his hand? Or was it Janey? Was he keeping Janey in his hand?
He looked to where Bongani was clutching his safety belt in the passenger seat. These people had seen Janey scratch her nose at him that day. The real Janey. Not just the dice he was holding when she died. The dice I will be holding when we die too if I don’t let them go right now, he realised. I’m gambling even though I never let the dice go. The car made an unhappy grinding sound as he struggled with the gear shift again.
“Oh god, you’re going to kill us!” she screamed. “Why can’t you just take off that damned sock?”
“I can’t! I promised my wife I’d never gamble again. I can’t let the dice go!”
“What the hell!? You can’t get us to the hospital alive because you’re holding dice? Are you kidding me?! Take off that stupid sock or so help me-!”
The car almost careened into a pole as he tried to shift gears again. He saw the woman struggle upright in the rearview mirror. Sweat glistened on her forehead, her nose was flaring and her eyes were wide with fury. “Listen, buddy. My husband was killed by bloody pirates while he was away on a business trip. All I have left of him is Bongani and Thumi. I won’t let you kill us because of some-”
John froze. His arm hair sprang upright. “Pirates? Was your husband Chav Mbana? Did he work with Jane Black?”
“Yes. How’d you know his nam- Aaaaggh!” She disappeared back down as the next spasm hit.
He bit down on the sock and pulled it off his hand with a jerk of his arm. “This is for you, Janey,” he said as he opened his dice hand. He flung the dice across his body and out the driverside window. They clattered against the side of the car for a split second and then they were gone.
The car stopped swerving and John shifted into the next gear. “Everything’s going to be all right, Mrs Mbana. I’ve got things under control.” He scratched his nose and smiled.