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“I’m the One Who’s Supposed to be Dying”: Excerpt from The Reactive by Masande Ntshanga

Author pic of Masande Ntshanga


The ReactiveThe Reactive is the compelling and sensational debut novel by Masande Ntshanga.

Lindanathi, the main character, has to face the things that haunt him during what is likely to be his last year on the planet. Along with his friends Ruan and Cissie he tries to figure out what this means in the greater scheme of things, while they sell illegal pharmaceuticals to make a living.

Ntshanga recently signed an international book deal for this lyrical novel, in the same week he was shortlisted for the Caine Prize for his short story “Space”.

As Eckard Smuts notes in his review for Aerodrome, Ntshanga writes in a style that is “so utterly fresh and compelling, that it feels tuned into a reality with which you are not yet familiar”.

In the excerpt below, get to know Lindanathi and what plagues him, as well as how he tries to forget, and find out more about the dynamics of the young trio:


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     Lindanathi means wait with us. What I’m meant to be waiting for, or who I’m meant to be waiting with, I was never told. Ever since I could spell its ten letters out, I’ve been trying to make it shorter, into five. You can take that as a hint on what to call me if you want. Or not. Either way, it won’t make much of a difference to me.
     That’s what my name is.
     I’m Nathi, and of the three of us, I’m the one who’s supposed to be dying. In order to do as much standing around as I do, you need to be one of the forty million human beings currently infected with the immuno-deficiency virus. Then you need to stand at your friend’s computer and design a poster over his shoulder, one telling these people you’re here to help them. Then you need to provide them with your details – tell them you prefer email or sms – and then start selling them your pills.
     What helps, of course, is to try to forget about it as much as possible. Which is what I do.
     Maybe it’s this whole slavery thing, Cissie says.
     Leaning on her balcony, I try to press reply on my cellphone, but my fingers pause over the buttons. They feel like paper straws. I stare at the blinking cursor.
     In the kitchen, Cissie stirs another ladle of water into the glue. Like most mornings, her braids are rolled up in a neat ball on the top of her head, a new style the three of us have started to favour more and more for her. When she moves, a few of the strands loosen and fall like tassels across her chest, and she flicks them away from the stove in a single shake of her shoulders. Cissie has a way of making the smallest things obey her, and I guess that includes me and Ruan.
     I put my cellphone away. These days, she’s always wearing a different pack of synthetic hair on her head. Sometimes the colour she chooses is black, at other times it’s a blue shade, and at other times it’s this colour I can’t even describe to you – like silver or aqua or teal or something. Ruan and I have seen her in the red and blonde ones a lot. Cissie wears them on her head all day and all of them, she says, are more flammable than a wick dipped in paraffin. She tells us to think of her as a human match, with a dormant fire ready to burst into flame between her brains, which is a nice way of telling people not to fuck with you. Or at least the nicest way I’ve heard.
     I can feel my cellphone’s weight against my thigh. Leaning back on the railing, I push out three slow breaths for composure. Out on the balcony, the weather changes faces. Spring is stalling, still a month away, but the sun’s rays warm up my skin like geyser water. They throw dappled light across the empty corridor.
     Ruan and I have been squatting here for the past few nights, somewhere between falling asleep and overdosing on Cissie’s couch. Cissie’s building, this unattractive cream-coloured six-storey called West Ridge Heights, was converted from an old ground-level nursing home in the late eighties. It sits tucked away in Newlands, a docile suburb, just a few streets off the main road, and it’s one of the two holes Ruan and I have chosen to call our homes for this year. Or maybe just for the winter, if you want to take Ruan’s view of things.
     In any case, this is where Cissie cooks her glue for us. You take a look and the building has the usual overgrown grass, the usual stained ceilings, and the usual dirty lino in its single-lift lobby. There’s a tile missing here and there, with a broken full-length mirror and plastic potted plants leaning back in most of its corners. There isn’t much security to speak of.
     Below, on the ground floor, there’s a young girl who plays by herself in a small courtyard, building cities with loose pieces of concrete from the broken water fountain. I always wave at her when Ruan and I come over to crash. Often, she just looks up and stares at me with vacant eyes. Then she runs back under the awning and disappears into places I can’t imagine from up here on the fourth. Between these brief encounters, I’ve learnt that her name is Ethelia.
     Inside, I hear Cissie talking again.
     I’m being serious, she says. Look, just think about this thing for a moment.
     I try to.
     I mean, it’s pretty much a habit for us, by now. What we’re doing is having one of our talks about what to do for Last Life. Last Life is the name we’ve come up with for what happens to me during my last year on the planet. Like always, we stayed up for most of the previous night with the question. We finished the wine first. Then we moved on to the bottle of benzene.
     Ruan looks up and says, dude, explain this slavery thing to me. He gets up to take a thin book from the counter and flops himself down on a torn bean-bag. Then he starts reading the book – A Happy Death by Camus – from the back, his eyes training the sentences inward, as if the French author had written a Japanese manga.
     Cissie just says her word again.
     She raises her hand and waves the gooey ladle in a small circle above the bowl.
     You know what I mean, she says. The three of us, we’re basically slaves.
     From my side, I remain quiet. I just watch them like I sometimes do. I mean honestly. It’s Ruan who usually brings us all this pathos.
     The three of us aren’t slaves. Ruan, Cissie and I each wrote matric in the country’s first batch of Model cs. In common, our childhoods had the boomerangs we used to throw with the neighbourhood kids, the rollerblades and the green buckets of space goo. The Sticky Hands with their luminous jelly fingers, each digit rumoured to be toxic, which we clotted with wet earth on the first day back from the store and threw into our green pools for cleansing. The Grow Monsters which we watched expanding inside our toilet bowls with awe, and the tracks we dug for our Micro Machines before the day ended, when the orange light would come down and tint the neighbourhood roof tiles the colour of a lightbulb filament.
     Ease. Everything my little brother Luthando never got to have.


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