We are all going out for dinner.
With Mama, Papa, the Pear Brigade, and Njabulo and Manqoba’s teenage half-brother Wandile (Wan-dee-lay) home from school, only a portion of the household has arrived. Later, with the appearance of Aus’Nthabi and her husband Mandla (Manqoba and Njabulo’s parents), Abu’Thabo and Lala’s cousin/sister Lerato, the party is deemed sufficient to head for a local family restaurant. We pile into three cars and set off into a lingering thunderstorm, Lala driving Mama, Lerato and me. True to form for most individuals who decline to give directions and instruct one to “just follow us,” Mandla and Thabo immediately set off at top speed, weaving through traffic until our car is hopelessly lost. Of course, no-one has his cell phone on.
After pulling into the wrong mall by mistake and wheedling two suspicious locals to trade Lala six rands for a dollar so we can pay to exit the garage, Nthabi calls Lerato’s cell. Mandla has turned back to find us.
So we arrive at Spur Steakhouse together. “Spur-rr-rr,” Lerato laughs, mimicking my American accent. Spur is a popular restaurant chain. It has a Native American motif, complete with massive faux totem poles. A cherubic boy in moccasins and a feather headdress is labeled “Flying Eagle” on the menu. It occurs to me that this is the South African equivalent of Outback Steakhouse, suburban America’s cheesy, preposterously caloric homage to Crocodile Dundee. We all like to pretend we’re in the wilds of some other country before we tuck into our steak.
Once Lala’s niece, Neo’s mother Ntsako, arrives, we number 13 in all. The Pear Brigade falls immediately upon the kids’ placemats and crayons which must be distributed to hungry youngsters the world over. While we wait for our dinners, Ntsako’s younger sister Takatso calls, and Ntsako shows us pictures of their one-year-old sister, Musa. It’s hard to hear Takatso on the phone. “That’s ok,” she says. “No-one can ever hear anything when Manqoba is around.”
On my left, Papa orders a steak, and on my right, Lala orders a braai platter. I know that a braai (roll that “r”!) is what Americans call a BBQ, and I know that “chips” are French fries and that they’re pronounced “cheeps.” But what, I whisper to Lala, is the dish called “Monkey Gland Rump”?
“There’s definitely a different language here when it comes to steaks,” Lala shrugs, “but I don’t think it’s really a monkey’s gland.” I try to play it safe with a cheeseburger and cheeps, but I learn that there is a different language when it comes to burgers, too. “Just cheese, please,” apparently means “cheese and about a quarter cup of BBQ sauce.” I notice that other dinners of all descriptions seem similarly drenched. “They put BBQ sauce on everything,” Lala says with some asperity. “It’s how it is here.”
As we all dig in, the children exhaust the last vestiges of their patience, lose interest in the crayons and the food, and worm their way under the table (Njabulo extricating himself from his booster seat with admirable skill), eventually encompassing full laps of the restaurant in their explorations. In what is possibly the worst idea in all of human civilization, someone brings three balloons on foot-long plastic sticks to the table.
“Balloons!” three piping cries of ecstasy erupt. The brigade immediately reclaims their seats and commences whacking their balloons back and forth to the full ratios of the sticks. Since people cannot eat steak with balloons buffeting their faces, the balloons are quickly confiscated and placed under the table, which drives the brigade back underground to the tolerant jungle-gym of ten adults’ legs.
They resurface when the wait staff demonstrates that the humiliation of a deafening public round of “Happy Birthday” by a round of strangers is a phenomenon not limited to the northern hemisphere. Papa gets a dish of ice cream with a lit sparkler in it, and the last time anyone’s jaw dropped as far as Manqoba’s, the Heavenly Host was appearing to Bethlehem’s shepherds.
The family lingers late over ice cream and then carries the sleepy children out the cars. Once home, I say to Nthabi that the kids must be tired, being out so late. She seems uninterested in the sentiment, perhaps because she’s so tired herself. Or, a small, worried voice inside me suggests, the brigade is usually allowed to continue its antics until after 10pm.
Lala and I climb into bed ourselves. Down the hall, the sight of her pajamas has seared Manqoba into wakefulness, and her howls at the injustice shake every corner of the house. “Thank God for crèche,” Lala says as sleep claims us.