EXTRACT | 'A Soft Landing' explores young love, self discovery and secret desires

08 December 2023 - 08:50
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Wisani Mushwana's debut novel explores the courage to love and be loved.
Wisani Mushwana's debut novel explores the courage to love and be loved.
Image: Supplied


Andzani and Neo are young and in love. They made a pact to leave their hometown of Mbambamencisi in search of unimpeded freedom.

When Neo unexpectedly passes away, Andzani is left with no other choice but to fulfil their dreams alone.

Years later, Mbambamencisi becomes a shadow in Andzani’s Cape Town life, but he carries the unpleasant memories of home within him.

The monotony of his accountant job and random Grindr hook-ups offer minimal respite when he meets Yolula. They start spending a lot of time together, but Yolula can tell there’s something – or someone –holding Andzani back.

The past ruptures the present when Andzani receives a phone call alerting him to his mother’s deteriorating mental health. And on this trip back to Mbambamencisi, as if given a last chance, long-repressed memories of trauma flood his head and force him to reckon with the shadows of his past. A Soft Landing explores the courage to love and be loved.


Throughout the years at Banana Primary, Neo had shed his weight. It was as if each year demanded a particular weight off his body. This weight loss was not done for health reasons but because it had become a weapon Mpanyaza and boys at the school used to poke at his self-esteem – mafurha, fats, mini me, they would say, their pinkie fingers raised in the air when they shouted "mini me" to denote the size associated with fat men’s penises.

This teasing had scraped at Neo’s self-confidence, and to reclaim it, he’d lost weight and become boastful about his newly attained physique that now attracted the attention of girls. To maintain his physique, before joining Setice’s gym and doing weights, Neo had jogged at the local stadium.

"You should see them," Neo told Andzani once when they were fixing the water pipe together.

"When I stand at assembly to address them regarding sporting events. The girls fanning themselves with their hands as if I’ve suddenly turned up the sun’s temperature – some fake fainting, their friends standing behind them to catch them as they fake fall.

"Everything turns into a mini spectacle, delaying the proceedings until the principal intervenes. I’m not even going to mention the ones who ask for my Mxit number. Borrowing my Razr to take pictures in class."

He shook his head as he tightened the fitting around the pipe to prevent leakage.

"And what do you do with these pictures?" Andzani had asked, jealousy lining his tone.

It wasn’t only the girls at Banana Primary who had noticed Neo’s appealing physique. Andzani had also grown enamoured of him. At first, he’d tried convincing himself that he merely appreciated Neo’s beauty that was lately enhanced by his gym experience.

But over time Andzani had given in to his feelings, conjuring up intimate scenarios in his head. He imagined running his fingers over Neo’s freckles, imagined the bitterness on Neo’s darkened lips when he blew clouds of cigarette smoke on Andzani’s face after he had annoyed him.

Once, after attending a funeral, Andzani had mentioned to Neo he feared that, when he napped, he would dream of the gravesite and the events they had just witnessed. To prevent thinking about the upsetting scenes from the funeral, Neo had told Andzani to make up pleasant scenarios in his head in order to fall asleep. And Andzani had used the directive to make up scenarios with Neo at their centre, because Neo made most of his dreams pleasant.

Lately, a certain dream persisted each night. In this dream, Andzani and Neo lived in a thatched-roof house, secluded from everyone else. Always in the dream, Andzani took care of Neo, sick and sweating in bed.

He fed him, brought food on a wooden plate, wearing a heavy traditional animal skin around his waist that smelled of fire. But the food, the food always made Neo better. He struggled to understand what it meant because always, when a visitor would knock on the door of their thatched-roof house to explain, he would open his eyes in response.

Andzani revelled in the dreams, at the mental images that often felt transgressive, punishable, but when he woke up in the morning, he felt regret mount on him. He mostly regretted his dreams when he felt watched by Uncle Sontaga whenever he spoke of Neo, or when he spoke to Neo in Uncle Sontaga’s presence, as if Uncle Sontaga knew, had read his mind and was considering reprimanding him. It was also in the pronounced manner that Uncle Sontaga reminded him that growing up together rendered them brothers – why else did Uncle Sontaga go out of his way to stress the significance of this kinship that was not blood related?

"Do you even like soccer?" Andzani asked Neo now with genuine curiosity.

"I guess so ... I don’t know. I know the rules, so I guess it is easier to tolerate," Neo said, knowing this was what Andzani wanted to hear. "The pliers," He offered his palm.

Andzani handed him the pliers. "Why then do you let Pete bully you into watching men run after a ball?

"Does he know you call him Pete? And it is not just men running after a soccer ball ... I’m sure Pete would be offended. Didn’t he grow up playing the sport?

"He did. He also has a photo album filled with different soccer jerseys – if ever you needed proof that the apple does fall far from the tree," Andzani said, pointing at himself, "me."

Neo gave a lopsided smile. "Pete doesn’t bully me."

Andzani rolled his eyes.

"What? What is it you have against soccer?" Neo was pinching off the plastic that clothed the cable wires with the pliers, such that it exposed the gleaming bronze wires.

"I don’t want to be present when you guys are watching soccer." Andzani’s tone was almost solemn.

Neo laughed. "You’ve made that clear ... You always fall asleep. I feel like the way you feel about soccer is the way I feel about Passions."

Andzani moved the flashlight from Neo’s hands to his eyes, and Neo squinted.

"Andzani?" Neo shouted, laughing as he faced the other way. "Ey! Stop."

Andzani was an avid consumer of the American soap opera Passions and had initiated Neo into sitting in front of the TV at quarter to five on weekdays to watch the forty-five-minute show, which Neo felt dragged with the storyline consisting of only love triangles.

"The only difference is that you don’t fall asleep. In any case, you can’t compare Passions to soccer," Andzani said.

Neo simply raised his eyebrows, tilting his head to the side. He pulled their cables towards him, bent the ends into little hooks before hooking them to the cables they were stealing power from. Neo clipped the cables so that the hook turned into a little loop, and made the pliers bite into the connection, so the cables became one.

"But you know why I watch Passions," Neo started. "I’m just returning the favour. For sitting with me throughout the soccer matches because it’s easier to enjoy them when you are there. And your dad talks more with you around."

There was a brief silence, both parties acknowledging this mutual understanding of the need to be in each other’s presence that ran deeper than merely doing each other favours.

"Pete probably thinks he is winning," Andzani said.

"What do you mean?"

"That I am finally turning into you, that I also like soccer."

"Pete’s not bad – you just need to tell him you don’t like his sport." Neo started plucking off weeds to cover the connection point.

"I feel like if he was your father, you would understand. Look, it is like a baby – it’s fun playing with it to pass time knowing you are going to give it back to its parents the moment it starts whining. Now imagine living with that whining baby every single day. It is tiring, hemfo."

"Okay, we are done here." Neo put the pliers down, testing lightbulb and masking tape back into the backpack, and handed it to Andzani. "Let’s go."

Andzani turned and shone the flashlight onto the footpath leading back to the main road. Neo put his hand in his pocket and retrieved a box of cigarettes. The box was half-full, making room for the green lighter also in the box.

He took out a cigarette and brought the lighter to its tip, sucking in firm draws to get it lit, and then blowing out large clouds.

"Yes, walk in front," Neo said to Andzani, who’d already started marching ahead of him.

"Ausi Ketsi knows you’ve started smoking?"

Neo shrugged: "I don’t care."

"You know you’re putting in an application to smoke each time you want to use the bathroom?"

"Huh?" Neo’s face creased.

"Pete does it, smokes every time he needs to use the bathroom."

"One of these days, your tongue will slip, and you’ll call him Pete in his presence."

"It’s his name – I think it is awful having to put your ability to do a number two on a cigarette. What happens when you’re out of them?"

"I can go to the bathroom without a cigarette, Andzani."

"For now, yes."

"It won’t get to that point."

"Surely every smoker said that before they got addicted. I don’t understand why you need to smoke."

To evade further questions, Neo took a long drag before he threw the half-smoked cigarette on the ground and stepped on it. He took out mint chewing gum from his back pocket and threw it in his mouth while rushing to fall in step with Andzani. He placed his arm over Andzani’s shoulder, his entire weight leaning on him as they walked.

"You ask a lot of questions, Andzani."

"You think you are heavy. You forget you have lost all the weight," Andzani teased.

"Waphapha," Neo said, letting go. "There, lights at Uncle Sonti’s garage."

They were nearing the end of the footpath that spat them onto the gravel road that would take them either to Uncle Sontaga’s house, or to turn the corner and join their street.

"But it is not as bright," Andzani said.

"Mission accomplished, though," Neo smirked. "We have lights for the night."

They turned the corner and joined their street. And when they neared Neo’s gate, he said: "Say hi to Pete."

"Who’s Pete?"

"Your father."

"You want to cry, I see." Neo laughed. "Sharp, Andzani."

While Neo struggled with his gate, Andzani felt an uncomfortable feeling sneak up on him as he headed towards his. The feeling had been suspended by his interaction with Neo, and now in Neo’s absence, it informed him of its presence again.

When Andzani opened the door, Violet had gone to bed, leaving Pete snoring in the sitting room. Jabu bulged his eyes and hid his head behind his limb shyly when he saw Andzani. Adorable, Andzani thought. But he felt pity for the dog – pity that it was in his father’s care.

Extract provided by Kwela Books, an imprint of NB Publishers

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