Excerpt from The Rise of the Dagger, a rugby novel by former player Gcobani Bobo

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The Rise of the Dagger by Gcobani Bobo and Elvis Jack

6

Allison sat in the box above the half way line. She had had two brandy and cokes forced on her by a large man called Rudi whose son played scrumhalf for the Lions and her head was spinning both from the alcohol and the occasion. Several things had surprised her: it was late evening on an autumn Highveld day and the dark had fallen quickly. The flood lights were on they were simply spectacular: the field and the stadium were light as a summer’s day. She could see the players clearly, even their facial expressions. The crowd was loud but not raucous and only slightly drunk as a group. There was an air of excitement that she found infectious, attractive even.

She had been shocked at the sheer violence of the tackles. Nothing she’d seen on TV had prepared her for grunts of effort and pain, the impact of body on body – was this really a sport, she pondered to herself or men using sport as an excuse to fight each other?

Rudi had been helpful once she told him truthfully how little she knew about the game and her interest in Xolile Dalindyebo for her newspaper. He had pointed out each time Dalindyebo had touched the ball and assured her at half time that he was doing well – put in three solid tackles and claimed a high ball twice with great confidence. She hadn’t seen him run yet but Rudi told her that people said he had “some gas” on him.

The game continued. Allison could imagine how people could be absorbed, fascinated, obsessed even, with rugby – but it wasn’t for her, she was fairly sure. Watching her first game, though, she had to admit she was surprised about certain things. Having watched excerpts only previously she had always thought it was like that village in Wales that as a tourist attraction had a once a year game where the locals wrestled through the mud for a day in search of a pigs bladder or something. In fact, rugby union was nothing like that – much of the game was static with players lined up against each other in set formations. It was a stylized brutality, she said to herself, interrupted occasionally by some spectacular individual or collective bits of style and grace…

Five minutes to go and the Lions were trailing by 24 points to 18. On the halfway line the Lions moved the ball down the backline (“Bout time” grunted Rudi) and suddenly between two players (the centres Rudi told her later) Xolile popped up, was passed the ball and took off.

Once again Allison was surprised: Xolile had told her he was fast, was very good at certain aspects of the game, and who was she to doubt the truth of his boasts? But nothing had prepared her for the grace and power of him on the run.

Everyone in the box was on their feet, many shouting. She rose too, the better to watch Xolile take off like a, like a bullet, like an arrow from a bow, in her own mind she shuffled through clichés to describe him. Forty metres from the tryline he headed for the corner, his peculiar high kicking stride eating up the distance. The last player, the opposing fullback, came running across to cut him off – surely he would bring him down or was Xolile strong enough to knock him over?

In the event neither happened as the two players converged Xolile kicked somehow so that without breaking stride where he was running to the left he was now running towards the right hand corner. The opposing fullback carried on heading to Xolile’s left and it was all over. Without a hand being laid on him Xolile dotted the ball down under the posts. He did it with the same lack of flamboyance that was to mark all his tries. He simply dotted the ball down and carried it back with him towards the half way line without celebration.

Rudi slapped her on the shoulder none too gently. “Beautiful, classical,” he told her. He then explained to her about the split between the centres. “If he goes fast enough there is no one marking him, just the cover defence coming across and the fullback defending at the back… and then that sidestep – fantastic, straight out of the manuals…”

But wait something seemed to be going on, there were replays, boos rang out from the fans, Rudi was muttering “No, no man”.

“What’s going on?” she asked him.

“I dunno” he said, “I think the fucking ref is screwing us again. . . Look there it is on the big screen.”

Sure enough in a replay on the giant screen she could see a fist come out of nowhere and hit the player in blue in the face. The crowd was booing loudly and a few naatjies were being hurled on to the field.

“But surely that happened before, it had nothing to do with the try?” she said to Rudi.

He looked at her with a new respect: “Exactly!”

This was Allison’s first exposure to a phenomenon she would see again and again in the coming years: for South African fans, often the most generous in acknowledging the achievements of their opponents, the referees were always against them. Whether this was part of an anti-Afrikaans bias or whether they resented us because we had better weather than them, this remained the most ubiquitous of myths amongst local fans.

The try was disallowed, a Lions player sent off for punching, the Blues kicked a penalty and the game was lost. Allison looked at Xolile’s face through binoculars during the whole episode. He appeared unfazed largely, certainly much less perturbed than Rudi, with an almost smile playing about his lips.

More alcohol was dispensed from somewhere in the box. Word had spread that she was interested in the star of the moment. A large man handed her a rum and coke and lectured her on the sidestep versus the swerve (or what he called a “jink”).

As she was leaving Xolile sent her an sms suggesting they meet at his apartment. Allison had only a moment’s pause about meeting a relatively unknown black man at his inner city flat.

After all, she told herself, newly divorced, no sex for six months, what was the worst that could possibly happen by being alone with a handsome young man in his twenties?

7

Xolile’s apartment was rather lovely she thought. Perched on top of a renovated building in Noord Street in the city he had joined two little flats to make a loft style 150 square metre living area with a sumptuous view of the lights of Berea in the distance. A circular metal staircase lead to a roof garden, done Japnanese style with raked stones in an obsessively neat pattern and little plants growing in aisles alongside.

“Nice place” she said as he poured a little saki. “You own it?”

“Yes, I came back from Japan with a bit of money. In Japan you would have to be extremely rich to afford a place of this size for one person. Make yourself at home, I’m just popping into the shower then we’ll write your piece for The Star, right?”

She wandered around his apartment picking up little Japanese gewgaws, tea sets, miniature stone gardens with little rakes and plants… His book shelf was almost empty except for two books in Japanese – it took her a long while to realize one was a version of Sun Tzu’s Art of War.

Xolile came back in a towel and simply took her breath away. He had the most perfect body she had ever seen on a man – chiselled, toned, it seemed to her that every muscle in his body stood ready for action.

“Let’s see that tattoo” she said to cover her discomfort. He turned around and she saw the tattoo starting just above his buttocks as a dragon, then swirling across his back before emerging as two roses over his shoulders and ending in a wisp around his neck.

“Beautiful” she said, “Where did you get it?”

“I had a friend who was a real artist with a needle; took about two months to finish.”

“And the bruises?” Across his caramel coloured torso a chain of bruises could be seen on his back with one huge one on his upper chest.

“What bruises?” He looked in the hall mirror “Oh these, no these are standard rugby stuff. It happens pretty much after every big game…”

He came out of his bedroom wearing an old track suit and made tea for both of them – Japanese style of course, heavy on style and low on taste, Allison thought to herself.

“So are you pleased with the way things worked out in the game?” she asked him.

“Overall, very pleased. You know I believed I could play, succeed even at this level, but I still worried that I might be deceiving myself – that when I played against really good players I might be a nothing, a tote along that contributes nothing to the team. Now I know.  I can play much better than I did today, I was just trying to be an old style fullback to impress the coach.”

Allison sipped her tea. “You know when you left the field after the match some of the kids were chanting your name….”

“Ja, that was sort of cool, I suppose.”

“I think you need a twitter account – and a facebook page.”

He thought for a moment. “I’m a bit out of touch with these things… Tell me what the advantage would be for me?”

“Well it would be a way of being in touch with your fan base, of increasing the size of it, expressing opinions that you wouldn’t want to make in an interview – things like that.”

“You know about things like this?”

Allison was suddenly struck by diffidence: “I did my Masters on it – the confluence of social media and journalism.”

“Yeah? What else could we do with it?” He seemed to have switched a mental gear.

Allison spoke for some time on the potential for a new celebrity to interact with fans. He seemed to drink this all in. She noticed he was fiddling with a little toy or ornament, another Japanese thing.

“What is that thing?”

“Oh it’s a Netsuku, a Japanese cultural whatsit, part good luck charm, part miniature art. Look, it has a rugby motif. It was another gift from Yukio, my tattoo artist.”

He passed it on to Allison who was surprised by the weight. It was cool to the touch, made of jade perhaps, and was a tiny sculpture of a fat man with a rugby ball clasped to his stomach.

The hour was late and Allison made ready to leave. Suddenly there was a silence between them, almost awkward. A dozen thoughts swirled in Allison’s head. When she spoke it was almost as if the previous thoughts had been said aloud.

“This is business. It’s important to both of us…”

And amazingly, she thought later, Xolile seemed to have followed her thoughts quite closely. “Absolutely,” he said, “business comes first. We’ll meet very soon.”

And she left. Something had been agreed to, she thought, but she wasn’t sure if she were pleased or regretful about it…

Follow Gcobani Bobo on Facebook and Twitter – @gcobanibobo.

The book retails for R250 and is currently available on takeloat.com and Top CD/Books.  Follow Facebook page for updates on availability in other bookstores. Find it also on Amazon, iBookstore and Kobo.co.za.

For more information contact Tiisetso Maloma at BULA BUKAtiisetso@bulabuka.co.za.

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