Getting Ahead: by Pravasan Pillay

Photo credit: Julian Lozano

The boy came up to Niren and stood next to him at the pinball machine. He must have been around ten or eleven and was still dressed in his school uniform. Niren glanced down at him.

The boy, with a nervous look on his face, nodded his head once decisively, and held out his hand, palm upwards, on top of the protective glass of the machine.

“Get your bloody hand down from there,” Niren ordered, hissing under his breath. There were a few teens hanging around, playing on the other pinball machines in this room of the arcade, and Niren didn’t want them to hear him, or for that matter, even notice that he was here.

The boy was clearly shocked by Niren’s change in demeanour from thirty minutes ago, and recoiled immediately, quickly pulling his hand to his side.

“But you said –” the boy began to reply.

Niren’s glare made him shut his mouth.

Niren moved his hands away from where they had been hovering over the buttons on the side of the pinball machine, allowing the bounding silver ball inside to fall between the paddles. That was just the first ball, there were two left before the game was over. The machine, which was covered with illustrations of scantily-dressed, buxom Japanese girls, lit up at the spring below the balls, ready for the next play.

Niren reached into his jeans pocket and grabbed the ten rand note he had folded and kept in there for this purpose. The boy eyed it expectantly. Ten rands was perhaps a little too much to pay, the boy would have probably done it for five. But what was five rands to him now? In a few minutes, if all went well – and it would – he would have thousands. Niren took the folded note and slipped it discreetly into the boy’s hands. He quickly pocketed it, his face beaming.

Niren bent down and pretended to tie his shoe laces, so that he was nearly eye-to-eye with the boy.

“Are you sure it was the right bakkie? Blue? And it had the big Manning Rangers sticker on the back window?”

The boy nodded. “Yes, Uncle.”

“Okay, you did good. Now take the money I gave you and get lost,” Niren said, tilting his head towards the exit.

The boy seemed to hesitate, scratching his closely-cropped hair and dragging his foot.

“Didn’t you hear me?” Niren asked, bringing out his glare again. There wasn’t much time now and the last thing he needed was to stand around talking shit with a dumb kid.

“Are you going to finish playing?” the boy asked shyly, not looking him in the eye, and pointing to the pinball machine. “There’s two balls left… Can I play?”

Damn township kids. Give them ten rands and they still try to get something out of you.

Niren got up from his kneeling position and pushed the boy to the door, before giving him a hard kick to the ass.

“Get lost, lightie! And don’t come back here,” Niren said after him, his voice rising above the pings and beeps of the machines. A young man, probably in his early twenties, only a few a years younger than Niren, stared at him briefly before returning to his game. The man had a glazed look on his face.


The boy was out the door now. Niren felt a brief moment’s guilt for kicking him. After all he was just trying to hustle himself a free pinball game. Nothing wrong with a little bit of hustling. You’ve gotta in Chatsworth. Niren had been the same when he was a kid.

The boy had done the errand he had asked of him well. True, it was a simple errand: Run in here and let him know when a blue Hilux pulls into the parking lot in front of the arcade. Probably the easiest ten rands the kid would make in his life.

But enough about all that now. It was time to get his head into the game. In a couple of minutes, Arjun, the owner of La Bamba Video Arcade and Pool Hall, the largest amusement centre in the township by a long shot, and the very person who had been driving that Hilux would be walking by the pinball room to his office.

Arjun would be carrying a black backpack with him, filled with thousands of rands of payroll and running expenses – and Niren was going to follow him to his office and take that money away.

The pinball machine he had been using lit up again at the spring handle. Niren pulled it once and watched the ball bounce its way down between the paddles. He did the same with last ball, then walked to the exit of the room and waited behind a couple of machines for Arjun to pass.

Niren had figured that this was the best place to do the deed. It was only a few metres away from the office, and was the quietest part of the sprawling arcade. The most popular and busiest sections were those with the video games, pool and fussball tables and they were all at the front of the building.

He had timed Arjun’s routines over the last few weeks. He always walked leisurely back to his office from the parking lot, stopping, talking and laughing with his employees, or watching a kid play a video game, oftentimes tossing them a couple of free tokens. He usually took about ten minutes.

Niren was just about to check his watch when he spotted Arjun round the corner. He was alone as he always was when carrying the payroll.

Niren looked him over. He was large, perhaps muscular once, but now in his fifties those muscles had turned to flab – a lot of flab. His face was equally puffy, his head shaved clean with grey stubble poking through here and there, and each ear had a gold stud earring. He was wearing his customary blue jeans and a t-shirt. Most importantly, he was carrying his black backpack.

My backpack soon.

This was a man that most of Chatsworth knew and feared at one time. Niren had heard the stories from his friends, even his parents. Arjun was a legendary figure in the township. In his twenties, thirties and forties he had been the head of the township’s most powerful gang, The Tops, which controlled the dagga, Mandrax and stolen goods market in Chatsworth and Mobeni.

He was famously brutal but never carried a gun himself, preferring to use his fists or a bushknife that he had carried permanently at his side. There were plenty of rumours of all the enemies he had hacked to death and buried in the nearby Silverglen Nature Reserve.

Yet, despite all these tales and rumours, he was regarded as somewhat of a folk hero in the township, to the extent that he was often called in to resolve disputes between residents, which he would do fairly and without favour. He was also generous, for instance paying for buses every year to transport people from the district to Isipingo Beach on New Year’s Day, often up to ten buses of the poorest of the poor.

Sometime in his mid-forties Arjun decided that the gangster life was no longer for him and that he was going to become a legitimate businessman. That’s when he opened La Bamba.

Of course, everyone knew where the money for La Bamba had come from, but as Niren’s factory machinist father said at the time: “Show me a rich person who didn’t start off as a crook.”

These days Arjun seemed to live a genuinely clean and modest life, putting all his effort into his very successful arcade, but his earlier reputation had stayed with him, which explained why there was very rarely any fights or trouble at La Bamba. Nobody dared get on Arjun’s bad side. This fear of him was also why he could stroll so nonchalantly carrying all that money with him. His trusty bushknife was now prominently displayed over the front till of the arcade, the only real sign of his old self.

Arjun walked past Niren, shuffling slowly under his weight. Niren slipped on the balaclava he had stuffed in his back pocket and stepped behind him. Luck was on his side. The corridor leading to Arjun’s office was deserted.

At first Niren had planned to use an Okapi to rob him but he was a little unsure whether he could take on Arjun in close combat with knife if it came down to that.

He needed something that showed that he meant business.

Niren pulled out the CZ 9mm, and brought it up to chest level. He had never shot a gun before, but how difficult could it be? Besides he didn’t plan on using it unless Arjun forced him to. And if that was the case he had got all the basics from Shaik, who he had borrowed it off of.

Of course, he had spilled everything to Shaik. He had to. That was the only way he would lend him the gun. But Shaik could be trusted. They had been friends since primary school, smoking their first cigarettes and drinking their first beers together – and later breaking into their first car together.

Shaik worked part-time at a garage installing sound systems in minibus taxis, where he had a side hustle selling customers black market and stolen sound gear. But most of his hours was spent drinking and bullshitting in Rooko’s shebeen, the most popular drinking hole in the neighbourhood.

That’s where Niren went to see him, to ask for the gun and to lay out his scheme. He explained it all, how he had seen Arjun on countless occasions blasély pluck paper-clipped wads of cash from his backpack and hand it to the cashiers and even to other employees to run errands.

It was always on Fridays. Wage day. He would come back from the bank at the Chatsworth Mall at around one o’ clock with the backpack and several bags of bunny chows for his employees.

One time, Niren had even managed to get a brief look inside the backpack. Arjun was too busy counting a couple hundred to pay a day labourer to notice him staring. There were stacks and stacks of fifty and one hundred rand notes. Niren had estimated that there was easily twenty thousand in there, maybe even more.

Shaik had been properly drunk when Niren got to the shebeen but those numbers seemed to sober him up fast, and he gave a low, exaggeratedly drawn-out whistle.

“The gat is yours, brother,” Shaik offered shortly thereafter, slipping it under the table. And for that, Shaik would receive three grands, basically for doing nothing, a sum he was more than happy with.

“That will sort me at Rooko’s for a good few months,” he had said, clinking his quart of Castle against Niren’s.

Niren would have preferred to have had a partner on the job, but as good as a friend as Shaik was, he was far too flaky. That’s why Niren rarely broke into cars with him anymore – he would regularly forget to show up or if he did show up would be piss-drunk.

No, it was better to do it alone. Besides, it meant more money for him that way. And the plan was dead simple: Stick a gun on Arjun, get him into his office, gag him and tie him up, transfer the money into a couple of plastic packets so as to not to arose the suspicions of La Bamba’s employees, and then walk the fuck out of there like a boss.

“And what are you going to do after you give me my money?” Shaik had asked him, just before Niren was about to leave. “Because you know that whether you wear a mask or not, Arjun-Uncle will find out who did the job and then there’ll be shit. He’ll know within the week that it was you.”

This was something that Niren had already thought of. There was nothing for him here in Chatsworth, no girlfriend, parents and siblings who he barely visited and who hated him and his lifestyle, small amounts cash every now and then when he managed to steal something worth the effort to pawn – a rare occurrence in this township. This wasn’t living.

He would leave for Jo’burg, a city where he could disappear, where he could use the money he stole from Arjun to get ahead, to begin a new straight life. Buy a fake ID-book, with a new name, the works. If Arjun could start over, then why couldn’t he? Like his father had said: “Show me a rich person who didn’t start off as a crook.”

“My Greyhound ticket is already booked,” Niren had answered Shaik. His friend laughed loudly, gave him a fist bump, and ordered himself another quart.

“Put up your hands, don’t look back, and walk quietly to your office,” Niren ordered, sticking the gun into Arjun’s broad shoulders. Arjun was sweating and his t-shirt clung to him.

Niren had done his best to gruff up his voice. It was probably a pointless thing to do. He doubted if Arjun even knew his name, despite the fact that he hung around playing pool at the arcade every other day. He was just another faceless street rat to him.

Arjun gave a brief jolt, but he didn’t try to turn around. Niren noticed that Arjun’s left hand was bandaged quite thickly. That would have put him at a severe disadvantage in a fight.

Damn, I could have probably done this with a knife – and been three grands richer. Shaik is one lucky bastard. Still, no point in worrying about that now.

“What do you want? Who is this?” Arjun asked, his voice a few octaves lower than his usual jovial self. His breathing was heavy. Scared? Niren hoped this fat fuck wasn’t going to have a heart attack on him.

“Don’t worry about who this is,” Niren said, prodding him with the gun. “And you know what I want. Don’t play dumb. Now walk. If you don’t give me no shit, you will still be alive tomorrow.”

“Take it then. Just take it and go. It’s yours,” Arjun said, beginning to unstrap the backpack. They were outside Arjun’s office.

Niren stopped him. “Not in the corridor. Get inside. Reach into your pocket slowly, get your keys and open the door.”

Arjun followed his instructions, but fumbled awkwardly with the keys. Niren prodded him a couple more times with the gun. “Come on, old man.”

Niren felt like laughing. Seeing this supposed big-shot gangster being nervous like a little girl was hilarious. All those notorious stories about how bad-ass he was were probably lies. Bluffs to stroke his ego. He was just an ordinary crook, a normal man, no better than Niren.

The door clicked open and Niren gave Arjun a shove to get him into the room. Arjun stumbled inside, but didn’t fall, landing on his desk. He still hadn’t turned around or got a good look at Niren. This was going way smoother than Niren could have hoped for. His mind was already on the bus to Jo’burg.

The office was small and bare, a few files on a shelf and a couple of crumpled polystyrene food containers in a trashcan. The walls were covered with posters of Scope pinup girls, and a framed newspaper article with a photo of Arjun and a local amateur soccer team, whose kit he sponsored.

Arjun meanwhile was bent over, holding the side of his desk, panting like a thirsty dog.

“You need to do some exercise, ballie, or eat less,” Niren said, taking the framed article from off the wall and tossing it across the room. He had a sudden urge to bash Arjun’s bandaged hand with the butt of the gun but resisted it.

Be professional.

“Take off the bag, leave it on the desk, and get against the wall.”

Arjun wordlessly obeyed. He was facing Niren now, but Niren was confident that Arjun still had no idea of who was behind the balaclava.

“Do you know who you’re stealing from?” Arjun asked, in the same panting voice. He was about a metre away, back against the wall, his hands resting on his knees.

“I’m just a hustler like you were,” Niren answered, his smirk hidden from view. He drew the zipper of the backpack open and was met with a strange, pungent smell, which he couldn’t identify. There was a tightly-knotted black garbage bag stuffed in the backpack.

What the fuck. This wasn’t how it was supposed to look.

Niren reached in and angrily tore open the bag. And that’s when he saw it.

Shaik’s head.

The garbage bag was wrapped around his friend’s Shaik’s decapitated head.

Niren couldn’t process what was happening. All he could do was stare at the bluish-pale skin, the bruised, clotted cheeks, the terrifying dead eyes, and the jagged flaps of flesh were Shaik’s neck once had been.

Niren felt like fainting. His shock must have lasted a millisecond, but that was all Arjun needed. Niren looked over to him in time to catch him pull a bushknife – his infamous bushknife – from up the front of his jeans and rush forward.

Niren couldn’t believe how quickly he moved, as if he was animal, a predator, instead of an obese man, who usually hobbled like a seventy-year-old aya.

His face was also transformed, that friendly mug from around the arcade was gone, and what replaced it was something Niren found hard to recognise. Not rage. Something colder and more calculating than that.

Before he could even raise the gun, Arjun had slapped it from his hand with the side of his bushknife. Arjun used the other side of the knife to whack him across the face.

Niren fell to the floor. His cheek felt hot; it was gashed open. He could feel the balaclava grow heavy with his blood.

Arjun stood over him, bringing a heavy boot onto his chest, his bushknife hanging loosely from his hand. Niren looked up at Arjun. He didn’t know what to say.

The old gangster was standing there silent.

Then he reached inside the backpack, peeled away the garbage bag, and brought out Shaik’s head awkwardly with his bandaged hand.

He held the head up by its hair.

“It was a decent plan, I’ll give you that, but the problem was with your friend over here,” Arjun said, tapping Shaik’s forehead with the bushknife. “Never rely on a drunk.”

His voice was back to its usual friendly tone. For some reason, Niren found this more scarier than if he had been angry.

“He starting blabbing to everyone at Rooko’s about how he was going collect three grands. How he was going to throw a huge jol for everyone at Rooko’s. I always find tidbits like that interesting. I like to investigate them. You never know, it could be a possible business opportunity for me. Of course, I had to conduct a little question and answer session with Shaik, before I got the information I needed. He required a little persuasion to open up.”

Niren felt the tears build in his eyes.

“Shaik was very helpful in the end. It was shame I had to do this to him. He was good boy. I also had a little trouble using my bushknife, as you can see,” Arjun laughed, showing his bandaged hand. “It’s been a while, and I’m a bit rusty. It wasn’t as clean a cut as I used to do back when I was your age. Maybe I’ll do a bit better today.”

“Please, Arjun, I’m sorry. Don’t please,” Niren pleaded, taking off his balaclava and raising his hand. Arjun pushed his hand away as though it was a pesky fly. He didn’t even bother looking at his face.

Arjun tossed Shaik’s head to the floor alongside Niren. He stared at the whites of his friend’s eyes.

“Oh ja, before I forget,” Arjun said, spitting after the head. “Get one thing straight. You’re not a hustler like me, you’re nothing like me. You’re a poes.”

Niren watched Arjun raise his bushknife, his face again transformed into something cold, into something he couldn’t recognise. And then the bushknife rained down on him.


Pravasan Pillay is a South African writer. He has published two chapbooks of poetry, Glumlazi (2009) and 30 Poems (2015), as well as a collection of co-written comedic short stories, Shaggy (2013). Pillay’s short story collection, Crooks, is forthcoming. He is the editor of the micro press Tearoom Books.

Related country: South Africa

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