School Punishment

The class was making noise. A crazy many dimensional noise. Every desk had its own shouts and bangs. Maybe a dozen stations of crazy all around the room. But the strangest thing was the teacher was there in the middle of it all. I don’t think she tolerated such noise really. Not most of the time anyway. She must have started some exercise for each table to do. Of course we were allowed to talk and make suggestions and that sort of thing. The teacher was going around from table to table to see how it was going. We started talking quietly at first. But then you felt free to speak a little louder when you heard other people talking and then just like that the room was a stagnant riot. But then I saw one boy stand up with a sling shot and take aim at a girl across the table from him. It seemed no one noticed but me. I didn’t know the boy or the girl but I screamed. And would you believe, over that noise everyone heard me? Everyone including the teacher. An immediate silence came over the class and the teacher was very cross. She wanted to know who had screamed and I was too scared to admit to it. She then started a methodic investigation to find the culprit. We were only a couple dozen of us so it was not too much trouble for her to question every pupil one by one while the rest of the class looked on. “Did you scream, was it you?” she was asked every little boy and girl. When she got to the table before mine I couldn’t take the pressure. I broke out into tears and they had me.

I was not yet nine when that happened and I told nobody about it. I was too ashamed. I was not coping. This had happened on a three week visit to my Grandmother in Northampton with my father and sister from Zambia. Dad wanted my sister and I to attend school to get us out of the way. I was afraid and said no. But my little sister, three years younger than me, had no qualms and she was a week in the nursery class before I gave into the pressure. Compared to me my little sister was intrepid. She took to the the deep end of swimming pools and, a little later in life, dancing in public places, when I dithered on the sidelines.

I did, mind you, when I finally went, find the experience of going to School in England thrilling. The classroom I was in was like a free standing tree house. It was made of wood and stood off the ground on stilts. You could crawl under if you wanted too. It had carpets inside and it was brightly lit with crayon Picasso master pieces on the walls. But what was most exciting of all was that the class had its own toys. Can you believe that, toys? At my normal school in Zambia toys were simply not allowed. If you were caught with a toy at school the teacher would confiscate it and you would never see it again. Good luck telling your parents about it too. All they would wanted to know was what were you doing taking a toy to school in the first place? Just another sign that you didn’t look after things. And of course, taking a toy to school would be such a sensation among my class mates. It wouldn’t be long before I would be pressed to lend the toy to a friend or more likely a series of friends on a much contested schedule lest I be accused of under appreciating their friendship. Either that or the damned thing would be altogether stolen. Either way, a trip to school was typically one of the last few episodes in your relationship with a toy.

Anyway yes, the teacher handed out toys for you to play with in the class. There were books too. I found nothing thrilling in the books though. Instead it was just plain shame. I could not read. Well, I could hardly read. I was still at the stage where a book that didn’t have huge pictures on every page was a disappointment. And there they were, all those English children with their own little library in the classroom which was a small pantry at the back neatly stacked with near picture-less books. One of the boys who was asked by the sweat and caring teacher to mind over me showed me the ledger where you filled in your name and the book you took out. I can’t remember the boys name but he was very earnest. He explained it all with such careful deliberation. I didn’t have the courage to admit to him that I could not read a book from front to back if it had no pictures. I think he had me take a book out all the same.

There was one aspect of that school however, that made me feel abject pity for those English children. It was their playground. This was a section of the school grounds designated as a school play area and all the children were there at the school break time. Would you believe, this area, not much bigger than a netball court, was every bit hard tarmac? It was nothing more than a rectangular slice of the M1 (though of course I had to envy the fact that both the M1 and this playground had not potholes). There was no sand and no grass. If you slipped and fell running (how else could you be playing if you were not running?) then you left some of your knee or face on the ground. Most children simply stood around in little groups and talked to each other. I recall clumps of children with the steam rising slowly from their talk on a cold November morning.

At my own school, back in Lusaka, we had a whole football field. Granted it only had grass during the rain season, and even then only over some parts of it, but goodness did we have space to run around. There were tall trees on the perimeter of the football pitch littered with loose stones. If you were not playing football (probably because you were, like me, not very good at it) then you could throw stones at each other, which we often did. And when some poor owl or bat settled in one of those trees then dozens, maybe hundreds, of pupils took to stoning the creature until it was quite dead. Owls and bats, you see, were evil and sent by the devil. And then there were the games to play. Cops and Robbers could be an expansive game with maybe a dozen cops and a dozen robbers running after or from each other over the whole school. You could hide in the empty disused swimming pool or sneak into class rooms through the broken windows. We played these extensive games after regular classes had finished and before we had extra lessons. This was when our teacher taught us some more in the afternoon with a little extra pay from our parents.

When the patient and endearing English teacher found out it was me who had howled in fear she wanted to know why I did. I tried to explain but I couldn’t stop crying. She asked me to point out who it was that had had the gun thing. You see, though I spoke nothing but english I had trouble explaining to her what I saw because I didn’t know the english name for a sling shot. I knew it then as a ‘malegen’ but they wouldn’t under stand that. In Zambia, all sling shots are home made from a small stick with a fork in it and a long length of rubber which is wrapped around the stick many times leaving a loop with a pocket in it for your stone to sit in before it is launched. A Length of rubber is called a ‘legen’ in Zambia (or it was then anyway) and so ‘malegen’ is like ‘The rubber’ which fires small rocks. I have a suspicion that ‘legen’ is derived from the name of a woman’s stockings (‘leggings’) which are of course stretchy like rubber. But any way, I digress. The teacher was interrogating me and the whole class was watching and listening. I must have been such a curious spectacle for them. I looked and talked different of course. But now I was proving to be a hopeless cry baby to boot. I was unfamiliar with this form of discipline. The teacher wanted to know what happened and why I had reacted that way. She wanted information from me and I couldn’t give it to her. She, the teacher who was so nice to us, gave us toys and played little games with us in the tree house of a classroom was disappointed with me.

At my own school, a teacher’s disappointment was not something you feared very much. What you really feared was being whipped. You feared the thickness of the whip, the grade of the whip (house pipe, wood staff or iron bar?) and the number of whips. And by extension you feared class monitors. These were your own class mates and friends anointed with authority by the teacher to compile a list of all those who had given in to temptation and conversed with their friends in the teachers absence while he or she had extended conversations in the tea room with other teacher. It was impossible to keep your peace and be quiet. Everyone talked to someone in the class including the class monitors. Only there was no one to write their names down.

The office of class monitor lasted about a school term. In the new term, another monitor would be selected by the teacher. But for most of primary, this guy Brian was the class monitor. There was something about him that always got the teachers liking. He came first in class most of the time. He sat near the front and he usually had a hand up with an answer the teacher was looking for. But when Brian did not come top of the class Kasenshi did. Ditto with hands up and the right answer. And then this one term, in the fourth grade, Kasenshi was the class monitor and the teacher was out for maybe an hour and we are quite naturally all talking, shouting, laughing, crying and maybe even some were fighting at the back of the class. Then of course the teacher walked in and apoplectic with anger. What happened then horrified us but it did not surprise us. The teacher asked for the noise makers list and Kanseshi handed it over. A couple of dozen of us were whipped right there in front of the class against the larger wooden teachers desk and in front of the blackboard. My fear of whips and pain had disciplined me to not talk loud enough that morning to be noticed by Kanseshi in the preceding hour. But Brian was not so lucky and he was one of the first to get the cain when the teacher’s arm was still strong. He was unused to the combination of pain and humiliation and tears escaped his eyes when he sat down on his sore bum. When the teacher returned to the staff room that morning, exhausted from his disciplining, he issued his threat to Kansenshi. “I will see you at home time”.

Threats of reprisals at home time were not unusual. More so against class monitors who lost their indemnity when classed concluded and we were all reduced to the status of children from pupils. It was unusual however for a fight to be scheduled between a girl and a boy. School fights were a great attraction  that always brought a large audience that came running to the scene from all directions. There would be the chant “ooou-one, ooou one!” that would rally spectators from the far corners of the field. It was all this for girl versus boy fights as well only more so. In my time at that primary school I had seen at least a couple of girls get the best of their boy adversary. I must add though, that those girls had come from rather rough neighborhoods. They walked quite a few kilometers from some place dreadful where they had had practice in the sport of fighting. That was not true of Kasenshi however, who was a princess from a home good enough to pick her up from school in a car every afternoon. The Brian – Kasenshi fight took place somewhere between the girl’s and the boy’s toilets and Kasenshi alighted her father’s car that day in tears and bruises. Brian was remembered from then on as the guy who beat Kansenshi over the noise makers list.

I do not recall telling my English classmates, however briefly I was there, what school was like for me in Lusaka. Neither do I recall regaling my friends with stories of an English primary school once I got back, though I must have said what a pity it was that they had no playground. I wouldn’t have know where to begin with those English kids. As for the latter, no doubt my tearful incident with the sweet and caring English teacher had something to do with it. Like Brian, I had shamed myself in front of the whole class. Lucky for me though, no one, except strangers I never saw again ever knew of it.

My Way

And so it was. The doors slammed shut, the automated gate swung open, the lights turned green, the highway slipped under our wheels and the city, waking out of its rigor mortis on a winter’s dawn, receded in the rear view. The road, that harness the metropolis like straps do a beast of war, uncoiled and rolled us down the wide flat veld. On we went through the frost covered country side at pace past the city bound traffic which heaved and hauled at three cars abreast, shrouded in its fumes, plodding, like a legion marching into a futile war that had long outlived the promise of riches and pillage. To be the only vehicle  outbound, at such an early hour, alongside thousands upon thousands of cars that, in their various shapes and sizes represented every facet of our crumbling civilization, lent to the cabin an air of truant gilt.

How had we got away? How had we slipped out without notice or alarm? Could it have been that they were after us at that moment, mobilizing by the dozen, pilling into their various contraptions meant for pursuit and chase? Were they with haste loading into such things as motorcycles and helicopters, with their two-way radios crackling into life intermittently with messages of our most recent citing and our predicted direction? If one of our phones had rang then, at that time, that would have been enough tell us that the game was up. It would be proof that a groot bas somewhere, with his hair still wet from the shower that morning and after his assistant had brought him a pile of documents to sign, had paused with his first cup of coffee and noticed an alarmingly large claim for leave.

But no. The phones didn’t ring and we were gone. Well, Angelo’s phone may not have rang but it beeped. Often. It Black Berry Messanger beeped as messages streamed in from a vast network that channelled its energies through him and grew stronger from every touch of his key-tapping finger. In the rear view mirror I caught him once looking at the sun rise over the frost covered fields, with a furrowed brow. It was a face that could have belonged to a mounted Boer general (with a mixed race heritage that was a farm secret) before he gave the order for his guerrillas to take yet another English held town that stood before him on the horizon. In Angelo’s regiment, these would be the disciplined infantry of Stanford road who would, following orders, raid the saloons and night clubs and not rest until the DJs had collapsed from exhaustion and every spirit and mixer had been poured. But alas, before he could decide how to deploy the troops of his vast army on the veld, his pensive thoughts were again interrupted by yet another polyphonic beep on his phone.

“Jo, my blackberry does not make so much noise like Angelo’s neh?” Venieva said.

Her own blackberry phone, which is in fact purple, was not altogether inactive and had managed to string together two or three squeaks during the course of the morning drive. But that was nowhere near the symphonic orchestra that was the constant BBM chime of Angelo’s phone.

Though I couldn’t catch Venieva in the mirror from my position in the driver’s seat, I was certain she was casting out her own gaze over the fields with a pensive look, to imitate Angelo, except she would have on her a pair of lips gathered at the front to make an intense pout. If she was dreaming of an army to maraud over the countryside they would be riding ponies with white manes, purple harnesses  and hoofs decorated with gold coloured tassels. Her cohort, when they came upon a town, would make a gay cantor down the wide church street and hit first the boutique shops and then the makeup stores, empty the liquor stores, roundup the hair dressers, prostitutes and the street urchins (who tell jokes and perform short plays outside the corner shops at dusk for small change). She would take them all as her new recruits in what would grow into a large flamboyant regiment of people of varying sexualities to rove about the towns of the rand, use fireworks and dynamite to break into the safes at the banks, paint a huge purple rainbow in the sky with every explosion, and spend the largesse of their escapades on outrageous parties that would be held in the caves of disused mines. They would celebrate late into the night in an orgy of dancing, acting and acrobatics with performing animals and at the centre of it all, almost lost in the circling parades and the long train doing the cha-cha-cha, there would be Venieva seated on a large purple cushion with a selection of dresses and shoes littered all about her while she feasted on a bounty of candy and admired herself, in a large elaborately decorated mirror, applied lipstick, foundation and eye liner in ever increasing layers until the break of dawn.

In the front of the car sat Tobre and I with our concentration focused not on the weaving of social networks or on fantasies of revolution through intemperate merry making but on the mundane details of cause and effect. With my hands on the wheel, as they were for most of the driving on this holiday trip, I watched our following distances, the speedometer, the fuel gauge, the cars racing up to us in from the rear, and the trucks on their ceaseless pilgrimage to and from the ports without rest until they weir off and crash. Tobre watched but she also watched me watching, and spoke instructions in the guise of suggestions as they formed it in my mind. Before my hands or feet had the chance to perform of their own violation she wrote into speech their intent.

“Go baby” she had said before I had changed down a gear to overtake and “We stop at the next shell” before I had the chance to point out that there was a need to make a stop for petrol.

One evening Tobre had ventured into a cold and wet London autumn and soldiered through the underground and the overland trains, the reticent bus drivers and the dangerous teenagers to knock on my door in Peckham and ask if me if I wanted to sell curry for the rest of my life. Press ganged by her seductions into a life of service and devotion, my life changed forever. Now, years later, Tobre had booked the venues, made the schedules and worked out the budgets months before even a plane ticket had been bought for our road-trip holiday and relied the devoted disciple to bring all to fruition. Would Ceaser have subdued Gaul without Posca by his side? What of Octavian without Agrippa? Did Angelo win those modelling competitions without a childhood of Nieva’s coaching in his mother’s bedroom? Throughout the holiday trip, the two of them were happy to sit back and wallow in their ignorance about what plan had been agreed and where we were to go next (I doubt they even knew that Durban was our first stop) while I figured out the directions on the map, liaised with the staff at the B&B about breakfast times, made payments and always gave the impression that I knew what was about to happen next.

It was with the directions, I am afraid, that I was found to be wanting in my duties. At first, with the help of the iPad that Venieva had brought for me from the UK with great care (“iPad, iPad, he must have his iPad” she had said when she relieved herself of the burden transporting the expensive toy), I brought us into the city of Durban, once an English fort town, and piloted us to the gates of the B&B without a single wrong turn when Tobre had a guest appearance at the wheel. But on the following day when we were looking for a market in Victoria Street Market, as tourists are want to do, I found that Durban exists in two parallel worlds. There is the virtual one of commerce, tourism and retail where the maps and websites have streets named after the heroes of the Anglo-Boer war and the personalities of either tribe. And then there is the physical world of wholesalers, hawkers and crowded taxi ranks where the streets are the avatars of fallen and not quite yet fallen heroes of the struggle against apartheid. In our wandering, we saw a crowd of people tearing into a pile of clothes in a suitcase on the pavement in a bargain sale. We drove in circles about some of the most seedy parts of the inner city slum, up Joe Slovo st, down Ingcube rd and many freedom fighters in between before we gave up on the elusive Victoria street Flee market. Two nights later, on our last night in Durban, when making out one evening for a meal and drinks at the waterfront, a twist of criss-crossing one way streets on the map that turned out to be a knot of bridges and off-ramps in the real world that sent us down the M4, far and away past Africa’s biggest port and into one of the dark corners of the metropolis where the streets were poorly lit, trucks disappear goods from the docks and ambulances rushed about in pursuit of escalating calamities. We were lucky to stumble on a route that led us back into town and to the waterfront.

But undoubtedly, my near undoing came from our second push for the coast. Tobre had decided months before that between Durban and Port Elizabeth we would spend four nights at Coffee Bay. The bay is an unremarkable dent on the continent’s southern coast that is cherished by American and European colleague students for its rustic anonymity as a marvellous example of the virtuous life man lived before he was corrupted by the base evils of commerce, religion and law. Google maps on my iPad had plotted a course for us from the intercity highway to the coast by a route that minimized the total distance travelled. It took us down a narrow road that zigged and zagged up and down the bell shaped hills past hamlets and where sheep and cattle meandered freely. There were no other cars to be seen for hill after hill and all about there were adolescent girls and boys loitering along the roadside in the afternoon sun. Reluctantly they yielded the road for our passage but at every turn we found more roadside assemblies,  as if they were all conspiring a national cataclysm.

“Why is it taking so long?” Angelo had said when I lost my way looking for the Durban harbour when we could not find the Durban waterfront. Tobre was furious with me for getting us lost and Angelo wanted to stir things up so that he and Nieva could chuckle at my trembling before Tobre’s ire. But a few days hence, when we drifted through that agrarian waste land, where the wretched had been dumped after two centuries of defeat, wandering as we did through the South African underworld, even the gay mischief of the backseat had waned. How could Angelo’s guerrilla’s save us then when the nearest night club was in East London half a day’s drive away? From which boutique would Nieva’s colourful regiments spring to rescue us when the shops stocked only matches and carbolic soap? The ocean was within sight but it drew no closer as the gravel road wound over cliffs and alongside steep ravines and the light fast drained out of the day. Had darkness fallen on us then, we would have no doubt found a ditch dug across the road, the teenagers transmogrified into cattle-boy and sheep-girl monsters and the cattle morphed into blood thirsty Zombies. The next morning, all there would be left of us as evidence of our unfortunate choice of road would be a burnt-out husk smouldering by the roadside and a girl walking twenty kilometres to school with a purple blackberry and a pair of size 7 suede shoes.

And so, with defeat at hand and terror coursing through our veins I found the moment for my salvation. Although it was certain that surviving the situation only meant boyfriendicide by Tobre for insubordination by incompetence, there was the prospect of showing the children of Bethelsdorp that my obscure past in the interior of the continent could deliver to them their liberty. Armed only with the wheel and the Fiesta’s other apparatus I tore into the countryside and showed destiny the cold face of defiance. Speeding down a rare straight a sheep came out the bush and began hobbling across the road. Venieva had figured that we were on a collision course and yelled “They don’t stop, they don’t stop they are stupid!”  but I kept my pace. “They don’t stop!” she kept on but I didn’t flinch and we missed the dozy beast by the most narrow of margins. I had found my calling and I was going to deliver us from evil. I would save us from the abject of modernity. A baleful cloud of dust rose from under the Fiesta, dug out by the burden of a boot over loaded with clothes and shoes, and it bellowed an angry roar. The devil dashed ahead of us and cleared away animals, children and old women hobbling back from the municipal offices with their old age grant. I tore into the mayhem and raced to beat the setting sun. When the car came to a stop and the dust cleared we were greeted by the sight of fair colleague students carrying surf boards and naked children with gold locks playing in a pool by a sandy beach.

My Time

“No Angelo this is my time, my time” Venieva said but Angelo didn’t hear. He was on the phone with a telesales person on the balcony of Tobre’s second floor flat. It was on the drive back from the airport when Angelo’s phone rang and he was still on the phone after we had driven home and we had carried the bags upstairs and Venieva had began to unpack. We all got presents of various sorts, from an iPad and a netbook, to warm clothes and naughty underwear and Tobre and I were very excited (to be fair Angelo only got clothes). But Angelo was pacing up and down and searching the view, the way people do when they are on the phone, patiently explaining why he couldn’t take on any insurance from the telesales person.

Angelo had once before worked in telesales. He knew what it was like to phone up strangers and tell them what they wanted. He was familiar with the discomfort it brought and how it can eat you up inside when you invaded people’s privacy day after day. He felt empathy for the sales person. He knew what it was like to drag yourself through a week of phone calls chasing targets for modest rewards that were paid to you at the end of the week, after all that self loathing pent up inside of you, only to be spent on clothes, drink and entrance fees and then find yourself back at the call centre on a Saturday morning shift short of sleep and hung-over.

The salesperson was a woman, of course. Briefly, she was another woman in Angelo’s life in addition to his mother, his daughter, the mother of his child, his grandmother, his sister, his friends and his colleagues and many women more. She was stretching out the conversation with him, holding on to her piece of him, his voice, his empathy and the boundless depths of his understanding of her sad life.

“This is my time, my time!” Venieva yelled at him from behind the glass sliding door.

And then of course there is Venieva. For all the claims women have made on Angelo, none can say they shared a childhood with him they way she did. None of them can boast about afternoons with him in his mothers bedroom trying out his mother’s clothes, or racing through her magazines and making claims to shoes and dresses, for page after page. “That dress is mine”. “Those earrings are mine”. “I saw them first”.

Every Sunday afternoon Venieva would return from her ou Ma’s house, where she was obliged to spend her weekends away from her mother and Tobre, and run across the street to Angelo’s house without as much as a glance over her shoulder at her own mother and sister. Yes there were other kids on the street and she played with them all. But whatever the crowd or the configuration, there was always two people at the centre of it deciding which will be the next game to play and who cheated on a round of Dan-Dan.

And who, other than Venieva, had fought with him as many times? Who was it, soon after she had ran over to Angelo’s, would return with her arm over her eyes crying a snotty little cry? It could be none other than Venieva crying over her dear friend Angelo. He could be nasty of course, like all boys were. He once jumped over the fence to intercept and deliver retribution to the girl next door when she thought she could run away after she had made quarrel with Angelo. On occasion, after Venieva would come home in tears, her mother threatened to take it up with him or his mother but nothing ever came of it. Besides, the mothers were good friends and good neighbours. And then there was the time when the three of them were making mud-cakes behind Tobre and Venieva’s house when Angelo said something truly bad about Venieva’s cake and then (or shall I say “and then and then and then” the way Venieva would) Venieva put her foot in Angelo’s cake and then quickly ran into the house to hide and locked the door behind her. Angelo was so mad he took some of Venieva’s cake into his hands smeared it over the wall of the house to make an angry screed. Then it was Angelo that ran home across the street.

Or what about the time when they made Tamaletjie. Venieva, Angelo and Tobre cannot meet and not tell about the time they conspired to make Tamaletjie before aunty Mona got back from work. With kilograms of the precious reserves of sugar that was supposed to last the month, in the kitchen, they made homemade toffees in a pot. Apart from Tobre’s constant fretting that mummy would be back at any moment and they would all be in trouble, everything was going fine. That was until they poured the hot candy soup into ice trays over the sink which caused the plastic to melt instantly and stick to the sink. While Venieva tried to clean the mess up in a panic, Angelo laughed and Tobre jumped up and down saying how she told them so and so they were all going to be in so much trouble. Or maybe it is only Angelo who is laughing when they tell the story and in actual fact they were all quite terrified about their prospects at the time when there was melted plastic all over the sink. But when they do tell it, Tobre looks guilty and Venieva has on her face that mischievous smile. The smile she had on her face when she sprayed wood polish about the room without polishing any tables to give the impression that she had been cleaning the house.

Angelo lives in his mother’s house, with his mother and his Ouma, aunty Daisy, and up until recently his sister and her husband in the house in the back yard before she moved to Cape Town with the kids. Tobre and Venieva bought a house in Cape Town when they sold the house across the street from Angelo after their mother had died. But when they moved in, Venieva and Angelo’s mothers, those houses were theirs and no one else’s. They were young teachers with young children who had told the father’s of their children to fuck off and were living lives of their own making. Bethels Dorp was a new area then, growing by the street up Stanford road into the farms and the veld away from town. Many houses stood open, waiting to be occupied or were only partially built. And then there were the show houses. These were the three basic designs that were furnished, though unoccupied, that displayed to potential buyers of coloured Port Elizabeth what life up the hill along Stanford could be like. On Sunday afternoons the houses stood open and Venieva, Angelo and Tobre would claim one each for themselves in a fantastic game of let’s pretend. For the rest of the day then they were grownups, living their lives with their own homes and just next door from each other and showing off their cheap furniture that they had just bought on lay-by. They would visit each other and admire each other’s houses and make small talk in the kitchen.

“This is my time.”

We went shopping. What else is there to do in Sandton on a weekday afternoon? After we had pulled Angelo off the phone finally and each grouped our presents into little heaps.  We went to that sprawling and cavernous network of shops and corridors that is Sandton City.

“I must have service, I must have service!” Venieva said at Edgars. None of the pretty and thin girls in the make-up section had been quick to try out a foundation on Venieva’s cheeks and she was put out.

“Yes Queenie, don’t worry, we will find someone for you,” Angelo said.

His tone was snarky as if he were the shop assistant in a small boutique dealing with the shop’s most important and most impossible customer. As if it were a scene out of 7 de laan. Angelo plays all kinds of games. Sometimes he plays along with all his friends until the club is closed and the whole gang of them go on into the night and block by some kloof and take their drinks from the boot of a car or get another party started at someone’s house. But he can start games too.

Angelo told us about the time when they were about to close down his branch at work. “In the interview I was just rubbing my knee and I just kept rubbing and rubbing the same place. And then I told them. I said “how can you do this?” I said “How can you just come in here and ask us all these questions? How do you think this makes us feel?” And then they were very sorry. They even apologised to me. Can you believe. And then afterwards those other guys who were in the interview with me said “Angelo we thought you were going to cry?” and I said no I wasn’t serious. I was trying to make myself cry.”

“Yes Queenie” Angelo said to Nieva and she got her service.

Venieva liked being called that. On the holiday, when there was a brief lull in the conversation Venieva would chime “I am the duchess of Ilford”. She would say this with her chin held high in a tone of voice that mocked the proper classes of England and Angelo would laugh. On Venieva’s previous visit from England, she would do mock Chinese accents. She would say “I speak-a da Chinese”. She was a clown and Angelo was always the target audience, even if he was not there to clap. Back in the time of Stanford road, when she wanted money for sweets she would go to the shop close by and tell jokes to the men there making small talk and get paid for the impromptu show. This is why, Tobre explained, Nieva could spend such a long time buying groceries at the shop and Tobre would have to be sent to go find her. Nieva the clown. One night In Durban we went to a Cubana on Florida road and were asked to vacate our table in the lounge area because it was reserved. Angelo was not pleased and we left early with our tip. When we drove past the following night, Venieva rolled down the window and hurled out insults for the whole street to hear and Angelo laughed and laughed.

“My legs are swollen from the plane” Venieva said when the zip on the boot wouldn’t go up to her knees. We were at the shoe sale at Stuttafords. This time however, Angelo had to stifle his laughter. We all did.

Naturally, when a girl falls in love with Angelo she knows she must be good friends with Venieva. It is not that they are jealous but instead they understand, in a way, that what they cannot have with Angelo they could at least be close to in a friendship with Venieva. This is how Venieva came to be close friends with Angelo’s ex-girlfriend. When Angelo broke up with her, the ex-girlfriend, breaking her heart, Venieva was in a difficult position. How was she to maintain her now close friendship with the ex and embrace Angelo’s new girlfriend? Angelo, the understander of women and the breaker of hearts.

While Venieva had her service, sitting on the make-up artist’s high chair with an unctuous application of foundation and eye shadow to her face, Angelo went shoe shopping. Even though he said he was an eight, the shoes on sale across the aisle from Edgars were not easily overlooked, and so Angelo bought not one pair but two, in a size seven. He knew what he liked. He also knew what styles were in. I followed him around Edgars briefly, when Queenie was still sulking for her service, and took careful note of everything he said he liked and which items he looked at. Jerseys with no collars and two or three buttons near the top on the lapel for instance. Those were in. I took note of it all. I still lookout for those kinds of clothes to buy. Angelo always know what it is. Meanwhile Tobre, during this shopping sortie, had discovered a new irritation with me, as if I were a stop-gap boyfriend from school she was embarrassed to introduce to her family. She kept her distance from me in the shop.

When it came to packing the little Ford Fiesta for a road trip around the country, Angelo’s two pairs of shoes came to mind.

“How can you buy two pairs of shoes when we are going on a road trip?” Venieva said. “You don’t even need shoes” she said.

But Venieva only said that to deflect attention away from her own situation. She had come off the plane with two suitcases and Tobre, always the rule abiding and rule making younger sister, said that each of us was only allowed to pack one bag for the road.

“One bag, how do you expect me to have only one bag?!” Venieva complained the night before we left. This was on the night before the road trip and before Venieva had an attack of frost bite on that cold Johannesburg night. She was shuffling up and down Tobre’s small flat, moving shoes and items of clothing – most of them purple – between her suitcase, her one bag and numerous plastic bags. Every now and then as she packed, when she came across yet another item she didn’t know what to do with she said again “How do you expect me to have only one bag?” In the end, she packed one bag for the trip but she also had two large plastic bags filled to the brim to squeeze in as well. Both Angelo’s new pairs of shoes fit in as well somehow, and so too did his collection of clothes and shoes he had brought with him.

After a night of cold feet, stories about relatives and friends and memories about PE, we rose early, got into the car and drove down the N3 to Durban. The holiday had begun.

Cold Feet

Tobre’s sister had an attack of frost bite. The moment of terror visited us in the small hours of the morning and caused quite a commotion. When I could no longer ignore the talking and the raised voices and no longer pretend to be asleep, and the bright lights of the modest Johannesburg flat were ignited, I rose from the sofa where I was decked and saw Venieva, Tobre’s sister, wearing a pink head sock with a long puffy tassel hanging down to her shoulders and a sloppy set of pyjamas – the sort that have a matching top and bottom and are dotted with the smiling face of a chummy and chubby bear – duck into the shower room and promptly fire up the taps.

Tobre and Angelo, a man of women who was the boy from across the road – with whom Tobre and Venieva had played and fought and swore never to play with again, and played with again, week after week – were in the only room in the flat, whispering loudly and suffering from both fear and mirth. Already, as always, Angelo was relating the drama of the event, and Tobre was trying to swallow – unsuccessfully – a derisive laugh, the sort I have seldom seen her exercise, then or since, in my company alone.

“I am like Nieva what is wrong? Because you keep moving your feet and turning. And she says her feet hurt and she thinks she’s got frost bite. And I am like now what is this now?” Angelo says, with his dark eyes and a wide smile, though I cannot see because I am in the next room listening from the sofa where I lay.

“And she says she has deep veins . . . ” but Tobre is unable to follow through with her recollection because she is gripped doubly by the need to laugh and to not let Venieva hear them make fun of her, though of course she could hear them quite well, save maybe for a word or two, small as that flat was.

“And I said to Nieva what is it, why do your feet hurt? And she says that they hurt she and she is using these technical terms I don’t understand” Angelo says.

“It is not funny. You people don’t even want to take me to the hospital even when I’m dying.” Venieva said when she returned from the shower in a towel while drying her hair with a second, and was presumably warm enough to escape an amputation of the toes, or escape it long enough until the time of our early departure – then hardly two hours hence – for she was soon jumping back into her teddy bear spotted pyjamas.

Once Venieva had dressed into many layers of clothing, including the pink tasselled head sock, and was back into the bed she was sharing with Angelo, Tobre closed the door to the room and killed the lights. She hurried into the narrow space on the sofa I had kept for her under numerous layers of blankets. The following morning the radio DJs were abuzz with the talk about  the frost on the road, confirming that it had been one of Johannesburg’s signature winter nights, and I was glad to have had Tobre and her heavy thighs up against me.

More than half of the drama of the frost bite had passed while I was groping around in confusion between the dreams of my sleep and the voices floating in from the next room. When I had taken to sleep on the couch finally, late as it was, after it was clear to me that the three children of Port Elizabeth, from the neighbourhood of dwellings that are scattered about Stanford road, would not exchange stories with me or fill me in on the characters of their broktjie, or the nature of the subjects involved, or even to speak in a tongue that was less than half Afrikaans, I had understood the nature of the holiday that was to follow. When I woke to the commotion and the voices, and Tobre was not alongside me, I had no recollection of her brief visit, where she must have slept before Venieva’s feet were gripped in the tight vice that is Johannesburg winter cold and before Angelo and Tobre conspired to find it ridiculous and laugh. I was on the outside from this cabal of memories, anecdotes and manners of speech, that was unravelling before me and being refuelled with events anew and others which I was yet to witness them encounter. How could I, dull as I was then (as I continue to be), lost inside my thoughts, impress upon Tobre the depth and enchantment of my own character when a person as colourful and vain as Venieva, and as playful and faithless as Angelo, were back in Tobre’s life for a three week holiday across four of South Africa’s cities, and the roads in between, with adventures before us, then not too abundant but instead, too exciting to enumerate?

Derelict

With both arms I pushed open the sliding doors and brushed a woman’s breast with my hand. The touch was gentle and fleeting across her cotton dress. I had been trying to flee the hot and crowded train but what was done was done and there I was right next to her with nowhere to go.

“The trains were like this yesterday” she said.

My frequent and quickly hashed out fantasies about women on the train (she beckons me to disembark, we go to her small terraced house,  she turns out the children, she lets me in through the lace curtains into the dim interior and closes the door) came to nothing and I had little to say.

“Yes I know” I replied.

Close fitting shirts, padded brassieres and angry cleavage tend to give me the impression that a women’s chest is firm and plastic, like mannequin’s pair in a window. With the few chances I have had in my life to correct this deception  I always found it fascinating to disprove it anew. A daily open palmed grope into a woman’s shirt might go some way to alley this perception, and yet never I suspect with outright success. But anyway, this was quite by accident and I had found myself in a very humdrum conversation on a train that was making a dreadful labour of its journey down the tracks.

“It took me hours to get home yesterday” she continued.

Standing by the open door as the train struggled alongside a road at the pace of a leisurely walk, the afternoon light revealed her soft wrinkles about her eyes and illuminated every strand of her untidy hair.  It may have been neat and wavy when she had brushed it in the morning but it had, by this hour, on a warm muggy day, become quite frazzled, as if her whole head might soon return to its curly self. Her pleated dress fit loosely on her bony frame and had three bands of subdued water colours blended into each other as if she had once left it once left it on the line for many rainy days. Her eyes were a diluted aqueous blue.

“I’m just lucky I don’t have young children anymore” she said. “Then they would have to wait for me at the Day Care after school. Do you know that they now charge per hour now to look after the children these days?”

“No I didn’t.” I said.

Before I had parted the doors, I stood behind a girl with long black hair in a flower print dress. She wore flat shoes and her hair dropped to the rump of her backside. As the locomotive alternately jerked into motion and shuddered to a stop, she shifted her weight from one foot to another. I told myself that she was probably quite unattractive, even though I had caught a glimpse of an ample lump of flesh pushing against her bra strap. I dismissed her as probably old and ruined by public transport and other disappointments in life. But then,  after I had rushed to the doors, in a fit of frustration, to escape the oven of a carriage, to walk home along the tracks, only to be thwarted by the disarmingly precipitous drop to the ground and the touch of a woman’s breast, I was surprised to find that Pocahontas, now facing me,  was indeed pretty and quite young. Just old enough to be an adult. Wayward hairs stuck to the corner of her mouth on her perspiring face. It made her look vulnerable in a breathless kind of way.

“I wish they would tell us what the delay is” said the woman with the soft wrinkles in frustration. “I got home at seven yesterday and yet I was at the station at five.”

I was trapped with the garrulous the water woman and I felt like a fool. It is one thing to make empty chat with a lonely person who has untidy hair but it is quite different to do it in the presence of another for whom you would reserve your most charming and erudite discourse. A bit like being caught reading HELLO magazine by a beautiful girl doing a major in English literature. Or maybe more like being the son of the maid lining up to be a suitor for the bas’ daughter only to be found out to have a girlfriend in the township pregnant with your child. That is how it felt anyway. But then the anxious girl with the brown skin, blinked rapidly with her long eye lashes and spoke.

“I’m claustrophobic” she said with an imploring look.

“I’m sure the train will empty quite a bit at the next station” I said with a saccharine smile.

Before Tobre had returned to Johannesburg after Christmas, we did things like we used to before. We woke up to the radio news and had boiled eggs and toast for breakfast. We rendezvoused on the train after work. We would arrange to meet in the third carriage and made like we were strangers to each other. She read her book and I stood next to her with my headphones on. On the platform we embraced like it was love at first sight.

The moment Pocahontas spoke, I went from feeling a fool to a state of anxiety, for how was I going to talk to both these women at the same time? But also, the moment she spoke was when two new speakers entered the conversation. When a fair woman calls in distress, men are bound to come calling (unless of course you are sat next to your wife, as so many were). Before they had said a thing, I could feel their presence crowding in, even though they had been next to us all the time. They suddenly came to life. After my initial vacuous reply, the first of them weighed in.

“We’ll be at Wynberg station soon. The train will half empty then” he said.

He was dressed smart with a white shirt tucked into a black pair of trousers. He had a briefcase and a receding hair line. The folds of his shirt over his abdomen seemed to betray his flat stomach. The expression on his face suggested that he had a bottomless reservoir of patience to endure the slow progress of the train. Until he spoke, he had been pensive, as if he could see well ordered ledger books in the far distance, and was making some progress mentally putting them to right. His face melted, when he said those words however, into the sort of grin a man uses to endear himself to a woman through her illegitimate children.

“You’ll be fine” a large voice boomed from the second man. “We’ve been letting trains go past us towards town because we’re sharing the one set of tracks. Well should be moving freely again just now.”

This man was so large, he was next to the other four of us all at once. He stood so tall that he didn’t need to raise his hand over his head to hold the rail that ran along the ceiling. Empathy from a being so large for a creature so petite, somehow amplified the sentiment.

And then we slowly pulled into a station but hardly anyone disembarked. Instead, we had pulled alongside a decommissioned train, and its marooned passengers ploughed into ours, like soldiers boarding an enemy ship at sea. Somehow there was space enough and maybe a dozen people slipped into our carriage while others attached themselves to the men hanging out the doors down in third class. All of us a little closer now, Pocahontas sucked her teeth. I felt a fresh rivulet of sweat streak down my back and creep into the crack of my bum.

“You don’t know how us women suffer” said the woman in the water colour dress. “With our faces at your arm pits, it’s terrible.”

“Yes” said the girl, somehow finding strength in the depth of her phobia. “But it is much worse like now, in the afternoon, when everyone is hot.”

All but one of us looked up then, into the giant’s cavernous armpit, to see a large, dark and slowly growing patch of moisture, and we chuckled. The giant too was amused, the way he would if he found children playing housey-house in one of his shoes.

And just like that I felt as if I was part of something, like I belonged among these people. We began to talk quite easily about everything and nothing at all. It didn’t matter now that train continued to stop and start, or that my legs were aching, and the time passed easily and I felt neither foolish nor anxious.

On the morning before my birthday, Tobre took advantage of my good mood and walked me, by the hand, to the main road to visit the second hand furniture shops. Each cupboard,  desk or lamp was a possible acquisition, something ornamental, something that with a little thought and imagination could be both functional and sentimental. But after a while I got a funk, and spent the rest of the expedition wondering in Tobre’s tow with a mysterious sense of foreboding. It may have been that these furniture pieces had been discarded for things more chic, or that they were the remnants of broken homes that had disintegrated for a lack of love and money, or it may simply have even been the way the shop owners looked, holding steadfast to a dream of being a sophisticated trader of antiques after all the life they had lived. Either way, the expedition seemed to presage an extended period of misfortune. It felt like I was choosing a pair of shoes among a field of exhumed graves while I pitied the grave diggers for their debased occupation.

When the train did finally pull into Wynberg, a large surge of people poured out of our carriage, and I went with them. Just before I was carried away though, the water woman begged me to stay and ride with them for just one more stop, however slow the journey. Pocahontas and the tax man gave me a beseeching look and even the giant, a fixed object in a torrent of exiting bodies, looked disappointed. I thought about staying. I would walk home from the next station by a new route past her street, that she would show me, and we would fuck clumsily in her tidy house, with all its old furniture, after the maid had knocked off and before the kids got back from school (stop, stop – whose that at the gate? Its ok, its nothing. Now where were we?) Then I let go and lost myself on the streets of Wynberg where children play on the road and housewives gossip over the fence.

You Are Safe in the Northern Suburbs

We had a girl over for dinner and she has her problems. She is pregnant, hates her job at a call centre (she is on the complaints division!) and her boyfriend is abusive – emotionally and perhaps physically as well. For this reason I shall call her Mary.

I met Mary recently on a weekend visit to Johannesburg when I accompanied her and Xolani (Mary’s housemate and a friend of mine) to a Pick’n Pay to help shop for Xolani and her boyfriend’s road trip to Mozambique. Xolani and the boy drove to a beach and he proposed to her at sunset with no poor people in sight. Of course she said yes. Anyway, the point is that while shopping at Pick’n Pay (I was strafing through the vegetable section as Xolani did the toiletries) Mary was most surprised to discover that a man, me, could find his way around a supermarket.

“Where did you learn to shop?” she said to me.

Never, in all her life, had she witnessed such a thing before. I felt for the moment that I was after all an exemplary gentleman, contrary to all that my mother, and many women after her, has ever said about me. But Mary’s perplex was better explained by her youth than by my gentlemanness, for she was only 18 at the time and the fact that she grew up in Bloemfontein. It is this youth and naivety that compelled my girlfriend (Tobre) and I, hosting Mary for dinner, to hand down some worldly advice, though she was by then 19.

“Let him cook his own dinner,” I said, “You need to be independent from him,” Tobre said, “Just let your mum raise the child,” I said, “Just leave him,” Tobre said, “You need your own group of friends,” I said and finally “Don’t go to Cape Town to look for a job, everyone comes here to Johannesburg for that instead” Tobre said.

And indeed that last point is most sound. The thing to do in South Africa, after you graduate, is to apply for a job in Johannesburg and relocate (unless you live here already). And for those who do have a job outside Johannesburg, if you want to have at least a half chance at a raise or a promotion then you must transfer to the Johannesburg office or find a new job over there. Indeed for some, in a time of downsizing and cutting costs, the choice is made for them when their branch is closed down and they’re forced to move to the city of a thousand taxi ranks and faulty traffic lights. And so was the case with Tobre, who left me in the Cape Town southern suburbia to attend to the maid, the garden, the garbage men and the hawkers all on my own.

And the move suits Tobre just fine. All her friends are already here after all; both the ones from uni and the ones from her school days in Port Elizabeth. And better than that, they all live quite close together, which is quite remarkable if you stop to think about how large Johannesburg is. But then if you consider that all your logo companies have their head office in or around Sandton (north of the city centre) and that there is a relative new forest of flats and town houses north of there in or not far from Morningside, Rivonia, Fourways and other areas currently under construction; you need only turn off the N1 (part of the ring road around the city) and go north to find the city growing, complex by complex. It is nice in a way. A kind of heaven for the over educated youth of South Africa today. After the various trials and phases of your life, primary and high school, university, work overseas, when you have made friends, regrets and careers, you finally settle in a world where you are all (close) together again.

I find the friend-space situation a little unreal. Take for instance the coincidences it brings up; when Xolani moved north after her PhD to live with her boyfriend, it turned out that Tobre and the boy lived in flat complexes (yes I know it sounds like a term out of Computer Science, but what else do you call a collection of blocks of apartments corralled around a swimming pool and enclosed by an 11 foot barbed wire fence with a single guarded entry and exit point?) right across the road from each other; a high school friend of Tobre’s from Port Elizabeth and a friend I met in Switzerland, who at the time did not plan on moving to Johannesburg, live a few blocks away from each other on the same street; just the other day, picking up the aforementioned German and her boyfriend for a game of tennis, Rashin, one of my closest friends from university, who I haven’t seen in years and somehow lost touch with (facebook doesn’t count), pulls up and parks right next to me – he lives in the same complex (for him too, the Cape Town office closed). This is like six degrees of spatial separation by flat complex.

Mary, who lives in the flat complex across the road, drove over for dinner. When I said to that that was ridiculous, she said she didn’t want to walk home at night. Either way, for all the serendipitous proximity of friends, visiting one another is not an easy thing to do. For one thing, these single entry-exit gates, some of which rival medieval fortifications for vulgarity and size, are designed exclusively for motor vehicles. There is no pedestrian gate, or even a separate path, should you be on foot (should a car come along you must step aside) and doing so can raise deep suspicion from the guards, who are sometimes sat behind tinted windows and are want to give you a full interview before they give your own best friend’s flat a buzz to say there is a visitor at the gate. And even then they go ahead and interview your best friend to see if all the details you supplied are correct. So much for just walking across the road to visit a friend. Not that you are exempt from suspicion if you drive up to the gate mind you, it just gets you one step closer. And should you give the wrong flat number, then you really raise the ire of the guard and could render your visiting rights revoked (I have had my share of shouting matches with the tinted window). To put it simply, visiting is discouraged.

When Mary came in she found Tobre and I behind the kitchen counter chopping, stirring, mixing and drinking wine with music, as we like to do. Mary sat on the other side and watched. She said it was nice to see that we cooked together. When I offered her some wine she said;

“No thanks. I can’t drink I’m afraid, I ‘m pregnant. Didn’t Xolani tell you?”

“Yes we heard all about that,” I said “but surely you can have just a glass.”

“No I can’t. My boyfriend will kill me. He’ll smell it. I can’t have alcohol, smoke or anything with caffeine. He’s worried about the baby,” she said.

“But surely just a glass. You don’t have to let him know, you could suck on some mints after.”

“Well, it is good for the baby anyway. I would like some water or juice though.”

And so there you go; you may have to take orders from your boyfriend or live behind a high security fence, but ultimately life will be safe in the northern suburbs of Johannesburg.

The Living

Between life and death, I choose life. A straight forward choice, you might think, if you are talking about your own life. But there may be times, say when talking about someone else’s life, when you would choose death instead. Perhaps when a spouse has changed over the years from a hero to a tormentor or when the person in front of you is driving slow in the fast lane. What of a loyal dog that has seen you mature but has over the same time aged to the point of constant and crippling pain? And then, coming back to your sweet self, there might very well be times when you want to die a little, now, so that you may live better, later.

“You know, the problem with her is she chooses death.” I said to Laurence once to describe a friend of ours who took work seriously and thought highly of herself.

He didn’t seem to me all that impressed with the idea and he was always quick to brush off my comment on the choices between life and death as just another inappropriate remark. I wouldn’t be surprised if, the first time he heard me classify someone this way, his assessment of me, for he had known me long enough then to judge, was that I had always scored much better at the living than at the dying. Furthermore, since Laurence has a great capacity for insight, he could also see that I thought that he was scoring far too well on the dying and was so scant on the living as to be pronounced dead (Years later a doctor would beg him to take a break from work to allow the ulcer in his oesophagus to heal).

When we were undergraduates Laurence seemed to me like someone who showed potential to be a great friend if he wasn’t so often sick or busy or, more often than not, both. He was a scarce creature on the campus who had a surfeit of courses on his plate, from Economics to Greek Philosophy, and, when you did cross paths with him, could pull out a display of funny and clever despite the sniffling, from allergies and hypochondria, and the fact that he had two exams on that very afternoon. Later, over a summer in Switzerland, after the friendship potential had come to fruition, he would walk to the flat from the tram swinging his briefcase in the late European dusk after spending many hours toiling away towards a venerable distant goal it would take him hours more still to help me understand. In London Laurence spent so much time at the office over the week and the weekend I had began to think of it as deliberate abrogation of the friendship. But then Timira, who had moved into the house with us, had a greater claim to insult since it was with him she shared a bed, but only in the sense that she was asleep in it when he came home and when he left in the morning.

But I never said to his face that he had chosen death. It would have been an unfair thing to say since in many ways Laurence embraced life, and perhaps too readily so. On a night when he pulled himself away from the office earlier than he would have liked, risking, in his mind, his job with the firm, he would throw himself at the clubs of the West End with admirable debauchery. Every attractive woman had their fair share of his opening line until he met someone who would respond to his daredevil disregard for his own shame and, to my utter astonishment, come good once in a while with a girl he had never met before. Though to be honest, black educated girls got more than their fair share of his attention to the extent that in one club, crowded with what must have been every black South African girl in a ten kilometre radius of Stratford, on one of the few times I had the temerity to respond to a pair of eye balls being tossed in my direction, I found that she was already acquainted with Laurence. No indeed Laurence lived alright, he lived in an urgent hurry as if to try and make up for the great stretches of death he covered from one week to the next.

In the end, the contrast between my living and Laurence’s dying became more than I could bare. I had become envious of his death and quite ashamed of my living. Besides, Timira had finally landed on her feet and no longer spent the evening sitting around with me waiting for Laurence to come home. I returned to South Africa and found, after a few months of mixing and matching, myself with a woman who wanted nothing more than for me to live with me even though, out her own need to do some well spent dying, she lives on the other side of the country and only sees me once a month.

And then Mike arrived. I had just hopped off the bus onto the university campus, on my daily route to the office, with my carefully chosen playlist in my ears, when I found Mike casually talking to a young physicist who was so dedicated to his discipline he hardly noticed me when I washed up on the fringes of their conversation. Mike had come to do a two month visit to the Physics department, as he has done for a number of years now, working on, well, something to do with static states and energy. The career physicist aside, it was a bit of an awkward reunion. Mike and I, although we have known each other for years, always had an interlocutor between us; a little dark hairy girl who, to escape the myopia of her family and the surrounding ghetto, had travelled to various parts of western Eurasia and settled on a Scottish lilt to add to her Durban-Indian model C school accent. An opinionated girl, who could not stand to hear other people state their opinions, she had always found safety in Mike’s unassuming ways and marijuana chilled past times more often that she had been entertained by my endless string of gaffes in the crowds of clever people I deliberately collected around me as if I was determined to prove that I was completely immune to public embarrassment, although really she knew me well enough to know that I was naive enough to not fully grasp the depth of my worldly ignorance. After developing a natural revulsion for her supervisor and work colleagues the girl with cabbage patch toes left for the land of free opinions, to live with her long time partner and long time classmate who she had avoided showing public affection since the beginning of their relationship. Without the usual buffer between us, Mike and I were exposed to each other’s company to an unprecedented degree, and had to learn each other anew as I included Mike in the weekly activities of midweek drinks, Friday drinks and weekend braai’s.

With another spring sweeping across the peninsula and the students showing a renewed interest in their courses for the final year exams, Mike, who had minimal teaching duties, and even less research commitments, since he was still in the honeymoon period of post PhD bliss, phoned me up for coffee or lunch every day of the week. It was not that I was busy, for indeed I too had relatively few teaching commitments then, but rather that Mike had even less regard for his responsibilities in the office than I did. Being the youngest person in my office, working part time and being an amorphous outlandish creature that makes no claims on the direction of his career and future, I had been compelled to cultivate an image of myself as someone with boundless enthusiasm and innovation to reform or transform past any obstacle in the hope that I may be viewed by the unit, at some time in the future, as indispensible and eventually absorbed as a genuine member of the team. This did not square so well with a long lunch that Mike insisted on that and stretched from noon until well into the afternoon. Neither did spending money on campus fast food when I ought to be saving for the pending unemployment that will sweep my way when my student status in the country expires and the Home Affairs office continues to bungle my work permit application so that, as a temp employee, the university will be obliged to not renew my contract. But Mike, sensitive and generous as he is, insisted on paying for every cup of coffee and boerewors roll, so that it was only after a brief scuffle that I could put my money ahead of his and pay for the odd meal against his will. But every time the phone rang and I answered to Mike’s German inflected English pronounce comically one well enunciated word, “lunch”, I worried about the degree of my paunch and how much less enthusiastically my patron and lover would grope my naked body on her monthly visits to our house.

On the first warm day of summer, after I had I walked the length of my somnambulist suburb, to the penumbra of its shade and watered lawns, to take a look at the towns most insignificant people walk twenty five kilometres along the north-south axis road of the city, and cheer on my near obese friends who had briefly taken a break from their cars in Johannesburg for a spurt of exercise, Mike phoned me up and asked if I would like to go to the beach. In truth it was a perfect day. Adventure was an unnecessary whim that would only mar its promise of blissful sunny nothingness, with the wind relatively mild and the weeds beautiful with their colourful flowers poking out from the cracks in the pavement. There would have been nothing wrong with saying “Mike, I appreciate your offer to drive me about the town and buy me ice cream, but not today thanks.” But then it seemed to me at that point that all my life’s worth of dying had been a largely forgettable investment that had come to less than naught and would be all the more regrettable if I didn’t take my ever dwindling opportunities at living.

When Mike caught up with me, after the fat city slickers had pulled me along with them up the main road by half a dozen kilometres and deposited me in a portion of the urban landscape that is halfway between roman villas and ugly city flats, conveniently close to a garden supermarket, where I was shopping for the genitalia that connect pipes and hosepipes, he had with him a freckled Spaniard driving a cream middle eighties era large Mercedes Benz, the standard issue for European tourists. On the way to the obscure beach I had never heard of before, we had stopped for petrol and water, neither of which I paid for, though I did contribute to the trip by pulling my foot off the clutch just when the German, Spaniard and the petrol attendant had huffed their best pushing at the rear. The beach was beyond the urban sprawl, round many corners of mountain slope and ocean view, in a hoek so brief you would miss it if you didn’t notice the cars conspicuously parked alongside the bushes. The natural inhabitants of this sandy idyll were all so dreadfully beautiful, judging from the ripples of the muscle down their front and the well portioned fat on their bums, that the two foreigners and the one African knew not to take off their t-shirts until it was absolutely necessary. The waves, speckled with dark spots of paddling and intrepid surfers, were gorgeously large and crashed with an almighty boom that ought to have been the soundtrack to the pending doom if wasn’t for the distraction of God’s most carefully crafted creatures and their determination to act cool in the face of their riotous display of sexual talent.

The water was disarmingly cold once it went over your ankles, a cruel joke when it washed up against your testicles, but from then on a welcome joy. Mike and I, playing like children for once, without the need of a common friend to cross-relate us, took to diving under the big waves, or just being smacked head on by the force of it to our squeals of laughter and surprise at the indomitable force of a large body of water, while the freckled Spaniard held back with a caution that I guess had accumulated with age. After a short break, when we dehydrated over some very plain sandwiches, we returned for what was supposed to be one last, brief splash before we moved on to our afternoon beer at any odd pub by the bay. But once again, the pleasure of a simple game was so seductive and delicious that I could not help but laugh and laugh at the simple fun of it until salt water was in my lungs and my eyes stung. That was until the ground had mysteriously shifted from under me and I was no longer facing the waves from the security of two well planted feet but rather from the uncertain dog paddle that constitutes my act of swimming while the waves continued to crash over me. The panic that followed was as genuine as the danger I had just then perceived and the only thing I wanted at that moment was a hero to take me in one easy move to dry and steady safety. Mike, by proximity was the chosen hero, and one good look at my face was enough to wipe the smile off of his. He reached out to me with his hand, like in a painting by Michelangelo, and I returned the gesture as I continued to be drowned, one wave at a time. “Dive,” Mike said, as he coached me in the proceeding and final act of my first life, in the pause just before yet another wave swallowed us in a maelstrom that made all swimming impossible. The strength in me had been spent in the foolish game and then the panic, and no amount of diving, or flailing against a current that seemed to be pulling us out, was having any discernable effect. Perhaps a sliver of determination to live came into me when Mike, with his own look of death, said “help me,” and I realised that it was not just my own foolishness that was at hand but a more general form of malady threatening us both. We called for help to the other men playing with the waves, standing only at an incredible ten metres away from us, on their own feet, but they could not hear us drowning in the roar of crashing water. It felt like a very foolish way to die.

The thought came to mind then that all the dying I had put into harassing the Home Affairs office into paying attention to my neglected work permit application had been a colossal waste of life. And then the waves miraculously stopped. Mike and I ran onto the beach, hand in hand, paunch and all, in front of the beautiful people, intoxicated with the sweet joy life, breath by breath, and laughed again, but not until we were well out and onto the hot dry sand. The planned for beers were upgraded into a full scale sea food platter and I happily paid my share.

When the standard issue Mercedes dropped me off home that evening, and the first sunset of my second life was all about me in wonderful mixture of warm and cool colours, I went into the backyard to complete my hosepipe genital project from my previous life and was surprised to see a continuous stream of sea water pour out of my face onto the under kept lawn when I bent over. That put paid to any notion that Mike and I had exaggerated the gravity of that brief situation we were both in.

That night I phoned the woman of my house, in her Johannesburg apartment, and admitted that I had been somewhat careless with her investment in me, since like the sea water, some things are better out than in. At work the next day, all my colleagues were obliged to express relief at my escape, and some went on to point out that I was in fact at one of the city’s most notoriously dangerous beaches where friends of their own had perished. Mike and I told the story, that now connects us like an old sordid lover affair, to our Wednesday drinks, Friday drinks and weekend braai company and I even went so far as to inform the opinionated common friend in the USA. And yet, all too frequently, it still feels as if death has become my new imaginary friend, keeping a few paces behind me, just to make sure I’m ok. Maybe what I should do is ring Laurence’s mother for his number in New York and ask him how he is getting on.