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.