The Agency

One morning I walked up to the South African Home Affairs building. As the sun came up and illuminated the city buildings and the vendors set up their stalls, it felt good to be in town early. I thought the day pregnant with potential. At the door, I found a polite young man posted there to announce to that home affairs had moved to the customs office on the foreshore, in another part of the city centre. I had no forewarning of this development and I had at that point, naively, hoped to be picking up my work permit for which I had applied just over a month before. The English man, who arrived just after I did and was kind enough to give me a lift to the new premises, was astonished. His four year battle for a permanent visa had put him through many surprises (including a new criteria for applications two years in) but a surprise change of venue shocked him.

Since then I have come to find the customs building familiar. Out of the central train station, I have now taken many walks down the wide boulevard of Adderly street, crossing at the signal of the green man, past the statues of Jan and Maria Van Riebeck, towards the harbour. I pass the international convention centre with its glass exterior and walk under the elevated N2 highway, just around the corner from its mouth where it descends from its imperious height to disgorge its load of tenacious morning traffic. There, caught between the highway and the harbour stands a tall concrete edifice, the customs building. For the most part, the new premises has not changed with the way the temporary permit section works. You come in, you queue in a series of seats and then you speak to somebody. Like in the old building, the Home Affairs officials stand behind a long counter and wear a smart uniform. When you make a submission, or need to enquire about the progress of your application, they walk behind a screen or into a room (rooms? Warren? I don’t know I can never see what they do back there) for an indeterminate length of time. When they return (all that is certain is that they will return sometime) they shall tell you to come check in 4 weeks, to wait for an sms or a phone call from them, to provide additional documentation or to simply to check again on Monday.

But somehow, the old premises had blinded me to that curious group of people I now find to be common to Home Affairs; agents. At the foreshore premises, with the N2 looming large in the window, my attention was drawn for the first time to the three defined queues. One is for submissions, another for collections, endorsements and information (invariably the longest) and a third for agents. Agents, the sign above the counter informs us, may do submissions, collections or endorsements all in one place. In my recent and numerous visits to home affairs, I have realised that there are not a great variety of these agents. I can now recognise each of them by their face, and also, their laughter. While they wait on the home affairs officials, they make jokes, they eat snacks and they sit about their rows of chairs as if they are at play. Since they are all familiar with each other and are few, they have no need to follow a chronological system among themselves. As a matter of fact, they go out of their way to look out for each other. They have no other concerns it seems, such as a job or studies, except for their home affairs errands. Across in the collections/endorsements queue however, there are instead frequent flare-ups about who is in what position and whether or not someone can jump the three hour queue and visit the front briefly for information (needless to say, the visit is seldom brief). We, the cohort from various countries, where French or Korean is heard as often as the cry of an infant, stew in our indignation at the slow pace of things and make brief friendships out of our common plight, equally, short term enemies over queues and protocol.

Agents, I have been told, are people who can make applications on behalf of foreign nationals not in the country or who cannot speak English or any of the other local languages. However, before I embarked on my work permit campaign, I was introduced to an agent myself. After a referral from a colleague offering me permanent work, I met her in a car park at the university, where she explained to me that if I handed over to her all the correct documentation (she was quite verbose on the details) I would get my permit without any hassle or much delay. It all sounded very enticing until she told me she wanted four thousand rands for her services and that the fee did not include the hefty application fee. I balked and told her, later (by email), that I didn’t have that sort of money. That was, however, not strictly true. Rather what I really meant was that I didn’t see why, given how she told me how straight forward the whole process would be, it would cost me so much. Sure, I can be quite a miser (I have a modest income after all), but I can also be a stickler for principle. Why should I, who only has a part time job, pay someone else to go into town (a journey I enjoy very much) and submit documents on my behalf? I did not, however, say this to her in person. Instead, work promised to come up with three quarters of the fee and I didn’t think it such a bad idea after all. But when I approached her by phone and email about this arrangement she didn’t get back to me. So I was, in the end, compelled to stick to my principles and get the application done myself. Of course, the gentleman from the DRC in the queue next to me one day (with an iPod far superior to mine so I had much respect for him) said that the agents bribe the home affairs officials to get the job done. He also said that the agents were former employees of home affairs and so were on chummy terms with the their former co-workers behind the desk. I was not sure I could believe the first claim, but I the evidence for the second was plain enough to see from the way the bonhomie on the agent camp flowed freely over the counter to the officials on the other side. I also noticed one morning that, in the time it took three officials to visit the agents queue, the foreign nationals had only one. And that one official came to the counter with all her defences up.

“You can’t expect me to know where it is” she said to me. I had finally worked my way to the front of the queue after thwarting numerous attempts to usurp my place in the queue.

“But surely you can find the file somehow? Don’t you file these files somehow?” I said.

“No. I don’t know where Louis put it. He is the only who knows where he put it. There is no way for me to find out where he put it.”

“But can’t you phone him?”

“No, I can’t, he’s on leave. Even if I phoned him, he won’t know where it is.”

The dragon would not take any responsibility and showed little compunction. On two previous visits, I had spoken to two different people who both admitted that they could not find my file and they suspected that Louis knew where it was. They showed a deep sense of humility and even promised to call Louis and find out what he had done with it. Each of them promised to phone me when they located the and took my phone number so they could do so. They had even gone so far as to apologise for the fiasco. Louis himself was eager to help until he went on strike and lost the file. But the dragon lady was different. When I complained that Louis had first gone on strike with the rest of the public sector, and then gone on leave, and then incredibly, seemed to be on another week of leave, she used my story in her defence.

“When I go on strike, I don’t leave things properly, no. I just go like that” she said.

When I complained that the agents get better treatment than the rest of us she launched into a long tirade against the system that overworked the home affairs officials, that all forms – agent or no agent – went to Pretoria in a fair system, that there were only fifteen people employed in the Pretoria head office processing applications (where they are all sent these days), and finally that it was in fact them, the officials, who protected us from the agents. She then pointed to a man at the counter next to me inspecting a large pile of documents and said that he had been misled by an agent and now he was having to do things over again. He gave the two of us a fleeting glance in a way which I could trace neither anger nor submission before he returned to inspecting his documents. My conversation with the Dragon was turning into a row and had began to feel guilty about holding up the extensive queue behind me. But the dragon continued.

“I am tired of telling lies. From eight o’clock to four o’clock I just tell lies. To the next guy, the next one, all of them. I am just telling lies all day. We don’t process these forms. We are just at the front. We don’t know what is happening.”

The next day I woke up early to go run lest Tobre lose all interest in my body. My left knee had been acting up (something to do with the worn shoes I guess) and I put on a support. I put on plasters to protect my nipples and a lubricant between my thighs to reduce the chaffing. On the way my knee hurt but I kept running. When I got back home I decided to make cookies for my colleagues at work. They could bake while I had a shower, I thought. Tobre had left her mother’s recipe on the door of the fridge. Butter, icing sugar, flour, oil and corn flour. But then I tried to be precise about the measurements and used a scale. In that way, I used up all the butter in the fridge and was short on icing sugar. There was not nearly enough oil either. I walked across the road in my running clothes to the Mwenye for oil. I had a shower and found the biscuits bitter and too crumbly. A tray of them tipped over into the hot oven and disintegrated. I burned a spatula and a pair of oven gloves trying to fetch them out. It had all gone terribly wrong. I was slamming doors and pans as a I tried to clean up. I didn’t know whether to chuck the biscuits or take them to work anyway. Instead I put them into the cookie jar and whereupon they broke into pieces and crumbs. When they were finally all in I grabbed the cookie jar’s lid and slammed it closed. With that, there was a crash and broken glass flew. Shards fell into the jar of destroyed bitter cookies and were also on the counter and about the tiled kitchen floor. Holding what was left of the lid over the jar, I had frozen. What am I doing, I asked myself. Maybe I had some sort of a condition, I thought, and ought to start watching reruns of Oprah to help myself admit it. With fear and disgrace washing over my spirit of anger, I threw out the cookies and the jar and then cleaned up the mess with a new and measured deliberation.

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Sums So Sweet

On Saturday there was a girl hiding from me in the passage, too shy to approach, with her maths homework in her hands. She had the multiplication exercises I had given her. To Sihle I must have looked like an officious school master as I sat there in my favourite arm chair under my do-it-yourself bookshelf and all its books. She didn’t realise that I could see her shadow on the floor.

Sihle and her mother visit every Saturday morning. When they come, they announce themselves with a polite knock on the kitchen door. Invariably I find Zanele smartly dressed as all professional maids are in Cape Town; hand bag, red beret, coat, boots and a long skirt. I, by contrast, will be wearing whatever was lying about the room when I rushed to the door.

“Hi” she will say with a pleasant smile. But she will act cool – almost docile – as  if her thoughts are elsewhere. Sihle will be alongside her with a pair of boots to match her mothers. She will hide behind her mother’s waist, and be too shy to return my greeting. On her face there will always be, when I see her for the first time on a Saturday, a wide smile almost too big for her small chubby face.

Seven days is enough time for me to untidy all Zanele’s work from her last visit, despite Khosi’s cleaning after me half the time. Zanele will be busy until well into the afternoon with dishes, counters, floors, clothes and ironing. Sihle meanwhile will prance around the house aimlessly or sleep on the coach. At the same time, I will be prevented from dirtying the house again and find myself cut off from playing on the computer or making countless cups of tea (lest I undo Zanele’s good work). This is how I came to find that I cannot stand to see an idle child.

To entertain Sihle and try to make some use of her, I tried to give her things to do. I took her on walks to the shops with, I made her weed the garden with me, I gave her paper and pencil, I played DVDs for her and I fed her a gentleman’s breakfast (soft boiled eggs with toast, butter and coffee). She took to all these activities quite amicably but not with much zeal. She seemed to go through the motions with each of them out of politeness rather than any real desire of her own. Moreover, none of them quite liberated her from her indolence. It also didn’t help that the little English Sihle knew she was too shy to perform, and the near non-existent Xhosa I knew I could hardly pronounce.

This is how I came to force upon the child the universal language of mathematics. It was on Mandela day when I first decided to investigate her arithmetic. I found that she could count but not subtract. She seemed to be able to do some multiplication but I couldn’t be sure. When she didn’t give me the right answer, it was unclear whether it was because she didn’t understand what I was asking (I still do not know what Xhosa is for ‘multiply’) or if she genuinely didn’t know the answer. I began to give her lists of calculations to do and she got most of them wrong in the most fantastic ways. It was as if she was guessing her way through them. To help her, I devised a system of grouping with a collection of coins to help her figure out how to do multiplication. She continued to get the sums wrong however, and the coins seemed only to add to the confusion.

This project went from one Saturday to the next without improvement. Zanele continued to clean the house every Saturday while I harassed Sihle with my maths exercises. Zanele, though, was very pleased to see me take an interest in Sihle’s school work despite the lack of any progress I could see. If by some chance I wasn’t home on a Saturday morning (rugby most likely), Zanele would phone me to ask me where I was. Townships schools in Cape Town are notorious for achieving exactly nothing and from what the mother had told me, there was little reason to expect much different from Sihle’s. It had become obligatory for me to tutor her daughter weekly even though an hour’s tuition for my services goes for more than I pay her a week. But I felt compelled to do it. Responsible even.

Sihle, in her quiet way and for all her series of wrong answers (I had taken to marking in red pen), always showed great commitment. I later found out, after taking advice from some of the parents at the office, that children respond well to a reward system and I wasn’t using one. I was also advised not to do maths sessions for very long, else the child fatigues. This I thought explained why Sihle, by the end of a two hour marathon, could not differentiate between addition and multiplication. Despite this advice, I was beginning to suspect that the only way to help Sihle was to keep her out of Khayelitsha altogether and teach her to speak English.

On that Saturday morning, when Sihle was hiding in the passage, Zanele and Khosi rebuked Sihle for wavering at the door. They told her not to be shy around me. It turns out that Xhosa and Zulu people understand each other and Zanele is actually quite talkative and the two of them talk for hours. They were, however, fed up of interpreting for us and encouraged Sihle to talk to me directly. Sihle had, up until then, been working dutifully at the coffee table with the coins and the counting system we had been practicing for weeks. She did as she was told and crossed the threshold into the room to show me her working. To my surprise, I found that nearly all her exercises were correct and it was the first time she had scored well at all. When I looked at the coffee table, I found neat rows of coins arranged into groups, just as I had advised. After I had pointed out her single error, the exercise was promptly corrected. As a reward, Sihle got a cube of chocolate, as promised.

After Zanele and Sihle left, I felt a strange pride come over me. It was as if I had discovered a new power. Like I could mould minds. I can give people abilities, I thought. A young adult who can do simple arithmetic without a calculator for instance (a rare breed at the university) or even an appetite for clever books. I felt like the proud father of a precocious child and yet I have not even begun to start on division. Sihle is Zanele’s child after all. I had to remind myself of that. But suppose I did mould her? Suppose I did make her into a young adult that can break free from the township? Would Zanele recognise her after that?

I am getting ahead of myself no doubt. For a start I will need to buy an abacus. And then I will have to figure out how to use it.

My Body Is Fat

Every evening I exchange brief superficial conversations with Khosi. How was your day, she always asks me. But before I am finished telling her she is busy with the fridge or the sink or has left the kitchen altogether. But then I hardly listen either when she talks about herself. When I do take the time to listen I find that she is frequently baffled by trivialities. On weekends, for instance, she is frustrated by the trains that are infrequent with up to an hour between them. I tell her to read the schedule on the internet but she continues to complain all the same. Another example came up this evening when she said the dustbin had been missing since the garbage men had been and asked me what we were going to do about it. I found the thing just ten paces away from the gate in front the dirty neighbours house. I suppose she is still getting used to Plumstead and Cape Town. She studied abroad for a dozen years after all.

We  get along though. It is not an exaggeration when she says ‘we’. We share music. We cook together sometimes even though she is vegetarian which means I cook butternut soup over and over again. We both like to exercise also. But then there are the differences too. She goes to the gym in the evening while I prefer to run in the early morning. She sleeps early and I sleep late. She is a pious Buddhist, chanting twice a day for an hour like a clock and I am a nihilistic heathen.

To get her attention though, there are some things I can say. Like when I say I have to go running otherwise I will get fat. To that she must respond and always does. She seems to have taken it upon herself to save me from myself. She has begun to insist that I don’t eat enough. You don’t eat enough for a man, she will say. I tell her that if I eat I will get fat. No, you hardly eat anything is her usual reply. So maybe she doesn’t listen really. Whenever I am talking about being fat she simply slips into that benevolent denial and contradicts everything I have to say on the matter. Sometimes I go so far as to say that I have to go running otherwise I will get fat and then Tobre won’t like my body anymore and then she will throw both me and her out the house and so I do the running not just for me but for her also. No, Khosi will respond with a smile as if it is a joke. I am sure Tobre is not like that, Khosi will say. She says that Tobre sounds like a nice person on the phone.

Tobre on the other hand has began to not take me so lightly. She has began to ask me why I say such things.

“You don’t like my body because it is fat and so I have go running and starve my body” I said on the phone last week.

“No!” she said in frustration. “I love your body. Don’t do anything to your body. I can’t wait to see your body the next time you come up to Johannesburg” she will say.

“I will get fat and you won’t want me anymore and you will throw me onto the street and I’ll die of starvations.” I continued.

Tobre told me she liked my body. It sounded to me as if she had to force herself to say it. I don’t think that meant she didnt mean it, however. I know her. Words with feelings don’t come to her easily  (hell they don’t come to me at all ) .Well except maybe I love you. That she can roll off her tongue in her sleep and she often manages that too. I love you is almost a mechanical motor neuron response to her. But words with passion don’t come so easy.  For that reason she doesn’t swear so good. To this day her sister has to laugh at her when she tries to swear and it is truly a funny thing to hear. She seems to waver halfway through a four letter word. She has a lapse of confidence before it is out of her mouth. Maybe her sister’s teasing comes to her when she wants to say ‘fuck this stupid life’ after she has stubbed her toe. In any case, I can sense that same unease in her voice when she declares her love for my body the same way I can sense it when she tries to swear.

But then a surprising thing happened. Tobre got fed up with trying to persuade me that I am not fat and that she likes me the way I am.

“Why do you always say that?” she asked.

“Because it is true” I replied, as I always do. But then she went on.

“I never know what to think with you. I don’t know when you are joking or when you’re serious.” She said.

Things were getting worryingly ontological and the sms’s were beginning to take on the tone of a fight.

To parry her searching words I said “That is why you must always make things up.”

There was no sms in reply.

Then I sent an sms that said “To your lovers the duty is to lie. It is your enemies who must suffer the truth.”

I got a reply after a long while. She said she didn’t know what I meant but I sensed that the storm had passed.

Last night I suffered a terrible craving for something sweet. I am eating less and running more but I am fat all the same. Not as fat as I was two months ago but fat. Not like I was in Geneva when I wasn’t fat. I was always hungry though. The hunger pangs I have been having now come and go quickly but in Geneva it was something I carried around with me. I currently go through alternating cravings for meat and sugar. And somehow eating only brings them on quicker. Last night I  ate quite well off a pot of stewed meat that had been in the freezer a whole two months before I cooked it. Then I had a craving for something sweet and for once I knew what it was I wanted. Custard.

I had a fortunate childhood. At a time when few children had anything to eat between meals other than porridge  I had custard at 4 p.m. every afternoon.  Something to break up the time before the cartoons started on the television at 5 p.m. When I was old enough to cook it  I took great care to avoid lumps but I wasn’t always successful. It was years later that I discovered that it is the milk that should be added to custard paste rather than the paste to the milk. With that innovation I had achieved a refined state of existence I though. But then I met Tobre and she knew how to cook custard in a microwave. It was a trick she had magically gleaned from the instructions on the side of the packed. A way to cook custard without worrying about the milk boiling over in the pot. Bizarre. Tobre’s favourite dessert is Mulva pudding. It goes well with custard and we often have the two together except usually I have more custard than I do pudding. But then Tobre went to Johannesburg and she took the microwave with her.

The little village supermarket in the middle of sleepy Plumstead was closed by nine o’clock so I wasn’t going to get custard from there. But then of course there was the Mwenye with the corner shop just on the next block past the dirty neighbours house. Tobre gets her lips in a twist whenever she tries to pronounce Mwenye. In Zambian vernacular it is the name used to refer to Indian’s or people of Indian origin. Strictly speaking it is a derogatory name but I use it all the same. I tell Tobre this every time but it doesn’t help her pronunciation. I don’t think she has ever stepped into that shop but then neither has Khosi. They were open at five to ten last night and I was glad. The shop is suitably filthy and has the feel of a room that has been hastily cleared out for business after a flood. I guess it is fitting that the shop keepers are from Bangladesh. I usually go there for onions, milk or firewood. Not less than one in two of the onions are soggy and you have to be lucky to find a cup of cream. But the shop keeper is always pleasant to me. His son on the other hand looks to me like the broody sought and he works behind the counter alongside his father even though he is a grown man. On any evening they stare over my head most of the time at a bollywood film on a tv hoisted on a shelf with a bad picture. Such was the scene when I found both custard and milk at ten o’clock at night right across the street from me. I had a whole pot of custard to myself with no lumps and no sisters to share it with. I loved every spoon of it. But now my body is fat and Tobre will not like it and she will throw me out onto the street.

I Had a Feeling

I tend to get quite nervous before a trip. Even when I will only be gone a few days I find myself quite anxious. That is how I was the Thursday night before I flew to Johannesburg to visit Tobre for the long weekend. I was pacing up and down the house and packing in the most dillydally manner. I had my travel bag on the bed in a mess and my packing list on the kitchen counter while I went back and forth between the two. There was the sense that something would go terribly wrong along. I have had horror trips before. I was robbed at a border once and at another time I missed a flight altogether. Both events changed my life but that was a long time ago.

I had arranged to have my sister drop me off at an hour so small in the morning that not even the N2 highway had began to stir. For a cheaper plane ticket, no inconvenience is beyond reach. And yet I was to be dependent on my sister for favours once again. In the original and imaginary version of events, I would walk to the station in the dark and take the first train to town where I would take the new MyCiti bus service to the airport, courtesy of the now expired World Cup. However, even though those buses get moving early enough, the first train would not get me to town soon enough. As a possible alternative, I took an early morning recognisance run the day before to the taxi rank to see if the first mini buses were running to town before the first train arrived. All I found was a sleeping fleet of empty rickety vans with only one passenger patiently waiting in the front seat without a driver in sight. She could not tell me when the taxi might leave. Or rather, she couldn’t speak at all. I suppose she was not accustomed to explaining the taxi schedule to a sweating man in a t-shirt and running shoes at that time of the morning.

The flight went smoothly. Shortly after the flight touched down, I was standing on the far edge of new train platform that jutted out high into the air to receive an elevated railway line on stilts. I was taking in the warm winter sun and gazing upon the vista of the Johannesburg horizon. A world class speed train was about to dock and take me to the centre of the world class city in matter of minutes. I had with me my luggage as well as a carefully chosen bouquet of flowers for Tobre. I also felt extraordinarily good about myself. Airports in South Africa are crawling with the elite of society who are so brisling with confidence that you can soak up this feeling of self importance by simply being in the same waiting room with them. The same goes for high speed trains.

The carriage near empty save for two or three pockets of people. In my section there was only myself and a gentleman across the aisle typing away with both thumbs on his sophisticated phone. With the morning sun in his hair, he took no notice of the municipality of Erkurhuleni rushing past him outside. He wore a smart jacket, a shirt with large collars, no tie, and black shiny pointed shoes. His suit was packaged in its own jacket and was casually hung over his brief case and traveller bag. In a way I could see the boy that lay underneath it all. The boy who was never the best at anything but tenacious all the same. On the return trip, when there again only a handful of people were on the speed train, I heard a much more elderly pair of gentlemen make idle chatter about business and gossip . Everything was stated in a matter of fact way as if novelty was a crime. It made me wonder how else they would find a peaceful fifteen minutes to talk to each other if it weren’t for that new train ride to the airport.

Before the speed train was more than halfway to Sandton that sunny morning I suddenly realised what I had left behind. The flowers. I had left Tobre’s flowers lying on the concrete bench in the elevated train platform. The news washed over my body quickly and left me feeling quite ill. A small thing perhaps, for even I could afford to buy another bunch of flowers, however carefully chosen. But Tobre had already elected to receive me at the station in Sandton and so there would be no chance to replace them. There wasn’t the option of doubling back to the airport with a return train either. The round trip, however fast the new trains, would take just under an hour and Tobre would be well frustrated. It was done. My fate was sealed. If I had deserted my only child in a concentration camp I would not have felt any worse. Not for that moment. Finally then, the evil premonition that had rendered me anxious the night before had come to pass.

Weeds

I have a new habit. I weed the grass. I walk through the front door with my ipod still in my ears, disable the alarm and walk into the backyard. I make a point of getting home in the afternoon to read and write. But before I do any of that, I get a small garden fork, kneel on the grass and start to uproot weeds.

All the weeds I pluck are of the same type. Each one has a head of leaves arranged in a circle that lie flat on the lawn and a long tap root that leads down from a small bush of roots. It is amazing what gnarled monsters of tentacles emerge from the sub terrain.  There are far more of these weeds than I dare to count but I have set myself the task of ridding the back garden of all them. I won’t hire anybody and I will do it all armed only with a miniature garden fork and my ipod. I have uprooted hundreds already and I have made nearly no impact what so ever. There are more of these weeds than there are leaves on the guava tree.

I am aging I guess. The way students look at me at work can only be the result of their inability to see anything of themselves. It wouldn’t surprise them to hear that I weed the garden when I get home. And that is not all I do in the garden either. I have also started tending to the aphids on the young lemon tree and picking up the fallen guavas. The yard has always been in a shameful state. This is the first time I am actually doing something about it in a long time.

And yet there are hundreds of things that need to be done around the house, besides. For instance the living room has no skirting boards. And goodness, the ceiling needs insulating which is why this winter feels so much colder. But I have been unable to bring myself back into that whole DIY nonsense. There is no end to it. Every little project needs a specific tool and method. Both are a joy to acquire, but one project leads to another until you are building yourself new sets of drawers to hold all your new tools and equipment.

When I did have the DIY bug, I was at the local hardware store buying bits and bolts every weekend. But after Tobre left for Johannesburg I didn’t see the point of all that. Of late I have simply had snacks and tea in the kitchen and type on the computer in the room under a blanket. Well there is also the necessary chatting to the housemate. Before long I get tired of talking. I become irritable and want to nothing but be in my room on the computer. It is not a healthy turn of character for me I don’t think.

I fly to Johannesburg for the long weekend this Friday. The plane will touchdown at half eight in the morning. Tobre will be at work all day so I will have to entertain myself. It will be strange to spend 4 weeks apart and then avoid each other for a day. I will probably pick up the car from her and drive around town doing something. Maybe I will visit old Zambian friends. Or maybe I will go have lunch at a brothel in Hillbrow and be drunk on the thought that many people are afraid for their life in downtown Johannesburg. Yes that is what I will do. I will drive around town and take pride in knowing my bearings in that large, frightful African metropolis.

Then I will pick up Tobre and we will drive to her flat. We will drink Merlot and play music while we cook. But there will be something awkward between us. In the car I will recognise a stranger in her. I will remember what it was like when I met her first. The stranger will have grown since my last visit. It will turn me on and frighten me.

This time around Tobre has promised me that we will have sex before we have dinner or meet any friends. She always falls asleep after dinner

When she calls me at home I am irritated that she can’t quite hear what I am saying half the time. I have to speak up and I hate doing that. I also don’t like it when I have to ask her to speak up. I wish I could just listen to her talk and not have to say anything. We sometimes run out of thing to say. That is when I get irritated with the call altogether and want to return to my weeding. After I do that I feel bad about it. But then there are more weeds to pull out. I will never pull out all the weeds if I talk to her on the phone all the time.

The Pool Next Door

On Wednesday evening a chunk of the pavement went missing. It was dark and I couldn’t see the gap but Anthony was on hand to tell me of the theft. Rob had come around to pick me up for mid-week beers when I noticed Leanne and Anthony marching up and down across the street in a huff. They explained to me – from across the busy street – that they had heard an engine running and the bang of a large hammer. A couple of men with an old Datsun bakkie were feigning engine trouble while they hacked out the wrought iron strips in the pavement that facilitate drainage. I now understand two things about the sidewalk in Cape Town; why there are strips of metal in the pavement and why they are gaping gullies cut across the pedestrian tarmac.

That evening was typical of Anthony and Leanne.; active in the name of the greater good of their surroundings and more than willing to make their neighbours aware of the latest development. Anthony never hesitates to give me a lift back from the shops when he catches me watching and Leanne will squirm with horror and attend to any toddler loitering near the busy street. They also make a point waving whenever they catch my eye. With their daughter and husband living next door, there is no end to one of them stepping out their gate and walking around the corner. They bring a neighbourliness to what is otherwise a grid freestanding houses guarding against human interaction.

Shameema and Nasser, on the other hand , tend to remain on their side of the fence. Which is understandable, given that their eldest, Naeem, out of three is not yet in his final year at high school. He has a quiet nature and comes across as a terribly honest and sweet natured. This is undoubtedly the fathers fault since he himself is softly spoken but with finer grasp humour and pointless neighbourly conversation. Both of them, father and son, are tall, thin and quite lanky. Something that is no doubt the fruit of their ambitious cycling regime that sees them returning in the middle of the morning on their light weight road bikes after many dozens of kilometres about the mountains on the peninsula. The two girls, whose names rhyme with Naeem except I can’t remember them, spend the summer playing in the pool. On many occasions Nasser has climbed over the fence into our backyard to retrieve a ball, or some other aquatic toy, without our notice.  That is something that makes me wonder about all the times Tobre and I have had sex with the curtains open.

When Venieva was here in January it got unbearably hot and we went to swim in Shameema’s pool. Every summer, our house is warm enough to hatch eggs in the summer and we couldn’t bear to hear the girls splash away just the other side of the fibrecrete. In our swim suits we stood on the street at their pedestrian gate and pressed the buzzer. We were welcomed into their impeccably neat and finished house that made me feel as if I was a long way from home. Though, like ours, it was built before the second world war, it has been refurbished and reconfigured beyond recognition in when originally it was a mirror image plan. The furniture is leather and the sanded floor was a clear reflection of the world above it. Unlike our backyard, which is a rectangle of grass, weeds, a pair of fruit trees and a rusting laundry line that swings on its axis with a squeak, their backyard is paved to every corner with a small swimming pool.
The youngest didn’t allow us a moments peace. Soon after we had taken to the water, she loaded her water gun and strafed us with a continuous fire of water. A direct hit to the head was unbearably painful. We scrambled for our own firearms and began active combat. But just when we had the upper hand against the chubby little rascal, Neiva switched sides and I was forced to form an alliance with the middle child; a shy girl whose first steps into adolescence are so far quite timorous . And so the rest of the afternoon passed as a war between two pairs from opposite ends of the pool. When Tobre got home in the warm evening, she found neither sibling or partner in the house and heard instead the splashes and squeal s of  laugher from next door.

When Shameema did come around to the pool to give her greetings, I was embarrassed to be found firing a powerful round of water into the back of her youngest child’s head. I think, though, that she knew from experience that the pool area was not for the faint hearted. She took e a seat by the pool and demanded a cessation of hostilities long enough to make space for neighbourly conversation. We get along well and must of had a long chat about rising electricity prices or our respective Christmas holidays. Of the family, it is Shameema I get on with most easily. She is after all home most times of the day. It is with her that the spare keys are entrusted. So too are deliveries that come in the middle of the day and house monitoring when we are out of town. We owe her heaps in thanks but we don’t know the means to show it. We certainly can’t invite them over for our drink ups and braai’s, let alone apologise enough for the wafts of smoke from the pork sausages that wonder across the fence. Dinner is an idea but I am fearful that the doctrine of halal may be as stringent as that of kosher. But still, Nasser and her are not that much older than us and I suspect they see something of an alternate life in us beyond children.

And yet it is somehow strange that it is I who should be the go-between with Shameema next door. When Tobre was in town, she had regular hours at the office and a habit of spending the weekend mornings confined to the bed feigning sleep. This left me with the responsibility of keeping up relations with Shameema and Nasser, as well as Anthony and Leanne. I wonder what my predecessor’s relations were with the neighbours and what they thought of him. Tobre’s previous boyfriend was also a man of mixed race from one of the black African countries struggling to thread a life for himself in Cape Town. He was not tall but lanky, though he had good posture and a sure sense of himself. He lived for a time with Tobre and Neiva in this house and they came to love each other in that way that grows out of petty enmities. He wouldn’t do laundry beyond his own, Neiva was untidy and it killed him, Tobre was eternally mourning her mother and the three of them were always skint on cash. Although he had been gone for over a year when I moved in, I suspect that the neighbours measure me and wonder how long I will last. With every good evening, they recalculalte my time left in the house.

One weekend morning, when I was making for the station, I saw the train coming and broke into a mad dash. I was going just fast enough to be running alongside the traffic on the road when I noticed a car quietly coasting next to me. The tinted window on the driver’s side dropped smoothly to reveal Shameema’s incredulous face. I was going at the top of my pace and didn’t slow down when I gave my neighbourly greeting. With that expression on her face she returned the gesture, wound up the window and went on her way.

Who Are the People in Your Neighbourhood?

Anthony offered me his bakkie. He said I was welcome to use it to do my weekly shopping. Except I didn’t hear him at first. I had to cross the street to hear him out. Churchill road is quite a thoroughfare on any given day and yet our neighbourly small talk continues unabated. There have even been times when I have had to wait a full minute before I could skip across the traffic and hear what Anthony had to say. It can be awkward though, to stand there and wait for a gap while we face off with smiles against the din of rushing cars.

They have plenty of cars themselves though, Anthony and his family. Certainly more cars than their driveway can handle. On some days it seems as if they spend all their energy sliding their gate open, driving a car out and then another in, and then closing then sliding the gate closed again. That is apart from the car or two parked on the street. But then their children are grown and have jobs so it is only natural. And the daughter has moved into the house next door with her new husband and baby. Before they moved in a small old lady with white hair lived there. I don’t think she had a car. Her life must have been as plain as it looked from across the street, with its bare lawn and low fence. She died soon after I moved in here.

To be without a car can be quite pitiful. Especially if you live in a tree lined suburb like Plumstead. Anthony saw me and my old flatmate – the mumbling grumble – walking out of our driveway on a Friday evening and presumed, quite correctly, that we rushing to the train station to get some place. He offered us a lift.

Crammed between the mumbling grumble and Anthony, with the gear stick assaulting me in unspeakable ways, I made small talk about grocery shopping. I was on about how you need not only estimate the total bill, but the total weight as well since you had to carry it all the way home. I thought it was quite funny and so did the mumbling grumble. (As matter of fact she could be quite pleasant to me. On that particular evening she was good humoured enough to laugh at my jokes and let me drag her through the streets of Woodstock, on foot and in the dark to get to a bar. She had had the fright of her life on the way and I don’t blame her because my heart skipped more than once walking those gloomy streets.) Anyway, Anthony must have found the grocery story more sorry than funny because the following weekend he offered me his bakkie for whenever I wanted to go shopping and that I only need ask.

At the beginning of the year, when the we were in the throes of a summer that I now take a sweet delight to remember, Anthony and his wife, Lean, had a different occasion to be kind. During the English cricket team’s fantastic tour, Anthony phoned me up on my mobile and offered me a pair of tickets for the test match. I had already been to the first two days but I took them all the same. I went with Nieva, who was visiting from being a nurse in London, and joined the neighbours at the Newlands cricket stadium. We sat though an uneventful two sessions in temperatures over thirty degrees before Lean relented and the two of them went home. Neiva and I stayed for the rest of the game.

It was a few months until I took up the offer of the bakkie. Lean had phoned one weekday afternoon and made the offer anew. If Zanele – the Christian virtue who restores the house to civilisation every Saturday morning – hadn’t insisted I buy a new mop, I might not have taken up the offer. At the Pick’n Pay, I stocked up the bulky things to take advantage of the transport. I had bags of sugar and a lot of vegetables. Tobre used to do the shopping for the house and never worried me about the money for it. It struck me as strange to see myself shopping on my own in that cavernous Kennilworth Centre in the gloomy last half hour before the Pick’n Pay closed its doors for the day.

Packing my supplies for the month into the back of a pickup truck, an idea came into my head that this was how it was always going to be. I will in time buy my own second hand bakkie that I will use to go everywhere wearing an old greasy cap. I will be the kind of person who long ago gave up on making a good income but instead focused on repairing what I already had and taking bargains wherever I could find them. Unlike Anthony, who only used the truck to go surfing, it would be my only mode of transport, and a disintegrating one at that. I will continue to use it and fix it for years until no one can remember the time when the truck was common place. Then, after I have neither the money nor the strength to fix it, the car will sit in the driveway as a relic to amuse passersby. After my death, a neighbour some years younger than me, will buy the house for his newlywed daughter and they will move in.