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Authors: Diane Awerbuck

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BOOK: Cabin Fever
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‘But I can hear it from here,’ said the stitched boy, patiently. ‘I haven’t lost my …
hearing
.’ He poked her knee again, miserably insistent. ‘Listen.’ And Monica did listen, leaning her head to the same side as he did. He was right.

It was an oldie, one that she would still remember when she had forgotten ‘What a Feeling,’ one that would be playing when all the music on all the dancefloors fell silent.’ Monica hummed the melody, the familiar words shimmering in the eye of her mind:
Oh, but you

re lovely, with your smile so warm, and your cheek so soft, /There is nothing for me but to love you …

She stood up. Her tail was almost dry. Monica leaned over and grabbed the stitched boy’s wrists and pulled him up with her, the same way Nathan Sandler had done when she had found herself on the floor of his lounge with her panties showing and the song from
Flashdance
racketing on and on while the other girls stood around her, laughing. Monica hauled the broken boy up next to her and hardly noticed his creaking.

Once they were standing face to face he crooked his good arm around her waist and she suddenly knew it all, as if his touch had loosed some species memory in her. For once her brain was quiet and in its place was something worse: feeling. She knew the crunch and the night air and the lying on the tarmac – and the loneliness, that high whistling between the stars which is the sound of Death coming to get you, and you know that your legs won’t move.

The music played, faint as a carousel, and the stitched boy limped, he flailed; she gathered his bones to her own like kindling ready for the fire. They lurched in circles until she couldn’t bear it; she felt her legs stiffening; she heard herself creak. At the last note, Monica stepped back from him.

‘I’m late,’ she said.
I

m late, I

m late, I

m late. For a very important date.
‘I really have to go now. But thank you for a lovely time.’

He gazed sadly at her. She turned and left him among the beanbags on the empty dance floor.

She went out through the
IN
door, all the way out to the parking lot, where it wasn’t as cold as she had thought it would be. The fog was light and everywhere was the smell of fish, the way it was before they built the Castle, when Cape Town was under water.

She stood on the dry ground by the security booth. Inside it was a guard in his Hyena Security uniform. He ignored her. He was talking to the cleaning lady, who had migrated even further. The two were pressed together – comfortable, close – inside the wooden hut. The woman’s head was back as she brayed laughter. Her phone was gone. Monica stood and watched their pantomime as she calculated the distance to her bed.

Behind her a car hooted. She moved out of the road absent-mindedly, but it drew up beside her, warm and idling in the early morning.

‘Hey there!’ shouted its occupant. It was Ken. Most of his bodypaint had been rubbed off. He sat naked and unconcerned in his seat. He leaned over Barbie, who was slumped over the open window of the passenger’s door, vomiting quietly into his wig.

‘Need a lift, sweetheart?’

His chest was still sweaty. The drops glinted orange under the streetlight. Steam seemed to rise off him. Monica smiled and shook her head. She was feeling fine. The muscles in her legs were warming up slowly, and her feet weren’t that tired after all. It would take her about an hour to walk the six kilometres back to Observatory, if she just followed the train tracks. And if she felt like it, she could stop at the
BP
for a waffle along the way.

The car pulled out of the parking lot with a screech and nosed into the road. Its tail-lights faded into the grey dawn over the harbour. Seagulls were circling overhead. There was a song in her skull, skimming over the bones. As she began the long walk back, Monica started to hum it.

Murder Ballads

W
HEN THE THREE MEN FILED INTO THE ROOM
they could have been anywhere: a dining room, a waiting room, a courtroom rank with sweat. This was business. Two sat; between them one stood at the microphone and waited.

His hips gave him away, his black hat, the sharp heel of his boot that tapped out the time. The audience knew from the first twang, the ribbed sigh of the metal, that he was the frontman – but more than that: they knew from his possession of the bare human voice that superseded any tool or instrument, the hard-pressed innard and gizzard.

Graham Weir began his ballad, and ballads are stories, are desperate letters, are messages from the grave. It took us in the audience back to the veld, to the open spaces, to the place where you could still choose the ending.

I sat in the third row, at the end, and listened for stories. I wanted to know how things happened. I didn’t want to analyse them, or find a newsworthy angle, or add a paragraph about retribution and reconciliation. I didn’t want to take notes or check that the sound guy was recording. I wanted to sit somewhere alone, in the dark, and have my dreams interpreted without having to say a word except ‘Yes’.

But beside me was a woman who smelled peculiar. She exuded a sharp, acidic stink like cat’s piss; there were burned edges to her aura. It reminded me of being at the hairdresser’s with my mother, who used to get a poodle perm and think herself lucky to have it: there was the same sense of things being forced into new shapes. She took up more than her fair share of the seat, this woman; her meat moved, it touched me at arm and thigh.

And she was laughing wetly to herself, all the way through the performance, her choking coughs half-muffled by the songs. Sometimes there was no music, and the sounds she made were audible. One musician occasionally held an accordion on his black knee but didn’t play at all. He moved its lungs so that it only sighed, the warm air of the ages moving through the whole man to the tips of his fingers. Its bone buttons flashed in the spotlight like funeral jewels. She spoiled it.

She huffed and puffed as Weir sang the old ballads and fingered the familiar keys, the bars and rope, the hopelessness, the silver reckoning moment. He picked on even the known chords of ‘Amazing Grace’ and cracked those, his throat shrinking down to its tendons. Sometimes he held his head skywards, and the notes went over our skulls. They went over hers.

In the ballads no one comes for you – not your father or your mother, or your own true love – except to watch you hang, and that was in the morning. The woman next to me heard the notes and knew that there was something in the room that she could not name; she was a false medium, a table-rapper at a supper séance, and so she laughed.

I tried to ignore her, to focus on the gift of this single night to myself in the midst of the De Jager hearings, a night I couldn’t afford but knew that I needed, one night of space between me and the thing that had happened in Darktown. I concentrated instead on the backdrop, the sepia photographs of the old diggers next to their coffins, the searching men with their rifles and their spades. It was a joke, or it wasn’t. There they were, preserved for us to ponder.

Sometimes when Weir held still he flattened himself into the paper so that he stood with the dead men at the vanished saloon, stood beside his own coffin, stood by the pale woman who was holding her ghost baby loosely to her bodice, as if it was already gone and she held only its shadow.

Or else it was that the men in the photographs ventured out onto the stage. There they bloomed, rosy and whole, a regretful garden grown up through the boards of The Little Theatre, dazzled, a little awkward, their tongues thick in their mouths, the spades and rifles replaced by cemetery bouquets crumbling dusty in their hands.

Whichever way it was, the dead men had been called up, and so they leaned there, the evidence ranged before the bland audience, the snickering housewife, her husband, me. Weir stood beside them, alive and sizzling, struck over and over by the lightning of trauma and memory. When he showed his teeth the women in the audience tittered. We wanted him, or what he had, and knew that we wanted him, or what he had, and it made us excited and afraid. The men were quiet.

In the end the melody just came to an abrupt halt, because there was no way to end it but cleanly. Weir stood still and the men in black paused, cautious as animals now that they were done with the music, or the music was done with them. Weir took off his black hat. Beneath it the hair had bristled bravely, but now under the stage lights his scalp showed pinkly through. With a sweep of his hand he divested himself of the West, and made himself as ordinary as the audience – though what had fallen from his mouth was not. The musicians looked up at the audience, dazzled, awkward, thrown back from the rosy gardens, the wet regret, the past.

Then they took their instruments and they retreated behind the backdrop. We were left to ourselves, blinking and murmuring, bending to collect appendages.

The stinking woman beside me stood up with a sigh. She gathered her evening outfit to herself, the soles of her shoes hard on the floorboards of the makeshift auditorium.

‘Ag, skies,’ she murmured, and I drew my knees up to allow her and her husband passage to the exit. Her smell dragged behind her: it followed me to my car. I showered again when I got home.

The next morning I was sorry I had gone out. I should have slept longer in preparation for covering the De Jager trial. My eyes were sandbagged; my nose streamed at every scent. We were crammed together in the gallery, sweating and contained. There was the usual fidgeting, the shuffling of papers, the scarred faces of the relatives like Scrabble letters. Court is the combination of tension and boredom. So many words generated; so many versions recorded, pored over, proven false. When I was first given the court beat I thought it would make a difference to have the sorry transactions laid out in plain view, that sides would be easy to choose. Now I know that everyone thinks they tell the truth. At the beginning of a trial we are spectators, but by the end of it we are witnesses: we listen and are merged with the events. By this afternoon, everything would be different.

The gallery wasn’t noisy, the way it gets when gangsters go on trial. It was expectant: people wanted to know
why
. They already knew
what
, although the repetition of fact makes it no easier to live with. They were an audience; they wanted a story. And it had to be a story with a happy ending.

The
TV
station wanted a couple of soundbites for the evening segment: me, windswept in front of the magistrate’s court, summing up the session, ending with the usual rhetorical questions that defy conclusion.

I wanted something else. We sat away from the rest of the gallery, near the doors, so I could grab the killer’s parents before they were overwhelmed by the other microphones and senseless, shouted questions as soon as they set foot in the corridor. I wanted first go at them. I wanted to know how they felt.

In the defendant’s seat young De Jager leaned forward, elbows on the knees of his new suit pants. He had shaved his head during his month of psychiatric assessment. Beneath that scalp, said Doctor Oosthuizen in her testimony, lay the two expected hemispheres of a normal brain.

De Jager had a skew smile that showed off his chipped teeth. He began to testify. I was grateful the
SABC
had applied for access to the transcripts. I meant to keep notes, but after I heard him speak, my right hand tingled and then went numb. I tried to flap the blood into it as the cameraman watched me curiously, raising a sandy eyebrow. I shook my head at him.

‘Sometimes,’ De Jager said, ‘I don’t know if I remember what I’ve done or whether I’ve heard it from other people, or maybe read it in the newspaper.’ He grinned politely, reflexively, at the families of the four people he shot before he ran out of bullets. The mutters rose; the magistrate had to call the gallery to order before one of the hard women in doeks leaped over the benches and choked him.

So far he has escaped. When I first saw De Jager he was scurrying like a cockroach along the dirt road of Darktown, sensing the air, hunched into a shapeless jacket against the winter morning. He had to be bundled into a police van for his own protection. The farm workers surrounded the vehicle: the three policemen they’d sent to arrest him were swamped. The residents laid their hands on the bonnet, the bumpers, the reinforced windows, and their fury shook the van until the boy inside it rattled around like a pinball in the faded machine at the only café they had there. His head through the smeared windows looked too small for what it contained. I thought they would break his neck. I
wanted
them to break his neck. When I got home my notebook and cellphone were gone.

The seasons shifted. The new De Jager of the courtroom was hairless: institutions agreed with him. When I saw him sitting there this afternoon he was sleek, heavy as a seal, weighted with something more than his home schooling, the murder ballads of his own family. I’ve been reading the analyses, the profiles, the reports – who hasn’t? – looking for some revelation in the paperwork that can be contained by the six o’clock news, that will send me from the echoing middle floors of the
SABC
building to somewhere higher up, translated. I could be an anchorwoman. It pays a lot more, and they don’t have to make the news: they just convey it. Someone else can do the research on the ground, travel in economy to scraped townships, ask the weeping mothers what went wrong, see the little girls twisting themselves around their uncles’ scabby legs, knowing that none of them has any real hope of avoiding their destinies. It’s hearing the ballad often enough that makes you remember the lyrics.

And De Jager knew the tune. He also wanted what those children and their parents wanted, what we all want. He wrote to Doctor Oosthuizen that he wished he was special, remarkable, memorable – in other words, that he wished he was rich in the currency of the twenty-first century, which values recognition over love.

His wish had been granted. Whatever else happened to him in the long murder ballad of his life, De Jager would always be the white boy who killed those black people at Darktown, killed four strangers and made sure that the three-month-old was dead, and then went back to the farmhouse to find more bullets: the boy who brought them not music but silence. He had stood out at last – by allying himself with the million-man army of the shaven-headed: the collaborators and the loners and the insane.

BOOK: Cabin Fever
4.3Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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