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Authors: Diane Awerbuck

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BOOK: Cabin Fever
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He kept up his slow scrutiny, his neck straining. Lately all his parts complained, even the bits he left unused. Jurie hated the train, its cramped carriages, the seats stitched surgically by someone’s rough hand. He clung to the cool imagined space of the bank, his entrance in the echoing hall with its marble floors and pillars, the smell of the old ink pads that lodged in the mortar, pigeons shifting restless in the rafters. How tiny the tellers looked behind the desks, with their papery faces. They cast no shadows in the expensive gloom: only the tendons in their arms twisted. Such effort to stamp forms when there was so much else to do! Jurie flexed his stumpy fingers; he looked critically at his clothes and wondered again if he’d made the right choice. He wore what he always wore – hardy, faded camouflage from Cape Union Mart, the four-square shirt in khaki, brown, blue, green: a pixellated map of the world. In it he had stood in front of his dark-spotted mirror and found himself merged with the bedroom walls, seen and unseen.

Why didn’t everyone dress properly for the weather? It was mid-December. The rubber on the train doors was sticky; the metal benches on the platform burned. Jurie listed the cheap Korean jerseys, the second-hand German coats. Inside them the passengers were nervy, rigid, clutching at their handbags. At every station they darted looks at newcomers, stabbing, suspicious, expectant.

Like this one, the woman sitting close by, holding a child tightly by the hand. Their faces were the ones he saw on
. Hutu? Tutsi? It didn’t matter. Here she was just foreign. They were both wearing jerseys. The little girl’s was white wool: a cloud, a shroud, a rabbit. She must be very proud of that jersey. There were tiny, shiny beads in the stitching. They had shimmered when Jurie got on at Plumstead; they shimmered now as she moved up, making space between them. An emergency jersey, because you just didn’t know. Jurie tucked his shirt tails in so they didn’t touch her, wondering why it was that you couldn’t tell other people’s suffering from the outside. The woman narrowed her eyes at him and then shifted further away, deliberately crossing her legs. She turned to the little girl, presenting Jurie with her adult woollen back. She began singing snatches of a song into the girl’s face. When she came to the chorus she clawed her hands in the air and growled. The little girl screamed and wriggled and laughed, and wouldn’t let her stop.

And another one, the absent twitchy lady over there, with her top buttoned the wrong way. There was something skew about her altogether. She felt Jurie’s regard and patted her hair down, uselessly. The southeaster had stiffened the points into quills. A severe parting ran through the middle of her scalp, as if, long ago, someone had split her in half with an axe and the hair would never grow there again. Jurie dragged his eyes away and focused on the backs of the fences from the window. So many people with their hidden histories, their burns and scars and shortfalls, and all of them detained here together. Maybe this was how the loans manager felt. Jurie wanted badly to get off, but the train was moving forward only in fevered increments, resting heavily between stations on the tracks. There was no reason that he could see.

Someone urgently tapped his thigh. He jerked away. The woman with the cross-buttoned shirt was leaning forward confidentially. Her brows were inverted commas, standing up off her face and making everything she said seem like quotes.

‘I’m going to town.’

Jurie didn’t have anything to say to those brows. I’m not getting involved, he thought. She’ll just keep on. He nodded, then looked down quickly, but it was already too late. She caught him by his pressed khaki sleeve and began pulling gently. Silence, thought Jurie. Silence is consent.

‘I usually take the bus,’ she pronounced. ‘But today – I’m taking the train.’

He concentrated on the variegated flooring.

‘Can you theta?’ asked the woman, persistent. Her lower jaw moved even when she wasn’t speaking, a rubbery chewing motion, a toy set in motion. Jurie shook his head, staring resolutely at the floor. Oh.
Little shining bits in the composite twinkled back at him, as if something was trying to get through.

The woman sat back, waiting, her eyebrows raised even further, her duty done. I don’t care if she’s offended, he thought. She’s not rational. I just want to be left alone. He patted the resentful sleeve back into place along the crease, feeling the burden of his normality. The engine kicked into life again and the train trundled on, past a burned house. It had been newly graffitied. The black walls said
. There were spray-painted skulls in casual ranks, like an ossuary.

On cue, a blind man and his whole cousin began making their way through the carriage. Jurie thought that they were impressive when you first saw them, but it wore thin. They smelled of bushfire – as if they had been in the burned house – and they were unashamed, slowly parading the blind man’s deformity as he panted and sang his verse over and over, like the sonbesies that drove the first colonists crazy. By now Jurie knew the words by heart.

-zis may
in de

-zis may

-zis may
in de


He wondered what they would do if he joined in the chorus. When they came to the end of the carriage, the blind man croaked, ‘Bliss you! De Lawd God bliss you!’ as he swivelled his head and his gummy, sunken eyes fell on everyone without partiality. Then the younger man transferred the coins to his pockets and they scooted through the doors into the next carriage as if they were walking on the moon.

The screams started in Metro, where the poor, law-abiding people sat. The shrieks mingled with the blind man’s song and the child’s laughter: they rose together in a wave of sound that made Jurie long to join in and howl like a dog so that the pressure in his head found release. He pressed his lips together. The other passengers murmured to one another and half-rose, then sat down again, undecided. Was it better to stay here and take a chance with the certain knifemen, or jump out but have to wait an hour for the next train? The Rwandan woman caught Jurie’s eye – Tutsi? Hutu? – and they looked properly at one another in the hiatus.

The train skidded and stopped dead, banging Jurie’s head hard on the pole behind him. How many times can you be concussed in your life? he wondered. Maybe three. The magic number; the one you can get away with. Jurie rubbed the spongy bit where the bump would rise and imagined the men coming for them, muscled like gladiators, swinging their machetes over their heads. He could see each short pommel, each long blade weighted at the tip for heft; he smelled the blood and rust; he listened for the long whistle of the approach.

The train began rocking as people swarmed up from the Metro section, squeezing through the windows, scrambling over the breaks between the carriages, crashing through the doors. The blind man and his helper had vanished. While his compatriots scattered, Jurie sat: now that the end of the world had come, he was too old to run from it. He would wait by the window for the apocalypse.

There were two other passengers left. The nondescript Rwandan woman hadn’t said a word but was crouched beside him, her fussiness forgotten. The child was still beside her. She was trying to bury her face in the woman’s lap: Jurie could hear her panting breaths. The woman pressed closer. He felt her heartbeat against him: it pattered like a rabbit’s through the cotton of his shirt. Rabbits can die of fright, Jurie thought. He had seen one licked to death by a farm dog. The rabbit had keeled over in fear, suddenly still as a stuffed animal, its fur lapped into wet triangles.

The other travellers hadn’t abandoned the train entirely. Passengers were hanging half-on and half-off the carriages, waiting to see whether the promised carnage would follow. Their faces turned like traffic lights. They peered over each others’ heads, clutched at shirts, stood on their toes so that they could see further into the communal future.

On the platform some people were looking for hiding places – but still they stayed close to the dead train, chancing that none of this was true, that it was a dream – that it must be – that they were in dream-time, and soon the horror would dissipate and they would chug from the station into the long, known weekend. Afterwards it would be a story told from an armchair, beer in hand, family ranked round. What will I say? Jurie wondered.

Through the frame of the train window he saw a police van pull up so fast that it mounted the kerb and left a pair of black treads burned onto the tarmac, like Jacob’s ladder. The policemen jumped clear of it, leaving the doors swinging on their hinges. But the gangsters were already gone, jogging down the road in stiff-kneed formation.
blared the legend on one boy’s top.

They had no machetes. They were not the grinning men from
Mail and Guardian
photographs. They were only kids, with no face or race. They stopped short when they came to a garden wall and then limbed over, silent as spiders, and the little one at the back dropped a ring or a watch – something that made the sun blink in complicity. This was their homeground, and no one could follow.

Loxion kulca, thought Jurie. Ha. You’ve never been there in your lives.

He sat in the carriage and his rage mounted as the other passengers trickled back, shamefaced and excited. They were panting and grinning, shaky with survival. As the train finally lurched forward they asked each other the same questions. Was it better to sit in Metro Plus, where there were fewer thefts and fewer people? Or did you squash together even though more people meant more danger? The woman with the white path in her hair was getting her theta. Jurie suddenly hated her. He hated the Rwandan woman
her child; he hated the blind man and his clammy assistant; and he hated himself. He thought savagely, The world is divided into people who do bad things and people who do
. He felt his face purpling as the pressure grew behind his eyes. He pictured the little arteries bursting with rage, spattering the passengers bloody where they sat.

The woman was still leaning on him. Jurie heaved her weight off him and stood up. He was swaying against the motion of the carriage and had to brace himself, like the blind man. The words came bursting out of him in a spray of spit, leaving him breathless.

with all of you? Why didn’t anyone

He wanted an answer. He really did. He pivoted from face to startled face, but they only stared at him, helpless as animals, smelling of metal and fright.

‘There were more of us than there were of them!’

No one spoke. They frowned stubbornly, the air of festivity atomised. Jurie could imagine the dialogue:
White man, leave us alone. We pay for these seats with our lives.

He shook his head in frustration.

‘You people—’

Still no one spoke, but the mood grew thicker against him. He searched out the eyes of the Rwandan woman, but she refused to meet his angry gaze, busying herself with rearranging her skirt.

Jurie jammed his thumb hard against the emergency button, jarring the bone in its socket.

The train stopped a second time, abruptly. The doors sucked open and shut, blinking, confused. He yanked at them, banging and kicking the metal until at last they separated enough for him to squeeze though. He scraped his belly as he went. Jurie leaped onto the platform below, bruising his feet through the soles of his shoes, as if he’d jumped off a trampoline.

Before the doors squealed shut he heard – distinctly – the beads on the little girl’s jersey jangling madly. She was laughing. The train pulled out of the station as if nothing had happened, the glass glittering cheery and murderous on the tracks, taking everyone into the future but Jurie, who had only his old life, his small voice, the past.

The Keeper

For Frank Awerbuck

The line of them is long. They tread
on my heart. They walk through my bones.
Their feet pass through my ribs. My head
is as air to them. They walk on stones
beneath me and their limbs are slick with rain.
It is the rain that sent them and their tread comes
on and on. They carry sticks and pain,
skins and bones, and they, the living dead,
walk through my heart. They tread on it as though
I were not there. They are not here for me
but for the fire from the cave, below
the aeons of dust – below, where it burns free of
change. This is why they come. They go
through my heart to the ash hearth below.

– M
, ‘Ancestors at Wonderwerk’

. My ouma liked to say that, and I’m beginning to understand what she meant. For days now the construction workers have been unearthing rusted horseshoes, empty bullets, the bones of animal companions. They are getting closer. Over it all the iron spine of the new framework curves like a memorial: this is what Green Point Stadium will become once the thousands of visitors go back home to Italy, Germany, France, taking their cameras and their sunburn with them as they pass overhead, watching those of us left here reduced to specks of builders’ sand, scattered and stinging in the southeaster.

BOOK: Cabin Fever
2.54Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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