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Authors: Diane Awerbuck

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BOOK: Cabin Fever
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Manny came home for the occasional weekend every couple of months, but seemed dazed. His girlfriend had dumped him in a letter while he was away, and he didn’t want to see anyone else. He didn’t even want to drink anymore. What Manny most liked to do now was walk. Sometimes Nicky went with him, but he couldn’t keep up. Manny seemed to speed up as he got into his stride, his thighs and calves popping with foreign muscle, until he was so tired that he could fall sleep at night in his old room, where the Iron Maiden posters watched him from the walls. He slept under
THE NUMBER OF THE BEAST
and looked out at
THE TROOPER
. If Nicky slept there while Manny was away, he would have nightmares where a lobotomised Eddie the Head loomed over him, holding a cutlass and a flag, smelling of blood. But Manny slept and slept, constantly, heavily, under a graphic spell.

Nicky hadn’t ever thought that he – himself – could kill people. When he tried to imagine holding a rifle, it just seemed ridiculous, as if his hands were paws. But it wasn’t just that. When he listened to the song now he didn’t think especially that he could kill people like Brenda. The whole idea was beyond him. This December had made him certain.

His new squeamishness extended beyond human beings, looping out like waves of sound to everything he saw and touched. He was still grossed out by the dead Saint Bernard that Manny had shown him, all the way out at Sunset Beach, past even the cooling towers. But the lurching nausea he felt at the memory couldn’t make him sorry that he had gone to see it. Not seeing was worse.

The boys had had to walk to the beach; their mother was out.

‘How far is it, Manny?’

‘Not far. A couple of kays. It’s rad, I promise you. You’re going to love it.’

But it was more than a couple of kays, and Nicky wasn’t loving it. They hadn’t brought anything to drink and his face was burning; his sinuses felt like cellophane. The sun was curing the boys like biltong. He tried not to complain – he didn’t want boerrins, the way Manny liked to curl up his right forefinger and knuckle Nicky so hard in the sternum that he felt like his ribcage was about to shatter – but after another half an hour of walking next to the road and breathing the cars’ exhaust fumes, he gave in and said, ‘Manny – how much further?’

His brother turned. His scalp gleamed blue through his stubble and Nicky half-expected a lummy at least, but Manny said, ‘Come. I’ll piggyback you.’

Manny’s sweatshirt was damp with sweat; it protected his arms.
SLAVERY WORLD TOUR
said the bleeding letters down one sleeve. His friend had sent it to him from the
UK
– a dud printed and discarded ahead of the concert the boys would never see. Nicky focused on Anubis, whose doggy snout was pointing to all the places out of bounds for South Africans. Manny crouched; the jackal’s face moved. Nicky placed his hands on his shoulders and then he jumped, curling his legs around his brother’s waist in the same move. Manny carried him the rest of the way – it couldn’t have been much longer, but Eerste, Tweede and Derde Steen all looked the same when you were on foot – and then at last they stumbled into the grass and the talcum dunes. Manny unlocked his arms as he fell forward, and Nicky slid down, weak-kneed. He left an imprint of himself in sweat on his brother’s shirt.

‘It’s here somewhere. Close,’ said Manny, sitting up and stretching his arms so that the sweatshirt lifted and Nicky could see his new six-pack, the belly-button and the trail of hair that led away from it, a black arrow pointing to his dick. ‘You can smell it.’

Since Manny had come back from The Border there were some places he couldn’t go. Movie houses made him choke: women’s perfume made him sneeze. Every person who passed him by seemed to leave a contrail like an aeroplane, a line of ghostly prints that could lead Manny, if he wanted, to where they lay in their soft beds without hearing his approach.

There was something awful about your senses tuning in to people that way, that they could be marshalled for uncertain uses. The beach was safe: the same horizon, the old smells.

The boys separated and began the search for the dead dog. There was no one else on the beach. Nicky could never understand that. The mountain was rendered in silhouette over on the left, a tourist postcard. In the sea a windsurfer battled against the sudden stillness. His sail sagged, the tension missing at its two points: Nicky heard it flap over the water. He had hardly had a chance to look when Manny called him over and gestured.

The dog lay on his side, half-buried, his fur matted with sand. Nicky made sure he was upwind, and sat down carefully. At first it seemed that the dog only lay there, dreaming, and Nicky waited for his back legs to twitch. He would have come up to Nicky’s thighs if they had stood together somewhere, leashed and expectant, everything turning rightly on its axis. But the Saint Bernard didn’t move. Shiny green flies buzzed over his head like a cartoon in
Mad Magazine
. Nicky tasted his stink. He really was dead.

‘The eyes go first,’ said Manny, pointing. ‘The eyes go first and the fur goes last. Soon it’ll just be a pile of bones.’

Nicky thought, He belongs to someone, doesn’t he? Why don’t they come and look for him? He’s still wearing a collar. We’ll have to go home and leave him in the sun. He’ll be here in the dark, and then in the sun again tomorrow.

Nicky tried to speak, but his voice broke – knack-jumps, Manny used to call them. He cleared his throat and fiddled with a long white spiralling shell. He tried again.

‘Nobody knows where he is.’

Manny shrugged. He watched the dog, his hands in the pockets of his shorts, his sweatshirt drying stiff in the wind. Nicky blew the sand out of the shell and stowed it in his pocket. He wanted to remember where they had been.

And that was how it went on. On Sunday Manny borrowed the car and they came back. The Saint Bernard was in the same place. When the boys got back home Manny packed his kit into a canvas sausage, like the livercoloured punching bag in the school gym. He had to report back to base. He didn’t complain: he just went. Nicky sat in his brother’s room with the lights off and wondered how the dog was getting on without them. Eddie the Head was quiet.

On Monday it was cooler. Nicky walked to the beach by himself.

On Tuesday he hitchhiked. It was easy: people stopped.

Brenda’s song was everywhere: on Radio Five in strangers’ cars, on the Walkman of a boy on silver rollerskates, blasting out from the speakers during Happy Hour at the Blue Peter. Nicky heard it without trying to.

Day after day, the dog’s body blew up like a hot air balloon and then got on with the wormy business of decomposing, the ship of its skeleton listing in the sand until it was sharp and white and ratless. The Saint Bernard was doggy to the end, shaggy and blank and hopeful as a pair of slippers. He stayed and Nicky stayed with him, humming the only bits of the chorus he knew.

On Wednesday his mother made him go down to the studio and ask if they had any positions for runners. It was that, she told Nicky crossly, or work at the Spur.

Now he missed the dog. He sat backstage with his broom resting beside him on the floor. By winter the bones would have disappeared, sunk beneath the dunes, and he wouldn’t be able to find the place again. If he and Manny went back to sit on the sand and shiver in the wind that dropped at sundown, there would be no trace of the Saint Bernard, not even the faint smell of rot to mark the last place he’d lain.

Nicky sighed and got up. He had about thirty seconds before the assistant director discovered his hiding place – that short bastard in his American baseball cap – and crapped all over him, even though Brenda wasn’t here yet. Nicky got busy, sweeping the spot he thought she was most likely to stand. The dust motes rose in the shaft of light that still got in past the blackout on the windows; the voice of the
AD
, nasal and persistent, drifted down on everyone. His back to the studio door, Nicky turned and turned, half-hypnotised, the way a dog settles itself for sleep. She would never arrive.

‘Haaa-YI!’

The scream was a war cry, a shriek meant to thin the blood of all who heard it. Nicky tried to face the catastrophe – a grip hit by the lights? – but before he could do that, the hot weight fell on his spine like a stone. Fingers curled around his throat. Instinctively, Nicky dropped the broom brought his neck down to limit his exposure, the way Manny had taught him. He reached up and clawed at the hands, dragging them into his line of sight. They were small and brown and female, tipped with chipped purple polish, and they were very, very cold. Nicky staggered forwards under his load. The laughter began moving towards him in waves, uncertain at first and then building until they crashed around his ears. The
AD
was bent over so far that his baseball cap had fallen off.

‘Haaa, white boy!’ Brenda was screaming. The heels of her stilettos bit into his ribs. She flailed at him with her right hand like a jockey.

‘Run, whitey! Run!’

Nicky, not knowing what else to do, obliged. Brenda was light – a tiny, veiny woman with the beak and talons of a bird of prey – and he had no trouble jogging her around the studio floor. As he ran she circled an imaginary lasso over her head, calling out ‘Yee-haaa!’ in her famous voice. Whenever she lifted her arms he could smell her flesh, a cloying, sweaty vanilla, spent adrenalin, and something else – the faint, dark excitement he recognised from the dog on the beach. It almost stopped him in his tracks, and he stumbled. She kicked at him impatiently.

Someday Brenda would be really, truly late, for keeps.

He would die, too.

So would his mother, and everyone he knew.

Manny might already be dead, though the news wouldn’t reach them until the army decided it was time. There was no coming back from The Border.

But for now Nicky trotted, panting, around the studio, and sniffed at the live, pulsing woman on his back. I can’t believe it, he thought. I’m being ridden by Brenda Fassie.

Like Eddie the Head, Nicky began to grin.

Astronomy Domine

T
HE TWO OF THEM STUMBLED OUT INTO THE
sandstone foyer after the show. All the way through it his arm had rested lightly across the back of her seat, touching, not touching, each hair a note in the chorus against her neck. Now their absence made her itch. She wanted to rub against him.

It was impossible; all around them were ordinary people in shawls, drinking sherry under the bunting, hunting programmes and clothing and striped sweets. They were stunned by the stands and the sudden light.

‘I want a T-shirt,’ he said. ‘Let’s get the T-shirt, and then we can say we’ve done it.’

They bustled and shoved with the others against the cloth-covered trestles; they held up garments to see if they liked their look; they added layers like embalmers in old Egypt when what they really wanted to do was remove them, strip by strip, until they were down to the very everything.

They clung to those shirts. Somehow they provided safe passage through the landless bobbing in the foyer: they ferried the two outside and stranded them in the gardens. The girl and the boy dawdled. They had nothing to say while the insects hummed and bumbled dumbly against the glass of the theatre. The T-shirts they laid down on the paving beside them, and forgot.

They could look everywhere but at each other; at the gas canisters for the restaurants that stood above ground, rough as rocket ships in moonlight; at the other people orbiting homeward; at the ushers dodging frantic as rabbits. All the busy heart of the Baxter lay cut open and exposed.

He leaned close against the pillar, smoking. The building rose solid behind him, weird as a flying saucer in a forest. He puffed for an age on his cigarette, while stars threw themselves at the Earth. Its tip reddened and reduced, and inside him she knew that there must be clouds of smoke travelling his capillaries, whirling round liver and lights. She fingered his organs invisibly, the blood vessel lacework, the semen trees. She was in his orbit, silly with thin air.

She blurted, ‘I haven’t been with anyone in three years.’

‘What?’

‘It’s been three years since I’ve had a boyfriend,’ she said, as if reversing the word order clarified the idea. They were silent, stunned with her celibacy. Forever is measured in skin cells and oxygen, the deep space of deprivation. The shirts hadn’t stirred. They lay on the paving stones, woven, empty, mute. She poked one with her shoe. She cleared her throat to hear a human sound in the dark.

‘It’s a good idea, sometimes,’ she said. ‘Chastity. Afterwards, you realise what you’ve been missing.’

He looked at her and shook his head ambiguously, and the spaceship lights outside the Baxter picked out every hair on his scalp, silver and defined. She pictured holding that curly head with its electric hum, its circuits popping between her thighs.

It unbalanced her: she swung into him by accident and they knocked hips in zero gravity. She wanted to touch the zippered bulge at his crotch but they hadn’t even kissed yet.

He looked down at himself, at this impossible distance, the light years between her fingers and the fork of his jeans. He crossed and uncrossed his legs. To cover his erection he said, ‘I can’t wait. I’m going to wear my shirt now.’

He dropped the cigarette finally on the path, where it rolled away, blistered brief as an asteroid, and blinked out. Tomorrow morning women with brooms would sweep it into a pan, a bag, a bin, thinking it simple space junk instead of the live burning thing it had been made in his mouth.

He crossed his arms over his body to strip off the old shirt, the Vitruvian Man, the cosmonaut in the locker room, ready to soar out of her reach. He grinned at her, his hair a smug helmet around his skull. His mouth was very red, and all the playground injustice of nipple and fang rose inside her, the old unfairness, the sureness of place in Heaven and on Earth.

‘I don’t care,’ she told him. ‘I’m doing it too.’

She peeled off the wool of her date shirt: she slipped out of her old skin. She stood dumb as an animal in front of him: she wanted him to see her with all her teeth and all her claws; in the moonlight her own breasts amazed her.

BOOK: Cabin Fever
12.05Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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