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Authors: Diane Awerbuck

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Cabin Fever (6 page)

BOOK: Cabin Fever
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‘A murder! Last night!’ she says, chatty, thrilled. It is the same tone she uses for telling me that Valkenberg isn’t too far to walk for medication. She holds my arm through my light cardigan and leans on me, as if I am helping her across a busy intersection. I can tell from the scent her degree of crazy. Today Colette smells like an empty dispensary, of lumpy face powder and sweat.

‘Another robbery. They had a gun!’ She crooks a finger to her temple and her wig slips back a little under the force of the jab. ‘That guy – you know that one? – he came out of the bathroom. They weren’t expecting him.’ She leans closer. ‘Pow! Pow!’

We stagger and right ourselves. She strokes my arm. I disengage it from her grip. She resettles her wig, strokes it like a small animal curled over her ears.

‘Do you have a little something for me, lady?’

I go back home. I don’t want to know who
that one
was, or absorb the shock and the sorrow of other people. I am clear of the sickness of attachment.

But still. I come back the next day: my shift finishes at the library and the last bulging schoolbag is searched and surrendered to the street. I whisk back home. Once I am there, the aimlessness returns. In the last legitimate hour of daylight I walk up and down on the feverish bricks, homeless, resentful. Regret, regret: I’m sick of it. Better to know than not to know.

I lock up the house again and walk back up Trill. Everyone else has left – the police, the gawpers, the sitters at their rickety pavement tables – so I can sidle up to the window. Did the gunslinger stand tall on the warped floorboards? Did he take calm aim for the execution? Or were they stuttering boys in peaked leather caps, underpants showing when they knocked over the chairs?

There were never this many flowers in Obs gardens. There is a note, too. It says,
Friends, we are gathered at the Armchair Theatre if you would like to join us.
It is unsigned. I peer in through the glass but the place looks as it always does, like a set, the bottles blinking sleepily behind the bar.

I scurry to the corner and along Lower Main, in quick right angles to the evening light. The
3 posters are tied to the lampposts, his martyred paper face in its oval of roses, ringed and familiar as a wrist corsage: roses for romance, roses for mourning, roses for sighing and weeping.

Inside the Armchair Theatre there are no wailing women beating their chests or throwing themselves on the coffin. There are six plain people, sitting at the counter in the gloom. Some of them turn to squint at me, red-eyed, polite with grief. They are sipping whisky, I think, the funeral firewater. In the low light it catches the flashes through the windows: passers-by go about their business even on days when people have died.

I stand there in my pilling cardigan. I fold my hands, devoid of date stamps and empty of books. I cannot explain why I am here. They nod their heads and assume I am a friend. I introduce myself, but give only my first name. They invite me to sit down, to do the thing that makes us companions – to have a drink with them.

I perch on a barstool, my buttocks conforming to its ridges. It is a long way down. I sip on an experimental Coke in the coolness. The bottle is dewy; it gets away from me but I grip it hard. I wait, and then I can’t wait. I ask about the funeral arrangements: I hope these sad people will tell me his name.

One blue-eyed man slumped over his drink takes pity on me. ‘They’re thinking of taking Justin back to Kimberley.’ Kimberley. My guts bubble. I nod. I pass him money for the Coke.

He won’t let me pay. I slide back down off the bar stool, straighten my skirt, mumble my thanks. He cocks his head and gives me a hard glance: that look rebounds around the room. I bumble home to my quiet house, my heart humming with sugar, dozy as a rose beetle.

Twenty years ago, in another time, my brother and I visited those boys on the weekends when their parents were out. We had braais and played Quarters on the kitchen table, drinking whatever we could find in the drinks cabinet – Coco Rico, Tia Maria, bottles with palm trees on them, the ones that were shoved to the back. I played Quarters with the boys on the Formica for years, until I was sixteen, and then one of the brothers got drunk and asked me to marry him. I think he meant it. I couldn’t go back: between us was the question that I hadn’t expected, and the answer that wasn’t the one he wanted.

On the day of the funeral I trudge up Trill again. I must check on the flowers. How many bunches? How long will they take to decay? Today, twenty bunches, and seven bead-and-wire flowers wound around the bars. Most bouquets have mummified in the heat, but the tally is skewed: people keep replacing them.

A group of kids watches my mathematics. They loll on the other side of the road, wearing Sex Pistols shirts and smoking. No one is allowed inside, so they’re holding his wake in the street. I recognise one of the waiters from Carte Blanche. He’s had no work since Justin died on the floor there. They nip from a half-jack of Klipdrift, push each other, kick idly sideways at a Telkom box. One of them stands with a can in his hand: his key chain jingles defiance. He spray-paints a message on the tarmac. In orange it promises, Jack

Miss Ya. It will stay there until thousands of ordinary feet wear it off.

We make our way unwillingly to the church. St Patrick’s is full. We examine each other; it gives us something to do. The delay stretches out – half an hour, an hour. The undertakers fiddle with straps and bolts. A wave of heat rises from the moving bodies in the pews. The men remove the jackets of their wool suits, but they smell of aftershave and circuses, profane.

The ceremony begins. A tiny black man in gold slave earrings toddles up the aisle; a brush-cut white guy in a butcher’s coat strides behind. Here comes an Indian girl in a matric dance dress, hobbling on crutches; then the KwikSpar till girls; a woman with a nose that looks out of joint until I see her terrible burns. She has been remade in the semblance of womanhood. I see the long-ago doctors standing by, each with a piece of the puzzle to hand:
How does it fit? Does this bit go here?
She hides herself, lost in the procession of people I have seen and not seen who’ve been there all along – waitresses and hairdressers and dawdlers from all over Obs.

People keep faltering in, late, from somewhere else. There is no place to sit, so they must stand in the foyer and peer at the priest. They have to shuffle out of the way when at last the coffin is wheeled past them and up the aisle. The dead man’s brother, my old playmate, is sweating with nerves and drink and realisation. His big hands dangle uselessly from his cuffs, as ringless as mine, pestered by the ghost of the old gold band. He tries to carry the lacquered box but it rejects him: his palms slip off the varnished corners. He wipes his face. Will no one help him?

He falls back as the others hustle forward. The rest of the ceremony is anonymous, terrifying.
In my flesh shall I see God

After the service the coffin is lifted more efficiently, as if it was robbed while we were looking the other way. The undertakers slide it into their hearse while bagpipes play. The black car coughs forward, eager to get to the crematorium, skids at the stop street and disappears into the traffic. We stand forlorn in the gardens of the church, long after the exit of the hearse, waiting in the dappled shadows of the hedge as the light dims.

For days afterwards – it is going on still – you will be in the queue for bread in a shop and hear the same conversation.

‘I saw you at the funeral, man.’

‘How did you know him?’

And so on, each to each, tracking each other like bees, for protection, for decency, for love.

Do you have a little something for me, lady?


, I’
Tony said to himself. If they’re gone, it’s a sign. I’ll just turn around and go back home and wait for my results. There’ll be time to check the box before she gets back from her group. He wiped his sweaty forehead on his sleeve and craned his neck.

The empty sneakers were dangling over the power lines. They swung gently by their laces, as if their owner had been trying to get away so fast that he had run straight up into the sky, scorching the leaves vertical. The shoes had been black, with skulls drawn on them in Tipp-Ex, but they were bleaching rapidly: they were the same colour as the clouds. No one looked up, so the sneakers stayed, twisting in the southeaster that had gathered itself up and would blast Cape Town through the festive season and then all summer long. Next year some official would come with a ladder to cut them down, but Tony wouldn’t be around to miss them. For now, every time he saw the shoes, he just thought that there was a barefoot guy out there with some explaining to do. His mother’s prayer to Saint Anthony chittered at him:
Holy Tony, look around. Something’s lost and must be found
. ‘Merry Christmas, shoes,’ he muttered. ‘Hope you get back where you belong.’ The ownerless sneakers swayed on their invisible pendulum; the lines hummed.

He stepped into the road without thinking, and had to step back again in the same instant. The angry woman in the
unlocked a gym-hard arm from the steering wheel and jabbed her middle finger at him. When she pulled off again, he could see her mouthing curses through the glass, the children in the back stopped clocks, faces round and white with surprise. Tony wiped his face on the shoulder of his shirt, bending his neck to each side to do it. God, it was hot. You couldn’t concentrate. Better to wait till the lights changed. You think you have so much time, and then –
! – the accident, the suicide bomb, the no going back. God works in mysterious ways, said his mother. How did people go about their lives without wondering when it was going to happen? And here he was, having to put his life on hold for a couple of symbols on an Education Department letterhead. Everything depended on it.

It’s just making me miserable, Tony told himself. It’ll be over soon – tomorrow; today, even. I’ll be out of here. And mostly, the bad things don’t happen. You cross the road, the cancer is treatable, the brakes don’t fail. You go on. Like the old guy. He looked up again.

The old man was out on his balcony. He lived near the top of the building: he could have stood on the wall and flapped his arms if he ever wanted to come down the easy way. But as far as Tony could tell, he didn’t. He sat in a saggy deckchair with his leggs crossed and dangling. He watched the mall, drinking beer and waiting, like Van Hunks. The balcony was decorated not with plants and garden furniture, but with sets of animal trophies, nailed to the wall like the heads of devils. He had attached a little balsawood aeroplane to the edge, and its propeller whirred. It was never still. All day and all night, as long as the wind was blowing – and no one there to see it.

Except Tony, who was interested in what happened upstairs. The old guy was his mascot. When it was very hot he wore a pair of flappy blue rugby shorts and went shirtless. He was paler than the animal skulls behind him, white even in the sun, impenetrable as the pith of an orange. In winter it was the same hunting jacket, day after freezing day. He is, thought Tony, the kind of guy who has all the gear, who likes to shoot deer and gut them. Tony had once seen him cleaning his gun, thoughtful, ostentatious. The old man was fascinating, the same way that saints’ relics were compulsive, repellent. Tony imagined him up close: his bristly grey stubble, the gristle and cartilage of his ears. How could he stand being in that body? How had he lived this long and not turned to dust in his seat?

The old guy leaned forward so that the hinges of his chair squeaked. At first Tony thought the sound was the hadedas that had moved in when the five-storey mall was built, like vultures at the Towers of Silence. Then the old man began hacking into one hand. He coughed and coughed, shaking the spindly deckchair. Afterwards he sat back and inspected his palm as if he expected to find lung fragments. Then he wiped his hands on his shorts and tried again. By degrees he winched his body out of the seat. He disappeared inside and came back out with two quarts of Black Label. He settled: the fabric of his chair resumed the shape of his bony backside. Tony thought, Be nice to be the one sitting in a deckchair, drinking that first cold beer fast, then sipping the next one slowly.

The old man was peering solemnly back at him, soundless, whole, annoyingly alive. He held the other bottle up to Tony, an invitation. God, Tony thought, startled and then disgusted. Hope I’m never that pathetic.

But he hesitated, there at the traffic lights, and he missed his turn to go. He felt the hot exhausted breath of the cars on his legs. The old man stared down at Tony. Then something switched in his face and his whole jaw seemed to dislocate and flip forward. ‘Jesus Christ!’ Tony said it out loud, then looked guiltily around for his mother and her Bible in its leather cover. The old guy was laughing. He had slipped his false teeth in again. He kept snorting. He was actually slapping his knee and coughing now, choking with merriment. ‘Very funny,’ muttered Tony.

The old man pulled a mock-serious face and saluted him with the beer: it made Tony swallow. His throat clicked. Tony gave up waiting for the lights to change in his favour. He crossed the road against the traffic, dodging the bumpers, trusting his feet to judge space. Man, he was going to drink a
of slushies at the mall.

As he walked, Tony’s throat hitched again, trying to reverse the digestion of the banana he had crammed in an hour ago. He shouldn’t have thought of slushies. He had watched the Columbine
footage of the two killing boys, their guns lowered after the fact, ambling in the cafeteria while their classmates cowered. Under the tables, everybody was looking up. They were finally paying attention. The boys were nodding companionably at each other and saying,
. Between couplets they paused, sucking at the straws of their super-sized slushies. Murder is thirsty work.

BOOK: Cabin Fever
10.55Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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