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Authors: Diane Awerbuck

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Cabin Fever (7 page)

BOOK: Cabin Fever
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The worst part was that the film had been doctored for visibility. Everything around the boys had been dulled, and only their two figures were haloed. The killers moved around, sipping slowly and considering, and they were floating in light.

Tony leaped the final metre of the street, gaining the pavement. If he could make it out of the sun, he’d be all right – somewhere cool and quiet, where he could sit down. He ducked under the striped boom into the parking lot and jogged across the tarmac to the lift. He rode up, glaring at a woman whose trolley rammed him in the kidneys at every floor. When the glass doors yawned, he pushed back at her. Then Tony crossed the threshold into the dome.

It was no better than the street: the noise and light made his head feel full of sand. Christmas bells were shaking madly; there was a choir of wriggling school kids in the atrium; everything was wrong. He needed to leave. Tony reversed and navigated a route through the streaming shoppers, stepping onto the escalator. Down a level was better. He made his way back slowly to the dim parking lot. He would find a bench that no one used in the day. He could hang there, check out Skeleton Gorge, decide what to do next.

But there were no benches. Tony wandered over to the bollards and hooked his feet between the railings. He looked out over the forest below, picking at the paint with his index finger. It flaked obligingly. God, everything was already falling apart, though it was only ten years since The Barracks had been built. He could remember when it was a construction site. The mall had been designed by people who had never been to Cape Town. They didn’t know that everything here turned towards the mountain. Righting that parking lot would mean lifting up the whole complex and rotating it – like those guys did at school, spinning footballs on the tips of their fingers – and setting it down again facing the other way.

He looked out at the alpine view, the transplanted Christmas trees that crawled up the slopes of Nursery Ravine and the depression that was the Old Zoo. You used to be able to walk around up there, on Devil’s Peak. There were fallow deer. They would come up to you when they smelled Marie Biscuits and nudge the packet, trapped by the craving. You could touch their foreheads, feel the shape of their skulls, stroke the short fur between their eyes. Tony had found a single antler where the stags had been roaming, restless with rutting. The antler was bone-heavy in the forest, fossil-cold when he took it back to his bedroom. It was not at all like the old guy and his trophies, he told himself.

The deer that were left were on the move, spirited away from Table Mountain because they were exotic. Hessian nets had already been set up, and they would be unfurled any day now. The deer would be chased down the mountain and caught in the rough fibres, tranquilised and taken to game farms where people would pay to hunt them. Eventually, the only trace of them would be on money: Property of the South African Reserve Bank. The deer that avoided the nets would be shot where they lived. They would be ghost deer, looking for their lost mates on the slopes opposite Hospital Bend. We can’t look at anything without wanting to rip the guts out of it, thought Tony bitterly.

He really should leave now. He checked his watch and then leaned out one last time to look for the constant man on the balcony, trusting his weight to the balls of his feet, bouncing a little in his trainers.

Tony’s left shoe missed the railing and he stumbled back, landing on the cement. His ankle buckled inward, the second time his body had betrayed him.

He righted himself, placed his feet carefully side by side, and looked again. The old guy wasn’t there. His empty deckchair didn’t make sense. It was wrong: a pulled tooth, a missed train, an eclipse. The propeller on the plane spun. The rotation made Tony feel dizzy.

The gunshot was very loud in the underground parking lot, startling him away from the sound and towards the trees and the retreating deer. For a few seconds – one, two, three

he knew that his fingers would slip and he would topple over the side without the consent of his tendons. He saw his unlucky spirit self plummeting into the blue of the firs, smelling of resin and crushed out of true by the time he hit the slopes, rolling.

But it was only the echo that shunted along the barrier: it ricocheted off the bodies of the cars and made his teeth ache in his head.

If I don’t turn around, Tony thought, I won’t have to look. He gripped the icy railing, sieving the air for sounds. In the distance people were walking, heads determinedly down.

Tony forced himself to face the scene.

What was left of the old guy was lying in an open parking space between a Range Rover and a
, both sprayed with the red end of him, the rain and thunder of dying. From here he was smaller, the bones of his body light and flightless as a bird in a diorama, light and porous as a balsawood plane.

Tony made his way towards the old man’s body, angling his head carefully away. He could not look directly at what lay before him, but then he thought: I’m the only one who looked up. I should do something.

He moved his eyes slowly over the corpse. He was expecting the face to be collapsed and shrunken like the Bushman heads in the museum, but instead the bullet had exploded the old guy’s false teeth, springing the bridge from his mouth in protest. Tony felt the sympathetic set of his own teeth in his gums.

The old man had dressed carefully for his final display, a formal shirt that Tony hadn’t seen before. His collar was buttoned all the way up to his grizzled chin, as if it was only his head that had fragmented, a bunch of flowers in a fist. There was a note pinned to his chest, folded over once like a florist’s card, with its familiar message and foreign script.

Tony saw his own hand reach out. He was hardly even shaking. The paper was crumpled, as if it had been torn from something the old guy had been reading. The writing was a smudged, blocky print.

Behind him, the footsteps and the shouts were beginning. Tony screwed the note into his palm, reducing it to half its size. He looked around. The dentures lay discarded next to the body, bridged with pink and slick with spit. He half-expected the teeth to chatter towards him over the cement, but they lay still. No one would miss them. He closed his hand quickly over the hinged plates and slid them into his pocket. They still smelled of beer. Tony wiped his hands on his jeans. He got up, feeling his joints stretching like perished rubber bands – how long had he been crouching there? – and backed away. One last time his eyes traversed the old man’s body, all the way down to his feet.

They were bare, white and ribbed with tendons, the feet of a plaster Christ on a wooden cross, flung to kingdom come.

There is a Light That Never Goes Out

In the green fields of the new Czech Republic, the empty factories and castles mouldered quietly to themselves. When he looked out from the window of the train Thomas Heber saw that there were graveyards settled between the whispering farm fields. There was no way to tell where the boneyards ended and the fields began: the crops seeded themselves and sprang from the same earth.

Kotna Hora, Kotna Hora – simple to say, even for foreigners, even for those who found themselves on the train from Praha when they had meant to go somewhere else. The travellers rustled their maps and squinted at the legends, angling up to the light the thin paper, thumbed and receding and unfoldable along quite the same lines. One of them was reading his book. He cringed when he saw it, and held his journal more tightly. Luckily no one would recognise him from his author photo: the publishers had used an image of a uniformed Heber from another century. At least here in Eastern Europe he would not see his young self stretched out on posters and billboards.

Thomas Heber – the first of two children born at the same time – had never been a fearful man. In the manner of British Jews, he did not allow himself to be bent to the world of spirits. It was Hallowe’en, the time when Christians set free the old ghosts to chase across Europe: he was immune. A pumpkin was a pumpkin, and Thomas the Twin was lucky to wander in English shops that laid them out so, in hard polished rows, the memory of famine lodged in the bright flesh divided by a clean slice of the knife.

His family name was his shield. Heber: the one who has been passed over – and you could take that either way. Over the centuries Jews had learned to toughen their hearts but in the last decades he had seen the insult reclaimed, like a sliver of sea bed made fit for dry living. No one said ‘hebe’ anymore: dislike had been driven underground. ‘Zionist,’ they said, instead. His sister Miryam had been given a cat named Israel.

The thought of Miryam hurt his heart. Thomas the Twin distracted himself by peering at the other travellers. He pressed his hands to his eyes and sighed. How time doubled back on you, stretched out or pulled you back to other places so that the events of forty years ago seemed more real than the present: the faces of prisoners of war rather than the Japanese girls here on the train who slept with their small mouths open, the wide-eyed present Americans tonguing their phrasebooks. How could a person’s body be in one place and their mind in another? He was nearly eighty and still he didn’t know.

And neither did Miryam, though nowadays she had plenty of time to contemplate these mysteries as she lay swelling softly in her hospital bed, swelling like a woman left for dead, horizontal. The chemotherapy had turned her hair silver; it was falling out in strands. Every morning the clumps lay on her restless pillow, marking time like candle wax. Thomas the Twin had abandoned his interviews, his
appearances, the lunches. He triangulated the route between Miryam’s empty house and his dark one and the hospital, a zigzagging arrow on a war-room map. Someone had to feed Israel. The cat had settled at last in Miryam’s chair, and there was no budging it. How was it, Thomas wondered, when he rattled pellets in the plastic dish, that someone could be gone but leave behind their hair in the brush, their slippers under the bed, Chanel No.5 on a cushion? He stood in Miryam’s fading flowery living room with the bowl in his hand and considered the mountains of shoes collected by thrifty guards at Bergen-Belsen, sad and momentous, the old skins left behind. When his cellphone rang, he ignored it. The publicist could wait.

The train clacked. Heber turned his mind away from his sister but she was replicated in the faces he saw on the notices, in his book, in the eyes of his fellow travellers. The hospital did not allow mirrors near the terminal patients: the nurses kept the dying from taking their last image into the next world. He kept Miryam’s face in his head. He was preparing himself, he knew. There was so much to grieve: the dead of centuries, his old life, now Miryam. Thomas the Twin peered at a rusting tractor in the rich Czech grass and wondered, What will I be called when she is gone?

But Miryam was not dead yet. In one of her lucid periods she had turned from her memory to her waiting twin and clamped her hand on his wrist. Its heat made him shiver; she was burning in her bed. Thomas wanted to push her off but he could not. She had held him close, whispering as though she was telling him a marvellous secret, as though there were other people in the room who would care. ‘Just go, if you want,’ she said, and her face gave him up. ‘It will take forever. Come back and tell me all about where you have been.’ Her hand was a hot bracelet on his flesh. He remembered being eight years old; Miryam, smiling, her black ringlets springing from her head, asking, ‘Do you want a Chinese Bangle?’

He stood next to her bed and he lightly said, ‘Who needs to go all the way to the other side of the world when they have everything right here?’ He knew that he was part of a generation of people who were afraid of nothing – except to go travelling: not because they did not know what they would see, but because they did. There were a hundred civilian reasons to stay at home.

Miryam replied, ‘Don’t worry. Please, go. Let someone else feed Israel.’

Night after night she asked whether he had made arrangements. She was no better; she was no worse. The two of them waited for a death that did not come.

And so it was that he would travel alone through Europe again, to find the old places in the hope that they had changed. He had known them by their other names, but he still hoped to arrive there: ordinary towns in Germany, Poland, the Czech Republic, translated by historical account. He would pass through them and they would give up their ghosts, their pancakes and plagues, their imperial eagles, impalers. On each train he held his journal on his lap like an infant. The covers were threadbare, the naked white corners nudging at his palms. The two regarded each other.

They were almost there. Heber made himself think about his here and now, this tiny mining town that for centuries had had its silver sprung from the resting underworld, its nuggets like teeth, like spectacles. Kotna Hora had been long since stripped: the tiny town was famous now only for its ossuary, the collected bones of forty thousand victims of disease, the medieval people who paid for their proximity.

Thomas the Twin would pay his respects to their skeletons resting in the bone church. He would look at death without turning away, and then go back and describe its appearance to Miryam. The plague, whispered Thomas the Twin to himself. The Black Death. The ossuary would have the feel of the charnel house – of all the places people have been slaughtered and dissected in ways both savage and precise. It would murmur the history of scalpel and socket, expose the bony processes of illness and madness and suffering. It was every cave and every crypt, the last hidey-hole of the Maccabees, the cellar and archive and oven, cool with ancient root systems or warm with animal breath – but always, always white, all the way back to the eye sockets.

The old soldier sat with one hand pressed against the skin of his face. The optic nerves hummed with memory, and the eyeballs moved, dreaming, under his lids. There are some things in the world that are burned onto the retinas. Like looking at the sun, afterwards you are blind to the trivial. All the same, Thomas thought, you must feel your way back to the world of small things. The past is the past. Its story, its horror, must become just one part of your life. He thumbed the disintegrating weave of the journal.

BOOK: Cabin Fever
4.38Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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