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Authors: Diane Awerbuck

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Cabin Fever (9 page)

BOOK: Cabin Fever
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‘The world record is forty-six!’ the man was shouting. ‘Forty-six! That’s older than me, folks!’

His hearty on-air chuckle made Imraan feel tired. Besides, he’d read in the
Cape Times
that the unofficial record was fifty-three. The rule for qualifying for the Guinness record stated that everyone had to be on the same wave, and everyone had to stay upright for at least five seconds. Ridiculous, thought Imraan. It would never happen. People didn’t co-operate unless they were forced. It was the space
you that got you where you needed to be. Still, he didn’t turn around and go back to the cottage, back to Anya and her pottery statues with their saggy breasts and bulging bellies. He wanted to stay to see the attempt fail spectacularly, see all these happy, sunburned people droop and go home, shivering and dripping snot that they told each other was only seawater.

The whack on the back of his thigh made Imraan stagger, and his first, ridiculous, thought was,
. He had once seen a horror flick where the giant fish motored through the beach sand, shredding towels and bloodying bathers as it went. It didn’t matter if you made it out of the water; there was no high ground. But when he looked down it was only a little boy whose small surfboard had pushed him aside as he hurried across the sand. Typical, he thought. Not a thought for anyone else. Me, me, me. The board was bright yellow. It had a name stencilled across it:

Imraan’s attention was dragged back to the water. The men on the jet skis were waving their pink flags, the undersides of their arms flashing whitely in counterpoint. The man with the megaphone yelled, ‘Boards up!’ like an army sergeant, and all the surfboards were pulled like teeth from the sand and turned upright. In their ranks they were less like teeth: they seemed to Imraan like the houses he had made out of ice-cream sticks when he was small, and then smashed. I must write a story about that, he thought.

‘Into the water!’ bawled the man with the megaphone, and the surfers ran at the low waves, slowing as their medium changed, shouting with the cold. They hurled their boards down and threw their bodies over them, and they were in. He looked for Jonah and found him on the far right hand side, settled only precariously on his tiny yellow board.

Later Imraan would read that there were two hundred and eighty people in those waves that foamed up like spit – so white the foam had its own reflection – and the youngest of them was seven, and the oldest (the papers said) was sixty-eight. They peppered the water, all the people in neoprene, boys and girls and men and women and brown and white in every combination; they shrank the horizon itself with their numbers. Soon the whole earth would look like this, thought Imraan. There would be nowhere left to go.

‘Spread out!’ the man with the megaphone kept yelling. People seemed to be taking turns to say this over the sound system. ‘Spread out, guys. Like, to Gordon’s
on this side. To Mozam
.’ They kept breaking off to laugh.

The marshals on jet skis were waiting for the next pulse, making their way along the waves, and then they were swinging their pink cloths over their heads to signal that the next wave was The One. The counters stood with their clipboards on the shore, and Imraan stood with them, watching the kid, half-hoping he would fall off and spoil it.

Six times the surfers gathered and threw themselves into the foam. Six times they stood up on their boards, as smooth and slow as if they could stand forever. They held their arms out like telephone poles, like letters of a wet alphabet, close enough to touch. The false starts and the lost boards and the slippery surfaces of other people in the waves slowed them down, but the good humour of the watchers on the beach didn’t change. The man with the megaphone was shouting himself hoarse and Imraan was glad.

‘Like that! Just like that! Jump off! Let’s do it again!’

By the third attempt Imraan had lost the boy on the end. Maybe his parents had decided that enough was enough, hauled him in and towelled him down, run their hands through his hair, loving every wet triangulated eyelash, every freckle. By the time all the surfers were back on the beach and the man with the megaphone was congratulating them for turning out, there were one or two abandoned boards floating in the shallows. One was bright yellow.

They beat the record, the papers would say on Monday – both official and unofficial – on every attempt except for the first, which was a split wave and divided the surfers. On the third attempt they counted seventy-three people on a single wave, all upright for at least five seconds.

They should have paid more attention to the second attempt, Imraan would think, over his cappuccino. That one was seventy-four.

All in all it took about two hours. When he turned towards St James to go home again it was after five and the sun was gone all the way along the horizon except for the bit over the harbour, where it always shone. He picked up the pace, striding through the garden at Danger Beach that smelled of fresh laundry – or maybe sun-dried cotton smelled like fynbos – past all the fathers in the parking lot with their chests drooping like candle wax. They were standing proud and bisected by their towels, shivering and changing out of the open boots of their cars. They didn’t want to put the rest of their clothes on, or go home. They didn’t want Monday morning to come. Imraan stopped by the black flag and the board that warned that this was shark territory, and watched the families. He thought, I can see it on them. It’s
. The thought made his stomach twist a little.

One man peeled his wetsuit down to his waist and pressed his grey chest hair against his wife. She squealed and laughed, and he danced her across the painted lines on the tarmac to the song in his head. Then she pushed him away and walked quickly back to the car. She bent and straightened, bent and straightened, packing things – a fold-up chair, a blue cooler box, a pair of fish slip-slops – with her head almost buried in the boot. From the depths of it, as if she was underwater, Imraan heard her say, ‘Where’s Jonah?’

‘I thought he was with you,’ said the husband. She backed up and looked at him hard, the temporary music fled.

The man closed the boot. They went back through the tunnel to the beach. They walked fast, but they didn’t run. It was Imraan who ran – faster than he had since he was eleven, so fast that his notebook banged against his bruised thigh – to find the man with the megaphone.

School Photos

. I got two interviews. I only went to one, at an all-girls’ school in the southern suburbs. When I walked into the headmistress’s office for the first time, I saw her lean back in her leather chair and smile to herself as much as at me.

‘Mister September,’ she said, and gave a small sigh of relief, the way she probably does at Christmas when the last relative is packed off into the last car on the twenty-seventh of December. And why shouldn’t she have been relieved to see me? I am small and clean-shaven and highly qualified, a lateblooming and unthreatening twenty-three. I am, in short, the polite sum of my Bushman forebears. I teach English and History, which is to say, I teach young people how to live with themselves and the world. The fact that I got this job, at this school, and that the young people will grow up to be women – some of them already have by the time I get them – is incidental. I always think of // Kabbo, who could have been me, six generations back, jailed for stealing the cows of the new settlers, but turning his tongue to translation. // Kabbo, who called himself Teacher, but whose name means Dream.

At parent–teacher meetings even I bang my knees on the underside of the wooden tables while I wait with my markbook. The furniture is made for children. The parents I need to see are the ones who never come. Most of them are overly interested, clutching their handbags. ‘Mister Sep
ber,’ they say, making my title – common on the Flats – sound like a caption from a calendar. Or, if they are men, are moustached and overbearing stepfathers, announced by their aftershave. They show their teeth and say, in a joke that is not a joke, ‘You teachers. You have such nice lives. All those school holidays.’ I can live with this: I can endure four hours in the evening, once a term, smiling and nodding and eating a surreptitious sandwich with my mouth carefully closed – because I can go home again to my new flat, to my clean, empty bed and my most expensive possession, the thing I bought with my first salary cheque:
Claim to the Country
. The book’s pages are thick, the photographs clear, its covers a shield from those parents. I study the alphabets recorded by Bleek and Lloyd: I touch the pictures of // Kabbo, and the people who might be mine.

We males, all six of us on the staff of fifty-five, each got our own key to the men’s bathroom. I half-wondered if they had considered doing the same for the five black teachers. No one ever told me if there had been an incident to precipitate this turnkey system: it just was – as were so many things the girls railed against: the silence in the cloisters as they moved between classes, the skirts that had to be two fingers below the knee (and were measured, precisely, in surprise checks), the laminated passes that allowed one student in the toilets at a time.

The floors of the school bathrooms were still covered in the pale green linoleum the old government liked to lay in all its institutions, in hospitals and schools and offices – wherever you might be reduced to a number on a page. The bathrooms themselves had windows, but were still dank and dark as dungeons. The schoolgirl sorrows of a century had made the moss grow in the grout between the bathroom tiles. They reminded me of the Dutch cavern-prisons below the waterline of the Castle, where I took the Grade Eights on their History trip. Water will wash away most things, but the fungus grows. On the inside of nuclear reactors there is blue-green algae, the start of the new Creation.

We lived underground lives in those bathrooms. I spent whole Assemblies there. Often it was just ten minutes alone I needed, or else some levee would break: the other teachers looked at me as if I might smash the windows and turn on the taps, flood the cloisters with impropriety. I thought of // Kabbo imprisoned at the Breakwater, of all the nomad criminals, thieves, who shouted at the foreigners, ‘Why do you not stay in your own land, where the sun sets? Why must you come here?’

Because I had no office I also sometimes spent breaks in those bathrooms with the girls, one and two at a time. They were often shaking or curled up into themselves like fists, stealing time from home and choir and swimming pool, legitimate extra-mural activities that dictated where they could be. They told me stories; they wept. I sat on the cement until the chill numbed my thighs and the bell went. They would have to splash cold water on their faces to make the swelling go down. I remembered // Kabbo on the endless stairs of the treadmill next to Breakwater Prison, // Kabbo who heard the beatings inside its walls. The bell marked the beginning of the race: after it rang I would have two minutes to dodge to the staffroom, two minutes to scald myself with tea from the urn and bolt the institution pellets – wet, dry, wet, dry – before I sprinted back upstairs to my classroom. There I would choke on the Freedom Charter, on scansion, on Roger Bannister and his four-minute mile.

The bruises that I saw in the locked bathrooms were, of course, secret. They were visible when the girls sat in their desks and their long skirts crept slyly up – before they remembered and pulled the fabric back down over their knees. Those marks were snapshots of lives I cannot imagine now. I spent my days trying to stuff those bruised girls with irony and pentameter, as if they didn’t already know how to mark beats. I am ashamed that I had to ask them for their homework.

I used to take them aside and try to talk to them about Childline, about the possibility of moving away from home, but they only looked at me gently and started sentences, ‘But my mother is sick …’ and, ‘I am not afraid for myself, but my sister is only seven …’ Their soft eyes made me want to vomit, to expel the evidence from my system. It was not the ripping of their tissue that appalled me: it was their acceptance of it, this careful balancing of the load. I always hoped that these beaten girls would fight, but I know why they didn’t. How do you struggle against the people who call themselves your mother and your father, who say they hurt you out of their love?

The woman at Childline sighed and told me over and over that I had to take photographs of the girls’ injuries. We needed evidence if the cases ever went to court: we had to prove that they were being abused beyond what is termed acceptable parenting. Like a mortuary technician I peered at the girls, their swellings and splittings, verified various shades of black and blue. Sometimes it was only the simple print of a hand, the fingers reaching out like rock art; sometimes some other instrument had been applied to their bodies. When I asked them how the bruises happened, they would rustle and shy away. They looked down at the dead garden of the linoleum, searching for clues. ‘A hairbrush,’ they often said, and grinned lopsidedly at themselves. They were embarrassed by the mundanity. They understood the clichés of beating.

A hairbrush. It made me think of all those Victorian ladies who must have once been students at this school, hushed in the cloisters, hurrying to class. How they must have sat at future dressing tables, letting down their hair in waves before their husbands. They are trapped in that bathroom forever: they must have cried there too as the taps slowly leaked, the rusty tide always at the high-water mark. Some of them must have known Lucy Lloyd in her suburban high-necked dresses, must have recognised her strange diacritics.

One Tuesday in the August of her last year of school, a girl stood in the men’s bathroom with her back to me. She was taller than I was, and her limbs were women’s limbs. My arms hung at my sides. How could I shatter the thing between us with the flash and click of photography? We were utterly, utterly decent: her friend stood by with her arms crossed and her face set into an older pattern. And we were utterly, utterly indecent: the back of the girl’s neck gleamed like crockery, like porcelain, something to be thrown in rage against a wall. In another universe she would slide her clothes off for happier reasons, and for a more deserving man. But that year it was my turn. My hand sweated where it held her pink plastic camera.

BOOK: Cabin Fever
12.4Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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