Authors: Gustav Preller
Zane Hendricks boards a train one winter night in Cape Town, and what should be a 24 minute ride home from the advertising agency where he works becomes a journey of terror.
Some years earlier Zane crossed the railway line from his birthplace on the Cape Flats to a better life, but his murky past catches up with him forcing him to confront what he’s been avoiding all of his young life – himself.
Lena Valentine, having suffered abuse in her early teens, lacks self-esteem to the point of self-hatred. On the first night of the FIFA World Cup her simmering rage boils over when she tries to save an exotic, beautiful Thai girl from a gang of human traffickers, and what starts off as a mission of mercy ends in disaster.
Hannibal Fortuin, leader of the Evangelicals gang, has declared God dead and embraced crime kingpin Jerome Sasman, aka the Gnome. But the Gnome disappoints him too and Hannibal’s actions become driven by his bloodlust and cruelty that reach new heights as twists and turns of fate bring Zane into his sights once more.
Last Train to Retreat
is a gritty novel about a young man’s courage in the face of irredeemable evil, set against the backdrop of a dystopian Cape Flats and its Coloureds – people forcibly relocated to a barren piece of earth because of their skin colour, and still trapped today, with a police force that knows it can never beat the gangs and the drugs.
It was like going back to his past as Zane made his way down the dusty street. It was a street from his childhood that he had walked for so many years. Now there was a sense of high noon about it – men with hard eyes watching him come into town, the street ominously clear of ordinary people. Down the road to the house imprinted on his mind since the day Chantal had told him about the crystal meth explosion, aware with each step he took that he was staking his sister’s life, Lena’s, and his own on the next few hours.
Lavender Hill, a suburb of Cape Town, South Africa, is situated immediately south of Retreat on the east side of the railway line that runs to Simonstown. It is far too ironic a name for an author not to use. It isn’t just the fact that there are no hills and that there’s never been any lavender (the name hails from the days of District Six), it also epitomises the plight of the Cape Flats – poverty, youth unemployment, and, inevitably, substance abuse and violent crime, both gang and family related.
Almost daily in South Africa police ineptitude, corruption and arrogance at the highest level down to the rank of constable make the news. In the course of my research, however, I met members of the South African Police Service who deserve medals for their dedication and compassion, knowing they will never win the battle for the Flats.
Although Lavender Hill is a real place, the characters in the novel are fictional. Any similarity with actual persons, living or dead is coincidental.
For the convenience of readers a glossary of Cape Coloured terms used in the novel appears in alphabetical order at the back of the book.
I’d like to thank Andrew Primrose for reading the manuscript with his usual insight and for his valuable suggestions.
This novel is dedicated to my wife, Sarah, and my son, Raoul.
Gustav Preller, September 2012
Cape Town, Friday, 11 June 2010
ena’s hand slipped down to her jeans pocket to make sure the knife was still clipped to it. Its folded-up steel felt compact and reassuring. She remembered how, years earlier in the gun shop, she had flinched three times – when the weapons on display reminded her of the violent ways of men, when her finger first felt the blade of the Kershaw, and when she saw the price of R900. Her fear of living on the Flats had been greater – after saving for months she bought the knife never dreaming that one day she’d carry it on a mission through the streets of Cape Town.
Across the road from where Lena stood, the new stadium squatted on the common – a blazing basket banishing the night for hundreds of metres. V
buzzed like a million angry bees, shaking the still air around her, and, momentarily, her resolve. Lena glanced at her watch. The match between Uruguay and France had fifteen minutes to go. Soon spectators would make their way to guest houses, B&B’s, hotels, car parks and the train station, using the specially created fan walk patrolled by police. It was the first day of the FIFA World Cup and Cape Town was overflowing. Earlier, in Soweto outside Johannesburg, South Africa and Mexico had drawn the opening match against expectation, igniting the nation.
For weeks Lena had watched the outbreak of patriotism as motorists bought the country’s flag and mirror socks from vendors. Beggars transformed from holding out hands to selling flags bunched-up like flowers. The colours of the rainbow nation had never looked brighter. But burning inside Lena was the knowledge that every thirty seconds a woman was raped in South Africa, not counting child rapes – one of the highest in the world. At the trauma centre Mavis would counsel those who had been brave enough to seek help, and she’d allow Lena to assist on weekends – to give tea and blankets to the shivering victims. Lena would listen and she’d shake too, not from shock but from an old rage that would take hold of her like a fever. She went to the centre because it made her feel less alone, and because in a painful way it gave her strength. The truth was, she thought bitterly, that sixteen years after Nelson Mandela had sworn the oath as president of a free land with a world-class bill of rights her country was still a nation of rapists.
As Lena stared at the glittering stadium across the road she felt neither pride nor excitement. What would it bring to Lavender Hill, where she lived, and Grassy Park, Manenberg, Hanover Park, Bonteheuwel, or Guguletho, Langa, Khayelitsha – places that sounded so nice on a map? Not a thing, because they were on the wrong side of the track. The mountain side was where the soccer fans would stay, many of them men travelling on their own or in groups, for the game they said even though the world knew they also came for the women. There was no difference between them and the men on the Flats who took what they wanted, Lena thought, they just paid for it.
When she saw no one who looked like a sex worker, Lena made her way back to the city in her skinny black jeans, blue and white beanie over her ears, grey anorak hunched forward in the cold, sneakers moving softly like striped cat’s paws over the concrete. In Upper Portswood and Vesperdene Roads, which were more residential, she came across girls wearing minis and high heels, big earrings, hair in fancy curls, their eyes saying, ‘
scram, bitch, this is our patch’
. They weren’t what she was looking for.
Lena pressed on. For the first time in her life she was ready to cross the line from thinking to doing
from being turned in on herself like a sunflower in the night to someone ready to fight back. She knew she carried too much anger and distrust to be as loving as Mavis. But she could no longer live with the feelings of powerlessness and shame that had been hers for years – from the time her gangly girl body showed signs of becoming a woman.
It was at Boundary Road that Lena saw the girl standing just beyond the reach of the street light. Lena looked up the narrow street all the while taking her in: black stockings, short skirt, glossy hair and high cheek bones, and hooded, slanted eyes. Take it easy, Lena thought, she might be like the others. ‘Excuse me … do you know if this street goes through to High Level Road?’
The girl didn’t look up. ‘No cars, only for people … there steps at the top.’ She pressed herself further into the shadows. Her accent was foreign.
Lena stared into a face that didn’t match the sluttish clothes – not the hardness she’d seen in the others but rather the vulnerability that dogs had about them on the Flats, a cowering look that expected the worst. It couldn’t take away from the girl’s exotic beauty. She smelled like a ton of crushed flowers, a fragrance too strong but one that would see her through the night.
‘You’re not from Cape Town, are you?’ Lena asked.
The girl shook her head looking down.
‘Where are you from, then?’ The girl couldn’t have been more than twenty. She stood no higher than Lena’s chin.
‘Koh Samui, it is far away … many hours on the plane.’
‘Thailand, I am Thai.’ It sounded like the beginning of a chant.
‘Can I ask your name?’
‘I am Sarai.’
‘And I’m Lena. You don’t mind me talking to you?’
The girl glanced up Boundary Road, and whispered, ‘Cupido, he is up there, he won’ like it …’
‘Who’s he?’ Lena became aware of her thudding heart.
I wait here, you musn’ stay, okay?’
In her green almond eyes Lena saw what she wanted to know. There had been media reports before the World Cup warning it would be a magnet for syndicates trading in humans.
Cape Flats News
featured lead articles on the threat to schools and Lena had seethed at the thought of traffickers preying on girls. She also knew that women would be lured from other countries, complicating matters – they could be arrested and sent to Lindela, the transit camp for illegal foreigners, or used by police to testify against their bosses, something that could drag on for months in the courts. To Lena it was no reason not to do
She had come here by train tonight but hers had been a journey of many years. Would she wake up tomorrow feeling any different?
Could she ever?
Lena’s mouth went dry. ‘Sarai, I know why you’re here. I want to help, understand? I won’t hurt you.’ If the girl walked away would she walk away too, back to her small existence?
Sarai stood frozen like a street busker. Touch her, Lena thought, hold her and bring her to life again, a new life away from this world of hers. For how long had unwanted acts of touching brought the girl humiliation and pain? Lena wanted to tell her that she knew of the revulsion of skin on skin when there was desire in the one and not the other. Lena took her hand. Startled, the girl pulled back, ‘You go. He will kill me dead!’
‘We can walk away, Sarai,
. Look, there’s the fan walk, and lights, police. We’ll go on it … I’ll take you to people who’ll look after you in a safe house. Cupido will never find you …
Please trust me!’
Lena had never asked for anyone’s trust, having withheld her own from the world for so long. It felt strange.
‘No!’ the girl said, her eyes pleading to be left alone, ‘they get me and I never see my home again.’
Was Sarai any different from the dogs of Lavender Hill, no longer capable of responding to soft words and hands, not trusting kindness? Lena felt as if she’d been slapped in the face. ‘You take care then,’ she said, distressed that the girl was not in a position to do anything of the sort.
Lena made her way back to the stadium. The bulging bright basket was beginning to disgorge people like ants, some still blowing their
How many of them would be having Sarai tonight, she thought – soulless, loveless matches by Cupido the pimp?
Sarai had imagined herself walking away with Lena – to freedom and safety, to Koh Samui. She wanted to cry thinking of her island home. Nobody cared where she came from or who she was, it was her body they wanted.
telling her how – no caressing, no kissing, just doing it, every which way, four, five times a day, and now eight for the soccer, Cupido had said. Fucks and forgets, to Sarai. Without the forgetting she would have gone mad.