Authors: Caryl Ferey
“The ideal thing would be to have a sample of the product,” Tembo resumed. “We could make tests, dig a bit deeper.”
An arrow indicated the turnoff for Khayelitsha. Neuman remembered the sachet of powder found next to Ramphele.
“Don't worry,” he said, as he took the exit. “I think I may have found something to keep you busy.”
The Red Cross Hospital annex was at the corner of the Community Center, which was divided into four “villages.” Boys in shorts were playing outside the painted wooden building, others were coming out clinging to their mothers' already over-laden arms. Miriam was sitting on the steps, smoking a cigarette and making circles in the dust with her footâdrawing aboriginal dreams that vaguely resembled Ali Neuman. His car pulled up in the forecourt of the dispensary. She just had time to wipe out her drawings, and there he was, looming over her, with his halo of black hair and his thorn-sharp eyes.
“Thanks for calling me,” he said, by way of preamble.
“It's what you asked me to do, isn't it?”
“Not everyone would have done the same.”
Her hand in the air to shield her from the sun, Miriam let him stew in his traditional polite formulasâat least he was looking at her.
“How is she?”
“We had to rehydrate her,” she replied. “Your mother is acting in a very foolish way, if you don't mind me saying so.”
Josephine had left Khayelitsha at about nine o'clock in the morning, and had been found three hours later wandering in a squatter camp near Mitchell's Plain, a buffer zone between the township and the N2. Taking the bus, getting off along the highway, walking on the uneven ground leading to the squatter campsâher behavior was close to recklessness.
“What was she doing there?”
“You'll have to ask her that,” she said, without concealing her exasperation. “Some kind people called the dispensary, but next time things could turn nasty. It's time you gave her a good telling off, captain. Your mother isn't a young woman anymore, and walking for hours in the sun like that really tired her out. I don't know what the two of you are made of, but after the blackout she had at the weekend, this is becoming suicidal.”
Her brown eyes gleamed with righteous rebellion.
Neuman held out his hand and helped her to her feet. “Where is she?”
“In the little ward,” Miriam replied, squeezing his palm, “on the right.”
But all she could think of at the moment were his bear-like paws, which could so easily lift her to heaven. She was going crazy, too. She led him inside.
A small, colorful crowd was trying to contain its impatience beneath the blades of the ceiling fan. There was no air conditioning, but bottles of water were being distributed to the resigned patients. Josephina was lying on a gurney that, given her size, was more like a shopping cart. At the sound of his steps, she turned her blurred eyes to him and smiled.
“There you are, son! I told Miriam a hundred times that you had other things to do, but the girl won't take no for an answer!”
“A fine way to talk about your friends!” he said, kissing her.
“Hee hee hee!”
It didn't bother her anymore that she was stuck here like a beached whale, now that she had God in front of her in her own black-and-white film.
“Tell me, Ma, don't you think you're a bit old to be running away from home?”
She took his hand, and didn't seem too ready to give it up to anyone. “I didn't think I'd get lost, but obviously, as I don't go there often . . .”
“What on earth were you doing there?”
“Oh . . .”
Josephina sighed, which almost knocked her off the gurney. “They told me Nora Mceli was dead,” she said. “You know, Simon's mother. I don't know if it's true, but someone gave me the name of a cousin of Nora's, Winnie Got, who apparently looked after the boy when she was sick. They told me she was living in a squatter camp between Mandalay and Mitchell's Plain. I wanted to see if she knew anything about Simon.”
“You're stubborn as a mule.”
“The child is lost, Ali. If we don't do anything for him, he'll die, I know it.”
Accidents, illness, stray bulletsâthe life expectancy of street kids was fairly limited.
“I'd like to do something,” he said. “But we can't save them all.”
Josephina assumed a solemn air. “I've been having bad dreams,” she said, looking at him with empty eyes. “The ancestors wouldn't be happy if we left Simon to his fate. No, they wouldn't be proud of us.”
Immemorial ties united them one with anotherâto defend the ideal of the
, to welcome several generations under the same roof, the sense of the extended family, so essential to South African society and still seen as such in spite of decades of separatist policies. Without this solidarity, they, too, would have been lost. Simon was part of the inner circle.
“Why didn't you tell me?” he said. “We could have gone together.”
“I saw your name in the paper,” his mother replied. “That poor girl who was murdered. I didn't want toâ”
“You didn't want to bother me. Right.” His tone changed. “Can you get up or would you prefer to be carried to the car? I'm parked outside.”
“Oh, if you help me, I can try and get up! I haven't dared move from this thing for two hours. I feel like an ocean stuck on a cockleshell, hee hee hee!”
Nothing seemed to bother her at all.
The main thoroughfare crossing the township of Khayelitsha started at Mandalay Station and crossed Cape Flats, a sandy windswept plain where dilapidated houses, “matchboxes,” and cobbled-together shacks co-existed, barely visible from the highway. It was in this gray zone that the squatters had settled, a camp that kept growing, where the police rarely set foot. Wooden signs, barbed wire, pickets, corrugated iron, advertising hoardings, old newspapersâshacks were built with whatever was lying around, fetuses that blew away at the first storm warning. The luckiest lived in containers. Everyone washed outside, because of lack of space and running water. Among the few signs that the camp was becoming permanent were the fact that the barriers marking the boundaries between plots had been replaced here and there with cut sheets of concrete, and the fact that there was now even the odd hedge, a real achievement in the sands of Cape Flats.
According to the information Josephina had gleaned, Winnie Got lived in a spaza shop, a little unlicensed grocery selling staple goodsâmatches, candles, alcohol for fuel, flour, batteries, milk, and a few cold drinks. Neuman drove around, watched with a mixture of hostility and curiosity by the people on the streets. An electricity line ran across the area, connected to wires that straggled wildly like lethal creepers and seemed to lead nowhere. The camp was changing so quickly and so anarchically that it was difficult to find your way around. At last, after a tiresome treasure hunt, he found Simon's guardian in her shop.
Winnie was wearing a
, an East African dress, and soft, garishly pink pumps. Neuman introduced himself as Josephina's son. The heat in the shop was stifling. A shelf of Duralex glasses stood proudly next to a battered refrigerator. Neuman bought two acidulated sodas. They sat down on the window seat to talk, on a flowered mattress that had seen too much sun.
Winnie Got spoke a mixture of English and township slang. She was thirty-eight and had had three children by three different fathers, who had never known their grandmotherâif they had, then, according to tradition, she would have taken care of them. Her cousin Nora had showed up at her house a year earlier, with her kid and her illness. Winnie didn't know what kind of illness it was, rumor said it was the evil eye, the spells she had cast had come back on her like a boomerang. In any case, the poor woman was already very weak when she arrived, and had died two months later. Winnie had kept Simon, who, having no father, would otherwise have found himself out on the street. The boy had stayed with her for a while, then one day he had disappeared, without leaving an address.
“I never saw him again,” Winnie said in conclusion.
There was no tenderness in her expression as she said this. Her cousin had died and had left behind nothing but rumors and an orphan who was nothing to do with her.
“What happened with Simon?” Neuman asked. “Why did he run away?”
“I don't know,” she said, with a shrug. “I tried to talk to him, but he was acting tough with his little gang.”
“Street kids,” Winnie replied. “Plenty of them in the area. Simon would go to the beach to play soccer with them. One day he didn't come back.”
“When was that?”
Winnie fanned herself with a year-old women's magazine. “Three months ago, I'd say.”
“And you haven't seen him since?”
“I saw him wandering around once on the edge of the area, but it was almost impossible to approach them.”
“He'd turned wild.” Winnie gave a bitter grin. “He'd become like the others.”
“Can you describe these kids?”
“There were half a dozen of them. Simon, some others his age, and an older boy, in green shorts.”
There must have been thousands of boys wearing green shorts in the township.
“Any idea where I could find them?”
“Why are you asking me all this?”
“Simon was seen in Khayelitsha last week,” Neuman said.
“He has to hang out somewhere.”
“He attacked a blind old lady who happens to be my mother. She's a pain in the ass, but she's mine. So, where can I find this gang?”
“Don't know,” Winnie said. “I told you, I haven't seen them for a while.”
Neuman finished his soda. According to Josephina, Simon had been alone when he had attacked her. Their strength lay in the group. Alone, they were nothing.
“Did Simon leave anything here?” he asked.
“Can I see?”
Everything she possessed was stored in suitcases in the adjoining bedroom. Winnie soon returned, carrying a tin can with a bashed-in lid.
“This is all I've kept.”
There was a birth certificate (Simon had turned eleven the previous month), a record of the vaccinations given at the dispensary in Khayelitsha, a school book and a photograph, stapled at the edge. In spite of his round cheeks, the boy had had difficulty smiling.
“As you see, there's not much.”
Neuman looked at the photograph. That face.
“Would you like a beer?” Winnie asked. “On the house.”
“No,” he said, his mind elsewhere. “No, thanks.”
The photograph was barely a year old, but it took Neuman a while to recognize him. The other day, on the construction site, the sickly boy with the necrotized face he had saved from the
, the boy who had escaped through the pipe. That was Simon.
uby didn't know. The only one who knew about it was Ali, one evening when they'd lowered their guard. Brian was seventeen at the time, Maria twenty.
Maria hadn't read
Ada or Ardor
, and wouldn't have understood it if she had. Where she came from, you didn't frolic in the grass around the castle with your cousin. The walls of her house hadn't been built by the first white farmers in southern Africa, her father hadn't been an important official or a lover of racehorses, her mother didn't make
in the morning while wondering what the weather was going to be like today, the window of the kitchen didn't look out on a meadow, or the bedroom window on a little wood that made you forget the electrified gates around the property. Maria didn't have stables, or horses, or a hi-fi, or LPs, the Clash, Led Zeppelin, the Plimsouls, she didn't know anything about rock bands who encouraged a sense of rebellion, or about the broken hearts to be found in books, or subtle desires, or transgression, she had never heard of Nabokov, or the ardor of love. Maria couldn't read.
She would have liked to become a social worker, but she hadn't been given the chance. Maria was black. She had two dresses, one red and one sky blue, and the sky blue one was the nicer of the two. Brian had told her that, one day when she was coming back from the stables, with her pails full of shit, her rubber boots and her dirty apron. Maria had been afraid at firstâthis smiling white boy was the
's sonâbut his sea-green eyes gleamed so brightly that she had forgotten her mother's warnings. No white had ever told her she was pretty. It had taken two months for them to feel at ease with each other, for Maria to replace the Ada of his dreams. Brian and Maria made love for the first time hidden in the little wood behind the family home, while the electricity wires surrounding the estate crackled above them. Brian was jubilantâif only his asshole of a father knew.
“I'll teach you to read,” he had declared, lying with her in the bracken.
He didn't know anyone could laugh like that. So wonderfully. As if, when he was in her arms, apartheid didn't exist. It was the end of childhood, the beginning of romance. Before long, Brian was doing everything he could to eat his forbidden fruit, taking the most outrageous risks, skipping classes, friends, sports, to take her into the woods. Maria would laugh, and he would take it for love.
Two years passed without any problems, or any change in their carnal appetites. Maria would decipher the words of the books he brought with him into the bracken, and Brian the instruction manual of the female body she offered in exchange. Maria smelled of musk and spice and fruits of the forest.
“Will you ever leave me?”
She would laugh.
And of course he would take that for love.
One day, Brian had come home at noon, when Maria was working, to surprise her. The house was empty, his mother had gone into town to shop with other milk-white dolls who were her friends. He had gone around to the other side of the garage, made sure one of the servants wasn't cutting the hedge in the garden, and ran to the stables. The thoroughbred was grazing in the adjoining enclosure when he heard a noise from the barn. Maria. He approached softly, imagining her back bent over the broom, her very individual smell, and the shock hit him full in the face. Maria was leaning over the rail of one of the stalls with her dress up while a big man pleasured her. His father. He was breathing as heavily as an ox, his feet in horseshit. All Brian could see was his huge ass contracting as he thrust into her, his crumpled pants hanging over his boots, and Maria clinging on in order not to fall.
“I'll kill him. I'll kill him,” he kept repeating, his eyes misting over with tears.
But it was too late. Brian hadn't dared to grab the pitchfork hanging at the entrance to the stable, he hadn't had the guts to nail his father like a moth to the barn door, to plunge the pitchfork into his back until it came out through his throat.
He was afraid of him.
“I'll kill him.”
Maria didn't reply. She was crying in the wood where they had made love. She was ashamed. In vain, she hid her face in her pitiful hands. Brian didn't ask her how long it had been going on, if he had forced her the first time, if she had had a choice. Her laughter wouldn't hide with them in the bracken anymore. From now on her shoulders, her legs, her cunt wouldn't smell of anything but his father's loathsome smell.
In the months that followed, Maria had continued coming to the house to work, but Brian had carefully avoided her. He felt betrayed, humiliated, still in love in a confused way. And then one day, Maria hadn't showed up. He had watched out for her all weekend, then the following weekend, but in vain. He had questioned his mother, one morning, in the kitchen, as casually as he could.
“Maria?” she said, her hands in the dough. “Your father fired her last week.”
“The stables were in a terrible state!” she stated, even though she herself never set foot in them.
Brian had brooded for a few days, then had searched his father's office. He had found Maria's address in a filing cabinet, with her pay slips and the papers she had needed to come and work in the city. Maria lived in the township. Six miles awayâthe ends of the earth.
No white ever ventured into the townships. Brian had asked the black taxi driver to wait for him outside the house, a plywood hut painted yellow, a luxury in the neighborhood. Maria's mother made a frightened gesture when she saw the white boy at her door. Three little children were clinging to her apron, torn between curiosity and shyness. The woman didn't want to talk at first, but Brian insisted until she gave in. Maria had left for work one day, and hadn't come back. There were rumors that she'd been picked up by a police car on the way out of the township, but her mother didn't believe that. Maria was four months pregnantâshe must have run away with the baby's father, probably one of those good-for-nothings who promised the moon but brought only trouble.
Back home, Brian had checked the date of Maria's disappearance against the employees' rota. Maria should have been working in the stables that day.
Lying to the local cops, he had reported a theft, saying Maria was the culprit and giving them her description. He insisted they investigate, mentioned that his father was a prosecutor, and got what he wanted. An inspector made some inquiries, which proved fruitless. Maria didn't have a record. She'd never committed a crime, never been arrested. The cop was happy to take his complaint, but there was little chance it would get anywhere.
Maria's mother, whom Brian had kept informed of his search, steered him in the direction of an ANC militant. Underground activities, torture, disappearances, the arbitrary procedures of the special services, the murders of opponentsâBrian discovered a reality he had been unaware of. But he made the connection. His father was a prosecutor, an immovable link in the chain of power.
A month had passed since Maria's disappearance. Brian had waited until his father was alone in the kitchen and then said, “By the way, did you know Maria was pregnant?”
His father had glared at him for a second, before gathering himself. “Pregnant?”
But his eyes had betrayed him. He knew, of course.
“It was you who made sure she disappeared, wasn't it?” Brian said defiantly. “You who sent the cops to pick her up outside the township?”
His father's massive body towered over him. “What on earth are you talking about?”
His veins were swollen with anger, but Brian wasn't afraid of him anymore. He hated him.
“The child she was expecting wasn't yours,” he said, “but mine. Stupid bastard.”
Apartheid: separate development.
Brian had changed his home, his life, his name, his friends. He had toughened himself up away from his hated family, and had opened an office doing investigations. Looking for blacks his father had had eliminated became his specialty, a hard task but one he felt obliged to carry out, and one that had brought him into contact with underground ANC members and the police pursuing them. More than once, Ruby had picked him up from a ditch by the side of the highway, badly beaten. His life was spared on account of his father's position, but the hatred remained. Brian had dug up corpsesâsome that had lain buried just below the ground for months, skeletons with broken teeth, or with dislocated ribs when they'd been thrown off the roofs of police stations, corpses of opponents or mere sympathizersâbut he had never found Maria's body.
His need for love was inconsolable. He kept Maria's memory alive, like a shameful secret. He did not know why he never talked about her. Why he stuck his head in places where other people never set foot. What he was punishing himself for. If taking refuge in the arms of women came from the same desire to sabotage everything. In the end, Ruby was right. His heart was made of iceâit melted easily.
Tracy, for example, magic trick number fifty-four, white dressing gown and russet tunic in the middle of the kitchen, a pencil cleverly keeping her hair in place, making scrambled eggs for breakfast with all the dexterity of a newborn baby.
“God, it's a mess here!” she laughed.
They had just woken up. The Young Gods were screaming from the living roomâSwiss, according to the CD bookletâas she busied herself at the oven.
“Don't you like the music?” he cried, in a tone that fitted him like a glove.
“I have my ears full of it every evening!” Tracy said.
“You just have to keep them closed, darling.”
“You're funny in the morning, you know.”
“I'm feeling a bit groggy,” he said. “I keep thinking it's still evening.”
She murdered the frying pan with her fork. “Oh, yes? You were already half asleep when I got in.”
Tracy had come over after her shift, but Brian had collapsed after the third joint of Durban Poison. It was the first time they had seen each other since that crazy Saturday night and the abortive Sunday at Jim's. Tracy was thirty-five. She knew that, working behind a bar, she could have as many men as she wanted, the problem was always the second time. Other drinks led them on to other girls, and the funny redhead behind the bar was part of the past. “You just have to find a proper job, girl,” she would say to herself on the evenings when she felt depressed, “not one where everyone's eyeing your ass.” But Tracy didn't believe much in other jobsâor men in general.
She stirred the mixture in the frying pan. “I hope I'm better in bed,” she said.
“Like eggplant caviar.”
“Is that good?”
“If you like garlic.”
Tracy pushed what was left of the eggs onto the plates and threw the frying pan into the sink with a deafening clatter.
Brian grimacedâthis girl certainly didn't smell of lavender.
“Can I ask you a personal question?” she said, sitting down opposite him.
“My shoe size is forty-three, if you must know.”
“Go on, darling.”
Tracy lowered her eyes. A lock had escaped from her pencil, and fell in red curls down her neck.
“You must tell me if I get on your nerves. I'm so unused to this, I keep thinking I'm overdoing it. I'm talking crap, aren't I?”
“A little, darling.”
In spite of his show of stoicism, the magic trick kept going flat. You could see it escaping through the garden, conjured away. Brian looked at his watch. It wasn't that he was late, it was just that the world was running away from him.
When the ANC had refused to give their support to the system of Bantustans, the apartheid government had imprisoned Mandela and his associates on Robben Island, a small, verdant island off Cape Town that had the advantage of leaving the political opposition in total isolationâMandela had had to wait twenty-one years before he even so much as touched his wife's hand again.
Sonny Ramphele did not have to suffer that cruel double sentence. Stanley's brother was serving two years in Pollsmoor prison, an insalubrious, overcrowded concrete building, where even the flies were in hell.
“Find what you're looking for?” the head guard said.
Dan Fletcher was peering down at the register, trying to get an idea of the visits and their frequency. Kriek, the redneck everyone called Chief, was playing with his bunches of keys and waiting. Dan did not reply. Brian Epkeen was smoking, looking threateningly at Kriek. He didn't like prisonâmankind should have come up with something better in eight thousand yearsâand he certainly didn't like a petty dictator like this one, a beneficiary of the sunset clause,
who had reenlisted because the prison population, when you came down to it, hadn't changedâyou still had plenty of
Sonny Ramphele had been on a suspended sentence when he was arrested at the wheel of a stolen car with a hundred ounces of marijuana crammed under the seat. He hadn't fingered anyone else, and had been given two years without remission. Sonny's story was a classic one. Parentsâtenant farmersâwho had died when he was young, the exodus with his brother to the city, overcrowding, unemployment, poverty, crime, prison. Sonny had just turned twenty-six, and if he didn't do anything stupid, he'd be out in a few months.
Forensics had searched the mobile home, but if the younger brother had taken over his business and had a stash of drugs hidden away somewhere, it seemed to have disappeared with him. They had found only a few prints, all of them Stanley's, and inquiries with the locals hadn't gotten them anywhere. The nearest shack was uninhabited, and the dropouts who lived on the coast didn't stick their noses in other people's affairsâas witness the fact that Stanley's body had been rotting for four days. Some had known Sonnyâ“Big guy, pleasant enough, looked after his little brother”âand Stan, who was really into fashion and motorbikes. No one had ever seen him with Nicole Wieseâa young blonde like that, they'd have remembered. The one clue that had confirmed the lead they were following was that there were several prints of Nicole's in the pickup, which had been used on the day of the murder.