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In Love's Place

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The ratmobile
 
A steep, wet night-wind courses across Johannesburg International. The plane
shudders as it rises.
Christian is thrust back against his seat by the plane’s speed. He loosens the
elastic band binding his ponytail and shakes out his dark brown hair. Opposite
him sits an air hostess, her safety belt secured. As the wind rocks the plane, her
head tilts lazily from side to side against the backrest. Her eyes are fixed on the
cabin’s ceiling. By now she’s become used to evading the eyes of businessmen
travelling to Cape Town on a Friday night.
Christian loves the take-off. The sensation of man-made metal straining
against the sheer resistance of nature fills him with melancholy. It gives him a
sense of comfort: death as a fixed point.
Some of the passengers around him sit with their eyes closed, apparently
relaxed. But the little creases at the corners of their eyes betray anticipation and
bated breath. Several of them sit anchored in the beam of their reading lights,
the evening papers open before them, their eyes fixed on a single report.
Christian looks out of his window. The airport slides away beneath the
plane. Down there, below, the perpetually half-finished building works fall
away. Brand-new arrival halls right next to patched-up old landing strips. Little
buildings crouching alongside the grand gesture of an international airport
being fitted out in a hurry for President Mbeki’s African Renaissance. A troop
of worn, pale red vehicles gather around a new fire engine as if they’re waiting
for the gallant sirens to lead them in a charge.
Like all the worn-down carriers in this flight class, the Reebok is used for
internal flights only. Rain hammers against the bodywork as it groans through
a crosswind and leaps over a trough. Around Christian, the ageing technology
becomes a point of discussion. Newspapers are shaken out and opened up. Eyes
look expectantly at the hostess – why is it taking her so long to start pushing
out the trolley?
The city disappears beneath mist and rain. Christian sighs, inspects his nails.
Cumulus has been swelling up over the city since about midday. Just before
he left for the airport, the moisture came down in a thunderstorm that left
the roads looking washed clean. Brake lights from lines of cars at traffic lights
reflected upwards from a thin layer of glisten on the tar.
The roads were just the way Christian liked them – treacherously smooth
from the oil that drips out of Johannesburg’s poorly maintained vehicles on
dry weekdays; out of the engine blocks of minibuses; stolen cars with rebuilt
engines and tinted windows; the struggling trucks that, to discourage hijackers,
grind their way through the traffic without logos or any sign of their contents.
Kwaito music thundering from the doors of minibuses. Taxi drivers
using hooters like trumpets, shouting and whistling out of their windows at
pedestrians who might still want a ride. The little buses threading their way
recklessly through the traffic, determined to pull in as many fares as possible
before the peak hour fades and flows over into night.
Pedlars gathered at the robots, selling cheap Taiwanese hangers, pirated
DVDs, imitation Diesel sunglasses, cellphone chargers, sunscreens for cars.
And then, as always, the men who loaf about at intersections, up to no good,
with a spark plug hidden in their fists. Christian read somewhere that it
takes just the slightest knock to shatter a car window. A briefcase or handbag
snatched, feet pounding through the traffic – and it’s gone. The unemployed
also gather around, looking as if they’ve lost all sense of time and place, still
hoping for a piece-job at this late hour.
As the Reebok bucks yet again, Christian and the hostess hold each other’s
eyes for a moment in a satirical challenge. A woman who takes risks, Christian
thinks, combing his hand slowly through his hair. One for adventure in the
swanky clubs of Soweto and Athlone. A pretty young Zulu woman who must
surely have her own opinions about businessmen trying to catch her eye on the
evening flight to Cape Town.
He turns his head towards the dark window pane, knowing that streams of
moisture will now be pouring off the bodywork. The pilot and his co-pilot sit as
if blind before the glass panes, which seem only a slight barrier against the open
space outside. Christian shakes open The Star. The mount of Venus at the base
of his left thumb still has no feeling. The surgeon said it would remain like that
for a few months yet. But sometimes feeling begins to flutter in Christian’s dead
regions again, as softly as the antennae of a butterfly – in the left thumb, the left
forearm, his right calf and his breastbone, where he can now endure spouting
shower water after six months of recoil.
Suddenly the Reebok bursts through the cloud cover. The stars, close by,
shine sharply. The horizon on the western side glows like an abalone’s shell. As
the hostess unclasps her buckle, a series of relieved clicks follow.
 
Soon enough, the familiar rattle of the drinks trolley makes its way down
the aisle. When she leans over, Christian catches the scent of hand cream and
perfume that smells just a touch cheap.
‘Spring water,’ he orders. He sniffs, then rubs his nose. ‘And a Scotch. On
the rocks.’
As the cabin begins to fill with the affable chatter of passengers queuing up
for the toilets, he thinks back to the weeks just after the operation. Bouncing,
enthusiastic despite the pain, on the family room sofa in front of his sound
system – ‘Dolby digital surround sound and supercool subwoofer power’, as his
son Siebert liked to describe it to his friends – booming so loud that the house’s
walls and windows began to shake and the dog fled to his basket.
It was in a moody, melancholic guitar solo by Bruce Springsteen that he
recognised himself. At the thought of blue jeans and dangerous women; zipping
the night streets apart; ideas and new projects spreading out, beckoning like
runways before the nose of a Boeing.
Springsteen sending it like a wailing siren in the dammed-up afternoon
traffic. Like an aircraft, straining against heavy, weary fog.
Going in against the night-wind, Christian thinks. That’s me. With zipshaped
scars keeping my calf muscles intact and closing up my forearm. A
vertical cut down my chest, here where my shield should be, where I must open
myself up to the world.
 
*
 
The Reebok shoots through the heavens with a low, air-sucking sough, the
turbulence above Johannesburg now forgotten. They glide over the still face
of Africa.
These days Christian’s heart is like an anxious rabbit crouching in his chest.
In his dreams, shortly after the bypass operation, it was worse. His heart was
a snout attached to the face of a pig, snorting as it trotted after him.
And when he lifted his arms towards Christine in a gesture of reconciliation,
to tell her that he loved her, his hands exploded into two swarms of flies,
teeming around his blunt, empty wrists.
The pilot announces that passengers at the windows should look down now
if they want to see the splash of light in the dark Karoo that is Matjiesfontein
and the famous Lord Milner Hotel. Almost there now, he says chattily, and
some of the passengers around Christian begin ordering last drinks. He leans
against the window. The cool glass against his face is comforting. And there
it is, down there: a little swish of light, a few brighter lights. Matjiesfontein.
 
Might someone down there be looking up at the aircraft and see me looking
down, Christian wonders. He remembers the smell of the old hotel where he,
Christine and Siebert drank coffee and ate cake once, during a stopover. The
day Siebert left his violin behind in Matjiesfontein. It was the last stop before
Stellenbosch and their new life; the life he is now leading.
And Christine’s life, bent over that skeleton in Green Point.
He wipes his face with his hand as he feels the aircraft begin to descend
subtly, and he recalls how, after his operation, he swam in the sea again for
the first time. He had staggered into the wild, wet champagne of Wilderness’s
waves, still dizzy from the anaesthetic and clumsy with pain. Biting like a
Labrador at the sparkling foam.
It’s Edvard Munch’s The Scream that troubles Christian’s mind as they
descend upon Cape Town International. Hands rooting in blood, sawing
through bone. Raising and lifting it out from the deep dam of the chest.
He is the nameless figure on a suspension bridge between his shoulder
blades. A scream thunders inside the walls of his thorax.
Christian read on the web somewhere that even under anaesthetic you
register the trauma of an operation. Your brain follows the bite of the surgical
scissors and the bending away of bone, the threading of needles. Even the
conversations of the people working on you don’t escape your notice. You store
it up in a memory that you don’t know you’ve got.
But there’s nothing wrong with his head as he walks down the steps under
the belly of the Reebok. Christian’s legs are those of an athlete, formed by years
of athletics at school and university. He has a well-sculpted back and neat
shoulders. With a toss of his head he swings his lush hair into the wind.
He lifts his hand towards the playful brown eyes of the ground hostess and
thinks: she doesn’t know that it’s an empty hand, a hand attached to an arm
from which the artery’s been removed and the pulse stolen, a hand on a body
with zips that glow in water.
He winks at her and she nods back. She knows him by now. He’s always got
something to say when he arrives on a Friday evening in the midst of all the
other weary businessmen – making a throwaway comment about how beautiful
the Cape is, or a statement about the weather. He’s the athletic businessman
with a slight paunch, his hair sometimes combed out loose, sometimes in a
ponytail. At times he wears sunglasses even after sunset, and he always carries
the same laptop bag over his shoulder.
He strides quickly into the arrivals hall. The first intake of moist Cape
summer air carries the flavour of a woman’s armpit on a warm evening.
He feels the gaze of a couple of women fall upon him as he walks out without
having to wait for his baggage. He weaves his way through the people standing
on their toes behind the barriers, waiting for passengers.
He can travel light because he keeps everything that he needs in two
dwellings: the house in Stellenbosch, the apartment in Sandton.
Whenever Christine sees a shirt she thinks Christian might like, she buys
two.
At the Avis counter he hires a new hatchback BMW. With the keys in his
hand, he makes his way rapidly through the crowds. He thinks back to running
the four hundred metres, leaning slightly forward and careening a little to the
left; the surprising pain and exertion as he hammers into the final straight.
Youthful afternoons on Coetzenburg’s tartan track, legs that give everything
they’ve got, over many hours, days and weeks. The character that forms over
the years.
For Christian, recovery was a race too. But now there are no more pavilions,
and Christine’s no longer a schoolgirl sitting and watching him with red cheeks
as, steaming ahead, he eats up the last hundred metres.
He’s in a dimension about which the other businessmen, now also navigating
hired cars all around him, have no knowledge.
He deposits his laptop in the boot of the brassy little BMW. Better that
way, because all it takes is a light, practised knock against the car window
while you’re idling at traffic lights and you can lose months of work, an entire
infrastructure.
The little car is responsive. Christian winds up the windows as he leaves
the Avis area. He tunes into Kfm: a guitar solo by Carlos Santana. The N2 isn’t
very busy. He swerves onto the highway and takes off, his headlights switched
to bright. Mindful of pedestrians who sprint across from shantytowns, or lost
cows and horses roaming across the tar, he steps on the gas.
When he drives, he falls away into what he calls his thinking time. His
thoughts turn to Siebert, who is now fourteen and at his most cocky. Lately,
whenever Christian thinks about him, a disturbing thing happens: the phrase
‘little fucker’ surfaces. It’s an uncomfortable spectre, this phrase that comes
up from the depths: the child as baby; as a little toddler; the boy who pedals
his tricycle so cutely; the awkward adolescent. And now, voluntary exile in
the room on the second floor, up in the attic, lost somewhere on the web.
Unreachable. Full of shit.
When Siebert does leave his room he acquires a prosthesis, an extra limb: a
skateboard on which, while the rest of the neighbourhood sleeps, he endlessly
practises his jump-and-turn tricks in the street in front of the house. Christian
sometimes watches him from the balcony of the dark bedroom, this figure in
baggy pants comically jumping and falling, only to get up once more, defiantly,
over and over again.
Too much like me, Christian thinks then, with the sleeping Christine behind
him as an evening wind makes the curtains balloon softly and dew makes earth
vapours and plant scents steam up from the Stellenbosch river-ground.
Klop-klop, ka-plak!
In the BMW, Christian shakes his head and allows himself one of his favourite
fantasies. He imagines his clients. Right now they’re sitting in internet cafés
with a takeaway cup of coffee in one hand as the other impatiently navigates
a mouse. There they sit, late in the evening in their government offices before
a lighted, glass screen, surfing silently, addicted. Or they sit alongside goldfish
and thundering TVs in family rooms. They eddy like dust motes in the ray of
sun that invades a room at twilight. Pensively they surf; nameless and nowhere.
His thoughts run over into what awaits him tomorrow morning in
Stellenbosch. He can smell the coffee that Christine will bring him. She’ll have
one of Diana Krall’s fine, ironic songs weaving its way through the house.
Balcony doors ajar, the green crown of the oak tree radiant and fragrant.
Squirrels whisking from branch to branch with woolly tails that go flick-flick,
flick-flick as they tumble through the foliage.
But in the surf at Wilderness, Christian finds himself on his hands and knees
in shallow water. Dissolving bubbles drift on the sheet of water that sucks at his
hands and legs as it slowly recedes. If a current were to get hold of him now,
he wouldn’t be able to walk out of it. Strollers on the large, open beach stare in
surprise at the big man crawling around like a toddler in the shallow surf.
He gets jolted out of his thoughts when he has to turn left towards
Stellenbosch. Farmlands opening up all around him. Windows turned down
and wind rushing into his face. To his right lie vineyards in dark furrows while
to his left – further away and behind the Port Jacksons, the shantytowns and
the little semi-detached houses at Delft – sheets of light from Loevenstein and
Welgemoed rise up against the Tygerberg. He’s aware, to his back, of the white
foam at Macassar, of False Bay’s Hangklip planting its foot into the restless
night waters, and on the other side of the Strand and Somerset West, the dark
figure of Helderberg, barely visible against the stars.
He catches the scent of Cape fynbos. In the cleft running through to the
False Bay coast the salt smell of low tide comes through, the rocks at Gordon’s
Bay exposed now. His mood lifts, he longs for Christine and Siebert, and there,
ahead of him, the lights of Stellenbosch stretch out along the slope of the
mountain. The mountain that, as a schoolboy, he outran, as free and as quick
as a reebok himself.
 
*
 
The car approaching him is driving without its lights on. Christian, inhaling
False Bay’s salty aroma deep into his sinus cavities as he settles comfortably
behind the little BMW’s wheel, flashes his brights at the dark vehicle heading
towards him from Stellenbosch.
Annoyance pushes up in his chest. Nowadays his anger comes more
quickly. It’s a good sign, the cardiologist says. Different people store the anger
in different organs: the liver, the large intestine, the stomach. It’s the poison of
pent-up feeling that wears the chosen organ down. In Christian’s case it’s his
pig-snout, the organ that he tries to think of nowadays as if it were an apple:
rounded out nicely, blush-red, ripe.
With the flavour of new life.
He must, otherwise he won’t be able to keep going.
It rears up suddenly, this temper. In meetings; on the open road; sitting at his
computer; at home with Christine and the little geek. He’s noticed that people
tread more carefully around him nowadays. The good-natured Christian who
used to be able to brush off sticky little problems with cocky insouciance, who
with a wave of the hand was able to say: ‘Let it ride’ – that person is no more.
He’s more stripped now. His stopwatch is taking the measure of a different,
larger kind of time.
‘Fuckers,’ he hisses as the car descends on him like a rat in a dark tunnel. He
flashes his brights again – a little too emphatically, he would concede later –
and leans on his hooter. Then he switches off his lights for a delicious moment
in which time stands still and the two cars fly towards each other in the dark.
When his arms turn to gooseflesh, he pulls himself together and switches the
BMW’s lights on to full strength again.
‘I’ll screw you, fuckers,’ Christian mutters, and in the back of his head: SA
schools champion in the four hundred metres. A long time ago, yes, but still.
Warm summer afternoons in front of packed pavilions full of ice cream licking
girls. (Christine among them, her tongue curled pink around the ice cream.)
Those were the days before Christian was sent to Angola as cannon fodder
against Fidel Castro’s Cubans, pushed into the pathetic African Vietnam of
P W Botha and Ronald Reagan’s CIA, Agostinho Neto and those chess-players
in Moscow.
It was then, Christian often thinks, that his arteries began clogging up.
Those fatty army stews in mess-pans; the propaganda; lice sucking the belly of
a beast, an apartheid republic in Africa.
As the car whooshes past him, he sees it’s one of those Cape Flats specials.
 
An old model from the eighties decorated with cheap, flashy hubcaps. The
bodywork’s full of dents and scratches, a real skedonk, and whoever’s behind
the dark-blue, tinted windows, can’t be seen.
Afterwards he would no longer be certain: a Toyota? A Datsun, maybe? An
old Sierra?
He takes a deep breath and tries to think away the tension in his chest. With
an act of will he drains the blood pressure in the dam between his ribs. Deep
breath in, slowly out. He opens the window slightly. This weekend he must find
out more about those yoga classes over weekends at Coetzenburg. Christine
must go too, although he finds the idea of sitting with crossed legs on a busy
Saturday morning a bit silly. But he must try . . .
Without consciously registering it (he would say later), he notices in his
rear-view mirror the lights of the Toyota (Datsun? Sierra?) flash like two
exclamation marks. The ratmobile turns around. A spotlight on its bumper
cuts through the vineyard and the hills, momentarily spattering white on a row
of workers’ houses.
Then they’re on his tail: two headlights, dull and lifeless, but the single
spotlight’s like a jackhammer. It sits squint, nearer to the right headlight than
the left. On this quiet road with no sign of any other vehicles, it’s a finger in his
face. A beam directed straight at him.
The speed with which the hammering beam approaches comes as a surprise.
Nowadays, he’s read in the Cape Argus, it’s a form of late-night sport on the
Cape Flats – informal car races on the quiet main and through roads. Old
cars that look like wrecks from the outside but doctored on the inside, souped
up until they shoot off like racing cars. Even the traffic cops turn a blind eye
as these drivers from hell pick their champions and flash furiously past the
sleeping suburbs.
Has he just landed up on one of these racetracks?
The car’s sitting on his backside. The light bores into Christian’s rear-view
mirror, splashing onto his face. He puts his foot down, pushing the small BMW
to its limit, but the rat-car stays right there, on his bumper. Suddenly, with the
assurance of practice, the car swerves into the lane for oncoming traffic and
pulls into position next to Christian. He feels panic pounding in his chest.
The car pulls slightly ahead of the BMW, but doesn’t swerve into the space
in front of Christian as an overtaking car would. It keeps on racing ahead
in the wrong lane. On the back window, in letters that are ornamental and
provocative, he reads: Don’t fuck with me.
The car pulls back next to Christian again so that the two vehicles ride next
to each other. The tinted window rolls down. In the passenger seat the young
man is wearing dark glasses and a red bandana around his forehead. From his
sleeveless top a lean and muscular upper arm emerges, on which a dragon,
tattooed across the bulge of the deltoid, rears up on hindlegs.
Suddenly a revolver appears. Black, light blinking against it. The BMW’s
front windscreen shatters. Flecks of glass fly against his face, flowing past his
throat. Bright red crystals fanning out in the glow of brake lights. It’s as if he’s
just driven into a swarm of bees.
He spits out a piece of glass that’s landed between his lips and tastes blood.
Then something else kicks in. His back-up, he calls it. A feeling of decisiveness.
That first turn in the four hundred. Athleticism in his hips; his pumping arms;
chin cleaving the wind. He’s been here before. In the open door of a Puma
helicopter flying low at an angle over the bushes, the wounded pilot lying
aslant over the controls; he, Christian, in the open door with bullet holes in
the fuselage all around him and the taste of blood on his lips. Only later, after
a thudding landing in the dust, machinery cracking, did he discover the blood
wasn’t his own. It was the blood of his fellow soldiers; blood and lymph shot out
of their bodies during the flight and beaten into his face by the wind.
A flash: in the boardroom; the day of his one great humiliation: the rest of
them hunching their shoulders to protect their chests, their soft inner organs.
Gossip-mongers. Lesser beings. Corridor politicians. Coffee-pot bureaucrats.
Hucksters, creatures of the herd. Those who cannot get by without others, for
whom life is a team event.
He took them on: all the way to the winner’s tape, with just the open track
ahead; he doesn’t hear the breathing on either side of him. There’s only one
breath: his own.
He’s been here before. Under lights in an operating theatre – far away
somewhere, yet still awake. Talking to himself: come, come, you can do it,
one more push; you’ve got the strength, you can. Hands lift your heart out of
your chest, but you’ve got the power. There’s a sigh in your belly, the sigh of
surrender, but something else beats obstinately inside you. Something more
durable, stronger than blood: you, yourself.
‘Christian!’ he shouts as the second shot goes off, shattering the back window
with an explosive thud. ‘Christian!’
 
*
 
Now he’s slightly ahead. They race across the dark strip of road. The skedonk
pulls in behind him, every now and again touching the BMW with its front
bumper. One mistake is all it will take to send the two cars rolling. Christian’s
body already anticipates the thump, the loss of control; that quiet half-second of
free-flying, and then the terrible crash. Grinding glass and metal and then the
death-blow, dust swirling as the earth is torn apart and bodies crack, splitting
and breaking open.
But all of a sudden the ratmobile loses interest. The spotlight boring into the
back of Christian’s head fades out. Its fury is spent. How much pent-up rage
and frustration, built up over generations, was concentrated in that one beam
of light, Christian would later say to Christine. And so, suddenly, the game
is over. Perhaps the attention span of the young man with the red bandana
was too short for a long, drawn-out chase. Or maybe the prey was no longer
interesting enough.
The BMW breaks free and the dark car, its lights now switched off again,
becomes no more than a speck in its rear-view mirror.
Christian feels something running down his cheeks – tears! His hands on
the steering wheel, especially the one from which the surgeons took the pulse,
feel light and shaky, as if they’re not really there. Bits of glass still fixed in the
window frame rattle in the wind. He screws his eyes up against the wind and
the crying and races blindly ahead.
Almost no cars on the road. Go to the police? he wonders as he enters
Stellenbosch on Adam Tas Bridge. But what will that help, after all? He’s been
there before, after a burglary, in a charge office full of bored policemen with
deficient attention spans. More than an hour’s worth of procedure just to fill
in a simple form. The mutual knowledge that nothing will be done about the
matter; the undeniably greater power of the criminals.
No, rather go home, to Christine. He drives deliberately slowly through
town, calming down, and calls Christine on the cellphone.
She’s shocked at his message and is waiting for him in the driveway. Her
hands fly up to her face when she sees the BMW. Christian gets out and bits of
glass fall like rain from his body, onto the paving. She wants to embrace him,
but her hands slide over the glass crystals. Crying, she cautiously comes and
stands close to him. He can smell the damp scent of dismay steaming from her
hair. They stand in the glare of the headlights as the engine sizzles. There was
apparently a third shot, one he didn’t hear. It cut through the radiator and now
water’s escaping from it in a froth.
Christian feels something flutter behind his breastbone. It’s not Christine’s
heart. It’s inside him, behind the zip. It’s not his heart either. It’s something else
that is sitting there, inside, trapped. It wants out.
Something with wings.