Extract - At the Edge of the Desert
Within a few weeks I’d settled back into my old routine. My days began with cossie and goggles wrapped in a towel. I’d follow the road down to the Shark Island pool – a quick walk through Lüderitz – for a morning swim before returning home to edit my documentary. I spent my time attempting to make sense of South African prison gangs, struggling to decide if my film should focus on the men or their make-believe uniforms.
Shark Island, despite its name, is a peninsula connected to the main- land by a narrow causeway. On it a sign reading HAIFISCH points to the campsite, situated on high ground to avoid flooding by rough seas, and another, SCHWIMMBAD, to the tidal pool built adjacent to the Atlantic. Occasionally I’d be early enough to see trucks loading the overnight catch they’d transport to the processing factories. Here the southern ocean is a fishy stew and my mornings smelt of ammonia, from iced pilchards and steenbras, just like those of my childhood.
And on some days – like today, when the distant campground was al- most empty save for a few tents, their canvas pulled taut over their curved poles, making dull-coloured igloos – I’d set off again in the afternoon. I walked at a good pace, even though the strong wind threatened to make me lose my footing, because I was due to meet a striking man on Shark Island and couldn’t be late.
I spat into my goggles and rubbed them clean with a finger. I slipped off my jeans. Pulled on my swimming trunks before anyone could see me, and threw myself into the cold water that was gritty with sand.
The Atlantic spewed foam over the pool’s seaward wall, which separated me from the darker surf, small rocks on that wall like bobbing seals. I pushed away from the shallow end, kicking through the chaos, with both arms extended.
When I was a teenager I’d easily clock forty lengths of freestyle, some- times more, in a session. Back then I could swim an entire length of the half-Olympic in a single breath.
I counted my strokes until my mind began to wander. I found my rhythm.
Arm reached forward.
Fingers fully extended before they caught the water.
Head turned to the side.
Face down again to exhale without thinking as my lagging arm broke the surface.
Jago arrived half an hour late, walking confidently towards me, without apology, in linen trousers and a cotton shirt more suited to the Mediterranean than the southern Atlantic. His hair hung loose, so he kept raking it back with his fingers to stop the south-westerly blowing it across his face.
He dipped a hand into the pool.
I said, ‘You like cold water?’
‘It’s warmer when you’re in,’ I lied. He had his phone with him, which I suggested he lock in his rental car. When he returned to the pool he took a bit more coaxing before finally lowering himself into the water.
Jago was from Germany; he was tall and blond, and perhaps a bit self-satisfied. He was the regional director of an AIDS-awareness NGO, managing their Windhoek office, where he oversaw sub-Saharan education and prevention.