© Tom Jeffery 2015
I would love to hear what you think of Midnight’s Chicken. Get in touch with me.
Cover art © 2015 by Elizabeth Jeffery of Greenore Books.
My Midnight’s Chicken
I’ve done it! Abhinav Raksha is actually coming, to my shop.
The months of wrangling with publishers, agents, accountants and the ‘people’ at Head Office had finally paid off. Abhinav Raksha was coming. It was the coup of a lifetime. Nobody ever came to Baytown. The hipper cities always got the big names, cities that didn’t have sewage farms on the main road into town. But not this time.
The sense of achievement was like nothing Russell had ever experienced. It coursed over him like the blood-warm wavelets lapping the beach in Umhlanga where he had spent his last holiday, three years ago.
Russell Hobbes was the manager of the Baytown branch of Books-R-Us. He loved his job, mostly, except for some of the customers, and he hated the shop’s name and the stupid clown mascot. But those thorns aside, he really did love the shop, or at least the access that it gave him to the literary world. The rows of books arranged by subject and, occasionally, alphabetically. The software that allowed you to view lists of every book ever published and those which soon would be. The publishers’ reps with their proof copies and expense account lunches. But mostly the books. Russell had a profound love of the printed word. Well, the good printed word, anyway. There was a lot of rubbish that somehow managed to get published, books that Russell looked upon with disbelief and wounded pride as his own work languished unfinished, undiscovered.
One day, he thought. One day I will be discovered. He tried to avoid thinking, Hopefully before I’m dead.
He took comfort from the fact that Abhinav Raksha’s appearance at the shop was not just a commercial coup guaranteed to move large volumes of The Devil’s Poetry and Midnight’s Chicken, but was also deeply satisfying on a personal level.
I’m finally going to meet one of the greats. His brain wandered over a collage of all the local authors he had met over the years. But they’re nobodies, unknown outside South Africa. There’s no comparison.
G.N. Kotzer, or at least his agent, had repeatedly turned down Russell’s invitations, citing time constraints and the fact that Kotzer now lived somewhere up a mountain in New Zealand, but Russell had long suspected that Kotzer simply could not face setting foot in a place called ‘Books-R-Us’.
Ha! This’ll show him.
Bursting with pride, Russell opened a new document on his PC and started to type a memo to the shop staff informing them of an unscheduled staff meeting, at which he would announce his great achievement.
A head poked around his door. It was Leslie, one of the front-of-shop staff.
‘Russell, can you help me, please?’
‘Yes, sure, what’s up? Come in, come in.’
Leslie came into the office and as usual when he saw her Russell’s heart turned weightless and pressed against the inside of his chest. She was wearing skinny jeans with the little black ballet-type shoes that seemed to be in fashion and a fitted shirt of some shiny black material that accentuated all her good bits, of which there were many. Her hair was soft and dark and framed her face, which was gentle with chocolate eyes, full lips and smooth skin. For these brief moments there was just her and the way she made him feel, but then the moment passed and he returned to a world in which he thought that she was not intellectual enough for him because she never joined in his conversations about his favourite authors. His brain flashed an image of his girlfriend, Griselda Sparg, who was intellectual enough. Russell moved along before his brain could say anything about that.
‘You’ll never guess who I’ve just organised for a special Readers-R-Us function.’
Readers-R-Us was the Books-R-Us chain’s book club, and offered a two percent discount if you bought the books they told you to. There was a monthly cheese and wine in the shop foyer. Leslie felt tested. She knew it must be a writer and she fished around in her mind for a name that could possibly have got Russell this excited, but she hooked nothing. After a few seconds of silence Russell could contain himself no longer.
Leslie’s face remained undisturbed by any flickers of recognition. Russell elaborated.
‘Abhinav Raksha! The great Indian author.’
Leslie smiled and said, ‘Oh. That’s nice. I like those evenings we have. Listen, Russell, there’s a lady who wants to speak to the manager. Will you come?’
Russell’s smile faltered.
‘Did you hear what I said? Abhinav Raksha is coming here. To this shop. On the twenty-second of November.’
Leslie wasn’t sure what to do. Russell clearly expected her to know who Abhinav Raksha was, and though she hated to disappoint him she was too stressed out about the lady out front who was in fact no lady at all.
‘That’s really great, Russell. Do you want me to organise the wine? There’s a special on at that bottle store around the corner.’
Her lack of excitement threw him until he realised: She has no clue who Raksha is.
His buzz fizzed out sadly and he returned to the cramped confines of his office, his daily habitat.
‘OK, let’s go and see what this lady wants,’ said Russell, and smiled for Leslie despite his disappointment.
She watched him go. She knew that he was disappointed that she did not know who Raksha was and she wished that she could take the moment back. She also wished that he would get over himself, that he would see how he felt about her and how she felt about him and get away from his mean swamp-donkey of a girlfriend, Griselda. These, though, were things that she knew would happen only in their own time, as Russell finished the journey that he had started, even if he did not yet know it. Leslie was perceptive in ways that Russell could not imagine.
Russell walked from his office and through the staff area, which shared air vents with the kitchen of Giorgio’s, the Italian restaurant next door, and so always smelled of garlic or insect spray. Kitchen sounds carried through the thin divide between the restaurant and the book shop, be it the clatter of dishes, the singing of the kitchen staff or a ‘waitron’ being bawled at by the short, fat and grumpy Greek manager for failing to ensure that there was a sufficient supply of little packets of sugar at all of their assigned tables. Russell used ‘waitron’ because it was politically correct, but he could not help but imagine some sort of cyber-server. He stepped through the ‘Staff Only’ door into the shop, which was built in a circular shape with a mezzanine level that, through some architectural black magic, floated unsupported above the ground floor. Thick, shiny metal railings kept small children from flinging themselves into the rows of shelves below. The sales counter was a circle in the centre of the ground level, ‘repeating the aesthetic of the round,’ as Rodger from Head Office had put it, an aesthetic which Thando, the shop’s deputy-manager, had suggested was further repeated by Rodger himself, who was an arsehole.
Russell went down the stairs to the ground floor and as he approached the counter he saw Pam and Joanne, the other two front-of-shop staff, looking very busy. This was a sure sign that something was wrong. He quickly spotted it: a large, almost-elderly woman, with larger hair and larger-still sunglasses, bedecked with gold at ears, throat and fingers and wearing a zebra-stripe pants-suit. From a bag slung over her shoulder poked the head of a toy Maltese that growled and yapped at people who ventured too near while its owner glared at the trespassers and drew the bag to herself to stop them distressing Peekaboo (for this was its name, which many of the other dogs that lived in its neighbourhood believed to explain what a doos it was).
Her gaze shifted to Russell as he approached. Her double, No, Jesus, triple, he realised, chin flapped her indignation, and for a moment he expected her to gobble like a giant turkey. But instead she opened her mouth to release a loud, high-pitched, abrasive voice which caught the attention of everybody in the shop.
‘Are you the manager?’
‘Yes,’ said Russell. ‘Is something wrong?’
‘You’re bloody right there’s something wrong! Look at this!’ she brayed and brandished a book fiercely.
Russell recognised it as the latest offering from a writer of cheap romances of the type preferred by zebra-stripe-pants-suit-wearing turkey-women. His soul cringed at the thought of the fantasy world fed by such books.
‘What seems to be the problem, ma’am?’ asked Russell. He knew from long experience that the best way to deal with customers like this was the path of least resistance: blank civility
‘I’ll tell you what the problem is,’ she grated. ‘I wanted the hard-back version with the interviews, so I could understand the book more better, and you idiots got me the normal one. I want the other one, the one with the interviews! I know what I’m talking about, I know you could have got me the other one and you just didn’t bother. You people are liars! I spend a lot of money in this shop and the service is pathetic, just pathetic!’
Russell kept his face expressionless.
‘One moment, ma’am.’
He tapped away on the computer and found the book she wanted, which took a bit of doing amidst the vast list of the author’s titles, one every three months for the past ten years, and every one of them a bestseller. Russell’s soul wilted a little further.
‘We can get the book you want but it will take a couple of weeks. Shall I place an order for you?’
Her face took on a deeper shade of purple and this change in the colour of the substrate caused a disturbing shift in the tones of her layered makeup.
She tossed the offending book down on the counter, from where it slid to land at Russell’s feet. The cover bent back in a long crease.
‘Yes ma’am. It has to be shipped from America, and the boat ….’
‘I want it now!’ she shrieked.
She’s like a vast, spoiled child, thought Russell.
He sensed the eyes of staff and customers on him from points around the shop and pushed a mental finger into the imminent breach in his own fantasy world, the one where vast, spoiled children got what was coming to them.
‘Sorry. Can’t be done. Do you want me to order?’
She was thrown by the lack of emotion in his voice. This, coupled with his safe haircut, his clean-cut good looks, his smart, clean, pinstripe Woolworths shirt tucked into his smart, clean Woolworths trousers, gave her nothing upon which to launch the personal attack she so clearly yearned to unleash. And so it was that the large outstanding debt on Russell’s Woolworths account protected him from at least some of the nasty sorts of people familiar to all those who have ever worked in retail.
‘You people … you … I’m so cross!’ As she spluttered her jewels jangled and her reddened wattles wobbled, reinforcing in Russell’s mind the image of a large, semi-literate turkey with an unfortunate sense of fashion. ‘Just give me that book!’
She extended a red-taloned hand towards the book in Russell’s hand, and as he passed it to her he felt a pang of pity for it despite its dodgy literary credentials.
‘That’ll be one hundred and eighty rands,’ said Russell.
She gestured at the creased cover.
‘It’s damaged. I want a discount.’
Russell took off ten percent.
‘That’ll be one hundred and sixty two rands.’
‘Is that it?’ she spat.
‘That’s the best I can do. Head Office limits our discounts.’
His face remained expressionless. She made a guttural sound in her throat, reached into her leopard-print handbag and withdrew a snakeskin purse, from which she extracted a black American Express card and her Readers-R-Us points card. She tossed both cards down on the counter without a word. Russell endured a tense thirty seconds as the card machine decided what to do with the American Express card. It was a xenophobic little machine and often refused to process such strange, foreign plastic. Fortunately, it was feeling more adventurous today. The payment went through, and Russell put the sad little volume on the counter with the cards on top.
‘Thank you. Enjoy your day,’ said Russell, switching on a big smile so suddenly that he saw her flinch.
She recovered and looked down at the book as if someone was holding something nasty under her nose.
‘I want a bag.’
‘Plastic bags are illegal now, ma’am.’
Her flabby lips parted as she drew in sonorous breath. She narrowed her eyes and held his gaze for a moment that seemed frozen in time. A fly buzzed between them and he could see every beat of its wings and the dust that swirled in the draught of its flight. He didn’t flinch. Finally, she broke off, snatched up book, cards and receipt, turned and flounced towards the door, muttering her displeasure, Peekaboo snapping at the people she passed. Russell watched her retreat with a cold, blank stare. He drew in a deep breath and released it slowly. Breathed again. He turned around to head for his office and found Leslie standing behind him. She looked guilty.
‘Sorry about that, Russell.’
He paused, sighed, and let some of his anger go.
‘Not your fault. She must have been born that way, I suppose. Can’t be helped.’
Leslie smiled gratefully, then she turned and walked off into the shop to do some alphabetising. Russell watched her walk away and felt something move within him, a pleasant, slipping sensation. Along with the stopping of his heart, this was the other thing that happened when he looked at her, but he resisted, telling himself that she was not for him, that she did not have his intellectual grip on the world and so they could never be happy together. He used learned contemplation to keep thoughts of her at a distance, smothered his desire for her with Said, Spivak and Sartre, strangled his feelings for her with wa Thiong’o and Achebe. Russell’s brain shook itself in frustration, but it knew that there was hope. Russell was not entirely lost to theory. His mind was clearing, he was slowly beginning to see the real world again. Leslie knew this too, and Russell’s brain hoped that she would have the patience to wait through his recovery.
She’s so beautiful, and sweet, he thought. And friendly and kind, and not at all vain about her beauty.
Russell’s belief that she wasn’t very bright was the one thing that caused him to drown his feelings for her in the lake of his will, though recently he had begun to suspect that this lake was not particularly deep. Still, he just managed to stop himself from falling madly in love with her.
Do people still fall madly in love? wondered Russell, pleased with himself; then he flinched as he realized that someone had definitely wondered this before him.
His brain made him think of his girlfriend, Griselda Sparg, and he tried not to notice how quickly he changed the subject. He went back to his office for a cup of coffee.
Leslie felt really bad about Russell’s encounter with the zebra bag-dog lady. He had clearly been in such a good mood before she knocked on his office door.
That reminded her. She looked around for Thando, spotted him in the South African Literature section and headed over to him.
‘Hey, Les. Pretty ugly, hey?’
‘Sho, ja. Poor Russell. He was so happy, too. Thando, who’s … ummm, what was the name now? Something Raksha?’
‘Do you mean Abhinav Raksha?’
‘That’s it. Is he famous?’
‘Russell said he’s coming here.’
Thando looked at her sharply.
‘Raksha, coming here? No way. You must have … are you sure that’s what he said?’
‘Yes, he was so happy and then that woman ruined it and now I ….’
Thando was already on his way to Russell’s office. She watched him go.
They really get excited about this Raksha guy, she thought. He must be good. Let’s go take a look.
She went across to the Contemporary Fiction section and scanned the shelves for Raksha.
‘Ian Rankin, Anne Ransom, Roasts and Casseroles ….’ She pulled that one out. ‘Philip Rupert, Jemimah Swift ….’
She looked a few books to either side just to make sure, but there was no Raksha.
‘Huh. Well, if the guy’s coming here Russell better order some of his books. I’ll remind him.’
She made her way back to the counter where an old lady who was very nice but smelled powerfully of mothballs wanted to know if the complete works of C.S. Lewis was available in a large-print box set, the search for which drove the underabundance of Raksha books from Leslie’s mind.
Thando barely paused to knock on Russell’s door.
‘Is it true? Is Raksha really coming here?’
Russell deleted the unfinished message about the unscheduled meeting.
‘Yes. I’m proud to say it is, and he is, on the twenty-second of November.’
‘How did you do it?’
‘Connections, Thando, connections.’
Russell thought that given the circumstances he was allowed to feel a bit smug and leave out the bits about grovelling and begging.
‘On the twenty-second of November?’
‘Sooo … that would be Wednesday. The day after tomorrow.’
‘Yes. Oh. Yes, so it is. Hmmm,’ said Russell. ‘Better get things started then. Print out a list of Readers-R-Us members and their phone numbers. Get the front of shop staff to phone and invite them. And the staff of the university’s English Department. Put up posters in the shop window. Place an ad in the Trumpeter. Organise catering. Seating. Security. All the staff have to come. Make it clear it’s mandatory. Are you writing this down?’
Thando was stunned.
‘I hope you don’t think I’m going to do all that,’ he said. ‘I might be the deputy-manager, but ….’
‘No, no, everybody’s going to be very busy, don’t you worry. Plants. We need new plants. The leaves on these ones are starting to perish. Invite centre management. And tell Head Office. No, I’ll do that. Go and delegate. Except catering and security. I’ll take care of that too.’ He felt he was forgetting something, but couldn’t place it. ‘Go, go, go! Do it. And tell them it all needs to be done now, now, now!’
Thando smiled excitedly.
‘I’m on it!’ He stood for a moment and stared unbelievingly into space. His voice was rapturous. ‘Raksha, here. I can’t believe it.’
With a last big smile and a double thumbs-up to Russell, he went to spread the word.
Russell picked up his phone and dialled Head Office with a deep sense of achievement for what he was about to report. He was put through to Rodger, the head of marketing for Books-R-Us.
‘That’s tremendous, Russell. This is a real opportunity to strengthen our brand identity.’
The Books-R-Us brand was centred on a clown called Cheery, who had a big red nose, massive ginger hair and a yellow suit with fluffy red buttons. Cheery was tossing a pile of books joyfully up into the air. The cover of each book had a large, single letter in a primary colour which, by some miracle of chance, spelt out the shop’s name. ‘We just need to find a way to cement the public association of Raksha with the Books-R-Us brand. You’ll have the press there, of course, but we need to make the brand come alive somehow, to be unavoidably present. I have the perfect solution. I’ll get back to you. Soon.’
Rodger hung up. Russell sat back in his chair without any sense of the terrible consequences that would arise from this conversation.
He put aside the incident with Peekaboo’s awful mommy, pushed Leslie and Griselda from his mind and tried to recapture some of the initial glow of the Raksha triumph. What Russell wasn’t telling anyone, what he was not telling even himself, not out loud anyway, was that he had arranged the Raksha event for himself. Meeting Raksha was part of The Plan. The Plan, though, was rapidly losing its capital-letter status. When he began the arrangements, months before, he expected that he would have finished writing the Great South African Novel by the time the event came round. But he hadn’t. Nowhere near. Now, Russell feared that he was losing his intellectual edge, probably as a direct result of working at Books-R-Us. Raksha was coming but Russell had no novel, never mind The Novel, to show him. He clicked his mouse a couple of times and there it was, NOVEL, the folder that held the incomplete manuscript of NOVEL.doc. He closed the folder but the desktop icon taunted him. It lurked in the corner of his screen from where it daily tried to catch his eye so that it could mock him while he dug through mounds of publishing reps’ sales lists or tried to convince Excel to add things up in such a way that the daily balance sheet would actually balance. Russell thought that it should be called an imbalance sheet, seeing as that was what it usually did and also how it made him feel. Sometimes, he would torture himself by opening NOVEL.doc’s properties, where it might as well have said ‘last modified bloody ages ago because you are a talentless loser’.
Russell was stuck. Blocked. He had a great working title, ‘The Cactus’, and a great character, Harper McQueen, a lonely, ex-Special Forces soldier with PTSD from the Border War who lived in isolation on a prickly pear and termite farm in the Karoo, to where he had retreated after his wife was abducted by Somali pirates while they were on a yacht trip around the Horn of Africa. Russell didn’t know what should happen to Harper. He was toying with the idea of a mysterious stranger arriving on the farm, perhaps a one-legged, HIV-positive, Somalian woman immigrant who had lost everything to xenophobic violence. But Russell could not imagine what she would say to Harper, or what Harper would say to her. He was beginning to fear that he did not, after all, have it in him to write the Great South African Novel. His brain sighed and wished that Russell would go easier on himself, finally recognize his own limitations, forget his intellectual pretentions and write a bestseller. As it was, Raksha was coming but Russell had no book and The Plan was looking ragged at best. His final hope was that he might be able to impress him with penetrating insights and interesting questions. He had been working on a list of questions to ask and topics to raise so that Raksha would be impressed and take him under his wing, where Russell imagined it would be warm and comfortable and scented with exotic spices and money.
The voices of the kitchen staff from the Italian restaurant filtered through the wall, their working song clear as if they were in the next room. Which they were. Their song was simultaneously joyful and melancholy, with harmonies that flicked at Russell’s heart. Through the beauty of it he felt a pang of bitterness.
Jesus, my life is kak. Why can’t I be a famous author, like Abhinav Raksha? Where the hell did I go wrong? He must have such a great life, writing and travelling and meeting interesting people and doing exciting things. It must be amazing to be a successful, good-looking writer. And then there’s his wife, Saleena Nakshatra. He’s married to one of the leading literary theorists in the world. She’s so brilliant I could barely understand that last article she published. And she’s beautiful too. How did I end up here?
Abhinav Raksha was a small man, slight and slender but upright. He dressed well, but in a style that ensured nobody would call him dapper. He hated that word. It made him think of a chairman of a church fete committee with gelled hair, a shiny blue suit and shoes with white flashes, enveloped in a cloud of Brut or Old Spice. His suits – he always wore a suit, varying the weight of the cloth for the weather – were classy and muted, and he had no need of hair gel because he had very little hair. This was a recent development about which he was not happy. He had tried to put on a brave face but he really found the whole fatwa thing quite stressful, to the point that it had caused his follicles to tense up and squeeze out their tenants.
The death sentence had improved sales of his books – with all the publicity even the older titles were moving again – but even this had done nothing to ease the shock of his sudden baldness. He had had so little time to decide what to do about it that he had latched on to that most unfortunate of hair-loss solutions: a comb-over. This was not in keeping with his otherwise rather dashing sense of style. It was not doing his image of calm any good either because if there was any sort of wind he spent quite a bit of time flapping his hands about his head as he tried to keep the long strands of hair in their assigned paths over his skull, which was not easy. The stronger the wind the more intense the hand-flapping, so there was a directly proportionate relationship between wind velocity and how mad he looked in photographs.
His plane had just landed in Cape Town. The long strands of comb-over hair streamed off to the north west and resisted all his feeble attempts to hold them in place while he juggled his hand luggage, and for the first time in his life he was glad that his arrival seemed to have gone unnoticed by anyone with a camera. His girlfriend, Madison Slater, watched pityingly, her long blonde hair clamped firmly in place by an array of womanly hair management devices that Raksha had glanced over hopefully in their hotel room the previous evening. He had been unable to identify an implement to serve his needs and had not been able to bring himself to ask Madison for help because he knew that she would look at him with that pitying look that she had recently developed and which he had rapidly come to loathe. He tried to remember at what point her near-worship of him had transformed into near-contempt. It had been at about the time he gave her the second credit card and the Porsche Cayenne, but he could not think of anything that might have caused her to stop respecting him.
Halfway across the apron Raksha gave up the fruitless struggle to defeat the wind. Cursing the miserable clutch of desert fanatics who had ruined his hair, he hurried his pace to get into the breeze-free terminal. Madison did not hurry her pace, which gave Raksha some time to stop just inside the airport doors and try to restore some semblance of order to his ravaged pate.
Customs was no hassle and soon they were walking into the international arrivals lounge. Raksha patted insecurely at his head while Madison chewed gum and looked about with a vague expression of distaste at this strange new land into which the plane had deposited her. Raksha saw a man holding a sign that said ‘Shakira’. This had happened before. Raksha went over to him.
‘Hello. I think you might be here to collect me. Us.’
The man was about the same height as Raksha but he looked like he had grown up on a diet of nails and gristle and could probably squash a small child in each hand. He was hard and compact, from his hair that looked like it had been lacquered onto his head, his face that was chiseled and hard-edged, down to his tight, stonewashed jeans. He looked from Raksha to Madison, and his eyes took a casual stroll down and back up her again and then wandered back over to Raksha.
‘You Shakira?’ he said doubtfully, and clearly disappointed.
‘Raksha. Abhinav Raksha, the writer. Yes.’
The man stared at him for so long that Raksha started to feel nervous.
‘A writer.’ He looked hopefully over Raksha’s shoulder. ‘Not the singer.’
‘Yes,’ said Rashid. ‘No.’
The man sighed.
‘This one and a few more in the hold.’
He turned and walked away and Raksha and Madison followed him. Madison was unusually quiet. It was her first time outside the United Kingdom, so Raksha supposed she was experiencing some sort of culture shock, even though they were still in the airport. He could think of no other reason that the usually constant flow of words from her red-rimmed mouth might have stopped as soon as the plane landed. His suspicions were confirmed when she said in her powerful Essex accent, ‘Some of these signs ain’t in English. How the fuck are we supposed to find our bloody way?’
Raksha did not answer. There were moments with Madison when having his head hacked off by some jihadi madman from Bradford almost seemed preferable. An image of his wife, Saleena, who he had left for Madison some months ago, popped into his mind, and he tried not to look at it. His brain shook its head at him. Raksha tried to ignore both his brain and the image of Saleena and called impatiently to Madison where she stood trying unsuccessfully to cope with a newspaper headline that read ‘Tokoloshe Robs Spaza’.
They soon stood next to the conveyor belt that returned bags to lucky passengers and revealed to the less fortunate an immediate future of trying to figure out which corner of the world their luggage currently occupied. The man stood with his arms crossed over his chest and stared intently at the dark hole from which the bags of the blessed would eventually emerge. Raksha stood next to him, feeling awkward and trying to think of something to say.
‘So, do you work for Protectocon?’
Protectocon was the security company that Raksha’s publisher had hired to look after him. There was a silence, then the man said, ‘Well, if I don’t, you’re in the shit already, hey?’
He gave Raksha a wicked smile then returned to exerting the force of his will over the conveyor belt. There was another silence, broken by an announcer making noises over the PA that consisted in part of crystal clear but useless information and for the other part of an experiment with freeform poetry in a language of the announcer’s own invention.
‘Passengers for flight mytberofti ghowqwet to flurbtywurble final call for flight yurtygh frebhurfwertl opgrisy closes in five minutes. Thank you.’
The training of personnel to be able to make such announcements takes months and is a key part of a carefully orchestrated system of architecture, design and “customer service” that airports the world over use to push airline passengers into a state of psychological crisis that dramatically increases sales of duty-free alcohol and cigarettes.
The conveyor belt lurched into motion. It went around for about ten minutes while no bags appeared from the bag cave. Then it stopped. While they waited for it to finally release their luggage to them Raksha realised that he still felt very nervous about the fatwa and that he was, in truth, very down and depressed.
I wish I had never written that damn book. ‘Midnight’s Chicken’ had made his name and brought him the good life. ‘The Devil’s Poetry’ had ruined everything. Although more to the point, I wish my bloody proof reader and my idiot editor had noticed the misspelling of the name of the prophet’s second daughter. It’s their fault that I have all these crazy fundamentalists after me.
On the advice of Protectocon, Raksha had been on the move ever since the lunatic cleric from the Islamic State pronounced his sentence on him the month after the publication of ‘The Devil’s Poetry’. His publisher had insisted on hiring Protectocon after two attempts on Raksha’s life. Admittedly incompetent attempts, but still. One blew herself up while building a suicide bomb – so not a complete failure, then, and certainly the best result for everyone else concerned – and the other was caught hiding in the bushes outside Raksha’s London home with a sharpened toothbrush. What frightened Raksha most was that both had been British citizens rather than psychopaths imported from the Islamic State’s seemingly endless supply of madmen. He had agreed to come to South Africa for the event at Books-R-Us because he felt that it was out of the way, down at the bottom of Africa, away from the usual haunts of the religious fanatics who wished him dead. Sometimes it seemed to him that most of the world’s great religious books were written by racist, sexist, homophobic and violent men instead of a God filled with love. He sometimes explained to people who seemed interested that he was a spiritual man, not religious. He despaired for the rise of religious fundamentalism in the world, and the unpleasantness that inevitably followed.
I mean, you don’t see Buddhists blowing people up. There are plenty of people who can be a bit self-righteous, but even vegans don’t go around stabbing people with carrots. What is wrong with these people? Why can they not see that if there ever was a divine word it’s so diluted by human errors now that it must be unrecognisable?
Raksha thought of the videos he had seen on YouTube of unfortunate people being beheaded with knives and shuddered at the horror of it, at the thought that there were people – seemingly many people – who were capable of such things, and that they could post their horrific actions on the internet without consequence.
What kind of blackened soul do you have to have to hack off someone’s head with a knife while they writhe and scream? And this in the name of God? That is a god that I do not want to know.
He pondered for a moment or two.
Are they really that desperate to be part of something? Why can’t they join a library or something? Why can’t they create something beautiful and good instead of something ugly and evil? Why can’t they just accept that some people don’t share their opinion? Because that’s what it comes down to, an inability to accept difference. He thought of a news article he had read that very morning, in which nearly thirty people had been killed by Islamic extremists in Nigeria after their bus had been hijacked and they had been unable to prove they were Muslims.
He knew that he should be brave, that he should take a stand and not let the fanatics control his life through fear, but he was afraid, and he did not want to die at the hands of God-crazed zealots.
My writing has doomed me. I wish I could take back the words that I have written.
As soon as this thought passed through his mind he felt like a miserable coward; and also angry.
Why should I have to bow to religious bullying? OK, it is bullying with advanced weaponry and a marketing campaign that includes public beheadings. But it is still bullying.
The conveyor belt finally started again, and then a couple of minutes later luggage started to appear. Bags came forth, circulated and were claimed. Some were wrapped in plastic, as if they had been killed by the mob. Others hung open and half-empty, specially selected as suppliers to the underground self-service shopping system or “baggage handling” through which airlines pass their passengers’ luggage. A few had survived unscathed through the judicious application of padlocks and chains. Raksha’s, fortunately, was one of these.
‘That’s mine there,’ said Raksha, pointing to a large piece of luggage in a tasteful green hue.
‘And that’s one of mine,’ said Madison, pointing to a larger piece of luggage in a pink that was not tasteful and would never be called a hue. The colour seemed to have had a similar effect to padlocks and chains as her bags were unmolested.
The man from Protectocon gathered all their bags and pushed a trolley laden with Raksha’s single item of luggage and Madison’s collection of four, equally pink bags. He led them to a car in the parking lot. It was a nondescript white sedan, so nondescript that the man had to phone his colleague and get him to wave at them from where the car was parked among the long ranks of other equally white and nondescript cars. Even from some distance Raksha could tell that the guy doing the waving was big, but when they got to the car it became clear that he was not big. He was in fact massive. The first guy stashed the luggage in the car’s boot, with some difficulty, and then he said, ‘OK, introductions. My name is Spook, and this here is Diesel.’
Diesel raised a hand in greeting, nodded and smiled at them. He had good hair and friendly eyes but Madison did not smile at him because he was fat and not wealthy, and so did not fall within the parameters that required humanity.
Don’t worry,’ said Spook, ‘he won’t eat you unless you get between him and his chow.’
Spook laughed a high-pitched witch’s cackle that seemed about as likely to come from his mouth as an aardvark from a pottery class. Diesel looked uncomfortable.
‘Hey man, come on man, you know I have medical problems.’
‘Ja, that’s because you’re so fucking fat.’
Spook laughed again and Raksha felt his reptile brain telling him that no sane person could make such a sound and that he should immediately run away. He restrained himself, took a deep, calming breath and settled himself into the back of the rather cramped rental car that Protectocon had recommended for its anonymity.
Rafiq didn’t like having the explosives in the house with the children around but Ali had insisted that there was no time to find anywhere else to hide the stuff. He had already had to prise a timer from little Mira’s mouth, so Rafiq was feeling a little tense about the whole thing, especially since big Mira, his wife, would smack him silly if she found out what he was involved in. She had no time for Rafiq’s ‘pathetic jihad fantasies’ as she called them, and he had but to mention the words ‘fatwa’ or ‘infidel’ and he wouldn’t hear the end of it for days. He had once made the mistake of bringing home a burka for her to try on and as he remembered the unpleasantness that had ensued he unconsciously rubbed the place where the fabric had burned the skin of his neck as she swung him round the lounge.
Ali was Rafiq’s big brother and the second-in-command of their cell. The cell was Ali and Rafiq and their leader, Muhammad Sharif, whose family owned the Kwikspar on the corner. He was known as Kwikspar Muhammad to distinguish him from Autozone Muhammad Sharif. Rafiq didn’t know where Kwikspar Muhammad had got the explosives, the small, purple brick that looked like putty with ‘C4’ printed on it in a big, red font, but Ali had hinted that Muhammad had ‘connections that went a lot further than the mullah’s older brother, if you know what I mean.’ Rafiq didn’t know what he meant, but he did know that it was not a good idea to ask too many questions of Muhammad, who became suspicious if the neighbour’s cat looked at his house for too long.
The problem was that Abhinav Raksha was coming to Baytown. Abhinav Raksha, who had a death sentence passed on him for the blasphemies of his book, The Devil’s Poetry. The editor of the book had publicly apologised for misspelling the name of the prophet’s second daughter throughout, but this had held no water with the outraged clerics of the Islamic State. The author of the blasphemy had to die in order to appease God, blessed be His name and peace emanate from Him into the world.
Ali was single. Their mother remained convinced that he would one day find the right woman. Rafiq wished that Ali would find a big Mira of his own. He was sure that would make him settle down and forget all the jihad stuff, which was actually mostly Ali’s idea and not really Rafiq’s cup of tea. Rafiq wished a lot of things, not least that his sense of family loyalty was not quite so well developed. Then he could just tell Ali and Kwikspar Muhammad both to stuff off and leave him alone. As it was, though, Ali was his brother and he would stick with him. At least being in the cell got him out of the house. They went on regular jihadi missions down to the Christian centre and the Jewish old-age home, spray-painting insults and threats on the windows and walls. One night he had suggested spraying them in English instead of Arabic, but Kwikspar Muhammad had sneered at him and said that he needed to decolonise his mind.
‘Let them learn our language,’ he had said. ‘Then they will understand our insults.’
Rafiq thought that there was something missing from that logic, but he let it go and helped shake the tins of red and green spray paint instead.
That evening they held their weekly cell meeting in the stock room of Kwikspar Muhammad’s Kwikspar. Once Muhammad had said the opening prayer, they settled down to business.
‘Ok,’ said Muhammad. ‘We now know who does the catering for events in the book shop, from where we will send the blasphemer Raksha and his infidel followers to the lowest pits of Jahannam.’ Muhammad smiled his satisfaction at the progress and made a pyramid of his fingertips before his sparsely bearded face. He privately nursed a fantasy that he looked like Osama bin-Laden, but knew in his heart of hearts that Osama was much better looking. At least, until the Yankee pigs got hold of him. Deep inside him, way deeper than he would allow himself to look, Muhammad had been rather pleased when the man he so envied for his iconic jihadi looks had been removed from the world. He was suddenly forced to abandon his finger pyramid in order to save his keffiyeh scarf from slipping loose from his head again. He couldn’t get the hang of making it stay on and he often had a stiff neck and a headache from trying to keep his head as still as possible in order to prolong the scarf’s uncertain balance. At least his long, white robe was simple to wear. All he had to do was ignore the ‘Made in China. 100% polyester,’ tag that scratched his neck.
He fixed Ali and Rafiq with a penetrating stare. Rafiq considered suggesting Imodium to relieve Muhammad’s obvious discomfort, but before he had a chance Muhammad spoke commandingly.
‘It is this knowledge of …,’ he glanced down at a piece of paper, ‘… Uncle Pumpy’s House of Yumminess …,’ he faltered momentarily but regained his composure, ‘… that will allow us to strike a blow at the heart of the infidels’ so-called culture. We will blow them to tiny pieces and in so doing, we will show them that the only true way to happiness is through our religion.’
‘God be praised,’ said Ali.
‘Now that we know who is providing the canapés for this blasphemy, we can infiltrate their organization. We will intercept the delivery, disarm and disable the guards, and take their place.’
Rafiq was pretty certain that the inevitable trays of cocktail sausages and mini-quiches would be fairly lightly guarded, but he kept his mouth shut for fear of earning one of Muhammad’s long and rambling sermons, which never made any sense to him. Instead he asked, ‘Do you have any experience in the catering business, because I know me and Ali don’t.’
Rafiq worked in a tyre dealership and Ali was a telesales agent for a bank, which explained at least some of his misanthropy.
‘Not unless you count pushing a metal tray through a slot in the door of a cell in a secret detention facility in Pakistan,’ said Muhammad. ‘But come on, how hard can it be to slap a couple of sausage rolls onto a bed of soggy lettuce? Oh, and I also know how to make the paper cover on a cocktail straw into a little twirly thing.’
Ali nodded in agreement and appreciation of Muhammad’s skills, while Rafiq wondered how far out of Baytown Muhammad had ever really travelled. Not far, he thought, and almost certainly not as far as Pakistan. He knew that Muhammad had washed his ID book by accident and not yet replaced it, because Autozone Muhammad had a friend who worked in Home Affairs and Rafiq had got her to check out Kwikspar Muhammad’s travel history after one of his more outlandish stories of international intrigue. There was an application for a new ID which gave the reason for the application as ‘Old book washed by accident’, but there was no passport paperwork at all and Rafiq was pretty certain that Muhammad didn’t have the resources to travel around the world independently and undetected. Though there was always that little, niggling doubt that kept him quiet, just in case. After all, he had managed to organize the C4.
‘All we need now are the details of the date of the event and the time that the caterers will make their delivery to Books-R-Us. Once we have their transport schedule we can intercept them and use their vehicle and uniforms. That will allow us to plant the device, which we will activate with this remote detonator …,’ Muhammad held up a Nokia 3310, ‘… and then we will witness our righteous fire cleansing the earth of the blasphemer.’
‘God be praised,’ said Ali, who had found the plans for their bomb on a site called DIYJihad.com.
‘Now, we must go back to our ordinary lives as if nothing is happening. We must give no hint of our plan to anyone, not even our families.’ Kwikspar Muhammad felt a spasm of worry about this. His mother was very perceptive, so he would have to try and stay in his room as much as possible for the next few days. ‘We will meet back here on Tuesday to discuss our progress.’
The meeting disbanded, each of the three heading for their respective homes with wildly varying degrees of spring and confidence in their step.
‘Look out. Here comes Number One.’
Number One was Pam’s nickname for Thando, which she had used ever since she had caught him placing an order for the complete set of ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’ on Blu-ray. She had seen him coming through the door from the staff-only area, and though neither Thando nor Russell were tyrannical towards the shop staff they preferred it if they were not obviously reading magazines or browsing the internet. Joanne rolled her eyes and continued to page through the latest People magazine. Leslie clicked the screensaver on to cover freekibblekat.com and Pam slid her copy of Rolling Stone under the counter.
‘Ladies,’ said Thando as he reached the counter, ‘I have some big news.’
He adjusted his tie self-consciously as he glanced at Joanne, who ignored him from her perch on one of the barstools with leopard-print vinyl upholstery that Head Office had decided were the chic solution to staff seating requirements. Thando’s eyes scanned from her glossy black hair to her full lips and downwards to where her summery, strappy dress revealed plenty of her generous cleavage, and on down to her long legs. He felt his insides stir as they always did when he looked at her. Thando had a thing for Joanne. He thought that she was astonishingly beautiful, but he was also a bit afraid of her. She was always quite cold, not just to him but to everyone, but he had seen in her unguarded moments, her dark blue eyes empty of emotion, eyes that belonged to a basilisk or a lamia, the eyes of something sizing up its prey. That had been frightening, but Thando thought that worse than fear was the sense of injury when those eyes rejected you, when they dismissed you as unfit to be preyed upon, as they so often did to him. This, he thought, was the greatest stress of her regard. He had developed a nice little fantasy around her. Well, mostly around her boobs. She was a mythical, terrible queen, and he was cursed to adore her without hope. This was his trial.
He realised that he was staring at her and looked quickly away. It was Pam’s turn to roll her eyes.
‘Spill it. What’s the news?’ she said, her tone cutting.
She met his attempt at a reproving glance with a level stare, arms crossed over her Chevelle t-shirt as she leaned casually against the counter. Thando disapproved of her dress-sense: black jeans or cargos, band t-shirts, and hairstyles he charitably considered ‘interesting’. He couldn’t imagine someone willingly going through the agony of having their lips pierced once, never mind twice. She had a boyfriend who was in a band and went by the name Rabbit. Thando had seen him now and then when he came to fetch Pam from work. He had been surprised by Rabbit’s mascara because he had thought that it was only gay men that wore makeup, and also thought that if he was going to wear it he should at least fix it once it had run instead of letting it smear down his cheeks in long, black smudges.
Thando gathered himself to make the great announcement.
‘Abhinav Raksha is coming to our shop.’
He paused for effect. There wasn’t any.
‘Abhinav Raksha. Is coming here. On Wednesday. Don’t you realise how big this is?’
Joanne turned to a story about the possibility that Miley Cyrus had pierced her nipples. Pam gave him the disdainful look she reserved for other people’s excitement or happiness, and Leslie smiled encouragingly.
‘Anyway, this means that there is a lot of work to be done. This,’ he dropped a long printout onto the counter, ‘is a list of local Readers-R-Us members and their phone numbers. You need to phone them all and invite them to come and see Raksha.’ This at last raised Joanne from People, a look of displeasure darkening her face. ‘And you all have to be here for it. Though I can’t see why you would want to miss hearing one of the greatest authors of our time speak. Leslie, please organise a poster to go in the window. “Books-R-Us presents Abhinav Raksha,” date and time, all welcome, refreshments provided, you know the drill. Pam, phone the plant people and tell them we need some new plants.’
‘What about some real plants?’
‘Head Office says we have to have plastic ones. Real ones might give customers hay fever. And anyway, they’ve contracted Plastigreen to provide and maintain plants for the entire Books-R-Us chain. Joanne …,’ She looked at Thando for the first time since he had arrived at the counter. His shirt tightened across his chest as he involuntarily sucked in his stomach and tensed his pecs. Pam observed this and wished that she could find some way to make Thando, who she actually liked despite carefully cultivated appearances, see that beneath her admittedly fantastic boobs and her perfect pout Joanne was a selfish, shallow bitch. Her boyfriend was a professional cricketer called Chad who drove a BMW X6, for God’s sake. Joanne made no secret of the fact that she was just waiting for the day when he would propose and guarantee her future in the glamorous world of professional cricketers’ wives – unless something better came along. ‘… please would you organise the chairs and tables from centre management.’
Joanne emphasized her long-suffering tone by tossing the magazine aside. She leaned forward to pull the phone towards her, offering Thando an excellent view of the girls, and felt a smug satisfaction as he made good use of it. Pam looked at Thando and slowly shook her head, once more amazed at how otherwise intelligent men could be reduced to idiocy by a pair of boobs.
‘Right, thanks, carry on. Good.’
He gave them a double thumbs-up and an encouraging nod and as he retreated from the counter he glanced from Joanne’s chest to Pam to Leslie and back to Joanne’s chest. He walked back to the office with his imagination in frantic motion, inventing situations in which he was the hero and Joanne the princess who needed rescued.
One day I will rescue her and they … I mean she … will be mine.
‘Why don’t you just take them out and let him have a proper look next time,’ said Pam once Thando was gone.
Joanne glanced sideways at Pam, down at Pam’s almost-flat chest, back up at Pam’s eyes and away. The silent insult was more effective than any words.
‘Fuck you. I’m going next door for a coffee.’
Leslie had been distracted by her phone beeping at her, and as she watched Pam stalk from the shop she didn’t understand where her sudden anger had come from.
‘What’s wrong with Pam?’
‘So much, doll, so much.’
Pam threw herself down in a booth in Giorgio’s. A waiter she did not recognize came over and she said, ‘Coffee.’
Giorgio’s waiters were regularly replaced because the manager of the restaurant was an impatient, unreasonable, loud-mouthed bastard. The new waiter spoke to her in isiXhosa and she felt the familiar embarrassment as she explained that she could not speak the language even though she was black.
‘Oh. I thought you were South African,’ he said, looking confused.
‘I am, but I never learned,’ she said in her distinctly English accent. English-English, not South African English.
She was about to explain, but his expression turned from confused to hostile and he turned away.
Although she was South African born, Pam Matambeka had grown up in the United Kingdom, mostly in exclusive English boarding schools. Her father was a diplomat who had been posted to London since the year of Pam’s birth, 1995. Her mother had died when she was very young and so she had been raised by English and Irish nannies. Though she was quite fluent in French and Italian she had never learned an African language. When she had returned to South Africa, leaving her father to take up his new post in Azerbaijan, she had been a bit concerned about this, but she had not anticipated the psychological turmoil that had resulted from being a black person who couldn’t speak a black language in a country with such a racially polarized society. She felt isolated from the great majority of both black and white people, and was depressed by the inevitable, predictable conversations. This sense of isolation had had an effect on her wardrobe and on her taste in music. She preferred darkness in both and wore black like a uniform while her iPhone was filled with metal and psytrance. The piercings through her lip successfully suggested to most people that they should fuck off and not bother her, but even so, when a situation arose like that which had just arisen with the waiter, she could not stop herself trying to explain herself as if she had done something wrong, committed some crime.
Not that she was without friends. She and Leslie got on well, because Leslie was without a grain of judgementalness in her being and was also witty and clever, and Pam had hooked up with some fellow outcasts, most particularly her boyfriend, the singer of a band that gigged around Baytown’s clubs. The band was called Winterknob and the singer’s name was Rabbit, though she had sneaked a peek at his ID book and found out that his real name was Lester Quimby, which explained why he insisted on being called Rabbit. Winterknob’s dream was to win the Baytown Battle of the Bands. They entered every year but had yet to place in the top three. Winterknob knew this to be because the judges were inevitably the old fogey DJs from Radio Baytown who played easy-listening crap and didn’t know a distortion pedal from a whammy-bar, and so the band’s dream remained unrealised. Part of the reason that Pam was in a bit of a mood today was that Battle of the Bands was this very evening and Rabbit had asked her not to come because he ‘needed to focus’.
The waiter returned with her coffee. He put it down before her with an aggressive delivery that sent some of the liquid over the edge of the cup, onto the saucer and thence onto the table and nearly over the edge and onto her legs. She caught the last of his sneer as he turned away. This was one of the worst reactions she had ever had. People usually seemed just confused, or even hurt, which made her feel bad enough, but this guy was totally hostile. She had been called a coconut a few times before, but usually in jest or something near enough to it to be smiled ironically away. Now, though, she felt like the guy had smacked her over the head with an actual coconut.
She left the coffee spilled over the table, got up and headed for the entrance. The grumpy manager intercepted her at the door and caught her by the arm.
‘Hey, you no pay.’
Anger rushed through her. She roughly pulled her arm free of his sweaty hand.
‘I’m not paying for a cup of coffee that’s spread over the bloody table. You can speak to your damn rude staff about that.’
His eyes widened in surprise, and she turned away and stormed off. She moved quickly through the mall to the fire doors and propped them ajar with the piece of wood she kept just outside for this purpose. She pulled a squashed pack of Stuyvesant Red from her pocket, extricated one, dug her lighter out of her other pocket and lit up. She drew deeply and felt a pang of guilt as she did so, aware that she was releasing toxins into the atmosphere and that the butt she would soon toss aside would take many years to degrade. She felt guilty about a lot of things, like driving a car and eating meat; but not guilty enough to stop doing them. ‘How the hell am I supposed to carry all my stuff?’ was her usual car defence; and, ‘Humans are omnivores by nature, and anyway, I only eat free-range,’ the one she used for meat. She felt that all of this was reasonable and demonstrably true, given the dire state of public transport in Baytown, the presence of canines and incisors in her mouth and a large debt on her Woolworths card.
She drew the last bit of tobacco into her lungs and flicked the butt into a nearby puddle where it hissed defiance at its demise. She made her way back to the shop, and as soon as she had sat down on one of the leopard-print barstools a customer came up to the counter. He was balding and plump, dressed in a pinstripe suit and a shirt of a bright colour which she could not name but which clashed hideously with the suit, and no tie. He wore a massive watch with a thick bracelet of some silver metal.
Oh Jesus, thought Pam, recognizing the type – a Baytown businessman with a strong sense of his own importance. He had a book in one hand and a receipt in the other, a sure sign of trouble, and he started his tale without returning Pam’s greeting or making eye contact.
‘I bought this book the other day but I don’t want it. I want my money back.’
He dropped the receipt on the counter and it caught the air and flipped away onto the floor behind the counter. He watched Pam bend and pick it up from the floor without comment or any change in his facial expression, which was vacant, as it so often was on such men. This was a fact that regularly caused Pam to wonder how the hell they could have made so much money, given the apparent absence of anything of substance within their skulls. She had a theory that the financial system was so complex that the only way to succeed in it was in fact to have absolutely no idea how it worked but to learn all the necessary jargon regardless, so that other people who already had money would give you some when you made the right noises. This process, she was convinced, continued all the way up the financial food chain so that the true rule of the world stayed with the three or four people who controlled most of the wealth because they were the only ones who actually knew what was going on.
Pam looked at the receipt.
‘This is from C and A.’
He stared at her as if she was speaking Mandarin.
She brandished the receipt, pointing to its corporate header.
‘This receipt is from C and A. You bought that book at C and A. This is not C and A.’
C and A was three shops down from Books-R-Us. He didn’t even look at the receipt.
‘So what? You can still take the book and give me the money. You can sell it here.’
The book was Organic Llama Farming for Beginners. Pam went through the motions of checking.
‘No, I’m afraid we don’t stock that title. I can’t take this book.’
She saw his indignation in the redness that swelled above the collar of his shirt.
‘Come on man, this is ridiculous. You bloody people! Listen girly, you better help me out here.’
Pam looked at him in disbelief.
Girly! He called me girly!
After Joanne and the coconut incident this was all she could take. She pointedly crumpled the receipt into a ball and tossed it across the counter at him. It bounced off his forehead. He looked at her in amazement, and his eyes flashed with anger.
‘That was a big mistake you just made there, girly. Do you know who I am?’
Pam spoke in her calmest voice.
‘No, sorry, can’t help you. But you could try the information kiosk.’
She turned on her heel and walked away. She went into the staff-only area, took her stuff out of her locker, went back out, ignored the indignant squawks of the man who didn’t know who he was and the stares of Leslie and Joanne, and left the shop. Half an hour later she was in Ricky’s Bar on the beachfront, one joint behind her and drinking a bottle of Mitchell’s beaded with condensation. She hadn’t said a word to Russell or Thando about what had happened, or told them that she was leaving. Usually Russell was pretty chilled with the staff, but she had never actually walked out before. She was a mite apprehensive about how he would react, especially since her father had cut her off when she had refused to accompany him to Azerbaijan. She really needed the money from her job at Books-R-Us.
Have to just wait and see, she thought, enjoying the buzz from the joint, the cold hops of the beer and the view of unusually big waves breaking on the beach below Ricky’s balcony.
‘Agents Jali and Terwilliger, NIA.’
The man who spoke was tall and well built, just like his companion. Each wore a black suit with a white shirt and a thin, black tie, and each wore mirrored aviator Ray Bans even though it was raining out. They had been taught that hiding their eyes in this fashion was a good way to make citizens feel uneasy, and an uneasy citizen was a pliable citizen. Terwilliger sometimes found it hard to overlook the constant bruises on his shins from walking into the things hidden in their twilight world. He often thought that someone, somewhere, had got the wrong end of the stick about what the term ‘black ops’ meant and that his shins were paying the price.
Sipho Nyoka was only thirty-five but he had the build of a man who had fed well at the trough of post-apartheid tenders, and as he looked at the Ray Bans and the ID cards that hovered before them he felt a tremor of fear in his magnificent gut, though the tremor was too deep within his layers of fat to disturb the smooth, purple-striped surface of the shirt stretched taught over his flesh. There was some anger in the tremor too, because he had been assured that there would be no repercussions to his purchase of the rights to supply the Absolom Group’s security contracts, and now here were these two brandishing their IDs and certain to be bringing him trouble.
‘National Intelligence Agency,’ he said and as he shifted uncomfortably in his leather seat both agents saw the familiar, fake surprise of the guilty wash across Nyoka’s face. ‘What can you possibly want with me?’ said Nyoka, though what he actually meant was, ‘Oh Jesus, how much do you know and what’s going to happen to me?’
‘We want you to do us a favour,’ said Terwilliger. When the citizen they were interviewing was black, Terwilliger spoke, and when it was a white, Jali. They knew how to exploit South Africans’ racial paranoia. ‘Your company has the security contract for the Books-R-Us chain.’
‘Yes. Yes, we do.’
The Absolom Group owned Books-R-Us.
‘That was part of the deal you got when you bought the Absolom tender last year.’ The forced smile slipped from Nyoka’s face and went to hide under his desk. ‘Many of those contracts are government, and that’s why we’re here. We figure you owe us.’
Nyoka was nothing if not a sharp deal-maker.
‘Owe you? How do I owe you? I’ve never even met you before.’
‘No, but we have the ability to make your life very, very difficult. There are people who would be very upset if the details of your … business arrangements … became public. People who would prefer to see you suffer rather than them. Do you see where I’m going with this?’
Nyoka did indeed see, only too well. So well that for a panicked moment he wished he was blind. Then he calmed himself, and spread his hands open before him.
‘Ok, so I owe you. What do you want?’
‘We want you to hire us.’
Nyoka was confused.
‘Hire us. Give us jobs.’
Nyoka was still confused.
‘We need you to put us on the security team for an event at the Books-R-Us branch in Baytown on the twenty-second of November.’
‘That’s this Wednesday.’
‘Yes, it is. Is that a problem?’
Jali had been hovering in the background as Terwilliger spoke but now he took a slow but meaningful step closer to Nyoka’s desk. Terwilliger wished that he could frighten people just by taking a slow step towards them. He usually had to rely on less subtle methods. Jali had told him he needed to work on his facial expression. ‘You’ve got far too much of it, man. People are more afraid of you when they can’t tell what you’re really thinking. You’ve got to try and be less emotional.’ Terwilliger had been practicing on the citizens they encountered in their daily work and the degree of fear in their reactions had definitely been improving, but he knew he had a long way to go before he could frighten people simply by existing, as Jali could. It was good to have goals in life, though.
‘No, no, that’s fine, no problem. But, why?’
Terwilliger glanced at Jali, then he put his hands on the desk and leaned towards Nyoka. Despite Terwilliger’s insecurities, as Nyoka shrank back from him he saw nothing on the agent’s face but his own reflection in the mirrored glasses. Nyoka’s smile, which had been considering a return, decided that it would be safer to stay under his desk just for the moment.
‘Don’t you worry about that. Just make the arrangements. Call me on this number when it’s done.’ Terwilliger slipped a card onto the desk, blank but for a series of ten digits. ‘Today. And keep quiet about who we are.’
‘Ok, ok, no problem. It will be done.’
Terwilliger drew back, and then he and Jali turned and left without another word. As the office door closed behind them Terwilliger asked Jali, ‘How was that?’
‘Much better, you’re really getting the hang of it now. That guy shat himself at the end there.’
As they drove back towards their offices with the blue lights flashing on their BMW X5, herding citizens out of their path, Terwilliger asked Jali, ‘How serious do you think this threat is?’
‘Who knows? The source is new. His family runs an Autozone or something in Baytown. He sounded convincing.’
An anonymous tip-off had alerted the NIA to an Islamic fundamentalist plot to assassinate the author Abhinav Raksha during his visit to Baytown. Tips like this came in all the time and did not usually move the agency to action, but they had also monitored chatter about a sale of a quantity of the explosive C4 in Baytown and the anonymous source had mentioned the same substance as the weapon of choice for the assassination. Sales of C4 in Baytown were not a regular thing, which gave the source more credibility than the agency would otherwise have granted him, enough credibility for Jali and Terwilliger to be sent in to cover the event at which the assassination was supposed to take place.
‘Man, look at this idiot,’ said Jali, who was driving.
A black Range Rover was refusing to relinquish the fast lane to their blue-lighted X5.
‘Probably some fucking politician,’ said Terwilliger.
Jali’s nostrils flared. He nudged the accelerator and took their car inches away from the rear of the Rover, then he nudged it a bit more so that the cars’ bumpers touched. The touch was light, but it was enough to send an indisputable message to the other driver. They saw his head flap about with disbelief and he almost turned to look back at them, thought better of it and finally gave in and abandoned the fray. Jali pushed the throttle down hard and the BMW swept past the Range Rover. Terwilliger saw the other driver on his cell phone, probably calling a political connection or maybe the police, though neither would do him any good. Their windows were blacked out so he could see nothing of his assailants, and their license plates were special NIA issue which would lead anyone who bothered to look to a broken-down hulk rusting in a scrap yard somewhere in the northern Free State.
Back in his office after the encounter with the zebra-stripe pants-suit-wearing turkey-woman, Russell settled in to make the catering and security arrangements for Raksha’s visit. He took a moment to gather his thoughts, and his eyes lighted upon the photograph of his mother in the bottom left corner of his screensaver collage of friends and family. His brain, ever the joker, took the opportunity to send him back to his childhood.
His mom had worked for the homeware company Russell Hobbs since they first opened in 1952. Despite her denials, which she backed up with the flimsy token of the extra ‘e’ in their surname, Russell was virtually certain that she had named him after the company. His primary evidence was her obsession with chromed kitchenware. He still sometimes caught her looking at him regretfully, and he was sure that the regret was that he had not come in a nice chrome finish. Every fancy dress party he was invited to as a kid, she had dressed him as an astronaut by wrapping him in heavy-duty tinfoil. To this day the only photographs of him she had on display were ones in which he wore his foil outfits, posed in the kitchen next to her pride and joy, a huge chromed food processor. He remembered how she would look at it and then at him and back at it again with a wistful regard, clearly wishing he would match it. Now his brain flicked over to the occasion of the last foiling, which had been his first high school civvies day. She had somehow convinced him that the other kids would think his ‘space suit’ was cool. She had been wrong. They had pointed and laughed and called him names, and stuck sharp things in him to see if he was done. Someone had crossed out his name on all his exercise books and written ‘Rustle’ instead. In later life he had come to believe that this sort of subtler cruelty could only have been perpetrated by a teacher. He suspected Ms McLeod, the young accounting teacher who wore short skirts and courted the cool kids by mocking the nerds. Russell suspected that many people who had once been cool kids became teachers in an attempt to cling to the only time in their life when they had felt themselves to be of any significance.
These memories were interrupted by the ringing of the phone on his desk. He picked it up and Joanne’s voice came over the line.
‘Griselda is here.’
He felt something move inside him at the news of his girlfriend’s unexpected visit, something that he knew should have been warm and pleasurable but was actually something else that he could not quite identify. He tried to ignore it.
‘Ok, I’m coming.’
As he rose from his desk he made a mental note to check the stock of Raksha books when he got back.
Raksha and his companions were picking their way through Cape Town’s warren of tiny side streets. This was because Diesel had taken a wrong turn out of the airport and headed back into the city instead of onto the freeway and up the coast towards Baytown. Spook and Diesel were from Gauteng and were not fans of the Cape, and more specifically, were not fans of Cape Town. The two minders cursed and grumbled their way through the maze, but Raksha found that he was glad of the detour. He thought it a very pretty city, though the mountain was small and not a patch on his favourites in Kashmir. Madison had her bored face on as she twirled a strand of hair and chewed her gum vacantly yet noisily, and Raksha wondered, not for the first time in recent weeks, how he had ever thought her exotic or interesting. His brain knew that he had never thought her exotic or interesting. What he had thought was, ‘Hmmm, she looks damn good in hot pants,’ and then he had made up the rest to convince himself that she was a better option than Saleena. He was reassessing his relationship with Madison, though he was well aware of the fact that Saleena was unlikely to give a toss about that. When he broke the news that he was leaving her, her anger had been spectacular. He had expected her to be jealous, but she had made it clear that she was mostly angry because he was running off with a young, blonde cliché and in so doing had turned himself into an aging and also quite squishy cliché.
‘Even your betrayal has become mundane,’ she said, poking him in his well-nourished tummy and looking him up and down with a regard that made him feel shabby and commonplace, just as she had intended it should.
Raksha was realising that he did not love Madison any more, if he ever had. He was beginning to see that she manipulated him into doing whatever she wanted, that she had manipulated him right out of his marriage to the woman he really loved, Saleena. He was also beginning to see the monumental scale of the mistake that he had made. Saleena’s stillness and her love of home and her patience and her quiet kindness were all the things he had fallen in love with, and Madison had somehow made them seem like things to be held in contempt, boring and shallow, while in truth it was she who was boring and shallow. Her only topic of conversation was herself and the things that were happening in her life right at that very moment. Her Facebook page was filled with the selfies she would take and post at least five times a day, and which she would then go and look at and like on her own page, and post comments on her own photos about how she looked that day and what she was wearing. Raksha’s phone beeped regularly with these updates and if he did not just like them but also share and comment on them she would whine at him and sulk. So now he had developed a routine of liking, leaving platitudinous comments and sharing all the crap she posted about herself. He realised that even as he thought about this, he was busy doing it. He stared at his phone in disbelief.
What the hell am I doing? My God, she is a spoiled and shallow child and she has me doing things I would never before have entertained for a moment. Saleena would never behave with such self-obsession.
Madison had also been badgering him to get her a boob job. She was 26 and starting to worry about the effects of gravity, though the last time he had looked Raksha had seen little evidence of its tug.
Saleena, the woman he had abandoned to his selfish and shallow lust, was intelligent and open and interested in everything, and she had been Raksha’s muse, his rock, his home; and she was beautiful too. Raksha had lusted for the tall, blonde, busty Madison when he saw her, but now when he looked at her all he saw was how deeply conventional she was, how achingly normal, even generic she was with her worship of celebrity and fashion and self. The more he looked at her the less beautiful she seemed to him. He remembered the first time he had seen Saleena and how at first glance she had not captivated him, but over the course of that first evening he had found his eyes drawn to her more and more, and the more he looked at her the more he had realised how beautiful she was. She was like a clever work of art, allowing those who looked upon her to perceive ever greater depths of beauty.
My God, I have thrown all that away. I have traded a Yulia Brodskaya for a cheap print of a cute animal up a tree. He glanced at Madison, who was examining her cuticles with the professional eye of a nail technician, which was her vocation. Or dogs playing poker.
Madison, in turn, was getting tired of Raksha and his worries about having his head chopped off. His wealth had been the most attractive thing about him and ever since he had been sentenced to death their lifestyle had been seriously cramped. She was getting very bored. She blew a bubble of gum and snapped it. Raksha looked firmly out the car window. He hated bubble gum and she knew it.
Spook and Diesel eventually extracted them from the city’s grip and soon they were moving rapidly along the freeway past huge townships.
‘I would love to go on a tour of the townships,’ said Raksha.
‘Why?’ said Spook.
Raksha looked at him, uncertain what to say to the blunt question.
‘Well … I …,’ he stammered.
‘What makes you think people want you to drive around their neighbourhood looking at them like they’re tourist attractions just because they’re poor? Like you’re on a game drive or something? Hey? What if I went over to the UK and drove around those kak estates you have there looking at people and taking photos and tossing sweets and coins at them out the window of my car? Hey? Do you reckon that would go down well?’
‘I … I mean, well … I ….’
Spook cackled his high-pitched cackle.
‘Ag, I’m just fucking with you hey. I’d never do that. But it’s fine here, obviously.’
Raksha did not know what to say. This happened to him frequently these days, which worried him because he used to have no trouble coming up with sharp responses. Now he just felt a familiar fog of uncertainty settle over his thoughts and muffle the link between his mind and his mouth. Madison snapped her gum. In order to distract himself Raksha dug in the slim case that held his tablet and all the paperwork he needed for the journey. He pulled out the letter from Books-R-Us inviting him to speak at the shop.
What a terrible name, and what a horrible logo. Old Kotzer was right. Maybe I should have said no. He read the signature at the bottom of the letter and wondered what kind of a man this Russell Hobbes was. He tried to imagine his life and what it would be like to manage a book shop. The idea of such easy mundanity suddenly held quite a lot of appeal. It would be a simple life. A calm environment without any big stresses or anyone trying to kill you. Surrounded by books and people who like books, genteel customers asking intelligent questions about literature. That would be ideal, he thought.
Griselda Sparg was waiting for Russell at the counter. She was facing away from him, and he was amazed at the level of detail he could make out on the tattoo of a clenched fist on the back of her head, which was shaved except for a long hank that sprouted from her forehead and hung over her face. This headstyle, as she called it, was a political statement, an expression of her refusal to conform to stereotypical patterns of feminine beauty that simultaneously affirmed her solidarity with the oppressed workers of the world and her support for the imminent global workers’ revolution. Russell told himself, as he often did, how much he respected her for her spirited stand in the face of society’s injustices and ignored his brain as it raised its eyes to the ceiling and shook its head in a shameful display of social programming.
‘Hi, Grissy,’ he said as he approached her. The fist flicked behind her to stun a small child as she turned to the sound of his voice. Griselda allowed this contraction of her name only because it was not cute and thus did not imply that she was succumbing to his masculine possession of her femininity. Leslie, who feared Griselda because of her rude and aggressive behaviour and could not understand why Russell was seeing her, secretly called her ‘Greasy’ because of her skin, which had an oily sheen that showed up particularly well in the fluorescent lighting of the shop. Griselda, in turn, disapproved of Leslie’s casual beauty, not to mention the fact that she was clearly into Russell despite his obliviousness. Griselda took every opportunity to belittle her, either in person or to Russell privately. She had tried to disapprove of Joanne but Joanne so obviously didn’t give a fuck that it had been totally unrewarding. Griselda was uncertain where she stood on Pam, who was a rather confusing case. Griselda had been meaning to study the coconut phenomenon so she could decide what to think about Pam, but had not yet found the time. Being a militant postfeminist socialist vegan was a time-consuming business. There were so many people who were wrong that it was difficult to fit them all in.
‘Hobbes.’ She turned her cheek to him to receive his peck. ‘I’ve come for those books.’
‘Oh, right. Let’s have a look.’
He went behind the counter to one of the computers and called up her order history.
‘OK, let’s see here. Ummm, three of them are here, but one’s still got to come.’
She rolled her eyes.
‘99 Ways to Cook Quinces is here, and so is Nietzsche and the Postfeminist Body. WTF: Lesbian Poems is also here. The one missing is Fifty More Reasons to be Glad You Don’t Have a Penis.’
‘Fuck man, that’s the one I’ve been waiting like three months for. What’s taking so long? Hey?’
He hated it when she behaved like a rude customer, especially in front of the staff. Leslie was pretending that she couldn’t hear a thing, her head bent over her keyboard as she typed in orders. Joanne was watching the proceedings with open interest. Pam was nowhere to be seen.
‘Well, Vagina Press is a small, independent American publisher. They send special orders by post, and you know what the post office is like.’
Griselda raised an eyebrow.
‘It’s not the workers’ fault that they have to deal with the structures and systems left to them as part of the legacy of apartheid.’
Russell mentally kicked himself for forgetting that the workers who were supposed to be delivering the services were not responsible for service delivery.
‘Ja, no, of course.’
‘What do you mean, “Ja no”. Really, Russell, your thought processes are in such a mess. But then, you do only have an Honours degree. Look, never mind, just give me the other books.’
‘Of course. Joanne, please ring up these books.’
Griselda looked at Joanne.
‘And don’t forget the discount.’
Griselda got the staff discount on all the books she bought at Books-R-Us, which saved her a lot of money on her PhD research account from Baytown University. She was working on a thesis titled The AesthEt(h)ics of Contemporary South African Poetry, with Particular Reference to the Perspective of Disabled, Black, Lesbian, Immigrant Writers.
Joanne rang up the books and took Griselda’s money and Griselda put the books into a bag woven from tree bark by a Zimbabwean women’s refugee group. She had never considered the fate of the tree from which the bark had been stripped.
‘Ok,’ she said with a sharp nod at Russell, and turned to leave.
‘So I’ll see you tonight then,’ he called after her, and his brain shook its head in disbelief.
‘Oh. Ja,’ she said, turning back to face him. ‘The poetry slam starts at nine. Don’t be late picking me up. I’m on at nine thirty. Oh, and we’re picking up Ron on the way.’
Russell’s heart sank at this news. Ron was a Nigerian performance poet whose work Griselda greatly admired, which was unusual for her because she usually only listened to or read poetry – or anything else – by women. Ron lived in Paradise Hills, one of the poorest and dodgiest parts of Baytown. Russell hated going there to collect him. Poor area or not, Ron seemed to have plenty of cash in his pocket, and there were usually three or four cars in his driveway – though never the same three or four, now Russell thought about it – but he did not seem to have a car of his own. Griselda, too, did not own a car, or ‘planet-killing poison pump’ as she called them, though she was happy enough for Russell to drive her around in his. He had once started to complain about having to collect Ron but he had only managed a few words before Griselda had gone off at him, calling him a bourgeois racist and other unpleasant things. At the time guilt-ridden Russell had seen that she was right, that his fear was a sign of his innate classism and racism. His long-suffering brain, though, knew that was a load of bollocks, that Paradise Hills was a shitty and very dangerous area, and that it was only a matter of time before they were hijacked, robbed and murdered, all of which would be the fault of global capitalism and not Russell.
‘I’ll see you later then.’
‘Fine,’ she said over her shoulder.
Griselda left the building. Russell watched the fist disappear into the crowds of people moving through the mall. It was only once she had disappeared from sight that he realized that he had forgotten to tell her about Raksha. He also realized that he was not looking forward to the poetry slam. He thought about the people who would be there, how they either ignored him completely or if they did speak to him only did so to make him feel guilty about something. And he would have to pick up Ron. He suddenly felt hungry and cold.
‘Hey, you know what, I’m going to get out of here.’
‘What are you doing now?’ asked Leslie.
‘I’m starving and I need a drink. I think I’ll go down to Ricky’s.’
‘Big surprise,’ said Joanne.
‘Cool,’ said Leslie.
‘You want to come?’ said Russell to Leslie. He didn’t believe in maintaining the traditional distance between boss and staff. He preferred them to see him as a person, even if a person of superior intellect. Most of the Books-R-Us staff hung out together regularly, except for Joanne whose mission objectives did not allow for pointless social gatherings in downmarket bars.
‘Ja, ok, cool. But what about cash up?’
‘Joanne can do that, and Thando can brief the part time staff. He’ll be down at Ricky’s later anyway.’ Joanne had been studiously ignoring their conversation and Russell knew from experience that without a direct order nothing would happen. She looked up at him sulkily and leaned slightly forward so that the top of her dress fell open. Russell, though, was one of the few men immune to the lure of her bosom, not through any political position but simply because he thought she was a bit of a slag and that really turned him off. ‘Joanne, cash up. Properly,’ he ordered. ‘Count the money, don’t just write down what you think is probably in there. It pisses off the auditors when the spreadsheet ends with, Like, 500 bucks.’
She slumped back on her stool. Russell knew no one else who could accomplish this on the backless stools with their slippery, leopard-print vinyl. He picked up the phone and dialled through to the offices.
‘Thando. I’m leaving now. Ja, thanks, and then … ja, see you there. Oh, Leslie’s coming with me. Joanne will cash up. No, actually, I have no idea where Pam is. OK. Cheers.’
While Russell made the call Leslie dashed into the office to get her stuff, and she was already on her way back towards the counter.
‘You ready?’ asked Russell.
‘Yes I am,’ she said with one of her fantastic smiles, and Russell felt something move within him again but this time it was something that felt good, too good, and he killed it with thoughts of Griselda’s intellect while his brain hid its head in its hands.
They went out to the staff parking area and climbed into Russell’s car, a six year old Peugeot 308 that he had got for a steal because it was painted a particularly unfortunate shade of green. As he turned the ignition the CD player came on hard with Judas Priest’s ‘Painkiller’. They both jumped at the sudden sound, and Russell quickly pressed the off button.
‘No, it’s cool. Leave it on. Maybe just a little softer, hey,’ said Leslie.
‘Really?’ said Russell.
‘Ja, I dig it.’
He looked at her in surprise.
‘I never figured you for a metalhead.’
‘Look who’s talking, Mr Woolworths.’
He touched a bashful hand to his pinstripe shirt.
‘Ja, I suppose. But you should have seen me back in the day. Hair and leather, baby.’
Leslie laughed out loud at the vision of Rocker Russell. These were the moments from which her feelings for him had grown, the all too infrequent moments in which he let his cover slip and she could see the man who wasn’t hung up on political correctness or pseudo-intellectual scribbling or a girlfriend that he allowed to treat him like shit because he thought that she was better than him with her fake power-to-the-people bullshit and her terrible, pretentious poetry. Her laugh, in turn, flowed into him and through his entire body, and the weight of the day fell away from him.
‘Let’s go. I really feel like a drink with a sea view.’
Soon they were walking in through the door of Ricky’s. It was barely five so the place was empty enough for them to both instantly spot Pam at the outside bar where smoking was allowed. They went over to her and Leslie pulled up a bar stool next to her, and Russell next to Leslie. Russell was uncertain how to behave now. He liked Pam, but despite his egalitarian attitudes he was still the shop’s manager and she had clearly abandoned work early without asking either him or Thando, and when she turned to look at him her glazed eyes told him that she had been having significant amounts of fun instead of being at work. He couldn’t approve, obviously, but neither did he have the energy to be angry. He wanted to relax. And besides, this was a first offence, Pam was usually very reliable, and she at least had the decency to look sheepish and immediately ply him with alcohol.
‘Hi. Get you a drink?’
He tried to look stern, but failed and smiled instead. He saw her relax.
‘Ja, thanks. Windhoek draught.’
‘Savannah,’ said Leslie.
The bartender was near enough to hear, and Pam pointed at her own nearly empty glass.
‘So, tough day or what?’ asked Russell.
‘Ja, one of those days. Listen, sorry I bailed, I just lost it with that guy.’
Russell didn’t know which guy she meant, but he was more interested in the progress of his beer just at the moment. The bartender was new but he seemed to know what he was doing, though, as he tilted the glass at the appropriate angle instead of letting it fill up and overflow with a massive head. A noisy group of students came in as he finished pouring the beer.
‘You should have seen the one I had earlier. Luckily I’m not American or I’d never have been able to celebrate Thanksgiving again.’
Pam and Leslie were not privy to Russell’s mental image of the giant, literarily-challenged turkey with which he had so recently been confronted, but the drinks arrived just then so it didn’t matter. Russell took a firm hold on his glass.
They clinked their drinks and lapsed into a minute’s silent appreciation of the wonders of alcohol. Leslie broke the silence. She knew that Russell had been disappointed with her reaction to his big news, and she wanted to make up for it.
‘It’s exciting that such a big writer is coming to Baytown. I haven’t read any of …,’ she realized too late that she couldn’t remember the guy’s name, ‘… his books though. What’s he about?’
Russell was pleased that Leslie was showing an interest. He gathered his thoughts.
‘Well, his oeuvre is predominantly postcolonial, though he toys with elements of postmodernism. The title of Midnight’s Chicken, for instance, is actually a reference to a moment of independence, a moment of freedom. You see, at the stroke of midnight on August the 15th 1947 Raksha’s home country, India, became independent from the British Empire. Midnight’s Chicken is about that moment. The main character is called Tewfiq Aziz. He and his family live in the Indian province of Ratamahatta, where Raksha himself is from, and they celebrate the moment of independence with a roast chicken, which was an unbelievable luxury in impoverished Ratamahatta. That meal, that moment, was the point at which they became free, the moment at which they became independent human beings who could determine their own fate.’
‘Pity about the chicken,’ said Leslie, who was a vegetarian.
‘Huh?’ said Russell.
‘The chicken. Pity.’
Russell did not understand.
‘I’ve been to Ratamahatta,’ said Pam. ‘It’s very crap.’
Russell was disappointed with the conversation, and not only because of Leslie’s failure to engage with the intellectual content instead of the chicken but also because as he spoke he felt something that had become more and more familiar to him over the past weeks and months. Every time he tried to have an intellectual conversation he felt something gnawing away at him, in the background yet undeniably present, a sense of the utter futility of the words that were coming out of his mouth, of their inability to impact in any meaningful way on the world around him or the people with whom he shared it, a sense of dissatisfaction that had been spreading ever more persistent tendrils through his daily existence. He did not know quite what to make of this, but he was beginning to suspect that he was saying things that he had learned without knowing what they really meant or why they were important other than because his teachers – he had an Honours degree in postmodern literature from Baytown University, or ‘only an Honours degree’ as Griselda would put it – had told him that they were. He was beginning to suspect that there was a fundamental gap between his learning and his understanding, that his learning didn’t really help him to understand. His brain had found new hope in this slow growth of doubt, hope that its owner would finally see the emptiness of buzz words and politically correct catch phrases. What Russell felt, though, was a cold sliver of fear lodged in his being as he looked out into a world that seemed ever more uncertain and hostile. Then he saw Thando arriving, and he felt another symptom of this strange malaise that had afflicted him. Not so long ago his spirits would have been revived by the knowledge that Thando was a man who shared his intellectual interests and who was always keen to engage in debate, but now he felt a sinking of his heart and drew his beer a little closer for comfort, truly worried about the significance of the fading of his desire for learned discussion.
Thando was looking forward to an evening of conversation, mostly because he had such a good time messing with Russell’s head. He liked Russell, but had long ago discovered that he was so filled with various forms of guilt and so terrified of being un-PC that he was irresistibly easy meat. Also, he knew that Russell was not as intellectual as he thought he was, or rather, that Russell’s heart was not really in the intellectual game because he had not realized that this was all that it was: a game. He took it far too seriously to be able to play effectively, which was also why he was stuck with Griselda. Thando’s analysis of the situation was that Russell’s irony gene was underdeveloped, though he had seen recent signs that he hoped were signals of an improvement in Russell’s ability to perceive the world’s many layers. The first such sign had been the purchase of the Peugeot, which was such a godawful colour that it seemed impossible that Russell could have bought it without some sense of irony.
As they moved from the bar to a table Russell looked out over the bay. The November evening was warm and the air heavy with the breath of the clouds building over the bay. The grey sea broke in long, high waves on the beach below Ricky’s balcony, their thunder heralding that of the storm that would come later. Russell took a seat opposite Thando at the table, and at the same time he caught Thando’s eye and saw in it the familiar glint that meant that Thando had a conversation in mind, a topic to debate. Russell’s heart faltered and he fumbled a cigarette from his packet and lit it in order to delay the inevitable. He took a pull from his beer, and as the hoppy liquid ran down his throat he found that he was angry, angry at Griselda. In a sudden moment of clarity he saw her fakery, her false political correctness and her petty judgements on all those who did not meet her standards of behaviour and dress. He realized that the sense of unease he had felt growing within him was at least in part a sense of what a bitch Griselda really was. But almost as soon as these thoughts ran through his mind he lost his grip on them.
She means well, he thought, bringing his brain’s celebrations to a premature end. She really cares about all that stuff. She just doesn’t know how to express herself gently. I can’t judge her so harshly. There’s still a lot I can learn from her.
Nevertheless, he really was not looking forward to the poetry slam.
Before his brain could turn his eyes on Leslie where she sat watching him from behind the neck of her bottle and wondering what thoughts could possibly be going through his mind to generate the sequence of expressions that had just crossed his face, Russell was distracted by a sudden flare of heat and light from across the bar. A student wearing a t-shirt that said ‘Baytown U Rowing Team’ had set herself alight in an attempt to down six flaming sambucas in six seconds. She and her friends were used to this sort of thing and despite being quite pissed they reacted quickly and put her out with glasses of cider and beer. She emerged bedraggled but unharmed except for some scorch marks and much shorter hair on the left side of her head than the right. She stood for a moment dripping alcohol and blinking it from her eyes, and then she threw her arms in the air and screamed, ‘Woooooooh.’ All her friends did the same and then bought massive amounts of new drinks. Russell felt a pang of longing for the days when the only things money had to pay for was alcohol and a pie every two days or so. He also realized that the flaming student could provide a useful diversion from whatever it was that Thando wanted to talk about. He successfully guided the conversation onto memories of university days, when he had been happy.
At eight-thirty Russell and Griselda were cruising the mean streets of Paradise Hills, heading for Ron’s house. Russell had to pass a car that was driving impossibly slowly. It was an old Citi Golf with a massive wing bolted to its roof and purple-blue light glowing from its underbelly. Bass sounds pumped out of it at such volume that Russell was surprised the people in the car could see, never mind hear. In his rear-view mirror he saw twin sparks of bright blue glowing from the car’s windscreen-washer nozzles like the pupils of some neon-eyed predator, and he put his foot down a bit to leave it behind.
Griselda did not speak until they arrived at Ron’s, then she grunted, ‘Back now,’ as she got out of the car. She threaded her way through the selection of German sedans parked outside Ron’s large but tatty house, rang the doorbell and went in when the door opened. It closed behind her and Russell started to wait. He looked around nervously, checked that the car was locked. Bass rumbled through the air like a giant’s heartbeat. He sat there for twenty minutes, getting progressively more impatient. He was about to dial Griselda’s number when the door opened and she emerged with Ron, talking and laughing as they came to the car. He saw her smile turn to a sneer as he unlocked the car so that they could get in. Ron did not look at him, did not greet him. He was far too radical to be courteous. Both Ron and Griselda were animated, taking turns to ad lib lines of terrible poetry.
Soon after, they pulled up outside Café Café. The owner had stolen the name from an Israeli coffee shop chain, in the vain hope that it would lend his establishment a touch of international glamour. Ron and Griselda quickly jumped out of the car and headed towards the door. Russell paused to make sure the car really did lock itself when he pushed the button then followed them in. He waved at the car guard in her tattered neon vest and wondered what the hell this tiny, undernourished woman would do if someone did break into his car. He was fairly certain the car’s colour would prevent it being stolen, though Thando had suggested that it was quite likely that it might drive people to assault it.
Café Café was wedged between two blocks of flats, like a growth between two toes. It had been painted once but the paint had long since peeled off and scattered to the four winds in lead-laced flakes. The neon sign over the door showed up as complex a network of cracks on the facade as a fluorescent light at a convention for aging hookers.
He followed Griselda and Ron into the dingy pub, for despite its pretentious name that was all it was. He saw them sitting down at a table full of their crusty friends, and he was about to follow them and take a seat among the people he knew would spend the rest of the night alienating him and making him feel like he wasn’t worth it, when he changed his mind and detoured to an empty bar stool instead. He took his perch and made eye contact with the barman.
The barman reached into a fridge, pulled out a quart and put it down in front of Russell.
‘Twenty,’ he said, and Russell finally found something he liked about this place. He usually tried to fit in by drinking the cheap red wine that most everyone at Griselda’s table drank – she preferred cane and coke – so this was the first time he had ordered a beer here and he was surprised and pleased at the low price. He felt suddenly generous because of the budget beer so he tipped the barman five rand for getting it out the fridge for him. There were glasses behind the bar but just stupid little highballs that he couldn’t be bothered with so he decided to live dangerously and took a long pull at the reassuringly large bottle. Russell took another swig and turned to look into the room just in time to see Griselda and Ron head backstage, which involved ducking behind a massive, tattered flag with a photo of a skin-and-bone child being stalked by a large and well-fed vulture that would have been licking its lips if it had any. The words ‘Save Ethiopia’ were emblazoned across the child’s forehead. The flag – which was clearly obsolete because the Ethiopians were fine now and it was the vultures that needed help – flapped in the breeze from an air conditioner that hadn’t actually conditioned any air since the late nineties, and Russell watched as Ron pulled a bag of white powder out of a pocket and used a credit card to chop fat lines of cocaine on a CD cover. Russell knew it was cocaine because he had watched every episode of Miami Vice back in the day, sneaking down once his mom was asleep and putting the TV on with the volume so low that he had to press his ear to the little speaker. The two of them took it in turns to snort the powder through a straw, while Russell watched in astonishment. He had never suspected the hyper-PC Griselda could have a drug habit, but now he thought about it, it did explain some of her behaviour. Some.
An MC in skinny jeans and aviators bounced onto the stage – that is, the four pallets pulled together in front of the obsolete flag – and started to make noises that Russell did not understand but that he guessed must have been an introduction for Griselda because next thing he bounced off the stage again and Griselda leaped aboard, snatching the microphone from the MC as their flight paths crossed. Russell had seen her perform before, so he knew what to expect, but the grunting and wailing that ensued seemed somehow more primal, more meaningless, more – how could he put it … kak, that was the word – than usual. He finished the beer and ordered another which he had nearly subdued when Griselda finished her extended rant with a drawn-out, primal scream. There was a pause, which drew out long enough for one person in the audience to start clapping awkwardly, uncertainly, before Griselda barked out, ‘Winter is coming’ and flopped forward into a deep bow. Silence fell and lurked about for a few beats, uncertain what to do with itself until a hesitant round of applause nudged it into the toilets. Griselda lifted herself from her bow and raised her arms over her head, and her eyes scanned triumphantly over the small crowd as if it was a packed and rapturous stadium audience. Russell was astounded by how bad it had been and wondered if it had always been this bad and if so, why the hell he had never noticed before. He looked at his beer bottle.
Is it because of you? Have you opened my eyes? Jesus, I need to drink more often.
The MC came on and made MCish whitterings while Griselda strutted from the stage. She ignored Russell even though she had to walk right past him at the bar to get to the table where Ron and her other crusty friends were sitting. They all said how good she had been, and spouted bollocks about how her formless wailings had deconstructed the capitalist corporate city and echoed the cries of the workers trapped beneath the means of production with only their legs sticking out.
Russell found that the alcohol had drawn aside the veils of guilt that daily clouded his vision and froze him in place, unable to speak his mind. Each day he felt bound, constrained by the weight of the world’s judgements upon him, unable to move, unable to think, to act, to be. But now, freed by the blessing of beer, he acted. He made his way over to the table where Griselda sat with Ron and four or five other people. She saw him coming and something in the way he moved told her that winter was indeed coming, that in fact it had arrived quite a lot earlier than she had anticipated.
‘I didn’t know you were a coke head, hey,’ he said conversationally.
This took her by surprise.
‘I’m not a coke head. How the hell do you know that?’
There was a long pause as they stared at each other, and Griselda’s friends waited for her to shoot him down and for him to cringe as he always did. Before she could open her mouth, though, he opened his.
‘You know, I think we’re done. In fact, I’m sure of it. Wait …,’ he put his index fingers to his temples as if trying to sense something in the universal ether. ‘Yes, there it is. We are definitely done. Partly because you are clearly shagging this doos here who has his hand on your thigh,’ he said, pointing at Ron, ‘but mostly because you have a really ugly soul. And also because you’re not fucking intellectual, and you’re not better than everyone else. No. In fact, you and your friends are a bunch of pretentious wankers.’
Ron stood up and moved quickly, threateningly, towards Russell. Redness flowed through Russell, a rushing noise filled his head and he bared his teeth and advanced on Ron with eyes burning bright and fingers hooked into claws. Ron shat himself and as he reversed back into his seat he knocked Griselda’s double cane and coke into her lap. She leaped to her feet, swearing, and bumped the table so that all the other drinks spilled too.
‘Fuck man, my phone,’ she bleated as she pulled the instrument from her soaked jeans and shook it to try and get the sugary black water out of it.
Russell’s sudden rage ebbed. He felt lightheaded, and also as if he should say something, but he did not know what. Instead he turned and left. He managed to find a silver coin for the car guard, seeing as his car was still there. He climbed in and started the engine, drove for a couple of blocks and pulled over. He was shaking.
‘What the fuck was that?’ he asked himself. He had never felt such a sudden rush of rage before, such a willingness to do harm to another person. His brain knew that his sudden rage had been a release of tension, like when tectonic plates stall against one another and build up huge energies that one day burst forth in an earthquake. He realised that frustration and anger had been building up inside him for ages, perhaps since his childhood – he heard an echo of the chorus of mockery that he had endured on the day of the foil space suit – and that tonight they had finally come out of him ready to kill and eat someone. He knew that he should want to go back, to apologise, but he did not want that, he did not want to see Griselda ever again.
‘Ron can have her.’
It was over, and instead of guilt and regret he felt only relief. There was only one clear thought in his admittedly quite drunk mind.
He turned the key in the ignition and headed for the beachfront and Ricky’s at a steady 65 to 68kph, neither too slow nor too fast, just right, so that no traffic cops would become interested in his progress. He parked outside the bar – Monday nights were quiet so there was plenty of space and he got a spot in front of the door – and went inside. He looked about for Leslie, Pam and Thando but he couldn’t see any of them. He whipped out his phone and dialled Leslie’s number, no hesitation, no rethinking or worrying. It rang and rang, and went to voicemail. Disappointment washed through him. He looked at his phone, cursing it for its failure to find Leslie, but just as he was about to slide it back into his pocket it began to ring, and the little Chinese gizmo totally redeemed itself when the name ‘Leslie’ flashed up on its screen. He pushed the green phone and said, ‘Hi.’
‘Hey,’ she said, ‘what’s up?’
‘Where are you? I’m at Ricky’s. I thought you might still be here.’
‘Ja, we are. Not inside, though. We’re on the beach. Come down.’
He took the little path that led down from Ricky’s balcony to the beach. The air was warm and lightning flickered out over the bay where the storm that had threatened earlier had come to rest. The rumble of breaking waves mingled with that of distant thunder as Russell walked a couple of hundred metres along the sand and found Leslie, Pam and Thando behind their usual dune. They were all laughing as he approached and for a moment he felt a cold certainty that he was the butt of their joke. He hesitated, but Leslie saw him and called to him.
‘Russell. Over here. Come.’
He went. He sat down next to her, his heart beating hard not from exertion but because of her, because of Leslie. She saw immediately that there was something different about him, something new.
‘What’s up? Where’s Greasy … I mean Griselda.’
‘Drying her phone probably.’
‘Hey?’ said Leslie.
‘Never mind.’ They all looked at him, sensing that something was up. ‘I broke up with her.’
‘Are you serious?’
‘That’s fantastic! Well done, man. Finally! Thank God.’
Russell was a bit surprised by Thando’s reaction.
‘Was it that bad?’
‘Jesus, dude, you have no idea. Well, that was the problem, hey. Man, she was sucking the life out of you like the Borg queen. You were being assimilated. Here.’
Thando passed Russell the joint he had been smoking. Soon he was pleasantly stoned as well as quite drunk, and the two combined to produce a very nice sensation indeed. He passed the joint to Leslie, and as she took it and their fingers touched he smiled at her. Then Pam kind of ruined the moment.
‘Russell and Leslie sitting in a tree, K I S S I N G,’ she sing-songed, and Russell blushed and instead of putting his arm around Leslie as he had been about to do he pulled back and looked out at the sea.
‘Shutup,’ said Leslie and put her elbow into Pam’s ribs.
‘Ow. Hey, chill, chick,’ said Pam as she plucked the joint from Leslie’s fingers.
Pam was quite a bit more wasted then the others because she drank stout and smoked a lot more. She giggled and was about to tease Russell and Leslie some more, but Leslie accidentally knocked over Pam’s beer, carefully smuggled out of the bar under her shirt. The dark liquid started to gurgle out into the sand.
‘No!’ squealed Pam.
As she dived for the bottle she remembered she had the joint in her hand and tossed it at Thando, who juggled it briefly before he managed to catch it by burning a hole in his shirt. Pam rescued the final third of her bottle.
‘Dammit,’ she said. She wiped the sand from the opening and took a swig. ‘There are some countries in which spilling a person’s beer is punishable by very nasty things. This should be one of them. Beer is a basic human right, you know.’ That reminded her of something. ‘Did you hear about that doos from Nestle, their CEO? He reckons water is not a basic human right, that it’s a product like food that should be sold like any other, for a profit. That’s bullshit. First of all, food shouldn’t only be available like that. But water is life. Without it we die. Even people who can’t afford to go and buy food can sometimes at least grow some of their own, but if those arseholes at Nestle and their corporate whore friends suck up all the water and we can only get it in little bottles from their shops, then they hold life and death in their greasy, disgusting, greedy hands. He’s saying that we only have the right to live if we can afford to buy our lives from a corporation. Fuck him, hey. Like corporations are gods, inevitable, omnipotent, that we can’t do without them. That they have the right to decide who lives and who dies, and the right to sell anything and everything. Who gives them the right to own and sell water? They don’t care about people, no matter how many parents they pay to make their kids say so in advertisements. Corporations are about profit, end of story. Not compassion. And what about the rest of life on the planet? It’s not just humans. All life depends on water. Jesus, that makes me angry.’
‘All we can do is to do as little harm as possible,’ said Leslie.
‘As little harm as possible?’ said Russell. ‘Surely you mean, do no harm?’
Maybe it was the weed, but Russell was sure he had just sounded pompous. He studied the glowing tip of the joint and wondered if that happened often.
‘No. It’s impossible not to ever hurt anyone. That’s the way the world is. If you achieve something, say you get a job, then that means that someone else didn’t get it. Every rand you earn is a rand that someone else hasn’t got, every bite of food a bite that someone else hasn’t got. Human existence is competition, and there’s always a winner and a loser, even if it doesn’t seem that way. Even to give, you have to take. One person’s upliftment is another’s oppression. That’s something all South Africans know something about, white, black, coloured, whatever. And no amount of clever talk or political bickering is ever going to change that. The only way it will ever change is if humanity itself changes, from a species that competes individually to one that cooperates and that takes account of the pain and pleasure of not only other humans but of all living things. And that’s not going to happen. We’ll destroy ourselves first, destroy ourselves by protecting our so-called human rights.’
‘What do you mean, “so-called” human rights? Don’t you believe in human rights?’ said Thando.
‘Well, I just think that it’s those rights that we hold so dear that will eventually kill us. Mostly the right to have as many children as we want regardless of our ability to care for them, to feed them and educate them. Any ignorant, incompetent woman can pump out as many kids with no future as she wants, and it’s a rare man who has any sense of responsibility for the consequences of sex. Never mind the appalling rape statistics. Why do you think there’s so much poverty and the crime rate is so hectic? Because every day there are thousands and thousands of people born without hope, and no matter how many charities bleat about saving “our children” there is never going to be any hope for most of them.’
There was a long silence. Pam took a hit on the joint, held it for a moment or two, then spoke through exhaled smoke.
‘Jesus, Leslie. That’s a bit of a depressing perspective you have there.’
‘Well, it’s true. And for some reason everybody ignores the obvious fact that there are too many people, and that this is the cause of all of the problems that we are facing. We’re going to destroy our planet, our home, like a virus does to its host, and we’ll be shouting about our rights up to the last breath. What a smug, selfish species we are.’
She took a deep drag on the joint and a deeper pull of her drink to mask the sadness that welled up inside her, the sense of hopelessness that brought tears into her eyes whenever these thoughts overwhelmed her as she lay in bed. Now, though, as she pondered her kind’s flawed nature and the catastrophe that it would inevitably bring, anger replaced her sadness.
‘I mean, whether it’s the fault of God or genetics, what is the purpose of such a self-destructive nature? How can this be the result of either guiding force? If it’s the result of evolution, then what competitive advantage does a self-destructive nature bring? And if it’s by the hand of God, then what divinity can take pleasure from the creation of a species doomed from its conception by the very flaws He Himself made in it?’
‘Those flaws are the only way He could grant us free will,’ said Thando.
‘No way, Thando. An omnipotent deity could have given His creations an ability to see their flaws, to see the dangers of free will, and enough force of will and goodness to avoid them without limiting their freedom. He could have given us the foresight to understand the tragedy to which our selfish ambition will eventually bring us. If it’s the fault of the genes, though, then that’s even more terrifying, because then our self-destruction is natural and inescapable, an unavoidable consequence of life itself, of blind evolution, the inevitable result of the very act of being that will bring about the final, grand apocalypse that’s been foreshadowed in miniature in the demise of countless human civilizations throughout history.’
Leslie took another drink. Russell stared at her in amazement. He had known her for nearly two years now but he had never heard her speak with such passion and eloquence, and he had never imagined the terrible depth of the thoughts that swirled within her mind. What he did not know about Leslie was that she only read non-fiction, because she felt that it provided a more profound insight into the world than fiction ever could. She didn’t like the way that fiction clouded the world’s problems in clever metaphors and she had decided some time ago that she did not need someone else’s analogies to make her worry and fret. She felt emotional enough about things as it was. Instead, she preferred the direct approaches of sociologists, anthropologists and scientists. This was why she had never heard of Abhinav Raksha and also why she never took part in Russell and Thando’s conversations about writers of fiction.
Russell remembered a time that a woman had come around the shop collecting money for orphans. Joanne had refused to give anything and once the woman left she said to Thando and Russell, ‘We should just stop them breeding in the first place.’ He had thought her cold and mercenary. Now, he compared Joanne’s callous words to Leslie’s vision of unwanted children without hope dooming humanity and he saw how a similar sentiment was transformed by Leslie’s sadness, her feeling for the plight of her species.
The conversation petered out then, and they sat on the beach and watched the waves’ white crests break in the darkness. Russell wanted to move nearer Leslie, maybe to try and put his arm around her again, but he stopped himself because he was quite drunk, very stoned, and beneath all that his anger still seethed and he was afraid that all these things would ruin everything, anything, between them.
After a time they headed back to the parking lot. Russell thought about offering Leslie a lift but Pam spoke before him and he couldn’t say, ‘Come with me instead.’ They went their separate ways, but he was consoled by the thought that he would see her the next day, at work. And there was only one day to go before the great event, the coming of Abhinav Raksha to Books-R-Us. Russell’s last thought before sleeping was, Must get the staff to build a display of his books. He’ll be pleased when he sees that. Maybe in the shape of a lotus leaf or something.
‘What the hell is this now?’ said Diesel.
The road ahead was blocked with yellow signs and lights that flashed orange in the rain. Damp people in blue overalls and neon green high-visibility vests stood by the side of the road flapping red flags heavy with water in a fashion that made it very clear how much they were not enjoying themselves. A big sign in the middle of the road said DETOUR in large black letters. An arrow pointed them to an offramp. Diesel pulled up alongside a traffic police car that was parked at the side of the road. He woke the officer by tossing empty polystyrene coffee cups at the window of his car. Eventually the window wound slowly down and the officer looked at Diesel with an expression that said, ‘What the fuck do you want?’
‘What’s up with this kak?’ Diesel called across.
‘Landslides,’ the cop called back through the rain. ‘Biiiig fuck up. N2’s closed from here to Plett.’
‘So how we supposed to get to Baytown then?’
‘You got to take the Outeniqua pass up to Oudtshoorn, then the R62, then you can get back down to the N2 by Plett on the R339.’
‘Shit.’ Diesel wound up his window. ‘You hear that?’
‘Ja,’ said Spook. He looked at his watch. ‘Shit.’
‘What does this mean?’ asked Raksha.
‘A long bloody detour is what it means.’
‘A few hours at least. K, let’s go,’ he said to Diesel.
They drove on through the rain and the road twisted up through a pass that Raksha suspected would have been spectacular if it had not been blanketed in clouds. After a time they descended the other side of the pass into the Karoo and left the mountains and the coastal weather behind. The scenery here was very different to that on the coast. It was dryer and browner and full of goats and ostriches. Raksha had never seen an ostrich before and he found the big, strange birds fascinating.
A police car came towards them in the other direction. The driver flashed his lights at them and waved his arm out the window in a ‘stop’ motion. Diesel pulled up alongside.
‘What’s up,’ he asked.
‘You must pull over and wait.’
‘Wait for what?’
The policeman drove away.
Raksha asked, ‘What did he mean?’
‘Fucked if I know,’ said Spook. He thought for a moment. ‘K, pull over, we wait ten minutes then we move on.’
They pulled over and started to wait. Raksha took the opportunity to get out of the car. There was a field alongside the road, and the field was full of ostriches. One was quite near the fence and it looked at Raksha with big, dark, long-lashed eyes that Raksha thought were rather beautiful. He approached the fence cautiously and the bird cocked its head at him inquiringly.
‘Hello pretty birdy,’ said Raksha. ‘Good bird, nice bird. Do you mind if I touch you?’ he asked as he reached towards the ostrich.
The ostrich did not mind. Raksha touched the feathers on its wing as the bird watched him expectantly. He had a cat – Shalimar, the ongoing battle for custody of whom had hurt the feelings of both Raksha’s children, who had been left to make up their own minds on the subject of where they would live after their parents’ split – and so he naturally assumed that this creature, too, would probably want food as soon as it saw a human.
‘Sorry, I don’t have anything that you would like.’
The ostrich cocked its head at him again, then its neck snaked out with impossible speed as it pecked Raksha’s glasses from the top of his head. The glasses fell to the ground, fortunately unbroken, while Raksha stared at the creature in surprise. He had felt the strength of its strike in the air just above his head, and now as he looked at it he thought that it seemed much more like a feathery dinosaur than did, say, a starling or a seagull. Here was a real living fossil. All it needed was teeth and some useless little arms sticking out of its chest.
Raksha bent and retrieved his glasses and checked that they were unscratched. As he put them in his pocket Madison insinuated herself between Raksha, the fence and the ostrich.
‘I want to get a pic of me and this thing. It’s cool.’
She put her back to the dinosaur and raised her phone to take a selfie. The creature struck over her shoulder and grabbed the phone in its beak. The phone seemed to hold a lot more appeal than Raksha’s glasses because it did not just peck at it but gripped it and ran off with it. It stopped at a short distance, from where it ignored Madison’s indignant squawking and had a good look at the phone. As it pecked its way through various menus the phone beeped and flashed its displeasure, which further excited the ostrich. Eventually it tired of the game and swallowed the phone, but not before it accepted an offer of a large loan from Madison’s bank.
‘K, that’s it, ten minutes is up. Let’s go,’ said Spook.
‘But my phone,’ whined Madison.
‘Nothing we can do about your phone, skattebol. It’s inside that ostrich till he decides to release it from one end or the other. Come, let’s go.’
Madison pouted and sulked but the ostrich didn’t care. They got back in the car and Diesel started to drive. They had not gone far when he said, ‘What the hell is that?’
They all looked ahead and saw a wall of feathers coming down the road towards them.
‘Shit! Pull over,’ said Spook, but there was no time.
A river of ostriches parted around the car, running from somewhere to somewhere else along the highway. They seemed to know where they were going because there was not a human in sight. The flow lasted a good few minutes, long necks and pretty eyes flashing past the car, before it tailed off. Raksha turned to watch the retreating birds from the rear window of the car.
Is this normal for this country?, he wondered. Herds of ostriches running down the highways?
‘Flock’ somehow did not seem like the correct collective noun for what he had just witnessed. Animals so large and in such numbers demanded to be called a herd.
‘Is that normal?’ he asked Spook and Diesel.
‘Bru, this is the Karoo,’ said Spook. ‘Nothing is normal here. This sort of kak is why I stay in Joburg. That’s where things are normal.’
Diesel drove on. Raksha watched the landscape pass them by, his eye drawn to the complex layers of folded rock formed from sediments that the aeons had piled up and then raised from an ancient sea floor to become mountains. He felt a sudden connection to this geology, to this layering of time that showed so clearly the inevitability of transformation. He considered the different eras of his own being, the strata of his life, laid down over a time scale that seemed meaningful to him but which from the perspective of even the most insignificant of rocks was a mere speck upon a blip in time. As he tried to imagine the vast spans of time over which this landscape had been formed he felt like he was standing at the brink of a deep well, leaning out over the edge and peering into an immense depth, and he felt a sudden, vertiginous sense of insignificance and had to close his eyes and look away from the intricately pleated mountains.
He opened them again just in time to see a sign flit by. He only managed to catch a few words, but he liked what he read.
‘Did that sign say that there are caves ahead?’
‘Ja,’ said Diesel. ‘It’s the Cango Caves.’
Raksha was a keen amateur spelunker, and he had heard of the Cango Caves.
‘How far away are they?’
‘From here? Like, eighty Ks.’
He had not realised how close they were to the caves. Excitement sparked inside him and lit up his face, which had been at least partly cloudy for months now. Spook quickly understood where Raksha was going, or rather, where he wanted to go.
‘Uh-uh, no way, our turn off is coming up in a few kilos. Cango Caves is way off our route. That’ll push our schedule to the limit.
Disappointment washed through Raksha. Then, he realised something.
‘Spook, I think you work for me. Is that right?’
Spook was silent for a few moments.
‘Ja,’ he said grudgingly.
‘I would very much like to see those caves. We will go there.’
Another few beats of silence.
‘K,’ said Spook. ‘But it’s already late now. We’ll head up towards the caves and find a place to stay for the night, then in the morning we’ll check out the caves and get back on the road.’
Madison started to whine.
‘Caaaaves? Why do we have to go to some stupid caves? Why are we out here in the middle of nowhere? Doesn’t this country have cities?’ Cape Town was but a distant memory for her. ‘I don’t want to go to ….’
Raksha interrupted her.
‘Madison. Shut up.’
His tone took her by surprise. She gave him a sulky, teenagerish look, folded her arms over her chest and turned away. For a moment Raksha fully expected her bottom lip to stick out but her brain, such as it was, managed to restrain her at the last second. He caught Spook’s eye in the rear view mirror and was sure he saw wrinkles of amusement.
They found a nice little bed and breakfast with a lovely view over some fields to distant mountains. Madison was still sulking and demanded her own room, which at this point was fine with Raksha. She stomped off – quite a feat in high heels – and slammed the door of her room, and that was the last they saw of her that evening. Raksha, Spook and Diesel had drinks and a nice supper. Spook and Diesel slept well, while Raksha did not, because he was much too worried about his life, the universe and everything.
Russell woke the next morning and the first thought through his mind was Raksha. The next one was Jesus as he realised how bad his headache was. His heart sank and he groaned as he realised the scale of the hangover he had to look forward to. He thought back to the previous night and his eyes widened as he remembered that he had dumped Griselda; and how he had dumped Griselda. He lay there as regret and worry filled him and guilt seeped back to wrap him in its cold tentacles once more. He remembered the anger that had rushed through him and how Ron had fallen backwards against the table and knocked drinks over Griselda and her phone, and he felt terrible. His brain hid its face in its hands and shook its head as the light of hope it had seen at the end of the tunnel that was Russell’s life winked out once more.
Russell’s mind wandered away from the guilt to memories of Leslie, and that made his heart beat a little faster. As he thought of her many things seemed possible and he felt little sparks of hope ignite inside him, hope for his life, for love, and for his novel.
All those things she said. How did I not see how intelligent she is before? How did I not see …?
He interrupted himself by remembering that there was only one day till Raksha would be in his shop. He was overwhelmed with thoughts of everything that needed to be done to prepare. He slid out of his bed, dragged himself to the bathroom and downed a couple of painkillers. One caught in his throat and nearly returned to the light as he gagged, but he managed to keep it down. He turned the shower on hot as he could stand. He stood under its tepid stream feeling very kak and tried to prepare himself for the day.
Kwikspar Muhammad held the freezer door open and Rafiq and Ali trooped in.
‘Everything is in place,’ said Muhammad. ‘We know who will be doing the catering for this orgy of depravity, and now we know when they are due to arrive at the book shop.’ For a second Rafiq was not sure what the orgy of depravity was, but then he remembered that it was Raksha’s appearance at Books-R-Us. ‘We will intercept the delivery vehicle,’ continued Muhammad, ‘and overpower the guards. Then, we will take the place of the catering staff. Wearing their uniforms, we will infiltrate the mall and the book shop. We will plant the instrument of divine retribution, retreat to a safe distance and witness the wrath of God pouring down upon the infidel.’
There was a pause, then Rafiq asked, ‘And then?’
Muhammad looked surprised, and thought for a moment.
‘Well,’ he said, ‘Wednesday is bingo night, so I’ll have to take mummy down to the community centre.’
‘No, I mean, don’t we need to get away, or something? Won’t they be looking for us?’
Muhammad laughed the laugh he had been practicing, the full, deep one appropriate for a jihadi leader. When he played back the recordings he made on the voice recorder on his cell phone he thought he sounded a bit squeaky, so he compensated for this. Ali thought he was choking and pounded him on his back. Muhammad’s keffiyeh slipped off his head. He managed to catch it and tried to put it back on but it was too far gone and he realised he would have to redo the whole thing. He tried to pull it off but a couple of loops of it were tangled around his arm and his head and as he pulled fiercely at it the whole thing tightened and he slapped himself. He cursed and tugged yet harder on the rebellious garment, which made things much worse. His right arm was secured to the side of his head, he had gagged himself and below a tuft of hair a single eye was visible, swivelling madly as it looked for a way out. There was none. He had invented a knot of which any yachtsman would be proud, and his left arm scratched at it in pitiful attempts to find where it might be undone.
‘Mmmphhaurgh,’ said Muhammad.
‘What?’ said Ali.
‘MMMPHHAURGH,’ repeated Muhammad.
‘I think he wants us to help him,’ said Rafiq.
‘Oh, right,’ said Ali.
He looked for one of the ends of the scarf and gave it an experimental tug. Muhammad gave a muffled squeak of pain as Ali pulled his beard. He kicked Ali in the shin and Ali yelped and retreated. Rafiq saw a box cutter lying on a shelf. He picked it up and advanced on Muhammad. Muhammad’s visible eye widened in alarm and he took a step or two back.
‘Stay still,’ said Rafiq.
Muhammad reluctantly obeyed, and the eye swivelled towards the sound of the blade cutting through the fabric as Rafiq detached the scarf from Muhammad’s head. Soon he had cut away enough that Muhammad could finally tear himself free and he wrenched the shredded fabric from him, threw it to the floor and stomped on it, shouting incoherently in his rage.
‘Anti-revolutionary … accursed … neo-Imperialist …!’
Muhammad finally finished punishing his scarf for its shameful attack on his person. Ali and Rafiq were watching in a silence that could justifiably be described as awkward, partly because it was always embarrassing to see your revolutionary leader defeated by a scarf but mostly because of the pretty girl who was standing in the freezer doorway. Muhammad registered her presence.
‘Sherry. How long have you …,’ said Muhammad, smoothing his robes and patting his hair in an attempt to fix his scarf head. ‘Never mind, come in. Ali, Rafiq, this is my wife’s cousin Sherry.’
‘Hi,’ said the pretty girl. ‘It’s Scheherazade actually, but nobody can spell that so I just go by Sherry.’
‘Sherry has been our agent in the book shop. She has been conducting surveillance. It was she who first discovered the plan to bring the blasphemer Raksha to Baytown.’
Rafiq thought that Sherry must be about twenty or so. She wore jeans, little black shoes and a black t-shirt, with a black hijab that wrapped around her shoulders and upper body and up over her head in loose folds, framing her face. She supervised the crews that cleaned Books-R-Us every night after the shop closed, which was how she had seen the note on Russell’s desk some weeks ago. He had been trying positive reinforcement on the universe and had carefully written it a note which read, ‘Abhinav Raksha will come to this shop, and he will read and love my novel.’ Sherry had recognised the name and mentioned it to Muhammad because she knew that he was interested in politics. She had not imagined how he would react. He had told her to monitor the shop and inform him of any developments in the Raksha visit, and as the weeks passed and it became clearer that Raksha would actually come to Baytown, Sherry had been alarmed by the change in Muhammad. He had started to talk funny and became really paranoid, and he had bought that ridiculous scarf. She had arrived in time to witness most of the scarf’s attack on him, and she had even managed to take a couple of surreptitious photos on her phone so she could rotflhao^^1^^ about it later and then share it on Facebook so that all her friends could rotfltaot^^2^^.
She quite liked Raksha’s work actually, and she had been using Russell’s PC, which had no passwords, to follow his progress in bringing the author to Baytown. She had also found Russell’s novel and started to read it. It didn’t take her long. She had told Muhammad about it during one of the periodic updates she gave him, unaware of his “bring-Raksha-to-divine-justice” project.
‘I also found this novel. Well, I call it a novel, but … anyway, it is very bad. Possibly the worst piece of prose I have ever read. It’s sad, actually, you can see that he really wants to write, but I think he is not cut out for literary fiction. He should really just write a bestseller. Something with explosions and mystery. Like Dan Brown, but hopefully not as completely unbelievable and with better grammar. I mean, “symbology,” come on. Surely the man knows there is no such word?’
Muhammad brought her back to the present.
‘So Sherry, what news do you bring us?’
‘Ummm, well, nothing much new. The Raksha event is definitely on for tomorrow. And that’s it really. So, what exactly are you planning?’
Ali would not make eye contact and Rafiq looked uncomfortable, which made her suspicious. Muhammad seemed excited and happy, which could not be a good thing.
‘Never you mind your pretty little head about that, my dear,’ said Muhammad. ‘You have been very helpful to us, but now your part in this is over. Leave it to us to carry out the will of God.’
She was very tempted to wrap the scarf around his head once more. She was getting cold in the freezer though, and was quite keen to get away from whatever it was that these idiots were planning.
‘I will see you at the book shop tomorrow then.’
‘No!’ all three said at the same time.
She looked at them, surprised.
‘Why not? He is famous. I want to see him.’
‘Just … just stay at home tomorrow,’ said Rafiq, searching for a reason and finding the worst possible one. ‘That sort of thing is not for women.’
She looked at him in disgust, then she rolled her eyes and turned and left. As she went, though, she felt a momentary slip of fear inside her.
Muhammad … he really looks … but no, he is not that mad, surely. Surely.
She shook her head to push out the momentary suspicion that something terrible was happening.
They are just three idiots and a scarf in a freezer, for pity’s sake. What harm can they do?
Regardless, she decided that perhaps she would find some other occupation for her Wednesday evening.
Thando stood at the counter, clicking away at the mouse of one of the computers, looking for interesting new books that he might like to order. A man came to the counter with a book.
‘I want a discount.’
Thando was used to people wanting discounts.
‘I’m sorry, we are not allowed to give discounts on books that are 100% undamaged.’
The man looked like he was about to argue, but then he picked up the book and headed back into the shelves.
Soon after, Thando heard Pam shout, ‘Hey! What the hell are you doing?’
The same man appeared from behind a shelf and hoofed it out the door. Thando watched him go, and he knew what had happened even before Pam came to the counter. She held the book for which the man had demanded a discount. Its cover was torn, and some pages hung forlornly loose.
‘That guy vandalised this book. Can you believe it?’
Thando took the book, saddened but not surprised that there were people who would do such a thing for a few rands discount.
‘Yes, I can believe it. People will do a lot of weird things for not very much money.’
Pam’s boyfriend Rabbit walked into the shop. He was dressed in his customary black with pale make up and streaks of mascara down his cheeks. He came to the counter and spoke to Pam without any preamble, no mention of Battle of the Bands the previous night, so she knew that once again Winterknob had failed to make an impression on the judges. Or a good impression, anyway.
‘We need to talk.’
He may as well have turned around and left then. It was obvious where this was going, as it always is when your boyfriend or girlfriend says, ‘We need to talk.’ But she wanted to hear what he came up with.
‘OK then, but not here.’
She led him out of the shop, through the mall and out of the fire door to the dumpsters where she always went to smoke.
‘Go on then. Talk,’ she said, lighting a cigarette.
He patted his pockets in a manner that suggested, ‘I appear to have left my cigarettes in the car,’ but he did that all the time and also she knew what was coming which did not put her in a generous mood. Unable to use lighting a cigarette for dramatic effect, Rabbit had no choice but to launch straight in.
‘Look Pam, I can’t divide my emotional energy between my music and you. I need to focus.’ He walked in a little circle, running his hands through his hair to demonstrate how difficult all this was for him. ‘I’m sorry, but we’re over.’
Pam took a drag on her cigarette.
‘I thought I was your muse.’
‘Well, ja, but like, sometimes artists need to switch out muses, you know?’
‘Switch out muses? So, what you’re actually trying to say is that you’ve met someone else.’
‘It’s not like that. It’s just that I need to realign my creative energies, and I really feel that Candi can help me with that.’
‘Candi? Really? Jesus, Rabbit’
At that moment a petite and perky blonde in a tiny skirt and tinier top came out the fire door, staring intently at a cell phone. Candi, Pam knew instantly.
‘Hey, Rabbit. Look here, I found an app for nail maintenance. It’s by the UK’s top nail technician, Madison Slater. It reminds you when to do your nails and it has a ruler and a colour guide and …’ She looked up from the excitement of the app that would transform her nail maintenance routine and saw Pam. ‘Oh, hi. You’re black. You must be Pam,’ she said with a friendly but vacant smile. Her eyes were similarly empty, windows to the desert that was Candi’s mental landscape.
‘Hi,’ said Pam.
Nothing else came to mind. This didn’t seem to bother Candi who just kept staring at her, smiling and chewing something, hopefully gum, though Pam wouldn’t have been surprised if Candi’s hobbies included popping random things into her mouth.
‘Candi, I need to talk to Pam. Can you give us a moment?’
‘Sure,’ said Candi.
She continued to smile and chew and stare at them vacantly.
‘Candi, please go somewhere else,’ said Rabbit.
‘Sure,’ said Candi and did.
As she walked away every step bounced her tiny skirt high enough to reveal the curve of her butt cheeks. Pam was pissed off about Candi, but she was not really upset about the break up itself. She had known the thing with Rabbit was temporary and she had never liked him more than just enough anyway. He was more of an accessory than anything else, and the band scene had been fun, although Winterknob sucked and she had been getting tired of long jam sessions in which the four of them hardly ever seemed to all be playing the same tune at the same time. Even when they were, all that was revealed was that they were not very good at writing songs.
‘So when you asked me not to come to the Battle of the Bands because you needed to focus,’ Pam observed, ‘what you needed to focus on was Candi’s arse. I take it that doesn’t require much “emotional energy”.’
‘Sarcasm is the lowest form of wit, Pam,’ admonished Rabbit.
‘And cliché is the lowest form of communication, dick head.’
‘Don’t be like that. Look, it’s not you. I have to follow my creativity to my destiny. I’m on a path that I don’t understand. The vision is clearing but it’s not fully realised yet. I think Candi is the best one to travel with me now. I’m sorry.’ He reached out to cup her cheek in his palm so that he could look at her with feeling while she cried in misery yet accepted his creative turmoil and artistic needs. She smacked his hand away and flicked her cigarette at him. It disintegrated into sparks that started to burn lots of little holes in his tight black acrylic t-shirt.
‘Fuck off Lester,’ said Pam as he did the put-out-the-sparks-before-they-burn-me-oh-Jesus-one’s-gone-down-my-pants dance. ‘And by the way, the reason that you never win Battle of the Bands is not some conspiracy of aging DJs, but because your band is crap. Cheers.’
She turned around and walked away.
Someone’s been reading my book.
Russell had dragged himself into the office, and perhaps because the self-inflicted misery of a hangover had engendered a state of masochism, he had been unable to resist the morbid desire to look at NOVEL.doc. He opened the properties tab and read the ‘last accessed’ entry with disbelief.
Yesterday. Who the hell …? Oh my God.
His hangover vanished, overwhelmed by the shock. And now, the shock was being displaced by something that was almost excitement but not quite as pleasant.
What did they think of it? Did they like it? My first reader … who is it? What is he like?
He was interrupted by Leslie sticking her head around his door.
‘Russell, there’s someone who wants to see you at the counter.’
The speed with which her head disappeared again told him that nothing good was about to happen. Russell closed NOVEL.doc and heaved himself from his chair, putting aside thoughts of his reader for the moment. He left the staff-only area and as he headed towards the counter he saw the customer at the same time that the customer saw him. There was no time to dive behind a shelf.
Oh, fuck, thought Russell with a forced smile on his face.
There was a certain kind of customer, the kind that always demanded to see the manager about their problems. And that was the problem – the demand. If they just asked and were nice about the whole thing, they’d be far more likely to get what they wanted, but some people could see no way but the hard way, and even prided themselves on it. These people were sort of an antithesis to large, bubbly people called Taz who insist on telling everyone how much fun they are and that you never know what to expect with them around, when you can in fact fairly accurately predict that what you can expect is to be irritated. But better a Taz than a doos, as Russell always said, and as he headed towards the counter he could see what he knew to be a monumental doos: Mr Etherington. Mr Etherington was an elderly Englishman who had been an accountant for a dishwasher manufacturer outside Little Piddling, Surrey. He was living a much better quality of life in South Africa on his British pension than he would have done in England. He never tired, though, of explaining how much better things were ‘at home’ than in South Africa. These lectures were usually precipitated by whatever bit was missing this week from the newspaper that he insisted Books-R-Us import from Little Piddling, the ‘Little Piddling Bugle’, which Russell had to do through a complex web of suppliers, because the geniuses at Head Office had advertised that Books-R-Us would get any newspaper from anywhere. Usually it was the entertainment section that was AWOL, though sometimes it was the financial section. Russell suspected that the couriers who delivered the newspapers were primarily interested in entertainment, but occasionally tried to take control of their doubtless chaotic finances. The only part that always arrived was the gardening section. Mr Etherington did not like gardening. Neither was he particularly interested in entertainment or finance. What he was interested in was a complete paper.
‘It’s up to me to decide which bits to use to line the budgerigar’s cage, Mr Hobbes. Isn’t it? Is that not my God-given right? I don’t ask for much, but I do ask for this – that my newspaper arrive in my hands without being ravished. Now, please can you explain to me where the entertainment and financial sections of this newspaper have got to?’
It was the kind of question that everyone involved knew had no answer. It was the kind of question asked by the kind of person who enjoyed making themselves feel powerful by belittling someone who worked behind a counter.
‘I could not say, Mr Etherington. I ….’
But Mr Etherington’s attention was no longer with Russell. Joanne had emerged from behind a nearby shelf. She was the only one who could charm Mr Etherington, and that was only because as far as he was concerned she was sex on legs. Well, as far as most people were concerned she was sex on legs, but for Mr Etherington she was somewhere north of Marilyn and just south of the goddess Diana. Joanne bothered to charm him because he was wealthy, and you never knew.
‘Hello, my dear. And how are you?’ said Mr Etherington rapturously, addressing Joanne’s chest. Russell shuddered as he watched Mr E. moisten his lips. If it had been anyone but Joanne he would have leaped on him and wrestled him to the ground in order to save her. Joanne wiggled them a little, not enough to be openly wiggling but enough to achieve the desired result.
‘We’re all fine thanks, and how are you?’
‘Well, muddling along, you know how it is. Newspaper’s missing its bits again,’ he said and cast a dark sidelong glance at Russell.
‘Oh dear. Well, never mind, come with me and let’s see what we can find for you.’
She hooked her arm through Mr Etherington’s, her left breast pressing against him and offering him a fine view down her top, and led him off docile as a lamb towards the magazine section, where he would buy whatever the hell she told him to. For once, Russell thought that Joanne did indeed have some uses. OK, one use. But whatever, he was grateful that she had exorcised the old goat and freed him up to return to what he had been doing.
What was I doing? Oh ja, my book … my reader!
Russell hurried back to his office. He was about to open NOVEL.doc again when his hangover sneaked up from behind and smacked him in the head. He hunched over his desk and pushed aside a large box to make room for his arms and head. Then he realised that there was a large box on his desk.
He looked at the label. It was from Head Office. More specifically, it was from Rodger the marketing director. A small, cold niggle woke in the pit of Russell’s stomach. He could feel it clearly even through the misery of the alcoholic aftermath. He knew, somehow, what was going to be in the box, just knew without a shadow of a doubt, because he knew how the minds of the marketers at Head Office worked.
His phone’s peal pierced his mind and he fumbled it to his ear.
‘Rodger from head office on the line for you,’ said Pam.
The line clicked and a voice said, ‘Hello? Russell? Are you there?’
‘What? I mean, yes, I’m here.’
‘Good. Listen, did the box arrive?’
‘The box. There’s a box on my desk.’
‘Have you opened it?’
Russell paused. He tried desperately and failed hopelessly to come up with a reason not to do what he knew he was going to be expected to do once he had opened the box. He had to open the box, there was no way to avoid it, and he saw his future vanish beneath a wave of embarrassment profound enough to overwhelm any memories of the civvies-day foiling of his childhood.
‘Open the box, Russell.’
There was inevitability in Rodger’s soft voice. Russell put the phone down on his desk. He picked up a pair of scissors. He cut the tape holding the box shut and lifted the lid as gingerly as a Nazi scientist lifting the lid of the Ark of the Covenant. When he saw what was inside he wished that his face would indeed melt, for that would be a nobler and less painful fate than that contained within the box.
‘No,’ he said softly.
‘Yessss,’ came Rodger’s distant voice from the instrument on Russell’s desk, like a demon whispering hisses from some dark and dreary pit.
In the box was a garment of yellow, white and red, folded to reveal the row of massive fluffy red pompoms lining its front. A huge, wiry ginger wig lay above a cluster of round, red plastic noses that stared up at Russell like the burning eyes of Leviathan rising from the deep to consume him. It was a clown suit, a replica of the one worn by the Books-R-Us mascot, Cheery. He stared at it for what seemed an eternity as the room receded around him to leave him in a dark and frightening place, alone but for the terror that lurked within the box.
Rodger’s voice drew him back to the world, but the horror followed him. Slowly, he reached for the phone, picked it up and held it to his ear.
‘You will wear the suit for the duration of the Raksha event. And your staff will all wear the noses.’
‘You can’t make me do this. I’ll look like a total moron.’
‘Your contract, the one that you signed when we promoted you, clearly stipulates that you will be expected to participate in the company’s marketing and promotions campaigns. A visit by an author as prominent as Raksha is an opportunity that the company cannot let pass by.’
‘I won’t do it.’
‘You will, and I will be coming to Baytown to make sure that you do. Trust me, your continued employment at Books-R-Us rests on this. You have a responsibility to the company. We pay you to make sure of that. We have bought your time, we possess your life, and you will obey us.’
The line clicked once more and Rodger was gone, along with Russell’s final hopes for intellectual respectability. This was how he would be dressed when he met his literary idol. He burned with anticipatory embarrassment for every moment that he would be wearing this abomination, this foul garment. The clown suit embodied his servile position, and he knew that when he wore it there could be no illusion of self-respect or the respect of others.
I am not independent. I have no power, and no choice.
The need for money had tethered him to shame. A tide of resentment washed through him.
Leslie knocked lightly on the door as she came into Russell’s office.
‘Hey, Russell. Great night last night, hey? Listen, I’ve been meaning to tell you, we don’t have any books by that author, whatsisname, the one who’s coming here. Maybe we should get some?’
Russell tore his eyes from the clown suit and looked at her. Rage flooded through him.
‘Whatsisname? Really? Is it that hard to remember the name of one the most important writers of our era? Whatsisname?’ He heard his voice rise, saw her face fall, but he could not stop it. ‘And “you’ve been meaning to tell me”? He’s coming tomorrow! Tooomorrroooow! How the fuck am I supposed to get books by then? Jesus, Leslie, I know you’ve got your issues but are you really this fucking useless?’
She stared at him, frozen, stunned, hurt. Then she turned and walked out without a word.
‘Hey, where are you … I … oh, shit … Leslie, wait ….’
But she was gone. The phone on Russell’s desk rang, and he obeyed his programming and answered it.
Leslie stormed out of the staff-only area and through the shop to the counter. Thando took one look at her and realised something was very wrong.
‘What’s wrong?’ he asked.
‘Russell is wrong. Bloody Russell is always bloody wrong.’
She picked up a stapler and hurled it into a metal bin. Then she bent down and picked the victimised stationary back out of the bin and replaced it on the counter. A man browsing the shelves looked at her with an annoyed expression. She gave him the ‘What?’ look and he went back to his copy of Chakras: Real or Hippie Bollocks?
‘I’ve had all I can take of his “inner turmoil”,’ she said, scoring quotation marks around the words with the index and middle fingers of each hand; though it was she who had noticed the turmoil, not Russell, and she was in fact unsure whether she was more angry with him for being a knob or herself for falling for someone with such an interesting collection of repressed emotional issues. ‘I’ve had enough of waiting for him to surface from beneath all those layers of guilt and PC bullshit, enough of waiting for him to dig himself out from under the heaps of crap that bitch Greasy has piled over him. I thought last night was a new start, that he was finally waking up, that maybe we ….’ She remembered his face, twisted in anger, shouting at her, calling her fucking useless. He had never been cruel before. She knew that he thought he was cleverer than her, and she knew that this was no more than a symptom of his delusions, but she had thought that last night had begun to change all that. ‘I guess not, hey. Jesus, Thando, he’s a good man, but you know what, there are other good men out there who don’t have so many dysfunctional layers over the good stuff. I can’t keep waiting for him to get his shit together. What am I even doing? Why do I care?’
‘Because you can see him beneath all that fake crap. And you can see that he’s started to dig himself out from under it. Just wait a little longer.’
There was a pause. And then Leslie made a decision.
‘No, Thando, you know, I can’t. I’m done. Listen, I need to go, OK? I just … I need to go.’
Thando looked at his watch. Eleven-thirty. He sighed.
Leslie left the shop.
Russell answered his phone.
‘Hiii, Mr Hooobbes?’
‘Yes, this is he … him … me … I … yes.’
‘Mr Hobbes, this is Olyviya calling from Uncle Pumpyyyy’s. I just need to confirm the catering for tomorrow eveniiiing?’
The first time he had used Uncle Pumpy’s for catering the invoice had arrived signed ‘Olyviya’. It had taken Russell some time to figure out that it meant Olivia. Olyviya had a high-pitched voice and drew out the last syllable of each of her sentences, giving it a rising note. Her name irritated Russell intensely and her speech racked it up even higher, so he did not really listen to what she was saying. He just wanted to get away from her annoying voice.
‘Catering. Yes, we need catering. Definitely.’
‘Greeeat. So the guys will be there at five to set uuuuup.’
‘Ok, and it’s for how many peopleeee?’
‘Thanks, see you tomorrow.’
Russell hung up. He wondered why people thought that it would make their children stand out from the herd to give them a normal name like Olivia but spell it in some ridiculous fashion. The only distinction it offered was that the child would spend the rest of its life explaining how its name was spelled and cursing its pretentious parents as it became ever more socially challenged, like the woman at a recent Readers-R-Us function whose name tag read ‘Subryna’ and whose eye had twitched alarmingly as she snapped ‘Sabrina! Sabrina!’ at everyone she met.
Russell’s mobile phone rang.
Oh, Jesus, what now?
He picked it up.
‘Hello customer’s name. How are you today?’
Russell paused, confused, before he said automatically, ‘Umm … I’m fine thank you. How are you?’
‘Customer’s name, I am fine, thank you for asking. Customer’s name, you are speaking to Shirley from Finance-R-Us. I am calling today to make you a very special offer that you cannot refuse.’
Russell’s eyes closed and his head sank to his chest as he realised that not only was he about to enjoy one of the signature experiences of modern life – yet another unsolicited conversation with a telemarketer – but that the universe had sent him a novice telemarketer who was reading her lines from a script which she had not yet quite figured out how to drive.
‘Thank you, but I don’t need another credit card,’ he said, mustering every gram of patience he possessed. He wished he had thought of doing that with Leslie.
Shirley took his rejection in her stride. Day one of telemarketer training – there was only one day, actually, and hers had been yesterday – covered the difference between need and want and drove home the point that need did not exist, only want.
‘This is a very special offer we are offering you today. Let me …’
‘Thank you but I’m not interested.’
There was a pause.
Shirley bravely ventured off-script in her determination to win this month’s sales prize, a combination electric toothbrush and tile-grouter.
‘I told you, I don’t need another credit card.’
‘But you didn’t even give me chance to tell you why I am phoning. You don’t know why I phoned you today.’
‘Is it to offer me a credit card?’
‘Yeeees,’ said Shirley reluctantly, ‘but it is a very good credit card. It will give you a lot of money.’
‘Thanks, but if I have any more money I’ll be bankrupt.’
He hung up, ignoring Shirley’s plaintive bleating as he returned her to the cradle. His thoughts went back to Leslie, and he cringed. Then he turned cold as he remembered what she had said. We don’t have any books by that author, whatsisname.
‘Oh my God, please tell me that’s not true.’
He threw himself down in front of his PC and whacked the mouse on the table to make the machine come back from its dream of infinite tubing. He called up Raksha’s books on the stock software and relief flowed through him as he saw that there were ten of each title in stock.
More would be better, but at least there’s enough to make some sort of display.
Even as he thought this his brain tapped him on the shoulder, and he knew what it was going to say. The stock software had been specially commissioned by Head Office to handle the needs of every branch of Books-R-Us simultaneously and provide an integrated solution to all of the chain’s stock management and supply chain needs. It had cost millions and had been unveiled with great fanfare, and it was marginally better than keeping your records on old napkins in a shoe box. Marginally. The staff of Books-R-Uses around the country had quickly learned not to trust what it said. When they told Head Office that it was terrible Head Office said it couldn’t be because it had cost millions and that was all they had to say about that.
Russell rushed out into the stacks, dashed to the modern fiction section and scanned the shelves. No Raksha books under ‘R’. Not one. He looked in the ‘Q’ and ‘S’ sections, because books often made their way into adjacent letters, but still no. He looked desperately under letters that looked a bit like ‘R’, such as ‘B’, ‘H’ and ‘G’. He tried ‘E’, then gave up. He rushed to the counter, ignored Thando, Joanne and Pam and grabbed a phone. He dialled the number for the company that supplied Raksha’s books and gripped the edge of the counter as he waited for someone to answer.
‘Good day, Random Penguin.’
‘Thank God. Listen, I need 50 copies of each of …,’
‘Your call is important to us,’ said a voice so upbeat that Russell knew it must belong to someone called Taz. ‘Random Penguin is closed today for staff training to enable us to provide you with an even more satisfying purchasing experience. Please leave a message after the tone, or alternatively, call back tomorrow when we will be happy to assist you.’
There was a beep, a final, fatal beep that meant there were no Raksha books to be had.
‘Fuck,’ said Russell.
‘What’s wrong?’ asked Thando.
‘No books. No books anywhere.’
Joanne raised her hand to point out into the shop, but Thando caught her arm.
‘No Raksha books, you mean?’
‘Fuck,’ said Russell. He looked at Thando. ‘What am I going to do?’
There was desperation in his eyes. Thando could think of only one solution to the book problem.
‘What about Price’s?’
Russell had been trying not to think about Price’s, but he knew there was no other solution. Anton Price was Russell’s former employer, the owner of Prices’ Books and Stationary, the independent book shop around the corner from Books-R-Us. Anton was large, and he was quiet and sensitive in every way but his clothes, which were so flamboyant that they posed a hazard to the eyesight of anyone who stared into them for too long. Russell had managed Anton’s shop, and they had been friends, good friends. Until Russell was offered the job at Books-R-Us. Russell remembered the day he had told Anton that he was leaving for Books-R-Us.
‘All they are offering you is more money! What about everything else?’ Anton had shouted. Russell had stood there, shamed, unable to respond, because he knew that the simple truth that he was leaving for more money and no other reason would end this friendship. ‘Fine. Go.’ Anton sighed. ‘I will despise you for this, but I will hate every moment of despising you.’ Anton could be a bit melodramatic. Russell tried to speak, but Anton held up a hand and averted his gaze. ‘No. Just go. Please. Just go.’
Russell went, and though they spent each day in the same mall they had not spoken since. Now, it seemed that Russell had little choice but to break that silence.
‘For the love of God Anton, please help me. They …’ Russell’s voice cracked with genuine emotion. ‘They’re making me wear a clown suit. When I meet Raksha.’
Anton’s hand flew to his breast.
‘No. Surely not even they would ….’
‘They would. A clown suit, Anton. A clown suit.’
Anton slumped back in his chair, his rugged, greying face filled with compassion for Russell’s plight.
‘You poor boy. You poor, poor boy. What have they done to you?’
Russell summoned the best puppy-dog eyes he could. It was not hard – he really could feel his soul crumble at the thought of that suit.
‘I can’t say I didn’t warn you, but … alright … alright. What do you need?’
Russell had led their reunion with the news that Raksha was coming to Books-R-Us, news which he knew would be enough to overcome Anton’s anger at him. Then he had segued into the clown suit tragedy, which he knew would offend Anton’s sensibilities so thoroughly that he would be softened enough for Russell to reveal his true purpose. Now, he was poised to extract as many copies of Raksha’s books from Anton as he could, when he suddenly felt rather mercenary. Seeing the man again, speaking to him, had reminded Russell how nice he was, how kind, even if he did dress like a magician circa 1895, just more colourful.
‘Look, Anton, I’m sorry about everything. I just really needed the money. I knew you would ….’
Anton waved him into silence.
‘No, my boy, I am just as much to blame. Who was I to stop you moving on in the world? It was inevitable. I just couldn’t stand to see you go, and so I ruined our friendship. Stupid, selfish. Anyway, drink?’
Anton pulled a bottle of single malt out of a drawer of his desk, then retrieved two tea cups from next to the copper kettle in the corner under the gilt-framed mirror. He poured a decent measure into each cup and handed one to Russell.
Russell raised his tea cup, wondering if it was still a tea cup if it had whisky in it.
They drank, and as the peaty liquid burned a path of pleasure down Russell’s throat he decided that he probably was not going to spend much more time at work that day.
‘So,’ said Anton. ‘What brings you here? I doubt you came around just to bleat about the clown suit. Did you come to tell me about Raksha coming to your shop?’ He smiled broadly. ‘Yes, that must be it, you would never let me miss that. You know how much I admire the man. Very kind of you my boy, very kind.’
Russell covered his face with the whisky cup so that Anton wouldn’t see the blush that coloured his cheeks. It had not even occurred to him to tell Anton about Raksha until he realised that he needed Anton’s books. He swallowed the whisky along with a little piece of his morality.
‘Yes, that’s it, I know you love Raksha and I couldn’t let you miss him.’
Anton smiled and winked and refilled Russell’s cup.
‘Well, thank you. And are all the preparations on track?’
‘Ummm, well, actually, not so much. You see, I ordered large amounts of Raksha’s books well in advance …’
‘Of course, of course, foolish not to.’
‘Yes, of course, but the problem is that the courier lost them.’
‘Lost them, you say? Good God. How?’
‘Rain. The van went through a rain storm and all the books got soaked. They’re completely useless now.’
Anton realised where this was going.
‘And you need mine.’
The whisky had mellowed Anton to the point where he put aside his immediate suspicion that Russell had not in fact come around to tell him about Raksha’s visit but to score as many books as possible.
‘Hmph. Well, let’s see what I have.’
Anton had not embraced the technological revolution. There was a row of filing cabinets along one wall of the office, topped with black and white photographs of him with the authors he had met over the years. He opened a drawer and shuffled through sheaves of paper, humming a tuneless little tune while he worked. He always hummed like that while he worked, Russell remembered.
‘Here we go. Raksha. I have fifteen copies of each book. God knows why, I hardly sell anything other than self-help and computer manuals these days, which, come to think of it, are pretty much the same thing actually. Maybe I should move them onto the same shelf,’ he mused. ‘So, I suppose you’ll want all of those then.’
‘Yes please,’ said Russell.
‘Right. Let’s just ring them up, and I’ll see if I can find you a box.’
‘Ring them up? But … I ….’
‘You didn’t think I’d just give them to you, did you?’
‘Well … but ….’
‘Dear boy, I am running a business here, you know, a business which is struggling to keep its head above water because of tacky chains like the one for which you work. It’s very sad that your order got soaked and now you have to pay retail prices, but yes, I do expect payment. Such is life.’
He topped up Russell’s whisky as he spoke. Russell knocked it back while he did some quick mental arithmetic.
Fifteen copies of six books at about a hundred and eighty rand each. Fifteen grandish.
The Books-R-Us credit card was in his wallet. Head Office had issued them to each store manager with strict instructions never to use them. The card featured Cheery the clown just next to the shiny little digital square that made the card work. Russell took it out of his wallet and handed it to Anton.
‘Will this do?’
‘Lovely. Let’s get you that box.’
In the end it took three boxes to hold the books. A friendly security guard helped Russell carry them around the corner to Books-R-Us and dump them behind the counter.
‘Pam, Joanne, make these into a clever and attractive display.’
He turned away from them before they even had a chance to roll their eyes. On his way back to his office he saw a woman bending over to look at the books on a low shelf. What
she clearly believed to be leggings were in fact tights, and left little to the imagination. He looked away in embarrassment and saw two men in matching black suits and mirrored shades, holding books open but not looking at them at all. Instead, they were both looking at him – at least, they were looking towards him but the shades made it impossible to tell what they were actually looking at. He was about to smile awkwardly at them and see if they wanted something but he was distracted by movement in his peripheral vision and turned towards it to see the woman in the leggings that were actually tights flouncing towards him brandishing a book. She had a round and pallid face beneath a shock of wiry ginger hair that put Russell in mind of the clown wig that lurked in his office. She held the book out to him and spoke with irritation.
‘There’s no price on this book. I want to buy it but there’s no price.’
Russell took the book – Teach your Cat to Dance – from her, turned it over and pointed at the price sticker on the back.
‘There you go, ma’am.’
She looked at him as if he had said something deeply offensive, snatched the book from him and flounced away once more. He couldn’t help but watch in wonderment as the kittens on her knickers leaped and gambolled.
How does she not realise? Does she not have a mirror? Did none of her friends tell her? Does she have friends? Surely her cat could have done something? Jesus, has she done it on purpose? Why?
He shook his head to dispel the vision.
‘Russell,’ said Thando behind him.
‘Hey man,’ said Russell.
‘Are we still on for drinks tonight?’ Thando caught a whiff of Russell’s breath, rich with the aroma of the cups of whisky. ‘Sho, you started already.’
‘Ja, the price I had to pay for the Raksha books from Anton. Well, that and about fifteen grand on the company credit card.’
‘Fifteen grand! Jesus! Head Office is going to go ballistic.’
‘Ja, well, we needed the books. No choice. Listen, I’m going to go. What time tonight?’
Thando looked at his watch. It was two thirty. He raised his eyebrows at Russell.
‘You know that Raksha is coming tomorrow, right? Is everything under control?’
‘Yes, the catering is sorted, the staff are inviting everyone who needs to be invited, everything’s fine. So, what time tonight?’
‘Ok, see you then.’
Russell walked away, leaving Thando to watch him go. Thando was worried. Russell’s behaviour was rapidly becoming more and more erratic. He was usually level-headed and would never dream of drinking during the day and at work, and especially now, at the very moment of his greatest triumph, the coming of Raksha to Baytown at his instigation. Thando shook his head. He was not sure what to think about all this, but he decided that he would have to do something, stage some sort of intervention, and fast.
Tonight, at Ricky’s, he decided.
He was distracted from his thoughts by a guy at the counter doing the stretchy-neck-look-around-the-shop thing that customers do when they want to be helped and there is no staff member in evidence. Thando realised that here was an instance of convergent evolution between humans and meerkats, who do something similar when they look around the savannah to check if there is anyone nearby who might be making lunch plans for them. Thando had occasionally been tempted to kill and eat some of the more spectacularly annoying customers, just as had everyone else he knew who worked in retail, and as he watched the guy doing the neck-stretching thing he was certain that on some deep, subconscious level customers the world over sensed this threat and adopted the meerkat’s strategy. Thando went to the counter, wondering where the hell Pam and Joanne were.
‘Howsit, bru. I’m looking for a book on symbology, hey,’ said the young guy with red eyes, a beard, outsized glasses with thick black rims and one of those floppy multi-coloured llama-herder’s hats with the ear flaps and dangly bobbles. The flaps did not quite cover the things that made gaping holes in his ear lobes. For each person, there are things in life which they cannot tolerate, things which may seem small and petty to others but which for the person in question are large and important. Llama hat boy had just found one of Thando’s such things. He couldn’t help himself.
‘There is no such thing as “symbology”’ said Thando. ‘You mean symbolism, or semiotics. Not symbology.’
The beard looked smug.
‘But the Oxford English Dictionary records the first mention of the word “symbology” in 1840.’
Thando was ready for this, and took up the challenge.
‘The fact that someone was wrong in 1840 does not mean that you are right now. Look, Dan Brown and that ridiculous character of his have made a mockery of a legitimate and important field of study. There is no such thing as “symbology”. Calling the study of signs and symbols “symbology” is like calling geology “rockology”, or meteorology “weatherology”. If you want to study symbols, then you study symbolism. If you want to study symbolism in language, then you study semiotics. There is no “symbology”.’
Llama hat boy looked like he might try and argue, but he didn’t. Instead he rolled his eyes and said, ‘Whatever bru. Do you have a book on symbols or not?’
Thando decided that even if they had such a book, this little knob was not having it. He turned to the PC, googled ‘funny cat’, looked at a couple of pictures and then said, ‘No, we don’t have any.’
Llama hat boy looked at him for a moment, uncertain whether to believe him, then he said, ‘OK, thanks,’ and went away.
Thando went to the humanities section and spent a pleasurable hour reading about some of the more unusual symbols that people have invented to allow themselves to feel smug when other people don’t know what they mean.
Raksha, Spook and Diesel were ready to go bright and early the next morning. They banged on Madison’s door and waited nearly two hours for her to get up and go through her morning maintenance routine. She finally emerged wearing revealing clothing that no longer turned Raksha on but which had Spook and Diesel muttering to each other and giggling like school boys. They were soon on the road towards the Cango Caves and Raksha felt an excitement familiar from many years ago, when as a child his father would take him to explore the caves near the town of Gaya where they had lived. He had an affection for caves, for the beautiful rock formations that could be found only inside them, for the unique creatures that lived only in certain caves, for the cool, dripping water and the coloured stone at which it wore away and the delicious fear of the dark held at bay by flickering lamplight and the presence of his father.
They arrived at the caves and Raksha was disappointed to see many tourist buses and many people wearing sandals with socks, but he did not let this dampen his enthusiasm. Diesel parked the car as near to the entrance as he could, so not very.
‘OK, let’s go,’ said Raksha.
None of the other three moved. Diesel looked away and Spook shifted uncomfortably in his seat.
‘Listen man, we’re not too keen on caves, hey,’ said Spook. ‘I reckon you should be OK by yourself. So, we’ll hang out here and wait for you.’
‘Oh. OK,’ said Raksha, who did not mind at all. ‘Madison?’
She gave him another spoiled teenager look and in that moment he realised that this relationship was over. All that remained was to find the best moment to end it formally.
When we get back to the UK. It will be even more difficult to travel with her if I end it now. Put up with her for the next few days, then it will be over.
He could not believe that he had ever been so excited by her as to leave his wife for her. He turned away from her without speaking and headed for the entrance. Inside, it turned out that the antechamber to this underworld was a gift shop and restaurant. There were the usual beaded ostrich shells and polished stones, but there was also some interesting art hanging on the walls and Raksha went over to take a look. He was studying the brushwork on one and wondering whether he ought to buy it for Saleena as part of the reconciliation process he was starting to plan, when someone took hold of his arm and made him jump.
‘You are Abhinav Raksha.’
Raksha turned towards the voice and saw a tall, thin woman with very straight, dark hair and a narrow face supporting wire-rimmed glasses above which rested twin caterpillars of dense eyebrow. The whole was topped with a maroon beret. Raksha hated berets. He had a distaste for hats in general, which was why this had never been a solution to his sudden baldness, but the beret was at the top of the list of hats he particularly detested, and especially when it was worn with bilateral symmetry so that it looked like a fuzzy mushroom with a little stalk perched atop the wearer’s head. He could not bring himself to like or trust a person who could wear this most unfortunate of hats.
‘You are, aren’t you? Abhinav Raksha? You are. I knew it was you. Oh God, I love your work.’
Apart from the beret her clothes were tasteful, and she would have been attractive, but she wasn’t. She was very thin and she looked worn, like a book that has been read and re-read, sold and resold through second hand stores and charity sales.
‘I am Adele Barrama, Doctor Adele Barrama, lecturer in English literature at Cape Town University, where I am the resident expert on, well, you. Perhaps you have heard of me? No?’ She was clearly disappointed. ‘I wrote a book about you. I know all about you. Your talent, your success, your fame. Although, I have no idea what you are doing here. This is incroyable. What in the world has brought you here?’
Raksha explained about the book signing in Baytown.
‘Baytown! My God, has it really come to that? You poor, poor man. But I suppose it will get you well away from those madmen who want to kill you. Not even they, surely, would rush to Baytown. You have made a wise choice.’
She brayed one of the most irritating laughs Raksha had ever heard, a loud, fake, pompous sound that let anyone who heard it know that the person doing the laughing was better than them and they probably would not get the joke even should she bother telling it to them, which she wouldn’t, because she was much too important to waste her time on riff-raff.
She placed her palm on his chest. ‘You know, there is so much about which I would love to talk to you. Maybe we could go back to my hotel and have a drink?’
The palm lightly caressed Raksha’s chest. He was startled by Dr Barrama’s sudden assault, but he recovered enough to mount a defence. He took a step back from her and as her hand dropped from his chest he saw a flash of anger cross her face. Just a flash, quickly hidden, but together with her forwardness it was enough to trigger Raksha’s loony alarm.
‘Thank you, but I am going to take a tour of the caves and then I must be getting on.’
‘A tour. How delightful. I will join you and we can discuss our work. We could learn a lot from each other, I feel certain.’ He could not really ban her from the tour, so he gave her a small and strained smile. ‘I’ve done so much work on you, it will be fantastic to get to know the real Raksha.’
Raksha wondered if there was any such thing.
Barrama dragged him off into the dark recesses of the shop. This made him nervous for a moment but then he saw the ticket counter and realised that this was the entrance to the actual caves. They bought tickets and joined a tour group that was just leaving. As soon as they entered the cave complex Raksha felt the humidity and temperature rise, and there was a musty smell. They walked through some fairly mundane passages and then emerged into a huge and magnificent space. The stone seemed to have melted and dripped and flowed into a startling array of very beautiful and colourful forms. There were thick columns and pillars that seemed the stumps of vast, melted candles beside long and jagged spikes that reached towards each other from floor and ceiling like the teeth of some Lovecraftian creature emerging from the rock to devour the intruders. Raksha looked on in wonder, so absorbed by the beauty of it all that he jumped, startled, as Barrama’s voice broke into the hush that had fallen over the group as they wondered at the beauty of the place.
‘Endymion! the cave is secreter
Than the isle of Delos. Echo hence shall stir
No sighs but sigh-warm kisses, or light noise
Of thy combing hand, the while it travelling cloys
And trembles through my labyrinthine hair.’
She finished her declamation and gave Raksha a smug smile.
Some people can never tell when it is better to be quiet, he thought.
Then the guide started to talk. He rattled off stats and interesting stories in the sing-song voice of a man who tells the same stories many times a day and has reached the point where he can ponder the meaning of life or the shopping he has to do on the way home while his mouth acts as a speaker for the recording in his brain.
‘And now I will show you what it must have been like for the first people to discover this cave,’ said the guide, and turned the lights off.
They were plunged into complete darkness, the kind of darkness that modernity has driven back, mostly with mobile phones, until it can now only be found lurking in caves and other such earthy places. Raksha could not see a thing. A waiter back in the restaurant dropped a metal tray and the crash echoed down into the caves, amplified by peculiarities of the stone into a loud BOOM that filled Raksha’s mind and disoriented him. At the same moment something touched his thigh and then moved rapidly, spiderlike, in the direction of his groin. He let out a cry and floundered away from the creature that had grabbed at him. The guide was used to people freaking out and flipped the lights back on. As soon as the light returned Raksha fled. He did not look at Dr Barrama, and neither did he hear the sock-and-sandal brigade laughing at his fear and flight. After a few panicky moments he was out in the light once more, wondering what had happened, why he had freaked out so badly. The dark did not usually bother him.
It must have been that echo. And that damn English lit woman. It was obviously her who grabbed at me like that. Bloody academics.
She had said something that made him think, though. She wanted to get to know the ‘real Raksha’, and as he imagined Spook, Diesel and Madison waiting for him at the car he thought that he, too, would quite like to get to know the real Raksha, because he seemed to have somehow lost track of him and he was suddenly quite keen to find him again.
Raksha wandered back to the car. Spook and Diesel were leaning against it smoking, but Madison was not there.
‘Where’s Madison?’ he asked Spook.
Spook glanced over at Diesel, who pointedly studied the end of his cigarette and gently flicked away a few specks of ash that were out of place.
‘Well,’ said Spook, ‘it’s like this. We were sitting here, and she was sitting over there on the bench. This guy comes up to her, young oke, and starts chatting her up, right, so we took a stroll over and introduced ourselves. She said he was an old friend that she had just met here by chance.’ Spook’s tone revealed what he thought of that story. ‘Anyway, they went for a walk, over there around that ridge.’
‘Seriously? Why did you let her go?’
‘We get paid to look after you, not her. She’s an adult, sort of. She can make her own choices.’
‘Well, we need to get out of here, so let’s go and find her.’
The three of them followed the path that Madison and her ‘friend’ had taken. It followed the contour of the ridge around a corner and away from the caves. They had not gone very far when they heard suspicious noises from a clump of bushes a little way off the path. They approached cautiously, rounded a stand of prickly pear and came upon Madison and her ‘friend’ in a rather compromising position. A very compromising position, actually. The guy saw them and swore. Madison squeaked and pulled her pants back up. Her ‘friend’ tried to do the same but he overbalanced and fell into a thicket of prickly pear. His shouts of agony were nearly drowned out by Spook’s cackling laughter.
‘Now he’s going to have lots of little pricks in his little prick,’ said Spook through his laughter, which set Diesel off.
Raksha was not laughing. The moment – unlike Madison’s friend, who was frantically plucking hair-like thorns from his willy and no longer seemed to care who was watching – had come. He went over to Madison where she was still trying to get her small but quite complex outfit back into order.
‘We are over. I can’t stand to spend another minute with you. You can get your little friend here to drive you once he’s finished pulling all those thorns out of his little friend.’
‘What? You … you can’t just leave me here. How am I going to pay for stuff?’
‘I am not giving you another penny.’
He turned and walked away, ignoring Madison’s shrieking, and Spook and Diesel followed him back to the car. Raksha opened the boot and yanked Madison’s pink baggage free. He dumped it on the pavement.
‘Right, let’s go,’ he said.
‘What about the princess?’
Raksha looked at Diesel.
‘Oh, ja, sorry, that’s what we been calling her. Cos of how she acts, like.’
‘Don’t be sorry. You’re right. She is a spoiled little girl who thinks she is a princess. Anyway, she’s staying here with cactus cock.’
Spook let out a cackle of laughter.
‘Cactus cock. Good one. K, let’s go.’
They drove away, leaving the pink heap of Madison’s luggage to clash with the landscape. Raksha took out his phone, logged onto his internet banking and started making changes to his financial arrangements. He cancelled her credit cards, cancelled payments on the Porsche, and cancelled her allowance. Once he had severed every financial tie with her, his brain opened an image of Saleena and he immediately began to plan how he would convince her to take him back. That would be the greatest story he had ever written.
Russell had wanted to get away from work but now he found himself at a loose end. He needed to keep busy so that his mind would not have time to think about any of the many things that were circling over it like birds of prey waiting to drop from the sky with talons spread wide. So he thought he might as well go to Ricky’s and wait for Thando there.
Get some food, have a beer or three, check out the view and try and chill. Laugh at the drunk students. Sounds good, he told himself.
Russell parked outside Ricky’s. He got out of his car and as he started to walk towards the bar’s door he heard a voice call, ‘Tata.’
He turned, knowing what to expect. A young man in ragged clothing and holed shoes approached him with red eyes and a smile, tossing an empty plastic bottle on the ground as he came.
‘Tata, I am hungry.’
His hands were cupped together to receive change. Russell had none. Really. His wallet was empty of anything but credit.
‘Sorry man, I don’t have any money. Sorry.’
He was mostly sorry because he knew what was coming next. The hands dropped, the smile vanished and the eyes hardened with disbelief. The man stared at Russell like this for a few seconds then turned away. He walked rapidly away with anger in his stride and Russell felt the usual guilt, and then a flash of resentment at the assumption that he must have pockets full of cash. There was no way to explain to someone who had nothing that everything Russell bought pushed him deeper and deeper into debt. He pushed the bitterness down and looked up into the city where he could see the world’s largest South African flag flying on a hill overlooking the bay. The beautiful colours flared in the wind and behind them he glimpsed the festering corpse of apartheid blundering through the national psyche like a towering zombie that feasted on flesh and reason, its shadow looming over everything that mattered.
It was too much, it made him feel helpless, and soon he was perched on a bar stool looking at the sea, not thinking about Griselda, not thinking about Raksha, not thinking about the clown suit and most definitely not thinking about Leslie. He spent the afternoon not thinking, easing his mind’s passage through the meaningless with beer, his phone and Ricky’s free Wi-Fi. The afternoon passed him by, and he glanced up at it only briefly each time he had to order a drink. In this way he allowed time to slide over him. That, and watching the increasingly drunk people gathered around the second, smaller bar in the corner of Ricky’s large balcony.
The students from the rowing club were back. He could tell it was them because of the shirts that said ‘Baytown U Rowing Club’ and also the singed girl looked a bit worse than she had in the immediate aftermath of the flaming sambuca incident. More of her hair than it had seemed at the time had been damaged and her thatch was patchy at best. Also, her left eyebrow was missing. She and her friends had dyed their hair green, which was Baytown U’s colour. This added little to the overall attractiveness of her head. The sambuca incident did not seem to have had any impact on her drinking skills though, because she was doing a yard of Long Island iced tea. Russell shuddered at the thought of the inevitable aftermath of this, and took a pull on his pint as all the students went ‘Woooooooh!’ as singed-hair girl finished the yard in record time, according to the stopwatch above the bar. She held the glass yard over her head in victory, and beneath her ragged fur her red face split in a yell of triumph. She hurled the yard to the floor and started doing a wild dance to the music that was playing over Ricky’s PA – Billy Ray Cyrus’s much-loved classic, ‘Achy Breaky Heart’, if Russell was not mistaken. She was soon on the nearest table, gyrating wildly and jumping up and down to the beat, and then she leaped from the table to the railing around the balcony and pulled off a nimble bit of dancing action on the narrow balustrade. At least, that was what she tried to do. What she actually did was fling herself over the edge of the balcony. Her friends had been watching her dance and saw her go over. They screamed in drunken consternation and rushed to the railing, calling out what Russell presumed to be singed-hair plummet girl’s name.
‘Tasha, Tash, oh my God’ – Russell was sure one of them actually said OMG, but all he could think was LOL – ‘Tasha, Tashy, dude, are you OK? Oh my God, she’s not moving. Oh my God, someone call an ambulance or something, like, really. Tashy, dude, are you OK? Hey, look, she’s moving. Oh my God, she’s moving. She’s getting up. Tasha, Tashy, are you OK? Wave if you’re OK. I think she’s OK. Oh my God, that was, like, so intense or something. I thought she was, like, dead or something. Oh my God, I need a drink.’
Russell heard a muted and rather unsteady, ‘Woooooh!’ from beneath the balcony, Tasha giving the signal that she was OK. Mostly. Russell raised his glass in the direction of the balcony railing and then completed the salute to follies past with a long pull on his beer.
Ah, to be a student again, he mused. Oh well, at least I have some money now. He thought about that for a moment. Some is better than nothing. Better off than many, anyway. At least I have a nice car. He thought about the car’s colour and ordered another beer.
Thando arrived just after seven, and slipped onto the bar stool next to Russell.
‘Hey man, how’re you doing?’
‘Fine, fine,’ said Russell as he waved at the barman.
The top of a cold pint of beer soon washed a soothing path down Thando’s gullet. He looked at Russell, and he saw what had become a familiar sight. Russell would not make eye contact and it seemed as if he was gathering himself inwards, as if he expected a blow. In recent weeks Thando had been growing a suspicion that Russell was actively avoiding the long intellectual dialogues they used to have, and which they both – he thought – enjoyed. He often toyed with Russell, leading him on and poking his politically correct sensibilities in the ribs, and until recently Russell had taken it well. Now, though, he had become reluctant to play along and always changed the subject. Together with his sudden drinking and his apparent disinterest in the Raksha event, the crowning achievement of Russell’s career at Books-R-Us and quite possibly of his life, Thando knew for sure that something was wrong.
‘Man, every time I try and start a conversation with you these days you leave or you change the subject. What’s up with that?’
Russell knew that this was true. He also knew that he was worried and tense most of the time, and that he did not really know why. This was freaking him out quite a bit.
‘I’ve just stopped enjoying it. Every time someone starts a conversation about something intellectual my brain just turns off. I don’t know what’s wrong. It’s as if there’s something happening inside me, something I can’t control, some sort of change that I don’t understand. All I’ve been able to think about is the novel that I can’t write and what that means, and now all I can think about is that damn clown suit and what that means. It’s like those two things are joined somehow, like they have something to do with each other. I just can’t see what connection there can be between my lack of inspiration and that fucking suit. And then there’s Griselda ….’
Her name hung in the air like a large and alarmingly coloured insect that was quite interesting but which was also quite likely to sting him. He was afraid to shoo it away and so it buzzed slowly about his head, and although it was the smaller of their binary it seemed to have the greater gravity, trapping him in orbit around it.
Thando watched Russell’s eyes glaze over as they tracked the circular motion of some invisible thing.
Wow, thought Thando. He knew he had to do something. He took a breath.
‘I thought you broke up with her?’
‘I did, but I was really drunk and now I feel really guilty. I should call her.’
He reached for his phone but Thando grabbed hold of his arm.
‘No. Listen man, Griselda represents everything that is wrong with you. You’re so desperate to be politically correct that you’re destroying your life. And most of the people you’re hanging out with in order to be politically correct are self-absorbed dickheads. For me, there’s a difference between the politically correct and common decency. Being politically correct is a form of self-righteousness, so a lot of the time it does not allow consideration for other people. Basically, being politically correct is a licence to be a doos. This is mostly because politically correct people have little or no sense of irony. Irony is very important to healthy human interaction. Without it, humans take themselves far too seriously and start doing nasty things to each other and to other living things, like holding inquisitions or torturing creatures in the name of tradition. Griselda, man, she doesn’t have a clue. She treats black people like we’re all special envoys from some alien master race and she hates white people, including herself, just because they’re white. I think that’s why she has that kak hairstyle. The thing is, she can’t see the irony, she can’t see that all she’s done is reverse the white supremacist ideal. She’s a black supremacist, which is just as irrational and dangerous. And man, she has you wrapped around her twisted little finger. Russell, can’t you see it? Listen to me. Sometimes you’re so afraid of doing the wrong thing that you stop thinking and you let people tell you what’s right, and sometimes those people are morons, like Griselda. You should not listen to her. Really. She’s toxic. You were right to dump her. You need to get away from her.’
Russell opened his mouth, but Thando cut him off.
‘OK, look, sometimes I mess with you on purpose, but this is my point. The fact that I can do that should tell you that I can see when other people are doing it. Right?’ Russell nodded. ‘OK. So, besides Griselda, the next big problem you have is that you rely on literary intellectuals to tell you what to think, but most of the stuff that they go on about only works within a self-enclosed system that can never effect or improve the real world. It can only ever influence its own self-contained world, a world shrouded in jargon and the mystification of the simple. Don’t mistake intellectualism for intelligence. They’re not the same thing. Intellectualism is not necessarily intelligent, especially when the people being intellectual are only doing it to impress other people. Then, it can be downright ignorant, blinded to the real world by its own self-satisfaction, unable to see that it has no relevance to anything that actually matters. It can be like those kids in high school who got top marks by learning the text books off by heart but who also never learned to think for themselves. Griselda is like that, and she’s been infecting you with her ridiculousness.’
‘But I love her.’
The words sounded hollow even to his own ears, and as he spoke them he knew beyond any doubt that they were not true. Russell’s brain and Thando both knew it too and threw their hands up in the air in frustration.
‘No you don’t! You do not! You just tell yourself that because you think it’s the right thing to do. You know you don’t love her. Oh, thanks.’ The barman had thought Thando’s raised arms were an emergency signal for more drinks. ‘Look, the love you think you feel for Griselda is actually guilt. You’re a white South African male so basically everything that’s wrong is your fault. You are full of guilt, floating on a sea of guilt, and she seemed like a life jacket. But actually she’s a really big and heavy stone with lots of nasty little pointy bits sticking out that drags you down and cuts you as you try and hold on in the delusion that it will help you float.’
Russell knew he was full of guilt. Thando had in fact missed an important source of guilt in his analysis of Russell’s situation.
‘Also, I used to be a Catholic. There’s a lot of guilt there too, for being lapsed, and also for original sin, which those nuns burned into me so successfully that even though I know it’s ridiculous, I still can’t get it out of my head.’
Russell realised that white guilt and original sin actually had much in common. They were both things you were born into, part of a system over which you had no control. Russell was born in 1976, and now he was tortured by his apparent accountability for a system he had been too young to fully understand until after it was over. And it was not as if that system had taken nothing from him. He had suffered through government schools during apartheid’s last, dark decade and been abused by peers and teachers alike for his refusal, his inability, to be what they thought he should be. He had hardly known his father because he had been killed on the Border. He suddenly realised that it was at about the time of his father’s death that his mother had started to wrap him in tin foil. For the first time, he saw a connection. A link fell into place, a link that he had not seen before. Now he wondered if the foil was not mere nostalgia for a favourite blender, but in fact some sort of attempt to protect him, to cover him and keep him safe from the crucible of their kind’s isolated existence, to shield him from some of the heat generated by the intense pressure that was building around them. He had been too young then to understand what surrounded him, to feel the pressure or appreciate what fuelled it, but now, looking back, he caught glimpses of what had driven her, a glimmer of the madness that had infected the country and of the roots it had inevitably sunk in her mind and in the minds of all those who had lived immersed in it. Constant fear was the surest path to the irrational. And there had been a lot to fear then. An isolationist death by the fury of one’s fellow (non)citizens; or a more worldly death by incineration in the shadow of a fungus-shaped cloud of fire; or if you escaped the cloud’s heat then a terrible, living decay at its poisonous touch. Had the heavy duty foil in which she had wrapped him been a desperate attempt to save him? She had always put the shiny side out, he remembered.
To deflect the blast? he wondered. Or perhaps to blind vengeful attackers with reflected sunlight and give me a chance to flee? Or was he reading too much into a simple obsession with kitchenware?
He didn’t want to think about that any more. He realised that Thando was watching him.
‘Too much guilt will be the end of you, brother,’ said Thando. ‘Nobody can have a decent and meaningful life if the only thing that drives them is guilt. Nobody can do anything for anybody else if all they have inside them is guilt. But I think that there is hope for you. I think your common sense is pushing you in the right direction.’
Finally, a little recognition at last, thought Russell’s brain to itself.
‘I think your recent … problems … are a result of the fact that your sense of irony has been switched back on. I think that’s why you feel so weird. You’ve taken everything at surface value for so long, but now you’re starting to see layers of meaning in the world again instead of just slipping over the surface, and you’re starting to see the layers inside yourself too. That’s what you feel inside you, what you feel you can’t control. And that’s why you bought a car that looks like it was painted by an acid-addled hippie.’
‘It’s not that bad,’ said Russell indignantly, though he knew it really was.
He was secretly quite pleased with Thando’s diagnosis of a reawakened sense of irony, because it meant that he had not chosen the car just because it was cheap but because its colour was actually a sophisticated commentary on … something. He was not quite sure what just yet, but it would probably come to him soon enough.
Thando looked at him with raised eyebrows.
‘Yes, it is that bad, but at least you have a sense of humour about it now. Cheers.’
They clinked their glasses and drank. There were a few moments of silence. Between Russell and Thando, anyway. The students were singing along to ‘Imagine’ very loudly and badly.
‘The things Leslie said on the beach last night were amazing,’ said Russell.
‘I wondered when you would bring up Leslie. Ok, so, I’ve told you who you don’t love. Now, I’m going to tell you who you do love. Yes, that’s right, I see it. And I see you resisting the feelings because you think you’re better than her, cleverer than her. Well, I have news for you. You’re not. Leslie is one of the brightest people I know. That girl has her head screwed on right, and I mean like way more right than you or me. You want someone who can show you how you should live, that’s Leslie. And God knows why, but she has it bad for you.’
‘You really think she’s into me?’
‘Ja, really. OK, well, actually, you may have blown it today. Sho, she was the moer in with you earlier. I’ve never seen her like that. What did you do? What happened?’
Russell closed his eyes and covered his face with his hands, muffling his voice.
‘Oh God, I really fucked that up. That awful bloody clown suit had just arrived, then Rodger phoned and told me I had to wear the thing when I meet Raksha, and then Leslie came in and told me we had none of his books. I lost it with her, but it wasn’t her fault. She just … she was there, and I lashed out. Why did it have to be her? Why couldn’t it have been Joanne? She would have just looked at me like she does. You know that look she does, like you’re some unidentifiable piece of kak she just found between the cushions on her couch.’
‘Ja, I know that look. I think Pam might rip it off her face one day.’
‘Ja, really, Pam and Joanne do not get along. But it’s not like anyone gets along with Joanne. Why is she even still working at the shop anyway? I thought she had a rich boyfriend, a cricketer or something, what’s his name, Clive?’
‘Chad. Drives an X6.’
‘Chad. I knew it was one of those names. X6?’ Russell shuddered. ‘So why is she still working at the shop?’
‘She’s waiting for him to propose. Should be any day now, she reckons. Then once she has the ring on her finger it’ll be hasta la vista, baby. Although not so much vista. Once she’s gone we’re not going to be seeing her again.’
‘I’ll miss them when she goes,’ said Russell with a cheeky smile. He had not picked up on the fact that Thando had a crush on Joanne.
‘Very funny,’ said Thando. ‘She’s not that bad, you know. She’s misunderstood.’
‘She’s a gold-digging slapper,’ said Russell.
‘Russell. That’s not cool, man.’
Russell was surprised by Thando’s serious tone.
‘Hey? What? I … Holy crap, you’re into them. I mean her.’
‘I … I just think she’s beautiful, and I’m sure she has a good heart. I want to protect her.’
‘I’ve never heard it called that before,’ said Russell, smiling. ‘Here you are giving me all this shit about Griselda and Leslie, and look at you. All moony over Joanne, of all people.’
‘I’m not giving you shit, I’m trying to help your sorry arse.’
Thando was smiling too, though. The mood lightened after that and they spent the rest of the evening drinking good beer, chatting about life, the universe and everything, and amusing themselves with a game that involved guessing which student would vomit over the balcony next. Thando won 3 – 1.
The little white rental car passed a sign that read ‘Storms River Bridge Amaz-o-Shop’ with the icons that signified that there was fuel and food to be had. Spook pulled into the parking area and chose a spot near the entrance to the tacky collection of fast food joints that had replaced the nice little restaurant that he remembered used to be there when last he had ventured into the Cape, in 1989.
As Spook and Diesel got out Spook said to Raksha, ‘K, you stay here. We bring you some food. What you want, hey?
Raksha looked dubiously at the four or five gaudy signs for various outlets of deep fried crap.
‘Anything vegetarian is fine. Whatever they have.’
‘Oh ja, you a veggie. Forgot.’
Spook and Diesel headed off to further enrich the purveyors of South Africa’s morbid obesity.
Raksha was alone in the car. They had been driving for hours and he was feeling cramped and a bit claustrophobic, which suddenly seemed more serious than worrying about lunatics with knives and cameras.
Surely this is safe? I mean, this is the middle of nowhere, isn’t it?
He looked about and saw nobody that looked threatening. He made a decision. He got out of the car. Spook and Diesel were out of sight. Raksha headed towards the largest shop in the complex, a tourist trap called ‘Africa Rocks’. He went in and wandered around among the polished stones, beaded ostrich eggs and shelves of strange little dolls that claimed to be made by the Karatara Women’s Cooperative. He felt a tap on his shoulder and turned around. Cold fear ran through him as he saw a woman in a burka. Before he could say or do anything she spoke in a voice slightly muffled by the cloth, though the black material could not mute her excitement.
‘Hey, you are Abhinav Raksha. I love your books. Look, I keep this one with me all the time.’ She pulled a battered copy of Raksha’s first book, Primus, from her handbag. ‘Please would you sign this for me?’ Raksha, stunned, took the book from her and fumbled in his pocket for his Mont Blanc pen, a gift from Saleena. He was trying to think of something to say, but the woman carried on speaking. ‘I am very sorry about all the trouble you are having with those fundamentalist idiots. I can’t believe that they have sentenced you to death like that. It is very weird to think that you can do such a thing to someone who is not even a part of your country. I mean, why are these people so sensitive about their religion? It’s as if they are afraid of people who have different beliefs. Why would that scare them? I don’t get it. They are so violent. I mean, look at those poor people whose heads they cut off. It’s like, really? My name is Aamilah, by the way, you can make it out to me please. My sister will never believe I have met you like this. She loves your work, maybe even more than me. Hey, you know, could you make it out to her, and then I will give her the book. She will love that. Her name is Valerie. I know, not very traditional, but neither are my parents and they like the name very much. That is probably why she is so modern. She often tries to persuade me to lose the burka, but it makes me feel closer to God so I keep it. Thank you,’ she said as Raksha handed her the signed book. ‘I know it may sound presumptuous, but on behalf of all true Muslims, please go in peace, and I hope your troubles are over soon.’
The cloth of her burka wrinkled slightly as she smiled, but he could see it in her eyes too, which lit up and shone a beautiful green. She turned and left and Raksha watched her go in amazement. He realised that he had not said a word during the entire encounter. He called after her.
He returned to the car and a few minutes later Spook and Diesel brought him some alleged food in a styrofoam container. As they drove away he picked at the dismal disc of compressed offcuts of carrot and broccoli that comprised the so-called veggie burger.
After a time, even Spook noticed that Raksha had lapsed into an intense silence.
‘Hey man, what’s wrong? You said nothing since Storms. What’s up?’
Raksha did not have the energy to do anything other than tell him the truth.
‘I am worrying about my children. How can I protect them from these people that hate me so much?’
‘Ja, that’s hectic hey, but listen man, you must be careful about worrying too much as well, hey. That can mess with your mind and screw up your kids too. There was a guy we knew once, me and Diesel, when we were in the army, up on the Border in the 80s. Good oke. Brandon Hobbes. He told me this story about his wife, hey, about how she worried about him and about all sorts of other kak all the time. And you know what she did, hey? She used to wrap their kid in tin foil. Serious. At first it was just for dress up, but then even when he got a bit older she still tried to wrap him in foil whenever she could. It was starting to freak Brandon out. He tuned me he was going to talk to her about it when he got leave the next time, but then ….’ Spook paused for a heavy moment. ‘He got killed the next day. Stood on a fucking mine. Jusses, what a fucking mess that was. Took out himself and our tracker, old Dawid Slangklap.’
Raksha knew about the Border War, as much as anyone could know about any war just from reading about it, anyway. Spook’s voice and his expression now as he drove, staring dead ahead, and the way that Diesel reached out a hand and briefly gripped Spook’s shoulder, told Raksha that he was truly haunted by what he had seen, and probably also what he had done, on the Border. Raksha tried to think something deep and meaningful about war but all the words that came into his mind had been used before and seemed cheap and meaningless.
Spook’s story reminded Raksha of something that his mother used to do to him. He could see that wrapping the child in foil was an attempt to protect it – that was obvious. Less obvious was what his own mother had been trying to do when she dressed him in a sailor suit, with a little blue shirt and shorts, a blue and white scarf with one of those flaps at the back, and a foul little pork-pie hat, which was the source of Raksha’s hatred for headgear. He could tell that she would have liked to do it more often. He saw her colourful saris in his mind’s eye and her voice came back to him.
‘Look, put on your sailor suit and make your mother laugh, and then we will go for a walk through the market on the way to school. How happy you must be. All your friends must love you and your sailor suit.’
Raksha had had no friends, mostly because of the sailor suit and the fact that the repeated breach of the school’s dress code meant that the teachers hated him and so he was a target for their attentions and not someone with whom any of the other children wished to be associated for fear of drawing fire. He wished that he could maintain an illusion that she had done it for him, that there was some logic, however twisted, that would tell him that she had not done it simply for her own amusement.
Russell picked up the morning edition of the Baytown Trumpeter to check whether the advertisement he had ordered placed to promote the Raksha event was where it should be. Before he could open the paper his eye caught on the main picture on the front page, which showed singed-hair plummet girl from the university rowing club sporting some bandages and pointing up at Ricky’s balcony from the beach below. Russell read the article alongside the picture.
STUDENT SURVIVES SHOCK BALCONY FALL HORROR
A student of Baytown University is in a stable condition after falling from the balcony of popular beachfront bar Ricky’s yesterday evening. Natasha Summerton suffered the horror fall from the balcony while enjoying drinks with friends from the Baytown University Rowing Club.
‘I don’t know what happened,’ said Summerton. ‘I was just dancing and then I tripped and fell over the edge. I think they actually need to, like, raise the height of that railing before someone gets, like, seriously injured.’
Summerton’s fellow students echoed her call for more stringent safety measures to be put in place at Ricky’s, a popular student watering hole.
‘As students we’re, like, an important part of the community and stuff,’ said Siya Mashatile, the Baytown University Rowing Club’s treasurer. ‘I think that business owners should show us more respect and stuff.’
Bar owner Vuyo Mabhudafhasi told the Trumpeter his side of the story.
‘That chick was wasted, hey. I saw her dancing on a table, which is normal for the rowing club girls, and then she just jumped off the balcony.’
Summerton and her friends challenge Mabhudafhasi’s version of events. A case of criminal negligence has been opened against Mr Mabhudafhasi. Summerton’s father Trevor, a Johannesburg-based advocate, has vowed to get to the bottom of the shocking near-tragedy.
‘We were shocked to hear about what happened to our Tasha, just shocked. It’s shocking that a place with such low safety standards can be allowed to operate. The allegations that my little girl was drunk are just despicable, and obviously false. Thank God Tasha has taken a course in sky-diving so she knows how to land. Luckily she obviously had the presence of mind to use her training when she fell, which is why she was not more seriously injured.’
Mr Mabhudafhasi has supplied CCTV footage of the night in question to the police. A statement is expected from a police spokesperson soon.
She might be in a stable condition now but she sure as hell wasn’t last night, thought Russell. He had heard stories of seriously drunk people surviving accidents because their bodies were so relaxed that they just bounced about and so were relatively unharmed. The only reason she didn’t die is that she was so wasted she was rubberised.
Russell was sitting on one of the benches that were scattered throughout the mall. He did not want to go to the shop because the box with the clown suit was there and once he was in the office with it there was no going back. He would have to put it on. He looked around, delaying the inevitable. Two security guards walked past and he recognised them. They were the same two who had been wearing the black suits and mirrored aviators the day before. Today they wore the same guard uniforms as all the other guards that worked in the centre. They were heading towards Books-R-Us and Russell supposed that centre management must have heard about the Raksha event and organised extra security. He was glad, because he had totally forgotten about that. He was also impressed by the guards’ preparation.
They must have been casing the joint yesterday. No, wait, robbers case joints. What do guards do? Inspect. They inspect the premises for suspicious activity and blind spots and the like. Surveillance! They were conducting surveillance. Or reconnaissance.
Russell shifted on the bench. The planks were screwed down with large bolts that stuck out just enough that after five minutes or so they became uncomfortable. Russell suspected that this was to prevent the feral teens that roamed the mall from lounging on the benches and making things look untidy, although it meant that nobody else could sit there either. He gave up trying to find a gap between the bolts large enough to accommodate even his narrow rump, sighed with resignation and started to walk towards the shop.
This is supposed to be my day of days. Raksha is coming. And I’m going to be wearing that fucking suit, and I haven’t even written the novel yet. He’s going to think I’m a joke. Why is this happening to me?
He felt like he had no control over his life, like his destiny was not his own to choose. He had to go to the shop, and he had to put on the suit. He had to meet Raksha wearing that awful bloody thing. A wave of resentment washed through him and left a foam of decisiveness in its wake.
You know what? I will not wear that bloody suit. I will not! Rodger can shove it. He picked up his pace and strode towards the shop, decision made. I will not sell my dignity. I will keep my head up and my heart strong.
He walked in through the door and saw a new display of books front and centre in the shop, the Raksha books that he had bought from Anton Price. Ninety books sounded a lot but when you were trying to make a clever and attractive display out of things that were quite small, square, only worked one way up and had a tendency to fall over unless they were laid flat, your options were a bit limited unless you were talking carpet knives and duct tape, which Russell was not. A small table held six neat piles of fifteen books each, one column for each of Raksha’s titles. Russell looked at the uninspiring display and it came to him that here was a physical manifestation of what was wrong with his life: ambition and desire trumped by practicality and the limits of reality. Like the display, all his edges lined up but what they defined was not particularly exciting. He was doing everything right, doing everything that he was supposed to do – work, eat, drink, think, sleep – but somehow it was not working for him. The results were as flat and lacklustre as unwashed hair.
No wonder I can’t write. I’m a boring display in a kak shop.
Joanne grunted a greeting at Russell as he walked past the counter and then sighed as a customer approached the counter with a book and a look on his face that said he had a question.
‘How much is this?’ asked the customer, holding up the book. On the cover was a big, black sticker with ‘Sale: Only R110’ printed on it in a massive red font.
Joanne looked at the customer who, if he had been any more observant, might have read on her face, Jesus, what are you, frikkin’ blind?
‘That is R250,’ she said.
The man looked at the book and thought about it for a moment.
He passed the book to her and she peeled off the sale sticker and scanned the bar code, which had been taught to ring up the sale price.
‘That’ll be R250.’
The man opened his wallet and gave her the cash. She gave him the book and he went away. She crumpled up the receipt and tossed it in the bin, then pocketed the extra R140.
‘Thank you, moron,’ she said.
Russell glanced at his watch as he walked through the shop and into the staff only area. Just past nine. Raksha was arriving at six that evening. He went into his office and the box with the clown suit waited where he had left it. A pompom peeped out of the box like the eye of fate, if fate had taken to wearing a fluffy red onesie. Its dread gaze reaffirmed Russell’s decision to defy Head Office and leave the suit to rot in its accursed box.
I will not be humiliated like this. Am I not a man?
Russell’s phone rang. A chill went through him at its shrill note, and the room receded to leave the phone at the centre of his world. He knew who it was. He picked up the receiver.
‘Call for you,’ said Joanne.
There was a click and then silence. Russell knew he should speak but he could not bring himself to. Instead he listened to a universe of hisses and crackles and deeper rattling noises like the breathing of tormented souls trapped in the eternity of Telkom’s cyberhell. These small sounds drew him in and he strained to hear more, strained to hear the terrible, whispered secrets of the parastatal’s aether. A voice cut in to his reverie, startling him.
‘Russell. Russell, are you there? Russell?’
He recognised the soft and insistent voice of Rodger, Head of Marketing at Head Office.
‘Russell, are you wearing the Cheery suit?’
‘No. I ….’
‘Russell. Russell. You must wear the suit, Russell. Put on the suit. Do it now, Russell.’
Rodger’s voice was hypnotic. The power of Head Office flowed down the phone line and into his ear like digital Kool-Aid and Russell could not resist.
‘Yes, I will put on the suit.’
‘I am coming to the shop for the event. You will be in the suit when I get there.’
‘What time are you arriving?’
Rodger laughed a cruel laugh.
‘Oh Russell, Russell, Russell. I will never tell you that.’
There was a soft click as Rodger hung up. Russell realised that Rodger was his Bond villain. This was the man who was out to take over and destroy his world, and now he had Russell trapped. The clown suit was the laser moving slowly up the table towards Russell’s groin. But there would be no last-minute escape. He would have to put on the suit and as the day wore on so it would cut through him, heart and soul, destroying all that he was and all that he had hoped to be.
He opened the box. The red noses glared up at him. He gathered them and placed them on his desk next to the box, and the wig next to them. Then, he reached out and touched the suit. It was made of a smooth, plasticky material that he knew would be hot and sticky. His hands trembled as he reached out and picked up the suit and removed it from its box. It unfurled and he saw that it was vast. He held it up before him and could not believe that this was what he would be wearing when he met his idol, Abhinav Raksha. And then he saw that this was not all that the box contained. There was something else, something that had been hidden beneath the suit. Russell looked upon this fresh horror and let out a small cry of fear. There were shoes. Giant, red and yellow shoes with massively outsized toes and laces threaded through a row of pompoms.
Russell stared at the suit and its accessories for he knew not how long. Eventually, though, the time had come, there was no refuge, no release, no way to escape the fate that lay before him. Russell took a deep breath and looked about his office. He saw everything with a clarity that he had never before experienced. There was hard-edged finality to each object. The colours of the orchid on his desk were brighter than any he had ever seen and he watched, mesmerised, as a drop of dew rolled down one of the petals, fell to his desk and exploded in a shower of crystals. In that moment of ultimate beauty he knew there was no more delaying the inevitable. A calm descended over him, and he emptied his mind of all but the present.
He loosened the knot of his tie, raised the collar of his shirt and pulled the tie over his head. Then he lowered his collar once more and unbuttoned the shirt, pausing to pull its bottom hem from his trousers. He folded the shirt and laid it gently over the back of his chair. Then he loosened his belt and pulled it from its loops, rolled it neatly and placed it on his desk. He slipped his feet from his shoes and slid them under his desk side by side, in perfect alignment. He undid the waist button and lowered the zip of his trousers, reached down and grabbed the left cuff and pulled his leg free, and then repeated the process for the right. He folded the trousers and placed them over the left arm of his chair. Naked but for his underwear and socks, he stood before the heathen monstrosity, his breathing steady, measured. He started to think of words to say, something suitably sacrificial.
It is a far greater thing ….
The door to his office opened and he realised that he had closed it but neglected to lock it, which he should have done because a closed door had yet to stop anyone who worked there. Thando came in and saw Russell standing near-naked before the clown suit.
‘Wow, shit, sorry … what the hell is that?’
There were many things that Russell could have said in answer to that question, but he went with the literal.
‘It’s the clown suit. Head Office marketing sent it. I have to wear it all day. I have to wear it when I meet Raksha.’
‘No,’ said Thando.
‘Yes,’ said Russell. ‘And that doos Rodger is coming here to make sure I do it.’
‘Jesus. Sorry, man. That sucks.’
Russell picked up the suit. The way in was through the neck which, unbuttoned, spread wide in a hungry maw. He stepped in, pulled the suit’s legs over his feet and pulled the thing up and over his body. He fastened it in place with the poppers beneath the red pompoms and immediately began to feel the heat building up under the slippery, artificial material. Next, the shoes. He raised them from the box, and Thando gasped and took a step backwards at the sight of them. He watched in dread fascination as Russell put first one then the other on his feet. Then, as Russell steeled himself and reached for the wig, Thando took hold of his arm.
‘Let me,’ he said.
Their eyes locked for a moment, then Russell nodded once, slowly. He lowered his head, exposing the nape of his neck, and Thando acted with merciful speed, dealing the final blow. Russell’s head disappeared beneath the wig so fast that he surely could not have felt anything.
There was a pause, as if the world held its breath, and then Russell lifted his head. He was surprised to see that everything looked pretty much the same from inside the clown suit. He went to stand before the full-length mirror on the back of his office door. Head Office was keen on the presentability of its staff, and this was a subtle encouragement towards the narcissism they favoured.
Except when they want us to wear fucking clown suits, Russell thought bitterly as he gazed upon his reflection.
The suit was massively voluminous and floppy and hung off him so that he looked like a pear that had been sentenced to deflation. The wig was massive and wiry and red and seemed poised to engulf him from above. And the shoes … he tried not to look at them but they were so huge and bright that they appeared in his peripheral vision no matter how he turned his head. He looked towards Thando and felt a rush of gratitude and affection as he saw that his friend had put on one of the noses in solidarity. He gave Russell a steadying smile and handed him his nose. Russell slipped it on and felt the hard red plastic press his nostrils closed.
‘Fug, thad hurds. Ad id’s tighd. Gread, dad’s fandasdic, now I hab do be a moud-breeder all day, and I soub like I’b god a code.’
‘Me doo,’ said Thando.
‘Beer all going do soub like we hab codes. Did id ridiculuds.’
They both slipped the noses off again. Russell’s transformation, though, was complete. He was become Cheery the Clown. He was become Books-R-Us.
‘I’ll give these to the others,’ said Thando, picking up the remaining noses.
‘Thank you,’ said Russell. ‘I’ll be in here if anyone needs me.’
He fully intended to hide in his office for as much of the day as was possible. Thando left and Russell looked himself up and down in the mirror.
‘Jesus wept,’ he said as he took in the full horror of it. He shook his head but it made the wig wobble so he stopped.
He sat down at his desk, and his phone rang. He picked it up. Pam said, ‘Griselda’s here. She wants to see you at the counter. Something to do with the books she ordered.’
Russell closed his eyes and felt his stomach sink into the toe of the left clown shoe. He had nearly forgotten about the ugly scene at the poetry slam on Monday night, when he had dumped Griselda. Guilt filled him as he remembered. His brain was hiding somewhere deep inside his head now, unable to watch.
‘OK, I’m coming.’
He replaced the receiver and steeled himself – ‘girded his loins,’ as he had read of people doing, though that had always sounded really uncomfortable and also socially awkward. He slipped the red nose back on, opened the door that led out of the staff only area and went to face Cheery’s public. As he approached the counter he saw that everyone was there, Thando, Pam, Joanne, and Leslie. They were all wearing the noses and he was sure they were all feeling embarrassed about them, but he was also sure that once they saw him they would feel quite a lot better. He nearly turned around and went to hide under his desk when he saw Leslie, but though his step faltered he somehow found the courage to continue towards the counter. Thando had already seen the horror but Russell saw each of the others see him, and watched their faces change. Pam was horrified; Joanne pointed at him and burst into uncontrollable laughter; and Leslie – he saw the pity on her face before she turned away and focused her attention on a computer.
Griselda was standing on the other side of the counter. He missed her initial reaction but now she was looking at him with open contempt.
‘Where’s my book?’ she said, fire in her eyes.
‘Whad wad id ….’ He took the nose off. ‘What was it called again?’
‘Fifty More Reasons to be Glad You Don’t Have a Penis.’
‘Oh yes, of course. Listen, about the other night, I ….’
‘Don’t fucking talk to me, just find my fucking book.’
He stared at her for a moment, shocked by her aggression, though his brain wondered why he should be, given that it was one of her defining traits. That, and writing really kak poetry.
Russell typed in the book’s title and watched as information appeared on the screen. As he read through it his eyes stalled on the name of the publisher. For the first time he was struck by the way Vagina Press sounded like some sort of horrible Spanish Inquisition torture instrument. Ordinarily he would have suppressed such a rogue thought but now he felt something shift in him, as if a switch had been reset in his mind. Deep within him, the spark of his rekindled sense of irony burst into flame and began to light the abyss that had overwhelmed his soul. It began to drive back the shadow and reinvigorate his sight, revealing to him once more the layers of the world that had been lost to him. He looked up from the screen and watched in amazement as the universe began to regain its colour, its full spectrum flowing back in from the margins to reinvigorate the greyish blend of black and white that his world had become, without his realizing it, so gradual had been the leaching of the rainbow. He felt himself becoming self-aware, like a computer in a sci-fi movie. The initial flickerings of the past few days were quickly developing into full self-awareness. For the first time in a long time he saw himself. He remembered things he had so recently said and done and he saw his pretentions and cringed inwardly; and he heard a little voice telling him to let go and enjoy his life instead of being so earnest, telling him that it was OK to mock publishers with names like Vagina Press.
Griselda’s lips moved but as the world flooded his senses he could hear none of what she was saying as she berated him in front of the staff and the world at large for the absence of her hateful book.
Jesus, she’s fugly, he thought. Inside and out.
Russell understood then that she was a penance he had felt obliged to bear, self-flagellation for all the guilt that some bits of the world said he should feel and which he, fool that he had been, had believed. He had blinded himself to her true nature, blinded himself to a lot of things. Now, a suspicion began to sneak into his mind, a suspicion that it was not his intellect that was the reason he could not write his novel, but that he could not force himself to join a cult largely populated by smug, pseudo-intellectual bullshit artists. He realised that the pain in his brain was his brain’s reaction to the crap that he had been trying to shove into it, like junk food makes a stomach cramp. He knew that there were many people out there doing valuable intellectual work, people who said and wrote interesting and important things, but he was certain that these people, the truly significant ones anyway, did not spend their time insulting and belittling anyone who did not agree with them. He realised that Griselda’s righteousness was fake and that she was in fact a mean bitch. He felt a rush of hatred for this woman who had misled and mistreated him. She represented everything that was wrong inside him, everything that confused him and filled him with guilt, all the unjust judgements put upon him by society, all the massive, weighty things for which he was apparently responsible and accountable. She stood there and berated him for the absence of her ridiculous, hurtful book, and he had had enough.
‘Hey, you know what? Why don’t you fuck off,’ suggested Russell.
She was stunned into silence for a few moments, and then she began to scream abuse at him. He was primed and good to go and gave as good as he got. Everyone nearby stopped what they were doing to watch the clown and the girl with the tattooed head have at it over the book shop counter. More people heard the hoo-ha and filtered through the mall to see what was happening. Soon there was a decent crowd, more than the shop got at most of the Readers-R-Us book club evenings, even if there was cheap wine. Cell phones and tablets were out, recording the moment. It wasn’t every day that you saw a clown hurling such magnificent abuse, even if his suit didn’t fit very well. Russell and Griselda were getting hits on YouTube even before their battle finished.
He would never be able to remember exactly what he said and what she said. He would only remember her leaving the shop, reversing out the door with both middle fingers raised in a final salute as she hurled insults and oaths of vengeance. Once she was gone Russell stormed back into his office as best he could. It was quite hard to storm in the massive clown shoes. He slammed the mouse on the table until the stupid fucking screensaver vanished, then he took Griselda off the book discount list, updated her account to reflect the new, way higher outstanding balance and re-priced the new books that she had on order. He cancelled the one about being glad not to have a willy, then he forwarded the account to the university. He felt a bit better.
He opened the drawer of his desk. There was nothing in it except a rubber band, two staples, what he hoped was a raisin but was probably rat shit, and a dummies’ guide to Excel.
‘There should be a bottle of Scotch in here. I really need to start keeping a bottle of Scotch in here.’
He stared into the drawer but no Scotch appeared. He closed it and opened it again but quantum physics refused to play ball. Still no Scotch. Not even a cat. He slumped back in his chair and closed his eyes.
‘Bollocks,’ he said.
All things considered, though, Russell did feel a lot better. His phone rang. He picked up the receiver.
‘Rodger is here,’ said Thando.
‘What? How the hell did he get here so fast?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘Crap. OK, bring him through.’
Russell had only encountered Rodger through phone lines before now. When Thando showed him into Russell’s office he was not at all as Russell had pictured him. Instead of a horned god here was a man, and instead of a toga Rodger wore a very expensive suit. His dark hair was slicked back and a toothy smile split his face. Ordinarily smiling is an attractive quality, but Rodger’s smile was a marketer’s grin, a lure. He was handsome, Ken-doll good looking, but that smile told Russell that he was only pretty on the outside. Whatever lurked within was also toothy, and not in a good way. Pointy, rippy toothy. He spoke, and his voice was just soft enough that you were forced to pay that little bit more attention to hear what he was saying. The softness of his speech somehow added an element of persuasion to his words. This was something that Rodger had learned long ago, and was one of the reasons that he was Head of Marketing.
‘Russell. Good, I see you are wearing the CheerySuit. That is the Mark 3.7. It has the larger pompoms and the extra-length shoes. You must be pleased. Good, good. I am glad that Special Projects managed to get it ready in time.’
His tone suggested that it was Special Projects that should be glad, or rather, relieved. He looked Russell up and down and his toothy smile widened a quarter-tooth.
‘It suits you.’
Russell’s phone rang.
‘A customer wants to see you,’ said Pam.
Russell wanted to close his eyes, hold his breath for a few seconds and then sigh heavily, but he couldn’t because Rodger was there.
He put the phone down. ‘Customer wants to see me.’
‘Fine. But the nose. You are not wearing the nose. Put on the nose, Russell.’
He had taken it off when he sat down in the office, like it was a hat. Rodger smiled unpleasantly as he watched Russell pick it up and slide it on, confirming Russell’s suspicion that the bastard was enjoying every moment of this.
‘Rodger, shouldn’ you, Head of Markeding, be wearing a clown suid?’
‘It’s not a clown suit. It’s a CheerySuit Mark 3.7. And God no, I’m much too important to embarrass myself like that. You’d better go and see to that customer, Hobbes.’
Russell stared at Rodger for a moment, considering which of the objects on his desk were best suited for use as a weapon. Then he nodded, and made his way through to the front of the shop where the customer awaited him.
She was tall, her thighs were heavy but her torso was thin and wiry. She had a very long neck which met a weak chin. Above the chin were thin lips and a massive nose that sprouted from her face in a long, gentle slope. Her eyes were large and dark, and shadowed by long lashes. She had a fine covering of brown hair done in a short and spiky style, and her ears were small and flat against her head. She reminded him of something, and as he arrived at the counter he realised that she looked almost exactly like an ostrich, except that her plumage was a bit less attractive. Her eyes widened in alarm as she saw the clown suit approaching, but she regained her composure when Russell greeted her pleasantly instead of using a balloon to lure her into a sewer.
‘I’ve come for that book that you’re keeping aside for me.’
He stared at her, wondering why the hell she had to ask him for it when there were three other staff members behind the counter.
‘Cerdainly. One of duh staff …’ He took off the nose. ‘Certainly. One of the staff can help you with ….’
‘No! You ordered it for me. You get it for me.’
She pecked at him with high-pitched, staccato words.
‘OK then,’ said Russell. He wished he had some corn kernels with which to pacify her. ‘What’s the surname?’
He couldn’t help but look up with the beginnings of a smile, but he nipped it in the bud when he saw the warning in her eyes. He went to the cupboard and looked through the rows of books put aside for customers. This was difficult because the length of the clown shoes meant he had to stand just far enough away from the cupboard that when he leaned forward into it he was on the point of overbalancing. He managed not to fall head first into the cupboard, and found that there was nothing under ‘N’. He sighed and looked through each of the rows of books, which took some time but had to be done because nine times out of ten the book you were looking for under ‘N’ would be under another letter or, occasionally, someone’s lunch. He wondered, not for the first time, how people who worked in a book shop could be so consistently incapable of alphabetising stuff. The book was nowhere to be found.
‘Sorry,’ he said as he turned back to the visibly impatient customer, ‘it’s not there.’
Her face filled with indignation.
‘I really wanted that book. How can it not be there? I asked you to keep it aside. I really wanted it. I can’t believe you didn’t keep it for me.’
‘We can probably still find it. What was it called?’
The customer looked blank.
‘I don’t know.’
Russell drew a mental breath.
‘What was it about?’
There was a pause during which it became apparent that the customer had no idea what the book was about.
‘It had a green cover,’ she said.
She stared at him expectantly, like an ostrich stares at someone with a paper cup full of corn kernels.
‘Right. A green cover. I’ll be back in a minute.’
She raised her eyebrows, sighed, and looked at her watch. Russell flollopped – there was no other word for the way the massive shoes made him walk – into the shelves and started gathering books with green covers. Soon he had a decent-sized armful, which he returned to the counter and dumped in front of the ostrich-woman.
‘Any of these?’
She glanced over them and clicked her tongue impatiently. Russell wondered if ostriches had tongues. And could birds taste?
‘No. Look, I don’t have time for this. You find the book, and I’ll come back later to get it.’
She turned and stalked away. He was surprised to see that her knees bent the normal human way.
‘Pam, get every book with a green cover.’
‘Hey?’ said Pam.
‘Get every book with a green cover and put it on one of the trolleys. Keep it behind the counter until she gets back.’
Russell started to head back to the office when he realised something.
‘Joanne, get the others to help you clear the front of the shop. Get a hundred chairs from centre management and make rows. Get the lectern too. And make space for the catering tables.’
Joanne started to lean forward to give him a better view down her top.
‘I am not interested in your boobs. Just do what I tell you.’
She looked stunned, then he was amazed to see what he could only call something akin to a cousin of a friend of respect – not too close of a friend, but someone respect might have a cup of tea with at a conference – entering her eyes. She got up and went to do what he asked. This, as far as he was aware, had never happened before. He watched her go, astounded. He looked at the back of Leslie’s head, but she did not look around at him. He hesitated, almost spoke her name, but stopped. He headed back to the office instead.
Ali and Rafiq walked up the pathway to Kwikspar Muhammad’s house. Rafiq was about to knock on the door when it opened and Kwikspar Muhammad stuck his head out. He pushed his keffiyeh up onto his head.
‘Shhh,’ he said, with a finger on his lips. ‘My ouma is here.’
‘Your ouma?’ said Rafiq.
‘Ja,’ said Muhammad. He didn’t get it. ‘Listen, you must keep quiet. I have to sneak out.’
Muhammad looked awkward.
‘Well … Ouma Sharif grounded me.’
‘Hey?’ said Rafiq and Ali.
‘She said I mustn’t say horrible things about Christians. She thinks that we are all equal and that everyone should be allowed to believe what they want, as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else. Ridiculous! What kind of a world would we live in then? Can you imagine? The only way for there to be world peace is for everyone to be like me. OK, look, wait here, I must just quickly sneak up to my room and get the explosives. Did you bring the detonator?’
‘Yes,’ said Rafiq.
He felt a powerful sense of relief that the thing was out of his house and away from his children at last.
Muhammad disappeared back inside. The other two waited on the doorstep till he came out.
‘Where’s the stuff?’ said Ali.
‘In here,’ said Muhammad, patting the Island Style moon bag strapped around his waist. ‘Let’s go.’
They trooped around the corner to Muhammad’s garage and got into his Tata Indica, Muhammad driving, Ali in the passenger seat and Rafiq in the back. The car had massive stickers all over it that insisted Muhammad was only paying R699 a month for his new car. Rafiq thought that someone would have to pay him more than that to drive a piece of kak like this, never mind one covered in lying stickers. He thought fondly of his Citi Golf safe in its garage. 1998 model, and in mint condition.
Muhammad took a map out of the glove compartment and unfolded it. It was huge. After much unfolding, refolding and some not insignificant paper cuts to his hands and Ali’s face, he had the piece of the map that he was after.
‘The catering van will approach the shopping centre along this route.’ He had the route marked in purple highlighter. ‘We will intercept it here, on this quiet road.’ There was a big red X. ‘We overpower the caterers, tie them up and take their uniforms. We dump them somewhere where they won’t be found for a couple of hours at least. Then we infiltrate the book shop, here,’ another large X, ‘and plant the instrument of divine justice under the canapés. Then, we retreat to a safe distance and activate the fire of God with this.’ He held up the Nokia 3310. ‘Is that all clear?’
‘Ja,’ said Rafiq and Ali, though Rafiq was much more conflicted about all this than Ali. He wanted to be a good Muslim but he was not entirely sure that killing and mutilating people, even if they were infidels, was the way to go about it.
Muhammad tried to refold his map but he couldn’t get it so he just stuffed the rebellious chart back into the glove compartment and forced the lid down over it.
‘OK, let’s go.’
Muhammad turned the key in the ignition. Nothing happened. He swore. He turned the key again and nothing still happened. He swore loudly.
‘Huh?’ said Ali.
‘Get out and push!’ shouted Muhammad.
‘There’s no need to be rude,’ said Ali.
‘What are you, my bloody ouma? Push!’
Ouma Sharif, thought Rafiq and chuckled to himself.
They shoved the car down the drive and Muhammad popped the clutch. It started, pumping a cloud of white smoke out the exhaust, and they got back in. Soon they were in position, waiting for the catering van to make its appearance. The whole car shook as Muhammad’s knee pumped nervously up and down. He kept checking the time on his wrist watch and could not believe that it was 3:37 for so long. Eventually, a van turned into the road. It was green and yellow, the unmistakable colours of Uncle Pumpy’s House of Yumminess.
‘Here it comes, here it comes!’ said Muhammad. ‘Get ready.’
‘How are you going to make them stop?’ asked Rafiq.
‘I’ll just park my car right in front of them. Like THIS!’
Muhammad popped the clutch and indeed parked his car right in the path of the oncoming van, which was closer and moving faster than he thought. The van’s wheels screeched as the driver slammed on anchors but there was no way it could stop in time and it ploughed into the side of Muhammad’s car. Glass smashed, metal bent and the three were thrown about inside the car, hitting bits of themselves on bits of the car. In the aftermath of the crash there was a silence broken only by the pinking of hot metal, the sound of broken glass trickling to the ground and groans and curses as the three of them checked themselves over for broken bits. None of them were seriously injured, just a few bruises and scrapes.
‘Jesus Muhammad, what the hell man?’ said Ali.
‘OK, I might have misjudged that a little.’
A man got out of the van. He looked shaken, and a trickle of blood ran down his forehead from where his head had bounced off the windscreen. His wife would give him hell later. She had told him she didn’t know how many times to wear his bloody seat belt, but no, he knew better, and now look.
‘Is everyone OK?’ called the man.
‘Ja. Ja, I think so,’ said Muhammad.
They were climbing out of the car now, rubbing the parts of themselves that hurt. Muhammad reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a gun. He pointed it at the van driver, who looked surprised.
‘Don’t move,’ said Muhammad. ‘Get into the van.’
The driver looked confused.
‘Which is it?’
‘What?’ said Muhammad.
‘You said don’t move, then you said get into the van. Which is it, because I can’t do both.’
‘Just get into the bloody van, man,’ said Muhammad impatiently, waving the gun at the driver.
‘Is that a .22?’ asked the driver with a clear note of contempt. This was not his first robbery.
Muhammad looked at the gun.
‘Ja. But don’t get any ideas, it can still kill you if I shoot you in the right place.’
For a moment the driver looked like he might like to test that theory and pounce on Muhammad, but then he changed his mind. He turned around and climbed into the van. Muhammad, Rafiq and Ali followed him in. There were two other members of Uncle Pumpy’s staff in the van.
‘Nobody move,’ shouted Muhammad to make sure they knew who was in charge. ‘OK, give us your uniforms … What the hell, why aren’t you wearing uniforms? What kind of a half-arsed business is this? OK, never mind, give us your clothes.’
‘But Muhammad, why do we need their clothes?’ said Ali.
‘Look, we have a plan and we are sticking to it. End of story.’
‘But one of them is a woman. And look what she’s wearing.’ One of the caterers was indeed a woman, and she was wearing skinny jeans and a little strappy mauve top. ‘That’s not going to fit me or Rafiq,’ said Ali. ‘She’s more your size.’
Muhammad’s face contorted as he looked for a solution, but there was nothing to be done. He would not alter the plan, not for anything. The success of the mission depended on it.
‘Fine, I will wear her clothes. Come on, you three,’ he said to the catering staff, ‘hurry up and get undressed.’
‘I’m not taking off a damn thing until you give me something else to wear,’ said the inconveniently dressed woman.
Muhammad seethed, but there was no choice. He would have to take off his clothes.
‘Here, hold this.’
He handed the gun to Ali and started to undress. Ali had never held a real gun before, only toy ones when he was practicing his jihadi look in front of the bathroom mirror, so this excited him. He snatched it from Muhammad, pointed it at the caterers and screamed, ‘Don’t move you motherfuckers! One motherfucking move and I’ll shoot you in the motherfucking motherfucker you motherfuckers!’
The caterers backed away from the madman. Muhammad had been standing on one leg taking his pants off and Ali’s shouting took him by surprise. He landed on the floor in a tangle of pants and keffiyeh.
‘Whoa, whoa, whoa,’ said Rafiq. ‘What the hell are you doing man? This isn’t bloody Pulp Fiction here.’
‘I … oh, sorry, I got a bit carried away.’
‘Just chill, bru. Jeez.’
Muhammad recovered and finished taking his clothes off. He gave them to the woman and stood in his tighty-whiteys.
‘Now give me your clothes,’ he said.
‘All of you turn around. I’m not getting changed with you all watching.’
Muhammad made little noises of frustration, but he and everyone else turned around while the woman changed into his clothes. Then she gave hers to Muhammad. He put on the skinny jeans, which squashed his nuts most unpleasantly, and the little top. The sparse covering of wiry hair on his chest clashed with the silky mauve material of the top, and the thin straps kept sliding off his shoulders so he had to juggle those and the recalcitrant keffiyeh simultaneously. Ali and Rafiq traded clothes with the other two. The fit was not that bad but Rafiq was not particularly keen on the t-shirt’s message, which read ‘4 out of 3 people struggle with math’. The man’s jeans were too big for him but he cinched his belt in tight and that was fine. Ali’s new clothes were also a t-shirt and jeans. The shirt said ‘River of Life Evangelical Church Anti-Evolution Rally 2012’.
‘OK, tie them up,’ said Muhammad.
‘What with?’ asked Ali.
‘The duck tape! What else?’
‘What duck tape?’
‘That I told you to bring with!’
‘Oh, ja, I must have forgot.’
‘For ffff … oh my God, do I have to do everything? Shit man. What are we going to use to tie them up with now? Hey?’
‘Ummm … do you guys have any duck tape in your van?’
The woman looked at him pityingly.
‘Do you mean duct tape?’
‘That’s what I said,’ said Ali.
She grunted a little condescending grunt.
‘Ja, there’s some duck tape in the cubby hole. We keep it there in case we need to strap some ducks together.’
Ali retrieved the tape and they tied the caterers up hand and foot and gagged them.
‘OK, now we must just dump them somewhere nobody will find them for a bit.’
‘How are we going to move them?’ asked Rafiq.
‘Hey?’ said Muhammad.
‘Their legs are tied. Are we going to carry them? They look bloody heavy, especially that oke there.’
The man who had previously owned the anti-evolution rally t-shirt seemed to have eaten a significant percentage of Uncle Pumpy’s profits.
‘Shit man. No, look, OK, we’re running out of time here. Just dump them on the pavement.’
With some manhandling Rafiq and Ali managed to get the three out of the van and onto the grass at the side of the road. There was no sound of sirens approaching the scene of the accident and Rafiq felt mildly offended by the lack of public interest in his well-being, seeing as apparently nobody had felt the need to call the police or an ambulance to the scene of the accident. They got back into the van.
‘OK, let’s go,’ said Muhammad.
He took the driver’s seat and turned the key. The engine reluctantly turned over a few times, then caught. The front of the van was still firmly embedded in the remains of Muhammad’s car, so he engaged reverse and put a little foot. The van creaked and groaned and resisted a little, but soon pulled itself free of the little Indian car’s death grip. It was a forlorn sight, huddled there with its bodywork bent, its windows shattered, its fluids dripping pitifully onto the road and its garish stickers proclaiming its cheapness. Muhammad did not look back at it as he drove away.
‘What time is Raksha due here?’ asked Rodger.
‘Six,’ said Russell.
Rodger looked at his watch. It was a massive thing made of compressed bad taste. He pressed a little button and it projected the time, which was 4:23, into the air in front of him in red numbers.
‘Nice, hey? This is the world’s first heads-up display wrist watch. Like you get in a fighter jet.’
Russell was searching for words when his phone rang.
‘The caterers are here,’ said Thando.
‘OK, I’m coming now.’
He hung up.
‘The caterers are here. I’m going to go and tell them where to set up.’
Rodger was engrossed in his watch now and did no more than grunt, ‘Nose’. Russell wished that he had laser eyes with which to burn a hole into Rodger’s head. He clipped the red nose back on and headed back out to the front of the shop, his mouth already drying out from breathing through it.
When Russell saw the caterers he felt marginally better about the clown suit, especially the guy in the little mauve top and the tight jeans that must have been astoundingly uncomfortable if the unfortunate bulges were anything to go by. He was definitely moving carefully. Russell was impressed that the catering company allowed its staff to cross-dress on the job, given how intolerant some clients could doubtless be. He was not so happy about the anti-evolution t-shirt though, and made a mental note to complain to Uncle Pumpy’s about that. Children might see it, after all.
All three of the caterers looked a little nervous. Russell guessed they must be new to the game.
‘You can sed ub on dose dables … Dammit … You can set up on those tables there. Is that enough space for all your stuff?’ Something occurred to him. ‘How many people have you catered for?’
There was a silence that could only be called nervous and then one of the caterers, a young guy in a t-shirt with one of those silly slogans on it, said, ‘Ummm … 42?’
‘42? Only? I hope that’s enough.’ Russell was expecting a lot of people to come to see Raksha. He had disconnected himself from the whole thing a bit once he realised that he was not going to have his novel finished and even more so once he realised that he would be wearing this clown suit – Sorry, the CheerySuit Mark 3.7, he thought sarcastically – but now, as the moment of Raksha’s arrival drew near, he could not help but feel excited about meeting the man, this real-life literary giant. ‘I’ll tell the staff to hang back, and maybe we could put the tables close together so fat people can’t get at all the food. OK, I’ll leave you to it. What are you serving, by the way?’
There was another nervous silence before the cross-dresser spoke.
‘Wait and see. I think you’ll be surprised. It’s the bomb.’
‘OK then,’ said Russell. ‘Good, carry on.’
Russell flollopped back towards the office.
Rafiq, Ali and Muhammad went back through the mall to where the van was parked in a loading zone at the nearest door to the book shop. Rafiq looked around as they went. There were lots of people, families and friends, all ages, drinking coffee or buying cat food or waiting patiently next to the two-rand-a-go electric horse while their kids squealed in delight at the to-and-fro motion of the pink and blue plastic creature. Teens lounged on the benches, trying to hide their discomfort at the bolts digging into their arses, too afraid to change position lest they do something uncool. Rafiq wasn’t watching where he was going and he bumped into someone.
‘Uxolo buthi, I’m so sorry,’ said the pretty woman and smiled at him, bright-eyed, before she went on her way.
Rafiq realised that he could not do this. He could not blow these people up. He thought of Big Mira, his wife, and little Mira, his beautiful daughter, and realised that Big Mira was right, this whole jihadi thing really was pathetic, and now it had turned dangerous. It had all been fine while it was theoretical, but now it was getting a bit too real. Thinking of his family gave him inspiration. He pulled his cell phone out of his pocket and pretended to answer a call. The group came to a halt as Rafiq conducted his imaginary conversation. After a minute or so of what he hoped was convincing acting, he hung up.
‘That was Mira. Little Mira is very sick. She says I must come home.’
‘What? Are you serious? You can’t leave now. We’re about to strike a blow to the heart of the infidel.’
‘Ja, I know, but she is very worried, she says Mira is very bad and she’ll probably have to go to the hospital and she wants me to come and take them there because she doesn’t think that she can drive and also look after little Mira.’
‘What about an ambulance?’
‘She called one but it never came. We don’t have medical aid and the government ones are kak slow. Look, I must go. Ali, you can come with me hey? I might need your help.’
‘I can’t also go. What about the mission? Muhammad needs me.’
‘Ja, but I also need you. We all need you, your family. Come man, come with me.’
Muhammad had crossed his arms over his little mauve top and was looking stern.
‘No man Rafiq,’ said Ali, glancing nervously at Muhammad. ‘I must stay here and see this through.’
‘Ali, please, come with ….’
Muhammad cut in.
‘He has made his choice. You are ready to abandon our cause for so small a thing as your daughter, but Ali will stay with me and fight the good fight by my side and by the side of God. Together we will ….’
Rafiq did not hear what other rubbish Muhammad spouted. When he called his daughter a small thing, Rafiq lost every last cubic millimetre of respect he had for Muhammad and his cause. He was still worried about his brother, but he knew Ali well enough to know that once his mind was made up, that was it, and anyway, he was an adult and his decisions were his own.
‘I’m going. My wife and daughter need me.’ This was true. ‘Ali, I’m sorry. Please be careful.’
Rafiq walked away. He knew that he could not allow his brother and Kwikspar Muhammad to carry out their plan. He had to warn someone so that they could be stopped. All he could do now was contact the authorities and tell them about the plot and hope they got there in time to stop the bomb going off. Ali might be arrested, but at this point Rafiq thought that could actually do him some good. A bit of a reality check might knock some sense back into him and dislodge the hold that Muhammad had over him. He looked for a pay phone – he had no time on his cell – and once he found one he opened the yellow pages dangling from its thin chain. He looked up the National Intelligence Agency and rang their number. There was a click and a voice spoke.
‘Thank you for calling the National Intelligence Agency. Your call is important to us. If you have a query about your income tax, please hang up and phone SARS. If you want a transcript of a file, press 1. If you are a foreign national who wishes to defect to the Republic of South Africa, press 2. If you are a journalist, press 9666$854#[email protected]*458251. If you would like to speak to a consultant, press 3.’
Rafiq pressed 3.
‘Thank you for pressing 3. All of our consultants are busy at present. Your call will be answered in approximately seven minutes. If you would like to continue to hold, press 1.’
Rafiq pressed 1. The NIA started playing Youssou N’Dour at him, which clashed appallingly with the Boney M that the mall was playing at its customers. Rafiq persevered.
It seemed like a lot longer than seven minutes before someone said, ‘Thank you for calling the National Intelligence Agency, how may I be of assistance?’
‘Hi, ja, hi … ummm … look, I want to report that some Islamic fundamentalist terrorists are planting a bomb here.’
He expected her to react with shock. Instead, he could have sworn he heard her sigh and roll her eyes.
‘Are you an Islamic fundamentalist terrorist?’
Rafiq knew the answer to this now.
‘No. I am a Muslim.’
‘I see. And where is this bomb, sir?’
‘In Baytown. At the book shop.’
‘Which book shop.’
Rafiq could not remember what the shop was called.
‘The one in the mall here by Main Road.’
‘I see. And how do you know there is a bomb?’
‘I saw the guys taking it inside.’
‘What did it look like?’
‘It’s small and purple, and it looks like a brick.’
‘Small and purple. I see. And what did the men who were carrying it look like?’
Rafiq didn’t want to implicate Ali.
‘Well, I only really saw one of them.’ He described Muhammad in as much detail as he could. ‘He’s wearing a head scarf and a silky, mauve woman’s top with thin straps, I think it’s from Dolce and Gabbana, with really tight woman’s skinny jeans.’ There was a silence, and Rafiq felt compelled to provide more information. ‘He’s planting the bomb under a table of snacks.’
‘I see, I see. OK, so let me get this straight. A cross-dressing Islamic fundamentalist terrorist is planting a small, purple bomb under a table of snacks.’
There was another silence.
‘Does he have a problem with the table settings or what?’
Rafiq did not know what to say. He was trying to figure out what to say to make her believe him when she spoke again.
‘Sir, do you realise that it is a criminal offence to make false reports to the NIA?’
‘No, but this is true, I promise. Just listen, I was …. Hello?’
The line had gone dead.
‘Dammit man,’ said Rafiq.
He looked around, unsure what to do next. He saw two security guards walking down the mall and he dropped the phone and went quickly towards them.
Ali and Muhammad were at the van. Once they arrived at the shop they had realised that in order to plant their bomb under the catering tables without arousing suspicion they would first have to actually set up the catering. They were looking into the back of the van and realising that they had no idea what any of the stuff stacked in there was for or how to set it up. They could smell food, but they were not sure where it was or, if they found it, what to do with it.
‘OK,’ said Muhammad. ‘OK. We just take everything. Once we get it out it will be easier to see what’s what. I mean, how hard can this be?’
They started ferrying stuff from the van to the shop. There were metal trays and large shiny metal boxes with lids and little shelves between their legs. There were things that looked a bit like the Bunsen burners Ali remembered from high school, lots of large spoons, many pots and pans. There was a thing that looked like a giant thermos flask with a tap, and another thing that looked like a cooking pot but had nozzles and dials on its lid. There was a piece of rubber pipe that looked like it might fit on one of the nozzles, so Ali brought that too. There was also a large, square, shiny metal thing on wheels which had some pipes sticking out the back of it, and they wheeled that along to the shop.
Russell watched in alarm as the pile of equipment that the caterers carried in grew larger and larger. He grew yet more alarmed as they wheeled in a massive, square, shiny metal thing that he recognised as an industrial dishwasher because he had once worked in a restaurant that had one just like it.
Surely they could wash up back at their offices, he thought, but he did not interfere because at this point he just wanted them to get set up and be done with it. It was quarter to five, and Raksha was due there at six. He scratched under the wiry red wig that was making his head very hot.
The hairs on the back of Russell’s neck prickled and he looked over his shoulder. Rodger’s head was sticking up over the top of one of the book shelves as he observed the scene with blank, black eyes, and Russell hastily stuck his nose back on again. The head started to move among the shelves like the dorsal fin of a shark, and Russell realised that it was following Joanne as she headed towards the staff area. Russell turned his attention back to the caterers. His alarm got even more alarmed as the guy in the slinky mauve top used a length of hose to connect a pressure cooker to the industrial dish washer.
Thando was behind the counter at the front of the shop when Chad, Joanne’s boyfriend, walked in.
‘Howsit bru,’ he said. ‘Joanne here?’
He was very large and cricketerish. He wore a white golf shirt tucked into khaki chinos and he had neon yellow sun screen on his nose. Sunglasses designed for maximum aerodynamic efficiency nestled amid his spiky blonde hair. He dropped his key ring on the counter so that the BMW badge was clearly visible. This was a move that he had practiced for ages. It took a lot of work to guarantee that the motion looked casual and yet that the key fell badge-side-up every time. He didn’t want to look like a doos, after all. He wanted to maintain the smoothness of the image that started with the personalised licence plate on his X6: THE CHAD.
‘Hi Chad. Yes, she is here somewhere. Actually, I think I saw her going into the back room. Wait here and I’ll get her for you.’
‘Actually bru, let me come with. I’ll tell you why. I want to ask her something, and it would be sweet if it was a bit private, hey.’
He smiled and winked suggestively.
‘Oh. OK. Follow me then.’
Thando led Chad to the staff-only area. The first room was empty, but he had seen Joanne come in here so he realized that she must be in the store room. He crossed to the store room door and opened it. First he saw Joanne’s face, her surprise turning quickly to shock. Then he saw the girls, revealed in all their glory, two firm globes peaked with pink nipples. One globe rode slightly higher than the other because it was supported by Rodger from Head Office’s hand. Everyone froze, Thando and Chad, Joanne and Rodger. She was standing with her back to a shelf of boxes of paper, her dress hanging loose about her waist and her bra hanging from a box of A4 next to her. Rodger was standing in front of her, her boob in one hand and her bum in the other, his face turned in surprise to the opened door. Thando stared, frozen to the spot, until his shock turned to anger.
‘What the hell are you doing?’ he said.
Rodger released his hold on Joanne’s right boob, which slipped back into equilibrium with the one on the left, and stepped back from her as she snatched up her bra and struggled to restore her dignity.
‘Get out of here,’ he hissed.
Joanne saw who was standing behind Thando.
‘Chad! What are you doing here?’
For the first time ever Thando heard something other than smugness or waspishness in her voice. Fear, he realized, and in that moment everything changed. He had spent the past two years lusting after her, feeling foolish and inadequate around her, but now that all fell away. He saw her standing half-naked in the store room with this twat from Head Office feeling her up and he saw her for what she was. Not a slut (well, not just a slut, anyway), but a user. There could be no other reason for allowing Rodger to have at her other than for the benefits that might accrue, the leverage that it might gain her. Something flew past Thando’s head and landed at Joanne’s feet. They all looked down to see what it was. A small velvet box, with something sparkly within. A ring. A diamond ring. Thando heard Chad’s footsteps moving quickly away behind him, but he was still unable to turn away from the scene before him and he saw Joanne realize what the box was, what the ring meant, and what she had just lost. This was the thing that she had been waiting for, the thing that was supposed to take her away from all this, away from Books-R-Us and into the glamorous world of professional cricketers’ wives: a proposal from Chad.
‘No!’ she cried. ‘Chad, wait. It didn’t mean anything. Please, come back.’
She started to follow him but then she realized that she was still half naked. Watching her struggling to strap in the girls and raise her dress to full mast so that she could chase Chad without being arrested – she didn’t even bother to turn her back for the operation – was something that Thando would never forget, not for any eroticism but because it was the most pathetic thing he had ever witnessed. She finally managed to get them caged and pushed past him to chase her cricketer, though Thando was pretty certain that by now he was already turning the key in the ignition of the doosmobile.
It turned out that there was a lot of food in the van. Ali unearthed a row of heated drawers stuffed to the brim with mini-samoosas and spring rolls and the like, and also two big pots of curry. He realised that he was starving and helped himself to a couple of mini-samoosas. He was about to eat a mini-roosterkoek when Muhammad said, ‘No man Ali, this is not the time for a picnic. What would the prophet say if he could see you now?’
It occurred to Ali that their mission today was kind of premised on an assumption that the prophet could see them, and that they knew what it was that he wanted to see, that is, bits of infidel being scattered about a mall. But Ali kept his peace.
They carted all the food down to the shop and began to arrange it attractively on the tables. While they were busy with this Muhammad hissed at Ali, ‘OK, now. Do it now.’
Ali looked at him blankly.
Muhammad rolled his eyes. This was not a good look for him.
‘The bomb, man, plant the bomb.’
‘Oh, ja, the bomb. OK, OK.’
Ali looked around to make sure nobody was watching then he quickly ducked under one of the tablecloths. Safely under the table he took out the C4, the 3310, various bits of wire and little electrical clips, and the instructions that he had googled for wiring up a bomb. When he had looked it up the previous week on DIYJihad.com it had all seemed very simple. So simple that he had only had to make very brief notes on the process, notes which now he could not understand because of the abbreviations he had invented for various words and concepts that he had been sure he would have no trouble remembering but which now somehow eluded him.
Green, red … and then put this thing in the charger hole … No man, that’s not right. Is it? Dammit man. Shit, I can’t remember.
Ali did the best he could and clambered out from under the table fairly certain that the bomb would go off when they dialled the 3310’s number. He tried to ignore the nagging thought that it could also go off at any moment, really.
Muhammad was trying to look casual by artistically arranging food, as a caterer would do. He had neat rows of samoosas and neat rows of sausage rolls, segregated by fences of carrot stick and cucumber. He was quite pleased with his impromptu display of culinary skill. The urn bubbled fragrantly as the curry warmed.
‘Muhammad, we must go.’
‘OK, OK, what’s the rush?’
He had found a soothing pleasure in laying out the food in regimented rows, neatly separated into type.
‘Muhammad, it’s nearly time. We have to go.’
Muhammad looked at his watch and saw that Ali was right. Raksha would be here soon. He sighed.
‘OK, let’s go.’
They turned and walked away from the catering tables, their deadly cargo, and the bomb.
‘You know, I think I might look into hotel school,’ said Muhammad. ‘I think I would be good at that. Working with people and food, I mean. Already today I have been doing both of those things and I have really enjoyed it.’
Ali granted him the food thing, but was pretty certain that neither hijacking a van nor planting a bomb counted as ‘working with people’.
A pretty woman with big boobs ran past them shouting ‘Chad! Chad!’ Ali had been to Chad once and he was surprised that anyone could like it that much. He had thought it was a bit kak. Too much sand.
‘You better not say a word to anyone about this,’ said Rodger.
‘Oh, don’t worry. I won’t say anything. I’ll just show them the DVD,’ said Thando. ‘Look.’
He pointed up into the corner of the store room. A camera looked smugly down at them, secure in its right to watch and record anything that happened within sight of its digital eye.
‘You must be joking,’ said Rodger. ‘Why didn’t that stupid little bitch tell me that was there?’
‘She probably had no idea. She doesn’t exactly pay attention to, well, anything around here.’
‘What do you want?’
‘Not much. I would just like you to fuck off, please.’
Rodger turned red. He did not like being spoken to like this by a junior staffer. But he had no choice.
‘Give me the disc.’
‘No. If you try and take it I’ll make such a scene that everyone will want to know what’s going on. All you can do is leave.’
Rodger seethed, but there was nothing he could do. He turned and walked away.
Joanne had been in time to watch Chad’s X6 drive away, very fast. As she watched the misshapen monstrosity recede into the distance she knew what she had to do. She headed back to the shop. Rodger was just leaving, but he had stopped to look at the catering installation with mild confusion.
‘Hey,’ she said.
She summoned a smile and gave a little wiggle as she batted her eyelids.
‘Who was that?’ asked Rodger.
‘Who? Oh, him? Nobody. Just an ex who’s obsessed with me. He’s gone now. It’s just you and me.’
Rodger saw Thando watching him. Thando held up a DVD case and sent a warning glare Rodger’s way. Rodger turned back to Joanne and smiled a smile that had no warmth.
‘Sorry sugar-tits, I have to go.’
He patted her on the bum, gave her left boob a little squeeze as he went by, and then he too walked away from her. She watched him go in disbelief. Men never walked away from her.
And now look. Fuck, now I have to start all over again. At least I have this stupid job to fall back on until I can find someone to pay for everything.
‘Joanne,’ said Thando behind her.
She turned around and saw the look on his face. She had never seen him look at her like this, with a hardness in his eye and no awkwardness at all. He was stern, and angry. She opened her mouth to speak but Thando did not want to hear it.
‘Your conduct today was appalling, both professionally and personally. I see no choice but to terminate your employment at Books-R-Us. Immediately.’
Her mouth fell open in shock and also some fear.
‘You can’t do that.’
‘I can, actually. Your contract stipulates certain grounds upon which instant dismissal is allowed. Doing sex stuff in the store room is one of them.’
‘You have no proof of that.’
‘I do actually.’ He held up the DVD case. ‘There is a camera in the store room. You’d know about it if you paid any attention to anything but yourself.’
‘That’s not legal! You can’t tape me without permission!’
‘Well, actually, it was taping the store room. It was your choice to go in there and get off with that pathetic doos Rodger.’
She looked confused for a moment or two, but she quickly gathered herself and made a play for her career at Books-R-Us, which was all she had left just at the moment.
‘Look,’ she said, wheedling, softly. ‘I know you … like … me. What if I was to offer you something that you’ve always wanted?’
She toyed with the button at the neck of her dress, slipped it loose and pulled the neck open slightly to reveal some cleavage. Thando looked at her coldly.
‘You know, there was a time, not long ago, earlier today actually, when I would have given anything for that. But now, well … I feel nothing. I’m free. I’m finally free of the spell you had over me. I see you now.’
She dropped her hand and stared at him, and viciousness flooded her eyes.
‘FUCK you!’ she shouted. ‘FUCK YOU!’ She tried to slap him but he took a small step backwards and she missed. ‘Fuck you, you pathetic sack of shit,’ she said. ‘You and your Star Trek fantasies and your pathetic poetry.’ Nobody knew about his poetry. She saw the shock in his face and smiled in triumph. ‘Ja, I found your little book in your bag one day. I read the one about me. And now you want to stand there and act so fucking superior? Stand there and judge me?’
Her eyes flashed and he was sure she was about to launch into more invective, but then she turned and walked away. He watched her go. As deputy-manager he had done what he had to do, but on a personal level he felt a sense of release. He also felt quite exhausted suddenly, and in need of some fresh air. He left the shop and went to the fire door, pushed it open and went outside.
Pam had gone for a smoke, and after two or three drags the fire door opened and the waiter from Giorgio’s who had almost spilled the coffee in her lap came out carrying a bin of stuff to toss into the dumpster. He saw her and an ugly look crossed his face, followed by an uglier smile. She flicked her cigarette away and headed for the door, but he blocked her way past him.
‘I had to pay for your coffee.’
‘Yeah, well, you should have been more careful.’
‘It’s not me who needs to be careful. Where you from anyway?’
‘I’m South African.’
‘No, you are not South African. If you were South African you would speak my language.’
‘I never had the chance. I’m sorry,’ she said, wondering why the hell she was apologising and realising it was because she was afraid. He was standing too close, and he was threatening.
‘Ja, well, maybe I give you a chance to make up for it, hey. Maybe I show you how real South African women should behave towards their men.’
He reached out towards her and she batted his hand away, but then he moved quickly and pinned her to the wall, trapping her arms. He reached behind her and squeezed her bum, and then started to slide his hand over her thigh. She gasped at his touch, really afraid now.
‘Stop! No! What are you doing? Stop!’
But he did not stop, he just looked at her with eyes empty of anything but selfish lust.
Then, the fire door opened and Thando came out. He saw what was happening and shouted.
‘Hey, let her go!’
The waiter looked at Thando, who was smaller than him, wore glasses and who he knew worked in a book shop.
‘Fuck off,’ he said, and returned to his exploration of Pam.
Next thing the waiter cried out in pain as Thando twisted his wrist in a direction it was never designed to twist, and a second later he stopped making any noise at all as his head bounced off the side of a dumpster with a satisfying ringing sound. Thando had moved so quickly that Pam was not sure what had happened, but she had seen enough to understand that this mild-mannered book shop deputy-manager was also some sort of part-time ninja. She stared at him in disbelief.
‘What the hell was that?’ she said, looking down at the waiter where he lay unconscious in a puddle composed of three or four days run-off from the holes in the bottom of the dumpster.
‘I do a little tai chi in the mornings,’ said Thando.
Pam found that she was shaking, so she lit another cigarette and smoked it while Thando told her about growing up in a terrible and highly dangerous area and learning to defend himself.
Jali and Terwilliger were walking down the mall looking intimidating when Rafiq ran up to them.
‘Hey,’ he said, doing his best to act like a normal, concerned citizen. ‘Listen, I think I saw someone putting something under a table. It looked suspicious. Like a bomb or something. And the guy was dressed funny and he had a beard.’
‘Where did you see this?’
‘At the book shop, just down there.’
‘OK, let’s go.’
Rafiq was surprised by how easy this had been. Luckily for him, ‘dressed funny’ and ‘beard’ were on the NIA’s list of key words to watch out for.
As the time of the event drew near Russell positioned himself at the shop’s door to greet people as they arrived. He usually did this when there was a function, but he was not usually wearing a clown suit. As each person walked in he said, ‘Good ebening, welgumb, thang you for gumming.’ Some ignored him outright, others looked at him with pity or confusion, some veered away and gathered their children to them. Even the clown suit, however, could not match the catering installation for causing uncertainty and nervousness. People clustered together in groups as far from it as possible. One brave soul tried to get some water out of the urn to make a cup of coffee and was surprised by the trickle of curry gravy that came from the tap. A clutch of pensioners, denied refreshment, were drinking cups of tea from Mavis’s emergency thermos, which she kept under the passenger seat of her Honda Jazz along with some polystyrene cups.
Russell was distracted from his meeding and greeding by someone tugging at the sleeve of the clown suit.
‘Excuse me, do you work here?’
The man wore a long beige trench coat of the kind preferred by your typical flasher. He was tall and wiry, and yet had a paunch that made the coat bulge quite spectacularly. His hair was greasy and unkempt and stood up in a variety of interesting directions, and he wore those huge spectacles with the metal rims favoured by amateur snipers. He had a thick moustache that followed the example of his hair and sprouted wildly, which at least had the benefit of partially masking his brown teeth, and long strands of grey chest hair poked up from the collar of the t-shirt he wore under his trench coat. Russell looked at him for a few seconds as a series of sarcastic responses flashed through his mind, but then he just said, ‘Yed.’
‘I’m looking for a book.’
Russell looked over to the counter, but none of the staff were there. He sighed.
‘OK, led’s go over do duh counder and I’ll see if I gan find id for you.’
The man followed Russell to the counter.
‘Whad book do you wand?’ asked Russell.
‘Donkey Hotey. It’s about a donkey who likes windmills.’
Russell stared at the man, who stared expressionlessly back at him through his sniper glasses.
‘Do you perhabs mean “Don Quihode”?’
‘That’s what I said, Donkey Hotey.’
‘I … bud … no, id’s nod called … SHID!’ said Russell.
He tore the plastic nose off his nose and hurled it from him. It flew across the room and bounced off an old lady’s head. She squeaked and dropped her tea cup. She didn’t stop squeaking. It was as if the impact of the nose had somehow realigned her neurons so that she was permanently set on ‘squeak’. Her friends crowded around her asking, ‘What’s wrong, Mavis?’ The nose, meanwhile, had landed in another old lady’s cup and splashed her tea all down the ruffle of her beige silk blouse. She looked into her cup in bewilderment and saw an island of red plastic peeking above the surface of her tea. She tweezed it out with thumb and forefinger and examined it. She looked up to the ceiling but saw no source for this strange red globe. She stared at it for a little while longer, pondering its existence, then she carefully wrapped it in a serviette and placed it on a book shelf, where three nights thence it would terrify Sherry. The man in the sniper glasses backed away from the counter slowly, so as not to further enrage the clown, then turned and fled.
‘Fuck,’ said Russell.
Near the book shop there was a corridor that linked the main strip of the mall to the real world. Abhinav Raksha used this portal to enter the mall, so that he might avoid the crowds of reporters that usually attended his arrival anywhere. He need not have bothered. The Baytown Trumpeter had sent their entertainment correspondent down and she was having a nice cappuccino when Raksha snuck in the side door. Ali and Muhammad saw him arrive.
‘Jesus … I mean, Allah … I mean, shut the front door. Look,’ said Ali. ‘It’s him.’
‘Over there, between that big oke and the little oke.’
Spook and Diesel were positioned either side of Raksha as he made his way through the mall towards Books-R-Us.
‘Is that him?’ said Muhammad.
‘Yes, that’s him. His picture is on the cover of his books.’
They were both amazed to see that Raksha was a small, nondescript man who would pass unnoticed in the street. He did not have horns and he was not busy eating deep-fried Muslim babies, which was a surprise to both Muhammad and Ali.
‘He’s smaller than I thought he would be. And balder. That’s a terrible comb-over.’
‘Let’s follow him. We can get a bit closer to the shop and still be safe. Soon we will watch that comb-over dancing in the divine wind of God’s wrath.’
Muhammad stroked his phone, with which he would send the signal to the 3310 and so detonate the small, purple bomb under the snack table. His mind sang with anticipation for the explosion and the sublime deaths that would be his personal contribution to God’s Plan for Humanity^^^^.
Rafiq saw Ali and Muhammad a little way ahead.
‘That’s them, I mean, him. There, the guy in the strappy mauve top.’
Jali and Terwilliger looked at him and he could tell their eyebrows were raised behind their aviators.
‘I promise, that’s the guy. He put something under a table. It was suspicious. Like it was a bomb or something.’
Jali looked down the mall at Muhammad.
‘Well … he is dressed funny, and he does have a beard.’
‘We’d better check it out. Better safe than sorry.’
They followed Muhammad back towards Books-R-Us.
‘Who’s the guy with him?’ said Terwilliger.
‘I don’t know,’ lied Rafiq. ‘I never saw him before.’
Spook and Diesel ushered Raksha into Books-R-Us, past the display at the front door which Raksha assumed was some sort of installation in his honour. It was quite alarming. There were large shiny metal things hooked up to other large shiny metal things, and the whole thing steamed and bubbled over neatly regimented fields of mini-samoosas and sausage rolls.
This is clearly a commentary on the relationship between the means of production and the workers, thought Raksha, impressed. The mini-samoosas and sausage rolls are a nice touch, the way they imply the paltry income that the workers derive from the production process, and I love the way the steaming industrial towers loom over the samoosa fields.
Raksha was loth to show such scant respect for art but the installation did smell quite good and he was starving. He could not resist the vegetarian sausage rolls. He sighed with pleasure as he bit into one. Then, a crazy man in a clown suit rushed at him with a look of desperation. Raksha gave a frightened cry and instinctively defended himself by flinging the remains of his sausage roll at this bizarre assailant. The sausage roll got tangled in the clown’s large red wig, which deterred him long enough for Spook and Diesel to intercept him. Russell had wanted to make a good first impression on Raksha by saying something witty and intelligent. What he actually said was, ‘Ackurggh,’ because of Diesel’s arm wrapped around his neck. He beat ineffectually at the large chunk of flesh that was inhibiting his breathing and speech. Then he heard Thando’s voice saying, ‘Let him go, let him go. He’s the manager, for God’s sake.’
There was a pause as the arm considered the likelihood that the weirdo in the clown suit was the shop’s manager, but then it released its hold on Russell’s neck and he collapsed to the floor. His throat was nearly crushed and he could not breathe properly but there were other, more important things to worry about just at the moment. He struggled to his feet, dragging air into his lungs, and there was Abhinav Raksha. A slightly bewildered Abhinav Raksha – it had been a long trip, he was unsure of his interpretation of the food-based installation and he did not know how to deal with the man in the clown suit – but Abhinav Raksha nonetheless. He was there, and that was all that mattered.
‘I’m writing a book,’ said Russell.
He saw Raksha’s eyes glaze over.
‘Really? That’s nice,’ he said.
Muhammad looked at his cell phone. He couldn’t remember under what name he had stored the 3310 detonator’s number. He tried ‘bomb’. Nothing. Same for ‘3310’ and ‘detonator’.
‘Shit man, what did I save that number under?’
‘I don’t know. Didn’t you write it down or something?’
Rafiq saw Muhammad take out his cell phone. He almost shouted for the guards to do something, but he stopped himself when Muhammad did not dial but just looked at his phone. Then he watched in astonishment as Muhammad hurled the phone at Ali. The phone bounced off Ali’s head and he went down.
Muhammad was making inarticulate roaring noises. He looked about for a target for his rage and saw a large cardboard cutout sign featuring a grinning man offering a twofer on bacon burgers. Muhammad unleashed all of his pent-up jihadi rage on the sign. He grabbed it and bit savagely at the man’s neck, and the head soon came away from the body. Muhammad spat out bits of cardboard and a staple, and some blood, because the edge of the cardboard had cut his tongue quite badly.
‘I think that counts as suspicious behavior,’ said Terwilliger. ‘Let’s get them.’
The two agents rushed over to Ali and Muhammad. Jali leaped on Ali where he lay, twisted his arms behind his back and tethered them with a cable tie. Terwilliger took hold of Muhammad who took a wild swing at him but missed hopelessly. Muhammad struggled ferociously as Terwilliger cable tied him. Jali dragged Ali to his feet.
Ali tried to rub his head where Muhammad’s phone had bounced off it but he couldn’t because of the cable tie. Instead he looked around at the crowd that was quickly gathering, and the sea of phones and tablets pointed at him as the crowd recorded their experience instead of experiencing it.
‘Is there a bomb? IS THERE A BOMB?’ Jali shouted at Ali.
Ali heard the crowd’s sharp intake of breath as Jali said ‘bomb’. He saw their faces, lit by the screens into which they stared, fill with anticipation. A genuine terrorist bombing would get many hits on You Tube, especially if there were body parts and blood. Many people stood around him, clutching their children to them with one hand and their devices with the other, staring at him through their cameras. A sea of Cyclops eyes peered at him, varying in megapixels and shutter speed but united by this moment, brought together by this threat which they were all sharing as fast as their thumbs could tap.
‘We will never talk,’ said Muhammad.
‘It’s there under that table,’ said Ali.
‘Is it on a timer? IS IT ON ….’
‘No, no, it’s got a phone as a detonator. You have to phone the number and then it goes off once the ringing stops.’
‘What is the number? WHAT IS ….’
‘For the love of God, please stop shouting. I’ve got such a headache from where this doos threw his phone at me.’ Ali tried to rub the spot and once again found that he was tied up. ‘We don’t know the number. We forgot to write it down.’
There was a pause.
‘Really?’ said Terwilliger.
He sounded disappointed. He slipped Muhammad’s cell phone into the back pocket of his trousers.
As soon as Spook and Diesel heard the word ‘bomb’ they sprang into action. Diesel grabbed hold of Raksha, picked him up and threw him over his shoulder in a fireman’s lift, and then legged it with Spook running interference. Russell watched them go in dismay.
‘No, wait, please wait!’ he shouted at the rapidly receding dome of Raksha’s head with the sparse strands of black hair combed over it. There was so much Russell wanted to know. ‘Can the subaltern ever speak?’ he called. ‘Will we ever overcome the legacy of imperialism? Mr Raksha! Wait, come back! Mr Raksha, please! Is it possible to rise above the biases of cultural perception? Mr Raksha!’
Raksha looked up and their eyes met through the crowd, just for a few seconds. Then he was gone, bouncing away with his bodyguards’ rapid motion. Soon all that was left to prove that Raksha had ever been there was the occasional, indignant squeak of a member of the public as Spook cleared a way through the crowds in the mall, and half a vegetarian sausage roll that was still stuck in Russell’s wig.
Raksha was firmly strapped to Diesel’s shoulder by the bodyguard’s large and immensely strong arm. The ride was anything but comfortable. Raksha bounced arse-first through the crowds of shoppers, looking back over Diesel’s shoulder so he saw the trail of broken shopping bags and angry consumers that they left in their wake. It was he, too, that bore the indignant looks and the angry shouting, clearly classed as an offender even though he was slung helplessly over someone else’s shoulder. One old lady, enraged beyond endurance by Spook’s shove on top of the fact that she was dreading an encounter with the boom at the exit to the parking lot which often refused to believe she had paid and made her get out and ask the people behind to please reverse so she could remove her car and go and find the security guard, which never seemed to happen to anyone else, feebly tossed a punctured box of long life milk after them, but all she managed to do was spray milk over a lot of people who were already fairly cross and who retaliated in kind with whatever loose items they could lay their hands on, mostly doughnuts from a deluxe doughnut hamper that had burst asunder. Thus began the great Breezy Gardens Mall Food Fight of 2014.
As Raksha was being carried away in this most undignified manner his thoughts slipped back to the man in the clown suit that he had so briefly met – the book shop’s manager, apparently, whose name he could not remember offhand. He realised that he had caught a glimpse of how life in the service industry could reduce and demean a person, and further realised that his fantasy of an easy life working in a book shop was just that, fantasy. More than this, though, the sight of the clown suit had triggered something of an epiphany for Raksha.
It is a metaphor for the situation in which I have let myself become trapped. I have allowed these people, these madmen, to make a clown of me. I have been running from them and jumping at shadows. It was they who made me so fearful and confused that I left Saleena and took up with Madison. He had to be honest with himself. Ok, that was mostly little Abhinav. But I have allowed others to determine what I do and how I do it. I must put aside my fear and take back the control. I must throw off this clown suit in which they have dressed me.
He saw, then, that Saleena was the only thing in his life that really mattered, and he decided to do anything he could, if there was anything she would accept, to get her back and save their marriage.
‘OK’ said Jali, ‘I’m going in.’
‘What? Shouldn’t we do something about the bomb?’
‘That’s what I mean. I’m going in there, under the table, to take a look at it and see if I can defuse it.’
‘Oh,’ said Terwilliger. ‘Right. But, what if it goes off? Shouldn’t we call the bomb squad?’
‘No time, too many people around to make sure they all stay safe. We have to do something.’
‘I’m coming with you then.’
Jali looked at Terwilliger.
‘You realise we may never come out from under that table.’
‘Yes. Yes, I know, but I’m not going to let you go in there alone.’
They shared a broment.
Jali chose two armed civilians and tasked them with guarding Muhammad and Ali, then he lifted the table cloth and they both ducked under the table. The cloth fell back into place and they were alone with the device, which looked like little more than a small brick of purple putty with an old cell phone connected to it with a few wires. The brick did say ‘C4’ in large, alarmingly red letters, though.
‘Hey, a 3310,’ said Terwilliger. ‘I had one of those. They were such cool phones. I remember this one time ….’ He saw the expression on Jali’s face. ‘Oh, right, sorry.’
Jali started to examine the bomb, wishing he could remember more of what the instructor had said on bomb disposal training day back at the academy. He gently tugged the wires to see how firmly they were attached, then tapped at the C4 to test its resistance to pressure, the bomb disposal equivalent of kicking its tyres. It seemed fine. Terwilliger felt something vibrate in his back pocket, then the 3310’s screen lit up with ‘Incoming Call – Muhammad’.
‘Fuck fuck what the fuck!’ said Jali.
Terwilliger scrabbled in his pocket for Muhammad’s phone. Its screen said ‘Calling – Clnzng Rth of Alah’.
‘Jesus Jesus Jesus what do I do what do I do?’ said Terwilliger.
‘Don’t touch it don’t touch it!’ said Jali. ‘It goes off when the ringing stops, that’s what that fucker said! Don’t touch it don’t touch it. What the fuck, why did you dial it?’
‘I didn’t! It must have been my arse! It must be on speed dial or something!’
They knew it was over. They knew it would stop ringing soon and the bomb would go off and they would be vaporised. The medical guys would be separating them from bits of table and mini-samoosas for days. The phone rang and rang. And rang.
‘Maybe he didn’t set up his voice mail,’ said Terwilliger.
They saw a ray of hope at the end of the table, but it was quite a short ray because they both knew that even without voice mail the phone would soon stop ringing.
It stopped ringing.
Jali and Terwilliger held their breath.
Nothing continued to happen.
‘Jesus,’ said Jali.
‘Must be a loose wire or something,’ said Terwilliger.
‘What the fuck are you idiots doing under there?’ said the bomb squad sergeant as she lifted the table cloth. Many members of the public had called the police about the bomb at the book shop. ‘Get out.’
Jali and Terwilliger were happy to oblige. The bomb squad sergeant ducked under the table as soon as they were out. She was under there for a few seconds when they heard her chuckle, and then she shouted, ‘Clear!’
There was a ripping noise as she pulled the bomb free from the table’s underside, and then she emerged gripping the purple brick of C4.
‘Sergeant Zuziwe, Explosives Unit,’ she said. ‘This is fake.’
‘Huh?’ said Terwilliger.
‘This is not C4. C4 is not purple. This is just putty with a big stencil that says “C4” on it,’ said Sergeant Zuziwe.
‘What? Fake?’ shouted Muhammad. ‘That motherfucker! If I ever see that Autozone Muhammad again he’s a dead man, I swear to God!’
Muhammad continued to swear his vengeance until one of the bomb squad asked him to be quiet by poking him in the kidneys with his night stick, twice.
‘Are those your prisoners?’ asked Sergeant Zuziwe.
‘Yes. Those are the fuckers that planted this bomb. Well, fake bomb, but still,’ said Jali.
‘Bastards,’ said Zuziwe with venom. ‘Here, you’ll need this, I guess.’
She handed the fake bomb to Jali.
‘Ja, thanks, that’s our evidence.’
Zuziwe nodded and went about her business.
Rafiq watched from the crowd. Ali had seen him, but he had done nothing to draw attention to his younger brother and Kwikspar Muhammad was too enraged at the world to see anything. Rafiq had watched his brother being arrested and handcuffed and vowed to do whatever he could to help him. What were brothers for, after all?
Jali and Terwilliger took hold of Ali and Muhammad.
‘Where will you take us?’ said Ali nervously. This was all starting to look a little bit too much like it may have unpleasant consequences for him rather than for a selection of random infidels.
‘Jail. Where the fuck else, numbnut?’ said Terwilliger.
There was a sudden flurry of motion. Muhammad’s handcuffs had not been tied properly and he had managed to wriggle free of them. He pulled his gun from the waistband of his skinny jeans because in all the excitement nobody had remembered to frisk him. He felt a fleeting second of relief because the weapon had been digging into his flesh, and then he broke free of the group of cops and ran into the book shop, the only route not blocked by a wall of people. He ran past some loser wearing a ridiculous clown suit, and then on up the steps to the mezzanine. He took the steps two at a time for the first four, but then switched to a rapid one-at-a-time because the skinny jeans squashed his nuts when he did two. At the top of the steps he grabbed hold of a young girl who had been standing there waiting for all the drama to end. He twisted around to face the cops chasing him, held her in front of him and put the gun to her temple. She started screaming and crying.
‘Stop! Stop there or the girl dies.’
The cops stopped, but they all had their guns drawn and trained on Muhammad. Terwilliger and Jali pushed through the crowd of cops.
‘There’s nowhere to go, man, it’s over, just stop now before anyone gets hurt. Let the girl go. Look at her, she’s just a baby.’
The girl stopped her sobbing and screaming, looked at Jali with that teenager look and said, ‘I’m not a baby. I’m nearly fourteen.’
They all looked at the girl. She looked back defiantly, like they were trying to stop her going to a party or something.
‘Hey, can we please focus on me!’ said Muhammad, ‘I’m the one with the gun here.’
‘We all got guns, bru,’ said one of the cops.
Jali waved at the cops to shut up.
‘OK, OK. Just stay calm. What do you want?’
Muhammad had not thought about that.
‘Ummm … I …,’ he floundered. Then he remembered what he wanted. ‘I want everyone to be like me. You are all wrong! God loves me and he hates you. You must all be like me or God will punish you. I am here to deliver God’s justice.’ He took the gun from the forehead of the teenager, who had gone into ‘sulk’ mode and was glaring at the assembled adults with her arms crossed, daring them to tell her not to do something, and pointed it at the shop floor below. ‘Look at all of you, living in sin. Infidels! You must be punished and shown that you are wrong and that the only way you can be happy is if you are like me.’ He looked around at the people on the shop floor, who ducked down behind shelves as the muzzle of the gun passed over them. The gun’s dark, blank eye found Leslie, and stopped. She froze in its gaze. ‘Look at this woman,’ shouted Muhammad. ‘Look at her, with her head and face uncovered, without shame. Everyone can see her! Women should be hidden, kept apart, and guided by men.’ There was hatred in his eyes, so intense that Leslie could feel it burning into her where she stood. The gun’s eye was steady on her. Decisive. She knew that it would blink at any moment. Muhammad had made his decision. At least one of the infidels would die today, and this woman, uncovered and brash, was it. He would never admit to himself that he had chosen her because she was beautiful, which intimidated him, which made him angry. Muhammad pulled the trigger.
The gun’s eye rose sharply and spat its flame and its tiny, deadly missile at Leslie. Something large and colourful collided with her just as the gun fired, and as the colourful thing wrapped its arms around her she felt something hit it and heard it grunt in pain.
Muhammad tried to fire again. The gun jammed.
‘That fucking Autozone Muhammad,’ he shouted, shaking the gun and pulling the trigger repeatedly to try and make it work, though he was lucky it did not because he was looking into the barrel.
‘That’s it man, it’s over, just let the girl go. Come on man, it’s over.’
Muhammad looked at Jali.
‘It will never be over! God is great!’ he yelled.
He pushed the girl from him and flung himself over the mezzanine railing.
A second later there was a loud thump. The cops all ran to the railing to look over. Muhammad lay groaning in the pile of books that had broken his short fall. Jali and Terwilliger rushed down and leapt upon him before he could recover. He was stunned but unhurt except for bruises. This time they made damn sure the cable tie was really tied, and they also took his gun away and checked him for more weapons.
‘OK, that’s it, dickhead. Game over,’ said Jali.
They dragged him to his feet. Terwilliger picked up one of the books that had broken Muhammad’s fall.
‘Here,’ he said, pushing the book under Muhammad’s arm, ‘get some help, you deluded moron.’
Muhammad looked down at the pile of books in which he had landed. A hundred or so copies of Dr Phil’s face stared up at him with a friendly smile. That reminded him of something.
‘Oprah! Mummy! You can’t arrest me. Who will take Mummy to the bingo? Let me go, you bastards, let me go! Mummy!’
They dragged him away, shouting about his mummy and bingo. Ali was led along behind, and Rafiq followed at a safe distance.
The light came back slowly. Russell opened his eyes and saw a crowd of people leaning over him taking photos with their phones. Leslie was kneeling next to him. There were tears in her eyes as she took his hand and placed a palm on his brow.
‘Why are you crying?’ he asked her.
‘Becod you’re hurd.’ The red globe of her fake nose made a soft popping sound as she pulled it from her face and put it to one side. ‘And you saved me. You jumped in front of me as that guy shot at me.’
Russell thought for a moment.
‘So … I’ve been shot?’
‘Yes. In the shoulder.’
‘That explains the pain, then.’
He thought about getting up, gave it and go and stopped immediately because the pain got much worse. He lay back on the floor instead. Leslie stroked his face and he felt the layers of clown fall away. Even in his pain, which was now growing second by second, Russell was stunned. No woman had ever cried for him before, or touched him with such tender concern. As he looked up at Leslie a great many things became clear to Russell Hobbes. He found that he did not care what people like Griselda Sparg did or thought. He found that he didn’t care about being a great intellectual force, or about writing books that would be read only by a tiny number of neo- or post-whatevers. He found that everything that had been keeping him from happiness existed only in his head, and that if he so chose he could burn it all away in an instant and scatter the ashes far and wide. And as he did so, as he lit that flame and let it immolate the fears that had crippled his life, he found that he loved Leslie, he loved this woman who looked down at him with such genuine feeling and care. He reached up, drew her towards him and kissed her. A feeling of liberation flowed through him.
After a time they drew apart and he looked at her and said, ‘You are my midnight’s chicken.’
Luckily, she got it.
Some people came and took Russell away in an ambulance. More and more police officers continued to arrive, followed by lawyers, crime scene analysts and journalists. The Baytown Trumpeter’s entertainment correspondent found herself with the story that would make her career at the Trumpeter: ‘Author Abhinav Raksha’s Shock Baytown Bomb Horror Shock’.
The bomb squad took apart the catering installation, ‘Just in case,’ and safely disposed of the mini-samoosas, sausage rolls and the curry in the urn. The industrial dish washer stumped them for a moment, but once they had determined that it was mostly harmless they wheeled it into the children’s section of the book shop and left it there.
When Pam and Thando came back inside all hell had broken loose, finished what it was doing and gone home again. The crowd of people that had gathered in the mall was mostly gone, apart from a few die-hards recording the aftermath for posterity, or at least for their three or four followers. They could see quite a few people inside the shop but the doors were closed and a police officer blocked their way.
‘What’s going on?’ Thando asked.
‘There was a bomb scare. We caught some terrorists,’ said the cop in a tone that implied that he had personally wrestled them to the floor. ‘They’re just busy inside with the crime scene stuff.’
‘What? Jesus! We work here. Can we go in?’
‘Oh. But, look, there’s supposed to be an important event happening tonight, with ….’
‘Abhinav Raksha. Yes sir. He’s gone.’
‘Gone? What do you mean?’
The officer was used to dealing with the general public. He looked directly at Thando and spoke slowly.
‘He was here. But now, he is gone. He is not here any more.’ The officer did a mystical ‘poof’ action with his hands. ‘He has left.’
Thando was mildly offended.
‘Yes, alright, I get it. Look, we work here ….’
‘You already said that,’ interrupted the officer.
‘Ja, so, we need to go inside.’
‘This,’ said the officer, gesturing expansively at the shop behind him, ‘is now a crime scene. You cannot go inside. You must stay out here, or you can go away if you want. That is what would be better.’
Pam touched Thando’s arm.
‘Let’s go. There’s nothing we can do here. Raksha is gone and Russell must be in there sorting out all this, whatever it is.’
‘Ja, I just feel bad leaving him like this.’
‘Well, there’s nothing we can do, they won’t let us in. We can get hold of him later and see what’s up.’
Thando tried to call Russell’s cell, but Russell did not answer. He left a message telling him they were going to Ricky’s for a drink, and then that’s exactly what they did.
As they walked through the mall towards the parking lot, Pam slipped her arm through Thando’s.
‘Thando,’ she said. He looked at her. ‘Thank you,’ she said.
It was the first time she had used his name instead of calling him Number One or something equally demeaning. Everything had changed, now, and as he looked at her he felt something warm start to grown within him.
Joanne had arrived at Chad’s house just as the sun went down. When he answered the front door she said she was sorry and started to undress, but he told her it was too late. That was when the shit hit the fan. She was still thumping on the front door, though now she seemed to be using some sort of implement because the banging had become much louder and harder and he could hear the door’s wood splintering. Chad suspected it was one of the garden gnomes. He loved his gnomes and he hoped the little guy would not be totally scratched up, or worse, cracked. Joanne, he thought, was definitely cracked. Some of the things she was screaming as she hammered the gnome against the door were like nothing he had ever heard before, dark and terrifying promises of what she would do to him once she finally got inside.
There was a brief respite and he hoped that she had gone away, but then the slightly more distant sound of shattering glass and rending metal took him to the window from where he watched her destroy his beloved X6, screaming incomprehensible rage all the while. He hadn’t wanted to call Three Eagles Security because he felt a bit embarrassed about how afraid of her he was, but now he dialled. A woman promised that someone was on the way. As he hung up he saw Joanne heading back towards the house. She carried the gnome’s severed head, and the gaily painted mushroom on which the entire gnome had once perched. She hurled the head at the house with more force than Chad had produced even on his best day of bowling, and it flew through the second story window behind which he was standing. Splinters of glass sprayed everywhere and Chad shielded his face, but even as he did so he caught sight of her winding up the mushroom for launch. He ducked behind his couch, covered his head and waited for the security firm to arrive and rescue him. By the time they got there and subdued her with teargas and Tasers, his personalised number plate was embedded in the wall opposite the window.
Jesus, he thought. Thank God I caught her with that oke. She’s frikkin’ crazy, even if she does have spectacular boobs.
Just like everyone else, Russell hated hospitals, but the pain from the bullet wound in his shoulder was being kept at bay by a medley of medicines that made him feel pretty damn good, and better than that, Leslie was sitting next to his bed holding his hand. She had stayed with him until the nurses made her leave, and she had come back first thing that morning. That was when she had thanked him for saving her life, though it was not just the fact of it that had made her decide to fall completely in love with Russell. It was the total lack of hesitation before he threw himself between her and the gun that told her that he really did love her. As soon as they were alone for the first time that morning – well, apart from the people in the other beds – they had declared their love for each other, and they would have demonstrated it, too, if the room had been private. The man across the way had been rather hoping they would, but he had to live with the disappointment, just as Russell and Leslie would have to live with waiting until they got to one or other of their flats.
‘So,’ she said, ‘what was it like to meet your idol?’
Russell remembered how worn down Raksha had looked, which he supposed was understandable if you lived in fear of madmen trying to kill you wherever you went. In the brief moment of their meeting he had seen that Raksha’s life was not the carefree existence of the wealthy intellectual that he had imagined. From the point of view of making a good impression on Raksha, Russell thought that the whole event could most accurately be described by the military term ‘clusterfuck’. Their meeting had been brief and wordless but the fact that Raksha had felt the need to beat Russell back with a sausage roll suggested that he had probably not made the best first impression. Despite this, and despite having a bullet hole through his shoulder, Russell was feeling much better about his life, the universe and everything, mostly because of the profound sense of freedom inside him. His fears were gone, as were the various forms of guilt that had hobbled him and prevented him from having any truly meaningful relationships, leaving him with a new and entirely bearable sense of the lightness of being. This, he thought, probably had something to do with not being dead.
‘Not what I expected. I suppose I should be disappointed, but I actually don’t care. This,’ he made a small gesture that encompassed the two of them, ‘is much better.’
She kissed him on the end of his nose, which was mercifully free of red plastic.
‘I saved this for you,’ she said.
She pulled a plastic bag from her handbag, and inside it was the half sausage roll.
‘Hey! I thought I’d lost that.’
‘Nearly. I took it out of your wig while you were lying on the floor after that frikkin’ madman shot you. You snatched it from me and wouldn’t let it go, but once they got you to the hospital they wouldn’t let you keep it. They had to drug you to make you let it go. You seemed very attached to it so I kept it for you.’
He knew there were few women in the world who would have done that.
‘So, exactly why is this sausage roll so important to you?’
‘It’s half a sausage roll. And it’s important to me because Raksha gave it to me. Well, technically he threw it at me in self-defence. But more than that, this sausage roll represents the lowest point in my life. If I ever start to feel sorry for myself again, which I don’t think can be possible as long as I have you, all I will have to do is look at it to remember how kak things were and how much better they are now.’ He took a quick look inside and confirmed that he was definitely much happier than he had ever been before. His brain, too, was feeling much better than it had in some time. ‘Actually, it represents the moment at which I started to become a new me. It’s the symbol of my rebirth.’
‘It’s the ouroboros of sausage rolls,’ she said. ‘Well, half an ouroboros, anyway.’
‘I think I might get it done in Perspex. It’ll make a nice paper weight.’
Leslie had brought a copy of the Baytown Trumpeter. Russell ignored the front page headline that screamed ‘Author Abhinav Raksha’s Shock Baytown Bomb Horror Shock’. He looked at the story below the fold and immediately recognised a photo of singed-hair plummet girl, who looked very sheepish next to the headline, ‘Baytown University Rowing Club’s Shock Drinking Binge Shock’. It seemed that the CCTV footage that Ricky’s owner had given to the police in response to the law suit brought against him by Natasha Summerton – singed-hair plummet girl’s real name – and her father the attorney had clearly shown Mr Summerton’s little darling flinging herself over the balcony railing in a state of quite astounding drunkenness. Mr Summerton had declined to comment.
Russell turned the page and frowned at the headline that read ‘Top Cricketer’s Shock Garden Gnome Attack Horror’.
‘This is turning into a bit of a tabloid, hey. I mean, a garden gnome attack?’
He turned another page and Leslie said, ‘Oh look, it’s you.’
‘Huh?’ said Russell, and then he saw it.
There was a photo, clearly taken on someone’s cell phone, of Russell wearing the CheerySuit Mark 3.7 and looking rabid as he shouted at ‘an unnamed customer,’ a.k.a Griselda. The story was titled ‘Book Shop Customer’s Shock Clown Horror’. He scanned the copy and read that, ‘The Trumpeter could not contact the woman who was accosted by the clown, but several eye witnesses provided accounts of the scene. The clown, apparently an employee of Books-R-Us, could not be reached for comment.’
He did not know what to say. Leslie giggled helplessly, which made things easier. He sighed.
‘It doesn’t matter actually. It’s not like I’m going to be working there any more.’
‘What do you mean?’ said Leslie.
‘Rodger is going to want my head for yesterday.’
‘But nothing that happened was even really your fault. It’s not like you planned the terrorist attack.’
‘Ja, well, someone has to be blamed, and I’m the one who was in charge.’
She knew that there was actually nothing that Books-R-Us could do to him. Leslie, though, also knew that Russell was heading towards a Big Decision, so she did not push the issue.
Pam and Thando arrived just then, holding hands. Russell noticed and smiled at them broadly, knowingly. They looked mildly embarrassed, but very happy.
‘Hey, howsit. Come in.’
Thando raised an eyebrow at Russell and Leslie’s intertwined fingers.
‘Ja, OK, so we’re all getting it on. Well, we will be as soon as I get out of here,’ said Russell, smiling at Leslie.
‘Finally,’ said Thando and Pam and Leslie.
They all found places to sit.
‘I can’t believe that cop didn’t tell us you’d been shot,’ said Thando. ‘I told him we worked there so it should have been obvious that we would know you.’
‘Maybe he didn’t know that the clown who got shot worked at the book shop.’
‘Maybe. Anyway, listen, Head Office has asked me to keep the shop running until you get back. Don’t worry, I’ll keep everything in order.’
‘Thanks, I appreciate it man.’ Leslie watched as he made the Big Decision. ‘You know what though, no matter what happens, I think I’m done with Books-R-Us. Ja, for sure, it’s over for me there. I’m going to resign.’
‘Yup. And I’ll tell you, there was an exact moment at which I realised that I had to get out of there. When the cops cornered that cross-dressing Islamist terrorist in the shop he ran past me. He looked at me in that clown suit, and there was pity in his eyes. I mean, you’d think he would have other things on his mind at that point, but no, even he thought I was a tool. But it’s OK. I’ve learned something from all this, something very important.’
‘Oh ja, what’s that?’
‘Never let anyone put you in a clown suit. Especially not yourself. Never give up the power of choice. Ever.’
Leslie squeezed his hand.
‘So what are you going to do instead?’ asked Thando.
There was a bit of a silence.
‘Didn’t you already sort of try that?’ asked Thando cautiously.
‘Yes. But, this time I’m going to let it flow instead of trying to write what I think other people think I should write.’
‘What are you going to write about?’
Before, Russell had dreaded this question because he had never been able to answer it without floundering about in the jargon of literary theory and feeling like he was drowning. Now, though, he knew exactly what to say. Part of his newfound freedom was a sense of release from all the hang-ups that had turned his writing turgid and stodgy. Instead of dreading making eye contact with NOVEL.doc he was actually looking forward to writing.
‘It’s a farm novel.’
Thando groaned inside.
‘The setting is a cactus farm in the Karoo. Aliens invade the Earth, and they begin by releasing a toxin that turns humans into flesh-eating zombies.’
Oh, thank God, thought Thando.
‘Luckily, the farmer is immune to the toxin because of the cactus pollen to which he has been exposed for so many years and which is a natural antidote to the alien toxin. He has to fight off the zombie hordes and repel the alien invasion, which he does with a collection of antique farm equipment transformed into advanced weaponry with bits scavenged from a crashed American drone. He will be helped by a tech savvy survivor at that space telescope thingy in Sutherland, who will luckily be very pretty. They will fall in love as they communicate over Google Hangouts and save the world from the alien-zombie apocalypse. The End’
There was a bit of a silence.
‘Sounds great,’ said Pam.
‘It will be, trust me,’ said Russell.
He looked at Leslie, who smiled at him and made his heart feel like something sharp had been pushed through it, but in a good way.
Griselda listened to Cazandra Zee perform her poetry with a growing sense of righteous indignation. Cazandra Zee was a black lesbian so Griselda had expected her to be really angry and possibly even right. To Griselda’s finely-tuned ear, however, her poetry was not overtly political enough. So she started to heckle her.
‘Where’s your political consciousness? Cop out!’ Griselda glanced at her friends around the table, who encouraged her with smiles and laughter. ‘You’re a stooge for society’s expectations. Cop out!’
Griselda turned her attention back to her double cane and coke and the sycophantic bleating of her friends who were all actually afraid of her and too weak to do anything about her shit behaviour.
Someone tapped Griselda on the shoulder. She turned around and saw Cazandra Zee standing over her. Cazandra was neither weak nor afraid.
‘Here’s my political consciousness, bitch,’ said Cazandra, and smacked Griselda upside the head with a beer bottle.
About Tom Jeffery
I am a South African author. I live in the Eastern Cape with my wife and cats. I care about nature and I am interested in everything except accounting and Fox News. I do not like fundamentalists or people who are mean to animals.
I spent quite a bit of time working in a book shop, which was the inspiration for ‘Midnight’s Chicken’. You wouldn’t believe some of the stuff that customers pulled off in that shop. The idea that ‘the customer is always right’ is one of life’s great fallacies, dreamed up by someone who obviously never worked in retail. I am nice to people who work in shops. It’s not their fault that the shop has stupid policies. Also, being nice is much more likely to get you what you want.
My favourite number is 42.
Connect with Tom Jeffery
You can find out more and get in touch with me through my website .
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More stuff. I will write more comedy novels, perhaps something inspired by Russell’s idea for a farm novel with aliens and zombies. Also, something set in a museum, because I work in a museum at the moment and trust me, some of the stuff that happens there would be brilliant in a comedy novel. I am very keen to write a novel with an environmental theme, but done in a non-hipsterish, non-irritating way, which I think will be called ‘Terra’.
1 Roll on the floor laughing her ass off.
2 Roll on the floor laughing their asses off too.
Contents may vary.
Russell Hobbes, manager of Books-R-Us, has booked the internationally acclaimed author Abhinav Raksha to appear in the shop. While Russell prepares for Raksha’s arrival he has to cope with an interesting selection of personal problems, particularly his catastrophic love life. Raksha has some issues of his own to deal with. An uptight cleric has sentenced him to death for the blasphemies of his book, ‘The Devil’s Poetry’. Worse than that, he has left his wife, the literary theorist Saleena Nakshatra, for the nail technician Madison Slater. Raksha’s relationship with Madison crumbles as they travel to Baytown with their bodyguards, Spook and Diesel. Meanwhile, in the store room of a Baytown Kwikspar, a terrorist cell plots Raksha’s demise. There’s also a professional cricketer, a gold-digger, a cave, a flood, a book shop sales assistant with an identity crisis, a terrible rock band and a retired dishwasher manufacturer. And more ostriches than one might expect.