“I guess this is the part where the plot thickens.”
She sighed as if it were a scene she had seen tad too often. An uninspired trope no amount of ‘casting in varying lights’ will save. Her candour was on cue, waiting for her voice to warm to it, but something a little above his shoulder caught her attention: an elderly in a weathered wardrobe (save for the polyester doek) – the sky blue shweshwe dress and safety-pinned tjale – slumped to the dry tall grass, partly exposing her KY greased gaunt legs. Next lingered a close-up shot of a pink broken sandal. Dried-eyed, she reappeared dabbing her grief-stricken face with a dry-snuff grimed handkerchief. A few feet away the police unit draped what looked like a charred mound with a white sheet.
She prosily ad libbed the usual protocol inwardly as the scene cut to the high ranking officer speaking into the news microphone. Her nails worked the now threadbare adhesive bandage cut like a nicotine patch inside her right palm. It was beginning to show moist plotches, and its loose threads gathered poignantly on her lap.
The national crime-line flashed at the bottom of the screen, above the double-marquee pitting the markets against current affairs.
The silent news came through a few of many aerial LCD screens suspended below the continuous clerestory of the University of Free State cafeteria. Her difficult-to-read face of a shrink – belied by freckles dusted cheeks and a petit frame of an ingenue – with which she watched the headlines, would’ve remained unchanged even if her mug-shot made the headlines.
Stacked on the lime bistro table before her were books of nature conservation related titles. The one on top had a book cover of the Earth cupped inside the woman’s hands. Its holographic cover gave a dual glimpse of the future – it caricatured Deep Ecology, or Dystopian hellhole.
On her left, framed by the glass curtain wall that ran lengthwise to a rather narrow hall-like cafeteria, the sprawling city of Bloemfontein rippled to the motions of its dramatic landscape. The squeaky clean pane photoshopped her view the same way the food display to her right vitrified the previous day’s confectionery. Not bad for a principal photography, she thought begrudgingly resigning herself to overtures of a stranger seated across her.
The first thing that stood out from him, besides his slightly orient-ish eyes for a black guy, was his fashion sense: the thick scarf fit for Antarctica expeditions, and the over-sized beanie that hung loosely over his head, partly showing neat dreadlocks cornrows.
A cologne reeking fop…great.
“I’m thinking,” said the stranger, “why not bring the old man’s vision into fruition, redefine Madiba magic and start a rainbow village, ‘know what I mean? Our own little Nkandla…”
As he tapered off into lofty allusions she could not help, but take stock in his left eyebrow. It rose high, as if aiming for his hairline, as he talked, rising above his retro-geek glasses; twice it almost got caught between his dreadlocks. She felt uneasy about a can of drink before him, too. His hands more than handled the talking.
An innocuous rejoinder, beginning with ‘as irresistible as the offer is,’ crossed her mind. That should count for something. “For the life of me I wish I could divine your sign language, ’cause — I speak only three languages and garbage is not on the list, unfortunitely.”
Beside her husky voice, something must have registered. He paused and searched her eyes with a wooden look. He seemed to stifle the urge to sneeze, and resurfaced redeemed. Somewhat. The can of drink in his hand crackled.
“Just a sec.” She raised her finger, and watched the ticking hand of her wrist-watch. “Five, four, three… wait for it. Yup, another rape just took place. Set your timer. It’s a little game I usually play to break the ice and, I don’t know, connect?”
He appeared to mull gravel, as she tipped her head to deliver a smile, making her resemble the Guy Fawkes mask. Even in her sing-songy voice, her eyes betrayed the fury seething behind them.
Usually, this sent boys scurrying for cover. He sat there stunned, as if besieged from within. This was a first for her. Abruptly, she gathered all her stuff and stood facing him. His breathing slowed down, and as if struggling to connect with an abstract painting, his eyes searched the blank bistro table. Beyond, loose white threads snowed from her lap to the floor.
“Alrighty. My people will call your people, and, uh — we should do these more often.”
Her auburn curls bounced to her emphatic nods. She turned around to leave, and the mordant parting felt like a splash of cheap wine in his face. Almost causing him to flinch, she turned back around.
“I’m Reeva, by the way. ‘Pleasure meeting you.”
He clenched his jaw at his sheepish response to a backhanded rhetorical pleasantry. Lifting his eyes, she was nowhere to be found.
The sting in his right hand grew sharper from an apparent building frostbite. It dawned on him there was something in his possession. The entire time images from his past flickered before him like a damaged reel of a horror flick. He pried his fingers from the crumpled, sorry-looking aluminium container. He continued to knead his eyes with intensity, as if to gorge them out. Using his beanie, he squeezed it all inside his fist into a taut cotton ball. A tennis ball he used as a pressure ball was left in his car. He couldn’t remember when he stood and left the cafeteria, nor clear on his destination.
“My bad. Next time I’ll unroll a red carpet, Your Fabulousness! Nxa.”
The now irate student he bumped into, one among many, would have had to time travel if his remark was to hit home.
He ascended the last aisle of the theatre-style class. Seated at the last row, he unplugged from the world with his headset and buried himself in a book. An hour passed before students’ voices, mostly girls, began to fill the class. He did not bother to attach heads to voices that greeted him.
At the right moment, Ms. lo, whose stride was said to be from her days of strutting her stuff on the catwalk, made the much anticipated entrance. It never ceased to rivet the boys. Girls were left in limbo; they coveted that air she so effortlessly exuded; she so effortlessly exuded over ‘their men.’ Any movement saw her figure test the very fabric of the semi-corporate number that hugged her. Baritoned groans were in order.
She so-so restored the order. Senza’s posse – Orion, Tebza and Jozi- swaggered late into the class young and restless. All co-owners of an internationally renowned, Phylum Inc.This parlayed into a sweet-sweet PR for UFS, and a silly all-access rights to each other’s classes, though they took different courses, thrown in there for a good measure.
“Suspension awaits you lot,” her body language said otherwise.
When they reached the back of the class, but were too occupied with the lecturer to notice the current state of their friend.
“It’s Communication, ma’am.” Announced a male voice masked with a curled accent for anonymity. “We’re merely demonstrating various non-verbal forms of expressing suppressed, er, impressing upon…”
The class rippled with laughter, as Ms. Io cut in with indifference. “I’d like us to indulge, for a minute, in something very profound,” she tinkered with her Tablet-to-projector app, “My vice, a guilty pleasure really – poetry.”
“The name I go by in many circles,” whispered the same male voice.
“Okay, Jozi, ‘mind furnishing the class with details of our trysts?” Orion and Tebza broke in sweat. Senza was on a yet to be discovered planet. “I want us to discuss the artistic spirit, a thread that seamlessy weaves through all disciplines. It’s an interview from Poetry Sentinel with one of my favourite Nigerian writers, Stephen Vincent.”
With the air that revealed an avid bookworm, and her back against the projected article, she closed her eyes, only opening them during her spirited annotation.
A good reading is like being in touch with the bone, fiber and soul of the poet. At its best it is something similar to going to a unique church that offers this unique brand of communion. Yet, what ultimately survives, I have discovered, is the printed page, the book! Even if a reading has been taped or put on video, the primary reference – at least in the West – remains the printed form.
The vocal is vaporized! As typography – an architecture on the page –
“If formating is architecture,” she said, “What is an apt disciptor for Blueprint? Remember, language moulds our optics.”
As typography – an architecture on the page, the poem remains deeply resonant for me. Not to discount the oral experience, which I can deeply love, I can keep coming back to the page where I not only hear the work (with my “inner ear”), but I can explore the page like a sculpture –
“Take note of that segue, people.” Hands clasped prayer-like and her face heavenward, she stomped the floor hard with her left foot. Her poetic intonations never failed to elicit music from every eardrum within earshot. She could keep her Stephen Vincent for all they cared.
– but I can explore the page like a sculpture, checking out and interpreting the words and their composition, the way they bother or enhance each other as material. Objects that magically activate what was once a blank space.
The poem on the page represents the opportunity to repeat, alter, and creatively deepen both the reading and interpretative critical experience. Ink, paper texture design.
“Typesetting becomes ripe for interpretation as well. I stand NOT to be corrected: poetry is one of the few semantic equivalents of Abstract Expressionism. Failure to reconcile -” a sudden pause in her proselyting was a glitch for the occasion. After giving her fold a quick scan, her expression grew more puzzled. ” – has anyone…never mind.”
Ink, paper texture design all play a part, and these elements well combined with good text continue to bring me great joy.
After rattling off the remaining part rather uneventfully, whilst surveying the class, she blurted out, “If I may, Phylum, where is Senza?”
Along with Jozi, a self professed ‘Cougar Wisperer,’ Senza was one of the most unruly of Phylum Inc. Stand-ups were usually bandied between the two. Something all now found strange to have missed.
All eyes found the culprit sobered up at his usual spot. It was only when his name was called that he emerged from under his dark cloud. He tried to seem okay. The corner of his mouth barely relented.
“Senza,” said Ms. Lo, “Are you alright?”
He drawled, “She’s playing with the light like Northern Lights hovering over minutae details of the expository…”
“Senza,” she talked over him, her eyes taking in the class, “That’s last week’s assignment. Today’s author is a he.” He fell silent. The heavy breathing started. “Senza!”
His name echoed in the hallway long after he had closed the door behind him.
Aikhona, mchana! A faint memory of his grandfather’s voice remarking at the city youth who indifferently drag their feet before an oncoming traffic, yet run for their lives at the sight of anything that bleats, failed to cheer him up this time.
He received middle fingers for his long and loud hooting for his right of way into the Mandela Drive from the long-walking bunch.
Near the Bloemfontein Train Station, his moods were surprisingly accommodative towards a traffic jam caused by taxi-drivers notorious for hogging this section of the town during the rush hour.
Senza’s stay at home mother, Mme Malla, received calls from her daughter’s school. Senza wanted to take her home during class hours for no apparent reasons, they said. A search party of three white Minis (Phylum Inc) arrived to find Mme Malla on the phone.
She had greyed considerably since the incident, waiting for the day when this would happen. He refused to talk to anyone about it. If anyone even hinted it he would leave the room.
In the middle of the city laid Naval Hill. Bloemfontein’s own mini Table Mt. without Mons Mensae. Besides their conspicuous flat top contours, they are revered for their environmental significance and location; the former for the latter, and vice versa. It seemed to loom at dusk, as shadows settle like a hood on its face, which gave it a menacing demeanour. It’s the very hill where they had spent their time before they got hijacked. He returned there now and then to salvage the now static mirage of their last moments together.
Upon entering the gate of Franklin Game Reserve, Senza downshifted the gears carelessly, causing them to grind as he ‘leaned on it’ with each bent of the winding route ascending the west side of the Naval Hill. Cruising toward the eastern edge of the hill, the car swaggered along the uneven trail, gently rocking him to and fro as the tires crushed the gravel below.
Atop the hill, he hastened to the car boot, and reached for his cooler-bag like it was a first-aid kit. The third empty bottle suffered the fate of the first two, smashing it against boulders meters away. His trembling hands pushed the cooler-bag and the folded camp-chair aside frantically. Out of the toiletry bag, slowly and deliberately, he pulled out a battery powered hair-clipper. In the next moment the hair-clipper whirred like a lawn-mower inside his skull, as dreadlocks fell all around him. By the time he was done, his shaven scalp had a fair share of reddish nicks.
After gathering all his deadfall inside his beanie, on his knees he contemplated over them in silence for a good while. He brooded over them with palpable languor, occasionally swaying indecisively like a witch-doctor delirious with herbal incense.
With the hand holding the beanie poised behind in medieval catapult fashion, he cantered sidelong and launched the package in the air with all his might, followed by a blood-curdling scream that rent the air as if a spear went through his stomach. It landed only a few feet away as if to mock him while he watched on heaving.
Staring at the hospital, visible along the southern skyline, his bearing took refuge in the distance between Pelonomi Hospital and the hill, seeming to lend a modicum of space between him and that fateful night.
He recalled waking up on a cold canvass soaked with his blood at the very hospital. Writhing in and out of consciousness, all he heard was medical jargon thrown around him. The stretcher crashed through the hospital’s swinging doors with him crying out for her.
The altitude and the environment made the city life seem and sound like a figment of his imagination. Though gradually becoming a mound pitted against the ever expanding concrete jungle, it still retained natural resonance of light-years contrast from its setting. Around the hill, the scene of the city below echoed and played at the back of his mind in soft mosaic focus. It resembled a hazy panoramic grid of diodes, whose glows alternated at intervals between mellow green, pale-yellow and glaring red, guiding the long strips of LEDs that dipped and glided in the vast maze below.
The smell of rain, the drizzle that came and went, his descent as distorted reflections of the street lights seemed to melt ghastly onto the beaded windscreen, were but a phantasma to him. It’s when other motorists reminded him that they too were tax payers that he came back to earth. Inching towards the traffic lights that glowered in red, he picked his mobile phone and turned it on. Missed calls splashed incessantly on the strong glare of the screen.
To put everyone at ease, he instragrammed a photo of the beaded, foggy windscreen with a tag ‘shegure’. A Japanese handle accompanied with dates replied in Japanese text. It was from his ex-turned-friend, a contemporary dancer who flew home to Japan a weekend before. Before the resolve, she had lost count of his freudian-slips.
The windows of the car reflected the cockpit-like dashboard, imposing itself dimly on everything he drove past. The blurry tail-lights of the cars overtaking him appeared to leave splotched trails of blood in their wake. A tinted Gusheshe whizzed past him accompanied by what sounded like an aqueous heartbeat from a Sonar.
South bound along Dr. Belcher Road leading to Pelonomi Hospital, a distant and yet familiar sound echoed from afar. His ears anticipated a discordant cry of seagulls, and his nose the sea-salt. None came, but that long and doleful horn of a ship. A giant crimson bull charged at him, its fiery eyes blurring his vision. His car straddled the middle of the road for the head-on collision. Screeching, the car squealed like a puppy with a spine-chilling shrill as it swerved out of the way.. Warped giant white Loki fonts marqueed in a flash on his side windows as the truck came close to scraping his car, knocking down his side-mirror instead. The mournful horn sped past and slurred as it drawled eerily behind him.
During this close shave he made out an irate face of a truck driver inaudibly cussing the day lights out of him. As his car dragged to a halt at a snail’s pace, his trembling hand fidgeted with the hazard lights button before moving on to the seat-belt. Panting, he retrieved the tennis ball from the glove compartment. In the rear view mirror, fading trails of steam marked where the wavy skid marks were, and shards of a shattered side mirror sparkled in the rain.
Minutes later, a seat belt alarm chimed softly, almost too sympathetically as if to gently rouse him from a nightmare, against the clamouring horns of motorists lining behind him. The overwhelming warmth that had surged through him minutes ago dissipated. He arrived home cold and clammy.
In a dimly lit carport, hours passed with him staring blankly at the windscreen. Mme Malla had dozed off in front of the television with a blanket. He found her little sister riding the side of her bed, tucked to her thumb and stuffed elephant. For the first time he sobbed, rocking inconsolably, as if before him was her lifeless body.
Before sunrise at the Greylings, muted gargling could be heard coming from the bathroom. Next came the soft shuffling of feet that soon died wholly. Reeva’s four year old sister, Ursula, was following a morning routine that involved tooth brushing, a national anthem, a glass of milk, and a good dose of morning cartoons in that particular order.
On her stomach in bed, Reeva’s crossed fingers slowly rose above her head, as she muttered supplications.
“Nkosi sikelel’ iAfrika…!”
Ursula broke into it with as much effusion as her elfin chest could muster. The gods were not on Reeva’s side.
“Ag nee,” Groaned Reeva, burying her head under the pillow. “Can’t we get a break?”
“Maluphakanyisw’ uphondo lwayo…”
Poised and one hand placed on her pumped bosom, her waist-reaching hair bobbed to every syllable (except for the tongue-twisters).
“Really,” said Reeva’s father cuddled up to his wife in bed, “it’s Enoch’s tribute to HOA’s former glory.”
Ursula’s voice echoed in the hallways, modulating in language and key as per the arrangement of the anthem.
“You know the composer?” Said his wife intrigued at her husband’s analysis of the Xhosa part of the anthem.”
“Here comes the Afrikaans part.”
They chorused dotingly as Ursula cleared her throat for her favourite part. It was the part where she mastered, or attempted thereof, a little patriotic bass in her voice. Indeed, a no mean feat for her size.
“Uit die blou van onse he-mel!”
“That’s it.” said Reeva gruffly, kicking the covers to the floor. Eyes peering wearily through her frizzled hair and a pillow handy, she edged towards Ursula’s bedroom like a zombie.
On her flight downstairs, the Greylings matriarch greeted Reeva with a Restraining Order. She stopped dead in her tracks at the bottom of the stairs, and tugged her dressing gown to her chest. Reeva’s twin brother’s name slipped out when she called her out.
Reeva’s twin brother was a casualty of a farm attack when they were still toddlers, along with her grandfather and uncle. The grandmother miraculously survived. During the attack, Reeva was sound asleep on the floor between the curtains from the previous day game of hide-and-seek. She was too young to remember.
Her uncle, who converted to environmentalism when it was still considered a liturgy for hippies, saw the filthy-lucre in going green way before it became a PR gimmick. He died an entrepreneur of high-end rattan furniture.
Ten years after the tragic loss, Reeva’s father was jostled out of sleep by his wife, demanding their lost son back. That night they made love in tears like a couple in the wake of the distant din of world war. Slumped next to him, she repeated her lost son’s name in between gasps, as if now that she did her part, her heart’s desire, wrapped in white linen, legs twitching, fists coiled, should lower at any moment. Nine months later, fate had something up its sleeve – Ursula, a bundle of mischief.
At seven-thirty op die kop, between the decorative arches and beams of mahogany, the carriage-house-style doors of the garage rose begrudgingly to reveal the worn out riding boots the colour of an Arabian saddle.
Hashtag-Victorian. Stuff of Pinterest.
She beamed between the bookshelves around the same time a year ago when she snapped them on display in the opposite store. As she eased the helmet around her hair, the morning breeze rushed in to sting her cheeks with a cold kiss, and the Owl’s feathers of her rosary-slash-dreaweaver tribal pendant flailed around her abdomen. In no time she was rearing Sanchez, her sliver rusty scooter, down the sloping pavement.
Like most of us, Senza ran to his momma. He crashed in a garage that used to be his studio. The walls of his studio were a bioluminescent-like graffiti stencil of Pandora. Half-face portrait of Neytiri in her tribal glory occupied half of the western wall. Her outline glowed on account of the fullmoon (with an eight-weeks pregnancy ultrasound for lunar surface) in the background. He used invisible paint that absorbed light during the day to glow when the lights went out. Its glow is mixed to last only for a minute or so, before it fades out like a drying river.
During the movie that inspired this painstakingly done mural, he shot to his feet inside a packed theatre. Fists clenched and sweat broke out. The feral anguish in Zoe Saldana’s keening clawed at his soul. He looked as helpless as the day he heard a familiar sound for the first and last time until Avatar. A sound that haunted his sleepless nights long after the ordeal. Speech-impaired, her wailing was hauntingly alien and untamed. Still, from thereon he tortured himself with Zoe’s films.
Mme Malla woke up to a faint aroma of Rooibos tea. What brought a smile to her face was not so much the gesture in itself, but the sight of Kruisement branch next to it.
Before moving to a modestly upscale, face-brick neighbourhood, from a cramped up, two-roomed house in what used to be the squatter camp, the mint used to be her pet luxury. Before the infiltration of lavenders and jasmine minted teas into the townships, any woman offering tea to her guest without the herb risked standings of her social status.
“Hai, haele phoqo se sona.”
Shaking her head, she clapped once remarking at her son’s idiocy. The tea was cold.
As had been the case for some of South African universities since the dawn of the democratic era, University of Free State have had its fair share of drama whose screen-treatment, Professor Jansen’s tumultuous tenure alone, could spark bidding wars at Cannes.
In recent years it was riddled with unsavoury racial disturbances (The Reitz’ Four, off-the-cuff) that became international headlines.
In Reeva’s words, the wooded campus was an epitaph (whatever that meant) to the self-contained greenhouse that once was nature. Besides the usual alumni pedigree, it prided itself in the simple things said to embody its ideals: the perennially kempt lush gardens and rolling lawns surrounded by dense, naturalised vegetation as old as the campus they wreathed, and Mooimeisiesfontein (Beautiful Girls Fountain) for a centrepiece.
Those were some of the things that attracted Reeva the most to Kovsie against her mother’s wishes to study abroad, so to stretch her horizons, and spread her wings – “strictly speaking, from the neck up, honey.”
Like most institutions with the luxury of space, it tweaked its material palette for that twenty-first century academic look. In fact, the campus of University of Free State can be viewed as an architectural open air museum. The first order, the alumni’s held near and dear, was the classic and yet gravely academic corridors and passages.
Next in line was the most uninspired moment in the history of academic architect: Well, this is a patch of land where students will learn and, uh, just order bricks the colour of a matchstick head. Tons of ‘em!
A sad looking, dilapidated sandstone house perched in the middle of a countryside stretch remains classically picturesque. Replace it with one of them uninviting matchstick-coloured, old or new, structure and it becomes a matter of taste.
After a day spent around these unsightly things, a reflex punch in the smart mouth spouting ‘bricks and mortar’ analogies is almost forgivable. Of course Classicism, among others, was an exception. But for campuses, an age of utter darkness on drafts tables.
When the university was conceptualized, Frank Lloyd Wright, the architectural saviour of the masses, was commissioned for the mere four houses of the nascent Prairie School. Word hadn’t gotten around.
Following on its heels was the glass order. It afforded the campus the view of the outside world, making the phrase ‘Ivory Tower’ incongruent with its setting. A precursor to what followed.
Lastly, something strange happened. Academic institutions embraced organic design order. These did not delineate the ‘enlightened’ from the ‘ignorant.’ Rectilinear structures with simplicity inspired by Japanese aesthetics, and joie de vivre pulsating Warhol-esque paint jobs, cropped up in campuses (and around recreational institutions) around South Africa. During leafy seasons, they resemble colourful air-balloons scaling rich unadulterated flora.
This subsequent architectural transformation, to borrow from Oprah on her visit to the institution, it was ‘nothing short of a miracle.’ They hewed out of the mountain of blueprints of despair a milestone of hope – free at last, free at last; thank goodness we’re glib-free at last!
As was her thing, Reeva slackened at the threshold of the library entrance. Running her eyes along the stately edifice, she might have mumbled something about knowledge in Latin.
Pervasive was the soft hum of the ventilation system punctuated by irregular reverential exchanges between students her eyes couldn’t locate. At the Natural World section of the library, a thick grizzled fur of her hooded gilet from which her head resurfaced, made her look like a grey wolf on a prowl for a rare species between the shelves to sink her teeth into.
She kept her ears keenly attentive to the sound of pages being flipped, echoing at intervals from different angles around her. She could almost always accurately guess the specifications of the book used (new, old or recycled paper), judging by the sharpness produced by its pages.
She buried herself in a book when a male student stopped on the opposite side of her bookshelf. He leafed not more than two pages and Reeva had gone around to hover over him. Her eyes said, “yes give it to me, this won’t take a minute.” He hesitated. She sighed and snatched the book from him.
“That doesn’t count.” Handing it back to him annoyed, she muttered stiffly to herself. “We’re all a lil’ rusty in this ungodly hour.”
Leaving for the cafeteria, her game tittered atop a tome. It was semi-deserted. She kept stealing glances of a waitress in all black wearing an artificial but pleasant smile that thinly hid her exhaustion. Everytime she’d glimpse at her, she’d jot down a few lines in the margins of her notepad. She looked up to steal another look. A sudden close-up of a khaki apron, Java clipart embroidered on its front pocket, backdropped a steaming latte on a circular tray.
Almost scampering, she upturned the notepad to hide the scribbled side, and shifted books around to make space. Breaking an agonizingly chastened half smile, which resulted in a confusing expression, she either begged or commanded the waitress to keep change.
Almost unconsciously, as she slowly neared the tall latte cup to her full lips, she caught a familiar whiff of a cologne. It wafted and went like an imagined aroma of a craving, leaving no trace, while the latte went full throttle on her senses. Shrugging with her mouth, she gave in to the irresistible first sip, as a vaguely superimposed silhouette sauntered across the view of the city at the corner of her eye, leaving behind a now stronger trail of the cologne.
We may have a stalker on our hands, she thought.
He passed behind her to join the short queue for his morning fix a few feet from her. He looked a bit taller. Out of the blue the day before, he asked if the seat in front of her was taken after taking it.
Not so long ago the came across an article, a parliament transcript from yesteryear. The honourable speaker of the house, quite emphatically, said it went without saying that every black male had a roving eye for the white woman, and all stops should be pulled to keep ‘em at bay.
Phylum hurled jests at each other, followed by canon paper balls, on who was probably the most unrehabilitable Snowhite Junkie amongst themselves. Flaring his nostrils, Senza stormed outside. Orion couldn’t hide his annoyance. These two never fought. Orion followed him outside where they had a heated discussion where, among Idi Amin and other African dictators, the word carwash kept popping up. Other than that, the rest of Phylum were clueless as to what the furore was about.
Orion made advances to his Nigerian ex for five years before she relented. She was forbidden from dating a South African. Escaping by hair’s breadth, her parents were almost burned alive when their house and business went in flames during xenophobic attacks.
Orion’s last words were audible on his return: you don’t have to find yourself wearing one to discover that bigotry hat comes in all shades and sizes, Oluseun. Structural racism is the problem, not their approval or opinions.
Unsavoury? Arguably. But you can’t deny the novelist’s observational skill set laden in his statement, eh? That would’ve been the reaction of Senza they knew.
Coming back to the present, Phylum had clinched a deal north of seven figures. They were on cloud nine, more so Senza. Orion nudged him in the direction of the no-nonsense looking brunette with books cradled to her bosom as if they were alive. Senza’s sentiments hadn’t changed, but his moods allowed him to wing it just for kicks. High spirits (beverages included) made him go around interviewing girls to round up a roster of his nonexistent harem. He’d promise them the world, take their digits, and announce their candidacy position on a long list of hopefuls.
The little cheer with which Senza greeted a cashier and ordered coffee, failed to hide the pain in his bloodshot eyes. The coarsening lump in Reeva’s chest stirred at the sight of his clean-shaven scalp beneath his flatcap. She imagined it would take a trip to Mecca, a calling of sort to warrant an overnight locks-to-bald resolution. Many South African cultures shave one’s head to both part ways and mourn the passing of a loved one.
But — I mean — he’s a guy.
It seemed highly unlikely it had anything to do with the encounter the day before. Before she knew it, he was about to pass by her table again.
She drew blanks trying to remember his name. A disarming smile would do. She was greeted back by a face in search of the bottom of the next rugged cliff. Yesterday’s cafeteria scene was seared in his memory, yet he glimpsed past her on his way out.
A prick of panic rose from the pit of her stomach. At cheque-signature speed, she scribbled the word ‘flatline’ inside the margin of the notepad. With a swift swipe of a hand, she cleared everything on the table into a now bloated shoulder-strap bag, grabbed her helmet and took after him.
What are you doing, Reeva? Where are you going, Reeva?
At the western exit, the eyes of a female student fogged with confusion behind a wisp of steam emanating from the mug she was huddled to, as they followed Reeva’s flurry of inaudible ramblings.
She ran after him, only to grimace and drop her helmet to the ground when she reached the parking near the sports field. She held on to the shoulder strap that dug into her shoulder blade.
He removed his right earpiece at the call of a panting voice now on his heels. When he turned around, she had leant onto her knees a few feet away, forefinger in the air, spurting out half sentences.
“Hi, we met yesterday,” she said coming out of the gilet that buried her face, “do you…do you have a moment…”
Seeing him reveal a gloomier depth, she trailed off incoherently. Exhaustion seemed to overwhelm his features upon realizing it was her. Her imploring eyes pleaded with him to say something. Anything.
Heaving, he took off his flatcap, intensely kneaded his face, scratched his scalp, and turned around.
“What the…” she said.
How he turned around to give her his back, and walked off without a word, she would have welcomed the crudest of expletives instead. She heard a commiserating ‘ouch’ from one or two students.
“Dump that white bitch!” Said a male voice out of nowhere.
How Reeva wished the latter was the case. It would have meant the business of making contact would be the thing of the past. She squared her still functioning shoulder.
“Hey, come back here!”
She marched to stand in front of him. He tried to walk around her a few times. A little scuffle ensued.
“Look,” she said defiantly, to her own surprise, “if you don’t give in, you’ll have to relocate to avoid me completely.”
The stalemate lasted for quite a while. The realization came to her that she had grabbed his wrist during her threats to stalk him. A gesture now maintained with a vicelike grip. Meaning he had given in to her manacles a while ago. Having trawled every ounce of what weighed heavily in her chest, the lump that begun in the cafeteria keelhauled her heart as it scorched its way to her throat.
“Can we…can we go somewhere quiet?” She rubbed the bridge of her nose. “Um, that…that did not come out right.”
The car keys he had begun fidgeting with dazedly, jingled in the space of a minute in which no word came from either of them.
She sighed. “Were you going somewhere?”
Reluctantly, he looked over to where his car was parked.
“Alrighty.” She said.
Seated on a park-bench inside a tunnel of pine trees, the historical President Brand Street sloped gently on either side before them. Behind them, a slightly elevated City Hall park afforded protection from the biting north-westerner. The canopy of dappled saffron and russet towered above the park’s evergreen frontier from every side. The classic government buildings of weathered sandstone that crennelated the city skyline above transported her to Europe. As if summoned by Midas himself, it was the season that Bloemfontein’s twilights, complemented by trans-seasonal shades, enchanted the sensitive.
An hour before, and led by the brisk Reeva, Senza dragged his feet to his car. Mid-way, Reeva asked him, no, commanded that he deactivate the car-lock system to let her in first. It was when Reeva recognised some of the landmarks more than thrice, The Fourth Raadsaal for one, that she suggested a pit-stop. In silence, staring straight ahead, he was going in circles around the city.
“Look, no offence…there are places I rather be than here, but I’m bound to follow the white rabbit , and…never mind.” No reaction from him. Shoulders hunched to their ears, they now sat there in silence. She looked over to him and her heart sank. He had silently scooted away from her.”I’m Reeva.” She said giving him her hand. Without meeting her eyes, he replied with a forced smile and a half-hearted nod.
All that is gold does not glint
Like sunset bathed autumn leaves
Or silence when it’s not a treat
A moat miles deep around a fort
I have a good mind to pole-vault
Fingers crossed for Stockholm
When in short of words she resorted to wordplay on ‘Dapple’, her spiral-journal with interchangeable beaten-up leather cover. None talking, each drifted to their thoughts like park-bench sharing strangers who preferred keeping to their own – a poetic coda that summed up their worlds.
Eyes distant, like a monk meditatively lingering over the last mala bead, Reeva’s thumb lazily explored each feature of her violet pansy pendant sporting diamonds for anthers, attached to her silver charm.
Fresh from primary in high school, Reeva’s newfound friend alluded Africans’ lack of the word love in their vocabulary to their level of emotional intelligence. Reeva did not know what to make of it and consulted her mother who preferred stacked books to a soapbox.
As usual, silent and expressionless, she searched her daughter’s eyes for a moment, mentally browsing a cache of “iconoclasts she has had the pleasure of devouring.” Reeva knew what would follow. A book covered with a film of dust for a gift-wrap. Her mother left the dusting off to recipients to “relish the mystique of re-discovering a relic.” She remained rooted to her spot as her mother disappeared in her study room.
The following day, through the print-on-demand service, Reeva was woken to a smell of a toner in the morning in the form of The Savage Mind by Claude Lévi-Strauss. After reading it, she scoured jewellery stores for weeks in search of a gem with her strict design specifications to no avail. Thanks to her piggy-bank, and a bald jewellery designer whose shaky hand had not lost its touch, the mystical intaglio became the most treasured thing next to her heart.
Claude offered ‘Pansies for Thought’ as a title for the English translation of his work. The subject was never brought up again. Though, Reeva saw her opportunity. She developed a habit of feigning grave concern for various subjects not on her mother’s shelve. One day she found a note inside another hot-off-the-press gift.
To a toner addict mooching off of her mother’s savings. Disgruntled Enabler.
All around Reeva and Senza, imitating a lyrical title sequence to a poignant yarn, shiftless penumbras faded in, cast a foliaged stencil along the deserted Pres. Brand, and drifted briefly before fading out. This shadow theatre was scored by a symphony of broken woodwinds and pigeons’ feet pattering like the first droplets of rain, as the territorial tried in vain to maintain a pecking order.
Towards dusk, the intrusive hubbub, the pollution of Chaela, the mechanical nine-to-five throngs, their narcotic trails, restored the disquiet that brought them together. They showed signs of life when both, almost simultaneously, exhaled and took in the now colonized scenery. Along the western horizons, a panoramic burst of Midas’ palette was about to be frozen in time – an aurora without a rhythm.
Senza turned to his right to find her spot vacant. Having discovered the efficacy of being non-verbal, she waited for him next to his car. In her hands were pine cones and pine needles she kept inhaling in turns. The toxicity of the atmospheric haze had engulfed a brisk, woody scent of the pine that had lulled them deeper into pensive forgetfulness. After much sniffing and vertigoing, she placed the cone inside one of her side-pockets and rubbed the needles in her hands before spreading them about as if they ashes of a loved one. It all looked ceremonious, too, drawing attention of passers-by. More so Senza’s arching brow.
On the road, the rhythmic but dull tapping of his fingers onto a steering wheel whenever the car idled held her rapt. He caught a glimpse of her cheeks cerise at this subconscious habit. He stilled somewhat awkwardly, feeling her piercing eyes exploring his side profile, picking him apart. Familiarizing herself with him on a personal level, she was drawn to the quiescence that now brooded over his nature.
Whenever she doccie’d these moments, her hand seemed to move on its accord as she scribbled, resembling a psychic channelling messages from beyond.
He’s as mellow as a stripped down acoustic ballad.
Back at the park, once inside the car, he received instructions to her place. Now nearing the bus-stop, a fifteen minutes walk to her home, she asked him to drop her off.
“Tomorrow. Same place. Same time.”
He struggled with a response for her body language intimated another stand-off. If her Pine tree sniffing habits were anything to go by, she looked like the type that chained herself to objects for causes she was passionate about.
“My people will, uh,” He said as she wittingly broke out in laughter mid his sentence. “Call — your people?”
A wistful smile burning her expression, she hugged herself against the cold, and bid him farewell. She watched on the EAN5 – his street-art ‘nom de guerre’ – on his personalised plate until it became illegible.
“It’d take a Medium to read your beautiful mind, but I’m game.”
After a long controlled sigh, she muttered to herself. Stiffening her quivering lower lip, she lugged her baggage and started homeward, her vision blurring with each step.