It is one o’clock at night. I look down at the street. Below next to the take-away cafe there is a four-wheel drive pick-up van. At the back of the van there sit and stand three highly drugged and pale teenage girls. The one standing screams into the streets “God is coming to get me! God is coming to get me! God is coming to get me!” The other girls pull her down and smother her calls for help.
The next morning at the entrance to the block of flats the supervisor sighs and complains about people stealing. Potplants are disappearing. He knows who it is: The woman from no. 15. She allows nobody into her flat, but through the opened slit of the door he could see a passage crowded with potplants. She has lost it a bit. Especially at full moon. Then she sings arias. He adds that she is a devil worshipper.
This is Oxford House, Gillespie Street, Durban. This is where I live. Around the corner there is a wonderful little bar called The Squireman’s. It open every afternoon at about five o’clock. The food and the beer are dead cheap. A bit further on there is the Costa de Sol, a place of great decadence and pleasure. A place where middle-aged white men socialise with prostitutes.
My computer says it is 2h13 in the morning; definitely deep in the night; but here it never gets dark – the blue neon light of the Holiday Inn Garden Court throws its glow across the city. A terrible bang wakes me from my sleep, an explosion it seemed, with glass spattering in all directions. It sounds as if one of the ceilings of the Four Seasons Hotel next door collapsed. Earlier in the evening a motorbike gang made great noise: the ladies singing spirituals while the men answered in a kwaito chorus. Ambulances and police cars gather at the corner of the Four Seasons. A pick-up van is parked on the other side of the robot. Something is happening around the corner.
Later in the morning, about 10h00, I return from the Pick ‘n ‘Pay with some groceries in my hands. At the entrance pillar to Oxford House there stands Piet, the tow-away man. His tow-away van is parked on the other side of the road. The smell of an early tot is on his breath. Yes, he knows about the accident. A lorry landed on a van. They had to cut a woman loose. Only her legs were protruding from the wreck. Not something one wants to see over a weekend.
A cockroach against the kitchen wall watches while I’m chopping onion, garlic and chillies. Curry powder, cinnamon and cumin are added.
The other day I walked down one of the side streets and strange things happen. A beggar grabbed my Pine Nut cold drink from my hand. I only know of beggars begging for money. This is the first time somebody begs for left over cold drink. A bit further on a man take hold of my hand and shakes it as if I know him for years: “You want ghanya, hashish or cocaine?” I’m completely flustered.
Fekile is the daughter of a domestic worker and she has an extensive field of reference, because she devoured an encyclopedia at the house where her mother works. Is there a link between the Bushmen and the Chinese she asks me? She is obsessed with the Bushmen as the first people in South Africa.
Fekile is a prostitute. She doesn’t really have an option. She is like so many others. I think about the Apostolic Mission Station at Dassenhoek somewhere on the outskirts of the city and inaccessible by car. There the living dead multiplies by the day, consumed by cholera, pneumonia, tb, aids, insanity and unemployment. An image of hell.
I tell Fekile that she should become a writer. What should she write about she asks me? Start your book with sex. People like reading about sex. She cannot write about that, because she has never experienced sex with love. It is repulsive to her. It is her work. Exactly. Write about that.
I’m looking for a guide to hell, because somebody is dying. But everyone is warning me. There are too many people dying. But I want to see her before everything is over. No you are not allowed. Because I’m white I ask? A smile is Fekile’s answer.
I’m looking down through the window of my flat after a few hours in front of my computer. In the wind and sun below on the street corner there is a figure of a tall thin woman. The thought that Mbali returned from death involuntarily comes into my mind and a suffocating feeling. Life is betrayal and I remember a line from Ingrid Jonker about Judas Iskariot. She described him as “the verb of love”. If you don’t betray others you betray yourself.
Is it Mbali’s ghost which returned from hell, the muddy potholes of Dassenhoek? Can she walk again, or is she gliding? In Zulu her name means flower.
Early in the evening. I’m sitting at the Squireman’s. Things are getting worse at my tribal bar. There was a robbery the previous night, and during the week a concrete block fell from the sky killing two passers-by. Death sometimes come unexpectantly. I eat my preggo, drink a beer and feel lonely. After the beer I walk over to Costas, and make myself at home on a bar-stool between the prostitutes and look at the mirror behind the liquor and other bar paraphernalia. A young whore with an ochre skin and straightened hair and from Swaziland thinks I’m lonely and we start a conversation about Mbali.
Pneumonia and TB are symptoms of aids she says, and then tells the story of Mbali and her previous boyfriend. First time for me to hear the story. He was a well-known businessman from Richardsbay. He and Mbali apparently were very close, but his businesses were registered in the name of his wife.
What was his name? I ask. She tries to remember, calls the barman. He is too busy to make small talk. Earlier in the evening the Bafana’s won Mauritius in a soccer match and people are crowding into the bar. She cannot remember the name. But everybody knows him. He is wellknown here. He is now a hobo. His wife threw him out of the house. You often see him sleeping on the side walks.
So that is the secret history of Mbali. She always refused telling me stories. She lived for the moment. Sometimes drank so much that her body was covered in scabs from falling down stairways. For her there was no compromise in love. Maybe that is what she is dying from now.
On the floor of my flat there is a game of chess. She was mad about chess and the TV soaps between four and six in the afternoon: The Bold and the Beautiful and Days of our lives.
I stand up from my bar stool and suddenly take the road back to my flat. On the corner of Point and West Street there is a big pot of soup and a long queu of street people in their rags.
In my flat chaos is taking over. Dust, dead cockroaches, pealing paint, uncleaned dishes and books lying about. I do not have the power anymore to reoroentate myself for life. The professor is becoming a hobo. Every moment of the chaos is valuable. So history is repeating itself.
She could dance her heart out, but she did not like sex. Love was everything. A prima donna, a complete fucking prima donna: any waitor’s nightmare, because she was fastidious, everything had to happen exactly. Then the other side: Two o’clock at night she would stumble into the flat and her whole body would exude smoke and alcohol and she would pass out on the bed with her boots still on.
The prostitute from Swaziland defined love. Love is to take someone in your home and to take care of her: to give clothes and food. Love is therefore very concrete.
Mbali once told me the story of the hobo that is always reading. You’ll never find him without a book. He was driven from the townships by the comrades. Maybe he was someone who wanted to go to school, while others had another agenda in mind. The intense hatred drove him out. Now he talks to nobody. He fishes for his food from the rubish bins and reads and reads and reads.
Then there is Three Quarters, the dwarf hobo with a steel leg and a stump for an arm. He comes from a wealthy family, but prefers life in the streets. He loves swearing at people. One of the unforgetable moments in my life was when he asked me to pick him up from the sidewalk so that he could stand. The smell of the sidewalks was in my nose for weeks afterwards. Every now and again the police would come and take him for a bath and delice him. According to the supervisor the Africans have a holy fear of him. He is a tockeloshe for them.
A mere reference to him and Mbali wishes him dead. Why I ask her? Because he swears at people is her answer. But it has to be something more.
“My name is Angel, but I’m not from heaven in any way” is the unforgetable words of a tall figure, dressed from head to toes in black, with braids hanging down her back. The words Bad Girl in silver is printed vertically on her T shirt. Angel is easily the most beautiful woman I ever came across in my life. We have a date: seve o’clock, Friday night. We eat tomato soup, long French bread, pap and chops in my flat. Nasan, a history of art lecturer, and Richard, a linguist with a pony tail hanging down onto his bum is also there. In the clubs Richard is known as Jesus due to his appearance. He loves languages. The sum total of all languages in the world surely is only one language. And that is what excites him: proto-world, or comparative rootwords from all the continents of the world. His prey are are the sailors in the Durban harbour. He knows how to tempt them to his flat which is covered from wall to wall, floor to roof with cassettes; recordings of sailors telling the folklore, anecdotes of cue d’etats, stories about mother-in-laws and proverbs, etc.
Nasan decides to leave early: he doesn’t have money for the night club or drinks. Richard, Angel and me make our way to the Monte Carlo night club. Up we go the narrow stairway. Buy our entrance tickets from a woman with red hair, red nails, a red dress in a red office. We enter the loud temple of pleasure. At the bar a number of men and women sit . The women are by far in the majority. They are in all shapes and sizes. At the wall to the rightthere are more tables and seats. Left is a circular dancefloor with lights flashing from the floor and the rotating roof. There are two concrete pedestals with sliver pipes connected to the roof, pipes against which the women could rub their dancing cunts. The music is contemporary disco, something about San Francisco, wanna party, shake your body…poop…poop…poop. And above all this the hysterical scream of Olivia who recognises me and embraces me… and fuck trouble is coming coming, because I’m with Angel. I give Olivia the Judas kiss, go and sit sympathetically with her, showing great interest in her latest news, but it is not long before Angel orders “Come and sit here!”
Meekly I do as told and hold her hand and stare the whole evening at Olivia. My heart breaks in my face for her. We drink and drink and drink…Dance, but my robot steps are not for Africa. At four in the morning we stumble to the car. I can understand why the girls regularly fall down the stairs and keep the doctors in business.
Back in my flat Angel and me are immersed in a deep alcoholicly inspired conversation: something about her king (she is from Swaziland) and her chief. Virginity is tested by the looks of the nipples, and a light bulb is pressed up the vagina. She was exiled because she became pregnant at school. And she talks about white men. The previous night she was with a police man from CR Swart police station. He told her that she is a kaffir, and that he is mad about her body, but he is a boer and he hates kaffirs. Boers and kaffirs are natural enemies. I tell her I’m a communist…She is quiet for a moment and suddenly very hungry and randy: there is still a chop left, some more pap and tomato soup and her round black hand bag full of condoms. In the back of my head all the time the shit feeling about Olivia, and Angel saying again and again ahe must leave at six. She must see another client. We make love. She tells of a man pushing a cigaret up her, and anger overcomes me. How could somebody do that? I’m genuinely angry. She prefers sailors, because then she could completely forget about politics. She also refers to Mbali. Mbali will return , she says. Never I say. She was a skeleton the last time I saw her. She could not even walk. We screw and screw. When the one condom is off, the next is put on. In the mean time she also got hungry. Eight o’clock we wake up. I go to the autobank. She cannot stay for the day. I feel empty.
After she left the flat I feel good, but fall back into a deep sleep. Much later that afternoon the buzzer violently wakes me up. Vaguely I hear the voice of a woman on the other side. I press the button which opens the door downstairs, quickly put on my jeans and T shirt. A little bit later… God I cannot believe it: Mbali at the door. Her clothes hang loosely over skin and bone, and underneath a little hat of leopard skin her shining tiger eyes are peering. She immediately orders some spare ribs. She is dying of hunger, for months hibernated between life and death. People from the township carried her to the busstop, and here in town she found her way step by little step to my flat. With my credit card in my pocket I flee from the flat, first to Costas where to my surprise I see Angel in the corner with a man. She holds a rose in her lap. It comes as a shock to me. I try to make myself heard above all the noise. All the eyes in the bar are on me, because last night it was me and Angel and the pain of their mate Olivia. “Mbali is back… please tell Olivia as well,” and then I disappear to the steak house to order some spare ribs.
Back in the flat Mbali eats like a wolf. I’m not hungry. I know something between me
and Mbali is dead, but I cannot say anything. She keeps on repeating “Thank you for everything…thank you very much…” I do not quite know for what. For months in her semi-death I was her only hope. It nearly breaks me.
The next morning we visit Wimpie and Jannie. I drink a glass of white wine. They also offer us some biscuits with smoked mussels and cheese. Just before we leave, we drink some Earl Grey tea and I for the first time eat a marijuana biscuit. I eat two. They laugh at Piet who got so badly stoned on the biscuits. Marijuana has bnever really affected me in my life.
My God it was the closest I ever came to hell. I found the way to the flat okay, even at Spar I managed to get all the ingredients for a stirr fry, because Mbali was still very hungry. Below at the lift of the flat I started to laugh uncontrollably. In the bedroom I lost control. It felt as if I had to jump through the window to get fresh air, as if a monster took control of me., as if I might do things like killing someone. I touch my arm and asked again and again “Am I real?” Different levels of memories compete for space in my mind. Olivia, Angel and Mbali crowded into my mind at the same time. I’m being smothered. I know I must try to sleep. I cannot stand up straight. Mbali who sneeked under the blankets with her skeletal eyes peering at me nags for food, she is hungry…I cannot stand up…I hallucinate diarhea…I cannot control my thoughts… My head sweats…My hands sweat…For five hours I battled with death.
I remember Angel’s words: “My name is Angel, but I’m not from heaven in any way.”