31 July 2009. Friday.
Ismail Mohammed runs down the steep slope of Heiliger Lane. The coat-tails of his white jalabiya robe with its trendy open mandarin collar flick up high with every stride. His arms wave wildly, in mortal fear, and for balance. The crocheted kufi falls off his head onto the cobbles at the crossroad, as he fixes his eyes on the relative safety of the city below.
Behind him the door of the one-storey building next to the Bo-Kaap’s Schotschekloof mosque bursts open for the second time. Six men, also in traditional Islamic garb, rush out onto the street all looking immediately, instinctively downhill. One has a pistol in his hand. Hurriedly, he takes aim at the figure of Ismail Mohammed, already sixty metres away, and fires off two wild shots, before the last, older man knocks his arm up, bellowing: ‘No! Go. Catch him.’
The three younger men set off after Ismail. The grizzled heads stand watching, eyes anxious at the lead they have to make up.
‘You should have let him shoot, Sheikh,’ says one.
‘No, Shaheed. He was eavesdropping.’
‘Exactly. And then he ran. That says enough.’
‘It doesn’t tell us who he’s working for.’
‘Him? Ismail? You surely don’t think . . .’
‘You never can tell.’
‘No. He’s too . . . clumsy. For the locals maybe. NIA.’
‘I hope you are right.’ The Sheikh watches the pursuers sprinting across the Chiappini Street crossing, weighing up the implications. A siren sounds up from below in Buitengracht.
‘Come,’ he says calmly. ‘Everything has changed.’
He walks ahead, quickly, to the Volvo.
From the belly of the city another siren begins to wail.
She knew the significance of the footsteps, five o’ clock on a Friday afternoon, so hurried and purposeful. She felt the paralysis of prescience, the burden. With great effort she raised up her defences against it. Barend came in, a whirlwind of shampoo and too much deodorant. She didn’t look at him, knowing he would be freshly turned out for the evening, his hair a new, dubious experiment. He sat down at the breakfast counter. ‘So, how are you, Ma? What’s cooking?’ So jovial.
‘Dinner,’ said Milla, resigned.
‘Oh. I’m not eating here.’
She knew that. Christo probably wouldn’t either.
‘Ma, you’re not going to use your car tonight, are you.’ In the tone of voice he had perfected, that astonishing blend of pre-emptive hurt and barely disguised blame.
‘Where do you want to go?’
‘To the city. Jacques is coming. He’s got his licence.’
‘Where in the city?’
‘We haven’t decided yet.’
‘Barend, I have to know.’ As gently as possible.
‘Ja, Ma, I’ll let you know later.’ The first hint of annoyance breaking through.
‘What time will you be home?’
‘Ma, I’m eighteen. Pa was in the army when he was this old.’
‘The army had rules.’
He sighed, irritated. ‘OK, OK. So . . . we’ll leave at twelve.’
‘That’s what you said last week. You only got in after two. You’re in Matric, the final exams . . .’
‘Jissis, Ma, why do you always go on about it? You don’t want me to have any fun.’
‘I want you to have fun. But within certain limits.’
He gave a derisory laugh, the one that meant he was a fool to put up with this. She forced herself not to react.
‘I told you. We will leave at twelve.’
‘Please don’t drink.’
‘Why do you worry about that?’
She wanted to say, I worry about the half-bottle of brandy I found in your cupboard, clumsily hidden behind your underpants, along with the pack of Marlboro’s. ‘It’s my job to worry. You’re my child.’ Silence, as if he accepted that. Relief washed over her. That was all he wanted. They had got this far without a skirmish. Then she heard the tap-tap of his jerking leg against the counter, saw how he lifted the lid off the sugar bowl and rolled it between his fingers. She knew he wasn’t finished. He wanted money too.
‘Ma, I can’t let Jacques and them pay for me.’
He was so clever with his choice of words, with the sequence of favours asked, with his strategy and onslaught of accusation and blame. He spun his web with adult skill, she thought. He set his snares, and she stepped into them so easily in her eternal urge to avoid conflict. The humiliation could be heard in her voice. ‘Is your pocket money finished?’
‘Do you want me to be a parasite?’
The you and the aggression were the trigger, she saw the familiar battlefield ahead. Just give him the money, give him the purse and say take it. Everything. Just what he wanted.
She took a deep breath. ‘I want you to manage on your pocket money. Eight hundred rand a month is . . .’
‘Do you know how much Jacques gets?’
‘It doesn’t matter, Barend. If you want more you should . . .’
‘Do you want me to lose all my friends? You don’t want me to be fucking happy.’ The swearword shook her, along with the clatter of the sugar bowl lid that he threw against the cupboard.
‘Barend,’ she said, shocked. He had exploded before, thrown his hands in the air, stormed out. He had used Jesus and God, he had mumbled the unmentionable, cowardly and just out of hearing. But not this time. Now his whole torso leaned over the counter, now his face was filled with disgust for her. ‘You make me sick,’ he said.
She cringed, experiencing the attack physically, so that she had to reach for support, stretch out her hand to the cupboard. She did not want to cry, but the tears came anyway, there in front of the stove with a wooden spoon in her hand and the odour of hot olive oil in her nose. She repeated her son’s name, softly and soothingly.
With venom, with disgust, with the intent to cause bodily harm, with his father’s voice and inflection and abuse of power, Barend slumped back on the stool and said, ‘Jesus, you are pathetic. No wonder your husband fucks around.’
The member of the oversight committee, glass in hand, beckoned to Janina Mentz. She stood still and waited for him to navigate a path to her. ‘Madam Director,’ he greeted her. Then he leaned over conspiratorially, his mouth close to her ear: ‘Did you hear?’
They were in the middle of a banqueting hall, surrounded by four hundred people. She shook her head, expecting the usual, the latest minor scandal of the week.
‘The Minister is considering an amalgamation.’
‘A superstructure. You, the National Intelligence Agency, the Secret Service, everyone. A consolidation, a union. Complete integration.’ She looked at him, at his full-moon face, shiny with the glow of alcohol, looking for signs of humour. She found none.
‘Come on,’ she said. How sober was he?
‘That’s the rumour. The word on the street.’
‘How many glasses have you had?’ Light-hearted.
‘Janina, I am deadly serious.’
She knew he was informed, had always been reliable. She hid her concern out of habit. ‘And does the rumour say when?’
‘The announcement will come. Three, four weeks. But that’s not the big news.’
‘The President wants Mo. As chief.’
She frowned at him.
‘Mo Shaik,’ he said.
She laughed, short and sceptical.
‘Word on the street,’ he said solemnly.
She smiled, wanted to ask about his source, but her cellphone rang inside her small black handbag. ‘Excuse me,’ she said, unclipping the handbag and taking out her phone. It was the Advocate, she saw.
‘Tau?’ she answered.
‘Ismail Mohammed is in from the cold.’
Milla lay on her side in the dark, knees tucked up to her chest. Beyond weeping she made reluctant, painful discoveries. It seemed as though the grey glass, the tinted window between her and reality, was shattered, so that she saw her existence brilliantly exposed, and she could not look away.
When she could no longer stand it, she took refuge in questions, in retracing. How had she come to this? How had she lost consciousness, sunk so deep? When? How had this lie, this fantasy life, overtaken her? Every answer brought greater fear of the inevitable, the absolute knowledge of what she must do. And for that she did not have the courage. Not even the words. She, who had always had words, in her head, in her diary, for everything.
She lay like that until Christo came home, at half past twelve that night. He didn’t try to be quiet. His unsteady footsteps were muffled on the carpet, he switched on the bathroom light, then came back and sat down heavily on the bed.
She lay motionless, with her back to him, her eyes closed, listening to him pulling off his shoes, tossing them aside, getting up to go to the bathroom, urinating, farting.
Shower, please. Wash your sins away.
Running water in the basin. Then the light went off, he came to bed, climbed in. Grunted, tired, content.
Just before he pulled the blankets over himself, she smelled him. The alcohol. Cigarette smoke, sweat. And the other, more primitive smell.
That’s when she found the courage.
From the Trade Paperback edition.