I sat sweating on the front step, working up the energy to begin the slog down to the main road where the mini-bus taxis ran into town. They were infrequent at the best of times, particularly around noon when they dried up as drivers kicked back for a nap, windows rolled down in the shade of an apartment block or gathered at the terminals to share a pack of cigarettes and shoot some pool on one of the rickety outdoor tables.
I’d been late since the moment I got up, slow to switch off my alarm, dawdling in the shower, then drying myself on the balcony as I sipped coffee and let a squidgy block of uphuthu from last night’s dinner warm up on the stove. Now, the heat and cheap instant coffee combined with the lump of meal in my stomach weighed me down. I had to start moving. I’d be lucky to catch a taxi within the next half hour and although the meeting would probably start late as the rest of the volunteers arrived in dribs and drabs from J section, I still liked to be one of the first, so I could lay out my papers and pen and look prepared when everybody arrived.
A bakkie with three workmen perched in the back grumbled by, just visible over the high electric fence which secured the tiny room I was renting, tucked behind a vacant holiday home owned by some wealthy residents. There were a lot of places like this, converted servants’ quarters, with a little bathroom, kitchen and fold down sofa bed. They were rented out as holiday homes for only a few hundred rand per week. A “friend of the family” had met me on arrival, explained half of the keys in the bunch he handed over, then assured me he was, “only a phone call away.” He sped off in his white BMW, somehow forgetting to give me his number.
He’d neglected to tell me how to switch off the alarm, so when the wind or a stray cat set it off, I ended up pressing every button with a flashing LED next to it, until it stopped. Sometimes, if I wasn’t quick enough, it would draw the attention of one of the roaming private security vans—painted to mimic a police car, but with tinted windows and logos featuring crossed automatic rifles emblazoned on the sides—and a bodyless voice would crackle out: “Ey, hello! Who is at home? What is the disturbance here?”
I’d learnt not to answer. The security guards would drive on, in a couple of minutes, after swinging a flashlight over the front of the main house. The one time I’d answered back, they’d tried to interrogate me, asking me to answer various security questions I didn’t know. I met them at the side of the house, where they cried: “Hands on the head!” Then, seeing I was a resident: “Eish, I’m sorry to disturb sir. We didn’t hear you. Goodnight!”
I’d waved them off, not sure if their circuits of the neighbourhood really made me feel any safer.
During the day, they didn’t bother stopping. It was enough to make themselves seen, their vehicle crawling along at a walking pace, in such a way that they’d sometimes keep time with you, or seem to be escorting you along the street. They’d pull off, to inspect the next lonely wanderer.
Hardly anybody walked along this street. It was a couple of blocks from the main thoroughfare, a residential block of detached two- or three-story mansions. When I was walking by homes, I’d trigger a chain of ferocious barking, a row of dominos falling, from one yard to the next. I always kept a safe distance, worried that some careless owner might have forgotten to properly close their gate, but the housekeepers or gardeners were the only other people I’d regularly see inside the mansion gates, as I plodded along the street.
“The dogs in South Africa will bite you if you’re black,” a friend told me, rolling up his sleeve to display a jagged white scar slashed across his forearm. “I got this from a guard dog that escaped into the street. He clamped and wouldn’t let go… I punched and kicked, even poked in his eye. Now I know. I’m telling you: the key is to stick a finger up there. It will let go quick-quick!” Even armed with this knowledge, I still gave driveways with the Ingozi Inja (Beware of Dog) sign a wide berth.
My phone buzzed from somewhere inside the house. Finally motivated to move, I pulled myself up by the doorframe and made my way over to the bed, more rumpled than I remembered leaving it this morning. It was a call from Thobani.
“We’re coming now, bafo. Sorry we will be late; you know, bantu time.”
“It’s okay. Me too and I’m running on Scottish time.”
“Noooo, bafo, you have been here too long. You are one of us now!”
“Maybe—let’s wait until I’m fluent in Zulu.”
“Sjoe bafo! Don’t worry! We help you, slowly. See you now-now!”
Chucking the phone in my bag, I headed outside and set about unlocking and relocking the series of doors and gates which barricaded the small passage running up the side of the house which led to my room. Eventually out on the pavement, I crossed the wide tarmac road—empty, save for the swirling dust and sand blown inland from the sea—and began to edge down the hill, leaning back and bracing my calves as it dropped away beneath me, down into a junction, where toy-sized cars zipped by noiselessly.
Most of the houses on this street had untamed gardens flowing over their walls, and walking down the hill, I’d be assaulted by protruding foliage, swinging ferns and bobbing richly colored flowers dusting the pavement with a scattering of petals, leaves and branches which gradually tumbled their way down, through my legs or over my feet, as if in a hurry to beat me to the bottom. As I walked, I kept my eyes fixed up in the branches, looking for monkeys or a well-camouflaged lizard. Once at the very bottom of the road, a flock of birds had burst from the tree a few steps ahead of me, silhouetted at first against the fading sun on the horizon. Then, a sudden burst of green wings and orange flecked beaks revealed a pandemonium of parrots. I had only seen them once. They’d probably escaped from a botanical garden or perhaps that tree had just been a stop on a journey circumnavigating countries, maybe even continents.
I was halfway down the hill when something flickered into my line of sight: a dark smear across the smooth greyness of the pavement. It was person-shaped, yet slung at such an angle that I didn’t quite register there was a man lying there outstretched until I was a few steps further on and realised that within minutes he would be blocking my way. I’d have to step around or over him, maybe even speak to him if he was conscious. I slipped ever closer, carried by the scattered blossoms that trickled over him.
It looked like he was wearing some kind of uniform, possibly a tattered pair of overalls or a boiler suit which could have meant he’d been working and was having a quick snooze while the sun reached its peak, but his limbs were scattered too haphazardly for a man who’d carefully lain himself down to sleep. He was only a few meters from a large patch of shadow which it would’ve made more sense to settle into.
Just as I was considering whether I should cross the street, I saw him shiver and roll so he now straddled the curb, half of his body hanging into the gutter. His head tilted back and up, directly into the sun. I was close enough now to see his eyes were open and his hands twitched like upturned crabs, fingers scrabbling at the air. Reaching into my pocket, I found a few loose coins and scooped them up in preparation. If I’d been with the other volunteers, they would have disapproved and told me I was only feeding a habit.
The first taxi journey we took together, they’d warned me: “Pay attention when we stop at a robot. You’ll see them get into character when it turns amber, hobble out between the cars as they slow down, maybe with an arm in a sling, patch on the eye. Then, when it flicks to green, show’s over! Back up on the pavement, nimble as a monkey.”
“And glue is cheap, less than five rand.” They’d shown me the stalls in town which sold it, tubes of glue casually scattered amongst one-rand chewy sweets and loose cigarettes.
As I approached the man on the curb, I thought, Maybe I should go to the shop across the road, and buy him a sandwich or bottle of water and bring it back? Or I could just hand him the money and let him decide? He might not even ask.
I drew within a few steps, and studied his face in detail. It seemed sapped of animation, unable to even twitch his eyelids shut, to close out the prying sunlight.
One step, the tip of my shoe was level with his chin. I didn’t look directly down, but I knew he was moving. Two steps. I was blasted by the noise from the road, a kombi trundling by, radio blaring; a jeep trying to pull out in front, cut off, the driver leaning on his horn. A bird, blended with the leaves of the tree, bustled through the branches, shrieking a warning call to anybody who would listen.
“Call me an ambulance. I need help.”
Four steps. I turned. He hadn’t moved his body, but his eyes had woken up and rolled down to a point somewhere around my ankles. At the same time, I noticed a crack in the pavement, running from somewhere underneath him, edging its way towards me. Spurred on by my gaze, his neck juddered up a couple of inches and the eyes roved slightly higher, still not quite meeting mine.
“Please, just get me help.”
My hand tightened into a fist around the coins I’d fished from my pocket, and I found myself counting each one individually, by the shape of the dent it made in my palm. Three rand and forty cents.
“I’m sorry, I don’t know the number…”
His eyes had closed. They never made it quite up to mine, just hovered at my chin, flicked once to my mouth when I spoke. Then he just lay there, and the crack in the pavement trickled closer, not meandering right or left, but making its way directly towards me.
Somebody walked by, crossing the other way, stared openly until I caught their eye, then sped up, pretending they hadn’t looked. My shadow seemed to tether me where I stood. Neither one of us could move, until I said the only thing I could think of: “I can call somebody who can help you. A friend, or family member?”
I saw a reply, wriggling at the back of his throat, trying to make it to his lips, but it was lost in the crunch of tires biting in the grit. A truck pulled up alongside us and a man in a fluorescent vest, with a series of radios, batons, and a pistol clipped to his belt, unloaded himself. He lumbered past me and adjusted his cap so the brim sat flat along his nose and hid his eyes.
“Hey, what’s wrong with you?” he said, giving the prone figure a nudge with his boot. “This isn’t a place for sleeping, you know?” He waited a few seconds for a response. When he got none, he carried on: “You see this man here?” motioning to me. “He’s trying to go somewhere and you’re blocking his way. Now get up and stop acting like an idwala (stone). You have a bed at home. You don’t have to use the road.”
The man in the fluorescent vest nudged the prone man twice more with his foot, then administered a heavier kick. This seemed to pierce the man on the ground. He whistled out a gasp and sank a little closer to the pavement.
“He told me he needs an ambulance,” I said.
The security officer flapped his hand at me in a shushing motion. He called to his colleague, who was still sitting in the truck.
“Ay, wena! You lift him yourself; I’m not getting out.”
“I’m not breaking my back for this para. Bring your lazy ass over here! It’s not like it’s going to get any blacker from the sun.”
The second officer grudgingly climbed out adjusting his belt and walked around to where we stood, loudly clacking a lollipop behind his teeth. He proceeded to switch it back and forth, from left cheek to right cheek, five or six times. He inspected the figure stretched out before us and then crouched by the man’s feet and took a hold of his ankles.
“Take the arms. We’ll put him in the back.”
They swung him up, his body sagging loosely between them like a length of rope, and tossed him into a twisted heap, between a crate of empty bottles of Black Label and a battered traffic cone.
A dark stain blotted the pavement where he’d lain.
“Are you taking him to a hospital?”
“Sure, if there’s no space in the landfill.” A bark of laughter launched the stump of lollipop out of his partner’s mouth.
“Ay wena! Don’t choke on my jokes. Nobody will save that ugly face with the mouth to mouth.”
Back-slapping and shoving each other, they got into the truck and drove away, leaving me standing there.
* * *
Instead splinters of light flashed, more intensely the more tightly I squeezed my lids, and I knew I’d have to wait for night to fall, spilling stickily over the roads, to fill the cracks the day had left behind.
I went to the meeting. Our team drew up the next week’s schedule for the volunteers and arranged transport costs. I didn’t mention the man I’d left behind. After a few hours of enthusiasm, everybody packed up and left. I stayed on a little longer, filing away the minutes. I stood outside the office, watching the traffic whir past as I waited for my taxi home. Eventually one juddered into sight and I was crowded into a space at the back, squeezed over an amp that jolted the seat with the heavy vibrations of Durban House. I let myself sink into the noise. Hunkered down in my seat, I could close my eyes and pretend I was just an extension of the shaking chassis. But the curtain of darkness wouldn’t quite fall. Instead splinters of light flashed, more intensely the more tightly I squeezed my lids, and I knew I’d have to wait for night to fall, spilling stickily over the roads, to fill the cracks the day had left behind.
Thomas Pia has been awarded certificates of merit in the following literary competitions: The Pushkin Prize, The National Galleries Creative Writing Prize, and the Foyle Young Poet’s Prize. He was born in Edinburgh, studied chemistry at Imperial College London for two years, and then spent the following two years volunteering in South Africa before returning to Scotland to continue his studies at the University of Glasgow, where he is currently enrolled in the Politics Honours programme.