Other events on the 23rd of May

This was written almost 2 years ago. I’m posting it now because I don’t know what else to do with it and it seems a waste to let it sit on a hard drive gathering digital dust. It is a response to the xenophobic attacks and is one of the very few stories I’ve finished.

Sean wakes up. The compartment shudders to the wail of brakes and he wakes up – rubs his eyes with the heel of his hand and gets up into the press of bodies flowing on shuffling feet to one of the train’s exits. He forgets his dreams. The smell of people too close, living too close is strong, but not unpleasant and it masks the smells he knows are there, the smell of oil, of rust and steel. He shuffles with them and hops out onto the platform where the crowd thins and the flow quickens as strides widen. He lets himself go at the speed of those around him. Unthinking. He lets himself flow into Cape Town station, following the backs of other passengers through the bottle-necking turnstiles and into the confusion of currents that is the main hall. Here he makes his own path at last – a path he navigates without thinking just as he does every day Monday to Saturday. The echoing hard floors turn the sound of everyone’s footsteps into rough water. Outside, he pulls his tough jacket closer to him against the wind. The sun is not yet up, the sky is orange blue grey. His exit from the station will get darker as the days pass, but for now he is unconsciously comforted by the light. The wind batters against the dirty tarpaulin of the kiosks being erected for the day. The vendors struggle against it with their mouths set in lines – determined to start their day of selling footwear and shwarmas. The earliest risers are smugly set up already and the smell and steam of frying onions is rich before being snatched away by the wind. He likes the city. He sometimes even thinks that he loves the city, its life. He stops at the young toothless man laying out fruit and buys two bananas. One he slips inside his jacket pocket, he holds his satchel under his arm to peel the other while he walks. He thinks the city has a beat – of pneumatic drills and hammers and cement mixers and reversing trucks, hauling material – fresh and discarded. He can hear a rhythm there, the discord is just part of a slower throb, you have to know the city to feel it. He imagines the city as a pumping heart. He imagines himself flowing into the city from the outskirts to the centre, then out again. Each day the city beats once. To reach his work he crosses Adderly street and has wait to for the green man. He stands in another crowd, waiting. In front of him a baby sleeps tucked against the slope of its mother’s back. When the moment comes the pack breaks apart as each person crosses at their own speed. The baby’s head lolls gently with its mother’s steps. There is no one crossing from the other side. He walks for ten minutes from the station. He arrives at a row of small shops selling coffee and pastries, his is the smallest. The tall, slouching kid from Langa is already waiting for him, sitting on the day’s newspapers. They greet each other and unlock the shop and start up the coffee-machines and spill two small tables out into the street. They have a rhythm, they don’t need to talk. Sean likes the kid because although he can see the hunger in him, the kid never takes shortcuts and that’s something he respects. They serve coffees – strong dark simple coffees in paper cups – all morning to their regular customers. They work fast and exchange greetings and take money and pass steaming cups over the glass counter. They answer the “how you doing today” questions with more vigour than “fine” but with no more information. And everyone is satisfied. By 10 the flow has slowed to a trickle and the regulars have dried up. He takes up one of the newspapers and looks at the image on the front page. During the morning he had glanced at the page. He’d thought there was a car wreck or an accident or a riot. He hadn’t read the words. He hadn’t seen the photographs, really seen them, and they gut him. He shows the paper to the kid, who shrugs and says, “Ja, it’s fucked.” He doesn’t know where to put what he has seen. Four days before the front page was of a man beaten, doused in petrol and set on fire. But that was Johannesburg. That was a city he didn’t know – didn’t understand. Jo’burg is another country. This is Cape Town that has done this – that has beaten and robbed and killed. He looks up at the kid, suddenly a stranger. Suddenly a stranger without changing. Because he knows that if the city can turn like this, if the city can become rabid and mad, then anyone can because the city is only people. He walks out of the shop. The kid calls after him, confused. He looks up and down the street expecting to see others. Other men dropping their work. Walking out of their businesses. There’s no-one. No-one else. Haven’t they seen it? He knows they have. He doesn’t know what they know, he doesn’t know where to put it. The feelings. He starts walking without picking a direction. The Cape Town wind is strong today, grabbing him like the hands of a mob.

Gavin wakes up, his neck aches. He sits up in the back seat of the Nissan, rolls his head around in a big circle – but can’t shake the pain. In the front passenger seat his brother has his eyes closed and mouth wide open – a bit of saliva trickling out the left corner. Gavin stretches and slides, shuffles to the door and staggers out. He pisses against a bush at the edge of the dirt parking area, then goes back to the car. He takes a moment to consider how to wake his brother. There’s a bit of coca-cola left in a one point five bottle, he pours this directly into the open mouth. Steps back laughing hard as his brother lurches forward, spluttering. He dodges an empty, badly aimed beer can. They both laugh. The road back to Cape Town from Ocean View is beautiful. A lot of people stop seeing the beauty. He sits in the passenger seat while his brother drives, letting the wind blow in and against his face – it chills his skin but it’s refreshing. He thinks it’s going to be a good weekend. His arm is out the window and he lets his hand surf the wind. An hour later their Nissan is struggling up the steep roads of the Bo Kaap, they find an easy parking, circling round so the Nissan is pointing down the hill – they know it sometimes needs help starting. He fishes his cap off the backseat, sits it at a careless angle and they get out. Before they leave the car they take a brick out of the boot and jam it under the front left tire. The Bo Kaap is not really his kind of place. It’s too mixed up – inconsistent. He likes places that make sense, but he suspects that there aren’t any. He lets his brother lead, following and looking around. A burnt out flat is standing absent between two vibrant homes – what ever fire there was happened long ago and the wind has swept the ruin clean of ash. He lets his legs do his thinking down the hill. The wind snatches at his hat and he has to pull it low and tighten it. As they walk into the city he notices the headlines on cardboard placards, clinging to poles against the wind. He isn’t surprised by what he reads. Xenophobia reaches Cape Town. As if it were a cold front, or an army, or a sickness. Xenophobia never reached Cape Town, xenophobia was always here – the people who beat foreigners, told them to leave – the newspapers want to think that this couldn’t happen in Cape Town, but he knows there’s no such thing as Cape Town. They walk by a bergie, sleeping or passed out, slumped against a wall. That’s not a Bo Kaap sight, and he wonders how long it’ll be before this drunk is moved on. They stop by a battered wagon that smells like refried oil and onions. His brother orders chip rolls for the both of them and Gavin pays while his brother shakes aromat onto the golden and greenish potatoes. They sit on a corner to eat. He watches the clouds as he chews, they are high and fast.

Sean walks into the wind, down the slope of the road – a direction that leads to the sea even though the road itself never reaches it. But he doesn’t walk straight. He turns down roads, up roads. His feet are the only rhythm he hears and his eyes don’t see. He steps into the road from between two parked cars and his foot swings forward and then the shattering scream of a car horn knocks him back as a rust and gold taxi rushes past him. His eyes are wide – his heart beats and he breathes deeply, the burst of adrenaline shaking him. He stumbles back – he turns and sees where he is. A public space, paved or cobbled – he’s not sure of the difference – with benches. He sits on one. His hand reaches for the cigarettes in his jacket pocket. But they find nothing. He left the jacket in the shop’s backroom. He hangs his head, puts it in his hands. No one sees him and he screams in his head. His hands are claws in his hair, his back is tearing with the tension of his muscles. Then he’s done and breathing like a runner. His eyes see the space he’s in. Not a park, not a green space, although he’s shaded by lean, young-looking trees. A space between towering glass sided buildings, a space someone fought to fill with statues. Bronze work. These are scattered around and he knows them. He’s been here before, this bench. The statues are moments of ordinary city people – a child playing, a businessman striding, a worker shrugging into his jacket, a large woman carrying shopping and a young woman standing in a summer dress hips tilted as she waits. In summer he thinks she looks innocent and girlish, on darker days, whorish. He looks upward, the sky is clear through the branches of the tree – between the towering shafts of the buildings. The wind shakes the branches in bursts and he hears the sound of brittle leaves scattering. He looks at the ground, the cobble paving of the public space moves as building dust, brittle leaves and litter bounce and roll across it. They seem alive, moving with purpose, like a crowd. He watches the wind carry the city’s detritus and feels a need to call his son. Just to hear his boy’s voice. But his cell phone is in his jacket. His walking has purpose now. He searches for a payphone he remembers being near, only a street away. He walks with his eyes open now – seeing again the sources of the city’s rhythm. He passes by a building crumbling under the clatter hammer of machinery. It throws dust into the air so he has to squint against the wind. Half the city is under construction, the other half is being torn down. History is written by what we leave in place – the evidence left in stone and steelwork. He coughs on the past’s dry irritating sting. The bank of phones is near the site, too near the site for him to be heard down the line. He looks around hoping to see another phone bank in easy proximity. There is none. He loads in the coins and dials, hunching his body against the cacophony. It rings, or he thinks it does, he’s sure that’s the sound he hears. He wants to feel close to someone. He hopes the mother of his son won’t pick a fight when she answers – but he knows she will. The sound he thought was ringing runs out. He dials again. He waits. He wonders what he will tell his son, who he knows is too young to understand. Sean doesn’t worry about how he’s going to explain his need to his ex-girlfriend. He doesn’t see that as picking a fight even though it is. He can’t get through. He dials again, his fingers punching the buttons hard against their internal moorings. He waits and doesn’t hear ringing – he hears the dull engaged tone. He yanks the handset, tearing it from its cables, and smashes it against the number pad. He shouts in pain as he grazes his knuckles on the keys. Blood wells up sluggishly from the broken skin. He stares at his blood and wonders if the throb in his hand is part of the city’s beat. He wonders what he was trying to achieve. He turns from the wrecked phone and looks toward the mountain. He walks away from the dead payphone, letting the handset drop from his fingers as he goes. He walks away from the demolition site. The wind carries the smell of salt seawater across the city, it comes to him suddenly strong and then absent – or, not absent, but weaker and hidden under the other smells of the city. As he walks he passes other people, lone pedestrians or close packs, standing, waiting or walking on their business. It’s what he’s seen before, nothing about these people has changed but he wonders as he passes them by if he’s ever really seen them before. At Buitengragt he crosses on to the vast, green traffic island. When the lights turn red, hawkers spread out amongst the stopped cars. Ordinary people selling newspapers and Big Issues and black plastic refuse bags to other ordinary people. He doesn’t know how to tell those who would take up sticks to beat foreigners from those that wouldn’t. He’s heard the small-minded, gossipy bile before and thought of it as a weak and toothless hate. He’s heard people complaining about unfairness – about jobs and houses and corruption. He’s heard people talking about “them”. He knows that he has talked and said all these things too. He wonders if his hate is toothless and weak. The hawkers return to the road’s edge as the lights change, they work hard in whatever weather comes, wanting to make their world a better place. That’s what everyone wants. As he watches, the wind ambushes a short man and the newspaper he holds out to drivers is snatched away and disintegrates into pages flying free.

Gavin and his brother walk down through the Waterkant, there is a massive crater where a block of buildings used to be. It is mostly surrounded by plywood walls painted in the demolition/construction company’s colours, but a length of it is square patterned wire fencing, laying a grid over what’s happening beyond. He knows what’s happening there before seeing it – he can smell the propane from the cutting torches. The workers are cutting up pieces of rebar and sections of I-beam and pulling them from the rubble. These are being piled up next to the fence to be hauled away as scrap. Next to the up market shopping arcade they make a simple plan to meet again at a particular time, at a particular place on Somerset road. They separate. He goes – walks in the direction of Sea Point. He doesn’t go far before he starts approaching strangers, greeting them like they’re good people – which makes them think that maybe they are good people. He tells them variations on the same theme – he needs to catch a train, get home, to a hospital. He is good – he doesn’t play for sympathy, he plays for comedy – making connections by laughing with these strangers at the way his mother bosses his meek father around. Some don’t want to hear it – and he treats them to a big smile and thanks them for being honest and wishes them good luck for their day. The coins and occasional notes add up and he knows he’s good at this. It takes time, but hustling is his art and it makes him more alive. On a street that’s a mixture of cobbled and tarred, he falls in step with two German backpackers – they’re a couple. They’re blonde and tanned and buoyantly healthy and he gives them the local character, dropping lines stolen from Kurt Schoonraad and comedy halls. They laugh and when he asks them for some coins, just a couple for taxi fare back to the flats, they give him a twenty. He loves the tourists. The brothers meet up again on Somerset outside a corner store, they each pull their takes out and pool them together. His pile is the bigger but it doesn’t matter to him. They walk into the shop and get a couple of cokes and pies. He also gets a bruised apple, convincing the cashier that it’d be going to waste otherwise. They cross Somerset – on the other side of the street there’s sun and a knee-high wall that’s good to sit on. They enjoy the food and the sunlight. Even the wind seems gentler.

Sean follows Buitengragt up toward the mountain for a while then crosses from the centre island toward Sea Point, no reason behind his choices. His new route takes him down the side roads below Somerset between the big squat buildings and high fenced lots. It’s shadowy here and so he turns up and then right on to Somerset itself and carries on. A street kid comes over to the brothers and they greet him, even though they don’t know him. They call him ‘little man’. Gavin gives the boy the remains of a pie on condition that he eats the apple. They don’t give him any money. The boy walks off chewing. They see him start following a man. Gavin thinks it’s strange that the man isn’t wearing a jacket against the wind. Sean sees another phone ahead, outside a row of closed clubs, shut up for the daylight hours. He digs out coins and loads them in, slips his wallet back into his pocket. He dials. It rings. It rings. And then there’s a street kid next to him, asking for coins. He says no, he turns his body. He listens to the ring. The boy – maybe eight years old – is insistent, knowing that when charity doesn’t provide, annoyance often will. The boy tugs at his shirt, needing attention, more than even the few coins he might be given, he needs to be seen. Sean turns and yells at the boy – maybe eight years old – to fuck off.

Gavin’s brother is mad. It’s always his brother who gets mad, loses his temper, starts fights. He’s the one who ends them, bailing his brother out – smooth talking and starting life-long friendships over broken noses. His brother stands up, about to do something stupid. He pulls him down. He starts talking, laying out the first idea that comes into his head that’ll appease his brother without someone having to go to hospital.

Sean gives up on the phone. The street kid is gone – he feels sick at shouting, but he needs to speak to his son – tell him something – teach him something. Somehow, make the world a better place for his boy. He walks away from the phone, passes two young men. One wears a brilliant red cap supporting a European soccer team, the other is capless but masked by fake ray-ban sunglasses with flaky silver rims. As he passes them they get up – spring up – and fall in step with him, one on either side. “Got some money for us, man?” red cap asks. He shrugs and says no. “I’m asking nice, man.” Red cap moves ahead with a skip jump and blocks his way. He stops – if he didn’t stop he’d crash into him. Ray-bans is behind him – close to his shoulder. He shrugs again, repeats himself, shakes his head. “I’ll cut you.” Red cap is close. “Show him the knife, man.” Sean stares at red cap – thinks about getting stabbed over the money in his wallet. Stares at this arrogant prick with fuzz on his upper lip and sneer below it. Just a thug who wants to take control and tell another man what to do. “No.” and he shoves his left hand into red cap’s face while stepping back hard with his right elbow into ray-bans’ stomach. As they stumble he steps out into the traffic – makes it to the centre line as a car horn shakes him in its wake. He makes it across and walks straight into a superette.

Gavin holds his nose – it hurts and he expects it to be bleeding but when he checks his hand there’s no blood. He asks if his brother is alright. Across the road the man has gone into a store – they need to get out of here. His brother wants to go after the crazy bastard – but you should never get into a fight with someone who doesn’t hesitate, that kind of man is dangerous.

Inside the store Sean goes to the counter and orders a pack of camels – mild – and a lighter. He pulls out his wallet to pay, hands over his last twenty to the cashier and digs out all his coins. It’s more than enough and he leaves the change on the counter and exits back into daylight. Across the street red cap and ray-bans are arguing. He hadn’t expected anyone to mug him, especially to try it in the middle of the day on a street like Somerset. He watches them and red cap turns and meets his eyes across the road while ray-bans rants, gives up, leaves. They stare at each other – he feels himself getting angry at this young punk, looking at him. There are actions he could take, actions he considers taking. Those two are a danger. He looks around for a police officer or one of those CBD security guards. He sees neither. He breaks the seal on his pack of camels and lights up – the flame flickers in the wind and he cups his hands around it. Red cap is walking away, in the opposite direction to his friend, toward the CBD. He’s going to do something. Cigarette lit, he turns and follows red cap toward the city centre, smoking.

Gavin walks away from the smoking man. He’s angry but he lets it go – at least he stopped his brother getting into real trouble and there’s still a big part of the day left before a Friday night out. They’ve got a good start on their evening funds but they could do better. He wonders who would react like that to being mugged, threatened – a person has responsibilities to others, has links – even the most worthless person. If he had really been trying to mug him – would he have stabbed him? People like the smoking man cause the violent crime because they challenge threats, making them real. He’s not satisfied with this logic, but he’s never needed violence to get by. He knows words are good enough to get out of any situation. The wind has come up again. He turns up a side road, heading uphill. He’ll circle the Waterkant and then walk to the Waterfront. He passes the demolition site where they’re still tearing up the ground, using brute force on the weakened foundations. As he passes the wire fence a big chunk of concrete breaks apart with a crack and blue overalled workers start on the remains with pneumatic drills. The sound is deafening.

Sean follows red cap uphill. He doesn’t really know what to do – follow him until he sees a cop? He thinks about the city – about the feeling of being cut off from it. He has always been part of the city and it has always been part of him. But today, he doesn’t recognise the people. He glares at the back of red cap’s head – a punk with a knife. The plywood wall on his left is replaced with wire fencing. There are piles of scrap metal on the other side. He stops walking, bends down, reaches through and pulls out a length of dirt red rebar. Its weight is powerful in his hand – finger thick and half a metre long. Its weight says it can change the world.

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