Monday, March 28, 2011

The Strangest Room

He stood at the door, uncertain. There seemed to be all sorts of things happening inside, and his imagination hinted at some of the crazier ones, but he didn’t know whether the invitation his friend had given him would allow him complete access, or if he’d have to wait a while until the right people showed him the more interesting rooms.

Looking back, he saw a lifetime of loneliness. As though he was holding a mirror up to himself, and, reflected in a second mirror was just himself, dull and uniform, cascading into history. He’d heard rumours about this place- it wasn’t a secret anymore- but those who came here seemed to be holding an access card to something he’d never quite believed possible.

Outside the doorway, piles of newspapers lay moldering, rotting and unread, and somewhere far off, a vinyl record spun with a scratch catching it at every turn, an infuriating snatch of music which never reached a crescendo or faded out with the usual hiss and click.

He stepped inside. A group of ten people stood to his left. He caught snippets of conversation. Sport of some sort. They were chatting, giving the low-down on a match, and seemed friendly enough. He considered walking over, but wasn’t quite sure of himself- the language they used was different to the idle chatter of, say, a bar or a railway carriage, and he didn’t want to give himself away.

On the far side of the room, he could see something which looked like a gallery. Hundreds of pictures of sunrises and sunsets, snapshots of glistening cocktails with olives and cherries, and plates heaped with sushi, all pinned to the wall. A crowd of people gathered round the pictures, wrote small comments, and melted into the crowds again.

There were massive screens with multiple facets- reminding him of disco balls- each tiny screen showing a news channel or a sitcom, and many people clustered around pointing, arguing or laughing.

With a jolt, he realised a noise he heard wasn’t coming from the screens, but from a shadowed area in the corner. There was a man sitting next to a woman, but not with her. They were weeping, and he was slapping the floor with his open hand, shouting in between the tears.

Looking away uncomfortably, he felt before he saw the unmistakable electricity of romance. Testosterone. He saw groups of women and men posing and laughing too loudly at each other’s jokes, all the while moving subtly closer. They seemed like wolves, to him, and again he looked away.

In the centre of the room was an ordinary-looking crowd of people. They were passing each other cups of coffee, sometimes giving each other hugs in a familiar way, or opening a bar of chocolate to share. They were talking about dreams, the weather, sleeping in on weekends and the natural progression of stress from Monday to Friday. He saw his friend there, in the middle, and held his breath. If there was any way to get started here, this seemed like the right crowd to do it in. He tapped someone on the shoulder. Hello, he said, I’m Scott. Can I follow you?

Across the room, an angry person screamed incoherently about customer service, and someone else cackled hysterically at their own joke.

He’d finally joined in.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Final Snapshots

It’s dusty in there. And more spider webs criss-crossing the beams than you’d find at a Halloween party. The air is dry and thick, and seems to absorb the hum of the fluorescent light which sends insects scattering for the cracks so they can plot once more their musical dance of destruction in the papers and objects piled against the walls.

On the floor is a large box. Inside it, I am a child. So are my brothers. Of course, we’re grown up, now, but the hundreds of rectangles in black and white or faded orange Polaroid trap us in permanent youth. There are aunts and uncles, cousins dressed in their best outfits for weddings and lavish Christmas lunches, and pictures of my parents when they were younger than I am now, looking relaxed and tanned on the gravelly beaches of summer holidays.

There’s my pet cat. He’s sitting on a tartan rug, an inscrutable Siamese, forever reclining in a patch of sunlight next to a boy whose skinny legs are capped, predictably, with Wellington boots.

There’s my Dad. I think he’s dancing. His friends are laughing, and holding glasses full of amber liquid. Their sideburns and checked trousers slot them neatly into another decade. There’s Mum. She’s squinting into the camera, the tint on her glasses not quite shielding her eyes from the sun, which is causing the skin on her shoulders on either side of the swimming costume straps to redden.

And then my brothers and I, progressing through school. Wide happy smiles in the early years, attitude and bad hairstyles as teenagers, always posed with our bodies slightly angled, reminding me of missing persons photographs.

Places and people I don’t recall, all having been threaded into our family script, and then discarded or forgotten, as we reinvented ourselves in different countries. Scotland. Canada. England. South Africa. Here.

And there, in the garage, with the boxes of memories and unused tents and golf clubs, the scrabble box with its score sheets telling a tale of winter evenings, and the paintings which didn’t fit in with the décor after moving house, is my mother.

She’s been waiting there for today for over two years. Once a carbon-based life form, now just carbon. Waiting for the request she wrote in the same curly loving script she used to write on birthday cards and letters- Santa’s handwriting, now that I think of it- the request that her ashes be scattered on the sea she’d stare at, walk next to, daydream into. Today she’ll join the waves in a broad swing of our hands, and pause, on the surface, thousands of granules, the sun reflecting off them giving them the same naughty glint she’d get in her eyes when being risqué with her friends.

And she’ll sink, and join the shifting sands, having passed through our fingers and our lives, and I think we’ll hear her voice just once more, whispering, goodbye, Scotty, goodbye John, goodbye Markie Parkie. Goodbye.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Guest Post By Jonah: The Interview

She was tall, and had a kind but firm voice. I had a little voice inside that was telling me, run, run for your life, but my feel felt heavy inside the blue and green sandals I was wearing, and I knew that she’d catch me very quickly if I tried to escape. She took my by the hand, then, and led me through a massive glass door to a room full of books. I was used to those, they’re called li-berrees

Now, for some time, I have been sitting on chairs. Mastered the art, you could say, so it was with some relief that the chair she showed me was small enough, and made of familiar smooth wood with metal legs.

I was sitting with my head bowed a little. This was an Important Day, but I wasn’t sure why, so I looked up at her through my fringe, instead. She spoke clearly, and asked my age. Ha! I knew that- it wasn’t even a trick question- she seemed happy with my clearly spoken answer. Four! I said, reinforcing it with all fingers (but no thumb) splayed. I knew I was right, and I swung my feet happily as she said yes, and wrote on her paper.

I won’t say too much about the rest. Some of her questions were lost on me- I’d be thinking about all the books on the shelf, or about the muffin I had in my lunchbox, and only hear part of what she said. She’d repeat the questions, though, or ask me something else. I played with my fingers in between the questions, and bounced my thighs on the little chair. I also scratched my ear.

I did get horribly stuck when she showed me some cards. There were pictures on the cards- a man standing in different poses and positions next to a, a, a, well, a banging thing. For the life of me, I couldn’t remember the name of it. A blow-up. That was it! But she didn’t hear what I said. I got a little confused, then, and muddled up my answers. But, I’m a clever boy, so, when she said “cannon” I pretended that that’s what I’d been saying all along, and she seemed not to notice.

After a few more questions, she made me do a dreadful jigsaw which was badly cut and didn’t fit together nicely, and then asked me to draw a picture of myself.

I’m quite proud of my artistic abilities, so, despite having to use crayons, which defy any type of controlled drawing, I created a masterpiece of expressionist art. It was supposed to be OF me, but I chose to rather represent the INNER me, and gave ME a huge purple body and powerful feet at the end of the tallest legs I could fit onto the page. I’d forgotten to leave space for eyes and a mouth and so on, but the overall effect was impressive.

My mom and dad seemed happy with what I’d done, so I guess it can’t have been too bad. I overheard them afterwards saying how great it was that I’d been accepted into Grade R for next year. I was proud of myself too, but forgot about it straight away. I needed-no- deserved- that muffin in my lunchbox, and licked my lips in anticipation.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

A Sad Story About Branding

There was a wide plain and a small hill separating her from the barn, but she could hear much of what was going on. She was nervous, the dry grasses of the semi-desert offering little comfort as she stumbled over the rocky orange soil.

She heard the baying and mooing, the other cows being eased into formation by men with sticks. The sticks had been made from saplings, bent and twisted into knots, so that when cut down and smoothed, the wood formed a perfect knobkerrie. The men swung their sticks and occasionally swiped at the flanks of the beasts they guided- not too rough, just enough to keep them going in the same direction.

But the cows knew. They tended to follow one another out of habit, swinging their hips as their massive heads bobbed up and down. It was rare that one became separated from the herd, and rarer still that one should be able to escape completely.

She'd not meant to escape, but had sensed something in the air that morning. The trucks had arrived earlier than usual, and there seemed to be more humans shouting and making loud jokes in the yard outside the farmhouse. They'd clinked steaming metal mugs of coffee together, and smoked cheap cigarettes they pulled from behind their ears.

She'd seen the fires being stoked, and knew at once that this was unusual. In the late summer, it wasn't necessary to have fires at all, except for cooking. The smells of the braais had always bothered her, but really, it was the smoke that set off primal alarms. Fire. The threat of being caught in the wrong place as the whole veld turned shades of orange and black was her worst fear. She'd seen it, once- thankfully avoided it, but watched a calf struggling to get out of a ditch, and being engulfed in the inferno.

The fires, then, were unusual.

She'd watched the men approaching, more of them than normal, and had sunk to her knees behind a small thorn tree. The two younger men who normally guided them to the greener patches and watched them from the shade of rocks or bushes had gone to greet the new arrivals. It was only midday, but they'd started to swing their sticks and herd the cows towards the white buildings in the valley.

She'd almost stopped breathing, then, the hot air steaming out of her wide nostrils and the sun burning down on her rusty brown hide. They'd been in such a hurry, they hadn't noticed she was missing. Cows tend to move together and don't wander off, as a rule.

She could see some tension from her fellows in the herd as they headed off, baying into the dust cloud of their own making.

And later, when she rocked to her feet, she could see everything that was going on down below. And felt chilled to her marrow.

Her family was being herded into a small enclosure- a rough wooden fence which she'd noticed often- and then, one by one, held still as a very big human sized them up. He'd reach into the heart of the fire, and grasp the red hot implement, swing it around and press it to her herd-mate's haunches.

Even from the hill she could hear the sizzle as the metal burned home. She watched the other cows buck uselessly against the hands holding them down, and then stand absolutely still. She sensed that they were in pain, could smell it on the breeze as they defecated while they waited, and still she hid.

All night she stood in the cold, afraid to move, afraid to eat or drink.

The sun eventually rose, shimmering off the dew which had settled overnight and exposing the valley again. She was tired and felt heavy. There was activity in the farmhouse, and then she saw the dust cloud starting out across the plain towards her

After a time, the herd was close by. As close as they had been when she'd slipped away yesterday. She stretched her aching feet and hobbled closer. Every single one of her fellows was marked by fire, a strange symbol which made her feel uneasy. Afraid. As she approached, they looked at her, the redness still showing in their heavy-lashed eyes

She struggled to tell them what she'd seen, how she felt, and how sad she was that they'd been through such pain, but they all just turned away.

They'd all been branded, and she'd be set apart, forever.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Sex and the City and the Forest

Oddest advice about sex I ever received? A friend's father to me, when I was heading out, aged sixteen: Don't f*ck up your life for something that looks like a dead pig's eye.

A dead pig's eye? Seriously?

But this isn't about that.

It's about not having to think about dead eyes or anything else repellent.

In the forest you can lose yourself inside your head. Hiking through a carpet of leaves, hearing nothing but the drone of crickets and the chirping of invisible birds, you can go places in your head you could never access while sitting in your room. The forest stamps your thought-passport with an open-ended visa to drift across space and time and refresh a mind cauterised by routine and familiarity

There are people there, usually, walking their dogs or going for a run. Sometimes you'll see a rider on a horse, stepping aside to let it pass, chestnut flanks shimmer in the sunlight which pokes through the canopy. They'll nod to you, or greet you in a way which reminds you of the way neighbours used to say hello- slightly formal but friendly. Mostly, you're alone.

Some of my favourite forests are the ones which skirt the mountain here in Cape Town. There are seams and pleats of rivers and waterfalls, sometimes slight brown trickles, sometimes gushes of nature which batter the ferns and mosses which have grown too bold on their banks during the cooler autumn months.

There are the pines: You squint up- they tilt into the whiteness of the sun, at angles which seem to defy gravity- and of course, the angles often do- the wind whisks them out of the soft sand and fells them more cleanly than the saws which are threatening to remove them from the slopes. The pines will be gone one day. But for now you can gather any cones not gnawed by the skittish squirrels, or sit on the fallen ones- perfect benches- when you need to catch your breath.

There are more open patches where wild flowers flirt with the big black bees and the drunken butterflies, and the fynbos has stretched phoenix feathers after the fire. The scents are subtle- not the obvious cloud of perfume you'd get in a garden, but an undertone of something rich and herbal, dense and living.

A rock is a sun-bed for a lizard, who seems to look away when you pass, but he's actually just angling his face to get a better view of you. He's like those old Mediterranean guys you see in in art movies- grizzled and contemplative, feeding off the sun and the heat.

You sit again in the shade of an oak tree- not planted, but rather the result of a randomly dropped acorn a century ago, and allow your mind to unthink. No more anxiety. A break from the loops of pressure, deadlines, commitments, failures. Instead, you look out over the other trees below, and the parts of the city you can see but not hear through the trees, and enjoy the solitude.

That's a whole lot better than thinking about a dead pig's eye, wouldn't you say?