Friday, July 22, 2011

The Magic Hamburger

The young man tapped his foot against the railing in front of the counter. How long would it take to flip a coupla patties and stick em in a roll, he wondered.

The woman behind the counter eyed him warily. She hadn’t said anything to him yet, just nodded at his order. It was a long way from her native Latvia, and she was still nervous about her thick accent. Once, she’d said “Vont fry wid dot?” to a customer, and he had laughed at her. Brayed, actually, like a donkey.

Then the teenager had called his friends over and had told her to repeat herself. She had done so, blushing, and they’d slapped each other’s backs. One had mimicked her, and displayed his canine teeth in the way she’d seen TV vampires grin. “Bride of Dracula!” he’d quipped.

She reached into the pocket of the red overall and clasped the beads her grandmother had given her when she’d left. Smooth, round. Comforting. When she felt stressed, she could almost feel them heating up and calming her down.

Boba. Now there was a woman. She’d lived in the damp caravan most of her life, but was tougher than any of these city people. She was handy with an axe when it came to both wood and chickens, and was said to have the Eye.

The Eye wasn’t discussed over a bowl of beetroot soup, or chatted about during the bitter tea times they shared in the cold wintery mornings. The Eye was a whispered legend.

“Hey, how about getting a move on.”

The young man at the counter continued to jiggle his left leg and appeared to be sweating a little, the counter damp where he slapped his palm.

“Yes, Sor”.

She turned to the kitchen, but the cooks were laughing about something. One was digging in his ear.

She turned and smiled at the customer, who was slack-jawing at his phone, tapping the keys and mumbling to himself.

“Fat Cow”. She heard him say.

The beads boiled.

Smiling, she thought again of Boba: Boba with her sheath of herbs and her grey stockings which sagged off her knees. Boba whose body had aged, but had never lost that glint in her eyes. The look a young woman in love could melt the heart of a suitor with; the stare of a man going into battle with daydreams of heroism. Boba had that strange light that burned in the back of her black eyes.

The package came through the open window from the kitchen. She picked it up to hand to him, and was going to say “Thank you”, but the man snatched it and left, spitting in the bin as he got outside.

She panicked as she felt her apron burning, then, and patted it with her hands.

She imagined for a moment that she was Boba. Proud. Full of the mystique that centuries of tradition had laid upon her. Powerful. Dangerous. She muttered words that sounded rich and pregnant with meaning.

In her head, she saw the young man returning to the accountant’s office where he worked, filling in ledgers and flirting with secretaries. She pictured him polishing off the tasteless burger and feeling a little strange. Oh, how she laughed inside as she heard him say to his colleagues: “Moooo”.

He’d try and try again to bleat about the discomfort he was feeling, but all he could say was “Moo. Moo.”

The waitress spent the rest of the day grinning to herself, at the power she withheld. She forgot, just for an afternoon, how miserable she’d felt.

The young man went back to the office, and ate his food. He felt peculiar. One of the pretty secretaries noticed his face and asked him what was wrong. Nothing, he said. He didn’t see her turn the corner and laugh into her hand. She could hardly wait to mock him when she and the girls went outside for a smoke. What a jerk, they all thought. And they were right.


Monday, July 18, 2011

Lightbulb Moment

A withered teenager. He holds his daughter awkwardly, the frayed cuffs of his tracksuit brushing against the dirty pink of the donated blanket. His milk-dust moustache is an ambition, really; a glimpse of fake adulthood. His girlfriend squats, her glassy eyes not quite focused, her jeans-now too small- exposing the small of her back where the mountain range in miniature is laid out across her vertebrae.

The couple shift the tiny human back and forth, back and forth- a game of pass the parcel- as musical promises of lovin’, sex, and parties stream out of the radio. The boy scratches his elbows raw, and the girl plucks incessantly at her bra straps: They’re too loose. He cursed his mother quietly for being so damn poor- the toaster had only fetched twenty rands at the pawn shop on the corner. Nooo, the man had said, ignoring that the silver machine was almost new, I can’t sell this junk. Still. The note from Cash4Goods had sorted them out for today.

The girl elbows him. Hard. Come on, man, come on. She watches with the eyes of a wary bird, then, as he slips the small paper envelope out of his pocket. His fingernails are dirty and chipped, except for the ones on his pinky fingers, which he liked to keep long, for show. Couldn’t remember any more why that was supposed to be cool, and didn’t care. In another pocket he found the tiny globe he'd slipped out of the taillight of a Mercedes last night, the amber casing shattered with a paving stone.

A little blood appears as he snaps the head off it, the ball of his thumb dripping, but the floor is already filthy, so he doesn’t notice the scarlet orbs spiraling to the concrete.

In an instant he’s a chemist, a scientist- an honour-roll student showing off a technology project- as he slides the powdery crystals into the glass. A lighter and a tube appear in his girlfriend’s hands. Somewhere, the baby gurgles.

As they lay back and inhale, sharing the vapours the way the victims of a plane-crash in the Sahara would do water, they look in each other’s eyes and giggle. The laughter is like the hollow part of an echo, lost from its source, and full of…. Nothing.

In another house, not too far away, a boy looked around nervously. She’d definitely catch him this time, he thought. His hands wrapped around the warm ebony of his mother’s bedside table, and pulled the drawer open

In the drawer she kept all sorts of things: coins from foreign countries, postcards from relatives, a wooden owl her father had once carved as a child, and her cigarettes.

She didn’t smoke much- just when the boy had finished reading and turned off his light, maybe- a long slow ceremony on the balcony with a glass of the bitter wine that seemed to help her end the day.

Still, the boy felt it his obligation to try, at least once. He slipped one out of the box. It had gold rings around the filter, and an oddly manly smell. It hinted of grownups and parties, and of celebrations past.

Then, from nowhere, came the thoughts again. He remembered the pungent reek of disinfectant in the hospital corridor, and the broken, empty expression in his mother’s face as she had tried her best to comfort him, although words had failed her.

He opened the drawer and put the cigarette box back. No. Not today. Perhaps not ever.

Friday, July 15, 2011


The sheep bleated. It was midnight, and the moon lit up the pen. Far away in the fields, baby rabbits shuddered and huddled close to their mother for warmth. An owl refused to call, and a shadow crossed the path in front of the stone farmhouse.

The shadow seemed to be no more substance than that- perhaps a grey cloud, or the emptiness which fills the hole where the rotten roots of a storm-plucked tree used to be.

The shadow stopped moving, turned towards the window, and swayed. A rat skittered around the corner of the house, reconsidered and fled into the darkness.

The earthy smell in the air was overpowering, the freshness of it reeking of a newly prepared grave rather than the promise of a ploughed field.

The wood smoke curling out of the chimney thinned as the shadow watched, and the family dog sniffed and sneezed in its sleep.

Of course, there was no longer a family, just the old man and his photo albums. A runaway horse, a fire in the barn and an outbreak of smallpox had left him alone and haunted by memories.

The old man was curled uncomfortably into a chair, his chin resting on his jutting collarbones. Not asleep- it seemed as though he never really slept anymore, but waiting. He turned the scythe over in his hands, the blade curved and wicked-looking, but entirely blunt.

The old man rose and opened the door. Peering into the darkness, he let his eyes adjust and noted the presence of the shadow. Smiling, he moved forward, but was held back- pinned to the warm wooden frame by an odd sensation he couldn’t explain.

He thought then of dark things. Marmite. The pulpy hole in a mouth where a milk tooth used to be. The inside of a poor man’s pocket and the black wine gum.

He knew then who the shadow was, and why he’d come. As his knees gave way, and he tumbled down the steps where, a lifetime ago, he’d lifted his bride and then his children. The shadow drew closer, and gathered substance in the dim light which seeped out of the house.

As the old man lay, gasping, his mouth opening and closing in the manner of a surprised fish on a boat, he noticed something peculiar. The shadow appeared to have a logo on its shoes. Not hobnail boots, either, these were running shoes.

The thick cloak drifted apart, and a face smiled out at him. It was his wife. No, that was wrong. Perhaps his daughter, an adult the way an early death had meant she’d never be. And then, just as strangely, it was his son- no signs of the burns which had seared him out of the barn and his life.

The family-being took his hand and lifted him, steered him back onto his feet. He was unsure, then. It was the milkman, the postman. He couldn’t remember the word anymore. A… a… bark-bark. There were flashes of things he couldn’t name, and the deep fear that something was missing.

Come on, Grandpa, a voice said. Let’s get you back inside. It’s cold out tonight.


Tuesday, July 12, 2011

For a Friend on His Birthday

There’s the kid with the wild hair, running in the meadow. He’s just escaped a family portrait where he was forced to wear a restrictive pale blue and white checked shirt.

The family had posed for nearly half an hour before the photographer had released them, which was just as well, as he’d noticed the frown marks betraying the mother’s discomfort at having to sit still, when there were potatoes to be peeled and the porridge pot from this morning to be scoured.

The kid had jostled with his brothers, elbows jutting and hands slipping up behind their heads to show fingers to the patient cameraman and ruffle their still-damp parted hair. They were younger than he was, and drifted frustratingly between over-excitement and swift bouts of tears- no good as playmates.

He preferred the grass.

The green blades whipped at his shins even as his socks slid from their foothold on his calf muscles. He was wiry from endless forays into the hills, the exuberance he felt when he was breathing the fragrance of the wilds causing him to forget that he hadn’t eaten. Not that it mattered. He held a deep affiliation for the plants which hid amongst the boulders or waved their berries like sports fans from the hilltops, and could always find something to nibble on exploratively.

The sun was shifting behind the clouds sending down what his father called the “fingers of God”- beams which seemed to him more like spotlights as he crossed the green stage.

The photograph had been organized by his mother as an annual family boast to distant relatives. They’d comment each year on how the boys were starting to stretch- as if they were growing nodes and extra branches.

The kid settled in a clearing in the meadow, close to a huge oak tree. How the giant had come to be here in the middle of this African landscape puzzled the boy, and his eyes glazed over as he pictured men is strange outfits from centuries past kneeling in the dirt, their swine penned as they traversed the land, looking for somewhere to settle. An acorn dropped from one of the men’s pockets as he rested, the smooth nutty shell a comfort to him as he travelled.

A heavy boot crunched past, thrusting the acorn into the soil, and, with the drifting curtains of rain, it put down roots.

So lost was he in this daydream, that he was startled to see a white streak shimmer across the veld and into the oak. Blinking back his imagination, he saw that it was a squirrel. An albino marvel out here where snakes lurked on the open paths and the eagles drifted in endless circles up above.

The kid relished the stolen moments, and found the reward his father had slipped to him for staying almost quiet during the camera’s flash and the too-many calls of “cheese!” It was a box of smarties, and he lay back, letting them melt, one by one, over his tongue- lost in the reduction of the bright colours to the thin white shells before the cracks exposed the chocolate.

The smarties were deep brown inside, and the kid smiled as he imagined the albino squirrel dashing through the coming rains, his white fur being soaked away to reveal his true colour underneath.

A breeze made its whispering slalom through the blades and crowned stalks of the grass, and obscured the calls of his parents as they searched for him in the cool darkness of the house.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Scars, Marks and Happy Indentations

There’s the corner of the couch with the thicker wefts visible; slightly lighter in colour in two distinct ovals- a faint comfort-shadow of the time your backside has spent curled up- lost in a book, or flicking through a magazine.

The table with the scratches where you wrote love letters and doodled while on the phone to your lover, lighter circles are spectres of coffee mugs holding warmth and energy.

The dark and light patches on your keyboard, some keys having been worn smooth by dancing fingertips, the others faintly dusty. The “F” keys.

The carpet is fuzzier closer to the wall, and the tiles are lighter where your footsteps have walked.

Dust hasn’t settled on that one windowsill where you lean, looking up into the clouds or bursts of blue sky and sunlight most days.

There’s the soft toy with the balding ears, sucked until furless by a toddler’s puckered mouth.

The jeans with the knees with their Shroud of Turin negative kneecaps.

The shoes you wore too often, vanished wedges where your heels dragged most.

The dip in the mattress where you lay, dreaming, or overthinking things deep into the darkness.

The favourite novel, dog-eared from the many times you pressed it into the hands of friends, hoping that they’d love it too.

The scarred fireplace with the grey ash landscape.

The white space on the wall where a cherished photograph used to be.

But then, there’s the thrill of feeling the warm comfort of love, present and alive, perhaps even with a life of its own. It’s a feeling which will create memories- visible marks on the inside of your head. Sometimes marks of comfort, sometimes faint scars. That you love at all is a miracle, and you shouldn’t fear the shaping that comes with it.