[Fiction issue] ‘Thirty’, a short story by Wamuwi Mbao

Exclusive to The JRB, a new short story by our Editorial Advisory Panel member Wamuwi Mbao.

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1. You live in an apartment. It’s not some art-deco masterpiece. It has unassigned parking. You struggle to find your Polo because there are forty of them. All the Polos are silver or black or white. Two to each flat. Why are there so many Polos?
2. You go to a gig. It’s not called a gig. The place is not called Assembly any more. You spend thirty minutes fretting about being too cold or too hot. You take a jacket. It’s too hot. You tie your jacket around your waist. You feel old.
3. Everyone else here is wearing double or quadruple-denim. Everyone knows all the songs. Everyone knows everyone else. They chat in the lines for the bathroom. They smoke together in the stairwell. They shout at each other on the dance floor. Everybody looks through you. Everybody seems happy to be here.
4. Everybody is drinking from red cups. Everybody is at the bar when you want to be. Everything at the bar is bad. The gin runs out and the bartender wants to give you a whiskey and soda water. This is an abomination.
5. The lights on the stage are boiling your brain. Your throat is arguing with the whiskey soda nightmare. Everyone is jostling to be in the same spot. Everybody wants to spill your drink. You wonder if you should let them.
6. The music is wilfully tuneless. You try to pick up the lyrics. You no longer drink too much for fear of the coming hangover. You’re waiting until it’s a decent time to leave. There are six bands each playing fifteen ten-minute songs. Some corduroy appears to interrupt the denim.
7. You stand in the throng and wonder what to do. You bob awkwardly like the white kids do. You don’t lift your arms over your head. Your knees have begun to ache. The toilets are a wet-shoe nightmare. Through the window you glimpse only the night.
8. Outside. A school of Ubers is circling. You hope your car is where you left it. It always is. Someone asks you if you’re driving all the way back. They ask as if your home is a day away. Yes, you say. What you mean is that you have lost all sense of the pleasure of waking up somewhere provisional. You paid for that orthopaedic mattress. You miss it.


9. You need a couch. It must be a dignified couch. It must lend sophistication and mystery to your living space. You Pinterest breathtaking sofas in Sunset Yellow and Disappointment Green. You buy a copy of those stylish glossy décor magazines and you picture reupholstering an old couch in stunning fabric (R1899/M³).
10. You consider painting a wall. A feature wall. You consider leopard-print cushions. You consider violent purple rugs. You dream of a world where these decisions come clearly. You download an app that allows you to visualise different paint schemes on your walls. You create myths out of colour. You picture the successful social events you will have. You take yourself too seriously.
11. You find a couch you like. They have a showroom in the city. You should know better. You go there on a Saturday anyway. The couches are firm and the colours more washed out than you imagined. There are no price tags. The sales consultant ignores you. She’s attending to a woman who hosts a long-running lifestyle show. The woman is ordering three couches. She wants them all in leather. She’s a national treasure, you think. You hear a number that sounds like ‘forty’. You leave. You buy a couch from Coricraft.
12. You go shopping. You pass a home décor store. It’s filled with shiny black things, SHINY GOLD THINGS, and delicious monsters. The cushion covers are black with aggressively-green fronds across them. You walk into Woolworths. You’re always walking into Woolworths. There’s a sale on. Fifty per cent off everything you don’t want.
13. All the clothes are the same, and so much of it. The window displays are mannequins in dejected poses. Someone’s bored handiwork. They have creepy dead eyes with over-long eyelashes. You try on some short pants. It’s summer, after all. Everything feels middle-aged on you. You’re trying to keep that at bay. You try on a T-shirt. You don’t know why it says ‘1974’ on it. What happened in 1974?
14. You seek salvation in the magazine racks. All the cover models have the same dead eyes and parted mouths. They’re all selling nothing or something. The women are bragging about their happiness. The men are bragging about their abs. Your personal demons implore you to use your gym contract. The money flees your account every month. You’re too ashamed to protest.
15. All the décor magazines implore you to fill your home with plants and impractical couches. Everyone’s loading their trolleys on organic meat and Fairtrade coffee. You grab your three things. Who comes here to buy a sandwich? The sandwich you buy is not simply bacon and cheese. It is bacon jam and aged mature cheddar. You feel like you deserve this. You want better. Where are the better things? You swipe your loyalty card at the till. It seems to be a way to mark that you were here.


16. Then you’re back amid your things. Old things. Newer things. A hell of your own making. That’s not true. It’s just boring. The TV is a black mirror against a bare wall. The décor magazines say you should have thirty frames of different sizes against the wall. The décor magazines make bare bulbs look sexy. Either way, they get paid.
17. The bedsheets need a wash. You had a nosebleed the other night. You consider mounting the pillowcase in a frame and putting it on your wall. Small things take up all your time. You change linen. You find the sock that’s been at large for several weeks under the bed. You consider rewiring the stereo. You listen to the door hinges squeak. You remove new spider webs and you notice that the old ones are back.
18. There are grains of uncooked rice on the kitchen floor. There’s dust in the corners. You should vacuum. You should put your books away. You have too many books. You don’t want to give them away. You don’t want to do any of the things. Instead you watch TV.
19. You sit on the couch. It’s the one place where there’s enough signal to check your mail. Woolworths is looking for proof that you exist. ‘Your feedback is important to us.’ They ask you if you bought the things you bought. They offer you vouchers to take a little off the same things next time you’re there. There’s nobody on the other side of this mail.
20. There are eighty identical balconies in your complex. Thirty-nine of them are neat. Most of them look like nobody lives there. Yours is a collision of anxiety and influence. Succulents and laundry jostle for the sun’s attention. Only the aloe seems to be thriving.
21. Your life at home consists of filling the dishwasher, filling the washing machine, feeling absurd. You buy fruit. It goes off. The blender lurks accusingly in a corner. You have nowhere to keep your potatoes. You start reading books and leave them half-done. Some of them have spider webs. You surprise a moth one day when you pick up an Angela Carter. You alphabetise the books you do have. You decide you need more bookcases. You decide you need better Wi-Fi.
22. A man has been standing at the gates offering promotional access to the new fibre network. You avoid him the first three times. He looks like a vulture. Even his car is red. You detest being cornered by salespeople. You avoid the promotional cheese tasters at the local Woolworths. You feel offended if they ignore you.
23. On the fourth day, you take a flier. You’re tired of the bad signal. Your friends brag about their uncapped plans. They constantly talk of switching to different suppliers. They talk of internet and insurance interchangeably. Someone is always switching. Someone is always offering better.
24. The flier promises access to movies. Access to email. Access to ease. It promises life. It costs a lot. There are options. Speeds to be chosen. Speeds to send and speeds to receive. You will feel like a proper adult if you too can mutter about your data package over coffee. You leave your name and number with the man, who promises to call you next Tuesday.
25. There’s a fire on the mountain that overlooks your complex. It’s not a mountain, it’s a hill. Still, there’s a fire. There’s a river between the fire and you. The complex is made of brick. The floors are stone. You look for anywhere that fire might seize onto. You wonder if bricks burn if the fire is strong enough. You look at your books. You should get household insurance. You should do it tomorrow. You know you won’t.


26. Facebook tells you there’s a bone broth festival this weekend. Last month was a ramen festival. The month before that it was gin. This is how you started drinking gin. You’re not sure if it tastes good. It looks good. Your Instagram is full of friends and not-friends doing amazing things and drinking gin. Capturing it all. When you make a gin and tonic at home, it looks like dishwater. A show on TV has a bright young person telling you to eat less sugar. She’s so happy you want to believe her. But what does she know?
27. There’s an advert for a ‘couple’s challenge’ outside the local health store. If you buy a sack of smoothie powder, you can win a trip to Phuket. The image shows a hand extending out of the bottom of the frame. The disembodied hand clutches the hand of a woman whose back is to you as she strides along a beach. Her arm is extended backwards to grasp the hand. Is she dragging him along in flight, or is the hand pulling her back?
28. You tried smoothies for a while. They all looked like an unclogged drain and tasted like pea protein. You tried eating ethically. Nobody saw. You tried replacing crisps with popcorn. You tried giving up bread. All the magazines feature celebrities who say they eat whatever they want. The décor magazine you’re browsing has an interview with the lifestyle TV host you saw in town.  You feel just like friends now.
29. Your friends are swapping sourdough cultures. Your friends are drinking kombucha. You dream of being underwater. The sea in a brown bottle. A giant creamy jellyfish swims lazily overhead. It blocks out the light. You wake in a panic. You want a Coke.
30. You’re thirty.


31. Everyone at your office drives a Hyundai hatchback. Everyone is good at what they do. The person on your left is always talking about their diet. She says you need to watch your macros. You don’t know what macros are. Your other colleague eats celery in an unreasonable way.
32. The boss hopes you won’t call her that. She and the celery-chewer go for gin every Friday after work. They exercise together too. You don’t tell them about your gym membership. You don’t gym. You don’t discuss yourself.  You hope someone will ask. You never see your colleagues over the weekend. Where do they go?
33. 4 pm makes your heart leap. The hours are flexible. You arrive as early as necessary. You leave as soon as is honourable. The office has orange couches. The lamps look like ostrich feathers. There’s a chrome Frigidaire that serves as storage for stationery and batteries. You wonder where it first lived.
34. When you pop out of the basement parking, everything seems heightened and dramatised. All the smiles at the streetside cafes look like they’ve been there all afternoon. You long for the casualness of drinks that start at 3 pm and stretch on indefinitely. The snatches of conversation you hear are about paella and dance lessons and closing accounts. Some of these people are still working.
35. All the men are in casual blazers. The women wear their hair fashionably short, or bundled on top of their heads. Everyone has good teeth. Nobody is carelessly fat. You turn down your radio so they won’t hear that you’re listening to Talk Radio. You share your father’s concern with the news.
36. Traffic coagulates as you pass a shop window. The store is advertising clothes that won’t fit you. There’s a picture in one window. A girl in sunglasses is held aloft on a sturdy pair of shoulders. The shoulders must be sturdy because she shows no fear of plummeting to earth. Her hands are thrown up above her head. Her face is the centre of an energetic whoop. The reflection on her glasses is a rainbow of colour. The whole history of frivolous joy is contained in that photo.


37. You decide you need to exercise. You stalk the mall. You balk at gaudy colours, empty-faced salesmen and consumer promises. You find a store that sells New Balance shoes. A Congolese man measures your feet using a machine and a tablet. He does this as though it is a perfectly normal thing to be doing on a Saturday evening. He tells you you’re a size 11. He tells you you are pronate. He makes a gesture with his hands like two ships listing before they capsize.
38. He brings first one pair of shoes and then another. You try on the first pair. You make exaggerated steps. You walk around the bench like Usain Bolt warming up for a run. Tyre-kicking for the self. You try on the second pair. You feel no difference. The man looks briefly disappointed. You look down. He’s wearing modern, anonymous loafers. This shakes your confidence in the apparel.
39. Your knees are the problem. One day your knees stopped doing what they did before. Getting up off the floor. Getting into bed. These things became painful in the irritating way that minor pains are. The salesman kneels with ease to grasp a box from a low shelf. He frog-hops from one shelf to another in a mockery of your pain. He does everything with no sense at all that he is intervening against time’s assault on your body.
40. You decide you will buy the first pair. They are R300 cheaper than the second, for reasons that are not obvious. You briefly consider buying the more expensive pair to win the favour of the salesman. You mutter about ‘support’ and your ankles. He frowns. He suggests you buy the cheaper pair. He suggests you buy socks as well. New socks for new shoes. You look down at your feet in your threadbare blue socks. You buy five pairs.


41. You make the bed. You think your life would be better if you had nicer sheets. Your sheets are colours like brown. Red. Green. Blue. White sheets seem impractical. You last bought sheets a year ago. The packet promised a high thread count. You are always disappointed. You want climbing into bed to feel like a hotel. You want to transcend.
42. You change the duvet cover. After years of sleeping under an unzipped sleeping bag, you have a proper duvet. The cover must be wrestled over the duvet-inner. The corners flap emptily. You dive in and haul each corner to its corresponding side. You hear a noise. You wonder if this will be how you die. Unseeing. Ridiculous. A flapping figure as death descends.
43. When others dream, they dream impressively. The celery-chewer is always talking to your boss about her dreams. All of them are lucid. All of them involve journeys and interesting things. It seems to be impossible to lucidly dream of sitting in a chair. You dream rarely if at all. Your dreams when they do come are fragments of the absurd. Being buried under an avalanche of riced vegetables. Mouth full of cauliflower. Nose and eyes clogged by spinach.
44. Your unfitness leaches the joy from simple things. Croissants. Walks. Trying on a new shirt. You find yourself making old-man noises when you leave a chair. First joking, then as routine. Your Employee Contribution Information says you will need to work until seventy-two if you want to live when you’re old. Eating becomes a matter of guilt and recrimination. Always, there are more unhealthy things to try.
45. You go for a walk in your new shoes. You wear a superfluous hoodie. Your building is in a quasi-industrial area along with an artisanal ice-cream shop and an Italian restaurant. The restaurant is populated at random times with people who all seem to eat there by special arrangement. The shorter path to the shops involves cutting behind the restaurant and over the train tracks, between a fence and the concrete skeleton of a building whose parking basement is filled with dark, still, dead water.
46. You take the longer route. The shoes squeak, and you creak. Do shoes grow used to the wearer, or the wearer to the shoes? The garage is new in the way that two-year-old things are still new. It sprang from the site of a much smaller forecourt. The coffee shop from which you bear away your breakfast (a croissant, a yoghurt-granola fusion pot, and a tin of apple juice) sits across from a KFC. You feel better about your decisions.
47. Your breathing is heavier on the way back. Your ankles ache with the new weight. You can’t remove the hoodie without injuring your dignity. Your earphones are jostling hotly against your ears. This would be easier if you could arrive home before the novelty of exercise was exhausted.
48. The traffic whizzes by. You hope that they understand that you have a car. You want to cross the road. There’s a man on the other side. The road sweeps up over the train tracks. You walk purposely. He walks without direction. Your fear gives you greater purpose. You cross to the centre island. You’ve put a good twenty paces between the two of you.
49. The man wears black clothing. He could be from anywhere. But he’s not wearing shoes and this decides your opinion against him irrevocably. Nobody walks quickly unless they have intentions. How can you know what his are, or if they involve you? His walk suggests confidence. Yours does not.
50. The contract is broken. He stops to inspect something in the grass. What does he see? You start across to his side of the road. You stride diagonally across, as if to extend the distance further. The man is fixed to the spot inspecting something in the grass. Your left shoe is coming untied. You look down at it. It’s meaningless. There is a lesson in this. You don’t quite know what it is yet.

  • Wamuwi Mbao is an essayist, cultural critic and academic at Stellenbosch University. Follow him on Twitter.

© Wamuwi Mbao, 2017

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