The JRB presents an excerpt from Fever by Deon Meyer.
Deon Meyer, translated by KL Seegers
Jonathan Ball Publishers, 2016
Read the excerpt:
On the N1 beyond Trompsburg. Myself and Pa up front in the Volvo, the woman sitting upright on the bunk in the back, looking ahead through the windscreen. A straight section of road across the Free State plains. My hair was short and neatly trimmed, Pa’s too. The woman had dressed Pa’s neck wound and cleaned and disinfected the festering bite wounds on his back early this morning, but still she had not said a word.
I was bored after the excitement of the previous days. ‘Let’s play a CD,’ I said.
‘Let the lady choose,’ said Pa.
I pulled the shoe box out from under my seat. We had found it inside a red Mercedes SL 500, near Makwassie. Someone had driven the expensive car until the very last drop of petrol was gone, and then just abandoned it. The box of music was the only thing in the car. There were nearly forty CDs in it, from pop to classics.
I handed the box to the woman. She held it on her lap for a moment, then looked up and saw me waiting. She opened it and looked at the contents, flipping through the spines of the CDs with her fingers, and reading the titles. She took one out, turning it over in her hands like something precious, then held it out to me.
It was one of Kurt Darren’s CDs. In Jou Oë. In Your Eyes. Not one I knew. I wanted to take it from her, but she held her finger on the very first song.
‘This one?’ I asked. ‘“Heidi”?’
She nodded, the way she did when she wanted coffee. The slightest movement.
The song began. An upbeat rhythm, and a cheerful tune. I turned up the sound. Pa shook his head, but he smiled and his fingers kept time on the steering wheel, and he pressed the accelerator more so the Volvo’s big diesel engine joined in like a string of double basses. The music filled the cab with a jolly atmosphere. I grinned at the woman. Her eyes were closed.
When the song ended, she opened her eyes and she said her very first word to us: ‘Again.’ With a huge ‘please’ in her face and voice.
I played the song again, turning it up a little louder this time. I was catching on to the chorus now, and sang along.
Pa laughed. He glanced across at me, drove faster.
When it was finished the woman said, ‘Again.’
I played it another time. Pa and I sang along. Loudly. The Volvo thundered. For the first time in a year I felt exuberant. Happy. The world wasn’t such a terribly bad place after all.
The song ended. I looked at the woman. Her cheeks were drenched with tears, her eyes closed, and her body shuddered with weeping. She raised her palm to indicate I must stop the CD. I pressed the button.
Pa turned round to look at her.
I drew a breath to say something, because I couldn’t understand why she was crying, she had wanted me to play the music after all. Pa squeezed my arm to stop me. The woman cried for a long time, maybe more than twenty minutes. Then she grew quieter and quieter, until she wiped the last of her tears away with the back of her hand.
Then she softly touched my shoulder.
‘My name is Melinda Swanevelder,’ she said.
At that moment, before we could react, an aeroplane flew over, from right to left across the road in front of us, very low and close to us. Pa braked sharply. ‘Good grief,’ he said.
Everything always happens at once, just when you least expect it.
The plane was small, of the kind with the wing above the cabin, with a single propeller engine. It made a fancy turn in the air, and flew in the direction we were driving, parallel with the road.
‘Wooow!’ I yelled at the plane, and with sheer happiness that Melinda Swanevelder was at last talking to us. It was the first plane we had seen for ages. We used to hear planes in the sky until about seven months before, jets flying high and going somewhere far away. But it had happened less and less, and never so clearly right here in front of us like this one.
The plane was white, with a red tail. It flew ahead, parallel to the road, then turned and came at us from the front, straight down the road towards us. Flying low, and when he was a few hundred metres away, he waggled his wings as if to greet us. I opened the window and hung out, waving madly. ‘Nico, don’t lean out so far,’ Pa said, as the plane shot just over our heads, and then he was gone beyond the trailer.
I closed the window. ‘Ma’am, did you see?’
She nodded. A small smile played on her face, probably at my excitement.
‘There’s only one man in that plane,’ said Pa. He looked in the rear-view mirror. ‘Look, he’s turning … Here he comes again.’
The plane came from behind. I could only see it once the belly swept right over us. He flew above the road now, ahead of us, slowing. He dropped lower. ‘He wants to land, Pa,’ I said. ‘On the road.’
Pa took his foot off the accelerator. ‘It’s straight enough,’ he said.
The plane dropped and the wheels touched down on the tar. Pa began to brake, keeping his distance behind the plane. He reached for his pistol in the door beside him, looking at the surrounding veld. I knew he was checking for a potential ambush.
The plane came to a halt, and so did we. The Volvo and the plane were about ten metres from each other. The door of the plane opened and a man jumped out. He was short, somewhere in his forties, an ugly man with a face like a pug dog, protruding eyes and deeply lined forehead. He was wearing flip-flops and shorts and a khaki shirt. He had a fat paunch and a wide grin. He waved and then walked towards us, lighting up a cigarette. You could just see he wasn’t dangerous.
Pa switched off the truck’s engine.
‘Good day, people,’ the man said.
Pa and I got out. Melinda Swanevelder remained sitting high in the truck cab.
I asked, ‘What kind of plane is that, sir?’ and went to peer in the windows. It was full of boxes, big ones and small ones. Cigarettes. ‘Is that all cigarettes, sir? What do you do with all the cigarettes?’
Pa laughed, shook the man’s hand, and said, ‘Slow down, Nico. Excuse my son, you’re about the first man we’ve spoken to in weeks. His name is Nico, I’m Willem. Willem Storm.’
The man told us his name was Hennie Laas, they called him Hennie Fly, and he was from Heidelberg in Gauteng. It was a Cessna 172; his pilot’s licence had expired before the Fever, but who cares, there was nobody to enforce those things now. He flew back and forth these days, to all the small and medium places, the big places were dangerous, he felt. You couldn’t see from the air whether the people were bad. But the smaller towns, if there were people, they came running out when they heard a plane, you could just see it was safe. He, Hennie Fly, was collecting ‘ciggies’ and pipe tobacco; he knew they would become currency, at least until someone began growing tobacco again in Zim and trade routes were re-established, almost like the Middle Ages. Did Pa smoke? Did we have something to barter? He would trade a few cartons of ciggies for a juicy steak; dammit, it had been a long time since he’d eaten a good piece of meat, not all this damned canned rubbish …
Pa said no, we don’t have steaks, we’re on a recruiting trip. ‘We’re starting a new settlement. Nico, fetch one of those pamphlets. We’re setting up a place, a refuge, at the old Vanderkloof. We’re going to need good people, pilots too.’ Pa and Hennie Fly, both starved of adult conversation, stood between a big Volvo truck and a Cessna 172, in the middle of the wide N1 on the far side of Trompsburg, and they couldn’t stop talking.
I fetched the pamphlet. He handed it to Hennie, as if he were proud of it. Hennie read aloud: ‘A New Beginning for Good People,’ with a heavy Afrikaans accent.
‘Yes, it’s in English,’ said Pa. ‘We want to reach everyone.’
‘We are starting a sanctuary, a community that will have justice, wisdom, moderation and courage …’
‘It’s from Plato,’ said Pa. ‘From The Republic.’
‘I see,’ said Hennie, in a tone that revealed he had no idea what Pa was talking about, and he flicked his cigarette butt across the road. He read on: ‘… in a very safe place with more than enough water, shelter, and soon, food and electricity …’ He looked dubiously at Pa. ‘Electricity?’
Pa explained about the hydro-electricity. ‘We just need someone to lay it on to the town. If you run into an engineer somewhere …’
Hennie Fly nodded, and read on: ‘If you want to be part of this orderly, open, democratic and free new society, come to Vanderkloof (on the R48 between Colesberg and Kimberley). GPS coordinates are: 29.99952512 Latitude and 24.72381949 Longitude.’
He looked at Pa. ‘You’re taking a risk too. How do you know a bunch of skarminkels won’t turn up?’
‘What’s a skarminkel, Pa?’
‘Lieplapper. A layabout,’ said Hennie. And when he saw I still didn’t get it. ‘A maaifoedie, a scoundrel. A rubbish.’
‘We will have to run risks, if we want to rebuild something,’ said Pa. ‘If the majority are good people, it shouldn’t be a problem.’
Hennie read the last lines of the pamphlet: ‘Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!’
‘That’s Emma Lazarus,’ said Pa.
‘Is that her up there?’ asked Hennie and pointed at Melinda Swanevelder in the Volvo.
Pa said no, Emma Lazarus was an American poet. She wrote the poem that is engraved on the Statue of Liberty. The woman in the cab is Melinda Swanevelder. We found her in Vanderkloof.
Hennie barely heard him. He stood staring at Melinda. ‘Pretty woman,’ he said and lifted his hand to greet her. ‘Shoo, very pretty woman.’
She waved back, a tiny motion of a hesitant hand.
‘Where are you going?’ asked Pa.
‘Well, it sounds like I should go to Vanderkloof,’ and Hennie reluctantly turned his gaze away from the woman to Pa.
‘You don’t feel like a bit of a detour along the way? We’ll still be on the road for a week or two.’
‘I can …’
‘So, when you fly over the towns, the people come out of their hiding places?’
‘If there are people. Most of the towns are totally godforsaken.’
‘Yes, I guess the population density is less than one and a half per square kilometre now . . . Would you consider throwing our pamphlets out of your plane, where there are people?’
I understand this, from what I experienced, from what Pa told me, from Nero Dlamini’s sober judgement, and from each of the survivor’s stories that Pa recorded or wrote down as part of the Amanzi History Project.
The Fever was a virus tsunami. Too rapid, too deadly.
Despite the protocols and systems and vaccines, despite the frantic scurrying of virologists and epidemiologists, centres for disease control, and governments and military intervention—and sometimes even because of some of these attempts—the Fever wiped out 95 per cent of the world population. All within a few months.
Five per cent of the world population, more or less, had the genetic good fortune of natural resistance to the virus. But not all those 5-per-centers survived the aftermath of the Fever. The catastrophe caused systems to collapse and released other disasters: industrial explosions, fires, chemical pollution, radioactive contamination, hepatitis and cholera. And the human element. In Domingo’s words: ‘Where the corona virus stopped, Darwin stepped in.’ Greed and fear, crime and misunderstanding, ignorance and stupidity. Chaos. Some of the survivors were just too tiny to make a go of it alone, five years old and younger. Others were overwhelmed by the stress and trauma of unfathomable loss and post-Fever crimes. Thousands took their own lives. In the big cities especially.
Standing between the Cessna and the Volvo, Hennie Fly asked my father, ‘Now how would you know there are less than one and a half people per square kilometre?’
Pa explained that approximately fifty-three million people lived in what was South Africa before the Fever.
Ninety-five per cent, or fifty million, were wiped out by the virus and its successors. And another million—more or less—died from other causes in the aftermath.
Hennie Fly nodded. That made sense.
‘Two million left. It sounds like a lot of people, but if you divide that by the size of the land, it’s less than one and a half per square kilometre.’
‘Okay,’ said Hennie Fly.
‘Let me put it into perspective for you,’ said Pa. ‘South Africa was one point two million square kilometres. Before the Fever the population density was forty-five people per square kilometre. That’s not so bad. Monaco, for example, used to have fifteen thousand people per square kilometre. Bangladesh more than a thousand, and Germany two hundred and thirty-two.’
As recorded by Willem Storm. The Amanzi History Project.
My name is Hennie Laas. Everyone calls me Hennie Fly.
Ja, look, when the Fever came, I was a farm manager at the Nel farm on the other side of Heidelberg.
I was divorced, my ex-wife was remarried to a Badenhorst from Centurion. We had two children, two girls, they lived with her and the Badenhorst guy. They all died in the Fever. I went to look, I went to the house in Centurion. There was nobody there. I mean, where do you go and look, if they are not at home? You know how it was, during that time . . . I’m getting too far ahead of myself, I suppose?
Anyway, I come from Heidelberg, I was born there. My father grew up in poverty, but he worked his way to riches. He used to supply the gold mines in those years; he made his money out of the props they used under-ground. Blue gum poles. He always drove Jaguars, he loved Jaguar cars. I think, if your father is rich, you are lazy, because you think everything will come to you. So I went to university to study for a commerce degree, but it didn’t last. I partied too much. I dropped out before the end of my first year, and I begged my dad to let me fly, I was mad about flying. So I got my pilot’s licence, and I went to work for Lowveld Air; they used to fly people to the Kruger Park. I was a co-pilot in the Beechcraft King Airs, hell, those were genuine royal planes those. And I wore a pilot’s uniform and the girls loved that, and I gave myself the nickname of ‘Hennie Fly’, I told everyone, you know, that’s what people call me. I lied. I thought I was this big shot, even though the captain wouldn’t let me touch a joystick. Then I met Doreen, and she got pregnant on the third date, and we got married. But then Lowveld Air went bankrupt. I couldn’t find work, and my father said I should come and work with him. After only a year he fired me. Total slacker. So I went to work for Justin’s Cars, second-hand cars, and I worked for KFC as an apprentice manager, and my pilot’s licence expired. Our second daughter arrived, and I was boozing too much, didn’t come home at night, and Doreen left me. First it was just separate beds and tables, and she said, sort yourself out or I leave. Then she did leave. I don’t blame her, I was bad, back then. So I worked a bit here and I worked a bit there.
It took me ten years to sort myself out, to quit my nonsense. To grow up, I suppose. Every year I had another job; for about eighteen months I was in Durban as well, trying to rep for Castrol. That didn’t stick either. Jannie Nel was one of the big farmers in Heidelberg. He gave a lot of people a second chance. So I went and asked him for a job. Three years before the Fever. I used to drive a sheep lorry to the abattoir for him. And when he saw I had stopped my nonsense, he made me assistant foreman, and later foreman, on one of the chicken farms. They called it ‘farm manager’.
Then I began to fix things with my children. Once a month, I drove to Pretoria, and I took them to the Spur restaurant. That was the beginning. I knew I had a long way to go with them. I began to fly again too, I tried to get enough hours to get my licence back.
Then the Fever came. How can you talk about the Fever? You can’t describe it.
It must have been the same as it was for everyone. You watch the news on TV, and you think, no, they will stop this thing before it gets here, but you wonder, and you are a little bit scared. Just like with Ebola, a couple of years before the Fever. But you think, we live in a time of science, they’ll do something, so you don’t worry too much. Until England and America and all of them began to cancel flights and impose states of emergency. Then you worry, because it’s never been this bad before. And then the virus was here, and you think, now they’d better do something fast, and for the first time you’re really scared. And then the power goes off, and no one comes to work, and I phone and phone my children, but they don’t answer their cellphones. And then the cellphone networks go down. I hid away on that chicken farm, I won’t lie to you. I think I’m still alive because I lived there, slept there, and went nowhere. Then the radio went quiet, everything was quiet, and I sat and watched the road, but there was nothing. Then I took the pick-up and drove. And I smelled Heidelberg, from four kilometres away I smelled all those dead people. And I knew.
There’s a time when you feel guilty for surviving, and you don’t know why you were so lucky, because you were such a bad person. But then you get used to it. It’s funny, hey?
I turned around and drove back to the farm, and I let all the chickens out of the batteries.
About the book
I want to tell you about my Father’s murder.
I want to tell you who killed him and why.
This is the story of my life.
And the story of your life and your world too, as you will see.
Nico Storm and his father drive across a desolate South Africa, constantly alert for feral dogs, motorcycle gangs, nuclear contamination. They are among the few survivors of a virus that has killed most of the world’s population. Young as he is, Nico realises that his superb marksmanship and cool head mean he is destined to be his father’s protector.
But Willem Storm, though not a fighter, is a man with a vision. He is searching for a place that can become a refuge, a beacon of light and hope in a dark and hopeless world, a community that survivors will rebuild from the ruins. And so Amanzi is born.
Fever is the epic, searing story of a group of people determined to carve a city out of chaos.