The JRB presents an excerpt from a work-in-progress by Wamuwi Mbao.
In Search of an Exit
It was a thoughtful morning for Wopko. He was sitting at the window watching the flashing of traffic, as the cars and buses and trucks swaggered up and down the boulevard on their way to and from Route 73. All hotels are haunted. He looked at the words he had scribbled on his notepad. He wasn’t sure what more to write. It was the 24th of December. What happened to the ghosts in hotels on Christmas Day, he wondered. Did they disappear, only to return imperceptibly on the 27th? Nobody, he thought, should have the misfortune of being here on the loneliest day of the year. Not even the ghosts.
There was a breakfast. Jam oozed from lonely little pots which were amassed in a heap on a serving tray. A glass tureen of cornflakes that were too pale to be anything but generic sat with a ladle plunged malevolently into its centre. Cups of yoghurt (strawberry, apricot) were laid out, their foil tops bulging disconsolately in the morning heat. He was always here on the 24th. He knew the rhythms. He knew the toast would be speckling green around the edges because the bread order hadn’t been renewed since the 21st. He knew you might find a towel trolley or a laundry basket discarded down one of the darker corridors. The staff knocked off at 4pm on the 24th, but the place was always a ghost town by 12.30. The scurrying retinue of cleaners was replaced by a lone concierge who never seemed to move from the front desk, where he could be observed at all hours watching reruns of the year’s sports.
Wopko was a great enjoyer of hotels. He knew them well. He knew that they had their own music. Each hotel sounded different. Each made its own unique noises. There were washing machines and cooker fans and ventilation units and big booming basement cavities. In Wopko’s room, the air conditioning wheezed apologetically every half hour. A silent hotel was like a corpse. Wopko wondered if the man at the front desk ever thought about these things. Probably not. He was a life-support machine, just there to keep the place going until the people returned.
Wopko took his staying very seriously. He would always request the same room, or the same sort of room. After all these years, he knew where the optimal placing was. Not on the top floor, but on the third. A smoking room, although he did not smoke. From this vantage point, he could see who came and went. He would sit at the desk, watching to see what sort of customers stopped, and when. He could see when deliveries arrived. He could monitor when and how thoroughly each room was cleaned.
—Are you checking out today? The voice at his elbow was the concierge, clearing away the breakfast things. He had been in the dining room for an hour or more, but nobody else had seen fit to come down. He remembered when ‘checking out’ had meant something more formal than handing in your keys. He said ‘No, I will be staying another day.’ What he did not say is ‘No, I have nowhere else to go.’ Wopko did not own property: he spent his life moving between rented rooms. There was always another hotel.
He looked across the bleached parking lot, where the sun was busy chiselling away the day. There was one other car, a yellow Daihatsu convertible, one discreet bay removed from where his old Mercedes skulked.
—Are there many guests staying over? The desk man’s attention was occupied by a recap of some football game. The television in the lobby was always tuned to a channel that only seemed to show football. Wopko tried again. —Do you have many guests staying tonight?
The concierge looked over at Wopko as though both his question and his own presence there were absurdities. —Only you and one other, he said without making eye contact. Wopko strode across to the front door and stood on the threshold. The hotel had the silhouette of an old Edwardian manor house, but the vacant glassy reflection of the double-glazing gave away that it had been hastily facelifted. It was one of many such hotels dotted across the country. They were all the same, or they gave that impression. When he was younger, the hotels were smaller, and all the guests dined in the same room and at the same time. Everyone came down for breakfast. He squinted out at the day once more. It was 9.30am and it had decided on being hot. Christmas Eve in a flybuzz Free State town that wore its landscape like a pair of outsized shoes. He was happy.
He wondered if he should attempt a stroll. But where to? The hotel was off a main road that gave little thought to the meanderings of old men. The way right led to a busy roundabout which dispersed traffic towards the town centre, to shopping centres that even from this distance gave off the angry drone of Christmas shopping left too late, to the schools and out to the Bloemfontein road. The way left led into a tangle of silent suburbs from which nobody came or went.
Wopko sighed and retreated to the cool lobby. When he was a young man, he had stayed in many hotels. The Villa Edward, which was now trendy apartments. The St Ives, which resembled a vast laundromat, and which had burned for an entire day, leaving nothing but ash. The Florian, where an old aunt of his had lived, and which was now a supermarket. The Manchester, which once had boasted a twenty-four-hour pianist and was now demolished. The Milner Park, which had served his favourite breakfast (two craggy scones, clotted cream, boysenberry jam), and which, according to the website Fallen Johannesburg, was now illegally occupied and set for condemning. He was perhaps the only one who grieved the passing of the old hotels. Each was a room he had occupied at some point in his past, and with the change or the fall those rooms and the memories they bore were no longer a part of the world.
As he ambled back to his room, he paused in the dimly lit hallway, squinting at a framed painting. The picture was a collage of grey men watching a rugby game, or some other sports event. It said nothing. He heard a footfall on the steps, and turned just in time to see its owner, or a fragment of them, disappearing round the corner. The concierge had prudently situated them at opposite ends of the floor. Easier for the cleaners, but still allowing these odd guests their privacy. He wondered at this other customer, brought by some obscure purpose to this waypoint. He padded back down the hall to the corner, peering around it, expecting an empty hallway. Instead, he was startled to find a woman standing there, against the wall, about to peer round the corner at him. They laughed, and Wopko ruefully held up his hands like a collared thief.
—My name is Wopko, he tried, by way of greeting.
—Like the hierarchy?
She was dressed in an elegantly old-fashioned skirt, high at the waist. Her shoes were a shocking pink suede and her hair was held back by a yellow headscarf with peacocks patterning it at regular intervals. Wopko liked her right away.
—I saw you in the lobby, she was saying, —and since you seem to be the only other guest in this place, I thought I should probably say hello. They might have left things there and each strolled back to their rooms to do other things. But they stood there instead in the dark corridor which hummed softly as though to save itself from ruin. They exchanged a few words on the weather and the time of the year and the smallness of the town.
When they were both at their ease, she asked, —What do you do, Wopko?
—You know what a one-trick pony is? Approaching his sixty-fourth year, Wopko had not done a great deal with his life. But something brotherly to optimism consoled him that there was still more life left, in which interesting things might be done.
—Are you in the circus? Wopko is a circus name. She leaned conspiratorially towards him. —Or a spy. Are you a spy, Wopko?
—No, I’m not in the circus. And I’m not a spy. At that moment, the concierge appeared at the top of the stairs with a perturbed look. He asked a question in what Wopko supposed was Sotho. The question was addressed more to the young woman than to Wopko, who felt himself being regarded with suspicion by the man. Wopko wondered who was minding the door, since the hotel seemed otherwise empty. He couldn’t follow, but the woman responded to the concierge with a kind of familiarity Wopko had never managed. Her manner was cheerfully accommodating, and her remarks seemed to satisfy the man, for he departed swiftly down the stairs, levelling an insinuating glare at Wopko as he left. She turned her attention back to him.
—I didn’t get your name. He thought he would venture this, though perhaps it was unnecessary.
—I didn’t give it. But it’s Boitumelo.
—Are you on your way somewhere, Boitumelo? He pronounced the name with a longer emphasis on the third syllable, like eating a madeleine.
—Aren’t we all? That’s what hotels are for. She was holding a sheaf of hotel room leaflets. —Such a waste of paper.
—I keep them for note paper, Wopko offered.
—Yes. My little revenge against places who seem to think it acceptable business practice to bother you after you have made your transaction. I don’t want to keep in touch. I don’t want to receive promotional offers. He sighs. Things used to be—
—A predictable complaint?
—No, she laughed in an unguarded way. —It’s just that things are never the same when you grow older, are they?
—I’ve been older for a long time. Nothing stays the same, and there’s nothing to be done about it.
This last comment made her stare at him, as though she was looking for some trace of melancholy in his features.
—Who do you work for, they both said.
—If I told you, I’d have to kill you, she said.
—Between the air-conditioning and the dodgy rugs, the hotel is way ahead of you.
She laughed. —I work for a hospitality company. We acquire suitable properties to add to our portfolio, and then we revamp them if required.
—When is it required?
—When the hotel is falling down, or hasn’t been refitted since the nineteen-nineties. I’m a scout. I go to likely places and I write a report, and based on my report, the company makes one of three decisions.
—And those are?
—To buy and refurbish. To buy and demolish. Or not to buy at all. She turned to go, signalling that the conversation had reached its natural close.
—I don’t do anything. I used to do things. Now I travel. I write for a travel magazine. We feature a different region every month, and I spend that month going from hotel to hotel to see which ones are worth recommending. Wopko was surprised that he was saying so much about himself to someone he had no expectation of seeing again.
—Excuse me, I need to make a call. See you in a bit, she said quite abruptly. Wopko found himself alone in the hallway once more. This time, the feeling was one of loss.
Some time later, the day’s light was fading from orange to grey, and Wopko was sitting on the bottom step, listening to distant birds and snatches of traffic. He had at his side a selection of sorry pamphlets taken from the lobby. They advertised trips to the Kruger Park and to resorts on the Wild Coast, and their images were of couples grinning foolishly while they did simple things.
There was a gust of cool air as the glass doors opened, and then she was sitting next to him. She had changed to a white cotton shirt and dark trousers. Wopko wondered if he ought to have changed his own outfit.
—So, he ventured, —what do you think of this hotel?
—It’s a little out of date. A little past its best. The kitchen makes three things, and none of them very well. It trades on convenience, which matters a lot for travellers. She took a few steps out into the parking lot and then turned back to him. —Want to go for a walk?
—All places are somewhere, she replied as though this was a satisfactory answer. She walked off so that he had to spring to his feet and cross the parking lot to where she was waiting by the gate. They looked up at the closed circuit camera, and she did an impatient tap-dance as they waited for the concierge to buzz them out.
—Anyway, I find hotels fascinating, she said, looking left and right before setting off into the street with huge arcing steps. He coughed uncertainly and she stopped.
—It’s my lot in life to find everything interesting, he said. —But why do you find them interesting?
—Because every hotel is a mystery. Not the small boutique ones. They’re horrible. I mean the big ones. They’re like a picture where all the faces are constantly changing. You’re in a large building with a few hundred strangers, and every one of them is going somewhere or on their way to do something. You never know who you’ll meet.
She was tall, and Wopko found that he had to take longer strides to keep up with her. They found a tree-lined road which curled into a small suburb. Gates hung askew. The houses here had once been pretty, but were now gently settling into their dilapidation.
—And how many hotels do you demolish?
—Well, I don’t demolish them, she said. —I just write the report. They were passing a green field where nothing had been built. It was not a park. It was empty space.
—So we are both, in a way, experts, then.
—I don’t want to be an expert. She shook her hands as though the term dirtied them. —It’s too limiting. I prefer to think of myself as a …
—Don’t say ‘curator’.
—I wasn’t going to.
—Everyone curates nowadays. Curating rooms. Curating streets. It means putting things into order, like a child does with blocks.
—Do you always speak like this?
—Not always. So you’re not an expert?
—No. I’m a collector.
—What do you collect?
—Experiences. This right here is an experience, and I’m collecting it.
—But what goes into your report determines whether they stay or go?
—But surely you go home from time to time? They walked past a church whose wooden roof speared into the sagging twilight. In the grounds to one side of the church, tombstones stuck up like teeth. They crossed from the neighbourhood towards a beckoning bright light that turned out to be a small strip mall. There was a bottle store which was closing, and a tailor that hadn’t been open for a while. The light was pooling out of a storefront that had CAFÉ imprinted on the glass.
—No. I’m on a permanent holiday. I live in hotels. I’m one of those guests who never leaves. It was a pensioning off from my employers. They realised I hadn’t been on holiday in years. I’ve been given more than I could reasonably spend and a company credit card to use freely anywhere I want.
—So this was a Christmas bonus?
—It was a condolence gift. For the death of my wife.
They walked into the hot shop and circled the narrow alleys until she located a packet of jelly babies. She kept her face impassive until they were out in the street again.
—I’m so sorry about your wife.
—So were they.
—May I ask what happened? Was she ill?
—That’s usually how the story goes at my age, I suppose, he said flatly. —No, she was not ill. She was killed. Shot by a lunatic accountant in the waiting room while I was attending a meeting.
—I wish I was. You couldn’t make it up. It’s like that old board game where you try and guess how someone was killed.
—Colonel Mustard in the study with a candlestick.
—That’s the one. We were told over the intercom that there was ‘an emergency unfolding’. And I sat there as they told me to and I waited and I didn’t know that she was dying on a terrazzo floor while I waited.
—Worse things will always happen, Wopko shrugged. —But nothing says ‘don’t sue us’ like money. So I fell out of one story, and into another. Into this one.
She spoke again after a while. —And how did the story you fell out of begin?
—Simply enough. My wife and I were married in 1980. For our honeymoon, we drove up to the Victoria Falls. We had only one thing on our minds, like most twenty-somethings. They walked across into the lobby, where the manager glowered at them before returning his attention to the television.
Boitumelo made gagging noises as they took seats on the terrace. —I sense there’s a ‘but’?
—It was April 16th, he said ruefully.
—You picked Zimbabwe’s independence day to go on your honeymoon? That’s pretty brave.
—It was a brave time. Or a foolish one. We ended up staying in the Skyline Hotel. It was on the outskirts of town, and it was a bit rundown then already. It probably doesn’t exist now. I’m still coming to terms with how quickly now becomes then. Younger people like yourself can acclimatise to it more readily, I think.
She shook her head. —I find it disturbing when people blow things up. Who decides that something has finished its purpose? I grew up in a town where everything was new. Even the graves.
Wopko laughed, despite himself. Then, spurred on by the odd circumstances, he said —Shall we go for a drive?
—A drive? And how do I know you’re not a strangler they haven’t caught? I could be victim number twenty-four. She arched her eyebrows dramatically as Wopko spluttered a protest.
—I joke, I joke, she disclaimed as she looked over the green Mercedes they were about to climb into. It was a long-nosed coupe with grey fluting bisecting the sides. —Do you have children?
—No, said Wopko. —But I’m told they often say unexpected and amusing things.
He looked at her and wondered if she had the wrong idea about him. —I spent thirty years trying to be domestic. I was a signer of leases. I participated in the crimes of my time. I had all the things. Parquet floor. Several Jettas in succession. The woman of my dreams …
—and an imitation Eames, she finished his sentence with a laugh. —What went wrong?
—My anxieties caught up with me after my wife died. All the entertaining. It takes a toll. Endless dinner parties. Unending small talk while you wonder if someone is wearing a toupee or if that couple sleeps in separate bedrooms. Couldn’t do anything. I’d run to the car to avoid saying hi to the neighbours.
She filled in the background. —And so you left?
—And so I left. Looking back now, it does not seem so inappropriate.
—And now you live in hotels.
—I live in places that approximate hotels. Places like this are a wonderful convenience of geography and supply. An unthanked miracle. When they fall out of fashion, they are remodelled or discarded.
—Well, if we’re honest …
—And why wouldn’t we be?
She gave him a mock slap. —People no longer go to stay somewhere, anymore. They go to experience this or encounter that. The hotel has become secondary. Hence my work.
—That’s a sad thought, Wopko mumbled.
—Only if you want to be sad. How many hotels do you think you’ve stayed in?
—Three-hundred-and-twenty-one, he said.
—And what have you taken from your experiences?
—I always leave with less than I arrived with.
—Every hotel has its fresh towels. Some have room service. Some have a bar. But what they all have is soap. Little bars of soap, usually embossed. A handy memento.
She seemed dissatisfied with his answer. —Where shall we go, Wopko?
They circled the roundabout several times, nobody there to tell them not to. Each exit promised some form of disappearance. —Your car is like an ocean liner, she said. —On a rough sea.
—Do you get dizzy easily? He veered laughingly round the circle once more, until she solemnly promised to vomit all over his interior if he didn’t stop. —How about dinner?
—Food solves all problems. She said it in a way that suggested to Wopko the dispensed wisdom of a parent or guardian.
—I’ve visited this town several times, but I can’t say I’m all that familiar with its culinary attractions, he confessed. She pulled out her phone and directed him to a Chinese restaurant just down the road. There were three cars in the parking lot. All of them had local plates. The restaurant had a bar, at which two men in khaki shorts sat with beers in hand watching the cricket highlights. The men were discussing the economic potential of their town, who was about to put another McDonald’s down where and who had bought out his partners and was planning on creating a new mall with a bigger Woolworths there.
—They always find you in the end, Boitumelo muttered.
—The dreary people, she said.
—Yes, he agreed.
—Have you ever played cricket?
Wopko had never cared for sport, and he cared still less for the fanatical observation of it he saw wherever he went. —You speak Sotho. Whereabouts are you from? He parried her question with one of his own.
—Who wants to be tied to where they come from by what comes out of their mouth? Asking people about their accents is very 1995, Wopko-like-the-hierarchy.
—I apologise. I struggle with small talk. And it feels like the talk gets smaller with each passing year.
—You can be a morose person, Wopko. They got into the car and drove up the road for a bit. She fiddled with the radio and looked through his tapes. The covers were all tracklisted in a neat hand.
—You listen to a lot of Dad Rock.
—What’s Dad Rock?
—Seventies music. Prog. Extravagant guitar solos … Turn here, she said suddenly, flicking on the indicator stalk and extinguishing the lights in one fell movement. He obeyed, swinging the yawing Mercedes sharply to the left. They continued like this for ten minutes, taking turns at random, until they found themselves in front of a high school field where some sort of night market was happening. The spotlights were illuminating a children’s rugby game, and a handful of men and women were in the stands, cheering and shouting instructions and eating slices of watermelon. Wopko berthed the car among a fleet of white Ford bakkies, and they walked through the gates. ‘Doesn’t look like we need tickets,’ she said, twirling across the threshold like a ballerina.
On the edge of the field, against the fence, an old man was selling Belgian waffles. She bought one for herself (my teeth, Wopko demurred), and they wandered around the boundary. There was a police van parked in the street on the other side of the fence, its motor idling, both doors open. Nobody was in the van.
—Spooky, she said.
—It’s that kind of town, he said.
—Did you know that this town was only founded in 1947?
—Don’t laugh. It’s not such a long time for a town to be around. That’s why there isn’t anything too old to be found, if you drive about. The whole place is like a fairground someone forgot to pack away. The sewage works is the oldest thing in the town, and most of it is underwater now.
They strolled the length of the pitch, startling a cluster of teenagers dressed in the latest rage, whose curious eyes followed them all the way to the other boundary fence. The game was breaking up, but they couldn’t tell who had won. Someone got up on a stage and read out some names from a crumpled piece of paper.
—Did we miss the raffle, she asked looking around at the crowd
Wopko affected a disappointed frown. —Well, what would we have done with half a sheep, anyway?
—How do you know the prize is half a sheep?
—It’s always half of something, in towns like these, Wopko muttered. Someone was brought onto the stage, and introduced as an alderman and member of the Reformed Church.
—This will be boring. Shall we find a bar? She marched off as though the decision had been made, and Wopko followed, pushing apologetically past beer-bellies and sharp elbows. As they crossed the field, a few of the teenagers broke away and began to tail them.
—Don’t look now, she said brightly. Wopko looked. —Here come the goons.
—What shall we do? Wopko had only thrown a punch once before, and it hadn’t been a particularly successful one.
—Nothing. They’re like dogs. You reach the end of their yard and they lose interest. They kept their pace and the youths dropped away like shadows.
By the time they reached the gate, the field was emptying slowly but steadily. Husbands were discussing plans to meet at a dam. Wives were exchanging recipes for salads. The isolation of the town bewildered Wopko.
—How do you live in a place like this, he wondered aloud.
—Very happily, I expect.
They left, steering past the police van which was still chugging in the street, an unanswered question. They turned a corner, and drove down a dark road that spilled out suddenly onto the main route. And there the hotel was.
—This town is one big circle, she said. Then, suddenly, —Do you have a license?
—I haven’t had a license since 2006, Wopko said, palming the wheel.
—Why? Have you ever tried to renew your license? It’s perverse. An indignity. And you can never find a friend to go with you.
—Why would you need someone to go with you?
—For the moral support. He braked gently and peered down a side street. The key to operating in the world is not to attract too much attention. Then you can do as you please, really.
—Where are we going?
—I wanted to show you something. He turned down one street, and then another, and then they were in front of a grey concrete building whose stained glass windows blinked in the breezeless night. —My brother designed that.
—Your brother is an architect?
—He was. He designed some interesting things. You won’t see his name in any of the famous architectural digests because most of the buildings he designed were torn down.
—But why? This looks like he did interesting things. At least from what I can see. She peered into the darkness.
—He built for the wrong people. This church is the only untouched work of his that remains.
When they arrived back at the hotel, the gate opened, almost reluctantly. No other guests had arrived while they were out. They crossed the lot and Wopko held open the glass door for her. She bowed formally and then, with no warning, tipped forward and somersaulted through the entrance. Wopko was so alarmed at this unprompted acrobatic display that he stayed frozen in the doorway, his mouth unbecomingly ajar.
—Your turn, she bowed once more, beaming.
—I assure you that I have no intention whatsoever of entering this premises in that fashion, he huffed, stepping lightly into the foyer.
—Suit yourself. She walked over to the desk. The manager was nowhere to be seen. She leaned over the counter to see if he was there, and finding nobody, began to page through the guest comments.
—Someone signed their entry ‘Jack Torrance.’
Wopko went through the lobby and up the stairs, and began wandering down the hallway, feeling the wallpaper as though he was looking for a secret door.
—What are you hoping to find?
—A secret sign, he said.
—Yes. All hotels have their secrets. Secret rooms. Service tunnels. There used to be a bar up here.
—I’m sure there’s no bar up here now.
—You never know. I was once at the Ritz in Cape Town on a similarly quiet night. I went exploring and found a bar and a barman and blue lights. The whole deal. I’d stayed there three times and nobody’d ever thought to point out that there was a bar.
They gave up their wandering and repaired to her room, which faced an apartment block whose windows were all dark. The apartments loomed over a wide lot, in whose shadows could be seen a shipping container which was open at one side. Immediately below the window was the hotel’s supplementary parking lot, which was empty. He had expected to see the concierge’s car there. He assumed the man drove in from somewhere. He turned from the dismal view back into the room.
—What’s the biggest thing you’ve ever stolen? She sat down on the floor below the window, and he joined her, his knees crackling in resignation. —You don’t sound like you sit on floors often, she said.
—I don’t, he replied. It was pleasant under the window, with the warm Free State night dragging in lazily.
—I bet you have many pairs of those. She gestured at the socks Wopko was wearing, a pair of orange and brown argyle socks, the sort his younger self had always associated with rumpled old men.
—So why aren’t you married?
—Who says I’m not?
—The married woman never travels alone. It’s un-South African.”
She laughed. —You’re an old man with old opinions, Wopko. I am not married. Imagine me ironing some man’s underwear in the morning. Burning my hands while I wait for him to take the coffee I’ve brought to his bedside. That could never be me.
—There’s a gap in the market for people like us.
—And what people are we? She regarded Wopko with a narrowed stare.
—The wanderers. I’m a shepherd afraid of finding his sheep. I hardly know you, but I think there are things you’d rather not see again.
—Is that why you stay in hotels?
—A hotel is like a home that’s always where you are. You just need to phone ahead sometimes.
—You can only live like that if you have nobody at home.
Wopko looked at his fingers. —I’ve been alone for about seven years now.
It got to being midnight, and then a little past that. The window was open to admit air. He was lying on the floor with his feet propped up against the wall, looking at the ceiling. —We lose our minds somewhere past midnight …
He saw her feet dangling over the bed and for a brief moment he imagined that they could be like this, a pair of ghosts haunting an old hotel.
—You’re not asleep, are you?
—Ain’t no sleepin with the blues …
—Good. Don’t fall asleep. She got up off the bed and joined him on the floor, resting her head on his shoulder. An hour passed in companionable silence. It was Christmas day at 1.48 and the night was never-ending and about to exhaust its heat before shuddering reluctantly into morning.
—My father was a tombstone-cutter.
—Quite the creative, I might add. He used to add his own improvisations to people’s epitaphs.
She rolled onto her feet. —Are you going to carry on staying in hotels?
—You mean with the time I have left?
—You’re not so old.
—Don’t go there, he laughed. —No coming back from that. What else might I do? Waking up in the morning is no guarantee.
—No guarantee of what?
—Of having something to do.
—You could live by the sea.
—And climb mountains?
—And swim in the oceans.
—I could sit in my garden and grow potatoes to annoy my friends with. I’d have to get friends first.
—We can get you friends.
They looked around the room. Awkwardness played its unhappy music. —Here is the bit, he said, —where you tell me a bit more about you. Otherwise the story is skewed.
—Yes. Otherwise it’s a story about a young woman who meets a garrulous old man, which is a story only old men find interesting. She swung a pillow at him and told him with a soft-lashed stare that not all stories had to be told at once. —I was born at such and such a place. I’ve been ridiculed at schools and hypnotised in centres. There are millions of stories like mine. You never get someone’s full story in a hotel.
She changed the subject abruptly. —Have you ever wondered about the artwork they have up in these places?
—In the old days, he told her, the paintings symbolised the kind of places you were meant to go. They were a window to possibilities. They both gazed at the picture on her wall, which was of some grey scene. A man rowing a boat across a lake. —When I was young, I would sit in a chair and try to imagine I was in those scenes, in a straw hat or on a riverboat.
The room had been overzealously wallpapered twenty years ago. The paper was an unfashionable print, yellowing at the edges where the adhesive was failing. —Hotels used to be something. They were a harbour for travellers, for the defeated and disenchanted denizens of the roadway.
The air conditioner coughed apologetically, its louvres oscillating weakly.
—Well, this denizen is in desperate need of something to drink. She vaulted to her feet and rummaged in a bag. She brought out a nearly-full bottle of Writer’s Cologne. —There’s an ice machine down the hall, yes?
—Yes there is. Was that a gift?
—And why would you assume that?
—Because a nice bottle of whisky is the sort of gift every right-thinking person would love to receive.
—You are full of opinions, Wopko.
—They are a safe harbour, he said, opening the door and leaning out into the corridor. The night was still, but he had the distinct impression of footsteps stealthily removing themselves from view.
—Do you know that in the old days, this hotel used to have a French menu? With wine to accompany. They found the vending machine, which bubbled low and soft and gave off a faint blue smell of old water.
—I don’t believe it. This dump had a French menu? She kicked the vending machine, which let out a groan but refused to release any ice.
—No ice, Wopko said helpfully. She glared at him. They returned to the room and they drank the whisky without ice in the close dark. He fell asleep briefly and when he woke the gloss from the window illuminated her like an assassin with the concierge’s bell in her hand.
—Why don’t we leave? The question hung in the air between them for a moment.
—Where would we go?
—That’s the easy part. It’s the leaving that’s hard.
They packed their bags and they went down the stairs. The doors were locked and there was nobody in the lobby. They drummed on the desk, and their drumming brought forth a shuffling and the night manager appeared from behind a creaking office door.
—We are trying to get your attention, she said.
—We have been trying to get your attention, he said. The man looked at them uncomprehendingly.
—We wish to leave, he said.
—We’re leaving now, she said.
They walked out to the Mercedes. —What about your car? Wopko glanced at the little Daihatsu.
—I always hated that car, she said. It’ll be here if we come back for it.
—Well, what if we don’t come back? He left the question adjar and they piled into the Merc. They sat there with their fears and their doubts and then he turned the key and the car grunted to life.
—Wopko, she said, squirreling in her seat. Are you prepared for an adventure?
—What would my wife say? He lowered the windows and they burbled out under the gold streetlights. Phantom fingers ruffled his hair.
—If she were still alive? What would your wife say about you carousing with a random woman almost young enough to be your daughter?
—I expect she’d be okay. She’d see the humour in everything.
The low fuel warning burned a sudden orange as the car slurred up a gear. —There is a light that never goes out, she sang laughingly, drumming the armrest. Their shadow skimmed long on the vibracrete walls as they drove into the dark. A big mournful freight train seemed to run alongside them, slowly, but it was in fact a decoupled locomotive oiled and blacked in the yard of the town museum.
They pulled in at a garage whose canopy was weathered and splitting and tacked back inadequately. An attendant appeared, arms stretching into a coat like a crow landing. Wopko filled the tank and watched as a minibus pulled up and disgorged a clamorous babble of night worshippers. The small multitude rolled their eyes upon Wopko and Boitumelo and the green Mercedes.
—They probably think you’re some Free State farmer and I’m your Christmas entertainment, she said, reclining the seat with a squawk. The night seemed paused in expectation of something, and Wopko peered down the road as though he thought some strange nativity scene would materialise.
The attendant appeared at the window all bleary-eyed and uncaring, and she paid for the fuel with an imperious tap of her card. He turned the key and the Mercedes shook free of the quiet.
—Does it always start, Wopko?
—Sometimes age works against it, but yes, it invariably starts. I don’t know what I’d do if it didn’t.
—Find something else?
—Find something else, I expect.
They drove on towards the morning, which was beginning already to lighten the inky night. Wopko’s eyelids began to feel heavy as they dawned on Bloemfontein, and he looked over at Boitumelo, who had her face against the side window, watching the reflections in the car’s paintwork. Are you tired?
—Where shall we seek our shelter?
—How about The Avenues?
—Bed bugs, she shuddered.
—The Bloemfontein Inn?
—They close their doors at 3am!
—We could just drive until we find ourselves somewhere. All the roads are available to us.
—This is usually the part of the story where the two actors go on a killing spree, Wopko said as he swung around a pothole that loomed up out of the dark.
—Those sorts of stories only work when there’s a hangman or an electric chair somewhere, Wopko.
—What if we don’t do that, and we just let things fall into place, and you die a bag of happy bones at some unspecified point in the future? We could start a jazz band.
In the end, they did not stop. They drove on into the Sunday, and it seemed a suitable thing to do.
— Do you want to know a fact about hotels?
—Did you know that Vladimir Nabokov burned down a hotel?
—Not really. Would you like to drive?
- Wamuwi Mbao is an essayist, cultural critic and academic at Stellenbosch University. Follow him on Twitter.
One thought on “[Fiction Issue] ‘In Search of an Exit’, an excerpt from a work-in-progress by Wamuwi Mbao”