Multidisciplinary artist and award-winning author Phumlani Pikoli passed away tragically this week, aged thirty-three.
Phumlani was an inspiring and passionate artist. In his memory, read this excerpt from his collection of short stories, The Fatuous State of Severity.
Simon Molefe was the saxophonist who made the airwaves and defined the new era of South Africa. He played the kind of music that was so easy on the ear that it was hard to not consider him the sound of a rainbow imagined by peace and love. His notes spread from violet to green and receded into the shades of monochromatic past times that were considered ‘turbulent’ by the polite and ‘ghastly’ by sufferers. His was the sound of an African dream come true. A special star. The rains blessed by God in Africa. He was the seeing of Mandela. A nation healed.
The man himself was a humble figure, carved of wire and tight skin with very few creases. A light tan, topped by salt and pepper. He walked with a gait held steady by a back going crooked. He had a confidence highlighted by a modesty rarely unchecked. He didn’t need to do much, he simply asked and received. He laughed with an infectious slight, a melody that kept his company guessing whether they were being laughed with or at. His accolades, worn with a certain deference but often callously disregarded, gave him opportunity to criticise with impunity. At his best, he was hard to keep up with, and at his lowest impossible to understand. He pinned himself to the hopes and dreams of so many that he barely remembered to count himself in.
Simon, with his gaited step, was often seen exploring around the major cities. He had an impervious field around him, one that allowed him to wander wherever. Without skipping a beat, he was always recognised, even in the darkest of corners, which he had begun to explore more often as his years got on. He was the talk of the shadows; always careful to keep only taxi fare on him, he entered and left seamlessly. He was taken in with open arms and celebrated without need for a wallet. On the rare occasion that hands found their way into his pockets, their contents were always returned for their feeble holdings. As the years unfolded and he became more celebrated, in the new world that he had ‘helped’ shape, a strange nostalgia took hold of the country he had ‘helped’ create. A reminiscing of a bygone era to which he had given an impeccable soundtrack. His lullaby melodies, with their upbeat phrases, made it into the annals of optimism acquired through an exchange of cultural pleasantries. In the wake of it all, Simon sought the shadows prior to and after the curtain calls. He had also begun to take to agitating organisers by asking for the accompaniment of his newfound company in whatever city he found himself playing.
Corners were awash with the rumours of Simon’s travels around the country and the habit he had been developing. Eyes were kept on gig guides, waiting for him to come to their city. He was fast reinventing his own legend. He was now becoming a true urban legend. To Simon, all of this proved a point he had reiterated in his own mind: that he needed neither management nor modern technology to both reinvent himself and rouse new interest in his own work. His performance had begun a long time ago—he knew that the day he was allowed to step on stage, he would never leave it. His internal monologue agitated him constantly, urging him to remain frustrated and immerse himself into the different realities that presented themselves to him through his performances. He saw his saxophone as the instrument with which he could travel through any space in which he found himself. He was neither curtailed by nor hung up on the preconceived ideas of people who had little understanding of how to wield change and attest to affecting a social fabric woven by means of a narrative of complementary ideas. Simon did not think of himself as important enough to be political in the conventional sense. He merely wielded a political will that was his own with the tools he was given. A trait that very few were gifted, he thought to himself. At this realisation, his sense of self-importance grew.
He didn’t read the paper, satisfied by the headlines he saw on the streets.
‘Legendary Saxophonist Turns Urban,’ one read. ‘Simon Molefe The City Slicker,’ read another. He figured that his work was done for the summer. He had played enough shows to fall back into his own shadow and hibernate. He knew the walk of fame all too well and had let it go many years ago. He had his own routine to return to. Every summer the people wanted a show and he gave it to them. But at the end of each summer he yielded to predilections beyond his control. Calls that he had to answer. Calls he actively ignored in the summer, distracted by its heat and subscriptions.
The cold never crept in for him. It was as sudden as the jolt of pain when stubbing a toe. He knew it all too well and couldn’t help himself. Daylight lost its colour. The trees shook without wind and the ground became an unsteady stretch of dirt. With the walls on the verge of collapsing, he had to give into the adaptation process he knew he had to undergo.
He was circumspect to cut off all forms of communication. Organisers worth their salt knew that if he did not pick up on their third attempt, it meant that his season was done. For him, the cellular phone was a source of panic, a reminder that technology was moving on without him. It was the first to disappear in the throbbing burden of change. He had a landline installed in his apartment years ago for just this reason.
Sounds of multi-layered conversation began to din through the pulsating drumming in his ears. Sweat dripped down the collapsed spine of his crooked back. He lay naked in his bed, feeling his shoulder bones crack as they set in the bed. The curtains would stay open today. He would not be able to get up for the rest of it. The sunlight beat its way through his closed eyelids and forced stars to play in the pitch black of his mind’s eye. The conversations continued without his consciousness. They continued with it. His mouth stayed open and saliva pooled onto his pillow, wetting the cheek upon which he lay. The conversations weren’t stopping. The metallic cerise tint made it hard for him to open his eyes to the light. His bladder, long weakened by age and excess, remained in a pool that went from warm to cold in an instant. He needed the day to end. The sun’s rays found their ways onto his skin in varying degrees and his body shivered as they tickled him ever so slightly. The joy was an agony he could ill afford. His stomach yearned for contents and he felt fingers fumbling behind his navel, begging for sustenance. He lay there, unable to move, he lay there. His mouth eventually dried and, barely swallowing, he felt his hardened trachea almost choke him on an attempt. Once dried of lubricant, the dry husk at the back of his throat was unable to fathom its own function. He wanted the conversations to cease and for his body to resume functionality, but the sun was still up and teased his motionless being.
Swept under, he finally fluttered his eyes to a dimming light. Finally. He counted the seconds, if only to try to drown out the conversations and laughter in his head. A cold gust crept through his window cracks and scoured its way to his bed and bit his teeth, giving him new energy. He took in a painful breath of ice, which stabbed his lungs, and he fell out of his bed, landing head first and then rolling onto his back. He turned on his side and slithered, towards the bathroom, his sagging manhood dragging across the carpet. He’d open the bath tap and drink from it, raising himself over the bath with the last strength he could muster. And so he did. His upper body over the bath and his lower hanging off it, the water began to revive him. He closed the tap and dropped back onto the floor. Finally able to stand, he surveyed his bachelor flat in the fading light. He made his way to the kitchen and opened his cabinet, untouched for a season. He took out a can, opened it and reached inside, using his fingers to deliver its contents in and around his mouth. Once finished, the can rolled across the tiled floor and another was opened, destined to meet the same fate. A third, fourth, fifth.
Appetite sated, he returned to the bathroom to run his face and head under the tap. Without dressing or doing anything else, he lay across his bed and reached for the phone parked on the floor nearby. He dialled the only number that would be called from his phone every day for the rest of the season in the apartment he would not leave.
‘Today. Yes. What time? I can wait. Don’t forget that your presence is also required. Yes, extra.’
He waited patiently, strolling around the apartment, scratching around as if it weren’t his. He stuck his fingers into the empty cans to clean them of their residue. The knock finally came and he made his way to the door without dressing. He’d remain that way for the rest of the season in the apartment he would not leave. There were no words exchanged. She walked in, wearing a leather coat, her husband behind her. They’d all have sex in the dark and the couple wouldn’t feign pleasure. Simon would watch her husband when he was with her and her when with him and neither would break eye contact with him. Simon would pay her, looking neither in the eye again. Unmoved, she’d take the money and they’d leave. The process would repeat itself every day for the rest of the season in the apartment he would not leave. The conversations continued, the days were always long, the nights too short.