The JRB presents a new short story by Wamuwi Mbao.
From the Air
Fare forward, you who think that you are voyaging;
You are not those who saw the harbour
Receding, or those who will disembark.
Come a little closer. You wait for the hot water to assert itself. Dancing before the droplets, cleanliness stolen. You give yourself over to the process. Get clean. Go. The sky has night’s grey hue still. You open a window, stare out over the curated courtyard. You breathe deeply. Out. In. Out. In.
‘All our apartments are restored,’ the salesperson had beamed. Her smile was cemented to her face and would not be dislodged by anything you said. The Winelands quarter had been salvaged, and a handful of buildings that used to accommodate students were now leased to government workers like yourself at bargain rates. You signed the standard lease. That was before this.
You are meant to drop off your pot plants at the nursery at 9 a.m. You leave at 9.30. You forget the plants. You drive through an absurd play of normalness, the suburbs that lie behind Stop Nonsense, the perimeter border of the Winelands quarter. Maids push babies and lead toddlers in the Astroturf parks. The growing of grass is not yet permitted. The bad things are always the first to return.
You arrive at the boundary. A man turns a sullen stare to you and asks for your travel permit. You show him your card, and he retreats into his booth. As you pass through into the outer containment zone, ash snows from the sky, floating in through the vents of your car and settling in a dandruff carpet on the dash. The vineyards are shrivelled and brown, but there is a sweetness in the air, as if ghostly grapes still hang on the vines.
You stop the car next to Spier forest. You walk through the woods, skirting the ruins of the hotel until you find your favourite spot, a clearing where a darkened tree stump provides a suitable perch. The containment zone has been cleared of people ahead of the farm lands within it officially being designated a food securitisation precinct, so you feel quite safe. From brown waxed paper you eat strawberry jam, sweet and rough between pieces of floury white bread. Bread became routine again a few years ago, once new methods had been found.
You crunch ash beneath your feet as you head back to the car. The sun has warmed glues and solvents on the car’s interior. The smell reminds you of your mother, of holidays and the panicked flight from the centre of the catastrophe. The car squeaks as you rejoin the road, and you and the noises you carry go on down the road towards what will happen.
‘Low Water: See Owner’s Manual.’ The bing takes you by surprise. Where did it go? Where did it all go? You’re not the only one, you say.
You drive until you reach the onramp that takes you onto the highway that marks the end of the outer containment zone. The boom is raised and the guard booths are empty. You wonder if it’s a shift change, or if the containment zones are even necessary any more. People know their place. You ease through the gears, feeling the coarsened road vibrating up through the wheel. Rusting wrecked old cars and buses litter the tarmac. The city will get to these in the next stage of its cleanup plan, it promises.
There are craters in the middle of the tarmac as you drive past the exit to the airport, an overgrown path where tall brown weeds defy the barbed wire that fences off the road. In the years leading up to now, the airport has been a no-go area, but there is talk of clearing the slums built on the runways, and Massnet has spoken of one day reopening the airport as a museum. As you swerve past one crater, you see a T-shirt floating in a turmeric ooze, its own colours bleached. PANIC. DON’T PANIC. A fitting message for these times, you think.
The people appear as you draw closer to the city, stragglers pushing shopping trolleys and having joyous conversations. Here, in the lee of the old water works that lie a hundred metres from the road like a creature from another time, everyone is happy. People cross the expressway, stepping over the rubble where the central divide used to be. Children kick a football on a sandy field, and as you slow to navigate your way around another pockmark in the asphalt, an emaciated goat lurches from the shadow of an overturned truck.
The first traffic appears as you pass the broken facade of the Rondebosch Hotel. A truck heads a convoy of smaller vehicles, all bearing the blue and white plates of the government. On the back of the truck stand four young men, their hair closely cropped, assault rifles trained on the vacant buildings they pass. This zone is yet to be fully contained, and while some enterprising people have already started buying up the old buildings, painting them gaudy yellows and greens in expectation of resettlements, there is still danger.
You slow as you enter New Claremont, stopping at a boom gate to ask directions. The booth is crowded with bored soldiers, one of whom is strumming on a gaudily-painted mandolin. ‘Take a right where the new shopping district is going to be. Then keep going past where the new apartments are coming up, and go straight till you see the place where they’re thinking of putting up that drive-in coffee shop.’ You follow his instructions, watching the temperature gauge of your car slowly climb as you trail the convoy. Things are looking up, here.
The convoy slows suddenly. You see more people with guns, more relaxed this time, who wave your coughing car into the Protocol area. The Reclaimed Quarter is expanding daily, they say. Soon, the government will have taken back the old Observatory area, but refurbishment of Claremont is proceeding at a dizzying pace. A Massnet billboard shouts ‘Be a Homeowner This Time Next Year!’ The buildings are lit in ways they haven’t been for years, and old and young stroll the streets and say ghastly things to each other. There are jugglers in one of the parks, and were it not for the signs warning of the curfew you would forget that things are different now. Just before you descend into the repurposed mall that now serves as an outpost of the state, you hear music playing. Someone has decided that since malls had music before they should have music again. The old errors repeat themselves.
In the parking lot, a valet takes your bags while another parks the protesting car with a look of determination on her face. You shake hands with Captain Fumani, who is leading the project, and with Cavendish from the ministry, who hand you forms to complete with a signature you’ve forgotten how to use. ‘We’re briefing you at 4 p.m., and the helicopter leaves for The Six at daybreak. Do you need anything?’ Cavendish has the manner of an old headmistress, and Fumani rests her hand on your shoulder as you go first up the elevator, and then into a lift.
You know the captain. You last saw each other some years ago on a cold grey beach. She came towards you on the wind with the sand dissolving under her heels. Were the skies already forecasting the coming change? Now she is here in a new configuration, uniformed and erotically responsible and asking you about yourself as though your last words were not matched to the roar of the going sea.
‘Are you excited?’ Fumani asks, with the breathy thrill you remember fluttering in her voice, like meaning waiting to spring. You feel the hairs on your arms tingle and you wonder if anyone will notice the deep red spreading up to your ears. You look down at your watch and notice that it has stopped.
‘I am,’ you say, and you mean it. Here, finally, is a chance to put into practice all you have studied and trained for. ‘It’s a chance to work in the biggest sound archive in the Southern Hemisphere,’ you add.
Cavendish smiles indulgently. ‘It’s a chance to contribute to reversing food insecurity,’ she says. The elevator halts reluctantly, and the doors swing open with a hush of hot grease.
‘There are a couple of you specialists who’ll be putting this project together,’ Cavendish intones meaningfully as they show you to your door. An apartment that in its former days offered speculatively priced living to the wealthy scions of the previous order. A reclaimed building, complete with industrial finishes and a doorman whose coat fails to disguise the pistol holstered to his side.
You shut the door. A cloud of dust emerges unbidden from the door frame. Somewhere else on the same floor a cough rattles, making your lungs itch. A bar fridge in the corner keeps drawing your attention with burps and guffaws. Coca Cola. What passes for Coca Cola, these days. Syrupy to hide the familiar taste of the mechanically recovered water. The reclaimed quarters have their compromises, but by and large the living is pleasant. There is a print above the bed of Nikola Tesla reading a book by the sparking light of his transformers. You drink and watch the fridge light create weak triangles across the tiled slate floor. You open the fridge. You close the fridge. Something pleasing in the action, in the magnetic tug that impels the door.
You go into the bathroom. Towels, not quite threadbare, and a futile painting by someone who must have wanted better for his work than this. You inspect the fittings. The taps have been smudged by the cleaning attentions of a heavy hand. In the bathroom cupboard, more towels, safety razors, soaps and shampoos in frosted bottles with a name etched out. MANSARD HOTEL, betrays the monogram on a small bottle of lotion.
You go back into the main room. There is a continuous humming in the walls, pipes and wires running above and below, connecting the top of the building to the bottom. Every so often, a water pipe clanks triumphantly as someone slakes his thirst or cleans her teeth. You pick up the telephone and order alfredo pasta from a laminated menu. It arrives bland and greasy, but you eat it watching the children and the old people walking the streets below, and feel absurd.
How have you found yourself here? There was no great accident or specialness of purpose on your part. You were one of those who hadn’t died, and as long as there were people who lived, there was a need for some sort of structure. You went along with this logic and going along had kept you safe, so far.
Shortly before 4 p.m., the man who coughs leaves his room. A closing door and dragged heels on the carpet. You wait for quiet, then you step out into the corridor. You walk into the elevator, which bears you down to the ground floor. In the lobby, the concierge directs you to the briefing venue as though he had been waiting with the sole purpose of giving you these instructions. ‘It’s just round the corner, down the Green Route,’ he says, his eyebrows arching out of sequence to what he is saying.
As you walk, one of the other specialists falls in with you. You exchange natural and rehearsed pleasantries. The man walks with his eyes scanning the ground ahead of his feet. All his movements seem to draw from a programme, as though he is calculating exactly how much to bend each knee, how far to throw each foot forward, when to swing which arm in order to appear normal.
‘Have I met you before?’ Something of the man’s sad expression and shambling gait and rust-haired openness reminds you of another time. You pass through the glass and granite arms of the Massnet briefing centre, bouncing names and places against each other. During the briefing, recognition dawns. This man in an oversized tweed coat was at high school with you. You may have swapped sandwiches with him once. How small the world seems now. In the cold, bright room Fumani is outlining the main stages of Project Thalassa, the wheres and the whos and the whys. You half listen, nodding as she tells you that you are to be assigned to Noreniushoek base in the Moordenaar’s Karoo. The man is assigned to the same base.
‘Your task,’ Fumani purrs, ‘is to research the very fabric of sound. We believe that we can use sound waves to draw up new reserves of water …’ The culture archive was moved to Noreniushoek after it was discovered that the area had emerged from the spate of arson attacks largely unscathed. The professor’s voice fills your head like a benign fog, as she describes what you will be doing. You wonder about what the cultural archive has to do with the recovery of water. It doesn’t seem to add up, but everyone sounds so confident.
‘… In order to enhance current levels of security.’ Her voice is as efficient as the instructions she dispenses. There are three other people nearby, an impertinent-looking girl in a polka-dot blouse, a man whose rheumy-eyed stare deflects yours, and someone whose head—or the back of it, that’s all you can see—is augmented by a pair of ears whose tips point ambitiously outward.
The briefing passes quickly. Fumani recruited you because you’d made a name for yourself before the destruction creating audio soundscapes—audioscapes, you called them on the business cards—for television, films. These days, you produce freelance work for the state’s radio plays, recording sizzling bacon for rain and slapping melons to produce punches. You have awards.
‘Artists are going to be very important, going forward,’ Fumani is saying. ‘Our experiments on the effects of sound will be instrumental to securitisation from this point on.’ She follows this with general instructions, words on the remuneration, and what exactly they know. You nod, growing increasingly restless to flow out into the world again. Through the window, the brightness of the day is dissipating like smoke, giving way with a long shear of light, which narrows as the briefing goes on. The light bounces off the points in the room’s wood panelling that have been worn smooth by frequent polishing with resentful hands.
Across the room are the man and the others who will work under Fumani. A Jarred. A Sipho. A Marcie (ie, she says). Two Daves. You don’t see the owner of the cough, or he doesn’t present himself. The briefing is interrupted abruptly when a man bursts into the conference room and strides purposefully to Cavendish with a message in a brown envelope. You wonder why the envelope is necessary. Cavendish exchanges meaningful looks with Fumani, who clasps her hands together and moves quickly to her conclusion. She beams at you especially, and the look hovers just long enough to draw the room’s attention. You watch them leave the room, as the other members of your division look around in mutual awkwardness.
You walk back to the lodgings. The streets are empty, suddenly, and so glaringly lit as to almost replicate daylight, though there is no warmth to the brilliance. Down the street tinkles the familiar vacuum truck, inhaling the grey talc that settles throughout the day on the sidewalks and window ledges. On the sidewalk, two scuffed shoes, not a pair, are placed neatly, as though awaiting the return of their owners. You imagine two hapless people clumping about with one cold foot. You look at your own shoes.
‘You know, I don’t get people.’ The man is beside you once more.
‘What do you mean?’
‘So many of them are born who aren’t suited for what’s expected of them,’ he says.
You remember this man, or a younger version of him. You remember sneaking into the boy’s changing room during PE. You remember hiding his shoes—you knew they were his because they were always scuffed, because he was always tripping over them. You wonder if this is why he stares at his feet all the time, as if daring his shoes to disappear. You distrust him, years later.
At the hotel, he invites you to have a drink with him at the bar. ‘They’ve got a good whiskey,’ he cajoles. You consent, and you sit, and he tells you what he thinks and you mostly listen. Several whiskeys in, he says ‘I remember being young, and I remember feeling …’ The words escape him and he sits up straight in his seat and stares at the ceiling as if the words will drop from there. ‘I remember feeling that I would live forever. It made me sad to think we’d outlive the animals, the trees. I didn’t think I’d outlive the water. Do you know Hazyview?’
‘There was a spring in Hazyview that me and my brother would go to with our grandparents every Sunday.’ You stare ahead of you at a faded advert in which a barrel-chested man encourages you to stay as you are for the rest of your life, or change to— ‘… and feeling like he would never die, that he was so strong that he and the Cressida and the spring would be there forever.’ He swirls his glass so that the stones clack together in a facsimile of ice.
You think of your mother, cutting and shaping and massaging the work of writers into things that could be published and sold, and you think about the solidity of your bookshelf—salvaged from the first fires—back in the Winelands quarter. ‘The poor old Past, the Future’s slave,’ your mother would echo her favourite author. How sudden, how overwhelming, this disaster that left only ash and destruction and a sea more undrinkable than ever. ‘My mother,’ you say, ‘would cut up old magazines for me when I was a child. She would pick something—cats, or horses, say—and she would arrange all the photos on a table in front of me. And in some of the pictures, the cats or the horses would be the main focus—someone’s pet, or a prize winner. And in others, they might be in the background, blurred or out of frame. And she would let me arrange these pictures into collages. And I realise now that this was her way of telling me how I should see the world.’
He looks confused.
From the unrestful depths of your being, you want to say things about loss and anguish to this man. You smile instead and detach yourself with excuses about the early start. He watches you go, and you know. A wind asserts its sway outside, blowing the flagpole so that it creaks. You slouch into the elevator, towards the safety of your room, to be alone.
Because the ash settles on the skin too, turning you a gradual grey and sedimenting your soul, you exploit the fact that the hotel is not in the restriction zone. You turn on the tap in the shower, and the one in the sink too, so that the room fills with a heavy, oily steam. You scrub, and the scrubbing clears a path for you to think through what must happen next. Wring. Drip. The desire for clean. The futility of it. Who lives amid this dust, this coughing, this weeping?
You dream, that night, of the harbour, and the empty deaths, like a hollowed-out skull, boats like rusty maggots beached, telling their destruction. You see faces you’ll never see again, walking between the ships, walking out where the sea had been. You hear the roar of the incoming sea. A grey squall rushes in, and you scream, willing them to make for home. Fishermen appear on the boats, boats that do not float as the sludging, slushing water fills the gaps in the land, deadening, silencing.
You wake, sweating. You wash. You drive to the new airfield, where a phalanx of planes sits waiting. They’re American planes. You board a helicopter that coughs apologetically into the sky. You squint out of a smeared window, grateful for the movement and the chilled morning air. You pass out over the Foreshore, see the shanty-towns that blot out the roadway, and beyond them the low ridge that keeps back the dead, unmoving waters. The dry gashed hollow where the sea once ran slanders the Waterfront. Even before the flames had reduced the malls and hotels to a collection of ghastly black skeletons looming out of the perpetual shade of The Point, the buildings had been overrun by skulking groups who grew bolder when they realised that nobody was coming to chase them from these places. ‘Every year the sea moves further and further away,’ says the man unhelpfully. ‘You’ll soon be able to walk to Robben Island.’
The ridge is soon incandesced by the sun, which backlights the helicopter as you head inland. Soon, you are over the Karoo. The horizon seems to melt away below the syrupy daybreak. ‘It has always been itself,’ says the owner of the ears, and something else which is lost to the wind. The pilot turns his head, gives an indulgent smile. ‘Once we land, it’s a short hop to the base.’ He waves an arm. ‘There’s nothing to make sense of out here, and it’ll defeat anyone who tries.’
The Jeep that bears you to the base has been hacked from some other beast of burden—a discordant bright yellow with chintzy stickers promising the ability to visit future frontiers. THE CIVILISED WAY TO GET TO UNCIVILISED PLACES. They didn’t think that one through. The driver spits out of the window and wipes a brooming moustache. The air smells like refrigerant, and when you pass people they seem mesmerised, their faces overexposed in the morning light. You struggle to focus on their features.
Then you are at Noreniushoek, where after a short tour of the creaking accommodation that will house you for ninety days you are escorted to a squat stone building. On the wall, inscribed on a metal plate are the words
You descend to a cool basement. The walls amplify a soft humming white noise. The archives. The tapes. There are recordings down here of every noise, every sound. You take the lead, with Fumani’s permission, and instruct the team on what to seek out. ‘Mothers crying for dead babies. Violent crashes. Giddy laughter.’ You read from a list you started working on weeks before. ‘Each sound is an important component—pay attention and feel how they affect you.’ You play them an old radio advert for a Hudson Terraplane, slowing it and modulating it so that the voice vibrates across the ceiling and drums against the floor. ‘See?’
Once each noise is selected, you feed them into a program you developed that turns the sounds into digital codes, allowing you to amplify their effects. Babies yawl nightmarishly, screams of terror are stretched and lifted almost beyond the limits of human hearing. The work fills your lungs. By the end of the first week, you taste metal on your tongue after each day. You immerse yourself in music you’ve never heard before, in looping clips that make the sample ground churn and seeth. Fumani is pleased.
You’re standing outside, a mole in the grey gossamer light. Your own breath grates in your ears as you ask Fumani for a cigarette. ‘Mphepo,’ she says, passing you a verdant stick. You fill yourself with this luxury, feel the rich burn of the smoke in your nostrils. Ash settles like dandruff on Fumani’s coat. You brush it off. The gesture feels too familiar. She smiles at you. ‘It’s been a long time.’
‘Has it?’ You wish you had thought of something cleverer. She always thought you were funny. It seems incomprehensible that you are here together because of work.
‘How are you?’ She asks you this with no ill will clouding her features. The past is a deleted story.
‘Oh fine, I guess. You know.’
‘The work is unusual.’ She says this as though the strangeness of what you are doing must be confirmed.
‘I wish I knew what I was doing here.’
She looks like she’s about to say something, and then her phone rings and she says, ‘Sorry.’ And to her phone, she says, ‘Hey! How are you? Listen, so we’ve started …’ as she walks away.
You go back to the security of your bunker, where the whirling machines seem louder now. You hear your mother’s voice raised in a shriek of denial. You hear your own voice bouncing off her as you chase her down the hall. We were just. We weren’t. Your mother accepted much about the world as her own sadness, and this too became part of the story of her disillusionment.
You dream an unsettling dream. You are running away from the promenade, running with your throat closed in terror. You look back, and you see a dog chasing you. The dog is at least three metres high. The dog is made of light, and its collar is on fire. Its bark echoes around you, unsteadying your feet as you run desperately. You feel like you’re about to get swept off your feet, like in those old cartoons where the bad cat snaps the rug and the mouse gets flung into the air.
You wake up crying and the tears feel sticky on your face. Get a grip. That’s what people say in the movies, right? Why don’t you get a grip? There’s a stillness in the dark. The frame of light surrounding the door compels you into an empty hallway. You pad to the shared bathrooms, whose fluorescent lights bathe a speckled grey concrete floor. A red speckle at your toe catches your eye. The alchemy of granite, sedimented meaning beholden only to itself. You catch yourself in the mirror, pale contrast to the indigo waterless gel that slips from the taps. Your eyes seem more ringed than they were when you started Project Thalassa.
One evening, you’re at the controls again, this time with the man sitting across from you at another bank of machines. It’s 3 a.m., and you’re sampling the licking, cracking sound of a burning car. Slowed down, the noises become disgruntled bangs and pops that send the meters into the red at the end of their dials. The sound of dreams ending. The noise makes you feel parched and unwell. You tell Fumani. She scoffs. ‘You’re almost there! We’ve had great results so far in our testing.’
You are not permitted to observe this testing. Once, you and the man walk through to the testing area, but you are stopped by a cadaverous guard who refuses to make eye contact, waving you away with his rifle. You return to your quarters. You wash your hands. The gel is now red—you can’t tell if it’s the gel or the light or your imagination or nothing at all. It looks like death. It never wipes away enough for your liking.
‘There are graves in the testing area,’ the owner of the pointed ears mentions conspiratorially, on the fortieth day of your work. You sneak down, bribe one of the guards to let you see. You wonder what they’re doing in there.
‘They say,’ the guard confides, ‘that they’ve found something that will benefit the new society very much.’ He looks tired, ill even.
‘Is it water? Is that remotely plausible?’ You know it isn’t.
‘I don’t think it’s water, Miss.’
You wake to the sound of nails being hammered into a wooden floor. The dull thud resolves itself into a knocking at your door. You stumble out of bed, and find the man before you, wild-eyed and whispering. ‘I know what they’re doing down there!’
‘What? What are they doing?’ Your vision has been blurry and your thoughts clouded for the past week. You think you’re coming down with something.
‘Shhh! Did you learn to whisper in a train station? They took Thandaza away,’ he says. ‘She’s coughing up blood. They’re testing this thing on people. They’re using it as a weapon.’
The room rocks, your head pounds. What have you been part of? Fumani walks past, whistling a strange tuneless song. If she has heard you, she doesn’t show it. You cough, draw a red hand away from your mouth. You scream.
Fumani runs in. ‘What’s the matter?’ You hear an unguarded tenderness in her voice. Then she looks from you to the man, and back to you, her eyes narrowing.
You show her your hand. ‘What’s going on here?’ You start towards her.
She puts her hand into her pocket. ‘You must understand that protection is the first necessity of the new state.’
‘Yes, but at what cost? Protecting who?’
‘Justice exists without people. Operation Jericho will provide us with a weapon that will allow us to recover order from the debris. It will return us to order.’ She smiles sadly. ‘Look at how things are now. Living without certainty. We have a chance to make our own reality. All of us.’ She whirls and sinks a syringe into the neck of the man. He collapses without a word. The world swims. You hear her voice, as if through cotton wool, as she starts towards you. You turn in terror and smack into the doorframe. The world goes black.
The sound of whirring helicopter blades stirs you into consciousness. You keep your eyes closed against the throbbing in your head. Through your lashes, you see Fumani is giving instructions to the pilot. She glances over her shoulder at you. She turns back towards the window. They haven’t bothered to tie you up.
‘You’re awake, I see.’ She hasn’t turned back to you.
‘Where are we going?’ You feel a cough building up and you smother it with your sleeve.
‘We’re going to try out your experiment,’ she says simply.
‘Five minutes, ma’am,’ the pilot says. You look out into the inky dark. There are fires in the distance. ‘Is that Robben Island?’
‘It is the former Robben Island, currently an unregulated zone, soon to become a vibrant Massnet holiday precinct, once we clear it.’
‘Clear it of what?’
‘Of people.’ She smiles, and you remember her denying you to your schoolmates. Denying you to the teachers. Her mother called your mother and your mother had listened, her mouth and her heart clamping shut as she stared at you. Get a grip.
Fumani turns to give instructions to the pilot. You seize the opportunity and grab the emergency flare under your seat. You pull the catch and fire it forwards. It embeds itself in the pilot’s head, and he slumps over the controls in a spray of blood and confusion.
‘What did you do?’ Fumani screams, as the helicopter veers left, and then right. You grab her foot and bring her down as she tries to reach the controls. The flare is spitting hot pyrotechnics and filling the cabin with red smoke. You see Fumani kick open the door, and you kick her, and she falls soundlessly through the opening. The helicopter sways drunkenly, a symphony of warnings as it tries to steady itself. A radio crackles into life. ‘Swartz, come in! What’s happening up there? Are you in distress?’
You unhitch the radio from its holder and lean back into your seat. ‘This is the captain speaking.’ You feel like you’re in a film you’ve seen before.
‘Who is this?’ The flare expends itself, and you pull the captain’s body back off the controls, causing the helicopter to lurch and arc lazily. ‘Nobody’s here,’ you say into the radio.
‘Let me talk to the captain. Where is Captain Jansen?’
You pause. ‘She’s not available right now.’
The radio dies. The helicopter is scribing a lazy circle. Should you strap yourself in? Should you wait for something to happen? You could just stay here. You could just wait.