The JRB presents new fiction by Wamuwi Mbao.
Sebenza brought recruiters to our villages
And took men far away to the mines
Where they died without knowing.
Sebenza took their hearing
Sebenza broke their backs
Sebenza tore out their lungs
And sent them home
When their shells were hollow.
We work our whole life
For nothing but pain
Then Sebenza forgets
To take us back again.
Thomas had woken with a start, well before first light. Why was the night so long? Gary Cooper was chasing something in the darkness. Thomas closed his eyes and tried to shake off his restlessness. He had felt it rising through the floor, slipping over the bed until it lapped about his shoulders. When the darkness had meant that the candles had to come out, he had washed his clothes, propped up the chair behind the door and drawn the curtains. He had watered his plants, which stubbornly refused to die in the scraggly soil and yet also refused to give themselves over to the business of growing. He had read the newspaper twice. The second time he read the headlines aloud to the cat.
Thomas’s house was one of many identical, white-washed houses, which crouched in timid rows on the gentle slope. There he lived with the cat, who was named after one of his owner’s favourite actors. He and Gary Cooper were the inhabitants of a two-roomed dwelling whose bare iron ceiling and draughty doors transmitted no great meaning. The house seemed barely big enough, and yet Thomas tried as best he could to give it an air of hospitality. In one corner of the room was a desk Dinorego had made him. The top was itself scavenged from an old table, while the frame with its simple metal legs had been welded down the road with the help of the exhaust patchers.
Thomas’s favourite activity was to wander past the usual corners of Mzimhlophe in search of conversation with his oldest friend. The night was a muddy grey that tucked itself around every cranny, with moonlight illuminating the box-houses whose owners were caught in troubles they couldn’t solve. The coal braziers that warmed and fed Mzimhlophe also produced an orange glow that was soothing to eyes and bones that had toiled throughout the day. Thomas’s haunt was past the many grubby pathways and across to Flamingo Lane, where no flamingos had ever been seen. There he passed flickering faces, mostly men, who were passing around bottles and shooing away pathetic dogs whose ribs reflected their suffering, until he reached Dinorego’s yard.
‘Another one, tomorrow,’ Dinorego said.
‘Is it? Whereabouts?’
‘Just down the road from the hotel.’
Dinorego was a library caretaker, and Thomas’s oldest friend. He had already lit the fire when Thomas arrived, a flaming pyre of wood poking out of a tall tin drum. The two men watched the growing glow, listening to the sounds of life spilling off the rooftops and down the alleyways. Their nocturnal conversations were an old and established habit in which both delighted. They had met when they were both staying in rooms atop the Melmoth Mansions building, when Dinorego worked there as an assistant to an old white couple. The previous occupant of Thomas’s room had stumbled in front of a Putco bus one morning, causing a messy scene and a vacancy. Thomas had managed to secure the flat by replacing Putco man as the building security guard, and he had been intrigued by his neighbour, who sat on the rooftop sketching scenes from the city on his days off. The two had become firm friends, living their strange existence in an area where Black people were forbidden to live.
‘So are we going?’
‘Do we ever miss out?’ Dinorego returned his question.
‘Not if we can help it!’ He let out a laugh that sailed off into the dark night. In their time, they had seen the city restlessly changing and concreting and demolishing itself, as if it couldn’t make up its mind what it wanted to be. Both men were now at a point in their lives where questions about wives and families had ceased to have any urgency to them. Dinorego had a sister somewhere who didn’t care to keep in touch, and all Thomas’s surviving relations were too busy to care about an aging man who preferred the friendship of a cat to pursuing the family way.
The two men shared a love of the city, its hurling pace and its constant buzz of things being done and undone. They loved nothing more than to watch people. Since that was the primary activity of being a guard, they had evolved a lively interest in the passers-by. Someone might walk past and trip, scattering his papers as he fell. The papers would dutifully evade his grasp, whipping playfully out of his reach, settling in gutters or being carried off on funnelled gusts of wind to places unknown. Later, the men would share their stories, Thomas lingering over one detail or another, and Dinorego sketching his drawings in miniature to repeat in larger form later.
Most of his daylight hours were now spent behind a concierge’s desk that faced a pair of locked doors, sharing the duties with another man who arrived with a stash of newspapers under his arm and never said a word. A squad of guards were stationed around the perimeter of the hotel, to dissuade anybody from trying to secure accommodation on the cheap, and Thomas’s duties mostly consisted of ensuring the men reported for work in the morning, and that their shift changeovers proceeded smoothly. The hotel itself had opened in the early seventies when Thomas’s acting career had been in its ascendancy, and so he felt a kind of kinship for the mothballed building. Like the hotel, he felt that he too was biding his time and waiting for the day when he would be appreciated and celebrated again. In the meantime, it helped that the hotel was a block away from the library where Dinorego worked. It allowed them to share companionable hours sitting in the grounds of the library or sunning themselves in garden chairs on the hotel’s elevated pool deck, which sat three floors above the road.
And in the summer evenings when the orange light splashed across the tall buildings, before the shadows claimed their share of the city, they liked nothing more than to walk together in concerted step, watching the buildings glitter pink and brass, the curtains of the apartments fluttering out a signal of life beyond the windows. Thomas thought of the people he glimpsed as they hurried for their train, the faces looking out hopefully or with bored expressions before they disappeared from view. Because they had lived in the sky atop one of those rising containers of life, he and Dinorego knew how strange life became when people lived above and below each other.
Guarding an empty hotel was not a career Thomas had meant to find himself doing. Although he had, to be fair, begun his working life as a security guard and nightwatchman, he had been spotted by a man who lived in Melmoth Mansions. The man had stopped at the gate and beckoned Thomas over. The conversation that ensued had been short and to the point, and not long thereafter, Thomas had begun to enjoy a new life as an actor, starring in safety films that were shown in the mines and in other dangerous industries where men were liable to crush or fall or corrode themselves in the course of their duties. This unexpected change in his world had culminated in a feature film role, where Thomas starred as a hard-living Black detective. The action took place in a strange universe where the rules were not as strictly adhered to, and Thomas grew to love and appreciate the acting process. He had grown his beard out for the part, styled his hair in a dramatic Afro, and got into character by rehearsing his lines in front of the mirror in his long leather coat and dark sunglasses. The film was primarily shown to Black audiences, and while Thomas made a modest sum of money for his efforts, the real thrill was being recognised in the street.
But one of the state functionaries, a bumbling man whose appreciation of culture extended no further than the Springbok Radio Top 40, had happened to be present at a screening that was meant to generate government funding for future products. The man had written a grave report, declaring that he felt it ‘was deeply unhelpful to race relations to depict a black person in unrealistically aspirational settings, being friends with white persons, with no hierarchy evident …’ and a host of other complaints. And with that, Thomas’s film career had dwindled away as promptly as it began.
After that, he had taken roles in theatre productions, and had felt a little truer to himself being on stage for directors, but the roles grew smaller and smaller until they too were exhausted. He had one small walk-on part in an early sitcom, before he finally had to admit that he had run through his moment of fame. He had found work as a guard for a building, and then a few years later he had taken on a new position at a high-rise hotel in the CBD, whose owners had decided that it would be more profitable to lock up and wait until business returned to the levels they had been at when it was built.
He liked the hotel, with its elegant blue glass towers spearing icily into the sky. From the great marbled entrance, you could look out across the city, watching the tall buildings in their varying styles and executions, here and there a shaft of light intruding where the leviathans parted to let a street through. In the lobby, there were enlarged photos documenting the optimistic days when the hotel was erected. Here, men shaking hands over blueprints. There, a wrecking ball in full flight, consigning whatever had stood there before to the grave of history. There was an observation deck on the 38th floor, from which you could watch the people scurrying or loitering according to their custom, all of them like ants on the streets below.
From the observation deck, Thomas could also see across to the hotel’s replacement, which faced it tauntingly from the happier quarter of the city twenty blocks west. The new hotel was, to Thomas’s eyes, an ugly affair. It was an insistent building that cast lengthy shadows over the city, turning a children’s park blocks away overcast in the afternoons. Thomas would often stare at the building and wonder if it too would reach a point where it had outlived its purpose.
His and Dinorego’s shared fascination with the rising and falling of the city was easy to indulge in a city that was constantly sprawling and roaring back in on itself. Dinorego liked to draw demolition scenes, and so they always kept an eye out for signs that a building was going to come down. They had come to recognise the signs of impending amputation: First, the stores and ground-floor walk-ins began to have clearance sales and going-out-of-business clear-outs. Then the building would sit gaunt and empty and naked, and then the screeners would descend, installing the shrouds of corrugated iron. That usually meant there were two weeks before the building became a yawning gap in the street.
The iron sheeting was meant to give the appearance that the building was whole, lest passers-by be disturbed by how easily a building could be taken apart. Then the screens came down, and the wrecking machines came trundling down the street. Those in neighbouring shops came out to see and swap stories about when kind Mr Wassily had owned the building, and how its falling was the fault of his sons, who were not interested in keeping things in the family. Thomas and Dinorego listened to the stories and saved morsels to turn over by the light of their shared fire that evening.
From the street, they could see that what had been an elegant multi-storied building was peacefully giving way to the intrusions of a wrecking ball. The man who operated the neck to which the ball was attached could not be seen from where they stood watching. The ball itself, however, was busy, tracing a lazy arc through the air, entering windows, meeting no doors. It scraped along floors like a bowling ball, passing with the confidence of the future through walls which offered no resistance. When it was done, the unseen operator swung the ball away from the building, which reluctantly gave way with increasingly large showers of debris. Later, Dinorego would draw the scene and show it to Thomas, who would suggest things he had missed or things that were a larger part of the story.
Thomas remembered the first time he had seen a building about to be demolished. He was walking to the train station when he passed an old theatre. There was a poster advertising some lurid production, and he stepped out of the flow of rushing people to take a closer look at what was showing. As he drew nearer, he realised that the theatre looked whole from a distance, but the appearance was an illusion. He saw that the doors had been barred with plywood, and the walls were peeling. He peered up through a window that had been negligently whited-over and saw only sky. He turned away, feeling that sense of guilt he experienced when he passed a beggar or a mad man who had once been a classmate. Thomas remembered how the old theatres smelled of varnish and dusty velvet, the musty smell of a dying relative. The sight had lit an untapped fascination in him.
As he and Dinorego watched the clouds of dust rise and fall, as though some gasp of life was trying to escape, a white woman came strolling down the road, walking two mewling young girls in pink one-piece outfits before her like a mother cat routing her kittens. Each was trying to command their mother’s attention in Afrikaans that fell from their young mouths like stones. The woman regarded them with suspicion, and they parted for her with amused expressions. Then the lunch hour was over, and they bid each other goodbye, and returned to their respective places of work.
Earlier that evening, Thomas and Dinorego had shared a brandy in the front yard, talking by the orange light of a rusty brazier.
‘What do you remember most?’ The old game began. They took turns to recount faces, places, names.
‘We were all happier then, it seems. Despite everything.’
‘Youth is always remembered with fondness,’ Thomas said bitterly. ‘And then it all changes.’
‘Life and work. Man is ground down between these two things until nothing remains,’ said Dinorego.
‘Sebenza takes us all. Then the life goes away like an emptying drain.’
There was silence between them for a long time, interrupted only by the sound of a backfiring engine and a faint chorus from the dark hostel down the road. Dinorego cleared his throat.
‘Well, there was Talumane …’
‘Yes? With the oversized boots.’
‘The city chewed him up. He went home to the Transkei with a pair of boots and the death in his lungs. He withered away to nothing.’ Dinorego said this with sadness catching at his throat. Memory was the thing happening again. Thomas remembered Talumane’s friend’s milk-grey eyes and his disbelief at the brazier that night as he had shown them that boots were what his life amounted to.
‘Dead in ’83. Armed robbery.’
‘I remember that … yes! He was a year short of retiring.’ Modise was a big man, a giant who stooped before every doorway. And yet despite his size his footsteps were quiet, which is how he ended up with a bullet between his ribs, and another down his ear. Nothing was taken from the warehouse. Whomever he had interrupted killed him just to kill.
‘What could have happened to poor Enoch? Lost somewhere in the world between here and home. Do you remember how his wife came looking for him?’ So the conversation had gone on, the friends warming themselves and taking turns to remember those who had disappeared, or who had been crushed, who had died, or gone back to the Homelands, which was like dying anyway. Dinorego sometimes spoke of returning to his tiny village on the Botswana border, but they both knew he would not.
‘What is it that makes us tell stories whenever we find ourselves in front of a fire? Put a man before a fire and you set him off reminiscing.’ Dinorego unscrewed the cap and poured them each a nightcap.
Thomas replied solemnly, ‘Ever since Moses sat down before that burning bush, we have used fire to call forth stories about our world. It is what reminds us that we are human.’ They lapsed once more into a companionable silence over their drinks and looked out at all the stories escaping with the smoke from each yard.
What qualified these men for the task of guarding other people’s property? Absolutely nothing. For Thomas, it seemed that fate had slipped him into all his roles without first checking whether there might be someone better suited. When he had left the world of acting, he had drifted along on the fringes, facilitating, driving, carrying, doing what he could to remain near what he enjoyed. And when those options were at last closed to him, he had returned to doing what he did best.
‘I remember when I used to do the nightshift at that warehouse downtown,’ Thomas said quietly. He spoke about that job, about how each day, his waking hours had coincided with the quietening of the world. While others went home, bringing up tired clouds as they leapt from taxis and trudged into the townships, Thomas had headed into the city to take up a guard shift that began at 7 p.m. and ended when the grey morning light was creeping into every corner, displacing darkness and scattering workers from their houses. Then Thomas would do one final round and begin his journey home as the grey light was being displaced from its recent claim by the morning sun.
‘I remember,’ he said, ‘the chill, as though the township was inhaling deeply before exhaling its breath of workers into the city. He himself breathed deeply, as he recalled how in a few hours the air would be filled with the blue splashing of a thousand wash pails, the sharp apple tang of the green soap as it lathered bodies. This was the second wave of workers, the women who worked in the cities and suburbs as cleaners and domestic servants in the homes and offices of the whites.
They left in the darkness, clutching prayer books against the thieves. Thomas had often heard them on the first buses of the day, before his shift ended. If he was in the right place on his rounds, he would glimpse the buses as they rumbled by on the highway that passed over the warehouse. The windows would be steamed over, and the buses would leave in their wake the palpable heat and sound of voices raised in song.
‘I’ve always hated buses,’ Dinorego said, interrupting his friend’s memory. Thomas laughed. This set off a chorus of dogs, who passed their message of caution to each other in a spreading wave.
‘And they hate us.’
Thomas had spent six years working as a watchman without ever knowing what he was guarding. The building he sat in front of every night held old films, furniture, carpets and rugs, and other film set items. Nobody had felt the need to tell him that. He had not felt the need to ask. The industrial lands became quiet at the end of the day. Thomas would sit near the entrance, just beyond the throw of the spotlights that shone down from the roof. Across from him was another warehouse, and so it was to the right, and so it was to the left. There were other watchmen at each of these buildings, and they knew each other well. Each arrived and took up their station for the night at the same time. Each man kept close to his building, for if anyone was discovered away from their post, it would mean instant dismissal.
Nevertheless, each man knew his neighbour, and would sound a warning which pierced the night: two whistles meant a strange car was heading into the area. One long whistle meant someone was walking down the street. Three short whistles meant a light had been seen where there shouldn’t be one. On most nights, the area was deserted except for Thomas and his fellow sentinels. Occasionally, one of the many white men who did things in the warehouse during the day would return to do inventory, to finish paperwork, or some such thing.
Then, whoever guarded the warehouse was expected to present themselves confidently, truncheon in hand. Thomas had once spent the evening talking to one such white man. He had appeared out of the darkness driving a brown Rover. The man introduced himself with a handshake and a fleeting smile. He was wearing a corduroy jacket and, so he said, was doing an inventory. For several weeks, the man had broken from his task at 9.20 p.m. each night and joined Thomas outside. The man had made them coffee and had even shared his sandwiches. Ham and cheese. The white man knew Sotho and Thomas knew English, and between them they had found enough language to fill the darkness. Thomas recalled that after the man had finished his inventory, he had not returned to the warehouse.
‘Do you know what I heard?’ said Dinorego, casting a glance over his shoulder at a clattering that echoed out somewhere behind them as someone argued with an ill-fitting door.
‘How can I know what you have heard if I wasn’t there to hear it?’
‘I heard,’ Dinorego said, ignoring his friend, ‘that our head librarian died in his sleep the other day.’
‘That fellow with the bags under his eyes? Not at work, I hope.’
‘Thankfully not there. Imagine the shrieking. No, he went to see his psychoanalyst just two streets up from us. The tea lady said he’d been having the same dream every night for a year.’
‘Maybe he should have tried a different pillow,’ Thomas quipped.
‘She said, apparently, he just lay on the couch, fell asleep, let out a scream and died.’
‘Are you serious?’
‘As serious as a heart attack,’ Dinorego chuckled.
There was a shout from somewhere in the warren of black streets.
‘Better that than a knife in the dark,’ Thomas said, peering out into the gloom.
‘Are you okay to get home?’
‘Yes indeed,’ Thomas replied.
Dinorego sighed, creaking to his feet. He turned to his friend and said, ‘Life comes, and life goes.’ They said their goodbyes, and Thomas strode home quickly. He got into bed and propped himself up to read the newspaper by candlelight. As he did, he pondered the impermanence of things. He thought of what had passed into oblivion, and how much of what used to be had disappeared without anything to show for its having been there in the first place.
When Thomas woke for work the next morning, he felt a strange coldness coming in from under the door. Outside, a glimmering grey frost had appeared overnight, sparkling at the crusty edges of the houses. Thomas shook his head and turned his radio up loud to banish the ghosts. Gary Cooper miaowed resentfully from his perch on the bookshelf. Thomas fed the cat and opened his door again, swinging his arms from side to side and over his head. The gesture always produced a set of dramatic cracking noises as his back warmed up. A cough escaped from his chest, treacly and rattling. He was disappointed. Thomas had always been a strong man. Now, in his older days, he still cut a trim figure, if he remembered to hold his tummy in.
He made himself a quick sandwich and set off to begin the series of journeys that would bring him to his workplace. He paused on a sandy corner. A body was lying in the stony gutter next to the school. The blood that had run from the dead man had crystallised in the morning frost. Thomas hurried on without stopping. An hour later, he was in the city, his feet falling on the familiar path that took him to his lonely job. The morning commuters were filling the city up, as was their custom, and this time he did not pause to watch the rushing cars and minibus taxis and the buses that shouldered their way through the thronging streets.
Suddenly, to his left, there was an unexpected gap in the street’s face, where a building had been done away with. The suddenness of the void felt unpleasantly like loneliness, heightening the menace of the space where nothing was. The colours were brighter up and down the street. The newer buildings glittered, their windows letting out squares of pleasant light in which there moved men and women whose lives seemed more brilliant than they were.
- Editorial Advisory Panel member Wamuwi Mbao is an essayist, cultural critic and academic at Stellenbosch University. Follow him on Twitter.