New original fiction in The JRB.
A History of Phantoms
By Wamuwi Mbao
There comes a time and place where you’re asked to account for yourself and what you did, and the story you tell is meant to justify how you are where you are. I’m not sure mine does. I grew up in Bez valley, and it was ordinary. I was raised in an ordinary white home. We played cricket in the street and we rode bicycles and some of us drowned or didn’t come home for other reasons when the blue night flooded in. Part of the Transvaal where all they asked of you is that you be honest and undistinguished. Been doing this job for thirty years. Got ten more if I’m lucky. We talk about luck in this job, but there is no luck, really. Follow the procedures. Try your best. Don’t be a hero. That should do it. It was different when I started out, the Murder and Robbery boys carried Sten guns and pistols. Those guys walked like carrying a gun made you five centimetres taller. We didn’t get guns until ’73, and some of the old-timers will tell you that was too late.
It goes like this. I got into this because my father did it, and he got into it because his uncle had been part of the posse that cornered the Foster gang. Although my mother once joked that it was more likely uncle Trevor had shot De La Rey. The story changes every time. Anyway, I liked what it stood for, and it got you a steady income and a decent car. Good hours. If you weren’t a doctor or an engineer, doing this was about as straight as you got. No crimes you couldn’t solve through strength of mind, that was the promise. The old men in the police bar looked us over and said we didn’t know how easy we got it. Spoke about putting down riots with sticks and clubs. Every era with its own protocols.
First person I shot, it saved my life, but I wasn’t proud of it. We were patrolling Killarney and saw him running out of the laundromat, and Mrs Bedelker shouting blue murder after him. My partner Swart was driving, and I was on radio. That was in ’74, so it must have been a Chev, 3800 or 4100. Good cars. Anyway, Swart took off after him, and this guy ducks into one of those little side streets. I jumped out while Swart drove around the block. I hadn’t been doing this long enough to think I should be afraid of anyone. That changes first time you put a man down. Cornered him in an alley. Taller wall than he expected. In training they drilled it into us. Expect the unexpected. Never underestimate the willpower of someone whose only desire is to escape.
I heard that Chev coming down the street and I knew he was trapped. Think he knew it too. Dropped the bag and charged at me like he meant to run me over. I wasn’t having that. We’d lost Constable Benade outside the New Library Hotel like that. Man ran him through with a steak knife and that boy died on the corner like an animal. That wasn’t going to happen to me. I looked in the man’s eyes as he came at me and I saw no fear. I saw the anger of a man who believed I was wronging him. In a second, he’d be on me, and what then? A cop dead in a quiet street with his eyes thumbed out. Closed coffin and flowers for my girlfriend. Lumarie doesn’t like flowers. Never has. I didn’t hesitate. Chest shot. Blood shimmering like glass on the road. He shrieked as he fell. Stared down at where the blood was spreading like it would heal if he looked at it long enough. Then he died. Guess you’d expect that. Suppose I had no other choice.
When I started out the squad cars were big sedans. American ones first, then what my father called the Aussie pretenders. We’d work two or three up. Sit in a car the whole day with people, you’re bound to learn a bit about them. Kees Wenders was a friend of mine and my first Flying Squad partner. His family came over from Holland in ’39. Kees’s father rode in the grand parade with Doctor Verwoerd when we left the Commonwealth. Kees made driving look easy, which is always the sign of a good driver. Never palmed the wheel, could do a good J-turn. He transferred to the civils, drove for Jimmy Kruger when we last talked. Heard he stepped on a limpet in Angola. Sad about that.
I got teamed up with a hothead named Ferreira after Kees left. Demoted from Murder and Robbery. Couldn’t drive to save his life. Wrapped the squad car around a hydrant on Commissioner Street once. Drove like he was running away from something. He didn’t stay long. Married too young. I heard he later shot himself. Shot a cousin of his, and his cousin’s girlfriend. Nasty.
Occasionally we’d ride with one of the Bantu police, depending on where we were, usually in the Zones. Did a few stints with Constable Nyathi. Friendly guy. Always laughing. He lived in Zone 13, so the job was different for him. The Black guys always sat in the back of the Chev. Nyathi always joked it was like we were his drivers. Someone took a pot shot at his house one night in ’86. Took off half of his jaw and most of the back of his head. You couldn’t hit a shot like that if you tried fifty times.
Anyway, it’s not as bad as I’m making it out to be. You just got to be prepared. First murder scene we were called to, somebody’d gone and got themselves shot outside Lorna Court. Thought it was an argument gone wrong, but it was more than that. We pulled up and the dead guy was lying half in the back of a blue Valiant. An arrangement of ruin. Blood all over the seats. Bet that car needed a full teardown. He was shot in the back, twice. The shooter was waiting for us on the sidewalk, calm as you like. Gave himself up as soon as we arrived. Told us he’d shot the man. Said he’d do it again if he had the chance. The man he’d shot was his uncle and the owner of his flat. Didn’t know what to make of that. The neighbours said the shooter was quiet, kept to himself. Said the uncle visited often.
I tried out for other things, as you do.
Anyway, I have learned that there is peace to be found in leaving old things behind. Let’s do things differently. I took a transfer in ’91, for Lumarie’s sake. Never had kids. Least I could give her was peace of mind. Suburban police stations are good. We moved to Strijdomberg. Quiet community. Lime in the water. Quiet streets. Greek bakeries. Chicken roadhouses. Spare parts shops that stay open on a Saturday afternoon. Everything closed on a Sunday. Lot of good people. Lot of good families. Lot of good men who drank a bit too much. Crashed into a neighbour’s wall. Electrocuted themselves while mowing the lawn. Strangled their kids with extension cords and shot their wives. Died from exploding aerosol cans while burning rubbish. You’re in the police in one of those senseless-tragedy towns for long enough, you grow tired of attending domestic crimes.
We swapped armed robberies for drownings and car accidents. In the suburbs everyone has their place in the sun. I used to cruise around the streets watching the good people mow their lawns. Kids drifting like shadows through the parks. Felt like I’d lost my way a bit. The two or three years before the election were strange. Unexplained things happening all over. I was once parked up outside the Hangman’s Driver. Little Irish pub that had tried being an O’Hagans for a bit. And I saw a bunch of these toughs coming out, drunker than you’d care to believe. They jumped into a Skyline GTX with those hotplate lights and took off making noise and laying rubber as they went. Could’ve chased them. Thought it wasn’t worth my while. Picked up The Citizen two days later and those boys had gone and driven full tilt into a newspaper van. Passengers got out and ran away. The driver and the newspaper men got burned up in the wreckage. One of the boys said they’d dared the driver not to brake. Guess you think you’ll live forever at that age.
I once chased some joyriding teens who were throwing doughnuts on the school field. I was driving my Sapphire then. V6 with the Grosvenor conversion. A couple of years later, they wanted us to move over to something front-drive and Japanese. They ordered twenty and half of them were laid low within the first six months. There’s progress. Anyway, I followed those kids out of town and they were in some souped-up little Datsun with sidedrafts. And I tailed them as they hit the road to Boksburg, and I could keep up with them easily enough, so I drew alongside. One of them pointed an air rifle square at me and I hit the brakes so hard the smell followed me for a week.
I don’t know what home life makes such kids possible. Apparently, they drove that little Datsun into a tree in Houghton. The local community was more upset by the loss of the tree, even though those four teens traded themselves for eternity without telling anyone what they were running from. Someone had to untangle those kids and find the parents and tell them what no parent wants to hear. So what have we achieved, when all is said and done? The whole sorry dream sold for a few George holiday homes. And who inherits the new world? Murderers. Thieves. Lawyers. And the old people are walking around in a daze because their old world is gone and forgotten. And the true horror is that I’m one of them, or soon to be. I can’t get a handle on where the new world is coming from.
This one time, I drove through Joburg on a Sunday afternoon. There’s a lot to be gained from wandering aimlessly. Just driving for the feeling of it, for the motion. Familiar pavements, but many of the old buildings gone, or going (so they say). The old neighbourhoods are brushed aside for new ways of doing things. Makes me feel old seeing signs of my own erasure. Hohenheim was still standing when I started working. People might not think that they’re driving over old houses, old lives. The highway looks like it’s always been there. They knocked down fifty houses for the sake of traffic. Look where that long greasy roadway cuts through the neighbourhood, clean as a bone saw.
I guess I was lucky to never lose a partner on the beat. Last partner I had in Joburg was Ryanhart Viljoen. Boltcutter Viljoen’s how you may have heard of him. We served six years, and he was never late on a Monday morning, nor did he ever stay past five on a Friday afternoon. He got promoted to CID, then up to Special Branch. Watched him on TV some years later. He was telling the Commission about what he’d gotten up to on weekends. He was a quiet partner. Didn’t gab all the time like Ferreira. Liked the Datsun Safaris we sometimes used. Started up a business refurbishing them. Hear he’s quite successful these days.
Anyway, it was daytime, and I was driving, and it all began to seem so illogical that this was the same place. As if all the years of striving and upholding and pushing back against Communism and insurgencies and terrorists had been for nothing. The whole city spilling over and becoming unrecognisable, like an abandoned garden. I was outside a superette and there’s Boltcutter getting into a Cruiser bakkie with the whole catalogue on it. He was looking a bit weathered—his nose looked like an old orange peel, and he had the old policeman’s brandy-gut—but it was him. He looked at me dead-on, and then he got in and he drove off. I don’t know if he hadn’t recognised me, or if he had recognised me and decided I didn’t matter in the great scheme of things. Suppose I don’t.
It strikes me every day that people are funny. They need a reason to believe in something, and once you give it to them, they cling to it hard and fast, and they will kill you before they let it go. I watch the white people filing out of the NG every Sunday, as obedient as you like. Their belief is hard-earned, and they reinvest it in that building. Doesn’t matter what the building looks like. Ours is a spaceship with its wings stretching up to heaven like no church the Voortrekkers ever conceived. Wonder what they’d say. I doubt it matters, so long as you believe.
People ask how you live with the past. It’s not a corpse in the living room. It’s an old pile of bricks in your garden. They’re simply there and you have nothing to say about why or how they got there. I sit some nights with the TV on mute and just try and find my way back to when it last made sense. I still have this idea that won’t quit me, the idea that there’s something more peaceful than this, somewhere I haven’t found yet. There’s a dream I’ve been having for the last decade. A dream of a place where all these people I knew at school lived, people who were beautiful and athletic and who had made their lives the better place. Miems Ferreira, she was the postmaster’s daughter. Sproetjies Hagen. He was the star of our rugby team and I know every time I see him that I’m dreaming because he fell under a tractor on his uncle’s farm in the September holiday the year he was set to matriculate. People I haven’t seen or thought about for years, all of them walking around happy and glowing and golden with their dreams and hopes.
I wake up every time and I lie there in the dark thinking about how everything up until now has been a mistake. But maybe it hasn’t. I’ve learned that not everything will correspond to your idea of how the world should work. I’ve learned that the skills of my job might have other uses. Observe. Pay attention. Keep watch.
- Editorial Advisory Panel member Wamuwi Mbao is an essayist, cultural critic and academic at Stellenbosch University. Follow him on Twitter/X.