New original fiction in The JRB.
Centres of Gravity
By Jarred Thompson
Poor robot …
That’s what father said when we drove past a busted-up traffic light once. The robot’s eyes were vacant, its once straight body disfigured into a yellow smirk. When I think about it, I still hear the crackling-pop of broken glass underneath father’s tyres. I was young. Seeing the carnage that that traffic light was subjected to made me feel … sorry. Which of course was a ridiculous thing to feel, but when you’re six you have less trouble believing that the world and everything in it has a life of its own that doesn’t include you.
Traffic lights are a common thing in any city, and so is the duty of fixing them. Unlike Joburg’s jacarandas, traffic lights are built to give way to human folly. Unlike traffic lights, jacarandas don’t care much for being crashed into. In fact those trees will stand resolute while all kinds of cars crash into them, flinging their drivers out of windscreens or trapping them inside their vehicles until the jaws of life pry them from the wreck.
Maybe that’s why I do what I do. After all, as a traffic engineer, I see the big picture—the hotspots where traffic lights are routinely ripped from purpose. At the Road Agency, I make sure every valve is optimised so the pressure in the streets is bearable, so the hearts of commuters are less frazzled while waiting their turn at intersections. And what makes me good at my job? Efficiency. The flow of traffic must be fine-tuned, intersections orchestrated with the delicate precision of a piano concerto. Chopin’s Nocturne No. 1 is my favourite; it’s what I wake up to in the morning.
On weekdays I’m at my bathroom mirror at five-thirty. Eight-thirty on weekends. I brush my teeth for three minutes, floss for one, rinse my mouth for thirty seconds, and check for texts from Selima. I keep time with my pocket watch on the side of the basin. It was my great-grandfather’s pocket watch and it belonged to the former prime minister, Jan Smuts, if you can believe it (most people don’t).
The story goes that Smuts, in a jovial mood after signing the UN charter, gave my great-grandfather, who was an office clerk at the time, one of his silver pocket watches. Everything in time, Smuts had said to my great-grandfather. If you don’t believe me, you can check for yourself—the words are engraved on the back. I don’t go anywhere without the watch. It helps me maintain my schedule, like being at the bus stop by eight every weekday morning.
‘Howzit Jeanine,’ says Prince, the bus driver, as he opens the doors for me. ‘Joh, I must tell you about the congestion yesterday.’
I usually sit behind Prince but today there’re two boys and a girl in my spot. I’m surprised Prince hasn’t asked them to move before letting me on. ‘What congestion?’ I say, sitting diagonally across from my seat.
‘There by Bram Fischer, heading into Grove. I swear it’s getting worse. Can’t you do something? Those robots are always out.’
I regret telling Prince what I do. Yes, my job involves, among other things, installing traffic lights, synching them, and coordinating their fixing, but I’m only one woman. I can’t fix a whole bloody city. ‘If it’s as bad as you say, I’ll have a look at it. You know, sometimes the problem isn’t even at the intersection you think. Often the real blockage is somewhere else, at previous four-way stops. The pressure all adds up and erupts elsewhere.’
Prince has me in the mood to talk about my theory of intersections, but before I can get going, he’s greeting the Pick n Pay ladies hopping on at the corner of Biccard and Stiemans.
The bus lunges and stalls through the traffic at an unpredictable pace. It makes it impossible for anyone to power nap—although the man sitting across from me seems at ease, his head bumping up against the windowpane. Lazy woodpecker.
Soon enough we reach another stop and more schoolchildren get on, but the three kids sitting in my spot don’t get off. I’ve travelled this route enough to know that those kids—the girl with the Tippexed Toughies and the boys with the graffitied Karrimors—get off here.
‘Prince—’ I make my way up the aisle toward the railing that separates driver from passenger ‘—these kids behind you. Don’t they go to St John of the Cross?’
Prince focuses his eyes on the rear-view mirror. ‘What can we do? We’re not their parents.’ He speaks with a certainty I don’t know how to respond to.
‘It’s not safe to be up here,’ he says, pulling at the gear lever as we begin to climb a hill.
I am just turning around when the bus stops and propels me forward, and I fall face first next to the feet of the woodpecker man. It takes a moment for other passengers to notice. The boy with the purple backpack helps me to my feet. Our eyes meet.
‘Jeanine! You okay?’ Prince shouts.
‘Fine.’ I wave him off, sifting through my embarrassment for the indignation I had moments ago.
‘These fucken taxis! Always jumping four-ways stops when it’s not their turn,’ says the boy, smiling.
I nod and scuffle to my seat. The three teens get off at the top of the hill across from the mall. I watch as they undo the knots of their green-and-yellow school ties before sauntering into the parking lot. The purple-backpack-boy seems sweet enough. But that mouth. I could smell what he had for breakfast.
Atchar on toast. It’s the easiest. Aunty Sonia has all kinds in her fridge: mango, chilli, garlic, mixed vegetable. This morning I got mango atchar on my mind—a red, liquid world where squishy-yellow-and-green animals slosh around on top of one another.
Atchar-making is Aunty Sonia’s speciality. That and the tai chi she practices on the roof of Magenta Apartments. When I came to live here, she convinced me I needed to practice it with her, saying I was ‘out of touch with my centre of gravity’. For the longest time I didn’t know what she was going on about, until she tripped me once while I was walking up the stairs to her flat. I managed to shield my fall with my hands, but that gave Aunty Sonia all the reason she needed to insist I take it up. She’s a bit kooky, my aunty.
Sonia is ma’s sister. She’s a bouncer at a lesbian bar. She used to be an events promoter, one of those people who’re popular because they can get their friends onto guest lists at clubs like Altitude—one of the hottest fake-beach-vibey places to party. Jozi people love anything to do with beaches, fake or not, probably because we’re about the biggest landlocked city in the world. I remember that from the red bus tour aunty took me on when I first came to stay with her. Samuel, you can’t live in a city you know nothing about—aunty was always organising for us to visit museums, expos, art galleries and such. Very different to what I got up to with ma.
I didn’t know anything about Altitude until Erika and Tinashe told me. I met them one night practicing tai chi with aunty, just before her shift started at the bar. We were moving into snake-through-grass pose on the roof when I noticed them sitting on a ledge next to a sign that read:
For your own safety,
DO NOT sit on the ledge.
They were grinning at us, and I couldn’t tell if they were making fun or just enjoying the show. I found out later they weren’t making fun; they actually thought we were dope. I started hanging with them more when aunty took up longer shifts. Most afternoons it was just us three in the flat, with Tinashe rummaging through the fridge for whatever he could turn into toasted sandwiches. Tinashe’s scavenge usually started right before Erika began rolling her joints. They liked their munchies lined up and ready.
We were careful not to leave evidence of our smoking (which would get me banned from seeing the only friends I had made since moving in with aunty). Not getting caught meant leaving all the windows open, even on cold evenings, so the flat was aired out by the time aunty came home. I don’t know why, but there was something about my aunty that made me believe she smoked the herb too. But I wasn’t prepared to test that theory.
Aunty Sonia liked Erika and Tinashe. She said it was good that I had made friends at Magenta Apartments, seeing that I was going to be staying here till ma got out. I guess it was sheer luck that they went to the school I got moved to when ma was taken away.
Before I came to live here, ma and I ran a stall at the Berea flea market. We sold rings, bracelets, cellphone covers and temporary tattoos that you could paste anywhere (and I mean anywhere) on your body. I blame the tats for why I ended up at Magenta. If it wasn’t for them Yassir wouldn’t have used that kak pick-up line that seemed—for some fucked-up reason—to tickle ma.
Yassir, with his green eyes and gold earrings, had walked up to our stall and asked ma if she could paste a tattoo of an anchor on his bum. He said it was part of a bet he’d lost, that he wasn’t prepared to go ‘kaal gat’ and fork out money for a permanent one. I’d never seen ma blush the way she did when Yassir pulled his pants halfway down. I was witnessing—in real time—how one person leaves a mark on another.
It was during her fling with Yassir that ma lost her handle on things. Before, she used to be the one waking me up for school, but now I was the one waking us up and reminding her of the things we needed for the stall. I tried to get her to go see her doctor who had helped her stay balanced before. Yassir had derailed things. He convinced ma he needed to move in so that their relationship could ‘go to the next level’. After that, I had made sure to keep my bedroom door locked.
Ringing phones and vacuum cleaners. There are eight offices before you get to mine, and in each a woman empties a dustbin, wipes down surfaces and sprays air freshener. The cleaning ladies only speak to each other when they’re in the kitchen down the hallway. When they’re in our offices they’re like ninjas, anticipating dirt before it’s there.
When I enter my office, the scent of sandalwood settles me in for another day. I check my phone for texts from Selima, wondering if I should ask when she’s available to come, over when my attention shifts to the simulator on the wall. Yes, that marvel of an interface is how I keep the city clunking along. It’s quite something; a monitoring system of every traffic light from OR Tambo International in the east to the Cradle of Humankind in the west. It takes up the length and breadth of the entire wall. There are few people in the building who can read the interface for what it really is: a measure of people’s lives, synchronised to prevent collision. Sure, you can say I’m sentimental, but if the traffic lights in this city weren’t in sync, there would be anarchy. And, who knows, maybe a murder or two. Road rage is a thing.
Jeanine when you get this, check your email. There’s a massive sinkhole beside the R512, near Cosmo City. We’re gonna need to alleviate the congestion it’s caused.
That’s Skosana, my line manager. A competent enough man when he’s had his third coffee of the day (the third one dashed with a little something special). I’ve been doing this longer than him, but he’s got connections on the ninth floor. I don’t mind that he got promoted over me, although there’s not a month that goes by where someone in the office doesn’t approach me to find out how I really feel about being ‘overlooked’.
Truth is, with Skosana as manager I’m able to do the work I enjoy, with none of the managerial bureaucracy. This vocation—getting people home on time—is how I contribute. You may think it’s trivial, idealistic even. But how many hours do you spend on the road, stuck in traffic, trying to get to work, bars, church? How many hours spent idling beside strangers, each of you holding onto—Fuck! My pocket watch! It was in my coat when I got onto the bus. Could it have … ? No, it can’t be.
I empty my pockets and scratch in my handbag. I know I felt its weight against my thigh when I sat down on the bus. That was before I got up to speak to Prince, I’m sure. After that I tripped and … the boy. The boy and his breath. His breath that smelt like atchar. The atchar-breath boy.
I leave my office and head toward the elevator, not knowing what to do. ‘Jeanine, have you read my email?’ Skosana steps into the corridor.
‘Yes, I was just about to check my inbox. Just off to the loo,’ I reply. If I can get hold of Prince’s phone number that would be a start, but it’s not like I can track where the bus is. Skosana’s paunchy face tightens around his spectacles as he looks me up and down. How is it that there’s sweat dripping from his temples this early in the day?
‘I need that congestion dealt with ASAP. I’m counting on you.’
Of course he’s counting on me. I’m the only one that understands the intricate timing it takes to line up a street of robots all green so a truck driver can make his deliveries before five and make it home to his family by seven.
‘Jeanine, did you hear me?’
‘Solutions. I need them by midday.’
‘Oh. Right away.’
‘Good.’ He gets onto the elevator before me.
I turn back to my office, deciding I can get answers to Skosana while searching for Prince’s contact details online. My fingers search along the seams of my pockets as I walk back, half hoping a discreet hole in the fabric is responsible for the watch’s disappearance, even though I know that holes don’t just turn up out of nowhere.
‘Do you realise how lucky you are to have your aunty?’ says Erika, walking along the ledge of the rooftop parking lot, holding the bus lady’s pocket watch up to the light.
‘Why’d you say that?’ I take the pocket watch from her, afraid she’ll drop it.
‘I mean, she works at night and that’s, like, when your place is all yours. I’d, like, kill to have that alone time.’
Erika says like a lot. She says she can’t help it, the way she can’t help her American accent. I had asked Tinashe about it, and he said she stayed with an uncle in Texas for six months a few years back and ever since then she speaks that way. I don’t mind because it makes people look at her funny. And if they’re looking at her funny that means they’re not looking at me funny.
‘I don’t know,’ I say, ‘Having a place all to myself is okay, I guess. Ma and I used to watch The River together. I miss that.’ I turn the pocket watch over and read the inscription on the back out loud: Everything in time. ‘What do you guys think that means?’
Tinashe shrugs. He’s sitting cross-legged in front of the ledge, not pacing like a gymnast on a high beam the way Erika is. Sometimes I think when she’s around us boys she wants to prove how much braver she is.
‘Fuck The River. Now you have us,’ says Tinashe. ‘Us, Mary Jay, and that pocket watch.’ He hands me the joint from his blazer pocket.
‘Light that up already.’ says Erika, pirouetting on the ledge. ‘That’s the time I want.’
I like what the herb does. When the smoke hits just right I can think of anything—red and blue tats appearing all over ma’s body, for example—and not really feel it. It’s like the ganja sands down whatever sharp-edged things are floating in my brain and suddenly I’m a kid again: standing on top of a rubble heap, racing other kids to the bottom. When ma and I were moving around a lot (Yassir in tow) we always landed up living near construction sites that never got finished. A site usually started out with glinting silver fences and clear danger signs, but within a few months it would get added to the list of rusty-nail playgrounds where local kids played.
Tinashe and I pass the joint between us as Erika mimics snake-through-grass pose on the ledge. I tell her she’s not doing it right, that she hasn’t found her centre of gravity.
‘Whatever.’ She rolls her eyes.
‘Hey! You three!’ The security guard’s voice booms in the empty parking lot. ‘How’d you get in here? You’re not allowed up here!’
Tinashe grabs the joint from me and throws it off the ledge, barely missing Erika’s nose.
She doesn’t see it coming
as she falls back,
eyes wide and climbing
out of her face.
I’ve never seen eyes do that before.
It’s been a week since I lost the pocket watch. On the news a cyclone off the coast of Mozambique has travelled south, causing havoc. The weather woman says that’s what brought the torrential rains. They call it an El Niño, but all it means for me is more to deal with. More disruptions. That sinkhole that Skosana had me see to last week took three kids with it. One moment they were playing near the R512 and the next, gone. Like magic.
And, yes, I know it’s not my fault; my job is to divert traffic around disorder, not prevent it. But I can’t help feeling sorry for the parents. The mothers and fathers looking on from the sidelines as emergency services send cameras down into the abyss. I know what it’s like when there’s no way of telling where a loved one has gone. When you’re better off not even trying to imagine.
Truth is, I haven’t been the same since I lost the pocket watch. When I got home that day I ate my microwave dinner, read up on research in traffic engineering and texted Selima to see when she’s available to come over. That night I couldn’t sleep. My mind kept chugging up scenarios of how the watch could have been taken, of how angry father would be if he were alive. The next morning, I struggled getting up for work and my schedule was thrown off-kilter. I blame whoever thought they’d make a quick buck from my family heirloom. The uncivilised wretch.
The reasonable thing to do would be to get a different timepiece, you’d think, but that watch had sentimental value, damnit! It had history. Gravitas. I refuse to acknowledge any clock, any schedule, till it’s found. Call me what you want, this is the hill I’ll die on.
A good life is an ordered life. That’s what father used to say. It’s why he scheduled every minute of my childhood, down to the half hour. Except on Saturdays.
Ah, yes, on Saturdays I slept over at Selima’s. It was the only time father seemed relaxed. I remember once I was in Selima’s mom’s car and we were halfway to her house, ready for our sleepover, when I realised I’d forgotten my night guard. Her mom was nice enough to turn around and go back for it. I had let myself into the house with the keys dad had given me for my sixteenth birthday.
Inside, I heard noises coming from dad’s bedroom. Grunting. Huffing. Sounds that reminded me of the dirty magazines kids sometimes brought to the school playground. I was never one to look at those magazines, and I didn’t want to look into dad’s bedroom either. I rushed upstairs, grabbed my night guard, and got out. When Selima’s mom pulled off, I looked back at father’s bedroom curtains. Moving shadows. That’s all I could see. That’s all I could think of.
That night Selima couldn’t get much out of me, even though we promised to do each other’s hair. I asked her if we could listen to the frogs in their garden; they usually came out at night during the hot summer months. She agreed and we went outside to sit on the wet grass, our faces turned to the darkness—listening.
The croaking filled us. Selima said it was the frogs’ mating season. She never asked what was bothering me and I never offered a reason for my disquiet. After a while, she held my hand and laid her head on my shoulder. It was a kindness I’ll never forget.
It was only after the emergency services, police, Erika’s parents, and Aunty Sonia had heard and dealt with what had happened that I thought about the pocket watch. The day Erika fell, I had wanted to pawn it so we could buy pizzas and cans of Coke. Erika said I should hold onto it because the watch looked vintage and ‘vintage things get more expensive with time’. I didn’t know if that was true, but I kept the watch anyway.
I didn’t go to Erika’s funeral, and Aunty Sonia never forced me to go to either, although Tinashe kept leaving missed calls for me that day.
On the morning of the funeral, aunty said it was time I learned how to make my own atchar. That was when I figured out what ma and Sonia had in common. Whenever ma got tangled in one of her highs with Yassir, she also turned to food. I remembered nights when I was woken up to the chaos of ma defrosting all the meat in the freezer and cooking it using every condiment and spice we had. She would announce that we were feasting like the kings and queen we are. Yassir would be in the background, his pupils as wide as his fists, ordering me to set the table.
Ma always had a way with food. When I was seven, she would cook me broccoli with pilchards and I would mop it up, no problem. Those were the best nights. When Yassir came along, the food tasted different. Over salted.
Aunty Sonia has thick forearms. They bulge like snakes unhinging their jaws to swallow small rodents whole. I counted the veins while we were making atchar together, mixing onions, fenugreek, asafoetida and mustard oil. Aunty let me pour the mixture into steaming-hot mason jars, and I watched as the tiny purple onion hearts plopped into each one. She said each jar needs to be sealed tight and given its own spot in the sun. That’s how we make sure the good bacteria dominate the bad. We were almost done when the phone rang.
‘Hello, my boy! It’s so good to hear your voice.’
When I realised it was ma, I tried figuring if she was in a high or low. It was hard because I hadn’t heard her voice in a while.
‘Hi ma. Aunty and I are making atchar.’
‘Oh … she’s teaching you. Good good. You know I was the one who taught her.’
I stayed quiet.
‘Listen here, ma’s in a bit of a pickle. I need cash and your aunty is being difficult.’
‘I don’t have any money, ma.’
‘No, no, it’s just a little. Owe some people, that’s all. Look around the house and …’
I thought about the pocket watch in my bedside drawer and how expensive Erika said it would become. When I brought my attention back to the call, ma was repeating my name, her voice getting sharper each time.
‘Samuel. Sam. You still there? Sam? Samuel!’
I put the phone down and went back to the kitchen.
‘Who was that?’ aunty asked.
We made three jars of atchar (onion, lemon and tomato) for Erika’s parents, hoping they would manage to pair them with the right meats.
That night I thought of ma. She must have known my silence meant the same thing as my locked bedroom door, the one Yassir wanted the key for, the key that ma fought for me to keep, the key I stuck in Yassir’s eye.
I had locked myself in my bedroom that night, while ma took Yassir to the emergency room, nursing her swollen left wrist with a pack of ice. When that scene gets stuck on repeat in my head, I want to scream. I want to go back and plead with ma not to drive away. To stay with me. To let Yassir be the one getting caught in a roadblock with no driver’s license and bags of buttons in the boot. I want ma to teach me how to cook broccoli and pilchards the way she used to. To scold me for pickpocketing nice ladies in buses.
I take the pocket watch from the drawer and twist its pin to make it say midnight, six o’clock, quarter to three, the clock hands like traffic points-people with their whistles and white gloves.
I guess time is like that, right? You’ve got to point at it really hard so it’s not just another flat circle.
Selima is free tonight. When I’m stressed, I ask her to bring the ropes. It’s a last resort. The only thing that quells the anxiety, now that I know my watch is gone for good.
Selima and her ropes were there for me when father passed, when Skosana got promoted, and when the things I had inherited from father began to control my life. How his razor had to shave my legs and nick me, on my right inner thigh, each time I wanted to wear a skirt. How his revolver had to be cocked and kept in my pillowcase because this country belonged to the violent. How his portrait had to hang in the corner of my bedroom so that it would catch the first light every morning.
Selima and her ropes had helped me lose all of dad’s things, one by one. Everything, in time, except the pocket watch. Until that day on the bus. Selima tells me I’m free now, that freedom is a kind of falling, and a kind of catching too. But as much as I try, I don’t feel what she means yet.
When she shows me her new set of ropes, I am calmer, knowing I’ll be suspended from the ceiling and swung gently—a planet orbiting its sun. Anti-clockwise. I’ve never been able to explain why it’s the feeling of being utterly trapped that relieves me. It’s the luxury of giving up that I let myself have, as a treat, when father becomes unbearable.
Selima is gentle as she weaves the rope under my arms, behind my back, around my neck, across my pelvis, hoisting me up in my living room. Red streaks criss-cross and remap my body, while the fibres’ yawing is reminiscent of mating frogs. When I’m in full swing this way—eyes closed—I can almost imagine what it must have been like at the beginning of the cosmos. All swirling bedlam, undecided about where the centre should be.
I sit near the back of the bus watching heads bobble. These days I ride alone, because Tinashe’s parents have forbidden him from hanging with me.
When the watch lady gets on the bus, I don’t recognise her at first. She’s not wearing her usual corduroy and black buttoned-down shirt. I walk up the aisle as she takes her seat behind the sleeping man whose head leaves grease marks on the window. I’m a few rows away when the watch lady reaches her arm through the seat in front of her to shield the man’s head from the window. For as long as I’ve been riding this bus, no one’s ever done that for him.
‘Hey umfana! You can’t be walking up and down nje on my bus!’ The driver scolds me from the front. I take the nearest seat.
When the lady gets off, I follow her to the vendor on the corner. She buys a mielie and a packet of sherbet, but I can’t seem to get close enough to slip the watch back into her pocket. Just as I’m about to try again she turns.
‘Excuse me, young man.’ She tears open the sherbet and pours some onto her mielie.
I don’t know why, but I’m surprised she doesn’t recognise me. She continues walking and I follow her for a while, trying to figure out what’s different about her, wondering if she even needs the watch.
A text from Aunty Sonia comes through. Sam, I got tickets for the last show at the Wits observatory tonight. Wanna go? We can see the night sky up close. How cool.
That’s the moment I decide to pawn the fucken pocket watch. To buy all the ingredients aunty and I need to make every sort of atchar we could ever want. I know there’s a pawn shop a few blocks over that’ll give a good price.
I can already picture the mason jars, lined up on the windowsill, brimming with every colour, getting spicier by the hour, egged on by the sun.
- Jarred Thompson is a literary and cultural studies researcher whose poetry, fiction and non-fiction have been published in various journals, notably the Gerald Kraak Anthology, Racebait, Lolwe, Doek! and Fiyah. He was the winner the 2020 Afritondo Short Story Award and runner-up in the 2021 Dream Foundry Short Story Prize. His debut novel, The Institute for Creative Dying, was published in 2023. Follow him on Twitter/X.