New original fiction in The JRB.
By Simon van Schalkwyk
On weekends, I worked as a runner at a small film and television production house on the third floor of Longkloof Studios Block B. My job was to record Reuters image feeds that would later be cut together into thirty second news inserts. The images would beam into the dimly lit editing suite and in the early hours of the morning and late at night I’d be there to capture what we needed. I was always around well before the main production team arrived and long after they’d left.
Some of the pictures that flickered silently on screen were embargoed, but I watched them anyway. I was unnerved by what I saw: heads on pikes paraded through a jungle somewhere in Southeast Asia; palm trees bent toward concrete by hurricanes; tsunamis sweeping away cars and trucks; missiles flashing into the air from a battered Smerch ‘Tornado’ MLRS. A world on fire. The footage flashed silently between information screens marked with geographical details, a title, and a digital timer counting down to the next atrocity exhibition that no one in the country would ever get to see.
Most nights I’d head outside for a smoke, listen to the pulse of the city at night and look for the red and blue lights blinking on the wings of aeroplanes soaring noiselessly overhead. Other things would flash through the sky, the Perseids, a UFO.
When I knew I had a few hours to kill between late-night feeds, I’d walk down into the bright noise of the street, taking care to keep close—though not too close—to the disaggregated groups of nocturnal revellers making their way down the hill. Submerged in the pockets of the crowd, I’d weave between taxis and step over the vagrants sleeping in the recesses of clubs or restaurants that had closed down or which were under renovation.
Once, I ducked into a small alley where, pooled in an island of light, a small art gallery had just emptied—mainly young scenesters from the nearby Sichaelim College of Fine Art (SCOFA). Walking by, I glanced through the window at the exhibition. One installation was nothing more than the words ‘IT WAS ONLY A BLOWJOB’ spray painted on the wall in bubblegum pink. Another was called ‘A FUCKING GENIUS’ and presented nothing but the title card affixed at eye level to the gallery entrance. These installations were by a man named Terrell Yang. More commonly known as ‘Teddy’ or ‘Ted’, Yang was widely regarded as the enfant terrible of the inner city art scene. The joke driving the second installation—a title card for an empty space—was obvious enough to anyone unfortunate enough to say the words, ‘Did you see Teddy Yang’s “A FUCKING GENIUS”?’
I had crossed paths with Yang at film school. He wasn’t a student, but he sometimes hung out with a couple of kids with made-up names like Berlin East and Grant Lee Buffalo, who rehearsed the usual gestures of art-school avant-gardism: they conducted happenings, made weird non-narrative silent films, and formed a band called Verboten Interdict. One song overlayed simple synthesiser melodies onto feedback noise while Berlin East repeated the phrase ‘NO LOGIC’ into a handheld police radio mic.
Yang, who looked a bit like early Bush-era Gavin Rossdale, didn’t have much time for Berlin East’s arthouse pretensions. He eventually started his own band, hoping to capitalise on the spent force of grunge, and performed a song called ‘Superman’ in the film school’s studios. The lyrics were dire:
I want to be-e your Soo-purr-ma-an
I want to be-e all I ca-a-an
Please, please, mi-ster poo-lees ma-an,
I want to be-e
your Soo-purr, Soo-purr, ma-an!
It was only much later that I found out that Yang’s seemingly cursory interest in Superman was actually part of a deeper obsession, which went on to inform his final-year exhibition at SCOFA. I’d gone alone, dawdling through workspaces in which the final desperate efforts of students who had probably spent most of the year stoned or embroiled in some sordid sexual drama did their best to seem presentably polished.
Passing through rooms filled with the usual formless grotesqueries of plaster of Paris, volcanic mounds of resin, starched paper, weirdly anachronistic dioramas in which various antiques were glued together to depict, presumably, the tortured inner-world of Afrikanerdom, I finally reached Yang’s studio, a space filled with random paraphernalia, most of which was linked to the figure of the Superman in some way. Yang had painted—or tried to paint—a full-sized portrait of the Siegel and Shuster character, and there was a video installation of him wearing a crimson jumper like a cape and shooting a toy bear with an air rifle called ‘Killing Teddy’. For some reason, he’d also included a model train and a set of tracks fashioned into a circle. This pleased me a great deal, and I stood for long minutes watching the train chugging along its closed circuit, going nowhere.
In the catalogue-book set beneath the exhibition’s description panel, Yang had written, simply, ‘This is my house. If you don’t like it, get the fuck out.’
It seemed to me as if Yang had heard someone talking about Nietzsche and run vaguely misinformed ideas about the Übermensch and nihilism through the old biscuit mill of postmodern American pop culture. I much preferred the exhibition of another young artist, a woman from Zimbabwe named Hannah Daltry. I particularly appreciated an installation titled, ‘Stone Tablets/Bitter Pills’, which displayed pouffe-sized stone sculptures engraved with the kinds of symbols you’d find on tablets of ecstasy—skull and crossbones, hearts, dollar signs, grey aliens, a starfish. Pleasure pills that were impossible—and impossibly hard—to swallow.
Leaving Yang’s exhibition, I noticed a wall of fliers advertising personalised tours of the city’s underground system of sewers, canals and waterworks. The fliers were squares of cheap computer paper—cyan, magenta, yellow, blue, red, green—each bearing the title UNDER THE PAVING STONES—THE SEWER. TOURS.
Each coloured square also bore a different image: sewer rat, water snake, millipede, spider crab. I plucked a flyer from the wall, folded it, and put it in my pocket as I walked outside. In a guttered corner of the main plaza, someone was retching fitfully.
‘You see bra over there mokking in the corner?’ I heard someone say. ‘Bra won first prize. Must laugh.’
I found out that his name was Mvumvu, and that his was the exhibition called ‘Hauntological Architectonics, Cape Foreshore, 1948’. Mvumvu had silkscreened a variety of abortive proposals for the foreshore and superimposed these onto his own photographs of the city now. He signed each print Mvu2.
I had seen his work earlier that night, a surprisingly neat room containing a series of modest prints positioned waist-high along the walls. No one else had been around, but the room alongside, where supersized images of confrontationally naked inmates at Pollsmoor Prison were displayed in luridly high resolution, had buzzed with life. The artist, a well-known up and coming photographer named Watotski, had digitally enlarged and stitched the pictures together into an extraordinary singularity before mounting them to the walls. They enveloped the entire gallery, a panorama of saturated colour that, to some, cleverly inverted the imaginary carceral gaze of Bentham’s panopticon. Many had felt that this installation deserved the award. But the loss didn’t matter. There was already talk that Watotski had been selected as the winner for that year’s prestigious—and exceedingly lucrative—DaimlerChrysler Prize.
I had ignored the buzz and studied Mvumvu’s prints, weirdly bleached superimpositions of the city then and now. One of these images, captioned ‘Victor Thompson, carpenter’, caught me off guard: Thompson, I thought automatically, looked uncannily like an old school friend of mine, a wayward boy named Raymond Patel.
I studied the picture.
Thompson was posing with a post office stone dating back to 1577, recently excavated from a chambered stairwell in the Golden Acre, blended with the crablike image of the same building’s starry architecture—futuristic for its time, ahead of a certain curve, long since dated. It belonged now to some future anterior architectural grammar, like those photorealistic paintings depicting cavemen prodding stone-tipped spears with wooden shafts at Tyrannosaurus rex. The incongruity of scale between the two images gave the impression that Thompson, though he crouched beneath the skywalk, like a troll, towered above the rudimentary depictions of citizens conducting their business along the perspective lines running to the vanishing point of a wondrously flowering Heerengracht fountain.
I liked the fact that Mvumvu didn’t moralise about the evictions that accompanied the foreshore development, a detail that was not only undeniable and widely acknowledged, but a testament to ugliness. Mvumvu’s concerns, by contrast, were with information and beauty. I read captions and information entries noting the contestation for space between the railways and the docks, and inventories from the VOC Orphan Chamber and trust documents pertaining to the project that accompanied the prints. They all referred to the ‘beautification’ of the city.
I admired an image in which the Adderley Street flower market overlaid a photograph of an expansive concourse leading to the ocean where, on the occasion of the royal visit of 1947, the British battlecruiser HMS Vanguard loomed like a mirror mountain. Another picture offered a speculative portrayal of the foreshore’s future—an ultramodern metropolis dominated by a regimental series of Koolhaasian, or perhaps Eisenmanian, monoliths squatting above the ghostly image of a man sleeping under the stunted sea palms at the end of Adderley and Sisulu, beset by hundreds of ghostly crustaceans.
The sea palms reminded me of Elaine Scarry’s reflections on the pliancy or elasticity of beauty—hurtling us forward and back, requiring us to break new ground, but obliging us also to bridge back not only to the ground we just left but to still earlier, even ancient, ground—.
I registered a similar plasticity in Mvumvu’s superimpositions. It was as if he had detected some error in his everyday surroundings, some Matrix-like glitch, that had led him to seek out the limits of their origins and outcomes.
But I knew, somehow, that even if these aborted anachronisms had materialised, the various futures they promised would still have led, inexorably, to where we were now.
That night, after I had recorded the necessary feeds and rushed the DAT over to Block B, after the usual tension that accompanied the scramble to find an angle for the news, to write reports, record the voiceovers, cut image to sound (the phrase was already anachronistic, said nothing about how what was actually occurring was the digital trimming and blending of billions of digitised pixels), I stood on the balcony outside and gazed across the glassy and reflective surfaces of Port Mare, thinking about Victor Thompson and Raymond Patel.
Then I fished the flyer from my pocket and dialled the number printed on the vertical scissor strips at the bottom of the page.
We were never close friends, Raymond and I, but he lived nearby and, at some point, he had begun to spend regular evenings at my house, listening to music I’d borrowed from the library and talking about nothing. We had less and less in common by the day. We both knew this, but what else were we going to do? We were trapped there, in that city, with those people.
Raymond would tell me about his weekends. How he’d hitched a lift to The Galaxy—a popular nightclub—with a group of friends we both knew from our school days. I had been to The Galaxy once or twice and I found the scene mildly depressing. Everyone pretending to be ordentlik, everyone carrying a gun.
It was always the same story. Raymond began by telling me what he had been wearing, before listing the people he had met over the course of the night and describing, while correcting himself repeatedly, their outfits.
‘Relays, blue … no … black. Black Relays. A jas pair of suede grassies, beige … huh-uh, no wait … so a tawny brown. Pink Polo shirt. Bomber jacket. Like the one Maverick wore in Top Gun, dark brown leather with the fur inlay …’
It went on like this for some time. The stories rarely went anywhere. Nothing ever happened at The Galaxy. The primary excitements seemed to be either casual sex or casual violence. The stories bored me, and I listened with half an ear, interjecting now and then to ask a question, as a way of reassuring Raymond that I was still paying attention, while laying down inks on a picture of the X-Men’s Nightcrawler that I was currently working on. I knew that the part of Raymond’s story focusing on clothes was crucial. It said something important about Raymond, his desire to look good, to be able to buy nice clothes. I knew that it was all a form of conspicuous consumption, because we had touched on Veblen in a course on media and society at college. But I didn’t say anything about this to Raymond, didn’t try to explain that what he was doing when he listed items of clothing, counting each one off on his fingers, was a Veblenesque symptom. That he was a symptom.
‘Jas,’ said Raymond, looking at the picture. ‘BAMF!’
I explained that ‘BAMF!’ was the sound the Nightcrawler made whenever he teleported.
‘Hunh,’ he said, distractedly. I suppose he wondered why I still bothered with comic books. It must have seemed childish to him, but he still appreciated my drawing. ‘How’d you get the lines so clean?’
I showed him the makeshift light box I’d made out of a shoebox, a torch and the glass from the frame of one of the awards I’d won for academic excellence.
‘I taped a clean sheet of paper over the original,’ I said, ‘and traced the image in. Then I reworked the trace, changing things like the expression on the face or the style of the costume. I enlarged the image using the photocopier at work and I inked it using fineliners and magic markers.’ I thought about that for a second, then added, ‘I don’t think that’s the right way to do it though—I think you’re supposed to use a sable paintbrush and India ink. I can’t afford sable paintbrushes and India ink.’
I kept drawing. Raymond idly flipped the pages of a comic book. Arvo Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel for Violin and Piano, played by Benjamin Hudson and Jürgen Kruse, began skipping on my CD player. I changed the disc. Autechre, Peel Session, the squelchy beats of Milk DX flooded the room.
‘And this disco-looking naai?’ said Raymond, dangling the comic book carelessly in my direction. I winced, and took it carefully from him.
‘That’s the Beyonder,’ I said, ‘he’s actually the embodiment of an entirely different dimension. He arrives after discovering a crack into this dimension—ours. The discovery sparks the revelation that he is not omnipotent, and he takes human form so that he can find out as much as he can about the new dimension, which he nevertheless intends to destroy.’ I paused, flipping through the pages. ‘This issue’s pretty cool, actually,’ I said. ‘It’s about the M’Kraan Crystal, a multiversal nexus that draws together all points of space and time. It’s like a gateway to everywhere.’ I tried to remember what I knew about the Shi’ar Empire, Corsair, the Phoenix Force and the White Hot Room. I thought about how the Beyonder needed to find out everything he could about the new universe before wiping it out completely. A destroyer, like //Gaunab, a herald of change.
‘I don’t know much about the rest of the story,’ I said. ‘It’s difficult to get hold of the right issues, to keep the continuity. I mean, I didn’t even know until recently that the numbers in the top left corner of the covers indicated the sequence in which the stories were meant to be read. I didn’t know that. And the crossovers. Christ. I stopped collecting them because of the crossovers. Hard to find, more and more expensive, they used to be twenty-five cents before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Now? Twenty-five rand and climbing.’ I shook my head, set the comic book down and went back to the picture.
Later, I walked Raymond halfway home and shared a cigarette with him on a corner between his house and mine. I was talking about Pärt, explaining how he had modelled his compositions on birdsong, when I realised that Raymond wasn’t listening.
‘Let’s cross,’ he said, taking a drag of the cigarette. He was looking over my shoulder at something in the dark road behind my back. I turned, squinting into the gloom.
A Japanese spider crab had clawed its way delicately out of the storm drain and was skittering toward us along the kerb.
‘What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever seen?’ someone asked.
I had recently returned to Port Mare after a year abroad, and had agreed to join a few of my peers for an after-work drink at the university pub. New to the group, I soon found myself staring vacantly at the stuffed bushpig frozen in the glass terrarium near the entrance.
Most of the responses were lurid and uninteresting and I realised that, despite our differences, we all seemed to share a similarly banal set of experiences and desires. But also that I was less willing to share even the most unremarkably common of these occurrences, that I preferred to keep them close, to pretend that they belonged to me and no one else. I wondered if this trait was a symptom of the type of historical amputation or crippling that affected people like me.
Discomfited, I shrank back against the wall and listened as an engineer known for his sober and humourless commitment to reason, brought the gathering to stunned silence when he told a story about a trip to purchase a pair of Mandarinfish for his aquarium.
‘I couldn’t find them anywhere,’ he said, ‘but then a guy at one of the stores I’d visited put me in touch with one of his contacts. I called the number and drove to the location, a couple of kilometres outside of town, but when I arrived, the guy said he’d received a better offer. I was furious. Worse, I had to drive all the way back home in one of the worst thunderstorms I’ve ever seen. I turned on the radio and found out that traffic was badly backed up near the city limits. Even though I knew it would add another hour to my trip home, I decided to risk an alternative route that cut straight through the township.
‘The roads were terrible, just mud. I realised I’d made a terrible mistake. And then, just as I was nearing the end of the township road, and beginning to pick up speed, something swept out of the sky and slammed hard against my windshield, causing me to veer off the road. I sat behind the wheel in shock for a few minutes, gathering my wits and listening to the rhythmic thump of the windshield wipers and the hazard lights ticking on and off. The rain was beginning to subside, so I opened the door and stepped out of the car to check for damage, and I noticed something in the wet ditch a few metres from the left rear wheel, something that seemed to reflect the twitching light of the indicators back at me.
‘I walked over, and there, nestled in a pool of thick mud, I found a clear plastic bag filled with water containing—I swear, this is the truth—two perfect, luminous neon Mandarinfish.’
The engineer was quiet, then, and something about his expression suggested that he was still troubled by the illogicality of the event. Though they tried their best to laugh it off, I could tell that other members of the group were similarly unnerved, though less by the details of the story than by the fact that it was entirely out of keeping with the engineer’s character. He was never one to lie.
I headed to the bar for another round. As I waited, I looked at the photographs mounted on the walls. Frames of colonial nostalgia. Amid them I noticed an oddity: a neat box of wood and glass containing the bleached carapace of a crab.
When I returned to the group, the conversation had shifted. I felt strange, as if a weight had been lifted from the room and infused everything with a peculiar buoyancy and pressure. It seemed as if the entire bar had been submerged in water, and that I was looking out of a submarine portal at strange undersea flora and fauna, an alien world.
‘I’ve just remembered,’ I said, ‘I saw something weird once.’ I had interrupted their talk, and I knew instantly that I had transgressed an unspoken law of conversation. They seemed to offer me their attention grudgingly, but with patience. I creased my brow at the memory.
‘Funny,’ I said, ‘I’d almost forgotten. I remember standing on the corner near my house with a friend of mine—what was his name?—when I realised he had stopped listening to what I was saying. He was looking over my shoulder at something behind me, and he said, “I think maybe we should cross the road.” I turned to check what he was looking at and I saw them. There were these things, I don’t know what they were, coming out of a storm drain. They looked like crabs, huge, pale, white crabs. But it was dark and I can’t be sure that’s what they were. I get the feeling now that they weren’t crabs. That I only called them that because I didn’t know what else to call them. First one, very pale and dim, and still, hard to see in the darkness, squatting close to the drain. I flinched when it moved. It wasn’t slow. It seemed to have many legs, spine-like and jointed.’
They listened patiently. They were polite, optimistic, healthy, white. They lived for the sun and sailed yachts and wore tatty plimsolls, the worn-down hush-puppies of the rich. They were humouring me.
‘As I watched,’ I said, ‘a second creature scuttled out of the drain and joined the first. They headed toward us, first one, then the other, then the first one again. It seemed as if they were connected to each other somehow, by some kind of telepathy. We crossed the road and watched them for a few minutes as they crept along the gutter to the corner where we had just been standing. I’m not sure why, but we didn’t watch them for long, my friend didn’t seem particularly freaked out. I haven’t seen him for years.’
‘That is weird,’ said Mathilde. ‘But I can believe it.’ My interruption had threatened to derail things, and she was clearly trying to get the discussion back on track. ‘I mean, there’s all kinds of weird creepy-crawlies down there.’ This broke the tension. The group laughed and resumed their chatter. I was grateful, and leaned back, dissolving into the corner of the booth as the conversation turned away from me.
‘You’ve been down there, haven’t you?’ Mathilde passed me the joint and propped herself up on an elbow with postcoital ease.
‘I’ve taken the tour,’ I said. ‘The guide was a woman named Reineke. She led us to the Walvisch bastion, lost for over three hundred years before its rediscovery. The chamber may have been used as a prison or holding cell. The walls were imprinted with the usual latrinalia, dick pics, 69 and sonop symbols, names and hearts, a scrawled Dutch motto—wanneer de dagen donker zijn, zijn er maar weinig vrienden—and, more curiously, the muted trumpet of the Trystero. The tour group gathered around in whispered awe. Reineke knew her stuff. She told us about how the city had originally been built along rivers and channels of open water running down from the mountain and a series of springs. She said the name Camissa as if it were a sacred word. Camissa, place of sweet water, repeated with such earnest frequency that it threatened to lose all meaning. It was actually two words: //Khammis Ssa—sweet water for all. No one ever seems to mention the Varsche.
Mathilde drew up the sheets, rested her head against my arm and closed her eyes. ‘The Dutch relied on those water sources for their ships, didn’t they?’ she said. ‘They turned them into the graachts.’
‘That’s right,’ I said. ‘When you walk down Adderley, you’re also, in a way, walking through the Heerengracht canal. The British decided that canals were unsanitary, places to do laundry, to dump refuse. It all led to the plague of 1901. So the Brits bricked everything up, and now millions of gallons of fresh water are lost to the sea every day. When Reineke told us this, she paused theatrically, and a silence fell over the group as they feigned the kind of reverence they believed to be appropriate for these solemn words. And then a celebrated novelist from New York read a passage from his novel, The Monster of New Amsterdam. The section he read described the brutal raids conducted by Dutch colonial schout-fiscaal Cornelis van Tienhoven against the Canarsie and Hackensack tribes. There was a striking section about how he “brought back the victims’ heads on pikes”. The novelist said that Van Tienhoven eventually vanished, sometime during 1656, though not without a trace: his hat and cane were found floating in the Hudson River, like a ghost in water.’
‘You should take me with you next time,’ Mathilde murmured. She was drifting into sleep. ‘I want to see those monsters. Those weird little monsters …’
I didn’t tell Mathilde that I had been down into the city’s underland more than once. Like her, I also wanted to see those monsters, the ones that made so little sense when I first glimpsed them all those years ago, which I thought I must have dreamed or imagined. The ones I’d forgotten. I’d access the sewer by dropping through an open manhole in the Company’s Garden or by stepping through a breach in the wall inside the imposing Brutalist shell of the Golden Acre. These were places in such a state of disrepair, which had been defunct for so long, that most people had become accustomed to ignoring them entirely. I could enter in full view of the public and nobody would pay me any attention. My headlamp illuminated the neat brickwork of the old VOC canal where millipedes snaked in and out of pockmarked stone. The first few times I went, I followed the tunnel that ran straight to the property gate of the Castle. But I soon learned there were other apertures leading to other tunnels, which led to a series of nested antechambers. With each descent I encroached a little deeper into the labyrinth.
I didn’t take Mathilde with me the next time I descended beneath the city. She would just have held me back.
Much later, during one of my descents, long after Mathilde had become a distant memory, I turned a corner and found myself in a room of smooth, watery stone, weirdly illuminated by hundreds of candles. In the centre stood a stalagmitic protuberance that looked as if it had been deliberately planed down into the shape of an altar. Two further passages loomed darkly on the far side of the entrance. Etched into the ceiling, a bas-relief depicted VOC ships surrounded by mermaids, coelacanths, lampreys, starfish and anemones. The ship was heading toward a mountainous shore, where hieroglyphic humanoids prostrated themselves before an enormous and strangely familiar decapod.
Then, voices and torchlight shuddered across the darkness of one of the passageways. I turned off my headlamp and backed out of the chamber into the darkness of one of the adjoining tunnels. Reineke appeared, wearing a hooded robe, vermillion. Two other similarly cowled figures joined her. They gathered around the altar.
‘We know you’re here,’ said Reineke, and I caught my breath. But she wasn’t referring to me. I watched as she spread her arms and raised a euphoric gaze to the crablike petroglyph. ‘Older than the world,’ she said, ‘Older than the stars! Tsau!’ This last word caromed off the stone like a gunshot. ‘Tsau!’ said the cowled followers, ‘Tsau! Tsau!’ And then, after a moment’s silence, a series of clicks and whistles arrived in answer. ‘Yes!’ Reineke hissed and still more loudly, ‘yes!’ She fell to her knees, trembling. ‘This is the language of the stars,’ she cried, ‘spraak van sterre, kò !ù ≠ö!’ This last phrase, a strange series of pops and gutturals, was repeated in unison as the noises grew louder, echoing eerily around the walls.
Unnerved, I backed away as quickly and quietly as I could, as Reineke’s voice ululated though the chasms.
I retraced my steps until I reached a familiar archway and the tunnel I knew would lead me back to the surface. I had almost reached the exit when I heard a rhythmic metallic tapping ahead of me. The sound grew louder, and as I rounded a broad bend, my headlamp illuminated a crouched, hooded figure hammering at the wall with a chisel. I froze and the noise stopped, but the figure didn’t move. Reflexively, I turned off the torch.
‘Kap aan,’ the figure said, the words echoing through the passage, and I did, keeping close to the opposite wall and moving quickly into the darkness.
Shortly afterwards, the banging resumed, far behind me—a steady, deliberate breaking of stone. I kept walking away from the sound until it began to mingle with the rush of water, then faded into the noise of traffic and radio, the whipping beat of helicopters washing fire from the mountain, the weird, doppler-like hum that trailed in the wake of invisible aeroplanes.
The sun had already fallen behind the mountain by the time I joined the sparse crowds of blue-collar nightwalkers making their way through the streets to the trains, buses and taxis at the bottom of the hill. The station was crowded with the dark bodies of shop-workers in sleeveless puffer-jackets hunching their shoulders against a cold, stiff wind.
I slouched in the vestibule doorway, dissolving. I thought about Raymond, then, wondering what had happened to him, and whether he was still living in the same Wendy house in his grandfather’s garden, heading to the same station every day to catch the train to the same job.
I had long since grown accustomed to the quiet dissolution of youthful friendships that felt as if they would last a lifetime. How many people had I known and built a rapport with who had simply vanished one day and, more curiously, whose vanishing was beyond noticing until, many years later, one happened to see them again by chance, struck by how easily they had been forgotten.
I searched myself for some feeling of loss, some pang of wistful remembrance or remorse, but I felt nothing. I tried to remember Raymond’s face and found that I couldn’t. His features were dull and shadowy, little more than pressed clay in my memory.
As I approached my stop, I pushed through the crowded carriage to the open doors and looked out. It was dark now, and the wind had died. I cursed myself for mistiming my departure, and worried about the short walk home. As I left the train, I merged with the quickly moving throng and descended into the yellow light of the subway. But the crowd fanned out at the first intersection, and I emerged alone on the far side of the railway line. Quickening my step, I kept to the shadows, avoiding the pale islands of light cast by the street lamps leaning at irregular angles across the road.
At the corner, I paused. Something low and pale was darting along the kerb on the far side of the road. I followed its spasmodic movements until it reached the storm drain, where it froze, twitching now and then in the warrelwind. When my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I realised that it was only the centrefold of a mildly pornographic weekly, twin black stars on wonky, white tits, yesterday’s news flapping against the tarmac, the damp ink imprinting itself like lampblack on the stone.
- Simon van Schalkwyk is the Academic Editor. His latest work is a collection of poems, Transcontinental Delay. Follow him on Twitter/X.