Oxford House 27, Gillespie Street, Durban
1. Back from the dead
The owner of the adult video shop, XXX, walks hurriedly, with a steel leg. A band plays on the veranda of the Four Seasons Hotel. The sounds of the music are drowned by the cheering of people watching soccer on the TV in the Ladies Bar of the hotel. Aging and crippled prostitutes on the dance floor: their clothes as weathered as their wrinkled and toothless faces. A dwarf, Three Quarters, is swirling his stubs in the air like a broken Jesus Christ amongst his beer-drinking following.
I walked to the Squireman’s Pub, on the first floor of the Arcade, with an entrance from a dark side street. There were some girls, sitting at the bar. One particularly beautiful, with bright crimson-coloured silk slacks and hair made up, came in and out of the place at intervals and flirted with the men. I spoke to Terry, the woman behind the counter. Terry lives in Overport, a suburb to which she returns late every night in a taxi, and she remarks on the expensive clothes of the prostitutes and tells of her father who disappeared to England long ago, and about her mother who died.
The woman, with the slacks, plays pool against a man with the square jaw of a boxer. Nervously, I order a Castle, while following their movements in the mirror. At one stage, I turn around. The man, with the jaw, is playing with his thigh resting on the pool stick, and his right hand behind his back. The feat pays off. He manages in this position to get the ball in the hole. Seeing that I’m looking, he grabs my hand, shaking it.
He is divorced, from Finland, and works as a representative of a paper factory. He assumes I am a typical South African racist by explaining that he understands the colour thing of South Africans. His philosophy is to enjoy life to the full. The desired woman comes, pressing with her finger lightly on his shoulder, indicating it is his turn to play again. I look at her face as long as possible. She is beautiful beyond words. She must be sought-after; judging by her expensive clothes, the gold rings, and diamonds in her ears. Her voice is that of an illiterate child. Realizing defeat, I eventually leave for my empty flat.
I went for a walk at seven in the morning. Durban was waking up and outside Costa’s I saw the owner carrying tables outside. I walked all along the promenade next to the sea. A few people jogged, while others were fishing on the pier, extending into the greyness of a misty horizon. At the flea market, I turned around, and walked back. The sellers, hoping it was not going to rain, were still unpacking their goods. I passed two Jehovah’s Witnesses, preying on the lonely, while Zulu aunties were arranging their curios and beads along the sidewalk. From a transistor came the nostalgic sounds of the Staccatos singing, Cry to Me. Back in West Street, the shop owners were unlocking their shops.
An old pale man with a plastic red nose, and playing the pennywhistle at the entrance of Oxford House, sits despondently, with his head on his arms, while the blind man on the steps of The Wheel is shaking his tin furiously. He has no eyes to intimidate the passers-by with. Three Quarters sits on a cement block at the bottom of a robot, his wooden leg stretched out in front of him. He peers into nothingness, with his oily locks and sunburnt face. Rugged men and a girl are sitting outside at a sidewalk table at Costa do Sol. Inside there is soccer on the TV, and great applause and jubilation. I returned to my flat.
A tall thin figure in a skirt appeared, while I was working on the computer. It was Mbali. I just pressed my head against her tummy, and stayed like that for a few moments. Then she went into the balcony room, undressed, and climbed under the blankets. I did the same. She turned to me, and we started kissing.
“Don’t press me too hard” she said.
“Come on top” I said.
“Put on a condom,” she said, and I searched for the condom in a brown pharmacy packet on the bookshelf. I was stiff as never before, when I rolled the condom over my penis.
“I hate making love with a condom,” I said. She rolled on top of me. I had to control the sensations going down my spine, while my hands gripped her buttocks. Sometimes I just stopped moving; those were the moments giving her the greatest thrill. Her deep insides, though, did not want to open up.
“Are you okay? Are you okay?” I kept on asking towards the end, until I came, and I kissed her, while a feverish smell came from her throat.
“What did you do last week?”
“Sleep,” she answers. “I’m very weak, and cannot walk any more; my shoes are too heavy for my feet. It’s the lungs, water on the lungs. I’ll be going to the hospital tomorrow.”
“But tomorrow is Sunday… What are we going to eat?”
“I cannot eat any more.”
“What about a salad, a Greek salad?”
I put on my clothes. On the floor lies the empty plastic packet of the condom. Outside it is drizzling.
On Valentine’s Day, we wake up in each other’s arms.
“Johan let’s go somewhere. Let’s go to the mountain,” she says.
“I don’t have enough money. Okay, I’ll take you to Tongaat. We can have oysters for lunch at the Westbrook Hotel. Let’s hang around a few hours more in bed.”
“I want to go now,” she mutters.
We took a bath, and she sat in a foetus position, with my arms around her. We just sat like that, for a few minutes, in the water. Then I rubbed her back. She smiled, and she got out of the bath.
She wore a long dress, and I the Turkish T-shirt, that I bought in Athens last year, and jeans. We arrived at the Westbrook Beach Hotel, a half-hour too early, and went to sit in the car at a place we could see the waves breaking on the beach. She was tired, at twelve o’clock we strolled into the Westbrook Hotel, and got a table for two, next to a window. She ordered a steak, and I peri-peri chicken, with six oysters for starters. They have the best oysters you can get anywhere. The Zulu aunties with their big arms harvest them in the morning at low tide from the rocks. I squeeze lemon on to the oysters, then Tabasco sauce then dug the slippery flesh out of the shells. Delicious. She was too weak to eat her steak and kept on falling asleep while we waited for our main dish. I got a doggy bag for the steak. When I paid, the lady behind the counter gave us two chocolates in the shape of hearts and wrapped in red silver paper. It was Valentine’s Day.
I woke late that night to a hell of a crash and glass falling; it sounded as if the ceiling of the Four Seasons caved in. Their customers boogied all night, a motorcycle gang congregated there: guys and girls trying to see who could make the most noise, some of the girls singing a beautiful Negro spiritual, while their boyfriends gave it a kwaito-chorus.
Next morning, with groceries in my hand, I see Piet, the tow-away man, his breath smelling of an early morning tot, standing at the entrance of Oxford House. I ask him “Do you know of that accident last night, it sounded as if the ceiling of the Four Seasons collapsed?”
“Yes, it was a truck, which landed on a bakkie. They had to cut a woman loose, only her legs stuck out. One doesn’t want to see these things over the week-end.”
A cockroach watched me chopping up onion, garlic, and chillies, and adding curry powder, cumin, cinnamon sticks, lemon juice, tomato puree, and meat. I look through the window, thinking that poor whites retire on the streets of Durban, living from the rubbish in the containers on the street corners.
I had not seen Mbali for weeks, and then she phoned me, with a voice sounding extremely weak. I fetched her at about three in the afternoon, and was shocked at how thin she had become. She swore at me for saying “Jesus, you are thin, only skin and bone.”
Back at the flat, Mbali’s flesh, hardly covering her skeleton, was lying in bed. She came to say goodbye. I’m shocked. She will be going to St. John’s Mission, in Dassenhoek, and will live there until she’s better. I’m not allowed to visit her.
“Why?” I asked.
“You cannot reach it by car.”
It sounds like purgatory – people with TB, pneumonia, AIDS, leprosy, cancer, schizophrenia gather there to wait on death. It evokes images of the concentration camps. I lie behind her back, my teary eyes against her shoulder blades. She is still beautiful. In the weeks and the months that followed, I was alone in the flat, which became a dark hole. It was a sad time for me. I was completely lonely, with dishes piling up, and dust gathering and half-read books. I wandered around without purpose. A slab of concrete fell and killed two people on the sidewalk outside the Squireman’s Pub.
On the corner of West and Gillespie, a long row of street kids is waiting to be served at a soup kitchen in the early evening. I asked God whether I could disappear into the filthy sidewalks, and wondered whether I would haunt this block of the city.
For weeks on end, there was no news from Mbali. Ultimately, after a bath, I ventured into the streets. There was great activity and excitement: Bafana Bafana won against Mauritius, and the South African cricket team against Pakistan. Costa do Sol was full of people celebrating the victories. I took the only empty bar stool. A tall woman was sitting next to me, but I could not see her face. I just looked at myself in the mirror and the faces behind me. In the end, a short ochre-skinned woman, with a wig, asked me why I was so quiet, why I didn’t speak. I said that I’m tired, and had a long day behind me. She said that she could see herself in bed with me, and I thought that I’m not sure about that.
I bought her tequila…and told her about Mbali…Yes she knows Mbali…
“What is wrong with Mbali?”
“I think it is AIDS…She had water on the lungs…Pneumonia…”
“Those are symptoms of AIDS…Did you always use the condom when you were with her …”
“Yes, but the condom does not always help…”
“Did you take a test?”
“…No, I don’t want to know…I don’t want to be miserable for the rest of my life…”
She touches my legs…
“Did you look after Mbali…What did you give her per week…Maybe she got it from that other boyfriend of hers, she used to live with him…”
“He looked like he had a disease…He was a very rich guy…had businesses here. Then his wife divorced him, and he became a hobo on the streets.”
“A hobo?” I asked.
“Yes. He is always around.”
“Who is he? What is his name?”
She’ll ask the barman.
“You can even now see him, lying on the sidewalk.”
Her breath smells terrible from the alcohol.
“I think it is Willie.”
At the far end of the counter, an older whore is masturbating a man with a worn face and a moustache. He’ll be coming in his pants, I suppose. He has the contented smile of a dog being patted. I left soon after.
Makhosi, a cousin of Mbali, came. She looked like she belonged in a herbalist shop. I asked her to take me to the St. John’s Apostolic Mission, in Dassenhoek, saying: “I don’t mind driving over potholes and veldt. I just have to see Mbali.” She said Mbali is very ill, and will be transferred to the King Edward Hospital the next day, and that she wants some fruit, milk, maas, ice cream and pocket money. I went down to get the necessaries; and glad that eventually she would be in a hospital, where I could reach her.
The following Saturday, at eleven, I parked under a tree at a side road, next to the King Edward hospital. A large crowd gathered at the entrance. Apart from a housewife and her daughter, I was the only white in the crowd. At one o’clock the crowd, consisting of families dressed up in their Sunday clothes, with plastic bags and food, started to move through the gates. With difficulty, I found my way to ward H3A. Women suffered in silence on their beds, with dazed eyes, weary of life. Anxiety overtook me, and I wondered how I will identify Mbali, as everybody assumed a skeletal appearance. I could not find her anywhere. I asked the nurse, only to find that they moved her to ward H4A. In ward H4A, a surly nurse gave vague directions to Mbali’s bed. Still I could not find her. Then the nurse accompanied me to what looked like a heap of bones under a gown. Her face appeared from under blankets: skeletal but beautiful. She was shocked, and extremely anxious: “Who told you to find me here?” She told me that she missed me so much, but that I must go immediately, because the people are looking, and the people from the church might arrive at any moment. I felt a pain in my chest and throat. Why? Confusion went through my mind. Why should I be a secret to her mother and the people of the church? I gave her an herbal soap from my pocket, touched her hands for a moment, and saw her beautiful breasts, as her hospital gown fell open. I found my confused way out of the hospital to my car.
My parents were in Durban at the time, and I went to their flat on the Esplanade. They were not there, and I sat on one of the benches on the grass, next to the railway line and stone wall, and looked at the ships lying quietly in the harbour. Doves teemed around my feet, pecking at cigarette butts, while I thought about the events of my life. My lips have the heavy feeling of emerging blisters.
The next day, I found my way to the hospital in the dark, with the roaring of buses, trucks, and road works everywhere. I bought Mbali an icecream, some apples, cold meats and chocolates, and arrived late into the visiting hours. Women lie with nothing moving, not even the eyes, and they have no visitors. They are obviously abandoned. At Mbali’s bed, she asked me to help her to sit upright, in hardly audible phrases. She whispered, with her eyes rolling in her head, that they discharged her that afternoon, but could not find transport. I could not believe it. She could not even walk. I confronted the sister, who said that Mbali discharged herself. I said Mbali cannot go home, she stays in a place that one cannot even reach by car, and I asked who would look after Mbali. I was so tired and disappointed. Mbali ate ravenously. I asked Mbali how she expected her mother and me to care for her, when she didn’t care for herself. She remained silent. On the way out, I saw cats congregating around plastic bags and take-away containers, licking the leftover sauce from the paper. I drove back to the flat, through the dark harbour.
The next day at the hospital, I found out that Mbali discharged herself. I promise myself I will break with this relationship.
A week or two later the buzzer rings. It is Makhosi, who will take me to Mbali, as Mbali needs money. First, I refused. Then after a few quiet moments, Makhosi accompanied me down to the garage, and I opened the car door for her, and drove to the gate, opening by remote, and then onto the road. A fat whore sits with her legs crossed on the Four Seasons veranda, showing her pale arse to passers-by. On the highway, I took the wrong turn-off, and got miserably lost in my anger. In the end, I found my way back to the road, and turned off at Marianhill, then a bit further on right to Dassenhoek. Houses, huts, and weed cover the hilly landscape. Makhosi directed me onto a gravel road, and I slowly steered my car across ditches, dongas, and grass. We parked on a slope, and walked on a footpath down a steep hill to an unpainted cement house. Outside, Mbali’s little boy squirreled, shyly, around the corner of the house, when he saw us. We entered the house. It was very neat, and on the kitchen wall were some calendars with religious sayings, and a picture of a praying Jesus Christ. I met Mbali’s mother for the first time. Then I saw Mbali’s skeletal form in bed. Next to the bed were some oranges and bananas and a TV.
Mbali then demanded that I take her for a drive. Her feet and lower legs pained from her weight loss. She could not walk. Makhosi helped her into some clothes, and she clung to me as we moved step by little step up the slope to the car. I opened the door. She sat in front, and complained about the heat as we took the highway. I took her back late that afternoon, not to see her again until many months later.
I’m looking out of the flat window, seeing a tall thin woman walking on a sidewalk, and the thought occurs out of the blue “Mbali has returned from the dead.”