The Guardian, G2, August, 2005
MY CELL PHONE illuminates the time, beeps at me. 4:45 am. I get up in the dark – the power is off again – and fumble my way to the car, scooping up Jasper, my Jack Russell as I go. He’s comfort, a slab of warmth across my lap as I’ll wait, wait. There are rumours of petrol at some shack of a garage out on the fringes of the industrial sites, owned by some crony with ties to the army. I ought to have a conscience: I don’t.
I drive slowly, through streets draped in predawn darkness. Eventually I slip out of the suburbs and into the wastelands where industry seeps onto the gravelled beaches of shanty towns. I choose my queue, join the tail end of a snake of cars. It looks, at five on a Saturday morning, longer than infinity. I glimpse the sneaky winter heat ahead, the dust and dryness, the violent monotony of the wait. But for liquid gold, one is prepared for hardships. And I’m desperate – my gauge sulks below a quarter of a tank, and there’s so much I can’t do anymore: tennis, golf, boating with friends at the dam.
But here’s my chance. Today’s my day. So I kill the engine, I huddle Jasper to my chest. I am filled with happiness.
I’ve been unsettled all night – I spent most of it reading a library book, Schindler’s Ark - but now that I’ve secured my place in line, I find myself dozing off. I set my seat back, ease Tosca up on the stereo and recline in groggy discomfort. For five hours I veer between sublime nonchalance and the jolting fear that some thug’s going to slash my windscreen with a chain and make off with my cell phone and wallet. There’s the odd body that passes by, proffering trays of goods. I wave them off moodily. I give Jasper a saucer of water, sip at the flask myself. We nibble on peanuts. I stare through glazed eyes at the grey road, the blurry outlines of bulky factories dribbling smog, and the tall tin wall of the shanty town.
At noon I surface to a distant low groan that suddenly becomes a booming roar through my blotted mind, a plume of smoke and dust spills towards me, and then a crash through corrugated iron and a violent shake in the ground: the shanty town lies strewn across my bonnet. Stunned I sit glancing at a windscreen piled with debris: a squashed tin pot, flung cutlery, shredded clothing. Then I get out, leaving Jasper growling and puzzled on the seat. The timber and metal sheets have buckled like twigs and tinfoil under the bulldozer’s charge. I look up, screening my eyes from the haze of smoke and dust. But I can see it alright: sitting fat and squat on the rubble, purring, then backing away with an urgent jerk.
I bend down to assess the damage to my car: small dents and scratches, nothing serious. I’m not angry, not yet. It’s most likely some kind of freak accident, some building operation gone wrong. I stand, waiting for the foreman to come running forward to offer me an explanation, give me details of his company’s insurance. No one comes. And something’s not right. When I look up and down the queue, I’m suddenly numb at the sight of its complete disappearance. An eerie vacancy grips me, malign and uneasy.
Something tells me I need to go, now.
People don’t vacate a petrol queue for nothing. But I needed an explanation. The paint work’s going to cost, and I can’t afford to be stupefied so easily. I begin to pick my way through the wreckage, towards the punctured shanty town perimeter. I wade in only three steps before it happens again: ten metres away the iron wall crumples, a hut folds like a cardboard box, toppling to the dirt. The noise and shock shudder through me, and I stumble, cutting myself on splintered wood and rusty, jutting nails. I grapple for my footing, hop back towards the road. The wounds are slight, the blood begins to ooze.
It’s now I know I need to get away. I can see through the fright to realise that this is something incomprehensible, forceful and unstoppable, like combined acts of nature. And when the bulldozer breaks through yet again, this time to the chilling shatter of concrete slabs exploding like glass, I rush forward and grope frantically to free my bonnet from the debris, make my escape.
I drive home. I sit on the edge of the bath and dab disinfectant at my cut legs. I’m shaken, but not enough to subdue the anger that now comes, like a blast. It’s not because no one told me to move in time, or that I’ve had my car needlessly scratched, or I’ve been cut on dirty planks. The thought rings through me: I’ve wasted all that petrol, there and back, and got nothing for it. I’d been so sure I’d be lucky today, that I’d wait my turn in the queue, fair and square, pay my money, get my 20 litres. I’d have a life again. The ebb of worry that floats constantly at the top of my conscience would sink, submerge into the unseen darkness, for a week at least. I throw the bloodied cotton wool into the toilet bowl, flush hard and angrily.
I notice the electricity’s back. I go to make tea, give Jasper some biscuits. And it’s now that I hear Agnes, my maid, sobbing in the laundry room.
‘What the hell’s wrong with you?’ I ask.
She breaks down, weeping. Her son, his wife and five children have had their home destroyed by the army, she tells me, ‘commanding great big tractors.’ And her brother too, and his three sons, their families.
‘They just came, boss, no warning, no chance, just tear down homes, one by one.’
A dullness takes hold of me. It all makes sense now, the sober hold of the truth, and that I’d been there, just on the fringes, conveniently mobile, able to drive away, extricate myself, makes me feel at once sick and relieved.
But there’s more. Agnes tells me that they’ve now all been herded up, piled into trucks and taken to an army ‘farm’ where they’re being vetted and held in crowded tents until they’re sent back to their rural homelands, away from the city.
‘They lost everything, boss, everything,’ she wails.
‘Yes, yes,’ I tell her, ‘that’s very bad.’
And then comes her request: can I take her to go and fetch them all, from this ‘farm’ and bring them here.
‘Just for a few days, boss, promise.’
This is all I need. I tell her we don’t have enough space: her kia only has one tiny room, one bathroom.
‘We can’t have ten people staying here, we just can’t. And anyway, where do you think I’ve got the fuel to go all the way to this farm to fetch them all? It just can’t happen I’m afraid.’
I leave her and go to the TV lounge, moodily settle on a cricket match. Jasper reclines at my feet, warm and loyal. Then the phone rings. It’s my mother, more frantic than normal.
‘My God, they’re coming around shooting dogs with no licences.’
She says they’ve heard of two instances already: the police searching the suburbs, shooting on sight any unlicensed pet. Jesus. I scramble for some cash and the car keys, fly down to the nearest Municipal Office, all the while the thought of a gun aimed at Jasper, the blast of bone and blood, savages my mind. There’s a commotion inside: a protest of dog owners complaining bitterly. A short, shifty civil servant explains over and over that ‘we have no dog licences – we have no paper to print dog licences. Try elsewhere.’
I go back to the car, drive on to the next municipal office, the next suburb. Same story: yes dog licences are required by law, but we’ve run out. The next one: no dog licences for three months now. Eventually, frustrated and impatient, I drive into a police station, demand to know what exactly they expect us to do.
‘Just get one,’ the constable retorts, ‘how and where are not our concern.’
I don’t argue, unhooking, as I leave, a fine slip from under my windscreen wipers: $100 000 for “not possessing red reflective tape on rear of vehicle.” My existing reflectors are white but white, it seems, isn’t a good colour anymore.
I drive, dumbfounded, infuriated, nervous. I conjure up a quick solution, I’ll hide Jasper away, lock up his basket in the garage, deny I own a dog. Has it come to this, this pettiness?
I look dismally at my petrol gauge, at the needle tottering on the ‘E’ mark. I’m going to have to ask for a lift to work on Monday. I won’t be popular with my friends and colleagues. But I throw that aside. I’m tired now. I slip in a tape of Bach, obliterate my angst, look out briefly at the sun sunk in the blue winter sky, the hills lined with darkening firs. I’ll chug on home slowly, conserve what petrol I haven’t got left, make a pasta dish, settle down with a glass of red, watch a period movie on TV.
But at home there’s a not-too-unexpected surprise. As I walk out the kitchen door to fetch Jasper’s bowl, I see them: a crowd draped about, men, women, children. My anger lurches, I scream for Agnes, demand an explanation.
‘They just come, boss, on their own. They can’t stay at farm, there no food, no shelter. It very cold at night, especially for children.’
An elderly man comes up to me, Agnes’ brother. He greets me, smiling through crooked teeth, and proceeds to tell me, very calmly, what they’ve been through, the bulldozing of their homes, the loss of their belongings, being rounded up by the army against their will, being transported to this place, being told to line up by the army commanders, being shoved and shunted …
I stop him. ‘Look, I’m sorry, but you just can’t stay. There’s simply no room here on this property. And it’s not my problem, really it isn’t.’ I turn to Agnes, ‘tomorrow they have to be gone – all of them. Right?’
‘Yes boss,’ she says, quietly.
I storm back into the house, feed Jasper, go around the various rooms closing the curtains. My mood has changed. I grab a beer, flick through the stations, settle on the bland buzz of rally driving. I sit, not really watching, my mind fuzzy and indignant, the culmination not just of today, but now, in this instance, every day of the last five years, every worry, every tension, every dismay and disbelief, every thin gasp for survival comes up on me like a sandstorm, the grit and grime pelting me, embedding itself into my skin, my conscience, so that, at the end of it, here, at this time, I feel like a weathered, eroded statue, chipped, divot-ridden, crumbling. I’m 27. But I’m old in this place, in this country where you fight and fight, clawing and scratching at indefatigable deafness, blindness.
I breathe in, breathe out. Sip my beer. Then, the power goes out. Fuck.
In the dark I grope for a candle from the TV cabinet, light it. Darkness and moroseness don’t mix, I think, so I walk to my bedroom, fiddle around for Schindler’s Ark. I may as well screen my mind, pass the time. I cuddle up to the candle, strain to accustom my eyes to the print. I read. Off the pages role descriptions, harrowing screeds of the Jews being rounded up, harassed, their property looted, their rights stripped. And in the concentration camps, crowded and piled in like cattle to abattoirs, pushed towards extermination. I close the book. I lie looking into the dark room, seeing the stark desolate farm which Agnes’ family fled, ten to a torn tent, the stiff reek of sewer in dank puddles, the dead, deep winter’s nights, the intimidating military presence, the uncertainty, the fear, the loss.
I close my eyes, spread my presence throughout the large still house, the empty bedrooms, the space, the room, the comfort of safeness. I have everything. I have nothing. I’m cold. I’m alone.
I walk now towards the bonfire where they all sit. I’ve draped a blanket round my shoulders, Jasper trots at my feet. They welcome me into their circle, making room for one more. I’ve brought a crate of beers from the pantry, they offer me some sadza and relish. I squeeze it into balls in my hand, take it to my mouth. In the firelight their eyes dance, black pupils on gleaming white. The spirit of survival, the will to endure. One of men offers me a drag of his weed. I take it, inhale the drug deep into my lungs, hold it in. I huddle Jasper close to me.
A while later, languid and light-headed, the old man starts singing a traditional song, and the children listen as if they’re hearing a sermon, God himself speaking through the ages. Somehow, despite everything, I know we’ll all see tomorrow.
©Neal Hovelmeier (Ian Holding), 2020