Excerpt: 'A long time ago as a young child he was taken from his natural mystical roots, extricated from the fertile, red earth of a small town in the central Free State where cattle prayed to a setting sun loud with the colour of bruised, mortally wounded days.'
The Price of Freedom (Short Story)
Free from conventional wisdom and society’s superficial hypocritical morality he struck his last match in an empty night on a forgotten, desolate pier in a strange land. It flickered briefly and died, cupped by fruitless palms, hollow, silent and dark; and he realized he was in desperate need of mankind and its puny inventions. He proceeded to suck thoughtfully on the unlit cigarette, pacing slowly along the edge, listening to the water sloshing at his side. He hoped he wouldn’t have to wait too long. He didn’t enjoy his stay here, the city had the odour of dead animals, and it clung to the sky and weighed down the heat like breathing lead confining gold, turning the long summer days and nights into weathered martyrs.
He didn’t expect it to be like this, the brochure described it as a North African paradise: ‘Explore the magnificence of Tangier...’ The golden age of automatic writing deified the place as a romantic junky-philosopher paradise where currents of meaning drew drifter-philosophers and poets into an ocean of thought and profound experiences. The prevailing reality seemed to be the worst and ugliest of both worlds: modern lights and disco jive, sad glimmer bling mixed with a counter culture on the slide, unromantic Zen, despised and ostracised by the modern west where dollars shout words like ‘skyscraper and ‘blueberry pancakes’ above the ancient din of a soon to be forgotten age.
“What a joke!” he thought to himself. It was a shock to his system when he debarked in the dirty harbour. He detested the people swarming over him, trying to drag him to some obscure carpet shop run by an uncle of an uncle’s or to a expensive restaurant where no doubt, commissions and diarrhoea would be forthcoming.
The whole idea of this voyage was to get rid of the western greedy monetary system where a person’s worth to society was weighed in silver coins and candy coated bullshit. He needed adventure and nights in the desert and days on mountain tops where mystical figures prayed to a setting sun. He needed solitude and the type of silence that defines subliminal thoughts that in turn conceive conscious realizations about life and the universe; he did not need this wretched humid hole overcrowded with beggars, liars and fugitives. He saved a long time for this trip, he paid a brutal ransom for his temporary freedom to the god that demanded sweat and tears in return for a bearable life of long weeks as a fitter and turner in a mechanical engineering workshop and the fleeting compassion of weekends drowned in cheap whisky and loveless but ardent sex.
Now he looked at the dirty, oily water and he contemplated the familiarity of his hometown and he thought how ugly Tangier looked in this night. He half didn’t expect his dubious ‘guide’ to Morocco’s legendary underworld to show up, but he was hoping real hard. He desperately needed to blow his mind on hash and meaningless conversation about cultural differences he didn’t truly care about.
A long time ago as a young child he was taken from his natural mystical roots, extricated from the fertile, red earth of a small town in the central Free State where cattle prayed to a setting sun loud with the colour of bruised, mortally wounded days, their shaded breath evoking shadows from the mellow light. The cattle made soft groans and their hooves tapped out an intriguing rhythm, swaying his young imagination into stories and dreams. These beasts of burden walked by humbly, their spilled blood only a vague portent of a hazy future.
He was taken and flung into a big city where other children wore shoes and ran amuck on tarred roads without soul. This was a profound shock. It was a ripping apart. One that probably had to happen at some point.
In the evening the mine heaps rose like misconceived sphinxes in a lost world where pyramids grew down towards the hell of an exploited earth. In the summer dust storms covered the weeping land with fine, red particles and obscured the blue sky. Sotho maidens ran around in fear with red ribbons tied around their ankles to ward off evil spirits. For a long time he did not venture farther than the gate in the yard in front of the middle class house in a suburb that reeked of isolation. He stood there daily, captured in a paradoxical state of fear and curiosity, watching white people drive by, children playing mean games in gardens, and silent black people walk by with the meek shuffle of the disappearing. Suddenly the world was cruel, and the family that once inhabited the ark that kept them all safe from the storm; grew strange, distant and monstrous. The time came when he had to decide to either die, or fight. He reluctantly chose to fight.
A dog howled somewhere and it set of a chain reaction in yelps and barks that made the air lunge at him with strangeness. A shuffle of feet became audible followed by a grinning jellaba clad youth approaching him out of the dark. The youth made a gesture and he sauntered over. He didn’t know this person and he felt apprehensive. “Where’s Kamal?” He barked the words and he immediately regretted his defensive reaction. It was a projection of his insecurity and malcontent. No stranger deserved it. It was an instinctive reaction but he immediately recognised the prejudiced slant it contained, a hang-up left over from his Afrikaner upbringing, the kind of conditioning he has been consciously trying to free himself from for a very long time. He felt disappointed in himself each time he still discovered that these old behavioural patterns were still lurking somewhere deep within him. He did not believe in simply accepting it as a natural phenomenon in humans, he believed that humans have the power to consciously mould their own nature with the effort of will and by making the right choices. He clung to the romantic notion that humans were the creators of their own destiny. This was one of the principles he lived by, and it brought some disillusionment each time he failed in his premise, but it also brought a stronger conviction to not give up and to try harder. Looking back at his life he did notice some progression which motivated him not to deviate from this path, but it was a constant battle. Sometimes, in anger; he blamed the society who entrenched this pattern in his mind from an early age. That, to him; was pure evil, but he knew to shift the blame would just be a cop-out; in the end each individual is responsible to overcome his own demons, the social engineered ones and the ones you were born with.
“Kamal is waiting,” the boy gave an uncomfortable giggle, “...you must come with me, I take you to him.”
He did not fully trust the situation, but the boy looked pretty harmless and besides; he was tired of waiting and desperate for kicks. They walked towards town in an anonymous midnight shuffle, past old men with tired backs framed in ancient doorways by naked electric bulbs, past perfumed holes in sacred walls where toothless women mumble and point to profane wares in triplicate, on and up the hill towards the old part of town.
“What’s your name?”
“Me? My name is Hassan. I speak much language, French, Dutch, German...”
“Where are you taking me?”
“I take you to nice place, don’t worry; Kamal is waiting for you. He good man.”
First they went to a souk in the medina. The boy took him by the wrist and led him through a maze of bustling activity. The dark streets were narrow and intricate. He was amazed by the denseness of activity so late at night. They ended up in front of a stall where bleak chicken carcasses hung in the shallow dimness of massacred light, freshly slaughtered, dripping blood on cobbled stone, there lively brethren making nervous chirping sounds in a coup directly below them. The contrast between life and death starkly displayed in the museum of current affairs.
The boy spoke to the stall keeper in his native tongue and pointed to the back where a large piece of meat rocked gently on the end of a silver hook, silent; smelling barren and wild. The man turned around and deftly cut and cubed a piece of meat sliced from the carcass, folding it in a white paper square. He handed it to the boy who looked up at Kevin with a shy grin:
“You pay now please, camel meat. Nice, very tasty.”
Kevin reluctantly took out his wallet and paid the butcher the amount in Dirham’s, he felt lost and at the mercy of the night; so far he hadn’t noticed any other foreigners. They walked further into the glow of the souk, past the banter of idle men drinking coffee and smoking kief from the end of curling snakes, puffs of smoke expanded languidly into the shadows.
They disappeared around sudden corners where the alleys grew dark. This made him nervous. Strange men stood hooded on the pavement, whispering warnings; hoping to prey on his naivety and fear. He kept on following the child.
When the siren announces lunch time in a shameless and unrepentant shriek that pierces the air like a hammer nailing a martyr to a cross, the men waste no time in exiting the workshop to make their way to the canteen around the corner.
Once there; they sit around low plastic tables on broken plastic chairs, smoking and munching on thick sandwiches while talking about anything that will divert their attention from the mundane aura the workshop expels; the demon deity of slavery that feeds on their appetite and that never fails to return.
“So did you see her again?”
Eric is a large man. He also has a violent temper and he tends to hurt the people he doesn’t like on weekends when he gets shitfaced with his buddies in town. Welkom is a violent place, and iniquitous in too many ways to count. It is a sad place, filled with fearful people that like to break the fearless among them.
“No, why should I? We had some fun, that’s it. She was a nice fuck.”
“So it was just sex? Tell us more. Kom nou, moennie ‘n doos wees nie rooinek.” Eric laughed thickly, spewing tiny pieces of bread all over the table in doing so.
Kevin didn’t really like him, come to think of it he didn’t like anyone in this place much; but he knew how to make allies and how to keep them at just the right and convenient distance to make life bearable. He lived by the motto: ‘Accept everyone, trust no-one.’
He didn’t want to be in this ugly city bereft of all the good things he was used to. Good music, pretty girls, interesting food and all the many little escape routes that Cape Town offered that could make you forget reality for a while before it spewed you back onto the heartless earth. He grew up here as a child, but made his escape to the city as soon as it was legal. He came back to take care of his dying mother two years ago, and more importantly; to flee his heroin addiction.
“Maybe you can pass her my way? I can give her something lekker. You know?”
Eric said this with a sly wink while fondling his crotch under the table with one hand.
Suddenly Kevin detested this pockmarked faced man with his thick Afrikaans accent and vulgar sense of humour; but he kept his pose. He knew that to disturb the status quo would make life difficult for him. As it was he had some clout amongst the men who admired him for his persuasive abilities with the opposite sex. Most of them lived the dreary life of domesticated men like tamed beasts with fragile little housewives with sad eyes to keep them in check. It was the Afrikaner way among the working class around here: work in the week, get shitfaced on Friday nights, go to church on Sundays, make-believe in God and the hereafter and hope for the best, fear the Devil but there is always forgiveness when he tricks you into beating up a black man for pissing next to the road or a colleague for sleeping with your best friend’s wife.
Kevin despised the hypocrisy of it all, but the many years of heroin use numbed his senses to the extent that the anger that drove him to the drug in the beginning have died a whimpering, cowardly death a long, long time ago. He didn’t feel much these days. He was not happy, but at times when he climbed to the top of the mine hill where he sat and smoked a joint and looked at the Free State dust colouring the sunset into a magnificent orange; he felt almost content in the moment. Mainly he just wanted to steer clear of unnecessary upsets in his life, and he was prepared to let a great deal of antagonizing instances slip past him into unanswered silence just to keep the peace.
Sometimes it was difficult. There were a few times when he had to stand silently by while observing horrendous acts being performed by his colleagues and ‘friends’ after their binge drinking late on Friday nights. There was the time they beat a black man close to death just for being in the wrong place, for being where they still considered to be a white’s only place, so many years after apartheid. In the beginning it amazed Kevin how little some things have changed in this part of the Free State even after all these years. It was like walking back into time, into a horrible past he could not imagine to be still in existence in this strange, parallel universe. There was the time he went with an acquaintance to his friend’s farm and he couldn’t believe how the farm workers were treated, and worse; how they accepted the treatment with downcast eyes, befriending their fate as second rate humans. What happened to the New South Africa, the promise of a Rainbow Nation in these parts? Or did it never arrive? Was the messenger shot before it could deliver the news?
He answered Eric with mock politeness: “You Dutchman are all the same; your brains are only as big as your balls.” He slipped in a chuckle at just the right moment, for he knew he was pressing his luck in the social game.
“Well that’s pretty big hey.” Eric said this with a laugh while eying his colleagues, coercing them into laughing with him at the ‘soutpiel’, jabbing his arm rhythmically into his neighbour’s side to reinforce the coercion. “Jy’t lekker windgat geraak vandat jy terug is van daai vakansietjie van jou. Pasop boeta, ons vat jou vas.”
Kevin knew that there was some jealousy among his colleagues because he could afford to travel overseas. The money they spent on their family needs he had the luxury of saving up for his journey.
He also knew that he could make a clever reply and flatten the persona of the Afrikaner beast, but that would lead to venom created by a fragile ego, so he wisely let it go. He swallowed the poison whole without biting on the capsule. He could retrieve it safely and undamaged from his own bile later.
The biggest change in people’s attitudes since he got back was the reverse racism he encountered under the new black middle class who had enough money to wear their pride like trophies behind tinted glass in shiny, new cars. When he was little he used to hang out in the black part of the commercial district. The sound of the language, the laughter, the bustle and smells and the muti shops fascinated him. He could not remember any hostility from that time, but that might be because he was a child then, and treated as such. Since his return he was treated with open hostility more than once in the now officially undefined ‘black’ areas.
He did not have much hope that anything would ever really change. From time to time he found solace in small groups of unknown strangers who were disillusioned beyond the point of irrational, fickle boundaries that kept the greater world outside their comfort zones, beyond race, language and class. He found these people in different spaces on the edge of society. In shebeens drinking quarts and getting drunk enough to forget reality for a while, under railway bridges were small groups of men with dreadlocks sometimes came together to smoke a bottle-neck. In unnamed, filthy rooms where whores sat barefoot on dirty floors, hoping to find a small piece of rock to smoke. This was his secret life, and he kept it profoundly separate from his normal day to day existence. It was his little freedom, the small pieces of hopelessness that left him searching and wanting something more.
You could find this type of life everywhere in every town if you knew where to look. It is hidden well, but not too well; and it attracts certain types. It is an unpretentious haven for many who lost their appetite for the soft glimmer of false hope in a society which preaches change, progress and prosperity; but who never delivers on its empty promises. It is a magnetic void for those who experienced sudden disillusionment by the way of severe trauma and evil acts by the hands of men and women who lost all sense of compassion, and who made the cycle continue. It is a dark haven for those who stare long and with enough ardour for the veil to disappear in a wisp of smoke, with very little fire or debris to prove that it ever existed. And lastly it is; on occasion a temporary trap for the accidental tourist, those who choose it for a fleeting moment because it excites them, because it is a dangerous, a short lived escape from the fickle morality they serve in their daily existence: but they are also the ones who never really understand it.
The air was filled with the aroma of perfumed hash. They walked through a narrow and dark passage surrounded by high, mud walls. They were closed in on all sides; above their heads the foundation of mud dwellings prevented the moon from guiding their journey. It was very dark in the passage and the boy kept on turning around, flicking a lighter while asking: “You come okay?” His voice sounded hollow and distant, like the image of a being drowned in the smog of perennial strangeness. Kevin was not afraid or even apprehensive any longer, he has learned that there is a point when you make a decision and then you let fate take over without thinking about it too much. Before that point you can weigh up all the pros and cons, the relative risks and possible pitfalls, but once you came to your only possible conclusion and you decide to walk that road, there is no point in looking back (or too far forward for that matter). That was probably the only real wisdom he ever got from acid; a bad trip, he escaped with that knowledge like a thief waking up with a smoking gun in his hand and a bullet hole in the wall just above his head.
At the end of the passage two women veiled in black stood silently beside a hole in the wall in which an old, stringy man with squinted eyes tended a fire in an enormous mud oven. Pieces of round of dough glimmered dimly on the floured counter like pale obscenities.
They turned a corner and came to a halt in front of a large wooden door at the end of a dissecting passage. The boy knocked twice. He could make out the shuffling of feet and then the turning of a key.
The door opened and revealed a thin, elderly man with a long, flowing grey beard dressed in a white jellaba.
“You go, I wait here for you.” The boy tugged at his shirt and then pushed him gently from behind. “Your shoes, you must take off your shoes.” The boy told him excitedly. He took them off and put them aside of a row of shoes on a low, wooden bench. The creaking door closed behind him and he followed the man through a dark entrance hall into a courtyard lit with dim bulbs. He could make out an orange tree in the centre next to a well. The orange blossoms scented the air pleasantly. They walked up a crumbly stairway to the second floor and entered a room lit by oil lamps. Three men were sitting on cushions around a low table, talking and smoking a hash pipe. They became quiet when he entered the room. The elderly man turned around and disappeared into the dim light outside. The man on the farthest side opposite him motioned for him to take a seat. He seated himself with a slight nervous sensation arising within him; the scene was strange and foreign to him and he suddenly became aware of how lonely and isolated he was in this place.
“So you are the American?’ The man was softly spoken and had an air of benevolence about him.
“Oh no, South African”, Kevin said while scanning the other men’s reaction with a quick glance. The cushion was comfortable and soft. The clay floor felt pleasantly cool beneath his feet.
“Ah, South African. That is just fine.”
The man passed him the hash pipe and motioned for him to smoke. He took a deep drag. The other men smiled politely. A few moments of silence followed. He could feel the hash take effect almost immediately and he knew that it was excellent quality. He started to relax. The man offered him mint tea. The tea tasted sweet and refreshing.
“So you come to visit us here in Morocco? I’m very glad, we like visitors here. We have many things to show people. Have you journeyed well? Is everything comfortable?”
Kevin thought carefully before framing his reply. He was still a bit shell shocked in this strange culture, but he knew he had to be polite, “Oh yes, everything is fine. So far it’s been very... interesting.”
All the men started to laugh instantaneously at his discomfort, but it was not a bad or mocking laugh, it was the kind of laugh friends shared when they all sensed some sort of unveiling of a sublime moment instantaneously and together, a mutual understanding of a situation beyond words.
“You must forgive us; and I am being rude”, the man spoke with a soft, calming voice. “Let me introduce you.” He motioned to his left. “This is Hassan, he is a shop keeper. He sells sandals. The best sandals in the whole of the Medina. We will take you there tomorrow.”
Kevin held out his hand and the man shook it politely.
“…and this is Mohamed...’ He made a gesture towards the other man. ‘He is a school teacher, a very wise man. And I am Kamal; I am a professor at the University. We are happy to meet with you.”
So this was the man his contact told him about. He he’s been building up an elusive picture in his imagination for some time now. He was neither surprised, relieved nor disappointed. It was what it was. They shook hands. They sat for a while in silence again, drinking tea and passing the pipe. The other two men did not seem very keen on taking part in the conversation, but there was nothing menacing about their silence.
“We are happy that you are here. My friends do not speak English so well, but they understand it fine. Can you speak French perhaps?”
“Only English, and Afrikaans; my native language.”
Kamal smiled: “That is fine, I speak English well. Afrikaans, yes; I heard about that language. Some of my people speak Dutch. It is similar, yes? So how are things in your country?’
Kevin felt relaxed by the hash and he started to enjoy the simplicity of his surroundings. There was nothing indulgent in the room. Everything served an exact purpose. The few material objects like the table, cushions and hookah were all exquisite and simple at the same time. The dark wood of the table was carved into intricate patterns and the carpet beneath it and the cushions were elaborately embroidered. They started the conversation that lasted for a very long time. He did not know how long he sat there and talked with Kamal about everything from politics, religion, family, food and many other topics. Every now and then one of the other men would interrupt in short, broken sentences; or with questions in Arabic that Kamal translated patiently. The atmosphere was one of a delicate blend of jovial restraint encountered among curios strangers who believe in the possibility of trust; but who knew enough not to trust a feeling of trust.
Eventually his eyes became heavy with exhaustion, he hadn’t slept properly ever since he took the ferry from Spain the day before and the excitement of all the strange sights and sounds tired him immensely. He went to lie on his side on the soft cushions. He tried to continue the conversation as long as possible, but eventually a sweet, dreamy sleep overcame him like a whisper.
“Are you coming out to jol with us tonight?”
Kevin dreaded this question. Often he could find a suitable excuse for not going out with these men he shared no kinship with. He sometimes contemplated their ability to be so thick skinned and ignorant to the effect that they couldn’t catch the subtle hints that their company was not absolutely necessary for his survival. Could they be so insecure inside that they grabbed onto anything or anyone that floated by to boost their sense of significance? He knew from past experience that you could not refuse men like these too blatantly, he knew that they had the childish inclination towards primitive behaviour if their group ego gets a blow. It is easy to lose a relatively safe position of minor power and influence in that way, to be relegated as a clown or a weakling. Put a lot of insecure, scared individuals together and what you get is the collective consciousness of a trapped and frightened beast that lashes out with violence and menace in order to protect its true identity. It is a story as old as time. Oh the game, how he hated it; how he hated to be an unwilling participant, a player; but what he hated most was the subliminal way in which it was played all the time; often without the participants consciously realizing what they were busy doing. It is easier to except something awful if you can lay the blame at some-one or something else’s feet; like the Devil for instance.
“Yes sure, where are we going?” He said this bearing his smile like a leaden mask.
“The usual place, for a start. We are going to get sommer lekker dronk and braai at the club. Afterward we will see. You know how it goes. Maybe you could bring that girl and some of her friends?”
He gave a wry smile. “I will see what I can do, but no promises.”
He knew all too well how it would go. He dreaded the night that lay ahead.
He woke up in darkness thick as blood, not knowing where he was. At first he was simply disorientated; then panic set in. He could hear his heart beat furiously against his bare chest. He searched for his bag furtively and couldn’t find it around his waist. Then he heard the silent breathing; and after a while he could make out the shapes of sleeping men. He remembered the place and he remembered that he put his bag beneath one of the low side tables. He felt for it and found it as he left it. He searched for the little torch he always carried with him, and found his wallet with all the money still in it. His passport was also still secure in its side pocket. A sense of relief overwhelmed him, followed by a sense of sadness and guilt. “Is this what humanity have come to? That mistrust and paranoia is one’s first response? Or is it just me? Have I been brainwashed by bad experiences and headline TV? Paranoia…”
He went outside where he followed the narrow steps to the roof. There he found more men sleeping deeply with tranquil faces on mats under the soft moonlight. If he was their enemy in some holy jihad he could slit their throats one by one and watch them die.
He went to sit on a low wall that divided the roof from the roof of the adjoining building. Except for hundreds of television aerials sticking out all over; it was a biblical scene: The mud dwellings adjoining each other were spread out around him as far as the eye could see, punctuated from place to place by the needle-like shapes of minaret’s hovering above ancient mosques. He sat like that for a long time, watching the moon and stars traversing their distant paths across the skies, and he was filled with a sense of wonder and felt far from being alone.
The child looked through the iron bars of the gate. On the opposite side of the road another boy was standing on the curb in front of his parent’s house. He was the same age as the boy in his cage. They stared at each other for a while in silence before the boy on the curb walked over to the gate. The boy behind the gate resisted a strong urge to run into the house. The other boy went and stood on the opposing side of the gate and gave a faint smile. He pushed his little hand through the iron bars and greeted: “Hallo, my naam is Loekie.” His hand was suspended in empty isolation for a short while before the shy boy shook it with his hand. “Hi, I’m Kevin.”
Then he opened the gate and ventured forth from behind his wall.
He stayed there for five relaxing days before leaving for the desert. Kamal helped him to get a bus that went southwards among the chaos of the main place of departure for the buses the locals used. There was the more tourist friendly and expensive option of grander buses operated by international tour operators, but he wanted to experience things the same way as the locals did; besides, it was much cheaper. It was a long journey. The bus stopped infrequently at small roadside settlements to pick people up or drop people off. Sometimes it was only a few mud huts next to a single palm tree in a wasteland of brown dust.
He liked the openness. He liked the fact that he was anonymous and was left with an option not to speak, that he could lose his mind in the landscape: yet; the control was always there. It came back to him in glimpses of failed redemption, of feelings that cried out for company.
They drove all night and when dawn came the landscape was mountainous and arid with fertile valleys occasionally revealing itself within deep clefts cut into the sharp and barren rock.
They drove through mud villages that looked like it grew organically from the earth. He managed to sit through the sounds and smells of sick crying babies and bleating goats without losing his temper or senses. He was the only foreigner among the locals for the whole ride. The people had silent and blank faces, like the bleak landscape around them. He thought about home often, and his past. At random times strange emotions would encroach on his conscious briefly before he dispelled with some effort. Things were creeping up on him, they were stalking him like wild animals crouching on the perimeter of the fire he tended so conscientiously with wood he created from the mundane presence that drifted around him; they were ready for the kill. They were about to pounce. He could feel it on his skin.
Close to the desert they were stopped by military police. Two men in plain clothes embarked and walked down the middle of the bus, randomly checking papers from passengers. The silence awoke only to the grating of leather soles on dirt linoleum, and the whisper of a mother to her young and confused son. He was nervous. He knew that large parts of the desert was under military control and off limits to foreigners, and he knew that these people were suspicious and paranoid about foreign intervention, and rightfully so. The moustached man with the light blue collared shirt and light brown pants beckoned with an authoritative finger. He followed him and exited the bus. Inside the mud hut that served as a checkpoint he could hear the bus drive off. He sweated profusely and he could feel his heart booming. The man went to sit behind a small empty desk and asked for his passport. He motioned for him to sit on a rickety chair. He flicked for the pages and stopped and scrutinized a certain page.
“Purpose of visit?” His voice was unemotional, but not unfriendly.
“Tourist... eh... travelling.” He concentrated on keeping his composure, but he could hear his voice frizzle. “Why was he so nervous? Where does the fear come from?” He could hear a voice from deep inside him putting forth these questions, and so it was a dual interrogation.
“Where did you get stamp?” The man raised his eyebrows. His accent made him sound almost rude, like he was chastising a naughty child.
The man frowned and studied the page again like it was an important riddle with mystical connotations. He went outside and spoke in low tones to his colleague. After a short time they both came back into the office. The fat man went to sit with half of his huge body on the one side of the table. He leaned slightly over with his hands clasped in his lap.
“This must be the bad cop.” He thought to himself and despite the tension he felt like laughing. Suddenly the whole situation resembled a bad school play, or more ironic; a B grade Hollywood cop flick.
The younger man with the blue shirt resumed his position behind the desk and spoke softly while the fat man breathed heavy and menacingly.
“You have wrong stamp. See here...” he leaned over and pointed his finger to a stamp with some writing in it, “...no good.”
Kevin assumed it was just another shakedown of a foreigner. It was all about perceived wealth and money. He was going to simply sit back and let things take its course, stay cool. He was not about to show them any fear. He knew that would spur them on. This was the wilderness and they were just another pack of wolves. What he was had yet to be defined. That was his only power.
He shrugged his shoulders, “Yes but they let me through on the ferry.”
The man sat back and frowned. “Maybe they make mistake, they not see.”
“So how was I supposed to know, it’s not my mistake. I paid the money and got the visa, that’s all.” He said it with confidence while looking the man in the eyes trying not to sound cocky.
The man sat back silently and stared at the passport as if it contained some significant answer that would change the course of the universe permanently. He closed the passport and threw it on the table.
“Was he waiting for a bribe? I’m so sick of human corruption. It’s never-ending.’ Kevin thought.
“You smoke hashish?” The man was suddenly serious. The fat man leaned over and cocked his head intimidatingly.
Kevin new this was an excellent time to lie excellently. “No, never. Have never smoked anything, not even cigarettes.”
“Can we give blood test.?”
Kevin knew they just wanted to intimidate him. It was laughable and pathetic. How were they going to get a blood test done? With a knife or a bullet?
“Yes, off course. No problem.” He turned his palms up with a casual gesture.
For a moment he thought about offering a bribe in a roundabout way. He could offer money that might be needed to ‘fix’ the stamp; but he stubbornly decided against this. He never paid a bribe in his life and he was not about to start now. “Fuck them.” He thought. “I will not be responsible for encouraging that lie.”
The three of them sat in pregnant silence for a while, they were sweating him, but he managed to keep his composure and to stay mute and unsmiling.
The two men went outside after a while and had a long conversation. Finally the thin man came back and handed him his passport back with a slight apologetic smile. “Okay, you can go. Enjoy Morocco. You can take next bus tomorrow. You will stay here.”
He looked around. “Where?”
The man pointed to the mud floor and asked: “Problem?”
“No. No problem.”
He spent a couple of hours sitting under a few date palms that clung desperately to the edge of a culvert where a thin stream took nourishment to a small tilled field some way back. The time went by slowly, and he could do nothing but sit and watch the guards stopping the occasional traffic and bantering with each other. When an old beat up truck with a few ragged goats on the back stopped at one point, the fat man came out of the office and spoke to the driver. After a while he motioned to Kevin to come over. He pointed a fat finger with a golden ring to the back of the truck. Kevin got on without a word and they drove off. He did not wave goodbye. As the wind flirted with his hair, he experienced an amazing sense of relief and freedom. He stood his ground, and in a way it was a victory.
They drove on for the next two hours through the landscape that shone in the late afternoon glow. It was his most profound experience in this foreign land so far, just cruising through the empty but strangely beautiful barrenness and feeling that he conquered some secret demon.
The man dropped him off at a small mud building that served as an inn and bus stop where he spent the night before getting the late morning bus to the desert the next day.
They reached a small town on the edge of the desert in the naked heat of a relentless midday sun. He waited for the baggage handler to throw his rucksack from the roof carrier while a small crowd of children gathered around him, taunting him with questions he could not understand. The Heat was unbearable.
He went to sit at a roadside stall in the main road. He drank cold bottles of an orange flavoured beverage while he waited for the worst heat to pass. There was nothing else to do but to sit and watch the activities in the street while the stifling heat encouraged as little amount of movement and thought as possible. Meat carcasses hung on hooks at a butcher shop across the street. The smell of the fly covered meat was sickly sweet and intense.
When the sun was low and the heat bearable he found a small cheap hotel. He could not afford the ones with air conditioning. He put his luggage in the dirty little room on the second floor and went back down to the bare lounge where an old TV blared with stuttering broken images of a soccer game. He ordered tea and waited for the dark
He slept little that night. The heat never became truly bearable and the fan in the ceiling rotated noisily and without conviction. The little sleep he had was windswept with poisonous dreams that leapt aggressively at him. Voices and faces from his past kept his mind busy with conversation. He woke up feeling tired and beat.
“So this is what it is then?” He spoke audibly to himself in a sleepy voice while sitting on the edge of the narrow bed.
The night did not start well. He cut himself shaving while lying in the bath. He watched himself bleeding in the little plastic handheld mirror. He watched the droplets colour the water in a light pink mist before disappearing into nothing. He contemplated the fact that he was bathing in his own DNA and deeply regretted that he agreed to go out with them that night. He got out, dressed and poured himself a whiskey which he sipped all the while thinking about any possible excuse for him to phone Eric and tell him why he couldn’t make it. He tried to think of something that would stand up to their careful, suspicious scrutiny on Monday morning; something that would spin a subtle web across their penetrating stares; but he couldn’t manage to grasp onto anything worthwhile. He sighed while putting on his brown leather jacket and walked out the door.
At the club he parked his car and stared at himself in the rear-view mirror. He spoke softly to himself, asking the same old questions: :Why is it so difficult to be anonymous in a town like this? Why can people not simply leave me alone? I don’t’ care for their doings, why do they care so much about mine? I am happy to be an island.”
Inside the three of them were already sitting at the bar. They greeted him overeagerly, like neurotic dogs seeking approval:
“Yes, yes, about time ek sê.”
“Hoesit.’ (A Slap on the back) ‘Ons het verlang na jou.” (A drunken giggle.)
“Howzit. You want a dop?” (A wicked grin bearing yellow, crooked teeth.)
They reeked of brandy and garlic. It made him queasy.
“This is going to be a nightmare”, he thought; but he kept his pose: “Hello okes. I see you guys got a head start, I better catch up.” He said it forcing a smile, it didn’t feel convincing; but they bought it.
He started drinking is at a steady pace, hoping the booze would numb him to the point of not caring. Maybe if he drank enough he could convince himself that he really was having a good time. He sat there listening to their racist jokes and sexist remarks, forcing himself to laugh along as much as possible. At one time he could feel a slight stirring of anger, but he suppressed it; reminding himself that it would do no good. He thought of the times in his life he acted on pure emotion and how much trouble it caused in the past. That was one thing about the heroine; it cured him of his emotional indulgences, it turned him into a porcelain doll where his reality remained frozen in perfect apathy for a long, long time. He has been clean now for two years and from time to time he could recognise old emotional stirrings coming to the fore again, and he wasn’t sure that he liked it.
“Let’s go to Stingray? It’s a strip night. Until ten its ladies only, apparently some male strippers will be performing first. After ten it’s for the manne; the girls will be nice and jags by then.” Karel said it in a loud and booming voice without hesitation or shame. They all laughed.
Karel was a local maize farmer who had a reputation for his active participation in right wing politics. There were rumours floating around that farm workers disappeared on his property from time to time in the apartheid years when his father was still alive, and people speculated about the possibility of extreme violence and shallow graves. Sadly, the rumours only enhanced his reputation and turned him in some bizarre underground right wing hero. He even looked the part with his broad shoulders, thick beard and big farmer hands, the idyll boer commando romanticized in disingenuous patriarchal folk tales. Little did people know that he often wept when he was alone far in the fields at the end of days where the sun hung golden and low and the corn made long rows of shadows as they rustled in the breeze, drowning in memories of the loveless mother he had that did bizarre and cruel things to him when he was a small boy. Not even his wife knew about that.
The trek through the desert was bumpy and dusty. On the way they stopped at a small hut where a toothless man sat next to a small fire. He showed them semi-precious stones without a word. He had the aura of a wizard. The dust clung to him like a second skin. He stared at Kevin until it made Kevin feel uncomfortable. After a while he urged the driver on. “Come, let’s go.”
As they walked away the man came after him and grabbed him around the shoulders. He pushed a turquoise stone in Kevin’s hand and waved a goodbye with no expression. For the next few hours Kevin was lost in a world of thoughts and dreams as the landscape drifted by.
They left the club at around eleven. They were very drunk. He tagged along, all the while looking for an escape route. He didn’t like the club they were going to, it was seedy and on weekends there were always violent fights amongst the patrons. He has witnessed some terrible things there before. Once he saw somebody being kicked through a shop window and being cut to ribbons. The police always came too late and the culprits were never caught. Often it was innocent bystanders that got targeted by drunken men looking to take out their frustrations on easy prey. The cowardice behind it sickened him. He knew he didn’t have to worry about it too much because his ‘friends’ would look after him, but he did not like to witness it and the thought of being forced to participate scared him.
His chance to escape never came, and they dragged him along like an unwilling puppet.
There was a queue outside the club and already one or two scuffles were randomly breaking out along the line. The bouncers watched on with stony faces without any hint of concern or imminent intervention. He knew the bouncers were the most dangerous of them all. He tried to keep himself small.
Inside the venue was smoky, and filled to capacity. A naked girl was gyrating to a loud beat on the dance floor and a smog machine filled the air with grey puffs from time to time. Men in the front row cheered drunkenly and made outrageous remarks. “Jou lekker ding! Kom hoer diekant toe!”, a large man in a white shirt shouted drunkenly while standing up and waving a note in the air. His friends pulled him back in his chair were he landed with a thud. His friends laughed at him and patted him on the back. The air was filled with chauvinism and testosterone and to Kevin it had the aura of an orgy from some ancient, uncivilized age in a hedonistic and brutal empire.
They went to sit at a low table and immediately started to order round after round. He lost count of the amount of drinks he threw down his throat in a desperate attempt to blind himslf to this vulgar scene. At some point he excused himself to go to the bathroom. He could hardly stand up and felt weak. He managed to make his way through the crowd of drunken, jeering men. At the entrance of the men’s toilets he encountered the man with the white shirt on his way back from the toilet to his table, his shirt was spattered with blood and he had a vicious grin on his face. He said something barely audible to Kevin in Afrikaans: “Ek het hom nou lekker dik gemoer. Wou mos kak soek met die verkeerde ou.”
It was absolutely barbaric. Kevin entered the bathroom and saw a young, thin man sitting in the corner on the tile floors. He was holding broken spectacles in one hand and crying. His faced was bruised and bloodied and it seemed as if his nose was severely broken. It was a pathetic scene, and it shocked Kevin deeply. He went in to a stall and started puking, and the he also started weeping, but without a sound. After a while he regained his composure and headed back to the table. He passed the young man who still sat whimpering in the corner and he couldn’t think of anything to say, so he walked on with a feeling of guilt and shame.
On the dance floor a man only clad in his underpants was lying on the floor while the naked women squatted over his face with her still gyrating body. The man seemed helpless, almost powerless and weak as he stared into her vagina; like a sacrificial beast being slain by a priestess. The crowd of drunken, sweating men were laughing and shouting remarks at the top of their voices. He headed for the door and left. He experienced a tremendous feeling of relief the moment he was outside and the fresh evening air burst onto his lungs. Not long after, the doubt set in.
It was a magnificent scene; the desert lay all around him, coloured in light pastels by the early morning light. They came here yesterday from Tata, a small town of dreary mud dwellings and forlorn palm trees at the foot of Jebel Bani. He couldn’t afford the main tour operators so he opted for a fly by night illegal tour guide that approached him at the market. They made the journey in a rickety old car that he was sure would break down or get stuck in the sand at any moment. Amazingly enough they made it to the Bedouin encampment some kilometres into the desert without incident just after sunset. He slept on a mat in one of the Bedouin tents and dreamt he was back in South Africa in Cape Town when he was much younger, naive and beautiful with happiness.
The next morning he gazed at the huge sand dune next to their camp and resolved to climb it. It was big enough to dwarf the other dunes surrounding it in the brown desert ocean. It took him close to an hour to make it to the top and he was exhausted when he reached the top. He sat there for a long time; gazing at the brown emptiness and listening to the sound of the windswept sand along the naked dune face. He thought about his dreaming, his past and the place he came from. He thought about his life and what purpose it served. He retraced his steps on the journey that took him all the way to this remote location, and after a while he realized he had an intense longing to be back home again.
He went back into the club later that night. He walked past his colleagues to the bathroom. He took the beaten man by the arm and led him out while the shouting crowd of fools reveled in their own self-loathing. He took the man to hospital and waited many hours with him in the emergency room queue. Afterwards he took him to his home, a small shack next to the railway line in a forgotten piece of town. He got him cleaned up and put him to bed, before he went back to his own flat. The whole time hardly a word passed between them. They did not need to talk, everything was understood. The next day he went to put some flowers on her grave for the last time, and then he left for good.