An extract from a new novel by UEA graduate Meg Vandermerwe.
‘The seven thirty-five train for Athlone will be de- layed by twenty minutes. Platform two.’
Half past seven in the morning, 2 October 2009. There are two hundred and forty-two days until the start of the World Cup. Two days since we left behind all we have ever known. My bladder is bursting, but George says, ‘You can’t go to the toilet, Michael’s cousins will be here soon.’
Everywhere, people. Some look sleepy, others harassed, eager to be out of this crowded train terminal that is busier than a termite hill. South Africans look different from Zimbabweans, that is for sure. Plumper. Ordinary people back home, those not wealthy like the General and the Mistress, are thin like green maize shoots. But here they are more like well-fed cattle. Two women waddle past, clutching their handbags. One has bought a packet of Nik-Naks. A robust-looking man walks quickly as he talks on his cellphone. In his free hand he holds a paper cup of steaming tea or coffee.
My stomach rumbles. I am hungry. We have not eaten anything for almost a day since our biscuits ran out.
‘Try to at least look like you know what you are doing and not like a country girl holding a hoe.’
George’s words come out all distorted. His jaw is still swollen from where the driver slapped him.
When we were a safe distance from the border, the driver let us climb out from under his stinking blankets. It was dark. Just a half- moon. Its watery yellow glow was not enough to see by. So our first vision of South Africa was of little more than shadows, punctuated by the lights of passing vehicles. But I could smell the bush. Dry tree roots and peppery sap.
Now that we have crossed the border, the driver is silent. No more talk. No more stories. Just the sound of the truck growling beneath us, its aged suspension bumping over the dips as we turn off the main highway onto a dirt road. Suddenly the driver stops the truck and turns off the ignition. There, in the darkness of the bush, with the crickets, it seems, crying out for our help, he turns to George and demands more money.
‘But we agreed,’ my brother protests. ‘After the risk I just took for you? Both of you must get out now!’ Terrified, I close my eyes. Meanwhile, my normally proud brother begs: ‘Please, baba, we are poor orphans.’ ‘No, you are ungrateful lumps of shit! Get out!’ The once-friendly driver has become another man. A heated conversation follows. The driver demanding and shouting. George grovelling and begging.
Finally: ‘How much do you have?’ I do not hear what my brother mumbles. ‘Just give it to me.’ My brother hands over the notes. I know he has a few more in his sock, but thankfully the driver does not know about that. ‘Is this all you have? For this pathetic amount you two can stay in the back!’ Then, before my brother can move, the driver gives him an angry smack on the side of the head. We both climb out of the front cab and go to the back of the truck. The driver slams the container door shut with a terrible bang and locks us in from the outside, leaving us in total darkness.
We are prisoners, I think. We huddle together among the crates of unripe avocados. We are prisoners. And with that thought come memories. The thud-thud of the soil landing on top of Mama’s coffin. Sand in my shoes. Auntie Ruth’s wailing. Uncle Charles’s perspiration on his brow, the back of his shirt darkening as he shov- els. Mama. You are trapped.
I will go mad in here, I think. The truck bumps over a pothole and my side slams into the sharp corner of a crate. But just as I feel the darkness closing in, George takes my hand and squeezes it so tight that I know that he too is terrified. I feel my heartbeat begin to slow.
Over the next few hours, the driver stopped twice, but he didn’t let us out. When he finally did, we saw that a young woman and two young men had taken our places in the front cab. They did not make eye contact with us as we all hurried into the bush to empty our bladders and bowels while the driver smoked a cigarette. George’s jaw was already badly bruised and swollen.
‘Is your jaw very sore?’ I whisper. I want to reach out to touch George again, but in the daylight of Cape Town station he flinches from my touch.
‘Shut up, Chipo. Look out for—’ My brother’s words are drowned out by another train announcement. Mitchell’s Plain. De- parting. Platform 4.
I look down at my crumpled skirt and the suitcase lodged between my legs. With my hands I try to smooth the creases. Inside that truck we took comfort from the smell of each other’s perspira- tion, like flour mixed with water and yeast, left to ferment in a tin shack in the noonday heat. It was the smell of fear, yes, but also a reminder that we were still alive. But now I feel only dirty.
‘Thank God. It’s them.’
I look up in that station and see two men approaching. City men. Tall. Both wearing sunglasses, t-shirts, jeans, and sneakers. Identical. Yes, identical twins, but not the same. Look closer, Chipo, I tell myself. Behind the sunglasses of one, his left eyelid hangs low. An injury from when he was a boy and he fell from the bicycle he used to charge the other children to ride. That is Peter. The other, with warm smiling eyes like Andy Cole, is David. He never teased you when the other children did and often shared his lunch with the stray dogs waiting on the other side of the school fence, hoping for scraps. All the girls, too. Hoping for scraps of David’s attention. His affections. And you, Chipo? Do you forget how you used to leave the house a half-hour early, hoping just to touch David’s shadow with the tip of your shoe as he walked to school?
When they see George they wave and hurry forwards. Warm embraces, ‘Welcome to Cape Town, George. You’ve grown. You used to be short! But what happened to your face?’
As an afterthought, they turn to me. A sigh from Peter. A smile and a nod from David, who reaches down to take our suitcase. Then the three move off, still laughing and joking, lost in catching up.
‘Our building is called “President’s Heights”. It is taller than almost the tallest in Harare, and of course much taller than anything you ever saw in Beitbridge. From our room, we look over the city and can even glimpse Signal Hill,’ Peter says.
However, when we approach, George and I immediately re- cognise that this is not the sort of building that any president we know of will choose to reside. There is washing hanging from every window and the mismatched curtains flap like tattered flags in the wind, and groups of young men loiter near the entrance with, it seems, nothing to do to pass their time but smoke and stand about talking. Still, we are lucky I tell myself. Lucky to have David and Peter. Friends once, so friends still? Yes. At least not strangers. And you should be grateful, Chipo. They could have told George that they would not take you too.
One by one, through a clicking turnstile, we enter. Into a wide, gloomy lobby. Inside, a hundred post boxes stuffed with rubbish.
‘Do not receive post here, not unless you want it stolen.’
Normally, Peter explains, it is tricky for African foreigners like ourselves to find places to stay. Most landlords require a South African id, which, if you are a foreigner waiting for your papers, you do not have. Also proof of employment, bank account details, and so on and so forth. And a large deposit. But this building is different. Here, Peter tells us, the landlords let the African foreign- ers bypass the usual procedures – for a price. Peter rubs his thumb against his slim index finger like he is toying with a shred of tobacco.
We are in the belly of President’s Heights, situated in the heart of Long Street, a street that runs like a spinal column through the city centre, almost down to the ice-cold Atlantic. President’s Heights and Long Street. Long Street and President’s Heights. iKapa. The Mother City. All That’s Pretty. iKapa The Mother City A Place Without Pity.
Zebra Crossing by Meg Vandermerwe is published by Oneworld at £10.99.