Our new story this Tuesday is “Maun of the Dead” by Sarah Lotz, one half of S.L. Grey.
Maun of the Dead
The YOU magazine is over six weeks old, but I don’t care. I grab it from its otherwise empty shelf and greedily flick through the dusty pages, pausing at a Becks centrefold and a saccharine story about a baby battling a heart condition. Weird. I had no idea there was even a market for YOU in Botswana, and I’ve never actually read one before. But right now, my limbs twitching with excess adrenaline and ears sensitive to the slightest sound, I cling to it, hungrily checking out the ‘dos and don’ts’ of celebrity fashions. It reminds me of the glossily tempting magazine aisle in the Longbeach Mall Woolworths. It reminds me of normality, comforting banality and the time before. The time when my biggest concern was whether or not I had enough cash on my card to cover the forbidden Lindt bars I’d smuggled into my trolley.
I glance at the cashier and attempt a smile. She stares at me blankly and goes back to filing her nails. The security guard leans on the door frame, yawns and rubs a hand over his face. They’re bizarrely unconcerned that the glass doors are propped wide open and that anything could wander in at any time. The security guard doesn’t even have a weapon.
The unexpected everydayness of it all is suddenly overwhelming, and for a sickening second the worn and scuffed floor seems to tip under my feet. I grab the cool metal of the magazine shelf and bite the middle of my tongue.
I hadn’t been expecting this.
As we drove out of the camp’s high gates early this morning I’d been steeling myself for a facsimile of the images we’d seen via Google Earth and News24 before the internet went down. Scenes straight out of Dawn of the Dead: suppurating corpses stacked by the side of the road, burnt-out cars, smashed shopping malls and a horde of the Infected stumbling down the main thoroughfare. But Maun looked almost exactly as it had when J. and I arrived here six weeks ago: the only sounds the occasional bird call, the only smells the slightly leathery interior of the Land Cruiser and the familiar scent of heat and dust. Sure, it was quieter. The roads were empty of traffic: the only signs of life a fleeting glimpse of a woman collecting firewood outside the community camp and a skinny, hobbled donkey grazing next to a fenced rubbish dump. Apart from the occasional charred wooden skeleton, the households flanking the road were much as before: family smallholdings made up of a collection of thatch-and-mud dwellings and rickety mopane kraals. Even the Nando’s in the town centre looked untouched and ready to sell grilled chicken. The last thing I expected to find was an open Spar and a YOU magazine.
Where is everyone?
And why is the supermarket even open? There’s very little of anything on the shelves. A few jars of peach jam (now rolling around in my basket), a lonely and tattered box of rusks, a display of Frisco and a solitary roll of one-ply toilet paper. They’ve even bothered to turn the generators on; the empty fridges whir pointlessly in the background. And it smells like every cut-price supermarket everywhere – just a faint trace of cleaning fluid undercut with a hint of spoiled meat. Apart from the denuded stock and a large Canada-shaped dark-brown stain on the floor in the snack aisle, there’s no sign that anything untoward has happened.
It’s eerie. Bloody unsettling.
I’ve been squeezing the magazine so tightly that the staples have left a painful indentation in my palm. Shit. My fingers are tingling – the familiar beginnings of a panic attack. I shake them briskly, but it’s not helping. My feet are numb and it’s becoming difficult to swallow. Time to get out of here.
I somehow make it over to the cashier’s desk and plonk my grocery basket on the counter.
‘Hi,’ I say, nodding behind her to the empty cigarette display and concentrating on keeping the panic out of my voice. ‘You got any cigarettes?’
The cashier shakes her head. ‘No.’ The boredom rolls out of her in languid waves.
I take out a hundred-pula note and push it across the counter. ‘You sure?’
The woman stares at it. ‘Yes, I’m sure. I cannot give you change.’
I shrug. I’m not sure if money even has a point any more. ‘It doesn’t matter.’
‘Do you want a bag?’ she asks.
The laugh escapes before I can stop it. Not a question you’d expect to hear in the circumstances. ‘Yes, please.’
She tucks the note under the till and starts packing my meagre groceries into a plastic carrier bag.
‘Thanks,’ I say, mentally preparing myself for the walk across the parking lot to the waiting Land Cruiser. Even with the door wide open the Spar provides some sort of cover, somewhere to hide if necessary. But I can’t stay in here all day. I stumble past the security guard, shielding my eyes against the glare of morning sunlight.
‘Hey! Hey you! Lady!’
A silhouetted figure is heading in my direction. Then the light shifts and I see him clearly. It’s okay. He looks normal – alive at any rate. I hesitate. There’s something familiar about him.
‘Hey!’ he says again. ‘You remember me?’
I’m about to shake my head, then I remember: he’s a hawker. I’d bought an elephant-hair bracelet from him, back when J. and I stopped here forever ago to stock up for our trip.
I’m absurdly glad to see him. ‘Oh! How are you?’ I hold up my arm and wave it around ridiculously, showing him that I’m still wearing the trinket.
‘I am okay. Where are you staying?’
He nods. ‘Yes. I hear about this. There are many of you there.’ He means tourists, I suppose, travellers caught away from home when it all kicked off.
‘There aren’t that many.’ We were among the lucky ones, fleeing straight to one of the fenced camps on the outskirts of town when the bodies started dropping. The same place where we stayed every year before heading to the game reserves. God knows we never expected to call it home.
‘You are from South Africa?’ he asks.
He shakes his head sadly. ‘It is bad there.’
‘You’ve heard? You have news?’ My eagerness is pathetic. It’s been weeks since the camp office’s internet went down. The last news I’d greedily downloaded was from a diehard blogger Tweeting from inside the ruins of the Canal Walk Game store. The words <OMFG they’re cumin 4 me gotta run > imprinted forever on my brain.
‘I’m sorry, all I know is that the borders are still closed,’ he says. ‘You from Johannesburg?’
‘No, Cape Town.’
‘You have family back in Cape Town?’
‘You must be worried, no?’
‘Of course.’ I don’t tell him that most of my family are in the UK. Where the worst of it is, according to the now-defunct internet. Another thought to build a wall around.
‘Where is everyone?’ I ask. ‘It’s so quiet here.’
He shrugs. ‘It is early.’
That isn’t what I meant. Besides, it’s not that early, is it? I check my battered Swatch. 8:30 a.m. That’s practically the middle of the night for Africa.
‘I hear you say that you want cigarettes?’ he says.
‘Yes! And water. Can you get water?’
He nods, holding out his hand. I give him three hundred pula. He passes one of the notes back to me. ‘You wait here. I will return in ten minutes.’
‘But … can I give you a lift? Shouldn’t you be inside somewhere?’
He chuckles. ‘Thank you, but no.’
‘Oy!’ Frikkie’s impatient voice cuts across the small parking lot. The sun bounces off the Land Cruiser’s windscreen, but I can just about make out his hulking shape in the driver’s seat. He insisted on driving. Ugh. But what could I do? J. and the others were tied up fixing the camp’s generator again, and I couldn’t have made the trip alone.
And I needed to get out of the camp. I needed to know.
The bracelet-seller wanders away. There’s a brief burst of laughter behind me. I whirl around, muscles tensed to flee. Three middle-aged men are now leaning against the bare black windows of the neighbouring Woolworths, laughing and chatting and clearly shooting the shit. The world shifts again, and this time when I bite my tongue I draw blood. Call it a nervous tic, but I have this habit of biting my tongue when I’m about to panic. I know it’s probably not a great idea to have a blood-dripping mouth in a town infested with zombies. But it helps my nerves.
I walk as briskly as I can towards the Land Cruiser, skirting the abandoned 43 4s in the parking lot, a reminder of all the families who won’t be going on their dream trip this season. Next to the Chinese shop a rusty Toyota bakkie is smashed up against the side of a khaki Land Rover, its bonnet concertinaed and distended. It’s almost comforting to see a sign that some disaster has actually happened. I was beginning to suspect that it was all a massive hallucination.
Frikkie shakes his head irritably as I climb in next to him. The car’s interior is steamy and reeks of his sweat.
‘Where have you been?’ He’s drumming his fat fingers impatiently on the steering wheel. He checks out my single bag of groceries. ‘No water?’
‘No. Can we hang here for a little bit?’ I nod towards the bracelet-seller strolling languidly down the centre of the road. ‘That guy says he can get us some.’
‘You give him money?’
He shakes his head in disbelief. ‘You won’t see that again.’
‘Well, it’s no great loss, is it?’
He rolls his eyes. I can practically see the thought bubble above his head containing the words ‘Women! Blerrie useless.’
Frikkie encompasses everything I hate about certain white South African men. Big and beefy, loud and moustachioed, full of generalisations about ‘blecks’ and ‘chicks’, his sense of entitlement wafting out of him like BO. Back in the real world he worked as a commodities broker (whatever that is). Five weeks I’ve been this guy’s neighbour, listening to his grunts and snores in the tent next to mine and J.’s. Five weeks and this is the first time we’ve had a conversation that doesn’t amount to ‘pass the biltong’. It’s patently obvious he’s not comfortable in my company. He wears a thick gold wedding band but has never mentioned a wife, and no one has asked about her. None of us really want to hear the answer. I roll down my window a few inches.
‘What did you get?’ He’s greedily eyeing my grocery bag. He reaches across my lap to grab it.
I hold it out of his reach. ‘No. Let’s wait.’
‘Ag, don’t be such a woman.’
‘What’s that supposed to mean?’
He shrugs and starts drumming on the steering wheel again. He stares out of his window.
The trio of locals has been joined by a couple of youngish women dressed in skinny jeans and identical pink-and-silver T-shirts. None of them looks even remotely concerned about being out in the open. If they’re not worried, why should I be? I’m breathing more easily again. The panic attack has crawled back to its lair.
I prop my legs up on the dashboard and try to relax.
Maybe J.’s right about this place, after all. He relentlessly insists that Maun is one of the few places in the world where you actually want to be when everything turns to shit. Mind you, he’s biased. He loves it here. According to J., Botswana is a prime example of a country that has its act together: there’s poverty but no obvious suffering, a palpable sense of community, a blatant disregard for materialism, a singular lack of beggars, violence or corruption. He still talks fondly about the time he came here five years ago and got stuck in the sand outside Maun’s only trading store. ‘This is the real Africa,’ he’s always saying. ‘Not the commercial Kruger Park kind. Not the Africa of shopping malls and Ster Kinekor and cardboard cities and corruption.’ Part of me thinks this is an astonishingly patronising statement. Part of me thinks he’s right. I suppose it does approximate the animal-populated Africa I imagined when growing up in England. It’s not uncommon to see elephants and warthogs wandering through the streets in Kasane. Being attacked by a lion is still a feasible threat.
Of course, being attacked by a lion is the least of our worries these days.
Frikkie’s been saying something.
‘I said, that oke isn’t coming back.’
‘Give it time.’
‘Let’s get back. They’ll be worried.’
My fellow survivors. If only they knew that while we’ve been holed up behind a ten-foot fence, rationing canned asparagus and kudu biltong, the world has ticked on without us.
‘It’s so weird,’ I say. ‘Surreal. Don’t you think it’s weird?’
He shrugs again. ‘What do you mean?’
I flap my hand in the direction of the chattering group of men and women. ‘No one seems bothered. It’s as if nothing’s happened.’
It’s clear he hasn’t given it much thought. Commodities, zombies, the end of the world as we know it – it’s all the same to him. ‘Ag, let’s just go.’
Frikkie starts the engine. I put my hand on his arm. His skin is hot and slick with sweat. ‘Please, Frikkie. Just a few more minutes.’ It’s a real effort to keep the anger out of my voice.
He shakes his arm free of my grip. ‘We’re going.’ He revs the car needlessly, wasting precious fuel for absolutely no reason. Bastard.
I’m about to give him an earful when something slams into Frikkie’s side of the car. My words are sliced off as my teeth clamp down on my tongue. The car stalls. Frikkie and I sit perfectly still for a couple of seconds. I’m pretty sure neither of us is breathing.
‘What the fuck was that?’ My voice is barely a whisper.
Then I smell it. In the first week, the reek of the Infected would occasionally penetrate the boundary of our relatively remote camping site. It’s an unforgettable odour – a combination of rank putrefaction, human filth and something sweetly and uniquely medicinal.
Christ. I knew it was too good to be true.
‘Get us out of here!’
Frikkie is fumbling with the ignition again, but his hands are shaking violently, and the stench is making both of us gag. In desperation he pulls the keys out to try again, but drops them on the floor at the pedals. He leans down to scramble at his feet. A ragged, misshapen head rears up at his window and bangs into it. I shut my eyes, not wanting to see, but when I open them again there’s a hunched figure crouching over the bonnet directly in front of me. Oh God. I haven’t seen an infected person since J. and the others dealt with the last of the stragglers in the camp, and time has taken its toll. Its out-of-proportion hydrocephalic head is leathery and desiccated. Its eyes have sunk so far into its skull that they’re as dark and dead as dried peach pips. It looks nothing like a rotting, wet Hollywood zombie. Human biltong – that’s what it reminds me of. The thought makes me laugh – a hysterical, high-pitched cackle that doesn’t sound like it belongs to me. The creature opens its toothless mouth and moans in response, the sound creaking up from deep within its hollow chest cavity.
It’s impossible to tell if it was once male or female, tourist or local. It’s wearing the last traces of a pair of jeans and a T-shirt. Through the dark bloodstains and filth I can just about make out the faint shape of Bart Simpson’s head. For a second it looks almost comically confused, cocks its head to one side and stumbles backwards, falling out of sight below the high bonnet of the car.
‘I’m trying!’ Frikkie is still turning the ignition. Click, click, click. I hope he hasn’t flooded the engine. He’s muttering ‘Oh God, oh Jesus, oh God, oh Jesus’ over and over.
There’s the sound of feet slapping on tarmac and a reedy voice screams, ‘Hai! Hai! ’ A small boy dressed in shorts and blinding white trainers is racing towards the Land Cruiser.
Oh God, oh Jesus. I bang on my window. ‘No! Stay away!’
One of the men hanging around outside the Spar stands up and points towards the Land Cruiser. Thank God. But instead of hurrying towards us he stretches his arms high above his head and sits down on the curb next to one of the women.
The child pauses, grins at me and waves the large knobkerrie he’s carrying. He skips towards the front of the car and drops out of sight.
‘Frikkie! Frikkie! The kid! We have to do something!’
I fumble for the door handle, but Frikkie grabs my shoulder and yanks me back. I struggle, but he’s too strong.
‘Don’t be bloody stupid!’ he says.
The kid reappears in front of the bonnet, swinging the knobkerrie like a discus-thrower. He’s yelling something, but clearly his furious words aren’t meant for us. My Tswana is still rubbish, but the inference is clear.
The creature crawls back into view, and as we watch, immobilised, the kid uses the stick’s round, polished handle to prod it upright. One of its ankles looks to be twisted at an impossible angle, and its bare, filthy feet are missing most of their toes. The kid starts smacking it around the legs and the back of its head, punctuating each thwack with a high-pitched ‘Hai! Hai! ’.
The creature cowers, bats ineffectively at the stick with a gnarled arm, and then starts lurching towards the road. The kid follows closely behind, using the stick to herd the creature forward.
Frikkie and I don’t speak for several seconds. The creature’s stench and the child’s voice disappear and we’re left listening to the sound of nothing. Frikkie tries the car again. This time it roars to life. His hands are shaking and juddering on the steering wheel; the sack of flesh beneath his chin is wobbling crazily.
‘We’d better follow him, make sure he’s okay,’ I say.
‘What? You serious?’
‘He’s just a kid!’
Frikkie points towards the group of men and women. ‘Let them help him.’
‘I thought you were a Christian?’
He glares at me, piggy eyes full of resentment. But it works; he pulls out and heads in the boy’s direction.
We catch up with him in seconds. The kid is shepherding the creature down the centre of the road. One boy and his zombie out for a stroll.
We follow the kid at a safe distance, cruising along behind, pausing as the thing swerves drunkenly into the window of the camping hire shop, before righting itself and staggering onwards. Frikkie pulls over to let a donkey cart pass. The elderly driver waves to us cheerily and says something to the small boy. They both laugh.
We hang back as the boy drives the protesting creature past a tumble-down tyre warehouse and into a wide clearing where a brightly painted brick house and several circular kraals are built in the neatly raked dust. As we watch, the boy prods the creature into one of the wooden enclosures and triumphantly slams the makeshift gate behind it. There’s the thunk and creak as the thing throws itself against the fence, then nothing.
A woman appears at the doorway of the house. She says something to the boy and he drops his shoulders as if he’s being scolded. She looks at us curiously, and then the two of them disappear inside.
‘So that’s where they all are,’ I say. ‘That’s what they’ve done with them!’
Frikkie doesn’t reply. A droplet of sweat wobbles at the end of his nose and plops onto his lap.
First published in Home Away: 24 hours 24 cities 24 writers (Zebra Press, 2010)