And here is the trailer!
Today’s Tuesday Fiction is by Nick Wood. Nick is a South African writer, currently resident in London, UK. Nick has published a YA SF book in South Africa entitled The stone chameleon, as well as about a dozen short stories in venues such as Infinity Plus, Interzone, PostScripts, Albedo One and AfroSF. He has also published and presented on (South) African speculative fiction in general. Nick is a member of the Clockhouse London Writers group and can be found at http://nickwood.frogwrite.co.nz/ , where (amongst other things), he is touting his second novel (tentatively titled Azanian Bridges.)
This is the story’s first publication.
Case Notes of a Witchdoctor
He’d reached the age where he’d seen it all—liars, psychopaths, the neurotic… and the completely insane. Psychosis it was, though, that still just about held his interest.
Like the young black man in front of him, sitting and grimacing, but trying hard not to tilt his head. He has some insight, then, not wanting to reveal a listening attitude in the silence of the sickly yellow room.
Not enough insight, though.
Mark spoke, to put the young man out of his misery.
“I’m afraid you’re going to have to stay in for the weekend, Kolile.” (Try as he would, he’d never been able to make the correct click on the X in Xolile’s name.)
This time he could see he had the patient’s full attention. “Please, asseblief doctor, I need to go home this weekend.”
Mark played with the orange government biro on the open folder between them, feeling a little bored, a little helpless. There was a limit to what he could do—and it was Friday afternoon, with rush-hour traffic no doubt building early along De Waal drive.
He took the pen and wrote with finality in the psychiatric notes—Provisional Diagnosis: Psychosis. Keep in for further observation.
He looked up. Xolile was sitting rigid, staring behind him.
Despite himself, Mark turned, to see the thick door and blank wall. He dropped his hand away from the panic button underneath his desk.
“What do you see, Kolile?” he smiled reassuringly and with certainty, keen to wrap up the consultation quickly now.
The young man looked him squarely in the eyes, as if oblivious to customary respectful gaze avoidance for his elders.
“An old white man,” he said. “I think he may be your father.”
Mark laughed then, loudly. His father had been dead three years.
He stood up: “You’ll feel better after a weekend in, on your medication. The staff are very good here.”
The young man stood up and held his gaze, until tears leaked from his eyes and he looked down.
“Please,” he said, “my mother needs me. I am sick, yes, but I think it is because the ancestors call me.”
Mark hesitated; he’d been reminded of caring for his own mother, for a good many months after dad’s death.
“Why do they call you?” he asked, cursing himself for delaying on what was surely a certain decision, but looking for a hidden delusionary system.
“To become a healer too, like you,” Xolile said, his voice muffled in the blue overalls, head bowed. Mark realised abruptly that the young man’s head was bowed to hide his tears.
“We shall see,” he said, opening the door. Staff Nurse Dumisane, who’d been waiting outside in respect for psychological confidentiality, came in and ushered the young man out.
Mark nodded goodbye and closed the door.
Friday at last, Friday, fucking Friday. The surf must be pumping at Kommetjie by now. Time to wash the working week off him in that frenzied cold water.
He closed the file on his desk; Xolile Ngubane. Shut.
He’d seen so many tears, so much snot en trane, this was no different.
But Xolile’s presence didn’t seem to have fully left the room. Mark could almost smell the lingering pain of his tears, the sourness of his body odour, his leaking desperation.
Still, he had seen it all. He picked up the file to leave the room.
“Where are you going, son?”
Mark dropped the file, having half-opened the door with his right hand. He peered back into the room, scanning the walls, the psychometric test cupboard, the desk, underneath the desk…
He stopped himself. Stupid, stupid, he really just needed a rest; it had been a hell of a week.
No one to go home to, though. Sharon had left eight months ago, and he’d left Jo’burg over a year ago now, to get away from a needy mother. There had been lots of leavings, with so few greetings anymore.
He picked up the file and sighed. At least the sea didn’t judge him. Muizenberg soon with a boogie board maybe, for, actually, he felt like a warmer and gentler swim. So, home first, pick up the board and head waves-side, before the beach bursts with manne jostling for board-space.
He stopped himself from announcing his plans to the air and cursed as he saw the black smear on his fingers. The cheap plastic biros tended to leak like an old man with a dodgy prostate. (At least he could still piss a few bubbles into the pot.) Throwing the pen into the bin, he wiped his fingers with some desk-tissues; it’s okay, man, just so long as he’d kept the file clean.
He hesitated, the wall was dripping sound. Leaning his right ear against the bricks’ clammy, slippery surface, he listened.
A quavering voice, soft but through cold stones, old stones—a leper asylum before it became a mad-house, so he’d heard.
A dim and distant voice, which was just repeating his name, over and over again.
So many voices lost here.
But this one knew him.
He had no answer. It was time to go.
Softly, he closed the door behind him and headed for the nurse’s station, along the banana-coloured hospital corridor. He nodded at a puffed up psychiatrist passing him; Jesus, that guy needed to learn to treat his patients more respectfully.
He took a right turn into the nurse’s station and the adjoining patient lounge, which was empty, as they were all out for their early supper. Behind the glassed sealed area Sister Mbolo and Staff Nurse Dumisane were standing, collecting night meds from cabinets, eyes flickering up to patient charts on the walls.
Mark stepped into the station quietly; file ready to be deposited alphabetically into the cabinet. He’d update online records next week.
He needed a swim badly.
Dumisane glanced at him, sieving a few tablets into a metal bowl. “Xolile to stay in then?” he asked, clicking extravagantly, to Mark’s ears. (He’s Zulu after all; Xhosa clicks come easy to him.)
The old man caught his eye, lounging just across the room. He didn’t recognise him, but he knew it wasn’t—it couldn’t be—his father. But dad had lain a bit like that, in the days following his stroke, limp and helpless and dumb.
Three weeks of silent helpless lying, before dying quietly, in the middle of the night, when no one was around.
But he’d done his grieving, processed his feelings, put it all behind him. He’d known what to do, after all. (Spilling himself verbally and with tears; off-loading to Sharon, while trying to hold mom together at the same time.)
Three months after tossing the last bit of dirt on his dad’s grave with his own hands, Mark had realised he’d put it all behind him. (Well within the stipulated normal grief time parameters: he’d been proud of that, until Sharon had punctured it by leaving without explanation.)
The old man in the lounge bent over and pulled a page from one of the ward Bibles. It looked like he was going to roll a cigarette with it. Despite himself, Mark smiled—certainly not dad, then.
“Dr. Bezuidenhout?” Dumisane was standing up straight, peering at him with obvious bewilderment.
“Um,” he said, “Kolile can go home for the weekend, but will need to be visited tomorrow by the community team, to get collateral information from his mother.”
“The community team’s off this weekend—I can go, I’m on duty and Sister and the others can cover me,” Dumisane smiled.
“Really?” The sister glowered at him and then laughed. “So he’s safe to go out?”
Mark paused, looking at the Sister, short and smiling, but knowing she was also pure steel underneath.
“He thinks his ancestors are calling him.”
“Oh,” she rolled her eyes. “Another ukuthwasa then. Bloody government’s to blame I tell you. They still haven’t created enough real jobs.”
He chuckled to himself as he picked up a pen. It was fine for her to say that!
He hesitated and then, for the first time in a long time, Mark changed his file notes using stale, scratchy white correction fluid, countersigning the change as the traffic grew rapidly louder along the road outside Valkenberg hospital.
He smelt burning and looked up in alarm. The old black man was smoking the Bible.
* * *
Mark woke with the sense of someone watching him.
Without even opening his eyes, he knew who it was.
“Hi, dad.” On opening his eyes, he was unsurprised to find his room empty. His dad had been dead three years, after all.
Mark rolled over, groaning, stiff from a late evening”s bodysurf at Muizenberg. As it had for many months now, the bed felt too big for him.
It was a bright and sunny master bedroom, looking out on a small but neat Rondebosch garden, orange bougainvillea framing razor wire and a hyperactive alarm. It was all somewhat on the dull side in long Cape winters, though. As for the children’s bedroom—well, that never happened, did it?
He walked stiffly through to the bathroom and splashed his face with clear and cold water.
Water always does the trick.
A pale and wrinkled face stared blankly back at him, gray hair hung lankly down alongside his cheeks. Shocked, he took several paces backed, slipped and banged his head against the towel railing. No stars, just a burning red blur in front of his eyes.
And an expressionless dead face.
It was his father’s face, not his.
Mark reeled backwards, averting his eyes.
God, it was as if dad had died without feeling, without thoughts, a pale husk of a once strong and fierce—but funny—man. It was early morning when we’d last seen him, but for moments he’d failed to recognise it was him, so shrunken and waxen he was.
Mark sat on the bathroom mat, its crinkly blue plastic fur tickling his naked thighs—but he couldn’t give a shit about that, quietly crying until thoughts came again.
Including one terrifying and growing thought.
He resisted it at first, hiding it away behind deliberate thoughts of beach or shopping, moving in safe and familiar spaces.
But there was no hiding from it—it kept popping back into his head.
He sighed. He knew he had a phone-call to make. He knew he had somewhere to go.
Mark stood up and faced the mirror. His own tired face looked out at him. He washed his face, shaved and dressed carefully and respectfully in white collared shirt and grey slacks. The house was too quiet, too empty—and the face in the mirror looked even emptier still, although he was just relieved it was his face.
Pulling his mobile from his trouser pocket, he speed dialed the ward.
“Staff Nurse Dumisane? Doctor Bezuidenhout here. I think I should come with you to visit that patient this morning. Ja, I’m ready—half an hour, hey. See you outside my house, you’ve got my address, ja nee?”
The street was quiet, still early on a Saturday morning in a cul de sac set back from the Main Road. The trees were in full bloom but starting to sway from the gathering South-Easter.
Mark jingled some coins in his pocket, deciding to text his sister in Jo’burg as a distraction.
He was going someplace he’d never been before; a place he’d always managed to avoid.
A black township.
The white Government Garage car arrived, an old Fiat, Staff Nurse Dumisane waving cheerfully from the rolled down driver’s window,
Mark got in, feeling even more anxious.
As they pulled off and headed down past Rondebosch station and across the wasteland of the Common, he felt his pulse start to race.
“So,” he said, “where are we going, again?”
Dumisane glanced at him sideways and then focused on the road, swerving to avoid a taxi pulling out suddenly.
“Gugs, been there before, Doctor?”
Ah, Gugulethu, not the worst thankfully, but no doubt bad enough, with very few—if any—white mense there.
Mark shook his head coolly. “”No, can’t say I have, Dumisane—any tips?”
The staff nurse gave a big laugh as he swung past a bus and the streets started to fill up, heading steadily away from the Mountain. “Stick close to me, doctor, and you’ll be fine.”
Houses had given way to wide and dingy council flats surrounding dirt yards, bright washing swinging from lines hanging out of windows or in courtyards.
The men on the street looked rougher and tougher and downright dangerous.
Dumisane pulled to a halt alongside a small brick terraced house, brightly painted in blue, with a small but neat path.
Mark raised his eyebrows discreetly. He’d expected more overt poverty, more visible desperation.
“We don’t all live in corrugated iron shacks, you know,” Dumisane said shortly, getting out of the car.
Mark felt a pang of shame; Dumisane was a damn good nurse and obviously a sharp reader of people. He still couldn’t stop himself looking carefully around, before opening the door and stepping outside to join Dumisane.
The staff nurse was already by the door, chatting in swift isiXhosa with a smiling middle-aged woman in a neat red dress and headscarf. He beckoned Mark over.
“This is Xolile’s psychologist,” he said. “Doctor Bezuidenout, this is Mrs. Ngubane.”
The woman gave a little nod as she took his hand with both of hers. “Please come in,” she said. “Would you like some tea?”
Mark smiled, wondering if the English resonance was intended for him. She led the way inside, into a small but neat kitchen with dining area. Mark noted the door through to the other rooms—or room—was firmly closed.
Mrs. Ngubane lit a gas cooker underneath a battered but ready silver kettle. She turned to Mark: “Five Roses or rooibos, Doctor?”
“Uh, rooibos please, Mrs. Ngubane.”
Dumisane was obviously a Five Roses man. She gestured them both to sit on stools arranged tightly around a small wooden table.
Mark turned as the door creaked behind him.
Xolile stood, the room behind him darkened, but he looked cheerful and neatly dressed.
“Hello, doctor, staff nurse,” he said breezily, stepping inside and closing the door behind him. He leaned back against the door and folded his arms.
Mark sat and drank his hot tea, looking at family pictures arrayed on the wall, while the conversation drifted awkwardly around Xolile’s interrupted studies. He’d been a physiotherapy student at UWC before he’d been picked up by a police patrol, wandering and confused, in the dunes near Monwabisi.
Mrs. Ngubane looked cross, reminiscing on the events, “You sure it’s not dagga, my boy?”
“No, mamma!” he said. His arms dangled by his sides, as she had already reprimanded him for the rudeness of folded arms, following up with a warning against hands in pockets.
There was a man in some of the photos, but only in those with a younger pre-adolescent Xolile.
Mark signaled to Dumisane. Dumisane would be able to get much better information from the mother if both were unburdened from the demands of English.
Mark put his empty mug down and stood up. “Is there a space we can talk in private, Kolile?” (Always, he struggled with the correct pronunciation.)
The young man stood up squarely, a good few inches taller than Mark. “Sure, doctor, the street.”
“The street?” Mark heard his voice almost crack with a sudden surge of panic. “Why the street?”
“A bedroom is too private,” he said. “The street is better.”
Mark wondered whether Xolile had guessed he was anxious there—and even more so at the thought of walking and talking in a township street. He seemed brighter and more lucid today—perhaps indeed it was a reactive psychosis—just maybe drug induced?
He followed the young man through the doorway, down the path and onto the pavement. A few men and women stalked past, turning to stare briefly at him.
Xolile smiled. “You’ll be fine,” he said. “Everyone knows me.”
So, for some minutes, they walked and talked, Mark probing about his past and recent present, looking for cues and clues as to the onset of his confusional state. His father had left suddenly when he was ten; they had no idea where or why. Prior to his admission, all he could remember was a gathering glow inside and his dead grandmother whispering in his ears, telling him he needed to become an isangoma, to heal his people.
Mark stopped. Xolile had turned into a main street, littered with spaza shops and large shipping containers filled with people doing business. There was a particularly appealing cell-phone company obviously doing great business inside a grey metal container jutting some way into the road, people spilling out into the road and pavement, taxis hooting past. Mark was relieved to notice that few seemed to look at him anymore.
Xolile gestured him onwards. Mark hesitated. He wanted to ask Xolile something for his own benefit, rather than Xolile’s. Ethically, such role reversals were generally frowned upon. There was something slightly freeing about being on strange streets, however, so he took a deep breath.
“My father,” he said, “is gone like yours, but dead. You saw him at the hospital and I’ve seen him since. What must I do?”
Xolile stopped. Mark noted he sighed slightly before speaking. “I saw an old man, who I guessed might be your father. Beyond that, I cannot help you at all, doctor.”
“But don’t your beliefs involve contacting the ancestors?”
Xolile looked straight at him and Mark could see amusement and something else etched on his face.
“My beliefs, not yours, doctor. Even then, I’m not sure of them myself. Look!” He turned to gesture at a shop behind them.
The shop had an open hanging canopy, dangling with jars filled with… strange looking shapes in syrup or brownish liquid, organs perhaps—or animal parts?
“Would you consult here? Would you take those things if prescribed, to help you contact your father?”
Mark spotted a placard outside. It was a doctor’s surgery, but not one that he recognised.
It looked as though Xolile had only just started. “Would you sacrifice a chicken—or a goat? Doctor, there are no shortcuts; you cannot pick and choose our beliefs, like a vulture that is fussy for only the best meat. You must swallow all the bones, too.”
The young man looked down, as if suddenly ashamed of his outburst.
Mark looked down too, embarrassed at asking, wishing he could retract his thoughts and words.
There was a muffled ringing noise. Xolile fumbled a cell-phone out of his pocket. “Nomfundo!” he shouted, turning away and breaking into rapid isiXhosa.
Ah, a girl!
Mark looked up as his father walked past.
For frozen seconds, he watched the stooped and familiar gait down the busy street, dad’s slight right-sided shuffle after an earlier warning from a left-sided stroke.
Then he ran, until he was alongside and in front of him.
It was an old man indeed, but with a craggy black face and silver pepper-corned hair, neatly dressed, as if off to a Saturday Church. The man looked at him uncertainly. “Police?” he asked, “or tourist?”
Mark raised both hands, ducking his head in apology as well.
He made his way back to Xolile slowly. He was still busy on his phone, talking excitedly and looking at the ground.
Mark looked around to track the smell of burning meat. A man and a woman were braaing a sheep’s head over a hollowed metal barrel. A few other people were gathering round, bringing drinks, perhaps from a local shebeen.
He felt exposed, isolated.
Xolile finished his call. “Sorry, doctor.”
Mark held his hand up. “Never mind,” he said. “I don’t suppose you saw me running after anyone just now?”
Xolile gave him a puzzled look.
Mark gave a wry smile. “No matter, perhaps it was all in my head.”
Xolile shook his head firmly. “No wonder you umlungu have such big heads,” he said. “You try and fit everything into it.”
Despite himself, Mark laughed. As he laughed, it suddenly dawned on him that just maybe he would never stop missing his father.
He no longer felt so certain of anything and everything, either.
They turned to watch people gather for food. “You fancy some, doctor?”
Mark laughed again: “Just a little taste.”
It was nice to be invited.
There were indeed new things to see—and new things to do.
Today’s Tuesday Fiction is by Henrietta Rose-Innes. Henrietta is a South African fiction writer based in Cape Town. Her most recent novel, Nineveh, was published by Random House Struik in 2011, following two previous novels, Shark’s Egg and The Rock Alphabet, and a collection of short stories, Homing. Her short stories have appeared in various international publications, including Granta, AGNI and The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2011. In 2012, her short story ‘Sanctuary’ took second place in the BBC International Short Story Competition. Henrietta’s website is www.henriettarose-innes.com.
‘Poison’ won the 2008 Caine Prize for African Writing as well as the 2007 South African PEN Literary Award. It is included in Henrietta Rose-Innes’s short-story collection Homing (Random House Struik, 2010).
Lynn had almost made it to the petrol station when her old Toyota ran dry on the highway. Lucky me, she thought as she pulled onto the verge, seeing the red and yellow flags ahead, the logo on the tall facade.
But it was hopeless, she realised as soon as she saw the pile-up of cars on the forecourt. A man in blue overalls caught her eye and made a throat-slitting gesture with the side of his hand as she came walking up: no petrol here either. There were twenty-odd stranded people, sitting in their cars or leaning against them. They glanced at her without expression before turning their eyes again towards the distant city.
In a minibus taxi off to one side, a few travellers sat stiffly, bags on laps. Everyone was quiet, staring down the highway, back at what they’d all been driving away from. An oily cloud hung over Cape Town, concealing Devil’s Peak. It might have been a summer fire, except it was so black, so large. Even as they watched, it boiled up taller and taller into the sky, a plume twice as high as the mountain, leaning towards them like an evil genie.
As afternoon approached, the traffic thinned. Each time a car drew up, the little ceremony was the same: the crowd’s eyes switching to the new arrival, the overalled man slicing his throat, the moment of blankness and then comprehension, eyes turning away. Some of the drivers just stood there, looking accusingly at the petrol pumps; others got back into their cars and sat for a while with their hands on the steering wheels, waiting for something to come to them. One man started up his BMW again immediately and headed off, only to coast to a halt a few hundred metres down the drag. He didn’t even bother to pull over. Another car came in pushed by three sweating men. Their forearms were pumped from exertion and they stood for a while with their hands hanging at their sides, exchanging words in Xhosa with the petrol attendants. There was no traffic at all going into the city.
Over the previous two days, TV news had shown pictures of the N1 and N2 jam-packed for fifty kilometres out of town. It had taken a day for most people to realise the seriousness of the explosion; then everybody who could get out had done so. Now, Lynn supposed, lack of petrol was trapping people in town. She herself had left it terribly late, despite all the warnings. It was typical; she struggled to get things together. The first night she’d got drunk with friends. They’d sat up late in front of the TV, watching the unfolding news. The second night, she’d done the same, alone. On the morning of this, the third, day, she’d woken up with a burning in the back of her throat so horrible that she understood it was no hangover, and that she had to move. By then, everybody she knew had already left.
People were growing fractious, splitting into tribes. The petrol attendants and the car pushers stood around the taxi. The attendants’ body language was ostentatiously off-duty – ignoring the crowd, attending to their own emergency. One, a woman, bent her head into the taxi and addressed the driver in a low voice. He and the gaardjie were the only people who seemed relaxed; both were slouched low on the front seats, the driver’s baseball cap tilted over his eyes. On the other side of the forecourt was a large Afrikaans-speaking family group that seemed to have been travelling in convoy: mother, father, a couple of substantial aunts and uncles, half a dozen blonde kids of different sizes. They had set up camp, cooler bags and folding chairs gathered around them. On their skins, Lynn could see speckles of black grime; everybody coming out of the city had picked up a coating of foul stuff, but on the white people it showed up worse.
A group of what looked like students – tattoos, dreadlocks – sat in a silent line along the concrete base of the petrol pumps. One, a dark, barefoot girl with messy black hair down her back, kept springing to her feet and walking out into the road, swivelling this way and that with hands clamped in her armpits, then striding back. She reminded Lynn of herself, ten years earlier. Skinny, impatient.
A fit-looking man in a tracksuit hopped out of a huge silver bakkie with Adil’s IT Bonanza on its door and started pacing alertly back and forth. Eventually the man – Adil himself? – went over to the family group, squatted on his haunches and conferred.
Lynn stood alone, leaning against the glass wall of the petrol-station shop. The sun stewed in a dirty haze. She checked her cellphone, but the service had been down since the day before. Overloaded. There wasn’t really anyone she wanted to call. The man in the blue overalls kept staring at her. He had skin the colour and texture of damp clay and a thin, villain’s moustache. She looked away.
The dark girl jumped up yet again and dashed into the road. A small red car with only one occupant was speeding towards them out of the smoky distance. The others went running out to join their friend, stringing themselves out across the highway to block the car’s path. By the time Lynn thought about joining them, it was already too late; the young people had piled in and the car was driving on, wallowing, every window crammed with hands and faces. The girl gave the crowd a thumbs-up as they passed.
A group was clustering around one of the cars. Peering over a woman’s shoulder, Lynn could see one of the burly uncles hunkered down in his shorts, expertly wielding a length of hose coming out of the fuel tank. The end was in his mouth. His cheeks hollowed; then with a practised jerk, stopping the spurt of petrol with his thumb, he whipped the hose away from his mouth and plunged it into a jerrycan. He looked up with tense, pale eyes. “Any more?” he asked, too loud. After a while, the group moved on to the next car.
Lynn went to sit inside, in the fried-egg smell of the cafeteria. The seats were red plastic, the table tops marbled yellow, just as she remembered them from childhood road trips. Tomato sauce and mustard in squeezy plastic bottles, crusted around the nozzle. She was alone in the gloom of the place. There were racks of chips over the counter, shelves of sweets, display fridges. She pulled down two packets of chips, helped herself to a Coke and made her way to a window booth. She wished strongly for a beer. The sun came through the tinted glass in an end-of-the-world shade of pewter, but that was nothing new; that had always been the colour of the light in places like this.
Through the glass wall, she could see the petrol scavengers had filled up the tank of Adil’s IT Bonanza. They’d taken the canopy off the bakkie to let more people climb on. The uncles and aunts sat around the edge, turning their broad backs on those left behind, with small children and bags piled in the middle and a couple of older children standing up, clinging to the cab. What she’d thought was a group had split: part of the white family was left behind on the tar, revealing itself as a young couple with a single toddler, and one of the sweaty car pushers was on board. The blue-overalled guy was up front, next to Adil. How wrong she’d been, then, in her reading of alliances. Perhaps she might have scored a berth, if she’d pushed.
She sipped her Coke thoughtfully as the bakkie pulled away. Warm Coke: it seemed the electricity had gone too, now. Lynn picked at the strip of aluminium binding the edge of the table. It could be used for something. In an emergency. She opened a packet of cheese-and-onion chips, surprised by her hunger. She realised she was feeling happy, in a secret, volatile way. It was like bunking school: sitting here where nobody knew her, where no one could find her, on a day cut out of the normal passage of days. Nothing was required of her except to wait. All she wanted to do was sit for another hour, and then another hour after that; at which point she might lie down on the sticky vinyl seat in the tainted sunlight and sleep.
She hadn’t eaten a packet of chips for ages. They were excellent. Crunching them up, she felt the salt and fat repairing her headache. Lynn pushed off her heeled shoes, which were hurting, and untucked her fitted shirt. She hadn’t dressed for mass evacuation.
The female petrol attendant opened the glass door with a clang, then pushed through the wooden counter-flap. She was a plump, pretty young woman with complexly braided hair. Her skin, Lynn noticed, was clear brown, free from the soot that flecked the motorists. She took a small key on a chain from her bosom and opened the till, whacking the side of her fist against the drawer to jump it out. With a glance across at Lynn, she pulled a handful of fifty-rand notes from the till, then hundreds.
“Taxi’s going,” she said.
“Really? With what petrol?”
“He’s got petrol. He was just waiting to fill the seats. We made a price – for you too, if you want.”
“You’re kidding. He was just waiting for people to pay? He could’ve taken us any time?”
The woman shrugged, as if to say: taxi drivers. She stroked a thumb across the edge of the wad of notes. “So?”
Lynn hesitated. “I’m sure someone will be here soon. The police will come. Rescue services.”
The woman gave a snort and exited the shop, bumping the door open with her hip. The door sucked slowly shut, and then it was quiet again. Lynn watched through the tinted window as the money was handed over. The transaction revived the inert gaardjie. He straightened up and started striding back and forth, clapping his hands, shouting and hustling like it was Main Road rush hour. The people inside the taxi edged up in the seats and everyone else started pushing in. The driver spotted Lynn through the window and raised his eyebrows, pointing with both forefingers first at her and then at the minibus and then back at her again: coming? When she just smiled, he snapped his fingers and turned his attention elsewhere.
Lynn realised she was gripping the edge of the table. Her stomach hurt. Getting up this morning, packing her few things, driving all this way … it seemed impossible for her to start it all again. Decision, action, motion. She wanted to curl up on the seat, put her head down. But the taxi was filling up. People were being made to leave their bags and bundles on the tar.
Her body delivered her: all at once, her digestion seemed to have speeded up dramatically. Guts whining, she trotted to the bathroom. Earlier, there’d been a queue for the toilets, but now the stalls were empty. In the basin mirror, Lynn’s face was startlingly grimed. Her hair was greasy, her eyes pink, as if she’d been weeping. Contamination. Sitting on the black plastic toilet seat, she felt the poisons gush out of her. She wiped her face with paper and looked closely at the black specks smeared onto the tissue. Her skin was oozing it. She held the wadded paper to her nose. A faint coppery smell. What was this shit? The explosion had been at a chemical plant, but which chemical? She couldn’t remember what they’d said on the news.
She noticed the silence. The slightly reverberating stillness of a place just vacated.
When she went outside, there was nobody left on the forecourt. The battered white taxi was pulling out, everyone crammed inside. The sliding door was open, three men hanging out the side with their fingers hooked into the roof rim. Lynn ran after it onto the highway, but the only person who saw her was the blond toddler crushed against the back windscreen, one hand spread against the glass. He held her gaze as the taxi picked up speed.
The cloud was creeping higher behind her back, casting a murk, not solid enough to be shadow. She could see veils of dirty rain bleeding from its near edge. Earlier, in the city, she had heard sirens, helicopters in the sky; but there was no noise out here. Standing alone on the highway was unnerving. This was for cars. The road surface was not meant to be touched with hands or feet, to be examined too closely or in stillness. The four lanes were so wide. Even the white lines and the gaps between them were much longer than they appeared from the car: the length of her whole body, were she to lie down in the road. She had to stop herself looking over her shoulder, flinching from invisible cars coming up from behind.
She thought of the people she’d seen so many times on the side of the highway, walking, walking along verges not designed for human passage, covering incomprehensible distances, toiling from one obscure spot to another. Their bent heads dusty, cowed by the iron ring of the horizon. In all her years of driving at speed along highways, Cape Town, Joburg, Durban, she’d never once stopped at a random spot, walked into the veld. Why would she? The highways were tracks through an indecipherable terrain of dun and grey, a blurred world in which one glimpsed only fleetingly the sleepy eyes of people standing on its edge. To leave the car would be to disintegrate, to merge with that shifting world. How far could she walk, anyway, before weakness made her stumble? Before the air thickened into some alien gel, impossible to wade through, to breathe?
It was mid-afternoon but it felt much later. Towards the city, the sky was thick with blood-coloured light. It was possible to stare at the sun – a bleached disk, like the moon of a different planet. The cloud was growing. As she watched, a deep occlusion spread towards her, pulling darkness across the sky. She ducked reflexively and put her hands up against the strange rain. But the raindrops were too big, distinct – and she realised that they were in fact birds, thousands of birds, sprinting away from the mountain. They flew above her and around her ears: swift starlings, labouring geese. Small, rapid birds tossed against the sky, smuts from a burning book. As they passed overhead, for the first time Lynn was filled with fear.
* * *
Approximately fifty packets of potato chips, assorted flavours. Eighty or so chocolate bars, different kinds. Liquorice, wine gums, Smarties. Maybe thirty bottles and cans of Coke and Fanta in the fridges. Water, fizzy and plain: fifteen big bottles, ten small. No alcohol of any kind. How much fluid did you need to drink per day? The women’s magazines said two litres. To flush out the toxins. Would drinking Coke be enough? Surely.
So: two weeks, maybe three. The survival arithmetic was easy. Two weeks was more than enough time; rescue would come long before then. She felt confident, prepared. Boldly, she pushed through the wooden flap and went behind the counter. The till stood open. Beyond were two swing doors with head-high windows, and through them a sterile steel-fitted kitchen, gloomy without overhead lighting. Two hamburger patties, part-cooked, lay abandoned on the grill, and a basket of chips sat in a vat of opaque oil. To the right was a back door with a metal pushbar. She shoved it.
The door swung open on to a sudden patch of domesticity: three or four black bins, a clothesline, sunlight, some scruffy bluegums and an old two-wire fence with wooden posts holding back the veld. A shed with a tilted corrugated-iron roof leaned up against the back wall. The change in scale and atmosphere was startling. Lynn had not imagined that these big franchised petrol stations hid modest homesteads. She’d had the vague sense that they were modular, shipped out in sections, everything in company colours. Extraneous elements – employees – were presumably spirited away somewhere convenient and invisible at the end of their shifts. But this was clearly somebody’s backyard. It smelt of smoke and sweat and dishwater, overlaying the burnt grease of the kitchen. Through the doorway of the shed she could see the end of an iron bed and mattress. On the ground was a red plastic tub of the kind used to wash dishes or babies. Two plastic garden chairs, one missing a leg. A rusted car on bricks.
Lynn laughed out loud. Her car! Her own car, twenty years on: the same model blue Toyota, but stripped to a shell. The remaining patches of crackled paint had faded to the colour of a long-ago summer sky. The roof had rusted clean through in places, and the bottom edges of the doors were rotten with corrosion. Old carpeting was piled on the back seat and all the doors were open. Seeing the smooth finish gone scabrous and raw gave Lynn a twinge at the back of her teeth.
She walked past the car. There was a stringy cow on the other side of the fence, its pelt like mud daubed over the muscles. A goat came avidly up to the wire, watching her with slotted eyes, and she put her arm through and scratched the coarse hair between its horns. The cow also mooched over in an interested way. Smelling its grassy breath, Lynn felt a tremor of adventure. She could be here for days.
She felt no fear at the prospect: nobody else was here, nobody for miles around. (Although briefly she saw again: the hand sliding across the throat …) Out here, the sky looked completely clear, as if the petrol station marked the limit of the zone of contamination. She shot her fingers at the goat and snapped them like the taxi-man, spun round in a circle, humming. And breathed in sharply, stepping back hard against the wire.
Someone was in the car. The pile of rugs had reconstituted itself into an old lady, sitting on the back seat as if waiting to be chauffeured away.
Lynn coughed out a laugh, slapping her chest. “Oh god, sorry,” she said. “You surprised me.”
The old lady worked her gums, staring straight ahead. She wore a faded green button-up dress, a hand-knitted cardigan, elasticised knee stockings and slippers. Grey hair caught in a meagre bun.
Lynn came closer. “Hello?” she began. Afrikaans? Hers was embarrassingly weak. “Hallo?” she said again, giving the word a different inflection. Ridiculous.
No response. Poor thing, she thought, someone just left her here. Would the old lady even know about the explosion? “Sorry … tannie?” she tried again.
She’d never seriously called anyone tannie before. But it seemed to have some effect: the old lady looked at her with mild curiosity. Small, filmed black eyes, almost no whites visible. A creased face shrunken onto fine bones. An ancient mouse.
“Hi. I’m Lynn. Sorry to disturb you. Ah, I don’t know if anyone’s told you – about the accident? In Cape Town.”
The woman’s mouth moved in a fumbling way. Lynn bent closer to hear. “My grandson,” the old lady enunciated, softly but clearly, with a faint smile. Then she looked away, having concluded a piece of necessary small talk.
“He told you about it?” No answer.
So. Now there was another person to consider, an old frail person, someone in need of her help. Lynn felt her heaviness return. “Tannie,” she said – having begun with it she might as well continue – “There’s been an accident, an explosion. There’s chemicals in the air. Poison, gif. It might be coming this way. I think we should go out front. There might be people coming past who can help us. Cars. Ambulances.”
The old lady seemed not averse to the idea, and allowed Lynn to take her arm and raise her from her seat. Although very light, she leaned hard; Lynn felt she was lugging the woman’s entire weight with one arm, like a suitcase. Rather than negotiate the series of doors back through the station, they took the longer route, clockwise around the building on a narrow track that squeezed between the back corner of the garage and the wire fence. Past the ladies, the gents, the café. As they walked, it started to rain, sudden and heavy. The rain shut down the horizon; its sound on the forecourt canopy was loud static. Lynn wondered how tainted the falling water was.
She sat the old lady down on a sheltered bench outside the shop, and fetched some bottles of water and packets of chips from inside. Then she urgently needed to use the bathroom again. The toilet was no longer flushing. Her guts felt liquid, but she strained to force anything out. The headache was back.
Outside, she saw the rain had stopped, as abruptly as it started, leaving a rusty tang in the air. The old lady had vanished. Then Lynn spotted movement out on the road: her car door was open. Coming closer, she saw that the woman was calmly eating tomato chips in the back seat. Having transferred herself from the wreck in the backyard to the superior vehicle out front, she was now waiting for the journey to recommence.
A neat old lady, Lynn noted: there were no crumbs down her front. She seemed restored by the chips. Her eyes gleamed as she whipped a plastic tortoiseshell comb out of a pocket and started snatching back wisps of hair, repinning the bun with black U-bend pins that Lynn hadn’t seen since her own grandmother died. In contrast, Lynn felt increasingly dishevelled, and embarrassed about her tip of a car: the empty Heineken bottles on the floor, the tissues in the cubbyhole. She should have kept things cleaner, looked after things better.
“My grandson,” the woman said to Lynn, with a nod of reassurance.
“Of course,” said Lynn.
Evening was coming. The clouds had retreated somewhat and were boiling over the mountain. The brief rain had activated an awful odour – like burnt plastic but with a metallic bite, and a whiff of sourness like rotten meat in it too. Lynn sat in the front seat, put the keys into the ignition and gripped the steering wheel. She had no plan. The sky ahead was darkening to a luminous blue. The silent little woman was an expectant presence in her rear-view mirror. Oppressed, Lynn got out of the car again and stood with her hands on her hips, staring east, west, willing sirens, flashing lights. She ducked back into the car. “I’ll be back in a sec, okay? You’re all right there?”
The woman looked at her with polite incomprehension. Lynn just needed to walk around a bit. She headed off towards the sun, which was melting into smears of red and purple. The mountain was no longer visible. The road was discoloured, splattered with lumps of some tarry black precipitate. She counted five small bodies of birds, feathers damp and stuck together. Blades of grass at the side of the road were streaked with black, and the ground seemed to be smoking, a layer of foul steam around her ankles. It got worse the further she walked. She turned around.
There was someone stooped over her car. At once she recognised the moustache, the blue overalls. Her first impulse was to hide. She stood completely still, watching. He hadn’t seen her. The clay-faced man was holding something … a box. No, a can. He had a white jerrycan in his hands and he was filling her car with petrol.
Lynn’s stomach roiled and she crouched down at the side of the road, vomiting a small quantity of cheese-and-onion mulch into the stinking grass. When she raised her chin, the man was standing looking back at the petrol station. Deciding, she made herself stand, raising her hand to wave. But in that moment he opened the door and got in; the motor turned immediately and the car was rolling forward. She could see the back of the old woman’s head, briefly silver as the car turned out into the lane, before the reflection of the sunset blanked the rear windscreen. The Toyota headed out into the clear evening.
* * *
Lynn sat in the back of the rusted car and watched the sky turn navy and the stars come out. She loved the way the spaces between the stars had no texture, softer than water; they were pure depth. She sat in the hollow the old lady had worn into the seat, ankles crossed in the space where the handbrake used to be. She sipped Coke; it helped with the nausea. She’d been here three days and her head felt clear. While there’d been a few bursts of warm rain, the chemical storm had not progressed further down the highway. It seemed the pollution had created its own weather system over the mountain, a knot of ugly cloud. She was washed up on the edge of it, resting her oil-clogged wings on a quiet shore.
Sooner or later, she was certain, rescue would come. The ambulances with flashing lights, the men in luminous vests with equipment and supplies. Or maybe just a stream of people driving back home. But if that took too long, then there was always the black bicycle that she’d found leaned up against the petrol pump. The woman’s grandson must have ridden here, with the petrol can, from some place not too far down the road. It was an old postman’s bike, heavy but hardy, and she felt sure that if he had cycled the distance, so could she. Maybe tomorrow, or the day after. And when this was all over, she was definitely going to go on a proper detox. Give up all junk food, alcohol. Some time soon.
Lynn snapped open a packet of salt-’n’-vinegar chips. Behind her, the last of the sunset lingered, poison violet and puce, but she didn’t turn to look. She wanted to face clear skies, sweet-smelling veld. If she closed her eyes, she might hear a frog, just one, starting its evening song beyond the fence.
Joan De La Haye writes horror and some very twisted thrillers. She invariably wakes up in the middle of the night, because she’s figured out yet another freaky way to mess with her already screwed up characters.Joan is interested in some seriously weird shit. That’s probably also one of the reasons she writes horror.
Hi Joan! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. First off, how did you first become acquainted with fantasy, with horror, etc.?
I must admit I wasn’t a big horror fan growing up. I only found it in my twenties thanks to a friend handing me a copy of Stephen King’s Misery and telling me not to be such a literary snob. Then another friend got me reading Anne Rice and then I discovered my Dads collection of Dennis Wheatley books. I haven’t stopped reading genre fiction since.
What’s the appeal of fiction for you?
I think everybody loves to be swept away by a good story. We all want to escape from the mundane day to day of our daily lives and I think the best way to allow our imaginations to take flight is within the pages of a good book.
Since you write in a lot of genres, how would you describe your writing?
In a word, twisted. But if you need a longer explanation, I guess my writing is a little on the dark side. I explore the darker aspects of human nature and ask a few uncomfortable questions about that nature.
Is there a preferred format that you prefer, since you seem to write everything from short stories to novels?
I really enjoy writing shorter fiction. I’m not the most patient of people and quiet enjoy being able to thump out a story in a matter of days. But the long form also has a special place. There are some stories that need to be explored on a far deeper level that you just can’t do with short fiction. You also get to know a character far better in the novel format. So I guess that’s just the long way of saying that I like all the guises that fiction comes in. It’s important for a writer to be able to use all the tools at their disposal. It’s the story that dictates the length.
How did you end up getting published by Fox Spirit?
I’ve known Adele Wearing for a couple years now. I got to know her as a reviewer and after she reviewed my first book, Shadows, we became firm friends. Then when Shadows needed a new home and she was looking for books to publish for her new publishing company, Fox Spirit, I knew that it would be the perfect fit. Adele is a force of nature and will accomplish great things with Fox Spirit. I’m just proud that I can be a part of it.
What’s the field like there in South Africa?
The Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror fields here are still pretty small but they are growing. The genre writers are a small group and we all seem to know and support each other. It’s an emerging market.
What made you decide to set your novel in Pretoria?
I think it’s important to set a story in a place that you’re pretty intimate with. I set Shadows in Johannesburg because I was living there while I was writing it. I set Requiem in E Sharp in Pretoria because it’s my home town and where I now live once again. It’s an interesting city with a very high murder rate. It’s also a city I know better than any other and I discover new things about it every day.
Who are some of the authors or what books interest/inspired you?
The obvious one is Stephen King. Just the huge body of his work is inspiring. Then there’s Clive Barker, probably another obvious one. I also recently got to meet John Connolly in the flesh. The fluidity of his writing is inspirational. He’s also just a really nice guy, completely down to earth and easy to talk to. It’s always wonderful to meet a big name author like that.
Anything else you want to plug?
Readers can find out anything they need to know about my books on my website: http://joandelahaye.com/ and they can follow me on twitter: http://twitter.com/JoanDeLaHaye
They can also have a look at all the books published by Fox Spirit http://www.foxspirit.co.uk/. Adele has put together a fantastic collection of books and authors, all of which are worth checking out.
South African author Sarah Lotz has signed a major new deal with UK publisher Hodder.
We have previously reported on Sarah selling her Deadlands novels (zombies in South Africa!) to Constable & Robinson, and reprinted her story Maun of the Dead. She also contributed to our 2011: South African SF/F in Review. Congratulations, Sarah!
From the press release:
Hodder and Stoughton are proud to announce the pre-emptive acquisition of the first solo thriller from South African author Sarah Lotz in a major deal for World Rights. The Three was agented by Oli Munson at Blake Friedmann. Hodder will publish the first of two novels in February of 2014.
The Three is an enormously ambitious mainstream crossover novel in the vein of Justin Cronin’s The Passage, telling the chilling story of four plane crashes, three survivors, and how their interlinked fate will change the world. It combines the complexity of the tv series Lost with the thrills of Stephen King. The novel is set in Britain, the US, South Africa, Japan and Australia, giving it global appeal.
‘Sarah Lotz is a phenomenal talent,’ says Lauren Beukes, author of the forthcoming novel The Shining Girls. ‘She’s one of South Africa’s most exciting and versatile and utterly compelling storytellers.’
The Three is Anne Perry’s first acquisition in her new role as commissioning editor, working with Associate Publisher Oliver Johnson on the Hodder science fiction, fantasy and horror initiative. Anne comments, ‘I have long been a great admirer of Sarah’s work, both her solo and her collaborative projects. Sarah is a prodigiously talented author, and I couldn’t be more delighted to be working with her on such an extraordinary project at such a thrilling moment in her career.’
‘When Anne and Oliver turned up on our doorstep unannounced, I knew they meant business,’ says Oli Munson. ‘There was a phenomenal amount of interest in the incredibly brief time The Three was on the market but the passion and commitment shown by the two of them quickly convinced both author and agent that Hodder was the right home for Sarah’s terrifying imagination.’
US and foreign rights interest has already been buzzing pre-Frankfurt.
Hodder have finalized a US deal with Reagan Arthur Books, an imprint of Little, Brown. An eclectic publisher with a history of publishing New York Times bestsellers, they will publish The Three in the Spring of 2014.
Hodder has also accepted significant two-book pre-empts from Casa Editrice Nord in Italy and Fleuve Noir in France. There are on-going auctions in Germany and Brazil, as well as offers on the table in five more territories and an overwhelming amount of interest from editors around the world.
Sarah Lotz is a screenwriter and novelist with a fondness for the macabre and fake names. She writes critically acclaimed urban horror novels under the name S.L. Grey with author Louis Greenberg and a YA pulp fiction zombie series with her daughter, Savannah, under the pseudonym Lily Herne. She lives in Cape Town with her family and other animals.
Over at io9, we have Lauren Beukes‘s short story, Branded, available to read – one of the 26 stories now available in The Apex Book of World SF 2. Check it out and consider buying the anthology – direct from the publisher or via Amazon or Amazon UK!
We were at Stones, playing pool, drinking, goofing around, maybe hoping to score a little sugar, when Kendra arrived, all moffied up and gloaming like an Aito/329. “Ahoy, Special K, where you been, girl, so juiced to kill?” Tendeka asked while he racked up the balls, all click-clack in their white plastic triangle. Old school this pool bar was. But Kendra didn’t answer. Girl just grinned, reached into her back pocket for her phone, hung skate-rat style off a silver chain connected to her belt, and infra’d five Rand to the table to get tata machance on the next game.
But I was watching the girl and as she slipped her phone back into her pocket, I saw that telltale glow ‘neath her sleeve. Long sleeves in summer didn’t cut it. So, it didn’t surprise me none in the least when K waxed the table. Ten-Ten was surprised though. Ten-Ten slipped his groove. But boy kept it in, didn’t say anything, just infra’d another five to the table and racked ‘em again. Anyone else but Ten woulda racked ‘em hard, woulda slammed those balls on the table, eish. But Ten, Ten went the other way. Just by how careful he was. Precise ‘n clipped like an assembly line. So you could see. – continue reading!
Today’s Tuesday Fiction is by Tom Learmont. Tom was born in the Golden Age of Science Fiction – to grow up in Scotland and Rhodesia, filled with “sensawunda” from reading H.G. Wells, Theodore Sturgeon and James Blish. He scraped a degree and taught for a few years. Then he bought a typewriter, commenced living by his wits and moved to Joburg. Tom wrote the Swiftian afrofantasy “After the Eclipse” (Sanlam Literary Award 1998). “Light Across Time” (Kwela 2011) is the first part of his Stapledonian sequence, “Brief Music”. At the moment he’s a newspaperman, and serves as the fiction editor of DRUM magazine.
This is the story’s first publication.
Morrie and the Grand Potato
Morrie Kantorowitz flew into Vegas and was waiting for a cab at McCarran when his second stroke felled him. He could feel the hot gritty sidewalk against his left cheek; he couldn’t see straight. At 74 years of age Morrie knew he’d had it, and his first reaction was one of fury. Then a train of quick images flickered through his head.
Morrie saw the tires explode on an automobile that caught fire when he was four… his first day at school… being a barmitzvah boy… making out with Arlene in the back of the Ford… a rumble with a spic in the wee hours at City Island… an asshole drill sergeant… the splash that night when he pushed his sonovabitch unsaleable Buick into the East River just to get rid of it… the trifecta he re-invested at Yonkers Raceway… his first wedding… a firstborn son… the second divorce… the first slot machine…
Morrie knew what it means to have your whole life flash before you. His final thought before the black curtains came down was: Aw shit, I suppose –
Then he woke up in bed. A woman in a white robe was bending over him. She had long, wavy dark red hair, big golden-brown eyes, a porcelain complexion. And a nice pair of bazoombas under the robe. The girl smiled at him.
“I’m here to help,” she said, in a cute Limey accent.
“Why thanks, honey. I thought I was a goner at McCarran, but I seem to have made it, and I’m feeling just fine. So where am I?”
“Sub Prime, Mr Kantorowitz.”
“That’s a hospital already? With a name like that you should give home loans to the underprivileged!”
The redhead took Morrie by the hand and said, “This isn’t a hospital.”
He looked at his surroundings: sunlit window with a view of the Strip, flat screen TV, modern art oil painting on the wall, writing desk, couple of easy chairs, archway leading to the closet and bathroom. It looked like a regular upmarket Vegas hotel room, the kind he had slept in thousands of times since he went into the slots business.
“The Sub Prime Inn, huh? Listen – I’m kind of confused. I don’t remember getting here. And I had a stroke – sure as hell I had a stroke. I’ve had one before. But how come there’s no after effects? Am I sick?”
“You’re dead, Mr Kantorowitz.” She gave his hand a comforting squeeze.
Morrie was silent for a second, then he burst into laughter.
“Yeah, yeah! And now I’m in Heaven, and you’re an angel. What kind of a snow job are you trying to pull? You want to kid me there’s a Heaven? I don’t believe any of that baloney, young lady! If I was dead, I would be potting soil. There’s no ghosts, no soul, no Heaven. There’s no Hell, and when you die, you rot. Everything else is bullshit!”
The angel heaved a sigh. “There is no Heaven, yes. But there is a Sub Prime. You have just been cut and pasted from Sub Sub Prime.”
“I give you this, sweetheart, you’ve got a good act. I don’t know who’s behind this, but you seem like a cute kid, so I’ll play along, okay? So talk!”
“You’re right. I’m no angel. I’m a married woman with a checkered past –”
“So who’s your husband?” Morrie was beginning to enjoy himself.
Morrie’s barking laugh filled the room. “What’s his other name – ‘Archangel’ or something?”
“I am Mrs Gabriel Rossetti.”
“No relation to Tommy Rossetti in Atlantic City? Hey – there was a casino manager in Reno by the name of Rossetti, Frankie Rossetti. No connection?”
“My husband was never in your line of business, Mr Kantorowitz. But I very rarely see him these days.”
“It happens. Look at me – four marriages. Listen, what do I call you, Mrs Rossetti?”
“Lizzie will be fine for now. May I go on?”
Lizzie was walking back and forth like a sexy schoolmarm, with a fine swing of her hips in that silky robe, going on about Sub Prime. From what Morrie gathered, first there was Prime, like a universe. The people, or the UFO aliens – whoever, who gives a fuck – were smart enough to invent a second universe inside the first one. It runs on a different system. Lizzie said the wise men she knew had no idea how many sub-sub-sub primes there were. But she was happy to work with three.
“So you see, we can only be sure of Prime, Sub Prime where we are now – and Sub Sub Prime, where we all originated as flesh-and-blood organisms largely based on chemistry. Life in Sub Prime is numerical, not protoplasmic. Mr Kantorowitz, it might help if you were to think of us as living inside some gigantic computer –”
“Hey, I saw The Matrix on TV. Is that what you’re trying to tell me?”
“It’s a lot more complicated than that, I’m afraid. Have you ever read a book called Riverworld by Philip José Farmer?”
“Hell, you know – me and books… I don’t have much time for reading.”
“Very well, I shall try to explain. You and I, Mr Kantorowitz, and everything in this room, everything outside that window, everything out as far as the Kuiper Belt beyond Pluto, everything beneath our feet, right to the Earth’s core, even to the heart of the Sun – is made of numbers.”
“So I’m fake and you’re fake! Listen, girly, when I pinch myself hard – like this – I can feel it. And it don’t feel like no number pinching another one.”
“Mr Kantorowitz – would you take out your false teeth, please?”
Morrie stared at Lizzie blankly, then ran his tongue round the inside of his mouth.
“Open!” said Lizzie, striding across to the bed with a hand mirror.
Morrie seized the mirror and gaped at himself. He saw a much younger face, and raised a hand to feel natural teeth which were firmly rooted in healthy pink gums.
“Yes, Mr Kantorowitz – all that you feel, and see, and think is numbers bumping into each other. You are no longer flesh and blood. You are made of numerically-simulated atoms and molecules. Try to think of yourself as software that once ran on a computer made of living tissue. That program has been transferred into a different sort of engine – a computer too vast to imagine adequately, with an operating system of unfathomable complexity.”
“Okay, okay – but why am I so young, I mean, I must be about –”
“Thirty-eight. And I’m twenty-four, despite dying of a drug overdose at thirty-two. I was not a well woman at the time, and rather too fond of laudanum. Physical age in Sub Prime is determined by the individual’s preferred body image, you see – which is something that’s stored in the hippocampus –”
“It’s part of the brain. And the information from it means that you will keep that body image for the duration of your stay on Sub Prime.”
“How long is that?”
“We don’t know. My personal experience of Sub Prime only began on the 11th of February 1862. But I’ve encountered people who died half a million years ago.”
Morrie’s brain was racing. He was beginning to believe the girl. He thought of meeting up with his mom again, but maybe not so much the old man. Slow down, he told himself. He took a deep breath and asked: “You mean, kicking the bucket is like on Star Trek, when they say ‘Beam me up’? ”
Lizzie smiled. “Not quite. If the Star Trek transporter really worked, it would destroy Captain Kirk completely and create an identical-looking Kirk. But he wouldn’t be the original.”
She stroked his wrist. It didn’t look like she was wearing a bra. Morrie felt a stirring in his pajama pants that hadn’t happened so often over the last couple of years. He shifted slightly in bed and tried to concentrate as Lizzie went on.
“Our ‘souls’ were once electrical impulses; information on central nervous systems constructed of flesh and blood. When that protoplasm dies, the original personality and all its memories are transferred to a new housing along a link from Sub Sub Prime to Sub Prime.”
She stood up. Yep, definitely there was no bra.
“I was in a coma when I transferred,” said Lizzie. “So I never experienced what they call ‘review’. Did you? Did your whole life flash before your eyes?”
“Yeah! I heard about that, and it happened to me,” Morrie said.
“That’s all the conscious brain can register of the high-speed transfer to Sub Prime, just a few flickering memories. The immense riches of the personality and the entire life memory take only a couple of seconds to transmit,” she told him.
Morrie’s erection shrank a little as his mind stretched to take in what Lizzie was telling him. She went on about how a personality can program his or her immediate environment in Sub Prime. How he had already created familiar surroundings for himself, in the shape of the Vegas hotel room. How he could think up clothes at will; food, a car – yes, even that first Ford.
She described how the self-perpetuating programmer that ran Sub Prime accepted only entities possessed of what she called ‘imagination’. They seemed to be largely mammals, especially primates. Two notable exceptions were certain species of octopus and parrot. To populate the Earth of Sub Prime, species below the imagination threshold were recreated from the memory banks of individuals. People had been dreamed up from scratch, said Lizzie, but only by highly-talented artists.
He heard about how life goes on in Sub Prime, how the population tends to gather in cultural and temporal ghettos, occupying their time in ways that fulfill them. Scientists investigate the nature of things. People cure their own diseases and escape their chemical addictions; enjoy numerically tasty food and drink; maintain all simulated normal bodily functions. But there are no pregnancies; that sort of stuff can only happen in the protoplasmic Sub Sub Prime universe.
Lizzie sat down on the bed and took his hand again. That was some perfume she was wearing. She said: “And there is such a thing as love, believe it or not; just as fragile as it is in the place we came from. But it does exist.”
“Talking of love, how about this?” Morrie said, flipping back the bed linen and placing her cool hand on the best boner he’d had in a decade. “What do you think, huh?”
Lizzie gave it a cruel flick with a sharp fingernail that sent it creeping backwards into Morrie’s pajamas.
With a fierce look, she stood up and told him: “Frankly, Mr Kantorowitz, I’ve seen thicker – and felt harder. The quality of my compassion is definitely strained, so I’ll thank you not to be so tiresome. You’re behaving like an adolescent suicide bomber who has been promised a harem of indiarubber concubines. Behave! Or I shall go back to Number 14, and the much more congenial company of Guggums my bullfinch and Miss Dorothea Brooke.”
Morrie’s hands were up in a gesture of surrender throughout her brief tirade. His pecker felt as if it had taken a shot from a BB gun. “Sorry, sorry – my misunderstanding, Lizzie! It’s cool – I promise. I’ll behave. Just don’t get mad, okay?”
Morrie knew he needed her help, so he showed willing. “What about running the country,” he asked. “Is there a legislature?
She was still tight-lipped, like a schoolmarm. “Anarchy is the best word for the system.”
“But… law and order, the cops?
“Whatever runs Sub Prime has a sort of combined inertia effect that makes people behave. There’s no need for money, or jobs you don’t like, because everyone has infinite resources. You should take up reading, now that you’ve got the time. It might help you understand how we live here. Try reading Ubik – that’s by my friend Phil Dick, a most interesting fellow.”
Morrie had a bright idea. “Now just supposing I was hell-bent on suicide. Supposing I dream myself up a big car and drive head-on into other people on a freeway…”
Lizzie laughed. “The system would reset.”
“But what about really evil guys – yeah, what about Adolf Hitler?”
“Oh, him. Well, he bothers no one on Sub Prime. He came through as a nine-year-old, and lives with his mother. She doesn’t object – quite likes it, from what I hear. Pol Pot, Saddam Hussein, Elisabeth Bathory, Stalin, Vlad the Lad… They’re all rather banal here. So pathetic that revenge would seem superfluous. Napoleon’s hippocampus had him come through as a 14-year old; he paints watercolors and plays with tin soldiers on a green baize table.”
“Moses, Mohammed, Jesus?”
“Not much religion on this plane, I’m afraid. Moses looks after his sheep, Mohammed seems content with his wives. We do have a former Galilean carpenter who was crucified, but he disavows all knowledge.”
Morrie said: “But is there room for all these people? All the guys who’ve passed since the days of the cavemen. They must take up a lot of space.”
“And they do,” said the girl. “But the Sub Prime operating system has a trick – some sort of multi-tasking that makes the world quite elastic. You’ll have to ask someone else about that, I’m afraid. I have no aptitude for natural philosophy.”
Lizzie’s eyes were sparkling again as she went on. “That said, I find Science very stimulating. Some adventurous men want to build a starship to see if Sub Prime is infinite; Isabel Burton’s husband Richard for one. There are any number of theories about the purpose behind the universe and whether we can transfer to Prime.”
“But what about the people back on Earth?” said Morrie. “Why don’t we help them?”
Lizzie shook her head. “The traffic is strictly one-way. We don’t even know about new books and art and films and inventions in Sub Sub Prime until people bring them along as part of a transfer.”
She sat down at the foot of the bed and smiled at Morrie. “I know it’s very early days, Mr Kantorowitz, and it must be frightfully disorienting for you. It was for me. But with a little help, you will settle down.”
“If it’s not a rude question – what did you do for a crust back on Sub-Sub, Lizzie?”
“I was a model.”
“Honey, with your looks, I’m not surprised.”
Lizzie picked up a TV remote and pointed it. She appeared on the screen, wearing an old fashioned outfit, lying flat on her back, soaking wet, floating in some sort of swamp with a dopey expression on her face. Morrie didn’t get it.
“Ophelia. Done by a gentleman from the Brotherhood called Millais – my friend Effie’s husband. It was all the rage. What’s your opinion, Mr Kantorowitz?”
“Well, that’s some oil painting, all right,” said Morrie. “So, do you still model?”
“No. I help people who have just transferred. I find social work more fulfilling than posing, or dabbling in painting and poetry. There is such a plenitude of fulfilling ways to pass eternity. Enough for anyone, I should think. And I have no doubt that you will settle down and find an absorbing occupation for yourself.”
Morrie sat up in bed and pulled the blankets to his waist. It felt strange not to have a belly any more. “Hell, I don’t know anything else besides slots. I mean, like marketing them. Do they have casinos here? They must, if that’s Vegas there outside the window. I see the Strip, so that answers my question. Maybe I can get a job as a slots consultant. What do you think?”
“It’s possible that you’ve created several casinos just by virtue of your arrival, Mr Kantorowitz. But we have no addictive behavior in Sub Prime, so I’m not sure that they would be a commercial success. And gambling for money doesn’t mean much either. You see, we can have everything we wish for without having to earn money, or win it, or steal it. There must be something you would like to do instead.”
Morrie felt dubious. All he knew was slots. Floor layout; yellow brick roads, lighting; slots mix; signage; theming; belly glasses; stepper motors; pay tables; hoppers; candles; bonusing; jurisdiction compliance; player tracking systems.
He had taken a few early false career decisions: sales, retailing, the agency for those stupid BMX kiddie bikes his dumb ass second brother-in-law had got him into. But slots made a lot of sense – especially after the Telnaus patent in the eighties brought in eproms and virtual reels and wide area progressives. Yeah, and good crowd-pleasing shit like volatility. He was on a roll with slots – never looked back. Well-liked by a lot of big guys in the industry; on first-name terms with Mr Steve Wynn. Morrie was a respected figure in the universe he had just quit.
Lizzie was talking again. “Very few of us carry on with our former pursuits on Sub Prime, with the exception of certain historians.” She picked up the TV remote. “Let me show you what some of my friends are doing, it might suggest a pastime you could enjoy in your new life.”
A vast gathering appeared on the screen. Morrie saw potted palms and fiddlers in tuxedos.
“You could join a club,” said Lizzie. “This is the Titanic Passengers Association – 1600-odd members. Some of them are very agreeable people. But there are smaller clubs, like the so-called Birthday Gang. Geniuses, every one of them. Will and Miguel started it; they arrived simultaneously on 23 April 1616. François is also a member – such a naughty man! He used to call Sub Prime “le grand peut-être”.
Noticing Morrie’s expression, she said: “Oh, I do apologize, Mr Kantorowitz. How discourteous of me to assume. What I said was French for ‘the great perhaps’. In a jokey mood we English speakers refer to his saying as ‘the grand potato’. That’s what the French sounds like to our ears. It was actually a jest by another member of the club, Sirin. Let me see if I can find him…” She clicked the remote. “Yes! Look, that’s Sirin – the young chap in the passenger seat.”
Morrie shook his head. “What in the hell kind of cockamamie auto is that?”
“Superb, isn’t it? A 1932 Hispano-Suiza with tulipwood coachwork. That’s Sirin’s wife Véra at the wheel. He hates driving, so she chauffeurs him everywhere.”
“Good looking girl. Listen, should I know these people?”
“That’s a possibility, Mr Kantorowitz. He’s called Sirin now, but he was Vladimir Nabokov, the author of Lolita.”
“I heard of that,” Morrie said. “Some dirty book about an underage hooker, right?”
“I should try to avoid that terminology,” said Lizzie. “Especially if you meet the lady in question. She’s my age; an absolute poppet, and very special, because she was created in Sub Prime. She’s known as Mrs Dolly Schiller, and she’s often with Sirin and Véra. By the way, he’s given up writing. These days he researches evolution – mainly mimicry – and he designs his own butterflies. Accelerates their breeding numerically to see what happens. Charles, Julian and Gregor come to help out occasionally.”
Morrie was feeling a lot better. The insult to his dick head had improved to a dull throb. He said, “I apologize, Lizzie. I sincerely apologize for being out of line. It’s all so new here. I didn’t mean to be such a jerk. No hard feelings?”
She gave him a dazzling smile and shook her head.
“And call me Morrie, won’t you?”
“As you wish, Morrie. Now, if you’re ready to move out of this hotel room, we can venture a little farther afield and introduce you to your new surroundings. Have lunch with some of my friends; go for a drive, perhaps.”
“Right, right,” said Morrie. “But let me take a shower first. Then I want to dream myself up an outfit, okay?” He sprang out of bed and bounced on the balls of his feet like a boxer, spun round and disappeared through the arch that led to the bathroom.
Lizzie sat in one of the easy chairs and pointed the remote again.
Outside the hotel she saw a pink 1957 Cadillac convertible with the top down. Its tailfins were almost as high as the wraparound windscreen. The big empty car was still quivering on its springs, and someone had left the driver’s door ajar.
She depressed another key on the remote, and tuned in to the hotel interior. Lizzie saw a woman come flouncing along the corridor on scarlet heels by Christian Louboutin. She had a matching clutch bag and a red, clinging bouclé mini-dress; the unbuttoned mink was flying open. Big solitaire, pout, botox brow, smudgy eyes. A bouncy platinum bob topped off the overall effect.
Lizzie heard Morrie imitating Sinatra in the shower, and snapped the screen image off.
He came through with wet hair, in a white toweling bathrobe, and bowed.
“Tah-dah!” said Morrie, and turned in a circle to show off the garment. “Get it? Steve McQueen in The Thomas Crown Affair, okay? What do you think?”
Then Morrie heard the knock on the door; and from outside, slightly muffled, a toxic whine he recognized instantly.
“Morrie, you’re in there. Coming to get you!” it said.
“Holy shit! That’s my third wife, the bitch. Where’s the fire escape, Lizzie? Jesus, is there no way out of this? Lizzie, what do I do, for chrissakes?
Lizzie just looked at him.
The voice outside said “You owe me, Morrie – you piece of shit!”
Morrie’s heart was pounding, and he said, “I get it! This is Heaven, okay. But it’s Hell as well, ain’t it, Lizzie?”
Lizzie said nothing. But her golden eyes were full of an infinite tenderness.
I’m temporarily taking over the blog while Mr. Tidhar is away.
First up this week is the crowd-funded Something Wicked Science Fiction & Horror Anthology Volume One, which aims to be South Africa’s first Science Fiction & Horror Anthology.
Since 2006 Something Wicked has been the only South African paying market for writers and readers of Horror and Science Fiction. Now we are aiming to be the first annual South African anthology for horror and science fiction. The anthology will be available as an e-book as well as a traditional paperback. This campaign is intended to help fund our first anthology.
South African writer (and World SF Blog contributor) Charlie Human has been sitting on this news for a while (and so have we!) but, well, here’s the official announcement:
Charlie’s debut novel APOCALYPSE NOW NOW, plus an untitled follow-up, has sold to Jack Fogg at Century for a very healthy five-figure sum in a deal negotiated by John Berlyne of the Zeno Agency. Century will publish in the UK and Commonwealth (Ex SA) IN SUMMER 2013. South African rights sold in a separate deal to Frederik de Jager at Random House Struik.
A sharp urban fantasy with a uniquely South African twist, APOCALYPSE NOW NOW has been described by fellow SA writer Lauren Beukes (author of the Arthur C. Clarke award winning ZOO CITY) as ‘… mad and dark and irreverent and wonderfully twisted in all the right ways‘. Here’s a taste of what you can expect…
‘Baxter Zevcenko is your average sixteen-year-old-boy — if by average you mean kingpin of a schoolyard porn syndicate and possible serial killer who suffers from surreal nightmares. Which may very well be what counts as average these days. Baxter is the first to admit that he’s not a nice guy. After all, if the guy below you falls, dragging you down into an icy abyss you have to cut him loose — even in high school.
That is until his girlfriend, Esmé, is kidnapped and Baxter is forced to confront a disturbing fact about himself — that he has a heart, and the damn thing is forcing him to abandon high-school politics and set out on a quest to find her. The clues point to supernatural forces at work and Baxter is must admit that he can’t do it alone. Enter Jackie Ronin, supernatural bounty hunter, Border War veteran, and all-round lunatic, who takes him on a chaotic tour of Cape Town’s sweaty, occult underbelly.
What do glowing men, transsexual African valkyries, and zombie-creating arachnids have to do with Esmé’s disappearance? That’s what Baxter really, really needs to find out.’
John Berlyne said ‘When this one landed in my in-box I knew immediately that it was something special. It’s sly, iconoclastic, off-the-wall and full of the kind of energy that I hunger for in my reading. It’s also extremely well written – the kind of book that reads effortlessly. I’m very pleased indeed that Century – who’ve had such a success with Ernest Cline’s superb READY PLAYER ONE – will be publishing.’
Jack Fogg said ‘APOCALYPSE NOW NOW is one of those rare, generous novels which goes to incredible lengths to entertain the reader. I haven’t laughed so hard or flat out enjoyed a ride more in a very long time. Charlie is a fantastic writer, at the forefront of the nascent speculative fiction scene in South Africa, and I feel incredibly privileged to be publishing his unique novels.’
Charlie Human is a writer from Cape Town, South Africa. His short story, The Immaculate Particle, appeared in Pandemonium: Stories of the Apocalypse, and Land of the Blind was printed in the UK version of ZOO CITY by Lauren Beukes. He has an MA in Creative Writing from the University of Cape Town.
Charlie’s story, Dance Dance Revolution, was published on the World SF Blog in 2011.
I was delighted to find out yesterday that Lily Herne‘s novels, Deadlands and Death of a Saint, published in South Africa by Penguin, have been picked up at the London Book Fair by Constable & Robinson, under their Corsair imprint, for UK and Commonwealth publication in 2013.
Herne is a pseudonym of author Sarah Lotz (who, together with Louis Greenberg, wrote South African horror novel The Mall, as S.L. Grey) and her daughter Savannah.
Deadlands is a young adult zombie novel set in Cape Town. It has been described as “South Africa’s first zombie novel” and as “the South African Hunger Games with zombies”.
I have been incredibly interested in these books for a time, and am delighted to hear they will soon reach a wider audience!