Imaginary Numbers

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The Combi

Heading north, the van was packed with far too many people. There was a bountiful woman who smelled like myrrh sitting between Vivienne and the professor. Her head was wrapped in cloth, and she was cleaning her nails with a file. A group of day labourers, glistening and sweaty, chatted loudly in an African language. There was a skinny old lady sitting on a broken seat that clicked and shook every time the van took a corner—which usually happened at tremendous speeds. The professor was nervous. He had no seat belt, and held his carry-on bag tightly on his lap. In his designer suit, he looked completely out of place. The radio was on, playing pop music.

On the floor of the vehicle, next to the sliding door, a young man sat. He looked very tired, and kept leaning on a woman who had a child wrapped in cloth on her lap. The baby was remarkably quiet, and whenever it woke up, the mother breast fed it. Every few minutes someone would get off, and another person would climb aboard, filling whatever space they could find. They usually stared at the professor, and asked the driver about him. Some of them asked him where he was going, and they all corrected him on his pronunciation of Magaliesburg.

“No no no no,” the said, shaking their heads, “it’s Ma-CH-aliesbur-CH.” they said with a grinding, guttural ’ch’ sound that recalled ancient germanic people crossing through the forests of Europe. Some of them tried flirting with Vivienne, but the fat woman chided them angrily.

“Deze men,” she said, shaking her head. Then she waved a finger at them, allowing her many metal bracelets to ring together melodiously. “Dey are like bull elephants.” The woman spoke very little English, but she liked Vivienne, and shared a sandwich with her.

Vivienne took a bite and swallowed, then offered some to the professor, who looked quite hungry.

“Is he your friend?” a worker asked. “Why you take combi? Iz verrrrry strange.”

“We’re trying to find a man who lives north. There are no busses or trains running out of the Cape.” All the black faces turned to her, and immediately started talking to each other. The large woman turned to her and said, “Iz dangerous. You mustn’t leave the Cape.”

The driver shushed the occupants, who slid to the right as he swerved around a mountainous pass.

“Listen!” he said, and turned up the volume on the news. “Iz the President.”

A deep, hoarse voice spoke in slow concerned, and overly annunciated English. “Today, we have decided to evacuate the townships around Johannesburg. All of Gauteng area is now under military watch. The city is off limits to civilians, and roads have been closed. Because of road closures, some areas will be without petrol until further notice. Do not panic. Furthermore, the government of South Africa will work with its neighbours to ease the flood of refugees out of the affected areas. Safety camps have been set up in Kwazulu-Natal and in the Cape Province.” There was a bit of background noise, and a slight pause as if an advisor was whispering into the President’s ear. “We ask that every citizen conduct themselves in a respectful way. Please do not take advantage of the chaos to do evil things. And under no circumstance approach any wild animal of any kind. Nature is coming to take back the bush.”

Haai,” shouted the driver, “you two. I take you to my cousin’s house. He has petrol, and a car. He will take you through Gauteng.”

“But,” the professor interjected, “you promised us you would take us.”

The driver leaned back, one hand on the wheel, passing in the oncoming lane, and said, “Mister, I don’t have petrol for Jo’burg. Iz too far.”

“Why do we have to switch cars then?” Vivienne asked. There is a bit of a pause as the driver focussed on a drop-off. He thanked the new passengers and took their money. The fat woman spoke up, “He afraid. He believes in da tokoloshe.”

“What’s the tokoloshe?” Vivienne asked.

“A fairy tale,” another passenger explained. “It’s a short spirit that comes at night.”

“Driver,” Vivienne said when he pulled away in a rush, “can you promise us you’ll get us to Magaliesburg?” She purposely let the guttural ’g’s drag on until a bit of phlegm built up in her throat.

“Yes. No problem. But I have a family. I’m not going into Gauteng. You should see on the TV. Nature is angry at white people for taking the gold.”

“And the diamonds!” a young labourer piped up.

“Ja, and everything. Now we all doomed.”

After about an hour of driving around, they entered a squalid slum. The shanties are built from corrugated tin slabs. The roofs were parallel to the ground, and held down by stones piled onto them. The dusty streets were filled with women balancing containers of water on their heads; there were children running half-naked, chasing each other with sticks; and sweaty day labourers smoking hand rolled cigarettes in groups. When they entered, the professor felt afraid. It was clear to everyone in the van. The big woman, turned to him and said, “You gonna get dirty here.” The rest of the passengers laughed, and one pointed out a tiny shack that had a counter, on which cartons of cigarettes, chocolate bars, bags of chips and nuts were displayed. Hanging from the roof were strips of dried meat that attracted a swarm of flies, which the owner shooed away lackadaisically with a small cotton towel.

The combi dropped everyone off in front of that store.

The professor clutched his carry-on bag to his chest, and a group of men approached him. Some were asking for money, others wanted to know who he was and what he was doing there. One man was missing most of his fingers on one hand, and he approached quickly, bearing a long machete in his good hand. “You come here, you come to laugh at us. This place will kill you, grampa. Iz not your place. You better bring us all big mouti if you come here. Your people, they never know when to stop.” He lifted the knife up, pointing the crude edge towards the professor’s neck.

“Sir,” Vivienne stepped up to him, “we are here to help.” He spat on the ground in front of her. Then, when he made eye contact and truly noticed her, a fractured expression crossed his face. He shook his head—perhaps at himself–and walked away.

The fat woman, grabbed her by the arm. “Come,” she said. “Both. Come.” She led them down a narrow alley filled with empty bottles, broken plastic bags, discarded fabric, and all other kinds of refuse that left a distinct impression on their unaccustomed noses. In the narrow alley, they walked one-behind-the-other, passing surprised children that fled, and young men, pissing loudly against the metal walls of the shacks.

They turned onto a bigger path. It was dusty and covered with occasional mystery puddles, but it was also somewhat cleaner because the path led past a number of makeshift doors. Through the open ones Vivienne could see an old man frying meat on a propane burner. She saw naked children sleeping in a pile, and in another, a very small black-and-white television hooked up to a car battery played a grainy soccer game. A few small children started to follow them, pointing at the professor, and giggling. After a while, the woman opened a salvaged RV door, and guided them into her shanty.

“Sit. Sit.” She motioned towards a lawn chair, and a few burlap bags stuffed with miscellaneous soft bits. Vivienne sat down; the professor remained standing. He inspected the place. It was very small. There was a separate room, the size of a closet which he surmised was used for cooking. There was a chest of drawers nestled into a corner, and a few metal BBQ instruments hanging from the walls.

The woman disappeared into the smaller room, then stuck her head back and asked if they would like some tea. They both nodded in agreement.

As she poured water out of a 4 liter container into a pot to boil on a small burner, the professor smiled and walks closer to her.

“Excuse me, madam. I wonder whether you could tell me when the next taxi departs?”

“Eh?” she asked, confused.

“He wants to know when we need to catch the next combi.”

“Ahhh,” she said and sniffed the steam emanating out of the pot. “Dembe iz not leaving today. He sleeping. You wait here.”

“How long?” asked Vivienne, accepting a mug filled with red tea.

“Tomorrow you leave. You sleep here. Iz ok. No problem. Iz safe.” The professor looked around, clearly not amused.

“Drink,” the woman commanded. “Iz good tea. Now I cook. You hungry, right?”

Vivienne thanked her and motioned for the professor to sit with her on the sacks.

“See?” she said, linking her arm with his. “It’s comfortable, isn’t it?” He bit his bottom lip and forced a plastic smile. He looked down and saw that his once-shiny shoes were covered with a ruddy soil, staining his pant leg red up to the calf. The woman had been right. He wouldn’t get out of this place with a clean suit. The thought of it made him smile: travelling with Vivienne certainly was messy business, and yet he still managed to bring a suit.

* * *

That night, they slept on the bags splayed out onto the cold dirt floor. The woman left, covering them in a thick felt blanket. The professor was exhausted, but tries desperately to stay awake in order to guard Vivienne. Everything seemed unfamiliar to him. In the darkness he stared at the girl. Her long eyelashes were pressed delicately together, and her chest rose and fell in slow peaceful motions. She turned onto her side, her back towards him, and without thinking about it, he wrapped his arm around her and held her tightly.

With only the rhythm of their breathing to count out time, she let go of reality and entered dreamland happy.

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