Kirstenbosch Gardens were closing and double-decked buses waited patiently outside. Albert was relieved he hadn’t gotten caught behind the snail-paced, two-storey vehicles; people were already migrating out of the ordained exits. Camera bags and sun hats, gleeful grins from all the excellently maintained natural beauty they had just paid to see.
Driving past the busses and tourists he headed toward the M3 but stopped at the traffic lights, or ‘robots’ as his adoptive country referred to them, too quickly. The beer thudded and jingled in back seat. Albert used this opportunity to light another cigarette, he lowered his window to let loose the flurry of smoke which, of course, attracted one of the sellers.
A tall and slender African with fake Gucci glasses stood by his driver window holding handcrafted 3D landscapes of townships made from brightly coloured wall paints and scrap metal. There were replicas of these replicas all along the roadside, at least a dozen people trying to sell them and reducing themselves to a type of simulacrum for the tired and impatient resident drivers. A whole pride of unofficials fell upon the line of cars. They pushed sunglasses, statues, wiry ceiling ornaments in the shape of sharks, also holding a bouquet of different phone chargers and other utility items acquired by bulk. The poorest were simply hoping for spare change, their sun withered hands extending from spider webbed rags, cupped as though trying to catch rain. Albert kept his gaze forward and shook his head in pretend ignorance to the man outside his window. The seller smiled while raising his thin shoulders, yelling a loud ‘ahhh’ he put his fingers to his mouth indicating a cigarette. Albert looked at his passenger’s seat where the open pack sat. He handed him a Marlboro through the narrow gap of his window and caught a glimpse of his reflection in the fake Gucci sunglasses.
The scenery quickly changes in Cape Town in whatever direction you travel both in the urban sense and the land. Once Albert was through the forest roads, away from the richer suburbs, the houses began shrinking, their gates becoming less extravagant turning crude and makeshift. Observatory lay around harsher and less developed industrial sites but as an area within itself boasted raggedness through bohemian colours, quirky shops, oh-so-cool cafes and bars, the ramifications of joyously and limited gentrification. This was all within the short high street (un-imaginatively) called Lower Main that slithered beneath Cape Town’s spinal Main Road. There were no parks worth visiting, other than those for cars, and the view of the mountain was slightly obscured by the low and condensed scrappy tin-roofs.
The natural sound of Observatory is a low hum of music from the record shops chiming along with native bar patrons, terraforming with the faint drone of street and homeless people, it’s an orchestra messily conducted by the traffic and drinking. The front gates of most the houses are barbed wire, or even more commonly in Observatory, broken bottles cemented to the top of the walls looking like see-through cacti. It’s necessary. All residential places in South Africa need security beyond a lock, though the richest areas give the allusion they don’t.
Albert’s house was a fading yellow copy of all the others on its road, a white cast iron gate standing guard at the top of the front steps making a cage of the area between the top of the steps and the front door, a cage containing an old sofa, ashtrays, and empty beer bottles. The whole block were students who shared access to each others’ gardens through an alleyway accessible from the back their gardens. Each house had four bedrooms and Albert’s room had a balcony looking onto the narrow street. When Albert got home he heard the Vinyl singing:
Dog food stalls with the beefcake pantyhose
Kill the headlights
And put it in neutral
Stock car flaming’ with a loser
And the cruise control
A deep laugh barrelled through the music over the starch wood floor toward Albert, the house ringing like a low-pitched tuning fork. There were clearly at least four people home today and just as he was about to dart toward them he heard a scream from the top of the stairs. He glanced upwards and saw dust dancing in the light underneath Peter’s door.
Albert strutted through the living room and out into the garden. ‘Al!’ shouted Culky who was at the head of the table, he was wearing his black straw hat and Elvis style sunglasses, an old white t-shirt with the design of a liquid sun down the front, elegantly faded. Culky had a thick black beard and long greasy hair, his cheeks were merry and he had a heavy build for a man of average height. Jake and David were sitting either of him side along with Sally and Jen. The house’s two chessboards were aligned meaning simultaneous games were being played.
Jake Davids was an American, he was filled with self-hatred for his homeland and spoke with a droning accent. He was tall-ish, highly athletic and had straight sandy hair, which he constantly flicked out his scowling eyes. He was winning a chess match against David Goldstein, another British expat of Jewish decent with a frightfully skinny build and thick, messy, black hair combined with wiry counterparts all around his face. Albert, Jake, and David had been living in the house on Petal Street, Observatory, for over eight months with Peter Du Plassis.
The girls, Sally and Jen, lived in the house across the allyway, Sally was Jake’s girlfriend, another American from Chicago who lived and dressed for the 1960’s, aesthetically commemorating the times of Civil Rights and active demonstration. Although she dressed the part she didn’t epitomise the free-spirited laziness that the cliché would suggest. She drowned in the anxiousness that crept alongside that ‘beat’ generation most millennium children admire; the fear of faraway wars and civil concern. Thanks to modern medicine, however, she had numerous anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medications to supplemant that naturalness.
‘Culky, you Irish bastard, ran out of potatoes?’ Albert sneered taking a seat and lighting a cigarrette.
‘Never! How are the parents?’ He replied with a quick glance and an extension of his hand.
‘Fine, fine, right where I left them, not playing?’
‘Man, I already beat Jake here two times and Dave too! I need more of challenge from you guys, jeez, but hey! You know what I can do with my hands all free like this?’
‘You’re gonna-’ Jake said, concentrating on the board in front.
’I’m gonna roll a joint, I’m gonna roll a joint’ Culky sang with his hands raised, he gave out a deep thunderous laugh before diving into the pockets of his second hand army jacket. Then, out of ceremony, appeared his old Cuban cigar box, inside of it his metal grinder from Amsterdam and his ‘natural’ tobacco with no tar, the hemp-made papers and one, of at least three, large bags of weed.
‘Oh my God, guys’ Sally said with her eyes darting to no one and then glancing at Albert realising he’d just arrived, ‘like, I’m really stuck on what to do here.’
‘No helping’ said David. He gave Albert a nod and shuffled to his left to make more room for him on the bench.
‘But guys! My queen is totally backed and I don’t know what to do!’
‘You’re on your own.’ Murmured Albert without a thought.
‘Oh, God.’ She hummed and Jake lifted his eyes from his own board to investigate his damsel’s distress.
‘What you could do-’
‘No helping!’ shouted Culky, momentarily distracted from his rolling.
‘I’m sure you can figure it out, Sal’ Jake said calmly and rubbed her shoulder before returning to his game.
‘Oh, God’ Sally said and looked fiercely back to her board.
‘I bring a gift from the mansion.’ Albert droned with no particular attention to anyone.
‘What you got for us?’ Said Jake. Albert reached down into the plastic bag at his feet.
‘Ohhh, Ally!’ Culky roared as Albert presented the six-pack, Sally and Jen nonchalantly accepting their beers handed to them first.
‘The bottle stores were closing, this all I got’ Albert mumbled after a heavy glug of his leftover from the car ride.
‘Dude, we got loads’ David quietly replied.
They sat within the weighty comfort of their African sun, their small but satisfactory garden encompassing their world. They felt happy in their private openness and enjoyed the spoils of an easy life. If you could ask them years later what, exactly, they spoke about in those few hours there would be no recollection, and perhaps if they were to strain themselves one or two might recall who won a certain game of chess or what had occurred, prior to, or, after, that time in the garden. The memories of that true pleasure are not defined by specific detail but rather a general recalling. For them, this section of the afternoon, at the back of an old house in an ancient land, they were enjoying drinking, smoking, and the plans to repeat it all in some different location, it was their own secular and intimate youth, shared but still contained in the realms of negligence until eventually all the tragically important specifics would be lost and consumed into a constant note, sad and beautiful, happy but inevitably lost... the song of future nostalgia.
This particular episode of mindless enjoyment, however, was broken by a loud shriek above them. The group all raised their heads toward the sky, like a startled pack of shrews under the eye of a greatly winged bird, they then burst into a hysterically loud laugh.
‘Who has he got up there?’ Albert sputtered, ‘he was at it when I got here!’
‘I think it’s that girl from his media class’ Jake said with his shoulders hunched and his sharp eyes wincing as he lit a cigarette.
‘Lucy?’ Said David, now composing himself.
‘Yeah, I think so.’ Culky sputtered.
‘I don’t know how that guy does it,’ said Sally who had her hands on her lap, smiling and looking into empty space.
‘Well, being as tall as a mountain and having the jaw line of Robert Redford might have something to do with it’ grumbled Albert as he opened a beer from the fresh six-pack.
Peter emerged in the garden, the clattering of the front door rang behind him, a wide smile on his face, a freshly ironed t-shirt over a pair of dirty shorts. He looked at the table and clumsily walked over to take a beer. ‘Jessus boys, that one is crazy, hey,’ the boys chuckled while the girls rolled their eyes, ‘yoh, so our we watching the football tonight?’ Albert burped loudly and grabbed the last beer of his six pack and lit another cigarette. The sun was setting and beginning to hide behind the mountain in a taunting glow. Albert was feeling slightly dizzy with an empty stomach, it growled like a disgruntled, but nonetheless weak, animal.
‘The Stop?’ Jake said.
‘Yeaah, where else?’ said Peter in a happy but slightly condescending tone.
‘Again?’ Said Albert looking at his feet.
‘Oh, come on’ said someone who Albert didn’t register, he already knew this wasn’t up for debate.
They eventually (after some delirium) walked into the street being sure that everything was locked, the doors, the windows, the gates, and the porch-cage, and argued over who owed money to who before making their way through empty streets that led onto Lower Main Road. It was only a short walk and so no drunken driving was necessary, although it wasn’t an issue. Albert didn’t know what teams were playing and he didn’t particularly care he was more concerned about how many cigarettes he had left.
They went in a stumbling cluster onto Lower Main Road, drunk African blacks hanging outside the bars and at the corners of streets, some of the beggars and dealers trying to stop them as they walked by, the groups’ practiced and unspoken one-worded responses, mixed with the assuredness of walking to a set destination, deterring them away. Their favourite bar for sport, The Spot, was nestled in a tiny slip road. It was usually lit in a yellow-ish warmth glowing from electric lanterns housed in fake Victorian casings. Tonight though the lanterns were unplugged, the benches outside empty, and the windows black.
‘What the fuck?’ Peter roared, running slightly ahead, “closed for inspection until next Monday!”
‘Ah shit, Dude’ Jake said walking ahead of Sally and reading the piece of paper taped to the window.
‘What now?’ David said unhelpfully as Culky and Albert hung back.
‘It’s Liverpool, I’m not missing this’ said Peter as he tried to gather the group together in a weird huddle. Albert was thinking of grabbing a beer at another bar in the area but the idea of breaking the group seemed redundant, especially knowing that the argument would only delay things. He knew the key to moving the group along lay in the football match, he desperately thought of another bar.
‘What about Winners?’ The group peered at him, ‘you know, that place near the busses in Mowbray, they always have sports going.’
‘Winners! Ja bru, my friend Tombi always talks about that place!’ said Peter.
‘What’s this place now?’ said Culky looking for small papers to roll himself a personal joint.
‘It’s that proper black place, all the bus drivers go there, it’s huge, I think there’s like two floors’ David said lighting a cigarette.
‘Will they definitely be playing the game?’ said Peter more urgently.
‘Probably, I think there’s like five screens or something’ said Albert remembering the time he’d finished an exam and ended up near the bar. He arrived at the terminal in Mowbray at about eleven in the morning and decided to buy a quart of beer for the way home. He recalled a lot of football shirts from African teams, which he didn’t know, lining the walls. The place was empty besides a couple old black men asleep at the bar and the whole place smelt of stale beer and what he thought might have been blood, and there was a pool table with a huge gash down its centre. He had ordered a beer at around 12 pm from a disgruntled woman and slipped the drink under his jacket before walking back toward Observatory, not before noticing that all the channels on the TVs were playing women hockey.
‘Yeah, they should definitely being playing the footy, if it’s that big a game.’
‘Jesters is the only other place that plays sports round here but their TV’s been broke for, like, two months’ spluttered Peter.
’Ah no, man, plus that place sucks, the beer is so expensive’ said Culky, momentarily distracted from the final stages of his work.
‘Cool, let’s go,’ said Albert walking through the group back through Lower Main Road and toward their house. The rest followed until they got to his car. He opened the door and they came tumbling in, David followed by Sally, who tripped slightly, her head fell onto David’s crotch but her body jerked back into Jake’s lap who was following after. Peter then launched his tall body over the remaining back seat and Culky sat in the front next to Albert smoking his joint.
The drive was short and over a small patch of motorway that led gently into the Main Road. Albert put the music on loudly to muffle out the squeals, giggling, and shouts piercing from behind.
Today is the greatest day I’ve ever known
He turned a bit late off the three lane highway into the curvy and unlit slip that led onto the bus terminal, an area he really had little memory of being in. When he arrived in the wide streets and saw the far spread tin canopy with a fleet of sleeping busses underneath he realised the dirty bar he was thinking of was only a few feet away. Albert quickly stopped and a scream came from the tyres that was even louder than Sally’s shriek. A disjointed but unified series of complaints were hurled at Albert as he slowly reversed feet away from the entrance and parked.
They burst out the car, a tightly held clan shuffling toward Winners. The bus terminal slept solemnly in floodlights behind them and had two roads leading either side into utter darkness. In front was still Main Road, rumbling in proud roars of traffic and cries of desperate taxi pleads blanketed in a thick orange streetlight. Behind the roads and buildings was and is the mountain, lying in darkness, mightier than any building Albert had ever seen, empty of any people.
A streak of warmth washed over as Albert entered Winners. He smelled the beer, the smoke, the sweat. His ears were bombarded with the cheers of the Africans, a goal had been scored. The dim glares of the televisions blended with the aggressively happy faces. It was omnipresent from the moment he looked into the doorway, a visual relativity. Straight away Peter was under the one playing Liverpool, arms wrapped around new friends, short and middle-aged in a yellow Kaiser shirt - the Durban team. Peter had a knack at becoming instantly favourable in any circumstance and Albert could swear, as he walked toward the bar, Peter was rambling away in Zulu.
At the bar a plump black woman in her early twenties sat on a fridge with her arms crossed talking to two drunk elderly men. Both were trying to make an important point simultaneously. She looked at Albert and then turned back to the men. Albert felt a flash of rage and raised a defiant Rand note. She gave a tired look. The words ‘what do you want?’ seeped from her eyes. She sulked over and said, ‘what do you want?’
‘A quart’. The bar lady moved slowly to the fridge and opened the lid. She went back to the elder men who now sat quietly smoking and staring at their bottles.
Albert relaxed with his drink and inspected his surroundings. The pool table was either new or repaired and there was another adjacent to it. Culky was already racking up a game with Jake. The people were rowdy, shouting, watching various screens, spilling drinks, and tipping ash trays. Celebrating results by teams who were playing thousands upon thousands of miles away. Albert took a long hard swig and before he knew another goal had been scored. He lit a cigarette and took a deep drag. He didn't know when it had begun but he was sick, the room was swaying for a long time before someone grabbed him.
‘Aye cuzzy, this is a good game, eh?’ wild eyes and a huge grin, he had his arms round Albert and was rocking him back and forth.
‘Who else?’ he cackled and rocked him harder. Albert could smell his breath for a moment but then had it confused with his own, the sickly sweet reek of beer gone rotten on the tongue. Albert coughed and swung his head down to the stained floor, now confusingly painted, spotted by gum and cigarettes. Albert grasped his new companion’s right shoulder and swung his eyes up; a kaleidoscope reality, Winners all in front of him.
‘Aye? Are you alright, cuzzy?’ The black face said.
Just a few meters away were his barely recognisable friends, swelling and moving like watercolours dripping horizontally across his gaze. Seeping in the corneas of his eyes they seemed hundreds of miles away. Nausea started ebbing its way into his stomach and the stool underneath him felt like a barrel hurdling toward a abyss. He took a deep breath and tried to stabilise the chaos in front of him. Another person peered into his face with an inquiring ease that that made him almost forget.
‘Ha! Aren’t we all? Come, you need to wash this off. Come.’
Albert was gently carried off into what he imagined a porcelain dressing room, smothered with black lipstick, watched over by a gigantic, cracked mirror. ‘Here, wash, be sick.’
Albert complied and felt a night’s hard work exit his stomach into a putrid and loud stench below. The smell was definitely his. Everything went black until the light came back in a shower of cold sweat. Albert was looking up to a smiling face, the inquisitive eyes belonging to the last recollection of a foreign face.
‘What the fuck?’
‘Ah ha! You’re back, welcome!’
‘You’ve been sick, cuzzy. Fuck, you whiteys can’t drink, hey?’
‘You still have you’re wallet, I know that’s what you’ll be thinking about in three minutes, oh, and no one raped you.’
With that the stranger broke into hysterics, checked himself in the mirror, and walked away without another word, the sound of Winners reverberating into the bathroom, loudly then softly, as the door swung back and forth, a little less loud each time.
Albert took a deep breath and came to the conclusion that he was, indeed, unharmed. With a reseeding stomach ache he re-taught himself to think and move. He stood up. As soon as he was up he instinctively looked back down. A flicker of solace glistened in the fact that his clothes weren’t covered in vomit. Across the closet-sized bathroom, in the cracked mirror covered with black graffiti, was a shockingly pale Albert. He walked over to the sink. The water was cool on his sticky face. He worked hard to regain composure. When he felt stable enough to leave he patted his pockets and sighed with relief knowing his phone, wallet, (and most importantly), his keys were safe.
Jake was sitting at the bar when Albert fell into the stool next to him and put his elbows onto the surface, trying to look cool.
‘What’s up?’ said Jake, lighting a cigarette. Albert reached into his pockets looking for his own.
‘Arsenal scored the first one, like ten-minutes ago. Didn’t you see?’
‘Yeah. Yeah, I saw.’
Albert swayed in the damply coloured, retro-decorated, catacomb of sport that was Winners. Everything was covered in triangles, the acute brown triangle painted across the back wall, and it’s purple brother spreading across the adjacent. The empty gaps made by the L-shape of the fake leather couches in the corners, keeping groups standing in a triangular formations. There was a sharp, droning cheer as dots on the screens went back and forth in quick, triangular movements. He clutched his round drink with a slippery grip. Looking back at the floor he was now noticing little green and red triangles patterned into the carpet.
Several times, by the bar, in the toilet, by the pool table, on the couches, Albert struggled with the same conversation over and over, from eager listeners who’s ingenuous friendliness clashed with his dissipated condition. The fractured parleys were agitating, even met with hostility, Albert felt confronted with a wall each time, as though hitting the edge of a fishbowl, forced to peer into the unclear reality behind the glass. He was asked questions about being from England, ‘Ah London, who are you supporting?’ said football fans, toothless men, and women with tall eyes and a handy inclination. Sometimes the initiator, fascinated by his skin colour alone, spoke the littlest English, and he had to vocalise louder just to answer basic questions, ‘no, not from here, yes, LONDON!’
Shouting is the marker that sets the dividing line of any mis-communication. David and Jake argued loudly about a team that would be relegated next year, while Sally stood watching a pool player, who cheered loudly after potting a spotted ball, grabbing her by the shoulder pointing and laughing at his friend across the table making her an involuntary cheerleader.
Culky was shouting to his girlfriend over the phone, apologising in advance for his hangover. Peter was screaming without regard at the biggest screen, swaying with two new patrons under his long arms who (unbeknown to him) were supporting the opposite team. It took some shouting to get the bar lady to come over and serve Albert each time he ordered, she moved slower with every quart. They drank until Peter’s second most anticipated game was over.
They all left Winners.
On the street Sally came up to Albert with a dimly flustered grin, she was jumping almost. Her arms crossed, even though a warm, wild wind blew through her brown curls.
‘Oh my God, that was so cool!’ she squeaked.
‘What was?’ Albert replied, distractedly, patting his pockets.
’I mean, how often are we in a place like that? All those real guys, chanting, watching soccer, I met this bus driver who fled Rwanda, can you believe it? They were so real.’
‘So, we’re not real?’ Albert’s hand crumpling an empty cigarette packet.
’That’s not what I mean, Al. It’s just they’re really from Africa-’
‘And we’re just visiting.’
‘Well, yeah, but obviously we’re not, we’re living here, that’s different, it’s just, they were so in their element, and that place, I mean it seems so dangerous and shady from the outside, and we we’re totally fine! Like, we would usually drive right past this place and go to some brunch, or something, but, but, why should we? It’s what you really expect to see in, in -’
‘Right, look, here come the others, take my keys, and get into the car, I’m going to go up to that shop on the corner of Main there and buy some smokes.’ Peter came trotting into them with no concern of grace.
’Al! Whaa, what a place, those guys man! And what a game, lad’ the last word exaggerated with a bad English accent.
‘Cool, Sally’s got the keys, I’ll meet you in the car.’
Albert walked into the sticky glow horizontally spread, un-reassuringly, but illuminated with cars and taxi busses. The ATM was at the end of the road shadowed. The shop it was attached to was barely open. Albert felt the dismal section of the metropolis. His steps clattered in empty sound, the cheers of Winners were quiet. The cash machine was dirty, covered in filthy writing, but glowing defiantly. He inserted his plastic card and pressed the right buttons in the right order, requested his money, and received it. He moved to the shop next door, lights fluorescent, everything with nutrients canned, and the owner half asleep and uninterested. He paid for his cigarettes and left.
‘Hey, lover, do you have money for me?’ a skinny girl said, she was silver, see-through. Just a few steps away from the shop and machine, the voice softer than a kiss, the eyes like a polluted lake.
‘Ah, don’t be like that, you’re handsome, you know that?’ She jerked forward. She was light, warm, a wet napkin in his weak hands. ‘I’ll make you feel good, you know?’
‘Hey, no, sorry, I…I can’t, my friends’.
Like a cannon ball through a velvet curtain came a blow. The kiss of a hammer. Convulsing and confused the world left him. Albert was on his knees his mind screaming, the body lagged, as it will in any surprise conflict. There was a figure, bulky, barely clothed, looming, and mocking with a knife-edge grin. Triple vision settled into double and eventually single in the orange light. A monument stood over him holding the beautiful, skinny, tattooed spectre and a red-soaked hammer.
‘Give me your shit, poes’ said the milk coffee-coloured figure, blue smudges under both eyes, his teeth cracked. ‘I’m not going to ask fucking again, cuzzy!’ A foot drove into Albert’s face, but he had time to turn, taking the sole of the dirty boot in the eye, avoiding any nose fracture. The blow was blunt, painful, and ensuring. Albert dug into his pockets and thrusted his phone above his head, quicker than the second boot that hit him.
‘Thanks, love’ said the girl as she plucked the machine from his hand. The street went silent. The wind blew taunts into his droning ears, his right ear gargling with blood, his head pounding with disbelief.
‘Fucking cunts!’ Albert screamed as he got into the car and slammed the door.
‘Bru, what happened?’ Culky said with a look of genuine despair.
‘Four fucking years I’ve lived here and nothing like this before!’
‘Jesus, Al. Your ear is bleeding!’ shouted Sally.
‘Four fucking years. Cunts! Fuck man, fuck this fucking place.’
‘What the fuck happened?’ David interrupted, his hand firmly, but not reassuringly on Albert’s shoulder.
‘They fucking mugged me, man!’
‘That’s cak, sorry man’ Culky said with a strong gaze across the car, a look covered in advice, Albert returned it with sharp and pitiful sorrow. The hammer had caused a bump but after drunken inspection it was only that, the mugger had held back. He answered Jake and Peter’s questions angrily telling them about being smacked in the head with a hammer and being kicked in the face. He begged his friends to stop asking. Half-heartedly he punched the steering wheel. Culky took over the driving. They drove into the orange lights ahead.
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