The Future World President's First True Love by James Alexander - HTML preview
Download the book in PDF, ePub, Kindle for a complete version.
and swayed back on his knees, his eyes hooded and dreamy. She glanced down.
‘Where’s the condom?’
‘Oh no. You’ve got to be kidding me.’
At the same time as the total nightmare freak-out that followed, her poking around
with her fingers, the condom writhing away like a fish from her fingertips, he, eeeuugh,
staring at her and she grunting oh my God then leaping to the small en-suite bathroom
to finish the job alone, the acrid smell of burnt fish and spices, the oil fire, the naked
sprinkler-shower, during all that turmoil inside a fancy concrete box up in the northern
hemisphere, a female leopard, heavily pregnant, lay on her side in the dry quiet of her
cave, panting rapidly, waiting, at peace.
Neither knew it, but Gaia tied a thread of true destiny between them that night, a line
through the Earth from Europe to Africa, parallel with the soft fringe of twilight as day
slipped into night. Did they sense it, when Ariel was infused with a strange inner calm,
stopped shouting, wrapped herself in a towel and went out onto the balcony, and
Ingwe snarled and lashed her tail? When Ariel glanced south to the sky past the
mountains and Ingwe glanced north at precisely the same moment? Of course not.
We’re just animals. We don’t know half of what’s going on around us.
The moment of anxiety passed, and she stretched out again, writhing in the leaf litter.
Although this was her first child, Ingwe knew the birth would be wonderful, the
pleasure and the pain already so sweet as her baby broke from her womb. Just one, she
could feel it moving inside her. Just one. She’d never seen a kitten before, but when she
closed her eyes she saw it, memory from genes, the fuzzy face-lines, the miracle little
claws. A purr rumbled through her shallow breath.
And just as Johnny’s best little runner squiggled his head through the membrane of
Ariel’s egg, the kitten thrust out, first its nose then its head, shiny as a wet rat in the
starlight. Ingwe watched, rapt, then lay back and pushed. Out it came in a rush. She
turned over, ate the afterbirth and licked herself and then the kitten with innate
urgency, no scent of blood here. Sweet blood. Our blood. Is it a boy or girl? She squinted
down in the faint light, but she couldn’t tell. No matter. I will know when she opens her
eyes. A lingering, sweeping caress with her tongue, then she raised her great eyes to the
stars in thought . I said her eyes. She. My she-cat, my little queen.
And for some reason Ariel found herself smiling, rocking back and forth in the fresh
air, the stars ablaze above her. Johnny was inside, on the phone to the building manager
and the pizza place. It grew chilly on the balcony, the potted bamboo whispering in the
breeze by her deckchair, so she sighed, went back to his room and untangled her clothes
from the covers. She dressed quickly and found him mopping the floor, his naked torso
and tracksuit pants wet and grimy, his face flushed with embarrassment. Just like that
she forgave him and joined in to help, laughing, a bit hysterical.
And the she-cub mewed, lifted her head and crawled towards her mother’s
heartbeat, the soft rhythm of her breath. She lay trembling for a while, then opened her
mouth and suckled. Ingwe nuzzled her, circling with the white tuft of her long tail. The
light of the stars shone faintly onto the swollen little face. Her breath spoke to the cub,
survive, survive, survive.
‘My darling! How are you? How were the exams?
‘What are you doing?’
‘Oh. Hang on, please Ariel. Another call.’
Ariel lowered the phone to her shoulder, raising her eyes to the ceiling. Johnny had
ordered ice cream with the pizza and she balanced the little spoon on her lip then stole
another spoonful, watching him. Beaming from ear to ear, his eyes glazed and shell-
shocked, his skin several shades paler. Muttered something thoughtful to the footballer
on the TV. He smelt of soap, as did she, the same scented lather in a very hot, shared
shower. She was rosy in his bathrobe, the fabric softer and snugglier than she’d ever felt
against her skin, her legs drawn up to one side, her head nestled on a silk cushion.
The phone squawked in her hand.
‘Sorry, excuse me?’
‘I saw the pictures! In the magazine. I’m so proud of you.’
‘ Bild. There are others?’
‘This is great. Keep it up. Are you still seeing him? The footballer?’
‘Say hi to me Mum,’ in a passable cockney as she tossed the phone over. He picked it
‘ Gruss Gott, mutti, ’ he croaked, winking at Ariel. ‘ Wie gehts? ’ The phone pealed with
laughter. He listened awhile, muting the roar of the crowd on the TV, then said, ‘Of
course, we’d love to. Sure, no problem. Text it to Ariel. See you there, uh < bye.’ He
slowly closed the phone. ‘Wow.’
‘What was all that about?’
‘Asked us to some Green Party party? Uh < I dunno. I think speeches and such.
Media.’ He grinned. ‘She said you must wear green clothes, you’d understand. No sexy
dress, I suppose. Damn.’
‘Why did you accept on my behalf? Hullo? Maybe I don’t want to go, because, you
know, I don’t want to go?’
‘Aaah, come on. Why not? Help me understand this. You want to translate, you want
to go forth and bridge the communication barriers of Europe, but not be part of a
Europe-wide political organization? A pretty cool one. What, you’re gonna join
another? The conservatives?’
‘Of course not.’
‘So like I said, why not?’
‘Why are you so keen and eager?’
‘Bored, I suppose. Politics is interesting. Can’t play soccer forever.’
‘Oh, so it’s your career?’
‘Of course. I’m visualizing. You, you just stand there, you wave, smile and do charity
stuff while I fuck the interns. Okay? That’s the grand plan. That’s why I’m taking you to
a party.’ He laughed and slapped his leg.
She didn’t even crack a smile.
What a change, from a few hours ago. Then her eager servant, tender and loving,
now lord of the manor, lounging back on his big expensive sofa in front of his TV half
the size of a wall, his voice deep and masterful. Irritated, she threw down the ice-cream
spoon, stood up and went for a glass of water, resisting an urge to run. How nice it would
be to have a kitchen right here, like a normal home. Instead of having to walk for goddamn half-
an-hour. By the time she reached the taps she was furious.
‘Okay, sorry,’ he shouted. ‘Don’t get your knickers in a knot. I’ll phone back and
She considered the matter. Of course, he was right. The Greens were an obvious
career path. And she understood the basic math of her psychology, the mother
abandons, so she flaunts her independence to punish her, a pattern of avoidance and
mistrust for the past seven years, on and on. But to let all that history get in the way of
her future, to sulk and deny opportunity? Walk away from an opening into the system,
the money-beast, the rock and roll? He was right. Not exactly rational.
But not the point, either. He hadn’t listened. Hadn’t glanced her way, shown any
thought for her feelings. Just gone on ahead, expecting her to follow. Okay, she knew
how pushy her mother could be, especially in pursuit of publicity, but that didn’t
excuse it. She was fuming so much she could barely swallow, and then she coughed
and sprayed water across the counter. That’s it. The last straw, the final indignity. She
flew back at him.
‘Listen, I need my clothes. I have to go now. Please, call a taxi?’ No, one more: ‘And
pay, please? I spent all my money on the last one.’
He was flabbergasted. ‘But I thought you were stay-’
‘You thought wrong. You never asked. My father will worry.’
‘Come on. I can drop you off early in the-‘
‘Fine!’ He sprang up, lithe and full of power, almost colliding with her. She didn’t
flinch or step back, her eyes sullen and unblinking on his throat. So he jumped to the
side and past her and then flounced off like a kid throwing a tantrum, his elbows
flapping like wings, hopping away with his legs splayed out. For a moment she wasn’t
sure if he was joking, Oh no, another psycho-freak, he turns into a giant, violent baby when he
doesn’t get his way, but then he slumped back into his sexy footballer’s lope, so it was
okay. Just joking. Quite funny, actually. She laughed. If he turns around and comes back
right now, I’ll forgive him, and stay the night.
But he didn’t. He came back with a hundred-Euro note in his hand, and the history
of the human race branched off.
He did phone in the morning, though. It was intensely sweet, she apologizing at the
same time as him, both forgiving each other in general for being human, he pressed for
time and growling instead of saying goodbye. That night he called again and asked her
out, and so began an Indian summer, three weeks of play, sunshine and starlight,
football games and vast crowds, VIP boxes, twenty-seven parties. Because she kept a
subtle distance from Johnny, not quite trusting him, often going out alone, with Noodle
or with her new friends, she had even more fun. The record shows she appeared in six
different magazines and newspapers that autumn, the best photo a punk-style
monochrome of her laughing, cool in her leather jacket and black skinnies, reaching up
over the camera at something. Johnny was backlit behind her, his pose all the sexier for
being natural. The caption, in tasteful lower case over her spiky, wind-whipped hair:
ariel reaches for the stars. Her mother phoned again, sounding orgasmic. Her father
framed it and hung it up in the office. She flitted around, with Johnny and sans, met all
kinds of people, sowed all kinds of social seeds. Everyone wanted to know her. You
could write a whole ‘nother book about those three weeks.
Then she missed her period.
Deep inside she knew, of course. She didn’t need to go buy a test, piddle on it, wait
for the ink. She sat on the toilet, waving the stick around, this way and that. For the first
time in her life, Ariel really didn’t have a clue what to do.
Ingwe watched the kitten patter back from the furthest corner of the cave, her eyes
black and golden-blue flash through patches of shade and sunlight. She had been very
careful to cover her business back there, scoring up the earth and leaf-litter,
concentrating so hard she was still trembling. She composed herself in the curve of
Ingwe’s body. And with eyes and ear-twitches, snuffles and purrs, with an ancient
telepathy flowing down from her soul like a soft, secret smell, Ingwe began to teach:
‘When you are big, like me,’ she purred, ‘you will leave this place, leave me. You will
go alone, with only shadow for a mother, passing through forest and mountain to the
valley where the river runs blood and the prey lies down before your beauty. Lion <
pah! ’ She sneezed. ‘Lion and hyena will squeal like bushpig at your scent and crawl off
to live in the stink of the dogs and the toothless, two-legged baboons. You will– ’
‘Mama?’ the cub interrupted. ‘What’s < lion?’
Ingwe yawned and stretched out in the late-afternoon sunshine. ‘I don’t know,’ she
shrugged. ‘I can only tell you what my mother told me. She said that they wish they
were cats. Cats like us? But they are dogs, fighting each other and sleeping in the dust
and howling in hideous voices at the night. But, little one? They are huge, powerful,
much bigger than your mother, and they live only to kill us. We are cats, and live alone.
I don’t think I’ve ever scented them. I don’t know if they exist, or if the two-legs have
killed them all.’
The cub shivered and snuggled towards her teats. The early summer rains had been
intermittent and light, and the milk flowed slow and turgid, nourished more by blood
than water. There was a scent of water from somewhere beyond, but Ingwe didn’t go
that way. The kitten suckled for a while and then growled and tore free, her eyes fierce.
‘I will fight them,’ she spat. ‘Them and the hymas an’ dogs an’ toothlegged < toothl <
what did you say?’
‘Two-legged baboons. I know their stink well. We don’t fight these creatures, little
one. They are beneath us. We are silent, we are clean. We live in shadow. We are cats,
‘We are alone.’
‘So what you going to do?’ Noodle lay on her back on Ariel’s bed, her feet up on the
wall. ‘Are you going to keep it?’
‘I don’t kn-‘
‘What about Spain? Are we still going to Spain?’
‘I don’t know. I feel like life played a trick on me. Set me up and knocked me down. I
don’t know what Johnny’s going to say.’
‘You haven’t told him? Oh crap.’
‘It’s my body. My decision. My life. Maybe I won’t even tell him.’
‘Yeah. You you you.’
Ariel swiveled the chair back to look at her friend. ‘Noods? What-?’
‘Abortion’s murder. I’m sorry, that’s just how I feel.’ She swung her feet down and
bounced up. ‘And you know what else? I’m pretty sick of always talking about you and
all the drama in your fabulous life!’
‘I < but-‘
‘Okay, calm down. Here’s the thing. You tell me to chill on Bjorn. Play hard to get,
don’t give in to him. So now he’s forgotten I exist, while you’re humping butt-fucking
naked with celebrity Joe, going to all the parties and you hardly ever invite me! And
then when you get pregnant, hey, no problem. Just kill it.’
‘That’s not fair.’
‘Fair! Look, I’m angry now, and soon, I won’t be. So maybe we can talk later. But if
you < I don’t know.’ And in three quick strides she was out, slamming the door behind
Her father shuffled down the passage, opened the door, leaned his head in, and
asked, ‘What’s going on?’
‘Nothing. It’s nothing.’
‘Oh shit. Oh no. What a disaster.’ Johnny sat down and ran his hands over his face.
‘Just when everything was going right.’
Just the reaction she’d expected. That was the worst thing. What an asshole. I knew it.
She cleared her throat.
‘So what are we going to do?’
He stared at her. ‘Well, you’re not thinking of like, keeping it, are you? Jesus. The
problem is the press, if they find out, I mean, come on. Come on. You’re fresh out of
school, and I < well, I might be moving to Barcelona. Or Milan, next year. We can’t, we
should do this in ten years. Not now.’
‘So when you move to Barcelona, or Milan, I’m just going to drop my studies? Follow
you there? Irrespective of the baby?’
‘We, we can, y’know, sort it out, when, shit, I don’t know. C’mon. You have to do
the right thing here.’
She stood, silent, vibrating inside like an electric guitar, feedback. He looked up from
his hands to her.
‘Ari? Are you okay?’ He stood up. ‘Hey, baby-doll, I’m sorry. I know how tough this
must be. We’ll get through it, I promise. Together.’ He caressed her hair with the back
of one hand, the other encircling her for a hug.
A thousand times she thought of a better response in the years to come, the last time
in her nineties. Blithe and witty, contemptuous, compassionate, she ran through them
all. Because all she did is scream, ‘Motherfucker!’ at the top of her lungs, and push him
away as hard as she could. Somehow she got the angle of leverage just right and he
flew, his feet lifting from the teak floor. He smashed into an empty bookcase and
walloped down like a rag doll.
‘Aaaah! Oh my God. My back! You crocked my back. Motherfucker? Aaaaaaaah,
‘Fuck you. You asshole.’ She marched out. This time she had the cab fare. There was
a sick smell in the car, and she covered her face with her hands. She peeked through her
fingers, and for a second she could swear that the driver’s head whipped violently from
side to side, an impossible blur, but when she lowered her hands he was normal. Bald
and fat, his head painted red by the traffic light. Dead eyes met hers in the mirror, and
she shifted away to look out the window. The street was empty, they’re all inside.
She cried herself to sleep, and woke up in anger, all through the night.
Freddy Truhahn closed the phone thoughtfully, ignoring the twinge of nausea, damn
sausage for breakfast or something. Young guy, Bayerisch, his voice husky and low.
One line: ‘Ariel’s scheduled for an abortion this afternoon.’ Then the name of the clinic,
and the phone went dead. He balanced it in his hand, something teasing at his beer-
deadened memory – of course. A story, the Baptista boy, taken to hospital after a
domestic accident. He’d sat at the bar last night and thought, See? Justice in the world
after all, before scrolling on.
Ahah. Domestic accident? Abortion? He glanced at the time and speed-dialed the
‘Today?’ The doctor pursed her lips. ‘Not possible. By law we have to-‘
‘I want it out of me. He raped me.’
‘Then, uh, Ariel? We have to report-‘
‘If I tell anyone it’ll destroy my life. And other people. And you, you can’t just sit
there and pretend to know, what’s going on out there, in my life. If I don’t get it out of
me today I’ll kill myself.’ She’d seen a movie, deadpan melodrama, that‘s the most
It was working. The doctor went all noble-warrior, the flared nostrils, the haughty
eyes. She glanced towards the door and nodded, once.
‘Very well, Ariel. But I have two conditions. Well, three. One, you don’t tell anyone
you were here. Okay? This never happened.’
‘Second, I’m referring you to a psychologist, a rape-victim specialist.’ She handed her
a card. ‘Twice a week at least. Okay? Do we have a deal?’
Fuck no. ‘Yes.’
‘And third, you must promise me that you’ll report this to the police. No listen, one
day, when you’re strong enough. When this terrible man no longer has any hold on
you. Okay? Do you promise?’
‘If you’ve got any evidence, freeze it. Believe me, one day you’ll want to do the right
‘Just get it out of me, please.’ She sobbed, and then real tears came, seeping from her
eyes. She couldn’t get them to stop.
‘Oh no. Oh Ariel. I can’t believe this.’
Great way to start the day, her mother’s voice blaring in her ear. Ariel had been
dreaming of ocean, slow, thoughtless swells rocking back and forth. She smeared salt
from her dry, itchy eyes and squinted at the phone. 11:17 am.
‘B < believe what?’
‘You haven’t seen this magazine yet? Someone very kindly slipped it under my door.
Oh God, now I know why they were smirking at me. How could you do this?’
‘You don’t understand. Under the surface we’re still very Catholic, you know.’ Her
mother’s voice was bitter. It was as if she was talking to herself. ‘We’ll play for
sympathy? But you < oh God, you assaulted poor Johnny? No, no, what is this
‘Mother, please tell me what’s going on.’
‘ Did you have an abortion?’
‘What?’ She sat up.
‘There’s a photo of you. Oh dear, look, you’re weeping. Oh, my poor Ari. My baby.
Why did you do it?’
‘I’m sorry, Mama.’
‘Did you fight with him? They insinuate, you know. Um < here, a source.
Speculation. Should we sue?’
‘No. I pushed him away. Quite hard.’
‘You dislocated one of his discs. He can’t play football anymore. At least until next
‘Oops.’ She giggled.
‘Ariel! This is serious. He could sue you, never mind the damage you’ve done to our
‘But you’re a Green. What do you care-‘
‘Grow up.’ Her voice was icy. ‘Give me time to think, and I’ll come by. Just stay at
Her bed smelt sad, like stale sweat, like broken dreams. She had a foul, metallic taste
in her mouth and her insides were cramped up, like the worst period. She sighed,
stood, and limped off to wash and change her pad. Two glasses of water, a cup of
coffee, and she jacked up the laptop to google herself.
The article was bad enough, but the reaction was already worse. A picture of her
with a beard and horns scratched crudely on, a pitchfork in her hand. An article or blog
or something she skipped the cursor over: MURDERER! An email from the Sisters of
Something or other, standing strong in the wind or something. She gulped, and for a
moment felt like she was drowning, a sea of unseen forces swirling around her. She
hovered around her Facebook icon for a moment, but then decided against it. She had
an urge to call Noodle, and even reached for the phone, but realized there probably
couldn’t be a worse time. Noods always bought Tease.
How did they find out?
She’d told no-one, she’d darted into the clinic with her collar raised and a chic black
hat on, so she wouldn’t be recognized. The photo was of her leaving, half-turned to look
behind her, her posture furtive, stooped < guilty. The tone was bold and nasty, revenge
tarted up as vindication. See? We told you she’s a slut.
It got worse. Others were already chipping in. A pattern was emerging, pros and
cons - abortion. An issue had resurfaced, a disturbance in the heart of Germanic
Catholicism, the first twists of a gathering storm. And Ariel in the eye, the right kind of
target in the wrong place and time, young, innocent, celeb-grade looks, connected
politically, almost famous for being famous. No. 7 on the search list, a single name,
‚Ariel', an angel corrupted. Joan of Arc up high on Icarus wings, carrying the seed of a
rich, handsome, famous athlete, a heavenly union to express the wonder of God’s
creation, now cruelly denied. An evil bitch destined to burn forever and ever in the fires
of eternal Hell. A poor child, poor tragic Ariel, seduced by a man-pig and then
victimized by a witch-hunt of the patriarchal hegemony. She watched with growing
Lurking behind her was the real target, the real source of all the gasps of excitement
as media across Germany logged on and twittered and tweeted, the source of one ‚No
comment' from the fortress of his hospital bed.
Oh no. What have I done?
Then, in the afternoon, a new sensation, front page:
DID BAPTISTA RAPE ARIEL?
The source again unnamed. The good doctor, unable to bottle her outrage, striking
forth at injustice? Thanks, Doc. Really did me a favor. She laughed out loud, alone in her
cold house, shivering with rising panic.
The phone rang. She snatched it up.
‘Ah, Ariel?’ A man’s voice. English. Johnny? ‘This is Jay Hoggsbottom, from The Sun?
Please forgive me, but do you speak English? My German is-‘
She stabbed the off-button. It rang again immediately. This time a German reporter.
She cut him off. Again it rang. She pressed down hard to switch off the phone. The
landline from downstairs was ringing. With hands to her ears she sat on her bed,
swaying to and fro, her eyes scrunched tight. Then she toppled onto her side and drew
her knees up, and in less than a minute she was fast asleep.
An ogre leaned over her. Not green, lovable Shrek, but a gnarled, putrid zombie-face
with sharp black teeth and crazy eyes eat my flesh. It reached out and took hold of her
‘Ari? Ari, my treasure. Wake up, child.’
‘I made some tea. Come, drink.’
Chamomile. Sweet and steaming. She took a sip and then drank it all down, enjoying
the cleansing heat down her throat.
‘Have you eaten?’
‘No, not since yesterday.’
‘Something light? Are you feeling sick? You have to eat someth-‘
‘It’s real, isn’t it? What must I do? They’re saying he-‘
‘Forget about them, chattering idiots. Got the attention span of dogs. By next week
they’ll be barking and chasing their tails somewhere else.’
‘Do you think so?’
‘I don’t know.’ He sighed and sat down on the bed next to her. ‘Who knows how this
will play out? How he will react.’ His voice was thin and quiet, as if his self-control was
strangling him. ‘Now the truth, child. Ari? Look at me. Did he rape you?’
‘I said, look at me.’
‘I told the doctor that, because a girl at school told me that she’d told them that, and
they did it right away.’ Her tears spilled again, and she shook her head angrily. ‘We
made love, and the condom came off, that’s all. He’s not a rapist, he’s just a guy but I
don’t love him, so I don’t want to < you know? Daddy, am I in big trouble? What are
they going to do?’
‘Trouble?’ He snorted. ‘I’ll tell you who’s in trouble. I’m going to go outside right
now, ask the nearest reporter to please turn around, then I’m going to bury my shoe in
his ass. And then I’ll give him the other one, because, you know, I can’t use it anymore.
He can enjoy making them a pair again in the privacy of his own home. While he makes
up more lies.’
He was trying to make her laugh. She gave him a brief hug. ‘What, are there
‘About twenty of them. Standing around in the park.’
She got up gingerly, supporting herself on his shoulder. He raised a hand to help her,
but then dropped it again. She walked slowly over to her window. It was weird,
because her mind was so used to this view of the park, this boring, empty vista, that it
played a trick on her, and for a moment she didn’t see anyone at all. Just shades of
green, her sad little tree, the row of pretty little houses along the other side. Leafy
branches brushing a Bayern-blue sky, cirrus cloud scudding slowly past. A camera
flashed. She sighed and reluctantly looked down.
More like thirty, pooled in the grass at the edge of the park, a few anarchic souls
standing in the roadway itself. None crowded her garden; this was a victim, so there
was decorum, a tense watchfulness between the vultures. TV vans and cars lined both
sides of the street. She looked down on them as they gazed up at her, remote and lovely
above the ivy, and a sigh passed through them all.
She raised a hand to shield her face from the ruddy, late-afternoon sunlight and
looked out again. Cameras flashed. The pose of the visionary, seemingly untouched by
the attention, by the here and now. No-one ever forgot it.
‘It’s mother.’ A small electric car was buzzing around the bend on the far side of the
park. ‘She’s here.’
‘Come downstairs. I’ll make some more tea. What would you like to eat?’
‘Uh < chicken? And an apple first. Are you glad Brigitte is here?’
‘Yes.’ He smiled. ‘You be nice now.’
‘Oh daddy, I’m so tired. I hope she can help, that’s all.’
First things first, divide and conquer. Pick one or a chosen few, trade exclusivity for a
sympathetic ear. Brigitte parked at the end of the row of vehicles, so she could walk up
unnoticed and assess the situation. There was a possible, a woman from the Suddeutsche
Zeitung with serious feminist credentials. Perhaps too obvious. She spotted another, one
of her favorites, a dreamy young guy from Bild with lank, soft hair, an air of the Green
about him. She approached across the grass.
‘Hi, Stefan? It is Stefan, isn’t it?’
He nodded and then bowed, flattered. ‘Please forgive the intrusion, Frau Haupt.’
‘Not at all. There are serious allegations here. And a defenseless child involved.’
‘Perhaps not so defenseless, now.’
She spread her hands wide, what can I do? Be humble, appeal to his protective spirit.
She was aware that a ring was forming, other journalists raising their recorders, the
glint of cameras. She kept her eyes on Stephan and said, ‘Well, I really know nothing
more than you do. I’m going to speak to my child now. We must get to the truth of this
‘Do you live here, Frau Haupt?’ someone shouted.
She lowered her head to the side, acknowledging the question without looking at the
questioner. She managed to convey an air of disappointment, and answered simply,
‘But the house is in your name?’
Now she looked up. ‘I have always worked much too hard at my job, and my
marriage suffered as a result. It happens, right? I thought it best to leave Ariel in the
home she grew up in, for her emotional stability. Okay? Any other irrelevant questions?
Then if you’ll excuse me, I must attend to my poor daughter.’
‘Ari? Is it true? Did he rape you?’ She disengaged from their hug. ‘I’ve consulted one
of the best criminal lawyers in-‘
‘No! Calm down. Tell her, Papa.’
He recounted the story.
‘So it was the doctor? The source?’
‘Or maybe a nurse? Receptionist? Someone there.’
‘Hmm. We don’t want trouble with them, in case they defend themselves by
revealing you cried rape. So do we deny the abortion? Can we? How about the actual
‘It’s none of their business,’ said her father flatly.
‘Of course it is. It’s exactly their business.’
‘I know,’ said Ariel ‘Why don’t we say that I suffered a miscarriage, and I went to the
clinic for help, for advice. I didn’t know where else to go. I was bleeding.’
‘That’s a good one,’ said her mother, impressed. ‘Yes. I’ve looked at the original
article more closely, and I think they were just speculating about Johnny’s injury, you
know, domestic accident, abortion, one plus one equals two, so there must have been an
argument. But if we take the abortion out of the equation, then <’
‘Then the fight caused the miscarriage,’ answered her father. ‘Then he’s forced to
defend himself, and he tells the truth. He says she pushed him. He could charge her
with assault. He could sue for millions.’
‘Yes. Yes, in which case, why did they fight? Why the break-up? Because he didn’t
want the baby? He’ll have to allege the truth, abortion. The clinic could confirm it. Then
we’re liars, we cried rape and lied, on top of assault and baby-murder. And if we say the
fight caused the miscarriage? Then he’s a villain, unfairly so. It’s tricky. He could open
us right up. How well do you know Johnny? Do you think he’ll keep quiet?’
‘Embarrassing?’ answered Ariel. ‘Big macho footballer, dropped on his back by a
‘But if he does tell the truth,’ said her father thoughtfully, ‘then maybe his insurance
company will ask questions, about fighting and negligence and fault and suchlike. And
so what if he sues you? He’ll attach your iPod?’
‘And I’ll claim self-defense,’ said Ariel.
‘Yes, exactly.’ Brigitte was scrolling her phone. ‘Still nothing, as far as I can see. ‚No
Comment.' Hmm, just wait. Yes, another ‚No Comment.' Okay, let’s get in first, in any
event we have to set the record straight about the rape accusation. Take a risk on the
rest. I prepped a guy, but I don’t think we’ll need him. It’s a simple statement. This is
what you say.’
‘It’s a total lie.’ Ariel’s voice quavered, but carried clearly to the crowd on the other
side of the road. ‘He never raped me. He would never do such a thing. He’s a good man.
I love him with all my heart.’
‘Quiet!’ barked her mother. ‘Continue, Ariel.’
‘I was running, and I had a miscarriage. I was bleeding. I went to the clinic for help.
They were kind and helpful, they cleaned me up and sent me home. Johnny didn’t even
know I was pregnant. Neither did I. It just happened.’
‘So what happened to Baptista? How was he injured?’
‘I don’t know, I wish I did. I haven’t been able to speak to him because of all this, all
these crazy people accusing me of murder. I do hope he’s okay.’
There was a moment’s silence, then a general grumble. No bloody story here. Egg on
a thousand avid media faces, whatever their suspicions. And because they’d already
made it a story, it now had to be reported: no story here. Man didn’t Bite Dog, after all.
They crumpled notepaper and lowered their cameras, dispersing slowly to their
A few glanced wistfully back up at Ariel’s window, a few paused in thought as if
they’d forgotten something important, but none crossed the road to offer condolences
for her loss.
On the way back into the house, Ariel tripped and almost lost her balance. She
giggled and leapt back up. What a rush! So easy to lie, to raise her hand and move the
world. Problem poofed with a wave of a magic wand. She whirled and offered her
mother a high-five.
‘Don’t be an idiot,’ she muttered, already texting on her phone. ‘This will be on page
three, if we’re lucky. They ignore their mistakes. We may have convinced these guys –
well done, my love, you were brilliant - but people won’t believe it. He fell down and
you miscarried? Coincidence? Hah! Hang on <’ she read an incoming message. ‘Okay,
good. My people are in contact with Johnny’s. They know the story.’ Another beeped
in. ‘And we’ve set up a meeting.’
‘Ariel?’ Johnny blinked several times, his famous hooded eyes now wrinkled and
gray. They closed in a sleepy smile. ‘Ariel. You’re so beautiful. Sweet Jesus, take my
soul,’ his smile lingered, ‘< if heaven be like rock ‘n roll.’
She laughed. He was flat on his back, the lines of his body shrouded in sheet. She
reached out a tentative hand to touch him, and then took it back.
‘Johnny. I’m sorry.’
‘No. No, not your fault. You just don’t know your own strength. Appropriate course
of action you took, under the circumstances, as it were. I’ve had time to think, you see. I
was such an arsehole. I’m so sorry.’
‘Hey <’ she shrugged.
‘And I’m sorry about the baby. If you’d waited I could’ve changed my mind. Now
it’s my fault.’
‘No. It was my choice. I would have done it anyway, because <’
‘Nothing. Later. Hey, what’s up with you? Are you going to be okay?’
‘Yeah, don’t worry. They’re just stabilizing me. I feel like a Ferrari. All the mechanics
fiddling around.’ She realized he was a bit high. ‘Hey, Ari? Thanks for clearing up that
rape malarkey so fast. Crikey! Heart attack. At first I thought it was you, they had to
change my diaper. And I get the miscarriage story, clever. I injured myself running to
the phone, are you aware of that? Those three big steps by the TV area? I slid
theatrically over them and sm ash ed into the shelves, that explains the extreme severity
of my injury.’
‘You really must get a smaller place.’
‘Yeah, gonna move the bed next to the kitchen. Still have to hobble all the way to the
bathroom, though. Probably just get a bucket.’ His stomach suddenly groaned and
squealed, then a long, rhythmic grumble. ‘Oh shit, listen. I’m going to fart. I’m sorry.
It’s bad. You have to go.’
‘Hey, you’ll come back, right?’
She didn’t answer and didn’t look back, and that was that.
Brigitte couldn’t leave the house. She had no need to wait for Ariel’s return from the
hospital, she had her phone and a brimful inbox, but she found herself in a strange
place, somehow almost too scared to go outside, to leave this sanctuary where she’d
been born and lived until it nearly drove her crazy. She wandered listlessly around the
small, pretty kitchen, the high windows framed in ivy, the garden herbs hung in
bunches on a string, her grandmother’s lovely, heavy skillets, their sheen not what it
once was. She swept and washed the dishes, enjoying it for the first time ever, and re-
arranged the cups and glasses in a daze, in suspension, a pendulum swinging from her
teens to her forties. Paint handprints of her infant Ariel behind glass, the frame
shrouded in dust. She wiped it clean and felt tears rising, but swallowed them back
with impatience. Her mind was groping back to the unresolved work in her inbox when
the front door creaked open.
‘Hi mama. You still here?’
‘How did it go?’
‘Fine. He said he was running to answer the phone, and slipped and fell. He didn’t
blame me for pushing him. Sorry about the baby, and all that. It’s over.’
‘No, it’s not.’
Ariel sighed. She desperately wanted to sleep, she was hungry and repulsed by the
thought of food at the same time. Standing in the doorway of the kitchen, she reached
out and swung the door to and fro. Time to go, mother.
‘Come sit down, please, my love.’ Brigitte took the chair at the head of the table and
waited. Ariel sighed again and sat down next to her. ‘We have to talk. This is not going
to be as easy as you think.’
‘No? Why not?’
‘Next year. Student life. People will know you. They’ll be very jealous. You’ve grown
into a threatening young woman. And now they can despise you, and you’ll carry a
secret, in the face of their suspicion.’
‘Whatever. I’ll deal with it then. Right now I-‘
‘Of course, my love. I don’t want to burden you even more. But I’m worried, I have a
bad feeling. I can see it following you around like a cloud, for years.’
‘What, the shame I brought to my family?’
‘So I had an abortion? So what? No-one will care. Why don’t you all just leave me
alone? I’m so sick of all this. I never wanted any of this attention. You did! And now
you’re just thinking about yourself. Again. Now I’m just a liability to you.’
‘That’s not fair. It’s not true. I’m only trying to warn-‘
‘This town. All you people. You’re killing me. I wish I could just < go the hell to the
other side of the world.’
‘That’s funny. I thought the same thing today.’
‘If you took a gap year, then people would forget. You could come back without
Notoriety, my queen? So now you want to exile your little problem? But wait a minute …
‘But where could I go?’
‘Oh, I have friends in America, South Africa, all over Europe. I’ve thought about this
before, actually. I think one of the reasons I left < this house, was because I never had a
break from it. School, university, work, marriage < I was suffocated by the sameness.’
She clenched her throat, a strangling gesture. ‘You know? It’s good to broaden your
horizons. Pull your head out of your books. You’re not a liability, that’s just silly. You
mean more to me than all that nonsense outside, I know we’ve had our < differences,
but I really do have a bad feeling about next year. Anyway, we have time. We should
talk later. Sorry I stressed you.’
‘It’s okay, mom. Hmm. South Africa, you say?’
‘Yes, interesting for a career in politics.’ She saw Ariel’s expression and laughed. ‘Or
not. I have an ex-boyfriend who lives in Johannesburg, in a big house. He has a
daughter about your age. It’s a beautiful country, I believe, and much safer than the
media makes out. It has everything, sea and mountains, desert, African bush. Yes,’ she
clicked her fingers. ‘I also know someone with an apartment in Cape Town, I’ll find out
if they’re using it.’
‘Okay, slow down. What about money?’
‘I can give you a lump sum, I’ve been saving for you. Thirty thousand? I’ll talk to
your father as well. We’ll need his approval.’
‘Do we? He won’t like this.’
‘He’s very angry. Very worried about you and this whole freak-show. I think he just
Ariel yawned, so tired of having to think. Her mother took the hint, hugged her and
Such a nice dream, a black cat running through the night just ahead of her, branches
whipping against the stars overhead no, she was the cat chasing a misty presence over a
mossy log under the outstretched arms of a dark, sparse bush - a child, she could see
now in the clearing, a girl-child running ahead, shimmering and transparent, a ghost-
girl laughing and jostling along childlike through this alien forest. Ariel laughed and
leapt ahead into the moonlight. The child turned and in a streaming rush swept
towards her, through her, into her, here she is safe inside her, a pearl of exquisite silver -
and her ringtone came loud through the trees.
The room was dark. What’s the time? She fumbled at the phone-light, squinted at the
caller ID and clicked just in time. ‘Nooooods?’
‘How are you, Ari?’
‘I don’t know. I dreamt, I think it was my baby, still inside me ... growing, still here.
My breasts are tender.’
‘You sound terrible. Did they give you < medication?’
‘Sorry.’ She shook her head free of the forest. ‘Noods? I’ve been wanting to
‘No don’t, Ari. Don’t. I read your lies.’
‘What? Oh no. Not you too.’
‘Don’t worry. You won’t read ‚Best Friend Reveals All' or anything tacky like that.
You and your manipulating mother. I’m concerned about you and me. At University
‘Oh!’ Ariel sat up. ‘You were accepted? Well done!’
‘Thanks. But when people ask me? You know, about you? Do you expect me to lie?’
‘No. Well, actually, yes. What’s the big deal?’
‘Hmm, it’ll be awkward. Anyway, just something to ponder.’ She hummed awhile.
‘Clubbing with Bjorn tonight. All night lo-ong,’ she broke into song, ‘all night. That’s
right. I phoned him. So there.’
‘Oooh. Curses. My evil plot didn’t work.’
‘Quite enough evil for a while, don’t you think?’
‘Basta, Noods. It’s been a terrible day.’
‘What, you kill a baby and it’s supposed to be fun?’
‘Oh < fuck you.’
‘Yes. Quite. Thank you. After everything. You said it. Look, when you come to the
club with that man you apparently love so much, then perhaps we should avoid-‘
‘We broke up. I dumped him.’
‘Right. Sure. You dumped him.’
‘Okay. I’m going to be very, very careful here. I’m not going to just open my mouth
and say what ev er comes into my head about a stupid, judgmental, superficial blonde
bitch who thinks she <‘
‘No? What a shame. I’d just love to hear it. But sadly I must say, tra-la-la! Gotta dash!
The limousine’s arrived.’
And silence. And that was that.
Africa. With a wad of cash. She stood at the window, looking out over the empty,
moon-bathed park. A moth swooped from the dark and circled the metallic-blue solar
lights on the wooden fence, then rose and fluttered above her window. Rain had fallen
while she slept, and the trees glistened and shimmered in the faint breeze. She smiled as
a shooting star arced across the southern sky, trailing sparks in the dew beneath her
window, make a wish. Africa? A streak of black – a cat through a pool of lamplight on the
far side of the park, heading down towards the river, running fast.
The child lives inside you.
She shook her head in surprise. Not a voice, like in a barking loony-symptom sense,
just a thought, but so strange and unexpected it seemed not her own.
Her soul clings on. A memory of a dream, a forest < but no, it was gone.
She’ll guide you home.
Okay, so she’s probably clinically insane, after all. This time it sounded exactly like a
voice, speaking inside her brain. She watched the moth flutter closer. Boys afloat behind
bushes, men with blurry heads, talking cats and flying creatures something flew above me
and now this, what was it, this idea? So strong, so deluded, it crystallized into words.
This pervasive feeling, baby’s still alive. Here, here inside her.
‘My breasts are tender,’ she whispered.
Crazy Ari, all alone. She thought about Mahmoud the weirdo mouse. What was that?
Just a schizo boy with an obsession, taking a last desperate leap as his fantasies crumble
around him? But no, because then why so cool and in-control, so sophisticated and
mysterious, so goddamned old-person creepy? Something really wrong there.
Or something’s wrong with me.
She closed her eyes and raised her hands to her face.
Africa. With a wad of cash.
She opened them again, gazing blearily out of the window, and then gasped and
stepped back into the shadows. ‘Mouse?’ she said to herself, ‘What the hell?’ Standing
casually on the grass, hands in his pockets, head thrown back, a smile glinting blue in
the solar light. He raised a hand and slowly beckoned, inviting her out to join him.
She shrank back, nibbling her lip in indecision, and then was hit by a huge surge of
boredom, a tsunami of what-the-hell. I hear you, mother. Sometimes I hate this house too.
She swept on her jeans, boots and a black shirt, and crept out past her father’s room on
Obviously later than she’d thought. How long did I stand at the window? The suburb
slumbered around her, a distant scream of car-tires the only sound, two discordant
notes fading in the air as she approached. A pause for the crash, but none came. He had
lowered his eyes to her feet, and bowed when she stopped.
‘What do you want?’ she said.
‘Couldn’t sleep.’ Low and growly. ‘Kept worrying about these religious lunatics.
Crazy stalkers. Thought I’d come down, keep an eye out for you.’
Lunatics. Crazy. Stalkers. ‘Uhuh. Any luck?’
‘Four crusaders. Spies. Gave them a threatening look.’
Now he’s seeing crusaders – oh. Joking, a sly little smile and a twinkling eye. Red, red
eyes. What’s wrong with him?
‘I saw you standing in the window,’ he said. ‘All alone. I thought, hey.’
‘All’s well that ends well.’
‘You handled this crisis so well. Brilliant. Dealt with the problem and came out
smelling of roses. As pure as snow.’
‘My < problem?’ She paused, and added, ‘Mahmoud?’
He lurched forward slightly, not moving his feet, his eyes falling to her belly. ‘Tore
the body from the soul,’ he muttered. ‘We were there. We want it <’ He blinked and
took a step back. ‘We <’
‘We? Who’s we?’
He shuffled away, avoiding her eyes, and took a backward glance over his shoulder,
at a copse of dark bushes three houses along. ‘Nothing,’ he muttered.
‘No, I want an answer. Who is we?’
‘We love you, Ariel. From afar. We protect you. You’re special.’
‘Not this shit again.’
He laughed, that rich, man’s voice, but she sensed desperation trembling beneath it, a
note of < fear? He glanced over towards the bushes again, and said, ‘We’ll always
speak the truth to you. Lies are for these cattle.’ A contemptuous gesture at the houses
circling them. ‘Not creatures like us.’
‘Yeah. Us. Look, it’s very late, and I don’t see any mad crusaders around here, and
I’m not going to go, you know, running hand in hand with you through any war-torn
streets, a scarf on my head, if you get my meaning. No spring revolutions, no secret
societies, no plotting. And no more late-night rendezvous, please. I guess what I’m
trying to say is, I’m never going to be your girlfriend. Okay? Never ever. You’re not
going to save me, and I’m not going to bathe your wounds. Do you understand? This
may be a shock, I don’t know, but-‘
‘Ari, come on. I know this.’ He shook his head. ‘You and Johnny are destined for
each other. I’m just a friend.’
‘Well, no. Destiny got it wrong. We broke up.’
‘What?’ He glared at her so intensely she took a step back in surprise. ‘No. No, you
didn’t.’ His eyes dropped to her belly again, black and burning red. ‘His people said
you’re still together. He’s planning to take you away, when he can walk again. To the
‘Okay, maybe I didn’t, you know, actually tell him yet. I couldn’t, I mean, he was just
lying there. Hang on. How do you know what his people are saying?’
‘They’re with us. You can’t do this, Ari.’
‘What, break up with him? It’s done.’ She slapped her palm to her heart. ‘Okay, you
weird, creepy boy? What do you want?’
’Just, a, a friend. You haven’t told him yet < listen, you’re upset, unsettled by the
abortion. You’re angry, and that’s okay. It’ll pass. He loves you with all his heart. Give
him a chance. Give it time.’
‘At least think about your future. An opportunity like this won’t come again in this
lifetime, you know. Just hang in there awhile. See where it takes you.’
‘Mahmoud.’ She watched as he flinched and bared his teeth, like an animal. A grunt
and a growl deep in his throat, but she ignored it, continuing in the same, reasonable
tone. ‘You listen to me now. Okay, my friend? I fell out of love. I don’t want to be with
him. If he was just an ordinary boy from down the road I might, uh, hang in there
awhile, he’s nice, I like him a lot, I like making love to him. But with all this stress and
attention, this freak-show stupidity – and you want me to hang in there, bec au se of it?
Thanks. But no thanks.’ She took a step closer to him. ‘And what’s your game? Hmmm?
Who the hell are you < Mahmoud?’
This time he snarled, his eyes raging. She caught a scent of something burning. My
imagination? I’m crazy? She stumbled back, scared for the first time. Played with fire, and
it’s out of control. She glanced back at her house.
The front door slightly ajar.
My father’s in there, alone. Asleep. I must lead this mad creature away.
‘Manny?’ She drifted closer, smiling. ‘Are you okay?’
He clenched his fists and nodded.
‘I just want freedom,’ she said. ‘Do you understand?’ A step away from the house,
then another. He stumbled after. ‘Thanks for the concern, though. I do appreciate it.’
‘You’re welcome.’ He took a few more steps.
She broke into a walk. ‘Look, the moon’s bright. Let’s go down to the river.’
‘Do we have to?’ he said, lurching along. Very unfit, this boy, the way he jiggled
beneath his shirt. Already short of breath only halfway across the park, his gait clumsy.
She quickened the pace and he fell further behind.
‘Let’s run!’ She took off. As if tied by a string, he jerked and followed. She slowed
down as they crossed the road, and then jogged down the dirt path between the gaunt
trees. A grunt of exertion behind her, and then a long moan through gritted teeth. As
they swerved and burst out onto the riverside path he caught up.
‘Ariel!’ he gasped. ‘Run! Run faster!’
‘Wh-what?’ She skidded on a protruding rock and lost pace.
He sprinted past. ‘FASTER! FASTER!’ Then, with his fists pumping above his head,
bellowing, leaping into the air, he screamed, a high, shrieking, inhuman cry of pain or
terror, brief and terrible. He fell in midstride, folding over and collapsing face-first onto
the stones and dirt with an audible thud.
She took her hands from her ringing ears, still standing where she had stopped, and
crept cautiously up to him.
He groaned and rolled over. His forehead was torn and blood streamed down his
face, but he was happy, a wide, toothy grin, eyes shining and < clear. Blood black in
the moonlight on his dark skin, but his eyes white. The fire’s gone.
‘Yes! Help me up. Thank you. Yes, it is I. Oh thank you!’ He did a sort of happy little
jig, throwing his knees up and pirouetting down the road. ‘I am free!’ He circled round
and stumbled to a halt before her, opening his arms wide. ‘You called my name. Thank
‘A < a demon?’
‘Yes! Ssssshh! No, cool, we’re alone here. They hate nature, you know. The spirits of
the green. Did you see? This is how I defeat him. He had to follow you, so he had to call
on me, on my body, pass control to me without warning. Without < preparation.’ He
shivered, his face abruptly bleak. ‘I threw him out. I know how to do it now. The secret
is < to work out.’
‘Yeah, you need it. You look terrible.’
‘Of course, that’s how he < enslaved me, made me disgusting. I’m sorry. But Ari?
We’re stronger, if we want to be. We are spirit and flesh. We are willpower. Aaaah, God,
‘The portal.’ He patted his stomach. ‘I opened it with hate. Hate for Israel. For whites.
Forgive me, God. Aaaah! They’re trying to get back through. It burns!’
‘I don’t know < how long, listen. You can hide. They don’t always know where you
are, they can’t read your mind unless you let them.’ He grinned fiercely, in pain. ‘We
really screwed them. I was meant to be your friend. Nudge you in the right direction. In
their fierce anger they will try to destroy my soul, but I will run, and I will fight, oh,
God.’ He doubled over, hands clenched the bulging putty of his belly. ‘Listen. Go
somewhere. Hide. Anywhere in the world. They’ll find you, they use computers and all
that, but they < they want your child.’
‘So that you’ll follow her. They want you, more than anything, I don’t know why.
Run from this place, this cobweb. Hide.’
‘Who are they?’
He opened his mouth to answer and then paused, his eyes staring through her. Then
he sighed, a long, long exhalation, and she felt the heat of his breath caress her face. A
jolt passed through his body, and red flared in the corners of his blank eyes. She
‘We are legion,’ he growled.
Then Mahmoud’s voice, strangled and faint: ‘Run, Ari. And I’m running the fuck the
They burst apart, sprinting in opposite directions. As she ran, Ariel pulled out her
phone to call her mother, whatever the hell the time was.
A JOZI JOL
The plane arched down towards the sleeping glow of the province of Gauteng. Jozi
and Tshwane, conjoined cities, like head and pulsing torso, supported by the muscular
manufacturing arms of the east and west Rand and the scarred legs of Soweto. It gleams
from afar, a thrumming giant, tossing in nightmare before the dawn.
‘< it’s a bit like a, a plate, turned upside down. There, whatchoo lookin’ at now,
that’s the, whatyamacallit < the flat part?’ The voice sprouted a brown hand, waving
horizontally, palm down. She tore her gaze from the blue rumor of light on the gradual
horizon and turned, beetle-browed, towards him.
‘The flat part? Mountains, you know, all around?’
‘That’s it! Plateau. Plateau. You’re a clever girl. The highveld. Joburg’s in the middle,
and to the west < no, the east, you got the escarpment, the bushveld, sloping down to
Mozambique.’ His voice had grown somber timbre, soap opera poetry. ‘That’s where
the Kruger Park lies.’
‘You don’t say?’ Her phrase was borrowed from some old midnight movie. Bette
Davis? But the elegant, ironic eyebrow arched unnoticed by – what was his name again?
– Nasief? He had slid into his seat, claimed the armrest, and stared sideways at her, but
only plucked up the courage to speak just after take-off, interrupting her enjoyment of
the boost into the sky. He had chatted, too eagerly, throughout the evening, oblivious to
her signals of boredom, blathering on about import-export and God knows what else,
rolling an expensive Swatch around his bony wrist. Eventually she had feigned sleep,
and missed the movie.
‘Ja, ‘strue. And to the souf is ‘e Drakensberg. Beautiful mountains. Then Durban. My
home town. Warm all year round. I’ll take you on a sight-see. Whatcha say?’
She turned back to the window. The edge of the sun had blown a haze of glare over
the misty, charcoaled mystery beneath. He was sweet, she thought. Totally disgusting.
But this < pride in his country, this love in his voice? She could not bring herself to be
rude. ‘Okay. Give me your number. I’m going to a nature reserve in Ma-puma, puma-’
‘Mpumalanga. The eastern escarpment. That’s where the–’
‘Mmm<puma<langa. Okay. Then I’m going to travel all the way down the coast to
Cape Town. I’ll call you on the way.’ More likely to call the moon, but he glowed
sweetly, mission accomplished.
The plane shuddered down the first steps of descent, and she remembered
something in a book sometime, how the first thing the writer noticed of Africa was the
smell, rich and red and dusty, singed with fire, redolent with adventure.
And so the first thing she did on African soil – well, African tarmac - was stretch
back her shoulders and take a deep, profound breath. Nasief, hovering like a fly at her
side, chose the same moment to yawn, and Ariel’s nose was filled with his foul night-
flight halitosis. She hacked and gagged, staggering away, peering around at her new
home through tears of disgust.
‘Mama! Food! I want food!’
Ingwe groaned and buried her face beneath her paw.
‘MAMA! Wake up! I’m hungry. Wake up!’
Damn brat kitten. Keep you up all hours of the day. Maybe if she ignores < ‘ Mrrow! ’
Ingwe jerked as the needle-teeth sliced into her ear. The sunlight screeched into her eyes
through the lattice of strangler-fig roots. She batted the cub away, growling in pain, but
she bounced back and leeched her teeth in the ruff of Ingwe’s neck.
‘I ànt òre èat!’
She winced, shook her cub off and pinned her down into the soft dry humus,
sheathed claws itching. ‘What did you say?’
‘I want more meat.’
‘Oh, go < climb the tree yourself.’
‘But mama!’ She plopped back on her haunches. Ingwe yawned wide, her tongue
curving to an elegant point. She stretched her back and forelegs taut and rolled her
head, easing the ache in her neck. The kill last night had been hard, a juvenile warthog
that had thumped and gored and refused to die. It had thrust sideways in death-throe
and punctured the loose skin above her shoulder. She could not reach to rasp the
wound clean. She licked her paw and maneuvered behind her ear, but it was awkward.
‘Little one? Come and help your mother here.’
Silence hung like motes in the air.
‘Kitten?’ She sat up. The cave was empty. She leapt to her feet and tore up dust, then
paused at the cracked lip of the edge, staring down.
As an isolated birth-place, the cave was perfect, the best throughout the local
escarpment. Two ancient boulders, leaning against each other like whispering heads,
had been unearthed by water murmuring down towards the humid lowveld. The space
between them was rough and tent-shaped, with a narrow passage to the tangled bush
above and a steep drop to the wide kloof below. A strangler fig tree, seeded by bird
dropping between the boulders, made a curtain of aerial roots, clogged and etched with
detritus, dappling rosette light onto the leopard’s coat as she rested, as she watched. But
as a toddler’s playground it was dangerous. She had stayed here too long.
On the other side of the kloof the carcass of the warthog jammed the fork of a fever
tree, alongside the remains of the impala fawn. A hoofed leg-bone turned, suspended
by a sliver of dried skin, a slow mobile in the slanting sunlight. Birds discussed the
morning in casual song as Ingwe zigzagged down the tumble of rocks towards her cub,
who lay on her side, deathly still, eyes closed, on the pebbled slope below.
My fault. I told her. Why did I do that? She reached her cub, picked her up by the scruff
of the neck and then dropped her again. Worse. I’m making it worse. She licked the little
face, her plaintive chirps shivering the air. The birds paused, a hush of cocked heads.
Then she breathed and opened her eyes.
‘Kitten? Are you hurt?’
‘Mama? The lion bit my bum.’
Ingwe slumped with relief. ‘No lion, little one. Mama here. Are you hurt? Can you
‘Sore. My legs < sore.’
‘You fell <’ Ingwe lifted the cub’s tail. A vicious wreath of dry acacia thorns impaled
her hindquarters, tangled in matted fur. She grasped it between her teeth and tugged,
ignoring the sting piercing her tongue.
‘MROW!’ The kitten wriggled away, and Ingwe let go. The twist of white needles,
dead and revengeful, was still attached. She tried to get up, but could not bring her
trembling legs back.
‘Keep still! I have to get these thorns off.’ This time she teased the thorns out with her
tongue, one by one, while the cub shivered and whined. Her mouth filled with the taste
of her own blood. Eventually it was done. The cub labored slowly to her feet, shook
herself, turned to the thorn-wreath in a flash of anger and slapped it. Ingwe collapsed as
she yelped in circles, sore now on both ends.
She was fine.
‘So, little fool. Would you like fresh warthog??’
Instantly recovered, she bounded over to the fever tree. ‘Hullo warthog! You’re so,
so, so ugly.’ The warthog’s spadelike face, stiff with insult, contemplated her from
above. ‘Bring it down! I’m hungry. Must I climb the tree myself?’ She scrabbled at the
With alacrity Ingwe bounded up the tree, tugged it free, and dropped it. The kitten
leapt to the attack before it could escape, and killed it all over again.
Later, after the cautious ascent, they lay together, burbling digestion, the cub teasing
sleepily at her mother’s neck-wound. She slowed and stopped, asleep, her nose clogged
with fur. With a snort she slipped her head off and composed herself in the soft curve of
‘What’s next?’ she murmured.
‘Meat. What’s next?’
‘Have to see.’
‘Something different again.’
Ingwe stroked her kitten between the ears with the tip of her chin. ‘I know where to
get dog. And goat.’
‘Hmm. Not bad. Fun to kill. Shouldn’t be allowed to live.’
‘Dog, then. Tonight. Can I come?’
‘No, you must stay here in the cave. I’ll be gone most of the night, because it’s far
down the valley, past the stinging wires. It’s dangerous, a run on softpaws. Promise to
keep quiet. Promise?’
The only answer was a gentle, rumbling snore, like a distant thunderstorm.
The house rang with emptiness, a muted bell.
‘Not here. Look, um Ariel. I have to < wait! Maybe she’s still sleeping.’ Dr Krams
scissored off across the somber parquet, corduroys whistling with stress. Ariel stood
stooped, her linked hands twisting in the loop of her backpack. She allowed a little
birdlike head-turn at the room and then snapped her eyes front as a far door slammed
shut. His footsteps came pounding back. He emerged thumbing his phone and slapped
it to his jaw.
‘Still off. She’s not < look, I have to get–’
‘Please, I’m sorry, you mustn’t–’
‘-work. There’s food in the < the bathrooms there - at the end–’
‘Are you sure this is okay? I feel terrible.’
He chilled himself with a sharp breath, clawed the air and Zen-exhaled through
pursed lips as he dropped his slender shoulders.
‘I really don’t want to trouble you,’ Ariel continued. ‘I can easily find a hotel, it’s just
for a few days. I’m so sorry, my mother–’
‘Ariel, please. You’re welcome in my house. Please stay. I’ve no idea where Stephi is,
she < leads her own life now. I’d like her to meet you, to spend time with someone
from home.’ He sighed.
‘Thank you, sir. I promise I won’t get in your way. All I want is to sleep, today,
anyway. If you have a sofa, or–’
‘No no no, there’s a spare room. Please. Come.’ He led the way. She followed,
glancing brightly and politely at the African art and bric-a-brac. A rushed tour of fridge,
coffee, shower, her room. They shook hands and he drove, tires squealing, away.
She took a stroll in the bone-dry garden, munching an apple, the good doctor’s spare
keys chirping and twinkling in her hand. It was odd, this little walled, parched
ecosystem, familiar somehow in the harsh unfamiliar sunlight. Many of the plants she
recognized. Global suburbia. Gaunt roses offering rusty leafbuds tentatively to the dry
air. Rosemary crouched in stasis by the slate driveway, a conifer shivering listless
needles in the sparse breeze. Like Europe if the climate changed, if the Atlantic no
longer blessed her land with rain, a dehydrated imitation. Then along a north-facing
rockery (she reoriented herself, turning her body this way and then that) a colony of
aloe flourished in the midday sun, in rude contrast to the exhausted aliens all around
Loud, vulgar birdcall: Go awaaay, like Donald Duck caught doing a poo. A gang of
large, jaunty birds moved in over the roof, grey, crested, long reptilian tails - this was
more like it, these were new. Exotic. One bird swooped close, landed on a bare branch
and blinked at her, at her hand, at her face again, at her hand <
‘Hey, bird? You want this?’
He flapped. She reached up and impaled the half-apple on a broken twig.
G’waaay, said the bird, so she backed off and sat on a low stone wall, watching as
they dropped to the fruit to eat. Then she sighed and stretched and went inside to sleep.
She knew that sound. From the movies. The scene when the bad guy threatens the
good, or the good threatens the bad, and the threatened guy doesn’t immediately obey,
so the other guy pulls back the slide tschid - final warning! – tschik, because it sounds so
sexy, so bad - or good, as the case may be. Stupid movies. Means he has, thus far, been
threatening away with no bullet in the chamber of his <
Gun! She lifted her head from the pillow and opened her eyes into a vast black
barrel-hole. A gun. A real gun. She shifted her focus beyond (the gun blurred, just like
in the movies) to the tanned, fierce-eyed face of a young blonde woman.
‘Who the fuck are you, and what the fuck you doing in my house?’
The blond moved back an inch, quizzically. ‘What’re you, some kinda junkie? Break
into people’s houses for a quick nap? You don’t look like a junkie. Fucken sleeping
‘No, I, your father < my mother-’
‘ Deutsch? ’ She switched languages. ‘Excuse me, please. I’m Stephi.’
‘Please put the gun down.’
‘Oh. Sure.’ She averted the unconvinced stare of the barrel and sat down on the side
of the bed. ‘Anyway. Who are you?’
‘My name’s Ariel. My mother knows your father. She arranged for me to stay here <
just a few days.’ After a careful pause, she extended a trembling hand.
Stephi tucked the gun into the back waistband of her jeans. They shook, meeting each
other’s eyes, and laughed in unison, like a stone dropped in water.
‘Please speak English, Stephi. You seem more comfortable.’
‘Ja, but your English are excellent, hey. How come it so good?’
‘Reading. A lot. And I watch English TV on satellite. And speak it, every chance I get.
I always have, since childhood. And I had an English boyfriend recently.’
‘Hmp. I should practice my German. Never do. My Dad made this house rule, only
English, and now he wishes he hadn’t. I sound like a prrroper Sowf Efrican. Like, A.’
‘How long have you been here?’
‘Ten years?’ Stephi popped another grape into her mouth. ‘Since I’s eleven. Was I
horrified when we arrived? Thought I’d been dropped into the fucken zoo. But I kinda
like it now. There’s not so much pressure to wear the right clothes, listen to the right
music < you know? Everyone’s different here, they’re all crazy. And they’re all trying
so hard to pull it all together, so it’s a great vibe, it’s happening, there’s a future here,
whatever, whatever it might be.’
‘You know, a thing, a < energy. The issues, like, matter. Every little thing you do, or
say, is going to shape the future in some way. It’s like, we’re making it up as we go
along, so how you interact with people, it’s a creative thing. A meaningful thing. All
those rules on how to behave, sie und du, Freund und Bekannte, and don’t cross the empty
road on red. That don’t matter so much here, to say the least. You can be yourself.’
Ariel nodded, for want of a quick response, and rolled a thoughtful grape across the
table with a flick of her finger. They followed its moist jig-jag with their eyes, while
trying to shape, in their separate youthful minds, the patterns of behavior of entire
nations. The grape danced to the tune of chaos, jigging over a smear of juice, jagging
around a strand of blonde hair, spinning on a skin blemish, its movements too complex
to predict. It stood on end and rolled at Stephi, who unexpectedly ate it.
‘I don’t know,’ said Ariel. ‘People are people.’
‘What do you do? Are you a student?’
‘Uh, no. I’m in the film industry. I’m an assistant for the line – ah hell, I’m just a
runner. I’ve been working on a movie. And I’m writing a script in my spare time.’
‘Oh? What about?’
‘Well, have another grape? I, uh had this idea < there’s an American, and an Arab,
in this parking lot, and they’re shouting at each other, like, ‚you’re bad,' ‚no, you’re
bad,' ‚no, you’re bad,' you know, on and on and on. Then one of them has an idea,
like, ‚Let’s burn everything!' and the other goes, ‚Cool!', so off they go, hand in hand.’
‘< um.’ Ariel ate a grape, and then another.
Stephi snorted and slapped her shoulder. ‘Needs a little work, you think?’
‘No, it’s nice. Abstract. Symbolic. Something. Funny.’
‘Yeah, whatever. Hey, did you hear that?’
‘That bird. That strange birdcall.’
Ariel listened. A sprightly cocktail-party of birdcall was tinkling through the open
window, almost all of it strange. A turtle dove dribbled a string of low-IQ droplets, and
she recognized the raucous swearing of the grey gangsta-birds. ‘Do you mean the <
‘No, no, that’s a grey lourie. The go-away bird. The curse of the great white hunter.
Wait! There it is again!’ She leapt from her chair and ran to the kitchen door. Ariel
bobbed in her wake.
In a leafless, pot-bellied ficus tree sat a gormless, twee little budgie, white and
powder-blue bright in the drab surroundings, a film star in a refugee camp. It chirruped
a voice warm-up and fluffed its wings – at last, the audience.
‘Ag shame man,’ groaned Stephi. ‘Poor little thing. Must have escaped some idiot’s
‘Do you think we can catch it?’
‘Not a chance.’
They stood loose and forlorn for a while.
‘Well, at least it’s free, for a while,’ said Ariel.
‘Don’t be dof. It’s going to starve to death, if the other birds don’t chop it first.’ On
cue, the grey louries came back, taking up positions in the trees. ‘Uh-oh. Here comes
But the budgie was ecstatic, twittering and puffing up at all this birdie-testosterone.
It swooped and alighted next to the nearest gangsta. The lourie reared back, squawked
a check-this-chick-out to his homies and stabbed the budgie, hard, in the eye.
‘AAH, FUCK THAT!’ The gun was suddenly in Stephi’s hand, and Ariel ducked
away as the garden exploded. She turned her head and peered over her shoulder, just in
time to see half a budgie, a red-white-and-blue cotton-wool ball, plop onto the lawn. A
slow, delicate snowfall of feathers followed. The louries scattered, screaming ghetto
‘Oops,’ said Stephi. ‘Cut.’
‘ Gottes willen! ’ Ariel walked over to the bloblet of budgie. ‘Good shot!’
‘Jeez, I wasn’t even sure which one I was trying to shoot. I’s just trying to stop ... ag
shame. Poor little thing. Just didn’t belong here.’
The plate of grapes was swept aside and a bottle of tequila slammed down in its
place. Beers appeared from the fridge, gnarled lemons were plucked from the garden, a
funky afro-wood salt cellar lined up to join the party. Ariel protested – the afternoon’s
cherrywood light still seeped through the bars of the kitchen window – but not exactly
adamant. This was a day to go with the flow.
Five minutes and three shots later and the room’s jostling with Stephi’s jerry-built
sentences, a crowd of words to chase away the specter of the little bird. Non-sequiturs
chased instant idiom around the shelves, dark anecdote glowered under the sink, jokes
bounced off the ceiling. Ariel, fuzzy with wildness and giggling with assent, did her
best to catch what she could.
A bell bonged. Stephi stumbled over to the small scullery window.
‘Police.’ She jammed the gun deeper into the top of her ample bottom-cleavage and
thumbed her T-shirt taut over the bulge.
Two blue policemen, one white, one black, hulked muscularly beyond the tall gate.
‘Yo. Gentlemen. What can we do you for?’
‘Good afternoon, ladies,’ the black cop, tall, serious, handsome, spoke. ‘We received a
report of gunfire?’
‘No guns here, Bob. Wait < maybe it was my chorrie.’ She pointed towards a
corrugated car-port. An ancient, boxy Land Rover, wallpapered with game-park
stickers, squatted in the shade.
‘It backfires, stupid. Like a bomb. Filled it up with baked beans this morning.’
The policemen exchanged a jaundiced policeman’s look.
‘I arrived and she let loose a biggie. A stinker. Isn’t that so?’ She turned, eyebrows
wriggling, to Ariel, who bobbed her head, twinkling innocence. ‘See? Sorry to waste
your time, gents.’
The black policeman opened his mouth to reply, but his words were cancelled by a
loud crack and mutter of thunder. All three Africans jerked skywards, their faces round
with delight, business at hand suspended. A mountainous bulge of bruised cloud
loomed over the tree-line. There were tiny dots surfing the great, billowing wave.
Swallows, Ariel realized. Swifts. Catching insects in the updraft. Or just because they can.
What a rush. What a life.
‘Oh, cool!’ said Stephi. ‘Rain!’
‘Yeah,’ said the white cop, his voice young and excited. ‘Can you smell it? God, I love
‘Ahem, anyway,’ said the black cop. ‘Maybe you should think about getting your car
fixed. Stupid. Or better, buy a new one. We have a small thing called actual police work
to do, you know?’
‘Yebo baas. Like, again, sor- ree.’
They separated, three pairs of eyes upturned in devotion, Ariel’s level and wide
open, absorbing: these straightforward people, united, happy, so excited at the
approach of rain.
They resumed drinking, head-tossing and scrunching their faces into slices of lemon.
They were bonded now by naughtiness, by outlaw triumph, fluorescent tubes above the
kitchen table lending a glow of firelight to the tequila bottle. They had a few more shots,
and Stephi talked.
When the first few drops hit, she held her breath, and when the earth plunged into
the sky through a great rip of lightning, she whooped like a cowboy and dashed
outside, cavorting over the dead lawn, her head back, her open mouth catching what
Ariel followed and watched from the kitchen door. She leaned against the door jamb,
arms folded < this melancholy misting through: not envy at the uninhibited happiness,
not alcohol, nor the rain. Here, in this strange place, with strange birds and strange
weather, with a stranger as friend, she felt the distant breath of her mountain air, the
caress of her lifelong loneliness.
The stinging wires are like a cage, Ingwe realized, and the thought made her spring up
and prowl around the den, growling softly. She circled with a sibilant twist of tail, her
anger rippling through the air. Distant lightning flickered across the rockface, and then
the growl of thunder. Gazing out into the charged sky, she heard the cub whimpering,
so she lay down, blinking apologies, and calmed her with a touch of quiet breath.
Thought led her to memory, to the cage. She remembered her mother, her gleaming,
fluid back on a belly-crawl to the smell of fresh meat, the pause, the cautious sniff, the
lunge - then the thud of the trap-door dropping, the frantic screams as her mother tore
and fought, the single, terrible sound of a tooth breaking on wire. Her mother had
pleaded in desperate hisses for her to flee, to run run run, but she could not, she was
clawlocked onto the branch, so she had to watch as the two-legs arrived in the stinking,
grass-crushing monster-truck, watch as they stood around the cage, their smoky breath,
their voices low, complicated, horrible. She had to watch as they shot her mother with
shining fire-sticks, as they tossed the flopping body into the truck. Her eyes, her eyes
rolling away, dead, she remembered. She had stayed on the branch throughout the
night, surrounded by the smell of smoke and her mother’s blood, the smell clogged
within her as the breeze gradually brushed the veld clean.
She licked her kitten, and shivered.
The stinging wires are like a cage. Getting in had been easy – a crawl and drop from
an overhanging branch – but how to get out? A road of red dust ran flush against the
wires. She had followed it one night, the kitten clawing in her belly, detouring only a
cluster of two-leg dwellings which thrust out into the bush, and arrived full circle. She
had touched the wire, and the sting was intense and unnatural. It frightened her. It
frightened her < like a cage.
But she was leopard, and leopard goes where she wants. She would find a way. She
felt she would have to, soon. The prey was aware of her now, and they drifted away in
waves which circled around and behind and passed subtle signals of movement
through the grass as she stalked.
The kitten was in deep sleep. She left the den and climbed a tall mopani, and gazed
out across the valley. The farm, with its cages of meat, lay beyond the wires, beyond the
road. It was still lit, still marked by occasional movement. She would wait for the lights
to die, for the two-legs to sleep.
She stretched out on the branch, the wind, fresh with the promise of rain, teasing at
‘Does this car–?’
‘Shush! She hates it if you call her a car. She’s a Land Rover. You’ll hurt her feelings.
Then she’ll break down.’
‘And she has a name, you know.’
Camilla coughed and wheezed and rattled her bones, chugging ceremoniously up
Jan Smuts Avenue, but at least her old bowels behaved. She bounced the girls towards a
city skyline muscling over streetlight-dusted ridges. The Hillbrow tower, beyond the
emphatic block of the hospital, thrust an imperious, phallic head into the trailing hem of
rose-tinted thundercloud. Water gleamed the streets. They headed cityward, but not to
the city – Stephi, for all her devil-may-care, knew that that was a little too rough for two
single white girls from the suburbs. Camilla turned right into Empire Road, toward the
trendy clubs of Melville.
‘It’s all built on gold. The whole damn place. A hundred years ago there was nothing
here. Then they found the surface outcrop of the reef there, there where town is now,’
she pointed at the skyline. ‘Apparently, a squillion years ago there was this inland sea,
with all these rivers running into it, that had gold. The rivers deposited the gold on the
edge of the sea, you know, because it’s heavy, so you had this long semicircle of gold
deposits. The Reef. Then the whole thing got tilted, so now the reef runs deep
underground, to sea level at its end. Or even deeper, I think. Best deep mining
engineers in the world, our guys, so they say.’
‘What do we use gold for?’
‘Gold. What’s it used for, exactly?’
‘Well, you know.’
‘Not really. Jewelry? What else? Dentists?’
‘Ja, and < and. You know. Money. Currency. A safe financial haven in uncertain
times.’ Her voice perked with quotation marks.
‘And this currency. How is it used?’
‘Bear with me.’
‘Um < it’s bought. Sold. Kept in vaults.’
‘Whatever fucken vaults. What the hell you on about?’
‘It’s odd, that’s all. This city < millions of people have been working, struggling and
suffering and spending their lives, developing technology and skills, creating an
economy, all so that they can dig some stuff out of the ground, take it to other places,
and bury it under the ground again.’
‘Jeez,’ Stephi snorted.
‘I’m just saying. Seems there could be more productive ways to spend time.’
‘Oh, anything. Knit. Grow organic food.’
‘So, if you had a choice between a bar of gold and a bar of frikken tofu, which would
‘Right. We’re here. Look for parking.’
Jori nudged Nihil. Nihil nudged Uncle Plastic. The buccaneers gawked at the chick
threading her way through the tables. Something about her was different, some glow
that marked her out from everyone else in the club and possessed their shadowed eyes.
Jori’s hand buckled his beer-can. Uncle Plastic groaned and scratched his groin. A sign
above her head like a halo: Way out of Your League - but they were fizzing with coke, and
anything was possible.
Jori’s stare fell by default on the blonde girl. He nudged Nihil, who snarled at the
point of the elbow before dropping a rumpled head to catch the words.
‘The fat chick. I know her.’
‘The fat chick or the phat chick?’
‘The < the blonde one, you retard.’ In fact, Jori did not exactly know Stephi – he
would have deemed her too fat for his precious time – but she had fleshed out a curve in
a damp, stoned circle at the last Oppikoppi concert, when he had shown off his skill at
conjuring a zol pipe. He remembered her because of her laughter, her mocking voice -
the memory cast stone over his sullen face.
‘So make an intro, cousin. I dabs the beauty.’
‘Y’can have my sloppy seconds, bitch.’ Jori rose from his chair, a giant, his monstrous
shadow looming over the room, his shadow bulging with self-confidence. As it
approached the bar, his shadow was too high to appreciate that he was actually shorter
than the stunning, dark-haired girl in his deluded sights.
‘Two tequila slammers.’ Stephi’s voice dropped a decibel. ‘And Heinekens to chase.’
The drinks came and they poured the sparkle, slammed the glasses and caught the
scrambling bubbles in their mouths. Ariel, with a roll of her shoulders, slammed down
the empty glass and burped, to Stephi’s swaggering approval. The bar-boy shuddered
and moved away.
Despite the bravado, Ariel felt queasy. A thin headache had gradually cracked across
her forehead – too little sleep, too much to drink. She wished she hadn’t worn her little
black dress, but rather jeans, like Stephi, like most of the kids around here. Her fabric
felt too fine, too < lustrous. The faces along the bar had an edge, a dry roughness about
the eyes and jawline, and she knew she stood out. She wished she’d adopted Noodle’s
tarty ethno-punk, that she’d molded her hair into dreads or something, that her slim
shoes were clunkier. Then she thought, screw it, and threw back her hair to throw the
burn of eyes off her back.
‘Hey! Howzit. Remember me?’ An overloud voice intruded. They turned towards an
unkempt, pimply skaterboy, buzzing and be-bopping at the bar beside them.
‘I confess, no.’ Stephi turned away.
He cast a desperate glance back across the room and tried again. ‘Hey, c’mon,’ his
voice spiking with involuntary falsetto. ‘We met at Oppikoppi. We smoked a neck
Stephi spoke to the bar. ‘Why don’t you shout that a bit louder?’
‘Um c’mon hey, whydon’tyoucomejoinus? Me and my friends back there.’ He leaned
in closer, over Ariel, who wrinkled her nose and recoiled. ‘We got a whole pile of coke.
Purest columbine. The real deal. How ‘bout it?’
Stephi raised an eyebrow. ‘Sure. Why not? In a moment.’ The boy, nodding and
baring his teeth, backed away, turned, and squirreled away through the smoke and
‘You into it?’
Ariel shrugged. This was not the Ariel Jaeger of thirty years into the future, not yet
the mover and shaker, the anti-drugs crusader who would approve search-and-destroy
squads and take on, and eventually destroy, the South American cartels and the Mid-
East mafia, who would uproot the coca plant and the poppy, bomb the labs, survive
two assassination attempts and live to see the jailing of a global chain of respectable
business and military leaders, the real bastards, for their part in the trade. She was yet
to witness the slow poison drugs dripped into peoples’ lives, she was yet to see
someone she loved die a humiliating, incremental death. At this stage, she merely
disliked the effect. Dope enveloped her in a cotton-wool tunnel, filled her mouth with
cotton-wool, made other people strange. She had tried coke only once before and it felt
like too much too strong coffee, running into an open drain of anxiety. But she had no
strong objections – hell, she was cool. She shrugged, and repeated, ‘Why not?’
‘Don’t think I’m a druggie or anything. It’s been a hard week at work, and
sometimes, you know?’
‘It’s okay. But what do you think those boys want from us?’
Stephi studied them over her shoulder, sipping her beer from the corner of her
mouth. ‘That we pretend they human?’
‘I’s playing with my dad’s gun. That’s how it happened.’
The story was old news to Jori and Plastic, but the circumstances required
‘How old were you?’ Ariel asked softly.
‘Seven? You were playing with a gun? Age seven? Why?’
‘I dunno. It was in the cupboard.’
There was a pause in the stagnant air. Ariel shifted her back snugger into the join of
seat and passenger door and frowned at Nihil over her shoulder. Passing headlights
danced across the ceiling and caressed the twisted lump where his ear had been.
‘Bummer, dude,’ Plastic’s grinning voice elbowed, mock-American. Everyone
squirmed. His face grimaced, a death’s head in the pale, flat light, his skin like shrink-
wrap. Crooked teeth gleamed.
‘You were seven. And you had access to a gun. In a cupboard.’
‘He had access to a whole lot more than that.’ Jori sniggered, chopping the coke on a
ceramic tile plucked off rubble on their meander from the club. ‘His mother’s
Stephi was horribly embarrassed. She sat, swollen with purple silence and clenching
the steering wheel, her face turned out, elbow jutting like a barrier into Ariel’s space.
Her back was foursquare to the tick of blade on tile.
Ariel could see all three boys, shoulder to leather shoulder in the back seat. One
wafted a faint, pleasant smell < jasmine, or vanilla, like a child’s whimsy, whispering
over the sour bass-note of undeodorized sweat. A strip of inky shadow lay across Jori’s
eyes < see no evil, she thought.
‘RIGHT! Who’s first? Okay I’ll go.’ Jori thumbed a nostril and jammed the blade into
his gum by mistake. It bled, and he licked it, then licked the blade. He licked his thumb
and jammed it into his nostril again. He dipped a rolled note into the powder and
‘Bombs away!’ Plastic grinned his ghastly deaths-head.
Jori arched his neck, artistically. ‘And that, my dear ladies, is the crème de la crème.’
‘Oh sweet Jesus,’ muttered Stephi.
‘I’ll have us some of that crème de la soda, my dear sir,’ Plastic chuckled. The tile was
the subject of sudden, reverent focus, passed parentally from hands to hands. Turned to
each other, their faces alive with care, the two boys looked almost normal.
‘Let’s go to the drag race!’ Nihil was unexpectedly decisive. He slapped the back of
‘Ja, like that’ll impress them,’ muttered Jori.
‘I don’t give a shit!’ He flashed a smile at Ariel, seeking approval. The other two boys
peeked up to see her reaction. She gathered the glances in confusion and turned them to
‘ Drag race. OK. What the hell. Couldn’t get worse.’ She wrenched her wrist into the
ignition. ‘Where to?’
‘Newlands, uh, there by Westbury, I think. There by the Makro somewhere? I heard
there’s a meet tonight.’
‘Char-ming,’ she muttered, flooring it off the curb.
‘Excuse me, but what’s a drag race?’
‘The ou’s bomb down the drag. For the jol.’
‘Speak English, you doos.’
‘Car racing,’ said Stephi, swooping through a stop sign. ‘Illegal. Some folks, they just
give up living, and start dying little by little, piece by piece. Some folks get home from
work and wash up, and go racing in the street.’
Ariel stared at her in surprise, and answered: ‘In < the backstreets? To the darkness
on the edge of town?’
‘Absolutely. Can’t go to the highway. It’s jammed with broken heroes on a last-
chance power drive.’
They sat facing forward, smiling, cut off from the shuffling, puzzled boys behind.
Then Stephi began to sing, as softly as possible. After the first snuffling line, Ariel joined
One soft infested summer
me and Terry became friends
tried in vain to breathe the fire
we was born in.
Catching rides to the outskirts
tying fate between our teeth
sleeping in that old abandoned beachhouse
getting wasted in the heat, n’all
riding on the backstreets …
hiding on the backstreets
with a love so hard and filled with defeat
running for our lives at night on them backstreets.
They could have been anywhere.
The BMW torqued it up to max revs and popped the clutch. Chrome-wheeled, fuel-
injected, it stepped out over the line, dragging a snake-shaped tail of black rubber
behind. The idea was to hit 80 before ramping a speed bump into the headlights lining
either side of the parking lot. The idea was to control the jump, to spit rubber and dust
through the crowd – who had their own idea, to dance and jump and try to slap the
split-second roof - then throw a handbrake 180 and growl back through applause and
drunken jeers, rolling down the tinted windows.
But tonight, tonight, the strip was far from alright. Oil floats on water, and the
revving air was fresh with summer rain. A baked winter of tire residue and oil-dribble
floated a liquid molecule above the tar, and disaster had to happen. The BMW slapped,
spun, veered and yawed. It snapped a leg and shattered a hip. It exploded a crystal star
from an Audi tail-light into the halogen air and ramped a concrete bin. Flipping head-
high, it clipped a platinum blonde, driving her hairpin bone-deep into her scalp, then
landed on its roof on a crest of sparks, wheels up and spinning madly against the night.
It slid fifty feet into the darkness, turning twice before the screaming started.
Ariel watched, aghast.
‘WO! Did you see that?’ Plastic bounced up and down like a toddler.
‘I think that guy’s dead.’ There was a whispery twist to Jori’s voice. ‘And that one.’
Ariel shook her head clear and reached for the door handle. She had one leg down
when Steffi’s hand locked onto her arm.
‘Wait, Ariel. Don’t go. Wait and see. They gonna start fighting now.’
‘She’s right. Check it out.’
Four cars had broken off from the line of lights and zigzagged fast through the
parking lot toward the BMW. They encircled it, trapping it in an inferno of headlights.
A stream of running men flowed towards them. Ariel could see two dark figures inside,
‘I need to piss,’ said Plastic.
The back-lit man-shapes converged, arms up and out, faces etched in snarls. A few
interposed, shaking upraised palms in opposite directions. A splash of color - a woman