The Future World President's First True Love by James Alexander - HTML preview

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and swayed back on his knees, his eyes hooded and dreamy. She glanced down.

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‘Where’s the condom?’

‘Uh?’

‘Oh no. You’ve got to be kidding me.’

61

7

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

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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.

63

THE CRUCIFIXION

64

1

‘My darling! How are you? How were the exams?

‘Hullo, mother.’

‘What are you doing?’

‘Watching TV.’

‘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.’

‘Which one?’

‘Excuse me?’

‘Magazine.’

Bild. There are others?’

‘Yes.’

‘This is great. Keep it up. Are you still seeing him? The footballer?’

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‘Say hi to me Mum,’ in a passable cockney as she tossed the phone over. He picked it

up.

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.’

‘Um, John-bon?’

‘What?’

‘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.

66

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

cancel. Whatever.’

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-‘

‘Johnny. Please.’

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‘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.

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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.

69

2

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.

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‘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,

and <?’

‘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.’

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‘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.

Her father shuffled down the passage, opened the door, leaned his head in, and

asked, ‘What’s going on?’

‘Nothing. It’s nothing.’

72

3

‘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.

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‘Aaaah! Oh my God. My back! You crocked my back. Motherfucker? Aaaaaaaah,

God.’

‘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

office.

‘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

convincing.

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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.’

‘I promise.’

‘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?’

‘Yes.’

‘If you’ve got any evidence, freeze it. Believe me, one day you’ll want to do the right

thing.’

‘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?’

‘Do what?’

‘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

75

sympathy? But you < oh God, you assaulted poor Johnny? No, no, what is this

insinuation?’

‘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

season.’

‘Oops.’ She giggled.

‘Ariel! This is serious. He could sue you, never mind the damage you’ve done to our

reputation.’

‘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

home, okay?’

‘Okay, Mama.’

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

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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

horror.

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.

Johnny.

Oh no. What have I done?

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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.

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4

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

shoulder.

‘Ari? Ari, my treasure. Wake up, child.’

‘Daddy?’

‘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?’

‘No.’

‘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

79

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

reporters outside?’

‘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.’

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‘Come downstairs. I’ll make some more tea. What would you like to eat?’

‘Meat.’

‘Really?’

‘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

matter.’

‘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,

‘No.’

‘But the house is in your name?’

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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

pregnancy?’

‘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

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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

girl?’

‘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.’

‘Then wh-?’

‘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.’

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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

vehicles.

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.’

‘For when?’

‘Right now.’

84

5

‘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 <’

‘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.’

85

‘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.’

‘Okay. Bye.’

‘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.’

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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?’

‘Oh, Ariel.’

‘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.’

‘What?’

‘If you took a gap year, then people would forget. You could come back without

notoriety.’

Notoriety, my queen? So now you want to exile your little problem? But wait a minute …

‘But where could I go?’

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‘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

might.’

Ariel yawned, so tired of having to think. Her mother took the hint, hugged her and

left.

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

88

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

apologize-‘

‘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

next year.’

‘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.’

89

‘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.

90

6

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.

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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

tiptoes.

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?’

‘Excuse me?’

‘Catch any?’

‘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.’

‘Hey.’

‘All’s well that ends well.’

‘Yup. What?’

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‘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.’

93

‘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

islands?’

‘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.’

‘Uh, no?’

‘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.

94

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.

‘Mahmoud?’

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‘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

you.’

‘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,

it burns.’

‘What?’

‘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!’

‘Mahmoud.’

‘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.’

‘What?’

96

‘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

scrambled back.

‘We are legion,’ he growled.

Then Mahmoud’s voice, strangled and faint: ‘Run, Ari. And I’m running the fuck the

other way.’

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.

97

A JOZI JOL

98

1

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.

‘What?’

‘The flat part? Mountains, you know, all around?’

‘Plateau?’

‘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.

99

‘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.

100

2

‘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.

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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

move?’

‘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.

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‘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

green bark.

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

Ingwe’s throat.

‘What’s next?’ she murmured.

‘Mmm?’

‘Meat. What’s next?’

‘Have to see.’

‘Something different again.’

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Ingwe stroked her kitten between the ears with the tip of her chin. ‘I know where to

get dog. And goat.’

‘Dog? Tasty?’

‘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.

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3

‘STEPHI?’

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.

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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

them.

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.

tschid-tschik

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 <

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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?’

‘Aah–’

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

beauty.’

‘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

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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.’

‘Vibe?’

‘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.’

‘Sure.’

‘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.

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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?’

‘What?’

‘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 <

g’waay?

‘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

cage.’

‘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

shit. Aa-ction.’

109

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.

It screamed.

‘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

profanities.

‘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.

‘Ooo. Boere.’

‘Who?’

110

‘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.

‘I’m sorry?’

‘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

that smell.’

111

‘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

she could.

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.

112

4

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.

113

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

her fur.

114

5

‘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.’

‘Oh.’

‘And she has a name, you know.’

‘Oh. What?’

‘Camilla Parker-Bowles.’

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?’

115

‘Huh?’

‘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?’

‘Huh?’

‘Bear with me.’

‘Um < it’s bought. Sold. Kept in vaults.’

‘Underground 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.’

‘Such as?’

‘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

you take?’

‘Gold, stupid.’

‘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

116

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

117

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

together?’

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

dark wood.

‘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

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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?’

119

6

‘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

compassion:

‘Shoo.’

‘Blind.’

‘How old were you?’ Ariel asked softly.

‘Seven.’

‘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.’

‘Uh, sure.’

‘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

pharmacy, f’rinstance.’

‘Shaddup.’

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.

120

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

imploded.

‘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

Stephi’s seat.

‘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

Stephi.

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?’

121

‘The ou’s bomb down the drag. For the jol.’

‘Excuse me?’

‘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

in:

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.

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7

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.

123

A stream of running men flowed towards them. Ariel could see two dark figures inside,

upside down.

‘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