‘Bush Midnight’ is an evolving body of work about the African bush. In the wilderness night has a different density to elsewhere. ‘Bush Midnight’ is a term that refers to the early nights in bushcamp: if you get up at 4.45am, then you go to bed at 8.30pm. Ten pm is Bush Midnight – the clock moves differently here.
As a body of literary work, Bush Midnight is about the black intractability of the African night. Also fire, uncertainty, and the peculiar thrill of being part of the food chain – of living among wild animals. It is a nocturnal, underexposed world where very little is visible or clear, and where night comes too soon.
Works in Progress
Fire on the Mountain: a novel*
*(Shortlisted, Metcalfe-Rooke award for an unpublished novel manuscript, Canada, 2011.)
When NGO worker Nick parachutes unexpectedly into the lives of Pieter and Sara Lisson he finds the parents he never had. Pieter is an eminent novelist, a chronicler of an unnamed subtropical country with a history of corrosive race relations and political oppression. For Nick, Pieter and Sara’s life is a fascinating swirl of splendour and acclaim, even while he senses a murky secret at its heart.
When Nick meets Riaan, their son, everything changes. So begins a passionate, intense connection that threatens to erupt into something neither had ever considered before: a sexual relationship with another man. Riaan works as a conservationist in the desert north of the country. His invitation that Nick join him there hurtles Nick headlong into a world he never dreamed existed: a world of so many fires – the fire of the Brandberg, the Fire Mountain which stands, Ayres-rock like, at the beating heart of the desert, a fire which refuses to be quenched between Nick and Riaan, and the unforeseen fire that nearly engulfs Riaan’s parents.
‘I thought you were an impostor,’ Riaan tells Nick. There is an impostor, but Riaan is wrong about his identity. The end of the novel offers a revelation that takes the reader to reconsider everything they have understood so far as true, and also to question the relationship between truth and narration.
A visionary novel fuelled by a passion for the landscape of the southern African desert, Fire on the Mountain is driven by a relentless current and an intensity more akin to an event than a story.
From Fire on the Mountain
A half-finished cup of coffee sat on Pieter’s desk. I approached it, certain I would turn around at any second, and leave.
I learned a long time ago that if you go looking in other people’s papers, diaries, emails – it even applies to trawling the web for information about them – you will find something you wish you hadn’t. Secrets are there for a reason.
I approached the desk. I could not stop myself. I had become too used to reading Pieter’s work, and his intentions, this way. A typed page glared at me, illuminated by his desk light. I stood, reading
I approached the desk. I could not stop myself. I had become too used to reading Pieter’s work, and his intentions, this way. A typed page glared at me, illuminated by his desk light.
To them we are all expendable. I have to accept this. They, whoever they are, are in charge of stage management: getting us onto the stage, getting us off. Don’t lie. You enter a labyrinth that, once started, is impossible to put right.
Upstairs the door opened. Pieter and Sara clattered into the hallway in a rush of keys and purses and greetings to the dog. I looked around: where could I hide? If I opened the garage, the alarm would sound. Pieter had a small cupboard where he kept manuscripts and papers. I saw him opening the door to find me there, and the hopelessness of what would ensue. I would have to leave their house.
I bounded up the stairs. My only hope was to be hail fellow well met, to say I came in looking for them about something urgent – I could not find the cat anywhere, I decided this was the worry, and had come downstairs to Pieter’s study to look for him.
I emerged. Surprise and then annoyance flickered through their eyes. I’m sorry, I launched into a volley of explanations: cat, worry, company – it was this I wanted from the cat – I was suddenly lonely and then couldn’t find him anywhere. They looked at me strangely. ‘Oh’, is all Pieter said. Then he smiled – an automatic, flickering smile.
I returned to my flat, my heart pounding.
There was a knock at the door. I could see through the glass that it was Pieter. I opened the door. He stood on the threshold.
‘Come in,’ I stood aside. But he only gave me a screwdriver look.
I stepped back. I thought he would hit me.
‘Never tell a lie. Even the smallest lie will initiate you into a labyrinth that grows and grows. You have no idea how huge it can get.’
‘I don’t know what you are talking about.’
He gave me the strangest look. Puzzlement mixed with affront. A parental look. I had let him down.
I said, ‘you mean one lie leads to another.’
‘And another.’ His eyes went blank with hope. I realised he hadn’t come to punish me or remonstrate at all. He wanted me to exonerate him. But from what?
He turned away and went into the house.
I waited a suitable amount of time, then went out and got in the car. I coasted down the driveway in neutral, hoping they would not hear me leave. I drove up to the road that snakes around the mountain, parked the car under two tall trees, and got out. In front of me the city lay bathed in late evening light; everything was mauve and pewter, even the sea. The long low outline of one of the offshore islands looked like a gigantic whale.
It had been so long since I’d felt it – shame. And behind it, a desire to find favour. What was I to this man? Not lover, brother, not a son. Although Pieter was treating me like a son, a protégé, a student. I understood well enough that this was his due; he was twenty years older than me, he was a national figure. He had hacked through the kind of emotional undergrowth I would never dare venture into.
I sat there for a long time, until it was dark, watching the car headlights curl around the headland on the opposite side of the harbour. Eventually a security car showed up and a black man shouted out the window. ‘I’d go now if I were you. It’s not safe here.’
Extract of a short story, set in a bush camp in South Africa.
Known to others/Known to self – Arena
This is my world now. Sun liquid in the river, salmon skies at dusk. Those radical shadows of the bush, stripes of black across our minds. Three years. I never know whether it is Tuesday or a Sunday. I read the Mail & Guardian every two weeks and am always surprised to find that the world is still there. We have a cellphone signal but not enough to power an internet connection. The camp radio squawks in and out. We put a car battery on charge to power our phones and computers.
We are excited by each night that comes. The tok-tokkies that barge straight into our faces, the nights so warm we don’t need a jersey, the days blinking hot by 8am. Hot so that you look up and find the sky has turned liquid. Hyena move through the sand river at night. In three years I have never seen one, but every day I see their tracks, sometimes so fresh that they must have passed only a half an hour before.
We are all stunned by the heat. We lie on cool stone benches. We put our heads under the tap that runs hot at first, from where it has been sitting in the metal pipe, burning from the sun, then finally cool. There are usually snakes around the water pipe, as desperate as we are. Nights of lighting and wind. This is my world now.
March 6th. We are back in the reserve after a six month break while Johan did his Dive Guide qualification in Kwa-Zulu Natal. It feels like no time has passed at all. Walking down the path to camp I am overcome with that feeling of time having skipped a beat. I know we left here, we were away for many months, but it doesn't matter. I am back in the Electric Zoo.
Walking the path from our tent-house to camp never varies, but it is also never quite the same as any other day. Some days I see the mother warthog, some days the vervets accompany me, sashaying from tree to tree. The migrane chorus of the Crested francolins and the Natal spurfowl.
I remember the time I was walking back to our tent alone in the evening and the rhombic night adder sped across my path, faster than any fat lazy adder could travel, or so I thought. It was taupe, chocolate – so lovely, for a snake. I remember the male bushbuck who would walk alongside me like a dog, who wanted to be near me. He wanted my protection, as it turned out. One of the male lions killed him a few days later.
I stop dead. The unmistakable smell of fresh popcorn. Will I tell Johan? Will I tell his group? Better not. I look in the dappled shadows: sable, khaki, basalt. The exact colours of the leopard. It could be watching me from ten, twenty metres away. I ought to be afraid, I suppose. But it is the middle of the day, heat-stunned afternoon. The leopard will be too torpid to tear my scalp from my head.
All the courses begin on a Sunday. Johan is there, now, welcoming the new group. I witness this from the dark of the kitchen. The group mill around; excited, heat-fatigued. Only this morning they’d left Joburg, only to enter a completely different world. This one is mostly women. It used to be almost exclusively young men, farm boys from the Free State or guys who’d flunked out of school on the Highveld, but now the girls routinely outnumber the boys. There is always one beauty among them. By the time they meet me they’ve spent a few hours with Johan, who wears no ring.
‘Ok, everyone found a tent? Everyone happy? It’s time to lay down a few rules.’ I hear him from the bush kitchen, where I sit making mince with Violet. First night in camp is spaghetti Bolognese night.
‘Always walk with a torch at night. There are snakes and scorpions around. Also leopard, hyena, even lion. One night last year we were sitting here having dinner and a male lion walked into the kitchen.’
Johan points to where Violet and I are sitting, in the darkened kitchen behind the mesh designed to keep out squirrels, mice, snakes and larger game.
Violet and I exchange a glance. What would we do, I wonder, if a lion poked his head in the kitchen right now? I would do as Johan taught me, I suppose, leap up, start roaring and banging pots and pans together. Or wait for Johan to save us. Via the bush telegraph we heard a story last year about a woman in Botswana, a safari tourist. She was having a shower in a bathroom block very much like the ones we use here, a brown piece of canvas instead of a door, tall bamboo walls, no back door. A lion walked in and killed her in the shower. It must have been a mess to clean up. If that were to happen here, it would be my job to mop up the remains.
I don’t tell Violet and Victoria this story. We banter in Shangaan. Mine is rusty, unused now for six months, but they like me for trying.
'Mhisi keep me awake all night. Ku rhula,’ Victoria rolls her eyes. Give me peace and quiet.
‘My auntie she die from a headache.’ Violet says.
‘Violet, you don’t die because of a headache.’
The girl gives me a blank look. ‘She had a headache and then she was dead.’
Today is the first day, so the students are chastened by fear. That won’t last long. Within a week they’ll have smuggled in a bottle of gin and will be staggering back to their tents at night just as a hyena is coming down the path.
Johan never introduces me as ‘my wife.’ He says, ‘this is Janine,’ and the girls look at me and measure their power against mine, even as they smile and say, nice to meet you. Young women are like this, now – maybe they have always been like this, maybe I would have known this by now if we’d had a daughter. Less scrupulous, no interest in integrity. They are only ego and sex.
‘Just like men, then,’ Johan says, when I try to warn him.