In recent years, while based in South Africa, I made two trips to Namibia, on the fringes of the Skeleton Coast National Park. On one visit I did a 150 kilometre trek over six days in a remote part of Damaraland. The resulting body of work (a collection of poetry, in progress, an essay account of the trek and accompanying photographs and a prose poem, ‘Bitterpits’) investigates the relationship between landscape, expeditionary walking, thought and memory.
An essay about the Skeleton Coast was a finalist in the 2013 Prism International Creative non-Fiction prize.
I have also published several short stories set in southern Africa. An extract of 'Two Africas', a story set in part in Cape Town during the final days of Apartheid and in turn-of-the-century Alexandria, the era of the poet Constantin Cavafy, appears below.
Cape Town, 1989
High summer and a Southeaster shreds the basin of Table Bay, but by the time he has reached Muizenberg station a celestial hand has pressed the off button, and the wind has disappeared. When it is windy on the southern peninsula it is calm on the northern side, and vice versa.
The train passes through the green southern suburbs, skirting the flank of Newlands rugby ground, then the scrublands of Salt River, Diep River. Then the picket fence stations of the seaside: Muizenberg, St James, Kalk Bay, Fish Hoek, Simon’s Town, their underpasses slashed by ocean. Sometimes you couldn’t walk through them for slipping on the suds and glossy ribbons of kelp thrown there by the breakers.
He alights at Muizenberg and nearly collides with two pale static people clutching cameras trained on the Whites Only/Net Blankes sign. Apartheid tourists – Europeans who wander Cape Town taking pictures of the segregated bus stops, train carriages, benches, drinking fountains.
These two – a man and a woman they are, he sees now, although there is little to distinguish their genders, look piercingly at him, then away. They have understood his dark complexion is only a tan.
‘Looking for a coloured man?’
The Europeans don’t respond. He wants to say, look, I don’t agree with the system either, but neither do I like being an extra in your sociological zoo.
Ester’s sister had sent them one of these photo-essays from London, dodging the postal censors. It was titled Cape Town: the Apartheid City. The black and white photographs scald him. He has never seen his city, or this face of it, through this harsh lens on the hunt for injustice. In the photographs he sees faces not dissimilar to his own – southern peninsula faces, scraped by salt and wind. But for a shade of darkness he could be one of them. ‘You’ve got a tinge of the dark side of Europe,’ his commanding officer said once, keen to deflect any hint among his men that Jan might not be a full-blooded Afriakner. ‘Those Germans who came from the Russian Steppes, maybe. Or the black Irish.’
He did not reply, my family are German and Dutch. Flaxen-haired, those eyes blue as a plume of gas. How did he emerge? He had never had the chance to ask his mother before she died. His eyes were dark brown and there was an almost Indian cast to his cheekbones. He was often asked for his ID card, the green wedge of paper with ‘Blanke’ stencilled in watermark behind his name.
He walks down the small flight of stairs and across the parking lot to Surfer’s Corner. He takes up his usual position on the beach, alone, away from the surfers, monitoring them. There are only ever one or two women, even in the largest groups. In a wetsuit, it is difficult to tell women and men apart; everyone becomes an ephebe, a word which had lodged itself inside him from his Classics course during his Matric year. It meant a young man or woman at that threshold age, eighteen or nineteen, androgynous and so indistinguishable.
Usually one or two horizon-awed dogs join him on these surveillance missions. He and the dogs are strangers to each other yet the dogs sit faithfully by his side on the beach and stare straight out to sea. He lays back on the sand. Today, more than ever, he needs to think.
The Deputy Head appeared in the doorway to his classroom. That was a rare enough sight. He came to fetch you for one reason only.
‘Malan, you’re wanted.’
A man in a grey suit stood in the Head’s office. He knew what grey suits meant.
‘Jan, this is Mr Van Wyk.’
He looked from the Head to the grey man.
‘You may sit.’
He sat. He was used to interrogations, although he had always been on the other side of the desk.
Van Wyk got down to business. ‘We’re wondering, Malan, what a war hero is doing teaching High School.’ He smiled in the direction of the Head. ‘Not that there’s anything wrong with that.’
‘This is the most prestigious school in town,’ he said, diplomatically. That got a small nod from the Head.
‘You haven’t been tempted to go back to the forces?’
‘I fought for my country.’
‘Of course you did,’ Van Wyk said. ‘Look, you know why I’m here, you were in the OC.’ Another slender, implicating smile.
‘Yes, in a general sense.’
‘It’s just that we want to know – for their own protection, you understand – if any of your students have an issue with conscription. It’s the boys we’re interested in. The girls can agitate against the state all they want. These days we’ve got to conserve our resources.’
He knew there was a problem with desertion. Boys fleeing to Mozambique, Rhodesia, to Zambia to avoid the draft. Boys with money and connections going to London and Australia, to ‘study’. Paul and Magnus from the previous year’s matric class were now ensconced in some snowy upstate New York university, a radical and last-minute course of action.
‘We need them more than ever,’ said Van Wyk. ‘In a couple of years we could be fighting the Bantu, never mind SWAPO.’
SWAPO had won, although the victory conference was yet to come. At this very moment, Jan knew from the intelligence his father received from the foreign office, a peace treaty was being negotiated. Soon the end of hostilities and the birth of a new country – Namibia – would be announced to the world in Windhoek. And so would end the years of death, if not certain then near-certain, when to be sent to the Border was to be put in an impossible situation. Even if you survived the hot desert plains of South-West Africa, you were still dead when you returned.
He nodded. Mr Van Wyk knew none of this, he guessed.
‘Is that a yes.’ It was not a question.
‘Yes.’ Then the training and habit got the better of him. ‘Sir.’
The cool kelp wind slatted itself through the window of his classroom. Fog blanketed Sea Point. He could hear the groan of the foghorn.
He replayed the conversation. In the office sandwiched between the two men he couldn’t speak, couldn’t think. It was as if his entire being had been held captive by memory. A kind of hypnosis.
The offices he’d sat in far to the north, months of orange wind and blood deserts. Offices where he’d interrogated black men with bodies like knives. A smell of stale sweat and sometimes of blood.. The iron tang of it. A typewriter to write his interrogation reports on, sand wedged between the keys.
‘Yes.’ He failed to keep the annoyance out of his voice. He needed to think now.
Jaco – the boy – flinched.
‘Sorry, Jaco, I didn’t hear you come in. What can I do for you?’ He shuffled the papers he was pretending to grade.
‘I was wondering if you could read my composition, Sir, for the essay contest?’
He took off his glasses and rubs his nose – an old man’s gesture, although he is twenty-five – twenty-six in April. What month was it now? He struggled to put a name to the weather, which was unseasonably cold. Yes, it was February, the start of term. This boy who stood in front of him had been in his class the year before as well.
But the boy had gone through more than a growth spurt over the summer break. He stared at the boy – man, he corrected himself – trying to find the key to it. He was still slender, boyish. He didn’t look very different from all the others, tall and blond, with an unruly crop of hair and eyes the colour of milky jade. But his face was more defined. Two new hollows on either side of his mouth gave it strength and resolve. Not the face of a boy, not anymore.
And there was something in his eyes, a look of crushed mineral. Something in a process of dissolution.
He realised he was staring. ‘Of course. Just leave it for me on my desk. Have you typed it up?’
‘Yes, I’ve typed it but I can still change it.’
He found it hard to maintain eye contact with the boy – man. He slid his eyes away, too early. Jaco probably thought him just another cranky teacher. The boy mustered a false smile. This also made him furious.
‘I’m glad you’re trying for the contest.’
The boy’s face changed. Now he looked – what was it? Hunted. Desperate. It occurred to him Jaco was trying to please. That was also new.
‘Ok, Sir, have a good evening. Are you going to hit the beach?’
All his students knew him to be a surfer, a beach boy, in his spare time. He sometimes rose at 4am to hit the waves before class, making the return trip to Muizenberg beach in his knackered bakkie, arriving in the hot, dusty halls of the school minutes before his class was about to start, his hair still wet and beaded with sand.
‘Ja, if I can fit it in.’
Jaco smiled. They both knew Jaco would be conscripted before he finished the year. And then, if he survived the Army, in two years later he will go to university to study English, Jaco had told him last year. He was decided.
He became aware of a pause, as if the air was holding its breath. The smile transformed the boy’s face into pure instinct, into a canvas of raw pleasure, but with a note of restraint, taut, resinous, running through it. Something in him recognised what these competing instincts meant, and leapt to life. How many months did he go without seeing a single unforced smile on the Border?
‘Great. Enjoy!’ In his zeal to be hearty Jaco betrayed his nervousness. He decided to spare the boy the embarrassment of his awareness.
‘See you tomorrow.’
‘See you tomorrow.’
He gathered up his books and shoved them in his satchel. A hot wind sliced through louvered windows. He walked down the cream-coloured hallways lined with rosewood and padouk. Whenever he told the diehards that he taught matric English at Jan van Riebeek they nearly fell on their knees with reverence. The school had always been for the elite. No-one said it out loud, necessarily, it was not written anywhere, but this was the fact of the situation: you only went there if your father was in the government, or the Army, or important, as Jan’s was, even if he was a liberal.
The school was a white-washed three storey structure, surrounded by hacked-at banana plants that grow at a supernatural speed and defeat even the army of black gardeners the school governors employed on breadline wages. On one side the windows looked to Table Bay and the docks; the other faced the mountain. His classroom faced the ocean, and at times, even during lessons, he caught himself staring out the window. There skies marched on toward the Antarctic; there was nothing between his English classroom and its icy oblivion.
The sirocco comes from the Sahara. In Arabic it is called qibli. The heat and the dust. It is generated in the kiln flats of the desert to the south.
He met a young aviator once who told him it took four days to fly the desert, from Cairo to Mogadishu, ‘flying day and night’, the man said. March and November are when the winds reach hurricane speeds. Then there is the Khamsin, a wind named after the Arabic word for ‘fifty’, when the wind blows for fifty days and everyone loses their mind.
He exits the tram stop one block from the Corniche. Squeals of seagulls, smell of kelp – the smell of home. To see the soothsayer he had to travel south. He lived on the shores of the brackish lake. There the smell was of rotting reeds and that stale chemical scent of evaporation.
His question this time was different. It is his third visit to the soothsayer and he was becoming bold.
The old man looked at him with his amber eyes. ‘Do you have many brothers?’
‘Because all the cards are men. This one – ‘ the man pointed a long finger on which the nail was cracked – ‘he is very handsome.’
‘Yes,’ he nodded. ‘He is.’
‘But he betrays people easily. Look.’ The man pointed to the card next to the man, which showed a sword piercing a broken, bleeding heart. ‘I am sorry to say such a thing about your brother.’
‘Are you sure he is my brother?’
‘That is my guess. He is very close to you. Closer than he should be.’ He shrugs. ‘The cards never lie.’
An evening sky now, the rose and oyster of early spring on the southern tip of the Mediterranean. Cavafy lingers on the Corniche, its wrecked cement pock-marked, splattered in guano. He hesitates to go home. He knows what awaits him there.
Later that night he sits at his desk. It is only two months since his brother Paul left to travel in Europe. His brother who the cards see, followed by the Death card.
‘It doesn’t mean death. It never means physical death,’ the soothsayer hastened to say.
‘What does it mean, then?’ He’d heard the testiness in his own voice. A skeletal man with no stomach and a skull and a snake wrapped around his staff – what could it mean but?
‘The end of a cycle, the end of a conflict. It is a good sign. Something new comes afterwards.’
On the Corniche, he finally turns for home. He is 45 now, and living on his own for the first time in his life, after Paul’s departure. The loneliness is like a lion. It eats him alive, but slowly. Every day he wakes, surprised to find there is something of himself left to devour.
The poems flow out of him. When this happens it is like someone tugging at a ribbon. Or a tapeworm, his other-self says, this voice that crops up from time to time in his head and which speaks exclusively of nevers and disasters. His internal Death card, perhaps. The poem has been feeding on him, but now it is out. Even though it will not be published for another sixty years, it has its own separate existence in the world.
The next morning Cavafy goes to the café. He is not there, or not yet, the blue-eyed man. It was this man the soothsayer saw in the cards. The Roi des batons, the King of Wands. He is always handsome, always attractive. Not necessarily a trustworthy character, but then who ever expects truly beautiful people to be that?
He moves like a fog through lanes lined with birds in cages; at the end of these dark labyrinths, the hot sea. He remembers the men met in shops, in cafes. Some of them he recognises from furtive trysts. Some look at him with the eyes of murderers. He thinks again how similar they look, lust and hate, in men’s eyes.
Today he will speak to him. He only needs to arrive. Cavafy knows he is no longer at his most handsome. At twenty-three, that was a different matter! His friend had just painted his portrait. He was one of those figures on amphorae, those young men with the haunches of cattle. Swarthy, the eyes which will wattle in later life, forming flaps of skin inherited from his maternal grandmother.
He squats behind his newspaper, a well-practiced spy of other men. He needs only to wait an hour or so. By then he has had three coffees and the edges of his newspapers flutter with nerves.
The man enters. He wears a light suit. He is used to being in a hot city. Unlike so many Europeans, he knows what to wear.
‘Excuse me,’ Cavafy finds himself on his feet and speaking even before he knows it. His heart pounds.
The man turns to him. Yes, he was right. He is the man, the one he has been dreaming of all these years. Blue eyes, caramel hair. He is tall, thin but not thin, powerful but not swarthy. He is the most beautiful man he has ever seen.
He then launches into some pleasantries: seen you here before, new in town? I am an Alexandrine. Would you care for a cognac? He sounds so smooth. Not like himself. This must be important, he says to himself as his heart threatens to leap out of his chest.
The man speaks with the accent of a Hollander. No - that’s not right. After Cavafy has heard a few more guttural consonants and vowels trilled exaggeratedly, as if for amusement. This man is a Hollander, but from Africa. An Afrikaner. They lost the Boer war to the English, and so they scattered.
As it turns out, he is even more exotic. He tells Cavafy he has a business in Lourenco Marques, he comes from Mozambique. He is a white Mozambican, but with South African blood. About that Cavafy was correct.
The man imports Sandalwood. Myhrr. He is a devotee of the orient. Cavafy nearly says this exact phrase, ah, you are a devotee of the orient, but catches himself at the last minute.
He wants to say this to him: ‘I’ve been dreaming of you. I thought you’d never come.’
They walked along the shell-laced curve of the beach. The wind blew dark hair into Ester’s eyes.
‘Since when are you interested in geology?’
‘I’m not,’ he confessed. ‘Don’t take it the wrong way. I just needed to get out of school for awhile.’
‘I don’t take it the wrong way.’ A wry smile.
They stopped by mutual agreement and stood in front of the sea which was grey-blue, like the skin of a whale.
‘I’m glad you came,’ she said. ‘I couldn’t have faced a field trip on my own. Not that they’d let me do it in the first place. Or a field trip with Anton – how about that?’ Anton was the other geography teacher, a martinet. He’d been something or other in the government when he was young. He once broke a chair in the classroom. The students gave him extra space when they passed him in the corridor.
Ester didn’t look like a science teacher at all. She wore shirts with wide collars and wide-shouldered tiny jackets that pinched at the waist, clothes her sister sent her from London. Her sister was in exile; she had spent two years as a Banned Subversive and in the end couldn’t take it anymore. ‘It was like house arrest,’ Ester told him. All the teachers at Jan van Riebeeck High were vetted for good National Party credentials, and they’d only overlooked the issue of Ester’s sister because their father was the deputy minister of defence.
On the way north they had sat together at the front of the bus, in the seat behind the driver. Behind them their students fought over who would sit next to whom. The drive to the Cederberg was four hours long.
‘Settle down,’ he yelled to the back of the bus, then repeated it in English for good measure. He found himself looking for Jaco and located him, wedged into the last row of bank seats at the back of the bus – the troublemakers’ seat.
A geology field trip to discover Gondwanaland, that is how Ester had cleverly sold it to the school. ‘There is nowhere the earth is older than here,’ she had said, and she and Jan laughed in secret at the expression on the Head’s face, how he swallowed the wilful gravitas of her statement like liquor.
Now the bus shuddered as it climbed the fertile plains into the Piketberg Pass. The mountains were worn but not defeated, made from flaky shale. This land was so deeply sunk in the past it might be extraterrestrial, from another time dimension.
On the way they made a detour to Paternoster for some lunch and to let the class run around. He and Ester went for a walk. Their students kept a hawkish eye on them, as if they were the chaperones. Their romance was already a fact to them, the story of the term, a neat equation: woman teacher plus male teacher plus field trip equals romance. Everyone knows that, their charges might have thought, with the wisdom of 50 year-olds.
For field trips the school always paired male and female teachers, unmarried woman with unmarried man, or married woman/married man. The girls would need a woman to talk to if they ran into ‘female troubles’, was the logic. The boys needed a man to keep them from running amok. And it was true these field trips often sparked romance among the teachers as much as the students – two days and nights on their own devices, bound by the camaraderie of keeping their 17 and 18 year old charges out of the way of harm.
‘I said No Swimming!’ he found himself yelling at a knot of boys, the more obvious athletes, the star boys of their year. All of them beautiful but mean, all of them with fathers who were either rugby players or in the military. They were in the water half way up to their waist. ‘There are sharks.’
The boys laughed at him, but they came out of the water. He was a surfer, he knew when it was safe and when it wasn’t. They respected him, and he was grateful for it. He knew what life was like for teachers who failed to earn their pupils’ respect.
He looked for Jaco up and down the beach. He finally found him by one of the crab kiosks, talking to three of the very pretty girls who were his classmates this year. A sharp stab, somewhere in his abdomen.
‘Are you ok?’ Ester asked.
‘Old war wound,’ he winced.
Something flared in her eyes. Political distaste, but also attraction. Everyone knew he’d been in the Army, but they didn’t know where, or what had happened to him. When you were conscripted you entered secret territory. Even his father hadn’t known where he was, for over a year.
Yes, she was definitely expecting romance. If not now, then later. She might admire him for holding back on the field trip, but expect him to call her later, maybe after a week or two had passed. They would go out and have some mussels and chips. They would walk along the promenade at Mouille Point. They would start to meet for coffee in the staff room, and it would all develop from there.
‘Ow, ow, ow.’ Jaco pronks across the beach. He holds the ball of one foot in his hand.
‘Crikey,’ Ester days. ‘Here comes the young hopalong Adonis.’
He looks at her. She shrugs. ‘The best looking boy in his year. I’ve had that on good authority – Pamela, Marieke, Charmaine,’ she says, naming the troika of 18 year old beauty queens of their matric class.
Ah yes, those girls. They like Jaco on his looks alone, even if Jaco is something of a rebel. He is not the good conservative Afrikaner these frontier princesses would ideally like to marry. He presses for reforms in sport, to allow all the races to compete against each other; he and his friends are successful and this is a tiny repeal of segregation. But at the same time Jan can see the boy is a product of his ancestors: strict, severe, somewhere in those Lutheran genes lies an instinct for cruelty which begins with the self. Self-punishment, self-sacrifice. And an anger, as wide as the mountain with crowns his city. He might fall serially for these girls, blond goddesses of their country, tall lanky girls with questionmark eyes, always blue or green, the steady authority of their gaze inherited from their seven generations of genocidal ancestors.
‘Sir,’ Jaco arrives, breathless and golden. ‘I’ve stepped on an urchin.’
Ester gives him a conspiratorial smile. ‘Over to you.’ She moves away, down the beach. Everyone knows he was a medic in the Army, that he’s pulled bullets out of his buddies’ bodies. If anything serious happens at school, no-one goes to the nurse, apart from to get a sick note. They all end up bleeding or dribbling at his door.
‘Ok, sit down. Let’s have a look.’
Jaco lowers himself onto the sand with one hand. He’s noticed Jaco’s ankles before. How slim they are, like a racehorses’. He is lean without being thin, muscular without being beefy. Everyone has a physical type, he supposes, in women and in men, even if one of those categories is out of bounds, or not of interest sexually. To admire a body is not the same as to desire it.
‘Put your foot here.’ He motions for the boy to place his foot on top of his running shoe. He digs out his field kit to extract the needle and pure alcohol.
He offers his water bottle. ‘You’re dehydrated. Take a swig.’
His eyes snag on Jaco’s over the top the bottle. Jaco’s eyes have no deference in them. The look is brazen, direct. His eyes are jade like the water that laps at the edge of the sand, shallow, diluted. The glassy stare in them looks like anger.
He returns the look with his own dark eyes. In the Army he was teased – that’s the polite word for it – for having ‘bedroom eyes.’ ‘That’s my default expression,’ he would say. ‘I’m not trying to seduce anyone.’ Although that wasn’t strictly true. He knew how to use his looks for effect. There were men who he could just tell were susceptible, if not to actually doing anything, then to the sheer current of a body. He had several semi-conquests in the Army, men he persuaded to do something or other – put themselves in the line of fire, give up the details of the Cuban positions near Rucana – with only a look.
Seagulls wheel overhead. The bottle is passed back. Waves pound ashore. The voices of the others are suddenly distant.
Jaco’s mouth moves.
‘Don’t say anything. I’m going to tweezer the spines out with a needle.’
The boy disobeys. ‘Will you take me to the beach?’ The boy’s voice and gaze is steady. Yes, he has changed a lot over the summer. Something has made him sure of himself, certain of his attractiveness.
‘You take guys surfing sometimes. The others told me’
He shakes his head. Even if he doesn’t know if he is saying yes, or no.
The boy swallows. He sees he has hurt him. A powerful rush of something – anger, vindication, sorrow, entwined – rips through him.
Jaco has gone quite pale. His eyes strike at him like individual knives.
‘Let’s get these spines out.’ He seizes the boy’s foot and stabs him.
He and Ester were lenient. They made a pact with the owner of a small wine bar in Citrusdal and bought bottles all around. No word to the superiors, can’t let it get out that there’s been drinking on the field trip. They decided that the trip was a chance for the class to feel independent, to experience the freedom they would soon know at university. Or, if they were destined for the Army, they should have a memory of their matric year soaked in trust and liberation.
The group sat outside under a huge cedar in the moonlight, all drunk on one or two glasses of good Cape wine. He tried not to look at Jaco. But their eyes clashed and he saw a bitter question mark in the centre of Jaco’s eyes. He fired a look back: don’t think that because you’re beautiful you’re always going to get what you want.
Darkness fell in the mountain town. He sat with his arm thrown around the back of Ester’s chair, aware that he was being cruel to both Ester and Jaco, for different reasons. But he could not resist the surge of power inside him; he felt monumental, better than time. He and Ester smiled at each other, knowingly conspiratorial. You could do things like that in those days and get away with it, even with all the spies and informers. They were good kids, they would never tell their parents. He and Ester were nearly their contemporaries, after all, they were only seven or eight years older. But also, what a lifetime that could be.