Songeziwe Mahlangu

EXTRACT: Penumbra by Songezizwe Mahlangu

A debut novel reveals Cape Town's dystopian shades

This is not how things are meant to be. I walk past sickly people in the street. One man’s face is charred, with pink lips that have been licked by spirits. He moves like he is dying. A disabled man sits in his wheelchair in front of the Claremont BMW dealership; he looks around absent-mindedly with narrow eyes. I cross Main Road and wait for a taxi a few metres before Edgars. It does not take long for one to stop. The driver must be in his fifties. I sit in the first row facing the front. The dark-brown seats are oily and torn.

The driver is working here. The mechanics of the taxi industry mean starting the day early, transporting workers to their offices, the gaartjie opening and closing the door, collecting money, giving change and ending at home eating supper in front of the TV. We all have to work. I look out the window to my right, and see the tar sparkling in the mid-morning sun.

“The streets are empty,” I say to the driver. His bald head only twitches. “Is it because of the strike?” I ask.

“The strike is starting on Thursday,” a Muslim man sitting in the front says. He passes me his cellphone to show a message confirming this.

But why is he doing this? Why does he see a need to show me this message? Witches of old used to cast spells like this, by sending notes written back to front. You needed to read the note facing a mirror and would thereby curse yourself. The cellphone here is the mirror. And this man is substantiating a lie, twisting reality.

I pretend to read the message and return his cellphone. Knowing this little fact about witchcraft has saved me.

We pass a tall white block of flats, Becket’s Place in Newlands. This is where Kwanele was staying, years back, when he saw his ancestor on the back of a book in his room. At the time I dismissed it as a psychotic episode. I’m not so sure any more.

In the southern suburbs the neighbourhoods change names as you travel. Newlands becomes Rondebosch. This is where I’m supposed to get off. But I just do not know where. We drive past Starlite. It is empty, being a Monday morning. I ask the driver to stop opposite Pick n Pay. I stand in front of Cybar. The sky in Rondebosch is blue. Main Road groans with mid-morning traffic. The shops are stacked next to each other; Pick n Pay, Wimpy, the chemist. Thandeka, a woman who plays keyboards for a local jazz band, walks past me. She is dressed in black: black pants and a black blouse. Her eyes are yellow. I watch her approach the Van Schaik bookshop. She too is suffering. Maybe she’s perishing from a lack of knowledge. She fades away from me.

I got off much later than I should have. I don’t know how it escaped me that the Riverside Mall is further back. How can I forget a place I’ve been to so many times before? My brain shakes at this thought; wind blows in my bowels. I count my steps to the mall.

The Vertigo clothing store lies to the right of the entrance. I recognise one woman who works there. I overheard her a while back saying she had stopped drinking because alcohol made her fat. Inside, the corridors are shadowy, with a yellow cast from the lighting.

In front of a bottle store there is a blackboard with price specials written thickly in white chalk, outlined in red. The last time I bought liquor from this bottle store was during my first year at UCT. I was staying in Kopano. We had just finished writing exams. I bought two sixpacks of Black Label cans. That time has now sadly faded.

The manufactured coolness of air conditioning blows inside the ABSA student bureau. The receptionist has long black hair, and stands behind a polished light-brown desk. I look at her for a minute. This woman is beautiful, with a glistening complexion. But there’s something dark that lies in her spirit. Flies cluster in my chest. I approach her.

“Hi, I have resigned from my job. I would like a reduced payment schedule on my student loan,” I say.

“You’ll have to talk to a consultant for that. She’s busy at the moment,” the woman says. I do not trust her. My nerves pick up speed as she talks. “You can take a seat. I’ll call you when she’s ready to see you.”

I sit on a blue chair, take my cellphone from my pocket and check the time. It is approaching eleven. I look down at the carpet.

“You can go in,” the receptionist calls out. “Go to the second door to your right.”

As I walk in, the consultant is on the phone. I sit down and watch her work. She’s Indian and has short hair. There is a red spot between her eyes. She puts down the phone, looks at me, inviting me to speak. I explain my resignation to her.

“Well, there’s nothing we can do. You have to face the consequences of resigning without settling another job first,” she splutters. While I think of what to say, she continues: “There is another option. You can contact Helen,” she says, scribbling on a piece of paper.

I look at the paper and read: “Helen Messiah.” The phone number contains “666”.

“You can call Helen here… ” she says, picking up the phone.

I get up and walk out.

“Where are you going?” she calls out irritably.

I do not bother to look back.

The door of a white taxi hangs open outside Pick n Pay. The gaartjie shouts: “Claremont, Wynberg.” He runs after me, “Claremont, brother?” he asks. I shake my head. I walk to the shining white tiles of Pick n Pay and join the queue for airtime. A woman ahead of me takes longer than necessary. Her endless questions irk me.

In the last days, only those with the mark of the beast will be able to purchase food. My heart jumps. I get up and leave. I take deep breaths, push for calmness and stride outside to the street. I should rather walk back to the flat. I never get it right telling taxi drivers where to drop me off. I usually ask them to stop as Crescent Clinic, which is at least four blocks before my place. 

Penumbra by Songeziwe Mahlangu

Penumbra is published by Kwela and is available from Kalahari.com. Read our review of the book here.

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