Strange Pilgrimages by Achmat Dangor

EXTRACT: Strange Pilgrimages

SKIN COSTS EXTRA, a story from Achmat Dangor's new collection

Simon Mashaba accepted the New York posting reluctantly. It was so inopportune, barely two months after he and Nomsa had – finally – moved out of their small Soweto home into a house on a quiet, tree-lined street in the northern suburbs. He had remained faithful to his late father’s request: ‘Stay true to your roots, live among your people’, for as long as he could. It was Nomsa who had pointed out that many of his comrades in the struggle – some were now his colleagues in government – had fled the township as soon as they could. She was a professor at a prestigious university close to the city and she resented her daily commute along roads clogged with crazy ‘kombi’ taxis as a needless – Quixotic – gesture.

Despite the lingering sense of guilt, he soon came to like their new home as much as Nomsa did. It was large enough for them to have separate studies overlooking different parts of the garden. He was able to walk from his desk to a stone bench nestled in the shade of a giant old jacaranda tree with gnarled but sturdy branches that defied the wind and hardly creaked. She often fell asleep, a book clutched to her chest, beneath an older magnolia tree that flowered only in the evening, giving off a strong, womanly fragrance. At the centre of the garden water gurgled from the mouth of a metal bird standing in an ancient fountain, adding to the gentle texture of sounds.

The whole place had an air of serenity that helped bring them closer together, overcoming the distance that had somehow grown between them in recent years. After spending time on their own each evening they looked forward to having dinner together, watching television, and creeping into bed. Their lovemaking became far more frequent.

Then unexpectedly, he was appointed ‘Special Investment Adviser’ to the consulate in New York. He had to be there as soon as possible, so that he could familiarise himself with the ‘intricacies of the world’s commercial heart’, what motivated the people who controlled so much of the world’s wealth, something that his predecessors failed to grasp. But he knew that this was an exaggeration, that he too would find it very difficult to persuade wary investors to put ‘billions’ into South Africa.

Why, he asked himself, could we not accept that we are an ordinary nation now that apartheid is gone, and that we have to wait our turn like the rest of Africa?

He was being deployed–a favourite word in the government’s increasingly arcane lexicon – to soothe the irritation of someone high up.

Mashaba knows economics, and he’s one of us.

That much was true, anyway. He had been a commander in the Movement’s underground army, and later obtained an economics degree from an English university where a former president had also studied. After liberation Simon was unable to exploit either of his talents, and had become neither a general in the army nor anyone important in the ministry of finance. He was too diffident, people said, lacking in passion, and far too willing to accede to the viewpoint of others. So, at the age of fifty, he was being sent to New York to do a thankless job. He accepted, believing that he had no other option.

You are too generous, his wife Nomsa said when he informed her of the transfer. With my life as well as yours, she added bitterly.

Nomsa was even more horrified when she saw her visa for the USA. It described her as a ‘Dependent Spouse’. She imagined those smug immigration officials smiling indulgently at her: poor, helpless woman.

However, she was not the kind of person to carry on complaining. After she had agreed to join Simon in New York, she resolved to make the best of things. She told him that she needed time to wind down her affairs at home, and talk to people about helping her find a suitable position in New York. It was useless asking Simon to use his contacts. He was just no good at asking for favours.

She would join him after a month or so.

* * *

Simon set about making arrangements for his departure, packing up the few possessions he thought he couldn’t do without. Mostly beloved old history books, one or two portraits. He would take Sol Plaatje’s Boer War Diary to read on the journey. The siege of Mafikeng from the perspective of an African, the forgotten victims of the Anglo-Boer War. For some reason the book made him think of England, where Plaatje had lived for a while.

Impulsively, Simon asked to fly to New York via London, It wouldn’t cost the government any extra money he told a department official who had raised her eyebrows when he submitted his travel request. He contacted old Sussex varsity friends, James and Felicity, who now lived in Birmingham, and arranged to stay with them overnight.

During the flight he couldn’t concentrate of Plaatje’s descriptions, as poignant as they were, of heroism and suffering as the Boers laid siege to his hometown.

He watched a movie, some light-hearted romantic comedy about the nostalgic yearnings of two ageing former lovers. Suddenly he began questioning his own motives for wanting to stay with James and Felicity. After all he hadn’t seen them in over ten years and had been communicating sporadically by email, stuff about their jobs, Christmas and birthday greetings. And this was mostly with James.

He realised that he really wanted to see Felicity.

When he landed, he decided against taking a train and hired a car. When he was well on his way, driving along the highway and taking the still-familiar turn-off some 30 miles north of Birmingham, he made another impulsive decision. He wouldn’t go to their home after all but stay over at a hotel instead. Somehow he suspected that the atmosphere would be strained. By now Felicity will have told James about their ‘fling’. She and Simon had a brief affair that lasted a couple of months at most. James travelled a lot. Felicity seemed so lonely. That was her rationale anyway.

After a while both agreed that it was best to end the whole thing before it became serious.

Who knows why people confess to each other, and who knows how well these confessions are absorbed? Sometimes the feelings of betrayal and humiliation lie dormant in people’s memories. Something totally innocuous could bring it to the surface, a look, a smile, some little gesture. Who would blame James for reacting badly upon seeing Simon and Felicity together, just the way she would have described it in her confession, as if to a priest, avoiding any graphic detail but conveying the sense of betrayal? She had once called herself a very ‘Catholic’ atheist.

He drove into the city and booked into a hotel in the old town. He called James and made an excuse, saying that he had miscalculated and would have no time to travel up from London. He wandered around looking for a place to have dinner, and found himself in a café they used to frequent together. He wondered, as he ate, what excuse he would make if the two of them were to suddenly walk in? His not showing up would have left them at a loose end. But the café was almost empty. Just like in the old days, during the middle of the week. Nothing had changed, it seemed.

Everything he did was rooted in his memory. He had ‘English fish pie’ with chips, and washed it down with two pints of dark ale. He went for a walk afterwards, stopping at a bar for a nightcap. He lingered over a whiskey for a while, staring out through the window. It had started drizzling and he knew he would have to drink up and start heading back to the hotel quite soon. Just across from the well-lit main road he saw a much darker, cobbled lane. It somehow looked very familiar.

He left the bar, crossed the road and peered down the lane. In the shadows, the dim outline of a double-storey house. He’d been there before! He walked towards it, hurrying along through the steady drizzle. Outside was a brass plaque with the name ornately embossed, ‘The Place’. He rang the bell. A man, obviously a bouncer, opened and peered out at Simon. After carefully looking him up and down – a black man hanging around here at this hour, aroused suspicion even in Birmingham – the bouncer allowed him to enter.

A woman sitting behind a desk raised her head and smiled.

‘So, young man, what can we do for you tonight?’

Simon ignored her somewhat sardonic, very English politeness. She probably greeted every man who walked in here like that.

‘Is Miriam still here?’

‘Miriam? We don’t have a Miriam here, but if it is a young lassie you’d like to buy a drink for, there’s Mary.’

She nodded towards a woman seated in a corner.

‘Sweet, ain’t she?’

He nodded, and the young woman rose from her seat, as if having received some secret signal. Somehow her smile was not as professional as the receptionist’s. This set him at ease. She led him to a table in an alcove.

‘Something to drink?’ she asked, motioning to a waiter lurking nearby.

He ordered a malt whiskey. She preferred champagne. He nodded his assent to the waiter, who hurried away. He was back with their drinks so quickly that for a moment it seemed to Simon that they had these ‘man and woman’ drinks poured and ready to serve. But Mary raised her glass – ‘cheers’ – and the champagne seemed to bubble into her mouth as she took her first sip.

She started making small talk, asking where he was from.

‘South Africa.’

‘Oooh, it’s lovely and warm over there right now, isn’t it?’

He could see how well-trained she was in the art of ‘chit-chat’. Her response had nothing to do with politics, crime, or even with Nelson Mandela.

‘Yes, it was close to 25 degrees, very sunny, when I left.’

‘Well it’s been terrible here. Drizzle, drizzle, for days on end. I hope you don’t mind our English weather.’

She leaned closer to him, peering around her like a naughty child. ‘A little like our men. Dank and drizzly.’

They laughed quietly together. She had broken the ice. Now she signalled with her eyes and they took their drinks and went upstairs. The room was decorated in ornate, Victorian fashion; floral wallpaper, heavy brocade curtains, paisley bedspread. Still it had a cold, impersonal feel. She observed Simon’s guarded reaction.

‘It’s not too atrocious is it? It is just, well English.’

Her chit-chat motif, a self-deprecating linking of ‘atrocious’ with ‘Englishness’ left him unmoved. Simon touched the bed with an almost recoiling gesture. Now Mary became stern, assertive.

‘Simon, it is Simon, yes?’

He nodded.

‘I’m clean, Simon, we get tested once a month at least.’

Later, walking back to his hotel, he would think how dissatisfying it had all been. She had undressed, pale and thin, insubstantial, so unlike Nomsa. He couldn’t even conjure up the suddenly yearned for image of Miriam, the woman he had encountered at ‘The Place’ years ago, to replace the wraithlike person who had fluttered above him tonight, touching and kissing different parts of his body.

He remembered her whispering: ‘Condom? No? Skin costs extra, okay?’

By then she had mercifully turned off the lights and he didn’t have to see her face contort or whatever it is prostitutes do in the throes of passion, or its pretence.

He tried to rationalise: this whole series of events was prompted by a subliminal, and difficult to understand impetus inside of him. Perhaps he needed to find out whether he had any passion left, whether he still had the nerve to court danger, just like in the old days when he smuggled arms, scouted out military targets, ‘smelled out’ traitors.

Or when he stole Miriam away from ‘The Place’ for weekends, taking her to London or Brighton; the way she always looked about her, as if afraid of someone. She had filled their outings with a sense of mystery and peril. How he loved her for it, in a way that was different from his love for Nomsa. He was glad that he didn’t go to James and Felicity. The memory of her came back to him, shy, diffident, seeking him rather than offering any passion.

But it was time to forget about all of that. He hurried back to the hotel. He needed to sleep, to dream his amnesiac dreams.

* * *

When he boarded the plane the next morning, neither Mary nor Miriam existed. A whorehouse called ‘The Place’ in gloomy Birmingham had been erased from the map of his mind. Felicity was but a fleeting illusion and may not have existed at all. How well his training as an underground operative served him now. Above all else, the ability to forget secret detail.

He arrived promptly, as required, on the 1st of July. He was surprised by the humidity; it left an uncomfortable residue of sweat on his skin, and he kept on making mental comparisons between New York and other hot and sweaty cities, especially in Africa.

Yet, everyone said that he had arrived in New York just at the right time. Fourth of July, Independence Day, signalled the start of the summer holiday season and the city was ready to shed its drab winter feel; while many New Yorkers fled the metropolis, they were replaced by hordes of tourists who helped create a carnival atmosphere, especially on Manhattan. The day was marked by massive displays of fireworks on the East River. Simon was invited to a rooftop party overlooking the river. But he didn’t enjoy himself.

The festivities seemed choreographed, the atmosphere filled with an almost oppressive air of patriotism; the whole place was draped in flags, as if some gigantic funeral was about to take place. It reminded him of his own country’s rather sentimental commemoration of historical anniversaries, full of unnecessary pomp and ceremony that ordinary people felt obliged to take part in when all they really wanted was an opportunity to relax. Of course he hid his feelings beneath that smiling, diplomat’s exterior he had developed over the years, and wished now that Nomsa was here to help ease his unhappiness.

Mercifully, the efficient consular staff helped him settle in very quickly. Nomsa had called to tell him that she had been appointed as a lecturer at a college on the Upper East Side, and said she hoped they could live on Manhattan, rather than the suburbs – so that she could at least be close to things. He rented an apartment on East 41st Street, in a complex called Tudor City. Even though he found the place pretentious – mock turrets of white stone, and a pervasive smell of decay, as if the stone was seeped in urine – it was close to the East River, and this gave it a sense of space. In the morning, sunshine reflected off the water, gilding the edges of buildings, turning windows into mirrors. Looming over the apartment were three chimney stacks on 1st Avenue. They provided the solidity he craved in cities, and balanced the movie-like contrast between the decadence of the dark buildings and the river’s magical sparkle.

The chimneys, which belonged to a company with the almost make-believe name of ‘Con Edison’, towered over the horizon and seemed part of the river’s defences against encroaching humanity. He wondered whether they still functioned. It would be a pity if they had been rendered obsolete by some new way of powering the turbines; what honest mechanical beasts they must once have been, those upright giants, unashamedly belching out the smoke of their endeavours!

Nomsa was due to arrive soon, and he had to make the apartment as welcoming as possible. Her tone of voice on the phone had warned him to be sensitive to the sacrifices she was making. The place suddenly seemed so spartan. He bought a bookshelf from some fancy store, justifying in his own mind the cost – Nomsa will love it – unpacked their books, and hung the Peter Magubane photographs of Johannesburg that he had brought over with him. He also purchased an ornate Yoruban mask from a downtown shop he had stumbled on.

* * *

When Nomsa arrived she seemed cheerful enough, even if her dark eyes had a familiar and unsettling gleam; a contradictory mix of gentleness and cold resolve that warned him she would be unpredictable. Something inside of her was changing. He had seen it happen before, Nomsa adjusting, slowly easing herself into the new currents of a constantly changing life that came with being married to an exile.

They soon settled into a welcoming daily rhythm. He walked to his office on 37th Street each day, while she took the subway to the College three times a week. They took up the routines they had established over the years, enjoying a quick breakfast together, fruit, cereal, sometimes a muffin each, a habit that began quite by accident when they still lived in Soweto and travelling to town was a veritable odyssey.

Now, for the first time, they also shared domestic chores, washing and cleaning, preparing dinner. Perhaps it was the holiday interlude, and Simon wasn’t that busy at work. This was how he occupied himself. Each night, they had a drink together, but this was more to ease the tensions of the day and not so much an attempt to recreate the morning’s intimacy. She usually only drank red wine, and he beer. That, she said, always revealed the South African within him. Both of them loved the theatre and the movies, and exploring the city, walking for miles in random directions, gradually becoming familiar with the clusters of shops, restaurants, cinemas and bookstores that New Yorkers called their neighbourhoods. They also made some friends, mostly people from the college where Nomsa taught. Simon rarely socialised with his colleagues, outside of official receptions. The atmosphere was too intense, he said. In any case, South Africans get on best when they see little of each other.

Towards the end of August the city was hit by a heat wave, with temperatures often reaching ‘a hundred in the shade’. The way Americans calculated the weather seemed to intensify the heat. People moved about slowly, as if the earth’s gravity had increased beyond human tolerance. He predicted that someone would soon claim that ‘this was the hottest summer in memory’ and laughed triumphantly when an announcer made this statement on TV. Nomsa would usually have responded quite critically, say that he was being churlish. But she smiled indulgently, shrugged her shoulders, leaned back and stretched out her feet.

That’s when he knew that something about her had indeed changed. The earlier, ambiguous hint in her eyes had become something more certain; her face glowed with a confidence that flowed down into her body so that she seemed fuller, more voluptuous. Soon after she arrived she stopped drinking alcohol, started soaking herself in a warm bath for about an hour each day, even though it was so hot outside that Simon could only think of plunging into an icy river. She seemed gentler somehow, though increasingly tired. He wondered if she was ill.

* * *

He didn’t even consider the possibility that she could be pregnant. After many years of yearning and effort to have a child, they had both quietly given up. It would have been too painful to start asking where the problem lay.

But Simon’s concern for her was overtaken by an event in his own life. He tried not to think of it as dramatic, in fact he tried not to think about it at all, as was his habit in the face of a difficult problem.

The health insurance company required him to have a full medical examination. Just routine, everyone had to do it, he was told. He was healthy for his age, ate well and exercised regularly, so he had no concerns when he went to the doctor’s rooms. He tried to hide his discomfit though when he found out that the doctor was a woman. He stripped down to his underwear as instructed by the nurse, and dutifully followed the doctor’s orders when she examined him. Breath-in, breath-out, lie still. She measured his blood pressure and checked his ‘lung function’. God, how mechanical they made human organs sound.

Finally she asked whether he would object to having an HIV test. Part of the requirements. He agreed, and thought no more of it until she called a few days later and asked him to come and see her again, quite urgently.

When he arrived at her surgery, he was shown into a private room, and asked to take a seat on one of the two leather armchairs. This was where Doctor Reyna de la Madrid did her counselling, the receptionist said. Simon was intrigued. He had just about gotten used to being examined by a woman doctor. She had probed his body with her eyes and hands in a manner that brought home the true meaning of the word ‘clinical’. Being ‘counselled’ somehow seemed to go beyond that, inferring that she would be probing his mind, his thoughts and even his feelings.

She walked into the room, sat down and smiled at him in her matronly way.

‘Mister Mashaba, we need to repeat the HIV test.’

‘Oh, why?’

‘I’m sorry to have to tell you that the first one was positive.’

He stared at her in silence.

‘Look, do you mind if I call you Simon?’

He nodded. No, he didn’t mind.

‘When was the last time you had an HIV test?’

He couldn’t remember having such a test. He shrugged without answering. But he must have looked nervous to her.

‘Okay, look, we have to follow this protocol. Things can go wrong, misdiagnosis is possible, blood samples can get mixed up, these things happen.’

‘Okay.’

‘The nurse will take another blood sample. This time we’ll take extra precautions. She will deliver it to the lab herself.’

He took the subway home, watching to see if people were secretly looking at him. He had read somewhere that the disease often betrayed its presence in the face of those who were infected. He imagined himself one day, a skeletal face and deep, sunken eyes. He knew that he had to pull himself together, find the courage to tell Nomsa, the right tone of voice, the right occasion.

Then he recalled the doctor’s words … things can go wrong, misdiagnosis is possible, blood samples can get mixed up, these things happen. He breathed easier. He would wait. Perhaps the results of the first test were wrong after all.

But a few days later Doctor de la Madrid called again. Call me Reyna. What a made-up name he thought, as unreal as her voice: Please come in, I need to see you. He pictured her speaking to him on the phone, her limp, unsympathetic eyes, her hands that always fiddled with her glasses, betraying the nervousness typical of ‘phoney’ people. He had heard someone, a few days ago, describe a politician’s pious attitude as ‘phoney’. How perfectly it fitted what he felt about the doctor.

On the appointed day he was reluctant to go and see Queenie la Madrid, as he had sarcastically dubbed her. He made up mental excuses until the last minute, lingering outside her rooms until it was almost too late, hoping that she would pass him over and take another patient. But she was waiting for him in the ‘counselling room’ the receptionist said and pointed towards a room where the door was ajar. He went in and found the doctor seated in her usual chair. She gestured with her open hand, inviting him to sit down opposite her.

For some reason she seemed much closer than during the last counselling session. He could smell her perfume which somehow seemed too subtle for someone as businesslike as her. Her eyes also looked different, almost without colour, and when she spoke her voice was so calm it was almost dreamlike. He mentally changed his name for her, first to Dream Queen, and then Ice Queen.

‘Unfortunately the second blood test has confirmed the results of the first one. You are HIV positive. I am sorry. But listen, the disease can be treated. People with HIV live normal lives these days. There are some things to look out for. Sudden weight loss, fungal infections. Also, register for a treatment programme. Sometimes it helps to commence treatment well before full onset …’

He hardly listened to what she was saying. Her whole tone was ritualistic and insincere he thought, and stared malevolently at her lips as she spoke, silently willing her to stop. He imagined the words refusing to leave her mouth and slowly building up in her throat until she choked. When she was done he got up without acknowledging what she had said, mumbled a greeting and left.

He went home by taxi, too despondent to again face the imagined scrutiny of other passengers on the subway. He resurrected the memories he had expunged from his mind, and thought back to that night in Birmingham, to the freedom he felt wandering about the old city, the drink in the pub, the rain-blurred vision of the cobbled side street and how it drew him into its shadows and ultimately to a whorehouse called ‘The Place’. The young woman, what was her name, Mary? Her voice, low, controlled, whispering … skin costs extra.

It struck him that ‘The Place’ had never existed near the university in Sussex, that the night in Birmingham must have been his first encounter with it. And that the Miriam he went in search of wasn’t a whore but a fellow student, that they were lovers and saw each other regularly. But they weren’t exactly a couple, committed and monogamous or anything like that. In fact both of them were ‘seeing’ other people. But he knew that Miriam was far more popular than he could ever be. There must have been many more men in her life and her bed than were women in his.

One day Miriam disappeared, gone, just like that.

She’s ill, gone back home to Ireland. To die. That’s what good Catholic girls do, a fellow student told him. At first he was stunned by this other young woman’s bluntness, but as word got around the campus it seemed that everyone close to her, except him, knew just how ill Miriam was.

Surely if she had had AIDS and had passed the HIV virus to him, he would have known a long time ago? Also, it couldn’t have happened with Mary, just like that, in those few minutes, just over a month ago?

He realised he was muttering to himself quite loudly, and saw the taxi driver watching him in the rear-view mirror.

‘Excuse me, can you let me off at the next corner. Yes, yes, I’m okay. I just need some air. Yes, this is fine.’

He paid the bemused driver, and started walking down 2nd Avenue. Mercifully the humidity had dropped and it was a lovely day, with a cool breeze coming off the river. How often had he done this, walking briskly to clear his head, in cities around the world. This one too no longer seemed alien. He had a sudden thought.

Nomsa! Maybe she’s the one who’s been systematically unfaithful, that’s how the disease spreads. Well, he knew of at least one episode with a fellow academic. But perhaps there were others he didn’t know about? That would explain the periods when she appeared so withdrawn and distant, as if she was mentally and physically with someone else. Suddenly, he saw an explanation for the change in her. It was – this time – not just the knowledge of an infidelity weighing down on her, but the realisation of the consequences! Why didn’t Nomsa confess, tell him that she had slept with other men? He had been so blind, the extra month in Johannesburg ‘to wind up her affairs’. Now, her tiredness, her moods, that immune-boosting diet, eating organically grown vegetables, fish instead of meat, giving up alcohol!

Somehow he felt better. In his own mind he was not the transmitter of this deadly disease after all. The thought filled him with warmth. He would be generous, and demonstrate his love for Nomsa. Not ask how she got infected. Say to her, I understand, these things happen. But he had to wait for the right moment though, to confront her with the truth and offer his forgiveness.

On Sunday he suggested they go for a walk. They went down 1st Avenue, along the river past the ferry and the helipad. They watched a helicopter land, a ferry depart. They browsed for a while in a bookshop on 2nd Avenue. He suggested they go down 3rd Avenue, towards Union Square.

‘Let’s find a nice place, have a drink.’

At the busy intersection on 23rd Street Nomsa paused and asked if they could turn back.

‘I feel so worn out.’

He could see that ‘worn-out’ state in her ashen face. Black people don’t go pale, he thought, we get ash in our skin. He was filled once more with protective love. He stopped outside a flower shop and looked into its cool interior.

‘Let’s go in for a minute. Take a break from the heat.’

Ignoring the disapproving looks from a woman behind the counter, he held his handkerchief up against one of the gentle sprays of water from overhead pipes that kept the flowers moist and offered it to Nomsa. She wiped her face and smiled with gratitude. She was not used to this gentle, even gracious Simon. He walked about, touching the satiny surface of the plants, avoiding the leftover roses that were on sale at a reduced price. Their petals curled up sadly, like the skin of neglected old people. She leaned close to some carnations, inhaling their odour, but did not seem entirely convinced. He too felt that today they needed to buy something special.

He called her over to where he was standing, and showed her the orchid collection. They stood, proud and erect, preserved in a glass enclosure. Another sudden, now unwelcome memory came back to him.

He is walking through the streets of Amsterdam – the Achterburgwal. Some of the most beautiful women he has ever seen – sex worker is the polite phrase – on display in shop windows, like any other commodity. He quickly dismissed the image, silently warning himself to be more vigilant. Over the past few days these recollections, poisonously quick, had constantly flashed through his mind. What was the point of remembering? His own history couldn’t undo what was happening to him now.

He saw a single orchid standing upright in a thin vase. Taken by its solitary beauty, he bought it. Twenty-five dollars. An expensive gesture, but worth the pleasure it gave Nomsa. He watched her carrying it close to her chest, inhaling its rich fragrance.

‘It smells like real flowers,’ she said.

He had to stop himself from asking if other flowers did not smell ‘real’. This unguarded moment’s acid dissolved the tenderness in him. He let go of Nomsa’s hand and they walked home in silence. It was time to raise the subject. As soon as they were back in the apartment.

Nomsa, whose mood had swung from being sensually happy to being her careful, guarded self, placed the orchid in the window. An extravagant layer of blooms, like a half-opened vulva, lips speckled with pinpricks of blood, clung to a tall sinewy green stem within the slender vase that Simon had also insisted on buying. It looked so frail against the brutal uprightness of the power station towers in the background.

‘It won’t last long there,’ he said.

‘Simon, it’s a flower, nothing more. They don’t last forever you know.’

Stung by her sharpness he stood back. Her expression softened, she opened her eyes, letting light into their warm darkness, and hugged him. Yes, she was remorseful, he thought, as if ready to confide something important. But she kept quiet and stood staring at him, her face illuminated by some mysterious inner light he hadn’t seen before. This was a moment not be lost; maybe he should broach the subject now.

‘Nomsa, I know.’

‘Know what?’

‘About you.’

‘Oh Simon, you noticed? Here I was betting myself that you wouldn’t tell the difference, just think that I’m getting fat.’

His expression changed, his usual scowl was back. She laughed.

‘What’s so funny?’

‘Funny? Simon you’ll never change. Hey wena, I am pregnant, we’re going to have a baby, after all these years! Remember all that fucking we did when we moved into the new house?’

He walked down to the park on 37th Street, holding his breath against the smell of piss at the entrance underneath the freeway. Once inside the park itself he was able to breathe freely. He strode briskly along the path for a while, at times even competing with some of the slower joggers, until he felt short of breath and sat on a bench.

He looked across the placid river. The water slapped up against the wall, an oily, sluggish noise. How different from the fierce rivers at home that always challenged the earth around them, leaping up defiantly against man-made walls built to contain them. He wondered what it would be like to be submerged in the murky water before him. Dark, he guessed with an acrid taste when you swallowed. He imagined himself walking into the river now, sinking down with outstretched arms, Christ descendant. He dismissed the idea: too theatrical. Anyway, his hair was too short for that kind of biblical effect.

He thought about Nomsa, up there in the apartment weeping, trying to decide what to do next. When she told him she was pregnant – after all these years Simon, it’s a miracle – she had stopped laughing and giggling, and stared at him.

‘What did you think was the matter with me?’

‘You look so tired.’

‘Well, I’m feeding another life inside me.’

She had come closer to him.

‘Simon, what’s wrong?’

He told her about Doctor Reyna de la Madrid, about the two blood tests. She did not laugh at his feeble joke about her name, Queenie the Dream Queen, no Ice Queen is a better description, nor did she respond to the mechanical way he told her that he was HIV positive. She sat down on the bed, stared out of the window, tears rolling down her cheeks. He had left her there, muttering to herself, my baby, my baby.

He walked back towards the exit on 37th Street, hoping that Nomsa would be gone by the time he got home. Decisive Nomsa, calling up the airline, booking a ticket to go home, arranging with one of her new friends to stay over with them for a day or two until she left.

Achmat DangorHe was tired and longed to sink into the sheets, swallowed by the shadows of the three giant sentinels, fall into a long dreamless sleep, worry about all this later on. He hurried past the small pier where the ferry docked, afraid he would succumb to the temptation of stepping off the edge into the void of the dully lapping river below.

Extracted from Strange Pilgrimages, published by Picador Africa, R220. 

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