The building that she walked from, 780 on Bloomfield, was a handsome turn of the century building in the Spanish Mission style, or so the advert on the internet had said. The walls were a pimpled white beneath overhanging red roof tiles. Black curled iron bars kept out peeping toms, an array of intruders and all sorts of unsavoury types that the news was always warning about. The News at Ten the night before had had such a feature: “Ten observations that could save you from your neighbours.” Apparently one in ten was likely to be a sex offender while five in ten were bound to be shoplifters, sex addicts, drug addicts, food addicts or would-be Islamic terrorists.
Zara didn’t think her neighbours were any of those.
It was just after Zara reached home from work, when the light had not yet retreated entirely, that she needed to hear children playing or feet shuffling down the brown-stained corridors. Instead the evenings were frighteningly peaceful. Yet when she placed her head on the pillow each night and tried to close out thoughts of home and the story that she had to tell, only then did the building awake and the shut, numbered doors began to reveal the depths of activities behind them. Someone flipped channels till the early hours of the morning, someone’s child had nightmares, someone else awoke at 1:30 every night to use the bathroom and didn’t flush or wash their hands. The couple next door hadn’t had sex for two weeks. Zara knew because when they did, the paper thin walls revealed the plumbing of their married lives. Zara never looked at the couple when they got into the lift with her.
That morning, Zara met none of these people in the deserted, dark corridor.
She walked past the store adjoining her building and as always heard the greeting before she saw the store owner.
“My friend, my friend. What lovely weather this is, wouldn’t you say?” He always came hurrying to the front of the store to catch Zara as she went by, his limp most noticeable when he rushed. The man’s silver hair was combed heavily to one side and his still thick moustache – a spirited black – was fluffed and buoyant like a feather duster. He always spoke about the weather and didn’t seem to mind that Zara always responded with the same curt reply.
“Yes, lovely. Good morning, Mr Ortez.” At least she assumed that was his name. That was what the sign on the storefront read: Ortez and Sons, Quality Tobacco Merchants since 1950. Was this Ortez the original? Zara wondered as she walked on, and was Junior waiting patiently or even impatiently somewhere in the wings? Or could this be the son whose life had so carefully, so distantly been laid out for him? She walked past the cluster of restaurants: Indian, Moroccan, Ethiopian, Thai and Vietnamese, already sending their spicy, sweet odours into the morning air to lure an early crowd.
“We make the third world more palatable,” the owner of the Ethiopian restaurant had said mockingly one evening as Zara found herself searching for a place to eat.
“Come, sit, we bring the rest of the world to you in nice bite-sizes, so you don’t have to get your shoes dusty…” he’d said, teasing and taunting the crowd of students and lecturers as they apologetically acknowledged the little they knew about his homeland and agreed they were not likely to visit anytime soon.
When the owner of the restaurant happened upon Zara, a fellow African, he had embraced her like an old friend, before quietly admitting that he too had never visited Ethiopia, having been born and raised in New Jersey. She passed the restaurant now, stopping at the coffee shop at the corner, where she ordered her second dose of caffeine for the day. Steaming paper cup in hand, she walked beneath overhanging trees, past the junior school that revealed the changing face of the area even more than the global eateries; past the same ancient man that she saw every day, who much like the oak in his garden, appeared to be rooted to the spot, until she reached the park and her usual place on the bench overlooking the green: a neat bit of land that stood before a forest of magnificent trees.
At the start of autumn the leaves had turned the softest auburn. But each day thereafter the trees became more agitated, growing bolder and louder until all that remained were forests caught up in mass hysteria – oranges, reds, purples. Complete madness.
The Cape’s autumn by contrast had always been mild and uneventful. At the worst, cardigan season; no more than an inconvenient passing from summer to winter. Unlike the North there was no turning of leaves to unimaginable colours. Zara pulled her coat tightly around her, felt the wind lift her hair off her shoulders and wondered what would happen next. It had been two months since she had received the letter from the government announcing that documents once sealed would soon be declassified and that her father’s name was amongst those whose deeds would finally be known, for history to judge. What those acts were had not been said. So it had been two months in which she had packed up all her things, moved across the world, and yet nowhere had she seen her father’s name – not in newspapers that she scoured online. Not on television or radio programmes that she listened to each day. Ritualistically, she did an internet search on her father’s name each morning, terrified of the day that she would find it and yet somehow hoping that when the truth was uncovered, at least it would be over. She didn’t know what to expect, the letter had given her no clues as to what this betrayal might be. All she knew, could determine from it, was that her father had done something in his past to earn him a dubious reputation amongst the current government. Something which made him, at the least, appear to be a traitor.
Extracted from The Blacks of Cape Town, published by Modjaji Books.