It’s not that simple

“Tell her you want a divorce.”

If it were that simple, I would’ve done it the first time I laid eyes on Her. Because, it was that simple. She played Elvis too loudly on the bus and she looked at me and it was that simple. Because sometimes, someone looks at you and you forget everything before it happens.

But now, it wasn’t that simple. Because sometimes reality gets in the way of passions and desires and wishes. And instead of walking away from my wife, I plodded along with Her, telling Her I’ll walk away soon, just so I can be with Her. It wasn’t that simple. I had this realistic duty to stick it out or make it work, right? If only it were that simple.

“Drive home now and tell her.”

“If it were that simple.”

“Everything will be afterwards.”

steps

This time on the bus, there was a student scratching his formidable beard. He was wearing a grungy T-shirt with a triangle on it because he thought he was different. He tucked his eyes under a knitted beanie and got lost in his music, his head dropping and bobbing, wishing that this trip would end soon.

There was a middle-aged, plain woman not far away with a dirty hoodie. She paged through a glossy fashion magazine, half-wondering if she could pull off an Armani blazer. She raised her eyebrows at adverts with models who opened their mouths like they were ready to trap flying insects. She’d half-open hers, then close and page on. Not one to get her hair done and she bit her nails every now and then, probably from stress, anxious when her rent came around because she’d be living on noodles for a few weeks. But she still had enough for the glossy magazines. There was always enough for that.

On the far end, a young couple were holding hands. She was talking about the holidays, going to her parents and how proud they were of her, how she found the best thing in her life. She told him that he shouldn’t wear red anymore because it was too brash and in-your-face. He nodded along and squeezed her hand. She moved a finger around his jaw, finally silent and he did the same. They looked away from each other, then at their watches and then she found words again, saying he looked good in blue.

Next to me, an old man clenched his walking stick while he fingered his glasses, the rims, then scratched something that he found on his ironed-out, checkered trousers. He caught my eye and looked embarrassed so looked straight on, his hands steady but his knuckles still, dead-white on his stick.

“Good day…”

I smiled, “To you, too.”

He looked me over again and nodded as if he had come to some conclusion about me. A better one than he had of triangle boy.

“Where you headed?”

“Home. And you?”

He scratched his trousers again and sighed, “A light whiskey at home,” he chuckled, “then a newspaper with my wife.”

I bit my lip when he said ‘wife’. I would see mine tonight, maybe for the last time because it was time to tell her about Her. But it wasn’t that simple. It never was between us. When I met Annie ten years ago, it was easy at first because we found each other on a tennis court and it was fine because she had blonde locks and blue eyes and she ticked off the boxes and we dated, got married, went on honeymoon and shared our lives every night together. She would pour me a red, tell me about our friends, her parents, work and everything in-between. She paid for something we owed, what do I want for dinner the next day, we’re going here this weekend, it’s so-and-so’s birthday next and this is what we got them. Then she would kiss me and I’d kiss her and it used to be my favourite thing.

“You married? You look too young.”

I smiled again, almost forcefully. “I’m married. Eight years.”

He lifted his fluffy eyebrows and relaxed his grip.

“I’ve been for fifty…”

He looked straight on again in some thought and smiled to himself and looked at me again, embarrassed that I caught him in a memory.

“What’s the secret to lasting that long?” I had to ask, it sounded corny and romantic and something that the middle-aged woman’s magazine would feature. The wise, the wisdom, the secret to five decades. That would be the headline.

“Patience and not going through with anything else.”

I didn’t understand but I did. He explained it anyway.

“After I got married, I met someone pretty nice. Didn’t go through with it. And glad I didn’t. Life will test you a little bit along the way but then you figure out that you love and love will last.”

I didn’t understand but I did, not wanting to believe him.

“What if it’s a mistake?”

He shrugged heavily like he thought that it might be. What if he made a mistake?

“You will never know. Or you will and die unhappy.”

“Are you happy?”

He looked straight on, not answering for a while and turned to me finally, pointing at the couple at the end. “Think they’re happy?”

She was talking about her mom and he looked on, he moved his fingers between hers, clearly not listening but consuming everything, everything about her. Like I did.

“I think so…”

“I’m happy. I’ve decided I am. Are you?”

“I think I’m about to decide I am.”

He chuckled and gripped his stick a little tighter, watching the couple look at each other in silence again. He looked relieved because he knew how much she liked to talk about everything. She was playing with his collar, admiring the way he kept looking his best around her.

Her dropped her hand to my forearm on the bus, unsteady. I smiled at her as her headphones poked out. “Sorry, sorry, sorry!” she rummaged through an untidy bag and hadn’t noticed Elvis fell out of her ears.

Love Me Tender

Love Me Sweet

Never Let Me Go

She looked up at me and apologized, her hand back on the polished pole. She smiled at me and retrieved her headphones again, one popped in her ear again while the other dangled with her darker hair. An old lady sitting behind us scoffed and looked away.

“I’m not very good in public places,” she mumbled at me, blushing.

“You’ve got Mr. Presley, though. That counts for something.”

She chuckled, a genuine smile as she took the dangling ear piece that rested on her shoulder and held it out to me. Was she asking me to take it? Was she amused?

“You heard it?” Her eyebrows clenched together and it was something I wanted to keep seeing.

“Everyone can, fortunately.”

She held it out, a question again, a look in her eyes, a fantastical sparkle, an interest, a question. It was simple. I took the ear piece and we finished the song together, silent, staring, smiling. And it was that same consuming power. You didn’t have to listen to what she was saying but how she’d say it, how she’d lift her eyes and look at you like you were something different, how she’d move her hands while she was talking or how she thought when the lyrics slowed and suddenly ended. And the childlike excitement guessing what song would come up next.

Annie had fallen asleep while I finished my book, her head in the crook of my neck and she was lost in something, her eyes twitching and grasping in scenes in front of her. I decided to move, waking her as she opened her eyes and looked confused for a couple of seconds before catching my eyes and realizing where she was.

“Bad dream?”

She smiled at me, shut her eyes again and breathed in heavily.

“No, it was perfect. We were here.”

We were at our home, in this hammock, our weekend spot when we decided not to immerse ourselves in weekend plans. When we decided we just needed each other’s company for a while, creating our own impenetrable bubble.

“That sounds kind of perfect…”

“Except we had marshmellows.”

I chuckled and moved my body further down so that our noses were almost touching and I could see her properly, her eyes still finding focus.

“I apologise I can’t live up to your wild dreams.”

She shrugged and kept still, her left hand grazing my neck, deep in thought. I wanted to know what thought she was in. She seemed to read my own mind.

“I’m just thinking. If I dreamt about us, right now, right here, then it is happiness, right?”

It seemed ideal. The way we could occupy each other’s time and spend it reading and sleeping in a hammock, afternoon beers slowly swaying off the time. It seemed ideal.

“I think so. I don’t think it can get much better,” I took her hand, soft and small, and tried to see something different in the grooves I was so accustomed to, “I think it’s perfect…”

There was this almost perfect swivel on her palm, right in the centre, something that could only be mastered by something God-like, something supernatural. I had not noticed it before, the way it marked the palm, like someone had stamped and branded her. But it was softer and it glided between her other lines. I knew her lines. All of them. Just, not this one.

**

The old man got up slowly as if preparing his muscles for the walk home. The couple were straight off, the woman leading the way, slowly cursing the signal on her phone. Formidable beard was scrolling through his music, huffing and puffing, checking his watch. Hoodie had rolled up her magazine and found her way out, checked her pocket for change she would need for some cut-rate dinner for one.

“Good day!” The old man gave me a wave. Only then did I notice his newspaper that he tucked under his brown jacket. The same he’d read with his wife of fifty years. New news, new news every day. But the same old, same old.

Her had fallen asleep and she fell into the crook of my neck and it felt like Annie but different. Instead of falling prey to idealistic dreams, Her was peaceful and still, her lips holding the only faint movement. And her brows were drawn back, unmoved. Her hand was resting on my chest and I watched it closely. I watched new grooves, new paintings, new lines that I have never seen before. All universally linked. Some freckles on the outside of her hand, three that made a triangle and some that made a half-circle. Then she caught me staring.

“Entranced, are we?”

“Just looking. I like seeing different stuff about you.”

She lifted her finger and poked my chest. “If that makes you happy.”

For the last two years, I’ve been counting the steps from the stop to home. Seventy three steps. And I’ve been doing it because I’d make it seventy three – even if I had a larger stride that day or had to trot in drizzle. Sometimes, I’d take my time. It was always seventy three, though. Maybe it was the routine and complete truth about it that I liked and needed. Because nothing was the same anymore and this was. It was just so simple.

Thirty five.

Through a window, a family is readying the dinner table. A little girl trying to place the cutlery in line with the wonderful bouquet. Do they always have that presentation?

Forty nine.

There was a man with greyed dreadlocks asking for money. He wanted dinner tonight because he just had an apple today. Do I have change? I found some in my pocket. He blessed me.

Sixty one

The stairs were also part of this. Our postbox was empty, it was empty for a while. Annie usually got the post. She put it on our side table at the entrance usually but now that I think of it, there was nothing there for a while. The Post must be striking.

Seventy

Seventy One

Seventy Two

Seventy Three.

“Annie?”

There was a hush that was unfamiliar because she’d be in the kitchen usually cooking whatever we discussed the night before. It was a few more steps to our bedroom. A few more to our bed.

There was a rushed panic, Annie and another man, tangled, breathless, and panicked. There was flick of sheets. Seventy three. Seventy three.

I could run away, I was going to run away, I should run away.

It’s not that simple.

8 Streets (part 1)

I was right on time. Of course. The line at the counter was beginning to fade fast – 9:56am was the ideal time to order coffee without encountering the regular morning-goers, the sleepy queue, the confusion from the employee who’s just started out; his curly hair waving from side to side with no clear reference of whose cappuccino is meant to go out first. No real concept of the specials, the tuna wrap or chai mocha latte, extra foam. Wait, why a tuna wrap today? Usually fish isn’t a favourite. The manager, a small Greek man with a little moustache, looked on, clearly amused that the new employee couldn’t control a line of caffeine orders. Chai was too risqué for me. Black far too businesslike and desperate for 9:57am in the morning.

I recognised the middle-aged blonde in front of me. She always held her palms together – like she was about to wail in prayer. I didn’t know her name. But I’d say she worked nearby and somewhere where appearances didn’t really matter. She didn’t paint her nails properly. Not that I painted my nails. Every morning she looked undecided on her order even though she stuck to a plain, black coffee. Two and a half sugars. Not businesslike – just a hurried, frighteningly sad, deafening anxiety – a fix-me-up-from-this-sad-life sort of order. Then she’d clasp the cup as if it were her dying lover who was moments away from being taken away. She had no other thoughts.

I could recite the room. Particular mention to orders, dress, morning emotions and the playlists that played soberly through the café – new-age indie bands that had far too much independent beer to be considered important anymore. Still hopelessly relevant unfortunately.

9:57-and-a-few-seconds-am was away from all the fuss. I timed it. It was the ideal time. Before lunch. Before the receptionist who grabbed thirty minutes of her soppy book, the couple who shared a sandwich even though the man wanted his own, the aspiring writer who didn’t write but who fancied a pastry every few minutes and then would change his mind and write a few lines that he considered Fitzgerald-esque. He’d delete it all a minute later. Everyone was at the office now, through their morning e-mails, through playing catch-up to the goings-on after dark. I didn’t have an ‘after dark’ experience – not in the societal claim for it, anyway. I got home, made dinner, sat in front of the TV, caught up on the news and retired. Right side of the bed.

“Standard cappuccino, foam.”

It was my usual. I didn’t eat the complimentary butterscotch biscuit, either. I pocketed it for later when I rewarded myself after typing forty pages of reports. That would be done by 13:07pm or a few minutes after if I have a few more e-mails to send out.

“Name?”

“Paul.”

“Paul! Cap! Foam!” he shouted to no one in particular. The other young girl was still in the kitchen putting on her apron and checking her messages.

The employee was more controlled today – his voice had a little more direction. I had 13 minutes to get back to the office. An old lady (previously not in the vicinity before at 9:58am) ordered an iced tea (peach) behind my order, looked up and smiled at me. Crooked and yellow. I forced a smile back and nodded politely. I would remember her order if she returned. They only stocked peach at the café – I never ordered it. They could get it wrong. Why order that when the café doesn’t specialise in it? It was a petty afterthought.

“Nice day we’re having?”

I nodded.

She was fiddling with coins – a fifty cents piece, two rand, three five cent pieces and a crummy ten rand note that resembled some flimsy loo paper. She didn’t have a purse. Just her purple coat pockets, her tiny, self-knitted beanie and a plastic orange ring that one would most likely find in a lucky packet or those machines at the game arcade where you had to control an uncontrollable claw.

“Paul! Cap!”

11 minutes.

“Paul? That’s a lovely name. I knew a Paul a very long time ago…” The old lady pursed her wrinkled, thin lips thinking about that other Paul. Back in a time where she was probably in his arms, rummaging through her then-modern coat for sticky notes. Crooked, yellow.

I nodded. “Yes, it’s lovely.”

Was it lovely? I had always given my parents an ear-full because Paul was so normal but they insisted because they were church people and church people liked the name Paul. It was loaded with salvation and doing the right thing always. I always did good.

“Not sure where he is now. He could be dead.”

I could, too. 10 minutes. I was gripping my cappuccino hard, feeling the heat travel across my whole hand and wondered if the employee had put on the coffee sleeve. I looked down. He hadn’t.

I peeked at my watch. 9 minutes.

“Sorry, I have to go. I hope you find Paul.”

I wasn’t quite sure what I meant by that. I didn’t really care for the other Paul or the old lady’s memories surrounding the name. I had 8 and a half minutes before I had to be by my desk. I hope she finds Paul.

 

*****

Fuck this, I’m late anyway. I needed coffee. I was working at the salon till lunch time then I’d fuck off and make some excuse about me having a doctor’s appointment or something. Just tell your supervisor that it’s personal and you’ll get off with no questions. Then I’ll dive into that vodka that’s chilling in my fridge. Bra off, baby. It was my routine to get stuck in before Michael, my anal roommate, returned and poked his head in, asking for rent money or if I care to wash the dishes sometime. I never care to wash the fucking dishes. Nobody cares to wash the dishes, Michael.

“Black, two sugars. Three, sorry.” The extra was for trying to get through the morning where I had two appointments on top of each other – one, a lady with dull, brown hair. So dull, so brown, so normal in fact that there was no real promise of me sprucing it up. The other: a bride-to-be who was having some test-runs done before her big day. Unfortunately, her entourage came with her and her first trial left me aching for a final release so I could get away from their insistent nagging and “Ohw mai gawd!” shrieks. The salon’s glossies don’t help the plastic crew either who seem permanently surprised at celebrities who have a pinch of cellulite or god forbid, a wrinkle under their eye. What a wedding it’ll be.

The boring guy who was always there was behind me, checking his watch insistently and fixing his eyes upon the drab that needed coffee. The type who ironed his shirt three times in the morning, waking up early to get in work before his pre-work coffee outing before his mundane, suited job. Then he’d get back home sharply and count his video games and action figures. Well, he was the type anyway – the kind that Michael was when I got home and needed a glass or five after dealing with the human race.

The kid manning the morning counter was whispering orders to himself while the manager was scratching a scab on his forearm. Sometimes I wondered why I came to this particular café – it wasn’t convenient, the service was average and the speakers wailed out soppy plucky-guitar songs about trees and new-age revolutions.

“Your black coffee.”

They had run out of sleeve things for the takeaways and the manager didn’t look too disturbed and boring guy had politely moved on from an old lady who was rummaging through her last-ditch change for the month.

“I probably won’t find him,” the lady mumbled as boring guy grabbed his cap and left in a hurry, again reading his watch as if it were life and death. He was either staring at my hands, his watch or scowling at the kid who looked like he was about to pass out.

The old lady smiled at me, her teeth a little wonky. What did people use for toothpaste back in the day? When was toothpaste a thing? I bet boring guy could mouth off history surrounding toothpaste.

“Someone told me that no one should have more than two sugars in their coffee,” the old lady smiled and hugged herself, swaying back and forth, “but who gives a hoot?”

1935 gave a hoot.

“I need the sugar.”

“Oh honey, nothing fixes you like yourself.”

“I’m not sure what that means.”

“Sometimes, you realise that the extra sugar doesn’t really help. It’s just your mind saying it does and you keep going back to it, because you think it’ll help. But, it’s all about really deciding that you’re alright.”

1935 had a lot of drugs, didn’t it? I nodded at the lady and took a big swig of my highly-sweetened coffee, making sure I smacked my lips as I took in the deadly aroma that would save my life. And it helped because the frightening hot cup dug into my skin, the lines of my palm growing red but it didn’t feel like I needed to let it go. I took it.

“It works for me.”

 

***********

Amanda’s hand was perpetually on my right leg. In the beginning, it was kind of hot. Because she had this ‘technique’ – the slow planting of her hand that would start just above the knee and move up slowly towards my upper thigh; the slight tilt of her head towards my ear and the very slow, deliberate whisper of how great I was, how happy she was, how excited I made her. A whisper that took me. It was something that my body couldn’t forget in a hurry. And I loved the way her hair smelled when she tilted forward, too – it was some sort of caramel and nougat thing with ordinary soap. But I loved it and craved it. And her shoulders had freckles and I was done.

Twelve months later, a ring later, and her hand had become lazy – my lap a constant seating place and then she’d mouth off her plans, her diary, her friends, the wedding and how I’m not paying attention. The tilt, the whisper was gone. And I missed it. And I missed the way her hand looked on my leg, without the rock that cost me my life. And I pictured it differently; that I’d have her whispering secrets only we knew and approvals and wishes everyday and it would make me want to take her home, undress her and make her the happiest person alive and whisper back. Because I always used to whisper back. And I wanted to touch her shoulders but I had started to hesitate.

I don’t know.  About three months before the wedding and I was hoping her hand would slick a little more excitedly now and that she’d concentrate on a seafood dinner I was planning tonight instead of my suit and tie and how moody the florist is. The mornings in the café showed Amanda’s mulish side – her insistence on perfection. So much so that I wondered if I was still perfect to her.

“You want the tuna wrap? To share? No chips or anything.”

I also figured that it was never really a question. She insisted – but directed it to me in a question to mock some sort of control that I could ever possess.

“Sounds great.”

The waiter flicked his eyebrows in surprise as he scribbled our order and glanced at me quickly as if to ask where my balls had gone.

A tuna wrap? What was this place on about? Amanda also liked ridding us of sides before the wedding so I was onto a prescribed amount of calories, greens and smoothies that taste like asparagus and powdered cardboard. Before the ring, there was no real agenda or prescribed anything. And I got my own meal.

“So Jonathan said we’ll need more flowers on the main food table. Lilies. I hate roses.”

“I love lilies.”

“I know. So I told Jonathan it’s a go. And then I have my hair trial soon. Mom said I need a few more practice runs to prepare for anything. Your suit fitting is at 3.”

“You put it in my calendar.”

“And then we’ll need to decide on cake.”

“Flavour?”

“Vanilla. Chocolate is too…childish.”

“You love chocolate. Remember when we had that chocolate fondue on our third date or something? You were putty in my hands.”

“Not for our wedding. Not now.”

“Vanilla then.”

She smiled and her hand had momentarily moved and I expected the tilt but it didn’t come. Instead, she moved to collect her notepad to make sure we sample everything vanilla. Standard. How many variations of vanilla can be approved and what vanilla combination tastes better than another vanilla combination?

“Everyone likes vanilla.” She packed her notepad away and our tuna wrap arrived in all its glory. The tortilla loose around the fish with droppings of rabbit food to enhance the maroon plate that’s just been washed. Some guy at the counter caught my eye and frowned at the idea of tuna for breakfast. I envied his complimentary butterscotch biscuit.

“Ah, more greens. I can feel my muscles crying for it.”

Amanda moved her hand away and put a serviette on my lap.

“Don’t be clever. This will make us fresh for the day. Then a cheat a week will be alright. Dr. Grant says that our cholesterol should be in check now. I know how you loved your steak.”

“I do.”

This was when I fantasized that she’d scurry over and whisper at how she was right and how great I looked in a blue shirt. She used to do that a lot so I’d wear blue a lot just so I could expect her to lean in. I’d also imagine that we’d buy steak and chocolate and actually have a night in where we indulge a little and we forget about the plans and other people for a while. That she’d give into my usual blue shirt, take it off and take me to bed. And we’d forget about calories and doctor orders and the 2.5 kids we’d have one day and the monotonous way we’d go about our lives. And that I’d get excited to see her freckles and the way she needed me in some moments – so deeply that I felt like I was alive just for her.

I scooted closer and put my hand on her lap and she looked up and smiled at me. A little surprised. I shut her up. Finally.

Before I could whisper anything, an old lady pressed against my shoulder as she held her cup of something in her gloves as if it were her Philosopher’s Stone, her last meal.  She looked at Amanda and me and then just at me and remembered something in a moment.

“I’m sorry.” she said quietly.

I was sorry, too.

 

 

 

Synchronized

The rain was coming down hard now and the wipers seemed to glide across like a meticulous figure skater; nowhere in particular, over and over with the same task. The bottle of Coke was flat, lying amongst the crumpled pie packets and a sandwich box from the petrol station. There was no real course for me to get nibbling on salads and whole foods.

There was a job to be done.

I drove past a bottle store a few kays back but I reminded myself that the boss wouldn’t take it, it was in the contract. Not that anybody would find out if I had a beer. I drive alone on these missions and every day I make sure I neglect the pang of sipping some sense-numbing foam. Also, it won’t help. The radio was crackling, trying to decipher the barren veldt that lay ahead of me, no sign of human anything, no sign of farm life or township flocks. Just the cold land that was being drenched in a late Highveld shower, the sky darkening with some flashes on the hazy horizon. The radio crackled into gospel. I pictured a large black woman dancing around in her house of God – like in those American films. I think it was in the South. Church looked nice then. I never really liked worship songs. I preferred Ozzy and Zeppelin but this was nice. The wipers danced with her belly chorus as the rain quietened to a harsh drizzle. I turned it off. This image was too soothing and I became aware once again. I am imagined her on the couch at home, cuddling me under our red blanket. It washes away.

There was a job to be done.

Where are the people? Who owns this land?

“Government…” I mumbled, sipping on some flat Coke and hoping a rest stop would pop up soon. That meant people. That meant contact. I couldn’t interact because I had a job to do. Leaning over I fiddled in the consol for smokes but I had finished them a while ago and if anyone knew I smoked while driving, that would be the end of me. Through the haze of the skater, a blue board said I had eight minutes before I could stop at the Star City. Somewhere I couldn’t pronounce but it did not matter. The radio crackled again even though I thought it was off. There was a bored DJ that was chatting about the president and the UN and all the other complications, the rising petrol price.

Sometimes, you just need to drive in the haze to get away.

“I guess the world gets worse as we live,” said the DJ. I turned it off and made sure it stayed off. I pictured the DJ saying those words over and over again. He’d finish his shift, get into his pricey car and take off to an expensive lunch. It was always like that. The manicured moaned about the prices while the man on the street is happy to have a little change for some bread and milk, a commune to stay in for the night or a week job fixing manicured people’s gutters. I drove a truck.

Seven minutes. My eyes felt itchy and I would kill for caffeine. My body was slumped forward over my wheel. I could hear my wife’s voice in my head. Sit up straight, Michael. Your back is going to be so crooked one day and I’m going to say ‘I told you so’. Well, she won’t be able to. She liked her boss too much and he liked her lingerie. Another reason I’d like to kick back with a bottle. It’s far too easy. When she told me she didn’t love me anymore, I kept quiet, not really knowing what to say. She sobbed in my lap, I rubbed her neck but stared ahead, seeing nothing in particular. Life kicks you in the balls sometimes. That time, Life had me lying o the floor while it repeatedly beat the shit out of me. She moved out the next day. She took our parrot Juju, too. I had no one.

Four minutes.
There was a job to do.

 

I’ve decided to run away from home. What’s the point of living, right? The Mayans say I’ve only got two months to live. I think I’ve royally fucked myself up so I think I’ll just run away from everything. The rest stop is somewhere that nobody can find on a map. It’s quiet here. The rain outside is pounding the stop’s roof. A symphony.
“What’ll be?”
The waitress is pretty. I used to be pretty. I don’t really read the menu.
“Just a cheese sandwich?”
She nods and leaves me be.
I almost judge her for being a waitress in a hick town in the middle of nowhere. Then I envy her. There’s a hopelessness when the Earth pours. The body reacts, the minds reacts and you contemplate life and all its simple intrusions, hate and pettiness. Two months.

Pretty puts a Coke in front of me and smiles politely.
“On the house…”
I look down and see the gas bubbles rise. The glass is frosted cold.
“Thank you…”
I don’t know what else to say. Courtesy is limited to towns that have one rest stop and a post office. I remember my mom leaving me an envelope with some cash in last week. I was excited. I wanted to tell her about my school dance coming up. Would we go dress shopping? Who did she think I should take?
There wasn’t any shopping or frivolous gossip. I was hoping like a child on Christmas Eve. The expectation of my mom coming through was dead. When she was seven months on the right track, I figured Life was giving us a second chance.

The envelope was tattered. Maybe it was Mom’s old ones in her study desk.
Inside there was one hundred rand and a short letter. Her handwriting was messy .

She was out.

Here’s money for food.

Becareful.

She wouldn’t say where she was going. Perhaps my imagination was in overdrive but I could smell her desperation to drink herself to death. I could smell the vodka. I could smell the seven-month sting of counterfeit emotion. She said she didn’t know when she’d be back. She told me to find Aunt Grace if I needed anything. I pocketed the money. I wasn’t proud. There was an itch. There was a spiraling, dull pain in my chest. I waited for Mom for a week. No word. Aunt Grace could not be contacted.

No dress shopping.

So I ran. It happens to everyone, doesn’t it? When I was 7 I remember fighting with Mom and Gran. They wouldn’t let me go to an older girl’s sleepover. That’s when Mom was fine and Gran was still around. They disagreed often but seemed to team up against this. I remember crying, writing a letter and packing a plastic bag with some clothes, my toothbrush, my diary and whatever I had in my purse. I was angry. I got as far as the local bowling green and decided I missed them.

This was a little different. In the crux of my current home life, why shouldn’t I run? I’ve stayed on the path. I’ve hoped and dreamed. For what?

“Your sandwich.” It looked horrific. Oil and dust. I kept my eyes away from Pretty. She seemed to wait for me to look up so she can say something nice to the girl who wants to expire without anyone knowing or caring. She left.

I picked at my food and tried to work out how much it would cost. R18. The crunchy chips on the side would bring me through the day. I looked around me. The stop was no much bigger than a café. There was an old man in the corner, reading a bright newspaper sipping on coffee and occasionally looking out the window at the rain. Amusement. Not far away from me was a middle-aged man dressed quite impeccably. He was having a coffee and some burger. He was staring at Pretty. Or nothing. He looked particularly bored. There was also a couple not far to my left who looked like they needed others. Her face was soaked in a flatness sharing a hopeless lunch. The man was scrolling through his phone, frowning, smiling and looking up now and again at his tedious lover. I heard him mumble something about the rain and she nodded.

I finished the oily chips. The sandwich was crumbling on its own. I pushed my plate away and Pretty, on cue, came to fetch it.

“Something wrong?”

“Just full now, thanks.” I looked into my lap so the conversation wouldn’t dawdle along. Her lips produced a courteous smile.

“The bread isn’t good here.” It was the man who was looking at Pretty earlier. He was wiping his mouth with a serviette and smiled at me, then looked away embarrassed.

I didn’t respond. I liked it this way. A place where no one knew me, my past, my mind. But there was a necessary throb of curiosity about the man. Khaki pants, a crisp white shirt and anorak. His eyes were half-closed, half-open, his lids drooping every now and again as some jingle played.

“How’s the burger?” I asked. I don’t know why I seemed particularly interested in his lunch. He looked over, then looked at his half-eaten bun. He shrugged and smiled quietly.

“Not enough cheese…” He shrugged, pushing his plate away from his chest. He looked around and then eyed me again, trying to force a conversation.

“You from around here?”

I laughed , “No. Just a stop over.”

“To where?”

I didn’t know. It seemed to be a house between my thoughts. I didn’t really have a thought out plan or schedule. I just needed this. I needed a deadbeat diner in the middle of nowhere so I could fathom what life was all about. Unfortunately, the answer didn’t seem to be in oily chips and stale bread.

“I don’t know…”

He nodded and studied me, “I’m driving down. I have to deliver some packages. Job has to be done.”

Pretty came to fetch his plate and looked disappointed that he didn’t finish his food. He mumbled a thanks and dug out a booklet and small pencil from his jacket pocket. He hunched forward, his pencil scribbling notes or numbers. His brows knotted, too. It was a crossword or puzzle I guessed and I couldn’t think of anything sadder. The scribbling to pass the time, pass the mundane thrust of delivering packages in a stretch of road with detrimental diners.

He looked over at me staring and smiled again. “One puzzle before I go. There’s a job to do.” He scratched his chin with the pencil, deep in thought. He was serious about the puzzle like it was on his personal to-do list.

“To convert…to transform…” he mumbled loud enough for me to hear. He glanced up and looked ahead, looking for an answer on the clock that ticked too slowly. He scribbled a word but then erased, shaking his head. Pretty was looking at him, polishing a glass that looked sticky. I think she was trying to decipher the puzzle herself. I was sure she couldn’t manage drawing a stickman.

“Make the form different, recreate…”

“Change.” I said shyly.

He looked over and then scribbled it down on the puzzle. He looked happy.

“Change. To convert,” he smiled, “thanks…”

He dug into his pocket, took out some money and put it on the table so Pretty could see.

“Change,” he mumbled, sifting through some coins, “change or change – however you put it, we’re always looking for it, aren’t we?”

I wasn’t sure if that heightened exclamation was for me or Pretty. I nodded shyly and saw him get as much change from his pocket as he could. He smiled quietly to himself as if he had answered a question in his head. He left a piece of paper on the table and nodded a farewell.

“There’s change on the table.”

 

I got back into the truck. It stank of rain and pastries. Change. The windows were drying. Outside began to get musty and humid.

There was a job to do.

But, I didn’t feel as motivated to balance routine with routine and stop for a measly meal just so my body can have enough sustenance to keep me around. Routine.

I remember Nana told me a story of how she gave up her dreams of being a dancer just so she can move to England with Pop. Every day, they would walk 3km to the store to get milk and bread. Every Sunday they went to church and afterwards they’d have a feast. Routine. Nana, years later, would tell me their weekly schedule with a soft smile. She did love Pop. Pop loved her. But there was something missing. When the feast was laid out and the old rock n’ roll music blared on Sunday afternoons, Nan would feel guilty. Every time she wanted to sway. Every time she wanted to shift, twist and grab Pop’s arm. Every time she wanted to dance but she refused. Routine. What a sad human complacency.

I started the truck. There was a job to be done.

“Right off the N1, 150km to the next stop…” I looked around me, “Then straight on until the drop-off. 7 hours until bed.”

The truck rolled lazily off the turn-off.

I turned left.

 

Pretty dropped a piece of paper in front of me.

“He left change for me. And this for you.”

A torn piece of the puzzle with the word I gave him. Change.

I needed it.

The diner seemed to synchronize perfectly. The middle place where my head could be sorted. I thumbed each letter and each time it stuck in my heart as I left the room. There was a fucking job to be done.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I don’t believe in luck

I don’t believe in luck or fate or destiny. I believe in choices mostly. I believe I’m still alive at 87 because I chose to eat right after 50 and stop smoking. I also go for a walk everyday to keep my legs going for as long as they can. I’m not supposed to be here still because of some incredible providence that is laid out for me. I’m old. Hell, I’m almost dead… so people should stop saying that I’m still around for a reason. I’ve loved before. I’ve hated. I’ve made mistakes, taken risks, accomplished what I could. Now, I’m stuck in Open Glen Retirement Village, watching sport or soapies, reading the paper and scrutinising headlines. I play Scrabble, Bingo, Suduko and do some crosswords. At night I lie in bed with some strong tea and watch the news, flick through to some fanatical reality show where people in plastic cry far too much and read a few pages in my Bible. I’ve had my Bible since I was 14. My ma gave it to me. Now, its crumbling, the pages thin and yellow. The words: still beating to today’s flaws and hopelessness. Avant-garde  wisdom that’s resilient but vanishing in today’s mind. Stupid kids. Anna bought me a new Bible about ten years ago but I lost it somewhere.

My daughter Gemma visits once a week with my grandson Grant who turns five next week. My son Henry is in Australia. I wonder why people always go there when things turn to shit. I wouldn’t pick that desert.

“Lyle, what you think about the conference?” It was Alice pointing at the news man. It was some piece on the government spending millions on a conference for the environment. They were going to discuss ‘going green’. They were also going to this conference on their twenty jets. Irony. Alice looked a little disheartened about this because she loved her plants. Had little cactus plants in her room. She was the one who would plant little trees once a month. The Village let her have the happiness.

“It’s a little sad…” I told her. Alice nodded and frowned at the TV set, squinting through her thick glasses.

“You know, July hasn’t had a tree yet,” she remarked, “we’ll get one tomorrow. Come to the store with me, Lyle?”

My name isn’t Lyle by the way. It’s Paul. Lyle was Alice’s husband who she forgot about. Lyle came over a few times a week but visits less now that Alice’s condition has worsened. She has forgotten her past like it was scrubbed away with disinfectant. She thought I was Lyle. She clearly was losing it. Real Lyle was angry the first time Alice called me his name. One day, Lyle just shrugged it off and put his hand on my shoulder, pulling me away from the small group that were playing poker.

“Be Lyle. Don’t cross what she says,” Real Lyle told me.

 

I accepted.

 

“I’ll go with you Alice.”

Alice smiled softly.

Janice, the half-deaf woman who knitted a jersey a day, chuckled nearby.

“Paul, you’re a saint.”

I gave Janice a look. A look that said she must shut it. She ignored me and rolled up her blue wool with a grin. Alice looked up at Janice a little perplexed, wondering who the Paul character in the room was.

“Alice, what tree do you think we should get?” I asked, trying to diffuse Janice’s stupidity.

“Pineapple.”

“I don’t think the store-“

“Apple then. I miss green apples. And red.”

“Alright, we might need to ask Fran for permission.”

“Fran needs to make room for apples.”

“We get an apple at lunch everyday.”

“Lyle, you remember the day we met?”

I stopped and looked at Janice’s smile disappear.

“Yes, I-“

“Back in Athlone Street? There was an apple tree!”

I nodded, smiling at Alice’s naïve delight.

“Guess I’ve always had a soft spot for apples then! Apple pie, apple crust, apple lollipops!”

“Sounds great,Alice…”

“So we’ll get an apple tree,” she whispered to me, grabbing my hand and stroking it softly like she had known my hand lines for a lifetime, “then it’ll be like when we were young.”

I hated it. Real Lyle asked me. Janice and Fran and everyone else let it go.

Alice came in six months ago. She thought we’ve been together for over fifty years.

 

Even though Alice wanted a room with me, Real Lyle had told me to tell her that it’s The Village’s rules that everyone needs their own room. Alice complied. Sometimes, around once a month, Alice knew me as Paul. Then her mind went and I was Lyle. I was her only love, the man who could play her Elvis and remember days with her trying to surf. Sometimes, I had to remember Real Lyle’s history. Sometimes I missed being Paul.

I retired to my own room as much as I could. Also when Gemma came around, I made  Alice didn’t see. That would surely muddle everything.

Gemma came on Saturday mornings and she usually brought snacks, a movie and some gifts. Last week she brought me a Sinatra album with the hits and some nougat because that was my favourite. I told Gemma about my week and she spoke about hers, her work deadlines, driving Grant to school and working through her divorce. I told her about Alice sometimes and she teared up sometimes and told me how horrible it was. Gem told me she was glad she wasn’t me. Then she left.

It was like she came to visit this weird and wonderful world only to leave an hour or two later. Sometimes Grant would come and watch some cricket with me. Then he’d try and sing his songs at school and show me his drawings. Sometimes he drew me with a walking stick even though I can walk perfectly. I can walk briskly, too. Grant explained it to me one day like I was the child, “Every old person has a stick.”

I liked the visits but felt too sad when they left. I cried because Gem seemed to have a life now, away from me helping her out. I cried because Grant was handsome and clever. I cried because Henry still thought of me and also called twice a week. I cried because I was in this old-age bubble where Life was in limbo. What can I do now? Be Alice’s counterfeit lover? The Village Saint? The man who takes morning walks and watches TV most of the day? Sometimes I wonder why I was here. Why didn’t I buy a great beach cottage and old Ferrari? Because, that’s impractical. I have a beat-up bakkie and a small room with a single bed, small TV set and microwave. Practical.

 

That night, after spending my day hoping Gem would come keep me company and then getting a call from her apologising because Grant was sick with flu, I was beat. I turned on the news and saw the eco thing on TV again. Then I remembered going with Alice to get a tree tomorrow. Then I forgot about asking Fran if we could. Fran was our caretaker – middle-aged, desperate thing that treated us like her own. Fran was around 40 and I’ve never seen her with a man or with family. I think we were all she had, really.

After the weather, I would usually read the paper’s cartoons and the sport columns I liked. I was bored with puzzles and games now. Instead, after the weatherman told lies about sunny weather, the TV broke to a shiny man in a shinier suit with puffy hair and a groomed moustache. It looked like it was from the 70’s but that’s what today is like. The kids wear old gear as if they invented it and play songs that were done around three decades ago. The music today. I give up. Anyway, this shiny man was in front of this big audience who were clapping on cue, like preset robot things. They even smiled on cue.

“After our season break, the Lotto Draw is back!”

There were coloured balls with numbers on dancing around in those see-through machines.

“Have you got your lucky ticket out? Are you ready for your life to be changed? Are you ready to win 20 million? Your time is now!”

I switched the TV off. Last time I played was five years ago because Gemma had played and told me to. Gemma was getting separated then and had an optimistic mindset about entering competitions. Gemma got three numbers and won a small amount. I didn’t get one. I don’t believe in luck. Choices. Winning the lottery? That’s a little silly. No one just picks out numbers because they’re lucky. It happens. Like comets and making an impossible basketball shot. It just happens.

 

Ten years ago, Anna died. Her heart just gave out. When she entered a room, everyone smiled. When she was with you, she was electric and nothing else mattered. I mattered. With Anna, nothing worried me, nothing made me sad and I was afraid of nothing.

It was ten years ago and Anna fell over in the grocery store. I got the call that ended my inclusive happiness. When Alice brought up the apples yesterday, I tried to get the image of Anna out of my head.

 

Fifty years ago, Anna sat on the picnic blanket on my lawn having just made us sandwiches. She didn’t know this but I was going to propose. It was the easiest decision but one that made me anxious and sweaty and edgy – so much so that Anna fixed her sharp blue eyes on me when I sat on the blanket, offering a cut sandwich. No crust.

“You’re different…”

“Work has been a little crazy of late,” I said, biting into my sandwich. The ring was in my top right pocket. It felt heavier and hot, burning my skin.

“Well, there’s lunch here and now we can relax.”

“Anna, what’s your greatest desire?”

Anna chuckled at me and bit into a sandwich, scrutinising me, looking at my blazer. She knew. I’m sure she knew.

“Right here with you…except its warmer, there’s hot toffee apples and good wine.”

I picked up the bottle that stuck out of her old basket. Cheap.

“This will do. Any wine will do with you.”

About ten minutes later, after kissing Anna far too much, I grabbed both her hands, kissed her forehead and felt trapped in the best moment. I looked down at her and asked her to marry me. She kissed me back, nodding, unable to grab a hold of secure words. She was happy.

“With cheap wine and all…”

She smelled like vanilla and strawberry juice. She chewed too loudly. In the mornings, she need her coffee. She hated her hair standing up and hated putting on make-up. She was grouchy on Sunday nights when she knew Monday was coming. She hated cupcakes but made them for me. She loved wine. She liked orange lollipops and the green jelly babies. She couldn’t dance. She was mine. She had amazing morning breath. She had a great way of telling white lies to make people feel better. She could also swear like a sailor watching sport.

 

And then she just died one day.

It just happens.

 

Alice knew her plants like I knew about cricket. She knew what could brighten her room. The plant place didn’t have anything apple so Alice cried a little while I tried to calm her down. I told her we can get anything else but she didn’t want to.

“I wanted the apples, Lyle.”

“We’ll go to the diner and get some apple crust.”

It kind of cheered her up for a while but she was tearing up again when we approached the diner. We settled for buying Alice a small cactus she would keep in her room.

“Lyle, do you remember when we used to go here Fridays?”

“Yes. I remember.”

“You always had the cheese burger. I had the spaghetti.”

We found a table and I could see from Alice’s small smile, that she had memories of the booth that suddenly came to her like a knife got stuck in her temple.

The diner stank of cheese and chocolate. I imagined younger Alice slurping spaghetti and a younger Real Lyle biting into his greasy burger. Alice sure kept the weirder memories. She probably thought she was forty years younger now.

“What’ll be?” asked the twenty-something blonde waitress.

“Lyle’ll have the cheese burger. I’ll have the spaghetti.”

The blonde shook her head, bored, “No spaghetti. We have some noodles.”

Alice stared at her.

“You sure no spaghetti?” I asked, as Alice’s face drowned in confusion.

The waitress shook her head, “Noodles or lasagna. That’s our pasta menu.”

“Alice?”

Alice shook her head in silence, staring at the waitress’ features. Blondie looked at me for an answer.

“She’ll have the lasagne…beef if you have?”
Blondie nodded and left as soon as she could.

“Lyle, what happened to the spaghetti?”

“Things change. Menus change.”

Alice slammed her fist on the table, and then ran her palm over her mouth, her eyes tearing up again.

“Careful Alice! things-“

“This isn’t the diner…”

“This is the diner. We’ve come here all these years…remember?”

Alice stared at me like I was hiding a birthday present. Like I was a stranger. Like I was a foreigner. Like I was a terrorist. I could feel the clogs in her head doing overtime. Or sparking in failure.

“No, you’re not Lyle…”

Blondie brought the order and walked briskly back to the kitchen to avoid Alice.

“Lyle has darker hair. Lyle and I had spaghetti and burgers at this place-“

“This place.”

“This. This isn’t it.”

“Alice, it’s the place. They just don’t have spaghetti. Here’s your lasagna.”

Alice looked at her plate, shoved it to my side and shook her head, looking around the diner, startled, looked around the near-empty diner, its jukebox, pay phone, Blondie and the open kitchen that steamed away.

”Take me to Lyle…”

I took her hand and led her out. Blondie cursed behind us. Alice started crying again.

 

They thought I was at the library. My mother even said, “Learn hard, Alice.”
Instead, I couldn’t focus on anything and let myself stroll around town. It was hot out anyway and I needed time to think properly. I needed to know if there was any use in learning anyway when I wanted to travel. London in summer. Scotland in winter. Anywhere but here. Anywhere but a place where everyone knew about me, what was happening and where I’d work one day. Dad wanted me in the fabric shop, taking orders down and getting the payments down right. I knew my way around but realised that this wasn’t what I desired. And from books and magazines, I’ve learnt there’s a universe to explore and I have no need to be trapped inside this iron bubble, scrutinised by society for being me. Independence is an attitude not meant for young ladies. Independence is for the young boy, the soldier in waiting, the boy who plays in mud while the girl cooks, cleans and wears skirts over the knee.

Athlone street was quiet at midday, the sprinkler was buzzing down at Mr. Cathe’s little cottage and Mer, the little girl who shouted for no reasons, was outside on her garden bench playing with a yo-yo that stuck. She looked forlorn but I decided against befriending her. I wanted to walk and not play saviour of the children and doting mother-like hen. I had enough of it.

“The thing’s dead.” Came a voice across the road. The young man was under the apple tree, picking some apples like we were in another time. By his feet was a brown sack. He smiled at me and picked another apple, smelling it, staring and rubbing the surface before biting into the side.

“What did you say?” I was supposed to walk on but the man intrigued. I didn’t know his face. I knew everyone’s face.
”Her yo-yo. String is broken so she’s been moaning for an hour.”

 

I looked at Mer who had our attention on me now. I waved at her and she waved back but still looked like she was about to stab someone.

“You should go over and-“

“Who are you?” I asked. He was chewing loudly and smiled again.

“Who are you?”

“Alice…”

“I’m Lyle. Got here yesterday.”

“From where exactly?”

“You’re snoopy.”

“You’re hiding something?”
Lyle laughed and picked up the sack, threw it over his shoulder and walked over to me with a smug look.

“We just moved from Kerton. Folks got a job so. Want an apple?”

“No. I have to go.” I turned away and he grabbed my arm, not forceful but something he shouldn’t have done. He was slim, his dark hair too long, falling over his eyes a little. His skin was tanned with freckles. He smiled again and I waited for him to say something important for me to stay but all he said was that I should stay, that I needed an apple.

“I don’t want your apples.”

He picked one out for me, a small one that shined as the sun hit it.

“You got something against fruit?”
I took it to shut him up, bit into it and nodded at him, “Nice…”

Lyle looked satisfied I took one. He still had my arm and let go.

“Won’t you help me pick apples?”

I laughed. What a complete weird stranger. Dimwit stranger. But something in my chest told me to let go of what my head was saying. My head said I should just go and leave him be. But that walk down Athlone was my time. It was supposed to be for a reason. I followed him to the tree.

 

“And then Lyle and I sat around the tree, eating apples and talking about Paris.”Alice told me as we walked up Athlone Street.

“Paris?”

“We pretended we were on a farm in France,” she laughed, “under the apple tree. Then Lyle just started talking French. It wasn’t really French but it seemed like it.”

“And then you two were together?”

“We spent about two hours under the tree. After that, I saw him everyday. Everyday for decades. Lyle and I always spoke about the apple tree on Athlone and Lyle always said ‘Apples have magic, Alice. It was all just magic.’”

It was pleasant memory. I remember Anne and I meeting at a friend’s party and I had to speak to her. I spilled a drink on her skirt, she was laughing and the rest was history. It might seem stupid now and it was a small memory but no one ever forgets how they met their true love. You will never forget.Alice didn’t.

“That’s a great story…”

Alice looked at her feet on the tar. Athlone wasn’t as perfect as Alice painted it. Barely any trees. No benches like that Mer girl sat on. The grass was stained with winter’s yellow, leaves floating over the street, plastic bags on the lawns, a line of unordered garbage bins on the street ready for pick up. I could see from Alice’s complete sullen expression that Athlone wasn’t supposed to look like this. But that’s what happened. Life happened and your picture perfect memories swabbed in happiness and cleanliness, colour and health, die away to modern-day filth. The world isn’t lucky enough to be trapped in a moment. There was this chill in the air; the silence grew so my ears felt like it was ringing. Alice was looking at her feet, watching the way they stepped.

And then, as if the world wanted us to both look up, we did. And we stopped in front of the apple tree.

 

 

Iðunn, the goddess, would give out apples to the gods and they would attain eternal youthfulness, smiling, rejoicing in their energy and wit and enjoying moments that were full of drinking, love and happiness. I wonder if the sparkle of youth ever died. I wonder if everything around them stayed as youthful as they did?

 

There in Athlone, the apple tree stood metres away from Alice and I; lush, youthful, bright as if someone had painted the fruit in a sharp red and shine.  Alice grabbed my arm in silence. The picture didn’t fit in the picture. This was a tree that came from another time. While Athlone stood desolate and stagnant, washed of jovial air, the apples shone and I squinted.

“This isn’t real.”

Alice smiled, staring, “Apples, they have magic.”

Out of nowhere, a young man walked to the tree. He was wearing faded trousers, a simple blue shirt. He was barefoot, neat, his hair gelled to the back. He was slim and tall, smiling at Alice and I.

“Like my tree?”

Alice grabbed my arm tighter this time.

The man picked an apple and bit into it, “Been amazing for years. I don’t even water it a lot, you know! Juiciest apples I’ve ever had. Want one?” He stretched out his hand with the one he took a bite out of.

“No, no. My friend and I are just passing,” I said.

I was about to step forward but Alice pulled me to a stop, smiling at the man.

He was peculiar. Young people wore black things nowadays and lots of metal and neon.

“Lyle…?”Alice whispered. She looked at me instantly and laughed, “It’s Lyle.”

I was so glad Anne didn’t lose her memories. It’s the saddest. The dementia. The blind hope. Child.

The man looked confused.

“Sorry, my friend and I were just leaving-“

“I’m Lyle, yes…” The man interrupted.

“Excuse me?”

Alice nodded and let me go, walking to the man, “Yes, you’re Lyle.”

The man frowned at Alice.

“How do you know me?” the man asked.

Alice was in front of him now. I looked around. Athlone was still working. Some leaves blew. There was a modern-day car, a beat-up Ford, parked across the road. Athlone was dead, it was chilly, the sky miserable, the houses locked up and fenced up except the house with the apples.

I looked back, “Alice? Who is this?”

Alice took the man’s hand, “I’m Alice…”

The man smiled immediately. He looked at Alice’s hand and stroked it, wondering if this was real. I wondered.

“I knew you’d come.”

Alice nodded, looked back at me and smiled. Lyle took her other hand and laughed.

“Les pommes ont magic…” the man whispered but it carried to my ears as if he was shouting.

Alice laughed, “Paris! Let’s go to Paris!”

“Laissez-nous aller…”

 

Gem came next week. She was more relaxed this time around and she brought a packet of things to eat. I loved that because sometimes the home didn’t cater sweet things.

“I’m finally a little carefree this week. Took a long weekend so we could go to that new lodge outside town tomorrow.” Gem was making me tea while I was looking through the newspaper she got me.

Gem looked up, “Dad, you’re quiet…had any friends over?Alice?”

“Aliceisn’t here anymore.”

“No?” Gem looked up with a worried face. Say that in the home and it brought up things like death.

“No, no, no, she’s alive. I think she’s alive.”

“Think? Where did she go, Dad?”

I shrugged, “Lyle took her.”

Gem stirred my tea, “You mean they moved out? Didn’t she have a soft spot for you?”

“We went out a few days ago to buy plants. We just bought a cactus. Anyway, we stopped to eat and then Alice and I walked down Athlone-“

“Athlone’s dangerous now, Dad. You can’t go that side of town.”

“Well, it was quiet. And there was this apple tree fromAlice’s story.”

“Alice’s story?”

“About how she met Lyle when she was young. They met in Athlone by the tree. Anyway, we stopped walking cause the tree was there. Gem, it was bright and fresh. And there was a young man there and Alice recognised him and called him Lyle.”

Gem passed me my tea and sipped hers, “You mean her son? She has a son?”

I shook my head, “It was Real Lyle. It was Lyle by the tree. It was Lyle like he was when Alice met him forever ago!”

“Dad, Lyle is as old as you are now.”

“No! It was Real Lyle I couldn’t believe it either but there were apples and they held hands and it was magic. You don’t know what it was like. They walked off, with the sack of apples and I felt I had to let her go.Alice had to let go.”

Gem stared at me for a while and looked at her watch.

“You don’t believe me.”

“Dad, I got to go. I have to get food done. I’ll leave the packet in here for you and I’ll see you on Monday? Then we can chat for long.” She kissed my forehead and I let her go. I dug in my packet, taking out biscuits, full-cream milk and a pie.

I read the label: apple crust.

I opened it, cut a slice and put the rest in my little fridge.

The fresh apple pieces were in toffee, a caramel and cream with nuts.

Alice met Lyle again by the apples and she ran away.

I took a bite and there was a knock at the door.

An old woman walked in with a walking stick. Her face was bright, smiling, her eyes a dark blue. Never saw her before.

“Can I help?”

The woman laughed, “Oh, I must be wrong. I thought this was my room.”

“Are you new here? What room you looking for?”

“Number three.”

“This is thirteen.”

The woman looked embarrassed and smiled at me, her white, cropped hair moving quickly to see my plate of pie, my small TV set, some crayon drawings and tea.

“Well, I’ll leave you be. I must’ve seen the 3 on the door and just got excited.”

“Want some apple pie?”

“Well, isn’t that nice.”

I opened my fridge, cut her some and put the kettle on again. She sat down on my other chair, bending slowly and putting her walking stick on my dresser. She wore a red skirt and white jersey. Her eyes were too bright, too big, too youthful. Her gaze was familiar.

“You new.”

“Well, you know when your kids start looking after you and just don’t want to anymore, they find something for you.”

“I know the feeling.”

“And when I came here, The Village told me this was the right place and something told me it was. It seems nice. It’s like I’m supposed to be here”

No one is meant to be somewhere. Maybe Alice was. When people told me it was Anne’s “time to go”, I fell silent with anger. I don’t believe in all that. I also don’t think someone is meant to be somewhere at some time in their lives. Delusional.

“I’ll cut myself another, would you like one?” I asked.

“Oh no, this will be alright. One’s enough for me. I’m not the biggest apple fan. Hot toffee apples are great but won’t invest in more than one slice of pie.”

Toffee apples. Hot, sticky toffee apples.

I took a bite into the apple, cinnamon, the oozing cream and small nut.

“I didn’t get your name?”

“It’s Anne.”

“I’m Paul.”

 

I don’t believe in luck.

 

Lift

Wine is completely deceptive. I have an uncontrollable urge to crawl up in the foetal position and howl out loud for my mother. Instead, I grabbed greasy things in the kitchen, combed my hair with my claws and brushed my teeth. This last part was hard. Sticking a brush down my throat gave me memories of tequila, flasks full of foamy beer and that dirty man who licked his lips at me last night. I was unemployed and last night while I called in my thirteenth thousand order of fried chicken and chips, I realised how unpromising my existence was. I feared that I’d be doomed to slurping the bottom of greasy buckets to cure excessive depression. And unemployment. So after I slurped grease off my fingers, I called my friend Ally. I needed a pillar and someone who’d threaten me if I ordered dessert.

Ally was a mistake. Ally was married, has a kid and I’m pretty sure she is managing to cook, clean and be sparkly without any help at all. She is also employed and healthy. Ally hates fried chicken.

So when Ally trudges to my place, fake smiling through my little kitchenette littered with pizza boxes, tissues and empty bottles, I feel a little self-conscious but fight it away. Ally sits on my couch and looks at me from behind her blonde aptness.

“You’re a mess, Wendy.”

I didn’t expect absolute sympathy from her. Perhaps I needed that.

“I smell like poultry.”

“I have a dentist appointment, and then I got to go to the chemist. I’m also a little tired with Eric teething. Kevin and I have to see Eric’s friend’s mother at eight.”

“Exhausting…”

Ally shook her head, “You know why I’m telling you this?”

“Because you want me to feel guilty?”

“Because I’m going to stay with you until you come to your senses.”

Ally’s baby bag was strapped around her still and she dug in it, retrieving a bottle of golden tequila and a French loaf. Refined. I didn’t get it. Ally was supposed to come with her tablets, blankets and coffee and reprimand me for being a disappointment. Now, she’s giving me the devil juice and carbs?

“You’re not supposed to-“

“Take a swig.” Ally commanded as she pushed her baby bag away. The thousands of grinning duckies on the bag looked more sinister than they should. From that moment, Ally and I spoke about everything. I told her about my life: the grease; the lifespan of limbo; the lack of wallet weight and the incredible dividing line between my happy happy teenage years and old-age contentment. Ally brought the tequila for a reason. She was trapped and sullen at how fast she’s grown up and even though she loves Kevin and Eric, she feels like she should travel more, dance more, drink more, meet other people and drive aroundBrazilwith a desire to kiss any man she pleases.

Then it was a blunt blur. The loaf and tequila energised us and the city waited like a gaping manhole; willing and eager to devour us.

There was a man with a foul moustache who offered us shots of green. There was a cop who gave us slips but let us off. There was a lady who might have been a man. The dance floor was buzzing and the toilet bowl was out third friend for the night. There was the thin man who licked his lips at me. The lights pounding; my legs pounding; my temples pounding.

 

I woke up with a note from Ally plastered to my forehead.

‘Had to go. Speak later.’

And there I was back to greasy living.

 

There was a moment as a child when I knew I’d be something one day. I entered myself into the speaking contest at school despite me being a coward in front of the class. I spoke when spoken to back then and everyone laughed at the fact that I would be saying a speech for a plastic trophy. Before the big day, I was memorising the words and all the research I’ve done through twenty encyclopaedias.

What was there to say about giraffes?

When I told my mom I’d like to say my speech on giraffes, she hesitated but left me to my own devices. Growing up, I collected stuffed giraffes and drew pictures on my cupboard. Then, I worked through the obsession. The speaking day was set for me to impress and mom told me always write and say things that I love.

Did you know a giraffe can eat up to 75 pounds a day?
Did you know their heart is 2 feet long and weighs about 25 pounds?

Their heart beats up to 170 times/minute.

And their tongue is black.

I had people mesmerised and told the world how if animals were politicians, the world would have peace, love and everyone would be happy. I had gold. I knew that this was my calling. I could write and speak and manipulate. I could go green and spread nature love.

 

There is always a time when we feel appreciated and recognised and ‘meant to be living in this world’. When I woke up with Ally’s words on my head, I nearly cried. Because nothing will ever change. Childhood is the longest period where you will remain innocent, happy and optimistic. Mostly, you’ll stay true to your heart.

 

After brushing and shaping my hair into some sort of form, I headed out to the place I was meant to be. Nowhere.

I packed a brush, a ten rand note and my bank card which is worth less than my note. I packed a photograph of my parents, Ally and Gran.

My eyes were cold and scratchy. I pushed my key under the door and waved goodbye to my front door. For now.

There was nothing in my way to Nowhere. A Neverland where I could be nine again. I wanted that.

Except, the lift wouldn’t open once I got in.

 

********

”Nuts!” a voice behind me muffled. I turned to see 34 B with his eyes closed as if he was praying for divine intervention. Who says nuts? Curse words can live in 2012. 34 B was in suit, probably off to work or a date with his fiancé.

The buttons in the lift didn’t light up when I slammed them countless times. 34 B was checking his watch and sighing far too heavily – making sure I heard him. Oh, this was my fault.

“What’s the emergency number?” I said out loud. 34 B pointed. I pushed the buttons before dialling. Nothing. A beep on the other end.

The elevator playlist died and the neon lights dimmed.

Divine intervention.

34 B laughed a little. He was a tall man, cleanly shaven and smelled good. He was a walking commercial for perfection and self-importance. I know about 34 B because he walks to work everyday like some eco saviour. He prompted the recycling system downstairs in the flat’s entrance and he always seemed like he was a mysterious do-gooder. An opposite.

“My phone is dead.” 34 B muffled and sat cross-legged on the floor, closing his eyes softly. Maybe he was hungover, too?

“Someone will come.”

He nodded at me and looked at me as if he was waiting for something.

“You can sit,” he said.

Uncanny behaviour from do-gooder. 34 B’s never sat in lifts.

“I’m alright.”

He just smiled and fiddled with his watch, undoing the clasp and taking it off. I noticed it was one of those Mickey Mouse watches where Mickey’s arms danced around in a circle. He memorised the time and put it in his pocket.

“I’m Peter…”

“I’m Wendy.”

 

Peter almost scoffed. I pushed the button again. We made fun of 34 B. Mrs. Darling downstairs asked me if he worked for the government. I told her he could be a spy. She believed my tale and word got around. The young couple next door to me asked if he was some sort of big shot lawyer person. I told them he could be serial killer. He could pull it off couldn’t he? Not a hair out of place and hygienic looking. He might scrub off blood for a living.

“Where you headed?” Peter asked, eyeing my backpack.

“Just out. Where are you going?”

“To quit my job.”

“Why?”

Peter shrugged. Maybe he was down and out. Maybe other people needed a change, too. Maybe he wants to afford more than a Mickey Mouse watch.

 

“What do you do?” I asked, scared he’d pull a knife on me now.
Peter looked at me, “You’re running away aren’t you?”

I frowned at his response. He also didn’t answer my question. Oh, Peter at 34 B, how very peculiar and shadowy.

“I’m just going for a walk.”

“There is no need to run away.”

“And you’re quitting your job…”

“Different,” he said, a little irritated.

My throat was dry and head seemed to feel heavier in the lift. I had to sit down. Peter stared at me and I tried to avoid it. I tried to distract myself with a 5 cent piece on the floor. I tried my phone again but the signal was still down.

“Wendy, have you ever wanted to go back?”

“What?”

“To your past?”

Who hasn’t? I want to go back and risk everything for everything. I want to seeIndia. I want to write a book. I want to save the giraffes. I want to write about nature and fantasies far away. I want to be in love.

“No.”

Peter’s eyes dance a little at my response, “All you have to do is believe you can.”

I smiled. Dear me, he was insane.

Stay polite and he won’t kill you.

“I’m quitting because I want to fly.”

“Fly where?”

Why was I talking to 34B?

Peter looked at the top of the lift, a little lost in thought. Maybe he wanted to seeIndia, too.

“I don’t really know. All I need is a little bit of faith and trust, you know? I’ve always wanted to see snow.”

“You’ve never seen snow?”

Peter shook his head, smiling.

I looked up at the lights that were flickering. I wonder if someone would hear me if I screamed. Could I scream when I felt hurt, sore and trapped? Could I scream if 34 B was here? I think I could. I could scream away my adult problems. I could scream away this feeling.

Divine intervention.

“Forget them, Wendy.”

“What?”

“You don’t have to worry about the things in your life anymore…”

“You’re a little strange aren’t you?”

I had to say it.

Peter laughed heavily and folded his legs like a 12-year-old, curious, naughty, eccentric fun.

“I just want to live a little. And you should, too. I want to be a boy again. Back then, I could play. I could pretend to be a bad guy, a policeman, a pirate, a Power Ranger…” Peter retrieved his watch and looked at the time, “now I’m worrying about work when I’m going to quit anyway.”

“At least you have a job.”

“What do you want to do?”

Everything.

“Not drink too much.”

“You’re suffering?”

“Long night. Wine and beer.”

“What do you want to do?” he asked me again. I knew what he wanted. Some sort of grand idea.

“My unfulfilled ambition is to write a great novel about my adventures.”

“What adventures?”

“Exactly…”

“You’ll have them,” he said simply. It seemed like he knew it perfectly. Like it was a simple mathematical equation. Like he knew my hopes.

 

 

Gran said the same thing to me before she passed. We used to play Scrabble over mucky coffee and talk about her past boyfriends, before Pa and her got married. Gran was a wild thing in her day: an experimental hippie, groupie, off-beat musician and painter. She was a nurse, studied English literature and would work at the old raceway selling tickets. She would go out every night, put a record on and create a miraculous adventure. All this, she said, was part of being young and free. I’m pretty sure some of her stories were counterfeit but I didn’t care. I needed to live like that. After meeting Pa, Gran said she “came to her senses” and became what her mother wanted her to be: a society-driven saint, dutiful wife and loving mother. She didn’t regret marrying Pa or becoming a mother or even spending the next thirty five years as a secretary at some law firm. She was happy. But, before Pa, Gran was happiest, untamed and in her element. This was relived over Scrabble.

I didn’t quite get it then. Gran liked knitting and baking – normal ‘gran’ things – but reminisced about something contradictory and exultant. After she won Scrabble (she always won), she always followed one of her memories with “Oh, you’ll go through it one day, Wendy. You’re young.”

I didn’t go through it.

 

Peter opened his briefcase and took out bank statement, bills and notices. There was a traffic fine with a red stamp throbbing at the top. He was showing me how he didn’t care about adult things anymore. How he didn’t care about paying things anymore because when you’re a child, you just don’t need all of that ruining your day. He tore them up in half and smiled wider as he went along. I just watched and kept my mouth shut, half-wishing I could just do that. I already had a throbbing red bill somewhere in my post box.

“What do you want to do?” It’s a question he asked me.

Peter looked at his shoes, so perfectly polished I was sure he could see his reflection.

“I don’t know. Just go on an awfully long adventure. You can have anything in life if you will sacrifice everything else for it.” He tore up his last letter and his face drained of sparkle, like he was just hit by a sudden soul-drenching thought.

“Wendy? I know what we need to do.”

“I’m not going to tear anything up, Peter…”

“Close your eyes and take my hand.”

My cell was dead and the lights stopped flickering as the lift went dark. We both looked up and being stuck got a little more real. Inside, things got a little more unreal. Who was 34 B?

“I think I’ll push the button again.” Peter let me. Nothing happened. No sign of life.

“Wendy, I-“

“Listen Peter. I admire your enthusiasm, I really do but thinking you can just run away is stupid.”

“You wanted to run away…with your small bag.”

“For a few hours maybe. But you, you want to be a boy. You’re never going to be a Power Ranger again, Peter.”

“If you start believing in nothing, nothing will happen. If you think you can’t leave your sad life, then you won’t. Never ever.”

I sighed at him, “What the hell does that even mean!”

“It means ‘Close your eyes and take my hand’”

“You live in a fantasy.”

“Perhaps we all should. Real life is scary.”

I remembered Ally. She was happy but she was still yearning for change. I wondered if anyone can be perfectly happy.

I grabbed Peter’s hand. I was soft and warm and childlike. He rubbed his forefinger over my hand like a soft paint brush.

“Close your eyes, Wendy.” His eyes were already closed.

I slowly closed my eyes as the room went darker, softer, elastic.

 

The tree had a new swing and Gran brought me right after school so it was empty. Gran would do her knitting in the park while I played. Ally was not here yet so I had the park to myself. Gran said something about not swinging too high because I’ll fall on my nose and break it!

There it was. The rope tightened and fresh, painted in varnish so it glowed. Oh, it glowed bright!

“Can I have a turn after you?” It was a boy with blonde locks, eyes green and deep and he was holding a plastic sword and the Red Power Ranger who only had one arm.

“I’m going first!” I told him, “I was here first!”

The boy smiled at me, “Go ahead.”

I frowned at him. His shorts were full of caked mud and grass.

I was on the swing and it held me perfectly like the couch at home. It was my couch. I smiled as I pushed myself forward off my feet so the swing could roll.

The boy dropped his things.

“Need me to push you?”

“No!”

The boy smiled, “You can swing. I’ll just help.”

Why was he being so nice?

I didn’t answer, I just stopped and let him push me. It was amazing.

I saw the sun’s purple and red and the sky’s blue. The clouds were behind me and every time I went forward, I put my head back and made my eyes big. I looked at everything. The tree’s autumn leaves and the wide clouds behind me. The boy laughed with me and I was perfectly happy. Perfectly happy.

Gran called me after spectacular moments.

“Wendy, dinner now.”

The boy stopped me and I looked at him in a thankful smile.

The boy gave me his hand and I took it. His hands were dirty and his Mickey Mouse watch was scratched.

“Goodbye…” I said.

“Never say goodbye,” the boy said before I could go, “goodbye means going away and going away means forgetting.”

 

The lift ringed to life and the doors opened to Mrs. Darling looking troubled and confused. Peter and I were still holding hands and the horrible jingles started again.

“Wendy?” Mrs. Darling was with a handyman who obviously fixed the lift, “Were you stuck in there this whole time?”

“Not anymore. Never again.”