“The Uncleanliest Traffic” by Ishtiyaq Shukri

This is an excerpt from the author’s new novel, “An Unwritten Life”

this year,
I’ll wear purple on christmas 
maybe add a little blue here & there
a splash of red near my sleeves
ah, yes, that’ll do well

                by mk, 2015

I    Pretoria – Kroonstad

The car moved south across the country, like a teardrop down a cheek. Only the driver was awake, hunched over the wheel, hands grasped tightly at ten-to-two. Her eyes flicked constantly between the mirrors and the headlights of oncoming traffic, the strain of her divided attention taking its toll. She thought she was focused, but it was only when she took the exit to the filling station that she realized she had actually been falling asleep at the wheel. Joining the shortest queue at the pumps, she became aware of her toddler’s nursery rhymes, still playing on the loop as they had been ever since they left Mamelodi: When the bow breaks, the cradle will fall, down will come baby, cradle and all …

She asked the petrol attendant to check the oil, water and tire pressure, things she’d skipped in her rush to get out of Gauteng. But Cape Town was still a long way off, and she didn’t want to run the added risk of car trouble on the way. It felt good to be out of the car, but the nagging feeling that he might be following them surfaced again, so she got back into the car, locked the doors, and kept her eyes on the mirrors.

The commotion woke Jackson. Where are we? He asked, looking around with sleep-soaked eyes.

Kroonstad, Sara said.

Want anything from the shop?

Coffee, please. Black, no sugar.

What about him? Jackson checked, tilting his head at the child sleeping in the back seat.

He’s sorted. But get some more Jelly Babies. He loves those, she said, counting out enough notes to pay the attendant before handing him the rest of the wad she’d withdrawn from an ATM in Pretoria.

All this, he said.

It’s safer with you, she replied.

*

Leaving the shop, Jackson wondered around the parking lot, looking for the car. It was the start of the holiday season, and the filling station was full of travellers from the northern provinces destined for summer vacations by the sea. In the end, he sent her a message: Can’t find the car. Where are you?

The tone filled Sara with dread. Reluctant, she reached for her phone, but sighed with relief when she saw the message. Behind the Pickfords truck, she responded, flashing the hazard lights.

He found her in the passenger seat, scribbling down numbers. How are you feeling now? He asked.

You’ll have to take over from here, she said, dismantling her phone.

But I don’t have a license.

What?

He shrugged his shoulders. Prison and what, what, remember. Me, I’m still catching up with life.

Well, it’s either a fine with you at the wheel or an accident with me.

She reached for her coffee with one hand and gave him the key with the other. Let’s go.

II    Kroonstad – Kimberley

She woke to the sound of Zakariya singing in the back seat. The nursery rhymes were back on.

Salaam alaikum, baby boy, she smiled, reaching around her seat to squeeze the toddler’s cheeks.

By now the sun had risen, so she pulled down her sunglasses from the top of her head, realizing then that they’d been there all night. Then she looked around in panic.

This isn’t the N1, she said. Where are we?

Outside Kimberley, he answered, decisively.

Kimberley?

You need to rest, and Zak needs to get out of the car. Cape Town’s still far.

But —

He won’t look for you there.

*

It was late in the afternoon when she woke. Far from rested, her nap left her feeling listless and lethargic. Her neck was sweaty, her collar soaking wet. In the distance, she could hear Jackson and Zakariya playing in the pool. She wanted to join them, but fatigue nailed her to the bed, which sucked her down like quicksand. Too tired to resist, she submitted to the exhaustion and stared up at the ceiling, while the sequence of events that had led her to this sweltering city, this bog of a bed, flooded her head once more.

She returned to her office from the last meeting of the year, a spring in her step at the prospect of shutting down her computer for the summer. But her mood changed when she saw the envelope waiting on her desk, instantly recognizing Adam’s handwriting in the shape of her name. Too afraid to open the envelope, she gave it to her assistant. The colour drained from his face when he read the letter. Go back into your office, he said. And close the blinds. I’ll call security.

When the security guard arrived, he confirmed that Sara’s husband had delivered the letter himself. Once the guard had read the letter, he advised Sara to go straight to the police. I need to get my son from nursery first, she said, haphazardly throwing things into her bag, unable to distinguish between what was needed and what was not.

Seeing her frenzy, the guard took her keys and drove her himself, through a city she had lived in all her adult life, but that now seemed terrifyingly unfamiliar, it’s sedate tree-lined avenues transformed into Hansel and Gretel’s ominous woods, howling trees clutching at the car with gnarled and twisted fingers.

Once they were inside the police station, the nightmare abated, but when the police directed them to the family court, providing an armed escort there, the ordeal resumed, escalating before her like a magnifying series of Matryoshka dolls all in the guise of Chucky. When the paperwork was finally complete, two officers accompanied her to Waterkloof to deliver the interim protection order to Adam in person. Flanked by an officer on either side, she was gripped by terror when one of them rang the doorbell. Please, let’s make this quick, she said to the policeman.

When Adam opened the door, one of the officers asked him to confirm his name before handing him the order. Adam flipped through the document casually, as though he were merely browsing through the pages of one of his motoring magazines. Once he’d signed the document as the policeman had instructed, Adam looked up at Sara, his contemptuous stare causing her hands to tremble.

She clenched them into fists to steady herself, knowing in her gut that the document would not restrain him, but that it had in fact inflamed him even further. The police escorted her to back to her car. Do you have safe place to say, one of them asked. Realising then that home was no longer home; a feeling of utter destitution convulsed her. For a while, she just stood there staring blankly at the officer until eventually one name emerged from the haze ⎯ Jackson ⎯ filling her with hope as a galleon on the horizon does a castaway.

She found him waiting for them outside his shack. When she crossed his humble threshold and collapsed onto his rickety bed, she became certain of two things: that her life as she had known it was over, and that the Mamelodi shack she was in was safer than her Waterkloof mansion would ever be. But when she woke the following day, Jackson sat her down, arms stretched out on the table in front of him, his fingers interlaced as people do when they have something serious to say.

Me, I’ve thought about this very carefully, he started. Even with you locked up inside here, your car has already drawn too much attention. People are talking.

What are you saying, Jackson? Do you want me to leave?

He shook his head. I’m saying that you’re not safe here.

So what should I do?

We need to leave.

That he’d used ‘we’ instead of ‘you’ brought some comfort. And where should we go?

Your husband, he’s a powerful man.

Jackson, she said impatiently. That’s not an answer. Where should we go?

Jackson opened his eyes wide, causing his brow to furrow. As far as possible, he said.

*

Mamma, Zak called out when she joined them in the pool, the water cool and invigorating against her skin. Under, Mamma, under, he shouted, so they both breathed in as she had been training him to do, and ducked under the water. Zak laughed in delight when they surfaced with a Boo! Gain, Mamma, gain, the toddler called out.

He’s adorable, isn’t he? It was the lady from the guesthouse, smiling beside the pool. How old is he, two? She guessed.

He’s three, Sara said, curtly.

And half, Mamma, Zak added. Dak tlee and half.

Sensing Sara’s awkwardness, the woman dropped the subject and came straight to the point. I thought I’d remind you that we have water cuts from six to six, in case you want to have showers, or a bath for the little one, if you prefer. Just make sure to keep it shallow, won’t you?

*

Tired from the journey and his swim, Zak was asleep as soon as his mother had bathed and fed him. She and Jackson were sitting at a quiet table by the pool, her food untouched on her plate.

Jackson tapped his finger on the lip of her plate three times. Eat, he said. You need to keep strong.

In the distance there was a dull flash of lighting and a muffled rumble of thunder. A sudden gust of hot wind caused the candle on their table to flicker, and left Sara feeling flustered and confined.

Fuck it’s hot, she said, holding up her hair to expose the back of her neck. She pushed back her chair, but once she had risen from her seat, she didn’t know why she was standing, or where she should go, so she proceeded to walk in circles around the pool until the tune of Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush surfaced in her head. Eventually she sat down at the edge of the pool, kicking her feet in the water. When Jackson finished eating, he sent her plate to her room and walked over to the pool.

You can’t bath, but you can swim, he said, sitting down next to her.

Maybe they pay a levy, she speculated. Or get a business exemption, a tourism waver, or something like that.

Or maybe they’re just rich, he said.

They sat quietly by the pool for a while, moving their feet gently around the water.

You should get some sleep, Jackson said, looking at his watch. We have a thousand kilometres to cover tomorrow.

I should, Sara agreed, but just continued to stare trance-like at the ripples on the surface of the pool. There was a TV playing somewhere in the background. Some of the other guests were laughing at Trevor Noah’s story about a vampire called Vernacular who was chasing a woman through a township.

“I’m gonna bite you,” Vernacular threatened.

“Please don’t bite me,” the woman pleaded.

Sara imagined Adam pursuing her with his gun. “I’m going to kill you,” she heard him shout, while she ran away pleading, “Please don’t kill me.”

III    Kimberley – Three Sisters

By the time the white line of dawn appeared on the horizon, they were approaching the Orange River. Sara opened her eyes and leaned over to check the speedometer.

I don’t drive as fast as you, Jackson said. He slowed down as they crossed the bridge into Hopetown. Let’s stop there for some coffee, he suggested, pointing at a little filling station on the south bank the river.

When Sara returned from the shop, she found Jackson squatting in front of the car. Elbows resting on knees, he was looking out over the river, smoking a joint. Hey, she whispered with urgency. There’s a police van right over there.

I know, Jackson said.

First she looked at him in disbelief; then she sat down beside him and lit a cigarette. I had no idea where I was when the alarm clock went off this morning, she said after a while. I looked around my room for clues, but nothing made any sense, not the lamp by the bed, or curtains on the window, or the carpet on the floor. Even the cot at the foot of the bed; I didn’t know why it was there. It was only when I saw the picture of the Big Hole on the wall that things came back to me.

The sun was rising, illuminating the fog on the surface of the river and the trees growing along the banks. I wished he’d drive his car right into that fucking hole, she said. They say it’s so deep the water down there is like acid. I imagined him and his car just melting away, the biggest asshole in the world melting away at the bottom of the biggest hole in the world. The two of them looked at each other and laughed.

Jackson started collecting pebbles from the ground between his feet. You know, in this place, farm boys once played marbles with diamonds, he said, and placed three perfectly smooth pebbles in her palm. Never lose hope, he said. Nothing’s going to happen to you. Me, I’ll make sure of it.

Say Insha’Allah, Sara said.

Why?

Otherwise it’s bad luck.

Eish, I thought you don’t believe in all that stuff.

Well, my feelings come and go, she said, and under the circumstances, I’d rather not tempt fate.

Okay, Jackson said. Insha’Allah.

*

Nutly lime, Mamma, nutly lime, Zak called out, clapping his hands in the back seat. Sara pressed play, and the nursery rhymes resumed: Three blind mice, three blind mice, see how they run …

How do you know what he’s saying? Jackson puzzled. Me, I sometimes have no idea.

Mothers just do, Sara said. Mothers just do.

By now they were deep into the Great Karoo. With two provinces and half the country behind them, Sara was starting to feel a little more at ease, although she still leaned forward in the passenger seat to check the wing mirror from time to time. The road was quiet, and Jackson had set the cruise control at 130 while he sat cross-legged behind the wheel in a lotus-like position, letting the high-tech features of the luxury vehicle do the work. She marveled at him.

How do you remain so calm? She asked, with a mixture of irritation and awe.

Jackson looked around. All this space, he said. Then he leaned over the steering wheel and looked up. All that sky. Uit die blou van onse hemel.

I’ve never heard you speak Afrikaans before, Sara smiled. But this is Jackson, she thought, never starting to answer at the point you’d expect, but somewhere far away and tangential. So she just stared at the road ahead while he told his story.

There were times on death row when I felt so sad, not for killing those men ⎯ they did not deserve to live ⎯ but for all the places I would never see after they hanged me, like the sea, like here, he gestured.

She’d barely noticed the landscape Jackson was pointing out at. To her it was a desolate wilderness, a tedious backdrop to the terrifying scenarios circling the ominous merry-go-round in her head. She just wanted to get to Cape Town. But Jackson, never having left Gauteng, was fully present; overwhelmed by the unending vastness of a country he was seeing for the first time. Our sky, he thought, it’s not just a sky; it’s like a universe. Our land, it isn’t just land; it’s like a continent.

You know, babies are born alcoholics here, Sara said.

But Jackson, overcome by an uncanny sense of déjà vu in a place he’d never been before, wasn’t listening. Perhaps he’d been here in one of his walking dreams, he thought.  He shrugged. You never know how life will turn out, he said. Me, I should have been dead in my grave for twenty-seven years by now, but here I am, driving you to Cape Town.

She’d registered Jackson’s words, but her own were echoing more loudly in her ears. She cringed at their superior tone. Now, fully aware for the first time of her own son’s ordeal whilst still in the womb, she felt embarrassed. How was she any different from these abused hinterland women she felt herself so superior to? She was a rich city girl, she thought, but that was all. She pulled down the sun visor to look at herself in the mirror. Her wealth made her all the more culpable. She had the means to leave after the first punch, but chose to return instead, and every in utero blow Zak endured subsequently, she now thought, was one she had exposed him to.

IV    Three Sisters – Laingsburg

At Three Sisters, they debated about whether to stop or continue on to Beaufort West. Her anxiety resurfaced; they were back on the N1, the road Adam would be on if he was pursuing them.

How far is Beaufort West? Jackson asked.

I’m not sure, about 100 km, she said, glancing at the fuel gauge. There’s enough petrol, and Zak’s fast asleep, so let’s carry on.

The road was much busier now, a more visible police presence hovering on the side of the road. Jackson resumed manual control of the car, making sure to stick to the speed limit. I think you should drive from Beaufort West, he said.

*

The heat slapped them with a scorching palm when they stepped out of the air-conditioned vehicle at Beaufort West.

Puppy, Mamma, puppy, Zak called out.

Still dazed by the heat, what Jackson heard was Pappa, Mamma, Pappa, so he fell to his knees to reach for the gun strapped to his ankle.

Sara’s eyes went wide open. You have a gun, too?

But seeing Zak point at a little boy with his puppy, Jackson left the gun in its holster and scooped the child up in his arms as he rose back to his feet.

Why don’t you go to the bathroom, he told Sara, while we go see the puppy, he smiled at Zak.

Sara’s mind jarred before her predicament came crashing in like a tidal wave. She was about to leave her son in a parking lot with a man who had a gun. She looked at her son, then at the boy with the puppy, then at Jackson’s ankle. She didn’t want to be here, weighing her deadly options. She wanted to be back home in Waterkloof, surrounded by beautiful things, cared for by doting servants. When her eyes met Jackson’s, she could tell that he had read her mind.

If that’s okay with you, he checked.

And just like that, he’d defused the situation. She sighed out loud, her shoulders dropping from where they had been hunched around her neck. She didn’t attempt to camouflage her altered posture; she was now too tired to pretend. Whatever, she said, waving her hand dismissively. For solace and concealment, she pulled a thin scarf loosely over her hair, and walked to the bathroom.

The queue at the ladies’ was long, and Sara wondered why the woman ahead of her seemed familiar. At the washstand, she recognized her as the woman from the parking lot, the mother, she now concluded, of the boy with the puppy. The taps were set to slow release, and the woman was hunched over the basin, her palms cupped under the slow trickle till she had collected enough water to splash on her face. When she rose to look into the mirror, Sara noticed the bruises on her face. The woman made to lower her sunglasses, but stopped herself. She dropped her arms by her side and just stood there, looking back at Sara, revealing herself fully to her in the mirror. Drying her hands on her T-shirt, Sara turned to face the woman. She took the letter from her back pocket, and handed it to her.

The woman’s face fell. Is dit hy? She asked. Ontvoer hy jou? Ek het sy geweer gesien.

Sara shook her head. It’s from my husband, she said. We’re on the run.

*

And then it hit her. She’d become a woman she never thought she’d be, a woman on the run, from a man with a gun. A woman on the run, with a man who had a gun. Sensing Sara’s fear, the woman put her arms around her.

You’re very brave, she said. I’ll never forget you.

Ek sal jou ook onthou, Sara said.

Those are our boys playing out there, the woman continued. I’m staying for the sake of mine, maar jy vlieg met joune. Ek sou dit nooit moontlik gedink het nie. But now I see it can be done.

I’ve wasted a lot of time by staying, Sara said. I thought things would get better, but they just got worse. I should have left him long ago. Just leave him, she encouraged the woman.

And go where? Maybe one day I’ll find a way, like you. She returned the letter, pulled her sunglasses down, and left the bathroom.

Insha’Allah, Sara whispered.

*

The road to Laingsburg seemed endless, and Zak would not stop crying. From the passenger seat, Jackson had held out toys, offered Jelly Babies, sung nursery rhymes, and pulled all the funny faces he could muster, but the child was inconsolable. I give up, he said to Sara. He wants you.

When she’d found a safe place to pull over, Sara switched on the hazard lights and attended to Zak while Jackson paced around the car.

What’s this? He asked, pointing at the Arabic calligraphy that ran along the bottom of the rear window.

Sara looked up. My father put it there when he gave me the car.

But what is it?

It’s the shahada.

What’s that?

The Islamic creed.

Jackson nodded. And why is it here?

I told you, she said impatiently while trying to comfort Zak. My father stuck it there.

But why?

I don’t know, Jackson. Muslims have it everywhere. It’s even on the flag of Saudi Arabia.

Can you read it? He asked, his fingers tracing the intricate weave of white loops and strokes standing out in striking contrast to the black tinted window.

She nodded.

What does it say?

Really, Jackson? Now?

Jackson tapped his finger on the glass three times.

Okay, okay. It says: La ilaha illallah Muhammadur Rasulullah.

And what does it mean?

Sara rolled her eyes and sighed. It means: There is no god but God, and Muhammad is the messenger of God.

Good, Jackson said. Pray. You need to keep strong.

*

In the distance, he saw a small white house. He wondered what it must be like to live there, so far away from everywhere and everybody. He liked the hustle and bustle of the township, and knew he couldn’t do it; too much space can be as restricting as too little, he thought. He knew he’d feel very confined, very closed in, as though he were back in prison.

*

Look, Jackson said.

What? Sara asked, looking around anxiously.

That man over there, he said, pointing at a lone figure walking in the distance.

Oh, Sara said. What about him?

He’s walking. Where is he going? Jackson muttered to himself. When will he get there? He turned to look at Sara. Do you know what my friends call me?

Seated in the back seat, Sara shook her head, her attention more focused on Zak.

When I was in prison, there were nights when I couldn’t breathe, and I’d break out in sweat, even in winter. Nights in prison are long, and you find yourself getting lost in your mind, like in those rooms with magic mirrors you get at fun fairs, except you’re stuck and you can never find your way out. So you just go round and round while your mind turns and twists your thoughts into scary shapes. So me, I would close my eyes and imagine I was walking. Just walking, walking, walking. Many times I couldn’t picture where I was walking, so I’d just imagine looking down at my walking feet, one foot going in front of the other, step by step. You know what I did on the day they released me?

Sara shook her head again.

Me, I walked. I walked right out of Pretoria, wanting to get as far away as I could, until I eventually ended up in Polokwane.

Rocking Zak in her lap, she turned to look up at Jackson. Really?

I’m telling you. I just walked. It was almost dark when I got to Ga-Rankuwa. I had no money, no phone, nowhere to sleep. So I just turned around and walked all the way back to Pretoria. Now I walk everyday. Most days, I walk home from work.

You what? From ⎯.  She cut herself short, incredulous at the prospect. You walk from Waterkloof to Mamelodi?

Jackson nodded.

How long does it take you?

From your place to mine, four, sometimes five hours. Three and a half hours when I walk fast.

She stopped rocking the child for a moment, and looked at Jackson with a renewed sense of awe.

Me, Jackson continued, I’m catching up with the steps. I can’t get back those years, but I can walk, try to walk all those steps I imagined when I was locked up. It calms my mind, makes me feel alive and free. By now the lone figure was reduced to a distant spot. Jackson pointed at the horizon. You see that man disappearing over there, he doesn’t have much, but I’m telling you, him, he has a very calm mind. Me, I’m very sure of that.

*

There was a lull in the traffic and Jackson noticed that the road was empty. He walked into the middle of the road, balancing on the white line, arms outstretched, as if on a tightrope that spanned the country all the way to the old gallows in Pretoria. He takes regular walks to visit them. He used to clean them before and after an execution. He’d stand on the trapdoor, under one of the seven nooses, looking around at the last place he’d ever see. He knew that it was only a matter of time before someone else would be sweeping those steps for him, cleaning up his mess after the life had been wrung from his body.

He’d rehearse the moment of his death, again and again, so that when the time came, he’d be resolute, knowing exactly what to do. He’d eat and drink only a little before the day, just enough for the guards not notice his abstinence. He did not want to shit himself or piss his pants as he had seen other inmates do. He’d use the hunger and the thirst to focus his mind. He would not sing as some men did, or cry, but would climb those fifty-two steps courageously and to the sound of his own final footsteps resounding through the room. He would not look at the black telephone for last-minute stays of execution. Why should it ring for him? He’d take his final two steps onto the foot soles painted on the trapdoor. He’d try hard to keep his feet from twitching when the trapdoor swung open. He would imagine them moving back and forth, back and forth, as though he were walking, walking on air.

When you’ve stared at Death as hard as Jackson, you begin to recognize Him in the crowd. He observes people, their comings and goings, like the woman at number 68. He’d noticed her leave one morning, immaculately dressed as always. When she returned a few hours later, he knew that Death had called her number. She invited him over, as she did from time to time. They had tea and cake in the garden, while she told him what the doctor had said.

After that, he spent a lot of time patrolling outside her house, not guarding her against mortal men, for whom he no longer had any fear, but standing firm in the face of Death, letting the woman know that she was not alone, letting Death know that they were ready. He remembered the student at number 89, who came home early one day. Sensing that something was terribly wrong, Jackson locked the security booth and cycled after him. He planned to ring the bell and make something up. Get him to open the gate and just start talking about something; it didn’t matter what. But he was too late. He got to the gate just in time to hear the shot go off. Jackson looked over to where Sara was still trying to pacify Zak by the side of the road. Yes, we’re the same, he thought to himself once more, the suicidal, the terminally ill and the condemned; we know things other people don’t.

He’s not settling, Sara called out.

Jackson saw her fear, but it was still the lesser fear of a mortal man, he noted, not yet the greater fear of Death Himself.

I think we should make a move, she shouted. We’re very exposed here.

She did not yet have the resigned look of the condemned, the look he’d glimpsed every time he caught his reflection on death row. She still had hope. This is good, he thought. He was doing his job, keeping Death at bay. He pledged to keep it that way. He looked up into the heavens and stretched his arms up to the sky. Then he stepped off the white line and walked over to the car.

You’ll have to drive again, Sara said.

*

He had not been driving long when he noticed a traffic cop a little way ahead, signaling them to pull over.

Fuck, Sara said in the back seat, but Jackson remained calm.

When the traffic cop tapped on the window, Jackson lowered it.

You were speeding, the cop said.

No, I wasn’t, Jackson replied.

122, the cop said, showing him the reading. He peered through the window at the mother and child in the back seat, and then looked at Jackson. License, he said.

Before Jackson could answer, Sara was out of the car, with Zakariya balanced on her hip. Let me explain, she said to the cop, stepping inside the yellow line behind the car. Jackson watched them from the rear-view mirror. He saw her point to him in the driver’s seat, all the while rocking the child on her hip, but the cop seemed determined. Sara returned to the car to get her handbag from the back seat. She retrieved the protection order from her bag, Adam’s letter from her pocket, and showed them to the cop.

What’s happening? Jackson asked when Sara opened the driver’s door.

Move over, she said. He’s escorting us to Laingsburg.

Jackson watched Sara keep up the with cop car ahead. When the speedometer hit 120, the traffic cop turned on his blue lights and siren, while the reading on the speedometer increased rapidly: 125, 130, 135, 140 …

Pee, paw, Mamma, pee paw, Zakariya clapped excitedly in the back seat, imitating the sound of the siren.

When the speedometer settled at 160, Sara activated the cruise control.

That’s more like it, she said.

V    Cape Town

It was late afternoon when they cleared the Huguenot Tunnel, a palpable sense of relief rising in the car. They were on their final approach down the N1 into Cape Town, the southern sky still arching overhead like a universe, the Cape Peninsula spread out before them, just like the jewel Jackson had always imagined it to be. Sara had the sun visor down against the setting sun. Still peering routinely into the rear view mirror, she noticed the large car that was following very close behind.

She pulled down her sunglasses. It was the woman from the bathroom. Her husband was asleep in the passenger seat next to her. Sara slowed down. She lowered her window and waved at the woman through her wing mirror. The woman waved back. Then she raised her forefinger and spun it around in small circles. She pointed at her sleeping husband, and then pulled her finger across her throat. Sara interpreted the gesture to mean, “One day I’m going to kill him.” She stepped on the brake, but only had enough time to make a mental note of the number plate before the woman slipped away at her exit and disappeared over a bridge.

Everything okay? Jackson asked.

Sara closed her window and stepped on the accelerator. The engine roared and the Mercedes surged forward, the force pinning them back into their seats. Please send Tina another message, she said. Tell her we’ll be there in half an hour. She turned on the navigation system, and followed the directions to her best friend’s house.

*

Oh, my, god, Tina said as soon as Jackson went to bed. Your man’s gorgeous. Is he the one you’re supposed to be fucking?

Sara shook her head.

Because he’s worth it. I’d do him, even if it meant the kiss of death.

The two women laughed till tears streamed down their faces, and Sara realized that she hadn’t laughed like that in months, maybe even years.

Listen, she said to Tina once their laughter had subsided. There’s something Jackson wants you to know.

Tina gave her a puzzled look.

He wanted me to tell you on the phone before we arrived, but mine is off and he didn’t have much airtime, so I thought I’d wait till I could tell you face-to-face.

What is it? Tina asked.

As we’re staying in your house, he thought you should know ⎯

Oh for heaven’s sake. Just say it.

He’s a murderer.

Tina leaned forward. What?

Sara nodded. He killed two white men during the old days, and seriously injured a third. He didn’t want you to find out somehow and think he was keeping secrets.

Why?

He just wanted to be upfront with you, I guess.

I mean, why did he kill those men?

They gang-raped his neighbour.

Tina’s jaw dropped.

Who’s gay.

Tina’s jaw dropped even further.

And then they tried to kill her. That’s when Jackson intervened.

Tina, are you okay? Sara asked. I’m sorry to shock you, but it was right to tell you.

I’m glad you did, Tina said.

Do you want us to leave?

Are you crazy? No, I’m glad you told me, because now you’ve really turned me on to him. I mean, is anything more seductive than a bad boy who’s a good man?

The women laughed again.

It’s so good to see you, Sara said, reaching across the table to hold her friend’s hand. Thank you for putting us up at such short notice.

Hey, how long have we known each other? You’d do the same for me. We’re like family, and family don’t say thank you. You’re safe now.

Safer, Sara emphasized. And it’s only for tonight. We’ll find a guesthouse tomorrow.

A guesthouse? Are you serious? It’s the week before Christmas. Cape Town’s fully booked. What’s still available will be very expensive.

I know, but I’ve been thinking about it. Adam might guess I’d come here, and I can’t take that risk. I can’t put you in harms way, too. No, he can’t find us here, she said emphatically.

Whatever, Tina responded. But I’m coming with you.

In which case, Sara said, can we take your car?

*

The following day, they checked into The Cottage, nestled on an oak-lined avenue in one of the city’s most exclusive southern suburbs on the slopes of Table Mountain.

It’s all pretty self-explanatory, the manager explained, but proceeded to give them a detailed tour of the luxury property anyway. Water from the bathrooms and kitchen feeds the garden, he explained, but do please keep your usage to the municipal limit of 86 litres per person per day. Gauteng is still getting a lot of rain, but down here Day Zero’s fast approaching.

Jackson looked blankly at this man who seemed as though he’d never gone a day without in his life. In the township, he thought, it’s been Day Zero all our lives. He stepped away from the group and started tapping on his phone.

In the magnificent garden, the manager pointed at the dense growth of trees that ran along the far side of the garden. The manor house is on the other side, but it’s quite a way off. It’s accessed by a separate driveway, so you’ll have all the privacy you need down here.  They won’t disturb you. Then he pointed at the sparkling infinity pool. But the water no longer flowed over the edges of the pool, revealing the weir and catch basin at the pool’s most dramatic infinite edge with its breathtaking views of the mountain. With the structural mechanics of the pool now in view, the visual effect was diminished, like a magic trick loses its charm once its method is revealed.

The level’s four tiles down now, the manager said, pointing around the edge of the pool. Last week it was three, so it’s dropped a level in a week, he added for emphasis. It’s a nightmare keeping it clean without the overflow, so absolutely no diving, please. We’d prefer to keep the water inside the pool.

Feeling patronised, Sara turned to Zak. It’s much smaller than our pool in Waterkloof, isn’t it? But, turning to look back at the manager, it will have to do, she said.

*

Oh, my, god, Tina exclaimed when the manager left. And they call this The Cottage!

I’ve found it, Jackson said, handing his phone to Sara.

She clicked on the map for directions. It’s fifteen minutes away, she said.

What is? Tina asked.

The nearest pawnshop, Sara said.

Tina gave her a questioning look.

We’re running short of cash, Sara explained, and I can’t use my bankcards. Adam will know where I am. So I’m going to sell this, she said, taking off her diamond wedding ring.

*

Tina drove.

How much did you get, Jackson asked when Sara returned to the car.

She showed him the wad of notes.

Is that all?

I know. And I even salaamed so nicely, she said, removing her scarf.

Jackson took the money and got out of the car.

Where are you going? Sara called out, but he had already closed the door and disappeared around the corner.

What the fuck, Tina exclaimed when Jackson returned to the car. I’ve never seen so much cash in my life. You guys are really getting trippy.

What did you do? Sara asked, starring down at the large amount of cash Jackson had placed in her lap.

I just got you a fair price for your ring, he said. Now let’s go. I have somewhere I have to be.

Sara was still reeling. But ⎯

Tina interrupted her by starting the car and revving the engine. The man has somewhere to be, she said, and drove off.

*

Tina had lived all in life in Cape Town, but had no idea where they were when Jackson told her to stop the car.

Where the hell are we? She asked?

It was dark. There were hardly any streetlights, and groups of thugs hovered in the shadows.

Will the car be safe here? She asked.

Jackson drew an insignia of some kind in the fine layer of dust that covered the bonnet. Yes, he said. Follow me.

Inside the lights were dim and the mood relaxed. People were sitting at tables and lounging around in sofas. There was a small dance area, but it wasn’t full. Against the far wall, a projector cast Shekhinah, singing in a red VW Beetle: “Suited for each other, don’t try to move me from my lover.” People looked up at the newcomers. Tina felt a little self-conscious, but followed Jackson in his confident stride to the bar. They sat down in bar stools shaped like bums.

I’m here to see Nomsa, he said to the woman behind the bar. We’ll have two beers while we’re waiting, he added.

The woman didn’t look up. There’s no Nomsa here, she said, and continued shining glasses.

I won’t repeat myself, Jackson said.

Ignoring him, the woman turned to her assistant behind the bar instead. Did you get that, she said to her. He walks into my shebeen out of nowhere, with this little miss thing, ordering me around, like some big dick. She sucked her teeth.

It’s not your shebeen, Jackson said flatly. We’ll have those beers now.

There was a sudden hush. Looking over Jackson’s shoulder, Tina saw a majestic woman crossing the room; a magnificent doek wound high on her head. She was walking directly towards them. People put down their glasses, others dropped their cigarettes, and those on the dance floor cleared the way for the woman they’d all heard about, but who most had never seen.

The woman stopped a few paces away from Jackson. A beer for my friend, she said to the bartender. And one for my friend’s friend, she added, sizing up Tina.

Molo, Nomsa, Jackson said.

Nomsa’s dead, the woman replied. I have no mercy left. You can call me Big Babe now. Come, she said, nodding to the back.

When Tina rose to follow them, Big Babe turned around. Give us a moment, she said. I last saw this man in another country. De Klerk was still in Tuynhuys, and I’m guessing you were still at school. I’ll send for you when we’re done.

Tina sat back down, smiling awkwardly at the bartender. She went for her cell phone, but remembered that she’d left it with Sara. Swiveling around in her bum-shaped seat, she took another look around the room, noticing then that there were hardly any men present. Then it struck her that the thugs outside seemed to be women, too.

*

Unjani. How’s Cape Town treating you? Jackson asked Big Babe once they were seated in her den.

Well, as you can see, she said, gesturing at the room, then at herself, seated in an elaborate armchair under a portrait of Felicia Snoop Pearson.

What can I do for you? She asked, sparing him from having to.

My friend’s in trouble, he said. I need some help protecting her while we’re here.

The skinny one out there? Big Babe asked, raising a finger in the direction of the door.

Not her, he said. Someone else.

Another woman?

Yes.

Your girlfriend?

No. She’s kind of an employer.

Big Babe raised an eyebrow. Your employer needs my help?

Not that kind of employer. I’m a security guard in her neighbourhood.

Big Babe sat quietly while Jackson spoke, a steely expression covering her face as his story unfolded.

And where is she now, this employer?

At the guesthouse. In Bishopscourt.

A rich bitch, Big Babe said.

You could say that, Jackson nodded.

You fucking her, this rich bitch? I need to know the dynamics.

No, Jackson said.

What about the skinny one? She has the hots for you. I can tell.

Jackson laughed dismissively, shaking his head.

Good, Big Babe nodded. Keep it that way. We don’t want soft hearts and wet pussies getting in the way.

So you’ll help us? Jackson asked.

Big Babe leaned forward and rested her hand on his knee. Mamela, she said. There’s not a day goes by when I don’t remember what you did for me.

Jackson looked down. It was nothing, he said.

Ha, Big Babe scoffed. You may call death row nothing, big balls, but I don’t. So this is what you’re going to do. You’re going to send me some pictures of the igwala husband, and that fancy idilesi in Bishopscourt. And this is what I’m going to do. I’m going to send some of my toughest bitches to watch over you. Then she pulled out two drawers concealed in the coffee table in front of her, and sat back in her armchair. Now let’s have a party, she said, pointing at the contents of the drawer. Go get your skinny bitch from the bar, while I fetch mine from the bedroom.

*

When Sara had put Zak to bed, she called the Helpline.

Promise me you’ll call them, Tina said before they left. You need to build evidence for your case. Here, I’ll leave you my phone.

Such a serious death threat, it doesn’t come from now where, the voice at the other end of the line said. It usually follows other forms of abuse. Has that been your experience?

Sitting out in the garden, the dark mass of the mountain bearing down on her, Sara flinched at the memory of the first blow Adam ever delivered. She was three months pregnant, and flew home to her parents in Durban the following day.

Marriage is hard work, her father said. You’ve got to make things right with him, he urged. Our families have been doing business for generations.

But ⎯

This isn’t only about you, her mother interrupted. Your sister’s married to his brother. Have you forgotten that?

Hello, Ma’am. Are you still there? The voice asked.

I’ll have to call you back, Sara said. She hung up the phone and sobbed.

*

There was nowhere to park in Camps Bay, so Tina drove them further south along the Atlantic coast to Llandudno Beach. They hired a beach umbrella, setting it up in a quiet spot amongst the large granite boulders at the southern end of the beach.

So this is what the beach feels like, Jackson said, marveling at the feeling of the silky sand between his toes. When he and Zak went down to play in the shallows on the shore, Sara turned to Tina. What am I going to do now? She asked. I can’t stay here forever. She looked around at the other people on the beach. Is this a non-smoking beach?

Tina rummaged around in her bag.

But I’m so fucking exhausted by it all, Sara continued. I feel as though my head is going to explode if I have to make one more decision.

Menthol or plain? Tina asked mischievously, holding out two packets of cigarettes. She winked at Sara, and the two women laughed.

Can I say something? Tina asked through huge plumes of smoke.

Sara nodded, taking a hit.

I think you were right to get away. You’ve been to the police, you have a protection order, and you’ve driven yourself to safety. You’ve got enough of money for now, and a safe place to stay. Most of all, Zak is happy and content. And look at Jackson. The two of them are having a ball down there. So here’s what I think. It’s the holiday season. Just use the next few days to do that.

Do what? Sara asked.

Have a fucking holiday! Tina exclaimed. I mean, look at you. You need to relax, girlfriend. Take some time to calm down and enjoy yourself, so that when the time comes for next steps, you can decide what to do with a clear and fresh mind. But you don’t have to make those decisions today, or tomorrow, or even the day after. You’ve bought yourself time, and Jackson’s friends are just over there keeping an eye on you, she said, gesturing at the Babes in the middle distance. Now just sit back and relax. Can you try to do that? Tina looked at her intently.

Sara nodded, but was not convinced. She lowered her sunglasses and lay down on her beach towel, where, despite her best efforts, she just continued to fret.

*

When Jackson and Zak returned from the shore, Sara had fallen asleep and Tina was busy on her phone. How was it? She asked.

Eish, the water’s freezing, Jackson said. And very salty. Me, I never imagined it would be that salty.

And you little man? Did you have fun? Tina asked, wrapping a towel around Zak. The toddler muttered excitedly, pointing around and up and down, but Tina couldn’t understand a word he was saying, so she just smiled broadly and said, Is that so?

How’s she been, Jackson mouthed to Tina?

Stressed out, Tina whispered, but she’s fast asleep now.

Good, Jackson said, picking up his phone, while Tina and Zak started building castles in the sand.

*

Tina, Jackson said with earnest, holding out his phone. You posted pictures of us on the beach.

Yes, Tina smiled. Aren’t they lovely? And then her expression changed.

Come on, Jackson said, jumping to his feet. We’ve got to go. He woke Sara, and let out a wolf whistle to alert the Babes.

Jackson, out of habit, was counting the steps leading from the beach up to the parking lot. He had not yet reached fifty-two when Zak shouted out, excited, Pappa, Mamma, Pappa, pointing at his father who was holding out a gun. Lama laikum, Pappa, the toddler said.

Sara and Tina froze. The Babes pulled out their weapons, but Jackson stepped forward, arms out stretched. Everybody just stay calm, he said. Then he turned to face Adam. Please lower your weapon, Sir. Nobody needs to get hurt here today.

But Adam just looked back at him, wild-eyed. You’ve got that wrong, he said. And then he pulled the trigger, the sound travelling through the air like a series of violently crashing waves.

There was mayhem. The people closest to the shot fell down. Those further away darted around, ducking and screaming. Sara threw herself on top of Zak. Only Jackson and the Babes remained standing. Several seconds passed before Jackson fell, first onto his knees before finally collapsing to the ground. Then a second shot rang out, striking Adam in the shoulder. Sara rushed over to Jackson. Tina took hold of Zak. The Babes overpowered Adam.

Sara cradled Jackson’s head in her lap, a stream of blood already flowing down the stairs, seeping into the white sea sand.

I never told you what my friends call me, Jackson said, looking up at her.

Sshh, Jackson, Sara pleaded, desperately pressing down on his wound. Somebody call an ambulance, she cried out.

My friends, they call me Walker, he said.

Sara smiled through the flood of tears streaming down her face.

You can call me Walker, now.

Okay, Walker, she sobbed.

Glimpsing the mountain through the canopy of trees that overhung the stairs, Jackson moved his lips again. Don’t worry, he gasped. Everything will be fine.

Me, I’m going to climb that mountain now. And then his eyes closed, and his body went limp in her lap.

*

At Cape Town airport, Sara and Big Babe stood side by side by the window, looking out over the runway. In the background, Tina kept Zak occupied with the toy she’d bought him. Starring ahead through their reflections in the window, Big Babe broke the silence. So here we are, the poor still taking the fall for the rich.

But Sara, her loosely draped black scarf lending her an air of regality, just starred blankly out at the runway where their luggage was being loaded onto the plane.

So now you just gonna stand there, cold as ice, Big Babe said. Let me tell you something. That man, he was on death row, but I was the one who died. Thirteen years. It was hard on him, but let me tell you, it killed me. Every fucking day, knowing you’re out there, free, living your life, while another man is going to swing for you … And then, by some fucking miracle, just a few days before he’s due to hang, De Klerk suspends all executions. Can you imagine that? There’s no words to describe the relief you feel when shit like that happens. And so he survived, until you rocked up. You, Waterkloof, Wabenzi, Bishopscourt, ma sha’allah, throwing it around, managing to do what a whole fucking regime couldn’t, getting him killed … So now I bet you’re thinking Big Babe’s a mean and heartless bitch, but I’m telling you like it is. Because I know the guilt.

He survived death row, but me, I still, still I lie awake at night because of the anguish and the years behind bars I cost him. Let me tell you, that guilt’s gonna haunt you till the day you die. So you better be starting to fall down on your knees woman, knocking that pampered head of yours on the ground, asking Allah for some deep ⎯.  Big Babe stopped herself, breathing deeply before she continued. Accept this: all you got is Allah, that child, and Big Babe now. I’ll say it to your face: I don’t like you. But that doesn’t mean I won’t watch out for you. He called you his friend. That means something to me … And you, you’re the one, while me, I’m the almost-one, the woman he almost died for.

That makes me so angry, I could slit your rich ass open right here. So you better make it count. You hear what I’m saying? You’re the one, so you better make it count. No more daddy’s girl shit, because you know what, if he had protected you the way he should have, we wouldn’t be standing here right now … So here’s what’s gonna happen. You’ll be met at O.R. Thambo. My people will take care of you from there. Anything you need, you just say. Your car’s already on its way.

Sara nodded, jaw clenched tightly, standing firm. But when a goods vehicle appeared on the runway, pulling a long white crate towards their plane, she buckled and fell down.

Big Babe pulled her back onto her feet. Stand up, she said, this is no longer only about you. Stand up, like he stood up for you. Make it count. Make it count right now.

Sara turned to Big Babe, a look of desperation on her face. What if he gets out? Why didn’t your people just kill him?

Big Babe did not look at her, but stared at Jackson’s coffin as it rose into the aircraft. You want to know why my bitch didn’t aim to kill? So that he’d go to prison. Do you know what we do to men like him in prison? That’s where we’ll get him, don’t you worry about that.

When the crate had disappeared from view, Big Babe turned to leave. She did not acknowledge Tina, but ran her fingers through Zak’s curls as she passed by.

Wait, Sara called out to Big Babe, then caught up with her. There’s something else I want you to do. She handed Big Babe a slip of paper. The woman who drives this car needs help, Sara said. I saw her a few days ago, taking the off-ramp to Paarl.

Big Babe looked at the note. Your husband, she said, he’s on me, but this job is going to cost you. Do you understand? She looked at Sara, waiting for a response.

When Sara nodded, Big Babe put the note in her pocket and walked away.

*

Go efafane, Mamma, go efafane, Zak called out.

Yes, baby boy, she said. We’re going to the aeroplane.

How do you understand what his saying? Tina asked.

Mothers just do, Sara said. Mothers just do.


“Marriage for love is the beautifulest external symbol of the union of souls, marriage without it is the uncleanliest traffic that defiles the world.” Olive Schreiner, Story of an African Farm, 1883

Acknowledgements

Trevor Noah, The story of Vernacular 

Shekhinah, “Suited,” Rose Gold, Columbia Records, Sony Music Entertainment, 2017


Ishtiyaq Shukri is the author of The Silent Minaret and I See You.