When I was a kid, the second hardest part about the day-long drive from Johannesburg to Cape Town to visit my grandmother was always the two hundred and twenty-six kilometer stretch of the N1 highway between Bloemfontein and Colesberg. By the time we reached Bloemfontein our tempers were short and we’d been in the car for longer than buttocks are meant to be sat upon. For a long while the signs that said Bloemfontein had suggested an oasis of burbling water and cool shadows, but when we refueled the car at a baking pitstop amid grassy knolls, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, it was reasonable to wonder yet again whether Bloemfontein really existed, or whether it was just a naming trick to make the distance to Colesberg seem shorter.
The hardest part about the drive to Cape Town was actually my father. He either delayed our trip, or extended it. Sometimes he remembered to do his taxes just before we were supposed to leave, which pushed out our departure by hours and ensured that we did the worst stretches of road during the hottest hours of the day. The rest of the time he managed to prolong an already near-infinite trip with a digression that threatened to approach infinity all by itself. He’d spot a turn-off to some forgotten town, several light-years from the highway, where British soldiers and Afrikaner families alike died during the second Boer War, and take it.
“What the hell are you doing?” my mother would cry.
“It’ll only be a few minutes,” my father always said.
My sister and I raved in the throes of a tantrum but my father just gripped the wheel as we trundled into oblivion. One year, at the Brandfort cemetery, we spent hours draped over headstones in the blazing sun while my father marvelled at the futility of war.
“Private Michael Mead of Thorneycroft’s Mounted Infantry,” he murmured as he examined one grave. “Died 25 April 1901. He was twenty-two.”
My mother was angry at my father but she also knew that these experiences were more important than the inconvenience of the moment.
“Just imagine,” she said to revive my sister and I, “that you’re sent here all the way from England, or Australia, for no reason that makes any sense today, nor, I think, made much then, and on a clear morning in April these hills are the last things you see.”
While we whined that these hills were going to be the last things we’d see and wondered aloud how my mother could know that the soldier had died in the morning, my father moved on to a grave in which a mother and three children were interred. There he crouched in silence and traced the outlines of their names on the weathered stone before we drove back to the highway.
After Bloemfontein the serious arguments broke out. Now there were just the straight lines of the highway stretching to a mirage on the horizon, the shrubby landscape, and my father’s driving. He never exceeded the speed limit, even when we owned a car that could actually do so if driven by someone else. Whatever my father drove seemed to have only two gears—reverse, and asymptotic. Whatever mental arithmetic I’m capable of today is due to the endless calculations of distance and time I did on those trips, trapped in the backseat while my father resisted all entreaties to speed the fuck up.
“There’s no one out here,” my mother would beg. “The road is straight.”
“The law is the law,” my father said and slowed down fractionally.
“What nonsense is that?” my mother fumed. “A grapefruit is a grapefruit.”
“There are reasons for speed limits,” my father insisted and slowed down a little more.
“Our lives are finite,” my mother hissed. “At this speed, I’ll be eighty before we reach Colesberg.”
My father flexed his jaw muscles and gripped the wheel.
“At this speed,” he muttered, “you might actually reach Colesberg. And you might survive to turn eighty.”
“I want a superpower,” I piped up.
“Oh Jesus,” my father sighed.
My mother turned in her seat and lit a cigarette. “Given your father’s driving, so do I.”
“I want a six million Volt finger,” I said to open the betting.
“For now,” my mother remarked as she gave my father a hard look, “I want teleportation—”
“I want to fly,” I interrupted.
“—or time travel. Either will suffice.”
“I want to breathe under water,” my sister said.
“What’s this bullshit?” my father exploded. “Superpowers? Jesus Christ! If you’re going to wish for something, why don’t you wish for something creative, like the ability to compose music, or talk to animals, or raise the dead?”
“I want those too,” I said.
“Raising the dead’s not a bad power,” my mother agreed. “If I had that, you’d drive faster.”
My father ignored her.
“Why do these powers you wish for have no limits?” he asked. “Even Iron Man has a drinking problem. There must be some weakness, some limit.”
“Who’s Iron Man?” my sister wondered.
“I don’t want limits,” I said. “I want powers.”
“Without limits you can never have power,” my father sighed. “That’s how life works.”
For a few minutes, no one said anything. The barren landscape slid past like the banks of a river seen from a boat. My mother lit another cigarette, and one for my father.
“Let them fantasize,” she told him as he took it. “It’s good for them. Besides, what else can they do?”
A few years after that, when I was a little older, we started out late, this time not because my father had decided to do his taxes at the last moment, but because he’d stayed up all night to look for my mother’s hidden money. Before that, he was already in a bad mood because of an argument they’d had about terrorists. Earlier that week, separatists had hijacked a plane and held its passengers hostage on the tarmac.
“See,” my father had said, “those idiots think that their cause will somehow be remembered when all of this is over. As though people are going to say, gee, let’s not forget those separatist weirdos in the Navarre.”
He continued, “But if their cause was really worth it they wouldn’t be fucking around on that plane, now would they? They’d be sitting down somewhere, writing a book or a manifesto, or making something.”
The night before we were to leave, crack troops stormed the plane and killed the terrorists.
“There you go,” my father said with some satisfaction. “Who said evolution was done with us? Those guys didn’t fit and they didn’t survive.”
My mother was busy packing for our trip but she stopped what she was doing. “Everything you respect was done by people who didn’t fit.”
My father followed her about the kitchen.
“The people I respect didn’t fit intellectually,” he objected. “They never got on some plane and waved guns about. They got on planes and left places where people waved guns about.”
“That only works if the thing you want to change is intellectual,” my mother said.
My father sat down at the kitchen table in preparation for the defeat that was always so inevitable in arguments with my mother.
“You can take the Navarre with a pencil,” he insisted.
My mother didn’t even look at him.
“To take a plane,” she said, “guns are better.”
A few minutes later, after he’d licked his wounds and regrouped, my father asked, “How can you be so blasé about everything? How can you move with such guiltless ease between different lines of reasoning?”
But asking her this was useless. My mother respected rules the way a bird respects heights.
“I’m not blasé,” she said. “I’m just busy.”
“Like you’re busy looking for that money?” my father asked with a hint of triumph.
My mother sat down at the table with him and lit a cigarette.
“It’s my money,” she said. “I can look for it when I damn well feel like it.”
A few months earlier she’d hidden twenty-one thousand Rand of her students’ fees somewhere in the house before we went away for a weekend, and she had not been able to remember where she’d put it since. This was not the first time she’d hidden something so well as to effectively lose it. Most famously, she once hid her passport and it only surfaced eleven years later when a man came to tune the piano and found it tucked in a gap between the rim and the frame.
Now the idea that a mini-treasure lay undiscovered in some devious nook of my mother’s devising drove my father insane.
“It’s not your money,” my father countered. “Until it’s found, it’s no one’s money.”
My mother was not as moved by it all as my father was.
“It’s mine,” she said, “and I will find it eventually.”
“What do you mean, eventually?”
“Some time next year.”
My mother got up and resumed what she was doing before she’d sat down.
“What if we tried hypnosis,” my father said to calm himself, “or some form of meditation?”
My mother returned to the table.
“Look,” she said, “are you insane? You go and meditate.”
“Did you put it in an envelope?” my father asked.
“I think I might have split it up,” my mother said flatly.
“Split it up?” he sputtered.
This new possibility laid waste to his visions of finding a fat bundle of notes if he just looked under the right cushion, or inside the right vase.
“I think that’s what I would have done,” my mother mused as she moved out of sight.
“Split it up?” he cried after her.
“Very likely,” she called out from the next room.
Then a new and terrible thought occurred to my father.
“Into how many parts?” he called out.
My mother put her head around the corner. “Who knows? I would have used a theme to hide it—you know, everything behind loose tiles, or everything inside books—so based on that I would have made parcels of money.”
“A theme?” my father croaked.
“Yes. That way I’d be able to remember where to look later.”
“Once I remember the theme,” she called out, “I’ll find it.”
“A theme?” my father remarked to us in wonder. “What kind of person hides things according to a theme? Who is this woman you know as your mother?”
When I went to bed my father was standing on a ladder and rummaging around the ceiling space of the hot water cylinder.
“I don’t recall using a ladder,” my mother remarked as she walked past. “It’s definitely not up there. Plus, it’s late. We have to leave early.”
In the morning my father was tired but he resumed his futile search for the money and we left four hours later than planned. We ended up doing the dreaded stretch between Bloemfontein and Colesberg around sunset. He drove even slower than his usual slowness, nodding off every now and then, and yet he bluntly refused to let my mother take over.
“Goddammit!” she cried. “Pull off the road. Let me drive.”
“I’ff got a speesch imfediment,” my father explained, half asleep. “I can’t thtop.”
While they continued to argue, my sister and I huddled in the back and devised theories to explain how screwed up our parents were. Perhaps they were simply mad, we thought. Perhaps our father actually always sounded like this, and when he seemed normal, that was the real speech impediment. Or maybe one of them was mad and the other one was just along for the ride.
As an adult, long after that, I used to think that my parents were essentially opposites, that the one complained while the other one accepted things, that the one cared about the rules while the other one flouted them. But now, so many years later still, I know that it was simpler than that. My father longed to become while my mother was happy to be. In this way they were the same person, really, encountered a day apart. I can still see them like that, in the growing dusk as we crept slowly toward Colesberg, my father with his eyes on the road as he drove into the night, and my mother beside him, staring out the window at the craggy hills while she told him stories to help him stay awake.