Everyone is someone else’s weirdo. When I first came across this quote I instantly knew it to be true. It had to be. Somewhere on earth there had to be someone who would take me for a weirdo, surely? In fact, there was probably someone who’d rank me as the number one weirdo they’d ever come across. I imagined the sort of person who’d be weird enough to think me weird, smiled to myself, and forgot about it.
Years later I rented a small apartment in Cape Town. It overlooked Beach Road, just where the Mouille Point rocks met a seawall and a raised esplanade that curved away to the west and the distant cliffs of Lion’s Head. From my window I could smell the salty air and the snags of kelp that sighed in the water just beyond the rocks. Gulls wheeled overhead and cormorants sheered across the waves in their thousands at sunset. It was wonderful. Yet, I was miserable. My life was a failure and there was no defence against this charge. Entered into evidence were two damning exhibits—exhibit A, money, and exhibit B, my girlfriend. I had no A and too much B. I wanted it to be the other way around. There was lots of money everywhere but I couldn’t seem to get my hands on any of it. Every month I sank further into debt. My girlfriend—let’s call her Daphne—was sweet and loving, but I couldn’t bring myself to tell her that she was fast becoming a permanent souvenir of what was supposed to be a brief affair. She wasn’t the right one for me. Daphne was loyal, too, and as I grew poorer, she became more adamantly attached.
Every day, in the early evening, I went for a walk along the esplanade so I could fantasise about money and getting rid of Daphne. I imagined winning the lottery and coming home to catch Daphne in bed with Donald, a swarthy guy she worked with. I hated Donald for reasons I couldn’t name. Catching Daphne in bed with him would’ve made me jealous, no doubt, but the next day I would’ve clutched my winning ticket until I felt better. As I walked along, I scaled down my fantasies. Winning the lottery wasn’t going to happen. The odds were against it, especially since I never bought a ticket. What if I helped an old widow to cross the street and it turned out that she’d lost her only son, whom I resembled? We’d talk every day and she’d end up bequeathing her house and considerable fortune to me. There was a house in Bantry Bay that I really liked, but there was no old widow living in it. Every time I toyed with this fantasy, there were no widows around. They were as hard to find as Daphne was difficult to get rid of. Like the lottery, the widow wasn’t going to happen. But daydreaming was seamless and as I walked along, I peered into the places I passed, wondering who the people were that lived in them, and how I could by some miracle of luck displace them. Most of the sea front along my walk was built up, save for a few short stretches where the original beach houses still held out against progress. One house in particular was interesting. It was small and had the date 1899 embossed on the gable of its awning. And in it lived a weird old woman.
The old woman was bandy-legged and stooped like a question mark. She wore a shawl and a head scarf from which a hooked nose protruded. She also had a gnarled walking stick like a witch in a picture I once saw. If she was a widow, her husband had died on purpose. Sometimes, at about the time I was out, the old woman left her house, shuffled across Beach Road and exercised her two cats along a stretch of the esplanade. The cats were on leashes, like dogs, and strained against them. As the woman struggled along, the cats weaved across her path, braiding their leashes.
“Pavel! Yakov!” she once called out to the cats as she passed me where I stood. “Stop pullingk!”
It was an arresting sight, this weird old gypsy with her canine cats. Who was she, I wondered. Why did she speak in English to her cats when she was obviously from somewhere in Eastern Europe? How could she afford a house by the sea when I didn’t have a blue cent to scratch my arse with?
Her walk took her along the first stretch of the esplanade, near her house. Sometimes I was there at the time she came by and then I’d stand at the railing and pretend not to see her. Pavel and Yakov attracted much attention, of course, but I tried to watch the old woman instead. The cats were weird because she was weird. As if staggering along was not difficult enough, she often stopped, fumbled in a bag she had slung over her shoulder, took out a small notebook and wrote in it. Then she nodded to herself and shuffled along.
The best place from which to watch her was where the seawall curved inward above a tiny beach. Here I could look out to sea and still see people along the esplanade. When the tide was high, the waves rolled into the wall and dumped pebbles and bits of kelp onto the esplanade. I leaned out over the railings as far as balance allowed and tossed back into the water the pebbles that the sea had rejected earlier. I used them two at a time, like clay pigeons. It was a mindless pastime, but as it was exceedingly difficult to hit the first pebble with the second, it gave me something to do while I waited for the old woman. It also gave me time to practice my breakup speech to Daphne.
“Daphne,” I’d say as a picked up two pebbles, “it’s better this way.”
Then I’d toss the first pebble in a gentle arc and try to hit it with the second. When I got it right I did a little dance, I think, but I cannot now remember. The gratification of success was instantly lost, and so I’d start all over again.
One evening, just as the two stones collided in mid-air, there was a hand at my arm. I turned to find the old woman peering up at me. She had a dark moustache and three stout hairs that grew between her watery eyes. She was even weirder up close than she’d been in the distance.
“You,” she croaked, “must be de maddest perr-son I khav evor seen.”
She gripped my elbow while Pavel and Yakov strained to walk on.
“Tell-a me,” she continued, “do you khav strange dreams?”
I was lost for words. As I searched for something to say, she ran her tongue over her lips in anticipation.
“Y-yes,” I stammered at length. “I do.”
“Aha!” she wheezed and steered me away from the railing. “Tell-a me evoryting!”
Her hobby, she said—her passion—was people who were mad.
“I was psycholgist,” she explained.
“But—but I’m not mad,” I said.
“Aha!” she wheezed and held up a bony finger.
She stopped and dug the notebook from her bag. The cats strained forward and she handed their leashes to me. Then she opened the notebook to reveal a list of times and dates. She poked at it with her bony finger.
“I khav written down times you stand khere,” she testified and waved at the sea, “throwingk yourself away.”
I looked at the scrawled writing as she flipped the pages but I didn’t really see any of it. As we stood there in the fading light, I had what I’m sure was an out-of-body experience. I could see us clearly, as though from a vantage point beyond the railing, over the water. I saw the old woman and the notebook in which my oddness was recorded. I saw myself standing beside her, holding the leashes of her cats, held by the arm like a naughty boy. I could see Daphne sitting on my sofa with her feet tucked beneath her while she read a magazine. I could see into the apartments along the beach and into the lives of those who lived in them. And I could see, for the first time, how all of us were equal before the changeless sea.
“But I’m not mad,” I said again.
“Aha!” the old woman wheezed.