Factory Settings

“Besides,” Michelle said, “Zoff’s coming tonight. You must be nasty to her.”

“Who’s Zoff?” I asked.

“Zoff’s a slut.” As if to clarify, Michelle added, “She knows Ivan.”

Ivan was a pot-smoking artist with whom Jack shared a house when we were all in our late twenties. They had rented the house with the mutual misunderstanding that the other one would pay the bulk of the rent. They were always in arrears and always about to be evicted. On this evening in the early spring, despite a looming threat of homelessness, Ivan had invited his friends and acquaintances to a party in their garden. Earlier that day he had climbed onto the roof of the house where he smoked a joint and then developed the belief that he could fly. Jack spent an hour standing on the lawn, talking him off the roof.

Jack fumed as he told me about this. “I live here,” he sputtered and jabbed his finger at the floor, “so that he can do that sort of thing for me.”

Now I asked, “Why is Zoff a slut?”

“She always picks out some guy and then zooms in on him,” Michelle said airily. Then she gave me a meaningful look and batted her eyelids. “That’s what sluts do.”

I couldn’t immediately see how zooming in on one guy made you a slut. Then again, all other women were sluts as far as Michelle was concerned. She liked men, even the stupid ones, but she distrusted women. I never heard her say a single good thing about another woman in all the time I knew her. By then, I had known her for a few years. We met the day Jack dislocated his jaw when he tried to eat an extremely large dagwood. At the time, Michelle worked as a nurse in the emergency room of a local hospital. Jack’s jaw had popped out of its moorings on the one side and the muscles in his cheek spasmed and bulged.

“Huck huh!” he slobbered when I tried to pry the dagwood from his hands.

At the emergency room, Michelle was the first person we met. When she saw six-foot-four Jack holding his half-eaten dagwood, she lost it. She doubled over with laughter while Jack tried to forge a smile with his lopsided mouth.

“Haht?” he drooled.

At this, Michelle flopped onto the floor.

The on-call doctor was a minuscule man in John Lennon glasses. “Nurse!” he scolded.

“Oh shut up,” she gasped.

She gathered herself but collapsed again when the doctor had to stand on a stool to wrestle with Jack’s jaw. An hour later they sent him home wearing a cage-like bandage contraption over his head, still holding his dagwood. We all met again the next day when Jack tried to eat the dagwood that he’d kept in his fridge and again dislocated his jaw. This time Michelle fell face-first onto a bed.

“He’s the tallest toddler I’ve ever seen,” she said when we met for coffee the next day. We continued to see one another and a few months later she told me that she loved me. Inexplicably, I couldn’t bring myself to love her back, despite how beautiful and wonderful she was. She had a naughty face and a tiny mole on each cheek. She wore no makeup and no perfume, and didn’t need to. She was well-read and witty and she didn’t take nonsense from gnomes. When I counted what I loved about her, she was perfect. When I summed it, she was not. I didn’t know why.

“What kind of a name is Zoff?” I asked.

Michelle batted her eyelids more rapidly. “You mustn’t let Zoff zoom in on you.”

Michelle didn’t say anything more about Zoff. We sat together under a spreading jacaranda tree at the bottom of the small garden, a few paces from everything else. We were joined by Anna, an intense woman who was doing a PhD in English. We watched as guests arrived and stood around uncertainly. From where we sat we had a perfect vantage point for competitive labelling, a game we loved to play, a game Michelle always won.

“How hideous,” she hissed and nodded at an organic woman in flip-flops. “Look at those feet.”

The woman’s heels were yellow-pink and deeply callused.

“Inflamed pecorino,” Michelle declared.

The woman’s boyfriend had a maroon, pitted nose. “Liver nose,” I said in turn.

Anna cleared her throat. “What are your thoughts on Finnegans Wake?”

We weren’t in the mood for books and wanted to insult people. “Poor Mona,” Michelle continued and lifted a single finger to indicate Lisa, a neurotic artist who was saddled with an inevitable nickname. “I bet her turds don’t flush.”

We carried on like this for a few minutes until we ran out of steam. Ivan hadn’t made an appearance yet and was said to be smoking a joint in his room. There was a large ice bucket filled with beers and a small table on which sat an incongruous boeuf tartare topped with a raw egg, but nothing else. Given that most guests were Ivan’s friends, I was surprised that they had arrived at all. Some weeks earlier, Ivan and Jack had hosted a viewing of Ivan’s latest work—a plank with many Bibles nailed to it. It was a striking piece because the plank was very long, but it was otherwise innocent of skill and visual consonance. Jack and I argued about this the next evening while Ivan surveyed us the way a benevolent uncle might watch his nephews play. Then, one of his friends arrived for the viewing, a day late.

Because Ivan was still inside, Jack had to stand in as the host. We watched as he trudged like a condemned man from group to group, saying things we mercifully couldn’t hear. There were about thirty people in the garden, some poking at the mound of boeuf tartare, some sitting in groups on bales of hay. A few minutes after Jack had finished his rounds and joined us, Ivan appeared on the patio, looking serene, wearing what had to be a bedsheet. He spread his arms in blessing.

“Master!” someone called out from the boeuf tartare. “Feed us!”

Ivan swept into the crowd like Jesus might have if the fish thing hadn’t worked.

“Is he high,” Michelle asked, “or is he stoned?”

“I’ve never understood the words we use,” I said.

We watched as Ivan swallowed the egg.

“But—” Jack protested. He and Anna had been talking quietly but now he towered clumsily over her. He had somehow taken her bait and was now entangled in a disagreement about Finnegans Wake. We didn’t know how it started but it was soon obvious that their argument was useless. Jack loved the book for reasons he could not name while Anna knew its details and hated it. It was oddly satisfying to see someone do to him what he so often did to me. They were strangers, he and this woman, as he and I sometimes were, describing the same moon seen over different landscapes.

“Here comes everybody,” Michelle groaned.

Down the patio steps, with feline poise, came a voluptuous woman in high heels and a short slip dress.


Michelle nodded slowly. “In all her flesh.”

“How old is she?” I asked.


“She looks richer than the rest of us.”

“I think she’s thirty-four or so.”


“I said she would zoom in on you,” Michelle suggested when I stood.

I waved this away and walked over to the boeuf tartare that now stood abandoned. Most guests had gathered around Zoff and I hated myself for also wanting a closer look at the heart of the party. I’ll be nasty to her, I decided, as Michelle had asked. While Zoff greeted people, hugging and pouting her lips, I pecked at what remained of the boeuf tartare and peeked at her.

“Look at you,” Zoff purred and swished her hair from side to side. She’d taken off her high heels and now held them in her one hand. This is what Michelle would do if she ever wore high heels and it annoyed me that Zoff did so too.

“No way!” she laughed and gathered her hair to one side, revealing vivid eyeshadow and glossy lipstick that were quite striking. This annoyed me even more. I didn’t like makeup and yet this honeyed excess seemed almost edible. The more I looked, the more I saw things about her that I also didn’t like—long nails, large breasts, a small waist, and fertile hips. All of it was bad for you, I knew, and yet I wanted it the way I craved candy as a boy.

“I love it,” she squealed at someone.

I forced myself to look away but then I looked again, as many other men were also doing. We couldn’t help ourselves. She fit the exaggerated ideal that nature had stamped, like factory settings, on all of us. I looked elsewhere, but I glanced again, and again. Then I tore myself away and returned to the bottom of the garden.

“And?” Michelle asked as I sat down.

“Lip gloss.”

“Slut,” thus Michelle. Then, “And what else?”

“Big breasts,” I mumbled.

“Oh, bummer.”

“You don’t get it,” I complained. “I don’t want to ogle them.”

“Yet you do.”

“It’s a default setting. Alert! Alert!—big tits at 10 o’clock. But I like smaller ones.”

“Poor you,” Michelle sighed. “You’ve been customised.”

“You knew this would happen, didn’t you?”

“Go on,” she said and made a small circle with her hand.

“If I’m wired to look at women—fine. But why can’t I choose which ones?”

“Isn’t it the same thing?”

“Why aren’t women wired to look at muscled men?”

“We are,” Michelle said, “but we don’t look. That would be stupid.” She patted my hand and motioned at me. “Under all of that, you’re just a primitive beast.”

I wanted to say something but I couldn’t think of anything that wasn’t worse than things I’d already said.

“When Zoff zooms in,” Michelle added, “you can tell her all about it.”

When Zoff zoomed in, I promised myself, I wasn’t going to tell her anything. I wasn’t even going to be nasty. I would treat her with indifference and simply move on. I fetched some beers and for a few minutes, Michelle and I just studied the other guests. Saying bad things about people was something we did despite a fascination with humans and all their weirdness. Even Pecorino Heels and Liver Nose would be interesting in some way, and we knew it. We watched as Ivan lit a fire and left his apostles to multiply two steaks and five sausages for the masses. We listened as Jack and Anna negotiated a series of infinitesimal compromises that moved them from their original argument about Joyce to a wholehearted agreement about Nabokov. Zoff had finished pouting and now stood a few steps away in conversation with two men. Her sugary perfume washed past us.

“When Zoff zooms in,” I asked Michelle quietly, “what does she do?”


“Well,” I hesitated, “she’s coming this way. Just tell me.”

Michelle leaned over and kissed me on the cheek. “She goes for men with girlfriends.”

“So it’s just a game then?”

“I don’t know,” Michelle said flatly.

Before I could ask again, Zoff stepped away from the two men and turned to us.

“Jack,” she said. “Michelle.”

“Zoe,” Michelle nodded. “How’ve you been?”

Jack stood and hugged her awkwardly.

“This is Zoe,” Michelle said and introduced us.

“Hello,” Zoe nodded, as stiffly as Michelle had. “Anna, nice to see you.”

They spoke for a minute or two while I stood by, unseen. I had secretly hoped that Zoe would be a certified goddess and that my appeal to factory settings would be justified, but it wasn’t so. Up close, she was as flawed as anyone else. I was relieved to see that her lipstick had smudged her teeth and that her bosom had shifted with all the hugging.

“What!?” I seethed when she’d moved away and was out of earshot. “Zoe?”

“I don’t like her,” Michelle smiled.

“So you just gave her another name?”

“Zoff is better.”

“She didn’t even look at me—”

“Maybe I was wrong,” Michelle agreed. “Maybe you’re not her type.”

“How come you all know her and I don’t?” I asked.

“I’ve met her once before,” Jack said. “Michelle knows her better. Why should she look at you?”

“I said that she would,” Michelle cut in.

“Oh,” Jack nodded as he considered this. Then he turned to talk to Anna.

Michelle and I continued to argue about the truth but it was as useless as the argument Jack and Anna had had earlier.

“Zoff, Zoe,” she said. “Who cares?”

I care,” I protested. “Plus, you said things to make me see her.”

“You would’ve seen her anyway,” Michelle countered. She gestured to include all men. “She’s your type.”

“But still—”

“Newsflash, mister. Women have a printout of your default settings.”


“How do you think some of us look like Zoe in the first place?”

As she said this, I realised that the last thing I’d want was for her to look like Zoe. With her impish grin and her tiny moles, Michelle was more beautiful than Zoe could ever be.

“I guess some have to,” I muttered.

“And the rest of us hate it,” Michelle said.

This reminded me of Miss Naudé, our busty tenth-grade geography teacher. She was in her twenties at the time and the boys in her classroom were giddy with lust. She often bent slowly across her desk to reach for something, a calculated act that we embraced with more enthusiasm than the girls in the class did. Michelle had a point. If women like Zoe could beguile all men, why could she not beguile just one of them? I had betrayed her, and I had sold out all the women I would ever truly like.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

Michelle leaned her head on my shoulder and whispered, “You’re my type.”

Now, thirty years later, my impulse to do anything when prompted by factory settings has blissfully faded. I still peek at women, of course, but I know that none of them will zoom in on me now. The young ones are silly girls and the women of my age are far too smart to go around pouting or swishing their hair about, as Zoe had done that evening. Yet the end state is not without loss. While I wouldn’t want to be back in that part of my life, I would like to visit it from time to time. I would sit again under the jacaranda tree later that evening, after Zoe and many others had left, and watch Ivan as he fruitlessly fiddles with a hookah pipe. I would listen again as Jack and Anna slowly rediscover their disagreement about Joyce. Most of all, I would smell the first hints of jasmine on the cooling spring air and again watch Michelle as she falls asleep with her head in my lap.

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Many years ago, Jack and I had a mutual friend called Adrian (see the story Degrees of freedom). In addition to being an extremely talented mathematician, Adrian had an extremely annoying musical gift. He had taught himself to play the preludes and fugues of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier on a synthesiser, without ever having had any musical training. This upset me. I had grown up hearing these pieces on Sundays when my father declared anew that Kiss and Foreigner were never to darken our house again. When he was done declaring, my father sat down at the piano and played and replayed many of the forty-eight pieces from the first book, haltingly, then with fervour, and then testily, always returning to the 8th prelude in E flat minor for solace and foundation. I often stood beside him, wishing that we could play chess instead, watching his fingers as he probed the keys to resuscitate Bach. The 8th prelude is a haunting piece. To this day it evokes for me the memory of what my father smelled like. It was therefore fundamentally unacceptable that Adrian could play it while I could hardly hum its main theme.

Adrian’s musical interests included only Bach. He could not care less about other composers. They were mere imposters, borrowing from Bach and then missing the quintessence of him, lapsing into saccharine refrains or fringe-bouncing key bashing. The more Adrian practised Bach to the exclusion of all others, the more he became capable of improvising in his style. This, needless to say, was upsetting too. But it was so beguiling that I forgave him and spent hours listening as he played, at a moment’s notice, whatever tune I’d put forward as a challenge, but in the counterpoint of Bach. I tried everything from Happy Birthday to You, to Yesterday, but Adrian, like my father, drew the line at Kiss and Foreigner and claimed not to know the songs Beth and Waiting for a girl like you.

Shortly after Adrian had granted himself a degree and enrolled in a doctoral programme in Computer Science—a programme he would later abandon in disgust—he met Samantha, a mousy woman doing a doctorate in Music. How this happened was never revealed. But Samantha had access to a harpsichord that stood in the basement of the university concert hall, the Aula, and that’s what mattered. Through Samantha, Adrian would gain access to this harpsichord and finally be able to practise Bach the way Bach did.

“She’s given me this key,” he announced when he’d brought us to a side door at the back of the Aula, behind the coffee shop where we always met. The hall was used daily by music students and now and then for debates and graduation ceremonies, and so Adrian added, “It opens onto the stage. Be quiet.”

He unlocked the door and eased it open gingerly, but there was no one around. We crossed the stage, on which stood a lone grand piano, and descended into the basement beneath it using a spiral stairway on the opposite side.

“She says I can come and practise as long as no one knows,” Adrian beamed when we came to the harpsichord.

The harpsichord was a thing of beauty, longer than I’d ever imagined, with two rows of keys.

“Are you fucking this Samantha?” Jack asked abruptly.

We would find out many years later that Adrian had always been gay, something we had been too obtuse to even notice.

“No,” Adrian waved the suggestion away. “But I like her.”

“She sure likes you,” I said. “You know, giving you a key and all that. Letting you use this.”

“I don’t think so,” Adrian said after what looked like careful consideration. “She’s just impressed that I could teach myself to play, that’s all.”

Over the next year, as Adrian mastered the harpsichord, Samantha became less impressed. Their friendship began to deteriorate. We found out because Adrian would drop subtle hints or sigh, and then explain how one thing or another wasn’t quite the way it had been. It was clear to us that he had done to her what he had done to his Applied Mathematics lecturer, and had overshadowed her work with his raw talent.

“She’s just stressed,” he said. “Her thesis is at a difficult point, and she hasn’t performed in a long while.”

“She’s stressed because of you,” Jack remarked.

“She’s asked for the key,” Adrian added glumly.


“But I’ve made a copy.”

“You have?”

Now Adrian could only practise on weekends, or very late at night, whenever he was sure that Samantha would not be around. His musical career had gone underground.

“I’m playing in a basement,” he sniffed a few months later, unamused.

“You’re the Jane Austen of music,” Jack said.

Adrian smiled by moving his ears. “It shouldn’t be this way,” he complained. “Music should be elevated above human pettiness.”

Nothing is elevated above human pettiness,” I said. “It’s our highest achievement.”

“Playing on the synthesiser is not the same,” Adrian sighed and waved me away. “I need to play on the harpsichord.”

Instead of being thankful for what time he could get on the harpsichord, Adrian became increasingly enraged by the indignity of having to sneak around. One afternoon, in the Aula coffee shop, he started again. “I’m playing Bach for fuck’s sake,” he said, visibly exercised by the novelty of using the words Bach and fuck in the same sentence.

“So what?” Jack retorted with some irritation. “Who cares if you’re playing Beethoven’s eardrum?”

Adrian looked at Jack as though he had just noticed him for the first time.

“Where’s she now?” Jack asked before Adrian could recover.


“Your mother,” Jack said loudly. “Samantha.”

Adrian blanched. “She’s practising on the stage piano,” he hesitated. “Why?”

“How do you know?”

“I heard her,” Adrian said sheepishly. “I listened outside the stage door before I came here. She’s probably rehearsing for some recital.”

“Then let’s go,” I said.


“Let’s go talk to her.”

“Now,” Jack said, pulling Adrian out of his chair.

“But—” Adrian protested as we frogmarched him from the coffee shop.

“But nothing.”

“But what must I say?” Adrian asked when we came to the stage door.

We could just make out the third fugue of the Well-Tempered Clavier being played inside. Samantha was playing it as Mozart might have, exploiting what the piano allowed but the harpsichord hadn’t in Bach’s day.

“Go on,” Jack said and gave Adrian a little shove. “Open up.”

“But what must I say?” Adrian pleaded again. “It’s crap. Listen!”

“Think about the harpsichord,” I said.

Adrian fumbled in his pocket and produced the key he had cut. “I’ll wait until she’s nearer the end,” he explained, holding up a stipulating finger. “And you two wait out here.”

We all knew the fugue well. At the last few measures, Adrian inserted the key into the lock, turned it, and eased open the door. A sliver of afternoon sun fell across the darkened stage and across Samantha, who sat with her back toward us, hunched over the piano in the coda of the fugue. When her fingers came away from the keys, Adrian opened the door all the way and marched onto the stage.

“Bravo!” he roared, applauding loudly, striding along like a stork. “Encore!”

Then he stopped. The pianist had not turned around and seemed to arch away from the sound of his voice. It was also clear now that it was not Samantha, but a man. To his left, almost invisible in contrast with the bright wedge of sunlight that fell across the stage, was a rather large audience.

A few days later Adrian was forced to return the key he’d made and was formally banned from the Music Department and all its buildings forever. Barging onto the stage during a post-graduate recital—Samantha and other doctoral students were reinterpreting composers in the style of later movements—was an unthinkable violation of all things civilised. Shortly after, I visited my parents for a Sunday lunch. My father had long before given up on the idea of meeting Bach at the piano, and had instead put on the only recording of the three violin concertos that he believed to do them justice—the 1962 recording by David and Igor Oistrakh—which now played in the living room.

“Is this the same Adrian you told me about a while ago?” he asked, wiping his glasses after a good laugh.

“The same.”

“Jesus,” my father sighed and sat back in his chair. “Play it again, Sam.”

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Degrees of freedom

At university, Jack and I befriended a talented guy called Adrian. At the time, Adrian knew everything there was to know about terminals and mainframes, things we were only dimly aware of. This was slightly annoying. He often spoke about computers and networks in sentences comprised almost entirely of words we didn’t understand. All the same, we viewed this skill of his as something quaintly foreign and unimportant, like calligraphy. What was more immediately upsetting was Adrian’s gift for mathematics. Jack and I were once interested in a puzzle that required fitting different pieces into a rectangular tray. While we argued about possible solutions, Adrian wrote down what I would much later recognize as a generating function. This beast, he explained, could be used to find the total number of solutions to the puzzle we were fumbling with, as well as others like it. All he needed to do was get to a terminal so he could explain the whole thing to the mainframe.

Perhaps as a direct consequence of his mathematical talent, Adrian failed Applied Mathematics 101, the first half of the first-year Applied Mathematics course. Many lesser people had passed this course, but it was simply too mundane to warrant Adrian’s attention. When he sat for the exam it turned out that there were a few things that even he couldn’t figure out from scratch in the allotted time.

“Plus,” he fumed quietly, “the lecturer is an idiot. He has the mathematical intuition of a forklift.”

“Who’s he?” we asked.

“Morton,” Adrian said with visible disgust. “The t is silent.”

Despite Morton’s efforts to stop him, Adrian obtained permission to continue with the second half of the year’s course, Applied Mathematics 102, taught by a different lecturer, and passed it. Yet, he had not passed Applied Mathematics 1 in its entirety. With special permission, he progressed to second-year courses in Mathematics and Applied Mathematics the following year. In a twist of fate, the Applied Mathematics Department combined Applied Mathematics 101 and 102, and from then on there was a single final exam, presided over by Morton.

At the end of the year, Adrian sat for the Applied Mathematics 1 exam, having first had to overcome the objections of Morton who claimed that as he hadn’t even attended class, he wasn’t eligible to take the exam. But the head of the department, Professor Sauer, liked Adrian and overruled Morton.

Adrian took the exam, and failed.

“Isn’t this moron just marking you down?” we asked.

“No,” Adrian admitted. “I failed.”

“Why?” we wondered. “You’re beyond all that.”

“I know,” he said dryly, “but things look smaller in the rearview mirror than they actually are.”

This pattern continued for two more years. Adrian obtained renewed special permissions to advance. Professor Sauer overruled the increasingly strident objections from Morton. Adrian took the exam without any preparation, and failed. At the end of four years, he had completed his entire degree but still had not passed Applied Mathematics 1.

“It’s stupid,” he moaned. “By now it should be obvious that I can pass it.”

“Sure,” we agreed.

“Plus,” he added, “I’ve passed the important half of it already.”

He wrangled some extraordinary permission from Professor Sauer and was allowed to enrol in a Master’s programme, with the private understanding that he’d pass Applied Mathematics 1 as soon as possible.

“As soon as humanly possible,” Adrian quoted.

“I forgot to mention,” he went on as though it was an afterthought, “Morton has moved up in the world, as all morons do, and is now a PhD student.”

While Morton continued to jealously guard the elusive Applied Mathematics 1, it turned out that he was now also the lecturer for some of Adrian’s Master’s classes. For a few weeks, everything was fine. Then, in what must be a rare superposition of genius and stupidity, Adrian solved the very problem Morton was building his PhD around.

“I don’t know why he’s so upset,” Adrian marvelled. “In fact, he should be grateful. All I did was to prove that his planned approach couldn’t work.”

But Morton didn’t see things this way. He made life difficult for Adrian at every turn and told whoever would listen that Adrian had not even been able to pass Applied Mathematics 1. After a few more weeks, Adrian quit the Mathematics programme and moved to the one-year Master’s programme in Computer Science. This move required a breathtaking combination of extraordinary permissions and begging. Professor Sauer, who had to do most of the begging, was clear. “I had to convince them of your brilliance,” Adrian quoted, “and so it’s now or never. You pass Applied Mathematics 1 at the end of the year, or you’re done.”

Adrian slipped into the Master’s programme in Computer Science against the same low resistance he’d experienced in Mathematics. Things came easily to him. He paid attention to his coursework and his thesis only intermittently. Behind the scenes, Morton worked to sour the Computer Science Department against him, but Adrian was philosophical about it.

“With enemies like Morton, who needs friends?”

On weekends, Adrian assisted in the lab where all the terminals were.

“Shouldn’t you study some Applied Mathematics?” we asked.

“I’m working on it,” he smiled.

“I’m graduating,” he told us near the end of the year. “I’m getting a Bachelor’s and a Master’s.”

“Did you pass?” we asked.


“What do you mean, yes?”

“Actually,” Adrian said, “I took Prof Sauer’s advice.”

“What advice?”

“When he said humanly. As soon as humanly possible, remember?”


“It got me to thinking,” he clarified, “that word, humanly. All that’s needed to pass is that a human says you’ve passed. Actually passing isn’t required, is it?”


“I got Morton to pass me.”

Jack and I looked at one another. “How?”

“Well,” Adrian explained with some relish, “the university admin system has this login screen—”

It was sounding like calligraphy again, but we had to listen.

“—and I made a screen that looks just like it. Each time a session started, my fake screen would show, and someone would type in their credentials.

“What’s a session?” we asked.

Adrian waved this away. “Then I’d save their username and password to a file, and kill my screen.”


“And so they’d curse and log in again.”

While we still didn’t understand calligraphy, it was beginning to look useful.

“And after a few weeks, I found Morton’s credentials,” Adrian beamed. “I logged in as him and gave myself a pass for Applied Mathematics 1.”

A few years later my father became the head of the Department of Informatics. As he was now close to where Adrian’s fraud had been committed, I told him about it.

“Apparently this Morton guy raised a stink,” I said, “saying he’d never passed Adrian. But Sauer had had enough of Morton and gave him an ultimatum to shut up or ship out.”

“I’ve always liked Prof Sauer,” my father mused.

“But aren’t you upset?”

“Why should I be upset?”

“Because you care about the truth,” I countered.

My father tamped his pipe and looked out the window.

“I care about many things,” he said after a moment. He struck a match and puffed on his pipe to char the tobacco, moving the flame around the bowl the way I’d seen him do for as long as I could remember. “I’ve never met this Adrian friend of yours, but it sounds to me like he deserves a degree of some kind.”

The aroma of my father’s tobacco was new. Until recently he’d smoked a locally made cherry tobacco, but now he’d discovered Davidoff’s Danish Mixture. He struck another match and sucked its flame more deeply into the bowl.

“But,” he said between puffs, “I have met Morton.”


My father sighed a plume of smoke toward the ceiling. “Isn’t this wonderful?” he said.

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His master’s voice

Tania had a slight moustache. She sighed a lot and constantly complained that she hadn’t slept and was tired. This was a little out of place in our group. We styled ourselves as an unpublished version of the Algonquin Round Table. We met at a coffee shop on campus every day. We were young and we were convinced that we’d soon be famous. Perhaps most of all, we slept too little and we never complained that we were tired. It wasn’t clear to me why Tania was there.

“She’s doing a Master’s in business management,” my friend whispered with some distaste. “I think she knew someone who’s left. Now she’s a leftover organ of sorts, you know, like a coccyx.”

“I don’t care how she got here,” I said. “I was smuggled in from physics.”

“Yeah,” my friend shrugged, “but you say things.”

“I guess. But why is she always exhausted?”

“If you ignore the moustache,” my friend explained, “then, on the outside, she’s twenty-two.” He checked to make sure that she couldn’t hear us and added, “But deep down she’s ninety.”

I always marvelled at this paradox when I saw her. Being old before your time was surely worse than the problem I had. I was young after my time. I was immature, and it certainly looked like I would stay that way. Just as I tried to compare these two states, I would catch myself entertaining a perverse fantasy in which I grabbed Tania and kissed her to find out what the moustache felt like.

One day, Tania made an announcement. “My grandmother is dead,” she said.

We couldn’t tell whether she had mentioned a fact of history or a detail of an unfolding event.

“When did she die?” someone asked uncertainly.

“Oh,” Tania said and checked her watch, “three hours ago.”

“But you didn’t say—”

“Oh,” Tania smiled, “it’s alright. She was ninety.”

My friend and I exchanged a glance.

“I’ll appreciate some help with her things later this week,” Tania added. “Especially the parrot.”

This last bit energised us considerably. “A parrot?”

“She had a grumpy sulphur-crested cockatoo,” Tania said.

“A grumpy cockatoo?”

Tania flattened the tablecloth around her cup and mumbled, “He swears.”



We leant forward. “Like what?”

“Oh,” Tania whispered and blushed, “like shit—” Then, after a pause, she continued, “—and fuck. And so on.”

We had all heard of swearing parrots, but we’d never met one in person. Three days later we went with Tania to her grandmother’s house. The house was a Victorian-style mansion near campus, on a large plot.

“Was your grandmother rich?” someone asked as Tania pointed out a framed photograph of her in the vast foyer. The photo showed a rather masculine woman, likely in her sixties at the time the picture was taken, glaring at the camera. She sat in a chair and behind her stood a smallish man, with his hand on her shoulder in the style of photos taken in the late nineteenth century. It was clear who wore the pants in the house and it was also clear where Tania’s moustache had come from.

“Oh,” Tania said with a little smile, “I don’t know. Maybe.”

The house had the faint powdery smell of an old person. Pink hydrangeas grew at every window. There were rows and rows of Royal Doulton figurines in Victorian display cabinets of such ornate carving as to suggest that they had grown like vines from the floor. Everything was hideous. It seemed entirely reasonable for the people of Victorian England to have gone off to administer colonies. They probably couldn’t bear it at home.

“This is fabulous!” a girl who wrote maudlin poetry exclaimed. “It’s the Bather!”

She indicated a fairly un-Victorian figurine of a bashful girl disrobing, and whispered, “It’s very rare.”

“Is that from Victorian times?” I asked, surprised at the nudity.

“No,” she said, “it’s more like the 1920s, I think.”

I couldn’t have cared less if it had once belonged to Cleopatra. It looked like trash to me.

“Well,” I asked, “is it—is it expensive?”

I had swallowed the words at least just in time not to say them, but it was clear that I’d thought them.

“Oh,” Tania said and did a bonsai smile, “I don’t know. My grandfather collected them. It was his passion. My grandmother always hated those things.”

“Oo!” the poet exclaimed and clasped her cheeks at the sight of a crimson sofa that looked like a giant, mutant butterfly.

“Where’s the parrot?” someone else got to the point.

“Oh,” Tania said, “Pete’s upstairs. He’s upset.”

“Pete the Parrot?”

Tania nodded. “My grandmother got him when my grandfather died. My grandfather was Pete, and so Pete was Pete.”

“Why’s he upset?” we wondered.

“He’s plucked out his feathers,” Tania shrugged.

There was a pause as we absorbed this new possibility.

“Is he upset because he plucked them,” I asked, “or did he pluck them because he was already upset?”

“Don’t get technical,” someone chided me. “You’re so insensitive.”

“Poor thing,” someone else cut in. “He misses his mistress.”

“Oh,” Tania said, “it’s not because of that. Two days ago I put his cage on the lawn while I cleaned the attic. When I returned, he’d killed five pigeons.”

We looked at one another.

“How’d he do that?”

“Oh,” Tania said, “he put his food just inside the bars of his cage, like bait, and when the pigeons poked their heads through to get it, he decapitated them.”

For a few moments, no one said anything.

“I think he’s angry because I stopped him,” Tania added reassuringly. “That’s when he plucked his feathers. He’s very grumpy. He’s always been that way.”

“Maybe he killed the pigeons because he’s sad,” someone tried. “You know, about your grandmother.”

“Oh, no,” Tania said. “He was nasty to her too.”


Tania shrugged. “They hated one another.” She brushed a fleck of dust from a secretaire. “My grandmother hated my grandfather,” she said. “And when he died, about ten years ago, she got Pete so she could hate him too.”

“Did she say so?”

“Oh,” Tania said, “no, but my grandparents always argued. Always. They sat on the patio out front and swore at one another as though there was some sort of contest to see who could make up the worst insults.”

“That doesn’t sound like—” I began.

“My dad said so too,” Tania cut me short. “He always insisted that it’s just the way they were. I was twelve when my grandfather died, but I can still remember those arguments.”

Tania’s parents had died in a car crash a few years earlier. As far as we knew, her late grandmother was the only family she’d had left.

“But surely your father would have known,” my friend said.

Tania waved this away.

And she kept those ceramic things she didn’t like,” he added.

“It was the same with the parrot,” Tania continued. “Constant bickering.”

It’s a strange thing that you can get to know people as readily through someone who never understood them as you can through someone who truly did. It was obvious that Tania had missed out on the better parts of her grandmother and had instead ended up with only her moustache. The glaring woman in the foyer was very likely annoyed with the photographer.

“Business management,” my friend whispered.

“Go get Pete,” Tania said.

The sight of Pete was one you couldn’t prepare for. When Tania said that he’d plucked out his feathers, she neglected to mention that he had plucked out everything he could reach. Only the downy feathers on his face and the fan of his crest remained. He was an outsized head floating atop a scrawny, mechanical body. This strange combination perched on a rod in a large cage and scowled at us.

“Beautiful plumage,” someone joked.

“Fuck off!” Pete squawked.

We burst out laughing. It was just too much.

“The Victorian Blue,” someone else added.

“Wanker!” Pete screeched in an old woman’s voice.

“Oh Jesus,” my friend said, “do you think the grandmother—?”

“Jesus,” Pete nodded vigorously and spread the feathers of his crest like the fingers of a hand. “Cunt.”

If you’d shaved a male lion a Mohican, he would not have been a more surprising sight. Yet Pete was headstrong and proud, despite his condition. He had learnt what he could say from a misunderstood and lonely woman, and now he was misunderstood and lonely in turn. It wasn’t the pigeons. We were torn between provoking him some more and feeling sorry for him, and while we hesitated, Pete shifted on his perch and eyed us.

“He must be cold,” the poet crooned. “Are you cold, sweety?”

“Shit!” Pete bobbed up and down.

“I think he wants to be insulted,” I said. “Maybe that’s how it worked.”

My friend put his face near Pete’s cage and said in his most menacing voice, “You ugly motherfucker.”

Pete flicked his crest and did a little dance. “Slut!” he crowed.

A few minutes later, after everyone had gone to help Tania, I stood by Pete’s cage and wondered what it was that would now become of him. Tania would inherit this house, I thought, and him with it, but I wasn’t sure that she understood either of the two in the way her grandmother would’ve wanted. I picked up the cage and headed for the stairs under Pete’s watchful gaze.

“Uh,” he grunted.

I stopped on the second step. “What?”

Pete sighed.

I put another foot forward and as the stairs creaked, he spoke up again. “Uh.”

When I took another step, he did so again.

“Shut up,” he groaned.

With a chill I realised that I was hearing Tania’s dead grandmother, grunting and sighing as she carried Pete down these same stairs every day. The three of us proceeded, grunting and sighing, and as we did I thought about this old woman in whose place I now stood. I would never know her, but I suddenly wished that I had. She had lived here in her eighties, alone, for ten years, telling a bird about a man. Only now and then was she interrupted by a visit from her frumpy granddaughter. But what was she like before that? An hour earlier I would have given it no further thought, judging by the house and the ugly things within it. But now I wasn’t so sure. Now I could picture her and the original Pete on the patio outside, sparring as they sipped their gin and tonics under the canopy of bougainvillea and jasmine I saw as we came in. There was something strangely familiar about them. My parents had devoted a large fraction of their energy to an argument that broke out in their last year of high school and to which they returned in a game of verbal violence that had more rules than it appeared to break. To me, this had always been the grammar of love.

I stopped on the last, wider step. From here I could see a part of the patio through mullioned French doors. In recent years, I was sure, the old lady had taken Pete outside whenever the weather permitted, and there the two of them had spent hours expanding his vocabulary. But years before that, in the spring and early summer, those doors would have stood ajar. From here, I supposed, I would have smelled the heady perfume of jasmine carried in on the still air of the late afternoon. And from this very step, if I strained just a little, I would have heard the two old lovers on the patio as they remembered their life together and traded insults. It was obvious to me that Tania had no inkling of the terms of their endearment.

“Pete’s lonely,” I told her in the kitchen. “He’s like a mirror in an empty room.”

“Oh,” she sighed, “he’s just grumpy.”

Pete fanned his crest and said nothing.

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In camera

In the early 2000s, Mia and I owned an apartment in Three Anchor Bay, in Cape Town. The apartment was a magical place. It was on the ground floor and had ample patios and its own garden and a pool. We had made some changes when we bought it, one of which was to install custom-made closets in the dressing room off the main bedroom, closets that were almost as tall as the four-meter-high ceilings.

In 2007 we sold this apartment to a German guy called Tom. Tom was fussy and had several demands.

“He wants the wine glass shelves removed,” Mia said after she’d met with him.

The glass shelves in question hid the hot water cylinder that sat in a cupboard in the kitchen, near the ceiling. We had closed off its cavity on purpose to reclaim some stacking space.

“But he’s insane,” I said. “Sure, they’re hard to reach, but it’s perfect!”

“He’s right,” Mia sighed. “The cylinder is now hard to reach. It’s against regulation.”

From her face I could see that there was more.

“What else?”

“He wants the garden door lock fixed,” she added with a wry smile.

Mia and I had long argued about the door of the garden onto Camberwell Road. The door and its frame were not meant for one another, and the lock had to be persuaded every time you used it. I saw this as a security feature, but Mia didn’t.

“Why?” I demanded. “Did you tell him?”

“No,” she said. “The problem presented itself anew.”

“I’ll install a new door,” I snapped. “What else?”

Mia smiled. “He wants us to add soffits to the closets in the dressing room.”

“What’s a soffit?”

“I was surprised he knew,” she said. “They’re boards that close off the space between the closets and the ceilings.”

“What for?”

“He says he wants to stop the dust,” Mia said and dented her dimples. “We’re not doing that.”

We removed the shelves that concealed the hot water cylinder, and we replaced the garden door. Then, a few months before moving out, Mia lost our camera. Despite being the only one who ever used it, she argued that any of an infinity of things could have happened to it, cosmically speaking, and that it was therefore silly of me to blame her, and even sillier to continue to look for it. It was gone.

Mia moved on with Buddhistic composure, but I could not. Every now and then I’d see the camera in my mind’s eye, wedged between this and that, or somehow inside of one thing or another.

“It’s not there,” Mia would say with what sounded suspiciously like certainty.

“How do you know?”

“Move on,” she’d say, and moved on.

But I’d look, and it wouldn’t be where I’d hoped. I even got onto a ladder and searched the space of the newly revealed hot water cylinder, in case Mia had left the camera in there during the renovations. By the time we had to move out of the apartment it was obvious to any reasonable person that the camera was, as Mia had put it, gone. We moved to the suburbs and Tom took over our beloved apartment. Over the years, every now and then, I pictured the camera again, hidden inside some box or drawer I had not looked in yet, and then I’d go digging against all hope. And sure enough, it wasn’t there.

In 2016 we moved to Seattle. My continued hope of finding the camera—which would’ve been outdated and useless even if found—waned considerably as the only place it could now be was inside something we hadn’t opened in a decade. Yet, I still thought of it now and then, and Mia and I still had arguments that started out with an innocent question about the camera and then spilled over into other differences.

In 2018 I visited Cape Town on business. My stay included a weekend and I planned to do an excessively long walk. On the Friday I sat in a meeting at work and once again pondered the fate of the camera. If the camera wasn’t in Seattle, as seemed to be the case, then it had to be here. And if it was here, I thought, then I was within striking distance of whatever crevice or nook it was in. As people droned on about web services, I scanned our old apartment as I remembered it, and tried to think of places we hadn’t looked. And then a terrific thought struck me. I suddenly remembered putting an old briefcase of mine into the corner cavity that the closets in our dressing room made with the ceiling. I did this just before we left on an overseas trip because no thief would even know the cavity existed, nor be able to reach it without a ladder. I had completely forgotten about this somehow. What if I’d hidden the camera there too? I could see myself doing it, and the more I thought of it, the more real it became. If it was so, it would mean that the camera had been in what was now Tom’s place for almost twelve years.

“Have you gone mad?” Mia asked when I told her about this on the phone that evening. “The thing is gone man. Get a grip!”

“But what if it’s there?” I asked. “Can you imagine?”

“I can imagine you’d have to apologise,” she said.


“Well, it would mean that it was you who’d put it there, not me. I wouldn’t be that stupid.”

“Sure,” I said, “whatever. I’m going to ask Tom.”


“I’m going to knock on his new door and ask him.”

“You’re going to do no such thing!” Mia insisted.

On the Saturday I went for a very long walk. I walked from my hotel in the city bowl to the neck between Table Mountain and Lion’s Head, down the Glen, around Lion’s Head through Clifton and Bantry Bay, and then I followed the long Sea Point esplanade. I had to walk through Three Anchor Bay on my way back to the city bowl anyway, and could stop by our old place, despite promising Mia that I wouldn’t. It would not be a significant detour. Did Tom still own it? Would he even remember me?

“Mein Gott!” Tom exclaimed, “ov course I remember you! Come in.”

I said that it was wonderful that he still owned the place, and even more wonderful that he’d kept some designs I’d painted on pillars and in the hallway. But then I got to the point.

“Wot?” Tom asked. “Wot iz here?”

“Well,” I said, “it’s a large cavity, really, a hole, in the corner of the dressing room.”

“Ze dressing room—” Tom echoed.

“Wait,” I said, “I’ll show you.”

“But wot—” Tom followed me as I led him into our old bedroom and then into the dressing room.

“There,” I said and pointed. “There’s a hole up there.”

“A hole—” Tom repeated after me, his voice trailing off.

“Yes,” I said. “See, the two closets make a cubical cavity that you can only reach from the top.”

Tom was silent for a few seconds and then he snapped out of his hypnotised state. “But wot does zis mean?” he sputtered. “A hole in my place, all zis time?”

He opened the corner closet doors and examined the inside. Once you knew what to look for, it was clear that there was a large space unaccounted for.

“You never noticed that?” I asked. “It’s almost like the wine shelves we used to have.”

“No,” Tom said in muted wonder. “And zere’s a suitcase up zere—”

“An old briefcase,” I said. “And, I hope, a missing camera.”

“—here,” Tom continued, “in my place?”

“Yes. Can we look?”

Tom looked from me to the closets, and then up at the ceiling, and back again, as though in a trance.

“We’ll need a ladder,” I suggested.

Tom went off to fetch a ladder from the garage, muttering in German, while some friends who were visiting him from Germany came inside from the garden to inspect the closets.

“Zis iz madness,” Tom grunted a few minutes later as he groped around in the gap, standing on the ladder and bending his head against the ceiling. “Zis hole haz been—”

His eyes widened. “Was zum Teufel—”

“Do you feel it?” I asked.

“Ja—” he cried and hauled my stowaway briefcase over the edge.

He passed it down to me with the look of a man asked to handle his own tumour after surgery.

“See if there’s anything else,” I said.

Tom was transfixed by the briefcase and stared at it from where he stood awkwardly atop the ladder.

“In the hole,” I urged.

He groped around and grunted, but found nothing. When he came down from the ladder I was opening the dusty case with the codes I still remembered.

“But zat iz like a—” he hesitated, searching for the word, “like a vault! Here, all zees years!”

The latches snapped open, but the case was empty. I straightened and started slowly toward the door. Tom followed me while carrying the briefcase at arm’s length. In the hallway and on our way outside I recounted how we’d lost our camera and how it had occurred to me that it could be here, inside the case, or in the hole. But Tom seemed dazed and didn’t really listen.

“Wot else iz zere?” he asked at the garden door.

“What do you mean?”

“Here, in zis house?”

“There might be my ex camera,” I said. “But nothing else.”

As I was about to leave, Tom remembered the case. “Zis iz yours,” he said and pushed it at me.

“You keep it,” I said, thinking how ridiculous I’d look walking along in shorts, carrying a briefcase. “I have far still to go.”

When I was a few steps up Camberwell Road, Tom called after me, “But wot must I do wiz it?”

“Just throw it away,” I called over my shoulder.

At the top of the street I looked back before turning into High Level Road. Tom was still standing on the sidewalk, holding the briefcase, and so I waved at him. After a few moments he turned and went back inside.

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Down and under

In 1995 I worked for an actuarial firm in Cape Town. The job itself was as dull as a mortality table, but I couldn’t really complain. That this firm had taken the risk to employ me in the first place had been a miracle. When I interviewed with them I had just spent the previous three years on a farm in the middle of nowhere, leading a moneyless and wholly unactuarial existence. I owned only T-shirts and had to borrow an old suit of my father’s for the interview. My mother hastily shortened the legs and overdid it, but there was no time for the sleeves and so they hung past my hands. The only tie that matched the suit was a wide atrocity that my father had last worn in the seventies. I looked like a pinstriped clown. Minutes before the interview, as I crossed Bree Street without looking, I stepped in front of a Volkswagen Beetle driven by an old Jewish man on his way to Synagogue. Even though he wasn’t going very fast I was scooped over the windshield and did what I’m now sure was a momentary headstand on the roof of the car. Then I landed in the road on the seat of my father’s suit. Two women rushed from a parked car and helped me up.

“Are you OK?” one grunted as they steered me toward the sidewalk. “Is anything broken?”

My one leg hurt but nothing felt broken.

“Do you know where you are?” she pressed on.

I wasn’t sure.

“You should look where you’re going,” the other one suggested and wagged a finger at me.

“I have to ask,” the actuary who interviewed me said a few minutes later, after some introductory pleasantries, “is that a ponytail tucked into your shirt?”

He had introduced himself as Rod. Rod was a name that I thought went very well with his profession.

“It is, Rod,” I mumbled. “I lost a bet with friends almost three years ago and I’ve had to grow my hair since then. But I can cut it on the twenty-third of March.”

He shook his head in disbelief and pressed on, “And the suit?”

“Well—” I hesitated.

“It’s all torn,” he said and pointed at me and at the suit. “Is it even your suit?”

I gave up and told him everything. It was over anyway. There was no point in lying.

“Are you OK?” Rod asked when I was done.

“My right leg is stiff,” I said. “And my hair hurts.”

“You’ll be needing a better tie,” he announced and slapped his knees.

While passing the interview was surely a miracle, my continued employment with this firm was an act of faith on their part. I sat in my little office overlooking Bree street and played around on what was then the beginnings of the internet as we now know it, enthralled by things that had no tangible intersection with the expectations of the people who paid me. Even so I was invited to join five actuaries to attend a conference, hosted by the American firm Towers Perrin, in Washington D.C. The conference was billed, rather optimistically, as Flexible Liability. I didn’t really know what that meant, but I didn’t care. They could’ve called it Permanent Astrology and I still wouldn’t have cared. I had never been to America and this was my chance.

“Don’t fuck around,” Rod warned me after he’d explained why we were going. “These people could become our partners.”

“I won’t,” I said.

Rod nodded slowly and appeared to examine my words for their individual meaning.

Don’t,” he emphasised.

Then he remembered something.

“In D.C. I’ll take you to see the most beautiful woman in the whole world.”

To get to Washington we had to fly via Johannesburg, Isla de Sal in the Cape Verde islands, and New York. The trip took thirty-two hours. In the muggy terminal building at Isla de Sal a sweaty official warned us not to drink the water and invited us to buy a Dr Pepper from a small table. I was thirsty but I wasn’t going to be told what to buy and so I drank the water anyway. As it turned out, this water was a key ingredient of an accelerated weight loss programme. I arrived in Washington at two on a Friday afternoon, haggard and gaunt. I was jet-lagged but I wanted to see the city and so I went for a walk. I walked from our hotel in Foggy Bottom to Lafayette Square so I could see the White House. Then I walked all around it so I could see it better. I felt like an ancient Greek visiting slightly less ancient Rome, gawking at the newfangled excess of it all, but near the Washington Monument I was reminded otherwise.

“You from Australia?” a street vendor asked with what sounded like regret.

I had decided to find out what a Dr Pepper tasted like after all, and had simply asked for one.

“I most certainly am not—”

“Yep,” she went on and handed me a can and a straw. “Down under.”

“No,” I insisted as I returned the straw. “South Africa.”

She handed me the straw again, now warming to the challenge, and jutted out her chin, “Where’s that?”

“In Africa,” I said, suddenly aware that this might not qualify.

She leant back and folded her arms. I mimed south with the straw and added, “You know, at the bottom?”

“Like I said,” she remarked as she turned to another customer, “down under.”

From there I walked to the Lincoln Memorial, and then all the way back along the expanse of the Mall past the Smithsonian Museums to the Reflecting Pool near the Capitol building. By then it was getting dark and I was ready to eat again. An old man was selling hot dogs from a cart with a sign that advertised Dogs with Everything. The Dr Pepper had not tasted much better than the water of Isla de Sal, and so I pinned my hopes on an American hot dog.

“I’ll have a dog with everything,” I announced.

For a moment the old man seemed pained, as though I’d said something slightly obscene, but then he moved slowly into action.

“You sound funny,” he observed as he lay a thin, wrinkled sausage into a roll.

I had expected that a dog with everything would start out with more of something.

“To me, you sound funny,” I replied. “Will that become a dog with everything?”

The old man smiled wistfully and squirted some mustard and ketchup onto the sausage, obscuring it.

“Ireland?” he ventured.

“Irish? How can I—”

“No, wait,” he said and held up the unfinished hot dog, apparently resampling the few words I had said. Then he shook his head, scooped some relish from a container, added some fried onions, and looked into the distance.

“New Zealand,” he tried again.

“No,” I said, “I’m—”

“That’s everything,” the old man cut me short and handed me a smallish hot dog. “Definitely Australia then.”

“I’m from South Africa,” I tried again. “You know, it’s—”

“I don’t really mind,” he chuckled as he turned away. “I’m from South Dakota.”

As I sloped off in the direction of the Peace Monument, he called after me, “I liked it better when you were Irish.”

The next morning I was awake at four and couldn’t get to sleep again. I turned on the television and discovered to my dismay that American ad breaks were significantly longer than the ones I was used to, and significantly sillier. I had three hours before the dining hall opened for breakfast and so I pored over a map of Washington I was given when I checked in. It was a colourful map, almost childlike in its three-dimensional depictions of major landmarks. I planned various routes along the laid-out grid of the city, a grid made simple by its use of numbers for streets running north-south and letters for those running east-west. The only complication I could see were avenues that cut across the grid at forty-five degrees and connected various circles. It wouldn’t matter if I got a little lost, I thought, as I had a whole weekend ahead of me. If I could avoid having to do some stupid tour with the actuaries, the capital of the free world awaited me. I was going to walk across Key Bridge to Arlington Cemetery and the Pentagon. I wanted to retrace my walk of the previous afternoon and visit the Smithsonian Museums. I wanted to take a leisurely stroll along the Potomac. And perhaps, I thought, I could hang around outside the White House again, but this time for so long that the Secret Service would open a file on me.

As I was about to leave my room and go down to breakfast, I remembered something—I was not going to stand accused of being Australian again. By coincidence I had brought along what I was sure would put an end to that. It was a T-shirt that depicted the mountains of Cape Town—Devil’s Peak, Table Mountain, and Lion’s Head—with the words Cape Town in large lettering beneath them. I changed into this T-shirt and stepped into the day.

The hotel had a single elevator. It took forever to arrive and even longer to move between floors. In the elevator on this morning were two older women. One was very short and nearly spherical, with thick glasses and a vast bosom that undulated gently. The other one was thin and tall. They stood closely together. As we slowly descended I tried my best to ignore the mental image of a first grader’s letter d, with the short woman as its bowl and the other one its stem.

“Guten Tag,” Bowl broke the silence and beamed up at me. “Wie geht’s?”

It was now obvious that she was quite squint too.

“Guten Tag,” I hesitated. “Alles gut. Mit Sie?”

Bowl and Stem exchanged a bewildered glance.

“Aw!” Bowl exclaimed. “Now you got me! I dunno more German than that!”

“Why German?” I asked, wondering if I somehow looked German on top of sounding Australian.

“Cape Town,” Stem observed with Holmes-like satisfaction, and pointed at my T-shirt.

“What about it?”

Stem and Bowl exchanged another glance.

“It’s in Germany,” Stem said.

We trundled downward in silence for a second or two while I tried to come to terms with this new intelligence.

“Does it sound German?” I asked.

“No—” Bowl hesitated.

“It doesn’t,” I said, “because it’s not. Cape Town is in Africa. At the southern tip.”

“I don’t think so,” Stem objected and shook her head slowly.

“Nope,” Bowl nodded.

“Look,” I said, “I was there forty-eight hours ago. Unless they’ve scooped the whole thing out and moved it to Germany, I assure you that Cape Town is in South Africa.”

Stem pursed her lips the way people do who disagree with you but don’t feel like arguing.

“Take a look at a map,” I suggested.

Just then the elevator came to a shuddering stop at the ground level.

“Well,” Bowl guffawed, “what do we know! We’re from California!”

With that they marched off, now looking like a b as they made their way to a table near the window.

A few minutes later I was staring at a soggy waffle when Bowl summoned me.

“Psst!” she hissed from their table and waved her arms to attract my attention. “Come here,” she mouthed and beckoned.

Having talked in the elevator we were clearly now friends. I took my coffee and walked over. Stem had the same map I’d studied in my room spread out across their table.

“We want to see the White House,” she got to the point and tapped the map. “But should we go like this,” she said, tracing her finger from our hotel toward Dupont Circle, “or like this?”

The rather large picture of the White House was visible to the east of her hand, nowhere near the two routes she was considering.

“I’d go like this,” I said, unable to stop myself, “to Dupont Circle, and then further north along Connecticut Avenue.”

“How far to the White House?” Bowl asked and eyed the map with her good eye.

“Well,” I said, “it’s going to feel like you’re not getting there. I walked to the White House yesterday and it took a long time.”

“Was it worth it?” she asked and glanced at Stem.

“It was totally worth it,” I said.

“That’s settled then,” Stem snapped and folded the map away. “Thank you.”

I spent the Saturday as I’d planned, getting lost here and there but generally finding my way in the end. The T-shirt seemed to work and I was asked instead whether I was from England. A cashier in a CD shop, once we’d established that I was from Africa and not Brittany, as she put it, told me that she knew someone who lived in Utopia.

“You mean Ethiopia?”

“Of course,” she agreed. “It’s around there, ain’it?”

I was baffled to be among people who had had all the benefits of scale and yet had turned out to be so small. How was this the capital of the world when it knew almost nothing about it?

The next morning, as I entered the dining hall, I heard an eerily familiar sound, “Psst!”

It was Bowl again, but she looked less friendly than she had the day before.

“Did you see the White House?” I asked when I reached their table.

I was hoping that they’d gotten lost and as a result had found their way to the White House despite my misdirections.

“Yes,” Bowl said unhappily and adjusted her thick glasses. She glanced nervously at Stem and continued, “But it was very far away.”

This was not what I wanted to hear.

“How far?” I asked with some trepidation.

“It didn’t look like the White House,” Stem remarked darkly.

“But it was smaller than we thought it’d be,” Bowl added quickly.

From this I took it that Bowl wasn’t the brains of the outfit and instead took care of public relations.

“Where did you go?” I asked.

Stem unfolded her map. “Here,” she said icily and dragged a bony finger along Connecticut Avenue, “like you said.”

I wanted to run away but I was trapped.

“Like this?” I asked to buy some time as I traced the same route and hovered a finger north of Dupont Circle. “How far?”

“It was very far,” Bowl sighed. “I was very tired.”

“And you found the White House?”

“Yes,” Stem hissed and paused for effect, “and quite frankly, it was extremely disappointing.”

For a moment I considered saying how I, too, was disappointed, but then it occurred to me that I might see them again, and that this could drag on.

“Actually,” I said instead, “it’s not along Connecticut Avenue at all.” I pointed at the large icon of the White House on the map to the south-east. “It’s here.”

Stem tapped the icon while she considered this. “No,” she concluded and shook her head, “it’s not.”

“Look,” I said again.

“It’s not,” Stem insisted.

“Perhaps it’s in Germany,” I smiled.

Bowl giggled nervously but was silenced at once by a withering look from Stem.

“What does this say?” I asked and traced the words The White House that were clearly printed below the picture of the White House.

“But we saw the White House,” Stem countered with an air of finality.

It was becoming clear to me that the geographic incompetence I had experienced of Americans was more pronounced in those who were from California, where they seemed to laminate their ignorance with certainty.

“You saw some white house,” I tried, “not the White House. This is Washington. Everything is white.”

Stem frowned and tapped the pictures of the White House and Dupont Circle with her index fingers, apparently still unconvinced that she hadn’t seen the White House.

“You played a trick on us!” Bowl exclaimed.

“I did,” I confessed.

“But why?” she asked with childlike wonder.

“You said I was from Germany,” I mumbled sheepishly. “I thought you’d figure it out.”

“But we’re from California!” she brayed and sputtered until her bosom heaved unevenly.

The rest of the Sunday was spoiled by the actuaries. They intercepted me as I was about to leave for the day.

“Where have you been?” Rod asked with some irritation. “We’re late.”

“For what?”

“It’s in the the itinerary—”

A van pulled up to the curb outside the hotel. It bore the ominous sign UCDC.

“What itinerary?”

Rod stared at me for a moment and then he said, “Don’t fuck around.”

We got into the van and went on a paid tour of the city to see the the things I’d already seen. After a mind-numbing dinner at a restaurant on K street, during which the actuaries cracked jokes about funds and factors, Rod insisted that we visit 20-twenty, a strip club on 20th street.

“You’ll see Kerry,” he cried hoarsely and knocked back a cognac like one would a tequila, “the most beautiful woman in the whole world!”

He waved a drunken hand to include what passed for the world. “You have to see her.”

I could think of no reason to see Kerry. I would rather have watched two hobos argue over a soiled mattress than visit a strip club, especially one rumoured to contain the most beautiful woman in the whole world.

“I’m going back to the hotel,” I announced as we stepped out onto K street.

“But what about Kerry?” Rod cried. “What are you, a pussy?”

“I’m tired,” I called back to them as I walked off.

“You’ll be sorry,” Rod called after me.

The week dragged on painfully. My worry that Stem and Bowl might see me again was totally warranted. They worked for Towers Perrin and were at the hotel for the same conference I was, in charge of its administration. Somehow, this was a function they performed as an inseparable, bipolar duo. On the first day, Stem announced lunch in such a matronly tone as to suggest that stool samples would be collected later. Bowl beamed beside her and nodded eagerly. They presided over the rationing of refreshments, the keeping of time, and the agendas of sessions. It was from them that I first learned of the existence of the breakout session. Until then it had not occurred to me that people at a conference could want to stay at the conference for a nanosecond longer than was absolutely necessary. I was therefore flabbergasted to find that some people would intentionally sequester themselves in a smaller conference, under intensified scrutiny, only to regroup and then reprise what had been discussed as though they were revenant explorers of the unknown.

When Stem announced the first breakout session, I snuck off. It was around three in the afternoon and I figured that no one would miss me anyway.

“Are you lost?”

It was Bowl.

“The breakout rooms are that way,” Stem pointed with her bony finger. “Where it says Breakout Rooms.”

“I was just—”

“We’ll show you,” Bowl purred as they steered me back past the Breakout Rooms sign and down a dingy corridor.

The next day they caught me again as I was about to escape the finer points of flexible liability. They guided me to a room where Rod and four people from Towers Perrin were discussing, as far as I could tell, how the liability of an employer with regards to its healthcare insurance differed, fundamentally, from its other liabilities. Sitting there, listening to Rod and these people, I had what I can only call an out-of-body experience. I wasn’t floating above my own body, mind you, but it felt as though I was floating above theirs. The more I looked at them, and the more I listened, the more I became convinced that they were hand puppets, with a voiceover provided from somewhere outside the room, possibly by Stem and Bowl. As I was thinking this, Rod leant forward and whispered, “Don’t fuck around.”

“What?” I whispered and I smiled at the other four.

Don’t,” Rod hissed.

Stem and Bowl caught me again on the Wednesday and Thursday, despite what I thought were cunning plans to escape the hotel. The Californian ineptitude of earlier had been replaced by a spatial awareness I couldn’t compete with. To add to my misery, the actuaries teased me about Kerry whenever they could.

“You missed out big time,” Alan said at supper on Thursday.

Alan was a runt of a man, even for an actuary, and it was clear from how he said this that he was extending to me what had started out as a private regret.

“Why?” I asked. “What did you get?”

“We got to see the Grand Canyon,” Rod said, “so to speak.”

They all laughed at this pun.

“Is she a stripper?” I asked.

“Oh God, no,” Alan sighed. “She does the door.”

“I don’t like redheads,” another actuary reflected, “but for Kerry I’ll make an exception.”

This was not what I had wanted to hear. I loved redheads, without exception, and now it turned out that Kerry was only the maître d’.

“She is simply the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen,” another actuary recapped dreamily.

Rod smiled. “I see we have your attention.”

“I thought she was a stripper,” I mumbled.

On Friday I tried one last time to escape the inevitable breakout sessions that were announced, as glumly as all week, by Stem. As a ruse, I followed some others to one of the breakout rooms. I had no intention of attending this session and instead planned to walk past the room and somehow find a way out of the hotel. But Stem and Bowl had anticipated this.

“You don’t seem to know your way around,” Stem observed as they stepped from behind a pillar. “How will you get to the venue tonight?”

“What venue?”

“Oh dear,” Bowl giggled. “The closing dinner.”

“There’s a bus for those of us from out of town,” Stem admonished as they escorted me back to the breakout room. “Be on it.”

The venue for the closing dinner was the Washington Convention Center, a thirty minute walk from the hotel. There was no way I was going to be bused to something I could walk to. As I skipped down the entrance steps of the hotel that evening, I was intercepted once again by the actuaries.

“Where are you going?” Rod demanded.

“I’m going to walk,” I said. “It’s not too far.”

“But the bus leaves in fifteen minutes. You’ll be late.”

“He wants to swing by 20th street,” another actuary suggested.

“I’ll be fine,” I said as I headed out. “I don’t even know where that club is.”

“Don’t fuck around,” Rod called after me.

As it turned out, it was easier to find club 20-twenty than it was to find the Washington Convention Center. At the north end of Lafayette Square I got confused and headed farther north instead of east, and soon was lost. I took a turn in K Street that I thought would thread me back to I Street and New York Avenue, and thus to the Convention Center, but I ended up on 20th Street. When I walked a block along it, I found myself in front of the rather muted entrance of club 20-twenty. By then I was late for the closing dinner. There was no harm in seeing Kerry, surely? What if she was indeed the most beautiful woman in the whole world, despite the actuaries saying so? What if she was beautiful in that haunting way that only smart women who are troubled can be? If she was at the front desk, I would not even have to go inside.

The maître d’ at the front desk was not Kerry. I could tell because he was a man.

“Welcome to 20-twenty,” he said before I could turn around. “Will it be just you tonight?”

“Uhm—” I hesitated. “Is Kerry around?”

“Who are you?” he asked with narrowed eyes.

“I’m no one,” I stammered. “I just thought—”

“You sound funny,” he cut me short. “Where are you from?”

“I’m from Australia,” I blurted.

“Well mate,” the maître d’ replied with undisguised satisfaction, “Kerry doesn’t work on Fridays.”

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The short form of flying

For a long time my best friend was a shy boy called Barry. We met on the day his family moved into a house up our street. It was a Saturday, as I remember, the last Saturday before the end of the summer holidays and the start of third grade. He sat in the open trunk of the ugliest car I’d ever seen, a purple, boat-shaped Valiant.

“What’s your name?” I asked.

He replied after some hesitation, “Barry.”

“Why are you in there?”

He seemed to think about this, and then he said, “I was naughty.”

Two thirds of his head and his one arm were bandaged and he peered at me through a narrow slit, like a little mummy.

“What did you do?” I asked.

He shrugged and sighed and looked into the distance, “I dunno. My mother just said to sit here.”

“No, to your face?”

“Oh,” he said after a pause. “I cooked vegetables in a paint tin.”


“It exploded.”


He frowned and then he said, “After a while.”

“No, how long ago?”

“Oh,” he frowned again and consulted a mental calendar. He nodded his head and counted on the fingers of his good hand, and then appeared to reach a result. “Last week.”

“Does it hurt?”

Barry touched his bandages as if my question had brought up something he hadn’t quite considered.

“I’ll be scarred for life,” he said solemnly.

I was very excited to hear this. Barry was the sort of friend I’d always wanted, someone who was quiet but had a history of violence. Such a friend would be my opposite. I talked a lot but I was afraid of everything. The two of us, I thought, could make a whole boy.

Barry’s family moved in without deliberation. They owned nothing that wasn’t necessary and so it wasn’t necessary to think about what they owned. They shoved their things into rooms and left them there. The more important things went in first—a bed, a sofa, a radio—and then the other things were pushed in after them. Objects stood abandoned at such short distances beyond doors that some of the rooms looked as though their contents had tried to escape. They stayed that way for years.

The single exception to all of this, the only thing without an obvious function and placed with what looked like intent, was a small, dreary oil painting that Barry’s mother hung at the end of their passage. It depicted a stream and a tree against a backdrop of mountains. They had no other pictures, nor any books or ornaments to speak of. At the time I just thought that their house was ugly, but in later years I realised that it was in fact a working example of what hell must be like, a landscape of peeled linoleum and chipped melamine, scuffed orange and stained turquoise, kept that way through careful indifference.

“I love it here,” Barry once said of our house and gestured to include all of it.

“What do you like?” my mother asked.

“Well,” Barry hesitated, “I like your food, and I like what things look like.”

“What do you like about our food,” my mother pressed on.

“It has names,” Barry concluded after some thought.

“What do you call the food at your house?” my mother asked.

Barry seemed puzzled by this question, and a little embarrassed by the answer he had to give. “We call it food,” he replied.

Until then it had never occurred to me that words and thoughts were cousins. But now I realised that my mother had thought long and hard about where things went, and what we called them. What I’d taken for granted about my family was transformed into my first inklings of style and cuisine as I got to know Barry, and got to see how his parents lived. His mother didn’t think long or hard about anything. She was a severe woman with an angular, manly face, and she was tall. Even her hair was tall. It grew from her head like a sheaf of wheat and it gave her the appearance of being in free fall. What made her even more scary was how abrupt she was. On that first day I watched as she abused the movers.

“What the fuck!?” she shrieked as a man walked from the truck with a toaster that was still plugged into an extension cord. “Are you crazy?”

“You packed it this way,” he objected.

“I know, goddammit!” she shouted as he walked on. “Move!”

But he was right. Open boxes brimmed with different things. A drying rack had a single sock attached. At one point the men carried an unmade bed from the truck. At first I thought that Barry’s parents had moved in a hurry, like criminals on the run. But as I got to know them it became clear that what I’d seen was just the shape of his mother’s neglect. She neglected her house, she neglected her children, and she neglected herself. This wasn’t because she had something better to do, but simply because she didn’t care. If she’d been a dreamy artist, or an alcoholic, it would’ve made some sense. But she didn’t even smoke. All she did was to listen to the radio—and in later years, to watch television—and scold Barry and his brothers. She never said anything kind to them. To her, I think, they were just like the painting of the stream at the end of the passage.

Even though we attended different schools, Barry and I became friends that same day and after that did everything together. We tried to do whatever we did at my house, or at least not at his, away from the barbed voice of his mother and as far as we could get from the strangled anger of his father, a short, bald, and eerily feminine man given to violent eruptions.

“I think they’re cursed,” Barry once mused. “Some witch switched their faces around.” And then, after some thought, he added, “They never hug.”

I remember Barry’s father as being mostly red, bursting with frustration and bitter resentment. He beat Barry and his brothers with the buckle-end of a belt whenever he felt like it, but this did not satisfy him. What remained of his anger was set forth in senseless and obscure rules which were then enforced without argument by Barry’s mother. Now, so many years later, so many years after Barry fell to his death in the mountains, it is clear to me that he was almost entirely shaped by this strange regime. At the time I was amazed to find, when I first stayed for lunch on a Saturday a few weeks after they’d moved in, that no one was allowed to talk at the table. Barry and his brothers stared at their plates and pushed around the puckered chicken drumsticks their mother had kept under a plastic mesh since Thursday. Barry’s father cleared his throat and turned maroon while his wife pointed at the drumsticks with her eyes, and then at each of us.

I was out of my depth. At my house there was verbal pandemonium. We talked about atoms and poems and things you could make with a hosepipe. Here, it turned out, even the cutlery had to be quiet, one of the many rules penned in camera by Barry’s father. When my knife scratched against my plate, Barry’s mother loomed over me until her hair cast a shadow across the knife and the plate and I understood what she meant. I stared at my drumstick, like Barry and his brothers did, and in that moment I knew for the first time what it felt like to have nothing to say.

“I’m fearless,” Barry called out to me years later as we first climbed up Tooth Gully toward the Devil’s Tooth in the Drakensberg Mountains. He moved out ahead of me, shifting his feet as though unaware of the gaping drop beneath us, and shouted into the breeze that combed the grassy ledges of the escarpment. “I’m fearless because I have no inner voice.”

But now, years later still, I’m convinced that his daring was not a lack of reflection, as he’d thought, but the brave face of loneliness.

“I have no one,” he once announced.

As he said this—we were perhaps twelve or thirteen years old at the time—I knew that he was right. We were walking home from the supermarket to which we had accompanied his mother. We had sat in the back of her purple Valiant on the way there and quietly picked at the fake leather seats. At the supermarket, Barry ran with the shopping cart and crashed it into a shelf of wine glasses.

“Is this your child?” the manager demanded of Barry’s mother while he held Barry by the arm.

She bent down and inspected Barry.

“I’ve never seen this boy in my life,” she said as she straightened and towered over the manager. Then she added, “Besides, he’s dirty. My children wouldn’t be dirty.”

The manager narrowed his eyes and looked at Barry, and then at his mother.

“He said you’re his mother,” he pressed on. “He pointed you out.”

Barry’s mother leant forward and rubbed a curl of Barry’s hair between her fingers.

“You should wash your hair,” she said and walked away.

Barry cried on cue and gave the manager the name and address of a boy we didn’t like.

“I’m an orphan,” he remarked as we walked home after the manager had let us go.

I didn’t know what to say and we walked on in silence. In all the years I knew him, before then and after that, I saw his mother touch him only this one time.

Perhaps the mirror of loneliness was also at the heart of Barry’s legendary bad luck. The indifference of his mother and the unspoken edicts and flaring temper of his father were the source of a fundamental superstition in him. For Barry, things could get better or go wrong for no reason whatsoever, at any given moment. As a result, everything he did was a gamble. And like most gamblers, he seized on coincidences as signs of a better future and he downplayed accidents as though they were just minor snags in a grander plan. Because he believed it, so it was, and things indeed got better and then went wrong for no reason whatsoever, like clockwork. He was, quite simply, the unluckiest person I’d ever known, or heard of. He wasn’t clumsy or timid but it would have been better if he had been. Instead, he was nimble and quick and ventured where others wouldn’t dare to go. There he posed in triumph for a brief moment, apparently on top of the world, and then he fell, or got burnt, or cut, or caught. He lost everything he staked with such consistency as to suggest a special talent.

Sometimes the credit wasn’t his alone. We were in the eighth grade, I think, when Barry tried to settle an argument by inserting his penis into the neck of a milk bottle. I had said that it couldn’t be done. It could, as it turned out, but once it was done it couldn’t be undone as easily.

“It’s stuck!” Barry yelled.

He yanked at the bottle but this only made things worse.

“Oh Jesus!” he howled. “I need soap!”

“Be quiet—“ I warned as he staggered toward his bedroom door.

But it was too late. He shuffled into the passage with his pants around his ankles, holding the bottle. As luck would have it, his parents had guests over and everyone could see him from the living room. The last I saw before his father, volcanic with rage, shoved me out the front door, was his mother dragging him by the bottle into the TV room.

Later that same year, Barry played with fire again and fell off a roof. In this, too, he wasn’t alone. An abandoned sharecropper’s cabin stood in the field behind my house, a reminder, my father said, that where we lived had been farmland just a generation earlier. The thatch of the roof was long gone, but most of the joists and rafters were still there. A fire some years earlier had burnt many of the beams halfway through, but Barry darted unfazed between them while the rest of us watched in envy. Sometimes we made fires in the hearth. One day, Barry decided to see what a fire looked like from above. He climbed into the roof structure and from there up the brick chimney. We piled extra grass onto the fire so that he’d have something to look at. When he reached the top, he stuck his head down the flue and he was ejected off the roof in a puff of smoke. When we got to him he was sitting in the dust, dazed and bruised, with no hair to speak of.

“That boy had more than bad luck,” my father once remarked as we recounted Barry stories at a family dinner. “His own team cheered him off the field.”

“Let it be,” my mother said and patted my hand.

“He had no chance,” my father insisted as he sipped at a sixties port.

My mother lit a cigarette. “Most of the time, what happened to Barry was just Barry.”

My father was right, of course, and so was she. To his circle of friends, Barry combined daring and comic relief. We wanted to see him try, and we wanted to see him fail. We urged him into any form of trouble he dared to undertake. But sometimes it was just him. His most serious accidents attended his abiding wish to fly, an urge that was his alone and found expression in a tendency to fall from things.

“I don’t mind falling so much,” he once told me.

He had just plummeted from a treehouse we were building.

“It’s like flying,” he went on, “only shorter.”

Because he couldn’t fly, he climbed trees and walls and poles and power pylons, in leaps, seemingly weightless, like a monkey. And then, at a point far above the earth, the trusted principle of gravitational acceleration took over. But the next day, he climbed again.

Over the time I knew him, Barry’s body became a living map of scars. The most prominent scar was the oldest one, a chocolate-and-ice-cream burn scar that spilled from his cheek down his neck. While most of his other scars were souvenirs of some fall or another, there were a few that commemorated other misadventures. A wide scar on his forearm marked the day he ran through a patio door. A long scar, like a purple weal, meandered down the back of his leg and was a constant reminder that one shouldn’t build a go-kart and leave a nail sticking out of it. But his most interesting scar was one that ran at an angle across his forehead. This he got—and I’m certain that no one else could make this claim—when he was hit by a Spitfire. A private school in our neighbourhood hosted an annual radio-controlled airplane show. Naturally, Barry had to see this. Every year we squeezed through the fence and mingled with the crowd and the flyers. There were model planes of every type and size. For a long time we planned to steal one, but we never got around to that. One year there was an array of war planes, from First World War biplanes to turbine-powered F16s. Among them, overshadowing them all, was a four-foot scale model of a Spitfire Mk IX. It was the most beautiful thing we’d ever seen. It was painted in the ocean gray camouflage typical of Spitfires after the Battle of Britain. When its turn came to fly, Barry was beside himself. The Spitfire took off and climbed high above the rugby field.

“Even its engine sounds real!” Barry called to me.

The owner of the Spitfire, an old man I now remember as distinctly English, with a tweed jacket and a cap, stood at the end of the field near us and controlled his prized plane as it tore across the crowd and soared to gain height again. Another plane took off, a smaller model of a Messerschmitt Bf 109, controlled by a pimply teenager. The two planes engaged in a mock dogfight. Barry jumped over the safety barrier and ran out onto the field to see them better. Seconds later, on a low dive, the Spitfire flew into his head. For reasons I’ve never understood, the Messerschmitt crashed awkwardly into the goal post a moment later. Both planes were destroyed. Barry was carried off the field while the old man and the teenager screamed at one another as they argued over what remained of their planes.

“How is it,” my mother asked in wonder as we recounted the incident yet again, “that so many bad choices could find a single person to make them?” She pinched a tear of laughter from her cheek and corrected herself, “It’s how I like to think about it.”

In high school we grew apart. Barry’s parents sent him to an all-boys school known for its dedication to discipline, and because of all this discipline, we saw less of one another. I also started to read a lot and Barry didn’t understand this.

“Are you just going to lie there?” he asked one Saturday. “Doing nothing?”

“It’s not nothing,” I said. “I’m reading.”

Barry waved this away, “But you’re going to stay here, in your room?”

“I guess so.”

“That’s crazy,” he declared. “Let’s go do something.”

And so, every weekend, we went off and did something. The discipline instilled by his new school was having a noticeable effect on Barry, and his injuries were fewer and less colourful. We built a raft from oil drums that Barry welded together. He got shocked only once. He burnt himself with molten metal but the results were only small pock marks. We made bombs by mixing chlorine and drain cleaner. Barry put one of these bombs into the mailbox of a man up the street who had once shouted at us when we walked across his lawn, but he couldn’t get his hand out in time. Even so, the cuts and burns he sustained weren’t too serious. We built various tree houses from which Barry plunged with punctual ease, but he never broke a bone. One tree house—a splendid platform about three storeys above the ground, perched between the trunk and two branches of a blue gum tree—still exists in part today. A while ago I went and stood under this tree and remembered with a pang of guilt how scared I was when we built it. Barry had climbed ahead, but I got stuck at some lower point, paralysed with fear, until he shinned around to help me.

“Just hold on,” he said calmly. “That way, you cannot fall.”

“That’s easy for you to say,” I whimpered.

“It’s me who falls,” he grinned. “You’ll be fine. Just don’t look down.”

Going off to do things created a new bond between us, one in which our roles of earlier were reversed. I was silenced, and Barry learned to talk.

“I’m in my mother’s picture,” he once reflected, years later, after we’d sat for some time on a ledge beside the last waterfall near the top of Tooth Gully. He pointed the way we’d come and dragged his finger along the dark wound of the Tugela Gorge.

“If you stood somewhere over there,” he said and made a frame with his fingers at arm’s length, “and you looked over here, you’d see a stream and this mountain, far away, at the end of our passage.”

After high school, Barry left for England. He wanted to avoid military service and study medicine. It seemed to be a reasonable exchange, given his prolonged exposure to senseless authority and his broad knowledge of pain. No one but my mother questioned his decision.

“I’ll be damned if I let him work on me,” she told me. “Can you imagine? He’ll slip, or something, and when you wake up you’ve had a lobotomy.”

When he returned during their summer break, we met by accident. His face was harder, as if bones had grown inside it.

“I’m back twice a year, from now on,” he said. “Let’s go do something.”

When we were kids he had always talked about climbing the Drakensberg Mountains. The one book he owned—a book he stole, if I remember correctly, from the school library—described the Drakensberg range and some of its climbs, and Barry spent hours looking at the pictures it contained. One peak in particular interested him—the Devil’s Tooth—a pinnacle of rock in the vast escarpment of the Amphitheatre, a lonely spire of eroded basalt towering over the valley and the Tugela gorge below.

“That’s one of the hardest climbs in the country,” I said.

“I know,” Barry answered. “We don’t climb it, of course. That cannot be done except with equipment, and only by skilled mountaineers. We just go there and see if we can get close to it.”

“That’s nuts.”


So we went to the Devil’s Tooth twice a year. Getting to within hiking distance of the Tooth was a five-hour drive. Barry drummed his fingers on the roof while we watched the yellow Free State grass slip past like the swell of the open sea. In the Van Reenen’s Pass the dry grass gave way to green vegetation as we dropped from the plateau into Natal. On a clear day we could see the mountains when we were more than an hour away. Sometimes clouds were brushed from the wind that raced up their slopes.

Barry was unconcerned with the weather. We had come to climb and the weather was expected to cooperate. He refused to check any weather reports, nor listen to any recounting of weather reports I tried to make. No matter what, we plowed on and camped in the Royal National Park to start out early the next morning.

It was always a beautiful hike through the gorge to the base of the steep gully that led up to the Tooth. Barry walked in silence, glancing at the Tooth and the smaller Toothpick beside it as we went along. There were places here with names that rose and fell on the tongue—the Pudding, the Policeman’s Helmet, Leaning Towers. We took no gear. We carried only water, some chocolate, and warm tops. We were extreme climbers, Barry explained.

“Extremely stupid,” I said.

The real haul was up the gully itself. Boulders were coated in slippery sand and recent rains had flattened clumps of grass. In Barry’s book there was an account of a group of students who had drowned here in the seventies. Clouds had gathered suddenly, a thunderstorm broke, and a wall of water had moved down the gully and overcame them almost three thousand meters above sea level. Despite this threat, it was breathtaking. We climbed through ancient history entombed in the face of the escarpment, a million years with every few steps. And yet there was no human memory here, no malice, and no pity. As we climbed we left no scar that the rain would not wash away, or the wind erase.

Near the top we had to negotiate three waterfalls. The first and second we climbed around by moving to their right, but the third was more difficult. We had to climb up its left, then cross the waterfall itself to its right before we could take a fork up the gully and traverse to the left again and onward to the Tooth Cave, an overhang where real climbers slept before they tackled the Tooth the next day. As it turned out, we never got beyond the last waterfall. It was obvious that one would need gear to come down again, and so we only tried to cross the fall and rest on a ledge before the long climb down.

The first time we climbed was during Barry’s summer break, and thus the middle of the winter in the Drakensberg. I got stuck traversing the third waterfall on our way back. My fingers were numb with cold. Crystals of ice expanded in every small fissure.

“You OK?” Barry called to me.

There was a staggered drop of thirty to forty meters at my feet, and beyond the rocks I’d hit should I fall, much more. I had my fingers in a narrow crack, and I couldn’t feel my toes. I was petrified. Coming up this way had been hard, but going down now seemed impossible.

“Two ways down,” Barry had once told me. “The right way, and the short way.”

“I’m not OK,” I called back.

“Just hold on,” he replied. “If you hold on you cannot fall.”

“Sure,” I whispered to myself.

“Hang on,” he insisted as he began to maneuver to a safer spot.

I closed my eyes and tried to come to terms with where I was. It seemed unthinkable that I had put myself in this desolate and forsaken place. I looked down, ignoring Barry’s repeated advice, and tried to accept what I saw. The gully was foreshortened from this angle. The black basalt that shaped its five hundred meter extent was now a mere margin to the expanse of yellow sandstone that stretched out farther below. At least, I realised, I was going to die in a place of beauty. This had to be better than a hospital bed or an old age home.

“Just relax,” Barry called as he kept moving.

Those two simple words, a gift so seemingly incongruous with where we were, reminded me of what he’d once said about flying and falling. I looked down again and imagined letting go. If I had the courage to fly, even as I was falling, I’d have three last seconds of freedom. Perhaps this is what Barry had meant, that flying was just falling in the right way.

“Talk to me,” Barry shouted when he reached a better position.

The option to die in defiance had removed the randomness of accident. I was still alive and already dead. It didn’t really matter.

“I’m OK,” I called into the breeze.

Then Barry began the slow process of guiding me toward him, directing my hands and feet to cracks and ledges in the rock, to the places he’d been.

Twice a year Barry returned from England, and twice a year we headed to the Drakensberg. We returned to the mountains for the last time near Christmas, almost three years after he’d left. We set out on a Saturday morning. Barry was in a hurry. His return flight was on the Tuesday. We had to climb on the Sunday and be on our way back on the Monday.

We listened to the weather report in the car but Barry changed the channel when the forecast mentioned things he didn’t like.

“Shouldn’t we think this over?” I asked as he took the onramp to the highway.

“I’ve met someone,” he replied.

“Is that why you came for such a short time?”

Barry thought this over before he answered.

“I didn’t really want to come at all.”

“So let’s turn back.”

He smiled a small smile.

“I came to see my mother,” he said flatly. “And to see if she sees me.”

Then he talked about the girl he’d met. She was quiet, he said, and liked to walk. They had walked to Epsom from central London one weekend and hardly said anything.

“I’ll bring her along next August,” he said. “You’ll like her.”

A little beyond the village at the top of the Van Reenen’s pass, a gentle slope beside the N3 highway led to a rock that jutted out above the seemingly endless lake of grass to the southwest. We always stopped here. One could stand on this rock and imagine it to be the prow of a ferry making for the opposite shore. From here the distant peaks of the Drakensberg were a sleeping crocodile, the spines of its tail darkened with the wet stains of valleys and shadows.

“You can’t see shit from here,” Barry said impatiently.

In the years since then I have often wondered about the irony of those words. From the promontory we could not see the barren Tooth nor the gullies and mullions of the cliffs beneath it. We could not see the coming storm. We had no way of knowing that Barry would not return this way. Nothing mattered to us beyond this afternoon in our early twenties, the sound of cars tearing along the highway behind us, and the silence of birds leaning into the wind.

The following morning, at first light, we set off into a landscape of graven stone. I was struck, as I always was, by the thought of moving through a vast cemetery. The sun rose above the escarpment ahead of us and smeared every tombstone of rock into a long shadow. When we returned, in the late afternoon, these shadows would be drawn the wrong way, facing us again, as though we’d never gone.

The climb up the gully was harder than ever before, perhaps because we knew we had to hurry. The sky darkened by the minute and the temperature was dropping.

“It’ll be fine,” Barry said after what looked like a brief calculation. “It’ll only rain tonight, after we’re done.”

For a few hours it looked like he might be right. It didn’t rain, and it didn’t get any colder. But then, as we were traversing the last waterfall, the storm broke. It didn’t rain, but it hailed. The small stones stung our backs and numbed our fingers. It came in hard and it made it difficult to see. Barry had moved ahead but now climbed back to me.

“I told you,” I called to him.

“It’ll stop,” he called back. “But we must turn around and get down.”

“We’ll drown in the gully.”

He tried to look over his shoulder, but then decided against it. “It hasn’t rained,” he shouted. “It’s just hail.”

My left foot was unsupported and there was unequal strain on my arms. Barry had a better hold. He was on a narrow ledge with space for both his feet.

“I can’t hold much longer—” I cried into the rush of the wind.

“I’ll find another ledge,” he called back. “You come to this one.”

He carefully turned to the far side of the waterfall and began to climb away and down. I pressed my cheek into the rock and tried to ease out the cramping in my right foot. By the time I managed to traverse to the ledge Barry had left me, he had moved beyond a bulge in the rock below me.

“Just hold on,” he called out.

On Barry’s ledge it was possible to vary the pressure on my feet and adjust the position of my fingers. I repeated his words to myself—just hold on—words I’d heard him say so many times before. If you hold on you cannot fall. It seemed like such a simple thing to say, but it had to be true. Yet I knew that in the end, whether to fly for a few seconds or to go home, I’d have to let go. I didn’t want to think about this and instead I tried to remember a haunting tune I had once heard on the radio while driving to class, and never heard again. The beginning of this tune was simple, a pair of repeated notes, like a pulse, but other tunes were easily drawn across it. At one point I thought I heard a sound carried on the wind, a distant cry thinned in the turning, cold air, but I couldn’t be sure. When the wind and hail finally eased up, Barry had been gone for a long time. There were shafts of sunlight through parting clouds and fog rose from the gully at my feet like shards of steam. Beside the beating of my own heart was only the sound of the Tugela river sighing in the gorge far below. I called out to Barry when I knew he wouldn’t answer.

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The names of words

“Can you try not to ogle?” my friend Jack muttered.

The woman I was ogling sat by herself at the next table, reading a book while she dragged her finger slowly along the rim of her wine glass.

“She’s nice,” Jack wheezed as he struggled to wedge himself into his seat. “I get it.”

While he grunted and heaved, I marvelled at the contrasts of this woman. Her fingers and wrists were delicate, like those of someone who played the piano, but her body was poised with the endurance of a hiker or a climber. She wore outdoor gear and looked a little flushed. There was a small tattoo in the notch of her throat. She wasn’t just nice. She was beautiful in that singular way that only women can be who don’t know it.

“And you don’t have to smile at her,” Jack resumed under his breath, “or start a fucking conversation.”

“I’m not,” I said and gestured at the window. “I won’t. She sits between me and the window, and beyond the window is the mountain.”

I couldn’t quite make out what book she was reading.

“Whatever you do,” Jack went on, “please don’t talk about her. She’ll hear.”

Our waiter arrived and introduced himself as Richard.

“What does this mean, Richard?” Jack growled without a pause and pointed at an item he’d discovered on the menu. “Spanish ham. Which Spanish ham?”

“I’ll find out for you,” Richard gushed in a way that wasn’t going to do him any good. “I mean,” he said and swallowed when Jack just stared at him, “the chef will know.”

Richard’s name tag said dick. The nickname was embossed onto a copper plate in lettering of singular silliness. The chummy use of lower-case throughout made the tag look like a schoolyard prank.

“I’m sort of new,” Richard added.

In my physics class at university there had been a stunning girl named Vanessa. Vanessa was sort of new too, having transferred from another university mid-term. It didn’t take us long to figure out that she was as sharp as a razor, but it took a lot longer to realise that she was also as blunt as a barmaid. On weekends, it turned out, she danced as a stripper at a joint on route 62 where they called her Dusty. Richard could be another Vanessa.

“Ask the chef,” Jack said, “and tell him to be specific.”

“It’s a she,” Richard whimpered. “Uh, the chef. She’s—”

“Good,” Jack cut him short. “Tell her then.”

While Richard shivered in the gathering dusk of Jack’s disapproval, I tried to imagine him as a male stripper. Like Vanessa, I decided, he led a double life. What had started out as salsa classes with his girlfriend had become, years after she was gone, something else altogether. Now he danced at all-girls parties in Clifton and Camps Bay on Saturday nights. It didn’t pay as much as he thought it should but the sensation of being so vulnerable as to disappear never quite lost its novelty, and so he continued to do it. Like Vanessa, he used a different name when he danced, but probably not dick.

“I’ll ask her,” Richard said and sniffed.

Perhaps it was Duane. On Sunday mornings he showered twice before he left his small apartment in Mowbray. Then he drove along the gentle scallops of the mountain to this restaurant, set like a gem in the grassy slopes of the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens. Here he waited on tables for the rest of the week to finance his studies at UCT. A major in botany would be too predictable, I thought.

“But it’s definitely Spanish ham,” the pinkly scrubbed Richard insisted and shot me a searching glance. “Can I tell you about our specials?”

“No,” Jack sighed and dragged his finger to another entry on the menu. “What’s this?”

I smiled at the woman and the mountain behind her. There was no stopping Jack when he got like this. No matter what one said or did, he always managed to turn a meal into a culinary inquisition. Once, in another restaurant, I had made the claim that he did not care about the actual food but cared instead about what other people called it. Names made things invisible, I said. I had hoped that he would see it my way, that he would stop, but instead he became so angry that he knocked over our bottle of wine and broke two glasses.

“What does authentic paella mean?” Jack now asked.

“Well—” Richard began.

“I mean, is there another kind?”

The problem was not that Jack ate too much and had become a walrus. The problem was that he preferred foreign food. It annoyed me that he always wanted something you couldn’t pronounce or couldn’t afford. I was sure that he did this because foreign food was a substitute for travel and invited the same urge to label experience. If a menu read Habas con Jamón, like it had now, Jack was baffled and outraged. Which of the Spanish hams was it? Was it just any Serrano? Or was it Bellota? Or Pata Negra? He couldn’t enjoy it if he didn’t know its name.

“It’s a Spanish paella,” I said on a whim. “Who cares?”

Richard didn’t even look my way. Whatever courses he was taking included a primer in psychology.

I care,” Jack said with some restraint.

I’m paying,” I countered.

“And this?” Jack asked again and returned to the next entry on the menu.

I’ll call her Jane. She had looked up once or twice while we talked with Richard, almost as though to check on us. I could picture her as an orderly in a clinic where Jack and I were under observation. Jack had been committed by concerned friends because he knew the names of all the words. I had come of my own when I noticed that the only real things I knew of were all imagined. Jane had seen these obsessions before and so they did not interest her. In the afternoons she came from the cubicle at the front of the ward to do her rounds—

“And to drink?” Richard asked, having clearly forgotten about me.

“Let’s find out about that ham first,” Jack said, “shall we? And the paella.”

“I’ll have the scallops and the calamari,” I tried. “Just starters.”

“I’m sorry,” Richard stammered.

“I forgot about starters,” Jack mumbled and turned over his menu.

While Jack held Richard hostage as he vacillated between the goulash and the borscht, I looked again at Jane and the mountain. Despite her athletic looks, she had soft skin and full lips. She giggled as she read and now and then she repeated a line and mouthed it to herself, taking her time to savour the words. There was a fresh scratch down her one shin, from just below her knee to the tongue of her hiking shoe. She came here often, I decided, after climbing one of the ravines that led from these gardens up the Table Mountain massif. I liked that she was careless with herself.

“Wine?” Jack asked and loudly cleared his throat.

Jane glanced up from her book as I quickly pointed at the run of scree that scarred the mountainside in the distance behind her.

“Isn’t that just amazing?” I asked Jack.

“When we’re done here,” he growled, “I’m going to beat the shit out of you.”

“That must be two hundred meters long,” I said as Jane resumed her reading.

“Wine,” Jack asked again and visibly darkened. “You know, to drink, here, at this table.”

Richard had gone to consult with the chef before Jack could make his decisions. I wanted wine so that I’d have something to do when Jack resumed his interrogation, but choosing a wine near Jack was a mental root canal.

“Pick a red,” I hesitated.

In his twenties, Jack had given himself to wine like nuns give themselves to Jesus. His love and devotion apprenticed him to a holy order that forsook its ordained members. Now he no longer enjoyed wine. The wonder it originally inspired had been replaced by a habit of stoic disappointment.

“What kind of red?” he said through clenched teeth.

It was clear that he’d happily lunge across the table and strangle me if I provoked him any further. I glanced at Jane.

“Something that grew against a mountain,” I ventured. “Tokara?”

“Why Tokara?” he snorted.

“Well,” I sighed, “I like that they have all those different grapes growing in little rows at the entrance so you can see them.”

“Cultivars,” Jack hissed but pressed on. “And why do you like that?”

The truth was that I didn’t. I liked that those grapes existed, and I liked that there were people who knew what to make of them. But I didn’t have to inspect the grapes at the entrance to enjoy the wines they ended up in. In fact, I didn’t want to. I felt robbed the day I found out that Primitivo was the same thing as Zinfandel. It was Jack who spoiled it for me, just like he had once spoiled a two-day hike in the Cedarberg by naming every flower we came across. I had seen them all as different. To me, each one was like Jane, alone, and unlike any other. But what had looked beautifully individual to me, Jack had collapsed into sameness. By the second day there were no longer flowers with names, but only names for flowers. As for the grapes, there was no way I could tell him any of this and escape alive.

“Well,” I tried, “I like that they don’t look nice to eat.”

“Jesus,” Jack shook his head and inspected the menu. “Which Tokara?”

“A Pinotage?”

While Jack continued to shake his head, I glanced at Jane. Perhaps, I thought, she was the only woman in a place of broken men. An all-male ward of weirdos would be so much more appropriate.

“They have only one Pinotage,” Jack announced grimly, “and it’s no good. I’m going to look for one from Thelema or Delaire.”

But she wasn’t the orderly. She was the psychiatrist. She was in complete control and tolerated our idiosyncrasies with casual indulgence. Yet, because we were men and she was beautiful, we didn’t mind. Her beauty was the kind one had to learn, the kind that was only revealed in movement and proximity, and it inspired in us an unreasonable sense of ownership. We noticed small things about her and felt convinced that we were the only ones to see them.

“How about Oldenburg?” Jack mused.

But some things were hard to miss. It was clear to us that the cartoon-like tattoo of a bee in the notch of her throat was not a teenage memory, but a mark of wildness. She was dangerous and feral despite an appearance of tameness, like a caged hawk no one dared to touch.

“It’s not Spanish,” Richard announced with a hint of triumph as he returned to our table, “it’s Portuguese.”

Jane looked up and flattened her book with her one hand.

“Portuguese?” Jack said as he carefully closed the wine list. “A Portuguese ham in a Habas con Jamón—”

Jamón means ham,” Richard explained.

Jack tensed with tectonic slowness.

“—which is a Spanish dish,” he continued with some effort.

“It’s a dry ham,” Richard stipulated.

I dared not turn but I could tell that Jane was still looking our way. Jack rearranged his cutlery to compose himself.

“Is this ham a refugee?” he asked. “Has it escaped the injustice of Portugal, only to end up as a second-rate citizen among Spanish hams?”


Richard would soon wish to be where he was last night, I thought. Jack held his hands together in mock prayer and ploughed on. “Please tell me,” he said, “that this immigrant ham is a Presunto de Barrancos?


Jack continued to torture Richard with more questions, and so I returned to Jane. But she had closed her book and was settling her bill. While Jack laid out a taxonomy of world hams and Jane gathered her things, it occurred to me that I had done the very thing I always accused Jack of doing—I had looked at her but had only seen myself. She was not the psychiatrist, I realised, but the girlfriend I had taken for granted. I watched her move toward us and the door beyond, and suppressed a sudden impulse to get up and leave with her. Later, while I sipped at a wine that Jack didn’t like, I tried to imagine my clearest memory of her, still painful many years after we’d broken up and gone our separate ways. It was a late Sunday afternoon in the early spring. We had hiked up Skeleton Gorge and now we returned through these gardens before the lengthening shadow of the mountain. We paused on the little wooden bridge across the pond and watched the ducks among the reeds below. I put my nose to the flushed skin near the base of her neck, to the warm dimple above her collar bone. Here was the steady tremor of her heart. Here she smelled of cinnamon, and of water, and of flowers I couldn’t name.

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A day apart

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.”

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.”

“Jesus! And?”

“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.

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My mother’s game

The girl was five, maybe six. She had red pigtails and freckles and looked to be a bit of a tomboy, with dirty knees and a scratch along her one calf. She strained at her mother’s hand and stared into our car as they crossed the street in front of us. Even though my sister and I were older than she was, we cringed in the backseat at the thought that this girl was very likely trying to see what kind of idiots drove around in a car as ugly and pointless as the orange 1100 Colt we were in.

“What’s the problem?” my mother asked as she fumbled for a cigarette in her handbag. “What do you mean I don’t know what comes next? Just say what comes to mind.”

As she said this, the light changed.

“Shit,” she grunted and began the embarrassing process of grinding the gears of the Colt.

This was the moment my sister and I dreaded at every intersection. The gearstick of the Colt was a thin spindle and it looked entirely possible that my mother would snap it if she yanked and shoved it any harder. The Colt neighed and bucked while my mother became thin-lipped with determination and oblivious to the honking and yelling behind us.

“Damn your father,” she groaned while she grated the gears.

My father had bought the Colt in a fit of poverty but had somehow expected that my mother would think it quaint. She did not. She resented my father and hated the Colt right up to the moment, less than a year later, when she jumped the curb and drove the Colt right through the window of a store that sold school uniforms.

“Why don’t you keep it in gear?” I asked as I tried to sink into the footwell.

“Shut up!” my mother barked at the rearview mirror and pushed at the gearstick.

There was another honk from somewhere behind us as the gears meshed and we shuddered across the intersection and down the road.

“Nothing comes to mind,” my sister Demri complained.

My mother lit her cigarette and looked at us in the mirror.

“You can tell any story you like,” she said. “Anything.”

It always amazed and somewhat worried me that my mother and sister could continue a conversation seconds after being at the epicentre of road rage and mortifying humiliation. Now my mother jabbed her cigarette at the mirror to emphasise her point.

“It doesn’t matter how it starts,” she said.

As my mother studied us in the mirror we slowly began to drift into the oncoming lane. She turned in her seat to see us better. In the distance a cement truck loomed.

“If you want to tell a story about a boy who dives for pearls—” she continued and gave me a withering look for trying to sink from view, “you—”


“—you can start with a line like, let’s say, Some dolls blink when you tilt them backward, or—”



My mother yanked the Colt back into our lane and shook her fist at the cement truck as it disappeared in the rearview mirror. Then she turned to us again.

“Where was I?”

The game my mother made us play was meant to bolster our narrative abilities. She would start with any random line she could come up with, and then we had to continue.

“The next morning the man was gone,” she’d say. “Go.”

We didn’t like this game, but this didn’t deter my mother.

“Just say what comes next,” she urged.

We complained that we didn’t know what came next, but my mother always brushed aside such arguments with her cigarette.

“Just listen,” she said.

“To what?” we hissed through clenched teeth.

We were always in a car or at the doctor’s rooms or standing in a queue when she did this—somewhere where she was hemmed in herself—and we couldn’t be loud.

“Imagine,” she once said when she’d started a story in a restaurant, “that instead of having to pick up the story right now, you could somehow teleport, just for a minute, to where you were in the audience at a talk given by a great speaker, or a writer you loved, and that the story they were telling started with this same line.”

In the desert was a lake?” one of us repeated the line she’d given.

“Yes,” she said flatly. “Why not?”


“Just listen to what they say next,” she explained. “Then say what you’ve heard. That’s how you continue.”

My father didn’t like my mother’s game either. He interrupted and objected, but my mother brushed aside his objections with her cigarette. At the time we thought that he wanted to defend us, but over the years, as we got better at my mother’s game and began to understand what she’d meant, we realised that he didn’t like it because he couldn’t do it. My mother had probably worked on him before we came along, and now he had to watch us making progress where he had failed. More importantly, perhaps, he didn’t like her game because it encouraged in us an unsteady relationship with the truth.

“You can bullshit them all you want,” he now said, loud enough to galvanise the people at the next table, “and tell them to imagine hearing someone speak, but in the end they’ll just have to make something up.”

“Yeah,” I agreed.

“And we don’t want to,” Demri added with a hint of triumph.

“Of course you’ll have to make something up,” my mother insisted. “That’s the whole point of storytelling. What I meant when I said that you should listen is not that you should actually listen, but rather that you should say what you’d most like to hear.”

“Oh Jesus,” my father muttered.

“What would you most like to hear?” I asked my mother.

“After the lake in the desert?”


“It depends on the story I want to tell.”

I remembered the day in the Colt, and so I said, “The boy who dives for pearls.”

“The heavy stone tied to a loop around his foot pulled the boy deeper and deeper beneath the water,” my mother said without hesitation, “and as he sank he played out the line to his float on the surface. He did not look up until he’d reached the bottom of the narrow cove. Then, for a moment, as though he was standing on land, he looked up. The surface and the sky beyond were a blue oasis between the sandstone cliffs.”

As we got better at my mother’s game, it became easier to listen, as she’d put it, and to say what we’d most like to hear. Once we’d mastered that, it was obvious that she was also right when she’d said that you could tell any story you wanted, no matter how you’d started out. And once we’d mastered that, we knew that the truth, as my father saw it, was merely a version of how things were.

Nowhere was this more vital than when we were in trouble. My mother, of course, allowed storytelling especially then.

“Tell me what happened,” she’d say. “Go.”

When I’d put a dog turd into Danny Lowe’s pencil pouch at school and teetered on the brink of being expelled, my mother was willing to entertain a story that outlined how this was actually not my fault at all and instead depicted my hands as unwitting agents in a long chain of cosmic happenstance. This story had to start in the distant past, involve as many characters as were needed to people a multi-season soapy—characters whom themselves were required to have complicated relationships and troubles of their own—be entirely and outrageously far-fetched, and funny.

“This is bullshit!” my father cried and pointed at me. “He put that turd in there! What the fuck does your grandmother dying of the Spanish Flu have to do with it!?”

But my mother brushed my father aside with her cigarette and heard me out. In the end, hours later, I was more exhausted than I would have been after a long talking-to, and forever opposed to putting turds into pencil pouches.

“Maybe he does get it?” my father said in wonder as I stumbled off.

“Shape is not a constant thing,” my mother said and patted his knee. “We see what we want to see.”

My father never played my mother’s game but he got better at letting us do it. I think he secretly admired my mother’s ability to bend the world to her description, even though he made a show of resistance and took a solitary stand in defence of the truth every now and then. Years later, when he became ill and it was clear that he wouldn’t see out the year, he admitted to us that he toyed with the idea that the shape of dying could be just as that of a shallow dream. Perhaps, he wondered, we sank from the voices around us when we died like we do when we fall asleep in a conversation, clinging to words as we sank ever deeper, never really dead but always dying.

A few months later my mother and I took turns to sit by his hospital bed where he’d lain in a coma for three days. We told him that we could see him, that he hadn’t disappeared. We said these things so that he could hear them, but mostly we said them so that we could hear them ourselves. During the third night he got much worse. His breathing became gargled and his hands and fingers gripped the sheets like vines. By the morning he was no longer the man we knew but a body clinging to life with the will of its parts. Every time his breathing seemed to stop I checked his heart rate and blood pressure on the monitors beside his bed. The graphs were easier to watch than he was. Their staves and stems moved across the screen and I knew what they’d look like when his breathing stopped for the last time.

“Demri isn’t here yet,” my mother said.

She stood by my father’s bed and stared unseeing into the wall behind him.

“Let go when you’re ready,” she whispered to him. “I’ll tell her.”

She squeezed my arm as she walked out to the patio to get some air.

My father died while she was away. His breathing stopped and I stood by his bed as I’d stood behind the door of his study many years before, waiting to tell him that I was sorry. I hesitated and he sank away without the lifeline of my voice. The staves and stems played across the screen in a way that was almost predictable, and then he was gone.

A few hours later we drove away from the hospital in silence. My mother’s fingers shook as she tried to light a cigarette. She managed when we stopped at a traffic light just before the onramp to the highway. It was a Sunday in late September. The streets were quiet except for a woman and a small girl who crossed the intersection. My mother watched them as they paused in front of our car while the girl scratched her leg, and until they’d disappeared through the gates of the apartment building at the corner. Then she turned to me.

“The girl was five,” my mother said as the light changed. “Go.”

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