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.
“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.”
“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.