Spider man


The time just after New Year always depresses me. I’ve given up on making bold resolutions even though I desperately need to. But this year it was time for some mental housekeeping. My special Christmas gift was to find out in late December that the pain behind my right knee wasn’t a torn ligament.

“OK,” the doctor said and rubbed his hands together. “You have a long blood clot in your right leg extending from the middle of your thigh to the popliteal vein and a few inches into your calf.”

He smiled. “It’s life-threatening,” he added.

“Uhm,” I began.

“This is the popliteal,” he said and swivelled his screen for me to see.

I said something I cannot now remember.

“Are you South African?” he asked.

I said that I was and listened to his story about doing charity work in Botswana in the nineties and hitchhiking across the border to Potgietersrus.

“What are we going to do?” I asked when he was done. “Can you take it out?”

The doctor waved this aside. “First,” he said, “we’re going to put you on strong blood thinners. They’ll help the body dissolve the clot over time.”

“And then?”

“Well,” he said, “hopefully that’s it. Then we watch you.”

“You said first?”

The doctor turned again to the ultrasound images on his screen. He flipped between two of them, back and forth, back and forth, and then he said, “There are more drastic things we could do, but hopefully it doesn’t come to that.”

“And the life-threatening bit? Is it my heart, or what?”

He gathered some of his papers. “That, yes, or a pulmonary embolism. Or a stroke.”

“Merry Christmas,” I said. “At least I have options.”

“It’s not so bad,” he smiled and rested his hand on my shoulder. “Let me put in an order for Xarelto.”

After he’d asked extensively about my medical history and explained how the blood thinners would work, I was left to wait for around an hour. Sitting there alone, I had ample time to wonder about things. Just that morning I’d told my squash partner that it felt as though I had a hole in my lung. Perhaps I’d had an embolism already? Eighteen months earlier, my brother-in-law, at the age of fifty-four, had died suddenly from a brain haemorrhage. We’re so cocky, I thought, so taken in by the delusion that everything is limitless, and yet we dangle just a heartbeat above the void.

I tried to read a book on my phone, but I couldn’t focus. It wasn’t that the book seemed silly, or that I was suddenly beset by a new resolve to go off and do things. On the contrary, I was quite happy to do nothing more. If everything stopped that day, I wondered, what would it be that I’d done? What was the best thing I’d ever done? And what was the worst?


The answer to the last two questions was a single thing. In 1987, I did basic training as part of mandatory military service in South Africa. Our platoon was on a three-day march across the arid veldt of what was then the Western Transvaal. We’d stopped in the dappled shade of the only tree for miles around to eat some canned food and drink water. We were tired and sunburnt. A sad-faced guy called Dirk sat against a log across from me.

“Watch it!” someone shouted at Dirk.

Dirk leapt to his feet. From a crack in the log he’d sat against, a Red Roman spider had emerged. It was large and hairy and hideous. A few other men gathered around.

“Kill it!” one of them urged Dirk.

I had watched people squash insects and spiders before without saying a word, swallowing the anger that the lessons of my youth had instilled. But that day, something came over me that I still cannot quite explain. Perhaps it was the heat.

‘Wait!” I cried. “Wait!”

Dirk had his boot raised above the spider.

“What the fuck are you doing?” I yelled.

“What’s with you?” someone asked.

“Dirk,” I said, “look at him.”

Dirk slowly put his foot down.

“This is his home, not ours,” I pleaded. “He’s ugly to us, but come here and look closely.”

Dirk hesitated and then leant a little closer. The spider raised its front legs in defence.

“See,” I said, “he’s in there, just like I’m in here, and you’re in there.”

The spider scuttled around the bend of the log and was almost out of sight.

“Let him go,” I said.

In the late nineties, I was doing Christmas shopping in a mall in Port Elizabeth when someone called my name from a distance. Though he was twelve or so years older, Dirk’s sad face was instantly recognisable. He was out of breath.

“I always wondered if I’d ever see you again,” he panted.

My girlfriend and I had just fought and I was in a bad mood. “Hello,” I mumbled.

“These are my boys,” Dirk said.

He had three boys with him. The eldest looked to be around ten years old.

This is the spider man,” Dirk told them.

The boys all looked like Dirk—had the same sad face—but now they beamed and shook my hand.

“I’ve always wanted to thank you,” Dirk said. “What you said to me that day took a while to sink in, but it changed my life.”

My girlfriend scowled at us from a bench nearby.

“And it’s changed theirs, too,” Dirk said.


Sitting alone in that room at the hospital, thinking back on this, I knew without hesitation that it was the best thing I’d ever done. But it was also the worst. Instead of staying for a while to talk with Dirk and his boys, I cut them short. I remember still, with ever-lasting shame, how I glanced back to see Dirk put his arm around the shoulders of the youngest boy as they watched me walk away.




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