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 as 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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Professor Paxton elaborates

The Five Sails restaurant in Vancouver is right on the waters of the harbour. If you sit at the window, as I always do, you can see the five sail-like structures that mark the Canada Place Convention Centre and for which the restaurant is named, the Lion’s Gate Bridge that spans the first narrows to the northwest, and, if the light is just right, the eery cones of yellow sulphur across the water to the northeast. The restaurant is technically a part of the Pan Pacific Hotel, which means that I can dine there on my room bill whenever I’m in town on business.

When I went to the Five Sails the first time, I was worried that they might be booked out.

“Well,” said the maître d’ from behind her ornate lamp, “let me see.”

She looked like Kristin Scott Thomas could have looked like before she was Kristin Scott Thomas.

“Hmm,” she hesitated and consulted a large book while I scanned the restaurant that seemed extremely unoccupied at that moment.

“Will it be busier later?” I asked.

“Oh no,” Kristin smiled absently. “I’m just making sure that Guido can seat you at table 64.”

The name Guido seemed out of place at the Five Sails, but this was Canada.

“Table 64?”

“It’s lovely,” Kristin said and smiled the tight little smile she did in Four Weddings and a Funeral, “and private.”

Table 64 was indeed lovely, tucked away behind a pillar and yet right at the window, with a view across the harbour and enough of an angle into the restaurant itself to allow for eavesdropping and mental gossip. As Kristin left, Guido stepped from behind the pillar.

“Gooda evening,” he rasped.

Guido looked to be on the wrong side of eighty. He sighed and rearranged the knives and forks I had moved aside to make space for my laptop and a little notepad, and stood back to survey me.

“Welcome,” he explained with tired Italian hand signals. “Vine?”

He stood at my shoulder as I dragged my finger slowly down the short section of the wine list dedicated to British Columbia. When I reached the Burrowing Owl Syrah, Guido cleared his throat.

“Very good,” he nodded.

I continued down the list, but he cleared his throat again. “Very good.”

The Burrowing Owl was a mere $68, and it was indeed very good, helped along in that direction by the knowledge that I had an evening before me with nothing to do but eat fabulous food, stare out across the water, read, and look at people. A benign warmth enveloped me and within a few minutes I had fallen in love with the Five Sails. A willowy, tall young man appeared with a basket of bread and retreated after explaining its contents with references to leavening that I couldn’t quite follow. He didn’t so much walk away as propagate, a wobbly wave of thinness that reminded me of the character Ichabod Crane in a cartoon version of Sleepy Hollow I once saw. Now and then Guido reappeared to top up my wine and rearrange my cutlery, and once Kristin came to smile at me. I was smitten.

After that first visit, we fell into a happy rhythm. Kristin would greet me at the door, remember my name, and then wonder playfully about table 64. Guido would insist on the Burrowing Owl, upon which we’d settle after I’d put up some token resistance. I would sit in quiet repose, reading or trying to write, while Ichabod undulated back and forth with small plates of scallops and baskets of bread. At a tacitly agreed moment, about half-way into the Burrowing Owl, Ichabod would oscillate to an obsequious standstill at my table.

“And how are we enjoying the scallops?” he would enquire as he rippled toward the ceiling.

“Are you having some with me?” I would ask, and we’d both smile at our little joke.

Now and then Guido would come to spill some of the Burrowing Owl on the tablecloth, and always there’d be the white chocolate mousse and apple compote dessert called Beautiful British Columbia to round off the evening.

My visits to the Five Sails became the highlight of my trips to Vancouver. They stood as an established ritual of pleasant inaction until the day Professor Paxton came. I knew something was wrong when Kristin greeted me at the entrance.

“Let’s see what table we can get for you tonight,” she smiled.

“Table 64 is perfect,” I said uneasily. “I love the pillar.”

“Unfortunately,” she murmured without looking up, “so does Professor Paxton.”

It took me a moment to absorb this.

“Who’s Professor Paxton?”

“He’s a regular guest,” Kristin said as she collected menus and prepared to seat me, “like yourself.”

As it turned out, Professor Paxton was a somewhat more regular guest than I was. Guido and Ichabod were doting on him when Kristin seated me at the table right next to my beloved number 64.

“What I’m saying,” Professor Paxton, a bearded man in his seventies, intoned, “is that when I was here last, the soufflé was grainy.”

“Grainy?” Ichabod warbled like an egret.

“Yes,” the older man insisted. “Tell Ernst. Like me, he’s a precise man. He’ll understand.”

Guido nodded and signalled for Ichabod to stop being surprised.

“That not good,” he agreed. “I tell chef.”

“While you’re at it Guido,” Professor Paxton said, “fetch me another Hennessy, will you?”

Guido and Ichabod hurried off while Professor Paxton sighed and sat back in my chair. As he gazed out across the waters of the harbour, I fumbled with my cutlery and tried to get used to my vicarious position. From what I’d heard, the professor was clearly not Canadian, and sounded instead as though he came from New York, or perhaps New Jersey. With my luck, he was from Princeton, and worked at the Institute for Advanced Study. To rub it in, he was a physicist, involved in various forms of preciseness—perhaps cosmology, or quantum gravity. His tweed jacket looked like a physicist’s jacket. He came to Vancouver, I decided, to visit his daughter who taught at Berkley down in California. Because he didn’t like California, they met here every few months. Her husband was a sociologist, and originally from California, and the professor had never really liked him either.

“The Burrowing Owl,” Guido said far away and drifted from my view.

I noticed that Ichabod had already brought my bread and I nibbled unhappily at a piece. At my table the professor was sipping his Hennessy and poring over the wine list while Guido wrung his hands nearby.

“Let’s have the Château Latour 2012,” the professor said after a near-infinite interlude, “shall we?”

“Very good,” Guido nodded.

I made a mental note to discuss how Italy had switched sides during the Second World War when I next spoke to Guido. The professor, I realized after a peek at the wine list, must have left the Institute to pursue a business venture with former colleagues. He had abandoned physics and was now making money in biophysics. He travelled to Vancouver every now and then to attend a board meeting of the company he’d helped found. They’d invented a machine that could record brain waves and then induce those same waves in other brains. They were going to make a killing.

As I reviewed the growing indictment against the professor, I was filled with an irrational envy, the kind I’d felt once before when I drove by a property I’d rented on Lake Chelan, only to see the owner in residence.

“How are the scallops?” Ichabod wondered beside me.

I was clearly dining alone tonight.

“They’re fine,” I said.

“Excellent,” he warbled and went to stand nearby as Guido took the professor’s order.

I had settled on the sablefish as a main course but I stopped looking forward to it when the professor described something that was clearly not on the menu. I strained to hear what he was saying, but it was no use.

“As always,” Guido nodded, “with Madeira sauce.”

When Guido and Ichabod had gone, Professor Paxton sat back and sighed with contentment. He took out a little book and carefully jotted a note to himself. This worried me. Was it a formula he’d written, despite the Château Latour, or a line I would wish I’d written myself, inspired by it? I toyed with the different shapes these lines could take until our food arrived—his mystery dish remaining a mystery but looking better than my sablefish—and while we both ate. The prospect that the professor was now a man of letters, bringing to bear upon his writing the many years he’d spent in science, was simply too much to handle. What had started out as a mere displacement from my beloved table had become a cruel annexation of my desires.

Just then, as if choreographed by a sadistic demigod, Kristin came to smile at him.

“How’s Megan?” she asked coyly.

“She’s fine,” the professor nodded as if to suggest that Megan was, in point of fact, not so fine. “It’s her boy I’m worried about.”

“Nathan, right?”

The professor nodded grimly.

“And her sister—” Kristin hesitated.

“Anna is always good,” the professor said as he motioned for Kristin to sit. “She has a book coming out this week. I’ll see her tomorrow.”

There were two sisters, I realized, not one. Anna lived here, in Vancouver, and taught creative writing at UBC. Her novels shared a central theme of loss and regained purpose. Her husband was a scientist—the son the professor never had—and their boy attended a local Montessori School. Megan’s boy, upon the insistence of his father, went to a Waldorf School in California. Family gatherings were always tense and the professor sometimes went for long walks without telling anyone where he’d gone.

Kristin sat with her one leg folded beneath her. “How long has it been?” she asked softly.

The professor looked at his hands and swirled his Château Latour. I had always nursed a tiny crush on Kristin, the sort that unfolds without warning from a hint of perfume and the timbre of a voice. In truth, my earlier crush on the actress had likely carried over to Kristin when I saw her at the door the first time. I had no possessive need to speak to her, but I felt an inexplicable jealousy at seeing someone else do it.

“Mousse?” Guido startled me from my sulking reverie.

“Not tonight,” I said. “Just the check please.”

When I returned from the restroom, the professor had left. As I sat and watched Guido and Ichabod clear table 64, I thought about what Kristin had asked him. How long has it been? I had been so preoccupied with the fact that the professor had ruined my evening that I could only now take in what he’d answered, Nine years this September. With a pang I realized that his wife never saw this restaurant and probably died before Anna’s first book came out. Before her illness, they sometimes travelled to California to visit Megan. While there they always took an overnight trip down to Paso Robles to visit the Turley winery. His wife, who had an artistic flair, doodled the iconic flourish of the Turley logo on a napkin while they sipped Zinfandel and talked about their lives and their plans. It wasn’t California that he didn’t like. It was the memories of California that he dared not disturb. It was obvious to me that the professor had more right to sit at my table than I ever had to sit at his.

The next morning, as I walked out toward Howe Street and my office, the professor stood at the curb, waiting for a taxi. He looked less trim than he had the night before, and tired. On a whim I walked up to him.

“I need to thank you,” I said.

Professor Paxton nodded almost imperceptibly as he took my hand. “What for?”

“For a story,” I hesitated. “And a lesson.”

“Ah,” he said and smiled. “I thought so. You’ve sat there too.”

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We’re the most adaptable creatures on earth, at least among those visible to the naked eye, and yet we’re a pretty sorry lot. Even though we’ve unravelled the laws of nature as far as we can tell, have conquered most of the surface of the planet, its skies, and some of the space beyond it, we’re only really cozy at room temperature, a range of just a few degrees. If our own core temperature drops by that same margin, we sink into hypothermia and death. If it rises by as much, we have a fever and could keel over at the other end of the thermometer. We live in a thin patina of air trapped near the earth’s surface, a layer so thin that it’s about the same part of the earth as our skin is of us. We can go without food for about three weeks, without water for only three days, and without oxygen for less than three minutes.

Most of all, we cannot stay put for more than three seconds. We’re a fidgety bunch. We blink and we scratch and we pace around, and we have to open a fridge eleven times per hour. We’re normally quite happy to do this in the relatively small space of our homes, as long as we know that we’re free to go and open someone else’s fridge whenever the whim takes us. Tell us that we can’t, and we go mad. Tell us that a wall has been built around our city and we’ll dig our way out even though we have no real need to leave. If you want to stimulate private investment in space travel, tell us that an invisible, impenetrable barrier has been placed around the earth, and farmers will be launching themselves into orbit to attack this celestial sphere before the decade is out.

But why do we so hate to be locked in when we’ve always been that way? Each of us was born locked in, and will die that way, at the conclusion of a life sentence in the singular prison that is our head. Like a monk in a cell, we’re all alone in a little dark hole. We have never moved beyond it, and we never will. And yet we’re quite happy to be in there. It’s not as lonely as it sounds because inside our heads are an actor, a director, and a biased critic—a trinity that puts on a show that is so compelling as to literally defy imagination. To help us out there is what could be called the Einstein-Galileo effect, a condition that ensures that our heads will always appear to be the central head, with other heads wandering around them in strange orbits. Most importantly, we usually get to move our heads around as we wish, and take them on holidays and wherever else we want to have the illusion of going.

The moment we cannot do that, we start to fall apart. Even though untold freedom unfolds behind our eyes—dreams and nightmares attest to that—we’re not satisfied. No. We want to get out. Under normal circumstances, we’ll kill for a chance to not have to go to work, but tell us that we cannot, tell us that we have to stay home with the people we usually miss, and we’re not so keen anymore. Instead, we begin to miss other people. There’s a guy in the building where I work who walks with his head tilted to one side, as though he’s trying to hear a funny noise his foot is making. I can honestly say that I miss him now that I haven’t seen him for about six weeks or so. During this time I’ve also developed an abiding urge to drive to Utah. I want to be with people and I want to be in places. I want to smell things and touch them, and I’d rather pour salad dressing into my eyes than look at a screen for one more second.

Yet here we are, made to stay put by a virus I will not name because it’s been named enough. It isn’t quite alive—a virus is a reverse-zombie, and doesn’t have the common decency to be fully alive—and it’s so small that a single one at the center of our index fingerprint would be like a marble at the center of an area the size of Lebanon. Our collective reaction has been very much aligned with the first four of the five stages of grief—anger, denial, bargaining, and depression. If you’re like me, you’ve been stuck in depression for a while now. I punish myself. Instead of reading what I’ve never had the time to read, I stream shows and movies that make me feel right at home—127 Hours, The Lighthouse, and Money Heist, in which the masks are better. I scratch myself and I open the fridge every few minutes. And I wonder—as I’m sure you do too—how this will end?

I’ll put a symbolic dollar on the following: cure or no cure, we’ll beat it. We’re talking about it, and thinking about it, while it’s not even scratching itself. Its power is that it doesn’t know about us, and doesn’t care, but that will also be its undoing. We’ll beat it because we can make jokes about it. Jokes provide a kind of mental immunity that is at the heart of the human spirit. It helps to put things in their place, and it sustains our defiance. Instead of acceptance as the final stage of our grief, there will be defiance. If our distant ancestors could beat five mass extinctions, and our more recent ancestors could beat the Black Plague in the fourteenth century and the Spanish Flu in the twentieth, we can surely will beat this one too. On that day we will come out into the sunlight, blink, and scratch, and go and open someone else’s fridge.

See you V-day.

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Squashed for time

These days my wife and I are forced to have supper with our kids. Family suppers are the foundation of a home education that we’ve enjoyed denying them for a long time. It was nice to have them out of the way so that their mother and I could drink wine in peace and say nasty things about other people. Now that we’re eating together, the bickering I can remember from my own childhood is replaying itself.

“I don’t like red peppers,” my son declares and steps away from the table. “I’m not eating them.”

JD holds his plate at a distance and pulls the beginnings of a face.

“You’re twelve,” his mother says. “You can’t eat only the chicken.”

“So what if I’m twelve? You’re fifty.”

Mia stares at him for a few seconds to contain herself.

“Sit—down,” she hisses. “I’m fifty because I ate my peppers.”

JD sits down but continues to hold out his plate as though he expects a butler to whisk it away.

“Now eat the peppers,” Mia says and points at the offending pieces of red pepper in his sweet and sour chicken.

JD does a microsmile that I’ve seen some villain do in a James Bond movie, microseconds before James Bond killed him.

“It’s not about age—” I hesitate.

“Look at the clock,” JD changes the subject. “It’s ten past nine!”

Mia turns to check the microwave clock. “It’s past your bedtime—”

“Just two minutes!” Annie squeals.

“Exactly,” Mia says through clenched teeth. “Two minutes! Now eat those peppers.”

“No!” thus Annie. “In two minutes it will be 21:12.”

“You know,” JD adds with a professorial air, “a palimdrone.”

“I’m ten,” Annie moves on before Mia can react. “I’m not eating this chicken.”

Mia turns from JD and levels a stony gaze at Annie.

“It had a life,” Annie explains and stabs at pieces of chicken with an accusing finger.

I struggle not to laugh. “Those were probably from different actual chickens—”

“Now they’re dead,” Mia says and calmly levels the same gaze at me. Without looking away she adds, “The best thing for them is that you eat them.”

I’ll eat the chicken!” JD interjects.

“Yeah!” Annie cries. “I’ll eat his peppers.”

As I sit there, I marvel at how easy my children have it. They don’t know the kind of suffering I endured as a child. Their puny problems are limited to Mia and sweet and sour chicken. I had to deal with their father’s problems, the irrational rules of half of their grandparents, and a gem squash. For those who don’t know, a gem squash looks like this:

Its scientific name—Cucurbita pepo—sounds like a disease that afflicts clowns. If people had left it alone, it would’ve been OK. We could’ve used it as a camouflaged buoy, or as something to put behind the wheel of a truck on an incline. But some pervert came up with the idea to cook it instead. When that happens, the squash looks like a microwaved tennis ball:

The existence of the gem squash conclusively refutes the notion of intelligent design. It cannot be the handiwork of a sane God. Only indifferent evolution can climb the craggy slopes atop which sits the gem squash. This is what I said—probably in less technical detail—the night my mother decided that I was going to eat one.

“You’re fifteen!” she cried. “You’ve never even tried it.”

“I haven’t tried boiled turds either.”

“Dammit!” my father bellowed and banged with his fist on the table. “We’re eating!”

“It’s ugly,” I said when he’d adjusted his glasses. I pointed at the gem squash. “And hairy.”

I’d had an ongoing battle with gem squashes for as long as I could remember. I would flip them over and stuff other things I didn’t like under them and then claim that I’d eaten everything except, perhaps, the gem squash. At times I scraped the hairy bits from the inside of the squash and distributed them all over my plate in the hope that they would somehow disappear.

“What do you mean, hairy?” my father wondered. He seemed genuinely surprised. “It’s stringy. That’s the wonderful thing about it.”

Stringy? It’s basically pumpkin floss.”

My mother motioned an end to our conjecturing.

“You will eat that squash if it’s the last thing you do,” she declared.

She tightened her face in resolve. The liberties she and my father allowed us had to be rescinded from time to time. We were allowed to interrupt them as equals and we were encouraged to reason about their rules, but now and again they were overcome by a desire to have it the way their parents had it with them.

“When we were kids,” she fumed, “we ate everything on our plates or there was hell to pay.”

My sister sighed in dramatic enjoyment as she ate her squash. “It’s very nice,” she said.

“Just think,” my mother went on, “millions of children around the world are hungry tonight. Here you sit with a perfectly good squash, and you don’t even want it.”

“Let’s send it to one of them instead.”

“Look!” she snapped. “Enough of this democracy bullshit! You will eat that squash.”

There was silence around the table. A point of no return had been reached.

“You’re not getting up from here until you’ve eaten that squash.”

I looked at the squash.

“I don’t care if you sit here all night, but eat it you will.”

It looked even worse now that it was cold.

“It’s cold,” I said.

The dishes were cleared away and only the squash and I remained. My father returned and paused opposite me.

“Just eat it,” he whispered. “It’s not about the squash anyway.”

I leant forward so he could tell me what it was really about but my mother came around the corner.

“What are you waiting for?” she asked.


“Then eat it.”


She sat down opposite me.

“Maybe you don’t understand,” she said, “but tonight, or tomorrow, or next week, here, at this table, you’re going to eat that squash. You don’t move until you do. And when you’re ready to eat it, you call me.”

She pointed at me and then at the squash as though the two of us were in trouble together. And then she left. A few minutes passed but she didn’t return. The gem squash was an arresting sight, sitting all by itself on an otherwise empty plate in the middle of nowhere. Now that it was drying out, the hairy bits had started to contract and the whole thing looked like a tumour removed from a cabbage. Even people who loved gem squash would not have wanted it.

For a while I concentrated on the microwave clock to see if I could predict when its minute digit would change. Then I wondered whether there was anyone who could honestly say that a gem squash was their favourite food. I couldn’t imagine such a person. And if that person didn’t exist, why did gem squashes exist? Nothing should exist that is not the favourite thing of something else. If that were true, there’d be no gem squashes. There’d be no Brooke Shields.

Maybe I could sleep, I thought. Surely my mother wouldn’t force-feed me while I was asleep? She could try while I was awake, but that wouldn’t be me eating the squash—that would be her eating it with my mouth. She wouldn’t do that either. In fact, I thought, what could she do?

At midnight I’d sat there for two hours and forty-eight minutes, longer than it took to watch a movie. My father came from his study and inspected the squash.

“Jesus,” he said, “I have to admit, it looks like cow dung with pips.”

“See the clock,” I said. “It’s symmetric. When I started sitting here, it said 21:12. I’ve seen 22:22, and 23:32 also. Seventy minutes apart.”

My father perked up. It gave him hope whenever I showed a glimmer of interest in anything mathematical.

“How many hours don’t have that?” he asked with some excitement.

At this, my mother arrived from her studio. She was smoking two cigarettes—a new one and one she must have discovered after she’d lit the new one.

“What are you talking about?” she asked and eyed my father.


“This is no time to talk about time,” she scolded him.


I’d like to talk about time,” I announced.

“Yes?” my mother said and stubbed out the old cigarette.

“I’m not going to eat this squash,” I said. “Ever.”

“I know,” she said while she regarded me. “I realised that two hours ago.”

“Then why did you let me sit here?” I wailed.

“It’s late,” she said as she scraped the squash into the bin. “Go to bed.”

“All this is your fault,” Mia sniffs. “You should back me up, not encourage them to look at clocks and palindromes.”


“21:12!” Annie chimes and bites at another piece of red pepper.

“It’s late,” Mia says and gets up from the table. “Go to bed.”

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I’m fond of bums. In recent years the word bum has been downgraded to homeless person, but it’s not homeless people that I’m fond of. You could be homeless because typhoon Tina has swept your house up the street, but that doesn’t qualify you as a bum. A bum, as I use the word, is someone who’s deliberately doing nothing, someone who has chosen inaction as a way of life after serious consideration of all the other options. Such bums are not the kind who took a shortcut using drugs. Those bums are just wasted. The bums I like are coherent and talkative. They’re often homeless, but that’s just what they got for their passive defiance of the world and the way things are. Maybe that’s what I like.

The first bum I liked was Henry. Henry staggered up our street every now and then, like an off-duty town crier, speculating loudly about the possibility of a sandwich and the existence of money. His face was ruddy and lined with the cold and the sun and years of drinking.

“Where’s your house?” I asked while my mother fetched him something to eat.

Henry stood at the front door and looked past me into the house. He scratched in his beard and described a circle with his other hand.

“Everywhere,” he rasped and winked.

“But where do you sleep?”

He laughed and coughed.

“Wherever I want,” he whispered.

I was beset with the novel notion that Henry was secretly rich beyond our means, that he owned the whole world and was free to come and go as he pleased within it. I was too young then to know that freedom was merely a door, something you passed through, and it didn’t occur to me that Henry had always stood outside this door. To me, his unhurried existence was the antithesis of everything I knew. In particular, Henry was the opposite of my father. If work was a continuum between doing absolutely nothing whatever and doing so much that you got nothing done, my father was a bum of sorts at the busy end of the spectrum. On Sundays he rested by working in the garden, and Henry liked to come and watch. He sometimes brought a wooden box so he’d have something to sit on as he followed my father around.

“That won’t work,” he snorted from where he sat on his box.

This irritated my father, but once the habit of Henry’s visits had set in there was little my father could do but entertain it. He jabbed with a spade at mounds of earth and tried to ignore Henry.

“You mustn’t work so hard,” Henry remarked.

My father ignored him a little more and worked a little harder.

“You’ve moved that heap twice now,” Henry noted after a few minutes.

My father, who knew the ritual, straightened and wiped his brow with his sleeve. This was Henry’s cue.

“I’m short a few cents,” he confided and stared at his empty hand.

“You saving for something?” my father asked and adjusted his glasses.

Henry continued to stare at his hand as though something had inexplicably disappeared from it.

“Just a few cents,” he added.

“You could help me here,” my father suggested.

Henry dropped his hand and looked with unmasked disgust at the evidence of work that surrounded my father.

“I’ll pay you well,” my father said.

“I’m long done with work,” Henry mumbled and waved a dismissive hand. “There’s no time for that.”

My father leaned on the spade and regarded him.

“Is there somewhere you have to be?” he asked.

“It’s difficult to explain,” Henry muttered.

One Sunday my father convinced him to get cleaned up. Henry took a long shower in the changing room by our pool and my mother got him some of my father’s old clothes. He looked more dirty once he was clean, his pink face poking from my father’s collar. We drove him to a shelter where they helped those who were down and out to get up and in again. But the next weekend Henry was back.

“They’re all bums at that place,” he declared.

The ability of bums to denounce other bums surpasses conventional understanding. They see themselves as bystanders, it appears, sitting out for this round of the game, while the other bums are clearly losers who will remain so for the rest of time. In my twenties I befriended four bums who lived in a park near my apartment. After months of gentle persuasion they agreed to let me join them for a weekend. As it happened, I spent the Easter weekend with them, sleeping where they slept, doing everything they did, but begging didn’t work out. No one gave me anything.

“What good are you?” one of them asked when I came away empty-handed.

By the end of the weekend it was clear that they saw me as a burden and a failure. In the years since then I’ve often returned to that moment as a source of wonder and a humbling reminder of my place in the world.

Recently I met a bum who sat on a T of bricks at an entrance to the I5 interstate, holding a small cardboard sign that read ANYONE HIRING ASSHOLES? I was in my car and couldn’t stop, but I walked there the next day. He sat on the same bricks, holding the same sign, smoking a flat, wet cigarette.

“You an asshole?” I asked.

He squinted up at me from where he sat.

“Everyone’s an asshole,” he said. “You hirin?”

I had half expected him to hold out his hand like Henry had.

“No,” I replied sheepishly, “I’m not.”

“That’s a relief,” he muttered. “Last thing I need’s another do-gooder.”

Standing there, not quite knowing what to do next, I was suddenly reminded of the time when I tried to save a mouse from our cat and was bitten by both of them.

“What’s the sign for?” I asked.

The bum considered his sign, squinted at me again and then motioned at another bum on the opposite side of the street. This one clutched a piece of cardboard that said something about three children and the blessings of God.

“See that idiot?” he said. “I do this so people will leave me alone.”

He regarded me for a moment.

“It doesn’t always work,” he added.

“So you don’t want money?” I asked as I stacked myself a T of bricks like his.

“Step into my office,” he remarked and cracked a yellow smile. “Take a seat.”

“Is it OK?” I hesitated.

“Sure,” he sighed. “I last had an office before the internet.”

I marvelled at this but before I could ask about his office he answered my previous question.

“Of course I want money,” he said. “Who doesn’t? But wantin it don’t make you good at gettin it. What I’m good at is sittin, sittin and thinkin.”

He laughed a wheezy laugh.

“I should be workin like that idiot, but I’m goofin off.”

I’d never thought of beggary as a profession, but he had a point. It was a job like any other, something you did most of the time, something you didn’t particularly like.

“What did you do,” I asked, “when you had an office?”

“Call me Rip,” he said.

When I frowned he continued, “Like in van Winkel, on account of a line I read in that story, back when I had books.”

“What line?” I asked, baffled at the thought of a bum sitting on a brick, talking about Washington Irving.

“It said,” Rip quoted, holding up a dirty finger, “The great error in Rip’s composition was an insuperable aversion to all kinds of profitable labor.”

He said insuperable with pouty lips, the way the British do, in-syoo-pruble.

“Is that how you ended up here?”

Rip glanced at the bum across the street who had just received a dollar from someone in a passing car.

“I worked in a bank,” he snorted. “Jesus Christ. Can you believe that?”

“I suppose you had an aversion to banking?”

He dug an oily pouch from the pocket of his coat.

“Are you kiddin me,” he sighed. “Who wouldn’t?”

I pictured myself working in a bank and then I toyed for a second with the thought that there wasn’t much difference between that and what I actually did. It was about as interesting. One small step in the wrong direction, two months without pay, and I’d be out here with him.

“What happened?” I asked. “One day your were banking and the next you were—what?—here?”

Rip unfolded the pouch to reveal cigarette butts he’d collected.

“You’re not from these parts,” he said as he picked through them. “I can tell. You sound funny.”

“I know. So do you.”

“That’s true,” he said. “All the same, I’m against assholes who come here from outa state—”

He indicated the bum across the street.

“—like him. He’s from Chicago. Couldn’t handle the winters,” he chuckled. “I came here before I was an asshole. If you’re gonna go to pot, do it elsewhere.”

He began to roll a butt between his fingers to release the remaining tobacco from it.

“But how did you end up here?” I insisted. “You know, on the street.”

Rip tossed aside the empty butt and picked at another. Then he levelled his gaze at me.

“I haven’t ended up here,” he replied.

When I said nothing he continued.

“My girlfriend got killed on this highway many years ago,” he said. “Right there.”

He pointed to where the onramp entered the I5 and then looked away for a moment.

“It was a Friday night, at the end of the summer, and she was on her way to a party in Shoreline.”

He flicked the empty butt aside and poked at the others in his pouch.

“Funny thing is,” he said, “I’d gone ahead. Couldn’t wait for her.”

“And then?” I asked and cleared my throat.

“That Monday I didn’t go to work. I never did again. Later I moved in with this asshole Kevin, and when he got busted sellin dope I moved out, so to speak.”

“Onto the streets?”

A man beckoned from the window of a car waiting at the intersection.

“You gettin that?” Rip asked and selected another butt to roll out.

In a daze I got up. The man looked me up and down and hesitantly handed me a one-dollar bill. When I sat down again, Rip leant over and took the bill from me.

“It’s money I don’t got,” he said. “But I got time. I haven’t ended up here. I’m just passin through.”

As we talked some more and Rip smoked a smelly cigarette, I imagined us as seen from across the street, framed in a photo viewed by a boy a century later. Would he tell us apart? Would he know that it was a Saturday afternoon in October? Or would he marvel briefly at these long-gone men, torn from time, sitting on their bricks at the very intersection his apartment now stood?

As I got up to leave, Rip said, “I lied about my girlfriend.”

“She didn’t die?”

He shifted on his T of bricks.

“I never had one.”


“I tell that shit to people coz that’s what they wanna hear.”

“You didn’t have to—” I began.

“I know,” Rip said and squinted up at me. “The truth is, nobody died. Nothin happened. Like Rip in the story, I was just ready to attend to anybody’s business but my own. That’s why I’m here.”

I walked home along 125th street so I could kick through the piles of leaves near the library. This man had asked nothing of me, I thought, and yet he had given me something I had never had. Instead of standing in the doorways of freedom, I was always passing through. Rip would have wasted away at the bank. Instead, as Steinbeck once wrote of another bum, he had chosen a difficult and crowded field and he was a success in it.

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The burden of proof

The paint I got on my father’s car was a little like the money I stole from his wallet. At least, that’s how I saw it. I had been toying with the idea of asking him for money to buy a scale model of a Messerschmitt Bf 109, but he often didn’t agree with the things I wanted to spend money on, and then we ended up talking for a long time about things that had nothing to do with what I’d wanted to buy, and then he said no. Taking the money saved us both some trouble. Besides, he owed me money for cleaning the pool, but he was withholding it on the grounds that I’d destroyed his drill press.

Actually, I didn’t steal the money. I merely found it. There was a ten tucked away between some receipts. It looked like it had been there a long time, and so I took it. The same afternoon my father arrived in my room. I say arrive because that’s what he did. He didn’t just come in. He made a point of stretching out his entry to make me nervous.

“There’s a twenty missing from my wallet,” he said after he’d looked around and acted like a visiting dignitary. “Did you take it?”

“No,” I said.

It felt good to know that I wasn’t lying.

“Well, how did it go missing then?” he asked and sat down on the chest next to my bed.

He spoke like a mathematician proving a simple theorem.

“How should I know?” I countered.

“Do you think,” my father asked, building out his first lemma, “that it could get up and go off all by itself? Which is more—”


“Let me finish,” he said. “Which is more likely? That it got taken out of my wallet or that it got out all by itself?”

“That’s stupid,” I said.

“Where did you get the money for that?” he asked and pointed at the model airplane on my desk.

“I had it.”

He walked over and turned the box the model had come in this way and that until he found the price.

“Twelve-ninety-nine. You had it how?”

“I just had it. I also have money.”

“Okay,” my father said, moving on to his second lemma, “let’s forget the coincidence that you suddenly have money for this on the same day a twenty goes missing from my wallet. Tell me this instead. Who else could have taken it?”

“I don’t know!” I shouted. “I don’t have to know who else! I just have to know that it wasn’t me!”

“But who?” he insisted.

“Maybe the maid took it.”

“She’s not here this weekend.”

“Maybe you spent it and forgot.”

He thought about this for a moment.

“How much money do you have?” he asked. “Right now? In total?”

“I don’t know.”

“You see,” he said, “I’m not like that. I know exactly how much money I have in my wallet at any given time.”

I wanted to scream that he was wrong, that a ten he hadn’t known about was going yellow in a forgotten corner of his wallet, that he was wrong about the very point his whole argument was based on. But I couldn’t.

“If you know all that,” I asked instead, “where’s the twenty then?”

My father remained calm and walked slowly to the door.

“I wish you would just come clean sometimes,” he said. “All you have to do is admit that you did it. It’s not that hard.”

“But I didn’t do it!” I screamed.

That evening he put his head around my door.

“I found the twenty that was missing,” he said. “I’d taken it out in the car. I’m sorry I accused you.”

The next morning I decided to paint my bicycle a different colour. There had been a tin of green paint in the garage for as long as I could remember, and green was as good a colour as any other. I went into the garage to paint the bicycle. I got everything ready—the bicycle, the paint and a brush—but it turned out that the paint wouldn’t work because it was the fast-drying type meant to be used in a spray gun. It started drying on the brush. I gave up. If I remember correctly, I got a little angry too. I hammered the tin shut and began to put everything away. Then I saw that there were green spots on the front left of my father’s car. There were similar spots on the front right of my mother’s car. I touched them but they were dry. I picked at them, but they wouldn’t come off completely, and so I gave up on that too. I threw the paint and the brush in our neighbour’s garbage.

That afternoon my father arrived in my room. He had come down the corridor with long strides, the way he walked when he was angry but had contained himself.

“I want to ask your opinion about something,” he said with near-infinite calm.

“You told me not to have opinions,” I said and looked up from my book. “To think instead.”

“Yes, yes” he agreed, “that’s what I said. I want you to think about something.”


He sat down on the chest and crossed his legs.

“What is the probability of the following thing happening?”



He took his time to phrase things exactly.

“Somewhere—I don’t know where this happened—but somewhere out there in the world beyond our view, someone managed to spatter the front of my car with green paint. During the last day or so.”

He looked at me as this were a genuine question.

“What are the chances of that?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” I said. “Why are you asking me?”

“Just roughly,” he said, “what are the chances?”

“Well,” I said. “A hundred percent.”

“What do you mean?”

“Because that’s the sort of thing that always happens to you.”

My father swallowed but remained calm.

“There’s more,” he continued. “Somewhere else, also in that time, someone else spattered your mother’s car with the same paint, on its opposite side. What do you think about that?”

“I don’t think about it at all. You clearly suspect that—”

“Relax,” he said, “relax. Just help me think this through. I’m a little confused.”

“I want to see this paint,” I said.

What I wanted was to get out of my room, out of the steady build-up of lemmas to his final proof.

“No need,” he said, “let’s just do this in our heads. These two events are possible in isolation. Do you agree?”


“But very, very unlikely together, like this?”

“Impossible,” I said, taking a gamble.

This was not what my father expected.

“What do you mean, impossible?”

“It’s impossible that these two things happened separately.”

“Well—” he said, “impossible is not the word I’d use.”

“But that’s what I’m saying.”

“But you can never know that for sure—”

My farther seemed hurt by my shallow understanding of probability. Watching him argue was like watching someone on a skateboard—there was always something big about to go wrong.

“Anyway,” I said, “forget that. You think I did it, don’t you?”

My father was still thinking of a way to get me to see the difference between being absolutely certain and knowing something beyond a reasonable doubt.

“What?” he mumbled absently.

“You think I did it. That’s what you came here to say.”

My father pulled himself back to a place of cars and green paint.

“I was hoping that you’d have the courage to admit to something you obviously did. Just this once.”

“But you just said that one couldn’t know for sure.”

My father was less swayed by this than I’d thought he’d be. We had clearly arrived at the business end of his argument.

“Let’s stop fucking around,” he snapped. “Did you do it?”

A few minutes earlier I was going to say that I did it, that I was sorry. But now I wasn’t so sure.

“No,” I said.

We stared at one another for what seemed a very long time.

“Let me tell you something,” he resumed. “There are only a few ways in which this could have happened. Other than you, there are only your sister, your mother, the maid, and the dogs. The dogs don’t have thumbs, so they’re out. Your mother didn’t do it and—”

“How do you know?”

“Dammit!” my father exploded. “Why won’t you just admit it!? I know it was you!”

“Because I didn’t do it!” I screamed. “Don’t you think it would be easier to say that I did it and get it over with. You’d be too surprised to hit me.”

“I wasn’t going to hit you,” he mumbled.

“I didn’t do it any more than I took a twenty from your wallet. Remember?”

“I remember,” he said and looked away.

If you accused my father of ten things and one of them seemed to be true, he forgot the other nine that were nonsense. He stopped arguing and went away to think about that tenth thing. Now he forgot about the cars and the paint. He walked slowly to the door and was gone before I could say anything.

Late that evening he sat in his study in the dark. He sometimes did that to listen to music or to think about some problem. Around ten o’clock my mother sent me to check on him. I stood outside the study door and tried to hear myself say that I messed on his car, that I took his money, and that I was sorry. But I just stood there. I stood there and I listened to the whispering rain and the soft folding of his leather chair. And then he was asleep.

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The brief syzygy of April and September

Toby September stood like a beardless gnome at the entrance to the parking lot of a business complex where I worked years ago. He was a short little man who seemed to dangle from an outsized hat. The first time I saw him I was put in mind of a toadstool. His job was to stand at the gate and ensure that the automatic boom opened. Even though the boom opened by itself, Toby helped it along by raising or lowering it at the speed it was moving anyway. While he did this he bantered with everyone as they came and went. Pretty early on I found out that his name wasn’t really Toby.

“Nay Master!” he cried in the slang typical of many Cape Coloureds, the mixed-race people who have been sandwiched between white and black interests in South Africa ever since the seventeenth century. “It’s Tobias, like my old-pa. But who now wants to say three things when you can say two, nuh? Two-by.”

Every day we joshed as Toby raised the boom and jockeyed to have the last say.

“Mornings!” he greeted me one morning.

“There’s only one of me,” I joked.

“Nuh?” he said and mimed a mouth with his free hand. “Now he tells us!”

Sometimes he carried on our conversation in the afternoon as though no time had passed since the morning.

“The other one’s gone to visit our Auntie,” he confided with twinkling eyes as I left that same day. “Now it’s just Master and me!”

Toby was not an attractive man, but a lovely one, and lonely. A while after we met he started coming around to our offices for a chat whenever I stood outside to smoke a cigarette. I was lonely too because my partners were hardly ever there. Toby would open with a perfunctory call—Nay Master?—as though it was somehow disappointing to find me loitering on the patio, virtually unemployed. Then he’d glance around nervously as if to suggest that while I might not have work to do, he would be needed at the boom any moment now. That done, he began to tell stories.

“See, Master,” he started.

He looked into the distance and brought a finger to his mouth while he selected a story from an apparently vast index. Sadly, his stories weren’t as crisp as his jesting at the gate. Neither were they from a vast index. Instead, they were limited to garbled anecdotes about his family at the Cape, and as such they unravelled whenever he stumbled onto a detail he couldn’t get right.

“See now Master,” he said, “we moved that year because my father was weak in the flesh, nuh, and put another woman in the other time. It was so dry that year that the sewers cracked, broke right out of the ground like desert beetles, and we moved to Touwsriver—”

He paused and pinched his chin.

“Nay, nay, that’s wrong. We moved to De Doorns when my old-ma died, and when we buried her they took two days to dig the grave—”

His voice trailed off again.

“—so that was when it was so dry. Nuh!”

“And your father?” I asked hopefully. “The woman?”

“We moved to De Doorns,” he continued, deaf to my interruption, “and right outside town—”

He seemed to remember something and wagged his finger.

“It was Matjiesfontein. We moved to De Doorns after that thing with my father. I can remember telling Ahmed this story, and he’s from De Doorns.”

I wanted to hear about this family scandal, like Ahmed had, but it seemed increasingly unlikely.

“Go on,” I said.

“Ahmed is a friend of mine since nineteen-whatsit,” he whispered and glanced in the direction of the gate. “He once got his little head stuck in a milk bottle.”

“Really?” I said, enlivened by this change in direction. “I had a friend who did the same thing. He—”

Toby’s eyes glazed over a little.

“Nay man,” he said, “it was Touwsriver—”

“Whatever—” I began.

“Anyway,” Toby cut me short, as though the entire digression had been at my insistence, “that year—”

And so it continued until I had to return to my work, or something happened at the gate.

To this syncopated ritual came Dulcie April. A small tour organiser had opened on the second floor, and Dulcie was their office girl. Like Toby, Dulcie was short, wore a large hat, and twinkled when she spoke.

“Nay Master!” she laughed when I remarked somewhat insensitively on her surname being a month. “Thems just sell-by dates for slaves.”

I shouldn’t have mentioned it. Slaves at the Cape were often named for the month they arrived, and their descendants bore those timestamps as surnames.

“I’m sorry,” I said feebly. “Toby at the gate is September.”

“Nuh!?” she laughed. “Him here still when I’m gone!”

Like Toby, she glanced around nervously. She didn’t smoke but escaped downstairs with a mug of tea a few times a day. The woman who ran the tour company was a harridan called Mavis. Mavis was a large woman, a rolling landscape of flesh and hair, with a booming voice and shaking bangles. She sometimes parked her car in one of the spots assigned to our office. When we asked her to move it, she throbbed, “Oh—fuck—off!”, and shook her bangles at us. Dulcie was afraid of her, as was everyone else.

“Master,” Dulcie said and screwed up her face, “sometimes I dreams of Mavis.”

“She’s a gin-soaked prune,” I said.

“Nay Master!” Dulcie laughed and covered her mouth. “Nuh?”

I don’t know if Dulcie met Toby at the gate, or when he came around to deny me the gist of a story. I would have liked to see that moment, but I didn’t. Even so, when I saw them together, I was transfixed. They stood so awkwardly close to one another that they appeared to be under the control of an apprentice puppeteer. Toby held his breath, as though he was trying to identify a heady and delicate scent, and Dulcie didn’t blink.

“She looked like that woman,” Toby said with some difficulty, “in that movie about the whatsit that melted in America.”

“Nuh?” Dulcie mumbled. “What melted?”

“You know,” Toby went on and leaned a little closer, perhaps to smell her the better, “where they make the atom whatsits.”

“Oh yes,” Dulcie whispered. “What’s them called?”

I couldn’t imagine what the prevailing direction of the story had been, nor that there had even been one, but I wanted to find out where they were heading with this.

“A nuclear plant?”

They turned slowly to face me.

“That’s ’im,” Toby said dreamily.

“It was Silkwood, with Meryl Streep.”

“Meryl,” Dulcie repeated wistfully. “She had a farm.”

“So,” I pushed on, “who looked like Meryl Streep?”

They turned slowly to one another again. Dulcie purred, “The man on that farm had a rough face, like yous, nuh?”

Toby clasped his rough face and wondered, “Whatsis name?”

Over the following two weeks, Toby and Dulcie often joined me on the patio. Toby’s nervous glances in the direction of the boom had given way to boyish peeks at the stairwell. Dulcie half-smiled and tried her best not to stare at the corner around which Toby could appear from the gate. Once, Mavis came to shake her bangles at Dulcie.

“She’s only been here a minute,” I called out as Dulcie hurried up the stairs.

“Fuck—off!” Mavis ballooned above the edge of the parapet and drifted from sight.

When their timing was just right—and Mavis didn’t interfere—Dulcie and Toby huddled together and named things. This, I’d decided, was what they did. Each far-flung cousin they couldn’t recall, each thing they couldn’t date or struggled to place, led to another, and so on, and on. They were slaves to this desire for detail, and so they spoke in spirals, every orbit wider than the one before.

“So,” Dulcie said, “my uncle’s car—” and pressed her finger into the dimple of her cheek, “—a Datsun, or was it a Nissan? It had esses and ens—”

“What about—” I began.

“Anyway—” Dulcie cut me short, “—my uncle’s car—”

When Toby slowed into a wider orbit, she defended him.

“Nay Master!” she cautioned when I implored him to return to his story. “Let hisself be. It’s important.”

“How’s it important what street his senile auntie lived on?” I demanded, secretly hoping that it was Memory Lane.

“Nuh?” she said, taken aback. “That’s how the story goes.”

And so it went. I had never seen two people more meant for one another, nor more easily kept apart. The strings I’d imagined earlier were a noose of their own tying. Dulcie and Toby never moved beyond their fleeting alignments in time. They stood there, like they had when I first saw them, on a Friday afternoon, and on the Monday morning Dulcie was gone. Mavis, it turned out, had run her business the way she parked, and they had closed down virtually overnight.

“Dulcie’s gone now,” Toby mused a few days later.

He looked away and for a moment forgot himself, repeating her name under his breath.

“Just call her,” I said.

“Nay Master,” he sighed. “Who now can do that?”

“Didn’t you get her number?”

He shook his head slowly.

“We just talked,” he said. “Nuh?”

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The red wheelbarrow

A hangover isn’t the best way to remember things, but sometimes it’s all you’ve got. When I was twenty-three I woke up one Friday morning a week before Christmas, seated in the nude at my father’s desk and drooling into my navel. I had no idea how I’d got there but I knew that it was all my friend Ferdi’s fault. The last thing I could remember was that Ferdi had discovered two bottles of Akkedisbult Witblits—a breathtaking moonshine distilled from peaches, with a name that meant Lizard Hill White Lightning—in my father’s liquor cabinet.

As a standing tradition, my family spent the December holidays at our beach house in Oyster Bay, on the south coast of South Africa. That particular year I didn’t go, for the first time ever. I had just started working to repay my bursary. The closest I was going to get to a holiday was the privilege of looking after my parent’s house while they were away on holiday. I was in a bad mood and resented everyone for everything.

“Let’s have a party,” Ferdi suggested in order to cheer me up.

We had met through work and had adjoining offices. We worked on a project together, which meant that we goofed off together.

“It’s almost Christmas,” he added and joggled his eyebrows. “You have a large house.”

Thinking back now, it’s possible that it was actually I who suggested that we have a party, but it certainly felt like it was Ferdi. We invited the entire department of around thirty-five people to my house for a barbecue that Thursday evening. The Friday was a holiday, but almost everyone turned up. Even Rudy came. Rudy was a nerd by our definition. Given that we were a bunch of mathematicians and computer scientists, this meant that he was something of a quadratic nerd. He did several things with computers to deserve this label but the clincher was that he had the arresting ability to discern the difference between sixteen, seventeen, and eighteen granules of sugar in his coffee. He insisted that sixteen granules left the coffee bitter, that eighteen granules cloyed his gills, and that seventeen was just right. It’s difficult at this remove to imagine someone like Rudy getting drunk, but that’s what he did. And so did the rest of us. We never got around to the barbecue. At some point Rudy suggested that we storm through the garden. We stormed through the garden, and also through my mother’s azaleas, and then many people ended up in the pool, some without their clothes. But I couldn’t remember much after that.

Now, as I peeled myself carefully from my father’s chair, some of the rest surfaced in dreamlike bits. Before Ferdi had held aloft the bottles of Akkedisbult Witblits, he and I had raided my father’s wine and opened a few, only to pour them down the drain in disgust.

“It’s sour,” I remembered one of us saying, probably Ferdi.

As I massaged my temples I suddenly recalled Rudy standing on top of my mother’s architect’s chair—a tall and wobbly stool—declaring that the C programming language was adequate for expressing all human emotions. A fat girl whose name now escapes me had sat in a corner for what seemed like hours while she read haltingly from a copy of Chaucer’s tales she’d discovered in the library. A lesser nerd called Herman had opened my father’s bottle of 1969 Allesverloren Port and drank it the way I’d always imagined eighteenth century sailors to quaff goblets of grog aboard creaky galleons in the Caribbean. The fact that Allesverloren meant all is lost struck me as particularly ironic as I wobbled away from my father’s desk.

As I staggered around the house, my anger at Ferdi grew steadily. I knew it didn’t make sense to blame him, but since he wasn’t around I did it anyway. At least he couldn’t deny anything.

I found my clothes in the garden, among the azaleas, along with some other bits of underwear that I tossed over the back wall. In the middle of the lawn stood a metronome that couldn’t be explained, and at the pool, propped awkwardly in a deck chair, was one of my mother’s sewing mannequins.

Inside the house it was no better. On top of the piano was a handwritten note that read I’ll bring it back later—presumably referring to the metronome. In the microwave I found a pair of panties and also the two kings of a chess set. On a table in the foyer lay a book on the Kamasutra that I’d never seen before. It was opened to a page with the title The Wheelbarrow that showed a man pushing a woman around as though he was trying to plow a field with her. I was pretty sure the book didn’t belong to my parents, but because I couldn’t just throw it away I hid it in the garden shed.

As I cleaned up I got even angrier at Ferdi. I could see his hand in everything, and yet his influence was untraceable, like the suggestions of a hypnotist. How, for example, had we opened a bottle of 1986 Meerlust Rubicon? I would never have done that by myself. I threw the bottle away, along with two other bottles that looked just as expensive, and kept cleaning.

I finished around two in the afternoon, exhausted and still hung over. As I walked through the house to make sure that all was in place, it dawned on me that I’d have to replace the Akkedisbult Witblits. I’d thrown the evidence away, but the two bottles had stood at the front of the liquor cabinet and my father would notice that they were missing the next time he opened it. The Allesverloren Port was another problem, but as it had stood behind other things since the sixties I was sure my father wouldn’t miss it until years later. The wine, I was sure, he wouldn’t notice. Akkedisbult Witblits could be bought in only one place on earth I knew about, a small store in Humansdorp, a town about twenty minutes from Oyster Bay, and about fourteen hours from where I was.

I was at my parent’s house for Sunday lunch the next February when my father turned to me.

“You know I’m a careful man,” he asked, “don’t you?”

I sensed trouble but couldn’t tell where he was heading with that question.

“Careful how?” I asked. “What do you mean?”

“I mean,” he clarified as he sipped his coffee, “that I’m the sort of man who arranges his tools. You know? The sort of man who owns labelled boxes of photographs. The sort,” he added, “who binds his Time Magazines every year.”

“What are you saying?” I asked abruptly.

My father waved away my attempted self-defence.

“Don’t you think I’d be the sort of man to record mileage when I fill up?”

I felt dizzy. It had taken a month, but here we were. My mother’s 3 Series BMW had been a pleasure to drive, even in my hung-over state, and it had taken me only twenty-seven hours to travel almost all the way to Oyster Bay, buy two bottles of Akkedisbult Witblits, and return home.

“Sure,” I said and swallowed. “So what?”

“In fact,” my father went on with excruciating slowness, “I even record your mother’s mileage.”

“But it’s February,” I blurted as though there were a statute of limitations on car commandeering.

My father snapped.

“Two-thousand-nine-hundred-fifty-two kilometers!” he roared and pounded the table. “Where the fuck did you go?”



“I drove to Humansdorp,” I croaked.

My father blinked as he took this in. While he did I could see Ferdi from the corner of my mind’s eye, coating himself in teflon.

“Humansdorp!?” my father cried when he’d found his voice again. “What for?”



“The witblits. There was a party.”

My father went the sort of grey they use when they make gun barrels. He adjusted his glasses and motioned with his hand to include the room we were in, and then the rest of the house.

“You had a party?” he said with the punctuated spacing of a slow metronome. “Here?”

“A little one.”

“In this house?”

“Just a little one.”

“So little that you drank two bottles of Akkedisbult!?”

“It wasn’t me,” I said and thought of Ferdi.

My father pushed his glasses back up his nose.

“What else did you drink?”

“Nothing. We had our own stuff.”

He got up and went into the living room, to the liquor cabinet and his wine racks beside it. As I sat there, listening to the sounds of his angry rummaging, I thought of running out the front door and never returning. My father knew where I lived, but I could always move in with Ferdi.

“What the HELL!?” my father bellowed in the next room.

It was the port. I knew it.

“Where—?” he cried after a few seconds.

It was something else.

“The ’86 Meerlust Rubicon!” he quaked as he came around the corner.

He sat down again and tallied my sins on shaky fingers.

“The ’78 Lanzerac Pinotage! And the fucking Nederburg Lady! All gone!”

He was spitting mad and so I decided to let the port be.

“I’m sorry,” I whispered.

My father stared at me for what seemed to be a very long time, not really seeing anything. The wines were gone and there was nothing he could do about it. His disbelief and anger dissolved into calm acceptance.

“What were they like?” he asked at length. “Tell me.”


“The Rubicon was perhaps a little young, but what was it like?”

“It was fantastic,” I lied, remembering how Ferdi had willed us to pour it down the zink in the scullery. “It was deep and heavy.”


“Deeply red.”

My father swallowed as he imagined the ’86 Rubicon.

“They say it’s the colour of garnet,” he mused absently, his eyes closed.

It was strange to see his anger displaced by vicarious enjoyment, but now was not the time to question that.

“Yes, that’s what it was,” I said. “Garnet-red.”

“With silky tannins and earthy flavours—”

“It was very earthy.”

My father swallowed again, his eyes still closed.

“Not too acidic?” he asked, sounding far away.

“No,” I said, “just enough.”

“So,” he said after a few moments of reverie, “you liked it?”

“I loved it,” I lied. “But the pinotage was even better.”

“The Lanzerac?”

“It was even redder.”

My farther leant forward.


“It tasted of—” I wavered.

“What? Blackberries?”

“Yes,” I agreed and wagged my finger, “but there was something else too—”


“It was very smokey—”

“And licorice?”

“That’s it! Licorice.”

My father sat back and savoured the ’78 Lanzerac. For a while he appeared to be transported in a way I’d never seen him be while drinking actual wine.

“And the Lady?” he asked suddenly.

“She was the reddest,” I said, now in the swing of things.


“Not garnet-red,” I stipulated, willing him like Ferdi would to offer me another red, “but—”

“It was a Gewürtzraminer,” my father sighed and rubbed the bridge of his nose.

“I thought it was a Nederburg—”

“Gewürtzraminer is a grape. The wine was white.”

“I see,” I said.

My father pushed back his chair and stood up.

“So do I.”

Years later, when I was finally earning some money, I bought my father these wines for his birthday. They were garnet-red and smokey, and white. We sat around for hours and had all three. He enjoyed them but he wasn’t as enraptured as he’d been that day in the valley of loss. It was as though I’d stolen from him twice. On a whim I asked about the Allesverloren Port.

“I saw that a few days later,” he said, “but I let it be.”

Sometimes it’s better that way. Whenever I’ve had the urge to ask him about the book I hid in the garden shed, I’ve let it be.

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