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?”