Zadie set a large latte down in front of the backpacker studying his Lonely Planet. ‘You don’t want to go there,’ she said, indicating the left-hand page. ‘You’ll get ripped off, that’s a market for tourists.’ Sometimes advice was rewarded with a bigger tip, but this lad looked as if he could barely pay for his coffee.
He glanced at her, then down at his mug. ‘That’s me, Mophead Mark.’ She liked the bottlebrush hair, the freckled ugliness, the seafoam eyes flecked with turbulence, his slow smile. ‘It’s terrific, who made it?’
Coffee art—another good source of tips. But she was giving this one away. ‘I’m a design student. Keeps me from getting bored on the job.’
‘It takes real talent to catch a likeness with only a few strokes—and in froth no less.’
‘Nah, it’s mere trickery, like being able to add up a column of numbers in your head. It doesn’t make you Ramanujan; it doesn’t even make you an accountant.’
He seemed surprised by her mention of the mathematician. ‘You’re local?’
‘I didn’t peg you for a racist.’
‘Wow, a bit touchy, aren’t you?’
‘In South Africa you’ll learn race is the first thing everyone thinks about.’
‘A few more years, skin colour will be irrelevant.’
‘A post-racial world?’ she scoffed.
‘Depends how you define race. I hear there’s already a cognoscens presence in Cape Town.’
From the corner of her eye she saw Anton come through the swing door from the kitchen and hurriedly pulled out her order pad, then scrawled a number. ‘Here, ring me after six, and I’ll show you round. There’s a few places might interest you.’
That evening, succumbing to his entreaties—’on your stubborn mophead, then!’—Zadie led him down to the beach. They ate the gutsy samoosas she’d brought, licking their fingers and laughing as the southeaster freewheeled like a surfer high on his own recklessness. Mark wasn’t much of drinker, so the second can of beer stayed in her backpack. He offered a joint, though. Barefoot, they walked along the ribbon of firm, vermiculated sand, and stopped to talk, to gaze into the moonlit spindrift, and walked on again. He liked the way her hips moved as if she were treading water, a serene swell. He liked her liquid accent, and the way it raced away from her when she described a recent exhibit, her new kitten, the hungry stick kids up north. He liked the way she pretended that sand in your pubic hair was erotic, not messy and uncomfortable.
Towards midnight they began to retrace their steps, she knew a jazz club where the drinks were cheap, and the music Cape Town’s best-kept secret: ‘Even if you could find it, they’d never let you in. Security tighter than the Island, back in Mandela’s time.’
‘They don’t fancy foreigners?’
‘They don’t fancy rich white boys.’
‘So if I had a fanny . . . ‘
She laughed then, and gave him further reason to appreciate his endowments. Later, when he came to write his first novel, he’d invoke a surfer’s finely tuned sense of wind and wave, but now there was no metaphor, no transcendence, now no heady rip of words, only the stoptime of breathing in rhythmic unison—a break in the incessant hiphop of pounding surf and pounding wind and pounding thoughts.
‘It’ll be your cash, and no friggin shit, ya hear?’ Hastily they uncoupled and stared at the two kids, one with a knife glinting in the moonlight, the other with a screwdriver. Zadie reacted first; nodded, unslung her backpack, handed it over—every movement slow and smooth, unthreatening. Mark studied the knife-wielding mugger while his mate cast Zadie’s belongings onto the sand and rifled for wallet and mobile. They couldn’t have been more than twelve or thirteen.
Memory rides the long corridor of time with grace for month upon seamless month as if the wave will never break, then it’s arse over tit into whitewater, into seething depths. This was the moment Mark would remember time and again; remember, years on, when it ended, as he came to fear it would end. The moment he’d sought. The moment he could have chosen to grab his board and paddle ashore.
‘Tell you what,’ he said. ‘I’ll give you my cash and 500 euros from the nearest ATM if you let me meet the rest of you.’
The younger lad left off his scrabbling, the older one gave a disbelieving snort. ‘There ain’t no rest, ghostbag. And damn sure no ATM.’
It was Mark’s quiet confidence—his lack of fear—which confounded them. ‘I think there is. And lads like you can earn real money, not crotch coins. You think I’m stupid enough to come down here without a motive? Everyone knows to keep off the beaches at night, even the tourists. It’s in all the guidebooks.’
They were wary now, uncertain. A drug deal, it was written on their faces.
‘You know that simudzai means forward, don’t you?’ he added. Then a touch scornfully, ‘The drug trade is for fools, not simus.’
‘You’re not afraid of cogners?’ the older lad asked.
‘Do I look afraid?’
The simu imijondolo crouched like a wounded animal in a cleft between sheer grindstone cliffs. They reached it by a narrow, scrubby track which forded a shallow lagoon before zigzagging out of view from the shore. If there were crocodiles—weren’t there always crocodiles?—no one seemed particularly fussed. The walls of rock retained the day’s heat and magnified their breathing, though it wasn’t a steep climb. Despite a distressing scrawniness, the simus were surefooted, lissom even, and the extraordinary vision of their kind enabled them to scamper through the darkest pockets and beneath the lowest overhangs with ease. Soon they increased their pace, smelling the campfire before they could see its shielded glow; tonight, at least, there would be meat or a stew for the hungry.
Zadie had volunteered at the Cape Flats, but these sad little shelters of plastic sheeting and rusting, corrugated tin wouldn’t keep off even the mild summer rains. Around the campfire she counted half a dozen ragged figures, at least two she thought were girls, one of whom looked no older than six or seven, though chronic malnourishment may have stunted her. Simus usually grew very tall.
Their energy was undiminished by hunger, however, and they argued fiercely, if quietly, among themselves at the appearance of strangers, monkeys no less, in their midst. To her surprise, Mark seemed to follow the rapid talk in Afrikaans, though he said nothing till invited by the tallest lad—Rafi, someone had called him—who had a compelling, self-assured air. Simus were known for their arrogance, but she wondered what had given this lad such a decided sense of entitlement. There were plenty of angry young men about, blokes ready to kill you for a pack of cigarettes or a wrong word, blokes on tik whose nerves crackled and sparked like shorted wires, whose sweat smelled of leaking battery fluid. At fifteen or sixteen Rafi already stood taller than most men, in a few years he’d be plucking lightning bolts from the sky and filliping them coolly at any sapiens underfoot. Though much of what you heard was bound to be exaggerated, she found it hard to meet his eyes; all their eyes.
The wrangle might have continued if Rafi hadn’t held up a hand, waited till they fell still, and addressed the youngest child. ‘So, what do you think, Leonie?’
The girl’s eyes passed quickly over Zadie to come to rest on Mark. Her scrutiny was solemn, followed by a child’s sweet smile and a confident switch to English. ‘He’s OK, we can trust him.’ Then her thumb slipped into her mouth, a ripple of what Zadie first mistook for amusement sweeping the group. But Mark nodded as though he understood a secret language and was rewarded with a groundswell of approval.
‘Ugly muggle’s got a brain.’
‘Brought any sweets?’
‘Hangs tough, doesn’t he?’
‘Must be someone like Leonie in his family.’
Meanwhile the older lad from the beach had busied himself with removing several lopsided wooden spits from the fire. One by one he sliced the roasted birds from the skewers with the same bone-handled hunting knife he’d brandished as a weapon, its tapered blade now glistening with fat, and deftly segmented the meat into equal portions which he arranged on two battered enamel plates by his feet. At this last remark, he paused and looked up from his crouch, thrust his knife to the hilt into the sandy ground as if to scour it for another task. The others also gave Mark their heightened attention.
‘Is that how you know?’ Rafi asked, a slight edge to his voice. ‘A brother or sister, a cousin maybe?’
‘Then how?’ The edge sharpened on the whetstone of their hardscrabble lives. For all her gifts, Leonie was still a young child who sensed more than she always understood.
‘There was a girl—’ He glanced sideways at Zadie. ‘My girl, till the accident.’ A gust of wind stirred the embers, sifting ash over the plates of meat, wafting chalky swarf into his face so that he was forced to blink several times in rapid succession. ‘At least that’s what the police called it when they closed the case.’
With a soft gasp Leonie shucked her thumb, but Rafi didn’t even look her way. ‘Right, boet,’ he said, gesturing briskly towards their meal. ‘Let’s eat.’
The meat smelled good, but these kids needed every calorie—which lowlife nicked from a beggar’s bowl? Gamely Mark and Zadie split a tactful piece, pied crow proving to be gamey but perfectly edible, a bit chewy perhaps. Within a month, they were sharing a flat. Within six months, married. Within a year, she was pregnant with Zach.
It wouldn’t be till his stay in Cape Town that Zach learned of his parents’ role in founding the cognoscens network which by then provided training camps for politicised simus worldwide—nobody, it seemed, could do it better than the South Africans, and drug-money rumours notwithstanding, support from private foundations and wealthy Fulgur rivals (or wannabe rivals like flamboyant biotronics magnate Leo Chandra) kept the Scorpions from making any key arrests. At the outset Mark’s confidence matched Rafi’s, but he’d not grown up with knives and taped pipes as his cricket bats; muggings, his test matches. A single disembodied incident might not have done it, but when Leonie was found dismembered on the strand, crows already feeding, something broke inside him, tore loose like a bough in a gale. He stopped writing. He stopped surfing. One evening from the shelter of their veranda Zadie watched him drag driftwood into a heap just beyond the dunes and set it ablaze, standing so close that she feared for his hair, his eyebrows, his skin. She didn’t interfere when he emptied a sack of crows—five, six, nine, maybe ten, where had he collected so many?—onto the flames, the stench nothing like the smell of roasting meat. Next morning at the corner shop she was forced to tell old Ibrahim a stammered lie, which he was too kindly to dispute. Two days later they had the results of the prenatal genetic workup, and providentially after a tattered night, Chandra’s offer of a lectureship. Though Mark’s father was dead, and his mother dissuasively remarried to a Californian banker, Mark was relieved to go home. In celebration they bought two dozen oysters, but one look at the first plump and quivering mollusc on its splayed shell, its liquor briny as sweat, and he was unable to sever its lower adductor muscle. They ate a supper of bread, cheese, and sunny mangoes instead.
Laura was in and out of Max’s room fast enough to have changed into a fleece tracksuit, a good dark green, by the time Zach knocked. ‘I’m just about ready,’ she said, but he came in and shut the door on the sound of her mother’s snoring. Nervously she thrust a hand into the deep right-hand pocket; needn’t have bothered. Preoccupied, he circled the room, not quite pacing, not quite breaking off mid-sentence, since he actually said nothing, yet breaking off nevertheless. Couples develop their own duolect, a sort of textese, though in Zach’s case often textease; she was obliged to read the message even when there seemed to be no signal.
His attention fell upon Josh’s album, which lay open on her desk. Most of the photos on view were stiff, cheesy poses in front of bazaar or amphitheatre or mosque, sunburnt faces of lads in khaki shorts and sandals who were interchangeable in their anonymity—there were no labels, not even a date—and about as lifelike as an effigy. We hitchhiked everywhere, Josh had said, what a summer. She’d squinted over the pictures trying to recognise him, without success. If the faces of the young are a roadmap of their future, the resolution was too low for her to zoom to the present. Or maybe, quite simply, he was always holding the camera.
One photo, however, didn’t belong to the set. It looked so much like the ‘hi, having a great time, wish you were here’ postcards people used to send—a recent row had erupted when her mum had clandestinely ‘sorted’ her dad’s overzealous collection—that Laura had prised it from the page to check. It was undoubtedly a photograph: a weathered beachfront cottage, almost a shack, with shaved dunes as front yard. The lush collection of plants in hanging pots and huge terracotta urns offset the slight air of neglect. But what drew the eye, possessed it, were the two glossy ravens perched on a skeletal piece of driftwood near the steps. Heads cocked, they were gazing at the photographer—the viewer—so raptly that everything else faded into insignificance, like an incident not worth recalling. The image didn’t look photoshopped. When she asked Josh, he denied any knowledge of it: ‘No such photo. Trying to test me, eh? Worried I’m getting senile?’ For an old man, his memory was good, his stories about each picture even better (and often ribald), so that he was probably ashamed to admit he’d forgotten.
‘Where did you get this?’ Zach asked.
‘It’s the album Josh gave me.’
‘But this photo . . . ‘
‘Strange, isn’t it? Beautiful too, looks almost like some art gallery thing.’
He looked up at her, and she noticed he was beginning to shiver. ‘Zach, what is it?’ When he didn’t answer, she went over to him. ‘It’s just an old picture, the crows mean nothing. Even Josh can’t remember why it’s here. I’ll throw it away.’ She reached for photo, but he stopped her with a brusque grip.
‘No, you don’t understand. I know this place. I’ve been there.’
‘You have? Where is it?’ His shivering was worsening. ‘Zach?’
With a harsh sound he shrugged away and crossed the room to lower himself onto her bed. She gave the photo one last look, then marched to his side. She wasn’t in the mood for patience.
‘Look, I’m leaving for the Rex. Stay here and shiver till you feel like talking.’
He raised his head, a welcome flash of anger loosening his tongue. ‘It’s near Cape Town. They took me to see it while I was there.’
‘So that’s where the parcel came from.’
He nodded. ‘Yeah, it was stupid of me, I suppose, but I couldn’t help myself.’
‘A snowflake from South Africa, how droll.’
‘Actually, it snows sometimes on Table Mountain, elsewhere in the mountains too.’ He gestured in a way that she understood, and she took his hand. His fingers were cold. ‘My parents’—a deep breath—‘my parents lived for a while in that cottage before I was born. I don’t understand how Josh could have a photo of it.’
‘Ask him, maybe he’ll remember.’
They were quiet for a few minutes, then both spoke at once.
‘We’d best get going before my mum—’
His grip tightened so that she knew to give him this interlude. Max, she thought, if you can hear me, we’re on our way, we’ll get you out of there, those bastards will believe Zach, he’s pretty fucking amazing. Without releasing his hand, she crouched before him. ‘The Ben you dream about?’ Still he didn’t speak, though he met her eyes with the look of a small boy who’s begun his recorder solo—his chance, thoroughly rehearsed, to shine onstage in front of his parents—then three bars in, loses his place, blanks out, and can’t go on. His mum and dad would have been gentle with him afterwards; terribly tender and understanding. ‘Zach, who is he? Who’s Ben?’
Softly, as though from a distant slope. ‘My little brother.’
Laura grabbed for his knee with her free hand to steady herself. ‘I see. Only a little brother. You don’t happen to have a little wife as well? Or a son tucked away who you’ve forgotten to mention?’ Then felt her throat tighten when saw his eyes begin to fill. ‘Shit, Zach, I’m sorry.’
When the burden is too great, a snowpack will fracture and fail, triggering an accumulating avalanche, the rush and roar of it, time unhinged as a slab of the past tears free. Try outrunning it, you’ll suffocate or be pulverised under the weighted truncate of memory.
‘I was eleven when they’—
The cupboard under the stairs is dark and dusty and crammed with creepy stuff and the vacuum cleaner smells like Marc’s car. It’s not a good hiding place, so he pinches his nose to keep from sneezing. Dad shoved him in so fast that Ben burst into tears. Through the door Zach heard Dad hissing at Ben to be quiet, then the sound of a smack. Ben began to howl and Zach, to shiver. Mark never hits his boys, only crude parents need to resort to violence. If the Insects take someone away, what do they do to him? Mum and Dad would never say, exactly. In books they cane pupils in boarding school, though Mum laughed when, goofy years ago, he’d asked about the board. But soon she’d been weeping.
Now he can hear an angry jumble of voices from the sitting room, now Dad talking the way he talks to a student complaining about a bad mark. Maybe a student whose father is a bigshot, though Mark always says he will not bow to threats whenever Zadie argues with him. So far, he gets his way—‘gets away with it,’ according to Mum.
Footsteps. One set going into the kitchen, two sets clattering upstairs, one set lingering in the hall. Zach shuts his eyes and hugs himself to stop the shivering. He holds his breath. What if they’ve got a simu with them, someone who can hear like him? ‘How did they find out?’ his mum had cried as she came running in from the studio. His dad, ‘We’ve made the worst mistake you can make about your enemy. Underestimating them.’
The odd noises from the sitting room have stopped, but Ben is still sobbing, though more quietly.
Zach’s chest feels hot and itchy, he needs to breath. Ten, count to ten, you can hold on that long. Three, four, five. Peeing can wait. Upstairs they’re in Ben’s room now. They must know about his hearing, why are they so loud?
—Fucking little freak, where’s he hiding?
His eyelids reddening.
—They’ll slap an e-tattoo on him after this crap.
His skin prickling.
—Ought to geld him at the same time.
His scalp tingling.
—Quiet, the chief’ll hear.
His head floating. Hold
—Nah, I know too much about him and his cunts. The mum’s a looker, eh? See the tits on her?
He sucks in a lungful of air, chokes on some spit, sputters, and the door is yanked open.
A hot stream of pee fills his jeans and runs down into his trainers as the man grabs him by the arm and hauls him out. Feet squelching, he’s dragged into the sitting room while the pair charge from Ben’s room and hurtle downstairs.
His dad is seated on the piano bench, duct tape binding his arms behind his back, his feet, his mouth. Ben is whimpering and clinging to Mum’s leg. They’ve gagged her too, but only tied her arms. One of the Insects has a gun trained on her. She moans upon seeing Zach and tries to speak, stops straightaway at the warning oath. His dad’s eyes shift back and forth between his wife and Zach, back and forth.
At the sight of his big brother, his hero, his god, Ben cries ‘Zach!’ and bolts towards him. The shot is loud. With an animal noise his dad launches himself from the stool and falls to the floor, writhing as if caught in a leghold trap and making dreadful sounds in his throat. His mum is keening through the tape but they’ve seized her now and she can’t run. Zach hears hoarse screaming coming from his throat. Then the Insect raises his gun again.
—‘when they came for me.’
Zach’s voice faded to an unstable silence, a fragile layer of ice over depth hoar which could shear or collapse at any moment. His face was pale, and though he was still shivering, Laura dared not touch him.
‘It took so long for him to die,’ Zach said after a while. ‘I’ve never understood that.’
A person who’s drowning can lose consciousness within two minutes; in an avalanche suffocation must take about as long. She took a long breath, and then another, longer one.
‘And your parents?’ she asked.
He stood and went back to her desk, switched on the lamp, fingered the corner of the photo. It might be the only one he had, or at least the only one he knew of. Maybe now he’d open the envelope from his parents.
He lifted his head to listen, and a few seconds later she heard footsteps on the landing, her dad’s which halted briefly at his own bedroom door, his and Molly’s, then moved on to Max’s room. She pictured her dad switching on the light, looking round hungrily, picking up a T-shirt from the floor, sitting down on the bed, smoothing the hollow from Max’s pillow.
‘You once asked me about nightmares.’ Zach gave a bitter laugh. ‘For years there were only nightmares.’
‘Wasn’t there anyone you could talk to? If not a teacher, one of the older simus? And in spite of his ghastly jokes, Josh makes a good listener.’
Zach’s gaze was elsewhere. ‘I didn’t even know men could do such things to a woman. Probably I’d already heard the word rape, and afterwards at school I certainly read it in this or that book, I was always in the library, but it wasn’t till much later that one of the boys explained, and even then it took ages for me to make the connection. To grasp, really grasp, that what happens in books is what I’d seen.’
‘They made you watch?’
‘They made us both watch before they shot my dad.’
‘They made us watch.’ His voice breaking, ‘Laura, they made us—’
Keep telling him.