Mr Somebody and the Proposal

Mr Somebody and the Proposal

If it’s not some time around the middle of the night, then I’m either very surprised or blind, because it’s darker than a blackhole and colder than my limbs can handle. I choose to be surprised, since it’s a hell of a lot better than being blind, and in any case the outline of my own hand is starting to become clearler. Once I’ve gathered the use of my eyeballs, I see that I am fully horizontal in my favourite booth of my favourite bar. I sit up and rub my face and smell cigarette ash and tequila and the Sunday morning aroma of the pretty girl with her skirt hitched up over her hips against the men’s toilet stall. So I know I’m alive but also in the beginning stages of the world’s worst hangover: the record-breaker of all regrets, the head-thumping hum of dirty blood and tarred bronchial trees, a veritable grove of vomitous recollections. After many years of over-indulgent drinking, smoking and fucking, I have learned that this kind of hangover comes with a real gusher of a nosebleed. I go to the bathroom and stuff toilet paper up both my nostrils, since they like to alternate as blood outlets, and there is no way of predicting which geyser might burst and when.

This is not the first time I’ve been locked inside Booty’s Bar after closing. When I get this sloshed the staff simply lay me out on a couch because they know I can find my way out the back window like a cat that walks on two feet. Once again, I find myself wrestling my body through the tiny window. My left knee is propped up on the counter and my right foot is pressed back against the cash register, ready to propel me through the cat-flap made just for me. Like a practiced acrobat I shoot through, and then with the grace of a third-place Olympian I land in the alley outside, like a sack of potatoes wrapped in a trench-coat. I hurt my knees and my elbows, so I limp out onto the main road with my arms going like windmills so as to stretch out the bruised joints. With the toilet paper still stuffed into my nose and me breathing through my mouth I look like some kind of Frankenstein. And this is how I meet the future Mrs-Me, Miss Margot of Who-Knows-Where, and daughter of I’ll-Never-Find-Out, because Miss Margot is mute.

I’ve seen Miss Margot out and about plenty of times, everybody has. She’s an anomaly around town: a silhouette behind a curtain before showtime, dark eyes, one of those Marilyn Monroe mouths. She’s Billie Holiday’s ‘Strange Fruit’, sad and strong and lonely and beautiful, but I think I am the only one who sees that because the general rule around here is if you can’t talk, drink, smoke or fuck, then you’re nobody. And nobody is anybody’s game, but nobody sticks up for anybody, and if anybody did stick up for anybody, then it’s welcome to Nobodys-ville, population somebody and Miss Margot, stray cats to be pitied but never fed. I am no kind of anybody, but I’m still no nobody, and that makes life in this town a lot easier.  But to me, Miss Margot is a somebody of note. She’s the soulful type. I get the feeling that she thinks about the deeper stuff in life, not like me. I think this because although she never talks I can see her brain whizzing around behind those big eyes. I described her in this way to a friend of mine, Larry/Barry/David/Matthew (LBDM changes his name all the time since he’s terrified his ex-wife will find him and bring his kid along with her), and LBDM said, ‘Yeah, like a balloon that’s running out of steam, like a fart dropping in the wind.’ I laughed, but only because you have to laugh at whatever LBDM says. He is a crude and vulgar guy and is likely to deliver a series of swift punches to the face of whoever has upset him. So I laughed, but I admit I was offended. I thought about what Miss Margot would say if she heard all the things people said about her. Well, she’d say nothing since she’s mute, but maybe she’d give some choice looks and a slap here and there. She seems the type of girl not afraid of slapping even LBDM in the face, and I think a slap from a mute girl would ruin LBDM’s fragile bravado forever. And that might be the best thing for the town and even LBDM himself.

So, I’m stuffed with toilet paper and limping like a wheel-barrow that’s just learned to walk, when Miss Margot turns the corner and is knocked face-on by one of my pinwheeling arms. I hadn’t intended to be making a fist at that particular moment, but such is life, and sometimes it breaks your nose. Now it’s her that’s got the gushing schnoz. Luckily the toilet paper from my nose has not been dislodged during the collision, so I whip it out and shove it up her nose-hole.

I hoist Miss Margot up off the ground and wrap her arm around my shoulder. She is clearly a bit shaken by the incident because she is having trouble walking straight. If ever there was a time to pretend I am a good type of guy, I figure it to be now. I ramble apologies, and since I’m still drunk they fall out of my mouth like shredded dictionary pages. But Miss Margot hasn’t spoken a word since the day she was born, so I don’t feel too guilty about my speech impairment, especially since it will wear off after a cup of coffee and maybe a pie. Together, Miss Margot and I win the three-legged race to the nearest diner, which happens to be an all-night McDonalds. I set her up at a booth, which is her first and my second for the evening, and head to the counter to get coffees and muffins since they are all out of pies.
I’m getting a lot of funny looks from the other patrons of the diner, and when I look back at Miss Margot I know why. She’s sitting there, quiet as always, huddled over a bleeding nose and her left eye is starting to look a little blue. I’m a well-known drunk around here, and I can tell that everyone thinks I must have had a little too much to drink and then really lost it when my little woman didn’t line up the dishtowels just the way I like them. I grab the coffee and cakes and sit down next to Miss Margot.
‘You have to hit me,’ I said, moving the sugar packets out the way. Her eyes say no, and I know she knows it was an accident. I feel a little bad about putting her in this position, but the cashier is giving me snake-eyes and his hand is resting tentatively on the phone, which I assume is a direct line to the police station.
‘Miss Margot,’ I say, ‘There’s no other way around it. All these people here think I’ve treated you badly. I’m practically on the verge of a jail-cell. I’m no wife-beater, excuse me, woman beater, and since you can’t tell them otherwise, no offence meant of course, you’ve got to hit me. And hard, too.’
She ponders this a little while, looking around at all the suspicious faces. When she looks back at me and winds her arm up, I know she’s fallen in love with me. She nearly runs me through with her small fist, and just after the moment of impact, but before the pain begins, I think she may have a future as a light-weight boxer. She lets me have it so hard that my nose does start to bleed, but luckily it’s the nostril that’s still plugged. I will probably wake up tomorrow with a small bit of whiplash. Miss Margot has retracted her fist and is swaddling it like a baby in her other arm, she blinks repeatedly and this I take to mean that she’s very sorry for hitting me, because really she loves me. I carry on making a show of my busted nose and my bruised ego, and while I’m writhing in my seat I steal some glances around the room. Everybody is doing a bad job of hiding a smile, they must really have enjoyed seeing this somebody getting punched by the town nobody. Suddenly everybody is looking at Miss Margot like a pedigree Alsatian and not a stray cat with scabby fur. But Miss Margot has eyes only for me now, and my eyeballs have never seen so fine a visage as Miss Margot’s.

I tell her this one out loud, because most of the nice things I think about Miss Margot I have tended to keep to myself. She smiles, and then all of the stuff comes pouring out.
I tell her how I have loved her since the first time I saw her, walking around the park in circles. I loved her even more when I found out she was a whiskey drinker, and then that love double-triple-quadrupled and kept on multiplying every day I saw her after that.
‘I know what you’re thinking,’ I tell her. I can’t stop now, words and blood are flowing from all orifices with abandon. ‘You’re thinking this guy is a sham, a drunk, a loser. Sure, Miss Margot, I love you, and you love me, but how can I be Mr Margot when I’m barely a Mr Anybody?’
I really want an answer to this question, and Miss Margot seems to be giving it some real thought. Her head is cocked to the side and her finger is tapping her chin. She’s breathing so deeply that the ratty tail of the toilet paper wad in her nose is flapping about like a flag on the high seas. After some time, far too much time, as I have been sitting here nearly soiling myself with anxiety, Miss Margot turns her head and looks at me. She stops with the blinking, and simply grabs my hands over the table, which I much prefer to the sight of her fist careening towards my face. I am pretty sure that Miss Margot is telling me that she loves me no matter what, so I do what any other sane man would do when he is faced with the love of his life and is not sure, due to communication issues, that this is a totally bad idea.

Well, I get down on my knee, which is still bruised from leaping through the window of Booty’s Bar, and I hold Miss Margot’s hand in one of mine, and with my other hand I grab the remaining wad of toilet paper from my own nose and twist it into the shape of a circle, with a little knot at the top. From a distance it may be mistaken for white gold with a ruby inlay, and this is the way Miss Margot and I choose to see it, even from up close. As soon as I retrieve the paper-stopper from my schnoz, the blood starts to stream again, except this time both nostrils are gushing on account of the built up pressure, I would assume. I move to ignore the moustache of blood quickly forming on my upper lip, and Miss Margot seems to second my motion. Holding the ring, I ask Miss Margot to marry me. I ask her if she will do me the great honour of becoming Mrs Me, or me becoming Mr Margot, whichever way she likes it.
For a moment she’s silent, a different kind of silent. This particular silence hasn’t got much or nothing to do with her mouth or any other potential ports of noise. Her soul goes quiet, in this moment she wouldn’t talk even if she could. My knee is starting to hurt pretty badly now, but I stay kneeling, because if she says no then it’s a much shorter distance to fall from. So now it’s flowing freely, and it’s dripping onto our hands, and Miss Margot is still really quiet and all I want is a cigarette and I wish the coffee was scotch, and I wish the muffin was a pie and I wish I had never woken up from my favourite booth in Booty’s Bar. I have tried to keep the pain from my face but I can’t stop my eye from twitching, and I think Miss Margot senses my agitation, because she looks at me and says nothing, but she says Yes as well. She holds my face and is nodding furiously, and then we’re kissing, and it’s the kind of kiss that pulls a man into sobriety. Miss Margot says yes to my proposal, blinks at me, and says that we’ll figure out the logistics of the Mrs Me/Mr Margot dilemma another time. This night, she says, is for drinking and kissing and dancing.

The whole diner is applauding, and the snake-eyed cashier has been kind enough to put on some jazz for us – it’s Art farmer’s ‘Makin Whoopee’, which I think is a little distasteful since that is a private matter for discussion between Miss Margot and myself, and now the whole diner’s in on it. Nevertheless, snake-eyes seems to capture the mood, and soon the whole diner is a-singin’ and a-swingin’ and a-sippin’ on a-coffee. I twirl Miss Margot around by her newly ringed-hand, and somebody comes in from the road with a couple of crates of beer and a few bottles of scotch. What a turn of luck, what a night. The young delivery guy, who is either very kind or he is the prophet, starts decanting the booze into the coffee mugs, and although it tastes terrible nobody complains, because nobody though that they’d be drinking free booze at McDonalds in the middle of the night with a couple of newly-engaged somebodies, especially when one of them used to be a nobody and the other could have been anybody. But then again, this whole town is full of drunks.

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It Starts with the Dead

It started with her being dead. She wasn’t really dead at first, but then she was. It’s a part of my life I have tried unsuccessfully to forget for twenty years. No one knows what really happened that day except for five little kids who grew up to be cowering pseudo-adults. Silent and selfish, the remaining five of us lost contact after school and attempted to pursue normal lives. I’d been following up on all of them since we’d parted. Luke was now a rugby coach. Malcolm wrote chemistry textbooks for high schools. Tessa taught English to third graders and drank heavily on the weekends. Raymond was off somewhere in Thailand or Columbia (or was it Prague now?) taking ayahuasca and meditating on top of mountains. And Marina was still dead.

I’d received a couple of emails from her mother over the years. They’d all been warm and curious. She wanted to know how I was, what I was doing, and to drop by for dinner the next time I was back in Pietermaritzburg. I never replied to a single one.
I moved to Cape Town after school, hopping back and forth between failed entrepreneurial ventures that I was sure “would work this time.” I was a writer, and then a food critic, and then a short film director, and then a poet. I still maintain that my week long devotion to Tai Chi has grounded me for life – my energy still flows from pool to pool even as I sit on a couch and consume my weight in tea and salted crisps.
My parents’ fiftieth anniversary came around in September of 2009. I was thirty-one at the time, but still had to ask them for a bit of money so that I could afford the plane ticket to visit them.
Pietermaritzburg was as I remembered it. Suffocating even on the coldest of days. My mom picked me up from the tiny airport in Oribi and we drove to my childhood home. We could have taken the short route that ran past Marina’s mother’s house, but we didn’t. My mom said it made her too sad. It was the same reason that my dad stopped listening to “Tears in Heaven” by Eric Clapton. The though of losing a child was too painful to bear.

In 1989 I was 11. My small group of friends was a collection of strange and pale kids. We spent every break time lurking around the library aisles, picking out new books and inhaling their contents in silence as the free time ticked by. Sometimes Tessa, Marina and I would leave the boys to their own devices and walk aimlessly around the sports field. We watched the older boys play soccer from the shaded periphery, and blushed when the posses of long legged blondes walked by. I was very close with Tessa and Malcolm. We were the only Jewish kids at school, and together with our families and a few stragglers, made up Pietermaritzburg’s tiny Jewish population.
We played together on Friday nights while the Shul service was being held in the living room of an old couple. Errol was fat and drunk and didn’t notice when he farted anymore, and Louise was fat and teary eyed. She almost never moved from her red armchair in the corner. I sat on the floor with my six-year-old sister and the other kids, attempting solemnity whilst trying to avoid Louise’s incessant and teary stares. She didn’t even seem to need to blink. I complained to my mom that it made me uncomfortable.
“Mom, she’s always staring at me. She’s always crying.”
“Darling, she’s old. She’s sad that her own children don’t come to Shul. She wishes she had such perfect daughters. Aren’t I lucky?”

And then I would understand Louise. Until the next week, when the crying and the staring continued.

We made it through the service and then, while the adults had tea and sat by the pool, we played hide and seek in the labyrinthine house. We tiptoed around shelves of bronzed baby shoes, disturbing portraits and lakeside paintings and hid under beds that looked like they’d never been slept in. Malcolm was the best hider. He was so skinny that he could fit anywhere. Once, we found him balled up inside the cabinet above the bathroom sink. It sometimes took us an hour to find him.

Luke didn’t enter our group until one day in October of 1989. It was a flash in the pan kind of friendship, and none of us understood his interest in our group. He was crass and bossy and played rugby with the sixteen year olds, and had often been a culprit in class disruption or the throwing of some poor soul’s lunch out of the window.
It was hot for October, and we were taking shelter from the heat in the air-conditioned library when he barged in on us, knocked our books from our hands and demanded that we follow him to the sports field. He claimed that what he had to show us would make us never want to read again. That may not have been altogether true, though it did happen that none of us got a moment of peace after that day.
We shared looks of horror. We all largely avoided the sports field. Running and sweating were only things we liked to watch on TV, and more than that, it increased our chances of being laughed at or bullied tenfold.
He had his hands by his side and his mouth was turned down at the corners, his brow raised. We all knew that we weren’t going to get out of this by keeping quiet, but our mouths remained shut.
“Well?” Luke demanded
“Ok.” Marina stood up and looked around, hoping that we would back her up.
We just looked with wide eyes from her to Luke. Malcolm tried to pick up his book again but Luke lurched forward and grabbed it. He threw it onto the ground a couple of feet away. The library monitors shushed at him from the other side of the room.
“Are the rest of you too chicken-shit or what?” he asked.
I think it was the use of the swearword that got us out of our seats. It was so grown-up. So mature. We padded after him with fearful anticipation. Was he going to beat us up? Was he going to pour bottles of water on our heads as he had done in the past? The answer, thankfully, was no.
From that day on we spent every free minute on the field with Luke, playing games of his own invention. He was surprisingly creative for the oaf we thought him to be. One day Raymond and Tessa were evil agents, attempting to steal a secret formula from Luke’s lab and on another day I was a crocodile and everyone else was a herd of Impala.

I used to recount my school days in excruciating detail to my parents every evening, but for some reason I never mentioned Luke. I cut out our break time forays into Luke’s fantasyland from my recollections. It felt dangerous and exciting, a thing that made absolutely no sense. A secret between the six of us kids.

We never spoke to Luke outside of break time. Or rather, he never spoke to us. I sat with Marina and Tessa at a table opposite his in our English class, and he ignored our waves and friendly greetings, sneering at us with his bigger, muscled friends. But come break time, there he was in the library, commanding us out to the field. At first our friendship was relegated only to the school grounds, but late in October he had an idea that changed everything.
“We should have a competition to see who can hold their breath for the longest,” he said. We’d just finished a particularly exhausting reworking of Cops ‘n Robbers, and we were just about to return to class.
“Now? But break’s almost finished,” Malcolm said.
“No, idiot. After school. There’s a river by my house. We’ll meet there at four.”
And so we did. We met every Wednesday at four in the field behind the University. It had a small river running through it and was a popular place for people to walk their dogs and for small kids like us to go swimming.
I’d drop my school bag in my room, change into a costume, eat a quick lunch and then hop onto my bicycle. We all lived in the area, and so Tessa, Raymond, Malcolm and Marina would join me on their bikes as I rode past their house, and we would arrive at the river to find Luke there already, waiting impatiently.
He was incredibly bossy, stipulating the rules and conditions from the get-go. Only five people could participate at a time, the sixth had to remain an impartial referee to make sure no one cheated. The winner of the competition got to pick the game we played at break the next day, and the loser had to arm wrestle with Luke. For the first couple of weeks we let Luke win, scared that a loss would send him into some kind of mad frenzy. After a while, he grew disheartened by the lack of competition.
“Shit, man. You guys have to at least try. I wanna win properly.”
And so Marina became the champion for four weeks in a row. One week we timed her, she stayed under water for a whole two minutes. We accused the referees of favoring Marina, of Marina creating some kind of device that allowed her to breath under water like a fish, of Indian girls needing less air than other people. Luke inspected her nose, her mouth, her ears, but no unusual breathing apparatus and no fish gills. Week after week she won, and finally we had to concede that she was simply the best breath-holder in the city. In her games, Marina always made herself the princess, four of us dragons and thieves, and Raymond the prince, sent to save her. We laughed and teased that she was in love with Raymond.
“Oh my god that is disgusting! It’s just because Raymond can run faster than all of you.” She blushed. “If you were gonna save me I’d be so dead,” she directed at me.
We grew tired of Marina’s repetitive games, and wished that someone else would win for a change. Luke said every time Marina won that she would be no competition for the championships that were held in Joburg.
“You know they’ve got these Russian kids there. They’re like twelve or something but they’re probably ten times as big as me. They eat people in Russia, and these Russian kids are gonna eat you if you lose.” Luke smirked at Marina.
She told him that he was just jealous and she kept on winning. One day in mid-November she didn’t come out of the water. When I finally came up for air, the others were already on the bank, drying themselves off. Malcolm had been timing us and said we’d been under for about one minute. The weather was turning fast. What had been a sunny day was quickly darkening, and a chill wind was starting to pick up. Everyone wanted to go home and had given up quickly, knowing that Marina was going to win anyway.

Marina was still submerged beside me, little air bubbles popping out of the water above her blurry head.

I joined the others on the bank, donned a jersey and waited for her to come up again. We were getting cold, and imagining the warm supper that would be waiting for us when we got home only made it worse. A minute passed, and then another. Tessa wanted to fetch Marina out of the water but Luke wanted to see how long she could go for. Another minute passed in silence. Tessa, Raymond, Malcolm and I started talking about the history assignment that was going to be due the next week. We had to interview our grandparents and create a timeline of their lives. Luke lay on his back and stared into the dark clouds. Another minute passed.
“How long has it been now?” I asked Malcolm.
He looked at his watch, “Five minutes.”
We were all impressed. It was her best time ever. We looked over to her and noticed for the first time that there weren’t any more air bubbles. Her arms and legs had stopped moving, but her black hair still fanned out on top of the water.
“She’s bluffing,” Luke said. “She’s trying to freak us out.”
His eyes were narrowed, and he gripped his knees with tanned arms.
“Well it’s working,” Tessa said. She started forward but Luke grabbed her arm and pulled her back.
“I think she’s dead.”
“What? No she’s not, you just said she was bluffing.”
“Well do you wanna go and check? You’ll leave your fingerprints all over her and then the cops will know it was you and you’ll go to jail forever,” Luke said. He was still holding onto her arm.
Tessa looked down, “I don’t wanna go to jail.”
“Me neither,” we all chimed in.
“You were timing her! You’re supposed to be watching her!” Raymond shouted at Malcolm.
We all turned on him, shouting Yeah! and Malcolm!
“It’s not my fault! It was Luke’s stupid game in the first place!” Malcolm retorted, panicked.
“You guys are all chicken-shit! Grow up!” Luke shouted at us and then turned away, grabbing his clothes and making for his bicycle.
“We can’t just leave her!” I called after him.
“The cops will be onto us any moment. We have to get out of here. You guys stay and get arrested if you want, I’m going!” he hopped onto his bike and started pedaling.
I looked back at Marina’s floating hair. She would raise her head any second now and grin at us, I fooled you!
But she didn’t. She floated. It started to rain and I didn’t want to go to jail. The others had already started running for their bicycles so I followed them. I didn’t want to be left behind. Tessa was crying as we rode. We pedaled fast and hard to catch up with Luke, who was already halfway down the road. We shouted and called for him, our voices barely audible over the bicycle chains jangling and the rain hitting the street. Eventually we drew up to him and he stopped abruptly. I nearly knocked into him. He looked at us with the strangest expression, one I still remember in every perfect detail to this day. It was pained and yet oddly contemplative. His lips were slightly pursed and his brow furrowed.
“We gotta ditch the bikes.”
It was nearly six by that time, dark and miserable and at least a half hour’s walk to any of our houses.
We went up in an uproar. Tessa wanted to go back. Malcolm didn’t want to lose his bike – his dead dad gave it to him for his birthday. Raymond was calling it all bullshit.
“Hey!” he shouted over us, raising his hands and quieting the group. “We gotta ditch the bikes. The cops will track our tire treads back to our houses and then they’ll know we were there. We’ll be accessories to murder.”
“I don’t even think you know what you’re talking about!” Raymond said. His curly hair was washed flat across his head. “Maybe you’re the one that’s chicken-shit!”
“You stupid idiot! I’m not scared of shit! You go on your bike then and maybe I’ll visit you in jail!”
Luke rode off again. We had a choice to make. Stay on our bikes and get arrested or follow Luke, the only one with some semblance of a plan. The truth is that we were chicken-shit, so we followed him. We rode on a bit farther and discarded our bicycles behind a large hedge.
We walked together in silence, barely waving goodbye to each other. Eventually I was alone, everyone having already reached their own destinations, and I walked for another five minutes before reaching mine. When I got inside I let my mom fuss over how cold I was, told her that my bike had been stolen and after explaining that I wasn’t hungry, went straight to bed.
I lay awake thinking endless things. About Talmud sections that I’d studied with my dad on Saturday mornings, and about some of the stories my Bobba had told me. Horrible things about dead bodies becoming reanimated to deal with unfinished business, and the souls of good people possessing those that had wronged them. I fell into a torturous sleep. Images of Marina’s floating hair and faces screaming out of it flashed behind my eyes. Watery footsteps followed me home.
We didn’t play games at break for the next two days. Luke joined us in the library and we talked in whispers about what had happened.
Everyone was pale and jittery. Tessa’s eyes were red. I’d been watching her and noticed that she had been crying through most of our morning classes.
“Marina’s mom and dad slept at my house last night,” Tessa said. “There were cops everywhere.”
It was true. I had battled to sleep the previous night because of the flashing blue lights. When I did eventually fall asleep I was visited by the same nightmares as the night before. Marina was asking me why. Why didn’t we pull her out of the water?
“You didn’t say anything?” Luke asked Tessa. He had been unusually quiet. His eyes were darker than I’d ever seen them.
“No, I stayed in my room. I wanna tell my mom though. Maybe if we just explain what happened. It was a mistake.” Tessa’s eyes started to water.
“No! Nobody says shit to anybody. We didn’t do anything wrong but if we go around blabbing to everybody it’ll look like we did.”
“I dunno. We’re just kids,” Raymond looked into all of our faces.
“Yeah but together we’re like fifty years old or something. They’ll add up our intelligence and then we’ll be sent to an adult prison,” Luke hissed.
I piped up and said I didn’t think that that was how it worked, but Luke just shushed me and made everybody swear not to say anything. I’m not sure who we were more scared of, Luke or the police. I imagined countless break times spent being beaten up or stuffed into toilets if we didn’t comply with the former.
“Look, we just gotta keep our mouths shut. They’ll find her and they’ll see that she drowned. Maybe she went swimming on her own. But if we start talking then everyone will think that we did it. The cops aren’t so scary anyway, man. They’re just guys in uniforms.” Luke said.
“I think there are other things we should be worrying about,” I said softly, looking into my knees.
“And those are? I’m not scared of anything. They must just come,” Luke said. He was scowling at me.
I felt like I was being tested. Like I was testing Luke. The images of Marina and the footsteps and my Bobba’s stories were important. I thought we were in very real and very grave danger.
“Well, my Bobba used to tell me – ”
“Speak up! You’re like a mouse!” Luke smacked me on the shoulder. “And what the shit is a Bobba?”
“My granny. My granny told me this story about a little girl who drowned and then came back to life,” I said, inching away from Luke.
The rest gasped, their mouths echoing “Came back to life?” through clasped hands.
“So maybe she’s not really dead? She’ll come back?” Tessa asked. She was playing with the hem of her dress.
“Well in the story the girl was dead. She was properly dead. But her body kind of, well, it came alive for a while,” I explained. “She had unfinished business. Stuff she had to do before her soul could float away.”
Luke sneered. “But when you die your soul goes straight to heaven. Unless you’ve been bad, then you go to hell. But Marina was so boring, she probably went straight to heaven.”
“That’s not what we believe,” Malcolm said.
“Well either way there’s no way she could come back to life. Seriously. Dead is dead.”
“My dad said that your soul hovers over your body for a whole year before it floats away. It tries to go back into your body,” I said.
“Well, fuck it. I’m not scared of ghosts or little drowned girls or anything,” Luke said.
There was a moment of silence, broken when he asked, “But just out of curiosity. What did the little girl in your Bobb’s story do when she came back to life?”
“It’s Bobba. And she tracked down the driver of the red car who hit her and threw her into the lake and possessed his body and haunted him forever.”
“Yeah, my mom told me that her granny was possessed once. She said that it was the ghost of her granny’s baby that was never born that went into her gran’s body and made her do weird things,” Malcolm said.
“Like what?” Tessa asked.
Luke was white.
“Like weird stuff. Like she stopped bathing and eating and she only went outside at night,” Malcolm whispered. “And she killed her husband.”
“I told you already! I’m not scared of anything! And you guys are more chicken-shit than I thought!” Luke stood up and shouted down at us. “She can’t come back from the dead, I’ll sort her out!”
The librarian wasn’t far from us and she stamped over and herded Luke out, threatening to give him detention for disturbing the quiet again. The bell rang shortly after that and we went to class. Later that evening, Malcolm, Tessa and I didn’t feel like playing hide and seek. We sat through the Shul service with downcast faces, and our parents attributed our unusual stillness to concern about our lost friend.
The next morning I sat in the living room watching cartoons, and my mother ran in with the phone receiver in one hand.
“Marina’s been found!”
She disappeared back into the dining room and I stood at the doorway, listening to her conversation.
“Oh, that’s wonderful!
Yes.
I’m sure she is.
Well I haven’t spoken to her yet but we’ll go round this evening.
No, the same here. Very quiet.
A mystery indeed. But what a blessing.
Yes, Baruch Hashem.
Alright, goodbye.”
My mother put the phone down. “We’ll go and see Marina this evening, darling. I’m making scones to take with. Heaven knows her mother hasn’t been eating the last two days, but she’ll be fat with happiness soon enough!”
My mom pulled me into a tight embrace, but my arms remained limp at my sides. I wasn’t excited. Something about this felt horribly wrong. It wasn’t right. We had all seen her there in the water. It was impossible.
I returned to the lounge and turned the volume on the TV up, drowning out my mom’s singing and clattering from the kitchen. Tom was trying to catch Jerry again. This time Jerry had created this intricate device from household objects that would trap Tom and then shoot him out the window like a canon. I thought if Tom would only stretch out his arms a little, Jerry might not be so elusive. He was a clever little mouse.
There was a tap on the window. I leaned forward and saw Luke’s face peering at me from behind the lace draping. He beckoned me outside and then disappeared. Luke had never been to my house before. In that moment I didn’t even question how he knew where I lived.
I shouted to my mom that I was going out but I don’t think that she heard me, and then I stepped out the front door.
“Meet me at the river. Everybody else is already there.” He ran off.

Tessa, Malcolm and Raymond sitting on the bank as far as possible from where we used to swim. Raymond lay back with his arms behind his head and the other two were crossed-legged. They weren’t talking.
I greeted them and sat down. The sun was dim but warm, and the trees were rustling in the slightest of breezes. A very different day.

I asked them if they’d heard the news. They hadn’t. I explained that my mom had gotten a phone call and said that Marina was at home with her mother.
“She’s not dead!” Tessa’s face lit up, and then she immediately broke into tears.
Malcolm placed an arm around her shoulders, unsure how best to comfort her.
For the first time since I had heard it this morning, I felt relieved. The ominous feeling I had gotten at home dissipated, and I let happiness wash over me. My limbs felt soft and light and I all of a sudden I wanted to eat marshmallows and marie biscuits, to return to my cartoons and let my mom fuss over me.
The four of us chatted a bit about Marina, that we would let her pick the break time games from here on out, that we would never question her breath-holding wins. We played rock-paper-scissors, looked for animals in the clouds and talked about school. Eventually the conversation died out and we became restless again, wondering why Luke had gathered us here when everything had turned out so well. Half an hour passed in this manner and then he finally showed up. He was dragging Marina by her shirt collar and had his hand clamped over her mouth.
We jumped to our feet. We all started shouting.
Marina!
What are you doing!
Let her go!
Luke leveled with us, Marina’s shirt scrunched up in his fist and half of her face hidden inside his big hand. She was struggling, but he was nearly twice her size and too strong for her.
“Help me!” Luke shouted at the group.
But we all just stood there. We looked at him and then at Marina. Her hair still looked wet.
“Luke, please let her go,” Tessa pleaded.
“No! She came back from the dead, just like you said she would,” Luke looked at me.
“Maybe she wasn’t dead, Luke!” Raymond cried.

“She was! She was dead! And I told you I’m not scared of ghosts! I’m not going to let her possess me and make my body run around and do weird shit!” Luke adjusted the hand over Marina’s face and I saw that her skin was an odd color.
“Fuck you guys!” Luke elbowed past us towards the river, dragging Marina with him.
We turned to watch him. He slipped down the bank and lost hold of her. Marina tried to run back to us but he caught her again. We simply looked on as he dragged her back to the river. Luke was submerged up to his waist. They splashed and cried out together in strange unison, hers whimpers and his grunts. She was lithe and slippery and to keep her under the water he turned her on her stomach and straddled her, pushing her head down with strong arms. The bank had turned to cement and was creeping up my legs and into my chest, my throat. I felt like vomiting and at the same time, incredibly hungry.
Barking drifted across the field, accompanied by voices and whistling.
Luke looked up in terror, soaked through.
“Help me, idiots! People are coming!” He said through gritted teeth.
Tessa looked back at the slowly advancing couple and their Border Collie, and then she sprinted into the river and grabbed Marina’s feet. She pulled them under the water and looked at us with round eyes.
We rushed to join them. I got hold of her arms and Malcolm and Raymond placed their small hands on her back. Together, we pushed her down until she was resting on the river floor. After a short while Marina’s legs stopped kicking and we let go of her. She stayed pressed against the sand bed, but her hair was spread out on top of the water again.
“Now go home and don’t say shit!” Luke said as he struggled up the bank in water-clogged shoes. We nodded and ran from the river.

We didn’t say anything to anybody. We didn’t talk to each other again. What once had been friendly smiles and waves across a corridor turned into blind eyes and sunken mouths. Luke went back to playing with his rugby friends, and the rest of us still frequented the library, just not with each other.
That night, Marina’s face was all over the TV and by the end of the week she was in newspapers and in Church pamphlets and even on our fridge. I couldn’t reach for milk without feeling my hands clasping around bony wrists, water splashing up around my chin.
Marina’s mother stopped leaving the house and I had to accompany my mom to drop off daily food packages.

Twenty years later and Marina’s face was still on my fridge. I was helping my mother fold napkins for the anniversary party later that evening when I felt dull eyes on my neck. I turned around to find Marina peering at me through the jumble of magnets and sticky notes that had accumulated over the years. My mom noticed my distraction and followed my gaze.
“So sad,” she said. “Her poor mother.”
I nodded and returned to napkin folding. The swan design my mom had picked out was particularly difficult. I thought about writing Marina’s mother a letter, but knew I probably wouldn’t.
She wasn’t really dead.

I open my eyes and am surrounded by blackness. I look back; dark trees and mist. I look down: a rope coiled at my feet snakes its way up my legs and into a knot around my waist. I pull the rope up through dry hands and it suddenly stops short. The end looks frayed as if it had been hacked in a panic. I let the rope fall to the ground. I look around and slowly, as if for the first time, thoughts begin to materialize in my head.

How did I get here, I wonder. And where is this here, anyway? If my brain didn’t feel like it was made of smoke I suspect I might have felt a little concerned. At this point though, I resign myself to going through a checklist of possible knowns and un-knowns.

I don’t know what my name is. I don’t know why this rope is tied around my waist. I don’t know what the rope had been previously tied to or why it was cut off from itself. There seem to be two possible explanations to my strange situation: One; I was being held captive and I managed to escape, or two; I have gone walking in the woods and somehow lost the other end of my safety rope. The outcome of both scenarios seems to be the same, however; I am lost. Or at least I think I am.

I turn to my left, my feet crunching on black grass as I adjust my body, and watch an avenue of dead trees get swallowed up by the distance. I turn to the right, it’s the same. I’m standing in some kind of clearing, apparently the only one in a factory-line forest. This place really feels like its been made up by some writer who’s completely lost for ideas. The all-encompassing mist, black trees stretching endlessly into a grey sky? Jesus. I begin fumbling with the knot at my waist. Get your head out of those shitty mystery novels and give me a backstory here. The knot almost seems to grow tighter as I struggle with it, small sinews getting stuck beneath my nails, which I only notice now have been chewed down to the quick.

From the distance, or maybe from above, or even from below the very ground, there comes a rumbling. I stop what I’m doing and look around, up, down. The ground is trembling slightly. This is an earthquake. Stay calm, keep your eyes on a fixed point and it will be ok. My eyes scan the ground and find a burnt tree stump a couple of metres away from me. I stare at it, investing all of my safety into this black amputation. And then it simply vanishes.

The rumbling stops and the world is still again. But I am still frozen in place, staring. I get the feeling that I’m not alone, being watched even. Although I doubt that anybody would be interested in me – there doesn’t seem to be anything interesting to know. Nevertheless, the feeling of another presence is inescapable.
“Hello?”

As expected, no one answers. My fingers are ice cold and clumsy as they become more panicked in untying the rope. I haven’t moved since I realized myself. Things crawl at my ankles. I think I’m being chased. Why can’t I remember anything, Jesus, I’m going to die here.

Stop. Calm down. I place one hand on my heart and click the fingers of my other hand until I feel my pulse slow and my brain deflate. I look up and hope that my calming ritual would manifest a blue sky, but it remains that over-dramatic grey –

It’s not overly-dramatic. It’s – nevermind. Maybe this isn’t working.

 

I stop dead, my fingers frozen and my eyes wide open. I’m aware that my mouth is slightly agape and is going dry from the cold air I’ve been inhaling whilst trying to calm myself.

“Hello?” I force my cracked voice to ask the dead space around me.
Christ! I’ve never written such a self-aware character – so many questions! Maybe I should just scrap this –


“No! No, no wait!” I spin around, looking up at the sky. The clouds are heavy with black and the grey sky is so brilliant that it hurts my eyes. “Hello?”

Only silence responds. My breathing has become rapid and I almost feel like crying. I wait a while longer and when it seems hopeless, I return to trying to untie the knot around my waist, even though it seems pointless. I am trapped, and now I’m crazy.

Listen, just calm down, alright? Look, I’m trying to write you. Well, a novel. Well maybe just a short story – I don’t know – but you won’t shut up.

 

“You’re a writer?” I can’t fully appreciate that the voice I’m hearing is real. It can’t be. I am going crazy, I knew it.

You see? Every time I add a new element you start up again. That’s why you don’t know anything – I’ve erased practically everything I’ve written and you’re still not happy. This time it’s the sky. I mean Jesus! I have a deadline, you know.

The voice boomed down at me, irate and trembling in my ears, shaking the very ground I stood on. I squint up into the sky and think about my next move.

“Look, I…. I understand your frustration”, I start tentatively, “Really, I do. But you have to admit, it’s a little confusing down here as well”. I pause, bracing myself for the retaliation. The silence eggs me on, “So, maybe we could work together. Because I’d like a name and it seems you’d like to give me one…”

Go on.

“So I’ll… stop making snarky comments”, I said, even though I thought I was fully entitled to them, and –

Look, I’ve got the eraser end of a pencil right here and to be honest I’m a little tired of you. I could turn you into a self-conscious tampon if –

“No, no! I’m sorry!” I shout, my hands raised in the international sign for surrender. “Look, I’m sorry, I’m just a little shaken up here. It’s quite something to find out you’re a nothing and then a big voice in the sky tells you that it alone is responsible for your existence.” As the words leave my lips I start to hope that this isn’t going to be a story about finding God –

I wouldn’t worry about that. But if I’m being honest, I hadn’t thought about it that way. Must be pretty strange down there.

Silence.

Alright. I’m sorry too.

Silence again. I wait.

And I didn’t mean what I said about the tampon. I’m just suffering from a serious case of writer’s block. I’ve got 12 hours and you don’t even have a name, I mean –

“Well, hold on now!” I interrupt before my creator erases me in a panic, “I’d be more than willing to help out”. I lower myself into a sitting position and cross my legs in the dewy grass. My legs creak as they fold underneath me. “Could you bring the sun out? It’s hard to think when it feels like death is imminent.”

The voice chortles and the sun comes up, warming my face and turning the grass green. The trees bloom around me and suddenly it’s beautiful out. I lay back, placing my hands behind my head, “So… what about Raymond? Maybe I’m a pilot.”

Daniel Fagen was trapped in the limbo world between wakefulness and sleep. Cheap rose perfume mingled with expensive Chanel in a putrid cocktail of memories that stung Fagen’s nose and turned his blood cold. Fagen had fallen asleep on the couch in his living room as an old man, but sat nonplussed in his favourite bar 45 years old again. Behind the counter he saw the plump red-head he bedded after every drinking binge, and next to her, his dead wife. The two laughed and spoke happily; it unsettled him to see his wife and mistress together as if they had been long-time friends.
Fagen’s daughter was seated at the table across from him; her mouth twisted into a petulant smile.
Fagen stared at her a while. He had nothing to say to his daughter, not in dreams or in life. Greta kept her eyes on him as she rose from her seat, and then went to join her mother at the bar.
He looked down at the table; a blank name tag was stuck to the lapel of his shirt. When he looked up again he was staring at the ceiling in his living room.
Fagen’s heart sat heavy in his chest; panicked disquiet rolled him from the couch and he lurched into his private study, unsteady on legs heavy with sleep and age. He flipped the desk lamp on, pulled an envelope from a drawer and proceeded to write the letter he should have sent years ago.

 

 

Quinn had been driving his rented car back and forth across the country for some weeks now. There had only been whisperings of Greta’s whereabouts, and now after nearly two months of driving and questioning and spending more of Fagen’s money than he had earned in the past twelve years, he was on the way back to Durban in the hopes that the tip from a friend of Greta’s would finally reveal the woman. It was nearing four in the afternoon, and the skinny wraith of a woman who had hailed his car down off the highway was still fast asleep.

The young woman looked barely older than 24. Rain-drenched and miserable, her dark hair clung in strands to her thin face. She had hopped into the car in a flurry of arms and rain and smelly clothes, introduced herself as Katherine, preferring to be called Kitty, and then had promptly fell asleep. They couldn’t have been driving for more than twenty minutes before the vagrant was drooling saliva thick with the consistency of the underfed. Quinn caught a glimpse of dull brown eyes before they disappeared behind puffy pink eyelids; clearly she’d been crying. They drove in silence for several hours allowing the girl to sleep like the dead, the radio crackling like leaves underfoot. When she woke, she ate like a starved animal, wolfing down the packed food Quinn offered her.

She’d been asleep for hours, and starved by the looks of it. Quinn asked her why she’d been out on the road in the puring rain on her own.
Kitty, to Quinn’s amusements, was extremely talkative and animated once roused from her stupor. She laughed with her entire body, especially her eyes, which Quinn had misjudged by the light of misfortune. Bright and shining, they flashed as she spoke.
She was looking for an escape, she said, any city, province or job that would take her. Kitty’s arms flailed about in wild gestures as she spoke. Her drying hair began to frizz up around her face.
“Jon and I lived in Cape Town together for a while. He was extremely possessive”, she said, her eyes fixed maniacally on the road ahead, “terrified that I would cheat on him. He gave me a black eye every time I forgot how much I owed him. And you’d be surprised how many eyes one girl has. Enough to keep you blind for a pretty long time! All my friends told me to leave him – he wouldn’t let me work or study…But one day he hit my sister… His back was turned to me and I remember just standing there and -” Kitty whipped her head to look at Quinn intently, those manic, flashing eyes now fixed right on him. “And, you know when you just – you just lose it? Well I lost it. I picked up the nearest thing and smashed it over his head”. She grinned and slapped the arms that had risen gradually in wild gesticulations down into her lap, “It happened to be lamp. I can still see the shard sticking out of him… it was kind of funny actually. Might have made some kind of art-nouveaux fixture in some weird gallery or something”. She nibbled on her thumbnail and then quickly wiped it on her shirt.
“Anyway”, she shrugged and turned to sit straight in her seat again, “here I am!” She looked at Quinn again, beaming. “So what do we do now?”

She continued to look expectantly at him, and Quinn realised then that he had picked up a permanent companion. Quinn couldn’t deny that he had been in want of some company and who better than a young runaway with nothing to head for. Quinn found himself telling Kitty everything.

Fagen had been a horrible old man, he told Kitty, a grump who might as well have already been dead for the life he led. No friends, a dead wife and a healthy case of denial. Quinn was hired by Fagen’s maid to care for the old man when he had become too weak to do it on his own. So at age 25 Quinn was washing faecal matter off an 80 year old man and wiping dribble from his quivering chin, hoping against hope that their shared name did not have some ominous presentiment for Quinn’s future. Quinn had worked for Fagen for 12 years, until he disappeared one day. Fagen had turned up to work as usual, and instead of the cynical, scathing old man, he found an envelope in his place.
“Two letters; one for me and one for his daughter, plus a check for near on fifty grand. Oh, and the kicker, he wrote himself an obituary and asked me to post it to the newspaper. It came out a couple of months back. That was probably the most humble I’ve ever seen the old guy.” Quinn smiled to himself.
“He made sure I didn’t run off with the cash though, senile old bastard didn’t trust a soul. I thought I had been earning a slave’s pittance working for him, but turns out he’s been keeping half of my salary in a savings account until my contract was up. Maybe it was to see whether my work was worth the wage, or maybe he’d been planning to leave me with this quest from the day he hired me. In any case, whether my employment was up or not, he made it clear that I won’t see that other half until Greta gets her money and her letter. It wouldn’t surprise me. He liked to leave me with the hard work; he smirked for twelve years while I wiped his ass and I’d be willing to bet my life on the fact the he could probably do it himself for about six of them, he just liked to watch me suffer”.
By now Kitty had propped her feet up on the dashboard and was leaning with her head cradled in the taut loop of the seatbelt, quite comfortable. He gestured for Kitty to pass the lighter he kept in the cubbyhole. He offered her a cigarette. They each lit theirs, Quinn steering the car with his knees as he cupped the flame against the wind howling in from the window.
“He sounds awful. Why’d you stay on with him?” Kitty asked, brushing hair off her face.
Quinn shrugged. “The old man knew I didn’t like him and he liked me even less, but I was well read and mildly intelligent; I seemed to keep him entertained. Plus, I doubt he could have found someone else as broke and desperate as I was at the time to take on the job. Every single part of me just wants to burn the damn letter and go home, but it was his last, disappearing wish I guess. So, here I am; chasing girls that don’t want to be found so I can get money from a dead man”.

“Mmmm”, she hummed, taking a deep drag of her cigarette. “So you didn’t read Greta’s letter?” she asked, “I don’t think I would have had the restraint.”
“Nope. Wasn’t my letter to read.”
“Do you have any idea what you’re even looking for?”
Quinn adjusted himself slightly in his seat, his cigarette hand hanging just outside of the window. “Well, yes and no. I found an old schoolmate of Greta’s in George, a girl called Alice. Alice seems to think Greta may be in Durban – Greta sent her a letter about a year ago.”
Kitty stared out of the window, and Quinn had begun to wonder if she was even listening to his story anymore.
“Durban…” Kitty’s voice trailed off. She turned to look at Quinn again, and suddenly became very excited. “It’s like a detective story! So, who’s the culprit behind Greta’s disappearance; a big bad husband?” Kitty drew her feet up onto the seat and hugged her knees. She looked like a kid at story time.
Quinn smiled at her enthusiasm. It had been a lonely two months; if he was going to be chasing ghosts he might as well have some fun.

“Well, subject A – the big bad husband. From what I’ve gathered from Alice, he was a selfish layabout, looking to get at the Fagen fortune. A drunk, not unlike old Fagen himself, but this man was an abusive oaf. Greta hated her father and wanted nothing to do with him or his money after her mother died and -” Quinn paused a moment, feeling himself come down with a sudden and serious case of realization. “It’s just struck me, Fagen used to tell me this stuff when he was wasted; sometimes he’d get me to write it down and then make me spend hours editing and organizing his memories. Told me the little titbits would be important when…” Quinn grew quiet again, remembering afternoons and evenings spent by Fagen’s bedside as he drunkenly recalled his life. Quinn remembered thinking that the Fagen he was writing about might have been someone he would have wanted to know, until Fagen would slap him on his head and ask him if he was listening, or whether he should get someone semi-literate to work for him instead. “Anyway, when Greta’s husband finally understood that he wouldn’t be touching any of Fagen’s money he sent their two girls off to some relative in Durban, and the two of them moved to Cape Town,” Quinn said. “But I never got a name or I would have started the case with him”.

“What about the kids? Maybe the way to find Greta is to find the kids?” Kitty suggested. There was a note of apprehension in her voice.
“I considered it, but I don’t know their names and neither did Fagen nor Alice. Greta never talked about her old life with the friends she’d made in Cape Town. But apparently two girls, about 10 years apart in age”, Quinn said. He looked at Kitty expectantly, waiting for her to carry on with their new game, but she remained silent for a while. It was the kind of silence that shouldn’t be interrupted either.

They travelled in silence for a good 5 or 6 hours, until Quinn’s back began to ache and his lids began to droop uncontrollably over his eyes. It was closing in on 8pm when he pulled off into a well-lit petrol station. He looked over at Kitty and decided not to wake her; she had been fast asleep for hours and ­­­­­­could probably do with all the rest she could get.

Quinn was woken by the morning sun streaming in through the car windows and the steady hum of cars pulling into the station to refill their tanks. His watch read 6am, which meant nearly a good twelve hours of sleep though his sighing body suggested he needed more. He looked to his left; Kitty still appeared to be asleep, buried underneath a bundle of jackets and blankets she had pulled from his bag on the backseat. Quinn stepped out of the car, stretched and then limbered stiffly to the small boutique and ordered two coffees. While he waited for the drinks he sat himself down on the curb near the shop door and lit a cigarette. He was exhausted; they were still a good 14 hours away from Durban, though his new travelling companion made the journey seem a touch brighter. He wondered if the two of them would crack the case today; the case of the cash and the missing daughter. Quinn smiled. When the coffees were ready he snubbed out his cigarette and padded back to the car to rouse the sleeping Kitty.

He thought the opening and slamming of the car door would do it, but when the bundle of blankets failed to stir, he patted it softly. When she still didn’t emerge from her woollen cocoon, he pushed the bundle of clothes aside and saw nothing but his own empty car seat.
At first he didn’t react at all; he simply stared at the seat blinking stupidly. His heart sank. Of course she stole it. You don’t invite a homeless girl into your car, tell her you’re carrying an envelope worth a fortune and still expect it and her to be there in the morning.
But they had gotten along so well, Quinn wouldn’t let himself believe it of her. He had to find it. He never panicked, but now he acted like a mad man, forgetting the boiling coffee in his hands and sending the contents of his car flying out of the doors in the grotesquely animated style one might find in ancient children’s cartoons whose creators were long dead. There was no sign of Fagen’s letter. The filthy vagrant! Quinn nearly wanted to cry. Fagen had trusted him; a man’s dying wish, even if he wasn’t one hundred percent dead, deserved to be fulfilled – even if he was the picture of depravity.
To add insult to injury, it took nearly ten minutes for Quinn to get the car started; it had been freezing the night before. When the car eventually lurched forwards, a sealed envelope slid off the dashboard right into Quinn’s lap. He couldn’t believe he had missed, and could further scarcely let himself believe that it could be Fagen’s envelope. But it was, along with another written in the hasty girlish scrawl of a message left in the secrecy of night. Again he had been walked out on and left with nothing but a letter.
Quinn skimmed the letter; his practiced eyes taking in every word. His heart rose up into his throat and settled back down into his chest; he didn’t quite know what to make it.
Kitty claimed to be Greta’s eldest daughter, and said she was on her way to Durban in search of her grandfather – to beg him to send her younger sister money to pay the price for years of neglect. She remarked on what a fortuitous coincidence it had been in running into Quinn, and apologised sincerely for not telling him who she was in person. Although he was furious and perhaps more perplexed now than anything else, a semblance of logic and rationality still existed within his brain and Quinn thought he understood the reason she had not done just that; would he really have believed a runaway he picked up off the highway if she had claimed to be Fagen’s heir and entitled to his fortune? Kitty said she would be able to look after herself, but it was her sister she worried about. Leah was only 13 years old, and living with an aunt who could barely afford the expenses of one. Kitty begged him to trust her, to help Leah. The last line of her letter left two addresses; one for Greta and one for Kitty. She encouraged Fagen to seek Greta out, and said she would be at her apartment by the end of the week if he decided to trust her.

The address for Greta was in Durban. It was another entire’s day driving before Quinn arrived back in the city; a drive that sent Quinn reeling to and fro between guilt, anger, shame, pity and more often than not the overarching sense of pure indifference. He was tired of this whole situation; tired of running into dead ends at every turn eventually simply resigned himself to defeat. He thought that he had laid the matter to rest in his mind; he would simply mail the letter and the check to the address Kitty had given him. Then he would be done with this whole business and would be freed from his involuntary contract with a ghost employer. Quinn was quite pleased with this resolution, but as soon as the bright city lights loomed up over the hill at him, he knew that would not be the case.
Quinn was driven by something to finish his task; it was definitely not loyalty. Perhaps it was pure curiosity, perhaps it was the lure of money owed to him, and perhaps it was something as simple as concern for the vagabond friend he had made. He continued to think about his reasoning as he located the address on a map and followed the winding city streets by the light of the early morning. The roads and city felt eerily lonely. Quinn sat outside Greta’s black residence a full twenty minutes staring out into the night. Shadows danced in his brain; Daniel Fagen and Daniel Quinn, the evanescence of a name, a ghost employer, that wraith of a girl and this graveyard of a home. He extricated himself from the car and crunched his way through soft green grass; dead leaves and twigs crackling under worn-out boots. He passed hundreds of mothers, daughters, husbands and sons, all dead and none expecting a letter. An absurd feeling of guilt passed over him momentarily; he wished he had letters for all of those lying beneath. It took him ten minutes to find Greta, but when he did his admiration for the young runaway ruptured any feelings of doubt he had. How easy it would have been for her to simply make off with money, how easy it would have been for her to cash a check in her mother’s name and never think twice about the man who might forever live in guilt because of it. Quinn didn’t think it right to simply post Kitty the envelope. He had liked her, and even when he had thought she was a thief, he had worried about her and where she would go and what she would do. Quinn knew he had one more trip to make before he could rest easy. He left Greta’s grave behind and located Kitty’s apartment in a neighbourhood whose cracked buildings loomed in on every side and threatened to topple onto those weak enough to scare easy. He wrote “Detective seeks assistant” and his phone number onto a note and slipped it into Kitty’s post box. With that, he went home and slept with Fagen’s envelope under his pillow until Kitty called him.

I was able to sum up my life in three words; “I don’t know”. An easy answer you may think, but I am of the opinion that admitting uncertainty is arguably one of the most difficult things to do. I have a sharp tongue and lash out before I give myself a chance to think things through, to consider what I am about to say and perhaps change my course of action. Unfortunately, this is almost never the case. I am defensive and offensive, quick to act out and even quicker to react. My hot temper blinds me, but I can argue. I can really argue. I may even have become a lawyer had I been able to find anything resembling ambition or passion in. Yet, here I was, a young woman, in the prime of her life as some would say (though I myself hate that expression – it places far too much pressure on an individual), arguing with an old man in a line at the grocery store.

I couldn’t remember what we were arguing about, only that he had challenged me, and as usual I let my tongue lead, instead of my brain. I felt fire. I took a step outside of myself. I watched as my eyes glazed over, and this person who looked and spoke and acted exactly like me took charge. I said awful things. I could barely hear the words coming from my mouth, but I saw them clear as day, shooting across to the old man. They were arrows tipped with poison. I watched his brow un-furrow as my words hit him, expression sliding right off his face as though it had been washed away by a heavy rain. I watched his mouth part slightly, saliva dry and lips prune-like. His eyes shook with confusion as I knew they were trying to understand me. The river beds of wrinkles and creases in his skin seemed to be drying, even draining, as I spoke, as he took me in. Me. An inconsiderate, angry, rude and obnoxious pile, disguised as a pretty girl with dark eyes and hair. It was such that allowed me to get away with the things I did and said, all of which, coming from another would never have been allowed.

The old man breathed out slowly through his nose. It was as if he had been inhaling my words, straight into his lungs, and as he blew them out through his flared nostrils, I heard every word I had said to him. It was in that instant that I knew that this ordinary man in this ordinary grocery store filled with ordinary people, saw through me and everything I pretended to be. He saw through the facade that I had created to keep friends and men close. That facade that threw a wig and some mascara onto my short temper, my selfishness, my reserve, my impatience and my deluded sense of self righteousness and called it confidence, determination and decisiveness. I felt naked. I felt the scars I had given others break open my skin ten-fold. The man had not said a word.
I felt the fire extinguished and sense of purpose stamped out. The old man raised his eyebrows, his face still blank and said, “Who do you think you are?” His tone was so even, so conversational that it threw me.
He left me then, shuffling away after filling my stomach with lead. The sound of the grocery store and the world I really inhabited came flooding back. I was paralytic in the cashier’s line, unable to move even though the shouts and trolley rattling from angry shoppers around me urged me to do so.

The shop was all of a sudden too bright. Too colourful. Too loud. Too busy. There was too much going on and I had to get away. I stumbled out of the sliding doors onto the street outside; one hand blocking the blinding glare from the sun, the other hand guiding me along the railing that I knew would eventually lead me to my apartment. My cave. I made my way so quickly that I did not realise where I was until I was lying face up on my bed, hands behind my head. My hands propped my head up further where my lumpy pillow failed to do so. What the old man had said to me terrified me beyond measure.
Who was I?
The question sounded familiar. I was sure I had heard it before, but only in the way you vaguely recall the tune of a song you heard on the radio once, though slightly more haunting. A weight sat upon my chest, one that had obviously lain dormant for years, but was brought to life by this little old man with a trolley filled with canned soup. I was sure that if I didn’t give this question at least some consideration it would haunt me, dogging my footsteps and tugging at my shirt sleeves wherever I went.
Who was I?

Part of me, most of me – the part of me I felt most comfortable being – nagged at me to forget the whole encounter, to go back to being blindly angry and somewhat happy. A smaller, but powerful part of me protested, it said it felt like trying on a new pair of shoes. They would be strange and uncomfortable, but deeply needed when my current pair was far too worn and far too dirty to be seen in public.
“Who do I think I am?” my voice left my lips abruptly, swallowed by the silence in the cave. It sounded calm, calm to the point of being awkward, given my current situation. It bothered me. A tap dripped. It was out of time with my heartbeat, and that bothered me too. I tried to get them in sync, but they wouldn’t cooperate. I pushed these thoughts from my head.
Who was I?
My first, instinctive answer was more of an evasive manoeuvre than an insight.
I don’t know, do I have to decide right now?
I had not even lived a quarter of my entire life span yet, and on a planet thousands of years old this seemed an awfully short time for someone to be expected to define their own existence. In relation to the age of the ground we stand on, the world around us, the stars, ideas and legends, I had not even been born yet. I felt like laughing at the man for his stupidity. I allowed myself to smile, convinced of my own genius. For surely I could really only answer this question on my deathbed because it is only after I have lived and experienced all that I am meant to experience, that I will know who I was, and who I am. I gloated for a moment, feeling confident that I had outwitted the old man in the grocery store.

Another thought struck me: The only constant, is change itself. I am not who I was 10 years ago, and I am not who I will be in 10 years time. So, surely, I was a whole person at that moment? I didn’t like to think of myself as a half formed being, missing an arm or a leg that I would only gain in my last moments alive. The man was mocking me now. The eyes that had shaken with confusion and pity now jeered at me. They laughed and sneered at my attempt at insight. That old man had gone home to his canned soup, and left me here, writhing in uncertainty.

I thought back to 10 years ago, when I was an awkward teen with breasts too large on anyone. I hated my body and had had a breast reduction. Now I have grown up, or at least succumbed to the ageing process, for growing up implies some level of maturity, which, upon reflection, my guard let down alone in the cave, I could not be so bold as to claim I had. My securities and self loathing, however, had festered over the years; taking refuge in the wound others call their soul. Cutting away chunks of your flesh doesn’t change who you are; yes, it allowed me to buy prettier bras and lovelier clothes, to avoid the wolf-whistling and cat-calling, but I am still an awkward, scared teenager hiding behind the beautiful body of a woman. I lay there, thinking. What I need is a soul-reduction, perhaps even soul implants, although I think my only real hope is for a soul-transplant. Unfortunately, you just don’t get many of those these days.

No, I may be forced to confront that ever crippling, ever elusive concept of change in order to hopefully come out the other side a better person. The idea of a “good person” these days was controversial however. I thought about a case in the news recently, a child molester in some far away town had been shot dead by the father of one of his 16 victims. The father was now being tried for first degree murder. The line there between good and bad was blurred, and I didn’t care to delve any further into the issue. As I thought this, I noted for the first time a slight thumping behind my eyes, but one that I realised now had been there the entire afternoon.

The ceiling fan directly above my bed cooled my room to the point where I was shivering slightly. I watched the whirring blades. I felt my arms and hands go numb under the weight of my head. I felt the lump under my lower back where my blankets and sheets had bundled. I felt the constriction of my toes in the too-tight socks in my comfortable, yet worn out old pair of shoes. I felt everything. I didn’t like it. I had never been this aware before, and it made me decidedly uncomfortable. This was how I spent that day. Lying flat on my bed, wrestling with ideas of who I was at that moment, in the context of the larger scheme of who I was to become, the lines between good and bad, and the comfort of the old, but the necessity of the new.

It became evening sooner than I realised, and I sat up abruptly. I went to the sink that was too close to my bed and had always given me an unsanitary feeling. I poured myself a glass of water and stood there for a minute. I had found myself in this position before, I remembered that now. Something would happen, something that shook me to my core, and I would bury myself in myself for a painful, contemplative day. The other times were different, I thought. I let the old shoes part of me win over the new shoes part, retreating back into my comfort zone, going on as I had before: cruel and unforgiving for absolutely no reason. This time would be different, I was sure.
The vaguely familiar tune of a song on the radio playing on the street.
Who did I think I was?
I pondered a second longer, and answered myself: I don’t know. I took a great gulp of water and felt renewed. But, so what, old shoes were comfortable; new ones took ages to break in.