Wednesday, November 01, 2006
The Sunburnt Soul
He glanced at her, followed the tip of her fingernail through the glass down between the glass citadels of banks and fossil fuel companies dug into the face of the Great Mountain.
“It’s Saint George’s Cathedral,” the pilot answered, eyes still focused on the thick puzzle of cars scrabbled around the tidbit of church. Realising he hadn’t really answered her question, Andy Snook lifted grey green eyes – they seemed to penetrate the object they were focused on – and pressed them into the dark pebbles of Trillian Bell. “It’s Brett Kebble’s funeral.”
She stared back, helplessly but also, with some girlish charm.
“It’s a white guy, a very rich white South African guy that got shot in Johannesburg recently.”
“Oh,” she said. The edges of soft, pink lips twitched upward, and as a glint appeared in her eye, she turned them back to the mob surrounding the church. Slowly the scene slipped under the belly of the helicopter, and she followed the shoulders of the Great Mountain, noticed the approaching front curling and bellowing ahead – a wave of cold air barreling towards them from Antarctica. Meanwhile the wall of vertical rock swept upwards and seemed about to scratch the belly of the helicopter when it suddenly flattened into a table of grass that suddenly flashed with steel blue and aluminum silver before collapsing down a series of Apostles that culminated in a ribbon of tar dripping with Mercedes and Volkswagens. She noticed Jeeps and other open vehicles too, and made out the minute tossing mane of a blonde wearing a white scarf in a roofless black mini.
The helicopter seemed to cross over a series of railway tracks, and she pulled herself back into the cockpit.
She looked at him and saw his mouth widen into a grin. “Just a little turbulence.” His index finger flicked once. “We’re flying over Llandudno now, beside it is the nudist beach – Sandy Bay…”
She noticed a few specks on the pearly white shore, and a few emerald green waves collapsing into fans of white lace.
“What are those?”
“Seals. A few great Whites hang around the island. Up ahead is the Dungeons. They get some big waves out here. Up to 20 feet.”
“Not today,” she observed, fingernails ticking delicately against the glass.
“And that’s Hout Bay on your left.” Meanwhile a massive escarpment of rock launched out of the black blue sea.
He allowed it to sink in without words.
The rock eventually subsided and then fell away altogether into marshland before the land flexed its muscles one last time.
“Okay we’re coming up on Cape Point.” On both sides now, the ocean seemed to be swallowing up the land. Mountains flapped upwards in Africa’s last attempts to beat back the ocean, and finally here, with great waves crashing against hard rust colored rocks, the ridge pushed a triangle into the seas fury. Mists rose where ice cold sea furiously pummeled the rock and vegetation tore in the whip of winds, baboons scampered about, then stopped to stare at this very loud noisy bird in the air.
“Thanks Andy,” she said, pressing the hand that held hers with another hand.
“Sure thing.” He turned to collect the helmet she’d left on her seat.
“Worth every penny.”
“Good,” he replied, quickly, over his shoulder. He kicked a pair of metal blocks under the wheels of the helicopter then followed her off the pad. Table Mountain rose like a giant grey sail from ground level, and the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront hovered further along the road they were standing on.
Her car door slammed and as he locked the office door she vroomed off behind him.
Now Andy clipped his daypack around his waist, pocketed his keys and mounted his bicycle. It was one of those sleek Tour de France types, and he looked immediately underdressed for its small silver pedals, and razor thin geometry.
He gradually encountered a thickening ooze of traffic, and just as the road seemed to become impenetrable, he pulled off it and ducked along an alley, across a strip of cement that filled with big tugboats hovering in dry dock, through a parking lot and then entered a gate that fed into the beautiful waterfront apartments. 5 minutes later he was sitting on a balcony, sipping a beer, with the Sunday Times on his lap, watching the harbour turn into a twinkling hub of activity. Nice girl, he reflected, before going back inside and pulling the glass door closed behind him.
Behind his submerged lids, deep underwater, in the subterranean depths of unconsciousness, he dreams. The depths his journey takes him to brings a pressure to his ears, and his chest feels as though a weight is pressing against him. He wanders between the shipwrecks until he comes upon a church, deep in a crevasse. A whale or cloud passes overhead and a beam of light washes the inky blur out of the water, turning the church into a sparkling after the rain, sunfilled spectacle. He sinks through the ceiling of Saint George’s Chapel, still holding his breath. He sees the murdered businessman in his coffin, and the eight well dressed black men carrying him. This white man’s money bought a hundred cars, paintings and houses – spun seemingly from the gold embedded deep in South African soil. But appearances can be deceptive, for as it turned out, the money didn’t exist at all. It was hallucinated, but everyone believed it came from somewhere. People's confidence made him rich, far richer than he was or would ever be. And now here he was, dead, and his white corpse held aloft by black hands that might have belonged to coffee pickers instead of politicians. The walls have ears, and they whispered the truth alive, and wrote it in the cities newspapers. Brett Kebble Murdered. Brett Kebble Bankrupt. Brett Kebble Held Aloft By Elite Black Retinue.
He swam out and over the city, felt the feathers of a low floating gull tickle his arm and moved away to give them some space. He did not see the soul of Brett Kebble or anyone else. Just the city, sleeping below him, adrift under the tides; that soft sweep and tug of water. Can all these people, rich and poor, young and old, be under the same spell?
The scene swims before him and then there is the shift. Is this a dream, this floating over the diamond city, or is this a flight at night, in the rain and the fog? As if to confirm this sense of conscious vertigo, he blinks and notices the helicopters rudder. He tugs at it, but the flight continues.
The squid that has wrapped its arms around his chest lets go. The inky blackness evaporates. The eyelids held down by a team of freckles and a small beach of eyesand gives way and the silver globe opens to expose itself to the blue planet gluing this one human being to his bed, to his apartment, and its foundations to the body of the spinning planet. And whoooooosh. There it flies through the black pinpricked ocean of icy cold and fiery lethal space. The continuum allows this ball on its journey, and on this ball, this man, with his eyes, his eyes sending fires of impulses into a neural network – trying to decipher the context of just one person’s place within a national identity. What is South Africa, and who is a South African? He stretches, farts inadvertently and steps with toes curling over cool white tiles and opens the silver steel of his refrigerator. He pulls out a small plastic cup of yoghurt, tears off the foil top and dabs a spoon from cup to mouth. A tongue, whipped with white, licks.
He opens the sliding door and steps into the already hot sun beaming onto his balcony. He hears a mewing gull, the foghorn of a ship, and spots the gleaming body of a seal looking for leftovers in a quiet corner of the harbor almost directly below the Waterfront apartments. He sees the shoals of cars swimming into the waterfront arena and then his eyes move to the hanger and from there, up to the sky. The air is thick and warm and full of promise. Just then his phone chirrups.
“Hi.” It’s a shy hi. His heart interrupts its sleepy beat.
“Can you fly me to the Karoo.”
“Sure. What do you want to see?”
“Then the Karoo’s the perfect place for you.”
“When can we go. Today sometime?”
“I don’t have anything scheduled.” His eyes turn under the silver membrane, taking in the mountains smokeless slopes. “There aren’t any fires. Seven ‘o clock?”
“That’s in 10 minutes.”
“It’s a date.”
It’s just a ride in a helicopter with a bored princess with nothing better to do than spend daddies moolah.
“Is this what you were after?” he said, as the rotor blades made a last whip and then stopped.
Their ears were singing. A gust pushed at them. She shifted, making the gravel crunch under her shoe.
She nodded with a smile.
Despite himself, he liked her smile.
“You think I’m vulgar don’t you?”
“You do. You think I’m a spoilt little rich girl.”
“You are. But I wasn’t thinking that.”
Their eyes met. “Well,” he smiled, again, despite himself, “not just now.”
“See, I knew you were thinking that.” And with that she walked off into the Karoo. He stood there watching her. The sun arced higher, the wind moved and she became very small. An hour passed and then another, and finally she appeared, her skin covered in perspiration, already reddening in the sun.
Once airborne she pointed to a farmhouse plotted about a kilometre from the long straight strip of road called the N1 a road linking Cape Town to Africa’s financial powerhouse: Johannesburg.
“This is where I grew up.”
“Really. Can we fly around and then land on the pasture in front of the house?”
That night, in his room, through the open window, beneath curtains fingered by a delicate desert wind, he heard the long slow build up of sound:
A single car passing in the night.
Then the door creaked open and she tiptoed into his room.
She stood over him.
He tossed the blanket to one side and she climbed in.
In the darkness of the desert they whispered like teenagers.
The moon scooped across the sky, like a blob of yoghurt slipping along a blackened frying pan, glistening with soapy bubbles. Finally the fabric holding her breasts was gathered up in a fist and dropped softly to the wooden floor. The bed creaked for a few minutes and then all was still, save for the passing of one more vehicle in the night.
He was about to wheel his bicycle out of the office when he received a call. They wanted him to co-pilot an Mi-8. The world’s largest diamond mine needed reinforced steel – and he was to fly from the Sishen mine to Orapa in Botswana with two co-pilots.
“Ysterplaat?” he confirmed
Trillian closed the door of her car, and pressed a button, lowering the window.
He snapped his cellphone shut.
“Honey I have to fly out to a mine that’s pretty far away. One of their pilots got sick and all the other guys are doing rescue work in Korea or something.”
“When will you be back?”
“Tomorrow, maybe Thursday.”
She smiled a supportive smile. “Well, call me.”
“I’m not sure if they have a signal out there.”
“Come back alive then.”
He nodded, then leaned over and their lips did a fishy dance in saltwater.
Then the window slid upwards, throwing a reflection of a ladder over her smile.
He watched her yellow car’s reverse lights ignite, then the red break lights flashed. The car pulled away and out of sight. He stood there for many minutes, smelling the salty spray and somehow resisting his fate for as long as he thought he could.
When the Debswana vehicle arrived, an unmarked white Mercedes convertible, the driver shook his hand and asked him if he had any bags.
“Just a hamburger and coke,” Andy said. The driver did a doubletake, thinking it was a joke. Andy rolled up the brown paper bag and the driver gave a small whatever-you-say shrug. Andy suddenly didn’t feel like eating anything.
Inside the car it was cool, cold in fact. His skin grew a million tiny pyramids. He paged through the contract in the back seat while the harbor’s cranes waved at him outside the window. They passed Total’s gargantuan drums: filled with oil, while the sail of the great mountain lowered behind him. Soon the car breezed past airport security (the driver simply waved without stopping) and onto the runway.
The crew were two individuals he’d never seen. That was unusual. The guys who flew usually knew each other.
“Hey man,” the older man said, pulling a cigarette from his mouth.
“Hey,” Andy said.
The other man, with a briefcase, nodded.
“Let’s get rolling.”
The Mercedes had already left.
In front of him was the world’s biggest helicopter.
“You takin’ that with ya in mah bird?” the guy with the cigarette asked.
Andy gave a small nod.
“Hey, it’s naw prahblem. Naw prahblem, right Hal.”
“Shuwer, naw prahblem.”
Ten minutes later they had set down onto a scene that resembled the set of a Mad Max movie. It was the mine at Sishen, a hundred or so kilometres up against South Africa’s bone dry and barren West Coast. Strange rusted metal structures creaked everywhere in an already lunar landscape.
“Let’s load her up,” Hal said, and the back of the Mi8 began to open. Some people in overalls emerged out of a small door at the base of a large steel tower.
Andy quickly opened his cellphone and typed this message: Missing you already honey. Then he snapped it shut and stepped out into the heat.
(Image above courtesy topleftpixel.com)