I look around me and all I seem to see is people going nowhere expecting sympathy – lyrics from ‘When I’m Gone’, SIMPLE PLAN
He is young and hungry. He has a vigorous if skeletal body, and piercing blue eyes that seem more innocent and less intelligent than they are. He is a ganglier version of Frodo Baggins, and today he is driving a long distance across the Highveld hinterland. It is a cold day in South Africa, sharp with the sun’s glare. His road is the N14, drawing him west towards the big city.
The Toyota is old, and with fuel prices so high he can barely afford the 500km trip. So he drives slowly and carefully, aware of the annoyance he is creating each time a vehicle overtakes him, but unwilling to go faster than he is going. He is faintly contemptuous of those overtaking him. Don’t they realize we can no longer afford to waste fuel by driving unnecessarily fast? What’s the rush? The light blue vehicle, once his mother’s, is packed to capacity with his things. Books mostly, heavy books, weigh the car’s belly close to the road. Everything else he owns – which isn’t much besides books - a few computer games (first person shooters), clothes, the odd pot and pan and government issue weapons.
He drives under hanging powerlines; through withered farmlands. Cathedral like grainaries rise up, looming beside a bridge as he moves slowly over it. He crosses the blades of shining railway track, glances at the listless windmills pressing their metal fans darkly against the bleached cold sky.
He thinks of his father on the farm. The Orange river and the heat, the dried fruit. He will miss the smell of the house, and mama’s food. Everything. Now, to be man, he must go on his own and do woman’s things; his own washing, cooking and cleaning. He is worried about food. He is a lazy chef, but a fussy eater. Perhaps he will find a girl who will love him and cook for him. This is if he will ever stay home long enough to eat. The inspector, Byleveld, expects a lot from him, he knows. He expects no mistakes, and Neethling knows, if he concentrates, if things are right, he can catch anyone. But he will have to work around the clock, harder than the criminals, burning every last drop of midnight oil to get the edge. He is ready to do this.
A few months on the job in Kuruman and Upington and he has brought in an impressive number of warrants and arrests. A big name in crime fighting in the centre of the crime war in South Africa had heard of Craig Neethling’s success. His boss, Captain Karshagen, described him as meticulous, and nicknamed him ‘Die Jood’ (‘The Jew’). To everyone the same crude explanation: ‘He is to the criminals like the Jews are wiff money. He let’ nothing go. He knows where every penny belongs.’
He nods now to himself, the wind tugging at his arm on the car door. The radio buzzing softly below the noise of the wind. I’m ready. Then, he rolls up the window (it is a very old Toyota, a 1986 model) and turns up the news. He has heard these stories before, but after today, it will be his job to track these people down. He listens to the woman’s voice calmly describing the murders in Johannesburg. They are losing the war in the big city. A tide, a mob, restlessly swills against the crime containing cup that is the South African Police Service. The cup is cracked and filled to the brim, while inside, the storm stirs up the poisonous tea into deadly maelstrom. The few details of a muder on the radio, and his mind races, computes. Already he begins to draw a portrait in his mind. Black, repeat offender. A civil servant. Probably from Alexandria…
The road sweeps by a hamlet known as Ventersdorp. On impulse, he turns in and stops at a run down garage. He fills up the tank out of habit even though the tank is half full. He talks to a petrol attendant. The man is friendly, with silver foil eyebrows and a hooded expression. The attendant helpfully tells the young man how far to Johannesburg from Ventersdorp, then adds in Afrikaans, tipping his cap: “You must try the biltong. Over there. Before you go.”
He follows the man’s finger across the road to a light green square; it’s sign above the door (BUTCHER) beckoning. “I think I will,” he murmurs, blinking as he turns back into the setting sun.
As he steps off the sidewalk, behind him a large red sign flickers to life, but only the last letter Y of the WIMPY sign is glowing bright red.
He crosses the street, cold fingers dip under his light yellow t-shirt, tickling the taught white skin wrapped around the skeleton. He steps into the Butchery, and immediately senses something different. It is dark and silver at the same time. It is immaculately clean. And bathed in a pool of soft light, apparently created by some trick, is the most beautiful creature he has ever seen.
“I hear the biltong here is the best I’ll ever eat.” It is his voice, but the voice seems to not come from him. He feels dislocated. A strange power in here.
Her eyes that seem to be on him, now steel into him for a moment. The razor edges of her lips curve deliciously, and the slight movement of speech makes her body and her hair swim in front of him.
“Do not believe everything you hear, or see.” She raises a finger to her lips, and sucks something off it, slowly. “Or what you taste.” Light finds flecks of green shining in the dark organic brown of her eyes.
“What’s your secret?” he croaks into the emptiness.
Her eyes turn slowly over him.
“To your legendary biltong…?” Her eyes remain on him.
“You know what they say about secrets,” she says looking away from him.
“What do they say?”
“If I told you I’d have to kill you.”
“Really?” He has regained his composure a little. “You say we should not trust our senses; why not?”
A twinkle in her eye, and a cheeky grin: “Because the body is vulnerable to its appetites. Not everyone can control them. Hey, stop asking me all these questions. What can I do for you?”
“Well let’s try this famous biltong of yours.”
“Would you like soft or dry, fatty or…”
“Dry. No fat. Chunks.”
“Okay.” She glides to a sliver bar and lifts it to the ceiling. A hook deftly lifts a stick of biltong from the cables that appear hung with large bats. She suddenly has a silver sharp knife in her hand as she steps into the pool of light. He watches her cutting the hardened decayed flesh. “This is not the way I like it.”
“When it’s dry it’s lost its life. It’s black and rotten. I like it soft and flesh…” That sharp smile again: “I mean fresh.”
He leans onto the counter, employing all the swagger he can muster. “How long has a girl like you been in a place like this?”
The steel in her dark eyes meet the cool in his blue. Her expression softens ever so slightly; she seems impressed by his guile.
She steps back. “Quite a personal question don’t you think?”
“Maybe. But er…maybe not.”
“Do you have…er…you know, something to hide?”
“Do you have another question Mr Detective? Be careful, I eat detectives for breakfast.”
He chuckles. “Is that so?”
“HA!Yes it is.”
“In that case I apologize.”
“Why? Are you a detective?”
“Almost. I’m on my way to becoming one.”
“Really? Reaaally,” she coos, suddenly slowing down, turning her focus seductively on him. “Well Mr. Tamborine Man, don’t let me stand in your way.” She looks down at the knife and continues working.
He watches her expertly carving a trunk of biltong into fingersized chunks. He notices the strength in her arms, her fingers.
Silence. The soft skkkRRRP of dead tissues being sliced into small blocks.
She hands him the packet, and enters something into a computerized cash machine.
“That will be -.”
“Dinner.” She cocks her head slightly at him.
“Why do you want to eat with me?”
“Can’t you be spontaneous?”
“Oh bite your tongue. There is some risk involved. You don’t even know me.”
“Strange way to put it. Don’t you mean, ‘You don’t even know me?’
“No, don’t put words into my mouth. Why should be spontaneous with you? Why are you so special?”
“Don’t you want to find out?...” She raises her chin a little, her eyes drifting over his head.
“I’m dying to watch you eat. You have a beautiful mouth.”
She offers a small smile, saying slowly: “Yours is small. But your eyes make up for it.”
“Is that a compliment?”
A darkness falls over her face. “All this silly talking is making me hungry.”
He smiles: “When do you get off work?”
“I own this place. I can go whenever I want.”
“Really. You’re not concerned you might lose a few customers.”
She looks down with a small self-indulgent smile. “No, I am not worried about that.”
Together they emerge at the door. She inserts a long silver key that sparkles in the sun. The lock clicks with loud and absolute precision behind the solid door.
“What do you want to eat?” He asks her. She looks at the ground, he thinks, out of shyness. The sky darkens over the street, with strokes of crimson.
The First Meal