© Kelly Van Nelson
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The Ace of Spades is tucked behind the same suit Queen and King and I know I’m in with a chance. My eyes blink once, an uncontrollable reflex, but every other muscle remains still. The back of my throat is so dry I want to gulp, but I hold back, knowing how important it is to keep my Adam’s apple under control. My hand is kept close to my chest to avoid giving anything away. That’s pretty much the way I like to live life.
Always keen to help Ma and Pa around the house, I’ve stocked the braai with rooikrans wood and we’re sitting out back enjoying a lazy afternoon with the fire crackling away. Pa has a potjie simmering over glowing coals that he’s piled to one side. He has a knack of pulling coals from the heart of the flames when they’re the perfect temperature for his cast iron pot. It’s a classic South African oxtail stew which is my older brother, Jaco’s, favourite; he likes to suck the bones to get every bit of flavour out. Jaco is home from Cape Town for the weekend, enjoying time off from medical school.
Every so often Pa lifts off the lid with his tongs and Ma gives the pot a stir with her wooden spoon. She looks happy in a brightly coloured floral dress with an apron tied over the top which I bought her last mother’s day. It says ‘Dad’s the boss, unless Mom is home’.
Between the synchronised stirring, my parents sip their wine and take their turn at cards, both in their element since Ma loves Rummy and Pa red wine. There are a few local wineries around Elim and Robertson, but my father regularly drives to the Cape to sample the wares of Stellenbosch and Paarl. A new bottle of blended Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon is open. Wine doesn’t hang around in our house long enough to catch dust.
‘Remember the first time you drank this stuff, Simon?’ Pa asks me.
I nod. Since I’m twenty-six, it was a few years ago now. My brother, Jaco, was barely of legal age himself to have a drink, but I was still a year underage when Pa acquainted me with vineyard produce.
I recall him pouring me a glass, only half full. I took a swig and spluttered while Jaco slapped me on the back to help clear the pathway for another mouthful, then I gulped down the rest and tried not to grimace.
‘You pair have never looked back since I introduced you to the finer things in life.’ Pa swirls his tipple and sniffs it. ‘Heavenly.’
He likes to think he’s a connoisseur but he just knows what he likes. Keeping a straight face, I put down triple spades and take the game.
‘No way,’ Jaco grumbles, as Ma shuffles the deck and deals for another round.
We trade duplicates and start quickly, since the family are keen to redeem their losses. Occasionally I question Ma’s rules of the game, but she doesn’t budge an inch.
‘In my house we play Rummy my way,’ she says.
Her apron did warn us.
I play a joker hand and thrash them again, fist pumping as I get up from the table. They all applaud and Pa gives me a hug.
‘That’s my boy, knocking it out of the park,’ he says, taking a sip of red.
‘That’s it, Boeta,’ Jaco declares, calling me brother in Afrikaans with fondness. ‘I’m drowning my sorrows later at Maxwells and you’re buying.’
I clink his glass with delight. It feels good to beat my older brother at something.
We swagger into Maxwells, an old warehouse converted to a bar in Struisbaai Industrial Estate, or rather Jaco swaggers and I stroll. His social skills far outweigh mine.
It’s dimly lit inside but a pretty brunette’s face lights up the place when she catches Jaco’s eye at the bar. She’s not a local as everyone knows everyone around here and we would have noticed a stand out like her well before now, but this place attracts tourists too. It’s the only joint around with a late liquor licence.
Jaco ignores her stare and she sticks her chest out that little bit further.
‘How come I don’t have that effect on women?’ I ask him as we wait to be served.
‘Chicks dig the dishevelled look on trainee doctors, Simon.’
‘Shouldn’t you be trimming the hair now you’re a city boy?’
My brother shakes his overgrown locks. ‘Gotta keep the surfie good looks.’
‘I’ll beat you riding a barrel wave even with my short back and sides. Remember I’m surfing the uncrowded break every day while your nose is stuck in text books.’
I rub my hands over my head as Jaco rises to the banter. ‘We might have to test that before I leave tomorrow,’ he says. ‘I haven’t lost my magic.’
‘Sunrise it is,’ I say, even though I know Jaco’s love of the swells means he glides through a tube better than most in the Overberg region. I relish the fact we spent our whole childhood at the southernmost point of Africa here in Struisbaai, where the Atlantic clashes with the Indian Ocean.
Maxwells is quiet, but it’s still early. A few couples twirl each other around as they dance in traditional Afrikaans lang-arm style to the latest Sokkie tune by Juanita du Plessis. We sit on stools around a fat barrel, first sipping beers then chasing them with Springbokkie. The shooters are sickly, crème de menthe layered with smooth Amarula, so eventually we swop for brandy and coke, sweet and smooth. As the music changes to contemporary beats, I go take a leak and on the way back from the men’s I clip the cue of a newcomer playing pool with his buddies.
‘Prick, you messed up my shot,’ he squares his shoulders inside his checked shirt.
‘You two think you’re everyone’s buddies.’ He glares towards Jaco and I see the busty brunette has taken my seat.
‘I doubt he’s interested,’ I tell him, noticing Jaco giving me a glare that tells me he’s not enjoying being accosted by the woman.
‘That’s my ex,’ the pool player slurs, stepping towards me. ‘Are you saying she’s not good enough?’
The question is a challenge. I flip over the options in my head like I’m in a game of rummy. I’m torn between reiterating Jaco’s disinterest, which devalues this guy’s ex to a useless card nobody wants to pair with. Answering to the contrary encroaches on his hand in confirmation that Jaco is trying to steal his joker from under his nose. So I drop my head and attempt to pass, but I'm on his radar now, bleeping like a battleship. He tries to sink me with a coward’s punch on the back of my neck, which hurts like hell, but I stay afloat.
Jaco is off his seat, quickly moving into the thick of it, but we’re outnumbered, four against two. Even with brawn on their side, the out-of-towners still feel the need to use a weapon and decide the stool is as good as any. It cracks against Jaco’s skull and my immediate reaction is one of scared panic for our safety. I don’t know if it’s drawn blood or not, but at the very least it’s going to leave him with a lump as a souvenir. Rage takes over as the burly figure lunges at me, and since I’m on the brandy and this is self-defence, I let the surge of adrenaline take over. My fist swings at his hairy face and gets lost amidst the bristles sprouting from his chin. I don’t know if I do that much damage to the target or to my hand as my endorphins are so pumped up I’m oblivious to my own or anyone else’s pain.
‘My mama tickles me harder than that.’
He clips me under the eye with another hook, then grabs a bottle and cracks it against the table.
'Stop it, you tosser,' the brunette screams at her ex as he plunges the jagged edge of the distorted bottle neck in my direction.
I duck fast from sheer reflex and manage to trip him while another of his chums runs at me full force. The head of my opponent slams into my belly button, knocking me, winded, to the ground. My body spasms. Disoriented, I curl into a ball as tan workman’s boots come towards me. I pull my hands up to protect my head but mercifully Jaco throws a pool ball at my attacker to ward him off.
The wooden floor is covered in a layer of grit, the slats capturing remnants dragged in from the outdoors between the cracks. Some finds its way into my mouth and I try to raise my head to spit, but heaviness overcomes me. The timber floor is comfortable, like sinking into a mattress after a hard day's work, and I remain here, trying to steady my breathing. Coldplay is pumping through the sound system; Clocks, a great song. The British churn out some killer bands.
‘Get the fuck up,’ Jaco hollers, so I muster the energy to push my body into a crouch position to take in the scene. My brother is up against it, still swaying from the whack of the stool as our assailants use him as a punch bag. Manoeuvring myself up from all fours feels like an insurmountable task, but I wrench myself from the floor and stagger back at them, managing to land one sucker-punch that takes out an assailant’s tooth before the bouncers finally step in to break up the brawl. One of them pins Jaco’s arms behind his back while the other grips me by the shoulders to shove me towards the door.
‘Out,’ the bouncer orders Jaco.
‘Fuck you,’ my brother snarls, looking back at the group who waylaid us. ‘What about them?’
‘They’re next when we’re finished with you two. Go home unless you want the police breathing down your neck.’
My brother and I are hurled outside. It’s a mild night which is a blessing since my torn t-shirt would be no more useful to ward off unkinder elements than a colander on my head.
‘Let’s go,’ I shout at Jaco, staggering to my car. He looks back again towards the bar. ‘Boeta, get in!’
‘This is bullshit.’ He climbs in the passenger side anyway and I skid from the car park. As I head towards Main Road, a car travelling in the opposite direction flickers its headlights at us, warning us of trouble ahead.
‘The cops must have a road block up,’ my brother states.
‘Shit, it’s like living in a time warp,’ I curse, slowing to U-Turn. ‘I wouldn’t have to drink and drive if there was decent public transport or a bar close enough to walk to.’
‘You’ve read ‘Long Walk to Freedom’ too many times,’ he says, referring to my love of Mandela’s autobiography. ‘Even if there was a train for us to get on, we’d be beaten to a pulp. We’re all fucking derailed.’
I glance at Jaco who has a cut to his forehead trickling blood onto his eyebrow. ‘Like we are now, you mean?’
He doesn’t answer. My brother, like so many others, has forgotten that not all crimes in South Africa happen as a result of the complex racial divides and aftereffects of apartheid. We’re at the bottom of a continent full of contrasts. Vibrant and violent, drunk and sober, rich and poor, just and unjust, right and wrong, black and white, but sometimes a punch simply comes from a pissed stranger, man to man.
I double back through a partially built housing estate, dusty from construction. We make it home in one piece to a house veiled in darkness as Ma and Pa have long ago retired to a book and bed. I’m thrilled to be home safely, but Jaco is still fuming.
‘I bet those idiots are still in there, drinking their beers and trying to rule the place.’ He opens the pantry with the intent of pouring us a nightcap from the bottle of Klipdrift kept next to the extra virgin olive oil.
I see it then; the gun on the top shelf which has been there for as long as I remember, fully loaded and gleaming from the Old Man’s meticulous maintenance regime. Nor is it an orphan, with its companion in his bedside cabinet next to Pa’s reading glasses, reflecting his stubborn old school streak and refusal to bow to the current trend of contracting an armed response service.
Jaco grabs the weapon and waves around the 9mm pistol like we’re still boys playing with our lightsabres.
‘This mean motherfucker can inflict revenge.’
‘Moenie kak praat nie, poephol,’ I reply.
‘I’m talking shit!’ he roars. ‘Who do you think you are, calling me an arsehole?’
I scoff, like he’s asked me to sing the New Zealand anthem in the middle of watching The Boks take a thrashing against The All Blacks.
It fails to quell his temper.
Dawn is breaking as I’m hauled from the police vehicle. I land on the pavement next to the cluster of old fishermen’s cottages, which are breath-taking in their simplicity. If I could crawl inside one of them now, to shut out the horror of what happened after Maxwells a few hours ago, I would. The smell of gutted fish would be an improvement on the acrid stench of dry blood clinging to my nostrils. Jaco never intended things to go as far as they did and for me to end up here, with a hand on my shoulder steering me silently towards The Suid Afrikaanse Polise Diens.
Attached to the main police station is a rusty lockup in worse condition than the shacks housing refugees from Zimbabwe, Somalia, Nigeria.
‘Aren’t you going to question me?’ I ask, hoping to check into a private interview room instead of a cell.
‘When you sober up.’
In a society waiting to combust, the last place I want to be is in a corrugated iron pressure cooker, but I’m shoved in with two black men who convey an overwhelming waft of stale body odour from where they’re slumped against the wall.
‘Leave his tekkies on his feet,’ the officer warns before slamming the door. His reference is to my new Nike, which if he excelled at his job, should have been removed and placed in evidence.
The pair stagger to their feet to face me. One is wiry like me, but the other is built like a rugby prop.
‘Dumb fucker. Take them off,’ the prop says, shoving me against his friend who pushes me back, like a ping pong ball.
Terrified, I bend and untie my shoes.
‘Socks too.’ He kicks off his tattered flip flops and pulls on my Nike which are enormous on him.
‘Nice,’ his friend admires.
I regret buying designer labels just to dress as well as Jaco. I used to be like the rest of the population; a rainbow nation of fifty-three million South Africans speaking eleven official languages, all chasing a mythical pot of gold and new pair of tekkies. Black, white, coloured, they’ll have to seek their materialistic possessions without me now. I’m preoccupied with wanting to escape my own reality and trying to forget what put me here.
‘Boer trash,’ the heftier of the two sneers, grabbing my cheeks with a sweaty palm.
He squeezes until I think my nose might burst open and spill blood like egg yolk dripping down the sides of a breakfast roll. I love eggs, but the thought of one now brings up bile and I quickly swallow it again.
‘Get the fuck off me.’ I shove back as part of me turns feral. An inner-instinct makes me want to take this fucker down and pummel his face into jelly, but his chest is solid beneath a stained white vest. I try to back my head away instead, aiming to put space between myself and the thick sneering lips which are almost touching mine.
The man laughs, a forced cackle full of menace.
‘We’ve a hard man here. Maybe some of this will soften you up.’ He lets go of my face to cup his own balls.
My blood runs cold. I think of the tooth I knocked out in the brawl and find myself wanting to replicate the move on this man, except his two front fangs are already gone. I don’t know if it’s a sign he’s a gang member or the victim of decay because dentistry is a luxury. Nor do I care.
‘Yah, boet, stick it lekker in his poes’, his friend cajoles as if I’m a rent boy.
My hooded eyes watch his every move. No goddamned way are they laying a finger on me.
Deep down, I know I could have handled everything differently and the guilt is unendurable. If I’m honest with myself, I should be carted off to Pollsmoor Maximum Security Prison in the Cape Town suburb of Tokai. I should hole up with nefarious criminals who relish the sound of a dying breath brought on by their hand, watching gleefully as bodily fluids seep onto the ground. But although I deserve the degradation, I don’t want to spend every waking moment trying to avoid being sodomised by gang members. The infamous Numbers, made up of the 26’s, 27’s, and 28’s, are a potent feature of prison life, ruling the communal cells with extreme violence. They tattoo their ranks on their bodies and faces and use other inmates as sex slaves in forced perpetration of sexual acts, which isn’t always for gratification. Brutally exhibiting their manhood is seen as a display of power to ascertain status and climb the ranks. They rape and recruit to dominate and conquer a weaker person.
I am a weaker person.
Deciding I’m not going to be backed into a corner with my pants around my ankles, I let my head propel forward to nut him in the face. It catches the prop unaware and he reels backwards onto his wafer thin mattress. His friend swarms in to take his place, chest puffed out like a pigeon, feathers ruffled. I manage to get an elbow into his face before both of them reload and come at me to try to pin my arms behind my back.
‘You think I won’t kill you?’ I bellow, wriggling as the two of them try to restrain me, subdue me, fuck me.
The feeling of terror rips through my entire being and I roar, psyching myself up for the violation, but the door swings open and my adversaries back off as a cop appears in the doorway.
‘I can hear you girls squealing from my desk,’ the cop says, his glare shifting to the brute about to jump me. ‘You’ve enough problems without this. Move it.’
‘Next time,’ he blows me a kiss as he’s led away in my tekkies.
There are just two of us now, me, skinny and unassuming, and the wiry sidekick which evens the odds. I hope my pulling a couple of decent moves has shocked him as it did me. A week ago I’d have run a mile from violent conflict, but although the potency of my rage surprises me, I don’t have one ounce of penitence for defending myself. Truth is, the guilt is all consuming, overshadowing even the fear.
My mouth is void of saliva, tongue coarse and rough. The hangover is kicking in and I want to slurp down a bottle of water. I need to brush my furry teeth. I think of toothpaste. I am like a new tube, still sealed at the opening by a tiny piece of foil, with guilt sitting on it, heavy and unyielding. When the pressure becomes so powerful, I may split apart, spurting toothpaste with such toxic intensity it splatters its minty breath on everything around it.
Cause of death: Traumatic Aortic Rupture.
I deeply regret listening to my brother reeling off all manner of medical conditions as he studied to become a doctor. Possible causes of death are now much more real than a line in one of his text books.
Although we’re coming into the summer season, the region is known as the Cape of Storms for its erratic weather. The wind starts to howl outside but I’m howling louder on the inside. A draught swirls around the cell, prompting me to click the joints of my frosty fingers. It’s caused by the glass from the high slim window being smashed out, leaving only a metal grid attempting to keep the elements at bay. It would be simple enough to sling a noose through the bars. Checking out this way would be easy, faster than waiting for internal bleeding from a torn blood vessel to kill me, but this animal would probably screw my dead body so I pace because a moving target is far more difficult to hit.
I keep shuffling, trying to distract myself from the fact I need the toilet so badly I’m about to defecate against cloth. Three steps across the room the silver bowl stares back at me, splattered with radioactive stains that make me wish for incurable constipation. A patch of corrugated iron has been replaced above the toilet after someone creative unscrewed the plumbing fittings to try to escape. There’s no longer a way to flush away waste. When the cell is vacant, I assume a bucket of water is tipped down the pan to swill it out, otherwise I’d be wading in sewage, not just living with the human version of it.
Before being banged up, I was the kind of man who liked to allow enough time to relax and let the contents of my bowels follow a natural exit strategy. Someone who would take the newspaper in for the session; I’d sit on my throne reading headlines filled with accusations about people in situations just like the one I’m in now. There’s no privacy for such luxuries now but I realise it could be a whole lot worse. Judging by the pile of filthy green sleeping mats and mottled grey blankets, this hell hole is equipped to contain half a dozen prisoners.
Despite the feral conditions, my stomach is cramping so intensely it wins the dilemma of shitting myself verses fighting off a rapist. Mushy face is dozing, perhaps not so brave now his partner has gone, so I grab one of the blankets to screen myself and let nature take its course. The blanket is coarse, the type you find in pet stores, and I realise I’d rather be in a dog kennel than in such a vulnerable situation. It prompts me to finish my business as quickly as possible and tug my trousers back up with haste.
‘You white boy reek,’ my cell-mate declares.
I’m surprised he’s able to smell much through a bust nose, but I throw a spare blanket over the pan when I’m done in an enterprising move to contain the offensive odour.
He seems content I’ve shown him some respect and returns to dozing. I hunch in a corner, and stay like that, fighting the tears, watching my sleeping cell mate for sudden signs of movement, until a sudden bang on the door startles me again.
‘Breakfast,’ the officer says, the door swinging open.
I recognise the lady behind him handing out plastic cups of lukewarm coffee and chunks of bread. She’s a stick of a woman with a massive backside, which I know from Jaco’s medical insights indicates she has Steatopygia, a condition which triggers a high degree of fat to accumulate in and around the buttocks. She lives in Struisbaai North, the coloured area nearby also known as Molshoop. Mbali cleans the church I go to and sometimes rustles up an inedible banquet for congregation social events, so I’m glad she’s only serving us bread.
I wipe my hands down the front of my jeans before I take the food offered, as there’s no running water to rinse them of germs. The conditions are appalling. If I was given the choice between being gassed or left to rot in here, I’d volunteer to mix the cyanide pellets with sulphuric acid myself.
Cause of death: Gassed.
‘Where’s the hot breakfast?’ The mushy face mumbles with a mouth already stuffed with bread. He can still shovel in grub even in his wounded condition.
‘We’re short staffed, Nolizwe,’ the officer replies, clearly familiar with the prisoner. ‘What happened to him?’
‘He walked into the fridge door.’
‘There’s no fridge.’
‘You should be a detective,’ Nolizwe splutters in glee, which causes his coffee to splash onto the floor. ‘Motherfucker. Will you bring me another cup, Mbali?’
‘What do you think this is, room service?’ Mbali shakes her head.
‘Yah, you can bring the boer a beetroot smoothie while you’re at it.’
‘Don’t be touching him, you hear me?’ the cop warns.
‘What’s wrong with giving the white boy a slow puncture?’ Nolizwe asks, making me want to vomit as he flicks his tongue as if he intends to give my brown hole cunnilingus.
My disgust mingles with fear of being raped by an HIV positive prisoner. Humiliation will continue well past immediate physical injuries from forced penetration, as I plead for medication and am prescribed the herbal concoction that is a left-over legacy from the former Health Minister who was unofficially dubbed Dr Beetroot. The contempt I feel is not just for Nolizwe; it’s for the stupidity of government officials who, in their denial of a deathly epidemic, inaugurated policies rebuffing antiretroviral drugs and opted instead for beetroot remedies.
‘How much longer are you gonna keep me in here?’ I beg.
‘As long as it damn well takes,’ the officer tells me, clanging the door closed again.
Nolizwe is processed a short while into my stay so I’ve the place to myself for a while. I can shit whenever I like without holding up a blanket, yet once he’s gone I succumb to the screwed up state of overwhelming loneliness.
I’m left with ample time to dwell on my life and everything I’ve achieved. A job repairing PC’s since leaving school, still living with my folks. It’s not much, but Jaco has always made up for it; my brother, with that photographic memory of his which helped him rocket straight to the top of medical school. He and I were joined at the hip until he left home, sharing a room for two decades. Even now, our lives are inextricably entwined. I’m here while he too is confined like an animal, and although I can’t speak to him, I’m quite sure he’s regretting what he did as much as I regret what I did not.
I try to recall the happier scenes of our carefree childhood, but my memories are clouded now, like they’re compressed beneath the tablecloth that settles over Table Mountain on a stormy day.
Eventually, Mbali comes back to serve a hot meal; congealed mieliepap on a plastic prison tray. It’s so bland I lift the blanket off the toilet and add to the rancid contents of the bowl. I’m not intentionally trying to deny myself nutrition; making a stance on some premeditated hunger strike in a petition for tasty prison food. My stomach just repulses the goodies I’m trying to shove in there. Until I can hold down my meals, it’ll have to make do with devouring my own surplus fats, then the excess, before it moves on to attack the muscle tissue, like a cannibal feasting away at the human body. My feeble existence is part physical as my metabolism is ground down from lack of sustenance, but in the most part it’s mental. Thoughts once filled with all life has to offer have shrunk to the skin and bones of what it does not. Perhaps the silver lining is if I’m in here long enough, unable to keep down a bowl of mieliepap, then I’ll eventually chew off my own tongue leaving me unable to answer any more questions from the cops about what happened after my brother and I fought in Maxwells.
Cause of Death: Starvation.
It has a befitting ring to it.
My morbid thoughts are becoming dense, like me, so I try to replace them with coherent thinking. I’ve always leaned towards being a rational thinker. Even in my job, I’ve a tendency to ponder on every careful move I make as I dismantle computer equipment piece by piece before putting it back together in systematic order.
I should have thought logically through the Maxwells incident and found a better way to deal with the situation afterwards. Hindsight…it’s too late for lessons learned. Retrospection is merely guilt in a jester’s costume.
My body convulses, triggering a temporary cessation of breathing, then a brief blackout.
The brain is no picnic of an organ. It’s intricate, designed to transmit memories to its many filing cabinets so they’re kept safe, until such time they need to be recalled again. Most short-term memory filing, of both meaningful and meaningless information, is done in the pre-frontal lobe, which is an area no bigger than the average sized fist in the front of the cerebral cortex, located right behind the forehead. If the brain concludes the memory needs to be committed to the long-term storage cabinet, the information is processed via an area called the hippocampus. Every brain is smart, even one belonging to an idiotic person like me. It even hides the filing cabinet keys in the form of unconsciousness, allowing a transient moment of short term amnesia precisely when the mind needs respite the most.
When I come around, I’m confused, unsure of whether I’m dreaming or awake, alive or dead.
My brain opens and closes the filing cabinets, throwing memory snippets from the drawers like there’s a poltergeist inside my head having a tantrum over blood, guns, police, slow punctures.
The accessibility of so many memories being reinstated at once causes me to produce a rush of stress hormones. My heart palpitates as it tries to combat the main arteries narrowing. Sharp pains upsurge in the chest and a change in the rhythm of my breathing makes me wonder if this is the moment when I cross from this life into the next.
Cause of death: Shock.
It has a befitting ring to it too.
I curl on my side, frail, and drooling. I don’t know how I’m able to drool when my mouth feels so dry inside. My eyes are dry too, and then wet. Wet then dry.
Sleep evades me, even though I always sleep in a ball on my side.
I think of home and my comfortable bed, which smells of fabric softener. Ma always uses fabric softener. She’s a good mother and I’ve let her down. My pa and brother too.
I don’t know if I let Jaco down or if he failed me, since the eldest sibling is supposed to be more responsible, but he’s only older by a year. I’ve always been more sensible than him and I should have known better. We both should have known better. It echoes in my head.
We should have known better.
We should have known better.
Like a bongo drum, beating the rhythm of Africa.
I put my hands over my ears but the beat doesn’t stop. Perhaps I am now criminally insane. With certainty I know I’m a criminal. The fact I’m lying on the floor in jail reaffirms this.
Am I insane?
If I’m not insane, it won’t take long to get there in a place like this.
I reach out my arm and grasp one of the pet blankets, pulling it over my body so it cocoons me, prickly and harsh on my skin. When I resurface, I hope I’ll have sprouted wings to spread and fly out of here.
A young officer, with a few bum fluff bristles above his nose, eventually swings open the door to dump a bucket of watered down bleach and scrubbing brush next to me.
‘Shut the hell up,’ he says, even though I haven't said a word.
I poke my head out from underneath the pet blanket.
‘You need to clean this place before we let you out. Kill the lice, you know.’
It isn’t worth arguing over sprucing up a few square meters, so I get to work.
When I’m done cleaning the floor, I pour the filthy water down the toilet pan. It fills it to the brim but then gurgles as it gradually trickles away.
Bum Fluff comes back to escort me to the main section of the station, a single-storey brick structure with ‘Detective Branch’ chalked on the wall above the entrance. It looks amateurish, as if scrawled by a kindergarten kid, but I’m beside myself with nerves all the same.
The interview room I’m ushered into is sparse, a window behind burglar bars, a table and two chairs on opposite sides. I’m left alone for a while with nothing but chirping birds outside to cut through the silence. It’s light outside so I know I’ve been incarcerated for a couple of days even though it feels like a lifetime.
Eventually an older, black colleague enters without Bum Fluff. He has stony, mean eyes beneath a shiny head, yet just like Bum Fluff, he has a moustache too. However, his is impressive, arching over his chin and covering his entire upper lip. It’s the type that could be groomed and styled with a little wax and too much spare time, but right now it’s unruly. He reads me my rights and the wild beast in the middle of his face twitches with every word he utters while I silently marvel this essential action has taken so long.
‘Name?’ he fires.
He scribbles down my answer with a chewed up pencil. ‘Address?’
I’ve no problem answering another undemanding question.
‘Now tell me what happened from start to finish.’
‘Like I’ve already said, Jaco and I were dragged into a fight with a bunch of idiots in Maxwells.’
He makes me recount the whole night, and I give him the facts, some true about the bar brawl, others concocted to avoid the ramifications.
‘Tell me about your cuts and bruises.’
‘Some were from the fight, and some I picked up here while on your watch.’
He looks at me, sucks on his pencil, and then pushes a piece of paper across the table.
‘Sign it,’ he demands, leaning towards me to offer a whiff of bad breath and the soggy splintered writing utensil.
‘Can I read it first?’ I ask, turning the paper the right way up to see what’s been written down.
‘Sign it,’ he roars, whacking the desk with his fist so near to my fingers my reflexes draw both hands back into my lap. ‘I don’t have time for this.’
There’s no good cop bad cop. The good cop is off duty, so I take the gnawed lead and scribble my signature, catching glimpses on paper of the conversation we’ve just had.
‘Last chance to tell me what really occurred,’ he demands, snatching it back.
‘I don’t know what you mean.’
‘We’ll keep investigating every move you made. Understand?’
I nod despite the fact everything feels out of sequence.
‘Tell me,’ he bellows, making me jump as he whacks the table again.
My mind races, fleeting between right and wrong. All there is bearing witness to my story is a one page statement, written in pencil, and signed under the duress of a bald bully with bad breath. I look around to check for a tape recorder or video camera that might be capturing the interaction, but there’s nothing.
I fix up computers in the nearby dorp. Still, even with my limited experience gained in a one horse town, I recognise this man doesn’t suffer from techno lust. This interview is going down the old fashioned way; with a few notes and a hint of police brutality. Despite the equipment shortcomings, I know I’m fucked. Anything I confide in this interrogation brings risk of contradicting what I originally told the police. Pa told me to say nothing if I wanted to avoid being charged, but my interrogator is branding me a liar and clearly doesn’t believe my story so far. If I tell the truth and change my statement, I’m still a liar. Can I ask the audience? Improve my odds to a fifty/fifty chance of staying out of jail? Maybe I can phone a friend before I’m sent off to endure forced anal sex. Who wants to be a millionaire? Who needs more tekkies?
I take Pa’s advice and assert myself; pumping some air back in to my tires rather than risk an answer that might lead to a slow puncture.
‘There’s nothing further I want to say.’
‘For your parents' sake as well as yours, I hope what you’ve told me is the truth.’
My heart suddenly malfunctions with an irregular arrhythmia. With its pumping action severely disrupted, I experience chaotic flutters mounting inside my chambers, like a Monarch butterfly is trapped inside, its freedom confiscated. Its wings flap with increased velocity, panicking, unable to escape the tiny enclosure where it’s detained. I know from Jaco and his text books this ventricular fibrillation, rhythmic disturbance, may be a sign of an undetected heart condition rather than something necessarily brought on by shock.
Cause of death: Cardiac arrest.
But my heart regulates, the fluttering subsides, and I live.
‘So that’s it then?’ the bald bully asks.
He leans over the desk to scribble something in his interview notes, then peers at me, frowning as he notices I still have his pencil. Rather than ask me for it back, he feels about his person and eventually reaches into his shirt pocket to pull out a ball point pen. He tries to write something down; the pen indents on the paper but fails to leave an ink trail.
‘It’s new,’ he informs me as he gives the end a lick to warm it up so it will finally succumb and give him some action. Perhaps a cop has to coax a statement from a suspect before being allowed to use his pen licence.
When he’s finished writing notes to himself, he gives the pen a click and the nib disappears, then he places it back in his pocket and folds his arms.
‘You’re free to go.’
My jaw drops open so wide I’m probably baring my silver filling on the lower left molar. Relief is mixed with a twinge of angst at the injustice of being let out so easily.
Perhaps they’re understaffed, or I’m part of a corrupt scam to keep down the Struisbaai crime statistics. The post-apartheid government maybe want to be seen to be cleaning up the streets when all they’re doing is shovelling shit under the carpet. All the same, it’s not the time or place to be cynical about the integrity of anyone in the new black establishment. Placing both hands on the desk, I leverage myself on to unsteady feet before turning towards the exit.
‘Not so fast, boy.’
The bald bully points at my chair and I sit again. He’s not as incompetent as he led me to believe.
‘Something isn’t right.’
I know forty-eight hours is the maximum time someone can be detained without charge. 'Am I free to go, or not?' I ask.
His stare doesn’t waver from mine. ‘Just don’t stray too far, in case we need to bring you in again.’
I trade his pencil for the clear bag he offers me, which contains my watch and cell phone, then bolt outside where I immediately call Pa and ask for his help.
On paper I might be free but I’m an intelligent man. There’s always a price to pay.