I find him in Empangeni. My father lies on his back at the edge of the sugar-cane valley, one arm under his head, the other flung out, fingers plaiting scrub and yellow weed flowers. The camera next to him is shuttered and blind. He squints at the wavering sky, which moves with heat if not with wind. Empangeni rises behind us: tin shanties glint through the sugar-mill smoke and dusty tracks cross the red hills to mark mission churches, now crumbling. In front of us, the green swarm of cane stretches to the horizon.
‘When did you get here?’ I ask.
I stand over him, waiting. We’re quiet, at right angles to each other. I close my eyes and lift my face to the sky as though hoping to feel rain. But the early-morning sun burns through my eyelids, red light suddenly inside my head.
‘How did you know I was here?’ I ask. The heat touches my shoulders and chest, a blessing.
‘I read your stuff online. By Jo Hartslief in Johannesburg, South Africa.’ He speaks in a British accent, mispronouncing my surname the way they all do. His would be no easier for them, the rolling r of Roussouw something only the Welsh would be able to attempt. ‘The articles were good,’ he says.
His compliment surprises me. ‘Thanks.’ I look down at him, the sunspots fading from his skin and clothes as my eyes adjust to the light.
‘Well, not too bad anyway. A bit “human interest” for my liking.’ He doesn’t move to put air quotes around the term, and he doesn’t need to. ‘Too many interviews with crying refugees.’
Lying down, my father’s belly slopes up from his ribcage. I wonder if it will hang over his waistband when he stands up. He’s grown a beard, which is red and grey in patches, and his nose has been broken since I last saw him. It’s hooked now, but at fifty-three, he’s too old for it to be handsome.
Before I can decide whether or not to get irritated, he asks: ‘Were you staying near Alexandra?’
‘No. I’ve been going into the townships with Tumelo, the photographer I’ve been working with. He knows where to go.’
‘He’s good,’ he says, nodding his approval. ‘He’s taken one or two nice shots.’
Tumelo’s a war correspondent and has been taking photos much longer than my father has. Even now, I sometimes search in stock-photo libraries for the pictures my father takes – of steaming bowls of pasta and sauce, moist slabs of cake. I want to ask how his slathering shoe polish onto raw meat and frosting grapes with hairspray qualifies him to judge, but I know better, even after so many years.
‘Most of the other journalists out here from overseas, it’s obvious they’re staying in nice hotels in Jo’burg,’ he says.
I too have been staying in a nice hotel in Jo’burg, spending the money my grandmother left me on swimming pool access and a queen-sized bed. But I haven’t been able to sleep in it.
‘And using copy from the news wires anyway, getting the local photographers to do all the difficult work for them,’ he scoffs. This is something he’s always banged on about, that photographers never get enough recognition. I don’t let on that I agree with him. ‘But your stuff is different.’
‘Thanks.’ I wonder how long he’ll let me have this.
‘Of course you’d be stupid enough to go there. They warned the press that it’s too dangerous, especially for a woman, and of fucking course you went anyway.’ He looks at me for the first time, his eyes triumphant slivers in the glare. ‘I hope those kaffirs roughed you up a bit, put their pink hands all over your pasty skin. That’d teach you.’
I gather fistfuls of my skirt at my sides to steady myself against what I know is coming. ‘Teach me what?’
‘That you can’t just come back here after ten years and still know how it is – how bad it’s gotten – or how to stay safe.’ He turns his frown back on the sun. ‘You can’t come back after ten years and have it be your home anymore.’
‘I never said it was.’
‘I bet they only picked you to come out here because of your surname. That and the nostalgia for swimming pools and Mandela that you whip out when you’re trying to be exotic and interesting.’
I force myself to breathe in for four counts and hold it just as long. But my voice wavers with the heat that has come to my face nonetheless. ‘You don’t know why I came out here, or what happened when I was in Alex.’ The words are wet. And he can hear it, has always been able to tell when he’s scored a point, even over the phone. In spite of myself, I want to tell him about the fires, the bloody blankets on the side of the road. That before I left London two weeks ago on assignment for a magazine, I’d called a few of my other contacts to see if they’d be interested in a series of articles about corruption and cronyism in South Africa. When the riots broke out, I was a cheap source of copy; ‘already in-country’ was how they put it. But I know that my father doesn’t care about how I ended up in Alex, and if I try to explain it to him he will have won. Right now, I want to hurt him with something trite and true. ‘You have no idea who I am.’
He looks at me and smiles, his forehead moving upwards with the force of it. ‘If you’re anything like me – and I know you are – you probably need a cigarette right about now. Why don’t you sit down?’
Before I can stop myself, I straighten my shoulders and neck to stand taller. My father laughs.
‘When did you dye your hair?’ he asks.
My hand wants to make a hiding place for my fringe, but I will my fingers to be still. ‘I dunno – two years ago?’
‘Don’t ask me – I dunno the answer.’ He watches a hadeda hang in the air above us. It drops lower, lazy with early morning. Its feet rake the cane leaves before it lands near the old Mercedes I rented in Durban. ‘Red doesn’t suit you. And you’ve gotten thin. Too thin.’ He waves his hand at me as though wiping a mirror. ‘Did you do all this for that boy?’
I think he means Dan, the only boyfriend I’ve ever told him about. ‘No.’ I broke up with Dan long before I changed my hair.
‘For a girl, then.’ I wonder if he’ll flick his tongue through the V of his fingers. He’s done it before. ‘Did you let your underarm hair grow out so you could dye that as well?’
‘Yeah. I stopped wearing make-up too – oh, and I burned all my bras.’ He doesn’t react and I keep going, even though I know better. ‘And of course I hate all men and love Ani DiFranco.’
I shrug. ‘It doesn’t matter.’
‘Every time I see you, I wonder if you’ll look like your mom,’ he says, his eyes on me again. ‘But luckily, my genes were stronger than Karen’s.’ He laughs again.
‘Look, Nico, what do you want from me?’ I hope the name hurts him. ‘I have to get back and, you know, do my job.’
He turns his head away from me and spits into the grass. ‘I’m honoured you’d, you know, come out to the bundus just to see me.’
‘Don’t be. You begged me to come.’ Without looking, I find the right key in my handbag and hold it ready for the ignition. ‘And it’s the first time you’ve ever needed anything from me my whole life, so that’s why I’m here: to satisfy my curiosity, and then bugger off back to the arrangement we had before.’
‘Kak, man. We haven’t seen each other in three years—’
‘Three and a half.’ I sound proud, like a child bragging about how long she’s held her breath underwater. There are so many ways for him to win.
‘OK, three and a half years. Not since that shit-hole pub in London.’ He smiles, baring teeth too far back in his mouth. ‘So you came here today after three and a half years just out of curiosity?’
I shake my head, not wanting to admit that after his phone call I was actually worried about him, but I can see now that he’s fine, the same as always. I shouldn’t have come.
‘Good,’ he says. ‘I needed to get you here, and what I need from you now…well, curiosity isn’t enough to make you give it to me.’ He pauses. ‘Why don’t you sit down?’ He stares at me, not really asking.
I sit this time, legs crossed. Sweat is already pooling under my thighs. I bought the skirt at the airport in Johannesburg, an orange, sequinned cocoon; there’ll be two damp ovals on the back of it when I get up.
The hadeda hunches closer.
‘How’s your grandmother?’
He doesn’t know she died a month ago. I should tell him. But he turns his head. A check on his to-do list. ‘She’s fine.’
‘Your accent’s changed,’ he says. ‘You sound like a proper pommie now.’ His fingers are motionless as he watches the bird. I stop pulling at grass and watch it too.
In Benoni, where I grew up, hadedas were dull and grey as closed oysters. Mornings I would see them preening in the garden and let the dog out to sprint circles into the frosted grass, driving the squat birds onto aerials and streetlights. There, they complained in mournful kazoos about the Maltese terrier and the pale brunette child too slow to run after them herself. But here, in the sun, the bird is suddenly beautiful, its wings skating the spectrum from green to purple, like the inside of a shell, as it moves towards us.
‘In case you haven’t been paying attention, the bird’s name is Frank,’ my father says. ‘We’ve been watching each other since I got here. It seems he’s finally decided to come down for a smoke.’ From the pocket of his shorts, my father edges a pack of Peter Stuyvesant and a box of matches. His fingers, quick with habit, extract three cigarettes. Frank moves towards us. My father puts two cigarettes on his stomach, motioning for me to take one.
‘I’m going to light a match using just one hand,’ he brags from around the cigarette between his teeth. The tip bobs as he talks, punctuating his sentence.
The match catches and Frank cocks his head, wary of the flame. But my father and I both breathe it in. He turns his head towards the creature. It stares, curious and suspicious.
‘Come on, dickhead.’ My father waits for Frank to fetch the cigarette off his stomach. But the bird is still, almost judgemental. ‘Well, fuck off then, Frank,’ he says, blowing smoke at the bird.
Frank, made grey again, objects: ‘How-how-he. How-how-he.’ It’s almost as though he’s lamenting: I thought we were friends – how could he speak to me like that?
‘I said, fuck off, Frank!’ This time my father sits up, and Frank’s cigarette rolls into the scrub, bent. Frank glares, first with his left eye and then with his right, the red on his beak suddenly angry. My father glares back, the ember on his cigarette glowing as he takes a long drag.
I sit quietly, a good audience.
Calmly now: ‘Frank, let me make myself clear. You are not welcome here. I need to talk to Jo and I won’t have you butting in. Your points are trite, your vocabulary kak and you always try to make every conversation about you. Now, if you know what’s good for you, you’ll go.’
Frank huddles lower, his neck folded away like a beach chair in winter.
‘And don’t even think about making your displeasure known by shitting on my car on your way out.’ My father turns, his back now to the bird. Frank pauses and begins to preen himself. In my sunglasses, my father sees Frank’s disobedience. He whirls, shouting, ‘Hamba!’ Go.
The bird spreads out, grey and suddenly other, in a running start, and I’m strangely afraid of it as it takes off. I duck, but its feet skim cane not skin. It circles the field once, slowly, before straightening out and heading towards the mountains.
My father’s shout has stirred the wind; sugar cane clack an objection to Xhosa words so deep in Zululand.
‘When you put your cigarette out, do it properly,’ he says. Serious now. ‘It hasn’t rained here in months.’
I wonder how long he’s been in Natal, if he’s moved here. Last I knew, he was living in Cape Town. But I don’t ask and we sit silently. Beyond the road into town, soil turns into sand and later into red rock. Sparse outcroppings of weeds and abandoned mud huts dot the hillside.
On the way up from Durban this morning I crossed the Tugela River, where the water slows after its long trip and aloes bloom succulent spikes. There, the redcoats had crossed, bringing guns and white man to Zululand. Neither had left yet.
And there I was, a turncoat, making the same trip.
‘What’re we doing here?’ I ask, straightening Frank’s cigarette. The paper is wrinkled and dusty.
‘I wanted to show you this because I think you’ll appreciate it.’ My father is being deliberately obtuse, trying to pique my interest.
I won’t ask again, so I wait. A bumblebee undresses the daisy weeds.
‘I’ve been here once before.’ He straightens his legs out in front of him and points his toes. Both of the shoelaces on his leather walking boots are tripled-knotted. ‘Walked through the furrows in between cane fields. Sat in their shade.’
I think he’s quoting, but I don’t know where from.
‘I’ve been here before but I must describe it to myself, shape it new each time, to remember it. This whole field is an instrument and every stalk is drink for a thirsty traveller.’
I lean back, my hands in the scrub behind me. Waiting out his preambles has always made me feel lazy.
‘I’m wanted for murder.’
I’m awake and upright again. ‘What?’
‘There’s a warrant out for my arrest on suspicion of murder.’ He pulls at his beard, twisting the hair between his fingers.
‘Wait – what?’ I can’t yet tell if this is part of the performance.
‘A week and a half ago, I saw a police car pull up outside my flat, and I knew. So I threw some stuff in a bag and got the hell out of there.’ He waves his flat away from his face as though it were a fly. ‘Thank fuck blacks are so lazy – they had a smoke first.’ He gives a tight half-smile.
‘Are you having me on?’
‘Fuck you,’ he says loudly and spits into the grass right next to me. ‘Why would I lie about this? Are you really such a self-obsessed cow that you think I would make this up just to get you to speak to me again?’
I don’t know what to say. I want to drive away and leave him here but I’ve never seen him like this, so agitated. So scared. The few times we’ve met up since I moved to the UK, and in our occasional emails, he’s been expansive, showy. Even when we fought, as we always did – at some comment of his too offensive for me to leave alone, about women or affirmative action or how he would’ve raised me differently – he’s never been this raw. ‘No—’
‘Look,’ he says, bending forward, his hands stopping short in the grass just in front of me. ‘I’m sorry.’ He stares into the black pools of my sunglasses; something makes me fold them into my lap. ‘Please. Running has made me look guilty – I know that. I can’t get out of this alone. I need your help, Jo.’
I force my hands to be still in my lap. ‘Tell me what happened.’
He sits back, scrub between his fingers. ‘Back in April, two cops turned up at my flat and started asking questions about a black man that disappeared back in eighty-three – abducted, probably dead.’ He shrugs with only one shoulder; it’s not unusual enough for two. ‘They showed me this shitty photo of him but I’d never seen him before. I mean, all blacks look alike to me anyway.’
He’s always liked to provoke me but I won’t react this time. Otherwise, it’ll be hours before he tells me his real reason for calling. ‘So what happened then?’
He looks away. ‘I could tell they thought I was lying.’
He stubs out his cigarette until there’s dust under his fingernails. ‘Apparently, it happened two years before I met your mom. Things were difficult for me then. Not the kind of life that would give me a good alibi. I was just about to tell them to fuck off, but then they said there was a witness that saw me with the man.’
‘Who’s the witness?’
He picks at the cuticle on his thumb.
I push myself forward over my knees and put a hand on his shoulder, the way I would anyone else. It feels wrong, touching him. ‘Look at me,’ I say.
When he does, I can see his eyes are rimmed in red. ‘I dunno. They wouldn’t say.’ He rounds his back. My hand isn’t welcome. ‘And now they’re investigating me.’
‘But why would they think you had anything to do with it?’
He looks at the Drakensberg, purple and hazy on the horizon. The skin on his nose is peeling and his hair is short to stave off the grey where it’s coming in in a thick band. Bony knees now pulled against his chest, he seems old and vulnerable.
‘Because I’m Afrikaans, a white man living in a black man’s country.’ He scratches at a scab on his calf. ‘Because they don’t want any truth or reconciliation anymore, just someone to blame.’ Another speech.
‘Can’t you just tell them where you were the night he was taken?’ I ask.
‘You think I wouldn’t just have done that if I could of?’
I shrug, but he doesn’t look up to see.
‘Eighty-three was when I’d just gotten back from travelling – after the army?’ he prompts me.
‘Right.’ He told my mum that after finishing his minimum compulsory military service in 1979, he’d travelled up through Africa and then across Europe without a passport, crossing rivers and borders under cover of darkness. He’d grown a beard and pretended to be Dutch to fool the Europeans, who’d already begun their sanctions and travelling bans. She thought it glamorous, even admirable, avoiding the required annual conscription duties. Those three years were filled with imagined snapshots of a young man pulling the peace sign in front of the Eiffel Tower, patting a stray dog next to Gaudí’s Sagrada Família in Barcelona, teaching himself Latin in Rome. My mum believed him when she was twenty. I wouldn’t make that mistake.
He shakes off the fly that has landed on his forearm. ‘This hole in my story is all they need. Never mind that the only reason it’s there is because I was objecting to the whole war thing.’
Even though I don’t really believe his passport-less European tour, I won’t let him have this. ‘Didn’t you go AWOL because they were increasing the number of compulsory years of service and you would’ve had to do more time?’
‘Ja, that too.’ He shunts the cigarettes towards me with the back of his hand.
This doesn’t make sense. Every white man my father’s age will have spent time in the army. Surely he wouldn’t have been the only one to react to it by falling off the map, as he likes to call it. ‘What else?’
He hesitates. ‘I have a record.’
‘What for? The shoplifting stuff?’
He laughs. ‘I didn’t know you knew about that. Your grandmother tell you?’
‘Of course. No, this was something else. Assault.’
‘Jesus.’ I hold a cigarette between very straight fingers. ‘What the fuck did you do?’
‘A couple of years ago, in Cape Town, I got into a fight with a bergie.’
‘What’s a bergie?’ I hate having to ask.
‘A hobo. They sometimes sleep on the slopes of Table Mountain.’
‘Why’d you fight him?’
‘It was getting dark and I was running along the sea there by Clifton. The man was going through the bins at the top of the stairs down to the beach and just throwing shit everywhere. So I stopped and told him to pick up all the rubbish and that I knew he was looking for food but littering was bad for the environment. He swore at me – coloureds have the best swear words – so I was just standing there taunting him because what he was calling me was really funny. Jou ma se slapgenaaide bees-poes.’ Your mother’s fucked-loose cow cunt. He laughs again. ‘And then, out of nowhere, one of his friends came over and broke my nose.’ He pinches the crooked bridge. ‘I was halfway to killing him before I was pulled off.’
‘Fuck.’ I don’t know what else to say. The man that did this, the man laughing about it now, is my father, the only family I have left. Dry-mouthed, I put my half-smoked cigarette out against the sole of my sandal.
‘Afterwards, they tried to say it was racially motivated, but that’s a load of horseshit.’ He rolls his eyes. ‘I saw a guy who punched me, first; a black guy, second.’
‘I’m sure all your nice talk about kaffirs really helped the situation.’ This is the first time I’ve used that term and I can’t help but say it more quietly than the other words, as though someone might hear me, or I might hear myself. I sound too much like other white South Africans with it in my mouth.
‘No,’ he says, pulling out handfuls of grass. ‘Probably not.’
‘Why’d you run? Why didn’t you just answer their questions?’
‘I panicked. But I swear to you, Jo, the day before I left, I came back from work and my whole flat was different. Everything was about a centimetre to the left.’ Clumps of red soil dangle from the roots he’s pulling up.
‘What do you mean?’ Instead of putting my hand over his, I watch his grass-stained fingertips.
‘The police’d been there, going through my stuff when I was at work.’ He rubs his eyes. There’s dust in his eyebrows. ‘I knew they were going to come for me, and that when they did it would be serious.’
I throw the pack of cigarettes into his lap. I’ve smoked more on this trip than I have since university and already I feel sick. ‘Why do you think I can help you?’
‘I need someone who can think like them.’
‘Do you mean rationally?’ I can’t help myself.
‘Fine. Whatever.’ He looks away.
I wonder if I should apologise.
‘Actually, I’ve run out of money,’ he admits.
‘Of course you have.’ I knew there’d be another reason for calling me. Maybe this is the real reason, the only one.
‘Everyone’s taking their own sepia pictures of food now, so work’s been slow.’ He reaches for the sunglasses in my lap and puts them on.
‘Can’t you go back to taking photos of lions and Table Mountain?’ He used to work for a tourism agency, rich white people in every shot.
‘That’s not the point. I can’t use my cards, obviously, so I’ve been sleeping in my car the last week.’
I look away from the reflection I can now see in the lenses on his face. The eyes too big and the cheeks too hollow, as though the last two weeks have left me permanently shocked, never hungry.
‘I was in Port Elizabeth last week, sleeping in my car, and some fucker tried to break in and I woke up with the glass exploding over me like some Jo’burg firework.’ He runs out of breath by the end of the sentence.
I look back at him. ‘You don’t look cut up.’
‘Don’t believe me?’ He lifts one side of his t-shirt. A bruise stretches from his armpit to his waist, textured and granite-blue. The right side of the bruise is almost perfectly straight. He smiles, but I can’t see whether it reaches his eyes. ‘It looks like a tidemark, doesn’t it?’ He lets go of the shirt and sits upright. ‘At least it’s not on my face, hey.’
‘Jesus.’ His t-shirt is bunched just above the waistband of his shorts. I can still see a slice of skin, creased and yellowing like an old sheet. ‘I’m sorry.’
He catches me looking and tugs at his t-shirt. ‘It’s not too bad; nothing’s broken, or if it was, it’s healed now. But I realised that I couldn’t just keep driving around, without a plan or a good cup of coffee, until they caught up with me.’
‘When did you last eat?’
‘Probably the day before yesterday, but it’s not a big deal.’ He pinches the fat on his belly. ‘I’ve gone longer.’
I want to ask just when that was, but now isn’t the time. ‘OK, well, that’s the first order of business then,’ I say, hoping that the executive-speak will make me feel more in control of the situation. Hoping that after a trip to the nearest Nandos, and, later, an ATM, he’ll drop the wanted-man act.
‘No.’ He takes a cigarette from the pack in his lap and rolls it between his fingers. ‘We have to go to Durban airport so I can get rid of my car and you can get a new one.’
‘Why do I need a new one?’
‘In case anyone sees our two cars together before I dump mine.’ He pulls off the sunglasses and rests them on the grass in front of me. Looking down, he says: ‘Will you help me, Jo?’
‘I dunno, Nico. I can lend you some money.’
He shakes his head. ‘No. Please, Jo. I don’t have anyone else to ask.’ He looks at me. ‘I don’t want to be alone with this. And it would be good to spend some time with you.’
When I was younger, he’d call and say he was coming to visit that weekend. I’d wait on the steps outside the house, in my only dress, until it got dark and my mum dragged me inside. He never came.
‘Nice try,’ I say.
He stiffens and I wonder what comeback will follow. But instead he repeats: ‘Please, Jo. I know I have no right to ask.’
However obliquely, it’s the first time he’s ever acknowledged his absence from my life. I close my eyes. Even here, hundreds of miles from the Alexandra, I can still smell burning rubber. I open my eyes and look at him scratching at the scab on his knee. If I go with him, out of the two people in the car, I won’t be the worst one. Maybe I’ll be able to sleep again.
I sigh. ‘OK. I’ll help you.’
He grips my shoulder. ‘Thank you,’ he says, smiling.
He curves his back against the wind to light his cigarette, and I busy my hands gathering butts from the grass around us, his still wet at the tip, older ones fuzzy and innocuous. It’s a habit formed at school, when any stray butts would land the entire boarding house in detention, but I realise that if he is telling the truth, it’s probably a good idea to cover our tracks.
He takes a deep drag and looks the ember in the eye. ‘Fuck, man, the wind’s so bad it smokes half of your cigarette for you.’ He lies back again, one arm behind his head to give him a view of the horizon.
I wait. ‘I’ll cancel my flight back to Jo’burg, then,’ I say when he closes his eyes.
‘Yes.’ He scratches his crotch. ‘I hate Jo’burg. It’s really becoming one of those typical black African cities, you know?’
I shake my head – he doesn’t see it – and lie down next to my father. I watch the one cloud in the sky change shape in the wind.
‘Like the kind of place that uses mosquito coils,’ he says.
I look at the mountains in the distance. ‘What’s wrong with mosquito coils?’
‘Instead of sprays or those plug-ins? Modern-day technology?’ He turns, scowling at me. ‘You’re so fucking irritating. It was a metaphor. For how Jo’burg’s becoming like somewhere in Ghana or something.’
I drop my arms to my sides; the noise of keys in my hand seems out of place.
‘Christ.’ He sits up, the sweat on his back an hourglass on its side. ‘You know, sometimes you remind me so much of your mom. So literal and so fucking blasé,’ he says, standing up and glaring at me. He’s always taller than I expect, and rather than softening him, his belly has made him seem stronger, more solid. ‘You’ve ruined it now. Let’s go.’ He slips a folded baseball cap from his pocket and pulls it low over his face.
I close my eyes against the words, familiar as they are. ‘OK,’ I say, getting up and beating red dust from my clothes. The sun is suddenly closer, before it sifts out of the sky.