Nick Mulgrew



I was alive. I was dead. That’s as much as I knew.
          I want to tell you I woke, but I don’t think I was ever asleep. I had passed through. Or something. There’s no way to explain it, unless it were to happen to you.
          I was disappointed at first that I couldn’t walk through things, that I wasn’t a ghost. I could still feel the brush of fynbos beneath me, the grit of rock against my skin. I expected to see blood, a crater, an outline of dust around where I landed. I expected to see a rope halfway up the cliff, worn through, in frays, dangling in the wind; or a cracked helmet someplace, and a chalk bag somewhere else. I looked to my hands, no longer calloused, left with no trace of chalk. I had no bruises, no bones protruding from my skin.
          The sky was blue, but not a blue I had ever known before, hanging over the careering vistas of Silvermine, with the green and the scrub and the haze and the ocean, unfolding and gathering and foaming and all of it – just the same as it was before. Then I turned. The cellphone tower was gone. The buildings were in different configurations, but in which ways, I couldn’t quite be sure.
          Eagles circled above me. Jet streams scarred the firmament of a world silent and full. In that moment, I was glad.


The road down was still there, although the substation it led to wasn’t. At that moment, I felt no pain, no hunger. My legs felt light, healthy with muscle – just as before, but as if all their cells had been generated anew.
          Animals and plants poked through the scrub that lined the track. I’d spent a lot of time here before – but now there were things I’d never seen. These flowers – crimson ericas, three metres high. An arm-length lizard gleamed purple and green on a rock near my feet. Things that had been long dead were alive. My nose itched with strange pollen.
          I imagined I was invincible. The road led to a knot of hairpins halfway down: a waste of walking if one could jump down a short section of cliff. My heart raced at the prospect of doing things without the promise of harm. A platform of sandstone jutted out about three metres down. I savoured the air on my skin as I dropped.
          The soles of my feet tore as I landed. I slipped backwards, flailing my arms at the rocks, grabbing for any hold that would stop me careering down the rest of the cliff. I scrabbled near the edge of the platform, with the air and the valley expectant before me. I rubbed myself with my hands, finding new marks and scars on this body. I fingered a wound, fresh, a half-inch thick, in the side of my abdomen, throbbing and bleeding fast down my hip and thigh. I pressed my hand to it, feeling the quick heaving of my chest and the waves of pain washing through me. I panted. I breathed in dust. I thought about infection, about bacteria unknown.
          Sitting back, holding my knees to my chest, I could feel the chill of the wind. I saw now that I was uncircumcised. I hunched over. I yelled.
          There was no echo.


The pain subsided as the sun began its downward turn. I climbed from the platform to where the road resumed – ten metres, perhaps. Nothing far, but hard to climb without rubber-soled boots, chalk or clothes, even, to shield and stem the weepings of my flesh.
          Only then, for the first time in years, did I think about my shade. When I was a child, my mother told me how the spirits of the dead had to be led home so they could be put to rest. I had taken it for granted that was how things worked; when I died, sometime far in the future, I – disembodied, ethereal – would be led back to the place of my birth, by whoever my wife or my children would be, and I would rest.
          But the living weren’t here. Sal wasn’t there – on the mountain, holding the belay rope – when I realised I had fallen. What Sal would be left with wasn’t me, but only what would have been left of me. A thing to piece back together; to bury someplace where someone thought I’d like to be. Home, perhaps. But there – wherever home was now – wasn’t where I was, where I ever could be.
          On the road down, I looked across the valley to the parklands and the buildings, all of them thatch-roofed and spread out in grids. I thought about how Mother had died, how Yia had died, how everyone I knew who had died had died: all far from home. All had needed to be carried back, to be led.
          And how strange these thoughts felt, as the road levelled and I could see what lay before me.


Mother, wanderer: now I know what you know. We are our own shades.


Everything was familiar, but not familiar enough to be comforting.
          I had found a pair of white running shorts discarded on the hard shoulder. They seemed clean enough to wear, although even a rag would have done – anything to shield my nakedness from the stream of motorists laboring up Ou Kaapse Weg, or whatever it was called here. My wounds had begun to clog. I was limping. I tried to meet the eyes of the motorists who passed me, ostensibly to try and catch someone’s expression, to let a smile or a frown soothe me, to let me know that this was all normal, that I would adjust.
          Or to get a lift. Really, all I needed was a lift.
          No one looked. No one stopped.
          I was dazed, from loss of blood or vertigo – or both. The suburbs below looked as though they had been built from memory – a dreamworld, something hazy and inexact, where the streets and the skylines were not quite in the right proportions or configurations. The buildings were smaller, taller, more densely packed. The golf course had been taken over by houses with hearths and chimneys and gardens. I could see no prisons, no consulates, no malls.
          Halfway down, I came across a white cross leaning on a barrier by the side of the road. Someone had placed a bunch of puce azaleas under it, wilting in the sun. I tried to read the card someone had attached to the stems, but it was written in glyphs and words I couldn’t understand.


There were people at the train station: cotton-shirted women and men wearing beads like my mother’s around their necks. Children stood with adults speaking as equals – in tongues both known and unknown. The boys gesticulated and the men listened solemnly: here, an adult and a child might be the same age.
          I stood near the tracks as I had done a hundred times to go into the city. But I didn’t know where the trains on this platform would go. The train I would have caught yesterday would have taken me from here towards Cape Town, passing Retreat, Plumstead, the bottom end of Observatory, and everywhere else I had ever lived. The stations here might be different, the routes circuitous and strange. I turned to the pair standing nearest to me – a sun-spotted elder with buttermilk skin and a teenager in slacks and a T-shirt.
          “Excuse me, sir,” I said to the old man, “but where is this train going, exactly?”
          He looked at me, wordless.
          “Ah, uxolo tata.” I tried again. “Uloliwe … er, kuya phi?”
          The man stared at the wound in my side and tilted his head, his eyes widening. He spoke like fingers clicking.
          The teenager chuckled. “You’re not from around here.”
          “You could say that.”
          The man was pointing at my side, raising his voice. I saw his fingers were gnarled, with growths like bark. I asked the teenager what the man was saying.
          “He says you should get that cut looked at.” He laughed. I didn’t.
          “I just want to know where the train on this platform goes.”
          The teenager smiled still. “Look, this train goes lots of places. Lots.”
          “I just want to go to town,” I said.
          “Cape Town. The CBD – you know? I want to look for people.”
          “CBD?” He paused for a moment. “Oh right – right. Ja, the train goes there. It’s a nice ride along the sea.”
          “Yeah, cool,” I said. “Thanks.”
          The pair began to walk away, resuming their conversation. “Wait,” I said. “Wait, just a second, please?”
          “Ja, what?”
          “What about tickets?”
          The teenager laughed. “You don’t need tickets, man. It’s a train. Just get on.”
          “You don’t have to pay?”
          “No,” he said, turning from me again. “Things are paid for in other ways here.”


He was right – the view was nice. The air was clear, the sky abundant. The land heading north was about the same as I remembered it, littered with houses, complexes, apartment blocks.
          I had expected more.
          The carriage was made of wood and plastic – musty, high-ceilinged and jiggering with the camber of the tracks. I had a bench to myself, away from the people who spoke softly in odd-matched pairs, about the weather and other things I couldn’t decipher. A dark man – darker than me – walked down the aisle, passing out boiled sweets from a woven basket.
          Despite what the teenager said, I couldn’t see the sea. It made sense. Surely one would only see the ocean heading in the direction of Simon’s Town or whatever was there now. But in this direction? The stations we came to had no signs, only numerals, descending as we went towards the end of the line. A voice on an intercom spoke new names as we arrived at each. I oriented myself by tracking the rotation of the mountain through the opposite window.
          When we stopped somewhere near where I thought Rosebank would be – VII – the voice said “Khayelitsha”. Something in my chest began creeping, cold. This was nowhere near Khayelitsha. I peeled myself off the bench and limped over to the window. I could see nothing but the station, built three storeys high from stone and pine, with a quilt work of flags hanging from poles on the eaves. To the left and the right were subways, heading underneath a road, flanked by a frontier of willows. I saw my face in the glass. I looked the same.
          The carriage jolted and sent me sprawling onto the floor. I felt the wound pulse under my ribs. I was surprised when no one laughed.
          Maybe the name for this new place was apt, I thought, retaking my bench. Maybe it was a different kind of new home. A better one.


I had sat on the opposite side of the carriage, trying to look around the banks of trees as we coasted north. I was picking at a scab on my foot when the trees began to thin, somewhere near Mowbray, and the most incredible things opened up to me. Blocks of flats, towers of stone and mortar, all among the slopes and folds of Devil’s Peak. Colonies of concrete favelas, houses with pitched roofs all hanging off the rock, connected by poles with wires like spider web. Funiculars climbed the slopes, humming all around and across the mountain, all pulsing with movement. Neighbourhoods unimaginable and strange – people were living not around, but on Table Mountain.
          At Woodstock, columns of townhouses ran parallel from the peaks to the tracks – a disorienting parallax, opening and closing like accordion bellows. District Six, a garden city in miniature, in octagon and pentagon, lush and glowing in the sun. In every neighbourhood dozens of statues rose on plinths, piercing and needling the pink-edged sky.
          The train entered a tunnel, and I peeled my gaze from the window. The carriage was now empty, save for a pair of men, shirtless in shorts, with leather backpacks on their laps. They looked like what people used to call bushmen. I’d never seen a bushman in the flesh before, only in books and Afrikaner movies, worshipping Coke bottles and tracking kudu. One mimed the action of rolling dice. The other clapped hysterically.
          The tunnel echoed the clacks of the wheels and the tracks and the engine. A minute passed in the darkness, the carriage lit by a single bulb suspended from a cable bound in rope, which cast a harsh shadow of amber and orange. The men were laughing, and I caught myself staring at them, trying to decipher their rasps and snaps. And they stared back, furrowing their brows, stone silent – until I looked away again, and waited for us to emerge.


But the sea. The sea, cellophane blue, crashing and crinking on itself. And empty. There was no harbour, the cresting shoreline naked of concrete or metal. Highways and high-rises had cut off the city as I knew it from the sea; from the shelter the bay gave from the squalls and the waves and the deluges of winter; from the entire reason of its existence. How naked the bay seemed now.
          We followed the shore into the city bowl – except there was no city. Just small neighbourhoods, like everywhere else on the flatland, interspersed with towers and spires and statues. Smoke billowed from the top of the mountain like clouds. Signal Hill rustled with strange trees.
          My heart dropped. This place had a geography that had to be relearned.


Later I found that the spires and the minarets I had seen from the train were just that: there were still churches and mosques and temples here, teaching the same things they always had – forgiveness, piety, fear; with scriptures retconned into interpretations that would explain this afterlife.
          Although this wasn’t the afterlife. This was life. Death was nothing to be feared, for this was death. What was unknowable was plainly knowable; experience, plain experience, unavoidable. And experience was knowledge. As was memory – all of it. Every iteration. Every variance.
          Remember this. Number your moments like beads.


The train terminated where I thought town would be. I alighted in a cavernous station: an arcade with open timber struts running its length. I left through an archway, turned left and, after a few steps, found myself on a belvedere looking over a beach. The Foreshore was gone. It had not been rebuilt, the ground not reclaimed, its streets a shimmering memory. No moorings or docks or even a pier. I supposed the slaves who had first built those things weren’t in the mood to build them again.
          I saw that the tracks extended past the station, towards the Atlantic seaboard. I was curious to see what would be there too. But there was no rush. I suspected I had the time.
          The wind picked up. The water lapped against a stone wall below me. The sun began to dip behind the forests on the hills. Clouds gathered over the mountain. My skin grew taut.
          Out the corner of my eye I saw the bushmen behind me, sauntering over Strand Street, towards a park where the Grand Parade used to be. I followed them.


Cecil Rhodes sat on a taxidermied horse in a cage on a plinth in the middle of the Parade. I wouldn’t have known who he was if there wasn’t a sign beneath him, as if he were a stuffed animal in a museum. Old men were slinging pieces of gravel at him disinterestedly from a few metres away, one with a small catty made of rubber and knotted wood. Rhodes didn’t recoil from the blows. He only swayed, blood dripping and something foaming out his mouth. His chest heaved.
          He was alive. He couldn’t die.
          There were dozens of them, men and women, caged and shackled on pillars throughout the Parade, some neglected and bored, stroking old scars, some bearing injuries that would have meant death under other circumstances.
          Truthfully? They spoiled the view. The park was beautiful, filled with sage and yellowwood and unknown shrubs, all filled with the sunset chatter of animals I’d never heard before. Families walked down the lanes. Children sat on benches and ate apples and drank from water bottles, enjoying the last sun of the day. Some of the pillars holding the cages were encrusted with the most exquisite flowers, glowing gold and fuchsia and grey, growing over dried and drying blood, obscuring the gore.
          I realised then that all the plinths I had seen from the train were supporting living statues.
          I also realised that if I concentrated hard enough, I could ignore the groans.


This city was saturated with memory. Maybe that’s why they never rebuilt it, letting this park do all the remembering for them.
          I left the park and took a right down a lane flanked with townhouses. Buitenkant. I tried to anchor myself with memories of this place. I tried to think about the days spent at the theatres and bookshops on the intersections, the parties I had stocked from the bottle store, the nights I had spent at the tavern further up the hill, eating squid, drinking clear spirits.
          The statues were on every corner – supplicating people, begging to be stared at, begging to be pitied. No doubt they deserved their suffering: why would they be there otherwise?
          I asked a man marked with the name of a settler why he was trapped up on his plinth.
          “Wat dink jy?” he asked me. His teeth were chipped and yellow. “Dit is net wat jy sien.”
          “Jy was ’n slegte persoon in ’n vorige lewe,” I said.
          “Maar wat beteken ‘slegte’?” he mumbled. “Julle mense vra al dieselfde vrae. Die wêreld bereik ewewig uiteindelik. Dis net wat jy sien.”
          The decades had reduced him to platitudes. I asked him if he wanted to die.
          “Ek’s alreeds dood.”
          I asked him if he wanted to die again. He was silent.
          I asked a passing man why the settler was up there, forced to live in pain and resignation. He hunched his shoulders. I’m not sure he understood the question.


The foghorns began like calls to prayer, sonorous voices between the peaks and the buildings. The lights of the new villages shimmered up the mountain. The cloudbank had settled, and the streetlights and the pulsing of electricity and fire came to me in waves, unrelenting, unsettling.
          This was no CBD. This was no Town. No wonder the teenager had laughed at me. I walked up the entire length of Buitenkant, between the truncated high-rises and the duplexes. On every block, there was a different living statue, in poses distorted and gnarled, accompanied by inscriptions of the sins and pains they had visited on the people with whom they had shared the world before, and with whom they were forced to share the world again. And it was as if those people had decided to move from this place, from the idea of this city, and from this city that had itself been a monument to so much pain – to so much ruin, even in its beauty. Something that had been built on bodies and bones. As if this place was a monument to everything that had come before; to those who had destroyed their past lives, in the hope they could have the lives they wanted now.
          I felt I should make my way up the mountain, to see all the new things, to see what people had remade of themselves. To find someplace to stay. I could start looking for family, for friends tomorrow. I could find them in a phonebook, maybe, if phonebooks existed in this place.
          I could see the funiculars in the distance, their stations beginning on the edge of Gardens. The foghorns rang again, loud and true. The streets had emptied, apart from the statues. I felt this creeping inside my chest, this electricity, constricting and hammering at me. I quickened my step.
          On the corner of Mill Street, under a bridge, I came across a man – a black man in a black suit – on his haunches, checking his watch. I said hello. He smiled at me, and I felt myself smiling back at him. Tears gathered in my eyes – for what, I couldn’t be sure. I asked the man what he was doing. He said he was waiting. I asked him what he was waiting for. He said he liked to hear the music. I asked what music, and that’s when they started to sing.
          All the men, all the women, all the statues, all on their plinths, all in their cages. A thin trail of voices rising from the streets nearby, punctuated by the foghorns, softened by the noise of the night. They began a hymn. They sang, well-practised, well-routined, mournful:
          Genade onbeskryflik groot
          het U aan my bewys
          verlore seun ’n wegloopkind
          weer in die vaderhuis

          This happened every night, the man told me, and he came out every evening to listen to them. He found it soothing; the Afrikaans words fitted the tune better than the English version he knew as a child.
          I asked him why they sang.
          He asked me: why would anyone sing?
          Maar U sien ver, oneindig ver.
          U sien my honger, dors.

          The man started singing along, softly. The streetlights began to flicker on, then glowed blue.
          I spotted another man not far away. A statue man, in regalia, shackled astride another stuffed horse. He was set on a wide plinth, flanked by jacarandas in bloom. He led those near him in a monstrous baritone, with his eyes closed and his eyebrows furrowed. A great thicket of beard moved with his words.
          I crouched to the suited man. I spoke in a hushed voice, somehow not willing to disturb the sanctity of the hymn, no matter how grotesque its performance, no matter how futile a plea for grace might be here.
          “Uxolo tata,” I said. “Ngubani na lo?”
          He looked me in the eye. “Ungazi?”
          I shook my head.
          He grabbed my hand, still scarred and bloody, and whispered: “Botha.”
          Want toe ek kom, my skuld bely,
          druk U my aan die bors.

I stared at Louis Botha, in the same position I’d always known him, a statue outside Parliament, although that was a place that wasn’t a place anymore. I wanted to say I felt comfort, but comfort isn’t the word.
          I felt an itch on my side and inspected my wound. A fly had landed on it. I flicked it away with a fingernail, and the wound started bleeding again. The suited man said I should get it looked at. I nodded and said goodbye, and he continued singing.
          I turned to the mountain. I walked.

© Nick Mulgrew, first published in Terra Incognita, ed. Nerine Dorman (Cape Town: Short Story Day Africa, 2015). This version published in Stations (Cape Town: David Philip Publishers, 2016).

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