Death and Punk
My plan is to “borrow” my dad’s car, so we’re headed over to his place. Though I’m really hoping he’s out when we get there because I’m not really in the mood for requests and explanations. Technically, my dad’s house is in walking distance, but it’s taking us a ridiculously long time to walk anywhere, possibly because we’re still more than a little drunk. We’ve made it as far as Louis Botha. The main road is its usual crazy mess. It’s always packed, with everyone hooting and slamming brakes and trying to push each other off into the verge, but it’s worse than usual thanks to this freaking heat-wave we’ve been having.
Rain and I are sitting on the edge of the pavement, sharing a smoke because Rain can’t walk fifty metres without taking a smoke break, the lazy bugger. I’m bouncy and jittery, trying shake off the half-drunk wobbles while doing some mental arithmetic to see if I can actually afford going out tonight. Who needs food, right? I pass my cig over to Rain who clutches at it with a pincer grip, his hands half folded under his sleeves. Very Winona Ryder. I tell him that and he scowls at me. We draw in fiery breaths, and the heat slides down my skin and presses me into the ground.
Minibus taxis are stop-starting to cram in as many passengers as they can, and the hawkers along the pavement are selling everything from Chappies chewing gum to telephone calls and haircuts. Just a little up from us, a guy is parked in a garden chair under a plastic marquee while a barber buzzes about him, shaving his head. Uncollected rubbish has built up in the gutters—the municipal worker’s strike is in its third week. It’s so bad that people have reported rats running around in broad day light. Some toe-rag of a local paper ran a story about rats that ate a baby, but I don’t think I believe it.
“Hurry up with that,” I say. Rain is hogging my cigarette.
“You’re so controlling.” He takes an extra-long drag and blows smoke out into the already chokey air before bouncing the cig back to me. “I’m sure somewhere out there is a man desperate to be dominated by you. But it’s not me.”
“Seriously? Shut up—”
Metal squeals as someone hits the brakes, the tyres smearing rubber all over the gravelly tar. A rather robust woman on the side of the road screams and drops the bag of mielie-meal she’s been carrying on her head. Course white flour spills over the cracked concrete pavement.
“Christ,” says Rain, and draws his feet back out of the gutter. “That’s not cool.”
There’s nothing slow-motion about car-accidents. One moment there’s noise, then a single empty space where everyone takes a breath, and then the vultures crowd in. They’re already gathering, jabbering and shouting at each other as they shove their way closer to get a good look at the poor bugger who just kicked the proverbial.
A mini-bus taxi is parked half on the pavement—white and square as a loaf of cheap bread—and all around it the crowd swarms as the passengers clamber over each other to get out. There’s screaming and wailing, although I can’t understand a word that anyone is saying; I don’t speak Sotho or Zulu. Generic Joburg White Girl, that’s me. I know, like, three words in Zulu. Very useful.
The barber and his customer—head only half-shaved—are just behind us. The barber has a cell-phone pressed to his ear and he’s shouting over the noise of traffic and people.
For a minute everything feels stalled and sticky, like I’m trying to walk through luke-warm Jungle Oats. Sound is muffled, and the air is a giant powerful hand flattening me right down into the tar. The oat-porridge moment snaps, and a sudden buzzing begins in my head. A strange slow build-up, teeth-grinding. It grows louder, higher, until a tinnitus whine is drilling through my skull.
I lurch to my feet.
“Irene?” says Rain, uncertainly.
The buzzing is in my teeth now, an ache, a drilling pain, and it drags me forward like an iron filing.
I’m not normally one of the ghouls who gets their kicks from car-crashes and stuff, but that hurt is tugging me there.
“Ah, Irene. I don’t think I want to see this,” Rain says as I weave through the stalled traffic and make my way toward the taxi.
I shake my head—I don’t want to either. Against my chest, my mother’s little evil eye goes icy, and I shiver despite the beating summer sun.
In the distance, ambulance sirens wail. The crowd begins to slip away. No-one wants to be caught hanging around here and have to answer uncomfortable questions. Blood stains the grey dirt, dark and sticky-looking as spilled paint. Flies are already buzzing around us and coming down to feed at the edges of the blood. There’s not much else to see because too many people are still knotted tight around the body.
A coil of long black hair makes a bizarre loop in the puddle of blood. Like an esoteric symbol, or a message in another language. People are backing away and I get my first clear glimpse of the victim. It’s an older man with a Roman nose and skin too pale for this country. I wonder if he’s a tourist. Or maybe he just never sees the sun. His thin mouth is half-open. Deep seams crease from his the corners of his mouth. His brow is lined. Not a man who smiled much when he was alive.
Rain pulls me back.
The buzz stops, and I feel immediately deflated. Hollow.
“God,” I say. “He’s dead.” No-one spills that much blood and tells stories about it later.
A woman with a ZCC star pinned to her breast, and loaded with plastic shopping bags moves out of my way so I get another view. He’s definitely a corpse; his eyes already glazing over in the heat. The blank open eyes stare up at me, and there’s a moment of recognition, like I met him somewhere before.
Bile rises in my throat and I shudder once, trying to shake off the sick horror. My first dead body. Wonderful.
Flies settle on his face, light as dancers; one crawls into the corner of an eye, and for a moment, the movement makes it look like the corpse is winking at me.
I jerk back, my heart hammering. I swear his eyes did move that time, that he’s still alive. Around him the air thickens; it has that horrible electric itch that I normally only get from being near Lily. Like there’s something terribly wrong with him.
Well, of course there is. He’s dead.
Rain clamps a hand on my arm. “Irene, lets just go, right?” Death and blood frighten him. With reason. He’s been inside enough hospitals because of Lily and her sick need to be noticed, to be the centre of attention. I’m only too glad to turn away. The two of us walk from the dead man and his gathering of ghouls. My skin is itching all over. Damn eczema playing up in the heat.
“Why did you even want to see that, Reen?” Rain says, as he scuffs his shoes along the gutter edge.
I don’t answer him. “What’s that?” I point. A few feet from the accident, something is lying in the gutter. It looks very much like a cowboy hat—the kind you’d see in the movies. I pick it up between my fore-finger and thumb. It’s all black, and softer, more battered than I’d expect. There’s no ornamentation. “What the hell? Someone lose a hat?” I wonder if it belongs to Mr Unlucky back there.
“It’s a nice hat,” Rain says.
I drop the cowboy hat back onto the road. It’s creeping me out.
A cop car blasts past us, sirens screaming, flashing red and blue light over our faces. Just behind it, an ambulance is weaving through the uncooperative traffic.
“Let’s move,” I say. “Leave it alone.”
Rain doesn’t make us waste any more time on impromptu cigarette breaks. Death will do that.
Only one car is sitting in my dad’s driveway when we get there. Good. It’s the Volksie; a ’76 Beetle in the most obnoxious shade of mustard yellow possible. Despite the rather hideous paint job, the Beetle remains my father’s one true love. I still remember the endless weekends after my mom died, sitting barefoot in the sun and watching him lose himself in endless tinkering.
“Dale?” The side door’s unlocked—a pretty good sign that my idiot younger brother is home. No-one else is dumb enough to leave the security gate open in Norwood. “So where’s dad gone?” Inside the house is deliciously cool after that stagnant stinking heat. I grab us ice-water from the fridge and drink mine in three gulps. I also steal some polony and cheese. Rain and I could probably use something to line our stomachs, anyway. “Dale?” I yell again as I head towards the lounge. “Dad?”
“Out.” Dale looks up from where he’s stretched out on a couch, flicking through a copy of Blunt. He’s bigger than me these days, but I remember when he was in Grade One and just a skinny little runt and I beat the crap out of some of his classmates for being typical snotty little meat-heads. I was a hardcore ten-year old and I lived by Kerry rules—no-one beats up my brother but me.
“Dad says to tell you that you’re to pick up your crap.” My brother sits up long enough to squint at me. Dale looks like a shaggy-headed sun, all Irish wild-boy. Definitely more dad’s side than mom’s “What the hell happened to your hair?”
He nods at a small pile of dusty, brown-taped boxes, the corners battered.
Oh god, Mom’s stuff. I told him I didn’t want it. One hand strays up to touch my hair and I ruffle it. I am not my mother. I don’t look like her, and I sure as hell don’t want her weird rubbing off on me like some kind of skin disease. “Why does he want them gone now?” They’ve been sitting in my old room for the better part of two months.
Dale raises an eyebrow in answer and I groan. So dad’s new girlfriend has been staying over—terrific.
“Yeah, tell him I’ll get them some other time.” Like never. I grab the car keys from the Welsh dresser. “And tell him I’ve got the car.”
“Oh yeah, right.” He snorts as he flips over another page. “I wasn’t here. I saw nothing. Now, run like all the hounds of hell are on your tail.”
My brother is not a comic genius.
Neither Rain nor I actually have a valid driver’s licence, so it really doesn’t matter which of us takes the wheel, but I’ll be damned if I let Rain drive my father’s car. Besides, I have my learner’s, even if it has probably expired by now.
It takes nerves of steel to take this floating coffin into Joburg traffic. Next to me, Rain is hanging onto the ceiling strap and I’m barely going fifty. “Music,” I say. “We need dulcet tones to soothe us on our journey.”
“Good luck with that,” Rain mumbles.
My dad’s car is so ancient that the radio only takes tapes. It’ll be a while before we’re close enough to pick up Tuks clearly, and no-one could pay me enough to listen to that crap they play on Five, so I snap one of Dad’s Led Zeppelin tapes in and Black Dog drums us down down the highway, Robert Plant’s animal shriek shimmying from the ratty speakers.
Rain winds down the window and leans his head back. The blast of stale summer air almost drowns out the music so I have to turn up the volume until the speakers are a buzz of distortion. At least with the open window the hot air almost feels like it’s doing some kind of good. Drying my sweat. I sneak a glance at Rain; he’s laughing, the wind blowing his hair back, the late afternoon sun bathing his face in gold and red. It’s little things like these that remind me why being in love sucks so much. How can anyone be so perfectly pretty on the outside, and such a ruin under it all. A question for our times. Anyway, I’m the idiot, because I keep falling for it.
We pull up outside the hole in the wall affectionately known as the Pink Fairy thanks to a Froud-ish squashed fairy someone’s painted behind the bar. Rain loves this place because it’s owned by this ancient punk who tends to put The Clash on repeat, in between all the Placebo and Blur and White Stripes. Long live old people, I guess.
I lean against the bar and wait for the dread-headed hipster who is supposedly working to look up long enough from the bong he’s busy carving to notice us. “Beer?” I say to Rain.
We drink Black Labels and tequila shots, and play pool while the sun sets and the poky little bar gets more and more crowded.
So I’m kinda non compos mentis when the dead guy from the accident walks into the bar and orders a double Jameson on the rocks. I look up blearily from my shot and freeze. I’m pretty damn sure it’s him. There are not many pale, ancient weirdos wandering around in this heat wearing a black leather trench-coat and a cowboy hat. His hair is long and dark and too shiny. Like an oil spill. The ends look tacky. Dried blood, I think, then shake my head.
It’s not him. You’re being weird, Irene. You’re being like Mom. Next thing I’ll be seeing little pink elephants or something. It’s just a guy who looks a lot like a guy who might have been dead.
Not-Actually-Dead Guy sees me looking at him and touches his fingers to his hat and nods.
“Reen, just play the shot already,” Rain says lazily from where he’s sitting on a long-legged bar stool and rolling his cue between his palms. “What?” He looks over to where the walking corpse is throwing back his whiskey like it’s water.
“Another one, Caleb?” The dread-head stops carving long enough to pour the previously-dead weirdo another whiskey.
Caleb doesn’t sit down. He stands at the bar watching me and Rain, his arms crossed over his chest, hat brim pulled low. All I can really make out of his face is the triangular jut of his chin. I’m getting that uncomfortable tightening to my skin, just like I did at the scene of the accident. The itch.
Dear Irene, stop going mad. You have eczema. You are not having some weird physical reaction to a walking corpse. You really, really aren’t. Also, totally not a dead man, standing at the bar. Calm down. “Rain,” I call over the music. “Time to split, man.”
His brow furrows. “It’s early, the doors will only have just opened.”
I thunk my cue down on the table and tug Rain’s sleeve. “Seriously. Grab that white ball and get my deposit. We’re going. Come on.”
Outside the air is a little cooler, just barely.
“God, Irene. Why are you so freaked out?” He shrugs out of my grip. “Ever since the cowboy came in you’ve gone insane—” Rain breaks off to stare at the car parked next to us in the gravel driveway. “You reckon that’s his?”
Sure as hell can’t be anyone else’s. Only a (dead) goth in a cowboy hat would be driving that around. The car’s paint is scraped down to shining metal along the sides, and it’s been in a fair few accidents. One of the front lights is bashed in, the plastic cracked in jagged teeth. He’s wired a bloody skull to the front bumper of his low car. The skull is gen-u-wine cow. Or bull, I don’t know. Whatever it was, it had huge spiraling horns.
“Kudu,” says Rain. Like he’s reading my mind.
Oh yeah, kudu. “Is that even legal?” I ask.
“You worry about the weirdest things.” Rain laughs at me. “You really want to go Zeps now?”
I unlock the Beetle in answer, and hold the door open for him.
“Well then,” he says. “What you waiting for? Drive this piece of crap—”
“Hey, only I can diss this car.”
“Drive this shining example of German precision engineering. Onward, James, and don’t spare the horses.”
“It’s ‘Home, James.'”
“Whatever.” He laughs.
The engine chugs to life, and I back the car out onto the road. The sky is indigo-dark now, and I glance back at the parking lot. Under the orange glow of the flickering street lights, Caleb walks out the Pink Fairy’s door, his silhouette unmistakable. He’s not following us.
Nope. that would be weird. And I have decided I’ve had enough weird for the day.