2019 SA Writers College Short Story Competition Winner

 

 

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  'Tulbagh By Gaslight'- by S.F. Ratcliffe

 

 

 
 

Honeybadger don’t give a shit, I reassured myself before dumping my luggage into the back of her bakkie, fifteen minutes late and one eventful Uber ride behind me.

‘Shit Honey, I’m sorry.’

‘Naa! No man it’s ok, mmm!’ Her voice all singsong, full frontal hug, safe behind the tortoiseshell of her D&G shades. ‘So jaaa, hi! I’ve moved back to Cape Town full-time. Not going to live in Gauteng my whole life. Me-heh!’

 

It had been over a year since I’d last seen Honey during a lecture series in Joburg, and I couldn’t believe I’d forgotten her cadence. The over modulated Mmm’s and Jaaaa’s of agreement. The throaty bark of her laugh at the end of a self-deprecating statement.

I glanced across at her while she laid in our route on a Garmin. Her strong hands manipulating the diesel bakkie through the knotted arteries of the CBD, too narrow streets clogged with the cholesterol of poorly parked cars and tourists with fishpaste smears for legs looking ever upward, a Humvee shaped infarction materializing mid-sentence at the final push onto the highway, a yank of the steering wheel and an unemotional middle finger to the driver a matter of reflex.

‘Even though it’s been really good for my career, up that side,’ she finished.

 

Honey wasn’t her real name, of course. Just one of those Afrikaans phonetic anomalies exploited by her rooinek friends, a joke long forgotten with an indelible punch-line.

She could easily have taken up her family’s trade, but a generations old Afrikaner linage in viticulture was supplanted by an academic wit that could jigsaw bits of information into tiny pieces and mash the puzzles together in new ways, where they had little baby ideas of their own. It was a beautiful thing to behold. ‘Brainfartlings’ she called them, usually followed by one of those meh-meheh jackal barks.

 

I distinctly remember when ‘Badger’ was tacked on by some well-meaning grad students in our faculty after that Randall guy re-voiced a certain nature doccie that went viral on Youtube. Like, 90 million views and counting viral. We had a good laugh; let’s just say her outspoken nature was not exactly a secret.

 

We’d done bemoaning our ailing public and larcenous private education systems by the time we reached the R44, and I knew something was bothering her beyond the ransacking of a generations future. She was tilting her head as if listening out for something, a high frequency complaint from the engine perhaps, or that persistent rattling sound from somewhere under the canopy. But l recognized the gesture and let the open road do its thing.

 

‘So jaaaa! Aah…I almost got married.’

‘What? Wow! Mazel tov! Hey, what do you mean ‘almost?’’

She checked the GPS.

‘Hmm! You remember when I was on that TV panel, after I got back from Nkandla? You know, before Nkandla was famous?’

‘Um, yeah…that thing about psychologists working with traditional healers, right? Community engagement stuff in rural areas, exchange of—’

‘Jaaa! Well, this guy watches the show and starts writing to me.’

‘Huh! Ok?’

‘He got my details from Maties and starts sending me these letters. He says…nice things.’

I glance at Honey and notice the top of her ear has gone red, her hands steady at 10 and 2.

‘But wasn’t that years ago?’

‘Net so! His letter is so funny and he’s just lis for a pen pal, like, old school vibes. He’s not on Facebook en al darrie kak.’

Honey reached for the aircon.

‘It’s really fun and light. We switch to email, and we start talking about personal stuff. And also…you know….’

‘Nice stuff?’

‘Mmmm! Meh-heh. But ag ja, this is before I went to Joburg and you know how small a doos Cape Town is. I’m showing a friend one of my letters and she says wag nou,’ Honey made her voice a kugel squeak, the words a small caliber barrage bouncing off the windscreen,

This-china-sounds-like-Claudette’s-guy-she-showed-me-a-letter-aaas well. Do you think it could be the same oke? Hey?’ Honey did not like drama.

‘It was so swak.'

I shifted in my seat. I didn’t want to interrupt but felt like I needed to commiserate somehow, be supportive.

‘Jeez, emotional affair 101, right? And everyone knows the Kevin Bacon rule in Cape Town is, like, one degree.’

Windmeul Cellars sprang up on our left, a haven of dark leaves amongst the squat fynbos and thirsty brown brush. Honey pulled the wheel hard.

‘Fok! I have to buy wine still!’

 

I’d remembered what Honey liked on her sandwiches and passed her some foil-clad padkos before asking, ‘What happened then?’

She flicked the aircon off, the thermostat had died years ago and it was an unconscious tick.

‘I told him to fuck off, he was in a relationship.’

‘Great!’

She chewed, nodded.

‘Ja, and then a year later he starts emailing me again. A year, hey! This time it’s even more…nice. He tells me how his girlfriend is totally co-dependent, that he wants to leave her but, you know, he’s really loyal. Even though she’s like a sister.’ Collective eye roll. ‘I told him to get lost.’

‘Nice!’

Aircon on.

‘Then around Christmas last year he emails me again and now I’m in Joburg. I’m thinking jinne fok, I don’t have time for this doos, meh-heh. He asks me to give him a chance. No funny business. He and Claudette aren’t together anymore and he just wants to write, like before. What’s the harm?’

‘…Ok?’
‘And you know, it’s really lekker. We write and we laugh and it’s easy. Next thing, he comes up to Joburg to see me. He says he’s in finance. He says flights aren’t a problem.’

 

I don’t know if Honey had a sense of this, but I started to feel as if the car was gaining speed, racing towards an inevitable pole or wall or person. I realized I was pressing the non-existent brake pedal in the passenger seat and relaxed my leg.

 

‘Then it got pretty hectic. We had dinner that night and he told me Claudette threatened to kill herself if he left her. They’d been together for five years and he just wanted to move on. He felt trapped.’

Aircon off.

‘But when we started writing it was like I was his soul mate, he said. The next day he told me I was The One.’

Honey dropped her pitch to intone ‘The One’ in her Verimark voice.

‘The next day?’

‘For real! But listen, we’d been writing for years and I thought about what we already had. And maybe this Claudette was like he said, hanging onto something that was done. Klaar. He called her weak.’

‘Weak tea more like.’
‘Ja well, I know that now.’ Honey’s shoulders wilted towards the steering wheel.

‘But hey, haven’t you ever lost your…sense? For someone?’

I couldn’t argue with that.

 

By the time we’d turned off the R44 towards Tulbagh, I was intimate with the dream he’d sold. They would put aside some time each month, just a quick flight to and fro. And even though he wasn’t the marrying type, he could see their union ‘in the Karoo under God and a starry sky.’ Because she was strong and independent, The One. And then maybe she’d move down to Cape Town, since he was a financier after all. When the time was right.

 

‘Ag, it’s easy to look back and be all shitty to yourself, but everyone loved him. Not just my friends hey, even ma and pa thought he was a ‘cool dude.’ ‘

We both laughed.

AC on. She turned it to full while adding,

‘Not that I ever met his family.’

So many alarm bells.

‘Why not?’

‘He said I’d embarrass him, because everyone knows he’s big on public displays of affection. That’s just how he is. And I’m not.’

‘Embarrassed? That’s…weird.’

‘Ja! But this is the same oke who asked why I didn’t want to sleep with him on the second date, serious! He said if I was seeing someone else, I must just tell him and not waste our time.’

I paused. I wasn’t imagining it this time, we really were going fast. Honey leaned back in the driver’s seat and we slowed. I watched a group of kids in bright striped T’s offset by brown skin disgorge from an old eggshell blue Toyota Corolla on the side of the road with plastic canteens, heading towards a small concrete reservoir that shimmered in the heat. The youngest boys waved as we drove passed. I waved back.

‘Honey, that all sounds super dodgy. Foxy smells his own hole, right?’

She sighed, ‘Ja, I get it. Thing is, I…fell in love! Me! That never happens hey. Fok.’

 

Turned out even though she was The One, he seemed quite content with seeing her on a monthly basis or so, on weekends that worked best for him no doubt, being in finance.

‘I mean, if I’m The One, what the hell were we doing after a year like that? Why not more? I asked him hey, a week before my birthday. He said I was getting all needy and co-dependent.’

I choked on my padkos.

 

‘And how’s this, I asked my friend about Claudette and she’s a fokken international banker chick! I mean, if she couldn’t….’ Honey bit her bottom lip.

‘And there it is; three years of writing, a year long distance, and then he dumps me on email. Jirre.’ I squeezed her shoulder, feeling pretty useless and not a little ashamed of my gender.

 

I looked hard at Honey then as we entered Tulbagh. It hit me all at once, what he did to her, what he does to women, how they’re all just women.

 

The unsolicited contact, years of effort in fraying and splitting apart their roots and fibres, pressing them into a mould to collect the part that he likes, letting their nectar coat the sharp bits and fill the holes inside him. And then after, each of them conveniently reinvented in his own mind, ‘round the braai or at the bar: Ag shame, hey, that chick went all psycho on me. I thought she was cool but man, just a clingy mess. They’re all the same, hey okes? Ag ja, my conscience is clear, thanks boeta. Na it’s ok, let me get this round. I’m in finance, hey.

 

An actual vampire. I wondered if Honey knew what he was. With all her astounding intellect, all her years of travel and learning at the University or in KZN with those sangomas, with all her fierce independence—did she truly know it wasn’t her fault?

 

We got out the bakkie at my B&B and leaned against the canopy with our arms linked, looking across the town from the vantage of Museum Street to the tune of cicadas and the metallic ping of the bonnet in the heat.

 

Tulbagh is left-wing objectionable, but I’d seen worse. At least the ‘onderdorp’ wasn’t an abstract notion, with its own shops and high street. In yet another museum to colonialism, there was a glimmer of honesty in that.

 

‘I’m sorry Honey, that’s a shitty story. Hey, I’m keen to talk more about it if you are. Call me when you’re back in town, ok?’

‘Hey jaaa! Let’s have a nice Saronsberg rose’, mmm?’

 

Thanking her for the lift, I opened the canopy to grab my scant luggage and was instantly assaulted by the smell of burnt things. Of cedar and charcoal, afval and fynbos and old socks, reminiscent of the heavy herbal scent those rastas offered up from their woven mats outside Cape Town Metrorail.

The hessian sack had spilled its secret. The little wicker doll was tightly bound with a strip of torn cloth, the muted pattern of a formal men’s shirt barely recognizable. The doll’s bristle of hair impaled the dismembered circles of heads cut from photographs, the same smiling face, posing each time. He was good at posing.

 

Honey reached past me and put the effigy back in the sack. She closed the canopy and grinned. Her glasses were off for the first time that morning, as if it was ok to see her eyes now, and they were too bright.

‘Honeybadger don’t give a shit. Meh-heh.’

 

 

 

 

 

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