At first, I took it for a lump of meat. It wouldn’t have been entirely out of place amongst all these other dispossessed possessions; the third hand furniture twice removed, the rinkadink trinkets, the soiled paperback novels, cellphone covers and droëwors strung like candy canes – or nunchucks, Mark would have said, pulling a move more ninja turtle than Bruce Lee to demonstrate. If he was here.
It was at one of the stalls backed against the sea. One of the sometimes irregulars, just a fold out metal table, that would have been rickety on the scrabble of dirt between the railway lines and the double lane industria throughfare, had someone not crumpled a Marlboro packet beneath one cracked rubber foot.
The surface, (but really, the word that comes to mind is meniscus, like a pond strangled with algae and trash) was strewn with stuff. A forlorn worn blue teddy bear with something sticky dried on its head, a patch of fur spiked up in hard bristles. A collection of mismatched silver cutlery, commemorative spoons for long-forgotten events and thin tarnished forks with stained prongs and grooved handles, old records of the kind that only appeals to my ironists (Marc, Jerry & Linda all perched on one bicycle in waistcoasts and 70s hair and white teeth) and a scattering of collectible toys from a fast food joint, their gaudy plastic colours somehow antagonistic amid the faded junk, displaced from the context of happy meal boxes.
I wouldn’t have noticed it at all if the dog hadn’t caught my attention. It was a discoloured China statuette of a Toy Pom – its ears pricked forward, pink tongue lolling between open teeth in that banal doggy way. One paw was raised, as if begging, like one of those good luck cats Azraa brought back from Hong Kong. But the begging paw was damaged, a chipped off stub, the wound bone coloured against its nicotine pelt. It makes me think of Mark, naturally, and not only for his habit.
As I lean across the table to see if the stain is only dust and can be wiped away, I notice something that makes me flinch back instinctively. Half wrapped in newspaper, it is a swollen red clot, about the size of my fist and faintly shiny. It looks like the leftovers of road kill, maybe a rat or a bird that has been rescued from one of the dogs that lopes around here, unleashed, between the tables, but I realise it’s too neat, too compact, like a raw steak, but why would they leave it out on the table, where the flies could get at it? Where it could be contaminated? I’m about to leave, move on to the next stall with its table laden with desperate junk, but there is something about the dog and I think Mark will appreciate it. A gag, because he’s not here to share it.
‘How much is that?’ I said, pointing to the dog, without touching it, without coming near the piece of flesh nested in newspaper. The woman standing behind the table twitches her attention to me, her lips distended, her face gaping to show her teeth and her wet, red tongue, as if unconsciously imitating the China dog.
‘Japie?’ She yelps.
A kid in a black WWE wrestling shirt scratches through the McDonalds toys, ambivalently. We wait, the dog staring up dolefully with murky painted eyes from the table between us.
When last we were here, Mark and I, he bought me a cheap plastic mask from some Japanese cartoon show. ‘You keep nagging me for a photo,’ he said. And it was true, it did resemble him, all spiky black hair and arched eyebrows. When he was getting us pancakes, I slipped it on, knotting the limp elastic beneath my ponytail and when he turned to hand me mine, it startled him. ‘Jesus!’ he said, ‘You are such a freak.’ I wore it the rest of the loop we made around the stalls, refused to take it off. People stared. ‘I wish you wouldn’t,’ he said.
In the cab of the battered Ford bakkie parked behind her, the boot yawning with more ratty cardboard boxes, like they were breeding in there, something stirs.
‘Wat nou?’ The silhouette of a head rises in the front seat, a hand, tea-coloured and smooth with veins outlined in relief, angles the side mirror of the bakkie to see, flashing a flare of sunlight at us. In the reflection, I can only make out a cap, the features sunken beneath it. There is a sweet foetid note of marijuana in the air, an undertone to the sizzle of boerewors rolls.
‘Hoeveel issie hond?’
‘Nee, ek weet nie.’
‘Kom nou, liefie, Wat moet ek virrie dame sê?’
‘Sê fyftig rand.’
‘Oh come on. Fifty! I mean the paw. It’s chipped right off.’
‘Wag net ‘n oomblik, juffrou. Het ons nog die pou, Japie?’ There is no answer from the back of the car.
‘As ek kan dit vind… Maybe you can glue it back, lady?’ she says, hopeful, from somewhere under the table, scratching through a cardboard box.
‘No, it’s fine. Look, I’ll just give you forty. As is.’ It is grossly too much and I know it.
The woman straightens, pushes her hair back from her face, looking unhappy and shoots a glance at the bakkie where now only the curved domes of Japie’s knees in blue jeans are visible in the rear view mirror.
‘Okay, tell you what, I’ll give you fifty if you throw in…’ I hesitate, scan the table as if impetuously, considering the red plastic wall clock with a Coke logo or a fistful of forks that have been in too many mouths, and then change my mind and point to the heart instead, because I’ve figured it out now, some medical student prop, rubber or plastic, painted life-like, glossy, ‘…That too.’
My ruse fails. And it is only now that I am willing to admit that it was a ruse at all. The woman’s expression turns hungry-sly. ‘Japie!’ And her tone is enough to make him rise from the backseat. The car door opens, reluctantly, and he unfolds from the Ford, all angles, sloping over towards us. The cap is burnt umber, proclaiming the legend, ‘Tommorrow’ spelt exactly like that, spelt wrong and he tilts his chin up to look at me from beneath it, with eyes so pale as to have been bleached.
And when I can’t take it and look down and away, he grunts as if I’ve satisfied his suspicions. Then he raises his hand, a mechanic’s hand, with greasy gunk crusted under the nails, but so lean and neatly articulated as to have been sculpted, and runs it over the dog’s head, once, like an affectionate pat. Stay down. Good Boy. Then he reaches out further, as if to stroke my head too and for a moment I think he is going to and I am already flinching back, away, when he turns it palm upwards. And then I understand and fumble with my bag, suddenly panicky, to get out my wallet. I only have three twenties. He folds them neatly, twice over, and then they vanish into his jeans and he turns and picks his way back to the bakkie.
The woman digs a plastic bag out from under the table, Sol’s Liquor, yellow with black type, and carefully places the dog inside. Japie’s hand has left a pale smear across its head in the dust. She wraps up the heart with considerably less care, rough and efficient as if it were, after all, a cut of beef. She is about to drop it in the plastic bag together with the godawful dog, but I touch her wrist and she stops and pulls away, suddenly, unexpectedly furious. ‘Dan vat maar die ding!’, thrusting the package at me. The headline, partially obscured, from the review section, reads, ‘No More Pa…’. I take it from her and even through two pages of the Saturday Argus, folded and wrapped, it still feels warm from the sun.
I leave the market then, cut short my tour of duty, our Sunday morning ritual. On the way to my car, I have to step round a silver mannequin in a kid’s plastic pull-cart, wearing sunglasses and a bandanna and an ill-fitting t-shirt that hangs off it awkwardly. ‘I have no arms and no legs’ the cardboard sign strung round its neck says, ‘Please give generously.’ There is a tin plate the colour of hospital walls positioned pointedly in front of it, but no money.
In the parking lot, the carguard – a dumpy woman in a day-glo vest and hair dyed a chemical yellow – ignores me as I dig out my keys one-handed, the plastic bag slung over my arm, the bundle pressed against my ribcage. She had been so insistent earlier on pressing the white photocopied card into my hand ‘Hello, My name is ______’ Please support me to support myself.’ I had been annoyed especially that the blank hadn’t been filled in. ‘It doesn’t have your name,’ I snapped, but she only said, ‘Don’t worry, madam. I’ll look nice after your car.’ But now she doesn’t even look at me, let alone try to wave me out. And when I roll down the window, the package resting in my lap, to give her the two Rand, she is already pointedly walking away to other cars, other clients, hustling.
It is only when I am pulling onto the highway past the Black Label billboard, to slake a real man’s thirst, that I realise I have left the dog behind, still in Sol’s Liquor packet, besides the dust of my parking space.
Mark’s car isn’t in the driveway when I get home. This shouldn’t be entirely a surprise. I’m pissed off suddenly about the dog, though, about being robbed willingly and the ridiculous prop. I just won’t tell him. He’ll only rip me off about it. Downstairs, I shove the bundle of newspaper, unopened in the back of the cupboard in the kitchen, beneath the sink, where we keep plastic bags and household stuff, and run a bath, despite the February heat, and sit in it until I am prickly with sweat and my hair is damp and matted. Then I slink under the water, listen to the blood rushing in my ears.
When the bath turns cold, I get out, not really bothering to dry, slopping wet footprints over the floorboards and get back into the unmade bed. Mark is bad about making it, even just to pull the duvet straight. I doze, but restlessly, it is too hot, the sheets stick to my skin like cheap glad wrap and when I finally resolve to get up, I realise that there has been this noise going on all the while, a dull undertone I’ve barely been aware of, like the call to prayer droning faint in the distance or the keening of the wind that I don’t even hear anymore since we moved here.
In the kitchen, Kwaito is scratching at the cupboard, a ggkkk-ggkkk, infinitely patient, repetitive. ‘You just ate,’ I tell him, ‘Like two hours ago.’ But then, maybe Mark forgot. Maybe he just upped and left without feeding the cat and I feel a surge of anger at him, for his carelessness. But then, maybe I’m being unfair. Why wouldn’t he feed the cat? It’s more likely that the evil-looking tabby stray (Mark dubbed it Cujo) has swung by on a raid again. I slide open the door and haul out the Science Diet, pour out a spray of pellets without bothering to measure into Kwaito’s bowl. He goes at it like he’s starving, like I haven’t fed him in a week.
As I’m shoving the packet back in the cupboard, I notice the bundle of newspaper and I snatch it out and dump it in the dustbin, just like that. And then, even though it’s only half full and this is Mark’s job, unofficially, and they only collect on Thursdays anyway, I haul out the black plastic bag and tie it up and carry it outside and drop the whole thing in the council bin painted with our house number by the gate and wash my hands.
I phone him to find out where he is, when he’s coming back, but it just rings and rings and rings. And he always takes his phone with him, he’s good like that, so there’s no reason he shouldn’t answer. His voice mail kicks in, finally, but I don’t bother to leave a message. He’ll see it was me.
I paint my toenails a neon 80s pink just to irritate him (‘I don’t know if people will get the irony’, he says of my choice of colours) and read the newspaper on the grass, until it gets too hot and I have to move out from the sun. The moonflower tree is in berry, little hard puckered nuggets clustered together like grenades, but picking up the paper, standing up, now I see the that there are knots of fat yellow and black beetles, Mark would know the name, clinging to them, and it makes me feel sick and I have to go inside.
A couple of days ago – was it as long as a week? – Kwaito was torturing a grasshopper (‘haasgropper’, I said, which made Mark smile wanly), a huge one, tapered like a musical instrument. ‘It’s nothing like an instrument’ Mark said, fetching the switch broom he bought from a guy who rang our doorbell. He is good like that. I just ignore it, don’t answer it, but he opens up, talks to people and consequently ends up with brooms and homemade Indian chilli powder and crisp packs of white nylon socks and other shit we don’t need. And Kwaito had already chewed the legs off, like thin spiky spurs immobile in the passage, so it couldn’t jump anymore, dragging itself around, crippled, like the mannequin today – no arms, no legs. And we killed it, or rather Mark did, because it made me feel queasy, when he swept it under the door and it slugged its way back inside, through the gap, arousing Kwaito to delighted frenzy, so I had to restrain him, while Mark brought the broom down on it again and again. Afterwards, when it was just mush, Kwaito still pawed at it, as if he could revive it, as if he didn’t understand it was dead, that he should just leave it be.
Fuck him. Wherever he is. I slam the front door on my way out, not bothering to set the alarm. I fall back on routine, on our Sunday drives to the winelands or the coastline/
I go to a showhouse down the road. Not that we can afford anything, right now, but it is good to look and often we do, making bets on how much the asking price is even before we step inside. The house smells like cat piss and the family is still there, a woman and two small kids, hanging around, watching TV and it’s as if they picked up all their stuff from the market, just now, to make it look lived in. I swear I recognise some of the toys, but is that so weird after all? Aren’t they all homogenous anyway? And that’s what really freaks me out, seeing something I recognise on one of those battered tables, something we once had in our house, a book of fairytales with the same cover I had as a kid.
The estate agent presses a poorly photocopied flyer on me, black and white, ‘So what are you looking for?’ he says, jovial and punchy as if he could counteract the dreariness of it all through force of will.
‘Because if this isn’t quite what you had in mind, we have other stock available’ – like houses were boxes of cornflakes and he could pull them down from the shelf in his office somewhere, perfect scale architectural models.
‘I’m just looking, thanks. My boyfriend and I…’ but I don’t know how to finish, so I leave it hanging and brush past him into the rest of the house.
In the back bedroom, there is a man sleeping on the bed, crumpled under the blankets, one arm flung above him, recklessly. I hesitate when I see him, stand lurking in the door, undecided and then plunge in. It’s on show, dammit. He doesn’t stir and I move around the room as I would any of the others, twitching the curtain to look out at the view, which only opens onto a wall of a facing apartment block and a grubby courtyard below hemmed in by barbed wire. There is a small TV on a boudoir table, propped in front of the mirror.
And I can still hear that damned noise, a low rhythmic thrumming, like the whip of helicopter blades on the horizon of a Vietnam movie and I take the remote from off the table next to the TV and slip it inside my handbag. As I reach the door, I turn to see the man awake, his eyes open, watching me, and I jump, literally, jerking, but he doesn’t say anything, doesn’t move and I pull the door to.
I drive to another neighbourhood entirely, follow the signs to a flat in a deco block, done up like one of those magazines, in fact it says that, ‘as featured in House & Leisure’, a split level loft thrown open and bare, so that there are no partitions, so everything is exposed and there is too much light. I take a photograph from the fridge, a woman with red eyes and a blunt cut fringe smiling fiercely into the camera, slightly drunk and thrust it into the back pocket of my jeans, the magnet skittering across the floor to end up somewhere beneath the washing machine.
A book, from the second, lying on the coffee table, too bulky to fit in my bag, but I simply pick it up and walk out with it under my arm and it is no problem at all. By the sixth, I have a headache, pounding and sharp, like a hangover, with a distinct rhythm. And Mark is still not answering his phone. I have tried twice more since this morning.
When five pm comes round, I have a TV remote control, a photograph, unframed, a novel, the spine cracked, ‘The Waterworks’, a solid weight of silver fountain pen that would suggest it is valuable, another photograph, framed, of two small children wearing tea cosies, a pink plastic flower head with a sucker on the back that was stuck jauntily around a mirror in a student-type flat, one clip-on pearl earring, undoubtedly fake, a rusty tap (worked free from the pipe in the tangled garden in the place that was already stripped to its bare bones) and a toothbrush. No-one gives me any trouble. No-one notices anything at all.
I drive around for an hour still, randomly, following the arrows wherever they direct me, although the showhouses are closed up now, the estate agents locking up, and some of them look askance at me when I cruise by, slowly, checking it out, but I am not ready to go home yet. He can’t still be angry.
Finally, I run out of signs or they lead me back to our house or the headache becomes too much and I pull in to our driveway and stop the car and just sit there and wait for it to go away. And then I become aware that there is someone close to me, something moving and I open my eyes to see a man digging through the garbage half a metre away from me and I throw open the car door and start screaming at him. ‘What are you doing? What the fuck are you doing?’ And I shove him hard, away from the bin, although normally I am so careful not to touch anyone like this, dropping the coins into their hands if I absolutely have to, not like Mark who will press the money into their palms and I am nearly out of my mind from this headache.
He falls over backwards, over the bin, knocking it down and over and immediately I am sorry, trying to help him stand, apologising. ‘I’m so sorry, I’m sorry, are you all right? Just wait, just wait here.’ I lean back into the car and take everything, the photographs, the remote, the toothbrush and I’m pushing them on him and he is confused, doesn’t know what to do and eventually I just give him my entire purse, credit cards and everything and later I will find it cast it aside in the bushes, the insides picked clean, together with the photographs and strangely, the earring, but no sign of the tap or the remote.
There are dogs that run wild in our street. I have wanted to report them before, to the SPCA or the cops, but Mark always tells me to chill out. But now, they are sniffing at the plastic bags spilled out from the bin, as the man shambles away from me, his hands jerking above his head as if to swat the memory of me away and across the road, my neighbour, who I’ve only spoken to once, when she rang the bell (she had to do it three times, leaning on it at last until I finally opened the door) to tell me I’d left my lights on, is watching me from her window. I wave and right the dustbin and then, so the dogs won’t get to it or the bergies, I take the bag out again, carry it inside.
Kwaito twists around my ankles, so that I nearly fall on the stairs and my pulse is still rampant from the altercation with the man and I’m lucky he didn’t attack me, didn’t stab me and I can barely see from the startling pain in my head now and the thudding in my ears.
I dump the bag next to the bin and dig out the newspaper bundle, take it out and set it on the counter and it is soaked through, sticky with juice or something that has spilled inside and isn’t that just like me to have not poured it out before throwing it away. Not knowing what else to do, I unwrap the newspaper, flattening out the wet twists of it across the counter with my palms, to leave the heart exposed and bloody-looking. Such a clever toy. I rinse it off, the rubber trembling in my hands realistically, still clammy even after I pat it dry with a kitchen towel. I think now that I should have left it behind instead. At least the dog would have made a good doorstop.
And I know the first thing Mark will say when he comes in, later and sees it, is ‘Do you have to put that thing where we prepare food?’ But already my headache is dissipating and I feel much calmer and maybe I will put it next to the bed instead, or on his pillow, to give him a fright, after he has kept me waiting all day. And now, when there is nothing left to do but wait, I carry the heart upstairs with me and lie down in our bed and pull back the sheets in anticipation of him and close my eyes and listen to the undercurrent pulse that has been with me nearly all day, let it now flood in and fill my head, crowding out everything else.
Lauren Beukes is a novelist, TV scriptwriter, documentary maker, comics writer and occasional journalist. She won the 2011 Arthur C Clarke Award for her novel Zoo City, set in a fantastical Johannesburg where guilt manifests as spirit animal familiars and dark things lurk beneath the surface of the pop music industry. Her previous works include Moxyland, a dystopian cyberpunk thriller set in Cape Town under corporate apartheid and Maverick: Extraordinary Women From South Africa’s Past. You can visit her website or follow her on Twitter @laurenbeukes.