I stare at the cover of Cosmopolitan from 1989 wondering who these girls might be who are Addicted To Sex and less about Why They Can’t Stop. Mum idly turns another page of the tattered, frayed and six-months-out-of-date magazine. Inside, mum might also be discovering why woman are Better, Smarter, Stronger than Men, or maybe gaining some insight into the Unbelievable Spending Orgies of the Super-Rich. We are the only ones here. Only the constant flatline buzz of the overhead fluorescent and the occasional low ring of the telephone behind the reception hatch break the silence.
Bored and resigned to finding something of my own to read, I pick up The Financial Mail, a bright orange broadsheet so devoid of life I’m convinced it must be a front for something way more sinister. There are no pictures on the cover, just slabs of tight text, and as I work my way through it the only exceptions are photos of old men with comb-overs, black and orange monster haul trucks in opencast mines, and dull graphs. Maybe it’s some kind of post-evolutionary thing, I think, whereby if you have the inclination and patience to wade through this mindless kak then you deserve to be super-rich. And have spending orgies − unbelievable ones.
Nausea creeps up from my belly as I stare at the small rectangle cut carefully from the middle of page seventeen. Feeling dizzy, I drop the newspaper and lower my face into my hands. Mum leans towards me and asks if I’m okay and I nod, thinking ‘don’t put your arm around me, please don’t put your arm around me’, and then she puts her arm around me.
In his office, he asks me, when was the last time I had sex. The psychologist’s name is Dr Whalen. Probably forty-five. His hair is thick, almost pure white. Only the grey fringes around the back of his ears indicate it’s not dyed, just weirdly premature. He has a pair of thin, modern bifocals which he starts cleaning. I say, ‘Shit. I don’t know. Last week, maybe’, trying to sound relaxed, like people ask me this all the time. His blood-red cardigan is a nice touch, I think. Altogether, his dress is a jumble of things too old and too young for him. The black trainers poking out from the ends of his brown baggy corduroys look almost the same as mine.
Still examining his glasses, he says, ‘Sorry Charl, I did mention this was going to get personal, didn’t I?’
He squints up at me before replacing the glasses, which soften his face.
He says, ‘For how long have you been having sex?’
‘Maybe two months, maybe more.’
‘Maybe?’ he says, writing something in his pad before looking up at me.
‘Okay. And the last time was when again?’
‘Probably more like two weeks ago.’ I remember Mandela holding Winnie’s hand up in the air, cheering me on in the dwindling afternoon sunlight of Belinda’s lounge.
‘And when was the last time you saw him or her?’ he asks. More writing.
‘It’s a her,’ I say, a little more defensively than I would like. ‘You know. She’s a … um … she …’ I trail off.
‘Okay,’ he says, not writing it down. ‘And …?’
‘And I saw her on Thursday. If that’s your next question.’
‘The day of the … uh, incident.’
‘Um, yeah. But she’s got nothing to do with this.’
‘Really? Why would you say that?’
‘Because she didn’t. Because I wasn’t thinking of her at the time.’
‘Really? Why not? Doesn’t that seem a little strange to you?’
‘I just wasn’t.’
It’s not until a few days later that I really start to think about this, the question playing over in my head – just why the hell wasn’t I thinking about her? How could I not possibly have connected the two?
‘And what happened when you met up, this last time?’
‘Um, we kinda broke up.’
‘Kinda,’ he says, like it’s interesting, not a question. He writes something down.
‘Okay. That must be tough for you. Do you mind if I ask you who did the actual breaking up? Or was it a mutual thing?’
‘She did. Okay. That’s always a tough thing to go through, no matter what age. Is this the first break up you’ve had?’
First? The word seems weird in my head, like I haven’t thought about first or second or whatever. I haven’t thought about how this single event might fit into my future. I haven’t thought about my future. And suddenly I picture Belinda standing in front of me outside Cam’s house telling me ‘It’s how I feel’ with black mascara running down her face, and stretching out the length of the street behind her is a queue of girls just waiting their turn.
She tries to draw shut the black curtains to block out the piercing afternoon sunlight. They stick, so she yanks them again, pulling from higher up this time, a trick learned from a thousand nights and lazy afternoons. The room now dark, she flicks on the bedside light and covers its lampshade with a black lace scarf. I loosen my green and gold tie, undo the two top buttons of my school shirt and pull the tie over my head. We look at each other and she undoes her tie and unbuttons her shirt.
‘How nervous should I be?’ I say.
‘Dunno. She said this morning she’d be back by four, but you know what she’s like with you hanging around when she’s not here.’
‘I’ll go after,’ I say.
‘She knows something’s up.’
I pull off my shoes and place the socks inside.
‘She could be home any time. All I’m saying is, I know what she’s like – she doesn’t trust me. She doesn’t trust you.’
I lay the shirt carefully on the floor, the half-undone tie next to it.
She stands in front of me, her hands across her chest. I drop my grey slacks and place them next to the shirt. Her legs show through the ladders of her cheap stockings, a network of tanned lines. Small smudges of nail varnish stop the runs above her knees.
I kiss her, unzip her skirt and push her lightly onto the bed. I drop over her, stopping myself at the last moment, an inch from her face. She laughs and we kiss some more. I move down her breasts, and then lower to her brown flat stomach, her skin hot and clean. I go lower still, until she grabs my head with both hands and says no, and I can feel her stomach muscles tighten against my lips. I pause and listen to her pounding heart, counting the beats until she releases her grip and I try again. Moving back down, she seizes handfuls of my hair and I yelp. On my knees now, I start to pull off her stockings. ‘Careful, they need to last the week,’ she says. She holds onto her underwear as I roll the stocking down and I say, ‘Why bother, you know they’re coming off too.’ I try again and she says no, and I lie next to her and we kiss awhile longer, and I try again a minute later and this time she lets me.
She tenses suddenly as she hears the familiar splutter of the Volkswagen heading for the driveway. I hear it too, a few moments later. She pushes me away, yelling ‘Get off, get off’. We both jump up, desperately scrambling for our clothes.
She pulls on her tights and skirt saying ‘Oh fuck, oh fuck’, and I button up my shirt as she yanks open the curtains.
We hear the creak of the bonnet being opened and her mum yells ‘Belinda! Come and help me with this goddamn shopping. Must I do everything?’
In a panic, Belinda bends to her studio mirror and rubs off the remaining smudged lipstick. She snaps the lid off the industrial-sized can of deodorant and swamps the room with a hideous-smelling mist. Why, I’m not sure. It seems to me, as I tuck my shirt in, to look even more suspicious.
I throw my tie over my head and leave it half-undone as I fold down my collar.
I break off the end of a cigarette, tossing it into the ashtray on her dresser, light up the rest and walk out into the passageway. Belinda’s mum kicks in the security gate and walks in, three plastic bags of groceries in each hand, yelling at the yapping Maltese poodles to shut the fuck up.
She sees me, stops and screams so it goes straight through my head, ‘Belinda! I thought I told you I don’t want him around here in the afternoon!’ Then to me she says, ‘Where is she?’
‘Well don’t just stand there, help me with this bloody shopping, why don’t you.’
She pushes past me, the bags sounding like drum brushes as they rustle against her legs. The dogs yap at her heels.
‘Belinda!’ she yells again. ‘Come feed the dogs, please.’
She disappears into the kitchen to dump the shopping and peers back around the corner at me. ‘Does your mother know you smoke?’
‘Ya,’ I say
‘Liar. Belinda!’ It pierces my ear like a knife. ‘Have you fed your grandmother yet?’
I keep forgetting the near-dead grandmother lives in the next room. Belinda races into the kitchen and the two of them start screaming at each other about dog food and me. Belinda says she just got home and hasn’t had time to feed her grandmother or the dogs.
I grab my bag from her room, finish my cigarette outside and flick the butt at the still-yapping poodles.
I walk over to Sam’s house, just around the corner from Belinda’s. She has a pool and a deck and an awesome hi-fi. It’s end of term. End of the year. School’s out for summer. What we need under the circumstances is a pool and a good music system. Everything else is just a bonus. Well, maybe not everything. Matt should be there too, and we have an appointment with the bottle store in the mall if tonight is to be everything we’ve planned.
I knock on the door, harder when I realize probably no one can hear me over the feedback issuing from inside. After almost hammering a hole in the door, Sam’s older sister answers, but only slightly. She looks at me through the crack and immediately says Sam isn’t there.
‘She and Matt just went to get some cigarettes or something.’
She’s stunning in a knee-length velvet sleeveless dress. Black. She’s only in second year uni, but to look at she’s light-years ahead of us in the cool department. Her boyfriend’s an idiot. He shoved me in the pool once in my school uniform. She loves him and they’re planning to get married soon and walk down the aisle in black to the soundtrack of Jesus and Mary Chain’s Taste of Cindy. Her name is Cindy. We know all this because Sam tells us. Cindy doesn’t really talk to us.
I ask her if I can come in and she says ‘No, I don’t do babysitting’, and shuts the door in my face. I wait a few seconds before walking away. I get to the front gate before she opens the door again and says, ‘Okay, you can wait for her in her room, but if you play Napalm Death I’m gonna kill you. Okay?’
I follow her down the long passageway, staring at her patterned tights. At the back of the house, she turns down the music and heads left to the toilet. I go into Sam’s room. I sneak back into the family room once I hear the bathroom door close and look through the keyhole, but all I can make out is a green plastic toilet brush.
I rummage through the tapes scattered on Sam’s floor until I find Napalm Death and turn it up loud. I lie back down on her bed, which is super uncomfortable with all the clothes and make-up and stuff on it, but I deal with it. I hear the toilet flush and Cindy comes into the room and tells me to turn it off and I do.
When Sam and Matt get back, I’m already outside. We move across the street to the shopping mall, ties half-undone, school shirts untucked and cigarettes hanging out our mouths. After a five-minute argument, I’m again voted designated boozehunter. It’s a fairly strict rotation, with girls somehow exempt, but to give in without a fight seems somehow impolite. So I drag it out.
I’m nervous the checkout serf won’t sell me anything or, worse, Mr McKinley our geography teacher will stumble in to refill his prescription bottle of whisky. He would have finished it earlier, during our geography double, when he again generously took us through his 1973 slides of the Beaulieu Congress Centre inLausanneand asked us if we knew what ‘augment’ meant. I leave them with my tie and walk off.
I stare at the beer in the chugging fridge, water droplets trickling down the outside. Really, I would like nothing better than buy a half-dozen Black Label beers, sit around Sam’s pool and get pissed with Belinda. I touch a trickle of droplets, watch it run. Well, maybe not Belinda, I think. If we’re daydreaming, then maybe Vicky. Maybe Vicky, in a black bikini, and I could sit around the pool while I try get my tongue between the gap in her teeth. My hearts races as I think of her teeth. I have to rearrange my semi and think of something else. I focus on the alcohol I need to get. I pick up two bottles of Esprit − a passionfruit drink for the girls − and a bottle of Sedgwick’s Old Brown sherry for Matt and me. SOBs are good for that compact, high-alcohol, value-for-money medicine. At R3.50, it’s a fucking bargain.
In the queue, my nerves are jangly. My eyes dart around and my ears ache from straining to recognize any voices in the queue behind. I’m terrified I’ll be asked to produce ID. I’m so clearly in my school uniform (grey slacks, white shirt and black shoes). Never mind that I’m obviously a lifetime away from eighteen. The serf will see me and yell out ‘Jesus, who let the juvie in here. Return those bottles now. What school do you go to?’ And I will have to lie and tell him DHS, the rival school, only to pass McKinnon in the queue behind, holding his three-for-two bottles of Bushmills in his shaking hands, and he’ll say ‘Come see me on Monday. Bring your mother. You’re nicked, son.’ Well, maybe not the last bit.
‘Do you want a bag?’ says the checkout guy.
‘Huh? Yeah. No, wait. No. It’s okay. Thanks.’
Just shut up, I think as I straighten out the kittyRandsfrom my back pocket. I’m still hanging around the counter after he’s given me the change, trying to stuff the bottles into my canvas bag as quick as I can. It takes forty years to do and by the time they’re in, my face is glowing so red with heat even a blind man could tell I was underage. I retrieve Sam’s jumper from under my armpit and cover all the bottles as I finally head out the door.
Matt blows air down Sam’s throat each time she tries to kiss him. Belinda, having now fed the dogs and grandmother, is back, all in black and standing between my legs, moving to some silent song in her head as I sit on the wall. I steal one of Matt’s cigarettes as Sam yells ‘Don’t!’ and giggles when Matt blows another snort out of her nose.
My arm is around Belinda, my hand under her skirt, pulling her closer. Still jigging, she takes a drag from my cigarette and says to me, ‘So have you planned anything for my birthday? A surprise party, maybe?’ Before I can reply, she answers her own question with ‘I hate surprise parties.’
‘Of course,’ I say. ‘The surprise is that your mum will be there.’ Her mum’s name is Janice and Belinda calls her Janice instead of mum for some reason I’ve left too long to question.
‘Oh please, no! I think we should go out. She has to let me out, right? It’s my birthday!’
Sam yells rather than sings ‘It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to, cry if I want to …’
I say, ‘Even the Wicked Witch of the North must have a small heart somewhere.’
Belinda pulls my hand out from the back of her underwear and steps away. I reach out and pull her close again.
She says, ‘I can’t believe that bitch won’t let me out tonight. On the last day of school. I fucking hate her.’
‘Hmmm,’ I say.
‘Don’t you care? Stop it,’ she says, pulling my hand out again.
‘Why? No one can see,’ I say, and try to kiss her.
Trying a different tack I say, ‘Of course I care, Bel. It’s going to be completely shit without you tonight. In fact, I’m thinking of not going.’
‘Yeah, right. Stay home then. Stay home and watch Grease 2 with me and Janice.’
‘How many times will that be?’ I say, thinking the only person I would less like to spend an evening with besides her mum is Janice’s knob boyfriend Dave, who’s just as likely to be there.
‘Dunno. Maybe fifteen?’
‘Fifteen − and this is Grease 2, right? Which is diabolical.’
‘Better than the first one.’
‘This bra is killing me,’ she quotes. ‘That’s so Sam. One day she might grow some boobs,’ and we both look at Sam, who is now in a headlock and near apoplectic with laughter.
‘Come on,’ I say.
‘No, get your hands out,’ Belinda says, but she kinda lets my hand run over her bum for a couple of seconds so I say, ‘Come out tonight. Sneak out after the movie. We’ll only get there around ten anyway.’
‘Can’t,’ she says, stepping away. She tells me to light a cigarette.
‘I just put one out.’
‘Don’t care,’ she folds her arms across her chest.
‘They’re not mine.’
‘Will you hold your breath until you pass-out, too, if I don’t?’
She holds her breath. I light her one of Matt’s cigarettes and she dances around to her silent song, pretending to inhale, which for some reason really irritates me. One more year of school, I think, and then I’m out.
When Sam’s dad gets home from work, we pack up our stuff and walk over to Cam’s. By comparison, his parents are cool. They buy us beers and normally have cask wine for the girls. They desperately want to be part of their son’s life. Everything he wants, he gets. If they weren’t so nice, it would all seem so tragic.Cam, however, has very little to give in return and keeps himself to his room, happier in the company of the vinyl ghosts of Hendrix and Morrison. For this, they buy him the best hi-fi, all the videos and records he could possibly want and give him so much pocket money we secretly and frequently ravage notes from his desk drawers where he carelessly discards them.
The first half-hour of turning up at his house is likely to consist of an intellectual bludgeoning with the latest crazily obscure subject he’s been researching on the quiet. Topics in the past have included Kathy Acker and the Persian slave trade, Tonton Macoute and the Zulu mythology connection, and Antonin Artuad and other misunderstood geniuses subjected to electroshock therapy. His library movements must include some rarely frequented aisles.
His mum opens the door and leads us through their labyrinthine hallways to the lounge, where his stepfather sits in his fully reclined lazy-boy.Cam stands in the shadows in the corner of the room surveying his folks and us and monitoring the small talk that goes on between us. That he doesn’t join in only emphasizes the ritualistic nature of the exercise, the token formality of polite parental engagement. He stands against the wall, one foot up, looking bony and strangely naked.
His parents have a perpetual smile about them. They ask us how our days have been and everything we say seems funny to them. Even when I tell them I’m bound to get six weeks detention for scraping a two-metre diameter anarchy sign into the concrete outside the assembly hall at school she laughs and says there’s no room left for the truly creative nowadays. Fucking bless her.
They remind me of the episode of Twilight Zone where the kid keeps sealing his parents’ mouths shut and they live in constant fear of him, prisoners in their own home. Cam scowls at her and I wonder what he has over them.
When we’re in his room, he slams the door and puts Joy Division’s Closer on the record player.
A few more turn up through the early evening: Ian and Robyn, the perfect Goth couple; and Tone, the eco-genius. We talk about drunken schoolteachers while getting drunk ourselves on Cam’s beers. McKinley is a perennial favourite topic, Reverend Matthews another. His sole contribution to theology seems to be finding arcane passages from the Bible, mainly the Old Testament, to fuel his uncontrolled racist lectures. We talk about Ms Gruneweld, the pretty, new biology teacher, transferred from rural Clarens, who hasn’t a chance of lasting out the year in our state school. She glides down stairs like they were an escalator, her feet hidden under long dresses. Tone reckons his older brother knows a guy in his class who has already shagged her. We ask for more details but he comes up light and we call him a lying son-of-a-bitch.
Cam produces a copy of the local university’s publication, Dome, which was recently banned by the government because of the close up of Nelson Mandela on the cover. It’s illegal to show the face of any ANC member or print anything they say. Inside are more photos of Mandela and Sisulu, which we all pore over like porn, except for Ian, Robyn and Belinda who remain on the bed and suggest shooting Mandela would be a waste of a bullet.
A while later we attempt to hog-tie Sam but she’s surprisingly strong and shrugs off three of us guys without much difficulty. We later attribute her success to our uncontrollable laughter. Cam’s mum knocks on the door, says she heard a scream and asks if everything’s okay.Cam gets up, turns down the music and yells through the door that everything’s cool, that Belinda just saw a snake but we killed it and threw it outside. She sounds alarmed on the other side of the door and starts asking about what kind of snake it was, but her voice is drowned out as Cam turns the music back up.
We play David Bowie’s Berlin albums in chronological order and smoke incessantly so there’s a low fog over the hi-fi.
For nights like tonight, most of us bring our black gear in a bag, but not Ian and Robyn, who seem largely unconcerned what people might think. Cam’s parents agree to give six of us a lift into the city in their giant BMW 7 Series. About a block from Nello’s they stop on Cam’s instruction. Cam’s mum nervously asks him to be careful and not get in trouble. We all laugh and act like fuckwits in the back seat and Matt, twisting his unwashed hair into spirals, tells her he’s gonna get Cam laid tonight by a fat girl with dandruff, called Charlene.
We inch forward in the patient under-18 Nello’s queue (the sign above the door proudly advertising it as The Dance Stance), trying to keep the bottles silent, buried deep in our bags. The evening is still and smells of melted tar and cheap perfume. Closer to the door it’s clear from the heat that pours out onto the pavement how packed it must be. Just inside the door we pay our five Rand, get stamps and hurry up the stairs. Glass panels line the steps, creating a goldfish bowl view into the sunken DJ booth, which sits precariously beneath the glass-panelled dance floor. We scan the crowd, a critical scan to check out who’s here, who we know and who we need to avoid. We identify the enemy and find a U-booth on the opposite side of the club. We leave our bags and Matt to keep guard while we head to the bar to get some Cokes.
Sam and I bump into Carlie in the queue for the bar and she steals a cigarette off me and I light mine and, reluctantly, hers, thinking she’s just way too young to be smoking. She rolls up her sleeves to show us the still-healing scars across her skinny upper wrist, where she’s slashed herself to varying depths. She points out which ones itch and tells us how much she just wants to scratch them all the time. ‘These ones,’ she says, almost proud, ‘are four days and six hours old’. Her new boyfriend’s name is Christopher or Kristophel or something. He’s down from Boksburg near Johannesburg. He pulls up his moth-eaten thick-knit jumper and shows us his old scars, and the fresh cuts on the inside of his elbow. Seemingly random, the red slashes carve up his arm. His are apparently four days and two hours old. Compared to Carlie’s, his attempts at self-harm are still bloody and a bit of a mess. As Sam and I head back from the bar with our iced Cokes in hand, Sam says to no one in particular, ‘She’s such an amateur.’
The music is awful, one terrible soul-sapping song after another. Janet Jackson’ Nasty, The Beach Boys’ Kokomo followed by Eternal Flame by The Bangles and Billy Joel’sWe Didn’t Start The Fire. It’s an endless stream of pop gunk that sinks me into a funk. I can feel it coming on. It’s like Sunday night TV. The illusion that time has stopped indefinitely and this deadening moment will instead drag on forever. Black holes are right in front of us and their names are Hall and Oates.
The Top Of The Charts misery is broken only by an occasional track I demean myself by dancing to. And then they play Lloyd Cole’s My Bag and in that instant it seems crazy just how erratic my mood is, that from the bottomless depths of boredom or whirlpool self-analysis I can fly to manic-ecstatic with one guitar strum.
When I get back, Lindy − part-time punk, full-time soap opera − has joined our table and is micro-analysing a less-than-successful conversation with Warren, the boy from the enemy camp on the other side of the dance floor. Clearly upset, she seems to be finally coming round to the conclusion the rest of us have already made, which is just how little interest he really has in her; that whatever Warren has been assuring her all week about his relationship with a mutual friend being strictly platonic, there was indeed something going on. This is brutally confirmed less than an hour later when we watch the platonic couple on the sparsely populated dance-floor put their tongues down each other’s throats to the tune of If You Don’t Know Me By Now.
Lindy is in tears and quickly down the stairs and out the club, followed in rapid succession by the rest of the girls. I can’t find Matt, which leaves me with the self-harming pair. I ask if they are going to Faces later on and they say yes, idly scratching their wounds through their oversized jumpers in the thirty-five degree heat. I ask him where he got his 14-hole Doc Martens and he says the UK. He tells me, you send a ten-Rand baggy of dagga to an anonymous PO box in London and someone sends you back Docs. I ask him if he’s an anarchist too when I notice the red laces on his Docs, but he tells me no. He says, ‘You Coasty boys are six-months behind.’
When it’s clear none of the girls are coming back Matt, Cam and I grab our bags and step out of the club to find them a couple of metres up the road, huddled together, smoking and giggling. Lindy’s eyes are all red from crying. I ask her if she’s all right and she petulantly says no. I tell her that if she needs someone to deck her dickhead friend, Matt is well up for the job and she smiles and offers me the half-jack of brandy from behind her back. She says, ‘He’s no friend of mine.’ I throw it back, but it’s all I can do to keep the greedy, brutal swig down. Embarrassingly, I end up in a coughing fit and she laughs and says have another and I do. I stare at her and she stares at me while the others pretend not to notice, and I think how cute her tear marks look, cutting a line down her face, through the heavy make-up.
The girls go back in to get their bags and retrieve the neglected self-harmers. We slowly amble off to The Workshop, the old central station remodelled into a bright and cheery tourist-trap mall.
Inside, it’s virtually empty apart from a few sad window shoppers and late-night moviegoers passing the time at the upstairs ice cream parlour, placed between two fake palm trees. Tacky Christmas decorations stretch across the open atrium between second-floor walkways. The mall-music is Abba-by-panpipes and the place smells, not unpleasantly, of curry powder.
We set up base outside Dairy Maid before Cam and I set off to the toilets to get changed. I get into a black Paisley print button-up shirt, black stovepipe jeans (Lee, only ever Lee) and black canvas trainers. When we get back, Ian and Robyn materialise, having gone to see Back to the Future II rather than endure Nellos. Really, they weren’t dressed for it anyway. To wear all black there would have been nothing short of an invitation for a beating, the queue for which would have gone round the block. Carlie paints my nails black in return for a cigarette, humming some familiar pop song. Ian plays with his perfect Goth hair in a CNA window, quietly singing Spellbound to his reflection.
I ask Carlie where she lives and she says ‘Around’.
‘Around?’ I say. ‘What about, um, whatshisname?’
‘Kris is down from Joburg. He and I are staying together since my mom kicked me out.’ She looks from my nails to him rummaging through the nearby sandpit ashtray and cocks her head. She says, ‘He’s such a sweetheart.’
‘She kicked you out of home? Can she do that? How old are you?’
’Fourteen. And a bit. Yeah, for smoking dope. So we’re kinda staying with friends near Palmer Arcade.’ Having finished with my ragged nails, she puts the lid back on the bottle.
‘It’s all a bit weird.’
‘Weird how?’ I say, while she holds my hand and blows.
‘Well this guy we’re staying with has a flat on the roof of this one building, right?’
‘Palmer?’ I say looking up at her.
‘Arcade, ya. But it doesn’t have a toilet. But his mum stays on the top flat of the building next door.’
‘She has a toilet. So if we want to go, we can either walk down the ten flights of stairs and catch the lift back up to hers. Or we can jump.’
‘It’s only about three foot or so, I guess.’
Later, inside Faces, I’m laughing at Matt’s impression of Lindy’s kissing. His mouth looks like an anus and he keeps trying to push his tongue through the gap in his lips. On the stage at the far end of the vast warehouse, he leans right into my ear, and even over the sound of the Smiths I can hear his slurping. A sound somewhere between and a suck and a moan. Lindy’s reputation for inducing tongue injuries in boys is well documented. He’ll say, ‘Wait, hold on, Ian told me this joke,’ and in the middle of some bullshit story he’ll suddenly pucker up again until I’m doubled over with laughter. Eventually he gets the giggles too, and every time he gets his lips ready we’re in convulsions of laughter.
It’s barely half an hour since we sneaked around the side of Faces, determined to finish off the bottle of SOB’s in one sitting. Determined not to let the taste of the sherry put us off, we took turns pulling fierce slugs from the bottle until we’d necked the lot and Matt tossed the empty against the wall.
By the time we get back, we’re both seriously drunk. I sway in time with the room, lose my footing and fall back over the stage. Some of it is almost certainly an act. Playing out a drunken drama that I’m absolutely convinced will amuse everyone. I have no self-censure. Instead I revel in the drift these brief drunken moments afford, feeling free and arrogant in the way I imagine all adults must feel.
I try to dance to Planet Claire but nearly fall over a couple of girls, one of whom calls me an asshole and tells me to watch what I’m fucking doing. I smile at them and stumble back over to where Cam is sitting, shaking his head. He doesn’t drink and the most I’ll probably say to him all night will be ‘Who’s this?’ and he’ll say ‘Tuxedomoon’ or ‘Fad Gadget’ or ‘Laurie Anderson’ and I’ll say ‘Oh’ and hope he might eventually mention a band I know. He spends much of the evening on his own, his knees tucked up under his crossed arms, taking in all the freaks and dancing and arguments and noise, the music and smoke − like he knows he has only one night at it.
I tell him I’m going to get off with those two girls. What I say is: ‘I’m gonna gaff into those two girls. I’m smaaked.’ He says, ‘Maybe if you wore a dress’, which I don’t really get. Instead, I light two cigarettes, with some difficulty and pass one over to Cam.
We watch Matt lurch around the dance floor until Cam spots something in the darkness on the left. I can barely make out a couple bumping and grinding on a chair. An uncomfortable-looking school chair. She straddles him, her flowing Indian-cotton dress covering them both. They kiss frantically while she bounces on him, over and over again. Oblivious to a largely inattentive crowd, his hands rummage under her skirt. My eyes slowly adjust to the dark. His dark beard catches the light in some way that his face doesn’t. An oversized lumber jacket hangs off his shoulders, exposing an old T-shirt beneath, baggy with holes around the neck. I catch Ian and Robyn’s attention and Cam yells out to Matt and Sam. We all sit back and watch.
Their gyrations pick up and their mouths meet and part, like two pistons briefly touching. Looking more like dogs fighting than two lovers, their grinding gets increasingly frenetic until, for a brief moment they match the Sinead beat and we all clap and cheer. And with that perfect sync of music and performance, the long-suffering chair finally gives out beneath them and they collapse ungracefully onto the cold concrete floor. We wince as one.
Seemingly still unaware of the vast audience they had by now attracted, they take advantage of their enforced stillness and new position and kiss deeply.
Still drunk and reeling a bit from the strange music, I stagger outside, and then over to Lindy when I notice her standing next to the Ford Escort installation – a car, fibre-glass enhanced to look like some monstrous hybridized crocodile and Stegosaurus. Her punk friends check out tape tracks by the jaded sub-marine light cast by the street lamps.
Mike has first-team-cricket good looks and big floppy blond hair and, really, the only way you can tell he’s a punk is by his 14-hole Docs, green laces and T-shirt, which reads ‘I hate every cop in this town.’ Claude the skinhead is in classic bleach-stained light blue jeans, Union Jack braces, and no shirt. Jonty is about six-foot-five, skinny, with black spikes for hair and a chain and lock around his bruised neck. He passes on the joint to Mike just as I get there.
I say hi to Lindy, who is relying heavily on the car to remain upright. She gives me a floppy hug and asks me if I want a drag of the joint and I say no, feeling uncomfortable. Mike looks at me and takes a monster drag, his thin cheeks collapsing. He looks down at my shoes and says, ‘Since when did fucking Goths become communists, too?’ and exhales loudly.
Standing next to Lindy, a little confused and still drunk, I try to lean on the car, but it’s too low and I nearly fall over. I recover and decide to remain standing. ‘I’m not,’ I say. ‘Why do you say that?’
‘Broe, you have red laces? And you’re a Goth. It doesn’t make any sense.’
‘I’m not really into labels,’ I say with little conviction.
‘Yeah? But you’re still a communist, though, right?’
‘No, I mean, red laces don’t mean that…’ and before I can stop myself I finish with ‘… do they?’
‘What do you think they stand for?’ Mike takes a step closer to me, drags hard again. The acrid smell of it makes me gag.
‘Well, you know,’ I squirm. Lindy finally comes to my rescue and says, ‘C’mon, everyone knows it means Peace and Anarchy.’ She counts off on her fingers. ‘Green is reggae, white is skinhead, blue is ethnic, black…’ but before she can finish, they’re all laughing and Claude says, ‘Where’ve you kids been the last six months? Fucking school?’
A little later, Lindy and I sit inside, against a far wall in a corner away from the stage and make out, even though my neck hurts. How exactly we got here is a little fuzzy and of little concern to me. The sheer rush of kissing Lindy and the thrill of being found out, even over the smoke machine, strobe and Clash reggae echoing endlessly through the club, is only slightly tempered by my inability to see straight and Lindy’s suction kissing. I think about finding a cigarette. Mine finished long ago and Lindy’s menthols are so clearly made for children they seem to entirely undermine the point of smoking.
With Lindy passed out on my bag and her feet on my lap, I feel around on the sticky floor for some underused stompies. Most are smoked down to the bone but I eventually find a scrunched half with some cherry lipstick. I carefully straighten it out while a woman with what looks like a dwarf-python around her neck looks on. Staring back at her, I light it with some sweat-soggy matches from my back pocket.
At about two, Cam’s dad picks up what’s left of the crew and Lindy. Matt and I fall asleep on the stage to the gated snare of Still Ill. I wake suddenly and look around in the dim light. The people seem so alien, merely shapes in the smoke and haze, a landscape of nocturnal creatures moving their broken bodies through the night while all the children sleep. I wonder where I am but the Dub bass makes me think of the sun, sending me back to sleep on my canvas bag before I can register any real interest.
The night drags on, seemingly endless. Matt and I take turns dancing and guarding our bags, as if they contained anything worth stealing. The emptying warehouse is a mess, with beer bottles, plastic cups, cigarette packs and butts everywhere. The cement floor is so sticky with spilt drinks you have to keep moving to keep your shoes from being sucked from your feet. Matt and I argue over who of those left would be most likely to offer us cigarettes, until he finds some loose Stuyvesants outside and we bounce one just to get rid of the foul aftertaste of the SOBs. I think about Lindy and blush. I think of Belinda only slightly, and only as long as it takes to distract myself with something else. As pre-dawn starts to lighten the entrance to the club, I can feel something being drained out of me, leaving me empty. A dumb blankness. Some unexplained sense of loss. Matt seems so young and all the people so strange. I have this brief moment of weightlessness − all memories erased − as I try, in vain, to understand how I got here, how few choices I seem to have made. It’s fleeting, and before I can grasp a wisp it’s gone, replaced by a crippling tiredness.
I tell Matt I’m off and his vacant smile tells me he’s probably in the same place. I jump on a Green Mamba, the earliest bus I can find. I’m the only white person on the half-empty bus as it wheels a slow journey through unfamiliar parts of town;Grey Street and Victoria Markets, areas I only kind of know exist.
I doze off in the back corner to the warm, sweet smell of petrol. The bus drops me off about two kilometres from home, and in the searing morning heat I walk through the quiet Cato Manor suburbs all in black, while early morning runners and gardeners stare at me, and I think about Lindy and her probing tongue and smile.
It’s Saturday afternoon. My double tape deck plays on a shelf above my head over the bed. It used to be a single tape deck until we got robbed again and insurance paid for the upgrade. I lie on my bed watching the sun edge its way down, Auto-suggestion blaring from it, just short of max.
I wonder if there’s anyone in the house.
With my hands behind my head, I sink into the bed, my mind numb, gradually disappearing, leaking out of me every second the song is on. It feels physical and permanent, an arc of shame cutting its way through my brain, one slow, relentless echoing drumbeat at a time. I try not to think of Belinda and the inevitable phone call.
I attempt to move, but the heat that pours through the windows is oppressive. Sweat and gravity lashes me to the bed. A sunken weight at the bottom of a heated pool. I finally manage to light a cigarette, which slowly helps me focus. Mum will probably kick up a fuss and yell when she comes home from the practice and finds the room filled with acrid smoke, but who gives a fuck. Right now, I don’t. It seems like a small dip in my sky, a micro-speck on my horizon.
I ash on my bare chest while some weird part of me hopes this feeling never ends. The haze of sadness has been biding its time. Patient. Like the humid, visceral heat has been beating down on my roof all this time but now the roof has disappeared and I’m left defenceless to the pounding bearing down from above. I know it’s my own making and this resistance to deal with it is wallowing, but I’m also a little curious. Curious to explore what seems such a pure and raw emotion. Debilitating yes, but warm and fuzzy in a memory-recently-remembered kind of way.
Last weekend Belinda and I watched Betty Blue and I fell in love with the idea of falling in love. It never occurred to me before, that I should feel love. I can’t seem to get over the intensity of their emotions. The possibility of falling in love is so foreign , I can only guess what it might be like. The girls I know don’t have emotions. They have needs, like a cat, some machine to program.
I try to think of Lindy and the kissing. Think about what she told me. That she was confused by her feelings for me. That she had always felt this love for me. That it scared her so much when she tried to figure it out. That her life was in my hands. And all morning I’ve been excited. Words I’ve never heard before, certainly not directed at me, anyway. But replaying them in my head now gives me none of the rush I felt. The way they sound now is hollow, like a clever line perfected. And now that I’m on this sinking anchor of doubt, every bare scrap of emotional currency exchanged between Belinda and me suddenly seems suspect. All fucked by this song and the veil clouding my vision.
The rules seem so much less complicated in movies, the women so much more compassionate, the characters’ choices starker. These women are a species to fall in love with, not these school kids, whose only concerns are bad teachers, laddered stockings, and how controlling their mum is. Where are the looks – where’s the ardour, the emotional complexity, still solvable in an hour and a half. There’s gnashing of teeth and even love of a kind, but it’s flat and one-dimensional. Like we haven’t quite mastered the vocabulary yet.
I spend early evening trying to figure out what the awful smell penetrating the house is going to look like on a plate. We eat the beef stew on our laps in silence, watching 50-50 and some nature doco on de-horning black rhinos in Kruger.
When it’s finished I lie back on the couch and flip to Northern Exposure on our black and white TV, while trying to blank out the fact that the lush Maggie O’Connell is speaking Afrikaans.
Although we rarely call each other during the week, it’s Tuesday night and, in my heart, I know she knows.
Dad reads his book through his bifocals. Bifocals so small you can tell if he’s reading or looking at you by the slightest tilt of his head. He’s so quiet, just sitting there, while Mum lectures me on how bad my Afrikaans marks are. She threatens to send me to remedial afternoon classes next term. The mere mention of the word remedial is enough to trigger the smell of baby vomit and unwashed children, desperate ex-teachers trying to adjust to their new lives as single mums.
On the TV the SADF again parade down some packedJohannesburg street. J.R., our Staffie, licks his balls and ass in a slow deliberate rhythm to the beat of the cicadas outside. Having finished with me, mum writes notes in her books and Miss Ellie, the ageing and mis-sexed ginger tom, lies on his back in the crevice of the Biggie Best couch. The whisky decanter looks lower and I know why.
I sit cross-legged on the floor and again attempt last term’s geometry homework. None of it makes any more sense than it did then and I have a vague suspicion having not understood the last three chapters is part of the problem.
As mum heads to the kitchen, the phone rings. She looks at her glasses balanced on the side of her chair and says, ‘Honey?’ and I look up at her and she says ‘Never mind, I’ll get it.’
The way she says ‘Oh, hi’ lets me know it’s not for her. The way she says ‘Fine thanks, how are you?’ tells me it’s for me. And the way she says ‘Sure, just hold on’ means it’s definitely Belinda.
From the bedroom she yells out ‘It’s your girlfriend’ in a singsong voice, a standard opening move in our year-long war. We cross in no man’s land and she fake-smiles and I shake my head at her. I shut the door softly, take a deep breath and pick up the phone.
‘Hey. How’s things,’ I say, hoping like fuck my voice doesn’t break mid-sentence.
‘Um, yeah, good. Well, not good, actually.’
‘Um yeah, what’s…’ is all I get out before she says ‘Come on, don’t do this’ and I can tell she’s already near tears.
‘Okay,’ I say, wondering whether there might be snails in the drains outside less cowardly than I am right now. I sit on the side of the folks’ bed, the phone at my ear and my head between my knees.
‘So?’ she eventually says.
‘So were you not planning on telling me?’
‘Tell you what?’
‘Ah yes, that.’
‘Yes that, you fucking asshole.’ She whispers ‘fucking’ and I imagine her in her mirror world, head between her knees but only so she can yell at me without her mother hearing. There’s a long silence while I picture a Boeing spiralling out of the sky towards our house and my sheer resulting joy.
‘Who told you?’
‘Who cares? Anyone. What happened? I knew it, you know? I knew you would. I’ve seen how you looked at her before.’ Which is blatantly untrue. I’d never thought of Lindy as hot until I saw the tracks of her tears.
‘That’s not true,’ I say. ‘I never thought she was hot.’ Which I vaguely think at the time is the probably not the right thing to say.
‘Oh well. So it was just out of spite then, was it? That’s a relief. What happened?’
‘Look, we were both really drunk. It was late. She was all over me. I mean…’
‘Oh, poor you. You’re twice the size of her,’ she says, to which I have a small empirical moment of doubt.
‘I know,’ I concede. ‘I don’t really know how it happened. I don’t remember much of it, anyway. I regret it, Bel. Seriously, I’ve felt like such an ass these last couple of days. Sunday, I felt awful.’
‘And what? And, that was it. There was just that. And then she went home withCamand I passed out on the stage with Matt.’
‘Matt. And …?’
‘And …’ I begin, thinking, what does she want? ‘And that’s it. There’s nothing going on. We’re still together, you and I.’
‘Oh no, not so easy,’ she says, but already I know I’m clear and I shift down a mental gear.
‘Bel?’ I can hear her crying softly.
‘Bel? It’s over.’ Silence on the line. ‘She’s weird anyway. She’s got weird friends. I don’t like those punk guys she hangs out with.’ She mumbles something unintelligible through her quiet sobs. ‘And she’s got weird feet. She had her shoes off in the club and her feet are all, like, gnarled and yucky.’ She laughs and blows her nose.
‘I know,’ she says, finally. ‘We have PE together and everyone calls her She-Wolf behind her back.’
‘I can see why!’ I say. ‘Was she kept in a dungeon by foster parents?’ She laughs again.
‘They’re very Christian,’ she says by way of explanation.
‘And that thing she does with her tongue, it’s…’ and she shouts ‘Hey!’ and I say sorry and ask her how Grease 2 was and she says they didn’t watch it because Dave was drunk and she really hates him.
And when I get back to my maths, the SADF are still marching on mute.