By the time they reached one hundred kilometres outside Kamieskroon, on the way to Cape Town, the rhythmic tikketu-tikketu of train meeting track had burrowed into Flo’s bones.
Her anxiety about the trip had her up at three in the morning and with all the extra time Flo had baked six loaves and prepared padkos. From a tin box she pulled a sandwich, soggy from the tomato that had leaked its juice all over the bread.
“Yirre, Flo, I keep telling you – put the tomato on the side. I can put it on myself when I want to eat it.”
“Then take the egg. Here.” Flo held out a peeled egg.
Tom had his nose pressed to the window.
Flo thought how after all these years her husband still failed to keep his hands in check. As a young girl she had felt flattered but Flo realised a little too late that it was less about her than this thing of Tom. Tom still wooed her to no end and was very demanding when it came to such matters. She once suggested he see a doctor but he pah-ed and said something down the lines of not fixing it if it wasn’t broken.
“Tom, close your mouth.”
Saliva had pooled in his mouth and was trickling down his chin. Tom wiped his face, then the windowpane with the side of his hand.
Smoothing down sparse strands of hair, Ibrahim Dollie recalled his days at the racecourse. The phone call from the woman with the no-nonsense manner had brought it all back. She mentioned her husband and suggested, not so much as demanded, to meet. Apparently her husband had worked alongside Ibrahim Dollie almost forty years before and wanted to show his gratitude for helping him get his life back on track.
He had almost all but forgotten about the upstart skollie but at the end of the day it had been expected. His granddaughter, whom he loved with all his heart, would always see to it that the past caught up, he thought.
Ibrahim Dollie had his own thanking to do, anyway, and agreed to arrange a meeting.
High above the city centre, off a side street stood Jeremy and Marjorie's Cape Dutch house. Its front garden was well kept. The little porch above, harbouring a rattan sofa, was a neat observatory to the ocean traffic of the port below.
“How was the train?” Marjorie, Jeremy’s wife, asked.
They were sitting at the dining room table.
Mia and Gordon, who usually have their dinner in front of the TV understood that their grandparents were visiting, and that they should behave.
“It was fine. Better than I expected,” Flo said.
“It was blêrry long.”
“But I couldn’t sleep. Hadn’t slept the night before either. Too worried I will forget something.” Flo giggled then, as she always did when she sensed a remark might be misconstrued as a complaint.
“Jeremy and I used to take that same train when we visited you. Third class was just a chicken coop with wheels. But we were young so no problem, right, Jeremy? Comfortable. I slept all the way.”
Jeremy tilted his head, “Had it been any more comfortable I’d have been in a wheelchair now.”
“No need for sarcasm, my dear.”
“It’s true. You know my back has been giving me problems since that last trip. Why you insist talking about it as if it was nothing, I have no clue. Other than pulling my leg, I can’t imagine. I’ve told you before, Marjorie. It’s not funny.”
Flo caught Tom’s eye from under her eyebrows. Gordon’s spoon slipped and clanked against the rim of his glass.
“Gordon! Quit playing and eat your food!”
Gordon jumped. He spent long hours thinking how his mother could get mad at him when it was his father that had upset her.
“We were thinking of going to The Waterfront tomorrow,” Flo said.
“Nice. It's supposed to be a fine day. Nothing worse than a windy day at The Waterfront, right Jeremy?”
“Mammie can go to that ceramics shop there. Remember that salad bowl we gave you Christmas, a few years back? You said that it would go nicely with your tablecloth. We bought it there.”
“Oh, but it is probably so expensive. I don’t know if I can even look into a shop like that. They’ll kick me out if I even try to go in. Besides, I never go into shops where I can’t afford to buy.”
“Don’t be silly, Mammie.”
“Don’t talk to your mother like that. You’re not too old for a hiding,” Tom said.
Mia giggled. Her father always said the same thing.
The windows in their bedroom framed a moonlit Table Bay. Flo wanted to enjoy the view, but was feeling a little anxious about what the next day would bring. She drew the curtains and slipped under the covers.
Do you think there are tokkelôsies here in Cape Town, Tom? I’ve seen some bricks under the bed. Why do you think Jeremy put them there? Are they going to keep the tokkelôsies away, do you think?
“It won’t keep my tokkelôsie away, if you’re worried about that,” said Tom and tickled Flo.
“Don’t be silly, Tom. I’m serious. Do you think Jeremy and Marjorie have problems with tokkelôsies?”
“They have bigger problems than tokkelôsies. That’s all I know.”
Jeremy drove his Audi while Marjorie followed in the Beetle.
“There’s a nice seafood restaurant on the second floor near the cinemas. It’s not too expensive and the portions are big,” Jeremy said.
“There’s a Spur, of course. Fine if you want to go there but I thought that since you’re in Cape Town you might as well enjoy the seafood. Much better than the frozen hake we get inland.”
“Now our food suddenly isn’t good enough for you?” asked Tom.
Flo stepped in, “We’ll see, dear. Now go, you’ll be late for work.”
Jeremy handed his father the car keys. “The GPS is set. Don’t press any buttons and it’ll take you straight back to the house.” He kissed them both on the cheek then crouched into the Beetle.
“Come, Flo. Let’s go see what makes this Waterfront so wonderful. It’s supposed to be very popular.”
“Then it must be expensive, like Mietie’s shop. Soon she started getting more and more customers her prices went up.”
The Waterfront shops were indeed dear. Flo found a store that looked as if her bowl was brought there but she kept this from Tom. They passed it several times and each time she stole a glance at its window display. Flo knew that the bowls, as gorgeous as they seemed under the lights, would look cheap in her own kitchen.
Three hours later, tired, and sitting on a bench facing bobbing tourist yachts, Flo said, “I’m hungry, let’s try this seafood Jeremy was talking about.”
“Jeremy? What does Jeremy know? If you want real seafood, I’ll take you. The best hake and chips in the world. It’s run by a Porra and you know nobody knows fish better than a Porra.”
“Tom, don’t say that.”
“Ag, they’re fine with it. And it’s the truth, right? Come on, its right on the Parade on a corner there. Let’s go see.”
“But, Tom. You don’t know the Cape that well anymore and–”
“It’s ok, my dear. I know enough to ask.”
Tom had given four long strides before Flo even had time to gather her jersey. She rose and trotted after her husband.
In Cape Town, the sea was everywhere. The air freshener Flo bought for the toilet back home was called ‘Sea Breeze’ but its smell was nothing like this. She liked the Cape Town smell better.
Tom lowered his car window, “Yes, The Parade. Is it far from here?”
“Never, it’s just around the corner here. But parking is over there. Follow me. I’ll run over and when you get there I’ll be ready with the best parking in the city for you,” the car guard said, swinging his arms about.
Tom wound up his window. He eased the car back into the road and cruised behind the running boy. Flo sat clutching her handbag with knuckles white as flour.
“Where did that piekanienie go?” asked Tom.
They turned into a street where the buildings blocked off all direct sunlight. The sidewalk looked damp. Garbage bags lay strewn about and a bergie rummaged in one. They stopped.
As Tom put the car in reverse, Flo said, “Tom.” Someone had tapped on her car window and was peering at her from next to the muzzle of a pistol.
On Tom’s side of the car, a second face appeared.
“Open the door,” the face said.
Tom opened his door, “Do as they say, Flo,” he said. His teeth clenched.
Flo opened her door.
The man put the pistol to her temple.
“Leave my wife.”
“Shut up, old man. Move to the back seat. Don’t try anything. Slowly now.”
Flo had her hands raised. Her eyes bulged from her face, as if they were about to shoot from their sockets. Tom raised his hands, too. “We’re moving to the back,” he said.
The hijackers jumped in and reversed the car into the sunlight. The younger one kept his eyes on Tom and Flo, his pistol aimed at them.
The hawkers peddling trinkets, plastic vuvuzelas, and other made-in-china souvenirs at the robots passed an indifferent gaze over the elderly couple in the back seat of Jeremy’s Audi; they paid little attention to the two men in the front.
As the car climbed De Waal Drive Tom said, “Just take the car. Leave us. Drop us right here.”
The hijackers exchanged a look. They slowed a fraction but when they hit Hospital Bend the car shifted into a higher gear, and fleeing the precious, cosseted city, they descended into the Flats.
“Ok, but I can’t get hold of them. It’s just ringing?”
“You sure your Dad knows how to use the phone?”
“I’ve shown him. We've even practised a few calls – he knows.”
“Guess I’ll have to go down there. I’ll come and pick you up after.” Marjorie dropped the receiver. Her colleague at the reception desk of The Mount Nelson looked at her expectantly.
“In-laws aren’t answering their phone. Mind if I clock out five minutes earlier?”
“Of course not. Their first time in the city, right?”
“Kind of. Dad spent some time here in the sixties. Tells the same story over and over. But no, it’s not that. I just think they can’t figure out the phone. They’re probably at some café, not knowing how to get the hell out of there, and too embarrassed to admit it. Thanks dear, I’ll make it up to you.”
The traffic had started picking up. It was only three o’ clock but it was summer and the sun moved slowly; it still hung from almost direct above. Marjorie’s phone buzzed in her lap. She glanced at it.
She would answer Jeremy when she had found his parents. No need now for a drawn out text conversation, she thought.
Your car’s gone.
Shit. Where are they?
Maybe they went home. Wait, I’ll come and pick you up. Give me ten minutes.
Jeremy and Marjorie with the kids all bunched up in the Beetle came to a halt in front of the police station.
“We’ll have our patrol look out for them. Metallic blue Audi, 2015 model, two elderly persons, male and female. Ok,” the officer said, scribbling, and ticking off boxes on a form, “Do you have a photo?”
On his phone, Jeremy flicked to the photo taken at dinner the night before. “This is last night.”
“Wait, hold still.” The constable held his own phone and took a photo of the photo. “I’ll whatsapp it to the patrol vehicles.”
“What do we do now?”
“Go home. Wait for our call. Nothing else you can do.”
“It’s been hours. Could they’ve been hijacked?”
“We won’t know until we find the vehicle, unfortunately. If something like that had happened, they’d be fine. Most hijacked victims are fine. Ninety nine percent chance of them being all right.”
“Ninety nine? Please, Constable, my parents don’t–”
“We’re also tracking the phone number you gave us. Give us time. We’ll find them.”
“You’ve found them?” Ok, go to the place and wait there. I’ll get there by eleven, latest. Keep them busy.”
As he cut the call, Ibrahim Dollie sat back in his La-Z-Boy.
Ibrahim Dollie was at the peak of the game. It wasn’t easy but it all started working out for him when he got rid of that little bump in the road, Mr Crawley. It had all turned out well. Look where he is now.
“Darling, I’m meeting an old friend. I won’t be back too late, ok?”
Ibrahim Dollie pulled on the coat his wife held out to him. He gave her a soft peck on the lips.
They bisected the highway. Tom jerked his head from left to right. He knew this area. When he worked at the racecourse he rented a room in one of these backyards.
Up ahead, a wide avenue lined with fir trees rolled off to the left.
“What are we doing here?” Tom asked.
“A rendezvous, my friend. Some very important people want to see you.”
“What do you mean? What people? Listen, there must be some mistake. We’re not even from Cape Town. We’re just visiting my son.”
“There’s no mistake. I don’t know you, but there’s no mistake.”
“Tom?” Flo asked as the car turned off from the main road and cruised towards the racecourse under streetlights that were in the fading dusk just flickering into life.
Jeremy knocked back another cup of coffee. The caffeine wrung his insides. When Marjorie had put the kids to bed she joined him in the kitchen.
“They’ll be ok. Must’ve just lost their way. Or maybe they’ve bumped into some old friends – they’re having such a good time that they’ve forgotten to let us know where they are.”
“I think maybe Daddy wanted to show Mammie where he used to work, and show her the places he always talks about. The racecourse, you know? He always tells that story. There they might’ve bumped into someone Daddy knew, I don’t know. But the point is, I’ll have to go and look for them. I can’t just sit here like this.”
“But that’s all we can do, for now at least.”
“You stay here with the– ”
“The police are taking care of it, Jeremy. They’re tracking your cell phone and all.”
“But they’re my parents, don’t you understand? What good am I just sitting here? I’ll just drive to the racecourse, ok? Just to check.”
“Ha-ah, Jeremy. Not while the kids are in the house. Leave the gun.”
Jeremy had drawn a pistol from a holster strapped to his chest and had placed it on top of the kitchen table.
“Your tone, please. I’m not your child, Marjorie.”
“I don’t want this.”
“You don’t want what? Hmm? Talking? Like adults? As soon as I want to talk, you put the brakes on.”
“I’ll talk. Just leave the gun, will you?”
“I’m going to look for them,” Jeremy said as he slipped the pistol back into its holster, set his cup in the sink, and left the kitchen. Marjorie heard her Beetle sputter in the garage. She started trembling as her car pulled out into the driveway, and fell into a chair when she heard it drone down the hangs of the mountain.
They were sitting on a sofa. The room was tiny, about three by four square meters. Apart from a scratched up plastic coffee table with some kind of logbook on it, a cheap plastic clock on the wall, and the two sofas which seemed salvaged from a dumpsite, the room was empty.
The two hijackers sat across from them on the other sofa.
The younger boy reminded Tom of his brother, Hilton, who was pulled with the Jaws of Life from a concertinaed minibus taxi. That was during high school, a long time ago but here Hilton sat in front of him again. Hilton with his slight frame, his clear and open face, and even the lilt in his voice – the cheeky upturn at the end of his sentence. There is no malice in this boy, Tom thought.
The older boy could hardly have been twenty but looked as if he had raced through many lives, all of them tough and unfortunate. His skin stretched taut over his bones. Bumps of healed cuts and random tattoos criss-crossed his face.
The clock chimed ten.
The hijackers left through a door to a room that suggested, from the hollow acoustics, a small kitchen. At the door, the older boy turned around, waved his gun at them and said, “So much as a piep out of you and you’re dead.”
Flo, who had hardly blinked since they were taken from the city, started sobbing.
“Bokkie, don’t let them see you cry. We’re going to get through this. I’m here,” Tom said, putting an arm around her.
So often had his father repeated them that Jeremy remembered the stories as if they were his own. It was a curious sensation. This recollection of memories that has never belonged to him.
Jeremy thought about the story his father most often told.
Leaving school at fifteen and with no prospects in Kamieskroon, his father had boarded the tramways bus to Cape Town. With his strong physique and a way with horses, he found work as a stable boy at the racecourse. He cleaned stables for three quick years until one night, while locking up and about to return home, a man dropped from the sky.
It was getting cold. Flo’s sobs had subsided but she was still shivering against her husband. The hijackers had returned. Their eyes looked red and sore and they were drinking from a bottle of brandy, passing a glass between the two of them.
“My wife is cold. Do you have a blanket?”
“This isn’t the Holiday Inn.”
“I know, but have a heart.”
“Give me a shot,” Flo suddenly said, her eyes fixed on the bottle of brandy.
“Huh? Listen here, Wange!” said the older boy.
Without waiting for a further retort and all heed towards the gun flung aside, Flo grabbed the glass and emptied it.
“Yissis!” said Wange.
Flo hoped the years of her secret tot or two before bedtime had steeled her stomach for the onslaught.
“You’re a churchwoman, Flo.”
“Not here, Tom. Not tonight. Tonight, I’m Flo.” To the younger boy, Wange, she gestured and said, “Pour me another.”
“Flo, your medication–”
“Didn’t take any.” Flo sat the glass down on the table, “Pour.”
“What? Tôppie, this woman of yours is gaar, eksê. You’re letting her beat you?”
Wange poured Flo another.
In his pocket, a cell phone rang and the older boy left the room to answer it. The clock had struck eleven. Wange contemplated the old couple. He bounced the knee his hand was resting on, the pistol still in its grip.
When the older boy returned and saw Wange, he said, “Yirre, Wange, put the gun down.” Wange set it down on the sofa. “A few minutes more.”
“Are you letting us go?” Tom asked.
All his father’s Cape Town stories were vivid but the racecourse story for all its details stayed obscure, absurd, even. Why did his father so willingly go to jail for a crime he had not committed?
In Jeremy’s line of work he heard them every day. Fantastic stories abounded. And when Jeremy refused to believe that a jealous tokkelôsie had visited the night before and set their whole house on fire, his life was threatened. A friend suggested extra security. For the past five years, Jeremy spent every weekend at the range, perfecting his aim.
He reached inside his jacket, and felt comforted as his fingers brushed the pistol.
“You know I used to work at this place, this racecourse, back in the day?”
“We don’t have time for your ‘back in the day stories’, old man.”
“Back in the day, work equalled respect, a self-respect. Now, no one works. No one respects themselves, so they don’t respect one another.”
“I told you, old man. Keep your stories to yourself.”
Flo turned to her husband. She knew this story.
“We were poor, but we always had something left for another. No matter how poor you were there was always someone worse off than you.”
Flo pressed the side of her knee against Tom’s leg, “Tell them, my dear.”
“Let me tell you about a man from around here. A friend. They say when you see a man coming down he was once above you. That one day when everything changed I saw a man coming down from the sky.
I had just finished my shift here, was locking up and returning through the stables when the guy missed me by a mere millimetre, just a millimetre, cracking open his head on the cement. Dead. Right in front of me, with eyes staring past my shoulders. I looked around, and there this silhouette stood. I wasted no time. I jumped over that dead body, and in a millisecond I was at the door. But the killer was faster.
‘What is blue and red, and flaps in the wind?’ he asked me, blocking the only way out. His face was still hidden in the dark but I recognized the voice. It was the track announcer.
‘The American flag,’ I said.
‘Ha! I like that. But, no, it’s your ass after a night in the mang. You’re in deep, deep trouble, stable boy,’ he said.”
As he took leave of the securitised suburbs Jeremy sped through lanes of boarded up shops and graffitied walls. Once an affluent part of the city, dark foreign families now inhabited the colonial buildings.
He parked the Beetle in the parking lot to the back of the racecourse. Its massive pavilion loomed above him, leaving a chunk of sky blackened and starless. Jeremy got out of the Beetle and for a minute enjoyed the silence settling over the empty parking lot.
About to desert the notion that his parents might be here, either up in the pavilion, or down in the stables, a black SUV turned into the far end of the parking lot. Jeremy dove behind the beetle just as its headlights were swerving over it.
The SUV paused before rolling through a side gate and into the grounds. Jeremy ran alongside the high wall to where the SUV disappeared. He drew his pistol. The gate held a sign, ‘staff only’. Beyond it he spied the bright red taillights of the SUV and slightly perpendicular to it, squat and gleaming, sat his Audi.
“‘Who is the dead guy?’ I asked.
‘Crawley. Fuckin’ boer.’
‘The manager? Mr Crawley, the manager?’
‘No, Crawley, the Prince of Wales. Of course, Crawley the manager. Now, what are we going to do about this situation? You know I didn’t throw him off there now, do you?’ the track announcer said, ‘You know I actually wanted to save him and you didn’t really see anything, did you?’
‘I saw nothing,’ I said.
The night before the case he came to see me. A grown man crying is not a pretty sight but he had so much to lose: a family; a young daughter. I was left with the decision: keep quiet and face contempt of court, or tell on this man and destroy the life of a young family. Now tell me, what would you have done? He told me if I kept quiet, the odds of me going to jail were ten to one. And I would only mang for a maximum of six months.
In court I played dumb. I found the body but saw no one, I said. They put me in jail for contempt of court, obstructing the course of justice. But six months later I was out.”
“Did your ass look like the American flag?”
“Yirre, Wange, must you really? Anyway, who would go mang for another man?”
“I was young, had nothing to lose. Thought I’d do him a favour.”
“I don’t see the point.”
Tom wrung his hands. “When are you letting us go?”
Just then the door opened. A cold breeze flew past their necks.
“What’s red and blue and flaps in the wind?”
Flo looked around for a hidden radio or television; the voice, sonorous, seemed broadcasted, but it came from the man in the black coat, standing in the doorway.
“The American flag,” Tom answered. He felt as if he had been waiting all his life for this moment. The telling and countless retellings of the story had all been the dress rehearsal for this, the main event.
“You remember the night you rode Mr Crawley’s horse around and around the track until you were soaked to your underwear, and my girl was cheering you on from the side? Didn’t know she was pregnant then, did you, Tom? I had to make plans, didn’t I? How could I have entrusted her future to you, Tom, a skollie boy from the farm?” Ibrahim Dollie said.
Flo looked at Tom. She wanted to see the reaction on his face. She had heard this story before – but not from Tom.
I am Tom’s daughter. I’ve been looking for my father.
“Go straight to jail. Do not pass ‘Go’. Do not collect two hundred rand. You had to go in, Tom. Can you see that? I was not a bit surprised when you told on me. Never had any character, did you, Tom? Couldn’t run fast enough to the boere to tell them you saw me throwing that Crawley off from the loft. I had to let you sit, you know that, don’t you? Good timing, too. I could get rid of you. I guess you didn’t know the kind of connections I had. A few months was all it took for my daughter to forget the whole thing. Once the kid came, you were forgotten. But, fortunately, or unfortunately, your daughter, my granddaughter, has inherited my brains. And now I see she has found you.”
“Tom, is this true?” Flo asked.
Tom sat dumbstruck.
“Tom? You have a child? Another child?”
“Oh my, I thought you would’ve told her by now, Tom. How long has it been? Thirty-five years?”
Tom dropped Flo’s hand, “What do you want from me? I’ve paid my dues.”
Jeremy squatted under the window. He heard his father’s voice as he had never before, skittish and nervous. As he pressed his back against the grey wall he cocked the pistol. His blood rushed in his ears. Jeremy started counting down from ten.
“I don’t want anything from you, Tom. I’m here to properly thank you. If you weren’t there and hadn’t gone to jail, I don’t know. So when I was contacted and was told you’ll be visiting your son in Cape Town I thought that we should meet.”
“But why here, why this hijack?”
“This is how we do things in Cape Town. Besides, I’ve always liked riddles, Tom, and I thought I’d surprise you with the biggest riddle of them all. But seriously? Stay away from them. Stay away from my family. They don’t need the likes of you.”
As Jeremy leapt through the door he burst loose with his pistol. Aiming first at Wange, then at the older boy, and finally at Ibrahim Dollie, Jeremy, with a cool head, put three bullets into each of theirs.
“Jeremy! No!” His mother dropped to her knees, arms outstretched. His father stood beside her with shoulders slumped and mouth open, saliva accumulating.
“Mammie, are you ok?”
Flo looked up at her son, still with the pistol in his hand, and stood up, stable as an ox. She walked over to him and took the pistol from his grip. From her bosom she pulled a threadbare handkerchief, neatly folded, and carefully wiped the butt and trigger.
Tom had a look in his eyes Flo often saw in sheep before their slaughter. Flo took his hand, placed the pistol in his palm, and folded each of his fingers closed. She squeezed his hand.
The sirens broke the quiet.
Relieved of the parade of well-wishers and sitting at her kitchen table, Flo lifted her glass. She swirled the golden liquid in it and watched it reflect the rays of the winter sun. The house was quiet. She still expected Tom to call for tea from his La-Z-Boy in the living room. She missed him, but just a little.
The rumours about his kids would always circulate; Mietie’s boy ran around town with Tom’s unmistakable gait, already a cock amongst the hens. There were others.
But she loved Tom. She loved him enough to help him become a better man by atoning for his sins. As he always said, ‘You may have the wind against you on the way there, but when you return, it’ll have your back.’ Whatever that meant, Flo thought, and snorted. I hope you have the wind behind you this time, Tom.
In less that a year he would be back. Just enough time to contemplate his sins. Tom might return a little humbler, a little more devoted.
It was a pity that some had lost their lives in this whole drama but it had all worked out in the end, much better than Flo could ever have hoped for.