POEM: You know it’s Christmas

BY CHRISTINE COATES

You know it’s Christmas when Dad buys watermelon,
when the south-easter blows
and there’s no parking at the beach
and sand’s in your teeth and in your ears —
sand is everywhere.

You know it’s Christmas when Granny boils tickeys
for the Christmas pudding
when the tomatoes cost ten times what they cost in November
and all the avocados are sold
and the Woolies queue stretches around past the frozen chickens.

You know it’s Christmas when Boney M plays incessantly
in every shop and on all the radio stations
and Gran is making pickled fish
because the yellowtail are running
and the trekkers are pulling them in on the beach.

You know it’s Christmas when the baboons raid the fig tree
and you have to quickly pick the green ones
to make fig preserve
and the white butterflies come
and Christmas beetles fly into your ear at Carols by Candlelight.

You know it’s Christmas when the brass band and singers stroll
up the street and stand outside your house until you give them money
when it rains softly just because it’s Christmas Day
and then the sun comes out and you can go to the beach
and play on the lilos and body boards you got as presents.

You know it’s Christmas when you can smell the rubber of a new doll
or when you smile at the mother-in-law through clenched teeth
because she gave you tiny purple bunches of grapes as earrings
and you know the shirts she gave her son
he won’t wear
but at least the kids like their new clothes.

EXTRACT: The God Who Made Mistakes

SPONSORED: An extract from the first chapter of the new novel by Ekow Duker.Ekow Duker

It began raining the day the dogs found Sipho Sibanda. A soft, gentle patter that fell like a benediction from the hands of a loving and indulgent god. Two dogs, both of indeterminate colour and breed, approached the man lying in the bushes. With exaggerated care, they placed one muddy paw gingerly in front of the other, then stopped abruptly, taut limbed and stiff tailed, their bodies poised for flight.

The reeds sighed and parted as the dogs drew closer, sprinkling their backs with drops of water. The dogs sniffed at the man’s bare feet and nudged his cracked heels before edging their way up his legs. One of them, the male and the larger of the two, lingered over the remnants of dried blood and excrement that caked his buttocks, its nose twitching in a frenzied dialogue that only dogs understand. Then, with an almost human reverence, it began to lick at the patch of dry white residue splattered across the back of the man’s thighs. There would be no abuse or rocks hurled at them. Sipho Sibanda was dead.

Madala found Sipho Sibanda the next day and by then the river was in flood. Thin veins of white foam criss-crossed the dark muscular torrent as the river swept past, moaning like a madman to break free of its banks. It was like a giant pinned down on an operating table, its skin flayed back without anaesthetic. The carcass of a large animal flashed by, its legs stiff and pointing crookedly to heaven. A withered tree branch, a jagged piece of styrofoam, a woman’s shoe, alone and without its partner. Sodden spoils of life, soon to be deposited at the feet of a capricious and vengeful god.

Despite his limp, Madala was surprisingly nimble. He slid down the river bank with his knees bent and his arms outstretched like a surfer. He was wearing black gumboots, the only thing of value he had left from the mines. He’d sewn his olive-green tarpaulin himself and it flared outwards from his shoulders like a cape. He came to this spot on the river at the same time every year. Five thirty in the evening on the eleventh of February and it was the eleventh of February today.

Last year he’d lost his footing and been dragged a hundred metres downstream by the current. He’d never had a chance to place the flowers properly or even say a prayer. The year before that, his flowers had clung stubbornly to the far bank of the river, infuriatingly out of reach and wedged among the driftwood and plastic shopping bags, like another piece of rubbish. Each year the river conspired to mock him and each year he wondered why he came at all.

With a loud sigh, Madala rummaged inside the folds of his tarpaulin and took out a bunch of small white flowers. Seventy-five rand from the BP filling station, an extravagance for most people in Alex and especially so for him. He held the flowers to his nose, squeezed his eyes shut and took a deep breath. In the past, all it took was one smell of the flowers to conjure up a richly textured image of her face. Now his memory had faded so far into the distance, her face had become no more than an indistinct blur of shapes and sounds he barely recognised as belonging to a woman. His woman.

Madala inhaled again, more sharply this time and with greater urgency. But it was no use. He shook his head in annoyance and scowled at the flowers. He might as well have bought plastic.

Suddenly, a putrid smell wafted around him and Madala’s nostrils crinkled in distaste. He raised his head and sniffed the moist air, seeking out the source of the odour. Madala had smelled death too often not to recognise the sickly foulness that accompanied it. He stepped forward, brushing the reeds aside like they were curtains. The smell was more pungent now and yet he almost stumbled over the body. It was a man’s body. He was tall, lean and slightly muscled. He was lying face down as if there was something particularly interesting hidden there in the mud. His trousers were bunched around his ankles and his shirt was nowhere to be seen. He had bite marks on his thighs, stray dogs no doubt, and one buttock was already half eaten away. Madala swore out loud and crossed himself repeatedly, his profanity growing more pronounced with each circuit.

‘Fock! Fock! Fock!’

Madala clambered back up to the road and pondered what to do. It couldn’t be him, he’d been very careful. His instincts told him to leave the body there to rot. It was safer that way. But he knew his conscience would nag him and he didn’t have the energy for any more turmoil inside his head.

He trudged all the way to the Alexandra police station and stood hesitantly in the entrance. Except for the two framed photographs of the president and the minister of police above the counter, there was no one in sight. Water dripped off his clothes and formed a puddle around his feet.

‘Voetsek!’

Madala looked around him, wondering who had spoken and if indeed they were swearing at him.

‘Voetsek!’ the voice cried again.

He hadn’t seen the policeman. Like a dark, brooding cloud, he rose up from behind the counter and wagged a finger at Madala.

‘Don’t I know you?’ the policeman asked. He wasn’t expecting an answer and Madala knew better than to provide one. ‘You’re Madala, the crazy man who talks to the river.’

Madala stepped forward as if the policeman’s description of him was an acceptable substitute for his name.

‘I found somebody,’ he said softly. The words were lumpy and misshapen in his throat and he swallowed several times to ease their passage.

‘I told you to fuck off,’ the policeman said again. He really wasn’t interested in what Madala had to say. He stood up from his stool, all six feet of him, and pointed at Madala again. ‘You’d better get out before I charge you.’ He glanced pointedly at the handcuffs on his khaki-clad thigh and then at Madala’s muddy footprints leading from the entrance.

‘Charge me with what?’

The policeman’s eyes flew open at Madala’s apparent truculence. ‘What did you say?’ he asked. He leaned over the counter to make sure he didn’t miss a word.

‘I said I found somebody.’

Madala could tell that for all his bluster, the policeman was afraid of him. They called him Madala because ever since the accident at the mine, he dragged one foot behind him like an old man. No one even remembered his name was Jacob. It was as if the name Jacob Zwane had been erased from the public conscience the moment he’d been discharged from hospital and Madala written in its place. That made him sad.

He shouldn’t have come. He should have gone home and sat behind the small wooden table from which he sold cigarettes by the stick and sweets that cut your tongue and made it bleed. Suddenly, he longed for the wooden stool with twin indentations that cupped his arse as snugly as his woman used to do. He’d promised to look after her brother, promised that he’d take him in if anything happened to her. Well, he had, in a manner of speaking. She’d have been pleased about that – or would she? Madala wasn’t sure.

Next year he’d be back by the river, his memory more wayward than ever and with another bunch of flowers clutched in his hands. One day he’d forget the exact date the river took her. He wondered which would go first, the time of day it had happened or the date. It wouldn’t help to write it down. He was already having trouble calculating the right change for his customers. Nowadays, numbers refused to stand still and be counted. They hid behind each other and ran around in his mind like chickens. Worse still, he might forget the way to the river and have to depend on her brother to take him there. It was all very tiring. All Madala wanted to do was go home.

He was almost at the exit when a small, energetic woman barged through the aluminium doors. She swept past Madala as if he wasn’t there and hoisted herself up on her toes for she was rather short.

‘My son is missing,’ she declared in a voice made for a much larger woman. She had an air of authority about her, like a mother in a well-run household where the children were in school and the bills were paid on time.

The God Who Made Mistakes‘Sergeant Ncube,’ the policeman said introducing himself. ‘What is your son’s name?’ He asked this with a grin as if he might know the woman’s son. Then he pushed his notepad to one side and filled the space with his gut. He looked more inclined to converse with the woman than to write anything down.

‘Sipho. Sipho Sibanda,’ the woman said.

Sergeant Ncube frowned and the woman’s lips turned down in concert with his.

‘Sipho Sibanda,’ Sergeant Ncube repeated with a puzzled look. He was about to say something when he noticed Madala standing by the door.

‘What are you still doing here?’ he shouted. He had an audience now and his voice was much louder than necessary.

‘Her son. He is by the river,’ Madala said. He didn’t know how he knew, he just did.

‘Don’t pay any attention to that fool,’ Sergeant Ncube insisted. He took a pen out of his pocket and tapped it impatiently on his notebook. ‘Now, when did Sipho go missing?’

But Mrs Sibanda wasn’t listening to him. She’d turned to Madala with both hands clasped to her chest as if to stop her heart from tumbling out onto the floor.

‘Do you know my son?’ she asked. She tried to control the quiver in her voice by speaking through tightly puckered lips.

‘He is by the river,’ Madala said again. ‘I saw him.’

He felt surprisingly clear headed, more lucid than he had in a long time. He could see his woman now. She was right there in front of him, gazing at him with the same lopsided smile she’d had on her face before the river stretched out its hand and took her.

Sergeant Ncube threw his hands in the air in a gesture of disgust. ‘For God’s sake, look at him! Can’t you see he’s mad?’

‘He knows where my son is,’ Mrs Sibanda retorted. The assurance had returned to her voice and Sergeant Ncube wilted under her glare.

‘The patrol cars are all busy,’ he muttered, implying that the station had several patrol cars when in fact there was only one. His notebook suddenly became of great interest to him and he began to turn the pages briskly. Flap. Flap. Flap. They sounded like the wings of a large bird as it streaks away into the sky.

‘I have a car outside,’ Mrs Sibanda countered.

‘I’m the only one on duty,’ Sergeant Ncube said. ‘It is forbidden to leave my post.’

Mrs Sibanda raised an eyebrow at the absurdity of what the policeman had just said. She was one of those women who spoke as much with her body as with her lips.

‘You don’t even know if it is your son,’ Sergeant Ncube said. He had written ‘SIPHO SIBANDA’ across the page and he tapped at the letters again as if imploring them to speak.

‘I know it is him,’ Madala said quietly. He had joined Mrs Sibanda at the wooden counter.

‘All right,’ Sergeant Ncube said at last. ‘Let’s go. But if it’s not Sipho Sibanda, if it’s not your son …’ He lifted the flap in the counter and strode through, letting it drop behind him with a loud bang.

‘Officer.’

Sergeant Ncube whirled on Madala for it was he who had spoken. ‘What is it now?’

‘You will need an ambulance,’ Madala said and on hearing this

Mrs Sibanda lost all strength in her limbs and fell to the floor in a crumpled heap.

The God Who Made Mistakes is published by Picador Africa. Read our interview with Ekow Duker on his writing life here.

POEM: in case you were keeping score

BY DINIKA GOVENDER

one
suitcase lies on the bedroom floor, still packed from a trip a year ago.
it now operates as a wardrobe
where contingencies are stored

two
the degrees of separation from the me that I could be
to the me that I must be
– with the me we think I must be getting in the way

three
the number of potential mistakes I met whilst waiting for a double on the rocks
– which is also where you’d find the relationship between my thoughts and actions of late.
on the rocks

four
pieces to make a whole secret-recipe chicken, as well as the size of a perfect family
– except when it splits
and four walls become eight and one pillow becomes two

five
the repayment, in days, on a loan called Weekend that everyone must pay,
save for those who don’t – who are untitled and entitled
or quite simply won’t

six
– of one, half a dozen of the other is what he says
when two things are the same
but actually when two things are inconsequential to him

seven
the number of months it’s taken me to undress myself
of bleached dreams
and spandex goals

eight
the kilometres I can run before my lungs start to burn and my eyes begin to sting
– not from the cold air
– but from trying to run forward in time

nine
the age of our umbilical cords before they got cut
and no one really told us what happened to them
– so we grew up in search of a lifeline

ten
the list i am trained to top
along with nine other kids who also work hard and obey rules
– and isn’t it a fine way of pigeon-holing the rest as fools

eleven
the perfect hour of every day when we can do anything, or nothing at all,
and no one should notice
because we stop measuring at ten – in case you were keeping score

WORK/LIFE: Craig Higginson

Craig Higginson

Craig Higginson is an internationally acclaimed writer and theatre director. His novels include Last Summer (2010) and The Landscape Painter (2014) which, like 2015’s The Dream House, won the UJ Prize for South African Literature in English. His published plays include Dream of the Dog, The Girl in the Yellow Dress, The Jungle Book and Little Foot.

What does “writing” mean?

There are many kinds of writing – and you are a different kind of writer for each of these activities – like playing a range of musical instruments. But when I call myself a writer I am talking about the real activity – the one that ignites me in a place that no other activity does. When I’m writing for TV, I am writing my way into something outside of me – helping it along the way with a word or two of support or encouragement. But when I sit down to try and follow my own internal wood grain – which is as specific and un-chosen and unique as an internal thumbprint – then I am writing in the true sense. This kind of writing is about trying to fit untested language into an untested situation. You are going in the opposite direction of the already-written (which is the direction so much TV writing in South Africa tends to go in). Of course, most writing as a writer is an act of rewriting – of working through another draft, of going down a pathway you have already travelled before. But each draft is a new journey and the landscape around you has always shifted, so there are always new and surprising things to be found along the way.

What book changed your life?

It sounds pretentious, but Ulysses made me think I could be a novelist instead of a poet. Or, more specifically, that a novel can be a great poem. That some of our greatest poems are not, in fact, going as poems, but are novels – and are symphonic, narrative-driven prose poems.

What are you working on at the moment?

An adaptation of John le Carre’s novel The Mission Song for two UK-based production companies.

Describe your workspace.

It’s a little room that extends off our bedroom. It’s elevated above the ground and has light coming in from three sides and wooden shutters separating me from the bedroom. I have started painting again so there are two desks – one for writing and one for painting.

Craig Higginson

The most important instrument you use?

My computer, I suppose. I also have a lamp next to my computer and the first thing I do when I sit down to write is switch it on. I switch it off when I’m done. It’s only ever on when I’m writing. These small rituals help to give one a sense of structure – without which the act of writing might appear too frightening – like a boat in a dark sea with no paddle.

What’s your most productive time of day?

The morning – when I’m still fresh. I have about 45 minutes of gold dust in me each new day – and if I write straight after dropping my daughter off at school I can use it – and transmute it. But if something gets in the way first, if I sit down a bit later, I find the gold dust is often gone. If I try to carry on with my novel or poem in these circumstances, I am in danger of sounding or feeling like just anyone else.

What do you do when you’re stuck, or not feeling creative?

We usually get stuck when we don’t know what story we are telling. I don’t force things. If I’m tired or disconnected I do something else. I aim to write for an hour or so each morning but I often fail at it. But I try again and – to quote Beckett – I try to fail better.

How do you relax?

I watch TV series, I drink wine or whisky, I walk, I go to the gym, I try to sleep for at least seven hours – but I never quite relax.

Who and what has influenced your work?

The worst things that happen to me – and the least happy things I have experienced in my life – often get made into a novel or a play – even if indirectly. I write in order to survive, to make sense of things that have felt senseless – that have, at their worst, made me want to be dead. I use these places to start something afresh – like the first leaves after a veld fire. They are brighter and softer and have more space to grow thanks to the devastation that has passed through there not long before. But as Bernice Rubens once said to me: You must write with yesterday’s blood. So I am influenced by my own life and the lives around me – and I have wanted to push light back into those places that have grown – or are growing – dark.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

Peter Shaffer said he wrote first and researched later. In other words: give yourself the opportunity to imagine before concerning yourself too much with what other people have imagined.

Your favourite ritual?

Switching on that lamp.

What’s the hardest thing about writing?

How long do you have? I suppose the hardest thing about it is protecting it – making sure that nothing else comes in the way of it. There are a thousand forces inside you and all around you constantly encouraging you not to do it, to do something else – something easier, something more urgent.

What do you dislike most about yourself?

I am all about middle spaces so it’s always hard for me to isolate one thing above anything else. I also think there are many versions of me – and some I dislike more than others. I find it impossible to watch myself on video or hear myself talk in public. I think: Who is that awkward man with the large staring eyes and indeterminate accent? Who does he think he’s speaking to and why does he imagine they’re listening? I prefer my private selves to my public ones – as I have the illusion that I have more say over who those selves might be.

What are you afraid of?

Dying before I have written a good book. Dying before my daughter is grown up and able to look after herself. Dying before I’m dead. The third is especially difficult to achieve: to keep yourself open to the world, experiencing things as if for the first time. It’s perhaps difficult because you have to keep doing it, refreshing it, re-inventing yourself each time in order to encounter yourself. We run out of selves, we use them up too quickly when we’re young – and then we have to do what we can with the selves that are left to us, which grow heavy, and weigh us down with their aches and pains and their difficult questions.

What advice would you give to people starting out in a writing career?

Not to listen to the advice of those who have come before. Each person must bash through their own bundu and discover their own landscapes.

What’s the thing you’re proudest of doing?

Not giving up.

The Dream House is published by Picador Africa. Read our review here