BOOK CLUB: Under Nelson Mandela Boulevard

GARETH LANGDON lauds Sean Christie’s excellent account of stowaways living on the margins of a quickly gentrifying Cape Town.

"Under Nelson Mandela Boulevard" by Sean Christie

Taking a ship is not like taking a taxi. If I get the chance, I will go, and after that you never know. I might not come back.

Cape Town is often lauded as a city of contrasts: white sandy beaches and rocky mountain outcrops. The green, leafy, English speaking South and the dry, arid, Afrikaans speaking North. The rich, safe suburbs and the dangerous poor squatter camps.

Poverty, as many have sadly noted, is as much a part of Cape Town’s landscape as Table Mountain or Camps Bay beach. So much so that many of the city’s most destitute and lost go unnoticed and forgotten, living out lives that are foreign to the privileged such as myself, camouflaged into the city’s intersections and park benches, pavements and grass embankments near highways. Few venture into the areas that the poor call home, unless it is to “clean up” and ask them to leave. Sean Christie is an exception to this rule.

In the excellent Under Nelson Mandela Boulevard: Life Among the Stowaways, Christie ventures deep into the underground world of African stowaways who call Cape Town’s and other coastal city’s bridges, highways, and forests their home. The foreshores and harbours of these places offer the perfect viewing point for those whose lives are dictated by the tides of ships coming in and out, offering escape routes and temporary shelter. Befriending one stowaway in particular, Adam, Christie infiltrates the exclusive culture of the stowaways who call themselves the Beachboys, and examines in personal detail some of the most destitute of Cape Town like few others have before. Christie drives Adam around in his Conquest, loans him money, his cellphone and laptop, food and even takes a lengthy trip with him to Dar es Salaam and back, a promise he had made a long time before and had never expected to keep. Through Adam, Christie is introduced to and allowed to talk openly and frankly various members of the Beachboys, and learns in great depth about their lives up to this point, and their hopes for the future.

The majority of the stowaways hail from Tanzania, but few actually still call it home. A big part of Beachboy culture is the belief that the ocean is your true home, the source of life, and unless you are out at sea you are not truly home. Naturally, this lifestyle often clashes with the realities of these men’s situations, many of whom have left families, daughters and sons behind in the various countries they have lived and worked illegally over their time as stowaways. Many of them have serious drug addictions, illnesses and injuries which go untreated. Their lives are hard and strenuous and the sea is their balm. Adam himself has a daughter, Aniya, who lives a healthy life with her mother Rochelle in Birmingham, England. The book captures a beautiful moment in Adam’s young life where, for the first time with Christie’s help, he is able to reach his daughter through Skype, having not seen her for several years. Christie writes the encounter adeptly, with Adam’s excitement about his daughter and the technology as totally foreign both brought to full view. As I read, I was reminded of my own complacency with the resources I have access to.

The danger of investigative journalism like Christie’s is that it can slip easily into the realm of limited self-awareness. Few explorations of this kind are conscious of their own bias, or privilege, when engaging with their subject. However, Christie cleverly avoids falling into this trap by interweaving memoir and investigation – a technique that Billy Kahora on the over-leaf calls “genre-busting”.

Christie speaks frankly about the personal experiences that led him to investigate the Beachboys, his own struggles with a lack of purpose and with alcohol. After completing his education and flitting between various writing gigs, other odd jobs and still not finding fulfillment, Christie embarks on his journey with Adam after an introduction through photographer David Southwood, whose pictures feature in the book. From his own platform of waywardness Christie is not simply describing the lives of the Beachboys, but constantly searching for possible parallels between their lives and his, and strives to assimilate the parts of their philosophy which he believes are able to guide him along his own winding path. He allows himself to experience the true nature of poverty on the trip down from Dar es Salaam, draining his bank account, sleeping rough and hopping the border. For the reader, there is a feeling both of admiration for Christie’s bravery and of excitement for the story – you really just want to know what will happen to them all in the end.

Sadly however, the book leaves little room for hope for the Beachboys. It concludes with the realisation that, for all the claims towards progress, Cape Town and South Africa at large remains a place of extreme contrast and poverty, and what was once a haven for the destitute Beachboy stowaways has, thanks to development and gentrification which purports to bring prosperity, has now become, ironically, unliveable. The Beachboys are pushed out of their makeshift homes by the sea in favour of glass and steel buildings along Cape Town’s foreshore, and new business and apartments for the privileged throughout Woodstock and Salt River. Without their views of the ocean, one is left to wonder what happens to a Beachboy culture so heavily steeped in salt water. Forced away from the water, what becomes of a Beachboy? Christie laments and accepts the conditions of his home city, and rather than offering some kind of solution or resolve, seems resigned to the fact that – like most Capetonians – there is not much to be done in the face of such enormous systemic and structural inadequacy when addressing poverty of this scale. One is left to wonder after reading, “How can I help?”, but also with a distinct feeling that this urge to help is misplaced and even condescending to a group of tough men who have found their own way of living, albeit one which contradicts our own limit understanding of how things should be. Although poor, many of these men are not unhappy. Half forced into and half choosing their stowaway lives, they have insights which, perhaps, many of the comfortable like you and I lack.

For Adam, home lies at sea and not, as you would expect, in Cape Town or Birmingham or Dar es Salaam. Pushed out and away from the land by years of rejection – from his father, from his mother, from the governments and citizens around him – Adam has found his peace and comfort in the water, his own kind of final frontier.

Under Nelson Mandela Boulevard is a revealing, personal and touching read in its entirety and – especially for those familiar with the streets of Cape Town – a deep insight into the hidden worlds around and within us, poor or not.

Under Nelson Mandela Boulevard is published by Jonathan Ball. Save R40 when you purchase online at Bridge Books (type AERO in the box that says “Discount” at checkout). You can collect your purchase in-store or get it delivered via courier (delivery fees still apply).

Shining a light


Global, huh? That’s a bold and sweeping claim. This time, however, it’s accurate. For in Global Muckraking, there is a rich and stimulating aggregation of the world’s best journalism – stories that changed circumstances and therefore lives – and many of them from the global south.

Editor Anya Schiffrin scoured yards and yards of column inches to find the reports that influenced social and political change in some of the world’s most repressed societies over the past 100 years. She brings to this mammoth task the sensibility of a foreign correspondent (she worked in Europe and Asia for 10 years) combined with the intellectual curiosity of a para-academic (she now directs the media and communications programme of Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs). The result of her thoughtful search is no dusty museum of once-remarkable exhibits; it is a vault of reporting wealth.

As many journalists do, I paid attention first to the bylines. Scanning the table of contents immediately quickened the reading pulse. Schiffrin’s collection shows an impressive range of investigative reporting emanating from some of the planet’s overlooked media crevices. They are, unsurprisingly (happily), all from print and they represent the world’s excellent journalism from Azerbaijan to Angola, El Salvador to Equatorial Guinea, Brazil to Burma, Peru to Principe.

Yes! There is South Africa – three entries – represented by Benjamin Pogrund, Jacques Pauw and Henry Nxumalo. And there is Mozambique and Carlos Cardoso, Angola and Rafael Marques. There is also West Africa (labour abuse and the bad taste of chocolate), Liberia (genital cutting of women), Nigeria (Ken Saro-Wiwa on the imminent war over petroleum reserves), Equatorial Guinea (a country’s oil wealth enriches its ruler), and Uganda (illegal detentions without trial). And there’s “Africa” featuring the Guardian coverage of the Nestle boycott and the way that company milked the poor.

Schiffrin’s truly innovative response to this breadth of subject matter is her inclusion of local guides to these journalistic sites. Thinking like a newspaper editor, she has commissioned contemporary specialists to introduce each contribution. Thus we read Anton Harber on Pogrund’s expose of prison conditions recounted by the just-released Harold Strachan and published in the Rand Daily Mail. Harber also introduces Nxumalo’s Drum piece on the Bethal farm labour abuses and Pauw’s Vrye Weekblad coverage of police hit squads. The reports and their reporters are set in a context both historical and journalistic, with layers of nuanced understanding which a remote and cerebral editor could easily miss. The delight begins with the first entry: Adam Hochschild introducing the 1904 forced labour scandal in King Leopold’s Congo. This investigation was part of a long campaign by E.D. Morel, a writer and journalist who was neither Belgian nor Congolese and who therefore embodied the view that an abuse of one human is an abuse of us all.

Dipping into Global Muckraking feels a bit like joining an articulate reporter for a drink at the local. It becomes an act of relish to receive the insights only an insider can provide. In every way, then, Schiffrin has conceived a work of journalism. This she delivers with an essay outlining her research and the thought it provoked. She asks herself, and therefore us: Why does something become news? Many of these pieces were not the ones which broke the story. They were lengthy reports published when the story was already pretty old – yet these became the reports which changed perceptions. She writes about spread and timing, influence and impact, and she writes about repetition. The same stories recur, she notes, across countries and across time.

So dipping by whim or reading from front to back are both legitimate approaches to this volume which has reach in every plane except length. Books made of paper have their limitations and a finite number of pages is one. But the judiciously edited extracts of these investigations adequately demonstrate their points. Resisting the predictable logic of chronology, Schiffrin assembles her selection thematically. The table of contents shows the stories of our place – this globe – and of our time, of all time. These are our stories. Labour abuses. Anti-colonialism. Corruption. Oil and mining. The environment and natural disasters. Food shortages and famine. Military and police. Rural life. Women. Together they offer almost 50 examples of muckraking – and not one of them from North America or Great Britain.

Is there a quibble with this book? I’m still investigating.

Global Muckraking is published by The New Press.

WORK/LIFE: Marianne Thamm

Marianne Thamm is an author, columnist, satirist, and the assistant editor of Daily Maverick. Her several non-fiction books include the bestselling  I Have Life – Alison’s Story; her two most recent publications are To Catch A Cop: The Paul O’Sullivan Story and Here I Am – the memoir of singer PJ Powers. She lives in Cape Town.

What does “writing” mean?

Essentially using language to make sense of the world and setting this down somewhere relatively indelibly…. Language is a code. Writing also earns me my living.

What book changed your life?

James A Michener’s The Drifters. I read it in the 1970s in South Africa when I wanted to be anywhere else in the world but there. I found six imaginary friends in the book and travelled through Spain, Portugal, Morocco, and Mozambique from the wendy house in the back of the yard in Pretoria where I grew up.

What are you working on at the moment?

Apart from writing for Daily Maverick, I am contemplating the fact that my dear friend, the Belgian author Tom Lanoye, has created an opportunity for me to think about writing about myself and my strange family in some way. It is a terrifying prospect because so far I have felt most comfortable writing about the world outside of myself – as a journalist and author of non-fiction. My ghostwritings have been exercises in discipline in relation to capturing the truth of others.

I am also currently working with another author – a collaboration of sorts, being a sort of sounding board for a very exciting book on South Africa’s recent history and the role newspapers and various journalists played in the politics. The book also explores exactly how a small Afrikaans-speaking minority managed to capture power in all spheres of life.

I’m thinking about two scripts: one for someone else and one for myselfsome new comedy material, but these projects sort of have to page through magazines in the waiting room of my mind while I get on with whatever’s necessary next.

Describe your workspace.

An extremely safe space – an office at home, furnished with items from my childhood including my father’s old desk, all my books, odd knick knacks that mean something to me, and tons of New Yorker magazines stacked up all over the place. It’s my “woman cave”.

The most important instrument you use?

My MacBook Pro

Marianne Thamm Workspace

What’s your most productive time of day?

Whenever I find myself in my office behind my laptop, which is most of the day and often late into the night.

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

I have never been stuck. Remember, I am a writer of non-fiction mostly so the story exists. I just have to get on with telling it. I always work with music on in the background. Music grounds me. What I listen to depends on my mood – I have a very, very large collection and I am a bit of a slut when it comes to music. My taste is very eclectic: I love Elbow, LP, Beyonce, Arvo Part, The National, Hugh Masekela, Simphiwe Dana, The Brother Moves On, Patti Smith, Nina Simone, Gill Scott Herron, Oscar and the Wolf, xx, Sam Smith, Skrillex, and lately PJ Powers (I rediscovered some of her greatest songs while working on her book).

How do you relax?

I play with my daughters who are 11 and 9. I listen to music, I read … I also love snuggling with my dogs. I should walk more in the forest. I fantasise about living alone in a loft surrounded by my books and my music and nothing else.

Who or what has influenced your work?

Tom Lanoye, Jane Raphaely, Pieter-Dirk Uys, Thierry Cassuto (creator of ZANEWS), Branko Brkic (Editor of Daily Maverick), Zapiro, and my partner of 21 years. They have all pushed me, forced me into a position where I challenge myself and find something I didn’t know was there.

Then the writings of authors like Adam Gopnik, AA Gill, Njabulo Ndebele, Achille Mbembe, Mark Gevisser, Joan Didion, and many others….

South Africa as a geographical space has influenced and shaped the architecture of my mind. I am influenced by the moon … I love the moon – both sides of it: the face it shows us and the face it hides away.

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

Do the work.

Your favourite ritual?

Sitting in my office reading while listening to music. I try and do it as often as possible.

What’s the hardest thing about writing?

Finding the silence and privacy to do it.

What do you dislike most about yourself?

I can be remote and unavailable to the people who love me most.

What are you afraid of?

Not paying enough attention to my children’s needs … Being torn between nourishing them and myself.

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

Just do the work. Take nothing personally. Be curious.

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

Surviving 30 years as a journalist and having adapted to the changing publishing landscape. Finding much joy in every new discovery along the way. Of stretching myself when I least feel like doing it.

FICTION: Investigative Journalism


“I’m sorry about your dad, man” Steve said. We were sitting in the library, researching for our next assignment. The topic being one of our own choice; and naturally I used what happened to my dad as a topic. Steve decided to do something else about elephants, but I never saw him researching. I never really saw him anywhere other than where I was; we were pretty close — more so when we went to the same college together. Here, with thousands of students milling about like ants in constant motion, Steve and I had each other. I guess we may have been loners, and for some reason Steve was particularly unpopular, as in high school. People had the tendency to just ignore him, really. I sighed and closed the book. “It’s history, Stevie. It’s not like we were close or anything, and there’s a great story in it, I just know it.” Steve shakes his head and smiles. “You’re going to make a great journalist, Will. Using your own personal drama as a story; nice.” I can’t tell if he’s being sarcastic or not, but I don’t mind. He has a point; I will be a good journalist someday.

I don’t remember much about my dad; he died when I was six. Or, rather, that’s what my mother had always told me; until I turned 16. For some or other unknown reason, it was then that she decided to tell me the truth; 10 years late. I never missed having a father — I was a pretty solitary child, and when I met Steve in high school I was pretty much sorted for company for the rest of my life. My mom came home from work one evening while I was doing homework. It was late (past 10 I think; she always worked double shifts at the factory) and I had just finished telling her what Steve (who she had never met) and I got up to during the day when she cleared her throat and said, “I have something to tell you. It’s late, but you need to hear it.” Statements like these never really surprised or intrigued me; I guessed it was something to do with her newest boyfriend. “Your dad had an accident.” I rolled my eyes, she was going to tell me how he died again; she could be pretty odd, this woman. I looked back at my books and said, “You’ve told me this before, Mom. I know the story, okay?” She shook her head slowly, eyes filling with tears, “No, I mean he had an accident today.” This last statement, I will admit, had me rather confused.

Long story short, my father never died. It turns out he was institutionalised when I was six – a paranoid schizophrenic. My mother, not wishing to burden me with this information, decided the cover story was necessary. He was prone to violent attacks, and if her word was anything to go by, the final count was when he tried to smother me in my sleep — prompting my mother to have him declared insane and shipped off. It was pretty dicey stuff, none of which I can remember. The accident, apparently, involved him trying to cut his own ears off at dinner; to stop the voices. My mother relayed all this information carefully, as though she thought I might explode or something. The truth was; I was not particularly interested. When you live almost your entire life thinking someone you can’t remember is dead, only to find out otherwise; it is not as emotionally distressing as you’d think; he’s still dead to me. I think my mother was both relieved and somewhat confused by my reaction – or lack thereof. Steve understood, though; maybe it’s an age thing or a gender thing. Either way, I’ve still never seen my father (visits are discouraged, as “strangers” upset him), and so life continued as normal.

I’d basically forgotten about my father as the years went by, until a month ago. My mother called my dorm to let me know that he had passed away; apparently he killed himself, but there was an enquiry into possible abuse. This information did intrigue me. Studying journalism had opened my eyes to the injustices of the world, and my father’s death happened to coincide with a story we had to research about an elderly couple that were abused in their retirement home, and how family and friends did not know of it for a few years, because they had both suffered strokes (as a result of the abuse) and could not talk — or would not. It’s a sick world we live in. Following this story, my lecturer informed us that we were all to write and research an in-depth piece on some form of social injustice. The story would count as a major part of our final grade, and we were to use the upcoming vacation as an opportunity to do field work. I was pretty excited to be playing the part of investigative journalist. When I heard about my father’s situation, I decided to investigate the goings on of mental hospitals; how patients who are denied visitors and thus forgotten by society are treated. It seemed to be the perfect project.

So there we were, in the library researching paranoid schizophrenia and other such illnesses, when Steve brought up my father. I was more than a little interested in what I read. There were so many different aspects from the well-known and over dramatised “hearing voices” or seeing people that didn’t exist, to the equally popular “split-personality disorder”. It was all part of a disease that an estimated 12% of the world’s population suffered from, exact causes unknown. Treatment varied from light therapy and medication, to electro-shock therapy, to constant sedation. Many cases were untreatable -like I said: dicey stuff.

Steve was adamant that all this research was morbid, and would play tricks on my mind. I agreed with him to a point; but it also fascinated me. Having taken a semester of psychology in my first year, I was definitely in my element. After too many hours of reading and noting everything about mental illnesses, we decided to call it a night. It was the last day of term, and Steve and I had plans to drive back home tomorrow. I’d need to pay a visit to the mental institution to do some interviews too.

We found out, however, that the chances of an interview were beyond slim. I decided, after hanging up the phone, that there was definitely something fishy going on; I’d not even used my real name (the associations with my father were to be avoided at all costs) but I was told it was strictly against hospital policy. I stared at the phone, feeling something great slip through my fingers. Steve looked as disappointed as I felt, when he suddenly said, “We need a plan.” I nodded slowly, thinking. My journalistic mind was ticking over, thinking about elaborate schemes of breaking in and seizing files. When I relayed these ideas to Steve he laughed and told me I had seen too many movies. I nodded, embarrassed that I brought it up. I was wondering if it was too late to find a new story when Steve smiled. “I have the perfect plan,” he said, “but I don’t know if you’ll like it.”

“You want me to get admitted?” I asked, not sure if he was kidding around or just plain crazy. He nodded. “You don’t have to go killing someone or anything. Remember, these hospitals have different sections. You call in and say you’re depressed and you think you’re a danger to yourself, blah blah. You need help for a few days, and would like to stay there. That way, you get to use your real name; they’ll think it has something to do with the death of your dead — that it’s pushed you over the edge.” Steve looked at me, hopeful, smiling broadly.

I shook my head. “There’s no way that would work, Steve; you’re crazy!” That was when, for what felt like the millionth time in my life, Steve convinced me using sheer brilliance. He produced an article (though it read more like an advertisement) about depression in teens and young adults. The only important passage, however, was located at the bottom, near a telephone number. “If you or anyone you know needs help, please don’t hesitate to call this number and arrange a visit with a doctor.” I laughed; it was perfect. Now all we had to do was make it work.

When my mother called to ask about my research (into the abuse of circus elephants) I told her it was going well; I’d been allowed to visit animal rehabilitation centres and would be undercover for a few days. She seemed satisfied and impressed by this, as I told her I’d call her in a week or so. Using Steve’s story as my cover (I knew my mother well enough to know she would have a fit if she know what I was really up to) I asked Steve when he planned on doing his own research. He spent so much time with me that he hadn’t started working on his own story. This wasn’t really new; the guy was pretty much a genius. He’d spend all his spare time hanging around with me (his parents were basically uninterested in him and let him do whatever he wanted to) never working or studying, but really just watching me do it; and then somehow he would do fine in all his tests and exams. It was strange that he never tired of being my shadow, though we were pretty similar, and I was damn grateful I had him. We were sleeping in some cheap motel which I paid for (Steve may be bright but he’s dirt poor, so I end up paying for everything) and had just called and arranged a meeting for myself and a doctor; I had informed the nurse that Steve would be bringing me. I was pretty excited that it had (so far) gone down so well; I had expected a hiccup, but as usual Steve’s plan worked out. I wondered what it would be like staying there for a few days, feigning depression; it would be the first time I would truly be on my own. I guess that’s a bit pathetic, my being 21 and everything. Steve didn’t seem too worried either way.

We arrived at the hospital on time for my appointment. As I paid the taxi driver, Steve started walking up to the main entrance. When I caught up with him I examined the place; it looked pretty nice. No barbed wire or grey skies with lightning. I realised I’d been expecting the Hollywood version. Instead, an old brick building (three stories with many windows) was surrounded by lawns and flowerbeds; the occasional person walking about or sitting on a bench. Somewhat relieved, I continued along with Steve, as we entered the building.

The interior was less glamorous than the exterior, but still respectable. It looked and smelled like an ordinary hospital: pale green walls and linoleum tiles on the floor that made our shoes squeak. The reception and corridors seemed to be deserted (no nurses or patients) with the exception of the nurse at the desk, busy with some paperwork. She looked up at me and smiled broadly. “May I help you?”

I smiled back, feeling less sure of myself and said, “We have an appointment with Dr Spalding.”

“We?” she asked, her eyebrows raised. I had forgotten Steve.

“Yes, sorry,” I said, turning towards him, “This is my friend Steve; I mentioned to Dr Spalding that he would be bringing me.” She looked at me carefully, ignoring Steve (who in turn ignored her after a small wave and smile).

“I see,” she said. “Dr Spalding hadn’t mentioned that.” Her voice was stiff, and she seemed to be avoiding my eyes. She stood up. “I’ll tell the doctor you’ve arrived. Have a seat over there.” She pointed to a line of white plastic chairs against the wall, and when I turned to thank her she had already disappeared, her shoes tapping and squeaking along the floor.

“What’s with her?” I asked Steve, who shrugged. He seemed to be pretty miserable, and distracted, looking down the corridor after the nurse.

After a few silent minutes, the nurse returned followed by two men. She pointed us out to the men, and then left again. The first man looked at me and said, “William? I’m Dr Spalding – we spoke on the phone?”

I nodded, standing up, my hand outstretched. “Thanks for meeting us,” I said.

Dr Spalding nodded, and indicated the man next to him, “This is my associate, Dr Kline. He was one of the doctors working with your father.”

Dr Kline shook my hand, “I’m very sorry for your loss.”

I shook my head and turned to Steve, who had remained seated. “This is my friend Steve, he brought me here.”

The doctors exchanged glances, and Kline nodded, a curious look on his face. Spalding, ignoring Steve (who was still, for some strange reason, angry and quiet) said, “Well, if you will just follow me,” he paused, turning back and saying, “You may ask Steve to come along too.” The doctors walked down the corridor, Steve and I following them, silently.

Dr Spalding led us into his office – I noticed his name on the door – while Kline proceeded past it. There was a large desk with two stately looking armchairs behind it. “Please, sit. Dr Kline will return shortly; he has gone to fetch the tape recorder – we need it for all interviews.” He smiled and indicated the chairs before us. I sat, indicating to Steve that he should do the same. Dr Spalding watched me closely – unnervingly – while I did this, and Steve sat looking decidedly sulky. Maybe he thought this plan was not working, or he was finally getting tired of everyone ignoring him. Whatever the reason, I turned to face the doctor, who had taken his seat, and stared at him expectantly. He had produced a notebook, and was scribbling in it already; I hadn’t even said anything yet. I was about to ask him what happened next when Dr Kline appeared, carrying a file, mobile phone, and recorder. He set the file down carefully in front of Dr Spalding, and then stood behind him, in the corner of the room.

Dr Spalding thanked Dr Kline, and cleared his throat. “So, William,” he said, “I understand from our phone conversation that you have been feeling depressed since the death of your father.” I nodded, trying to look sad, all the while excitement building up within me. “I have his file here,” Spalding continued, his hand resting on the file on the desk. My heart nearly stopped. A look at his file would be perfect for my report; my luck was changing. “I thought perhaps you would have some questions; it is also why I have asked Dr Kline to be present, as he knew your father best. However, before we get to that I have a few questions to ask you; standard protocol for someone in your situation, you understand.”

I nodded, wondering what the situation was; I was sure these kinds of visits were nothing extraordinary. They had an ad in the paper, for crying out loud. I looked at the man in front of me, waiting for him to continue. “Did these feeling of depression only start with the knowledge of your father’s death? You didn’t feel depressed or … odd before then?”

I shook my head, “No,” I said, “I guess it was the idea that my mother lied to me for so long; like I didn’t deserve to know. It’s quite a harsh thing to find out, suddenly.” He nodded, scribbling in his notebook. Kline remained silent, unmoving.


“And how did you handle the news? Did you cope; did you have a support system?”

I rattled my brain, trying to think of the right answer. I couldn’t admit that I didn’t care – it would blow my chances. I looked at Steve for support, and said, “Well, Steve helped a lot – he was there for me. We’re pretty close. He gets me.” Spalding nodded again, scribbling furiously. Kline shifted his weight.

“And how long have you and Steve been friends, exactly?”

I looked at Steve again, who said, “Eight years.”

I nodded and repeated, “Eight years now.”

Another nod accompanied by more scribbling. “How did you meet?” I wondered what this had to do with my fake depression, when I said, “We were both new in high school – we had moved and Steve had been transferred.”

Spalding looked at Kline, who in return stared at me, a sad look on his face. “Would you say Steve has been a good friend to you — a positive influence?”

This question threw me, and I said, “Look, Doc, I don’t mean to be rude but I don’t see what this has got to do with my being depressed; Steve just came to drop me off. If you want to know so much about him, why don’t you just ask him?” I was a little annoyed at these doctors, speaking to me like I needed to be an interpreter, and at Steve for letting me do it.

Dr Spalding nodded, looking at me. “You’re right, I apologise. Steve, what do you think is the cause of William’s depression?” I looked at Steve, hoping he would come up with a good answer, but he was silent; staring at the floor.

“Steve? Don’t be like that; answer the doctor.” Still Steve said nothing; looking at the floor, his face reddening. I opened my mouth to say something when he suddenly screamed, jumped up and stormed out the room. I was speechless, staring after him in surprise.

Both doctors were looking at me; seemingly undaunted by Steve’s reaction (I guessed that they saw worse on a daily basis) when Dr Kline said slowly, “William? Has Steve left?” I looked up at him, confused. What kind of mind games was he playing? I mean, that was a pretty dramatic exit.

“I’m sorry?” I ask, thinking I must have misheard him.

“Steve,” he says gently, “has he left? You’re staring at the door.” I look from him to Spalding, angry that they were messing around like that.

“Are you kidding me? I think it’s pretty obvious that when someone gets up and shouts, then walks out slamming the door that they have left.”

I start to stand up, about to leave myself (I read somewhere that Doctors are often the craziest bunch – being surrounded by mentally ill people all day rubs off on them) when Dr Spalding says, “William, I would like you to listen to something.” He has the recorder in his hand, his finger on the rewind button. I stood there, waiting for someone to admit they were playing a prank on me; utterly confused.

“Yeah, sure, whatever.” I said.

Dr Spalding set the recorder down in front of me, and pressed play. I listened to the tape then, both doctors watching me. I heard Dr Kline enter and set the recorder down with a thud, and Dr Spalding begin asking me questions. The tape was perfectly clear; every noise was audible. When it got to Spalding asking me how long we’d been friends, I heard only my voice: “Eight years.” Steve must have been muttering; I shook my head and continued listening. We were reaching the end of the tape; Spalding’s voice was addressing Steve, and then there was silence. No door slamming or yelling; just a pause, my pleading Steve to respond, and then Doctor Kline’s voice: “William, has Steve left?”

At this point I became truly angry; what the hell game were they playing? Dr Spalding leaned closer to me and asked, softly, “William, do you know that some mental illnesses, like schizophrenia, are genetic?” I stood up, enraged. “OK, this isn’t funny anymore! Did Steve put you up to this?” I was yelling, as I realised Steve would never do that. Maybe they were playing a prank on Steve. I started walking towards the door, and yanked it open, yelling “Steve! Where are you?” I was standing in the corridor, people coming out of offices to stare at me; doctors and nurses.

I looked back into the room, at the two doctors now standing in the doorway, as Dr Kline said, “William, I’m sorry. There is no Steve. He doesn’t exist.” It was impossible; Steve may be odd; an outsider, a loner often ignored – but he was real; he existed! Where the hell was he?

I was yelling at Doctor Spalding, accusing him of luring me into some sick game, when suddenly Dr Kline seized my arm and injected something into it, saying, “Don’t worry, son. This will help you calm down.” I was outraged that they would do something like this to me but I could feel myself getting drowsy and then I was asleep.

I was waking up, in a very bright room, when I realised I was restrained. I heard voices speaking from what could have been the room next door; a man’s and a woman’s. I strained to hear their words, and recognised the speakers as my mother and Doctor Spalding. He was asking her about Steve. Had she met him? No. had anyone else met him? No. How long had I known him? A few years. Had I had violent outburst before? No, but there had been complaints at school about odd behaviour, talking to himself; terribly antisocial. My brain filled with the scenes from earlier and I screamed in rage. I could hear shoes squeaking on linoleum as people hurried closer; as well as many voices.

The door of the room burst open and Dr Spalding appeared before me. “Easy, William! You need to calm down; you’ll hurt yourself like this and we don’t want that, do we?” I stopped; he was right. No point hurting myself. “Good man,” he continued, “now you and I need to talk. I asked you if you knew whether Schizophrenia was genetic? Well it is, William. It is; and judging by your “friend” Steve – who we have confirmed does not exist, we have reason to believe that you have it. I’m sorry, but you’ll have to stay here until we get a better hold on this thing. Now, I’ve spoken to your mother and she’s given permission to admit you, so when you calm down, we’ll move you to your room. If not, we’re going to have to sedate you again, do you understand?” He looked genuinely concerned. For the first time since I was a child, I could feel my eyes filling with tears. It wasn’t fair; it wasn’t right. I nodded. Spalding sighed and said, “Good, now I’m going to get some orderlies, and we’ll move you to your room.”