This man was there to install three doors at my house, after the massive renovation and addition. Okay, perhaps to say massive is a bit of an overstatement. But it felt massive at the time, after weeks of not being able to sleep without the help of at least two glasses of whiskey, dealing with builders, suppliers and opportunists who hang out at the hardware store all day, and look to take advantage when they see my incredibly exhausted face and think they can get something from me. One of those vultures actually managed to sell me plastering sand he had picked up from some abandoned mine, in my moment of weakness. Needless to say that it was useless as plastering sand, and my builders never let me live that down, as they took every opportunity to remind me. Apparently they had to work extra hard to make that disaster of chemical filled sand do the job. And I half expected that they would charge me more the way they complained. They got on my nerve so much that everyday I prayed on the day in which they would finish and leave. I even wished that I had never started the damn project in the first place, I wished that I could just leave and never come back, not for the first time, but this time it took on a profounder meaning, like not only wishful thinking but something that I could actually do. So after all the frustrations, the trials and the errors, the confrontations with ugly men, Paul was a welcome change.
His skin was smooth as if he had spend all of his life indoors, and his lips were pink and fresh like one who has never let anything foul pass through them. Looking at them made me lick my own lips involuntarily.
I could not recognize his accent when he spoke. His Zulu made it obvious that he was a foreigner. Then he got on a phone with who I assumed was a friend of his and spoke a language I recognized, not because I knew it, but because I am currently studying French, and once you acquaint yourself with one romance language, you can recognize them all. And I recognized immediately that he was speaking Portuguese. Most people say that French is a beautiful language. And I suppose I began learning the language because of that perception, and the cultural benefits of course, the art, the literature francais. But Portuguese has a different kind of beauty. It is like a dance performed with words. A fiesta made up of flamboyant sentences. Although I can’t really tell if Portuguese sentences are indeed flamboyant, it just sounds like it. It sounds like making love at the beach while a dancing throng of naked women surround you, it sounds like music sang by the gods, it sounds like Cesaria Evora singing Sangue de Beirona, it reminds me of Frelimo and the struggle in the bush, Che Guevara and Cuban soldiers fighting along side Angolan and South African freedom fighters, trying to figure out which language between Spanish and Portuguese has more music in it. The only language that made the ugliness of war sound beautiful, not like the nihilistic and fatalistic French saying which goes; cést la guerre! When faced with the unpalatable realities of war. I suppose that is why the French find it so easy to overlook atrocities. And they have been known to commit a few during their time in Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Cameroon, Cote D’ivore, Vietnam, Senegal; pretty much all of their colonies. And this has troubled me for some time ever since I have become more acquainted with Francophone Africa. The question of why former French colonies seem to have more conflict than other former colonies. I suppose you could say the same about the Portuguese colonies. I suppose, unlike the English, those who speak a Latin based language are more than likely to let their passions run wild. This is just my opinion. Anyway, I was speaking about Paul. I found out that he was speaking Portuguese on the phone, or at least a bastardized form of it. And I asked him about it. And he told me that he was from Angola.
“So you could hear what I was saying?” he said.
“Only some of what you were saying. I know a bit of French you see. So that’s why I recognized the language.”
“Oh, I see. No that’s good. Its always a good idea to know other peoples languages. Like you will never know where you will end up tomorrow, who you will be with. In which country you will end up. Like look at me, when I came in this country I didn’t know Zulu, and if I had not learned the language, I would never have been able to make a living you see…”
As he was speaking, I had this inexplicable curiosity that assailed me. It was more than a just a need, it was an incredible deep desire to know him, to know his story, to know where he was born and who were the two people that were responsible for bringing him into this world, who his siblings were, and the names of all those who were fortunate enough to play with him when he was a child. I wanted to know about the innocence of his youth and the flowering of his adulthood. I could tell just by looking at him that his journey into adulthood had been much more rapid than mine, perhaps that was what fascinated me about him, about how anyone could maintain the innocence of youth while the world had forced him to grow up way too quickly.
I wanted to know so much, and to ask him everything. But I did not ask anything at all. Instead I settled for the poor drags of my imagination. But I found that I did not know nearly enough about the recent Angola to even attempt to reconstruct his life. All that came to mind at the moment were the words of Cesaria Evora singing ‘Petit pays, je l’aime beaucoup.’ And just by looking at his face I too could imagine myself loving the small country of Angola simply because he came from there.
A few weeks later I found myself in the middle of the CBD in Joburg, drinking with strangers who I suspected would attempt to rob me as soon as I got too drunk, or as soon as it got dark. The bottle of whiskey that I had bought was coming to an end, and the Zulu guy who sat next to me was regaling me with stories of his rural adventures. And I could see how their eyes shifted suspiciously when they looked at each other. But I didn’t care, even if I was faced with the possibility of being killed before the night retired shyly behind the fierce onslaught of a new day. Was I prepared to die? Perhaps. Most of all I was tired of living a safe life inside my four walls. Even if it meant playing too close to the open mouth of the crocodile, knowing very well that it may snap its ancient jaws around my neck at any moment.
Then the girl I had been with, that I had originally come to see in this strange place, Hazel, send me a message to ask if I had arrived home safe. I told her that I was still there and was hanging out with some guys next to the hotel. She flipped, told me that I needed to leave immediately.
“Maybe you can come back.” I said, “And we can spend the night together.”
“If you want,” she said “but its gonna cost you.”
I don’t care about the cost. I am surrounded by vultures. I am beyond caring about anything at all. But I didn’t tell her that.
She told me that she was bringing her friend with, just so that she could see that she was safe. It turned out that the friend was a he, or at least she used to be. She was in transition. And as soon as I saw her all kinds of ideas got in my head.
Hazel dragged me by the hand like a petulant child. And I found that I did not mind at all.
“Do you know who those guys are. If I did not come to fetch you you would have found yourself in some dark alley tonight. What is wrong with you?”
“Nothing is wrong with me, I just didn’t feel like going home that’s all, so will your friend be joining us?”
“What? Well if you don’t mind the extra cost. She was not planning to but I will ask her. She was just here to check that I will be okay and who I am with. Wait let me introduce you.”
Her name was Imogen, clearly not her real name, and she had the biggest penis I had ever seen. And she too was from Angola. It was like some mystery feeding my fascination with a strange country which stood out like an ancient legend in my imagination. I remembered the men who used to sit in my uncle’s living room, speaking Portuguese and drinking Castle lager. Reminiscing, probably, speaking of the days of struggle and war, the dark days of planting mines across the land. Mines that ended up stealing the lives and legs of both friend and foe alike, and of the child soldiers who took a misstep.
C’est pas juste une guerre. C’est un homme normal qui tuer les autre hommes. C’est les enfants et les femme qui sont sans abri, perdu dans la monde, sans nourriture, sans l’amour. Dans le guerre, les gens perdu leur ame.
“So what made you leave your country.” I asked after an intense session involving tangled limbs, and exploring territories I never thought I would set foot in.
“It’s a long story.” she said.
Both of them had crystal pipes which I assumed they used to smoke meth. Lighting the bulbous end and pulling smoke from the other. I watched with fascination as Hazel cooled the glass with her hand, or at least I assumed that is what she was doing, with her delicate fingers spread out. She saw me looking at her and asked if I wanted to smoke.
“Cigarettes and alcohol, those are my drugs of choice. I could take a drag just to know what its like, but I think I know where that decision will lead me, I have seen it often enough, the problem is often not the drug, but that initial decision that get you started.”
They both looked at me quizzically. I got the feeling that they both knew what I was talking about, they have had to live that decision. If they didn’t it was only because they were too young to understand, to fully grasp the darkness that lay ahead of them. Hazel was 20 years old, and Imogen was 26. Imogen I suspected had more than a clue of what I was talking about, and in her eyes I could see that it was she who had got Hazel hooked, if for nothing else than the fact that she was not only easier to control that way, but also because she needed the company of a person who would not judge her. I imagine that as someone who was born a man she must have had many judgemental eyes upon her. Perhaps that was the reason she did not want to talk about where she had come from. And now the city of Joburg was the best place for her to be. Because Joburg, like most big cities, offers people anonymity, while also allowing them the rare freedom to be themselves. The city can also warp your personality, it is a heaven which can destroy.
We spent a few more hours exploring each others bodies, before I fell asleep exhausted. The two of them did not sleep though, they stayed awake the whole night. I was woken up a few times by the glaring light, and the memory of another place came to me, where the lights stayed on the whole night and I could have given anything for a bit of darkness, even my life. In the early hours of the morning I heard cats crying, they could have been fighting or fucking, although I suspected it was the latter, and the whole thing had a dream like hue to it, and I did not quite feel like myself in this strange room, and this strange bed, and these strange people in the room with me, almost like a man spending his first night in jail.
When I left them in the morning it was not fulfilment that I felt, neither was it the emptiness that comes with sleeping with people I knew I was never going to see again. There was certainly a kind of sadness, and a deep curiosity gnawing at my heart. I wanted to know hazel but at the same time I felt like I already knew her, like a girl you meet in a dream but have never met, and it felt like I was connected directly with her soul and therefore can have no further knowledge of her. It was Imogen who fascinated me especially. It was not only the territory of her body that fascinated me, and the territory of her mind, but it was her whole being. Like Paul, I wanted to know who her parents were, and who her grandparents were, and the whole tree of her family, like trying to collect fragments of her personality and see if they fit. And in collecting these fragments perhaps I can fit them into my own personality, my own being. But I knew this was impossible. And this gave a me a rare kind of sadness. But I could still explore her world and her origin using these imperfect tools of my imagination.