Essay 41: Lightning Field
Stuff happens to some people more than others. Events circle around them impatiently, waiting to strike. I used to have a friend who for this story is called Tom. Things were always happening to him, with a frequency and an intensity I could not understand. Why was it that every time Tom went to the shops alone, he would bump into someone he knew and that person would turn out, always, to have huge quantities of drugs on them? He would appear three days later, all covered in glitter and smelling slightly burned, needing a lie down. Why did he find so much weird shit like guitars and love letters on the road? He would just look down and there by his feet would be a taxidermied hare staring up at him with fine glassy eyes. He would wipe his hand on the side of his jeans and pick it up by the ear, and you would find it in his boot many weeks later. Tom, you would say, where did you get this? Found it, he would say, in the road. Tom would lose his phone and then go to the Spur three months later and find it in the bathroom. I guess I just left it here, he would say. Weird. He would shake his head once or twice, a sort of pro forma acknowledgement of how frankly bizarre it actually was, and then never speak of it again. It would just drift out of his memory, finding no permanent place amongst the many incredible things that happened to him. Remember that time, Tom, that you found your phone at the Spur? No, he would say, I don’t think that was me.
I once opened the door to find Tom standing there covered in dirt like Beatrix Kiddo in Kill Bill 2 when she digs her way out the grave. Just the dustiest man I had ever seen. Gravel in his hair pattering down onto the floor. I fell, he said, down a hill. Doesn’t matter which hill. It’s over now. He once fell asleep and woke up to find a cat he did not know having kittens in the corner of his bedroom. He was attacked several times by bats, and bitten by an animal he was almost sure was an ordinary dog, except with the ears of a rabbit. Just that kind of stuff, just constantly.
He tried to be normal, and in fact believed with perfect sincerity that he was normal, but everyone else could see the crackles of fizzy electricity around his head. The rest of us could see that he was vibrating on a significantly different frequency, that he was built on an ancient burial ground, that if he was a fish he would be one of those deep underwater ones, glowing with an eerie and magnetic light.
Tom. I hadn’t thought about him properly in a long time, but I’ve been in Joburg for the past week and he has been constantly on my mind. Tom, all covered in dust, walking round and round my brain. It’s not that he has any special connection to this city. None of his family lives here or anything like that. It’s more that if the city of Johannesburg got turned into a human being, it would be Tom. Another way of putting it is that the only time I have the faintest idea of what it’s like to be Tom is when I am here. I feel normal in all other places, and then I get to Joburg and feel sure that I will be electrocuted at any minute, or a horse will charge into the house, or the washing machine will burst into flame. It is not an unpleasant sensation, at all, but it is a weird one.
I feel vulnerable to lightning, in Joburg. I suddenly believe in ghosts. Any kind of thing could happen in the sky above Parkhurst and I would accept it. This city has an excess of electricity, and it is fizzing around everyone’s heads all the time, and they act like this is perfectly normal, but they are lying to me and themselves.
Yesterday, my cousin and I were driving back home and a car reversed sharply out the driveway in front of us. It moved diagonally across the road, getting faster and faster, and we both watched as it backed straight into a lamppost. Drunk guy, I thought, and was about to say so when my cousin said, Weird. There’s nobody in that car. The alarm started going off, and a garage door opened across the road. The owner of the car came out into the street, looking only mildly peeved at the sight of his car backed up against a lamppost. Fuck, he said, I must of not pulled up the handbrake. He looked inside the window and shook his head. Nope, he said, handbrake’s up. Weird. I thought briefly about screaming. You can’t just say it’s weird when a ghost gets in the car and drives it backwards into a tree.
If I had been in Cape Town, this would have been a big deal. I feel like it could have been in the newspaper. But I’ve been in Joburg for three days, only, and already it seemed sort of normal.