Rosa Lyster

Cape Town, South Africa

Category: An Essay A Week

Essay 47: City of Daughters

Just yesterday. Driving to the pool, early. An old Destroyer song is playing very quietly, and this song has a story about the end of a friendship attached to it, which should lead to a story about three of us sitting outside the 7-11, high as kites, and me telling a stranger that he should let his girlfriend dump him. Given time enough, the story that is only vaguely linked to the Destroyer song would include the subsequent trials of the stranger, who turned out to be someone we knew, later. It would also include a part where I stand up and stretch my hands over my head and say This is how high I was. It’s important that you understand. It’s not, actually, important. Given world enough, the story would include what I was wearing, and the fact that my jersey would later resurface tied around the waist of a person I will probably always be frightened of.

I open my mouth and think that maybe I’ll start, but then we drive past a house, and it’s sort of Peach, and something funny with the columns (too square? Too many?), but mostly the issue is the two animal heads mounted on the verandah wall. A huge sort of T-Rex sized wildebeest head, and then a more straightforward sized other kind of buck. They’ve been stuck to the wall so that they are forced to stare down at the passing traffic. There are a number of directions to take, here. For example what is inside the house, if this is what he thought to put on the otherwise barren verandah. For example does he have a grown-up daughter. For example what is he trying to tell us. Neither of us have ever seen it before, but I take this to be an oversight. A man doesn’t just one day wake up and drag a dinosaur-sized stuffed animal head out into the open air and think Here. This is especially the case if the man is living in an extremely peach house. The man who agrees to live in a house of peach is not the man who later decides to send the public a message via taxidermy. I just don’t think it works this way. The two things have to happen together, or not at all, and the paint on the house looks old. The whole set-up has probably been like that for years, and I am only just now noticing it. I’ll tell people about it, maybe, and will realise that there’s a connection to be drawn between this man and the one on Flower Street. The terrible stuff he used to paint on the walls outside his house, like ABSOLUTELY NO HAWKERS and NO BEGGARS EVER and a lot of exclamation marks, and the implied threat of violence. I used to drive past that house and think There is probably a law against this, but then remember that I don’t know anything about property.

We are at the pool now, and Dan Bejar is still hissing away, which means that all this has taken less than three minutes. 2:29 seconds, actually. It’s a short song.

Then cap on, goggles on, and then waving at the girlfriend of someone I have never actually met, but that doesn’t matter because this is Durban and after a while you just start to assume that you are friends. She knows my dad. There is a spot for us on the far end of the pool but on this end there is a man who looks exactly like Slavoj Zizek, doing lengths with his high-school aged daughter. This is not normally the kind of thing I would say, and it’s not like I could give you a physical description of any other famous Marxist besides from actual Karl, and it’s not like I have even read Zizek, but I know what he looks like, and he looks exactly like the man in the pool. Besides from an honestly uncanny facial similarity,     he possesses the main quality that a Zizek impersonator needs to have, which is that he looks like he is smoking all the time, even when he is not holding a cigarette. I would say especially when he is not holding a cigarette.

We do our laps on our side of the pool, and we talk about how we our doing our laps, and then we get out at the same time as Zizek and his daughter. He is actually smoking a cigarette now, as well as continuing to impress upon us his aura of being A Smoking Man. Really it’s like he is smoking two cigarettes. There is a word for this, and I bet you Zizek would know what it is. He is wrapped in a former Soviet-bloc looking towel (huge and rough and floral), and he is staring at the water he has just emerged from. His daughter is kind of circling around him in an anxious way, and then I go into the change room and she comes in after me. It’s only when we are together in the change room that I look at this girl and see that what I thought was anxiety, about being late for school or whatever, is actually something else. This is a girl who needs looking after. She doesn’t go to the kind of school I had first assumed for her. The girl comes and stands pretty close to me, and asks me some questions. They are very easy to answer. She goes off to another corner of the change-room and asks another woman another very easy to answer question. This woman, though, for whatever reason, doesn’t answer back in a nice way. She says What? And then she says I have no idea what you’re talking about. The girl repeats her question, and this woman again says What?  I am trying to be brave enough to say something, and then the girl comes tearing around the corner with her head down and then she is out the door.

I am standing there dripping water onto the floor – no towel – and then the woman comes into my bit of the change-room and sits down on the slatty wooden bench and just looks at me. I want to tell her how horrible I think she has just been to this girl, and also why are you staring at me so much. I look at her back, and I see that there is something messed up happening around her eyebrows. They are all painted on in a wrong way, and there is something going on with her hairline too. This is not to suggest that all people with fucked-up eyebrows are lonely, but I know what loneliness looks like, and it looks exactly like this woman sitting opposite me. It’s immediately impossible to say anything to her about the girl, or really to say anything at all. I change as quick as I can, and I can feel this woman just staring at me. As I wrap my goggles around my wrist, she clears her throat.  Where does one get shorts like that? She talks to me as if we have known each other for years. I wonder if she has a daughter. I tell her the short version (second-hand, a million years old). I think about the long version on the way home, which is that these shorts were given to me by the person who stopped being my friend, right at the beginning of this story. He used to buy me clothes sometimes, which is I suppose an eccentric thing to do, but I have continued to wear the hell out of them for six years now. I was wearing them that time outside the 7/11. He used to pick me up from my parents’ house, in his parents’ car, and I would give him mix CDs I had made. Nearly all of them featured the old Destroyer song from the beginning of this story. Sometimes I’d just put it on twice. We drove around and around, but never once past the peach house with the animals mounted to the verandah wall. I take this to be an oversight.


Essay 46: More or Less Unsuccessfully

Novels about writers are a risky business. It’s fine, I think, if one avoids them altogether. There are some I like very much (London Fields, Pale Fire, all the Philip Roth ones, The Tragedy of Arthur); there are some which are understood by common consensus to be good and yet you could not pay me even a million bucks to read them (The Golden Notebook, The Savage Detectives, Death in Venice, Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter); and then there are some where I don’t care what anyone says, I feel sure that they are Bad (Elizabeth Costello, Diary of a Bad Year, Lady Oracle, The Information).

The worst is when the novel is chiefly about how much it sucks to have to write a novel. I managed three paragraphs of an article about Ben Lerner’s second book, and then I got to the words “seemingly obscure, self-reflexive subplot” and had to close my eyes for a while. “Seemingly obscure.” “Self-reflexive.” “Subplot.” What kind of life is this.  I pushed the magazine away from me with one finger, and went for a swim. Jokes. I read the whole review, and then I read like six others, with what the punters refer to as Mounting Irritation. Maybe it’s a good book, but I will never know, because it is a novel about a person trying (“more or less unsuccessfully” oh god oh god my worst) to write a novel, and therefore I can’t read it. Therefore I can’t understand why anyone would read it.

This is a conviction I try to remain firm on, but of course I waver. Of course the whole things falls to pieces straight away, actually, because one of my favourite books ever is Wonder Boys. Wonder Boys is mainly about a man trying More or Less Unsuccessfully to write a novel. No getting around it. It is a classic of that lamentable genre, and has been in my permanent Top Five since I read it.

I have whole bits that I remember off by heart, but the bit I have been thinking about recently is when James Leer (young, tormented, pretend-Catholic, writer) is being dragged out of the auditorium at a writer’s festival:  “James Leer emerged from the auditorium with his arms outspread and draped across the shoulders of Crabtree, on his right, and on his left across those of the young man with the goatee who’d dropped by during office hours to let me know that I was a fraud … Although he looked a little queasy he seemed to be walking steadily enough, and I wondered if he weren’t just enjoying the ride.”

James says “’The doors made so much noise!’”, and “’This is so embarrassing! You guys had to carry me out!’” The narrator asks Crabtree if James is all right, and Crabtree rolls his eyes and says, “He’s fine. He’s narrating.

It’s a favourite hobby of mine, narrating. Here is a story called “Three Incredible Boys in the Unbelievable Hills”. It has a bit where a dear friend of mine is wandering around and she is saying ‘I can’t do this. I feel like a pervert. My camera feels like The Eye.” Here is a story called “I Took Drugs, Although I Did Not Intend To.” This story starts “You know like in Scarface? Well.”  There is a story called “The Haunted Nursery School” and if you got a kick out of that one then I have “The Abandoned Nurse’s Home” lined up and ready to go. Here is a story called “All of Us at the Same Fucking Restaurant Would Durban Ever Just Give it a Rest.” A story called “I Was Kind.” These are all stories that have made themselves available to me in the last month or so. The nice thing about them is that they introduce themselves. The first thing happens, and then the story wriggles up and sticks out its hand. It tells me its name (“The Story of the Opal Ring”) and points out sensory details that will be good for later (sometimes when you projectile vomit it actually comes out your nose a bit). By the time things really get going, I am already standing a little bit back. By the time it’s over, the thing is all written down. I have always been this way, and so have most of the people I love. We narrate. Is this what is known as a Coping Mechanism? Do you really need a mechanism to cope with the time you threw up in the road?

I don’t know if I have ever really understood the opening sentence of “The White Album”, where Didion says “we tell ourselves stories in order to live” – I know what she means, but the register is too urgent for me to really get a grip on it. When she says “live”, I don’t think she means “have a functional and groovy adult existence.” I think she means “get through the day”. I think she means “We tell ourselves stories in order to not die.” I don’t know if I understand what this would feel like. The first line of “The White Album” is a bit of a trick, anyway, in the second paragraph she modifies this statement, and that’s where the essay really begins. It describes the writer’s arrival at a point where her usual narratives cease to be useful to her. She is talking about the tail end of the 60s, and about her failure to make sense of it. Writing used to help, and then it didn’t. She is talking about a nervous breakdown.

She talks about what happens when stories fail us, and then the essay finishes, and then you think about the first sentence again. It sort of rings in your mind: if you don’t have a coherent narrative handy, you won’t be able to live. The end. I’ve been thinking about this a lot, and about James Leer being dragged out of the auditorium, and my own tendency to wring a story out of just about anything. It’s been bothering me, because some things have happened, lately, which resist narrative. I am talking about things that have happened to me, or to people I care about, or to people I don’t know but who I see in the news. Nothing so terrible (at least in my case), but strange and difficult in that it won’t be turned into a story. There are too many bits missing, or else the protagonist goes rogue, or else a whole lot of shit just happens in a row for no reason. The story is deeply unsatisfactory: it is no fun to tell, and hard to listen to.

“The White Album” stops short of suggesting what you are meant to do, exactly, when you have on your hands a story with no narrative. I have been thinking about this a lot, because I would very much like someone to tell me. Do you try and make it into a narrative? Do you just leave it? What happens if you just leave it? Will you get a nervous breakdown from doing that? The tone of “The White Album” suggests that no good can come of it. I would like to believe that this isn’t true and that, despite my natural inclination to make a story out of every time I go to the shops, even, nothing bad will happen if you leave some stuff alone for a while.

Essay 45: Drives Off In Van

I had a dream once where I was at a party, and this girl I knew came up and asked if I was involved with A Certain Person. Tell me, she said, are you having dealings with This Certain Man? She was wearing a bad outfit, the centrepiece of which was a pink waistcoat. I didn’t recognise it as bad in my dream. It was only when I woke up that I could see it was a terrible thing – made out of that kind of corduroy which is called wide-wale, and then big sassy buttons. This is something that comes up a lot, in my dreams – we are all always wearing the most wretched clothes, and getting away with it. I dreamt once that I got married in blue velvet dungarees and this old man told me I was the most beautiful bride he’d ever seen. I know, I said.

There were a lot of people at the dream party, but me and the girl were sort of tucked away in one corner, and she had angled her body so as to prevent me from escaping. She was all big and rangy, and suddenly wearing a crown. Tell, she said. She pointed to where The Certain Man was standing, and he smiled in a sick way and mouthed Oh Christ at me. It was very clear that he wanted me to lie. I wanted me to lie, too. This man was, in both my dream and in real life, an unsuitable person for me to be dealing with. This fact did not, in either my dream or real life, slow us down.

This is another recurring feature of my dreams, and I suppose of my actual life, where I find myself trapped in an absurd situation made much, much worse by the fact that it is entirely of my own devising. It’s always me, in dreams, who is saying we should go on that train ride, or go say hello to that vet over there, and then it’s always me who reaps the whirlwind. The train is on fire; the vet tries to kill us; the horses turn out to have rabies. It’s always my fault. Even when it’s not my fault, it is. Besides being basically an idiot, and thus liable to find myself in one kind of trouble or another, I am one of those people who was born guilty – I feel bad about everything. I can’t even blame it on religion, because I have none. I just am guilty, the way some people are funny or hard of hearing. I knew that this girl, for instance, was only bending to forces which were set in motion by my own idiot self. She had to come and be in my face at this party, because I had to be the kind of tool who would secretly be in love with that certain man, of all possible men in this sad world.

There was another problem as well, which was that the more I looked at this girl, the more I realised that actually that is my fucking terrible pink waistcoat you have on there, lady. She must have stolen it out my cupboard, I realised. Probably when me and the certain man were kissing, or having a fight. I didn’t feel that I could raise it with her. She had me trapped, and I knew that soon I would have no choice but to admit that yes, he and I were known to each other. I knew that things would get generally worse after that, and that no amount of her having stolen my waistcoat would fix it.

There didn’t seem to be any possibility of brazening it out. Despite the Oh Christing  that was going on over her shoulder, and despite the fact that I desperately wanted to lie, it seemed clear that she was going to weasel the facts out of me. She was as tall, now, as a famous basketball player, and her eyes were going a different colour.  Well, I said. I looked up into her face, and then down at my  right hand, and saw that I was holding keys. I looked at her face a bit more, and then down at my left hand, and saw that it was resting on the bonnet of a van. It was boxy and red, like what a cartoon postman drives.  This van belongs to me, I realised. Just this on its own made me feel better. It’s me who is the owner of this van. I chewed on this, for a little while, as the girl’s questions became more specific. Would I please have the kindness to tell her when, exactly, the two of us had started kissing and fighting? Would I at least have the common courtesy to print out every email we had ever sent each other?

It is difficult to convey how oppressed I felt, or how worried I was about being In Trouble. It is even harder to put across how happy I was when I realised that I could simply drive away in my van. I could just leave. I did. I climbed up into my own personal van and drove down the stairs of the house and out into the street. It took me about ten dream minutes to remember that I didn’t know how to drive a van, but I thought it would probably be all right.

Despite this being in my top three dreams I’ve ever had, I am unsure of its significance. Is it bad that I drove off in the van? Does me driving off in the van represent a rejection of adult responsibilities and a reluctance to face up to my own mistakes? OR is it more that me driving off in the van is me driving away from those burdens and expectations which late capitalism has forced upon us, and which make us so unhappy, and which lead to old people crying on massage tables because they are so lonely and otherwise bereft of human touch? Does driving off in the van make me a free bird, or a wicked little snake? Am I driving away from a necessary reckoning with the flaws that constitute my personality? Or am I driving down the stairs and into the road of saying yes to life, saying a particular yes to not caring what other people think?

I don’t know. These are complicated questions. I had that dream like eight years ago, and I still don’t know. “Drives off in van”, though, ended up as a sort of short hand, between my best friend and I. It came to signify a potent version of Fuck This, of looking around at whatever it is that is going on and realising that, actually, you do not need to participate. At least, it means realising that no one will put you in jail if you don’t. It is a balm for the naturally guilty soul.

I’ve been thinking about it a lot because I have spent the last month, about, attempting to drive off in my van. It has been my default response to all sorts of stuff.  I have not managed it every time – it gets way harder the older you get. Many more situations in which driving off in your van will not solve anything. Also, you won’t have a job at the end. Everyone will hate you. But I have had a few notable successes, just me with my foot on the gas, getting right the hell out of there. Someone will be talking to me, or trying to do a thing, but they can’t, see, because actually I am up there in my van and soon I will be driving right straight through their security gate. Zoom. Sometimes it can be a bus, like in Almost Famous or basically any movie that has a band in it. I cannot recommend it highly enough. I still don’t know how to drive a van, but I still think it will probably be all right.



Essay 44: All the Alfred Hitchcocks

Scene: Three people are sitting outside the movies, waiting to see a film about an Italian man that will turn out to be boring.  Four people, including me. They don’t know yet how much this movie sucks, how impossible it is to invest in anything that happens. Is the main character depressed, or do his weird sort of flat affect and black clothes hint at something more interesting, like maybe he is a murderer? How come at the end he lowers himself into a cement pit? Is it sad? Is it in Italy? Good luck getting answers to those questions, pal, and then further good luck with trying to tell them to me. I will never listen.

It is a nice evening. The three people are in high spirits. They are one woman and two men. The woman has nice hair and a joke on her t-shirt. The t-shirt is a bad colour. The joke is only funny if you care about who Gertrude Stein is. The first man is wearing what you can see is his Smart Shirt, which is maroon and with little stripes. The fourth person is sitting quite far away and so cannot confirm this without going up to him and seizing his wrist, but he seems to have a Bart Simpson watch on. He smiles with a lot of gum, and has a tic where when he laughs he immediately looks down afterwards at his watch, into the face of Bart Simpson. Into the face of almost certainly Bart Simpson. The second man is wearing a little straw fedora, sitting right back on his head. He has come here straight from Sport, and so is wearing flash tracksuit pants that cost like two million rand. There is a book sticking out of his gym bag. Again, the fourth person is sitting too far away to stake her life on this, but she knows that cover pretty well. The book is Fight Club. The fourth person doesn’t know anything about watches, actually, or indeed why she is focusing so much on them here, but she will stand by her assertion that the one on the second man’s arm is a cool, rich-person watch. She bets he has referred to it more than once as a “time-piece.”

The three people are talking about Alfred Hitchcock. The fourth person is drinking her wine and listening intently, trying not to crackle her packet of Fritos too much. She tries not to get distracted by how much she loves Fritos, and stops herself from taking out her phone and writing a text message to her friend Ben: “Imagine you could get sponsored by Fritos”. She listens.

Woman: (inaudible) really loved The Birds

Man: Mmm. Mmm. Have you seen Rear Window.

Woman: yes

Man: Mmm. Have you seen Vertigo.

Woman: yes

Man: Have you seen Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

Woman: I don’t think that’s him.

Man. Mmm. Have you seen Psycho.

Woman: Yes. My (inaudible) gave me a box-set of all the Alfred Hitchcock’s, so I’ve watched most of them I reckon.

Man: Have you seen Rebecca.

Woman: (gamely) I…yes.

And so on.


Man: Have you seen the movie about Alfred Hitchcock?

Woman: Yes

Man: No, the other one.

This went on for ages, and probably is going on right now. The fourth person cannot confirm this, however, because she died of being bored in the movie. Now, an experiment: Reading the dialogue above, which man would you guess it is? Would you say that the man speaking is Bart Simpson, or would you say it is The Timepiece?  There are a lot of people, probably, who wouldn’t feel confident in making a guess straight away. Not enough information, they would say. Where are you going with this etc. There is another whole lot of people who would say Jesus Christ I don’t care. However, I will lay my head on a block that a significant percentage of people would immediately say that it was The Timepiece. Yes? All the hallmarks, right? Being too confident and show-offy and pleased is the natural state of a man who is wearing bajillionaire sport pants and waving Fight Club in everyone’s face. People who guessed The Timepiece would take the above conversation to be a textbook case of mansplaining, which is when a man tells a woman about a thing she already knows. They would say that a little straw fedora is the natural headgear of the mansplainer. Yes?

No. It was Bart Simpson, of course. Obviously.

The point of this experiment, which is interesting only to me, is to work through the possibility that in the fever around the discovery of mansplaining as a concept, we have pushed aside certain important facts. Facts such as the existence of nerds. Facts such as there is such a thing as a know-it-all. There are plenty of male know-it-alls out there, of course, but the quality does not exhibit itself only in males. Lots of little kids can’t wait to tell you for a million years about a submarine or whatever. There are some weapons-grade lady know-it-alls out there as well. The worst offender I have ever known is a woman. I once watched her tell a surgeon how to do an operation. What kind of knife you use and that.

The point of this experiment is to explore the idea that sometimes a person is just a loser who gets too excited and wants to tell you too much stuff. This is, I think, a completely distinct category from a man in flash trousers who is committed to telling a woman what is what.

Sometimes what is going on in a situation like the one above is called mansplaining, and sometimes it is just a guy with a Bart Simpson watch and low self-esteem getting as jazzed as the devil.  I don’t think it makes me a tool of the patriarchy to point out that there is such a thing as a nerd. Does it?


Essay 43: Amongst the Queens

I’ve been trying to write an application essay all week. I feel about writing application essays the way I used to feel about getting carsick: I appreciate that everyone hates it, but I insist that no one hates it more than me. If they hate it as much as me, then why aren’t they kicking up the same amount of fuss? Hmm? I used to feel like this about school galas, also. Everyone standing there in little swimming caps, talking about how much it sucked, and me off to one side like You are all living in Disney World. Let the record show that the only one actually dying around here is me.

The essay is for a writing workshop. It’s such a big deal I can’t even say its name. It takes place over two weeks in August, and everyone who is teaching there is a famous king or queen. I really, really want to go. There is no evidence to suggest that I will get in (everyone who applies is a famous king or queen as well). Even if I did, which I will not, it is massively expensive. Even I did, etc, there is no evidence to suggest that I would like it. A writing workshop is when everyone sits around and shits on each other’s work. It is when people who relish the cut and thrust of shitting on each other’s work get the chance to stretch their legs. They find it invigorating. After they have all just destroyed each other, they laugh and have sex. As for me, I wouldn’t be able to smile ever again. I am so drippy and sensitive, and just waiting for a clever American to expose me as a charlatan. It would almost definitely not go well for me there at the workshop, amongst the queens. I have torn off three nails right now, just thinking about it.

Still. I really, really want to go. There are a few reasons for this, but the main one I think is that if you are at a writer’s workshop, then you cannot deny even to yourself that you are a writer. If people ask me what I do, now, I come over all silent and peculiar. I say that I am writing a PhD, or that I sometimes write for the newspaper. These things are true, but they are not a job. The other day on a plane this lady asked me what I did, and she seemed so nice, and I didn’t want to disappoint her, so I just said I worked in advertising. I have also told people that I was a yoga teacher. Once, when I was very very thin, this guy asked me if I was a ballet dancer and I said yes. No good reason for any of this.

I don’t even know if I want to call myself a writer. I don’t even know if I think a writer is a real job. It’s not, really. Not like how an accountant is a job. But I have been trying to write this application essay all week, and I have been imagining all these strangers thinking that I was a writer, and I have been wondering what that would feel like.

Essay 42: The Second Antarctic Campaign

(Maybe it would make sense to read the first essay I posted here before starting this one, or maybe it would not. Here it is, just in case:

I used to think I was better than other people. Everyone thinks this, a bit, some days, but when I was younger I really thought that I was much better than other people. All people. By far. Once, in matric, a girl I was nearly friends with looked at me hard in the face and said “You make it so clear that you think you’re better than everyone.” We were both extremely high, and I was taking a great deal of strain. I’d just come back from a spell in the bathroom, where I had spent a cool forty five minutes trying to make eye contact with myself in the mirror. I had sat down on the floor for a while, in order to study what my fingers looked like from that angle. I’d rolled up my jeans, and then rolled them down again, and thought for a long time about the word “jaunty”. Every time the fluorescent lights flickered, I assumed I was having a stroke, and then forgot about it straight away.  

On the way back to where everyone was sitting, I’d become seized with the conviction that I had shaved one of my eyebrows off. Surely I must have. A 45 minute spell in the bathroom bending your fingers and laughing under your breath at an episode of The Simpsons you just remembered, and not even one eyebrow off? Come. There was a razor like right there. I raised my hand to where my eyebrows should have been and they were both in place, but naturally I worried, and then laughed because imagine if you called them “eyebrowns”. There was a lot going on.  I was still feeling around at the top of my face when the girl I was nearly friends with laid it on me. “So clear,” she said. I can’t remember what I said to her back. “Please take a look at my eyebrowns,” probably. I remember what I thought, though. What I thought was “Good.” What I thought was that’s good, and I wish I could somehow make it even more clear. I really did feel like that. Even when massively stoned, even when coping with the imagined loss of one of my browns, I felt sure that I was the number one person around.

It’s hard to account for, except in the usual way, which is to point out that people carting round a sense of superiority like this are mostly also dragging behind them the sick sense that they are the fucking worst. There is a thing called “manhauling”. If you ever meet my dad, he will tell you about it. He will describe to you Captain Scott and the rest of the Terra Nova expedition, dressed in their tragic woollens, their useless trousers, pulling their food and telescopes and things in sleds across the arctic waste. Do you say Antarctic waste, rather, being as it’s the South Pole? My dad will tell us. He will encourage us to picture Captain Scott and the lusty Captain Oates, about whom we have already heard so much, straining against the straps of their sleds as they trudge towards a point where, right that second, Roald Amundsen is celebrating his victory with a tin of fish and some aqua vit. The champagne cork does not pop effectively in such temperatures, but Roald Amundsen’s team is fine with this. They won, after all.

The terrible thing about manhauling, firstly, was that it didn’t work very well. Dogs are better at pulling things than people are. Obviously. Dogs have four legs, and people only have two. Dogs are strong and kind, and people are not. The second terrible thing about manhauling was that this failure became something of a virtue for Captain Scott and the sassy pervert Captain Oates. The fact that manhauling was hard, and ineffective, meant that it came to be seen as inherently more noble. Nothing Comes For Free in This Life Etc.  Hard Work is Its Own Reward Especially When That Reward is Death. And so on.

You can haul all sorts of things across the ice. Food. Matches. Another pair of woolly trousers. Goggles that fail to deflect the glare in any way. Heavy photographic equipment which turns out, when you unpack it, to have shattered in the cold. A book about a boring historical period. The sick sense that you are the worst. Rope. A hat.

A person can haul all that stuff across the ice, even though it’s so futile and so difficult, and what can sometimes happen is that they can start to feel that, actually, its being so difficult and stupid is the whole point. Carrying all these frankly useless telescopes, and the sick sense that everyone in the whole world is okay and you are not, starts to become its own reward. Sort of heroic, really. Roald Amundsen is standing there at the actual South Pole, a flag in his hand, and he is saying You don’t have to do this, you know. Dogs are better at pulling things. Also, I won. Stop. A person can be having such a minutely calibrated terrible time that they can look at Roald Amundsen and his fine team of snapping yellow dogs and say Leave me, Roald. Go back to your wooden house in whichever part of Scandinavia it is that you come from, and leave me to collapse here in harness on the ice. A person can do all this and start to feel that they are pretty great, actually. They take out their little diaries and write “Suffering Is Ennobling And Only The Weak Are Happy. Still hungry. Probably going to die quite soon. Pity.” Leave me, Roald. Captain Oates and I can take it from here.

This was pretty much the state of things for me, in matric, and really for a long time after. You can dislike yourself enough that it comes back around looking like something good, and noble. You can put it in your little sled and drag it around with you for years, and only see how pointless it was when you take it out, finally.


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.