Home 9 Literary Archive 9 Fiction & CNF 9 A man sits in a Johannesburg park

A man sits in a Johannesburg park

by Arja Salafranca


A man sits in a Johannesburg park on a late summer’s afternoon. He releases the lead attached to his red-haired spaniel’s collar and she bounds off to sniff trees and play near the river, perhaps she will even go for a swim again, if she gets excited. The man will then take her home and turn the hosepipe on her, washing off the leaves and slime of the river water. The man’s name is Andrew Barker, a good ordinary enough name, a solid name that is easy to pronounce, easy to give over the phone. It’s an afternoon late in the week, the man is alone. His wife and children are packing, and this is the dog’s last run in his company. Tomorrow he takes her into six-month quarantine.

It’s hot, midsummer and Andrew’s face is red as he sits and waits for Lucy to finish bounding through trees and river and whatever else. He sits, waiting, quite tired all of a sudden. He’s escaping the claustrophobia of the house, now almost emptied of furniture, children and wife packing suitcases, still throwing out black plastic bags full of rubbish, still anguishing over what should not be thrown away. And Lucy, running through the litter of lives being packed up, tongue lolling stupidly to one side, excited, excitable.

“I’ll take her to the park,” he told Deborah, his wife. “One last time before we take her in tomorrow.”

He hadn’t planned on doing it. There was the packing to do, and then there were friends coming to take the rest of the furniture off their hands. One last night in the house they have lived in for ten years: one last night with a camping bed for him and his wife and an old futon for the kids. In the morning they will leave it on the pavement and it will be gone before the day is. A last night with no TV, no pots and pans, just takeaway dishes and memories surrounding them in the hollows of the house.

Tomorrow they will stay with friends, and on Sunday these same friends will take them to the airport. Tomorrow Lucy will start her quarantine and Andrew just hopes that she passes all of Australia’s stringent tests and that they don’t find some strange disease lurking in her ticks or blood. If they do, there’s a plan for that too: the friends who will take them to the airport will keep Lucy, reclaim her from quarantine and add her to their menageries of dogs, cats, and a few birds. It’s for the children that they are taking Lucy – a reminder of home, a sense of continuity. So Andrew and Deborah have said. Yet, in some way, they also can’t bear to leave her here: stupid Lucy with lolling tongue and puppy-soft eyes, Lucy who is as much a part of their family as their two children. Lucy, who is part of their lives here, and whom they want to be a part of their lives there – a link from life to life, continent to continent.  It is perhaps a lot of pressure to put on a dog, but, of course, Lucy is delightfully unaware of these pressures as she bounds towards the river, following a particularly strong smell of other dogs.

Andrew sweats in the sun, as he sits on a fence made of logs, pulls a cap lower over his face, drinks from a bottle of sparkling water. It’ll be as hot over there, he thinks, and the seasons are all the same. Christmas will still be hot; winter will still mark the middle of the year. At least the children won’t have to get used to new seasons, snow in December or biting freezing weather instead of sun and sun block.  The Australian accent also isn’t that far off the South African one either – foreigners still mistake South Africans for Australians or New Zealanders, that peculiar flattening of the vowels that occurred what two centuries ago? Or was it already there and English in other countries simply evolved, changed? The kids, a boy and a girl, have been reading books about their new country: children’s guides to life in another place. Learning that Australia is about more than kangaroos and dangerous snakes and vast deserts whose heat eats you up if you let it. Andrew and Deborah have, of course, been reading other sorts of guides: Culture Shock Australia, how to set up a business, newspapers which list the price of houses, schools, cars, furniture, food. Night after night for months the TV has stayed off as Andrew and Deborah have devoured books, posting pages with fluorescent orange and green and yellow post-its. Drowning in information.

“I feel like we’ve already left,” Deborah said a few nights ago as she sat putting tape over the last few boxes. The removal men were coming in the morning. Andrew had sat down beside her, trees rustled outside the lounge window.

“But we haven’t,” said Andrew. Then, softly, like a traitor: “In some ways I wish we weren’t leaving.”

“You’ve said that before and I know what you mean and I also know that you don’t mean it,” replied Deborah, mouth in a straight line, pinched red.

“Yes,” said Andrew, as the doorbell chimed, yet more friends coming to buy yet more furniture.

It was, now, a closed subject. Whatever Andrew wished, or the kids wished, or even Deborah, the decision had been made. You had to make decisions, stick with them, you could not spend years wondering what to do, whether to do it, and all the while the rand was sliding downhill, and the kids were growing older, and was there a future now for them here? No, debates were useless, you had to make a decision and stick to it.

And so it was that the house was sold, boxes were dispatched, furniture divided among friends and relatives. All the physical signs were in place. You resigned from a job, took the kids out of school. You got tax clearance certificates organised; you cashed in a life insurance policy. You did all this because a decision had been made: you did not question anymore whether you wanted to do this, or what it would all mean in the end. You became a robot; you tied up the ends of your life as neatly as twisting bread together in a pan, twisting it closed.

In a sense though the decision had been made for them, almost in spite of themselves. They had applied for papers and waited over a year to be approved. Then, all too suddenly, they were approved and held the official documents in their hands that said they had so many months to take up the offer or it would lapse and they would have to reapply, wait yet another year or so.

They were half-hearted about the idea now – after all this time of waiting, deciding, applying “just in case” as they told friends, family. That night they sat at the kitchen table while the kids played games on the computer and they laughed at the papers. Both slightly tipsy on wine now, Deborah smoked a rare cigarette; smoke curling into and around her dark head. They were laughing, with relief, with indecision, with the enormity of the decision to be made. They were comfortable now, in their cosy kitchen, warm with wine, love, familiarity. For though they had been married for years and years now and had two children they still loved each other as deeply as in the beginning, perhaps more so.

“I don’t know now, Andrew, I just don’t know. I can’t say we should go. But I can’t say we should stay,” Deborah said on that night, months ago, as winter was just edging into spring.

“What do we want to do?” Andrew replied absent-mindedly. “What do we really want to do? We shouldn’t go just because so many of our friends are going or have already gone. That’s not a good enough reason to go….”

“Like we’re going because what’s wrong with us? If friends are going they must sense something, know something that’s passed us by. We don’t want to be left here, stupidly clinging on to something that’s finished. We’re still young enough to make new lives for ourselves. And the kids, Thomas is only eight, he’ll be speaking Ozzie before we know it and Sarah is adaptable.”

“She’ll be eleven soon …”

“Yes, and she’ll miss her life here more than Thomas. But think of the future, their future.”

“It’s hard to leave though. You don’t just leave Africa. It pulls you back.”

“Not if you don’t let it,” said Deborah.

“I feel like I belong here,” said Andrew. “I feel like I know the place inside out, I’m a part of it. When you grow up on a farm and watch what the seasons do to the earth the animals, you become a part of it.”

Sharply now, Deborah said, rising from the table, “I’m the one who’s going to have to give up her career. Let’s not get sappy and sentimental about this. You’re just going to go ahead and carry on flying aeroplanes. It won’t make any difference to you at all, except your layovers will be in different places. I’m the one who will be trying to start all over.”

She just about flung her wineglass into the sink, storming out to tell the kids it was bedtime soon. Deborah was a lawyer, her years of studying would be useless there. She couldn’t see herself going back to study – even if the kids had been older. Studying for a new career wasn’t something you did when you emigrated. They had discussed options: PR, an innocuous half day job as a receptionist if she could get it, time to be with the kids and time enough to integrate into society by working. Andrew, of course, would be fine. Qantas already wanted him.

But then the decision was taken out of their hands, made for them, they would say after. Andrew was away when it happened, and he’d curse about that, after.

It was banal almost, recounting the events. This was not an original story anymore and all those they told had heard it before, had read it before, or had even experienced it. The glass shattering, the faces at the bedroom door in the middle of the night, Deborah’s hand already on the panic button, heart thudding as a hand was clamped over her face. They didn’t rape her, and except for a dislocated arm on Thomas’s part they didn’t really hurt the kids. They wanted money, and jewellery, then the car. There was a moment, Deborah knew, when she would be raped. When the gunman who had first burst into her room, tied her up and then had gone rampaging through the house leaving Deborah there, eyes stretched wide open, mouth useless with tape over it, the gunman returned. Deborah never knew how many there were, she thought four or five, crashing through the house, smashing things, glasses, bottles of booze. He retuned and leaned over. He pushed her nightie up with the edge of his gun, he grunted, as though language forgotten, and moved roughly against her. She smelled him: old sweat and fear, adrenaline, alcohol on his breath, panic. He had the gun beside her head then as he looked at her, nightie raised, no panties. Deborah breathed raggedly, the children? If she just gave in, the children, would they leave them alone? Why couldn’t she hear them? But then another gunman burst in, there were shouts and then it was over. They left. There was silence now, no alarms; they hadn’t tried to take the cars.

The security company arrived. They had keys. Perhaps the gunmen had heard them? They too burst in, releasing the kids locked in Sarah’s bedroom. Thomas with a dangling arm where the men had roughly forced him into Sarah’s room Downstairs was a mess, it smelled of a brewery with the broken bottles of booze. They had taken very little: money from Deborah’s purse, a DVD machine, but left the TV, and, oddly food. The fridge and freezer were bare, frozen meat and salads and bottles of HP and tomato sauce all hauled away in rubbish bags. It was surreal. Deborah would joke weakly in months to come that the gunmen were hungry, but the joke was flat.

Still she had been lucky they all agreed. She hadn’t been raped and the kids were fine. There were worse stories: of being held at ransom for hours, of husbands watching as wives were hauled away to be raped, or being forced to watch helpless, tied up, as one after the other took turns.

And they were alive. They hadn’t been shot and no one had died. At times Deborah almost felt like she had no right to complain: they hadn’t taken much at all, hadn’t hurt her… she almost felt like she should shut up, thank her lucky stars and get on with it.

Except she dreamed of gunmen, of guns caressing her thighs, of men with dark, crazed eyes, over and over again. And there was Andrew, raged himself, livid, helpless as if he had been tied up, and tied himself to a job in which he had to fly away and leave her alone in a house with two young children. The dog, Lucy, had been of no help. She had been at the vet that night and thank God they said, or they probably would have shot her. The security company apologised for not responding immediately but they just didn’t have enough cars to send out. And the police, when they arrived the morning after gave her a case number, shrugged their shoulders and implied that they too thought she had been lucky and had nothing to complain about. They hadn’t come the night before, and no one could say why. They too had a lack of cars, they said, they couldn’t be everywhere.

And so, they decided. They argued and debated and justified their reasons over and over again: “I’m not going to wait until next time, I’m not going to wait until I am raped in my bed or Sarah is raped. I’m going before that happens,” she said to friends at dinner parties, at lunch, to colleagues at work when asked about her decision. “Crime, crime, crime,” she said. “One word: crime. I’m not going to be around for a next time when the government has no intention of doing anything about it. They won’t even acknowledge that there’s a problem.”

She was loud now, unapologetic even as she knew that their decision to leave was frowned upon, she was one of those whingeing whites politicians flayed in parliament, this country had bred her and looked after her and she had benefited from the fruits of apartheid and she should stay, grit her teeth see the bad years out. One day this country would be gold. She recalled how at a breakfast meeting a woman had asked her, sotto voice, looking nervously around before she asked, if Deborah and her family have ever thought of going. Equally sotto voiced, Deborah had said yes, nodding with eyes downcast. Now her eyes weren’t downcast she was angry, vociferous.

And there was Andrew, helpless with rage and fear himself, wracked with guilt for not having been home that night, desperate to do something even as he talked of his love for the land. They went to his parents’ farm, the place he had grown up and as they talked it over with his parents Deborah let herself see the tug of war in him.

He rode horses over the farm, took the kids to secret pools and places he had played as a child himself and Deborah could see the thread that bound him to this place, this land, his parents, to a place where the light was white hot and blinding. “Leave,” his parents counselled. “If we were younger we wouldn’t bring up kids here, it’s just too dangerous now, and what’s waiting for them when they leave school?”

Shocked, Andrew had argued, “But how can you say that? You won’t see your grandchildren more than once a year maybe? You’ll grow old you might not be able to fly out to see us then.”

“It’s not about us,” his father said. “it’s not even anymore about you and Deborah.”

“You’re not just giving us your blessing, you’re actually telling us to leave,” Andrew had said, shaking his head, disbelieving.

But they were in a grip of a decision, and as they went through the days they shed possessions like snakes, wondering if they would really need so much in their new lives. They knew they would have to need less: they would be surviving on one salary for a while and they wouldn’t be able to afford the same large house, but comforted themselves with other thoughts, thoughts that were luxuries they didn’t have now. “You’ll be able to sleep safely at home now, even if I am away,” said Andrew. “You won’t need burglar bars and security alarms and rape gates over the doors. And you won’t worry about being hijacked every single time you come home, day or night …”

“I can’t imagine not having burglar bars, Andrew. I still want them, I don’t think I can sleep now without them.”

“And,” Andrew continued, caught up, ignoring her last comment, “you can walk in the streets, you can walk to the shops instead of having to always drive everywhere and we’ll be living by the sea.”

Deborah saw the sea in her mind’s eye, the Sydney Harbour Bridge arched over the deep blue of the Pacific Ocean. On their visit to see the place before applying for emigration papers they had done the Bridge climb, harnessed, slightly scared and exhilarated with the thought that they might one day live here. That’s what Deborah saw, herself, on a bridge high up, people like ants, when Andrew spoke of the beach. There was no beach in her mind, no waves and surfs or golden sands, just a bridge over dark blue dangerous waters.

The kids spoke of missing their friends, their grandparents, their grandparents’ farm and they reassured them that they would visit in a year’s time and that they would make new friends. It was mostly Andrew who would make the reassurances, Deborah listening as she wondered about their new life. Andrew was bouncy and light, he had handed in his notice and was already going to start flying for Qantas even before they left. He was going to fly the SA-Australia route as often as possible for now and in the future. “You’re not really leaving,” Deborah said to him. “We’re leaving, me and the kids, but you’re just going to carry on as normal, except your home will be in a Sydney suburb not a Joburg one.”

“So?” he was defensive. He had done everything he could: all Deborah had to do was make the move, she didn’t even have to get a job until she was ready. Hurt now, as Deborah flung out these barbs, he asked her again and again if she didn’t want to go. “I don’t want to get raped,” she flung at him again and again.

They were tense – but they put it down to the stress of the coming move. They read the books about their new country and bought a coffee table book of photos to show the children, pointing out that they would visit all the places mentioned. “We’ll climb Ayers Rock, we’ll visit the Blue Mountains, we’ll go all over,” they said. A catch now of enthusiasm which Thomas and Sarah took up and one day it was as though a light had gone on in Deborah. She strode through the house with something less like fear and anger and something more like lightness and pleasure. A woman in her midthirties preparing for a new life in a new country, and one day she asked Andrew if he ever thought she would lose her accent, “I’m not too old am I? Maybe by the time we’re in our fifties or sixties I’ll sound like our kids will… And you, in your fifties too I wonder what you’ll sound like!”

Andrew wonders, sitting on the wooden wall, waiting for Lucy, if that was the moment. He remembers feeling icy cold and then raging hot as though he had a temperature, when she had said those words. He saw her then, an older woman with white-streaked brown hair, the aged face, and sounding like someone else. He’d wanted to shout stop then, as fear crept up and down him like blood, Stop, this isn’t what I want. But what could he say? “Don’t change your accent, don’t ever make yourself sound like another person from another country.” Even if it was unintentional he knew her sounds would mangle themselves into a mongrel mixture of the two continents, and that’s when, he knew. No amount of weekends on the farm riding horses over tindery dry veld would bring it alive as forcefully as his wife aged before him in his mind’s eye, speaking in a peculiar accent.

But decisions are made and you must stick to them, he knows that as he gets up to go look for Lucy. He knows now that the sun will not be the same over there, that it may be as white hot and burny, but it won’t be the same white, the same burn, the same green in the grass. Even Lucy will look different, her red coat redder, more intense perhaps.

He knows now, with a clarity that he wishes he had seen before, that it’s not that easy to leave your home. You can’t just sell your house and possessions, make a decision, but airline tickets and wave goodbye, simply because that is what your friends and countless strangers are doing, or because your wife was nearly raped.

But what if they bought into a secure townhouse complex? With a 24-hour guard and in a boomed off area? That would be more secure, why didn’t they think of it? Andrew would be less reluctant to fly away every few days and the kids would still grow up knowing this country as theirs, as he did and known their grandparents, his parents on their farm, and Deborah’s parents at the coast. And their cousins? They will have no one in Sydney. Here, they still have two cousins, Deborah’s brother’s kids. Her sister lives in Canada with her husband and children. Why didn’t they think of other options? Why did they just automatically think of going, grabbing onto that straw offered by another country? Why did they put in papers anyway, despite the not inconsiderable expense? Because well, just in case, the just in case they have been hearing for years now. Are they really that unoriginal?

And now, two days before he is due to leave the country of his birth, he sits panic-stricken, knowing that he mustn’t, can’t, won’t and will go. Everything hinges on him: Deborah will be dependent on him over there; already it’s over there, no longer our new home. He’s changed their lives and they are all looking forward, if he says now, no, then what? He does not lose his job, as Deborah has said, life continues for him, wherever he is, but then what? Deborah will go – if she doesn’t go to Australia, she will still go. The house is sold; it will be easy to go their separate ways. That’s it. Decisions are made and you’ve got to stick to them even when you realise the may not be right. If he leaves with her, it’s over, he knows, and if he stays, it’s over.

A man walks in a Johannesburg park in the middle of summer, calling to his dog Lucy. She’s nowhere to be seen. He walks toward the dark greeny mucky bed of the river and trails a stick through the water, waiting.

The dog will return, as dogs do, wet and excited and excitable, smelling of the dirty buggy water. She will walk home on a leash, the man beside her as insubstantial as a ghost.