Extract from ‘Breaking Down The House’ (Pen International)
I was driving back from a disastrous meeting with the bank. It was about quarter to five. The sun was already falling away, pale and nebulous in a washed-out sky. I turned a corner that I had turned a thousand times before, squeezing my homeward passage out inch by inch from the rush-hour inclination to stasis. I noticed the broken fence. It was a wooden palisade, but the uprights hung crooked and loose; at several places posts had been removed. Through the overgrowth behind the fence, I saw a house. A double storey, with windows missing; and the telltale stain of black dropping down the wall where the roof had caved in.
This house had burnt; and not recently.
The traffic slid onward. I had plenty of time to assess the extent of the fence that ran nearly – no, it did run – the whole block. The house was lost in the trees behind me, as I followed the vanishing sun, inching past rampant red bougainvillea and a thick patch of bamboo. At the last moment I swung the car right, across the oncoming taxis, hooting. I missed a tin can by millimetres and the guy gave me the finger, which I thought was out of character, not something I’d ever seen a black dude do.
But the world was changing. This was probably the last time I’d swing the car across traffic. Soon it would be gone. Which was okay, I’m not one to get attached to a vehicle. But the way things stood, soon my house would be gone, too. And that was a little more serious to me. I stopped alongside a short run of fencing, just a few metres long. My hands were bloody shaking. Shaking, not because of nearly missing a can full of sardined people, no, but because this time there was no way out of things, this time I really didn’t know any trick to keep enough money flowing. This time I could feel it – soon our house would be gone.
I closed my eyes. I thought of the way things had changed in the last few years. First, it was frivolous things that really didn’t matter – no Dom Perignon just because it was Friday. The whisky brand changed from Johnnie Walker Blue to Glenfiddich to, well, to the point of ‘let’s not bother to drink it, okay?’ Beer. Skiing disappeared. Seychelles disappeared. Eating out became weekly, then monthly, then it stopped. Then I noticed the number of times Sally was having belts fixed, shoes re-heeled. The shop names on the till slips re-branded from specialty-everything, usually delivered, to hypermarkets, and then – I don’t know about these things – do you really save money on no-name brands? I know you save if you stop satellite TV; and open-bandwidth Internet access. I know you save on cutting life cover; then household insurance. I know you save face if you re-organise debt repayments over a longer period. I know… eventually, you save the month on the credit card. Then you save the credit card, using budget. Then you save the budget by draining from another credit card. Then you refinance the cards from a bigger bond. And then, when you can’t pay that, you go see the bank. Who tell you that people in their own business with financials like yours are a bad risk. When you ask why they kept giving you money till now, they stand up and call you ‘sir’ as they show you the door. That’s when you sell the house.
I didn’t realise how long I’d been sitting there. I stared at the fence. But suddenly, just as the last vapid wisps of light dribbled away – I saw a sliver of yellow through a gap. I stopped idling the car, turned right again, and drove the third side of this burnt-out property down a deserted road. I turned right once again and back to the intersection where I’d first started. Traffic had cleared. Took me five minutes home.
I saw it after walking so long I didn’t know where I was. I walked after they pulled my place down. They came in red overalls and they gave us no time. They came with pickaxes and they came with sjamboks and they gave me no time, else I could have pulled it down myself, kept my material. My cousin has a truck. I heard for a long time there was going to be trouble making our places here. So I was already thinking to leave at the end of the month and try another place. But the guards behind the overalls had guns and the overalls shouted to run, to run, so I put on my warm yellow jersey and I grabbed my bag and my primus and one blanket and then there was fire and everything was gone.
I decided to go, too. I looked in the face of the man from Landless People and I saw a man who couldn’t do what he promised. He shouted and he got the television and the journalists but what fucking help was that after my place was gone? I rolled my blanket into my bag and walked to the main road taking me to Wadeville. A taxi came. I got on.
Near Joubert Park I got off. I walked through the park and the wind hit me with other people’s rubbish – empty KFC boxes and tissues and pieces of newspaper. Then I stepped on a used condom. That made me angry-mad – I put down my bag and my stove and I opened my arms and I shouted up to the clouds. I shouted back to the hills of my place near Hwange where the green ran up to a blue sky and it was always warm. I thought, enough of this fucking place full of buildings. I want a green place.
I got another taxi. Where to? Jansmuts said the driver. I didn’t know Jansmuts but is it a green place, I asked him? He looked at me funny, looked at my primus and my blanket sticking out the bag. You should go to Oxford, near the highway, there’s a place for you. Ha ha near the Oppenheimers’ under the bridge. Ha ha everyone in the taxi laughed and I didn’t know what was funny but he said hurry you make me lose time get in. He dropped me in Jansmuts and pointed sunrise way. Keep walking till you get Oxford, he said.
But I didn’t listen I kept walking straight into the sun and I could not believe the place I was in, the houses like kings’ places and the walls even bigger than the houses and so much green even if most of the trees were no kind I had ever seen before. But no dust and no rubbish-dump smell.
I walked down a long hill then up then I turned left and right just as I felt like it. The roads were beautiful, clean and full of flowers. I love flowers. Along with our food, my mother always planted flowers. We had red cannas and bougainvilleas, we had plumbago hedge round our house. Every year my mother got seed in packets from Bulawayo town. So I was just happy walking here where the wind didn’t seem to reach down between the trees even though some of them had no leaves. The sun was weak but the yellow grass was still pretty and against the walls the flowers were orange, called gazania and climbing flowers called sweet-pea and little ones I didn’t know with fat leaves and petals of white and purple. The gates were as tall as the walls. The dogs made a lot of noise and bared their teeth. I just walked on the other side. Sometimes there were guards in little huts. I greeted them and mostly they were friendly because no one can guess I don’t come from here. When I got tired I sat down on the side of the road with my feet on the tar. Then I realised I was very hungry. I had R30. Enough to get to my cousin.
So I walked until I got back to Jansmuts and then it was nearly night time and fucking cold again and the road was like a snake of cars wriggling but going nowhere. I thought I must follow the road to get my cousin because some time such a busy road will have a payphone it is easy just to phone him even though I lost my cellphone in the shouting and destroying. But then I remembered my numbers book was under the bed. Now I didn’t know how to get my cousin. I didn’t know where I was except on Jansmuts. Suddenly I was very very tired.
Then I saw the bougainvillea through the hole in the fence. Then I saw the house looked broken. Then I thought I must try something here. So I walked following the fence. I followed it around just a small piece of land then it turned again, on to a very quiet road. I found a hole in the wooden pieces. It was nearly dark. I walked in.