My uncle used to put me to sleep with the stories of a dead woman he knew who paid him the occasional visit, a dead woman I suspect he loved, even as a ghost. Love will turn you into as fool, he used to say with melancholic notes clouding his bass.
A woman faints mid prayer and another fans her with the newspaper she is holding. The Daily Sun moves in swift upward-downward movements in an attempt to wake the prayerful woman. The big man with the beard of a messiah beats down on his magnificent bible with his bloated, holy hand. Amen! One of the believers shouts this from somewhere in the coach. It was a shock at first to find people praying and fainting in a Metrorail coach; suspect even, but I got used it, even enjoyed it. You see, my passage into central Johannesburg was of a lonely man who had attained the unusual habit (amongst many others) of spending his spare time in clambering trains full of song and struggle. The Metrorail trains were usually packed with bodies. In the trains, each coach had a church service and the commuters simply had to choose which sermon spoke of the love they had chosen. The priests weren’t like those found in the pious ‘sanctified’ churches of Soweto: children, loafers, sellers, grannies, even thugs, could speak of the word and howl of the struggle. All you needed was a voice. Anyone could preach and if you were not satisfying those hungry for the word, you could best believe that you would be ruthlessly told to – Move! Pray more! Shut up! Have a beer! Voetsek man! The trains held a prayer of sin fornicating with the promise of death. They rocked with a shared heartbeat of a people born and bred worrying.
Often I saw him sitting in a corner inside my mind, but no, actually he was right there in the flat. He came for an hour, a day, and then weeks; weeks he spent mumbling about the photographs that were entrenched in the labyrinth of his soiled memory. He had been a photographer, a pocket kodak of his time hung delicately around his neck.
Roy showed me photographs. Nothing too shocking at first, only there were shades of sepia I had not seen before. I would be opening the fridge for a beer when suddenly a photograph of two full bodied women lying naked on a bed appeared inside the fridge and when I tried to grab it, it disappeared. Photos showing bodies of various kinds manifested first in my dreams, and then in reality, which also became a dream.
Roy was not half woman half man. Nor was he a headless dead soldier. He was an ordinarily dressed ghost: white man, plain white shirt, brown corduroy pants, curly red hair, barefoot, tall, lazy brown eyes, handsome, frail, a crooked nose.
Without shame we were writing love letters, Roy and I, to each other as men. Letters that had little to do with words, papers, pens, and yet had everything to do with feelings. Feelings mashed and crushed, remembered, lost, found, floating, touched and seen, hidden. Feelings rigorously passionate. Feelings telepathically translated.
Roy was my mentor, my flatmate, and between us was the propinquity of urban death and living; of the cha-cha dance between the living, who are slowly dying, and the dead, who are waking.
It was a Tuesday morning and Johannesburg was teeming with bus drivers and hawkers struggling to make a meaning of their lives. I could sense their precarity-inspired bodies feasting on a movement and speed that blew cold with the winter breeze. I could also sense that they too were living in memories. Hidden memories and forgotten, smiles.
Jozi was alive in its own self.
Before the sun was up – cigarettes were flickering and bodies were being burnt, lovers left each other before the dawn muttered their secrets, the clouds hovered with languor, and amorphous pictures formed in the infinite sky; doves that had forgotten the emblem of peace fought in the already noisy street. There were bin trucks, taxis, drunken misanthropes, high teenagers, broke academics, dreamers, and there was love.
Flat 25, 17th floor – was surrounded by innuendo whilst the radios outside were blasting about the lost caves of a dancing people. Roy, with no colour to call his own, no shape to pronounce, began, again, to make random sounds.
Those echoes remained in the hidden parts of the inside. They stayed inside, inside, between Roy and me.
That sullen Tuesday, Roy and I both couldn’t speak – in words – but our bodies, so different in so many ways, were a maze of memory, a love letter infinite with promise and the comfort of words which could only be seen by our eyes. We were both alive, Roy and I, two corporals of solitude and bucolic sceneries. Untouched and touchable. Loved lovable, loved lovers that had come together, imitating a convergence of flowers.
I too am dead. He says.
A ghostish sort of something myself. Neither here nor there.
I cannot go through with it. My body remains warm and unburied; yet my soul is compressed in a chrysalis of butterfly shadows. Pressed, full, and fluttering with rebirth, the chrysalis, which is of a golden hue, is suspended on an almost invisible Jacaranda tree blooming in the midst of Joburg.
No one knows who planted the tree.
No one knows that I am dead.
Mapule Mohulatsi @3rdBombadil is a reader and writer from Johannesburg.