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The Reactive

My back cramps on the toilet bowl. I stretch it. Then I take two more painkillers and look down at the space between my legs. In the dim light, my phone blinks blue before going off again, indicating the arrival of a new message.

 

I hear my colleague Dean stumble into the next stall. His knees drop on the floor and he starts to heave, the room filling up with the smell of vomit. Without fail, Dean brings a hangover to work with him every Sunday. Saturday nights, he plays drums for the house band at The Purple Turtle, a popular punk bar on Long Street. The owner, a Rastafarian named Levi, keeps half the earnings the bands bring him at the door. He compensates for this by keeping a bar tab open for the performers when they finish a set. I stand on the toilet seat and give Dean the rest of my painkillers. Then I sit back down and press a button to take my phone off standby.

 

Ruan maintains the email account we use for orders. The new message, cc’d to Cissie, is about a bulk order. I open it and read the email body on the toilet seat.

 

It’s one paragraph long, and it doesn’t have a lot to describe. The client says he’ll buy everything off us, paying us double. He doesn’t want any parcels or messengers, he specifies, we have to meet him in person or there’s no deal. I read it twice and look at my phone for another moment. Then I flush the toilet and rinse my hands off at the sink.

 

On my way out, Dean looks up from his open stall and thanks me.

 

Dude, really, he says, and I nod.

 

His blonde hair sticks to the sweat on his forehead, and he sits crumpled on the floor. He’s wearing an old torn Pantera shirt. I reach for the handle and shut him in.

 

Then I walk back out to work.

 

I have this job I guess I should’ve mentioned by now. I work in Greenpoint, at a DVD rental store – the Movie Monocle – and I clock in every Sunday to Wednesday. The money from the orders Ruan, Cissie and I take in, as well as the allowance I receive as compensation for what happened to me those years ago at Tech, is enough to keep me on my feet when my landlord calls at the end of each month.

 

What they have me do here is stand behind a low vinyl counter – a hollowed-out semi-circle – where I become captain in my black shirt and orange cap, taking in rolled-up twenties and membership cards from the patrons of the Movie Monocle. This is where you’ll find me. Whenever I look up from my hands, I can see movie posters lined up against the yellow walls, about three metres above the grey carpet tiles, each one touching the edges of the next. Directly in front of me, two ceiling fans whop the air, equidistant from my counter and the wall, and I guess I’ve always felt like that’s what I am here, which is to say not much beyond a human in its workplace.

 

I dry my hands on my jeans before I settle myself behind the counter. Then I take another look at Ruan’s email. I press reply and ask them if this client isn’t a cop.

 

They don’t answer me for a while. Then Cissie sends back a reply: I hold reservations about thinking it’s a cop thing…

 

I wait for her to finish.

 

She writes, I mean, guys, we shouldn’t panic right away, should we? This could just be someone’s idea of a bad joke, right?

 

I sigh.

 

On Sundays, Cissie takes a train out to visit her aunt in a nursing home in Muizenberg. She uses this time to ease herself into a gentle comedown. In order to organise her body’s depletion of dopamine, and to quell her disquiet about mortality, Cissie surrounds herself with aging bodies. In an octagonal courtyard, she and her aunt pick out grass stalks which they knit into small bows and wreaths. This is where I imagine her now: lying on her back and typing with the sun in her face.

 

I decide to let it go.

 

On the other hand, here’s a message from my other friend.

 

I had the same thought about the police, Ruan says.

 

This doesn’t surprise me either. Like me, Ruan rarely has a moment of Cissie’s tranquillity. He gets comedowns no worse and no better than anyone else. Sundays for him just mean another computer in another room. He tells me he knows where I’m coming from.

 

I’m about to scroll down when I hear the storeroom door open. I slip my phone in my pocket and place my hands on the counter. I try to keep my back straight.

 

My manager appears from the door in the far wall, holding up a plastic clipboard.

 

That’s it, keep smiling, he tells me.

 

I nod. Until two months ago, Clifton was just another peon who worked the counter here at the Monocle. He got promoted after Red, our last manager, gave notice and moved to Knysna. Clifton’s been giving us orders ever since. I wait for him to turn the other way before I pull out my phone.

 

I place it on the counter and read the rest of the message from Ruan.

 

This guy isn’t a cop, Ruan says, but he knows who we are.

 

He forwards Cissie and I a new email. We each take a moment to read it. The message was delivered by the client at noon. It includes our names, where we live and where we work, and at the bottom it says, I am not the police. Then the client tells us he’ll pay us first. We can decide what we want after that.

 

Meaning we can just take the money, am I right? Cissie responds.

 

I’m about to answer her when I hear Clifton meandering into our store’s Action section. He’s run out of things to do again. He raises his clipboard and scratches the back of his neck, powdering his black collar with a mist of dandruff. I go back to my email.

 

To Ruan and Cissie: okay, what’s going on here?

 

Neither of them replies for close to a minute and I start to feel concerned. This returns me to Bhut’ Vuyo, and on impulse, I open my uncle’s second message. I’m about to reply when Clifton raps his knuckles on the counter.

 

Hey, he says, there’s no sleeping on the job.

 

I nod.

 

No chatting on the phone, either.

 

I close the text from my uncle and put the phone away.

 

Good, he says.

 

I watch Clifton turn his head towards the unit we’ve got mounted above the counter. Slowly, his face pinches inward.

 

Jesus, okes, he says. This is not on. This won’t work at all.

 

I turn and look up at the unit. It’s a black-and-white horror movie Dean’s put on mute. Cornered by a hideous monster, a young woman backs up against a dungeon wall.

 

Clifton shakes his head. Guys, come on, he says. This isn’t appropriate. You know what the rules are for the DVD.

 

I tell him it isn’t my fault, everything was on when I came in.

 

Sure it was, he says.

 

The woman is now naked, lying in a puddle of black blood. Clifton walks around to my side of the counter, squeezes past me, and turns it off.

 

He sighs. Where’s Dean?

 

He’s in the bathroom, I say.

 

Great. You leave, and he enters. Do you plan it like this?

 

Maybe.

 

Clifton presses his clipboard against his chest, scowling like a sitcom villain. I watch him as he stomps off to hassle Dean in the lav. Then I look back down at my phone.

 

I’ve just received a notification SMS from the bank, Ruan says.

 

He tells us it’s a deposit, and when he types out the amount, I stare at my phone for a while, making sure I’m parsing the figure right.

 

The client wants to meet up no later than today, Ruan says. He’s scheduled the meeting at Champs, a pool bar next to the railway station in Mowbray.

 

I nod, but I have to scroll back up again to the figure.

 

In the end, Cissie recovers from the shock before I do. She asks Ruan for a description of the client, a way to locate him inside the bar.

 

On his side, Ruan takes a moment to pass the question on and the three of us wait for the man to respond. Eventually, he types back to say we should look for the ugliest man in the bar. I wait for Ruan to explain, but he doesn’t say anything further.

 

Then, all at once, I feel done at the Monocle. For the first time since I signed on with them, about a year ago now, I don’t wait for my hours to arrive at their official cut-off point, or even for Clifton, my new ex-manager, to come back from scolding Dean inside the lav. I turn around and switch the DVD player back on. Then I drop my orange cap on the counter and walk out, making my way to the taxi rank on the station deck above Strand.

 

I cross over the short steel bridge and buy a packet of Niknaks. Then I walk to the bay marked for Claremont, feeling like this is what I’ve become: a human without a workplace. Inside the taxi, I lean my head against the glass and watch as a pink band wraps itself around the sky over Cape Town – from Maitland to Athlone – and a haze of pollution simmers over the land beneath it. I can feel the cogs of the city’s industries churning down to stillness, and smell the exhaust fumes from the taxis, as if each plume was mixing in with our own exhaustion.

 

On the main road, I decide to put my uncle out of my mind. With the money to consider, this seems a reasonable measure to take. Existence goes on as we all navigate our need for currency. Even Bhut’ Vuyo would understand this. He needs money as much as anyone else. Or maybe he needs it more.

 

In Newlands, I find Ruan waiting by the gate, pushing up against the wire fence around Cissie’s building. Cissie isn’t back from her pilgrimage to Muizenberg yet, and by the way Ruan looks, I can’t tell if he’s high or coming down. I join him on the pavement.

 

Ruan, you have this face on I think you should see.

 

He shrugs. Is Cissie still in Muizenberg?

 

I nod.

 

I need to find an old person, Ruan says. He tries to laugh, bunching his shoulders together, but the feeling doesn’t last. You don’t always get to ward off exhaustion, huffing Industrial the way we do.

 

I lean my back into the fence.

 

Ruan pulls out a half-smoked cigarette from his pocket and lights it with a broken matchstick. Then he cups a hand over the flame and waves the match out before chucking it into the garden. I watch him sigh and drop his shoulders before taking a drag.

 

Man, he says, breathing out smoke. When I saw that money coming in, I just started shaking. I was at my place, he says, and I had to stop typing for a while. I mean, Jesus, Nathi. He pauses and looks up the road. When’s the new shipment coming in?

 

It’s in a day or two, I say.

 

Ruan nods. Of course I told the client it was short notice, he says. The guy said it was fine, you know, that today was just a meeting between friends. Can you believe that? Friends.

 

Ruan’s cheeks pull inward as he drags on his cigarette, his fingers pinching the sponge as thin as an envelope. I watch the carcinogens leaking out of his body.

 

We’ve all tried to pack in the filters. We even came close last year, when we decided to quit nicotine and move out of the city entirely. Our plan was to relocate with our pill money to the Eastern Cape, where we’d harvest khat near the Kei River and hike the valley gorge that curves like a wide vein between Bolo and Cathcart. We didn’t plan for long: before the end of the month, we heard reports of how a van, loaded with a boxful of stems, was stopped with bullets on its way to King William’s Town. The urge died in us after that.

 

Ruan blows out another grey fog from his insides. He passes me the cigarette and I take a short pull, blowing smoke through my nose and through the fence.

 

The two of us stand in silence as the wind fusses the trees around West Ridge, its force snapping off the winter leaves and blanketing the curb in brown and orange patterns. We watch them scrub without noise against the rutted tar.

 

Ruan breaks through our silence. This ugly description, he says.

 

I listen. I flick my cigarette on the tar and turn to face him.

 

Do you think it’s a code for something?

 

Maybe, I say. I don’t know. It could be a word for dangerous.

 

Scars, Ruan says.

 

Then we fall into more silence.

 

I turn and hook my fingers on the mesh fence, hanging my weight on the sagging wire. I used to cross my eyes on fences like this when I was a child, a private trick that could make the holes in the squares leap out like holograms, but when I try it now, the optical illusion hurts my eyes. I uncross them and watch as the wind pushes against a green cardboard box, turning it over between the bins in the far corner of the parking lot. It knocks over a brown beer bottle, a quart balanced against the wall, and causes it to spew out frothy dregs, the foam washing across a fading parking line.

 

Cissie says all this silence in Newlands isn’t a coincidence, that her whole neighbourhood’s haunted. The suburb’s built on a grave site, she explains, the plot of a man called Helperus Van Lier: an eighteenth-century evangelist who lived in the Dutch Cape Colony. Cissie says piety has the ability to flow inside tap water, and that even plant life isn’t safe from Calvinist ghosts. This is the reason behind the stillness, she tells us, or at least why she owns a water filter.

 

There’s something else I didn’t show you, Ruan says.

 

I turn around.

 

I didn’t tell you and Cissie this, but the client sent me copies of our IDs. He attached them in that email I sent you with our names and jobs on it, remember, but you know how Cissie’s phone is. I had to take the jpegs off. Here, he says. Take a look at it.

 

I take his phone and start browsing through his images folder. It’s true. We come up one after the other. The man did all three of our ID copies in colour.

 

Here’s Ruan, here’s Cecelia, and here I am.

 

Here’s Russell, here’s Evans, and here’s Mda.

 

Ruan looks at me with his face pulled back in a wince, a form of apology. I look back down at the phone again.

 

Then up.

 

The thing is, he says.

 

I hand him his phone back. He slides it into his pocket.

 

The thing is, he says, it doesn’t seem like we have much of a choice here. We have this guy’s money, and we know that he’s dangerous. He’s not a cop, but he’s got the reach of one. We know that he’s free of the law, but we’re not sure he’s outside of it.

 

I nod. It isn’t hard to see his point. By giving us his money, the client has us bound.

 

Of course, there can’t be any police for us, either, Ruan says.

 

I nod again.

 

Look, Nathi, he says, I can’t just walk into the bank and tell them to reverse the transaction, can I? I mean, we’re lucky having that much money in the account hasn’t raised any suspicion to begin with. Now what if I go in there and start tampering with it? Then what? That’s a sure way of getting people to ask me things I have no answers for. The only option we have is to meet him.

 

He’s right. I tell him I agree. I let another moment pass before I say I quit my job.

 

Ruan turns around. You quit?

 

I walked out before cashing up.

 

He takes a moment to look up the street. Maybe you’ll find another one, he says.

 

I sigh. I guess he’s trying to encourage me. Which is good. I could use more of that.

 

Jesus, he says then. I did the same thing.

 

I turn to him, surprised. Ruan falls back on the fence and knits his fingers together. He stretches his arms out to crack the knuckles on each hand, and I notice an expression I’ve never seen on his face before. It reminds me of a game-show contestant I once saw as a child on a show called Zama Zama. The contestant, a man from the rural Eastern Cape, had directed a similar smile at the host, Nomsa Nene, at the crowd, and then finally at his family, after choosing the wrong key for the grand prize.

 

It was a shitty job, I say to him. When you told us about the money, I don’t know. I just took my cap off and left. The strangest thing was that I hadn’t even decided about accepting it. It just seemed like the right thing to do.

 

Ruan nods. I felt the same way about the firm, he says.

 

We go quiet over another cigarette. He smokes it down to the filter and throws it away. Then he lights another one and I take it from him when he’s done.

 

It’s a favour, you know? To both myself and my uncle. He even spits, now, whenever he sees me in the office parking lot.

 

I nod. Ruan’s told us this story before.

 

The company he works for lies in an old office park in Pinelands. Their building, one of fifty single-storey units that face out to Ndabeni, an industrial suburb north of Maitland, came as a last resort to him. Early on, when Ruan started applying for posts as an assistant network administrator, he ruined his CV by losing three jobs in succession. The reason for dismissal was a slew of unforeseen panic attacks: from the copy machine to the kitchen area, he could be found curled up, or fainting on carpet tiles or buffed lino. Even though he always went back to work a week later with an apology, and sometimes a note from a doctor he’d paid to say it was epilepsy, he was always fired. Over the phone, even as his former employers expressed their sympathy and good wishes, they described him as too great a liability to keep on a payroll, and suggested he seek out a programme for special care.

 

For a while, it felt as if there had been no options left open to him, and then – after a series of emails, all dispatched with great reluctance, but pushed by the pressure of an increasing interest rate – his uncle relented and put him on a conditional intern’s contract. His uncle’s oldest son had recently relocated to the UK, and this freed up the flat in Sea Point, where Ruan was to stay, paying rent into his uncle’s account. This is what led to his present situation. Ruan’s probation period extended itself to more than four years, and even though he renews his contract every twelve months, there’s never any mention of a pay increase. This is how he still gives a lot of what he earns to his uncle and the bank.

 

I squash the cigarette ember with my toe and kick it towards the gutter. It rolls in a light breeze, stopping just shy of the pavement’s lip.

 

I don’t know if I thought of myself as having already taken the money, Ruan says. I just saw it there, when that SMS came, and I thought other things could happen.

 

I move away from the fence and settle myself on the edge of the pavement. Ruan doesn’t follow, and for a while the two of us speak without facing each other. Two cars drive past us and after they’re gone, I notice a figure standing in the house opposite. I can’t tell whether it’s a man or a woman, but I can see them looking out at us through a veil of curtain lace. Eventually, when it seems like our eyes have met and locked for a long time, the figure takes a step back and draws the curtain closed between us. I lean back and feel the tar and pebbles digging into my palms.

 

I take a breath and decide to tell Ruan what I’m thinking.

 

The two of us, I say, we’ve already accepted the money from the ugly man.

 

Ruan tells me that he knows we have. He sits down on the pavement next to me and kicks a pebble. He says he hopes Cissie has, too.


ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR

is the Caine Prize nominated winner of the 2013 PEN International New Voices Award. He was born in East London in 1986 and graduated with a degree in Film and Media and an Honours degree in English Studies from UCT, where he became a creative writing fellow, completing his Masters in Creative Writing under the Mellon Mays Foundation. He received a Fulbright Award and an NRF Freestanding Masters scholarship. His stories have appeared in Laugh It Off, itch, Imago and Habitat. He has also written for Rolling Stone magazine. The Reactive, excerpted here, was nominated for the Etisalat Prize for Fiction and shortlised for The Sunday Times Fiction Prize. It is forthcoming in the US with Two Dollar Radio.

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