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I say goodbye to Alice and Theo and continue down the street. The Strand is usually dominated by an unpleasant barrage of airhorns and motor noises, but after a host of cocktails the general cacophony now feels gentle and familiar. Lights blur overhead as I stumble along the street and down into the underground by Charing Cross.

 

The platform is packed on account of several southerly bus lines being delayed. I am swept up into a tube car by the eager crowd and into the aisle. A 20-year old Green Day album hums along in my earbuds as I sway – ever so slightly – back and forth in place.

 

As the train car lurched away, a pretty girl in a blue skirt and light brown hair brushes against me.

 

I should admit, drunk men are notorious for reading women the wrong way. What would seem like a harmless brush during the sober afternoon is suddenly perceived some secret, insidious method of flirting after a few pints. I quieted Billie Joe Armstrong’s voice and looked at little more carefully at the girl.

 

She held onto the bar above her with one hand and her phone on the other. Strands of straight brown hair fell down past her face as she peered into her mobile phone. She was shifting this way and that – she was, in fact, quite drunk. Every now and then she jerked up and looked around to take in her surroundings. Pretending to be sober in a body which would not obey.

 

The brush had been harmless, unintentional, but through my haze I tried to perceive if it had been something else. Perhaps understanding this, or more likely just to position herself for closer to the exit, the girl shuffles away the next stop. In doing so, she has moved closer to another man, a tall, unshaven man in glasses. She has moved very close to him – so much so that I suddenly suspect that they are actually together.

 

But they aren’t – I notice him straighten a little as the blue skirt brushes his jeans. He regards her for a moment, then re-affirms his grip on the bar and pushes out his chest a little as he searches for her gaze. The drunken misconception has now passed on to him – I am no longer afflicted.

 

The train pulls into Clapham Common station and I push my way out onto the platform. After a few steps I notice the girl is walking alongside me, absorbed in cosmos of her smartphone. What I briefly saw as flirtation melts away into mild paranoia. Maybe she thinks I’m following her. When we arrive at the escalator, I clamber my way ahead, to prove that my intentions are purely homing in nature. I go right and she goes left, and then I am alone in the florescence of the station.

 

I ascend into the clamouring night of the Common. Fellow inebriants shout and couples sway this way and that. My eyes adjust to the evenly-lit street and I then I see her.

 

It takes a moment for her name to come back to me. Sally. She is arm in arm with a tall boy. Perhaps a man – my age. He has curly black hair and a kind, if drunken look about him. A scraggly Chris O’Dowd. He is angling for a kiss. He succeeds.

 

I met Sally through an internet dating service nearly six months prior. I struggled to remember the details. She was a teacher, somewhere in South London. Her father died of muscular dystrophy. She swam the English Channel to raise money for a charity in his name. She was pale, with red hair and bad skin, but a nice smile. We had met in Gordon’s Wine bar, an ancient dig just up the street from Embankment Station, where suitors are wont to meet up and test each other over wine and cheese. After a few token questions about who I was and what I did she had proceeded to talk about herself the whole evening and succeeded in allowing me to pay for all the wine. Whether this was self-absorption or nervousness I never found out, as there had never been a second date. Afterwards I had thanked her for a nice evening and left her in Charing Cross without a further hint of interest.

 

So I am there and she is there and this boy is there, so I walk by the pair quickly for fear that she would recognize me. I am desperately curious, but have no wish to upset the date. I settle against a lamp by my bus stop and watch them from afar. They are all giddy with amorous intoxication and their quiet conversation is punctuated by several more kisses. On occasion she pushes him away and looks down carefully at her phone, noting the time. She must have work in the morning. Except she doesn’t – I think – it’s the middle of the summer. He rubs her shoulders and presses his forehead to hers.

 

Through the alcohol I can plainly see that he is doing what all men do at this hour: he is trying to convince her to stay out for one more drink. Enough time to miss her train. Perhaps, if he is lucky, for her to eventually come home with him. Maybe he has already made that suggestion – I cannot tell.

 

She smiles at him and puts her hand on his chest – erecting a brief barrier of space between them. She says something to him, kisses him goodnight and vanishes down the stairwell into the station.

 

He looks after her for a moment, then shuffles off, smiling goofily at no one in particular. As he sidles up to the bus stop his temporary elation subsides and he pulls out his phone fingers fluttering away as he relays the night’s events to his mates.

 

I relax against the lamp post and look out into the night. I feel isolated from the buzz of Clapham High Street’s night life. This place is so rarely a destination for me – just a staging ground for one last push home – alone.

 

In the corner of my eye I see someone come skipping into the street from the traffic isle that comprises the main entrance of Clapham Common station. It is the girl with the blue skirt, who once I thought gone but now appears determined to remain part of this story.

 

The 345 comes trundling up to the stop and I climb on board followed by the blue-skirted girl and the dark-curled boy.

 

The bus is overrun with the bleary eyed and stupor’d. I stay standing up and begin working on the second half of Dookie on my iPod as we lurch this way and that through the darkness of the common.

 

Sitting in front of me is an older man. He has a slightly pudgy, puffed up face and long white hair which he has pushed back behind his ears. He is wearing a camo-printed bomber jacket and is tightly gripping a large hiking backpack.

 

He is also murmuring away at first to no one in particular, but then he notices there is a tall girl with brown hair behind him. He begins to talking to her. She pretends not to hear thim, staring at her phone with faux-absorption. He appears undeterred.

 

Eventually the girl looks up from her phone and makes eye contact with the man in the bomber jacket. He is looking very intently at her and she nods and smiles at him – but it is clear that she is unnerved by him. She is trapped in her seat by another passenger who is oblivious to this entire interaction. The white-haired man has a captive audience, and he seizes the moment.

 

I take out my ear buds and consider intervening – the girl looks nervous and she does not need this man hitting on her. I walk myself through an entirely fictional scenario in which I walk over and confront the man. Hey man – she’s not interested so why don’t you back off? Captain America to the rescue – confrontational, in the right.

 

The haze clears a little more and I pay a little bit more attention to the white-haired man. His body language does not suggest a sexual advance, but that he is merely trying to convey a story – a thought – to this girl. Or to anyone.

 

As I lean in his hand is stretching out towards her, palm facing upward as he makes another point.

 

“Oh really?” I say loudly.

 

He turns and eyes me warily. I smile at him and continue talking.

 

“Is that the case?”

 

The white-haired man shifts in his seat. Someone has now offer’d up to him their full attention and he gleefully seizes it. He continues talking, telly his story, but nary a single coherent thought reaches me. Either this man has permanently succumbed to a mumbledom, or he has some sort of mild schizophrenia.

 

I have a secret. I have a hard time paying attention – and often hearing – in loud social situations. To adapt to this handicap I have become very, very good at pretending to listen. To smile, nod – ask the right question at the right moment.

 

But this man is lost in his own world. My own responses don’t seem to matter. Only my attention. I smile and nod and he keeps talking. His story keeps going on. Whatever it is.

 

We reach the penultimate stop on my journey, and the frightened woman who had been sitting behind him gets up and makes for the door. I keep my attention on the man, but just ever so briefly catch her eye as she looks at me and mouths me a “Thank you” as she disembarks.

 

And then it is just me and the lonely man in the bomber jacket. We arrive at the Battersea Arts Centre and I look him the eye.

 

“This is me. Have a good one!”

 

“Yeah, you too,” he says, but his attention is already elsewhere – he looks out the window and forgets me.

 

I step outside, clutching my bag and preparing to cross the street. As the bus accelerates away I sense there is someone behind me, crossing at the same time. It is the girl in the blue skirt.

 

We cross the road together, although I am slightly ahead. As we reach the opposing pavement, I hear a crack – the unmistakable sound of a mobile phone coming apart.

 

I look over my shoulder – the girl is standing above her phone, swaying slightly. She falls to her knees and begins collecting pieces of plastic.

 

I should help her, I think. But that old paranoia returns – that she might consider my efforts to be an advance. That we have, so far, shared the same journey. In reality, she probably does not even remember I was with her on the tube.

 

So I turn away again and continue walking, turning off the main road down my street. It is a downward slope, and looking up I can see through the haze the railway and the blinking lights of tower blocks sitting between me and the rest of Battersea.

 

There is a faint pitter-patter of feed behind me. I can hear the girl walking quickly behind me. She is almost right behind me now. I walk quicker – my inebriated paranoia is evolving. Maybe she is following me?

 

I reach my house and quickly fumble with the gate latch, stumbling forward towards my door. As she passes I whirl around to face her, but she is – again – absorbed in her now functioning phone as she continues down the street off somewhere else.

 

 

I turn back and find my way inside. The house is dark, quiet. I shuffle upstairs and into my room. The air is stale, so I open a window and stand there in the darkness, listening to the tree outside bristling in the wind.

In the dark, the air conditioner switches on, vibrating mercilessly in the wall. Barummmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm.

The cool air meanders around the room and the mozzy net sways ever so slightly. I stretch on the bed and feel for gaps, nervously squishing the edges of the net further into the gap between the mattress and the bed frame.

I have awkwardly laid myself out diagonally – the beds of Luther House are not built for men of my height, at least not with the mozzy net stretched taut at funny angles.

Rummmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm.

The noise of the air conditioner intersects with the whum whum whum of the fan above me, swiping at the dark, sprinkling a meagre portion of the chilled air down on to me. It sways this way and that, threatening to come crashing down through the net. 

Ummmmmmmmmmmmmmm* – click.

The air conditioner, satisfied for the moment, turns off. I pull out one of my ear plugs and listen to the odd sound from Kivukoni Road. The occasional honk of a taxi, or the caw of the crows which tend to gather in the trees surrounding Luther House. I listen and go to sleep.

The painted-white iron gate that hovers a few feet from my front door squawked deep and metallic as I slid back its bolt and swung it out into the bright light of the morning. Outside of it sat Hastings, a mutt of medium stature who, in his quivering excitement and nervous demeanour, failed to mirror the brutal command of his namesake. The president Kamuzu Banda, whose Christian name had been borrow’d and delivered upon this ocher mongrel, had died long before the pup was born. He had in his two years lived only on this small plot in this central precinct of Lilongwe together with his bantam father Tiger who had perished less than a year ago. Hastings, eternally befuddled by my morning lethargy, was unconcerned with the details. His enthusiasm for my appearance bubbled over and he nearly cartwheeled as I greeted him under the glare of the September sun.

He stiffened as I slipped the catch of the leash around the ringlet in his studded red collar whilst adorning him with the undulating crooning of refined pooch talk. His timidity results from his limit acquaintance with the geography of the surrounding neighborhood,  his tiny cosmos usually bounded by the walls of gray and ruddy brick that beleaguer the place.

The locals were frightened of this honey-shaded hound. Upon my entry and exit, when one of the staff wrenched open the steely gate to let my vehicle past, the little tyrant would have brief, tempestuous skirmishes with passing drunkards and ferals of every breed. For the less dangerous sort he still maintained a vicious bark, scattering men and women and sending packs of barefoot children packing, crying with palmed stones lest he decide to pursue.

I did not enjoy harboring terror like that, yet what little more was there to do for a neutered wretch other than guard his dominion? Hastings, along with his late sire, maintained a respectable image of rabid savagery. Had the rest known that his bark was little more than a show, that he was truly impotent despite his growl, they might be less frightened. In a city where walls are easily scaled and guards dream quickly, a vicious-looking dog had value.

I had not walked the dog much before. The gardener Daniels occasionally led the two canines to a nearby market where they would be dipped for plague-bearers and worms along with hundreds of other dogs who were more likely not pets but sentry beasts. I was still uneasy taking him out given his nervous nature, yet, like before he grew quiet as we stepped beyond the tall aluminum scaled gateway up onto the pockmarked asphalt of the nameless street.

A wheeze of dusty air frolicked around the neglected pavement. It felt arid and warm despite our proximity to the solstice; September was marked for its steep gradient from a mild winter to the feverish state which began in October, a dry heatwave only quenched by the capricious rains of the late year, when all the land’s colours would invert to a tropical palette. I would not see this again, for the next day I would leave that city and that tiny country, to unwrap a new life outside, exciting and comfortable, yet predictably lacking in the bittersweet seduction I had known for two years.  The dog and I stood there for a moment, betwixt the seasons.

I listened to the murmur of the morning; the distant sounds of trucks and four-wheel drive automobiles shifting on the nearby highway; the eternal lovesong of the birds who nested in and around the sporadic foliage of my plot; the braying call of the fruit merchant as he wandered the grit of the neighbourhood; the delicate whine of nearby guard dogs, mutts clasped to stakes in the dirt, fueled and serviced less often than the sputtering cars seen creaking down the road, whimpering as they sat in starvation; the laughter of men and women and little children as they went about their day, bicycles and noggins topped with timber or sundries.

I and two other denizens had long ago been marked by the national census, yet I felt this to be an empty tally; in this quarter of town I was a recluse. After two years, I had not even met those living next to me; our staff had relayed any imperative communication.  Yet despite the palisades of ragged glass and sparking that protected me, I did not consider myself as embattled as many of the expatriates did.

I walked down the road with the dog at my side. Apprehensive from his displacement, he stayed near, shedding the wanton curiosity that would become him. Around us trotted the native Malawians, wandering to their given vocation, be it certain or elusive. It was difficult not to feel like an interloper on that street, my peachy visage, typically seated behind the windscreen of a car, contrasting with the quizzical faces of those idle urchins that sat and studied the mzungu and his pup.

I could see the gulf left by the lack of understanding between us, by the continued languor of that common empathy that ought to be nurtured. Spare me a moment the void that I embraced when faced with the worst this country had to offer, the images that are so popular with those who have succumbed to a nearly pornographic worship of poverty. I had long ago lost all feeling at the sight of hungry moppets who would scream appeals over their knotted, empty paunches; of the lame masses who scrabbled the dusty city streets on their knurly legs and moan for the absolution only I could give them; of the mothers who, with their waxen cherubs adorned would beg for my intervention. Those bridges had been wrenched asunder long ago.

I speak instead of those around me in Area 14: the well-fed, the infrequent middle class who, despite their relative difficulty, were still on the spectrum of my limited comprehension. I was leaving the next day and I had still not spoken to them. Yet I decided solely to walk my dog and take in what I was to leave behind, not to vindicate myself through late conversation.

The dog and I walked. I exchanged my fair share of greetings, as was customary, as well as the occasional grin. I spoke just a smidgen of their natural tongue; enough to say hello.

After a time I conceded and steered Hastings onto an avenue leading back. As we passed a cluster of dwellings, I noticed a middle-aged man standing by his gate,  dressed for work and clearly in command of the ragged staff around him. He was busy directing the loading of a vehicle when I began to pass. He noticed me as I drew close.

“Hello!” he said.

“Hello there,” I replied. “How are you?”

“I am fine,” he said. “And you?”

“I am well.” I replied.

“Very good.” He regarded me for a moment. I smiled.

“That dog there,” he said, motioning at Hastings. “That is your dog?”

“Yes.”

“That is a fine-looking dog,” he said.

I looked down at the mutt, who had likely not received such impartial praise before.

I thanked the man and went home, the dog clearly content over our return.

Sometime less than twenty-five weeks later I stood in an airport in another distant nation. Around me were folk that spoke a common tongue to mine. I had been raised with this sort, yet the greetings that followed were curt and the smiles were not eager, but mere reflex.  I did not know them any better, and they knew me not a bit.

Through the haze I could barely make out what I felt must have been the living room of the house I grew up in. Through it came my cat, careening through the air. With a chirp he collided with something flying through the air. Both creatures tumbled back to the misty earth, and suddenly the cat was gone.

“What did he run into?” said the woman. She was an apparition, a golem of a former lecturer.

The fog of imagination parted, and on the floor was a bird. It stood up, several feet in height and regarded us. It might have been some sort of owl, its feathers were black and its head rounded, like some unholy beanie. Two other things hindered its classification. For one, it spoke to us, in some extravagant but inscrutable language. For the other, its beak protruded from an extensive cavern. One eye was missing; where the other should have been firmly situated sat a fleshy stalk that supported an eye that swivelled as it tracked us.

“Que pasa pájaro?” said the woman. I turned back to the rot-infested thing as it waddled out the front door, it turned once and suddenly was seven feet tall, an avatar of avian death, with razor teeth lining an awesome-sized beak. It beat its wings for a moment and cackled. It looked at me, then turned its head to the sky and unleashed a cry like shredded paper, an anguished sortie on my sleeping eardrums. As this demonic cockerel crowed, a million litres of ash seeped from its feathers. Life’s palette shrank as the ash of ancient death covered all I could see.

* * * * * * * *

I coughed. My voice rasped in the dry air.

“What time is it?”

“Mmmm?”

I coughed again and grunted.

It took me a few moments to locate my phone, its alarm buzzing.

“It’s six already. We should get up.”

Christina rolled over, slowly blinking awake. “Ok,” she said.

I peered at the slatted window blinds. It seemed to me that light was already seeping in. Jesus, I thought. The sun must have already come up. How could it have? We’re to the west of Malawi, and it would still be dark there.

I thought a little bit harder about it. Eventually my eyes adjusted, and I could see that I had been fooled by the porch light reflecting off the concrete floor. It was still night.

I lurched out of bed and looked out into the darkness. I could see the dry desert grass slowly waving in the wind. Off in the darkness, the dull silhouette of the nearby mountain brandished the moon’s faint rays.

“I thought it was light already.”

“Mmmmm?”

“I saw the porch light, through the front door, and thought it was light already. It’s still dark.”

“Oh, ok,” she said, sleepily.

“We don’t have much time until they start serving breakfast. Who knows how long we’ll have until the sun comes up.”

Groggily she acquiesced and we struggled on our hiking clothes.

* * * * * * * *

We walked down the gravel path from the lodge to the car park with a set of packed breakfasts in hand. A chorus of crickets celebrated the coming morning. Christina unlocked the door of the Nissan pickup and, letting me in, started the engine. We reached the gate of the lodge and, after a moment’s hesitation, took off north, towards the Sossusvlei gate.

We drove for some time in silence, save for the clack of granite chips off the bottom of the truck. After we reached the gate turn-off, I glanced in the rear view mirror.

“The sun is coming up.”

“Do you want to stop?” Christina said.

“Sure, just give me a second.”

As the truck pulled off the road, two vans roared by, packed with eager tourists, kicking dust up into the air.

“Ugh, so much for the photo.”

I waited a few moments and snapped a couple of photos of the rising sun, before we jumped back in and continued towards the gate.

As the sun continued to rise the harsh grey landscape began to soften. The red peaks of the surrounding mountains erupted as the light spilled over the horizon. It felt deeply primordial out there, the only exception being the plumes of dust rising from the increasingly traffic’d road. We eventually arrived at Sesriem, the small group of buildings that comprised the entrance of the national pack. The tour vans, having an arrangement with the park, zoomed through. We had not yet paid our entrance fee, and so the black police official, dressed in desert fatigues and sporting a clipboard, waved us over.

“Right, how many are you?”

I looked at Christina. We answered.

“Two.”

“Just for the day?”

“Yes.”

“Where are you from? Are you Swedish?”

“No, actually, I’m Danish and he’s English,” said Christina.

“Ok”

“But we live in Malawi,” I said with earnest.

“Really?” The policeman gave us the astonished response we had already met with some frequency there. To those of Namibia, Malawi sounded far away, dangerous and primitively poor. “Is that, is that SADC?” he said.

“I’m pretty sure it is,” I said, “Why?”

“Well, SADC members get a discount. That will be 112 Namibian dollars.”

“Sure” we handed over the money.

“Is this car a 4×4?”

“No only two.”

“You’ll have to park at the 2×4 car park, about sixty kilometres in. There are shuttles from there.”

“Thank you.”

We pulled back onto the tarmac and sped off to the west.

* * * * * * * *

“Can you see it?”

“Where?”

“Right there, there are the dunes.”

And there they were. The toppled fossils sat frozen in the desert wind, gloriously refulgent in the morning sun like great armoured beasts left to rot on the battlefield.

We pulled over next to the first giant, taking some time to wander around its base, tracing animal tracks in the red sand. We had breakfast in its shadow, before continuing on.

The road ahead was direct and distinct against the smooth, precisely obliterated landscape. There would be a turn here and there, but this did nothing to alter the patience of the horizon, evenly rippled by dunes. Eventually a particularly prominent one jutted out to the road invitingly.
“Is this Dune 45?”

“I imagine that’s what the sign ’45’ means.”

We pulled up to the exposed dune, where a jumble of cars and buses had assembled. A few dozen people stood around taking pictures, while a few were slowly trekking up the spine of the dune, leaving it spotted with footprints, like a tattoo.

We got out of the Nissan and look around. The immediate radius was being patrolled by crows, black and white and similar in appearance to the Malawian breed. They waited for a rejected morsel to come their way.

We clambered up the ridge of the dune, which also is more difficult than expected. As our feet compressed the trail of sand, the edges spilled out over the side of the dune, creating minute waves which grew fainter the further away they got. We got to the local plateau and took some photos. There was a path perpendicular to the dune, down to the desert floor. Christina opted the slow way down, while I ran down the side of the dune. Sand filled my shoes as I leapt metres at a time, shouting in the wind whilst dodging the brittle, dry bushes which were spread about the base. I met Christina at the bottom. She had lost an earring when she pulled off a sweater. We searched for it for some time, but eventually left it to the stones.

* * * * * * * *

“Follow the stakes,” the shuttle operator said. “I’ll show you where the first one is.”

Rotund and sporting khaki, his boots pattered in the grittled parking lot. We stepped over the rope periphery, beyond which there was nothing both desert, save for a half-dozen ramshackle latrines. The surrounding air smelled like dry dung. We followed him to the first stake. He motioned forward.

“The next one is dead ahead. When you reach a stake, you should always be able to see the next.”

We thanked him and continued into the desert. My sneakers squeaked across the uneven mix of blasted rock and sand. The crisp morning had long since given way to the unrelenting midday heat. I wrapped my jumper around my head, securing it with my hat.

Many manners of desperate creatures roamed the sands. Mincing beetles and determined lizards darted across the landscape’s windy furrows, into and out of the hidden tunnels of the dunes that began again to rise up around us, as if the sinking mirage of the car park had encouraged the great beasts to sit up and surround us once again.

As we trekked on the sand gave way to a flinty meadow, a series of platformed rocks sewn with trenches, like a series of ancient ruins carved out of the desert floor. As I stepped closer I realised that the floor was not stone, but mud, so short of moisture and compact that it felt solid enough for the confusion. The edges of the meandering platforms of earth were crumbling, and their faces were crackled with dehydration.

We left the remains behind and continued on, counting off the wooden we found thrust into the ground. A small party of white tourists crested the dune ahead of us. They passed us, sunbaked and mum, save for a slight gurgle from one of the men as he drank from a canteen he kept holstered at his waist.

The path became more wearisome as we ascended, the sand giving way and letting us sink backwards ever so slightly. Amidst the dunes to our left shuffled an ant of a man, a small black blemish on the red canvas. He walked at the base of the dunes with a tripod slung over his back, occasionally hesitating and drawing out his camera to shoot. As we continued up the path he sank out of view.

After further toil we topped the plateau – actually a meeting point of a triad of dunes. We walked a little further and came to the brim of a vast notch is the desert – a deathly plain speckled with dead trees, frozen in their dying pangs of thirst, some pitched along the desert floor as if they were searching for forgotten dew. From or position the sand fell away sharply towards the shores of the Hidden vlei, which itself stretched out what might have been a kilometer of this flayed basin. The wind, faintly cooing across the vista, spoke for us as we settled on the sand, shoulder to shoulder.

***********

I shifted into gear and pulled out of the car park onto the highway. The asphalt smoldered in the afternoon sun. We had visited the other two famous vleis of the area, and I was now eager to escape the dry furnace we had spent the day trudging through, I shifted quickly and brought the car up to 100 kilometres an hour. The desert was still as we raced down the road, the sun now at our backs.

We were alone on the road, which stretched out before us, incongruous against the wasteland. I glanced in the side mirror. There was, it seemed, some sort of flutter, and then suddenly a clanking, crashing sound. I saw something glint in the light as it pitched off the side of the car into the road. It tumbled and flapped before it stilled.

“What was that?” Christina said.

“I don’t know,”I replied. “I think it was a bird. One of those crows we saw earlier.”

I slowed a bit.

“Are you going to turn back?”

Yes, I thought.

I slowed the car and brought it around. I calmly advanced towards what I expected to be an expired crow.

It wasn’t.

“Oh Matt! It’s your camera!” Christina gasped with horror.

“Oh, fuck,” I said. I left it on top of the car.

We had come alongside the tiny wreck at this point. Christina leapt out of the passenger seat and ran around. She brought the  jagged corpse over to me, which look weathered, but not obliterated. I turned it over in my hands, studying it. My eyes fell on flapping catch for the memory card slot.

“Oh shit.”

“What?”

“The memory card is missing”

I pulled the car over and shut off the engine, getting out.

“Christ, we have to find that.”

Christina nodded.  Without much coordination we each chose a side of the road and paced up and a down, sifting the sand and the light brush with our eyes. Every few minutes a dislodged remnant of the camera was found. A bruised battery caught loitering by a weed. The cylindrical lens casing spotted dancing in the wind.

The first half hour turned up most of the lost pieces, save for the memory card. Christina and I re-oriented ourselves, sweeping the roadside  in tandem, then separate, again and again.

Repeatedly I expressed my frustration, punting rocks this way and that, frustrated at gods of digital photography. The buses carrying the multitude of tourists and suntanned backers began streaming eastward, returning home.

The day began growing late. Without protest, Christina searched with me for the better part of a second hour before we collapsed against the wheels of the truck. My mouth dry and spirit shattered, our memories from the day still fresh, I lost hope. While she had taken some photos from our day of hiking, most of the snaps had come from my camera. We had no time for a repeat performance.

I stood up again and covered the pebbly ground once again as Christina waited. I stopped for a moment and listened, looking away from the road, out to the desert. The wind answered with that soft hum, those unspoken lyrics of indifference drifting across the horizon. The depleted landscape answered with nothing more than I knew already.

It looked back at me as I yielded.

My boots crunched on the ground as I stooped to tie my shoe. I noticed, just next to me, a small green plant. It was sprouting from the side of the road, just barely reaching out of the earth with four little arms. I squeezed one of the arms, and a little trickle of water crept out and ran down my hand.

Christina and I got back in the car and smiled at each other, wearily, as we drifted east.

I stood outside the monolithic social sciences building, at the end of Manor Road. It is an imposing thing, a commanding structure of glass, steel and concrete. Its devotion to right-angles and relative dearth of texture gives it a sense of aged calm, like a forgotten statue enduring the millennium. Its insides are maintained with a tomb-like regularity, climate-controlled, logically crafted and endlessly utilitarian.

I looked over my shoulder at the wet asphalt and at the dripping trees waving in the wind. The deepening autumn weather had broken for a spell, on a day I planned to study and work at Manor Road.   I walked in through the revolving door in a whoosh of air, as my ears adjusted from the breezy orchestra outside to the steady vibration of the air ducts.

Normally the building is actually quiet pleasant, it’s large slabbed frame echoes with the conversation of students and faculty. On a Saturday though it is nearly silent, save the footfall of the steady stream of undergraduates funnelling into the library on the bottom floor.

I ascended the wide concrete staircase to the economics department, which was locked during the weekend. I swiped my student card and walked in. It was silent. Narry a tap of a keyboard nor the whispering of procrastinates. In the back I could spot one graduate student at his desk. The others were empty. Unusual, even for a Saturday morning.

I walked to my desk in the back of the department, a computer terminal seated in a large table shared by six. I dropped my stuff and listened again, but only the distant hum of the copy machine could be heard. I shrugged and, picking up a used plastic bottle from my desk, walked across the department to the water cooler.

I pressed the option for cold water and misjudging the task of getting it in the bottle, managed to spill some on my hands. It was surprisingly cold, not bound by tepidity like much of what can be found in an economics department. I stopped for a moment and thought. The cold water awakened a memory.

*     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *

I stood there stripped to the waist in the icy water, my shoulder bag held over my head. I looked at the three children, perched on a rock above the stream.

“What is it you are worried about?” asked Vera, standing nearby, looking hesitantly at the cold water.

I looked around for somewhere to set my bag.

“I’m not totally comfortable leaving my stuff on the shore.”

“Gah!” exclaimed Ann as she stepped into the water.

The three Malawian children who had followed us on the half-hour hike up the stream, looked back at me.

“My bag has the rest of the money I’ve got for the next few days in it.” They should be ok, but I’m just worried leaving it by those kids.

Vera considered the water again.

“I’ll stay here and watch over it if you want, I don’t think I’ll go in.

We were in Dzalanyama, a forest reserve near the border of Mozambique. South of Lilongwe. It was my last weekend in Malawi and, as a communal goodbye to me and several friends who were leaving soon, everyone showed up for a relaxed weekend away. We stopped to visit the waterfall on our way back. The children had followed us from a nearby village. Children often did that, either out of boredom, or hoping for the chance to earn a guide salary.

I handed Vera the bag and slowly sank into the frigid water. The others were laughing and splashing around, although with less vigour than they had displayed earlier that day. Several had climbed up onto the ridge to warm up a bit.

I clambered up to join the others, shivering in the breeze. We chatted for a bit as some of the other men took it in turns jumping off a low ledge. There wasn’t much room for landing.

We waded ashore. Most were shivering. The sun had begun to sink behind the tree line. That close to the equator, the sun would retreat with surprising enthusiasm at dusk. We didn’t have much time. I borrowed Alex’s towel to dry off a bit, then pulled on my shorts over my soggy trunks.We checked the area for anything left behind, then set off.

The path to this part of the stream was narrow, and we had to climb up a steep, earthy incline. To accomplish this, we had to proceed in single file. The three children followed as the sun continued to set.

The car park outside of Al Fresco’s was not incredibly secluded, its one entrance was adjacent to a short cut between two popular streets in the city centre, resulting in a fair amount of bustle. It was not an ideal location for lunch, due to the intense September heat, yet often I found it easier to make it through my break in solitude there, at one of the three tables which framed the entrance, rather than the busy rear of the restaurant.

At that time I would not have liked be confused for some sort of expatriate hermit, but I did seek out, unpopular places to read for lunch – it being my only time to do so during the day. This has never been easy in Lilongwe, as its small lunch scene guarantees most cafes a stock of of familiar faces.

I had been stuck on a particular page for a while when my piccante pizza slid under my nose. My stomach rumbled as I began cutting into it, and just before I could get any of it into my mouth, my phone rang.

Irritated, I did no recognise the caller’s number. Swallowing my first bite of pizza, I answered with a muffled, “Hewlo?”

The crackling on the other end of the line made it difficult to understand the man.

“Hello, is this Mr. Collin?”

“Speaking.”

“Hello this is Mr —-. from Area 14. I am — your neighbor.”

“Ah, hello! What can I do for you Mr…..?”

“Pravin. I am calling because your garden boy is a thief.”

“Foster?”

“Yes, he is a thief, he stole from my friend.”

Foster, my housekeeper Mary’s brother-in-law, had been missing from work for two days. Mary had said the police had come looking for him. This was all I knew.

The man attempted to explain to me what had happened, but the line was too poor and my empty stomach did not aid comprehension. I asked him to come around to my house at seven that evening, so he could explain things to me in person.

* * * * * * * * * *

After peering out of the front gate, Laston, my night guard, opened it up, and my car rolled down the steep driveway adjacent to my house. Inside, I found my housemates at the time: Andy, a redheaded Scott working for the British Council, was chewing on some dinner while talking to Dave, an English lawyer working on penal reform in Malawi. I explained to them that some men were coming to talk about Foster, and asked for their support.

Shortly thereafter, Mr. Pravin and his friend Mr. Deepan. Pravin was an older Indian Malawian man, his skin touched by some sort of lightened disorder. Deepan was also Asian, and had a thick black mustache stretched out across his grin. I greeted them, introduced Andy and Dave and showed them to the nearest sofa.

“Now,” I said, once everyone was seated, “Explain to me again, carefully, what happened.”

Deepan grinned.

“I run a business here in Malawi, electrical repairs and the what, so I’m often carrying my company checks around with me. Last week Tuesday, I left the checks in my living room unattended. My garden boy, who is friends with your Foster, snuck in and stole several of the checks. I know this because I did not notice for several days, and when I did my cook told me he saw my garden boy take them.

I called the police and surprised my garden boy, who claims he gave it to your Foster. The police and Mr. Pravin went around to your house on Friday to ask about him, and ended up talking to your housekeeper Mary, who says she does not know where he is. We used the garden boy’s phone to try and call Foster to trap him, but he has since shut off his phone – we think Mary warned him.”

There was a bit of a pause as we digested his story.

Andy spoke first.

“So you don’t actually know if Foster has the missing checks? You don’t really have any proof that he was involved.”

Pravin answered.

“We do, the garden boy said he gave the checks to the Foster. The two of them have been plotting this for quite some time. We’ve searched the garden boys quarters and there were no sign of the checks. If the Foster was not involved, why would he run away?”

“Listen, if I was a poor Malawian and heard the police were looking out for me,” replied Dave, “I’d be out of here like a flash, whether or not I did it.”

Pravin shrugged. “We do not care about Foster so much, we just want the checks back. The police are holding the garden boy in jail right now, and we cannot drop charges until we get the checks back. The man has a wife and family, and yet now he is stuck in jail. It would be a shame to let that continue but, we cannot let him go without the checks, can we?”

“So let me get this straight,” I said, “You’re going to hold this fellow behind bars until someone returns the checks? What good is it to tell me this? I have no communication with Foster.”

Deepan smiled, he white teeth rolling out underneath a layer of thick black hair.

“We were hoping you would find a way of letting this Foster know.”

They of course knew that the checks could easily be canceled. It was the principle of the thing, the wronging of these men by a couple poor, hopeless garden boys which justified their wrath.

Pravin turned to me, “What of this lady Mary, how does she know him?”

“She is his sister-in-law,” I said, “When I was looking to hire a garden boy she provided the contact.”

“Funny,” Pravin said, “she said she did not know him so well last Friday.”

Fuck, Mary. I thought. The last thing you need to be doing is lying to the police.

Dave cut in, “I think she was probably quite frightened by the police as well. She’s still just a girl and the sight of you with a bunch of detectives at your flank must be quite intimidating.”

Pravin frowned, “Perhaps we need to talk to her again.”

I suddenly felt a tightening in my chest. I did not want them bullying her.

“Listen,” I said, “We’ll find a way of getting your message to Foster, but Mary has nothing to do with this. If you must, must talk to her with the police present, I absolutely insist that you let me know in advance, so we can be there as well her. ”

My housemates nodded. Pravin and Deepan looked at each other and slowly nodded as well.

“Her father recently died, so she really doesn’t need the police showing up and scaring her,” I said.

“We are very sorry,” said Deepan.

We talked a while longer, going over the details of the theft and Fosters possible involvement several times. We kept insisting that the evidence linking him was circumstantial – the two men remained convinced that their intuition was correct. They left, with smiles and shook hands and promises of keeping in contact. Once they were out the door I turned to the others.

“Tough bind, eh?” I said.

“What do you mean?” said Andy.

“Well, maybe Foster is innocent, maybe he isn’t. If he comes back without those checks, they are just going to throw him in jail. If he comes back with them, he’s a thief, and can’t work her any longer, if they don’t throw him in jail anyway… I’m going to go talk to Mary about this.”

I found her in her quarters behind the house. I explained to her that the two men had visited, but that the three of us would be there if they ever needed to speak with her personally.

“Mary, if you have any contact with Foster — don’t tell me how or anything about him, but if you have any contact –please let him know that they just want the checks back.”

She paused for a moment with a careful, pensive look on her face.

“What I think… is that he probably did it,” she said.

I nodded and shrugged, turning away and walking up the steps back to my house, my dog Hastings running circles around me in the dark.

We never heard from Foster again, nor Pravin or Deepan. Eventually someone else took over the gardening job, keeping the plants in check, lest they overwhelm us when our attention is elsewhere.

We rolled into Mbeya late in the afternoon, all of us anxious to get to our evening’s accommodation. The drive had been pleasant enough: our drive north of the border had been dominated by the surprisingly dense and lush environment compared to the average Malawian scene. The typical landscape there was always beautiful, but dashed with physical destruction. What once should have been a land of dense forests covering fertile ground had long been stripped of its earthy fecundity by the taxing population.

While our excursion to far north of the country had revealed a gradual improvement of climate as barren, hilly plains eventually gave way to flooded paddy fields and more impressive groups of livestock, we were startled by the dramatic difference in our surroundings immediately after crossing over into southern Tanzania. The contrasting combination of flate plains and gumdrop hills had been replaced by impressive, rolling hills and mountains covered with trees. Along the side of the road were huge bunches of bananas and busy-looking people. The houses tended to have tin roofs instead of straw. What wasn’t shrouded in tree or residence was being used to plant vast fields of tea, each plot marked with a wooden sign indicating its quality and hectarage.

We had enjoyed these sights for the past hour and a half, but the fresh dampness of the country seemed to unclot as we reached the southern city. With most of its trees hacked down, Mbeya was awash with mud and, as the rain continued to pelt down, seemed as though it was preparing to swirl away. In some strange way, it reminded me of the damp towns near the Great Smoky Mountains in North Carolina and Tennessee, places I’d often traveled through when I was university.

While there was a proper city centre, much of the town seemed to stretch along the main road which ran through it. Before we proceeded to our destination, the Utengule Coffee plantation, we needed to stop and get our bearings and some batteries.

Phil parked the car next to the market, and Ranil and I clambered out. It was cooler than I expected – I reached back inside and retrieved a pullover, then stepped back out into the abating daylight. I wondered if we were in the same timezone as before.

I followed Ranil to a storefront, waiting outside as he disappeared in to inquire about his batteries. I called out to a Tanzanian man who passed me, unsure of his grasp of English.

“Excuse me, have time?” I grunted, gesticulating wildly to convey the checking of a watch.

“Why of course,” he replied in perfect English, “Let me just check my mobile phone.”

He confirmed that Tanzania was an hour ahead of Malawi. It was already six-thirty in the evening.

Ranil came out of the store.

“They seem to have a good handle on English here,” I said.

“I know!” he nodded, “I tried to say a couple of words in Swahili to the shop-keeper, but she replied in English.”

We returned to the Patrol and continued on down the road, following the signs to the coffee estate.

* * * * * * *

The main road to Utengule was destroyed, a massive pile of earth stood between us and the gorge that used to be our path. Phil swung the car around towards a bumpy detour, taking us down a windy residential road, past troupes of screaming children and glassy-eyed adults, slowly making their way up or down the hill. Several minutes later the rocky terrain became mode muddy as we proceeded into more wooded terrain. It took us roughly fifteen minutes to reach the final turnoff for the coffee estate.

The last path up to Utengule looked nearly impassable, but not beyond the large 4×4 that Phil commanded. Snaking its way up the side of the mountain, it was covered in deep, unsettled mud; the kind of mud that swallows up saloon cars. The sort of mud that, if you were unlucky to get your foot stuck in it, you’d be better off abandoning the shoe. Phil shifted the Patrol into 4×4 and began to proceed up the path. We slid around a little bit, but were making progress.

We passed a sign that read “Sandwich,” which left us all a little perplexed.

About two minutes up the mountain, we reached the top of a slope revealing a small branch blocking the way, and two Tanzanian men wielding machetes.

Perhaps it was just residual, unfilled paranoia from living in peaceful Malawi for so long, but the sight of those blades, barely visible in the failing light, made me nervous.

The men indicated for us to pull of this main path onto a side road which led to a series of small houses. Phil turned off to the right and drove down the road. I turned and looked at the back glass to see, to my immense dismay, that the two men were jogging after us.

The Patrol puttered up to the cluster of houses and stopped. A dead end.

The men were still trotting up to us, although one of them dropped his machete into the high grass. They walked up to the glass.

“Uh..maybe…,” I said, trailing off.

Phil rolled down his window. The savage attack I had been expecting did not materialize. Instead the man began speaking in hastened Swahili and motioning.

It took some time and multiple explanations, but eventually we determined he was suggesting we all get out of the car and walk the rest of the way to Utengule, due to the awful state of the road.
Fuck that,” I mumbled, noticing I was the only one who was quite so apprehensive about the idea of leaving the safety of our car, and our lives, with two valet attendants on secondment from the Interahamwe. Luckily, Cynthia was able to reach the owner of Utengule, who verified that the two desperadoes were indeed his employees. The mud had just recently been pressed, but the torrential rain had ruined it; hence the blockade.

Phil expressed interest in trying to get up there with the Patrol anyway. He turned back onto the road and we began, wish the occasional slide, to continue up the mountain. With a few, briefly nerve wracking moments we reached the top, to the astonishment of the few staff who came out to greet us. The drizzle had ceased, and we began to haul our bags out of the back of the slumbering Patrol.

I remember little more of the evening, other than laughter, a divine meal, and a few unfamiliar beers. From our dinner table we looked out over the plains adjacent to Mbeya, which were surrounded by a rim of mountains topped with clouds. They seemed like the final embankment, marking the ends of the Earth, and imagination.

My youth, slowly becoming a hazy congregation of episodic stitches in my memory, was recorded through the gaze of a short redheaded kid in OshKosh B’Gosh overalls and a decade-appropriate bowl haircut. When I was on that brilliant juvenile battlefield most people refer to as elementary school, we would on occasion halt our classroom trolling to travel outside to celebrate a Fair Day.

It was a time usually dedicated to vaulting over imaginary brooks and hopping around in large plastic bags, but intermittently the school would deploy a humongous parachute. In the hands of muscular gym teachers, it would be flung sky-high then wrenched back down, eclipsing and trapping small groups of toddlers inside.

This would be one of my favourite moments. We would suddenly be besieged by a swirling red canvas. Walls would solidify then flit away in an instant. It was everything that elementary school aimed to discard: the derangement of the senses and the abandonment of structure, of certainty.

It could be said that this was the closest one could be to dreaming. That world, a natural insurrection of your senses to the day’s quiet impoundment of unconscious speculation, is as volatile, engaging and frighteningly sadistic as those days spent crawling my way through the parachute. In both places you step carefully, for fear of tumbling down a nightmare and equally, of having the parachute pulled away, of having the sun come crashing down on you, and coming face to face with your shadows of the day.

That night in Livingstonia I tried to find my way back there, to that felt-covered cavern. My fingers felt for the door handle, but were wrenched away by my for my churning stomach, which had kept me tossing and turning for a number of hours.

My regurgitation, resounding and especially cruel, struck the quiet orchestra of the night like a hammer on a gong. Despite the current peak of summertime, the mountain air bit down on me and I shivered as my hands gripped the railing of the tent’s porch. Much heaving later, I rested against it, breathing slowly and waiting for some sort of composure.

A light appeared in the darkness. It was tall, and sounded like Phil.

“Hey hey,” he said, “was that you?”

I nodded, getting up slowly, as I currently had the intestinal fortitude of a earthworm who had consumed some particularly off soil.

I walked with him to the 4×4 we had travelled up the mountain with. It stood there, a giant silent shadow, in stark contrast to the way it roared and ripped its way up the serpentine path that afternoon. Phil reached inside and fetched me a bottle of water. After I had begun to settle myself back in bed, he brought me a thermometer. Food poisoning is the easy culprit in the developing world – our pampered Western stomachs considered too meek to inherit the earth in any other form than well-done with a pickle on the side. The presence of the thermometer suggested some doubt in this diagnosis.

I laid there underneath the tattered mosquito net, uncomfortable and prone to bouts of further sickness, watching my temperature climb the prognostic steps of tropical illness. I yearned for the morning, when action would be possible. I did little more than read in my little circle of light, determined to wait until dawn.

* * * * * * * * *

“I know of a good district hospital around here,” said Cynthia. She had visited it once while investigating the service-level agreements the Ministry of Health had with outside parties, like CHAM, the Christian Health Association of Malawi. These were decisions of efficiency.

We continued up the crumbly red/orange road, passing the occasional perplexed-looking villager. Eventually we reached it: a large red brick building with the name “David Gordon Memorial Hospital” inscribed in stone over the entrance.

Cynthia left us to sit for a moment while she went in to investigate. I read the various signs, either in Chichewa or Tambuka, which promoted safe sex, breastfeeding, AIDS testing or the variety of other health concerns that rural Malawians face. Cynthia returned, and led me to a haggard, but kind looking older Scottish woman, who directed me to a nurse, who asked me to wait for a Malaria test.

There were only a few others in the waiting room, mostly women; some with babies. Eventually I was called in to the lab, where a man named Buchanan, in a brown overcoat, swabbed my fingers and took some blood for the smear test. I sat there as he dried out the sample and slid it under the microphone. Out in the hallway, one of the patients, having received her medicine, hoisted her baby onto her back, stooping to keep the infant from sliding off as she tied a chitengi around the both of them. With little doubt that the fabric would hold him, she stood up and marched down the hall, with gurgling at her ear.

“Yep-yep,” said Buchanan. “It is malaria, plus one!”

I sighed wholeheartedly with relief. Better malaria than some undiagnosed tropical malady.

I stepped out into the hallway, smiling at my friends.

“Yeah, it’s malaria,” I said, “Not that it’s a huge surprise.”

The nurse, a pouty, beautiful and bountifully pregnant Malawian woman gave me a blank stare as she looked at my lab results and wrote me a prescription. She informed me that I’d have to pay at the cashier’s before I would receive any medication.

I went to look for the cashier, Ranil in tow.

He whispered to me as we made our way down the hall.

“Did you see her?”

“Hmm?”

“That nurse,” he said as he glanced back. “She’s gorgeous. By far the most beautiful Malawian woman I’ve ever seen.”

“Go talk to her then,” I said, only half engaged.

“Evidently someone agrees with me,” he said, noticing her bulging belly.

The sleepy looking, heavyset woman behind the cashier’s counter glanced over my bill. She fumbled with a calculator for a moment before announcing:

“That will be three-hundred kwatcha please.”

My eyes widened.

“Really? Are you sure?”

Three hundred kwatcha is equivalent to two dollars and some change. A visit with the nurse and a test for Malaria would cost a few thousand kwatcha at a private clinic in Lilongwe.

With the meager bill dispatched, I expressed my astonishment to Cynthia. She nodded.

“You might want to put some money in the donation box,” she said, pointing to the tiny wooden box, latched closed, sitting on top of a filing cabinet.

I shoved two thousand kwatcha into the tiny slot on the top. The cashier quietly expressed her thanks from her cubicle.

I walked back down the hall towards the back of the hospital, to the pharmacist. It turned out to be the Scottish woman from earlier. She looked over my prescription, a treatment of Cortem, the latest drug to arrive in the country, as well as some paracetamol for the fever.

“Do you have some paracetamol?” she asked, rummaging through packages in the back of the room.

“I think so, somewhere at home,” I replied.

She came back to the window with two packets of medication.

“I’ll give you some anyway,” she said. “Now, with the Cortem….”

She explained the timing with which I should take anti-malarial over the next few days.

“Thank you,” I said, “How much for the medication?”

“Didn’t you already pay at the cashier?”

“Well, yes, but… that was it?

“Yes that covers the Cortem as well, all the best!”

I shoved a few more thousand kwatcha into the donation box, the muted gratitude of the cashier trickling out of the booth.

We exited the tall brick building, out onto the barren red earth which surrounded it. Phil was waiting with the truck.

I settled into the front passenger seat, a small plastic bag at hand for fear of another gastric coup d’etat.

The road back to the M1 was not terribly considerate to my constitution, and I was again feeling awful by the time we reached the relatively smooth, paved highway that would lead us home.

As we rounded a slow bend, something caught my eye above. Proximity brought some clarity to the blurb in the distance: it was a person, lying by the road. As we neared I saw it was a boy, or a young man, sprawled out, half his body on the asphalt, a bag hanging loose off his back. He did not move.

We passed him without any deceleration and I turned to look back as, I noticed, did Cynthia. He was still there, crumpled, but soon was lost as we turned another bend.

We turned back in our seats with no exchange of words. Several cars passed us.

* * * * * * * * * *

Somewhere else, the parachute touched the grass. Those that were left were inclined to take it away. It was with some effort that they folded it up until it was just a tiny thing.

It was with a strong consensus that we escaped the grasp of the hotel’s celebration, the sounds of its garish and chaotic introduction to the year pursuing us out into the street. My thoughts scattered, I teetered for a moment on the front step before stepping out into the humid, restless night air. Other than the occasional oily cough of passing minibuses, the melody of the night was dominated by the soft whistle of wind through the slouching palm trees decorating the street.

The pavement felt chilly and isolating on this rather penultimate night, like a wrong step would send me tumbling down a crack. I contemplated my comrades’ likely path until the ocean, with its tempting hiss and promise of ripe adventures, drew me to the night time shadow of the Zanzibar Serena Inn.

I peered into the darkness of the alley and hesitated, my trepidation draining when I saw the broken outline of several friends skirting the hotel’s outer wall. I leaned back into the street and motioned to the remaining members of our party who were stumbling out the front door, equally inebriated and elated at our retreat.

I stepped into the shadow, following the stone landing down towards the surging black water, my fingers skirting the brickwork, laughter bookending me. I reached the end of the path and glanced around the corner of the hotel, where the others were carefully making their way across the small porch of rocks separating the wall from the water. The lights of the celebration above were eclipsed by the stone wall, above it stood the silhouettes of hotel guards sent to keep an eye on our cadre, blocking out the now ancient stars.

We eight collected around the two remaining bottles of champagne, retrieved from the hotel’s cooler with great zeal. Phil was still fumbling with one of them when half of our party decided to embrace the ocean. Two men went charging into the depths sans undergarments – their partners left their brassier straps clasped for fear of incarceration. The rest of us, together with the guards and the other party guests from the Serena, became their audience as we all bobbed and giggled out way into 2008.

As we kissed hugged each other a foghorn erupted from across the ebony waves and muted our cheers. In the distance a tugboat lit up, its hulk adorned with a variety of leftover Christmas lights. As it slowly turned about and retired to the horizon, our more aquatically-savvy friends left the water for good. Clammy clothing equipped, we left the ocean to itself, save for a few errant champagne corks.

* * * * * * * * *

An hour later I teetered on the front step of the Africa House hotel, my thoughts routed. Young tourists, many of them English, staggered past me. Their laughter and chattered echoed down the alleyways leading away from the studded entrance doors.

I sniffed the air, which was salty and restless still.

“Excuse me, do you know if there’s anything else going on tonight?” I asked a short, podgy girl who came trotting by.

“Yayyhh,” she said in a slurred London dialect, “there’s totally a partayy going.” She continued on, in the general direction that the celebrating populace seemed to flow.

I looked at the others and shrugged, motioning that we follow. Our little collection of flotsam meandered down the street, speculating on the likelihood of finding another venue.

The emptiness of Stonedown was disconcerting, like the city itself was in a deep hibernating slumber, and any attempts by interlopers at a recrudescent bout of celebration could be swallowed up in its long stone corridors. Luckily the path of the beaded line of partygoers did not meander from the main road, and soon enough the dull distant thud of music could be heard.

My quickened pace took me ahead of the others – my desire to immerse myself in a club and delay the inevitable dawn was immense. Yet still remaining was that slight apprehension at melting into a crowd, hoping to single someone out worth being singled out by. I looked at Ranil, the other available friend in the group, hoping for some sign of solidarity. Sunstricken from a long day of touring Stonetown, he did not seem to share this goal.

We rounded a corner and saw it – a small car park framed set of stone steps crowded with smokers. Beyond them was a single small door with two gormless looking bouncers vaguely scanning the arriving horde. With little notice from them I entered into the tiny venue, suddenly feeling crushed by the density of people, and the breathless heat of the place.

It took some minutes to claw my way to the back of the club with some of the others. It seemed that most of the Africa House attendees had found their way to this hole in the stone; the men wandered, their pick-up looks primed, the women retaliating with shrewd but investigatory glances. It was suddenly too much to take in, and so I slapped ten thousand shillings on the bar and ordered a beer.

As I was waiting I watched two women who had been dancing nearby earlier at the Africa House. One had long brunette hair and a freckled, pouty face. She was sipping on a cocktail and scanning the room.

Three beers were shoved in my face, I handed one to Dan and one to Phil and moved back towards the front of the club. We danced for a while and made the usual attempts at shouting conversation.

Some time later I stepped outside for a break, the intense heat of the club giving away to the now-gentle night warmth. The others were sitting on the steps, either drinking water or smoking.

There was a little bit of commotion at the door as a thin, absolute gorgeous black woman with long, silky hair and that determined gait of a supermodel came striding out. Some friends came running after her, but were beaten back by a snarling English accent.

“It’s my birthday and I’m going home!”

She slid past a few cars in the lot, and then was gone.

Dan nodded at me and slapped me on the back. “Lot of good looking totties in their Matt. I could see you checking them out.” The others laughed. “Aren’t you going back in?”

I crossed my arms and chuckled. “Yeah, maybe.” I felt like folding up.

“Single women?” said Barbara, “Wait, so Matt, you’re on the market?”

“Yeah,” I said, shrugging. “I’m, uh, up for grabs.”

She smiled. “Well go back in then!”

Phil and Cynthia stood up, determined to dedicate a few more hours to dancing. The rest made a motion to return to our hotel. I looked back into the club, as the occasional spontaneous couple trickled out. I took a final swig of beer and stepped back in.

* * * * * * * * *

I had been dancing for some time when the supermodel came waltzing back in – she looked like the type to have wildly fluctuating moods (beautiful).

As she passed me I shouted after her.

“Happy birthday!” my voice, drunken and perhaps too humoured, carried to her ear.

She whirled on a high heel and faced me with a smile.

“Thank you, but if you knew how old I was now you wouldn’t be saying that!”

She whirled again and disappeared into the crowd.

As she vanished the pouty  brunette came back into view, now dancing rather methodically, keeping her eyes locked on then man in front of her.  From time to time he whispered something in her ear as she would laughed, though with some struggle. His rhythm began to become more manic as his attempts at arousal crumbled. Then, without saying anything, she turned away from him and walked off. Drained, he slid his hands into his pockets as his body returned to its natural slump.

Phil appeared, carrying several bottles of water. I crumpled into a chair in the corner, nursing one of them, watching the crowded remnants of the club shuffle their feet. Cynthia leaned over and said something.

“What?” I shouted over the din.

She motioned with her head back to the crowd. “How about the girl in the striped dress?”

The woman in question was a tall thin, brunette, sporting a tight striped dress of various colours, her ponytail ricocheting back and forth across her nose. She looked happy, disconnected from her friends, who, I had noted, had failed in their attempts to find companionship elsewhere, had returned to seek comfort as a group. They were shorter and almost brutish compared to this woman.

She wasn’t pretty. An awkward set of features dominated – but she had a happy aloofness about her which briefly illuminated her as the other women in the club were too busy to properly dance. They were were, with some calculation, vetting each and every man for the position of New Year’s fuck. This woman did not care that she was not very pretty, and was sexier for it.

I stood up as I finished my water, turning to Cynthia.

“Being completely drenched in sweat, I’m not feeling that attractive right now,” I shouted.

She shrugged. “All of the women are just as sweaty!”

We danced a little more. The DJ began to lose his way, as they are prone to doing as nights bear on. Eventually, I felt the inevitable hand on my shoulder.

“Ready to head out?” said Cynthia.

I looked back at the girl in the striped dress, her minute but invigorated body still writhing in time with the music. Her eyes were nearly closed as she smiled and spun around, and around, and around.

I felt my captivation losing orbit on her third and final rotation. Without further glance I turned about and walked outside into the night of Stonetown’s first early morning. The air had begun to chill, and I found myself shuddering with anticipation as I accelerated to catch up with my friends.

* * * * * * * * *

I’ve been trying to think of something to write for a few weeks, but with no success. I’m off to Zanzibar tomorrow for two weeks. I’ll try and write some stories when I return. Happy new year.

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