Charnay woke with a start, and with the uneasy feeling that some greyish, hooded creature had just brushed past her. The plane was warm, and many of her fellow passengers were still asleep. But the man in the window seat was snoring loudly, a thick, rasping sound that soared upwards, then fell away in a hiss like a tiny balloon. Through her irritation, she made a note of the noise. It reminded her of somebody. Could she remember everyone she’d ever slept with, just by the way they’d snored? Like an audio ID parade? She could try to list them that way, in her head. It might calm her down till they got to Jo’burg.
“Michelle, Michelle, ’skuustog.” Her neighbour on the aisle side – Pieter? – was touching her shoulder. “Excuse me, sorry about this, hey.”
She’d lied to him that she was Michelle, an exchange student coming home from six months at a São Paulo language school.
She slid a hand under the aircraft blanket onto the hard globe of her stomach and left it there. Don’t use the toilet. And stay cool.
Pieter was speaking again.
“You talk in your sleep, Michelle, did you know that?”
Middle-aged, with brandy on his breath. He’d said he was a doctor, but he didn’t look the type. He looked like a good old boykie, the pick-up-truck-driving, Klippies-and-Coke-drinking sort who hung around the bars of Vanderbijlpark, dreaming of undressing girls like her in some failed motel at the end of the night. Telling racist jokes in a cloud of cigarette smoke. One of those types who – depending on the audience – could also switch on a spiel about the evils of apartheid and the bad old days. How they’d had no clue what was being kept from them, how they’d been so much in the dark. Nowadays, everyone appreciated the value of a good cover story.
Pieter’s fleshy fingers were squeezing the mermaid tattoo on his forearm, kneading it rhythmically. The sleeve of his blazer was crumpled; Charnay could see how strained the cheap material was across the shoulders, and how his jeans bit into his thighs. A lace trailed from the shoe cocked on his knee. She wondered uneasily why this badly wrapped parcel of a man was so tense, why he hadn’t tilted his seat back to sleep. She needed to calm down. But he was checking her out, his small, sharp eyes unblinking.
“Ja, you were getting woes, helluva angry. You sounded like you were calling somebody some very bad names.”
“Sorry to keep you from sleeping, er, Pieter.”
Charnay stroked her stomach gingerly. Jirre, man. She needed the bathroom.
“And you haven’t eaten the whole flight. A young lady in your condition, with a baby on the way?”
His voice was soft, persistent. Fokall to do with you, my condition.
Now Pieter was taking the TAP in-flight magazine out of its pocket and holding it up theatrically to the overhead light. “Eu penso que voce é muito estúpido,” he said, slowly, as if he was reading her a bedtime story. “Voce compreende uma palavra que eu estou dizendo?” Then he turned to her as if he had just remembered something. “Ja, and you also sounded so sad, Michelle. A nice blonde girlie like you, on her way home from language college. Now tell me, Michelle, what have you got to cry about?”
The cabin gave a sudden lurch. The air rushing through the jet engines rang more shrilly now as the plane began to struggle gamely with unseen assailants, out there in the mist. An alarm bell rang. Stupid bloody fool! How had she let them persuade her into this? As the captain’s voice came over the intercom, talking cheerily about turbulence, Charnay could hear people around her shifting about and sighing. Seat belts were clinking, with a sound like marbles pouring slowly into a sack. A child wailed. Wiping her sweaty palms distractedly on her jeans, she turned away from the man beside her and peered out at the sky.
Outside, long fingers of rain were stroking the window. She wondered if it would be raining on the farm: fat drops bouncing on warm red soil, darkening the thornbushes and the striped pelts of springbok. Funny how she still thought of that old plot near Kimberley as home, although no Delports lived there now.
She’d been seven when they left, skinny and gap-toothed, and the only girl in her class with a giant leopard tortoise for a pet. Skillie had been her grandfather’s, too – his own father had found her in the bush and drilled a hole in her shell so she could pull the Delport babies around on a little sledge. But by the time Charnay had grown too big for the sledge, the Delports’ farming days were numbered. Years of drought had sucked the life out of everything. Even the grass by the dam was brown. So once the government started cutting subsidies on farms like theirs, the bank had just taken it all back.
Petrus, the farm manager, had helped them load up the truck and the old blue Fiat. Watching from the car’s back window, she’d seen her grandfather raise a hand towards Petrus as if to pat him on the shoulder, but then he’d dropped it again, and just stood there without saying anything. Charnay remembered Petrus’s brown face, as stiff as Oupa’s white one. She had watched Petrus out of the window as their little convoy crunched down the drive for the last time, seeing how he got smaller and smaller until he was only a tiny dot by the windpump. Or perhaps it was they who had looked small to him?
She was pierced by a grief for Skillie she had thought long gone.
“What’s wrong, Michelle?” It was Pieter again. He was craning towards her, pretending to look out through the window with her. The plane was descending now, and would soon be coming in to land. She could see the spray of dandruff on his shoulders.
Make him shut up.
“Sorry, Pieter. Tired, you know?” She tried to smile but she knew it would have come out pinched and small.
“You’re sorry. Ja, I’m sorry too. And I’ve got plenty to cry about. These days you have to learn to survive with less than four-fifths of five-eighths of fokall. Ja-nee, but what can you do, hey? Tell me, Michelle, you ever had an older boyfriend?”
This time Charnay slumped down in her seat, saying nothing. She thought of Ma. She would be waking up about now, shuffling off to the sink to wash before the other squatters got there first. The twenty other homeless Afrikaners, as Ma preferred to call them, who also lived stuffed into shacks and tents in that filthy patch of soil behind the main house. Ma would probably be planning to go to the church soup kitchen today, but you had to get there early for best pick of their secondhand clothes. Whereas, she, Charnay Delport, had just had a week’s paid holiday lying by a pool in the sun, like some blerrie film star. She slid a finger up the bridge of her nose, where her sunglasses had sat.
“You know, I think I know you from somewhere . . .”
Jesus, this guy! He was really starting to freak her out. Charnay turned to him, noticing the way his hands were shaking slightly. Ah, hy’s gesuip. Just another horny drunk. All those brandies, before and after dinner. What else might he have seen?
She was still turning it all over in her head as they bumped down onto South African soil. Get ready. Across the façade of the terminal, distorted in the convex window of the plane, she could see that three of the letters spelling out the airport’s name were missing. The dilapidation was a crumb of comfort, somehow – slack might be part of the way things worked round here. She watched as a baggage truck, orange lights blinking, sped across the tarmac to the spot where their plane was heading to park. Behind it, two yellow vehicles. Police. Looking for illegal immigrants. Terrorists, even.
Or a girl with a stomach stuffed with cocaine.
The first shock had been that the promised beach-front hotel never materialised. But the big house they brought her to instead was so beautiful, Charnay hadn’t cared. She’d caught a glimpse of São Paulo, anyway, when the tall guy with the cowboy boots, Zé, picked her up from the airport. Patches of colour flying past like hallucinations. A giant, winking, blue-neon Christ on a billboard, arms outstretched. Jacarandas, plumbago and hibiscus everywhere, just like home. Police with guns, too. Even a big shanty town, right near the rich neighbourhood where the villa was.
After the initial thrill of being there, the days had passed almost in a blur, each one feeling as though it were a part of the one before that, all connected by her restless dreams. With nothing to do but wait, she’d spent most of her time by the pool, eating prego rolls in her sunglasses and staring up at the hot blue January sky. Ringing for takeout, whatever she wanted: pizza with steak toppings, stir-fried chicken and spring rolls. The hardest decision had been how to blow the money they’d given her upfront, if they weren’t going to let her out through the spiked gates that slid back electronically. In the end, she’d told Zé what she wanted and he’d gone out and bought it for her: a leather jacket from a big department store, something she’d spotted in Vogue Brasil. Champagne-coloured, like her hair. With the buttons done up, you could hardly see her bump.
She wondered where Zé was right now. Zé, with his woolly knitted cap perched on his soft black hair, and his eyes like licked caramels. Charnay had seen him checking her out as she emerged from the pool and stalked self-consciously back to her sunlounger, more aware than ever of how the soft swell of her belly made her hips sway. She was glad she was still so small, even now, with twenty-nine weeks gone. At night, Zé had stuck around to watch the soaps with her, laughing at the telenovela he liked best, at the complicated things that happened to Tião, the rodeo cowboy, and Creuza, the lustful woman who pretended to be shy and virginal. Despite not knowing the language, she had understood everything that was going on between them. But in the end, Zé had never so much as touched her hand.
The second shock had come on the fifth day, yesterday. Zé had arrived with a laptop and a big-breasted, hard-faced woman called Maria. She’d chopped out some lines on the dog-eared TV guide, looking faintly surprised when Charnay refused. Then she’d got down to business, spreading the contents of the laptop case out on her blue floral bedspread. The pill to swallow so Charnay wouldn’t go to the toilet on the plane. The Chloraseptic spray, to loosen up her throat. Finally, the coke, half a kilogram in twenty-eight condom-wrapped pellets the size of her thumb. “Swallow, no chew, see?” Maria had explained, throwing her head back and demonstrating, her throat supple and brown against the whiteness of her T-shirt. “Two, yes? Every twenty minutes. Take your time, easy, nice.”
Simply the thought of that stuff near the baby, swimming in its own clean sac, made her feel faint and sick. She’d stammered that there’d been a mistake, a big one. That the Jo’burg people had told her she’d be bringing a package home in the lining of a suitcase. There’d been a nasty moment of silence. Zé had stopped shifting the match he’d been chewing from one side of his mouth to the other, his face suddenly very still and alert. Then Maria had forced a smile. “Mama pequena, little momma,” she’d cooed in a voice bright as a broken bottle. “No one will suspect a pregnant woman! Much safer than inside a suitcase.” Then she’d pushed her mouth up close to Charnay’s ear, tickling it with the heat of her breath. “Otherwise we keep you here and you don’t go home,” she’d said. “You want your money, white girl? Then work for it. Does anyone at your house even know where the fuck you are?”
They’d sat with her, then, for the next five hours, while she swallowed. Feeding her sips of water from a toothbrush glass. About halfway through, when her dry-retching wouldn’t stop, Maria had rummaged in her bag for a half-full bottle of massage oil, and she’d shut her eyes and pretended it was medicine. They’d explained again how the rest of it would work, too. How when she got to Jo’burg, someone would be waiting for her at the airport. She’d go to a hotel, take another pill, wait for it all to come out. It could take a couple of days, they’d said. And after that, she’d get paid.
And now there were police at the airport, before the plane had even come to a halt. How could she have trusted Zé, not seen that he and Maria would lie to her? Of course there’d be another girl in the villa this week, wide-eyed and wondering at the easy luxury of it all, at the satellite TV and the surround-sound stereo system. Were they punishing her, perhaps, for being unco-operative? Could they have called the police? Maybe her arrest would cause a nice distraction, so some other stupid fool with a bigger haul could get through unnoticed. Or was she just letting her lack of confidence take over again?
Ma. Charnay had a sudden, desperate longing to see her mother’s face. When was the last time she had seen Ma laugh – really laugh, slapping her hands on her knees the way she used to? Probably before Bertus lost his job washing cars and they’d had to move again. Before Charnay found work in the bar. The night before she left for Brazil, full of lies about spending a week with her friend Cornelle in Springs, they’d had a bad time with Bertus. Drunk and ranting about respect, grabbing Ma’s greying plait, pushing his red face with its starbursts of broken blood vessels up close to her worn one. But she’d still been up at six, same as usual, to see Charnay on her way. She’d stroked her daughter’s belly and even joked about how her unborn grandchild was already becoming a real traveller. Charnay had smiled back, but she couldn’t look Ma in the eye. She couldn’t face the intensity of that frightened, watery gaze, those eyes diluted with a sadness that seeped into her very bones.
She and Ma, she knew, would not meet again for a long while, not after this. For Ma, clinging to the old days, recognising nothing in what the politicians called the rainbow nation, would never understand where all the money had come from. Or how far Charnay had fallen. That there was nothing she would not now do, including begging a black man for help, to lift herself beyond the limits of Vanderbijlpark and seize her place in the larger world. How inside she was aching and hot and always empty. A farm overrun by the forest. Her fields were all on fire. The air was filled with smoke, and nobody seemed to see.
Fool, blerrie fool. But Charnay, you are something special, Zé had comforted her. What you have on your side is not just that you are so young, but your hair – your beautiful yellow hair – and your baby. Not at all what the police will be looking for. These things, Zé had said, would see her clear through the airport and help her come out the other side. But those waiting police vans were making a nonsense of all that. The game was up, and she was not prepared for it. Something had gone wrong.
“Let us in, man! We’re good South Africans. We all like rugby and we all drink beer.” A big guy in sunglasses and a green dashiki shirt was joking with an immigration official at the passport booth up ahead. A public-sector strike – another one – was in full swing, and only a skeleton staff was on duty that day. Police had been drafted in, a hoarse voice had announced over the public address system, so that security at the airport “would not be compromised”. But everything was moving at an agonisingly slow pace.
“Just be patient, sir, and we’ll try and get this sorted for you as quickly as we can.”
Now, at the head of the queue, a woman in a long gown and a scarf wrapped turban-style around her head was arguing over a piece of paper. Soon it would be Charnay’s turn. It had taken almost an hour, and finally she had come to the front of the line. But after this she’d also have to wait the Lord knew how long for the luggage. And before this queue had even started moving, she’d felt it – a pang of heat running through her body, the upwelling of a small, red pain.
She’d tried to ignore it. Zé had told her these were good-quality condoms, but you had to look after them, he’d said. Don’t eat or drink on the plane. And be cool. Otherwise, acid from the stomach can melt the plastic and then . . . He’d shaken his head. Big trouble. Someone he’d known once, a Rio woman, had got an overdose after a condom burst in her stomach while she was flying back from Lima. She’d drunk a ginger beer, then fallen down, saying she was all on fire. She’d been rushed to hospital, he said, as soon as the plane landed, but it was too late. It had taken her six days to die.
She was next. Stepping forward, she felt the new bad feeling again, only this time it was stronger, clearer.
“Goeie môre, meneer. How are you, sir?” Her voice was steady, but she could feel sweat burning on her forehead and the backs of her knees. The heat from her gut enveloped her, then slowly sank away.
A policeman with a sniffer dog was idly circling the queue. She had not given herself away by any change of expression or sudden movement. She could count on that. After telling the official what he wanted to know, she would continue on her way at an even pace. Safe past the dog that was waiting to sniff her over, wanting to get the scent of her betrayal. Into the arrivals hall, alive with the warmth of families, their bundles and exclaiming relatives. She’d have done it.
“Sawubona, welcome to eGoli. And where have you come from this morning?”
Charnay gave him her biggest smile. That was an easy one. She began to answer, but found she couldn’t remember the words. Instead, the pain was back again, the bird that was forcing its wings open in her stomach and pecking at her throat. And her heart was pounding loudly, making her feel dizzy and faint. She licked her lips, conscious of the officer with the dog coming up behind her on the left-hand side. Everything seemed to have gone still.
The official was looking at her expectantly, ballpoint pen poised. A queer sense of calm coursed through her as she lowered her head to her hands, resting her forehead against the booth’s dusty glass. She was drifting away, feeling hands warm on her shoulders, the fragment of a bad dream – a crow pecking the seeds from a swollen yellow sunflower – already fading. The hands were gentle and firm and smelled of familiar things, soap and pipe tobacco. She felt ancient, older than the hills. In the noise and the clamour sinking behind her she could just make out a whistle blowing, someone shouting, a dog whining. But Oupa was pulling her towards him, stroking her forehead and holding her fast against his chest, and at last she was able to sleep.
She was rich with Friday-night wages, and there were swallows dipping and soaring in the mild October sun. The street where the Nigerian lived was lined with pawn shops and Greek restaurants, peep shows and pool rooms. Charnay had never been to Hillbrow before. Muscled men leaned on bar stools at the entrances of the strip clubs, talking to the beautiful girls in their high-heeled boots, smoking cigarettes and waiting. Out on the pavement, vegetable-hawkers guarded their stock – single cigarettes, butternuts, roasted chicken feet. She’d had to dodge out of the path of a Shangaan mielie-seller, heading home with a baby on her back and a brazierful of coals on her head. Black smoke had clouded her face, filling Charnay’s nostrils and making her cough.
She’d still been coughing when she stepped into the restaurant, Bismillah’s. Inside, at a window table, Pascal and Mr Femi were waiting. They’d been sipping tins of Black Label beer, into each of which, Pascal told her later, the Nigerian had dropped several hits of speed.
Mr Femi had seemed delighted to see her. He’d towered over her, tall as a preacher in his beautiful grey suit, his mirror sunglasses reflecting her uncertain smile. Ordered chicken and rice for them all with an expansive wave of the wrist adorned with the silver Tag Heuer watch. Then, in between mouthfuls, he’d told her the facts. A week’s paid holiday at a luxury resort, cash for clothing and toiletries before departure, spending money while she was there, and R30,000 when she got home. Or rather, almost a year’s worth of rent on a little flat, to make a nest for her and Pascal and the baby. Light and air had seemed to push up between his words, like tiny blessings.
Sipping her Coke, Charnay had considered the risks. What she could count on, she knew, was that the police would not be checking for someone like her – someone full of confidence, so pregnant and so white. Fact was the blacker you were, the more suspect in this rainbow nation. That’s what had brought her and Pascal together. One time, the cops – four Zulu guys – had come to the bar searching for makwerekwere, cockroaches, foreigners without residence permits and skins a darker brown than your average South African oke. The street had been closed off, all the kitchen staff detained and asked for their papers. And if they couldn’t count to ten in Afrikaans, they’d been thrown in the back of the van. Pascal had been lucky, brazening his way out by singing the words of the old song she’d taught him: Ja, een ding kan jy seker weet, jy gaan jou brood verdien in jou gesig se sweet. One thing you can be sure of, you have to earn your dough by the sweat of your brow.
Later, the deal sealed, Mr Femi had waved them goodbye with another expansive smile and they’d spun elated back onto the street to find a bus back to Berea. Up in his room, Pascal had made a shield from the wardrobe beside his bed, a signal to the other three men living there that this was his private time. He’d played her a song in French on his guitar. It was about her, he’d said, her beauty and courage and bravery, and when he got back to the DRC it would go straight to the top of the hit parade and make both their fortunes. Then he’d kissed her nipples and they’d done it from behind so as not to hurt the baby, and she’d fallen asleep with the smell of the squeezed sap from their bodies on her hands. His or hers, it didn’t seem to matter.
Charnay awoke to the sound of a siren. Tubes dangled from the shiny white ceiling above her, swaying gently as they turned a corner. Her lips, underneath what she realised was an oxygen mask, felt dry and cracked. Her first thought was that she was back on the plane, but then it dawned on her. An ambulance. She was clear of the airport, jirre, she’d bloody done it. A man, someone wearing a blue paper mask and blue protective clothing, sat on the grey seat alongside her stretcher. He was reading, she noticed, a TAP in-flight magazine.
There was something very important she had to tell him. Her hands fluttered to pull away the mask, but by now he’d noticed that her eyes were open and he was moving towards her with soothing gestures.
“Michelle, my girl,” he was saying, stroking a tangle of blond hair from her face. That smell again, on his hands. Tobacco and soap. “Michelle, you’ve gone into labour, but you’re going to be absolutely fine. You’re dilating very nicely and . . .”
Her voice, forced out of her with enormous effort, was hoarse. It sounded like somebody else’s. “Asseblief tog, please. I don’t want it any more, get it out of me. I don’t want it to hurt . . . Baby, baby.”
But the man was soothing her, telling her in a calm voice not to worry. “Breathe in deeply, now, Michelle, and relax,” he was saying. “After all, you’ve got something very precious inside you, now haven’t you? Something you really don’t want to lose.” And bending over her with loving care, he began fitting the mask back onto her face.