In CA Davids’ debut novel, The Blacks of Cape Town, being released this month by Modjaji Books, protagonist Zara Black attempts to uncover the secrets of her family’s past, starting with her grandfather who concealed his race to escape the harsh realities of the mines.
For today’s Fiction Friday, we interrupt our Caine Prize series, to bring you an exclusive extract from The Blacks in Cape Town, in which Zara, alone and displaced in New Jersey, meets a chatty stranger on the train to New York City:
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As the woman unfurled a crumpled note, the American flag painted on nails that arched over the tips of her fingers, Zara had this question: what was the thing lodged between longing and loathing? That sensation she could feel pressing against her diaphragm that made her despise, even if just a little, all that she missed – her father, her country and even her beloved mother.
The ticket seller pushed Zara’s change through the glass mouth of the booth and mumbled something beneath her breath; it might have been have a nice day. Zara passed over the woman’s irritation. It wasn’t bad for a Sunday morning in the heart of winter. After the onset of snow, winter had receded and settled into a bearable chill, so perhaps she had better places to be than the train station, the smell of urine bubbling up between heavy doses of pine-scented disinfectant.
The early train to New York City was cramped and Zara sculpted herself into the space alongside the window at the back of the carriage. Talkative children pointed outside, teenagers spoke loudly on their cell phones and displaced lovers dozed against the windows of New Jersey Transit – the wires that reached into their ears and blocked the clamour of the day, transported them to other places yet, perhaps even back into the arms of those they had left behind.
It was Zara’s day off and the rich morning air had lured her out of her apartment and onto a train headed for the city. She would walk to one of the galleries, maybe MOMA, then browse around a book store, find something to eat and then she would take the train back to her single room, the place where silence was not only leaving its mark on her but where she was learning the many grades of quiet that existed in her world. Aside from that, there was no place to move because her apartment was covered in batches of paper. She had cluttered the white one-roomed flat with her signature mess.
Zara watched the suburbs give way to the muscular sprawl of suspended bridges, tire factories, apartment blocks and train stations that became more decrepit as Manhattan approached, and when Zara had settled into this mindless gazing, the day’s newspaper unread on her lap, she felt the compartment’s double seat depress.
Someone had sat down beside her, was now looking at her, closely.
“I ride the trains,” a man’s voice said.
Zara looked at him briefly, turned back to the window. She had been warned about people on trains here.
“I ride the trains most days,” the stranger persisted. “You never know who you will meet. Like you, who knew I would meet you today?” he said, and waited.
“Yes, hi, thank you,” Zara said, glimpsing the man’s fading black suit jacket turned in at the collar and his grizzly unshaven face, before she returned to the window. She did not want to have a conversation with him.
“I can’t pinpoint your accent, where are you from?” he asked politely, so that Zara strained to remain quiet.
“South Africa” she answered after a moment, the man’s stare digging into her, before she looked around self-consciously to see if anyone was watching. No one was.
“South Africa? Oh. I was married to an African-American woman once. Well, if you apply the term married loosely,” he said, folding his hands comfortably before him.
Zara feigned great interest in a gnarled tree outside, its whorled bark wrapped around part of a building. “Now, you don’t read too much about your country. Always the good ol’ U.S. of A … if it’s not our celebrities, it’s our wars and if it’s not that it’s the price of gas…”
Zara opened the paper and began to skim through the pages.
“You know, we have an African-American man running for the presidency, did you know?” He bent in close, Zara caught a whiff of soap, like the heavy block sort that was used to wash clothes or dishes at home.
“No, I did not, really?” Zara replied, annoyed that she had been distracted from her idle city watching.
“Ah, a joke? Yes, you’re having me on. You read. Probably read lots about everything. I can tell. Always can. It’s in the eyes: intelligence. Window to the soul, typa thing. And where the brain resides. Dull eyes, well, no bright ideas taking place, no fusion of connectors. It was a joke right?”
“Well, I was being sarcastic … and yes, I know who the candidates are,” Zara said, softening. “Why do you want to speak to me? I have nothing to say, and no one speaks on the train here anyway,” Zara said exasperated, and pointed around for emphasis.
“That’s exactly why. See, I’m a contrarian. Do my best work swimming against the tide.” He wove his hand, fishlike, through the air in demonstration. “In the sixties when everyone else was sleeping around, listening to Bob Dylan, I was celibate, listened to native Rain Forest music …”
“I thought Bob Dylan was the contrarian?”
“Well, he was, but everyone listening to him … I’m not so sure about them.”
“And then you married an African-American woman?”
“Yes, but not to be different. I fell in love, but we never did get married, not in the eyes of the law at least. We stayed together all of ten years, till she decided she had enough of me. Said I was impossible …” he was saying, relaxing into the conversation when the ticket inspector who had been edging closer, stopped at their seat. “Oh, gimme a break!” the woman began irritably, her khaki uniform straining threateningly at the two middle buttons on her shirt. “Why you have to be on my train? There’s a train every ten minutes in every direction in this state and you always pick mine?” she said, and placed a hand on her hip for emphasis.
“Because I missed your wit and charm …” the man replied, returning her stare cautiously.
“Actually, you see, actually today I was planning on going all the way to Manhattan. Train to Connecticut leaves at twelve,” he replied politely, and anxiously checked the empty space on his arm where a watch had once been.
“Unless you can pay, you’re getting out at the next stop, my friend.”
The man scratched about in his pocket, his bag, came up five dollars short.
“Right then, next station.”
“Wait,” Zara said, and reaching into her bag extracted five dollars.
“Well, it’s your money …” grumbled the inspector, her hand reluctantly accepting the coins, before she wrote out a ticket.
“You see, you never know who you’ll meet on a train,” the man said, as the ticket officer walked away shaking her head, before he turned to Zara and added kindly, “That was real nice of you.”
“So, why do you ride the trains?” Zara asked after she had taken out a map in order to decide where she would walk.
“Why not ride the trains?”
“Yes, I see your point …”
“I observe. Sometimes I even par-ti-ci-pate. Yes, you see some days maybe someone needs to talk. Maybe this person has no one to speak to, or, no one to listen to them … it’s amazing how many people in the world feel all alone … and so yours truly has found a niche …”
“Like a therapist?” Zara enquired, looking at the man closely: his eyes burning bright, his broad nose twitching when he said certain words.
“More like a barman, minus the booze, I’d say,” he said, pouring an invisible drink into an invisible glass in his hand, “… and some days you meet someone who is just waiting for a bit of advice … like you …” he added, taking a sip.
“Oh, really? What sort of advice?”
“You’re going to a notoriously aggressive city with a map in your hand … not a good idea. They won’t give you the time of day that way. No, not New Yorkers. And don’t ask directions either, shows weakness. Also never apologise. People will think you’re soft, and never hesitate when you cross a street, New Yorkers never do, you’ll get killed that way … just take the city like you own it, the rest will follow …”
“Those certainly are a lot of rules …”
“No, not rules. Skills that no one ever tells you, but things which you gotta know,” he said, with great confidence. “Like don’t blow your nose into a single piece of tissue paper, no, you gotta double it. And don’t eat the napkin around the hotdog,” he added, “gives you indigestion.”
“I’ll try to remember,” Zara said, laughing openly as the train pulled into the station, and people started shuffling towards the exit.
The stranger stood, delivered a half bow as he thanked Zara again for her kindness, wished her a wonderful life and rushed to catch his next train.
- The Blacks of Cape Town is published by Modjaji Books
- The Blacks of Cape Town by CA Davids
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