Close quarters

In the compartment of a train leaving Cape Town, South Africa, I discover something about race, witchcraft and toaster ovens.


Eric Lawlor
May 6, 2000 8:00PM (UTC)

For the fourth time in several minutes, the train shudders, eases
forward and jolts to a halt. It can't seem to
make up its mind. I eye the door. I have snared the only
empty compartment on this train, and I'd
like to have it all to myself. My flight from London to Cape Town, South Africa, in
addition to arriving 12 hours late, had been sleepless; this time
tomorrow, I have a wedding to attend in Kimberley. If I don't get
some rest, I'll be a basket case.

The train begins to move again, this time with more of a sense of
purpose. We clear the platform and then the station, and for the
first time in more than an hour I can breathe easily. But it proves
premature because, just then, the door to my compartment opens suddenly and two people
enter, one a tall man in his 30s, the other a girlish-looking
fellow in his late teens. For a moment I think I'm hallucinating --
that lack of sleep again -- because they're lugging two very large,
very ornate mirrors, which they stow in a luggage rack. And then,
without speaking a word (they act, in fact, as if they haven't
noticed me), they leave.

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I have only just made this observation when they appear again, pulling
two enormous cardboard boxes held together by pantyhose. The boxes
bulge alarmingly and must weigh a ton. When next I glance in their direction -- I've been pretending to read my paper -- each box is lounging in a
seat of its own and looking, I might add, very comfortable.

Not the men, though. They've turned a bright purple and, for a
moment, I think their hearts are about to fail. But they recover
and set to work again, turning up over the next half-hour
with six folding chairs, a badly rusted toaster oven, a family of
battered suitcases and finally their
provisions for the trip: six plastic bags crammed with food. By now, I have come to admire them and find myself awaiting each
return with some anticipation.

The chairs and cases are heaped on top of the boxes, both of which
now slump in their seats and appear to be deep in
slumber. The food bags are suspended from hooks above the
window. This leaves the oven. It's apparent that they attach some
importance to this object, and a discussion ensues as to whether it
should be placed with the mirrors or stowed beneath a seat. The
first option is ruled out as dangerous -- were the train to brake
suddenly, the oven might be tossed to the floor -- and the second
proves impractical: The oven, being rather large and everything else
being rather low, refuses to slip under anything. I
notice that they're eyeing me.

"We were wondering," says the teenager, trailing off.

"We were wondering," says the older one, "if you'd watch this for us.
We want to go to the bar."

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Alone now and with the oven nestling in my lap, I gaze out the
window. Cape Town is long behind us, and we're crossing open country.
Eucalyptus trees line the railway track and, in the distance, I can
just make out the silhouette of a windmill. We pass a brickworks, a
pond filled with green algae and a settlement of whitewashed houses.
A group of farm laborers, each wearing blue dungarees,
ushers home a herd of cows.

We come in sight of a shantytown: several hundred shacks,
their walls made of abandoned wood and their roofs nothing more than
plastic sheeting. They are everywhere in the new South Africa, these
shantytowns, just as they were everywhere in the old as well.

The conductor enters and asks to see my ticket.

"Kimberley," he says. "Eighteen hours to go." Then, spotting the
oven, he raises an eyebrow. "I'm going to a wedding," I say. "It's a
present."

I'm growing tired of this monstrosity. But where to
put it? Not on the seats -- they're full. And not in the luggage
racks -- full as well. Which leaves the floor. But that doesn't
seem right. They asked me to take care of this thing. I decide to wait until they return. But that doesn't work either
because, when they do turn up, they're as drunk as skunks and,
ignoring not just me but the oven as well, fall instantly asleep.

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While my companions sleep, we are joined by another passenger, a
black man who, fortunately for all of us, is traveling light. His
name is Pele, he says; he's a Zulu and is going to Johannesburg
to visit relatives. Then, lighting a cigarette, he lapses into
silence, the very picture of a man in despondency.

The sleepers awake and, seeing Pele, pull a face.
They seem not to like him. "I'm hungry," says the
teenager, stretching himself. The older man rummages in one of the
bags and brings out several Scotch eggs, two crescent-shaped meat
pies and a packet of cookies called Eat-Sum-More. He extends the
cookies in my direction, but put off by the name, I shake my head.
Pele, he ignores. "You forgot our friend," I tell him. But before
the older man can respond, Pele waves dismissively. He seems not to
like these people any more than they like him.

Pele now produces two large cans of beer, one of which he hands to
me. Not very fond of beer, I politely decline. He politely
insists, and I politely relent. Halfway through the can, his spirits
revive. "Castle Beer," he says, reading the label. "The taste that
stood the test of time."

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Pele is not his real name, he explains, but one he earned as a child
because of his skill at soccer. "Believe me," he remembers his mother
telling a friend, "one day he'll be one of the greats."

And he might have, too, Pele tells me, had he not been lazy. So
instead of becoming a top-notch player, he became a mediocre one,
landing on the roster of a second-division club in Cape Town. That
club, just one week earlier, had fired him for "insubordination."
Pele, it seems, attended practices only when it suited him. "My
heart wasn't in it," he says. "I used to love playing. I wanted to be
player of the year and man of the match. But the passion's gone. Now
I play only for the money."

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The others have been listening to us and, to encourage them to join
the conversation, I say to the older of the two, "This person's a
footballer. Maybe you've heard of him." He looks at me as if I'm
unusually stupid. "We've no interest in soccer," he says. "Our game's
rugby. We're colored."

"Coloreds," in South Africa's tortured political lexicon, are people
of mixed race, and I understood now the antipathy that was dividing these
three people. Coloreds fared better under apartheid than blacks did;
though they weren't allowed to vote, they went to better schools, had
access to better jobs and, generally speaking, were better paid. And
they didn't suffer quite the same restrictions. While most blacks
were required to live in impoverished townships, coloreds, if they
chose to, could live in neighborhoods designated for them in urban
areas.

But because their position remained insecure, many coloreds came to think of
themselves as superior to blacks -- yet another example of a
disadvantaged group deriving psychological reinforcement from the
fact that there are others in the world even more disadvantaged than
they are. For their part, blacks had little time for coloreds and
tended to see them as collaborating with a racist regime. (In the new
South Africa, coloreds remain a conservative force. Many vote for
right-wing candidates.)

We are now in wine country and on both sides of us vineyards nestle
in the folds of rolling hills. The vine leaves have turned a bright
red and, from a distance, look like poppies. We pass a school
boasting Dutch gables and a garden filled with white and purple
flowers. Below us, several birds pick their way across a dry
riverbed. This part of Africa has not seen rain for months.

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"The train is very slow," Pele complains. And it's true. We are
averaging 28 miles an hour. Trains have personalities, of course, and
this one gives the impression of being world-weary. It takes no interest in the
exuberance of those younger locomotives, calling as they go to all and
sundry. This one lumbers along, hoping to God its joints hold up and
longing for the day when it can call it quits.

The two companions, who seem to have voracious appetites, are eating again.
This time it's oranges and a nice-looking spongecake. When the fruit
is passed around, Pele is snubbed again. Not that he seems to notice.
Having thrown off his torpor, he is leaning out the door and making
clicking noises at several women standing by the window. They snub
him, too. Though I hate to say it -- I have grown quite fond of him --
this may be a man whose destiny it is to be ignored.

Since he wants nothing to do with the other two travelers, and they want
nothing to do with him, I find myself having two conversations
simultaneously, one with Pele and one with the others. (It turns out they're house painters on their way to De Aar for jobs.) With Pele I talk about his soccer career, and with the painters I discuss music. I try very hard to
integrate the two subjects and fail dismally until -- quite by
accident -- I ask a question that finally breaks the logjam.

"To play football?"

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"No," Pele says. "I'm going to my sister's funeral."

"Oh, I'm sorry. She can't have been very old."

"Thirty-four."

"Was she ill?"

"No. She was very healthy." He pauses. "Her husband killed her."

I'm shocked. "You're joking."

"There's no doubt about it. You believe in witchcraft?"

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"No."

"I do," says the teenager, with surprising passion.

"I do, too," says the older man. "A witch doctor put a spell on me
once. I almost died."

Open any newspaper in South Africa, and you're almost certain to find
a witchcraft story. An especially horrendous case that occurred during my
visit involved a woman who hired two men to kidnap her grown son
and remove his eyes and testicles. She did this on the instructions
of a witch doctor who convinced her that an enemy had placed a curse
on her -- a curse that could only be nullified if she provided him
with her son's body parts.

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"I know someone whose head was cut off," says the teenager.

"I know someone who was paralyzed," says Pele.

The stories come fast and furious now: the woman who couldn't eat and
starved to death; the man who couldn't urinate and burst; the friend
who was rendered impotent and died of shame.

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"Witchcraft is powerful," Pele says.

"Very powerful," says the teenager.

I'd prefer that what united them was something other than
superstition, but it's something, I tell myself. They get on quite well now.
Another subject they agree on is the importance of family.

"You can find a girlfriend anywhere, but you only have one mother,"
Pele says, and the others nod gravely. The Scotch eggs are passed
around again, and this time Pele is asked if he'd like to have one.
The spongecake is produced, and he's offered some of that as well.

Affected as much as anyone by this new spirit of conviviality, I go
to the bar and buy a bottle of Bacardi. When I get back, the
teenager, using a penknife, cuts two Coke cans in half and makes us
Cuba Libres.

The teenager produces a boombox, and soon the compartment shakes to
the sounds of Papa Wemba.

"Do you like Papa Wemba?" the teenager inquires of Pele. "I should have asked."

"Papa Wemba's fine," Pele says.

All this goodwill -- combined with the Cuba Libres -- has us
quite uninhibited. The teenager dons two pendant earrings and tries
to pee out the window; his colleague produces a girlie magazine and
simulates masturbation; and Pele, after enjoining me to secrecy,
imparts the information that though he's right-handed, he plays
football with his left foot.

"I'm a freak," he says.

I assure him that he's not, which seems to disappoint him
somewhat, and then, to reestablish himself perhaps, he rolls up his
trousers and shows me where, at the age of 7, he was
stabbed in the leg.

"Which is better?" he wants to know. "The gun or the knife?"

I say it's something I've never considered.

"If someone attacked me, I'd prefer the gun," he says. "The gun
happens once. But the knife?" He strikes the palm of his left hand
with his right fist. "The knife happens many times."

At this point, the teenager produces a revolver. Not an actual
revolver, it turns out, but one so authentic looking it makes my
blood curdle.

"What's that for?" Pele demands. (Like me, he assumes it to be real.)

"For protection," says the teenager.

"You don't need protection from anyone here," Pele says. "Put it away."

Looking sheepish, the youngster does as he's told.

We play lots and lots of music: Defao (loud), Aurlus Mabele (very
loud) and more Papa Wemba (deafening). The conductor
intervenes at this last instance. "Turn that music down," he bellows. And then he notices
the floor, strewn with bones. (The painters have just
finished eating a chicken.) "I want this place cleaned up."

The older of the painters draws down the door blind, in the belief,
apparently, that if the conductor can't see the boombox, then
neither can he hear it. But he's disabused of this notion when
the conductor bursts in again, now looking livid. "I'm warning you,"
he says. "If you don't turn that thing off, I'll throw every one of
you off the train."

We quiet down after this. Pele goes to the bar and doesn't return (I
transfer the toaster oven to his seat), and the other two, after
consuming a large quantity of sandwiches, fall asleep. We're now
passing through the dry steppe country known as the Karroo. The
landscape, dotted with thorn trees and low scrub, looks scrappy and
untidy -- a vast place. It's all we see for hours and manages to dampen the
spirits somewhat, the unvarying repetition of it all. The eye seeks
respite -- and fails to find any. Eventually, I am dulled
into a state of insensibility.

And now, not far from the railway line, I spot, of all things, a
boat. Painted in bright shades of red and yellow, it looks quite
incongruous in this semiarid place miles from any water. Is this how
Noah's Ark would have looked when it came to rest on Mount Ararat?

A ridge of hills appears on our right, and then another on our left.
They look like pterodactyls. The train pauses -- to catch its breath
perhaps -- by a riverbed filled with perfectly rounded rocks. Half an
hour later, the hills have become mountains, and they press ever
closer, as if they intend to crush us. So convinced am I that the
end is nigh -- I am still a little drunk -- that I'm tempted to say an
act of contrition. But then, just when death seems imminent, the
mountains relent and draw away again.

The painters sleep soundly for hours, and I have to wake them when we
reach De Aar. It's 9 o'clock now, and outside it's dark. It takes
them almost as long to remove their accouterments as it did to
install them, and they've still yet to finish when the train begins to
move. Grabbing what they can, they jump to the platform, "Goodbye,"
they shout. "Enjoy the wedding."

"I will," I say. "Good luck."

I settle back in my seat. Oh, the relief! Kimberley is a good five
hours away. I can finally get some sleep. But this proves
impossible because now I see it: something quite
hideous lying on what had been Pele's seat. "Please, God," I think,
"don't let it be what I think it is." I close my eyes for a moment,
hoping it will go away. But when I open them, it's still there,
its tangibility monstrous and terrifying. They forgot the bloody
oven.


Eric Lawlor

Eric Lawlor is a writer living in Texas.

MORE FROM Eric Lawlor

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