People who would happily speed through Zoo City during the day won't detour here at night, not even to avoid police roadblocks. They're too scared, but that's precisely when Zoo City is at its most sociable. From 6 pm, when the day-jobbers start getting back from whatever work they've been able to pick up, apartment doors are flung open. Kids chase each other down the corridors. People take their animals out for fresh air or a friendly sniff of each other's bums. The smell of cooking – mostly food, but also meth – temporarily drowns out the stench of rot, the urine in the stairwells. The crack whores emerge from their dingy apartments to chat and smoke cigarettes on the fire-escape, and catcall the commuters heading to the taxi rank on the street below.
I arrive home with a copy of every music magazine on the planet, or at least those available at CNA. I haven't seen Benoît all day. He was planning to fill in for Elias again, although when I left this morning, he was still passed out, reeking of beer.
Elias has called in the favour four times already this week. He's been sick, coughing his lungs up in the squalid room he shares with six other Zimbabweans. It looks like TB. D'Nice has been bugging Elias for sputum to sell on the black market to people who can use it to claim temporary government grants. But the sickness in Elias's lungs could just as well be asbestos or a reaction to the black mould. Proper diagnoses are as rare as real doctors round here.
There are plenty of the other kind. Nyangas and sangomas and faith healers with varying degrees of skill or talent, broadcasting their services on posters stuck up on telephone poles and walls. Some of them are charlatans and shysters, advertising cures for anything from money woes to love-sickness and Aids with muti made from crushed lizard balls and aspirin. Guess which ingredient does all the hard work?
Object muti is easy, particularly when it's based on a simple binary. Locked or unlocked. Lost or found. Objects want to have a purpose. They're happy to be told what to do. People less so. A hack spell to scramble SMSs on your business rival's phone – easy. An affection charm to make someone feel more tenderly towards you, whether it's a teen crush or an abusive husband – a little trickier. Lab studies have shown that some spells work through manipulating hormone levels, boosting seratonin or oxytocin or testosterone. Simple on/off equations. Most magic is more abstract. Capricious. It has a tendency to backfire. And the big stuff they promise, the Aids cures, bigger penises or death spells, are all placebo and nocebo, blessings and curses conjured up in your head. Not unlike glossy magazines, which also promise a better sex life, a better job, a better you. Trust me, I used to write those articles. And just look at me now.
Some folk have a real mashavi for healing, some can make genuine muti. But these are rare, and they tend to be out of the price range of someone like Elias. Which means another day of standing in line at the clinic from 5 am onwards, hoping to get to front of the queue before the cut-off time at noon, so as to procure seven and a half minutes of time with the burned-out nurses who have seen it all before. None of which is conducive to keeping up with your shifts.
Which is why it's even more of a surprise when I realise that one of the cooking smells mingling through the building is emanating from my apartment. I push open the door to find Benoît, still in Elias's too-small uniform, standing at the hotplate, cooking hot-dogs and pap and beans. The whole apartment has been swept and wiped down, and even the bed has been made. The generator is purring happily, a canister of petrol standing beside it.
"You're looking very chipper for someone who should still be suffering the mother of all hangovers. And what's this?" It will turn out that I have good cause to be suspicious.
"I can't do something nice for you?"
"Oh, I can think of several things nice you could do for me, with me, to me."
"You see how it could be if you just gave me a key."
"This was a one-time deal, mister, and only because you were still sleeping it off when I left. Don't get used to it."
"You don't like it?" he asks.
I relent, sling my arms over his shoulders and lean against his back. "S'all right. I guess."
"Get off, woman, I'm cooking," he laughs, shrugging me off. But he tilts his head all the way back to kiss me.
"Cooking? Or burning?" I tease.
He insists that we take our faintly charred hot-dogs up to the roof, leaving the critters behind. He's even bought paper plates and napkins, and two bottles of beer. He also brings out his camera, a battered and hopelessly outdated Korean generic, barely a megapixel, and held together with duct tape. It's seen a lot, that camera. Whole documentaries' worth. But the only photos Benoît has shown me are the ones he takes of himself.
He's obsessive about it. He's recorded every step of his journey from Kinshasa to Joburg, photographed every major landmark, every significant crossroad or place he stayed for the night, every person who showed him kindness. But it's not enough to photograph the people or the places. He has to be included in the frame. Like it's not only evidence that he was really there, but that he exists at all.
By the time we reach the rooftop, I'm out of breath. People don't come up here a whole lot, especially since the elevators died, except to hang laundry out on a sunny day. Sometimes there'll be a party on the roof, to celebrate a wedding or a birth or when one of the local gangs feels like buying some community goodwill with a spitbraaied sheep and grilled offal. It can get ugly if people are drunk, at New Year especially. It's practically tradition for people to send appliances crashing to the street, storeys below. There are reasons the cops and ambulances are slow to respond to "incidents" in Zoo City – if they respond at all.
Benoît ducks under a laundry line, sheets and dresses and shirts flapping like tethered kites. Everything takes on a muted quality fifteen floors up. The traffic is reduced to a flow and stutter, the car horns like the calls of mechanical ducks. The skyline is in crisp focus, the city graded in rusts and coppers by the sinking sun that has streaked the wispy clouds the colour of blood. It's the dust in the air that makes the Highveld sunsets so spectacular, the fine yellow mineral deposits kicked up from the mine dumps, the carbon-dioxide choke of the traffic. Who says bad things can't be beautiful?
"Why don't we come up here more often?" Benoît says, uncharacteristically wistful.
"Too many stairs."
He gives me a reproving look, and I feel bad for spoiling the mood.
"Here. Sit down." He plucks a quilt off the line, impervious to the sharp nettle-sting of the protection spell handwoven into the fabric by the specialty tailoring team downstairs, and spreads it on the cement under the water tower. I oblige. The quilt is still damp and covered in a patchwork of wannabe Disney characters, poor cousins to rip-offs and barely recognisable. But it's not like Benoît to be so unconscientious. "Aren't you worried it'll get dirty?" I say.
He shrugs. "Dirt isn't a permanent state. It'll recover." It occurs to me that he is not talking about the quilt. "C'mere." I scoot over to him and he tucks me under his arm and raises the camera high, pointing towards us. "Say Jozi," he says. And I understand that he is leaving.
When he turns the camera around to check out the photograph, it reveals him beaming broadly straight into the lens, but I am a blur of profile jerking towards him.
"No good," Benoît declares, but he doesn't delete the picture. He extends his arm to take another photo. "Hold still this time. Try looking at the camera." He touches my chin with his thumb, gently adjusting the angle of my jaw so that I am staring into our tiny and faraway reflection in the lens.
"Can't you wait?"
"I don't think so, Zinzi," he says quietly.
"Two weeks," I say. In desperation, "One."
"I can't say."
"But you still need to get your stuff together. Organise transport." There are people smugglers who will get you across borders, sneak you under barbed-wire fences, ferry you across crocodile-infested waters, pay off border guards with cases of beer or bullets. Although usually it's the other way round. Not much demand for sneaking out of South Africa. Of course, he could just fly, but then there will be stamps in his passport that will have to be explained to the people at Home Affairs, who believe being a refugee means you can never go home again.
He sighs and lowers the camera to look at me. "I'm working on it. D'Nice says he knows some people."
"D'Nice would. How are you going to pay for it?"
"I'm working on that too."
"Always with the questions, cherie. Can you stop being such a journalist for one minute?" He kisses me, as if that's an answer and, raising the camera again, teases. "Now hold still, will you?"
And I think: No, you.
The call comes later. At 2 am – that hour of sleepless brooding.
"She's dwying to sabodage him," the voice says urgently into the phone, without so much as a hola or unjani. The only reason I recognise it is because of the nasal honk.
"She's going to fug evewyding up. Song and da boyfwienb. Dey're supposed to be in sdudio. And she's jusd gone. She's so selfidg. She jusd wants to ruin evewyding for him." He is choking back tears, and I realise I was wrong about his crush. It's not on Songweza. It's S'bu.