On my way home, the dull crackle of automatic gunfire, like microwave popcorn, inspires me and a bunch of other sensible pedestrians to duck into the nearby Palisades shopping arcade for cover.
The cops don't usually use automatic weapons, which means it's either gang war or an armoured car heist. The cash-in-transit vans usually get taken on the highways, where there's more room for quick getaways, but the gangs have been getting more brazen in the inner city. Gunfire has always been part of the nocturnal soundscape of Zoo City, like cicadas in the countryside. But it's only recently that it's become part of the daytime routine.
We wait it out, tense, between Mr Pie, the Milady budget shoe store and the Go-Go-Go travel agency, which obviously took the imperative of its name too seriously, because it's upped and gone. The window is wallpapered with a mix of TO LET signs, faded posters of exotic locales and Unbeatable Travel Deals!
The elevator to the atrium opens to disgorge an old lady carrying a pharmacy bag, who has to be held back from blundering outside into the gunfire. It takes some convincing, and finally she retreats, grumbling and muttering, back into the elevator, as if next time the doors open, it will be onto another place.
Benoît and I met in Elysium's elevator. Back when the elevator still worked. Back when I still used to try to disguise Sloth under a baggy hoodie. Back when I was raw out of Sun City – the prison that is, not the casino playground. There aren't any water slides or showgirls at Sun City, aka Diepkloof, where I spent three years as a guest of the government. It's an oversight of the prison system. Reform might be more effective if they taught you useful life-skills – like the high kick and the titty jiggle.
They call prisoners clients these days. It's all in the semantics. 'Clients' still get served slop and pap, still have to sleep fifty-seven to a room designed for twenty, still have to exercise in a grim concrete yard with the outside world taunting, only a mesh fence and a gun turret away. Clients still get kicked out onto the street when their compulsory state-funded vacation is up. With zero support except for an overloaded parole system that can't keep track of who you are, let alone what you're supposed to be doing.
I didn't phone my parents. We hadn't had a meaningful conversation since that spring night in 2006 when they'd come out to find me in the ambulance parking lot of Charlotte Maxeke, the shadows retreating, Sloth curled up in my lap like my own personal scarlet letter.
It was inevitable I'd end up in Zoo City. Although I didn't realise that until after the fifth rental agency had sneered over their clipboards at Sloth and told me they didn't have anything available in the suburbs – had I tried Hillbrow?
Elysium Heights wasn't the obvious choice of location for Starting Over. There were other, nicer blocks I looked at. But when Elysium's security guard agreed to show me the vacant apartment on the sixth floor when I asked him, there was something comforting about the barbed wire and the broken windows, the way all the buildings connected via officially constructed walkways or improvised bridges to form one sprawling ghetto warren. It reminded me reassuringly of prison. Only here, the doors open when you want them to.
I moved in that afternoon, with only the stale cash in my wallet and the Sloth on my back. I spent most of that first day hiding inside the apartment, trying to figure out what my next move was. In prison, you can drift between the claxons that regiment the day, just doing what you're told, like a ball in a slow-mo pinball machine. I missed those claxons.
It was late afternoon by the time I got up the guts to go outside, and then only because Sloth was mewling for food. The Sun City canteen served up slightly wilted leaves or dead insects or hay or raw offal, depending on your animal's dietary requirements. They're good that way in prison. Outside prison, well, baby, you're on your own. Got to find your own wilted leaves and slop.
Armed with the battered and scratched plastic keycard that grants access through Elysium's unwieldy turnstile gate (also reassuringly like prison), I locked up the apartment and pulled my hoodie up over Sloth's head. He snuffled in dismay.
"Tough luck, buddy," I said. I wasn't used to being seen in public with him yet. I still cared about what other people thought, even when the other people in question had animals of their own.
The lift took a long time. You could see that it had been recently refurbished. The metalwork was shiny and new against the peeling duo-tone paint job on the wall that framed it. I was just considering taking the stairs when the doors slid open revealing a pack of men, all with animals.
In Sun City, I would sometimes go along to the Neo Adventists' services. If you sat through the whole spiel, including the one-on-one counselling sessions afterwards, they would give you a proper meal, five food groups and everything. They said that the animals were the physical manifestation of our sin. Only marginally less awful than the theory that the animals are zvidhoma or witches' familiars, which would qualify us for torture and burning in some rural backwaters. The Adventists' sermons were torture enough, going on and on about the animals being punishment that we were going to have to carry around, like the guy in Pilgrim's Progress lugging around his sack of guilt. Apparently we attracted vermin because we were vermin, the lowest of the low. They said everyone could be saved, but I've yet to meet anyone who has had their animal magically dematerialised, like Pilgrim's sack of sin. Not without the Undertow coming for them.
But the men in the lift didn't carry their animals like burdens, certainly not the giant in front with the burn scars creeping down his neck underneath his t-shirt, and a Mongoose slung across his chest in a customised baby sling. They carried them the way other men carry weapons.
The Mongoose snarled at me, and I may have hesitated for an instant before I stepped into the lift. It didn't go unnoticed. I turned to face the doors as they slid closed, turning my back on the men and their menagerie, although I could see their warped reflections in the shiny aluminium, like a cheap funhouse mirror by way of Hieronymus Bosch.
"Aren't you afraid," asked the giant in a voice like silt, "to be in here with all us animals?"
"You should be afraid to be in here with me," I snapped, not bothering to turn around.
In the reflection, I could see the giant's face distending as he grinned, a grin that broadened until it swallowed his whole face, before he burst into laughter. The other men cracked smiles. Not big smiles, but big enough that no one hassled me after that, especially after I stopped trying to hide Sloth.
The next time I saw him was a few weeks later. The brand-new lift was already out of order, and I was dragging a portable generator up the fire-escape, kerlunking the unwieldy yellow bastard up the stairs one at a time, Sloth wincing at every metallic clang.
"What's that for?" said the giant companionably as he walked up behind me. He was wearing a dark khaki security-company uniform, slightly too small for him, with a name badge featuring the silhouette of a Spartan helmet that read SENTINEL SECURITY and ELIAS. He didn't offer to help, which I appreciated. In theory.
"Stealing electricity too good for you?"
"Too potentially electrocutey for me." Most of the
tenants shared illegal hook-ups, jerry-rigged wiring running between flats, sometimes between buildings – flaccid tightropes for a decrepit circus.
"I could organise a sideline for you charging cellphones. Lots of people don't want the hassle of going all the way downstairs to the phone shops."
"And I don't want the hassle of dealing with lots of people. Thanks."
"All right," he said and squeezed past me up the stairs, whistling and swinging his security baton. It took me twenty minutes to heft the generator up on my own.
The third time, he knocked on my door, brazen as that. When I opened it, he was standing there with a hotplate tucked under his arm and the Mongoose slung across his chest, looking sulky.
"I know you don't like lots of people," he said. "How about one?"
"Depends," I said. "What does one want?"
"I have this hotplate."
"I see that."
"And ingredients for dinner." He indicated the grocery bag at his feet. "And nowhere to plug it in." He grinned.
"Stealing electricity too good for you?"
"I'm a terrible thief. But a great cook."
It turned out he wasn't a great cook. But neither was I.
He was surprisingly easy to be around. My shavi is a bitch. Most mashavi are. But I was cynical about people before I could feel the threads of lost things radiating from them, like cracks splaying out from a hole in a windscreen. He didn't have any threads. Lost things, yes, incredibly faint and blurred around him, but no connections. Obviously, he had something horrible in his past, viz the Mongoose, but he wore it well, like a soft old shirt that's been washed many times. It turned out this wasn't a coincidence.
It also turned out that his name wasn't Elias. Elias was just the guy he filled in for when Elias was sick. The rest of the time, Benoît hustled. Odd jobs, man-on-the-sideof-the-road stuff, bouncer, labourer, fixer, entrepreneur, as long as it was legal, or mostly legal. Seducer of women was not part of his résumé, he claimed, until he met me.
In fact, I was the one who kissed him.
"I didn't expect you to be so forward," he said, surprised.
"Better than being backward," I said. The texture of his burns under my palm was like cellophane.
"Must be nice to wear your scars on the outside," I said.
"I'm not the only one," he said, touching the ruin of my left ear where the bullet had caught me. But he only told me about his wife and kids in January, four and a half months after we'd first started sleeping together.
We were perusing the wares on a food stand downstairs, when he dropped the bomb that his wife's mother used to have a fruit stand in Walakase.
"Wife present tense?"
"Possibly. I don't know."
"You failed to mention a wife." I thought I was speaking at an appropriate volume, but I was loud enough to perk up all the hawkers on the corner. Even the upstanding young drug-dealer on the corner with the unnaturally wide-eyed Bushbaby craned his neck to see what was happening. Sloth ducked his head. He hates it when I make a scene. "Maybe you should have told me about your wife, Benoît."
"You didn't ask," Benoît said calmly, picking up a mango from the fruit stand, turning it over in his hands. He squeezed it gently. Ripeness check, aisle three.
"I thought those were the rules we were going with. Former Life out of bounds. No questions."
"Because it's none of my business. I didn't want to know."
"And now you do. And this is my fault?" He swapped the mango for another candidate and handed it over to me, while the fruitseller pretended not to gawp. "What do you think of this one?"
"I think it's soft in the head."
"Would it have mattered to you, if you knew, cherie na ngayi?" I knew the textbook answer. The manual of morality dictates that I should have said "of course" or "how can you even ask that?" but I've never been a dependable liar. Or a good person.
"That's what I thought," he said. "It doesn't change anything, Zinzi." He moved to kiss me, but as I tilted my head up, he pressed the mango against my lips instead.
"Idiot," I said, wiping my mouth, mainly to hide my smile.
"Adulterer," he grinned.
"You weren't so unwitting last night. And besides polygamie is legal in Congo."
"Did I call you an idiot already?"
"Only as much as I deserve." This time he did kiss me.
I handed over twelve bucks for the mango and tucked myself under his arm, forcing Sloth to shuffle over begrudgingly.
"Are we a terrible cliché?"
"Isn't everybody?" he said.
The full story only came out later, and then only in snapshots, images caught in a strobe. The last time he saw his family, they were running into the forest, like ghosts between the trees. Then the FDLR beat him to the ground with their rifle butts, poured paraffin over him and set him alight.
That was over five years ago. He'd sent messages to his extended family, friends, aid organisations, refugee camps, scoured the community websites, the cryptic refugee Facebook groups that use nicknames and birth orders and job descriptions as clues – never any photographs of faces – to help families find each other without cueing in their persecutors. No dice. His wife and his three little children had vanished. Presumed dead. Lost forever.
The reason I didn't sense any of this? The reason I thought he was safe and sane and well-adjusted? His shavi is dampening other people's. He's the static to our ambient noise, the fuzzy snow that cancels out other frequencies, but only in how it affects him. A natural resistance to magic. Don't let that get out. If there was a way to synthesise his mashavi, gangsters and governments would both be after him. He lied to the Home Affairs officers on his refugee application, listing his talent as "charm" – and he was charming enough to get away with it.
I thought it didn't matter. But now that his wife is no longer a theoretical construct of a tragic past, it suddenly does. That's the thing about ghosts from Former Lives – they come back to claim you.
In the shopping arcade, the brittle ack-ack of gunfire has cut off, replaced by the wail of multiple sirens. People start venturing out, some newly supplied with pungentsmelling meat pasties from Mr Pie. Who says violent crime is bad for business? I'm tempted to get one myself, but I'm held up by the signage in Go-Go-Go Travel, or more specifically the list of specials.
The place names are a list of well-worn exotica: Zanzibar. Paris. Bali. Amazing deals! Airport taxes not included.
These are places that do not feature: Harare. Yamoussoukro. Kinshasa. These are places that require alternative travel arrangements.
Border official bribes not included.
I'm woken by a scritching at the door. I don't know what time it is, barely remember falling asleep reading a threemonth-old You magazine, with its gleefully scandalised headlines about minor league South African celebrities and moral degeneration in general. It's been doing the rounds on this floor for a particularly torrid piece on "Forbidden Love! My Zoo Story Romance", about some corporate banker and her reformed gangster lover – complete with Silver-backed Jackal. Sample quote: "The biggest challenge, after my parents, was getting over my allergies!" Tabloid journalism at its finest.
The lights are still blazing, which is no good for my generator. I make a note on my mental shopping list to get more petrol (along with food, any description), and stumble, cursing, to open the door.
The Mongoose is sitting to attention on the spot where my doormat used to be. Add another item to the shopping list. That's the third one in six months. Maybe this time I'll get one with an anti-theft charm woven in. There's a tailor in the flat opposite who has a real talent for it, as opposed to the placebos they sell at Park Station.
The Mongoose gets to his paws and pads off down the corridor towards the fire-escape. He pauses and looks back expectantly over his shoulder.
"Really?" I say. I'm wearing a t-shirt, panties and a pair of socks, and it's freaking cold out there.
The Mongoose sits down again and waits.
"Okay, hang on. For fuck's sake." I close the door and yank on my yellow leather coat with the ripped lining. Sloth mumbles sleepily.
"S'okay, buddy. I think I can handle Operation Retrieve Drunken Idiot Boyfriend on my own." Sloth makes approving chewing noises and goes back to sleep.
I button up the coat, deciding on impulse to forgo jeans. The coat only comes down to my thighs, but it covers the objectionable bits. I will come to regret this. Also not putting on shoes. Because Benoît is not just down the hall, he's all the way at the bottom of the stairs, lolling against them like a drunken cowboy, his pageboy cap tilted rakishly over his eyes, and necking a zamalek. The burst vessels in his eyes when he looks up to see me suggest he hasn't let up since this afternoon.
"Lost y'r shoes?" he slurs mournfully.
"It happens," I say. It's not worth explaining.
"I think they're st'len. Everythin' gets st'len h're."
"I think you're drunk. Want me to get you to bed?"
"You really up to facing the sunrise bouncing off Ponte tomorrow morning at 6 am?"
"Sh'ld knock it down."
"Or get curtains. Come on, big guy." I wrestle him to his feet, using the railing for leverage. And then we start making our way, very carefully, up six flights of stairs, the Mongoose scampering ahead.
As soon as I open the door, the Mongoose scoots inside and heads for the warmth of my laptop. I let him get away with it, this time, mainly because I'm preoccupied with shuffling Benoît inside one lurching step at a time.
I try to get him onto the bed, and realise it's going to be easier to drag the mattress onto the floor and just tip him onto it.
"Want'd t' talk," he says, sprawling onto his back, narrowly avoiding concussing himself on the wall as he goes down.
"Plenty of time," I say, pouring some bottled water into a tin cup, because the landlord has shut off the water again. I tilt it into his mouth and he gulps it down. I tuck him in and position a wastebin next to his side of the bed for ease of puking, then peel off my filthy socks and climb in next to him.
"Y'r feet are fr'zin," he complains.
"At least they're not stolen."
It's at that moment that the generator splutters and gasps and runs out of gas, plunging us into darkness, and saving me from getting back up to turn off the light.