The light is wrong.
The rollerball Scott had bought for the journal was leaking, and it was already an awkward process, using his lap as a desk, but he was too cold to get out of bed. He had promised himself he'd jot down at least a few thoughts every day. The shrink had told him keeping a journal would be good for him.
The light is wrong, he wrote again. It's like the sun's hesitant to rise or something. I know the days get shorter the further you go south. At least it really feels like autumn here. The light is far away or something.
For Scott, autumn in Pretoria always arrived with a bad attitude, a cranky neighbour admonishing summer that the party had gone well beyond midnight and that it was time to turn down the volume, or someone was going to call the police. Here in Cape Town, it was darker in the mornings, but when the light came, it was glorious. Today, mist coming from beyond False Bay hovered like a friendly ectoplasm over the southern peninsula, ready to rust the bronze coin of the sun struggling upwards above the mountains. Perhaps it was priming the landscape for the wet winters here, winters so alien to the dry misery that cracked the Highveld plains from May to September.
"The Cape's another country," Ouma had said the night before she died. "Your ancestors spent half a century escaping it. But I think you'd do well there."
Scott was still in bed when he heard the front door bang two floors below. It took only a few thuds to recognise the halting gait of his father.
Now he heard a voice that was so familiar, it seemed to come from inside his skull.
"Typical. Dad's been out like an hour. Checking out the churches and if the beaches are safe."
His younger brother was sitting the edge of the bed, arms folded, smirking.
"What, don't you greet any more now? Good morning, bru."
"Shut up, Scotty." Mark drew his knees to his chest. He was still wearing Scott's maroon hoodie, three sizes too big for him. The autumn light was weak, but a single ray had managed to sideswipe all the rules of optics and shine directly onto the boy's face, tricking Scott's eyes to see the maroon as carmine, so that Mark looked like a miniature cardinal.
"The concept of morning is very relative, dude. It seems the poor fuckers who have to grow up in this city have to go school in the dark."
"Going to school in the dark? That sounds kak. So what have you been doing? You've been up all night, I bet."
"Watching you all sleep."
"I'm fifteen. I'm supposed to be weird."
"I can't argue with that," Scott groaned, and ducked just in time to avoid the pillow Mark launched at him.
"Better get downstairs. Mom's cooking up a storm."
Scott sniffed. "Bacon. And mushrooms. When it's mushrooms it's always a big one. She's marking out her territory."
"Well, get your buff bod out of this girly sleigh bed. She'll be pissed if you sleep through it. Jesus, check the veins on your guns. Are you sure your coach isn't putting steroids into your protein shake?"
"For fuck's sakes, can't I just do nothing on my first morning here?"
Mark frowned. "You know this holiday isn't about chilling."
"I hate the way you're getting more philosophical than I do."
"Just go downstairs, boet. They need you."
Scott yawned, squeezing his eyes shut. The after-image of the attic windows flashed in false colours on his retinas. He was in an honest-to-God attic, in a house that was built when Queen Victoria was on the throne. Attics didn't exist in the faux Tuscan security village where he lived in the capital's Eastern Suburbs.
His father had dithered for hours on AirBnB, wondering which house to rent when they had decided on Cape Town. His mother had wanted something in Scarborough or Noordhoek, recalling her first visit to the Cape as a teenager during the Soweto Uprising. His father had wanted something on the Atlantic Seaboard, promising he could afford it and it was time he did something with this year's performance bonus. While they'd been arguing, Scott clicked "BOOK" on the listing for three-story perching above the little harbour just below Boyes Drive. Grandmother had said Kalk Bay was the loveliest place in the whole city. When he explained there was a stay seven nights, get two free Easter special, the parents stopped quarrelling.
When Scott opened his eyes, his brother was gone. Probably jerking off in the bathroom to fantasies of Scarlett Johansson, the one girl they both could agree on. Scott sniffed again, able to distinguish now porcini mushroom, congealing scrambled egg and fried onions. He forced himself up out of his benzodiazepine haze, pausing to sneer at the little bottle of sublingual Ativan Dr Kilborne had decided he needed. "Just now and then," she had told his parents. "It will help him sleep. Teenagers need sleep."
He stared out at the weak light through the windows again, not believing the display on his phone that had just told him it was 10:35. His mind was stuck somewhere in Pretoria between 8:00 and 8:30.
"Perhaps we could go to the cathedral tonight," Scott heard his father mutter as he shuffled down the stairs. "They're not doing Maundy Thursday in Glencairn. The closest decent parish is somewhere in Constantia but they've got a gospel band playing tonight. I can't have that. Might have to go all the way to Rondebosch, or bugger it, why not the cathedral. I've always wanted to see the cathedral."
"St Georges?" said Scott's mother, scraping scrambled eggs onto a royal blue plate.
"St George's is Anglican, my love."
"Right. What saint then?"
"Actually, it's Our Lady of the Flight Into Egypt, if you must know."
What a fucking stupid name, thought Scott as he took his seat the breakfast table. He grinned anyway. Mark had once brought home a wax crayon drawing he had made in catechism class. It showed the Holy Family in a 747 flying over the pyramids. The Flight Into Egypt, obviously. Everyone was in hysterics when Mark proudly pointed out the man in front of the plane was Pontius the Pilot.
"I'll go with you, Dad," Scott said.
"Thanks, my boy. It'll be nice. Mom will probably want to bond with your sister."
"Is she coming tonight?"
"Of course," said Graeme, who had lined up the bottles of condiments alphabetically so that the All Gold was followed by the HP Sauce and then the Tabasco and finally the Worcestershire, which was a no-name brand from Pick and Pay. "It's varsity vac as well. She's bringing her boyfriend… I thought, given everything, it would be nice if they could stay over. This house has too many empty rooms as it is."
"It's time we were all together."
Paula still had her back to Graeme, arranging the various components of the breakfast as if they were different sections of an orchestra. She nodded as her husband spoke of confessions and choral services and the Stations of the Cross and roast pork. "We should have roast pork for Easter," he said. "It's the boys' favourite. Lamb tonight though, as the Old Law would have it."
Paula put her spatula down and turned, eyeing Graeme with a raised eyebrow.
"I like the crackling most," said Scott, who had been silent for at least five minutes.
"That's true, isn't it, sleepyhead," said his father, reaching out to rest a hand on Scott's dark mop. Scott stiffened, and Graeme quickly backed away. "Sorry. Shall we go exploring today? There's a surf school at Muizenberg. Maybe you could get some lessons."
Scott pursed his lips. "Ja, I know. I was thinking…"
"For God's sake, Graeme. It's the child's first morning on holiday. He probably just wants to sit on the beach or in one of those cafés they have here and read. I know you've downloaded a whole lot of titles onto your Kindle, lovie, haven't you? I got the SMS notifications from the bank."
"Oh, jeez, Mom, I didn't mean to max out your card… Amazon had a sale. You can take it from my allowance."
Graeme took some bacon and hammered his knife over the streaks of fat and muscle until the rasher had disintegrated into a little trail of purple crumbs. "Did you give our son your credit card details?"
"Yes, I linked it to his Amazon profile for his Kindle. I'd rather he spend a hundred dollars on things to read than drugs."
Scott leaned back in his chair and tried not to laugh. He'd never had any desire to try anything his friends had sampled, though he'd toyed with the idea of getting a bankie of Swazi on Burnett Street where all the varsity students bought their dagga. He'd bake muffins and feed them to his parents. Or pour out the oregano his mother was always using and replace it with the stuff. He would pay good money to see his parents high. Especially his mother. She had been wearing beige for way too long.
"We only serve flat whites." She was a slender girl, ears Spock-like, her short hair crystal white, like a polar bear's. Peroxided probably. Polar bear fur is actually transparent. Grandmother had said, a week before she died. It reflects the light, that's why it looks white.
"What's a flat…"
"You're not local, are you?"
"I just want some coffee," said Scott, trying to deepen his voice. "Whatever you think is good, then."
The girl's face softened. "Sorry, I know we have a reputation for being rude. But it's why people come here. We're in the Lonely Planet and TimeOut, you know. And have five stars on TripAdvisor."
"So you have the best coffee in Kalk Bay?"
"Best coffee in the Southern Peninsula."
"Okay, well, let me try this flat white thing."
"Well, I was going to say a flat white is like a cappuccino. Just not as frothy. Double or single shot? You look like you need a double."
Scott yawned on cue.
"Right, a double. I'll throw in a Florentine for free. That's a biscuit, in case you were wondering. As long as you give me a good tip."
"Do you talk to all your customers this way?" Scott managed, trying to deadpan, but feeling the corners of his mouth curl up bit by bit in a sustained series of tics.
"Only the frightened ones."
"Do I look frightened?"
"No, but I know you are. You're probably the only tourist in here. This your first time in Cape Town? You sound like you're from Joburg."
"Pretoria. And I like to think of myself as a traveller, not a tourist." Scott noticed her nose ring, and then tried very hard not to notice it.
"Well, then I know you've never been to New Zealand."
"And how would you know that?"
"That's where flat whites were invented. Maybe you could go there one day and see if they taste like what you're going to have right now."
He closed his eyes. "You know a lot," he said, but he was saying it to the space where she had been standing, for when he looked again she was already taking an order from the couple seated next to the display of croissants and pastries.
The café was also a bakery and smelled of yeast and vanilla and freshly-ground coffee. The latter overwhelmed everything, spreading its dark perfume in syncopated bursts as the espresso machine hissed and clanked. It was an enormous, gleaming contraption, a sort of squat robot programmed with a single recursive algorithm: grind, press, churn, serve. One evening, while rabbit-holing through Wikipedia, Scott had learned that the average espresso machine pressed hot water through ground coffee at something like seventeen atmospheres. It wasn't quite the one thousand atmospheres you found at the bottom of the Marianas Trench (another Wikipedia article that had padded some insomnia a few months ago) but it sounded lethal enough, and probably gory if applied to living flesh and bones. Yet another article suggested that there was life down there, life that was possibly identical to the first cells on Earth.
The flat white was smaller than he expected, but it tasted good, so good he was halfway through the cup when he realised he hadn't even put any sugar in it. Apparently that was a thing in the more hipster coffee places, he'd heard from Karen behind the gym while they were bunking geometry and she let him try a few puffs from her new electronic cigarette. She had assured him it was just vapour and wouldn't hurt his lungs while he was training for rugby season. Karen had said that good coffee was sweet enough that you didn't need sugar, and the fancy places didn't even put sugar out on their tables these days.
Still, he ripped open a packet and poured it onto the meniscus of foam to watch it gather and then disappear with a tiny plop. It was one of the coolest things about cappuccinos (and, evidently, their flat-whited cousins). He loved how the physics of it all demonstrated matter in all three states: stray grounds, water, and the thousands of air bubbles imprisoned in the froth.
He didn't stir, though, and continued drinking from the cup, trying his best to appreciate the bitterness for what it was. Perhaps there was merit in this. Perhaps his sister might think this was a great moment in his development, the day he didn't take sugar with his coffee, after all, she'd been accepted into honours in psychology at UCT. He hadn't seen her in months, though they spoke on the second of every month, as the family had planned. Tonight he'd be seeing her in her adopted homeland for the first time.
"You're in deep thought."
"Jesus!" Scott's body jolted as he came face to face with Mark, who was looking at him with a bored expression. Scott fumbled with the cup, steadying it just in time to prevent the dregs of the coffee spill into his lap. "I thought we agreed you need to stop sneaking up on me like that!"
"Sorry. I saw you wandering into this place so I thought I'd check out how rude they really are. Didn't mean to scare you…. I know you're the sensitive one."
"What do you mean, sensitive?"
Mark leaned back and rolled his eyes. "One, this morning you said no to a bunch of dudes who wanted to play touch rugby on that bullshit excuse for a beach they have here, because you knew none of your mates were around to judge you; two, you went into a bookshop instead even though you have sixteen unread books on your Kindle and then bought some stuffy book written in the 1930s; three, that waitress has been eyefucking you the whole time and you're more fascinated with the latte art on your coffee. Oh sorry, flat white."
"So you're omniscient now?"
"That's a big word for the captain of the rugby team."
"It's okay, Scotty. I'm glad you're feeling at home."
"You're saying I don't feel home at home?"
"No, you just did."
"Stop vexing me."
"You see, that's just it," said Mark, tugging at one of the cords of the hoodie. "A seventeen-year-old jock isn't supposed to use words like vex correctly. He shouldn't even know that words like that exist. You know, I think Dad wasn't upset so much that you had used Mom's credit card online."
"Mom gave it to me for that very purpose."
"No, I mean, Dad's worried it's because you used it to buy books. Trust me, lately, I feel these things."
"What do you mean? It's not like I can be in the gym or on the field all the time and there's only so much I can watch on Netflix. And the WiFi in the house is crap for streaming. Anyway. Dad reads loads!"
"Yes, on finance and Obama and comparing The Guardian with The Daily Telegraph even though Mom reminds him he hasn't lived in the UK since he was a teenager. You're reading romances."
"Jane Austen is one of the greatest authors who ever lived."
"I'm not talking about Prejudice and Pride."
"It's Pride and …"
"I know, idiot, but I love how offended you just got. We do, however need to talk about Twilight. I know you've read all four of them. I like vampire stuff, but, that, no way."
"It's young adult fiction. And I wanted to see whether the books were better than the films."
"Yeah, and tell me it's the girl you've got a crush on."
Scott balled his fists.
"Jeez, dude, I'm not judging. To think they called me gay for reading Watership Down. Because boys should not be reading about cute little bunnies, should they. Doesn't matter if they actually bothered to open it and find its all depressing and death and maiming. It's because books about bunnies supposedly turn boys into faggots."
"That's an ugly word!"
Rage had yanked Scott's vocal cords from his regular baritone to tenor.
The couple at the croissant display were staring. In front of the café, a busker stopped playing Yesterday on his steel string, paused, and started Sweet Caroline.
Mark looked down. "Bunnies?"
"You know what word I mean, Mark."
"Yeah. I know. Especially when you say it."
"I never said it to you! I've never…"
"But you say it to yourself."
Scott felt the flush spread out behind his eyes, towards the tip of his nose, around his ears.
He took a deep breath and stared at his brother. "Who called you that, and how many times? Was it one of my…"
"Stop changing the subject, man."
"Okay, maybe some of your buddies called me a fag, sometimes."
"Who? I'll fucking end them."
"It's too late. They can't do that to me anymore. Please don't be the boy scout. I'm just… dude… fuck, I don't know. Have another flat white or a tall black and remind yourself why... let's see, aside from Twilight, the bulk of your last purchases on the Kindle Store were written more than fifty years ago."
"You hacked my account?"
"Sort of. It's amazing what I can get up to lately. Did you know Mom writes fan-fiction? It's actually pretty good. I avoid the sex scenes, but…"
Scott tried hard to mould his jaw muscles into a semblance of calm. "Jesus, Mary, and Joseph," he groaned.
"And the donkey," Mark chirped. "Don't forget the donkey."
They both laughed.
"Look, dude," the younger boy said, worrying his fingers around the broken zipper of the hoodie. "I'm telling you, this… all this… this shit is what you want, this is what you need. I watched you just now, from outside."
"Mark-O. I really don't like this creeper thing you're doing."
"Whatever. You couldn't wait to go exploring after breakfast... on your own. You had like a radar for this place. You've been sitting here being weird with weird people reading weird old books and you're smiling for the first time in months. Your buddies wouldn't go near something like this."
"That's because we don't have this in Pretoria."
"We do, if you look for it. But I'm saying, big bro, fuck what Dad wants for you."
"What, a good education?"
"I get we're all traumatised lately, but you're allowed to be you. What you're made for. And by that I don't mean captaining the rugby team or studying till one in the morning so you can have a 90% average for the fucking sake of it."
"Mom and Dad have been through a lot."
"We've been through a lot. Remember the Cheetahs vs Bulls game last year? When Uncle Owen was staying over from Bloemfontein and our house was basically everyone in either orange and blue jerseys, oh God, like the colours of the old flag."
"Okay, that's awkward. But so what?"
"Everyone was so into the game, even I was, but before the end of the game you left the room to go read Twilight. "
Scott took the empty coffee cup to his lips and took a phantom sip, somehow hoping he could wish more coffee into existence. "Did you see that? I thought you were sleeping on the couch. You were still… recovering."
"Morphine makes you high, not stupid. I was very conscious. Just comfortably so. The point is, Dad noticed it too, and he looked… disappointed."
"He thought you were turning into me."
"Mark. No." Scott knew his eyes were shining.
"Hey, buddy, don't cry now. No, I mean, you should go cry, big ugly tears, but maybe by yourself looking over the ocean, something poetic. And no, I haven't read your poetry. I do have some moral standards."
"I think I need more coffee."
"I think that's a good thing," said Mark, who was standing up now, and had laid a hand on Scott's shoulder as if to bless. "But order it from the elf girl. Her name's Hannah and she has great tits. But you didn't notice that, of course. I'll see you later. But not in church. The foot-washing thing gives me the creeps."
"...until the Lord comes, therefore, every time you eat this bread and drink this cup, you are proclaiming his death. This is word of the Lord."
— Praise be to God.
The reader was at least seventy, but she had commanded the packed Constantia church like a minor celebrity at a TED talk. His father had settled for the closer church after all, after Paula pointed out they'd be late for dinner if they trekked into town. Scott's recall of the Bible was oblique at best, but he remembered a nun telling him once that 1 Corinthians was a star turn for St Paul, who could be a sour old geezer at times. Maybe it was because the reader looked and sounded like a retired schoolmistress, able to gauge and inflect the cadences of the Scripture with just enough verve to lift from a reading but a presentation. He was half-expecting PowerPoint slides.
This was a voice who should narrate those expensive audio books Amazon sold under its Audible store incarnation. Last night he had wanted to buy a Dostoyevsky narrated by some famous British actor. He had heard from so many people that if you wanted to read real fiction, you needed to start with the Russians, even if you didn't understand them the first, second, or third times. But the audiobook had been $25, and the rand-dollar exchange rate was eyewateringly bad right now.
They stood for the Gospel Acclamation. To his father's dismay, the band started up: two guitars, a flute overblown and a half-step out of time, and an array of reedy voices with an average age of sixty.
— Praise and honour to you, Lord Jesus! I give you a new commandment: love one another just as I have loved you says the Lord.
The Gospel was read, and although it was supposed to be the Mass of the Lord's Supper, it instead described the incident in John 13 where Jesus washed his disciples' feet. And now the Easter Triduum was in full swing. Here followed one of the oddest moments in Catholicism, where twelve parishioners would be seated in front of the altar facing the people, while the priest doubled as Jesus and proceeded to re-enact the scene.
Scott scanned the congregation: overwhelmingly white and in expensive tailored clothes. Yet the diorama of the twelve chosen ones could have come straight out of a GAP billboard: wonderfully inclusive. Scott had scanned the missal: the description specifically referred to men being chosen, but at least half of the hapless poster children were women, they were black, white, and several shades in between; one was in a wheelchair (Scott berated himself for wondering if the person would be able to feel having his feet washed), two children and a very old man in a green Springbok jersey. A cantor started the antiphons, his grasp of melody firmer than the faltering choir, though the flutes and guitars continued in an awkward drone.
— Lord, are you to wash my feet? Jesus said to him in answer: if I do not wash your feet, you will have no share with me.
His father watched the scene, enrapt. He was kneeling. Scott looked down at his own feet, encased in dirty Converse All Stars. He wouldn't want to be the priest, up close to knobbly and sweaty and possibly smelly feet. Yet this is what Jesus did, Scott told himself. Jesus did weird shit sometimes. Which was why Scott liked him. He had sometimes thought of telling his father this, wondering if their faiths intersected at points like this; the mysticism his father got lost in sometimes, the sense of theatre and bizarre that kept Scott intrigued; that, and the music hiding in the liturgy.
Scott thought he had missed something, but, eventually, the re-enactment of the actual Last Supper came, a Eucharistic Prayer on steroids with audience participation, as if they were at a religious screening of the Rocky Horror Picture Show. They were both stories about bodies and blood and implied cannibalism in any case.
He was going to get Communion in wine too, something that always thrilled him as a child, the one moment it was accepted for a child to imbibe alcohol, for, in logic he laughed at but adored for its preposterousness, this was not alcohol. It was the living blood of God. This Blood of Christ was sweet and burned the back of the throat, you could feel it working and cleansing you with his antiseptic sweetness.
"The Blood of Christ."
Scott took the cup, and swigged from it just enough to not appear greedy. The lukewarm wine was cloyingly but satisfyingly sweet. Was it safe for diabetics? In four months he would be eighteen, and be able in theory to drink wine when and where he wanted. For now, Jesus would have to be his drinking buddy. He walked back to his pew trying to reconcile the papery taste of the wafer mingling with the wine.
— Grant, almighty God, that, just as we are renewed by the Supper of your Son in this present age, so we may enjoy his banquet for all eternity. Who lives and reigns with you for ever and ever. Amen.
"Did you like the service?" said Graeme, turning down the volume as they snaked down the M3 back towards Kalk Bay.
Scott nodded. "I liked the sermon. And the ceremony is nice."
"Mark's always liked going to the evening services too, hey."
"Except he wouldn't handle Easter Vigil."
"Even I find it hard," said his father. "Seven readings. At least we're not Russian Orthodox. Their Easter Vigil takes all night."
The Russians also held their Easter, like Christmas, at a different time. Mark had told him that; he had been practising some Rachmaninov during the last few weeks, complaining he'd only ever be able to master a few preludes and never get to play the Third Concerto.
"That's just as well," Scott had said that evening, still muddy and sweaty after a game. "That thing makes people crazy. Literally drove this Australian pianist crazy. There's a movie."
"David Helfgott? I'd love to go crazy if I could pull the Rach 3 off," Mark said, running chromatic scales up and down the Bosendorfer's keyboard. "Blaze of glory. At this rate, I'm not even a tiny shooting star. I'm just sort of fading. Bouncing off the earth's atmosphere before even entering it."
"Don't talk like that, Mark-O. You play very well."
"That's not what I meant," said Mark. "And I want to play jazz. I need to change things while I can."
"Then do it. There must be teachers. But you don't hate classical, do you? You seem so at ease when you play."
"Oh, hell no," said Mark. "Especially Rach. There's this duet of his… one day when I'm good enough… although I'd have to play with Susie but her heavy breathing might distract me."
Scott remembered shifting from one foot to the other, aware of the sweat drying underneath his muddy jersey, desperate to shower. "So, what is this piece?" he barked.
"The Fantaisie-Tableaux for Two Pianos. It's hectic. There's this one section called Easter Bells which is basically just that… bells ringing… all these huge power chords over and over and over. Ringing in the Russian Easter. It's like heavy metal for piano."
Mark's pupils weren't dilated that night. There weren't bruises on his arms. His hair was almost long. But he was still cold, and helping himself to Scott's clothes whenever he could.
"You're quiet," said Graeme, and Scott snapped back into the present. They had turned onto Boyes Drive. To the right, the mountains loomed, to the left, the black of the bay, frosted only by a thin layer of yellow streetlights. The sea was a cipher; no boats on it, even the green and red harbour lights were devoid of any context. Scott knew the fishing boats were there, but right now, their absence had brought on the gnawing inside his chest.
"I'm just… tired. I'm still adjusting."
"Of course, my boy," said Graeme, as he slowed down the Jeep and plunged it slowly into the tortuous driveway. "But we better put on happy faces now. It's important we make Izzy's boyfriend feel comfortable."
"What, because he's Indian? Dad. Why are we even talking about this? I'm a millennial."
Graeme hit the brakes a little too forcefully. "What, do you think you're the only tolerant one around here? I swear, Isabel's dating him because she thinks I'll disapprove."
"I didn't mean that, Dad."
The supper was all going very well until Paula mentioned Diwali and how nice it would be if Christians could incorporate fireworks into their celebrations.
"My family doesn't do Diwali, Mrs Joyce," Dev said, as he passed the sweet potatoes to Izzy, who for once was wearing make-up that wasn't various shades of charcoal.
"Oh, but I thought your people…"
Scott saw his sister mouth "MOM!" and try and kick Paula under the table, only managing to bump her knee and curse. He bit the corners of his mouth.
"I was raised atheist, Mrs Joyce. My father's a lapsed Muslim and loves telling everyone how as an apostate he'd be liable for the death penalty in several countries. Not that I mean disrespect to the religious." He reached out and put his shoulder around Izzy. It struck Scott that Dev was the most formally dressed at the table, with a matching tie and handkerchief. Izzy was wearing something she had probably picked up on the flea market in Greenmarket Square she was always telling Scott about; her dress looked like the lovechild of a highland hunting tartan and an Afghan rug.
Paula sipped a little too loudly from her soup bowl, which she had forgotten to clear when she started serving the lamb.
"I'm honoured to be invited to your Holy Week," said Dev. "Isabel has told me only good things about Catholicism; I'm surprised you're all so open-minded."
"Open-minded," said Graeme, who was leaning forward, thumbing his wineglass.
"Well, about evolution and the Big Bang at least."
"Tell him about the referendum in Ireland!" Mark whispered to Scott.
"Shut up !"
"Scott?" said Graeme, turning to face his son. The rest of the family followed, like a procession of figurines in an astrological clock.
Scott folded his arms and guided his left thumb into the groove under his right arm where the belly of the bicep broke free from the humerus, the place, Coach had told him, where 'a man's guns were born'.
"Well, Ireland recently voted in favour of gay marriage," Scott said. "Most of the people who voted identified as Catholics too."
"Well, that's refreshing," said Izzy, downing her glass. "What do you think, Dad?"
"I guess the Church isn't happy, but it might come around."
"In a thousand years, maybe," Izzy huffed. "I meant what do you think about marriage equality."
"It doesn't matter what I think," said Graeme. He had grabbed his wife's hand and Scott saw he was thumbing her engagement ring, the dark sapphire surrounded by a halo of tiny diamonds, his mother called it Neptune and his moons. "If people are happy, what they do in their private lives doesn't bother me."
"Really," Izzy countered. "You didn't say grace. Are you trying to be private about your faith?"
"Oh. I did forget, didn't I. It doesn't matter, these things, really."
Scott didn't like the timbre of his father's voice. It was something he hadn't encountered before, something "We haven't even had a toast," Scott said, grabbing the bottle of Merlot. It was a Rupert and Rothschild from 2008, probably worth a grand if you went to dinner in the city. Izzy had earlier referred to it as White Monopoly Capital In A Bottle.
He poured himself a full glass. "You don't mind if I have some, do you?" he asked no-one in particular. "I know I'm seventeen, but…"
"Of course you can have some wine at table, sweetie," said Paula. "I just thought you don't like alcohol."
"I don't drink because when I train I can't handle it. Bob Jenkins made me drink a beer after gym last week and I puked. We were at his house, playing Legend of Zelda. I actually chucked all over his new PlayStation console."
"But Bob is such a nice boy!" his mother said. Izzy spread a hand over her face like an octopus flaring away from a threat.
Scott stood up.
"We're all know why we're here," he said, talking through the anxiety because he knew that when he was on the verge of tears this blocked his nose and he sounded like a tiny transistor radio. "We came together as a family to see if we are still a fucking family. Because we weren't one at Christmas because we were to friggin' scared to have Christmas because Christ was born but Mark was dead."
"Scott!" Graeme shouted. "Don't…"
"No, Dad. I'm just proposing a toast to Mark."
"Your mother is trying to have a nice supper for us all, son."
"I know that!" Scott snapped. "And tomorrow it's Good Friday, and why the hell is it good when they did all that shit to Jesus? Tomorrow he dies, Saturday he goes to hell and drops a salvation bomb on Satan and Sunday he's alive again. But you know what, when we're eating Lindt bunnies on Monday Mark will still be dead."
Paula was crying softly.
"Look what you've done," said Graeme.
"I'm sorry, Mom. But we should lift our glasses, Dad. Every fucking Sunday you've dragged us to whatever Mass you want to bury your sorrows in. You tell us the most important words are lift up our hearts, we lift them up to the Lord. I go with you because I guess it's our father-son time. I went with you when you prayed for Mark to get better. Can we just, I dunno, lift up something to Mark and not God? It's been six months and nobody's done fucking anything except call each other on the second even though we don't even say his name!"
Dev got up quietly. "I think I should excuse myself. I shouldn't have intruded on a family that is grieving. I am so sorry for your loss."
Izzy grabbed Dev. "No, stay. And my brother's right." She stood up and produced a second bottle of wine which had evidently been hiding in her bag underneath the table. "This is a cheap Woolies blend, but it'll do. Dev… could you open it? There's an opener behind…"
"It's okay," he said with a little smile. "Screw-top. Shall I pour for everyone?"
Scott waited until everybody's glasses were full, then raised his. "To Mark. We miss you and love you."
As they drank, Scott saw his brother's face reflected in the glass of the windows. He was giving him a thumbs up. "Tomorrow," he heard him whisper again. "Tomorrow. At the tidal pool."
It was still dark when Scott got out of bed at 6:30 the next morning. The local TimeOut the landlady had left in the kitchen mentioned Dalebrook Tidal Pools as one of Cape Town's hidden gems. But then Mark had foreseen this somehow already. There was no mist this time, but the silence clung like fog anyway as he walked along Main Road to the little subway that led underneath the railway to the tiny beach.
His brother was waiting for him at the edge of the larger of the two pools. Mark was barefoot, and though the waves lapped at his legs he wasn't wet, which to Scott made some sort of sense.
"At least you're not randomly appearing behind me this time," Scott said. "It scares me, you know. You look so real right now."
"I am very real," said Mark. "I'm just not composed of atoms at this point. It's hard to explain."
"Try me, Mark-O."
"You told me once there's more empty space in atoms than actual stuff, so maybe I'm in that place between the… what, which ones are in the nucleus?"
"The protons and neutrons," Scott said. "Electrons on the outside."
"Okay, so I'm somewhere between the nucleus and the electrons, then."
"Why did you tell me to come here? Besides, it's usually humans who summon ghosts, not the other way around."
"Because I want you to discover places you can return to. Places to make your own. You found one yesterday. This is my gift to you. The sunrise is going to be pretty. I always wanted to watch the sun rise over the ocean, and this is one of the few places in Cape Town you can, because we're not facing west. See, I did my homework."
"For once," said Scott, sitting down and regretting it instantly, because the rocky side of the pool wall was wet, and the salt water was seeping through his jeans.
"It's safe to swim here. To read here. To write here."
"To think here?" Scott said, feeling his mouth curve into a smile again, although it wasn't the awkward one he had yielded to yesterday in the café.
Mark clicked his tongue and gave Scott a mock salute. "You're catching on, big bro. And maybe, just maybe, you might get your first kiss with a nice guy here too."
"Dude, I've always known. It's time you told everyone and got over it. Izzy knows. We spoke about it the last time I went to hospital. Mom suspects but she'll be happy."
"He'll be fine. He'll be awkward as hell about it for a while but he'll be fine. He's going to be less fine when you tell him you're tired of rugby and would maybe like a gap year, which you can totally help pay for, since you're such a fucking miser with your allowance. Becoming a Springbok is Dad's failed dream, not yours. I don't care how well you score tries. It's not in your heart."
"I never told you I loved you, did I," Scott said, looking away. "Is that why I'm the only one who can see you?"
"No, it's because you're the only one who wouldn't freak out completely. And telling me you love me, dipshit? You did last night."
"You were dead. I mean, you are dead."
"But I was there. I knew you loved me when you spent the whole night crying when you heard the stem cells didn't take. You let them pump you full of injections even though the stuff could give you cancer. You wanted to donate more than what was safe…"
"That doesn't matter. I was your only match and I wasn't good enough. Not one of my fucking cells could save you."
"Dude. Jesus is the one getting nailed to a cross today, not you. Okay, maybe I should leave you to cry your little closeted jock heart out now. Guess I still haven't learned to be tactful in the afterlife, though the way I'm acquiring vocabulary is pretty amazing."
Mark started walking towards the far edge of the pool, where the waves were crashing.
He disappeared behind a breaking wave.
Scott knew he was being especially stupid, and perhaps psychotic, following a wraith into the ocean in the dark. He couldn't see properly in the half-light, and it was only a few seconds before he slipped on a storm-smoothed stone and plunged head-first into the open sea.
The water much deeper than he thought.
The surf churned around him, the salt stung his eyes, the cold flayed his nerves. He was swept to and fro; still, he suppressed the urge to flail his arms about, knowing this would make him drown quicker than anything. Instead, he let a more ancient reflex take hold, something that started at the base of his spine and spread outwards, tugging at his diaphragm, slowing his heart, flushing his brain with calm. He opened his eyes. He saw now all the clams and the bivalves and the urchins and the jellyfish that had ever populated the planet; he heard the sharks circle restlessly to force oxygen over their immovable gills. The subsonic booms of whales thousands of miles south rang high and clear in his eardrums, he saw terns and gulls caught in the moment of clenching their talons around fish that had swum too close to the surface. He was enveloped in the very fluid inside his cells, that, after a billion and a half years' worth of shuffling their genes like cards, still kept their salinity to the specifications of that first ocean where their ancestors once floated.
He opened his mouth, readied himself to take in his last breath. But something closed around his neck, yanking, lifting him up, lifting him up to the surface.
Tim, the surfer who had rescued him, was a nineteen-year-old mechanical engineering student from Port Elizabeth. He had decided to take a stroll from his backpackers in Glencairn all the way to Muizenberg to warm up for his first play in the swells. He had seen Scott fall in just as he rounded the corner to take a breather.
They sat next to each other on the steps of the tidal pool. They were in full civil twilight now, the sunrise only moments away.
"You really scared me, bru," the young man said. "I thought maybe you were trying to off yourself. You really don't want me to call a doctor or something?"
"I'll be all right. I was just stupid."
"Not a local, hey?" Tim said, gleaming like a seal in his wetsuit.
"Is it that obvious?"
"I'm not from around here either. It's kind of nice to meet someone my age who's not stuck up like the locals."
Scott couldn't help staring at the shark tooth that dangled from a leather cord around Tim's neck.
"Oh, that," he said. "I'm such a cliché. But my mom gave it to me for good luck. She's petrified I'm gonna be chowed by a shark. She's into homoeopathy which really pisses my dad off, so I'm thinking she thought if I have something from a shark… jeez, I'm talking too much."
"It looks cool," said Scott. "Talk away. I've been having too many conversations with myself."
"Me too. Um, perhaps… when you've gone home and rested… well, maybe you'd like to meet for a beer later, just so I can check you're still alive. I'm amazed you didn't get pounded against the rocks."
"I don't drink beer. Besides, I'm under age."
Say it, Scott heard a whisper.
"I'm just a year younger than you are, dude. But I drink coffee."
Tim paused, and tugged at one of his long blond locks. "I like guys who like coffee…" Scott twitched, and noticed Tim's voice went up an octave.
"I mean, I like people who like coffee… I mean, the coffee here in Cape Town is…"
"Want to go for a flat white later? There's a café here…"
"Hey, I've heard they're good. Why not."
Scott flushed, but before he could yield to a flood of his usual awkward Tim was shouting "Look!"
A week later, in his first journal entry penned while leaning against Tim's shoulder underneath a tree in Kirstenbosch, Scott would write that dawn had come in a burlesque of colours that could only have been chosen by a bipolar surfacing from depression in an art therapy class. The prose was purple and clumsy, and he wouldn't write down his last vision of Mark, who was slowly evaporating, standing again on the edge of the Dalebrook tidal pool, the cowl of the hoodie finally down, his hair thick and full, like it looked the day before he was diagnosed.
I thought the light was wrong here, but it's just different. The twilight is longer. No, Mark, no more Twilight jokes. I guess it's lifted up somehow. At least, away from the observer. It's a scattering of the light. It lifts itself up. It lifts it up to the Lord.
© Sean J Halford 2018, All Rights Reserved
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