March 2020

Back to Issue 7

Pole pole

By Irma Gold

It was rush hour and people poured into the carriage. A woman with a toddler tied to her back by a blanket hovered over a seat across the aisle. Dexter watched her untuck the blanket at her chest and twist the child onto her hip. The child’s hair was cropped close to her skull into small nubs of hair, exposing her perfect face with its large eyes and etched lips. She had no shoes and was wearing an eighties-style windcheater.
     The toddler looked at Adelaide who smiled and pulled a silly face, but the child only stared back steadily. Dexter watched the smile harden on Adelaide’s lips and felt a small tug in his chest.
     ‘How long till we get there?’ Felix asked in that bored way he’d mastered.
     ‘Never ask how long,’ Dexter said. ‘We’re on African time. Pole pole.’
     ‘You said that’s Swahili.’
     ‘Yes, that’s right.’ He ran a hand across his face, preparing for battle. You never knew what it would be, what small thing Felix would take issue with. Fifteen year olds were like defence lawyers who never clocked off.
     ‘But Zulu and Xhosa are the main languages here, that’s what the lady said yesterday.’ Felix pulled one of his earbuds out. ‘Swahili is from Tanzania. And Kenya. And probably others, but not South Africa. So you shouldn’t use it here. It doesn’t make sense.’
     It was still incredible to Dexter how small a teenager could make you feel, how easily they could cut you down, even when they weren’t your own.
     ‘We all know you lived in Africa for a bit,’ the boy went on. ‘We get it.’
     ‘Five years,’ Dexter said, trying to smile, to pretend that he couldn’t care less. What was it Felix and his friends said? DGAF, don’t give a fuck. He attempted to embody that sentiment, looking not at Felix but at the buildings zinging past, their fenced perimeters a blur of razor wire.
     Felix put his earbud back in. Case closed.
     A man with a cardboard box full of spotty bananas entered the carriage through the rear door and placed it on the floor nearby. He filled two plastic bags with the fruit and began walking down the aisle. ‘Bananas, ten rand,’ he called.
     Adelaide leaned forward, placed one hand on Felix’s knee. ‘Do you want a banana, Lix?’
     He twisted his mouth. ‘Gross.’
     She withdrew her hand, leaned her cheek against Dexter’s shoulder.
     ‘The girls at work tell me I have to take a billion photos today. And videos,’ she said to him.
     ‘Who would have thunk,’ he said with mock horror, ‘that a bunch of people working at an animal shelter would be interested in wild penguins.’
     Adelaide slapped his thigh, but snuggled in closer.

The suburbs melted away, and with them the people. Only an elderly woman in a headscarf and brightly patterned clothing, and a man carrying a garbage bag, talking to himself at top volume, remained.
     ‘Crazies are the same the world over,’ Dexter whispered into Adelaide’s hair.
     The train hit the coastline and Adelaide ripped back the windows. The briny smell of the ocean filled the carriage.
     ‘Look Lix,’ she said.
     The train line was right next to the beach, the sand spinning away beside them. Felix lifted his eyes from his phone without removing his earbuds. He maintained his bored expression, but didn’t look away.
     Dexter leaned forward and felt the ocean spray on his face. The water close to the shore was clogged with seaweed that looked like brooms, their handle ends poking out. They kept being sucked under by the swell, then pinging up the other side. Watching the pattern of it was meditative.
     ‘This would never happen back home,’ Adelaide interrupted. ‘The train right on the beach. I mean, think about the environmental damage. Christ.’
     They were rattling through the dunes now, hillocks either side of the track.
     ‘It’s pretty bloody marvellous though,’ Dexter said. ‘Don’t you think?’
     ‘I’m torn between feeling horrified and awestruck,’ Adelaide said, and they both grinned.

They walked out of the train station without an inspector in sight, and passed a queue of minibuses.
     ‘Boulders Beach?’ one driver said, and flapped his arms like a chicken.
     ‘No thanks, mate,’ Dexter said, then added, ‘Ngikhona Ngiyabonga,’ feeling pleased with himself for remembering the phrase from his guidebook.
     They had already decided to walk. They’d done a lot of walking since they’d arrived, much to Felix’s disgust. But it was one thing Dexter wasn’t willing to budge on. You got a real feel for a place walking its streets.
     ‘I need a toilet,’ Adelaide said. ‘I’m busting.’
     They’d only been walking five minutes.
     ‘I thought I could last, but I can’t.’
     ‘Didn’t you go in Cape Town?’ Felix said. ‘It’s only been an hour.’
     ‘More like two actually. And you’re the reason my pelvic floor’s shot to pieces.’
     He grimaced. ‘Shit, Ma.’
     ‘Looks like there’s a museum up there,’ Dexter said, pointing at a sign on the rise. ‘We could try there.’
     The museum was from another era. Tired display cases and signs tacked up with Blu Tac, cannons and ancient mannequins in army uniforms. An elderly man behind a desk stood as they entered, wrung his hands.
     ‘Welcome!’ he cried, as if there’d been an apocalypse and he was encountering its first survivors.
     ‘Just wondering if my wife can use your bathroom,’ Dexter said.
     ‘Of course,’ he said, ‘down the corridor on the right.’ His voice had the smoother tones of British heritage. ‘So will you be visiting our museum today?’ he asked when Adelaide had disappeared.
     ‘Maybe later,’ Dexter hedged. ‘We’re off to see the penguins. Got to do it while the sun’s out. You know what it’s like here. Four seasons in one day and all that. Same where I come from.’
     ‘Oh, and where would that be?’ the man asked, running one hand over the few wisps of hair that remained on his crown.
     ‘Melbourne. In Australia.’
     Dexter noticed that one of the text panels behind the old man had fallen off the wall, leaving Blu Tac smears. The card lay against the skirting.
     ‘Very good,’ he said. ‘Do you have penguins there?’
     ‘Fairy penguins. But my wife’s a vet. So we have to see all the animals, everywhere.’
     The man let out a throaty chuckle that turned into a cough. He reached for his handkerchief. Felix, who’d been standing in the doorway this whole time, slid outside into the sun. Mercifully, Adelaide returned.
     ‘Thank you,’ she said to the man.
     ‘Come back later,’ he replied, folding the handkerchief and slotting it into his shirt pocket.
     ‘We’ll try,’ Dexter said.
     ‘Like fuck we will,’ muttered Felix, as they collected him on the way out.

The Visitors’ Centre at the beach was swarming with tourists. Adelaide photographed the chirpy sign out front, catching an unawares Felix standing beside it with a scowl on his face: Thank you for visiting Boulders, the easiest place in the world to make the acquaintance of penguins.
‘Shall we go through?’ Dexter said.
     ‘I’ll stay here,’ Felix said.
     ‘No you won’t,’ Adelaide said. ‘And don’t argue. Don’t ruin this for me.’
     Felix rolled his eyes but followed them to the counter where Dexter handed over two hundred rand.
     Have you got the exact money?’ the cashier asked in a dull monotone, her mulberry lips barely moving.
     Dexter checked his wallet again. ‘Sorry,’ he said brightly.
     The cashier’s hair was braided in horizontal cornrows so that a cascade of teeny braids fell over one shoulder. She pulled a stray braid into line before handing Dexter his change.
     In return he offered her a smile with all of his teeth, exaggerated his accent as he said ‘thanks so much’, trying to impart that although he was white he was not an Afrikaner. Not like the tour guide yesterday, who’d said that people should still be able to practice apartheid even if it wasn’t law.
     The cashier stapled a receipt to the front of a pamphlet and held it out without looking at him.
     ‘Thank you. Ngiyabonga,’ he said, but if Zulu was her home language she didn’t respond.
     Adelaide took the pamphlet from Dexter and pulled him onto the boardwalk that wound through the dunes and down to the beach.
     They heard them before they saw them, a harsh braying sound. The penguins were lying in clumps among the dunes, as fat and inert as sea slugs. All along the boardwalk tourists were taking penguin selfies. Leaning out over the barrier at ridiculous angles to make it seem as if they were alone on a beach with a penguin, not caged in with hundreds of other humans.
     The boardwalk was short and at the end was a viewing platform facing the ocean. The crowd surged towards it and Dexter felt that he was caught in a rip. At the rail tourists shuffled against each other to get a clear view, all elbows. Without the people it would have been something, penguins blanketing the postcard-white sand. At intervals penguins in twos or threes emerged from the foam, shaking like dogs, their fat tails waggling. Adelaide squeezed his forearm. There was light in her eyes.
     The chicks were balls of fluff with beaks. One right beneath the platform made a pitiful mewing sound every few seconds as if programmed on repeat. They were nice enough but there was only so long that Dexter wanted to stand in a crush of people. Adelaide was oblivious, now pressed against her viewfinder, taking the promised billion photos.
     Dexter walked back along the boardwalk a little way and sat on a bench next to Felix while they waited for Adelaide to finish. Opposite them three young penguins lay in a clump. Their adult coats were only half grown in, giving them a mangy appearance. A woman leaned backwards over the barrier, as if doing the limbo, to get the perfect shot with them, her smile fighting the triple chin that the angle created.
     ‘Did you see that?’ Dexter said to Felix when she had gone.
     Felix snorted.
     ‘Want some gum?’ Dexter held out the packet.
     ‘Thanks,’ Felix said, taking two.
     ‘What’re you listening to?’ Dexter said, pointing at the boy’s phone.
     ‘Witchgrinder,’ he said. ‘They’re totally lit. Benno got me onto them. Mum reckons thrash’s just screaming, but it’s not. These guys are really talented.’
     ‘I was in a death metal band in high school.’
     ‘For real?’ Felix said, his eyebrows shooting upwards.
     ‘We were terrible. The absolute worst.’
     They shared a smile.
     ‘D’you gig anywhere?’
     ‘We only lasted three months. Probably a good thing.’
     They were silent for a while, chewing. Dexter could hear the faint, awful whine of Felix’s music, but inside he was singing his own song, grateful for this small shared moment.
     ‘How long d’you reckon she’ll be?’ Felix asked eventually.
     ‘Your mother?’ Dexter paused. ‘We might have to camp out.’
     Felix grinned, rolled his eyes.
     One of the mangy chicks began bleating, a pathetic sound. It went on and on.
     ‘D’you think it’s alright?’ Felix asked, flicking his hair in a show of indifference. ‘Maybe it’s hurt.’
     He looked so young in that moment, still just a small boy beneath it all.
     ‘Nah. Reckon it’s just having a whinge.’
     Felix pulled out one of his earbuds then and said, ‘So what about you and Mum? Are you going to have a baby?’ The words came out in a gust.
     Dexter froze, his teeth glued together with gum. Slowly he released his jaw, made himself keep chewing. ‘Well,’ he said carefully. ‘That’s not really up to me. It’s really up to your mother.’
     They both turned as Adelaide moved towards them, her face a picture of pleasure, her sandals pleasantly slapping the boards.
     ‘Why so gloomy?’ she said, leaning one hand on the barrier.
     ‘Can we go now?’ Felix said, standing and turning away.

Out of the melee, they found another boardwalk that didn’t require an entry fee. It tracked along the scrub that bordered the beach, a waist-high mesh fence containing the penguins. The smell of them was stronger here, a briny fertiliser.
     Adelaide bent down to take a photo of a pair right beside the fence. She poked her lens through one of the diamond-shaped holes in the wire to get a clear shot and both penguins lunged at it, beaks clicking against glass.
     Adelaide quickly pulled back, took a photograph of a sign tacked to the fence instead: Penguin Protection Fence. It had a picture of a dog on a lead.
     ‘Well that’ll look great in the family album,’ Dexter said.
     Felix smirked into his chest.
     ‘It’s to show the shelter staff. There’s no way dogs would be allowed right next to endangered penguins back home,’ Adelaide said. ‘I mean, the fright alone could kill them.’
     Felix was already walking off, hands in his pockets, hunched low. They followed him down onto the sand. The water was a ridiculous teal, as if the scene was being presented to them through an Instagram filter. They sat in the sunlight, feeling it gently wash their skin. Felix went off on his own, arranged himself on a rock jutting over the water. He stared intently at his phone, watching music videos, or porn, who knew.
     ‘I was reading that both the parents leave their chicks and go to sea,’ Adelaide said. ‘And the chicks form crèches. Self-imposed day care.’ She held out the pamphlet to Dexter, the one the mulberry-lipped woman had given to them at the entrance.
     He nodded, only glancing at it.
     ‘What’s wrong?’ she said.
     ‘Nothing,’ he said. ‘It’s nothing.’
     ‘It clearly is something,’ she said.
     He sighed. ‘It’s just, sometimes I can’t help wondering if maybe you love animals more than people.’
     ‘Look,’ she said tightly. ‘We’ve talked about this. I’m tired of it. And we’re on holiday.’
     ‘I can’t help it,’ he said.
     ‘I’m happy,’ she said. ‘Aren’t you?’
     He watched Adelaide slide her fingers over her wedding ring and spin it slowly. It was a habit she’d already acquired when she was upset, even though it had only been a year. Dexter’s own ring was tighter than usual. His fingers were swollen. Perhaps it was the jetlag.
     ‘You already have a child,’ he said now.
     Adelaide let out a tsk of air. ‘We already have a child.’
     The bridge of Dexter’s sunglasses was slippery with sweat. He pushed them roughly back into place with one finger, heard his voice come out louder than he intended: ‘I love Lix, you know I do. But I want our baby too.’
     She stopped spinning her ring, took off her sunglasses and put one hand to his cheek, turning it to her. ‘You don’t know what it’s like,’ she said quietly.
     ‘It would be different this time. You wouldn’t be on your own.’
     Their words were travelling in circles, as they always did. The same arguments and counterarguments. Dexter had read a book on postnatal depression to try and understand. And, if he was honest, to find solutions that might convince her.
     ‘You’ve got no idea what you’re actually asking me to do,’ she said, and put her sunglasses back on, turned back to teal.
     She’d told him once that she’d thought she might kill herself, perhaps even the baby. That she’d felt so crazy she might have done anything. They were a bottle of gin deep that night, and she had never spoken that way since. She wouldn’t speak of the second baby either. The one that had arrived a matter of weeks before their wedding, and left before they’d had time to form any kind of plans. Sometimes in the grey dawn light, in that state between sleep and waking, Dexter saw her. They hadn’t known the gender, it was too soon for that, but he didn’t need an ultrasound to confirm what he’d known. Her face was a heart shape, petite, with Adelaide’s tea-coloured eyes and his long fingers.
     ‘Mum! Dex!’ Felix shouted. ‘Look!’
     They turned to see the boy standing on one of the enormous egg-shaped boulders in only his boxers. He let out a yowl and launched into the water, came up grinning, hair plastered to his skull.
     Adelaide pulled out the camera, ran down to the water, a flutter of clicks descending on him.
     ‘Mu-um,’ he groaned.
     She shucked his cheek as he came up beside her. ‘You’re just too handsome.’
     He groaned again, but one corner of his mouth tweaked upwards. He pulled on his shorts and T-shirt, the clothes sticking in places. Damp patches grew.
     ‘I’m starved,’ he said. ‘Got anything to eat?’
     She slung one arm over his shoulder, and he let her. ‘How about we head to that restaurant, the one we passed earlier?’

They walked back through the town, Felix between them. The pavement was narrow, with a high wall on one side which caught the car fumes. At least there were mountains to look at, an ache of sheer blue overhead. They passed a pub advertising game meat: kudu, springbok, crocodile, ostrich.
     They found the restaurant recommended to them by Dexter’s friend and got the last table by the window. It looked out onto a tidal pool, the waves crashing up against it just a few metres away, spray splattering the windows. The water appeared to lick the very edges of the building.
     They all ordered what was billed as The Famous Hake and Chips, Dexter a beer. It arrived in a glass as big as his forearm.
     ‘Jeepers,’ Dexter said after the waiter had left. ‘Not sure I can manage all that at two o’clock in the afternoon.’
     ‘I’ll help you with it,’ Felix said, grinning.
     ‘Go on then,’ Dexter said, pushing it towards the boy.
     Adelaide gave Dexter a pointed look, but said nothing. Felix took a massive swig and made a big show of wiping his mouth.
     Dexter had read this book once about how happiness was a choice. How everyone had so much and yet were always concerned with what they didn’t have. Wanting more than you already had while in Africa certainly made you feel like a selfish prick. He was trying to wipe the residue of their conversation on the beach by actively remembering the study quoted in this book, which had a title like The Happiness Hack, or something equally cheesy. It concluded that simply trying to be happier could actually make you happier. Well, he was trying.
     The meal came with a pile of shrivelled peas and Dexter pushed them to one side. The battered fish was enormous, hanging over the rim of the plate. He sawed into it.
     ‘How good is the tartar sauce?’ Adelaide said.
     The men nodded, their mouths full of fish.
     Felix spoke out of nowhere, pointing his knife at his half-demolished hake. ‘We’re eating like penguins.’
     Dexter and Adelaide laughed more heartily than the joke warranted, because Felix had tried. Perhaps in their own way they were all trying, doing their best.
     Dexter reached across the table and took Adelaide’s hand. Her eyes met his, and there was a smile in them.

When the dessert menu arrived Dexter ordered a Cape brandy pudding with ice cream. It tasted like puddings his mother had made when they were children, boiled in metal tubs and served with thick yellow custard. It left him with a pleasant kind of melancholia. But he regretted it when they realised that the train was due and they would have to make a run for it. They paid hurriedly and sprinted down the street, Felix out front, Dexter trailing behind. His stomach felt like a washing machine, churning fish and pudding and beer.
     A tall youth sauntering past them wearing a Kaiser Chiefs T-shirt yelled, ‘Run! Run!’ Dexter tried to return his grin but couldn’t manage it. They made it onto the platform with one minute to spare. Dexter stood with his hands on his hips, heaving.
     The train arrived fifteen minutes late. Pole pole, Dexter thought, but didn’t say. All the seats in the carriage had been slashed, the foam gutted. Dexter offered Adelaide the side that was marginally better, sat in an uneven crater.
     He thought about the Swahili word as they swung out past the ocean. Pole pole, slowly. That’s all they could do. Move forward pole pole, and see where they ended up.