Sunday in Calitzdorp: a kitsch tearoom with panpiped music, ragged kids saying they will look after my car nicely. It is the 22nd of July.
If I had to track backwards, to rewind the last week…
The Peugeot is reversing along the R62, speedometer at 12 o’clock, 110 km/h on the dot. Petrol is extracted at Ladismit, below the Towerkop, the snow on it unthawing as I deposit R600 in the ATM.
At Barrydale: what did you enjoy most about the hotel? The fires slowly reassembling themselves in the grates. What did you enjoy least about the hotel? The colonial flags flying from every balcony, Union Jacks and the old Boer republics. (‘Backward looking’, says my father, who has already emerged from Knysna Private Hospital with a blurry right eye). I spoon Karoo lamb roti back onto the plate and check out late Saturday afternoon, reversing boldly through the Tradouw Pass. The cold front retreats over the ocean; the rock walls clench above.
On the N2 I am trying to catch the mirror behind me, the whole wet highway taking on the sun, glimpsed in the rearview – but never manage.
In the Hope Street food market I sit with Octavius and reassemble a dish of koshari, pulling filaments of smoked marlin from between my teeth. The night before we make an exchange in the street: he gets my car radio; I get his hoover.
Now I am in a conference for three days. Powerpoint slides run backwards; arguments are winnowed to first principles. Fruit pieces are impaled on wooden skewers, teabags dried out and stowed away. Many things are unlearned.
Karlien my subletter unpacks her suitcase and begins deleting her PhD thesis, slowly and painstakingly, line by line. I get a taxi to the airport; the wheels of the plane retract and I am en route to Johannesburg, then Munich, then Oslo.
Flight attendants hand out trash and crumpled sachets when I am asleep, then collect perfectly good food from me when I wake. A strange young man with duct-taped glasses tells me the story of his travels. Every ferry journey, every missed connection, every ATM failure – and no small talk. As we approach our destination his narrative is broken up repeatedly by in-flight announcements. ‘Should I carry on or do you want to sleep?’ I become ever more alert, awake and friendly.
(Around this time in Cape Town, three men approach our new member of staff near a dark highway overpass, running towards him. They tidy his ruffled, mud-stained clothes and give him his phone back, then melt into the shrubbery.)
I am on a bus back to Oslo, then I am greeting Sofie on a street corner. Now we are travelling to the coast in the grey BMW; now we are stepping back into the cold water. We sit in the afternoon sun with her parents, carefully putting shrimp back together. Sliding on their casings, gluing the egg roe, reattaching their heads. For hours we sit there, the sun barely moving.
If I had to run back for a year now, there would be a man on a farm outside Oslo, in one of those red-painted barns that look so ordinary. He would be unloading weapons, carefully taking out those bullets that do so much harm to the human body, mailing them back to China, eastern Europe. He would be taking apart a bomb, separating out its components, distilling them into simple compounds. Slowly and painstakingly, so as not to make a mistake.