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300 Years Ago
Lightning lashes across the grey sky and the cloaked figures gathered within the stone circle whisper to each other, offering empty reassurances. They stand upon a hill. Dark, desolate, grassland stretches around them in every direction.
But the woman at the group’s centre does not offer or seek comfort. She is silent. Her dark hair whips against her cheeks and her dark eyes focus on the horizon, on nothing.
Eventually, she calls into the empty night, “Overlord, show yourself!”
The lightning flicks the ground again, as if in answer, but no one appears before her.
“If you are all-powerful, as you claim to be, you should not fear us!”
“I do not fear you,” a voice says behind the knit of figures. It is as cold and hard as the wind. “I know what you intend.”
A susurration spreads through the group and they draw closer together. The Overlord’s outline shifts as the growing gale pulls at the fabric of his clothes.
He moves closer. “The question is, will you succeed? You see, I studied the Orbs. Have you, Alayna? Or have you been too busy running?”
Another flash lights his face.
Alayna turns away from him, to stare out at the horizon again.
“Are you certain that’s wise?” The Overlord mocks her.
She closes her eyes. He lifts a staff, and the group pulls tighter. They know that he can kill them all with little more than a thought.
Alayna throws a spell into the darkness. It hits something. The something shrieks and the Overlord disappears.
In the place where her spell landed, there is now a man curled up on his side, hugging himself as wild electricity races across his skin. In the blue glow of the magic, Alayna sees an echo of the boy he used to be.
“How?” he pants.
Alayna doesn’t answer. She lifts her arms and starts to chant, and her comrades link hands and take up the rhythm of her words. Around them a silence falls, the wind stops, and then glowing Orbs break the surface of the ground — red, green, indigo, violet, blue, orange, and finally gold. They spin around the stones, faster and faster, blending to white.
The Overlord speaks too, but his voice is sucked away by the magic of the Orbs, is overpowered by the chanting chorus. He cries out in silenced agony.
“In the name of my people, the people you enslaved!” Alayna shouts at him. “In the name of all those who have suffered under your rule, I call upon the power of the Orbs to bring justice upon you! I curse you. Not with death, for death is too forgiving. I curse you. Not with torture, for in torturing you, we are no better than you are. I curse you with life. By the sacred three, for this many centuries, you will reflect on your crimes without the magic that has corrupted your heart. By the power of the orbs, under the gaze of the Guardians, it shall be done.”
She draws her hands together and as she does the orbs circle closer and closer and closer until all the other Guardians are outside of their ring. She is alone with the Overlord as the orbs sink back down to the ground.
The Overlord pulls his hands free.
Alayna takes a step back, but before she can cast her own magic he cries out a final curse.
Two masts rise out of the mist like a wrecked ship in an ocean of cloud. I blink. Dad and I have been driving for twelve hours to get to Grahamstown and I’m apparently already having visions like the scurvied sailors who first rounded the continent. Only, my Flying Dutchman is on solid land.
I blink again, but the vision does not disappear. Before I decide I’ve gone totally mad, Dad points through the windscreen. “Look, Lilah, the 1820 Settlers Monument.”
Beneath the masts, a squat, facebrick building emerges from the fog.
The monument has featured in his stories about this place, but he never mentioned the masts.
“That’s where they’ll hold your graduation ceremony,” he adds.
We haven’t even reached my university residence yet, and he’s already talking about graduation. I rest my head against the cold window and watch as my breath steams it up.
“You’re going to love it here.” He fills the silence, as he always does.
Of course he expects me to love it here. He loved it here. But I’m not like him. My father is the fearless Prosecutor Durow. Every day he faces the worst of humanity and locks them away. He’s practically a superhero. Me? I’m nothing unless I have an exam paper in front of me. If my father’s footsteps leave echoes that will be heard for decades to come, mine ring out as loud as bluebells. Which is to say, not at all.
“You’ll be okay.” Dad keeps his attention on the road. “It’s beautiful. You’ll see.” He rattles off the names of places I know only from his tales. He always makes Grahamstown sound magical; a land of ivy-covered walls and spiral staircases, with rolling green lawns and quaint townhouses.
When I was younger, these stories of his enchanted me. I listened to descriptions of classes, canteen food, and midnight escapades to Grey Dam the way that other kids would listen to the adventures of Robin Hood. Sometimes he’d even mention my mother. They were the only times he did. Like Guinevere or Rapunzel, my mother existed solely within his stories. Sometimes I wonder how much of his love for Grahamstown was truly for the town itself, and how much was for the fair maiden he met here.
Like most of the old myths, their story ends with a tragedy. One he will never talk about. Not even today, when we drove right past the place where it happened.
I wrench my morbid thoughts toward safer shores for both of us. “Why is the Monument shaped like a ship?”
The lines around Dad’s mouth pull into a frown as he realises I wasn’t listening to his story at all. I tense as I wait for him to scold me for interrupting, but he doesn’t. There’s a first.
“Well, they arrived here by sea, the settlers. King George sent them off with the promise of ‘farms in Africa.’ Poor bastards. Didn’t tell them the land was already occupied. Between famine, disease and war, it’s a wonder Grahamstown is still here at all.”
So much for the glittering fairytale.
Grahamstown is now an island of a town, two hours away from the nearest city, which happens to be Port Elizabeth. That’s the city where I was born, but I haven’t been to this part of the country since I was a few weeks old. Home for me is Cape Town — a full day’s drive away. Home has malls and cinemas and libraries.
Does Grahamstown even have a library?
My chest tightens with sudden dread.
Don’t be an idiot. Of course, it has a library.
It’s a university town and a cultural hub known for its annual Festival of the Arts. It will have a library for certain. Maybe even two. And museums and theatres. And I’ll be able to go home in a few months anyway for vacation.
A giant sign beside the rain-slicked road welcomes us. Below, an advert for the local supermarket boasts, “With prices so low, even the students get fed!”
I’m not ready for this.
I thought I would be. When my cousin Tammy set off to backpack through Europe last week, I told her how excited I was to escape from my father’s scrutiny.
I can’t blame him for wishing to shield me from the horrors he sees in court, but it’s suffocating. I’ve been looking forward to this day for years, to being around people my own age, to having the freedom to do what I want to do without having to explain myself constantly.
Only, now that it’s actually happening, I feel ill.
We pull up outside my residence; a dull red brick building with arched windows and decorative cornices. The acceptance letter said I’d have my own room, and I’m grateful for that tiny piece of reassurance, because from the outside this looks like the sort of place where you’d find students packed in narrow bunk beds, rising at dawn to sing It’s a Hard Knock Life.
Perhaps I’m only exchanging one prison for another. The dreary sky above is hardly the most promising of welcomes.
Orientation for new students officially starts tomorrow, but the letter strongly recommended I attend a meet and greet tonight. Dad assured me it would be worth getting up at 4am and driving through for, but I suspect he was just excited to see Grahamstown again and anxious to get here as soon as possible.
The smell of potpourri-scented wood polish hits as we walk through a wide wooden door into the entrance hall. Rain patters against high windows, doing nothing to lift my unease. We’re ushered through to a room packed with people. There are so many of them that it’s almost impossible to move without brushing someone’s shoulder and the air feels warm, thick, like there’s not enough of it.
Dad takes my elbow and guides me through the crowd towards an older woman at the other end of the room. She has brown skin and bright, cheerful eyes. She’s talking to a small group of girls my age, but she stops when she sees Dad, and her hand flies to her mouth.
“Sukwini.” He gives her a smile, but it’s kind of tight around the eyes. Which is odd because he told me that Miss Sukwini, the Warden, is an old friend. Maybe he’s just nervous to see her again after such a long time.
Her gaze moves immediately to me, and there’s an unexpected intensity there. “This must be Lilah! My my, you look just like your mother.”
Dad winces, but Sukwini doesn’t seem to notice. She takes me by the shoulders and has a good, hard, look. I feel out of place in my own skin. It’s like she’s not looking at me, but at someone who existed once upon a time.
“Don’t worry about a thing, everything will be just fine,” Sukwini says. “We’ll take care of you.”
She must have read the worry on my face — I’ve never been very good at hiding my emotions — but her words do little to soothe me. My dreams of freedom are rapidly melting away. Dad is simply passing me off to another parent.
“Go mingle and make some friends, Lah,” Dad says. Like all of his suggestions, it’s more like an order. The way he’s looking at Sukwini now, I can tell he wants time alone with her. Probably to outline just how much of my life she should control.
I dutifully leave them to it.
Mingle. As if it’s that easy. As if I can just walk up to some stranger and strike up a conversation. I skirt the edges of the crowd, trying to find anyone who’s standing alone, but the other girls are all either talking to their parents or to each other. And they’re all beautiful. They’re wearing trendy clothes and makeup, they’re laughing and smiling, their hair is sleek and perfect.
Here I am in my baggy jersey and probably the only pair of jeans in the room that doesn’t have fashionable rips, with wild hair that’s been mushed by the long drive. I don’t see a single person who looks anything like me. What I do see is a door, standing open a little way away. It lets in a cool breeze and invites the crowd to spill out into a small courtyard.
If the weather was better, I imagine they might. As it is, I’m the only one who slips outside.
In the misting rain, the courtyard is a fairy garden. Clumps of dripping lavender, rain-soaked marigolds and soft pink flowers small as butterfly wings brighten its edge. Beyond that is a rolling lawn. The wet air smells like earth and floral perfume, and the rain is so light it barely tickles my skin. Through the haze of drizzle I can see giant marquee dominating the green. Men on ladders are stringing twinkling lights up across the tent’s entrance.
Perhaps Grahamstown is just a little bit magical after all.
Dad is none too pleased when he finds me standing alone in the garden looking at flowers when I was supposed to be socialising. He doesn’t say as much, but I’m the only child of a single parent. I can sense it in the clipped edge of his sentences, in the stiff way he moves as Miss Sukwini leads us to see my room.
The fact that I won’t be sharing it is about all that can be said in its favour. It’s small, dim and smells of damp.
Miss Sukwini hurries past me and opens the grey curtains above a desk on the far side. Weak light trickles in. A tree blocks most of the view, the rest is of the street. I’m tensed for Dad’s bluster given his mood, but it doesn’t come. He stands in the doorway nodding at each piece of furniture in turn, which doesn’t take him long considering there’s only a small sink, a closet, the desk, and a narrow bed. My suitcase takes up the only floor space.
“Well, I’ll leave you to get settled, then,” Dad says. “I’m going to — I think I’ll go find myself a shower. See you tomorrow,Lah. You know I’m just a phonecall away if you need anything.”
And by anything he means if I freak out at the party and need Daddy to come rescue me. “See you tomorrow, Dad.”
After he leaves with the Warden, I sit down heavily on the bed.
My room. It’s not quite what I pictured — there isn’t even space for a bookshelf — but a small thrill runs through me because it’s mine.
I unpack carefully, deciding on a system of sorting and then rearranging. By the time I come to the final item in my suitcase, twilight is tinting everything blue and it’s almost time to go back to the common room for a tour of the facilities, but not just yet. This first.
I withdraw the map from my case as if it’s some smuggled artifact. It’s not. Although, I suppose, it was brought here illicitly. It holds no value to anyone but me. It’s not even a map of a real place. It’s a drawing.
Dad could never understand why I enjoyed sketching, let alone sketching cartography of a non-existent kingdom. He encouraged me to give up this weird hobby and, as far as he knows, I did at around the same time that I gave up stuffed animals. Looking down at the map now in the strange light, it strikes me that this isn’t even a very good map and that maybe my little act of rebellion is kinda pitiful.
Regardless, there’s a hook above the bed and I hang the map. It matches the sombre dark wood of the room and makes it feel a tiny bit more like home.
A crowd of girls is already milling about in the common room when I reach it and Miss Sukwini is in the midst of them, answering questions that I can’t quite make out above the general chatter. I feel like a blob of monochrome in a sea of bleach-blonde and sparkles. Tammy, who is a fan of pink and shiny, tried to convince me to bring some of her clothes so that I’d fit in. But Tammy is older than me, and different from me in almost every way. Her clothes would have been wasted sitting in that closet upstairs. Still, at this moment in time, I regret my refusal. Smile, Lilah, she’d coached. Don’t be so standoffish. Be approachable. I realise my arms are folded and my jaw is clenched. I take a deep breath and try to relax my posture, try to force a smile.
It feels false, it feels like I’m a robot trying to figure out how to act human. Something about it must work, though, because one of the girls standing near me grins back and bounces excitedly on the balls of her feet.
Miss Sukwini takes us through the res, shows us the bathroom and the laundry room and briefs us on emergency procedure. Then we walk through the drizzle to the dining hall. It’s made of brick too, but adorned with large stained-glass windows and I overhear someone saying that it’s a remnant of the monastery that used to occupy these grounds.
The excited girl falls into step beside me as we enter the hall. “Oh em gee, am I loving this architecture?”
Is she trying to start a conversation? If so, I wish she’d given me a better opener. I know nothing about architecture. “Uh, yes. It’s nice.”
She spins on the spot and her blonde hair flies about her, her little black dress flares out. She giggles. “University!”
Again, I’m at a loss for what more to say. Luckily, she sticks out her hand. “I’m Jess.”
“That’s a pretty name.”
“Where are you from?”
I hate small talk, but I’m relieved for it as we line up for our dinner trays. Jess directs the conversation effortlessly and during our meal of warm lamb stew I learn every banal detail about her I could wish to. She’s from Johannesburg, her parents want her to study accounting but she plans to register for “something that won’t bore me to death.” She has brothers, but they studied elsewhere. She’s been to the Arts Festival in Grahamstown before, but has never been on campus. I smile through the whole thing. I want to be friendly. I want to be liked. And I consider that it would be nice to have a friend, even if we have very little in common.
On the way back to res she wants to talk outfits for the meet and greet and I am stymied. I may be able to bluff my way through dinner table conversation, but when she starts talking fashion brands I am outed as a clueless nerd.
I feel my cheeks go red and shrug. “I like to wear what’s comfortable.”
“I get it.” She nods and for a moment I think she does. “I got this cute black dress at a thrift shop once.”
Oh. She thinks it’s about money. I’m not sure which is worse. I try to laugh and make an odd grating sound instead.
“What size are you?” Jess asks.
“I, uh -”
She’s looking at me with wide eyes, eyebrows tilted upwards in sympathy. I very much doubt anything she owns will fit me, she looks like a strong gust of wind might carry her off.
“A medium, I guess.”
She startles me by reaching out and taking a clump of my hair. “Come with me, we’ll sort this out.”
And just like that, I’m apparently signed on for a beauty makeover. I don’t know what to expect. Television show montages and movie transformations play through my mind when I follow her up to her room. Tammy would appreciate it. It’s pink from top to bottom. I’m satisfied that it’s the same size as mine, and though she flings the closet door open with gusto, it’s no more impressive than my own.
“Do you have a boyfriend, Lilah?” she asks as she sweeps hangers aside.
Really? We can’t talk about something that’s actually interesting?
I have never had a boyfriend. The closest I ever came was a blind date that Tammy set up for me. He spoke about World of Warcraft the whole time and I spilled hot chocolate down my front. Needless to say, there was no second date.
I tell Jess, “No,” but I try to sound confident about it, as if it’s a choice.
“Well, you’ll have one before the end of the night.” She winks at me. “I’ll make it my personal mission.”
Half an hour later, we’re both standing in the entrance hall. I’m trying to catch sight of myself in the door’s reflection to see if she has pulled off a Hollywood-style miracle. She’s dressed me in a white summer dress with large, black polka dots. She went at my hair with a GHD, so it’s perfectly straight instead of its usual messy waves. I don’t know how long that will last if it’s still raining outside, but she seemed unconcerned. It takes all of my self-control not to scratch at my eyes, where she’s fixed some fake lashes. I didn’t get a chance to see myself before we left her room, but I imagine myself as a porcelain doll with the rosy cheeks and too-large eyes. I think what she was actually going for was 50s chic, but it turned out I couldn’t balance in her heels, which put a damper on that plan. I consented to black pumps, but I’d rather be wearing boots. She, however, is in a glittering cocktail dress and the five inch heels that one only sees in the big cities. They make her tall and if the accounting thing doesn’t work out, I’m certain she could be a model.
Dad lived in one of these residences himself, and he used to tell me about the sense of calm he’d feel walking to class. I can feel that same calm now. A blanket of still, detectable even while the girls around me twitter and giggle. The rain has stopped, but a layer of mist has descended, lending the evening a dreamlike quality. The girls sparkle, the fairy lights twinkle and jazz music emanates from the big white tent where the boys from our brother reses await. Warmth flickers in my chest, a remnant of the excitement I’d felt before leaving home. I can be new here, a different Lilah who is grown up and popular.
We amass within the tent, stand shoulder-to-shoulder as the university faculty welcome us. Then we are set free to mingle.
People form small groups, or push past to get at the boxed wine and yellow cheese laid out for us. I scan the crowd for Jess, but she’s nowhere. Around me, fellow students smile at one another, shake hands. Once more I am the oddity, standing alone in the middle of the room while everyone else is making friends.
I hover by the drinks table, even though I’ve never had alcohol, and technically shouldn’t since I’m only 17. Maybe that’s what’s wrong with me. The age difference. A memory invades my thoughts. You think you’re cleverer than the rest of us because your daddy pulled strings. I didn’t skip a grade because I thought I was better, I did it because Dad thought I was better. Pretty much the same reason I’m here now.
I reach for the wine. My hand is shaking so hard that I end up spilling a good deal. It smells like vinegar, but everyone else is happily drinking. I take a tentative sip. It’s disgusting. My tongue wants to shrivel up and retreat to the back of my throat.
I’m not that much younger than them. A couple of months, maybe. How am I so very different from every single person here?
I turn around to set my glass down, and bump straight into one of the boys. The glass slips out of my hand. I see it almost in slow motion. As it falls, it splashes red wine all the way down his shirt.
“Watch where you’re going!” He bites out, brushing at his ruined shirt.
“I’m so sorry.” I stumble back in mortification and collide with someone else who curses at me.
I need to get away. Away from the beautiful, confident people. Away from the press of strange bodies. Away from my own inadequacy.
I don’t belong here.
Before I can cause any more disruption, I turn and run.
I think I’m heading back towards the residence and the refuge of my tiny room, but I find myself crossing a bridge that I don’t remember at all from the walk to the party.
My feet thunder on the wood in the too-still night. I pause. There should be music. In the tent, they were playing a cacophony of jazz and people were projecting their voices to be heard over it. My ears ring. Why can’t I hear the music anymore? I whip around.
I don’t know what I expect. That the tent has disappeared into the mist for a hundred years like the mythical town of Brigadoon? But it’s still there, twinkling benignly through the fog.
The silence is eerie, but I like the party far better from here. I can just make out the silhouettes of the other students, but they can’t see me. The cool, damp air fills my lungs and my rapid heartbeat calms.
I watch for a few more minutes, then decide to continue along the path. I was probably just unaware of crossing the bridge earlier. Besides, I’m on campus. How lost can I possibly get?
When the path winds around a dark tennis court, I know I’ve discovered the answer: very. There was definitely no tennis court when we walked here before, and now I’ve lost sight of the tent. My route has brought me between tall bushes, and looming trees with limbs that look like they’re waiting to snatch me.
I hug myself. What’s wrong with me? I’d hoped that in an intellectual institution I might finally fit in. Yet, I’m as odd here as I was in Cape Town.
Something moves up ahead and my pulse skitters. There’s a flash of light through the bushes, and then a man rounds the corner, illuminating the way with his phone torch.
He stops when he sees me and gives me a polite smile. “Lost?”
He’s tall, with a square face and glasses, so my immediate impression of him in the semi-darkness is that I’m talking to Clark Kent.
My fingers fist in my dress as I do my best to stand up straight and look confident.
“No, just looking around,” I lie.
I move aside so he can pass me, and he does, but he pauses a little way away to say, “You know, it might be a better idea to explore during the day. If you continue that way, you’ll end up in the Botanical Gardens.”
“Yeah. I mean it’s not particularly dangerous. Unless of course you walk straight for, uh, six hundred meters or so? Then you might fall into the Dam.”
He doesn’t move. “I could take you back to the party instead?”
“What makes you think I’ve come from the party?”
I can hear the grin in his voice. “Much as I’d love to call myself a brilliant detective, it’s literally the only thing happening on campus tonight. And you’re a little too dressed up to be sleep walking.”
I smile too, despite myself. Now would be the time to say something both coy and charming in response, but my brain offers up nothing. Zip. Nada. For all of those distinctions I finished school with, my brain has zero to contribute right now.
The man steps forward and holds out his hand. “I’m Darren. And I’m not a creep, despite the atmosphere.” He waves vaguely, encapsulating the forest and the mist. “I work for the university.”
“Lilah.” I take his hand. It’s large and warm. “And I may be a little lost.”
“Don’t worry, this part of campus is a maze.”
As we head back, Darren tells me that he’s the tech on duty who was called to the rescue when the sound system crashed. Which explains why the music stopped. He doesn’t really seem old enough to work for the university and when I comment that I thought he was a student, he shrugs.
“I was a student up until recently.”
Before I manage to find a tactful way to ask why he’s still here if he graduated, he adds, “I’m local. My parents worked for the university. Their parents worked for the university. I think their parents worked for the university too, although I can never quite recall.”
“And now you’re continuing the proud family tradition?”
“Something like that.” He changes the subject and asks where I’m from.
I tell him about Cape Town and he calls me a Big City Girl. He thinks I’m like Jess, and why not? I am in her clothes, wearing her makeup. I don’t correct him. I can be a Big City Girl for a night.
He stops walking and I think something’s wrong, but then he says, “Come, City Girl. I want to show you something.”
He tilts his head and cuts through some vegetation. I hesitate. City Girl has been told time and time again that letting strange men take you into dark corners is not a good idea.
Then he asks, “Have you ever seen a ghost?”
And he takes my hand and leads me with him into the dark.
I have absolutely no desire to see a ghost, but now I’m curious. I let him pull me along until we come to a bridge, perhaps the very same one I fled over earlier. He lets go of me and puts a finger to his lips. He creeps forward, then ducks behind one of the bushes and gestures for me to join him.
This feels silly. I feel silly. But I follow him.
We’re crouched low, staring at what I’m convinced is nothing, when he says, “Alright, she’s there. Look at the bench. Do you see the grey nun?”
There’s a large tree obscuring some of the bridge, with a bench set against it. On the bench, sitting serenely, there… I blink. There appears to be an old woman. My neck prickles and a chill rushes through me.
“She used to be a nun,” Darren says. “She waits there every night.”
I recall that thing about how this part of campus used to be a monastery. I can hardly breathe, but I manage to ask, “Why?”
“No one knows.”
I stare at the lonely figure. It’s impossible to see any details. She’s merely a shadow in the fog, waiting for all eternity. Alone.
In that moment, I can imagine nothing worse.
I swallow down emotion, but Darren must mistake it for fear because he laughs. He’s grinning and the expression is too happy, too easy for someone who’s in the presence of something so supernatural and so sad.
“Come, I want you to meet her.” He grabs my arm and pulls me up.
“Don’t be scared.” He tugs me forward. I dig my heels into the ground, but he’s strong and I find myself stumbling after him. The figure doesn’t disappear as we grow nearer. If anything, it becomes more solid.
Yes, it becomes more solid.
It’s no ghost. It’s no figure at all. Our proximity reveals her to be nothing but a knobbly, bulging feature of the tree’s trunk.
Darren is still laughing at me. My cheeks heat, but I can’t stop staring at the trunk.
Am I disappointed that there was no ghost?
My lack of amusement quietens Darren. “Sorry,” he says sheepishly.
“Don’t be. It was fun.” That’s not really what I want to say. What I mean to say is that I appreciate him weaving the story for me and giving me this experience, even if he aimed to frighten me.
“There are real ghosts around Grahamstown, apparently,” he says as we begin walking back to the party again. “If you’re here for Fest, there’s a tour. The guy does it every year.”
“I’ll remember that.” I don’t say that I have no intention of staying in Grahamstown over the winter break.
The glowing tent emerges from the mist and now I can hear people singing — the students attempting to make their own music.
Darren throws me a tortured look. “I think I’m needed.”
As he hurries towards the caterwauling, Jess bounds up to me. “Lilah, where have you been?”
She looks so genuinely concerned that I can’t possibly accuse her of abandoning me. She nudges me and tilts her chin. “Who’s the hottie?”
“He’s just a… person.”
She claps me on the shoulder. “I told you I’d find you a boyfriend.”
At that moment, a blond-haired boy stumbles up to us waving two glasses of white wine. The way he’s swishing them around, there’s hardly anything left in them. Jess accepts one. “You’re a doll.”
The boy beams at her attention, then seems to spot me. “Hi, I’m Mi… Michael.” His eyes are bleary and he’s having trouble focusing them, but he hands me the other glass.
“No thanks, I don’t drink.”
They both look at me as if I’m mad. Jess opens her mouth and I’m dreading what she’ll say, but then the music starts again. She takes Michael’s hand and, without bothering to drop her voice, asks me, “I wonder if he can dance?”
The way he’s struggling to stand steady, I doubt it. “There’s only one way to find out…”
She gives an exaggerated wink — her intense eyeliner makes her look like a cartoon character — and drags him back towards the tent.
I’m still holding the glass of wine.
I could try it. It might taste better than the red. I swirl it around in the glass, sniff it. Ugh. Pickle juice.
“I wouldn’t bother,” Darren says, arriving back at my side.
I lower the glass with some relief.
“If you want real wine, you should come back to my place. I have a stack of it. I used to be part of winesoc.”
Did he just invite me home? Me? Lilah? “Wine sock?”
He chuckles. “The wine tasting society. I suppose you haven’t had a chance to suss the societies out yet?”
I shake my head. I can hear my heartbeat in my ears.
“You do realise this party is only going to go downhill from here?” As if to emphasize his words, someone stumbles out of the tent behind him and rushes to one of the bushes to empty the contents of his stomach. “Offer’s there, if you want?”
“Offer?” I repeat. My mouth’s gone dry.
“Yeah.” He shifts his weight. “Decent wine. I don’t live far from here.”
There’s heat crawling up my neck. I let myself imagine accepting his offer, what else it might lead to. But I’m Cinderella, and when this makeup comes off, I’ll no longer be the interesting Big City Girl, I’ll be lame ol’ Lilah with her anxiety, her books and her very limited experience of the big bad world.
“Thanks for the offer…”
“I sense a ‘but’ coming?”
“Yeah. It’s my first night in town. I think I should stay near my res. You know, in case they do a roll call or something?”
He glances back at the tent. “I assure you, they won’t. But I understand if you’d feel more comfortable.”
The sky is bluer than any I’ve ever seen when I leave res the next morning to go register for class. Cape Town skies are like watercolour paintings; they’re white and pink and pale baby blue. This sky is azure from horizon to horizon, so bright that it seems like someone’s placed a filter over it.
There’s a general buzz of excitement at the registration office, and the photograph that they take for my ID card shows me smiling with genuine happiness.
I meet Dad on campus at a cafeteria called The Kaif.
“This isn’t what it used to be,” he mutters, staring down at a toasted sandwich in a paper packet. “It used to be much nicer.”
I think it’s nice. We’re sitting outside in the shade of intense green trees full of birds. I’m admiring these birds, and their happy song, when one flies overhead and Dad cries out. There’s a large dropping on the shoulder of his fancy charcoal grey suit. I try desperately to suppress my laughter as he jumps up, waving his hands about in disgust.
“Oh, this is perfect! Just perfect!” He grabs a serviette and dabs at the mark, trying to get as much off as possible. He growls when his efforts prove less than effective. “Wait here. I’m going to find a bathroom.”
When he’s gone, I finally give in to my giggles.
“I hear it’s good luck,” someone says behind me.
I turn to find a stranger at the neighbouring table smirking in amusement. He has a narrow face with angular cheekbones and honey-coloured hair that’s tied back in a messy ponytail.
“Sorry?” I ask.
“Bird droppings, on your shoulder. I hear it’s good luck.”
He shrugs. “Small consolation.”
His accent is unfamiliar. It’s more clipped than my own, but more rounded on the vowel sounds than British. Maybe this is my first taste of the local Grahamstown accent.
“Yeah.” I doubt Dad will see it that way. He doesn’t believe in luck.
The stranger gets to his feet, crumples up a paper sandwich packet and shoves it into the pocket of his long brown jacket. He nods towards the indoor section of the cafe. “You may want to move inside.”
There were one or two tables inside, but it looked cramped. “No, I think we’ll be fine. Chances of it happening again…”
“I meant because it’s going to rain.”
I seriously doubt that. How could rain fall from that bright blue sky? Dad’s heading back towards the table now and he’s doing that determined march that usually means someone is going to feel very sorry for themselves soon and it won’t be him.
“I think I’ll take my chances out here,” I tell the stranger.
“Alright, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
Dad starts ranting about the lack of facilities in this new Kaif before he sits down. I’m only half listening. A drop of water just landed on my hand, followed by another.
I’m still staring in wonder at it when the skies open in earnest.
The weather is erratic. Throughout the day it switches between sunshine and rain. It even storms and gets very cold for about half an hour in the late afternoon.
Dad leaves as soon as the storm abates. He’s fed up. So far today he’s lost a very expensive suit to a bird and a very expensive pair of shoes to the rain. He’s also lost his way a few times. We took a drive to find his old digs and, when we eventually did, we discovered it had been converted into a liquor store.
“Sign of what the world’s coming to,” he mumbled.
I think he expected to return to his university and find everything the same. That Grahamstown is still here, like the Grahamstown of the 1800s is, lurking beneath moss and beneath new roads and in the people; their faces, their attitudes, their genes. But it’s not the town from his stories. That place doesn’t exist anymore.
After seeing him off, I return to the dim closet that is my new home and email Tammy while absently scrolling through social media feeds. Jess has posted a few pics from last night to Instagram and there’s one with me. She’s duck-facing at the camera so her lips look pouty and her cheekbones stand out. I look pretty bewildered, but I have to marvel at the makeup job she did on me. I do look like a doll, but not in a bad way. I send the pic to Tammy because I know she’ll get a kick out of it.
I’m considering pulling out a pad of paper and redrawing the map that’s above my bed, when someone hammers on my door. My heart is in my throat when I get up to answer. Did I forget about something important?
It’s only Jess and she’s with Michael. “We’re going out, wanna join?”
What time is it? “Aren’t they serving dinner soon?”
“This isn’t boarding school, Lilah. You don’t have to eat that slop if you don’t want to.”
Going out for dinner might be nice, although I’m not sure what Grahamstown has by way of restaurants. “Uh, sure. Let me grab my things.”
There’s a donkey in the road.
When I was nine, I had a penpal in the States who asked me if wild animals roamed the streets of South Africa. I was so insulted that I didn’t reply to her. Cape Town is a bustling metropolis. The only animals you’re likely to see are stray dogs. On the outskirts, you may be burgled by baboons, but other than that the only place you’ll see real wild animals is at the zoo.
Except now there’s a donkey meandering down the road in front of us, and Jess is squealing and pointing and Michael is snapping pics on his phone. It sticks its head into a garbage can and even though Jess is cautious about approaching it, it doesn’t even notice us when we walk past. We’re far from the only people out tonight, but we’re the only ones who seem to find the donkey strange. No one else so much as turns to look at it.
New Street is apparently the “happening” part of town. Michael has an older brother who went to university here, so he’s our guide. He takes as past a pizzeria that already has a crowd of students milling outside and I think we might step into the bistro opposite; it glows with inviting yellow light from beneath canopied windows. But instead, we carry on a little way down the road to a bright green building with a gilded wooden sign across the top declaring it The Rat and Parrot. Above the sign, crowds of people push against a balcony railing, holding glasses and bottles and shouting to each other.
Even if it weren’t for that, I’d have known it was a pub the instant we stepped inside. The smell of beer and smoke hits me full in the face. The smoke is so thick that I want to choke. It hangs in the air, blurring out the people who cluster around the tables. The onslaught of noise is no less repulsive. There’s a game on the TV above the bar, but it might be muted for all I can hear it. Something exciting must happen as we walk in, because there’s a roar (a cheer? Despair? I can’t even tell). It’s too much for my senses. I want to get out, I want to run away again, but Jess grabs my wrist and pulls me through the press of bodies up to a second floor.
As soon as we’re on the stairs, I can breathe again. It’s slow progress, we’re in a shambling queue of people trying to get to the second floor, but eventually we emerge at the top of the stairs, where there’s a second, smaller bar. This room is less stuffy because the balcony doors are thrown open, but it’s just as loud and there are no free tables.
“Jess!” I can barely make out the female voice above the ruckus. A girl stands up at one of the tables and waves at us. She has dark red hair, a little black dress and bright makeup.
Jess waves back, using her whole arm, and pulls me with her through the sea of people.
The two of them embrace and exchange excited conversation I can’t hear, before the girl is introduced to me as Sam, one of Jess’s school friends who also decided to come study in Grahamstown. There are two others at her table – a girl and a guy – and they budge up along the wooden benches to make room for us.
Before Michael has a chance to sit, Jess hands him her purse, “Would you be a darl and get us some drinks?”
He stands a little straighter and I think he might refuse, but instead he says, “Sure. What do you want?”
“I’ll have a vodka and sprite.”
“Lilah?” It’s the first time he’s used my name. I didn’t even know he remembered it.
“She doesn’t drink,” Jess says.
My stomach drops. She didn’t need to say that. He was there last night, he knows. Was the declaration for the benefit of her other friends?
“A Coke, please.” My voice struggles to get out of my throat, embarrassment is constricting it. I have to repeat myself two more times before Michael understands and by that stage everyone at the table has definitely heard me.
I start looking at the menu — partly because I’m getting hungry, partly to give me something to do. I can hardly hear the others’ conversation and what I do hear is about celebrities I’m not familiar with, or experiences they had in Joburg that I can’t relate to. However, by the time I’ve finished my Coke, it’s clear that no one intends to eat. Sam orders a round of shots and they toast (“To starting university!”), then Jess sends Michael off for more drinks. I don’t fit in. They know it, I know it. Half way through the second round of drinks, I’m trying to think of an excuse to leave when I catch my name over the din.
Even though I’m convinced no one in this town would be calling me, I follow the voice. Darren is waving over the crowd, and he starts towards us. It takes him a while to move through the people, and that whole while I’m aware of my companions eyeing him. What would a good looking guy like him want with a girl like me?
I think I’d feel more confident if I knew the answer to that question myself.
I don’t wait for him to reach us. This is the excuse I needed.
Michael is now sitting on the end of the bench, fencing me in. I make a “can I get out please” gesture. He stares at me blankly.
“Can I get out?” I say aloud.
Even right next to me, he can’t hear me. “What?”
“Out?” I repeat louder. “Out. Can I? Please?”
He finally gets what I’m saying when I start shifting towards him, and I realise he’s probably drunk already. There’s a disconnect between his mind and his limbs and it takes a moment for him to shuffle off the bench so I can escape.
By that stage, Darren is practically at the table and he’s looking at me with an amused expression.
He says something that I can’t hear.
When I shake my head and shrug, he steps in close and leans down so that he’s speaking directly into my ear. “It might have been easier to climb over the table.”
His breath tickles my neck and the mental image makes me giggle. I can’t imagine what Jess’s group would have made of that. Especially if I knocked their drinks over.
He says something else, but just then someone scores a goal or a wicket or a try and the room erupts into noise. When it dies town, Darren says, “I can’t even hear myself think, want to come downstairs for a bit?”
I can’t imagine downstairs will be any better, but I’m emboldened by my desperate desire to be anywhere but here. I glance at Jess, worried about abandoning her, but she’s moved in next to Michael and they’re kissing. Definitely time for me to go.
I nod and follow Darren, expecting him to head back towards the stairs, but he makes for the bar.
There’s only one bartender and he spins a bottle with one hand and slides a glass to a customer with the other while we approach. Sweat is prickling on his dark skin.
“Sibu!” Darren greets him.
“You’re going to have to pour for yourself, mate,” the bartender replies without looking at him.
Darren slides around the bar and reaches up for two glasses. He sets them down and gives me a smile. “You ever tried a katemba?”
Sibu chuckles. “Eish, you still drink that stuff?”
“Why do you think I’m up here? Bernie told me to piss off when I asked downstairs.”
Sibu whistles and shakes his head, but he doesn’t offer further comment as he continues to serve the other customers.
Darren raises his eyebrows at me. “So?”
I could tell him I don’t drink, as I told the others. But I’m curious, and, well, I’m also a little worried that he’ll be as put off as they were. I’m no longer doll pretty with a city sparkle to charm him. I’m just me. Boring enough as is.
Sibu laughs again at my hesitation. “Girl’s got taste.”
Darren pulls a bottle of wine from behind the bar. “Tell you what, you can give it a try and if you hate it, I’ll finish it. Will save me another trip up here.”
“Okay.” That seems fair.
The wine that splashes into the glass is blood red and probably expensive.
Then again, maybe not. The next thing he pours in is Coca-Cola.
“So, this here is your classic katemba, a Mozambican cocktail.”
“Ay ay ay.” Sibu shakes his head again.
The customer he’s serving – an older man with a scruffy brown beard chimes in. “Cocktail, Darren? Quit trying to impress the lady. It’s an abomination. That’s what it is.”
“The Proteas are an abomination,” he responds and the man grimaces and mutters, “low blow, low blow,” while looking up balefully at the TV.
Darren reaches into the fridge behind him and pulls out a tall blue box that looks like a milk carton
He winks at me.
“And this is what I call localisation.”
Sibu cringes. I smell pineapples as Darren fills the glasses the rest of the way up.
“You’re in pineapple country now.” He passes me the drink.
I have to clutch it to my chest to avoid spilling as we fight our way downstairs. It’s still as loud and smoky as it was earlier. Darren can’t mean to talk here? He swings open a door I didn’t even see, against the wall between the stairs and the bar and sunlight slices through the cigarette fog.
There’s a garden out there. A secret garden, enclosed by high walls with a trellis dripping plants. I can hardly believe it. There are tables here too, but only three of them and they’re all occupied.
“Is this the VIP area?” I ask.
“No, City Girl, you’re in Grahamstown. Who would the VIPs be? Lecturers?”
I’m embarrassed, but the way he smiles at me is good-natured.
“It’s the beer garden. No table service, no smoking, no TVs, open to the elements. Less appealing for the average student, which makes it perfect. Wouldn’t you agree?”
Before I can answer, a dark-haired woman at one of the tables stands up. She’s got a baby in a wrap snuggled against her chest. “Who’s this?”
The others at the table turn to look at us. There are four of them, but they’re just a blur of judgemental faces as I swallow and try to calm my racing heart.
“This is Lilah,” Darren says easily. “And that is my sister, Bianca. She won our entire family’s worth of charm in the genetic lottery. Isn’t that right?”
The sound Bianca makes can only be described as a growl. He introduces the others. I don’t catch names, but there are three men and another woman, all older than me.
Bianca excuses herself before I can sit down and one of the men — bald, with a full sleeve tattoo — gets up to leave with her.
It’s awkward sitting down with what’s clearly a close-knit group of friends, but the remaining three make pleasant small talk asking about my studies and my reason for choosing Grahamstown. The girl even warns me about one of the more boring law professors and advises me to have a strong cup of coffee before his class.
They tease Darren about his Katemba the way Sibu did and all seem to be holding their breath when I finally gather the courage to try it.
It’s all I can do not to gag as I take the first sip. The bitter wine hits first, then the snap of sweetness from the coke and finally the sticky acid of the pineapple. It seems to glue the dry red wine to the back of my throat. I imagine you could get a similar effect by letting a few old coins sit in water overnight.
They all laugh at what must be a very amusing expression when I swallow it down. But they’re not laughing at me, they’re laughing at Darren.
“Guys! I don’t see what the big deal is. It’s practically sangria.”
But they don’t appear to hear is protests.
I go get myself another cooldrink to wash it down and when I get back to the table, Darren’s friends have pulled out a deck of cards and are playing poker. They offer to deal me in, but I don’t even know the rules. Not that I’m willing to admit that.
Darren folds, and we spend the next hour watching them and talking. He’s easy to talk to. I tell him about my father and his most recent work as chief prosecution on the Dumi corruption case that’s been in all the headlines. He doesn’t really follow the news, however, and I have nothing much to add about the case as Dad makes a point of not bringing work home. We order pizza and I discover that Darren finished a degree in software engineering last year, but instead of using his degree, he works in the computer science department as a general techie. “Keeping the lights on,” is how he puts it.
“Do you think you’ll ever leave Grahamstown?” I ask.
“Probably. At the moment I have no reason to. I have a job, my family’s here.”
I imagine that after a while being a non-student in a student world begins to suck though. Everyone around you gets younger and stupider and crazier as the years progress.
The beer garden is dark by the time the poker game ends, but for some fairy lights wound into the trellis above our heads that twinkle and cast dappled shadows.
The winner of the game — one of the guys — gets informed that the next round of drinks is on him. He agrees, on the condition that they do shots.
Darren suggests that we go to the club across the street instead. “Come on, one last hurrah before the start of the academic year?”
I think that’s my cue to leave, but then he snags my hand. My heart cartwheels and I’m so glad he’s not looking at me, because I’m probably scarlet. The idea gets passed around the group, but I stay quiet. The truth is I can’t go clubbing, no matter how much I may want to.
Then it’s decided and we’re walking out of the Rat. I hang back.
“I should get to res.”
“You know there’s no curfew, right?” Darren says.
I nod and chew on my bottom lip. I could make up an excuse. I’m afraid that if I tell him the truth, he’ll start looking at me like I’m a child. But the alternative is that I let him think that I don’t want to go with them, which isn’t true. I do. The idea of clubbing is terrifying, but also thrilling. It’s a new experience that Old Lilah would never have tried.
I take too long to answer. He frowns. “What is it?”
“I…” I can’t find the words, so I pull out my student ID and show it to him.
It takes him a minute to see my birthday and work out what that means. I won’t be permitted to enter the club because I’m not 18 yet.
“Ah,” he says. “Don’t worry about that. It won’t be a problem”
I’m a bundle of nerves as we stand in line outside Friar Tuck’s, the local night spot. There’s a heavyset bouncer at the door checking IDs. His black shirt is pulled tight over his muscles, and I shrink into myself as we draw near. But Darren greets him with a grin and a handshake and pushes me forward.
“This is Lilah. She won’t be drinking, she just wants to dance.”
And the big, scary bouncer lets us past without protest.
“Do you know everyone in this town?” I ask Darren.
He laughs. “Pretty much. It’s a very small town.”
We shuffle into the club with a crowd and at first everything is dark and close and loud. I thought the pub was loud, but this is something else. This sound is a physical force vibrating through me doof doof doof doof. Then we’re out in the open and rainbow light spills from the ceiling, bounces off a disco ball to splash down onto us. Darren is painted in shades of pink and purple as he takes my arm and walks to a clear section of the dance floor. Then he’s dancing with me.
I don’t know what to do. I don’t know how to act, how to move.
I also don’t want him to know I’ve never been in a club before.
“Relax!” he shouts to me over the sound.
I breathe in. The air tastes metallic. It’s smoky but this is a different smoke from the bar, this is the manufactured stuff they have in theatres and it doesn’t choke my lungs the same way.
I’m intensely aware of how many people are packed in around us. Stairs lead up from the dance floor to a mezzanine bar level. People lean against the balustrade, peering at all of us down here and I wonder if they’re watching me, and if they are what they’re thinking.
Darren takes my hands. He’s looking down at me with a soft, understanding smile. It’s as if he knows exactly what I’m thinking.
He leans close and says into my ear, “They can’t even see you through the smoke. Relax.”
And I do. He’s a solid, comforting presence. His grip is firm and his body is like a shield from the crowds. I sway with him and we fall into a rhythm. There’s something primal about the beat, something that my body knows even if my mind does not.
We grow closer as the club fills up and we’re forced into a smaller and smaller space. His hands move around my waist and my spine tingles pleasantly at the unfamiliar sensation.
I have no idea how long we dance, but it’s long enough for my legs to go numb, and by that stage we’re practically squeezed together. Darren smells like expensive cologne. Or maybe aftershave. I’m hardly the expert, but whatever it is it’s fresh and heady. I don’t want to admit that I’m getting tired. Before I have to, one of his friends finds us and says that they’re leaving. Darren moves away from me and I feel the cut of disappointment. He’s going to leave. I’m going to go back to res and back to being my boring old self.
I don’t hear what he says to his friend, but I jump when his hand slips into mine again.
“Aren’t you leaving?” I ask above the music when he turns back to me.
“I’ll walk you home?” He calls back.
After the heat of the dance floor, I’m not prepared for the shock of cold as we step outside. There are other couples milling about, sharing cigarettes or heading to their own homes. Couples. I’m walking close to him, close enough to touch, but I move away, at once self-conscious. Goosebumps are prickling up my arms and my breath mists in front of me. Then Darren’s arm is around me and he’s drawing me close. He’s so very warm.
“I’d offer you my jacket, but —”
But he’s not wearing one. He’s wearing a plain grey shirt no thicker than my own.
“Is it always so cold at night here?” I have to force my jaw to move, my teeth want to clench against the cold. He rubs up and down my arm to warm it.
“Not always, but hey it’s Grahamstown. Weird weather is our thing.”
“I thought your thing was pineapples.”
“No, that’s Bathurst’s thing.”
“You’ve never been to the Giant Pineapple?”
I feel well and truly like Alice fallen down the rabbit hole. “What?”
“Roadside attraction. World famous.”
“If it was world famous, I would have heard of it.”
“Well I’m not sure about that. You’d never heard of a katemba, had you?”
He has a point, I’m not exactly the most worldly person.
“Word to the wise though, layers are your friend. And don’t go anywhere without a raincoat.”
“Alright, noted. From the man who isn’t wearing a jacket.”
He laughs, a jolly sound as warm as his arms as he squeezes me a bit tighter.
We’re not far from campus — nothing in Grahamstown is far from campus — and we soon cross onto the university grounds. It’s much quieter then. The ghost of that bewitching rhythm is still humming in my ears, but otherwise everything is still. Streetlights bathe the road orange and there’s the tang of ice in the air; it tastes like dawn. What time is it? I search for the moon, because pulling out my phone seems rude.
Darren follows my gaze and misunderstands it.
“You’re not used to seeing them so bright, are you?”
I do not find the moon, but I can see the entire Milkyway smeared across the sky.
In Cape Town the stars are flecks of light. This is more like a child’s first encounter with glitter-glue.
“No,” I breathe. What I don’t say is ‘there are so many of them’; what I don’t voice is how very small I feel right then. If I were to hold my thumb up to that sky, it would blot out a hundred million worlds.
Darren takes my hand again, and he guides me silently towards the university. We tramp over the grassy patch in front of the main administration building, cross a street, then we’re back on the twisting overgrown paths where we met last night. I can hear nothing but my heartbeat and my breath. We are almost at my res and I don’t want this night to end.
We come to the bridge with its not-a-ghost tree, and he tugs me onward. He’s grinning now and it takes me until we’re half way across the field to realise why. For when we’re standing there, where that great white tent was last night, the sky is a dome above us as crisp as the night is cold.
My knees are weak at the sight. It’s us alone with the universe.
“What do you think, City Girl?”
I mumble something unintelligible, not even sure what I’m trying to say. There are no words that can adequately describe that sight. I feel like I could fall up into space.
Darren sits down on the grass and pats the ground next to him. “You’re going to crick your neck like that.”
I sink down beside him, still looking upward. So, I don’t see him moving to wrap his arm around me again until it’s there and my head is against his chest. I can hear his heartbeat. It’s not as rapid as mine.
How much of my racing pulse is because of the stars, and how much is him?
Darren is charming, and funny and easy to get along with. I’m not one for crushes — I was always the nerdy girl at school who no one wanted. Mooning over boys seemed like an exercise in torture. But I might be developing a crush on him.
He’s just being kind, helping the new girl feel like she fits in. There’s no way someone like him is single. Even if he is, there’s no way he’d want me.
Then he ducks his chin and kisses me.
I’m too startled to respond. All I’m aware of is that his lips are warm and soft. The kiss is gentle, a question. It’s over before my mind has accepted that it’s happening.
I battle to breathe. My heart is kicking as if he’d shown me another ghost, not done something so tender.
“Sorry,” he says, when I don’t respond immediately. “It felt like one of those moments. I should have asked.”
“No,” I manage. “No, it’s…” his face is still close to mine. His brow is knitted with concern. There’s a vague buzzing behind my ears. Do I tell him that was my first kiss? Will that just embarrass him?
My head is spinning, it’s difficult to think.
It’s much, much easier to simply kiss him back.