Johannesburg 2021: Kirsten is a roaming, restless synaesthete: a photographer with bad habits and a fertility problem. A strange, muttering woman approaches Kirsten with a warning, and is found dead shortly afterwards. The warning leads Kirsten to the Doomsday Vault and a hit list of seven people – and Kirsten’s barcode is on it.
They Must Be Playing With the Weather Again
Johannesburg, August 2021
She is holding the pale plastic object in her hand as she has done so many times before. She puts it down alongside her on the bay window where she sits, cocooned in billowing curtains, and picks it up again. Puts it down, picks it up. It’s a nervous but practised movement, a dance she has rehearsed for years but never quite mastered.
She tries to quiet the hot hammering of her heart; she tells herself that she isn’t excited but still she feels the purple pulsing of blood through her veins. There is the hum of white static behind her eyes, as if the room is a screen of a vintage television.
Outside: a determined downpour, with the occasional shock of lightning scratching silver into the sky. When the thunder rolls into the room it paints the walls midnight blue. Water streams down the outside of the window: Cops and Robbers. Goodies and Baddies. Kirsten always expects the rain to be perfumed by the data in The Cloud. She imagines all the pictures there, all the poetry and music. Surely the rain should taste of something?
She looks at her Snakewatch: 21:36. One crawling minute to go. She pictures it as a fat green caterpillar (Spring Lawn) inching along the windowsill.
Across town a hooded shadow walks in the rain. Thunder in winter, he thinks: they must be playing with the weather again. He is eager to get home – he’s expecting an important message. His superblack jacket renders him almost invisible, and his silver-tipped umbrella shields his face from the unseasonal shower. The city street is dark and slick, highlighted only occasionally by pops of lightning and the reflection of neon shop signs on the tar’s uneven surface. Algaetrees, green streetlights, flicker on and off as he moves beneath them. There is some jubilant shouting in the distance; a wave of music; a car backfires. A building’s clockologram blinks 21:36.
The man’s usually elegant stride is interrupted by the jutting edges of the pavement: missing bricks, gaping manholes, roots of trees smashing their way through crumbling concrete. Undulating and decorated by shimmering litter, the walkway seems to take on a life of its own.
A group of people are up ahead, he sees them walking in his direction. Coal-skinned men dressed in oiled leathers and animal skins. Sandals and scarred faces. He sees their determined foreheads in blasts of light as they pass under the streetlights. Gadawan Kura. Ivory bracelets click as they walk.
When they get closer he lifts his chin at the leader. He doesn’t step aside, as most people would. Instead he brushes an arm and keeps moving. Once they are clear, one of the men starts shrieking, imitating the hyenas they are known for keeping, and the rest of the men cackle. Our man adjusts his hood and walks on.
Suddenly a stranger in rags steps out of a side alley and into his path. A hobo? Impossible. There were no more homeless creeps in the city: they had all been ‘enrolled’ in the Penal Labour Colonies. A CrimCol graduate? The faint whiff of matches and booze. Our man’s hand tightens around the gun in his pocket, snicks the safety off.
‘What do you want?’ he asks, his voice even, as if this was a safe neighbourhood and the sun was shining. Water droplets glisten on the ragman’s dark skin and hair; he pats himself down with twirling hands and a gap-toothed smile to show his tattered pockets are empty. He smells like the street.
‘Jog on,’ says our hooded man. ‘Scram.’
‘Jus’ asking for a smoke, bra.’ One of his eyes is black, bottomless. The other is overcast.
A cigarette? our man thinks. You’ve got to be kidding. It’s 2021 – nobody smokes anymore.
He closes his umbrella.
‘Get out of my way.’
There is a spark of defiance; the obstacle opens his mouth to speak. The man in the hooded jacket starts walking around him but is blocked. There is a glint of a blade. Instinctively he knees the stranger in the crotch, and when he is off-balance, raps him sideways on the jaw with the handle of the umbrella. The ragman falls backwards onto the shining road, his trench knife clattering on the pavement beside him. He reaches out for it, but freezes when he sees our man’s gun: steady and aimed at his skull.
In the apartment the woman checks her watch again: 21:37. It’s time. Her breathing is shallow as she lifts the object and studies it. She reads the result immediately but keeps looking at it, as if for clues, or in case it changes, which she knows will not happen. When she gives up it is a split-second flare of emotion and she hurls the thing across the room. A sharp crack of neon pink as it hits the wall. It doesn’t break, although she wanted it to.
Disappointment cools her bones. Her mind is awash with red: 36 moons of sorrow. On top of that – or beneath – the shock of the stained carpet in her family home: two comet-shaped splashes of crimson. Mom and Dad. The violence of still-fresh double-grief. She hears their voices. The forever-feeling of loss, like the leaching of warm blood. Her breastbone aches. Blood everywhere: she can smell the copper. She feels very near the edge. So near that it becomes tempting to fall, or jump. It would be a relief. Who would miss her?
She looks around at her plants – the apartment is green with them – perhaps they would miss her. When you are deeply happy or sad, she thinks, the ache makes it seem as if you are more connected to the earth. Things shimmer. Plants tell you that you are not alone. Random birds on road signs nod at you. Song lyrics speak directly to you.
There is a muffled sound, movement: someone at the door. She stays in the dark. Gives in to the emptiness, the vacuum in her heart: her all-too-familiar Black Hole. She feels the full bloom of her heartbreak. She doesn’t cry.
The hooded man is a street away from his flat at 21:37 when he gets a sharp twinge of something in his chest. Not pain, not quite pain, but a hollow spasm that, if he didn’t know better, would be something close to regret. Or sadness. It’s not the first time. He absent-mindedly blames it on the state of the city, the state of the country, then briefly wonders if it’s the drugs he’s been taking.
He reaches his block. The microchip in his ID card automatically opens the main access gate. A new biomorphic building, cool with smoked emerald glass and metal; glittering charcoal porcelain tiles. Smog-eating exterior paint and a solar Cool Roof with water catchment tanks. It’s the ultimate lock-up-and-go: wholescale security, self-regulating, pet-free. He ignores the open mouth of the elevator and runs up the stairs, punches in his code – 52Hz –and has his retina scanned to open his front door. The entry panel blinks and the door unlocks. A woman’s voice purrs from the speaker above the door in a neutral accent: ‘Welcome home, Seth.’
The main lights automatically come on; the temperature is set to 24 degrees. Now that he is safe, he pops a pill, locks his gun away and checks his Tile for messages. Just as he’d hoped, he sees the green rabbit blinking on his screen. He has a new job to do. Anxiety tugs at his guts. It’s his most important post yet. Dangerous. He can’t wait to get started.
The soft sound of the access card being swiped always smells like fresh wood, or a tree before it becomes wood: a just-cut sap-smiling tree. A raw, green, disconsolate smell. The front door opens and James stumbles in, struggling with a toppling bag of groceries. He is distracted, humming to his earbuttons, and when he finally sees Kirsten sitting in the dark he jumps.
He knows immediately that something is wrong: the flat smells like toaster waffles. Kirsten only eats toaster waffles when she is particularly upset. She says they make her think of the Gingerbread House. Can you imagine being lost in the woods for days, she used to say, starving, and then you come across a house made of sweets? Roof-tiles of toaster waffles. It’s the ultimate comfort food. He doesn’t point out what they both know: that the Gingerbread House was a trap.
James stops wrestling with the bag and walks towards her. Some bright green Granny Smith apples find their way out and tumble onto the kitchen counter, a couple rolling off and landing on the balding oriental carpet. James quickly gathers them up. That’s when he sees it – the detested object – sulking on the wooden floor. He lifts her chin and kisses her dry eyes.
‘Kitty … you have got to stop doing this to yourself,’ he says.
‘Doing what, exactly?’ Kirsten asks, ‘Hoping?’
He shakes his head. ‘I hate seeing you like this.’
Kissing James is always orange: different shades of orange depending on the mood of the kiss. Breakfast kisses are usually a fresh Buttercup Yellow, sex kisses are Burnt-Sky, with a spectrum in between of, among others, loving, friendly, angry, guilty (Pollen, Polished Pine, Rubber Duck, Turmeric). His energy is warm yellow-orange-ruby, sweet, with a sharp echo. Marmalade James.
He examines her face, trying to read her thoughts, but knows that when she is like this she is impenetrable. She despises this bright bitter part of herself, hates what this is doing to her, and to their relationship. James picks up the negative pregnancy test and throws it in the bathroom pedal bin. Runs some sanitiser over his hands – a grind-related habit.
Kirsten watches him in the halo of refrigerator light as he packs the groceries away. Green mangos, raw almonds, olive oil, coconut water, pineberries. Black chillies, baby spinach, purple carrots. Heirloom tomatoes, butter, stevia nut cookies. Five litres of Hydra bottled water. She studies this man she knows so well: his untidy blonde hair, his wrinkled cotton shirt, sleeves always rolled up, no matter the season.
He grabs a wineglass, pulls up a chair close to her. She pours what is left into his glass. He throws an arm around her legs, pulls her body towards him, puts his hand up her pants, feels her warm thigh.
‘I can’t do this anymore,’ she says, her voice catching. His hand tightens around her leg.
‘You always said you would never –’
‘Always. Never. I’ve changed my mind.’
He looks into her ever-changing eyes, the sound of the sea.
‘I wish that I was enough for you,’ he whispers, turmeric in the air. She gives him a segment of a smile. They both know it will never be true.