Fri Mar 6th, 2009 at 08:07:16 AM EST
Sabine settled onto Johannesburg like a butterfly, capricious and brief. Suddenly, she was there, an August Saturday. I had been out of town that week, supervising fieldwork, attending a conference. That evening, the coach had dropped me off in front of the fancy hotel where the international bigwigs were ensconced, stranding me in Sandton, the slick commercial centre in the northern part of Johannesburg. It was actually the first time I was consciously in Sandton; the place had never attracted me previously, and now I was there, sitting on my pack on the pavement and watching luxurious cars slide by one after the other, it still didn't. Short-sleeved, sweaty, unkempt, tanned (the traditional look of the geologist tramping out of the field), I was feeling happily out of this place dominated by ironed white shirts and Gucci sunglasses, all readying for cocktails, DJs, the dating game. It's a world I know, one I rapidly grow excessively weary of, while South Africa's up and coming thoroughly revel in it, have made it their end-all and be-all.
Another Nomad episode from Jozi - afew
On Nelson Mandela Square, at the feet of the towering Nelson Mandela statue (whose head is bizarrely out of proportion with its body) I got picked up by friends, who drove me back home. In the car, a lot of time was dedicated about this new French chick that had been staying in Nina's room the past week, whose English was outrageous.
With Pierre left and Nina preparing to switch jobs, we were suffering from a decline of French influence in our lives. The community of thoroughly connected French in Jozi always seemed in touch with the vibrant pulse of the city; Nina and Pierre or their appendices had frequently dragged us to one cultural event or another. Alas, those wilder days were over, but Sabine re-ignited a brief renaissance. We were eager for fresh blood anyway, and embraced her immediately in our little ex-pat community.
On the Sunday after I got back, Sabine changed living quarters, a 5 minutes walk away from our place. She also had got a car that first week, arranged by her work. The massive car given to her frightened her tremendously, it was also a monstrous choice for the petite Sabine who looked suspiciously underage behind the wheel. Sabine did have a license, but she never had done any further driving, or had previously driven on the wrong (=left) side of the road. Personally, I ranked Sabine's lack of driving skills as one more piece of evidence for the superiority of the public transport system in Paris. When we met, she had crashed her car twice already: losing her left-side mirror to a building, and she had bolted off in panic after reversing into a parked car at the nearby Spar supermarket. Of course she didn't leave an explanatory note, that would not have been in character. And during the rest of her stay she didn't dare to go back to Spar for groceries, too afraid to be recognized. In the succeeding weeks, she preferred it much better to carpool with Nina, in her spirited Fiat Uno.
Sabine's English was truly as hilarious as it was effective - the characteristic French lilt alone was a thing of beauty. When communal friend Caroline first met Sabine, she couldn't stop giggling at her English, to the point that Tom got embarrassed. (But at her defence, Caroline was under the influence of cannabis that first time.) Sabine's vocabulary was indeed limited but her blazing creativity made up for any verbal lacuna. In her attempt to shout "Pervert!" at Tom, she couldn't find the proper word and settled for "You crazy Sex Man!!!" - an epitaph that even today has us in stitches. Most of the time Sabine had us in stitches - behind the language gap buzzed a beautiful mind.
Dark hair, intensely brown eyes, a little hint of moustache, if you would glance superficially at Sabine, you could mistakenly think she'd be arrogant. A second look would let you recognize the mirth glimmering underneath the surface, ready for a bizarre anecdote, or a test to gauge your psychological profile, hooking us completely one Saturday evening. Sabine does smoke her cigarettes in the similar haughty way how all French seem to smoke, with that certain air of disdain. Nina, Sabine and Tom were well matched in character; all three make chaos their lifeline, even when they can all grow weary of themselves for that. And further Nina and Sabine both had the same habit to make drastic, impetuous decisions that weren't always the most moral but they sure could be hysterically funny to my perspective.
Her Facebook interference was case in point. Sabine had left her boyfriend back in Paris, and Facebook already was a great platform to keep up with friends abroad. Sabine loves her boyfriend thoroughly and effectively, but can't stand it when he gets all mushy; Sabine belongs to the class of women whom reject mushy. I've met plenty of strong women whom can't bear too much mushy (in fact I'm drawn towards them), but I've also come across a category of women whom can't even handle a modicum of emotional men. I don't hesitate to write that Sabine belongs to the latter. After a few weeks of separation, her boyfriend got all sappy, and wrote on his Facebook status how much he adored and missed her. Sabine didn't take any of it. Seeing his outpouring, she cried "Oh no!" and went straight into his Facebook profile (she knows his password) to change the status to something neutral and slightly embarrassing.
What Sabine exactly was doing here, I never got around to find out - her planned stay in South Africa got rudely short-circuited. Of course the impetuous Sabine hadn't wasted time to wait on the results of her two summer exams, and had flown off to South Africa immediately after writing them. Unfortunately, she didn't pass them - which forced her to head back for Paris pronto, abandoning her life in Johannesburg after a little more than a month. I'm certain there were facets in Sabine's life that didn't mind the return; despite her diamond in the rough attitude, all of us had noticed how much time and money had been dedicated to talks with her boyfriend on her cell phone.
The September party held in the honour of her departure became the worst party in the history of our house, and requires an entry of its own. Although it was also the party where I got stoned for the second time in my life - unintentionally, because Tom had spiked the hubbly bubbly (=hookah) with dagga (=cannabis). The party was too big, too rowdy, too much; Sabine, Nina and Tom ended up in the living room, far removed from the enveloping madness. It would've been better had we kept it small scale - which is why we had a tiny repeat the next day, where Sabine's housemate created artful graffiti on her suitcase and Dagmar and me went out to nick a memorable newspaper poster - the ones that get plastered all over town and are refreshed on a daily basis. With cards, presents and a newspaper poster, we sent off an almost emotional Sabine to the airport with hugs and embraces. Though I've actually no idea if she has passed her exams this time.
For the past half year, we have enjoyed having a part-time pet. A part-time pet is nice, you don't need to feed it or look after it, necessities that would have spelled certain doom for any full-time pet under our responsibility. Nina, optimist she is, did try once. Or really, when asked to look after the puppy of her boss, Nina impulsively and immediately agreed to it, not really taking into consideration what it implies to take care after a pet. Such as informing your housemates of its presence, for one. Coming back that first evening, late as wont in those days, I was nailed to the kitchen floor with my heart beating in my throat, as the scratching and yipping I heard transfigured into something alien and threatening. Until I concluded it had to be animal - my first guess was that a bird had got itself trapped inside the toilet. Try to imagine my surprise when I opened the door and a scrawny mutt puppy, the colour of bleached carpet, tumbled out, wagging and whining. That's exactly how Tom found me, and he was as flabbergasted as I was.
Nina, with all her wonderful impatience, hadn't known her boyfriend was allergic to fur, until she had come home with the puppy in tow. And she hadn't asked her boss either if the puppy was properly housetrained. After having cleaned droppings for most of the evening, with her boyfriend sneezing in their shared bedroom, she had tumbled into bed, banishing the puppy to the only place in the house he couldn't do too much mischief, in Nina's world: the communal shower/toilet downstairs. (It must be pointed out that Nina's bedroom, the master bedroom, comes with its own shower...) It was not the most practical of solutions, to put mildly. What was more, the next day, I discovered that Pup could worm its way through the bars of our main gate for a walk of freedom. On my way back with groceries, I found Pup halfway up the hill and most dogs from our street in loud uproar behind their gates. So an outside stay wasn't an option either. Altogether defeated, Nina returned Pup back to her boss the next day. And this being Nina, no additional words were wasted on the epic fail. Life does go on after all.
Tokolosh simply appeared one day, early spring, slipping through the kitchen's burglar bar - the gate in front of your door for extra protection and/or claustrophobia. Strolling majestically into our kitchen, the cat carried all the presumptions that this was his kitchen we were occupying. As there are plenty of meandering cats in Johannesburg, we poured a saucer of milk, but cat got bored after taking three laps and walked out. A few days later, it strolled back in, sniffed at the fresh milk I poured for him and then, with all the great mysterious silence of cats, proceeded to claim our house for himself. It settled for Tom's bed and fell asleep, still one of his favourite spots today. To our dismay, Nina kicked it out of the house a few hours later when Tokolosh had decided to also secure the first floor. We shouldn't have worried it wouldn't come back: by then Tokolosh had already deigned our house suitable and we've had infrequent visits since. Cats choose their homes, not the other way around.
We suspect, determining from his ravishing stripes, that Tokolosh is from African descent, but there's been mixing - it's too small and stringy for a pure African cat, which can be gargantuan cats. It masks its scrawny size by considerable long-haired fur, a bushy tail that collects seeds. But as (African) cats do, it has the wild in it. It laps from our pool when thirsty. It loves to bite and charge at towels, blades of grass, pieces of string. It hunts cockroaches and beetles. Perhaps it was convinced that, besides our house, the rest of street was his property as well because in November, we noticed his right ear was ripped... It's also possible that he took on a dog, who knows.
As all cats, Tokolosh took a shine to some, and made the life of others miserable. Nina suspects Tokolosh has peed on her bedroom's floor. That it still likes me is nothing short of miraculous. One day, situated behind my desk in the pink room, I was soldiering on in the mad writing world of science et al. and the traitorous semi-colon when Tokolosh stalked inside. I immediately knew what time it was: the cat needing love. It carried the same determination when it would approach me in front of the gate, curling down either at my feet or in the grassy verge. Love, it demands, love the cat! When ignored, it walks off indifferently in a show of "Whatever". But inside my room, it was different. Tokolosh instinctively sensed my weak spot: the notebook in front of me. It jumped onto my lap (which was fine), but only to use it as a launch pad for jumping onto my wooden desk. There, it proceeded to pace back and forth in between me and my notebook, its bushy tail erect and caressing my face. Impatiently, I threw Tokolosh on my bed behind me. Yet despite my bed's considerable comfort, Tokolosh was not impressed with it, and came at me again in the same method. He and I repeated the above procedure up to five times and only then the cat would get the message and stretch itself upon the sun-filled landing instead, where it looked at me unconcernedly through the doorway. As if to say, "Well, at least I am happy, what about you silly?"
The sheer arrogance and attention seeking of Tokolosh is almost bewildering in its scope. When not on beds, always, always it positions itself in door openings or other critical passageways where there is no other choice than stumble across the cat. Even considering these practices are standard for the feline species, Tokolosh takes the cake.
In fact, writing (part translating) this while sitting upon my bed, I just felt the weight of the cat jump onto the bed. We've just finished a Saturday evening of watching movies on Tom's bed, and halfway Tokolosh entered the room (through the half-opened window!). It jumped onto Tom's bed where we had positioned ourselves, toyed with Leon's feet, biting his toes, then stretched and dozed away with a blessed cat smile - preventing all of us to stretch our legs for the duration of the movies. After inspection of what I just have written on the screen, Tokolosh has now settled on my blanket, against my thigh. I'll have to throw it out of the house sometime soon. Not that I want to.
The name Tokolosh is our choice; until today we don't know the cat's true name. The choice for Tokolosh may need some explanation. Tokolosh is the name for a well-known figure of African folklore, a tiny devil that visits houses during the night. Its physical appearance can differ per area, but it's tiny, the size of a child, often described as hairy. The same legend has it that to protect yourself from the Tokolosh, you've to put your bed on top of bricks, so that the tiny Tokolosh can't reach you. Sadly (or comically), the Tokolosh remains, even today, a regular feature in the popular sensationalist rags in South Africa, carrying tabloid sized headers as, "Tokolosh killed my husband!" or "Woman says: I was raped by Tokolosh!" Whether these people use the popularity of the Tokolosh for their 14 minutes of fame, or faithfully persist in believing in its existence, who can say. The fact is, belief in the Tokolosh is real and widespread in SA, and Dagmar has met very ordinary people who expressed deep conviction in the existence and mischievous acts of a Tokolosh, often portrayed as a malevolent jester. Too often, though, the Tokolosh hides tragedy behind horrific stories, and the movie "A Reasonable Man" is an apt example of this. The movie follows the court case of an African man who stands trial for murder/homicide, while his lawyer argues it was not a crime because the man thought he had killed a Tokolosh. The story is probably based on the 1933 conviction of Dhumi Mbombela, who was convinced that a Tokolosh was inside a hut, but Mbombela killed his own baby cousin instead.
Our cat is Tokolosh - it comes and goes as it pleases, picking its way in precisely such manners that it obstructs most of our doings. Also, it's undeniably hairy. The difference being, we do love our Tokolosh very much.