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Authors: Margie Orford

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Gallows Hill

BOOK: Gallows Hill
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For Olivia

The past is never dead. It’s not even past.

Requiem for a Nun
, William Faulkner

Cape Town,

February 2011


The southeaster relented just after midnight. The wind, ferocious for days, folded itself into the gullies on Table Mountain, giving the battered city some respite. The dog shook herself awake in the piss-soaked alley between Parliament and the Slave Lodge. Now was the time to hunt, before the bands of feral children emerged from the storm-water drains to rifle through the bins. She fixed
her eyes on her mistress and whined.

No response.

The dog pushed her wet muzzle against the woman’s hand. Then she growled, nuzzled her face. The woman stirred.

ou hond
. Is night, mos.’ She burrowed into her nest of blankets.

Jennie licked her face. The woman pushed herself up.

The dog barked.

.’ She ruffled the fur on the dog’s head. ‘You hungry?’

The dog chased its tail, for a moment a puppy again. The woman hauled herself to her feet. She shouldered her roll of bedding and followed Jennie to the entrance of the alleyway. She paused in the shelter of some trees. A lone light in the nave of St George’s Cathedral had coloured the leaves of an oak blood-red and blue. A stained-glass Jesus, eyes shut, seeing nothing.

Adderley Street
was deserted. Just the banks, the shops, the fountain, the statue. Jan van Riebeeck. Eva felt sorry for him, a Dutchman sent to start a vegetable patch at the wind-scoured Cape of Good Hope. 1652. The only date Eva remembered from school. She had been bussed in from the wine farm to march with her classmates once. They had all clutched the orange, white and blue flag in small, work-toughened fists,
cheering for a republic that wasn’t theirs.

Eva turned west.

Strand Street also empty. The bins full. A sandwich for Eva, a chicken bone for Jennie. They walked towards the tangle of highways, the dockyards, new blocks of flats. The woman sniffed the air. She could sense the ocean. Salt, rotting kelp, diesel, the sailors who came ashore with money in their pockets. Eva too old by now,
, even for a blind-drunk sailor who had been at sea for six months straight. There was more food outside the strip clubs at the bottom end of town. Their doors were closed, the bouncers’ stools upended in the stairwell. Two whores were getting into a taxi together.

Pain clutched at Eva’s heart. She leaned against the alley wall, waiting for it to ease. She gripped the pendant
round her neck, the feel of the engraved disc older than memory. It calmed her, took the edge off the burn in her chest. She traced the letters – VOC – that ridged the metal, faint as fingerprints after 300 years. The engraving on the other side had worn smooth, the numbers barely discernible. The pendant conjured for Eva her mother, her grandmother, the warmth of bodies by a fire, whispered histories
of survival and rebellion, nights far blacker, but safer, than this city street. These sparse memories were embedded in her only heirloom, passed from mother to daughter. Eva was the last in the line.

On Buitengracht Street, the western boundary of old Cape Town, Eva waited in the shadows for the patrol car to pass before she and the dog slipped unseen across the street. In the shadow of Nelson
Mandela Boulevard, they headed towards Green Point. The freeway looped, a ligature cutting the city off from its lifeblood, the ocean. But it did provide shelter from cops tidying up the streets for the latest load of tourists who’d spilled off the plane that day. Eva and Jennie slipped through a gap in the razor wire at a new building site below the freeway.

A watchman’s brazier smoked outside
the wooden guardhouse, but there was no movement. Eva picked her way towards an outbuilding on the far side of the site, the dog veering towards the scar where a bulldozer had been at work. The derelict buildings, the abandoned warehouse, had been partially demolished. Walls listed against trusses, part of the concrete floor had been broken up. Chunks of concrete that had capped the grey soil
were heaped against the fence.

Bone-thin Jennie, nose alert for anything edible, began to dig, throwing up soil behind her. Nothing worth eating. She dug deeper. Something gleamed in the streetlight.

She worked it loose from the clutch of the earth. She dropped it between her paws, then, balancing the long bone in her jaws, trotted after Eva.

Eva unrolled her bedding and slumped onto
it. The pain that had gripped her chest again was worming its way down her left arm. She sucked the last wine from her papsak, hoping it was enough to ease her into sleep. Eva tried to whistle, but gave up. Jennie appeared anyway, flopping down on her end of the blanket. She rested her paws on her bone and began to gnaw.

The bone cracked, but there was no marrow. It had been buried too long
for that.

Eva groaned.

Jennie swallowed the calcium dust, cocking her head to one side.

Another groan.

Jennie left her bone and sat next to Eva’s face. She licked her mistress. Nothing. Jennie barked, short and sharp, an alarm call. She pushed her muzzle against Eva’s hand.

The woman’s dark eyes flared. There were flecks of yellow around the pupil. Tiger’s eyes. Tears slid
down her cheeks. She thrashed once and lay still, leaving nothing for Jennie but a single, sour exhalation on her wet, sandy muzzle. The dog lay down next to her mistress, muzzle on paws, yellow eyes fixed on Eva’s face.

The woman did not move again.

Jennie waited. Then she licked her mistress’s face. Nothing. She whined. Still, her mistress did not stir. The dog lifted its head and howled.

The watchman stood at the entrance to the outbuilding, waiting for his eyes to adjust to the gloom. The old woman was indistinguishable from the rags in the pile in the corner, but the smell of death caught at the back of his throat. Jennie bared her teeth, growling in the back of her throat. The night watchman stepped back, snapping the bone that the dog had dropped. The sound was gunshot
loud. The dog bolted past him. When the watchman had calmed himself, he called the police.

A siren whooped in the distance.


8 February


Sunrise in the Bo-Kaap. An imam called the faithful to prayer. Riedwaan Faizal stood in the doorway, hair wet, towel around his waist, two mismatched mugs in his hands, considering his options. The woman under his sheets was naked. Getting back into bed with her would have its advantages. She was usually more amenable half-asleep than when awake.


No response.

He put
the coffee on the bedside table.

Without opening her eyes, Clare Hart ran a hand up his belly and pulled him back into bed with her. It was a while before she sat up for her coffee

‘Yuck,’ she said. ‘Sugar.’

‘That’s mine,’ he said.

She swapped.

‘It’s cold.’

‘Whose fault is that?’ asked Riedwaan.

‘Yours,’ she grinned.

Clare drank her coffee and watched him dress.
It didn’t take long. Levi’s, a white shirt.

It’s 6.15,’ she said. ‘Why are you up so early?’

‘Some of us work.’

‘Tell me the truth.’

‘Piet Mouton phoned,’ said Riedwaan, lacing his shoes.

‘The pathologist?’

‘Doctor Death himself.’ He stood up. ‘Body in Green Point he thinks I should see.’

‘You’re just trying to get out of going for a run.’

Riedwaan kissed the back
of her neck. He picked up cigarettes, phone, helmet, keys, jacket, and let himself out.

Table Bay was filled with container ships sheltering from the gales that had battered the Cape. The wind had blown itself out the night before. It would be temporary, though; the clouds on Table Mountain were gathering, harbingers of the next assault.

A small crowd had gathered on Ebenezer Road. Vagrants,
shift workers, some journalists milled about on the pavement. They were eyeing the white mortuary van, hoping for a body. An old mongrel growled at Riedwaan as he pushed his motorbike through an opening in the fence.

A bulldozer was parked in the middle of a demolition site. It faced a row of long-abandoned buildings that had been partially destroyed. Half the floor of an old warehouse had
been shoved to one side.

Riedwaan walked over to the officer who’d been first at the scene.

‘Morning, Dreyer,’ said Riedwaan.

‘Faizal,’ Dreyer offered as a greeting.

‘What you got?’ asked Riedwaan.

‘Dead bergie.’ Dreyer pointed inside the shed. ‘Doc Mouton was in there. He’s the one who wanted you.’

Another officer arrived with a tray of coffees. Charnay Cloete: the name
stitched onto her breast pocket. Twenty years old, six months pregnant, looking like she could’ve done with a bit more sleep.

‘What you got?’ Riedwaan asked her.

‘Dead bergie, looks to me, Captain.’

‘No, Cloete,’ said Riedwaan. ‘In that tray.’

‘Coffee,’ she said.

‘You got a spare one?’ asked Riedwaan.

‘You can have mine.’

‘You going to shoot up the ranks, Sergeant Cloete.
But I’ll take Dreyer’s. You look like you need yours.’ Riedwaan took a cup and stepped into the shed.

The stench was nauseating.

‘Faizal.’ Piet Mouton, the state pathologist, was dressed as always in a black suit, a silk tie and a crisp white shirt that did its best to cover his ample belly.

‘What you got, Doc?’ asked Riedwaan.

‘Vagrant. Female. About fifty,’ said Mouton. ‘You
want to see if she has some ID?’

Mouton handed a pair of gloves to Riedwaan.

The woman’s body was as small as a child’s. Death had erased the years spent living on the streets, smoothing the skin across her features, revealing remnants of the beauty she’d been born with. Filthy old jacket. Man’s shirt. Trousers. He looked through her pockets, opened out the crumpled receipt he found. It
was dated two weeks earlier.

BOOK: Gallows Hill
7.4Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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