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Authors: Damon Galgut

The Impostor

BOOK: The Impostor
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To Alison Lowry

YOUR HINTERLAND IS THERE
–Inscription on a statue of Cecil John Rhodes
The Company’s Garden, Cape Town

AUTHOR’S NOTE

Terms like ‘Coloured’ or ‘Bushman’ are fraught with the tensions of South Africa’s history. Used for a long time as slurs or for purposes of racial classification, in recent years they have to some extent been reclaimed and neutralised. It’s in this spirit in which they appear here, with no intention to hurt.

BEFORE

1

The journey was almost over; they were nearly at their destination. There was a turn-off and nothing else in sight except a tree, a field of sheep and lines of heat rippling from the tar. Adam was supposed to stop, but he didn’t stop, or not completely. Nothing was coming, it was safe, what he did posed no danger to anybody.

When the cop stepped out from behind the tree, it was as if he’d materialized out of nowhere. He was clean and vertical and peremptory in his uniform, like an exclamation mark. He stood in the road with his hand held up and Adam pulled over. They looked at each other through the open window.

Adam said, ‘Oh, come on, you can’t be serious.’

The cop was a young man, wearing dark glasses. He gave the impression, in all this dust and sun, of being impossibly cool and composed. ‘There is a stop sign,’ he told Adam. ‘You didn’t stop. The fine is one thousand rand.’

‘Wow. That’s a lot of money.’

He smiled and shrugged. ‘Your driver’s licence, please.’

‘Can’t you let it go? Just give me a warning or something?’ He searched for the man’s eyes, but all he got was dark glass.

‘I have to follow the rules, sir. Do you want me to break the rules?’

‘Uh, well, it would be nice if you stretched them a bit.’

The man smiled again. ‘I could get into trouble for that, sir.’ After a pause he added, ‘You would have to make it worth my while.’

‘Sorry?’

‘If you want me to break the rules, you have to make it worthwhile.’

It was spoken so casually, in such a conversational way, that Adam thought he’d misheard. But no: it had been said, exactly as he thought. He was stunned. He’d heard about this sort of thing, but he’d never had to deal with it himself. He sat rigidly behind the wheel, trying to think it through, his sense of time frozen in the vertical white light, while the man stalked around the car, looking at the headlamps, the tyres, the registration. When he got back to the window, the cop said, ‘And I notice your licence is out of date. That would be another thousand. So, what do you think? Let’s say…two hundred, and we can forget the whole thing.’

Adam was suddenly outraged. ‘No,’ he said.

‘No?’

‘Absolutely not. I’m not paying you one cent.’

The man shrugged again. The smile was still there, flickering faintly around his plump little mouth. ‘Your driver’s licence, please,’ he said.

Adam managed to read the registration number of the cop’s car, which was parked behind the tree, as he pulled out, and he recited it to himself as he drove on. But he didn’t have a pen and paper to hand, and by the time he reached the next service station, a few kilometres further, he wasn’t sure any more whether the sequence of numbers was correct. Nevertheless, he wrote it down on a scrap of paper he got from the waitress in the tea-room adjoining the garage. He was repeating it, trying to match it to the memory in his head, when Gavin and Charmaine came in. They had pulled over when he was stopped and had watched the whole scene in the rear-view mirror. ‘What was all that about?’ Gavin said.

‘He wanted money. He just asked for it, straight out like that.’

Gavin snorted. ‘How much did you give him?’

‘I didn’t give him anything.’ Adam glanced anxiously at his brother. ‘What would you have done?’

‘Well…’ Gavin said, moustache twitching. ‘It’s a lot cheaper than the fine.’

‘That’s not the point.’

‘Okay, okay, whatever.’ Gavin looked around. ‘I’ve got another problem. I’m wondering if we’re actually on the right road. I was pretty sure till the last turn-off. But all the road signs are mentioning some other place with a name I never heard of.’


Ja
, same place,’ said the waitress, who happened to be passing. ‘Just the name’s changed. It’s because of the new mayor. He changed it a year ago. A lot of people are upset about it.’

‘I bet they are,’ Gavin said. ‘They’re doing it everywhere. Big waste of money. Now they’ve got to reprint all the maps.’

Adam only half-heard this conversation. His mind was still preoccupied with the cop. No threat had been made, yet the man felt somehow threatening. He stood like a dark gate-keeper at the door to Adam’s new life, blocking the path, one hungry hand extended.

As it happened, the town was only a kilometre or two further on. The road had been wandering aimlessly over the plain towards a distant line of mountains, as if trying to find a way across. But not far beyond the service station it went over a rise and on the other side was the town. It was built in a low valley, so that the landscape concealed it. There was a brief glimpse of a scattering of buildings, none more than a storey high, except for the church steeple, which rose like a strict, admonishing finger. On the far side of a river in the middle of the valley was the township, connected to the main town by a single concrete bridge. Across the top of a nearby hill the old name of the town had been spelled out in white stones, but somebody had started to rearrange them into the form of the new name and abandoned the job halfway through.

They turned off the road they were following and into the main street. The first and only stop was outside the church, where they pulled over. Some of Adam’s unease, which had lingered from the encounter with the traffic cop, seemed to find a focus there. The street, with its single supermarket and bank and butchery and post-office, its beauty salon and hotel and bottle store, clenched at his heart. Although it was the end of August, there were Christmas lights hanging tiredly on the streetlamps, still left over from last year. The road, which they had been following for so long, narrowed at its end on a vista of yellow scrub, in which a drunk man fell over, got up and staggered a few steps, then fell over again.

Gavin got out and came over. ‘Cheery, hey?’

‘Well,’ Adam said. ‘It is Sunday.’

Gavin blew through his moustache and shook his head. ‘Let’s go take a look at the house,’ he said.

The house was a shock. It was out at the edge of the white town, where the roads were untarred and the ground sloped steeply upward to the rocky crest of a ridge. It was very bare and basic, with a slanted tin roof. The windows had a blind, blank look to them. The paint was faded and peeling. The fence was overgrown with creeper, and the creeper had twined through the gate.

Gavin ripped at the creeper, clearing it. He was muttering to himself in a low, vehement voice, but he went silent as they stepped through onto an old slate path. The path ran through an orchard up to the front door, and the trees had grown out of control, their branches twisting and spreading. The slate was covered with a thick layer of rotting fruit, which gave off a haze of fermentation and flies. They picked their way, slipping and sliding, through fumes and a heady stink. Gavin took out a big iron key, which looked as if it should open a medieval monastery. But it slotted easily into the lock and twisted.

Adam let Gavin and Charmaine go ahead, as if they belonged here and he was the visitor. But as he stepped over the threshold he could feel the house pulling at him, drawing him in–claiming him. It was almost a physical sensation.

The air inside was dead and heavy, as if it had been breathed already. The furniture was a depressing mixture of old, clunky pieces interspersed with the tastelessly modern. The four rooms were functional and barren. There was no carpeting on the concrete floor, no picture on the walls, no softness anywhere. All of it was immured in a thick, brown pelt of dust. There was the distinct sense that time had been shut outside and was only now flowing in again behind them, through the open front door.

Gavin was furious. He stalked silently through the house, leaving his footprints marked out clearly on the floor. A bird had come in through the chimney and died and he pushed at it angrily with his toe.

‘I warned you,’ he said eventually.

‘I know.’

‘But I’ll admit, this is even worse than I thought. It’s pretty rough.’

‘It’s okay,’ Adam said bravely. ‘I’ll get it cleaned up.’

Charmaine had gone off on an exploration, opening doors, peering into cupboards. Now she came scurrying back, her voice low and breathless.

‘There are
presences
here,’ she said.

‘What?’

‘I’m a little bit psychic,’ she explained to Adam. ‘I can sense presences from the past. This house is full of them. It must be very old.’

Gavin sighed. ‘I don’t know how old it is,’ he said gruffly. ‘There’s certainly a lot of dirt present.’

‘When were you last here?’ Adam said.

‘Not sure. Years ago. Just after I bought it. To tell you the truth, I almost forgot that I own it. I don’t remember it very well, but I think it was in better shape than this. I only came here a couple of times.’

‘What made you buy here?’ It didn’t seem like the sort of place his brother would go for.

‘God knows. It was very trendy at the time, having a little place in the Karoo. I think I had a girlfriend who wanted it. Dirt cheap, I can tell you that. Stress on dirt.’

‘I sense an old woman,’ Charmaine said. ‘Very old and very sad.’

‘Jeez, babe. Give it a rest.’

‘Mock if you want. But I do.’

‘Oh, boy,’ Gavin said. ‘Take a look at this.’

He had opened the back door out of the kitchen. There was a small cement
stoep
, from which steps led down, and then the yard stretched away. It was choked with tall brown weeds that had died long ago and set solidly in the baked ground. They were thorny, massed together into an impenetrable wall. For some reason, those weeds were overwhelming. All the neglect and abandonment took form in them. There was a tall windmill and concrete dam to one side, but they were diminished and eclipsed by the weeds.

The two brothers stood shoulder to shoulder, staring. A wind came up and hissed through the dry stalks.

‘Mother of God,’ Gavin said softly, ‘I feel so depressed.’

Some part of Adam was moving forward into the weeds. He had to shake his head, to clear it and return to where he was standing.

‘Well,’ Gavin said, clapping his hands together, trying to sound brisk. ‘We can’t stay here tonight, that’s for sure. Let’s go take a look at the hotel.’

‘Oh,’ Adam said, surprising himself, ‘I’ll stay here.’

They both blinked at him. ‘Don’t be crazy,’ Gavin said.

‘I seriously think,’ Charmaine said, ‘that you should do some sort of cleansing ritual first. Exorcize the place. I know somebody who could do it for you.’

Adam couldn’t speak; he only shook his head.

A spark jumped in Gavin’s eyes, but he spoke coolly, with a shrug. ‘Whatever,’ he said. ‘You can do what you want, you’re an adult human being.’

Alone in the house as night fell, he didn’t know why he’d insisted on staying. The dust and disuse were everywhere. There was no power. He found an old candle in the kitchen cupboard, but the wavering puddle of light only amplified the darkness. The bare mattress was dirty and he couldn’t bring himself to lie down. The place was old and many different acts might have happened in these rooms. Murder and birth might have left their traces. In the daytime he was a rational and sceptical man and he didn’t believe in presences. But now, at night, with strange walls enclosing him and a strange roof creaking overhead, a lot of things seemed possible. It was as if another person, from another time, was buried under his skin. This person was squatting by a fire, with a vast darkness pressing in.

The branches of trees in the orchard rubbed against each other. Something splatted softly outside–a fruit, or a foot.

In the end he took a pillow and went out onto the back
stoep
. It was a little better here. A faint breeze moved over him, there was a brilliant frieze of stars overhead. On the far side of the valley he could see the lights of cars and trucks on the road bypassing the town, stitching back and forth with comforting indifference. There was a larger world out there.

He woke just before dawn, his face burning and swollen with mosquito bites. He had a sense of dark and troubling dreams receding back into himself like a tide. In the first light the mountains stood out like a strip torn from the sky. He sat up slowly and all of it returned to him: the unused rooms, the twisted trees, the weeds in the back yard.

BOOK: The Impostor
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