Three Days in Phoenix by Vincent Gray

After Dr Trevor Guzmán had finished packing his meagre belongings into the boot of his dark blue Ford Capri, he returned to his old flat to make sure that nothing had been left behind, he then locked the flat door and returned the flat keys to the caretaker. It was 16.30 pm and a chilly wind was blowing over the Highveld plains. The cold front that the weather bureau predicted had finally arrived after its long journey from the Antarctic. It 
Three Days in Phoenix
Three Days in Phoenix by Vincent Gray

was now lapping on the shores of Wednesday afternoon in Potchefstroom. Dr Guzmán had resigned from the Summer Grain Centre where he had been working as a plant breeder for the past five years, and he had now finally worked in his months notice. It had originally been his intention to leave Potchefstroom as early as possible but then he decided at the last moment that his car needed new tires and a wheel alignment and this had delayed his departure to the late afternoon of that day.

He was 31 years old but he looked considerably younger than his actual age. Being of average height and weight and not particularly good looking he was always aware that people did not notice him. He had got used to being easily overlooked. But in spite of his misgivings regarding his chances of success he had responded to the job advertisement in the Sunday Times for the position of senior plant breeder at an international agrochemical and seed company based in the industrial township of Isando which was geographically speaking located between Kempton Park and Boksburg, and was also close to Jan Smuts Airport. In the interview for the job he proved to be the most experienced and knowledgeable candidate and was given the job with no one expressing any reservations regarding his suitability for the appointment.

For the previous past five years he had been submerged, almost completely, in a social and cultural milieu where Afrikaans as a language reigned supreme. He was born in Mooi River in the Natal midlands. He grew up on the family dairy farm that had been owned by the Guzmán family for decades. Being a Natal boy it took a while for him to become proficient in Afrikaans. His merit verslag (performance appraisal) depended heavily on his Afrikaans language proficiency. He was always amused to discover that new comers to the Summer Grain Centre often mistook him to be Afrikaans speaking or Afrikaans in other words. In fact he started to dream in Afrikaans. Often days went by when he never spoke or heard or read a single word of English, sometimes he had to consciously apply his mind to find the appropriate English term or word or phrase to express an idea or thought especially when he was writing up his research or drafting a report in English. Sometime he wondered if it were possible to lose one’s ethnic or cultural identity or whether one could be readily assimilated into another culture if one allowed oneself to become submerged in that culture. Obvious humans were capable of significant degrees of phenotypic or behavioural plasticity. He had proven this with his own experiences. Ironically it was his fluency in Afrikaans that had also been a major factor in his favour in the job interview, which was eventually conducted in Afrikaans, as all of the professional research officers and managers present at the interview were Afrikaans speaking. They treated him as one of their own. Even his surname sounded Afrikaans. They were quite serious when they firmly shook his hand at the end of interview and told him

“Jy is n’Boer net soos ons.” (You are an Afrikaner just like us.)

This admission had come out of blue after they had spent almost an hour discussing rugby. It was by sheer chance that he landed up at the Officers Training Academy in Heidelberg and had earned the rank of second lieutenant during his National Military Service. This fact, together with the disclosure that he had grown up as a farm boy in the Natal midlands added additional weight to his curriculum vitae. They were all unanimous in recognizing that he was definitely one of them, a Boer by adoption.

After the completion of his National Military Service he was obliged to do annual military duties as a citizen force soldier. Because of apartheid military service had become a seemingly endless obligation for the majority of white males who were born in the country or who had become naturalized citizens. Of course as an officer in the citizen force when he moved to Potchefstroom from Natal he was also reassigned to the Johannesburg Regiment. In 1975 he had been called up for Operation Savannah in Angola. The fact that he had been in the Angolan invasion made him a brother in arms with the interviewers, all of whom had also been on a tour of duty in Angola during that time. The interview eventually ended after they had spent another hour reminiscing about their days in the army and in the Angolan war, while he sat quietly at the polished boardroom table and politely listened to their conversation without making any contribution to the discussion other than answering questions when directed specifically at him about his army experiences or his rugby playing history. He came across as an unassuming and likable character even though there was something enigmatic and mysterious about him, which seemed to be linked to his darker than normal skin tone, but then again this phenotypic attribute was not unacceptably unusual since a sizeable minority of Afrikaners were also of a darker shade of skin tone than the average, however any probing reflection on the possibly of one’s own history of miscegenation was a taboo topic amongst the majority of whites. His facial features were definitely of European origin, so his ancestry was clearly from the old country. Yet while his physiognomic bona fides seemed to be in order none of the interviewers could put a precise finger on what exactly it was that made him so strangely enigmatic and mysterious, and yet highly likable at the same time.

He would be starting his new job on Monday. It seemed a good idea for him to book into the Southern Suns Hotel next to Jan Smuts Airport until he had found suitable accommodation close to Isando. As he drove out of Potchefstroom he began to plan in his mind how he will occupy himself until Monday morning. He had exactly four days to kill, that is, Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, before starting his new job. He decided that after booking in at the hotel he would first take in a movie at Eastgate and then after the movie he would have a big 500g T-bone steak and chips at one of the restaurants. He could spend the whole of Thursday, Friday and Saturday catching up on all the new movies at Eastgate and perhaps he could also visit other movie theatres in Johannesburg. Sunday he would definitely sleep late and spend the day hunkered down in his hotel room reading the Sunday newspapers. Anyway he was looking forward to a veritable film festival of movie watching. While mulling over all the options with respect to what he could do for the next couple of days during his well-deserved break which was going to be devoted solely to relaxation and recreation he spotted a hitchhiker standing at the side of road and decided to stop and give him a lift. He glanced at his watch. It was now 16.45 and if the road was not too busy he would be able to book into the hotel before seven-o-clock that evening. In his review mirror the sun remained hidden behind the grey skies, but it was still well above the horizon. The countryside looked grim and desolate in the weak and diffuse afternoon sunlight.

Slowing down sharply after passing the hitchhiker he stopped the car at the side of the road. In the rear view mirror he could see that it was a young Indian man who was running towards the car. He opened the passenger door and the hitchhiker bent over and peered into the car.

“Hi, I’m going to Lenasia,” he said.

“I’m going to Johannesburg, hop in.”

After minute or two he said: “I’m Trevor Guzmán”

“I’m Brendan Abrahams.”

“Are you from Potchefstroom?” Trevor asked.

“I stay in Potchefstroom during the week. I am a teacher at an Indian primary school. I hitchhike to Lenasia almost every Friday and then I hitchhike back to Potchefstroom on Sunday afternoons. But now that the July school holidays have started I am going to be staying with family in Durban. In fact I will be travelling down to Durban tonight. My elder brother is getting married in Phoenix in Durban on Saturday. We will all be trekking down to Phoenix later tonight in a convoy of Kombis with family and friends,” said Brendan.

“I will happy if you can drop me off at the Lenasia turn-off,” he said.

“That should not be a problem,” Trevor replied.

“Do you live in Joburg?” Brendon asked.

“No. Up until today I have been living and working in Potchefstroom. I am actually starting at new job in Isando next week. I have not yet decided where I am going to stay. I might find a place either in Boksburg or Kempton Park, I will have to see,” Trevor answered.

“What kind of work do you do?”

“I am a geneticist and I have been involved in crop breeding at the Agricultural Summer Grain Centre in Potchefstroom. But I have resigned from that job and I will be taking up a new position as a crop breeder in a commercial seed company.”

“What kind of crops do you breed?”

“Mainly maize. I have been involved over the past few years in a maize breeding programme.”

For the rest of the journey that they remained silent, each preoccupied with their own thoughts as they drove through a bleak wintery khaki coloured landscape. The volume of traffic increased as they approached the gold mining town of Carletonville which happened to be situated at the very edge of the far West Rand. With the sun setting behind them they drove past the gold mining town of Westonaria. Beyond Westonaria lay the vast sprawling township of Soweto under a dirty dense white-greyish blanket of rising smog. Under the rapidly descending gloom of twilight they could make out the lights of Lenasia ahead of them. As they drew closer to Lenasia Brendon broke the silence:

“See that turn-off on the right coming up ahead that’s the Lenasia turn-off, you can drop me off there.”

As Trevor slowed down he noticed that the road to Lenasia which was flanked by a marshland with beds of dry reeds was actually a long and lonely stretch of road.

“It seems like a long walk from the T junction to Lenasia, I don’t mind giving you a lift to the place where you are staying,” he said.

Given the fading light and the cold gusts of wind which rippled over the marshland Brendon decided to take up Trevor’s offer. In the east a full moon had already risen. Just above the western horizon the orange and red glow of the setting sun was rapidly fading into a luminous pale tint of crimson, purple and pink.

“OK, I really appreciate that, but then you must come in for some supper.”

When they walked into the lounge a big commotion was in progress. It seemed that one of the volunteer Kombi drivers was no longer available, so they were short of a driver, and the five hired Kombi’s should have already arrived.

Trevor’s father Mr Solly Abrahams was trying to pacify everyone.

“No don’t worry we will make a plan. By the time we have finished eating we will have a plan, just leave it to me,” Solly said.

After Trevor had been introduced to everyone, Solly said:

“Sit down Trevor and join us for supper. Get another plate and chair for our friend,” he said.

“Actually I think I should be on my way,” Trevor said, having second thoughts about dinner.

“Tell me Trevor where do you have to be tonight that you are in such hurry? The traffic past Uncle Charlies is now grid locked, it has become sheer chaos, there has been a huge accident, everywhere there are police and ambulance lights flashing, they have set up a road block, believe me I have just come from Joburg along that same road, it was miracle we managed to get past that accident. Wherever you want to get to tonight you are definitely not going to get there anytime soon, believe me. If you want to you can use our phone to warn anyone who may be expecting you. You can tell them that you are going to be at least two hours late, so why don’t you just relax and join us for supper? Come on now, sit down and relax, don’t stress, things always have a way of working themselves out. Look they have already brought you a chair, now you can’t go,” Solly said pointing to the kitchen chair being carried to the dining room table.

Reluctantly, after using the toilet and washing his hands, Trevor ended up sitting down on the extra chair that had been placed at the table. Almost immediately someone placed a large white plate in front of him.

Solly also sat down taking his usual place at the head of the table.

“Let us say grace,” announced Solly.

They all closed their eyes and Solly asked God to bless the food in Jesus’ name. Glancing at Trevor after saying grace, Solly could not help noticing from the expression on Trevor’s face that he was surprised to discover that his Indian hosts were Christians.

“Yes, as you can see, we are indeed Christians, Pentecostals, we all belong to the Full Gospel Church,” he said proudly, his face beaming. “And you, do you also follow the Lord?”

“Not really. I am a bit of an agnostic. I don’t observe any religion, I am Catholic by birth if that means anything,” he answered.

“Nor do we observe any religion. It is not about religion; it is about following Jesus and being filled with the Holy Spirit of God. It is all about experiencing the reality of God in your life and knowing the joy of God’s salvation, and this is not religion, religion involves following man invented rules about all kinds of do’s and don’ts that must be followed in order to please God, this does not make any sense, God wants us to have a living relationship with him as our father, you cannot have a real relationship with God if you are trying to serve God by obeying a whole lot of rules,” Solly explained.

“I respect that,” Trevor said politely with a serious expression on his face. The bowl of rice was passed to him. Using the large spoon in the bowl he dished up a heap of rice into the centre of his plate. A dish filled with curried potatoes and chicken pieces was then passed to him.

He noticed a knife and fork had been placed next to his plate. Everyone round the table were using their hands to eat their meal, delicately and gracefully picking up the rice, pieces of potato and chicken portions with their fingers. He decided it would be polite and respectful if he also ate with his fingers.

While they ate the Abraham family probed and interrogated Trevor with all kinds of questions especially the nature of his work as a plant breeder. As best as he could he explained the Mendelian dihybrid cross and the pollination biology or reproductive biology of the maize plant. In layman terms he tried to explain and describe all the agronomic, biochemical and physiological traits which crop breeders had theorized about as being important for increasing crop yield.

Sherisha Abrahams, Trevor’s sister asked whether maize was an African plant.

To everyone surprise Trevor told an attentive audience that the Portuguese slave traders had brought maize and cassava to Africa from South America about 400 years ago and maize had spread throughout the whole of sub-Saharan Africa, displacing in the process all the other indigenous grain crops, becoming with time the main staple food crop of all Africans. He then went on to explain that for more than a millennium the African population had been under the pressure of constant attrition because of the slave trade, first by the Arabs, and then by the European trans-Atlantic slave traders. As a biologist Trevor realized that the African natural population reproduction rates had been severely constrained due to the predations of the Arab and European slave traders. The Arabs also prevented the reproduction of African slaves that had already been taken into slavery by castrating all African males who had been captured and sold into a life of slavery. Given the close proximity of Africa it did not seem necessary to breed African slaves because they could readily and conveniently restock their slave holdings from the continuous supply of fresh slaves flowing from Africa across the Sahara and by sea from east Africa into the Caliphate. There should have been more Africans in Africa was the conclusion that he had reached as a scientist.

“Maybe they used maize as the crop to grow slaves for the slave trade,” Brendon mused, almost reading Trevor’s mind on the topic.

“There may be a lot of truth to that. Maybe without maize or cassava the slave trade would not have been sustainable,” Trevor said as he began to see the hypothetical links between maize as the staple African food crop and the population dynamics of Africans that would have been necessary to sustain the supply of a constant stream of slaves for both the European and the Arabian slave trade.

“What is cassava?” Sherisha wanted know.

“So the domestication of maize by the ‘Indians’ in the Americas ended up making the African slave trade sustainable, isn’t that an irony,” Brendon said, interrupting Sherisha’s question.

“Well I am glad that rice cannot be blamed for sustaining the African slave trade,” Sherisha said with a chuckle.

“Actually a lot has been overlooked with regard to the role of agricultural crops in driving the course of history. For example without the domestication of lucerne or alfalfa it would not have been possible to breed the large herds of horses necessary for military conquest and military domination, ancient armies marched on the stomachs of horses, they marched on the supply of fodder for horses,” Trevor explained.

“The story of actual history is so incomplete and misleading, no one really knows which factors were critical in shaping the actual course of history, it could have been as simple as the maize plant, and everybody has missed this one vital fact which may have played a major role in making the scramble for Africa possible, in order to exploit Africa, Africans needed to have carbohydrates in plentiful supply,” Brendon proposed as he began to grasp the full significance of the role that the humble maize plant had played in the colonization of Africa and in the exploitation of its aboriginal population.

“Maybe without the help of the maize plant from South America, Africa would not have been successfully colonized,” Sherisha mused.

“Without maize they would not have been able to mine the gold on the Witwatersrand,” Solly said, adding his own bit of insight into the ambiguous benefits of foreign grain crops like maize which have played such a decisive and invisible role in the colonization of the African continent.

Having had his say Solly looked at his watch.

“Excuse me for a moment, I have to make a few phone calls I don’t know what is happening with our Kombis they should have been here by now, I am getting a bit worried,” Solly said as he pushed his chair back and got up from the table.

Everyone, family and friends, who were going on the trek down to Durban for the wedding were beginning to arrive at the Abraham’s home with all their luggage and blankets. They crowded into the lounge, the kitchen and the bedrooms. Kids ran about the house, chasing one another, their screaming and laughing adding volume to the general chaos that had descended upon the Abraham’s home while the Abraham family tried to finish eating their supper as quickly as possible.

Solly took his place again at the head of the table.

“We still have a problem,” he said.

“We are still short of a driver.”

As a last resort he turned to Trevor, Solly suddenly had a brain wave.

“Trevor do you have plans for the weekend? We need a driver to drive one of the Kombis. As you know we are going down to Durban in a convoy of five Kombis. I’m driving one and Ricky my brother is driving one of the Kombi. We will be coming back on Sunday.

“Trevor is starting a new job on Monday at Isando,” Brendan interrupted, looking at Trevor.

“That should not be a problem. We will be back by Sunday afternoon,” said Solly.

Everyone round the table stared expectantly at Trevor. He could not remember when last he had been a guest in the company of such a friendly, joyful and warm crowd of people. In reality they were complete strangers, yet they had drawn him into the family circle and made him feel part of the family.

“OK I suppose I can help out as long as we are back by Sunday afternoon,” he said.

“Praise the Lord! I told you God will make a plan. God has supplied us with a driver,” Solly announced triumphantly.

Everyone round the table while smiling at Trevor clapped their hands and said: Amen!





II

After parking his car in the backyard he transferred his suitcase into one of the VW Kombis standing in the street which he would be driving. His entire wardrobe and personal effects fitted into the one suit case. The reminder of his necessities such as cups, saucers, cutlery, kettle, and pots fitted into a small cardboard box that he left in the boot of his car. The car was paid off and he had no debt. In his five years at the Summer Grain Centre he accumulated very little in the way of worldly possessions. His needs had been modest in the extreme and his wants were practically non-exist. Most of the discretionary income left over after he had covered his essential living expense had been invested into a providential fund and the remainder was deposited into an interest bearing savings account. His house keeping cash float that he kept for all kinds of exigencies remained unspent. A man of sober habits, simple diet and living a recluse lifestyle appeared to have found no need for money.

For reading material he had joined the Potchefstroom public library and for recreation he joined the local athletics club and spent most of his weekends as a lone long distance runner doing 20 to 30 km stretches on the road. When not running he would go in the field alone, always by himself on ornithological jaunts to prime bird watching sites that were accessible to visitors armed with a pair of binoculars and Robert’s Bird of South Africa. So all in all on weekends he would never be found languishing in his flat. To his colleagues at the Summer Grain Centre he also remained an impenetrable, eccentric and enigmatic personality, someone who barely said two words to anyone and never indulged in any kind of small talk or gossip. No one had the faintest idea about any of the views held by Dr Trevor Guzmán on any matter of importance. He never made any effort to express an opinion or defend a point of view. In fact he never had much to say about anything. This made him a perpetual mystery. His colleagues learnt to accept him as a reserved personality who did not seem to enjoy socializing or engaging in small talk or gossip.

Dr Trevor Guzmán was even a mystery to himself. He possessed an inquiring mind, and a natural curiosity about the natural world towards which he enjoyed a quiet and reflective interest. He never felt compelled to speak about his interests or his opinions on various matters of fact relating to the governance of the Universe or the life history of animals or plants. He never felt any compelling need to express any opinion on any topic or subject matter; he was quiet happy to ruminate in private on whatever matter that happened to interest him. To many of his acquaintances he appeared to be a self-sufficient and independent person, a perpetual stranger, a deeply private person, who did not depend on others in any way.

Now as a guest in the Abraham’s home he found himself in the company of friendly strangers who seemed to possess the power to unwittingly draw him into their lively conversations around the dinner table. They had managed to draw Trevor out of his usual reserved state into which he usually retreated when he happened to find himself in social situations. They wanted to know where he came from and what he did for a living. They expressed a genuine interest in him and had managed in a short space of time to touch his soul in a personal way.

At the Abraham’s dinner table, stranger that he was, he found himself being drawn into conversations and discussions, he found himself the focus of attention and in the end he became lost in conversations as he was prompted non-stop with multiple questions on what it meant for someone to be a plant breeder. They seemed to be consciously aware of the extraordinary fact that it was indeed a rare occasion to have a plant breeder at the dinner table, and they also found it intriguing that he had eventually agreed to be one of the drivers to a wedding in Phoenix.

At seven-o-clock everyone assembled with their blankets, suitcases and packets of padkos (food for the road) outstand on the pavement under the street lights making ready for the departure to Durban. Trevor was given the ignition keys for his Kombi. He unlocked the doors and while everyone packed their luggage into the Kombis he gazed up at the evening star which shone brightly in the cold steel blue vault of the western sky. The thought crossed his mind that he was indeed alone in the Universe and that he was ultimately responsible for whatever happened in his life, he was responsible for its successes and for its failures. Now by volunteering to be a taxi driver he as a complete stranger had given up his freedom and autonomy. He had allowed himself to become drawn into the problems and worries of the Abraham family. And he would not be facing these dilemmas if he had not stopped to give Brendon a lift. One act of kindness now led to another, almost like a domino effect, one thing led to another, before he knew it he had become roped into all kinds of commitments. He had made a commitment from which he could not withdraw. He was now trapped in the role of the driver of one of the Kombis. The whole wedding depended on him now. For the sake of the wedding of a complete stranger he had aborted all his plans for the next four days before starting his new job. Now he was saddled with the added worry of getting back in time for starting his new job.

He had progressed very quickly from being merely the Good Samaritan to Uncle Trevor, becoming after one shared meal an adopted member of the Abraham family with all the obligations that that role necessarily entailed. It was too late for regrets.

Now to everyone he was Uncle Trevor. All the teenagers and youngsters decided to bundle into Uncle Trevor’s Kombi. Four friendly teenagers wrapped in blankets who introduced themselves as Stephanie, Lee-Anne, Sasha and Ashira sat in the seat behind Trevor. Sherisha also wrapped in a blanket climbed into the cab and sat in the front with Trevor. The four teenagers had a cassette tape player and a box of cassettes. Youngsters and adolescent kids filled the remaining seats in Uncle Trevor’s Kombi. At quarter past seven they drove off in a convoy with Trevor following behind the other four Kombis. By the time they reached Uncle Charlies the accident had been cleared up and the traffic was flowing steadily in both directions.

“Uncle Trevor would it be OK if we played some music,” Stephanie asked as they drove through the Crown Interchange past the huge mine dump on the left.

“I don’t mind, what music do you have?” he replied.

“We have the Beatles, Credence Clearwater Revival, The Who, Abba, Bachman Turner Overdrive, Bad Company, Billy Joel, Boney M, Dollar Brand, Donna Summer and lots of others.”

“What would you like to hear?”

“I like the Beatles,” Trevor answered.

Keeping right at the Crown Interchange they took the off ramp onto the raised freeway which carried them over the rooftops of buildings and factories that lined the streets of Selby and Village Main at the southern end of the sprawling Johannesburg Central Business District which had now become deserted, its lit up streets with blinking robots had also now become emptied of all traffic. They joined the tail end of the traffic flowing eastwards along the M2 Francois Oberholzer Freeway to Germiston. At the Geldenhuys Interchange the convoy took the turnoff for the freeway link-up to Heidelberg and Durban. Picking up speed they were soon out of Alberton and speeding into the night towards Heidelberg. Behind them the glowing silhouette of the Johannesburg skyline receded rapidly and finally disappeared as they crossed the rolling hills of the Suikerbosrand. Sweeping past the small town of Heidelberg they drove into night. Now before them, cloaked in darkness, lay the icy steppes of the vast Highveld plains. The small rural towns of Villiers, Warden and Harrismith marked their passage to Van Reenen’s pass where the Highveld plains came to an abrupt end at the foot of the great escarpment which was contiguous with the majestic Drakensberg Mountains which also represented the only surviving geological remnants of the ancient Gondwanaland. The rest of Gondwanaland had been eroded away. Because of the fuel saving restrictions the convoy of Kombis stayed within the speed limit of 80 km per hour on the quiet traffic-free open stretch of highway.

After Harrismith they began the long winding ascent up and over the mountainous escarpment. Breaking through the layer of cloud cover that had blanketed the Highveld plains the billions upon billions of stars, visible only to viewers in the Southern Hemisphere, which now filled the night sky blazed brightly above as the temperatures plummeted way below zero. All five Kombis had now also run out of fuel and without any engine power the wedding convoy coasted slowly and silently down the dip to the garage which stood at the edge of the highway close to the little town of Van Reenen. The five Kombis came to an empty hollow tank halt at the garage petrol pumps. Under the bright star lit night sky the surrounding landscape coated in a thick brittle layer of crystalline frost took on the appearance of a pristine phosphorescent white wonderland. The four other drivers got out of their vehicles and gathered in a group. Trevor joined them in the freezing cold outside. Following the fall of the Shah of Iran the supplies of crude oil to South Africa from Iran had been suddenly cut and with the imposition of the international anti-apartheid oil embargo the supply of crude oil to South Africa had become even more severely constrained. Because of the fuel crisis all garage trading hours in South Africa were now restricted to the period from 7.00 am to 7.00 pm. Wrapped in layers of blankets the single petrol attendant was fast asleep behind the glass doors of the filling station’s office. After discussing all their options it was decided they would wake up the petrol attendant by knocking loudly on the glass door and persuade him with the inducement of a tempting bribe to switch on the petrol pumps and allow them to fill up the Kombi tanks. Of course the petrol attendant did not take kindly to be woken up in the early hours of the morning. Reluctantly he got up but no amount of pleading and begging nor could the inducement of a bribe persuade him to switch on the petrol pumps and allow them to fill their tanks. It was two-o-clock in the morning and they now had to face the prospect of a freezing cold five hour wait before they could fill the tanks and continue with the journey.

The temperature had fallen to -5oC. Everyone in spite of being wrapped up in blankets were now shivering with cold in the Kombis. In Trevor’s Kombi everyone was sitting huddled close together under blankets. For a while before eventually being overcome with sleep the teenagers in Trevor’s Kombi entertained themselves by singing the lyrics that they were listening to on the tape recorder. Unable to fall sleep himself because of the freezing cold Trevor listened to their singing. They started singing Hey Jude. In the end the singing ceased as one by one they fell into a fitful sleep.

At six-o-clock the cold woke Trevor up. He had fallen asleep under a blanket while slumped uncomfortably behind the steering wheel. The windows of all the Kombi had become iced up. To relieve the stiffness in his legs he got out of the Kombi and started doing some stretching exercises. With the stiffness in legs and body gone he ran on the spot for a while to get the blood flowing and to warm up. The passing of the next hour which would bring the time to 7.00 am felt like an eternity.

Shortly after sunrise they descended down the escarpment into the rocky hilly open savannah countryside of Natal. In the west the Drakensburg Mountains were covered in a mantle of snow. With full tanks and empty stomachs rumbling with the pangs of hunger brought on by the cold they pressed on without stopping, leaving behind Ladysmith, Colenso, and Estcourt, they soon passed the small town of Mooi River, entering the Natal midlands, where Trevor had grown up. After the village of Howick they descended down the steep winding road flanked by forests of giant blue gum trees until they reached the bottom of the sleepy hollow where Pietermaritzburg nestled languidly amongst its Victorian facades and monuments in a state of colonial oblivion. Filling up with petrol in Pietermaritzburg the convoy continued its descent into the evergreen valley of a thousand hills. Once in Durban the convoy headed northwards to Umhlanga and then took the road into Phoenix where they were welcomed by a mild pleasant subtropical day and just a few kilometres away as the gulls would fly the rolling swells of the vast Indian Ocean crushed onto the white beaches that lined the shores of the coastal city of Durban.





III

Finally in Phoenix, when a petite winsome young Indian woman opened the door; he was immediately taken aback by her angelic appearance. Overcome with an embarrassing attack of awkward shyness he became momentarily mute. At first glance she looked deceptively thin almost emaciated, yet the light fabric of the long white flowing dress covering her lithe physique did not hid the subtle contours of an exquisitely shapely figure. She was twenty years old, but looked much younger than her age. Her friendly youthful face was strikingly attractive. She had sensual lips, a refined aristocratic aquiline nose, high cheek bones and large black doe-eyes which made her appear not a year older than a sixteen year old school girl.

She was just as surprised see who he was, so out of place in her neighbourhood. Just yesterday she had written the last of her mid-year examinations and now the first day of her university winter student holidays had begun. Behind him she also saw the white Kombi parked at the gate of their small garden. In his hand he was carrying a suitcase.

Now he was not sure whether he was at the right address. He had just finished driving around Phoenix, dropping off his passengers from Lenasia at the various addresses. He had driven through the pot holed streets of this alien neighbourhood. Streets lined with low cost economic housing consisting of rows and rows of semi-detached two-story flats with asbestos roofs that had originally been painted in various pastel shades of blue, purple, lilac, yellow and green. The paint work had long since faded into washed out lighter shades of their former colours. He had also driven on winding dirt roads through localities within Phoenix where ramshackle corrugated iron structures had been erected on steep slopes between lush stands of dense vegetation that were filled with birds, monkeys and reptiles, creatures adapted to the climes of the subtropics. At one of these sprawling ramshackle corrugated iron shacks he had eaten a lunch of curried lamb and rice. It was from this address that he was given the directions to the home of Ahmad Abdullah Suleiman where he was informed he would be staying for the next three days while in Phoenix. At short notice the Suleiman’s had graciously volunteered to provide food and accommodation for the plant breeder.

The flatland neighbourhood where the Suleiman family lived looked like the derelict gangland ‘projects’ that he had seen in America movies.

And there was no ways that Faeeza Suleiman could have guessed that the stranger standing at the front door was going to be a guest in their home for the next three days. She was the only sibling still living with her parents. Her sister and two brothers had become married and had moved out of the parental home some time ago.

It was also the case that nothing any longer could surprise Faeeza Suleiman, especially given the fact that a Pentecostal revival was burning its way through the shack lands and high density low-cost housing estates of Phoenix, and it was burning with a contagion which exceeded the ferocity of the Spanish flu epidemic. Now Faeeza also knew that in Phoenix the prevailing circumstances were ripe for the occurrence of any unimaginable kind of eventuality, yes every unimaginable kind of eventuality, because anything could happen at any moment in Phoenix, and the unexpected had become the norm or the expected.

She had just finished reading Mel Tari’s book, Like a Mighty Wind, where a similar Christian revival had already taken place in the Indonesian island of Timor, and now an eccentric American missionary who had worked in Timor was also preaching in a huge white marquee that had been erected in an open patch of veld in Phoenix, just down the road from her home, a mere ten minutes walking distance from where she lived.

Her whole life had been turned upside down; she had now learnt not to take anything at face value. For all she knew the man standing at the front door of her home could be a missionary, a prophet, an evangelist or even an angel. It was not even two years ago that a lanky Zulu man with a beaming face, dressed in a shining black suit, starched white shirt and a bright floral tie had stood knocking at their front door. It was Faeeza who had opened the door. Her mother who had been struck down with multiple sclerosis was sitting in their small dim lounge with a blanket over her knees. In his hand the tall Zulu man held a large black Bible which he waved about as he spoke. He announced that God had sent him to pray for her mother.

“Who is there?” Her mother called out anxiously.

“It is me Pastor Dumisani Maduma from the Free Pentecostal Church of Africa,” he said.

“Go away, tell him he must go away,” she said as loud as her feeble voice would allow.

“Please madam let me come in and pray for you, God has sent me, do not reject his mercy and compassion, he told me in a vision that I must come to your house and pray for you,” he said with a kind but insistent tone in his voice.

“Who sent you?” she asked.

“I said God has sent me,” he answered.

“Please go away,” she insisted.

“I have to obey God,” he said, as he slipped past Faeeza into the small dimly lit lounge.

Towering above the frail shrunken woman he laid his hands on her veil covered head.

“In the name of Jesus, be healed of this affliction, affliction I command you to release this woman at once, be gone with you, depart from this woman,” he prayed out loudly in a deep bass voice which also resonated deeply in the room, and everything at once began to shudder, move and rattle around in the whole house, they could hear the loud explosive smashing sounds of breaking crockery coming from the kitchen, cups started falling from the cupboard, crashing to the kitchen floor, smashing into a hundred of small pieces on the hard tiles, and then immediately the scattered shards of the cups re-assembled themselves back into the original cups, and the cups flew back intact onto their perches in the cupboard, and also while all the crashing, smashing, rattling and shuddering was going on, a mighty wind swept through the open lounge windows and the curtain billowed wildly, like dancing angels with huge white feathered wings.

The disease afflicted woman rose slowly from the padded armchair as if she were levitating. She began to shout loudly in Tat, the language spoken in parts of Azerbaijan. Faeeza also felt herself been raised up off her feet by a mighty invisible force. She lost control of her tongue and began to speak Dongwang Tibetan, the language spoken by Tibetan people living in the eastern part of Shangri-La County along the Dongwang River.

When Ahmad Abdullah Suleiman came home later that afternoon he found his wife in the kitchen speaking in Tat to Faeeza and Faeeza was answering her mother in Dongwang Tibetan. His wife’s face was beaming with a holy glow while she was making his favour dish for supper.

“What is going on with both of you?” a startled Ahmad shouted, as he took in the spectacle of his wife who just that morning had been a terminally ill invalid, but was now fully mobile, busy stirring her pots on the stove.

As a result of all of this Ahmad Abdullah Suleiman read the King James Bible from beginning to end and Faeeza eventually was able to stop speaking in Dongwang Tibetan and regained her English tongue. The diminutive Mrs Suleiman, who after regaining her own English tongue, made the surprising discovery that she had become mysteriously endowed with the most beautiful soprano singing voice. The three joined the mainly black Free Pentecostal Church of Africa which held it services in the huge marquee in the veld every night of the week. Mrs Suleiman sang in the church choir. Ahmad left his job as the maître d' in a plush Durban restaurant that was extremely popular among whites, and become a roving evangelist, preaching the Gospel wherever he went in the surrounding locations, healing the sick, casting out demons and raising the dead.





IV

Faeeza Suleiman noticed the flicker of uncertainty in Trevor’s face.

“I’m one of the drivers for the wedding guests from Lenasia and I was told that I would be staying at this address,” Trevor explained.

“I am Faeeza Suleiman, please to meet you,” she said stretching out her hand.

“I am Trevor Guzmán,” he said as he shook her hand.

“Guzmán? That is an unusual sounding surname, if you don’t mind me saying so,” she replied looking perplexed.

“It is a Spanish surname. The original Guzmán name goes back to the 12th century to Rodrigo Muñoz de Guzmán who was the founder of a noble family that went by this name,” he explained

“So you are Spanish?” She asked as she stared at him, taking in the dark olive Mediterranean tone of his skin, his dark brown eyes, and thick mop of dark hair. Sizing him up, he gave her the impression of someone who was completely unpretentious and naturally honest in all matters. She immediately felt strongly attracted to the stranger who was plainly a person with no guile, a person who was naturally sincere and incapable of deceit. She remembered the Bible verse from the Gospel of John and felt it applied to Trevor: Jesus saw Nathanael coming to Him, and said of him, “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile!” Her female intuition told her that God had answered her prayers and had sent her a husband, someone who was kind, gentle and would take good care of her. A man in whom there was no guile.

“No I am South African, according to our family tradition we are descendants of the Guzmáns who ran a slave-trading business in Luanda in Angola after the Portuguese colonized Angola in the 14th century. My ancestors were slave traders who later became farmers in the Angolan highlands. My grandfather came to the South Africa in the 1940s. They bought a farm in the Natal midlands,” he explained.

“You could pass for an Indian if you don’t mind me saying so, I initially thought you were actually Indian, and even said to myself, you are indeed a strange looking Indian, but an Indian nevertheless,” she said with a wholesome smile on her face, and with eyes filled with playful humour.

“Are you Catholic, if you don’t mind me asking you?” she asked.

“Yes, but I am not a practising Catholic, I am not very religious, I have not been to Mass since I was confirmed,” he said.

“Well we are also not very religious in a manner of speaking I suppose. I am Pentecostal now, but Pentecostalism is not a religion, it a way of life, a life filled with the power, joy and love of God. Religion is an obstacle that the devil puts in the way of true belief,” she said.

“True belief is based on the certainty of knowledge, if you know what I mean, philosophy is one of my subjects and social anthropology is my other major, I am a student in the humanities at the University of Durban -Westville,” she informed her perplexed looking visitor.

“Anyway, I am talking too much again and I suppose we cannot spend the whole afternoon standing here, talking at the front door, come in, I will show you to your room where you can put your suitcase down, and then I will open the gate and you can park the Kombi in front of the garage.”

“You must be the one who is going to be our chauffeur,” Faeeza said, with a smile followed by an amused chuckle.

“You will be driving me, my mother and all the aunties around Phoenix for the wedding preparations,” she informed Trevor.

She stood still for a moment, seemingly undecided about something.

“On second thoughts, put your case down, I will unlock the gate, it would be better to park inside in the driveway. If we don’t keep the Kombi safe and secure behind the chained gate it will be stolen that’s for sure,” she said.

“So tell me how did you get mixed up with a bunch of crazy Indians from Lens?” She asked.

“Well, I only met them for the first time yesterday afternoon, and they asked me if I would drive one of the Kombis, they were short of a driver,” he said.

“So as a complete stranger you simply agreed to help when they asked you to drive a Kombi full of Indians to Phoenix?”

“Yes,” he answered.

“Well if you don’t mind me saying so, that is completely amazing. How did you get to meet the Abrahams? ” She asked looking with wide eyes at Trevor as she became more and more convinced that the man standing before had been sent by God to be her husband. The only miracle that God had to perform now was to transform him into an Indian and then she would have her husband to have and hold.





V

Trevor had already driven many times past the massive white marquee, and now tonight he entered the hot cavernous interior for the Friday evening service. Following the Suleiman family they walked down the aisle until they found four vacant white plastic chairs in row close to the front where a pulpit stood elevated on a wooden stage. The tent was packed to capacity with an excited crowd of dancing and singing worshippers, who were mainly black African. Scattered and conspicuous among the black worshippers were many Indian and Coloured families.

After half an hour the singing subsided as two men in rumpled black suits stepped onto the podium. They had been sitting all the time in the front row bowed over in prayer. One was a tall black man and the other was a short white man whose ruddy face gleamed with perspiration because of the heat inside the tent.

The white man blew into the microphone mounted on the pulpit to test if the public address system was working.

He began to speak in a deep southern American accent. The tone of his message was in stark contrast to the buoyant mood of the exuberant crowd that filled the tent.

“Like Jonah I never signed up for this. To be honest, in the presence of the God of the Universe, I confess before you that tonight I feel very weary; I feel tired, run down and burnt out, I want to be honest with you tonight and also with God. I have prayed constantly to God, day and night, to be released from my duties as an evangelist of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I have prayed constantly to God pleading with him to please let me go, even if it means I have to give up my life and die right now. It has not been easy for me to follow Jesus. I have lost my wife, she has left me, I have also lost my beautiful children, I have lost my fancy car, I have lost my dream house in Florida, I have lost my huge minister’s salary, and I have lost my all my savings in the massive bank account that I used to have. As many of you know I am from America, I am an American and God knows that I did not volunteer for this job. I was called by God to go to Indonesia and when my work was done in Indonesia God sent me to South Africa. By some strange miracle Pastor Dumisani was waiting for me at the airport. When I got off the plane at Durban I walked into the arrivals not knowing who was going to be there to meet me if anyone at all. Then out of the crowds a tall Zulu man stepped forward and walked up to me. He stretched out his hand and said: Welcome Pastor! However, tonight I am an illegal alien in your country, my visa has expired and my passport has expired, I am an illegal resident in South Africa, I am currently living illegally here in Phoenix with Pastor Dumisani in a small corrugated iron shack hidden in the bush. We are living without electricity and running water, and the security police have been on our trail now over the past few days. Over the past few days I have been hiding from the police in the bush. I have been sleeping in the bush in the same suit I am wearing tonight and I have not washed or shaved for three days. I have been living in the bush with monkeys and snakes as my only companions. I would not be surprised if I am arrested tonight as a subversive terrorist and thrown into jail. Many of you have offered me a place in your homes here in Phoenix and I thank you. But given my illegal status I did not want impose on anyone. I thank you for the sustenance that you have provided for me and Pastor Dumisani, we are both very grateful for your kindness, without your support and care we would not have been able to do the work of God in Phoenix.”

As he spoke nine wheelchairs and with their occupants were pushed through the main entrance into the marquee, they were pushed down the aisle towards the podium by their minders who seemed to be friends and family. The preacher stopped speaking. A hushed silence fell over the congregation as they stared wide eyed at the train of wheelchairs. They stared at the individuals seated stiffly in the wheelchairs, all were smartly dressed in their new burial outfits, consisting of smart frocks and suits, all the individuals seated in their wheelchairs were obviously very dead.

Trevor could see that they were corpses. There was no mistaking that fact. Now the congregation, unable to control their curiosity, started standing up, craning their necks to get a clear glimpse of the death masks.

Then from outside they head a voice speaking from a loudhailer:

“This is the police, your gathering has been declared in terms of the law as an illegal gathering, you all must vacate the tent immediately and disperse back to your homes.”

As the police with their batons at the ready entered the tent, the American pastor shouted at those seated in the wheelchairs:

“I command you in the name of God to wake up and go home immediately.”

The eyes of those seated in their wheelchairs suddenly opened wide. Their rigid death masks melted away and mobile expressions of confusion and bewilderment filled their faces as they stared stupidly at their surroundings. Awkwardly they all struggled to get up out of their wheelchairs.

An icy chill raced down Trevor’s back and he felt the hair rise on the back of his neck. The congregation began to scream in terror as they fell over each other in a state of panic while trying to flee from the spectacle unfolding in the aisle of the tent as relatives and friends began to hug those who were once dead. At that moment several canisters of teargas were fired into the tent and then complete pandemonium broke out.

Having escaped from the marquee, the congregation gathered into a huge excited crowd, which seemed to swarm and mill about in the veld in a constant of state of agitated amazement, wonder and uncertainty. Slowly they began to collectively comprehend the nature of the phenomenon which they had all just witnessed. The meaning and significance of what they had seen began to sink in. This collective realization that they had just seen people being raised from the dead transformed them into a state of sublime and transcendental ecstasy. Possessed by a powerful sense of invincibility they refused to disperse. The policeman with the loudhailer commanded the crowd to disperse again and again but to no avail.

Resisting the command to disperse the defiant crowd began to sing with one voice:

Senzenina

Sono sethu ubumnyama

Sono sethu yinyaniso

Sibulawayo

Mayibuye i Africa.

Under the full moon on a clear winter’s night Pastor Dumisani and the American missionary gave themselves up to the police. The singing crowds watched while the two evangelists were handcuffed and bundled unceremoniously into the back of a police van.

After the police had set the marquee ablaze the policeman with the loudhailer commanded the crowd to disperse immediately. The crowd stubbornly stood their ground while singing protest songs.

Suddenly without warning they started to hear gunshots. In the dark Trevor could see the flame flashes from the muzzle of rifles. The crowd screaming in terror turned and fled into the night. Trevor grabbed Faeeza, wrapping his arms around her so he that could shield her head and body with his own body as rubber bullets rained down on the crowd bouncing off their heads, shoulders, and backs. He felt the sharp stinging blow of a rubber bullet as it struck him with its full force on the back. Faeeza felt his body stiffen as an involuntary groan escaped from his mouth.

Fearing the worst she cried out:

“Trevor are you OK! Please tell me that you are OK!”

“I am Ok. I think I have been hit by a rubber bullet.”

Back at the Suleiman’s home Faeeza and her mother fussed over the swollen ugly bruising on Trevor’s back.





VI

After the wedding reception at the Phoenix Full Gospel Church hall Trevor and Faeeza drove the bridal couple in Trevor’s Kombi to their honeymoon suite which happened to be at the beachfront Maharani Hotel. With Trevor carrying a suitcase in each hand both he and Faeeza followed the newly weds into the plush hotel foyer. Once they had booked in at the reception, they followed the newly weds into the lift to the 8th floor bridal suite. The bridegroom unlocked the door and Trevor lugged the heavy suitcases into the room. Faeeza drew the curtains and opened the sea facing windows. The curtains billowed in the sea breeze. Faeeza sat on the wedding bed and gazed around at the bridal suite.

A mood of profound poignancy filled the bridal suite. Faeeza and Trevor both felt it; they recognized it in each others eyes as they exchanged intimate and meaningful glances, they also saw it in the eyes of the bridal couple.

“I think we should be going,” Faeeza said.

They took the lift down. As they walked across the foyer she said:

“We don’t have go back to Phoenix right away. If you don’t mind we can go for a walk on the beach. I know a nice spot. It is at the beach which has been reserved for Indians.”

Half an hour later, they found themselves strolling in the dark on the remote beach which had been set aside for Indians. Their hands kept on brushing and in response to some kind of mysterious reflex they spontaneously grasped each other’s hand. Their fingers quickly became intertwined, locking their hands in an expression of mutual reciprocal intimacy.

Hand in hand they walked together in silence yet fully conscious that they had just crossed a profound threshold into the unknown.

“Do you believe in love at first sight,” she suddenly asked, breaking the silence.

“Well, after three days in Phoenix anything is possible,” he answered.

“Do you feel that you could become an Indian after spending three days in Phoenix,” she asked.

“What will it take for me to become an Indian?” he said.

“Our love for each other,” she answered.

“Can we only love each other if both of us are Indians?” he asked.

“I don’t know, but that is a profound question,” she answered.

After a long silence, she spoke:

“Do you know what Ruth said to Naomi?”

“No.”

“‘Ruth said to Naomi: Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.’ ”

“Will your people become my people?” He asked.

“Yes.”

“After only three days in Phoenix.”

“Yes.”

“So I have to become an Indian to be with you, and for you to be a part of my life?” He asked.

“Yes, I definitely cannot become white. And if you love me and want me then you have to become an Indian,” she replied.

“How do I become an Indian?”

“It is easy. You just go to the Department of Home Affairs, tell them that you want to become an Indian, they will give you some forms to fill in, the form will then be stamped and signed and you will be reclassified as an Indian. You need to take two passport size photos and they will give you a new ID book and then you will be legally an Indian and we can be together,” she said.

“And then where will I get work as an Indian?”

“That is easy, just leave it to us Indians. My uncle is a very influential businessman and is also politically connected, he will be able to ensure that you get a job at the University of Durban Westville as a lecturer in Genetics,” she said.

“And where I am going to stay?”

“We will live with my parents. We will live in my room and sleep in my bed.”

“And all this is possible after spending three days in Phoenix?”

“Well Jonah was in the fish’s belly for three days, Jesus was in the Tomb for three days and you saw God raise nine people from the dead, anything is possible in Phoenix.”

0 comments:

Post a Comment

Read free eBooks, English Fiction, English Erotic Story

Delicious Digg Facebook Favorites More Stumbleupon Twitter