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On the Rooftop

Nicole Whitton

lt’s a beautiful night, and we’ve got the best spot for it. The rooftop of 2 Marchmont Avenue, Oranjezicht, Cape Town. The sky looks like a giant jewellery box full of diamond studs – and there, right ahead of us, above the orange glow of city lights, Venus. Always the first star of the night. It’s pretty magic. And Table Mountain, that epicentre of spiritual enlightenment, the Madiba of rocky face, rising above, proud and strong.

It’s a beautiful night. And I bet if we had apples, and if we could still spit, it’d be a good shot to the tree across. Still I bet I’d hit it.

We should be drinking. On a night like this, hazy and warm, late summer, fermented summer, on a night like this, we really should be drinking.

Sometimes I miss it, the physicality of life. For instance, the placing of the palm, firm, against something rough like this wall, then moving it. Feeling the skin tug a little. You only get a hint of it now, and it’s different. It’s all emotional now. Maybe it won’t be for long. Maybe, when my mind catches up, it will be different, who’s to say? Well, the souls – the ones whose bodies have actually died, you know – they’ve said it. They say they can still sort of comprehend things, feel things mentally a bit more. They’re one thought closer to life.

Still, it’s not bad, is what I’m saying. Just that there’s that sensuality in living you only appreciate when you’re not. Living, I mean, when you’re not living.

You ever do something strange? You ever get up in the morning and be really careful to climb slowly over your partner? You really inch yourself over, your foot dangling bit by bit till it touches the floor? Then you go slowly out the room, creeping with tiny steps if there’s floorboards, if there’s wooden floors, then into the kitchen. Close the door. Pour some cereal in a bowl, pour some milk over the cereal. Eat. Crunch everything like you’re holding your breath. Wash everything afterwards. Dry it, put it all away. For some reason, you don’t want to leave a trace. Have you ever done that? It’s not just me, is it?

So then, well, that’s what it was like when I left. Those last few moments when I was leaving myself, leaving my hot fevered body, god, I was slipping out as quietly as the moon in the sky. Obviously not because I was concerned about waking myself up, but, well, concerned about rousing the sentimentality. Didn’t want the mind to get up and start asking questions. Didn’t want the mouth to close; the nostrils to flare; the eyes to squeeze shut. No, I wanted it easy.

Those last few days had been a nightmare, but also an extension of the last year in general. When we – when I – decided to move to London, it was for several reasons. My friends were there … a lot of my friends. There was the money issue. I felt there wasn’t enough here. There’s the crime here, and even now, sitting on top of a roof in all this delicious moonshine, wishing on a drink to get me drunk, I’ll be the first to tell you: watch yourself in this place. Be aware and all that. Plus, my parents were moving. Setting up a new life in England. So it felt not just the right thing but the only thing. I was in a corner.

You know London? Ever lived there? Well, it’s tough. No one said it wasn’t but no one said it was. The minute I got there, it was just different. I got an admin job – I couldn’t get anything in my career field. It felt unfair most of the time. I used to be someone here. I used to walk under oak trees and hear the leaves crunching beneath. You can’t even hear your own footsteps in London. Too many feet, and no leaves.

So there was that. But also, the tube is mucky. Leaves you dirty all up on the inside and out. Feels like you’re grimy. And the people are shits. You start saying words like “cunt” and you start saying things like “fuck right off”, then you stop saying them because no one hears and no one listens to a thing you’re saying, so these words bottle up inside of you like vinegar kept too long.

Back here, you can hear more things in the night – like now, that owl. Some people think it sounds kind of haunting. But I don’t know, I think it sounds like home. We used to live on the other side of the mountain before this place – we used to live in Newlands. I won’t show it to you; it’s beautiful but cold. It’ll be cold even on a night like this. It’s right below the mountain and when that cloud comes tumbling down it brings down all the deathly cold from the ravines and the gorges and the mountain tops and the bones of people who’ve fallen and tumbled and died and probably the burning cold of the stars themselves. It’s really damp and it’s really dark, but it’s beautiful. Lots of vegetation. And loads of owls there, and loads of frogs. My dad would love the owls.

But I digress. London. London London London. Some people love it, probably the same people that have money. Everyone here talks about it like it’s some kind of paradise, when it doesn’t have anything Cape Town has – the mountain, the beaches, har, the warm sun. London’s just a city, with nothing special but the pollution.

After I’d moved three times - kept getting stuck with bunches of weirdoes, you know. Man, what weirdoes. Anyway, after a while, I decided to get my own place. I found a little studio flat. And I had this boyfriend, a really nice guy, really genuine. I don’t usually like men myself, I never found one I could respect, but this one was – is – so sincere. And his skin - like a night sky. No, that’s not right; he had skin as white as a summer’s day cloud, but freckles like stars all mixed in, all mixed up, couldn’t find which way was north, though let me tell you, I sure explored, har har. Anyway. My little studio flat. My little home.

Then there was this cunt. (Oh don’t flinch. For god’s sakes. Do you say penis? Dick? So what’s wrong with cunt? They look a lot better than some of the dicks I’ve seen.) So this cunt next door, what a fucking loopy, he starts playing his music loud 5 am each night. We complained sometimes but man this guy’s a fucking weirdo, all wired up, doing something in that flat, and not just the weed, we could smell that, man, we could smell that. Nothing wrong in that. Whatever. But there was no need to get so fucking aggressive. But that’s the way it was. Flat 13, 76 Fordwych Road. That was his place.

After a while I packed it all in. We had to move. Fucking cunt. All my cutlery packed away. All my books – and the first editions – packed away, pictures off walls till it looked like a shell all inside out, the prettiness all packed away, just the grey insides left, the home once of some creature, can you sniff, can you smell, that’s me, that’s me, that’s me. That was me.

Listen to me. God I’m going mental just thinking about it.

But enough of all these bad memories. If you stretch back, so you’re propping yourself up with your arms, you can almost feel the cold elbows of the roof tiles sticking in your back, and you have the full moon flooding your eyeballs. Feels like my sight is going to drown. Better not. Do you feel dizzy up here at all? Dizzyingly dizzy. I still sometimes do. That’s the best feeling.

Sometimes Katie and I, when that old Good Doctor wind blows the way he does, we hold hands and stand at the very top of Upper Orange street, where it meets the rugby field, and we let ourselves get blown and swayed and turned and tumbled right down to the harbour. Man that’s fun, hey Katie? But you have to know how to let go. If you do it’s better than any roller-coaster. Summer’s the best for it, when you got jasmine blossoms floating past your ears and resting on your cheeks and your nose just like confetti. Like wedding confetti.

I still miss him. But that’s okay. That’s okay. Least I can tell I’m missing him, right? Least I feel it all over. And sometimes I still visit.

Well, after it all we stayed with his mom in her place. I’d been sick twice and when I got sick again, this time with a throat infection, this time with a burning golf ball lodged in my throat, that was almost the end of it all, right there and then.

I think he saw it coming. I watched him, and he never looked more beautiful. I never wanted someone like I wanted him then. And not just sexually. I never wanted to laugh more or be tickled by or jump on or eat chocolate with or go with walks hand in hand with someone so bad before.

But I hadn’t laughed and I hadn’t jumped and I hadn’t walked for so long. I mean really, I mean head back laugh, I mean spontaneous jump, I mean walk wanting to run. We were okay. But me – I’d let everything down. I hadn’t jumped up and down inside that body and made a big mixing bowl of those insides in ages. I was just cooped up all lazy and tired all day long. Lots of sighing, lots of sleepy eyes, that sort of thing.

When I got sick the third time in two months and the doctor finally yielded and gave me some antibiotics – it’s not like here, you know, over there, they’re very strict, and the way they do medicine it’s as though they’re conducting business transactions. Here, people have time, they’ll ask you, you look a little sad. You doing okay? You alright? You look like you’re under some stress. Take care of yourself.

I was once asked by a doctor over there what I wanted prescribed. Can you imagine? It’s different there. People here treat London like paradise. It’s not all like that. I made money with my job, I bought some CDs, you know, but that’s a different kind of music. I mean here, if you listen sometimes you’ll hear the wind in your ears and your heart in your chest and your breath catching your world with the one outside and you’ll hear that symphony crashing, if you’re happy, or you’ll hear the violins if you’re sad. I don’t know where that music is in London. Too many footsteps, not enough people stopping.

The doctor came round when I was sick. He had to climb the stairs into Frazer’s loft. I didn’t see, but Frazer told me later when my eyes could open a little and I wasn’t so hot and I wasn’t groaning and twisting up in the bed, he told me, the doctor looked so put out at the red walls. Frazer was laughing about it all and never before had I wanted to fly out and hide in someone’s mouth and play on the tonsils and tickle the tongue and kiss the lips and never before have I wanted to tell someone, you’re the one, you’re the one.

But my throat was closed and dry and hot and scratched and I sat there listening to his laugh and felt sad for some reason and wondered where my home really was, and wondered if anyone could really think that a place where you get ill three times in two months is really a homely kind of place.

I began thinking of here. There was one night before I left for London, almost the same as tonight. If you go up this Marchmont road and turn right, down to the stop street, then take a left, then right down Molteno till you come to the reservoir, it looks like a big lake, I used to jog around it, I used to run and run feeling those wings in my knees and dream of life in London. If you don’t go to the reservoir but turn left and follow that windy road past the rose garden and up to the top of the hill, you’ll be opposite Amigos. That night there were stars in the sky – this was before London, this was before I could look at stars and not think of Frazer’s skin, and a bunch of us sat beneath the stars there, around a table, drinking, and laughing, and we bought wire animals from some guy walking the street selling them, said he came from Malawi.

So I was feeling it, I was feeling Cape Town, and I’d been doing nothing but feeling this place for so long, my mind was in denial, saying we had to make it work in London, and my heart was giving it all to Frazer, and my body was lying panting on the bed, and I wasn’t interested. I wasn’t interested anymore. I didn’t think anyone would miss me. At a quarter to midnight, the nightingale hour, I slipped out. I planted the seed of a beautiful dream in the mind, in that hot and heaving head, and at the first trace of a smile I bid my departure, blown out with a sigh.

It’s never easy leaving. I was sad. But first thing I did was to find my way here, find a naartjie, and dive straight in. Drank it all up. Turned bright orange, it lasted three days. I was wet for ages. I had to lie in the sun to dry off.

I sat in Kirstenbosch and I hid in the arum lilies and I danced with the otter in the lake and I swam in Anne’s bath. I stretched out and rolled over the lawns and I sailed up Skeleton Gorge and I never lost my footing and I never lost my breath.

I sat on Table Mountain and I curled into the telescopes and played tricks on the tourists. I stayed clear of the dassies. I travelled to Cape Point. I buried myself in the hot sand on the beach and I rode the waves as the two oceans met and crashed into each other like two wildebeest in the wild, fighting for a lover, fighting to succeed, to make some beautiful female wildebeest proud.

Oh I did many things.

My favourite is just sitting here remembering.

I’ve never gone inside, though. Wouldn’t want to see what my old home looks like now. The house we used to have in Newlands has had a pool put in and it’s been painted white. Doesn’t look right. It should be the same yellow we had it, and no wet escape from the heat. Plus I bet they get loads of frogs in the pool.

I do get sad, though. Sometimes I miss that old body of mine. But she’s still going, and she doesn’t even realise I’m not there. She still has the same friends, in a different job now I think. She’s a real Londoner now. Got none of that light in the eyes; doesn’t look twice at anything. Nothing magical, doesn’t believe in it, just in cynicism. Still with Frazer though. Glad about that. He’s a great guy. When I really miss him I go back and sit in her stomach and that’s when she looks at him and something inside her kicks and bites and jumps with glee and that’s when she rushes to him and pushes him down and I’ve seen his eyes all blue and bright just like the sky is here and I’ve tasted them sometimes, thrown myself into them like me into a naartjie and it feels the same kind of heat and the same kind of beauty and the same kissed-by-promise as a summer African sky. And I’ve traced myself along his lips and slipped and slid the width and breadth of his spine, his back, falling over the curves of his cute behind. Oh I’ve done many things. I’ve been many places along his body, still following north, ending up south, har har.

There are a lot of those people, those bodies without us, walking around. Most are from the big cities but you don’t know everyone’s story – there are some from tiny little towns who just had the wrong things happen to them at the wrong time. And it’s okay to leave, it’s a kind of deal. Probably it would be good if we were all back home and not awol like this, I think it would be good, on a universal level. But me – I’m glad I did it. I couldn’t stay there.

And who knows what may happen. Could be that tomorrow something breaks in that body of mine, and everything shuts down. Well, wouldn’t that be a great day, watching my mind come pulling itself up along this silver cord that still holds us together, would take a damn long time too, if I don’t go to England, if I make it cross the whole continent of Africa. I might just do that, it’d be in such a bad mood by the time it got here, god, what a laugh.

But then … I’d lead it up Upper Orange and we’d watch for squirrels and murderers and we could bask in the sight of that beautiful mountain and we could go to the beaches, bury ourselves deep, or dive into sunscreen tubes. I think, that day, when I see that mind crawling up my cord like a prince up Rapunzel’s hair, that might just be one of the best days of my life.

Nicole Whitton
is currently living abroad but is returning to South Africa in time for summer. She has previously been published in Elle, Cosmopolitan and Oprah magazines but has now turned her focus to fiction.

LitNet: 08 August 2006

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