I lean my forehead against the cool glass of the bus window, feeling the vibrations as we ramble past familiar landmarks: the public swimming pool with its patriotic variegated red, white and blue stained-glass window above the entrance door, the park with its swings and roundabouts and, of course, the little leaguers’ baseball diamond where kids hang by their fingers from the mesh fence to chat between innings. I’ve always admired the neatness of the residential properties we pass. For five years I’ve been catching this 07h00 bus; five years I’ve ridden this route from the ’burbs of my new hometown in the State of Pennsylvania to the city centre; five years since I packed up my family and left South Africa shortly after the first democratic elections, for the United States, the land of the brave and free and the bastion of democracy.
As I step off the bus a block from my office, I am confronted with the sight of graffiti, obscene and revolting to me, on the nearby motorway overpass, evidence left in the wake of gangs of poorly educated white and black boys. They seem to detest each other. I think they detest themselves more. The dim recesses below are strewn with the plastic sheeting and cardboard boxes of the homeless. The stench emanating from this rat-infested grotto is overpowering. What a pity, I think. This once-vibrant city centre is steadily sliding into decay.
And then it occurs to me: a way to deal with this repulsive sight …
My day at the office seems to drag on indefinitely. I watch the clock, distracted by my plans. With just over an hour to spare before the bus arrives to carry me home, I leave the office and walk in the opposite direction to the bus stop. A block and a half away, I enter a small paint and hardware store, a little bell ringing my presence as the door swings shut behind me. I sweep up and down the aisles: a portable high-pressure paint cylinder apparatus with spray gun and back harness, gloves, a protective mask. I dump the goods on the counter.
“Two gallons white wall paint, exterior,” I bark at the youth behind the counter.
Five minutes later, I return to the bus stop lugging the newly-purchased paraphernalia. Slipping behind the concrete column, out of sight of passers-by, I fill the cylinder, fit the contraption to my back, adjust the gloves and mask. As I prime the spray gun, I catch a glimpse of myself in the window of a parked car. I look like a moonwalker.
I make good progress. With each alcove I cover the repulsive graffiti quicker and more completely. It’s satisfying to watch the multicoloured and unsightly scrawls dissolve into white. I lose track of time.
Just as I start on the third alcove, I hear profanities being shouted, footfalls echo off the concrete around me. I look up and see two security guards bearing down on me, their abuse aimed at me. They wear black pants and grey shirts. Bright red star insignias are visible above their left breast pockets and on each shoulder. I recognise them as part of the town’s newly-mobilised street-patrol syndicate, comprised of foreigners, hired by the city to assist the local police enforcement agency rid the city of petty crime. I’ve heard that they have become a law unto themselves.
I drop the paint cylinder and the spray gun and run. I cross the street and pass behind a departing bus. It’s after 17h00. That’s my bus.
A billy club narrowly misses my head and thumps against the back of the bus. These guys are serious! I don’t stop. I mount the sidewalk and keep going, arms pumping. Homeward-bound workers, eyes wide at the sight of me running, jink left and right to get out of my way. It’s hard to breathe.
I rip at the gloves without losing speed, drop them, and begin pulling at the mask. It comes off my face and I gulp at the air. As long as I avoid being caught, they need never know who I am.
Street after street, block after block, I run. My feet barely touch the ground, my chest aches. I am not as fit as I thought I was. Turning a corner, I glance backwards. Although there is quite a gap between me and my pursuers, I know I can’t keep up this pace for much longer.
I’ve left the business district and find myself in the old, stately suburban area abutting the city centre. Shadows are starting to lengthen. I search for a place to hide in the quiet streets. I run past high walls and towering gates and begin to despair. At last I come across a tall, thick hedgerow bordering rolling green lawns. I scramble under the hedge, panting, my ears alert for footsteps.
Just a few metres from where my hands rest on tangled roots, a gate squeaks open. A pair of slippered feet steps onto the sidewalk. There is a sound of crackling static. I lean forward to get a better look, peering through gaps in the leaves and branches which cover my hideaway. An elderly gentleman stands with one hand resting on the gate. He is dressed in a monogrammed silk robe.
The static becomes a tinny voice. The robed man scowls. He shouts into what I realise is a two-way handset: “How you could let him escape?” I try to place the accent. “You know vot it means to me!” I’m sure I know the voice. “Find me zat bastard!”
My brain whirls. This is the town’s mayor! A wealthy, well-educated Russian immigrant who recently stood for office, sweeping voters up with his affable gusto and piles of cash. I remember his electioneering: “America is best! Look at me! A foreigner! And you haf treat me so vell since I come to your beautiful country of freedom. Elect me, and I vill treat you vell also.”
I know he is calling for my head. I try to think. Why? Why was I chased by the guards when gangs of hooligans are left to deface the town with curse words and crude signs? Why does the mayor want me found?
My two pursuers arrive at the gate, breathless. “Are you stupid? Vere he is?” They are bent over double, hands on their knees. The mayor’s face is growing redder. “How dare he? Who he is?” They shake their heads. “I must to have these last buildings! You hear? No vone must interfere vis my plans!”
It becomes clear to me, now, why the town has grown so scruffy and shabby in so short a time. How could these down-to-earth locals have voted for such an obvious con? I want to hear more. I back cautiously out of the hedge, inch closer along the other side, unseen, towards them. I hear footsteps on the pavement on the other side of the hedge and flatten myself on the grass.
When I lift my head, the group of men surrounding the mayor has grown. Two olive-skinned men, conversing rapidly and animatedly in an Oriental dialect stand a little to one side, watching the others with suspicion. North Korean or North Vietnamese, I surmise. Some dark-skinned Latin American men, almost certainly Cuban, in khaki jackets like battle fatigues, are loudly questioning the guards. A sharp-suited man is shouting at the mayor with a thick Germanic accent. I try to fit these pieces of a puzzle together.
Suddenly a powerful hand grips my shoulder. A faintly accented whisper speaks words belonging to another time, just behind my left ear.
“Don’t make a sound, Lieutenant.” I turn my head and look into a darkly black, earnest face. He puts a finger to his lips, then beckons with his hand, “Follow me.” Then it dawns on me. It’s Phiri. The same Phiri I’d trained in the South African Defence Force, so many years ago.
There’s no time to think. No time to question why Phiri would be here. Or if I can trust him.
The two of us back up and crawl away from the Russian and his cronies. Spying a retaining wall at the far end of the garden, we pick up pace, lope towards it with our heads down. We are almost there when I hear the familiar click of a gun being released from its safety-catch. The raw taste of fear fills my mouth. Who will die first? Will I even hear the shots ring out before I die?
I wake to find myself drenched in sweat, my heart pounding in my ears. It was all so real. Could it really have been just a dream?
My breath slows as I regain my composure. I lie in the darkness thinking … I’m reminded of a time so long ago …