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Penguin Books South Africa Phase 1
Read Phase 2
Read Phase 3
Read the reports on the first phase by:
Sheila Roberts and Mike Nicol
Read the second phase of this story
Read the reports on the second phase by:
Sheila Roberts and Mike Nicol

Walking among chickens

Vicky Scholtz

    Moenie my voete soen nie. Ek het nou net tussen die hoenders geloop.” — Zola Budd

Lying on her back in the sun, the shaggy carpet tickling her nose at a level just below the threshold of irritation, Traci sighed deeply and licked the crumbs from her fingers. Hershel’s apple slices were the closest you could get to satisfaction in this Universe, in this age. Peter shifted slightly, snuggling further into his silence, and Traci felt with just a moment’s shudder of admission how easy it was for the Universe to shrink down to the insular smugness of Stellenbosch, all the Ages fulfilled in this moment. Ignited by Camus, Sartre, Kafka, their weltanschauung existed without reference to unhappy childhoods, social inequity or the gasping abyss of the future. Armoured in leather jackets, purple jeans and wifekickers, their hard-arsed insouciance alternating with periods of the blackest despair marked them as art students as much as their permanent burdens of meranti planks, hammers and buckets of PVA.

In a world bounded by Nina Hagen, Yello, Shawn Phillips and Sylvia Sass, populated by Steppenwolf and anything by Rene Clair or Fellini, more immediate concerns were anaesthetised by the thick smell of linseed oil and molten hard ground, filtered through tactile strokes of sap green and alizarin crimson, Payne’s grey and Prussian blue, textured in wood cuttings or burnished copper. The world was seen as line and colour, form and texture whose meaning was projected by the seer, and in which such sensory overload left no place even for sex.

As the candles had burned lower and the incense diffused, the midnight skinny dips in the dam had become less frequent, the stolen garlic less pungent. Peter had withdrawn into a shroud of more intense neurosis, as Traci’s orbit extended outward into more absorbing activism, and Hershel needed to find a new market for his profound apple slices. When Traci could no longer justify her presence at University and had left to donate her labour to the Struggle, Peter had dropped out amidst talk of burnout, breakdown and befoktheid. Blindly, they had tumbled headlong into the snarling abyss: the future must have crept up on them, unnoticed.

Anyone who has ever been to Cape Town in the winter knows how easy it is to fall victim to the bleak greyness which stretches one day to the next, the unending rainy misery which defines any day between April and October, washing away any tendrils of hope that took root in the summer sunshine. Traci sat upstairs in the small flat, staring out at the city skyline over the warm fragrant head of her infant son. When his sleepy sucking finally relaxed its grip on her nipple, she laid him down beside her on the unmade bed and picked up the incomplete letter she’d begun earlier in a desperate rush of nostalgia. She’d had no word from Peter since leaving Stellenbosch, had no idea if he was even still alive, or how the letter would find him. Still, coming across an old letter he’d sent one holiday — inviting her to his mother’s house in Knysna — was a sign she couldn’t ignore, and she duly addressed the letter care of his mother, sealed and stamped it, and put it aside for posting, should the rain ever abate sufficiently to allow her out of the flat to do so.

Traci’s heavy heart dragged her slowly downstairs, where she filled the kettle and switched on the heater, an indulgence she was beyond denying herself in her current condition. She’d fallen pregnant too soon in her new job to qualify for maternity leave, too soon in her marriage to qualify for trust, too soon in her life to qualify for peace of mind. In the space of months her ceiling had gone from the sky to this fly-specked peeling paint hovering ominously low above her head. She missed the positive feedback of work, the sense of meaning she derived from her small contribution to Building a New South Africa, the distraction of other lives, other problems, other possibilities. Here, stuck in the flat with a small baby, she was confronted everywhere by herself. That same self which, when she was a student, had seemed such an exciting reference point from which to survey and comment on the whole of the Universe, the distillation of all Thought and Creation, the pinnacle of all that had gone before, now bored her to bourgeois tears. Longing for her lost self-importance, she sought her erstwhile co-conspirator, hoping that the connection could restore the apple, unbitten, for the apple slice.

The reply, when it came, surpassed her expectations. Peter was in Town, studying again, wrapped as ever in the dark cloak of depression. With the weather lifting slightly, they arranged to meet one afternoon when his timetable permitted, at an anonymous spot not far from the flat. He politely pretended interest in her baby, she in his new course of study, but the talk dwelled more on the past than on the present. The future, as before, was absent from their considerations. They yearned for all-night sessions in the senior studio, their painting infrequently punctuated by coffee or smoke-breaks, the conversation profound if ill-informed, the significance of the moment hidden from even their innocent omniscience. Their longing evoked the spicy sweet taste of Hershel’s apple slices, the crumbs which dropped into the shaggy carpet from their careless fingers as they spoke of Nietzsche, Freud, Kierkegaard. At an appropriate time, they parted, without having touched — even accidentally.

Moving to the suburbs, Traci found part-time work, a crèche, and the beginnings of a sense of self. She learned how to fake friendship and to make friends, and discovered the profundity of lightness. She politicised the personal, instead of merely personalising the Struggle, and found community in her uniqueness. As she began to understand Relationships, she begun to enjoy sex, and to understand their connection as casual rather than causal. She took part-time courses, developed interests into hobbies, watched her child grow with amazement. She started to paint again, and began to write. Her friends thought her profound, she found them loving, caring, available. She dabbled in relationships and once came too close for comfort to love, barely escaping the tidal wave of emotional havoc which followed its spectacular eruption. She worked hard at it, but Traci did eventually become the tough cookie she’d always aspired to be.

Then one day, Peter phoned.

She wasn’t sure how he’d found her number — it wasn’t listed and she’d moved so many times since their last contact that reconstructing the chain would have defied Sherlock Holmes. Not that she’d tried to lose contact; it was simply a by-product of the direction in which her life had moved and his had stayed put. Though, to be honest, this point, or the realisation of the determination which must have driven him to find her, only occurred to Traci afterward. At the time, she had other things on her mind.

Or rather, as Rob suggested to her kindly, she must have had something on her mind to compensate for her not having anything on her body. Lying naked on her bed, indulging in the smug afterglow that followed a particularly passionate bout of lovemaking with Rob, she’d ignored the insistent ringing until Rob finally suggested she answer it in view of the person’s insistence, which he read with his polite Englishness as signalling an emergency. Reluctantly, she acceded, stretching a lethargic arm across his hairy chest, still drizzled in the heat of their passion. His nipple responded obediently, and she stopped, distracted by the possibility which started to surge within her own hungry body. Rob leaned across and passed the phone to her, and she bit back the rush of disappointment as she answered.

Peter’s voice sounded distant, hesitant, as Traci feigned interest and tried to get a number from him to call him back later. But Peter was having none of that — unwilling to say where he was or how she could reach him, he was insisting that she choose. His life was a mess, he couldn’t stay where he was, but he’d found a therapist he trusted and was ready to give it a go. But he needed somewhere to stay, with someone he trusted, as the process was going to be really tough. The only person who fitted that requirement was Traci. She was the only one he could be himself with, the only person he knew he could trust, the only person he could possibly stay with. He was all packed and ready to come — could he come?

Traci tried stalling, playing for time. It was really unfair of him to phone her and demand an immediate answer to something like this — there would be serious implications both ways, she knew, and she wanted time to think. Peter said he couldn’t wait, he had no time, he needed to know now. If he couldn’t stay with her, there were things he needed to do — she had a bad feeling about what this might entail — and he needed to know now. He promised he’d hardly be around — the therapy process was significantly full-time, and in the evenings he’d have “homework” assignments to complete, so would hardly impact on her home life at all. His voice became desperate, pleading.

As the love juices leaked slowly down her thigh, Traci remembered the night-long discussions, the donkey-boiler bath, the motorbike rides into the mountains. She heard the angst of Neil Young’s “Helpless helpless, he-elpless”, and tasted the intense innocence of the apple slices. She knew she was Peter’s only hope, that the desperation in his voice was genuine. She swallowed slowly, and looked across at Rob’s waiting body. Traci knew that her words, once uttered, would spawn consequences no longer within her control.


The whisky tasted bitter in her mouth. Her stolen afternoon faded into the smudgy twilight of late summer, still warm enough to be sitting outside when her son returned. The unsurpassed passion of the afternoon driven from her mind, she turned her attention to her son’s enquiry. “Peter phoned. He’s the guy who painted the picture of the plants, in the lounge. He phoned earlier, wanting to come and stay here, with us. I haven’t seen him since you were a baby, so you won’t remember him. He used to be a friend of mine, we were at university together. He was ... a very dark person — I don’t think there was very much happiness in his life.”

Traci’s son looked at her, puzzled. “Why do you speak of him in the past, as if he’s dead?” he asked. Traci looked up, surprised. She shrugged. “He probably is, by now. I said no.”

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