Under the parental shadow of Table Mountain, children play on the streets of inner Cape Town. From the comfort of her home, Stacy Hardy watches on.
Structurally, Bo-kaap’s sort of a dead-end, the way it’s laid out, like a suburban security subdivision: streets point in, then twist up. The few drive-through streets are tourist roots. On Sundays buses run lines outside Noon Gun Café, the tourist troops neatly divided into nations, the Germans then the Japanese.
Otherwise the roads are pretty much deserted. A platoon of dirty white cows that randomly shudders in and out of view. Sharp backbones and alien heads that appear out of nowhere, disappear as quickly.
Groups of Moslem students swinging sachets down from the mosque.
Young women in black veils.
A little boy in a white robe holding his father’s hand.
The skull-and-crossbones stickers on the windows of the minibus taxis short-cutting down side streets.
The apartment is on the fourth floor, double-storey reconverted office space. Divided up and sold off to new urban young professionals as part of the city redevelopment dream. My neighbours are mostly just like me – single, ambitious. We work late. We meet in the elevator with our plastic Woolworths packets, designer meals microwaved in minutes. We say how much we like our urban living, the pace, the edge, the in-the-thick-of-it feel. The lift makes a ping as the door slides open. I turn the key in my door.
My bedroom faces out onto Buitengracht Street, the border dividing inner city from enclave. From the double volume window there’s a direct view down to a row of little cluster houses. Cheap for-rent accommodation that hems in the settlement. The flux of poverty: the occupants come and go. The house directly beneath me has been empty for months. Just to its right, identical façade, now home to a new family. Young couple and two kids – a boy and a girl, barely discernable.
Their noises have become familiar. The sound searching for space travels up. Television up too loud, the raised voices, the kids – most days they’re out on the street, screaming in and out of the thin alleyways that run up between the houses.
I rarely see the parents. I see them only in shadows. A silhouette in the window, muscular at the shoulders. A hand opening the door. The outline of a thin woman, something in her hand, taking out the trash?
It’s the children I see. They live on the streets. I hear them at night, late even, when I’m already in bed, whooping down the roads. Sometimes their shouts startle me, make me wake, something about their wildness, it echoes.
On weekends I watch them construct a barricade across one side street, dragging cardboard boxes, old tyres, scrap metal. Eyes darting from alley to alley, scan the environment like they’re preparing for war. Once even a washing machine. They carry it all the way down from the abandoned lot on the hill. They march it down, single file with the machine jammed between them. Little muscles straining, stick legs that wobble. Every ten paces they swap place. Put down the machine and do a swap so he’s in front with the bulk of the weight, then her, five steps: him.
I watch them get dirtier and dirtier. They wear the same clothes for days. His vest and cargos. Mr Price specials fading under summer sun. The sister needs a haircut, her bangs keep covering her eyes. She pushes them back only to have them fall again. Eventually she leaves them, viewing the world askance through a crack in the curtain.
Today they are playing “Terminator”. I recognise the scene. That famous final showdown where Sarah finally torches the Cyborg? Toasts him down to just a chrome skeleton – no longer a “He”, but an “It”.
I follow the action with my eyes. The boy has Terminator’s physicality down pat. The blank-to-the-point-of-erasure stare. The dogged death-rendered-in-steel robot walk.
The girl, as Sarah, running sideways, berserk in her girlhood, almost gagging from laughing. She stops dead in her tracks as an imaginary blast shatters the scene, sends her flying, splat down on the tar. Then crawling. Her face is twisted. A beyond-pain expression, some idea of agony taken from god knows what, from movies, from pictures.
And I’m already playing out the final battle. Waiting for the: You’re… terminated… fucker! The button. Her finger stabbing it down. The slight schism between sound and image that plays out in the film – something heard, then shown. The MAW OF THE HYDRAULIC PRESS; the Cyborg mashing in it. The STAMPING PLATE coming down. The SCREAMING PRESS as it jams solid. The final KA-POW blowing up the screen as Terminator’s eyes flare then snap dead.
Only the kids don’t play it that way. Instead Terminator keeps coming. Sarah hits the button to a big zero. Terminator is still crawling. One-handed. One-armed. At one-arm speed. It drags its body.
A first flash of real fear crashes Sarah’s face.
The fear feeds the Cyborg. It frees it up off the tar. It gives it legs. It flexes its hand. It anchors its feet. It takes two steps. It gains speed.
Terminator is one metre away and closing. Sarah opens her mouth. Her jaw moves. She is saying something but nothing is coming out, as if the soundtrack is suddenly stuck, unhinged. And everything frozen for a moment. The scene paused, action arrested by syncopating reality slowly bleeding in.
Then he’s on top of her, smacked into her.
Her feet slide out under her. She hits gravel. Hard. I can almost hear the thud, the tear, flesh on tar. Her face closes up. Her hair hangs over her eyes. Mouth pulled tight in pain. Then open as she lurches, a sudden motion, tries to make a break. A moment of struggle but he outweighs her, holds her, pins her. His hand pressed against her neck, burning her face into ground. He flips her. He’s moving fast now. He spreads her legs, forces them apart so she’s spread – spread-eagled, wide open, pavestones sticking up beneath her crotch & her thighs quivering like – what?
– like she wants it?
The thought rips me back. I realise what I’m taking in. Kids – just kids, these kids out on their shitty street. The game. Terminator – that word alone. I mean, I know what I should do. My role in relation to them. High above, looking down from my inner-city loft in my bordering-on-dangerous neighbourhood and my inconsequential neighbours, all of us looking out through plate glass windows like fat mute fish. I should shout. Better, I should run. Across the road. Door. Stairs. Door. Street. The double lanes of Buitengracht. Past the corner stall. The squashed-up houses with decaying paint job façades. It’s 2 minutes – 5 minutes max. I’m there.
But somehow I don’t. Somehow I stay rooted, transfixed at the window.
The sun bursts out from behind a cloud, illuminating the scene. Suddenly everything is too close, almost zoomed, magnified to cinematic proportions. I can see the air in the boy’s lungs. It’s falling in and out.
The condensation of my breath on the window. An O on the glass. I see his mouth. Nostrils flare. A fleck of spit. I see him going down. His right hand filling her mouth, forcing silence as his head twists. Tongue tracked to her ear, her neck, while left hand moves fast, rips the remaining buttons on her dress and onto her panties, working them down. Tugging, yanking.
And visible now, only just, the smooth soft mound of her tiny pelvis. Just a little outer lip of skin folded back, back fl at on the street and head raised a few inches, eyes almost closed. And his T-shirt on and pants still up but zip undone. I watch him go. Slowly first. For a moment held, pulled almost out, then in again, all the way, straight, banging her as her hands splayed on the gravel twist into fists and her head flies back…
And my head jerks, a mirror image. The exact same motion, like a moronic monkeying of the action. I’m breathing hard. I can hear my blood move deep inside my ears. A burning in the centre of my forehead. I recognize this, I know what it is – not like horniness exactly, not quite turned on – but something… something closer to the giddiness of love, that struck blind crazy feeling, the terrible shock of something too beautiful: tiny tits, brown belly and fanny in the sunshine.
You’re Terminated was first broadcast in Chimurenga Vol12/13: Dr Satan’s Echo Chamber.