I was driving nearly 500 km alone yesterday. Normally, I would destroy every song on the radio by howling along (jackals would be impressed) on a trip like that, but since I began writing, I spend most of my alone time thinking about my characters instead. To sit alone in the car is a fantastic opportunity to speak dialogs out loud without having to worry about being overheard by anyone. Because, lets face it: Sitting on the subway and reciting the love quarrel between your two main characters just doesn’t feel right, and it’s bound to make people question your sanity. In the car, the only other creature listening in is the persistent fly that has joined me on the trip of her lifetime.
I wonder, do flies struggle with the same effects of culture shock as we do? When she leaves the car, five hours later and meet others of her species, will they still buzz the same language? Have the same traditions? And annoy other creatures the same way? Or will she be completely confused, and feel misunderstood and friendless?
You might think that I’m digressing terribly now, and yes, you’re allowed to question my sanity even if I’m not saying this out loud on the subway.
But the point of that fly story was that, while I was in the car, thinking about Cay and Stephen, another story came to me, slowly drifting in through the air-con as the African midday turned into warm-colored afternoon, and it is about two people who, like the fly, ended up on the African countryside as outsiders.
She, at least speaks the language, but she’s young and idealistic with no idea, really, what it means to be a farmer’s wife in South West Africa in the beginning of the 1900s.
He has been here longer, but as an English speaking person in the German community, he’s only accepted as long as he plays by the majority’s rules, and as long as he’s seen as a resource in the community, and not a rival or as competition.
I kept pushing them away, but halfway through my drive I gave up and let my thoughts wander in whatever direction they wanted to take me. And for every kilometer the characters in this dusty, little outpost on the African savanna, added layers and complexity to the rough framework the few, imagined houses provided, with their fancy facades covering the rough, unpainted brick structures.
I arrived home feeling as if I had just met two wonderful, new friends. To not lose track of them, I sat down to write out a rough storyline consisting of bullet points. I expected a page, but five pages later I realized that the whole story is already there. And as I was jotting down my notes, I was tickling with excitement of ‘taking my writing home’, and into a setting that I know very well.
I know that there’s an added responsibility with that. I need to do my research and create a realistic setting for this story. I will have to be prepared for criticism and to be able to defend it publicly. People in my surroundings will probably question some of my decisions, and especially how I choose to portray certain characters. I know that already. If it’s ever published, they will discuss it outside the church on Sundays, wondering who I’ve used as inspiration. They will see themselves there, even if I tell them that they are fictional characters, and not based on people I know. The famous feather will turn into a whole goddamn hen yard clucking over with speculations, I know that. Sitting there, leaning over my notebook, pen in hand, I still felt as if I’m ready for that. Prepared to take whatever is coming my way.
Because…I am that strange outsider that they never quite managed to get a grasp on anyway. I’m the fly. What else is new? So maybe I should just do this, to live up to their expectations.
And now, I’m putting these two aside, determined to not let them distract me from Cay and Stephen.
(There is a gap between the last post and this short section. I suppose this should be seen as an short excerpt rather than a chapter)
I slow down in front of an Indian restaurant I’ve never been to.
“Maybe this one?”
I already know he’s not going to object, and he predictably nods and lends a steadying hand while I put on my shoes.
There are glimpses of the old Stephen in him tonight. His laughter is like an old favorite song that I haven’t heard in ages, but still remember the lyrics of. It’s so good to hear it again, I keep making jokes to tease it out of him.
We share the food, leaning over to taste from each others’ plates without asking for permission. We break of pieces of the same naan bread, and I drink from his glass of water when mine is empty and the waitress forgets to bring a new bottle.
“Curry seems to be fine,” I notice well down in my korma, when I stop eating because I’m full, not because of lacking appetite or fear of getting sick. There’s so much care in Stephen’s eyes, it tightens my throat with a thick mix of hope and guilt.
I put the Balinese wooden box on the table when he’s done eating and has laid down his cutlery. He does his best to ignore it. He doesn’t appear the least bit curious; he looks apprehensive and worried.
I push the box over to his side. It makes a loud scraping sound against the rough wooden table.
He’s staring at it forever without making any move to reach out for it, or to open it.
“I don’t want it,” he eventually says. “Whatever is in that, I don’t want it.”
The tan I thought he had picked up during the day has paled, and the happiness is wiped off his face. His weariness is a good indication of what a mess I’ve created, of how much I’ve torn down and left in shambles.
“It’s a Balinese cremation casket,” I tell him, pretending not to have heard him.
“On Bali, well, they’re Hindus, obviously, so they have a tradition of cremation. But they can’t always afford it right away, so they bury the dead for a while until they’ve saved up enough money for the ceremony. Depending on how long the body has been in the ground, the casket size can vary from a small box like this, to a proper coffin.”
He looks at it as if a mythical monster might jump out of the souvenir any moment.
“If anything, that just made me even more certain that I don’t want it, Cay.”
“Just open it.”
He’s uncharacteristically hesitant, and his hand is hovering for a moment above the lid before he finally gives in and opens the box.
He sits stiff and motionless staring into the box. I count that he swallow six times, and it’s long enough to make me question my decision and start to worry about his lack of reaction. When he finally looks up, his eyes are shiny and he bites his jaws to control his composure.
“I’ve heard these can be easily replaced, if lost.”
“I didn’t lose it. I just don’t need it anymore.”
“I don’t know what to say.” His voice is trembling with emotions.
Stephen is carefully picking up the passport and pages through it. I can see all sorts of emotions flicker over his face while he looks through the small booklet. He stops at some of the stamps, and turns it to look at the identification picture.
“It’s yours, if you want it.”
He’s intently watching me, trying to read my face. Then he’s kicked into action and makes a quick decision.
“Hell yeah, I’ll take it!” he says, stuffing my passport into the chest pocket of his jacket with the speed and determination from our early days.
“But I’m not burning it.”
He reaches over the table to cover my hand.
“Next time, you’re going to ask me to come with you.”