You think of a city as a map, all knotted up in the bondage of grid lines imposed by town planners. But really, it’s a language—alive, untidy, ungrammatical. The meaning of things rearranges. The scramble of the docks turns hipster cool and the inner city’s faded glamour gives way to tenement blocks rotting from the inside. It develops its own accent, its own slang.
Sometimes it drops a sentence. Sometimes the sentence finds you. And won’t shut up.
I’m walking through the gardens on my way to an exhibition on Pancho Guedes, the crazy post-modern Mozambican-Portuguese architect, because that’s my major if you hadn’t guessed (only 3 ½ years to go). A voice drifts down out of a tree and says, “Hey, cute student guy, wait up…”
A girl drops down from the branches where she’s been perching like some tree frog in black. She starts strolling along behind me, imitating my walk like a bad mime.
I turn, irritated. “What are you doing?”
“Attaching,” she says. “It’s what the dead do when they get lonely.”
It’s obviously an art school prank or, worse, a project. Like that tosser, Ed Young, who stages pointless events with buckets of fried chicken and beer and strippers with scarily over-inflated boobs and pouts like they’d been blowing up balloons and the balloons blew back. The campus is only a block away.
“I’m really not interested,” I say to the girl still riding on my heels like she’s a surfer who has caught a wave.
She busts me looking around furtively for the rest of her posse, for someone with a video camera.
“Don’t worry,” she says. “I’m all yours. Rule 385a, subclause iii. Only the embodied attachee, also known as the ‘living,’ will be able to physically observe his or her attacher, also known as the ‘apparition.’”
“Oh,” I say. There isn’t a whole lot more to add.
She giggles. “I’m just making that up.” Then, wistfully, “They’re not much for rules on this side.”
“Look, could you leave me alone?” I say. By the time I’ve looked back she is already gone. It’s all the more annoying to find her waiting for me in the lecture theatre the next day.
She’s sitting in my usual place. Last chair, second row from the back, so I can sneak out for a smoke break if the lecture drags. She swings her legs like a kid, which I guess she is. Can’t be older than fourteen under the eyeliner crayon-scrawled around her eyes as if by an enthusiastic toddler.
I slide in to the row, intent on ignoring her, when Noluthando rolls up. The last person I wanted to see after last weekend’s drama.
“Sekwa, ‘sup sweetcakes?” my sometime girlfriend says, “You’ve been keeping a low profile.” She throws herself into the seat beside me.
“Hey,” I say, annoyed. “Can’t you see—?”
Apparently she can’t. She sits down right on top of the girl.
“Crap,” the girl says and pops like a bubble, leaving an oily smoky shimmer in the air behind her.
“Don’t look at me like that,” Noluthando says, tucking her arms across her chest like a police barricade around a murder scene. “I know things went a little south on Friday…”
“A little south” is her euphemism for getting wasted, having a screaming argument with the bartender over whether he gave her two full shots of Jack or not, projectiling a liquid dinner all over the windscreen when I was driving her home so that my car will probably reek of cheap bourbon forever and then grabbing the steering wheel on the highway, pretending like it was Grand Theft Auto.
Luckily we didn’t hit any pedestrians for extra points. But that’s not the reason I’m looking at Nolly at like that. I’m not even looking at her. I’m looking at the space where the girl used to be.
The girl is waiting for me on the stairs, hunched over her knees, staring at the scuffed silver toes of her spray-painted Doc Martens as if they could reveal the meaning of life, or maybe a scrolling news bar, ala CNN.
“Finally,” she says, scrambling to her feet. “I thought you’d come look for me at least.”
“Clearly I didn’t need to,” I say. I’m not even freaked. Much. It’s weird how people can adjust to anything. One moment you’re going about your normal life and the next you’re talking to dead girls.
“Who was that woman?” she says, bouncing alongside me. “Your energy was all tangled up like a nest of rat tails. Like you’d been having se-ee-eex,” she sing-songs.
“Mmmf,” The girl says, non-committal. “If I was, I could just, you know, eat her heart or something.”
She sees my face.
“Kidding!” she says. “Unless, you know, you really wanted me to.”
“Don’t you want to know how I died?” the girl says.
“Come on. Ask me. You know you want to.”
“All right. Fine. How did you die?”
She gets a crease between her eyebrows. It makes her look even more little girl under the make-up.
“I committed suicide. Over a boy.” She points to a sixth floor window in the Joe Slovo res. “I jumped out of that window. I would have lived, probably, only the oleander tree that used to be there broke my fall and a branch snapped right through me and my blood ran down the branches and clotted in the leaves and mingled with the poison sap, ruby dark against the white bark.”
“No. But wouldn’t that have been romantic?”
“Okay, I’m sorry,” the ghost girl says. “The truth is it was consumption.” She coughs, delicately tragic, like Nicole Kidman in Moulin Rouge.
“You know that’s TB? Millions of people have it. Coughing up, what do they call it, sputum? It’s this bloody phlegmy disgustingness that clogs up your lungs like diseased custard.”
“Yeah. That’s what I thought. Busted.” She has the grace to look guilty for all of 2.3 seconds.
“Don’t you have somewhere to go?” I say, dropping the hint like a dump truck of sand.
She shrugs. “No.”
“Wow, your room is really messy.” She says it with admiration, excavating a book from the landfill of papers and sketches and a take-away pizza box. It’s the one on Frank Gehry. Now 37 days overdue. I know because the university library sends regular curt reminders to my inbox.
“Can you—just put that down. Don’t touch anything.”
“Is this real?” She turns the book to show me a picture of the Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum with its swells of hard angles, more structured than the abstract swirls of the new Guggenheim, but still damn cool. “Like a real building? Cos it looks like he just crumpled up a bunch of tinfoil and built that.”
“Even the strangest concoctions of our imaginations have to do with humanist values,” I say, quoting his interview from the New York Times. I only know this because it was an essay topic. Discuss.
“What does that even mean?” the girl says.
“It means he feels like his creativity is social responsibility enough. He doesn’t have to prove anything by building homeless shelters.”
“So, I was wondering. That John Edwards guy?” My mouth is half-full of sandwich—peanut butter and white bread with the mould cut off, because it’s the end of the month and my wallet is bare, never mind the cupboard.
“Oh, he’s got it all right,” she says. “Serious talent.” She sits on a cleared section of desk next to the skeleton of my model-in-the-making for the new university sports centre. I’ve restarted it and abandoned it six times already.
“Because I read this thing about how it’s cold reading, you know, picking up cues from the audience and just throwing out random stuff, seeing if anyone bites. Apparently he’s not very good at it. Has these hectic non-disclosure agreements because the filming takes five hours of guesswork.”
“Nope. He’s the real deal.”
“You seem bummed.”
“Well, it’s just that nobody ever has anything really juicy to say about the afterlife. It’s just hi to aunt Mathilda and look after DeShawn and your gran misses you.”
“Maybe John Edwards just attracts really dull ghosts.”
“How would I know?” she snaps. “Have I ever been to America?”
“It’s too serious. It’s boring,” the girl says, lying hanging upside down from the couch, her hair on the floor, her legs stretched up like an exclamation mark. She’s watching me cut and glue the balsa wood onto the frame of the model, sitting it on a carpet of newspaper because I can’t be bothered to clear the desk.
“That’s the brief, numbskull. Have you seen the old sports centre? It’s hideous. You have to start with the purpose of a thing and build on from there.”
Actually, I’m proud of it—the clean modern lines, the glass, the eco-friendly features. It’s practical.
“I still think it’s boring,” the girl says.
“Good thing no-one’s asking you.”
“Good thing no-one’s ever going to build that boring thing!”
“Good thing ghost girls can’t be architects!”
“Good thing ghost girls never wanted to be!”
We’re both grinning madly.
“You know, for a pesky emo dead girl, you’re okay.”
“At least I’m never boring.”
“But I promised!” Nolly yelps, turning away from the freezer door and the bottle of vodka she’s stashing to chill for half an hour. “It’s Sarah’s going away party. People don’t just go to London every day.”
“Actually—” It’s like a rite of passage for young South Africans. Working holiday visa. Earn pounds. Blow them on cheap beer and backpacking round Spain.
“You know what I mean! Don’t be a dick, Sekwa.”
“Come on, Nolly, you know I have to work on this project. I’m way behind. It’s part of my year mark.”
“That’s just pathetic. It’s Saturday night, you fucking loser.”
“Don’t swear at me.”
“Then don’t be such a spoilsport! It’s one night. How much difference is one night gonna make?”
“She’s not even my friend, Nolly. I barely know her. I don’t think we’ve ever even had a conversation.”
“I can’t believe you’re doing this to me!”
“Can you close the freezer please? You’re letting the cold air out.”
“Fuck!” She screams the word in raw frustration, reaches into the freezer compartment, plucks out the frozen chicken and hurls it across the room at me. “Fuck you, you fucking fuck! You asshole!”
The chicken misses my head. Not by much. It leaves a dent in the paint on the wall. Nolly has the presence of mind to take the vodka with her when she storms out.
“That girl is crazy,” the ghost girl says, dabbing up the shards of rapidly melting ice from the floor with a dish towel.
“Look who’s talking,” I snap.
Sunday night Nolly and I break up. Four and a half hours of arguing later, we’re back together. I don’t know how this works. Another fight like this and we’ll be engaged.
The make-up sex is almost worth it, until I catch the ghost girl out of the corner of my eye, sitting on the desk, watching with her head cocked like a scruffy dark bird.
“Baaaaaby, where are you going?” Nolly says, as I shove off her and lurch towards the bathroom, naked, grabbing my t-shirt from the end of the bed.
The girl takes the hint and follows me in. I shut the door behind her, clutching the t-shirt over my balls.
“Sex is pretty silly,” the girl says, like she’s been giving this a lot of thought.
“What are you doing? Seriously. What the fuck?”
“I was curious.”
“This is inappropriate on so many levels.”
“It’s not my fault. There’s so much stuff I’ve missed out on.”
“So you’re gonna watch me have sex? No way. Forget it. You’re just a kid.”
She hunches her shoulders, defensive, like she really is a scrawny bird about to take flight, when Nolly’s voice calls from next door. “Sekwa? What are you doing in there? Giving yourself a pep talk? I can go easy on you, baby. Just come back to bed.”
I lower my voice. “You’re being creepy and I want you to cut it out. Now.”
Ghost girl glares at me. “Whatever. I’ll catch you later. When she’s gone.”
The next day I am hungover from an overdose of sex and emotion and lack of sleep and a quite unhealthy amount of vodka, which Nolly brought back with her Sunday morning, because after all that she ditched the lame going-away party and went out with her friends. In other words, I’m not in the mood for communing with spirits, unless it’s more vodka. But the girl is waiting for me, playing with the neighbour’s ginger cat in the apartment’s scrubby communal garden. I walk right past her.
“So, don’t you want to know how I really died?” she says, dropping into step beside me.
“Not a chance. Not even vaguely interested.”
“I could tell you how you’re going to die.”
“Don’t even think about it.”
“You’re going to—”
“Shut up. I mean it.”
“You’re so un-fun.”
“Well at least I’m not obvious.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, couldn’t you just—”
“What? Leave you alone? Stop bugging you? Eat someone’s heart? I could you know. Just give me the word.” She bares her teeth like a little animal.
“No! I was saying couldn’t you be a little less predictable? You know. The black makeup, the docs, the gothic romance? You’re such a cliché. It’s embarrassing.”
She looks like someone does when you rip out their heart and take a giant bite of it in front of them. Her eyes turn bright and liquid.
She pops like a bubble.
And I’m all alone.
Pancho Guedes authored over 500 buildings in Mozambique and more on paper, fantastic whimsies of architecture partly inspired by the surrealists, partly by African art, and mostly by the way it all remixed and fermented in his brain. The bastard offspring of his imagination are sci-fi rondavel curves interwoven with the stark angles of woodcarving and cubism.
He was intent on maintaining purity of vision for his students. He didn’t want them corrupted by European influences. When Malangatana asked to see his art books, he reportedly snapped, “These are not for you,” and squirreled them away.
When the revolution came, he lost everything. He moved to Portugal. Went back to the drawing board.
Most of his major works are only designs; stories that were never built, stories that were never completed.
Nolly has a car accident.
I should have seen this coming. I’m her speed dial 2, so I’m the one Jaco, the witness, calls when he finally finds her phone lodged between the passenger seat and the gearshift among a brittle confetti of broken glass. I’m the first on the scene after Jaco, who was on his way to the casino for a bit of a razzle, he says, after the tow truck drivers and the paramedics, but before the cops who have had to deal with an armed robbery in Observatory.
“Has she been drinking?” is the first thing they ask. The tow-truck driver warned me about this, about how her insurance might not cover her if she has.
“No,” I lie, like it’s easy. “I gave her a nip, to get her to calm down. Better than rescue remedy, right?” I hold up a bottle of Teachers that has been rolling around in my boot since the last party we went to. It is mostly empty.
“Have you been drinking?” they demand to know.
The hospital is schizo. This is not a good thing for a hospital to be. The historic ‘30s façade with its palm trees and turrets looks like a genteel resort asylum, maybe the kind of place Gatsby would have come to dry out from the party lifestyle.
But the modern section screams of functional bureaucracy, a thoughtless graft by a careless surgeon who didn’t give a damn about the messy stitching or the ugly encumbrance of adding another arm to a patient who had two already.
The incinerator smokestack gags black smoke into the sky above the prim turrets, the morass of medical waste miraculously transmogrified into air. Ashes to ashes.
It takes me twenty minutes to find parking.
Casualty is a mess of humanity. There is a line of people in various states of trauma like they’re posing for illustrations for a medical dictionary.
There is a woman ODing on the floor, her limbs stuttering in clumsy re-enactments of ‘80s dance moves while the nurses try half-heartedly to restrain her. There are two cops wedged on either side of a man with a wannabe leather jacket and a knife wound to his head. There is a pool of blood on the floor, bright red and frothy. I manage to stand in its edge. I don’t notice this until a nurse, too tired to be pissed off, points out the bloody crescent moon of sneaker prints I have tracked across the linoleum’s sickly mint. Dark sunken hollows under the nurse’s eyes seem to be trying to swallow them whole.
Nolly has already been whisked in. Store this for future reference, kids. Just like rocking up in a limo outside a club, making your entrance en ambulance will get you bumped straight to the front of the queue.
“Well look who it is,” the ghost girl says.
I almost don’t recognise her. She is wearing a purple and chocolate pleated dress, all ‘70s retro, and a pinstripe fedora like she’s trying to bring sexy back. As if she might break into a music video dance routine in the middle of the hospital corridors.
It reeks of an over-abundance of cleaning product to hide the stink of malfunctioning bodies all tangled up with blood and sweat and fear.
“This isn’t a good time,” I say.
“Is there anything I can do?” The girl says.
“I don’t know. Is there?”
Maybe it comes out sharper than I intended.
X-rays come back. Nolly’s ribs are cracked, not broken, which is lucky, because they could have punctured her lungs. It’s hard to breathe blood. Her sternum has a hairline fracture, her heart is possibly bruised, but only a cardiologist can say and they’re in short supply at 3 AM.
Her left ankle is shattered, her right arm broken in two places. Her face has split like a seam where the steering wheel leaped up to meet her mouth, like an over-eager lover moving in for the kiss and clashing teeth. Full frontal into a tree will do that.
They won’t be able to determine if there is any damage to her brain until she regains consciousness.
“But she was just talking to me,” I try to explain.
The nurse shrugs. “Head injuries.”
“Did you know?” I ask the girl, when we’re finally admitted through the double doors and into the vault of ICU, standing hushed beside Nolly’s bedside like it’s Snow White’s glass coffin, or maybe Lenin’s, if we’re going by the puffiness of her poor swollen face.
The girl doesn’t answer. Something occurs to me, something horrible. “Did you do this?”
I eventually find her in a maintenance closet, curled up in a huddle of girl, crying. Tears spill down her cheeks and the end of her nose and then disengage with physics completely and float up like oil in water or condensation on a windscreen when you’re speeding in the rain.
“Leave me alone.”
“You should be.”
“At least I came looking.”
“I guess,” she sniffs.
“Neat trick,” I say, indicating the glassy liquid beads of her tears drifting up over us and away into the air.
“Thanks.” She wipes her nose with the back of her sleeve.
“Can I join you?” I don’t wait for an answer, just plonk myself down beside her, ducking my head under a shelf laden with cardboard boxes of rubber gloves and swabs. I pull the door closed with the toe of my sneaker.
“If someone finds you in here, they’ll think you’re a total freak,” she says.
“Won’t be far off then. But not nearly as much of a freak as you.”
She smiles despite herself and punches my arm. “You’re the freak.”
We sit quietly in the dark after that.
“How did you die? Really?” I ask her.
“I can’t tell you.”
“Because it was really horrible? Because you can’t remember?”
“You’ll think I’m lame.”
“What, you mean you weren’t consumed in the terrible fire in the orphanage, refusing to leave little Becca’s side? You didn’t drown in a tragic yachting accident? Get run over trying to save a kitty in the middle of the road?”
“You’re not funny.”
“Just tell me.”
“I fell off a bench.”
“How high was this bench?”
“Normal bench height. Two feet off the ground or whatever. I sort of missed when I sat down.”
“You sort of missed?”
“Oh, like you’ve never miscalculated! Look, do you want to hear this or not?”
“So I thought the bench was closer than it was and I fell back and I was laughing and I hit my neck on the strut on the back. Right here.”
She touches the tender little hollow among the wisps of hair where the vertebrae of the spine connects with the skull, like the keystone of the human body that holds it all together.
“And that was it.”
“Yeah, he didn’t show up. I was expecting him to, you know? But no-one did.”
It takes time.
Nolly cries a lot and demands more painkillers. We play cards. She cheats. I let her. The brace they’ve locked her in looks like scaffolding, but like scaffolding it’s temporary. It’ll come off. Eventually.
Her family upgrades her to a private hospital, a private room. It’s always full of flowers, so I bring her other things to take her mind off the pain; books and home-made chocolates from the German chocolatier in town and at the ghost girl’s insistence, quirky stuff I pick up at the flea market that might amuse her, like a menagerie of porcelain circus animals.
Her family and friends buzz around her bedside. Her brother gives me black looks like it’s somehow all my fault. Maybe it is.
“I thought he was dead,” I say, still shocked. It seems impossible that he would be here, in person at the National Gallery.
“You think a lot of crazy things,” the ghost girl says, dancing ahead of me, hyped up like a puppy on the beach biting at the waves. “He’s only 84. C’mon.”
A woman at the entrance presses a badge into my hand as the crowd seeps into the gallery. It reads “Pancho Guedes—Retrospective” in a ‘70s-orange. It’s a belated official opening because Pancho was away, getting an award at a Biennale or something.
I guess I would have known about all this, his being alive, the opening, if I’d been paying attention, going to class, all the normal stuff. But I’ve been visiting Nolly every day.
It’s the word “retrospective” that threw me, made me think he was deceased.
The gallery is packed. The crowd has expanded outward like gas to fill all available space so the latecomers, including us, have to be corralled into the 19th Century portrait room. We can’t see anything past the bodies standing straight and tall, stirring gently like a field of mealies as the speakers go on about Pancho’s Habitable Woman and hysterical buildings and the architect as witchdoctor.
Afterward, the crowd flushes through the main gallery and into the courtyard aiming single-mindedly for the cocktail snacks.
“You have to eat sushi for me,” the girl says. “I never got to. It always looked too disgusting.”
“It still does,” I object.
Manoeuvring past the buffet table scrum, looking for an opening, I realise that HE’s standing right behind me, talking to the museum curator and a blonde woman taking notes.
The girl figures it out at the same time. “Isn’t that the guy?”
Then the little cow trips me, deliberately, so I practically fling myself into the bony arms of the museum curator.
“Watch the steps,” Pancho says, turning to me with his glass of water in hand. “They’re badly designed.”
“Mr Guedes,” I pronounce it with the Portuguese slur on the “des”, but that’s the only thing I get right.
Later I will spend half the night lying awake thinking of all the things I could have said. Engaged him on this idea of an imaginary Dadaist Africa just for example. But I mangle it totally.
“I’m a big fan, a huge fan. Such a big fan.”
They stare at me, the blonde journalist woman, the stick insect curator and the famous architect with his sticky-up white hair and over-bright eyes.
After a pause, Pancho says, “Well, thank you,” waiting to see if I have anything to add, but equally ready to turn away politely.
I lurch for the opening. “I just wanted to ask…I’m studying architecture and I was wondering if you had any advice? For me. That could be useful.” I trail off.
He taps my collarbone once and says, “Young man. You have to find your own sense.”
I will spend the other half of the night trying to figure out what that means.
Nolly called it off yesterday.
She said I’ve been great and she appreciates everything, but it’s like that movie Saw? She’s got this new perspective and she’s realised it’s just never going to work between us.
“And seriously, baby,” she said, taking my hand, “You need to get your shit together.”
As I’m leaving, the nurse calls me back to hand over a black bag full of absolute junk; origami sculptures made from recycled blueprint paper and books and a porcelain menagerie salvaged from the flea market.
“At least she ate the chocolates,” the girl says, trying to cheer me up.
The university has been very understanding. Within reason. My tutor has given me an extension, but deadlines are like lintels. They can only be moved out so far before the whole thing comes crashing down around your head.
I stare at the model sports centre and think seriously about smashing it to death with a frozen chicken. The girl stands next to me, with her head tilted to the side, fingers pressed to her mouth, assessing it.
“I know it’s supposed to be a sports centre and everything. But it’s just not the kind of place you could live,” is her considered conclusion.
I snort. “This coming from the person who doesn’t.”
“Live, you mean? I live. Kinda. With you. Except when you want to be alone. For sex and stuff.”
“Yeah about that. Maybe you should get your own place.”
“Yeah about that. Maybe you should make me one.”
So I do.
Because it’s tough these days for a ghost girl to get a lease agreement.
It’s a monstrosity. It’s the best thing I’ve ever made.
It’s part Pancho, part Frank, part Escher, part Sekwa.
“And part Ruby,” the girl chimes in.
“Well, finally. Is that your name?”
“No,” she says, “But wouldn’t it be romantic if it was?”
We stay up 31 hours straight constructing it out of balsa and yeah, bunched up tinfoil. When the balsa won’t bend and buckle the way I need it to, we shear cold drink cans and beat them flat. Unhinged parabolas soaring up to pseudo turrets, plunging back into crenellated organic fissures and a spaghetti snarl of cables, like the energy lines that connect people, like “se-eee-x.” We populate the grounds with broken porcelain animals standing in for the traditional human figurines.
“It’s a strange concoction of the imagination all right,” the girl says, admiring.
“And a homeless shelter,” I add. “My social responsibility here is done. The question is, when are you going to move in?”
“Don’t be mad!” The ghost girl squinches up her face with perfect teen incredulity.
“What I’m just going to shrink down to size? I can’t do that. The actual question here is so when are you going to build me the real thing?”
The examiner’s notes are snippy. “The work shows vigorous creativity, passable technical skill and a total inability to meet the purpose of the brief.”
It’s worth it.