The entrance to The Shack

Return to the city – July 2015

In July winter wraps its clammy claws around Cape Town. On some nights the fog gathers in luminescent cones beneath the streetlamps, as if attracted by the light and the promise of warmth. Storms blow through from Antarctica and most nights the city seems to bow its head to contemplate its reflected lights in a million pools of standing water.

We are gifted with a pleasantly mild and windless night to celebrate Fleming’s birthday.

I’m freshly returned from my 3-week sojourn in deep rural Transkei (a land far far away).

I arrive at Roxy’s Cafe before everyone but meet a stranger outside, who confirms that she’s also attending the celebrations. Tantomile and I introduce ourselves and get to talking about the Alice in Wonderland novels. I tell her about the strange fascination that the author had for a young girl called Alice.

When Fleming and the others arrive we migrate upstairs. However, soon some of us move outside again because some of the smokers want fresh air while they smoke (The World Health Organisation haven’t issued warnings about the damage that tobacco does to your sense of irony. Yet.).

We sing happy birthday to Fleming. Gradually the rest of the party join us in the square outside. The bare trees stand sentinel while our banter resound between the silent buildings.

Tantomile is tipsy and affectionate. She’s also utterly unconcerned about asking absolute strangers personal questions – which makes for much entertainment. She leaves a bow-wave of the awks in her wake.

I wander upstairs and queue for the only toilet – it is a location worthy of a little wait. A large re-purposed bathroom (complete with shower and bath) – from when the building had been a home – now decorated with old Hollywood posters and an assortment of cannabilised naked mannequins, including one that has had her hand replaced with a toy gun.

When the door opens, it’s Tantomile who looks me over. I’m leaning against the balustrade and casually return the scrutiny. She pulls me into the bathroom: “I need to show you something.” Oh boy.

She turns and points at the wall. One scribe had scrawled: “Fuck you.” At a wonky angle another scribe had written: “Fuck me.” I don’t know which is the more poignant statement, since it would entirely depend on who responded to whom. Insult-or-anger versus lament-or-request. And between these two cliched examples of modern wit, Tantomile had drawn her spirit animal… like a playful statement artfully bracketed by two desperate-sad quotation marks.

Another patron appears and we relinquish the toilet. Fleming comes up the stairs and we wait for the bathroom to open to show him Tantomile’s wall art. Meanwhile I am issued with her eyeliner pencil to add my own artwork. After several more friends and strangers have used the facilities I do a quick portrait sketch of Tantomile’s face on the wall. I get the nose wrong, but I nail the eyes and lips…with the addition of the artful fringe obscuring one eye, the likeness is as complete as I can manage in a few minutes.

Back at our table, Tantomile keeps trying to make me do a self-affirmation statement, which I keep dodging by telling her she’s easily distracted, and then distracting her with a random question (like where the feathers woven into her hair come from). Every few minutes I remind her of the self-affirmation, which she promptly tries to enforce and which I promptly respond to with another distracting conversation.

Hemingway arrived with someone I haven’t met before; she seems quite at ease among strangers, despite the party getting rowdier by the second. I am genuinely surprised when she announces that she’s in her final year…of high school. By the look of surprise on his face, I assume this is news to Hemingway as well. Either way, it’s a gift to be that comfortable in your own skin before the age of 20.

Stoker and Fitzgerald are subdued. They arrive early on and despite occasional flickers of their usual easygoing humour, there’s an air of contemplation about them. Despite the hype, band life is not just sex, drugs and rock’n’roll. To be honest, like soldiers, musicians spend long stretches between their moments of ‘glory’ dealing with an assortment of personal, interpersonal, logistical and financial hurdles. There are times when the sheer mountain of these issues will rise before a musician and make him/her feel like Sisyphus – doomed for eternity to roll a giant rock uphill until fatigue sends him and the rock crashing down the slope to repeat the journey. Over and over. Fans will listen to an album – as Exhibit One I present to you: St. Anger – and bemoan the product, with no inkling of the challenges behind the scenes. I try to commiserate with Stoker; he’s stoic about the issues, but I also know that underneath his decisive personality, he’s keenly empathetic to the emotional state of his band-mates. Fitzgerald appears – for lack of a better phrase: bummed out. I try to cheer him up with references to our escapades from a few nights before (when he went around bursting balloons – even one that was possessively held by a stereotypical jock – while we found ourselves temporarily in a nightclub whose stage we thought might work for the band).

There are a dozen of us spread across two tables in the square. Roxy’s has emptied out. We serenade Fleming with a second, far more enthusiastic rendition of “Happy Birthday”. With people constantly changing seats and topics, I find myself participating in three conversations at any given time.

There’s an explosion of hilarity from the other table. Sontag is laughing, colour high in her cheeks, and there’s a certain sincerity – I’m tempted to call it: clarity – to that laugh, because it seems shot through with the veins of the grief underneath…Kintsugi of the heart.

Behold, catharsis at work. We laugh, because we need to. For our own sakes, but even more so for each other’s sake. As much as I can, I try to contribute to the humour. It has been a difficult year for many. Each month seems to drag everyone further beyond their own preconceived limits. To say that the shit has hit the fan would be an optimistic interpretation. More like waking up and discovering your room is now surrounded by a massive sewerage plant in which some intrepid pilot had mired an airliner…with the throttle full open; after a while you just wish for the turbines to run out of jet fuel and stop flinging shit over everything.

Hemingway and an ex are at the same social function for the first time since they broke things off a year ago. Her current boyfriend isn’t present, but one of his exes is. Tantomile is newly single, but used to – at some point – have a thing with Fleming (which they loudly confirm with a reciprocal affirmation of each other’s skills in the bedroom; a moment hilariously and ironically awkward for everyone present except the two of them). Hemingway’s date and his ex have a long one-on-one discussion and disappear off to the bathroom. Godiva has a smoldering intensity about her – I suspect when she lets slip the leash of self-restraint the results are volcanic.

As she steers Hemingway’s date away from the table with an arm around her shoulder, he gives their retreating backs one bewildered glance and then holds his head in his hands. “Don’t worry,” I shout, “I’m sure it can’t get any more awkward!” A few minutes later Stoker reminds Fleming – as he does at every social gathering – that Fleming was originally introduced to him as “that guy that hit on your girlfriend”. Fleming looks appropriately poo-faced, as is customary. After some debate Hemingway announces that I am the only one at the gathering who has not been involved with at least one other person present. I suggest that this is an exalted state of grace which I should perhaps maintain.

I have a fascinating discussion with Godiva about her many travels to the Middle East.

Roxy’s closes and we transfer the party to The Shack which is relatively busy; our arrival raises the noise levels significantly. We immediately bump into an assortment of friends and familiar faces. Some join our tables, including Maya and Alexa. Maya is introduced as an active member of the BDSM community, and smiles sweetly as if she’d been introduced as the partner in an accounting firm. Alexa I only get to be introduced to later because Hemingway calls me over to the other side of the courtyard to greet someone else. She and her girlfriend are perhaps the ultimate Shack regulars. She has a sweet personality combined with a lean model’s frame that is usually encased in a vest, tight frayed jeans and boots with heels…she’s the subject of much attention and confusion among straight guys. Her girlfriend is attractive, but with a hard edge. Like a sword blade. Despite her almost-Mediterranean attractive looks and confident bearing, she actively attracts no embraces. Whenever she feels that a particular man has shown too much interest in her girlfriend she materialises and puts on a show of territorial possessive behavior that is a marvel to behold. It’s entertaining to watch confused straight guys wither before her jealous displays of affection.

Back at our table Alexa and I are introduced and we launch into a discussion of poverty in Antananarivo and Madagascan wildlife, before segueing into the history of hand-pollination of vanilla on Reunion. We move on to photos of glowworms in New Zealand caves, and then an encounter with fireflies on the slopes of Lion’s Head in Cape Town.

I wander off for a little while to welcome Teumessia and her girlfriend back in town. They had been out of town for longer than I had. We shoot pool. I whitewash Teumessia and explain that the traditional penalty for a whitewash is to run naked around the table twice. When she starts taking off clothes I stop her. Fortunately, Hemingway isn’t around to witness my willful abandonment of hallowed pool hall law.

I rejoin my friends in the courtyard. Maya regales us with tales of BDSM; apparently foot fetishists love women with small feet. Don’t ask why.

The nearest bar turns up the music; it’s The Offspring circa 1994. Everyone bops their heads. Maya says she loves The Offspring because “it’s the only thing my brother and I have in common except my mother’s vagina.” The straight-faced matter-of-fact delivery has everyone belly-laughing.

Jagermeister shots alternate with tequila shots like an artillery barrage aimed at the liver. The sun isn’t far from rising on a Tuesday that will herald exquisitely epic hangovers for some people.

Somehow we’ve sidestepped the usual tipping point into the surreal that is a regular feature of our outings. Perhaps a small kindness from the universe; or perhaps we are the surreal feature in everyone else’s night. In retrospect, I realise that we swept into The Shack like a hurricane of bafflement and mine was the view from the eye of the storm.

At 4h15 the bouncers announce that they’re closing for the night. We wander into the street and I take a portrait of one of us; it’s part of my ongoing series of urban portraits at night. I’m calling the project Night Owls. I get exactly two shots before Fleming and Tantomile commence photobombing. Tantomile – endowed with a strange sort of grace by her inebriation – performs a series of grand jetés. 

I deliver Tantomile and Fleming at his door, before dropping Godiva off. It’s 5am when I walk into my apartment. I love traveling, but it’s good to be back, to embrace my friends and my city.

This installment’s addition to Ye Stupendous Compendium of Free* Potential Band Names is: Small Feet… I imagine their first single will be “No small feat.”

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