South Africa is a weird and wonderful place, with weird and wonderful people. Join MARELISE VAN DER MERWE as she journeys through this peculiar country, writing those stories that you wouldn’t find elsewhere. This is the first instalment.
It was always going to be a strange story.
The morning dawned, grey, ambiguous, the day after we had caught a rather dazed-looking small shark in one of the deep rock pools nearby and shown it to the children. The shark now hovered confusedly in the fishtank, waiting, like most of us I suppose, for liberty. There was one other carnivorous fish in the tank – a large, purple and yellow striped fellow with mean teeth. It and the crab periodically fought over the odd unfortunate snail that found its way into the water. Nemo was nowhere to be found. This was a mean fishtank. A tank for children with a taste for the ghoulish.
The thief came in the early hours of the morning, past the fishtank and up to the bedroom window. Fish make poor watchdogs; so do birds, reptiles, tortoises – the animals we seem to have in abundance in this seaside town. When we woke up, the handbag was gone.
It took several hours to convince the various members of the household that the handbag was actually gone. Where we hail from, outside of the festive season, we’re sandwiched awkwardly between a little old lady, some lesbians, a Very Angry Man, two separate clusters of drug dealers, a brothel and one peculiar house where nobody is quite sure what goes on, but everybody’s quite sure it’s illegal. Back home, everybody’s surprised when their car isn’t stolen (I’d been robbed twice in the week before leaving for the holiday).
Here, it’s a little different. The usual suspects – anger, grief, bargaining, depression and acceptance – are warped into one monumental dose of denial. Explanations abound. We’re messy: the handbag is definitely under all the other bags. We’re careless: we left the bag somewhere. We’re silly: we have overlooked a really obvious explanation. We’re forgetful: we never packed the bag in the first place. It’s supernatural: the bag simply disappeared. “Nee,” my dad says, maddeningly slowly, when we present him with the theory that my handbag has been stolen out of the house. “Julle moet eenvoudig weer dink.” My dad, I should explain, is an academic. Perhaps to him it is second nature simply to return to the library and present an alternative theory. Like what? I ask. My dad shakes his head, pours a gin and tonic. I contemplate omitting the tonic.
“It was a designer handbag,” PlusOne, who bought me the bag on our anniversary, says dismally. I feel bad. With my eternal lack of class, I hadn’t realised.
I finally get a little sympathy when I go out to the car to check whether I perhaps left the bag there, and find the front tyre flat. I’m about to say a word you only really hear in Cape Town.
But slowly, slowly, I back away from the vehicle. Because it’s about to get worse. I’ve noticed something under the car. Something grey, and reddish-brown, and curly. Sitting in the exhaust.
“Um, love?” I say. “Do you recall us driving over a bump yesterday?”
“Because, um, I think there’s a yorkie in the exhaust.”
A yorkie. A goddamn fucking yorkie stuck in the exhaust.
I’ve just been robbed for the third time in a week, I’ve got two flat tyres (the spare is also flat after I forgot to fix it for several weeks) and now I’ve got a dead yorkie in my exhaust. You can’t make this stuff up.
“Are you sure it’s a yorkie?” PlusOne asks. I don’t have my glasses on (they’re in the handbag) but neither of us are going any closer to check. All we can see is that it’s grey, and reddish-brown, and curly. And stuck in the exhaust.
PlusOne and I galvanise. There were only twenty bucks in the handbag, but shit, it was a gift, and I loved it. And now we’ve got someone’s beloved pet stuck under my car and at some point we’re going to have to figure out how to find them and break the news. But first things first: we need to borrow a car and head out to get a new spare tyre and report this thing to the police. Wheels in place and flask under our arms, we head for the men in blue. We’re gonna catch this guy.
The police, it turns out, are fairly confident. They think they know who it is. “We know this person,” they say mysteriously. “We catch him a lot.” But don’t you keep him? we ask.
“We can’t really,” they say, a little sadly. “But he always turns up again.” They take a sip of coffee, offer us a slightly soggy biscuit.
While we are at the police station, two elderly men storm in. They are relatives, it turns out, in a feud over their family business. Furious, they are both refusing to continue working in it. Concerned, PlusOne and I eavesdrop. The town has already lost one of its core businesses: the local saloon, where I and my nearest danced away my thirtieth birthday as the only revellers on the floor besides a sixty-something man inexplicably wearing a kilt, tinfoil hat and hula hoop, jiving under neon lights to an Afrikaans cover of ‘Achy, Breaky Heart’. Today’s apparently lose-lose situation continues to escalate as the hapless policewoman on duty attempts to mediate. At some point during the bunfight, the men begin referring to a thief. A regular thief, whose involvement somehow only made them crosser. Is it our thief? We look at our policeman, but he gives away nothing. “We’ll be in touch,” he says. “We think we have fingerprints.” He taps his nose.
It’s not the last we hear of this mysterious thief. We run into my cousin in town, who tells us she was robbed recently too. Relieved to finally be believed, we tell her our story. Hers was a little different, she tells us. Her thief left behind some makeup and high-heeled shoes. In a men’s size. “Like a token,” she says. “Took my stuff, but left some of his behind.”
A men’s size? We say, intrigued. A men’s size, she confirms. The police apparently know him, she says. He does the rounds.
“Couldn’t it be a lady thief?” a male friend protests, indignant. We’re persistent. Not many ladies around with size twelve feet. We ponder where he could have got the shoes.
“Maybe he ordered them online,” I speculate. (Where do men get ladies’ shoes?)
Exhausted after a long day of replacing tyres and reporting crimes, we stop for a beer. A big beer.
The table next to us overhears us and chips in. “Dis ’n wit outjie wat dit gedoen het,” says one knowingly.
“Oh?” I say, surprised. I’m not sure where this person gets his information, but I’m dead keen on Sherlock Holmes, so I’m game to hear his theory. I don’t like to call someone a racist without proof.
“Ja,” he says, narrowing his eyes and sipping his beer. “Dis ’n wit outjie, met slap handjies.”
Slap handjies? I wonder. Like slap chips? What? Limp wrists, PlusOne explains. Effeminate.
Now he’s got my attention. “So ’n skraal outjie,” he says. Skinny.
How does he know? I ask him.
“Almal weet,” he says darkly.
This is beginning to weird me out. Apparently everybody knows about this mysterious thief except me. We’re busy drinking and discussing the crime when my phone rings. On the other end, a relieved voice tells me he’s been looking for me all day. My one true love? Of course not – I’m married already. It’s an officer from the local department of agriculture and fisheries, and he has my handbag. My handbag? Found it in a bush on the beach, apparently, disproving at least one Hollywood stereotype: not all men who love a lady’s wardrobe can spot a designer handbag.
Where am I? he asks. I tell him. He’ll be there in a jiffy.
He delivers the handbag, and to my amazement, everything is there: wallet, credit cards, glasses, everything. Mysteriously, the only thing gone is my makeup bag and my camera. PlusOne and I start laughing. I’m beginning to think Sherlock is right, I say. Because judging by the evidence, I’ve been robbed by a drag queen, who is right now applying my makeup and taking selfies.
To my dismay, the officer of agriculture and forestry is not even slightly amused. “Jy ken mos vir hulle,” he says accusingly.
We head home, handbag in hand, to confront our disbelieving family with the hard evidence that the thief does in fact exist. But it turns out this isn’t necessary. In our absence, my car keys turned up lying next to my car, under a bush. “You see!” I posit, with all the glee of Angela Lansbury hot on the trail. “The thief obviously wanted to steal a getaway car, but wasn’t able to, because the tyres were flat!”
I wait for the thief to jump out of the bush and confess, or – more excitingly – begin to threaten me so that my strawberry blonde roller-curls can bob menacingly as I unravel the crime Murder She Wrote style. Nothing happens.
My dad, meanwhile, has bravely reached under the car to find a final resting place for the deceased yorkie.
“Yorkie?” he says, pulling at the hair. “This isn’t a yorkie. It’s a wig.”
Sure enough, he pulls it out. A long, curly, grey-and-red wig. Left behind as a signature, or during the failed theft of the car.
“Dis heksehare!” screams one three-year-old cousin in glee, dragging it into the bush. Witch hair.
“Is that evidence?” says one policewoman, a little resignedly, who has turned up to take fingerprints. She lets out a little sigh. Almal weet.
“I think so,” I say. “I think our thief left behind a little tool of the trade.”
The policewoman shakes her head and starts taking fingerprints. My dad pours another gin. Somewhere, as the sun sets, the thief applies my makeup, getting ready for another night’s work. DM
Illustration: ‘Shadow’ by Penny Lam.