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A walking, talking wonderland

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Ashwin Desai is Professor of Sociology at the University of Johannesburg and author of ‘Reverse Sweep: A Story of South African Cricket Since Apartheid’.

There is hostility on the streets. We have become ugly over the past 60 days. Separate development is back in vogue. Can eye contact or an elbow-wave spread Covid-19?

“It’s a great huge game of chess that’s being played—all over the world — if this is the world at all, you know…”
– Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass, And What Alice Found There.

Saturday, 23 May 2020. The rules were pretty clear. You could exercise outside between 6 and 9am. A quick beans bunny breakfast. Stepped on to the pavement and got a push-start with a fart. The air was crisp enough to pierce my face mask and run the nose. 

There is hostility on the streets. We have become ugly over the past 60 days. Separate development is back in vogue. Can eye contact or an elbow-wave spread Covid-19? I thought of Friedrich Nietzsche’s intimation that grimness threatens to consume the world: “A single joyless person is enough to create constant discouragement and cloudy skies for an entire household… Happiness is not nearly so contagious a disease.” 

But I was determined to infect as many people as possible with my viral enthusiasm as I went round and round blocks of concrete. And then round again. I was in one of those trances that you enter when Zol Aunty passes a spliff filled with Swazi Gold. 

A pigeon, mistaking my head for a port-a-loo, snatched me back. 8.50am. I went hararies. Damn. Even at a jog, it would take me 20 minutes to get to 8th street. 

I decided on that old Stalinist diktat; one step forward, two steps back. Through side streets, doubling back across parks and slipping between narrow alleyways was my game plan. 

Remember how Alice as the white pawn advances step by step to the 8th square to become Queen? Oh, how I needed to be Queen. Would it help if I was dressed as one? 

A whole new world was opening up to me. A pair of ducks waddled across the road. They stopped halfway and had a chat with a hadeda. An imperious heron was perched on a light pole, plotting its next land grab. Two giraffe-like trees were kissing, only for them to be rudely parted by a gust of wind. Before they reached out again as old lovers always do, shards of dark green and yellow light stole through the interlude. 

As I turned a corner to cross into the 4th square, the sun bent and threw a shadow. I slowed almost to a standstill and let it pass. On the ledge of a cottage, shocking pink bougainvillaeas rustled. The colours were starting to fade. So was mine. How dare they say hair dye is not an essential item! 

I said hi to a hibiscus. It stared back invitingly and I stroked it gently on its bum. It shyly unfurled. Inside, a bright red stamen came of age in a puff of pollen. A cell of aphids swirled in the bell of an orange lily. A rat scurried into the hedgerows. 

A pied-wagtail bent low and lightly brushed the pigeon poo as it dribbled. To think I had walked these paths for 20 years and never seen all this before. It was a wonderland of intimacy and intricacy.  

A pair of Crocs, size seven or eight ski-daggled downstream, only to get laced in a tangle of debris. 

The sun had softened as I came down an alleyway. A strelitzia lit up the way in a razzmatazz of purple and orange. Bird of Paradise. Everywhere. 

“The swift labouring insistence of insects…And the future waiting, latent in fragile cells: The last, terse verses of curled leaves hanging in the air- And the dry, tender arc of the fruitless branch.” (Ellen Hinsey).   

I was shaken from my reverie by whirring, swirling blue lights. A big white fedora was bobbing up and down. Could it be Bheki Cele? “Shoot to kill” crossed my mind. 

I made like Jigga Joe to the right for two blocks and then pirouetted to the left. A (c)rook masquerading as a knight. As I came on to the main thoroughfare, a monkey was perched on a fence, away from the pack. Physical distancing. He was strumming his midriff. Ol’ Blue Eyes was having a ball. Two. Yellow wildflowers gently poked their heads through the long grass. We are in Level 4, but Level 3 is approaching fast. Will they flower another day before their heads are cut off by the buzzing of electric shears? 

What mass murderers of beauty we are.  

On the balcony of a crumbling art deco Castle Cornered, a parrot screeched “Petal, petal”. I blushed. Pink. The parrot egged me on. Home. Poured myself a double sanitiser on the rocks. Like Alice, I didn’t “mind being a Pawn…though, of course, I should like to be a Queen, best”. I might be an old fruit bat, but for a day I would wear a crown. 

As it is told in Genesis 3, the first object, the fig leaf, made of the first tool, the needle, was motivated by the desire to cover our nakedness and so mask our shame. But we are a people without shame as we impose curfews, prevent inter-provincial networks and pour disinfectant to cover the smell of arrogance. 

Some Hawks might have turned into askaris. 

Still. The hibiscuses are blooming, the crows are circling, the clouds are hanging low, the breeze has caught up with the wind. The (pineapple) revolution is brewing. Intoxicating everything it touches.  

Flower Power. DM

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