Precaution

'Woman Before a Fish Bowl' by Henri Matisse (1922)

‘Woman Before a Fish Bowl’ by Henri Matisse (1922)

Violence is out of hand; nothing New in South Africa. Nina yawned. She switched off the radio, gulping down the last sips of coffee. She took her keys from the desk in the passage and, with some cash and a debit card, stuffed them into her jeans pocket. No handbag, no trouble, thank you. She grabbed her notebook, made sure that she had all the details of her next victim, and put the alarm on before she left the cottage.

A human rights activist was next on the list for this week. She was working on a series of interviews with victims of crimes and prominent people concerned about the recent developments, trying to beat up a storm about the wave of violence in the country. Her editor was pleased with her initiative. She met Bongani, one of her newspaper’s photographers, in front of Ann Shaw’s house. He was waiting in his pink Tazz, engrossed in one of the science fiction novels he always carried around with him. He did not see her approach until she opened the passenger’s door and got in.

‘Jesus, Nina. You scared me!’

‘Hi!’ she smiled. ‘You should really lock your doors, you know. Even here in this neighbourhood.’ She glanced at the row of old Victorian houses seaming the street. ‘Unless the Force is with you.’ She smiled at the chewed-up paperback edition of the old Star Wars trilogy he was holding.

‘Ha, ha.’ He put the book away on the back seat. ‘So, who is on this morning?’

‘Ann Shaw, the Dragon Lady.’

‘Who?’

‘Ann Shaw.’

‘Never heard.’

‘Bongani! Wake up and smell the coffee! Ann Shaw, the Peace Nobel Prize winner of 1986.’

‘Whatever. Is she pretty?’

‘You people! How come, you don’t know her? She is, like – HUGE, spelled in capital letters. The famous anti-apartheid activist. You must have heard of her!?’

‘Nope, sorry to disappoint you, Miss You-Know-It-All. Before my time. I will let the YOU PEOPLE,’ he made the inverted commas sign with his fingers, ‘pass today. So is she attractive, or not?’

‘She is eighty!’ Bongani pretended to be disappointed and started pulling his camera bag from underneath Nina’s feet. ‘Why Dragon Lady?’

‘Let’s just say, she is not exactly press-friendly. I never had the pleasure, but I heard some gruesome stories. So beware and take some of that Force with you.’

‘Funny. Common then, my lightsaber’s ready.’

They got out of the car, Nina felt her hand damp on the notebook. She took a deep breath and moved around the car to join Bongani, who was making faces at the intercom camera, ready to press the front gate button.

* * *

It was already dark. She had her dinner in front of the computer. Tony, the only alarm-proof pet she could think of, was staring at her through the glass bowl next to her laptop screen.

‘Don’t worry, my friend. If anything happens, I’ll protect you, alright.’ She tapped the bowl with her fork.

In between the mouthfuls Nina paged through her last two interviews in search of a new approach for Ann Shaw. It all happened so quickly, but it felt like an eternity. There were five of them. With guns. They spread around the restaurant, assaulted the guests and the manager. One of them hit my wife in the face and I could do nothing. How do you feel about it today? I get these dreams about fighting back, about protecting my wife. It’s a terrible mess. In your latest novel the protagonist is a street kid; he seems so innocent at times, especially when we see him with his friend or the old beggar, but he is also extremely ruthless. Yes, a year ago, I encountered a boy, about twelve. He was begging for money; he said for food. So I took him to a nearby shop and told him to get what he wanted, that I would pay. And I did; when we came out of the shop, he kicked me and called me names, running away from me, the shopping bag clutched tightly to his chest. The next day I sat down to write the book.

It was hard to take at times. Nina felt swamped with all the stories. Fortunately, this morning’s interview went well. Shaw was not as formidable and difficult as she had expected. No nonsense, straight to the point, terribly eloquent, and surprisingly attractive after all. Even Bongani was impressed: ‘I thought you said she was eighty. My makhulu is eighty. This lady is sexy!’

All the preparation and the rather sleepless night before the interview were worth the trouble. Nina felt that Shaw had really responded to her. And Bongani did a brilliant job, too. She had the photographs in front of her on the screen. He was bloody young, only twenty, yet he was the best photographer they had. He had a way with people, letting them be, and capturing their essence without interposing. He even made the woman she had interviewed first for the series comfortable, and she actually smiles in one of the photographs they printed with the article. One of her eyes still swollen from the blows delivered to her face. She was six months pregnant at the time of the attack. Alone at home, her husband away on business. All I could think of was my baby, please God, don’t let me lose my baby. And her incredible presence of mind, When he started unbuckling his belt, I asked him to use a condom. Blank. You know, because of HIV. The attacker miraculously obeyed.

No wonder Ann Shaw was furious. Recently, she had written a few scathing articles herself. The international medias were sucking up all the reports coming from the country, especially if Nobel Prize winners were the authors. A change of moods. More and more voices speaking up in a wave of disappointments. It hurt most when it came from people like Shaw, who had always defended the Miracle. Now, they felt they couldn’t anymore; the lack of proper response from the authorities a crime in itself. Silence, once again one of the worst evils – nobody in the government willing to deliver us from it, Nina thought.

Please God, don’t let me lose my baby.

Shaw’s hoarse voice and her sarcasm: You know what is the worst? Hearing victims say how glad they are to be alive. As if that wasn’t their God-given right. Nina was tired. The lack of sleep was getting to her. She saved the file with the first part of the interview, she updated her backup copy and put the memory stick in a cookie jar in the kitchen. Then she put the laptop in a cabinet drawer and locked it for the night.

‘Don’t let the bed bugs bite you, Tony!’ She took the panic button with her to the bathroom.

Everything in slow motion. You want to run away – don’t really know from whom or what – but you can’t with your feet glued to the ground. One of those dreams. Interrupted by a vicious sound somewhere in the background.

‘Nina, sorry to wake you up so early, but I just got the news from my pal at the station. Is your Shaw article ready?’

‘No. Almost. You said I had until tonight. I just have to tie up a few points. Why?’

‘Ann Shaw was attacked in her house last night.’ Nina was awake instantly. ‘I want you to phone her and try to get a comment. Maybe you can see her again?’

‘You’ve got to be kidding! Ann Shaw? Of all people!’

‘I know, I know. Irony of fate.’

‘No respect for anybody anymore. Was she hurt?’

‘No, thank god.’

‘Don’t let her hear you say that!’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Nothing. So what happened exactly?’

‘Around eight, two men, masked but unarmed, forced their way into her house through the back door when the domestic was brining out the garbage. They must have known that the two women were alone in the house.’

‘And? What did they do? Take?’

‘The usual: cell phone, laptop, some money, jewellery. So, phone her O.K.? See what you can get.’

‘You mean loot some more?’

‘You know what I mean. Sorry again for waking you up. Coffee is on me today.’ She hung up and stared at the panic button next to her bed.

* * *

Ann Shaw did not want to comment. But she promised to get back to her as soon as possible. Nina thought her voice sounded much more placid today. On her way to the office, Nina stopped at the chemists.

‘What can I get you, lovey?’

‘A ticket to Australia,’ she mumbled under her nose.

‘Sorry?’

‘No, no. I’m sorry. A packet of condoms please.’

‘Six, or twelve?’

‘Six, please.’

In the car, she took one out of the box and stuffed it into her jeans pocket. She put the others in the cubbyhole and drove on to work.

First published in New Contrast 36.1 (March 2008). I wrote this story in 2007 after a few of our family members and friends, Nadine Gordimer among them, became victims of crime. It was at this time that I thought of what I was experiencing as a witness and a writer as ‘pre-traumatic stress disorder’.

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