Operation Oysterhood: Day Three

OYSTERHOOD is reclusiveness or solitude, or an overwhelming desire to stay at home.


Keith Tamkei's illustration for Toni's Touch

The woman in the white dress by Keith Tamkei. More about her in a second.

First there was an alarming sound in the middle of the night, like something crashing or breaking. It woke me up; I grabbed my phone and the panic button and proceeded slowly around the house to investigate. Nothing. Silence. I did not dare go outside. I have had two break-ins in the last five years; I don’t think that I need to explain more. Returning to bed, I thought: not now, please. Sleep came back eventually, but I was happy to open my eyes again. Especially since I knew that something was about to happen that hasn’t happened in quite a few years. I am the (co)editor of four short-story anthologies, and back in the day, I used to write my own stories that diverse literary magazines and story collections deemed good enough to publish, but I haven’t written one in just about forever (I am scared to look at the exact date). So, when the call came from the Sunday Times – write us a story about how the coronavirus pandemic will play out – I wasn’t entirely sure whether I still had in me. But it came, almost immediately, first as a feeling, then as an image, and it flowed from there like magic. The story, “Toni’s Touch”, was published today, and the first thing I looked up online in the morning was whether there was a link I could share with readers. It was amazing to see it and to know that it would be available in print, too:

“TONI’S TOUCH” by Karina M. Szczurek

I absolutely love Keith Tamkei’s illustration for the story. He just got it, everything that was important for me to convey poured into one image. If you would like to see more of his work, here is a link to his Instagram handle: @ktamkei

The Lifestyle section of the Sunday Times featured a few more stories by excellent SA writers such as Nozizwe Cynthia Jele, Fiona Melrose, Mark Winkler and Fred Khumalo, among others. Stories by the latter two were included in Water: New Short Fiction from Africa (the SSDA anthology of 2015 I co-edited with Nick Mulgrew) and I had the enormous pleasure of working with them on their pieces back then.

It was tempting to rush out and get the printed copy of the newspaper, but I knew that it would not be a responsible thing to do, especially since I had all the essential food items that I need for the moment. But my love has a paper copy of the real thing and sent me pictures.

On a high from knowing that a story of mine was once again in print, I indulged in Glinka’s “Occupy Karina” mission of the morning. I did not have the heart to remove her and just continued lying still while she purred softly on my chest, nightly anxieties dissipating as the sun came up.


But then the calls form the kitchen grew louder. “Karina… Karina… Karina!” I can never say no to coffee in the morning, so Glinka had to move and coffee had to be had.

Luckily, there was water in the coffee machine from the day before, because there was hardly any coming from the taps… We have had some water supply problems in the area for a while, and the drought has taught us all a thing or two, so I did have almost two full buckets of grey water ready for the loo and I immediately harvested the last of the water in the pipes to keep me going until restoration of services.

I have known how to live on very little water since the days my family spent in refugee camps between 1987 and 1989, when early on we were accommodated in a place where we did not have running water for several months. When my Mom phoned this morning (all excited about us being at least on the same time line, if not on the same continent again) and I told her about the water shortage, we had quite a long chat about the “good old refugee days”. I then proceeded to my sponge bath in a bowl of water and returned to bed to read. I decided that my hair could do without a wash for at least another day or two. It’s not like I was going anywhere…

I had to do justice to my new quarantine name, Lazy Chevre, and had breakfast in bed.


My Italian friend, Michela, and I did not manage to speak last night, because I faded away before she was ready, so we had a date for Skype coffee at 11am. I even got dressed and tied my dirt hair into a bun. But then, in the middle of our conversation, I was suddenly overcome by hormonal waves of nauseating coldness. They always come out of the blue, always in the last few days before I am supposed to menstruate, and I know that when they appear, I have about a minute to two to get to safety, because what follows is indescribable pain which leads into fainting oblivion in many cases. I did not coin the word ‘monstrual’ for nothing. Michela has known me since university days, so I did not have to explain much. We ended the call, I got on all fours (safer that way in case I faint), crawled to where the painkillers were, took them, and crawled to the safety of my bed, grabbing my phone on the way. I called my partner to tell him what was happening and to ask him to phone me in twenty to thirty minutes to check up on me. That is the time the painkillers need to kick in. Salieri also knows me, so she was on my cramping belly in a flash, purring love and care until the spasms and the chills and the nausea all passed. The phone rang. I was okay. But then I thought of all the people going crazy being locked up with their families right now and I once again understood how lucky they were after all, how rough the loneliness of living alone in such moments as today was: I could have fainted earlier, I could have hit my head during the fall, I could have never woken up again. These attacks don’t happen every month, but when they do, I am always in danger. The last one was quite a while ago at an amazing lunch party that my dear friend Helen Moffett hosted in Noordhoek. She also knew what to do to keep me safe.

The amazing thing is that when it passes, it is as if nothing had happened. Within half an hour, I just return to normality. But today was different. I felt more vulnerable than usual. And I still felt cold. I made a simple salad for lunch and went to read in the garden in the sun. Mozart came to cuddle. When it was no longer wise to sit in direct sunlight, I moved inside. But the cold in my bones persisted and a gentler version of the cramps returned. I think it’s the residues of shock. Don’t know. I longed for a hot-water bottle, but my old one had a leak and I haven’t replaced it yet, so I returned to a method I’d been taught by a flight attendant, although she’d used a plastic bottle and I used a nice wine bottle and filled it with hot water.


I read until it was time to skype with my other friend in Vienna, Charlotte, who has visited me a few times in Cape Town and promised to do it again as soon as possible, because we haven’t been to Cape Point together yet and it’s on her Cape Town bucket list.

Dinner was a simple soup. I am having a glass of red wine as I write.


It’s still early, but I long for bed. When I am anxious and stressed, I have a terrible habit of sucking on my cheeks from the inside. Sometimes it’s so bad that they hurt like hell at the end of a day. It’s one of these days, so I know I need to take care of myself. May there be no strange sounds in the night (I think it might have been the geyser when the water went out), may my dreams be of foreign places in the light and may tomorrow be easier.

Please be kind to yourself. Be kind to others. Stay at home.

PS I have running water again.

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