I submitted this short story for Short Story Day Africa 2014. This year’s theme was Terra Incognita. Though I do read in the genre, writing speculative fiction is indeed unknown ground for me.
My story didn’t make the longlist so I thought I would share it with you here.
by Saaleha Idrees Bamjee
In a real fuck-you move, Land Affairs named this suburb Dassie Rock. One of the hundred or so hacked through the Klipriviersberg, each a congelation of multi-storied habitations stacked over what used to be one of Johannesburg’s largest nature reserves.
I must’ve been about three-years old when we’d come here on Sunday mornings for walks, bounding up the hiking trail, the sun fresh and leafy, my claps sending the dassies scattering. I wanted to catch one and take it home. Mother said they were social animals, they wouldn’t like being locked up alone in my room. I wonder where they’ve relocated to now.
The building I enter looks like the architect couldn’t decide between modelling it after a spear or a sail. As misshapenly phallic as it is, it is still far slicker than my own flatlet on the cheaper side of Wemmer Pan.
The security guard, however, is standard edition. Bulky brown riot-ready apparel with smart-phone cuffs and recording eyeglass. He has his personal tablet propped up on the table and he’s angling his head towards the light. “Capture. No. Delete. Capture. No. Delete. Capture. Yes. Save to Cloud.” He hears me approach and is all business.
“Place your bag on the tray Sir. Step through the scanner. Look straight ahead.” He taps away at his console as blue rays map out my irises. “I see here that you’re a licensed Companion and Attendant. That must be fun work, the Companion part at least. It must be nice to meet so many new people offline,” he says.
I step out of the scanner and walk towards the table where all my stuff’s been laid out.
“Yeah well, it’s a bit like any other job you know. It pays well enough, by the hour. The people are interesting sometimes. I do meet more than a few douches though.”
The guard passes his bomb-stick over each item on the table, stopping at the small silver case. “Must be really gratifying then to be able to administer these to one of those douches you mention.”
“It’s never the douches who apply for the permit,” I say.
He sets the lift to take me to the 7th floor. The visitor’s card he hands over tells me that flat 785 will be the last one down the passage to my right. I collect my bag, nod at the guard who’s resumed pursing his lips at his tablet and step into the lift. It’s big enough for me to do a hand flip in. The walls are clad in seamless glass, lined with shimmering veins that seem to prickle out towards me.
My clothes, straight off this week’s limited run BidorBuy Curation, cost me the equivalent of the security guard’s quarterly salary and I feel shabby. Even if work was steady, and I got my licenses upgraded, I would never be able to afford the down payment on a unit in a place like this. The reception area alone has the square meterage of three flats in my building. And the security is the most sophisticated I’ve seen for residential. It’s usually standard scan and bomb-stick pat-down at most places. The only other time I’ve had my irises mapped was at Labour Affairs when I was up for business license renewal. The people who live here must be high-ups in Public Administration and Privatisation, or net-celebs.
I step out of the lift and run my hand along the wall of the corridor all the way to 785. Short pulses bounce off my fingers and into the wallpaper. A clever design; the walls have been wired to harness bio-electricity. That explains the crackling feeling I had coming up here. My touch would join with those of others to power my trip back to the ground floor.
The door to 785 is already open.
“Security texted me to let me know that you’re on your way up, please come in”. The voice is thin and tinkly, a bit like the wind chimes that used to hang outside my bedroom window when I was a child. It belongs to a willowy woman with all the physical substance of a feather caught in a tornado.
“Hi, I’m Lala. You must be the Companion. Your profile said your name is Gift. Is that your real name or just a handle?”
“It’s my real name. And Lala? Yours? What does it mean,” I close the door behind me, it’s faux wood and tingling with my current.
“I don’t think it has a real meaning,” she says. “At least one I know of. My parents just liked the sound of it. Lala. I suppose it’s a convenient kind of name. Easy to spell, easy to pronounce. Difficult for online though. I had to pay millions for the domain and social rights.”
I checked out her profile before taking on her booking. Her followings across all social profiles are in the billions. She’s a prolific poster, mostly digi-art and selfie-manipulations, but I can’t say I know anything about her.
Lala’s one of those net celebs whose currency is mystery. I’ve seen fan Instagram accounts set up for the sole purpose of documenting her life. But she gives nothing away. Her images are careful compositions of desire and aspiration. Her selfies; collages of trending beauty norms.
The eyes on the Lala in front of me are very dark. No, completely black. And her irises are larger than possible. I’ve seen pictures where they’ve been purple, all-white with feline slits, the variegated green of what used to be the Klipriviersberg.
Her most well-known artwork is Moon Sonnet, a digitally drawn blue-hued expansive landscape with an androgynous figure reaching out to the sky. I see a printed version of it hung next to her fridge. At least a third of my online contacts have used it as a header image or profile background.
I measure her flat to be around 95 square meters. It’s all open-plan with a door leading to a bathroom. Sun lights on the ceilings and walls wash the space in a warm low-intensity UV. It’s a humming climate-controlled womb.
“Wow, you have your own kitchen and ablution facilities, I haven’t seen a fully self-contained living space in a while.”
I’m embarrassed at the awe that’s cracked through my usual steely sense of professionalism. Since the passing of the revised Land act, most habitation units are serviced by communal kitchens, bathrooms and leisure spaces. I used to think my 35 square meters was generous. Her place was palatial.
“I’ve always found it difficult to share,” she says. “I had to make sure I made enough money to buy a space I could function in.” She bites on a marbled fingernail and gestures for me to sit.
Those black eyes are even harder to read with the swash of ebony fringe obscuring them. Her mouth is tight and her cheeks twitch as if she’s not sure how to direct the muscles.
“I’ve never booked time with a Companion before. But some of my contacts have. Do you remember Cebile? That’s how I came across your profile. You’re highly recommended.”
Cebile was the type of client I’d rather not have as a reference. Despite my firm insistence that licensed Companions were not allowed to provide sexual services, she was persistent. I spent most of that afternoon in the movie theatre with my hands caged around my manhood.
“She said you were a real gentleman. That you didn’t take advantage of her.”
I clear a big ball of cotton from my throat. “As I explained to Cebile, after the general sex worker strike a few years ago, they amended the Sex Act and only licensed sex workers are now able to offer those kinds of services. I could lose my license if I so much as sexted with you.”
The tension in Lala’s face slackens and it opens to me. I can see the pinpricks of her eyebrow transplants and the surgically enhanced cleft in her chin. “Oh I don’t want sex at all. I had it once and it was nothing like I’d seen online.”
I try not to make too much of a connection with my clients. Our contracts are strictly short-term, but a fist is beginning to pound in my stomach and the lining of my mouth is unfurling for this offline Lala who covers her eyes with garish contact lenses and treats her otherwise pretty face like a scrapbook for fads.
My last hook-up was with a guy I met on TinderZA. After that encounter I was no longer certain about my sexual preferences. I just didn’t feel anything for any gender. My work as a Companion is enough. I meet new people, share their worlds for a few billable hours and leave without being collateral damage for when it all falls apart for them.
I know I shouldn’t say anything about her experience, but I do. “That sounds like it must have been an awful experience. The sex you find online is so packaged. I think most people have forgotten what it’s like to just be with someone you like.”
The talk and thought of sex has made the air between us bulky. I ask her about her family.
“My brother wanted to be a baker so he had to move to Australia because of the new anti-Carb laws. And my sister converted to Islam, so she now lives on a New Medinah reserve on the West Rand. I chat to them both online quite often. My parents died years ago. In the energy riots. I used to be bitter about it. But they were being selfish, holding on to their land when they knew we all needed more space for the energy farms.”
My childhood home had also been absorbed by the energy farm roll-out. The government moved us to a flat in Rosettenville, a newly refurbished two-roomed unit in a beanstalk building overlooking a panel beater. I remember spending hours looking out of the windows at the people in the street below, wanting to know what their names were and if they had children I could play with.
I don’t tell Lala any of this, she’s paying me to listen to her. Five hours worth of personal companionship and the preferences she ticked off on her registration form called for me to be a reserved but witty self-assured dark haired man who reads widely and plays acoustic guitar. I’ve already slipped out of character.
“So Gift, why are you a Companion? Why not a musician or a model? Your girl-boy look is very in now.”
I always get asked this question and my stock response is that it’s one of the few jobs that pay me to hang out with offline people and have a good time. I consider my answer to her.
“I used to be a musician, but the market is so saturated. Especially with acoustic guitar. I don’t do covers and my original stuff wasn’t bringing me enough hits on YouTube, my account got axed in one of their annual culls. I don’t have the temperament to be a model, and short of sex-work, a Companion is the only job that pays well enough for someone with my qualifications, or rather lack thereof.”
She looks satisfied, places her hands behind her head and stretches her torso. It’s an open gesture yet curiously intimate and I find my eyes travelling across her.
“Will you watch me sleep?” she asks. Considering some of the things clients have asked of me, it’s not that strange a request.
“I know people usually just want to talk or go out somewhere, but for my time with you, I want to know what it feels like to have someone watch over me when I’m at my most vulnerable. I know you can’t do anything bad to me while I sleep, what with all my security protocols in place. But I know I can trust you Gift. I don’t interact with people much offline, but there’s something about you that feels real. And you’re a licensed Attendant too, and I know they don’t just let anyone do that.”
There’s a shifting in my chest and for the first time since getting my business licenses, it strikes me that these Companion and Attendant gigs are just too big for me to handle.
I do want to watch her sleep though. I want unrestricted access to study her form. The desire isn’t sexual. It’s what I imagine the feeling to be like when one holds a newborn. The counting of fingers and toes, the marvelling at fragility and how it develops its own strength.
“You should take off your contact lenses first. Even with the new tech, it’s still not healthy to sleep with them in.”
Her laugh trills through the room and her smile is a flash of light. She pops the lenses out of her eyes and drops them into a bowl on her bedside.
Her eyes are the colour of the landscape in Moon Sonnet. So many shades of blue caught around her pupils.
“Your eyes are beautiful. Why do you wear contact lenses?”
“Natural isn’t fashionable. Besides, anyone can be real. Artifice is an act of creation. And I am a creator.”
She creates a pocket for herself on her bed and closes her eyes. I sit beside her, willing my hand not to stroke her hair. That would be unprofessional.
I’m woken by the vibration of the bed. We’ve both slept for almost four hours. I nudge Lala awake.
She smiles and stretches her length against me. “It’s nothing sexual,” she says. “I just like this feeling of having a warm body next to me. I wish I hadn’t waited so long to do this.”
I’m usually groggy after naps but it’s as if the whole room has been cradling me, lulling me into a dream that neatly segued into this moment of waking up next to Lala.
My reserves have been chipped away and I don’t have the right words for her. I get up and walk towards what looks like a canvas on an easel propped up in a corner.
“Is this an oil painting? I haven’t seen one around in ages.”
“Yes, I’ve been trying my hand at old art. It’s very difficult. I can’t quite make a proper transition from digital. The canvas demands so much discipline. And I have to learn how to mix all the colours I want.”
She’s painted the beginnings of a girl holding hands with an indistinct shape, both of them standing on the edge of an angry sun.
“This is gorgeous. You’ve captured something here, that digital can’t.”
“Thank you, but I won’t ever finish it.” There’s a new tone in her voice; flippant yet wistful.
I drop my shields. “According to the law, as a licensed Attendant, I’m not allowed to make you change your mind. But I want to put all that stuff aside and speak to you, not as a Companion, but as a person you’ve made some kind of connection with.”
She turns her back to me. I’ve gone too far. Become too familiar. I’m going to lose both my licenses.
“It’s too late Gift. I’ve made all the preparations. Scheduled the updates. See, here’s my permit.”
She hands me a tablet displaying a document from Social Affairs. After an intensive psychological evaluation, Lala’s been certified of sound mind and body, and is permitted by law to end her life with the aid of a licensed Attendant.
“My cousin took the YouTube route,” she says. “Mel shot herself up with Morphex while recording. She only got a million hits. I found out after seeing the updates from her mum. I don’t want to go like that. So alone. I want a real person next to me. Someone who’ll close my eyes and wipe the drool off my chin. Someone who’ll post on their networks about how I painted a real picture and write a song about how I looked when I slept.”
When my parents gassed themselves in the parking lot of our flat, it felt like part of the natural order. If you were unhappy with your life and there was nothing left for you to give to the world, you left. This thing with Lala has scooped raw tissue out of me. But I can’t force her to change her mind.
I show her the metal case. “ There are three capsules in here. They’re meant to be taken in the following order; blue, green and red. The blue sort of prepares your body, it slows you down but not to the point of paralysis. The green begins to halt certain cellular functions and when you take the red, it reacts with the green and starts the termination.”
Lala takes the pills from me and holds them up to the light. “Like jewels. Look how the colours refract. That red, that’s the red I’ve been struggling to mix for my painting.” She goes to the easel and searches through the tubes.
“You can still change your mind after taking the blue capsule. You will feel a bit sick and lethargic for a few days, but it wears off without any long-term side effects. If you stop after the green pill, there’s the risk of cellular damage and there’s no telling how it will present.”
Lala’s not listening to me. She’s plopping big globs of paint onto a plastic palette and mixing with an intensity that makes her whole body shimmer. “This is the colour Gift. This is what I’ve been looking for all this time.” It’s as if she’s not really speaking to me, but thinking out loud.
She dips her brush in the pigment and begins to work on the canvas, first stippling, then swirling. There’s a new energy to the picture. More than its beautiful ferocity, it holds a fine tension between the life-affirming heat of the sun and the destructiveness of its flames. Lala stops to change brushes.
“I didn’t have a title for it, but I know what I want to call it now. The Gift. And I want you to have it. I hope you don’t thing I’m being too trite.”
Before my brain can command my legs to root, I am behind Lala, holding her.
“This feels nice, Gift. Too nice though. Too neat. I’ve seen the shows where it starts out like this, this relationship thing, and I’ve seen how badly they all seem to end. It’s funny hey. We collect followers like tokens, wondering all the time, what the final prize is going to be. We connect so loosely, safely. But there’s always something missing. This here. Us.” She breaks away from me and reaches for the metal case.
“We’ve forgotten how to take chances on people Lala. Look at the risk you took today. It hasn’t turned out so bad has it? This could’ve gone really badly but it didn’t. We connected. Really connected.”
She smiles at me and picks up the blue pill. It’s the same colour as her eyes.