‘You’re not the big star around here anymore.’ She didn’t so much say it as hiss like a snake. ‘Accept it, Mikey. You’re a backline muso these days – you supply the backing for the main man over there.’
She pointed towards Chester as my mind struggled to find a clever put-down. Eventually I gave up and made do with:
‘Piss off, Maria.’
But I was too late anyway. She was already making her way back to her seat – mission accomplished. Once again, there was no sign of the chaperone, but I presumed he was still sulking with his milkshakes on the veranda.
Chester, meanwhile, thundered on with another prolonged solo. Was I the only one who felt that they were getting beyond self-indulgent? But whatever we were doing – over-the-top or otherwise – it was working. The club was heaving with not an inch of space to be had on the dance floor. At least half of the crowd were from up country and seeing us for the first time. Some were chatting away in Afrikaans – a dead give-away that the holiday season was upon us – and nearly all were hitting the booze big-time and partying like no tomorrow. Some of the gorgeous Jo’burg and Pretoria girls had to be seen to be believed, although for once, I wasn’t particularly interested. Dave, however, was in his element, darting around the club like a headless chicken and Harvey was already jotting down female names and measurements in a notebook he kept strategically placed on his floor tom.
But none of it meant much to me. The beers were helping a bit, but still I was miserable. And angry.
I said nothing to Chester about what I’d seen; this was something that needed to be played subtly. I wasn’t going to show my hand and I knew that nothing could be changed by a confrontation. No, I was going to take my time, give it some thought and then, if needs be, make my plans. There was a part of me that was still unsure if I had read too much into what I had seen. Perhaps I needed to know more – to catch them one more time. And then, maybe I was just kidding myself.
Common sense was telling me to lay off the booze, but, of course, common sense wasn’t winning out. I was on a mission, fuelled by a sense of self-pity and pent-up rage. Unlike Moose, however, I was determined not to show it. There are always advantages to being ‘the quiet one’.
‘He bottles things up, and his anger can turn quite nasty,’ a schoolteacher had once told my mum after an incident at school. But that teacher never liked me much anyway, and was never able to prove anything.
Emily stayed away. I wasn’t surprised. They weren’t going to advertise their relationship, were they? But something told me that she wasn’t too far away.
So, during our breaks, I watched Chester. Twice he went through the swing doors and disappeared for a few minutes. I decided not to follow. Logic dictated that nothing much could happen in our short twenty minute breaks. If they did anything, it would be after the cocktail session, or later that night. The thought did occur to me that perhaps it had already happened. But for some reason I didn’t believe that – or perhaps, I just didn’t want to believe that.
When we finished the last song for the afternoon, I switched off my keyboards as fast as I could and headed for the veranda. There wasn’t a table to be had, so eventually I waved down a waiter, grabbed a beer and sat down on the perimeter wall. I watched everyone coming through our revolving doors for about five minutes, before I felt a hand tapping me on the leg.
‘Your girl’s pissed off already. She came out Mother’s Kitchen’s doors and went down to the beach. With your guitarist.’
I looked at the chaperone. He stood there holding a strawberry milkshake with the stupid multi-coloured straw, his finger pointing vaguely in the direction of South Beach. Part of me wanted to just smash him right in the teeth, but another part of me was scared that I might miss and burst a pimple all over me.
‘What is it with you and your witch friend,’ I asked. ‘Everywhere I go you’re attached, like a fuckin’ tick to a dog.’
Other than his opportunist attack a few weeks before, I’d never been so close to him. With the advantage of daylight, he seemed even younger and more pathetic than I’d first imagined. I mean, how old was this guy? Sixteen? He had disorganised brown hair that you just knew would disappear by thirty, brown puppy-dog eyes and a spotty face that a blind man could have read for Braille.
And now, as if to confirm his aggressive ridiculousness, the little prick raised his strawberry milkshake and proceeded to pour it all down the front of my shirt.
‘You think you know about Maria and me but you haven’t got a clue,’ he cried out, tears already gathering in his eyes.
Maybe I should have belted him, there and then. But a warning light came on immediately. I knew I was pretty tanked-up, had been involved in a recent fight – even though it wasn’t of my own making – and had been a co-conspirator when Moose had pulled his antics at The Crazy Horse. I was, after all, an employee at this hotel and as Brian often liked to remind us at band meetings: the actions of each of us impacted on the group as a whole.
So I did the next best thing: I laughed at him. Then I turned and walked off towards the hotel’s main entrance. His voice followed me down the length of the veranda, heads turning to stare with surprise and amusement.
‘It’s not just Maria,’ he yelled. ‘It’s me too. Why are you so cruel, Mikey. Why are you so bloody cruel?’
All I could see in front of my eyes was the lipstick on my bathroom wall:
‘No-one loves you like I do.’
I walked on, quickening my pace and trying to get out of voice range. But still I heard:
‘I know what you call me too. My name’s Simon... you remember that!’
The glass door to reception swung open nearly hitting me in the face as a couple in swimming costumes walked out hand in hand. I rushed past the porter’s booth and was lucky to find an empty lift waiting.
Harvey had a theory about people that was suddenly making a lot of sense to me. He said that the more deranged a person was, the more attention they sought.
‘It’s always the attention-seeking nutcases that want up on the stage,’ he would say, bringing his theory down to club level, ‘The drunks, the insecure, the losers and the insignificant.’
Walking past the restaurant on the fourth floor I thought about the dignified way Nurse Cindy had dealt with being shunned. She simply stayed away. But, of course, Nurse Cindy was a straight-forward girl, sound of mind who also had a lot of pride in herself. Maria and the chaperone, however, were ready to join Jack Nicholson and pals in the Cuckoo’s Nest. To be honest, I couldn’t quite figure them out.
In fairness though, the chaperone – in his spiteful manner – had just supplied an important piece of information. Finding Emily and Chester and following them would be difficult, especially if I didn’t want to be spotted. There was, however, a way to do it; the reason I now found myself on the fourth floor of the hotel.
I pushed through a glass door into the brightness of the pool deck. Passing the closed breakfast bar, I made my way through the sun worshipers and drinkers on sun-loungers or at tables under colourful umbrellas. The pool itself was packed and noisy; kids bombing their friends off the diving board or splashing about on lilos. A few people looked up with interest as I walked past; my shiny black stage trousers, smart milkshake-tarnished shirt and dark shoes not quite fitting in with the prevailing dress code.
Reaching the whitewashed sea-facing wall, I looked out onto South Beach, glad that the late afternoon sun was now behind me. Durban was in full swing, the mile was packed. Bronzed and pale bodies filled the sand as far as the eye could see, the demarcated safe swimming areas were dotted with bathers and traffic jammed Marine Parade as drivers battled to find parking.
I shuffled along to a coin-operated telescope mounted on the wall. I’d first noticed this device a few weeks back when I’d starting taking advantage of the pool deck’s late breakfasts. For a while, I wasn’t sure if it actually worked – a few similar ones I’d come across on the beachfront were often out of order. But then a week or so back, I’d noticed a couple of kids using it; their parents supplying the coins as they shouted and pointed excitedly out to sea. Studying it now, I saw a little sign next to the money slot reading ‘50c for five minutes’. Digging in my pockets, I eventually found four coins, pushed the first fifty into the slot and swung the lens towards the sea. It was certainly no Carl Sagan special – the view fuzzy and quite distorted around the edges. But it was good enough to make out people’s faces and would do for my purposes.
At first I just swept back and forth at random, looking anywhere between the Aquarium to the north and Addington Beach to the south. But I soon realised that I’d need to be pretty lucky to spot them in such a way. So I applied a little logic to the problem and starting tracking what I believed to be the most obvious route from the Laguna down to the beachfront. I had a few things going against me. Buildings, trees, bushes and umbrellas blocked certain sections from view and the telescope itself only gave me what felt like three minutes before the first coin ran out. But I also had one big advantage. Like me, Chester had left directly from the club. So like me, he would probably still be in his club clothes rather than swimming trunks. It was his red shirt that I thought might be the biggest help – red would stand out against the whites, blues, golds, greys and browns of the surrounding bodies, sea, sand and buildings.
And I was right. I was on my third fifty cent piece when I finally found them. Much of the promenade past the land-facing side of The Lido was obscured from by walls with a building blocking my view. But the last few shops including The Cherry Tree were visible. I saw Chester’s red shirt as he emerged from the ice cream and milkshake bar. He was holding a cone in one hand and he held the door for Emily with the other. They both turned left and walked slowly onto the promenade.
‘Can I have a turn please?’
I looked down from the telescope to see a skinny kid in a costume holding a fifty cent piece. Just my luck, of course. No one had probably been near the damn telescope all day, and now – just because they’d seen someone on it – they all wanted a go.
‘Give me a minute, lighty... alright?’
I returned to the lens. Emily and Chester were walking down the promenade now, talking and licking away at their ice-creams. A small man with a camera leapt out at them and began pointing to a sandwich board showing a cartoon picture of a muscle man and a large-breasted bikini babe. Was this Scotty? Had he given up on the khaki pith helmet? I hadn’t seen him for years, but it could have been. I watched Chester slip him some cash and he and Emily went behind the board. They were both laughing as the little guy took the picture; Chester’s arm around her with his hand resting on her shoulder. Then they stood around waiting for the instant picture to eject from the camera, the little man shaking it a few times before handing it to Emily.
Unexpectedly, the little photographer didn’t leave. Now he seemed to be having an animated conversation with Chester – both of them pointing towards the beach. What was this about? Chester and Emily kicked off their shoes and all three of them skipped over the sand towards the sea. I shook my head – what the hell were they doing?
The answer came a few seconds later. They had reached a sign erected in the sand which I knew well. There were similar signs all along the Golden Mile, the notable exception being the Black, Indian and Coloured swimming areas at Battery Beach just north of the Snake Park. The sign was in three languages: English, Afrikaans and Zulu, the English translation reading:
City of Durban: Under section 37 of the Durban Beach by-laws, this bathing area is reserved for the sole use of members of the white race group.
Of course, I’d seen hundreds of these before. You’d see them on bus stop benches, on busses themselves, on trains, outside public toilets, on public buildings, in hospitals and on ambulances. They were everywhere – we just got used to them. Usually they kept it down to the bare minimum:
Whites only / Net Blankes.
But sometimes you’d see a long one with a bit more jargon about by-laws attached.
Emily and Chester reached the sign and each placed a hand on the supporting post. Then they leaned towards each other and smiled broadly as the little photographer squatted down and took the picture. Chester placed more money in his hand and stood waiting for the photograph. Emily’s hands remained on the post, and for a second or two, I got the feeling that she was trying to pull the sign right out of the ground.
‘Come on, Mister, we’re waiting.’
There were three of the little sods behind me now – two boys and a girl, all lined up in a queue. I decided to say nothing and put my eye back to the telescope. But everything was dark – my time had run out. As quickly as I could, I slipped the last fifty cent in.
‘That’s not fair; we’ve been waiting at least half an hour,’ said a new voice.
‘Piss—’ I caught myself in the nick of time. ‘How can it be half an hour? It only gives you about three minutes. Look I won’t be long, kids. But there’s something I just have to see here – it’s important... okay?’
Somehow, I already knew where they were heading. The back part of The Little Top was locked up, but a few young children were playing on the open stage section. Emily and Chester climbed onto the edge of the platform and swung their legs over the sand. They seemed completely oblivious to the kids running riot around them, their eyes focused on each other, their heads bobbing in deep conversation.
Then neither of them spoke for a while, content to stare at the sand beneath their feet.
‘Excuse me,’ said a woman’s voice behind me. ‘Are you going to let these children have a turn at all?’
I ignored her. Chester had moved his hand to one side. It now covered Emily’s. His mouth was next to her ear for a second and then she was pulling him towards her. I pulled my eye from away from the lens and allowed my forehead to rest on the telescope. I heard a child’s voice say:
‘He’s not even looking now. This is so unfair.’
Why was I putting myself through this? All I was doing was confirming what I already knew. I just didn’t want to believe it – that was all. It was too sudden and overwhelming. There had to be some mistake. But what mistake? It was all there, right in front of me. It was happening up on that stage – right there for everyone to see.
I put my eye to the lens. It was dark – my time had run out. But in my mind I was back on the sand staring up at The Little Top, a starless sky above – dark and closing in. There was no light either from the hotels and apartments along the mile, the only exception being the cola sign on the Fairhaven Hotel. But its colours had changed. There was no white or green; only bright red – a red that flashed and pulsed to the rhythm of a ballerina in a white dress up on the stage.
A voice in the background was saying:
‘Quick, catch him! I think he’s drunk. Look at his shirt, it’s soaked – has he thrown up on it? Call a manager.’
And although I was falling I knew that I was not alone on the beach. There was somebody sitting next to me, so close that I could feel his stale breath in my ear.
‘Nobody loves her like I do, Mikey.’
It was Chester’s voice. I turned to face him. But behind the haze of cigar smoke was a different face.
* * * * * * * * * *
[One of Scotty's cut-out, head-in-the-hole sandwich boards. Now quite a muscle man one though!]
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