A spy in the house of love

When I walked into the Gardens Centre yesterday, my life flashed before my eyes.

If you’ve ever lived in Cape Town and had to visit the Gardens Centre, you’ll know that it’s a place fraught with peril. I don’t just mean on Saturday mornings, when it seems to function as some sort of indoor arena where all those who have recently awoken from a decades-long muscle-wasting coma gather to practice their walking. At the best of times Capetonians don’t know how to walk in the presence of other people, but Saturdays at the Gardens Centre is a lurching, halting, hesitating, zig-zagging, slack-jawed, solipsistic jamboree of the Walking Dead. But that’s not the peril I mean. The real problem with the Gardens Centre is you always run into someone you know.

Now, I’ve just arrived in Cape Town from Johannesburg, where almost everywhere I went I bumped into someone I knew or who knew me, and that’s a different prospect entirely. In Joburg, you’re bumping into Joburgers, and that’s always pleasant and offers an opportunity to refresh or reinforce fundamental human connections. In Cape Town you’re bumping into Capetonians, and no one wants that, including other Capetonians.

Capetonians dislike people so it’s difficult not to dislike them back. Bumping into a Capetonian is an empty, disheartening experience, echoing with hollowness and voices pitched slightly too high in a half-hearted attempt to simulate sincerity. I always walk away from a Cape Town bump-in wracked with existential torment: Is this really what life is about? Why are we here? What’s the point of anything? You never feel better about yourself after encountering a Capetonian.

Normally in Cape Town I confine myself to Sea Point, which is the very best part of Cape Town, not least because it has so few Capetonians. Everyone in Sea Point is from somewhere else, so encountering them is warm and life-affirming, or at least interesting. But sometimes, like yesterday, life drags you inexorably to Gardens Centre, and when it does you always run into someone you know.

As I entered, I saw her across the ground-floor concourse, looking much the same as she used to look – a little heavier, maybe, or perhaps that was just wishful thinking. What was she doing here? When had she moved to Cape Town? I am on good terms with all my exes except this one. I would rather bump into a glass patio door while running at full tilt carrying the very last teaspoon of the rare antidote to a plague ravaging humanity, than bump into her. Curse you, Gardens Centre! But wait – she doesn’t appear to have seen me yet. Let me just freeze in place, mid-stride, like a human statue … huzzah! She walked in the direction of Pick ‘n Pay without a sideways glance! She still hasn’t seen me! Victory!

But I can’t just slowly back away from whence I came, like cartoon coyote who has run off a cliff. I need to go to the stationery shop on the first floor, which is the only shop in Cape Town I’ve found that stocks my favourite pen, the Uniball Eye UB-150 Micro with 0.5mm writing tip, as made by the Mitsubishi Pencil Co. Ltd. I go through a lot of them because I write a lot by hand and also because I am absent-minded and lose a lot of pens, and I’m leaving again soon and need to take a handful with me, even though they do sometimes have an annoying tendency to leak in the low cabin-pressure of an aircraft. Nothing is perfect; I need those pens.

What, I asked myself, hovering indecisively, would Hemingway or James Bond do? Would they turn tail and spend the next few months writing with inferior pens sourced from hotel bedside tables? No, I don’t believe they would. I believe they would do just what I’m about to do: sneak around like the Pink Panther escaping from Alcatraz, peering around corners, hotfooting it across corridors, dodging from storefront to storefront, dropping to the ground and leopard-crawling where necessary.

I skulked down from the German deli past the Movie Magic video store into the dried fruit place. I took shelter behind the packets of dried pear and took stock. I don’t mean I stole packets of dried pears, I mean I assessed the situation. So far, so good, but Gardens Centre is a panopticon. Surveillance is constant; eyes could be everywhere.

I waited for a tubby person pushing a shopping trolley – in Gardens Centre, you never have to wait long for a tubby person pushing a trolley – then used her as a slow-moving human shield to inch over to the escalators. Was I safe? No! Many a sloppy escapee has been rumbled on the escalator: you’re a sitting duck, standing there, ascending in the middle of the concourse for all the world to see. I threw myself down on the metal stairs and held my breath all the way to the top.

At the top I went left, but wait, what’s that? That silhouette up ahead, backlit by the shop selling specialist French cheeses and truffles and foie gras? How did she get up here ahead of me? I hunched my shoulders and turned up my collar and reversed trajectory, zagging over to the other side, zigging around past that weird sort of curio shop where a guy sits carving wooden meerkats.

I came in round the other side and slipped into the stationery shop, filling up with precious Uniballs like a man about to be shipwrecked on a desert island with an infinite supply of parchments and empty bottles with corks in the top. My heart raced and I saw in the reflective chrome of the cash register how the adrenaline dilated my pupils. It was quite fun to do my shopping this way. To be a POW escaping Colditz castle or a spy on the run in misty wartime Prague or a man accused of a crime he didn’t commit, trying to find the real murderer in a small town without anyone recognizing him and alerting the authorities – that’s one way to lift and lighten the drabness and drudgery of the domestic day-to-day.

I came down the escalator, lost in contemplation about whether the Uniball Eye UB-150 could be modified to shoot a cloud of sedative gas or perhaps a laser beam, and stepped off at the bottom and bumped right into her. There are no happy endings at the Gardens Centre.

I clutched my Uniballs like a small pointed packet of emotional support animals and started stretching a dead-eyed smile across my face, but she just looked at me blankly and carried on walking. After all that trouble and imaginative labour, it wasn’t actually her after all.

I stood for a moment awash in relief but also feeling that strange emptiness that comes when some small crisis has been too suddenly solved and the adventure has drained from life. Life is more fun with a story.

You can’t, I thought, be too careful. This is exactly where better agents than I have let their guards down and fallen at the last. I used one of the Uniballs to ink on a fake beard and moustache, and carefully walked backwards to the exit, so that if anyone was tracking my footprints they’d be thrown off my trail.

The Times, 30 May 2019