In 1994 I went to vote with my friend Alan.
I was living alone for the first time in my life, in a tiny studio apartment in Rondebosch, and Alan lived two floors above me. We met in the elevator on my first day in the block and became friends, a turn of events I could scarcely believe. He’d been the head boy of my school when I was in Standard 8 and was witty and smart and won public-speaking competitions and was my hero. Everything I was – my personality, my sense of humour, the way I wrote and spoke in public – had been influenced by him and now here I was, all grown up and living alone in a newly born country with Alan as my friend.
I queued with Alan at a local school. The line was so long that it snaked in loops up and down the grass, contracting and expanding like the line on a fly-fishing rod before it’s snapped out into the water. There was a girl named Wendy in the line a hundred or so people ahead. I had a crush on Wendy, although I’d never properly spoken to her. I’d seen her around on campus and she worked in a framing shop nearby. I had no spare money and nothing worth framing but I’d trawled through some second-hand stores on Long Street and found a couple of old A4-sized movie posters which I’d taken in to pretend to consult about mounting options. I still have one somewhere – it was for The Guns of Navarone. Nowadays this behaviour would be frowned up as creepy. It was probably creepy then, to be fair.
She was too far ahead to catch her eye but then – oh, this new land of miracles! – as we shuffled forward in the looping line, I found that the loops would bring us inching past each other in regular cycles every 20 minutes or so. I acted all casual and chatty with Alan while I watched her approach and as we drew nearer the convergence point I’d become increasingly intense and animated in the hope that she’d look over and think, “Wow, that guy sure has interesting conversations. I need to get me some of that action.”
We queued for several hours or so and we must have inched past each other 10 or 11 or 12 times. The first few times I just smiled and nodded, and maybe the third or fourth time I said “hi”, and the next time I made a casual joke that I’d been frantically preparing about The Guns of Navarone. I saw the blank puzzlement on her face so I spent the next cycle kicking myself for being such an irredeemable nerd and forgetting the timeless truth that just because someone looks sweet and beautiful and kind and as though she can soothe all your loneliness, fear and insecurity forever, that doesn’t necessarily mean she’s familiar with old war movies or the filmography of David Niven.
I never entirely recovered from the military blunder of Navarone, although a cycle or so later she did offer me one of her biscuits, which I shared with Alan. But soon we were passing in silence.
Eight months later, on December 31, I bumped into her on the sidewalk and she asked after my New Year’s Eve plans and I said I had none so she invited me to watch The Evil Dead 2 at her house. I rushed home and hurriedly cancelled all my plans and went over with a bottle of German schnapps someone had given me, but then I nervously drank it all myself and started over-articulating and behaving odd and that was that.
Two years later, at a literary event in the Centre for the Book in the Company Gardens I met Nelson Mandela for the first time and at 2am, a little giddy and on a contact high, I walked into a 24-hour restaurant in Rondebosch where she happened to be working. I told her about Nelson Mandela and she touched my hand where he had shaken it. That was the first time we touched. It was the last time I ever saw her.
A voting queue is one of the great and beautiful aggregators of South Africans. All our lives are there in those supple threads – the big historical narratives and the small ones that mean a lot to you and nothing to anyone else; the great narrative arcs that define a life or a nation and those that trail away in dead ends and culs-de-sac. I often think about that great optimistic fly-line gleaming in the sun on that beautiful April day, and all those people, and all their stories. Alan and I drifted apart. He killed himself a few years ago, jumping from the rooftop of a media building on the foreshore, and that still makes me ache whenever I think of it. I imagine Wendy is happy. She seemed marked for happiness, bathed in sunshine. I think she went overseas. I’m still here. You’re still here. The line contracts but it also expands.
Times, 5 August 2016