Durban, wedged up against the east coast of South Africa, is the dirtiest, strangest, most violent place I’ve ever lived. It’s the soul of South Africa. A sweaty one-night stand of a city where anything goes and the warm Indian Ocean washes all your sins out to sea the next morning.
Durban is a schizophrenic mix of colours and impressions. A serial killer wearing a fake identity, struggling to present a facade of normality to the world. Grey 1970’s concrete buildings, painted with dull greens and reds in an attempt to liven up the drabness. Dusty skylines, shading up from sepia to blue. Street signs advertising craft markets and muti doctors. Litter everywhere, newspapers, pamphlets, fruit peel, broken glass, everything stepped on and pummelled into mulch, a carpet of dirty memories and forgotten troubles.
Then on top of this is the brightness. The yellow ANC signs, the red EFF billboards. The vibrant, clashing colours of the thousands of street traders who come here from all over the continent, about half of them smuggled aboard the ships that draw into the busiest port in Africa: Swahili, Tanzanian, Malawian, Indian, Zimbabwean (and, increasingly, Russian).
Walking through the streets is an attack on the senses. The bright clothes, the stabbing sunlight, the conflicting smells of fruit and spices, curry powder and cinnamon, marijuana and sweat.
That’s the city itself. But then, right at the edge of all that you have a tiny oasis called the Golden Mile. A bubble of rich obliviousness, the expensive cream floating on top of the scum, uncaring of what goes on beneath.
The Golden Mile looks like it has been transported here from Venice Beach. Four miles of prime beachfront real estate stretching from the Blue Lagoon to the Durban Harbor. A wide, brick-paved promenade fronted by hotels and apartment blocks, populated by tourists and surfers, joggers and cyclists, dog walkers and hipsters.
This is where I live, right on the outer edge of the Obliviousness Bubble. A tiny apartment in Windemere Road. Not because I’m rich, you understand. But because I bought the place when the beachfront still belonged to the drug dealers and pimps. It kind of still belongs to them, but they’ve gone a bit more upmarket now. All that foreign money.
I step out of the cool lobby of the apartment building into a furnace oven. I squint. The sidewalk is steaming, the moisture from the recent storm hanging in the air, a wet heat that clings to me like damp clothing.
Summer in Durban. Nothing like it for humidity, hot weather, and bad tempers.
I unlock the door of my faded green Land Rover and climb in. She’s an ancient thing that devours diesel at a rate I didn’t think possible and breaks down about seventy percent of the time she’s on the road. But I’ll never get rid of her. We’ve been through a lot together.
I flick a hidden switch beneath the dash. My own personal security device that cuts off the flow of diesel to the engine when I’m not using her. I’m not saying Durban beachfront is particularly crime-ridden – it’s the same as anywhere in South Africa – but over the past year thieves have tried to steal my car thirteen times. That I know of.
The dog jumps into the passenger seat and checks himself out in the wing mirror while I peel out into traffic, do an illegal U-turn, and head along the Golden Mile. North Beach passes to our left in flashes of sun and shade as I head around the traffic circles and deeper into town. Our destination isn’t too far away. About five kilometres as the bird flies.
“Hey, London,” says the dog after a while. “Got a question for you.”
London. Or ‘London Town’. My unasked-for nickname. My real name is Gideon Tau, but I got saddled with London because that’s where I’m from. I worked in the Met for fifteen years before moving over here under something of a cloud. Oh, and ‘London Town’ because it sounds sort-of-but-not-really like ‘London Tau’. All the wags at the Division think it’s hilarious.
“As long as it’s not like your last question. I told you that’s what Google is for. Just make sure safe-search is switched off.”
“No, no. Nothing like that. You know that movie?”
“The one about the incest. With the Nazis. And the terrorists trying to take down the government.”
I do a quick mental search of all the movies we’ve watched recently. None of them match up.
“Not ringing any bells. Give me specifics.”
“Come on, man. You know the one. The space Nazis and the brother and sister? And the dad cuts off the kid’s hand and he’s all like, ‘N-o-o!’. ”
I frown. “Are you talking about The Empire Strikes Back?”
“That’s the one!”
Space Nazis and incest. I suppose that’s one way to describe it. “What about it?”
“Well… were you guys really stupid back then?”
“‘Cause the guy’s name is Darth Vader, right? And it’s supposed to be a big surprise that he’s the kid’s dad, yeah?”
“It was a big surprise. This was before the internet. People went into a movie without knowing the whole plot beforehand.”
“Yeah but… the guy’s name. Darth Vader. Vader is Dutch for father. Darth means dark. His name literally means Dark Father.”
I flick the visor down to block out the afternoon sun. Left my shades back in the flat again. “Well…” I say defensively. “So what? We didn’t go into it expecting him to be someone’s father. You’re only acting the smartarse with hindsight.”
“Bullsh*t. I would have called that right there in the theater.”
“Yeah, I don’t think so,” I say, stopping behind a long line of cars. I lean out the window and see that a minibus taxi has stopped dead in the middle of the street to pick up passengers.
“I would have, man. We’re not even talking spoilers here. Just common sense.”
I ignore him and drum my fingers on the wheel. My gaze drifts to the right. I can just see the metal fountain outside the entrance to uShaka Marine World. Families are filing inside to spend an enormous amount of money pretending they’re in an upside-down shipwreck while they watch sharks swimming around behind safety glass.
Insider’s secret: the water holds more than sharks. A Jengu water spirit calls the place her home and she steals a tiny piece of every visitor’s soul to feed on. Not a lot, you understand. Just enough to keep going. The equivalent of a couple of cents out of every Rand spent. We do monthly checks on her to make sure she’s not overstepping the mark.
The taxi driver eventually decides he’s crammed enough bodies into his minibus and pulls off with a spurt of oily smoke, allowing us to get moving again. I take the next right onto Prince Street and find an empty spot to park.
“This it?” asks the dog.
I nod across the street at a dirty white wall covered with peeling paint. The peaks of a cluster of buildings jut up above the wall, stark against the blue sky.
“Addingtons,” I say. “Used to be a kid’s hospital. Been closed for thirty years.”
“Why the hell is Babalu-Aye hiding out here?”
“Word is, it’s his den. Where he holds court. Not a bad choice, really. Central location. Easy access to the shops, the beach. It’s prime real estate.”
I climb out of the Land Rover and spot a thin guy down the street wearing a lumo yellow safety vest. He jogs over, a huge smile on his face.
“Good day to you. I am Moses. I will watch your car, yes? Take care of it.” He looks me up and down. “You are going to a wedding today?”
I frown. “No. Why?”
“Oh. You are a very smartly dressed man, then.”
“Thanks,” I mutter, ignoring a sound from the dog that sounded suspiciously like a snort of laughter. I take a fifty rand note from my wallet and hand it over. Ten times what people usually pay car guards. “You been on this patch long?”
He makes the money disappear. “Two years.”
I nod at Addingtons. “Anything strange going on over there?”
His smile vanishes. He shrugs, uneasy.
“Tell me,” I say.
“Lots of talk,” he says reluctantly. “No one sleeps there. Not anymore. They say it’s haunted. That’s all I know. I don’t ask about that place.”
I nod and grab my satchel.
“You’re going in there?” asks Moses, surprised.
“Oh.” He squints at me. “If you don’t come back, can I have your car?”
“Sure,” I say. “If you come in and get my keys.”
Extract courtesy of Johnathan Ball Publishers. Reproduced by permission.