This is an excerpt from a much longer work of fiction I have been working on for a very long time. These characters have been haunting me for the better part of twenty years. I think the time has come to share them with the world.
DISCLAIMER: This is a work of fiction. All characters are products of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual people, alive or dead, is purely coincidental.
Walking down a narrow street lined with stout oak and sycamore trees reminds Jake of his childhood in the Ozarks. He thinks of Halloween when he was five years old, going house to house trick-or-treating in the small farming community where his grandparents lived. The smell of rotting leaves and wood smoke in Cape Town’s cold night air takes him back in time twenty years, holding his older sister’s hand as they walk along the sidewalk in their costumes, carrying their bags stuffed with candy, their mother following along slowly on the street in the family car, keeping a watchful eye on them.
Jake hadn’t intended to end up in Cape Town. He had just wanted to get the hell out of Kenya, to run away from his agony. On the day he signed his final exit papers that ended his Peace Corps service he bumped into a friend in Nairobi who told him about an opportunity to drive an overland safari truck down to the Cape. His friend worked for a safari company and said that the previous driver had driven the Cairo to Nairobi leg of the trip before running off with an Australian girl he had met in a nightclub on the Kenyan coast, leaving the group stranded in Mombasa without a driver. It wouldn’t pay much, but it would be an all-expense-paid trip out of Kenya, which was exactly what Jake was looking for.
The group of travelers was comprised of seven girls and three boys, all in their late teens and early twenties, and all from England. Jake felt disdain for most of the girls, his broken heart had soured him to the presence of women. He found their constant complaining and whining about the conditions annoying. They were insensitive and ignorant of African culture, and most of all just acted like spoiled rich kids on an extended holiday. Several of them made overtures of friendship or indicated an interest in him, but he remained aloof and shunned their advances. The boys were even worse, drinking constantly and trying unsuccessfully to seduce the girls in between their farting and belching contests and other displays of immature vulgarity.
By the time the group reached Cape Town, Jake was ready to be rid of the entire group. He had hardly spoken to them during the 52 days they had spent together, just grunting a few terse instructions as they prepared to set up camp during the evenings. The group unanimously thought he was an arrogant bastard because he shunned their presence and preferred the company of local Africans wherever they stopped somewhere for the night. Jake felt somehow more at home having a beer with a group of African men in a dimly lit bar with loud music playing over scratchy speakers. No one ever bothered him or asked him uncomfortable questions. They just let him drink quietly by himself, each man quietly lost in his own sorrows.
Happy to be rid of them, Jake dropped the travelers off at Cape Town International Airport, uncharacteristically chipper in his bidding them a fond farewell, and then drove the Bedford to the warehouse of the overland company in Cape Flats where he collected his pay in crisp rand notes.
Jake hitched a lift back to the center of town with one of the mechanics and then took a room at a small bed and breakfast in Claremont, at the base of Table Mountain. It had cost more than he had intended to spend, but he wasn’t feeling up for more of the backpacker lifestyle. Hot showers, a comfortable bed and good coffee appealed to him for the time being.
Alone in his room in an upstairs loft of an old Cape Dutch style house, Jake stared out at Table Mountain through the porthole window in the roof. Billowy white clouds swept over the top of the mountain, and a cold rain fell on the window pane. Jake felt like crying but the tears wouldn’t come. He felt an ache somewhere deep inside, a physical pain. He had never realized that heartache could present itself as physical pain, deep inside one’s chest. He felt as if his heart might explode.
Suddenly overcome by heaving sobs, Jake lay on the bed and cried. He moaned and wailed, a deep and cathartic sobbing release of anguish that left him exhausted. For the past three months Jake had maintained a stoic public facade, though aching inside he had never let his emotions show. But finally the dam of sorrow had burst, and Jake indulged in exorcising his demons of self-pity and remorse.
As the cold gray light turned to inky darkness, he pulled out his tattered copy of A Farewell to Arms, the copy Wakesho had bought for him from a sidewalk bookseller in Mombasa. He began reading it again for perhaps the hundredth time while sipping from a cold glass of Stellenbosch white wine. He dozed off with the lights on, waking only once around midnight to drink some water, shed his clothes and turn off the lights before falling back into a deep sleep that lasted until the sunlight streamed into his windows the next morning.
At breakfast Jake met Nelson, the day-shift receptionist of the B&B. Nelson was a doughy middle-aged man, flamboyantly gay, and of ambiguous ethnicity; he represented various portions of the spectrum of Mandela’s Rainbow Nation. Speaking English with a heavy Cape Afrikaans inflection, Nelson greeted Jake and welcomed him to breakfast.
“My name is Nelson, like our wonderful Madiba, but agh, I’m hardly worthy of carrying his great name. Such a wonderful man! Not like our current president, hey? And over here we have your teas and coffees, and sugar and milk (which sounded like mulk to Jake’s ears), drink as much as you like, hey? Then over here is the fruit and juice and muffins. We have a lovely little local bakery that provides us with pastries. On this side we have muesli and bread for your toast, and a selection of local jams. These come from Stellenbosch and they are simply to die for, you must try some!”
“Thanks,” said Jake, “everything looks wonderful.” He found Nelson’s eager enthusiasm annoying this early in the morning. He had awoken in a black and sour mood with a wine headache and he needed coffee.
“Now, what would you like to order? We shall prepare eggs any way you like them, and of course we have bacon and sausage,” said Nelson.
“Oh no, thank you. I’ll just have some muesli and fruit. I’m trying to avoid eating too much for breakfast.”
“How very unlike an American!” exclaimed Nelson. “Most Americans want to try a bit of everything. I was on a cruise once between Norway and England and the ship was filled with Americans. Agh! So wasteful! They would fill their plates with everything from the buffet and only take one bite of each item, then throw away most of their food. Shame, hey?”
“Yes,” said Jake, “Americans can be pretty spoiled in that regard. Most people have never experienced a shortage of food, so they don’t appreciate what they’ve got. But we’ve got our share of poverty, too.”
Inwardly, Jake seethed at the implication that Americans were all wasteful gluttons. It was a fair stereotype grounded in reality, he knew, but who was this pudgy little man to tell him about it? He resented the judgmental tone.
Throughout the remainder of breakfast Jake brooded silently, and Nelson did not attempt to engage him in further conversation, remaining fixated on the gossipy talk show blaring loudly from the TV in the room, which Jake tried his hardest to ignore.
Jake took the cable car to the top of Table Mountain after breakfast. After a ride of only a few short minutes he was suddenly standing on a windswept barren rock 3,500 feet above the town, with a stunning view of the ocean. It was a cold day, and a biting wind stung his cheeks. Jake was alone except for one or two other intrepid visitors. The summit of the mountain received few visitors on the coldest winter days. As he stared into the blue distance at the southern edge of the world, Jake felt icy tears form and stream down his cheeks. He couldn’t be certain whether they were caused by the wind or his emotions. He was overwhelmed by the beauty that lay before him, humbled by the vastness of the ocean beyond. All of Africa lay at his back and nothing lay between him and Antarctica except 3,000 miles of cold blue water. He felt he had reached the end of the world.
Jake was suddenly acutely aware of the pain of his heartache and loneliness. He pictured himself holding hands with Wakesho, taking in the view together, whispering their awe in their own secret language. She had left him so abruptly, with no warning. Her letter had simply said “I can’t marry you, Jake. I hope you find happiness. Please do not attempt to find me. Goodbye.” For months Jake had mourned, nurturing his heartache and pain, letting it build into a seething anger. But here atop this vast flat mountain at the end of the world, Jake decided it was time to let it all go. He closed his eyes and mentally bundled all of his heartache, his anger and his grief into a tidy imaginary ball and released it to be carried by the relentless winds somewhere far away, into the burning Kalahari, or beyond into the dense jungles of the Congo. He hoped it would dissipate and disperse into the atmosphere, never to burden anyone again.
“Wakesho, I forgive you,” Jake said out loud, as a smile formed on his face for the first time in months. He felt as light as air, as if the wind would pluck him away to soar over the Cape highlands like an eagle.