Crooked Seeds

Karen Jennings

April 18, 2024 
The following is from Karen Jennings's Crooked Seeds. Jennings is a South African writer whose novel An Island was longlisted for the Booker Prize. She lives in Cape Town.

The building was old, parts of it made of large stones shaped into rough squares. It had been a hotel at one time, then a boardinghouse for derelict men. Now it was the Nine Lives, with a second floor she’d never been to, where you could play on slot machines or have a game of pool, but mostly people did little more than place bets on the day’s horse races. The ground floor had a worn mahogany counter, with bottles and glasses stacked along a mirrored wall. The rest of the walls held big-screen televisions, all of them showing races, the same images in motion whichever way you turned.

She was breathless as she rounded the corner, her throat shuddering at the sight of the security gate still closed.

“Hey,” she called. “Hey, it’s time to open.”

Isaac looked up from where he was wiping down tables, said, “Sorry, you’ll have to wait a bit. Trains weren’t running again . . .”

“How long?”

“Five, ten minutes.”

“For fuck’s sake.”

She went to sit at one of four picnic tables outside, swallowing hard to stop the beating in her throat. She lit a cigarette, checked her phone. 11:03. Another missed call, number withheld, a message from her service provider about some or other deal, and one from Monica: “Ugh morning sickness,” followed by three green-faced vomiting emojis. She deleted the others, replied, “sorry darling” to Monica and added a heart, returning the phone to her bag.

She inhaled deeply, narrowed her eyes against the noise of the passing cars, more of them than usual. The traffic light was red and a dreadlocked man beckoned to the motorists, trying to sell The Big Issue. There was a face on the cover that she did not recognize, and “Good News at Last.” She wondered what the good news was, looked across at the lampposts for the day’s headline in case it might be there. There were five poles within her view, each weighed down by party political posters—calls for votes in the up-coming elections, promises of what they would do for the people, the usual bullshit. One of the poles had an advertisement for a comedy show at the Baxter Theatre, another promoted a baby and toddler expo at the Convention Center. There was only one newspaper headline in among all of that: no rain experts say.

She inhaled again, the smoke passing raggedly through her, and called toward the still-closed security gate as she saw Isaac walking by with a crate of glasses, “Come on, man, how much longer?”

“Five minutes.”

The others began to arrive, complaining of the traffic, as though they’d come together, bound to this place at all hours, from all locations.

Ricardo, in his seventies, who always wore the same two hand-knitted pullovers with white-collared shirts. “Mornings, mornings,” he said. “People, let me tell you, don’t try to go to Muizenberg today, there’s protests and the trains are on fire and the traffic’s backed up like it’s the Second Coming.”

“Is it?” said Steven. He was young, early twenties or so, never drank, never gambled. Just sat at his table, watching the races, saying at least once a day that his grandpa had worked at the stables at the Kenilworth Racecourse and it was a pity it had closed down and they only raced in Durban now. Sometimes he made little sounds, dabbed at the sweat on his face and neck with a hand towel he kept with him. He’d been in the army and been sent out to Spine Road, near Khayelitsha, to quash a protest that had gotten violent. That’s what Ricardo had told her, but he didn’t know more. Only that the boy had developed PTSD and a stutter, had terrible nightmares, so they put him in the state clinic at Stikland for treatment, but in the end there wasn’t anything to do for him, and they let him out. He couldn’t go back to work though, couldn’t even get another job, so he was on disability, like herself. But he could work if he wanted to, if he put his mind to it. He was physically able, there wasn’t actually anything wrong with him. That’s what Deidre always came back to. There wasn’t anything wrong with him. They weren’t the same.

Steven spoke again to Ricardo, his body taut with the effort of getting the words out. “They’re going to start building the desalination plant at Strandfontein.”

Ricardo frowned. “Really? You heard that? I hope it’s true, I really do. It’s, what, three years now since they forced those people out of that area to build the plant and not a thing’s been done yet. Not a damn thing. I never thought, not once, not ever in a million years, that I’d live through a time of forced removals again. I never thought it. Never. But what can we say, governments are all the same in the end, hey? They don’t give a damn. If it isn’t about race or the drought, it’s about something else, and they’ll toss people out without a thought.”

Marvin, a silver-haired ex-builder, turned to Steven. “Look, there’s no way that’s possible. The reason they haven’t started building yet is because you need water to build—to make the cement. There’s no water. There’s no money. There’s no goddamn cement. It’s not gonna happen, let me tell you. Why do you think my business failed? No water, that’s why. It’s not going to happen. There’s no way, okay. Don’t be a fucking idiot.”

Steven pushed his hands into his pockets, looked at the ground, his cheeks and forehead red.

“Ah, Jesus, Marvin, shut up,” said Deidre. “You’re a fucking bully. Jesus. Just one morning come in here without fighting and insulting everyone.”

“Listen, lady, when you—”

But Isaac was in the doorway, pulling aside the security gate. “Okay, people, we’re open. You can come in now.”

Ricardo led the way, stopping as he always did at a four-seater in the middle of the room. Isaac brought across the newspaper and Ricardo spread it out, reading with tuts and sighs. From time to time he called out a comment. Steven, sitting at a two-seater beside a thick pillar, nodded in response, wiping the towel across his forehead. Only Marvin headed upstairs, making for the small office where the bets were placed.

Deidre went straight to the bar. “Double rum, Isaac.”

“Who’s paying?”

“Just put it on my tab.”

He shook his head. “No, man, your tab’s full. Vadi says nothing more until you’ve paid.”

“Jesus, he acts like I’m a fucking criminal. It’s only fucking Red Heart, not like I’m asking for the fancy shit.” She took a debit card from her bag, handed it across. “So, give me a Castle draft then, but go easy on the foam, okay. I don’t want the foam.”

She went to sit at a two-seater beside the window, waited for Isaac to carry the drink across for her. She watched him coming, his walk slow, the slop of foam over the rim of the glass maddening her, so that “Bring it,” she said under her breath, “bring it, bring it.” When he arrived, she followed his movements as he pulled a coaster closer and put the glass down in front of her. She placed her hands around the glass at once, feeling the cold of it, the wet, leaning forward until he was gone, then lifting it with trembling hands. She took a small sip at first, swallowing with difficulty, but then something loosened in her throat and she felt able to open wider, to take in more.

Her phone began to ring in her bag. She pulled it out, looked at the screen. Number withheld. She sucked in her cheeks, breathed out, letting it ring once more before answering. “Listen, stop calling here, okay. I’m not interested in your party or any other goddamn party. I’m not voting for anyone, so just stop fucking harassing me.”

“Miss van Deventer?”

“Who’s this?”

“Good morning, ma’am. This is Detective Constable Xaba from the Diep River branch of the South African Police Service. I have been trying to reach you for several days.”

“Oh. What you want?”

“Ma’am, I’m afraid there is a problem at your house—”

“No, no, no, don’t start with that. It’s not my house anymore. It was taken away. It hasn’t been my house for two years.”

“Yes, ma’am, I understand that the land was reclaimed, but the problem—”

“That’s a nice word, isn’t it? Reclaimed. A house my father designed and built with his own hands, with his own hard work, his own money, but the government says no, we’re taking it. Oh yes, it’s very nice. Talking nice things about the past, the future, about water under the land, and kicking me out.”

“Ma’am, please, this has nothing to do with the land reclaim. You will have to take that up with the appropriate department. This is something else. You see, they have begun demolishing and leveling the area now, and some things have been found and we are asking you to come in and identify them.”

“What things? What you talking about?”

“Ma’am, if you come in then we can discuss that further.”

“Well, I can’t. I’m a cripple. I can’t get around.”

“Yes, ma’am, I see. We can send a car to fetch you.” There was a short pause. “At Oak Bend Center, is it?”

“No, I’m not there right now. I’m busy. I’m out.” “Ma’am, I understand, but I’m afraid this is very important. It is a police investigation.”

“What you saying? What you investigating?”

“I’d prefer not to discuss it over the phone. Can I send a car for you tomorrow, will that be okay?”

Deidre coughed, cleared her throat. “Ja, okay.”

“Excellent, thank you. Detective Sergeant Mabombo will call for you at nine a.m.”

Deidre hung up, returned the phone to her bag. When she looked up, the TVs had been switched on, and all around the bar hooves were pounding on grass in vibrant color, racing toward an end they didn’t seem able to reach.


From Crooked Seeds by Karen Jennings. Copyright © 2024 by Karen Jennings. Published by Hogarth, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.

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