You ever wonder if your DNA knows something that you don’t? You know, like the fact that one day you’re going to need to be able to jump out of the way of a speeding car or something, so your DNA fixes it so that you have particularly good reflexes when it comes to things like jumping suddenly out of the way. It might sound dumb, but it’s two in the morning, I’ve finished half a bottle of whiskey and lost quite a lot of blood, so hopefully you’ll humour me for a bit.
Obviously I can’t speak for everyone, only for what I’ve come across in my own life, which I doubt is much by way of conclusive proof but I would imagine is enough to at least get one’s suspicions up. Take the case of my cousin Josh. I remember as kids, when we used to rough house in the backyard, how when I’d gett him in a half nelson he would just slip right out of it on account of the way he used to be able to dislocate his shoulders at will. Later on in life, much to everyone’s surprise- especially the girl he knocked up and promised to marry- Josh up and left the country to join the British army. No one could have predicted that at the outset. Nor could they have predicted that he would join the paratrooper unit. Much less that on his first jump last year in some South American jungle he would get blown miles off course and get his chute snared on a tree, hanging fifteen feet off the ground. If it had been anyone else, they say that he would have almost certainly have died. But it was Josh, so he just slipped his shoulders right out of their sockets and fell free. Of course he did break both ankles, have to crawl for miles through the jungle, get discharged for jumping while drunk and end up having to marry Rita when he got back home, but he did survive.
Then there was my Uncle Jimmy. He was born with his left leg ever so slightly shorter than his right. It was so slight that you wouldn’t have known it to look at him, so he says, which is probably why they let him in the army in the first place. One day while out on patrol, his platoon got ambushed. They were outnumbered and the only thing left to do was run. Given his impediment, Uncle Jimmy was not much for running, but he gave it a good go. After all, an Ak-47 is a keen motivator. He swears to this day that he meant to run straight but I guess given his bipedal unevenness, he ended up curving off to the left and hitting one of the landmines he had just laid. The bottom of his leg was blown clean off. The explosion spooked the ambushers and they retreated long enough for reinforcements and a medi-evacuation to be called in. Uncle Jimmy not only survived the ambush, but he got to sit out the rest of the war as well. The other guys in that patrol all got killed in a helicopter crash two months later.
I think both cases speak for themselves. Not only that members of my family don’t seem to be cut out for military service, but that tiny kinks in our makeup have massive impacts down the line. I don’t know if you would call it destiny. I think it’s more a kind of genetic prescience. Like the blueprint of our lives is written in our blood, and life is just the unavoidable tangle of each of our fates. Maybe someone will look into it one day. Some sort of Professor who’ll make it his life’s work. I tell you what, if his does, then I could be his case study. Me and Goddard that is. The fact that Goddard and I ever met probably makes half the case from the get go. Then there’s Eve, she was more than a coincidence. Not to mention the whole business with Victor and Mr Chao. I know I’m not making much sense but like I said I’ve been drinking and lost quite a lot of blood. Then again if you ask my mom she would probably tell you that I seldom make any sense. Let me try and follow the advice she used to give me, and start at the beginning. Which, I guess when I think about it, would be what happened with my brother, Joe.
Joe was my best friend growing up. That’s not entirely accurate. He was more than that; kind of my idol. He was four years older than me, but that had nothing to do with why I looked up to him. Not mostly anyway. If I said he was good at everything he did I wouldn’t be giving him enough credit. I once saw him slot over a drop kick on the rugby field from forty meters out, just while playing around to pass the time. I tried to mimic him in everything, which frankly was a waste of time. He was exceptional, while I was painfully average. Joe was six feet tall, good looking, perfect hair, athletically built, freakish coordination and top of his class. I on the other hand never got over five ten, have hair that refuses to be combed, got straight B’s, have a face that would be hard to pick out from the crowd and can’t throw anything straight unless I concentrate really hard and stick my tongue out to the side. He was the most popular kid in school and by far our parents favourite. (Although where our dad was concerned that only meant he disliked Joe a little less than he did me.) I was never known simply as Rick, I was always Rick, Joe’s kid brother. You might think that this would all add up to a serious case of jealousy on my part, and it probably would have, if Joe wasn’t absolutely impossible to dislike. I said he was my best friend and he really was. He would take me fishing when our dad would flake on his promise to do so-not a rare event, let me tag along to all the older kids parties he went to and even helped me out with girls. By the time I got into my second year of high school, if not cool by association, I was definitely not uncool by it. Even after he left school and earned a scholarship to go to university, he left behind enough cool currency for me to live the rest of my school days on without being relegated to total anonymity.
Once I left school, I knew what I wanted to do. I wanted to go to university like Joe. I might not have been bright enough to win a scholarship, but Joe helped out with a solution to that too. The father of one of Joe’s friends owned an events company, organising fairs, seminars, you name it they organised it. With a good word from Joe he gave me a job. If I worked hard enough in couple of years I would save enough to pay for university.
Joe was special. It was something he was born with. Nothing was ever too much for him to handle. If you could think it up, he could do it. That’s why it came as such a shock when the doctor called us and said he was in hospital. A shock at the time anyway.
Joe was doing his last year of an honours degree at UCT, the University of Cape Town. We lived in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, so that meant catching a flight out of the country to go and see him. True to form my dad said he had to work and couldn’t come, so it was left to me and my mom to go. We were in a complete panic, they refused to tell us anything over the phone. It was a few weeks before my birthday so I was still nineteen. Funny, it seems like I was a lot younger when I think back on it. I don’t know if that’s just because I feel so much older now. Life kinda happens like that. You go along casually gaining days, getting older without noticing, and then one day, out of the blue, it’s like a switch is flipped and all those days come crashing down on you; making you feel all that aging at once. Back then though, I felt like a little kid again. When I walked into that hospital in Cape Town with my mom, not knowing what was wrong with Joe...man, I felt like a helpless kid.
The smell of disinfectant was the first thing that greeted us. A plump, flustered looking nurse was the second. “Can I help you,” she said, while her face suggested that even if she could, she wasn’t particularly inclined to do so.
“We’re here to see Joe Haskell,” my mom said. Her voice trembled when she spoke and you could hear the fear in it. The nurse reluctantly tapped a few buttons on the keyboard in front of her, stared seemingly uncomprehendingly at the computer screen and then sighed when she realised that she was actually required to do her job.
“Wait here a moment,” she said, before waddling off gingerly from behind the help desk. She returned a moment later with a white coat wearing, wispy looking man close in tow just behind her. She nodded in our direction and then resumed her unvigilant vigil from behind her desk. The man’s name was Doctor Brent, and he was sorry to meet under such circumstances, which, he lamented, was usually the circumstances that he met most people. Cases like this were unfortunately common, he continued, why won’t people ever learn? He did his best to get the word out but he was busy man and how much can one man do? Once they had things stabilised they thought they were out of the woods, but fits are like that, they just happen. When that was under control they couldn’t contact the next of kin straight away, what with the coma and all. He had always fancied himself a bit of a detective so it wasn’t any wonder that he was the one to find the student identification. The university was very helpful, he assured, and he was fascinated when he found out the next of kin were in Zimbabwe. He was sure there were no white people left up in Zim, with all that had happened with the farms, and how were we managing in the country now.
“What happened to my son and where the hell is he?” my mother eventually erupted after the Doctor had escorted us down the umpteenth corridor. The poor man looked quite pale at the forceful interjection. I doubt he was accustomed to being yelled at, and the shock of it was not easily borne.
“I thought they already told you,” he said, dry mouthed. “Your son overdosed on a drug called Dextroamphetamine, students often use it to stay awake and focussed. It wasn’t the only substance we sound in his system, but it’s the one that triggered the reaction. He slipped into a coma, but his been awake since last night.” He stepped to the side and pushed open the door to a room. “Um, you can go in and see him.”
I don’t know how long we stood in that corridor, the sheepish doctor holding open the door. We were glued to the spot, unable to move. It was unthinkable. Why would Joe take drugs? Something had to be wrong somewhere. Someone had to be mistaken, that had to be it. They got the wrong guy. Someone who was carrying around Joe’s I.D. The doctor was clearly an idiot, he probably didn’t even check to see if the photo on the damn thing looked like the patient. The whole hospital must have cocked it up. Even the university. Anything and everything was more plausible than Joe overdosing on drugs; and while we stood in that corridor a mix up was still possible. As long as we didn’t enter that room and see Joe lying in a bed then it all could’ve still been untrue. The doctor cleared his throat with a less than subtle cough and burst the momentary bubble.
The room seemed inordinately bright for such an epically sombre occasion. There was a pitiful flower sticking out of a chipped vase set next to a bed pan on a table at the foot of the bed. An ugly painting of a surprised looking kitten hung crookedly from one of the putridly coloured green walls. And an industrious, if somewhat murderous, spider was ensnaring what might’ve been a fly in the corner. All of which I noticed and took in before I had the courage to look at the figure lying in the bed.
“Hey guys, you didn’t have to come all the way down here to see me,” Joe said first. Only it didn’t sound like Joe, not really. The voice was without its usual confidence and swagger and there was something else in there. I think it was fear.
Mom didn’t say anything and the silence hung the air like an overweight trapeze artist. I reverted to default, which for me usually means an ill-considered attempt at humour. “You’re kidding, and miss the chance to go on a holiday,” I said, finally looking at him. I expected him to look different somehow, but he didn’t. You know, other than obvious paleness. He looked the same; lying back on the overly starched pillow, his hair still managing to look neater than mine. The hint of a smile lifted up the corner of his mouth but didn’t spread to his eyes. His eyes had the same look of fear I had heard in his voice.
“How did you guys afford it? Tickets are so expensive,” he said.
I took a couple of steps towards him. “They had a special and Dad picked up a couple of extra shifts,” I lied. The tickets were at full price, exactly seven hundred and fifty dollars. I knew because it was ten dollars short of my entire savings. Dad either couldn’t, or wouldn’t, pay for them, so I did.
“Still,” he said. And for the first time I noticed him grimace.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
“Just a little tender.” He looked up at our mom. She was just standing there, completely silent. If you knew our mom then you would realise how remarkable this was. It might sound harsh to say she had the tendency to jabber on like a gibbon, but only really on the gibbon. Joe looked away from her. “You talked to the doctor?”
“What did you do, Joe? What did you do?” mom said.
And that’s when Joe did something I’d never seen him do before. He began to cry. My whole world shifted in that moment. In that moment, I was set adrift from the course that I’d set for myself, my north star vanishing in a blink of an eye. The room seemed darker, the air thinner, and Joe, lying in that bed, crying, seemed so much smaller.
The next few days were littered with shuttles between the B&B that we were staying at and the hospital. Joe came clean about everything. He said he’d started smoking pot his first year to relieve the stress of studying for exams and keeping his marks up to the level required by the scholarship. That he didn’t know when exactly, but he’d moved on to harder drugs soon afterwards. He used drugs to relax and drugs to focus. They took over his life. He worked part time just to pay for them, he borrowed money, he stole money. I didn’t stick around to hear all of it. I would show my face when we visited him and then spend the rest of the time walking around the sad little garden they had round the back of the hospital. I know it was selfish of me, given what Joe was going through, but I was furious with him. No matter how hard I tried, and to be fair I don’t think I really tried that hard, I just couldn’t face him. I had no clue what to say. Certainly not anything that would be helpful or supportive.
Mom told me one of the days when we were back at the B&B that Joe had agreed to go into rehab. That he had a problem and we had to support him. Dr Bernard had given her some literature on clinics in the area. As it turned out he had become quite helpful once she apologised for her outburst, she said. She had discussed it with our dad, and they had decided that she was going to stay in South Africa until Joe got better. My aunt, her sister, stayed in Fish Hoek, which, she said, was close enough so that she could visit him on the weekends. She didn’t like having to stay with her on account of how Aunt Sarah had married what Mom considered to be the missing link, but needs must.
“He’ll be better in no time, you’ll see,” she said confidently.
“He hasn’t got the flu,” I said. “He’s a bloody drug addict.” It was cruel the way I said it, and shouldn’t have. If Mom had been a violent woman I swear she would have slapped me right there and then. Instead she simply walked away and gave me the silent treatment for the rest of the trip, for her an act of self control that must have meant she was really angry with me. I flew back home a week later, by myself, managing to receive a curt, “Travel safely,” from Mom. Before I left I went to see Joe to say goodbye. He was in a different ward, and when I saw him he was sitting on the side of his bed in normal clothes.
“How you feeling?” I asked rather lamely after sitting opposite him in total silence for almost five minutes.
He nodded his head. “Fine. They’re only keeping me in a couple more days to make sure my liver function is back up to scratch.”
“Cool,” was all I could manage. We sat there in an audible silence for another ten minutes or so before a belated thought finally occurred to me. Joe didn’t want to talk to me either. I know that’s a rather obvious conclusion, but it’s one that took a while to dawn on me. I had been so concerned with my own awkwardness around him, I hadn’t noticed his. He stood up and extended his hand. I got to my feet and took it. “You better go before you miss your flight. Take care,” he said. It was the first time we had ever shaken hands. Two brothers behaving with the stiff etiquette of perfect strangers.
I remember landing back in Bulawayo. Everything was the same as when I had left it, not surprising since I had only been gone a couple of weeks and the place only seemed to change at a rate slightly slower than continental drift. Still, the sameness stood out to me, like how they say you notice the ground not moving once you step off a boat. Frankly I found the inertia of it all annoying as hell.
Work, home, the couple of bars that constituted the city’s nightlife, all of it was suddenly so apathetic. I had never thought of home as the centre of the universe, I had always considered it a stepping stone to somewhere else. But when I got back the possibility of me actually working my way out of the place seemed like a childish fantasy and that meant everything that I had tolerated as temporary seemed now mockingly permanent.
I felt lost. I felt trapped. And I suppose that, in part, explains what happened next. It was the perfect storm of circumstance. My world off balance, a sudden urge to escape the mundaneness of my newly discovered reality and the coming to town of the strangest and craziest liberation you could imagine. Or to be more specific, The Bengal Brothers Amazing Flying Circus.