There was a crunch and the Kombi cut out and Arthur sailed it off the road. We opened the bonnet. There were little spats of oil sprayed everywhere like shot, black on the white paint around the engine.
Madeline walked on a few yards with a cigarette and called the car hire people. She came back and stopped to crush the cigarette out against the ashphalt, safe from the brittle grass at the side of the road.
‘They said they’d send someone from Boksburg,’ she said. Boksburg was Johannesburg where we were headed, hours away.
‘Nowhere closer?’ I asked.
‘T.I.A.,’ said my brother. This is Africa. I nodded.
We were coming back from his wedding. His new wife and her parents, Arthur and Madeline were with us, and my mother.
We pushed the Kombi further off the road, away from the vehicles that were coming up the long incline.
In the short grass of the verge was a dead dove, desiccated, its purple and pink feathers dry and curled like a potpourri. It struck me as the first dead thing I’d seen in Africa. I’d seen nothing on the side of the road like you would at home – as if things were snatched up quickly here, evidence of hunger, of opportunists.
I tried not to worry about what I’d heard about being on the side of a road in South Africa and felt immediately grateful that she wasn’t with us. She had a thing about being stuck out somewhere.
We got back in the Kombi and I sat there cutting up some biltong and chewing it compulsively. I was addicted to it. I looked down the long, away-sloping view.
Far off I watched a white spot against the dark earth, a white stork going into the further distance, landing on fields where a fire had burnt leaving the earth rich and gunpowdery. The sky beyond was haemorrhaging, and the stork had the look of fleeing something somehow.
Every now and then I looked back down the road and watched the cars. Sometimes an impossibly busted vehicle went past, sometimes a Toyota flatbed with men in the back gripping a tarp for the rain they knew was coming. I thought about her then, how it would be if she were with us. It would have fallen on me to keep her steady and it would be exhausting, her trying to keep her anxiety down.
Beside us was a deep-grassed field and the grass swayed with the passing traffic. My brother and I got out for a while and walked. It spat with rain but the grass under our feet was brittle with the same look of dryness as the deep grass in the field beside. We talked a bit about South Africa and about him just being married, crushing the dry plants under our feet with a kind of glee, the childish kind like skipping stones. It was only coming to me then how far away my brother was, out here in Africa, and how rarely I would see him perhaps, for the rest of my life.
We walked back up the roadside and found a gully behind a wire-strand fence. There was a drainage tunnel going under the road. You could see that people had been using it for shelter, had passed through. The wind got up. There were heavy sporadic drops of rain then, coming with this percussive, leady noise, leaving dark spots on the lime-white cement. We ran back to the Kombi and told the others about the gully. It would be out of sight if they needed it.
I sat cutting more biltong and took out the binoculars and glassed the landscape for a while and found a falcon going over the charred fields. Slowly we all retired into ourselves. The sense of her was hovering there, like the falcon, over the big space. Every now and then I looked back down the road and watched the cars come up the big incline. It had sunk in with everyone that we weren’t going anywhere.
The rain got heavier and made a big comfortable sound on the roof of the Kombi. The others fell to talking.
As I stared out someone unwrapped a sweet and I smelled the thick toffeeness of it, thought of the burning fields of sugarcane we’d passed, feathers of ash snowing black down onto the pale parched ground.
After a while we heard thunder and Madeline got out to smoke before the full storm reached us. You could see in her clothes and hair the wind picking up and I watched her bend down to put her cigarette out against the surface of the road and wondered about her as a younger woman. She looked dramatic out there like that.
There was a worry about the few hours of light left, about phone batteries running low. About being out in the dark. It had been a long time now, and finally I could feel people getting off baseline.
I had no image in my head, no idea that I would ever be out on the side of a road in Africa like this. Lightning started in the distance and we watched the spectacular forks closing in. Then the rain thickened, and everyone was quiet.
Three more hours and the rescue truck arrived. It came down the opposite carriageway flashing its lights through the rain, pulling a new Kombi behind it.
We swapped vehicles. My brother and I shifted the bags from one to the other. The rain was so hard you couldn’t see from the windows anymore. It was just a glaceous sheet. We were soaked.
We pulled into the first service station.
While the others got coffee a big thick-lipped guy came up and started talking to Arthur. He wanted to know where we were going. I heard him say the tollbooths were broke. He wanted to know which direction we were headed and whether we’d get caught up in it. He was carrying a yard brush like he worked keeping the parking area clean. I heard Arthur say we were headed to Pretoria. The best thing, the guy said, was to get a toll ticket here at the servo so we didn’t get caught up in the queues.
Arthur got out to go to the servo just as my brother and his new wife came back with a coffee for me. I pulled off the lid. The coffee was sprayed over the white inside of the cup and looked the way the oil had, blown in the engine. As I sipped my coffee I was sure I saw the big thick-lipped guy in a car. I thought that was weird if he worked here. But, hey. ‘T.I.A.’
I could see Arthur talking with some other guys a little way up the car park under cover from the rain, lighter and persistent now. They were shaking their heads like he’d asked them something. Then he was coming back quickly and sort of hunched and he got into the Kombi and started the engine. He said: ‘Are we all in?’ He said it directly, as if he was saying ‘is everybody safe?’
There were some exchanges. Something was happening between him and Madeline. I thought maybe a domestic. We pulled away and I saw the big thick-lipped guy still in the car and he seemed to look at me as I passed, acknowledging, as if he left his eyes in me; weighing me up.
Arthur hesitated on the slip road. There was a change in the car. Then he said very simply: ‘They want to hijack us.’ He said it factually. We had talked about it earlier. They wanted Kombis for taxis. You saw them everywhere, stuffed with people, always blacks, clinging sometimes to the outside as they passed. There was this kind of hung time. Then he accelerated. I could feel him trying to put the speed between us.
I’ve been in bad situations before and dealt with them, but this was different. Something horribly invisible was happening. I imagine it was how I would feel in a skidding car, knowing there was impact coming, but the moment prolonged. This kind of blank, solid bracing of myself. I saw it as a fact. As something that would definitely happen. Arthur had told the thick-lipped guy where we were going. Others would be waiting for us.
I moved my phone into my sock and took my notebook out of my bag. They could have everything else. The money, the passport, everything. I thought about the biltong knife. I saw us then on the side of the road in the rain, my mother, my brother and his very new wife and her parents and me. I felt now that I absolutely understood this would happen and I had to prepare for it. I hoped no one had a gun or would try to do anything to prevent it. I thought: ‘If no one has a gun then it will just be something that happens and we will get through it.’ You couldn’t be in Africa long without hearing the stories.
Arthur was putting speed down, hammering down the lanes through roadworks marked with red lights that made the driving line uncertain.
When we came up behind two cars, their lights flashing, they looked like they blocked the way. Madeline swore once, with this abrupt fear. But it was just the curve of the road: they were towing, the lights blurring in the rain.
When we saw the tollgates weren’t out there was a quietness in the car. A confirmation.
We went on. What was happening seemed removed somehow. Since arriving in Africa there was an unrealness to things. To my brother getting married. To the speed the sun went down. To seeing the great animals through the windows of the car. I imagined us from a distance, the peg of the van on the rain-black road. I knew whatever happened would be deal-able with. But then this thing started under my skin. All I could think was of her being there; how someone would die then; how it would change things.
I thought of myself shot. Abstractly. At no point did I believe it would happen. I have more things to do and I must not get shot. I imagined my brother shot and of the wide, sad anger I would have. Abstract too. But then there was this fear, as if she was there, at what they would do if they found her. Six of them, one after the other.
I couldn’t stop it: the black guys pulling us over and taking us out of the car and laying their eyes on her, and seeing her beautiful white body and putting her back in the van. All I had right then was think, think, think, prevent it. I saw it in slow motion: me on the side of the road, the bullet imploding through the glass and her face disappearing and the panic and fear. And then the dominoes of it all.
I kept seeing their bodies spattered on her body. I thought if I could get a gun, somehow, from somewhere, I could shoot her through the window, before they got away, to stop her having to go through it.
I imagined her coming back to me after it, a magazine dropped in water.
In the restaurant that night the feeling stayed with me. It persisted as something ahead of me. I tried to eat and I tried to drink but I couldn’t shake it. I had the feeling they would still catch up. That they were going to get to us and that they would do things to her and I wouldn’t be able to stop them doing it.
That’s when Arthur showed me he was carrying a tiny gun. A pistol like a toy that sat in the cup of his hand.
Cynan Jones was born in Wales in 1975. His first novel, The Long Dry, was published in 2006 and won a Betty Trask Award from the Society of Authors. It saw the author selected as the Hay Festival Scritture Giovani 2008, and has since been translated into Italian, Arabic and French. Subsequent publications include Everything I Found on the Beach (Parthian, 2011) and Bird, Blood, Snow, part of Seren’s New Stories from the Mabinogion – a re-telling of the Welsh Peredur myth. In 2013 Cynan was shortlisted for the Sunday Times EFG Bank Short Story Award. His latest novel, The Dig, was published by Granta in early 2014 and will be translated into Turkish, Spanish, French and German. In 2014 The Dig won a Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize. Cynan won the BBC National Short Story Award in 2017.