Torn Trousers: Chapter One

There was a place so tranquil that angels went there to rest. It was a place of such singular beauty, even the lilies dressed for dinner. Yet the ebb and flow of its life-giving water was determined by a climate a thousand miles away. The water level was high during times of drought and low in times of rain. At its heart ran a river that sought the sea but never found it. Instead, it spilled onto a plateau of sand, spreading like an Eden across the desert until at last it vanished into the dust. 

Animals, great and small, followed the river, each in pursuit of happiness. When they found it, they stayed. Fish swam in quiet eddies. There were birds so varied in hue they confused the rainbows. Vast herds of elephant, buffalo, and antelope made homes here, and behind them carnivores trod. Trees offered shelter to snakes and comfort to travellers.

This was where my heart lay, in the Okavango Delta in northern Botswana.

But instead, I lived in Johannesburg, a sprawling, crime-ridden city in South Africa, Botswana’s southern neighbour.

Here, chrome-and-glass shopping malls selling designer western must-haves jostled side by side with shantytowns. Known as squatter camps, the residents of these homes—corrugated iron, plastic bags, and gum poles tacked together with nails—considered themselves lucky if they had one meal a day.

Back on the asphalt streets in the “real” town, motorists jumped the red traffic lights at night, too scared to stop in case they were hijacked at gunpoint. The police turned a blind eye to such infringements.

Glue-sniffing children begged at car windows, fighting for elbowroom amongst vendors selling everything from sunglasses to cold Cokes. It was a world where crime and poverty, abundance and luxury coexisted in mutual discomfort. 

All I wanted was to get out. 

But I was trapped: a slave to my career, my mortgage, my car payments, and my keeping up with the Joneses. I think they’re the folks who lived next door, but who could tell in suburban Johannesburg, hidden behind six-foot walls, razor-wire, and armed response companies? Perhaps life in Johannesburg wasn't that different to most cities in the developing world, but I’d had enough. 

And one day it came to a head.

Snarled in the traffic on the lemming-run to work, I allowed my mind to slip away. 

I was a kid again, growing beans between layers of soggy cotton wool. After a week, the upper layer bulged. Soon, thin dark tendrils appeared, pushing their way through the gaps into the daylight. That’s what the city resembled on this smoggy morning. Smoke from thousands of paraffin-and-wood fires burning in the squatter camps curled into the air, trapped by the winter inversion layer. Like the cotton wool, the smog settled between the buildings, stretching skyward, as if reaching for fresh air. 

I was the bean. 

Except, instead of grasping bravely into a new world, I was slowly dying. Melodramatic, perhaps, but that’s how it felt as I edged my way through the traffic toward my office.

Once there, I’d spend most of my daylight hours in a dark room staring at a moving screen. I worked with images, each stylised in a long, monotonous line of hand-crafted performances, where perfect people live in a perfect world. Where all women are slim, all men are tall, all cars are shiny, and all food looks too good to eat. I edited television commercials, and nothing I helped create bore any resemblance to the world outside my editing room door.

I sighed, pulled my eyes away from the traffic, and stroked my car’s steering wheel—caressed it, actually, because it was the only bright star in this otherwise gloomy scene. 

I loved Darien—that was my Land Rover—because she gave me a safari feeling, even in the rush hour. The environment of painted steel, whirring gears, and the occasional sulfurous whiff of gearbox oil triggered thoughts that took me away, back to the Okavango.

In the end, the day turned out well.

I was fired. 

It wasn’t as dramatic as it sounds because I fired myself. 

I'd spent eight hours with Jane Michaelino, a short-skirted, short-tempered film producer in her mid-thirties. Her husband, Jack, was a talented director who charged big bucks. With neither talent nor manners, Jane lived off of his energy, and everyone else’s, creating an edgy atmosphere. By four o’clock, my fragile nerves shattered. I asked them to take their film rolls out of my cutting room and never come back. Jane was outraged. In my madness, I was calm and adamant. 

They had to go. Now. 

Once Jane’s expletives and cigarette smoke cleared, I sat in the dark, the only light coming from the screen, absorbing what I’d done. The Michaelinos accounted for two-thirds of my income. 

I wish I could say fear or regret gripped me. They didn’t. My only emotion was relief.

I refused to be a bean any longer. 

The only trouble was, I had no idea how to replace the Michaelinos. But right then I didn’t care.

* * *

Gwynn was already home from work when I pulled into the drive. Tension pulled her usually smiling face taut. She grunted a greeting. Unfortunately, she had the disadvantage of a mere five minutes in her car to get home from her clients. It wasn’t nearly long enough for her to cool down, so it wasn’t unusual for her to vent her day’s frustrations on me. 

But I wasn’t letting her get the jump on me today. 

“Sit,” I said as I walked into our lounge. 

Gwynn moved Woodie, our Siamese cat, off the chair and sat. Both Woodie and Gwynn glared at me. 

“You had a lousy day, yes?” I asked.

“If I ever have to write another word about air-conditioner compressors, I’ll launch—”

“I fired Jack and Jane,” I said, ignoring her attempt to grab my stage.

Gwynn stared at me, her green eyes wide, her mouth gaping in dumbfounded astonishment. 

Expecting an outburst of rage to equal Jane’s, I mustered my courage and, with false bravado, added, “Yup. Told them to go forth and multiply.” 

Gwynn did something very unexpected. She grabbed my shoulders, pulled me toward her, and smacked her lips on mine. 

A bucket load of tension evaporated. “I was scared you’d be miffed.”

“Not when I fired Grab ‘n Cough today. No more boring copy for me.” Grab ‘n Cough was the name we had given to the supermarket chain for which Gwynn did research and wrote training manuals. They accounted for two-thirds of her income. 

I cracked a smile. 

Gwynn smiled back. “It seems destiny has taken a hand in our affairs. Let’s go live in Botswana.”

Afraid of the glint in her eye, I cautioned, “Nice idea. But the TV industry’s not very big in Botswana.”

“Please, no more commercials!” Gwynn wailed, both hands clutching at her unruly hair. “The last thing I want is to live through another one of your bad moods as you edit pointless adverts.”

“Then what? We have to eat.” Maybe I was being dense, but I just couldn’t see what she was driving at. Work had kept me away from home for a while, and we hadn’t been talking much. It showed.

“Yes, we need to eat. But how about getting someone else to buy lunch? And breakfast. Dinner, too.”

I frowned. “Gwynn—”

“Let's manage a tourist lodge in Botswana.”

Now my mouth gaped. I snapped it closed. “Manage a tourist lodge? With what experience?”

Gwynn brushed my incredulity aside as if I hadn’t spoken. “C’mon, Droon, let’s just sell everything and go.” She quickly added, “Except for Darien, of course. And Woodie. We’re keeping them.” A quick dig in her handbag, and she pulled out our well-worn Botswana travel guide. “I’ve been dreaming about this for weeks now. Plotting actually, to be more precise.” 

She wasn’t kidding—the book fell open onto a page listing the names and contact numbers of twenty tourist camps and lodges in Botswana. I wondered if she’d already selected the agent to sell our house. Probably. I had to admit to being hurt that she hadn’t confided her escape plan to me earlier. 

But then, Gwynn and I were very different when it came to life-changing concepts. She fluttered around, throwing ideas at me, expecting me to catch them, polish them, and chuck them straight back. Instead, I caught them, held them, thought hard and clearly about how to polish them, and only then did I roll them back to her. 

This time was different. I caught her ball, saw only its shiny side, and, without a second thought, tossed it straight back. 

“Come with me.” I sprinted to the study.

Gwynn scooped up Woodie and followed. “I hope these lodges welcome Siamese cats and Land Rovers.”

“Any other day, that would be a problem,” I declared over my shoulder. “But not today, because the four of us are invincible!”