Once a decade, the snow comes down, not as powder or like rain, but as a hammer pounding icicles into life itself: through coats, into skin, freezing over hearts. In the rest of the world, the winter snow is beautiful – magic, mysterious, and festive. Tshwane’s snow is less abstract. It is beige and caustic, so persistent that no amount of shoveling, salt, or prayer can overcome its wintry attack. Today’s was worse than usual.
Pavel Revere was not from Tshwane, so the disillusionment of its once-in-a-lifetime snowfall didn’t just pound an ice nail through his chest – it hammered a crack into his skull. It cracked him until his breath steamed and his palms blued as he threw spade after spade of evil frost out of his driveway, where it melted, ran down, and froze again further down.
Pavel’s breath was a curse-laden fog, the foul language no doubt mimicked by his impatient wife from the comforts of their decadent home. Despite the driveway being on the opposite side of his mansion to the garden, this work seemed indubitably the gardener’s problem. Not his. If anything, this was proof she was right about needing live-in servants, Dutch toughness be damned. But as his wife’s invective had indicated, the snowfall was one of the few disasters capable of disrupting the vehicular cockroach that was its taxi industry. The gardener was certainly freezing his butt off, just not here.
So, because his wife was a model, a lady without the constitution for snow, and had originated in hotter climes than he, it was the manly task to spade the Sisyphean snow. His mission: to clear a path down the driveway and onto the road.
And in exchange – respite. Pavel wasn’t the CEO of I&A Industrial because he was kowtowed to anyone, much less somebody who’d taken vows to love and to cherish him. His motive, he told himself, was not to please his wife, but that he could escape to the office.
Finally, having stumbled out the gate onto the main road, Pavel caught sight of the parking lot – and freedom. The parking was for the first row of apartments, right by the main gate, which was his exit portal. Few others were trying to escape the wealthy estate, replete with a primary school, a golf course, a supermarket, and a salon. Yet, curiously, no designer stores – Pavel’s people hadn’t finished building them.
The lot contained a couple of sportscars, high-end SUVs, and the sorts of hatchbacks which cost deceptively close to sportscars, all under frosted-over security cameras. And there, propped up against the main gate, a bundle of clothes, dark against the frozen mud and dust. Any guard responsible for addressing that random gift of second and third-hand outfits to a suburb that rotated their wardrobes every season was asleep. Or marooned. Possibly both, hunkered down in a bus shop, teeth chattering over a steaming styrofoam box of pap en vleis.
And within that bundle, was a person. Peering through fogged lenses and a growing migraine, Pavel guessed the person to be male. Not a man, it was too small for that. He dismissed the bundle, musing that the day could only improve once he sat himself behind three keyboards and four monitors, winced at whatever the snow was currently doing to his construction shares, and tapped out ten thousand words. Once the necessary emails were done, the rest of the words would be devoted to his passion. Sniffing against the chill, Pavel pretended confidence that he could swing his current novel’s plot to the tropics. The confidence, unlike the snow, was based more on desire than evidence, he rubbed his hands and dreamed of a tropical locale where the air wasn’t somehow simultaneously desiccating and clammy.
But South Africa has a sun, even in winter. As Pavel turned his face to the thin sunlight, the snow began to melt into pools of stinking slush. It wasn’t melting evenly, though, some puddle freezing over, others crinkling with ice. Pavel’s breath fogged out more curses as he realized the snow was mostly melting into his socks. They were cashmere too, not the sort local suburbs could offer: the sort suited to better climes.
Leaning on the spade (he wasn’t avoiding going up the driveway to his wife, just resting), Pavel thought of his last business trip, an exotic city where the sea swirled storms over fecund winelands and ripe shipyards, where the queen held her court, where the snow and the poor kept their distance. Alongside the socks, he’d picked up a Gucci handbag for the wife, a Razer gaming mouse for the child, and enough brandy to last him through the nights until the next visit to real civilization.
It was still morning though, so a shot of brandy right then was out of the question. Not where he was, currently taking the excuse the bundle-of-clothes tramp presented to take a break from shoveling snow. Early enough still to be sober, apart from the residual cracking pain frosting in his skull and cracking just behind the eyes, Pavel stopped, leant against the wall and soothed his burning muscles with a hand-rolled cigarette.
Pavel’s roll-up was, as usual, mostly weed, with barely enough Zimbabwean tobacco to mask its signature scent – at least, on his clothes across a room. He glanced down: they were soaked, sweat-stained and filthy. But compared to the street kid at the gate, Pavel Revere was positively presentable, Zippo, spliff, and all. The dirt on his face was new, the stubble recent, and the sweat soon to be showered off. Just a working man in a jersey and jeans, hard at work.
His Levantine wife would be furious that he was taking a break. But now out of the house’s line of sight and with the driveway still a river of sleet, there’d be no way she’d charge out of the heated sitting room and put all that fury to use. No, there she’d stay all dressed up, nowhere to go but further into her bored seething.
By the time the spliff was little more than ash and a filter in his hands, neighbours were awake, their own driveways somewhat shoveled by sheer persistence or live-in servants. Families now dared to risk the chill roads, the hungry wealthy in search of the outside world. Or bored enough inside to risk investigating if the outside world was still even there under the snow.
A few of the heavier duty cars passed the gate – it was set to automatic, any guards long since resigned to their bus stops and street food. It was the hunters who left, mostly, in vintage Jeeps, luxury Land Rovers, off-road Porsches. No chains on their tires, just the audacity of the South African upper class that anything, let alone the weather, should interrupt their plans.
The tramp approached each of them all as they left the gate, bandaged hands cupped and protruding from a stack of sweaters, all the wrong size, all encrusted with filth, their shabby stench almost powerful enough to waft across the lot and hammer another nail into Pavel’s hangover headache. Almost. But easily miserable enough to be more disgusting than pitiful, too pathetic for generosity.
Yet every so often, as the hour passed (an hour spent outside avoiding his wife) and the sporadic traffic bunched or stalled, another trophy would crack open their window out of obligation. Air fresheners and hot air leaking into the hostile atmosphere, she’d sourly tinkle pocket change down into his frozen grasp.
Another cigarette. Another thought. Another business trip, sooner rather than later, Pavel decreed. A luxury SUV slid to the gate, window inching down. A fist slid out dropping a shiny offering inches into the tramp’s threadbare gloves. Profuse thanks followed, until – the power having shut off, on schedule for once, the gate jammed and its generator frozen solid – the tramp had a second look at the donation in his hand.
A nut. Without even a bolt. A piece of rust, approximately zero value. The sort of knick-knack that accumulates in the car of a man who owns 10 dealerships and supplies Jeeps to the cream of the nation, but still likes to get his hands dirty, working on his own engine. An honest accident, the nut, at least, this beggar assumed.
Because of curiosity, because he didn’t want to get spotted lazing around if his wife decided to drive herself, Pavel ambled over, stopped when he recognized the Jeep’s plates. With the tightfisted dealer driving, the nut was not accidental. Pavel’s gloved hands tightened on the hilt of his shovel as the tramp protested volubly Not a tramp at all, he was a boy with dignity and couldn’t buy bread with a nut – fuck this guy, who does he think he is, playing with life like that!
The same hand extended again. Its palm open now. Skin-to-skin, the bundled-up boy returned the nut. The driver’s hand suddenly closed on his scrawny wrist. Refusing to release him. For a moment, the last vestiges of the acid-rain snow hung in the air like breath caught in a smoker’s throat. Then a clang, the hand and its arm rocketing back into the car, the beggar’s young, mucky face clanging into the car door and bouncing off, blood streaming.
The door opened, smashing into the boy again, who fell in a pitiful heap. The dealer stood over the prone, cowering boy. A big man, he was bald under his beanie, fat below his puffer jacket and ski coat, red from the from the blood pounding beneath his skin. How dare this boy talk to him like that!
The boy’s breath was a stinking fog of stale excuses as he scrambled back on the tarmac, creaked to his feet.
The dealer charged. Grabbing his prey with sirloin fists, he wrenched him into the air by his collar, and continued screaming. The wretched boy was everything wrong with the world – lazy, entitled, a mess who couldn’t support himself, let alone anyone else, somebody who demanded the world rolled over for him instead of rolling his sleeves up and changing it!
In response, no words. Only action. The boy pushed the man away, dropping back, then darted forward with a sly right hook to the fat dealer’s jaw. Red-face wiped the pain from his chin, roared, and tackled the boy They splashed into the ground, instantly indistinguishable in the frigid mud and foul ice. From behind his veil of smoke and indifferent curiosity, Pavel patiently waited out the fight. Either way, the result would be more civil than returning to his wife now.
A second flash of silver gleamed on the frosty day, clean compared to the rest of its owner but filthy in its results. The knife buried itself up to the hilt in one of the wrestlers, slid through all his layers like the cold itself.
No watchful cameras caught the moment. No guards leaped to their phones to call an ambulance. Everyone wanting to leave had already left. Wiping his hands, the boy leapt into the car and sped off with a pocketful of change, and his attacker’s wallet. Right next to everything else he owned in the world.
The other guy left too, in a more esoteric vehicle, with empty pockets. You can’t take it with you, not even his failing chain of car dealerships.
A single cube of an idea melted into an elaborate, pooled plan as Pavel ambled back up to his driveway. After the next business trip, he would plana real holiday for his family, for a family who needs a holiday from itself. It was his turn to escape, and never come back to Tshwane’s snows.