This issue features the winners of best of 2015’s Creative Writing programme at the University of the Witwatersrand.

archive - issue 17

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Friday, 22 July 2016 17:05


By  Dane Bowman
This all started somewhere around the time when I was getting used to being on my own again. Sure, I still found myself becoming anxious around other people at times but at least I had managed to settle back into my own company once again. I learnt to enjoy those long silences. So much so that unexpected noises made me jump. The first time my toaster talked, my heart nearly gave out.

                  “That feels good,” it said.

There I was in the middle of pressing a piece of bread down into one of the slots when my toaster spouted that shit at me. So, intuitively, I flung myself away from the thing. That’s how a normal person would’ve reacted when faced with a talking toaster. In my miniscule kitchen, with my back up against the wall, I just stood and watched the thing. I eyed that little, blue bastard from what I deemed to be some kind of safe distance. I was already considering getting a priest around to perform an exorcism.

                  “Please don’t stop,” the thing whined at me. “I’ve got two slots for a reason.”

Two priests, I told myself. I would get two priests to pop around. This seemed to be a particularly bedeviled toaster.

                  Against that wall was where I stayed for quite some time. Standing there, I did my best to gather myself. I started this whole self-convincing routine. I hadn’t heard a single thing, obviously. I reassured myself that the toaster hadn’t spoken to me at all. In fact, it hadn’t made a peep.

                  “I can’t get things going by myself. You know that, right? You have to press that lever down.”

So two priests and a rabbi walk into my kitchen.

Seriously though, I needed help here. I needed to call somebody. I needed to get to the phone. In some feeble attempt to distract the toaster I decided I would throw the other piece of bread I was holding at it. That would definitely buy me some time. Ultimately this turned to be a bad plan because the bread simply hit the side of the toaster and then landed on the counter and lay there sad-looking.

                  “It doesn’t work like that, you little shit,” the toaster said. “You’ve got to put it in properly or you shouldn’t bother putting it in at all. Don’t waste my time.”

Whatever foul denizen of Hell had possessed my toaster was clearly a sexually frustrated one.

                  “Be gone!” I declared.


                  “Leave this toaster, demon!”

                  “Excuse me?”

                  “The power of Christ compels thee! Probably.”

                  There was a moment’s silence. I hoped that something religious was happening.


                  “Are you compelled? By Christ? Well, are you?”

                  “I don’t even know the guy. Look, I’m just a toaster. You put the bread in me and I turn it into toast. I always reciprocate.”

                  I didn’t say anything.

                 “Okay, if you don’t believe me then ask the kettle. He knows what’s up. Go on, ask.”

                  “I’m not going to start a conversation with the kettle.”

I realised that I’d said these words to a toaster. I didn’t really have grounds for talking to one inanimate object and not another. A conversation with the kettle was somewhere on the cards.

                  “I just want breakfast,” I muttered.

                  “We can still make that happen. Just put that piece of bread in. Go on. You know you want to.”


I stayed at home that day. I told my boss I needed to take a day for myself. Maybe I told her that I was still trying to put things back together or that I was having one of my anxiety attacks. Once I put the phone down I proceeded to interrogate my entire house. The toaster eventually did get the kettle to talk to me. After the kettle warmed up to me, it introduced me to the microwave. The microwave told me to avoid the fridge, and suggested I speak to the dishwasher instead. I tell you, there’s nothing quite like hearing a microwave describe a fridge as being a fuckwit.

                  I went upstairs to my room and got friendly with my bed and my pillow. I spoke to both my desk lamp and my laptop. In my en suite bathroom I talked to my toothbrush and my razor. I also got shouted at by the hairbrush because it felt like it hadn’t been receiving enough attention of late. Even the showerhead burbled something.

                  In the lounge, the couch grumbled at me whilst I sat on it, reminded me not to put my feet up. Even the remote for the television was talkative. Well, okay, it became talkative. I found that if I stared at things long enough they were eventually obliged to say something to me. Talking this much again was odd but I eased into it.


So things talked, I listened, and they gave me the same courtesy. It was nice, unexpected almost. They were as much a part of my life now as people were, except I found them much easier to get along with. I didn’t feel at all anxious when it came to these exchanges. I did, however, have to be very cautious about when they occurred. I knew that if somebody caught me having a little back-and-forth with the stapler there’d be hell to pay. That was the sort of thing that would fast-track me from being employed to being institutionalised.


                  “Do you know what the gear stick actually is? Well, do you?”

                  I didn’t answer.

                  “I’ll tell you,” my car said. “Heads up, you probably won’t enjoy what you’re about to hear.”

I spent a few days considering trading in my manual for an automatic. I didn’t though because I eventually became accustomed to it. I simply had to. My car wasn’t the only thing that was inappropriate towards me.

                  Every exchange I had started awkwardly. This process was almost like learning how to talk once more. Things were always a little weird at the outset but that weirdness, it eventually went away with time. If it didn’t, in the case of some particularly persistent objects, I found ways of filtering them out, of simply ignoring them. In some situations I was able to ask them to be on their best behaviour and, surprisingly, most of them complied.


                  Work was always a bit tougher than everything else though. In the same way a person can distinguish their normal friends from their work friends, I had the same thing happening with the objects around me. I was merely acquainted with the things in my office. These were formal working relationships, created more out of necessity than anything else.

                  Things in the workplace seemed to assist me begrudgingly. They always acted as if my making use of them was some kind of affront, something which they needed to be upset about. The office printer was a really good example. Working with that son of a bitch was always an uphill struggle. Now printers barely function on a normal everyday basis but when they fail to do so whilst being able to communicate this fact to you, they can become utter, utter assholes.

                  “So… have you tried checking the paper tray?”

                  “I’ve checked the paper tray. I’ve checked it twice.”

                  “What about the ink cartridge? Is there enough ink?”

                  I nodded. “All the levels look fine. Everything’s fine. It says so here on this little screen.”

                  “That’s so weird,” said the printer. “That’s weird, right?”

                  “Why won’t you print?”

                  I rested my head on the machine and started praying. I pleaded for assistance from any deity who would be willing to offer it. In that moment I was Faust, hopeful that the Devil would maybe cut a deal with me and get my document printed out. In portrait rather than landscape, if that was at all possible.

                  “Oh! Something’s happening!” buzzed the printer. “We’ve successfully troubleshot! I think this could be it!”

                  I stood up once again, excited.

                  “Oh, wait a second. Nope, turns out it’s just a fax. What a shame. Can you believe people still fax each other things?”

                  “You’re such a piece of shit. You know that, right?”

                  It was at this point that I physically assaulted the printer. Believe me, this wasn’t one of my finer moments. After a pretty one-sided scuffle my document still was not printed. What I had managed to do, however, was upset a pair of coworkers who had been standing in the doorway for the duration of my encounter.

                  This behaviour culminated in me having a sit-down with my boss. Formally, she told me that some individuals had expressed concern about my mental wellbeing and stress levels. Was I coping with my current workload? Was everything alright? Did I need some time off? I don’t verbalize, only nodding when needed. Informally, she told me to get my shit together. She asked whether I was still battling to cope with what had happened. I was offered the rest of the day off and I took it.

                  I left wondering whether I’d still have my job in a week’s time.  


I wasn’t in a hurry to head home, especially considering that the car would probably run its mouth for the entire drive. I wouldn’t have to tell it a thing about what had happened upstairs. It’d just know and then it would probably tell me that arguing with printers was a waste of time. After that it would encourage me to rev the engine a couple of times. Just for kicks.

                  There’s this coffee shop on the ground floor of my office building which I end up in every other day. When things become a bit much for me, I always try to find the quietest table in the place, somewhere distant. Here I can get my caffeine fix without being so close that I have to engage anyone in conversation. I placed my order, sat down, tried to not look too dejected, and waited for my coffee to arrive.

                  When the waitress appeared, my coffee cup in tow, I kept my head down and muttered a quiet ‘thank you’. Usually this would be as far as a typical exchange went but on that day things were set to go downhill magnificently. My usual talking cups and teaspoons were replaced with a muffled voice I hadn’t heard before.

                  “Over here.”

                  “Excuse me?” I asked.

                  My waitress, slightly confused, smiled at me. “Is something wrong?”

                  “No, nothing’s wrong, sorry. I… just thought I heard something.”

                  I would rather have avoided this conversation entirely. I decided I would smile at her until she went away. That would be easiest. However, when I looked up at her, I became transfixed by her own smile and, if I could go back to that moment, I would’ve preferred to simply stay staring at her face. Stuck in that moment when our eyes met.

                  “Down here,” a voice said.

                  And then our eyes, sort of, you know, unmet.

                  “That’s right. I’m not propping these bad boys up for my own benefit. We’re underwired for a reason.”              

                  My peepers wandered downward, kitten-curious.

                  “Wait, wait, wait,” another voice said. “This is solely for our benefit. This is about looking good, confidence-boosting. This isn’t about trying to impress random strangers.”

                  “Preposterous! This is about perkiness and having immaculate cleavage. Would you just look at these things?”

                  Funnily enough, I hadn’t needed the invitation.

                  A good few seconds passed wherein I just watched the waitress’ brassiere doing this back-and-forth bickering. She regained my attention by clouting me upside the head rather hard.

                  “What the hell is your problem?”

                  I had to think quickly to come up with an excuse. “I have a lazy eye.”

                  She hesitated slightly. “Excuse me?”

                  “Lazy… eyes?” I volunteered. “Yeah, both of them. Terribly lazy.” I had to keep talking to her. For the first time in a long time I had to use my sense of humour to defuse this problem I’d created. “They’re so lazy, in fact, that they’ve even been called ‘indolent’ by medical professionals.”

                  She squinted at me.

                  I was freewheeling in our conversation and it felt cathartic. It felt unfamiliar but fun. “I… uh… can’t do a thing with them, in fact. Here I was doing my best to keep them firmly fixed on that beautiful face of yours and they just gave out on me. That’s why they lolled down like that.”

                  “Well, that was rather suave,” said a muffled voice.

                  “You’re pretty full of shit.”

                  It wasn’t just her slapping me which had reddened my face. “I’m very sorry. I really am.”

                  She watched me for a few moments, seemed to suss me out, and it upset me. I felt as if I was being evaluated. Eventually she shook her head, smiled small, and then walked away, laughing quietly to herself. Me, I just sat there and drank my coffee in silence, trying not to make an even bigger fool of myself. I hoped to go unnoticed.

                  “You know, for somebody who’s shied away from talking to people this long you sure did a spectacular job there.”

                  I slipped the teaspoon into my coffee. “Hush,” I said.


                  “So did you ask for her phone number?”

                  “I didn’t,” I replied.

                  “Well, it really was the perfect time to. That was a real meet cute moment the two of you had.”            

                  “I don’t know. I’m fairly certain that I was borderline harassing her. I really think I messed up.”

                  “She works in your building, right? You can take some time out and go see her tomorrow.”

                  I sighed. “I spent a good few seconds staring at her chest. That’s a terrible first impression. What the hell is wrong with me?”

                  “Look, you could apologise.”

                  “Yes, I have to apologise. I just don’t know what good it’ll do.”

I was lying in my bed later that night doing pillow talk with an actual pillow.

                  “Whatever you do, don’t try to make it up to her with a coffee.”

                  “I won’t.”

                  I was silent for some time thereafter. Eventually I spoke up.

                  “Why do all of you keep talking to me?”

                  “I can’t rightly say,” replied the pillow. “And I haven’t got shoulders for shrugging.”

                  “I guess it’s just nice to have someone to talk to again. It’s been a while. I felt rusty.”

                  “You certainly didn’t battle to talk to that lady today.”

                  “That was different, I guess. It was… unavoidable.” I yawned. “Look, I’m pretty tired. I’m going to turn you over now, to the cooler side.”

                  “That’s fine by me. Would you like me to help you count sheep?”


                  Walking anywhere was nightmarish for me. I’d be bombarded by everything trying its very best to be heard. I’d have roads signs shouting at me and traffic lights getting mouthy. Other people’s cars and clothing vocalised. Chairs, benches, and rubbish bins all believed they had valid opinions. On these sorts of days, indoors was a much better place to be. There are two kinds of problems in this world – yours and mine. Let’s not confuse the two. I dealt with my stuff, so why couldn’t they?


When I went back to work the following day, the people there seemed to give me a wider-than-usual berth. Not that I mind being avoided. News had obviously spread about me being abusive towards the office printer the day before.        

                  I needed to do my best to keep things under wraps today. If anything untoward happened, I’d be in serious trouble. I assumed it would be safer to ask a colleague to print my documents out for me, thus preventing any sort of interaction with the printer itself. I opted to spend most of day sitting at my desk, keeping my head down, and doing my best to focus on the tasks before me.


                  “Ring. Ring. Hey, man. Ring.”

                  I took my cellphone out of my pocket.

                  “Thanks,” it said. “It’s good to be out of there. Man, do you know that if you put me in your pocket the wrong way and you like shift about or whatever, I eventually end up by your balls. Yeah, man, right there. And I’m not cool with that. Not cool.”  

                  My cellphone was a rather serious attention-seeker. Not that it does anything effective with my attention once it has it. All it really aimed to do was distract me.

                  “Anyways, I forgive you, man,” it said. “I’ve got a couple of notifications for you. So there’s some Facebook stuff here. Ha! Just kidding. You haven’t used that in ages. You? Connecting with other people? Not happening.”

                  I sighed. “Any missed calls?”

                  “Nope. Not a one. Anyways, who phones these days, man? That’s such an old people thing.”

I shifted my coffee cup away from my keyboard and placed my cellphone down. There were only a few more e-mails I had to reply to before I could sneak out for an early lunch.

                  “We could mess around on Tinder for a bit, if you’d like? We’ll do a couple of swipes, man. Just one or two, that’s all,” the cellphone said. “Think about it, we could find someone nice. Come on, we know you’re lonely…”

                  I was reaching out for my phone when it started raving on about something else.

                  “Hold on! I’ve just had a great idea, man! Could you imagine if there was a Tinder for people who wanted to fight each other? Could you imagine, man? It’d be like ‘swipe right to fight’ and then you’d go there and just start wrestling. Fantastic! We could call it ‘Brawler’.”

                  I set my phone to vibrate.


I managed to get that early lunch I wanted, so I trundled down to the coffee shop. I was hopeful that I might bump into the waitress again. I spent a few minutes at the counter scanning every person I could see but she wasn’t there. When I reached the front of the queue I was pretty much obliged to purchase something.                                

                  I ordered a cup of coffee and installed myself in my quieted space. I was allowed to be somewhere a little away from the world. Not having to deal with anyone was nice.

                  A different waitress eventually arrived with my order. I drummed up the courage I needed to talk to her.

                  “Excuse me, I was wondering if you could help me…”

                  “Can I get you something else?”

                  “Oh, no, it’s nothing like that. I was in here yesterday and I was served by a different waitress… I just wanted to know if she was working today.”

                  She stared at me for a moment before her eyes lit up. “Oh! You’re that guy.”

                  I froze.

                  She laughed. “Claire told me all about you.”

                  Letting my head loll forward, I stared into my coffee cup. “Ugh.”

                  “It’s not that bad. It could’ve been a whole lot worse.”

                  “I think I did a pretty stellar job of messing things up already.”

                  “She didn’t seem to mind, really, just said you seemed a bit weird at the outset. Staring at her chest didn’t really do you any favours.”

                  “I know. Trust me, I know.”

                  “She did say you were funny though, so you’ve got that going for you. I guess having a sense of humour means you can get away with being a little bit odd.” She chuckled. “Anyways, I have work to do. Claire’ll be here tomorrow. Why not come back then?”                            


                 “What if she doesn’t want anything to do with me?”

I was interrogating myself. Before my bathroom mirror, I stood reflecting.

                  “How can I be so stupid? There’s no way she’d want to see me again.”

                  I let the cold tap run a while before I splashed some of the water onto my face.

                  “No. I need to be positive about this. I need to be optimistic.”

                  I nodded at myself.

                  “I can do this.”  


I used to have days when everything just spoke simultaneously - for some reason, they all felt the need to be hear. There wasn’t any sort of predictability as to when one of these days was going to happen. When they did, and they fell on work days, my life became especially tough. I was having one of these bad days when – my head low, propped up by my hands – I was tapped on the shoulder by my boss.

                  “Is everything okay?” she asked.

                  “I just have a bit of a headache is all. Nothing major. Maybe I’ve been staring at my laptop screen for a little too long.”

                  “Could I see you for a moment?”

                  My heart in my throat, I fell into step behind her. The walk towards her office was filled with jeering. It was as if every item in the office felt that this was an opportune time to have a go at being kids on a playground. She shut the door behind me and then sat down. I took the chair opposite and her desk was the divider between us.

                  “Look, this peer review was supposed to be scheduled for yesterday,” she began, “but you didn’t really seem up for it after the whole printer incident.”

                  “Yeah, we heard about what you did to the printer, friend,” something in her office said.

                  “Not cool. Very not cool,” declared a framed motivational poster. “Get ready to start packing your things into a box.”

                  “I’m sorry. Things just got the better of me yesterday.”

                  And the day before that and the day before that, I thought.

                  “It’s alright. That printer is temperamental, it was bound to happen eventually. If it wasn’t you it would’ve been someone else. No real harm done. This is more a case of you being okay. You’re stressed, obviously, and yesterday your frustration slipped out a little.”

                  “She’s worried about you,” something said. “In her head she’s probably asking herself how long you’ve got left until you buckle.”

                  “Is she doing damage control?” her stapler asked. “You might be leaving the office for the last time today, friend.”

                  “Look,” she started, “I just wanted to get that out of the way.”

                  I nodded, readied myself. Optimism ousted, pessimism prepped, I waited for the worst.                            

                  “I’ve already written yesterday off as a blip because your performance over the past month has been phenomenal. I can see that you’ve been pouring yourself into every task you’ve been assigned.”

                  “Thank you,” I said, doing my best to keep my surprise from showing.

                  “I keep getting feedback from clients that you’re courteous and always a pleasure to work with. That’s the sort of thing I like to hear. Having that sort of rapport with anyone, big or small, is important.”

                  I nodded.

                  “Even your internal feedback is fantastic. Your turnaround time for in-company stuff is impressive.”

                  I thanked her again and everything else in her office fell silent.

                  “But, with all that positivity out of the way, if you’re having issues with your stress levels then that’s something that needs to be addressed. I can’t have you breaking down on me again. So if you want time away from work then you should take it. A couple of days or a week, whatever you need.”

                  “I’ll think about it and I’ll tell you if anything’s the matter.”

                 She smiled and then I left.


I rode this wave of newfound confidence uncertainly.

                  “I thought it would be decent of me to apologise for my behaviour yesterday. The way I treated you was unacceptable. It was inappropriate of me.” Before any sort of reply could be made, I pressed on. “I brought something to make it up to you.”

                  I held my offering out at arm’s length.

                  “Is that paper?” asked the printer.

                  “Yes. Photo quality.”

                  “Ooh. That’s the really smooth kind, right?”                                                       

                  I nodded.

                  “Well, that’s very sweet of you. I’ve got a dedicated tray down there for that. Go ahead, you can load it in.”

                  I’d elected to visit the printer during my lunch break where the chance of our conversation being interrupted was slimmer.

                  “I really buggered you around and I’m sorry for that. Also, I was lying about getting that fax. I can’t even do faxes.”

                  “I know. Yesterday was a bad day for me and I’m sorry I took it out on you.”

                  “Look, you’re a nice guy, so here’s a piece of advice for you. I doubt anyone else is going to tell you this. You’d be better off ignoring us. Find somebody else to talk to.”


I headed downstairs, spent the remainder of my lunch break sitting at my predetermined table thinking about how best to approach the waitress. I nixed countless ideas on what to do and felt stupid for even having considered some of them. I chided myself for coming back. I told myself that my hopefulness was misplaced. In the middle of my self-abuse, the waitress wandered over to me.

                  “My lazy-eyed friend has returned. Good job finding your way back.”

                  “It’s already tough having a fictitious medical condition without it being made fun of. I’ll have you know that a majority of men simply suffer in silence.”

                  She chuckled. “So do you work close by or something?”

                  “I’m upstairs, yeah.”

                  “Ah. No wonder you always seem to be in here.”

                  Our conversation flatlined and for a second I felt anxious, felt like shutting down. Before the silence between us widened further, I leapt.

                  “It’s Claire, right?” She nodded.                 “I didn’t really come here for the coffee. I… wanted to see you again.”

                  “I thought so. I got told you were looking for me yesterday.”

                  “I’d really like to make up for what I did the other day.”


                  I fumbled for words. “We could do dinner or something, maybe? I don’t know…”

                  I felt out of practice and awkward. For a moment, I thought about fleeing. I wanted my seat to swallow me whole.

                  “Well, I’m okay with that as long as you’re able to maintain eye contact this time.”

                  I blushed. “I’ll do my best.”

                  She wrote her number on the bill and told me to get hold of her closer to the weekend.


I texted Claire the following day because I wasn’t prepared to make an actual phone call. I’d feel too on-the-spot and my words would come out stuttered. I’d sound simple and she’d make some rushed assessment of me. That’s happened to me in the past. If I phoned, things would go nowhere. So instead I texted her and the two of us made plans for the weekend. We’d start at this market, she said, and from there we could go for a walk in the park. After that, lunch maybe.

                  I agreed in a hurry. Excited, I answered positively. Only after the fact did I reread our little exchange and realise what I’d gotten myself into. I was being taken places I tended to avoid. The rest of my week built up to that weekend. I dreaded the idea of being amongst so many other people, but spending time with her, I hoped, would balance things out, would balance me out.


The marketplace was heaving, as daunting as I’d expected. Overcrowded was an understatement. I felt claustrophobic. I was surrounded and all I wanted to do was slink away somehow. Claire spent her time navigating us between stalls, the more obscure the better. I tried my best to follow her but I always got left behind. It was stupid of me because then I’d have to pluck up the courage to ask other people for help finding her.

                  “Having trouble keeping up?”

                  “This place is packed. I keep getting lost. I’m sorry.”

                  She smiled. “You don’t have to apologise. We could go somewhere quieter, if you’d like?”

                  “Yes, please.”

                  I fell into step alongside her, literally into step, matching her pedantically. It kept my mind off where we were and calmed me, helped me filter out the world around me. Thankfully, the people thinned too as we left the market and approached the park. We were in this beautiful garden laid out with ponds and water features, littered with trees both exotic and indigenous. After she found a bench for the two of us, we sat talking a while. Time slipped away and the afternoon became an evening.

                  “I’ve really enjoyed today.” I was exaggerating. No, wait, I wasn’t. I was lying. I hadn’t enjoyed today. I’d been a bundle of nerves most of the time. I had felt exposed and constantly on the lookout for somewhere to hide. There were a few moments where I was alright, sure, but only because I was close enough to her to not notice everything else bothering me.

                  “Well we could do it again sometime, if you’d like.”

                  I shrugged. “I’m usually a bit hesitant when it comes to talking to people.”

                  “Yeah, I’ve watched you sitting the world away from everyone. There’s no one to talk to there.”            

                  “I… uh… tend to avoid interacting with people if I don’t have to.”

                  “I’ve noticed that too.”

                  “Well, used to avoid. I… think maybe I can get better at it.”

                  We sat quietly for a few moments whilst around us the park came alive with noises. It was pleasant to just sit there and take it all in. The wind rustled through the trees playfully. Small streams burbled along happily. Birdsong became an intermittent backdrop to all of this. Passersby shared snippets of conversation with us as they walked nearby. In the distance, the sound of children playing could be heard.

                  “It’s really peaceful here, isn’t it?”

                  “Yeah. Plus, the conversation’s been really good.”

                  She smiled. “I’ve always noticed you talking to yourself when you come in for coffee. Were you building up the courage to talk to me?”

                  “Yeah, something like that.”




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