Swigging from the can, Malcolm stepped out of The General Store, straight onto the only tarred road in this tiny Oregonian town, village really. There were no pavements. Which was hardly surprising, given that there wasn’t much of anything around here. Even people were in short supply. The town boasted it had a population of around three hundred and they were proud of this fact. There was almost twenty-five kilometres in three directions of nothing else but trees, and the ocean lurking on the fourth side, masked behind a thick layer of greenery. Trees, now that was one thing this area had plenty of. And sheep.
Malcolm looked around him and swore the wooden giants had taken a step closer in. He kicked a stray can. It skidded across the tar. The thing didn’t even clatter right – dull and flat, just like his cheap, generic cooldrink. The trees ate the noise like they ate everything else, absorbing light and sound into those evergreen needles. Needles that got into socks, down waistbands and under collars, making you itch.
He gave a hopeless glance around for Becca’s bakkie. No sign. He kicked a rock. It tripped off into the long grass bordering the road, which was probably full of ticks. They had tick-borne lyme disease here, along with the threat of West Nile fever from the mosquitoes. And people kept asking him if you could get malaria or ebola in Cape Town – ridiculous!
He kept walking. An old man in a baseball cap walked past; they made eye contact, nodded, then life moved on. A few minutes later an old lady with her Zimmer-frame shuffled by. They made eye contact, nodded, then the moment was over. Malcolm never knew if he preferred it this way, or when the locals tried to make an effort.
“So how d’you like it here?” they would ask. He would smile and nod. But he always wondered what would happen if he told them the truth: “It’s boring.”
Either way, this constant greeting of people was awkward. In Cape Town you could easily wander around ignoring everyone. But people here were insulted if you didn’t wave. His mother told him: ‘When in Rome…’ He told her: ‘Find a new cliché’.
Malcolm stepped into The Hall, relieved to find it empty. The place was never locked. Not that there was anything to steal. The building was such a mess it wouldn’t look out of place in Khayelitsha. The whitish-grey paint was peeling, the roof sagged, and the whole building tilted disturbingly to the right. Any day now it would probably collapse into a woodpile, or burst into flames. But nobody local acted concerned, using it for everything: dances, kiddie groups, AA meetings, birthday parties, yoga sessions and pensioner teas.
A piano occupied a dusty corner. He wandered over to it, letting his hands brush over the keys. Thanks to his mother the instrument was in tune, but its damper pedal was shot. “A piano designed to play only Bach,” she declared, with the incessant positive attitude she had adopted when they first arrived.
The composer Bach was supposedly the reason they were here. The summer program, Bach from Around the Globe, had his mother in attendance to represent Africa. He was pretty sure Africa would be less than pleased to hear it was being represented by a white woman. Then again, he wasn’t so sure the majority of the continent gave much thought to Bach – although people would mess all over themselves if you said something like that out loud.
It was an invitation from something Americans called a ‘community college’ – like a mini university – only you had to transfer if you wanted to finish your degree. His mother claimed to be ‘honoured’ by the invitation. Malcolm thought it was obvious that the ‘honour’ was a favour from her old school friend, Althea, who had immigrated here to America years ago. But you didn’t mention that out loud, either.
He sat down on the old piano stool. Its spindly left leg wobbled, so he steadied himself, then reached out his hands, fondling the keys, tickling out a few bars here and there. He struck a chord, then another. Gradually his hands warmed up and took on a life of their own. Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring began to tumble out of the piano like a spilled puzzle. Then he took a breath and took control of the rhythm. The music began to reveal itself, like a woman slipping out of tight blue jeans.
Must. Not. Think. About. Bra-less. Girl.
He shook his head and glanced out of The Hall’s door. The trees were watching. Hastily, he returned his attention to the music. If his friends could see him now, they’d never believe it. They had been so jealous he was coming here. The way they all talked it was like Malcolm was bound for New York, LA or even Florida.
How could he possibly explain this place, with trees that stretch on for ages – like the sky in the Karoo. They didn’t end. Oregon wood. Everybody in South Africa had heard of ‘Oregon pine’, but in Oregon there was no such thing. The place had more types of blasted evergreens than Table Mountain had proteas.
He glanced back out. They were still there, looming like giants keeping constant vigil. He repressed a shudder. He hated them. They hemmed everything in, creating an isolated tree-island, no matter where he went. And as the only black person on this ‘island’, Malcolm was looking forward to the day he got off it and went back to Rondebosch in Cape Town.
Tell us: Have you ever suffered from homesickness?