A girl walks into a bar: Encounters with religion and dragons

By Kerstin Hall

My cover has already been blown.

“I see you,” Chelsea laughs as I pass. Damn fellow Artbeat writers.

18.17

It’s still light outside, but the Rat is packed. Friday evening, time to let hair down and forget the week’s cumulative woes. Let the stress drift away, at least until Sunday, when assignments will rear their heads and shatter all illusions of control and organisation.

I kind of accidentally ordered a much bigger drink than originally planned. I misheard the barman and now I have a draught, which is not exactly what I had in mind. Oh well. It should last a while.

My chosen table is damp and my notebook does not approve. I have selected a new corner today. It’s airier and seemingly cockroach-free, plus it still commands an excellent view of the top floor.

“Hey! You know what I’m saying!”

“That’s it!” A hand is slammed repeatedly and emphatically against a table.

Stuart wanders over to say hi and tries to read my notes. No, Stuart. Go away. I’m working. He reads my first sentence and chuckles.

There is a sudden mass migration. A party of thickset rugby-player types vacates their table and marches off with much arm-swinging. There follows a game of musical tables, whereby a clan of newbies eagerly latches on to this prime property. Everyone shuffles along to new seats.

Today’s favoured fashion is the peaked cap. There is an approximate equivalence between the backward facers and the standard facers. The use of this headgear inside a building and in 2015 remains a mystery.

A bartender collects the abandoned drinks on my table and eyes me in mild suspicion.

“What?! Urghahhhh!”

“Do you mind if we sit here?” A large man, mid to late-thirties, with a broad face and checked red and white shirt. “We won’t disturb you. Actually, we probably will. We usually make a noise.”

He is accompanied by two other men of a similar age. A fourth man joins them a few minutes later. They tell me that they are part of a theological college and I must not judge them for the alcohol and cigarettes. I promise a judgment-free space.

The man who greeted me is from Mitchell’s Plain. I find his accent soothing; it reminds me of home. We talk briefly about Cape Town while his friends peruse the menu and comment on the rugby. There is a TV screen right above our table.

“Now that’s formation, that’s formation.” One of them says approvingly.

All I can tell is that the players in the blue shirts appear to be beating the players in the stripy shirts.

“I hope they stay like that.”

The conversation shifts to the topic of fast cars. This is equally unintelligible to me. Especially as Mitchell’s Plain Guy (MPG) continually switches between Afrikaans and English. My taal skills have deteriorated in this English town. They learn I am a journalist and make jokes about me writing stories about their antics without realizing that this is exactly what I am occupied with.

The waitress brings a milk stout, a coke, a draft and some drink I do not recognize. She informs MPG that the pizzas could take a while; they’ve had a lot of orders. Business is booming.

“You aren’t writing about us, are you?”

“Ag, why would she care about what we have to say?”

I laugh.

MPG takes a swallow of his coke and suffers a coughing fit.

“Soooo good.” I hear a strident female voice from across the room. “It’s supposed to be, like, the restaurant in town.”

The men are here until Easter and then they will leave for Durban, Knysna and Mosselbaai. The local weather confuses them immensely. They can’t wait to get out of town and am amazed that I have spent four years in this place.

“Cape Townians say they have four seasons in one day. Grahamstown has eight seasons in one day. It was 37 degrees and then it clouded over and started hailing.”

“I hear its bliksem cold in winter.”

I tell them I wish it would snow; it’s never snowed while I’ve been here. MPG says he has never seen snow in the real world.

It’s darker outside now. I should check the time.

“I want to run in the snow and throw you with snowballs…”

“Nonononono. You’re not going to throw me.”

19.01

Chelsea and Stuart leave. There is another game of musical tables. MPG lights up a cigarette.

“When they ask for stories about Grahamstown, when we get back to Durban…”

“No, no, I’m not telling, I’m not sharing anything with them.”

I do wonder what these law-abiding Christians have gotten up to during their sojourn in Makana.

The open window to my right is nice. The night air runs fingers through my hair. I’ve got my legs pulled up and my back is against the railing. I can see the distant and scattered lights of Joza. To my left, the central table is littered with empty glasses; they flicker in the changing light of the TVs.

“And suddenly, he goes into silence.” The statement strikes me as poetic. I did not hear the context. I do not even know who said it.

The waitress arrives and MPG serenades her in a croaky and decidedly off-key voice. She looks immensely confused, but laughs anyway. Once all orders are confirmed, she beats a hasty retreat, her business-like plait swinging from side to side.

“You know when I came here, when I first came here, I felt so alone.”

My draught is serving me well. Happy mistake. This might actually prove to be a more affordable option in the long term.

A new couple sits down amidst the devastation of empty vessels. The woman rubs her lips while he talks and nods a little. Hiding your mouth during conversation – a sign that you are lying. Speak no evil. She catches me looking at her and I pretend to know someone behind her.

19.20

The pizzas arrive. Two large Bacovians – the best the Rat has to offer. MPG offers me a slice and I politely decline. It’s best to be professional. Argh, the smell is killing me.

Although my theological company have somewhat interrupted my plans, I am not unhappy. I like these guys, their good-natured conversations and throaty cackles. The familiar accents of home, the cheerful complaining. I am secure and comfortable.

MPG folds his pizza double, like a sandwich, and gives the waitress a thumbs-up.

At a table by the bar, a girl with a crew cut waves her cigarette and breathes smoke from her nose. Like a dragon, I think to myself. Her black jacket is embossed with swirling red designs, fire or flowers or tentacles. She moves like a dancer without a beat; her body ripples as she gestures, unconsciously graceful.

The men are down to the last slice. The poor piece sits there awkwardly, awaiting consumption. Who will take it?

MPG!

No, wait; he was just collecting stray bacon.

The men cannot make eye contact with the slice; this triangle of deliciousness is a culinary accusation, growing cold.

Seriously? Does eating it constitute a cardinal sin?

At last, guiltily, one of them takes the offending slice with an apologetic smile. The others are relieved, released from the responsibility.

19.40

“I hope you guys enjoyed your pizza. Anything else?”

MPG turns to me. “Anything for you, my dear?”

“No, no, I’m good.” I smile.

MPG and his friends order another round. Mouth Hider gets up abruptly and leaves. Her partner trails after her.

“It’s gonna be a hard game,” remarks on of the men, looking at the screen thoughtfully. A new match is on. Limpopo is losing to the Golden Lions.

The round arrives and the waitress spills a little of one of the drinks.

“Don’t worry, it’s fine, it’s fine.” MPG says, dabbing up the liberated beer with a sodden serviette.

The Dragon gets up. “Oh my gosh, yes.” She fiercely hugs a blond girl wearing a very short skirt. They break apart and then embrace again, with genuine warmth and affection. I feel it gets excessive after the third hug. The Dragon has entirely forgotten her date, who sheepishly types on his phone.

19.55

“And I’m like, I actually want to cry.”

MPG loans his lighter to a passing stranger, who nods in appreciation. These guys drink extremely slowly, savouring each other’s company. No rush, no pressing need to obliterate sobriety. The bar has grown less busy, which surprises me. Ed Shereen’s “A Team” is playing and it makes me feel bluesy.

“Just say yes.”

“Say yes, my friend.”

“No.” Says MPG.

“Yes means yes.”

“No way.”

Smoke drifts from the ashtray, like blossoms, growing and entwining. In the dull wake of voices, I am washed.

One of the men slaps the table in mirth. “No, there’s no aerobics anymore.” He roars with laughter.

My drink is done. But that’s okay. I don’t think I need another.  I say goodbye to the men and go home.

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