A girl walks into a bar: Pots, crochet and empathetic scientists

By Kerstin Hall

Champs is deserted. It has just gone 7 o’clock on a Thursday.

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The thing about living in a small town is that there are a lot of familiar faces. I can see the tattooed and husky-voiced waitress from the Red Café, locked in intense conversation with three bearded men. The bored barwoman stacking cups is an ex-classmate of mine. The hippie in the loose red shirt spends much of her time in Bot Gardens, wearing harem pants and no shoes.

Champs, home to the alternative kids, karaoke enthusiasts and fans of wooden panelling. It gives the impression that it is trying very hard to be an American sports bar, all dark with chrome corners. There are Harley Davidson wall hangings above the bar. Most of the clientele are tattooed and dreadlocks abound. Condensation drips slowly from the aircon and grunge music plays at low volume.

When I arrive, a couple are playing pool. The woman speaks in high-pitched, rapid Afrikaans and sinks a shot. Her competitor frowns and eyes the remaining balls dubiously.

I scout the room, searching for a victim. Champs’ patrons are a mixed crowd, more so than other bars in Grahamstown. Unlike The Rat and Parrot, the second home of every jock at Rhodes University, Champs caters for an older and moderately less drunk audience. Tonight, the average age looks to be about thirty.

I finger the silver chain around my neck. The problem is that people move in packs. I’m looking for someone on their own and preferably already somewhat tipsy. I spy a brittle girl at the end of the bar, chainsmoking and typing furiously on her phone. Her nails are long and manicured, her shoulders are straight and her brown hair is carefully combed. There is a half-empty glass of white wine on the bar. Everything about her screams “imminent nervous breakdown”.

I’m about to approach her, notebook in hand, when her boyfriend arrives. She laughs, hugs him tightly and puts her cellphone away.

I sigh and flop back onto the bench. Great. The female pool player annihilates her competition, sinking one ball after another. The unfortunate man buys another drink and hitches up his jeans, only for them to slip down again seconds later.

A new group moves over for a game of pool. There is a man who looks a bit like a leprechaun: short, with bold sideburns and a jolly smile that is usually reserved for the advertising industry. One of his friends, a woman, sits on the bench. I sidle over.

“Hello. Would you mind if I talked to you?”

Instant suspicion, but a grudging nod. “You a journalist?”

“Something like that.”

“We thought so. Because of the notebook.”

The bartender is making a sculpture out of empty shot glasses, stacking them into a monumental tower. “Living Dead Girl” is playing through the speakers.

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“Would you like to be famous?” I ask, checking my question arsenal. Ease her into it. “If so, for what?”

She relaxes slightly. “No, no, not at all. No thank you. That just seems terrifying really, people following you around and taking your picture.”

Not much to work with there. “When was the last time you sang to yourself or to someone else?”

“Like, this morning.”

“Which song?”

“I think it was Frank Sinatra. I like old crooners.”

The barwoman’s pyramid collapses, sending plastic cups skittering across the floor. Everyone winces.

“For what in your life do you feel most grateful?”

Her face brightens with this question. “Where is he?” She points to the bar. “That man over there. He’s lovely, just great.”

The man waves back.

“Also, the use of my hands. My favourite things are crocheting and pottery. I need my hands for those.”

Strange answer. I make a mental note and move to the next question.

“If you could wake up tomorrow having gained any ability or quality, what would it be?”

She pauses here. “Are we talking superhero stuff?”

“If you want. Give me a superhero answer and a regular one.”

“Okay, so superhero answer: I want to be like Mystique. Actually, honey, what’s the best superhero power?”

Her friend grins. “Regeneration.”

“No, no, I don’t want that.” She pauses again. “For non-superhero, I’m going to go with robust health.”

There again, something is not being said. I decide to try my luck.

“That’s an interesting response. Does that mean you currently aren’t healthy?”

Aaaaaaand she closes off. “That’s not something I’m comfortable sharing with strangers in a bar.”

Further prodding in this direction probably won’t be effective. She takes her turn in pool and I scan my list for the next question. I lean my head against the tall table beside me and instantly regret it when my hair sticks.

Groups of women enter Champs periodically. Women wearing colourful socks and flip-flops. Women in opaque knee highs, miniskirts and heels. Two wear strange furry hats, like dead cats tied to their heads. In contrast, the men are drab.

My victim returns to sit next to me.

“Is there anything you’ve dreamed about doing for a long time?” I ask.

Here, for the first time, she really warms to the question. “Actually yes.” She nods vigorously. “It’s a bit odd, but I’ve always had these story ideas. I’d really love to find someone to write them down.” I get the impression she is hinting, so I take the bait.

“Can you tell me a story? One in particular that’s on your mind?”

She is delighted. “Well, I’m really interested in empathy. That would be the title, ‘Empathy’. Imagine a scientist, who could make empathy, like, enable you to feel exactly what another person is going through. But there would be a murdered wife. It would start in a prison.”

This is shooting off in multiple directions and I’m writing notes frantically, trying to keep up with her enthusiasm.

“In the prison, empathy is used as a punishment. The prisoners have to feel the suffering of the victims. Anyway, the scientist uses this technology on his wife, who is back at home. He realises that she is actually really lonely because he is not paying her any attention because he is so busy with work.”

She grins triumphantly. “So he rushes home and finds that she has been murdered.”

I finish scribbling like a madwoman. “Cool.”

“You can use it, if you like.” She says offhandedly.

I put a full stop at the end of my sentence and consult my questions list. “Um… What is your most treasured memory?”

She spends time thinking, I notice. It’s unusual. Normally people try to answer straight away, to fill up the silence. But she sits for at least fifteen seconds, staring into space.

“I guess… I’m not a very historical person; I’d rather look forwards than backwards. But…Okay.”

“My parents had just divorced. I’d moved to Cape Town and I had my own room for the first time, with a rocking chair. I had Sherlock Holmes on audiobook. And that was the first time I really felt peaceful.” She smiles slightly and glances at her friend. He smiles back.

I think she has more stories to tell than she realises.

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