Eva pressed her forehead to the window and watched the ruffle of waves
rimming the coastline recede from view as the plane nosed its way toward
Johannesburg. The dirt roads were visible, clawed into a land pitted and scarred
by drought. She knew the hell of driving them, how dusty and worn she'd feel
after jolting along one, nothing to look at for hour upon hour but rocks and
thorn trees. Maybe, if she was lucky, a jackal, a snake. Africa lay stretched
beneath her like the ravaged hide of some ancient beast, and something fierce
shuddered inside her, a love that startled her and set off another round of
The girls sitting behind her were talking to one another. Sixteen hours into
the flight and she still couldn't identify the language, definitely not Xhosa,
she hadn't heard any of the characteristic clicks, and not Sotho because she
would surely have recognized the rhythms if not any of the words. At least they
It was September, the plane only half full. Unlike the other passengers who
had shifted around after takeoff to secure banks of seats for themselves, the
three girls had stayed together. They wore dark blue pinafores and light blue
shirts. They looked too old to be schoolgirls, but then Eva thought of
overcrowded classrooms in the townships, where twenty-year-old pupils shared
textbooks and wrote their matric exams sitting on cement floors.
They sang for the first time just before the dinner service and their voices,
full of sunshine and honey and dust, had disturbed in Eva some sodden longing
for what used to be home. She wiped her eyes with a blue South African Airways
blanket. She was crying for her father, because of her father. She shook her
head in mild disgust at herself. Her mother was dead, worthy of her grief, and
yet here she was weeping for that miserable ghost clinging to life in a hospital
in Louis Trichardt.
She drank two small bottles of red wine with dinner and swallowed half a
sleeping pill. The soft voices behind her were murmuring something as she
drifted off. In her sozzled state she imagined it to be a lullaby, the private
twittering of doves in a thicket.
Now, with an hour left in what had seemed like a never-ending flight, Eva
stared at the cratered red earth giving way to a smooth dun-colored expanse
mottled with dark green. Sand rivers that flow for just a few weeks each year if
the rains are decent wound across the land like snail trails. Someone kneed her
through the seat. The girls were giggling, piling on top of one another to look
out of their small window, and she impulsively leaned over her seat back,
saying, "Isn't it beautiful?"
They nodded, two of them immediately raising hands to demurely cover their
mouths, while the third, a young woman really, looked curiously at Eva. She
wanted to ask them what they'd been doing in America. Were they members of a
youth group or a choir? Had a church sponsored their trip? The forthright gaze
of the young woman deterred Eva from asking as she realized that she, in turn,
would be questioned. She already had her lines prepared, she would claim to be
an American tourist. She would lie to the girls, as she had for most of her
years in New York, changing her story each time; one moment an immigrant from
New Zealand, another a student visiting from England.
She slid back into her seat. It had been ten years since she'd left the
country, and left her father standing in front of the Dutch Reformed church in
Alldays. Now he was dying.
The shadow of the plane slid across the turquoise pools of Johannesburg's
northern suburbs, buckled over ocher-colored slag heaps piled beside exhausted
gold mines. The wheels thudded onto the runway, and the girls launched into
"Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika." Other passengers seated in her section joined in, the
white South Africans humming because the Xhosa words of their new anthem still
eluded them, the blacks giving full voice. A smiling American family seated at
the bulkhead stood up to watch, the father filming it all with a video camera.
They were going on safari; Eva had overheard them talking to the steward.
A Man Called Intrepid author dies aged 89(Dec 03 2013) William Stevenson, a journalist and author who drew on his close ties with intelligence sources to write two best-selling books in the 1970s, A Man Called...