Prose | Caitlin Stobie

Spaces / Places

An accident can shake up how you view time and space, like a childhood memory of a kaleidoscope lens: sharp red and emerald fragments turning sepia as they grind against the here and now. My most recent fall brought up one such set of shards. There’s no concussion, dizziness, or tinnitus, but the injury has still changed something about my head. I’ve seen that I’ve been zoning, stuck in two different times at once. I’ve been confusing spaces with places.

*

The satirical novelist Tom Sharpe once described my home town as “half the size of a New York cemetery and twice as dead”. Pietermaritzburg is wedged in a dry bowl between mountains and sea; head for the highway, turn left or right, and within an hour you’ll either reach the foothills of the Drakensberg or the Indian Ocean, where hills of sugar cane shimmer with waves.
          My childhood was spent waiting for the weekends we’d drive to one of these places. While my sister collected cowries and the adults squinted for oil tankers, I’d turn to stare long and hard at the cityscape. I’d burrow my toes in rough sand and wish on Durban’s lights to live there, instead, with its humid winters. Then a breaker would knock my back and send me swimming.
          More than once, my sister begged to take some gobies home and at the end of the trip, in the car that smelled of dust and sun, I’d clutch onto jam jars full of our new pets. Within a few days, the fish would be dead. Then the waiting would start again.
          So, like many kids in once-colonised countries, I styled my address by centralising space. After the street and postcode, I’d embellish each letterhead and envelope with

KwaZulu-Natal
South Africa
Africa
Earth
The Milky Way
The Universe.

Together with an old map of the galaxy I’d stuck next to my bed, these lines gave me comfort. Places mattered less when I remembered we all are very, very small.
          In high school, a few classmates and I were interviewed on a TV show about local travel. Pre-selected for purposes of Diversity, we were there to represent both Pietermaritzburg and the Born Free generation – whatever that may mean. In a cabinet somewhere there is a video tape of one of the young hosts, a glamorous redhead from Jo’burg, asking, “Is this place, like, a dorp, or something smaller?”. Neither, I wanted to reply. It is a non-place. Just space.
          After a few years in the Eastern Cape, where I did my undergraduate degree, I moved to the UK. The climatic differences between Pietermaritzburg and Durban paled after wintering in England. Some friends from KZN moved here, too. Before 2020, when we still saw each other, we’d laugh about the inevitable question from well-meaning acquaintances: “Cape Town or Jo’burg?”. We’d compare the spaces we’d left with the places we’d met. Most of all, we’d talk about what lies above.
          Take two maps: one of South Africa, one of the UK. The measurements just cannot compare. As in land, so above; dissimilarity is scaled through a mirror of blue. Isn’t it, we’d nod to each other, the truth? First thing you notice after disembarking. The sky gives away where you’ve landed. In Europe it’s apologetic, with wisps of cirrus clouds. Even summer days can be washed-out as Turner’s paintbrush.
          Africa’s sky is, and has always been, different: in 1890, Olive Schreiner described the Karoo sky in a letter to Havelock Ellis as “stainless blue, with just one cloud floating in it like a ship, one doesn’t know why”. When there’s a truly clear day, we’d say, the sky seems so saturated – pregnant with the twinned potential of droughts and storms – that it’s hard not to feel stranded. Especially when you’re inland. Sometimes, it is just too big to feel like belonging, to feel at home.
          Home: the word that sucked at our guts, even as we shucked it from our tongues. Little limpet of recognition.

*

There is a short strip of cycle lane near Leeds Arts University. I ride along here once or twice a week on my way to the supermarket where plant-based foods are cheapest. The lane is next to a school and a row of old trees keel over its fence, lifting concrete with their roots.
          It’s a few days before the start of England’s second national lockdown, but undergraduates are spilling over the path. I am cycling fast, mind far from wet autumns, as I think about Agnès Varda. After her passing in 2019, I felt too struck to touch her documentaries for a while. With a year’s distance I have decided to watch Visages Villages. I am thinking about faces and places and seeing dry-winter towns through tinted glasses.
          A couple of students are walking in the cycle lane. I ring my bell and another woman moves but the pair keep talking with their hands. There’s enough distance between us to try again, but just then, my front tyre hits a tarred-over root. The bell is not where it should be. I look down and then up and down again and I am starting to skid into a muddy bank of leaves between the cycle lane and the motorway.
          Three trains of thought split ahead at once. The first must come from the reptilian brain, an instinct too pre-verbal to phrase, but it’s the thing that makes me curl my head to my chest and twist away from the barriers that I am most definitely about to slide into. Second there’s screaming from what must be the ego: expletives and a string of words like nowhy / ohno / whyoh on repeat. Last comes a reflection from somewhere that feels both deep and detached as the metal strikes once, twice, thrice: “It’s not too bad. Could’ve been worse. Not my face, at least.”
          “Are you okay? Did you hit your head?” a woman asks. I try to answer but time feels like it’s rushing forwards and my body just wants to lie flat in the past for a bit. She steps closer – though still more than two metres away – and takes out her phone. The students have moved off the cycle lane now. They peer from behind her: a Greek chorus.
          I sit up and shake my head as if I’m a lolloping dog. My right ear feels hot and wet but the fingers come back clean after I reach into the canal. The woman seems pleased.
          “You’re not bleeding then. You’re sure you don’t want me to stay? Till you ring someone I mean.”
          This brings another string of little words, though quieter than before: noone / nobody. The first people I think of are my family, who are scattered between London, rural Ireland, and two non-places in South Africa. My friends are in the last throes of finishing their theses. In a passing second I think of my ex, but my neediness in such moments led us to breaking up; our relationship just grazed the vulnerability of the body. I stand and tell the woman I’ll be fine. (The Greek chorus make off as soon as I get on my feet.)
          It’s after they’ve walked away that I see my leggings have been torn, and a square inch of skin has come off my knee. Three of my knuckles are scraped with mud and blood. The throbbing pressure on the right side of my head turns to stinging and there’s russet on the wool of my jumper. I push my bicycle to my nearby medical practice but there are Covid awareness signs plastered over the entrance. Strictly no entry. Pre-bookings only. I lean against a bike rack and wipe myself down. My phone’s front camera shows the top of my ear is sliced open.
          Still, not my face, at least.

*

I might like rusks because I never encountered them when I was growing up. Most of my friends’ parents were of Irish and Scottish descent and so afternoon teas meant milk tart (not melktert) or pastel-hued Zoo biscuits. In more Americanised households, we were offered Oreos. We called our hosts Mrs X or Mr Y and said Yes Please instead of Ja.
          In my first year of university, I learnt there were several brands of rusks. Boxes of various sizes lined an aisle in the student supermarket. Condensed Milk flavour seemed strange to someone who ate it, on occasions like birthdays, straight out the tin with friends from res. I explored more austere flavours, like Wholewheat and Poppyseed. At first they were a cheap breakfast that held down each morning’s chicory-coffee mixture. Then I became conditioned. Rusks were a reward for reading, an antidote to scholarly anxiety.
          These were the years leading up to the initial Rhodes Must Fall protests. The statue was still standing at UCT. At Rhodes University, we were asked to read Shakespeare and Wordsworth and J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace. In one of our lectures, a man (the speaker was almost always a man) made a passing reference to non-places. It was unsettling to learn this was an established concept, not a word pulled from a child’s head.
          Marc Augé’s theory zooms in on those spaces where anonymity blooms, like freeways, supermarkets, and other fleeting zones of human contact. By then, I knew places weren’t spaces; a space is meant to be something abstract, while a place is a certain piece of space that has meaning. But doesn’t that mean non-places are just another type of space, I wondered.
          The non-place paradox states that such zones appear universal, and transcend culture, because everyone is equally alienated by them. It’s in their loneliness, in other words, that we all feel at home. But this couldn’t explain the beggars living in the car park of the student supermarket. Mine workers walked along the national route every day, memorising speckles of tarmac like constellations: to them, surely, the space of the highway held more meaning? Then there were thoughts of teenagers in shopping malls, toddlers jumping up and down in airports. Or, more soberly, a coercive Romanticist in a motel room. It seemed to me that the academic explanation for non-places was childlike, in its own way. Still, I stirred Cremora in my coffee and picked up a rusk and kept reading.
          I liked: to tell people Muesli rusks were accidentally vegan; learning how they softened and how to lift them from my mug at just the right moment, when their heaviness still held some bite; the way they lasted for ages – like all old boerekos – so I didn’t feel compelled to finish an open box. But they made me uncomfortable. Sometimes, just one could leave me feeling heavy for hours. If I mentioned them to friends who weren’t vegetarian, the conversation would turn to other South African exports, biltong and wors, the words rotating like carcasses at the back of a grocery. And, still, it’s impossible to forget rusks are steeped in histories of scarcity and violence, even when speaking with Yorkshiremen.
          Most English people think rusks are ugly, only for teething babies. Ugly comes from the Old Norse ugga: to dread. I wonder how these misshapen little lumps translate to just the opposite, how they comfort me, how they make me want to say nca, even though my tongue never twists that way.
          Before all the lockdowns, I converted one friend to rusks. I liked that he didn’t ask me to roll my Rs, the last letters of the word clipped on his teeth as if calling a cat. This was our ritual: we’d make tea (Honeybush, Yorkshire). In front of our mugs we’d line up two rusks each. Then we’d just sit and slurp and talk and talk until we were drinking crumbs.
          We’d speak about animals and Coetzee. I’d tell of the ways the east coast felt like a cross between The Wicker Man and a neo-Western. Small aircraft and road trips; an inch of snow melting on tussock grass; libraries of red brick and verdigris blending into flat charismatic churches; eating seasonally in ugly bungalows; pagan explanations for TB resistance. There were elements that required further frames of reference: Bollywood, Shaka ZuluTsotsi. Smoky kwela music cut to police sirens. A biryani recipe by anti-apartheid activist Zuleikha Mayat serving 800 people, calling for 4kg of ginger (and a ull cup of turmeric powder, ‘used sparingly’).
          “Someone will get to the roots of it one day,” I’d say, “the place that’s never seen on screens. The negative space of Disgrace.”

*

I rest for just over 24 hours in the wake of the accident. It’s a long time since I’ve had rusks but the past keeps popping up and I crave comfort. I call Arththi to vent about urban planning, about the cycling lane. Then she reminds me of an appointment we’ve booked for the day before lockdown starts. Leeds Bike Mill are offering free bicycle checks. Will I be okay to ride there? Can I handle the coincidence?
          It feels good to get up the next day, even with the oozing knee. I put a plaster on my ear and tuck it beneath a beanie. We take it slow on our way to the city centre. It’s one of those northern days when the horizon’s white, but the ether is deep blue. Passing Woodhouse Moor and the universities, there are even more couples and children and leashed dogs than the other day. Students still stretch along the cycle lane. The bank of leaves against the barrier is the only giveaway of where I fell. Already my anger is starting to dampen.
          The man checking the bicycles has gentle eyes; we can’t see the rest of his face, but his voice matches. He says our bikes will be ready in an hour. We linger in the market. Arththi introduces me to a Tunisian food stall. I take her to a tiny shop that sells South African imports. I show her the rusks and chutney, buy her a Stoney and a Wilson’s. The cashier overhears my warning that the ginger beer induces sneezes. She adds that it’s unwise to chew the toffee. Once I’ve paid, the woman asks where I’m from.
          I tell her KZN, thinking of open spaces, of possibilities.
          “Oh,” she says, “Durban. Durban by the sea.”
          The words I’d wished to hear as a child don’t sound like home in her mouth. She repeats it quickly, Durban-by-the-sea. I smile and suck the treacle sweet. It’s hard as bronze.

*

I’m on my way to meet Clare, who teaches on the same course as me at the arts university.
          “Am at the statue,” she texts. “Where are you?”
          There are three plinths in Woodhouse Moor: each is located on a corner, if you see the park as a rough diamond. I am standing by the statue that’s closest to the university. The Duke of Wellington’s effigy is complete with rust-coloured boots. Clare replies to say she’s waiting near Sir Robert Peel, an old prime minister whom I believe was spray-painted over the summer. We meet in the middle and walk to see if the third statue, of Queen Victoria, is still standing after the Black Lives Matter protest. It is (of course it is). Soon we’ve walked every single path in the park.
          “As if we’re hamsters on a wheel,” she says.
          I tell her about the fall. My ear is healing over and I like to think the asymmetry makes me look hardy but cute, like a stray. We talk about fungi, lichens and algae. It’s true, we laugh. Every writer we know seems to be taking pictures of mushrooms. The conversation turns to travel and everywhere we can’t go.
          “It’s strange how we used to romanticise airports and aeroplanes.”
          “Yeah,” she replies, “that whole theory of non-places! Ugh.” Now Augé is here, again – though we’re quite far from here and it’s not really now. In South Africa, we don’t say just-now; it’s now-now, from the Afrikaans nou-nou. Repetition with difference.
          We’re revisiting the fourth corner of the park. There’s no statue here, just a community garden and a kit of pigeons (flight patterns defying the logic of flock). They lift and drop, lift and drop, around a Polite Notice someone’s tied to a tree; it asks people to feed them seeds instead of crumbs, to stop attracting rats. Still, the birds feast on chunks of white bread.
          The path is split for pedestrians and cyclists. A fat earthworm glistens and moves towards the cycle lane with impressive speed. We bend on our haunches and, with slow fingers, I pick it up.
          “Ew,” Clare says. “They look like intestines. Well I guess that’s what they are. Little tubes.”
          “True.” Its pigmentation seems mottled with blue. “I wonder if they have veins.” Is it possible to imagine a face? Almost. Minus the ears, eyes, nose. I toss it onto a knot of grass.
          “Hope it was meaning to go that way.”
          “Oh dear. Maybe it’ll go back again.”
          “Not if it’s squashed by a cyclist.”
          I think of the fury that first gripped me when I crashed my bike. The students who were unaware of their surroundings. Then I wonder how many worms I have ridden over in my time. Add to that the countless active violences, the snails and fish plucked from rock pools. Like all beasts I, too, am equal-parts dreadful and soft inside, moving sharp as a tongue, sometimes gutsy but always at risk. I have taken comfort in imaginary places and later been confronted by ugliness. But of all the spaces I could’ve landed, I’d rather settle here and now with the pests, the pigeons and fungi, than in any other corner of the park. Or, perhaps, earth.
          Imagine that: a now-place. A place for the people and creatures who see how negative space, how disgrace, are all just complications of the clear blue.
          As we keep cycling and talking and walking, through the third lockdown and into whatever may happen now or just-now or now-now, I feel my Leeds friends get this. Despite our shifting accents and all the ways we cannot share rusks or even touch. To the messiness of the present we each bring some portion of comfort. We make our own meaning of home. All faces, searching places, feeding on crossed roots.


Caitlin Stobie lives in Leeds, where she is researching planetary health and poetry. Her writing has appeared in BerfroisPlumwood MountainStand, Tears in the FenceZoomorphic and elsewhere, and her debut poetry manuscript was shortlisted for the Melita Hume Poetry Prize (2017) and the Rædleaf International Poetry Award (2016). She is an editorial assistant at Stand and teaches creative writing at Leeds Arts University. 

Website: www.caitlinstobie.com 
Twitter: @caitlinstobie

‘Spaces / Places’ was first commissioned and published by SPROUT.

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