Thursday, January 22, 2015

First Chapter of Contagious Hope

Chapter One

I stand still, cocooned with indecision as people swirl past. The drifts of humanity tell me I’m in a different place; one with foreign languages, strange accents, and dark skins. Dozens of black faces surround me, some with big smiles and white teeth, and others framed with cornrows, braids, and beads. All of them talk loudly, some seemingly shouting to someone on the far side of the arrivals hall. A woman in flamboyant emerald and orange jostles me and I clutch my bags protectively. I was warned to be careful at the airport. Apparently, thieves loiter here, preying on unsuspecting tourists. But I’m not a tourist, I remind myself, taking a deep breath and straightening my spine. I’m on a mission to help the local people, not fear them.

 I spin in a tight circle, absorbing the glass walls and modern curves of the airport. It’s far more first-world than I expected and I’m impressed. A row of men form a loose barrier to the left, holding up signs with names on them. That’s what I’m looking for. The person from the mission house who is picking me up must be over there. The crowd parts as I struggle forward, suitcase dragging behind me, bag clutched firmly under my arm. A mechanical voice drones in the background. “This is a safety conscious airport. Please do not leave your
bags unattended.”
The row of men becomes a line of individuals representing hotels and taxi companies. I read the signs from left to right, ignoring the hands that hold them and the faces above, looking only for my name. For something that is familiar and safe. Savannah James. I spot it towards the middle and raise my eyes to the bearer. He turns out to be a well-built young guy with a big grin and unruly hair the colour of chocolate toffee. Relief washes over me as I angle myself towards him, pulling my suitcase behind me.
“Hi,” I say, stopping next to him. “I’m Savannah.”
His grin broadens as he sticks out a hand. “Kia ora, Savannah. My name’s Blake Baxter. Pleased to meet you.”
I laugh out loud. “I didn’t know South Africans could speak Maori.”
“They can’t,” Blake replies. “I was born and bred in the thriving metropolis of Timaru.”
“No!” I’m surprised by this unexpected appearance of a fellow Kiwi. “I’m from Christchurch but also lived in Auckland for a few years. We often drive down to Timaru at Christmas for the carnival.” I look at him. “But you don’t sound like a New Zealander.”
“My dad’s American and I’ve just spent a year in the States so my accent’s a bit of a mixture.” He takes my suitcase and gestures for me to follow him. “I’m here for a couple of months to volunteer at Mercy House. Already done one of
them – and then I’m heading back to New Zealand.”
I walk next to him as he manoeuvres my suitcase towards the exit. “Thanks for coming to pick me up.”
“Your first trip to South Africa?”
“Yeah, I haven’t been farther than Australia before.”
We plunge into a wall of heat outside the terminal building and my skin dehydrates instantly, tightening across my bones. If it’s this hot at 10am, what will the noon day heat be like? Blake turns to look at me. “You okay? The mission van is a fair walk from here.”
“Yes, that’s no problem.” I match my stride to his and we weave through a crowd heading in the opposite direction. An unfamiliar odour lingers in the air, a mixture of hot tarmac and sweat, reminding me again that this is not home.
The van turns out to be a scruffy banger of indeterminate age. Blake loads my bags into the back and locks the door before opening the passenger side for me. “Lock your door,” he instructs as he climbs into the driver’s seat. “Hijackings are common in Johannesburg and while I don’t think they’d target this decrepit old thing, it’s best to be safe.” He sets the GPS and soon we are out on the highway. It’s like Auckland only much busier with roads and bridges spiralling in all directions.
“So what do you know about Mercy House?” Blake asks as he accelerates.
I don’t answer at first, alarmed by the speed he’s travelling at. Then I see the signs along the roadside. So the
speed limit in South Africa is 120 kilometres per hour.
Blake laughs as he follows my eyes. “You have to keep up or the other drivers get angry. In fact, most of them travel at 140. You’ll get used to it.”
“I hope so.”
“And going back to my question …”
I pull my thoughts to order. “I’ve seen the Youtube presentation of the mission house – along with the information pack and photos they sent me. I know Hillbrow is a dangerous area but I’m excited to be here.”
“It’s a real eye opener but you’ll see for yourself. I won’t try and explain.” He gestures to the skyline in the distance, the skyscrapers and towers silhouetted against a smattering of smog. “Hillbrow is next to the CBD and used to be a sought-after residential and shopping area. Much of it is comprised of blocks of flats that used to be inhabited by a mixture of yuppies and older folk. These days many are occupied by squatters.”
“And Mercy House is in one of those?”
“It is indeed.”
Blake is silent for a moment as he looks for a gap in the traffic and changes lanes. I gaze across the buildings that line the highway, boxy concrete structures with residential homes set beyond them. Everything is bigger than I’m used to and I suddenly feel lost and alone. When Grandpa told me stories of Africa, they were of dusty roads, mud huts, and brown streams. He spoke of mission churches with whitewashed walls and fields planted with stunted corn. The landscape before me does not look like a mission field but I know it is. I think again of Grandpa and the promise I made him before leaving New Zealand; of the secret he entrusted into my care.
Blake swings to the left and exits the highway. “I need to pick up a parcel for Bob and Lily who head up Mercy House. It will only take a few minutes.” He heads into suburbia and I get a closer look at the houses. “It’s so different from New Zealand,” I say, noting the high walls, electric gates, and armed security signage. It’s as though these people are imprisoning themselves in an effort to keep safe: each home an isolated box with tightly-controlled access. I think of my parents’ home with the lawn that rolls down to the street and neat flowerbeds that border the driveway. Of how they chat to neighbours across the low dividing walls. I can’t see that happening in this street.
Blake stops at a traffic light and I’m so busy staring at the view to the right that I jump when a hand knocks on the car window. “Don’t worry,” he says touching my arm. “It’s just a street vendor trying to get your attention. They sell everything you can imagine. They’re all over the city and often set up shop at the traffic lights.”
I shake my head to the man who has an array of ladies’ scarves over his arm and watch as he moves on to another vehicle. “I’m sorry. He gave me such a fright.”
Blake points across the intersection. “Have a look over
I follow the direction of his finger and see table-loads of goods with signs in fluorescent pink and yellow. “iPad covers, iPhone accessories, kitchenware, towels,” as well as the advertised goods, plastic-ware in bright jewel colours lines the roadside. Laundry bins, vegetable racks, buckets and storage containers. “Is this legal?” I ask.
“I’ve no idea but this is just a small set up. In some places it’s like a giant market.”
I fall silent for the remainder of the journey, watching, observing as the effects of jetlag and a strange new culture overwhelm me. I’ve always considered myself a strong character but this is more than I’ve had to handle on my own before. I’m excited but also a little intimidated.
Thirty minutes later, Blake steers the van into central Johannesburg. “The CBD is off to the left,” he points as he takes a right turn. “And Hillbrow is not too far away. Some areas are worse than others but Mercy House is in the main shopping area which is not too bad.”
I lean forward in my seat as impressions flash past me. The area deteriorates by the block and I see stately old buildings clad with peeling posters, and streets strewn with litter. Cellular phone shops abound and old pallets are set up as impromptu fruit and vegetable stands. Coils of barbed wire hang loosely over walls and washing hangs from dingy balconies. There doesn’t seem to be a white face among the crowds milling around and I turn to Blake. “Are we in Hillbrow yet?”
“Just on the outskirts.” He flashes a smile at me. “It’s built on the ridge of a hill and isn’t flat like the centre of Johannesburg.”
“This is so different from New Zealand.” I realise I’m repeating myself, but I can’t help myself.
“It is,” Blake agrees. “Do you see the tower over there?”
I look towards a slender structure that soars high above the other buildings. “Is that in Hillbrow?”
“Yes, it’s commonly called the Hillbrow Tower although I think it has another name too. It’s 90 storeys high.”
“It’s a bit like the Sky Tower in Auckland.”
“Yes, it is. Unfortunately it’s closed to the public.” He points to another part of the cityscape. “That’s Ponte City aka the Vodacom Tower.”
I follow his finger to a tall circular structure. “Is that offices or flats?”
“It used to be flats. It’s hollow on the inside and was sought after for the views it offers across the city.”
“Do you know how tall it is?”
“Over 50 storeys I believe. Unfortunately, it fell into the hands of gangsters and was unsafe for years.”
“What a shame.”
“It was. I’ve been told it was in such a bad state that
the debris and litter in the inner core reached five storeys high.
It has been tidied up since then.”
I scan the buildings close by as the road rises and the structures around us grow in height. By comparison, the streets seem to grow darker as he drives deeper into Hillbrow. “It looks like it used to be quite different.” I point at a multi-storey building next to us. “There’s a lovely example of architecture but it’s lost under that garish paint job and all the handwritten signage. And the litter …” I look at a mound of black garbage bags, ripped on all sides with the contents spilling into the gutter. “It’s just disgusting.”
Blake smiles. “It’s quite a culture shock but these are the people we’re here to help. We work on their hearts and when those change, the external behaviour follows.”
I lean back, absorbing the wisdom of his words.
Mercy House turns out to be larger than I anticipated from the video footage. A brown brick building that rears five storeys up, it’s cleaner than its neighbours and the sidewalk in front of it looks freshly swept and free of litter. Blake swings left into a driveway that leads underground and swipes a card through an access point that raises the metal grille. “The first rule of living in Hillbrow is keep everything securely locked,” Blake says as he pulls into the underground garage and parks the van.
The lift from the basement is an old-fashioned one with a hinged wooden door and a metal safety trellis. Blake carries my bags for me and pulls the trellis across before punching the brass button for the ground floor. With a shudder, the cage starts to move and I’m encased by the odour of old wood and polish.
Blake chuckles softly, an easy sound that resonates with the excitement in my heart. I’m here, I’m finally in Africa and it is just as different and exotic as I’d imagined it would be.

Click here to buy Contagious Hope on Kindle for 99 cents.

Click here to buy Fragrant Hope, the sequel to Contagious Hope for 99 cents on Kindle.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Fragrant Hope - Chapter One

Chapter One

The text comes through at three twenty one on a perfectly ordinary afternoon. I’m sitting in my room going through some lecture notes when I read the brief message. Seconds later, I’m in flight, heart pumping wildly as I dash out of Mercy House. Sure enough, thick smoke curls into the sky a few blocks to the north. I push the quick dial number for Lindiwe’s cell phone as I start running through the streets. Towering buildings block the sun. “Lindiwe! Have you called emergency services?”
“It’s me, Buhle, and no I haven’t. I’m scared, Pumzile.”
“Is your mama there?”
“Yes, but she’s sleeping. She’s really sick today.”
“Do you know if the fire is above or below your floor?”
“It seems like it’s above.”
“I’m going to call the fire department, and then I’ll ring you back. You need to wake your mama up and get her downstairs.”
“Okay …”
I cut the call and dial 10111. “There’s a building on fire in Hillbrow!” I pant out the address as my feet pound the pavement. Has anyone else seen the smoke? Are there rescue crews on the way already?
I call Buhle back. “Use the stairs,” I shout as she answers the call. “Don’t go in the lift.”
“I’ve got Mama up. I’m trying to get her to walk now.”
“I’m coming to meet you. Just keep going as quickly as you can. The fire brigade is on its way.”
I burst through the doors and run across to the stairway. Then I think of others in the building and backtrack to look for a fire alarm. The square of grimy glass is barely visible against the filthy wall. I smash it with the heel of my sandal, the impact shuddering up my arm. The handle moves easily enough and jangling bells sound.
My thoughts back on Buhle and Lindiwe, I pull the swing door open and run up the stairs. One, two, three, four, I count the floors off. The acidic tang of smoke fills the stairwell, and I pass a handful of people clattering past me. “Ukuvala,” they shout. “Turn around, the building’s on fire.” Muffled explosions echo above as they continue downwards, voices fading, women wailing. There is little light as I push myself on. The power to the building was cut off years ago and dirty glass panels in the stairwell doors admit a faint glow.
“Buhle!” I shout. “Lindiwe!”
I’m between the fifth and sixth floors when a human tornado hurls herself at me, sobbing. “Pumzile, Mama’s lying on the floor! I can’t move her!”
My lungs burn with exertion as I follow Buhle up a few more steps and see Lindiwe slumped on the landing, eyes
closed. She’s even thinner than the last time I saw her and bones jut at awkward angles. The smoke is thicker now and cascades down the stairs, a waterfall of noxious fumes. “Buhle, I’ll get your mama out, but I want you to go now! Run until you’re outside!”
“But …”
“Go!” I shout, giving her a shove. “You need to go now!”
She grabs the bag lying next to Lindiwe and runs off sobbing as I try and haul her mother to her feet. “There’s a fire, Lindiwe. We have to get out!” There’s little response so I squat down and push my arms under her. Her body is frail and light but awkward to carry as her head flops backwards. The smoke is even thicker now, and I cough as I struggle down a few steps. “Help me, God. Don’t let us die up here.”
An explosion shakes the building and I startle, heart racing even faster. I pass a grimy five on the wall. I’m not moving quickly enough. I have to escape before the smoke overtakes me. Lindiwe may be light, but she’s a dead weight and my muscles burn. My arms feel like they’re pulling out of their sockets. I make it to the next landing, tears tracking down my face, sweat drenching my body. The smoke is thinner here, and I pause for a moment, trying to keep Lindiwe from slipping out of my arms. She stirs slightly and coughs as she sucks in a deep breath. I set off again, arms straining, weakening until finally I collapse on the stairs, Lindiwe sprawled half on top of me.
“Help!” I splutter, a cough smothering my voice. “Help us!”
As I’m struggling to move, I hear steps pounding up the stairs and a man hurtles around the corner. “Whoa!” Strong arms lift Lindiwe from me. “Is there anyone else up there?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Come on then. You go ahead.”
I stagger down the stairs, sweat soaking my shirt, relief energising me now that I’ve transferred my burden to someone else. Another explosion sounds above us, and the stairwell shudders. I imagine glass shattering from windows and flames consuming walls, floors collapsing, and possessions incinerating. If this was a taste of hell, I would be an instant convert.
The fire crew meets me on the first floor landing, and a tall fireman puts an arm around my waist. “You’re almost out,” he says as he half carries me down the remaining stairs. The air outside is cool by comparison and black flakes swirl in the breeze. The fireman helps me towards a group of people huddled against a building in the next street. “Go and get yourself checked,” he says, pointing to three ambulances parked near the crowd.
We make a sad knot of humanity, and I’m guessing my face mirrors the shock and disbelief on the faces of those around me. A cough hacks its way out, and I lean against a wall, nausea playing with my stomach. I want to ask the
fireman about Buhle and Lindiwe but he’s gone, absorbed into the fire crew and policemen around the base of the building. Fire engines are in position and jets of water surge towards the upper floor windows. Flames flicker and thick black smoke streams out.
I lean against the wall scanning the crowd, searching for two familiar faces. A few seconds later Buhle appears. “Pumzile!” She throws her arms around me, burying her head against my chest. “Where’s Mama? Is she safe? Why isn’t she with you?”
“She’s okay,” I say, hoping the stranger managed to get her out. “A man came and carried her for me.” We cling to each other for a while before I point at the ambulances further down the street. “They probably took your mama to one of those. Shall we go and have a look?”
The stranger is standing near the first ambulance chatting with a paramedic, and I head straight for him. “Is she all right? The woman you carried down the stairs for me?”
He turns to look at me, and the compassion in his eyes catches me by surprise. He’s about six foot tall, dark-skinned with short dreadlocks and a genuine smile. Mid-twenties, I guess, and he’s dressed in paint-spattered overalls. “She’s being treated for smoke inhalation,” he says gesturing to the ambulance. Then he looks back as a cough tears through my lungs. “You don’t sound so good yourself.” He puts a strong arm around me and guides me towards one of the other ambulances. “You need to be checked out as well.”
“There’re other people who need help more than I do.”
“You still need to be checked out.”
Buhle tugs on my arm. “I’m going to see Mama.”
I nod as the man steers me forwards. Minutes later, I’m propped up in an ambulance with an oxygen mask on my face, my new friend standing next to me holding my hand. Thoughts race through my mind. It’s amazing how a crisis bypasses social etiquette. People instinctively reach out to help each other, holding, hugging, crying, and drawing comfort from touch.
“What’s your name?” I ask.
“Joshua. And yours?”
“Pumzile.” Another cough tears my chest, and I try and suck in oxygen. An hour ago, I was working on a psychology paper in Mercy House, and now I’m struggling to breathe. Will Lindiwe recover from this? Her health is at an all-time low, and I worry about her. It’s not good for Buhle to be her caregiver at such a young age and certainly not safe. Chamberlain Court is little more than a flophouse and drug den and is not the place for a young child to live. I’ve begged Lindiwe to move to Mercy House where we can look after them both, but she’s refused every time. Maybe now she’ll have no choice.
The paramedic reappears and checks my pulse. “Your heart beat is steadier, which is a good sign. We’re just going to move the ambulance a couple of blocks away. The fire crew are concerned about the smoke and possibility that the fire might spread to neighbouring buildings.”
She turns to an elderly man who lies in the other bed, a large dressing on his left arm. His eyes are shut, and he moans softly. “How’s the pain?” she asks, and he shakes his head. “We’re just going to move, and then I’ll increase the dosage for you.”
I notice a drip taped into the back of his right hand and say a silent prayer for him as the ambulance rumbles to life.
“The streets are crowded,” Joshua says, peeking through the back door. The police have taped them off, but there’re hundreds of people out there.”
The smell of smoke is strong, but I’m not sure if it’s in the air or in my lungs. Maybe both. It’s not the sweet aromatic smoke of the wood fires we cook on in Impendle. It’s acidic, poisonous and bitter, restricting airways, and choking off life.
The enormity of the fire hits home. I can go back to Mercy House tonight, but Lindiwe, Buhle and dozens, maybe hundreds of other people have lost their homes and possessions. Hillbrow is a damaged community as it is, and this will only add to the problems and pain. I struggle upright, retching as a cough starts in my lower chest and tears at my lungs.
Joshua lays his free hand on my back. “Breathe the oxygen. Deep breaths. You’ll be alright.”
I force myself to relax and slowly air filters through. When I try and speak, I can’t form the words and tears burn behind my eyes, forcing their way out in warm streams. Joshua tightens his grip on my hand. “Is there someone I can call for you?”

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