Life is a Salvador Dali painting. The figures are stretched, pliant and elastic, eyes bulging out of heads far too small to contain them, the hard solidity of reality dripping down the side of a rickety table. Every element is out of place, warping and melting beneath the gaze of observers, shifting to fit into whatever mould is made for it.
Dela Appiah-Wey knows this. It might have taken her three decades to figure it out, but she knows it now for certain. Beneath the shiny candy-wrapper surface is a rainbow-ringed sphere. A planet of players. Everyone’s got an image to protect, a persona to project, a story to sell. No one wants to be seen as foolish, even if it means going against their instincts, so they stretch, and melt, and slip into whatever shape is relevant.
Dela sits in a concrete sewer-pipe, knees drawn up to her chest. The floor is damp, but she doesn’t notice. She looks out through the round opening at the little country of Alexandra. Alex, like all the world’s players, is in her graffiti-covered, corrugated iron gown, face freshly painted by some well-meaning community group. Alex is almost pretty now, in that “authentic” way that used to be fashionable.
Hidden in this tiny corner of a post-makeover township, Dela reflects on her life thus far. She has made a mistake. A major, monstrous, life-altering mistake. If she were younger, prettier and with longer legs, she might be allowed to get away with it, but in this paper doll universe mistakes are not forgiven. Those tempted to pity her realise quickly that such sympathy is of the devil, and stamp it out before it corrupts them.
Dela asked for it. She knows she did; she has no one to blame but herself. You see, she had it all. She was part of the inner circle and then – sigh! – she took it upon herself to be the kid who tells the emperor he’s walking down the street in his birthday suit. No one likes a know-it-all.
For five years she was allowed to plague her colleagues with her insistence on a certain level of integrity, because it kept them all out of trouble. Dela believed this was her best quality. She has always been reasonably intelligent and capable, but that was nothing compared to her ability to close the gaps. She stood at the gates of the fortress, pen in hand, defending her agency from lawsuits and customer complaints. She was the girl everyone could count on. Until…well, until she wasn’t.
“There you are.” A figure crawls into the pipe and hunches over in a ball beside her. The person’s face is hidden in shadow and Dela decides it can only be her elder brother, TOS.
“Why are you hiding in here?” The voice ricochets off the cold cement walls.
“My life has fallen apart,” Dela moans. “I’ve ruined everything.”
“Are you sure?”
A flame flares with a hiss, and TOS lights a cigarette. This is odd because he doesn’t smoke. Also, he’s dead. Dela may not know much about the afterlife, but she is certain there are no cigarettes.
“I’m sitting in a sewer in the middle of the night, talking to a ghost. Out loud, for that matter. I think we can agree that I’ve hit rock bottom.”
“A ghost, Copycat? What the hell does that mean?”
She turns to him with a start. He’s never called her that before. Come to think of it, TOS was never that slender, and his voice wasn’t that high-pitched. He also looks rather solid for a ghost. The figure grins, smoke curling out from between its teeth.
“You’re not my brother.”
“Uh, no. Do I look like your brother?”
It occurs to Dela then that she should probably be worried. She’s in a sewer-pipe with a stranger. She is heavily intoxicated, and she can’t remember what happened to her shoes. She looks into the thin face and bulging eyes, and recognition sparks. There’s only one person who knows her as Copycat.
“Good girl.” The shadow named Fence flicks ash from the cigarette and looks at Dela.
“Don’t worry. You’re safe with me.”
Dela leans back into the wall, not quite convinced, but too miserable to care. “I don’t normally drink this much, you know.” She sits up suddenly as a terrible thought strikes her. “Am I slurring my words? In my head I sound perfectly articulate, but if I’m drunk, truly, properly drunk, I can’t be articulate. Right?”
Fence blinks. “I can understand you just fine.”
Although that doesn’t answer the question, Dela resumes her slumped position with a sigh. What does it matter? The only reality she can engage with is the one in her head, anyway. That’s part of the reason she’s in a pipe in Alexandra instead of her flat in Gaborone.
“I’m normally so sensible,” she tells Fence. “I do the right thing.”
“All the time?”
“Most of the time.”
“No one does the right thing most of the time. People can’t even decide what the right thing is.”
“Not me. I know what I’m supposed to do. The path is clear.” Dela points straight ahead. “There’s no room for error. The rules are black and white, and I’m good at following the rules. It was just this one time. This one stupid thing.”
A sigh. A nod. A whimper.
“That’s where it all began?”
“Well, no. It was before that. It was TOS’s fault.”
“TOS. I mean Kwabena.”
“The dead brother.”
“Yes. He led me down the wrong path.”
There’s a long pause. “The dead brother?”
“Yes! He was always there, hovering, worse than Mummy. He was the devil and Mummy was the angel, and then they switched places. I got confused.”
“Everyone gets confused sometimes.”
“You don’t understand. My life was perfect!”
Fence’s chuckle is dry and breathy. “I doubt that. Tell me what happened.”
Dela feels quite gauche suddenly, a middle class girl lost in the township, wallowing in her bourgeois problems. “No, it’s OK. It’s not important.”
“Ja?” Fence blows a stream of smoke into Dela’s face, making her splutter. “You got something better to do?”
There are a thousand excuses on the tip of Dela’s tongue. She realises, with a sudden gaping hollow in her belly, that none of the excuses are valid. She has nothing to do. Nowhere to be. She has nothing but time.
There are no tears yet, just the faint prickly threat of them, but despair descends without warning. Dela’s frantic flight to Johannesburg didn’t keep it at bay, after all. Seeking out Fence didn’t, either, and the alcohol… Oh, the alcohol. After all those years of watching her friend Cy down shot after shot and emerge in a haze of bliss, Dela was convinced drinking to excess would chase the bad things away. Isn’t that why people do it?
“Copycat.” Fence taps a finger against Dela’s cheek. It’s an oddly comforting gesture. “Start talking. Talking helps. Isn’t that what all the smart people say?”
Dela wants to tell her story. She’s a wordsmith, and she has been reconstructing and rehashing it in her head in an attempt to figure out exactly where she went wrong. Perhaps telling it to Fence makes more sense than telling it to herself.
“Come on.” Fence stubs out her cigarette. “Your life was perfect, yadda, yadda.” Her long fingers reach up under her beanie and scratch thoughtfully. “Hey, this might take a while, né?”
Dela’s head bobs in a rueful nod.
“OK.” Fence reaches into the pocket of her hoodie. “I’m gonna need more cigarettes.”