The neighbour’s cat masturbates behind me. Trembling fluffy white legs, quivering tail, its front paws kneading the blanket beneath which my mother-in-law slept for six nights of Christmas. Previously, I’ve tried distracting it, stroking its head or mewing at it and clicking my fingers. But the cat ignores me, sometimes turning around to continue self-pleasure, its back to my gaze. I like the cat, but I hate this. It comes to my house to do this, to escape its sister and nephew, and the large black and white neutered Tom, the overweight dribbling Ginger, the pair of squirrels in the fig tree. It stops purring, too. I wonder when it learned, I think, I wonder how it came across this. Could I be jealous of the cat? Its ability to pursue its desires frankly and straightforwardly.
Two emails tell it all. One from the head of a North American NGO that is looking for a “local” to run its “programme” in Angola. They’ve decided to stop depending on Westerners who never get visas and have tricky pay requirements and need to learn “the language”. Can I help? Do I know any Angolans who fit the bill? I ponder this and think of highly possibly over qualified people, and respond in kind. But they will expect to be paid what the foreigners are paid, I write. That ‘but’, so revealing. Why did I write it? What was I thinking? Delete the ‘but’ woman! Later, it strikes me that perhaps the NGO has stopped using “foreigners” because they need to save money. Plus it improves their profile. A few minutes later, another email. This one from Portugal. Would I like to write an article for a Portuguese academic journal? On Angola. It will not be paid, but I can write what I like. Anything. Could I write 4,500 words about anything? Really? I write back, suggesting that they should contact some Angolans to write some stuff too. “We need Angolans who write good English,” the following email states. Immediately, most Angolans are ruled out. Why can’t the journal pay for translations of the material? I’ll help, I say. So many barriers. So many walls to climb and bash down to get anywhere. You have no electricity, you don’t speak English even though you do speak one European language and two autochtonous Angolan languages, you’ve had no water since 23rd December, you can’t afford to buy any petrol even though your country is Africa’s top producer, you can’t get your child into the school in South Africa you’d set your heart on, it’s too expensive. And the one thing you could write about in depth, with great fluency and knowledge, you can’t do because you don’t write fluent English.
The cat kneads on.
I go to the gym. Run off the turkey fat. Run off the nerves piled up over those six days of Christmas. Back on the running machine, walking up hill, gradient 12 which is almost the highest, gazing at Carry On Screaming and a Walt Disney film about two tigers that are almost forced to kill each other until they recognise each other as the baby brothers they once were. The gym’s turned off the subtitles. But I can follow the story with ease. My eyes flick between the two screens. Carry On. Baby tigers. Carry On. Baby tigers. White men have had their faces painted brown, and wear turbans. They poke the tigers. A pretty white woman and her son rescue the tigers. The tigers look lovingly and longingly at pretty woman and son. The coloured-in men snarl and crack their whips. Sid James is snarling, his top lip quivering, at the blonde in pink feathers and pink tights and pink shoes. There’s the only man in the gym who smiles. In his grey track suit. On the step-climb in front of me. There’s the man who makes the most noise when he lifts the weights, shouting and crying, clawing for strength and attention in front of the mirror. There’s the Polish man with the waxy ears who introduced me to the machines. The tigers have escaped.
My knees buckle beneath me, I’m sliding backwards, dizzy, lost, grabbing at black plastic boards on either side, but too late, too late. I’m pushed back to the carpet, clawing at the running rubber infront of me, my chest bumping beneath as the rubber rolls round and across and down and under and back up and round and across. Let go let go. I’m in the gym. I’ve come off the running machine. I’m on the floor. All around me people puffing and running and cross country skiing and climbing steps to nowhere and the tigers are running for freedom and the boy’s crying, his mother comforting him. I bend my knees, push my body up, get to my feet. The machine’s still going. I look around me. No one is noticing. No one has seen my accident. No one saw me drift away and fall. I’m here to run. I’m here to run. I jump back onto the circulating rubber, immediately breaking into a run. Turn the speed up, increase the gradient. Don’t watch the television. Concentrate. Don’t drift off. Don’t daydream. Punishment: I run for 25 minutes, ignoring my achilles tendon. I row for 15. I lift 30kg fifty times. Punishment to keep me awake, to stop me day-dreaming, side-stepping, falling. Falling in the gym. Because it’s not real. That’s the problem with the gym, and the tellies. My mother-in-law says she’ll “never” call me by my real name. I must have her surname, the surname of her son. I mustn’t think about this in the gym, or I will have another accident and blame it on her.
I remember now that just before I fell, I was floating.