Neil Coppen

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26° 12′ 15.6″ S 28° 3′ 43.7″ E

June12

Below is a short story I wrote for Vaughn Sadies StreetLights exhibition which took place at GoetheonMain (25 May to 2 June 2012). The project explored the city of Johannesburg through its lighting strategies, examining the role artificial light plays in shaping and defining the way people either move through, or occupy, these public spaces.

Under the guidance of editor Libby Allen, ten writers were approached to contribute text-based responses to the multi-faceted project. The departing point being to place themselves for a chosen period of time at the site of their assigned streetlight. The focus of their experience was to meditate on the interplay between light and space.

26° 12′ 15.6″ S 28° 3′ 43.7″ E

Too far from the ground to eavesdrop. You could say I’m not a very reliable narrator, but then who is these days. Words seldom reach me, the traffic too persistent. My stories gleaned from murmurs amongst the exhaust pipes. My pool of light a mise-en–scene of the mundane. A supporting cast which includes pedestrians, hawkers, pavement gamblers, shoppers and stragglers who seldom linger long enough for intrigue to play out.

There are a few principals worth mentioning: my pavement once provided the stage for a man and his finger accordion. He would take his cue from the security door rattling shut over Tazim’s supermarket shop front and then play ‘till sunrise.

There was also a girl who lived in the flat above this same supermarket with her siblings and father. As a child she used to dote on me. Come twilight she would stand in her pyjamas, staring upwards. My underwhelming act of illumination never failed to elicit a gasp. Why me? There’s not much setting us stooped poles apart from one another, not much going for us in the way of idiosyncrasy. What purpose she assigned to this ritual I will never know.

 Perhaps the moment my bulb flickered to life she would make a wish. Children are sentimental like that, granting purpose to random things. She might have imagined that, were it not consecrated by her, a moment might turn tragic. That either the world would end or she would drop down dead. There are no stars here, cities are short on whimsy. I might consider myself a substitute of sorts.

In times less distant, I’ve played moonlight for this girl. Now a teenager, her vigil no longer a matter of life and death. My location more to do with the opposite sex.  She would meet the butcher’s son after sunset, concealed (or so she thought) by the zinc roof extension erected around me.

Her father, never far off, noticed one evening two silhouettes on the street below and stormed the tryst, leather belt in hand. The butcher’s son, clutching pants, went hop-scotching down the nearest alley, petrified. I followed the row from street to flat, watched as it played itself out, a dumb-show of shadows from behind tatty curtains.

The girl corrupted by puberty, her father by unemployment and booze.  He was a terrible insomniac, he began to curse me for his sleepless nights. I could hear him drunk and shuffling around the flat into the early hours. “It’s like it’s always fucking day in this place,” he yelled, before craning out the window and firing a single bullet into my bulb. 

No one came to repair me. The new place down the road gets all the cherry-picking attention these days. The accordion man, undeterred, sought his lime light a little way along, his song an eerie trace of its former self, and the girl quickly discovered how obliging my darkness was with her fledgling desire.

I became redundant, shabby with wheat glue and photostats: an advertising board for muti men and their remedies.  Bold assurances that enemies could be banished, penises enlarged and scorned lovers won back. Telephone numbers by the dozen announcing pain-free abortion with free cleaning- as if that were a discount of some sort.

The last time I recall seeing her she was staring up at me, not in awe or anticipation but with moist eyes and cell-phone in hand.

posted under Short stories

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