Section 22 — Nick Mulgrew

Subtropical sounds nice, but it actually just means that it’s hot, and that when it isn’t hot, it rains.

Over the years he’s slid a fair bit down the hierarchy of needs. Technically he could rent through Social Housing, but he has enough coming in to get someplace on his own sweat. Not in Ifafa Beach or Hibberdene, no — more like Clansthal, a roomshare in Port Shepstone. The distance doesn’t matter — the road is his job. For now a house is an overexpenditure of effort. Maybe one day.

He’s used to it, this. His parents used to take him camping. Life is one long camping trip. It’s more convenient to live in the bakkie. He’s not a tall man anyway. He’s lined the fibreglass canopy with insulation, hooked up some curtains and a second battery. It’ll chow his alternator — but what else are things for other than to be used?

To be more specific, he empties bins. The classified in the Mercury said it was a plus if you came with your own car — you could cover a greater stretch. The municipality was trying to cut costs. He does the job of four people for the salary of just one.

He didn’t even know there were bins on national highways. He’d never seen them before, hiding in that liminal zone between road and scenery, along with route markers, emergency phones. But they are there. There’s one every two kilometres, usually next to a route marker. He’s never seen anyone use one, but somehow they’re always full.

His responsibility is Section 22 of the N2. Kulwana to Wood Grange. Sometimes after his daily round he edges into Section 23, into Hibberdene. No one bothers him if he parks by the river. No one approaches a bakkie with a trailer.

He does not know how many sections there are in total, but Section 1 must start in the Cape. The road ends near Swaziland. All those people, all those places. He does not feel stuck, though, being him, and there.

The place he dreams of most is Mossel Bay. The oil rigs, the pub near the harbour mouth where they serve steamed mussels stewed in thick white sauce. The subtropical incidence of the sun. He met a woman there, but decided not to stay. Maybe she’s still there, drinking Castle out of a plastic cup, watching the trawlers come in.

He knows he can stop work at any time. He can take the N2 there, even though it’s halfway to Cape Town. Just imagine: one long road that can take him to where his imagination goes, to where he dreams of. Perhaps it’s the simplicity of these directions that stop him from following them.

Before he had this job, he had a dog. He called her Spots. A stranger on Ifafa Beach said once that calling your dog Spots was like calling your child Freckles.

Except a dog is not a child, he said. It’s a dog.

Then why do you dress her up?

Because, he says, she has mange.

Sunshine. Exhaust. The wind off the Indian Ocean. The subtropical incidence of the sun. Grasses with red dirt shining through their blades.

Coral trees, avenues of banana palms. By the river there are avocado sellers, mango sellers. Too bad he hates fruit.

Once a week he travels to the Wimpy in Port Shepstone for a mixed grill. He eats the bacon, eggs, burger patty and chips. He douses the sirloin and wors in mustard, and takes them away in a doggy bag.

No one has ever asked him what he finds in the bins. No matter — there’s more to be found between the bins.

The verges are not his jurisdiction, but he feels compelled to clear the rubbish there, too. That way the work tires him out enough to sleep easily. That way the work lasts a whole day, and the work can then be done every day, so that nothing ever has time to rot, or time to nest.

The world’s surplus. A broken plastic chair. Half-empty bottle of Sprite. A shoe. Tin of baked beans. Simba packets. Newspapers. Refuse bags full of grass. Once, a tracker device, wires still connected like an aorta. Burst tyres, the rubber fibrous as bark. Chicken bones, quart bottles, half-chewed stalks of sugarcane. Spent energy. As a rule he keeps none of it, even the few things that are valuable. He has no space to be a hoarder. The landfill is never sated.

Once, though, he found a camping shower. Fully working and everything. Now he can have warm showers. He knows every hidden tap in the district. He fills it up, and leaves it in the canopy to warm up under the sun.

Still, he doesn’t shower when it rains.

Radio dramas at night. During summer he likes to listen to the cricket. Like chess it can be visualised perfectly with few words.

He liked playing cricket. There was a boy in his under-sixteens who used to pin him down in the dressing room, stick his tongue into his ear while the other boys watched and laughed. He didn’t know why it was funny to the other boys, that this one boy would lick, it felt, right into his inner-most cavities, the depths and folds, as if tasting him right to the cochlea.

To this day he keeps a pack of earbuds in the cubby hole.

He fantasises about finding a baby in one of the bins. Not raising it. Just finding it. What he would do with the child, he doesn’t know. He just thinks it would be interesting. He isn’t surprised when it doesn’t happen. Very few people’s lives are interesting.

Sometimes he helps people who have broken down. He’s never seen an accident.

Even with all the exhaust, the air is always clean in the morning. Once a year, the sugarcane burns. The subtropical incidence of the sun. The wind off the Indian Ocean. The air is clean again.

Nick Mulgrew was born in Durban, South Africa in 1990. He is the author of four books, most recently the novel A Hibiscus Coast, and runs uHlanga, an award-winning South African poetry press. Among other accolades, he is the winner of the 2017 Nadine Gordimer Award, and is currently working toward a PhD in Writing Practice at the University of Dundee. He lives in Edinburgh.

‘Section 22’ was shortlisted for the Desperate Literature Short Fiction Prize 2021. You can read the collection of shortlisted stories here.