Very early in the morning the city looks how it did ninety years ago. In the dusky light the cracked concrete and peeled paint are less noticeable. Recognizably European streets and buildings begin to materialize in the gloaming. The only sounds are birds and the very occasional car which itself is almost ninety.
What a wonderful place this was! Such perfect weather. A town laid out like a work of art. Every second house is listed by Unesco for its unique and innovative design. The swaying palms and jacarandas that were planted way back then, now mature. One can squint and imagine the old population going about their business; their food, their language, the factories busy pumping out all manner of goods for export, the young people meeting on the weekends at the cinema. Jazz and opera. Even the colonial-era cemetery seems a relatively cheerful place – dead old Europeans who were born and died here, purposefully, richly – passed citizens of a town where things were grand, anything was possible, and life was to be lived.
But then the daylight strengthens and the present seeps back into the streets like a leaking sewer. Have you seen the beginning of Spirited Away, when the fading light brings to life all the supernatural creatures of the amusement park? It’s like that in reverse, with the rising sun awakening all the present-day ghouls of the city.
The old, shrouded ladies hobbling off to church, lonely because all their children are enslaved or have fled. Old men in 1950s-style suits interrupt their walk to piss on a convenient fence, and their friends stop to enthusiastically chat with them mid-stream. The lunatics arise and start roaming, and they bother the innocent rambler for money or attention. “Bonjour!” one always shouts at me. “Bonjour! Bonjour!” I give a polite ‘hello’ and then he says other things in French I don’t understand.
In the increasing light I begin to make out things I would rather not: splattered pools of vomit and used condoms; detritus of last night’s revelries.
The street dogs awake from their huddled mobs and start shitting here and there, and fucking one another in that nonchalant, unromantic way that they have. Children walk to school, kicking plastic bottles with a great clatter that assaults the still air, yelling at each other, chortling at the foreigner. How dare he be in our country? I’m as baffled as they are.
All the people’s voices are guttural and strange now, not at all the voices of those extinct beings who built their habitat. Theirs is an ugly and harsh language, with coughing, grunting and whining sounds. Every old lady sounds like the mum from Life of Brian.
The birds and I scatter to wherever it is we take cover from the reality of the day. Towards the end of my walk I always encounter an undeniable sign that my magic hour is over, and upon this I give up and go home, ready to face the other twenty-three without complaint. Today it is this: recently there have been a lot of dead cats around. Has someone been poisoning them? I don’t know.
Yesterday I saw one across from the adjacent Sudanese and Libyan embassies. Today only the head and some dangling, maroon scraps of flesh remain. Two stray dogs pick at it, whinnying to each other in their fun. The other dead cats remain intact. My guess is that this one was ripped open by a passing car after death, and the dogs saw the flesh under the fur and finally recognized it as food. No doubt their normal diet is scraps from bins, and their uncertain manner of ripping flesh from the carcass suggests the hunting instincts of their ancestors have faded. The cat’s face looks peaceful, like it’s doing that pretend-sleep thing cats do when they find a warm place. My face doesn’t look like that.
I return home, my nostrils still filled with the decaying reek as I prepare second breakfast and try to keep it down.
Out the kitchen window, the sun rises. The past disappears. A shadow of it will reemerge tomorrow, as it does every day, very early in the morning before the present has got out of bed. For thirty glorious minutes the birds and I can revel in prehistoric, European beauty. And then Africa takes over for the rest of the day.