She taps on my door at the start of one of our routine black-outs – rolling load-shedding while we try to build more power stations to keep 53 million people lit by night. Which is going to be hard, as each contract gets bedevilled at every level by politics, corruption (the same thing) and bloody-mindedness. Just to give it scale: at a large output power plant one of the coal-suppliers is a hair-stylist. It’s not going well at that power station; we can only hope that everyone’s hair is lovely.
We know each other as neighbours, from the community, and I invite her in. She wonders if I have any matches to spare as she’s run out – I do. I’ve become a black-out ninja: boiling water saved for coffee, a small forest of candles to light my sketch-pad, and more than enough matches.
“This looks so warm!” she says. I offer her tea (she chooses rooibos without milk or sugar), then we sit down to talk.
But there’s a moment when it gets surreal for me. As candlelight etches the ridges, planes and hollows of our faces – even though we share an age, a continent, a gender, and even a faith – just for a moment I see something else:
I see what we symbolise; the slow march of our ancestors to this place, this night. It’s a nanosecond, but it’s so real: I’m not me, I’m the softened product of a 1000 years of war in cold, hard, wet places; brought by need across an ocean to hot, hard, dry places, and a few generations of grace.
She isn’t herself: she’s the hardened product of 1000 years of unchanged order in warm, bountiful, but dangerous places; brought by a few generations of war over land to a temporarily safe harbour.
But it’s only a nanosecond.
I excuse myself to have a cigarette on the balcony and she says she’ll join me. Outside there’s a three-quarter moon with no streetlights; we lean over the railings and blow smoke at a million stars, and talk about crazy UFO people we’ve met, books, movies, families and how all poets are romantics.
An hour flies by, then the second hour – we talk at my table, we talk under the stars, we talk back at my table. Then we notice the time and realise we have to call it a night. I joke: “It’s a good thing we saw the time – we could have talked nonsense all night!”
She laughs: “Let’s just do that sometime.”
And it’s not like I didn’t know this already, but: we share a continent, a country, this place – this life.