The night is a cold place. Empty streets freeze imperceptibly under sodium lights. The warmth of human life dances and slurs elsewhere, its echoes stumbling out into the cold midnight darkness before slowing, stopping. Retreating in nervous uncertainty. Never crossing the gritty line that the cold wind carves between the world of those who revel in the night, who stay warm and safe, and others.
Memories of patrolling the violent fissures that the death of the old South Africa ruptured in 1992 are not easily forgotten.
It’s warm inside the police cruiser. Colonel Monray Nel picks up on the display that it’s dropped to four degrees outside and he laughs. Monray is six foot something and married to a policewoman. Twenty six years on the force, with an easy laugh, a strong one, and an easier manner with the darkness outside. Next to him, Inspector Gavin Wheeler sits quietly, watching the street beyond, calling “clear” at each intersection. Younger and more introverted, Gavin was a soldier before joining the police force, and is no stranger to darkness. Memories of patrolling the violent fissures that the death of the old South Africa opened in 1992 are not easily forgotten. There were more bodies in Alexandra than any man should have to see.
Under Monray’s grip, the cruiser cuts a silent trail through the frozen streets. Nothing and nobody is on this side of the looking glass tonight. None but Monray and Gavin and a handful of hunters in Grahamstown’s three other sectors. And those they are hunting as the car slows outside every open house, conspicuous car, dark driveway. Gavin bears the light that severs bushes, opens alleys, searching. Searching.
But it’s a quiet night. In the warmth of the cruiser, the buttons on the illuminated radio face crackle with the voices of other hunters in other cold places. Monray and Gavin weave through the dead quiet of the suburbs as unnoticed as those who would do harm to the safe, the warm. Innocuous houses already bear the invisible marks of where the cold entered. Only Gavin and Monray’s eyes remember the bland facebrick house where two residents were brutally torn by a shadow who had sat across the road for three days. Watching. Waiting. Or the deserted house, where the figure of a man walking the interior, though reported, was never found.
The night is a dark place. Where death and its ghostly tendrils confuse the line between the warmth and the cold, where safety can so suddenly be intruded upon. Along that line, tonight, rides the cruiser. Its warmth. Its light. But not all darkness will yield, not all of its dens can be found. There are places that even Gavin’s light cannot see. Like the house to which the sixteen year old girl runs away to have ‘happy days’ with her uncle for his money. When Monray says the words, little could sound more heartbreaking.
There are other places, behind the other closed doors, where women are beaten and raped. Where alcohol and hurt extend their terrible fingers into the skin of those who should be spared. Only court orders, where they are won, grant Monray and Gavin the right to step in and stop abuse. With words, nightsticks if the offender offers resistance, pepper spray – or worse – if they become violent. There is an order to their reactions. Discipline in calming alcoholic anger, hurt feelings, betrayal and a dozen other feelings that justify the darkness lashing out at the world.
It’s warm in the cruiser. It’s three degrees outside now. Monray winds the window down and smokes down a menthol cigarette as the freezing air wrestles into the car. Though they police it, nothing in the night outside is disconnected from Gavin and Monray, whose memories of the cold places outside have bonded them to Grahamstown. The cruiser passes the house of Mr and Mrs Dickenson, who would phone them a dozen times a night, quoting the liquor act and demanding that the clubs next door be closed. Monray laughs loud, remembering the night when the bar next door cheekily gave Mrs Dickenson a bottle of fine wine. And earplugs.
He held Monray’s hand throughout the stitching. Monray’s voice still holds a paternal note when he tells the story.
Gavin and Monray know Mrs Dickenson. And the night staff at the Settlers’ Hospital. The Zimbabwean nurse on shift at the trauma unit, connected to the pair through uncounted nights of crossing paths and shared stories of what the outside brings in. Someone stabbed in a robbery. A car accident. An idiot student who tore his scrotum diving into a bush for a bet with his buddies. He held Monray’s hand throughout the stitching. Monray’s voice still holds a paternal note when he tells the story.
The night is affecting. The cruiser keeps to the small roads, exploring every alley, every dead end, but staying off the highway tonight. There, over a year ago, a driver hit a minibus coming off the N2. One man burned to death in the wreck, seated upright in the back. “You never get used to that.” Monray sighs. Over the years, they’ve seen enough.
It’s always warm in the station, and the pair will be due for office jobs soon enough. Ordinarily, officers like Gavin and Monray would be allowed to leave the night and the cruiser and take up roles at the precinct much earlier. But the police force didn’t recruit any new blood for four years, so they have stayed in the night that much longer. Monray driving, Gavin shining the light. Holding that line until dawn.