Bradford Keen

Smoke’s silence

Monray Nel waits behind the solid iron gate. About six feet five inches, Nel stands high above most people. He is confidently tall, erect and impeccably dressed. Once you manage to locate his face somewhere in the clouded abyss, his big smile allays any fears of the awkwardness of the meeting.

“One of you must be Richard,” Nel extends his hand, searching for a response. Richard greets Nel, and introduces his partner. His hand is lost inside Nel’s grab, like a small child’s lost in his father’s.

Nel leads the way into the police station. He opens the locked door and ushers the pair in. Inside seven police officers are on the night shift. They will be working for twelve hours. Two officers are checking the contents of the large walk-in safe; others sit at desks and complete paper work. The journalists’ smiles are not returned.

Naked, putrid yellow walls enclose the old regulars and new arrivals in the same space. It is unusual, inhospitable, but for Nel’s smiling offers of coffee. Inside is respite from the harsh cold darkness of a May’s evening in Grahamstown.

This is new for the journalists. They are led by the police tonight with a particular purpose. They are here to write a story – entitled to exist within the police community, albeit temporarily. They stand to the side trying not to intrude.

Nel moves about unhurriedly, chatting to colleagues and exchanging a few jokes. He calls to his partner and orchestrates the introductions. This is Gavin Wheeler.

“Ja, I’m the only English guy on this shift,” Wheeler lets out a little chuckle as he greets them. He too is tall, but not quite Nel’s height. His shoulders slouch, and his trousers seem precariously balanced. His belt looks as if it has forgotten its purpose. He holds his cap with both hands, close to his stomach.

Very soon all four are in the police car. A standard, white, four-door Opel Corsa. The car is generic, impersonal – anyone on shift can drive it. Nel engages the journalists light-heartedly, “Hopefully we can take you to some action”. He wants to give them a story.

The journalists exchange restrained glances in the backseat, while voicing their appreciation to Nel. They’re content just to be driving around, not entirely sure if they want to see action.

Crawling along the streets at about 30Km/h, the car patrols Grahamstown’s suburbia.  Nel dominates conversation. Wheeler sits quietly, lighting cigarettes in quick succession. Nel is about to turn right. Wheeler calls “clear.” This is the same at every right turn. Nel moves and Wheeler responds.

The car frequently slows or stops where the gaping holes of bush and fields have not been claimed by houses.  Nel teaches that these are perfect places for criminals to hide. Empty pits of darkness shrouded with green camouflage. Wheeler shifts the reaching gaze of the spotlight, calmly searching, as Nel points out ideal hiding spots.

Grahamstown experiences extensive property crime; break-ins and opportunistic theft. Fortunately the violent contact crimes are in the minority. Often these murders, assaults and rapes happen inside people’s homes, far from the reach of the enforcer’s grasp.

They drive on. Most of the crimes here involve alcohol – drunken assault and silly, petty, crimes Nel reveals. “Eighty percent of the contact crimes are alcohol related,” Wheeler adds in agreement, as he lights another cigarette.

Nel loves being in the force. “It was my dream,” he says. He has been a policeman for 26 years and is now a superintendant. He is happy with his work, despite his non-existent opportunities for promotion. His wife is in the police force and so are most of his friends. They exist in a professional and social community of sameness.

Wheeler, when asked about being in the police, lets out a reserved laugh: “I don’t know if I want to answer that question.” He lights another cigarette.

The quiet smell of the freshly-lit cigarette gives way to the cloud of smoke. It slowly escapes the constraints of the vehicle, and creeps through the passenger’s window, into the night’s darkness. Silence.

It’s temporary, as Nel continues his tales of being a policeman.

They head to Settler’s hospital to check up on the victim of a recent violent robbery that happened in Hlalani – a township in Grahamstown.

On the drive there, Nel shares how police deal with traumatic experiences. You become accustomed to seeing dead adults, but when you see dead babies and children it affects you. Nel is a father and says that your immediate thought is that this dead child could be your own. He lights his first cigarette of the evening. Menthol. His voice is silenced momentarily.

“You learn to block it out,” Wheeler breathes out the words, filling the quiet, but “sometimes things slip through.”

Nel exhales thick smoke, releasing his moment of silence. He recounts the story of a car accident on the N2 road to Beaufort. A car collided with a taxi. A man was burnt to the taxi seat – dead. “You never get used to that,” he looks the journalists in their eyes. Wheeler shuffles his feet, his eyes search the floor. He inhales.

They are moving again. The car meanders with habitual direction. Nel addresses the plight of the street kids of this town. Mid-sentence, attention shifts to Wheeler’s gaze. “Hey Patrick,” he gently calls. A man, scruffily dressed, speaks loudly, pressed up against the security gate of a young student’s flat. Patrick turns to face the car. The student shuts the door. “Hey go home Patrick, he does not want to talk to you,” Nel reprimands.

We turn left into New Street where students fall out of clubs and pubs. Shrieking with drunken abandon they head straight to the women across the road, selling oily fast food – the last hope of soaking up the booze and lessening their pain in the morning. The four drive by unnoticed. A young blonde student is walking alone. Nel says aloud, to himself, through the closed window; with concerned imploring: “Go home now dear.”

Nel recounts a time when he saw a student walking in the empty streets at about 3am. He gave her lift home. “It’s dangerous to be out that late.”

We pull up at the local Spar on African Street. Nel jumps out the car taking drinks orders. It is just the three in the car now. Silence.

Wheeler begins to talk, through an introductory, reserved laugh. He pauses, as the lighter’s flame turns the cigarette’s end to red. He goes back to the question of why he became a policeman.

“I needed a job, he says:  “I didn’t have anything else to do.”  Gavin joined the force after his time in the army. They were willing to take him. He is not married. He does not have many friends in the police force either. The friends he has had over the years, mainly students, left Grahamstown after graduation. They leave and he remains. He has a dog though, a cross between a Jack Russel and a sausage dog – a Jack sausage, “full of beans,” Gavin quietly laughs. Smoke stealthily sneaks from between his fingers. He has thought about this “a hundred times,” and adds: “Sometimes I think I’m mad.” His words sound foreign after his silence.

Nel gets back in the car with the cokes. He immediately begins relating tales of drunken students in the early hours of the morning and how amusing they are when pretending to be sober. Wheeler touches his cigarette to his lips. He inhales.

The car drives off, turning right. Flash of the spotlight. “Clear,” says Wheeler.