It’s the first sunny day after a week of unremitting, unseasonal downpour. The change in mood in the block is palpable. Balcony doors are open and those with pot plant gardens are out inspecting the remains of their plants in their pyjamas, strangely liberated from the pressure of public opinion about their personal habits or the shape and stripe of their nightwear. There is an air of gratitude and relief, as though spring has sprung, although it is still winter. The air is free of the insidious haze of carbon monoxide that typically shrouds the Louis Botha Avenue side of the building and the first hint of a rainbow emerges like a halo over the notorious ‘death bend’, on the cusp of Orange Grove and Houghton.
Despite the climatic transition, I am engrossed in a book about a ship’s doctor in the Antarctic. Extraordinary weather conditions have caused the ship’s pipes to burst as frozen water thaws. The hospital floor is flooded and water is raining through the dining room ceiling. I am about to turn the page to the part about the doctor and a nurse sloshing around the hospital trying to salvage essential equipment, when I become aware of a mild and then persistent current of water dripping onto my balcony from somewhere upstairs. It is not rain; it has quite a different tone as the water hits the terracotta tiles. Standing on the balcony, I strain my head upwards and notice water flooding onto the balcony of the upstairs flat where the rabbi’s son, Elijah Nudelman lives. It won’t be the first time that Elijah has left a tap running. It is common knowledge that he is not quite right in the head. “He doesn’t have a full box of chocolates”, my next door neighbour Rachel Levine would say. I tend to agree since I am frequently awoken in the night by Elijah’s turbulent dreams. His bedroom is one floor above mine and I hear him crying out in his sleep, either in Yiddish (generally towards the early hours of the morning) or in a stream of expletives shortly after midnight, almost certainly an extension of the ‘grunge’ music he plays relentlessly until he turns in. Leaning over the rail of the balcony, I shout up at the flat above: “Elijah! Elijah!” Silence. I run up the fire escape and ring the doorbell of Elijah’s flat, then pound on the door. Silence.
Back in my own flat, I phone Alfred, the gardener/caretaker. He arrives within minutes. A huge Zulu man, well over six feet tall, Alfred is permanently dressed in blue working overalls with a ZCC star pinned to his chest, and a bus conductor’s hat with the peak turned to one side of his head. He crouches and awkwardly contracts his large body to get through the door.
We try phoning the rabbi and then the chairperson of the Body Corporate, privately referred to as “the Body Cobra”, without success. The water continues to flow and then to gush down from the upstairs balcony as a newsreader on Classic FM announces a national emergency. I change the station and turn up the volume. Rede Thlabi is interviewing Acid Mine Drainage activist Mariette Liefferink on Talk Radio 702. “We have taken and taken and taken this most precious resource, prioritising mine processes and profit over water. Nature is paying us back. It is as simple as that. I have been saying for years that the crunch is just around the corner,” Liefferink pronounces. “The central basin has decanted and the city’s water pipes have exploded from the pressure. As we speak, enough acid water to fill 50,000 Olympic swimming pools is flooding the city of Johannesburg”.
Within hours the picture has changed. By now a vast lake of water has surged up from ground level and Alfred and I are boarding a small wooden rowing boat steered by the Body Cobra. Spluttering with a dog hater’s contempt and outrage as Alfred hands me my two small dogs, Green Tara and Kuan Yin, the Body Cobra takes a small notebook and pen from the inside pocket of his jacket, and makes a note, no doubt with the intention of imposing a special levy on owners with pets. The antagonism between the dogs and the Body Cobra is mutual. They growl at him. I smile inwardly.
Rabbi Yudelman, wearing full Lubavitch religious trappings, and Elijah are already in the boat. The Body Cobra steers the boat past 112, where Rachel Levine climbs in, clutching a bag of Israeli jewellery in case she meets any customers on the way. Then we pass 108 to collect Noah Abramowitz. Noah, referred to by Alfred and other staff as ‘Omdala Oyinqaba’, the old eccentric, is best known for singing an eclectic repertoire at the top of his lungs in the underground parking garage at odd hours of day and night. As we arrive at his balcony he is singing, ‘The times they are a changing…” “Oh get in, Noah!” Rachel Levine snaps with irritation.
After one more stop at 113 to pick up Hymie and Beulah Lazarus and their parrot, Lennie, the boat is quite full. “Get back inside? Get back inside!” Lennie shrieks as the boat lurches hazardously towards Louis Botha Avenue.
With despair, I notice that “Orchards Wheel and Tire”, “Jay-Jay’s Car Wash”, “Mashi Rose Tombstones,” “E&W Steel Design”, “Burgess Plumbing”; “Vintage Clothing”; and “Tonino’s Pizza and Pub” are almost entirely submerged. “The Lord gives and the Lord takes away,” Hymie observes unhelpfully.
Noah sings, “He aint heavy, he’s my brother, “as I beg and bargain with the Body Cobra to make a stop at my brother’s shop to see if he needs help. Finally he agrees and we sail up the ramp to the old warehouse, where my brother’s eccentric second-hand bookshop is located. A plastic sign reading: “Men working overhead” that I anxiously recognize as one of my brother’s collection, floats by.
All the shelves on the lower half of the wall are under water. Richard and his assistant, Liberty, are huddled together with dazed expressions on the narrow walkway assembled from steel, wood and hemp rope, that runs alongside the upper part of the shop. They are surrounded by boxes and crates of books labelled in thick black ink: Peter Cheney; Howard Spring; Denis Wheatley; Frank G. Slaughter; Stephen King; Taylor Caldwell; Dornford Yates; Medical Romances; Shakespearian Studies; Crime Fiction; and Judaica.
The boat rocks and dips precariously as Richard and Liberty squash themselves in between Hymie and Noah on the central plank.
The Body Cobra steers the boat towards Maryvale Convent. The historic mural of our Lady of the Wayside is almost entirely underwater. The water is lapping at our lady’s chin and above her head, two nuns clinging to the church steeple wave frantically, but there is no room for them in the boat. The Body Cobra shrugs his shoulders and shakes his head sadly. On we go towards Killarney, passing the mosque on Central Avenue, Houghton, with its imposing minarets. I imagine that Na’eem and Fatima would have fled here and wonder whether they are still in – or on – the building or whether they have been rescued by a helicopter or a boat. Since Na’eem always has strings to pull, I am confident that he would have made a plan.
“How long will we be here?” Rachel Levine laments, her arms folded across her chest. “Until the ijuba calls,” Alfred volunteers. “Until we reach dry land,” Liberty adds. “Get back inside! Get back inside!” Lennie protests.
The acid water swirls and sways against the sides of the boat. The rabbi is praying, rocking back and forth over his huge stomach. Richard closes his eyes and mumbles a few empathetic words from the Anglican liturgy. I remove my mala from my bag and count the beads, quietly chanting the Om Mane Peme Hung. Noah sings: “The holy dove was moving too, and every breath we drew was Hallelujah, Hallelujah, and Hallelujah…”