A while back I went round to the local pharmacy in the hopes of getting a Covid jab – or, at least, a jab that, weirdly, being a vaccine, is both Covid and anti-Covid. The word ‘vaccine’, I recall, derives from the Latin for ‘cow’, the first animal to receive such a treatment, so I think of this as the Bovid-Covid jab. Which, as I understand it, guarantees nothing, but hopefully has a something-% chance of keeping me out of hospital when I do get Covid. This places it just a notch above the frailty of a face-mask that is, as a medical acquaintance put it, as effective against transmission as underpants are in containing the smell of a fart. Well, nothing ventured, nothing protected. Belt and braces.
As I was saying, I went round to the pharmacy, but they had run out of Jabs. The solitary nurse promised to phone me when she had some. I was not optimistic. But blow me down, she called, and here I am, queuing up for the needle.
Happily, it’s a warmish winter day, since we first have to queue on the pavement. Apparently the facilities are too cramped inside to accommodate both ‘jab-ees’ and Ordinary Shoppers, who are on a last-Friday-of-the-month gallop to buy Clearance Sale kettles and baby-towels and Lancôme and headache powders and bog-roll and sunglasses and other such necessities of modern civilisation. All of which seems to me to have just an edge of the frantic about it, not only because everyone has just been paid, but because in other parts of the country malls and pharmacies like this one are being looted and burned and destroyed utterly.
Sketch by a friend -
from the same queue
But here, today, all is peaceful, if slightly in(s)anely busy. I suspect the ‘scheduled’ jab-ees have been infiltrated by the unscheduled, but we line up obediently, multi-racially, amicably sharing pleasantries in a variety of tongues. This, I think benignly, is the real New South Africa. Part of it, anyway. The nurse and her assistant appear sporadically with a small shopping trolley bearing clipboards, Jab Record Cards, and Indemnity Forms in which we affirm that if the vaccine kills us we have only ourselves to blame. We help one another with pens and what to write where, while assuring confused Ordinary Shoppers that they can indeed go on in and don’t forget to pump the foot-pedal on the steriliser. (What an extraordinary range of such machines has been quickly designed, manufactured, labelled, distributed – I knew I was in the wrong line of work.)
We are being ushered into the pharmacy in small batches, as the newly-jabbed trickle out. In between lurches in the line we wait: half an hour, an hour, more. It’s a great time to people-watch, kind of like taking the pulse of our times. Alongside us minibus taxis pull up frequently, with the distinctive roar of their sliding doors, disgorging and engorging; happily, unlike Cape Town, they aren’t shooting each other to bits. People pass, striding or waddling, languid or hustling. It’s just a touch cool, so many are wearing tracksuit tops, emblazoned “Primal Rage” or “University of Wisconsin” or “Refinery Dry Goods Supplier” or “Strike a Woman/ Strike a Rock”. Most people are responsible about wearing face-coverings – some plain, some elaborate, some disposable, some homemade, some close-fitting, some beaked. One man has a sort of elasticised head-sleeve, camo-patterned, which covers his entire neck, mouth, nose and ears, leaving exposed only his eyes and bald pate. A lesbian couple of insouciant demeanour and ultra-tight jeans, holding hands, have matching masks with yellow smiley emojis. Two Muslim women need no more than their usual full-body chadors, revealing only dark glossy eyes, superficially plain in black but on closer inspection adorned with subtle lace and silver-embroidered hems in discreet showiness.
The shop flanking the pharmacy entrance is owned by (at a guess) Pakistanis, who seem to regard themselves as pandemic-immune and eschew masks, as does the massive ebony man (at a guess, Senegalese) who guards it. At the door gauchely-made mannequins shoulder knock-off Adidas jackets, violently vivid dresses, and pre-torn jeans; a crudely hand-written notice promises ALL cellradioTVlaptop repair; the elaborate silver tubes of a hookah glint behind the window. A red parka on display is impressively realistically stuffed – until it moves, being, it turns out, occupied by a living human. Shoes are shelved in pairs against the far wall, toes turned demurely in. Such multi-purpose stores are the name-of-the-game in survivalist times. From a row of window-sill spikes, intended to repel the bottoms of loiterers, hangs a panoply of colourful face-masks. Business goes where business is.
Sketch by a friend,
from the same queue
I notice inside this shop a white-and-red painted narrow spiral staircase, a strand of DNA coiling up out of sight. Who notices these remnants of architectural adornment now: a carved wooden pillar, a row of almost iridescent green tiles, the sculptural cast-iron walkway post I lean against, its cream paint peeling? Across the street, too, I can see the tawny stonework of an early nineteenth-century church, the complex facade in pale blue and white of Georgian wedding-cake style on an historic clothier, the copper angel statue atop a World War One memorial, the characterless 20th-century frontage in industrial grey and yellow of a tyre-fitter. One is boxed in by history. Beyond this rank of (relative) Euro-elegance, the far hill-slope is crammed with the ragged rows of little township houses – the source, no doubt, of the majority of these passersby.
These are wildly varied – as varied as the inventive things people do with their hair and braids. Gum-chewing boys ride mountain bikes down the pavement. One woman is totally done-up in gleaming gold, false eyelashes, and inch-long false nails in livid green that don’t seem in the slightest to inhibit her smart-phone operations as she minces by on perilously high stilettos. A lot of people are absorbed with their phones. There are youths, loping busily behind delapidated supermarket trolleys, rattling scavengers, their clothes edged black with their accumulated poverty. A teenager who has been loitering for a while cradling an empty black bucket decides she might as well slot into our queue, though clearly she’s not a jab candidate. No shoes, no mask, no physical distancing; if I’m going to catch Covid anywhere it will be right here in the vaccination queue. The girl looks absurdly pleased with herself; she is pretty in a sturdy sort of way, with a pretty but vacant smile, and a top that once was pretty but is now splitting its seams at the armpits. She suddenly releases a prodigious stream of saliva into the gutter, half vomiting half spitting, then still smiling dances over to the pharmacy’s pseudo-Classical entrance pillars and almost lovingly caresses the layered posters stuck to them: Jesus the Resurrection Revivalist Meeting and Sons-of-Man Quartet alongside Call this Number for Penis Enlargement Find Wallet Lost Love. The girl is obviously mentally – whatever the politically correct term is these days – not quite all there, but apparently harmlessly, contentedly so. Happily daffy.
The line is moving; my batch is invited to enter the brilliantly glittering, neon-washed, narrow-aisled, bustling interior of the pharmacy. Its sterilisation-bottle mechanism like a glum mechanical Cerberus. In my batch are a long-haired biker-looking man, wearing for face-mask one of those triangular red bandannas now mostly associated with invaders of the Capitol; a lean fellow all in black who might be a displaced clergyman; an ancient hobbling Xhosa gentleman and his worried-looking be-hatted wife. Just ahead of me is an overweight lady crammed into a shiny green dress and a haughty but cheerful manner, whose diminutive twin girls are obliged to wait all this time with her. Except one overhears that in fact they’re a year apart – five and six – despite being dressed identically in little pink parkas with grey faux-wolf fur ruffs, cerise masks they have trouble keeping on, identical hairstyles of elegantly raked cornrows supporting twin bobbles tied with colourful bead-strings, and spangly blue gum-boots. They are exquisitely well-behaved, and almost everyone going into the shop pats them or waggles their fingers at them, finding them just too cute for words, which they are.
Less cute is an unusually loud and unusually tall individual who keeps shouting the odds about the confusion over who is to move to which plastic chair, and why is it taking so long, and hey, isn’t she jumping the queue, what the hell? He will not sit down because he says he has back problems. He converses, if that’s the word, with another fellow with a reedy penetrating voice about how all this rioting is just bloody Africa and Ramaphosa doesn’t have a hope in hell now and why can’t Eskom stick to its bloody schedules. They hurt my eardrums. Sandwiched between them, I take out an art magazine and pretend to read it, having zero desire to engage. But Mister Tall-and-Irrepressible spots this and lunges over me: “Are you an artist?”
I hedge, “Well, nah, I’m just interested.” For some reason I don’t want to admit anything to this intrusive fellow. He starts going on about his aunt being artistic. I put a finger behind my ear and pretend I’m too deaf to carry on this exchange, but this just makes him speak louder.
“At least you’ve got your eyes. Eyes, hey! My eyes, mm-hmm!” He prods his rather thick glasses. He has thinning black hair slicked back over his brown skull, a frizz of beard turning grey. He is, I’m guessing, a rather indeterminate racial mix, not quite Coloured nor White nor Indian, a true scion, one might say, of South Africa’s entangled past and future.
“You look fit!” he bellows. “Are you a hiker or something?”
“Where do you hike around here?”
“I like the Drakensberg,” I offer, though in truth I haven’t been to the ’Berg in a decade. He leaves me for a while. I suffer instead through the appalling pervasive shouty-screamy noise-over that passes for pop-musak nowadays, and the perpetual, robotic, plummy-toned announcements at the pharmaceuticals queue, “Number Ess Two Four One, serving at Counter Seven ... Number Ess Two Four One, serving at Counter Seven ... Number Ess Two Four One ...” Number S241 has evidently gone home already, or gotten lost in the toothpaste section. So much for AI. I can hardly credit the number of people in here buying all this stuff (although I confess I bought myself a new kettle in this very shop not long ago...)
“Are you an ornithologist?” Why the fuck would he ask me that?
Fortunately at this point the jab-nurse calls me in – sometimes they call me Daniel and sometimes Wylie – to the little sanctum behind the cluster of waiting-chairs, while the assistant patters my details into her laptop. The nurse closes the door, as if exposing my bicep is an exceedingly private thing. She has been very patient, is really very sweet, and delivers the jab with such deftness I barely feel it.
“So this your life now, huh,” I say to her, “this Covid thing doesn’t look like going away any time soon.”
“Oh, I’m so bored, this isn’t what I trained for. I’m qualified in HIV care and monitoring, a student can do this stuff, I’m looking elsewhere, I’m telling you.” (One is tempted to extrapolate this mismatch into ailments bedevilling the entire national medical superstructure, but we won’t go there.)
I have to sit and wait for another ten minutes in case I suddenly keel over. I don’t, and the assistant presents me with my completed Jab Record Card and a hearty “Congratulations!” Of course, I have been terribly brave. I execute a mock bow, which a well-groomed Afrikaans lady in the chair opposite deems worth a titter, and scuttle away, out of that capitalistic corner of hell, as fast as my ornithological legs will carry me.