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At the Harrington Street drop-off today, there was a woman sitting on the floor, her legs stuck out straight in front of her in that peculiarly African pose. She was staring at her limbs, as if she could not believe that they had carried her here, that the same legs had carried her over moss in streams and stones in deserts, over barbed-wire fences, over and under, all the way up the street, to a safe house, to here.

All around her the bags were arranged in heaps, the contents neatly labelled by the volunteers. Pillows, said one. Women’s (warm), said another. Babies’ clothes. In one of the open bags there were Crocs in kids’ sizes, the little plastic charms still stuck into the holes like a surrealist painting. How had those children been persuaded to part with them? How did their mother explain who was getting their shoes? (Were they still alive, these children? Maybe they were also gone — to white deaths: a car accident, a drowning in the swimming pool, a girl who choked on a lollipop while her parents watched her on a park swing.)

It reminds you of Auschwitz, there, even though the volunteers in the Foreigner T-shirts stand for the opposite. The bustle is the same when the numbers are great. Those black and white pictures show 1930s shoes arranged in heaps, dusty and unfashionable, their heels worn through as if back then men and women were made for dancing. Thousands upon thousands, and each shoe lost without its partner. You would have to double that to get the pairs of feet that had worn them, times by ten to get the number of wintry toenails turned to ash in the air over Europe. Double that, triple that, times it by a thousand.

It reminds you of the Cape Town chuckers, whose first pair of sneakers you saw linked by their laces and thrown over the Rondebosch power lines, where they dangled over the traffic like they had been hanged, or like they were tripping Hermes-wise into the sky. And then there were more sneakers, sneakers with skulls painted on them, sneakers covered in Tippex. And then, months later, pictures of sneakers, as if they had been eroded by the southeaster until they could only hold paper feet, as if the idea of shoes was more important than anything else.

Times that by hundreds to get the number of people who think they have time to wait for the buses for the border, and times again by a thousand to see the pairs of feet that have been here before and started to walk: some of them are in wheelchairs, some are aided by sticks, but there are enough stones for everyone on this side and the other, plenty of stones and barbed wire to go round.

One woman stays. She stays, with her dumb legs, on the cement floor.


  • Diane Awerbuck

    Diane Awerbuck's first novel, Gardening at Night, struck it lucky. She writes textbooks and fiction (most recently, Cabin Fever) and reviews books for the Sunday Times. Her doctorate, The Spirit and the Letter: Warblogs, Trauma and the Public Sphere, is due out in 2012, along with another novel.