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At a darktown cakewalk, or, shave and a haircut, two bits

Sometimes, I don’t know if I remember what I’ve done or whether I’ve heard it from other people, or maybe read it in the newspaper.

In the courtroom Johan Nel leans forward, elbows on the knees of his new suit pants, and grins at the families of the people he killed. He has had his head shaved during his month of psychiatric assessment, and underneath that scalp, says Doctor Labuschagne, lie the two expected hemispheres of a normal brain.

There has been another kind of transformation in his manner, from the skinny boy being bundled into the van, hunched into a shapeless jacket with his hair touching his collar, to the new Nel – hairless, sleeker, heavy as a seal, weighted with something more than the home schooling and the endless deaths in his own family that they say led him by the hand to this room.

He writes to his psychiatrist that what he wants is to be special, to be remarkable, to be memorable – in other words, to be rich in the currency of the twenty-first century, which values recognition over love.

And his wish has been granted – but in a peculiar way that only ties him more permanently to the hurts he wants to escape. Whatever else happens to him in the long life he can expect, Nel will always be the white boy who killed those black people at Skierlik and only stopped because he ran out of bullets. He has not stood out; instead he has allied himself with the million-man army of the shaven-headed – the collaborators, the loners, the lice-ridden pre-schoolers, the prisoners in the camps and on the guillotine. And the ranks of the mourners on the other side. Be careful what you wish for, Johan.

That knowledge will relieve him of his last weapon, his smirk – at the cameras, at the relatives of the dead – which is not the awkward grimace of the nervous teenager but the smile of a man who still thinks he stands a chance against the system. That naiveté is the saddest thing about him, a toothy reminder that this person has no idea of what he’s done.

But he will. Nel will have an endless and solitary stretch to ponder the banality of imagined retribution, long after his hair has grown back while he waits in his cell for revelation; long after the hair of his victims falls away from their scalps where they lie, all four of them, under the earth, done and dusted.


  • 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.