If Johannesburg was anything like London, if the people of the shadows observed and studied through the unblinking eyes of CCTV cameras every move of the citys citizens, then they would have been in for a real treat that day; when a mere tourist turned into a werewolf.
That day began as any other. The sun shone bright, the Uber driver was pleasant and when he dropped us off near the neighbourgoods Market, curiously, in spite of the large number of security guards mulling about, he asked us to stay safe.
The market was a delight; like a UN committee of Asian and Spanish and a dozen other food-crazed nations.
A fejito and an iced-coffee later, we decided to head to our main destination of the day; the Carlton Centre.
Towering 50 storeys over her lesser neighbours, I had visited that vertigo-inducing giant during my first visit to Joburg and fascinated by her history, was keen to have Sab see it too. For less than 3 dollars each, we could stand on the 50th floor and marvel, through thick, dusty glass-panel walls, at the sprawling mass of humanity and their dwellings as far as your eyes could see.
The building is mostly used as office space today, but back in 1973 when it first opened her doors, it was mostly occupied by the luxurious Carlton Hotel. The first time I was up there, I quietly mused how much the hotel’s rich and famous had had to pay for the same privilege back then.
Like I said earlier, the sun was out and our spirits high day day. So I thought why not walk the two kilometer or so from the market to the Carlton Centre.
“It should take no more than half an hour anyway. And we can see a bit more of The city that way too.” Agreed Sab.
I wish she hadn’t.
“Give me your phone!” Someone barks. I’m aware of something touching me as I realize that was barked at me. Sab knows something isn’t right, and instinctively lets go of my hand. She doesn’t panic and I love her for that.
My heart is, however, thumping. I reach into my shorts’ pocket where I usually keep my phone and find a hand there instead. It is calloused and cold and hard and I know I’ll have to be just as hard if I’m to get out of this thing alive.
I grip the hand around the wrist like a vice as another raggedly dressed man shoves me from the front and a third man twists my arm around my back.
Their mistake. I snap.
For nearly 25 years, the Carlton Hotel remained the Queen of Africa. Then one day, it was all over. They blamed the Urban Decay; a cute word describing the the relentless press of humanity – the derelict shops, crowded mini-buses, the sewage and the trash on the streets – closing in around the hotel. The truth was, there was no room for glamour in the cut-throat world that was downtown Joburg.
In 1998, the decision was made to pull the curtains on the show. The last guests checked out, the hotel staff left, and the once glamorous hotel was no more.
Today, she is little more than a shell of what she used to be; perhaps still wondering what this Urban decay which had spelled her end really was.
I snapped. Pulling the first guy towards me, I used our combined momentum to shove the second guy back, then turned around and locking eyes with him, let out the most savage, raw scream of my life.
I knew well I couldn’t find them all off. My best chance was to have them believe that I was one crazy sonofabitch not worth fucking around with. So I spun and howled like an enraged werewolf, my eyes wild with madness and my neck veins straining to break free.
It was all an act, of course. But an act performed so convincingly that I almost had myself believing I was insane. It worked. The leader of the pack hesitated for a moment, letting go of my phone. And that was enough for the others to back off too. I kept screaming for another minute or so just to be sure, and then, just as suddenly as it had appeared, the werewolf was gone.
I never got to show Sab the Carlton Hotel. But on the way back to the safety of the market, as she checked my arms for grazes and cuts, it occurred to me that although we had failed to see the corpse of the once-famous hotel, perhaps we had managed to get a glimpse of her murderer.
The Urban Decay was real.