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Take a Photograph


It's the first time they're letting my dad out, and we're going to look at the National Geographic Wildlife Photo exhibition. I'm ten, but Dad is much older. They call his day out fur low. I don't know why.

The exhibition is inside a museum which also has a collection of extinct birds in the room next to the one the photos are in. I feel weird about those birds, but it's where dad wants to go so that's where we're going. Inside, it smells damp and is very dark. The stairs are so tall I have to stretch my legs to climb up them.

Dad looks at each photograph for exactly five minutes. I time him on the watch mom gave me for my birthday. He definitely takes longer than anyone else. While he looks at the photos I secretly look at the other people to see if they're watching him. He's wearing normal clothes so I don't think they can tell anything. Or maybe they know it's not polite to stare.

"I like the photo of the man and the whale best, Dad."

He smiles. The man in the photo is so small in his wetsuit. He doesn't look wet and the whale also doesn't. When being under water is normal I guess you can't really tell you are. In the photo the whale is turning, as if she has more important things to do than stop and talk to the man with his goggles and long flippers.

"Dad, did you know whales have to travel a really long way? They go all the way around the world each year, and if they are girl whales they show their babies the way."

"We're not supposed to talk in here Jonathan. Try to be quiet for this little while."

The paper underneath the photo says this is a Southern Right whale. I want to ask dad if there is a Southern Wrong whale, but he's told me to be quiet, so I try. But then I see that it says the photo was taken in New Zealand.

I whisper. "Dad, did you know in New Zealand they sound like South Africans? Except if you put them together and then the South African will say, 'Ag sis man, we don't sound like that!'"

"Shh my boy. We're almost done."

I feel a bit sad Dad doesn't want to talk to me after all this time, so I stand by the door, hoping he'll know I want to go outside. Mom has told me not to sulk, it doesn't suit me.

When we finally leave he tells me he liked the whale too and I feel happy.

"Do you know which one was my favourite Jonathan?"

I think I do, but I don't want to get it wrong. He stood in front of one for extra-long—way longer than he did for the others—and he even cried. Nobody else seemed to notice, or at least it wasn't obvious if they did. It's hard to tell with grownups.

The photo was of a monkey on a braai. The monkey's eyes still looked like it was alive, shiny, and open. It was looking up at the camera. You could hardly see its body through the smoke, and it's hair was on fire.

"Was it the monkey one dad?"

He doesn't say anything, and I feel so worried I've gotten it wrong and he'll think I don't know him at all. But then smiles again, a sad one.

"You're right. Sometimes the best photos show the worst things."

"I don't understand why, if the photographer could see they were going to cook the monkey, he didn't stop them from doing it. That's what I would have done."

I hope he likes what I've said. His hand is dangling by his side and I don't know whether I'm allowed to reach for it.

"The photographer couldn't save it," Dad says. "They're there to look and then to show what they've seen to the world. It's up to us to do something."

I think the photographer could have asked them nicely not to do it. Mom says if you ask people nicely, then they'll do things for you. She always says, "I'm asking you nicely not to leave your toys in the lounge," and I do put them away after. Or at least after she asks me again.

I don't say that to Dad, because Mom isn't here, and I don't really know why but I have a feeling in my tummy that says I should leave it.

"The monkey was a colobus monkey Jonathan. Did you know they live in groups of nine?"

I shake my head. I wonder where this monkey's eight friends were. Maybe the photographer rescued them.

"They're threatened by the bush meat trade."

"Is that what happened to this one Dad? Did they cook it for money?"


When I looked at the photo after him, I'd seen the photo was taken in Gabon where there was an illegal market. It was illegal because they knew it wasn't nice to cook the monkeys, but people liked to eat them. They also eat turtles there! That must be difficult. The man who took the photo said he felt very sad to be there.

"Where is Gabon Dad?"

"It's also in Africa. They speak French there."

Maybe the photographer couldn't ask them to stop because he didn't speak French, I think, but Dad is walking ahead of me already, looking at the flowers, so I don't ask him. I don't really want to talk about the monkey anymore anyway.

"Let's go get some lunch Jonathan."

At the restaurant I order a burger. Mom says even before he went away Dad only liked to eat vegetables. He didn't like to eat meat or chicken or seafood. He said it wasn't fair and it was messing up the planet. I really like burgers though, and hardly ever get to eat them, so I hope he doesn't mind. Dad orders a cheese sandwich.

If I was out of jail for a day I wouldn't choose a boring sandwich. But he does and orders some chips too that we share. He dips them slowly, one by one, into the bright red tomato sauce and makes an 'mmm' sound each time he finishes one. They taste like normal chips to me, and they're a bit cold.

After lunch we go for a walk along the promenade by the sea. There is only a little bit of wind and dad lets me sit on the swings and pushes me higher and higher. Then he takes a turn and I try to push him but he's too heavy for me. At the bottom of his leg, I see a thick plastic bracelet. I don't say anything about it.

"Do you know Jonathan, if you swung the swing over the top it would go around and round for a long time because of centrifugal force?"

I shake my head. He starts telling me a long explanation and I try to listen, but I feel distracted by the bracelet and by the scratchy jersey Mom has knitted me. I wish Mom was here. Dad said it was okay she didn't come with us, but he looked sad and tired when he said it.

Last week I begged her to come, but she said she has a new boyfriend now and she didn't feel like she can talk to Dad anymore. She said she'd always love him because he gave her me. I don't understand why if you love someone you'd choose not to see him.

"Is Dad a bad man, Mom?" I asked her. She took a long time to answer.

"Oh, my Jojo. Sometimes good people do bad things for good reasons."

"Can you give me some other examples?"

She couldn't.

As Dad and I walk along the promenade, I wonder if that means she doesn't know any other reasons except Dad's, or if she only said it so I wouldn't know Dad was a bad person. I look up at him—his beard, the way he watches the seagulls, how he walks. After not seeing Dad outside in the world, I feel glad to see him. I think maybe I don't really care if he is good or bad.

I could have seen him before now, but Mom said I was too small to go to the jail. She always said, "You can go next year when you're old enough." Sometimes, I could talk to Dad on the phone, but it wasn't the same. Then finally the jail told her he'd be out for a day and it was my chance. I was so excited I could have exploded!

Yesterday Mom dropped me off with Granny and then at six o'clock this morning Dad was dropped off in a van by two serious men. Granny started crying as soon as she saw him, and she was still crying when we left to go to the museum. That's why she didn't come.

The men said they'd be back at six, no funny business.

I almost walk into Dad now because I'm daydreaming again.

"How many animals do you know that live in the sea Jonathan?"

"Lots dad! Fishandsharksandwhalesandturtlesandraysandeelsandcrabs."

He looks proud. "Did you know about the fish that lives deep at the bottom of the sea with a light on its head?"


"The light tells all the other fish to come to talk to it. But then the fish with the light eats them."


"Sometimes what looks inviting might be dangerous."

I nod, but I have no idea what he's talking about and I'm thinking of the fish.

"Let's go to the forest."

I'm tired, but I don't want him not to have a nice day out. So, we go. It's not far.

At the forest Dad shows me ferns, and the pine trees, and how the river makes a path. Even though I'm a bit too old for it, Dad offers to carry me on his shoulders. His beard scratches my legs as we walk. When he puts me down on a rock near the river I can tell from how tightly he hugs me that he's not a bad man, and there must be good reasons for doing bad things, like Mom says.

We sit on a slippery green rock.

"I love you Jonathan."

"I love you too, Dad."

Dad starts to cry, and I don't really know what to do so I throw rocks into the water and watch them sink.

"Shall we say thank you to the forest Jonathan?"

"What for?"

"For helping the world to breathe. The forests are the lungs of the world."

It's a bit of a strange thing to do but there is nobody around and so I shout, "Thank you!"

"Thank you," he whispers, and I can see he's about to cry again. "Isn't it lovely and quiet out here?" he says, and it is, now I've stopped shouting.

On the news a few months ago mom and I saw a story about how there were so many people in the jails, hundreds in one room sometimes. It's not like it is at a hotel where you each get your own room. You have to share with strangers. Strangers are sometimes not good people who did bad things for good reasons. I feel scared when I think about it.

When that story came on Mom turned the TV off and stood for a long time afterwards leaning against the wall, breathing very slowly with her eyes closed. Then she said softly, "Do you want some ice cream?" and I said yes. I ate my ice cream while she was thinking and looking out the window. We didn't watch the news again for ages.

Dad puts his hand in the river water, and sighs.

"Jonathan, did you know you can drink cold water from the stream as long as you are high up in the mountain, and the water is moving?"

"Thanks dad."

I wonder whether I should drink some to show him I believe him. Instead, I climb into his lap, and he rocks forward and back with me, saying, "Thank you nature, thank you nature."

The rocking is so nice and he's much bigger than Mom.

"Come on Jonathan, time to go," he says after a while.

We walk down through the forest quickly. Back at Granny's she's still crying, or maybe she started again when we got here.

"Don't worry, Mom. I'm fine," Dad says, but she cries harder and harder until she has to lie down.

I want to tell him I love him again and that this was the best day of my year. I try, but I cry instead. He cries too, and so we're all crying when the serious men come back at six.

"Goodbye Jonathan, I'll see you soon."

At the door I get to give him one last hug before he goes. "See you soon Dad."

It's really hard to close the door like he asks me to.

Granny is still lying down so I go watch TV in the lounge, choosing one of the videos Dad asked Granny to buy for me. It's one by David Attenborough whose voice sounds like a warm blanket over your ears. He knows everything about all the animals in the world.

When the video is finished I go to see if Granny is okay. She looks at me like my voice is hurting her heart.

"Don't worry Granny. I'll make us some tea."

I make a cup of tea for her with three sugars, and one for me with three sugars. We sit on her balcony and she takes hold of my drinking hand, so I have to use the wrong one to hold my cup. Granny's hands are soft, but have lots of veins that make them seem almost blue.

The sun goes down slower than I have ever seen.

It's been five years since I last saw Dad.

Gran's driving isn't great, and it takes ages to get from her flat to the jail. Her car doesn't have aircon, so the windows are open, and the Cape Town wind is pumping between us, too loud to talk. I wonder about whether I should hug him hello. My friends and I don't really do that.

It's weird to think they'd build a jail out here. On one side of the road are fancy wine estates, and on the other are wetlands. When we turn onto the road the prison is on it's obvious the people who live around here are rich. Maybe they want the baddies where they can see them.

When he walks out, Dad looks old. His hair is thin. He doesn't have a beard anymore and his face looks naked. As soon as he sees me he squeezes me into a hug. I wriggle a little, but it's actually quite nice.

"How've you been Jonathan?"

"Cool, Dad. Cool. I like to be called Jon now."

"Is that so?" he smiles.

Gran starts crying straight away so we have to wait in the parked car for a bit before she calms down.

"Come on, Mom. I'm fine aren't I?"

Like the last time we end up at the photo exhibition at the museum. Dad is pretty pleased the timing has worked out so he can see it. I half think he might have arranged it that way and I feel a bit jealous for some reason. Granny comes with us this time and before we go in we stand for a while looking at the gardens and the Egyptian geese.

Dad is breathing really loudly and laughing at squirrels and the thrushes thrashing about. I look around, hoping nobody I know shows up.

"Come on, Dad," I say, and we go in.

At the last minute, Gran stays downstairs in the tea room, and says she'll wait for us there. She and Dad give each other a look.

The dark stairwell up to the exhibition room is smaller than I remember it, the steps are not as high or wide. I want to run up the stairs and sail down the banisters like we do at school, but I think I probably shouldn't.

On the way into the exhibit, Dad reaches for my hand. I squeeze his quickly and release it. He looks at me in a way that hurts, and I feel bad for not holding on. I don't know how to reach out for his again. It feels funny thinking about it.

The first photo I see is of a boat full of fishermen. One holds a baseball bat and grins wildly. On the deck of the boat is a shark, newly finned in a pool of blood. Next to her is a pool of tiny baby sharks, aborted by the fishermen's blows to her body and by the pain she felt when finned. I stand at the photo for a long time and force myself to breathe slowly to stop myself from crying.

I look at Dad a lot during the exhibition and notice there are small things he does like me, or I guess technically they are things I do like him. He rubs his fingers together when he looks at the photos, and so do I. Thinking about my hands makes me think about the night last week when I tried to touch my girlfriend's boobs and she said, "Not today," and I felt embarrassed. I don't know whether I can talk to Dad about stuff like that or not.

In the landscape photos there are some with snow storms and one of them has a tiny black blur in the corner the photographer says was a fox. Another photo shows a huge field of soy crop in the middle of a jungle. When Dad looks at the photo of the shark, he cries, and doesn't seem embarrassed. I look away.

There are fewer photos than last time. They have to space them further apart. The winning photograph is of a pelican covered in oil. In the caption it says, "Deep Water Horizon was a predictable and careless mistake." On the news I heard it cost the oil company millions. They never even said sorry. It makes me really angry. The pelican cowered in the corner of a wooden box, and I feel ashamed looking at it.

"All done Jon?"


We walk slowly down through the gardens to the tearoom, Gran looking at every single plant along the way like it's the first time she's been here. I eat a dry scone with the best jam I've ever tasted and tell Dad about school and sports. I'm quite good at cricket, but not so good at rugby.

"How's your mom doing?"

I hesitate because of the way Gran looks at him when he asks. But he waits for my answer, so I have to say something.

"The wedding was boring. My suit sleeves were way too long, and the music sucked. But she's okay. She says hi."

She hadn't. I wonder if he can tell. He doesn't ask any more about it.

Gran doesn't say much, one or two things about her flat and how loud the taxis are in the morning. Mostly she holds her hand on top of Dad's and tries not to cry. She's not always successful.

After tea, Gran drops us off at the forest, and we walk up one of the long steep paths I sometimes run on. I point out birds I know, but soon Dad gets out of breath and in a small clearing we sit down for him to rest. He closes his eyes.

"Jon, if you listen carefully to the leaves, they blow and rustle like the ocean. If you listen carefully to the breath you're taking it sounds the same."

I listen. He's right. "Cool Dad."

"I don't know how much your mother has told you about what I did. I'm sure she hasn't told you about why I did it. I'm not sure if you're ready to hear it, but I want you to know, I'm glad I did what I did. But I'm sorry I missed out on you."

He reaches for my hand and holds it tight. I let him. There's nobody around to see us here anyway.

I sit, listening properly to my breathing for the first time I can remember.

Mom says when I was younger I used to throw tantrums and scream and shout until my face went so red she was scared I would stop breathing. I can't remember the tantrums, but I can remember her shouting, "Breathe, Jonathan. BREATHE."

The truth is, Mom hasn't really ever told me much about what Dad did.

"He tried to protect the world he loved, but he did it in the wrong way." And that was all she'd say about it.

My throat feels tight and I can hear Mom's voice in my head, "Just breathe." I take a big breath in and turn to look at Dad. His eyes are open now and he smiles and for no reason at all we both start laughing. It's one of those uncontrollable laughs where you're not really sure what's funny, only that it is. It passes, and he has his breath back, so we walk on. There doesn't seem to be a right time to ask him more about what he's done.

As we come around a bend a small gray buck shoots across the path and into the trees on the other side. We run to where it went, but can't see it anymore.

"Missed it. Damn!"

"My eyes aren't what they used to be Jon."

Suddenly he feels so old and I feel afraid. We walk back down to the parking lot in silence. Gran is waiting for us. She manages not to cry on the way back to the jail.

It isn't any easier to say goodbye to him there, with everyone watching us. I don't cry but I feel tears in my chest. Dad and Gran sob. When it's my time to hug him I hug him hard, pat him on the back like we do at school. Breakaway without looking in his eyes.

"See you soon, Jon," he says.

"See you soon, Dad."

Then he walks in, turning to wave one last time before they close the door.

When we get back to Gran's she goes straight to bed, and I get started on my homework. You have to keep busy when all you're really doing is waiting for life to be normal again.

It's hard to believe now, ten years later, that we didn't know what would happen. I bet Dad will say he expected it all along.

Most of us were going about our lives that day last year when the sirens sounded and the nuclear reactors down the coast overheated and cracked. There are so few roads in and out of the city that they were jammed within minutes and by then it was too late anyway. We were all exposed.

Those who could afford to leave left. Those who couldn't, well. We're still here. The government declared a disaster—understatement of the century. All the humanitarian organizations hassled the government about keeping prisoners in the red zone. It made them look bad. So, something good came of it all. Dad's getting out on parole.

I wait outside the jail for him in my new car, proud that I've managed to buy it myself. My job is inside the red zone, so the danger pay is good. I collect specimens of plants for the nuclear company to see the impact of the radiation and we wear special gear to protect us. The results are going to make a difference to how we respond in the future, may even allow us to protect ourselves. I've brought an extra set of gear with me for Dad. I hope he's not too proud to take it.

Pride is a problem of his, after all. I've known that since I looked him up online all those years ago after his last visit, unable to ignore the pain and curiosity that I felt. When I did, I couldn't believe I hadn't already heard about what he'd done. He was infamous.

It went like this: Dad was tired of people messing up the planet. He joined a group of people who felt the same and they'd tied themselves to a couple of machines that were going to build a new nuclear power station. He was angry about the cost and the waste and the danger. He was angrier that this was being ignored.

The protest seemed like a pretty safe idea at the time. They broke onto the construction site at midnight, while the security guard slept at his desk. He was dreaming of whatever security guards dream about, while my dad and six other people locked themselves to the machines that would dig and build, and waited until the sun rose.

The next morning it was rage from all sides. The security guard was furious because he'd slept through the whole thing and could lose his job. The workers were cross because they wouldn't get paid if they didn't work. The company was angry because they were on a timeline and needed to get the station built by a certain date. Someone said that Dad was the group's leader, and so everyone turned on him. He was chained to the machine and couldn't protect himself. It was only when the TV cameras arrived that the beating stopped. The group was arrested and detained.

At trial the group said they were acting under Dad's instruction. They said if their protest hadn't stopped the construction Dad's next plan was to bomb the place before it was finished. Dad was labelled a danger to society, a terrorist. Money was put in the right people's pockets. The others went free and he got twenty five years to life because he wouldn't say anything at court.

But it wasn't true. He wasn't the leader. Mom was. Of course, that wasn't on the Internet. I had to get it out of her myself.

She didn't go with him because she was pregnant with me, a little surprise that she hadn't revealed. She was the one who had planned the entry points, told them which guard was more likely to be sleeping, knew exactly where the machines were. She knew all of this, because it was her father's construction site. She knew that Dad wasn't a terrorist, that there had been no bomb. But she didn't say anything at court either. One of the guys who didn't go to jail is her husband now.

When we talked about it, she was apologetic, said Dad made her promise not to say anything so that I'd be okay. Things haven't been the same with us since.

She moved away to the farmlands a few years back, before the disaster. We talk on the phone sometimes. Gran died two years ago from cancer or heartache.

So, it's only me now, waiting for him. I'm so lost in thought I nearly miss him in the crowd. His hair is almost all gone.

As he walks over I think how unfair it is to release him into this mess of a world that he sacrificed so much to protect.

His hug is still strong. "Hello Jon."

"Shall we go to the museum?"

"I doubt it's still open."

"Let's see."

"Well, okay then."

The roads are quiet and apart from the homeless most places are abandoned. As we drive I tell him about the protective suit and how it works. I tell him about my work and how it'll help us adapt. I've got a device in my car that lets me through the barricades that have been erected.

"Special treatment, hey?"

"Perk of the job."

"Not sure if I'd call it a 'perk.'"

I brush off the criticism as I park. We've got years to get into this disagreement.

At the museum the front door is unmanned. It wasn't exactly a popular place before, and now that it's in the middle of the red zone it's pretty much abandoned. But my job comes with some influence, and I've had some help from friends at the archives and the news desk. I hope Dad will be pleased with what I've prepared for him.

The staircase is dark, its banisters unpolished and dull. I feel the same pull to slide down them that I had all those years ago. He hesitates at the bottom.

"Come on, Dad. Let me show you."

The exhibition we've arranged is sparse, but he's pleased. The space between the photos says as much about the world as they do. Absence as presence. Emptiness as story.

Afterwards we stand outside on the steps of the museum. It's a clear blue sky, the kind of sky that happens on the last day of summer when the air is cool but not cold and there is no wind. With this sky you could almost believe that nothing had gone wrong in the world.

An old homeless man waves at us from a bench where he's smoking a cigarette. We walk over to him, and I hand him my phone. Dad and I stand together, arms over one another's shoulders.

"We're ready," I say. "You can take the photograph."

First appeared in This is Aerodrome, 2014