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Authors: Miller,Andrew

Dub Steps

BOOK: Dub Steps
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Dub Steps
Dub Steps
by
Andrew Miller

 

First published by Jacana Media (Pty) Ltd in 2015

10 Orange Street
Sunnyside
Auckland Park 2092
South Africa
+2711 628 3200
www.jacana.co.za

© Andrew Miller, 2015

All rights reserved.

ISBN 978-1-4314-2220-3
Also available as an e-book:
d-PDF ISBN 978-1-4314-2249-4
ePUB ISBN 978-1-4314-2250-0
mobi file ISBN 978-1-4314-2251-7

Cover design by publicide
Set in Sabon 11/15pt

See a complete list of Jacana titles at
www.jacana.co.za

Contents
You

I am an old man on a hill, and my regrets are generic. To the extent that death can surprise, this has been it. It shouldn’t be a shock, but there you go.

 

I regret, most of all, my shrivelled heart. So focused on the numbers. On the maths of my personal equation. Can a man change his heart? Are there ways to improve the spirit of who you are? Of why you choose? It would be nice to think so. But me, now, I am simply ambient. I must be. Into this air I shall shortly slip. The solvent is this running, jagged brain, all angles and contusions, breaks and falls. The surface shines. Teflon. I slip back, and back, into my stories, ideas of her. Whoever she is now, her, the love I refused. Me, angry little peanut.

 

I should have loved harder. Generic.

I refused to let go. Generic.

I think I will miss the birds, the weavers most of all, but all of them really. (The worker birds more than the exotic. The mynas and the barbets and the robins. The boys on the rush, building and moving, private and fast and swooping.) Generic.

Blue sky. It starts to taste like something as you get really old. Something powerful. You open your sagging mouth and let the blue pour in. It’s fresh and light and it bubbles like an advert. Generic.

 

I remember a time on the beach. Well, not really a memory. Just the brushstroke of us, down the shoreline. She took my hand. Gave me hers. It was some kind of gift. A human transmission. I flickered with a deeper recognition I couldn’t place.

It all feels like that now. Transmission. Flickers.

 

It’s all on the record, in the archive, on display at the expo. You know what I looked like. What I did. You have the details, the story and all of its bastard children. Still, I must bleat just once.

 

Look, I was a cunt. Maybe that’s it. Maybe that’s all I really want to say. I know it now. It’s not a regret. You can’t apportion blame – even to yourself. It’s an observation. Age makes it easier to actually see. (Generic.)

 

A cunt on the move. A cunt with intentions. A cunt who cried at his own pain, paper cuts and marriage, it never mattered. I lived filled with tears.

 

So, there it is. That you are reading this, whoever you are, wherever you are, is enough. I have spoken. You have heard.

 

The rest is up to you.

I
C
HAPTER
1
Failure and I considered each other

I looked into the bathroom mirror and ground my knuckles into the sink.

A face too pockmarked.

Skin: puffy. Eye sockets: grey, pushed in too far. I shoved a thumb into the half-moon beneath the left eye and the white indentation stayed.

Failure and I considered each other, Angie’s cackle rising and falling and rising again from the dining room. I ratcheted my knuckles further. Then I punched the mirror, smashed it.

I marched through the dining room as hostess Clarissa, followed by Angie, was clicking in my direction to assess exactly what the fuck.

I mumbled a thank you at Clarissa, then at the rest of the now standing guests, lastly at the seething form of my wife, whose keys I grabbed from the foyer table.

No one moved to follow.

I took Angie’s retro Mini Cooper, a vile black-and-cream thing, and aimed it right at the complex boom, as they did in those old movies. We came to an auto American halt inches from the red-and-white pole. The guard hit the button from his booth. I slammed the heel of my palm against the steering wheel and let the blood splatter across the cream leather.

 

I drove to Eileen’s Rosebank apartment, parked the Mini deep under and went to sleep for two days.

C
HAPTER
2
Drunk

The dinner party had been Angie’s attempt to get me straight with the Mlungu’s ownership. There were rumblings and rumours, talk, mutterings about Roy. The usual. As the business grew I was receding, and I was receding because I had been drinking for the greater part of twenty years.

There were pauses, but they were brief and inconsequential.

Once, I booked into rehab for two weeks.

Otherwise I was drunk.

 

The dinner had rolled along. We were all wit and astute, analytical asides. The boss boys, Rick and Mongezi, were calculatingly casual, keeping the talk light, shop. The VR legislation, the new drugs on the underground, and so on.

Mongezi, bless his humble little black ass, did his best to stay parallel to me. We had started together, and no matter how far away he grew, he was always loyal.

 

Which was no easy thing. The bottle tipped and I tipped the bottle and it was too fast, of course it was too fast, the anxiety simmering already, less than an hour in. I was talking too much – I should never talk – and I was messing.

Red wine in all the wrong places.

C
HAPTER
3
The ultimate farce

I only met my mother a few times and my father – despite his many talents and attempts to be something else – was ultimately a useless fucker.

We lived in Greymont, on the cusp of Triomf, a shattered, angry suburb still trying to become Sophiatown again after all these years. She lived on the Westcliff hills, locked into the glimmering heights by her father. Punished.

 

Their story was the ultimate farce, and I the farcical result.

My father was at the height of a failed international cricket career, and my mother was in London on one of those white South African working trips. She was beautiful. Trim and fit and a dancer, part-time, but good enough at waggling around to be asked to appear on the boundary at one of the night games, where her form caught his eye and … it’s obvious and predictable. They came together full of pills in a club somewhere on the fringes of the West End, he a minor celebrity, she very star-struck. They fell into each other, fingers and blushes, sweaty palms and neck massages, and nine months later I came carelessly into existence.

 

My most vivid maternal memory is her arriving one evening when I was around five years old. I remember her hand and its foreign dimensions. The length of her fingers. Their restlessness. She had mousy brown hair and nervous eyes. Oh, and she was wearing brown slip-ons. I remember that.

She thrust a present at me. I opened the rectangular gift, pulling red ribbon off patterned brown-and-gold paper. I peeled the expensive sticky tape easily off either side and unfolded the paper to reveal a royal blue box. Inside the box was an overwhelmingly classy pen. Silver, very understated, thin, heavy.

An adult’s pen.

She crouched next to me and brushed my cheek with long, anxious fingers. ‘It’s in case you need to think out loud,’ she said. I was busy assessing the gift, clicking the push button in and out, captured by the smoothness of the internal latch, still searching for the right reply, when he kicked her out.

‘We gotta go.’ Russle Fotheringham stomped into the lounge, bakkie keys in hand. ‘I’m late. Next time, yes?’ She left the lounge quickly, half looking back. Russle and I drove to the bottle store, then back home again.

C
HAPTER
4
Genital nappies

Even in Jozi – thousands of miles from the celebrity moon shots, from Silicon Valley and the baked bean teleportation parties – there was a belief that we were shifting it.

Life.

Change was the thrill as I left university and entered advertising school. Mankind was, so the story went, finally crossing the threshold into a truly functional existence. If we chose the right combinations we could augment and magnify and enhance forever. The pavement, the sky, the air pushing quietly in and out of our snouts.

 

Our first copywriting module of the year was delivered by a thirty-something man in wire frames, stubble and a Steve Jobs buzz cut.

The class was twenty deep, all Model C kids with family backing (such as myself – my mother was absent, but her father funded any educational desire) or corporate sponsorship. Mr Jobs peered down on us.

‘I believe in change,’ he said, deathly career-serious. ‘Not that it is often very likely, in a deep, fundamental sense, but rather that it is our true hope as a species. The desire to change is all we have.’

I waded through the hype with as little focus as I had applied to everything else. I drank. I went to clubs. I tried to date girls, and failed, because I drank.

Still, I put my glasses on and marched out to the street with the rest of class as the wise Jobs added colour to the walls. As he raised the elevation of a passing pair of middle-aged breasts. Copywriting, he told us as we walked, was dead. Yes, there would be a requirement for a certain volume of text, but our professional lives would be defined less by our words than by our ability to manipulate the paradigm of experience.

 

Which sounded fine to me. To all of us, thumbs hovering, eyes rushing. We were the pioneers. Eventually, we would pass the gifts on. To our parents. To schoolkids in Uganda. To the mamas in the rurals.

The year passed, a thin layer of communication verbiage fell over my equally thin arts degree and I stepped into ‘the agency’. HHN – Huber Huber & Ndimande – a sixty-person set-up with offices in Hyde Park and an array of young, fiery-eyed executives leading the charge.

 

Looking back on my first days at the agency, I perceive Mongezi as a friend. He now possesses, via the warmth of an old man’s imagination and despite everything to come, a benign and accommodating place in my idea of my story. I see him clearly: a tall, thoughtful young man, prone to empathy.

Before we got into serious business, we were chat partners on the agency balcony. During work hours the rotation of smokers and gossipers and chatterers was ceaseless. But after hours I would inhale tobacco, he would drag on his blunt and together we’d pick the world apart.

In my hood, Mongezi said, there is nothing. At home people fetch water in buckets and walk kilometres carrying it. No one is networked or connected or app-enabled. If we had the net, or credit cards, the goods would still never arrive. There are no deliveries.

I admired him. He had all the southern African tongues, including media and technology. He travelled regularly north, and east, into the landscape that for most of us was just backdrop. Mongezi was aware of the distance between his chosen profession and his philosophical heart. He was not out to save the world, but he knew it needed saving.

In our business that was no small thing.

 

I remember a time. An episode. On the balcony, leaning on the rail, watching over the unfurling minutiae of the post-rush-hour parking lot.

‘I was thinking last night,’ he said, releasing a long dribble of spit
down onto a Mercedes. ‘Labour will not be required. It’s redundant. Human muscle has peaked.’

‘We rocket past the sun in technicolour glory.’

‘Sho. Of course. But I’ve always thought of it in terms of labour. Elites up in space. Chunks of meat down here, harvesting food. Screwing the lids on Coke bottles.’

‘Which are sent up daily, in fleets, unpacked at the Virgin docking station.’

‘Sho. But maybe not. Maybe they won’t need us. My mother, in Limpopo. Not required. My gogo. Aunts. They’ll grow their shit in space. Automagically generating food. Livers. Feet. Rice Krispies.’

‘Who? The rich?’

‘They won’t need us. We won’t need them. My grandmother can grow her sweet potatoes in peace.’

‘We say fuck off!’ I shouted to the dusk.

Mongezi flicked his roach over. We watched it fall, hoping to see it stick in the spit on the Merc’s window.

The door to the balcony swung open. A middle-aged traffic lady from Venda scolded Mongezi in vernac, then slammed it shut.

Most of our time together was on that balcony, and it was usually much less philosophical. We smoked and developed, in spiralling increments, our current obsession: our premise for a truly South African slasher flick.

Housewife in car, somewhere in Bryanston. Sandwiched behind the driver’s seat is her hedge cutter, which she is driving back from the repair man. She’s rich, but sensible too. She fixes the hedge cutter instead of replacing it, even though the rewards are negligible.

‘Three hundred bucks is three hundred bucks. It all matters.’

‘Even if a new hedge cutter would ultimately last longer than the broken one.’

‘Even if.’

A street thug passes her at the traffic light, can’t spot a device worth anything, decides to drift by, but at the last second spots the cutter and smashes the back-seat window with the spark plug gripped between his knuckles, the glass spraying all over the baby in the booster seat. He grabs the cutter, which, conveniently enough,
is petrol powered, and rips it to life.

The thug has issues. He feels a need to express them. He runs the cutter through a newspaper seller, then lops off the head of a young biker guy on a 50cc. In the midst of the ensuing ruckus he slips away, marches casually to the Bryanston Spar, cutter in hand, looking like a reasonable enough man on his way to do reasonable things.

‘He blazes into the Spar at ankle height.’

‘Optimum height for chaos.’

‘Ankles and baby heads.’

‘The chocolate shelves.’

‘Mixed nuts everywhere.’

‘Screams. Blood. Mixed nuts.’

Before it was serious, before business fell accidentally onto us, it was that kind of thing. Our movie. Our lives. Wild ideas about all the things we were lucky enough to know very little about.

All the while, the media philosophy fell like steady coastal rain. The creative directors and division heads looked over us as they spoke, their eyes locked into the mythical middle distance, where they saw community. Always community. Placing the brand at the centre of a community. Facilitating community interactions. Creating genuine, tangible community value. Bringing the virtual to life within the community. Developing brand equity within the new paradigm of real-world augmentation and the limitless virtual possibilities for community interaction.

That sort of thing.

 

Juniors spent productive time managing social chat. Agency legend said it would take a small lifetime, most of the rest of one’s twenties, to gain the privilege of writing. Until we had the wisdom necessary to write, we were to interact with the public According To The Brand Guidelines Supplied.

I spent my first month tweeting for a dish-wash brand, posting pre-prepared competition content on Facebook and escalating all but the most basic interactions.

Social media was our training ground for immersive VR –
the true front line. The technology was scratchy, the resolution pixelated, the interface prone to breaks, but the kiddies couldn’t get enough. The holograms – big-breasted Disney ladies wrapped in cat suits and motherly smiles – beckoned and cajoled at the mall entrance. Moms dumped their kids at the pen, glasses already on, and they sunk straight into it.

I eventually graduated to babysitter at a franchised mall holding pen for three- and four-year-olds, Barney’s. The interface was a simple fantasy forest. Castle at one end, playground at the other, rivers in between. The kids picked one of five available avatars and ran up and down from the castle to the jungle gym. Snow White took them all into her arms. Dwarves jumped and blew bubbles into the sky.

The children loved it. But they would have loved anything. The real traction was created by the parents, who spent the bulk of their own time at the mall blinking wildly into their glasses, reaching for virtual specials, chatting and sharing. When they came back to the Barney’s virtual spectator deck – always stuffed to overflowing – their eyes thrummed at the site of their progeny.

It wasn’t just the parents. We all thrilled. The suburbs reached and blinked and clicked and gawked. The holograms stood proud and fluid and sexy.

 

And then it changed.

They painted the bottom half of an under-maintenance cooling tower on the N4 to Mozambique and the Kruger Park. The video flashed from a hundred kilometres out, a crudely cut mash-up of squatter camps and mine workers going down the shaft. Gardeners in blue overalls walking dogs. Maids in pastel pink pushing prams, little white heads bobbing inside. Open Free State farmlands, rich with crops. Sandton parking lots, replete with luxury vehicles.

 

Democracy is digital

the text flashed. Then

Land was taken

… then

People will not be quiet

… then

Reparation | return | revolution

 

It took close to a full day for the cops to find the cellphone paired to the paint. It was buried in a bucket, underneath a mop, in the tower’s maintenance basement.

Meanwhile, the press flocked. The public too. Land Rovers – carrying British and French and German and Japanese game viewers – parked on the highway verge, and then at the petrol-station lots. The khaki tour guides unfolded camping chairs and proffered coffee flasks. They pointed to the tower and its message. Tourists dunked rusks and refocused binoculars. Initially the cops pushed them away, but the scope of the cooling-tower broadcast was so extensive anyone could park on any road – primary or secondary – and enjoy the view. Eventually the scuffles settled and everyone watched it play out, together.

They stayed long after the phone was turned off and the video stopped. They watched the paint being scraped away with wire brushes and solvent, hoses and solutions. The breathless reporters with swept-back hair, the tourists, the government officials, the cops. They all stayed.

 

Transmission paint was cheap. And simple. Lash the dirty brown onto any surface. Wait for it to dry. Enter pin. Pair. Broadcast.

Post-cooling-tower-show, transmission paint was sold out, restocked and sold out again. The rush was led by street protesters, red berets, political challengers. Behind them the rest: small-time advertisers, the floggers of products, remedies, solutions. The hawkers and preachers and tyre repairmen. If you had a wall you had a stage. If you had a phone you had a broadcast. All you needed was transmission paint.

Back in ad land, the geeks figured out what the paint could mean for the consumer and the brand experience.

Entertainment.

Communication.

Etc.

Paint innovation was mandated and costed and assessed. Strategists plotted. Clients caught their collective breath.

 

But nothing could match club land.

 

Club VR had been fine, fun, entertaining in the sense that the future was fuzzy yet tangible. But the interface was inherently fake. The VR clubs were, despite much effort, mall kiddie pens with booze and pills.

Now, painted clubs stitched geolocation to the network, creating an interface with actual, physical depth. Now, once the punters paid and stepped through, the walls fell away. They could be taken anywhere. No matter who you were or where you went, the experience suddenly felt seamless. Limitless.

After years of burrowing down inside ourselves, we poured out of our houses – big and small, brick and tin, flat and shack – into the basements and the warehouses.

To touch, to hold hands, to kiss … to blow it all up into hyper augmentation and exaggeration. To step inside, then out into the stars and the planets and the true mythical. Well, fuck. It was great.

 

Genital nappies – naps – became the accessories of my generation.

And yes, I explored as well. I slipped my nap on, zipped up my retro advertising pants, donned my wire frames, descended to the basements, paid my money and did what everyone else was doing.

It was a clear, assumed city agreement. Clubs and drugs and VR sex downstairs. Advertisers and government up top, controlling the veneer.
*

Everyone else in the cracks.

 

‘There is appeal,’ said Mongezi at the time. ‘If they weren’t such monkeys with the avatars it could be wild, nè? But I felt a bit stupid
at the end. You know, when you take that nap thing off and admit you were fucking the same shitty JPEG as everyone else.’

It was an offhand balcony conversation. A flippant comment. But it made both of us rich.

 

VR punters wanted fantasy. They wanted to fuck the woman or man of their dreams, and they wanted to look unbearably hot doing it.

Mogz’s idea was simple: punters should compose avatars, not select them. They should wield the freedom of the four critical categories (face, ass, chest and legs). They should morph and blur identities. They should be able to pull together any mix of face and ass and have the result feel and look and taste right. None of it was new, but his brilliance was the jacking of open-source image software to deliver the fractional file sizes that allowed thousands of users to interact seamlessly within the club network – sexually and otherwise.

I knew none of these things. I barely knew what image resolution was. Nonetheless, about a month after our conversation, two things happened.

 

(1) Rick Cohen, a university associate, stumbled into my table at a Rosebank coffee shop, drunk, depressed and bemoaning the fact that he was closing down his VR club – the punters were dribbling away … the fad was over.

(2) The following week Mongezi sent me a message:

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