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Author: Bridget McNulty
Strange Nervous Laughter is a book about love. About what love does to us, and how our lives are changed by being in love, out of love or on the brink of love.
With a dollop of magical realism and a pinch of black humour, it follows six very different characters – a cashier-turned-motivational speaker, an undertaker with a toenail fetish, a girl wrapped in dreams, a man who communicates with whales, a garbage-removal man with a peculiar smell, and a Guinness Book of Records representative bound in a corset of cynicism – as they muddle their way through the hottest summer Durban has ever known, trying their best to figure out what it is they want and how to get it.
An intriguing blend of lyricism, whimsy and wit, Strange Nervous Laughter is about love and friendship and relationships – and sex and food and Durban – and the odd ways in which we sometimes behave.
Bridget McNulty has a Creative Writing degree from Marshall College, Pennsylvania and is the author of ten children’s books. A native Durbanite, Bridget runs an online art dealership and works for the Biblionet project in Cape Town. This is her first novel.
Witness (Janet van Beden):
There are three states of love. In love, out of love, and on the precipice between the two.
We all have a preference, and - surprisingly - in love is not always the hands-down winner. It is too messy, too all-consuming, too much. Then again, out of love can be a little lonely, and that teetering precipice - when you’re no longer in love, but not quite out of it - exhaustingly dramatic. Each is risky.
As life itself is risky. As the most mundane activities that fill our days are risky - crossing the street, withdrawing money, shopping for groceries. Especially, you might say, the latter. It is all over in five minutes.
8.31 am: Beth, the cashier in a small supermarket, sits twirling a few strands other hair and sucking on the ends thoughtfully. She seems to be floating above her chair, softly humming a love song, one other feet pirouetting mid-air.
There are only two customers in Handy Green Grocers this morning - Meryl, a woman with sleek, black hair and flawless skin, perusing the Weigh-Less Meals for One, and Mdu, a tall, dark, scowling man choosing a bunch of grapes.
It is a seedy little shop - dust particles hang suspended in the lattice of sunlight that creeps in through the burglar guards of the small window, and the Today’s Specials! signs are clearly not today’s specials. They’re advertising Easter eggs in October. The overhead fan does nothing to move the stagnant air, and the display of mangoes seems to be ripening with each passing moment.
Handy Green Grocers is the kind of shop that only locals shop at. The kind of shop that has everything you could ever need, but only in small quantities for exorbitant prices. The kind of shop that somehow, always, seems to smell of curry powder and over-ripe bananas. The kind of shop you wouldn’t expect two men with hooded sweatshirts and hand guns to burst into at 8.31 am on a Tuesday morning and say, in voices thick with fear, ‘Okay, get down on the floor! We don’t want to hurt anyone, we just need some money!’
Beth screams, shattering a stand of All Gold tomato sauce bottles, each one exploding messily. The man in the blue hoody spins around and aims his gun at her. ‘Shut up!’ he demands, crunching tomato sauce shards under his feet, while the man in the red hoody starts chanting, ‘Oh shit oh shit oh shit,’ under his breath.
Sleek Meryl, on the other side of the shop, drops the Weigh-Less meal she is holding, then drops to the floor, silently, swiftly, as though practised in the art of hitting the ground. Beth immediately bursts into tears, loud gasping sobs that leave her breath-less as they fill the small shop, bouncing off the windows and landing in the middle of the tinned beans display, causing it to topple over and almost crush Meryl.
Luckily, she is bound so tightly in a corset of cynicism that neither emotions, nor tumbling tin cans, have any effect on her. In fact, Meryl is amazed at how calm she feels; amazed at the almost Zen-like sense of clarity that descended on her the moment the men burst into the shop.
She always thought she would fall to pieces in an emergency. But she didn’t. Not at all. She simply fell to the ground, kept quiet and played dead. She pretends not to breathe. She does not move. And when ten more cans of cheap baked beans fall on her back, she refuses to flinch; braced by her intricate, tightly woven armour.
Mdu is the only other customer in the shop. His hand, still stretched out to pick up the only good bunch of grapes in the pile, remains there, frozen. The rest of his body freezes too, except for his heart, which speeds up and pounds deafeningly in his ears. Mdu forgets how to breathe. His mind fills with the clamour of things the other people in the shop are not saying out loud. The words behind the words.
Underneath the plump cashiers repeated plea -Please don’t kill me, please don’t kill me, please don’t kill me - Mdu hears, I don’t want to die, not now, not here. Please God, don’t let me die, not here, not now ...
Just keep it together, keep it together, the dark-haired woman next to him tells herself silently, sternly, without any trace of emotion. She is still stretched out on the floor, buried under a pile of cans.
Not for the first time, Mdu wishes he did not have such exceptional hearing. Being able to hear the things that people are afraid of saying aloud is not always helpful. Like now, when he can hear the man in the red hoody thinking: I don’t want to have to shoot anybody, but, fuck me, if this woman doesn’t shut up, somebody will hear. I’ll shoot one of them if I have to, just to get away. Mdu does not want to be that one.
He knows his role in this scene; knows that he is the only man who can defend these two women; knows that he has to step forward and say, in a quiet but determined tone, ‘Come on, guys, leave these good people alone.’
In his mind’s eye, Mdu can see exactly what to do: disarm both men by grabbing the watermelon to his left and knocking them out, simultaneously signalling the hysterical cashier to call the police. He is young, he is strong; he has in many ways been waiting his whole life for this chance to prove that he is capable of doing something remarkable. Instead, he remains frozen.
Frozen, as he watches the two men force the wild-eyed cashier to empty all the money from the till, watches as they wave their guns around, shouting, ‘Shut the fuck up!’ in increasingly loud voices, while she continues to whimper, ‘Please don’t kill me, please don’t kill me, please don’t kill me.’
He watches their hands shake as they silently tell themselves, unwittingly in unison, Time to go, hurry the fuck up! And finally watches as they scan the shop one last time. Then the more confident man, the one in the blue hoody, grabs a Bar One from the check-out counter and tears it open with his teeth. He grins mockingly at Mdu and takes a bite. Pussy, he thinks. The word echoes in Mdus mind.
8.36 am: All over. Beth, still sobbing, still gasping for breath, dials the police and tells them to ‘Hurry, please hurry, they might come back!’
Meryl, unharmed, stands up and makes pointed eye contact with Mdu. Then walks out calmly, past Beth who covers the phone with one hand and calls out, ‘No, wait, you might have to identify them!’ Mdu finally picks up the bunch of grapes, crumples to the ground and slowly starts eating them, not tasting anything but the lingering bitterness of cowardice. A bird starts singing outside the door. For a moment, the air in the shop stings with relief.
Lets press pause for a minute. What do we see?
Beth, the cashier, hugging herself tightly with her arms across her chest. Eyes wide and still terrified, forehead crumpled in despair, mouth open mid-sob. Mdu, the grape-eater, sitting on the floor with his elbows on his knees. A half-eaten bunch of grapes dangles from one hand as he covers his ears to block out Meryl’s disdain.
Meryl, one hand on the door, the other tightening the laces of her stiff corset, glancing at Mdu with an undisguised look of disgust. And outside the shop, outside where the world continues as if nothing has happened?
Pravesh, a young Indian man, sits on a bench under the large acacia on the opposite side of the road, reading the ‘In Memorium’ notices in the newspaper, his knees pleasurably tingling as they are wont to do in the proximity of death.
Aisha, a beautiful black girl, walks past on her way to work, staring dreamily at the clouds gathering overhead, wrapped up in a private dream world. And Harry, the local garbage man, stands on the edge of his truck just over there, sifting through an overfull black plastic bag.
Sure, they all seem preoccupied. But without a doubt, if we could crawl inside each of their heads (just for a moment, without them noticing) we would find, amidst the cobwebs and jingles and completely forgotten New Year’s resolutions, an opinion or two about love.
A few thoughts on relationships. One or two fervently held hopes of not dying alone. Because, despite its inauspicious beginning, this is not a tale about crime. Nor about the daily woes of living in South Africa. But rather about love; and what can happen to it when combined with the hottest summer Durban has ever known. […]