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Excerpt from Imran Garda's The Thunder That Roars: Near Fatal Consequences of an Investigation

The Thunder That RoarsImran Garda’s exhilarating debut novel The Thunder That Roars follows journalist Yusuf Carrim as he searches for Sam, a family friend who has gone missing.

Garda takes readers from the suburbs of Johannesburg to the streets of Bulawayo, from Dubai air­port to an immigrant facility on the Mediterranean island of Lampedusa, as Yusuf’s quest to find Sam turns into an inward journey of his own.

Read an excerpt from The Thunder That Roars, shared by Random House Struik, in which Yusuf’s investigation leads to near fatal consequences:

* * * * * * * *

     The old Datsun appalled and intrigued Yusuf in equal measure. It was vomit-green in colour and as smooth on the road as a porcupine in a blender. It made a dying gobbling sound as they halted to a stop on a hill on the side of Cavendish Street, where they parked it outside a matchbox of a place with the sign ‘Gentlemans hair cuting saloon and shayv only r10’. Images of the Wild West matched the sense of anarchy on pause. Yusuf had called Phineas and agreed to meet at his home at five p.m. Phineas always returned early from the workshop during December, where they took few orders at year’s end. Prof enquired where the old apartment block, Villa La Toscana, was, while he and Yusuf navigated through a crowd of people. The building was on the corner of Raleigh Street.
     The street was choked with people. Gangly Ethiopians with slim noses dangled their long arms past clumps of Hausa Niger­ians congregating outside one of their bars. Yusuf saw a Congolese restaurant too and heard some French tones as they waited at the bottom of Villa La Toscana for someone to open the locked gate outside. He found it harder to differentiate the Zimbabweans from the South Africans, but was sure there were more of the former here. Yusuf knew Yeoville was initially white-bread central, or a Jewish ëkitke-bread areaí, as his father would tell him, once upon a time. Many whites, who were the only ones allowed to own property back then, worked the loopholes in the system and leased their homes out to blacks and others; it morphed into a mixed island of artistic life where writers and activists, journalists and nightclub owners broke many apartheid laws together in the 1970s and 1980s. As South Africa danced a giddy dance into the ’90s and conquered the tyranny of racist rule, Yeoville plunged into urban decay, but absorbed a new cosmopolitanism in the process.
     Now diversity here was continental and the soaring cost of housing forced many Africans to squeeze into small accommodations, like raisins crudely added to the kitke bread as an afterthought.
     ‘Prof, the way people are looking at us, it is as if we are the foreigners.’
     ‘But we are, young man, but we are.’
     A young girl, under ten, in a beautiful floral dress, appeared at the gate. She seemed in awe of Prof’s height and stared at him with her mouth open.
     ‘Excuse me, darling,’ Prof asked, ‘we are here to see Phineas, whose surname it seems we have unfortunately misplaced. He is known to reside on the seventh floor. Could you be so kind as to show us up to his apartment?’
     ‘Heh?’ she asked, perhaps not expecting Prof to speak English, or still in bewilderment at this almost two-metre-tall hulk.
     ‘Phineas, darling.’
     ‘Phinny from Schweizer-Reneke?’
     ‘That’s the one. Jolly good.’
     She turned the key and advised: ‘The lift, she is not working,’ said with the thickest of accents as wekking. ‘She never did work. Eva eva. Go up de stairs.’
     Prof huffed and puffed until they reached apartment 705.
‘Leave your big claws away from that door, the entire building might crumble if you knock,’ Yusuf said.
     Prof knocked anyway, fist clenched.
     Phineas was cordial but cautious. A man in his forties who had both the benefits and curse of a lifetime of hard labour, he was small and sinewy, veins popping out of strong, lean arms. His waist was tiny and his face was weathered. Handsome, were it not for his teeth – which were a disastrous mess, a hastily arranged set of piano keys too long, overlapping, congested and chipped.
     Yusuf wondered if Phineas’s pensiveness stemmed from not wanting his teeth revealed. His economy of words and shyness were not for want of intelligence. Yusuf hadn’t seen Phineas in five, possibly six years, but he seemed the same as he had always been. Yusuf remembered how Phineas would visit both Sam and Lina at the house, and was always the one they seemed to turn to for advice. A silent rock in their unglamorous world. Phineas spoke slowly but he was equally comfortable in Setswana, English, Afrikaans, Xhosa and Zulu. He was still wearing the blue workshop overalls. Grease stains streaked it liberally. Resembling a sheriff’s badge, a silver star inside a shield shape with the letters zcc hung from his chest. Lina belonged to the same church – Zion Christian Church – founded up north in Limpopo, one of the country’s largest denominations and big among the Tswana people. Yusuf knew it had nothing to do with the State of Israel. When Phineas shook his visitors’ hands he apologised for the slippery smoothness of his. These things tend to linger on the skin, he told them, in defiance of all cleansing agents. They were offered a seat on a 1970s maroon velvet couch. The fabric was weathered and battered after years of use. Yusuf occupied the last few inches of space on the couch, Prof taking up most of it.
     The incongruity of it: an old Telefunken tv with both M-Net and dstv satellite decoders atop it was nestled in a corner of the room, and the blond-mulleted MacGyver was solving a crime. The overwhelming smell of pap, dry maize porridge, settled itself into every molecule of oxygen, despite a door to the balcony remaining slightly ajar.
     Phineas confirmed to Yusuf, as he had on the phone, that he was the last person to be with Sam in South Africa before he
set out.
     ‘Sam was tired of all of this.’ He fixed his eyes on a spot direct­ly between Prof and Yusuf, not maintaining eye contact with either. ëHow many years has he been here in South Africa? Twenty? More? He still couldnít get his papers right. Home Affairs used to ask him for more money. The police only want bribes here or they deport him again and again Ö Time and again, every time it was the same story for Sam. You remember when he spent three months in jail. It was so bad. In the one we call Sun City?í
     Yusuf nodded.
     ‘So he told me that his uncle, Sukuzukuduma—’
     ‘What a lovely name,’ Prof said, ‘lovely name. Do continue my friend …’
     ‘His uncle, Sukuzukuduma, in Bulawayo, knows someone who can get him a job – but in Libya. That the money is very good. Maybe three, four, five times more than my salary in Booysens at the workshop. Plus, they do your work papers for you and give you a place to stay. It is a two-year contract. I don’t know too much.’
     ‘What sort of work was it, Phineas? I need to know so I can identify the company, the exact location, and start making specific enquiries,’ said Yusuf.
     A pause. ‘Hai, I don’t know. I was just happy for him. I think it was oil.’
     ‘Would Uncle Suku … Sukuz …’
     ‘Ja, Sukuzukuduma doesn’t know what happened to Sam, we asked him … and he knows everything about the work Sam was doing. But he … but I don’t know if he will tell you.’
     Phineas got up abruptly.
     As he did, two young, seemingly Zimbabwean, occupants of the apartment walked into the living-room area from one of the bedrooms. Each gave Phineas and his visitors a single thumbs-up greeting with the words ‘Sure’, pronounced ‘Shaww’, as they left out the front door. Phineas headed towards the balcony behind the kitchen. He seemed deep in thought and restless enough to move to catch some fresher air. Yusuf and Prof exchanged glances and followed. As they walked towards Phineas, now standing outside amid hanging clothing of all sizes, including those of children, they saw a single mattress on the kitchen floor with a superman duvet, two dirt-stained pillows, a one-legged Barbie doll and a Transformer toy taking up half the space of the tiled area.
     They entered the balcony space.
     Yusuf quizzed him, a little too forcefully perhaps: ‘Why wouldn’t Sam’s uncle want to tell us?’
     ‘Do tell, do tell,’ Prof chimed in.
     ‘Well, I am sorry to say this. But Sukuzukuduma, he is not like me, or some of us blacks here.’
     ‘I don’t understand.’ Yusuf felt a chill in his abdomen.
     ‘He doesn’t like to speak to whites or Indians … He is a war veteran … White people did some bad things to him.’
     ‘But, Phineas, we were all in the same boat. Whites had all the political and economic power. Blacks, Indians, coloureds – here and in Zimbabwe – we’re … we’re together, Phineas. What does this have to do with me wanting to find Sam? For Lina, for myself, for everyone to know, including him, the uncle, Sukuzukuduma. What does this have to do with that?’
     ‘You see,’ continued Phineas as he looked over the neighbouring street from his seventh-floor vantage point, while they stood behind him, trying to penetrate the root and direction of his thoughts, ‘see how we live here. Ten of us in this two-bedroom flat. Me, Zimbabweans like the two boys you greeted, some of their children, a Muslim like you from Malawi, but he is black. Ten, with kids more. I pay two thousand rand to share a room with four others. Half my salary. Those children sleep in the kitchen. We work hard, Yusuf. We fix your cars, you and whites. We clean your houses, we are those guys, ten, twenty of us on the back of the Toyota bakkies, in the sun, on the highways, like animals while whites and Indians drive us to the next job.’
     Phineas turned and looked Yusuf in the eye. ‘Now you understand?’ It wasn’t said angrily. It was instead said with sincerity.
     Prof was quiet. Yusuf responded with a sulky, ‘I’m not sure
I do.’
     Phineas pointed across the road to an old Victorian-style house, now painted bright orange. The windows were smashed out long ago. As the afternoon sun began to dwindle some shadows could be seen in the house, worming over one another. ‘There, maybe fifty people live. Rwandans and some tsotsis from Transkei. They brew umqombothi beer there and drink it all day. But some of them have jobs. They can’t afford housing, so they live here. Sam’s uncle came to South Africa – the new South Africa, with black presidents nè, democracy nè? Sam’s uncle came here a few times. This is what he saw for the black man.’
     The silence that followed could have been three minutes long but it felt like an hour. Prof quietly suggested they leave. Yusuf asked for Sukuzukuduma’s number. Phineas gave it to him but felt confident the old man wouldn’t be helpful. Yusuf punched the number into his smartphone.
     ‘You’ll have to go to Bulawayo. He might be rude but I think if you keep asking he will speak to you.’ Phineas looked at Prof. ‘Take your friend with you. Sukuzukuduma is old, but sharp up here,’ Phineas said, pointing to his head, ‘but I don’t know if he will speak to you on the phone, maar you can try.’
     ‘Okay.’
     ‘And Yusuf, if you go … I hope you find what happened to our Sam. We miss him.’

     ‘How presumptuous, Prof! Who does he think he is? Does he know me? What is this, class warfare?’
     Yusuf muttered and mumbled as they left the building. Prof suggested they get some Nandos and try to look at the bigger picture.
     As he took another Herculean bite of his double-chicken burger, extra hot, Prof was partial to Phineas’s narrative, explaining: ‘Look at the squalor these people live in, Yusuf. I found it perfectly … hold on …’ (the burger’s peri-peri sauce and mayonnaise were now running down his wrist, which he wiped with a napkin like a seasoned professional) ‘… I found it reasonable the way he explained why the uncle with the magnificent name might not want to talk to you.’
     ‘Yes, Prof, I get it. But … I am different. Look at me! There are black people who are much fairer-skinned than me. I am looking for Sam. My family is not perfect, but we were good to Sam all these years. He was family! Why this … this resentment towards us?’
     Prof never seemed to be fazed by anything, and never missed an opportunity to get preachy: ‘You are taking this far too personally, young man. We need to separate the personal, micro, emotional from the macro. The structural story, as Marx would put it, that is playing itself out rather gloriously here.’
     ‘Gloriously, thanks.’
And so they wrestled over these themes for the next thirty-five minutes, Prof calm and Yusuf irritable. It continued during their walk down Rockey Street. As they worked their way past a cluster of people spilling out of one of the shebeens on the narrow pavement, Prof said: ‘Let me give you an anecdote of the Luo, my father’s tribe, and the Kikuyu, my mother’s. This might explain something profound to you. Especially since you, we, are about to embark upon this journey to—’
     ‘Hey, wena, shutup … shutup wena, shurrup …’
     The interruption came from a man in his twenties, tiny, with ritual scars across his cheeks and a hooded sweatshirt. He held out a sharp army knife – red at the handle, slightly rusted at the tip. The two men on either side of the speaker held their knives at their sides, more surreptitiously. Yusuf froze, knowing he had to hand over his wallet, phone and watch. But he was unable to, as every second tumbled into the next in excruciating slow motion. Prof tried to reason with them.
     Two quick-fire slashes at the torso, the first scuppered by Prof’s big hand, the second more successful. A few violent grabs later and then it was all over. Nobody helped. Few even noticed. Prof had been stabbed and Yusuf could do nothing about it.
     As the ambulance screamed ahead of Yusuf, following closely behind in the Datsun, he saw to his right, Bedford Street. To his left was a blacked-out property under renovation with a sign out front: You Don’t Know Jack – Opening Soon.
     The doctors at Charlotte Maxeke Hospital, commonly known as Jo’burg Gen, said Prof would likely live, but the massive loss of blood in such a short space of time and a pre-existing heart condition increased the risk of fatality. Yusuf had always seen the hospital at the top of the hill from afar, but he had never been inside it. And now as he sat quietly at the edge of the shared room where Prof was, his hands were uncontrollable. He fiddled with a hole in the once powder-blue leather covering of his chair’s cushion. He dipped his right index finger in and wiggled it inside the spongy guts. His left hand would not stop shaking. He took a few deep breaths and pressed it down against the armrest, like a policeman trying to pacify a reckless criminal, but still it shook. The anger he had felt upon leaving Phineas’s flat still echoed inside him, fed now with other streams.
     The regular bleep of the machine matched Yusuf’s barely
audible prayer. He whispered to himself: ‘Hasbunallahu wa ni’mal Wakeel …’ (Allah is sufficient for us and He is the best of providers) ‘… Hasbunallahu wa ni’mal Wakeel—’
     A woman interrupted: ‘Excuse me. Does he have any family you can call?’ Flesh, fatty, caramel-coloured and wobbly, hung underneath her arms. The nurse asked again. ‘Sorry to disturb you, but does Mr Odinka have any family here that you know? He is stable but you never know, you know? Touch and go sometimes.’
     ‘I have his bag with me, I could go through it. And his car. I don’t think so. He has some family in Kenya. I can check.’
     ‘Please do. Does he have medical aid?’
     ‘I think so. Again – I will have to go through his stuff. But they took his wallet. And mine. If he doesn’t have medical aid, what will happen?’
     It seemed as if she had repeated this many times before: ‘Well, if he doesn’t he stays here. We will look after him. If he does, maybe we can decide to transfer him to a private clinic, but at the moment we just need to keep him alive.’
     Yusuf held his head in his hands.
     ‘Wait,’ he said. ‘Wits. The university. You need to call them. He is an assistant professor there.’
     She wrote it down. ‘Which department?’
     ‘History.’
     ‘Okay, we will phone them.’
     She eyed the bloodstains on Yusuf’s shirt. ‘Were you with him when it happened?’
     ‘Yes.’
     ‘Sorry. These bleddie people, hey? Mugging?’
     ‘Yes.’
     ‘Thank God they didn’t have a gun. We will do our best. Can I ask you for a small favour? We are short of sheets and towels, so we are asking family or friends of all new patients to bring their own. We are okay for tonight but you think you can bring some for us tomorrow morning? And why don’t you get yourself some rest at home in the meantime?’

     Yusuf foraged through Prof’s car and belongings but found few clues directing him to anyone here or in Kenya who might be contactable. He did not have a key to Prof’s house, and felt uncertain about going through the tiny tablet palmtop he’d found in the big man’s tattered bag.
     He reached home in the Datsun, needing to explain his identity to the security guard at the boom who was concerned about this foreign, shabby car invading the neighbourhood.
     Yusuf took off his clothes, decorated with grisly crimson splatter, and rinsed them in the sink before placing them in the wash basket. Although the stains were stubborn, he did his best. He didn’t want Lina to see the blood when she did the laundry. He showered and changed, then prayed the Isha prayer: ‘Assalamualaikum wa rahmatullah,’ he turned right, ‘Assalamualaikum wa rahmatullah,’ he turned left. He sat on the musallah prayer mat after the ritual aspect of the prayer, closed his eyes, held out his hands and prayed silently in English for Prof’s health. He wiped his face with the blessings trapped in the cup of his palms and opened his eyes. The prayer calmed him slightly and stilled his jumpy nerves.
     Fahmida and Jack waited for him in the living room. He had called them from the hospital, telling them not to come there because he was on his way home. He greeted his father with a hug, and nodded at Fahmida. They spoke of the incident and Yusuf explained the extent of Prof’s condition. They drank masala tea while his father dealt with the bank and cellphone company over the phone.
     ‘Yes, a robbery. He is right here. My friend, my friend, he is shaken up, which is why I am calling. Hold on … Sufi, what is your id number?’
     ‘8612255230942.’
     ‘Did you get that? Okay, good. All blocked, right? So the new cards will come when? Okay, we will collect it. Thank you.’
     To Yusuf, Fahmida looked sour-faced as usual and, while trying to project a semblance of sympathy, she was failing. She kept glancing over at Jack, as if to prompt him. His father grabbed her hand and spoke: ‘Sufi, we are happy you are home – you know that?’
     Yusuf nodded, and tilted his head a few degrees to the side, waiting for what came next.
     ‘We are also proud of you and everything you have done so far in America. And when I emailed you, yes, I, I told you Lina was asking for help. I thought you might make some phone calls, right? But …’
     He looked to Fahmida, almost for approval.
     ‘But what?’
     ‘Don’t snap at your father, Sufi!’
     ‘Why do you care? You do it all the time … but what, Dad?’
     ‘Don’t talk to your mother like that!’
     ‘My mother is dead.’
     Jack raised his voice: ‘Yusuf, hold on, just hold on now. You are out of order. Now listen to me. You came back, fine. You are trying to help find Sam, fine. I hope you are not jeopardising work to do all of this.’
     Yusuf got up to walk out.
     ‘Sit down, dammit! Sit the hell down. Now listen to me,’ Jack ordered.
     Yusuf stood idle at the edge of the couch, blood pumping furiously.
     ‘Listen. I asked you to do what you can. Not go on some … some … crusade here in Jo’burg. Your friend the professor might die now because of what you started.’
     ‘Oh, so this bitch here told you it’s my fault. I am now a murderer, am I?’
     His father, although a smaller man, launched himself at Yusuf and pinned him against the wall, fists locked at Yusuf’s collar, grabbing his shirt.
     ‘Don’t you dare, my boy. Don’t you dare. Since your mother died, Fahmida has treated you like her own. Now listen to me. I will fucking kill you if you talk to her like that again.’
     Jack relented.
     Yusuf, head lowered, sat down. Jack returned to his place as Fahmida attempted to pacify him. ‘Okay, Jack, maybe we can speak to him next time. Let things calm for a day or two.’
     Jack took a moment to compose himself, then spoke.
     ‘No. Listen, Yusuf. We gave you everything and we give you everything. With love, without question. Remember one thing: Sam is only the gardener. Lina is only the maid. I am your father. Fahmida is your mother. People don’t have to die because you just decided all of a sudden you want to change the world.’
     They finished their tea in silence. Jack and Fahmida retired to their bedroom.
     Yusuf walked calmly to the kitchen. He unlocked the back door and crossed over to Lina’s quarters. He knocked.
     ‘Lina, it’s Sufi. There is something I have to tell you.’

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