msafiri FICTION 128 L ynn had almost made it to the petrol station when her old Toyota ran dry on the highway. Lucky me, she thought as she pulled on to the verge, seeing the red and yellow flags ahead, the logo on the tall facade. But it was hopeless, she realised as soon as she saw the pile- up of cars on the forecourt. A man in blue overalls caught her eye and made a throat- slitting gesture with the side of his hand as she came walking up: no petrol here either. There were twenty- odd stranded people, sitting in their cars or leaning against them. They glanced at her without expression before turning their eyes again towards the distant city. In a minibus taxi off to one side, a few travellers sat stiffly, bags on laps. Everyone was quiet, staring down the highway, back at what they'd all been driving away from. An oily cloud hung over Cape Town, concealing Devil's Peak. It might have been a summer fire, except it was so black, so large. Even as they watched, it boiled up taller and taller into the sky, a plume twice as high as the mountain, leaning towards them like an evil genie. As afternoon approached, the traffic thinned. Each time a car drew up, the little ceremony was the same: the crowd's eyes switching to the new arrival, the overalled man slicing his throat, the moment of blankness and then comprehension, eyes turning away. Some of the drivers just stood there, looking accusingly at the petrol pumps; others got back into their cars and sat for a while with their hands on the steering wheels, waiting for something to come to them. One man started up his car again immediately and headed off, only to coast to a halt a few hundred metres down the drag. He didn't even bother to pull off on to the shoulder. Another car came in, pushed by three sweaty men. They left the vehicle standing in the road and came closer, exchanging brief words with the petrol attendants. Their forearms were pumped up from exertion and they stood for a while with their hands hanging at their sides. There was no traffic at all going into the city. Over the previous two days, TV news had shown pictures of the N1 and N2 jam- packed for fifty kilometres out of town. It had taken a day for most people to realise the seriousness of the explosion; then everybody who could get out had done so. Now, Lynn supposed, lack of petrol was trapping people in town. She herself had left it terribly late, despite all the warnings. It was typical; she struggled to get things together. The first night she'd got drunk with friends. They'd sat up late, rapt in front of the TV, watching the unfolding news. The second night, she'd done the same, by herself. On the morning of this the third day, she'd woken up with a burning in the back of her throat so horrible that she understood it was no hangover, and that she had to move. By then, everybody she knew had already left. People were growing fractious, splitting into tribes. The petrol attendants and the car- pushers stood around the taxi. The attendants' body language was ostentatiously off- duty: ignoring the crowd, poison Kenya Airways is proud of its association with The Caine Prize for African Writing, awarded annually for a short story by an African writer published in English. Henrietta Rose- Innes won the 2008- 9 competition with this story, Poison. on the morning of the third day she'd woken up with a burning in the back of her throat so horrible that she understood it was no hangover.
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