The Big Read: This beauty is getting ugly
The woman at reception was apologetic. "I'm afraid there might be some bad weather on the way," she said, peering out at a distant wisp of cloud.
We understood why she'd said it. Most of the people who stayed at her establishment were tourists from the northern hemisphere. To them, rain is bad weather and sun is good weather. Of course she was going to apologise for the chance of a shower.
The peculiar thing, though, is that it wasn't just an act put on for sun-seeking Swedes and Canadians. The locals believe it too. Ask most residents of this water-scarce country and they'll tell you that the total absence of rain is an ideal state of affairs.
At the height of Cape Town's last heat wave I heard a local deejay announcing that the dust-choked, raw-nerved city could look forward to "another amazing weekend of perfect weather" with temperatures throbbing up past 37 degrees and into the space where people burst into tears mid-conversation.
Yesterday, as I read that the city has eight weeks of water left, I heard someone sighing about how beautiful the weekend had been. He talked of windless warmth, a sky of the most perfect blue. The sea had been warm enough to swim in. Bliss!
What he was describing was, of course, a catastrophe; the preamble to Googling, "How to boil your own urine so that it is OK to drink"; but he could not see it as anything but aesthetic perfection.
It's not our fault. Our colonial programming runs incredibly deep and a large part of that software is dedicated to an unbreakable attachment to the picturesque and the belief that scenery that was agreeable to British people in the 1700s is agreeable to us. And so we go out into the glare of this monstrous autumnal summer with its cruelly empty skies, peeling sweaty shirts off our backs, watching the dams drop and drop and drop, and admire the "good weather" and take photographs of yet another barren sunrise.
I've always felt that Cape Town is a temporary place. Established by a Dutch corporation as a satellite office; occupied by the British to guard sea routes to much more important places; used as a dumping-ground for revolutionaries from altogether elsewhere; it can seem like a city that has spent over 300 years waiting for a memo from Head Office to sell the furniture, shred the files and head back home.
Of course, that was just a feeling. I had no evidence of how fragile my city might be. Now, though, as the satellite images show the rain curling away to the south, week after week, and the sun rises on yet another depressingly "beautiful" day, I think I'm seeing proof. The sky has shifted. And now the sand, white and fine and unmoved by a breeze, is running through the hourglass.
Not that one should panic, mind you. Cape Town might be running out of time but the world goes on. I'm not even that fussed about climate change. That's because a lot of people are very worried about it, which almost certainly means it's not the thing that's going to nail us. No, what gets you in the end is the banal threat you'd more or less made peace with; the one that was so over-hyped that it had become boring and, therefore, invisible.
For example: last year the Chapman University released its annual Survey of American Fears. Of the 1,500 people polled, 41% cited terrorist attacks as their greatest worry. Nowhere on the list of American horrors was "dying of heart disease", a condition that kills over 1,500 Americans every day. That's a 9/11 every two days.
And so it goes with all of us. We stay in the shallows to avoid the infinitesimally small chance of being eaten by a shark; and when we're done we hop happily into our car and tootle off into the murderous streets, entirely convinced we will not become one of the 14,000 South Africans killed on the roads every year.
So yes, I have no doubt that what's going to end humanity is something we've already grown tired of. Some clever little creepy crawly that shrugs off our antibiotics. Maybe a less clever little nuclear war. I know. So early 1990s. So lame.
Cape Town is in trouble, but it's not going to shrivel and die. People are talking about drilling holes into aquifers, or blowing the budget on desalination. And who knows? Maybe dependable, good rain will come back one day, soaking us through the winter as it used to.
But as another brilliant dawn breaks, and the sky turns to deep blue, untroubled by a single cloud, and the wind doesn't ruffle the vast, undrinkable ocean, I'm going to watch my language. Today is a beautiful day in Cape Town, but this is not good weather. And if the weather stays beautiful and bad for the next month, it could get very ugly indeed.