Fiction Friday | 'Common Ground' by David Mann

Read Johannesburg-based writer, editor and award-winning arts journalist David Mann's short story, 'Common Ground'. Mann's fiction has appeared in literary journals and publications including ITCH, AFREADA, The Kalahari Review and AnyBodyZine.

17 December 2021 - 10:00 By David Mann
The trouble with Cape Town, he says, is that it’s still run like a colony.
The trouble with Cape Town, he says, is that it’s still run like a colony.

There are nine of us, and we are gathered at Khumo’s place – a dusty student digs in Observatory. The house is hardly big enough for a gathering of this size, but we make it work.

We’ve occupied the living room for our meeting and have moved all of the furniture to the edge of the room. We are seated in a circle on the scuffed-up parquet floor. Bags and shoes are strewn about the place, plenty of smoke and booze is circulating. On the walls, various prints and paintings, one of them by someone in this room, all of them badly framed. We’ve been here since 11 this morning. The intention is clear, or rather it was clear – the establishment of a radical, experimental and interdisciplinary art collective. It’s 4pm now, and little has been accomplished. Now, we’re just trying to do something.

Things started off well enough. The day was set to be a productive one. Successful even. How could it not be? We are all accomplished artists in our own right. Among us, there are theatre-makers, painters and writers. Individually, we go by these titles. Together, and as of this morning, we are a collective. A group of “cultural workers”, as Thembinkosi put it earlier, working to carve out a more equitable and less exclusionary space in the arts scene. We’ve won about twelve accolades between us, which we all agree is an impressive number, more so when you consider that many of us are still considered ‘emerging artists’. We debate this term, too, deciding that it’s a thinly veiled attempt by the galleries and the theatre houses to keep capitalising on our labour while underpaying us.

Not all of us are emerging. Percy’s been around for a while now, having worked as a curator, researcher and archivist, and we’re grateful to have him here today. He’s been through it all already, and is able to warn us against certain places, certain ways of working. Also, certain people. He’s done this a lot today. The more he drinks the more he warns us against people, always with a pertinent anecdote or bit of information about the person that shows us just how much we need to stay away from them. We’re shocked that these kinds of things aren’t public knowledge.  

There is a ‘culture writer’ here, a university student who hasn’t said much. It’s likely that he was only invited for the possibility of early media coverage for the collective.

“It’s important to own the narrative from the jump,” Khumo ventured earlier. “Being in control of how we’re written about in the media, even how we’re perceived by the public, is crucial.” All of us nodded, thoughtfully, when she said this.

Exactly who prompted us all to gather here today, we really can’t be sure. A message was put out, times were arranged. Khumo was happy to host the meeting, and now here we all are. Many of us are meeting for the first time today, although all of us knew of each other before. Probably, it’s these tentative assumptions of one another’s practice that caused some of the early fractures in the foundations we were trying to lay this morning.

“We just take to the streets,” says Joe. “That’s the only way we’ll make sure what we’re doing is reaching the public. We stay away from the galleries and we do our work in public spaces.”

Joe’s a street artist, although he hates the term, preferring to be referred to as a ‘graffiti writer’ or ‘public artist’. He paints and wheatpastes fragments of text on the billboards along highways and on electric boxes in and around the Cape Town CBD. He calls them urban aphorisms. Bontle, the poet, is eager to collaborate with him on a project combining their practices, but Joe doesn’t seem too interested. They studied together in the same small university town. Maybe they have a history?

Thembi stubs out a cigarette and leans into the conversation. “Just because your work’s in the public realm doesn’t mean it’s reaching people, you get me? It’s the medium that we need to rethink. How do we make sure what we’re doing is speaking to the guy who’s picking rubbish? The lady selling amagwinya at the rank?”

Although Thembi hasn’t lived in Johannesburg for more than five years now, he still likes to draw attention to his history with the city, often when he’s talking about how much is wrong with Cape Town. Nobody is sure what it is that he does exactly, but we all know of him. He calls himself a cultural producer,

The trouble with Cape Town, he says, is that it’s still run like a colony. “There’s no porousness here, they like to keep the poor out of sight so that we can’t come together.” We’re aware of the kinds of spatial tactics he’s making reference to, but, reluctant to endure another of his monologues we do not entertain him, and press on.

Bontle has her say. “I guess my thing is just that, at some point, we’re going to have to interface with these institutions, right? Like, whether it’s them offering us a space or asking us to be on a panel or something, we’ll have to figure out what we’re going to say and how we’ll say it as a collective. I’m not saying that they’re not shady or anything, but they’re a necessary evil, I think.”

At this, everyone shakes their heads and begins to speak. The room is full of dissatisfied chatter. Perhaps we should have appointed someone to chair the meeting? Although, we decided early on that anything remotely hierarchical would not be beneficial to the collective. We needed to decentralise conventional forms of leadership.

At the edge of the room, Sonia is laughing under her breath. She picks up two quarts of Lion Lager and uses one to pop the cap off the other. Sonia is a dancer and she is the only one here today who’s not smoking. She is also one of the few who hasn’t been sharing her alcohol, drinking whole quarts by herself since she arrived. She takes a few long gulps from the freshly open bottle before venturing into the circle.

“This big thinking won’t get you anywhere,” she says to the group. “You sit and think, think, think about something, and you never end up doing it. With my practice, it’s all physical, intuitive. You get up, you move, you get things done.”

Everyone falls quiet. Alice, who hasn’t been drinking at all today, but has been watching both Sonia and Percy grow steadily more drunk, intervenes.

“I don’t think it’s productive for us to be talking so divisively,” she says. She speaks softly and sweetly, and everybody listens. “We’re here to collaborate, not push our practices and ways of seeing onto each other.”

Joe, Thembi and Percy nod as she says this. Alice goes on to explain that this is the reason she can never work with other photographers, that too much of the same thing can only make for bad art. Embracing the unfamiliar, she says, is the path toward better ideas. Sonia cuts her off and begins to accuse her of taking photographs of poor people and profiting off of their condition. This gets the circle going again and soon everyone has broken off into little constellations.

Outside of the circle, Percy is sitting with his head in his hands, fingers buried in his hair. Joe and Thembi are resting on their sides and listening to Alice defend herself. Sonia is occupying herself with a drink. Bontle, who’s grown quiet, is busy writing something in her journal. Khumo looks unsure what to do with all of us, and has gone into the kitchen to pour glasses of water for everyone. The whole place is filled with smoke and the sour smell of beer and feet. The pieces of dyed fabric that serve as curtains haven’t been moved by a breeze all day. The room has grown much darker.

“Does anyone want some tea?” Khumo calls from the kitchen. Nobody answers. “I’ve got Rooibos and Five Roses.”

“Fetch my other one in the cooler box there please man Khumo,” Sonia calls back.

“I think they’ll all finished,” comes the response.

“No, man, I’ve got at least one more there otherwise these people are drinking my alcohol,” says Sonia, stumbling to her feet.

Thembi cracks a joke about her being too drunk to count, and this makes everyone else chuckle. It also sets Sonia off again, and she turns to face him. As the argument gains momentum, Percy gets up and makes a show of putting on his boots. This makes everyone stop what they are doing.

“Bra Percy, don’t mind these guys,” says Thembi. “Let me just roll us another one.”

“You lot are carrying on like clowns, hey?” says Percy. “I can’t sit here and listen to you all talking nonsense to each other, I have other things to do.”

“It’s not all of us,” Alice says under her breath, but loud enough for Sonia to hear.

“You’ve been going on like spoiled children the whole time,” says Percy. “The only one who’s not making noise is this other guy.”

Everyone turns to look at the young writer who has been sitting just outside of the circle, leaning against a worn, red couch, and listening. Through the activity of the day, his presence in the room has gone largely unnoticed. Now, people begin asking him questions.

“Which publication did you say you were from?”

“What’s your agenda, hey?”

They do not allow him to answer.

“Who invited this guy anyway? Has he contributed anything?” asks Joe.

“Do we even know who he is? I’ve been watching him,” says Thembi. “He’s been recording our discussions this whole time.”

The room falls quiet. Keeping the meeting phone-free was one of the first things we agreed upon today. It’s not clear why. Thembi had said something about the possibility of our phones being tapped. Percy considered them to be sources of distraction. None of us took any issue with this. We simply switched them off and left them in our bags. The writer, it seems, chose to keep his phone on.

Everyone is looking at the writer now. He tries to explain himself but cannot find the words. His eyes scan the room for a kind face, an ally. No one is willing to claim any kind of relationship with him. He is nobody’s friend, or anyone’s acquaintance. Thembi and Joe walk over and ask him for his phone, Sonia tells him they need to search his bag. He does not object to any of this. They search through everything, finding nothing. Percy, who has been standing and watching the whole scene play out, tells them to give the writer back his things.

“I think you’d better leave, my friend,” he says.

As soon as the door closes behind him, we begin talking excitedly about what has just taken place. None of us invited the stranger, we agree, we all assumed he arrived with someone else. Thembi recounts his experiences in student movements, telling us how there was always someone working to derail their plans from the inside. Bontle and Joe nod, vigorously. Khumo tells Alice how unnerving it is to have a total stranger in her home and wonders whether she should call the police. Alice is happy to stay a while and keep her company. Percy removes his boots again and sits on the couch, listening to everyone. We all agree that the stranger must have been sent here by someone and that he probably wasn’t even a writer at all. We conclude that we did the right thing by kicking him out and that, going forward, we should be more careful and deliberate about our gatherings. There is a lightness to the room, now. Smoke and chatter.

Sonia appears at the kitchen door, which is still blocked by pieces of furniture, and climbs over a small table, a fresh quart of Lion Lager in each hand. She opens both and passes them around the room.