TO get to the place of Xola Charles Mvula you drive into Deal Party, turn up into Baxter Street and double back along Grahamstown Road, then right onto a rutted dirt track running along the railway line through the weeds and rubble.
Suddenly you’ve left the formal world behind and it’s like you’re underwater. The cars whizz by on the highways overhead, but down here it’s derelict, quiet and forgotten.
On the far side of the railway line an elephant gazes down through a web of powerlines from a mural advertising cement on the side of a silo, not unlike the eyes of Dr T J Eckleburg suspended above the industrial wasteland in The Great Gatsby. Our strength your vision, the elephant says.
Mvula, 34, lives under an overhang on the side of the bridge spanning the mouth of the Papenkuils Canal, the once beautiful river rich with life now called Smelly Creek after decades of pollution and poor development decisions.
Each night he baits up his three handlines and casts them off the bridge into the rising tide to catch barbel. Baited with pilchard or brown mud prawn and without a sinker his driftlines float on the swell.
Perhaps the sky is clear, the moon shining, the air still. These are the best conditions for fishing for barbel.
Xola secures the end of each line because there is no need to strike. The barbel takes the bait gently and incrementally – he feathers the air with his fingers to show how its mouth works. Once the hook is swallowed, he pulls them in.
You have to be careful as you land the barbel because of the sharp spikes on their backs. Xola shows me the scars on his hands.
If they “stick you” the wound will turn bad from the poison unless you cut off a piece of the flesh of the fish and press it on as a poultice.
Occasionally he may catch a better eating fish like tiger or kabeljou but otherwise it’s barbel. Sometimes he may catch as many as 40 in one night, sometimes none for a week.
In the morning he cleans out their innards, leaving their heads on because that’s the way the people like them. Then he trudges into New Brighton and sells them for R3 each.
“So cheap,” I exclaim. “Those people also have little,” he points out.
Three years ago, Mvula was living in the abandoned Lwandlekazi High School when he met Antonio Banderas. The man who became his friend never offered another name.
At some long-ago point in his life he had watched movies. He loved Westerns and took one of the stars as his own.
“I am Antonio Banderas,” he would cry, dancing around the fire.
Banderas had a mysterious past. He was a farm boy from Alexandria, yet was fluent in several languages.
Somewhere, lost in the murk, there was a child. Most striking of all, he was a good swimmer.
He taught Mvula how to fish and, there in the mouth of Smelly Creek, how to swim.
One day two months ago a little boy came to them crying: “Please help my friend he is drowning.” The men rushed into the sea despite the rough conditions that day.
They cast a rope but could not reach him. He was swimming in one place getting weaker.
“Come to me,” Mvula shouted. “I can’t.” the boy cried.
Mvula and another friend who was also trying to help had to struggle out because they could feel themselves being swept away.
All hope was then on Banderas, the real swimmer, but he had vanished. After a while the sea spat the boy out alive.
They searched for Banderas, thinking he was joking and was hiding behind rocks. Then rescuers arrived, alerted by an angler. They crisscrossed the sea on a jetski and eventually brought Banderas in, drowned.
What set Mvula adrift? His father was in and out of prison and his mother always drunk. Even today she collects tin cans to sell for recycling but then she drinks the money.
But his grandmother looked after him and put him through school, where he was a top pupil. You can become something, she told him.
His dream was to become a social worker.
But then things went wrong. Drunkenness, a knife, a moment of madness unintended.
The one person who had believed in him fell dead. He handed himself over and received 20 years in prison.
Paroled a decade later, he had completed his Grade 10, rekindled his love of reading and had developed new skills as a facilitator.
In the days of political violence in 1985 the townships were burning and his grandmother sent him for safety to relatives in Ciskei where he learnt to create and tend a vegetable garden.
He dreams of doing that here at Smelly Creek.
In the meantime, when he is not fishing, harvesting from the rubbish bags at the back of Pier 14, gathering water from the service stations, he writes and sings gospel songs.
“I am Mr Fixit,” he says. “I want to fix what I have done.
“I want to write a book. It will be called No one to Blame – not anyone except myself. I see the youth today the same as me.
“We go out and don’t want to listen and then something happens. . . and we blame.”
Sometimes when the storms rage and the sea sucks just a few feet from Mvula’s shelter, his heart weeps. But he trusts in God and his ancestors who, he believes, have forgiven him for the life he has taken.
He knows this because there is a snake which is a common visitor from the surrounding veld but which has never harmed him. It is the mole snake, majola, and one side of his family bears this name.
Bumping back along the track after we have talked, surfacing beneath the gaze of the elephant, I roll down my car window. The wind scuffs the weeds with the scent of hope.