The street li­brar­ian’s shared lone­li­ness

The Star Early Edition - - LIFESTYLE -

JASPHAT, who is not a young man, stretches the trash bag over his trol­ley as if it were a BMW be­ing cov­ered by tar­pau­lin.

He has to do it slowly, sweet-tem­pered as a Sand­hurst chauf­feur, or the plas­tic might tear and open his trea­sures up to the el­e­ments.

It’s a gru­elling 20-minute push to the top of Ste­wart Drive from Bez Val­ley into Yeoville, and he prefers to do it on his own, storms or sun­shine. The past fort­night, with its near-tire­less down­pour, has been a sturdy test of the met­tle of the Zim­bab­wean book­seller, or street li­brar­ian as he prefers to be called.

Even as he draws the cor­ners of the bag metic­u­lously across the trol­ley and brings the sides down like floaty blinds, fat rain­drops are bounc­ing off his hands and arms. The fleshy spray springs off the hood of his old rain­jacket like wa­ter on oil.

Push­ing his li­brary to the crest is a pre­car­i­ous but mighty act which might mean the dif­fer­ence be­tween go­ing home to his chil­dren and wife in the small Zim­bab­wean town of Plumtree at Christ­mas, or stay­ing in his Belle­vue back­yard room where the show­ers against the metal door sound like a brass band drunk­enly clash­ing out a fi­nale in the early hours.

He reads all the time, to him­self. His books are his fam­ily in Joburg. He pre­tends his room is a wider imag­i­na­tive space, wide enough for the char­ac­ters in the pages to dis­tract him from his lone­li­ness. But it’s not.

The weight of the books swerves the trol­ley on an un­com­fort­able track up the curvy hill­side, and the mus­cles in his arms and legs pull tight as ropes. He says his body is used to the strain.

He walked dis­tances to school, 40 years ago. Then he walked to work, 20 years ago.

More peace­ful than the rat­tling old bus, he con­fides – and less emo­tion like that you’d have to bear from the other pas­sen­gers. So it’s only prac­tice, he says, wip­ing the wa­ter off his fore­head.

Jasphat risks his life in this weather. There’s no know­ing what’s go­ing to come around the bends of Ste­wart Drive, or at what speed, so he tries to skim the left­hand verge.

Ste­wart Drive was once a cult spot for fash­ion shoots, for girls with wind­ing legs wear­ing high-waisted Eight­ies lin­gerie and sharp-tipped court shoes. They draped fake fur coats around their an­gles, and mounted cig­a­rettes be­tween their pur­ple lips. The avant-garde bou­tiques of Rockey Street used those pic­tures as ad­ver­tis­ing. Now, they seem quite spooky.

But the rocky walls of the hill­side road which Jasphat has come to know are now crum­bling in places and the for­est on ei­ther side has ex­panded into a wild emer­ald growth with no un­der­stand­ing of what hap­pens inside it.

The book­seller says he likes its sounds when the traf­fic has sub­sided into the early evening or be­fore morn­ing rush hour. It sings in there, he ex­plains.

It’s mov­ing with birds and in­sects. It’s life. Of course, there are Jasphat’s prac­ti­cal­i­ties. When your shop is a pave­ment, and your fit­tings a rick­ety wooden ta­ble and a blan­ket laid out on the con­crete, the rain can de­stroy your business.

Peo­ple don’t want to pause, make a choice and then take out their R10 for the street li­brar­ian.

So Jasphat’s had a rough two weeks, bend­ing his back over his trol­ley as if it were a ploughshare pulling through the fields for very lit­tle re­ward. But then he raises a cor­ner of the plas­tic cov­er­ing to show his neat piles of sto­ries, and his sad­ness lifts for a mo­ment.

He pulls out his favourite, the one he’d be most re­luc­tant to sell. It’s Bri­tish bi­og­ra­pher Martin Gitlin’s story of Diana, Princess of Wales, and Jasphat says he par­tic­u­larly likes the por­trait on the cover: the ris­ing star, fronting, in a rel­a­tive state of hap­pi­ness.

He doesn’t re­ally know why, but says he shares her lone­li­ness. In the rain, es­pe­cially, they’re kin­dred spir­its.

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