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First chapter: Bitter Pill

Peter Church - 2011-08-23

Untitled Document

Bitter Pill
Author: Peter Church
ISBN: 9781920137359
Price: R165.95

Click here to buy a copy from Kalahari.net.

The Pick-up

Ten to ten in the Mother City, and the bars on the Claremont strip are a blur of action, booming music and heaving students shouting to be heard.

‘Shots! Come on!’

It’s Rick, with the puka-shell necklace and Dirty Skirts T-shirt. He’s a madman after one tequila, now he’s onto his third. On one hand he balances a tray sloshing with five shooters; with the other he grabs his share of the spoils.

‘Let’s go, people!’

Angie can’t say no. She throws her head back and downs the golden liquid in a single swallow, then wipes her mouth and prepares for the lurch as it reaches back into her throat like a fist.

Lily Allen’s instant classic is playing: Fuck You. Patrons are pointing fingers at one another and mouthing the words as a luminous-green strobe draws squiggly lines across the walls. Rick puts his hands under Angie’s hair and pretends to stretch it out.

‘No more! Please, Rick!’ Angie tugs on his sleeve and suppresses the impulse to retch.

Angie Dean is cute. Sexy, sassy and eighteen, youthful bust straining a sleeveless tank top, white jeans tight with promise. Bikini tan stripes contrast against her golden skin. She’s in the Blue Venus Nightclub and Bar with a handful of varsity mates, first-years like her, most of them from residences just a short drive away. This is their stomping ground; has been for the last couple of months since they arrived at varsity, freedom and fantasy beckoning. Inside the bar Angie and her clique are safe on the marble floors and in amongst the crowds, while the outside menace of the Mother City’s street wolves is avoided, forgotten.

Angie clutches a silver handbag under her arm. She’s hoping to hook up with a third-year student she met earlier on Llundudno beach.

‘We gotta do town,’ yells Angie’s friend Zoe, mouth to ear. She’s been seeing Fabian, in the black V-neck sweater, but she plans to break it off tonight. There are too many opportunities to be tied down right now, just when a girl’s discovering the big wide world.

‘What’s the hurry?’ says Angie. Downtown at Elevation the action only gets started at midnight.

‘We’re gonna get so bent!’ screams Rick, jogging on the spot.

Angie scans the bar for her date. Surely he wouldn’t stand her up? She can’t see him anywhere, checks her phone for the third time in a minute. No messages.

‘What’s with the phone thing, Angie?’ asks Colin in the striped polo shirt. He’s been keen on her since they met in O-week but she pretends to be oblivious. Colin is so average. Still, she doesn’t mind having him around – usually. She pulls a tight smile, shakes her head, blonde hair gleaming under the downlight. Zoe frowns at her but Angie ignores the gesture. She sums up the body density in the club: maybe there’s a long queue outside, she figures.

Two-for-one drinks run until ten o’clock, so it’s no surprise the Blue Venus is overflowing with the young set. The Wednesday-night special is the perfect mid-week stress-reliever – ideal for first- and second-years living the endless varsity party. In a sunken dance area, kids fuelled by cheap alcohol sway to the music. Rihanna’s latest comes on, and Fabian holds his iPhone above his head with Shazam running so he can get the name of the song. He likes to copy playlists of popular club DJs and then pass them off as his own.

‘Hey Angie!’ says a girl as she brushes past the group clutching a Smirnoff Spin.

Angie recognises her as a friend of her little sister. In the shiny orange light, her face glows. Sweet sixteen, not even in matric. The girl giggles as Angie waves back at her. She wears a skimpy dress. Geez Hayley, that’s not a dress, it’s a waistband! Angie remembers being sixteen. Fake IDs and stuffed bras. Every year it’s getting younger and wilder. Now they go out drinking on a school night. Slutty is the new flirty … Some of her sister’s friends were on the pill at fourteen, boyfriends staying over and sleeping together with parental consent.

‘Hey Angie, you coming to town?’ Colin touches her elbow cautiously.

‘Town! Town!’ shouts Rick.

Zoe’s just spotted Rick popping a pill, the booze and the amphetamines intensifying his feverish antics. Time to get out of here. ‘You coming, Angie?’ she says.

Angie and Zoe have been friends since school. Southern Suburbs private-school princesses, lucky to sneak into residence at UCT, the University of Cape Town – that’s what connected parents are for. Seems like yesterday they were dreaming about this independence: no chaperones or organised lifts or curfews, no parents to worry about where they were going or what they were up to or waiting up until they got home. Now it’s just their advice ringing in their ears – Stick together. Stay with your group. Don’t do anything reckless – which they are free to ignore at their pleasure.

Angie checks the time then looks around the bar anxiously. Shit. She knows she can’t hold back the gang for much longer.

The barman leans across and taps Rick on the shoulder. ‘Another round for you guys?’

‘Wow, man, that’s just mental service!’ Rick says as he spins around, running his fingers through his hair in time to the music.

Angie looks at the barman, who raises an eyebrow at her. He’s got a cute smile.

‘I’ll have one,’ says Angie. The barman winks at her. Another round will buy her a few more minutes.

Rick shrugs his shoulders then plants a wet kiss on her cheek and nods to the barman. ‘Hit us!’ he says, smoothing a spot on the counter.

The barman lines up the shot glasses, spins the bottle, and pours: one, two, three, four, five … He pushes the shots across, passes Angie hers individually.

‘For the sexy thing,’ he says with a grin.

Angie smiles. She feels like a goddess. The barman is at least twenty-two.

‘Come on, Angie!’ Zoe says and they intertwine arms then slot back their drinks.

‘Oh – my – god!’ they cry in unison, bent in half, then bouncing up together like a spring. The music pulsates through their bodies, reverberates through the bar counter.

‘Awesome!’ says Rick as he tries to put his arms around them. He staggers back against Colin who pushes him away irritably.

‘I want to go,’ says Zoe. ‘We definitely need to get to town.’

The guys shuffle towards the exit. Zoe grips Angie’s arm.

‘You coming?’

Angie grimaces. I want to stay. Decision time.

‘I think I’ll stay,’ she says.

Zoe hesitates.

‘You sure, babe? What if he doesn’t pitch?’

Angie removes a tube of apricot lip gloss from her bag and puckers in anticipation. She’ll give him an hour. She’s got the phone number for Rikkis taxis on her cell just in case. And the cute barman keeps looking in her direction.

‘He’ll be here.’

Around the corner and across Main Road, perhaps a fifty-metre walk from the Blue Venus, pool balls crack on the felt tables at the Tom Thumb bar. The atmosphere is more relaxed, older – no two-for-one special. An old Muse track plays but hardly anyone gives the tiny dance floor a look, and the patrons can make themselves heard without bellowing through cupped hands.

Robbie Cullen lines up the yellow solid for a middle-pocket pot, drops it in and shuffles around the table to play the green for the opposite pocket. He misses and watches as the white ball settles a foot from the black, leaving a simple roll-in for victory. Robbie shakes his head in resignation and takes a swig of beer.

‘You trying to lose?’ asks Robbie’s mate, Phil, as he leans in and finishes off the game. Four dejected solids remain unsunk. ‘That’s three in a row, my friend. Unprecedented fail.’

Robbie hardly ever loses to Phil Cantor, a skinny English Honours student more proficient in affected banter than the trigonometry of pool. Robbie, in the final year of a Computer Science degree, is a decent sportsman: good squash player, effective loose forward for the UCT 4th XV – and usually a competent pool player.

‘I don’t know, man,’ says Robbie shaking his head, and fingering an elephant-hair bracelet on his left wrist. ‘I just can’t get my mind right.’

‘Robert Cullen, you’re definitely no multitasker,’ says Phil. ‘I sense recent life events affecting your ability to engage wholeheartedly in the here and now.

You’re entrenched in the past. You need to cast off childish things and become a man, my son.’

Robbie shifts uneasily on his stool, rubs a hand through his dirty brown hair. Usually he takes Phil’s pretentious needling in his stride, but tonight he’s cutting close to the bone. Robbie takes another swig of his beer – a brown bottle of Castle to Phil’s showy Peroni.

‘Do you really need to process the departure of Melanie in its entirety before you can forge ahead in any other sphere of your life?’ Phil continues. ‘She’s gone, she’s moved on. And she’s already with some guy while you allow perfectly good opportunities to slip through your grasp as you wait for her to – what? – take you back? I mean, that girl you were talking to just now, did you see the chassis on her …’

‘Alright, alright! I get the point,’ Robbie says, annoyed at the accuracy of Phil’s pop-psychology analysis. He can’t deny he’s stuck in the past moping about his ex, his school sweetheart. The only reason he’s even at UCT is because he had to do something after following her to Cape Town. Now, after six years together, she decides to call it quits right out of the blue. Finds a serious boyfriend in a matter of weeks, some Fine Arts post-grad hippy with long curly hair. Robbie calls him Picasso. He’s trying not to be a resentful dick.

‘The guy’s an asshole!’ Phil says, as if reading his friend’s mind. ‘And, you know, it’s time someone said it, but Melanie …’ – Robbie gives him a sharp look – ‘well, Melanie hasn’t shown the respect for you that you’ve shown for her, and I think it’s time you found somebody else to replace her on that pedestal of yours. Quite frankly, that delightful young lady from earlier would do nicely. What was her name – Fallon? Memorable name. Yes indeed, she would do very nicely. Refill?’

Robbie nods and stares into the middle distance as Phil heads off towards the bar.

Fallon …

Memorable name. Memorable cleavage. Memorable everything.

Earlier in the evening he was waiting at the bar for Phil to arrive when she appeared out of nowhere by his side. Oblivious as ever, he found himself staring at her breasts, impressively mounted in a black-lace Wonderbra that a spaghetti-strap top struggled to contain – until he registered she was talking to him. She took it well, used it as an icebreaker, then pointed out a friend of hers who’d said he was a good guy and how could she pass up introducing herself to someone with such beautiful eyes. It takes one to know one, he’d somehow managed, looking directly into hers. Didn’t know he had it in him.

Robbie recognised the friend playing pool in the background: a barman at the Blue Venus who often worked with his res-mate Denny. What was his name – Ray or Grey or something? He’d slipped him a free drink once or twice. Now he definitely owed him one.

Robbie and Fallon chatted for a while. Easy. Amazingly, he didn’t come across like a total idiot; actually made her laugh a couple of times. And she really did have beautiful eyes, dark alluring pools, to go with her killer body… Then all of a sudden she checked her watch and said, ‘Look, I’ve got to meet someone. What’s your number?’

Phil arrived just as she sashayed off and down the stairs, nodding to Robbie, suitably impressed. ‘Who was that?’


Robbie snaps back to reality, shakes out his head. ‘What the hell,’ he mutters to himself, as he hops off his stool and strides across to the bar. He locates Phil, still waiting to be served, and grabs him by the arm. ‘I think you’ve got a point. Let’s hit the Venus. I reckon that’s where she was heading.’

Angie Dean screams.

She’s not wearing her top and she can feel her bra straps being tugged off her shoulders by rough hands – a guttural laugh and the scuffing of feet as her body is manhandled from behind – balance lost and she keels from her knees onto her side. She’s in a gravel parking lot, wedged between two cars – the scene doesn’t make sense …

‘Help me!’ she screams again. But only a moan escapes her lips. She sees a car guard sitting immobile on a steel drum in the distance. She wants to signal to him but her vision keeps blurring and he vanishes into the night.

What’s going on? How did I get here?

Her befuddled mind can’t work it out.

I don’t want to be here. I wish I’d gone to town with Zoe.

The rough hands yank on her bra, but she can’t lift her arms in defence – they feel like lead oars.

‘No,’ she moans, the word expanding like a long drone in a tunnel. ‘No …’

She feels subdued and terrified at the same time. Terrified by the man assaulting her, by the croaking sound of her voice, by her inability to react.

One hand now works on the buckle of her belt.

‘No, please.’

She manages to cover the hand with hers, but it’s tossed away like a rag – the buckle is open, now the hand works at the buttons of her jeans …
Angie summons up all her efforts to concentrate on what’s happening to her. She feels fatigued but she knows it’s not a dream. Something very bad is happening to her but she can’t resist it. Instead, she is floating, disconnected, helpless. Her attacker looms in front of her; she becomes aware of his heavy jutting chin in front of her face, tries to identify him – but she can’t focus for more than a moment.

Suddenly she’s on her back, the night sky above her – no pain, just an awareness of her head hitting gravel – her jeans are being pulled off …
‘Please,’ she says, her voice a mile away, as a part of her realises what’s about to happen. She wants to sleep.

Then another voice.

‘You! Leave her now!’

The words echo from the distance, yet are firm and clear. The man springs to his feet instantly. Who is it? Angie can make out two figures above her, squared up like crows competing over a kill.

‘What the fuck you pulling?’ Angie’s assailant hisses.

‘Just back away and get out of here.’ A woman’s voice, firm and in command.

Angie hears the metallic click of a gun being cocked.

‘Okay, okay.’

Footsteps disappear into the night as arms reach down and tuck under Angie’s armpits, lifting her into a sitting position. The woman materialises in front of her, seems older, grey hair tucked under a tight scarf.

‘Please help me,’ says Angie softly.

‘Don’t worry, sweetheart, everything’s going to be just fine.’

The woman moves lightly around her slumped form, shimmies up her jeans, buckles her belt, works her bra into place. Then she retrieves Angie’s discarded top, dusts it off and pulls it over her head. She works quickly, her guard up, on the lookout.

‘There we go. Now, where’s your handbag?’

Angie registers the question, but can’t answer. She doesn’t know. Her handbag has her phone, her purse, her driver’s licence – which she only got three months ago.

‘Don’t worry, we’ll find it. Think you can stand?’

The woman moves behind Angie again, hands under her armpits and pulls her to her feet. In the process she spots the handbag, which has slipped underneath a car.

‘There it is.’

Robbie Cullen and Phil Kantor spill out onto the street. It’s after three on Thursday morning. They’re among the last to leave the Blue Venus; the music is gone, the crowds dissipating. Morning lectures loom.

‘Christ. What are the chances I’m making Theory of Algorithms tomorrow?’ says Robbie to the night.

Phil laughs, wobbles up besides him. ‘And yet one cannot wholly regret the actions of the past few hours.’

Robbie nods knowingly. There had been no sign of Fallon, but he did manage to find himself a pliable second-year Commerce student to share a drink and a grope. He can’t even remember what he said to her. One minute they were at the bar together, the next they were all over each other.

‘You know you quite probably could have escorted that lady to her place of residence?’ says Phil, reflecting on events.

Robbie scratches his head. ‘She’s the second girl I’ve kissed in six years,’ he says.

Phil absorbs this surprising piece of information. ‘Wow. That’s quite a sad –’

A car tears along Main Road at high speed, interrupting his train of thought.

‘Man, I could kill a pie,’ he says.

‘Yeah, tell me about it.'

‘Let’s hit the Engen, get one of the ADT guys to give us a lift home.’

Another car drives by, this time a taxi, slower.

‘You hear that?’ asks Robbie.

‘What, the car?’

‘No. Thought I heard a woman … shout maybe.’ He looks down the side road towards the railway line, sways, shakes his head slowly.


The two stumble off towards the late-night convenience store along Main Road.

Angie Dean sits up suddenly. She screams. Someone is touching her arm. The man recoils at her reaction, steps backwards. Angie looks about, terror in her eyes.

She’s in a gravel car park; she recognises it as the parking lot around the corner from the Blue Venus. A security guard shines his torch into her face.

Angie feels like someone just awakened from an operation, her heart beating uncertainly. She hugs herself; her body is ice cold.

The guard remains motionless, confused by his discovery.

Angie runs her hands down her body. She’s fully dressed. Her silver handbag is on the ground beside her.

‘What have you done to me?’ she screams at the guard, who retreats another step. Angie rises to her knees, gravel imbedded in her elbows, clutching her handbag tightly to her chest.

‘What have you done to me?’ she says again, quieter, this time to herself. Her voice shakes; her breathing comes in short, sharp gasps. She looks at her watch. Can that be the time? She has no idea where she’s been or how she got here.

‘Lady, can I help you?’ the guard says eventually.

‘No!’ Angie reacts instantly. ‘Just leave me!’

She pulls herself to her feet, looks around as though frightened of what she might see. She picks out the red neon light of the Blue Venus bar and staggers in its direction. The last revellers of the night are leaving. As she makes her way unsteadily along the road she fumbles in her bag – her wallet is there, her bank cards, her cellphone; nothing seems to be missing. Must call a taxi …

Twenty minutes later the Rikkis taxi stops in the bus shelter outside the girl’s residence, Tugwell Hall. Angie is nauseous, her body shaking uncontrollably. But her physical symptoms pale in comparison with the strange terror she feels inside. Something monstrous has happened to her. Her legs are numb; she can barely move.

On Angie’s cellphone are two messages from Zoe, one shortly after midnight:

woo hoo elevation going off! how romeo?

The second an hour ago:

u home? let me no what happnd u badgirl

The taxi driver watches her in the rear-view mirror. ‘I said thirty rand, please.’ His words are brittle, as if he deals with countless cases of young girls out of their depth. To him she’s just another drunk passenger, possibly about to vomit in his car.

Angie forces her legs to move, pays the driver and hurries in through the revolving doors.

‘Everything okay?’ asks security at the front desk, recognising her.

Angie gasps inwardly, says nothing, presses the lift switch repeatedly.

‘Come on, come on,’ she mouths silently, rubbing the goose bumps on her exposed arms. She notices her gold bangle is missing. My bangle …
The lift opens and she enters quickly, catching a glimpse of herself in the lift mirror. Smudged with mascara, the face that stares back is ashen and frightened. Her white tank top is dirty. She keels forward and retches, the output a pale-yellow dribble.

‘Oh my god,’ she says, wiping her mouth.

The lift halts at the third floor and Angie runs down the passage to her room. The door isn’t locked. Her roommate, sound asleep, doesn’t budge as she throws her bag on the bed and fumbles for a towel.

She leaves her handbag in the room and hurries back down the passage to the brightly lit bathroom, falls against the basin, her body heaving. She hasn’t eaten anything since lunch time.

Turning the taps on full, she splashes handfuls of water on her face, then steps back to examine herself in the full-length mirror. Relief floods through her chest as she runs her hands down her body over her breasts to her crotch. No bruises, no scratches; everything looks normal, feels normal.

But still …

She suddenly needs to pee. She steps into a stall, undoes her belt, unzips her pants and pulls them down. A loud gasp as her legs buckle and she lunges forward, grabbing the edge of the loo seat as she falls to the floor.

Her panties are on inside out.