Steve’s breath produced a small white cloud in front of him like a smoker breathing after a quick puff. The night was colder than usual, turning his uncovered hands a faint blue. His skin dried out, becoming coarse and frigid in the chilling night. He hoped the local restaurant John would take him to could thaw out his body like a sauna.
Durban received gallons of rain in the past few months, despite it being the winter months. Small puddles of shimmering water scattered like the potholes on the road dripped into the drainage system beneath the surface. Durban was once upon a time a tropical environment. Steve cherished the times when he could walk about after the rain with nothing more than a vest and a pair of shorts on. In the present climate, the temperature dropped drastically at the cracking of the first thunder.
The lively streets lit up the night sky with swarms of people walking about. A medley of music and speakerphones boomed throughout the street market they were passing through. Every local knew Durban came to life at night. From shops and restaurants to entertainment, Durban’s largest street market had it all.
While it was the more impoverished part of Durban, which was mostly immigrant population, it had a special, cozy vibe that Steve had experienced nowhere else. The people weren’t unpleasant or smug; the businesses were humble and honest, and the neighborhood was tightly knit despite its size. Peering down the row of lanterns hanging from the old telephone cables running in parallel to the street, Steve admired the market’s chaotic charm. The market trod the line between being too quiet and too busy.
Steve stopped for a moment overlooking a dilapidated parking lot with street lights bent over, patches of white paint, and eroded concrete blocks. They had applied new spray paint to the tarred space to form a small cricket pitch. A handful of enthusiastic spectators cheered from their seats, which were empty plastic crates as the teenagers on the pitch played.
A roar resounded across the car park as the yellow tennis ball flew into the crowd for six runs. A reminiscent smile curled up Steve’s mouth. It felt relieving to be away from all the stress, relax and passively watch a game of cricket; to shut down and tune out from the world just for a night.
“We should move along,” John said. “The rest will be waiting.”
With one last glance at the heartwarming site, Steve moved along, carefully slipping through the oncoming crowd.
“Alright… Bring me up to speed on everyone’s non-work life,” Steve said to John who was lagging behind him slightly.
“Didn’t think you were that disconnected,” muttered John.
“Just give me the details already,” Steve snapped.
“Fine, fine,” John surrendered with a heavy sigh. “Uh, let’s see… Amber’s son’s birthday is coming up in a week, and she’s recently been promoted to the principal of Hills High.”
“Okayyy,” Steve replied keeping a note of everything John had said. “What about Breach and Rico?”
“I believe his workshop is doing really well recently, and his brother has a kid on the way and may—. You know what? How’s your knowledge of football?”
Steve ran his fingers through his beard and tilted his head. “Pretty good. Isn’t there a game on tonight?”
“Yeah, you’re good for both Breach and Rico to be completely honest.”
“Cool… That takes care of that. Anything I’m missing?”
“A lot,” John replied. “Believe me when I say they don’t know you better than a bar of soap. You’re quite literally the boss without a life.”
“That isn’t too far from the truth, you know…” Steve said under his breath.
“And the fact that you are aware of that and happy with it is a little worrying."
As the two turned the corner, they arrived at their destination. The restaurant was pristine. Leading to the grand entrance was a pathway made from cobblestone winding through the dark green shrubs. The restaurant itself was outlined by a stream of water glistening under the moonlight like a white marker outlining the restaurant’s shape. Orange and white fish scattered through the water as Steve stepped on the glass.
An oak-brown clay teapot lodged itself between the blossoming shrubs on the corner of the stream steadily pouring water into the stream. Engraved on it in white paint that looked hand-written was the name of the restaurant.
Stepping over the glass, Steve and John approached the silver arch wrapped in rose vines leading to the entrance. At its sides shone a row of lights reflecting off the polished arch. An aroma of musk rushed through Steve’s nostrils as he took in the fragrant perfume applied.
Steve peeked through the half-open door before pushing it open. Amber stood up from her seat to greet them. She was wearing a loose floral top with two bracelets wrapped around her wrists and a pair of jeans and trainers.
“Welcome to our humble abode,” she said, gesturing for the two to enter.
The luxurious interior of the restaurant was even more exquisite than the exterior. A high ceiling with three circular chandeliers that were candlelit and murals hanging on two of the walls.
Keeping with the theme of water, one wall was completely transformed into a tank with lavender-purple coral and fish of green and yellow.
Steve eyed the fish tank as they glided through the bubbly water. “Nice to see our meal will be fresh,” he mumbled under his breath.
The floor and furniture were made from some of the most expensive oak only found in a few parts of South Africa. It seemed that the restaurant had been reserved just for them.
He heard a high-pitched giggle followed by a scuttling of footsteps across the wooden floor. Two little girls dressed in light blue pajamas stared with their wide eyes at John before waddling to the table.
“Mamaaaa! Uncle John is here!”
“I’m coming,” the short-haired lady replied.
“No, it’s alright Lia. I got it,” Amber shouted back.
Lia, Rico’s wife, smiled gratefully and sat back down in her chair. A gentle song played in the background but was barely audible over the noise in the room.
“Where’s Damian?” John asked. “Is he here?”
Amber nodded. “Yeah, he’s upstairs with Carla playing video games or something.”
“Teenagers…” John sighed. “Living in a machine’s reality rather than their own.”
“You unseasoned eggplant! A dead man could save that!” Rico shouted at the glowing screen playing the football match while Breach, who might have been on the brink of tears, poured himself another tall glass of wine.
“You made it just in time for dinner,” Amber said pointing to the two empty bread baskets. “Breach and Rico polished the starters at half-time.”
“Is this Rico’s restaurant?” Steve asked.
“It’s a family investment,” Lia responded. “This one is a new one. The old one is still open downtown, but we don’t cook there ourselves anymore.”
Breach swung himself around to greet the two. “Glad you could make it John… and Steve,” he added uncomfortably. He shifted his head to John. “Not who I thought your plus one was going to be…”
So he wasn’t invited, Steve affirmed. John just pulled me along as a plus one. It wasn’t a painful stab through his heart but rather an irritating needle prick, the subtle tension between the two catching him off guard. Nevertheless, they’d all been quite welcoming considering what had happened only a few hours ago with Jim.
Rico cleared his throat. “Welcome, Steve. Please sit wherever you like. The restaurant is closed to the public now so anywhere is fine.”
Steve’s body shifted to an empty chair in the corner of the room instinctively but John pulled him away and positioned him at the head of the table.
“That’s as much as I’m helping you tonight. You have to make the rest happen,” he whispered.
Steve could feel the pent-up energy in the room shift away from him. As soon as he sat down, they all turned their attention to the football game, glued to the screen as if on the edges of their seats. Lia was busy with her kids and Rico stood up to do something in the kitchen.
“What happened?” John asked, presumably in response to the sudden silence.
“Nothing,” Amber replied dryly. Breach echoed the same statement. Rico blankly shrugged and put on his apron.
Amber forced herself to turn around and tried her best to smile but it unsettled Steve more than it reassured him. “So, how are things going?” she asked uncomfortably.
“Uh… going well… nothing much that’s new. Same as last year, y’know?”
“I see…” Amber replied nodding her head slowly.
“I heard it’s your son’s birthday soon. How old is he?” Steve asked.
“Seventeen. He’s also leaving for university soon, so he’s planning a party with his friends.”
“Where’s he going to study?” Steve asked.
“Uhm… Overseas,” she replied softly. “But it’s better for him. There aren’t any good universities in South Africa anymore. He’ll leave in another four months or so,” she shrugged as if she made nothing of it, but he could sense her discomfort.
She often was the most private of the group, selectively sharing parts of her life outside of work; much like him to an extent. The difference being he didn’t have one to share anyway.
“Dinner served!” Rico shouted as he presented each person with their meal.
She quickly turned to her meal placed in front of her. John and Amber had a steak while Breach, Rico, and Steve stared at their Italian-styled fish. The presentation was superb. Steve didn’t know which would be more satisfying; to look at the fish’s presentation or to taste it.
Lia climbed halfway up the stairs and shouted for Carla, their eldest, and Damian to eat. Promptly, two pairs of shoes creaked down the spiral staircase. Rico upped the volume for the game such that any conversation would be drowned out by the commentary and roaring cheers of the fans.
He ate his meal in silence. If he could somehow fade into the background maybe everything would return to normal. It seemed he’d dampened the mood of the entire dinner. He wasn’t surprised. After knowing them as soldiers for years, it was hard for him to see them as normal people with normal lives with normal struggles. He assumed the opposite was true for them.
Masking his escape under the deafening noise of the game, he rose from his seat, poured himself a glass of wine, and exited the restaurant. The bald-headed man walked into the parking lot and took a seat on one of the islands. The cold didn’t bother him too much now, but he still missed the warmth of the restaurant.
He spotted a flat, low rock placed atop a hill not far from him. As he ascended the hill, using the steps in his path, he looked back from a distance through the window of the restaurant. John’s seat was empty but the rest seemed to have resumed their chatter.
The best thing he could do was revert to his comfort zone; work. Managing people, resources, and operations kept his mind busy, but that would soon come to an end. He’d either be executed after raiding SEKT headquarters along with everyone he was responsible for or the Alliance would disband if SEKT was terminated without going public, as improbable as it may be.
“Thought I might find you here,” John said from behind him.
For such a heavy man, his footsteps were barely audible even on the quietest of nights. Steve was convinced he’d be able to walk on a wooden floor without a creek.
“It’s a little too soon, John,” Steve said keeping his gaze fixed on the ground and flicking a pebble down the grassy hill.
“So it would seem,” he replied softly. “I just…”
“It’s nothing,” Steve dismissed. “This isn’t for me. I should’ve stayed out of all this.”
John clenched his fist. “No! This is for you.”
“You need to understand that every soldier under you is also a person. They have goals and aspirations beyond the battlefield.”
“What are you saying?” Steve replied, his brow furrowing. “That I should strive for a battle free from death? You and I both know that isn’t possible. The pawns in the game are the least valuable so why not sacrifice them to win?”
“Sacrifice them? No person will do anything for someone who doesn’t value them let alone lay their life down. You’re sounding more and more like Adri— Sigvald and you don’t even realize it!”
“I am nothing like him. It’s not like I’m asking of them anything I couldn’t do,” Steve protested.
“Because you’ve got nothing left!” John shouted so loudly, the stones may have crumbled had it been louder.
“And what do you have?!”
John took a deep breath in and exhaled firmly. “Nothing... Nothing at all. I’ve been looking for a good way to go for a while. But when I hear the cries and screams of our soldiers, I hear mothers… Fathers… Daughters… Sons… They have people to go back to and I’d gladly risk my worthless life to ensure they get to live theirs.” He pointed to the restaurant at the base of the hill, the children running around freely and his colleagues enjoying their conversations. “We don't have anything to live for but they do. That's why I fight. Call me selfish, narrow-minded or blind but I'm not about to let your rob me of my will to live by wasting their lives.”
John released his curled fists and marched down the hill in frustration. Steve remained quiet, still attempting to process John’s words. Nobody would ever understand him unless they knew the decisions he was forced to take. Despite that, John had struck a nerve that Steve had numbed for a long time.
At the end of a game of chess, when all the pieces have been captured or sacrificed, the only piece guaranteed to witness its victory is the king. It would barely move for most of the game, commanding its pieces to fight for it only to celebrate its victory or mourn its defeat alone.
He’d asked himself why he wanted to win a dozen times but the more important question was who was he winning for.
1. Is the dinner scene awkward enough and is there too much 'small talk' that could be skipped in that scene?
2. Is the contrast between Steve's and John's views evident?
3. Is the chess analogy effective in conveying how Steve perceives a battlefield? Is this in character to how he treats Ethan?
We've seen two vibrant places so far. Which one do you prefer? Fish market or street market?