Ishmael Toffee is not a nice man. In fact, he’s about as evil as they come. “From when he was old enough to hold a knife, he’d stuck people dead.” It’s a skill, a calling even, that landed him in prison, and kept him there for 21 years as he continued to serve as an assassin for gangs even while on the inside.
Except once day he just couldn’t do it anymore. No deep revelation. No spiritual rebirth. He just ran out of steam for killing. Reached his limit. Not wanting him to become a victim himself the warden isolates Ishmael, putting him to work in the prison gardens, a place where much to his surprise Ishmael finds he has another natural calling.
When the day comes he’s deemed rehabilitated and is released, Ishmael gets a job doing the only thing he legally knows how to do, working the land. It’s a good job that he finds, tending to the grounds of a wealthy Cape Town attorney’s estate, and Ishmael has every intention of keeping his head down, going about his business, and living out his remaining years in peace and obscurity.
Almost immediately it becomes clear that’s not going to happen, as the attorney’s 6 year-old daughter takes a liking to Ishmael despite his weathered dark skin and maze of prison ink. Determined to strike up a friendship, she brings Ishmael cold drinks while he’s working and gives him learn-to-read books to take home. She also begins confiding in him, eventually revealing through play acting with her dolls that her father is raping her. And now Ishmael must decide: has he truly put his dark days behind him for the sake of peace and non-confrontation at all costs, or does he still have it in him to do whatever it takes to deliver the young girl from the kind of evil he once knew so well?
Roger Smith is unquestionably one of the most bold, powerful authors currently writing fiction. Period. The man’s ability to seamlessly meld story with social commentary is without equal, as he sets forth in stark, striking detail the horrific conditions in which poor, black South Africans live in the Cape Flats, just a stone’s throw from the obscene wealth that is found in the Cape Town suburbs. It is with both sadness and irony that Smith paints a vivid picture of people free from apartheid, yet still slaves to poverty, disease (HIV/TB), and crime. It’s a truly Darwinian environment, one in which the residents are all too willing to turn on each other for any advantage.
And it’s an environment that makes Ishmael’s struggle to do the right thing a thousand times more difficult, as his fellow residents of the infamous Tin Town section of the Cape Flats don’t care about the well being of the little white girl Ishmael is trying to protect; they just want the reward money associated with her return. And at every step of the way Ishmael questions not only if he’s doing the right thing, but whether he should even care. It’s one thing to no longer want to actively do evil, but how far does one really need to pro-actively stick out their neck to help someone else, especially when doing so is at best going to result in going back to prison and at worst get you killed?
It’s a question the answer to which is not as straightforward as it may seem, especially to a man like Ishmael Toffee who has no illusions about either his past or future and who has no desire to be a hero. He’s simply a man who wants to be at peace with himself. Roger Smith gives Ishmael a heartbreakingly difficult path to walk as he strives to find that peace, and challenges readers to walk that path with Ishmael Toffee in this hard-hitting, gut punch of a novella.
Ishmael Toffee is available on Kindle.