The Life of Henry Fuckit
6 Henry decides to assume a new identity
"He wouldn't piss on you if you were on fire." This was the idiomatic vulgarism that inspired Henry to change his name. He heard it from Albert, who was using it to illustrate the meanness of Frikkie's father and the futility of asking him for the loan of some carpentry tools. It immediately made Henry think of the resentful feelings he had been exploring over the past weeks. Now, thanks to Albert, he was able to articulate a mental statement about his British relatives, whoever they might be: "If I were to meet any of them I wouldn't piss on them if they were on fire." Having acknowledged the strength of his sentiments it was a logical development to want to discard the name he had been given. And then, a few days later, he was to overhear a conversation that would encourage him to pursue this desire further.
The occasional visits paid by Wim Naaktgeboren, known in his painful youth as Kaalgat, or Kallie for short, were always invigorating. Braithwaite and Witherspoon addressed him jocularly as "Knackers, old boy," and enjoyed his conversation.
It was late morning in mid-August. On the south veranda it was still cool and the company lounged in an assortment of furniture. The sea of flat-topped acacias spread before them, blurring into a grey haze in the distance. The bush was very dry and the smell of dust rose towards them as the day warmed up.
Ten o'clock tea had been served, consumed and cleared away. Conversation lapsed. Then from the kitchen came the crash of crockery and the familiar scream of rage.
"Gott verdommit! Jou verdomte swart duiwel!" And then the sound of blows.
Witherspoon sighed. Friedemann tut-tutted. Mrs Rabinowitz stifled a sob. Albert turned a page of the French Grammar he had strategically opened on his lap and resumed fantasising about Frikkie's sister.
"That reminds me, Knackers Old Boy. Been meaning to speak to you about a matter of historical and linguistic import. This damn silly Dutch name of yours… Recently I chanced upon a reference in one of me journals to this peculiar tendency to sport the most bizarre of surnames. You must have looked into it yourself?"
He and Naaktgeboren were seated on the riempie bench a few paces from Henry, who immediately pricked up his ears. He had been standing before the telescope, slowly sweeping the treetops in the hope of spotting Frikkie, whom he had seen hurrying away from the building towards the bush not five minutes earlier. It was one of Welgemoed's youthful idiosyncrasies to remove his khaki shorts and gusseted cotton underpants at the base of a marula tree and ascend as high as possible in order to defecate. Witherspoon described this behaviour as "atavistic", saying it harked back to the boy's primeval ancestry.
"Of course I've looked into it," he replied. It was obviously a matter of some sensitivity.
"And what did you come up with?"
"This name of mine is a curse. That's what I came up with. It's been an albatross about my neck since my earliest childhood and even now it's a cause for embarrassment."
"It means 'born naked', doesn't it? One would think that a name like that was imposed on the first bearer of it. He couldn't have selected it of his own volition."
"That's where you're wrong. When Napoleon's forces overran Holland in 1805 there were no Naaktgeborens. When all citizens were required to register, mainly so that Napoleon could keep track of them and efficiently collect a poll tax, there were many who still did not have a formal surname. Being the stubborn, resentful nation that they are, they went about concocting the most ridiculous names they could think of."
"Ah, so it's a joke name. A prank. Any other amusing examples?"
"A damned stupid joke! After a good laugh at the French they were left with names that made them laughing stocks for generations to follow. What comfort can I draw from the fact that they insulted Napoleon and ridiculed his Code? If ever there was a joke that backfired, this was it. Bloody Dutchmen!"
Henry had forgotten all about the bare-arsed tree-shitter (Homo defecato arborealis). This was riveting stuff. It was as if the conversation was being conducted for his benefit.
"Well, at least the Dutch had the good sense to reject the little Corsican maniac. But let's leave that aside for the time being. I'm interested in other names of the same ilk."
So was Henry. The lines of anguish on the man's face were testimony to the pain his name had inflicted upon him. And here was Braithwaite relentlessly pursuing the course of enquiry, satisfying his academic inclinations whilst at the same time taking some sadistic pleasure from making the object squirm.
"Met a chap on the Pendennis Castle on me way over, by the name Hoogenboezem. Must have been another of these anti-Napoleonic reactionaries. Fell overboard twice. Once off St Helena, and then again approaching the roadsteads, Table Mountain on the horizon. Come on, Knackers Old Boy, rack the cerebrum and add to the list."
After a long interval in which Naaktgeboren vacillated between two courses of action, he finally settled for the latter, which was to suppress the urge to follow the former. Instead, he stood his ground, gritted his teeth and treated the subject in question dispassionately, as was befitting a scholar of his stature. The former was to stand stiffly to attention and bark like a rabid baboon before goose-stepping off to his billet.
Septimus Braithwaite's years of formal study and scholastic endeavour had engendered in him certain habits that he continued to maintain with an iron resolve. Six days a week he would make his appearance in the dining room as the seven o'clock pips were sounding over the wireless. On Sundays and holidays it would be seven-thirty. Clean-shaven, hair combed and parted and smelling of Morgan's Pomade, shoes shining, he always wore a jacket, lounge shirt, tie and flannels. The jacket alternated between a navy blue double-breasted blazer with silver buttons, and a tweed jacket with leather elbow patches. Displayed like medals above the outer left breast pocket were fountain pen, pencil and magnifying glass. The flip-over shorthand notebook with wire-ring spine was kept in the inside right hand pocket. Henry smiled with approval as Braithwaite opened the notebook and poised his pencil expectantly.
Well, if those silly Dutch buggers could be so bold, what was to stop him, Henry O'Riley, from changing his given name to one of his own choice? But what was it to be?
"Just because I don't feel British and have no family ties; just because I want to make a break and start off fresh with a new name when I go out into the world; just because of this it doesn't mean I have to have a problem, Herr Fritz."
Herr Fritz looked as if he might not continue. "Alright. If you insist. So what is the problem? In a nutshell. Consign me to the appropriate pigeonhole, please. I'm all ears and totally agog, as silly old Sir Septic Septimus puts it. Fire away."
"To be arrogant and insolent at twice ze same time is ze hallway marking of ze rich and ze powerful. But bevare: remember ze Cherman proverb,
Wenn wir sitzen in der Schanke
"Shitzen in der shanken, Fragen in der Graben? Sounds a little vulgar. What does it mean in English?"
"Ven ve are sittingk in ze tavern ve are shparingk no soughts for ze grabe. You might not care a toffee-nosed damnation at zis moment of ekshtreme youf but vait a vile for ze catashtrophe around ze corner."
"Then I'll be shitzen in der unterpanten, hey?"
"Ziss is ze classic case of schizophrenia. Ze refusal to accept yourself as ze vone person and ze attempt to kill ze old self and nurture ze uzzer, new self - zis is ze clear symptom of ze psychotic mind. You ask ze vorld to shtretch ze imagination beyond ze limits of common sense. Ze vorld is not prepared to go to such limits of hellish ridiculosity. You sink you can change your name and, poof! your past life is gone to ze efer. Ze vorld vill not stand for it, Henry. Hark my vords. I know zis. Look at me! And ze flash of inshpiration, ze arrogance, ze omnipotence: all zis is classic depersonalisation, de-realisation, nihilistic delusions. You are ze Christmas fruitcake, vizout doubt. And vot surname? Jehovah, I presume?"
Witherspoon and Braithwaite shared a passion for Shakespeare. Accordingly Henry was raised on quotations, allusions, analysis, comparison and argument around the tragedies, histories, comedies and sonnets. At times it irritated him intensely, and he resorted to parodying the two men. But in general he was an enthusiastic student, having his favourite passages committed to memory and which he would recite at appropriate and inappropriate moments, as the mood took him. As he grew to know the characters, he formed opinions about them and had his likes and dislikes. In general, although he enjoyed quoting him, he found Hamlet a humourless bugger who took himself far too seriously. He could sympathise with Othello's situation but he was such a victim, Iago such an unmitigated swine, Desdemona such a helpless piece of skirt, that he felt exasperation with the play. He liked King Lear no end. On November afternoons, as the black anvils advanced on Ingachini, forked lightning fizzing and crackling, and claps and rolls of thunder detonating above and about him, he thrilled to stand on the south veranda waiting for the rain. He would wait for the first gust of air, then the big slow, scattered drops in the dust. With a rush of cool dampness and a mighty flash and clap of thunder the torrents would fall and he began to bellow whilst striding back and forth, tugging at his hair, wild-eyed. His lips moved but barely a sound could be heard above the almighty dinning of hail on the zinc roofs. Lear's absurd rage at his fate was something Henry did not understand, yet was drawn to. His two favourite personae, however, were Caliban and Falstaff. Herr Friedemann, who also had a large amount to say on the subject of Shakespearean characterisation, mostly from an existentialist slant, declared this affinity he felt with the fat, cowardly buffoon and the brutish, rampant, foul-mouthed freak was a manifestation of classic personality dysfunction.
"You are right, Herr Doctor Professor Carl-Sigmund von Kopkrapper. It is definitely the result of my inability to face myself and the ugly world out there. Proceed."
"You identify vit schwein, like zese dogs, rozzer zan vif ze heroic figures. Fear of failure, you see. So vot ist ze choice? Caliban Falshtaff ?
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