THE TEXT

The Life of Henry Fuckit
(1950 - 2015)

 

15   Getting to know Cape Town

It was mid-August when he arrived in Cape Town and, although the winter storms, the rain and the cold were not quite done with, there were sure signs of spring in the air and in the park across the way. He was distinctly pleased with what he saw, and felt a growing sense of satisfaction with his decision to come south. Everything seemed utterly different from what he was used to. He saw almost nothing of the hostility he had felt as he passed through Pretoria and Johannesburg. The resentment and anger of the Cape Coloureds towards the whites seemed to be less fierce than that seen smouldering in the eyes of the blacks.

Table Mountain continued to astonish him. Its bulk, its towering height, its proximity and the sharp trueness of its flat top all took his breath away. It seemed impossible, as if a giant cardboard stage prop had been erected there and only a low hill lay behind it. And the sea was having an equally strong effect upon him. He had read of how important some felt the influence of the sea to be, of how it drew them with a strange magnetism, how they longed for its smell and sound and taste. One afternoon he walked through the docks, past the mighty ocean-going ships tied up at the quays, and went out on to the long breakwater. The cold southwester had swung to southeast and was blowing up a myriad of choppy waves and seahorses. He turned and looked back at the mountain to see the cloth of cloud beginning to spill over the table, and wondered that he had been eighteen years without this experience.

A fortnight after Henry's arrival, Jack Ponchielli had a week's break before his next long shift. The first two days he spent catching up on sleep, and Mrs Ponchielli, no doubt. Then he offered to show Henry some of the sights. His curiosity seemed to know no limits and he was well read and knowledgeable on many subjects. First they visited the library at the City Hall and they toured the different sections: General, Reference, Music and Art. Henry filled in a form and was issued with six tickets. Then they went out into the sunshine and crossed to the Grand Parade to listen to a lay preacher. He strode up and down with fanatical haste, screaming hoarsely about Sin and Damnation and Salvation. The Sin was lively and interesting, the Damnation fiery but tiresome, and at Salvation they turned away in exasperation.

"Let me introduce you to a great Reading Room." They cut back across Darling Street and entered the swing doors of the City Hall Hotel bar. "Meet the head librarian." For the first time in his life Henry leaned an elbow on the counter and rested a foot on the brass rail. He admired the copper trough with its inch of yellow sand bespattered with stubbed-out stompies. Before he left, he promised himself, he would hawk and spit with great accuracy in the manner in which he had practised at Ingachini. The barman greeted the railwayman with familiarity. "Henry, meet Johan Sebastian, the only barman in South Africa who knows anything about classical music. Give us two Lion lagers, Johan. And something for yourself." There were maybe half a dozen other men at the bar. "Check over there. That man is so far gone with the ravages of drink that you would think nothing could save him." The swing doors clacked and Henry turned to see a man in a dark uniform entering. In one hand he clutched a sheaf of papers, and in the other a collection tin. He rattled it to gain attention and started at one end of the bar. Even the sot, with shaking hand, managed a coin or two. The tracts were distributed, and then at the door the man turned and spoke.

"God bless you and save you. Through blood and fire!" The doors clacked shut behind him.

"Salvation Army," remarked Ponchielli. "A worthy cause." He had dropped two fifty-cent coins in the tin.

"Aren't they a bunch of holy-roller fanatics? Like the Jehovah's Witnesses?" Henry was examining The War Cry, which seemed to be about the evil of drink and any number of other dangers and pitfalls.

"Yes and No. But so what?" Ponchielli sipped his beer and watched Henry with good humour. There was however the hint of a challenge in his voice. "These people, the devoted rank and file, do an immense amount of good. Or don't you believe in people trying to do good?"

"I know that there are do-gooders who actually do a lot of harm." Eagerly Henry pulled on his sparring gloves. "May I draw your attention to the damage done by missionaries and colonialists to the savage inhabitants of Africa? Were they doing them a favour by converting and civilizing them? Or were they merely breaking their spirits so that they could better exploit them?"

"Point taken, and I agree with you. But in this case I don't see how the Salvation Army is exploiting anyone. They work mostly with the indigent, the mendicant, the homeless, the sick, the starving. They try to help the aged, the diseased, the orphans, the drunkards, the prostitutes, the addicts. They take pity on society's outcasts. Look at those down-and-outs." He nodded towards the dronkies further down the bar counter. "Not one of them refused a donation. They know that if ever they're in the gutter, about the only help they'll get will be from the Salvation Army." He laughed. "It would be major bad luck to turn a cold shoulder to your penultimate friend."

Henry was silent. If the Salvation Army was your penultimate friend… "I hope you're not about to unload a Christian platitude upon me. It seems I can get any amount of feebleminded advice if I go back across the road."

"No, no Christian platitudes. I promise you. And I'm not trying to give you advice. I can see you have a very stubborn streak in you and would resent advice."

"OK. That's good." Henry realised that there was a possibility the conductor was beginning to find his company tiresome. After all, he didn't know Henry's style like his Ingachini family did. "If the Salvation Army is the penultimate friend, who then is the ultimate?"

"Death, of course." Ponchielli said it with the intensity of one who had given the matter much deliberation and was now persuaded that he had arrived at some kind of universal truth. "I'm supposed to be a Catholic. For Costanza I pretend that I am one. When I'm in town I always accompany her to mass, either at St Mary's Cathedral or at the Nazareth House chapel. I dab myself with holy water, I genuflect, I cross myself, I kneel, I stand and sing. And I sit there, time and again, listening for a message. Time and again I come away seething with anger."

"No wonder churches are being boarded up all over the place." Henry liked what he was hearing.

"There's an old cardinal who I think I actually hate, he's so terribly depressing. I have never heard him utter one sentence that had any relevance to everyday life. I think a long time ago his balls and his brains dried out and shrivelled up." He relaxed and chuckled along with Henry's mirth. "Yes, I'm afraid I can't go along with this meaningless Love of God, Power of the Word, Glory, Glory, Glory, Everlasting Life, Blood of Christ, Blah-blah-blah business anymore. Life after death seems a particularly cowardly notion. It encourages people not to grapple with the idea of finality. And yet when you accept finality, the complete cessation of life, then you see that death is the ultimate friend."

"Sweet oblivion?" Henry was becoming decidedly enthusiastic about the way the conversation was developing. "Are you familiar with the poetry of Algernon Charles Swinburne?"

"No, I don't think so. I haven't read any poetry since I was at school."

Henry enthused over Swinburne and extolled the advantages of reading poetry. Carried away, he recited from 'The Garden of Proserpine'. When he had finished, Ponchielli repeated the last lines: " 'Only the sleep eternal in an eternal night.' Yes, that's exactly how I see it."

From the look of rapture on the face before him Henry knew he had a convert, and promised to lend the railwayman his Norton's Anthology. He was gratified to be able to offer the older man his services.

"Now what did you mean when you referred to this place as a Reading Room? Kindly elucidate. How worketh this metaphor?"

"Here you can educate yourself in many ways. Instead of going to the library and taking down a heavy book and turning to the entry on, say, BIGOTRY, for example, you can prop yourself against the wall at the end of the counter, order a drink and listen and watch. The book will provide a definition, something like, narrow-minded intolerance, which is fine, but if you want to understand something about bigotry in real life you just have to listen to the conversation at the bar. The amount of narrow-mindedness and intolerance you will hear is really astounding. I would say that at least eighty percent of men who come in here are bigots. They express the most shocking opinions on a wide range of subjects: religion, race, politics, justice, morality, education, the status of women, the meaning of life, medicine, science, art, music, sport - the list is endless. Men have sat here and seriously discussed their imbecilic prejudices and made frightening pronouncements. Like, 'You can take a kaffir out of the bush but you can't take the bush out of a kaffir. There was a character, a bank teller, who was sold a pup by a Jewish second-hand car salesman, and he maintained that Hitler had the right idea and that the world would be a better place if all Jews were to be exterminated. And, 'All homosexuals should be castrated.' And, 'Women are like children: if you don't beat them they won't respect you.' Or, 'Women shouldn't drink alcohol: they can't handle it like a man can.' A common statement on religion is, 'There is only one way to God and Salvation, and that is through Jesus Christ.' A truly silly one is, 'Men should not have long hair as it leads to confusion and encourages homosexuality.'"

"Cheese-like! I'd better find a barber." Henry laughed and fingered his greasy locks that were almost on his shoulders. "But I see what you're driving at. It's like The Boar's Head in Shakespeare's Henry lV - a kind of university of life."

When, later in the week, Ponchielli invited Henry to accompany them to the Thursday night symphony concert at the City Hall, he accepted with mixed feelings. For some years he had cherished the prospect of attending a live concert with full orchestra, conductor and discerning audience. The opportunity had finally arrived. But the thought of sitting shoulder to shoulder with Rosalia made him flush red in the face, his palms felt clammy and a reverse spasm convulsed his digestive system. For a brief moment the peristaltic flow was halted. Then the logjam broke and he felt an inner lurch.

Before he left Ingachini Mrs Rabinowitz had generously insisted that he go into Gwelo and fit himself out with a smart suit from Meikle's Department Store. When he came downstairs on this Thursday evening and knocked at the front door, it was Signorina Ponchielli herself who opened it. She was wearing a black dress with high neck and low back and a hemline that barely covered her panties. She stood staring at him for a moment with obvious surprise, and then, he felt sure, disappointment and annoyance. The latest fashion in men's suits, as worn by the dandies of Gwelo, did not quite adhere to the same chronology as that of Cape Town. In fact, the trousers were so close-fitting that they resembled the stove-pipes of the ducktail and teddy-boy era. And the narrowness of the jacket collar had gone out at least five years back in the mists of time. Furthermore, and this was more serious, the suit did not fit him. Even though he had folded down the turn-ups the trouser legs needed at least another inch. The jacket was too tight about his bulky shoulders and his chest, and an excess of white shirt cuff extended beyond the sleeves. In an attempt to truncate his arms he raised his shoulders and thrust his hands into his pockets. He had found himself passably impressive but, he thought wryly, vanity blinds a fool. He had shaved, bathed, washed his hair. He had combed out the knots in his hair. He had even splashed Old Spice on his face and cleaned his teeth. The after-shave was a gift from Braithwaite and would, he hoped, mask any offence that, in the course of the evening, might waft from his armpits, groin or feet. Yet she was suitably unimpressed.

In the lounge Ponchielli, immaculate in dinner jacket, frilly dress shirt and cummerbund, poured him a glass of medium dry sherry. When Mrs Ponchielli entered, resplendent in long plum purple gown, black mohair stole, pearls, crimson mouth and talons, flashing ears and fingers, she looked equally handsome.

"I'm afraid Rosalia is not feeling well," she announced. "Her head is worse and maybe a migraine is coming on. She has gone to bed and can't join us."

Alone in the back seat of Ponchielli's cream and white Ford Fairlane Henry asked himself whether, of the two emotions he was feeling, there was a preponderance of the one over the other. And if so, which? Of course his pride was pricked and he was disappointed. There was no doubt in his mind that the aetiology of her disorder could be traced to his lack of sartorial elegance. Well, fuck her. He was who he was. The pleasant effect of knocking back, on his way out, the glass of sherry which had been poured for the poor indisposed girl, and which would soon have been spoiled by a midge or two anyway, was now working in a most partisan way to support his growing sense of relief. Yes, there could be no doubt about it: he was more relieved than disappointed. He had no business to feel lust for this girl and the less he saw of her the better. She was engaged to be married to a man of her own intellectual and social status. He, Henry, was an alien whose only interest in her was carnal. Furthermore, he did not wish to jeopardise the nascent friendship with her father who thus far had shown him nothing but kindness and trust. Indeed, a weight had been lifted from his shoulders and he could put her from his thoughts in the sure knowledge that there was no possibility of an entanglement anyway. He could look forward to an evening of Beethoven, and in three weeks' time he would be gone from the Ponchielli house forever, safe from temptation.

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