The Life of Henry Fuckit
34 From Kalk Bay to Arles, with assistance
"The dockyard is a very weird and fascinating place, just right for you." These words uttered by Jack Ponchielli nearly three years ago when he was suffering his nauseating torment at the Commercial Union Assurance Company were what had prompted Henry to apply for the position of Assistant Storeman. If he really was forced to take up employment again then this might well be tolerable for a short period. A feeling of excitement at the prospect of another adventure ahead of him began to grow and he resolved to clean up his lousy stinking little room at the Olympia. It had not been cleaned for months, even years, and smelt like the back of the truck that collected the rubbish. A combination of mouldy scraps of food, unwashed bedding and clothing, sweat-soaked old takkies, unspeakable balls of scrunched up toilet paper under the bed, bottles and bottles with sour dregs, all covered in a thick coating of dust and grime, had given rise to this foulness. Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday he toiled at the task.
First he took all the empties to the bottle store and with the money bought a dustpan, brush and broom. Then he went to the public toilets down the road and approached the fat old woman with the blue doek and green gingham housecoat. A deal was struck whereby he would pay her an extravagant sum to wash everything, twice over, and then a modest sum each week to do his regular laundry. He also borrowed from her, or should we say, from the Municipality for whom she worked, a mop, a scrubbing brush and an iron bucket with half a cup of Jeyes Fluid in it. Next he moved all the furniture onto the balcony and swept out the room. He wiped down the walls and on hands and knees scrubbed the floor and mopped it and then left the doors wide open for the southwester, which had sprung up cold after the previous day's rain.
On Friday he bought five litres of PVA, mixed by the grumbling shopkeeper to the desired hue, brightness and saturation that was not quite blue or grey or pink or purple but a subtle blend of all four. He traded half a bottle of Virginia for a paintbrush from a Council worker painting lampposts and gave two coats to the walls and ceiling. Nowhere in Kalk Bay could he find beeswax for the floorboards, so he was obliged to buy a tin of Cobra wax polish and picked up several splinters to palms and knees applying and buffing the old fashioned coating. That night he slept with the balcony door open for fear of asphyxiation from paint and polish fumes.
Saturday was a perfect winter's day, the wind having gone to the southeast and then having dropped away to nothing. The sea was quiet and silky and a deep blue glittering with shards of silver. Standing on the balcony he breathed deep, taking in the cold iodine essence of weed and fish mingled with clear sunlight.
The iron bed and mattress, and the chest of drawers and carpet he took to the Antique Shoppe that dealt in second hand junk and swapped them for a small oak table and two pine chairs that were perfect in their crude simplicity. The wardrobe didn't feature in the picture but because he wanted to keep it he positioned it against the near wall. Later he would paint it imitation deal yellow. The room was beginning to take on a passing resemblance to Van Gogh's Room at Arles. But the bed was a problem. Where would he find what was arguably the central feature?
On his way to the Majestic for his usual Saturday lunch of beer with fish cakes and chips he happened to glance up Windsor Lane. Furniture was being loaded onto a bakkie. When he drew nearer to investigate he found the cobbler in the process of moving out. The boere had told him that if he wasn't out by Monday morning they would come and throw him, his tools, his sewing machine, his lasts, his furniture, his four kids, his wife and his old mother out into the street. Their patience was at an end. They had been sending him letters for a year now and he still hadn't moved to his own area.
"I lives here all my life. My wife live here, Kalk Bay, all her life. My father come here when he was jus' a lighty. And these animals tell me I mus' go live in my own area? We mus' go live in a little pondok already falling down, it's so bad built. With one bedroom for all of us, out on the Flats, in the middle of the Gammadoelas where the sand blows all year. No buses, no trains, you got to walk miles to get anywhere. And what about shops? What about school, church, hospital, everything? Why is the White man so fokken mad? Why is he so greedy? So cruel? And you. You blerrie white rubbish, come like a white vulture sniffing about here. Take it! I leave it. We got no room anyway. No, I don't take your white rubbish money. Go, los my!"
Henry tried pleading, to no avail, so he got down on all fours and began to follow the family in and out of the front door, whining and barking and terrifying the children. Finally the cobbler screamed at him, 'Voetsek, jou fokken brak!' He kicked him and then struck him repeatedly with a broom. The wife threw a bucket of water over him and he made his way, still on all fours, back down to the Main Road.
Late in the afternoon, when they had departed for the last time, Henry went to collect the bed. He couldn't believe his good fortune. It was an even better replica than he had expected from his initial impression. Fashioned from heavy structural pine, the high head and foot boards were scratched and chipped along their curved edges. Old and battered, it looked like a peasant's bed salvaged from some rustic hovel. And it even came with its own lumpy coir mattress. He stood the back legs in two tin cans like shoes and, lifting the front, dragged the bed noisily down Windsor Lane and along the pavement to the Olympia. Now, to get it up the stairs single-handedly was out of the question, even for a man of his brute strength. Henry lay down for a few moments, trusting in some kind passerby or his faculty for ingenious improvisation to come to the rescue.
Ah! Basil's three-tonner was parked below Henry's section of balcony. It was a relatively easy matter hoisting it into the loadbox. Far more difficult was dragging it up onto the roof of the cab. Eventually, after much heaving and straining, he had it balanced on its headboard, the foot resting against the balcony parapet. With a supreme effort he lifted and slid the bed up and over. However, the angles and distances involved were not entirely in agreement with his intention and he was left with upstretched arms, the heavy piece of furniture balancing in limbo. He was unable to let go.
"Help, help! Somebody help me!" His hoarse shouts eventually attracted the attention of Basil and he came bustling along the pavement, a black-browed ball of fury.
"Fuckin bastard! Ya fuckin sheet, get offa ma lorry! I keel ya. Ya theenk ya Batman? I take a knife and I cut off ya balls. Ya break ma lorry!"
"Ah, fuck off Basil. Go up and help me. If I let it go now it'll land on the cab. QUICK!!"
Shrewd businessman that he was Basil saw where his interests lay and, puffing and swearing, he hastened up the stinking staircase to the landing. He threw open the first door he came to, bursting in on a scene of foul bestiality. The muzzled animal cowered in a corner, the deviant, festooned with military regalia, strutted up and down.
"Aieee! Fuckin peeg!" SLAM!! Rushing past Henry's room he kicked open the next wrong door. A would-be suicide was practising his ultimate goodbye. Standing on a chair adjusting the rope about his neck, a note pinned neatly to his pressed shirtfront, he looked determined and sure of the impression he wished to leave.
"Hey! Where ma money, ya corksucker? First I wanna ma money. Three month I want. No more credit!" He aimed a wild kick at the chair before running out into the corridor and at last blundering into Henry's room. Out on the balcony he was just in time to grab Van Gogh's bed and haul it up to safety. Henry flopped down in the back of the truck. Muscles in his arms, neck, shoulders and back were aflame from the excessive demands that had just been made on them. He looked up at the angry face.
"Ah, come on Basil. It's only a little dent. That's the trouble with you rich and powerful people: you've been corrupted and now you prize money and material goods above the joy of helping your fellow man. But thanks anyway."
On Sunday morning he awoke refreshed, if a little stiff, after a sound night's sleep. He lay thinking about the order he was inflicting on his life. It was strange how the mundane activity of the past three days had occupied his thoughts so fully. He had been diverted by the simple task of cleaning up his own filth. But was this what he wanted? And this job he was about to start. That he, Henry Fuckit, dilettante at large, was to join the ranks of the zombies and actually submit himself to the indignity of ROUTINE EXISTENCE! In spite of his former disastrous excursion into this realm. Notwithstanding the solemn vows he had made never to be so stupid ever again. And here he was, on the verge of becoming an Assistant Storeman! What he was about to do amounted to a metaphysical conversion equivalent to the spiritual conversion of Saul on the road to Damascus. Would his soul cease to breathe murderous threats against the disciples of Conformity? Was he about to castrate himself? Verily, he kneweth not but somehow he doubted it. Jack Ponchielli had assured him the Dockyard would be a sympathetic environment. Maybe he should try phoning this Bergson oke.
He got up and pulled the OK Bazaars suitcase from under the bed. Cheap but sturdy enough, made of some kind of plastic-coated heavy-duty cardboard, it served as his 'travelling library'. He found the YMCA Bible and along with it his Catholic Prayer Book. The bookmark was stuck in Ecclesiastes. He lay down again and began to look through 'The Garden of the Soul' for a suitable prayer. For fifteen cents this little book had been a lucky find. He had come across it at a second-hand bookstall on the Grand Parade one Saturday morning. Measuring only three inches by five it contained 336 Bible-paper pages of prayers as well as 191 pages of Epistles and Gospels. Dipping into it over the months he had come across some wonderfully evocative language. Also a feeling that these prayers drew on some source that went right back to the cave, so primitive and basic were they, so distant were they from the cheap religious picture that adorned the cover of the book. These prayers predated the Bible, going right back to the magical and the superstitious. These prayers stank of the earth and were laden with raw terror. Or were they? Maybe he was getting carried away. Certainly it was a nauseating picture on the cover. Madonna and child complete with joint halo. They were framed against a night sky with stick-on stars. In the lower right foreground were half a dozen roses just to make it even more sickly sweet. Mary was a White girl of seventeen or eighteen with perfect complexion and a soppy drooping expression, clearly never having experienced a moment's hardship in her short life. Jesus was an imbecilic dwarf, with the head of a leering Aryan lout on a chubby infant torso. The only thing Jewish about them was the schmaltz. Shit man, how could anyone with even the most tenuous grasp on reality find this appealing? Mary would have been a swarthy hook-nosed woman, careworn and prematurely aged by the rigours of a harsh life. Nine months pregnant and travelling on a donkey? Giving birth on the floor of a cowshed? And look like this cosseted young thing? Come on!
Henry thought of Albert and his revolting Dutch mother. He owed his interest in Catholic prayers to them both. Mrs Hildagonda de Groot's occasional displays of religious fervour had made a lasting impression on him and had inspired him to learn the Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory Be and various Graces and Confessions. He and Albert had enjoyed many fun-filled moments competing against each other, seeing who could gabble the mindless mumbo-jumbo the fastest. He had matured a little since those days and now he could appreciate some of the fundamental human concerns dealt with in these pleas for help from on high. To get a real feel for the reading matter he got down on his knees beside the pagan bed and read aloud in deep priestly tones from the Thirteenth Petition of the Jesus Psalter.
"Jesus, make me persevere in virtue and a good life, and never give over Thy service, till Thou bringest me to my reward in Thy Kingdom. In all pious customs and holy duties, in my honest and necessary employment, continue and strengthen, O Lord, my soul and body. Is my life anything but a pilgrimage on earth towards the new Jerusalem, to which he that sitteth down, or turneth out of the way, can never arrive? O Jesus, make me always consider Thy blessed example: through how much pain, and how little pleasure, Thou didst press on to a bitter death, that being the way to a glorious Resurrection. Make me, O my Redeemer, seriously weigh those severe words of Thine, He only that persevereth to the end shall be saved. Have mercy on all sinners, Jesus, I beseech Thee; turn their vices into virtues, and, making them true observers of Thy law and sincere lovers of Thee, bring them to bliss in everlasting glory. Have mercy also on the souls in purgatory, for Thy bitter Passion, I beseech Thee, and for Thy glorious Name, Jesus. Amen."
Well, he was open to a little perseverance maybe, but he wasn't quite ready for a bitter death in order to achieve glorious redemption. He made the bed and tidied the room and stood back to admire the effect he had created. This was what he had intended and the morning sunlight accentuated the sparseness and the simplicity of it. With four blobs of bubblegum he stuck the print of Van Gogh's miserable chamber to the wall at the head of the bed. Above the table in the corner he hung the mirror. It had a plain wooden frame stained red to look like teak. He had discovered it in the toilet of the Ladies' Bar at the St James Hotel and deemed it to be just right for his purposes. There was no doubt about it, he was imposing order on his life. At midday he walked up the road to Kalk Bay Station and made his phone call.
"Hello, Louise speaking."
"Hello, could I speak to Mr Bergson please?"
"I'm afraid he's still fast asleep. He was up all night waiting for a vital impulse and I wouldn't like to wake him just yet. Is that Mr Effit?"
"I'm Henry Fuckit."
"Yes. He said you might call. Let's see, there was a message…Yes. HAVE NO QUALMS. THE FREEDOM OF YOUR SPIRIT IS VOUCHSAFED. Does that make sense?"
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