The Life of Henry Fuckit
36 He and Alf Whitehead get to grips with fundamental reality
Henry had no intention of poisoning his system with commercially produced drugs if it wasn't necessary. Kaye Goldblatt had willingly imparted much of her extensive knowledge of herbal remedies and he remembered well the unhesitating certitude with which she had recommended Zingiber Officinale, freshly grated and taken as an infusion. (Also he remembered what she had had to say about Cannabis sativa.) Accordingly, when he went into Basil's Provisions that evening to buy a pint of milk and half a loaf of wholewheat bread, he was gratified to feel in his pocket the small but comforting weight of his Swiss Army knife, which Joe Thompson had so kindly presented to him more than a year ago on Dingaan's Day. Or was it Republic Day?
To create a diversion he picked on the pyramid of canned baked beans and Basil's imbecilic father. The beans were on special and had been stacked into an eye-catching formation that reminded him of Karl Friedrich Gauss's number pattern as taught him by Herr Fritz Friedemann.
"Pass me a can of baked beans, please. Hey, look at this! Is this rust? Jesus, does your son wish to give me food poisoning? Botulism is fatal in sixty-five to seventy percent of cases; did you know that? And this can looks swollen. Even staphylococcal poisoning is far from funny. Vomiting, diarrhoea, abdominal cramps, headache, fever, prostration. Try one lower down. Careful. CAREFUL!"
The ensuing commotion afforded him ample time to approach the vegetable racks and select a healthily thick and knotty specimen of ginger. He sniffed the distinctive aroma just to confirm that he had the right spice in his hand, and then, with the aid of his trusty knife sliced off a small piece of the tuberous root, enough for four or five mugs worth of infusion.
Whilst Whitehead paced up and down, waiting for his first coffee of the day, time and again glowering at the sheaf of notes in his hand, Henry grated a little pile of ginger onto his blotter. When Plaatjies came with the coffee and a jug of freshly boiled water he put a level spoon of the ginger into his mug and poured on the hot liquid. He sniffed the steam enthusiastically and made irritating comments like, "Ah, so soothing, so calming," and "Just what the logical positivist ordered."
"I shall preface my description of the general structure of the Dockyard with brief comments on its function as perceived from outside and within." Whitehead was chafing to get on with his task that he considered to be an unwelcome but valid liability. "The world over there are specific features which characterise a naval dockyard. Societies see the expenditure as a requirement for the maintenance of military security. They are prepared to put up with the wholesale waste of taxpayers' money because they cannot conceive of a more effective solution. How else do you maintain, service and repair a naval force if you don't have the infrastructure? If the facilities and the skills aren't…"
"You make sure you have politicians who are wily enough to talk their way out of trouble. You need a Foreign Minister who can make soft wheedling speeches rather than some belligerent old arsehole rattling his blunt sabre whilst farting in ill-concealed fear. Instead of…"
"Fuckit, Fuckit, Fuckit!" Whitehead managed to bring Henry to a halt. "It was a rhetorical question. I'm not interested in your opinion, I'm not asking you questions, I'm trying to give you some background so you can learn to survive." Whitehead was hot under the collar, his eyes had a savage determination in them, and his top lip was arching its back and bristling ferociously. "The wholesale squandering of human, financial and material resources is condoned by the authorities as an unavoidable price to be paid in order to maintain a defensive capability. Should war break out, the facilities must be in place and the personnel must be there to man them. In the meantime, in the absence of war, nobody really expects us to do much more than keep up pretences. So, Fundamental Reality number one: very little is required of us."
"That sounds not merely realistic but downright philanthropic." Henry sipped his aromatic tea and sat back, well disposed towards hearing more of what seemed to him like good common sense. "What's Fundamental Reality number two?"
"Fundamental Reality number two is that we are reluctant to perform even the barest minimum of work. The disparity between the expectations of the authorities and those of the workers gives rise to a certain dramatic tension without which the Dockyard would not be able to function at all." He paused to finish his coffee and glance at his notes.
"How many Fundamental Realities are there?"
"Three. Fundamental Reality number three is that we all know exactly what's going on. We know that they know that we know what's going on. And…"
"And I suppose they know that we know that they know that we're all a bunch of lazy, good-for-nothing cocksuckers?"
Whitehead looked at him coldly, chose to ignore the interjection, and continued with his explanation. "This is the Fundamental Reality concerning the functioning of each and every worker in the Dockyard. Now for the structure of the Dockyard in general and the Stores Section in particular. You'd better pour yourself another cup of that stuff. I don't want the office stinking of puke."
Frequently referring to his notes he proceeded with his description, speaking in a rapid monotone as if he were reading from a technical manual on a subject which but little interested him. He began by stating the obvious: the Dockyard was designed to service, maintain, repair and refurbish the ships of the fleet, as well as to supply them and their crews with victuals, fuel, munitions and various specialised equipment. There was a breakwater and three quays upon which stood a total of five cranes, as well as four warehouses containing heavy equipment and bulk stores. There was a small lighthouse, a fuel storage depot and the Port Captain's office. The Dry Dock lay at the heart of the Dockyard and on either side of it ran the two rows of workshops. He rattled them off, reading from the paper in his hand:
"So far this has been quite interesting, I must say." Henry was not trying to be sarcastic. "Could I ask you to run through all those workshops again and give me an idea of just what it is they do? I mean, the Paint Shop I can understand - ships need to be painted. But the Pattern Shop and the Riggers and ICE, totally incomprehensible to the uninitiated." Whitehead glanced at the clock on the wall, consulted his watch and then looked out at The Sirens.
"Not enough time. I'm just giving you a brief introduction so you can orientate yourself. Let's get on. We have the eighteen workshops either side of the Dry Dock. Over near the West Gate is a large garage housing MT Section. Motor Transport. There the vehicle fleet is serviced and repaired. Now, each and every workshop, as well as the four warehouses, has it's own store run by a White Storeman assisted by two Coloured labourers. These stores are kept supplied by Central Store (that's us), and the whole operation is overseen, co-ordinated and controlled by Stores Administration under the supreme command of The Director of Stores, Mr Harry Bergson."
"When am I going to meet the honourable gentleman? I didn't quite realise what a big-wig he was." Henry was not a little mystified by this elusive figure.
"He'll probably let you settle in for a week or two. Don't worry, he'll call for you when he's ready. Now, as I was saying, all stores are drawn from us here at Central Store and the whole show is directed from Admin on the floor above us. When a workshop needs to replenish stock the Storeman must follow laid-down procedures. He must complete Requisition Form R.001, in quintuplicate. This form must bear the correct description of Item and Code Number, the Job Number, and the signatures of the Foreman and the Storeman himself. Special non-stock items must be requested on Requisition Form R.002. (We deal only with the R.001's.) Is there something the matter?"
Henry's demeanour had altered, like a sudden change in the weather, and his face had lost some of its colour. He gulped down the rest of his ginger infusion and took out pipe, tobacco and matches, placing them before him on the desk. "I'm beginning to feel a little uneasy. But carry on, I've got to hear it."
Whitehead was mildly sympathetic. "Don't worry. I know it sounds awful but in reality there's nothing to it. The R.001's are delivered to Admin where they undergo authorisation before arriving, three copies, on my desk here." He indicated his IN tray, which was empty. I acquaint myself with their contents and then place them in my OUT tray." It contained five or six of the documents under discussion and Henry eyed them with distaste and what could have been a rising sense of dread. "It's your first task to take them from my OUT tray and place them in your IN Tray. Then you are to arrange them in numerical order. In the Register you will rule a line under the last entry, and then list the numbers in the left-hand column. You place the R.001's in the Register, close it and place the Register in your OUT tray. Then you get up, go out a little way into the store, cup your hands about your mouth megaphonically, and call for the head monkey. That's just about all you have to do. Is that too much to ask? Damn it, man! Do you have to smoke that filth? I'm not going to stand for it."
(To ward off the rising waves of nausea Henry had hastily filled his pipe and lit it, sucking and blowing like some medieval dragon. During his time at the YMCA and that hateful place which he did not wish to remember, he had discovered Sturk's Tobacconists on Greenmarket Square. With the assistance of the Zen Buddhist proprietor he had found the tobacco which most appealed to his taste - Oriental Special. Never a serious cigarette smoker, he nevertheless relished the smell of a Turkish cigarette sniffed at a safe distance. The Zen Buddhist identified the faintly acrid, gently tarry ingredient that so appealed to his palate. Superimposed upon a bland background of Burley and Virginia it was the musty strength of Latakia, grown in the foothills of the Balkans. Allowed to turn brown on the slopes and then mature on the floors of goat pens the leaves became impregnated with the urine of the odoriferous beasts, were trampled in the mud and the dust and the dung, and then hung up to dry in the searing wind from the plains. This was the tobacco that gave a Turkish blend its characteristic aroma. Henry was not normally a heavy smoker but enjoyed an occasional pipe and went through about 200g of Oriental Special every six weeks. He also enjoyed some of the effects of dagga. He welcomed the sense of well-being, the relaxation and the heightened awareness, but regretted having to fill his lungs with all that smoke and wake in the morning with a painful hacking cough. It was about the time he moved to Bedford Street that he began to mix marijuana with his Oriental special and found it to be efficacious in a mild sort of way. Two-thirds Oriental and one third dagga was found to be an acceptable mix and he named the blend Turkish Delight. It was Turkish Delight that he was now puffing on, only he had beefed up the proportion of dagga for this occasion. Kaye Goldblatt had enumerated for him the medicinal uses of Cannabis sativa: these included snake bite, malaria, blood poisoning, loss of appetite, glaucoma, asthma and depression. Most interesting to Henry was its ability to alleviate nausea in patients undergoing chemotherapy, and this was why he was now smoking his pipe.)
"I most sincerely regret the pollution but I'm afraid circumstances necessitate it. Just look at he condition I'm in. I really can't see how I'll be able to hold down a job that makes such demands on me. You don't seem to understand my sensitivity."
And he was in a state indeed! Perspiration was beaded on his brow, his hands trembled and his complexion had acquired a ghastly hue. The furrows of anguish creasing his face and the protuberance of his eyeballs indicated a degree of suffering equivalent to that of a man undergoing the slow insertion of a cooldrink bottle through his anus up into his rectum.
"Pull yourself together, man!" Whitehead was becoming alarmed. "This is the most undemanding job on earth. What is there to fear? What is there to dread?"
"You don't understand. You just don't comprehend, do you?" There was a pathetic desperation in Henry's voice. "It's those pieces of paper. Quintuplicates! R.001's! Authorisations! Numerical Order! Those pieces of paper claw at me. They suck me into the system. Do you know what will happen to me if I allow myself to enter the system? I will tell you. I'll be destroyed, totally and utterly. My spinal column will dismantle itself and fall in pieces upon the floor. My inflamed eyeballs will inflate and stand forth from my head before rupturing and collapsing back into their sockets. My liver will dissolve, my kidneys vitrify and my spleen will desiccate and crumble into dust. My poor heart will squawk and then shrivel to the size of a pea. My testicles will retract and putrefy with shame. My pride and joy will fall down dead, turn brown then black, and hang between my legs curing like a piece of biltong. My hair will turn white and fill my comb with tuft upon tuft. My tongue will thicken and become coated in lichen, choking my airway, blocking my gullet. My teeth will fall out with a clatter like ice into a bucket. My intestines will reverse the peristaltic flow and excrement will ooze from my nostrils. And my brain! The reaction of my brain to the terrible insult of having to deal with these bits of paper, these symbols of surrender, humiliation and defeat, will be truly cataclysmic. My brainstem, cerebellum and cerebrum will fuse together into a dense, lifeless mass like a golf ball. The process will be instantaneous and the resulting vacuum in the cranial cavity will suck in stirrups, anvils and hammers to strike my defunct brain and ricochet out through my tympanic membranes. My entire nervous system, central and peripheral, will burn out in a storm of electrochemical fireworks and I will fall to the ground. Destroyed. Totally fucked in my moer."
"Come now. Aren't you being a trifle melodramatic?" Worried, Whitehead paced back and forth while Henry sat slumped forward, his face in his hands. "I tell you what. I am prepared to place the R.001's in the register. And Plaatjies can arrange them in order and write them up - he's more than capable - before he and the other monkeys draw the items. We can offer him a few more perks. How about that? How does it sound?"
Henry sat up slowly, wiped his sweat-stained brow and his tear-streaked cheeks. "Well… …I don't know. What would I be expected to do? It doesn't sound as if there would be anything left for me."
"Mmm." Whitehead stood pondering this for a moment. "Well… Yes. Yes, it could be your job to call Plaatjies to come and collect the Register and the forms when we're ready with them. Yes, that could be your function."
"All I would have to do is call Plaatjies?" This certainly sounded a lot better and he began to brighten up. "So all that would be required of me is this: when you, not me, have put these revolting documents into that revolting book, and you have satisfied yourself, by means of eye contact and intuition, that the time is right, you instruct me to call Plaatjies. You will say something like, "Call Plaatjies," or "Fuckit, call that bloody monkey, won't you?" And I will reply by saying, "Okay," or "Yes, Mr Whitehead," or, if you prefer, "Yes, Your Excellency. Immediately, Your Excellency." Like the underlings do in the fiction of Russian writers like Chekov, Gogol and Dostoevsky. I will then get to my feet, without haste, and go to the door, open it, step out into the store, and summon the minion in question. Is that it? Have I got the right end of the stick?"
"Yes yes, that's all you have to do. Make up your mind, right here and now: are you capable of it?" Whitehead was becoming increasingly agitated. He was beginning to suspect that his new assistant was going to be of very little value to him.
"Alright. Well, that's all settled then." Henry pushed back his chair, stretched his legs and put his hands behind his head. "I do nothing, absolutely nothing, apart from calling Plaatjies."
"For crying out loud!" Whitehead was approaching the end of his tether. "That's the only work you have to do but it doesn't stop there. You have to play your part. Are you so damned obtuse that you can't accept there's a role for you wherever you go, whatever you do? You've got to fit in here. You're not an item of stock lying on a shelf. Over the weeks and months you will gain knowledge and understanding enabling you to become a valuable citizen of this Dockyard. You will eventually be able to move about freely, with an easy self-assurance, convinced of your own worth and the value of what you are engaged in. You will acquire an identity and be able to defend yourself against the danger of self-doubt. You will have the freedom to construct a fantastic world of intellectual challenge and high adventure - but, only if you work at it. That's the real work here."
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