THE TEXT

The Life of Henry Fuckit
(1950 - 2015)

 

48   Dinner at Grunau

The sun was down and Birkin switched on his headlights as they pulled out into the road. The onset of dusk seemed rapid, more so than in Cape Town. They were traversing a plain. Open and flat, its boundaries dwindling into the murky middle distance, without feature except in the west, where the last pallor in the sky provided a backdrop to the occasional silhouette - a weirdly shaped hillock, a low jagged ridge like some rough beast slouching towards… Within half an hour all light was gone save from the corridor ahead of them, into which they rushed, with reckless disregard for the harsh land outside. The broken white line was sucked in towards them and it seemed to Henry that they were being drawn into some unknown and hostile place where the road would betray their confidence, leading them to calamity in an ambush of fateful circumstance. Neurotic delusions!

Just before eight a signboard showed up. Grunau to the right.

"We can stop here for something to eat. I know this hotel. Strange place - just a hotel and the railway. Really in the gammadoelas. Nice people though. The owner's a bit of a pisscat but his wife's a tasty piece. Last time she was giving me the eye and... Here's the turning."

They took the turnoff and drove a kilometre or two. "Their power must be off, or something." Then there was a faint glimmer to the left and he swung off the tar. Across an expanse of smooth bare earth the squat building was revealed in the headlamps. A puff of air lifted fine dust into the beam and then dropped it. For a moment they sat looking at the entrance in the bright light from the car. Birkin switched off and the hotel disappeared into blackness until they began to make out the dim glow from somewhere further to the back.

"Yiss, but it's only dark out here." He put the parks on and they got out into the cool air that felt cold after the warmth of the car. He tried the hotel door but it was locked and he banged loudly and called "Dolf, Dolf! Hey open up man! You call this a hotel?" He rattled the door impatiently. "Van Schalkwyk! Wat maak jy daar? Is jy alreeds besig met jou vrou?" A key turned and the door was opened half way by a man in the black trousers and red jacket of a waiter.

"Hotel it is closed. No power. Niks krag." The door began to close but Birkin pushed forward.

"Don't talk shit to me, boy. Waar's jou baas? Roep hom. Maak gou."

"Die baas, he not here. He gone Upington."

"What? Upington? Alright call the miesies."

"Miesies also gone Upington."

"Fuck it! Ons is dors, ons is honger." He turned to Henry. "Well, too bad, but I'm bloody hungry. This bimbo can bring us a drink and they can knock us up something in the kitchen." He led the way through towards the light. It came from the dining room where a Cadac lamp stood on one of the tables, shedding its white incandescence over a narrow circle of white tablecloths. The rest of the room was in semi-darkness. They sat down, one table away from the lamp.

"Now listen, waiter. You bring us two big Windhoeks, cold, cold, cold. Also you bring one double rum and Coke and one double brandy and Coke. You got that?" The black face was surly, the eyes averted. "Then when you come back you get us food - hamba tata nyama. Okay, tshetsha, tshetsha."

The room was warm and airless. They could hear African voices rising and falling in conversation somewhere beyond the swing-doors to the kitchen and a rhythmic thud came faintly to their ears, possibly from music playing on a radio, the higher notes lost on the way.

When the waiter returned Birkin continued in his nagging way. "What took you so long, Philemon? You go to Windhoek to fetch the beer? And I said COLD. You call this cold? This shushu, not makaza."

"I tell you no power. All day no power. No power, no fridge, no fokall."

"Yissis, this is a taste of things to come. Probably Swapo's work. Hey, Alfred, why Nujoma make trouble? Why Nujoma skelm muntu?" For an instant the eyes flickered, a naked flame burnt up and then subsided. Sullenly he stood waiting.

"Alright, now what's on the menu, my black brother? Let's see, I'll start with tomato soup with a spoonful of cream and a nice crisp French roll with butter. Then I'll have kingklip with a small portion Greek salad, hot chips and plenty tartar sauce. And of course to drink I will have a bottle of Nederburg Paarl Riesling, nicely chilled and served from an ice bucket, if you please. After that you can bring me, if you will be so good, Comrade, the speciality of the house - kudu cutlets, with smash potato well creamed and hot, not cold, you understand, and green peas in sweet mint sauce, pumpkin and cauliflower. With the meat I will have English mustard. And remember this, Joseph, I like the kudu rare and it must fall off the bone. I don't want to have to tear at it like a hyena. I shall drink a six year old Baksberg Cabernet Sauvignon with the main course. And you?" He turned to Henry, who had finished his beer and was starting on the brandy and Coke.

"Ag, er, same as you. Make it two, waiter." For a few seconds the man stood holding his tray, napkin over arm, looking from one to the other. He leant forward, flicked some salt off the tablecloth, turned and disappeared into the darkness beyond the swing-doors.

"No other guests, I see." Henry was making conversation. "An out-of-the-way place. The 'gammadoelas' you called it. That's an interesting term. I presume it's of Nguni origin and something to do with hills. An approximately similar expression might be 'back of beyond' or, in Australian parlance, 'never-never country.' " As he spoke he looked at Mike Birkin and saw him for the first time. The past six or seven hours had put flesh on the skeleton and he was relaxed and alert enough in this setting to look with clear eyes at his fellow traveller. The nervous strain about the eyes, the slack mouth that betrayed weakness and debauchery, the pathetic rough bravado of the bully and the bombast. Beneath this surface there must be… The swing-doors clapped and swung, clapped and swung.

The waiter placed in the centre of the table a plate containing half a loaf of sliced bread and a dish of butter balls. Before them each he laid a plate of cold sausage, several rashers of processed ham and sliced tomato. In addition there was a bottle of mayonnaise.

"Wragtig, is this the best you can do?"

"The chef, he say…" The waiter hesitated, embarrassed yet with a sly smirk playing on his lips. "Angus, he say, 'dronk boer, hy honger, hy vreet sy eie kak.'"

The implications of the insult vibrated about the room, shaking the walls, rocking the foundations. Birkin's eyes became rounder and rounder and his mouth worked noiselessly. Henry began to splutter and laugh.

"Jesus, this is good. This is only good. You say the chef's name is Angus? And Angus says if we're hungry enough we'll eat our own shit? That's real humour for you. Oh my God! Tell Angus thank you for the very nice meal. Mooshy stellek. Much better than kak. And can you bring some red wine and more brandy and rum? And coke?" The waiter went off, somewhat disappointed. Henry buttered two slices of bread and made a ham, sausage and tomato burger, with lashings of mayonnaise, and began to wolf down the food. "This Angus ou is right. If you're hungry enough you'll eat anything." He began to laugh again and nearly choked. "Angus is a real philosopher. Take it or leave it, white trash."

Birkin came out of his state of shock, finished his drink to raise blood sugar level and began buttering bread.

"But you realise this fuckin' coon has insulted us?"

"Of course. I've never been so insulted by a kaffir in all my life. It feels great. Oh, thank you waiter. So good of you. Sorry to put you to the trouble." Birkin examined the label on the wine bottle and looked coldly at the waiter.

"This is not what I ordered. This is Tassenberg dry red. It doesn't even have a cork. You expect me to drink this rubbish screw top wine? Don't you understand English? Afrikaans? Must I speak to you in your own language? Wena makulu mampara. Mina hayikona puza lo pis. Hamba tata lo Nederburg Cabernet."

"Hey, not so fast. What's wrong with Tass? I've drunk gallons and gallons of this stuff. Nothing wrong with it." Henry unscrewed the cap and poured a glass, sniffed it appreciatively and sipped. "Ahh! Lovely stuff. Goes well with the meal. Allow me." And he filled Birkin's glass." Let's not antagonise the population."

The waiter withdrew to the edge of the pool of light and hovered in the shadows. The food and wine were resuscitating Birkin's spirits and the light of battle was kindling in his eye.

"You know, there's something bloody funny going on here. How can the Van Schalkwyks just sommer leave the hotel in the hands of this monkey and the cookboy. In these times? It doesn't make sense." Just then the voices in the kitchen were raised and there was a burst of loud laughter. He called to the waiter.

"Wena. Sandela, Sandela!" The waiter slowly advanced, wary of the drunken white men. "Biza lo cookboy. Tell that cheeky bastard to come here, I want to talk to him." The waiter stood where he was, impassive and mute. "Hamba. Tshetsha!'

"Chef, he busy."

"Busy? Busy, jou moer! You go tell that mampara to come here or I come and thrash him right there in the kitchen." He was working himself up, pounding the table with his fist and making the drinks slop. The waiter disappeared and they waited. Henry had finished his meal and was feeling decidedly cheerful, if a little unsteady.

"So you're going to sort this fellow out? I must just warn you that I wish to have no part in the violent suppression of the subject races, regardless of their impudent recalcitrance. I appeal to you to treat the miscreant with restraint and compassion. A verbal lashing must suffice. Physical abuse is…"

Henry's back was to the kitchen and Birkin was looking past him and his face had drained of colour. Henry turned as the largest black man he had ever seen strode up to the table. He was at least six foot six and built like Cassius Marcellus Clay in peak form. He was all in white, tee shirt about to burst at the seams, short sleeves stretched tight above biceps. Slim hips encased in cotton that remained puckered atop thighs of racehorse flesh. Large head on bull neck, skull recently shaven, high sweep of forehead above direct, alert gaze, cut of cheekbones, nose, mouth, chin all finer and more sensitive than expected on such a hulk.

"Yebo, oh great white chiefs? I stand before you."

"Ah, right. You must be the chef with the Scottish connection. Most interesting combination. Right, now we've been led to believe that you delivered a message, via your plenipotentiary here, indicating the parlous state of the pantry and couched in phrases so direct as to be construed as down right insulting. This being the case my travelling companion here would like to remonstrate with you, probably in order to extract an apology form your own fleshy lips. I must warn you that his pride has been pricked and his sense of what is decent and correct has been affronted, and the accepted servility of the broad racial grouping known as Kaffirs, munts and coons has been overstepped. Over to you, Mike."

Standing with legs apart and hands on hips in what seemed a very un-African stance the giant turned his gaze from Henry to Birkin, who cleared his throat nervously and tried to sit up straight and sound commanding. When he did speak his voice came out hoarse and slurred. The bully had run into his victim's older brother.

"If you think… If you reckon you can just… You know if I was to repeat your behaviour to your master I'm sure Mr Van Schalkwyk would give you the sjambok and fire you. You can't talk to a white man like that, as if he's, he's…"

"As if he's a Kaffir," Henry helped out, savouring the situation with relish.

"I mean, I could even report you to the police. That fuckin' surly waiter says they've gone to Upington. I don't believe it. I'm going to phone the police right away and…" He pushed his chair back and the waiter stepped forward, grinning all over his face.

"No phone. No power, no phone, no fokall."

"Tula, jou fokken mampara! Wena hayikona manga! Satanyoka! Ipi lo telefono?" He was on his feet and shouting. The waiter stepped back but showed no fear. Only derision. The chef spoke.

"He tells the truth. Swapo have been working hard. But satisfy yourself. There is an oil lamp burning in Ladies Bar. Phone is on the counter." Birkin reeled out of the room, striking his shoulder against the doorjamb and cursing.

"Please be so good as to join me." Henry indicated the vacated seat and after a slight hesitation the man sat down and considered with disdainful interest the bedraggled countenance, as if he were examining the contents of his handkerchief after coughing up phlegm. "Yes, well actually I must say I find myself in unusual circumstances. This time two nights ago I was preparing for bed in my nasty little chamber in Kalk Bay with the sound of the winter elements raging upon mountain and sea. And now, forty-eight hours later, after two days of unprecedented excitement and adventure I discover myself in this stale hotel dining room. The last besieged outpost in the African night, talking to a wild Nubian cook who has advised the bwanas to resort to the heinous custom of sating the pangs of hunger by scatophagous means should they find the meagre repast placed before them not to their liking. And to add an exotic spiciness to an already piquant melange it is brought to my attention that the Nubian cook answers not to the name of Sambo, or Dingaan, or Themba, or Kummojo, or Chagwe, or Vuzi, or Ziko, or Hambalapakhaya, or… No, none of your common or garden variety of cookboy appellation but the noble Caledonian eponym Angus. Och, Angus! Here in the heart of darkness my thoughts fly to the banks and braes o' bonny doon, my heart's in the Highlands a-chasing the deer, my love's beside me, like a red red rose, my wee tumescent caber is tossing aboot beneath ma swirling kilt and as Tammie glowers, amazed and curious, the mirth and fun grow fast and furious. Aye, Angus, my heart's in the Highlands but as the wan moon sets behind the white wave I am back to reality where I sit, broken-hearted. Spent a penny and… Angus, I'm sure there's an interesting story behind your remarkable name."

"Why should I tell you?"

"Because I'm interested."

"Just because you're interested you expect me to…"

"Let me put it another way. As a member of the white tribe…"

"It's an adopted name. But why should I share my history with a dronklap like you?" He asked it as if he wanted to know and expected an answer that stood a chance of acceptance.

"Because I'm interested. Because you're the first educated Black I've met, and because you have shown me the light of hope by telling me to go eat my own shit."

"Alright, maybe you're not such rubbish as you look. My mother was the maid to a Scottish engineer by the name of John Robison. She became the mother of his children. Like many other white men he partook of black meat, but unlike many other white men he accepted the consequences. He not only supported my mother and their children but also me and my sister from another father. He treated me like a son and gave me a Western education. But he never tried to cut me off from my African roots. In fact he encouraged me to learn the ways of my people and keep contact with my father and other blood relatives. So, to cut the story short, I am an African with a degree in political science from Edinburgh University and I work as a cookboy in a one star hotel. My name is Angus Robison and Zumangwe Ramadela."

"Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. A perfect candidate for schizophrenia. Is your self torn asunder, are you tormented by doubt and indecision, are you threatened by shadows and whispers, do you see strange patterns and numbers on the wall, does the anguish in you gnaw at your entrails, do you pace your cage, back and forth, back and forth, jaw clenched, muscles jerking? Are you a psychiatric wreck?"

"No, no, no, no, no, no, and no. But then one of the essential ingredients is missing. Guilt. I feel very little guilt. Angus and Zumangwe are good friends. They are brothers and they don't fight, they help each other."

"And frustration and boredom. How do you handle working in a jerkwater dump like this? This is almost as mindless an existence as my own."

"Speak for yourself. You don't seriously think I am here for the love of cooking? This hotel is a headquarters, the kitchen is the operations room. This hotel was carefully selected for its strategic position, for its usefulness to the Struggle."

"And the owners? The Van Schalkwyks?" Henry was incredulous. "Surely they aren't part of the Struggle?"

"And why not? But no, they are too troubled in their own personal lives to know or care. He is sick with hatred and guilt and alcoholism. It's the combination of two tragedies - the German and the Afrikaans. He has all the worst characteristics of both nations and few of their better traits. The beast that he is is rarely sober enough to know the day of the week."

"And his wife? Birkin describes her as a 'tasty' looking piece." Angus was silent. A cloud had passed across his face.

"Yes, a tasty piece." Sadness, or some such pain-inflicting emotion was in his voice and then he shrugged. "I use her. For the Struggle and for my own satisfaction and on that count I stand guilty. I am human."

"Homo sum."

"Exactly. You like it too? Humani nil a me alienum puto. We seem to have more in common than at first met the eye." It obviously amused him to have discovered anything worthwhile beneath Henry's rough exterior.

"So this woman is your weakness?"

"If I were a hypocrite I would claim to be helping her with psychosexual therapy, helping her to cope with her fear and her loneliness. But enough of Sannie. Maybe I will show you later. You are an admirer of Robbie Burns?"

"Now there was a man bursting with compassion! Take 'To a Mouse' as an example."

"Yes yes." Angus's eyes were alight with enthusiasm. "I'm truly sorry man's dominion has broken nature's social union and justifies that ill opinion. You know my father taught me to recite the whole of it as well as Tam O'Shanter. For several years we celebrated Burns night on the farm. Can you imagine it, a house full of people, only one white face present and everybody spouting Robbie Burns and eating warm reekin' Haggis?" He laughed at the bizarre memory and then sobered. "It is such a pity. A stupid, stupid pity." A note of angry bitterness had crept into his voice. "The stupidity of racism. This could be such a great country if only people were left alone to make their own choices. This system must be smashed and the white man must embrace Africa, he must start to learn and understand what is African and forget about the old version, the parody based on bigotry and ignorance and greed. What does the European know about his fellow African? What do you know about me?"

"Well, I can see that you've had a western education and that you are very un-African. Apart from your colour and the negroid aspects of your facial structure, that is."

"Yes, yes." He was impatient, giving Henry a look of contempt. "You see, you only look at the surface. Your mind is closed." Shit, Henry thought to himself, here we go again. Somebody else going to open my mind for me. Aloud he said,

"Okay, convert me. Open my mind. Meanwhile how about another drink?" The cookboy spoke rapidly in Xhosa and the waiter left the room. "Please go ahead. For the sake of auld lang syne."

"You are a drunkard but maybe there is hope for you. Alright. If a Black man wishes to study, get some understanding of the White man, he must learn to read English. Then for five, even ten years, he must consume a whole library. He must read history, philosophy, religion, the classics - Homer, Virgil, Aristotle, Plato. He must sample the great literature - Shakespeare, Hardy, Goethe, Dostoevsky, Mann. He must read everything - Enid Blyton, Voltaire, Peter Cheyney, Captain Johns, Dr Johnson, Melville, Solszhenitsyn, Superman, Conan Doyle, William Burroughs, Tintin and Asterix, Billy Bunter, Rousseau, Tolstoy, Phllip Roth… The list is unending. Poetry. Lots of poetry. The magazines, the newspapers, the comics, Mills and Boon. Then the biographies of Henry Ford, Hitler, Hemingway, Caruso, Freud and Jung and Frazer. Read about the Industrial Revolution, the French Revolution, the Bolshevik Revolution. The Great American Dream. And follow sport and the drive to win. Exploration, travel, humour. And music and theatre and film. Ten years is too short. After ten years the Black man must have started to understand the White man." The waiter came with Henry's drink and a Coke for the chef.

"And there are many who have gone to these lengths to understand the White man's culture. But they don't make the laws. The people who make the laws do not want to learn about Africa and its people and the African ethos. There is no understanding or empathy from their side, no similar effort made, no synergy is permitted to develop and we are all poorer for it." He drank from his glass and Henry noted the long sensitive fingers of the big hands.

"Hey, you know something?" Henry was chuckling at himself. "You know all the kak people talk about other races? Well, one of the things I grew up half believing was that Blacks didn't possess lunules. It was one of those characteristics which was supposed to prove that Kaffirs weren't quite human." Angus snorted.

"Yes. Like nonsense about thickness of skull and even viscosity of blood. Anything to deny a man's humanity and justify treating him as a lesser being undeserving of compassion."

"Yah. Well, I see your half moons are more distinct than mine, if that signifies anything."

"Hah. It doesn't." He glanced at Henry's grimy hands and looked away embarrassed by the dirt under the nails. "Have you ever heard of Ubuntu?"

"Umm, yes, I think I have. Yes, that's a Chinese dish, isn't it? The African version of course. Sweet-and-sour. Instead of cubes of pork you chaps use White settler meat, don't you?"

"Ha, ha. You whoreson fool, that's Uhuru. It means human-heartedness or compassion. It is sympathy for your fellow man, it is brotherhood and caring. Robbie Burns had ubuntu. John Robison had ubuntu."

"Talking of John Robison. Your father wasn't by any chance descended from the great Scottish inventor was he?"

"Hoots, mon! You amaze me. You've heard of his inventions? He was my father's great grandfather and my father was named after him."

"Yes I'm particularly interested in the siren."

"Ah but that wasn't his most important creation. He was obsessed with time and spent most of his life devising a clock that measured the quality of time. In fact I have a copy of the blue prints."

"You mean…" Just then there was a scream and a shout and in rushed Birkin, wild-eyed and hysterical, penis protruding from open fly.

"Oh my Christ, these fuckin' coons have killed him! The bastards have murdered him. I swear to God! He's out there, lying outside, dead. Christ and I've pissed on his dead body." He became aware of his indecent exposure and scowled at them and hastily rearranged his clothing.

"What happened?" Henry was partly annoyed at the interruption and partly curious to discover what new and wondrous entertainment fate was dropping at his feet. "Who's dead? What the fuck you talking about?"

"It's Van Schalkwyk. The phones didn't work, the whole fucking place is dark. I couldn't find the toilet so I went outside and there I am pissing away, half a gallon, and then my foot touches this thing and I skrik. Christ but I skrik! I lights a match and there he is, all covered in fresh piss, lying there dead. You fuckin' communist savage, you!" He had turned to face Angus who towered over him, a look of sardonic amusement on his face. He spoke to the waiter:

"Torch."

The waiter soon returned and they moved into the passage and through the dark lobby to the entrance. The door stood open in the light of the torch and Birkin led the way. The night air was cold and smelt of dust. A few paces to the right the torch showed the body, lying in a heap, slightly turned to one side.

"Here he is," Birkin announced unnecessarily. Angus bent over and pinched an ear lobe between thumb and forefinger, pincer-like. There was a loud groan and an arm flailed out. He straightened up.

"Dead? Dead drunk, yes. Alright, help me to get him in." He picked up the legs like the handles of a wheelbarrow and Henry and Birkin took an arm each. The man was large and the drunks struggled with the dead weight, tripping and falling against each other. The head trailed back and when they tried to negotiate the single step it struck with a dull thud against the concrete riser. Birkin lost his grip and they both fell to their knees, half on top of the hotel owner. Then, struggling and cursing, they helped to manhandle the body down a corridor. Henry became aware of the rhythmic thumping that he had previously thought to be radio music. It was much louder and seemed to emanate from the darkness ahead of them.

They stopped and let go of arms and legs. The waiter shone the torch on a door and Angus turned the handle and they dragged their cumbersome load into the room. Then with great effort they hoisted up the two-hundred-and-forty-pound carcass and dumped it onto the bed. The four of them stood looking down like relatives grouped about a sickbed. The waiter directed the beam onto the ghastly visage. The great football head, massive and menacing even in stupor, close set eyes, close cropped hair, flabby jowls about a thin mouth, now slack and gaping, a trickle of blood forming a jagged scar down to behind an ear.

"Yissus!" murmured Henry. "A nasty piece of work. There's no art to find the mind's construction in this face."

"Shakespeare?"

"Macbeth. Not my favourite. Did you ever try Troilus and Cressida? Now there's a certain…"

"Hey, what's this poefte rubbish? I'm not standing here listening to you talking crap to these coons. I'm going man. And as soon's I get to Keetmanshoop I'm going straight to the cops, struse god. You, mampara, shine the torch for me." In the corridor Birkin turned left and stalked away towards the entrance.

"What's that noise?" Henry asked. "Sounds like an African drum." The waiter trained the torch in the other direction and three doors down a figure was seen seated on a stool. Between his knees was a wooden drum held at an angle away from him. The hands thumped slowly in a monotonous beat upon the taut hide. "What the hell's he doing there in the dark?" His voice was pitched high in surprise.

"Sannie. She's in that room. This brute's wife. Ah poor Sannie!"

"But why the drums?"

"Well, I told you I am helping her to…" He hesitated then hurried on impatient to complete the explanation. "To come to terms with her fears. To live them out. When it grew dark I dragged her in there and cut off her clothes and tied her to the bed with her husband's old rugby socks. For three, four hours she has lain there in the dark, listening to the drum and waiting. When I am ready I will go to the door and slowly open it. She will sense my presence. I will…" Just then there were several loud bangs from the front of the hotel. As they ran to the entrance Birkin's car roared into life and then backfired again.

"Hey, the poes has got my valuable luggage in his boot. Hey! Hey!" As the car started with its cacophony of bangs there was a huge and brilliant flash of light out in the darkness accompanied by a deafening explosion. Flames were leaping high into the night and Birkin screamed. "The station, the station! For fucks sake they've blown up the station!"

Henry jumped in as the car began to jerk backwards in reverse, popping and spluttering and banging. In the headlamps and the light of the fire there was no sigh of the cook or the waiter. Then Birkin had crunched into first and they were leaping forward in a skidding sweep of dust away from the hotel.

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