The Life of Henry Fuckit
50 Train journey - Part One
The streets were entirely deserted and the night clear and cold. As soon as he had turned a corner and was out of sight of the police station he stopped in a doorway and got out his Navy pullover. He thought of Joe Thompson's generosity and it gave him a sense of comfort as well as warmth. He began to walk again, trying to get his bearings from the stars, but the buildings and the lights hid them. Only directly overhead could he discern a few pinpricks in the blackness. As they had raced away from Grunau he had wanted to see the sky. For a long time the glow of the fire showed behind them and then was lost behind the rise and fall of the country. Or maybe it had gone out. Birkin, hunched over the wheel, had driven with crazed urgency as if he expected to see a light appear in the rear view mirror. He clearly believed they were being pursued and that their only hope was to ride flatfoot all the way to Keetmanshoop. At one stage Henry had put the window down and climbed halfway out trying to get a view of the sky and the stars but Birkin had begun screaming at him and anyway it was too cold and the rushing wind had blinded him with tears.
He came to an intersection. A signpost pointed left: STASIE / BAHNHOF / STATION. This was not an instruction, just an indication, a possibility. After a kilometre at a brisk pace, so that he felt warm and the booze was clearing from his head, he came in sight of the station. There were few other buildings now and he was on the outskirts of the town.
It was a large colonial structure of the austere German kind. The waiting room was cold and cheerless with high metal ceiling and polished parquet floor. Apart from a timetable on one wall and a wooden bench beneath it, it was unfurnished. Certainly no place to spend the rest of the night, unless desperate. Maybe fatigue would induce him to lie down on those hard wooden slats but… Through the window of the ticket office, with its punched circle and rectangle, and iron grille, he could see two men in railway uniform sitting at tables under a bare yellow bulb. One had his head on his arms, asleep, and the other was reading the paper, black peaked cap pushed back. A drab scene taken with a Brownie, fixed with stale chemicals and left to fade in a dusty pigeonhole. The universal boredom of petty officials - Henry turned away in horror. Jesus, he was supposed to be on holiday from all that.
At the platform stood four coaches that immediately struck him as vintage, as if they had been mistakenly shunted off at a disused siding and forgotten for fifty years before being discovered and brought back to the station. The woodwork was dry and cracked, bleached and scoured bare of its original paintwork. The first was White, the next two non-White and the fourth the guard's van. On impulse, checking both directions for any sign of life, he strode across the platform to the White carriage, climbed the steps and let himself into the corridor. He eased off his pack and moved along to the centre compartment. The door slid open at his touch and he entered the total darkness of the interior. Groping in his pack he located matches and lit one to dimly illuminate green leather and teak joinery. After much fumbling and several matches he had climbed into a top bunk and covered himself with his sleeping bag.
Some time later he awoke briefly to realise the coaches had been coupled to… well, probably a goods train. It began to move and gain momentum, creaking and rocking, the wheels clacking, steel on steel, from one length of rail to the next. The image of the train rolling across the empty land beneath the stars like a giant centipede with a hundred wheels instead of a hundred legs pleased him. And he drifted back to sleep happy in the knowledge that again he was moving.
In the morning he woke and lay listening to the double beat of the wheels on the line, warm and comfortable, savouring the rocking motion of the coach. After a while he roused himself and dressed hurriedly. Raising the cover of the stainless steel basin he washed in the trickle of water that was so cold it seemed to burn his skin. Then he dropped and opened the folding table and sat down to breakfast - half a packet of digestive biscuits. Now that it was light he was as greatly pleased with the interior as he had been with the exterior of the carriage in the night. It was all green upholstery and rich brown woodwork, even wooden shutters at the window. On the walls, attached to the underside of the folded back middle bunks were black and white photographs behind glass. Typically rugged landscapes with aloes, acacias, baobabs. One scene of a steam locomotive pulling its long load across an arid plain, puffs of smoke rising above a line of hills to join the clouds.
The train was slowing. He pulled down the window and tasted the crisp cold air smelling of dry veld. The sun was just up in the east to the rear, weak and wintry. Behind them? It should have been on the right warming the corridor side of the coaches. Strange. Maybe the line was negotiating its way around a hill. They stopped, moved forward a few metres and halted alongside the tracks of a siding. Further up a raised water tank stood before windmill and house. Some distance from the house was a tin shack, alone in the flinty waste. GOAGEB, proclaimed the concrete sign in black lettering. He had never heard of Goageb. The train began to move again and he went into the corridor and walked up and down to counter the chill in the air. He did several turns and discovered that the only other occupied compartment was at the front and furthest from the non-Whites. The low voices of two men conversing in German, desultory and muffled.
He returned to his compartment and watched the slowly passing countryside as the sun rose higher behind the train. He felt carefree and light. This was a marvellous way to travel, solitary and undisturbed, through sparse, uncluttered country, big and empty. Midmorning the train stopped in the middle of nowhere. There was no immediately apparent reason for the halt. He leaned out, looking up and down the line for signs of habitation but the low hills, patchy expanses of yellow grass and outcrops of boulders showed no evidence of human interference or organisation. It was quiet too and he became aware of the wind, bending the grass and nudging the carriage so that the shutter knocked and was still and a cross draught from somewhere sighed and ceased, sighed and expired.
There was a shudder and the train began to move again. He realised now that the track was taking a gentle curve and the diesel unit up front had been hidden from view. The cause of delay became apparent as a gang of some thirty or forty black men came into sight, leaning on picks and koevoets and shovels. Two white men stood against a bakkie parked in the low scrub and further on were tents and a truck. The expressions were stolid, uninterested. A pair of eyes met his and slid away and one man called out, "Sigaret." It was odd, this fleeting encounter, the closeness of the upturned faces and yet the great divide between those who remained and the passing traveller. He thought of spitting, or making a gesture, something to rouse an emotion and spark contact but the train was gathering speed and they had slipped by. He was about to pull up the window when, glancing back, he was shocked to see a transformation take place. A passenger form one of the rear coaches had called out and the faces lit up in an instant, arms waved, there was a chorus of shouts and laughter and one of the gangers trotted a few paces alongside before dropping back, then they were gone from his view.
The bottle of Bols he had bought in Vanrhynsdorp was just under half full. He poured a generous tot into his glass and topped it up with water. He looked out at the yellow savannah and the isolated clumps of scrub that formed islands of darkest green, almost black. Beyond the low hills to the southwest he sensed a great openness, an expanse falling away into an immense wasteland. There was something different about this emptiness. Maybe it was the sheer width of the landscape that he had not previously encountered. And there was a kind of diffidence that said yes, that's right, there's nothing here, just dusty weeds growing in stony rubbish as far as the eye can see. There was a self-effacement, an absence of feature that belied a quality, both familiar and alien, that eluded him.
Henry spread a sheet of greaseproof brown paper on the table before him and worked a small quantity of dagga into a handful of Balkan Special, before filling his pipe and tidying away the rest of the mix in the brown paper. Then with the aid of five or six matches he lit up and soon filled the compartment with a blue haze of Turkish Delight. Once the pipe was drawing well he took a sip of brandy and then a puff and a sniff. It was this sniff that was so rewarding, so gratifying, a nasal inhalation supremely satisfying in its effect on his state of mind. He had learnt to reserve this dagga indulgence for the appropriate moment, when his mood was calm and receptive, his feelings buoyant, and depression and anxiety banished to distant realms.
Outside the morning wore on and the train kept a slow but steady pace. Colours diminished and there were dark shadows beside boulders and in the folds of hills. The sky stretched out and got bigger, clear and pale, almost white towards the sun.
He poured some brandy and began to clean out his pipe. The scene had become more rugged and the train was descending, definitely descending. It was just after noon as the track wound down into a cutting with steep brown hills on either side. AUS - ALT 4742 FT. There was an attempt at a garden in front of the station building - a low hedge of aloes about some petunias and marigolds, and a tattered and torn piece of shrubbery that he at first took to be a heap of rubbish dumped in the garden by someone bearing the stationmaster a grudge. In the ticket office a fat official had just finished stuffing a length of sausage into his mouth and was wiping his hands on one of the signalman's red flags when Henry entered and asked if there would be time to stretch his legs before the train continued its journey. The man eyed him suspiciously and then stated in a hostile German accent that there would be a delay of at least six hours.
"Six hours, for Christ sake! Is this your idea of Teutonic punctuality? Is this how they run the railways back in the Fatherland? Besser versputet als nie. Six hours! A fine example to set the indigenous unfortunates under your command. Poor buggers, struggling as they are to come to terms with such foreign perversities as reliability and trustworthiness. Sechs stunda! Verdammte scheisse! There'd better be a damned good explanation or I make a phone call to my uncle in Windhoek."
Henry was quite unconcerned about the delay. Six hours, six days. It was of no consequence yet he chose a line of attack to forestall any awkward questions. Such as, Where's your ticket? He didn't like the way this schwein had looked at him and it was a pleasure to insult him.
"Ek tut mir leid, mein Herr." It had worked and Henry smirked as the official became defensive and apologetic, responding to abuse with Pavlovian predictability. "Ze Luderitz train it is delay, yes. Ze two train, zey cannot cross exzepting here by Aus. Ze Keetmanshoop train it must vait. Ze Luderitz train, it…"
"Ja ja ja! Ich versteche sie. A logistical oversight. Two trains need two sets of track in order to pass each other. So we wait six hours. Dummheit uber alles. I shall report this idiocy to higher authority." The sullen face turned pale. "Alright. Ipi lo kroeg, kraut? Ich habe durst. Where's the hotel? Hey, and I hold you directly responsible for the safety of my luggage."
The Bahnhof Hotel was up the hill along with the rest of the town which consisted of half a dozen shops, two garages and, further to the south, a cluster of residences. Henry strolled the dusty streets enjoying the warmth of the sun. At the Shell garage he paused. The petrol attendant was clearly of Bushman stock, short, slight of build, tight krissy hair, flat Mongoloid features creased and lined like the skin of dried fruit. He was in conversation with a family group: mother, father and three children. The woman was undeniably drunk and the two men ticking over. He could hear the speech and with the surging thrill of a tourist he realised he was overhearing the ancient language for the fist time. He knelt down, undoing his shoelace and then retying it. It was a wondrous sound comprised mostly of clicks, clacks, kisses, hisses and croaks and rasps - a type of insect talk. He could spend no more time on his laces and decided to approach them. He drew close and a heavy cloud blotted out their sun.
"Good afternoon," he addressed the petrol jockey. "I wonder if you could give me directions on how to find the hotel?" The children stared at him openly with almost as much curiosity as he felt for them. The adults showed an initial flash of antipathy that was an unguarded and genuine display of their feelings. But after the briefest of moments their slitted eyes flicked away and down: they stood in surly muteness. There had been no mistaking it, the look was one of repugnance and hatred.
"Er, I'm looking for the hotel. Where is the hotel?"
They avoided his gaze and began to mutter between them.
"Die hotel. Ek soek die hotel. Waar is die hotel?"
At exactly the same moment the two men and the woman burst into uproarious merriment and an instant later the children had joined in, cackling and shrieking and stamping feet and bending double and clapping hands. The garage employee pointed to the hotel thirty paces away across the street and Henry turned and made a show of mortification.
"Oh gee. What a silly fellow I am. Thank you." The laughter had stopped and the woman now came right up to him and began to importune for money, her cupped hands held out. The wizened monkey face, toothless mouth and glittering chips of stone that were her eyes made him recoil. Hastily he dug in his pocket and found some coins and once she had taken them the act was abruptly cut and she turned away as if he did not exist.
A flight of steps led up from the pavement to the stoep and he sat down at a table half in the sun, half in shade, looking north over the station and the hills through which the railway line had cut. There were no other patrons but he could hear voices coming from the public bar. Presently a waiter came out and he ordered beer and a plate of food.
After the meal he drank more beer and the afternoon wore on painlessly. Two farmers came and went; a rep, a policeman. A brand new, shiny yellow truck came up from the station, engine roaring and trailing a great tumble of dust behind it. Around four o'clock he decided to take a walk.
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