THE TEXT

The Life of Henry Fuckit
(1950 - 2015)

 

53   Luderitz

The late morning sun came through the yellow windows of Kapp's Bar. It was a dimly lit room, long and narrow with a high ceiling and papered walls of a dingy cream. Fine dust floated in the shafts of sunlight and dusty footprints showed on the floor, tramped in from the unpaved street. Henry sat at the bar and idly watched the Portuguese fishermen playing darts.

They were noisy bastards, these Porros, unable to speak in a normal tone. Everything was shouted, not in anger, just as a matter of course, Portuguese except for 'Fuckorff,' repeated frequently and without any apparent rancour. The barman was a German with thin lips and grey hair who didn't conceal his contempt for the patrons, ignoring them when they tried to catch his attention, playing a supercilious game that did not seem to worry them. They just shouted louder. Henry happily made enemies with this barman by leering at him, winking, and saying with a conspiratorial nod in their direction, "Untermenschen, ja?"

It was lunchtime when he emerged from the bar and walked the few paces up the street to the hotel entrance. At reception he signed the register as Caliban Gott. Caliban was the Shakespearean character with whom he identified most intimately - a spiritual brother in fact. Gott was chosen as a surname of some significance that would elicit a confused mingling of indignation, resentment, perplexity and reverence. He especially looked forward to being addressed as 'Herr Gott". "Mister Gott" would fail to ring a true note. "Meneer Gott" would miss the point entirely, as the G would be pronounced as a velar fricative preparatory to spitting. But "Herr Gott" - that would be real respectful. He could just see the manager, whoever he was, bowing stiffly and clicking his heels in cheap war comic fashion, and saying, "Herr Gott, zere iss und complaint concerningk ze uzzer guests."

The room was clean and comfortable enough, but its window faced onto the street and the shutters had been screwed shut, so there was no view and the light through the angled louvres was dim and oblique. Henry lay on the bed and thought this was a room to commit suicide in. Tomorrow he would look for somewhere else. But he was surprised at how pleased he was with the town. After a few hours sleep on the train whilst it stood at the platform, he had packed his belongings and walked slowly up the steep streets to a vantage point on the hill. Orientating himself was a simple matter. The coast ran north-south and the brown hills were bare and sloped from the desert into the sea. A natural promontory formed a bay in which the harbour had been built. The streets were unsurfaced and there were no gardens of any description, so that the collection of buildings seemed to have been placed down amongst the rock and dust as a temporary measure, like a camp. And yet the buildings were substantial and solidly built structures of an imposing style from the early German days when the diamond rush was on. Now every second house was boarded up and in decay. Nowhere was there a sign of fresh paint or renovation, and prosperity had faded into the past. It wasn't quite a ghost town but it had that derelict, abandoned appearance he had seen to a lesser degree at Aus. From the hilltop it was clear that what kept Luderitz from being relinquished totally was its harbour. There were numerous trawlers and smaller boats at quays and moorings, and a sprawl of warehouses and fish factories skirted the harbour. He scrambled to the highest rocks and looked eastward into the desert. Barren basalt and dolerite, shades of brown and then the lighter patches of dune beyond the rugged line of coastal hills. And just to the north, half hidden in a fold of these hills, he glimpsed the shacks of tin and plastic that must be the Location.

That had been this morning and he still felt slightly elated at the foreignness of the place. He went out into the afternoon to find a cold wind had sprung up from off the sea and was whisking the dust and grit up the streets and round the corners. Head down, he hurried towards the harbour. Not far from the entrance gates was the building housing the museum and library. Large and drab, constructed of brown blockwork that could have been either concrete or stone it was so grimy, it looked like a converted warehouse.

For the next two hours he browsed, first in the library and then the museum. The library was roughly half German, a quarter Afrikaans and a quarter English, so there wasn't a great deal to look at. However, the choice of books was intelligent, with a good selection of modern classics and poetry. Also, the art section, mostly German but that was of no consequence, was well stocked and he foresaw many pleasant hours ahead of him. As for the museum on the upper floor, it was packed with well set out exhibits not only about the history of Luderitz and the diamond days but of the larger coastal and desert region, with information on the indigenous peoples, the flora and fauna, marine life, geology and climate. The curator was a humorous old German, more than happy to share the knowledge from his voluminous memory whilst puffing on a cigar and making entertaining comparisons and observations of an anecdotal kind. His assistant appeared briefly and gave Henry a friendly smile. She was youngish and distinctly attractive.

It was almost dark and a thick fog had followed the wind ashore. He was delighted to hear a full-throated bullfrog bellowing in the distance. John Robison would have been proud of this diaphonic emission - a long deep fart cut short with a grunt. This wondrous sound and the smell of the cold air sent a surge of excitement through him. There was no hurry to move on from this place. He felt a compulsion to read TS Eliot - there was a passage in the Four Quartets, The Dry Salvages, about the fog in the fir tree and the many voices of the sea, the howl and the yelp, the distant rote in the granite teeth, and the heaving groaner and the seagull and the ground swell measuring time. Tomorrow morning he would return to the library; they surely had Eliot, even if only tucked away in an anthology.

In the bar he ordered a double whisky and a large bottle of stout. There were no fishermen now, and at the dartboard a game was in progress between two teams, one from the Railways and the other from the Roads Department. They were quieter than the Porros, more serious about the game and evidently intent on drinking a large quantity of liquor. A man, somewhere in his fifties, came in and greeted the barman in German and ordered Schnapps.

"Ze mist, it is bad tonight," he said to Henry in a matter of fact way. "And ze fishermen, zey have all gone out."

"Oh. Are the fish running, or something?"

"No, no. Zey catch ze lobster. Crayfish. Now zey go for two, maybe three veeks to fill ze quota. Zen zey go home, ze Portuguese."

"To Portugal?" Henry was surprised.

"Angola, Cape Verde."

He knocked back the drink and, after looking to his watch for permission, ordered another. "You are not a fisherman." It was more a statement than a question, and from it he realised the man was actually saying, "You look like a fisherman but you are not, so what are you?"

"No." He suddenly felt confused. What was he? A civil servant, a storeman, a clerk? He couldn't say, I'm a storeman on holiday. How incongruous. Lamely, he chose "I'm a tourist." It was demeaning, for he viewed himself as a rondloper or a drifter or, best of all, a dilettante. And nothing as crashingly conventional as a tourist. People who insisted on calling themselves travellers were usually just snobs with enough money to tour in style. So he was a tourist and hoped his occupation would be left out of the conversation.

"Yes, I'm a tourist from Cape Town, visiting these parts for the first time. This is an interesting town. I think I shall stay for a week or so, but the hotel is expensive. Are there no furnished rooms to be had in Luderitz? A room attached to a private house, like servants quarters?"

"Ja, ja, I know vot you mean. Zere are two, free, maybe four. But ze only vone I personally know is goot is by Frau Klee in Nietzsche Strasse. Zey are my friends. Klee, he is artist, ja? Vone day he vill be famous. But I am late, my vife is vaiting. Auf wiedersehen."

With gusto Henry partook of the hotel dinner, going through the menu with a voracious thoroughness. The advantage of being a roughie was that your appetite was undiscriminating. Not that the food was bad, but a genuine tourist would no doubt have found fault with the temperature of the soup, age of the rolls, pedigree of the kingklip, tenderness of the beef, sweetness of the mousse. The coffee was indisputably good. To a hungry man it was a feast and his ample satisfaction could hardly have been increased beyond this repletion. He smiled at the recollection of the Grunau cook's blunt statement on the subject and, leaving the dining room, adjourned to the lounge, which was deserted. When a waiter appeared he ordered brandy and sat smoking a bowl of Balkan Special and enjoying a sense of unaccustomed luxury. On a sheet of hotel stationery he made rough calculations, totalling up what he had spent on the trip thus far. Hitch-hiking was free, Birkin had paid for the whoring, not that it had been worth anything, the meal at Grunau had been on the house, nothing on train fares, not much on padkos, just the meal at Aus. So up till now the main expense had been on booze: two bottles of brandy, and sundry Cokes and beers. The whisky in the bar before supper. But now this, living it up in a hotel. A waste of money, and on his meagre salary; what with the cost of liquor and books these days, he couldn't afford such extravagance. Resolving to go in search of Nietzsche Strasse first thing the next morning he went off to bed early and slept for eight unbroken hours.

Contact Us | Terms & Conditions

Copyright © IanMartin.co.za 2011