THE TEXT

The Life of Henry Fuckit
(1950 - 2015)

 

57   Not a good place to read books

That evening he ate at the café in Hundertwasser Strasse. It was a greasy meal of sausage, fried egg, peas and chips. Salt on the chips helped, as did tomato sauce with the egg and sausage. The fat Afrikaner woman, whose buttocks engulfed her stool behind the till at the door and made him think of a circus elephant, kept an unfriendly eye on him and her two brown girls. When she spoke it was in a military baritone and the sullenness of her employees served as an eloquent character reference. They knew what she was really like. No possibility of a rough exterior hiding a heart of gold here. Tomorrow he would check the library for any Edward Hopper. Edward Hopper would be happy to pull up an easel in the shelter of a doorway the other side of Hundertwasser Strasse and paint this stark scene. The ruthless lack of compromise under the fluorescent light, the green Formica and the aluminium trim, the red Coca Cola fridges, the wire racks of Simba crisps, yellow and blue, the vast empty spaces, the figure behind the till, the solitary customer - it was classic American, so devoid of value. Edward Hopper would have immortalised him. But, arsehole, how could he have SEEN his canvas huddled in a dark doorway? With the last chip on the end of his fork he slowly and thoroughly cleaned the plate, herding the sludge into a pool away from him. With each sweep of the mop the pool deepened and as he went back for another run it began to spread out. He was aware that three pairs of eyes were trained upon him, detached but interested, as if they were watching work on a civil engineering project. Very, very slowly he raised the chip, dripping. He angled his head sideways and opened his mouth as wide as he possibly could. The chip was entering the jaws and then halted just within the threshold. His hand began to tremble and he made a gagging noise in his throat before letting the fork and chip clatter to the plate. Giggles from the girls and "Ag NEE man! Kombuis toe, kombuis toe!" from the owner. At the till she wouldn't look at him, barking out the amount he was to pay and then furiously slamming the change on the counter. God she was huge! The weight of just one of those udders! A good four or five kilos.

By contrast the light in Kapp's Bar was thick and slurred and making the content of the room barely intelligible. Henry sat near the door where the air was less polluted and ordered neat whisky in a beer mug and a quart of stout. The sooner he got a little drunk the better. A dark mood was descending upon him and he felt no interest in the noisy goings-on further down the bar. He only hoped he would not be molested by some pisscat trying to tell him a joke or lies about how many women he, the pisscat, was fucking on a regularly varied basis. He really wasn't in the mood to listen to opinions on Kaffirs and kormunists. Worst of all would be a sports enthusiast. Please please please spare me rugby. He glanced towards the throng and found to his horror he had already been targeted. An emaciated individual with dwindling fair hair and small close-set eyes intent as raisins in a bun, was staring at him with an interest so unguarded as to be bordering on the lascivious. Henry frantically delved into his plastic carrier packet for the library book, opened it on the counter and turned half sideways on his stool so that his back was to the threat.

"Hello there, man." Too late. All was lost. He had moved to the stool next to Henry's. "Hans Castorp." Henry turned resignedly, dread having dissolved into the numb pain that a condemned man feels. Beyond the crucial point at which surrender takes place it was almost a relief to confront his fate.

"Yes?"

"Hans Castorp." A pause. "What did you say your name was?"

Ag no man. This is kak. "Er… you can say my name is er, Leopold. Leopold Bloom. I'm trying to read this book, you know."

"Oh. This isn't a good place to read books. You should go to a library or somewhere. People come here for company. They don't actually like you to read books in here."

"Well, personally speaking, I couldn't give a fuck about whether anybody likes it or doesn't like it. This is a public bar, isn't it? As long as I buy a drink I can sit at the counter and cry, I can stand with one foot on the brass rail and play with myself through a hole in my pocket. I can play dominoes, darts, matchsticks or snooker - if there's a table, which there isn't, fuckin' dump. I'm perfectly entitled to piss down my leg and to puke on the floor. It's quite acceptable behaviour to break glasses and fall down messy and bleeding. Loud swearing and singing is permitted. Drooling over pornographic magazines stained with semen is a frequent activity. So why can't I quietly sip a drink and read my book? Tell me that, Frans."

"Hans. Hans Castorp." He had a Francis Bacon mouth. It was fleshy and loosely distorted, the lower lip hanging open, partly to facilitate breathing and partly as a result of its own weight. It was the colour of half-cooked sheep's liver, somewhere between carbuncle red and lead grey. "Leopold, you must understand something. We are a small community here and our view of the world is limited. We are threatened, we feel very vulnerable, when a bohemian like you, enters our…"

"WHAT?!?" Henry shouted, his eyeballs leaping outwards. "WHAT did you say? Did you say BOHEMIAN? Christ Almighty! Can it be possible that you know the meaning of the word? Is it at all credible for a barfly in an abandoned dorp on the edge of the desert, between scoured land and hostile ocean, where human endeavour has failed, whence all vestiges of refinement and artistic appreciation have fled, leaving behind the cripples and the subnormal to serve a brutish clan wrestling a living from this desolate end of the earth - is it possible, is it conceivable, is it within the bounds of logical probability, for such a barfly to be aware of the term BOHEMIAN?" Henry was warming to the subject and becoming ever more excited as he assimilated the implications. "To employ the word implies an awareness of a whole world of ideas totally impossible and alien to your kind. Unless you be one of the cripples left behind. Meneer Catspiss, reveal your true identity."

"Castorp. But please call me Hans. No Leopold, you are mistaken to think…"

"Yes yes yes. But you must admit my astonishment is understandable. To find, in the midst of this, this…" He gestured towards the group slowly moving in a circle about a central figure who was rendering a primitive song in a mixture of German and Afrikaans. At the end of each verse the circle halted and there was a chorus of piglike grunting. "Bohemian! Hey, barman, more whisky stout. And a rum and Coke for this oke."

"Thank you, Leopold. I would like to say it is very gracious of you but I would be a liar to describe your manner as having anything to do with grace. As I was trying to tell you, you are mistaken in thinking the common man, the 'barfly', as you call him, is not capable of artistic appreciation. You have fallen into a very, very old trap." He coughed, tried to clear his throat, and then coughed another twenty or thirty times, his left hand in a fist against his chest. "Excuse me." His lips spoke and he drew forth a handkerchief of a dark and indeterminate colour. With it he pretended to wipe his nose but was actually using it to receive material from his mouth.

"Hell, man, I hope you're not infectious." Henry took a gulp of whisky, laying his trust in the antiseptic powers of the spirit. "I hope you've got your funeral policy up to date, ha, ha!"

"My doctor," he was regaining his breath and his voice, "my doctor assures me it's nothing. The fog, the fog. Just a bit of lung tissue sloughing off, you know. Irritative secretions draining into the bronchi, he tells me."

"Doctors! You talk to me about doctors? You do realise all the literary greats, without exception, have held doctors up for ridicule?"

"Some have, yes. There must be something about doctors that offends the literary senses. I wonder what it can be Leopold?"

"I'll tell you, Schultz. Sorry, Hans. The artist sees a doctor as something of a corpse-fucker. You know what I mean? Self-enrichment at the expense of the helpless. Cynical exploitation of disease and morbidity. Indecent gratification gained without consent. There's a technical term for a person who fucks corpses…"

"Necrophilia. Yes, a distant uncle of mine was a necrophile and funny enough, he was a doctor, now you come to mention it. A professor of experimental surgery at Gottenhimmelfontein University. He had free access to the dead. I remember him telling me as a boy, I was maybe fourteen or fifteen years old, how he got into it. As an intern he was on duty one sunny afternoon in the casualty department when they brought in this girl, maybe eighteen or nineteen, still warm, fresh and perfectly preserved, like Sleeping Beauty, and they laid her on the table. Riding boots and jodhpurs below a stretch knit top. The vulnerability of her silent wrist stirred something in him. He told me it came as a shock to him to discover his erectile tissue was flooding with hot blood. It was quite involuntary. The transparent blue of her eyelid before he gently lifted it and looked into the black well filled him with tenderness. He described it as an uncontrollable desire to reverse the tragedy."

"But you're taking me literally! When I speak of doctors as corpse-fuckers I'm not speaking of those doctors who actually fuck real live corpses, for Christ sake, but rather I'm meaning it in a figurative sense. That's the trouble when one talks of artistic matters to the unrefined. They're on a different plane. Philistines. Anyway this pervert uncle of yours was talking shit. When I say 'indecent gratification' I don't necessarily mean some gross aberration of sexual behaviour but rather a breach of morality in pursuit of a vice. When I say 'without consent' I don't necessarily mean rape but rather a violation of trust. NOW do you see what I mean? Hans Christian Andersen."

Hans Castorp was coughing again so Henry continued with his attack on the practitioners of formal Western medicine, fired more by liquor and the mood that was upon him than by any great conviction. He was contemptuous of lawyers, priests, politicians, even academics and artists. He was contemptuous of the common worker labouring all the days of his life, stolid as an ox. He was contemptuous of society and, above all, of himself. So the attack on doctors, he knew, was really aimed more generally and widely. Or, more specifically, at THE CONDITION.

"Cough, cough, cough! Look at you, man. You're dying. I can read the pain on your face and in your eyes and some corpse-fucking doctor tells you it's nothing! What disgusts me is their arrogance and their hypocrisy and the whole feeble deception. Serving humanity? Dedicated? Selfless sacrifice for the relief of suffering? My arse! Status and goods, that's what drives them. Ever met a sympathetic doctor? No ways. They're always impatient, glancing at the watch, calculating the price of your sickness against the price of another pair of shoes for the bitch wife with the reluctant cunt. They take … Hey, Jesus!"

Hans Castorp had fallen off his stool and was lying in an impossible position with his mouth dribbling blood onto one of Henry's black leather Navy boots. Henry felt a little embarrassed by this apparent show of adoration but was reluctant to withdraw his foot as it was cushioning the man's face from the hardness and the filth of the floor.

"Barman! Barman! BARMAN! You drunken poes, call a doctor!" The circle had broken ranks and was now regrouping about Henry and his fallen companion. A bespectacled, chubby man in his late twenties, face shining with sweat, took charge of the situation.

"Stand back, stand back! I am the doctor here, not anybody else. Make room, give me air to breathe, can't you. I will not tolerate onlookers. Do you think I am about to give a free anatomy lesson, or something? Give me my bag. I never go anywhere without my black bag. Where is it? Who has got my bag? If anyone has interfered with the contents of my bag I shall have him jailed for at least five years."

The barman handed over the black leather bag.

"It voz found in ze toilet, Herr Doktor. I voz keepingk it for safe keepingk."

The doctor blushed like a nice young girl being confronted by her first flasher.

"I… I… It must have been stolen. Somebody else… I'll call the police if…" He fumbled with the combination until he hit the missing number and drew out a stethoscope, which he immediately hung about his neck. The chain of office seemed to steady him and he again took command. "Never a moment's rest. A doctor's life is the most demanding of all the noble professions. Even in the most private of situations I can't relax. I'll just clear my head a little." And, after clenching his left fist and slapping the wrist vigorously, he threaded a vein and slowly squeezed the trigger. "Aha!" He withdrew the needle, upon whose tip a tiny bubble of bright red blood teetered. "Now for some Smarties, ha ha ha!" Half a dozen tablets were shaken into the palm of his hand and thrown to the back of his mouth. Two gulps of beer to wash them down and the doctor was radiating manic confidence. "Now, show me the victim."

All the while Hans Castorp had lain without motion in his position of supplication.

"You! Get your bloody foot out of the way!"

"Fuck you," said Henry, but withdrew his foot. The doctor either did not hear or chose to ignore the remark and pulled the patient over onto his back.

"Aha, yes. I know this character. One of my own patients probably. Yes, Catsup or something. Can't quite recall the history. Remarkably slow pulse, enough to try the patience of any busy practitioner. Not having the case history in front of me makes it damn difficult to diagnose with certainty. The failure of something, possibly one of the vital organs. Could well be the heart but then again the malnourished appearance, slightly distended abdomen and bilirubinous tinge to the complexion would indicate portal-systemic encephalopathy. Yes, now there can be little doubt left in my mind: frankly, this man is in hepatic coma associated with liver disease. Yes, this man's liver is diseased to the stage where portal-systemic encephalopathy accompanies fulminant acute hepatitis. Undoubtedly. And the aetiology? You may well ask. This coma has been precipitated by frequent and protracted alcoholic debauches."

"Kak! What about the coughing? What about the blood? Everybody looks yellow in this light, even you, Doctor Pork."

"Get back! Get back, you drunken oaf! I'm the doctor here, nobody else. Hepatic coma, I say! Treatment, treatment," and again he foraged in his black bag. A blister pack of torpedo-shaped cylinders was produced and he shouted to the swaying onlookers, "Remove his trousers, can't you. The patient must receive a prostaglandin suppository per rectum."

Willing assistants began to roll the man about, unbuckling his belt, pulling up his shirt, yanking down the trousers and underpants to his ankles, positioning him on his knees and his face.

"Prostaglandin?! But isn't that what backyard abortionists give…?"

"Shut up! What do you know about the pharmacology of modern drugs? I will not have the validity of my diagnosis and treatment questioned by an ignorant layman. Move! You, leave off touching him there. Make room for the procedure."

He had unrolled a condom onto the middle finger of his right hand, squeezed a sachet of KY jelly onto it and now advanced upon his patient. Henry turned to the bar. He did not wish to witness the atrocity. He should leave, get away from these half-people. Next to his empty glass was Hans Castorp's rum and Coke, barely touched. Carefully he decanted it into his own, ensuring that it poured away from where the sick man's lips had touched. Not bad, rum and Coke. He drank it quickly and kicked over his stool before making an exit. The world of Hieronymus Bosch was no doubt amusing to the casual observer but he had no inclination to be painted into it as a minor character.

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