The Life of Henry Fuckit
64 He becomes a Verification Officer and converses at length with Ivan Schroder
As part of Stores Administration, the Verification Section occupied an office on the second floor. But Ivan Schroder, Chief Verification Officer, conducted his research and experimental work in a basement situated deep under the Carpenter Shop. Formerly it had been a wood store with access to the sea via a sloping tunnel. In this tunnel the heavy hardwoods had lain curing in brine. Now only minesweepers were constructed from wood and there was no need for a large stockpile of timber, and the space stood empty.
There were four other Verification Officers: Old Tommy, Young Tommy, Mister Snow and Captain White. They were lazy good-for-nothing degenerates whose existence Henry chose to dismiss as irrelevant. Certainly they posed no threat. The desk he was assigned had been the workstation of another degenerate who had quit this world suddenly after a bad bout of multiple organ failure. In the bottom right hand drawer Henry discovered nine empty half-jack gin bottles. Before dumping them in the wastepaper basket he carefully drained their dregs into his coffee. In the bottom left he found some mysterious blood-stained rags. He held them up and his look of revulsion was met with eager jocularity. He was informed that the deceased man had suffered from prolapsed haemorrhoids. The strangulated, unretractable type, you know. Excruciating. Henry let the rags drop, slammed the draw shut and never reopened it.
The Dockyard was a perfectly controlled world - as near to perfection as Man can make. Everything there, everything, had both a number and a description. Nothing was permitted to subtract from or add to this world, and all was as it should be, and all was entirely predictable. It was the task of the Verification Officer to help maintain this state of orderliness by constantly verifying the continued existence of hundreds of thousands of items. Armed with a weighty ledger and swaggering with self-importance, he had the run of the Yard. At any time of the day he was entitled to enter, unannounced, any workshop, store or warehouse, and demand to be shown such and such an item as described in the tome. And if it couldn't be found the entire structure trembled. It HAD to be found. And it always was found, with a little ingenuity and deviousness. Then the item could be ticked off and all involved heaved a sigh of relief. This was Henry's new job, but only part of it.
Harry Bergson had promised him something more stimulating, and a month after joining the Verification team he was summoned to Ivan Schroder's office.
"Are you fond of cats, Mister Fuckit?"
"You mean as a delicacy?" He liked this question. It was wide open. "Or do you mean as a substitute for beef in something like a nice, freshly baked steak and kidney pie?"
"No, no. I'm talking about the domestic cat, Felis catus, kept since ancient Egyptian times as a household member and prized and pampered and petted as both adornment and companion." Schroder was not displeased with Henry's initial response to his question. If one was to discuss something, then one should do it thoroughly. "Anyway, if I had meant it as food I would have said 'cat', and not 'cats'. Are you fond of cat?"
"Quite so. Point taken. Funny you should broach this subject though, for only the other day I bludgeoned a cat to death whilst under the influence of a particularly cold and vicious rage. I suppose that's a measure of the antipathy I feel towards the species. Broke my bloody chair, too. No, Mister Schroder, I can't say I am fond of cats."
"I see. Well that's a good thing. Bodes well. A cat-lover might feel a little squeamish about conducting the experimental work I have in mind."
The Chief Verification Officer occupied a small room on the shady south side of the building, facing away from the yard. Beyond the perimeter wall and a line of gum trees the hillside rose steeply to meet the base of Simonsberg, and on days like this, when the cloud was low, the mountain loomed close and seemed overbearing. This was a very different aspect to the one Henry was used to and he idly wondered whether one's thought processes were significantly affected by the view. On the wall behind Schroder was a framed certificate from Charlatan College conferring on Ivan O. Schroder a Master's degree in nuclear physics. On the back of the door hung an academic gown, and on the wall behind Henry a bookcase bore the weight of some astonishingly varied reading matter.
Ivan Schroder was a tall, fit looking man in his mid forties. His long, dark, almost black hair was worn off the forehead in a brylcreamed profusion of finger-raked strands. His clean-shaven face was elongated and rectangular, as were his incisors, which gleamed white and demanded the viewer's attention. Equine, definitely equine, Henry thought. Half expect him to tip his head back, flair his nostrils, roll his eyes, and whinny. And Henry had already spotted a distinguishing mannerism: the sudden loud laugh. It was always unexpected and jarring, acting as a precursor to its own explanation. Most people laugh AFTER something has occurred. Not Schroder. He laughed, thought of something funny, then verbalised it. Could be damned irritating.
"On the other hand," he continued, "I hope this dislike for cats isn't pathological." He paused, then laughed suddenly and loudly, causing Henry to jump.
"Fuck it, man, I wish you wouldn't do that. What's so funny?"
"It wouldn't do to have you going about thumping all our laboratory specimens over the head, now would it?"
"Humph! Don't imagine I'm some kind of psychopath. I'm not given to violent outbursts." He looked thoughtful, almost melancholy. "Took me by surprise, actually. Most unlike me. Strange, no remorse though."
"You'd probably had a bad day or something." Schroder was vaguely sympathetic. "You could have had something on your mind troubling you. A build-up of frustration maybe, waiting to boil over. You're not married, are you? Could have been something like pre-menstrual tension. You know, the male equivalent."
Henry regarded him suspiciously. A bit of a wiseacre? Bit of an oddball, for sure. He chose to ignore the remarks.
"I suppose it serves to further confirm an impression I've had of late that I don't really know much about myself. I'm twenty-five years of age and yet sometimes when I look in the mirror it's as if I'm seeing a stranger there. How much do I understand myself? What am I capable of? Does one really get to know oneself?"
"Know oneself?" Schroder felt something funny coming his way but managed to stifle another loud and sudden laugh by placing his left hand over his mouth. "All the holy men in history have spent their lives trying to get to know themselves, and here you are, an intemperate nonentity skulking in a dark corner of nowhere, worrying about not knowing yourself at twenty-five. You're familiar with the famous last words attributed to Jesus Christ on the cross?"
'Famous last words' was one of those phrases which Henry found irresistible, regardless of circumstances.
"'Oh Allah! Pardon my sins. Yes, I come.' No? Silly me, It couldn't have been. That was Mohammed, peace be upon him. And it couldn't have been 'Is that you Dora?' Because I'm pretty sure that was croaked by one of the great poets. And it certainly wasn't 'Kiss me, Hardy.' Ha, ha, ha. No, It was something like 'Let down the curtain, the farce is over.' But it wasn't, because it was Rabelais who came out with that one."
"Most amusing, Mr Fuckit. But to get back to Jesus, it's quite clear from his final question that even HE was afflicted with self-doubt. He too must have been surprised at himself after all that build-up!"
"Yes, I see what you mean. I'm not alone. It should be a comfort to know I'm in such illustrious company. But I'm afraid it doesn't really do anything to settle this growing unease that I feel. It's a kind of whimpering inside me."
He fell silent and Schroder waited patiently, sensing the young man's need to ameliorate his anguish by describing it from every angle. Henry, however, was hesitating before launching into a lengthy monologue. He was mindful of the exasperation he had detected in Harry Bergson's voice the last time they had spoken. "Henry," he had said, ushering him from the office, "there's nothing I can do to help this internal whimpering, whining and winging of yours. I've told you a hundred times what I think: you are in need of spiritual revitalisation. It could happen tomorrow, or it might be years before you experience an awakening. In the meantime I must get on with the task of tracking down the central source of Oxyastonishing energy flows." That had been more than three weeks ago. He decided to spare the Chief VO a conducted tour of his tortured soul.
"The whimpering inside me," he continued, "Is probably the result of mental and physical, not to mention emotional, exhaustion caused by overwork. I repeat: OVERWORK. That unrelenting tyrant, Alf Whitehead, is to blame for my condition. It's a good job I insisted on a transfer from Central Store to Verification. Otherwise I dread to think what would have become of me. A complete breakdown culminating in suicide, probably."
It was common knowledge in the Dockyard that Alf Whitehead had threatened to shoot himself if Henry Fuckit were to return to Central Store after his expedition to South West Africa. He had also made it clear that before shooting himself he would first shoot Fuckit.
"Yes, that man's a total maniac. Completely off his rocker. And a brain the size of a pea."
Ivan Schroder could be relied on as the staunchest of allies in any verbal attack on the said Whitehead. It was Schroder who had been assistant to A. W. before Henry took up the post five years ago, and the two men had rowed bitterly over the interpretation of time. Schroder had been forced out on the assertion that the Morgan's Pomade with which he plastered his greying hair was causing the Senior Stores Officer to come out in an allergic reaction. Instant anaphylaxis at the faintest whiff of Morgan's Pomade. Agitation, flushing, heart palpitations, tingling, prickling, itching, a throbbing in the ears, coughing, sneezing and wheezing. All at the same time. It suddenly occurred to Henry that the man sitting opposite him had just raked his fingers through a dark head of hair entirely devoid of grey. Funny it had never struck him before. Five years ago he was greying. There were three possible explanations. Had Morgan's Pomade lived up to the extravagant claims on the bottle? Had the ageing effect of constant attrition been the root cause of depigmentation, and had the removal of the cause allowed for rejuvenation? No. It was more likely the man was dyeing his hair black. Huh! The long hair raked back off the forehead. The Brylcream. Must be a potent streak of vanity in him. Henry was entertaining some doubts concerning this man. Could signify a sexual perversion, this. Probably indulges in a bit of sodomy in his spare time. Hairless young fellows with narrow hips and tight balls. Or flagellation? Henry summoned up a vision of a woman in boots and military helmet wielding a long whip.
"Mister Fuckit? Mister Fuckit! You seem distracted."
"Ahh, yes. Yes, quite so. As I was saying, or rather, as you were saying, brain the size of a pea. Mmm. Yes, I'm quite prepared to assist you in your important research which involves quantum mechanics, as I understand it, as well as some squeamish business with cats. Sounds most intriguing. And it'll be a relief to get away from those degenerate colleagues of mine. As long as the work isn't too demanding. Please bear in mind the fragility of my constitution."
"Don't worry. Although this research work will one day result in a profound shift in the way the international scientific and philosophical communities view their separate disclipines, it could hardly be called burdensome work. It's the ideas which we are concerned with, not the physical work expended in attempting to illustrate the veracity of our suppositions. Do I make myself clear? If it's a good idea it will stand on its own two feet anyway, without having to be propped up by volumes and volumes of explanation, hypothetical conjecture, experimental shenanigans, spurious conclusions and co-masturbatory congratulations. Ninety-nine percent of our work can be accomplished whilst reclining in a comfortable armchair. Once the concept has been formulated it is up to the acolytes to pounce, seize the idea, bear it on high, and proceed with the sedulous labour. They must explain, proclaim, and disseminate. That's the thankless work. We don't have to have anything to do with that."
Henry nodded his head thoughtfully. The man's enthusiasm was infectious. And he found the 'comfortable armchair' analogy most alluring. In the past month he had not been required to over-extend himself. He was prepared to concede this, cautiously. It had been a month of orientation mostly, and he had only verified one item in the course of the four weeks. He had chosen the item carefully after perusing many a ledger and after much deliberation. The foreman of the Heavy Plate Shop had led the way to the centre of the workshop, raised his eyes to the steel roof trusses high above them and pointed with a theatrical gesture reminiscent of the one employed by Cecil John Rhodes when designating which corner of Southern Africa should be plundered next.
"There she is," he had declared with pride. "Crane - gantry type - complete with 25 ton hoisting mechanism - 2 synchronised electric motors for self-propulsion - 2 by 120 metre steel tracks. As per the description in the inventory." Henry had viewed the towering machine from different angles and then called for a welder's chipping hammer. In due course the hammer was placed in his hand and he tapped one of the steel uprights, listening attentively.
"Alright. No evidence of fatamorganic distortion or unauthorised metallurgical debasement." And he had handed back the tool, noting with satisfaction the open-mouthed bafflement on the faces around him. Then he had required the foreman to climb the service ladder and call out the number stencilled on the winch housing. Fortunately for the foreman this number tallied with the one in the ledger and Henry was able to pencil a tick next to the entry. All present sighed with relief. The gantry crane had not been stolen, mislaid, lost or destroyed. Back in the Verification Office he had poured himself a coffee cup of Vrotters, lit his pipe and put his feet on the desk, content with a job well done. And that was enough for the first month.
"So you're at loggerheads with the other chaps in the team, are you? That's unfortunate." Schroder felt it his duty to familiarise himself with what was going on in the Verification Office, even though his real interest lay in quantum mechanics and an entirely different type of verification.
"Well, no, not exactly. Can't say I'm at loggerheads with them. It's just that we don't seem to have anything in common. Their interests are so commonplace, their opinions so bigoted and inconsequential, their emotions so shallow and inappropriate, that I view their behaviour as childish to a degree verging on the infantile." And to illustrate his point Henry described an incident which had occurred on the previous Friday.
The last two hours of the day, from afternoon tea until the final siren, were regarded as playtime in the Verification Office, especially on a Friday. Noughts and Crosses, Battleships, Hangman, Matches, Rock-Paper-Scissors - any game which could be played at one's workstation without detection in the event of a surprise inspection by Commodore van der Rektum of the Productivity and Diligence Branch. And in addition to games there were pranks, which were more dangerous.
One of the stock tricks played by Young Tommy was to leave the room and, from an adjoining office, phone Old Tommy. When Old Tommy picked up the phone and said "Verification Office," a voice would say something like "Wake up, you old cunt." Or, "This is your Captain speaking. Gaan kak in die mielies!" Old Tommy never failed to be irritated and the other degenerates always fell about laughing.
On the Friday afternoon Henry was referring to, the phone rang just after three o' clock. Young Tommy was out of the room. Old Tommy snatched up the instrument, shouted "Go pull your wire!" and slammed it down. A minute later hurried footsteps were heard in the corridor. They all jerked into working stances, pulling ledgers over dirty magazines and games they were busy with. (Henry had been reading Ludwig Wittgenstein's 'Philosophical Investigations', and finding them as dull as ditchwater.) The door burst open and Commodore van der Rektum stood glaring from one miscreant to the next. He had worked himself into a rage and was spitting venom - BAIE GIFTIG. He demanded to know who had answered the phone. Fortunately, Captain White had the presence of mind to take charge and declared that he had put down the receiver just as Sir opened the door. (Captain White was the ex-skipper of an ill-fated fishing trawler which had sunk under mysterious circumstances whilst trying to enter Durban Harbour shortly after rounding Cape Point. Damn Admiralty charts!)
"A spot of trouble down at the Machine Shop you know, Sir. The foreman was having difficulty in accounting for two items without numbers on them. All in order now though, Sir, thank you."
The wind was taken out of the sails of the vessel of vengeance. The Commodore spluttered ineffectually as the implication sank in: he must have had the wrong number. His bloodshot eyes seemed to be smouldering and his fists clenched spasmodically.
Again the telephone began to ring. He lunged for it, placed it against his ear and heard a loud and cheery voice say "This is the Admiral here. Pull your finger out, cocksucker!"
When Henry reached this climactic point in his relating of the incident Ivan Schroder threw back his head and brayed like a donkey. For a moment every tooth in his upper jaw was clearly displayed, as if inviting orthodontic examination.
"You know, two months ago I too would have been incontinent with laughter at this buffoonery." Henry shook his head ruefully. "But I seem to be losing my sense of humour, and it worries me. Instead of laughing at the idiotic antics of my colleagues I gasp in fear. The future is beginning to terrify me. I ask myself, Is this what I have to look forward, to day in and day out, year after year? Is this all there is? I try to tell myself that this is merely an interlude and my life will change and become charged with meaning and interest. But I know I'm lying. Apart from the odd extraneous detail nothing will alter. This is the pattern, to be repeated over and over." He slumped forward on the desk, head on hands, a picture of dejection.
"Haw-haw, ho-haw!" Schroder's sudden loud laugh was quite different to his donkey mirth. That was "Hee-haw-haw, hee-haw-haw-haw!" Henry flinched and raised his head.
"For Christ' sake. Now what?"
"Sorry, but you look just like the poor bugger in one of Francisco Goya's Los Caprichos aquatints. Maybe you know it. Number 43. The Sleep of Reason."
Henry sat up. "La fantasia abandonada de la razon, produce monstruos impossibles. Do I know it, you ask me. My mate, all eighty of them are engraved upon my imagination. They have been catalogued and neatly stored in the archives of my memory, awaiting effortless retrieval at the twitch of a nerve. Certainly I know it, and it does indeed seem rather apposite right at the moment." He already looked brighter, and as the moments passed he became increasingly animated and cheerful. It was as if the mention of Goya's drawing had acted as a catalyst in his brain, causing a large quantity of neurotransmitter to be released. Now his head was abuzz with fusillades and barrages of synaptic firing, and he was suffused with a feeling of alertness and euphoria. This was better than amphetamines. Who needs Benzedrine when there's Goya?
"Yes," Schroder was looking at Henry with guarded interest. This fellow might turn out to be more of a hindrance than a help if his better qualities couldn't be harnessed. " ' Imagination abandoned by reason produces impossible monsters.' The weird owl-bats and that huge cat. I suppose it's a cat. But imagination allied with reason is the source of great wonders. I think we might have stumbled upon something here, young Fuckit. A rampant imagination, undirected and undisclipined, might be what you're suffering from."
"You think so, do you?" Henry was quite prepared to discuss his malaise and its origins. "You might be right, Sigmund. I must admit to spending much of my life in a world of fantasy. I always have, as far back as I can remember. It's probably the reason why I'm such a misfit in the real world where one is required to 'work for a living'. I can see from your general demeanour that you're about to make a recommendation. How do you suggest I get my imagination under control? Has it anything to do with quantum mechanics?"
Schroder grinned toothily and admitted his thoughts were camped in that area. But he needed more time to formulate his ideas.
"Anyway," he said, "it's already Thursday and there's no point in starting something so important right at the end of a week." He rose to his feet and Henry reluctantly followed his example. "Have a nice restful weekend and we can start fresh on Monday".
As he made his way back to the Verification Office he could feel the exuberance, burning fiercely only a few minutes ago, beginning to gutter and die down. He resolved to take the train to Cape Town on Saturday morning and visit the art library. He was in need of stimulation.
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