The Life of Henry Fuckit
73 At the Franz Kafferklapper Gebou he tries to draw unemployment benefits
The Franz Kafferklapper Gebou was a grim building. It was designed by the Afrikaans architect Buks van Schalkwyk, who was inspired by no lesser an architectural authority than God. God had said to him, as he knelt in prayer, 'Nou luister fokken mooi, ou Buks. You are an Afrikaner poes with a brain the size of an ertjie and you posses about as much aesthetic sensitivity as a clod of earth like you find in a mielie field after ploughing but before sowing. Verstaan jy? So for fuck's sake don't try anything fancy. Just a tall box, totally square on the outside, with a gat in the middle, also square.' God spoke to him roughly because He knew this to be the only language Van Schalkwyk understood, having been brought up in a patriarchal, authoritarian God-fearing society. He had been raised like a piece of shit by his father and mother and older brothers, he had been educated as if he had been a piece of shit, and had been treated like a piece of shit when he underwent his military training. Now, in his turn, he treated everybody around him like a piece of shit too, and he wouldn't have respected God if God hadn't made him feel like a vars klont egter jakkals kak. 'You got that, Japie? Square,' God said to him. 'And for Christ' sake don't try a pitched roof. No ridges, hips or valleys. I want a concrete roof flat, flat, flat. And on it you put six inches of tar, right? None of this new-fangled stick-on membrane crap. And big fulbore outlets at every corner, hoor? Oh yes, as for the reinforced concrete, I want a ware engineer on the job - none of this boer-maak-n-plan bullshit. It's my name'll be on the plaque - you boeties can't go to the toilet without dedicating it to Allemagtige God - and I don't want any structural fokops. You got that, my pumpkin? Nou roer jou gat, en pas op vir jou balle.'
Six storeys high, it was built with Nederduitse Gereformeerde brown facebricks, the shiny type favoured for the construction of schools, court rooms, railway cottages, public lavatories, and churches. All the windows were identical: tall and narrow, steel-framed and barred, adding to the severity of the general appearance. The first time Henry approached, it was from Buitenkant Street and, to his horror, he found himself passing Caledon Square police station. The routine screaming of those being interrogated, and the thud of a body landing in the courtyard, thoroughly unnerved him. So much so that when he caught sight of the Franz Kafferklapper Gebou he staggered and nearly tripped in the gutter. If he hadn't felt so weak, he would have turned and run.
Twenty-five granite steps led up to the main doors on the second floor. This was the entrance for the public and the non-white staff, and was just one example of how the architect carried out his mandate from the Department of Labour to create a building which would discourage the malingerers, the layabouts and the fraudsters. The risers were far too high and the treads were impossibly narrow. This was a flagrant infringement of the City's building and public safety regulations but was allowed to pass in deference to state department priorities. After all, in accordance with the concept of a Social Contract, the well-being of the State takes precedence over the rights of the individual. The very sight of these steps turned away the faint-hearted. The infirm and the disabled were precluded from gaining entry to the building unless assisted by able-bodied relatives and friends. No hand rails were provided and the elderly arrived at the summit in a state of exhaustion - physical exhaustion after their efforts, nervous exhaustion at the prospect of having to make the hazardous return journey. For the exclusive convenience of white civil servants, an off-the-street side entrance provided access to a foyer with two lifts.
A stretcher was being loaded into the back of an ambulance and Henry glimpsed the form of a middle-aged woman. Her feet protruded from beneath the blanket, revealing the dropsical condition of her ankles and calves. Where she had tumbled and repeatedly cracked her head the blood was still freshly spattered. He drew breath at the top, thought of crossing himself, and then pushed open one of the glass doors which said STOOT.
The previous day he had phoned the Department, explained his situation, and requested payment of benefits to be made by post to 13 Palmerston Road. There had been silence on the other end and then a raucous squawking which he took to be a form of human mirth. Abrupt silence and then: "You will present yourself for registration at the Franz Kafferklapper Gebou, Room 32B." Click.
Room 32B? To his left, stairs ascending, lift doors, stairs descending. To his right, one end of the corridor which ran the three sides of the internal space, the gat, the big square shaft inside the building. Then an expanse of wall with a board displaying room numbers and occupants, floor by floor. And the corridor made its return in the far corner. He took the stairs to the third floor and started along the corridor in search of 32B. To his annoyance he discovered the doors did not follow one upon the other in numerical sequence, and he was obliged to scrutinise each of the small brass disks screwed to the doorheads. It was cold in this corridor. At regular intervals prison cell windows positioned high up let in some meagre light. He was vaguely aware of passing a wooden bench, and then another one, a person at each end of it, languishing in boredom, or was it despair?
As he moved along the corridor a droning sound penetrated his consciousness and he stopped to listen. It began to die away to a rustling sibilance, faltered, and then picked up again. Rapidly it rose in strengthening surges until it was a whooshing roar and the floor vibrated beneath his feet. The crescendo attained its climax, held it, and then fell back, as if exhausted. The fitful drone resumed and Henry proceeded in a state of fearful bewilderment.
(It was this remarkable feature of the Franz Kafferklapper Gebou that had so peeved God when it was first brought to His attention. 'Fokken donner!' He had raged. 'This Dutchman has got to be an idiot prodigy. Un idiot savant, 'n boontjiebreinwondedonder. How did he do it? Subnormal intelligence and this stroke of genius!' In exasperation God smote His forehead with the flat of His right hand. 'How long did it take me to get the natural forces sorted out? How many aeons? How many eras, periods, epochs, ages? I'll tell you how fucking long it took: 4.6 billion years, my mate. 4.6 billion years before I could confidently say that a wind encountering an obstacle would produce a finite number of effects in response to an infinite combination of variables. The eddy, just the simple eddy, a little thing like a swirl to the side of the main flow of air, I only perfected right at the end of the Palaeozoic era. Only 248 million years ago. And resonance! Resonance was a nightmare. Right through the Permian, Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous periods I sweated blood trying to get resonance right. It delayed the onset of the Palaeocene epoch by at least 385 000 years. And then along comes this baboon and, in the space of a few months, not even one year, he designs a building which is capable of harnessing not only both resonance and the eddy, but eolian sound as well. Effortless. Without even thinking about it. A wind can blow from any quarter, a light breeze to a full gale and what occurs? An eddy quickly forms in the lee, pressure drops in the centre of the Gebou and, voila! A perfect vortex swirling and whirling in a gyre. It begins with a humming and droning, the pitch approximating the structure's natural vibration frequency, and develops into the resonating shriek which sends a shudder through the building from top to bottom. And Vetgat van Schalkwyk has never even heard of resonance. As for eolian sound, he thinks it's a type of antipodean fjord! I tell you, when I think about what this boertjie has achieved, per ongeluk, it makes me want to puke.')
32B. He found himself in a large room with thirty men seated on rows of benches. He took his place near the back and looked about.
That was it. No other furnishings. The barred windows were uncurtained and let in a relentless glare. Apart from the one through which he had entered, the room had five doors. One was marked REGISTRATION OF WHITE MALES. WAIT YOUR TURN IN SILENCE.
The men sat in their rows, dejectedly smoking and staring at the floor or the wall ahead, which was blank but for two placards side by side.
Henry waited his turn. For three hours he waited his turn and then went through for registration.
By contrast, this room was in semi-darkness. A profusion of potplants crowded the windows and the light was filtered and crepuscular, as in the depths of a forest. Giant ferns grew in troughs around the walls, creepers hung from the ceiling, leaves brushed his face.
"Come and sit down and answer the questions."
His eyes were adjusting and he was aware of two desks facing each other. Isolated midway between them was a straight-backed chair. He sat facing one man, his back to the other. A lamp snapped on and he flinched at the intensity of 200 watts.
"We now fill in the registration form for unemployed
"UIF card and ID."
"Unemployment card and ID."
Henry handed them over. The man examined them under the lamp, paying close attention to the photograph. There was a long pause.
"How do I know you are who you are? Or rather, how can I satisfy myself that you are, in actual fact, the person you claim to be? This is a serious matter and we cannot issue benefits to just anybody who comes in here and makes a claim."
"But that's my identity document you're holding in your hand. Which I gave you."
"What does that prove?"
"Jesus, it proves that I'm Henry Fuckit."
"You don't seem to understand, my friend. Just because you hand me this Henry Fuckit's ID, do you expect me to believe that it was Henry Fuckit himself who handed it to me? Do you take me for a fool?"
"I didn't say you were a fool. I'm not even insinuating you're a fool. Alright. I give you Henry Fuckit's ID. You look at the photograph, you look at me. Is it a true likeness?"
"A true likeness! Ha, ha, ha. What is a true likeness? What is truth?"
"With a photograph, a true likeness is an accurate visual representation of the person photographed. Truth is elusive of exact description or proof, but it's based on the notion of 'correct description'. It is correct to describe that photograph as an accurate visual representation of me. And Henry Fuckit. One and the same."
"Don't get simplistic with me, pal. You know that I know that we both know truth is entirely subjective. This might be a true likeness to someone who couldn't give a damn about the truth, but to a person insisting upon correspondence between statement and actuality this doesn't look much like you at all. In fact, you look considerably older than this Fuckit in the photograph."
"Fuck it, that's because the photo was taken back in 1969 when I was only nineteen. Time has elapsed and now I'm twenty-six. I've aged."
"Exactly. Quod erat demonstrandum. How could the picture of a nineteen-year-old possibly be a true likeness of a twenty-six-year-old? Answer me that. And anyway, it's abundantly redundant to make any such assertion. Either this is you, or it isn't you. I'm not prepared to deal with a true likeness of the original person; I must have the actual person himself."
"Look, I can't believe this, that you don't understand the accepted methodology employed not only in South Africa but in every other country in the world. Millions and millions and millions of ID's, driver's licenses, passports, permits, you name it, they all depend on the black and white mugshot as the standard means of identifying an individual. I had my photograph taken, I went to a police station and handed it to a uniformed officer of the law. He examined it, ran his raptorial gaze over my physiognomy, re-examined it. Then he said, Are you Henry Fuckit? And I said, Yes. Then he said, Then say after me: I…I. Henry Fuckit…Henry Fuckit. Do hereby swear…Do hereby swear. That…That. I…I. Henry Fuckit…Henry Fuckit. Am…Am. Henry Fuckit. Henry Fuckit. So help me God. So help me God. Then this thug took his tjap, spat on it, smashed it down on the inkpad, smashed it down on the back of my photo, and laboriously signed his stupid name all over it. There we are. Standard procedure all over the world. If you wanted to, you could dismantle my ID and discover this piece of authenticating proof for yourself."
"Dismantle the document? Wilfully damage state property? That is a punishable offence, and the incitement of others to commit such offences is also a crime and subject to a fine, or imprisonment, or both. So you had better not talk about dismantling documents."
"Alright then, don't dismantle the bloody document. What I'm trying to tell you is that, in accordance with international practice, this photograph was certified as a true likeness of me, Henry Fuckit, and to this day bears upon its reverse side an official stamp plus the signature of a duly authorised bearer of public office."
"And what about forgery?"
"Forgery?! Forgery!? The photograph is a fraudulent imitation of life? Is that what you're saying? Are you trying to paraphrase Picasso? Art is a lie which allows us to realise the truth? Is that what you're saying?"
"No, I don't know this Picasso you're talking about. What I'm saying is that I need better evidence that you are who you claim to be. We are living in very dangerous times and the Republic is being attacked from all sides as well as from within. You might even be a communist spy trying to infiltrate the Department of Labour."
"If you won't accept documentary evidence, what will you accept? Must I bring witnesses to vouchsafe for me?"
"What use would that be? Perjury is as rife as forgery these days."
Henry capitulated. The tension went out of his body and he took on the appearance of a ragdoll. His feet slid forward, his legs splayed outwards, his head lolled on his chest and his arms dangled straight down, limp hands loosely appendaged at the wrist. He couldn't argue any more. This clerk was probably just carrying out orders. Make it as difficult as possible to become registered and advance along the path toward receipt of benefits. Protect the Fund from being sucked dry by the workshy parasites, the indolent dregs of society. It was understandable. Or did he sincerely mistrust the effectiveness of photographs, sworn statements, declarations, and the like as tools in separating the genuine from the fake? If so, Henry didn't blame him. Maybe he was something of a metaphysician by inclination, constantly searching for the true nature of reality, forever struggling to sort out the real from the apparent.
"Have you no distinguishing characteristics? No amputations, harelips, humps, that kind of thing?"
"Shit, no. Thank God."
"No cleft palates, no club feet?"
"No flatfeet? A claw-foot, possibly?"
"Extra digits? Not last time I counted. Ten plus ten equals twenty."
"No third foot, additional testicle, anything like that?"
"No, nothing like that."
"An extra rib, maybe?"
"Only the original two dozen."
"How's your neck? You don't appear wry-necked."
"Torticollis? No, no trace of it."
"How about curvature of the spine? No kyphosis, lordosis, or scoliosis?"
"Maybe a bit of temporary kyphosis sometimes, when the world weighs too heavily on my shoulders. Nothing permanent though."
"Look, I'm trying to help you. A distinguishing characteristic would set you apart and make you uniquely Henry Fuckit. Are you quite sure you've got no malformation or deformity. Think hard. No structural defects?"
"Not that I'm aware of, no."
"Quite certain there's no deviation of form from the normal?"
"No. Look I'm just a normal, nondescript, miserable fucker."
"Mmm. Well that's a pity. What about scars? From a major operation. Or stab wounds? We find a lot of that amongst the Coloureds. Have you ever been struck with a machete? Many kaffirs have excellent panga scars."
"Well…no. No scars."
"Then I can't see how we can help you unless…."
"Unless we provide you with a scar ourselves. Nothing serious, really. More of a brand. My colleague used to be a farmer in the Free State and he marked all his own cattle. Hundreds. It would also prove to us that you're serious about not being able to find work. He has the correct instruments."
At the sound of a desk drawer being opened behind him Henry jerked upright in alarm. He had forgotten about the other clerk but now he could feel a pair of eyes boring into the back of his neck.
"No, no! Nothing serious? Imagine the pain. Shit no. It won't be necessary. I've just remembered I might have a scar or two… on my thighs."
"Fantastic. Kobus, get your camera ready."
"That's perfect. Just stay like that but look over your shoulder so we've got your face in the picture. That's it. One more. Right. Distinguishing characteristic: scarred buttocks. Proceed to Room 39 for Final Clearance."
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