The Life of Henry Fuckit
74 Ordeal by libation
The corridor was deserted. A sign was attached to the door of Room 39.
God, now what? He knocked on the door and listened. A voice shouted an angry response.
"Keep back! Don't knock on the door. Wait until you are called. Imbecile!"
It was a woman's voice. He wondered if he should take this as a good sign. Maybe a woman would be more sympathetic, more understanding and less uncompromising. Libation? He sat down on the bench opposite the door and waited, as per instruction. The thrumming in the windtrap was increasing. He felt the change of pressure in his ears and heard the growl build to a rumbling roar. Then, with screams and a thunder of hooves the Valkyries came swooping down. Round and round they careered with ever-increasing velocity until the whole building quaked, and then they were off, spiralling up on the centrifuge and bearing away the souls of unemployed white males. Oi, yoi, yoi, this was proving to be a hellish experience. But it was the course he had chosen and he must follow wherever it led. That was his life's resolve: follow unto the grave. Why had the wind made him think of the Valkyries, he idly wondered. He remembered the delicious terror of his childhood as he listened to his Uncle Fritz recounting the horrific events of Norse mythology. Blood-curdling, hair-raising, spine-chilling, all at once. One of his favourite images had been of Odin's bare-breasted hand maidens mounted on swift horses, swords drawn, blonde hair flying as they rushed down upon the battlefield to select those who were destined for death. How exhilarating! This was the kind of fantasy which inspired Richard Wagner, no less. As well as many a raving psychopath too. And what about that goulish scene in Valhalla? Being waited upon by the demented females, being served with mead and ale in the skulls of the vanquished. Ahh. Wouldn't mind a skull of Vrotters right now. Or better still, a good shot of Old Brown Brandy. But why Norse mythology here in Africa? What a scandalous pity it was that he had no store of African imagery. He didn't despise the European material per se; what he resented was the absence from his psyche of an equivalent cast of characters and creatures set right here, on this benighted continent. How much richer he would have been! His imagination would have been grossly engorged, his subconscious squirming and writhing. His dreams would have been uproariously psychedelic, his nightmares disembowelling, and his reveries as dulcifluous as the gentle drift of smoke from an opium pipe. Oh the arrogance of the detestable Colonialists! The vicious stupidity of the racist….
The door opened. An emaciated man with sparse grey hair emerged. Distraught, unquestionably distraught. His eyes were desperately bright, like those of an animal on the point of being butchered. He was clutching his throat and croaking 'No, I can't. No, I can't do it. No I can't. I can't, I can't, I can't.' He staggered off into the gloom.
"Come." Had he heard right? Had she called out? His pulse rate had accelerated to a fast canter. "Come in! Come in, I said, damn you!"
Henry jumped to his feet, opened the door, stepped inside the room. Ye Gods! Alberich the hideous gnome! The one who stole the gold. Well, not quite. Not exactly hideous. And certainly not a woman. This was the first midget he had clapped eyes on in many a year. Couldn't be more than three foot six.
Surprise had stopped Henry in his tracks. The Final Clearance Officer was seated behind his desk on a chair with an unusually high back, which gave it the appearance of a throne. The office was otherwise unfurnished, except for a coir mat placed in the centre of the room facing the desk. Black lettering was worked into the brown bristles to display a simple message:
"Stop!" Henry stopped.
"Close your mouth!"
Henry closed his mouth. He had forgotten to shut it after it had fallen open.
"Advance! Halt! On the mat!"
Henry wondered whether he should stand to attention. He decided it would be more appropriate to stand at ease, hands behind his back. With voyeuristic enthusiasm he was examining this perfect example of dwarfism. It wasn't just a matter of scale. It was much more complex than that. The proportions were all different. The doll-like head was too large, the tiny feet dangled high above the floor. A barrel of a chest, strong shoulders and upper arms but stunted forearms. Blunt little fingers on the hands of a monkey. Incongruously bulky thighs above short and spindly lower legs. He was almost entirely bald. Button eyes behind centimetre-thick lenses. A pug-nose and low-hung ears.
He regarded Henry with the steady intensity of an adder about to strike a mesmerised rodent. Did he have a forked tongue? The rodent stood on the mat, frozen, waiting his fate and watching the predator. A nice piece of cloth, that suit. And the tie looks like silk. A neat Windsor knot too, just like Uncle Septimus used to wear. And gold cufflinks! Was this the indomitable human spirit, or pathetic vanity? God, but we've got to be the weirdest creatures ever to have slunk across the face of this planet.
"This is not a charitable organisation. Do you understand that?" And this was not a normal, full voice, just pitched very high. No, this was less expressive than a normal voice. It was colourless and thin like a falsetto, or a castrato.
"I know you. Don't think I don't know you. You walked through that door and I knew you straight away, immediately. Immediately I said to myself This is just another spineless worm come crawling in here. Do I make myself clear?"
"Well…Yes. I suppose you do. You don't seem to like the look of me one little bit."
"It's written all over you, plain for anyone to see."
"Oh? And what is that? I mean, apart from my worm-like appearance? You must be referring to aspects of my character which you have recognised on first acquaintance and taken an immediate dislike to. You obviously value first impressions."
"First impressions never lie. Never, never, never. I took one look at you and I thought, scum. Indolent scum. The looseness of your mouth told me of your sensuality, your self-indulgence and your overindulgence. I said to myself That is the mouth of a man without morals. That is the mouth of a drunkard capable of all forms of sexual depravity. That is what your mouth told me. And the way you walked, the way you stand there now, the set of your shoulders, the little movements of your head, even the shape of your head, these things tell me a lot. They tell me you're forever playing games, you're an actor, and actors are fundamentally dishonest, unable to discern between fact and fiction. It's quite clear to me you're a compulsive bloody liar, naturally adroit at concocting bullshit stories to suit whatever situation you find yourself in. Your general appearance, the way you dress, your hair, your beard, your slovenliness, these all get together and shout at me. They shout with one voice: This man has no self-respect, disregards the norms of decent society, and is lazier than the laziest kaffir-boy lying under a tree when he's supposed to be working. Yes. But worst of all is what your eyes tell me. The bold insolence in your eyes does not try to conceal what is in your heart. Your eyes tell me quite plainly what you are, to the depths of your soul. You are a coward! Do you hear me? A COWARD!"
"Well, shit, look you might be partly right but I never…"
"Shut up with your kak! I am talking. I know what I'm talking about. You are scared of life. Deep inside you you are cringing in unseemly fear, unable to find the courage to face yourself and your fate. I look into your eyes, I see a craven dog, and I am disgusted. I want to take my gun and shoot that brak stone dead. But no, that's the easy way out. That's not an option. There are only two options. One choice."
"Two choices? One option?"
"No, you bloody mampara! Two options, one choice. The options are either you stay cowering in your filthy little corner the rest of your life, and in that case you can get yourself out of here right now and never set foot in the Franz Kafferklapper Gebou again, or you can step forward and bravely accept the challenge we all face and must eventually confront, even if only on our deathbed."
"Challenge? Er, this challenge you're talking about. What kind of challenge might that be?"
"The challenge to be who you are, no matter how disappointing, how pathetic that person might seem. For some it is laughably easy. For others it is impossibly difficult. I know what I'm talking about."
For some reason Henry felt a little embarrassed. There was no trace of self-pity in what the official had just said, yet there could be no doubt about what was implied. No, not embarrassed. Ashamed?
"Alright. Put like that I have no problem in making a decision. I hold my head high and declare myself willing to accept the challenge. Now what?"
A malicious sneer offered Henry his first sight of the man's teeth, which were higgledy-piggledy like tombstones in a forsaken graveyard.
"Very well. So be it. But what are words? Words mean nothing. Words flow from your lips as easily as water from a tap. The Department of Labour puts no store in words, especially the words of the unemployed. That is why we have devised this test. If you are sincere about not being able to find work, and are in truly desperate financial straits, and are ready to accept the realities of existence with humility and resignation, then you will pass the test. If not, you will fail. Are you ready?"
The Final Clearance Officer leaned forward, picked up a ruler, and used it to push a large tin mug from the centre of the desk to the edge.
"Drop your trousers."
The blood drained from Henry's face with an audible gurgle. Christ! Christ, Christ, Christ! His breathing became rapid and shallow, and a cataplectic reflex threatened to buckle his legs at the knees.
"I can assure you I…Every possible avenue…Through no fault of…The ruinous circumstances I find…There can be no possible reason to…Surely there…I…" His incoherent stammering ceased. The official's face was impassive, his gaze cold and unwavering. Henry's trembling hands fumbled with his belt, his fly, the trousers fell in a heap about his ankles. What a terrible fool he felt standing there like that. What if someone were to come in?
He almost succumbed to the impulse to pull up his pants and run from the room, rush headlong down the corridor, take the stairs two at a time, bolt out into the open and never stop until he was safely locked behind the door of No. 13 Palmerston Road. And then what?
The underpants joined the trousers and he stood there, his face burning with shame, his eyes smouldering with hatred. Why were these bastards humiliating him like this? What right did they have? With his ruler the official pointed to the mug.
The mug was warm to the touch.
"There's still some…"
"Throw it away. Out the window."
He shuffled awkwardly like a man in leg-irons, poured out the contents, shuffled back, the buckle of his belt knocking and dragging on the floor. On the mat in front of his inquisitor he filled the mug with a rattle and a hiss. His hands were wet.
By this stage Henry Fuckit's mind was becoming numb. Some sort of defence mechanism was dulling his senses. He stared at the mug in his shaking hand and slowly began to raise it.
"Consider the beaded bubbles winking at the brim." Was there a trace of compassion in the shrill voice? "Think of it as a beaker full of the warm South, a draught of vintage."
He held his breath, put the mug to his lips, closed his eyes. How could he do it? No. He couldn't do it. He wouldn't. He began to lower the mug, opened his eyes, took breath.
"Beer! Imagine it's beer. I'm sure you like beer. What's your preference? Carling Black Label? Lion? Castle? Slake your thirst with a Castle lager. That's it."
Again Henry raised the mug to his lips, held his breath, closed his eyes. He couldn't do it. No, he couldn't do….
"Castle lager, man! This is the taste that's stood the test of time. Come on, have a drink. Your favourite beer. Just how you like it, somewhat dry, somewhat bitter, never sweet."
Henry took a mouthful. How could he drink it? His cheeks were bulging fit to burst. He felt his stomach beginning to turn in revolt.
"Swallow, swallow! It's lovely beer. Gesund! Cheers! Down the hatch!" The little man was shouting with excitement, bouncing up and down on his chair, his eyes fixed on the mouth of the unfortunate unemployed white male.
Henry gulped twice, put the mug on the desk, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, grimaced in disgust and belched.
"There. Not so bad, was it?" The Final Clearance Officer was regaining his composure. He adjusted his tie and his cuffs and his spectacles. "That will do. You have survived the ordeal. Present yourself at the Pay Hall next Monday at dawn."
As Henry was about to close the door behind him, the little man cleared his throat. Henry put his head inside.
"You haven't thanked me. But no matter; just remember one thing: no pain, no gain. No pain, no gain."
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