From The Life of Henry Fuckit, 1950-2015
by Ian Martin
In the morning he awoke early and by six o’clock was splashing water on his face and admiring in the mirror the ravages of time. Then a long hot shower and careful examination of his organ for signs of disease – no chancres, pustules, blisters or purulent discharge – it was probably too soon, anyway. He dressed in the change of clothes he had brought with him, packed his belongings as well as some of the hotel’s, and went to the dining room for breakfast.
Again he ate heartily, and before setting up and checking out he experienced an excellent bowel movement that left him feeling buoyant and optimistic. With light step, as if earth and its trammels had little power to restrain him, he set forth in search of Frau Klee.
Miraculously, the mist had dissipated and the sun was shining from a desolate sky of the palest blue, bathing the houses and the brown land in brittle light. He caught sight of the sea and it was a cold bottle green turning to dull, dustbin black further out. The type of sea to make you thankful not to be floating on it, he thought. This is a bleak part of the world, that’s for sure. He spoke to a man getting into his car and asked for directions, but drew a look of total vacuity. Nietzsche Strasse? Nietzsche. Nietzsche? Repeatedly shaking his head he closed the door and drove off. Fuck it, they only LIVE here. Can’t expect him to know the names of the STREETS. Half-witted kraut. He continued downhill.
The coffee shop loomed up and he opened the door to the tinkle of a small but very sharp bell and was immediately accosted, or maybe welcomed, by the manageress, a severe woman in black skirt to calf, white long sleeved blouse with frilly lace bib fastened high at the throat with a brooch of large proportion – sodalite set in silver, a bright blue oval as vivid as washing blue. She looked at him enquiringly.
“Good morning. Could you please direct me to Nietzsche Street?”
“Nietzsche? Nietzsche?” Jesus, here we go again. She pronounced it strangely, like it was some hybrid fruit: a cross between a litchi, a banana and a naartjie.
“Yes. You know, Nietzsche, as in Thus spake Zarathustra? God is dead? Syphilitic insanity? No? Hegel, Kant, Schopenhauer? Nietzsche. Friedrich Nietzsche. Jislaaaik!”
“Ah! NIETZSCHE.” The light of understanding radiated from her eyes and face as if a minor nuclear explosion had taken place within the confines of her cranial vault. She happily explained, even accompanying him onto the pavement to indicate at which building he must turn left. He thanked her and proceeded on his way, lamenting the obvious – his German pronunciation lacked authenticity. Bloody Goon Show! His grasp of the language was based on the teachings of Milligan and Sellars, and, of course, his dear uncle Fritz. And war comics. Okay, left into Wagner and left again.
Nietzsche Strasse was a narrow street leading steeply upwards, with two and three storey houses stacked against the hillside in tiers. A delivery boy closed a gate behind him and mounted his bicycle.
“Ek sê. Môre. Weet jy waar’s Frau Klee se huis?”
“Ja, daaarsô. Nommer elf.”
It was a big, rambling sort of place, somewhat dilapidated but comfortable looking. He climbed brick steps to the porch and rapped with the knocker. The brasswork was clean, if not gleaming. With this climate brass must need polishing every second day. Presently the door was opened by a pretty coloured woman in maid’s uniform.
She giggled. “Frau Klee is nie hier nie. Sy kom twaalfuur terug.” Damn! That meant he couldn’t have a beer for another three or four hours. Too bad. He told the girl he would return.
At the library there was no single volume of the Four Quartets, nor even a Collected Poems, but in Norton’s Anthology he found The Dry Salvages complete, as well as the whole of The Waste Land, and a few other poems. Sitting in a comfortable easy chair near a window with a view across the bay he slowly partook of the balmy stuff, letting the images and ideas float and settle, sink, before he moved on for more. The librarian was an elderly grey-haired woman who seemed adequately educated and with a genuine interest in books, which one would have thought were prerequisites for such a person, but Henry had learnt to be wary of the breed. Too often he had been searched, rudely shaken awake, or treated like a vagrant and asked to move along. He was hopeful that this woman could recognise a scholar when she laid eyes on one and would leave him strictly alone. He was a scholar studying the human condition. It wasn’t necessary to be a professor of Philosophy, or an artist, or poet, or priest, in order to devote one’s life to the examination of this most fascinating condition. Sufficiency, again. I don’t need to achieve anything. It is sufficient to examine my condition. And, according to Eliot, by examining the condition of others, learn more about my own. “We appreciate this better in the agony of others, nearly experienced, involving ourselves, than in our own.” Agony and happiness. What I like about Eliot is the way I discover more, each time I come back to him. These pictures of the sea, the granite, the wind, the fog and the desert are right here. Luderitz – the physical landscape for Mr Eliot’s major work. Yes, happiness and agony have an essence which he attempts to discover and fix, in time present, past, future, drifting in and out, this way and that, half hidden by the fog, half found in the shrubbery, vagueness upon vagueness, an essence without certainty, only guessed at, esoteric and mystical, of practically fuck-all use to the sober mind, yearned for and wept over in the sweet maudlin moments, intangible and evanescent. All these layered images. Are they being peeled away or plastered on? Are we any nearer the essence? IS there an essence? This is too much like religion. I like TS no end. But let’s not lose sight of the fact that before he reached forty he had thrown in the towel and become a raving Christian. What did Camus say? About dying unreconciled? I wonder if they’ve got any Camus here. Highly unlikely.
He looked out at the green sea, ruffled but less agitated than yesterday’s stormy surface, now the wind had dropped. Hostility had given way to sullenness. Did this sea ever look inviting? Maybe in summer. He remembered a description drawn by the storeman in the Sail Shop. He had been waxing lyrical, and apocryphal, no doubt, about a time fishing off the South West coast, when the sea was flat and blue, and had then turned to silver as far as the eye could see as porpoises and dolphin began to drive the great shoals of fish. Hard to imagine it when confronted by this blank green.
Then, almost casually, there crossed before his mind’s eye the dapper figure of Mr Harry Bergson, Director of Stores, Simonstown Naval Dockyard. Damned intruder. Was he supposed to feel a twinge of guilt? Was Bergson trying to give him a nudge in the conscience? With a wry smile he was obliged to admit that for quite some time he had not given a thought to Oxyastonishing telepathy and the quest for ducts, vents and conduits. Yes, he wasn’t a tourist on holiday and, yes, he was being paid by the State to recuperate from a debilitating psychiatric disorder – on Bergson’s condition, that is, that he investigate the Namibian theory at the same time. Alright, alright. If there was anything to discover then he would discover it, and without the excessive excretion of water vapour through the pores of the skin.
It was past eleven-thirty. A beer and a pipe would have been welcome. But a man must exercise self-restraint, for no decent landlady would let out a room to a stranger reeking of booze. Suddenly he felt nervous. What would she be like? Frau Klee: the name evoked a large stern figure, grey hair in a bun, hard penetrating eyes behind spectacles, scrutinising him with deepening suspicion, asking him difficult questions, questions that would trap him into saying something disastrous.
At twelve he rose and replaced the book on its shelf and slowly made his way to number eleven Nietzsche Strasse. The sun was pleasantly warm and the air fresh with the faint smells of dust and brine. The dust of the desert and the brine of the sea – they ran into each other and there was no transition. Probably it was the absence of vegetation that made the change from land to sea so startling.
The door was opened by a slender girl of about seven or eight, bright eyes full of surprise. Over her fair head he glimpsed a boy, a couple of years younger, darker and sturdier. The girl gave a little shriek and pushed the door almost closed and there was a scurrying and giggling. “Mummy, Mummy! A man! There’s a man!” A woman’s voice called to them and then quick footsteps and the door was pulled wide. The shock of recognition threw him into utter confusion. For a second or two his mind seized and he couldn’t place her and it was in the brief moment that the slow clang of the bell sounded within the depths. Again that damnable familiarity.
She was looking at him, enquiringly, slightly puzzled. Now he remembered: the curator’s assistant at the museum.
“Er, Mrs Klee?” She nodded. “I – I understand you have… Er, er, I’m looking for a room, you know, um, accommodation. Do you…?”
“Yes, that’s right. We let out a room on a weekly basis. It’s like a granny flat, really, very small but self-contained. Would you like to see it? I’ll get the key.” Her accent was educated South African English and the children spoke English. Married to a Kraut. Kids are probably bilingual, speak English with the mother and German with the father. Thirty, mid-thirties? Attractive, for sure. Nice eyes, nice hair, nice…
“The entrance is round the side.” She had returned with the key and she and the children led the way down the steps, up a path to the corner of the house and then up an outside staircase to a porch that faced inland to the desert. She unlocked the door and entered the room, opening the curtains to let in the midday light. It was bigger than he had expected, with two beds and two easy chairs, a pine table with two chairs and a kitchenette in the alcove. Sink and two-plate stove and even a small caravan fridge. And a bathroom with shower, basin and toilet.
“This is perfect. May I take it for a week? And maybe for another week after that?”
The arrangement was concluded, he paid her the rent and took possession of the keys. The maid would come in every second day to clean. What more could he wish for? As they left the room she passed close to him and he smelt her perfume and sensed her femininity and saw the outline of her breasts. There was a stirring in his underpants and if she had bothered to notice she would have seen a fullness about his crotch rivalling that of many an aspiring matador.
At Kapp’s he ordered a celebratory drink and lit his pipe. To Henry Fuckit, Wanderer. The life of Henry Fuckit, Assistant Stores Officer, dwindled in space and time. This was the fourth day of his journey and yet it seemed that Cape Town was now the other side of the world and his life there a distant memory already remote and blurring at the edges. What a worthless existence if, after four days, he felt there was nothing to remember of… how long? Two years? Three? Five? How long HAD he been at the Dockyard? It didn’t matter except that in two weeks he would have to return. Unless something totally unexpected were to happen. The unpredictability of the future filled him with foolish hope and recklessly he began to dream of miracles. Anything was possible and if he remained open and alert an opportunity to change course might well present itself. The town, the harbour, the desert – all held the potential of the unknown. And if nothing happened, so what? He liked the feel of this place, and if after two weeks he had had no success in his search for the missing ducts he would merely turn around and head back. It was acceptable to suspect the present, but of no use at all to fear the future. The ideal state was to be found in a happy absence of mind. Which he was now enjoying.
The barman ungraciously produced pen and paper and he began to make up a shopping list. There was bound to be a continental bakery, so he would eat fresh rye bread or rolls each day. Butter, coffee, milk, cheese. A packet of Provita biscuits. Canned food: baked beans and viennas, spaghetti and meatballs, sardines. And breakfast? Weetbix and fresh fruit. Very nice, a well balanced diet. And now for alcoholic refreshment. Brandy, yes. Coke, yes. Sherry or port, yes. Stout for cold, foggy evenings, yes.
The afternoon wind and fog had returned and the town had closed its doors against dampness and dust and the streets were entirely deserted. Heavily laden with luggage and shopping bags he climbed the outside steps to his new haven and let himself in. This was a vast improvement on his quarters in Kalk Bay. There he was oppressed by the smell of refuse and cats and staleness, and the glimpse of fellow residents, furtive spectres shuffling in the corridor, or coughing in their rooms. Here it was airy and clean with a woman’s lightness and a cheerful, almost boisterous absence of squalor. He propped the pack against the wardrobe and placed the shopping on the table. In the bathroom the soap was lavender scented and as he dried his face he smelt the fragrance of a pomander. Marvelling at the clean homeliness of everything he poured himself a short shot of brandy and sherry and cut a slice of rye bread still warm from the bakery, buttering it thickly. It was growing dark and he switched on the light and drew the curtains before seating himself at the table.
After the Old Brown Brandy he cut more bread and a hunk of cheese and opened a bottle of stout. He poured with a steady hand. The head floated thick and creamy like spume, as was right and proper and to be expected. Beneath the brown foam the beer was the colour of Coke. “Gesund!” He raised the glass and spoke aloud. “To Frau Klee.” He drank carefully to preserve the froth. “The magical aura, the female presence, the female form!” It made him feel warm and happy to think of her.
“STOP PLAYING AND EAT YOUR FOOD!” It was her voice, raised to an angry shout of exasperation; startlingly distinct. Thin walls? Strange, in an old building like this. He looked across to where the wardrobe stood, to where the sound had come from. A piece of furniture standing against a wall in a house on a rocky slope between sea and desert. The wardrobe had jumped into sharp focus. Oak darkened with polish, a simple box construction, framed and panelled, certainly no work of art. Ball and claw feet. He went over and opened the doors to expose empty hanging space on one side and empty shelves lined with brown paper on the other. There was nothing of interest but he could hear the high voices of the children and then her voice again, not so strident this time. On impulse he got down on his knees and peered under. Well, well, well. A door. The wardrobe concealed a doorway leading to the rest of the house.
The next morning he awoke to find that the first rays of the sun had discovered a chink in the curtains and were streaming into the room, as insistent as an alarm clock. He got up, put the kettle on and pissed in the toilet. Opening the door he stood naked on the threshold, screwing up his eyes against the sharp early sun and shivering in the cold. He left the top half of the door open, made coffee and returned to the luxury of bed.
The air coming in smelt of the land and a cold empty sky. The quietness puzzled him until he heard a gull cry twice as it swooped down to the harbour. It was the chorus of garden birds that was missing. Even in the city, first light brought with it a twittering that here, in this place without vegetation, was absent.
He could hear the children’s voices. They must be having breakfast, getting ready for school. He looked at the wardrobe and smiled at the realisation that he would be moving it and investigating the door. How could he not investigate? This was an opportunity not to be missed. Only an idiot, and there were plenty of them shuffling single file down the straight and narrow, would mind his own business and not acknowledge the symbolism. How could a sensitive oke like him do anything BUT examine this door?
He got up, dressed, splashed water on his face, and then set to work. He folded his Kapp’s Hotel towel in half and half again and laid it on the floor before one pair of curved feet. Gripping the wardrobe he lifted, and with difficulty kicked the towel into position before lowering the weight. Then he went to the other end and lifted and swung the wardrobe away from the wall. A smooth operation without any screeching of wood upon the floor. The door was now accessible, but to his disappointment he at once saw that the handle had been removed. On his knees he placed an eye to the keyhole.
At first he could make out nothing. All was darkness. But as his eye grew accustomed to the gloom he began to discern a fuzzy point of light, a circle roughly on the same level as his line of vision. Perplexing. He should be looking into a room. He could hear one of the children’s voices laughing in a provocative, derisory tone to the protests of the other. Frustrated for the moment he put the wardrobe back in position and retrieved the towel.
Ian Martin’s controversial novel Pop-splat is now available from http://www.pop-splat.co.za.