From The Life of Henry Fuckit, 1950-2015
by Ian Martin
After an hour he realised the line had described a huge arc and was now back on course due west toward the last faint paleness where the sun had gone down. Some twenty kilometres south-southwest and then twenty kilometres west-northwest in two long tacks to ease the gradient. Orientation was important. Night had come to the sky, except just there ahead of the train, and the stars were out. And what stars! Each time he looked there were more. He tried the ceiling lamp and to his surprise it worked, casting a dim yellowish light in the compartment and turning the window into a mirror, cutting him off from the outside world. In the zip pocket of the backpack flap he found the cardboard disc that he had carried on his hiking trips with Ivor, Mike de Jongh and the Thompsons. It was bent and dog-eared but he was still able to revolve it behind the mask and oval cutout. Philips Planisphere showing the Principal Stars visible for every hour in the year from latitude 35 degrees South. Every hour in the year! He set the time to correspond with the date and tried to figure out what should be up there at this precise hour of the year. To the south the Southern Cross would be low down with the pointers above. Also Canopus, Antares, Achenaar. And the Clouds of Magellan. To the north would be Altair, Vega and Denob. And the Square of Pegasus.
He poured brandy, lit his pipe and turned out the light. The star chart had aroused memories of the free and easy times with his student companions in the Cedarberg.
He put the window down and let the cold air in. Up front the locomotive was thrusting into its pool of light, the mighty diesel engines throbbing insistently, and yet it appeared as if the train had slowed. This was odd for they were on the downhill run and were six hours behind schedule. Even as he peered into the darkness there came a long vibration through the coach and the sound of the unit ceased. Now only the clacking of the wheels over the line. Slower and slower until they were coasting at a walking pace. Finally they ground to an un-braked halt.
Bloody marvellous! Half a day’s delay and now the fucking thing breaks down in the middle of the desert. Putting on his naval sweater he went out into the corridor and along to the end of the carriage. Opening the door he descended the three steps and then jumped down, hoping not to do himself an injury in the dark. He walked up along the line of goods trucks until he came to the locomotive. There was the smell of diesel and hot metal and the tartness of rust and iron-filings that he associated with railway tracks. The driver’s cab was deserted and from further back within the depths of the engine room he could hear two voices and the clank of spanners. As he had suspected, a breakdown.
In the starlight he could see that the landscape had become denuded. Low dark shapes of rock and hillock devoid of leaf or stick to fuzz the outlines. He walked the full length of the train. Only at the non-White coach was there sign of life – music playing on a cassette from the darkened interior. The kwela sound of Township thumping and bouncing in repetitive vivacity, drums beating the tempo for saxophone, penny whistle and steel guitars. The guard’s van was in total darkness, not even the red light glowing a warning. No likelihood of other traffic but even so…
He climbed the ladder up onto the roof of the guard’s van and stood looking about at what he half saw, half sensed to be the desert. No breeze stirred the cool air and the still emptiness lay on either side of the stranded train. Above and about him the stars were scattered thick like silver glitter dropped in a fish bowl and the Milky Way was daubed in a great swathe from one horizon to the other. Wragtig en alle magtig! Down he climbed and returned to the carriage compartment. Power to the light had gone and he spent some minutes searching for a stump of candle. Finally he found it amongst the assorted junk in his backpack and lit the wick. He emptied the backpack of its bulkier items and repacked sleeping bag, upholstered cushion, (courtesy SA Railways), smoking equipment, brandy, mug and bottle of water. He donned pack and then eased, with considerable difficulty, his head and shoulders out of the window and felt for a hold above him. Ah, just as he had hoped, a gutter deep enough to give good purchase. He was standing on the windowsill now: could he swing his feet up and get a grip on that channel? Yes, not so difficult. Piece of piss, actually. He had completed the manoeuvre and lay on the roof of the coach feeling pleased with his accomplishment. Now to set up camp. He unpacked and poured a drink, wrapped the sleeping bag about his shoulders and filled the pipe with Turkish Delight.
The stars really were magnificent. The longer he looked the more dense they seemed and the only patch of blackness in the entire dome was the Coalsack. He stretched out, feet towards the rear of the train, head pillowed on the cushion. The air was cold on his face but his body was warm beneath the sleeping bag. It was rarely that he glimpsed the night sky in Cape Town and he never saw it open and clear like this. For one thing the mountains always blocked out some quarter, and for another the lights of the city combined to cast a gauzy glow like a net between observer and stars. A shooting star! Bright and swift to an abrupt death across the face of the night.
He began to think about some of the Bushman stories recorded by the nineteenth century philologist WHI Bleek. It was a girl who threw handfuls of ash into the night and ashes rose to form stars beside the Milky Way. And all night the stars and the Milky Way would sail round until they turned back to fetch the daybreak. And the man who told of his grandfather who would speak to Canopus when Canopus was newly come out. And he would exchange his weakness for Canopus’s strength. And in the summer the stars can be heard to call Tsau! Tsau! I listen and I hear Tsau! Tsau! What can it be, this? And my grandfather says that it is the stars that speak thus, Tsau! Tsau! The stars call Tsau! Tsau! to confuse the eyes of the springbok that they may not flee our arrows. And I lie here beneath the stars and the Milky Way and my eyes they close and I think Tsau! Tsau! Pow! Pow! How now, brown cow? Is it sufficient to be supine atop a railway carriage on a clear night in the middle of the Namib Desert? Yes, certainly it is sufficient; it’s a lekker experience. Who else on the planet could there be, lying on the roof of a train looking at the stars? Maybe some peasant in India. But then there would probably be a hundred others crammed up there with him along with chickens, goats and a hooly moo or two. But is it NECESSARY to be on a railway carriage roof in the middle of a desert in order to… What? Get in tune with the cosmos? Feel remote enough from all worldly clutter, from the unremitting barrage of social demands to be calm in the mind and the heart? Is it necessary to go to such bizarre lengths in order to take stock of one’s situation? Probably, probably. Sufficiency, necessity. Why does it give me a thrill to think that my behaviour is unusual? I don’t know. You tell me, Doktor. It is quite a simple matter and not that hard to understand. In modern psychological and philosophical terms I can describe myself as an alien isolate. A fuck-up, in fact, who has not seen fit to deny the absurdity of human existence. I accept the absurdity with enthusiasm and feel happiest, most animated, most amused when I am contemplating the ridiculous condition of being human. To give up such enjoyment in order to avoid the pains of alienation and isolation (and even downright ostracism) would certainly not be worth the sacrifice. I shall allow my life to unfold as it sees fit to unfold and shall savour these moments away form the herd when I can see and hear with greater clarity. I open my eyes and … Good God! The moon hath arisen at my feet. A giant powder puff spotlighted centre stage and climbing. The stars are fading, the Milky Way is gone from my vision. O great shining disc, O great Lunar orb, thou hast transfixed me with thy cold light. At thy cold beauty I gaze with awe and hear the words of the hunter, he who is known as the hare. He who saw the moon rise and live, rise and live, each night ever stronger. And then to begin to weaken and then to begin to die and rise no more. Forever dying and living again. And the wail of the hare is for his mother, his mother grown old and lain down and dying gone away. He weeps for his mother but the moon remonstrates: Leave off crying, for your mother is not altogether dead, but the hare would not cease weeping, nor would he believe the words of the Moon and the Moon became angry and struck the hare, striking his mouth and cursing him thus. I who die and living return again and again, intended that ye, the people of this place, should likewise not die altogether but living return again and again. But this man called the hare, he has contradicted me and wept and cried that his mother is dead and will not, only sleeping, rise again. And for this I curse ye that when ye die ye shall altogether dying go away when ye die and ye shall not living return. And in the flooding moonlight I smile at the irony. For not believing in his own immortality man is cursed with mortality. Harsh judgement under bright light. An ancient story as good and useful as any modern version. A scientist may tell us the facts according to laws of physics but those facts relate to diagrams and tables in a text book, hardly to this THING hanging above me as portentously as it has hung over other miscreants for thousands and thousands of years, causing the tide to ebb, the menstrual juice to flow, the psychopath to forget medication and the stray dog to remember Canis lupus. The hunter’s version of what the moon has to say certainly tells me more about myself than does the scientist’s. It’s hard to get spiritual about facts and figures.
Not only Bushmen. Now the haiku poets, they were avid moon watchers! Time and again it’s the source of inspiration for a compact image, thought and emotion, both simple and convoluted, crafted into seventeen syllables. “if my grumbling wife were still alive I just might enjoy tonight’s moon.” Well, a grumbling wife and the loss of a grumbling wife comprise a whole bunch of human experiences not come my way just yet, but thank you Moon for Issa’s sadness. How about Masahide’s wry stoicism: ‘Since my house burned down I now own a better view of the rising moon.’? If a township dweller had written that it would have a whole different feel. “Under a full moon on a distant tideless shore I hear men shouting.” Men shouting.
Henry fell into a serenely intoxicated sleep, his gaunt, hirsute features etched in fine black lines by the silver light. When he awoke the train was moving and the unit was pulling in long intermittent bursts as if the driver were trying not to tax his crippled engine any more than was absolutely necessary to keep the stock rolling on towards the coast. He sat up and turned to face the oncoming expanse of land. Yissis, it’s cold!
From his elevated position he could see for miles all about and it was a frozen moonscape of sand and rock with a caravan of telephone poles to the north, parallel to the track, filing into the distance. A monochrome scene, the blackness of shadow was cut sharply into the glowing white. The black lay in flat definition upon the vague luminosity of the white. He marvelled at the complete absence of vegetation, at how the bones of the planet were laid bare in a blunt, uncompromising statement about cold ocean currents, evaporation and precipitation.
The progress was slow but he began to feel a kind of imminence about the gradual decline, the surging pulse of the engine, the rails converging ahead, the march of the telephone poles. And even the land features seemed to be facing themselves towards the approaching coastline. Now he was in the midst of a fleet of crescent dunes all billowing towards the west and urged on by their black shadows. And then the dunes receded and were replaced by a banner of bare hills and yes he had caught the first smell of salt sea and the train was easing itself down between the ghostly hills of a town.
Ian Martin’s controversial novel Pop-splat is now available from http://www.pop-splat.co.za.