THE WHITE PATHS OF TOWERKOP
In the courtroom, his dark eyes were watching me. Beneath him lay his black umbrella, which he slid to the side with his foot as his lawyer came to sit down next to him. But not for one moment did he take his eyes off me. And as mine briefly caught his, his lips stretched horizontally into a thin smile. Reclining against his wooden seat he looked convinced that my court would find him innocent. And I am sure that, back then, I too shared this opinion. But I should have known that justice would be difficult to uphold in the current environment. Yet, I remember sitting there, despite the troubles that surrounded us, believing in my ability to enforce the law without prejudice.
That day the court was abnormally filled with the people of Albertsburg. The air was heavy with a heat that is not easily ventilated by the few small windows in the courtroom’s ‘clearstory’. But we are not unaccustomed to this. For although the courthouse is insulated by thick concrete and its amphitheatre-like design sits deep in the earth, the building is not unaffected by Albertsburg’s climate. Despite our famous rainy spells, we are still subjected the Karoo’s heat, whose plains stretch out around our mountains.
Three fans are usually employed, on such occasions, and I sometimes excuse myself and go into my chambers to remove my skirt, which is, due to my black robe, surplus to requirements. But that day was different. About six hundred people – a substantial section of the dorp’s population – were crammed into the court, their black umbrellas piled at the exit.
Only Jean, at her bakery just outside the building, and a few infirmed members of the community were not present. Even the children were there on the top deck, looking down on us. I noticed with concern that they sat perspiring and crying in the intense heat while nannies, dressed in scarlet overalls, fanned them with white aprons. Their parents, uncles, aunts, grandparents and older siblings, sat below with their eyes directed at the accused, ignoring the wailing above.
I had walked into the court that day to be met with this wall of heat. An expanse of newspapers, books, tablets and aprons – anything that could force some movement in the air – were rising and falling. Above it all a constant calling for quiet was being issued, unsuccessfully, by Captain Mandel’s policemen. It was only the accused – the engineer – who sat motionless and silent. And as I looked across the court I noticed, for the first time, that his sharp penetrating eyes were resting on me. With this I quickly shifted my gaze. But I could still see out of the corner of my eye, as I moved to my bench, his slender figure: his square shoulders, his thinning grey hair, his large forehead, the small pointed white beard and that dark peregrine-like stare.
Sweat was already running down the backs of my legs into my heelless rubber-soled shoes as I looked out at the crowd seated in the gallery. There I noticed Albert, our mayor. He was sitting smiling uncomfortably, sandwiched between the konstabel and the Captain. Both these men sat in full-dress uniform, while the older policemen stood in the aisle fanning them with their blue jackets and the younger toothless recruits stood in front of them waving their yellow tracksuit tops.
Just then Sarah, the clerk of the court, made her way through the crowd dragging a large heavy fan without a protective cage. Her bottle-blonde hair was darkened with sweat and her tight red skirt and leopard print Moscow-court heels restricted her movements. Mr Davidson, the stenographer, hurried to help her and she pointed out to him that the fan should be placed to cool the Captain.
‘Judge,’ Sarah called walking towards me scowling, ‘you’ve got to get Clarence to cool the room.’
‘I’m sure he will make a plan,’ I said looking down at her.
‘You can’t just leave it to him. You have to tell that guy.’
‘I like your shoes,’ I said. ‘I don’t think I’ve seen those ones before. They suit you. Oh, and look you’ve done your nails to match.’
‘Thank you judge. You know, I could always do yours if you wanted,’ she said without the slightest tone of genuineness.
I glanced down at my own nails. They were dirty and chipped from gardening. For a second I urgently wanted to clean them and I tucked them under the court files in front of me. ‘Where is he?’ I said.
‘Oh, he’s supposedly working on the ventilation system.’
‘Is that what that sound is?’ I asked as I became aware of an underlying churning noise I had never heard before.
‘That guy, as usual, doesn’t know what he is doing,’ she said raising her top lip with the look of disgust.
‘Sarah, please, you know that’s not true. And please use his name.’
‘I mean how long has he worked here? Nearly forty-five years and he doesn’t even know how it works. It’s a disgrace.’
It was then that Clarence came into the courtroom through the dark wood-panelled door that leads downstairs to the holding cells. It was the first time that I had seen him in such a state. The top half of his boiler suit was tied at his waste and his white t-shirt was see-through with sweat. ‘Clarence,’ I called to him, noticing his almost alarmingly muscular body, ‘what can we do about this heat?’
He looked at me with a smile. ‘I think the ventilation machine, ja, it’s now working My Lady. But, you know, I’m not sure what kind of air it will blow. The generator’s hot. You know, last time I used it properly was, ja well … Ja it must have been at the Roux trial. And that was, that was…Well too long ago…That was forty-five years ago. I was just in kortbroek then…And…Yo! That trial…’ Clarence was shaking his head. He then dropped his eyes to the floor apologetically.
Our janitor likes retelling stories of court cases, but he never mentions this one. Few people in Albertsburg ever do. It is, I discovered, considered bad luck to talk of Dr Roux’s patricide and to mention his ‘demon’ son.
‘So, will you have it working soon?’ I asked.
‘Yes, My Lady. It’s working. I just need to pull the lever for Court One. But as I say, I don’t know what will happen.’
As he said this there was a loud explosion, followed by what sounded like the back firing of a car. It sent many people in the court diving to the floor in terror. And I can’t deny it set my own heart off at a rate is rarely reaches. ‘I better go check,’ Clarence shouted over the noise.
‘Yes, it sounds like the demon has woken,’ I shouted to him.
His head jerked back at this comment as if the idea had startled him. He paused for a moment. No doubt, if I had not been his boss, he would have reproached me. For Clarence is taken, like much of this dorp, with superstitions. But he simply shook his head and clicked his tongue.
The machine was on the mezzanine level at the back of the court under the upper deck where the children were sitting. I had seen its huge generator in the plant room some weeks before. I had been working on a public holiday and was searching the courthouse for some papers that were missing from the Thales file. It was during this search I discovered that on the Plant Room door was a sign stating, ‘filing overflow’. On entering the room I found that Clarence had kept this machine polished and perfectly clean. He had once run the courthouse when it had had eight sitting judges. That was before Albertsburg’s asbestos mine was closed down and our bench was reduced to one. He had clearly found himself a job to do during the hours and days of the languishing inactivity of my court.
There was something absurd about that day’s proceedings. The drama of the last few months had risen to a head with the engineer’s arrest. And there was a high state of tension in the room as we waited for Clarence to sort out the climate control. But I was fanning myself at my bench looking at a gardening magazine I had in a file. The engineer was still staring at me. Sarah had taken to reapplying her make up. And Mr Davidson was struggling to get the fan to work. When he finally did he cried out with joy as if he a solved his crossword puzzle. I looked up and noticed that the fan’s huge uncovered blades took some time to gather momentum. But then as they picked up speed the fan suddenly flung a huge cloud of dust onto Captain Mandel and his men.
The absurd feeling of detachment continued when one nervous policeman who had his back turned to it yelled out ‘Ambush!’ several of the constabulary dived to the floor calling for cover. Then one of the young recruits scrambled over the partition in the court and flung his tracksuit on top at the blades. The jacket was torn up and thrown to the ceiling and he leapt back wringing his hand shouting a stream of abuse. The children began to laugh and banged the railings in joy as the police ran at the machine and then withdrew from the blades all the while drawing their service revolvers. I sat there watching this scene in silence. And it was only because Mr Davidson had the presence of mind to turn the fan off at the plug that any further injuries were prevented.
Once the fan had been turned off, it took some time for the court to settle. Then a small enquiry was held by Captain Mandel who began poking at several members of the public with his cane. He then threatened to arrest our stenographer after the people around him pointed out Mr Davidson as the culprit. It was only Sarah’s coquettish presence that convinced Mandel that it had been an accident.
This incident was, however, largely forgotten when Clarence finally pulled the leaver of the ventilation machine for Courtroom One. The sensation was like having a course hemp bag shoved in ones face. An explosion of hot air was propelled into the courtroom. With it came dust which poured through the vents, many of which I had never noticed before as they seamlessly fit in to the brutalist architecture of the building. This initial wave was then followed by what felt like a sand storm exfoliating my face, which brought with it the smell of burning hair.
People, myself included, began coughing and choking and some, having been slightly shaken by the first attack of dust from the fan, were calling on Mandel and his men to shoot. I, meanwhile, was shouting ‘Clarence! Off! Turn the bloody thing off!’
But by then everybody was shouting and clambering over each other and breaking the furniture in a panic to get to the exit, which was half blocked by the pile of umbrellas. Children were crying out for their mothers. And nannies could be heard screaming for those lost in the dust cloud. ‘Don’t let the bastard out of your sight.’ I could hear Mandel calling to his men. ‘Grab the engineer. Vat hom!’ But amidst the melee of bodies and dust I encountered, as I tried to head for the exit, the engineer sitting perfectly at ease in his chair as the dust and panic swirled around him.
I myself was yelling: ‘Order! Order! Clear the court! Clear the court! Remain calm and clear the court! For the love of God stop panicking! Calm the fuck down! Order! Order!’ But I might as well have ordered a tree not to sway in the wind. And in truth I was not sure if I was shouting these words more to myself than anybody else.
We reconvened later that afternoon, once the ventilation was working satisfactorily and the injured had been attended to by Dr Eloff. By then the room had been thoroughly vacuumed, dusted and mopped. I took up some of these tasks myself while my husband, who had been sitting in the far corner of the courtroom reading the news on his tablet, helped Clarence with some of the heavier work. Sarah and Mr Davidson, however, went off to Jean’s bakery to fight over the limited supplies of coffee and pastries, with the rest those uninjured from the fiasco.
Finally, once the court was ready, the people settled and the engineer had once again been brought up from the holding cells, Sarah called me from my chambers. Settling down at my bench again, I could hear the unfamiliar dull hum of the ventilation machine sounding above. And although this hum was occasionally interrupted by a bang, it had, initially, gone some way to cooling the room. But it did not entirely stop the need for the fluttering of newspapers and the nannies had returned to waving their aprons.
Looking down again, for the second time that day, I noticed that the engineer was sitting in the same pose he had adopted that morning. Again, I noticed that his eyes were resting on me and I could bear his gaze no longer. I nodded in his direction in as formal a response as I could muster. After this I made certain that I acknowledged both the lawyers, Adv Hollow for the prosecution and Adv Maxwell for the defence. Then organising my papers in front of me, I nodded to Sarah to proceed with the order. This she shouted, louder than usual: ‘The court is now in session Justice O’Higgins presiding.’
But I will not recount to you the story of the trial that followed: the many victories and defeats that Clarence was to have with the court’s ventilation system; Enoch’s strange incongruous testimony; the mayor’s peculiar personal confessions concerning his rain ritual; the strident statements of the various policemen and the reticence of the accused. Instead, with the help of the court record, a simple narration of the incidents that led to ‘the engineer of Albertsburg’ acquiring this appellation will suffice.
Here it should be noted that till this moment no qualification, nor action, nor any affiliation with Albertsburg has ever given anyone any reason to call this man ‘the engineer of Albertsburg’. Yet it is common enough to hear people call him that in the streets. What is more, throughout the trial not a single lawyer (not even his own) or policeman or witness has ever failed to call him anything but ‘the engineer’. Even I have succumbed. This leaves, to my knowledge, only my husband and Jean, the mayor’s wife, who continue to call him ‘Mr Bain’.