Introduction, or the chapter where Judge Miriam O’Higgins describes the strange man known to the town as ‘the engineer’. .
THE WHITE PATHS OF TOWERKOP
Dear William Plomer,
I am sending you three manuscripts for possible publication. They were discovered by myself amongst my aunt’s (Dr Jean Albertson’s) possessions. She died with her husband in a car accident some years ago on her way back from the now ghost town of Albertsburg.
I believe they were edited by my aunt, who was an art historian at the National Gallery and who worked at the Technical University. I have read all the three manuscripts and believe them to be of historical interest and ask you to please consider them for publication.
His dark eyes followed me as I entered the courtroom. Beneath him lay his black umbrella, which, without looking down, he pushed aside with his foot as his lawyer came to sit down next to him. 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. Behind him the court was filled with the people of Albertsburg. The air was heavy with a human heat that was not ventilated by the few small windows in the courtroom’s ‘clearstory’. Nor did the courthouse’s thick concrete amphitheatre do much in insulate us.
We are, of course, accustomed to the heat, despite the regular rain fall of this town. The hot plains of both Karoos stretch out beneath our mountains. But three fans usually do the work in such cases and I sometimes excuse myself and go into my chambers to remove my skirt, which is surplus to requirements due to my black robes. 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. Even the children of Albertsburg were there on the top deck, looking down on us. I noticed with concern that they sat up there perspiring and crying in the intense temperature, 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 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 entered. 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 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 Captain Mandel and Albert, our mayor.
‘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 him.’
‘Where is he?’ I asked.
‘Oh, he’s supposedly working on the ventilation system. But he’s taking his merry time.’
‘Is that what that sound is?’ I asked as I became aware of an underlying churning noise I had never heard before.
‘As usual he doesn’t know what he is doing,’ Sarah said raising her top lip with the look of disgust. ‘I mean how long has he worked here? Nearly forty-five years.’
I must say, I had grown quite bored of Sarah’s complaints about Clarence’s work rhythms. I looked away from her and saw that he was entering 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 muscular body, ‘what are you doing about the heat?’
He looked at me. ‘I think the ventilation machine is, ja, it’s working My Lady. But, you know, I’m not sure what kind of air it will blow. It’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…. I was just in kortbroek then…And…yo! That trial…’ Clarence shook his head. He then dropped his eyes to the floor apologetically.
Few people in Albertsburg ever mention this trial. It is, I discovered, considered bad luck to talk of Dr Roux’s patricide and to mention the ‘demon’ son.
‘So, will you have it working soon?’ I asked.
‘Ja My Lady, it’s working. I just need to pull the lever for Court One. But, you know … I don’t know what will happen when I do. It’s hot, I don’t’ remember …’
There was a loud explosion in the courtroom. 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, sounds like that demon of yours has woken.’
His head jerked back at this comment. He paused, looking at me in silent reproach. And he could not help himself from warding off the evil by touching the lucky beads that hung around his neck. Clarence’s superstitions (like most of the townspeople’s) are often apparent, despite his attempts to keep their outer manifestations from me.
The ventilation 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 a few weeks after I arrived in Albertsburg. 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, for reasons only known to himself, kept this machine’s huge brass drum perfectly polished. Clarence, to be fair, had once run the courthouse when it had had eight sitting judges. That was before Albertsburg’s asbestos mine was closed and our bench was reduced to one. He had clearly found himself a job during the hours and days of the languishing inactivity of my court. Now, however, he had his work cut out with restoring the machine’s internal workings.
As we all waited I was fanning myself with 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, I looked up. Its huge uncovered blades gathered momentum. They turned, very slowly at first, but then finally as they picked up speed they flung a cloud of dust onto Captain Mandel sitting as he was in the front row.
One nervous policeman, who had his back turned to fan, on seeing his chief ducking to the floor and grabbing his face, yelled out ‘ATTACK!’. Many of the constabulary drew out their batons and began searching the crowd. Pushing and shoving people as they went. One of the young recruits then rushed forward and flung his yellow tracksuit at the fan. The jacket was torn up and thrown to the ceiling and he leapt back wringing his hand. ‘Fok your ma,’ he screamed and rushed in again to kick the fan. His foot caught one of the moving blades and he fell back onto his backside. The children began to laugh and bang the railings in joy. 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.
It took some time for the court to settle after this. 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 town’s people around him pointed out that Mr Davidson had set the fan going. It was only Sarah’s feminine 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 coarse hemp bag pulled over your face. An explosion of hot air was propelled into the courtroom and 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 ‘stop the attack’. 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. A panic had set in 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 now: ‘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 of 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. And although this hum was occasionally interrupted by a bang the people had grown accustomed to it and, 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 whole 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, I will offer a narration of the incidents that led to ‘the engineer of Albertsburg’ acquiring this appellation. 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’.
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