The reader’s suspension of disbelief is challenged with the mayor’s bizarre confession. More rain falls and the fate of the town is sealed. Then there is some laughter at the misery of others.
I know I that have strayed from telling the story of the engineer. But I find Bain’s story difficult to tell without beginning with the story of Thales. For if there is a beginning to my story in Ablertsburg it starts with Thales. In fact, Thales and Bain’s stories in Albertsburg have the same beginning. Whether they have a similar ending, I still do not know. And I say this not because I am withholding it, but because I don’t know the end – even though I am the one who will determine it.
My father often said to me that stories have no beginning or end. But the engineer of Albertsburg’s story, like that of Thales, will certainly have a termination. And perhaps a starting point for it would be the beginning of the trial. That is to say with Albert, our mayor, on the stand.
Adv Hollow (Question): You say that you foresaw the disaster of Albertsburg. Is that correct?
Albert (Answer): Yes…My Lady, that’s correct.
Adv Hollow Q: But Mayor, that seems unlikely to me. Just how did you foresee it? I wonder if you could explain that to the court.
Albert A: Ja sure, that’s not a problem. My Lady, before that night, 317 seconds is the most I’ve ever counted. So by the time I counted to 349 I knew that there was a disaster on the cards. I just knew it. It was the longest downpour ever, you see?
Adv Hollow Q: But Mayor, let’s go back. I’m confused. What does this counting have to do with your premonition?
Albert A: Ja … uhm … My Lady, since I was five, I’ve counted out the length of every downpour in Albertsburg
Adv Hollow Q: Every one?
Albert A: Every one, from when they start, to when they finish.
Adv Hollow Q: But Mayor, why? That’s what I’m getting at. Why do you do this? Do you understand my question? I don’t understand why you count out the length of the downpours? What reason do you have for this?
Albert A: Ja, My Lady, I understand. There is no need, James, to treat me like I’m some kind of bloody fool, okay?
Judge: Mayor, you can’t call Adv. Hollow, ‘James’.
Albert: Sorry My Lady. I forgot.
Adv Hollow: Please continue.
Albert: My Lady, my great great grandfather, the founder of Albertsburg, the man we call ‘Great Albert’, said: ‘Any downpour lasting longer than 727 seconds will bring a plague of mental illness.’
Adv Hollow Q: Oh for God’s sake! Has anybody here heard of this? What utter bunkum (aside).
Pause after loud explosive noise from the ventilation machine disrupts court proceedings.
Adv Hollow (cont): My Lady, I think we must question the admissibility of this witness’s testimony.
Pause as an off the record discussion occurs at the bench between counsels and judge.
Although I wished to proceed, after this exchange Adv. Hollow insisted that Albert’s mental health had to be established if his evidence was to be admissible. And with this, a trial within a trial began – a process made longer by the fact that it was continually interrupted by the malfunctioning of the ventilation system.
It took four days on the stand to get out of Albert all of his pathologies, his fears and peculiar self-imposed belief systems. On the second day Adv. Hollow was questioning Albert, who seemed in an even higher state of anxiety than normal, about a list of curses to the town that he believed in:
Adv Hollow Q: So how do you feel about opening an umbrella inside?
Albert A: Oh no no no I would never do that. And that is not simply a bad luck, it has practical implications.
Adv Hollow Q: Like what?
Albert A: You could knock something over like an expensive vase or break a mirror, which would be bad luck.
Adv Hollow Q: And ladders?
Albert A: I have never walked under one and I try not to climb them.
Adv Hollow: Why not?
Albert A: I am afraid of heights.
Adv Hollow Q: Right. Now what about something a little more local, say for example the Curse of St Thomas and the issue to do with the dead asbestos miners. The ones buried under that mountain?
Albert A: Now that is nonsense. My Lady, the Albertsburg’s Volksraad established many years ago, “that the dead migrant miners were fairly treated in line with the cultural and economic norms of the time”. They would have no reason to curse us, would they? They died but we didn’t really treat them that badly.’
‘Asbestos!’ screamed a voice from the gallery. And with this, Albert leapt out of the box and ran for the exit. ‘I left the stove on. I better get home,’ he yelled as he charged for the door.
At first I thought this to have been a cruel trick played on our mayor. Laughter rose amongst the crowd as our poor mayor, red faced and under extreme stress, ran for the door. But then somebody pointed out that a fine blue powder was floating out of the vent above the mezzanine level. This observation set off a stampede. Limps waved about, punches were thrown, and umbrellas were used to beat at the police who were attempting to exit first with the use of their batons. I watched this rather like one does a cat leaping for a branch that seems out of its reach. In fact, the court was cleared in a matter of seconds and only a few people suffered any serious injury. What was left of the 600 people who had been crammed into the court moments before were some discarded and broken umbrellas, a few lunch boxes and the engineer.
‘What on earth just happened?’ I asked looking at the accused and peering at the fine bits of cloth that were floating up to the clerestory. Sitting back, he shrugged and smiled, but he said nothing. So much burning dust and sand had exited that vent over the last few days that the blue cloth was not a great source of concern to me but it was only when Clarence appeared from the side door that things were explained.
‘That bloody fucking machine just ate my boiler suit. I hanged it up by the inflow vent. Look its coming out,’ he said pointing to the ceiling. ‘They think it’s asbestos,’ the engineer said in a flat emotionless tone.
In fact the people of Albertsburg really did seem to believe that. And it took some convincing to get even Sarah, Adv Hollow, the konstabel, Captain Mandel and Albert, to re-enter the court. In fact only after Clarence could prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that it was his boiler suit and not asbestos were they willing to return.
Finally, after four days of evidence I was able to decide on the admissibility of Albert’s testimony. But this was only made possible after Mr Davidson (who is also the keeper of all the town’s records) explained that the origins of Albert’s superstitions may have been based on facts.
Adv Maxwell (Qusetion): Why do you say our mayor’s belief in the Founder’s prophecy is factual? That seems wrongheaded to me.
Davidson (Answer): Well, My Lady, not factual per se. But its origins come from an actual event.
Maxwell Q: You mean like Noah and the great flood?
Davidson A: Well, I don’t know the specifics of the great flood but yes I guess something like that.
Maxwell (A): So, there is a great deal of proof that the flood did actually occur. I was reading a very interesting account…
Judge O’Higins interrupts asking counsel to continue with the questioning rather than entering into theological speculation.
Davidson (A): My lady, if I can explain it like this. In the fifteenth year of the establishment of Albertsburg, Ou Oom Albertson, Great Albert, our Mayor’s great great grandfather, recorded in his chronical, and I quote, ‘Meteorological changes seen. 727 millimetres of water fell. Many filled with the plague of the mental illness. A ravage of death. Kine seen in the district lying dead in the fields, bloated and ruptured stomachs. Beware!’ Now, Dr Eloff believes that cattle deaths were due to a waterborne disease. There was no effective drainage in those days. Our sewers were only built about ten years or so later. The water in the area must have become cesspools of disease.
Maxwell (Q): But if the cattle were all dead, then how did the people survive? I mean it is a well-known fact that the Xhosa cattle killing of a similar period lead to disastrous consequences. In the book…
Judge O’Higgins interrupts asking counsel to continue with the questioning rather than recounting irrelevant histories.
Davidson (A): I have looked at the tax returns of several of the big farms in the area, and they register no significant difference in sales from the years before and after.
Maxwell (Q): And what do you conclude from that?
Davidson (A): They must have sold the meat of the dead cattle. And people who ate it suffered no lasting consequences – death rates were stable. That can be the only inference.
Maxwell (Q): So, in conclusion Mr Davidson.
Davidson (A): Well, I think that our mayor simply misheard a story when he was a child. And developed his own narrative and ritual around it. That’s not a sign of mental illness, simply the origins of a cultural practice.
With this I concluded, that although Albert’s beliefs were the results of a misheard story, there was nothing necessarily mad or irrational about them. What was surprising, was that the prophecy seems to have never caught on in the rest of the town. And perhaps now it is time to begin the story of the engineer proper. The day when the catastrophe began.
Albert was in the lounge with Jean when he first heard the tapping of the rain. He had counted to 349 before he felt a strong and anxious urge to report his feelings to his wife. ‘Jean,’ he said slightly alarmed, ‘something bad is about to happen!’ Jean looked up from her computer.
‘What’s that Albert?’ she asked.
Jean forced her mouth down, shrugged her shoulders and went back to loading a picture of a mass of blue Nemesia Vericolors onto her social media with the hashtag #LocalFlowers.
‘497! This is getting serious Jean,’ Albert exclaimed some moments later while getting up and placing another blue gum log into the old wood burning stove that sat, perpetually smouldering, against the stone wall of the lounge. Then picking up the remote control he turned, from the Western he had been watching, over to the rugby.
Another lengthy downpour fell that night. But this did not disturb Albert, for he had fallen asleep on the couch while watching a film. And if the phone had not rung, he may well have slept there the whole night unaware of the disaster that had befallen Albertsburg. As usual it was Jean who raised herself to answer it. She stumbled blinking in the dully lit room towards the table in the hallway. Then taking out the notepad from the drawer beneath the phone, she lifted the receiver.
Albert lay on the couch, listening to the tone of his wife’s voice. Conscious of the fact that she was clearly not speaking to one of her friends. ‘That was Mandel,’ Jean said putting down the phone. Albert’s ears tweaked at the mention of the Captain.
‘I bloody knew something bad would happen tonight,’ he said pulling a cushion over his face.
Jean, although she did not share any of Albert’s superstitions, had to admit that something bad had happened. ‘Part of the pass has been washed away,’ she said, ‘and the driver of the dray has had an accident.’
‘Is he hurt?’ Albert shouted from beneath the cushion.
‘No, he seems fine, but the police want you down there. They say they need you to see the damage.’
‘You see, I told you something bad would come of that rain. We should tell Dr Eloff of the chance of plague.’
‘Albert! Did you not hear what I said? Mandel wants you at the pass.’
Albert was already up. For although Captain Mandel had been nothing but cordial throughout their working relationship, Albert had, since he was a child, always felt uncomfortable in the Captain’s presence. He was now sure that he was going to be subjected to something deeply unpleasant in the next hour. He was sitting putting on a pair of gumboots with shaking hands, when Jean came to check on him. He stood up and his wife helped him into his long wax cotton coat and handed him his umbrella. ‘Jean, I can’t find my wallet.’
‘Well, it must be somewhere.’
He groaned at the thought of the delay and its potential consequences. This might only be an unbearable stare from Mandel’s glassy blue eyes. But that thought was enough to send Albert’s stomach into a spasm. And just when he was to going yell for Jean’s assistance again, he slipped his hand into his coat pocket and felt his wallet meet his palm. ‘Found it!’ he called out in relief. Jean made no reply. ‘Where am I going? … Jean? …Jean for God’s sake!’ he shouted with a growing sense of desperation.
‘Just before the Dassieskraal turn off.’
He checked his watch and let out a long breath of relief. He could be there in a matter of minutes if he took the car.
In the garage, he pulled the tarpaulin from the elongated black Mercedes. It was a shame to take it out on a night such as this. Its black polished bonnet shone brilliantly in the fluorescent light. And Albert stood for a moment admiring not only the work of another man’s buffing, but also the car’s sleek lines and chrome grill. It was only on entering the vehicle that Albert encountered its single flaw. One of the springs had gone in the driver’s seat which made him sit much lower than was appropriate making him look somewhat like a child at the wheel. A simple touch of the key brought the engine roaring into life.
He started off down the main road, towards the pass, telling himself that he was in for trouble. He fixed his eyes on the warm yellow light that dropped from the car’s headlamps onto the road and he winced as he left the tarred main road and heard the tires hiss on the wet gravel, splattering, he knew, thick blobs of clay-like mud onto the body work.
He could by then see in the distance some lights ahead of him on the pass. There seemed to be two cone-shaped beams pointing down the mountain into the valley. But his view of these was suddenly blurred by a short downpour that lasted 36 seconds. As he drew closer a flashing blue light was turned on. It revealed, for brief moments, a group of men in soaking wet trench-coats and hats standing in the middle of the road, R4 automatic rifles hanging on their backs.
A high-powered torch was shone at his car as he approached. He stopped and the policeman with the torch, who was holding a gun to the side of his body, came up beside the car.
‘Identification please,’ the grey-faced sergeant said shining the torch into the mayor’s eyes.
‘But sergeant you know who I am,’ Albert said in panic.
‘I know. But I still need to see some identification. This is a crime scene.’
‘I thought the driver was okay.’
‘He is, but he was driving under the influence.’
The mayor took out his licence and, reluctantly, handed it over to the policeman standing at his mirror. The sergeant then stepped away into the darkness and Albert got out of his car. With a deep sense of dread, he went over to Captain Mandel who was crouched down and was shining a small plastic torch he had got in a Christmas cracker into the eyes of the driver of the truck. The drayman was sitting slumped against the back wheel of the vehicle, the front of which was pointing down the ravine into the valley. His face was bloody and his black and swollen eyes were cast down to avoid the torch’s glare.
‘What’s, uhm, what’s going on Captain?’ Albert asked with anxiety.
‘This driver has been caught driving under the influence. He has also crashed his vehicle which has resulted in damage to both private and state property.’
Albert looked at Isaacs, the driver of the dray, and realised that not only was his face wet from the rain but, by the looks of it, he had been crying.
‘Is that true Isaacs?’ Albert asked. Isaacs seemed to nod but refused to look up. ‘But Isaacs I thought you were Muslim?’
‘I am, Mr Albert.’
‘But Isaacs! Oh dear lord. How could you?’ Albert asked. But Isaacs did not look up and did not answer, instead tears began rolling from his eyes and bloodied saliva flowed from his swollen mouth.
‘Captain Mandel, this is terrible. What happened here?’ Albert asked with rising pitch.
‘The prisoner, sir, seems to have been driving under the influence. This, sir, resulted in him driving into this part of the pass here, you see?’ With this the Captain stood up and pointed his small torch at the part of the pass that had been washed away earlier in the evening.
A large part of the left-hand side of the road, where the drystone walling had once held it up, had collapsed into the valley below. For literally hundreds of years this pass, built by the engineer Thomas Bain, had stood undamaged until that night. Albert whistled in surprise. ‘It would be difficult to avoid the hole if you weren’t aware of it,’ Albert said, more to himself than to the Captain.
‘It would have been even more difficult to avoid it if you were drunk,’ the Captain barked. ‘We could smell it on him.’
Albert looked at the stream of beer and liquor that was still running down the side of the dray into the ditch, frothing and bubbling its way down towards the darkness of the valley.
‘We found him soma just slumped drunk as a coot in his cab. He was smelling of the bloody stuff. We got him out and he couldn’t even walk right.’
‘Perhaps he was concussed?’ Albert asked fearing that he could overstep the mark at any moment. But his liking for the drayman was such as to compel him to at least try to suggest some defence.
Captain Mandel ignored the comment and gazed out into the darkness of the valley, refusing to meet the eyes of the mayor. They stood like this for some time before Albert broke the silence. ‘Captain,’ he said squinting his eyes into the darkness, ‘I think I can see a spade and pick down there.’ But the captain stood unmoved staring past the mayor, all the while playing restlessly with the leather strap that connected the butt of his service revolver to his belt. ‘Captain! I think you should go and get one of your men to fetch those things.’
‘What spade? What pick?’ the Captain asked in a state of annoyance. ‘I’m beginning to get a sense you wish to pervert the course of justice.’
‘Oh, no no no. Captain Mandel not me, you have me quite wrong. But if you give me a torch…’
Just then that the wind blew in another bout of rain over the crest and Albert began counting in his head.
‘We’ll investigate that tomorrow,’ said the Captain as the rain streaked across the sharp features of his face. Then the Captain turned, in military style, and marched towards the shelter of his bakkie. Albert moved towards Isaacs wishing to offer him some comfort but just then two policemen emerged out of the darkness. They picked the driver up from under his armpits and dragged him away to their vehicle. Then, with a loud clattering of knees and elbows on steel, the mayor heard Isaacs landing uncomfortably, as if roughly thrown, into the cage at the back of the yellow bakkie.
With the rain still falling, and getting to 120 in his counting, Albert reached his Mercedes. He was filled with the sense that he should have perhaps done something more for Isaacs, who had always been a decent person in his estimation. But at his car he found the acne-faced konstabel standing in front of the driver’s door, holding his driver’s licence out. ‘I am afraid, I am going to have to take you in.’
‘Excuse me konstable?’
‘Your driver’s licence, he’s out of date. You been driving this vehicle illegally.’
With this the policeman turned the mayor against his car, handcuffed him and led him away to the awaiting bakkie where he was placed, with slightly less vigour than they had done with the drayman, into the back. Isaacs, Albert noticed, was lying on the steel flat bed of the floor. But it was only when they began to move that Albert’s eyes finally grew accustomed to the darkness and he could see that the drayman was unable to manoeuvre himself upright. He could see that Isaac’s swollen cheek and mouth were banging against the cold steel of the floor with every bounce the bakkie made along the gravel road. The drayman’s blood was running past his feet down the floor’s corrugated grooves.
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