A chapter in which the author tries his hardest to educate the reader about the townspeople. Judge O’Higgins finds some solace in gardening but becomes aware of her infirmity and isolation. She succumbs to the urge to go to the bar and encounters the strange figure who has already been introduced to the reader as ‘the engineer’.
The Saturday after the mayor and Mr Isaacs’ release I worked in my garden, planting a box hedge along the front wall of my property. The ground of Albertsburg is rocky and hard, despite the regular rain, and I spent a large part of the afternoon loosening the earth with a pick. Initially I stood straight-backed and raised the pick above my head. But I realised then that my hands were trembling under its weight. And try as I might, I could no longer control the pick’s fall. It was with a sense of my growing infirmity that I recognised that the ringing song of the iron’s head falling into rock, that refrain that has played itself out so habitually in this county’s earth, would no longer sound for me.
Instead like a stone breaker, on one knee, I learnt to raise the pick to just above my shoulder and then to release it to gravity. It was like this I began my work, hammering and scraping at the earth. Of course, almost immediately I knew that what was missing was the stone breaker’s boy. And not for the first time since being sent to Albertsburg, I felt the cold chill of solitude.
Shaking these thoughts off I put my mind to my method and having loosened the ground with numerous blows, I found that I could then sit down and push my fingers into the earth and scrape out a shallow hole. This was really all that was required, for the plants themselves were small, no more than a foot high. Of course, even then, I knew that I would not be around long enough to see them grow to a decent height. But gardening is not only about outcomes and, once I had finished planting the row along the perimeter wall, I stood back to let my mind’s eye invent several possible topiaric forms.
This meditation was diverted after a few moments by the flashing light coming from the windows of our whitewashed Georgian house. By then the days were growing longer, but the early dusk created by the sun disappearing behind Towerkop meant that the television sent muted blue and white strobes across the lawn. My husband was, I knew, watching a soccer match inside. I stood there for some time, my mind drifting from the hedge to the realisation that I could not spend another lonely evening in that room with him.
It is not that I dislike soccer, nor my husband, but rather I was taken by a sudden anxiety when I thought of the emptiness of our recent exchanges. Of course we had many things to talk about: we had shared an active political life together, we had many mutual interests and we had had our son. That was surely enough to fill the night with conversation. But when we spoke, the words seemed disconnected. They were the talk of another time and of another country. They were not rooted in the present, they were not of Albertsburg and the implications of our ‘exile’ here. We were of course as free as anybody to move around from dorp to capital, the president had exiled us not from entering the country but rather from our society. In the old days, under the old regime, if we had gone into incarceration or exile we had done so with friends and comrades, we were not alone. But now we could hardly go to a restaurant in the city without being greeted by an iron silence.
What was more, seeing my husband sit inside that house, his hand moving between chip bowl and mouth, his dead eyes following some overly-developed man preparing to put a ball into a hoop or net or hole in the ground, was like looking at somebody I could only recognise via an almost unestablishable family resemblance. So it was in an act of defiance that I walked into the living room, still with soiled hands, and informed him that I was going for a drink at the Jakkal en Vel. He looked up and, to my surprise, while wiping the chip oil from his chin, said that he would join me after the game was over.
It was a pleasant twenty-minute walk to the bar. The steel point of my umbrella tapped reassuringly on the road and I could feel the warmth of the sun-baked tar radiating up my legs under my dress. The water, after a short shower, turned into a steam. The dried luminous olive green of the fever trees became muted as they held the mist within their canopy.
As I walked along the final bend in the road that leads to the dorp I could see, as the steam cleared in the breeze, the Jakkal en Vel. Its square double-storey Victorian structure stuck out above the more usual single-storey tin roofed houses. But, what made it especially abnormal was that it was painted as a red and white checkerboard – an indication that the, now disused, airport’s runway ran out to the west some 600m behind it.
As I entered its red door I discovered a curved solid oak bar projecting towards me, dividing the room into two spaces. On the left Dr Eloff sat facing away from the entrance, his head bent over his phone. He was in the throes of one of his usual games of chess. I looked around expecting to see Clarence sitting somewhere but I soon realised that only the mayor was there sitting with a person I did not know.
The owner, a large broad-shouldered fellow in a blue check shirt stood in the centre of the bar polishing glasses. A scarlet apron was wrapped around his midriff. He was grinning at me. ‘Good evening stranger. Come in, come in.’ He waved his right hand at the available spaces. ‘Take a seat, take a seat, anywhere for you. They are all the same. Ignore the signs. They are just there as decoration. Testament to the past. Nothing more, thanks to God.’
It was then that I noticed, with a certain discomfort, that Albert was looking straight at me from the right-hand section. Next to him sat a large man, whose huge sunburnt neck and broad muscular shoulders suggested he was a farmer from outside of the dorp. Although my first thought was to join the doctor, I felt that I should express my unhappiness to Albert with regards to his recent ordeal.
‘Good evening mayor,’ I said.
‘Evening Judge President.’
‘I thought I would just reiterate,’ I began, ‘how deeply I regretted having to convict you the other day, and how I find Captain Mandel’s behaviour profoundly concerning.’
‘You are just doing your job,’ he said, ‘and they are just doing theirs. I broke the law.’ He smiled in his tense reluctant manner. ‘Let me get you a brandy and coke. Double?’
It would not have been my choice of drink. In fact, I can’t say that I had ever drunk one before. But wanting to fit in to at least some of the rhythms of Albertsburg I agreed. ‘Please sit down Judge,’ the mayor continued. ‘This is Enoch. He’s a farmer from just outside the city. Jean will be here shortly. So don’t worry, you won’t have to listen to us all night. That’s if you are here to stay for some drinks?’
I nodded and sat down with some reservation. I struggled to think of what I might say to this man and I realised a double brandy and coke was, perhaps, just the tonic. I smiled at him and he gave me a brief glance and then stared back down at his drink. ‘Is that a brandy and coke too?’ I asked.
‘Triple,’ he replied, holding up three abnormally large fingers in case I misunderstood. A brief silence followed as I settled on the bar stool, but it was he who broke the silence. ‘You’re a judge, hey? We’ve never had a judge drinking in here before. That bloody doctor,’ he said loudly waving his hand in Eloff’s direction and laughing, ‘ag man, he never talks to anyone, miserable. The mayor drinks here, but never a judge.’
With this he went back to looking into his drink, turning the glass slowly clockwise on the table with his huge thumb and index finger. The glass seemed as small as a thimble in his hand.
‘Judging must be an interesting job, hey?’ he started again.
‘It has its moments,’ I said, and just as I was about to ask him about farming he began.
‘Yes, judging, I guess it’s a lot of like looking into people’s lives. The way they live. I too would like to have done that.’
‘Really? It can be pretty horrible.’
He looked at me with his mouth cocked as if I had interrupted his train of thought. And I became aware that Enoch was not making small talk but actually had something on his mind.
‘There is a new man next door by me.’ He was now moving his eyes rapidly between my face and his drink. ‘I have been watching him. Nothing strange or kinky you know. I can see into his study from my stoep when his light is on at night. I always have sat on my stoep in the evening. I don’t see a reason to change my ways now that I have a neighbour who doesn’t close his curtains.’ Just then Albert came back with the drinks. ‘I was just telling the judge, hey, about my new neighbour, the artist painter guy. You know the oke who is renting the place across the road.’
The mayor was smiling. He had more confidence about him here, a kind of Dutch courage I guess. ‘You know judge, we gossip a lot about new people who come here,’ Albert said.
‘Did you talk about me?’ I inquired.
‘Ja hey, the city doesn’t stop,’ he laughed.
‘I live a pretty ordinary life.’
‘As Jean says, the ordinary has its interests too. But she normally says this about plants and in particular about those blue blommetjies of the rooibos.’
I could see that the mayor was rather proud of himself for having made this comment. It was, in truth, above his usual intellectual capabilities – but I could imagine Jean saying it. I realised then that I was actually looking forward to Jean’s arrival and felt a certain tension at the thought that I was going to have to sit with these men for an extended period without her.
‘I know that it is stupid,’ Enoch began again, but this time it was almost as if he was talking to himself, ‘but having watched this guy for a week now, I really want to see the painting he’s doing in there. I googled and perhaps he works in an ‘abstract’. But he might have a bowl of fruit in front of him. I would prefer that. I just can’t see, I’ve walked far to the side but I can’t see nothing. Perhaps one day I will ask him to his face.’
‘Why don’t you ask him now?’ Albert said as, just then, a man I had never seen before entered the bar. But they both directed their gaze at the floor when the new man looked over at us. He nodded at me and I nodded back. As I have described, the engineer was a tall cadaverous looking man not without good looks. I remember that I had had the sudden urge to ask him to join us, but then looking at the company I was keeping I decided against it. Instead I watched him order a glass of wine from the barman and take a paper to a table on the other side of the bar.
The three of us sat in silence for some moments until the tall well-built landlord came to clear our glasses. I had met him before across my judicial bench. He had, I knew, been in the merchant navy. Some claimed that he had been a mercenary of some sort, although quite what he had done I did not know at the time. Mr Davidson claimed he had been a Marxist, Sarah suggested that his sympathies had a more reactionary flavour. Everybody in the town called him Boetsman, a corruption some said of bootsman or boatswain. His real name, although very few in the town knew it, was Giambatista Fidanxa – at times he referred to himself as ‘St John’ in the type of translation that this country is fond of. He was a tall dark man, his grey hair was cropped close against his scalp and a bright set of dentures protruded from his mouth, the upper half of which was covered by a large handlebar moustache.
He spoke with what I supposed at first was a foreign accent, although there seemed to be the interference of another tongue. He attested during the time I knew him to the fact that he had lived in many African countries but he spoke several of our local languages with remarkable ease. It seemed as if many parts of Africa had contributed to his identity, although he never admitted coming from any place in particular.
‘Good evening Judge. It is such a delight to have you here. I am not sure I have ever seen you without your cape. I did not recognize you without it. You are quite a different person, transformed. In fact now you look delightful.’ He said this smiling, his teeth looking like they might easily come flying out of his mouth with each word he spoke.
‘Good evening Mr. Fidanxa.’ I said, pronouncing the end of his surname with a click. He smiled, nodded and laughed. ‘Ah yes, ah yes,’ he said, acknowledging either that the pronunciation was right or mocking me for having entirely misplaced it. ‘What can I get you? And of course it’s on the house. You have now found in my favour on two separate occasions. For this you deserve a drink.’
‘Two occasions? I know of only one,’ I said sternly.
‘Come now judge, you must know the police are doing their best to send me out of business.’
‘Well, if they have the law behind them,’ I said, worried that this kind of talk could be dangerous, ‘I will be sure to do the same.’
He looked at me smiling. ‘Well judge, if the police have anything to do with the law in this town, then that is the first I’ve heard of it. You know before you arrived Mandel arrested me and searched the bar for a hoard of cash he said I had buried under my kitchen floor. Hah, for the sake of God, that bloody fool.’
‘Why would he think that?’ I asked.
‘Oh, there is a rumour,’ Boetsman said loudly, without caring who was there to listen, ‘that I was part of a cash in transit robbery before coming here.’
‘And were you?’ I asked.
With this he laughed out loudly, flashing his ill-fitting teeth. ‘I can assure you, you find nothing like that in the places I have worked. In the sea and the bush there are no money trucks. In those places you find only solitude and most often death. And to those empty places of the heart, the security companies do not deliver money. No, Mandel is always up to mischief; God be damned.’ He smiled and winked at me.
I could see this exchange had made the mayor uncomfortable. He seemed to be purposely disregarding what was being said and was staring out the window at the rain. And it is only now that I am writing this that I realise his lips were moving and that he was no doubt counting to himself. His worried look altered, however, and his face lit up as an oblong set of lights belonging to a Mercedes pulled up to the pavement in front of the bar.
‘Jean is here!’ he said in an almost juvenile manner, which might have been an attempt to change the topic.
‘I will wait for her,’ Boetsman said. ‘A drink and a chaser on the house for all of you.’ And I noticed that Boetsman too seemed enlivened by Jean’s arrival, for I saw that he watched her progress from the car to the door with some absorption while vigorously polishing our table.
‘Yes, yes come in, come in. The first lady! My saviour,’ he said as Jean entered. She smiled at him and to my surprise they embraced and kissed twice on the cheek.
‘Hello Boetie,’ she said.
‘I can’t thank you enough for the use of your bakkie, hey, I would have had to have made a million trips up and down to get the bottles from the truck.’ Jean smiled and waved his thanks away. ‘What can I get you all?’ he asked finally.
Taking the order he carried on talking to Jean as he poured the drinks from behind the bar. Then she turned to me and as Boetsman bent to get something from the fridge below, she took my hand and squeezed it with some affection. ‘Hello Judge, so lovely to see you here.’
Returning to the table Boetsman placed the drinks down before us and as he placed mine I asked: ‘So why do you say I have found in your favour on two occasions?’
His smile faded somewhat. ‘Of course, of course, renewing my liquor licence that is the one, the most important, and in the case of Mr Isaacs. If you had found against him the truck would have been impounded for months. I would never have seen any of it. And now with the road as it is, well, it will make it difficult to get very much up here. We will only have the full dray again after the engineer has come to repair it.’
‘Do you really think Isaacs’ arrest was another attempt by Captain Mandel to put you out of business?’ Jean asked looking at Boetsman.
‘Of course. Why not?’ But he now was looking exclusively at me. ‘You do more good than you know Judge.’
‘I simply uphold the law,’ I said.
‘That’s enough. In fact, in a place like this it is a revolutionary act.’
I did not know quite what to say. I had noticed that the mayor had leapt off his seat at the beginning of the conversation and had disappeared to the toilet. Enoch too sat distractedly, seemingly not wishing to listen. Instead he swirled the brandy and coke around in his glass and then sent a large section of it down his throat.
‘The police have had a long history with the drayman,’ Jean began. ‘The dray, back in the old days, used to bring the internet signal up every week with a mobile router. We all used to be able to take our phones to it and retrieve emails and news. Around here the dray is associated with freedom – the police have never liked that. Of course, that’s all changed now, but it is still always a relief to see that the dray has arrived.’
‘Please, please, Jean and Boetsman, no more talk of the police,’ Albert said on returning to his seat. ‘My god, it’s bad enough I spent that time in jail. Let’s just move on and forget it. Boetsman, when are you going to introduce us to that girl of yours, hey?’
Boetsman smiled and laughed. ‘Sadly, there is no girl, mayor. I wish that there was. It would be nice to share with her all that buried money I have. Although we would have to use it slowly to avert Mandel’s suspicion, hey?’
‘Boetie, has a woman in the town, but for some reason he just won’t reveal to us who she is,’ Jean said smiling at me.
He wiped the table again, chuckling to himself. ‘Do you really think a woman would be that crazy enough to love a face like a relief map of the Swartberg? No, no, no, I have no time for this miracle. This bar is my lady.’
By then the Jakkal en Vel had begun to fill up with the people from the dorp. I had never seen the town at night and I noticed that the men’s dress altered from their day-time clothes which would not have suited the climate’s freezing nights. Now they wore coarse woollen polo neck jerseys and jeans, while the women kept their colourful wax-print dresses but covered their tops with dark knitted shawls and their legs revealed knee high boots. Amongst them I could see Clarence’s head sticking out from a group of shorter men on the far side of the bar. ‘Do the locals not come to this side?’ I asked Jean.
‘They have always stood on that side. In the old days they were of course forced to by law. Habits die hard in this part of the world,’ she said wistfully.
Amongst them too I noticed the Jacobson daughters. Their tall, pale and slender figures sat on high stools in the far corner where, with drinks in front of them, they sat knitting dark wool while occasionally exchanging words.
Like the rest of the town they wore black shawls, but their distinctive, angular and pale features produced a look quite different from the others. ‘There’s something otherworldly about those two,’ I said to Jean pointing with my eyes in their direction.
‘Yes, I have always thought of them as something from a painting by Rossetti. They are really quite nice when you get to know them, poor girls.’
‘Why do you say, poor girls?’ I asked.
‘Well there’s not much of a life for them here and they won’t find husbands.’
‘But they are both rather striking, I wouldn’t have thought they would lack for suitors.’
I nodded. ‘And from the other towns?’
‘They don’t mix.’
Jean and I were just discovering each other’s interests in art and a little gossip when my husband, to my great surprise, entered the bar. For some reason, possibly because of the effects of the brandy, I felt a real pleasure in seeing him. A pleasure I knew I had not felt for some time.
Many of the people of the Albertsburg had not seen him before as he had rarely ventured outside of the house at that point. So when he entered I noticed that people were staring at him and there seemed to be a sudden hush. He appeared to take no notice of this and walked up to me and shook the hands of the mayor, Jean and Enoch. Boetsman came over and shook his hand. ‘Ah, so nice to have you here at last, you have always been a great hero of mine, a great hero of this country. And I’ve never listened to the rubbish about you,’ he said. My husband tried his best to smile and brush this complement aside. But I could see him suffering under the strain of these words and my heart at that moment wanted to break.
I was not sure if it was rudeness or shyness but the mayor and Enoch began to speak to eachother after this, in slightly hushed voices while Jean got up and went over to speak to William Jacobson, who was standing at the bar seemingly by himself. Having really no other choice my husband and I turned to one another and we chatted for the first time in a long while of ordinary things: the soccer, gardening, the possibility of going to the capital to see an exhibition. Of course, I wasn’t sure at the time whether he was doing this for its own sake or whether he just wanted the people to see our relationship as functional. But whatever the reason, it was a relief.
We talked until the mayor, no doubt influenced by the alcohol, finally turned and began talking to us. There was nothing unsavoury about it per se, it was just, I guess, what men would call ‘banter’. But I could tell Jean, for one, was not enjoying her husbands behaviour. However, the whole incident might never have come to a head if Albert hadn’t punctuated every sentence with the word ‘chief’ while Enoch kept using the word ‘moffies’ when speaking to my husband.
My husband, for his part, smiled in the mayor’s direction each time ‘chief’ was uttered. But as everybody could tell, except seemingly the mayor and perhaps Enoch, it was causing my husband some offence. I even noticed the man we would come to call the engineer, who was now standing on our side of the bar, was listening in, his hawk-like eyes resting with interest on my husband. ‘So,’ the mayor continued emboldened no doubt by the drink, ‘this bloody soccer is a mess, not so chief? I can’t bloody watch it, chief, I just can’t.’
‘That game is one for bloody moffies,’ Enoch intervened.
‘God gave you hands, use them, that’s what I say. Don’t you think so, chief?’
‘Only moffies refuse to use their hands,’ Enoch grumbled.
‘But our lot don’t seem to know their arse from a minehole,’ Albert roared with laughter with this. ‘So what is next for them chief? Relegation?’
My husband continued to smile at him and raised his glass of scotch in measured and mock agreement each time he was called to agree with whatever nonsense the mayor and Enoch were offering. But he looked miserable.
There was once a time in the old days when I could have comforted him on such occasions with a smile or even a squeeze of the hand, but my interventions had long since failed to offer help. Then the mayor’s conversation moved almost seamlessly on to the general state of the country. ‘Well,’ he continued now utterly soaked and slurring in brandy and coke, ‘you know better than most what a mess this place is in, not so chief? Captain Mandel will tell you just how things have changed for the worse.’ It was a narrative that most people would parrot out after a certain amount of drink. And it was only then that my husband, getting up off his seat and raising himself to his full height, suddenly broke out: ‘I would prefer it if you did not call me ‘chief’. Nor, seeing we are on the topic of words, that you use the word moffie in my presence, nor associate it with me or my preference for soccer. Do you understand?’
‘Albert!’ Jean shouted looking at him with rage. His eyes seemed to lose their drunken mistiness when he realised his wife’s anger. ‘And you, Enoch, sit down immediately!’ Because just for a moment it seemed as if Enoch had got up in order to physically assault my husband. Thankfully he too appeared cowed by Jean’s authority.
‘I’m sorry, hey. I didn’t mean that,’ Albert said to his wife.
‘It’s not me you need to apologise to!’
‘I am sorry. Have I offended you? I didn’t mean to, I promise, honestly.’ Albert stuck out his hand and my husband shook it with some reluctance.
‘I was only going to go to the toilet,’ Enoch said meekly.
‘Okay, well off you go,’ Jean said shaking her head at him.
It was the first time in many months that I had seen my husband stand up for himself. He had, over the last while, lost the will to do it.
We sat there awkwardly not quite knowing what to do or say next. Albert sat stock still until Jean leant over and touched his hand with her index finger which seemed to free him from his anxiety.
‘Judge, I hope you don’t mind me asking,’ the mayor started slurring. ‘I mean I hope I am not breaking any law or anything by asking this, but I want to know what happened to the pick and spade.’
At first I thought perhaps he had seen me gardening earlier that day. But then a penny seemed to drop and I looked at him incredulously. ‘Do you mean hammer and sickle?’ For I suddenly thought that this may be some attempted reference to our old communist affiliations.
‘I didn’t see them. Did the police find those too? I wonder what they would have been used for?’
‘The police?’ I looked at Jean but she showed no signs of being able to clarify what her husband was talking about.
‘I am afraid you are going to have to explain yourself. I think I may have misunderstood.’
His eyes widened as they tried to focus on my face. ‘There was a pick and spade down in the gully the night I was arrested.’
I paused for a moment not knowing what the implication of this was. I scanned the bar to see who was amongst us. ‘Are we talking potential sabotage?’ I lowered my voice. Albert leant in towards me. His eyes were unfocused from the drink and his speech was slurred.
‘The town is plagued…’
‘Oh, Albert please.’ Jean stretched out an arm and pulled him back upright on his stool. ‘The judge is not interested in your silly superstitions, for god’s sake, just stick to the facts,’ Jean whispered. I could see that she too was worried that there might be people listening. ‘This is probably not the place to be talking about it.’
‘But mayor,’ I began, ‘just what’s this about? I mean the spade and the pick, what is their significance?’
‘There was a spade and pick, that’s all I know. I mean, I shouldn’t … I mean, is it sub judice?’
‘There is no case, so no, it can’t be sub judice. And all I can say Mayor is that this is the first I’ve heard of it. Should I ask Mandel?’
‘Oh no please, for the love of god!’ His face went pale with shock and Jean quickly went to hold his hand.
‘Please …’ she said turning to me. ‘Albert could not take another shock like the last.’ I could see his eyes were reddening and tears seemed to be emerging.
‘Okay, I won’t, if it causes you distress.’
‘Thank you. Please, we shouldn’t have brought it up.’ Jean was stroking her husband’s hand.
‘What is happening about the repair of the road?’ I asked trying to divert the conversation and give Albert something to talk about.
‘Jean contacted the Ministry of Interior and Infrastructure,’ he said in a distant kind voice, his eyes were glazed and he was clearly thinking about his time in jail. ‘I could hardly have done it…I was in jail…No, I am not going back. That screaming, I have never heard anything like it.’
‘What screaming?’ I asked, and with this our mayor seemed to clear his head again.
‘Nothing, oh, nothing, I had nightmares in there. It was all very nice. Mandel was fine, actually lovely,’ he said in a quickened and perhaps slightly practiced way. ‘He didn’t do anything. We’re lucky to have him now that I think about it.’ Jean was now rubbing his back.
Of course, I wanted to know more but I knew he was now too frightened to talk. ‘So, when are they sending us an engineer?’ I asked again.
‘They say as soon as possible. That was the last word,’ Jean said.
‘And when will that be?’
‘Soon,’ Albert said in a dissociated tone. And then he said very slowly and very softly, ‘I think it will be soon. All will be well. No need to worry Judge. Please forget what I’ve told you. What a lovely night.’
With this I went to the bar to buy another round. ‘Good evening Judge O’Higgins,’ the thin man said with a pleasant smile.
‘Good evening,’ I replied and after a pause, ‘I suppose you better introduce yourself, as you seem to have an advantage over me.’
The man smiled again and lifting his glass to his mouth he said, ‘Joseph Bain.’
‘And why have you come to join us in this part of the world Mr. Bain?’ I asked, raising my voice so I could be heard over the din of the bar.
‘Escape.’ He too had to elevate his tone.
‘From the law?’
‘In a sense. From our capital.’
‘You will, no doubt, wish to escape from here soon enough,’ I said.
‘Oh, I doubt that. I’ve work to do here.’
‘Oh yes, and what is that?’
‘I’ve retired. I plan to write a book about some of my experiences.’
‘Experiences as what?’
‘I was a civil servant. You see a lot in the service these days.’
‘You always have in this country.’
‘True,’ he said, his thin smile stretching laterally across his face.
‘But why here of all places?’ I said watching Boetsman finishing up with a customer and motioning that I wanted a round.
‘My mother was from here. Not Albertsburg, but the general area.’
‘How are things in the capital these days? It is so difficult to tell from the internet.’
‘Not good.’ He smiled in a way as if to suggest that we were secret sharers of some attitude.
‘In what sense?’
‘Protests … violence … There have been some disturbing arrests, as you may know.’
He was looking at me as if he was trying to assess something in my face.
‘Depressing. We’ll no doubt speak again,’ I said picking my drinks off the bar and moving back to my husband.
This conversation was a barometer of the times. Bain certainly knew my politics. But fear, I knew, would keep us at a distance. Fear that the Civil Co-operation Bureau, that part of the security cluster known as the ‘Devil’s Coop’, had its ears out.
Of course, it was ridiculous to believe that they could hear us in a noisy bar in Albertsburg but that is the extent of how fearful those who were politically active had become by then. It was not that the Coop were listening then and there, but more that words could be repeated until they reached the ears that were listening.
By the time I got back to my husband the conversation at the table had drifted onto fishing. We finished our drinks but my husband, Albert and Enoch demanded to stay for one last round. Jean and I, however, had had enough. I noticed then that Bain too had left the bar. I got up with Jean. She offered me a lift, but I felt a walk would clear my head a little before going to bed. Bain was standing outside in the light of the stoep smoking a cigar. ‘Off home?’ he asked. I nodded as I said goodbye to Jean. ‘East or west?’
‘I am off in that direction too. Shall we walk together?’ I saw no reason to refuse and we stepped out onto the street. ‘So, is the show over in there?’
‘You mean between the mayor and my husband?’
He nodded and I saw in the light of the street lamp, not for the first time, that straight-lipped sardonic smile of his.
‘Yes, they seemed to have now become inseparable.’
‘Romances often begin with a fight.’
‘Why do you think that is?’ I asked.
‘I suppose one sees the worst the person has to offer and realise that things then can only improve,’ he said releasing a cloud of grey smoke into the gloom.
‘That is a very mundane analysis. Personally I think, as they say, love is close to hate.’
‘And that is very unanalytical.’
‘Is this a fight?’ I asked.
The night was cloudy and, as we walked past the police station, a slanting rain began to fall. Both of our umbrellas unfurled and clicked into place almost simultaneously. The thin unpleasant looking konstabel was standing smoking outside, under the shelter of the afdak, a plume of e-cigarette vapour drifted into the eaves. He seemed to nod in our direction, and I remember thinking at the time that it was almost as if he had nodded at Bain rather than at me. It was a sign that I took to be yet another personal slight.
‘The police,’ I said, ‘play an interesting role in this dorp.’
‘As they do in the rest of the country,’ Bain replied.
This provoked another silence between us. ‘So,’ I began again, ‘what is this book you are writing going to be about?’
‘Oh, it is just a piece of detective fiction, mixed with a courthouse drama. As I said it’s based on some experiences I had in the civil service. Frivolous stuff really. I thought of writing something a little more literary: a bildungsroman, a man’s fall from grace, a political exposition, a disguised philosophical work concerning the nature of fiction. But I am told these things don’t sell.’
‘I believe so,’ I said. ‘You haven’t thought of taking up painting?’ I asked, expecting an admission.
‘Oh lord no, they threw me out of finger painting classes at the age of four,’ he laughed. ‘I hear you enjoy gardening. I am a bit of an amateur botanist myself. My mother was one.’
‘And who told you that I gardened?’
‘Boetsman. He might seem like he would prefer to be standing on a quarter deck with a cutlass held between his gums but he talks, and he’s not frightened like the rest of us. He is an unusual character. I wonder just how he found his way here.’
‘I have wondered that myself,’ I said.
We spent the rest of the walk shining our torch apps to light the way and talking about gardening and the varieties of flora that exist in Albertsburg’s valley. He pointed out the two varieties of fever tree along the road. ‘My mother, as I have said, grew up in these parts. This one,’ he said stabbing the trunk with the point of his umbrella, ‘is not local. It is an alien from up north. The bark actually photosynthesises. It’s still used by the sangomas.’
‘Yes,’ I said, ‘my mother-in-law used to use it to enter dreams she called the “white paths”.’
‘Ja, I know them. They call it around here “die blinkende wit waarheid paaie”.’
‘The shining white paths of truth. Yes, it is the same in our language.’
‘It’s potion we could all do with,’ he laughed and tearing off a piece of bark he bit a piece off and he began to chew, offering me the rest.
‘No thanks, I think the brandy and cokes have already set me onto those byways.’
‘And what truths can you reveal?’ he asked, looking at me quizzically.
‘That all dreamers lie.’
‘And who might those dreamers be?’ he enquired after a slight pause. And I got the vaguely unpleasant feeling then that I was being tested in some way. Perhaps he was simply looking for a sign from me. A sign that I would take him into my confidence so that he could do likewise. But only the utterly foolhardy would do something significant on the first night. There had been, after all, reports that the death squads of the Devil’s Coop were active again in certain parts of the country. That was the truth, no matter how distant it was to us in our disconnected valley.
We walked the rest of the way to my house in silence. Although I noticed that Bain, at one point, began to hum very gently to himself Qongqothwane – the song of the dung beetle’s journey.
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