Authors: Nadine Gordimer
Tags: #Fiction, #General
The old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum there a rises a great diversity of morbid symptoms.
You like to have some cup of tea?—
July bent at the doorway and began that day for them as his kind has always done for their kind.
The knock on the door. Seven o’clock. In governors’ residences, commercial hotel rooms, shift bosses’ company bungalows, master bedrooms
—the tea-tray in black hands smelling of Lifebuoy soap. The knock on the door
no door, an aperture in thick mud walls, and the sack that hung over it looped back for air, sometime during the short night.
Bam, I’m stifling; her voice raising him from the dead, he staggering up from his exhausted sleep.
No knock; but July, their servant, their host, bringing two pink glass cups of tea and a small tin of condensed milk, jaggedly-opened, specially for them, with a spoon in it.
—No milk for me.—
—Or me, thanks.—
The black man looked over to the three sleeping children bedded-down on seats taken from the vehicle. He smiled confirmation: —They all right.—
—Yes, all right.—As he dipped out under the doorway: —Thank you, July, thank you very much.—
She had slept in round mud huts roofed in thatch like this before. In the Kruger Park, a child of the shift boss and his family on leave, an enamel basin and ewer among their supplies of orange squash and biscuits on the table coming clear as this morning light came. Rondavels adapted by Bam’s ancestors on his Boer side from the huts of the blacks. They were a rusticism true to the continent; before air-conditioning, everyone praised the natural insulation of thatch against heat. Rondavels had concrete floors, thickly shined with red polish, veined with trails of coarse ants; in Botswana with Bam and his guns and hunter’s supply of red wine. This one was the prototype from which all the others had come and to which all returned: below her, beneath the iron bed on whose rusty springs they had spread the vehicle’s tarpaulin, a stamped mud and dung floor, above her, cobwebs stringy with dirt dangling from the rough wattle steeple that supported the frayed grey thatch. Stalks of light poked through. A rim of shady light where the mud walls did not meet the eaves; nests glued there, of a brighter-coloured mud—wasps, or bats. A thick lip of light round the doorway; a bald fowl entered with chicks cheeping, the faintest sound in the world. Its gentleness, ordinariness produced sudden, total disbelief. Maureen and Bam Smales. Bamford Smales, Smales, Caprano & Partners, Architects. Maureen Hetherington from Western Areas Gold Mines. Under 10s Silver Cup for Classical and Mime at the Johannesburg Eisteddfod. She closed her eyes again and the lurching motion of the vehicle swung in her head as the swell of the sea makes the land heave underfoot when the passenger steps ashore after a voyage. She fell asleep as, first sensorily dislocated by the assault of the vehicle’s motion, then broken in and contained by its a-rhythm, she had slept from time to time in the three days and nights hidden on the floor of the vehicle.
People in delirium rise and sink, rise and sink, in and out of lucidity. The swaying, shuddering, thudding, flinging stops, and the furniture of life falls into place. The vehicle was the fever. Chattering metal and raving dance of loose bolts in the smell of the children’s car-sick. She rose from it for gradually longer and longer intervals. At first what fell into place was what was vanished, the past. In the dimness and traced brightness of a tribal hut the equilibrium she regained was that of the room in the shift boss’s house on mine property she had had to herself once her elder sister went to boarding-school. Picking them up one by one, she went over the objects of her collection on the bookshelf, the miniature brass coffeepot and tray, the four bone elephants, one with a broken trunk, the khaki pottery bulldog with the Union Jack painted on his back. A lavender-bag trimmed with velvet forget-me-nots hung from the upright hinge of the adjustable mirror of the dressing-table, cut out against the window whose light was meshed by minute squares of the wire flyscreen, clogged with mine dust and dead gnats. The dented silver stopper of a cut-glass scent bottle was cemented to the glass neck by layers and years of dried Silvo polish. Her school shoes, cleaned by Our Jim (the shift boss’s name was Jim, too, and so her mother talked of her husband as ‘My Jim’ and the house servant as ‘Our Jim’), were outside the door. A rabbit with a brown patch like a birthmark over one eye and ear was waiting in his garden hutch to be fed … As if the vehicle had made a journey so far beyond the norm of a present it divided its passengers from that the master bedroom
had been lost, jolted out of chronology as the room where her returning consciousness properly belonged: the room that she had left four days ago.
The shapes of pigs passed the doorway and there were calls in one of the languages she had never understood. Once, she knew—she always knew—her husband was awake although still breathing stertorously as a drunk. She heard herself speak.
—Where is it?—She was seeing, feeling herself contained by the vehicle.
—He said hide it in the bush.—
Another time she heard something between a rustling and a gnawing. —What? What’s that?—
He didn’t answer. He had driven most of the time, for three days and three nights. If no longer asleep, stunned by the need of sleep.
She slowly began to inhabit the hut around her, empty except for the iron bed, the children asleep on the vehicle seats—the other objects of the place belonged to another category: nothing but a stiff rolled-up cowhide, a hoe on a nail, a small pile of rags and part of a broken Primus stove, left against the wall. The hen and chickens were moving there; but the slight sound she heard did not come from them. There would be mice and rats. Flies wandered the air and found the eyes and mouths of her children, probably still smelling of vomit, dirty, sleeping, safe.
The vehicle was a bakkie, a small truck with a three-litre engine, fourteen-inch wheels with heavy-duty ten-ply tyres, and a sturdy standard chassis on which the buyer fits a fibreglass canopy with windows, air-vents and foam-padded benches running along either side, behind the cab. It makes a cheap car-cum-caravan for white families, generally Afrikaners, and their half-brother coloureds who can’t afford both. For more affluent white South Africans, it is a second, sporting vehicle for purposes to which a town car is not suited.
It was yellow. Bam Smales treated himself to it on his fortieth birthday, to use as a shooting-brake. He went trapshooting to keep his eye in, out of season, and when winter came spent his weekends in the bush, within a radius of two hundred kilometres of his offices and home in the city, shooting guinea-fowl, red-legged partridge, wild duck and spur-wing geese. Before the children were born, he had taken his wife on hunting trips farther afield—to Botswana, and once, before the Portuguese régime was overthrown, to Moçambique. He would no sooner shoot a buck than a man; and he did not keep any revolver under his pillow to defend his wife, his children or his property in their suburban house.
The vehicle was bought for pleasure, as some women are said to be made for pleasure. His wife pulled the face of tasting something that set her teeth on edge, when he brought it home. But he defended the dyed-blonde jauntiness; yellow was cheerful, it repelled heat.
They stood round it indulgently, wife and family, the children excited, as it seemed nothing else could excite them, by a new possession. Nothing made them so happy as buying things; they had no interest in feeding rabbits. She had smiled at him the way she did when he spurted ahead of her and did what he wanted; a glimpse of the self that does not survive coupling. —Anything will spot you a mile off, in the bush.—
In various and different circumstances certain objects and individuals are going to turn out to be vital. The wager of survival cannot, by its nature, reveal which, in advance of events. How was one to know? Civil Emergency Planning Services will not provide. (In ‘76, after the Soweto Riots, pharmaceutical firms brought out a government-approved line in First Aid boxes.) The circumstances are incalculable in the manner in which they come about, even if apocalyptically or politically foreseen, and the identity of the vital individuals and objects is hidden by their humble or frivolous role in an habitual set of circumstances.
It began prosaically weirdly. The strikes of 1980 had dragged on, one inspired or brought about by solidarity with another until the walkout and the shut-down were lived with as contiguous and continuous phenomena rather than industrial chaos. While the government continued to compose concessions to the black trade unions exquisitely worded to conceal exactly concomitant restrictions, the black workers concerned went hungry, angry, and workless anyway, and the shop-floor was often all that was left of burned-out factories. For a long time, no one had really known what was happening outside the area to which his own eyes were witness. Riots, arson, occupation of the headquarters of international corporations, bombs in public buildings—the censorship of newspapers, radio and television left rumour and word-of-mouth as the only sources of information about this chronic state of uprising all over the country. At home, after weeks of rioting out of sight in Soweto, a march on Johannesburg of (variously estimated) fifteen thousand blacks had been stopped at the edge of the business centre at the cost of a (variously estimated) number of lives, black and white. The bank accountant for whom Bam had designed a house tipped off that if the situation in the city showed no signs of being contained (his phrase) the banks would have to declare a moratorium. So Bam, in a state of detached disbelief at his action, taking along a moulded plastic-foam box that had once held a Japanese hi-fi system, withdrew five thousand rands in notes and Maureen gave the requisite twenty-four hours’ notice for withdrawal from her savings account and cleared it, one thousand seven hundred and fifty-six rands in notes which, secured by rubber bands, she carried home without incident in a woven grass shopping bag with Bam’s suit from the dry cleaner folded ostentatiously on top.
And then the banks did not close. The blacks were held back (they were temporarily short of ammunition and they had long since given up the heroism of meeting bullets with sticks and stones) by the citizen force strengthened by white Rhodesian immigrants, some former Selous Scouts, accustomed to this sort of fighting, and the arrival of a plane-load of white mercenaries flown in from Bangui, Zaïre, Uganda—wherever it was they had been propping up the current Amins, Bokassas and Mobutus. The children stayed home from school but played wildly at street-fighting in the peaceful garden. The liquor store suddenly delivered wine and beer ordered weeks before, two black men in overalls embroidered with the legend of a brand of cane spirit carrying the cases into the kitchen and exchanging time-of-day jokingly with the servants. For the twentieth, the hundredth time, since the pass-burnings of the Fifties, since Sharpeville, since Soweto ‘76, since Elsie’s River 1980, it seemed that all was quietening down again.
First the Smales had given the time left as ten years, then another five years, then as perhaps projected, shifted away into their children’s time. They yearned for there to be no time left at all, while there still was. They sickened at the appalling thought that they might find they had lived out their whole lives as they were, born white pariah dogs in a black continent. They joined political parties and ‘contact’ groups in willingness to slough privilege it was supposed to be their white dog nature to guard with Mirages and tanks; they were not believed. They had thought of leaving, then, while they were young enough to cast off the blacks’ rejection as well as white privilege, to make a life in another country. They had stayed; and told each other and everyone else that this and nowhere else was home, while knowing, as time left went by, the reason had become they couldn’t get their money out—Bam’s growing saving and investments, Maureen’s little legacy of De Beers shares her maternal grandfather had left her, the house there was less and less opportunity of selling as city riots became a part of life. Once again, for the hundred-and-first time, thousands of blacks were imprisoned, broken glass was swept up, cut telephone lines were reconnected, radio and television assured that control was re-established. The husband and wife felt it was idiotic to have that money hidden in the house; they were about to put it back in the bankagain …