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Authors: Nadine Gordimer

Tags: #Fiction, #General

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BOOK: July's People
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A good thing there had not been time to get back into the vehicle; it would be disrespectful not to be standing for this meeting. But July seemed to be fumbling his part, attempting no introduction—well, perhaps—what could he say?
Chief, this is the Master.
(How many times, back there, had Maureen and Bam tried to get him to drop the Simon Legree term, but he wouldn’t, couldn’t, as if there were no term to replace it, none that would express exactly what the relationship between Bam and him was, for him. Yet when some friend of the house occupied the guest room or was invited to Sunday drinks and supper, the servant who was also a familiar would exchange with the white man or woman easy greetings and superficial family news.) The big black man murmured deeply and hastily over a formula of greeting (they wouldn’t understand, anyway) whose tone contradicted, authoritatively, any welcome or acceptance.

—Bamford Smales. My wife … our children.—He put out a hand and the other took it. The process of weighing up a presence—the yellow bakkie, the white man outside the vehicle and the woman and children inside—was like a form of digestion, audible in the sounds the man made without words. The clearing of his throat was a rap for attention. —You coming from where?—July must have told him, he must, like everyone else around, have known of their presence and their story; this was the magisterial ritual of cross-examination.

—Johannesburg, with July.—

—I see, I see …—The jaw lifted consideringly and strongly from its bed of fat and the eyes sized the contents of the vehicle once more, acknowledging a greeting from the woman by a tremor of flesh-swags under the chin. Daniel, once driver of a milk truck in town, got out giving the raised fist greeting of the black townships, and stood ignored, roughly aligned with July.

—And you are coming here. For what are you coming?—

A smile—unconscious attempt to be ingratiating; if one knew what would please …?—a hand run over the pate where there were only fine, short blond hairs left, the skin was not pleasant to touch, scaly from exposure to the sun. —Well, you know the trouble there. It’s like a war. It is a war. We could have been killed. The houses where we stayed … they’ve been burned, bombed—some of them. People had to leave, our children might have been hurt. July brought us.—

July interrupted. —He tell me the chiefs in his house. We go there to the chief’s house now.—

The big man’s gait was suddenly recognizable as that of a city doorman or (to her, certainly) an
induna
who would sit on guard on his fruit-crate outside the compound where the shift boss’s labourers lived. That must have been why she hadn’t got out of the bakkie as ‘his wife’, to stand beside ‘her husband’. Anyway, he shook hands with the man again before they drove on.

—What was he? I mean, what does he do?

—It seemed always to amuse July to be the mentor, as if he didn’t take too seriously a white’s wish to comprehend or faculty of comprehension for what he had never needed to know as a black had the necessity to understand, take on, the white people’s laws and ways. —Headman. He’s headman for the chief.—

—Really headman, or are there more than one?

—Laughter again. —Sometime is plenty, is plenty villages.—

—A headman for each village?—

—Ev-’ry village. But this one is headman for the chief. Same village like where the chief he’s live.—

She took up her old role as interpreter. —Don’t you see? The headman of all the headmen. A personal assistant, adviser—I don’t know—to the chief.—

He steered the yellow bakkie in the spaces between mud huts, people and animals. The rag flags of religious sects and those that were the professional plates put up by
sangomas
, men and women who foretold the future and interpreted the past by throwing bones, stood out in bright, store colours on wattle poles outside some huts. There was a collapsing wattle stall with an advertisement for Teaspoon Tips Tea nailed to it, but nothing displayed for sale. He spoke to her alone. —We should have brought something.—

—A case of gin and the promise of a gun-boat?—

—A bottle of whisky.—The kind of goodwill gesture it was permissible to make towards a good client, or the gift he would take to a farmer in return for the hospitality of a shooting weekend. It could hardly be expected to change the mind of the black man who had the right and authority, here, to tell them to go. But if he had thought of it, if July could have found a bottle somewhere (the Indian store-keeper wouldn’t sell drink), he would have told him to buy one.

—There was something about the American Embassy.—

—But in Portuguese. Might have had to do with another part of the world.—

—No, I could make out … there were references to Pretoria and Johannesburg.—He had brought the vehicle to a stop where July indicated: a group of the usual huts, one that had a crude porch—wattle poles with a sheet of corrugated tin. A girl of about twelve swung a baby boy out of the way, by his arm, little moles of breasts nosing up from her dark flesh. Johannesburg, Pretoria; as much another part of the world as anywhere else that might have been mentioned.

They all got out of the vehicle and stood in the shade of the tin roof. Round each support the earth had washed away forming a circular depression whose rim was hard and smooth as and the colour of toothless gums. Everything in these villages could be removed at the sweep of a bulldozer or turned to ashes by a single match in the thatch; only the earth, worn to the bone, testified to the permanence of the feet that abraded it, hands that tamped it, hearth-fires that tempered it. Flies were drowning in a black pot crusted with mealie-meal set to soak off in water. A man came from the doorway—too dark to see in unless one went close up, which visitors couldn’t do—and talked to July, went back inside again. A woman with spirals of white hair standing up over her head theatrically (they customarily covered their heads with
doeks
or caps) carried out a tin basin and emptied dirty water with a twang. When she had done it, she turned to Daniel, who referred her to July; she questioned him and was answered with all his repertoire of amiable, thoughtful, lively, deferential cadences and exclamations. Another man came up; the first appeared again. The conversations died away like songs. There was nothing to be done but wait. The children tried to fondle the usual cats, but the cats were terrified of human hands and hid behind an old car radiator grid whose honeycomb was welded with rust. Victor wanted to know if his father would buy it. —It’s a real Morris, it’s from the wire-wheel model. Oh come on, dad, man,
ask
. If they’ll sell it. But just ask.—

He felt unable to answer his son. There was a car seat (not from the same car) and Maureen had plonked down on it; how everything came easily to her now, if she didn’t know what was expected of her she did as she liked. He put himself beside her. Before an operation for piles he had waited like this on a trolley in the hospital corridor, his feet cold and his mind held just above anxiety by some drug he had been given, or maybe merely by the business of waiting and the uselessness of any volition.

He got to his feet suddenly. A man had appeared in a group of those already seen and July and Daniel had at once fallen to their knees and folded their hands. The thin man’s body had none of the city African’s ease inside his clothes. How to recognize a black chief in the same sort of cast-offs other rural blacks wore? But a new snap-brimmed hat rested just above irritable veins raised in sunken temples.

He towered, clumsy and blond, bald, before the chief he was being presented to. The chief shook hands with him, his woman, tactfully ignored the children, who were entranced, between laughter and queer awe, at the sight of July and Daniel. Their mother gave them a quick signal to say nothing.

Three or four plastic stacking chairs were brought from somewhere behind the hut—apparently this was not the chief’s house but a forecourt for receiving strangers. July and Daniel straightened up with casual ease; and everyone sat down in a row or squatted in line. In order to look at whoever was speaking it was necessary to lean forward and peer along the row. Some women with tins of water on their heads had stopped a few yards off and were an audience which the chief’s assembly faced, but the women did not dare come closer.

The screws that attached the sheeny mother-of-pearl plastic seat to its frame were loose on Bam’s chair and his thumb worked automatically to tighten them as he listened without understanding. The chief had the sharp, impatient, sceptical voice of a man quicker than the people he keeps around him, but knew no white man’s language. Why should he? It was not for him to work as a servant or go down the mines. He twitted with questions he didn’t expect answered—he would look along at his men, at July, with the cocked grin of one who rejects feeble comment in advance. He bit on a match in the corner of his mouth while others talked.

July was translating, god help us. It was all gone through again. Where had they come from? Why here? —The chief he say, he ask, yes, I’m work for you, but he never see a white man he come to his boy’s place.—July had taken on the inattentive face of the interpreter, arranging words without meaning for or application to himself. Daniel tittered like a flirtatious girl. Maureen laughed, too, directly to the chief; apparently it was the right thing to do, he took it as applause, his mulberry-dark wrinkled lips open, his yellowed eyes acknowledging. Then there was a turn to serious, impersonal matters; no different here from anywhere else, the rituals of power. Whether it is an audience with the Pope, an interrogation by the secret police, an interview (student days) with the dean of the faculty of architecture, after you have been presumed to have been put at ease and before you are given the unknown decision you have come for, there is the stage of the man-to-man discussion. The chief wants to know exactly what it is that’s happening there, Jewburg. (The contraction is not anti-semitic, it’s a matter of pronunciation.) He means he wants to hear—from an eye-witness—white—what it is that has taken place at last, after three-hundred-and-fifty years, between black people and white people.

—Who is it who is blowing up the government in Pretoria? It’s those people from Soweto?—

—Not only Soweto. Everywhere. Everyone is in it this time. Explain to him—there’s fighting in all the towns.—

—He’s know. And he’s ask you, why the police doesn’t arrest those people like in 1976. Like in ‘80. Why the police doesn’t shoot.—

—The blacks in the police have joined the fighting. They won’t arrest their own people any more. That was the beginning.—

—And the white soldiers, they don’t shoot those police?—The chief listened to the translation of his own question, his head turned half-away, face drawn together, not prepared to be taken in by anyone.

—It’s a war. It’s not like that, any more … The blacks have also got guns. Bombs (miming the throwing of a hand grenade). All kinds of things. Same as the white army, everything that kills. People have come back from Botswana and Zimbabwe, Zambia and Namibia, from Moçambique, with guns.—

Sometimes the chief took up explication in their own language, with his men; the white man was dropped from the discussion. Maureen’s concentration jerked a rein on July. —What’s he say?—

—He’s say he can’t believe that; white people are not shooting, the government is not killing those men? Always the white men got those guns, those tanks, aeroplanes. Long time. Even from fourteen-eighteen, King George war. Even from Smuts and Vorster time. The white men can’t run away. No. Why they run away?—

Us and them. Who is us, now, and who them? —They’re shooting all right. But they’re not the only ones with guns, now. Even planes. The blacks have Cubans flying from Moçambique and Namibia.—

Us and them. What he’s really asking about: an explosion of roles, that’s what the blowing up of the Union Buildings and the burning of master bedrooms is.

—And they want to kill you.—The chief spoke in English without any explanation and with a face that stopped short any show of surprise.

She—Maureen—seemed to take it she was the one addressed. On the stroke of dead silence, she laughed again, to him. Perhaps she couldn’t speak. And blood rose to the burned and freckled surface of her skin, the thin face glistening perpetually with sweat; poor thing, she changed nakedly like a chameleon before them—something beyond her control.

He—Bam—if they wanted to gloat at
umlungu
, white baas,
nkosi, morema, hosi
and his family delivered into their hands—there was nothing he would say to them. Even July did not look at the face of the one he used to insist on calling master. An exhibit has no claims on anyone.
And they want to kill you.
If it amused, if it shocked the chief—take the remark how you liked—it was his privilege, irascible, ill-nourished old man, king of migrant workers, of a wilderness of neglect, villages without men, fields without tractors, children coughing in rags. But when the edict came,
Out, get out
, that same kingly authority would have to order July to give back the vehicle; would a subject who had lived so long in the suburbs, under another authority that he had now seen destroyed (even white women looted medicine from shops), recognize a chiefs order?

One or two people got up and left; perhaps the audience was over. But it was merely a lull. The chief sucked loudly and sharply through the gaps in his teeth. Everyone listened to the sound as if it were intelligible. When he spoke again it was in his own language; July translated. —You think they can find this place with those people?’

—I don’t understand the chief.—

—Those people they’re fighting with the others.

—July was prompted by Daniel, in their language from which one foreign word dropped out: Cubas.

—You mean will the Cubans come here? How can I say?—

—He says, the government tell him long time, the Russias and those—what Daniel speak—they going to take his country here from him.—

—Oh the government. What they said. The sort of thing they told the homeland leaders, the chiefs. But now it’s black people who are making this war to get everybody’s land backfrom the whites who tookit—

BOOK: July's People
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