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Authors: Nadine Gordimer

Tags: #Fiction, #General

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BOOK: July's People
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—He’s ask, your land too?—

—I didn’t ever have any land, I don’t own farms—

—Your house, too?—

—Oh my house … yes, the land only whites could build on in town—maybe they’ll take that. Maybe not.—

It might be standing empty; it might be burned down. But July’s woman Ellen might have moved back into his quarters in the yard and be quietly caretaking …

The chief spoke for himselfagain, in English. —Those people from Soweto. They come here with Russias, those other ones from Moçambique, they all want take this country of my nation. Eh? They not our nation. Ama-Zulu, amaXhosa, baSotho … I don’t know. They were already there by the mine, coming near here. If they coming, the government it’s going give me guns. Yes! They give us guns, we going kill those people when they come with their guns.—He leaned far forward, breaking the angle of his legs at the bony knees like a penknife snapped half-shut. He could have been offering the privilege of a woman to the white man: —You bring your gun and you teach how it’s shooting. Before, the white people are not letting us buy gun. Even me, I’m the chief, even my father and his father’s father—you know?—we not having guns. When those Soweto and Russias, what-you-call-it come, you shoot with us. You help us.—The speech broke out into the eloquence of their own language; he harangued them all, his force flew rhetoric that ended majestically with reverberations from his iron-dark, iron-spare chest showing through a cheap nylon shirt, and in the dying away of hissing breaths with a final sound like a high-note clap! at the back of his throat.

—My gun.—Bamford Smales got on his feet, turned to his wife where she sat with her two fists on her thighs. All that met him was the movement of her eyeballs under thin membranes of her lowered lids; the eyes staring at the stamped earth with the reflex shift of focus brought about by a trail of ants in her line of vision, crowding round the feeding-trough formed by the body of a crushed insect.

There was about her the aura of someone under hypnosis whom it is dangerous to touch with reality.
—My
gun?—

He did not know he had lifted his arms wide until he saw July, the black men—all of them were looking at his palms open to them, sinking. —You’re not going to shoot your own people. You wouldn’t kill blacks. Mandela’s people, Sobukwe’s people.—(Would they have forgotten Luthuli? heard of Biko? Not of their ‘nation’ although he was famous in New York and Stockholm, Paris, London and Moscow.)—You’re not going to take guns and help the white government kill blacks, are you? Are you? For this—this village and this empty bush? And they’ll kill you. You mustn’t let the government make you kill each other. The whole black nation is your nation.—

Like the chief, like July, like everyone, she was hearing him say what he and she had always said, it came lamenting, searching from their whole life across the silent bush in which they had fallen from the fabric of that life as loose buttons drop and are lost.

The match worked from the right corner of the chief’s mouth to the left. He sucked once at the gap in his teeth. —How many you got there by Mwawate’s place?—One eye closed, hands in position, taking aim. Of course, ‘July’ was a name for whites to use; for fifteen years they had not been told what the chiefs subject really was called.

—It’s a shot-gun, to kill birds. Birds to eat. Oh and I did get two wart-hogs with it.—

—You not got another kind, revolver?—The kind white men are known to keep in their bedrooms, to protect their radios and TV sets and coveted suits of clothing.

—I don’t shoot people.—

A short disgusted short from the black man; a back-wash of laughter.

And when you are disbelieved you begin somehow to accommodate, to fit the accusation: not to believe yourself. The parrot-call of the whites back there had been ‘You mean to say you wouldn’t defend your own wife and children?’ Her husband kicked the big dead insect from before her, the thing landed among and sent squealing Gina and the threesome made with black children out in the heat. The child ran off clutched intimately in the thrilled group, and he had to call after her, she would disappear into the dark of this hut or that and wouldn’t be found, as usual, taken in, by those who lived inside, as neither he nor his wife ever were; beer-drink familiarity was of the order of pub acquaintance between men who never invited each other to their houses. —We’re leaving now, time to go!—

—Aw no … not yet … Going home?—

Yes, home. Gina was at home among the chickens, hearth ashes and communal mealie-meal pots of July’s place. Bamford Smales and his wife and the chief were together a few minutes longer, standing about now, smiling, exchanging remarks about the need for rain again; thanks, and protestations of pleasure at meeting. The chief implied that he was open to complaints about July. —Everything it’s all right there. He’s doing nice, you getting food, what you want?—

It was she who smiled at July, said what had to be said. —We owe him everything.—

The two white people stepped forward, one by one, to shake the chief’s hand and those of his elders. He parted from the white man as if acknowledging an invitation. —I come to see that gun. You teach me.—

Chapter 16

 

In the vehicle they did not speak in front of July. It was July himself who challenged criticism, or merely explained (Maureen might be able to interpret his attitude, Bam not). —The African people is funny people. They don’t want know this nation or this nation. The country people. Only his own nation we know, each one.—

Maureen seemed to follow. —Your chief wants to be left alone. But it’s not possible.—

—He’s talking talking. Talking too much.

—Their cautious lack of response roused a kind of obstinacy in July. —You can tell me, what he can do? You tell me?—

—He told you. He’ll fight.—

—How he can fight? Did you see him fight when the government is coming, telling him he must pay tax? When they saying he must kill some his cattle? He must do this or this. He is our chief, but he doesn’t fight when the white people tell him he must do what they want—
they
want. Now how can he fight when the black soldiers come, they say do this or this. How can he fight? He is poor man. He is chief but poor man, he hasn’t got money. If they come over here, those what-you-call-it, the people from Soweto they bring them, they eat his mealies, they hungry, kill a cow—what he’s going do? Can’t do nothing. Talking, talking.—

The heat of their three bodies welded them together on the seat. July was driving; he took them right up almost to the door of the hut, his mother’s house that he had given them, they drew apart from one another as the wet flesh of a ripe fruit gives. Then he drove away to put the yellow bakkie in its hiding-place taking Victor, Gina and Royce along for the ride, picking up other children who ran after him as he went, part of the same gang. Daniel sat up front, he and July were side by side again. When they walked to the settlement July would have the keys of the vehicle back in his pocket.

It was the first time the Smales had had to come home to: the iron bed, the Primus, the pink glass cups and saucers in the enamel basin with its sores of rust, the tin of milk powder and the general-store packet of sugar covered with a newspaper. Living within the hut they had lost sense of it. But now it was waiting for them. Coming from the stare of the sun into the dim enclosure smelled rather than seen—old, smoky grass and earth damp with what spilled from vessels and human bodies instead of dew and rain—they scarcely made each other out. In a tin-bright angle of sunlight drawn by the slide-rule of the doorway a fowl with a bald neck was sitting on the suitcase of their possessions. Maureen read the labels to herself as if she had never seen them before. Statler-Hilton Buenos Aires Albergo San Lorenzo

Mantua Heerengracht Hotel Cape Town. Bam chased the fowl.

—Don’t lie on the bed.—

They could see each other now, blotched by dazzle. He turned only to give her a look: who says I was going to. She lit the Primus; it was the oily smell of home. They had had a friend, once detained on suspicion of working with blacks for this revolution, who burned the sweaters she had worn in prison because she couldn’t dissociate from the wool the smell of the cell in which they’d warmed her.

He turned the tuning knob of the radio and tried the aerial at every angle its swivel allowed. His fingers moved in hesitant concentration, someone feeling out, listening for the combination that would spring a lock. The aerial wavered the single antenna of an injured crayfish he had once caught at Gansbaai. She attracted his attention with a new battery held up, end to end, between thumb and forefinger. He shook his head. There is no music of the spheres, science killed that along with all other myths; there are only the sounds of chaos, roaring, rending, crackling out of which the order that is the world has been won. No peace beyond this world—not there, either. When the racket was lost a moment, only a cosmic sigh; they heard the sough of time and space, the wave poised over everything.

—Let me have a go.—

—Magic touch …—Their black box was ceded to her; but this one would not contain the record of their disaster, their crash from the suburb to the wilderness. It would only bring to them the last news, before silence, from Military Area Radio Network. Perhaps that had come already. She tried everything he had tried, and then twirled wildly. —Bloody thing.—Handed it back; he hung it on the nail where the previous occupant of the hut had hung her hoe.

In place of chaos, the sounds of July’s—the chiefs—form of order came to them. Someone droning song in rhythm with movement. The hiccuping wail of a baby being joggled on someone’s back, old voices and young shouts in the concourse that was to these people newspaper, library, archives and theatre. And from over there, always to be heard, near and far, beyond where she could still see the yellow of the bakkie under black twigs, the sound of water gouting slowly from the narrow neck of a jar—the cuckoo falcon that called, beckoned and never showed itself in the bush that had no other side.

—If only I could have heard better. Even in Portuguese I might have been able to make out if—

Her expectant face, put on to dismiss rather than express any confidence: his mouth open to speak drew in air instead, he stroked roughly from under his chin down his throat as if he couldn’t breathe.

—What was the wave-length? Did you remember? You’re sure?—

—You tried every wave-length yourself.—

—Perhaps it’s the set. We can borrow Daniel’s when they come back. The bakkie’s there; I don’t know where they’ve got to, I don’t see them.—She no longer had to worry about her children; she fed them; they knew how to look after themselves, like the black children.

He lingered about in the small space of the hut behind her, she could hear him hitting his fist into his palm as he did back there when he was talking about some building project he was hoping to be commissioned to design. Impossible to imagine what was happening in those suburban malls now, where white families ate ice-cream together on Saturday morning shopping trips, bought T-shirts stamped with their names (‘Victor’ ‘Gina’ ‘Royce’), and looked, learning about foreign parts, at photographic exhibitions whose favoured subject was black township life.

—There was that report last year—I don’t know any more, probably several years ago—United States Congress was told by their Research Service it was possible U.S. aircraft would be sent in to rescue American citizens if they were in danger. And it was mentioned—don’t you remember?—in the news the first week after we got here, I was putting up the tank… It just could be that what we heard—

—You heard, I didn’t.—

—… it just could be what that was. Pretoria, Johannesburg, United States Congress …—

She was pressing back the cuticles grown like dry cobwebs up her earth-rimmed toenails. Squatted in the doorway; Maureen who had been so at ease in her body, a dancer’s repose even if she wasn’t much as a dancer, examined herself with the obsessive attention of the confined, left to nothing but themselves. —Aircraft to rescue
Americans.—

—And citizens of other European nations. I remember distinctly. A man called Robson, it was his report to Congress. No, not Robson, Copson—that’s it.—

It was not necessary for her to remind him they and their children were not Americans, or Europeans of other European nations. It was not necessary for him to remind her that they
could have been
Europeans of Canadian citizenship. If all whites became the same enemies, to blacks, all whites might become ‘Europeans’ for the Americans?

She felt his eyes upon her hands picking at her toes. She stretched her legs and tucked the hands out of the way under her armpits. —What about the business of the gun?—

He came and squatted. His mouth worked half-smilingly before he spoke. —You know what I thought. I thought it was going to be something else. He was going to tell us to push off.—Anything a relief so long as it was not going to be that.

Her head turned away.

She spoke from there. —What about the gun?—

—Can you see me as a mercenary.—

Her inner gaze was directed by him, at himself. She had been asked to note someone who had just arrived, but she saw the man who had been left behind.

—Throwing South African army hand-grenades to protect some reactionary poor devil of a petty chief against the liberation of his own people.—

She took her hands from under her arms and they clapped listlessly together: oh all that. The phrases they had used back there.

—Wha’d’you think I am.—Anger began to turn in him a wheel that would not engage.

—What’ll you do if he does come. If he walks over for his lesson in marksmanship.—

—What rubbish. One shot-gun. A toy—this is bush warfare.—

—He thinks of it only as a sample, a demonstration model. There’ll be other weapons—as you said, South African hand-grenades. The last handout from the government to their homeland chiefs. So if he comes… —

Pragmatism, that’s all, she had said when they first arrived in this dump and she had reproached herself for learning ballet dancing instead of—at least—the despised
Fanagalo.
And he had said, of back there, if it’s been lies, it’s been lies. He struggled hopelessly for words that were not phrases from back there, words that would make the truth that must be forming here, out of the blacks, out of themselves. He sensed for a moment the great drama hidden in the monotonous days, as she was aware, always, of the yellow bakkie hidden in the sameness of bush. But the words would not come. They were blocked by an old vocabulary, ‘rural backwardness’, ‘counter-revolutionary pockets’, ‘failure to bring about peaceful change inevitably leading to civil war’—she knew all that, she had heard all that before it happened. And now it had happened, it was an experience that couldn’t be forethought. Not with the means they had satisfied themselves with. The words were not there; his mind, his anger, had no grip. —You saw he ‘let me’ drive, going there? … A treat for me. July’s pretty sure of himself these days. He doesn’t seem to think much of his chief, anyway. You heard the way he talked.—

BOOK: July's People
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