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Authors: Nadine Gordimer

The House Gun

BOOK: The House Gun
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FOR ORIANE AND HUGO

THE CRIME IS THE PUNISHMENT.

—Amos Oz,
Fima

S
omething terrible happened.

They are watching it on the screen with their after-dinner cof fee cups beside them. It is Bosnia or Somalia or the earthquake shaking a Japanese island between apocalyptic teeth like a dog; whatever were the disasters of that time. When the intercom buzzes each looks to the other with a friendly reluctance; you go, your turn. It's part of the covenant of living together. They made the decision to give up the house and move into this townhouse complex with grounds maintained and security-monitored entrance only recently and they are not yet accustomed, or rather are inclined momentarily to forget that it's not the barking of Robbie and the old-fangled ring of the front door bell that summons them, now. No pets allowed in the complex, but luckily there was the solution that theirs could go to their son who has a garden cottage.

He, she—twitch of a smile, he got himself up with languor directed at her and went to lift the nearest receiver. Who, she half-heard him say, half-listening to the commentary following the images, Who. It could be someone wanting to convert to some
religious sect, or the delivery of a summons for a parking offence, casual workers did this, moon-lighting. He said something else she didn't catch but she heard the purr of the electronic release button.

What he said then was, Do you know who a Julian-somebody might be? Friend of Duncan?

He, she—they didn't, either of them. Nothing unusual about that, Duncan, twenty-seven years old, had his own circle just as his parents had theirs, and these intersected only occasionally where interests, inculcated in him as a child by his parents, met.

What does he want?

Just said to speak to us.

Both at the same instant were touched by a live voltage of alarm. What is there to fear, defined in the known context of a twenty-seven-year-old in this city—a car crash, a street mugging, a violent break-in at the cottage. Both stood at the door, confronting these, confronting the footsteps they heard approaching their private paved path beneath the crossed swords of Strelitzia leaves, the signal of the second buzzer, and this young man, come from? for? Duncan. He stared at the floor as he came in, so they couldn't read him. He sat down without a word.

He, she—whose turn.

There's been an accident?

She's a doctor, she sees what the ambulances bring in to Intensive Care. If something's broken she can gauge whether it ever can be put together again.

This Julian draws in his lips over his teeth and clamps his mouth, a moment.

A kind of … Not Duncan, no no! Someone's been shot. He's arrested. Duncan.

They both stand up.

For God's sake—what are you talking about—what is all this —how arrested, arrested for what—

The messenger is attacked, he becomes almost sullen, unable to bear what he has to tell. The obscene word comes ashamedly from him. Murder.

Everything has come to a stop. What can be understood is a car crash, a street mugging, a violent break-in.

He/she. He strides over and switches off the television. And expels a violent breath. So long as nobody moved, nobody uttered, the word and the act within the word could not enter here. Now with the touch of a switch and the gush of a breath a new calendar is opened. The old Gregorian cannot register this day. It does not exist in that means of measure.

This Julian now tells them that a magistrate was called ‘after hours' (he gives the detail with the weight of its urgent gravity) to lay a charge at the police station and bail was refused. That is the practical purpose of his visit: Duncan says, Duncan says, Duncan's message is that there's no point in their coming, there's no point in trying for bail, he will appear in court on Monday morning. He has his own lawyer.

He/she. She has marked the date on patients' prescriptions a dozen times since morning but she turns to find a question that will bring some kind of answer to that word pronounced by the messenger. She cries out.

What day is it today?

Friday.

It was on a Friday.

I
t is probable that neither of the Lindgards had ever been in a court before. During the forty-eight hours of the weekend of waiting they had gone over every explanation possible in the absence of being able to talk to him, their son, himself. Because of the preposterousness of the charge they felt they had to respect his instruction that they not visit him; this must indicate that the whole business was ridiculous, that's it, horribly ridiculous, his own ridiculous affair, soon to be resolved, better not given the confirmation of being taken in alarm by mother and father arriving at a prison accompanied by their lawyer, states of high emotion etc. That was the way they brought themselves to read his injunction; a mixture between consideration for them—no need to be mixed up in the business—and the independence of the young he had been granted and asserted in mutual understanding since he was an adolescent.

But dread attends the unknown. Dread was a drug that came to them both not out of something administered from her pharmacopoeia; they calmly walked without anything to say to one another along the corridors of the courts, Harald standing back for
his wife Claudia with the politeness of a stranger as they found the right door, entered and shuffled awkwardly sideways to be seated on the benches.

The very smell of the place was that of a foreign country to which they were deported. The odour of polished wooden barriers and waxed floor. The windows above head height, sloping down searchlights. The uniforms occupied by men with the impersonality of cult members, all interchangeable. The presence of a few figures seated somewhere near, the kind who stare from park benches or lie face-down in public gardens. The mind dashes from what confronts it, as a bird that has flown into a confined space does, there must be an opening. Harald collided against the awareness of school, too far back to be consciously remembered; institutional smell and hard wood under his buttocks. Even the name of a master was blundered into; nothing from the past could be more remote than this present. In a flick of attention he saw Claudia rouse from her immobility to disconnect the beeper that kept her in touch with her surgery. She felt the distraction and turned her head to read his oblique glance: nothing. She gave the stiff smile with which one greets somebody one isn't sure one knows.

He comes up from the well of a stairway between two policemen. Duncan. Can it be? He has to be recognized in a persona that doesn't belong to him, as they know him, have always known him—and who could identify him better? He is wearing black jeans and a black cotton T-shirt. The kind of clothes he customarily wears, but the neat collar of a white shirt is turned down outside the neck of the T-shirt. They both notice this, it's an unspoken focus of attention between them; this is the detail, token submission to the conventions expected by a court, that makes the connection of reality between the one they knew,
him,
and this other, flanked by policemen.

A blast of heat came over Harald, confusion like anxiety or anger, but neither. Some reaction that never before has had occasion to be called up.

Duncan, yes. He looked at them, acknowledging himself.
Claudia smiled at him with lifted head, for everyone to see. And he inclined his head to her. But he did not look at his parents directly again during the proceedings that followed, except as his controlled, almost musing glance swept over them as it went round the public gallery across the two young black men with their legs sprawled relaxedly before them, the old white man sitting forward with his head in his hands, and the family group, probably wandered in bewildered to pass the time before a case that concerned them came up, who were whispering among themselves of their own affairs.

The magistrate made his stage entrance, all fidgeted to their feet, sank again. He was tall or short, bald or not—doesn't matter, there was the hitch of shoulders under the voluminous gown and, his hunch lowered over papers presented to him, he made a few brief comments in the tone of questions addressed to the tables in the well of the court where the backs of what presumably were the prosecutor and defence lawyer presented themselves to the gallery. Under the ladders of light tilted down, policemen on errands came in and out conferring in hoarse whispers, the rote of proceedings concluded. Duncan Peter Lindgard was committed for trial on a charge of murder. A second application for bail was refused.

Over. But beginning. The parents approached the barrier between the gallery and the well of the court and were nor prevented from contact with the son. Each embraced him while he kept his head turned from their faces.

Do you need anything?

It's just not on, the young lawyer was saying, I'm serving notice to contest the refusal, right now, Duncan. I won't let the prosecutor get away with it. Don't worry.

This last said to her, the doctor, in exactly the tone of reassurance she herself would use with patients of whose prognosis she herself was not sure.

The son had an air of impatience, the shifting gaze of one who wished the well-meaning to leave; an urgent need of some preoccupation,
business with himself. They could read it to mean confidence; of his innocence—of course; or it could be a cover for dread, akin to the dread they had felt, concealing his dread out of pride, not wanting to be associated with theirs. He was now officially an accused, on record as such. The accused has a status of dread that is his own, hasn't he!

Nothing?

I'll see to everything Duncan needs—the lawyer squeezed his client's shoulder as he swung a briefcase and was off.

If there was nothing, then …

Nothing
. Nothing they could ask, not
what is it all about,
what is it you did, you are supposed to have done?

His father took courage: Is he really a competent lawyer? We could get someone else. Anyone.

A good friend.

I'll get in touch with him later, find out what happened when he saw the prosecutor.

The son will know that his father means money, he'll be ready to supply surety for the contingency that it is impossible to believe has arisen between them, money for bail.

He turns away—the prisoner, that's what he is now—in anticipation of the policemen's move to order him to, he doesn't want them to touch him, he has his own volition, and his mother's clasp just catches the ends of his fingers as he goes.

They see him led down the stairwell to whatever is there beneath the court. As they make to leave Court B17 they become aware that the other friend, the messenger Julian, has been standing just behind them to assure Duncan of his presence but not wanting to intrude upon those with the closest claims. They greet him and walk out together with him but do not speak. He feels guilty about his mission, that night, and hurries ahead.

As the couple emerge into the foyer of the courts, vast and lofty cathedral echoing with the susurration of its different kind of supplicants gathered there, Claudia suddenly breaks away, disappearing towards the sign indicating toilets. Harald waits for her
among these people patient in trouble, no choice to be otherwise, for them, he is one of them, the wives, husbands, fathers, lovers, children of forgers, thieves and murderers. He looks at his watch. The whole process has taken exactly one hour and seven minutes.

She returns and they quit the place.

Let's have a coffee somewhere.

Oh … there are patients at the surgery, expecting me.

Let them wait.

She did not have time to get to the lavatory and vomited in the washroom basin. There was no warning; trooping out with all those other people in trouble, part of the anxious and stunned gait, she suddenly felt the clenching of her insides and knew what was going to come. She did not tell him, when she rejoined him, and he must have assumed she had gone to the place for the usual purpose. Medically, there was an explanation for such an attack coming on without nausea. Extreme tension could trigger the seizure of muscles. ‘Vomited her heart out': that was the expression some of her patients used when describing the symptom. She had always received it, drily, as dramatically inaccurate.

Let them wait.

What he was saying was to hell with them, the patients, how can their pains and aches and pregnancies compare with this? Everything came to a stop, that night; everything has come to a stop. In the coffee bar an androgynous waiter with long curly hair tied back and tennis-ball biceps hummed his pleasure along with piped music. In the mortuary there was lying the body of a man. They ordered a filter coffee (Harald) and a cappuccino (Claudia). The man who was shot in the head, found dead. Why should it be unexpected that it was a man? Was not that a kind of admittance, already, credence that it could have been done at all? To assume the body would represent a woman, the most common form of the act,
crime passionnel
from the sensational pages of the Sunday papers, was to accept the possibility that it was committed, entered
at all into a life's context.
His
. The random violence of night streets they had expected to read in the stranger's face of the messenger, this was the hazard that belongs there, along with the given etemals, the risks of illness, failure of ambition, loss of love. These are what those responsible for an existence recognize they expose it to. To kill a woman out of jealous passion; for it to come to mind—shamefully, in acceptance of newspaper banality—was to allow even that the very nature of such acts could breach the prescribed limits of that life's context.

We're not much the wiser.

She didn't answer. Her eyebrows lifted as she reached for the packets of sugar. Her hand was trembling slightly, privately, from the recent violent convulsion of her body. If he noticed he did not remark upon it.

They now understood what they had expected from
him:
outrage at the preposterous—thing—accusation, laid upon him. Against his presence there between two policemen before a magistrate. They had expected to have him burst forth at the sight of them—that was what they were ready for, to tell them—what? Whatever he could, within the restriction of that room with the policemen hovering and the clerks scratching papers together and the gallery hangers-on dawdling past. That his being there was crazy, they must get him out immediately, importune officials, protest—what? Tell them. Tell them. Some explanation. How could it be thought that this situation was possible.

A good friend.

The lawyer a good friend. And that was all. His back as he went down the stairs, a policeman on either side. Now, while Harald stretched a leg so that he could reach coins in his pocket, he was in a confine they had never seen, a cell. The body of a man was in a mortuary. Harald left a tip for the young man who was humming. The petty rituals of living are a daze of continuity over what has come to a stop.

I'll insist on getting to the bottom of it this afternoon.

They were walking to their car through the continuum of the
city, separated and brought side by side again by the narrowing and widening of the pavements in relation to other people going about their lives, the vendors' spread stock of small pyramids of vegetables, chewing gum, sunglasses and second-hand clothes, the gas burners on which sausages like curls of human gut were frying.

In the afternoon she couldn't let them wait. It was the day come round for her weekly stint at a clinic. Doctors like herself, in private practice, were expected to meet the need in areas of the city and the once genteel white suburbs of the old time where in recent years there was an influx, a great rise in and variety of the population. She had regularly fulfilled this obligation; now conscientiousness goaded her, over what had come to a stop; she went to her clinic instead of accompanying Harald to the lawyer. Perhaps this also was to keep herself to the conviction that what had happened could not be? It was not a day to examine motives; just follow the sequence set out in an appointments register. She put on her white coat (she is a functionary, as the magistrate is hunched in his gown) and entered the institutional domain familiar to her, the steaming sterilizer with its battery of precise instruments for every task, the dancing show of efficiency of the young District Nurse with her doll's white starched crown pinned atop her dreadlocks. Some of the patients did not have words, in English, to express what they felt disordered within them. The nurse translated when necessary, relaying the doctor's questions, switching easily from one mother tongue to another she shared with these patients, and relaying their answers.

The procession of flesh was laid before the doctor. It was her medium in which she worked, the abundant black thighs reluctantly parted in modesty (the nurse chaffed the women, Mama, doctor's a woman just like you), the white hairy paps of old men under auscultation. The babies' tender bellies slid under her palms; tears of terrible reproach bulged from their eyes when she had to
thrust the needle into the soft padding of their upper arms, where muscle had not yet developed. She did it as she performed any necessary procedure, with all her skill to avoid pain.

Isn't that the purpose?

There is plenty of pain that arises from within; this woman with a tumour growing in her neck, plain to feel it under experienced fingers, and then the usual weekly procession of pensioners hobbled by arthritis.

But the pain that comes from without—the violation of the flesh, a child is burned by an overturned pot of boiling water, or a knife is thrust. A bullet. This piercing of the flesh, the force, ram of a bullet deep into it, steel alloy that breaks bone as if shattering a teacup—she is not a surgeon but in this violent city she has watched those nuggets delved for and prised out on operating tables, they retain the streamline shape of velocity itself, there is no element in the human body that can withstand, even dent, a bullet—those who survive recall the pain differently but all accounts agree: an assault. The pain that is the product of the body itself; its malfunction is part of the self: somewhere, a mystery medical science cannot explain, the self is responsible. But this—the bullet: the pure assault of pain.

BOOK: The House Gun
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