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Nuwe skryfwerk | New writing > Fiksie | Fiction > Afrikaans > Gepubliseerde skrywers

The Exploding Trousers Part 3


Richard Jurgens - 2011-11-16

Untitled Document Read Part 1 here ...


III

The picture was blurred at first, but gained in clarity as his eyes gradually adjusted to the dim light. It was a black-and-white line drawing, or an etching perhaps, in the style of illustrations in Victorian adventure stories.

A woman was standing with her arms raised as she pulled aside the heavy drapes that surrounded her inner chamber. Behind her, a few economically drawn lines suggested a bed. The woman wore a light chemise that hid rather than revealed her lithe body, and the powerful light behind her seemed to obscure her face rather than show its details. Meanwhile, to the right, a hirsute, hump-backed man in a uniform held his fist to his chest in the region of the heart, as if merely looking at the woman caused him pain. Beside him, on the floor, lay a figure in a robe and turban, arms outstretched, resolutely avoiding looking up at her.

Looking round, Hilton saw that he was lying in a cool, quiet room. Other than the picture on the wall, the room was similar to his mini-apartment in the camp. It was plain and sparse in typically sparse Rhodesian style, with large wood-framed windows, plain tiled floors and a few hard-looking chairs at a table. This room was larger than his own, and somehow quieter and more neutral, as if it was seldom used, as if these walls and floors hadn’t yet seen enough human activity to form an opinion of human nature.

He’d seen that picture before. He’d paged through several biographies and academic studies in preparation for this shoot. He’d watched all the previous screen versions, and made trips to the Film Museum in the park back in Amsterdam to do so. He’d even read the Rider Haggard novel on which the movie was supposed to be loosely based. (The word “loose’ was loosely used in Hollywood.) The picture, he realised now, was an illustration from that book. It was from an earlier edition of the bestselling romance, and it depicted the moment when the hirsute and ape-like Professor Holly finally got his fatal wish, and looked on the face of beauty.

A door opened, and he heard voices murmuring. Relieved that he had not been forgotten, he wanted to call out. He moved his mouth, but no sound emerged. Perhaps he’d been snoring, which often left him with a dry throat in the morning. He swallowed and tried again, but again nothing happened. Anyone watching him would have thought that he was gulping for air like a stranded guppy. The busy little telegraph clerks of his nervous system had abandoned their posts, leaving his limbs as remotely out of contact as distant colonies. He would have liked to sit up. The thought was one thing, the body another. Something terrible must have happened. Was he paralysed?

From the steady croaking and rasping of the bullfrogs and crickets in the bushveld silence outside he knew that it must be evening.

“Hi,” said a voice.

Slowly, reluctantly, Hilton opened his eyes. The face of the assistant producer’s assistant, Sue-Jane, loomed like a flower in an abstract painting.

“I’ve brought somebody to see you,” she continued.

“Sue-Jane, I’m busy,” he croaked, rather pleased that he’d managed to produce a gallantry in the circumstances – whatever they were.

Why was Sue-Jane visiting him now, on his sickbed? She might be low in the hierarchy, but she represented the business interests in the film. Hilton’s mind turned over like an engine revving in neutral. Cogs clicked, flywheels turned. Maybe the film company were concerned that they might be held responsible for whatever had happened. Well, if they were worried, they probably had good reason. No smoke without fire. Ah! Liabilities! Damages! He was intrigued by a possibility of sudden wealth. He might a paraplegic, lying there motionless and apparently also immobile, but he could be rich. Such were the strange workings of the human mind.

He was distracted by a trace of a scent that drifted past on the still air. There was only one person on earth who smelled like this.
“Darling,” said Isabella Salazar – for it was she. “Poor man,” she said, moving to the bed, and took his wrist in her hands. “I hope you are feeling stronger now.”

His sheer surprise at seeing her would probably have prevented him from speaking anyway. What a Polaroid this would have made. Isabella Salazar at his bedside. He managed a nod and a croak.

Hilton preferred sex with men on the whole, when he could get it; with men there was seldom an emotional comeback afterwards. But even he hadn’t been able to help thinking about sex the moment he saw Isabella Salazar. Today she was in a simple cotton top, jeans and low shoes. “Dressing down”, of course, merely emphasised her spectacular good looks. Her dark hair had been brushed, framing her elegant nose and cheekbones. A glow to her skin suggested a recent workout, or a bout of good loving maybe. And yet there was nothing lascivious; on the contrary, there was something rather oddly chilly about her. Off-screen, but still in public, she was cool and watchful. It was if she’d stepped through the door of a world where people understood the details of the good life a good deal more sharply and carefully.

“I hope you will get well soon,” she said. Her slim fingers stroked his wrist lightly for a moment. “You are strong, and we need your art.”

Hilton felt strong enough to raise a hand and put it over hers.

“I believe in you,” Isabella said, looking down at him from what seemed to be a great height.

Then she smiled, withdrew her hand, and went off to the next item in a no doubt busy schedule – a voice-coaching session to exercise those expensive vocal chords maybe, or a swim in the hotel pool to tone those famous inner thighs, or a lesson in conversational Mandarin, in preparation for her next movie. Anything would be possible in her world.

Sue-Jane clutched her clipboard to her chest and looked apprehensive. They shared a strained silence until a nurse arrived. A thin white woman in a much-ironed white frock, she examined Hilton with brisk efficiency.

“Ah,” she said, grasping Hilton’s head firmly and subjecting his straining eye to the scrutiny of a silver pocket torch. “You’ve had a light heart attack, you know. You should think of losing that tummy.”

Then she tapped on his chest and listened to his heart, apparently though her fingers: “Hmm, thought so.”

And then she rolled him on to his side and gave him a jab that dropped him straight down the deep well of sleep.

*

“I left Africa, originally, to escape the draft,” Hilton had written in his notebook. “I had no plan in mind otherwise. I only knew that a mollycoddled suburban type like me stood as little chance of surviving the grindings of the regime’s efficient military machine as a snowball in the Sahara. The arrival of the final call-up letter was the catalyst for a hasty decision to leave. It was as simple as that. Idealism had nothing to do with it.

“I had no notion then, either, of how long it would be before I returned. As things had gone it had been fifteen years before I next trod African soil. And it occurs to me, not for the first time, that there might have been a deeper and more ambiguous reason for my departure back then, as well as for my continued absence: a wish to put as much distance as possible between me and my father.

“The differences between us were astonishing. My father wore suits crafted in Savile Row, shoes made to form for him in Milan, and English Leather aftershave, and he drank Scotch and French brandy. I favoured bright shirts, jeans and tackies in various colours, and Tabak underarm deodorant, and my stimulants were vodka-orange and coke (of the powdered variety). In literature, my father favoured the weightier novels of the nineteenth century and the classical accounts of African exploration, while I had read the science fiction of Isaac Asimov, Superman comix and the Travis McGee novels.

“When it came to music, his preferred listening, during long evenings at his desk, was the solid, academic-sounding work of composers of the early Romantic period: Beethoven, Schubert, Berlioz, Schumann, Mendelssohn. If entertaining, he’d tolerate Glen Miller, or, if feeling particularly advanced, the lighter jazz of Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong. My tastes in music were formed largely under the influence of Jeremy, the older boy next door, who visited family in England regularly and brought back the latest records by Humble Pie, AC/DC, Pink Floyd and Black Sabbath. Playing such items at full volume, as advised on the lurid album covers, was the occasion of several classical paternal performances on the subject of noise and its detrimental effects on the human ear.

“When it came to society – or as I prefer to think, people – we never really saw eye to eye either. My father consorted with the rich and the powerful and he believed without question that his eagle’s-eye vantage gave him a true picture of the world. I, by contrast, spent too much time with dagga merts and cocaine dealers in seedy flats in Yeoville and Berea to believe that the mandarins could ever control the hoi polloi. We inhabited different worlds on every level, and in every way.

“But getting down to basics, if anything signified the differences between us, it was the fact that my father served in the army during the Second World War and that he relished it. He ‘had a good war’, as they used to say. He was in the desert campaign and in Italy. He was wounded several times but never too seriously to prevent further advances in his military career. He was decorated several times. Serving in the army was an honourable thing at the time. It had also served him well, for the contacts he made set him up for his future career.

“Thirty years later, though, I was facing a very different situation. On the day the call-up papers had arrived, I approached the great man in a last attempt to persuade him of a suitable course of action – which meant, in my view, a swift departure for another country and a life there supported by a monthly allowance. My line – leaving aside my sheer funk about the military life, of course – would be, as it had been a number of times before, that there was no ‘honour’ in serving in the army of the regime.

“It was a Saturday, which meant that the old man was working at home, rather than in his office on Commissioner Street. I found him in his study, with its mullioned windows overlooking the garden. It was a bright day, the sky as high and blue outside as it was here in the Highveld of Zimbabwe, and Egyptian ibises were calling raucously from some trees nearby. I recall this detail because the birds were new to the city and there’d been angry letters to the press, including the Mail, complaining about the noise they made and recommending, nay, demanding a city council-sponsored cull of the unwelcome foreign feathered friends.

“The old man was sitting at his enormous oak-and-mahogany desk, examining a newspaper front page with a magnifying glass under the light of a green banker’s lamp. A crystal tumbler of golden whisky mixed with a dash of soda water stood by his elbow as usual when he worked at home and he was smoking an unfiltered cigarette, rather than a cigar – a sure sign that serious journalism was afoot.

“‘Ah, there you are,” he said when he noticed me at the door. ‘Well, since you’re here, what do you make of this?’

“He beckoned me closer. Looking over my father’s shoulder, I saw that the page he had been examining featured a large photograph of a young black man in a white shirt who was carrying the body of a young teenager while a crowd of people were running with him. Beside it were the headline ‘OUTRAGE’ and the subheading ‘Police fire on unarmed crowd’.

“‘Another protest?’ I said.

“There’d been reports on the radio that things were heating up in the townships. Protests, marches, police action, activist arrests – they’d been going on for years – ever since I could remember. Here was another major difference between us. The great man had grown up during a time when ‘the native problem’ hadn’t yet forced itself on to the consciousness of the suburbs; when, illusion as it might be, the country lived in a kind of peace and normality. Whereas for me there had only ever been the hard facts of trouble and unrest, of radio broadcasts crackling with tense information, of the uncomfortable knowledge that we were living in a radically divided country with a very uncertain future. Seen in that light, it wasn’t an unreasonable question. But my father took the response badly, as yet more evidence of his son’s flippant attitude.

“‘Look more closely, boy,’ he said. ‘That boy you see there in the picture is dead.’

“I looked again at the picture. The boy wore a striped T-shirt, and he was very young. His body lolled utterly lifelessly in the man’s arms. The man was grimacing as he carried him, his expression one of shock and rage and sorrow.

“‘Well?’ the old man grunted. He sat back in his leather chair, and looked at the picture thoughtfully through a cloud of cigarette smoke. Hearing no response from me, he continued: ‘Alright, I’ll spell it out for you. Perhaps you’re right, this kind of thing has happened before. But there is a difference here. This a great picture. This picture will make the difference. This picture, my boy, will go round the world. It is the beginning of the end of this benighted government.’

“This remark seemed to offer a tentative a hook for the conversation I’d hoped for. Wordlessly I held up the call-up letter. It was an officious document, teletyped on computer paper, informing me of the unit I was to report to, the date, the exact time. I’d been allocated to an infantry battalion, whatever that was, in some benighted place in the desert of which I’d never heard.

“‘They’ve come, Pops.’

“‘What’s that?’

“‘My call-up papers.’“‘Ah. Good. At last. Well, where will you be?’

“Rather than getting into details, which might look like a capitulation, a fatalistic acceptance that the call-up represented an irreversible fait accompli, I explained that I couldn’t see myself serving in the regime’s army. They’d been using army units in the townships, hadn’t they? The picture on the desk was surely all the old man needed to know about what I might be ordered to do one day if I accepted arms.

“But my father had looked puzzled, as if we’d never discussed the subject, and repeated a remark he’d made several times before. This was the considered opinion that a period of service in the army would ‘make a man’ of me. And there, so far as he was concerned, the matter rested, as it always had before.

“I recall my father’s house well, its many rooms, and the atmosphere of Edwardian Africa that emanated from them. It was a house that had been designed with permanence in mind, to be a lasting reminder of the mining magnate who had commissioned it, and my father lived there with relish. The mullioned windows, the carved staircase, the tiled hall, the enormous ground-floor sitting room, the equally large library above it, the long corridors leading past the heavy doors of quiet bedrooms, the panelled dining rooms where he entertained his guests to lavish dinner parties. Throughout my long years overseas I have never doubted that the routines of the house where I grew up are continuing in my absence, as they did all during my youth.

“I can time my own life, even though I live so far away, by its routines to this day. Mornings begin with breakfast in the conservatory. Then the quiet limousine pulls up to the door. While the master is gone the gardener goes at his clipping, the maids go to their housework, and groceries and other sundries arrive in little vans. At lunchtime the servants take their daily meal in the downstairs kitchen. Later, they see the slow passage of the sleek white limousine up the tree-lined drive. It draws up to the front portico of a house where lights are on and fires are burning in the grates. Strange that we are separated by only a short flight. So near and yet so far …”

Maybe, he had thought as he put down his pen, it was time to give the old man a call. If nothing else, some namedropping might impress. Yes, Dad, your prodigal son, back in your part of the world, and starring with Dick Woodman and Isabella Salazar.

*

“My friend.”

A hand pressed his arm. Hilton opened his eyes cautiously. He was relieved to see that he was in his own bungalow. And then he was puzzled: apparently he couldn’t be sure these days where he’d wake up.

He saw that Tim Mapfumo, of all people, was sitting by his bed.

“Hello. What are you doing here?”

Tim Mapfumo shrugged.

“Well, what happened?”

“It was lucky we found you,” Tim Mapfumo said. “We nearly went another way. It was a job to get you back to the buses! We had to fix a sort of cart on sticks and such, and sort of tie you to it, and then drag you like that through the bush.”

“Thank you,” Hilton said. He considered his bulk, the mountain of his belly. Actually, getting him from the temple to the buses must have been a considerable achievement. He wasn’t sure he could have done the same for anyone else.

“Okay, since you’re here,” Hilton continued, “some other strange things have been happening to me recently. I have a feeling you can tell me more.”

“What are you talking about?” Tim Mapfumo said, refusing to look at Hilton.

“Come on! Whatever’s going on, it all began after I met you, I’m sure of that.”

The boy was wearing his customary gear, denims and a blindingly white T-shirt, and his dark skin shone as if he’d recently stepped out of the shower. He looked at Hilton with patent duplicity from the bedside chair.

“The party,” Hilton insisted. “I woke up on the couch in my sitting room. You were in my bed.”

“Maybe I should come back later,” Tim said, starting to rise.

“No you don’t!’ said Hilton. “Weird things have been happening. They all seem to lead back to you. I’ve been having strange lapses. Blocks of my memory have been dropping off like bits of Lego.”

Tim slumped back in the chair.

“Well?” Hilton said. Actually, he was feeling a lot better. He wondered whether the canteen would still be open for breakfast.

“You won’t be angry?”

“Of course not,” Hilton said.

“Okay, then,” Tim Mapfumo said. He looked away. “Muti.”

“Pardon me?” A chill had run through Hilton’s limbs. That word “muti” reached gnarled tendrils down to childhood tales of the horrors of darkest Africa, and rumours of the terrible things that were supposed to be in black medicines – mind-altering plants, animal parts; worse.

“I slipped a couple of roofies into your Tequila Sunrise,” said Tim.

“What?” Hilton sat bolt upright in his bed. He was still wearing the clothes he’d had on the day before. Colonel Brimstone’s helmet, he noticed, was hanging on the back of the door.

“Yes, you know, Rohypnol.”

“What the hell for?”

And that was when Tim Mapfumo explained that he had slipped him two – well, three – tabs of the stuff because he’d thought he was just another white man who was “getting fresh”. He was very sorry now, actually; he’d slipped them to him too soon, before he’d realised that he really liked him.