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

The Exploding Trousers Part 2


Richard Jurgens - 2011-11-16

Read Part 1 here ...


II

“Dude,” said a voice that seemed to be coming through a plastic megaphone, “dude, wake up!’

Hilton Ellis opened an eye, and was rewarded with a sideways-on view of the gopher, Rory, of course: standing over his bed.

“Can’t,” he said, turning over. “Maybe tomorrow.”

Rory had not got his job as the messenger on the shoot of King Solomon’s Mines for nothing. He’d grown up on a farm in the district and had learned to hunt in the bush at an early age; he was young and tenacious. The shaking continued, as did the repetition of “dude” like a mantra calling a man to action.

Alright,” Hilton said.

Still not caring to risk the light, Hilton rubbed his eyes. Why had he slept so long?

“What time is it?”

The young messenger folded his arms. “The bus is waiting.”

“What bus?”

“You know, the magical mystery tour,” said Rory. “Hey, looks like you’ve been having yourself an adventure. Got a new friend?”

Puzzled, Hilton looked around him. It was only then that he realised that Tim Mapfumo, the barman whom he’d met at the hotel the night before, was lying next to him.

*

“Hey,” said Slim Doogin, with a sideways grin.

Hilton gritted his teeth. It had been like this all morning – people looking at him as if they knew something about him. Rory had left as soon as he could to spread his latest little titbit of crew scandal.

Hilton had hoped for a quick dash to the anonymity of a back seat, but the stunt coordinator was blocking the door. He was checking his black rucksack, which lay on the steps of the bus. He opened all the compartments to assure himself that they were well stowed, and then ensuring that each was thoroughly clipped, zipped or velcroed closed before moving on to the next. It was a slow and painful exercise. Slim Doogin never went anywhere without equipment.

“Heard you got yourself a buddy,” Slim said.

“Well, things happen, even to me,” Hilton said.

“Things happen?” Slim Doogin’s tanned grin slid up one side of his face until it stood up on its toes, like a sickle moon in a vaudeville theatre.

If Hilton was sure of anything, it was that sex hadn’t been involved last night. That was something you’d know. But even if something had happened, it wouldn’t be anyone else’s business. Dick Woodman’s boyfriend, a slim young man in preppy clothes, was living with him at the hotel; no one ran around telling snigger stories about them.

“Hey, it’s a free country,” Hilton said, shrugging as coolly as he could. Everybody had the wrong idea anyway.

Slim Doogin was a rangy man, and caring in his way. He looked after his stunt crew and technicians with the gruff paternal care of an experienced NCO looking after a bunch of wild-headed men in the field of war. He’d been the soul of professional discretion all week, too, during Hilton’s equipment-prepping sessions. The unexpected weight and girth of the actor who would be playing Adolf Dorkman had merely presented an interesting technical problem to solve. He had understood that the whole complicated apparatus of cables and concealed explosive charges was frightening to a non-stuntman, and he’d settled Hilton into the thing with the skill of a seasoned cowboy fitting a harness on a freshly broken horse. Now his laconic smile retracted suddenly.

“Say what?”

“Let’s leave it, okay?” Hilton said. “It’s my business.”

“Your business,” Slim said, his hands on hips, a steely look in his eye.

“Well, it’s not yours, is it?” Hilton said, edging up the stairs past the man and his equipment.

Unfazed, Slim Doogin looked back at him a moment, and then continued his obsessive check on the integrity of his kit.

The bus was full, and Hilton was forced to walk all the way to the back. But the boss-dog’s response had set the tone and the longhaired technicians pretended to be chatting as he went past.

Hilton found a seat near the back among a gang of the stuntmen he had been working with all week. Their names were redolent of practicality: Franz, Willem, Andy, Ted. They were no longer young, but they were still fit enough to wear tight T-shirts that revealed blocks of solid muscle. They hung off the sides of antique trains crossing aqueducts over high canyons for a living, they swung through jungles on long ropes, dangled from the open doors of aeroplanes, drove cars off the road into oncoming trees, got blown up by high explosives – but they weren’t crazy; when they were working they were meticulous about planning. Or at least, he hoped so.

“Morning boys,” he said, as he settled into his seat.

“Up late, were you?” said Andy.

“Whatever,” Hilton said. He folded his arms.

“Great hat,” said Franz, snatching Hilton’s sola topee from his head.

It was a trophy of a recent solo show he’d done featuring the life and views on life of a certain Colonel Brimstone. Hilton had painted mazes and spirals of bold orange, white and blue on its dome; he had also fixed a large purple feather to the brim and replaced the worn leather chinstrap with a red, yellow and green ribbon decorated with the silhouettes of marijuana leaves. He kept it around for its symbolism, but it turned out that those old colonials had known a thing or two about their own comfort. The old pith helmet was actually quite useful on blazing African days when the sun shone as sharply as it had in his youth.

Pretending to oblige, Hilton grabbed at the helmet, but Franz tossed it to one of the others. Soon it was the focus of a boys’ game, and being passed hastily from man to man like a rugby ball. Hilton wasn’t worried. They’d play around with the helmet, but none of them would ever risk wearing it.

*

The engine of the bus settled into a mute thunder as they set out. The excitement of his discovery in bed with the boy from the hotel over, Hilton now noticed that he was feeling oddly woozy. Why had he drunk so much? For that matter, what had he drunk? There was no satisfactory answer to these ancient questions – only the dull, regular thudding of a regretful head. Worst of all, he could recall little of what had happened since last night.

He retraced his steps since the previous afternoon. He had been sitting by the pool with the director and two of the stars – he could recall that much. Having introduced everyone, Roger Bannerman had lit a stogie and contented himself with listening to the talk while he smoked and sipped a single malt with rocks. It hadn’t been difficult to get on with Isabella Salazar and Dick Woodman; they were seasoned pros and they’d looked courteous and interested. They’d asked about his work back in Amsterdam, and the three of them had talked in veiled terms about the pleasures of that civilised town. At that point Sue-Jane arrived to announce that Roger Bannerman was needed to help put out a fire on Set 2 – literally. The stars had quietly slipped off to their bungalows.

The regal repast that had been set out for the great ones had hardly been touched. Fine meats, fruits, breads, juices, nuts, costly wines – what a waste! Left alone with such unappreciated spoils, Hilton hadn’t been able to resist wrapping cheeses, slices of rare roast beef, and ripe fruit in a couple of the superb white napkins.

With his pockets full of grub for later he had returned to the bar to wait for old Joshua to drive him back to the camp. He had sampled the offerings of the cocktail menu and sourly surveyed the leathery, wood-panelled, velvet-armchair decor. He remembered thinking about the name of the place, The Selous Lounge: it had struck him as a bit over-ripe for a postcolonial era. Old Frederick Selous’s main claim to fame had been that he’d shot his way through battalions of native warriors and half the continent’s elephants, surely.

The place had quickly filled up with Friday night drinkers – farmers and businessmen in safari suits. Hilton had been caught up in conversations with intoxicated locals – hardy, dedicated folk, mostly, used to making things work in adverse circumstances. They could barely imagine his life in Europe; it seemed as remote and unreal to them as the moon.

Joshua had not turned up. Later, as he was getting to his sixth or seventh Tequila Sunrise, he had fallen into conversation with Tim Mapfumo, who was still working at the bar. They had talked about the curious choice of a name for the place, and Tim Mapfumo had talked about his plans to see the world. He spoke a fluent English balanced somewhere between African and Anglo-African, having been to Plumtree, where he had gained six O Levels and two A Levels. Hilton’s heart had warmed to him. He remembered admiring the boy and thinking that he had a great future ahead of him. But otherwise, he was sure, it had been an entirely Platonic attraction.

The next thing that he remembered was waking up, earlier that morning, with a dry mouth and no memory of the night before. He’d been woken by the riotous sounds of the African bush. The frogs and crickets out here kept up a relentless chorus of rasping and croaking all night. At dawn they were joined by ibises, loeries, the descant of go-away birds, and the barking of baboons in the hills. Far from the noise of cities, the immense silence in which it was contained only made it louder. It happened every morning, and you could hardly hear yourself think.

He remembered trying to pull the bedcover over himself to exclude the racket. Instead, he’d fallen with an unpleasant jolt to the floor. After a moment of blackness he’d come to. He’d been sleeping on the narrow sofa in his sitting room. There’d been a party. The ironwood carved coffee table with its surface of scarred glass had been littered with an assortment of empty bottles, white-dusted pocket mirrors and ashtrays. He’d been aware of an immense tiredness. And after slaking his thirst on some cold juice from the fridge, and already asleep on his feet, he’d gone to bed.

*

The bus had pulled into a parking area at the side of the road. It was a bare expanse of red soil and stones, the parking area marked off from the bush by low log fences. Passing by, you would have missed it if you’d blinked. There was no sign indicating why it should be there. Hilton found himself following the others like a sheep as they filed out of the bus into the sun.

People in T-shirts and shorts and hats were exiting the other buses too, blinking and stretching their limbs. The bus engines sighed and swallowed as they were switched off. The sudden silence revealed the fact that they were out in the middle of an African afternoon in the bush – “in de middle of focking nowhere”, as people said back in his adoptive city in the north.

The electric screeching of the cicadas lay over the land like a pall of heat. Beneath it you could almost hear the animals and birds enjoying well-earned siestas in the shade. Local people, who knew this climate, would sensibly be sleeping in the cool embrace of quiet shadows. Not a wise-ass foreign film crew, though – oh no: here they were, a bunch of urban coke, blow and endorphin freaks, out in the noonday sun.

There were faces in the crowd Hilton recognised, people he’d worked with. Sandy was there with other people from hair and make-up. A gang of technicians who worked the heavy equipment were passing a joint around in preparation for their hike. Sue-Jane, the producer’s assistant, had her clipboard with her, though she was looking uncharacteristically informal in a pink tracksuit. Slim Doogin, as usual, was ahead of the pack and setting a pace along the red path that led through the bush, followed by his stuntmen – and, if he was not mistaken, Tim Mapfumo.

Hilton almost had to rub his eyes, suspecting a hallucination – some sort of unfortunate after-effect of whatever he had drunk the night before. But the man’s well-built dark frame and white T-shirt were distinctive in that crowd.

The man had been gone, earlier, when Hilton had returned to his room. Towels on the bathroom floor had indicated that he’d taken a shower before leaving, but he’d left no message. Seeing him now among the groups of film crew people on their mysterious trip into the bush, Hilton set off after him. He could do with an explanation, after the ordeal Slim Doogin had put him through.

The knots of film people up ahead – the set-dressers and the carpenters, the lighting men and the gantry-pullers – seemed to know where they were going, though the path wound through pure African savannah, so Hilton followed them. Tall grass rose on all sides; now and then he passed high points in the terrain guarded by knobbly thorn trees or clusters of aloes. Other than the sun, which lay high overhead, there was no way to orient himself. Within a few minutes he lost sight of everyone, then he lost track of the sound of voices. Presumably they were continuing along the path.

The sun poured down with a steady intensity that had a weight to it, almost. The air was remarkably clear under that Highveld sky. It was a shade of blue that he had never seen anywhere else, not even on the shutters or windows on Greek islands. It was rather too hot, though. Absurdly, he wished he had an umbrella. He would have had one if he’d been back home – a neat little fold-up jobbie that fitted conveniently into his going-out bag. The northern weather was so changeable.

Here, the buzzing of the cicadas had risen in intensity with the midday heat. Night and day, the little blighters never stopped. He was peripherally aware of rustlings and furtive movements in the thick grass on either side of him as he walked. Snakes, wild dogs and cats, ratels, wild pig no doubt. His years in a damp, cobbled northern city had left their mark. His skin crawled with an intense awareness of how much he really was “in Nature”, as folk said there with an audible capital letter. He felt as pink and as vulnerable out here, in the middle of the African bush, as a shrimp in a restaurant fish tank.

The path crested a slight rise, and he found himself looking at a rolling valley of lush green grass dotted at points with tall, red-flowered aloes. Further on, half-hidden at points by the canopies of tall trees, stood an enormous stone wall enclosure in the shape of an oval, with a conical tower toward one end. Around it the remains of lower walls and several other buildings in the same close-fitting unmortared style were half-hidden in undergrowth. In the bright sunshine it was reminiscent of an old Welsh castle keep, gone half to ruin in wild green parkland. Around the valley rolled a series of hills and sheer grey cliffs that seemed to watch over the stone complex like guardians.

He could see a party of film crew people in shorts and sun hats trailing around the walls with the rubbernecking attitudes of tourists. They waved and called to one another as they walked about, but he couldn’t hear what they were saying. The heat of the sun weighed heavy on his neck now, despite the protection of Colonel Brimstone’s pith helmet. The damn thing’s leather rim was uncomfortably soaked with sweat.

Faintly, on the slight breeze, he heard his name. It was a mere trace of sound, a whisper, but there was no mistaking it. Putting a hand to the brim of his helmet, he scanned the parties of visitors, who were wandering about or looking up in bemusement at the mute stone walls. One group had moved on already to the hillside behind and were working their way up a path that led slantways up the side of a ridge of grey rock. The path led past plateaus of green grass and enormous, strangely shaped boulders that bulged over the scene like the facial protuberances of the Elephant Man writ large on the granite hills. Even at some distance he could see that the leading party consisted of the stunt coordinator in his camouflage waistcoat and his mates, and that they were following a black man in crisp jeans and bright-white T-shirt who had stopped to wave from a rock that jutted from the hillside.

Full of renewed determination, Hilton skirted the great enclosure and the stretch of sloping terrain that led to the side of the hillside and approached the path. It was a lot steeper than it had looked from the valley, but he soldiered on up the stone-strewn walkway, which required him to clamber over rock-falls and through bouldered gateways. It was quite steep at times, and as he got higher thin tendrils of grey mist appeared like the flight trails of ghosts. He was panting heavily and bathed in an unpleasantly oily sweat when he arrived at a formal-seeming terrace far up the side of the hill. A stone stairway cut into the living hillside led up to a doorway set, rather like the entrance to a cathedral, in an arch built into a high, grey, stone wall. The terrace had clearly once been a place of some ceremony.

It dawned on him where he must be. The guidebook in his bungalow had included a section on the site of Great Zimbabwe, the most important place in the district. This strange place could only be the famous Ruins. The most unusual thing about them, Hilton reflected, was their antiquity. Behind him, looming out of a grey cliff face, rose the walls of the hill complex. An African civilisation had built a palace among the enormous boulders, from sometime in the tenth century on, when Europe had no complete map of the world; it had created a maze of chambers and interconnecting passages of finely worked unmortared walls of stone. It really was extraordinary to come across evidence of a long-gone culture on a continent where traditionally nothing survived very long – nothing tangible, at any rate, such as buildings, or books.

According to the guidebook, smaller stone monuments emulating the style of building at Great Zimbabwe dotted the subcontinent, mute evidence of a once considerable imperial network of villages and trading centres. Renser and Mauch, who had stumbled upon the place, had known nothing of this, and besides, they had been riddled with the prejudices of their day, among which were the view that Africa was a primitive continent with no recorded history. So they’d peddled silly speculations about a non-African origin of the monument: Phoenicians, aliens, the Queen of Sheba. And so had others who had followed them. Legend had piled upon legend until this same stone palace of rock had become the inspiration for the city of Kôr.

Far below in the valley he could see the high stone wall of the grand enclosure and its attendant buildings in their protective colouring of trees. Parties of his film crew colleagues were still wandering among them, calling to one another and taking photos of themselves in front of the immense mute structures. He couldn’t see a distinctive white T-shirt among them, though. Yet he was sure that Tim Mapfumo must have come this way.

Up here among the clouds, almost, the trails of wispy mist that he had passed through on the way had turned into thicker coils of smoke-trailed white fingers over the sheer grey face of the rock above and then descended to the terrace where he was standing. His view of the sunlit valley below was suddenly veiled, and in a few more moments he could hardly see where he was.

“Hello?” he called. “Hello?” he heard, but it was only an echo from the rock wall that loomed in the thick mist above the great arched door that led into the granite mountain.


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