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Nuwe skryfwerk | New writing > Fiksie | Fiction > English > Published authors

One Night at the Roxy (part one)


Richard Jurgens - 2009-11-12

Hilton Ellis knew that he was being suckered. It was the articulate charm, the warm interest, as if no one existed but the two of them. And yet it had been months since he had heard that voice.

They had met at the market by the city hall, purely by chance. Hilton had been trying to be good, the doctor having recently reminded him of the poor state of his heart. But, well, he had been passing the market when he noticed the smell of fresh frying. Following the promptings of the little demon on his left shoulder – a completely amoral goblin, this one, a real little selfish hedonist, and an insatiable glutton for the pleasanter, if not the finer things of life to boot – he’d placed his order for patat frites. With everything on them, natch: the generous gloops of mayonnaise, ketchup and chopped onion that transformed a simple street meal into a glorious cholesterol train smash.

Standing there, trying not to smack his lips too obviously at the prospect of all those illicit kilojoules, he noticed the good-looking boy next to him at the counter. For some reason the boy was looking at him.

“You’re from Johannesburg, aren’t you?” the boy said.

“How did you know?”

“The way you speak, china.”

There’d been a time, not many years before, when Hilton’s first thought would have been that the boy was too good-looking not to have been sent, that he must be someone’s agent. But the spies, stooges and killers who had once roamed the earth in search of dissidents who defamed the country’s name overseas, were no longer a factor to be considered. Hilton sometimes almost missed them, those all too unguided missiles sent out into the darkness by a regime on the edge of an abyss. The mere existence of the hit squads had added spice to life, even if in his case there had never been more than a remote possibility that he would figure as a ripe target. Still, he had lived closer to the edge then, like many others; life had had a point, it had had urgency. History had since turned a corner. Exile had become a destination. Life had become just life.

At the market stall, as he greedily surveyed the packet of chips in his hand, Hilton had learned that the handsome boy had been at school in Cape Town. Hilton retained some pleasant, if vague, holiday memories of the city – snorkelling in Kalk Bay, windblown Sea Point restaurants, that kind of thing. More to the point, he’d realised then with a sudden shock that it had been a long time since he had spoken to anyone from home. The Berlin Wall had fallen in a day. The regime had taken a little longer. But one year later everyone had suddenly vanished. Like a flock of geese obeying an irrepressible urge to fly south, all Hilton’s fellow exiles had gone home.

Since then he’d been getting by, doing character parts, TV ads, corporate mime work, children’s shows, a bit of stand-up, anything he could get, really. As a way of life it had been fine, and was so still – if you took into account that you were living in a city where nothing really happened, where burghers made money and lowlifes lived, just as their forebears had done for centuries. Looking at the boy, Hilton knew that the gods, or the spirits, or the ancestors, whatever you called the capricious forces that ruled his fate, had sent him an unexpected gift.

Or maybe it was simply because, as an entertainer, he could spot a good diversion when he saw one. At any rate, he and the boy were soon talking like old friends. They walked over the bridge together, sharing the contents of Hilton’s illegal packet of chips, most of which the boy ate. By that time the little demon on Hilton’s right shoulder – a real moralistic little muthafucka, this one, a proper little schoolmaster – had regained control over some of the switches and levers that operated the immense and unstable system that was Hilton’s body. The boy’s hearty appetite was a blessing in disguise. It had meant that Hilton had allowed himself only a little taste of the forbidden pleasure. His straining pipes were no doubt sighing with relief.

They had wandered along the river with its pink-and-white arched bridges, its grand hotels, theatres and rows of gabled houses lining the banks like tipsy patricians at a regatta. It was a lovely afternoon. Patterns of gold and red and brown leaves were collecting in the shadows. The boy did not appear to notice the beauty all around them.

They arrived at last at Hilton’s front door. He had to put a hand to the wall to recover his breath. The boy was a fast walker.

“You all right?” the boy said. 

Hilton waved the question away.

“Where are your keys?” The boy leaned towards him intimately, as if they’d known each other a long time, and reached into Hilton’s pocket. He had the keys out and the door unlocked before Hilton quite knew what was happening. Fool, fool, fool, he thought. You know nothing about this fellow. What if his name is Darma? But there seemed to be no turning back.

“Well, mi casa su casa and all that,” he said, having recovered somewhat from the pace of the walk. He swept a few dishes with old leftovers off the table and into the sink, where they joined the other pots, pans and plates of the week. 

“Thanks,” the boy said dubiously. He put his hands on his hips and looked the place over.

“Would you like a coffee, then?”

“Why not?” the boy said.

There was nothing for it but to sit among the dishes and the garbage bags. Surveying his guest covertly, Hilton noted the leanness, the toughness even, of the body beneath the shirt. And it was true: eyes existed in this world that were the colour of spring cornflowers.

The boy sipped his coffee and glanced around at the incredible mess.

“It’s the help’s day off,” Hilton said.

“The help? Really?”

“Well,” said Hilton.

“Well,” the boy echoed.

Hilton had been very sure that he would soon be left to an evening of yapping talk show gurus and unasked-for details of the lives of celebrities. He was very surprised when the boy got up, took him by the hand, and led him like a child to the bedroom. Once there, it turned out that the boy had no inhibitions, none at all.

*

In the morning Hilton woke to unfamiliar sounds echoing in the apartment, and unfamiliar smells: coffee, toast. The boy was in the kitchen, fixing breakfast.

In fact, the whole apartment was transformed. The kitchen shone with unfamiliar light. In the sitting room the colours of the rugs and paintings jumped out from the dimness like priceless artefacts emerging from a recently discovered tomb. Not only the apartment, but its occupant also received the benefit of some close attention. The boy insisted that Hilton spend some time in the shower before allowing him to enjoy his breakfast. 

He was a good listener. A good talker too. He had some interesting stories to tell about his exploits on the waterfront in Cape Town, that city so distant geographically, and now, for Hilton, so distant in time. From the way he talked you’d have thought that he’d grown up in a brothel. And he “helped around the house”. He was an apparition, a bright angel. 

Hilton found himself doing his voice exercises with new zest. He reviewed roles he coveted in The Seagull, Ubu Rex and The Crucible, and looked through his Stanislawski and Artaud. One day the call would come: an audition for Peter Greenaway, an invitation to play Falstaff in a suitable fringe production. It was good to share the day with someone.

They settled into a pleasant routine. When Hilton wasn’t working, he and the boy talked late into the night. Or they relaxed on the sofa, watching TV. Sometime Hilton wrote or read while the boy cleaned the place. (It was some sort of compulsion, clearly, but Hilton saw no harm in indulging it.) Occasionally, the boy went out on his own. Neither spoke about the future. If the boy had a plan for his life, he didn’t mention it.

When they had met, that day at the market, the boy had just returned from London. He had in fact just spent the last of his money on the train fare from the airport. His parents, who had journeyed up from Africa for Wimbledon, had insisted on seeing him. He’d flown over to London to visit them, but without enthusiasm. As he had expected, his father had mentioned a friend in the city and a job. There had been the “Boy, it’s time to settle down” speech. The boy, who went by the name of Jamie, had replied that he had joined an aid organisation and would soon be working in Africa on a volunteer’s salary. It had been a familiar father-son stalemate, apparently.

The father had started as an agricultural officer in Kenya in the 1950s. He had obtained a settler’s grant to buy a farm and done well enough to finance a canning operation. In time his tins of jam and vegetables were stocking the shelves throughout the subcontinent. Then came the Mau Mau rebellion. The farm was nationalised, and the family moved on. During the years following, they moved a number of times to countries whose names were about to change.

Meanwhile, Jamie was sent to a boarding school in the far south, where the accents were heavy and the fists hard, and foreigners were knocked into shape as quickly as possible. He recalled his initiation: the night, aged six, when he was fucked by four senior boys. And his lonely outrage: his father had gone to a school exactly like this, only in another country.

*

One evening they were lying on the couch, absently watching the Wildlife channel. The screen showed a long view of a yellow plain with thorn trees and mountains like rain clouds in the distance, culminating in the rising grandeur of Kilimanjaro.

“That’s your part of the world, isn’t it?” Hilton said.

“We weren’t near the mountain. We were more south.”

“Do you ever miss it?”

“Sure,” said Jamie. “The dew on the elephant grass in the mornings. The smell of eucalyptus in the summer air. The smell of the red soil after afternoon rain. The calling of a hoopoe in the garden.”

Was he being lyrical or sarcastic? Hilton wondered. It was hard to tell. Jamie’s crisp English often seemed to hover somewhere between the two. But Jamie continued: “You know, even when I’m there, I miss it. It’s the strangest feeling.”

“What do you mean?”

“I’d come back for the holidays and there’d be the smell of apricots in the hot summer air. In winter the Masai would set the winter grazing alight and you’d hear the crackling of the columns of fire and smoke on the hills. Have you ever tasted fresh cow’s blood, drunk from a calabash? Or felt the coolness of the forest after the heat of the plains? Or heard the drums and flutes and African pianos in the quiet, star-filled night?”

“Karen Blixen.”

“What?”

“Nothing.”

“That world is going,” said Jamie. “It’s on its way out. Africa’s all about pay-for-view soccer and four-wheel drives.” The hot hum of cicadas in the bushveld filled the room.

“Look,” said Hilton, his feeling of fondness for the boy overcoming his sense of caution, “you can stay here if you like. I mean, you know, live here, until you work out what you want to do.”

Jamie smiled. “What a great idea. Gosh, look at the time, it’s late. I think I’ll go out. Do you mind?”

Click here to read the second and final part of this short story.