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

Something will happen


Richard Jurgens - 2010-01-07

Things were good after all, Hilton Ellis decided. He located the teapot and cleared a space on the table with a sweep of his elbow. There was food in the fridge. He had a paying gig coming up. And he was enjoying his breakfast like a gentleman, while the world was still sleeping off its week of work.

He bit into a slice of well garnished baguette. The first tastes of the morning were crucial to the rest of the day, in his view: better no breakfast than a bad breakfast. He savoured the lightness of the cheese, the sharpness of the cherries, the smoothness of the cream, the crispness of the bread.

It was then that he noticed the unopened letter on top of the pile of bills and flyers on the kitchen table. He opened it idly, still chewing. It was a bill from the electricity company. He looked at the logo in the letterhead – a silhouette of a god-like man with a large beard, Zeus maybe, holding a lightning bolt. Hmph. Filthy moneygrubbers, stealing the symbols of the classical world.

His eyes drifted over the words "Final notice". Then, in some panic, they searched the page for the final amount at the bottom of the column of swimming figures. When they found it, he was reassured. The number was so huge that it could not possibly apply to him. Only a company could be asked to pay an amount as large as that, a place of employment where they kept the lights and radiators blazing all day, a design studio or architectural bureau maybe.

But the name and address at the top of the letter falsified this hopeful theory. The tastes in his mouth went dull. The Technicolor tones of life drained suddenly to black and white. He pushed his breakfast aside.

*

The dunning letter couldn’t have come at a worse time. It was summer: everyone he knew seemed to be away. There was no one to call for a loan. Worse, no one to call for commiseration.

He decided to go out for a while. He’d get on a tram, any tram, and see where he it took him. Chance had been the leitmotif of his life and he would follow it loyally now.

There was hardly anyone around on the Leidseplein. A few students stumbled home from some dance event, their eyes sunken, their hair ragged. Some early tourists were out looking for breakfast. The cleaning department hadn’t yet been, and the litter was incredible. A lake of abandoned fast food packets, plastic cups, cigarette ends, joint butts, bottles, torn condom packets and abandoned items of clothing lapped at the doors of the quiet, shut-down cafés. Here and there trashed bikes lay like animals dead in a drought, their bones angular in the morning breeze.

Hilton surveyed this scene sourly. This, he thought, is all we leave behind us: trash. He got on to the next tram that came along without looking at the number. The tram lumbered into motion, and he had a moment of seasickness as it lurched unexpectedly around a corner. Where was he going? He got out again after only a couple of stops when the doors crashed open and the scents of the market food stalls drifted in.

The market folk were still setting up, and it was reassuring to feel the activity around him, the regularity, the hum and bustle, the mindless purpose of ordinary lives. He wandered along, drawn by the smell of spring rolls deep frying. Over the years he’d seen the market evolve from a purely local affair of breads, milks, cheeses and cheap clothes to an international bazaar of exotic cuisines, colourful materials, fashionable clothing, ethnic music and, above all, the glitter of bling. The transformation had been for the better. This was where he felt at home, with the rattle of many languages and the bright colours of the saris, kaftans and head scarves of many different cultures around him.

But today his market mojo wasn’t working. He’d come out too early, impelled by his shock news; nothing much was happening yet. Meanwhile, a warm, unsettling breeze nipped at his trousers and collar. He didn’t feel like sitting alone over a coffee in a café while the staff yawned off their nights of ecstasy and trance. He wanted company.

It was only when he turned a corner that he realised that he was in Eslin’s street.

*

The artist’s studio was on the ground floor of a solid old nineteenth-century house. Inside, you could just make out the shadows of a painter’s life: an easel, paintings on crumbling walls, a few pieces of furniture. On the other side of the dimness a wild garden blazed green in the morning light.

He knocked, but there was no answer. He knocked again, studying the posters, flyers and photographs in the glass of the door: reproductions of bold, expressive oil paintings, lists of exhibitions, newspaper cuttings covered in multicoloured fingerprints. Still no answer. It had been an off-chance, but an unopened door is always a kind of rejection.

Grunting, Hilton was turning to go when the door suddenly opened. Eslin stood there in a dressing gown that was almost entirely covered in daubs of paint. The dressing gown hung well open.

"It’s you," Eslin said. "Jesus." He was holding a bulging chequered handkerchief to his eye.

"Well, not quite," Hilton said.

"Come in, man, come in!" Eslin turned back into the studio.

A rough sort of kitchenette had been set up on some shelves in a corner of the studio. The artist put a water pan on to boil, then flopped down on an old striped couch near the window, his legs wide. Hilton averted his eyes.

"So, what’s happening?" Eslin said. "Man, it’s a long time since you dropped by. Must be – what, six months?"

Hilton tried to recall where they had met. In some anarchist café, possibly. More likely: some trendy art opening. Hilton had never seen Eslin at the events that dominated the lives of the political exiles – the campus meetings in packed halls, the cultural conferences, the activist performances. It wasn’t that he was unsympathetic to all that, probably; it was just that he was overpoweringly egocentric. They had grown up within a few miles of each other, back in Johannesburg, it turned out. Hilton felt sure that they would never have met there.

Eslin was studying the handkerchief, which he had removed from his eye. The handkerchief was filled with ice cubes. The eye to which it had been applied was bloodshot and swollen.

Ouch! thought Hilton. It didn’t quite seem something he could ask about.

"Longer, a year maybe," he said.

"Time, eh?" the artist said with grin. "Time just keeps rolling on." He had a way of tilting his head sideways when he looked at you, as if he was considering you in a frame.

"For fuck’s sake," a woman’s voice said. "Are you going to make tea, or what?"

Startled, Hilton looked around. He hadn’t noticed anyone else in the room.

"Water’s on," Eslin said calmly, giving Hilton a wink with his good eye. The action only emphasised the uncomfortable state of the other eye, which was swollen almost entirely shut. He groaned slightly, lay back and applied the handkerchief again.

Hilton looked around again, searching for the source of the strange voice. Someone was looking at him from the raised bed platform in an alcove by the French windows that led to the garden. The eyes were large, green and full of an odd light.

"Oh," said Hilton. "I’m sorry – " He got up to go.

"Bullshit," said Eslin, waving a hand, his eyes still closed. "We were just getting up anyway."

"Oh, you think so?" said the girl from the bed.

She rose up to throw a pillow at the artist. Hilton allowed himself a greedy look at her. She was lovely: a naked, long-legged, light-limbed classical nymph with modern short hair. Ah, me, Hilton thought, if only boys were more like her. Or girls more like boys. Even after all his years of existence on this earth he was undecided about his own identity. He was ambisextrous, as he liked to put it, a convenience shopper at best – or one who took what he could get.

Eslin swatted the pillow away, still without opening his eyes.

"We had a deal, you bastard!" the girl said. "We are supposed to be in Berlin. This weekend, you said."

She threw another pillow, this time with some force. It ricocheted off the artist and on to a battered blue sideboard, sweeping unwashed plates and glasses on to the floor with a crash.

Eslin opening his good eye briefly to survey the damage. The rough wooden floor was covered with shards of plates and glasses and the remains of several meals.

"Oh my God!" the girl said. She made a very appealing picture with her knees widespread among the bedclothes, her eyes open, her hands at her mouth.

"It’s nothing," said the artist. "We’ll clean up later. Whatever."

"No, I’m really sorry," the girl said. She turned around and edged backwards over the edge of the bed on to a ladder, then walked over to the couch, not in the least conscious of her nakedness. In another moment she was nestling in the protection of her lover’s arm, her legs folded up against her small firm breasts.

"Sure you are," Eslin said. He opened the good eye and winked at Hilton over her cropped head.

*

At that moment there was a knock at the door that led to the hallway. The effect was startling: Eslin leapt up, so that the girl tumbled away from him, her legs flying.

"For fuck’s sake, now look what you’ve done!" he said in a low, angry voice. "They heard us." He seized a shirt from the floor below the bed and threw it at her. "Here, put this on."

He opened the door. An old woman was standing there: cardigan, woollen skirt, white hair, glasses – someone from another world. "Mrs J!" Eslin said, as if completely surprised to see her.

"I am just coming to see if everything is alright," said the old woman. She peered curiously past him into the studio. "I heard a, you know, crash."

"Everything’s just fine, Mrs J," Eslin said confidently. He hadn’t bothered to close the bathrobe. Mrs J did not appear to notice.

"Oh, my goodness, dear, your eye!" the old woman suddenly said, putting a ringed hand to her mouth. She spoke an old-fashioned English that sounded as if she had learned it from the BBC during the Second World War, but with rolling r’s.

"It’s nothing, Mrs J," the artist said. "I’m applying ice."

"Oh, yes," said Mrs J, looking doubtfully at the handkerchief, which was clearly a storehouse of germs and bacteria. "Yes, well, young man, since I am here, there is another matter …"

The artist quickly stepped through the door, closing it behind him. Hilton and the girl sat in silence, listening to the murmuring of their voices in the hallway. She hadn’t bothered to put on the shirt, and she didn’t look at him. Instead she sat with her arms wrapped around her knees, softly humming a tune.

"Old bat," said Eslin fondly, coming back into the room a few minutes later. He stood for a moment, one hand straying in the hair on his chest.

"What was that about?" said Hilton.

"The rent," the artist said. "We’re a few months behind. You know how it goes."

"Berlin!" the girl said, seizing a cushion from the couch and throwing it at him.

Eslin swept the cushion away just as it zoned in on his head. It fell to the floor with a soft plop. He picked it up again and rushed at the girl, who squealed in mock terror.

*

Weighed up in the great scales of life, all our plans, all our hopes, all our expectations are as nothing against the power of mere coincidence, Hilton thought bitterly. He had been happy to forget about his own problem – that offensive letter on his kitchen table – in the unfolding events of the day. But Eslin’s outstanding rent issue had forcibly reminded him of it again.

When he had first arrived in the city, Hilton had lived in an indigent’s hostel. After that he had spent lengthy periods sleeping on the couches of friends. When that source of patience dried up, he had spent several years moving from squat to squat. Now he had a home, registered in his name. And that huge bill lying on his kitchen table represented a threat to the sanctity of his home, his one refuge in this world.

He had at last deciphered Eslin’s ambiguous response at the door that morning. It was the slight lack of surprise, as if he had been expected, like a bad fairy turning up. Now that he thought about it, he recalled lending Eslin a fair chunk of change, about a year before. He had just been paid for a lucrative cash-in-hand gig, and the artist had been in the right place at the right time. Hilton had clean forgotten about it.

Now that he was communing with himself on the subject, it irritated Hilton ("burned his bum" was the phrase that went through his mind) to think that he had so easily provided the artist with a supplement to his cash flow back then. What had he been thinking of? Debts collected on artists like flies on honey. He, Hilton Ellis, knew this better than anyone. What made it worse was that this artist spoke in the casual drawl of an ex-St John’s boy. He might as well have gone to Eton, and probably had a family trust to fall back on.

Hilton held up the little aeroplane that he had folded from the dunning letter and launched it into the air. The aeroplane made a brave attempt at swooping flight, then nose-jetted into the floor.

Grunting, Hilton picked it up. That unbelievable total floated up at him like a demon from a fold in the paper.

*

It was a few days later, and Hilton had decided on action. He donned his First World War flying cap, his long leather coat, his ankle-length bush boots. Underneath the jacket he was wearing the black T-shirt with the Archaic Maze symbol on its front. The outer garments were for physical presence, the inner clothes were for spiritual truth. Together they made up the armour of his alter ego: the hired gun. You strutting peacock, he thought. You’re mine. Da Boss is calling in a favour.

The nearer Hilton got to Eslin’s street, the more focused he felt. It helped that it was a warm day, so that he was sweating fiercely by the time he got there. He was so preoccupied with his mission that he ran into the commotion going on in the quiet street outside the studio without being prepared for it. Police cars, police vans, an ambulance, a mortuary van. Cops and people with white coats were going in and out. A small crowd of people, held back by crime scene tape, had gathered to watch.

Hilton surreptitiously removed the flying cap: the hired gun blended back into the crowd of watching citizens. A lull had settled. Then, to his surprise, Mrs J was escorted outside by a cop and nurse. She looked very frail, and walked slowly, as if unsure that her step would meet solid ground. They helped her into the ambulance, which drove away. The cops and technicians vanished, and the locals walked off, grumbling. Soon the street was as quiet as it had been an hour before.

Hesitantly, Hilton rang the artist’s bell. The door opened immediately. Thankfully, the girl was clothed today.

"Ess, it’s the fat man!" she yelled. Hilton bridled on the threshold.

"Hey," said Eslin. He was wearing a pair of faded jeans and a white T-shirt. His eye, no longer so swollen, was ringed now by a neat black circle, like a charcoal drawing of a monocle. "Come in, man," he said. "Babe, make some coffee?"

"Fuck you!" said the girl. "I’ve been playing housewife for all these cops all the morning."

"Schatzi, bitte," Eslin said.

"Don’t say that," the girl said. "You are not German."

"Too right," said Eslin, grinning. "And you’re a bitter Schatzi."

"What’s going on?" Hilton asked. A strange atmosphere hung in the air that he could not read.

"We’ve had the police in," said Eslin. He looked a little pale, Hilton thought, as he rolled a cigarette with absent-minded proficiency. "The old man upstairs died, you check."

"And the old woman slept by his body for three days before she told anyone," Schatzi said from the kitchenette.

"Christ," said Eslin, shaking his head in disbelief. "I’ve lived here for – five years. They’ve been like mom and dad to me."

Schatzi handed round mugs of black coffee and folded herself on the couch. The artist took a drag on his hand-rolled, which he held between thumb and forefinger, then looked at the glowing coal at its end.

"Bad stuff, this."

"You should give it up," said the girl, nudging him with a toe.

"Yeah, sure," said Eslin. But he was preoccupied, as if trying to make a decision. Suddenly he leaned forward, reached under the battered coffee table, and brought out a large, wrinkled brown paper bag.

"Get a load of this, man," he said. He turned the bag over and shook it. Bundles of paper money, held together by elastic bands, tumbled out on to the table.

Hilton’s heart almost stopped at the sight of all that filthy lucre, right there, in front of him. Thousands and thousands – tens of thousands.

"Are you crazy?" the girl said, glancing quickly at Hilton.

"It was under their bed," said the artist, his knee banging up and down like a drummer’s. "She called me up this morning, told me where it was. Said she wouldn’t need it."

"So it was you who called the police," Hilton said.

"They lost a son in the War, you know," Eslin said, looking at the bundles of cash on the table. "He was executed on the street, not far from here."

"The old man was cold," said the girl. "And smelling!"

*

At home, the assassin’s mission uncompleted, and his armour hanging in the hallway, Hilton looked at the dunning letter again, with its presumptuous Zeus and lighting bolt.

The sight of all that money back in the artist’s studio had inflicted a very surprising emotion on him: revulsion. For as the artist told his story, Hilton had experienced a sort of accelerated rush of perception, as if his consciousness had been forcibly plugged into some sort of psychic internet and he, like some sort of latter-day Alex Droog, had been forced to watch a hectic rewind of news clips, newsreels, and home movies. Where can one turn one’s head to avoid the images that appear on the involuntary mental screen? As if strapped to an infernal laboratory seat, Hilton watched the Jansens in the cheering crowd at the Queen’s coronation, teargas rising in clouds above the spires in the background; the Jansens driving to Yugoslavia in their little red DAF, the countryside of Europe peaceful in the bright light of the 1970s; the Jansens in the crowd on the little square in front of the university, listening with obvious puzzlement to the pronouncements of artists who described themselves as Gnomes on the immediate necessity of free white bicycles; the Jansens sitting down at their neat little Reconstruction Era kitchen table to enjoy their Sinta Klaas meal, a third place set for their missing son; a grainy Forties sequence of trucks arriving in the street, jackboots gleaming in the moonlight, men escorted by soldiers from their houses and lined up on the corner, a barked command, a volley of surreal gunfire, the bodies of the executed men slumping in the shadows of the pavement. Ach so.

Clearly the money was tainted. Equally clearly, though, the date of Hilton’s outstanding electrical payment now, in the immediate and guilty present, was nearing like a sentence of execution. The amount wouldn’t have stretched someone with a regular salary. For him it was an impossible fortune. Strike out now and other bills, other demands, each one another sinister nail, would follow with the certainty of fate.

He picked up the phone.

"Hi, Ess?"

"Yes?"

"It’s me."

"Yes?"

The neutral tone wasn’t encouraging, but he ploughed on. It took only a couple of seconds to get it out: the loan he had made to the artist a year before, his plight now, his urgent need of money. He kept it humble. The assassin was slumbering.

"So what do you want?" the artist said.

"Well, you’ve got some money, now, I thought," Hilton said.

"Money?" said Eslin on the other end of the line. "What money?"

"You showed it to me just now. There were bundles and bundles of it."

"Oh, that …" The artist took an audible drag on a cigarette. "It’s gone."

"Gone?" Hilton said. His stomach lurched, twisted, belly-flopped.

"Yeah."

"Where has it gone?"

"Jeez, man, what are you, my accountant?" Down went the phone.

*

Hilton woke later, after a deep sleep. He’d dreamed that he was lying on a sunbed by the pool in the garden of his childhood. He’d been listening to the dry sound of the wind in the blue gums, the call of a hoopoe in the trees nearby, the clatter of a lawnmower over the hedge … Each moment had seemed so full of peace and certainty. And yet, for him, all that was gone now.

Life, evolution – it’s all just plain blind coincidence, he thought dreamily, stretching. People win the lottery all the time. Hell, even arseholes like Eslin, the peacock artist, got windfalls. He turned over in his warm bed to go back to sleep. Something will happen, he thought. It always does.