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

Good times at the Transkei Café


Richard Jurgens - 2010-02-19

It was six o’ clock on a Sunday evening and the café doors had been locked already. The crew were getting in the mood, aided by liberal supplies of fresh Kei weed, high-grade Colombian, and classy French Dom Pérignon.

Gilandro and Sally Savvy were sitting at the counter with two of Boggsy’s mates. One of these was Tim Vermeulen, known in certain circles for his persuasive abilities with locked safes. The other was a man called Brian Jones, generally known as Mick, whose special skills lay in the area of non-verbal communication. Boggsy was pacing up and down in front of the huge photograph of Coffee Bay that occupied pride of place on the wall, along with other mementoes of that idyllic spot on the other side of the world: beaded tobacco bags, long-stemmed traditional pipes, pointed straw hats. He was talking energetically, as always, between drags of the pre-rolled joints that he smoked like cigarettes. Benny, his factotum, lurked like a shadow behind the bar, counting bottles and adding up figures in a small exercise book. He rested only when his master rested.

It was only a year since they had opened for business, but what a roller coaster ride it had been. None of them had had any connection with Amsterdam, beyond the occasional business trip. But John Boggs had an intuition, and when he had an intuition his outfit listened. They had arrived in the city after getting the hell out of Jo’burg, Murder & Robbery hot on their heels. New identity documents had given them residence permits. These had put them in a position to become partners in a business, with job titles and all that shit. And this had turned them into respectable taxpayers.

The documents were good, exactly like the real thing – right down to the convincing used look, the cracking covers and fading gilt lettering – even though they were hot off the presses of some dodgy printer in Antwerp. And of course the café books were a handy sluice for the river of money that kept flowing their way. They’d never been so legal in all their lives.

"Jeez, remember how we brought in our first stock?" said Tim, his eyes streaming from the smoke of a joint he’d just lit. "We posted it to ourselves," he continued, when no one volunteered an answer. "We made bricks of the shit, wrapped them in cellophane, put them in boxes, and sent them to ourselves at PO boxes that we opened here. Can you fuckin’ believe it."  

"Only in this country," said Boggsy. "They’ve got rights and what-what coming out of their eyeballs. The cops here just can’t think like bad boys.’

"It’s like shooting fish in a barrel," said Mick.

Tim, leaning on the counter, pretended huge surprise at the fact that the big man had spoken. Mick held up a thickly knuckled middle finger.

"Was I right, or is the Pope a virgin?" said Boggsy.

"Man, it must have been the cheapest start-up in history," said Gilandro. "Everyone else in this business has to pay huge costs to transport their stock."

Gilandro was from Suriname and stood six five in his socks. He was a recent recruit to the outfit. He was doing a marketing and accountancy course sponsored by the city council as part of the crew’s drive to professionalise their operation.

"We should have called it the Post Office Café," Tim said.

"And tell everyone how we got into business," said Boggsy, patrolling the place like an army instructor inspecting a barracks. Now that it was empty of customers, a lot of things seemed to be catching his eye. "Arsehole."

"I was only saying," said Tim. Mick was delighted by his fall from grace and held up another thick finger. Tim gave him the glass eye.

Boggsy put a very fine little antique chased silver snuffbox on the table. "Mick, line ’em up. Benny, I told you before," he yelled, returning to his patrol, "people are charring the tables, man. These ashtrays aren’t big enough. Next thing the punters’ll be burning the place down. Normally I wouldn’t give a fuck, the place is insured, that’s part of being legit. But we’ve just had a big consignment in, and that’s not insured. Get my drift?"

"I ordered some new ones," Benny said calmly from behind the counter.

"I was only saying," said Tim.

"Chill, man," said Gilandro.

"Go for it," said Mick, indicating the mirror on which he had been tapping out some lines.

"Mmmm!" said Sally Savvy, taking several deep sniffs from the mirror. "That’s smooth!" She got up in a slinky movement, an intent look in her eye, shedding her coat as she rose.

"Only the finest for my friends," said Boggsy.

"Watch out, here she comes," said Gilandro.

"Music!" said Boggsy. It was good times at the Transkei Café.

*

That morning, Hilton Ellis had woken to the month’s washing-up in the sink and a fridge so empty that it looked like it was starving. Not being able to face the evidence of his reduced state, he’d gone out for a walk. Who knew, stranger things had happened, he might run into someone who owed him some money – or someone, at the least, who might buy him breakfast. It had been one of those September mornings that ring like high trumpets in a cantata, the clear blue air tinged with gold. Along the Brouwersgracht the leaves of the elms were turning yellow, sienna, red; the colour of Vivaldi’s hair, probably.

Had the red-haired composer of "Four Seasons" ever visited this city? If he had, a plaque on one of the elegant houses of the inner canals commemorated this fact. There were hundreds in the old city marking the periods of residence, no matter how brief, of all the famous musicians, writers, artists, physicists, biologists, architects, and naval heroes of the Golden Age who had ever graced the city with their numinous presence. No actors, though. Most of the names meant nothing now, really. Still, Hilton was heavily conscious of walking the boards of a phenomenal stage, and of having no role to play on it.

He had lived in the city for several decades without giving real thought to returning to the country of his birth. With most people, exile had magnified the homeland sentiment; the longer they lived abroad the more they pined for the beloved country. With Hilton it had gone the other way. It was here, among the dives and squats and alternative theatres of this city, that he had emerged from the terrible chrysalis that had enclosed him until the day of his exile. Here, he had learned to live.

He was drifting along the Haarlemmerstraat when he noticed the pasty-faced junkies hanging around in the alleys at that early hour in the hope of bagging a straying tourist or two. Passing the familiar sign of the Transkei Café – a coat-of-arms featuring a Cape vulture on an escutcheon with a bottleneck grasped in its talons, above the motto "Per Cannabis Ad Astra" – he spotted some activity inside. Well, they were up early. No harm in getting off the street, with all those ghouls and zombies lurking. Maybe he’d score a freebie spliff and a cup of koffie verkeerd.

To his surprise, he was warmly welcomed and plied with things to smoke, mugs of latte, and someone’s girlfriend’s home-baked cookies. The day quickly started looking better.

But John Boggs was nothing if not a master of the science of opportunism, nothing if not an adept in the dark arts of exploitative friendship; he possessed some sort of radar system that revealed people’s weaknesses to him as clearly as if he were studying their heat patterns through infrared binoculars. Before Hilton knew what was happening he found himself stuffing plastic bankies with the latest consignment of product.

Well, an entire week loomed before the next welfare cheque. A week was a long time when you had no money. A week was interminable when you had no drugs. Hilton would get something out of his stint of involuntary labour at least: several well-filled bags of weed, meals throughout the day, and some useful cash in hand. Which only went to show: when you needed, the universe provided.

*

Boggsy went off on some inscrutable errand, leaving Benny behind the counter. Benny was as silent as ever; he never said anything unless replying to the boss. Hilton worked for hours as customers came and went. The pellets of weed were in prime condition, dry enough to crumble, but still sticky. His task: crumble, weigh, stock the bag, stick the printed label; crumble, weigh, stock the bag, stick the printed label ... It had been a long time since he had done anything so mindless. Millions of tiny invisible crystals were filling the air over the table, probably coating his lungs with little chemical charges of pure THC. His head began to spin.

Behind him the noises of the café went on, and the roar of the cappuccino machine, the clacking of the till, the low rumble of stoned conversations as the air grew thick with smoke. What stories must play though the minds of the billions of human automatons who work the world’s factories each day, he thought, watching his hands carrying out their tasks as if they were independent of him. Their bodies so active, and their minds so idle. What dramas, what comedies, what tragedies, what soap operas! 

As for himself, he’d recently completed shooting a local art-house movie. The concept had been a sort of local Satyricon, a loose plot of roughly interrelated stories centring on a number of well-known alternative city types seen through a lens inspired by Fellini. So far, so good. But the actors had workshopped the script – everyone was doing it these days, of course; it was a good technique for getting the creative blood flowing. And Hilton had ended up playing a fat exile who lived on lavish meals and fond memories, and worked in the red-light district playing the cuckold in a sex show.

No doubt about it, the role had cut closer to the bone than he’d liked: he hadn’t had to work, he’d simply been himself. Moreover, his character had a friend at least, even if she fucked other men onstage. Lately, Hilton had begun to wonder whether he was cut out to be an actor. If he could, in fact, act.

*

"Right, then," said Boggsy, returning from his errand. The noise of the street swelled and faded as the door swung open and closed behind him. The gang’s boss never simply walked through a door, Hilton reflected; he swept through it like a force of nature.

"Where’s the boys, Benny?"

"Here, there," his loyal factotum replied. "Somewhere, probably."

"Smart arse." Boggsy said, without rancour.

"How did it go?" Benny continued, wiping a glass dry. 

Boggsy glanced at the table in the corner where Hilton laboured in a haze of sticky crystals. "Not in front of the kids, Benny! Christ."

As Hilton recalled his childhood, there hadn’t been that many secrets from the kids. Grown-ups thought of the kids as "the kids", and therefore underestimated them. It was the same with this crew. The gents of the Transkei were always boasting about their exploits. As soon as the others were out of earshot, one of them would start blabbing: they’d heisted this, they’d scored that, he’d fucked this girl, he’d fucked up that oke good and solid.

Hilton could have put together a fair picture of their doings. He would have made an ideal stooge, if the cops had known about him. But he was careful not to let too much of what Boggsy and his mates said stick in his memory. No, he kept his head down. When the boys were talking the talk, it was all in one ear and out the other, so far as he was concerned. "Really? No. Wow." Nod nod. Brute ignorance, if he ever needed it, would be his insurance policy.

"Sure boss," Benny said equably.

"Howzit, china?" Boggsy said, coming over and putting a heavy hand on Hilton’s shoulder.

His tone started off friendly, but something changed. The grip on Hilton’s shoulder got heavier. The microclimate in the room seemed to grow suddenly colder, then hotter. Absurdly, Hilton was reminded of Mr Murdoch, an industrial arts teacher back in the day under whose attentions he had once suffered hugely.

"What the fuck?" Boggsy said, suddenly angry. "What have you been doing? This stuff’s got to be delivered tonight. You’re only halfway through the job."

Hilton’s mind, clouded by a crystal haze, floated over the scene as the soul is reputed to do during a near-death experience.

"This is a business, not some fuckin’ hippie stage show," Boggsy continued remorselessly. His eyes, which were normally an oddly guileless blue, bulged like those of a man straining against considerable g-forces.

"Um," Hilton said.
Boggsy glared at Hilton, quite beside himself.
"Boss," Benny said.
Benny held up a phone. "It’s them. You know."

The choleric maniac who had taken occupation of Boggsy’s body vanished. A smooth, neutral-faced businessman appeared in his place. The businessman took the phone and listened to it intently. Whatever he heard evidently pleased him. "Good okes," he said.

From a professional point of view it was an admirable performance. If Boggsy had been on stage the audience would have broken into spontaneous applause. To change character like that, with no discernible effort, in mid-psychic flow! Actors usually had to prepare to get into a role; you could see them working to accomplish the transformation.

From a human point of view, Hilton’s response was more basic. A chill ran up his spine.  

"I’ll be in touch," Boggsy told the telephone. He shut it and looked at Benny. "Well, what are you waiting for?’

"What, boss?’

"Break out the champers, Benny," said Boggsy. "And call the boys.’

*

Sally Savvy and Gilandro turned up a short while later, smelling of shower gel and shampoo. In their tracksuits they looked a young couple just out of a healthy workout at the gym. Hilton gathered that they had just done a show at the Casa Rosso.

Here was a coincidence. Or maybe not: the paths of art and porn were tangled in this small but decadent city. At any rate, no trouble had been spared to make the film Hilton had just completed as echt as possible. They’d hired the Casa Rosso for an evening, and allowed a real paying audience in for the crucial sex show scenes. Hilton’s role had been to sit at the head of the bed on the little stage in a Tartuffe costume, making comic faces while his screen girlfriend went at it with the male performer. The couple on the bed had started diffidently but they had become increasingly energetic as they forgot about the crew behind the lights; indeed, they had carried their act to a rousing conclusion after the cameras had stopped rolling, to the delight of the audience.

"Then they were not professionals," said Sally Savvy.

"Well, they were actors," said Hilton.

Sally Savvy’s shrug said it all. None of the crew had ever seen Hilton working – doing his kind of work; he could have been a dustbin man so far as they were concerned.

"According to me most of the performers don’t enjoy it that much," Sally replied. "It’s just to pay for the drugs."

Gilandro flashed his two-carat tooth diamond. "No harm in doing what you dig and getting paid for it, right?’

They had met in New York. Sally had told Hilton all about herself when things were slow one morning: the journey from the provinces to this city, the harsh life in a classical dance company, the dodgy boyfriend, the seductive encounter with Cousin Cocaine, the fall from grace, the move into "erotic dance". At nineteen she was working burlesque shows off Broadway. Gilandro, meanwhile, was running with a crew of bad ass dudes from South America. Their paths had crossed one afternoon when Sally Savvy happened to be visiting a bank in the Bronx that his outfit were robbing. It was very romantic.

"Well, that’s professional," Hilton said, with a little upwelling of professional pique.

Sally Savvy thought this was very funny. But Hilton had drifted from his one-man production line over in the corner to get involved in the conversation. Boggsy looked up from the figures he was going through with Benny and glared at him.

Seeing this, something with a backbone stirred at last in Hilton. Boggsy’s brusque Jo’burg manner was starting to get on his nerves. Sure, alpha males strode around picking fights, pissing on territorial trees, and snarling at underlings who got out of line – this was what they did. Lesser mortals soaked up the sunshine of their victories and shivered in the shade of their defeats. But he wasn’t a member of Boggsy’s crew, was he? He wasn’t even a menial on the payroll. He was, now that he thought about it, a free man. A toxic bubble of rebellion welled up, an intimation of a long-dormant geyser.

Fuck this for a lark! He’d give that Jo’burg gangster a piece of his mind – a large piece. For good measure, he’d up-end the table, with his entire day’s labour on it. Then he’d go home.

Hilton got up from the scene of his arduous labours. He stood at the very edge of the abyss of a terrifying gangster’s enmity. He was about to step into it when the front door burst open for the second time that afternoon. Tim and Mick tumbled through it, arms around each other’s shoulders. Their shirt fronts were considerably spattered with blood, although they had zipped up their jackets to hide this. Oddly, they were laughing.

"Godzamme!" said Sally Savvy.

Boggsy had other things on his mind than the health of his henchmen.

"You, Mr Arts & Entertainment Section over there," he rasped. "Weren’t you supposed to be doing something?’

*

Boggsy ushered the blood-spattered boys into his office at the back of the café and closed the door. A few minutes later he called Sally Savvy and Gilandro in.

Benny loaded glasses into the racks above the counter. When he had finished with that task, he totted up the register. His silence about what had just happened spoke volumes, encyclopaedias, libraries.

After a while the crew emerged from the office. The "boys" looked much better with clean shirts on their backs; probably Boggsy kept a shelf of fresh clothing for just such occasions. The chief was laughing, an avuncular arm around Sally Savvy’s shoulder. Gilandro was holding a black plastic rubbish bag, which he put by the door.

"Right, mense," said John Boggs, rubbing his beefy hands. "Lock the door there, dude."

He waited until Gilandro had returned to the counter. "Okay. Good news. We’re going to sell up here.’

Boggsy’s crew stared at him in astonishment.

"Man, you’re crazy," said Gilandro. "We’re just getting going. With our low supply costs, this place has a shit-load of commercial potential." 

Something horrible and pre-historic flitted in Boggsy’s eye. Tim jogged Gilandro with a scuffed elbow.

"Hell, I guess we can pull our capital any time," Gilandro continued smoothly. "Why not now, right?’

"Is that the kind of shit they teach you over at suit school?" Boggsy said.

"Learn the business their way, boss," said the raw recruit. "Beat them at their own game. You told me that.’

"You got that right," said Boggsy. The prehistoric thing inside him disappeared, or receded anyway. Gilandro breathed again.

"Okay, as I said," Boggsy continued. "We’re selling up. And we’re going home."

This time the astonishment was complete. There was a long silence.

"We got the call today," said Boggsy. "Didn’t we Benny? The heat’s off."

*

That was when Boggsy produced his little snuffbox of fine chased silver, when Benny produced the champagne, and everyone started reminiscing. That was when someone put on "My Love is Chemical" and turned the volume way up high, and Sally Savvy swept off her red coat and got on to the counter to dance.

And what a dance it was, to the sexy groove of that growling New York voice and steady rolling bass. Sally Savvy was a lovely girl, tall, blonde, lithe, with the fine muscles of a professional. And she was nearly naked up there on the counter, and high on coke.

"I know I know I know
it’s more than phys-i-cal …"

Hilton gave up all pretence of work and moved to where the little silver box was doing the rounds.

*

"You’re gonna love it," Boggsy told Gilandro, several bottles of Dom later, an arm clamped tightly round the huge man’s neck. "Jo’burg! Man, we’re gonna clean up."

*

Boggsy had an arm clamped suffocatingly around Hilton’s neck too, much later, when he saw him out of the door.

"Sorry I didn’t get the job done," Hilton said.

"China, you did okay – for an amateur." Boggsy drew a large roll of banknotes from his pocket and peeled off a number of them into Hilton’s sticky, THC-coated fingers.

"Put that in your piggybank, my friend," he said. "Don’t smoke it. Next year in Johannesburg, hey?"

As he was closing the door, Boggsy spotted the garbage bag. Would Hilton take it with him and dispose of it a few blocks away? Sure thing, boss. John Boggs, lord of the Transkei, good friend and benefactor.

Hilton set off, eager for his bed. He was walking on the Warmoesstraat in the red-light district, which was on his way home, when he was noticed by two policemen who were passing on their mountain bikes. The cops were nice enough young men, both smelling of supermarket deodorant. They wanted to see ID. They wanted to know where he was going. And they wanted to know what he was doing at that time of night, and in fact at any time, with a garbage bag containing items of clothing that looked like animals had been ritually slaughtered in them.