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

Enemy of the Republic (Part II)


Richard Jurgens - 2010-03-10

Click here to read the first instalment of "Enemy of the Republic".

*

An aroma of burning rope, or smouldering creosote perhaps, was drifting into the room along the incredibly sharp Attic light when he woke the next morning. Down in his cement courtyard, Hilton’s landlord, a grizzled old salt of the Onassis tramp steamer fleet, was enjoying his daily communion with the paper and a pack of Papastratos. He did little else.

It was a deeply Mediterranean art, this hanging around and doing nothing, Hilton reflected as he turned over lazily in his bed. Back in Jo’burg he had secretly admired the gents who spent their days nurturing cups of coffee in the continental cafés, occasionally conversing with the owner or other regulars, but mainly deeply interested in their own thoughts. To him, even when he was a boy, they had lived in a kind of state of grace. They had stepped off the dreary wheel of existence that most people trod day in and day out.

Reluctantly he turned his mind to his own wheel of existence. Unfortunately, it was still rotating at high speed. His body ached from the marathon walk yesterday, and he still hadn’t eaten. This reminded him of the koeksisters that he hadn’t been offered at the embassy the previous afternoon, which reminded him of how he had got there. And then he realised that in the confusion of the razzia he had left the aqualung at the nightclub; he had forgotten all about it.

That was plan B up in a puff of smoke! Half the world’s dodgy youth passed through the Golden Key each summer. Rockers, lowlifes, mainliners, dope-smokers. Dudes like Angelo, who would be no more able to keep their hands off a shiny, lucrative piece of diving equipment than monkeys out of a bowl of peanuts.

If Hilton’s life had been a horror movie, this would have been the moment when he jerked upright in his bed to listen intently for the baying of the hounds.

*

"What have you been doing with yourself, young man?" said Mr Mavros, indicating the stool by the courtyard table. "You are not going – ah – diving today?" A hint of cooking drifted into the courtyard: scents of meat and rosemary, béchamel and tomato sauce. By the gods, it smelled good. The crone, Eleftheria, must be labouring in her dark kitchen, preparing a meal for her master. Hilton’s stomach was sending urgent warning messages: Fuel supplies critical. Imminent shutdown. It sounded like the rumbling that was said to precede an earthquake. Mr Mavros must have heard it. Hilton willed the old man to invite him to lunch.

Burke and Hare, those bastards. Keeping him in that airless room for so long, and nary a koeksister ... The moment he thought about them he regretted it, though. Mr Mavros was observing him with some acuteness. It was as if thinking about the spooks brought them into the room.

"I passed by the embassy yesterday," Hilton said casually, just in case the old sphinx really was reading his thoughts. "You know, just to renew my passport."

The sentence was out of his mouth before he could stop it. "Just" might just have been a word too far.

"I see," said the old man. His moustache looked like a well-groomed caterpillar lodged on his lip. Despite the whiteness in his sparse hair, it was as dark as it must have been back in the elegant 1930s. He thought for a moment, and apparently decided that it would be tactful to change the subject.

"How well I remember your father’s pleasure when I located at last a copy of the Principia Mathematica for him," he remarked. "The 1687 edition, naturally. Your father is a great man."

As a boy, Hilton had had no notion of the value of the old leather-bound volumes in his father’s library. Many of them had been taken over along with the grand Parktown house that Sheridan Ellis had bought when he had been made editor of his newspaper. He had added to the library as his own taste indicated, with Mr Mavros’s help. In one cabinet he had kept the "European Collection". In another he had kept his prized examples of nineteenth-century Africana. But it was the third collection that had most interested his pubescent son. "Blue" literature, it turned out, had been a secret hobby of the Randlord who had built the house back in the days of the Gold Rush. While he was screwing a fortune from his mines, the dirty old wire-puller had been quietly appreciating such edifying volumes as The Sapphic Academy of Madame Zuleika, Flossie, a Venus of Fifteen, and My Secret Life, by a Victorian Gentleman, among many other gems. In due course Hilton had graduated from the vicarious pleasures of nineteenth-century porn to the real thing, smuggled copies of Playboy. Still, the old-fashioned smut in his father’s library had provided a useful source of income even after he had lost interest in its content.

"Ah, indeed," Mr Mavros would say understandingly, when Hilton visited the bookseller in his offices in the Gotham City-like art deco building on Commissioner Street to sell another illicit volume. "To find anything of interest these days one must stumble upon it by accident."

Hilton’s father had not been the guiding force in his son’s life, so much as its Zeus-like distributor of lightning strokes of fate. Editor of the Johannesburg Mail, liberal scourge of the regime, proud owner of a 1955 Silver Ghost, he had represented treasonous political beliefs and champagne socialism to most people. Schoolmates had ribbed Hilton mercilessly about being dropped every morning at the school gates in a Rolls Royce driven by a Malawian called Morrison. And there had come a day, soon after Hilton’s eighteenth birthday, when the Old Man had grasped him by the collar, marched him to the immense double door in its portico, and literally, with a single punt from his tailored shoe, kicked him out of the white colonnaded house.

"Time you flew the nest, my boy," the great man had said. "You won’t believe me now, but it’s for your own good. This is a hard country."

Since then, Hilton had used the paternal association cautiously. His father’s friendship with Mr Mavros, however, was a rare occasion when the connection might help. Or so the embassy spooks insisted.

*

Hilton looked around him at the little courtyard. In the corner, half-hidden by a shower of wisteria, stood a small statue of a rather squat and ugly man with the horns and hairy shanks of a goat.

"I like it here, Mr Mavros," he said. "It’s so ... old."

He glanced up to see if his appeal to the ancient wisdom of the city had found its mark. The old man’s face was as inscrutable as the Rosetta Stone.

"I’m sure I could learn a lot," Hilton added. 

"What a kind offer, when we are so busy," the old lizard replied. "I will make a suggestion. If you were to call here this evening I think I might have something for you. Would that be alright?"

"Sure," Hilton said.

"So, it is settled." Mr Mavros brushed the strands of hair on his scalp with a small, precise hand. It was the gesture of a Greek café owner puzzled by a discrepancy in the invoices.

Suddenly Hilton knew the embassy stooges couldn’t be right. Hilton recalled those pairs of eyes surveying him with the brutal expressions of boxing coaches trying to talk spunk into a palooka. This individual who goes by the name of Mavros is dangerous. He is a prominent member of the PLO. The PLO is friendly toward certain highly undesirable organisations in our country. There are plans afoot to make a large transfer of funds to those organisations. "Mavros" will expedite the transfer. 

But Mr Mavros was merely a seller of rare books, Hilton had protested. He accepted the occasional volume of doubtful provenance now and then, but that didn’t make him a terrorist. We’ve got the right man all right. Your friend is an enemy of the Republic. And you are the hero who will get the information we need.

"Time for coffee, no?" Mr Mavros, said, breaking into Hilton’s thoughts once more. "Eleftheria has made some loukomades. I think you will like them. They are served with honey and cinnamon."

He clapped his hands. Hilton’s mouth watered.

*

When Hilton returned to the bookshop a few hours later, the first thing he noticed was that the sign above its door had changed.

Plato’s Cavern Rare and Used Books
Harry Zeno prop.

He puzzled over this. The sign looked the same as before – the same shaky Latin characters, the same old paint, the same dust, the same cobwebs, everything. Only the name of the proprietor was different.

Feeling as if he was about to step through the looking glass, he pushed the door open and went in. The same dim light, the same bookshelves up to the rafters, the same worn carpets, the same door leading to the airy courtyard. Wow! For a moment there, reality had threatened to turn upside down.

"Can I help you?" said a voice. Hilton turned around.

"Oh, Mr Mavros," he said, his voice wobbling a little in his relief. Thank God, the gods, whoever! At least plan A was still Go.

"I am sorry, there is no one here of that name," said Mr Mavros.

Hilton looked at Mr Mavros. He wore the same bulky suit that had probably been fashionable in the days when Ronald Coleman was a star of the silver screen, the same sparse grey hair, the same little black caterpillar on his lip. He had the same neat, rat-like hands. And above all, the same black diamond eyes glinted from that broad face. But those eyes quite genuinely did not recognise Hilton.

"But I was going to start working here," Hilton said lamely.

Mr Mavros, or whoever he was, looked around him with surprise. The shop was as quiet as a Vatican archive.

"Really?"

"Really," Hilton said.

"My dear boy, my name is Zeno," said the man. "As you will see on the sign above my door, I am the proprietor of this bookshop. Indeed I have been as long as I can remember."

*

Evening was drawing in along the ancient street when Hilton emerged a few minutes later. Lights of the bars and nightclubs were blinking on and off in the shadows. A neon golden key glowed in the night sky above the tiled roofs rising up the hillside of the Plaka.

He had decided on a simple and effective way to deal with what had just happened: not to believe it. He would wake soon, and treat himself to a large fried breakfast. And then he would return to the book shop to find Mr Mavros enjoying the classical light of his courtyard.

Just then the door opened again, just enough to reveal the old crone, Eleftheria. She was tiny, and he detected, rather than saw, her lined tortoise face against the darkness. She was saying something, but it was too much for Hilton’s menu-based Greek. Impatiently she thrust something at him, jabbering toothlessly. It was a parcel wrapped in brown paper. He was surprised, but she had already closed the door.

The streets of the neighbourhood were beginning to throng with tourists. Shower soap and perfume, cotton shorts, shirts, sandals, sunned limbs, an evening of rich meals ahead. Hilton would have given anything, except that he had nothing left to give, to turn the clock back to the golden time when he had been an innocent member of the middle classes.

His attention was drawn by a strange, blaring sound in the distance, something like the lowing of a bull. Down Adrianou Street the sea of people was being parted by a procession led by a large man who was blowing a long-stemmed wooden horn. He was naked, except for long-strapped sandals, a black leather jockstrap and the laurel wreath on his head. Closer to, the sound of the horn was overwhelming, the call of a bull on its way to the sacrifice. The herald was followed by a number of equally exotic figures: dancing maenads in short cotton shifts with flaring torches in their hands, flute-players, guitarists, children rolling hoops and clapping cymbals, all wearing wreaths, their music punctuated by the rising note of the archaic horn.

In the middle of the procession, at its centre, a black panther padded, blinking its green eyes. It was attached to a golden chain held by a young woman whose pale nakedness was startling in the street. She was leading a bier carried on the shoulders of four oil-wrestlers. On it lolled a naked young man who was painted all over in bold streaks of green, burnt sienna and yellow. By him, on the bier, was a large basket overflowing with breads and cheeses and bunches of green grapes.

There should be a panic button in the skull, Hilton thought. A weird dream ripcord.

Meanwhile, a warning light was flashing urgently on the Hiltonic security panel. He searched the faces watching the procession from the pavements. Somewhere in that crowd he had caught a glimpse of a gravy-stained regimental tie in the light of a street lamp, and shortly after that an impression of a head prefect’s tight haircut. 

Yes, it was them: the hell hounds. At that moment they detected Hilton, exchanged hand signals, and set off in his direction, shoving people aside in the crowd as they came. The intent expression on their faces was alarming: hunters rounding on their quarry. The scurfy older one, he was pleased, to see, was struggling to keep up with his younger colleague; he was purple-faced with all the unaccustomed action.

"Hey man!" a voice yelled. Hilton looked around. Astoundingly, it was the atavistic figure on the bier in the middle of the procession. It took a real effort to see that it was Angelo, the hippie from the Golden Key. His long black hair had been combed until it shone, and his over-sized wreath had been sprayed with swatches of aerosol gold. He was holding up a bottle of red wine in one hand and waving Hilton toward him with the other.

Not far down the street, the embassy stooges met, conferred, and set off with renewed determination. The procession swirled around Hilton, bringing him closer to the bier. Angelo’s eyes were intensely bright against the bright paint on his body. One of the maenads put a wreath on Hilton’s head, another traced dabs of white on his face. Someone was throwing clouds of fine green powder.

"Weren’t you in gaol?" Hilton shouted.

"Dude, I got out today," Angelo yelled. "Celebrate!" The mass of celebrants passed the corner where the spooks had converged. Hilton caught a glimpse of the men reaching into their jackets as they scanned the passing throng of dancers. But the chaotic polyrhythms of the Dionysian process swirled over him, and picked him up, and carried him away like a river ... 

When Hilton told this tall tale of his arrival in Europe at dinner parties, he would add a coda.

Angelo, it turned out, had acted on his own initiative and sold the yellow aqualung for a tidy sum, earning himself a fine commission in the process. The money from the sale had bought a heaven-sent plane ticket. And when, having made it on to the plane to Amsterdam, Hilton finally opened the brown paper parcel, he found a notebook full of blank pages in it, enclosing eight creased hundred-dollar bills and a brief note written in an old-fashioned copperplate hand.

The note read: "I send to you the true Book of Life. Read it! My compliments to your father. He is a great man. M."