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

Prussians


Richard Jurgens - 2010-04-08

Hilton Ellis searched the crowd for a familiar face. If someone let him speak, he’d latch on like a limpet mine and not let go, not until he blew up. 

It was another busy night at the counter-culture advice centre. The café, located in an old building that had once been a girls’ school, was full of people. Tonight, a lanky girl with a red Mohican had talked about some of the legal niceties of breaking into and occupying abandoned buildings. Then lanky Lang Willem had outlined the application of Bakunin’s ideas to the squatters’ struggle with the city council. After the speeches, members of the audience were given the opportunity to ask questions in private at the tables set up in the hall.

The advisors worked hard; listening, talking, drawing diagrams, handing out pamphlets. They sat at fold-up tables beneath high windows that had been blacked out with heavy old military blankets as if for a war. The supplicants talked, quietly at first and then more excitedly. They might have been applying for rations, or searching for lost relatives, or seeking emergency shelter.

Hilton wasn’t going to bother with the tables. He’d been there, done that, last year. No, if he’d learned one thing in this city, it was that to get things done, you had to know people. Even in the underground.

*

Hilton lived in a house on an attractive square in the city centre. He’d been lucky to find it still unoccupied, but somehow the red mutant eyes that gazed down on Hunger City had overlooked the place. The prospect of a roof over his head quickly outweighed any scruples. Breaking in hadn’t been difficult – a good hammer, a sturdy crowbar. And once in, he’d selected a back room for its view of an inner square full of the trees of gardens.

The rules were that if you could occupy an unoccupied building for more than twenty-four hours without getting evicted you had a right to stay. Just to make sure, he’d gone double that time, staying put for forty-eight hours and not showing lights anywhere. When the waiting was over, he went out to a hardware store to purchase a heavy-duty padlock for the door of his room, installed it, and felt that he had moved in.

Within a few days other people were living there. He didn’t mind this. It was even a little reassuring to note signs of their lives occasionally – the soft throb of music behind a door, the footsteps in the hall. At least his fellow occupants weren’t communitarian types who insisted on house committees or compiling rosters of duties or suchlike. For several years a steady quiet pervaded the place.

Then, a few weeks ago, the calm had been shattered by loud music emanating from the vacant upstairs room next to Hilton’s. Startled from a late afternoon sleep by the racket, Hilton charged in to find a man lying on a mattress, his eyes closed, his arms comfortably behind his head. Hilton strode over to the boom box blaring in the middle of the floor and turned down the volume.

"Are you moving in?" he asked. The man opened his eyes. He was lanky and gingery. His clean jeans and T-shirt weren’t the standard gear of a seasoned squatter. A full Alpine rucksack lay at his feet. Insolently, he examined the details of Hilton’s ample body.

Hilton repeated his question. The fellow didn’t answer. Instead he got up, ambled to the boom box, and turned up the volume.

"We do have rules here," Hilton yelled over the noise. No use. Without speaking, the man returned to the mattress, put his hands behind his head and took no further notice of him.

*

Back in the advice centre, Hilton surveyed the room. Smoke from forty joints and hand-rolled cigarettes flowed thick in the air. The body odours of forty scantily washed individuals ripened to a midnight bloom in the heat. And he didn’t see a face he recognised.

A new, harder spirit had certainly blown into the city. These were the children of the doctrine of conflict. They wore their scuffed boots, worn black trousers, torn black T-shirts and squat-ethnic braids like uniforms. Exposure to the elements had stiffened their leather jackets into armour. Young and lithe and beautiful in their rough way, they were the hard core, the advance wave of a new way of life. Hilton tried to look relaxed, but he couldn’t make contact with anyone.

He was just moving to go when he saw Lang Willem making his way to the door.

Willem was an ex-teacher who had just left his job, his wife, his kids and his home in suburbia. Hilton’s house on the square had been his introduction to the world of squatting. That had been only a year ago, and how quickly the fortunes of men change. Since then Willem had risen – decisively and spectacularly. Now his name figured in newspapers, police reports and intelligence files. He’d found his metier. He had become a kind of squatter guru, and in his way, a leader of the revolution.

As usual, Lang Willem stood well higher than most of the people around him. His hair was longer, and it was also greyer. "A distinguished mane," one newspaper had said. He was followed by an entourage of intent, fit young men who looked disturbingly like a bodyguard. Looking at them, with their atmosphere of violence, Hilton felt an idea forming in his mind. "Willem!" he called, waving wildly, before he could think about it.

The squatter leader heard his name and turned and looked back at him. The expression on his handsome, bony face might just have been recognition. It was a slender thread. Hilton hurried over. As he approached, some of the guys around Lang Willem moved forward aggressively, like wolves. Their boss said nothing, so they stepped back.

The situation was this. In the world they lived in, Willem had become a sort of Duke Borgia. He, Hilton, was a humble peasant who had once been in a position to offer the Duke refuge. Now that peasant was looking for justice. And he would even kiss the Duke’s ring to get it.

"Willem," Hilton said. "Long time no see."

"Yes," the squatter leader said.

"Well," Hilton said. He started on his spiel, but then the motor seized. His tongue wouldn’t let him say the things he wanted to say. Maybe he had realised, just in time, that it wasn’t a good idea among anarchists to be a victim.

"Yes," Lang Willem said again. "Well, nice to see you man. Gotta go."

He swept away toward the corner door. One of his goons was a young guy with a long scar slashed through the stubble on his skull. He would have looked at home in any military organisation. His green eyes looked at Hilton with cool amusement as the group swept past. 

*

Hilton emerged from the smoke into the Haarlemmerstraat, grateful for the fresh air. He looked down the long, straight street with its rows of shops stretching away to the cupola of an old nineteenth-century city gate. The view immediately reminded him that it led, inevitably, home. He turned into a coffee shop. Maybe he’d get stoned first.

No doubt about it, the new resident’s style was disrupting things back at the house. That first blast of noise hadn’t been a one-off fanfare. The guy played his music very loudly whenever he felt like it, day or night. That was bad enough. Then, coming in late one night, Hilton had found a flyer pushed under his door. Done in crude style with line drawings and typed text, it contained a message that he had not seen in squatter circles before. HOLLAND FOR THE HOLLANDERS! one shaky headline screamed. WHITE NATION ARISE! said another.

Here in this city Hilton had found refuge from that kind of madness. All that, he had thought, was long past and far away, in another country. So in a moment of frenzy he took a dump in the toilet of the café downstairs, wiped his arse liberally on the flyer and then posted the results of this operation, gleaming and moist, under the door of the invader.

After that things only went from bad to worse. There were a couple of mysterious fires, one in the kitchen and one in front of his door. One night Hilton was letting himself into the house when there was a sudden explosion of light in his face. This was followed by a maniacal giggling as he stood there blinking blindly in the darkness. The next day a Polaroid had been posted under his door of himself looking as startled as a skunk in the headlights. The photo was decorated with a neat stick figure hanging from a gallows, done in glossy red paint.

Then he was returning from an expedition to the market one afternoon when a voice suddenly whispered, "We have rules!" very intensely in his ear. The house wasn’t connected to the mains, so it was always pretty dim in the hall at best. Hilton’s heart raced impossibly as the crazy giggling receded up the stairs.

The following morning, when he was sure that the intruder was out, he had strewn a bag of garbage in front of the guy’s door. It wasn’t much of a gesture, but it was something. Clearly, though, the situation at home was getting out of hand.

Now Hilton was furious at seizing up earlier, when he’d had Lang Willem in his sights. He had lost an opportunity to resolve the problem that been bedevilling him for weeks. Or maybe it had been a fool’s errand anyway.

He pushed through the door of the coffee shop. A blast of Van Halen and dope smoke billowed out into the street. Some guy just inside was blocking his way, but Hilton wasn’t in the mood for gallantry. He was barging past when he was rudely surprised to find the person blocking his way.

"Hey, guy, easy," the man said.

Hilton had no patience for an exchange, and he was pushing past when a familiar face floated into view. Sparks! Hilton hadn’t seen him for months, not since his last binge in the city.

"Man, are you always so rude?" Sparks said.

"Sorry," Hilton said.

"You shouldn’t push into people." Sparks persisted. "You never know, it could be anyone." He was wearing his usual crisp bourgeois gear. As always, he was also wearing the woollen beanie which he seldom took off, except on very hot days.

When they’d first met, the first thing Sparks had done was to look Hilton up and down and say: "Now you look like a man who can really sort out a plate of meat!" But Hilton, who was sensitive about his girth, was amused. This short, spare black man, introduced vaguely as a "comrade from the East", was certainly honest.

Now Hilton enveloped him in a hug. "Fancy running into you!’

"It’s good to see you," said Sparks. "Let’s get a smoke."

They sat down, ordered, lit up. Soon they were laughing over stories of mutual acquaintances and all the absurd things that happened to them. Sparks was in fine fettle. He had plans for the weekend: a number of coffee shops, a number of bars, maybe a movie or two, the red light district. In between, he intended to sleep.

Sparks kept a sort of mini-archive of his journey in an old leather binder that he had once allowed Hilton to see. In the binder were: a standard 6 report card from a high school in some township; a very thumbed green ID document with the officious stamps of another era in it; an electrician’s assistant’s diploma from a technical college, signed in now-faded violet by some official long ago; a certificate of graduation from a basic training programme in Angola; and diplomas and reports relating to various training courses in Cuba, the Soviet Union and East Germany.

If anything about Sparks Mchunu impressed Hilton, it was the fact that at some time in the late 1970s he had climbed the Berlin Wall. That was how he’d arrived in the West. This really elevated him in Hilton’s eyes. He had occasionally envied him his training as a solo assassination squad, as a real one-man SWAT team. He, Hilton, could more than once have made excellent use of those skills. Sparks, though, hadn’t been tempted. Instead, he had chosen freedom.

*

The joint had fired Sparks up, and he was ready for the next stage of his bender. They went to a bar across the street, where he ordered his customary line-up of whiskeys. Sparks bolted a couple of these quickly, and his eyes were soon glowing like two roadmaps. Hilton, meanwhile, sipped a bitter lemon.

"You know, someday I’d like to hear the story of how you got out," he said.

"Out?" Sparks said, nursing a shot glass between his hands.

"How you climbed the Wall," said Hilton.

"Eish!" Sparks said.

"Well, it’s not something everyone’s done, is it?’

"I’ve told them all that," said Sparks. "Many times."

"Who?"

Sparks chucked back another whiskey. "The police," he said. His mood of easy relaxation had vanished. "Immigration. All those people. It’s years ago."

Hilton had pushed things too far. Sparks had rules for his life, and one of them was that he never talked about the past. "Well, someday," Hilton said.

"Yes, comrade, some day," Sparks agreed grumpily. Hilton wondered, not for the first time, why people who had experienced things in life often didn’t like to talk about them. Were they keeping some vital truth to themselves? If it were him, he’d still be dining out on the story.

"Let’s move," said Sparks. "There’s a bar on the corner near your place." He poured the last two whiskeys down his throat in quick succession.

"Sure," said Hilton. But Sparks was up and out of the place before he could get off his bar stool.

*

Outside, night was settling. Northern dusks were long and gentle, like a clean white sheet falling on to a bed … Lights in shop windows were going on, although the sky still lingered blue over the roofs. A glimpse of the city gate at the end of the long street reminded him of the fact that he’d have to return home later. He stood a moment, breathing in the evening air.

It’s the small things, he thought. The scent on a breeze, the way a seagull launches itself from a gable.

He was still considering this when he noticed the commotion a little way up the street. Two men, one of them short and neat, the other tall and ragged, were confronting each other on the pavement like two schoolboys. One of them was yelling at the other. Hilton hurried over.

"Fuck you, man," the tall ragged fellow was shouting. His long ex-military coat was faded and worn at the elbows, and long hair streamed wildly over his shoulders. Hilton had seen him around. He was a German junkie who sometimes worked that street.

"What’s going on?" said Hilton, not at all sure he should get involved.

"What’s the matter with you?" the street guy continued, ignoring him and still yelling at Sparks. "I only ask for a few goddamn coins." He was shaking with rage.

"Excuse me?" said Sparks. "There is something the matter with me?"

Hilton saw that it was time to do something. He put a hand on Sparks’s elbow. "Maybe we should go.’

"Yes, go," the junkie yelled, still totally incensed. Whatever Sparks had said to him, it had really set him off. "Go back to Africa where you came from."

The movement that followed was so quick that afterwards Hilton was never quite sure whether he had seen it. Sparks seemed to reach up to the tall man, to touch him on the shoulder perhaps. The next moment the fellow was lying on the ground, sandals splayed, holding a hand to a bleeding nose.

"Und du," Sparks said, leaning over him, "gehst du zurück nach Ost-Deutschland, okay?"

Hilton followed Sparks, who was moving fast down the street. "Hey, what happened?"

"Prussians," said Sparks. He clicked his tongue – that deeply African expression of disapproval. Behind them the junkie was picking himself shakily up from the pavement. Having got to his feet, he stood with one hand on a hip, the other to his nose, looking at them as they receded up the street. 

"He might follow us," Hilton panted, finding it hard to keep up with Sparks’s pace.

"I don’t think so," Sparks said. He was quite sure of himself.

It was at this point that Hilton had his second bright idea for the evening. Indeed, this kind of fortuitous meeting with an old friend you’ve not seen for a while was one of the reasons why cities existed.

"Where are you staying, Sparks? Want to doss at my place?"

*

By the time they returned to the house on the square Hilton was in a state of nervous excitement. It had taken two hours, hanging around with Sparks in various bars on the way, to get him home.

Hilton pushed the front door open cautiously, willing the fiendish intruder to be waiting. What trap would it be this time? Whatever the surprise, though, he, Hilton, would be ready. This time he wouldn’t be alone. And it would take only a single misjudgement – a word, a gesture – from that racist upstairs to set revenge in motion.   

They were in the dark hallway now, the dry floorboards creaking under their feet.

Hilton peered into the gloom, listening for the sound of breathing. How different it was to welcome the threat of an attack. And the chance to strike back.

"What’s the matter man?" said Sparks, rather loudly.

"Nothing," Hilton said. There were no lights, of course, so he started feeling his way up the stairs.

"Heh-heh," Sparks said, still loudly, as he followed him. "Didn’t you see that guy’s face? Prussians!"

Self-congratulation wasn’t his usual style. He hadn’t mentioned the incident on the street since. Now, though, he was well-oiled, after numerous whiskeys and several pleasant chats with the young women behind the bar counters. 

To Hilton’s disappointment they made it up to his room without incident. He unlocked the huge padlock and they went inside. In another few minutes he had the candles lit and a pot of water warming on the little gas stove in the corner. Sparks settled himself comfortably on the mattress Hilton used as a settee and looked around at the room that was revealed in the flickering light: the paint scaling off the walls, the cracked windows, the tent pitched in the middle of the floor.

"Nice place," he said. He might have meant it. Hilton busied himself with the tea.

Sparks, now that he was comfortable, looked ready for sleep. Hilton felt sleepy too. He watched the water, willing it to boil. Maybe tomorrow, he thought. That last illusion and resort of the hopeless: tomorrow.

He was deeply in thought on the matter when the knock came. He hardly thought before opening the door. There was a brief glimpse of a ginger-haired man, grinning maniacally, then a white cloud suddenly erupting in his face. Hilton stumbled back into the room, his eyes stinging terribly. Frantically he seized a dish cloth to wipe his face. When he could see again, he was surprised to notice the intruder still standing there, with a small fire extinguisher in his hand. To his chagrin, Sparks was watching the scene placidly, his arms folded.

"This is what I think of people like you," the ginger-haired man said.

He threw something on the floor, which landed with an ugly, squashy plop. Still dazed by the sudden attack, Hilton looked down at the floor and recognised the right-wing flyer he had posted under the fellow’s door, complete with the copious decoration that he had applied to it.

"But that’s yours," he said. "You put it under my door."

"No way," the man said. "Who do you think I am? No, I think it’s yours."

They looked at each other. Their weeks of conflict had reached an impasse.

Sparks, meanwhile, squatting, inspected the object on the floor with interest.

"Hell, man," he said. "What is this shit?"