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

Looking for Comrade Stalin – Part II


Richard Jurgens - 2010-09-15

Click here to read Part I.

II

When he thought about it, the explanation for that photograph also included the moment when he’d suddenly found himself on the street.

Until that day he’d been accommodated by the state. He’d lived in former military barracks, old hospitals and subsidised youth centres, and they’d been convenient enough as places to sleep while he explored the streets and squares of the decaying city. But then the rules that governed his situation changed, and his charmed existence had come to an end. Suddenly he was out on his own with his sleeping bag and his collection of hash pipes.

To his surprise, it had felt good to have his life in his hands. He’d shouldered his balsak and walked across town with a light heart, heading by instinct for the park.

There’d been a time when the lawns of the park had looked like a free festival at night, when people had raised tents and set up camp there, and the stone eyes of the national bard had watched as young people from all over the world gathered by the lakes and underneath the trees to celebrate the Bacchanalian rites. The city had tolerated it only because it was the Summer of Love, and no one was thinking straight. Sleeping there was strictly forbidden now. But he’d heard that hippies and assorted free folk ignored the petty regulation with impunity.

On the way, on a square in the restaurant district, tourists fresh from leisured showers in their hotel rooms were getting ready for a night on the town. They had gathered around a very tall, very thin man who was balanced perilously on a monocycle and pedalling frantically as he blew bright bursts of flame into the night air. Under one of the lanterns a barefoot musician was playing an assortment of amplified wooden instruments from which he was producing a solid wall of heavy interlocking rhythms that seemed to announce the end of a world, or the birth of a new one. Hawkers around the edge of the square were offering bead necklaces, bird whistles, water colours, henna tattoos. A couple of policewomen clipped along the tram lanes on their horses, and no one turned a hair.

He didn’t envy these people their ease, their wallets, their passports; they only had what he wanted. But the holiday atmosphere on the square wasn’t in keeping with his mood, or with his suddenly different status. He walked on to the park, and found a good spot under a thick clump of bushes near the poet’s statue. It was well hidden from the wind and from passing eyes.

There he waited. When it was nearly dark he wrapped himself cosily in his sleeping bag. The park was dark and quiet. From the cover of the bushes he had a poetic view of the rows of archaic street lights along the empty paths.

He recalled that it was a Friday evening, and that his father would be hosting one of his regular dinners – lavish events known in the back pages of the Sunday paper as the “notoriously secretive Houghton Club”. As editor of the Republic’s most liberal daily newspaper, Sheridan Ellis liked to collect the prominent, the famous and the notorious at his generous table.

Maurice, the chef from the Carlton Hotel, would have been hired for the day, with a staff of kitchen help and waiters. (Hilton recalled jealous voices whispering that the Republic was the only country that had been willing to receive the great chef after the coup de foudre that had cost him his two-star restaurant in France – but who cared, darling; his cooking was divine.) Morrison, the Malawian butler, would have shown guests to the second dining room, which had enormous folding doors for occasions when confidentiality was needed. And there they would have been treated to the baroque elegance of Maurice’s culinary art under the candlelight of the baronial dining table.

At that moment his father’s guests would have loosened their belts and be puffing on foot-long Monte Cristos. And while Morrison replenished glasses with a fine Chateau Mouton de Rothschild, his master, grandmaster of the Republic’s liberal community and editor of its megaphone, the Johannesburg Mail, would be finding out, as he did every Friday night, what was really going on in the world.

                                                          *

At three o’clock the next morning Hilton was roused by a light in his eyes. The policemen were polite but insistent; they gave him five minutes to pack his stuff. Then they escorted him to the gate and waited there, tapping their flashlights impatiently until he turned the corner.

He was still fuzzy with sleep. Luckily his body was up to the task of walking while his mind woke up. When his surroundings came into focus he saw that he was in a street of substantial villas. Most of them were now the offices of private bankers and lawyers, though some had been subdivided into apartments. Many of the houses were painted white, not a common colour in this city of red brick. The street in the early morning was as quiet as an empty coffin.

He noticed that some of the houses were fronted by attractive-looking porticos. They were large enough to unroll a sleeping bag on; a person could certainly sleep comfortably out of the wind there. He was very tired; he wanted to stop and sleep. But he’d only be moved on and perhaps even arrested, so he decided to keep going. The Salvation Army shelter opened at seven, he’d heard. That was when they doled out breakfast to the needy.

A movement in the half-shadow of a portico caught his eye: a cat, perhaps, a fellow denizen of the night. He noticed that someone was looking at him from the shadow of the column. The street was eerily silent.

“Hey, man, need a place to sleep?” said a voice.

Hilton paused. In the light of the street lantern the bulging columns of the house had the sharp unreality of the background of an Aubrey Beardsley drawing. A figure detached itself from the shadow and became a stocky figure kitted, Hilton noted with rising alarm, in black rubber-soled boots and clothing, like a cat burglar.

“Funny you came by just now,” the man said.

“Why’s that?” Hilton said.

“You’re looking for a house, right?”

“Well, yes,” Hilton said. “How did you know?”

“I found a good place,” the man said, keeping his voice low. “It’s just here.”

He indicated the house where he had been standing.

“The curtains are fake,” he continued. “There’s no furniture. No one is living there. I’ve been checking it out for weeks. Wanna help crack it?’

The man had a canvas bag full of tools with him, including a couple of sturdy crowbars, a hefty wire-cutter, and a range of metal files and screwdrivers. He wanted Hilton to hold a crowbar against the step to provide a fulcrum for the other crowbar as he forced the door. For Hilton as a self-proclaimed fellow-outlaw it wasn’t feasible to back out. Soon they were inside the house, which was spookily empty.

“Wow, it’s huge,” Hilton said. The sitting room was the size of most flats in this town.

“Put out that out!” the man said brusquely, sweeping the cigarette lighter out of Hilton’s hand. The lighter hit the floor with a crack and the house fell back into dusty darkness.

“Sorry,” Hilton said. He didn’t care, really. His eyelids were closing. He wanted to crash.

“You’ve never squatted a place before, have you?” said the man, drawing closer.

Hilton smelled the unique polecat odour of the squatter world for the first time.

“No,” he said. “I tell you what, though, I really need to sleep. Can we talk about this in the morning?’

“No,” said the man. “Everyone who stays here pays their dues.” He smiled, as if it was an obvious theorem.

“But no one’s staying here,” Hilton said.

“Exactly,” the man replied. “Everyone starts somewhere.”

                                                 *

And though he hadn’t known it then, in a way the explanation for that photograph also went back to a time, years before, when Hilton had still been a schoolboy.

He’d been lying by the pool at the house in Houghton. It was a summer holiday, and he was hoping to catch a glimpse of the girl next door, a lissom blonde who sometimes treated the neighbourhood to fleeting visions of herself in a little polka-dotted bikini. That day, though, she was nowhere to be seen. The only living creature in the garden was the neighbours’ dog, an Alsatian called Castro.

Castro was a large and aggressive beast, and there’d been words between the households about his way of suddenly appearing at the hedge to bark at anyone who was at the pool. It was very hot, however, and the dog was dozing in the shade of a large oak tree. Hilton had sipped the ice-cold Seven-Up which Morrison had just brought him and turned up Gary Glitter on his new portable cassette player.

And then Nemesis appeared. Nemesis was a large black cat with a smart white mask who lived at a house a few doors further up the road. He regarded the neighbourhood as his territory and patrolled it regularly.

That afternoon, while Hilton was watching idly, Nemesis emerged from the bushes and wandered over the lawn next door, drawing his white-pointed tail after him like a flag. He chose a spot in the middle of the sweep of green grass and sat down to lick his paws and wipe his face, like a city slicker shooting his cuffs and smoothing his hair before making an entry at the disco. But there was no one around to be impressed by this display of casual dominance.

The cat spotted Castro snoozing in the pleasant shade of the tree. Hmm, a diversion. He headed in the dog’s direction. Castro woke from his dream, which had probably featured himself tearing irritations like Nemesis to shreds, to find the cat’s impassive white mask staring back at him from close range.

Still a little muggy with sleep, the large dog looked at the much smaller cat. The odds of conflict were weighed. Then, his ears down, as if hoping that no one was witnessing the shame that he was bringing on dogs everywhere, the Alsatian got up and shambled off, his tail between his legs.

Nemesis had looked mildly disappointed, like a pub brawler cheated of a promising fight. Then he had settled in the warm spot that Castro had just vacated and gone to sleep.



Read Part III here.