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

A crucial connection

Jaco Fouché - 2011-11-29

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I was worried. Two months into my new job I had to admit I couldn’t do it. The job was selling water-related apparatus – high-pressure pumps, pH meters, conductivity meters, water filters, spraying nozzles, that sort of thing. Before that, I was in information technology, which I didn’t really take to, or maybe it was all the talk about starting your own business and being your own man that got to me. In those days, not long after Mandela came to power, white people in South Africa realised the good old days were behind them and they believed they had to scheme and plan to get somewhere – overseas, into secure housing estates, into careers protected from empowerment schemes and low opportunity ceilings. I was different, in the sense that everything seemed like too much trouble to me. I couldn’t care if it was a black man who told me what to do, but I would have preferred no one giving me any orders whatsoever.

I resigned the IT job, planning to spend my time in the library researching other opportunities, but I did nothing but read paperback novels about tough white men in the African wilderness until my benefits ran out and finally I had to return to the job market. Going back into IT seemed like giving up, so I took on a salesman position and thought I was lucky to get it. Very soon I was out on the road in a pick-up with the words “Spraying Systems” on the doors.

I had an itinerary and every day I went to a different part of town, returning to it two weeks later after I’d completed my rounds of the rest of said town. That “town” was the Cape Peninsula, ample space and opportunity for a rep, you might argue, except that I believed I couldn’t make a certain crucial connection with the people I spoke to. I’d turn up uninvited, speak to the gate guard, the secretary, the underling, the henchman, briefly explain my reason for being, and hope for the best. Occasionally I’d get in to see a buyer or laboratory technician who invariably said they really couldn’t spare the time, but let me talk anyway. Then I’d do my spiel. I’d worked out maybe two minutes’ worth of introduction to my products, delivered in two instalments of a minute each, on the principle that people who talk a lot, at best get an earful. I sold hardly anything.

I’d leave the office at half past eight in the morning, stop at a place I knew that made decent meat pies, buy the paper, stash it with a pie in the cubby hole and see the required number of people, which was six. After that it was about lunchtime and I’d be depressed but looking forward to the cold pie and the paper, in which I looked at the job ads. It was no life and I knew my superiors would be coming down on me at any time, but at least I got to see the Cape, driving all over the way I did.

One morning I was in a post office in the hilly, upmarket parts of Bellville. I lived in the lower-lying parts, being of the economic disposition that I was. Of course dilly-dallying more than anything, I was in the post office to mail a competition entry form. I’d spent half the night before on a magazine crossword and to my surprise completed it, and I was convinced I stood a chance of winning the bedroom suite the magazine put out as a prize. I waited in line and paid the required postage and turned to leave when I noticed a woman.

She was from my parents’ generation. In fact, I realised after considering the fact that she looked familiar, she used to be one of my parents’ friends. She had a round face with lazy brown eyes and a mole on her temple. You may think I’m making up that mole as a convenient memory jogger, but that was how I recognised her. She was Auntie Alice van Schoor, formerly of Howick, KwaZulu-Natal, where in their young days my parents knew her and her husband. I myself had fond memories of the Van Schoors, who were childless but always ready to spoil other people’s kids. After twenty years or so she didn’t seem to have changed that much, except for some silver in the hair which I was glad she didn’t bother to colour. She was dressed in a two-piece suit which initially made her look to me like someone collecting for a church, but that was probably just me being aware of anyone remotely resembling a rep. A moment later I realised the suit must be hideously expensive and I was just very ignorant of matters sartorial.

“Auntie Alice!” I said, stepping closer.

She looked at me and went: “My-y-y-y-y, but this can only be a Fourie. You look just like your mother. How is Retha?”

And I told her. Mom and Dad were still living in Howick. Dad had an angling concern (it was hard for me to call it a fishing tackle shop) and Mom did pottery and sold her goods to the public (I couldn’t tell Auntie Alice Mom did most of her business from a stall at a flea market in Pietermaritzburg).

As for Auntie Alice, she said: “I’m a lady of leisure, you know. Roelfie is provincial manager for Delco and we moved here eight years ago. Johannesburg is getting too rough, you know. One’s lifestyle goes out the window. So many concerns for your own safety. This is Africa, you know.”

“I’d like to see Uncle Roelfie,” I said.

“Well …”

“Mom and Dad would love to hear I ran into you.”

“We’re very busy people, you know …” This she said with such a charming smile that I just couldn’t take exception.

We wished each other well and I carried on with my day.

By mid-afternoon I was once again sitting in a parking lot reading the newspaper. The lot belonged to a hospital. I was thinking of Uncle Roelfie. Wouldn’t it be great to see the guy again? For years after they’d moved away from Howick, their social and financial star on the rise, Uncle Roelfie still phoned me on my birthday, saying things like: “You must be sure to become a great man one day, Frans.” And: “Work hard in school.” And: “Take your time choosing your friends.”

I told my dad what Uncle Roelfie had said. Dad didn’t say anything, but I could tell by his silence he didn’t think much of the advice. Uncle Roelfie came from an urban family. He knew about money and influence. Dad grew up on a farm and though he hardly spoke about his childhood days, I knew they’d been poor people, sometimes to the point of worrying about food. As a grown-up man he was careful with money, but he wasn’t interested in earning a bundle. So he was a shopkeeper, now owning a stationery place, now managing a vegetable grocer, finally settling for the fishing tackle place. After hours Dad read; he read practically everything that came his way. Once, after Uncle Roelfie had phoned and mentioned a new house they’d bought, I confided in a teacher, saying I wondered why my father wasn’t a prominent businessman. The teacher said that some men are too busy being happy family men to worry about their place in society. That reply made me proud of my dad at the time – and it still did, I thought, sitting in the pick-up with the words “Spraying Systems” on the doors.

All this thinking about my parents and Uncle Roelfie made me go into the hospital and ask for a telephone directory. I looked up Delco and noted the address. I’d drive there, I thought, and not phone. I didn’t like making appointments, believing in the element of surprise.

The Cape branch of Delco was in a surprisingly modest building in the Paarden Island industrial area. I’d expected more from the likes of Uncle Roelfie. There were only two floors. I explained to a distant woman at reception that I had a connection with Roelfie van Schoor. She said he was a very busy man, but she spoke on the phone, saying my name and then asking me to wait.

I waited for five minutes, staring at the posters on the walls. Delco manufactured, or distributed, engine parts. The phone rang and the woman said I could go upstairs.

Uncle Roelfie was still a slim man with a friendly face. The sound of his voice brought back those conversations on the phone, and it brought back some of my childhood with it.

We laughed and shook hands and he pushed back his glasses and seemed nervous, or impatient. I just knew I was being a nuisance.

“What a surprise,” he said. “How are Deon and Retha?”

He motioned me to sit down and he lit a cigarette. I couldn’t answer immediately, as something occurred to me. I had the suspicion that that cigarette was a chronometer, a stopwatch. By the time it was down to the filter, my time with Uncle Roelfie would be up.

But for a few minutes we talked. I spoke about my parents and remarked that the two couples used to be very good friends back in the day. Uncle Roelfie agreed and spoke about a fishing trip we all went on. He said he’d carried me in his arms.

I mentioned my job, and I have to say maybe I did this with a note of concern in my voice, as Uncle Roelfie asked what exactly my problem was with the position. I said I realised I was no salesman, but what was one to do? You had to work. I also said that it was astonishing when you thought of all the people in the world and you realised most of them were unhappy in their jobs. That was why people took to bungee jumping and crime and wars, I said.

Uncle Roelfie looked down at his cigarette, which was just about done. I got up, embarrassed at my remark, which I’d based on something I’d read. This is what books do to you: they burden you with opinions. He rose too, shook my hand and wished me well.

“Leave your phone number at reception and I’ll call you sometime,” he said. I did this, and then went out into the real world again.

Weeks passed and he didn’t phone. In the meantime I ran into the trouble I’d been expecting. My poor sales performance caught up with me and I faced an ultimatum I knew I couldn’t pass. Why would things change just because I received a talking-to? Why would my sales suddenly go up? What else could I do but what I was already doing? I was always going to see prospective customers. I went back to them. I spoke to them and repeated myself. I did everything except make a connection.

My boss sensed this. “You tend not to close,” he said. “Be insistent. Don’t do only half the work. Introduce yourself and your products but don’t leave it there. Go back, call back, make a connection. Make yourself into a known face and then a friend. And you steam-roll people if you have to. I started off selling vacuum cleaners door to door and let me tell you, there’s no tougher sales school. Sometimes you just have to force open the door people are trying to close in your face.”

This didn’t help. I spoke to people about water filters and spraying nozzles and knew I made no impression. I phoned my parents from time to time, assuring them that I was doing fine. Dad said he was worried about my inclination to let things go and just give up. I should find my niche, he said, and settle into it. I mentioned the Van Schoors and asked why my dad thought the friendship had dwindled. He just said, “There’s no such thing as a lifelong friendship,” and I knew people moved on, to greener pastures and fresher faces and new things. I also knew some people moved up in the world and why would they bother fraternising with the people they’d left behind?

I was called into my boss’s office, where he and his partner politely fired me. Leaving the office was excruciating, for I set myself the task of greeting every single employee by hand while looking them straight in the eyes, an attempt to spread out my shame and make it lighter. I left with a month’s worth of basic salary and went back to the library, where I read some more about tough white men in Africa.

My money ran out.

I supposed I had to tell my parents, but at that stage I figured being in my mid-twenties and having left the parental haven seven years before, I simply couldn’t move back. I was worried that they may offer me the chance and I just could be tempted enough to take it. So I said nothing.

I began waiting tables in a steakhouse, which isn’t bad work if you’re not thinking long-term or too concerned about your status. But a part of me was. I served food and wine to people who discussed careers and moneymaking with all the confidence of intoxicated office workers, but despite the alcohol, what they said made sense to me. You have to go out into the world and make your mark and be rewarded for it. And who obviously knew more about reward than the former friends of my parents?

After an evening shift I looked up the Van Schoors’ telephone number. There were a few Van Schoors listed, but I knew to look for those in Welgemoed or Loevenstein, the upmarket neighbourhoods in the vicinity of the post office where I’d run into Auntie Alice. And sure enough, I read “Roelfie van Schoor, 14 Stride Street, Welgemoed”.

I didn’t phone. I just went there, walking past the golf course for want of a car, having had to relinquish the pick-up I’d used as a rep. It was Saturday afternoon, just after one. I thought I’d catch them before the siesta that the ranks of the well-paid no doubt indulged in.

Stride Street was lined with large houses and impressive walls and burglar-proofing. I saw a large man pruning a hedge. I saw a white woman with highlights in her hair talking to a child. I saw a black man in a suit getting out of a Mercedes. Everything seemed cared for. Approaching number 14 I heard the sound of a lawnmower and sure enough, it was Uncle Roelfie taking care of an already immaculate lawn. It stretched like a benevolent table in lovely green from the house walls, where not one asymmetrical blade was out of place, to the kerb, where it formed a little cliff of five centimetres high. There was no wall between the property and the street, and I noticed a narrow window was open. I couldn’t see any bars on it. These people sure were confident.

Uncle Roelfie noticed me standing in the driveway and switched off the mower. I wasn’t sure he was happy to see me. We shook hands and he pushed back his glasses. We went inside. There was a room like a foyer with large ferns and a wooden log among some woodchips around a goldfish pond. Against a wall was a mirror with a massive frame. I could see into the dining room, where a splendid table with chairs for twelve people stood. The house smelled expensive, or cared for. We walked through a sitting room with oversized sofas and a large television set behind a transparent screen. We went out back and sat down on garden chairs, sheltered from the sun by a large awning. There was a braai enclosure in a corner and somebody’s lawn tennis equipment on the cement floor.

Uncle Roelfie lit a cigarette and I remembered the stopwatch. As if to reinforce my suspicion that I wasn’t too stay too long he said, “There’s good rugby on TV later on.” I had to fight paranoia, the sort of thing that sometimes accosts me, the feeling that someone with a huge salary or vast moral reserves is about to tell me to bugger off. I couldn’t tell what I was doing there.

Auntie Alice brought drinks – lime cordial with large chunks of ice.

“I remember this,” I said. “You made this when I was a child.”

We spoke of KwaZulu-Natal, the sugar cane plantations, a bookshop in Pietermaritzburg; then of Cape Town and how it really was a privilege to live here. Wasn’t the lifestyle much more serene than in the north? Couldn’t you sit back and smell the flowers, as they say?

Auntie Alice went inside and Uncle Roelfie was on his second cigarette since I’d arrived. He asked me how I was doing and I told him about my current job as a waiter, telling myself I’d only very temporarily come down in the world. He seemed restless.

I didn’t stay long. There wasn’t much to say. I told myself I should have known this, I should have stayed away. But on saying goodbye at the front door, it slipped out my mouth that I’d stop by again sometime soon, probably the evening of next Saturday, after I’d finished my day shift. Uncle Roelfie seemed even more restless. Auntie Alice said, “People make appointments. We often go to shows or the opera, so it’s hard to say when we’ll be here. On Saturday night we’re having people over for dinner.”

“Well, I could …”

“Oh, we couldn’t invite you. You just wouldn’t feel comfortable.” This was said with as much kindness as condescension.

At that point I noticed my image in the mirror with the massive frame. I was standing between the man and woman who had their backs to the mirror. They made a tidy impression and seemed like churchgoers and the sort of people who never laugh out loud. I, however, had a tendency to roar with laughter and I had long hair and also a slump in my posture. I supposed I could do something about my laugh and have my hair cut, but there was no way to fix that slump, which I suddenly thought was the result of a lifetime’s dissatisfaction with my station in life. It reminded me of a middle-aged rep I’d met in Salt River one afternoon. He’d just returned to work after a bar lunch that was more bar than lunch, judging by the rich beer fragrance emanating from him. Someone, a woman, remarked on the smell and he started stuttering, insisting that he didn’t drink. His denial was pathetic. Much better to have laughed and said something cynical about teetotallers. Even lushes should take pride in their pastimes. When he walked away, he had a slump like the one I saw in the mirror, and I was frightened by the idea of myself as an older, non-descript and equally pathetic man.

Walking back down Stride Street was agony. I felt filthy, I wanted to take a bath, have my head shaved, read up on the Rule of Benedict, join a warrior cult, just to reclaim some worth.

And something began to grow in me, something that I suppose had always been part of me, but suppressed. Now there was no holding back. I would do something. Would it be revenge? I wasn’t sure. I wasn’t the kind of guy to become violent. For one thing, physical retribution was beneath the kind of man I still hoped I would one day be. And for another, there was always the possibility that the other guy might hit back.

The days passed slowly. I served steak and burgers and beer and wine and rang up bills and smiled at people, all the time almost drugged with determination. I would rise in the world, I told myself. Things would happen for me. And I would do something about my humiliation, I thought, admittedly without being quite sure exactly what had humiliated me. At night I went back to my room and lay on my bed thinking of the Van Schoors and Saturday night which I couldn’t spend with them until my heart thudded with resentment and insecurity, and I couldn’t fall asleep.

By the next weekend I was furious, but my mind was clear. I traded my shift on Saturday and instead of working had my long hair cut into a style that reminded me of wealthy American students in the movies. Prep school … that’s the look I was after. I wanted to appear hellishly intelligent. I bought black shoes and black socks. Then I went to a suit hiring shop where I got the best outfit two days’ worth of serving burgers could pay for. What else could the Van Schoors be having but a proper dinner party? I remembered the table I’d seen in the dining room. The bastards – they thought they’d be all secure, sitting there all dressed up and holding wine glasses by the stems in the light emanating from hidden fixtures in the walls while discussing Afrikaner culture and ANC business, all the while listening to the latest hit tenor softly singing “To dream the impossible dream”? Bullshit and poppycock, I declare.

I left my room at around seven, knowing from the previous Saturday’s walk that it would take me forty minutes to get to 14 Stride Street. The shoes were too tight. Soon I was sweating in the suit. But I hummed some Cat Stevens (“My lady D’Arbanville”) and walked and got to number 14 at twenty to eight, where I proceeded to the front door and knocked. There were four cars parked in the driveway and next to the kerb. Standing at the door I could hear voices inside the house and, indeed, some music, though this was light classical.

Uncle Roelfie opened the door. I think the word for his expression is “dismay”. I was a little disappointed at being recognised so quickly, but I grinned and stuck out my hand and he had no choice but to invite me in.

I was overdressed, which is probably no surprise. Uncle Roelfie and Auntie Alice and their guests were semi-formally attired, the men mostly in chinos and lounge shirts. The one guy who was wearing pretty much the same outfit as me was the butler, whom they’d obviously hired for the evening. The table was set with plates, cutlery, glasses (those stems) and a flower arrangement.

I caught Auntie Alice’s eye. She looked wary, staring at me for a moment before paying attention to another woman.

The butler came to my rescue, offering a flute with sparkling wine. I smiled at him, feeling more gratitude than I should, and sipped at my wine, my back guarded by a bookcase while I perused the joint.

Talk about life’s awkward moments. What was I doing there? An hour before I’d known what the plan was: I’d join in the social festivities, a veritable representative of the working man. I’d talk and laugh and entertain and make my mark. Now there was nothing going on in my head, and the moment to sit down at the table was approaching. The butler was carrying metal dishes to a hot tray next to the door. I noticed that there were twelve people for dinner, the exact number to fill the available chairs at the table.

Then a woman came up to me, round about sixty. “I hear you’re Retha’s boy?” I’d never seen her before. “I’m Mel.”

“Pleased to meet you,” I said. “Yes, I am.”

“We knew them in the Transvaal.”

I knew my parents had some Gauteng history, but I’d never bothered to find out more. What happened in my parents’ life before mine started seemed immaterial.
“Deon was an impressive man, reading all that history,” she said. “What’s he doing now?”

I explained about the angling concern.

“Oh,” she said vaguely. “Always thought he’d appear in politics one day. He had the makings. He declined when the Broederbond invited him to join, did you know that?”

“The what?” I said in surprise. Of course I knew what the Broederbond was, or had been.

“Yes, it’s true. I admired him for his decision, but of course you couldn’t say it. God, the circles we moved in – talk about national pride. Where’s all that gone?”

“You’re talking about the Bond?” a man asked, moving closer. “I’m Ben.” I shook his hand and he said, “The Bond did a lot for the Afrikaner cause.”

“No,” Mel said. “The Bond did a lot for the National Party’s cause. This is Deon Fourie’s boy, Frans.”

“Ah,” the man said. “Don’t mind Mel. She’s from old South African Party stock. But I suppose it’s no use telling you youngsters what we were up to.”

“You knew my father?”

“Yes. We went fishing together.”

“Deon’s got a fishing tackle shop,” Mel said.

“And he said no to the Broederbond?” I said to Ben.

“I don’t know that it was a big thing for him. He was approached and he declined.”

Mel said, “And today we can see what a sensible thing to do that was.”

“Nonsense. He would have benefited. And that would have been nothing to be ashamed of either. The Afrikaner had to work for his place in the sun. What do you do, Frans?”

“I’m a waiter in a steakhouse.”

“Surprising. But you do want something better?” Ben said.

“He doesn’t have to,” Mel said. “As long as you make a contribution to the economy, you can do what you like.”

“Spoken like a true SAP,” he said. “You have to contribute to the well-being of your people too. You have to sacrifice something.”

“By which you mean keep your evenings for initiation ceremonies?” Mel said.

“Don’t discount the Bond’s heritage. Fine people came through their ranks.”

At this point a bell sounded, and people moved to the table. I noticed that plates and cutlery had been moved up and an extra place set, but it was suddenly all too much. My last courage had deserted me and I could see I was an insignificant fool for having come here. I hurried to the front door and stepped outside and pulled the door to behind me. It was dark and the street lamps shone on the lawn and the parked cars and behind me was the music.

I hadn’t reached the street when the door opened again and Uncle Roelfie spoke to me. “Frans.”

I stopped and looked at him, this ageing man who had been my father’s friend and once shared some history with him.

“Your father is a good man.”

“What do you mean?”

And what did he mean? That things could have been different for my father? That he could have benefited from the “baantjies vir boeties” people joked about when I was a child in the seventies?

“If you could put together a CV, send it on to me. Maybe I can drop it on the right fellow’s desk.”

What was I to think of this? My father said no to membership of the most exclusive Afrikaner charity organisation, and here I was being propositioned? What would the price of that be?

Uncle Roelfie stood there in the open door, his slim frame lit by the porch light. I thought of the life he led, the good job, the nice house, the friends, the opera he and Auntie Alice attended.

And I said: “Thank you, but that won’t be necessary.”

“You’re welcome to stay, you know that.”

“Yes, I know. But I think I’ll take a walk towards the station. There’s this bar where a large woman with a husky voice sings Pink Floyd covers. Maybe someone will get pissed and break a glass. Maybe there will even be a fight. Hell, if I’m lucky, I’ll swing a punch or two myself.”

Uncle Roelfie said, “Good luck,” and closed the door.

I was sort of joking, of course, but not about the bar. I walked there and the damn shoes hurt my feet, but I got there and went in still dressed in my monkey suit and people in jeans and T-shirts laughed at me and I laughed with them. And yes, a large woman was singing, though not Pink Floyd covers but an Afrikaans song about resentment and the Anglo-Boer War, and a glass was broken. And late at night there was a fight. In fact, I started it. I called an Englishman a “soutpiel” and he said I was just a Dutchman who didn’t know any better. I took a swing at his head. And though he beat me up, later on I sat on a bar stool and I toasted the bugger, for beating me up, for standing up to me, but mostly for being an Englishman.