Slade Harris will do anything for a story. He doesn’t think twice about jumping out of a plane or conducting disastrous love affairs to gather material for his writing. But his selfish way seems to be catching up with him: stumbling through his late thirties hopeless and a little drunk, his agent after him like a particularly stubborn strain of venereal disease, Slade has a dazzling, dangerous idea, which sets off a motion of events that will change his life forever.

It’s going to be Slade’s ultimate story, and all he’s hoping for is to survive it.

"Absorbing, chilling, funny and original ... definitely a fresh new voice in South African fiction." - Hamilton Wende

Friday, September 9, 2011

Chapter 2: Likefatherlikeson

Chapter 2: Likefatherlikeson

A few days later I wake up with a grim sense of purpose. It’s Emily’s birthday. Born two years after me, she would have been thirty-six today. I can’t really imagine it. She is frozen in my mind as she was on That Day – tangled hair, summer freckles and a milk-tooth smile – all but bursting with sunshine and promise. And here I am: limping towards forty with the bleakness that comes with age. Knowing the dull pain of the thought that I am past my prime. Some people peak at sixty, I know. It would be nice to look forward to something like that. Instead of what I have.
She probably would have done more with her life than I have with mine; had more meaning. Chances are she would have had a family with a faithful (read: tedious) husband and two little scurrilous sprogs. Dogs, too. She would definitely have had dogs. She would be like those yuppies I used to jog past in the morning with their golden labs and 4x4 strollers, who run right past people like me, who are more like the red-cheeked, defeated-looking fat man being pulled along by his huskies.
I arrive at my father’s house in Belgravia with a bottle of Johnny Walker and some food supplies from Fournos. Every now and then I do a bit of grocery shopping for him. Like me, he is always more grateful for the whisky. Grumpy, but grateful. Likefatherlikeson. I do it out of guilt more than feelings of benevolence. I’ve never been particularly kind. I just feel the guilt weighing heavier and heavier the longer I put off seeing the old man; eventually I have to go just to salvage what sanity I have left. Shopping postpones the moment I actually have to start spending time with him, so it’s usually a pretty drawn-out affair. There is always a new bottle of pickles to inspect, or a fresh artichoke to stroke. In The Godfather Don Corleone says that a man who doesn’t spend time with his family can never be a real man. I guess I’ve never really been one.
I press the buzzer on the gate. It will take him a while to reach the front door so I wait, watching the paint peel. God, I wish he’d listen to sense and get the hell out of this place. It’s so grotty. Probably not the safest neighbourhood, either.
I feel I am being watched so I look around a bit, feigning nonchalance, trying to not look like a paranoid white man. No one needs to know that I am a paranoid white man. Who isn’t suspicious, in this country, where a healthy sense of paranoia keeps you alive? Stupid people, I guess, and people who have given up. I wind my watch.
The house takes up the entire block and is fenced off with dark, rotting planks. The gaps in it, like decaying teeth, serve as an invitation to opportunistic thieves. The front door is opposite a municipal park, full of drunken sun-sleepers and litter and lazy lovers with arses too big to sit comfortably on the knee-high gum poles of the wooden perimeter. In The Bad Old Days the grass was green and the playground full of bright new colours. Loiterers would be chased away (if you were black you were a loiterer, white – a visitor). I remember the taste of the painted metal of the jungle gym, I’m not sure why; I suppose kids try to taste everything. Metallic, cool and hard, with a softer, thick paint-skin.
I ring the bell again, just in case he didn’t hear it the first time.
We used to be able to play there under the casual eye of my mother, who, more often than not, seemed far more interested in the depths of whichever paperback she happened to be reading, than in anything we were doing. She would shake out an old Transvaal Scottish tartan blanket, as if in preparation for a family picnic, then instruct us to have fun while she eyeballed her own version of make-believe. She’d flick her gaze up at us now and then for a headcount, not really seeing, but making sure we were still there.
I fell once, around the back of the house. There’s a giant oak tree in the backyard. Staunch and towering, it will probably outlast all of my family’s line.
I was climbing, probably showing off to Emily. The boasting made me feel cocky; overconfident. I don’t remember why I fell, perhaps my foot slipped as I was scrambling, or my arm grabbed for a branch that wasn’t there. But I do remember falling and what a strange feeling it was, actually being airborne. And then the crunch of backbone-on-land. Emily’s scream. Little bubblegummer footsteps taking off to summon help. Not knowing what the warmstickyspreading feeling was on my back. I thought I should stand up, so that I wouldn’t get into trouble. But I couldn’t, so I stayed splayed in the shadow of the tree. Granny was first to run out, wiping her hands absent-mindedly on her ragged apron, her eyes trained on me. She never saw the need for hysterics. Decades of volunteering at the Red Cross, two dead husbands and a near-fatal car accident made her immune to dramatics in general. A Dutch immigrant with more common sense than you could shake a stick at. But she was running.
“Slade,” she had said without alarm, “are you alright?”
“Yes,” I said, or perhaps I nodded.
Yes, just fine. Except that I couldn’t get up.
She used her cool, dry palms and swollen-knuckled fingers to feel for broken bones. Emily wailed in the background and was roughly hoisted, one-armed, onto Dad’s hip.
“Can you stand?” Gran asked.
All eyes on me, I tried again, and it worked. I must have been numbed by the shock, earlier. I remember looking down on a smashed stack of tomato crates. You don’t see them nowadays but they were made of rough-edged plywood strips held together with little nails. I had a blade of the wood wedged in my back, as if I were the victim of a half-hearted game of junior vampire slaying. A shallow wound, eager to bleed, but at least the sickening crunch hadn’t been my spinal cord.
The lock of the door jiggles. Through the textured glass panels I see the large stooped figure that is my father. Stuck behind the black bars of the pedestrian gate, I watch his mottled silhouette fuss with the door until finally it opens, and he shuffles out on to the verandah, giving me an indignant look.
“Have you just arrived?” he demands, giving me no time to reply. “Why didn’t you ring the bell?”
Does he think I’m an idiot? That I would just skulk here arbitrarily until he decides, on a whim, to open the door?
“I did, Dad,” through clenched teeth.
“Well, are you sure? I didn’t hear anything.”
Don’t lose your patience, Slade. You’ve got a good few hours to get through.
“Maybe it’s broken. Here, let me ring it again.”
I jab, with more violence than strictly necessary, at the button with my index finger.
“Can you hear it?”
“Of course I can’t bloody hear it now. I’m standing outside!”
He is dressed in old tracksuit pants and a faded blue cardigan. There is a toothpaste stain on his shirtfront. His voice shakes with indignation. I would also be indignant, if I were him. If I’d had his life, his past.
“Come on, Dad,” I say, “let’s go inside. We’ll sort this out later.”
The interior of the house is a museum. Scratched wooden floors, faded Persian carpets, Vermeers staring down at you, their dusty eyes following your movement through the house. Cheap prints of Girl with a Pearl Earring, The Milkmaid, The Astronomer. Chandeliers with their original light switches.
In the children’s rooms, huge oak built-in bunk beds as big as boats. Enough space for eight adults per room, never mind the children. In the bathroom, black and white floor tiles and a large, sloping bath on claws with enough of an angle to slide down if Gran’s feeling mellow enough to let you splash around a bit. Emily being scolded for licking the pink soap which smelled so good. God, I wish he would just sell this place. Hanging onto it like a sentimental old fool. I sniff deeply and rub my temples. The memories are suffocating.
I dump the plastic packets of food on the maroon linoleum floor and hear something break. Typical. I don’t want to get a rag and clean it up but I do. I carry the whole packet to the sink. He has laid out a box of water crackers and a tin of sardines for lunch. Sardines and vomit occupy the same little space in my brain, along with the smell of boiling tripe. My father is a millionaire but he eats oily fish out of a can as a treat. My grandparents took the whole post-war economic to heart, and my father seemed to inherit it. I would go as far as to say I think he actually enjoyed the recession. Just another justification for his white-knuckle-tight fists. I spend money like water. I think sardines are cat food. It’s 2011 for God’s sake. The war has been over for more than sixty years. It’s the age of globalisation and consumerism. Spending money like water – where does that come from? It’s not mine – it doesn’t taste right in my mouth.
It was the stuffed olive jar that broke. Not too much damage done, everything else in the packet just needs a bit of a wipe. I pick an olive out of the broken glass and pop it into my mouth. I can’t resist. I have the vague feeling that Francina is going to jump out from behind somewhere and scold me, which is what happens when I drink milk out of the bottle in my own kitchen. The olive is salty and I move it around in my mouth to feel its smooth, oily skin. I let my tongue trap it on the roof of my mouth, bruising it to release a little juice. Perhaps it’ll be worth the shard of glass I may unknowingly swallow. It would be a pretty undignified way to leave this earth. I can see the newspaper headline: ‘Famous Local Author Dies After Eating Stray Glass Shard’; or, worse: ‘R.I.P. Slade Harris (Previously Famous Author).’
I know a guy who died choking on a piece of toast; I swear I’m not making this up. He was an alcoholic and crack addict most of his life and he lost everything he ever owned, including his wife and bewildered kids. He finally puts his life on track and chokes on a bloody piece of toast at the breakfast table. Maybe that’s worse. Maybe, maybe not.
Dad shuffles in wearing his stokies. I can’t believe how shabby he’s looking. He is starting to smell like an old person. The sour scent of decay. What is it exactly? I try to work it out. Damp wool; un-flossed teeth; cat food; cheap aftershave. I give him an uncharacteristically generous smile. We have the same green eyes. His eyebrows are long and bushy, he has untrimmed nose and ear hair; I wonder how it feels for him to look at me and see this younger version of himself. It’s probably a good thing I don’t have kids. They would remind me of my decline and I’d resent the buggers. I’d probably have a lot more grey hair if I were a father. I went the safe route: I had books instead of kids.
He clears his throat noisily as if no one else is in the room. Living on your own makes you do things like that. You’re used to being alone and lose the need to be polite with your bodily functions. I’ve lived alone for twenty-plus years now and, despite years of resisting it, feel my own slide into this hermit-like comfort. Open-mouthed throat-clearing at high volume is the least of it.
Dad opens the vintage fridge and takes two clinking bottles of beer out of the icebox. For however long either of us live I will always associate that sound with him. It’s a friendly, comforting sound, like a wine-cork popping, or a gas ring being lit.
“There’s a match on,” he announces.
I knew. Of course I knew. Arsenal versus Chelsea. It’s the perfect excuse to spend time together without talking. Especially without talking about Emily. Arsenal doesn’t stand a chance.
“Really?” I ask, wide-eyed, “Who’s playing?”


That night I go to a Mexican bar in Melville and get drunk. Family seems to have that effect on me. A lot of things seem to have that effect on me. The music is loud and upbeat and there is a huge portrait of Frieda Kahlo on the wall. I eat quesadillas that make my mouth burn with their fresh green chillies and I sip gold tequila: fighting fire with fire. ‘One fire burns out another’s burning’ – I think that’s Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet.
I went to Mexico once on a journo assignment. Wouldn’t mind going back. Maybe a Cuba-to-Cancun cruise is what I need: a slow yacht, with warm sea air and crushed-ice cocktails; maybe lick a little coke off dark-skinned girls in metallic bikinis. God, I definitely need something. Sometimes I feel like I’ve done everything and that there’s nothing new out there. Maybe I’m just a bit burnt out. I signal the bartender to top up my glass. He looks wary but does it anyway. What I need is a fresh, exciting experience, one which will bring the words back to my fingers. I need to think about it; perhaps when I am sober.
Feeling sentimental, I think back to Mr. Robinson, an English teacher I had in primary school. The only teacher with whom I ever really connected; an eccentric man who wore hats and had perennially ink-stained fingers. He never took any notice of me until I wrote an essay about our family dog, Maxwell, going missing. He was a vicious brak stray my parents had adopted when they were still young and idealistic. He tore up couches, swallowed shoes whole, and attacked trembling old ladies. By the time Emily and I started school he was corpsestiff with arthritis but he tried to bite us anyway with his black gummy jaws.
Mr. Robinson used to spout writing tips at us as if we were all aspiring Kafkas. It was about writing The Truth, he said. He quoted Hemingway: ‘All you have to do is write one true sentence’. Then Merton: ‘We make our selves real by telling the truth.’ I was entranced. Money? For words? Words that had come so easily when I recounted Maxwell’s short, crabby life, and the mystery of his disappearance. It turned out that my first muse was a dog.
Phuza-face glowing, eyes popping, Mr. Robinson taught me the oldest and most controversial writing lesson of all: to be able to write well – that is, convincingly enough to make your reader feel, really feel, your story – is entirely based on your experience of what you are writing about. Many experts have since rubbished this notion or seconded it, but I know that it is my truth. I have tried again and again to write purely from imagination but I am either stuck halfway through or end up so shamed by the prose I burn it (a delete button is sometimes not enough to purge yourself of truly horrible work). And so between Mr. Robinson and Vicious Maxwell (R.I.P.) I was able to learn my secret to great writing. And experience, as Oscar Wilde famously said, is one thing you can’t get for nothing. As the tequila warms my throat under Frieda’s monobrowed glare I wonder what my life would have been like if I had not been in class that day.
I wanted to write about the tree-climbing accident; I wanted to describe that feeling of weightlessness I had during the fall. But my mother was so angry with me I didn’t dare ever bring it up again. She didn’t speak to me for a week after the accident and when I offered her the shirt for washing, hard and stained with my old brown blood, she grabbed the skin on my cheek with her thumb and index finger and pinched it: a parrot-bite.
I never saw the shirt again.
I get up off my barstool without stumbling, pull some notes out of my wallet and slide them onto the well-worn, greasy counter, next to my dinner plate. Note to self: wallet feels a bit light.
Disgrace: ‘spending money like water’. That’s where I first read it; I wonder where he happened on it. ‘No matter,’ he says. An exhilaratingly desolate scene by Coetzee at his best, describing Lurie after the farm attack, when the dogs are shot and his daughter gang-raped. Alienated beyond the point of no return, Lurie sits in a sinking plastic chair surrounded by the smell of rotting apples and chicken feathers, feeling his will to live draining out of him like blood. Coetzee describes him as an empty fly-casing in a spider’s web. The beauty. The bleakness.
I down what’s left in my glass and leave.

No comments:

Post a Comment