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Praise for The R ichaRd de NBig ooyStick “De Nooy has an ear for dialogue which not only renders the text almost audible, but pumps his crystal clear, acutely and empathetically observed characters full of humanity. He builds tension subtly and constructs his story with tender care. I found the novel so moving, so humane and so compulsive that I could not settle to any other novel.” – Karin Schimke, Cape Times “What De Nooy expresses most beautifully, is that people hide behind their prejudices. His novel is populated by a truly diverse cast of characters: from a police detective and an airline steward to gay hairdressers and a coke dealer. They all find their way into the reader’s heart.” – Marjolein Paalvast, LiterairNederland.nl “De Nooy’s debut is beautiful, as is his second book, The Big Stick. His style is raw and macho, as well as – almost – hypersensitive.” – Ivo Weyel, Esquire “The Big Stick is a book that leaves you with a feeling of gratitude, moved, uplifted, and jealous that there are so few books of this standard about lesbians.” – Connie van Gils, ILHIA.nl “De Nooy is a brilliant storyteller, who blends humour and tragedy in a heart-wrenching manner. […] The story is compelling and moving, skilfully composed and poignantly rendered.” – Cees van der Pluijm, NBD Biblion (Dutch library review) “De Nooy’s style is raw and rock-hard, as well as poetic and at times hilarious.” – Sonja de Jong, Haarlems Dagblad “De Nooy brilliantly evokes two worlds: the harsh reality of South Africa and the ‘gay is beautiful’ mentality of 1980s Amsterdam, which proves to be equally fraught with violence. Staal is lost between these two worlds – and drowns.” – Toef Jaeger, NRC Handelsblad “Overwhelming, impressive, refreshing, surprising.” – Pim van Hest, Gay Krant “The Big Stick is one of those novels you can’t put down once you’ve started: compelling, moving, to be read in a single sitting. The portrait of 1980s Amsterdam takes you on a nostalgic trip back to those days, and the author sketches the pink couleur locale with great refinement, replete with acerbic gay wit, nicknames and juicy wordplay.” – Kristiaan Schimmel, gay.blog.nl ii

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The Big Stick

Richard de Nooy

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The publication of this book would not have been possible without the assistance of the Jacana Literary Foundation (JLF). The Jacana Literary Foundation is dedicated to the advancement of writing and reading in South Africa, and is supported by the Multi-Agency Grants Initiative (MAGI) through whose generous funding the JLF aims to nurture South African literature and bibliodiversity.

Published in Dutch as Zacht als Staal by Nijgh & Van Ditmar, Amsterdam 2010 Published in English by Jacana Media (Pty) Ltd in 2011 10 Orange Street Sunnyside Auckland Park 2092 South Africa (+27 11) 628-3200 www.jacana.co.za Job no. 001633 Š Richard de Nooy, 2011 All rights reserved. Print ISBN 978-1-4314-0268-7

WebPDF ISBN 978-1-4314-0328-8

Cover design by Joey Hi-Fi Set in Ehrhardt 11/14pt

See a complete list of Jacana titles at www.jacana.co.za

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To my mother, who would have come to fetch me, too.

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Foreword

Conventions are so often thrust upon us, Princess, when we are lost for words. At funerals, for instance, where we find ourselves addressing our dearly departed directly, as if there is some hope that they are still alive. Protocol dictates that we sift through our memories to raise a laugh or jerk a tear. But I’ll be bending the rules, as always, because I won’t only be recounting my memories of you, Princess, I’ll also be sharing your memories of me. A bit strange, I know, but that’s how it goes in books. I’ll also be telling your mother’s story, how far she went once it was all too late. And other friends and relatives will put in an appearance, of course. Some weren’t too keen to get involved, but no one wants to be listed among the blackguards who refused to say a word or two about the dearly departed. And you were dear to us, make no mistake. To me you embodied innocence, briefly regained and then lost forever. Woe is me. The boy you met back then is no more. He has been replaced by a far more cynical and sinister being. I am still a newshound, a bird of ill omen who decided to taunt fate, pursue it, track it down, instead of waiting in trepidation for it to keep finding me again and again. I have travelled to the darkest outposts of the globe, wherever hell on earth was to be found. But I did not merely observe impassively. I gave my rage legs and spurred it on, driven by the knowledge that almost all misery may be ascribed to the silent multitude, the not-so-innocent bystanders who look the other way in fear and apathy, to escape all suspicion of complicity. My actions did not go unnoticed. In fact, there are those vii

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who feel I should be punished for my one-man war against fate and its minions: fear and apathy. Because I do not know how much time I have left, I decided to withdraw and commit my past to paper. But each time I tried to trace the bloodline of my rage, the path led to your grave, where I paused to mourn the loss of what little innocence was left. In a way, this book is like an enema. A means to flush you out of my system, Princess, laying your memories to rest, so that I can move on to explore my own. Not very nice, I know, but that’s what it boils down to. As always, my publisher asked if I could relocate the story to the here-and-now. But when I asked if he would reciprocate by bending over so that I could relocate the manuscript directly to his alimentary tract, he immediately withdrew his request. And so the story is set in the days when it took place: around 1986, when we were both nearly 20. You haven’t aged a day since then, Princess. Sadly, the same cannot be said for me. J.R. Deo, Amsterdam, 2009

PS: Because my publisher is not entirely devoid of good ideas, the story begins with a statement by Karel Vroegop, a detective formerly with the Amsterdam police. That way we can dispense with formalities for starters, before tucking into the main course.

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Chapter 1 Behind her façades, just under her skin, the city hides her treasures and secrets.

They fished the kid out in one piece. No mean feat, what with his scarf wound round the prop and his hands clutching stray rope tangled in the wrecked bikes on the canal bed. Like a human anchor. He was virtually intact, except where the prop had minced his head and face before jamming. I ordered the divers to cut the scarf and rope. Told the guys to stay out of the water. No point risking more lives among the ice floes. People were skating on the canals that winter. Hadn’t happened in over twenty years. The waterdogs broke the ice with their patrol boats. The first tour boats soon followed, taking out the early tourists. Strange how the waterdogs never snag the floaters. It’s usually the tour boats. Probably because they’re wide and flat. The body rolls and rolls, like a lump of dough under a hand, until it pops up at the stern. Wham, straight into that churning prop. The patrol boats are sleeker, more streamlined, push the floaters aside, out into the wake. I couldn’t get a good look from the quayside. And the tourists were rubbernecking on deck – Welcome to Amsterdam! – so it was best to get him out quickly. We scooped the kid up with the tarp, hoisted him onto the patrol boat and wrapped him up. I only got a closer look back at the morgue. Skater, drunk, junkie, tourist – whoever he was, he’d been alive when he went under. Dead men don’t grab 1

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ropes. Drowning men do. Panic-stricken sailors hang on to sinking vessels, get dragged down into the freezing darkness, but don’t let go. A prehistoric reflex. Land animals – that’s what we become when we hit that ice-cold water. And he drowned right there, of course. Under the bridge. Easy call, what with him anchored to the rope. I know what you’re thinking, Sherlock. Maybe he was knocked out, lashed to three bikes and then tossed off the bridge. Wham, onto the ice. There are a lot of dumb criminals out there, but you’ve got to give them some credit. And he still had his wallet. So it wasn’t a mugging gone wrong. And there was his passport – Dutch, which was surprising – his traveller’s cheques, and God knows what else. His address book, of course. He had one of those nifty little belt pouches – a fanny pack! It seemed odd at the time. Not what you’d expect from a skinhead. Shaved, earring, bomber jacket, tight jeans, army boots, poofter pouch – spot the odd one out. And he had no tattoos. Also unusual. But the South African connection made it easier to do the maths: white racist from the tropics gets drunk or stoned or both, knows zilch about ice, takes a piss under the bridge, crack, bye-bye. So the forensics were a cinch. And then I made some calls. Pretty easy if you’ve got the stiff’s address book. I started with the local numbers. There weren’t many. The steward, of course, and the hairdressers where he’d worked. And then I called “Mammie” – that’s how she was listed. How sweet. But make no mistake, she was one spectacular lady, Mrs Alma Nel. Looked like she’d escaped from one of those old movies. She wore the kind of clothes my grandma used to wear to church. Probably chipped off the same block – hardwood, roughhewn – if you know what I mean. But she seemed blind to the dangers, which was a little disconcerting. She had that kind of country-cousin fearlessness that comes with ignorance. She’d spent her whole life out in the desert in South Africa, 2

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and suddenly she was in the big city. And not just any city, mind you: Amsterdam. She didn’t have a clue. But she was determined to unravel the truth. She wanted to see her son, of course. I told her that would be unwise, but she kept pleading with that funny accent: “Plees, constable.” I only remember that because my wife still uses it to tease me, twenty years after the fact: “Pliss, constable.” Eventually I showed her the photos. That got her bawling. But she pulled herself together quite quickly. A tough bird, make no mistake. So she’s sitting there looking at the photos, and suddenly she asks: “Did the fish eat his hair?” With that funny accent of hers. I almost choked trying not to laugh. Eventually I told her we suspected he was a skinhead. And of course she says: “A what?” So I had more explaining to do. She just couldn’t get her head around it, as if you couldn’t be a poof and a skinhead at the same time. And she kept saying that her son would never shave his own head, he was much too proud of his hair. As if it was some sort of clue we had missed! “Yes, ma’am, we suspect the perpetrators shaved your son’s head, dressed him like a neo-Nazi, and then dumped him through a hole in the ice!” Anyway, she wanted the truth. So I explained that we’d completed our investigation and concluded that the kid had accidentally fallen through the ice and drowned there. There was definitely no foul play. Although I did have my doubts about that old fag, the steward. But no laws had been broken there. The kid was nineteen or twenty, so he had every right to pick his own brand of sausage, if you know what I mean. Then she asked how she could contact her son’s friends, the people he’d mixed with. That was a little complicated, because you can’t just dish out people’s names and addresses left, right and centre. So I called the steward to check if it was okay, and I did the same with the two hairdressers. They weren’t too keen on the idea, but eventually they gave their permission. So 3

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I pointed her in the right direction. That was the least I could do. She asked if I’d questioned them. So I explained again that there was no sign of foul play. Although I did ask them the usual questions, of course, when I went round to tell them the kid had drowned. About the nature of their relationship with him and so on. But they weren’t required to give an official statement or anything. The steward just sat there sighing and cursing. But he didn’t cry. He told me they’d been looking for the kid for weeks. When I asked why he hadn’t reported him missing, he gave me a long spiel about how they’d had a sort of fatherson relationship. You know what I mean: kids leave home, but they come back whenever they need money or a hot meal or a shoulder to cry on – that kind of thing. Apparently, the kid often disappeared for days, even weeks, and then came knocking again. And the steward was away a lot, so he didn’t really mind. That’s how it goes with fathers and sons, right? Unconditional. “Come in, son, good to see you! Where’ve you been? Hungry? Beer?” You know what I mean. The hairdressers were a completely different story. The one started bawling his eyes out – a real drama queen – and the other had a hundred-and-one questions: “Who? What? Where? When? How?” He immediately started pointing fingers at some Polish kid, a rent boy, a prostitute, who was friends with the kid. When I said there was no foul play, they told me they’d also been looking for the kid for weeks. They’d been to the police, apparently, but they hadn’t filed an official report because there was a chance that the kid had gone on holiday. Or back home to South Africa. So they were shattered, but also relieved. You get that a lot. I also got the impression that they really loved that kid. They wanted to protect him, look after him. You can’t fake that. I’d have seen right through it. So that’s what I told his mother: “Your son was well loved. They all loved him.” 4

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That also went for that nutcase, the ambulance-chaser. How could I forget him? What was his name? I jotted it down. Here it is: Remco de Heer. He came round to see me, too. Seems he was friends with that kid. He wasn’t a fag or anything, that much was clear, but he was also from South Africa. Always had his camera with him. I can still see him now: long hair, beard, sunglasses. A real nutcase. No fear. Wouldn’t listen. You could shout and threaten all you wanted, he just kept shooting. He worked for The Colonel, one of those leeches who sit around listening to the police channel all day. “Blood is good; dead is better” – that was his motto. Arsehole. Anyway, when this De Heer chap sat down at my desk, he took off his sunglasses and I saw his eyes up close for the first time. They reminded me of a party I once went to. At a big house out in the countryside. From the outside, everything looked calm and quiet, no music, but you could see that inside, the place was rocking, the people going crazy. You know what I mean, Mr Deo? I’m pretty sure you do, because you’ve got that too. There’s a party going on inside, behind those eyes. Am I right?

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Chapter 2 People come from far and wide to gaze into the glittering depths. Blinded, they step over the edge.

How much anger and despair did you choke down, Princess, on your way to the station? But still you stood and waved nicely until Ma had crossed the bridge and disappeared into town. Only then did you seek refuge behind a tree to throw up your farewell brunch in three long hurls. Then you cried and cried until you could cry no more. She had kept it short – a quick hug, a peck on the cheek and then the words that echoed hollow through your head: “Don’t cry now. It’s for your own good. Follow your heart.” Bullshit. Your heart had always deceived you, as she bloody well knew. That’s why you had to leave. She could have waited till the train came. She could have stood on the platform waving you off with her white hanky. But she didn’t. She was like the wily jackal that gathers wool in its mouth and then backs slowly into the river until all the fleas have fled into the fluff. Then it drops the wool and takes off like a flash, outwitting the fleas. You were the wool, Princess, floating on the river, the memories like vermin on your skin. Your entire body itched. You dragged your big brown suitcase up the stairs and stood sweating in the sun. You chased the itch from your lower leg to your upper arm, then through your hair and down your spine, where it hid under the little rucksack with valuables strapped tight against your back. The rucksack contained: 6

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A fresh Dutch passport; A one-way train ticket to Johannesburg; A one-way plane ticket to Amsterdam; A tattered textbook titled Zoo spreekt men Nederlandsch; A Rubik’s Cube with one side done (orange); And a transparent plastic raincoat, tightly folded into a nifty bag. That last item was utterly useless on the platform in Zeerust. God had come to see you off personally, Princess, to make sure you got on that train. His breath like a bellows across the parched tracks. The dusty embers scorching your face and arms, giving you a taste of hell to come. You sought the shelter of a pillar. Your shoulders hunched like useless wings under the pale-blue cotton of your shirt. But the wind kept turning you like a chicken on an upright spit, spiked through the jacksie, the rod driving your pants into your damp crotch. The suit was Ma’s farewell gift. She had driven you all the way to Rustenburg to buy it. At Barry’s Men’s Wear. You went in the Merc, which Solly had washed and polished the day before. Ma was in full regalia: white cotton skirt, white blouse with lace trimmings, dark-blue blazer with bright copper buttons, tan stockings and her dark-blue Daisy Duck pumps. The car reeked of Charlie, the elixir of youth, 5.95 a flacon. It was on your tongue, up your nose, in your brain, never to be forgotten. You cracked the window. Speed became sound. You were howling along at 140 decibels per hour. Ma made a tired, up-up gesture with her hand, and you fooped the window shut. You drove on in silence. Your whole life, all the unsaid shit, riding along on the roof. You just had to reach up and grab a fistful – it would have given you enough to talk about till Rustenburg, till Joburg, till Cairo even. But the window stayed firmly shut. 7

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Barry had been your mother’s last test. He greeted you and Ma as if you were long-lost friends. His whole body was very, very happy, as if every word brought to mind a song. His shop was his stage. And he put on a great show. Every time you went to change your pants, Barry thrust his head through the curtains and bellowed: “Not too tight around the derrière?” Most boys were scared of beaming Barry. But not you, Princess. It was as if someone was whistling your song. You wanted to sing along. You couldn’t stop smiling. Your cheeks ached. And Barry kept going – cracking jokes, swopping winks, flouncing curtains. Ma was a lone spectator. Her mouth set in a gentle smile, her eyes sad. Like a judge listening to a child’s testimony. She knew the truth, Princess, but she wanted to know if the truth would make you happy. She got all the proof she needed when you stepped out for the fifth time, wearing the full three-piece rig. Barry flopped down into his leather armchair, clapped his hand over his mouth, and whispered: “You were born to wear that suit.” When Ma saw you beaming, proud as a peacock, with eyes only for Barry, she knew enough. Not long thereafter you were told you would be leaving. She had made all the arrangements. You were thirsty, Princess, but you didn’t dare go into the café. You had seen the wolves sitting there when you arrived. Their brown uniforms told you they were from the huntingground, that place of pain and camaraderie where they had cut their white fangs, wrestling in the sun, laughing and howling in the moonlight, taking communal showers. You had tried to understand their world, Princess, but their lair remained a labyrinth where danger lurked in every corner. Some say fear clutches the heart like a cold fist. But that’s bullshit. Fear is warm and bright and courses through every fibre, neuron and corpuscle. Every single cell is built to survive. 8

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And fear is the fluid that conveys the rallying call. Fear had been your guiding light as you stumbled through the darkness in search of an exit. It was fear that led you to The Big Stick. You found it on the floor of the changing-room, rolled up in a tight ball, naked, shattered, as Bok’s wrath rained down on you. You had learned not to look, hard lessons delivered by fist and flat hand. You could keep your head down for ages as you buffed your toes or dried your hair – the towel like a damp curtain shielding you from things you should not see. But Bok, the alpha male, had howled as he whipped some poor bugger with his wet towel, and you had looked up, straight into his hairy basket where his one-eyed cobra swayed to and fro. Danie Maritz was looking too. But when he saw you had seen him clocking Bok’s cock, he shouted: “Hey, Bok! This moffie wants a piece of your package!” You blushed and said no-no-no, but Bok was already on his way over with his towel. The wet whip stung five, six, seven times, as you tried to get away, tripping. Then Bok planted his foot in your gut and said between his teeth: “This cock belongs to Bok! And if you even think of looking at it again, I will fuck you up so bad, you’ll wish you’d never been born!” That was when you found The Big Stick. Right there and then, curled up on the cold floor, you began thinking about Bok’s cock. And you didn’t just think about looking at it. You thought about all the other things you’d like to do with it. And you thought about Bok thanking you for doing those things. And you thought about the other guys watching as you and Bok thanked each other. Bok saw The Big Stick rising in your groin and stepped back a pace. You tried to hide it, scrambling for your towel, but everyone had seen it. And although they laughed uneasily and sissed in disgust, they backed off. The mere suspicion that fear and pain might be experienced as pleasure was enough to brand you a leper. And so you spent your last two years 9

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at school in quarantine, Princess. Free of persecution, but desperately alone, plagued by bestial fantasies. Cast out from your herd, you stood at the station. The wolves inside the café knew nothing of The Big Stick. They saw only a strange, sick creature in a tight-fitting suit, just begging to be mauled and eaten. And so you chose to stay outside, hiding behind a pillar at the far end of the platform. Afraid to go and take a piss. Afraid to go inside and buy a Coke. Afraid to walk or speak out loud, knowing that you would stand out like a pink dress in a coal mine. The miners would first gawk at the garment, caught in the light of their helmet lamps. They would laugh and point and crack jokes. Then the boldest or simplest soul would plant his blackened boot on the dress, and they would laugh some more. Then the joker would slip it on for a rip-roaring girlie imitation. This would get his mates all hot and bothered. They would grab him and drape him over a trolley, lift up his dress, tear open his overalls, and one by one… The wolves were coming out – growling, barking, howling. The train was coming. You would wait until they were all aboard before leaving the shelter of the pillar. Ma’s golden rules echoed through your head: be elegant, but don’t walk like Gina Lollobrigida; sing in private, but whistle in public; keep it short and simple, don’t enthuse; be proud of who you are, but don’t tell people what you are. But nobody was fooled, Princess. You couldn’t hide it. They had all tried to bend you straight – Ma, Elana, Boet and Frik, Oom Andries and many others – but none of them had succeeded. It was there for all to see. Even the porter who stowed your big brown suitcase spotted it straight away, even though there probably wasn’t a word in his language to describe your condition.

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Chapter 3 Like an aging baroness forced into fishnet stockings and stiletto heels, the Queen of Sheba perched on the back of the Whore of Babylon.

They were like damp shadows, the people. As if the storm clouds and bleak night had seeped into their clothes. Alma Nel loved rain, but this was unlike anything she’d ever seen. Her rain fell straight down from heaven, like a blessing. This curse came from all sides. Whichever way she turned, the demon spat in her face, driving through her coat and clothes and skin, deep into her heart, where it began to eat away at her faith in the glory of God’s creation. It was this inhospitable place that had killed her son. She knew that now – standing on the square in front of Amsterdam Central Station, out in the open for the first time since she’d boarded the plane in Johannesburg. There was no need to pinch herself now, as she’d done at the airport, where everything was bright and new and clean. As if the whole world was on wheels, gliding, without room for pause or error. Little robots, each running on its own program, scurrying along, full of purpose. But the aliens outdoors were different. Those fighting the demon were silent and morose, or full of rage. They huddled together in dark corners. A shadow army that eyed her like vultures. Instinctively, she walked tall, taking the full force of the demon’s assault upon her face and chest, pretending that her two small suitcases were lightweight weapons she wouldn’t hesitate to use. 11

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And so she strode down Damrak – the street an aging baroness forced into fishnet stockings and stiletto heels. The Queen of Sheba perched on the back of the Whore of Babylon. A monk was rooting in a dustbin, his black hood pulled low over his face, bent under the weight of contrition. She decided to stop and check the direction card she had slipped under her watchstrap, as she had been urged to do by the friendly backpacker and his girlfriend. “Then you can walk as if you know where you’re going,” the boy had said. “As if you’re running late and checking your watch,” his girlfriend added. They had helped Alma chart a course to the police station in the Warmoesstraat. It wasn’t far. Straight down damrak firSt left into oudebrugSteeg

(by big ‘beurS’ building!) left in warmoeSStraat

The Oudebrugsteeg was across the road. (“Don’t forget, ma’am: bikes, cars, trams, trams, cars, bikes,” the boy had warned as they parted on the platform. “And they’re all coming from the wrong side!” his girlfriend had added.) Alma wiped the rain off her glasses and took a deep breath. She saw the monk limping across the zebra path ahead of her. He was carrying one of her suitcases. The red one with the tartan motif. “Hey … Father!” she cried and stepped out into the road. The first cyclist braked, the second, third and fourth piled into him and fell into the road, a cursing knot of frame and flesh. An oncoming car howled and veered onto the tram rails, catching the monk in its twin spotlights. When he turned, Alma saw the face of the living dead under the hood. Pale skin drawn around a bony skull. Toothless maw and jutting jaw set in a grimace. Then sudden panic etched his face. His 12

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eyes bulged yellow in their dark sockets, transfixed by some terror that loomed much larger than Alma, the cursing cyclists and the stranded car. The monk turned to make his getaway, but a silent giant caught up with him in five big bounds. Black snakes danced around the giant’s head as he beat the monk with Alma’s blue leatherette suitcase, which he wielded as if it was a handbag, battering the monk’s head and back, until he fell. From her island, trapped between the cars and bikes that had resumed their heedless flow, Alma saw the giant tear her tartan suitcase from the monk’s hand. As the wretch tried to crawl away, his dirty jeans sagged, revealing gaunt buttocks, a pale and tempting target for the giant’s heavy boots. When the monk rolled himself into a ball, the giant gave him one last kick and spat on him. The giant stood still. He did not stride off into one of the alleys, as Alma had expected. Instead, he turned and triumphantly held up her suitcases. Alma gave him a double thumbs-up, and he cocked his great head and smiled like a cub scout. “Come, mudda, don’t be scared!” he called across the traffic. Then, seeing her hesitation, he held the two suitcases out in front of him and stepped onto the zebra path. The traffic stopped instantly and Alma hurried across. “Laak a black Moses!” she shouted. “You talk funny. Where you from?” he bellowed, leaning forward. “South Africa.” “You a racist?” “I beg yours?” “What you begging?” “Your pardon?” “You want forgiveness? So you are a racist. You hate blacks.” “No-no-no!” “That’s cool, otherwise I need to squash you like a beetle.” 13

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“That’s not very naas.” “Not nice, no. I think the police would agree.” “I’m looking for the police!” “For this piece of junkie shit?” he asked, cocking his head in the direction of the vanished monk. “You got your bags.” “Thanks for the bags,” said Alma. “But where can I find the police?” “Gimme a yellow and I’ll take you.” “I beg yours?” “Stop with the begging! You give me twenty-five guilders, mudda.” “That’s a lorra money!” “Not a lot for what I got. See that alley? You go in there and you’re like Little Red Riding Hood in the jungle with a whole flock of wolves. I’m your woodcutter.” “I’ll give you ten to take me to the pliss, and another ten to find me a hotel, okay?” “You don’t trust me? Because I’m a nigger?” “No, not because you’re a … negro. I just don’t know you, that’s all.” “Did you just call me a nigger?” “No-no, we don’t use that word.” “Then what word you use?” “It’s not very naas.” “Say it.” “No.” “Say it or I’ll take your bags.” “Kaffir.” “Kaffir? Sound like a place for drinking.” “Not a very naas place…” “Why not? Because there is kaffirs?” “No-no-no, it’s just not a very naas word. Can we go now, please?” “Right on, mudda. Follow me.” 14

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The police station was just around the corner, but they passed many more of the living dead on the way. They grovelled and simpered at the giant as he passed with Alma in his wake. At the door of the station, the giant handed over her suitcases and agreed to defer payment until he had taken Alma to a hotel. “Shake,” said the giant, sticking out his hand. “Hello, Sheikh, my name is Alma.” The giant laughed like a reluctant engine on a cold morning. His shoulders were still shaking as he walked off. Alma stepped into the bright sanctuary of the police station. The outer sliding door closed behind her, and for an instant she saw a silent movie of the world ahead. Then the inner door slid open and the cacophony of the grotesque opera inside washed over her. As she stood waiting, she looked out of the window and saw Sheikh. He was leaning against a wall. The monk was talking to him, pleading with his entire body. Sheikh first ignored him, then snarled at him, but eventually rolled his eyes and cocked his head. The monk followed him around the corner, out of sight.

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Chapter 4 You could have filled a hundred books with tales of high adventure in its lust-paved alleys.

And so fear boarded the train with you, Princess. Like an evil spirit running on ahead, passing from passenger to passenger as your gaze shifted from the dog to its owner, to his wife, to their daughter, to the old man sleeping with his suitcase clamped between his calves, to the empty seat beside you, just begging to be filled with evil. Outside, every shrub, every rock, every grain of sand that swept by took you further and further from the past. The open window whistled like Ma’s black-bottomed kettle squatting on the range. You wanted to shut it, but you dared not speak or move for fear that the spirit would possess your fellow passengers. The evil would first darken their eyes with contempt, then seep down to wrinkle their noses, before fixing their lips in an arc of disgust, their jaws weighed down by the viper that lay poised to strike from the first mouth that opened. And so you sat still, scared, and let your mind seek refuge in Pricktoria, where you were happy, free, powerful and oblivious. Funny things happened in Pricktoria. You could have filled a hundred books with tales of high adventure in its lust-paved alleys. But you had learned that some tales should not be told, Princess, no matter how funny they might be. The Herman Charles Bosman Essay Contest had taught you that. You’d spent weeks working on your entry. You knew you could win – an honourable mention, at the very least. You had 16

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chosen one of your favourite Pricktoria fables and rendered it in Bosman’s beloved style. It went something like this. An ass is an ass is an ass – mused Oom Schalk Lourens as he looked out over the veld where Warrie and Trekmaar stood in the shade of the old witgatboom. You could tell them apart easily enough when the sun was high, but things were different after a moonlit visit to Gideon van Rensburg’s smoky still in the Bushman cave at the north end of his farm (which always seemed further from home on the way back). Oom Schalk could never tell the two beasts apart as they pulled the cart down the mountain track. They both pricked up their ears when he called a name. And they both folded them back when they felt his sjambok across their backs. It was for this reason that Oom Schalk Lourens had decided to make his decision during the daytime, so he could be sure his sight was clear. He needed to choose the better of the two to give to Dominee Siebolt, who would be arriving by carriage that very afternoon to fetch his donkey, escorted by none other than Ouderling Pretorius, whose kind offer to provide the dominee with transport had nothing whatsoever to do with his daughter Drieka’s intended marriage to The Englander, nor with the fact that Drieka’s beautiful wedding dress had purportedly been returned to Jantina Landman to be taken out a bit, even though Drieka had always been renowned for her slim waist. As he gazed upon the beasts of burden, Oom Schalk Lourens realised that he had never before given them much more than a passing glance. They were part of the landscape, like the rusty windmill and the shed and the wooden gatepost decorated with an old boot, which had once, long ago, held a geranium; a gift that had only 17

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lasted till the end of spring, before it had wilted, withered and then dropped into the dust below, where the wind had picked it up and carried it off into the unknown. At least that was how Oom Schalk imagined it. He did not have the time, of course, to study the life-cycle of a geranium. Nor could he be bothered to observe a couple of donkeys in the shade. But he was duty-bound, as they say. He had to make his choice, and he had to make it soon. The dominee was on his way. And so he studied the donkeys closely and noticed for the first time that they were displaying remarkable behaviour, which they clearly only displayed when Oom Schalk was off doing more important things. Warrie was restless and kept sniffing at Trekmaar’s tail. Both had their ears pinned back close to their necks, as if they were about to tussle. But Oom Schalk soon realised that they were about to engage in an entirely different and far more horrifying act. An inhuman act, even by donkey standards. So inhuman, in fact, that it was not surprising they had concealed it from him for so long. An act so unspeakable that Oom Schalk sat frozen in his chair as if the devil himself was holding him down, forcing him to behold this infernal spectacle. Warrie cornered Trekmaar between fence and tree, and with a nimble leap mounted his mate. It was only then that Oom Schalk saw the long prong gleaming in the midday sun like a pink sword. Trekmaar took it like a man, which was as logical as it was horrifying, because he was a he-donkey (although Oom Schalk had to admit he had never taken the trouble to verify this). Whatever the case may be, action had to be taken, and it had to be taken soon. The dominee could arrive at any moment, and Oom Schalk Lourens had a sneaking suspicion that he would not rejoice to see God’s creatures 18

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fornicating in the sun, even if they had carried His only Son upon their backs. Warrie’s forelegs were now exactly where the good Lord had been seated and it looked very much as if he had every intention of ramming Trekmaar to Kingdom come. This thought jabbed Oom Schalk Lourens like a red-hot poker and he leapt into action. He stumbled indoors and lifted his sjambok off the hook behind the front door, where it hung to ward off unwelcome visitors. Behind the door also stood a large earthenware jug filled with Gideon van Rensburg’s finest witblits, which – Oom Schalk Lourens knew – was the very best and swiftest way to prepare oneself for such encounters. And with a nimble flick of his wrist, hinting at many years of practice, he swung the jug onto the crook of his arm, removed the cork and took a long and steady draught, and then another for good measure. Then he strode out into the sun, which suddenly seemed brighter, hotter and less helpful than before. He whistled and shouted at the donkeys as he advanced upon them, but the demon that possessed them clearly demanded stronger measures for its exorcism. And so Oom Schalk Lourens thrashed both donkeys soundly with his sjambok, mumbling the Lord’s Prayer under his breath for good measure. This proved highly effective, because the two donkeys disengaged and trotted briskly across the kraal together. Only then did Oom Schalk notice that they had both unsheathed their swords, which now dangled like pink ropes under their bellies as they ran. Oom Schalk heaved a sigh of relief and satisfaction and was about to return to the shade of the stoep when he noticed that the donkeys had every intention of engaging in a second round of fornication. Without a moment’s hesitation, Oom Schalk stormed into the house 19

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to fetch the donkeys’ leads, stopping only to refresh and re-fortify himself with two hearty swigs from the jug. Then he crossed the kraal and, in a very businesslike manner, clipped the leads to the donkeys’ halters, pulled them apart and led them to the shade of the witgatboom. There he tied them to the fencepost and stepped back a pace before soundly whipping their grey hides with his sjambok, keeping a close eye on their swords, which quivered with every stroke. When his right arm grew tired, he transferred the sjambok to his left, but the donkeys clearly had no intention of sheathing their swords. It is safe to say that Oom Schalk Lourens felt a sense of panic as he leaned upon the donkeys’ backs to catch his breath. And panic is never a very good advisor, as Oom Schalk was soon to learn. The imminent arrival of Dominee Siebolt and Ouderling Pretorius drove him to take measures that would ordinarily not even have crossed his mind. He went back indoors, hung up his sjambok and took the time to prepare himself for the task at hand, which was easier now that the jug was half empty. Then he staggered down the steps, blinking into the low sun as he made his way over to his demonic donkeys. He climbed over the fence, kneeled down between the two, and mumbled: “Father, forgive me for what I am about to do. And look away if you can, please.” Then Oom Schalk Lourens spat on his palms, grasped the two pink swords in his hands, closed his eyes, and began to milk the donkeys, who seemed wholly unperturbed by this abominable act. In fact, they seemed quite comfortable with the arrangement and, judging by their movements, were on the verge of rewarding Oom Schalk for his efforts, when a gentle voice spoke: “Yours 20

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is indeed an isolated farm, Oom Schalk.” Whereupon Ouderling Pretorius roared: “That is why he treats his donkeys with such respect!” It was a pity – Oom Schalk Lourens mused – that his sjambok was now hanging from the hook behind the door, as he could have put it to good use in teaching Ouderling Pretorius the meaning of respect. Fortunately, Gideon van Rensburg’s witblits had fully prepared him for this encounter. Without a moment’s hesitation, Oom Schalk explained that the Saracen cavalry had always milked their steeds to pacify them before going into battle. He went on to add that, although it was understandable that a man of Ouderling Pretorius’ stature would be unaware of such heathen practices, this did not render them any less efficacious. Whereupon Dominee Siebolt, who was a well-travelled man, calmly remarked that a sword swallower he had met in Zeerust claimed he had practised on many a donkey prong before graduating to sharper metallic objects. At which point, Ouderling Pretorius asked, in a very thin voice, whether Oom Schalk might make them a cup of tea, as the long trek had left his throat rather dry. “Like that of a sword swallower,” smiled Dominee Siebolt, as he turned and made his way to the house.

The results of the contest were to be announced exactly four weeks after the closing date. Your teacher, Mr Joubert, was one of the judges and every time you attended his class, you would sit staring at the poor man’s face, hoping to see some sign of approval; a wink or a friendly nod, a thumbs-up. Eventually, after three weeks, Mr Joubert put you out of your misery with the words: “I want to see your parents on Friday.” You couldn’t sleep all week, Princess. Your roommate gave you hell, even slapping you a few times as you lay tossing 21

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and turning, your steel cot squeaking like a frightened bird. In short, you couldn’t wait for the weekend to come. When it did, you immediately ushered Ma and Oom Andries to Mr Joubert’s classroom. Relieved, you almost fell asleep on the grandstand as the school emptied around you, repeatedly roused by the merry hooting of boarders heading home for the weekend. Dreamily you gazed out over the rugby field, where the running backs of the 1st and 2nd XV were chased by the stuttering silver shower of the sprinklers. You were so sure that Ma and Oom Andries were glowing with pride as Mr Joubert told them the good news. You could hardly wait to see their faces, Princess, as yet unaware of the pain you were about to suffer. As always, Oom Andries loudly clapped his hands, firing a volley of warning shots. Ma followed in his wake, reading your essay as she walked. You leapt up and walked towards them, hope and joy warming every fibre in your body. Only then did you see the square-shouldered rage in your stepfather’s approaching silhouette. He strode along the concrete path like a vengeful cowboy dressed in shorts and matching socks. You wanted to flee, to avoid a public beating, but fortunately Ma was quick to intervene. When she called out, “Andries! No!”, he stopped dead in his tracks, beckoned you brusquely and turned around. Ma stood shaking her head as you approached. She kissed your cheek, and with her arm around your shoulders led you to the car, silent as a priest guiding a condemned man to the gallows. You sat in the back seat with your head in your hands, Princess, eyes closed. All you could feel was your fingertips and palms against your face. As if misery had vaporised your flesh, leaving only a shell of sensation – like a hollow chocolate rabbit with the ears snapped off. The rustling tyres on the road like a steady stream of sand pouring through the hole in your head. First filling your feet, then rising up your shins and 22

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knees and groin to your gut and chest and neck and head. Your body growing heavier and heavier as home approached. “Would you like to join us for lunch?” asked the lady, bobbing back and forth in friendly anticipation, rocking with the rhythm of the train. She had a picnic basket on her lap and held out a bright-red plastic plate. Her husband and daughter were already holding theirs like little red steering wheels. Even the dog had raised an eyebrow awaiting your answer. You had to break your silence: “Thank you, tannie, but my mother made sandwiches for me.” The dog growled as you leaned forward to retrieve your bag from under the seat. “Shh, Adolf,” said the man. “You see now, even the dog wants you to join us.” You knew that if you took the plate, you would be part of their little red picnic circle for the rest of the trip. They would ask questions you did not want to answer, all the way to Johannesburg. You wanted to decline, Princess, but you didn’t have an answer ready. And so you mumbled: “My Ma says I’m not allowed to take food from strangers.” Their eyes widened in disbelief. The train’s wheels ticked off the seconds. Then the sleeping man with the suitcase sucked in the silence with a ragged snore. Adolf yelped and of course everyone just had to laugh and laugh until you were no longer strangers. “Come on, man, have an egg!” cried Oom Blackie, cracking it down so hard that the red plate almost dropped from Tannie Estelle’s outstretched hand. She frowned and then said, “Let’s first thank the Lord for bringing us together like this.” You bowed your head, Princess, but the prayer was lost on you. You were the no-eared Easter bunny in the back seat once more. The sand stopped streaming when the tyres hit 23

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the lawn and the shadow of the three pines engulfed the car as it drew to a halt. “Wait in your room,” said Oom Andries. As you passed through the kitchen into the cool, dark corridor beyond, you tried to guess which of the holy scriptures would accompany the thrashing you were about to receive. Would it be Corinthians? Know ye not that neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, shall inherit the kingdom of God? Or Leviticus? If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them. Or Romans? The men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompense of their error which was meet. Or good old Proverbs perhaps? There is a way that seemeth right unto a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death. They had all been beaten into you, Princess. The blows from the belt raining down on your buttocks as you read the chosen passage. You preferred Proverbs, but the choice wasn’t yours to make. Oom Andries was taking his time. He was talking to Ma in the kitchen. She was pleading with him. Then you heard the screen door slam. Ma was on her way to the stables, far from the house. Oom Andries carried the Bible like a stone slab. He placed it carefully on the desk, then sat down and began paging, his head tilted devoutly as he read. You got up from the bed and closed the door. Oom Andries stood up and stepped aside. You placed your hands on the desk, Princess, and bent over the Bible, scanning the page for a familiar passage. “Matthew 5?” you asked. “Verses 29 and 30, please,” replied Oom Andries. 24

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You glanced at the words, trying to guess the thrashing rhythm. The verses were familiar. You could get away with five or six strokes if you got off to a flying start and read fast. “And-if-thy-right-eye-offend-thee-pluck-it-out-and-castit-from-thee…” “Start again,” said Oom Andries. “Slowly. I’m not going to hit you any more.” Only then did the true meaning of the words become apparent: And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell. And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell. All that plucking, cutting and casting made you dizzy, Princess. You felt faint and sat down in the chair. “I see you understand the words,” said Oom Andries. You nodded and started crying. “You must choose.” “But Ma…?” “Your mother agrees.” “What?!” “She says you must choose.” “But the police…” “What?” “You can’t just pluck out my eye!” “What?” “Or cut off my hand!” “Calm down.” “The police would lock you up!” “Sit down please. And shut up.” You sat down, thunderstruck. “Now, which of these abominations have caused your mind to stray?” Oom Andries made a sweeping gesture toward the 25

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bookcase. “This one?” he said, pulling out a battered Agatha Christie. You nodded. “And this one?” “No. This one, this one and this one,” you said, carefully selecting books you could do without. “Why have you chosen these books?” “Because they are abominations that have caused my mind to stray?” “Exactly. And what shall we do with them?” “Burn them?” Together, you carried the books out to the burning bin. One by one you dropped them in, Princess. When the last had been consumed, Oom Andries took your essay from his pocket and unfolded it. “And this abomination has offended me,” he said, looking on in satisfaction as the flames leapt up to devour the handwritten pages.

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