Wednesday, October 22, 2014

101 Pluto Street | Short Story

Rain splattered across the patio of an old-style bungalow, its windy and slapdash whistling disrupting a dull order in the array of garden chairs and a wooden table. Rhythmic gusts of wind lifted a chair or two off balance. They teetered at an angle before propping back upright as if in valiant defiance against dislodgment. They nonetheless conceded an inch or two, and their wooden screeches on the tiled floor voiced their protests at an alien disorder. A light from the roof shone a yellow haze upon them, and from across the street, behind the perimeter wall topped by an electric fence, and through the automated gate, Sifiso watched the sprays of rain bouncing this way and that in the halo.

He stood there, his broad shoulders hunched and his hands in his pockets, in the dark—the streetlight looping overhead wasn’t working—and soaked in the rain. He wasn’t expecting it when he left Soweto that afternoon. It had been sunny and hot as is expected in late October, and he only thought to wear his takkies—old and dirty in typical township style—to complete his Guess jeans and Polo T-shirt. His was a standard township outfit—respectable and non-revealing of his social status. Labeled outfits gave him a confidence he couldn’t have, so it didn’t matter if they placed him in debt. But he wasn’t thinking about that in the afternoon as he sat on his bed and looked at the piece of paper he held in his hand:

Ace Matabane
101 Pluto Street
Waterkloof Ridge

He had raised his eyes and settled them on the curtain flapping about at the door. A bee buzzed about it in investigation, landing and jumping off it daintily like it was hot. He followed its buzz across the room, over a modest TV set, a hi-fi system, and a brown two-seater couch facing a small coffee table, upon which a vinyl chessboard lay. A Black-to-play-and-win-in-three-moves position remained untouched. He liked to set a position early in the morning and mull over it, a cup of Five Roses tea in hand. Gordimer’s Life Times: Stories, 1952-2007 lay over a pillow on the bed. Such a difficult writer to read, he thought. The bee buzzed, frantic, and he saw it battling to get out of a glass sticky with orange juice residue. That corner of the room, with its dirty dishes and cheap stove, was his least favourite. He watched as the bee made a final reconnaissance of his existence and finally jutted out through the window, perhaps relieved at escaping such cramped quarters.

Ace Matabane. He had seen the name etched in stubborn ink, written as if never to be erased, on the back of a picture he found in his mother’s purse back when he was fifteen. Mandela had just been sworn in, and it was an age of discovery: will black people be able to rule themselves? How will they treat white people? Will there be violence? How will it be like living in a free South Africa? For Sifiso, his discovery was there, tangible and real, in his sweaty and slimy hands that shook from the beating of his heart, his shock a profundity deeper than the mines the man he always regarded as his father had worked in.

It had all come together in that little crumpled picture, in the smiles he saw there of his young mother and of this bearded man with a pipe precarious on the twitch of his mouth. He recalled his mother’s pained expression and labored breathing when he raised the matter of the bearded man who looked like him—in his fifteen year old eyes—and knew better than to raise her blood pressure higher. As east is set apart from west, so was she apart from the past, a distant, imaginary life with no place in her present life. Her pained expression turned into a mask of disdain and loathing. He understood, as instinctively as a duckling takes to swimming, that the bearded man was hated.

Yet in the six years since, he couldn’t stop thinking about him. He was spurred by whispers among his aunts—his father’s sisters—that he was different, ‘not ours’. He was aware of his darker complexion when all his siblings were lighter skinned, and of his inclination to keep quiet when everyone else shouted to be heard. He knew he could never match their easygoing mannerisms, and accepted himself as one who brooded on things, who, if told that the sun is bright today, would likely think about it all day. Over time, they understood him and let him be.

And now, sitting there on his bed, with the address of this bearded man written with handwriting as dodgy as the man-about-town who somehow found it for him, the question of tomorrow didn’t arise. He fetched his takkies, wore them, and checked himself in the mirror behind the door. The previous week, he had shaved his beard that had taken ages to grow, finding that he didn’t particularly like the look of his face, and detested himself for trying to look like him. But he couldn’t run from his eyes, not from his nose and thick lips and dark complexion and receding hairline, all of which reminded him of him. He wondered, peering into his brown eyes in the mirror, how it might have been had it all been the way it was supposed to be. Would he have been different? Would he have had siblings like him? Would he have been able to relate better? Would he have belonged? The mirror grew misty before him. He noticed a brown spot on it, and tried to thumb it out.

As he stepped out onto kasi streets that afternoon, the intensity of the sun overwhelmed him, and he had to shield his eyes from the light for a while. Taxis honked endlessly in the narrow streets, and fancy cars mingled with old, beat-up ones, blaring a version or another of house and kwaito music from non-factory fitted speakers. Often, some engines were revved, spewing smoke and spectacular exhaust sounds. Drunks shouted out greetings and conversations across streets. Girls did their best to gaze ahead, ignoring solicitous whistles and free to air commentaries on their body parts. More music blasted from taverns and more noise from pool and dice games. The din shrank Sifiso further and further into himself like a hammer molding and compressing a metal into something different and distinct. He felt apart from it all.

He took three taxis—from Soweto to Johannesburg, then to Pretoria CBD, and then to Waterkloof Ridge. It had started raining halfway to Pretoria, and it was dark already when he found Pluto Street, quiet and neatly paved. He could hear himself think at last. He heaved the windy air. It felt fresh, even better with the splash of rain across his face. It wasn’t cold, and it felt lovely to walk on well-maintained grass, green and pleasing to his eye. Once in a while cars drove by with white faces peering out of the windows at a lone black man in the rain with no jacket or umbrella, in darkening Waterkloof Ridge. He counted the numbers as he walked, his jaw set and hands in his pocket. A force spurred him on, and he stopped suddenly, an athletic five-foot-seven figure in the dark, watching silently as sprays of rain splashed this way and that in the patio of 101 Pluto Street.

Sifiso felt strange. An inexplicable wave of feeling overcame him, and he wasn’t sure he wanted to be there at all. The imposing bungalow looked forbidding. The high wall and electric fence weren’t welcoming. The gate was closed, quite unlike the gates he saw in the township. The patio and front door were too far from the gate for him to shout out, something he wasn’t comfortable with anyway. Everything there seemed to scream, ‘go away!’ And what about himself? He was soaked wet. Did he really want him to see him like this? He became distressed. He turned back. And stopped. How exactly would he make his way back to Soweto from this rich, Godforsaken place? What was he thinking?

He remembered why he came, and his mindless determination blanketed him again, much like the rain did. He surveyed the gate. Just before it on the right, he saw a button, and pushed.

‘Yes, who is it?’ a female, high-pitched voice rang through the intercom. It had a playful note, and Sifiso guessed it was a young girl’s.

‘Hi, my name is Sifiso Moloi. I’d like to speak to Mr. Matabane please.’

The voice chuckled. ‘Mr. who?’ Before he answered, she called out, ‘Mr. Matabane!’ Another chuckle. She called out to another person, whose name he couldn’t make out through the muffled intercom, ‘When was the last time you called dad Mr. Matabane?’ More chuckles.

A pause ensued. He heard heavy footsteps approaching, and braced himself. A heavy voice cleared. ‘Yes?’

He lost his voice momentarily, his tongue heavy.

‘Hello? Who’s there?’ The bearded man’s voice was thick and self-assured. He sounded like someone used to being in charge and in control. Sifiso’s heart palpitated.

‘Hi Sir, my name is Sifiso.’ He left it there, dropped like a bomb, unable to continue. He waited. Silence. He heard the bearded man’s heavy breathing. The rain beat down on him. Thunder boomed somewhere—he hadn’t noticed the flash of lightning a second earlier. He sensed that he knew, that the name Sifiso had rung a bell, a long forgotten note on a piano struck anew, forcing a ponderous pause.

‘Uhm,’ the bearded man cleared his throat. ‘Ok,’ he said, as if gathering himself, annoyed that he had fallen apart in the first place. ‘Please come in.’

And the gate opened. He watched it sliding across, and walked towards the patio. He saw the front door open as he heard the gate closing behind him. He was bathed in the rain and the light and the shame of his wetness. His Polo and Guess confidence deserted him. Here, he felt stripped in the face of the bungalow, its long driveway and walkway, and its double-garage hiding what he believed were cars fancier than those he saw in the township earlier that afternoon.

Standing there in the doorway was the bearded man, about the same height as him, and burly, but now clean-shaven. He knew it was him—his hairline had receded considerably, his eyes were the same sparkly eyes he saw in that picture six years ago, and his nose and lips as thick as his. He searched his eyes in that instant, and couldn’t find what he was looking for. In the sparkly eyes of the bearded man who was now clean-shaven, Sifiso instead found opaqueness, an impenetrable hardness, a smokescreen of amiability.

He found it because Ace Matabane, in all his finesse—a cigar now adorned his mouth, held there by thick fingers and a hand sporting a Rolex watch, and a fine suit jacket hugging his frame over a white and blue checkered Polo shirt—was seized by a more important consideration. He was looking over Sifiso from hairline to takkies, shrinking him further than the kasi din ever could. His eyes seemed to linger approvingly on the Polo label on Sifiso’s T-shirt. Sifiso coughed.

‘Ah yes, young man. How are you?’ He appeared to have made up his mind, after the fleeting appraisal, not to let Sifiso in.

‘I’m ok.’

‘Hm,’ he paused. They regarded each other, and Sifiso made to turn back, mumbling an apology.

‘Checkmate! Hahaaa!’ an excited male voice carried through the corridors. The female voice he had spoken to earlier begged for one more game of chess. A pang ran through Sifiso. He stepped out back in the rain and didn’t turn back. The gate opened again to let him through.

He walked on. A security company car trailed him. He stopped for it and asked where he could get a taxi back to Pretoria CBD.

Later that night he wondered if he was the same as the bearded man. Could he know of his flesh and blood alive somewhere on the face of the earth, and not care at all?

He peered in the mirror, into his eyes, searching as he had searched the eyes of the bearded man, this time with a greater touch of anxiety.

After a while, he smiled at himself, sick with relief.

Picture credit:

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

July's People | Nadine Gordimer

Esoteric. The word came ringing in my head with every paragraph and page I weaved through in July’s People (1981) by 1991 Nobel Prize for Literature winner, the late Nadine Gordimer. As I paused to reflect on many a cryptic (I have seen some say ambiguous) sentence or paragraph, often delivered in a dispassionate and detached style, I thought of dynamites in small packages—the book is just 195 pages long, but carries with it enough intellectual heft to test the limits of normal fiction writing.

July’s People confronts inverted realities and the engendered ironies, contradictions, and conflicts. Set in apartheid South Africa, it imagines a violent uprising by black people against the apartheid government. The white and liberal Smales family—Bam, his wife Maureen, and children Victor, Royce and Gina—find themselves having to escape the violence in Johannesburg and take refuge in the rural village of their long-serving servant, July. Issues of race and class conflate as master-servant relations become obsolete.

Gordimer shows us that issues of race in apartheid South Africa were more complex than black and white. Bam and Maureen, white, liberal and against apartheid, still have to escape the black uprising, and yet find refuge among black people. The village chief is more worried about ‘those people from Soweto’—his fellow black people, albeit of different ethnicities—and is ready to receive help from the white government to fight them. While the adult couple struggles to fit in the village—Bam, for instance, avoids gumba-gumba (party) so he doesn’t have to drink the traditional beer that has ‘the same colour when drunk and when vomited’—their children appear to get along just fine with the black children, Gina with Anyiko particularly, whose friendship perhaps embodies the ideal anti-racism proposition. And even though July has served the Smales family for fifteen years, suspicions and misunderstandings still linger between them.

The ending of the story pretty much sums it all: cryptic and open to different interpretations. It comes somewhat abruptly, and leaves one grappling with what exactly is happening. Some may find this a little annoying; others may relish the challenge of figuring it out.

This is a highly nuanced book, and Gordimer uses a writing style that alternates between cryptic prose-poetry and knotty conversations. Rarely is an event, scenario, or twist in the story stated in a straightforward way; Gordimer possessed a great ability to bring these out in a subtle manner, so that they are apparent without being stated. Often, this places demands upon the reader: one has to decipher an intended meaning, which may not always be clear. Reading July’s People, at least for me, became a pseudo-intellectual exercise—one that I somewhat enjoyed, although it felt as if I was in literature class. I would recommend it as a challenging but conscientious and fulfilling read. 

Picture Credit: Goodreads