“I have been away such a long time,” I told him. “But I don’t know where I’ve been away from. That’s all I can say.” I scratched my head which is what I always do when people ask me about my past. I think I’m trying to scratch something loose but nothing ever falls out. Or nearly nothing. What I was thinking was that this black guy in his BM is dressed only smart, hey. I thought maybe he’d been to church but then he wasn’t from around here, he was on his way somewhere. He had on a white shirt with a fancy tie and his dark suit jacket was hooked up there in the back of the car.
“I woke up one morning in the town over there,” I said. “At the railway station.” I stretched my arm out, pointing past the tin shanties of the township, over the dusty veld and those little dust devils and the dry donga where maybe a million years ago a river used to flow but now we just throw our empty beer bottles there and Dominee De Klerk has to step around them when he comes fossil hunting on Saturdays. Jas, it was quiet, I tell you. Sunday afternoons! Everyone here in the township was sleeping off their visits to the shebeens last night and there in the white town all the men were tired from too many beers in front of the rugby yesterday and from being woken by their wives to go to church in the morning. “There, over there, you see by the Dutch Reformed Church,” I said, “there by the steeple that sticks up sommer like a finger pointing at God. Ja, man, I’ve been wondering now for a long time, is that our finger pointing at God, or is that God’s finger just pointing nowhere.” I thought that would make him laugh but no, the blerry oke just stared at me with a face like a rock. “Which reminds me,” I said, “of that rock over there in South-West. They call it the Finger of God. You seen it? Namibia. I’ve seen it. Ja, I know. It’s one of the few memories that have dropped out after I’ve scratched. It’s near that little place – man, what’s it called – Asab, ja, but it’s fallen down. It doesn’t point to the heavens any longer,” I stuck my finger in the air, “now it points over here, sommer straight at the Klein Swartberg. Ja, this place sits in the middle of the country like a dried-up old pampoen. That’s the Karoo for you.” The black guy was still looking up at me, his hands tight on his steering wheel like he was going somewhere at a helluva speed. “I looked for a job, you know, all over town. No-one would give me work, so I came over here, to the township, and the black people gave me work in this garage. It’s only got this one pump as you can see – but now, what was that? full up, you said? high-octane? – I think they thought it would be clever to have an old white man like me to work here. They were being wise, I think.” I laughed. He just looked confused, his face all screwed up like he was about to make a shit or something. “Ag, that’s just my little joke, man. You see, my boss’ name is Wiseman. I think they made a joke by giving me this job. They didn’t think I’d stay. Wiseman has three garages now. One in town, this little one, and another one just down the road there in Laingsburg. So I thought, why not?”
This man just carried on checking me out. I swear if his lips weren’t so dark they’d have gone white ’cos they were so tightly pressed together. That look on his face, it was sort of like he was waiting for me to slip up or something. Me, I just opened the petrol cap and cleared the pump reading and put the hose in and switched it on automatic and then went on telling those staring eyes my story like those eyes of his were pools I was throwing stones into and when the stones hit the water they just disappeared. Ja, just like that. But I carried on talking anyway.
“In the beginning,” I said, “they all wanted to know, who are you? You’re an educated man. You’re always quoting people. Shakespeare, I like to quote Shakespeare. But man, they were only small quotes, like ‘Bubble bubble toil and trouble’ or ‘Now is the winter of our discontent’. I’ve got culture, you know. Maybe I was a teacher, I told them. But I don’t remember. I know things about history and geography and the world. I speak English, Afrikaans, and Zulu and Sotho. That’s unusual for a white man, I know. So maybe I was a teacher. In town they say I am an Afrikaner because of the way I speak, and maybe they’ve got a point, hey. I dream in Afrikaans . . . I think I’m maybe sixty-five now.” I was looking in the other direction now, to where the National Road leaves town on its way to Laingsburg, where the klonkies sit with their bare brown feet and wave at the cars, trying to sell their wire goodies with the windmills that don’t even turn when it blows. “There where the road makes its way to the Witberge, we went there last spring. Wiseman drove us in his Mercedes. Jas, he even let me drive for a little bit. There you come out of the Karoo into this lekker little plek where the daisies just stand up in their purples and whites, and the vygies and fruit blossoms, they all just jump out of these fields of green wheat. Ja, it’s a sight, I can tell you. Afterwards, Wiseman took us for tea at the Lord Milner, there by Matjiesfontein. He says he likes my educated company.”
The pump clicked off and so I went over to squeeze the trigger, little bit, little bit. Wiseman is very sure about that: when they say fill it up, that means to the very top. Every cent counts. I’ve said to him, “Ag, they hardly ever fill up over here. It’s ten rand here, twenty rand there.”
I went back to the customer. “Would you like me to check your oil and water, sir?”
This guy was wiping his face like he wanted to make it clean and when he took his hands away his eyes were these red slits, and I thought he must be squinting into the sun but then I saw that the sun was behind him. I thought maybe he was a bit deaf or something, so I just put the volume control on my voice up a bit like you have to with the old tannies in town and said, “Oil and water?”
“Yes,” he said, then he leaned forward to release the bonnet. “And the tyres. Do you have a clean toilet?”
“Ja, over there. I clean it myself. Twice a day. But I must get the key from the office. I call it the office, see, but it’s really just that little hut over there by the Coke machine where I can sit and have my tea or when it’s raining, which it doesn’t do much of here in the Karoo but when it does, jislaaik, you don’t want to be in low-lying areas. Like the Laingsburg floods.”
“The key,” he said to me, and got out of his car.
I went to fetch it. He seemed to be in a big hurry. I came back and handed it to him. “I keep it locked, see. It keeps the place cleaner. They know I know they’re going in there. And since I have to clean it . . .”
He started hobbling to the toilet. Sort of shifting along like a crab with a broken leg or two. This was the first time I had any idea he was all fucked up like that. He was hunched over, very small, like he’d been crunched up by something – you know, like you scrunch up a piece of paper before you throw it in the bin. He was gone a long time, and after I’d checked his oil and water – which were fine – I put some air in his tyres. Two bars. Then I cleaned his windscreen, front and back. Maybe he’d give me a tip. They like to do that, some of them. While I was drying the back window I started thinking of another time Wiseman took us north up the National Road to Seven Weeks Poort. That place is God’s own seat, I tell you. Blerry giant rocks that go straight up to the sky, you just look up at their brown and white faces with your own mouth catching flies. Then their faces come together like they’re smooching, and between their lips you can just squeeze your car through, with just enough room for the river. When there’s heavy rain you can’t go up there.
The customer came back, limping badly like you see those okes after they’ve run into a tackle by old Ox Venter who plays prop for the rugby team there in town. He hobbled past the big cactus plant that Wiseman wanted me to chop out but I said no, it looks pretty, and then past the old wagon made of kiaat and knoppiesdoring that I’ve been fixing up in my spare time. He leaned up against the car. He was smoking a cigarette. More like sucking it ’cos his lips didn’t work so well.
“You shouldn’t smoke by the pump,” I said.
He just looked at me from behind the smoke. Then he started to talk. “My name is Vusi Nkosi,” he said. His mouth was shaking, and the sounds that came out sort of fell about a bit like they were drunk. I had to listen very carefully.
“I work for the Government now,” he said, “but in the eighties things were different.” And then he tells me this story about the terrible things that were done to him. How he was chased and then caught, and then taken somewhere and questioned and tortured, and as he’s talking his voice is getting clearer but I don’t know if he’s speaking better or I’m just getting used to it. “One had my left leg and the other my right,” he said. “The third man, the Captain – I’d never seen him before – he came into the room just before they put me out the window.” He looked away. Jislaaik, I thought he was going to start crying. He bit his lip and then looked back at me and said, “The Captain, he was standing back, behind the others. ‘Can you fly?’ they wanted to know. ‘Can you fly?’ ‘No!’ I screamed. ‘No!’” He said that so loud I looked around. Man, that scream was loud enough even to wake Wiseman from his hangover. “It was night-time but I knew I was high up – there were some lights down below. The cops were laughing, as if they were having a party.” Then he looked away again, at the cactus.
I thought he was going to start jumping up and down, you know, like he’d sat on that blerry plant, and I was a bit worried he’d fall over. But he didn’t move. He just looked me back in the eye and said, all calm like, “You know how it is when you’re about to fall, you put your hands out to catch yourself? I wanted to do that, only my hands were tied behind my back, and all that was being put out to catch my fall was my head.” He laughed but I didn’t think it was so funny, man. Then he said, “One of them says in Afrikaans, ‘Joost, let’s see how strong you are. Let’s see if you can hold him by yourself.’ In those days I was a lot bigger than I am now.”
He was showing me with such big arms, I said, “Like Arnold Schwarzenegger?”
“Yes,” he said, “I suppose so.”
“Hell,” I said, “you wouldn’t say that now.”
He gave me a look, all narrow eyes, like he thought I was joking with him. I just looked away, over towards the town, there by the nicer side where sometimes I go walking to see the rich people’s houses with their green lawns and smart cars in the driveway. Hell, green lawns in the Karoo, it’s a treat to see them, I can tell you. Our mayor could go and live there but he doesn’t. He still stays in the same old shack he’s lived in for donkey’s years.
“No,” said the black man, shaking his head, this head that came out all crooked from his neck like a tortoise’s, “you wouldn’t say that now. No-one would say I look like Arnold Schwarzenegger now.” He thought for a bit, his eyes back on that cactus plant, then he looked back at me. “So this white man, the one called Joost says, ‘Ja, okay, let’s see. Let go your leg, man.’ As if it was his leg. I wanted to say, that’s my leg. But it wasn’t my leg, it belonged to them, like the rest of me. So the other man, I never heard his name, he let’s go of the one leg.”
I looked down at his leg. Which one was he talking about? They looked okay to me. But the way he walked it was like he had a wooden leg, or one side of his body was dead like he’d had a stroke or something.
So this guy cleared his throat like he was going to carry on with his little speech, and he did. “Then the Captain,” he said, “he’s been quiet inside the room, he sticks his head out the window and says to me in Zulu, ‘Vusi, time to talk, man. This Joost’s a bietjie pap. I wouldn’t trust his grip for too long. He’s too weak to hold a big man like you.’ And then he laughed.”
“Shit, man,” I said.
“Well,” this guy said, “the Captain was right. Joost was too weak to hold me. Or maybe he could’ve held on longer and they were going to drop me anyway.”
All the time he was talking he was looking looking into me, like he wanted to find something there. I wanted to say, go ahead man, I’ve been searching since I got here in ’94 and I haven’t found anything.
He shook his head again. “My body has held onto a memory of those policemen. Just before Joost dropped me the Captain said, ‘Well, what’s it to be, Vusi? To be or not to be? That is the question.’ I hit a flagpole on the way down. It broke my fall, and my back. Some other policemen found me at the bottom. The security cops said I tried to escape by jumping out of the window.”
“Jeez, man,” I said, “and after you told them you couldn’t fly.” Well, I know how that sounds now, but I didn’t know what else to say, him all banged up like that. He just gave me another one of his looks, staring at me for a long time until his eyes began to swim in tears so that he couldn’t have been able to see the outside of me very clearly, never mind the inside. Then after a long time he got back into his car and drove away.
“Hey,” I called after him, my voice getting eaten up by his dust cloud, “you didn’t pay! What about the petrol, man?” I was angry I can tell you. Any shortfall Wiseman takes off my salary. A tank of that BM’s petrol is two week’s earnings for me.