FICTION: Jeffrey

BY ANDRE LEMMER

The children, tongues untied, were partly in shock, partly delirious with the excitement of their discovery: askeleton with no head, bottles lying nearby, a blanket tied over the bushes.

“Slow down, Thandi. Tell me slowly.”

“Yoh, chienie Tixo, we was scared. We ran all the way, baas.”

“Don’t call me baas, you know that. This skeleton – whereabouts is it?”

“In the bush, baas. There where it is so thick, on the hill behind the tennis court”

“Sipho, you take me there. I better check before I call the police. Thandi, go tell your mother, she’s in the kitchen. Your brother is coming with me.”

………………………..

The skeleton, part-clothed in torn flannel and a tweed jacket, was part-sunk into the earth. The arms stretched forward like a diver’sin mid-air, the legs spread, rank grass sprouting between them. Under a nearby bristle bush was the skull, grinning and chap-fallen, empty eye sockets gazing heavenwards. A crumpled old felt hat lay amongst a litter of medicine bottles under a blanket that had been spread tarpaulin-wise between the branches of two wind-stunted rooikrantzes. Empty sherry bottles lay deep in the shadow of the shelter, and amongst them, a rusty asthma inhaler. The blanket flapped in the fresh south-westerly wind. Sipho hovered a distance away, bare legs shivering in the September breeze.

There could be little doubt: It was Jeffrey. I had never known his surname. Jeffrey who? Village gardener, seldom sober. Local gillie. Partner to a foul-mouthed, nameless harridan. A mystery man, but with secrets that interested no one in the village. Now, a missing person that no one missed. I told the police about his supposed disappearance from the village in February, that I had helped him get his sick partner to the Walmer Clinic, that he had disappeared soon after, and that we all assumed he had left the village to be near his woman. There was a brief stir in the village for a day or two.

“Hadn’t seen Jeffrey for months. Or heard him! Thank goodness.”

“Poor old Jeffrey. He wasn’t old: about fifty, I think.”

“Stopped coming to work in my garden round about January.”

“Used to give him a lift in the back of my bakkie into town on his babbelaas days. He would never sit in front, you know.”

“Thought he’d gone to join his old foul-mouthed crone – what was her name?”

“Dunno. We called her Olive Oyl. Looked just like Popeye’s girl. Always in her cups, she was. Ship sherry. She was sent inland somewhere, her chest, you know. Asthma.”

“Yes, Jeffrey got me to take her to the clinic. Looked a gonner.”

“You could never tell whether she was plain drunk or sick. Both probably.”

“He missed her, did old Jeffrey. Told me so.”

“Ag, dronkverdriet. In his cups as usual.”

………………………..

A case was opened. Then a long, official silence. No news of any investigation, or funeral, or inquest. My daughter tried to phone, to ask about funeral arrangements. She was prepared to organise it, saying her Methodist church would assist. But no one knew anything about the case or where the body was or when it would be released for burial. So she gave up.

We turned back to our affairs. Jeffrey had always been insubstantial, at the margins, a kind of blot on the village. At a social club supper, Larry Harper, a trade union official, professed guilt. No one cared or listened. Larry was new– he had only been in the village for a few years. He owned a fancy new house on Abalone Lane. We were the land-grabbers, he said.

“Jeffrey’s forebears were the Khoi,” Larry proclaimed. “Men of men, decimated by our smallpox, our bullets, our forefathers’ greed.”

Their land had been stolen. Now we sat pretty – while Jeffrey died in the reserve taken from his people.

At least, someone said, Jeffrey had his chance to circumvent his victimhood. He had been in the voter’s queue on the cliff-top in 1994, a new voter, making a cross on the ballot. Voting for what, I wondered? Who would redeem the ravaged collective past of the Jeffries of this world?

I still remember him well. A nuisance always, staggering, foul-mouthed along Marine Drive, lambasting Olive Oyl. Or on the rocks, with a hand-line, pulling in a fat Jan Bruin bream, and grinning slyly at the very spot where we would stand fishless all day. A casual gardening job heralded another drunken binge. Then the obeisances. Cupped hands and humble bows, himself dissolved in liquor along with his inhibitions. The village would be filled by his shouts, calling down imprecations on our heads.

Then I remembered the skull. Now that drunken, lashing tongue, eaten by ants and wild cats, was silenced for good.

And so, a few rand for a day’s trimming, cutting, weeding, mowing, scraping and raking. Then the booze-up and they would disappear into the bush for days. Boesman and his sick Lena.

That was when she left, and Jeffrey disappeared for eight months before he came back, briefly, as a skeleton in torn flannels and an old, tweed jacket.

………………………..

One day in November I heard the dogs barking and a coloured couple was at my door. Outside stood a black Mercedes.

“Basie Meyer? Your son, you say? No, sorry, Dr Meyer, I know no Basie Meyer.”

“Oh, the body that I helped find in the bush. Jeffrey he was called. Yes, we tried to organise a funeral for poor Jeffrey – but no go.”

Astonishingly, they wanted me to help them fight for their son, Basie. Confront the authorities and shame the police – in short show the world that people cared. But first, the mortuary release had to be signed by the Commissioner. There was to be a memorial service for their son and they asked if I would deliver the eulogy.  They had not seen their son for so many years. They had lost touch after the Group Areas Act removals. Their son would not go with them to the cold of Belfast. They had heard later of dagga and liquor and Korsten gangs and a spell in gaol and then, nothing.

Dr Meyer from whose loins Jeffrey had begun his long dissipated travail sat quietly on my couch, a tear or two falling from his wrinkled face. A grief incongruous with a mix of Irish brogue and flattened Korsten vowels. His wife screwed up a handkerchief in her hands. She said it was their fault. That they should have stayed with their child, not abandoned him to so many evil influences.

………………………..

The police had tracked down Basie’s wife, Betty, in a tuberculosis sanatorium in Patensie. They had been to see her and she had mentioned me. So Olive Oyl was really a wife, I thought.

I said I was sure there had been no murder – at least not of the usual sort – that Jeffrey, sorry Basie, had died of grief. That he had been inconsolable when his wife had to leave. That we all thought he had left to be with her. That I was sorry and that yes, I would help with the funeral. My daughter’s church would organise it. That it would not help to dwell on past mistakes.

POEMS by Amanda Ballen

Sleeping Patterns

By the time I awake,
I am already alone for the day.
I find your body as a comma,
a linen emboss of man,
plaster of paris-cast in your
sheets of smooth sleep.
So Sandman-crusty.

The bed holds no more of me
than bitsy ditto marks, creased tracks
from my sliced up night of
newborn time

 

Eulogy to a Garden Snail

The garden snail as noble knowledge-seeker.
How much it must record with such snugness to the earth,
a body’s naked fondling of the braille of garden soil,
slow-suckling of suburban walls, euphoric excretions
of savouring still-time, of silent molluscked tai chi.
Maintaining such sensitive peristalsis over
lawnmower vibrato, the manic buzz
of bees to flower.

Data stored as mucus maps
that fancy shell of Tiger’s Eye
a smoky wooded library
a canister of microscopic details
a promising shield for a life of wisdom
crypt of slow-knowing,

splintered in a second
by the weight of the rubber sole of a speedy
foot. A plastic sneaker,
home from a long day of yapping and
one-thing-after-the-next.

WORK/LIFE: Paul Mendelson

The British author of four crime novels chats to us about his writing life.

What does “writing” mean?

For me, writing is the brushstrokes of a piece of art. I am trying to create something which will transport my audience into a different world for a period of time, hopefully entertain and absorb them, perhaps excite, frighten or stimulate them.

If you meet me, you might well say that I am outgoing, gregarious and self-confident, but this is only half of my character. Writing allows the introverted, privacy-seeking, introspective side of me to tell stories.

What are you working on at the moment?

I’m working on a psychological crime novel set in the UK, having spent the last few years solely writing about South Africa. It features a new set of characters and a brand-new protagonist which, having written four books in a series (to which I will return) is liberating and exciting, if somewhat daunting.

After focussing on intense heat, water shortage, political turmoil and blinding sun, it is strange to be back in the dark, damp, dank world of England in the winter. South Africans love cloud, precipitation, dark – I hate all those things. However, the English countryside is an interesting setting and my characters also spend time in London around Christmas, with all its desperate attempts to look festive and bright. I find it all dismal, and therefore an ideal world for my disparate collection of witnesses, suspects and villains to inhabit.

Describe your workspace.

In London, a tiny spare-room study at the back of my house; in Cape Town the sofa in a beautiful little house, half way up the slopes of Table Mountain, with views for miles. Perhaps you can guess which I find the more inspiring place to work? However, for non-fiction writing which, for me, is just a matter of getting my head down and putting in the hours, London works really well. For creative writing, there are just too many distractions, as well as being under the flight path into Heathrow, surrounded by traffic, and coping with dusk at 3.30pm.

What’s your most productive time of day?

I don’t have a particular time of day although, in the past, it has certainly been after 9pm and into the early hours. If I have prepared myself the day before, I can sit down after a hurried breakfast and the words come. Again, there is a big difference between non-fiction – which just requires discipline and application – and creative writing for which I have to be in the right mood, with my ideas in order, my mind undisturbed by the pressures of the real word, and wholly absorbed in the world I am trying to create.

What do you do when you’re stuck, or not feeling creative?

I try to work on non-fiction instead, or do something practical or physical. I have suffered from chronic depression my entire life and, for me, even tiny incremental achievements, which I can mark off in my mind, help to dissolve the threatening black wave that is rolling towards me. I treat being stuck with my writing in the same way. I try to achieve something, anything, and build from there.

I used to be very rigid when writing, and not allow myself to jump ahead or re-visit work until I had completed a draft. I find that a more relaxed approach seems to be working better now, so if I can’t move forward, I might review scenes I have written earlier and try to enrich the start of the novel with the legend of the character as he, or she, has developed in my mind throughout the process.

How do you relax?

With great difficulty. Half my brain is creative; half logical, deductive and never resting. So, I rarely relax, but instead seek to distract myself as much as possible. I love reading, movies, theatre, playing golf, dog-walking, even driving. In South Africa, I treat myself to a weekly massage. Even then, my body may be de-stressing, but my mind is racing

With so many non-fiction books under your belt, what inspired the move into crime fiction? 

I have always loved crime fiction, especially that of James Elroy, Michael Connelly, Robert Crais; Mark Billingham, David Peace, Val McDermid, so I have been inspired by reading them. The playwright, Sir David Hare, wrote that the form of a crime novel is a reassuring one: both author and reader know what, ultimately, they are going to get. Simply, however, I write books that I think I would enjoy to read, and I hope that others enjoy them too.

What has inspired you to set your novels in South Africa?

South Africa is an amazing setting for a crime novel because of its turbulent political past, and present, it’s recent history, the underlying crime rate, the proximity of rich and very poor. It also helps enormously to love the place you are writing about – it certainly makes it a hugely pleasurable experience for me – so there is the contrast between the Cape Town which visitors see, and some residents inhabit, and the dark underbelly which every city hides. Here, in Cape Town, however, the contrast is so great, because the city is so beautiful, the people so friendly and warm, to stay there so uplifting and inspiring. To contract with this, just read Jacques Pauw’s ‘The President’s Keepers’ to see the depths to which certain echelons of society have sunk.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

William Goldman writes in his seminal work, ‘Adventures in the Screen Trade’ that no matter how diamond-bright your ideas may be in your head, when you try to put them on the page they become earthbound. This may not be advice, but it is a warning, and it is a battle which, I guess, all writers face.

My ‘literary’ editor, Martin Fletcher, advised me with my first novel – and I have tried to remember this advice from then on – that characters must live not simply within the confines of the novel, but have lives before it, and at least a hint of how their lives might be afterwards. For characters to be believable, to absorb and engage the reader, we have to try to make these two-dimensional beings seem truly alive, and that is what I strive to do.

Actually, I have thought of the best piece of advice: Never tell anyone the story you are writing. Once you do that, the urge to tell it on the page dissipates. Keep it to yourself, and reveal only when you are ready.

What’s the hardest thing about writing?

I am sure that authors all have different aspects of the craft which they find hard. For me, it is maintaining interest in the story once I have written it, re-written it, honed it and submitted it. I react to the comments and observations my editors give me. This is all fine. Then, proof readers and copy editors ask me questions. At this point, I’m thinking about the next story, full of excitement and optimism, and I just wish they’d leave me alone. However, I am lucky to have very patient proof and copy editors, and eventually they get out of me what they need to do their jobs.

What advice would you give to people starting out in a writing career?

First and foremost: Write. All the time. Don’t agonise, or procrastinate, or make excuses, just write. One line, one paragraph, a scene, a chapter. It doesn’t matter whether it’s rubbish or genius, one way or another, it will help you to develop as a writer. You may want to forget it, or you may use as the first line of your masterpiece. Just write.

Next, read. It doesn’t matter what, although I think it should be writing of the genre that you want to inhabit. Learn what you enjoy and try to analyse how your favourite authors achieve that effect. Then, try to emulate them.

Don’t fixate on others reading what you’ve written. If you like it, if you think it has merit, that’s wonderful. However, maybe wait six months or a year after finishing it before deciding your opinion on it.

Finally, don’t expect to make much money: do it because you love it.

Mendelson’s latest book, Apostle Lodge, is published by Constable.

POEM: The testator

BY MOLANTWA MMELE

My father was a lowly man in the village, he was
A shepherd; he looked after a rancher’s cattle
for a living, he fed them well for many years
yet he never had even pigeon on his name

An ordinary man who spent every penny
he earned to raise his children, today we sat
around the table listening to the testator

In his legal will he states, that
I shall only inherit his greyish winter coat
and his blue leather shoes
They are both old and worn
and this is how my father spent his life.
His best and worst days were grey and blue
And I’m afraid to dress in my father’s tears