BY JAYNE MORGAN
Oily Doily couldn’t see his feet. Even though, as Cadnan often pointed out, they were closer to his head than the average person’s, he could make out nothing below his knees. Above him, the vast canopy of stars was worthy of much oohing and aahing and consideration of the glories of the universe but their collective light got nowhere near Oily Doily’s grimy takkies. He stumbled over the hard, rutted ground, twisting his ankles on loose stones.
“Oily! Where are you, you little bastard?” Cadnan was bellowing up the road. Oily wished he wouldn’t. While his friend made a point of not caring about the neighbours, Oily was only too aware of the ears twitching on either side of the wide quiet street. A dog started to bark and he did his best to speed up, trotting unevenly, past the low houses, their narrow stoeps dark and deserted, their residents tucked up behind their drawn curtains.
“Oily Oil!” He was getting louder. What were the Groenewalds going to say tomorrow morning?
“Coming …” His voice was feeble in the cold, dry air. It had never carried well – one of his professional challenges.
When he got to the rusting front gate, he was out of breath and his arms were tired from holding the milk, the bread and the cans. Cadnan was sitting on the stoep step, smoking. The strip light coming through the open door behind him made his long, thin face a collection of shadows, the red tip of the cigarette glowing in the middle. He made no attempt to get up.
“Our princess is getting restless” Cadnan said irritably but at least at a normal level. “Get the bloody kettle on.”
“Why must I do it?” Oily was aware how peevish he sounded. “Couldn’t you at least have done that?” He had no free hands so he pushed at the gate with the side of his body making it grate over the concrete path.
Cadnan flicked the cigarette away without stubbing it out.
“No point. She hears the kettle but there’s no milk. Only make things worse.” He got up, unfolding his narrow body from its low spot with the ease of a man at least twenty years younger. “Come on. Let’s get her sorted out.” He came forward and took the milk and two of the cans out of Oily’s arms, turned and went up the shallow steps into the thin, harsh light of the kitchen.
Oily dumped the rest of the groceries on the small table with a sigh of relief, rubbing his short arms and flexing his hands. He gave a practised little hop and perched himself on one of the three chairs.
“Take a bag next time.” Cadnan was filling the kettle, his testiness retreating now that order was nearly restored.
“We don’t have any bags.”
“Caaaad-naaaan” a quavering wail came from a bedroom down the narrow central passage.
“Right on cue” then raising his voice “calm your ta-tas darling, nearly there.” He put a spoonful of Ricoffy and three sugars into a large blue mug.
“I’ll go in to her,” offered Oily Doily.
“Empty-handed? Sjoe. I wouldn’t. Get the juice.”
Oily got himself off the chair and retrieved the Klipdrift from the bottom of the tall grocery cupboard. It had just a few tots left in it.
“We’ve only got one more bottle after this one.”
“Hmmmm.” Cadnan pursed his thin lips. He half filled the mug with hot water, added the hard won milk and the rest of the brandy then mixed the whole lot together with a stained teaspoon.
“Cadnan’s magic potion. Here you are. Take this to madam.”
Oily took the mug with care and made his way along the passage to the back bedroom where Princess Anastasia von Angel was resting, propped up on pillows and filling the majority of the standard double. The bedside lamp was on and, in the pool of yellow light, her ample face was a study of anguish.
“Oh Oily” she wheezed “what would I do without my darling, darling boys … I don’t know …”
“No, no, no, no … she doesn’t have to think about that. Never think about that. Come on, upsidaisy.”
Oily put the mug on the nightstand and leaned in towards the princess so that she could push against his shoulder. Once she was slightly more upright, he gave her the mug and watched while she took several gulps and then leant back and closed her eyes, one black lash flapping.
“My love needs a little bit of gluey glue. You drink up and I’ll have you right in no time.” But her eyes stayed closed
He leaned against the pink candlewick bedspread and looked at her. Somewhere in the flesh he could still pick out the blueprint of the face that had taken his breath away all those years ago. He remembered the very first moment he’d laid eyes on her. She’d been perched sideways on the snow-white back of the Godolphins’ number two pony, smoking a long brown cigarette, the rhinestones on her body suit dazzling in the light from the bare bulbs. Her almond-shaped eyes were the richest, most luminous blue he’d ever seen, her cheekbones swept up towards her temples, the apples of her cheeks when she smiled stood out so smooth and round, you could cup them in your hand. Princess Anastasia. A professional name but she did have the look of royalty. She once told him that her great grandfather had been third cousin to the last Tsar and he’d seen no reason not to believe her.
Holding the cigarette above her head to reveal the creamy hollow of her flawless armpit, she’d slid down to the floor to stand beside him, six foot in her ballet slippers. As she landed he caught the scent of her; make-up, fresh sweat and some kind of spicy perfume, a mixture that filled his nostrils and made him want to weep. That night he’d craned his neck with the audience, gasping as she turned and flipped and arched her sinewy body so high up in the big top that she was almost in shadow. In the centre of the wire, holding her long balance pole in her strong hands, she had executed the perfect headstand and he was lost forever.
Cadnan poked his head round the doorpost. “Is she asleep?”
“Shhh. I think she is.”
Oily reached for the mug, which was listing dangerously in the princess’s slack hand and put it back on the night stand.
“I’ll leave this here in case she wakes up.”
Cadnan stood massaging his long face with his equally long fingers, his lips puckered and his eyebrows drawn together.
“What?” said Oily. But Cadnan gave a little shake of his head and
nodded towards the kitchen, indicating that Oily should follow him back along the passage. Once there, he sat down and pushed a chair towards Oily with his foot.
“Sit.” Oily hoisted himself up. Cadnan leant his long body forward, his bony elbows on his thighs, his usual sardonic expression replaced by an earnest look.
“Oily … “ he paused, breathing out through his nose.
“What?” Oily asked again, irritable this time.
“Oily … love. We need to talk about … what we’re going to do.”
Oily frowned, “What we’re going to do about what?”
“This … us … here.” He gestured around the room with upturned palms.
Oily let out a little puff of air. “Pffff. We’ll be all right. We’ve always been all right. I can … we’ll … You said yourself there’s a new pub opening next month …”
Cadnan bowed his head, looking down at the filthy black and white lino tiles then tried again.
“We’ve got R1500 left in the tin. That’s rent and food for … maybe a month, a month and a half at most.” His voice was quiet and intense, trying to force the words into Oily’s brain. “I’m saying that something has to give. We have to … take steps. We have to… to find somewhere for …” he trailed off, gazing at Oily imploringly but Oily just stared back.
“Oily, we can’t … we can’t look after her forever. And she’s … well, you know how she is.” He was losing his momentum. “Things are only going to go down hill and we’ve done … we’ve done…our best”, he added faintly.
There was a beat of silence and then a high-pitched whine rose from Oily’s throat, starting quietly then building until, with a yell that bounced off the grease-layered walls, Oily launched himself off the wooden chair straight towards Cadnan’s head, pummelling at him with his small, strong fists. Cadnan flattened himself against the chair back, pushing him away with the advantage of his long arms until Oily was left lashing out at empty air, grunting and spitting and snorting. It was a scene they’d often used in the act.
“Steady, steady, steady, steady …” Cadnan tried to lull him but Oily didn’t stop, so he changed tack. Getting his weight into the right position, he suddenly let go of Oily, causing him to lurch forward while he, Cadnan, skipped nimbly to the other side of the room. Oily nearly hit the floor headfirst but managed to stop himself with the chair. Recovering his balance and bracing both hands on the hard seat, his legs wide apart, he turned his head ninety degrees to look at Cadnan who was panting by the stove. His thick brows were lowered and his small black eyes were burning.
“Our best …?” His voice was low and ominous. Cadnan put up his hand and drew in a breath but Oily went on, his voice rising in volume.
“Our … BEST? Cadnan’s done his best and now that’s it? Is it? Is that it… Caadnaaaaaan?”
“Oily, please …”
There was a desperate note in Cadnan’s voice but Oily didn’t let up. He began to move his head from side to side, his words becoming a chant.
“Caaadnaaan. Caaadnaaan.Cadna-nee-na-nee-na-nee …”
Cadnan slammed his hand on the faded blue formica top of the kitchen counter. “Oily!”
The chant just went up a notch in speed and volume.
“Cadna-nee-na-nee-na … Cadna-nee-na-nee-na …”
Cadnan covered his ears with his hands, his eyes screwed shut.
“Stop it, stop it!”
Cadnan released his ears, snatched up his cigarettes and matches and got to the door with three long strides. Flinging it open, he went out, banging the security gate behind him.
Oily drew in a deep breath and straightened up, flexing his fingers. He took a couple of steps towards the door, peering out into the pool of light. It was empty, revealing only the worn stoep and, beyond it, the hard ground with its tattered grass. Now Cadnan had gone, he was ashamed. He shouldn’t have done that. That’s what Kaspar had done. Kaspar had always made fun of people’s names, shouting out as soon as he saw you. “Oil-oil-oil-oil Oil-eeeee!”; the ending always a high-pitched screech. If you looked over, you’d see Kaspar flexing his big muscles and sticking out his lips like a cartoon version of the strong man he was, lacking only the brilliantined moustache and the leopard skin leotard. Perhaps being the bottom of the pyramid gave him an exaggerated sense of his own importance. Maybe he just enjoyed doling out humiliation. Whatever it was, he never missed the chance to shout out at you or taunt you or tell you exactly why you were worse than something the animal keepers had to pick up daily from the straw of the cages. And always using your name as an insult. Cadnan was one of his favourite targets, his name becoming a siren. That’s how Oily had known straight away that night. Even though it was dark and there was a canvas wall in between them and Kaspar’s voice was jerky and breathless because he was busy with his strong hands and arms and knees, pinioning and stifling and forcing … “Cadna-nee-na … Cadna-nee-na” … in a kind of low drumming rhythm. Oily’d known. He’d known who it was and he’d known what he was trying to do.
Oily stood still in the middle of the kitchen. He could hear nothing from the direction of the bedrooms. That was good. He didn’t want her upset. She mustn’t be upset and that row would have upset her. He went down the passage once again but turned one door earlier, switching on the light in the narrow bedroom with its peeling pale blue paint and two single stretchers – Cadnan’s neat as a pin, the single sheet turned down over the rough blanket with a perfect parallel band, his roughly pulled up. He sat down on it, making the frame creak a little. From under the dirty pillow, still dented from where he had lifted his head that morning, he drew out a black and white photograph, its corners soft with age. A group of some fifty people grinned and waved at him, the giant striped tent behind them. The assembled company. In Worcester it was, with the three of them in the front row, in full stage costume and make-up, standing together. Cadnan and the Princess, both tall and haughty, had their elbows on his head, resting their chins on their hands and aping at the camera. He between them with arms folded, his white painted face in a frown of mock disapproval. He stared down at the picture, trying to make himself think properly about what Cadnan had said, about what they were going to do. The thoughts slithered away from him but deep in his belly a knot of fear began to form.
“Oily… Oily… are you there?” Her voice only just found its way through the dark house. She was breathless tonight.
Oily put the photo back under his pillow, rocked himself to his feet and trotted along to her. When he went in, she gave him a small sad smile but her cheeks were wet.
“What … what’s wrong with my lovely? What’s making her cry?” He rushed over and hoicked himself up onto the bedspread, picking up her large plump hand and pressing it to his lips.
“Tch. Oily …” She frowned at him, putting her head on one side, her thin blonde hair sticking together.
“What my precious one?”
“Oily mustn’t say that … to poor Caddie.”
So she’d heard his performance. He put his other hand on top of hers.
“Your boys were just plaaay-iiing.” He it said it in a baby voice, sticking out his lips in a pout, but she carried on frowning.
“Don’t fight … my boys … mustn’t fight …” Her words came out in small gasps. “And you weren’t … you weren’t … playing…”
And with that, she began to sob, drawing in sharp little breaths, tears rolling down the pitted rounds of her cheeks. Oily couldn’t bear it. He rocked backwards and forwards on the bed, rubbing the soft back of her hand.
“Oh she mustn’t… she mustn’t. It didn’t matter … it doesn’t matter … we weren’t fighting … we won’t fight … it’ll be all right … it’ll be all right.” As he soothed and rocked, the full weight of what he’d done descended. He’d let his rage get the better of him, he’d mentioned the unmentionable and now he was paying for it with the tears of his princess. Never mind what it had done to Cadnan, somewhere out there in the dark. Salty tears of remorse now oozed from the corners of his eyes and ran down his cheeks, finding the deep lines at the sides of his mouth and dripping off his chin onto the candlewick.
Gradually her sobs subsided and her breathing evened out. When he was sure she was asleep he carefully put her hand back on the bedspread, hopping off the bed onto the floor as gently as he could. From the kitchen he heard a drawer being opened and a saucepan being filled from the tap. He tiptoed back and stood in the doorway. Cadnan had his back to him.
“Peel the potatoes would you? I’m doing viennas and mash.” His voice was toneless, making Oily’s stomach tingle with apprehension.
“Cadnan, I’m …”
Cadnan whipped his head towards Oily, his lips pressed together in a thin line, his eyes blazing.
“Peel … the … potatoes.” Little drops of saliva flew from his lips on each ‘p’.
Oily bowed his head and went to the yellow plastic vegetable rack, retrieving four big softening potatoes from the bottom drawer, their eyes already beginning to sprout. At the sink, he started to remove the skins with a small blunt knife. For a few minutes the only sound in the kitchen was the faint roar of the gas rings under the saucepans and of Cadnan rooting around in the fridge. Oily kept his eyes on his slippery charges, trying to keep the peel as thin as possible, cutting their pale, glistening nakedness into chunks on the draining board then depositing them in the pot where the water was beginning to bubble.
Cadnan straightened up from his search, his empty hands hanging at his sides. Oily could feel his stare although he didn’t dare meet his eyes. Cadnan sucked in a breath.
“Don’t think I don’t appreciate …”
But the effort was too much and he stopped. Oily took the risk and looked directly at him. Cadnan’s face was caved-in and defeated, the hollows under his cheek bones deeper now, the circles under his eyes darker, their lids drooping so that they nearly hid his short lashes. A lank strand of hair had fallen over his high forehead. He pushed it back behind his ear and tried again.
“Don’t think … I don’t know what … what she did … for me…” but he stopped again, his lips rolling over each other.
“Cadnan…” Oily took a step towards him but Cadnan shrank back, putting his hands out in front him as if to push Oily away. Oily stayed where he was, the weight of his sin nearly pushing him through the floor. His knees sagged and he felt he might fall onto them.
“Cadnan. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have … “
Cadnan shook his head quickly, like he was getting rid of a fly.
“No, no, no, no…” He swayed and, putting out a long arm, he found the back of a chair and leaned on it.
They looked at each other across the threadbare space of the small kitchen, the lid of the potato pan beginning to rattle and the steam from the viennas filling the air with the salty tang of hot processed meat. And so it was as it had been for so long, the thing that joined them, a tough sinew that their bodies had formed together that could twist and stretch and knot but never break, even if they wanted it to.
It had begun to grow in those first seconds that night, as they’d stood, looking at each other much as they did now, only then there had been Kasper lying in the filthy sawdust at their feet, his huge, strong body flat, his muscled torso glistening with sweat from his earlier exertions, woodchips sticking to his back and to his velvet trunks. His head was twisted to one side, his eyes a little bit open looking at nothing, the only sign of life the red and purple flower on his temple, slowly growing and swelling, dark at its centre where the princess had, with unexpected precision, implanted the end of her heavy and faithful pole. She standing a little way away, her beautiful chest heaving and her perfect lashes fluttering, perhaps wondering how it was that only a minute and a half ago Oily had been careering towards her, his small feet sliding in the mud where the horses hooves had churned up the sodden field, such fear and horror on his face that she could do nothing other than go with him as his eyes had begged her. And how it was that now, just ninety seconds later they were the other side of an irretrievable moment.
There was a hiss as water spilled over the lip of the pot and hit the flame underneath.
“The potatoes …” it came out as a croak. Oily darted across to the stove and lifted the lid, the water obediently subsiding. Cadnan sat down heavily on the chair and passed his hands over his face.
“Dear Oily. I don’t know what we’re going to do. I don’t. But we’ll … we’ll work something out. You and me, eh? ‘The Long And The Short Of It’,” and he gave a sad smile, raising his eyebrows at Oily.
“Of course, Caddie” he all but whispered it “of course”. Cadnan got up and, fetching the knife from the draining board, went to the stove and lifted the potato lid again, sliding the blade into the top few as they poked their round milky backs above the surface of the misty, roiling water. Oily needed to get out of the house.
“I’ll … I’ll just …”
Without looking at him, Cadnan gave a little nod. Oily pushed open the squeaking security gate and walked quickly down the stoep steps through the garden and out to the dark street. He turned right, past the Groenewalds’ where there was no light on. There were only two more houses before the wide rutted road narrowed suddenly to the path down towards the makeshift plank bridge over what passed for a stream. To his left and right and in front of him there was an impenetrable inkiness, ahead Du Toit’s windmill and the edge of their barn were silhouetted against the deep, dark blue of the sky which was lit by a mixture of the countless stars and the faint horizon glow of some far away small town. It was nearly the end of May and any warmth from the day had long since escaped into the clear air. He could feel the chill on his skin through his thick shirt and smell the smoke of burnt out fires. Winter was coming with its brittle bright light, its bone-cracking cold and its dry hands that would choke the life out of every last shred of sparse green in the gardens and fields around.
He turned left along the stream bank and, after about fifty meters, he came to a gum tree stump. He sat here sometimes, usually in the dark so he couldn’t see the cool drink cans and the plastic bags collected in the filth of the streambed, although there was no avoiding the metallic smell of the cracked mud at any time of day. He sat now, looking out across the wide flat land to the sharp line of the horizon, the smell filling his nostrils. The air was still and even the cicadas were quiet. Occasionally a jackal would scream from somewhere far off across the dry plain but there were no human sounds, almost as if the houses and their occupants behind him weren’t there.
He made his mind go back to what Cadnan had said. Again his shame rose up, shame at how he had let himself hurt his friend and then his princess. He tried to think past it. Because he knew Cadnan was right. For a long time they’d made things work and they had not been unhappy. At the beginning, they moved around a lot, they’d scanned the papers and listened to the radio but not once did they read or hear anything about the suspicious death of a circus acrobat. Perhaps Kasper had made too many enemies for anyone to care. Eventually they’d realised that no one was coming for them. They found bits and pieces of a living, the years had passed and they had become what they had become, fetching up in this tiny dorp when it offered Cadnan a steady job at the solitary pub, making just enough to keep them all, with the princess unable to leave her bed. Now the pub had closed, giving up the struggle as the town, under the weight of poverty and drought and an absence of passers through, began to sink back into the red dust from which it had emerged, leaving them behind with nothing. But, no, they had not been unhappy. And, bound by that strong sinew, they had always been together. That must never change; it came to Oily as he sat on the stump looking out into the darkness under the giant starry sky. That must never change.
Feeling out each step, he made his way slowly up the path and back along the road. The house was quiet and the kitchen empty, the air warmed by the cooking. He closed the door behind him and locked it. On the table was a plate with a small pile of greyish mash and four viennas under a clear plastic cover, moisture droplets collecting on its underside. Oily went to the tall cupboard and took out the new brandy bottle, pouring a generous slug into a squat tumbler from the draining board and drinking it down in one. He repeated the process three times, until nearly a third of the bottle was gone.
He trod carefully down the passage, swaying a little bit as the alcohol streamed into his system. The door of his and Cadnan’s room was open, the weak light still on. Cadnan lay completely straight on his stretcher, one thin arm outside the rough blue blanket, his breathing even and shallow, his face composed. Oily continued along to the princess, stopping in her doorway. Her head was turned slightly towards him, the eyelash still askew and her matted blonde hair damp on her forehead, the air whistling in and out of her half open mouth.
He stood in the passage, listening. There were no sounds except the occasional crack of the corrugated iron roof or creak from the wooden frame as the house responded to the increasing cold of the night. He made his way back to the kitchen, his head spinning a little. With one hand he held on to the counter top, with the other he turned the four round black knobs of the cooker one by one, each time hearing the gas hiss out. Finally, after treading softly across the bare floor so as not to wake Cadnan, he lay down on his narrow stretcher and closed his eyes.