It was a long journey back, in darkness and silence. Tim barrelled the car fast – too fast I thought – through the unlit country lanes, the sound of our tires the only music, the beams of our headlights along the hedgerows the only illumination.
Tim has this thing he does when he’s angry or upset, blanks out questions, just shakes his head if you speak. That was what he was doing. Just: ‘Belt on’ as we got into the car, and then no more. Wouldn’t talk to me at all.
I guessed that maybe I had deserved it. I was acting like a child, I knew that, not like a grown man. Piet had dealt with me as a child too. Over his knee, like a five year old, ja, as I was treated when I was five. Only when I was five I was never spanked so hard, and so long. The man has hands like shoe leather. If Phil gets that regularly I would be sorry for him, only that I know it is applied proportionately, with care. For him, maybe more: with love, and God help me, wretched man that I am, I cannot help but feel a little jealous of that still. It makes a difference, hey? I should know, here God I should know.
When I was seven, the sun went out. I am not sure how much I remember truly of that time, and how much is things I was told afterward. But in that house the sun never shone again, for sure, because it pulled the trigger of a shotgun, and so many things died then you cannot imagine – Sonny’s life, whatever my father had of heart, the hopes of a family. The name of a family too, it seems. And my childhood, and any hope of love.
I remember one time my brother putting me up on his shoulders, and running up the little kopje behind the big paddock with me laughing and him whooping, and when we got to the top he lowered me to the grass and tickled me till I screamed. The sky was that blue you only seem to get in Africa, a blue that sings, a deep thrumming note like a drum. He had broad shoulders, he was a big man, like my father. I was going to say like me, but I’m only big on the outside. I remember it so clearly, me saying to him: carry me some more, and the way his face changed, weary and sad, and what he said – koekie, I have too much to carry in this fucking family already.
When he killed himself I was so afraid that I had done it, you see, that he was tired of carrying me around.
And now look, everyone else has to carry me instead. Poor Tim, and Viper, and Jim for whom I must be the worst director he appointed ever. He should have given Tim the job, God knows he is smarter than I am. And stronger. Oh, not physically. I can wrestle him down any time I choose, and I have. He likes that sometimes. I like it too, sometimes. Sometimes. But always I worry, you know, that I’ll hurt him. Hurt him too much. And that I’ll enjoy it.
“Tim.” I so wanted to hear him say something to me, anything, even that I’m a bastard, a useless drunk. No. Just the silent treatment.
And that’s when it happened. A white owl drifted low across the lane, right in front of the car. Tim slapped on the brakes, trying not to hit it – Tim who stripes my arse with a cane until I cry but who can’t bear to see dumb things suffer, Mr Contradiction – and the car spun, lost traction, and as I heard his head snap sideways with a sickening noise against the driver side window the owl swooped near again and I saw that it had my father’s face. . .
“Hansie, Hansie!” Tim was white faced, shaking me.
“What? Tim, don’t die, don’t leave me!”
“I’m not going to die unless you make me crash the car, screaming my name like that. You were asleep. You must have had a nightmare. My God, you nearly gave me a heart attack.” We have stopped, somewhere in that dark countryside. I can see the distant orange-purple glow of streetlights beyond the dark bulk of trees to the right.
“I – I’m sorry, I must have drifted off. I’m sorry, Tim. I’m sorry. You’re sure you’re all right? I dreamed you hit your head, there was an owl. . .”
“No owls, you nit. No broken heads. No crashes. Only an Englishman who wants his bed. With a drunken Afrikaner.” He leaned over and hugged me.
“Not so drunk now. I think m- Viper has spanked the alcohol out of me,” I admitted ruefully.
“Hmm. That’s a novel cure for a hangover. I think the next time
you have too much to drink I’ll send you straight to Piet.”
He grinned. He’s a an angel-devil, my Tim, looks like butter wouldn’t melt . . . and a complete demon when he gets a cane in his hand. “Are you challenging me, meneer van den Broek? We’ll add it to the rules.”
I felt – well, I don’t quite know how I felt. Scared, a bit. Relieved, a bit. It had been almost like something religious tonight, across the Viper’s knee. Like maybe a Catholic feels, a good Catholic, when he has made confession, and does penance, and has, what is the damned word in English? Absolution, ja, that is it. I had felt absolution, briefly, tonight.
Only, it wasn’t enough. And I wasn’t sure that it was fair to ask Viper to keep doing it. Because he was Phil’s man, and only Phil’s man, I could see that for sure. And I could see that maybe I was getting in the way, when all I meant to do was help Phil. Like you would a brother. Like my brother did for me when I was small, when he was alive.
“It’s not right. Phil. . .”
“Phil knows that Piet adores him. And you know that I adore you, don’t you?”
I looked at him. “I have made a bloody tangle of this, like everything else, haven’t I?”
He closed his eyes for a moment, sighed.
“That song is getting awfully old, Hansie. Not everything in the world is your fault, and if we choose to help you with your burdens you’ll just have to accept that we do it because we love you.”
“Pardon?” That had startled him.
“I can’t let this go on. I can’t go on messing everything up for everyone like this. Tim, you should leave me. I should leave you. Leave the job. Just clear out.”
My reactions are pretty good, but strapped in as I was I couldn’t avoid the crack of his palm across my cheek.
“Will you stop being such a fucking self-absorbed, self-pitying, whinger! Do you ever think that other people have problems of their own? That not everything revolves around you?”
I was shocked into silence. Silence and anger. How dare he! How could he?!
There was a long simmering moment while we both tried to master ourselves.
“I’m sorry,” he managed at last.
“Ja. But Tim – not again. I will not be tied, and I will not be slapped in the face. You understand me?”
“I – OK,” he said a bit shakily – the force of what I felt had come over in the way I spoke, I think. “But you’ve never - is there a reason why?”
“Because I say not,” I said stonily. The silence stretched again but I could feel his burning need for answers, like someone pressing me with weights. And the pity of it was he deserved them. He, if anyone. I tried to explain.
“When I was – when I was to be punished severely, more severely than the normal dozen, when I had done something less than ordinarily forgivable, then my father would come to me in my bedroom. My bed had a frame of iron, you understand, with bars at the head and foot, and he . . .”
“Oh, Hansie. He would tie you to the bed and beat you?”
“Nee. No. Not quite, you do not understand.” I paused. It was very difficult to say these things, even now, even to him, with the dark to conceal the look that might be in his eyes, and the tears that threatened in mine.
“Then make me understand. For God’s sake talk to me, heart. Tell me what you can. You need to let the poison out.”
“I” – I had to clear my throat, start again. “He would tie me, ja. But not with rope. With a thread of cotton.”
He made a noise of incomprehension. I could feel a silent tear slide down my cheek and was glad of the darkness. I must not cry. I would not cry. Tears are for women, a man does not cry, so he would tell me contemptuously.
“He tied me with a single thread of cotton and dared me to break while he whipped me. Once I did, I could not help it because it hurt so much.”
“Oh God, Hansie, what did he do then?”
“He burned my books. All of them, all the few I was permitted. And my drawings, and my painting things. And I was beaten every night that week, until I learned not to move when I was given my lawful chastisement. Until I learned to behave as a man, for whom such childish, womanish pursuits were not appropriate.
“And that is why you will not tie me, because I will not let anyone do that to me again.”
His voice sounded as if he were on the verge of tears himself. “No-one will ever do that to you while I’m here to stop it. Oh, Hansie.”
“Ja, ja, oh Hansie. But it was you that struck me in the face,” I reminded him spitefully. “And only one man has done that to me before.”
“Your damned father again.”
“No. No. My brother.”
“Julius? Sonny? But I thought you and he – you loved him?”
“Oh ja, I loved him. I would have done anything for him. When I came into his room, his room, and f-found him . . . found him with his friend, standing there, the two of them strange and stiff as if I had caught them doing something wrong, and he hit me, he hit me round the face and told me to get out, and I ran out crying. And then his friend ran out past me, looking sad and angry, and a little later I heard the bang. Such a soft sound really, you know, not hard, almost a liquid growl. And I knew it was something bad, and I ran back, and he was there, folded over, the gun in his hand. I did not see his face. I’m very glad I did not see his face.” I found I was shaking, shivering, unable to stop, even though the car was not cold. And the words kept flowing out of me, and I could not have stopped them either, even if I wanted to.
“I went a step into the room. There was – there was, r-red stuff, not just blood, but stuff, his flesh, his brain, on the w-wall. Then our maid Doris came in and started screaming, and they pulled me awa-ay. . .”
“Stop. Jesus, stop Hansie, you’re making yourself ill.”
“No, I can’t stop, I have to say it. It was me, it was because of me he killed himself. My father knew that somehow, he knew, he knew. I deserved to be punished. It was my fault,” and then I was sobbing, sobbing so hard it hurt, howling. . .
“Oh my love, my dear love.” He had his seatbelt off and his arms around me, and I could feel that he was sobbing too, sobbing for me, both of us mourning that seven-year-old boy, and the 18-year old not much more than a boy, and all the other things that died there.
“You know it wasn’t you, don’t you, really?” he asked me quietly when we had both calmed down a bit. “That it wasn’t your fault?”
“I – yes. I suppose so.”
“No supposes. How could it have been?”
“I. . .” well, yes, how could it have been? “I know that in my head. I’m not sure if I know it in my heart yet.”
“Your poor heart. The world has bruised it so badly, Hansie, hasn’t it?”
I didn’t know what to say to that, so I shrugged.
“People have gone through worse.”
“Yes, love, but that doesn’t make it easier for you, only harder for them. Here.” He opened his shirt, and then his chest, and pulled out his heart like a soft pink rose. It smelled sweeter than my mother’s gardenias when I was a child, and when it opened there was a dewdrop on every petal like a tear. . .
“Sweetheart. Wake up, we’re home.” Tim’s face hovered over mine as he kissed my cheek. “Come on sleeping beauty. Were you dreaming? You were making the most peculiar noises in the car.”
“Tim,” I said, following him into the house. “Smack me.”
“Hmm, I had something of the sort in mind,” he said grimly. “You made a proper spectacle of yourself at that dinner. But I relented on the drive home, at least partially: I was going to wait until tomorrow morning. I imagine that Piet de Vries spanks quite hard.”
“Ach, ja. I shall have marks, I think. Deserved ones. But I didn’t mean that. Just hit me once – I want to be sure I’m awake.”
He obliged with a slap to the bum that set de Vries’ handiwork tingling all over again. Yes, I was definitely awake this time. “Happy? Awake?”
“Ouch. Yes,” I said, rubbing my seat. “Definitely awake. Good. Now, sit down my love. I want to talk to you. There are things I should tell you, things you need to know about me.”
“Does it have to be now? Can’t it wait?”
“No. Because the owl tried to take you from me, and instead you offered me a rose watered by tears.”
He looked blank incomprehension. “You aren’t making sense, love.”
“Because a man can be strong in lots of ways. Because I’m trying to learn what my strengths are. Because I’m afraid if I don’t tell you now, while the message of my dream is fresh in my mind, I’ll never be able to. Because I want a new beginning. Because – just because. Because I’m asking you, hey?”
He smiled, and took my hand, and pulled me down on the couch beside him.
“That’s all you ever had to do,” he said.
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