The red wheelbarrow


A hangover isn’t the best way to remember things, but sometimes it’s all you’ve got. When I was twenty-three I woke up one Friday morning a week before Christmas, seated in the nude at my father’s desk and drooling into my navel. I had no idea how I’d got there but I knew that it was all my friend Ferdi’s fault. The last thing I could remember was that Ferdi had discovered two bottles of Akkedisbult Witblits—a breathtaking moonshine distilled from peaches, with a name that meant Lizard Hill White Lightning—in my father’s liquor cabinet.


As a standing tradition, my family spent the December holidays at our beach house in Oyster Bay, on the south coast of South Africa. That particular year I didn’t go, for the first time ever. I had just started working to repay my bursary. The closest I was going to get to a holiday was the privilege of looking after my parent’s house while they were away on holiday. I was in a bad mood and resented everyone for everything.

“Let’s have a party,” Ferdi suggested in order to cheer me up.

We had met through work and had adjoining offices. We worked on a project together, which meant that we goofed off together.

“It’s almost Christmas,” he added and joggled his eyebrows. “You have a large house.”

Thinking back now, it’s possible that it was actually I who suggested that we have a party, but it certainly felt like it was Ferdi. We invited the entire department of around thirty-five people to my house for a barbecue that Thursday evening. The Friday was a holiday, but almost everyone turned up. Even Rudy came. Rudy was a nerd by our definition. Given that we were a bunch of mathematicians and computer scientists, this meant that he was something of a quadratic nerd. He did several things with computers to deserve this label but the clincher was that he had the arresting ability to discern the difference between sixteen, seventeen, and eighteen granules of sugar in his coffee. He insisted that sixteen granules left the coffee bitter, that eighteen granules cloyed his gills, and that seventeen was just right. It’s difficult at this remove to imagine someone like Rudy getting drunk, but that’s what he did. And so did the rest of us. We never got around to the barbecue. At some point Rudy suggested that we storm through the garden. We stormed through the garden, and also through my mother’s azaleas, and then many people ended up in the pool, some without their clothes. But I couldn’t remember much after that.


Now, as I peeled myself carefully from my father’s chair, some of the rest surfaced in dreamlike bits. Before Ferdi had held aloft the bottles of Akkedisbult Witblits, he and I had raided my father’s wine and opened a few, only to pour them down the drain in disgust.

“It’s sour,” I remembered one of us saying, probably Ferdi.

As I massaged my temples I suddenly recalled Rudy standing on top of my mother’s architect’s chair—a tall and wobbly stool—declaring that the C programming language was adequate for expressing all human emotions. A fat girl whose name now escapes me had sat in a corner for what seemed like hours while she read haltingly from a copy of Chaucer’s tales she’d discovered in the library. A lesser nerd called Herman had opened my father’s bottle of 1969 Allesverloren Port and drank it the way I’d always imagined eighteenth century sailors to quaff goblets of grog aboard creaky galleons in the Caribbean. The fact that Allesverloren meant all is lost struck me as particularly ironic as I wobbled away from my father’s desk.

As I staggered around the house, my anger at Ferdi grew steadily. I knew it didn’t make sense to blame him, but since he wasn’t around I did it anyway. At least he couldn’t deny anything.

I found my clothes in the garden, among the azaleas, along with some other bits of underwear that I tossed over the back wall. In the middle of the lawn stood a metronome that couldn’t be explained, and at the pool, propped awkwardly in a deck chair, was one of my mother’s sewing mannequins.

Inside the house it was no better. On top of the piano was a handwritten note that read I’ll bring it back later—presumably referring to the metronome. In the microwave I found a pair of panties and also the two kings of a chess set. On a table in the foyer lay a book on the Kamasutra that I’d never seen before. It was opened to a page with the title The Wheelbarrow that showed a man pushing a woman around as though he was trying to plow a field with her. I was pretty sure the book didn’t belong to my parents, but because I couldn’t just throw it away I hid it in the garden shed.

As I cleaned up I got even angrier at Ferdi. I could see his hand in everything, and yet his influence was untraceable, like the suggestions of a hypnotist. How, for example, had we opened a bottle of 1986 Meerlust Rubicon? I would never have done that by myself. I threw the bottle away, along with two other bottles that looked just as expensive, and kept cleaning.


I finished around two in the afternoon, exhausted and still hung over. As I walked through the house to make sure that all was in place, it dawned on me that I’d have to replace the Akkedisbult Witblits. I’d thrown the evidence away, but the two bottles had stood at the front of the liquor cabinet and my father would notice that they were missing the next time he opened it. The Allesverloren Port was another problem, but as it had stood behind other things since the sixties I was sure my father wouldn’t miss it until years later. The wine, I was sure, he wouldn’t notice. Akkedisbult Witblits could be bought in only one place on earth I knew about, a small store in Humansdorp, a town about twenty minutes from Oyster Bay, and about fourteen hours from where I was.


I was at my parent’s house for Sunday lunch the next February when my father turned to me.

“You know I’m a careful man,” he asked, “don’t you?”

I sensed trouble but couldn’t tell where he was heading with that question.

“Careful how?” I asked. “What do you mean?”

“I mean,” he clarified as he sipped his coffee, “that I’m the sort of man who arranges his tools. You know? The sort of man who owns labelled boxes of photographs. The sort,” he added, “who binds his Time Magazines every year.”

“What are you saying?” I asked abruptly.

My father waved away my attempted self-defence.

“Don’t you think I’d be the sort of man to record mileage when I fill up?”

I felt dizzy. It had taken a month, but here we were. My mother’s 3 Series BMW had been a pleasure to drive, even in my hung-over state, and it had taken me only twenty-seven hours to travel almost all the way to Oyster Bay, buy two bottles of Akkedisbult Witblits, and return home.

“Sure,” I said and swallowed. “So what?”

“In fact,” my father went on with excruciating slowness, “I even record your mother’s mileage.”

“But it’s February,” I blurted as though there were a statute of limitations on car commandeering.

My father snapped.

“Two-thousand-nine-hundred-fifty-two kilometers!” he roared and pounded the table. “Where the fuck did you go?”

“I—”

“Where!?”

“I drove to Humansdorp,” I croaked.

My father blinked as he took this in. While he did I could see Ferdi from the corner of my mind’s eye, coating himself in teflon.

“Humansdorp!?” my father cried when he’d found his voice again. “What for?”

“Akkedisbult.”

“Akke—what?”

“The witblits. There was a party.”

My father went the sort of grey they use when they make gun barrels. He adjusted his glasses and motioned with his hand to include the room we were in, and then the rest of the house.

“You had a party?” he said with the punctuated spacing of a slow metronome. “Here?”

“A little one.”

“In this house?”

“Just a little one.”

“So little that you drank two bottles of Akkedisbult!?”

“It wasn’t me,” I said and thought of Ferdi.

My father pushed his glasses back up his nose.

“What else did you drink?”

“Nothing. We had our own stuff.”

He got up and went into the living room, to the liquor cabinet and his wine racks beside it. As I sat there, listening to the sounds of his angry rummaging, I thought of running out the front door and never returning. My father knew where I lived, but I could always move in with Ferdi.

“What the HELL!?” my father bellowed in the next room.

It was the port. I knew it.

“Where—?” he cried after a few seconds.

It was something else.

“The ’86 Meerlust Rubicon!” he quaked as he came around the corner.

He sat down again and tallied my sins on shaky fingers.

“The ’78 Lanzerac Pinotage! And the fucking Nederburg Lady! All gone!”

He was spitting mad and so I decided to let the port be.

“I’m sorry,” I whispered.

My father stared at me for what seemed to be a very long time, not really seeing anything. The wines were gone and there was nothing he could do about it. His disbelief and anger dissolved into calm acceptance.

“What were they like?” he asked at length. “Tell me.”

“I—”

“The Rubicon was perhaps a little young, but what was it like?”

“It was fantastic,” I lied, remembering how Ferdi had willed us to pour it down the zink in the scullery. “It was deep and heavy.”

“Deep?”

“Deeply red.”

My father swallowed as he imagined the ’86 Rubicon.

“They say it’s the colour of garnet,” he mused absently, his eyes closed.

It was strange to see his anger displaced by vicarious enjoyment, but now was not the time to question that.

“Yes, that’s what it was,” I said. “Garnet-red.”

“With silky tannins and earthy flavours—”

“It was very earthy.”

My father swallowed again, his eyes still closed.

“Not too acidic?” he asked, sounding far away.

“No,” I said, “just enough.”

“So,” he said after a few moments of reverie, “you liked it?”

“I loved it,” I lied. “But the pinotage was even better.”

“The Lanzerac?”

“It was even redder.”

My farther leant forward.

“Really?”

“It tasted of—” I wavered.

“What? Blackberries?”

“Yes,” I agreed and wagged my finger, “but there was something else too—”

“Tobacco?”

“It was very smokey—”

“And licorice?”

“That’s it! Licorice.”

My father sat back and savoured the ’78 Lanzerac. For a while he appeared to be transported in a way I’d never seen him be while drinking actual wine.

“And the Lady?” he asked suddenly.

“She was the reddest,” I said, now in the swing of things.

“Reddest?”

“Not garnet-red,” I stipulated, willing him like Ferdi would to offer me another red, “but—”

“It was a Gewürtzraminer,” my father sighed and rubbed the bridge of his nose.

“I thought it was a Nederburg—”

“Gewürtzraminer is a grape. The wine was white.”

“I see,” I said.

My father pushed back his chair and stood up.

“So do I.”


Years later, when I was finally earning some money, I bought my father these wines for his birthday. They were garnet-red and smokey, and white. We sat around for hours and had all three. He enjoyed them but he wasn’t as enraptured as he’d been that day in the valley of loss. It was as though I’d stolen from him twice. On a whim I asked about the Allesverloren Port.

“I saw that a few days later,” he said, “but I let it be.”

Sometimes it’s better that way. Whenever I’ve had the urge to ask him about the book I hid in the garden shed, I’ve let it be.



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