The burden of proof

The paint I got on my father’s car was a little like the money I stole from his wallet. At least, that’s how I saw it. I had been toying with the idea of asking him for money to buy a scale model of a Messerschmitt Bf 109, but he often didn’t agree with the things I wanted to spend money on, and then we ended up talking for a long time about things that had nothing to do with what I’d wanted to buy, and then he said no. Taking the money saved us both some trouble. Besides, he owed me money for cleaning the pool, but he was withholding it on the grounds that I’d destroyed his drill press.

Actually, I didn’t steal the money. I merely found it. There was a ten tucked away between some receipts. It looked like it had been there a long time, and so I took it. The same afternoon my father arrived in my room. I say arrive because that’s what he did. He didn’t just come in. He made a point of stretching out his entry to make me nervous.

“There’s a twenty missing from my wallet,” he said after he’d looked around and acted like a visiting dignitary. “Did you take it?”

“No,” I said.

It felt good to know that I wasn’t lying.

“Well, how did it go missing then?” he asked and sat down on the chest next to my bed.

He spoke like a mathematician proving a simple theorem.

“How should I know?” I countered.

“Do you think,” my father asked, building out his first lemma, “that it could get up and go off all by itself? Which is more—”

“No.”

“Let me finish,” he said. “Which is more likely? That it got taken out of my wallet or that it got out all by itself?”

“That’s stupid,” I said.

“Where did you get the money for that?” he asked and pointed at the model airplane on my desk.

“I had it.”

He walked over and turned the box the model had come in this way and that until he found the price.

“Twelve-ninety-nine. You had it how?”

“I just had it. I also have money.”

“Okay,” my father said, moving on to his second lemma, “let’s forget the coincidence that you suddenly have money for this on the same day a twenty goes missing from my wallet. Tell me this instead. Who else could have taken it?”

“I don’t know!” I shouted. “I don’t have to know who else! I just have to know that it wasn’t me!”

“But who?” he insisted.

“Maybe the maid took it.”

“She’s not here this weekend.”

“Maybe you spent it and forgot.”

He thought about this for a moment.

“How much money do you have?” he asked. “Right now? In total?”

“I don’t know.”

“You see,” he said, “I’m not like that. I know exactly how much money I have in my wallet at any given time.”

I wanted to scream that he was wrong, that a ten he hadn’t known about was going yellow in a forgotten corner of his wallet, that he was wrong about the very point his whole argument was based on. But I couldn’t.

“If you know all that,” I asked instead, “where’s the twenty then?”

My father remained calm and walked slowly to the door.

“I wish you would just come clean sometimes,” he said. “All you have to do is admit that you did it. It’s not that hard.”

“But I didn’t do it!” I screamed.

That evening he put his head around my door.

“I found the twenty that was missing,” he said. “I’d taken it out in the car. I’m sorry I accused you.”


The next morning I decided to paint my bicycle a different colour. There had been a tin of green paint in the garage for as long as I could remember, and green was as good a colour as any other. I went into the garage to paint the bicycle. I got everything ready—the bicycle, the paint and a brush—but it turned out that the paint wouldn’t work because it was the fast-drying type meant to be used in a spray gun. It started drying on the brush. I gave up. If I remember correctly, I got a little angry too. I hammered the tin shut and began to put everything away. Then I saw that there were green spots on the front left of my father’s car. There were similar spots on the front right of my mother’s car. I touched them but they were dry. I picked at them, but they wouldn’t come off completely, and so I gave up on that too. I threw the paint and the brush in our neighbour’s garbage.

That afternoon my father arrived in my room. He had come down the corridor with long strides, the way he walked when he was angry but had contained himself.

“I want to ask your opinion about something,” he said with near-infinite calm.

“You told me not to have opinions,” I said and looked up from my book. “To think instead.”

“Yes, yes” he agreed, “that’s what I said. I want you to think about something.”

“Okay.”

He sat down on the chest and crossed his legs.

“What is the probability of the following thing happening?”

“What?”

“Wait.”

He took his time to phrase things exactly.

“Somewhere—I don’t know where this happened—but somewhere out there in the world beyond our view, someone managed to spatter the front of my car with green paint. During the last day or so.”

He looked at me as this were a genuine question.

“What are the chances of that?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” I said. “Why are you asking me?”

“Just roughly,” he said, “what are the chances?”

“Well,” I said. “A hundred percent.”

“What do you mean?”

“Because that’s the sort of thing that always happens to you.”

My father swallowed but remained calm.

“There’s more,” he continued. “Somewhere else, also in that time, someone else spattered your mother’s car with the same paint, on its opposite side. What do you think about that?”

“I don’t think about it at all. You clearly suspect that—”

“Relax,” he said, “relax. Just help me think this through. I’m a little confused.”

“I want to see this paint,” I said.

What I wanted was to get out of my room, out of the steady build-up of lemmas to his final proof.

“No need,” he said, “let’s just do this in our heads. These two events are possible in isolation. Do you agree?”

“Yes—”

“But very, very unlikely together, like this?”

“Impossible,” I said, taking a gamble.

This was not what my father expected.

“What do you mean, impossible?”

“It’s impossible that these two things happened separately.”

“Well—” he said, “impossible is not the word I’d use.”

“But that’s what I’m saying.”

“But you can never know that for sure—”

My farther seemed hurt by my shallow understanding of probability. Watching him argue was like watching someone on a skateboard—there was always something big about to go wrong.

“Anyway,” I said, “forget that. You think I did it, don’t you?”

My father was still thinking of a way to get me to see the difference between being absolutely certain and knowing something beyond a reasonable doubt.

“What?” he mumbled absently.

“You think I did it. That’s what you came here to say.”

My father pulled himself back to a place of cars and green paint.

“I was hoping that you’d have the courage to admit to something you obviously did. Just this once.”

“But you just said that one couldn’t know for sure.”

My father was less swayed by this than I’d thought he’d be. We had clearly arrived at the business end of his argument.

“Let’s stop fucking around,” he snapped. “Did you do it?”

A few minutes earlier I was going to say that I did it, that I was sorry. But now I wasn’t so sure.

“No,” I said.

We stared at one another for what seemed a very long time.

“Let me tell you something,” he resumed. “There are only a few ways in which this could have happened. Other than you, there are only your sister, your mother, the maid, and the dogs. The dogs don’t have thumbs, so they’re out. Your mother didn’t do it and—”

“How do you know?”

“Dammit!” my father exploded. “Why won’t you just admit it!? I know it was you!”

“Because I didn’t do it!” I screamed. “Don’t you think it would be easier to say that I did it and get it over with. You’d be too surprised to hit me.”

“I wasn’t going to hit you,” he mumbled.

“I didn’t do it any more than I took a twenty from your wallet. Remember?”

“I remember,” he said and looked away.

If you accused my father of ten things and one of them seemed to be true, he forgot the other nine that were nonsense. He stopped arguing and went away to think about that tenth thing. Now he forgot about the cars and the paint. He walked slowly to the door and was gone before I could say anything.


Late that evening he sat in his study in the dark. He sometimes did this to listen to music or to think about some problem. Around ten o’clock my mother sent me to check on him. I stood outside the study door and tried to hear myself say that I messed on his car, that I took his money, and that I was sorry. But I just stood there. I stood there and I listened to the whispering rain and the soft folding of his leather chair, and then he was asleep.



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The brief syzygy of April and September

Toby September stood like a beardless gnome at the entrance to the parking lot of a business complex where I worked years ago. He was a short little man who seemed to dangle from an outsized hat. The first time I saw him I was put in mind of a toadstool. His job was to stand at the gate and ensure that the automatic boom opened. Even though the boom opened by itself, Toby helped it along by raising or lowering it at the speed it was moving anyway. While he did this he bantered with everyone as they came and went. Pretty early on I found out that his name wasn’t really Toby.

“Nay Master!” he cried in the slang typical of many Cape Coloureds, the mixed-race people who have been sandwiched between white and black interests in South Africa ever since the seventeenth century. “It’s Tobias, like my old-pa. But who now wants to say three things when you can say two, nuh? Two-by.”

Every day we joshed as Toby raised the boom and jockeyed to have the last say.

“Mornings!” he greeted me one morning.

“There’s only one of me,” I joked.

“Nuh?” he said and mimed a mouth with his free hand. “Now he tells us!”

Sometimes he carried on our conversation in the afternoon as though no time had passed since the morning.

“The other one’s gone to visit our Auntie,” he confided with twinkling eyes as I left that same day. “Now it’s just Master and me!”


Toby was not an attractive man, but a lovely one, and lonely. A while after we met he started coming around to our offices for a chat whenever I stood outside to smoke a cigarette. I was lonely too because my partners were hardly ever there. Toby would open with a perfunctory call—Nay Master?—as though it was somehow disappointing to find me loitering on the patio, virtually unemployed. Then he’d glance around nervously as if to suggest that while I might not have work to do, he would be needed at the boom any moment now. That done, he began to tell stories.

“See, Master,” he started.

He looked into the distance and brought a finger to his mouth while he selected a story from an apparently vast index. Sadly, his stories weren’t as crisp as his jesting at the gate. Neither were they from a vast index. Instead, they were limited to garbled anecdotes about his family at the Cape, and as such they unravelled whenever he stumbled onto a detail he couldn’t get right.

“See now Master,” he said, “we moved that year because my father was weak in the flesh, nuh, and put another woman in the other time. It was so dry that year that the sewers cracked, broke right out of the ground like desert beetles, and we moved to Touwsriver—”

He paused and pinched his chin.

“Nay, nay, that’s wrong. We moved to De Doorns when my old-ma died, and when we buried her they took two days to dig the grave—”

His voice trailed off again.

“—so that was when it was so dry. Nuh!”

“And your father?” I asked hopefully. “The woman?”

“We moved to De Doorns,” he continued, deaf to my interruption, “and right outside town—”

He seemed to remember something and wagged his finger.

“It was Matjiesfontein. We moved to De Doorns after that thing with my father. I can remember telling Ahmed this story, and he’s from De Doorns.”

I wanted to hear about this family scandal, like Ahmed had, but it seemed increasingly unlikely.

“Go on,” I said.

“Ahmed is a friend of mine since nineteen-whatsit,” he whispered and glanced in the direction of the gate. “He once got his little head stuck in a milk bottle.”

“Really?” I said, enlivened by this change in direction. “I had a friend who did the same thing. He—”

Toby’s eyes glazed over a little.

“Nay man,” he said, “it was Touwsriver—”

“Whatever—” I began.

“Anyway,” Toby cut me short, as though the entire digression had been at my insistence, “that year—”

And so it continued until I had to return to my work, or something happened at the gate.


To this syncopated ritual came Dulcie April. A small tour organiser had opened on the second floor, and Dulcie was their office girl. Like Toby, Dulcie was short, wore a large hat, and twinkled when she spoke.

“Nay Master!” she laughed when I remarked somewhat insensitively on her surname being a month. “Thems just sell-by dates for slaves.”

I shouldn’t have mentioned it. Slaves at the Cape were often named for the month they arrived, and their descendants bore those timestamps as surnames.

“I’m sorry,” I said feebly. “Toby at the gate is September.”

“Nuh!?” she laughed. “Him here still when I’m gone!”

Like Toby, she glanced around nervously. She didn’t smoke but escaped downstairs with a mug of tea a few times a day. The woman who ran the tour company was a harridan called Mavis. Mavis was a large woman, a rolling landscape of flesh and hair, with a booming voice and shaking bangles. She sometimes parked her car in one of the spots assigned to our office. When we asked her to move it, she throbbed, “Oh—fuck—off!”, and shook her bangles at us. Dulcie was afraid of her, as was everyone else.

“Master,” Dulcie said and screwed up her face, “sometimes I dreams of Mavis.”

“She’s a gin-soaked prune,” I said.

“Nay Master!” Dulcie laughed and covered her mouth. “Nuh?”


I don’t know if Dulcie met Toby at the gate, or when he came around to deny me the gist of a story. I would have liked to see that moment, but I didn’t. Even so, when I saw them together, I was transfixed. They stood so awkwardly close to one another that they appeared to be under the control of an apprentice puppeteer. Toby held his breath, as though he was trying to identify a heady and delicate scent, and Dulcie didn’t blink.

“She looked like that woman,” Toby said with some difficulty, “in that movie about the whatsit that melted in America.”

“Nuh?” Dulcie mumbled. “What melted?”

“You know,” Toby went on and leaned a little closer, perhaps to smell her the better, “where they make the atom whatsits.”

“Oh yes,” Dulcie whispered. “What’s them called?”

I couldn’t imagine what the prevailing direction of the story had been, nor that there had even been one, but I wanted to find out where they were heading with this.

“A nuclear plant?”

They turned slowly to face me.

“That’s ’im,” Toby said dreamily.

“It was Silkwood, with Meryl Streep.”

“Meryl,” Dulcie repeated wistfully. “She had a farm.”

“So,” I pushed on, “who looked like Meryl Streep?”

They turned slowly to one another again. Dulcie purred, “The man on that farm had a rough face, like yous, nuh?”

Toby clasped his rough face and wondered, “Whatsis name?”


Over the following two weeks, Toby and Dulcie often joined me on the patio. Toby’s nervous glances in the direction of the boom had given way to boyish peeks at the stairwell. Dulcie half-smiled and tried her best not to stare at the corner around which Toby could appear from the gate. Once, Mavis came to shake her bangles at Dulcie.

“She’s only been here a minute,” I called out as Dulcie hurried up the stairs.

“Fuck—off!” Mavis ballooned above the edge of the parapet and drifted from sight.

When their timing was just right—and Mavis didn’t interfere—Dulcie and Toby huddled together and named things. This, I’d decided, was what they did. Each far-flung cousin they couldn’t recall, each thing they couldn’t date or struggled to place, led to another, and so on, and on. They were slaves to this desire for detail, and so they spoke in spirals, every orbit wider than the one before.

“So,” Dulcie said, “my uncle’s car—” and pressed her finger into the dimple of her cheek, “—a Datsun, or was it a Nissan? It had esses and ens—”

“What about—” I began.

“Anyway—” Dulcie cut me short, “—my uncle’s car—”

When Toby slowed into a wider orbit, she defended him.

“Nay Master!” she cautioned when I implored him to return to his story. “Let hisself be. It’s important.”

“How’s it important what street his senile auntie lived on?” I demanded, secretly hoping that it was Memory Lane.

“Nuh?” she said, taken aback. “That’s how the story goes.”


And so it went. I had never seen two people more meant for one another, nor more easily kept apart. The strings I’d imagined earlier were a noose of their own tying. Dulcie and Toby never moved beyond their fleeting alignments in time. They stood there, like they had when I first saw them, on a Friday afternoon, and on the Monday morning Dulcie was gone. Mavis, it turned out, had run her business the way she parked, and they had closed down virtually overnight.

“Dulcie’s gone now,” Toby mused a few days later.

He looked away and for a moment forgot himself, repeating her name under his breath.

“Just call her,” I said.

“Nay Master,” he sighed. “Who now can do that?”

“Didn’t you get her number?”

He shook his head slowly.

“We just talked,” he said. “Nuh?”



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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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Alfie’s Arsehole

Fred was a large man who had retreated into a large beard. He looked like an unemployed pirate. He was in fact as old as my parents but clearly out of work, and it appeared that he had been so for years. How he managed wasn’t known but he seemed to have enough money for endless drinking, the capacity in which I got to know him. Near my office was a pub called Alfie's and in this pub Fred was installed behind a table at the back. He never moved from this table in all the time I knew him. From here he issued insults at passersby and pronounced opinions on whatever he felt like.

“What have you come as?” he once called out to a man with a dense flattop haircut. “A hedgehog?”

On another occasion he loudly declared that no turd stank in the sewer. I took this to be a philosophical reprieve of everyone at Alfie's, and I liked it very much.

Fred was so reliably surly that he’d earned the nickname Alfie's Arsehole, of which the abbreviated AA was a happy side joke. Within the pub he was a kind of reverse guru, someone you sought out with the full understanding that he’d tell you to fuck off. It was expected of everyone at Alfie's to do this as a rite of passage, and it’s indeed how I met Fred.

“Will you live?” he interrupted when I tried to introduce myself. He made a small up-and-down movement with his fingers in my direction. “Like that?”

“I—I guess so—”

“Alright,” he agreed grimly. “Then fuck off.”

Over time I got to know Fred as well as you can know someone whom you only meet on the level playing field of alcohol. Strangely, such relationships are without much pretence and posturing, and I got to know who he was and had wanted to be pretty well. Like most gruff men he was lonely and vulnerable and angry at a world he was no longer a part of. Our last conversation, in particular, is the one I remember to this day.


It was a quiet Tuesday evening when I took a seat at Fred’s table. It had been a hard day and I was upset about something that I cannot now remember. Fred was irritated, as always, but in an expansive mood.

“I had a job once,” he said wryly as he looked at me and then scanned the pub with distaste, “a long time ago. As a copywriter of all things.”

He tugged absently at his beard and seemed for a moment to be absorbed with his memories.

“Where?”

“The Agency,” he said and made a face. “It was a good job, if you allow for such a thing to exist, but I hated the customers and their products.”

Fred signalled for another Scotch with the slightest movement of his eyebrows. Then he turned to me.

“All washing powders are white and make foam,” he said. “So fucking what? Bleach is bleach. Instant coffee is just roasted shit. What the fuck can you say about these things? Only once did we have an account I was even remotely keen on.”

“What was it?”

“Cadbury’s chocolate.”

“What’s better about chocolate?”

Fred narrowed his eyes and leaned a little closer.

“What are your thoughts on mongrels?” he asked.

“Mongrels?”

“I hate mongrels,” he said. “They’re no fucking good, just like Cadbury’s.”

He sat back and slowly gyrated his glass along the rim of its base. As he did, I tried my best to imagine a link between stray dogs and chocolate.

“You know,” he grumbled at my confusion, “mixed things, you know—mongrels.”

Perhaps he was just drunk, I thought.

“What happened?”

When he was given the Cadbury’s account, the client explained that they wanted a TV campaign to relaunch their plain, mint, and almond bars after a change to their wrapper designs. Fred storyboarded an ad that showed an empty stadium after a big match, with thousands of chocolate wrappers flickering in the late afternoon sun, blown about across the green. Two cleaners entered from opposite sides of the field, each with a bag and a poker. For a moment we saw their grim faces as they attempted to out-stare one another. Then they raced to clear the field in time-lapse, the one collecting mint wrappers, the other almond. Exhausted, they sat down at center field and faced off, counting out the wrappers they’d collected, again in time-lapse, one for one—mint, almond, mint, almond. As they discovered that they had exactly the same number of wrappers there was a moment of silence before a single wrapper flitted across the grass in the distance. The cleaners tumbled over one another as they gave chase and pounced on it, together, in deadlock, only to reveal a plain wrapper.

“And guess what the pricks from Cadbury’s said?” Fred asked and signalled for another drink.

“What?”

“That’s nice, they said, but we’d like to stay with the glass and a half concept.”

I frowned at the idea that a glass and a half could qualify as a concept.

“I walked out the room and quit,” Fred nodded, as though he’d read my mind. “I was done with mongrels. Done with mint and almond and a glass and a half.”

He raised his drink in salute.

“Plain Scotch.”

Someone stopped at the table to greet Fred but Fred told him to fuck off. As we watched the man leave I mused on the scenic route Fred had taken to clarify what he’d meant by mongrels, and on the fact that no one had ever managed to make a living from drinking, the single thing he now did. Then Fred leaned closer again.

“What are your thoughts on cocktails?” he asked.

I didn’t want a cocktail and so I said that I didn’t like them.

“I hate them,” Fred declared. “Only people who can’t appreciate gin and rum and vodka and tequila by themselves will go and mongrel them together and call it a goddamned Californication. The same goes for spiced wine. And cappuccinos, and lattes and macchiatos and all that shit. Drink espresso or have a milkshake.”

A man I hadn’t seen before sidled up to the table.

“I was told to join the AA,” he wavered.

“Is that so?” Fred growled. “Said who?”

The man gestured at his friends who were watching us from the bar and smiling broadly.

“You must be a special kind of stupid to go where those idiots send you,” Fred observed. “Now fuck off.”

The man scuffed away while his friends laughed, and Fred turned to me once more.

“And musicals?” he asked in the same tone he’d used to introduce cocktails.

“Uh—” I began.

“I hate them,” he announced, “categorically. Operas too. If you need to see music you don’t understand music. If you want to sing a story then you don’t understand stories. It’s all bullshit.”

He held up a finger in stipulation.

“And so is ballet. If you have to dance, dance. What’s with swans and a stupid lake?”

“I hate newspapers,” I ventured, “and anything written by more than one person.”

“They have no heart,” Fred added and nodded ruminatively.

He stared into his drink before he continued.

“I hate all things like that,” he said, “medleys, compilations, background music, variety shows—all that shit. They make it hard to find the real stuff.”

"What about sport?”

Fred drained his glass and put it carefully onto the surface of the table, fitting it into the faint outline of a ring it had made, and then signalled for another one.

“I hate team sports,” he said at length. “I want to root for someone, someone I can imagine being, not a bunch of fucking cretins running around and hugging one another.”

“I hate bridge,” I confessed after we’d sat for a minute thinking about cretins. “I can’t even play but I hate it all the same.”

“For me it’s backgammon,” Fred said after a moment’s reflection. “People say, the element of chance doesn’t really matter—it’s all about strategy. Bullshit! If you want strategy, play chess for fuck’s sake! If you want chance, play snakes and ladders.”

I actually liked backgammon but I didn’t want to tell him.

“I also hate Californians,” he murmured and shrank a little deeper into his beard.

“Californians—?” I asked and wondered about cocktails.

“Yes,” he said and looked at me the way he had the night he asked me whether I’d live. “You know, people from California?”

“Oh—but what’s mongreled about them?”

“My brother lives in California.”

“Go on—”

Just after Fred was born, his father went off to fight Rommel in North Africa. When he returned Fred was five. A few months later, Fred’s mother died in an accident. His father swiftly remarried and as swiftly constructed a baby half-bother on whom he doted. Fred grew up in the shadow of this half-brother, alone and resentful of the way the world timed things. His half-brother was now an engineer who prospered in California.

“It’s not that I hate him, you see?”

“I know.”

“It’s just that I’ve never loved him.”

“I guess I wouldn’t have either—”

“I went to visit him and his family last year,” Fred offered, “for the first time.”

While Fred signalled for another drink with a nanometer displacement of his eyebrows, I tried to imagine him being somewhere other than behind the table we sat at, but I couldn’t.

“Our father died when I was in my late twenties. That was thirty-five years ago. That’s when I last saw my brother.”

“And?”

“Well,” Fred said and leaned a little closer still, “he came to LAX with his wife and their son and his kids.”

I waited a while but it seemed that Fred saw this as an appropriate end to his story.

“What did it feel like,” pushed on, “seeing him after all that time?”

“I guess I’d made my peace with him on the way over,” Fred sighed and took a generous sip of his new Scotch. “It was a long flight.”

“But what happened?”

“When I met those Californian mongrels” Fred said and spread his fingers on the table before him, “you won’t believe how superior I felt.”


The next week I returned to Alfie's after a few days away to find Fred’s table empty. There were two waiters on the floor whom I’d never seen before. Everything seemed different.

“Where’s Fred?” I asked one of them.

“Who?”

“The guy who always sits at that table.”

“Oh,” he said, “the owner’s had a stroke. He’s in hospital.”

“The owner?”

“I’m new,” the guy said. “The manager told me the owner always watches things from back there.”

Dazed, I walked outside to get some air. In all the time I’d known Fred—it must be Alfred, I realised—he had never let on that he’d found a way to make a living from drinking. It had been his career, and not just a job. He had done what he wanted to do, pure and simple, with no mixing. Over the next few days, as news reached Alfie's of Fred’s worsening condition, I wondered whether I could visit him in hospital. Perhaps, I thought, I could joke as I walked in and ask him if he’d live, but I didn’t know what I’d do if he wasn’t strong enough to tell me to fuck off.

A few days later he was gone.



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The half-life of simplicity

My father made hard things simple. He had a gift for that. He complicated his own affairs beyond understanding but he simplified those of others as though this gift was his only to give away. In its most simple form, it manifested as a deranged integrity. Once, when he figured out that he’d been charged for only one carton of cigars, he returned to the supermarket and stood in a long queue at customer services in order to pay them for the other one.

“It was the right thing to do,” he told my mother who insisted that it was the wrong thing to do. “You wouldn’t understand.”

He was right—she didn’t. As far as she was concerned this was just another of the many things he did to his own detriment and the benefit of others. He spent his nights as an after-hours messiah, working on things he wouldn’t get paid for, things other people should have done, until three or four in the morning. I was aware of his annoying selflessness, but as a child I didn’t really care about that. For me his gift to make hard things simple lay in how he explained them. He got me to understand algebraic fractions in a way that Mr Killian never could. Mr Killian was a six-foot pile of flesh with a tuft of hair on top—what I imagined you’d get if you inflated a wart a thousand-fold. He did not so much walk as oozed from one end of the classroom to the other. He wheezed and grunted and wore a constantly startled look, as though he had just snapped out of a deep coma to find himself unaccountably staring at us. He must have drawn the short straw to end up with mathematics because it was clear that he understood things only marginally better than we did. One day he oozed to the board and spent the rest of the lesson failing to simplify an expression. While he stabbed at the board with the chalk he called out the names of symbols in an increasingly louder voice. The expression grew line by line, refusing to get simplified, until Mr Killian, sweaty and overcome by frustration, turned to us and barked, “You get the idea.”

We didn’t get the idea. My father ignored what I told him about Mr Killian and taught me a way to move things around as though they were on a balancing scale. I could cheat all I wanted as long as I cheated in the right way. Algebra became easy. His gift was to strip hard things of the words other people had used, and to give them to you on your own terms, as if for the first time. But his gift came with a tax. While he explained things, he asked questions. He never just told you what you wanted to know.

“If there’s something you don’t understand,” he always said, “there’s something else you also don’t understand.”

Then he’d set about to discover what else you didn’t understand. I hated that. Why could he not tell me the answer and leave it at that? We often ended up in the small hours because of an innocent question at supper time. I was fourteen when I understood for the first time that there were problems you could only solve that way, that there were things you could only see if you looked elsewhere.



When I was fourteen I decided to die. This had become necessary because the girl next door, whom I thought I loved, had broken up with me. Her decision was based on the trivial grounds that my friends and I were in trouble with the law. She put a little note of disappointment in our mailbox, and that was that. On reading the note I was a little relieved to discover that I didn’t love her as much as I’d thought I did, but I was devastated just the same. How could she do this to me, particularly now? We weren’t really in that much trouble after all? We had carted off some planks and nails and a few other things from a building site to make much-needed renovations to our tree house by the river. The site supervisor had somehow seen us and now trouble loomed. I probably wanted to die for legal reasons but love seemed a better motive.

I announced my intention to die and locked myself in my room. Once inside, it became clear that I had no idea how to proceed. I could slit my wrists, I thought, like in the movies, but I didn’t know how to and there wasn’t anything sharp enough in my room. I could hang myself with the cord of my gown, but there wasn’t anything to hang from. Besides, I realised, I wanted to be dead but I didn’t want to die. Through my bedroom door I could hear my mother’s voice. It sounded as though she stood with her forehead against the door, worn out by my bullshit.

“If you kill yourself,” she said from behind the door, “she’ll be sad for a week, maybe a month.”

“So what?” I called out.

“But years from now,” she continued, “when all of this is distant and silly, and some girls tell stories about their ex-boyfriends, she’ll trump them with you.”

“What do you mean?” I asked uneasily.

Just then my father arrived home and came down the corridor. My mother told him that I was about to die.

“What?” he asked. “Today?”

He spoke to my mother but even though I put my ear to the door I couldn’t hear what they said.

“You can die if you want to,” he announced after a few long moments, “but first I want you to see something.”

I backed away from the door in case he tried to kick it down.

“What a stupid trick!” I cried. “I’m not coming out!”

“Let me show you something,” he said after another few moments. “If you still want to die after that, we’ll come back here, you’ll lock the door, we’ll beg and plead, and you’ll die.”

If my mother had said these words I wouldn’t have moved an inch, but with my father things were different.

“I promise,” he said.

I unlocked the door and followed him, past my mother who stood aside with pursed lips, to the kitchen where he stopped to light a cigar. He took his time, like someone would who didn’t believe that I could go through with my plans to die.

“The hard things in life are not the trouble we get into,” he said when he’d blown a cone of smoke to the ceiling with evident satisfaction. “They’re simple, everyday little things we tend to think nothing of. They’re things like wanting, waiting, doing, and loving.”

“You said you’d show me something—”

“When you’re older,” he went on, “you’ll realise this.”

“I’m not going to be older,” I reminded him.

My father puffed on his cigar and looked past me at nothing in particular.

“And when you finally see this,” he resumed, raising his voice a little, “you’ll need to hurry because the half-life of simplicity is short. Desires pale and time flies. Plans fail. And, in the end, love dies.”

I hated it, too, when he rhymed like that.

“What’s a half-life?” I asked.

He pinched a fleck of tobacco from his tongue.

“It’s what you’re about to have, isn’t it?”

With that he turned and walked out the door and into the backyard. I followed him reluctantly. I was angry at him for being so calm, for not grabbing me and wrestling me to the ground like I wanted him to. It was almost dark outside and it was hard to see anything but the outlines of things. He walked ahead of me up a narrow path that led to the corner of the yard, where a small garden shed stood under a large thorn tree.

“Go ahead,” he said. “I’m staying here.”

“What?” I sniffed.

“This is what I wanted you to see. Go stand by the tree.”

“You’re showing me a tree?”

“Forget the tree,” he said. “Look at the bark.”

The tree had coarse bark, like flakes of black pastry.

“Lift off a nice, large piece,” my father instructed from behind me.

I fumbled with the tree until a large piece of bark came away.

“Now look,” he said.

There was a lighter patch where the bark used to be. In the failing light I could just make out the rilled surface of the trunk.

“Can you see?” he asked.

“See what?”

“I don’t know. You’re the one looking at it.”

I looked again and wondered what I was supposed to see when my father came up behind me.

“How many people are on the planet today,” he asked softly. “More or less?”

“Four billion?”

“Four billion. That’s probably about right.”

He lay his arm across my shoulders and began to walk me away. Although I didn’t understand why, it was clear that my plans to die were on hold.

“Now,” he said, “how many of those four billion people have seen what is under that piece of bark?”

“Just me—”

Before we reached the backdoor, my father stopped.

“The heart has many cages,” he said. “But if you’re free enough to do something that’s one in four billion, all isn’t lost.”



Later that evening we sat at the kitchen table, recounting stories about our crazy great grandmother who’d had her coffin made when she was in her twenties, and had then kept it out on the verandah for decades, where it stood, filled with dried peaches. But my father wasn’t there. He sat by himself in his study and stared at the wall opposite his desk.

“What’s with dad?” I asked my mother.

“You,” she said.



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The long way home

“Why are you always so grumpy?” Annie asked from the backseat.

She had taken to accusing me of grumpiness ever since she figured out that it hinted at senility and incontinence.

“I’m not grumpy,” I muttered and gripped the wheel.

It was raining and we moved slowly with the rest of the traffic funneled from Lake City Way onto the I5.

“You are,” she insisted and smiled at me in the rearview mirror. “And you stomp.”

“I’m very friendly,” I hissed, “most of the time. And I don’t stomp. Anyway, you’re nine. What do you know?”

“Aarghhh,” her brother JD groaned. “You’re a hundred and fifty-four. What do you know?”

We crept onto the freeway but the I5 was backed up to the Ship Canal Bridge. A caravan of indicators and tail lights snaked away into the distance.

“Google is red,” JD announced. “How does it know that?”

It had always struck me as amazing and yet deeply unacceptable that Google, in fact, knew. It showed me the traffic I could typically see for myself, but it never showed me what I really wanted to know—why it was there in the first place. I gestured at the cars around us.

“Who are these people?”

Mia looked at me as though I’d asked her to hand me a spanner.

“Why are they here?” I pressed on. “Who’s in this stupid lime green Prius in front of us?”

“Does Google know he’s here?” JD asked dreamily.

“What kind of person drives a fucking lime green Prius?” I asked. “Why exactly does he need to be right here, right now?”

“You’re a grump,” Annie chimed.

A pickup truck with double wheels thrummed past in the lane to our left.

“And this asshole in the huge pickup, why must all that heavy shit move around just because he wants to?”

“What shit?” JD asked and leaned into the space between the front seats.

“Don’t say shit,” Mia suggested. “You’re eleven.”

“Aarghhh—”

The traffic slowed and for a moment I toyed with the idea of ripping out the steering wheel and walking next to the car with it.

Mia leant toward me. “If you keep swearing like this,” she said, “the kids are going to end up just as grumpy as you are. And they’re going to get into trouble. This is America, not Africa.”

As we came to a stand still I mused in silence on the difference between First and Third World anger. In America one often heard about mass shootings and bombings, many of which I was sure had been inspired by the effects of traffic. In Africa, people had to content themselves with shouting abuse and fingering gestures at one another from inside their cars.

“What I want,” I said as we edged slowly forward again, “is a minor superpower that pops up a small speech bubble above each of these cars that explains who’s inside and what the fuck they’re doing here.”

“You said the F-word,” Annie registered. “Again.”

Beside her, JD imitated an airplane.

“I want to fly. Then I won’t even care about the traffic.”

“Can you stop with this superpower nonsense,” Mia said and patted my leg. “It makes me angry.”

The lime green Prius slowed down every few meters for no apparent reason.

“If I could do that,” I gritted my teeth, “can you imagine what we’ll see? It’ll all be bullshit—pure driven bullshit—with maybe one or two exceptions.”

“If I could fly,” JD bargained with the world at large, “I wouldn’t swear. I promise.”

“What would it help if you knew where everyone was going?” Mia asked. “Ours would read, Destination—Ikea. Reason—buy mirror. How’s that any better than theirs?”

“You’re missing the point.”

“What possible point?”

“It wouldn’t be symmetric. That’s why it’s a superpower. I’ll get to do it. Not them.”

“But you can’t do it. So stop thinking about it. Just drive.”

I gripped the wheel a little harder.

“If I could just drive I wouldn’t be thinking about it.”

The Prius in front of us hesitated into the lane to our left but then returned to sit in front of us.

“It’s an old man,” I concluded. “I can see his ears.”

You’re an old man,” Annie remarked. “A grumpy old man.”

“Your grandfather always said to be careful of old men in cars,” I told the children in an effort to ignore them. “He said they were the last fools in the world, and they were out to get you.”

“You’re an old man and you’re in a car,” JD observed.

“If you want to become old man yourself, stop talking like that.”

“What would you do?” Annie asked.

I looked at her in the rearview mirror. She was staring out the window and seemed to have posed this question as a philosophical splinter.

“To JD?”

“No. If the cars had bubbles.”

“Oh. I’d—”

A gap opened ahead of the Prius, but the Prius hesitated and cars from the next lane poured into it.

“Jesus old man!” I cried. “Can you fucking move?”

“Beep,” Annie incremented her counter.

“Calm down,” Mia purred and patted my leg. “This is Seattle. People are calmer here. Be calm with them.”

“I’m calm—”

“Really?”

“But I don’t want to be with them.”

“What would you do?” Annie insisted.

“Well,” I said, “I wasn’t finished. This little superpower would come with the option to zap them.”

“Zap them?” JD asked before Annie could.

“That would be the whole point. If I don’t like what I see in the bubble—Zap!—and the car and everyone in it are back where they started—home, or wherever they’ve come from. It wouldn’t matter if they’d been driving for hours. Back they go.”

“They’ll crash!” JD shrieked and rubbed his hands together.

“They’ll be gone,” I said. "That’s all that matters.”

“You’ll zap everyone,” Annie remarked.

“Maybe.”

The lane to our left eased up and I edged across into it, but the lime green Prius did the same and slowed down in front of us.

“Calm down,” Mia hummed.

“What would his bubble say?” Annie asked.

“He’s a useless fart. I bet he’s going to Walmart to buy 500 pounds of Purina Dog Chow. Zap!”

“This is why your superpower talk makes me angry,” Mia said under her breath. “I start to imagine it, and soon I have to remind myself that it isn’t so. By then you’ve moved on to some other daydream while I’m stuck.”

JD pointed at a red Corolla. “And this one?”

“Ikea, to walk around and eat Swedish meatballs. Zap!”

“But we’re going to Ikea!”

“That’s exactly why I’ll zap them—so they don’t take our parking spot.”

“You’re so grumpy,” Annie said and looked out the window.

A gap opened in the left-most lane and I took it. Instantly, as always happens, the traffic in the lane slowed down and the lime green Prius edge ahead of us in the lane to our right.

“And this one?” JD asked of the SUV that filled our spot behind the Prius.

“Renton, to tell Mollie he’s sorry.”

“Who’s Mollie?”

“I don’t know. It’s what the bubble says. At least this guy has a reason to be here. I won’t zap him.”

“What did he do to Mollie?” JD demanded.

The lime green Prius looked ready to pry its way into the lane we were in.

“Oh no you don’t!” I cried and closed the gap between us and the car ahead.

We were now level with the lime green Prius and could see its driver. It wasn’t an old man but a stumpy woman, the kind who owned lots of cats and bred petunias and peered through the steering wheel to see out the front window.

“What are you doing?” Mia asked.

“I’m not letting this fussy spinster sit in front of us again—”

“Can you forget about this woman,” Mia said, “and drive our car?”

The Prius edged ahead again and started to turn in front of us. Just then the left-most lane widened into two lanes and I veered into the outer one to get around the Prius and its stumpy spinster. And with that we were swept onto exit 168B, off the I5 toward the 520 bridge across Lake Washington. The last I saw of the lime green Prius was its tail lights disappearing in the rearview mirror.

“You see?” Mia said as we drove across Portage Bay. “We might as well go home now. I’ll go to Ikea during the week, in peace, by myself.”

“Where are we going?” JD asked and looked around.

I didn’t answer him and tried instead to remember the name of a bridge across a river near Betties Bay on which I had once stood and watched a group of kayakers float by upside down. There was silence in the car until Annie spoke up at last.

“What would our bubble say now?”

I could feel Mia looking at me as I considered this. I wanted to ask her for a spanner but it wouldn’t have worked.

“Bellevue Orphanage,” I said at length, “to donate children.”

“Zap!” Annie cried.



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Old Timer

(Part 3—this story continues Our shaving grace)

Having the whole platoon shaved was not Fink’s best move. It gave us an identity, to be sure, but not the one he had intended. We were punished because of Andy, because of his mocking defiance of authority, but in his absence he quickly became a martyr in whose name our hardships were endured. When he returned at dusk, with fresh bruises and a long cut above his eyebrow, he entered the barrack to eager sympathy. Even the fat guy was friendlier.

“You were right,” he told Andy.

“About what?” Andy asked as he eased himself onto his bunk.

He winced with pain when the fat guy sat down next to him, moving the mattress.

“Fuck this place,” the fat guy agreed. “And fuck Fink.”

Andy smiled and looked around at our bald heads.

“What happened to you?” he asked Doc who had a large band-aid stuck across his.

“It’s stupid,” Doc said. “I should ask you that question.”

“Don’t.”


Over the next few weeks we talked to Old Timer every day. Each time Fink made us go back and forth repeatedly. Sometimes Levin couldn’t keep up. Sometimes we didn’t shout out in unison when we returned. Now and then someone turned around short. When none of this happened, Fink invented another reason, and we went again.

And again.

But in the end, Fink was no match for Andy’s jelly-like flexibility and fake incompetence.

“To avoid being pushed around you must offer no resistance,” he told us.

He sat on his bunk, folding his socks. They were supposed to be rolled into a ball that made a little smile and placed in a row in our lockers for Fink to inspect.

“It’s a sock,” Andy said, holding it up. “I’m planning to wear it on my foot. I don’t care what it looks like until then.”

For Doc, compliance was the way of least resistance.

“Why don’t you just roll them up?” he asked.

“I don’t feel like it.”

“How’s that no resistance?”

“What I meant,” Andy explained, “is that you must offer no resistance when they punish you. This isn’t the sort of prison where they can beat and torture you. They have to get you to do it yourself. Don’t, and you’ll be fine. They can’t squeeze a marshmallow through a keyhole.”

When Andy was sent to talk to Old Timer he jogged at a pace he could sustain indefinitely, despite Fink screaming for him to hurry up. When Fink made him do pushups instead, he gave out after a few even though he could easily have done a hundred. Whatever punishment Fink invented, Andy performed in a slipshod way. When Fink tried to punish us for Andy’s transgressions, we did the same. Fink had little choice but to stop after a while. We weren’t volunteers and so we couldn’t be fired. He couldn’t have Andy charged for every breach of discipline or he’d risk unpleasant questions about his own competence.


Once, when we were drilling as practice for an official parade, Andy continued marching in a straight line after the platoon had wheeled to the left. He marched off into the distance, deaf to Fink’s shouting. Fink had to run after him. He sent Andy to talk to Old Timer and then he made him do pushups when he didn’t seem to have tired from running. Fink ended up standing over Andy while he slowly grunted and heaved in the dust, doing only a few pushups before Fink had to give up in disgust.

On another occasion Andy wore his boots on the wrong feet. It gave his walk a weird lilt and made him look like a duck nearing a dam. Fink took all morning to figure this out and Andy looked pained and puzzled when his boots were finally identified as the source of the problem.

“What the fuck’s wrong with you!?” Fink shouted, kicking at his boots. “Have you got rocks in your head!?”

“Corporal?”

“Rocks! Are you deaf too!?”

“I heard you perfectly, Corporal,” Andy said in a level tone, “but what were you saying?”

Fink was blinded with rage. He leapt at Andy and knocked him to the ground. Then he restrained himself.

“Get up!” he snapped hastily.

Andy ignored him. He sat in the dust and swapped his boots, taking his time. He got up when he was finished, dusted himself down and stood to attention. It was clear to us then, as it must have been to Fink, that Andy was the inmate the prison would never break.


On our last day of basic training a soldier was run over in the street beyond the fence of the parade ground. There was a dull thud and the shudder of wheels skidding along the tar. Fink made us wait while he and other instructors ran out through the gate to help or have a look. But the man was dead, his body bent and wrong.

We watched while the men in the street gave up and talked and smoked and told one another competing versions of what they’d seen. Fink leant against the fence, his one boot pulled up under him. He made a long arc with his hand and slapped it into the other, demonstrating how the man had been thrown on impact.

Andy watched all this without a word. As he watched, he played with his beret. He flattened it and pulled it down the wrong way, slanted to the left. He looked like a French peasant.

Beyond the fence, the instructors exhausted the possibilities of speculation. Traffic began to back up in the street and Fink directed it around the scene of the accident. When the medics arrived, he returned to the parade ground.

“Come, come,” he barked. “Show’s over!”

We slowly assembled in drill formation. In the street, a man in civilian clothes photographed the body.

“Ri—ight face!” Fink cried.

Andy faced left.

“Your other right,” Fink hissed through gritted teeth.

Andy turned his head, facing as we did, but something bothered Fink. He came around until he could see down the ranks of the platoon. Then he spotted Andy’s beret.

“No fucking wonder!” he bellowed.

He tore the beret from Andy’s head.

“What the fuck’s wrong with you!?” he howled.

He threw the beret to the ground and stomped on it. Then he held his hand in the direction of Old Timer.

“Go talk,” he said.

In the street the medics had put the body on a stretcher. Andy stepped forward and stood next to Fink. Together they looked at Old Timer.

“Now?” Andy asked. “After all this?”

Fink shut his eyes and controlled himself.

“He’s waiting,” he said.

Andy shrugged and started walking in the direction of Old Timer. He didn’t lift his boots and scraped along in a drifting trail of dust. Fink watched him, transfixed, as did we. When Andy reached the tree, he remained there, nodding and pointing in our direction, as though he was actually talking to Old Timer.

Fink stood with his hands on his hips, flexing his jaw muscles. Andy talked for a while and then started on his way back. In the street the medics had driven off with the body of the dead man.

“So—!?” Fink heaved and quaked when Andy finally arrived. “You talked to Old Timer?”

“I did, Corporal.”

Fink made what looked like a superhuman effort to remain calm.

“And what you tell him?”

Andy considered his answer carefully.

“Everything, Corporal.”

Fink feigned surprise.

“You did?” he said. “And what’s he say?”

Andy hesitated like someone bearing bad news.

“Corporal,” he said, “he’d like to talk to Corporal now.”



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Our shaving grace

(Part 2—this story continues The waiting game)

Docs gathered his things and came to sit with us. Andy lay back against his bag again and gestured in the direction of the corporals behind us.

“Are you into hominid fossils, or what?”

“No,” Doc said unhappily. “It’s crustaceans, actually.”

“Oh Christ,” Andy hissed, sitting up.

“What’s wrong with crustaceans?”

“No, look—”

From the far end of the parade ground a gangly man strode toward us, using what looked like invisible ski poles. Even at a distance he looked angry. His beret was rolled up and tucked under his epaulette and flapped about like a pet parrot.

This,” Andy said when the man got closer, “is it.”

This, it turned out, was Corporal Fink. He arrived with crunching boots in a puff of dust. He circled us and surveyed us with obvious disgust. Every now and then he lunged at someone for no apparent reason. He had a long face and long teeth, like a cartoon donkey, and the sharp ridge formed by his hair gave him the appearance of having slept in a corner. While the other corporals were the inevitable outcomes of bad breeding, Fink looked like the result of a more intimate arrangement.

“Get up!!” he cried.

We staggered to our feet.

“See that tree!?”

He pointed at a small, gnarled tree at the far end of the parade ground, in the same direction he’d just come from.

We could see it.

“Go talk to Old Timer!”

We looked at Fink, and at the tree.

“Go!!!”


And so it began. We ran to Old Timer in confusion, stumbling and bumping into one another. Some of us cheated and didn’t go all the way, turning short with those already on their way back. Fink saw us and we had to go again. The second time, no one cheated, but there were stragglers.

We went again.

And again.

We’d all heard stories told by older men who’d been to the Army and returned. We knew the military expedient of punishing the group instead of the individual. But we also knew that we were still alone. There would be border patrols and riot control, things done at the behest of a government we didn’t like. Everyone had heard of someone who’d died. Most of us were afraid, but nobody said so.


For Andy, in contrast, conscription seemed to be a break from more demanding things. He walked from the parade ground on that first day without lifting his feet, shuffling and grunting, but Fink didn’t notice. We were issued fatigues and taken to the canteen where we ate a meal of glutenous blobs in quiet bewilderment.

“Eat your pumpkin!” Sergeant Sinden screeched.

He had been stalking the aisles behind us and now he jabbed at a lump of pumpkin Andy had isolated on his divided steel tray.

“I don’t eat pumpkin, Sergeant,” Andy said in a tone that the third Earl of Shaftesbury might have used to address his butler. “On principle.”

Sinden inflated until he looked like a five foot semicolon. He was speechless with rage.

“It’s a religious matter,” Andy added.

Sinden emitted a noise that sounded like a muffled engine, and at that Andy stirred his pumpkin.

“I’m also allergic,” he said.

When Sinden had gone, having hovered over Andy while he licked his pumpkin but never quite ate it, we were shown to our barracks. There would an inspection the next morning, Fink announced, at exactly 04:00. To begin with, we were to iron our bunks using toothpaste to sharpen the edges of the blankets.

“I want to clean my nails on them,” Fink shouted by means of an explanation.

We were to shave, shine the floor, bone our boots and square away the rest of our kit. Having shouted all this, Fink left.

“Why the fuck must I shave?” a guy with a beard demanded to know.

“What’s bone?” another guy asked.

Andy got onto his bunk and dropped off to sleep. We set about cleaning things, but after a while we began to wonder what to do about him.

“Let’s wake him,” Doc suggested. “He’ll be in shit.”

We’ll be in shit,” someone else remarked.

But we left Andy asleep and got on with what we’d been told to do. At 03:30 the lights came on automatically. Andy declined offers to get up and we had to leave him asleep. At exactly 04:00 Fink arrived. We were lined up next to our bunks while Andy snored gently near the back of the barrack. Fink took up a position near the door, riding up and down on his toes and heels.

Then he saw Andy.

Thinking back on this now, I’m sure that Fink was saved by the simplistic wiring of his brain. It spared him from a full understanding of Andy’s defiance. He smiled as he strode toward the heaving blanket.

“Rise and shine!” he cried and brought down his boot on a part of the blanket that looked like a shoulder.

Andy put out his head from under the blanket and blinked at Fink. Then he extracted his arm and peered at his watch. He seemed a little irritated and it was obvious that it was only his good upbringing that enabled him to tolerate Fink.

“Could you come back,” he suggested, “at ten?”

Fink hauled Andy off his bunk and dragged him out the door. From the windows we watched as they went down the road between the rows of barracks to Sergeant Sinden’s office. Andy wore what he’d slept in—boxer shorts and an old T-shirt. He shuffled while Fink gibbered and shouted and darted around him. The military police fetched Andy from Sinden’s office. They put him in the back of a van and drove off to the Detention Barracks nearby.

“He’s getting charged,” Levin said.

“How’d you know?” someone asked.

“What’s charged?” someone else asked.

“My brother got charged,” Levin said.

“What for?”

“He refused to do PT on the Sabbath.”

A few minutes later Fink returned and kicked over Andy’s unmade bunk. Then we went to the parade ground and talked to Old Timer about Andy.


Andy returned after dark. He had a bruise under his left eye and didn’t answer questions about the Detention Barracks. Some were angry at him for the punishment we’d received.

“Dude,” a fat guy threatened, “we got fucked up because of you.”

“You got fucked up because of Fink,” Andy said calmly. “Nothing here is because of me. Or you.”

He sat on his bunk and laced his boots.

“Yeah,” the fat guy insisted, “but if you got up when we did, none of this would’ve happened!”

Andy stopped what he was doing.

“If I had, something else would’ve happened.”

Andy ironed his fatigues and helped to polish the floor. Then he went to the bathroom and shaved his head.

Our hair was to be cut the next morning, and we all dreaded this. The hairstyle applied to new conscripts was famous, and a basic thing, a short shearing that left you looking like half a tennis ball. The goal was uniformity and a loss of identity.

“What you do that for?” Doc asked when Andy returned. “You look like Humpty Dumpty.”

I’d like to decide what my hair looks like,” Andy explained. “Besides, I could’ve been bald to begin with.”

At 04:00 Fink resumed his position near the door, riding up and down on his toes and heels.

Then he saw Andy.

“Where the fuck’s your hair!?” he demanded when he reached him.

He was taller than Andy and bent over him.

“Corporal!”

“Where’s it!? What!!?”

“Corporal said fuck, Corporal.”

Fink almost lost his balance.

“So fucking what!!?” he sputtered.

“Sergeant Sinden said to report instructors who swore at us, Corporal.”

Fink hauled Andy out the door and down the road to Sinden’s office for a second time. The military police came and fetched him again, presumably for shaving his head and thereby damaging military property.

“Now he’s fucked,” Levin whispered.

Fink returned to the barrack but we didn’t go to talk to Old Timer. As punishment he instructed the barber to shave our heads as well. We queued up with the other platoons but Fink had seen to it that we went in first to ensure that his request was properly executed. We emerged one by one, bald, to the growing alarm of recruits from other platoons waiting outside.


The barber was a leathery, wry man. He smoked incessantly and his beard was stained a large yellow dot around his mouth. His was an easy, unchanging job, and Fink’s request had leant a touch of excitement to his day. He also had an assistant—a serviceman with little ambition to do anything else—and they shaved us in pairs. Doc and I went in together.

“I have a mole,” Doc warned before the barber could begin.

“Is that so?” the barber mused. “I have a squirrel.”

“No,” Doc said, “on my head.”

“You’re lucky,” the barber replied as he adjusted his clippers. “The squirrel has to stay at home.”

He turned up the radio playing from a shelf on the wall.

“What’s the squirrel’s name?” Doc ventured nervously.

“Look,” the barber said, stopping as he was about to start, “what’s this bullshit? Next you’ll want my address so you can meet the squirrel. Then there’ll be phone calls in the middle of the night. Before I know it you’ve moved in. Fuck that. Now shuddap.”



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The waiting game

(Experiences in the South African military, some mine, some Jack’s, part 1)

The people who design military bases are the ones who couldn’t get into prison design school. Rejected, they set about trying to prove themselves. This much was clear to me on the dreary morning I arrived at Voortrekkerhoogte for basic training. There were fences everywhere, high walls, drab buildings, and little by ways of colour. I had dreaded this moment ever since I’d turned sixteen and the Defence Force had started sending me yearly call-up orders. Now I handed these to the guard at the gate and went inside.


On the parade ground young men stood around awkwardly. More arrived in busses from the station, conscripted to the base from elsewhere in the country. They had travelled far and looked haggard. They disembarked and disappeared into the crowd of waiting men. We were left to our own thoughts, to fidget with our small bags of personal belongings, and to watch one another. Like sheep dogs, sergeants and corporals barked orders to herd us together, but otherwise they left us alone.

It’s strange to see how quickly one’s idea of what’s normal can change. Within minutes we looked motley and absurd. Through a separating fence we could see troops drilling in another part of the base. They looked uniform and spruce. A soldier ran alongside a marching platoon with his R4 rifle across his shoulders like a yoke. Even he looked neat. In comparison we were tattered, unchoreographed, and vulnerable—new inmates in the prison yard. We were together for now, but there wasn’t any safety in the loneliness we shared.


Around ten o’clock a sergeant with a megaphone stepped onto a crate near where I stood. He was sinewy and tough, with bandy legs and a chin so weak that his face ended in a wide moustache. He looked like a shaved ferret. He triggered the megaphone and made it honk.

“My name is Sergeant Sinden!” he squealed.

He paused to let this information sink in. While he looked around, handing out hard stares, I tried to imagine that he’d always had that name, as a baby and later as a small boy—Sergeant Sinden.

“Has Sergeant Sinden made a poo-poo,” his mother crooned when he’d soiled his nappy.

I could see him called forward in kindergarten to hold up a crude drawing of a house and an outsize cow. It was signed Sergeant Sinden in an uncertain hand. Maybe he also had the moustache—

“What the FUCK are you smiling about!?”

Sergeant Sinden was looking straight at me.

“Nothing,” I called out.

Sinden almost fell off his crate. Then he was on top of me, in two quick strides, thrusting the megaphone into my face.

“Nothing who!?”

“Sergeant,” I tried.

He was springy with anger and had turned a darker colour. He held the megaphone to my ear.

“Nothing Sergeant!”

“Sergeant! Nothing Sergeant!”

“That’s better! Now get the fuck up!”

He got back onto the crate while I picked myself up under his unwavering gaze.

“I’ll kick your arse so fucking hard,” he crowed, “you’ll have a brown taste in your mouth.”

He looked around and collected himself. Then he delivered a speech of goodwill intended to welcome us and dispel some of of the misconceptions we might have had about the Army. One of these wrong ideas, he said, was the notion that swearing was condoned.

“So,” he shrieked, “if any of you cunts hear instructors using words like fuck or shit, you come and tell me!”

It was clear that the no-swearing policy had been conceived somewhere above him. He honked the megaphone again, like a bosun’s whistle. We were to line up for hearing and eyesight tests, and to pee on paper strips which would test for blood and protein in our urine.

“Fucking move!”


The Army wanted us to have no blood or protein in our urine—at least, not yet. The idea, as we saw it, was to have blood and protein in our urine already. One guy poured a Coke onto his strip and I stuck mine up my nose before I peed on it. It got all bent and didn’t look right. I threw it away and went to ask for another one.

“Buggerfuck me!” the medical officer roared. “You shit on it?”

“I lost it, sir.”

He put his nose very close to mine and bounced my fringe with his voice.

“And I feel for you like a mother with a wooden tit!”

Then he gave me another strip and followed me to make sure that I peed on it. He escorted me back to the rows of tables where the medics inspected it and sent me along in the snaking queue herded by shouting men. They called out our service numbers one by one. Service numbers started with the two digits of the year they were assigned. From these I could judge the ages of the other men. One man with thick glasses had a service number issued ten years before mine. When his number was called out he went up to Sergeant Sinden who was still standing on his crate. He explained something to him.

“Doctor!?” Sinden mocked him, using the megaphone. “Well, well, fucking well. Fancy that!”

The man said something else and appeared to make a helpful suggestion.

“Fall in, Doc,” Sinden brayed, making the megaphone squeak, “or I’ll fuck you so hard you’ll have with a whole new blood type!”


With their printed lists and practiced voices the instructors shouted us into groups. Each group numbered around forty men, but not all the men had arrived. We sat in the dust and waited.

“Just look at them,” the guy next to me said.

His name was Andy. He had long hair, all the way down his back, and a well-travelled look. He lay against his bag, one leg over the other, his hands locked across his chest. He seemed very relaxed at a time when the rest of us were very tense.

“Have you noticed,” he said, “that none of them has a proper chin?”

I looked at the corporals moving between the new conscripts, shoving them and shouting. They all seemed to share a basic body plan that suggested generations of unschooled sex.

“Only a recipe with very few ingredients could produce such consistently similar results,” Andy remarked.

As we watched them, Doc tried his luck with another sergeant, but Sinden spotted him. Soon he was doing pushups with Sinden’s boot in his back.

“Old Doc there is in for a hard time,” Andy said. “He thinks he can convince these people that he doesn’t belong here.”

When Doc started struggling after a few pushups, some of the corporals gathered to jeer at this outrage of physical weakness. One leant in and counted for him, shouting near his ear. When Doc’s arms gave out, he was yanked upright by the men who surrounded him. They abandoned their requirement of pushups and taunted him with questions instead.

“Doctor fucking what?” one of them howled.

“Palaeontology,” Doc explained glumly.

His face was red and dusty.

“So you’re not a doctor then?” another corporal asked.

“Polly-fucking-tology!” Sinden announced over the megaphone.

“If you had any expectations involving culture,” Andy warned as he chewed on a blade of grass, “it’d be good to adjust them now.”

The instructors lost interest and left Doc alone. He stood with his bag on the ground between his feet, cleaning his glasses. Then he sat down to wait.

A few minutes later, a stocky corporal with particularly simian features waded past.

“The People versus Natural Selection,” Andy snorted when the corporal was out of earshot.

Doc overheard this and smiled to himself.

“What’s up, Doc?” Andy called to him.

There was a moment of silence as Doc considered this question.

“We’ve gotta stop meeting like this,” he quoted from the seventies movie.

Andy sat up and smiled. He looked at me, and then at Doc.

“You know what?” he said. “It’s going to be alright.”



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A thing my father was good at

The last thing my father and I talked about was sleep. He was in town once a month to see his doctoral students and he came to dinner if he wasn’t too tired or nauseated by the side-effects of chemo. He sat in his rental car outside my gate, ready to leave for his hotel, when he remembered something.

“I forgot to tell you about Ryan,” he said.

“Who’s Ryan?” I asked and leaned with folded arms inside his open window.

“Ryan is a quiet guy—” my father said and shut off the engine, “—and weird.”

“Weird how?”

“Well, to begin with, he’s runty, with an extremely large head.”

“What?”

“It’s true. He’s mostly head, like the Lewis Carroll Hatter of old. And he’s always holding his head like he’s afraid it might come off and roll away.”

My father laughed to himself and coughed.

“Does he wear a hat?” I asked.

“No,” my father said and coughed some more, “but he wears a bow-tie. He’s the most uptight little man I’ve ever met.”

“A bow-tie—?”

“Do you have any idea what that looks like—this thumb of a man with his outsized head, and a bow-tie like a tourniquet?”

“Maybe his head just looks big because of the bow-tie.”

“His head is big, bow-tie or no bow-tie. Also, he speaks in haikus whenever he gets a chance.”

“You’re kidding—”

“When we met, he introduced himself with a haiku.”

“What did he say?”

“He said something along the lines of—Acquainted at last! Soon is the sunshine of minds—and then something else that made even less sense, so I cannot remember the last line.

“Just like that?”

“When I looked puzzled he explained that it was a haiku he’d made up.”

“Did you ask him why he bothered?”

“The man wears a bow-tie,” my father said by ways of an explanation. “Anyway, I’ve gotten better at remembering his utterances. Do you know what he said when I asked him this afternoon how work on his thesis was coming along?”

“What?”

Words flow and time flies. Ideas occur more slowly. A thesis eludes.

“That’s kind of funny,” I remarked.

“Sure,” my father said, “until you have to wait while he formulates it. Sometimes I feel like ripping out my veins and strangling him with them.”

“I take it he’s dull—”

“Guess what he said when I asked whether he’d enjoyed a trip they’d taken to Thailand.”

“He’s married?”

“Yes, but don’t ask me how he managed that. He has a kid too, so it all works.”

“What did he say?”

No.

“No haiku?”

“When he’s stumped, he reverts to short form,” my father said and laughed at his own pun.

“What’s not to like about Thailand?”

“Beats me.”

My father coughed again and blew his nose into a crumpled handkerchief he always seemed to have in his pocket.

“Anyway,” he resumed, “we reviewed the latest chapters of his thesis this afternoon, sitting together at a little table in my office. I was reading and he was watching me closely.”

“Oh Jesus,” I said.


With my father, what happened next was inevitable. Chief among his talents was a superhuman capacity for sleep. He could fall asleep anywhere, at any time, doing anything. What he hadn’t figured out, he always said, was a way to make money from this. He once fell asleep in a lounger at a furniture store in the mall. The owner suggested that my mother leave him there and go shopping, and she did. When she returned, my father was still asleep, holding a sign the owner had written—On Special Today! (man not included)—while people stood around and watched him. Another time he fell asleep on stage during a graduation ceremony. He was supposed to make a speech and waited in a chair next to the lectern while the Chancellor introduced him with a few stories from their past. One of these was about a time my father had fallen asleep during a prayer at a faculty dinner.

“I couldn’t believe it,” my mother said the next day. “You’d expect that he could stay awake this once. But no. As the Chancellor got to the prayer story, your father’s head drooped onto his chest and his arms dangled over the side of the chair. When people in the audience laughed, he jerked like a puppet.”

“I was thinking,” my father said.

“Is that so? What were you thinking when the Chancellor called your name a second time?”

“I made a good speech,” my father muttered.

“You did, but I’m surprised you stayed awake for that.”

“I don’t fall asleep when I’m talking.”

But this wasn’t technically true. Over the years my mother had perfected the art of getting my father to continue a conversation as he drifted off into sleep. She’d ask well-timed questions—calibrated to baffle him—and so kept him from sinking too far from her voice. Once, when I was still a kid, my father decided to buy a CD player. CD players were a new thing at the time and he had wanted one ever since he’d first read about the idea many years before. The decision to buy one was a watershed moment of his life, an outright betrayal of the investment he’d made in a collection of vinyl records, and the occasion of considerable guilt. In order to convince himself that he needed a CD player, he started to buy CDs.

“What’s this?” my mother asked when she saw another new CD one Saturday afternoon.

“It’s a CD,” my father said in the same tone he’d use to name a dahlia.

“I know,” my mother snapped. “Why did you buy it when you cannot play it?”

“I don’t need to play it,” my father declared loftily. “I just need to have it.”

A few Saturdays later he caved in and bought a CD player, despite his lofty ideals and my mother’s decree that a CD player was not to enter our house. They argued throughout lunch and then my father slumped into a chair.

“Dewald,” my mother said as he drifted off.

“What?” he mumbled.

“There’s a man at the door.”

My father frowned and sank deeper into the chair.

“Dewald,” my mother said again after half a minute.

“What?” my father blubbered with flabby lips.

After a pause my mother said, “He’s come for the CD player.”

“Hmm?” my father purred.

My mother let him slide into the abyss again.

“The laser is yellow,” she said when he was almost gone.

My father moved his legs and then slipped deeper into sleep again.

“Dewald!” my mother insisted.

“What?”

“There’s no need to argue about the lyrics,” she said.

My father stirred and frowned in his sleep.

“Pfuck’im,” he mumbled and melded a little further into the fabric of the chair.

“Dewald,” my mother said after she’d given him a few seconds to sink away. “What shall I tell aunt Henry?”

“Custard on Wednesdays,” my father slurred.


Now he said, “As I read, Ryan sat next to me, holding his head. He rocked slowly back and forth as though he’d just lost everything in some disaster.”

“Is his thesis any good?” I asked.

“Well,” my father hesitated, “it’s not a thrilling read, if that’s what you’re asking. The text, like Ryan, has a bow-tie.”

“Oh.”

“There’s even a haiku, as an epigraph.”

“What’s it say?”

“It’s sort of touching—My sweet little Sam, who wants to know what I do, will never read this.”

“Who’s Sam?”

“His daughter. Which brings me to what I wanted to tell you. As I was reading Ryan's latest chapter, his rocking must have entranced me. One minute I was reading, and the next I heard myself ask, far away, So, Ryan, did your daughter help you with this?

“What happened?”

My father coughed before he continued.

“I kept looking at the page and told myself that I must have imagined it, but then I heard Ryan say, with carefully measured syllables, She’s six years old.”

My father coughed some more and looked for a moment to be in pain.

“Then, helpless to stop it, I heard myself say, even farther away, Nevertheless, is it possible that she helped you?

“What did he do?” I laughed.

“He said nothing for what felt like a long, long time, and then he said No.”

“And then?”

“Then we just sat there like that, while I continued to read.”

“I wonder what Ryan’s thinking,” I said.

My father turned in his seat and looked at me.

“What if dying’s like that?” he said. “What if we sink from the voices and the light and time drags out like in a dream?”

“Maybe it’s just like falling asleep,” I said.

As he had done so many times that night, my father coughed.

“I ought to be good at that,” he said.



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