The Life of Henry Fuckit
33 He takes a room at the Olympia Residentia and applies for a job at the Dockyard
From Observatory Station he caught an empty mid-afternoon train to Kalk Bay. It stopped at every station on the way: Mowbray, Rosebank, Rondebosch, Newlands, Claremont, Harfield Road, Kenilworth, Wynberg, Wittebome, Plumstead, Steurhof, Diep River, Retreat, Steenberg, Lakeside, False Bay, Muizenberg, St James. No one got on and no one got off, but at each station the conductor called out all the remaining stops right through to Simonstown. He seemed to enjoy his job and shouted in a loud unhurried voice. When he came to clip Henry's ticket he did it with enthusiasm, causing the punched-out little cardboard snippet to fly into the air. Henry marvelled at the way people were able to make something out of nothing. And they couldn't all be dismissed as idiots. Take Jack Ponchielli.
Kalk Bay harbour looked deserted and a chill wind blew off the sea. Funnelling through the subway under the railway line it smelt of sea spray and human piss. He climbed the stairs to his room in the Olympia Residentia. These stairs were dirty and smelt of fish and chips and cat's piss. In the room it was already dusk and as he lay down on the bed it was as if he was sinking into desolation and squalor. The narrow cramped room opened by way of French doors onto the east-facing covered balcony that ran the length of the building. By early afternoon the sun dropped behind the mountain and Kalk Bay lay in shadow. This is going to be a cold cheerless room, he thought as he kicked off his sandals and pulled a blanket over himself. This is going to be a terrible place. He lay with his eyes closed, listening to the wind bumping doors, the southbound evening traffic in the road below, the rattling commuter trains filled with stupefied catatonics. It depressed him to think of all those people going home. How dreary their lives were, and yet they were trapped, without any acceptable alternative. And what of his own situation? What options lay open to him? If he didn't find some money soon he would be chased from this miserable hole out into the street to scavenge in the dustbins, to fight over bottles and cardboard. To beg and to steal. Not nice to contemplate. The horrible reality was beginning to haunt him. What a disgrace it would be if he was forced to become a Common Man and join the rest of humanity!
"Jesus fucking Christ, what am I to DO?!"
As if in answer to this prayer he heard a stealthy scratching at the door and then silence.
Huh! Bloody cat, or rats. Shit, I cry unto the Lord and He sends a rat to tell me to get fucked.
Faintly amused Henry relaxed and fell into a doze. The events of the past weeks drifted in and out of his consciousness in a blur of disjointed scenes. Although his pigeon loft had been spared from the flames that nasty, unforgiving landlord had refused to allow him to stay on. To their horror, he denied all culpability and, worse still, laid the blame for the fire squarely upon the shoulders of his suffering tenants. Luckily this room had come vacant at the Olympia, Ivor's old digs, and Henry had taken it as a temporary measure until he could arrange something more befitting. On account of the metaphysical torment he was experiencing Ivor had decided to take a sabbatical and accepted the position of Assistant Farm Manager on his uncle's maize and cattle farm in the Eastern Cape. Just for a year. Steve had quickly fallen into the butter by meeting a thirty-six year old divorcee, of independent means and a secluded mountainside property at Constantia Neck. Of robust good health and with a hearty appetite, she was quick to distract the young student from the tribulations that had befallen him of late. Mike had surprised everyone by moving in with Guinevere, WB O'Keefe the librarian, Marie-Lou, sister to Guinevere, and the shaven-headed paroled convict, Joe Thompson. From Tel Aviv had come Kaye's letter entrusting anything salvageable to Henry. Her letter had left him sick at heart. She was a self-centred bitch. He resolved to forget about her. The arguments with the landlord, the packing and unpacking, the transporting of sundry items to Kalk Bay, the storing of books and clothing, had all merged into an unpleasant jumble of experiences.
When he awoke he felt cold and fretful. There was a foul taste in his mouth and his eyes burned. What am I to do? Damn it! I must stir myself, get up, put on the light, go down the dark corridor to the toilet, piss, go to the bathroom, if it's free, wash my face. Go out and buy something to eat. A pie and chips? A drink? Maybe walk through to the Robin Gordon.
He got up in the dark and switched on the light, screwing up his eyes against the dingy forty-watt bulb. With a sneer he spied the letter that had been pushed under the door. So much for rats. His prayer had been answered by post, distributed by the shadowy shuffling figure of the janitor.
It was addressed to the old alc who had occupied the room before him. Henry had met him once, soon after moving in, when he had knocked on the door and introduced himself. He was in search of his spare arm and they had found it, covered in dust and fly droppings, on top of the wardrobe. The old man had insisted on relating an unlikely tale of heroism and sacrifice culminating in an amputation. The story was extravagantly romantic but too garbled to be really entertaining. You get gifted liars and you get atrocious liars and you get pathetic liars. Admiral Cockburn fell into the third category. When he left he touched Henry for a two rand donation in support of Muldersvlei Farm, the Salvation Army rehabilitation centre for alcoholics where he was doing voluntary work to keep himself out of mischief. From the balcony Henry had watched him hurry straight to the New Kings Bottle Store, still clutching the note in his good hand.
Henry slit open the envelope with the Swiss Army knife Joe had given him for Kruger Day. (What a generous good nature, forever coming home laden with gifts for everyone! Alas, those days were gone). The letter was from the South African Navy, Simonstown, and was dated the 29th day of July 1971. That was only three days ago. Fresh.
We thank you for your letter of 3 April 1971 applying for the position of Admiral, and wish to apologize for the excessive length of time it has taken us to reply.
We must regretfully advise that there are at present no vacancies in the rank of Admiral. This is indeed unfortunate as your qualifications fit you ideally for the position. We further wish to reassure you that under no circumstances would we discriminate against you on the grounds of your advanced age, your physical disability, your history of mental illness and your criminal record. The South African Navy prides itself on its modern and progressive approach to the selection and promotion of personnel.
However, should you be interested in the position of Assistant Storeman (White), we have two such vacancies at present and you are invited to present yourself for a personal interview at 08h00 on 5 August 1971, Room 10 A, Administrative Headquarters, McFarlane Street, Simonstown.
Captain Horace Nelson
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