The Life of Henry Fuckit
72 Weak white flesh
On the pavement there was a man lying on his side with his legs drawn up. Snoring loudly, he lay with his cheek pressed to the paving slab, his open mouth a slack hole. One arm was tucked under him, elbow jutting behind, in front his hand palm up. The other arm was bent prayer-like, the hand laid palm down on the pavement before his face. He was lost in the grateful oblivion of the dead drunk. Henry stepped round him and crossed Albert Road.
Treaty Road was a narrow side street marked by a church school on the corner. Grimy and dilapidated, the school blended in with the surroundings. Pausing, he looked up at the wall and contemplated the cross surmounted by the name of the school. He sought for an apposite phrase. Did the cross merely symbolise 'Church', or did the locals regard it as signifying something more complex and abstract like, 'the love of Christ', or, 'the pain and suffering of mankind?' What of Promise, Justice and Goodness? Did any of them regard it with bitterness as a symbol of 'superstition and ignorance'?
A gust of paper and grit blew across the street and he hurried on. Although the clouds were few the blustery southwest wind robbed the afternoon sun of its warmth.
He saw no sign of the tree. The road seemed to end at a set of rusty gates in a wall of crumbling brick that surrounded a half demolished warehouse. Beyond lay the railway tracks, a factory and the docks. When he approached the gates he saw that the road turned to the right and followed the wall. There at the end was a tree.
He had seen the white milkwood at Mossel Bay, the Post Office Tree. Huge, gnarled and ancient, maybe six hundred years old. The Treaty Tree was not as impressive, though its thick, twisted trunk was evidence enough that it had been standing there for some three of four hundred years. He admired the dense foliage, the rich dark green of the shiny, rounded leaves. The tree was protected on one side by a wall in which was set a brass plaque proclaiming the monument. Next to the tree had stood a house where the commander of local Dutch defences had formally handed over the Cape to the British after the Battle of Blaauwberg in 1806.
He tried to imagine how unspoilt the area must have been in 1806. Low dunes with grass and yellow flowering sea pumpkin, and sails in the bay. Now look at it. The plot of grass where the house had stood was kept neatly mowed by the Council and there was a park bench. But the view beyond was grim. The ugly utilitarian shape of a warehouse made more unsightly seen from the rear, a derelict site littered with rubble and refuse, the long, crumbling brick wall.
He turned from the tree and was confronted by a coloured woman. He had not noticed her approach.
"Master, gee vir my 'n sigaret. Asseblief, Master."
"I don't smoke" Henry replied.
She looked about thirty and wore tight black pants and a dirty blue cotton coat. Her hair was concealed by a woollen cap. She had a shapely figure but her face looked raddled and puffy. She carried a plastic bag and he heard the clink of empty bottles.
"You don't smoke, Master? I'm a smoker. I'm also a drinker." She giggled. She was probably drunk: there was an aggressive air about her. He began to move off. "Give me ten cents, Master. Vir 'n dop"
He shook his head. He tried to imagine the kind of life she led.
"Do you know about this tree?" She looked blank. "Did you know that this is the Treaty tree?" She eyed him suspiciously.
How remote she is from me, he thought. Of course she knows nothing of the tree. It was a tree. What did she care?
"You want to come with me?" She asked, gesturing towards the wall. He was a little surprised and began to walk away. Bound to be diseased, anyway. Then out of curiosity he turned.
"Five rand." He laughed. She came and stood close to him. "Net twee rand." She was dark skinned and her face was marked. He could smell the wine on her breath and see the offensive boldness in her eyes. "Net twee rand. Kom jy?" She was slightly impatient.
Henry made a motion with his hand and she understood. He followed her to a point where there was a break in the wall. There was nobody in sight. She led the way to the partly demolished building and they passed through a doorway into a room that had four walls but only the sky above for a roof.
How easy to do the wrong thing again. No clamour of warning in his head. Merely a vague idea that this was not the right thing. No intuitive surge of feeling to counteract the rising curiosity, excitement, and sexual urge. Just a faint, toneless voice disinterestedly making a statement: wrong. How unpersuasive.
His heart was thumping fast and he felt shaky in the legs. She turned round and put down the bag, the bottles rattling together on the cement floor.
"Kom" she said, smiling to reveal two missing teeth. Henry unzipped and lowered his trousers and she began.
, the contrast of brown against white. She was expert and unhurried and he stood leaning against the wall, arching his body back in sacrificial abandonment. Then he clutched her hand holding it down, hard.
Henry gave her the money and hurried away, wondering why he felt so unashamed of himself.
Why did I do it? It was such an easy defeat. I don't' think I put up any resistance at all. Possibly I didn't even realise I was being attacked. But then, what was wrong with it anyway? A minor incident in the daily economic life of the city. A straightforward transaction between two persons, one providing a service, the other, the consumer, paying the agreed price upon satisfactory delivery of said service. No coercion, no exploitation. No exploitation? Well, of course there was exploitation. I exploited the vulnerability of a 'fallen woman' and paid her to perform yet another demeaning act, thereby further undermining what was left of her self-respect and regard for her fellow beings. But what if she had come to Palmerston Road and knocked on my door and offered to clean the windows for two rand? If I had then given her the choice, clean the windows or milk the bull for two rand, I'm sure she would have gone for the bull without hesitation. Ho-hum, who am I trying to deceive with this specious bluster, this beating about the bush? There's no necessity for an ethical debate - in my own eyes, according to my own values, according to my own notion of how human beings should treat each other, my action was plainly immoral. Instead, what I should be trying to determine is why I repeatedly succumb to the wrong impulse. Maybe the initial impulse can be ascribed to my active imagination and openness to novel or exciting situations. A dilettante's unencumbered disposition at play. But the conception of possibilities should be accompanied by judgement and choice. The moment the migratory thought of hiring the woman's services crossed my mind an alarm bell should have sounded. A neon sign should have lit up proclaiming a bold warning. Something like ACHTUNG, or WATCH IT, PAL, or PAS OP VIR DIE GEVAAR. Without a moment's hesitation that clear warning should then have been heeded. I should have immediately turned my back on the temptation, discarded the impulse and walked away. For my own physical safety and peace of mind it should become an unquestioning habit, as automatic as a conditioned response in a laboratory rat. I see the danger; I don't even think about it; I just walk away. And to hell with the voices extolling life as an open-ended adventure and deriding the insipid gentility of virtuous action.
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