I found a story. Or rather, it found me.
Be careful, dear friends: do not wander the world with incautious ears.
Stories and ghosts (are they not the same?) seek always a crack to pour themselves into, a mouth to utter them, sometimes unknowing; a hand to write or paint them and when they are done, leave you empty, bereft, discarded.
This story I found may or may not be true. I know it is not real. It is a peculiar little coincidence: synchronicity in all its bewildering symmetry playing its tricks, leading us to odd beliefs, most surely far from tried and tested reality.
This story I found is about a man, it’s about a boy, it’s about a city, it may be about love. I think there is a tree in it somewhere, and a marabou stork, invading a city garden.
Where do such stories begin? How do they begin?
There is always a Traveller on a Journey: a farewell and a leaving behind, both sweet and bitter. There is the Way: slowly emptying out the Before into the Now; and lastly the Arrival. This is also how all stories end: the Journey, the Way, the Arrival.
We must then choose where to start.
Let us start by naming, a most powerful ritual: a man others named Mohandas; a boy who called himself Search.
What have they in common?
They breathed the same sweet air, paced the same streets, were dazed by the same sunrise.
They lived as far from each other as the Moon from the Sun, as close as consecutive pages in a book.
They were small.
They were mighty.
They changed the worlds they lived in.
The worlds they lived in changed them.
They began as Travellers, who became Exiles.
Castaways washed up on a far shore, the furthest shore you can imagine, in the strangest land, squeezed between tall mountains and a lazy Ocean.
A land of ripe beauty, lush with green, haphazardly peopled, peppered with towns, and one City.
This is the story of change. How it finds us, how we find it, and how sometimes, we change each other.
A child takes ship to a distant shore. How frightening must that departure have been. He was leaving behind him all he had known, heading for an unknown future. His recently sorrowing widowed Mother was transformed into an expectant bride. They had been the only two survivors set adrift in a sea of sorrows, clinging together as survivors are wont to do: the only survivors of the wreckage that had claimed successively, father and siblings. Now he was no longer the very centre of her life, though she would always be the centre of his.
His name was Fernando António Nogueira Pessoa. He was seven years old, and the very bud of a poet trembled within him.
He left pink
slumbering behind him, with its faint
aura of voluptuous corruption, the inheritance of centuries; the fruit of an
uneasy marriage of unlikely partners. The descendents of mulish Iberian Celts,
wily Phoenicians, stubborn Jews and sly sensuous Moors were reined in by scent
of Inquisition still wafting in the wind of recent centuries. The narrow
streets, cobbled it seemed, in contradictions, echoed to plaintive guitars and the
wailing agony of broken souls. Old sorrows were carefully stored for frequent
laundering, hung out to dry in fluttering lines across the narrowness of the
streets. The very light of that January morning was bitter with mist from the
river, the hesitant dawn seeking out a few nacreous glimmers from the sleeping
city as a farewell gift, a souvenir for a fearful child. Lisbon
How he must have clung to the icy iron of the ship’s railing as the city faded and the sea engulfed him. Surely he was small, as surely the world and the future were large and uncertain.
It was the year of Our Lord of eighteen-ninety-six, the sixth of January, the very day of the King of Misrule, a day for mischief from time immemorial, dedicated to the old pagan gods, carefully transformed by the Portuguese into The Day of Kings, when the Magi had brought before Christ that mixed bag of gifts: Incense for the God, Gold for the King, and for the Man the bitterest reminder of mortality and the decaying of flesh.
They sailed the uncertain seas of January, braving the storms around the Horn, down, ever down-ward to the very antipodes of the world, and around another spike of land sundering two warring oceans. There they left behind their ancestral icy Atlantic and ventured into the warmth of the Mozambique Current, the sultry heat of the
What a journey, from Winter into Summer: the glimmering waves rich with leaping life, the air hectic with screaming, diving gulls.
Finally the arrival: the green shore and a welcoming stranger. Strange indeed: the new husband, (his rival) presenting himself, perhaps, with avuncular bonhomie; the new house with its deep verandas shaded by the mauve silhouettes of the jacaranda trees, the solemn dark-faced servants with their expressive pale palms gesturing strange cadences of speech. The very air is alien; hot, humid and scented with rain.
He awakens in the drowsy afternoon heat and stumbles out to find her, his Mother. He pushes open the door, and wavers in the soft clack-clack of the ceiling fan, mystified by the shadowy gloom of the shutters, casting soft stripes of lilac light across the bed.
She glows in that darkness, her flesh freed from the encumbering stays, thighs raised tremulously. Between them his stepfather shudders, his pale shoulders divided by the paler vest, flexing as he strives. His buttocks clench in their thin veil of hair. He gasps as he rocks on her, surely hurting her, surely. She cries out, her face turning towards him in blind ecstasy as his stepfather shouts in triumph.
The boy runs, runs back to his cool shadowed room. He climbs onto the bed and clamps his hands over his eyes, squeezing out the sight of his Mother’s ecstasy, her gross betrayal, her surrender to some half-sensed bestiality, to nauseating pleasure. His stomach cramps and he spews his horror and his anger across the sheets. He crawls as far away as he can from the vomit and curls himself into a small ice-cold ball of pain.
He lies for hours, the icy sweat drying on him in the sultry air, the strange sounds buzzing distantly in his ears. In that distance he senses a presence, movement around him, hands lifting him. His Mother holds him, rocking him. Fernando, Fernando. She murmurs to him, she calls his name; she wipes the dried vomit from his face with a moist cloth, pushing back his hair, kissing his babyishly soft forehead again and again. She is still his. Her soft arms cradle him, her soft bosom under his cheek. Her sweet powdery fragrance surrounds him. Under her familiar scent there is a hint of musk, the olfactory brand of her lust, the rank smell of a male’s pleasure.
That evening he notes across the dinning room table the glistening waxed moustache move, flexing above the moist lower lip as his stepfather eats. He notes the sated look of satisfaction as he glances at his Mother, the avid eyes fumbling at her shoulders, her rounded neck, her swelling bosom. Worst, he notes the half-shy flush of desire and promise as she gazes back at him. He is excluded. He eats slowly, silently, listening to their sibilance as they talk, talk. They perform a skilful duet: their words wafting across the table lightly, enchantingly, deceiving all; the guests, his uncle, everyone but him. He knows now: they long to be alone in their repulsive intimacy. She is no longer his.
The servants hiss their feet across the polished floors, they slide in and out of the lamplight. The last of the meal is removed, vanishing into the shadows around the table.
His stepfather leads the male guests out to the veranda, where they light fat aromatic brown cigars. His Mother and the ladies rise and she gestures to the shadows. A tall figure bends low to whisper incomprehensible words to him, his Mother nods and smiles encouragement. He allows himself to be led away.
He lies in that alien darkness, testing the crisp sheets with his toes, listening to the night. He misses the slow rock of the ship, the familiar lazy yaw of the waves, the thud-thud of the engines’ heart. Something flutters against his window. The wind shuffles the leaves, slowly he lets himself float into that sound. Never before has he lain alone, uncomforted. She is no longer his.
He awakens to sound. Chirrups, cackles, raucous cries invade the silence of his room, slipping in through the green shutters. Barefoot in his nightgown he goes to the tall windows overlooking the veranda. Beyond its shadowed scarlet mosaic expanse, a green world beckons. He swings open the heavy shutters, slides away the netting and climbs out into a sharp-scented dawn. Already the first hint of the coming heat mists the horizon, but as yet, a freshness, a clean coolness permeates the garden. A velvety lawn, impeccably green, invites his tingling toes, a riot of rosebushes bloom extravagantly. A huge tree, tall and massive, lifts over-laden branches to the breeze. It is displaying heavy bunches of scaly skinned fruit, reddish-brown split here and there to expose pale gelatinous flesh. It is this tree the cause of the sound that draws him in: dozens of birds perch and squabble on the branches. In the midst of such plenty they strike and quarrel. Hopping with raised wings and gaping beaks, chasing each other away, even though the tree could feed hundreds, does. The ground is littered with pecked fruit, partly eaten and discarded.
Never had he seen such a variety of creatures, such wealth of life in a city garden.
In the midst of the lawn a short plinth supports a shallow basin filled with water. The birds swoop in to wash, fluttering their wings, spraying the air with a myriad rainbow droplets.
He sits enchanted. The cool grass tickles his bare feet, the dew soaks through his nightgown. The delicious scent of the awakening day enfolds him. Suddenly the birds’ quarrelsome cries change to something strident with fear. A slow ponderous figure floats down to the bird bath. Tall, as tall as he, much taller: an arrogant gait, thin legs balancing a heavy body with vigorous black barred wings, a bare wattled neck, a strong beak sharp as a blade. It lifts deliberate feet, glances side-ways at him. Its eye is quite mad, reptilian. The massive beak clacks menacingly. The huge wings open, delicate as a dancing master it takes one more step, closer to the bird bath, to him. It bends it’s nakedly pink sparsely haired head down to drink, and its mad eye watches, watches. It straightens, water dribbling from the cutlass beak and still it watches. After one long moment it leaves, rising on those enormous wings, a visible effort taking it aloft.
The other birds utter cries of relief, the alarm subsiding as the memory of the giant fades.
The garden welcomes him, embraces him with a peaceful acceptance at odds with its other inhabitants, all busily striving for mates, for food, for status in their small world.
He sits dreaming until she comes for him. The same tall figure in its starched, whispering dress leads him by the hand back to his room, to strap him into his hot and scratchy woollen suit, his stiff collar. He wants to go back into the garden. He wants to run in his nightgown. The woman, he thought, clucked at the wet and green-stained gown. She clacks out words under her breath in a strange language, she strokes his hair back. Her gestures are strange. She uses her palms, not her fingertips, a more comprehensive touch, somehow more complete, more intimate. He watches her face as she tends to him.
Her eyes are impenetrably dark, her skin a velvety texture that seems to drink in the light. Her nose is a sharp blade pointing down to lush lips, precisely delineated; her hands long and graceful, with those pale palms that seemed to turn each movement into some momentous gesture. He watches her solemnly. A pale-skinned dark-eyed boy, out of whom something sharp and fierce peers.
She taps his chest. Nkosi. Come, come. He hesitantly touched his finger to where she had touched him. Touched that finger gingerly to her chest. Quem és? Who are you? She smiles the dark face transformed. Nandi. She taps her own chest. Nandi. He smiles back shyly and takes the proffered hand. Nandi.
Two days later Nandi leads him through the strange streets to another place where familiar figures in the long habits of religieuse welcome him and lead him to sit with other small figures at wooden desks in a hugely tall room with a now more familiar swooshing fan hanging from the ceiling.
That first day he sits mystified, the words, the sounds pressing on him, bewildering. He sits very still, his eyes drinking in his surroundings, his ears seeking patterns in the cadences of the strange language.
At last she comes for him. A great bubble of relief expands in him at the sight if her. In her starched white dress, her smooth dark face, the folded white cloth covering her head, she seems the very image of an angel. She takes his hand in hers, leads him back, talking always talking in her own language, which he can perceive is different from what the Nuns and his stepfather’s guests speak. It comforts him. She comforts him.
At the house his Mother kisses his cheeks lovingly. She draws him in, she tells him she loves him, she hopes he is happy. She is wearing a long lovely gown he’s never seen before. Her hair is up-swept, her waist a lissom miracle above her curving hips. She sparkles. She is far from the woman who bitterly divested herself of her household, who cast herself and her small son on her mother’s charity. She is a bride, inebriated by the promise of a new life, astounded by the reawakening of her senses.
His stepfather steps in, beautifully dressed, carrying a long box. He kisses her respectfully, he smiles and hands her the gift. She gasps with delight at the sumptuous tumble of feathers within. Gently he drapes the ostrich feathers around her shoulders, slyly sliding his fingers along the edge of her bodice. She blushes, lips parted, eyes moist. Goodnight my darling, goodnight Fernando. They leave. Adult business.
Nandi bathes him, she serves him dinner. She tucks him in, carefully arranges the muslin veils over the bed. She hums a strange monotonous song. He is not alone, he fall asleep, listening to her soft voice.
Another ship, another port, another homeland left behind. This time the wind is ripe with spice and colour, heat and humility. The gods have ordained, men have obeyed, and humbly bare themselves to the bitter whip of chance as fate.
Another hesitant embryonic creature ventures to a new beginning. Behind him, he leaves his family, his ancestral roots. He is more fully formed, a little more certain; yet just as malleable, as new to life as the child.
Mohandas Gandhi: a man, a father, a son. A loving son, tormented by an inheritance of
pious guilt; a father before he was a man; a man still uncertain of his will, his strength, of his place in the world, he sets out to an unknown destiny with a burden of past failure bowing his narrow shoulders. Not his first great journey, but destined to be the longest. He was headed to the south of the world, the fabled coast of
Africa where his people had been summoned to harvest
sweetness and reaped, instead, a bitter crop.
The boy and the man converged on the same destination. The boy and the man, both from families of status, of power; orphans both; uncertain of the future, and undefined in their identity.
Unknowing, man and boy, both arable land, ripe for the sowing come ashore to a land of
Downwards from that long rip in the continent’s flesh lies this green land. That vulva that once gave birth to Man, will one day birth a new Ocean. The Rift shudders, groans and gapes, sending ripples of change ever outwards.
Do you believe such titanic forces leave men untouched? If the tidal pull of the Moon troubles oysters in a tub; if the flutter of a butterfly’s wings topples towers; how then can we foresee the effect the birthing spasms of the Earth’s womb will have on sensitive minds? Do you doubt the existence of some vestigial memory linking us to this most vital place? Step ashore, if you doubt me. The very air summons graces. Draw deep into your lungs the scent of this earth where Cain slays and slays, renewing his angry vows day after day. The smell of blood, that perfume of perdition; the welcoming odour of rain and steaming earth will tell you: this is home.
Home. What a word. Full, gravid with meaning. Home.
Home is where you go when your heart is empty, when hope fails you.
Home is where you lose your heart and gain your soul.
Home is the place that outgrows you and leaves you outside, looking in.
Home is where you go to be born, again and again.
Imagine, if you will, a strange infection: a stranger comes to this land and drinks of this air. He carries away with him deep in the delicate tissue of his lungs (as others once carried tuberculosis), the seed of momentous change: human earthquakes, if you will. As the rabies virus causes its victims to eschew water which would destroy it, so this infection impels its carriers to seek out greatness; to dream (hallucinate) of the change one man can bring; to be that pebble that brings down a mountain.
So then, what do we have?
One small man finds at the end of one long journey the beginning of another.
He set out, leaving wife, son and mother behind, to school his clumsy tongue to an alien discipline.
Alien, that cold, grey land: scentless the breeze, cold the rain. The food is
colourless, tasteless. The people: cool and reserved, are strapped as tightly
into their castes as his own people are to theirs. There is some understanding
in him, some sympathy for their ways. Their women move in cages: as trapped in
their corsets as his own women are in the tight circle of their traditions. The
fates decide your status, you earn you place on the Wheel: there seems to be
some concordance on this also. Besides, they are his conquerors, with all the
glamour and seductive power of such. He must please them. England
He keeps to his small tight disciplines as well as he can: he eats no meat, he pares his meagre pleasures down to nothing. He takes pleasure in his rigour. It empowers him. It sets him apart. He endeavours to forget burrowing eagerly into his wife’s young body as his Father lies dyeing in other arms. The memory of his avidity is repugnant to him. He will be a good son after all. He can deny his flesh, keep his vow to his dead Father. In this he does not fail. He must not fail.
At long last the exile ends, he returns. He dreams night after night on his narrow berth: his Mother, frail in her silken muslins, stretches out her narrow arms. He weeps. Dark, perfect circles bloom on her shoulder as he weeps. Her thin arms bring him home, forgive him, redeem him.
There is no thin figure on the quay. His brothers, rotund and prosperous, greet him.
She is dead. Long dead. No heart-quake warned him, no mystic breath whispered it to his cringing soul. The very centre of his life is gone.
This is failure, one bitter taste followed by another. Some demon steals his speech. His mind so agile and quick, cannot reach the outside world through the portal of his mouth. Another failure. A stumble-tongued lawyer: a family joke. What can be done? A summons comes. Far, far away a man needs an advocate of his own race.
He will be unique. No other exits in that far bastion of the Empire, none like him.
He sets out bolstered by his reinstatement in his high caste, carrying around him the invisible aura of his uniqueness, his privilege. A new start, a fresh beginning. He will wash away his old sins on a far shore, and come back resplendent, reborn.
The ship lays down anchor in a busy port: he walks down to the quay, dignified in his grey English suit, his white turban crisply folded.
Three men await him, men of his race, though not of his own people. Moslems.
Portly, glossy with success, they greet him, welcome him with splendid words and graceful gestures to which, he answers with dignified restraint; with splendidly arrogant humility.
The oldest of these men takes his arm to lead him past the raucous bustle of the stevedores, calling to each other, reeking of acrid sweat and the sour sweetness of sugar. They heave sacks on to their backs, heft cargo on platforms shouting “Heeeee! Heeee!”; answering the calls of the foremen, their corded muscles rippling with the strain of the ropes, the measured weight of their labour.
They swarm the ship, the quay, black ants punctuated here and there by the termite pallor of stiff-shouldered Englishmen, wincing from the barest brush of alien flesh.
Further on he notices a bull-necked man, whose smoke yellow eyes follow them with the faint derision of the warrior for the merchant-caste. The massive bullet head swivels slowly to follow their progress. Heavy, broad lips draw back from white square teeth. A stream of thick yellow spittle spatters in the dirt at their feet. The man laughs. His naked arms roll with obscene looseness in their sockets, his shoulders shrug his despite. He laughs and others join him, calling approval, their mockery transparent in their voices.
He sees himself briefly through those eyes, smoke yellow with swallowed rage: a small narrow bodied man, scurrying along on his spindly legs and stiff hips; his shoulders bowed piously.
The man himself towers in massive, slim-hipped splendour, his naked chest sports glistening pink scars like rosebuds, raised proud against the smooth blackness of his skin.
His companion hurries him along, pouring a constant stream of commentary into his numb ears.
The Zulus…savages…insurrection…hate us….the Impi veterans the worst…Come, come, you will see how we receive you, come, come…
They leave the docks behind and take him into a broad-avenued town with the splendid aura of prosperity. His companions explain, exclaim, complain. People move busily to and fro on the broad pavements, carriages and wagons trundle past. A small boy, pale faced and wan walking hand in hand with a stately black woman in a white dress, stares at him with disturbing dark eyes.
He sees, horrified, a young black girl with jiggling naked breasts laughing merrily and waving her hands gracefully in the air. Her palms flash moist pink like a glimpse of intimate flesh.
He averts his eyes but sees, again and again, the loose motions of her body.
They lead him to a respectable-looking house, introduce him to an array of eager faces: young, old, thin and generous-fleshed, they are all eager to welcome him, flatter him. Their regard pours healing balm on his wounded pride.
That night on his solitary bed, he dreams the girl, her naked conical breasts juddering above him, but in the final moment of his pleasure, she leans down and moans through broad heavy lips, teeth clenched in ecstasy, smoke-yellow eyes glistening with hatred and lust.
His new life takes on its own particular pattern. He wakes to birdsong, sneaks out into the dazzling dawn; Nandi leads him back, scolding, into the shadowy room to don his shell. She takes him to breakfast: his Mother mouths at him, his Step-father winces his moustache, he leaves. On the way to school he gazes about him, drinking in the novelty of sights and sounds, breathing in the dense intoxicating perfume of the humid air.
He savours the sensation of safety her firm, dry clasp on his hand conveys. He loves the crisp swish of her starched petticoats, her voice. In the moist heat she carries a freshness about her, a quiet composure. The two of them seem to move through the busy streets surrounded by the impenetrable bubble of her dignity.
At the school he is handed over to a Sister, herded into the classroom to be mystified by the rhythms of the new language.
Day by day the sounds acquire an enchanting precision.
Words. Sharp, delicate chisels with which to carve out new forms.
Words. Like circling horses, curvetting, pausing, turning: gracefully obedient to the flicking whip of his burgeoning mind.
How he loves the taste of this new language, his growing hoard of words.
The day slides by and soon she’s there, Nandi with her tranquil face, to lead him back to the haven of the garden, humming with cicadas in the sudden twilight, and the peculiar silken slither of bats fumbling through the lilac air.
He stands pale in the tub in the lamplight. She sluices warm water over him, her quietness soothes him. Her firm capable hands strip the dripping water from his limbs before wrapping him in the linen towel. He is thin. His small narrow shoulders and thin frail limbs lack the boisterous ruddy energy he has observed in his classmates. His pale face boasts no rosy hues, his lank dark hair no enchanting glint of russet, and still Nandi´s hands are gentle, tender with his translucent flesh.
In the dinning room he concentrates on the illusion of the spoon vanishing into the soup.
Despite his care, it clicks on the bottom of the plate, the peculiar sound of silver on porcelain, and his Mother frowns. She has grown plump. He flesh has acquired a lush lustre. She is absent from him, distant and distancing herself from his gaze.
Nandi again, his angel, covering him with the crisp sheets, placing a firm hand over his eyes before draping the fine netting over his bed. He lies quietly in the darkness she has drawn over him. Tranquillity descends. He sleeps. Tomorrow, he knows, has a pattern he can describe, a comforting cycling of events. Pattern is safety. The future is clear.
In the quiet pool of lamplight he stoops his shoulders to the book. His pen scratches deep precise furrows on to the page, it pleases him to watch the sluggish flow of the glossy ink, slowly drying on the paper.
His words flow effortlessly through his mind, travelling swiftly to egress through the sharp steel nib. This fluency pleases him. He builds his case, graceful bridges of logic consolidating his arguments over the flowing river of facts. What agility escapes his stumbling tongue is compensated by the grasping leaps of his eager mind.
In the tranquillity of that warm night, any phantom of failure is allayed. He works until the delicious weariness overpowers his limbs and cottons his mind. He lies on his bed and lets the slow waves of sleep lap against him.
He imagines himself (narrow in his dark western suit), gesturing with humble authority; his arguments fluent and impassioned. In his half dream the Judge wobbles his jowls in awed (though reluctant) approval…
The cool sharpness of the morning wipes away the remnants of the night’s weariness.
He does his morning ablutions with scrupulous care, dresses carefully and joins his client-host for breakfast. In his old life, something unthinkable, here it seems natural.
They discoursed quietly over their food, drinking their scalding tea in tiny sips, while the bright ghosts of the household women soundlessly tend to their unspoken whims.
His fantasy is not to be. He must head west and northward, to the fabled land of gold and gunpowder, there to negotiate a settlement. He will not gloriously expound, but only quibble and squabble, like a merchant or a panderer, over coin.
Still, he will represent his client with dignity. He boards the stagecoach impeccably dressed: hair neat and gleaming with pomade, suit sharply tailored; glasses flashing acuity.
He speaks politely and knowledgably to his fellow travellers, one of whom had spent some time in Bombay, trading tea; and now trades hotter beverages to the mining camps. At the border to the Republic of the Free State of Orange they changed horses and drivers in the middle of the icy night. The passengers somehow managing to slumber through the stop: the guttural voices, the clinking of metal on metal, the hoarse blowing of the horses as they are backed into the traces. Frigid dawn sees the next stop. The door opens and a broad bearded man climbs in, bringing in the sharp smell of the cold, mingled with the smoky odour of pipe tobacco.
Wat is Dit!
Ek sal nie langs `n Koelie sit nie!
The creaking and swaying of the carriage announces the heavy descent of the driver and his companion.
Wat se jy Meneer, Dat ons Koelies is?
Then two faces staring at him in astonished indignation, the scarlet faced fury of the new passenger barely impacting on his consciousness; and the rough hands are grabbing at him. He is tumbling, crashing to cold hardened earth, a-sprawl, gaping at thick-soled, dirt-caked boots.
He is dimly aware of the exclamations of alarm of his fellow passengers, some sort of argument.
The harsh voice of the driver interjecting in some coarse form of English he could barely understand:
No Koelis! No Indianers! This is die Vrei Staat, Engels!
Indians verbode! Forbidden!
Geen bedondered ape!
The sour sting of vomit rises in his throat. Dirt cakes his teeth, his lips split and bleed as he grimaces in pain and humiliation.
All his proud pretensions brought to dust. This dust, soaked with his bile and his blood. He is less than nothing.
Less even than an Untouchable.
He is dust in an unforgiving land shaped by warriors, shaped for warriors.
He is dust.
Crouching on the stirrup runner, he has a sudden vision of himself: Folded stick arms and legs, monkey head hunched against the cold between his shrugging shoulders. His fingers cramp desperately to his hand-hold on his perch: fear and ice adding tenacity to his grip. Numbed, floating beyond any point of consciousness he ever believed he might survive, he is jarred by the sudden jerk of the carriage coming to a stand-still, nearly shaking him loose from his precarious perch.
He clings, oblivious, until gentle fingers pry him loose, strong hands lifting him into blessed warmth. A lap rug is wrapped around him. In the unfocused haze of his naked eyes, the Boer passenger’s scarlet face looms.
Sies ,man, Koelie…
An awkward silence hangs in the carriage. A palpable miasma, like the mingled smells and hot plumes of breath: an unwelcome intimacy. Leaning back, eyes closed, his eyelids glued shut by tears of dust and shame, he sees himself. He sees himself, again and again, fastidiously drawing his garments around himself to avoid the contaminating contact with the unclean.
Unclean. Untouchable. Unthinkable.
He has scorned good men of his own race as impure while seeking the approval of an alien nation.
The stinging rejection of the people of this land burns his pride scours away his complacency. Their hatred, their scorn, their despite, make them brothers.
His arrival in Johannesburg, tottering stiffly from the carriage, wrapped in a blanket and stained with dirt, adds another layer to his suffocating rage.
The curious sidelong glances from his fellow passengers and passers-by, has him fumbling for a handkerchief scrubbing vainly at the shameful map of tears on his cheeks.
What has happened to you?
The solicitous kindness in a familiar lilting accent almost has him sobbing in relief.
He is taken away from the sardonic stares of the big men with the fierce beards, the urbane scorn of the Englishmen. He is cocooned in gentle indignation, warm familiar scents, comforted.
His humiliation is complete.
Those whom he has secretly scorned as his inferiors, in both status and intellect, have shown themselves far above him in generosity of spirit.