Imraan Coovadia is the author of the novels The Wedding, Green-Eyed Thieves, High Low In-between, and The Institute for Taxi Poetry. Some of these novels have received awards, including the Sunday Times Fiction Prize, the University of Johannesburg Prize, the M-Net Prize; others have not. A creative writing teacher at the University of Cape Town, a programme he also directs, Coovadia is also an accomplished essayist; his last collection, Transformations, sparked a furore in the academic world. His latest novel, Tales of the Metric System, is being published this month. The Con has an extract about a man named Victor who has lost his passbook.
At five in the morning, the Edendale bus paused at the entrance. The engine was loud. Victor didn’t open his eyes. He put his hand into the inner pocket of his Crombie coat lying beside him, the former property of a sugar millionaire whose name was spelled beneath the collar in blue thread, and felt for the passbook. There was nothing. It was impossible to accept. Victor went back to sleep, to dream about his coming good fortune. He had all the luck, all the friends, a sponsor in the caretaker, another sponsor who was going to be famous around the world.
In his dream he could almost touch the soft brown face of his father, a beacon of friendship, and see the freckles spaced evenly from his forehead to his chin. The old man had been deft. With a fingernail he had lifted the black-and-white photograph from the passbook, which belonged to a Mozambican miner returning to his country, and replaced it with Victor’s own photograph, taken by the Indian assistant from Crown Portrait Studios. Since then the endorsements at the back, stamped and indecipherably signed and dated in a table of purple ink, had been checked a hundred times by policemen, court administrators and government clerks. No word had come from his father.
Either the passbook was in his pocket, where his blind hand couldn’t find it, or it lay somewhere beside the mattress. Victor checked under the coat and around it. Without opening his eyes, he searched along the mattress.
Suddenly he was wide awake. He heard the clopping of a horse on the road, as if it were coming towards him, and stood up. Through the window he saw the tall animal between the arms of a cart, pulling the trussed bundles on the back to the side of the road. Its eyes were rigged with severe black blinkers, joined by a strut over its head. The driver, wearing a corduroy cap, stopped it outside the tearoom, where it continued to switch its tail as the man went into the shop.
Victor saw the horse was no longer young. Its high grey chest, brushed with dark hair at the top and bottom, was muscled like the bodybuilders’ who tested their weights at the back of the hostel. He kept looking at the horse underneath the awning of the tearoom and tried to ignore the discomfort rising in his chest. He didn’t know if he would be as lucky today as in his dreams.
He tidied up first so he could find it quicker. He folded the blanket under his arm and stored it under the mattress. There was nothing when he turned the bed on its side. Nothing in his shoes apart from the smell of polish. Nothing in his shirt buttoned on the hanger. Nothing to be found in the back pockets of his trousers, nor in the overalls that he wore to the print shop. He felt he was trying to answer an impossible riddle.
The room was the riddle. It was hard to survey the entire area, which, besides being his bedroom, was used as a storage closet. Two mops stood in buckets beside pungent cleaning supplies. Some boxes contained broken lightbulbs. They were kept, like eggs in a carton, in case one fine day they should flicker into light. The caretaker of the Caledonian Christian Men’s Hostel, his friend Mr Samuel Shabangu, hated throwing things away. So there was a roll of knotted chicken wire, tins of Dulux with spattered lids, lengths of catgut, and, on a separate blanket, various tools, spanners and screwdrivers and a spirit level, necessary for the kinds of repairs the caretaker did daily.
Only a spell, forbidden to a Christian like Mr Shabangu, could have moved the reference book out of his pocket and across the room. Nevertheless, Victor began to check under the tins. He moved aside the heavy roll of wire to see what it might be hiding. Nothing. He had become a criminal overnight.
Victor had skirted the law to stay in town. His father had a permit when he worked at Natal Command, the barracks across from Durban North Beach, bringing oats in hot pails for the brown horses in the cavalry yard, and washing down the boots of the riders. As a boy Victor had helped with the work. They settled blankets on the backs of the horses when the regiment returned from exercise, inspected the shod feet of the animals, combed out their manes as the horses knelt in front of the barracks.
He and his father had slept side by side in a stall of their own. At midnight, he woke to hear the pleased sounds of the horses urinating, the scuffling of hooves against the stall doors, and the soft conversation with which the animals engaged each other, horses and dogs. The rough-tongued German shepherds slept nose to nose, and trotted suspiciously five metres behind the horses. Each befriended a particular horse and rider. They were liable to snarl when they were displeased, strong enough to rise on their back legs and pin Victor against the wall, powerful enough in the shoulders to hold him there as he turned his head away from the pouring out of salty dog’s breath until some expression on his face satisfied them. But they almost never bit.
Three years ago a certain individual sought to take his father’s job. That man told tales to the European staff sergeant, accusing his father of mistreating the dogs and trading their feed items to an Indian market-gardener. The accusation hung in the atmosphere despite the lack of evidence. His father’s cough had worsened while he worried about being put in jail on suspicion of theft or having the right to have his son with him in the barracks taken away. He hadn’t been able to sleep, and had lost the desire to talk to his many friends among the European riders. The pressure soon proved too much to bear. His father resigned from his position, bought the permit for his son to stay in the province so that they didn’t lose the foothold, left him in Pietermaritzburg, and returned to their native area, near Lesotho, in sight of the mountains. He promised Victor to return when rumours about the supposed theft cooled down. Since then, no message had come.
For three years, asleep or awake, Victor had never been out of reach of his reference book. The fever rose in his head while he searched again in the coat and turned it inside out. He moved the paint tins one by one and set them down in the other corner, pulled the drying rack from the wall, and, finally, opened the door to the outside. There was no lock on it. Light from the corridor came into the room and gave no clue to the whereabouts of the piece of missing property. His head spun.
The building was silent. The naked bulb above the staircase shone pale and yellow into the morning without producing any light. Victor looked past the staircase into the yard. At this hour the inhabitants were invisible, 180 grown and grizzled, restless and fearless men, who argued from their beds and the rows of open toilets, who borrowed rapaciously and tried never to return what had been loaned except to Mr Shabangu.
The men were exhausted. The day before, in place of church, they had practised dancing on the cement. They drank jars of illegal fizzing orange beer before sharpening their knives for the fights that developed on the way back from the beer hall. They treated Victor as an extension of Mr Shabangu, sending him with messages, warnings, requests, notifications of disputes, and other announcements that were meant to go first to the caretaker and, through him, to the council of supervisors, five Europeans drawn from the church hierarchy and the police. Their lordly messages, however, were received and then ignored by Mr Shabangu.
Victor looked for his friend. He should be around. The custodian didn’t seem to sleep. At any hour he might be prowling the hallway, inspecting the burglar bars for spots of rust, taking the council members on a tour, leading a policeman to an interview with one of the men about a theft or an assault, standing and thumbing the passages in a Gideons Bible, which shone in an oiled black leather cover.
Mr Shabangu, after all, was the person to ask if you had lost something or were looking for someone. There were no obvious limits to his knowledge. Sometimes he even seemed to know the future, who might find a position with the machinist shops, a fitter and turner and a large tool and die maker on Rissik Square, which of the residents might wind up in the district hospital, and which one might be arrested in connection with the burglary of a certain premises. Mr Shabangu stood for a system, fixed in place, in which you knew how to measure who and what was important.
Down the corridor, the door to Shabangu’s room was closed. Victor considered knocking. The caretaker hated any disappearances in the building, whether it concerned a man or a woman or an item of property, because it reflected poorly on him. He had seen the worst that a man could do, many times over, and liked to remind you of the lessons he had learned while drinking straight from a carton of very sour Juba in which the alcohol was as piercing as a European woman’s perfume.
Many identified Victor as something of a son to Mr Shabangu. They were wrong. Sometimes there was no connection with the older man. The caretaker had to struggle, on certain occasions, to recall Victor’s name. His large face would go blank while he was trying to fix on the letters, as if someone had relaxed the string holding his eyes and mouth in harness. He was unable to set his jaws. It was frightening. You feared that the man had been overcome by a fit and that he might choke. After a minute or two, Mr Shabangu recovered his self-possession, completed his sentence, retreated his tongue, and again seemed to recognise the other person. Afterwards he didn’t refer back to these incidents.
The people Mr Shabangu truly remembered, for whom his face tightened on the string, were the ones to whom he had loaned money. On Fridays he set up at the desk in the entrance, behind the frosted-glass door, and doled out new R2 notes in exchange for their signatures. Over Christmas he made longer-term loans, which the residents took to the rural areas to pay for a new roof, or a coffin, or a daughter’s or sister’s dowry, or the celebrations to mark a boy’s circumcision. He took down their pass numbers as part of his security. Looking over the top of plastic glasses, he copied the details into the end pages of the Gideons Bible. When you repaid your loan, a line went through your name with the help of a Parker pen and a ruler.
The outstanding accounts belonged to men who vanished. Some chose not to return to the urban area because of the pressure. Others died after a short illness and were buried in a potter’s field. Several had left the country to join Umkhonto, in which case the disappearance was not mentioned. Their names were nevertheless kept in the book and transcribed into a new Gideons when more space was required. They might come back into the country someday. Mr Shabangu repeated the numbers under his breath, updating the principal to allow for each month of interest, when he went through his records column by column. He was the only man who could do such calculations in his head. He was as good as an Indian.
Victor knocked on the door and listened. There was no movement. He waited and put his ear to the door. Sometimes in the passage he heard the caretaker talk to himself on his long trestle bed after he had stored his mops and buckets. His stern lips recalled the names of the debtors and the amounts outstanding in a voice so low you had to stand beside the door to make out the words and numbers. You almost believed you had caught Mr Shabangu casting a spell.
Victor went back down the hall and into his room, remembering the feeling of bad magic about the custodian. It was common knowledge, when somebody fell behind on his loan, that misfortune was sure to follow. Shabangu sent Victor to remind the person when a payment was due. Victor brought back promises, excuses, and other stories, and the knowledge that the payment would be made. Nobody defied Shabangu for fear of what he could do at a distance.
When he wanted to celebrate a sizeable repayment, the custodian came into the store room with a dish of sugared and startlingly orange baked beans, or a bowl of saltless bone-white pap from which rose the merest scent of water. On a long holiday, when certain longstanding accounts had been closed, he might bring an unlabelled tin of golden syrup. He ate slowly and delightedly without, however, offering Victor so much as a spoonful. Nobody knew Shabangu’s people. Victor was clearly his favourite at the hostel and perhaps in his life. Yet he didn’t get a spoon.
Towards others in the hostel the caretaker was obscure and even unfriendly. If Mr Shabangu wasn’t much liked, he was respected on account of his longevity. He was understood to be the oldest man in the building, snow having settled thick on his eyebrows and in the stiff hair around his black mouth. He walked up and down the staircase while hitching one of his legs. He sat down on a chair with a noticeable degree of discomfort and could find peace only in certain positions. Nevertheless, Mr Shabangu was not yet out of his forties.
Victor went to look again in the store room. He couldn’t rely on his friend to save him. Mr Shabangu didn’t knock. He simply arrived by right, putting his broad hands around the door and hauling himself inside the store room, where everything had been turned upside down and moved away from the wall.
“And how are you this morning, Victor? Is everything going to your satisfaction?”
“I have no complaints, Mr Shabangu.”
The passbook was nowhere. Victor could cry out loud. The past was gone. There wasn’t anything you could do to return lost objects to their positions. Nor could a person trace his steps so exactly that he would discover at which point he and his possession had parted.
“Everything is out of its place in here, I see. I can also see that you have moved my supplies from their usual locations. I prefer this room to be ship-shape, as you know.”
“I understand. I will put it all back in the right place.” The caretaker put his hands out to make a sign. “Everything must fit together like a tea set.”
“I promise to put it back as it was. I misplaced something.”
“Nothing too important, I hope. I know you have extra work thanks to the recent invaders. That gentleman Polk is to blame, I believe. He has put an extra strain on you.”
“He gave me a chance to work on the play.”
“Nevertheless, it takes a toll. I understand completely. When you are distracted it is only natural to lose track of your property.”
Mr Shabangu smiled broadly. It seemed to be the product of some dislocation at the jaw. Mr Shabangu had moods which were monotonous for months at a time, strung the one on the other like beads in a necklace. He got through Christmas and Boxing Day without the slightest trace of good cheer, singing hymns in the front row of the choir with a face as clouded as a Scotsman’s, and afterwards drinking the red fruit juice from the punchbowl with no more joy than if it were medicine.
In the same instant Victor understood that it was his landlord who had taken the reference book. He had come to the store room to gloat, declaring there was nothing that could be done.
Victor saw he was as lost as his permit. Shabangu had been at the top of his list, the first of his patrons. Victor tried to be friends with everyone who could help him. Now, for no reason he could understand, the custodian had taken the permit.
Main Pic by David Harrison