The JRB presents new short fiction by Byron Loker.
How the war ended for Jonathan
Jonathan and I became friends during the time I was renting the downstairs apartment up on Boyes Drive. Jonathan is good friends with the landlord who was the chairman of a bank and lives in Johannesburg and comes to Cape Town only occasionally on holidays. Mostly it was Jonathan who came on holidays while I was living in the downstairs flat, especially at Christmastime, and he would occupy the main house upstairs where he would take his tea out on the balcony and notice me when I went about my comings and goings on the stairs.
‘Look,’ he would say, ‘if it isn’t Lord Byron the poet! How is Byron the poet?’
‘Ha, ha,’ I would say, ‘I’m fine thanks. But I’m not much of a poet, you know.’ Jonathan would laugh and sometimes he would invite me up for tea, or supper, and so we became friends like that.
Then, Jonathan worked for the same bank as my former landlord, but now he is the director of a very important organisation that is trying to stop South Africa from going down the toilet. He was once down from Johannesburg on important organisation business involving judges and high courts and snacks and wine and a whole lot of white people standing around pissing and moaning. This time he stayed in another house on Boyes Drive where he was also great friends with the owners; Jonathan has a number of important friends with prestigious houses on Boyes Drive and other places in Cape Town and the world.
The house where Jonathan was staying and where he invited me over for dinner one evening is on the bend where Boyes Drive dips from St James and then rises and then falls again into Kalk Bay. It is one of the grandest houses in St James. The interior décor is rather old-timey now—the old lady who was Jonathan’s friend who lived there was ninety until she died one Christmas after breaking a hip—but the house itself is terrific. It has seven bedrooms, five bathrooms, two staircases, three storeys and is built in the rectangle-ly modernist tradition and set at three angles each with a unique view over False Bay—south to the open ocean, south-west to the Kalk Bay harbour and south-east to the Hottentots Holland mountains.
So Jonathan invited me over there for dinner one evening and I went. I was no longer in the apartment where I was when Jonathan and I met but was between places—where I’ve been for a long time—and looking after an English professor’s cottage in Kalk Bay. I went over for dinner with Jonathan and he showed me in and it was good to see him again. It was getting dark and he said, ‘Here, I’ll show you the house.’ Jonathan walked me slowly through the house—he has an injury to his foot now and must walk slowly and carefully. Jonathan loves to walk when he is down on holiday in Cape Town, especially on the catwalk along the ocean-front from Muizenberg to St James, so this problem with his foot is very frustrating for him.
We walked through the main entrance of the house and admired the view over the mountains, then Jonathan showed me down a short flight of stairs into a lounge where the view to the south is, and then down another short flight of stairs to where there is another lounge—or office—and we could see the harbour and the lights that were beginning to sparkle across the water. Jonathan told me about Mrs H, who was the lady whose house it was and how he would spend almost every Christmas lunch with her. ‘I cook two chickens,’ Jonathan told me. ‘One is for Christmas Eve, when I’ll have a few friends over, and the other I bring over here for Mrs H and me on Christmas Day for lunch.’
‘Come along,’ Jonathan instructs me and we go back up to the lounge on the middle level where there are some beautiful old armchairs. ‘Sit. How are you, boet?’ Jonathan asks.
‘I’m fine,’ I say, ‘thanks.’
‘Are you writing?’ Jonathan asks.
‘No,’ I say. ‘I’m not writing. I don’t know what to write about.’
‘Why aren’t you writing, boet?’ Jonathan asks and I say, ‘I don’t know why I’m not writing.’
‘I’m worried about you,’ Jonathan says. ‘You’re drifting. You have a talent. The only real sin is to have a talent and not to use it. That’s a sin.’
‘Yes,’ I say, ‘I know,’ but I think, Doesn’t sin have rather more to do with murder and coveting my neighbour’s ass or his wife or something than not writing about things?
‘I’m worried about you,’ Jonathan says. ‘You need to make some decisions. You need to get out there and make some mistakes.’
‘Yes,’ I say. ‘OK, I’ll try.’ It is very nearly dark now; I can barely make Jonathan out in the twilight, but there he is dimly backlit by what’s left of the light off the bay and we have been talking quietly for a long time and are sitting and Jonathan doesn’t get up to switch on any lights.
After some time Jonathan says, ‘All right, boet, let’s have some dinner. We’re having Spanish omelette, do you know what that is?’
‘Yes,’ I say, ‘it’s like a quiche, right?’
Jonathan seems pleased that I know what a Spanish omelette is. ‘Yes,’ he says, ‘like quiche. Come on, let’s go make some supper.’
We get up and Jonathan switches on some lights and seems to notice the Steinweg grand piano over in the corner for the first time. ‘This is the main reason I love this house so much,’ he says and goes over and sits down at the grand piano. ‘I’m playing again,’ he says, ‘working on the Bach. I’m just starting again, but it feels good.’ He sits and begins playing a few notes, looking at the book that’s on the stand in front of him on the piano, the Goldberg Variations it is, he’s playing.
Jonathan plays a few notes, or chords they might be, but they don’t seem right to him and he stops and shakes his head and starts again and stops and shakes his head and starts again. ‘No,’ he says, not getting it right. He stops and flexes his fingers and tries again and plays for a longer period before he stops. He nods his head. ‘Like that,’ he says and he nods at the book, ‘turn the page.’ I’m standing beside the piano and I turn the page. ‘See,’ he points out the notes with a finger and plays with the other hand: ding, ding, ding-ding, ding. ‘No,’ he says. He stops and tries it again. ‘Do you see it? Or you can do it like this.’ He brings back his hand from the book and tries those opening bars again in another way. ‘It’s very technical, there’s a physicality to it. Do you see it?’ he asks and plays the notes again and again until it looks like he’s mostly getting it right. Ding, ding, ding-ding, ding. So it goes.
‘Yes,’ I say, ‘I see it. Wow. That’s so good.’
‘Do you think this is easy?’ he says.
I laugh. ‘No, it doesn’t look easy,’ I say. ‘You have a talent.’ I laugh. Jonathan gives me one of his low-lidded looks he likes to give me when he thinks I’m making fun of him but it’s OK and he likes it anyway.
‘I’ll give you a klap,’ he says and lifts a hand from the keys and draws it back as if to give me a klap. I laugh and he puts his hand back to playing the Goldberg Variations, stopping after a bit and starting again until it doesn’t sound like he’s making any mistakes.
‘Do you think this is easy?’ he asks again as he plays and I shake my head. ‘So, what’s wrong with you?’ he says. ‘If I can do this, why can’t you write? What’s your excuse?’ I smile and Jonathan says, ‘Turn the page.’
Jonathan played a small piece of the Goldberg Variations over and over and told me about how it is to play Bach on the piano and I listened. ‘I’ve written three concertos, a symphony and an Orchestral Manoeuvre in the Dark,’ I think he said, and I said, ‘Wow, that’s amazing,’ but I was too embarrassed to admit that I didn’t even know the difference between those things.
‘Right,’ Jonathan said when he had had enough of the Bach, ‘time for our dinner.’ He led me on up to the kitchen and pointed out a bottle of red wine. ‘Open that for us, will you, I’ll start with the Spanish omelette.’ I set about looking for a corkscrew and opening the wine and Jonathan talked about how he was going to make the Spanish omelette. ‘You can make us a salad,’ he said and pointed out the salad things in the fridge and I set about making a salad while we talked—mostly about what Jonathan’s organisation was trying to do to stop the country from going down the toilet and not having much luck with.
When the Spanish omelette and the salad were nearly ready we were talking about other things and I told Jonathan about my friend Carl who was staying with me for a spell. Carl had finally given up the film industry and the cocaine and had a good and responsible job building fast food restaurants. He was building one soon in Namibia, so he’d done some research about Namibia on Google and become interested in the bush war that they had had over there against the communists.
‘So what did your friend learn about the war?’ Jonathan asked.
‘Well, one thing,’ I replied, ‘was about how they developed some pretty groundbreaking war technology over there, like an armoured personnel carrier with a V-shaped undercarriage so as not to blow up so badly on land-mines.’
‘Yes,’ Jonathan said. ‘I fought in that war, you know.’
‘Wow,’ I said, ‘I didn’t know. What was it like?’
‘I’ll tell you about it,’ Jonathan said. ‘Bring that, and that,’ he pointed to the salad and what remained of the wine, ‘come, let’s eat.’
We sat down at the table in the dining lounge adjacent to the kitchen and began to eat and Jonathan told me about fighting in the bush war that they had over there in Namibia.
When Jonathan, because of conscription, was sent to go and try to kill communists, he already had something like two MA degrees and a PhD but he refused to become an officer. Besides, everybody knew then that you could only really be any good as an officer in the South African Defence Force if you had a Standard Eight qualification. While he was over there in the bush looking for communists, Jonathan fell in love with a soldier named Barry or Brian; something with a B.
‘We were all falling in love with each other and going off together into the bushes and doing things with each other. It was just fine, we were happy doing that,’ Jonathan said. Jonathan was admired and respected by most of the soldiers and there was camaraderie going on all over the place, which happens in bush wars apparently. One evening a soldier who admired and respected Jonathan stopped him outside his tent and asked him if he wanted to go off with him over into the sand dunes. Jonathan gave him one of his looks and told him, ‘Sorry, but I don’t fancy you like that.’ The soldier laughed and said, ‘No, man, not like that, just take a walk with me, I’ve got a little something for us.’ So Jonathan tagged along with the soldier out of the camp, over behind some bushes and sand dunes and they sat down and made themselves comfortable.
The soldier had a joint which he lit and Jonathan and he smoked and chatted and looked up at the stars and wondered if they would find any communists to try and kill. In a little, while they were lying down on their backs admiring the stars, all of a sudden, the stars started shooting across the sky. Brilliant red and yellow and green stars shot across the sky and Jonathan exclaimed in wonder, ‘Look, the heavens are falling!’ Maybe it was because of the dagga but Jonathan and the other soldier’s soldiering faculties were not at their optimum, so it took them some time to register that those were not shooting stars they were admiring but that their camp was under mortar attack.
‘No way!’ I said. ‘Was anyone hit?’
‘No,’ Jonathan said. ‘We scrambled back to the camp. There were some near misses, but we survived, unscathed. It wasn’t long after that, though, that the war ended for me. I was court-martialled.’
So that was how the war ended for Jonathan. Being court-martialled is like being keel-hauled, or something, it’s the worst possible thing that can happen to a soldier apart from being killed by communists. The trouble started one morning during ablutions, at 3 a.m., or whenever it is that soldiers are supposed to be awoken by the clanging together of pots and pans and the shouting of imprecations by corporals, along with instructions to shave and shower and meticulously make beds and just generally get up, eat some scrambled eggs and go and kill communists for no particular reason.
‘While I was shaving, or brushing my teeth,’ Jonathan said, ‘a tiny drop of toothpaste or shaving cream or something fell, blip, onto my boot. It made a tiny white dot on the tip of my toe. We did our thing, then were herded out onto the parade-ground as usual, lined up, the sergeant major moving down the lines eyeing us up and down. He came to a stop in front of me, looked me up and down.
‘“Troopie!” he shouted in my face, “what is that on your boot?” I thought about it for a second or two,’ Jonathan went on, ‘couldn’t get it, and so I must’ve moved my eyes or my head to see what was on my boot.’
‘“Don’t,” the sergeant major shouted, “look down!”’
‘That,’ Jonathan said, ‘right then, was the moment I knew that the war was over for me. I felt my whole body relax, a great calm came over me, a great sadness too, but I looked the sergeant major squarely in the eyes and asked, “I don’t know, sergeant major, is it animal, vegetable or mineral?”’
Some things happened then to Jonathan. The sergeant major went fairly apoplectic with rage, partly perhaps because, given his level of education, he didn’t actually know the answer to the question Jonathan had raised. Jonathan was ordered off the parade-ground and plans were put in place for the court martial, not before, I imagine, Jonathan was stripped naked, tied to a stake, covered in honey and fed to the red ants they have over there in the desert in Namibia—however it is that insubordinate, homosexual soldiers are punished during bush wars against communists. After that Jonathan was sent to pack his trunk and then to Pretoria for the court martial, where he luckily came up against a colonel not impervious to reason.
‘You asked me a question, sergeant major,’ Jonathan argued in his defence. ‘Given that I did not know the answer to your question, I attempted to examine the evidence to hand. However, your further instruction prevented such an action. I, therefore, attempted, by means of a question of my own, put to you in all fairness and good faith, to determine the answer to your question,’ Jonathan said to the sergeant major, no doubt encouraging further apoplexy. The colonel judging the court martial fortunately couldn’t fault the logic and Jonathan was spared from crime and punishment. Instead, he was put to work behind a desk for the rest of the war and didn’t have to kill any communists.
‘I was so angry,’ Jonathan told me. ‘Not because of what they did to me with the ridiculous court martial and that, but because they took me away from my friends. These were men I loved and had grown very close to and they took me away from them. I was very angry and that anger stayed in me. Because of it I did something later on, something that I went to jail for.’
‘I thought you’d gone to jail after the court martial?’ I said.
‘No, it was something else,’ Jonathan said. ‘I told you I went to jail, right?’
‘Yes, I remember,’ I said. Jonathan had never told me why he’d gone to jail and it felt impolite to ask.
‘I’ll tell you about it sometime, maybe,’ Jonathan said.
It had grown very late by then and we’d finished eating a long time before. We went out onto the balcony and sat in the dark talking over tea while Jonathan smoked a cigar, as is his custom.
‘I worry about you,’ Jonathan said.
‘Yes,’ I said, ‘but don’t worry about me.’ We lapsed into silence and I could see Jonathan’s eyelids were drooping. It was past midnight by then.
‘Time for me to get going,’ I said but I just sat there until Jonathan said, ‘Yes, time for you to get going, boet.’ We sat for a little while longer before I stood up and we moved back into the house, through the dining room, out past the kitchen and Jonathan walked me slowly back up the driveway.
‘Good to see you, boet,’ Jonathan said.
‘Good to see you too, Jonathan. Thanks for dinner,’ I said. ‘And thanks for the chat, I really enjoyed the evening.’ We shook hands and hugged and then I walked on up onto Boyes Drive and I walked on back down along towards Kalk Bay. The south-easter that had been toiling in the bay for days had finally lain down and the night was still.