The JRB presents an exclusive excerpt from The Distance, the forthcoming novel by Ivan Vladislavić.
Vladislavić is an award-winning novelist, short story writer, essayist and editor, and Patron of The JRB.
The Distance will be published by Umuzi in 2019.
Read the excerpt:
Paul Skinner gave me a boxing lesson I never forgot. On a summer afternoon, under a Highveld sky that was nearly the blue of my school blazer, he punched me in the mouth and started to like me.
The lesson began in Mrs Worsnop’s Arts and Crafts class when Skinner pulled the chair out from under me as I sat down. I’d risen to answer some question, correctly no doubt, and he decided to bring me down to earth. He couldn’t help himself. He reached for my stool, which had a slot in the middle of the seat made for a child’s hand, and moved it aside, so that I fell on my arse.
I couldn’t help it Miss. That’s what he told Mrs Worsnop when the laughter had subsided. She was a sluggish, ginger-fuzzed toad of a woman with a fondness for popping green grapes between her teeth and spitting the pips at whatever boy was within range. The floor around her desk was slimed with this spawn. She never stood up if she could help it and even the commotion caused by the prank did not rouse her. I thought she would send Skinner to the office to explain himself to Mr Hobbs or make him stand in the corner with the wastepaper basket over his head, familiar punishments, but apparently not being able to help yourself was an acceptable excuse.
The fall hurt no more than my feelings, but it enraged and humiliated me. I’d been taught at home that pulling the chair out from under someone was not funny. It was close to the top of the list of things that a certain class of person thinks are funny but are actually dangerous, like stirring Brooklax into someone’s coffee or jumping out from behind a door and shouting Boo! The victim might die of dehydration or heart failure. A person who has a chair pulled out from under them might break their back and be paralysed for life. I knew a girl this happened to, Mom said, and she spent the rest of her life in a wheelchair. A wheelchair! When Donny Drummond had surgery on his fallen arches he was in a wheelchair for months and we had to carry him up and down the stairs at school. What if this happened to me? Perilous possibilities were at the heart of our family philosophy, such as it was, which consisted in keeping your head down and making the best of a bad job.
Unfortunately, another somewhat contradictory family principle required one to stand up for what is right. So I found myself challenging Paul Skinner. I couldn’t help myself. I wasn’t sure where my indignation would lead, I hadn’t thought as far as the consequences, and I wasn’t exactly planning to duke it out, but that was the language he spoke, and before I knew it I had challenged him to a fight.
I’ll meet you at the taps after school, he said.
Ja, I’ll be there Skinner. Don’t worry.
As soon as my challenge had been accepted, I wished to retract it. But how to do so without losing face? This question throbbed in my head all through Arts and Crafts. We were making objects out of papier mâché. We’d brought clay for modelling, newspaper to tear into strips and flour to mix the glue. Terrence Jones and Melanie Fuller arrived with modeller’s clay bought at the art supplies shop in Barclay Square, the new shopping centre in town. But Dad said he wasn’t going to waste good money on something you could sommer dig out of the ground. So one afternoon Branko and I rode our bikes down to the Sesmylspruit and left them leaning against the railings of the bridge while we scrambled down to the river and dug some clay out of the bank. Melanie Fuller’s clay looked like fudge and smelt like the inside of a Mercedes. But this stuff of mine, wrapped in newspaper and taken home on the carrier, was mud, thick brown mud spiked with willow leaves and insect wings, and reeking of the spruit’s stagnant shallows. A pile of it, moulded into a grimacing face, lay on the Arts and Crafts workbench as I tried to figure out how to avoid meeting Skinner at the taps. The glue made of flour and water had cloves in it, for reasons known only to Mrs Worsnop, and the spicy aroma of Irish stew barely masked the smell of river mud—three times worse than Bon Accord dam—as I dredged my strips of newsprint and laid them over the face-mould like mucus-laden bandages. It was a clown’s face, actually, with astonished eyebrows and a bulbous nose. When I took it home at the end of term, glossily made up with model aeroplane paint, Branko said: Really, Joe. Tickey the Clown. Is that the best you can do?
After break we had Hygiene and then English, where Miss Drysdale read to us from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. These closing lessons often dragged, but not today. Skinner caught my eye a few times and gave me a sly smile. When the bell rang, he was first through the door.
I hung around in the classroom, hoping he’d forgotten about me and gone home. Miss Drysdale was at her desk leafing through exercise books and making notes. When she began to pack up her papers, I looked around the door, willing the coast to be clear. And there he was, waiting at the taps, as promised, with his hands in his pockets. His fists.
- Ivan Vladislavić was born in Pretoria in 1957 and lives in Johannesburg. His books include the novels The Restless Supermarket, The Exploded View and Double Negative, and the story collections 101 Detectives and Flashback Hotel. In 2006, he published Portrait with Keys, a sequence of documentary texts on Johannesburg. TJ/Double Negative, a joint project with photographer David Goldblatt, received the 2011 Kraszna-Krausz Award for best photography book. His work has also won the Sunday Times Fiction Prize, the Alan Paton Award, the University of Johannesburg Prize and Yale University’s Windham-Campbell Prize for fiction. He is a Distinguished Professor in the Creative Writing Department at Wits University.