The JRB presents a new short story by Fred Khumalo.
Mr Big Stuff
Harry is butchering Barry White’s ‘Rio de Janeiro’ at the top of his voice as he towels himself dry after a scalding shower. He ends the song on a high note. The smile on his face widens as he works the towel around his penis. The impressive demeanour of his member—strong, firm and erect—inspires him to change from Barry White to the current local hit ‘Ngamshov’uMbali!’ The song speaks fittingly to the subject at the top of his mind: his insatiable sex drive. He can’t believe the transformation his body has undergone over the past two weeks. Yes, he’s still flabby—those man-boobs make him so embarrassed he still insists on switching off the light before undressing in his wife’s presence—but his virility now makes up for this imperfection.
He drops the used towel in the hamper. There is a visible spring in his stride as he whirls into his closet to get dressed. The maddening smells of breakfast—fried eggs, bacon and Ethiopian coffee—come to him from downstairs. His efficient wife Ntombi is always the first to rise, take a shower in her own bathroom—they have a his and hers—before rushing downstairs to make breakfast.
Finished dressing, Harry oozes towards the stairs and takes them two at a time. He hasn’t had a sharper attack of euphoria in a long time. How long will it last?
‘My Casanova!’ Ntombi greets him, her eyes shining. ‘After the morning’s exertions, you deserve a real man’s breakfast.’ She pushes a plate in front of him: two fried eggs sunny side up, two croissants, four rashes of crisp bacon, two slices of fried tomato, Lazenby sauce, accompanied by a jug of orange juice. She slides into the chair opposite him.
‘Whatever it is you’re eating these days,’ she says, ‘is working wonders.’
‘Blame it on a healthy diet and regular hours at Virgin Active.’
‘But, sir, you need to apply some restraint, otherwise you are going to kill me.’ She grins. ‘Remember, I am a professional woman. I cannot turn up at the office exhausted almost every day.’
‘You’re making me blush, sweetie.’
‘Seriously, though, is there anything you want to tell me?’ When Ntombi started noticing the physical changes in her husband, she suspected he might be taking some sex booster. While he slept, or was out with his friends, she searched his closet, his study, his gym bag, hoping to find signs of a magic potion that had suddenly turned her husband into a beast in bed. She couldn’t find any incriminating evidence. Yes, there were three packs of condoms. Ag, she thought to herself, at least he is responsible and thoughtful. Let him have fun on the side. He deserves it, after all the stress and suffering we’ve been through lately.
‘Are you thinking what I’m thinking?’ he says, breaking into her thoughts.
‘What’s on your mind, loverboy? Movies tonight?’
‘I know you’re naked under that gown of yours.’
‘Well, shelve that thought, baby. We have to go to work. Besides, we’ve already showered.’ Amid her protestations, he scoops her off her seat, tears the gown off her, pushes the breakfast things out of the way, and positions her on top of the table, so that her cleanshaven sex is right on the edge. ‘This is crazy,’ she gasps as he enters her. ‘You’ve been bewitched or something.’
‘If there’s a cure for this, I don’t want it.’
Later, they rush upstairs to clean themselves up before getting into their separate cars, and off to work. As he drives, he is still smiling as he replays his breakfast performance. What has gotten into me? he asks himself.
Harry has every reason to be asking himself that question. It is now October. August and September had been hell for him and his wife. Always fighting. Ultimately, their fights were over sex. Or the lack of it. Harry couldn’t get it up.
Ntombi, his wife of four years, tried all the tricks in the book. She bought new sexy lingerie. She acquired a TV for their bedroom, so they could watch porn together. She plied him with various sexual boosters—in both liquid and tablet form. To no avail. His impotence drove him to drink.
‘Babes,’ Ntombi said one night, ‘I understand your frustration. But booze will only make things worse.’
‘Can things get any worse than this?’ he said, pinching the end of his flaccid penis. Then he burped so long and hard Ntombi thought he was going to vomit. His burp smelled of layers of booze, consumed over the past week, every day, almost non-stop. Having just been promoted to senior prosecutor at the National Prosecuting Authority, he had taken leave from work, ostensibly to prepare himself for his new appointment. But he was abusing the break.
‘Tell me,’ he repeated, ‘Can things get any worse than this?’ He touched his genitals again.
‘Listen, babes, if you want a release, you can go to a brothel.’ Though he said the words in a high-pitched, jocular tone, Ntombi could detect anger and pain in the statement. ‘Go and buy yourself a fuck, baby girl. There are brothers from Nigeria and Congo. They’re big and ready.’ Ntombi was shocked. Harry had never been cruel to her.
The day arrived for Harry to begin work at his new office. He got himself a haircut and three new suits—his weight gain had continued unabated during his month-long drinking binge. In addition to worries over his impotence, Harry suddenly noticed that Ntombi was coming home late almost every day.
‘Have you found a stallion to service you?’ he asked.
‘That’s rude and unfair, Harry. You know that our annual results are coming up and I have to work late.’ She was a chief economist at Old Mutual.
‘That was supposed to be a joke.’
‘That I am an attractive, twenty-nine-year-old woman who is married to a thirty-three-year-old man but hasn’t been fucked in two months is no joke!’ She regretted her words immediately. That night, just like on most nights thereafter, they slept back to back, not saying much to each other. Each party feared uttering the wrong words.
Two weeks later, as they sat watching TV, Ntombi decided to break the silence, ‘Babes, perhaps you should consider going to Men’s Clinic. You know …’
He jerked up, ‘Never!’
‘I’ve been doing some research, dear. They are discreet.’
‘No, they are not. What happens at Men’s Clinic does not stay at Men’s Clinic. The practitioners over there thrive on gossip. Knowing people’s secrets makes them feel socially superior. They tell everybody’s story at bars and shebeens, even at parties and church services.’
‘Why would you say that?’
‘Just the other day Jiggs from the office was having a fight with that big-headed journo from the Sunday Times, the one who thinks he’s the biggest investigative journalist in the country.’
‘That’s the one.’
‘As the screaming match between the two escalated, Jiggs sat back and said: “If you don’t get your nose out of my fucking affairs, journos from the Daily Sun will get your Men’s Clinic file.” After that, Hoare stopped harassing Jiggs. Talk of a Men’s Clinic file shut him up nice and good.’
‘You’re just being paranoid and defensive.’
‘I’m not going to Men’s Clinic.’
Then Harry had a lightbulb moment. The man who’d never cheated on his wife thought perhaps his condition boiled down to the predictability of marital sex. He had to stray, explore other women, to get his groove back. At the office he was popular with both black and white women. Black women were fascinated by this white guy who was married to a black woman. They knew that once a white man had gone black, he never wanted to go back. Though he was married to a successful black sister, there was no harm in sampling him. The people shall share, so said the Freedom Charter. White women, on the other hand, thought a white man who could satisfy a black woman—oh, these black people are oversexed!—was worth trying out. In fact, some of them thought, perhaps he could be won over back to the fold. A good-looking, kind, cheerful, powerful white man couldn’t go to waste like that. Fuck the white rhino; save the white man.
Fully aware of his popularity, Harry made a move on Jocelyn, the leggy blonde. It was when they were in the hotel room, naked, that it suddenly dawned on Harry why he’d chosen her. She reminded him of his own wife. The two women’s breasts were generous without being Dolly Parton-esque. They were both taller than him. While Ntombi had a waist that paid tribute to Naomi Campbell, Jocelyn’s made him think of Barbie Doll, an image emphasised by her blonde hair and blue eyes.
After almost thirty minutes of oral sex, Harry suddenly realised that his manhood was refusing to rise to the occasion. Limp and flaccid, it was more like a sjambok than a spear. Sighing for the umpteenth time, he removed his face from between her legs. Nestling next to Jocelyn, caressing her thigh, he said, ‘You’re a beautiful woman, you know that?’
‘You’ve been saying that all afternoon.’
‘Sorry.’ He paused for a while, before adding, ‘You don’t have to worry about anything.’
‘Why should I worry?’ she said, irritation creeping into her voice.
‘You’re not unattractive, is what I mean.’
‘You’re repeating yourself again.’
‘If I have to come right down to it, I think I have a case of jungle fever.’
‘What is that?’
‘Having been married to a black woman for the past four years, my white dick now doesn’t respond to white women.’
She sat up and gave him a hard slap. Two slaps, in fact. Slap-slap.
‘Take it easy,’ he said, ‘it’s not a reflection on you.’
She responded with another slap. Then she shot to her feet, saying, ‘You’ve messed with the wrong bitch, I tell you.’ She clambered into her jeans, put on her blouse. While she moved about the room looking for her shoes, she hissed between her clenched teeth: ‘Strutting around the office as if you got game, bloody eunuch. You say I am uglier than that dark-as-night bitch of yours? My girls will hear about this, and that’s a promise.’
‘You’re leaving your G-string behind,’ he said, twirling the sexy red number in his fingers.
‘Keep it as a memento.’ And she was gone.
Two weeks later he thought he should change tack. He went for Thandeka, the PR woman. He had chosen her because she was the opposite of his wife. Though black, she was shorter than Ntombi, stockier and with a huge behind. They had lunch at the well-appointed Michelangelo Hotel, and then rushed to their room. Even before they’d closed the door behind them, they were tearing at each other’s clothes.
‘Oh, my word,’ moaned Thandeka, ‘I never thought you’d even give me a second glance.’ She went down on him immediately, purring like an overexcited cat. Soon, they were rolling around on the bed. But the excitement waned. Finally, Thandeka, playing with his limp dick, said, ‘I know you’re a straightforward man who doesn’t cheat on his wife. Now guilt is interfering. But let’s give it a try again. You just relax, I’ll do all the hard work. Purge your head of all fears and anxieties.’
She went down on him again. After almost an hour, she finally came up for air. She smiled at him. ‘Today is clearly not your day. Let’s try again tomorrow.’
‘Thanks for your generosity, Thandeka.’
‘I think I have an idea. Come to my house tomorrow, or any day you choose. That way you’ll be more relaxed. Hotels can be impersonal.’
‘Look, this is not a reflection on you.’ He paused. ‘You know, how do I put it, my wife is …’ he paused, searching for the right words. ‘You know, my wife is on the thin side, you know. Naomi Campbell figure and all that. And, I’m afraid you’re a bit on the chunky side.’
She recoiled as if she’d been punched in the face. She got out of bed and stood on the carpet glaring at him. Her lips were trembling. When she finally spoke, her voice was a furious hiss, ‘Look at your stomach! It hangs over everything down there. I wonder if you can even see your own feet, let alone your dick. And you call me fat! Harry, you have a nerve.’ She started bawling. Then she dressed quickly and stormed out of the room.
Panic getting the better of him, two weeks later Harry threw caution to the wind and visited Park Royale, a top-class brothel in downtown Johannesburg. The last time he’d visited a brothel had been seven years ago, when he still lived in London, and long before he even met Ntombi. He hoped and prayed that a bit of kinkiness with a prostitute would stir things up down there. After an hour working on him, the prostitute got up, smiled at him, and said: ‘Darling, your hour is over. I could give you another hour, but to be honest with you, that would be a waste of your money and time. As things stand, it doesn’t look like we’re going to make any progress. Your spear is not about to do any stabbing anytime soon. I can’t even masturbate you, that’s how bad things are.’
‘You don’t have to rub it in, whore!’ he snapped. He paid her and left the room. In the corridor, he vomited into a pot plant.
After the encounter with the prostitute, he went home and switched on his computer. He googled Men’s Clinic. He spent an hour going through their website. When he was finished reading, he got up and went to take a shower, leaving his computer on. No, I’m not going to the damn Men’s Clinic, he muttered to himself. After the shower, he went straight to bed. He was on the brink of sleep when he heard the rattle of Ntombi’s keys as she let herself in. He listened to her walking up the stairs. In the bedroom, she dumped her bag and started undressing. Then she noticed his laptop on her side of the bed. She said, ‘You left your computer on.’
‘Why don’t you switch it off,’ he said gruffly, and immediately went to sleep. A day later something happened that turned his life around.
Salman Bhutto was about to close his spaza shop in Diepsloot for the day when two young men walked in. Boisterous and loud—‘Fuck, this place stinks like a camel’s backside!’ one of them said—they smelled like a brewery. Nothing wrong with that. It was Friday, after all, and Diepsloot, like many townships and slumlands across the country, was always an upturned beehive over the weekend. People drank and laughed and made love and made music and killed each other.
‘May I help you guys?’ Salman asked, leaning over his makeshift counter. The less talkative one jumped over the counter, and with lightning speed, looped his arm around the shopkeeper’s neck in a stranglehold. ‘Where is the fucking money?’
‘Brothers,’ Salman croaked as the sharp point of the man’s knife ate into the side of his face, ‘take it all, just don’t hurt me! The money is right here, under the counter.’
The other man walked casually around the counter. He started helping himself to the money in the portable metal safe. From a dark corner behind them, a voice cried out and a man emerged. ‘Leave him alone!’
‘Or what?’ asked the man with the knife.
‘Or I shoot!’
Salman shouted, ‘Rashied, no! Don’t use the gun, I know the brothers are going to leave us alone!’
‘Toy guns don’t scare us,’ said the other man, standing up and taking purposeful strides towards Rashied. Rashied took a step back, his gun hand trembling.
‘Just leave us alone, please, brothers.’
‘See, Sthezozo,’ the man said, ‘the fucking Paki is shitting his pants ’cos he knows toy guns are only good for the school playground.’
Sthezozo gasped and relaxed his chokehold on Salman when he heard the unmistakable sound of a gun being cocked. ‘Ekse, Sporo, let’s go man! It’s not a toy!’
Laughing, Sporo lunged at Rashied. Who stepped back. And fired. The bullet hit Sporo in the chest. Screaming, Sthezozo burst out of the joint. Like a bullet fired from a gun.
The following day twelve policemen combed through the smouldering remains of Salman’s spaza shop. At the news that the Pakistani businessmen had killed a local man, hundreds of people from the neighbourhood had armed themselves with spears, machetes and other homemade weapons. They besieged the shop. They threw two petrol bombs at it. In minutes, the ramshackle structure had turned into a bonfire. When the two Pakistani brothers tried to flee, they were caught, stoned, stabbed and thrown back into the inferno. By the time the police arrived, the shop had been reduced to glowing embers.
By day three attacks on foreigners—ranging from Somali and Pakistani traders to Zimbabwean nationals employed as waiters at restaurants—had spread all over the country. In some instances, foreign nationals fought back, using their guns. By day five, at least thirteen people had been killed in the carnage.
On day six, Harry, by virtue of his close friendship with the mayor of Johannesburg, found himself accompanying his friend on an inspection of refugee camps that had been set up in the city centre. One of these was at the Methodist Church. For a long time before the outbreak of xenophobic attacks, the church had been a more or less organised and tolerable shelter for foreign refugees. But the sudden deluge of people running away from the violence in the townships and shacklands of Johannesburg turned the church into an overcrowded health hazard. The toilet facilities were not adequate, and as a result people had resorted to defecating all over the place—behind the church, along the pavements, on properties adjacent to the building. Everywhere. Local businessmen had taken to the airwaves to complain about the deterioration of the Joburg city centre. The Mayor was visiting to see what could be done to alleviate the situation. The business lobby was powerful.
‘You see, Mr Mayor,’ a member of the mayor’s entourage was saying, ‘we don’t need to waste our time here. These people must be shifted elsewhere. This is downtown Joburg, for crying out loud. Our image is important.’
Harry was half listening, watching a woman squatting under a tree in the belief that no one could see her. Thinking swiftly, he tugged at the mayor’s sleeve, gently leading him away to a less insalubrious corner of the property. Another member of the entourage rushed towards the woman. He kicked her in the ribs. Harry abandoned the mayor and rushed to stop the man, who was registering more kicks on the woman, who had curled herself into a ball to protect her face.
Harry punched the man hard in the face. When he went down, Harry jumped on him. He sat on the poor man’s stomach and proceeded to punch his face systematically. Blood spurted out of the man’s nostrils. A small crowd had gathered to watch. The mayor, who had been led inside the church, was not witness to the fight between members of his own entourage. Thankfully, the two journalists who’d come along were also occupied on other parts of the property, interviewing refugees, taking photographs.
Panting and rubbing his bruised knuckles, Harry finally got up from the man, whose face he’d reduced to pulsing mess of blood and gore. Harry vomited into an overflowing rubbish bin. In a sudden daze of guilt, he started walking to where the mayoral cars were parked. An old man intercepted him. He could have been eighty or more, but his bearing was that of a man who’d been physically fit and alert all his life. His eyes burned with intelligence. He said, ‘Sir, without condoning violence, I’m going to commend you for intervening on the behalf of that poor woman.’
Harry didn’t say anything. For what was there to say? The old man continued, ‘I’ve been watching you. Look, I cannot presume to speak on behalf of all the poor people trapped on these premises, but I believe you can help me. I believe I can afford to be selfish, I’m too old to sit around here, under these conditions. I need your help.’
Harry reached into his wallet and fished out a hundred rand note. The man snatched the note from him and pocketed it without breaking eye contact with Harry. ‘I’m not ungrateful, but it’s not money that I need from you.’
‘What do you want, then?’
The man looked furtively around. ‘I’m from Zimbabwe, and I know you can help set my papers straight.’
‘Sir, with due respect, I don’t think you belong here. You should be sitting at home, enjoying your old age. I can understand a guy in his twenties or thirties, fighting with all he has in order to stay here. He can tolerate the inhumane living conditions in the knowledge that at the end of the month, he will earn enough money to sustain him, and send some back home to his parents and grandparents. That I can understand. But you? You don’t belong here. Go back home, old man.’
‘Where is home?’
‘You’ve just told me you’re from Zim?’
The old man gave Harry a wide grin, showing his dark gums and his four remaining teeth—two in the upper gum and two below. His tongue shot out, licking his lips. Then he spoke: ‘I tolerated Mugabe all these years, but now that he’s gone I believe my reluctant dance with Zimbabwean politics is over. Mugabe was not really an evil man, but a useful fool for those who really wielded power. Now Mnangagwa, one of the men who has been pulling the strings all along, has ascended the throne. People who don’t know about our history don’t realise that it was Mnangagwa who masterminded the massacre of my people in 1984.’
The old man’s eyes lit up. ‘Ah, you know about the genocide of my people. Now, young man, when he got into office, I decided to pack my things and come to South Africa. I cannot call that man my president without spitting on the graves of my children whom he killed, the graves of my neighbours. Look, I could have joined one of my grandchildren who is doing very well in Canada. But my days on this earth are numbered. I wouldn’t want to die in foreign lands.’
‘But you’re on foreign soil as it is.’
The old man threw his head back, laughing, with a sound like two pieces of zinc being rubbed together. Slings of saliva stole from the corners of his mouth. Finally, his spasm of glee came to an end. He wiped his wet lips with the back of his hand. ‘You’re not as smart as I thought, after all. Listen, at ninety-two I’m old enough to know that my grandfather left this country you now call South Africa with the great Mzilikazi, one of Shaka’s generals. My grandfather got to the territory now called Zimbabwe long before it was called that, long before it was even christened Rhodesia. So, what does that make me? Although we now call ourselves amaNdebele, or Matabele if you like, we are of the AmaZulu people who got scattered to all corners of the earth by the wars of King Shaka. Now, I have come back home to die.’
‘Nice story, sir, but I must be going.’ Harry turned to leave, but the man continued.
‘You see, when I was younger I used to be a medicine man for many heroes of the liberation struggle. Nkomo, Tongogara. When Mugabe got into office, he enlisted my services, to provide him with medicine and amulets to protect him. That was before he became the Mugabe the world got to know in later years. I have no doubt in my mind that had I stayed in Zim, that dog Mnangagwa would have tried to recruit me as well. Therefore, if I die and they bury my remains here, my ancestors will be happy. They’ll realise that I did fight, in my own small way, against Mnangagwa. I refused to bow before him.’
‘If your medicine is so powerful, why don’t you help unseat Mnangagwa?’
The old man ignored the taunt. He said, ‘Please, help me stay.’
‘I cannot help you.’
‘I know you can. I also know I can help you with something that’s been worrying you for some time.’
Harry smiled condescendingly. ‘What problem might that be, sir?’
The old man leaned forward, and said in a half-whisper, ‘You haven’t been lying in bed with your wife properly for the past two months. Your weapon simply won’t cooperate.’
Harry’s face turned white. Then it turned red. ‘What the fuck are you talking about, your dirty prick? I’m going to get you thrown in jail, or out of the country, if you don’t watch it.’
‘See? I knew you were powerful. But you need to put your power to good use. I know you’re a lawyer of some sort.’
‘How do you know that?’
‘I saw you before you came here. Saw you in a vision.’
‘Spoken like a charlatan you are. Visions, visions. What are you trying to sell me? Penis enlargement creams? I can’t see your posters. Where are your baboon skins? Where are your smelly herbs?’
‘You can ridicule me all you want. And I know the promise I’m making to you won’t make sense to an educated, civilised person—black or white.’ He paused. ‘But perhaps I could start by telling you things about yourself.’
‘You’re married to a black woman. She works with people’s money.’ He paused, closed his eyes. ‘She loves you. But your inability to attend to her needs in matters of the grass mat is frustrating her. Sometimes she cries herself to sleep.’
Harry took off his jacket and started fanning himself.
The old man went on, ‘But then, the question is: what are you going to do about this crisis? For that is what it is, a crisis.’
‘I heard you, goddammit!’
At the entrance to the church, someone called Harry’s name: ‘Mr Rosenberg, the mayor needs your attention.’
‘Tell the mayor I’m coming.’ Harry turned his attention back to the old man. ‘You really can help me? How?’
‘I can help you here and now. I’ll touch you, that’s all. Do I have your permission?’
Harry shrugged. The old man placed his right hand on Harry’s left shoulder. His eyes staring at Harry, he uttered an incantation. A mild but not-unpleasant zzzzing raced through Harry’s entire body, as if he had touched a live electric wire with low voltage. The pulse of his heart quickened.
The old man removed his hand from his shoulder. ‘Now, go and attend to the mayor.’ The old man locked his gaze with Harry’s. ‘But before you go, promise you’ll come back here tomorrow or the day after so you can fulfil your end of the bargain.’
‘Don’t be ridiculous.’ Harry wanted to look away. But he couldn’t. ‘We don’t have a deal.’
‘I have cured you of your affliction. Therefore, you owe me.’
‘You’re talking nonsense.’
‘Give me your business card.’
Like someone in a trance, Harry reached into his wallet and handed the man his card. The old man shook his hand and said, ‘My name is Sibindi. Don’t forget that. In case they move us from here, I’ll get my great-granddaughter to phone you. She is standing over there.’ He inclined his head towards the entrance to the church. A young woman in her twenties was watching them intently. Harry nodded at her. She bowed respectfully.
‘Now, sir, go home and make your wife happy. And please don’t forget your end of the bargain.’
At the gym that afternoon, Harry did an hour on the treadmill and then called it a day. An intense work-out always restored a measure of happiness, albeit short lived. The sight of his wife would throw him into a maelstrom of emotions: sadness, frustration, rage. Fear that his wife might leave him.
He absentmindedly stuffed his sweat-drenched clothes into his tog bag and hurried towards the showers. A few moments later, he was towelling himself dry when he suddenly realised he had a big, hard erection.
At that very instant, a tall, muscular, heavily-tattooed man came out of one of the showers. Whistling a popular tune, he started drying himself. He glanced at Harry, then looked away. Then he whipped his head back, looking at Harry again. His eyes widening, the big man fled. Harry heard the man talking to his friend: ‘That bloody fat faggot looked at my ass and got the biggest boner I’ve ever seen.’
By the time he got home, the erection had become unbearable. He went to his bedroom upstairs, to make sure Ntombi was not in yet. He wanted to make peace with the erection in his own time. He took off his clothes, walked downstairs to the kitchen, got himself a tall glass of apple juice. The erection was unrelenting. ‘Thank you, Virgin Active,’ he muttered to himself, thinking back to his intense workout.
He drank his juice slowly as he went back upstairs. He looked at the picture of Ntombi on his bedside table, and muttered, ‘Babes, I have a surprise for you.’ He waved his erection at the picture. Let’s test drive this shit before we get too excited, he thought. He got onto the bed, lay in a comfortable position and started playing with himself. Ten minutes later, he had such an explosive orgasm he cried out. Then he heard the door downstairs slamming shut. Ntombi was home.
Ntombi smiled when she walked into their bedroom and heard water running in the shower. At least Harry hadn’t gone drinking again. She took off her clothes and got into her own shower. Tonight she was taking him out to his favourite restaurant, Signature. There was a specific reason for the outing. The night he’d asked her to switch off his computer, she was gratified to see the Men’s Clinic website on his screen. Clearly he was taking his impotence seriously. She had to reward him.
Finished showering, she walked, naked, to their bedroom. She found him lying on the bed, browsing a magazine. He was in his underpants. ‘Hey, loverboy, we’re going out for dinner tonight. Get dressed.’
He cast the magazine aside and got up. ‘Come here,’ he said in a husky voice.
Smiling, she thrust her face forward, so he could kiss her. ‘Been missing you all d—’ She didn’t finish the sentence as he tackled her to the bed, his mouth covering hers. When she felt his erection brushing her bare thighs, she gasped, ‘Oh, my word!’
He positioned her properly on the bed, and immediately entered her, taking no chances. When they were done—she had two explosive orgasms—she raised herself up on her elbow and watched him sleeping soundly. Before she herself went to sleep, her last thought was: Men’s Clinic, my lifesaver!
It is nine days since Harry regained his sex drive. He is smart enough to notice that at the office his name is mud. Whenever he walks into the canteen, women sitting or standing in groups suddenly break out in giggles. Even men won’t look him straight in the eye when they speak to him. Thandeka and Jocelyn have clearly told of his impotence. He must redeem himself. It being Friday, and with Ntombi away on business, he thinks it is time to pounce. He approaches Jocelyn’s desk gingerly. Leaning forward, he speaks in a soft pleading voice. ‘Jos, sorry to bother you. But may I take you out for a drink tonight? We need to talk.’ He smiles his most innocent smile.
Jocelyn looks up from her computer screen. She pushes out from behind her desk. In a voice that is a loud whisper, she says, ‘Harry, I’m so bloody horny, darling. But I’m in no mood for a dick that is comatose.’ She struts past him and starts humming the famous Men’s Clinic radio jingle.
His face as red as a beetroot, Harry scurries back to his office. No sooner has he sat down at his desk than Thandeka enters the office, her face beaming. ‘Mr Rosenberg, have you noticed any changes to my physique?’ Before Harry can respond, she says, ‘Herbalife. Iyawashaya amafutha. But I think you’re more in need of this warrior against fat than I am.’ She drops a Herbalife brochure on his desk. If only these women knew his groove was back.
Harry decides to call it a day. With his wife away, he can go to a bar, pick up a woman; or simply go straight to the Park Royale. He decides that’s exactly what he’s going to do: go to the brothel and ask for the friendly and polite prostitute he was with last time. He shrugs into his jacket, picks up his briefcase, locks his office, and is out of there. Downstairs in the reception area, a young woman intercepts him. Her clothes are clean but old and threadbare. She looks vaguely familiar. ‘I know you’re a busy man, sir, but I bring a message from my great-grandfather.’
‘What is this about, sweetheart?’ The second he says the word ‘sweetheart’ he realises that though the woman is not well groomed, she is pretty. A visit to a beauty salon and a change of wardrobe could transform her into a mini Beyoncé. Look at those curves.
Thankfully, he is wearing loose-fitting pants. Nothing is so unintentionally comic as a sexually aroused man in a public space. Harry half hears the woman’s voice, ‘… asked you to help him with his immigration papers?’
Now his attention is back. He says, ‘That’s right, that’s right. How’s the old man?’
‘He is fine. But we have been moved from the church to another centre, way out of town. He felt I should come personally and let you know. And further impress upon you, sir, that the situation is getting desperate. They’re going to throw us out of the country.’
Harry can hear the words, but the gravity of the message is not sinking in. His mind tells him he has bigger fish to fry. He says, ‘Listen, why don’t we jump in my car and talk about this? I can drop you home.’
‘Okay,’ the woman says hesitantly, ‘as long as you attend to the issue of the papers while we’re at it.’
He stops at an ATM and withdraws some money. By the time he noses his car into his driveway, he knows exactly how this is going to play out. In the lounge, he takes off his jacket and tie and throws them carelessly on the sofa. ‘Please sit down,’ he says.
The young woman is wide eyed. She has never been inside such a big house, with so many sofas and such a big television. She looks longingly at the fruit bowl on the middle of a glass-topped table. There are nectarines, bananas, grapes and apples.
‘Something to drink?’ He brings her apple juice in a tall glass. She gets up from her seat, claps her hands softly as is the custom, before accepting the glass that is sweating with condensation.
She half listens to his stories about his travels in Africa, still stunned by the opulence around her. He takes off his shoes, sits back, enjoying his drink. She knows it’s alcohol. She can smell it in the air. Then he reaches for his wallet. He counts out five thousand rand. He pushes the notes across the table. ‘Give that to the old man. For food and other emergencies.’ With that kind of money, she would be happy to go back home to Zimbabwe. The things she could do with such money! But she knows the old man won’t hear a word of it. He wants to die and be buried here. ‘Wow, thank you very much, sir.’
‘You can call me Harry. And what is your name again?’
‘Mercy.’ She scoops up the money and tucks it into her bra. He catches a glimpse of her left breast. His Adam’s apple dances. ‘Listen,’ he says, draining his glass. ‘Let me give you a tour of the house.’
‘But,’ she tries to resist. He takes her by the hand, and gently pulls her to her feet.
‘Harry, don’t you have a wife?’ She is looking at a framed picture of Harry and a black woman on what is clearly their wedding day.
‘She is away until next week. But we aren’t doing anything inappropriate.’
‘In my culture it is taboo for a woman to walk around in another woman’s house in her absence.’
He guides her up the stairs. In the guest bedroom, he gently pushes her against the wall and starts kissing her. She pushes him away, careful not to be too rough, and therefore rude, with her benefactor. ‘Harry, this is not right. I came here at the behest of my great-grandfather. He has such powers that he probably can see what is happening here.’
He laughs. ‘You believe such nonsense!’
‘If I were you I’d be careful. Once he’s angry, there’s no knowing what he will do.’
Gently, he guides her towards the bed. She says, ‘Harry, no.’
‘Sit here. We need to talk.’ He leaves the room. She wants to get up and run for it. But how does she get out of the house? She doesn’t even know where it is. A few moments later, he’s back. He is carrying a packet, which he places on the bedside table. He puts his hands on her shoulders, and moves her face towards him, wanting to kiss her again.
She turns her head away, ‘No, this can’t happen.’
‘Listen, we’re friends. We’re starting a relationship that the old man would approve of. You’re not a child, and I’m not forcing myself upon you.’
‘I don’t approve.’
‘It’s just the nerves talking, that’s all. Come here.’ She stiffens. Then she instantly softens. She doesn’t resist as he undresses her and positions her on the bed. Sliding a condom on, he whispers in her ear, ‘I have respect for you. I’m going to be gentle.’
‘Are you going to fulfil your end of the bargain? The old man will kill both of us.’
Two hours later, drenched in sweat, he finally slumps back, wasted. He immediately falls asleep. Mercy gently removes the used condom from his limp member, ties it at the opening so the contents don’t spill out, and slides it into her handbag. She goes to the bathroom. Sitting on the lip of the bathtub, she starts to cry.
Early the next morning, Harry, decked out in his jogging gear, opens his gate. He is startled to see Mercy and his ancient relative standing there. ‘Ah, what a surprise, Mr Sibindi. I was meaning—’
‘You have failed to hold up to your end of the bargain. Worse, you have defiled my child here. You have insulted me.’
‘Listen, I can give you more money so you can get someone at Home Affairs to sort your papers.’
‘The deal was between the two of us. I helped you with your problem—of that I am certain!—but you have failed to come through for me.’
Harry chuckles, ‘Now, you’re getting to be an annoyance. How did you help me?’
‘Your dick could not get up; now you’re so confident and arrogant you’re throwing it around.’ Old man Sibindi grins, showing his four teeth and black gums. ‘At this rate, you are going to kill your wife!’ Harry flinches. ‘I told you I can see these things, young man. You’ve insulted me. Now it’s payback time.’ He digs a hand into his trouser pocket. ‘Remember this?’
Harry squints his eyes, looking at the plastic package dangling from between the old man’s thumb and forefinger. Then he recognises the object. The bitch must have stolen the condom yesterday! ‘Please don’t go to the police,’ he says, ‘we can talk this through. How’s ten thousand rand? No, twenty.’
‘Who said I was going to the police?’ The old man is amused by the incomprehension on Harry’s face. ‘This is your seed, young man. I’m going to plant it. As the tree from this seed grows, so shall your penis. You wanted your penis stronger and bigger! You shall have your wish, sir. Mr Big Stuff.’ He laughs loudly, like a demon. ‘Mr Big Stuff, tell me, tell me, who do you think you are?’
The old man takes Mercy’s hand. They walk down the street.
Three days after returning from her travels, Ntombi is lying with her head on Harry’s chest. ‘Loverboy, you still haven’t slowed down. Are you sure you’re not taking some super-Viagra? This is unnatural.’ She sounds light-hearted, but she is being serious. Harry is in top form every day, in the morning before they go to work, and in the evening. At the weekend they spend more time in bed than outdoors. ‘And you know what? You’ve also lost weight. Your exercise regimen seems to be working.’ She wants to add: And your penis has grown correspondingly bigger! But she swallows the thought.
A week later, Harry has become a very worried man. At work he can’t concentrate, thanks to the ever-present erection. At lunch time, he sneaks out of the office and rushes to the brothel for his now-regular sex session with the prostitute. In the evening, he won’t stop until Ntombi pushes him away, ‘We need to sleep!’ Reluctantly, he rolls over and pretends to doze.
The minute he hears her soft snores, he starts masturbating. He wanks until his dick is raw, coming over and over again. Until only air comes out. In the morning it is the same: the minute Ntombi is awake, he goes for her. Until one day she complains, ‘No, babes, you need to see a doctor.’
‘Not so long ago you were telling me to go to Men’s Clinic for my problem, but now that I’ve sorted it out you’re telling me to seek help again! What is it you want from me?’
As he gets dressed for work, he gasps when he realises that overnight his penis and testicles have grown so big they won’t fit into his underwear. Sitting in his office at work, he feels an excruciating pain, as if someone is using a machete to prune his dick. He shoots to his feet, then collapses on the floor, a fist forced into his mouth to suppress a scream. The pain disappears after a few minutes. What the hell is happening?
After work Harry goes to the brothel again for some respite. The prostitute has stopped taking other customers. She has to preserve herself for her most demanding client. He is a sweet guy, a gentleman. But, holy shit, who ever could have thought a man could have such an appetite. The man doesn’t waste time. He makes proper use of the two hours he pays for. On two occasions he phoned her early in the morning, wanting to be with her before he went to the office. As a professional, she’s seen all sorts. She is convinced this is not Viagra at work. It’s something else.
Maybe that old Zimbabwean really did cast a spell on me, Harry thinks to himself. His other voice bellows angrily: Nonsense! But he decides to do something about his predicament.
When he gets to the Methodist Church, Harry is greeted by a long line that snakes from the entrance right down the street. He can tell many of the people are tourists. Most of them have cameras. He sidles up to a security guard. ‘What is happening here?’
‘There is a magic tree inside the church.’
‘What’s magical about it?’
‘Give me some cold drink. I’ll sneak you through the side entrance so you can see for yourself.’ Harry palms him a hundred. They disappear behind the building, down the stairs that lead to the basement. From the basement, they go up another set of stairs, emerging beside the pulpit. In the centre of the platform stands a tree, elegant and green despite the lack of sunlight. It is so tall it almost touches the high ceiling. When Harry looks closely he sees it is trembling, throbbing as if an electric current is running through it.
‘This tree materialised out of nowhere a few days ago,’ the guard says. ‘It grows by the minute. The priest initially wanted to get rid of it. But then somebody tweeted about it. It’s gone viral, attracting media and hordes of gawkers. Some bright spark told the priest to start charging. Then some city officials came over and decided the tree had to be “curated”, whatever that means. It now belongs to the city. Things happened so fast. I think they’re going to declare this church a heritage site. Amazing tree. You can literally see it growing.’
Harry is watching intently. The leaves have become bigger, greener. ‘Somebody has got to be playing tricks with us. This is not real.’
‘Einstein tells us if you can imagine it, it can exist,’ the security guard says. ‘Or was it Salvador Dali?’
‘A security guard who knows Dali?’
‘You’re looking at a humanities graduate in need of a job, sir.’
Four men in City of Joburg overalls appear and position a tall ladder against the tree. ‘Now watch,’ the guard says. ‘They are going to cut off the top part of the tree, but in thirty minutes the limbs will have grown back, and it will be shooting up again.’
The men start their chainsaws. There’s a loud buzzing sound as they get to work, hacking and cutting.
At that very moment, Harry collapses onto the ground, screaming above the roar of the machines, his hands covering his genitals. The security guard jumps away from him. A tall man with an American accent rushes forward. ‘I’m a doctor. Come, let’s get him out of here, to the back of the building.’
In the sacristy, the two men lay Harry on the ground. The doctor strips him down to his pants. ‘Where does it hurt?’
Harry croaks, ‘It’s the tree.’ But he is pointing at his genitals.
‘He’s delirious,’ says the doctor. ‘Hysterical. The noise of those tree cutters must have triggered something.’
Shaking his head, Harry slowly removes his underwear. The doctor cries out: ‘Holy shit! Never seen such big balls. My word, his penis is bleeding! What’s happening to you?’
‘I fuckin’ told you it’s the tree.’
‘You’re not making sense.’
In front of the doctor’s very eyes, the blood around Harry’s penis starts to vanish. As a medical man he knows blood cannot disappear into thin air. The inflammation at the tip of Harry’s penis fades. The doctor flees. Harry closes his eyes. The relief is exquisite. He has come to this understanding: his dick is truly linked to the tree. When they attack the tree, he will feel the pain. As the tree heals itself, the pain around his dick will abate.
The security guard is watching, speechless. With the pain finally gone, Harry gets up from the floor and puts on his clothes. ‘Where did the refugees who were here go?’ he asks.
‘Forget about the refugees, you need to see a doctor.’
The new camp is not hard to find. A man who meets him at the door says, ‘The old man you’re describing passed away yesterday. But his young relative is out there at the back.’
When he finds Mercy she spits at his feet. ‘They have taken his corpse to the mortuary. Tomorrow we are returning him to Zim.’
‘I have to arrange for him to be buried here.’
‘He doesn’t have the papers.’
‘I can arrange for the papers to be processed.’
Just then, Harry collapses on the floor, screaming and covering his genitals. Thirty minutes later, he is back on his feet. ‘Listen, Mercy, I am in pain.’
‘I know, you’ve been cursed.’
‘Sorry I ignored your old man’s pleas for help. I now have no reason to doubt his powers. Can we reverse the curse?’
Mercy looks at him with angry, burning eyes. Then she says, ‘Can I trust you to do the right thing now?’
From her tatty handbag, she fishes out a piece of paper, which she thrusts at Harry. The writing is crooked but legible: ‘If they agree to bury me in South Africa, you may uproot the tree to lift the curse on that stupid white man. If they repatriate my remains back to Zim, the tree stays, the curse remains.’
Later that day, Harry is sitting in the mayor’s office. ‘Harry, I’m sorry I doubted your story initially. Now I have seen it for myself. That tree is a giant doppelganger of your dick! Stephen King couldn’t have written this story.’ The mayor allows himself a giggle.
‘Stop wasting time, we need to uproot it.’
‘Eish, comrade, the tree has become a major tourist attraction. It will be hard to convince council to get rid of it.’
‘You’re the mayor, Goddammit! I’m in pain!’
‘The Red Berets and the ANC are going to shoot down the motion.’
‘Then let’s get someone to burn down the church. In the chaos, we move fast to get the tree uprooted. We can always find a fall guy for the mission. Your term is almost up anyway.’
The following day a massive fire engulfs the church. Fire engines, sirens wailing, rush to the scene. The firefighters work hard to defeat the flames.
In the midst of congratulatory cheers, a group of men in torn overalls descends on the premises with a crane. Its engine roaring, the crane inches forward, preparing its attack on the tree.
Just then another group of men, armed and dressed in Joburg Metro Police uniforms, arrives on the scene. The cop in charge speaks into a loudhailer: ‘Halt! We are here to protect the tree.’
‘On whose orders?’ says the man in charge of the tree-cutting crew. ‘The tree is a hazard!’
‘They are acting on my orders,’ a voice emerges from behind the senior metro cop. Then the speaker is in full view, a dark-skinned, bespectacled, rotund man, in well-cut, expensive-looking powder-blue pants, crisp off-white shirt, red suspenders and red tie. ‘I’m the city manager. The tree stays.’
The chief tree-cutter says, ‘But …’
‘Now that his term is coming to an end, the mayor wants to get rid of the tree as a last-ditch attempt at sabotaging the city’s revenue streams. Look at this tree!’ All heads swivel towards the miracle. ‘You see, it’s already shedding the charred leaves, and growing new ones.
‘This is the city’s cash cow! We shall water it with the tears and blood of our citizens if need be. It will be trimmed and pruned regularly, as has become custom.’
- Fred Khumalo completed his MA in creative writing at Wits University with distinction and is the recipient of a Nieman Fellowship from Harvard University. He also holds fellowships from the Academy for the Arts of the World in Cologne, Germany, the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study and the Johannesburg Institute for Advanced Study. He is the author of, among others, Bitches’ Brew, which won the 2006 European Union Literary Award, Seven Steps to Heaven, Touch My Blood and #ZuptasMustFall. His most recent book is The Longest March. Follow him on Twitter.