‘Annie, California Plates’ was the first story published by Jim Crace. It appeared in the June 1974 number of The New Review, the influential cultural magazine edited by Ian Hamilton, and was included in a collection of pieces from the magazine published in book form as The New Review Anthology in 1985.
‘Annie, California Plates’ is an entertaining story about hitch-hiking across America. The flat concluding sentences carry a bittersweet emotional charge as the narrator simultaneously pays tribute to Annie and realises that his own most carefree days are past. Crace himself has said that he did not find his own ‘voice’ until the early 1980s, and it is true that the ingenuous demotic of ‘Annie…’ comes across more as a tribute to certain American voices (Kerouac, Salinger, Twain?) than as the debut of a powerfully original new writer. Crace’s rendering of laid-back Sixties speak is as fun to read as it must have been to write (though it’s perhaps not flawless: would an American really say ‘smart’ (new? trendy? stylish?) or ‘motorway’?). Is it going too far to see a typical Cracean community in the band of hitch-hikers traveling across America in the almost mystical, ‘bean-can gold’ car? Enjoy…
The first time I saw Annie was at the Pacific end of the eastbound Interstate 80, about midway between San Francisco and Salt Lake City. Battle Mountain, Nevada, in fact – just to the side of the last diner there. I was eating Kentucky fried with my thumb out. That was before I got into Health foods and settled down, more or less, with my old lady in Columbus, Ohio.
I was humming a tune. It was called ‘Battle Mountain Here I Come’. I’d got the tune and the title. I was working on the words…
‘Battle Mountain here I come
Hitching car-rides with my thumb
That’s where my new girl comes from
Battle Mountain here I come.’
I know songs for near every town in this country – and all the states except Alaska. I used to sit at the side of the road, waiting, humming through the name-songs of the places I’d been through. ‘By the Time I Get to Phoenix’; ‘Twenty-Four Hours to Tulsa’; ‘San Jose’; ‘Alabama Here I Come’; ‘Carolina on My Mind’; ‘Down by the Banks of the Ohio’. America’s full of place-names – and that’s about all. You take Phoenix, Arizona. It’s a great song but the town itself is a crap heap. Same with Tulsa and San Jose. It seems that all the bad places have people leaving all the time, writing nostalgic songs sure, but never actually living there. They’re always Goodbye on-the-road songs. You take a good town like Newport, Oregon, or Mackinaw City, Michigan – you never get a song written about them. The people stay there and don’t need to write no songs. Songs only get written about bad places in America, places that improve on the leaving. That was why I was writing a song about Battle Mountain, Nevada. It deserved a long song. About 70 verses. I felt the part, too, singing songs about places on the road and wondering all the time whether my old lady was gonna have me when I got home. She said she’d leave me, sure enough. Said so in a letter I got in San Francisco, giving me just seven days to get back to New York City or she’d split. Said she was off to the Adirondacks to live in a commune. She was full of crazy ideas, my old lady. But I knew she wasn’t joking, see, because there were some cats had a commune up there some place, up by Lyon Mountain I think it was. And if my old lady said she’d leave in a week, she would. That’s the way she was.
That gave me seven days to get from San Francisco, California, to New York City, corner of 81st and Amsterdam. Hell, that’s no time to cross America, especially when the college kids are out grabbing all the rides. They were shoulder to shoulder on the Berkeley ramp. Kids just getting over the bridge into the City, and the rest with packs and signs for San Diego, Seattle, Chicago, New Orleans, Washington DC – all tight up amongst the parked cars on University Avenue. I got ‘EAST’ scratched on a bit of card and didn’t get a ride till midday. A short one with an ice-truck. The driver wanted to squeeze out as much for me as he could so, instead of dropping me on the highway like I asked, he took me right down-town Sacramento where he said he often saw kids hitching at the lights. If he often saw them there then they weren’t getting lifts, I figured, and had to waste the afternoon walking back out to the highway. People are always doing you favours. Who needs it?
Then I got a long ride with two fat girls in a VW. They were going to visit an aunt in Provo, Utah, but it came on to rain midway Nevada. The VW didn’t have any wipers so they turned around at Battle Mountain and went back to Sacramento. You meet some crazy people. That left me in Battle Mountain and night coming on. I got a few hours’ sleep in my bed-roll till the morning traffic started rolling through, then got back at the side of the road. Nobody’d give me a lift, though I pulled every trick I knew. Roadside Nevada’s no place to be with hair and a beard, specially when you’re carrying half a K of best Mexican dope like I was. I waited there eight whole hours picturing my old lady packing her bag for the Adirondacks, picking her few books out of mine, leaving me a note saying I could keep her albums. I was getting real nervous. It was then that I treated myself to the Kentucky Fried Chicken and got to work on the Battle Mountain song, and a few moments later, like I said, I first saw Annie.
She came out of Battle Mountain at about sixty, a kind of bean-can gold, California plates, and with her name, Annie, printed in white on the front fender. She was a huge old Chevy station-wagon. She slowed a little when she saw me, accelerated a while, then pulled over on the shoulder about a hundred yards down.
I could see there was this little black cat in the driver’s seat, but he didn’t turn round or wave me on or back up a bit. He just sat there at the side of Interstate 80 with his blinker going and his foot on the gas. I figured he was one of those tease guys. Get me to shamble up the hot tar with my bag banging up my shin, then put her in drive as soon as I got my hand on the door. You get ’em all the time. Best thing to do is to take it real cool – stroll up like you weren’t after a ride anyway, as if you just felt like moving out of the shade into that dry old Nevada sunshine. He never pulled off, though. He just sat there looking nervous as hell. Just a little black guy.
‘Hey, man,’ I said. ‘Where you heading?’
‘Where you heading?’
‘East, man,’ I said, ‘New York City.’
‘I’ll get you there,’ said the little guy. ‘New York City, all the way.’
‘Far out!’ My old lady started to unpack her bag and put her books back in the case.
‘I can get you there if you pay for the gas.’
‘What, ain’t you got no bread?’
‘Nope!’ He said it like it was the least of his troubles. ‘Ain’t got no bread. Ain’t got no gas.’
‘Got none in the tank?’
‘’Nough for the State line, mebbe.’
‘OK. I’ll see what I can do.’
I got into the back of Annie and threw my bag into the hatch. Truth is, I only had about six dollars to get me right over to the East coast. I couldn’t see any of that filling this cat’s tank but I figured I’d ride it out till she dried up on juice.
‘Where you headin’?’ I tried again.
‘Ain’t headin’ no place. I’m leavin’.’ He just kept his head down over the wheel and batted old Annie down the nearside lane at a steady 60. I settled down in her back seat and started to figure it out. We were rattling into Emigrant Pass along the side of the Humboldt River. There’s an old pioneer song called ‘In Emigrant Pass’. I hummed it. Sure was glad to be on the move.
Thing was, it wasn’t quite straight with this guy. What was he doing in the middle of Nevada with half a tank of gas and running out of bread, going no plave special? He just had a shirt and dungarees, but no bag in the back and nothing under the dash except a mess of wires which should have been a radio. He had a car, though, whatever he was at. Old Annie. Bean-can gold, with enough room in her for a six-piece band, drums and all.
‘How much is gas a gallon?’ I asked him, working it out in my head.
‘Does she get through much, this old car?’
‘Couldn’t say.’ And he turned around and gave me a ‘Button It’ look, not to be aggressive but because he didn’t like to let on he didn’t know the answers to any questions. It was then that I saw the wide scar aceross the top of his cheek. It looked like a split fig, or how I imagined a split fig because, like I said, that was before I was into Health Foods. We were coming into Elko, Nevada, and now the little negro was keeping his head down like a fox in a hole, acting nervous. When we passed a Highway Patrol wagon parked at a motel he slowed way down and started driving Annie at about an inconspicuous 30 like he was some real careful guy.
Then I had him figured out. Nervous of cops. No bread and no gas. And no travelling bag. Didn’t know the price of fuel, and with a six-inch knife scar across the top of his cheek. Going no place, just getting away. Now I don’t have to put it to music – this guy was on the run! And this little old Annie, which was riding us across the States, taking him to freedom I guess and me to my old lady getting herself ready for a commune up in the Adirondacks, this old bean-can Annie was sure to be a ripped-off Annie. She’d been standing in some up-town parking lot when along had come scarface with the State Police on his ass. And off they’d gone down Interstate 80. Love at first sight. A man and a car. Why he never ripped off a little-old Scimitar or one of those big black Plymouths with air-conditioning and cassettes, I don’t know. Maybe Annie had her keys in. It wasn’t the sort of thing you’d want to ask.
I had it all added up. There I was in a ripped-off car with half the cops in the country hunting down the driver and with half a K of prime Mexican dope in my pack – and running out of gas! I let out this little hiss I do when I’m baffled. It kind of said, ‘I don’t know what the score is so far but what happens next?’ Scarface loosened up a bit. That was a hiss he recognised.
‘They call me Gerald,’ he said.
‘Well, Gerald,’ I said. ‘We’re in a fix. I’ve got six dollars to get me to New York City ’n if I throw that into your tank it ain’t gonna get us to Salt Lake, even if this little ol’ lady’ll make it that far.’
‘Oh, she’ll make it,’ he said. ‘She’s fair set on getting’ east. She’s got folks t’see at the motor-mart in Detroit.’ He leered at his joke.
‘That where you heading?’
‘I’m headin’ as far as I can get.’
‘Give me a minute to think about it,’ I said, and I settled back in Annie and started figuring again.
This is how I reckoned it. Chances were that Gerald wasn’t that important. He didn’t look too mean. In fact he was kind of nice. So maybe, now he was out of California State, things wouldn’t be so hot for him or the car. And if they did pick him up for jumping parole or ripping off old beat-up Annie or whatever it was he was supposed to have done, he’d put in a word for me, say I’d only thumbed a ride midway Nevada. Then there was the dope. Any trouble and they might turn me over, find the dope and stick one of those Crossing State Border raps on me. Still I needed the ride bad and if I got out I still had the choice of Wyoming or Colorado to get through. They run you out of those States with a $50 fine just for hitching a ride. Fact is you’d be safer carrying dope in a stolen car than standing on the roadside with a West Coast sun-tan and a back-pack. You can commit murder in some places so long as you do it in a private car. So I’d stick with Annie and see what turned up. But first I had to set my mind to filling her tank. The needle was getting low.
‘You figured out the gas yet?’ asked Gerald, sinking into his seat as a patrol car hurtled by in the opposite lane.
‘Yeah, I got it figured,’ I said. ‘We pick up every hiker we see, OK? I’ll do the talking. We’ll see how it goes.’
‘Every hitch-hiker, is that what you’re sayin’?’
‘Yeah, every thumb-bum you see.’
We were way down in the red before we saw our first hiker. We’d crossed State border into Wendover, Utah, just before the great white desert of the Bonneville Salt Flats. Last gas station in town and there was a guy fanning himself with a Cheyenne sign.
‘This one?’ asked Gerald.
‘He’s our boy,’ I said, and rolled down the window like some Texas fat-cat.
‘You heading for Cheyenne?’
‘It’s taken me four days since LA!’
‘Yeah? Figure it’ll take you another four the way things are.’
‘Oh, yeah, how’s that?’ he said, looking like I knew something he didn’t.
‘Well, I guess you won’t have heard. Some hiker on Interstate 80 has been knifing folks.’
‘Is that right?’
‘Sure as you’re stuck here it is. Nobody’s giving rides while this guy’s on the loose.’
The hiker screwed up his eyes like he was thinking hard. ‘Where you folks headed?’ he said.
‘Well,’ I said. ‘We was going right past your front porch. Would have been there first thing tomorrow morning. But now it looks like we’re stuck here for a while till I get a bank draft through from New York City.’
‘You outta bread?’
‘We’re outta gas.’
‘How long you gonna wait here?’
‘Two, maybe three days.’
He was thinking real hard now. ‘I could help you out with gas,’ he said. ‘I got ten dollars to get me home…’
‘Well, ‘ I said, trying not to sound too keen. ‘Climb aboard and we’ll see how it goes.’
We backed into the gas station and filled her up with the ten dollars. There was three and a quarter change which I poked in the ash-tray as a kitty.
‘My name’s Mel,’ he said, shaking hands all round.
‘I’m Bobby,’ I said. ‘And he’s Gerald. And this here,’ I said, giving Annie a rap, ‘is Annie.’
‘Hi,’ said Mel. ‘You just say if you want me to drive, OK? You guys look pretty bushed. Gerald moved over and gave him the wheel.
‘You want me to drive now?’
‘Sure, man. We’re heading East.’
My old lady used to say that hiking was just a way of getting around, just like any other way of getting around, like taking the bus or riding a bike. The important thing, she reckoned, was getting there, wherever you was headed. That’s why she never came on this trip. She would have drove me crazy, hassling for a ride all the time and getting ratty when she never got one. And then when she did get a ride she wouldn’t say a word, just sit there fingering her watch because the truck wasn’t going fast enough. She wasn’t very cool when it came to getting a ride, if you want to know the truth. Now, if you’re driving, say, from San Diego to San Francisco, or taking the bus, no matter how many times you do it it’ll have the same shape. But hiking’ll never be the same twice. It’s kind of open-ended, shapeless. You’re out on the side of the road with your thumb out and plenty of time to think. If you ain’t a thinker you’d best not be a hiker. You’d best get your own motor car and fill your head with gear changes and adjusting the air conditioner. That’s what you’d best do.
‘Hey, man,’ said Mel at the wheel. ‘She handles real well. Did you pick her up cheap?’ He was talking to me. Gerald was asleep in the front.
‘Yeah, real cheap,’ I said.
‘She don’t look much,’ he continued, ‘but she drives like a star. You got yourself a goodun here.’ He jammed his toe hard on the brake.
‘Hey! Take it easy, man,’ I said.
‘There was a hiker back there. You wanna pick him up?’
‘Ah, no, man…’
‘We need the gas.’
‘Yeah, but I’m getting to feel bad about offering rides with my hand out for bread.’
So he backed Annie up and flung his door open where the hiker was sitting chewing his lapel.
‘Looking for a ride?’ asked Mel.
‘We’re going East…’
‘That’s great. I’m heading for Indianapolis.’
‘Wow, that’s about twelve hundred miles…’
‘Can you help out on gas?’
‘Well, you can have what I can spare and that ain’t much.’
‘Every little bit helps when you’ve got an empty tank, man. Get in.’
Mel threw the door open and the new hiker got in the back next to me.
‘Hii, there,’ he said. I nodded and Gerald kept on sleeping.
‘Hey, man.’ He leant over and carried on talking with Mel. ‘There’s another couple of cats over in that diner trying to get a ride into Des Moines. Two girls, pretty nice chicks. You got room for them?’
‘They got money for gas, you think?’ asked Mel.
‘Well, they’ve got money for steak and french fries. You got money for french fries, you got money for gas.’
‘Go get ’em,’ I said. It was the first word I’d spoken and the new hiker looked at me as if it was none of my business. Gerald just kept on sleeping.
He turned again to Mel in the driving seat. ‘You got room, man?’
‘Yeah, man, we got all the room in the world.’
The two girls came over with their new smart rucksacks and walking shoes and Mel and the Indianapolis cat started getting hot across the neck bullshitting the chicks with all their hard travellin’ and the places they’d seen. I used to be into that when I was a few years younger and before my old lady got me so hung up, threatening to walk out on me all the time and getting me so nervous I didn’t have the sweat to look at another chick let alone spin her a yarn, especially the sort the Indianapolis cat was laying down on these chicks. Everyone was getting different ideas of who was who on this journey and, I guess, Gerald was the only one who knew the whole story but he was keeping his head down and his mouth shut and not letting on. If the man from Gallup Poll had come along and asked the question: ‘Who owns this car and where’s it heading?’ I don’t think he’d have got the same answer twice.
As the days and States got passed through and my old lady in New York City got closer and closer, I began to feel as if old Annie was moving away from me and Gerald – not, of course, that I had any claim. It was Gerald ripped her off, but it was me got her moving halfway across America and moving still with new people getting in and out the whole time and laying their claim on her, taking their turn at the wheel and throwing their bread in the kitty.
Three days later, just east of Indianapolis, with a new bunch of faces inside Annie and he back-seat ash-tray overflowing with quarters and dollar bills, Annie’s kettle started to boil and the man who was driving pulled off into a side road so that she could cool off and the rest of us could snatch some sleep. There were too many of us to get comfortable inside, so those who had bed-rolls spilled out on to the grass and concrete. At about five in the morning I was waking with the dew bringing my stiff legs tight up into my chest for the warmth. I had it figured out with my old lady. I was going to arrive in plenty of time. Maybe I’d have half a day in hand. I’d get myself brushed up and sorted out, then phone her from the call-box opposite the apartment just as her deadline was up. I’d have to unload some of the dope first so that I had some bread to splash around. I had it all figured. Then I heard Annie’s door click and I saw Gerald easing it open and getting his hand, over the sleeping bodies, into the gas kitty. He took all the dollar bills and left the quarters. He eased her old door shut again and set off across the gravel to the highway. Gerald was cutting out, heading north for Detroit like he said, I guess, and leaving old Annie behind at the side of the road with her cargo of hikers sleeping at her side and in her cushions. I gave him a little silent wave and he gave me a little smiling nod and put his head down against the dawn.
Hell, you should have heard the language in the morning when they found he’d gone and taken the kitty with him.
‘What a bastard trick,’ I said. ‘I always thought he had a mean look on him.’
‘We was lucky,’ said a college girl from Boston checking her bag. ‘He could have cut all our throats and stolen the car…’
‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘You’re right there. We should never have given him a ride.’
They dropped me on the Pennsylvania Turnpike when the driver and most of the riders decided to head south on 70S to Washington. She drove off, bean-can cold with her name Annie painted in white on her fender and her California plates dusty from the road. I watched her go. She was a real hitch-hikers’ car. Never ending. She’d go go go, back and forth across the States picking up and dropping every highway rider with a thumb to wave and some cents for her tank. People’d get out and people’d get in and nobody’d be too sure whose she was or where she’d come from. Some little black cat called Gerald had ripped her off in uptown San Francisco and set her free to see the land. I was thinking all that, humming it to tell you the truth, till my last ride picked me up at the side of the road and ran me into New York City to catch my old lady redecorating the kitchen and not giving a thought to the Adirondacks or communes or the letter she’d sent, bringing me three thousand miles across the land with my heart in my mouth and a half K of prime Mexican in my bag.
For Christmas she bought me The Whole Earth Catalogue so we got into Health Foods and settled down, more or less, in Columbus, Ohio, not far from where I’d last seen Gerald rifling through the kitty and setting off across the motorway dawn.
It’s hard for me to believe, but two summers later my old lady and I were down in Louisiana catching a ride on the highway out of Baton Rouge up to Lafayette where a friend of mine was growing cantaloupes. I was singing that song that Janis Joplin used to squeeze out before she drank herself to death, ‘Me and Bobby McGee’…
‘Busted flat in Baton Rouge
Waiting for a train
Feeling near as faded as my jeans.’
My old lady was humming along in the shade. She didn’t know the words. And I was out at the road’s edge looking into the glare of windshields with my thumb out. At first I couldn’t be sure, but the dirty gold Chevy station-wagon that was drawing out of the gas station looked a lot like Annie. I screwed up my eyes and told my old lady to shut up. She was cussing the highway, the way she does. The car turned towards us and accelerated into the traffic. There were California plates and, fainter but still there, those five white letters on the fender. I just kept my thumb out but she didn’t stop to give us a ride. She was full of people.
© Jim Crace 1974
This story appeared in December 1975 in The New Review, was subsequently reprinted in Cosmopolitan and included in Faber’s 1977 anthology Introduction 6: stories by new writers – the first Crace story to be published in a book. Crace’s handling of voice is strong – Joe, the narrator, is candid, cutting, humorous, and perhaps not as sure of himself as he wants the listener to feel – but several years were to pass before Crace found his own voice, years in which most of his energy went into journalism rather than fiction.
Everybody’s trying to get away, it seems to me. No one’s happy in their kennel. My wife, June, got away from me eight days ago. She took my daughter Karen with her to live with a quantity surveyor in Tottenham. His name is Brian. He belongs to a squash club and doubtless drives to work in a track suit. He doesn’t deserve the benefit of any doubt. He must be ‘bad’ to have made me so resentful. Until tomorrow he lives with my wife and daughter in a flat of ‘our’ things which June took with her. She took my daughter Karen, all her plants and half the LPs. She took half The Beatles and half of Dylan. She took the Best of Buddy Holly. She even took half of ‘Blonde on Blonde’, leaving me Sides 3 and 4. She left all the big stuff because this flat is furnished and the wooden things belong to Miss Poynter, our landlady, who lives downstairs, eight feet below. She wanted to leave Jerome, her cat, because Brian doesn’t like cats or anything about cats unless it’s their guts strung across a squash racket. I don’t like cats either. I don’t like tins of cat food, or cat boxes, or cat pee, or little bits of hard cat shit, or cat smell, or cat hair over my clothes. I didn’t like the way Jerome jumped onto the dressing table and spat and snarled whenever June and I made love (my wife, his mistress); I didn’t like him jumping onto my back and scratching my bare shoulders; I didn’t like him scraping the bedroom door when I threw him out.
“Don’t throw him out”, she’d said. “Poor Jerome.”
“I can’t make love with that bloody thing on my back.”
“He’s only playing!”
“Let him play with himself,” I said. “That’s what I’ll be doing if that cat doesn’t get out of my love life…” Snarl, snarl.
“Your love life now, is it?”
“Well, no one else can get a look in with Jerome around. I’m a simple bloke, June. One up and one down’d suit me fine. I don’t go in for troilism with cats. I don’t want him on my back when I’m with you. I don’t want him in the room. I don’t want the bloody animal in the flat!”
So then we had a row. A two day row, starting in bed and ending God knows when. Not yet. It was from Jerome I learnt cruelty to animals. It must have been something in me made her love Jerome so much, because as soon as she’d found Brian to take her in the cat got the push.
“Will you look after Jerome?” she asked.
“No,” I said. “He goes with you. Remember? We’ll see how long this jerk lasts with that around.”
“Brian says he won’t have him in the house.”
“Hard luck, Brian. He’ll have to lump it, like I did.”
“He’s allergic to cats,” she said. “His chest. They get on his chest.”
“They get on my back.”
“Please, Joe. He’ll be company for you. You’ll be lonely.”
My wife’s leaving me, I thought. She’s taking my daughter and half the LPs and she wants to leave the cat I hate and that hates me so I’ll not be lonely.
“The moment you leave this flat,” I said, “that cat goes in the spin-dryer!”
Jerome arched his back against June’s packed cases and said a cat noise.
“Please,” said June. “It’s the last thing I’ll ever ask of you.” Not a very subtle plea to a man who’s just about to lose his wife and kid to a quantity surveyor.
“And it’s the last thing I’ll ever refuse you,” I said.
The outcome was that Jerome went to Miss Poynter. She’s got a dog, too. A bitch called Janice. It all sounds right in the end, doesn’t it?, when the shufflings are done. Janice and Jerome. June and Brian. Just right. But Joe and who? No, Joe’s a loner, if you ever heard one. “By yourself, Joe? Have a drink.” “Set ’em up, Joe”, “Time you went home, Joe!”
I’m coming, I’m coming,
For my head is bending low,
I hear their gentle voices calling
Poor old Joe.
Joe’s a name you get to hate. It’s got a built-in whine. It’s the sort of name that cats scratch.
I ought to explain my hatred for cats. I learnt it off my uncle who was a gardener and fond of birds. The cats around his garden would scare them away and wreck his nesting boxes and foul his lawn.
“It’s not so much cats,” he used to say. “It’s cat owners. They feed the bloody things! If it wasn’t for cat owners there wouldn’t be so many cats and those that there were’d be wild. Wild cats is all right, but house cats are a bloody menace.” “Why can’t they eat their muck like rabbits,” he’d say, kicking the bits off the lawn.
What my uncle objected to was cats killing birds. I don’t really mind that, not caring for birds particularly. What I dislike is the way that cats are so uncatlike. I mean, you look a cat. It’s beautiful. It’s built to slink around and take and slink away, ungrateful. It’s got sharp eyes and ears and all that cunning wildness. Imagine cats weren’t tame and you only saw them once in a while, half-glimpsed and snarling up an oak in the West Country or fighting an adder or raiding a pigeon loft. It’d be a sight worth seeing. But no! They eat out of tins; they’re trusting and grateful; they purr and rub up against you; and are jealous and house-trained. This country has missed out on its cats, if you want to know what I think. Any animal that answers to the name of Jerome and monopolises the gas fire should be edible.
And while we’re on the subject, there’s another legacy from my uncle. A hatred of dogs and, to a lesser extent, grey squirrels.
“Did you know?” he used to say. “There are five million dogs in this country and they all crap in our street!”
He did his best to keep the numbers down, usually by driving them off with lawn rakes or stones, but occasionally more subtly. I saw him petting a big black retriever once – a hated dog who specialised in uprooting shrubs. He was stroking it and cosseting it and rubbing the back of its neck like he really liked pets, building up its confidence, you see, making it playful. He was pruning roses at the time and he cut a short fat length of rose-wood off an old bush. The thorns were half an inch long and could have cut glass.
“Come on, boy,” my uncle said, and threw the cutting up the lawn. “Fetch!”
That retriever bounced off over the grass, its pink mouth hanging open and closed it over the strip of thorn. I thought that was very smart, though I was only a kid.
I don’t mind dogs so much, once in a while, there’s one I even like. There was a good one on Desert Island Discs last week. That bloke Dangerfield was the cast-away. He judges dogs at Crufts. It was between records Four and Five: ‘How Much is that Doggy in the Window?’ sung as a calypso and ‘Your Feet’s Too Big’ by Fats Waller. I’m not making it up. He was telling how he’d only ever been bitten once by a dog he was judging. An Irish setter bit him on the thumb. He’s still got that scar. “What became of the dog?” asked Roy Plomley who knows his audience backwards. It seems it was banned from Dog Shows. “That put an end to its professional life,” said the cast-away. Some dog!
You see? That’s what happens when the wife walks out. You listen to the weirdest radio shows. Even a phone-in about ‘Pet Care’. All about diet and brushing. But the bit I liked best was the dog-hater from Ashford who phoned to suggest that dogs have Third Party insurance against causing accidents and biting thumbs. The panel thought it was a great idea.
Miss Poynter and Janice got on swell with Jerome. They gave him a blue ribbon and a bell and a bowl with his name on it. After a day or two he got a collar with his address. He put on weight, but he must have missed the confused love-scenes or whatever it was our flat had that Miss Poynter’s didn’t because he’d be out in the hallway as soon as I was back from work each day whining to be let in. No chance. I had no trouble being cruel to the cat who’d started the row that split up my marriage and through him, cruel to the landlady who’d witnessed it. A quick kick.
“Heard from June, have you, Mr Revie?” asked Miss Poynter whenever it was decent. She knew I hadn’t. She took it out on me. I kicked her cat. Deuce. I shouldn’t be talking about cats and landladies when it was really wives and quantity surveyors who were gnawing at me in that empty flat where previously Karen crying, and crocks clinking, and cats scratching, and Sides 1 and 2 of ‘Blonde on Blonde’ could be heard from rooms I was not in. It was a flat in which the four doors had opened in four different ways. A click and a scrabbling of small hands for Karen. A wrench and a clatter for me (usually in a temper), careful turn-of-handle and open-wide for June, carrying a tray of tea. A tiny slitting and a small black squeezing of the skirting board for Jerome. Objects had lost three-quarters of their possibilities. The frying-pan too wide; the corn-flake packet bottomless.
So what was it I was missing now that I was free, my place my own, everything my choice? The loss of love I can survive. There wasn’t much of it anyway. An occasional embrace that worked, some happy evenings thanks to Messrs Bulmers rather than any common feeling. Bugger love, I said. Love I can do without, but having to be young again, having to be free…!
I used to be wild once, for a year or two. But I’ve lost the habit. I didn’t use to care what people did because, being young and wild, not angry-wild but natural, no one could hurt me. I was on my own then. None of this bits and pieces and anger. But I lost the habit, going after love. I got tame. I can’t go back again, God damn her. I’m too old. I’m too house-’old! I can’t manage on my own.
All this without saying ‘June’. I didn’t want her back for who she was. She was welcome to be who she was, but not in Tottenham! What I wanted and what I missed was continuity. That’s what you get in marriage when the infatuation dies; you know that wherever you go, whatever your age, no matter how many other friends slide away, there’s someone you can drag along with you. Her. That was simply it. By leaving me June had cast me adrift. Where was the incentive when Continuity had moved away?
After a week June brought Karen round to see me. On Saturday when Brian was at Spurs.
“How are you managing?”
“Fine,” I said. “Fine. You?”
“Working out, is it…?” swinging my arm in what was supposed to be a squash racket stroke.
“Well, it’s no better than with you, but it’s different. He doesn’t scream and shout like you do. He’s very kind.”
“And I’m cruel, is that it?”
She nodded: “Yes, you’re cruel. You know you are.”
What did she have in mind when she said I was cruel? She was wrong when she said I knew it. I didn’t know it. It was news to me. What could she be thinking of? I didn’t hit her or talk rough to the baby. I didn’t go behind her back with other women. Who was there? I only kicked the cat and then only when I was thwarted.
“Are you talking about the cat?” I asked. “It can’t have minded me that much as it’s always sitting outside the door trying to get in.” I got up and swung the door open, my usual way those days of startling Jerome.
“There!” I said. He wasn’t there. “He’s never around when he’s needed.”
“I’m not talking about Jerome,” June said. “It’s you. The way you shout and bully whenever you don’t get your own way. You’re always making a fuss about things that don’t matter.”
“Like what?” I demanded, making a fuss. “Like my wife and kid going away? Like having to live alone in an empty flat with my wife’s cat scratching on the door and dropping little hot reminders of how-good-it-used-to-be all over the stair carpet. She’s even fitted the bloody thing with a bell,” I said angrily, pointing at the carpet, under which Miss Poynter and her menagerie were certainly listening. “It’s bloody tinkle-tinkle, scratch-scratch, poop-poop all the time since you’ve been gone.”
At that there was a scraping at the door. My shouting had made Jerome homesick. I opened the door again and Jerome padded across the carpet and jumped onto June’s lap as if she’d never been gone.
“Tig-a-tig, Jerome,” she said. “Look who’s come to see you.”
I now have to go in for some fairly frank admissions about what Jerome’s little leap had made me want. He was always one jump ahead of me, that cat, and what I began to want, now that he was snugly nestled in my wife’s lap, was to be in his place. It’s a hard move from an aggressive and shouted “It’s bloody tinkle-tinkle, scratch-scratch, poop-poop all the time since you’ve been gone” to the opening lines of Let’s Make Love. It’s a very hard move and will you believe I bridged the gap by going down on my knees by her chair and stroking the cat.
“Still, he’s not a bad old thing,” I said, scratching the top of his head. “Tink-a-tink-a-tink, Jerome. Tink-a-tink-a-tink.” Not subtle exactly, but cunning enough.
“You’re getting soft in your old age,” said June.
“I’m getting lonely,” I said. “I’m missing you, June. I need contact with something, even if it’s only a cat.”
“Do you want Jerome after all?”
“No, I do not!”
“Well, you’re making enough fuss of him.”
“It’s you that I want to make a fuss of.”
“Course I do.”
“Do you want to make love, Joe?”
“Course I do.”
“With Jerome and Karen in the room?”
“Karen’s asleep. Sod Jerome.”
“Come on, then.”
So there it was. Making love again with the whole family looking on, and Miss Poynter, the landlady, eight feet below, tracking the sighs. No wonder she ties a bell to everything that moves.
I won’t pretend (what is it they say?) ‘the earth moved’. It didn’t. It never had done before and never has done since. Earths don’t move for me, thank Christ. At best I feel as if my lungs are spinning. Why do people say ‘The earth moved’ when what they really felt was something shifting in themselves?
“I thought my balls were gonna burst,” I said.
“Me too,” said June and snuggled up.
“Is it good with Brian?” I asked. That’s another thing they say: “Jealousy’s a funny thing.” No it’s not. Take my word.
“Let’s not talk about him.” Let’s not talk about him, she said. Not: Let’s not talk about it. A big difference, as those of you who’ve had a rival will appreciate.
“I could control my temper,” I said. “I could stop shouting and making a fuss. You could have the supplements before me on Sundays.” Concessions were falling thick and fast. “I could learn to love Jerome.”
“We’ll see,” she said, and grinned. I think she was having fun.
Once June had gone I settled down to watch the TV. The News and Sports Roundup. Spurs won.
Jerome jumped onto my lap and curled up for a nap. I stroked him as if he was a charm that needed rubbing for my wife to come back. They had a woman on The News who’d made friends with a grey-lag goose. It followed her everywhere she went. Even flew around after her car. Dangerous, that. She fed it baby foods. Silly cow. I have to admit that I’ve been known to feed a polo mint to a tame Canada goose, but it was experimental rather than kindly. I’ve fed ginger biscuits to peacocks, too. At Warwick Castle that was. But I sometimes pick on those birds who can’t decide what they are, wild or domestic. Chickens, I mean, or pigeons in lofts. If they want to behave like cats and get fed and fussed, then they deserve to be left to the fox and the air rifle and the kids with sticks. Ducks, sometimes, too. The park ducks who’ve been so stuffed with sliced loaf and madeira cake that they wouldn’t stop to sniff at a fish if it came served on toast! Do ducks eat fish? I don’t know.
I usually avoid outright cruelty to ducks but I don’t pamper them with scraps. There’s a mallard on the Cam at the back of King’s College, though, who learnt the hard way. As soon as I sat down on the bench and thought about a picnic the rustle of greaseproof brought this particular drake scuttling over, right under the seat, lobbying for crusts. I don’t much care for domesticity in ducks but I admire enterprise so rewarded him with a bit of bread. His success brought another duck over, a scraggy one. I threw her a bit in fairness but the drake chased her off, biting at her neck and having the bread himself. That duck was a sticker, though, and tried again but got pecked. So what, I thought. It’s peck or be pecked in the world of ducks. I’ve read Darwin. But then daft bird felt neglected and pecked me on the ankle. Time it learnt one of the disadvantages of messing with mankind. I tossed it a bit of pork pie crust smeared with a thick dollop of extra strong mustard, the sort that makes you cough.
That night, during ‘Parkinson’, June phoned. Did I really want her back? Did I think we could make it work?
“What happened to the squash king?” I asked.
“Don’t try to be funny, Joe,” she said. “Brian and I never meant it to last. We both agree. A week of each other is enough. He can’t stand kids.” Good for Karen.
“So, big deal. You both agree, eh?”
“Joe. Do you want me back or not? If not say so. Me and Karen’ll get a place of our own, and that’ll cost you a bit!”
“If it’s me that’s got to keep you,” I said, “look forward to life in a slum.”
“Joe,” warned June, my wife, the cat’s mistress.
An absent wife and child down and out in a slum was a considerably more attractive proposition than a wife and child snug with Brian. I must admit that I was tempted for a moment, but ‘continuity’, and the miserable week I’d spent, held my tongue.
“OK, June. Come on home. We’ll make a go of it.”
“Are you pleased?”
“Of course I am.” Jerome sloped across the carpet and rubbed himself against my shin, purring for attention. I’d forgotten Jerome.
“Did you leave the street door open when you left this afternoon?” I asked.
“No, I don’t think so. I don’t remember. Why?”
“No. I only wondered. Jerome’s gone missing. Poynter’s doing her nut. She reckons you left the door open on your way out.”
“But he was in the flat.”
“He wanted to go out as soon as you’d left.”
“He’ll turn up. Don’t forget to tell him the good news when he does. We will have him back, won’t we?”
“Sure we will. You know what I promised this afternoon, June. Kindness to cats.”
“You don’t think he’s got run down, do you?” That was a thought!
“He might have done. It’s busy out there.”
“Oh, Joe, don’t say that.”
“You asked, didn’t you?”
“I suppose so.” A pause while she thought it out. “Joe, will you pop out and look for him. He might be lost or something. It’d be rotten to come home and him not there. Will you?”
“It’s 11.30, June.”
“Please, Joe. It’s the last thing I’ll ever ask of you.”
“OK,” I said. “I’ll go out on the bike.”
“Thanks, love, thanks. We’ll be round about lunchtime tomorrow. I’m glad I’m coming home.”
“I’m glad to have you back.”
“I do love you, Joe.”
“I love you.”
Down goes the phone and up comes Jerome, for the first time, into my arms. I put him into a deep carrier bag and stroked his neck until he settled to the paper and the confined space. He purred as if he’d guessed the favour I was about to do him. I put on my coat and cycle clips and crept downstairs, but Miss Poynter has nothing to do but listen for stair creaks and he door was open and her standing there before I’d reached the street.
“Off out, Mr Revie?”
“Yes, Miss Poynter. I’m off down the Chinese. Want me to bring you some chop-suey?” It was the nearest I could get to sarcasm. I could feel Jerome fidgeting in the bag but, thank Christ, he wasn’t miaowing or shaking his bell. That cat’s no fool, I thought. Prefers a paper bag to life with Janice.
“No-thank-you, Mr Revie. I won’t have the muck in my house.” It’s my belief that she lives on Winalot. “No. It’s Jerome I want to see you about.” Oh, hell! “He’s not up in your flat, is he?”
“No, Miss Poynter, he isn’t. Honest to God…”
“Only he’s gone missing. I haven’t seen him since this afternoon and you know I never let him out into the street. But he’s nowhere down here.”
“Have you checked everywhere, Miss Poynter?” I asked, putting my legs between her and my bag of cat.
“Everywhere,” she said.
“Perhaps he got out in the street,” I suggested. “June was here this afternoon. She might’ve left the door open.”
“Oh June’s been here, has she?”
“Didn’t you hear her?”
“Oh, no. Not a thing, Mr Revie. I’m too busy with my own life.”
“Well, she must have left the front door open. Jerome might’ve been run down. He’s not used to traffic.”
“Oooh, don’t say such a dreadful thing.”
“You’ve got to face facts, Miss Poynter. If he’s not in the house then he must be outside.” She looked as if I’d just pulled the bottom brick out of her face.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “I’ll cycle round for a bit and see if I can find him. OK?”
“Thank you, Mr Revie. If you would.” I opened the door to the street.
“You’ll hear his bell,” she added helpfully.
Am I really cruel, I asked myself, as I cycled through the streets towards the woods with Jerome scrabbling in the bag as it hung from the handle-bars. No, not at all. Not cruel at all. There was still time to return with Jerome in my bag, snug and warm with ’45 and Rice’. I could say I’d found him on the main road, a hair breadth from a ten ton truck. What was the advantage of that? A thankful Miss Poynter and a grateful June. And then we’d be as we were, nothing changed. Continuity.
But let’s admit it. What we want is parity. She hurts me. I hurt her. Eight days alone with that huge frying-pan and jealousy and boredom deserve some reply. Surely they do. It’s not revenge. It’s not cruelty. It’s just a settling of scores, a closing of wounds. How else could we start again and get along, me being so angry and now that love (three days of that, a thousand days ago) has gone. Don’t make a fuss, she tells me. It would be so domestic not to make a fuss, to imagine that it’s all worked out well in the end. That’s the way we’ve got so domestic that we don’t make a fuss when what we want is taken. I should have fought him. Or shot him! Or screamed and damned and bullied her until we hated each other and there was nothing left, nothing salvageable to continue with. But no, being so domestic, we did it all with style. She firm, me sarcastic, just the way we are on top. But underneath I hate her for it and the eight days she’s spent with Brian, and the secret details they shared. I wanted a secret too. Something that would hurt her, so that things couldn’t be the same. I was going to set Jerome free. Out in the woods to fight snakes and raid pigeon lofts, to be glimpsed, wild and snarling, up an oak tree. Lucky Jerome. Poor June, paying for her wings that flapped. Jerome was glad to get out of the bag. It was cold and wet and dark and midnight. He’d never heard a tree bend before and he kept close to me and looked up, whining.
“I’m doing you a favour, cat,” I said, and bent down to untie his bell and collar. He was glad to be rid of them and licked himself where the leather had irritated his throat. I gave him a sharp kick in the rump. He turned angrily on my shin and clawed at it so I toe’d him away into a bush and threw his bell and collar after him. It made a tinkle and rustle as it hit Jerome on the head and fell into the grass.
“Shoooo,” I said. Jerome moved further back int9o the undergrowth and watched me get back on the bike. I could see his eyes. They didn’t seem at all grateful. Just bright and cunning.
“Have fun, cat,” I said, and rode back towards the street lamps and the heavy lorries and the Chinese take-away. I wonder if it’s true what they say about those places, you know, chop-suey from cat-meat. If it is, they are very edible.
Cats get lost all the time, marriages break up. We can’t manage on our own, we domestics, we’ve been spoilt. Married people, kids, dogs, cats, pigeons, peacocks, ducks. It’s all the same. We can’t get away from it. Clipped wings.
© Jim Crace 1975
‘Refugees’ won the 1977 Socialist Challenge short story competition and was published in this journal in the issue for December 15-31, 1977. Crace recalls: “Refugees was by far the earliest piece of fiction that I wrote (probably in 1972). It was prompted by my days in the village of Molepolole in Botswana, where there were a large number of South African activists, and written at a time when I was busy in England opposing the Springboks rugby tour. I touted it round various publications, including Stand, The London Magazine and The Paris Review, but it was rejected. Quite right too. Then, some years later, and in a spirit of waste not, want not, I entered it in the Socialist Challenge short story competition.”
He was not sure of the story’s merits. “It is very thin and didactic, more a leaflet than a piece of fiction.” The judges did not agree. The first judge, Terry Eagleton, described ‘Refugees’ as “a powerful story…Its realism is unobtrusive” and was impressed by “the elegant economy of his writing as well as its stylistic qualities”. (In December 2001, Prof Eagleton said that he had remained a great admirer of Crace’s work.) The second judge, John Fowles, found Crace’s characters “skilfully interwoven” and the “final moral…convincing”. He concluded: “The creation of setting, atmosphere and character were…in a class on their own. I look forward to reading more of this obviously gifted writer.” The third judge, Fay Weldon, did not comment on Crace’s story.
Jan van der Meer didn’t seem uncomfortable. He should have been, squatting in that stale dusty shebeen, his stubbly face on the body of a sweating bull-frog. He should have been uncomfortable with the nutmeg shebeen girl toying him on and Molotsi, the Pan African Congress refugee, pressing his thigh. Jan van der Meer was drunk and the shebeen flies were too, for they drank from the sticky beery river which ran from the black lake of his armpit and dropped, stoned, to the ground when he swept them with his Afrikaaner hand.
Molotsi was talking of Mandela and the great peace walk when the ANC and the PAC had wrangled over the white liberals, and then of the banning order, the police swoops, and his flight over the border into Botswana.
“The English are just as bad as the Afrikaaners,” Molotsi said. “In fact, we respect them less. They have no claim as native sons of the soil. They have no pride in what they are. All they want is privilege. But, now, the Afrikaaner…”
Jan van der Meer laid his hand on the dancing girl’s bottom and drummed his thumb.
“…the Afrikaaner has some dignity. He has humour. But he is an ape. He cannot cope with feeling. It throws him off balance. He is the true hewer of wood and drawer of water. He is a clumsy ape who has made nothing except a clumsy ape language…”
Jan van der Meer brushed the sweat from his armpit. The hairs on the back of his fingers were dampened. A swept fly fell and caught in the hairs of his leg.
“They are curious people, the whites of South Africa,” Molotsi continued. “They are not complete men. They have come here in groups of those with brawn, those with brain, and those with passion. The Afrikaaner is not complete. He is not a sympathetic man.”
Jan van der Meer had his hand back in position. His thumb rapped to the beat of the gumba-gumba on the record player; the girl’s back was working at the base of the spine. Jan could feel it.
“So you are going into the Republic?” said jan van der Meer to the second white face there, an Englishman. “It is a beautiful country. Yes it is. The scenery, the farms: beautiful! It’s a wonderful place for a young man.” He paused and touched his face. “I would love to hear what you have to say when you have been there for just a day or two. Johannesburg…it’s the biggest city in Africa.”
“Cairo,” said Molotsi.
“Will you be going to Jo’burg? The kaffirs call it Gandeng, the Golden City…”
“You could dig in the Witwatersrand for an age and still make your fortune. If I were a young man today…”
“But the ‘kaffirs’?” said Molotsi, and laughed.
“Well, we live our different lives. It’s not right what you people from England read. We get on right fine. Isn’t that so, Molotsi?…”
Molotsi laughed again. “Yes. We get on fine because now you yourself are drunk.” And Molotsi gave Jan van der Meer an over-playful clout.
Jan turned and smiled. His short trousers and coarse desert shirt were ‘unsympathetic’ and his wry smile announced him as a strangely aged and grosteque child. He leaned forward from the girl’s shadow and put his hand from her onto his own knee. “So you are going into the Republic, mmm?”
“Johannesburg. AAAhhh! It’s a different world!”
His face relaxed into his shirt and his glass hesitated at his mouth, muttering: “It’s a different world!” Then he drank and his remembrances of the city were slurred. Someone had put the same record on again, but the batteries of the player were tiring and the beat had been brought to its knees. Mmadipalema, the shebeen girl, was tired of dancing and wanted custom before the beat died in her too. Now Van der Meer was an Afrikaaner and away from home. She knew them well and would chance a ‘pink child’ for the money he would pay. An Afrikaaner in the village, ooof, a rare chance. And besides, she didn’t care for Molotsi and his friends, their mocking slapping hands and their intense talk. Tccch. Too heavy for the village, she thought, as her swaying slowed and she heard Molotsi again and his high school-master’s voice.
“Ha! Look at her black Zambesi arse. You make me smile, Dutchman. Immorality laws, eh? You been to Swaziland?”
Jan nods slowly.
“Yes. Yes, of course, you’ve been. Ha! Every weekend, the herrenvolk. Tccch!” Molotsi shook his head and slapped Mmadipalema across the thigh. “They flood the customs hut on the Mbabane road clutching their fishing rods. ‘Off for a spot of fishing, Sir?’ Ya, ya, ya. Fishing. Ooof! And then, on Sunday night, it’s ‘Good fishing, Sir? Bags under your eyes, eh? Good fishing, Sir? Catch anything?’ Ha ha! Catch anything? Ay-ay-ay.”
And Molotsi gave Jan van der Meer another clout, spilling his shake-shake into the dust as his friends whinny and nod.
“Who’s hitting me?”
“It is myself. I am the one,” answered Molotsi in his mocking Bantu English.
“For that you would die in the Republic. You would end up on the bonnet of a car.”
“Stop your talk of the Republic and car bonnets. We are in the free desert and I am slapping you because it is good for you. Now, get back to her black arse and forget your fucking Republic. Look. It’s twitching for you.”
And good Jan van der Meer guffawed hopefully and gave a knowing, broad, winking smile to his expectant audience, He leant forward and held his expression as if to shrug this thing off with a carelessness and took hold of Mmadipalema’s thighs and held them for a moment, then shook them fiercely and urgently like a goat at a bush, drawing a long drunken breath through his teeth. Aaah! So this was it, he thought, Black Africa. Mmadipalema smiled. She didn’t like Molotsi but she understood his humour and she smiled. The shebeen had quietened now, waiting for the play. The old woman looked up from her stirring and her jars. Her gums answered Mmadipalema’s handsome even teeth, but she was more awkward than the young people. It was a dangerous game, but okay, let it be played. Men would be men.
The sudden quiet of the dusty oily rondavel seemed to descend on the man’s hands and his drunken veins had suddenly become self-conscious. Mmadipalema felt his thumb die on her. She tightened her muscles, first on the right and then on the left. Her thighs and buttocks tightened and loosened. Why doesn’t she move away, thought Jan van der Meer. Why doesn’t she move away? It was only in jest. It was only a game, for God’s sake. Only a game. Everybody knew it wasn’t possible. Please God, let her move away and stop this thing. He wished he could put his hand down. He could feel the native beer draining from it into his shoulder and sticking there like a watery cramp.
“You like her, eh?” said Molotsi.
“Err, yes.” An awkward laugh. Poor awkward Jan van der Meer.
Well, it was impossible. Impossible. Not like with the white Golden City whores with their coarse Afrikaans and their soft pasty unmoving bodies and their egg-white skins. She was moving, moving in his hands. And he was frightened of what he could feel. It was forbidden. He could hear drums and smell rain. She was turning. The gumba-gumba fought with batteries. The shake-shake rose in his throat. He was on his feet and in her arms and his fat bull-frog body was hoping to move like a body, like something with bare feet and thighs. Oh Christ.
Then the noise and the laughter of the shebeen broke through again, for the serious drinkers there knew that the game was played and that drinking could recommence. The old woman took to her stirring and allowed herself a faint landlady’s chuckle. Even the flies were on the move again. But Molotsi, the PAC refugee, was silent and watching. Let Jan van der Meer be his messenger. He had something to send back home. Jan’s hands held her where the sweat and the dust met in the armpit of her dress and he was comforted by the laughter and the stirring and the drinking and the strong nutmeg arms around his neck. The smell of her filled him and swayed him and the matting of her tight hair on his cheek was close and private. And Jan van der Meer didn’t think of the townships and the half-glimpsed forbidden Ambi-grils, nor did he remember his sneers at the kaffir women at home.
Jan van der Meer didn’t seem uncomfortable any more. He should have been, swaying with this girl, African girl, in the stale dusty shebeen.
He was slowing now, so slow that the shebeen flies came back to settle at the black river. He could feel himself falling but also he knew he was being pulled – pulled by the arm towards the sacking over the dark doorway by the girl in his arms. And when she was beyond it, even though Molotsi’s laughter angered her and Jan van der Meer’s shorts tackled at his ankles, she had him and the six rand in his pocket and she left him there to the flies and the matting.
Molotsi slapped her on the thigh and said “You have removed his tooth” and laughed. She was moving slowly again. The record player’s battery was giving the evening up and the music was fragmenting.
Molotsi was laughing softly now and the old woman allowed herself just one more chuckle. But Mmadipalema was swaying with six rand in her hand and a pleased, satisfied enticement settled in her limbs. She had taken the white man. The Afrikaaner. She did not like it, but she understood Molotsi’s humour. Let him laugh. Let him laugh and let the white man sleep with his great stomach and his thick, hairy, clumsy arms. Let his sleep. She had six rand in her hand and she was no worse than some of the girls in any village. Even Afrikaaner girls. She had heard Molotsi talk before of the Johannesburg housewives and the ‘favours’ they asked of their ‘boys’. So let him laugh. She had taken the white man. That could not be denied her.
Molotsi was watching her. She was not finished yet, he thought. He knew this girl and had been with her. He ran his hand behind his ear and thought he could feel the scar she had left him. Molotsi had something to send back home. This girl was not finished yet.
“He will have forgotten this tomorrow, the Afrikaaner,” he said, and he let her see his sneer as she turned to him. “He will have forgotten it. He daren’t do otherwise.” And then he laughed, and the old woman chuckled because she knew the girl too and could see Molotsi’s meaning. But Mmadipalema was angry now. Damn this schoolmaster and his high voice. This Afrikaaner would not forget her. Not her. No, she had spared him too much because he was clumsy and drunk and because she had found no pleasure in him and his squatting bull-frog love. But he would remember her and the schoolmaster could sneer at hell. So she passed through the sacking over the dark doorway and stood at the frayed matting edge and looked down on Jan van der Meer. He was awake and moaning in his drunkenness. He looked up at her strong legs and her high breasts and saw her coming down to him again like a shadow at dusk. He would have moved away or turned if he could, but her knees were at his side and her hands at his shoulders and her face was coming towards his. Somewhere, deep in his unsympathetic sweating body, there lingered a small vanity. Jan van der Meer turned his mouth to hers and moved his tired hairy hand onto her back. The shebeen flies fell to the ground, without any attempt at flight, and the girl’s mouth moved to the side. The light from the opening door-way fell in his left eye and he thought he saw Molotsi or someone standing there with a smile. He had expected the girl’s mouth on hisown, by now, but he felt it at his right ear, and he turned his neck to Mmadipalema, the handsome shebeen girl. Her teeth buried, pinched, and sank into his bull-frog neck. He let out a whimper. Then a cry of pain. She was not toying. Her teeth were cutting and drawing blood. Jan van der Meer would have twisted away if he had been a lighter and more sober man, but her hands were at his shoulders and he could only shake his neck and cry while she hung to him like a terrier, her teeth seeming to sink, almost to meeting, in the heavy flesh of his white neck. Then she was leaning back on her knees and laughing, and Molotsi at the door was laughing. Then Jan van der Meer vomited his shock and shake-shake into the dust and slept till the dawn.
The straight grey steers of the valley were moving down to the trough at the bore hall. Molotsi was seated outside the rondavel sipping ‘milo’. It was too hot, so he skimmed the powdered milk from the surface with his thumb and put the cut at his side to cool. A long pink-legged spoonbill found its lost way slowly to the thorny ground, landing sprawl-footed, as if on water, and started to sort through the rubbish of the wood pile at Molotsi’s side as it might have sifted through the small fry from the shallow cool-climate stream at home. Molotsi watched and remembered his stalking where the rivers ran all year. How had the white spoonbill strayed so far?
Jan van der Meer came to the door and shaded his eyes against the morning light. The spoonbill stuttered on its feet, then took off, with the cattle, towards the water at the bore hole.
“Have you slept well, jan?” Molotsi’s voice was friendly and he smiled up at his friend in the sun.
“Whooo. I was out last night. Right out.”
“And you’re back to Johannesburg today?”
“Yes.” Jan van der Meer came into the sun, but kept his hand on the great crimson bite on his neck. “Yes. I have to return today.”
“Good fishing, eh? Good fishing?” Jan smiled and stood uneasily at the schoolteacher’s side.
“You wouldn’t understand, Molotsi, but it’ll be hard for me to return to the Republic with this.” He tapped his neck, and his forehead furrowed at the soreness where her teeth had been. “They notice these things at the border and it could be difficult for me. Johannesburg, it’s another world, you know. You wouldn’t understand these things, not a black man,” but he spoke respectfully. “I have a fondness for you, jan,” said Molotsi, “but the thing which could have come between us had to be removed. Look. You should have a black neck like mine and your ‘medal’ wouldn’t show.” He laughed. “Still, go with it to the border. Maybe they will see it. It’s an export from the free desert. A message from Molotsi.”
© Jim Crace 1977
In his memoir ‘Hearts of Oak’, Crace describes his father’s death of cancer in 1979. ‘Instead of tears I shed my first piece of fiction for many years: a monologue by a woman whose father is dying called ‘Seven Ages’. It was published by Craig Raine in Quarto and then broadcast on Radio 3, and marked the start of my migration from journalism to fiction.’
Quarto, the self-styled ‘literary paper’, ran from 1979 to 1982, before merging with the Literary Review. Crace was a regular contributor of reviews and essays. ‘Seven Ages’ appeared in the issue for June 1980. The title is a reference to Jaques’ famous speech, in Shakespeare’s As You Like It:
All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages…
Talented, intelligent and beautiful, I have led a charmed life. The doctors who predicted my birth on September 14th 1945 were only an hour or so out, so that it was not until the early hours of the following morning, when the late revellers from VE Day were still in the streets, that my mother commenced her final contractions and my fortunate and promising body inched into the suburbs of London. I came slowly and carefully, head first, with damp skin and closed eyes.
"Push!" instructed the mid-wife, but my mother could not concentrate. She was in too much pain and there were too many joyous distractions in the street below. The mid-wife opened the bedroom window onto the warm late-summer night.
"There is a woman here in labour!" she called. "Could you allow here some peace and quiet?" And so (my mother being the stoical sort) I was born in silence, fitted with a neat navel, and slapped sharply across the buttocks, as was then the fashion, so that I would demonstrate with a cry the range of my lungs and verify that I had indeed established a physical entity entirely my own. I cried and cried, and the sound of it joined the silent revellers in the street who, not missing the symbolism, made a joint celebration of the old war over and the new life begun. I passed my first wind and my father made his first tentative inspection.
"Perfect," he said. And all who saw me agreed.
A voice from the street called out: "What is it?" and my father walked with me to the window and answered: "It’s a girl!"
"You must call her Victoria," suggested one man.
"No. Mary. Call her Mary after the Queen."
"Faith!" they shouted.
"Patience," insisted those who had passed a difficult war.
"No," said my father. "We will call her Joy."
"That’s a nice name for a very pretty little girl," said the mid-wife in her businesslike way and then, punning in what for 1945 was a vaguely shocking manner, added: "Let Joy be unconfined." My father lifted me high above his head, like a victorious boxer lifting his gloves, and called: "Joy!" Revellers clapped and whistled and cheered. So I was introduced into this happy planet to a streetful of applause.
September 5th 1950 was a big day. I started school. It was cold and foggy. I wore my blue winter coat with mittens attached. Mother had put labels with my name and address on all my collars. Three tiers of labels – one on my coat, one on my jumper and another on my blouse. I felt safe.
Mother powdered herself and applied lip-stick. The perfume hung about in the kitchen. It was her going-out smell. She put her legs onto my low chair and pulled on her stockings. She wiped my face with hard, damp, reassuring fingers.
"You look lovely," she said. "Doesn’t she, dad?"
"She does," said my father.
"Go give your dad a lovely big kiss," she said.
"My father held out his arms and we hugged. "What’s this?" he said. "Dirty ears?"
He pushed his little finger into my right ear. The nail located wax and scraped. He hurt a little but his finger was firm and efficient. My ear was sore but fresh.
I turned and let him scour the contents of the other ear.
"There," said my father, holding up his finger with its anchovy of damp wax under the nail. "How do you expect to be able to hear teacher with that in your ear?"
I had no answer. "Can’t you hear better now?" he asked.
I listened. I heard the traffic in the street and the water dripping from the tap and the coals shifting in the stove. I nodded. Yes, now my ears were perfectly clear. I was neat and bright and lovable. The finger in the wax had been the finishing touch. I was the smartest little school-girl in England.
It was shortly before my thirteenth birthday that I first had "Visitors". Mother had warned me and explained. She told me about the monthly cycle and stressed privacy and cleanliness. She had put a dauntingly large packet of sanitary towels in the top drawer of my bedroom cupboard. It pressed up against the soft body of the favourite Teddy which I had grown out of but could not bear to destroy. It was my first secret. "This is between you and me," mother had said. At nights I checked on teddy and the large white packet before I went to sleep. I tucked them in. I made sure they were comfortable and ready.
"You might start at night," said mother. "But don’t worry. You won’t bleed for long. It means that you are grown up, that’s all. I’ll let you buy some stockings, when it happens."
"No lip-stick. Good gracious, what would your father say."
I could not wait for my first pair of stockings. With stockings I could join the youth club. I could flirt with boys.
My first "visitor" was a light one. It scarcely lasted three days and the towels in the top drawer seemed rather excessive. But subsequently my periods were regular and normal and untroublesome. I associated periods with that first treat of stockings. To this day I treat myself at the start of a period – a new dress, a record, a book, a meal out. I did not dread them. I celebrated them. Perhaps I was lucky. There was little pain or depression for me. They were not a curse.
For holidays we took a cottage in Wales. Everybody knew us there. We had rented "Ty Mawr" for five years running. The road ran out at the farm and we had to leave our black Ford Prefect and walk with our cases and bags across the clapper bridge of a small stream to the high thick walls of the cottage. There was electricity but there was no flush toilet. In the mornings my father buried the contents of the elsan in the pit at the back of the house. He threw on spadefuls of lime. My mother prepared breakfast and the picnic for the day. I walked up to the farm with a white enamel jug and bought fresh milk from the cow.
"Have you got a boy friend yet, Joy?" the farmer used to tease me. "I reckon when you grow up you’ll be able to take you pick. What do you say?"
"I don’t like boys," I would say, and the farmer’s twin sons would giggle cynically.
After my O-levels we went down to Ty Mawr to recuperate. We were all tired. We had revised as a family. I had wanted to go to Youth Hostelling in the Lake District with Janice Hill, who had become my best friend in the Fifth Form, but my parents (and her parents, too) had discouraged the idea. "You’re a bit young," they said, to be taking off on your own."
"But I won’t be on my own. Jan’ll be with me. There’s safety in numbers."
"Not with girls there isn’t," said my father. "Janice can come with us to Ty Mawr if she wants."
"Ooh, can she?"
We left a key to our house with Janice’s parents so that when the examination results arrived they could collect them and send them on. I did not consider failure. I only thought of holidays and fun with Janice and of the promised reward of a record player when my good results came through.
Janice and I went together to collect the milk and (because there were two of us, I think) the farmer’s twins were less giggly and bashful than the previous summer. A change had come over them. Instead of the usual disdain and cynicism they were both courteous and boastful, trying to impress, giving us good measure with milk. "I think they’re sweet on you," I told Janice. "I’ve never seen them behave like that before."
"They’re sweet on you!" she said. "Which one do you like the most?" We giggled. The twins were indistinguishable, neither of them attractive, neither of them interesting, neither of them fun.
"No, it’s all right, Jan. You can have the first pick!"
"Too kind, I’m sure."
We walked with the twins and their dogs up to the Tops to bring the sheep in for dipping. We took four oranges and a bottle of cider. We sat on flat warm slabs of mountain stone and passed the bottle between us. They offered us cigarettes and, when we refused, smoked theirs self-consciously between quarters of orange. They threw dried sheep-droppings and orange peel at us and called us names. We were overexcited – us and the twins and the dogs and the sheep awaiting the dip. Would we go with them to the pictures, they wanted to know. No, we would not.
"What’s on, anyway?"
"Spartacus. Kirk Douglas."
"Ooh, no fear. That’s bloodthirsty, that is," said Janice.
Would we go with them to the beach, then? No.
Would we come again next year?
Would we let them have a kiss?
"Just one," said Janice. "You have to choose which one of us you prefer."
"I bags Joy," said one.
"Me too," said the other.
"One of you has got to kiss Janice," I said. "It’s not fair if you both kiss me."
"I don’t want to be kissed," said Janice. She meant it too. The twins approached. We stood together in a formal circle. "A proper kiss now," warned Janice, acting as umpire.
The first twin held my arms and pushed his mouth onto mine. We rubbed lips for a few seconds and then stood back. "Next," I said. The second twin repeated the performance. They were inseparable. "Now you’ve got to kiss us," they said. They were cocky-mannered, buoyant, arrogant from their shared successes. And they were nervous too. They knew that they had nothing to offer, nothing that I cherished. It was I who was rich with gifts, the granter of favours. I leaned forward and kissed each of them on the cheek-bone, slowly and softly, so that my lips adhered for an instant to their skin.
They beamed; they bounced; they called in the dogs and herded the sheep as if nothing could be sweeter. I stood back amazed at the magic. I would never lack admirers now, nor the love of others.
We were late back to Ty Mawr. I thought that my mother and father might be angry that we had kept them and their tea waiting, but they seemed more than content when we came into the kitchen, furtive from cider and kissing.
"Results!" said my father. He held up a piece of paper. "Janice. Five out of eight. Well done. You failed maths and French and Latin. You, eight out of eight for you, including four Grade A’s!" We snatched the paper and pored over the details. Mother put her arm round me. "you’re for the university, my girl," she said. And then, as an afterthought, she put an arm round Janice too and hugged us both.
The twins stood forgotten at the kitchen door in their farm-boots. Never again would they kiss a girl as fortunate as me.
At University I read Geography. I would become a teacher. "Now, be sensible is all I would ask you," said my mother as I left home for the beginning of the first term. "You’ll be in a strange town with strange people. Tell her, dad."
"She is sensible," said my father.
"Yes, but…she knows what I mean. I don’t want anything happening just because she’s away from home. Alright?"
"What could happen to Joy?" insisted father. "her old ‘silver spoon’ won’t let her down. No stop fidgeting the girl."
In my third term I met the first boy that I could love (and did love). We were on a Field Course in Cumberland. Together we listened to long lectures on glaciation. We exchanged notes. On sunny days we played "Hunt the Moraine" and went off in search of drumlins, eskers, hanging valleys and lateral and terminal moraines. It was the beginning of the beautiful summer of 1965. We held hands and, at once, were very much in love. We neglected our essays and avoided our friends. It seemed natural that we should sleep together. I had decided that from the start, from the moment that we had met, but I went for some months before I allowed his petting to go further. And, when I did not protest at our usual threshold, he stopped.
"What do you want me to do?" he asked.
"Just continue," I said.
We both parted carefully with our virginity. I have only good memories of that first time. It was so easy to give and receive pleasure (and so quick, too, on that one occasion).
My parents arranged a buffet reception at home when I got married (to the fifth man I could and did love). I was 26 and father was 50.
"I shall keep this very short," he said, a little drunk and overwhelmed by the houseful of listening guests. "I don’t like making speeches and you don’t like listening to them…but you’d think it funny if I didn’t thank you all for coming and for drinking our booze with such enthusiasm. It’s been a wonderful day for all of us. I couldn’t be happier. Joy, as you know, has always been a joy to us, ever since she was a baby. She was good as gold as a kid. And look at her now – just as good, just as golden, even at the ripe old age of 26. It has been a real pleasure to have been her father – and I know for David it is going to be a real pleasure to be her husband. Let me take this opportunity, too, to welcome David to the family. Now we have the perfect son as well as the perfect daughter. No, there’s no doubt about it. Joy is a very lucky girl to have found someone like David, and he’s a fortunate fellow to have netted a treasure like her. Ladies and Gentlemen, I’ve said too much already. You’ve all got some champagne, I hope. So…" He lifted his glass towards me.
"David and Joy," he said, "with our undying affection."
I have a child and a home and a husband. White, rich and intelligent, I am keeping my looks. Who could be luckier?
Mrs Backhurst comes in on Tuesdays and Fridays to take care of shopping and washing and cleaning. We could afford (and have room for) an au pair, but I prefer the privacy of close family life. I teach part-time now – it is the perfect compromise. I have money and time of my own.
Retirement did not suit my father. He has not been well. They took him in for a scan and a barium meal and then again for a biopsy. The Consultant says that he has cancer, that (perhaps) with drugs, they can slow it down. "You should face up to the idea, however, that he has only a year to live. Probably less." We are as cheerful together as we can be, though alone I am depressed. I think of my own body. I hear it working and feel dull pains. It is not as perfect as I had imagined. I wonder whether I should visit the doctor for some sleeping pills or sedatives. My periods have become painful and irregular. Often I bleed a little after love-making – probably a polyp or a cyst or endometriosis or some erosion of the cervix. I think, too, that it could be cancer of the womb, though that is only my hypochondria speaking. I am imagining myself sicker than I am, though the blood, of course, is real. From time to time the news of my father is good. They have "arrested" the growth, they claim. But when I see him I know that he is getting worse. "I am going to peg out, Joy. This is what is going to kill me," he says, "but for the moment, don’t worry, I’m middling."
If he goes, then what? Who is there left? Who is next in line? A foolish idea comes into my mind as I sit at the end of his bed: to turn my head and have him scrape the wax from my ear. More and more I am victim to such unexpected sentiments. Of course, I keep them to myself. This is no time for self-pity – though, sometimes, I wonder what has become of my good fortune.
© 1980 Jim Crace
‘Elsan’: brand name of a portable chemical toilet, named after its inventor E.L. Jackson + sanitation.
Click here to read Crace’s memoir ‘Hearts of Oak’.