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Man On The Corner [Part II]

by Karl Kemp / Illustration by Samora Chapman / 01.04.2014

He’s got his hand outstretched, palm facing up, a big pile of silver and bronze piled precariously on it. I count, quickly, maybe 9 or 10 new R5 coins, and then glance up at the gaptooth smile on the man’s face.

“Nou sien jy?” He enthuses.
“Sien wat?”
“Die geld. Die geld vir Baas Botha. Kyk hier. Amper R70. Sien jy nou?”
“Nee, is dit oom se pay bedoel oom? Dis maar min vir ‘n dag in die –”

And then it hit me. He was showing off. He was bragging. The money he’d made for his Baas – it came down to petty cash. Two packs of cigarettes. To him, this was a massive pay-off – and he wanted more than anything to deposit it in the pocket of the Baas who’d sent him to do the job. 70 fucking Rand. A day’s work, and an unquestioning evening’s wait.

An extra pocket of rain opened suddenly.

Right now, we’re both soaked through, but it’s like he’s the only one getting wet. I can see the jacket fraying, absorbing, wearing thin. R70 won’t buy him a new one.

He’s grinning at me again, like I’d been let in on a big secret – like he’s asking how I could possibly feel sorry for him now, good hotnot that he’d been today and all the money he’d made for Baas Botha. Jesus. He’s returning home a hero, bedecked in silver and the ghost of a sheen of sweat that’d been cleansed by the rain that he’d been too obedient to stay out of. This was obscene. He’d made shit-money labouring under some yuppie asshole happy to screw any societal class out of some money if he could get away with it – and obediently, wordlessly, waited out the rain for his Baas instead of calling or taking initiative. I was wishing for somebody to cross out a word somewhere in my thoughts and fill out the answer instead. Then, still holding up the pile of coins like an offering withheld, he said the following:

“Gewoontlik sou ek dit nou nie aan ‘n kind openbaar nie, maar nou ja. Sien, dis hoe die wereld werk. Jou naam is belangrik. Jou reputation. Want anders vertrou die Base jou nie. ‘n mens moet werk, hard werk, dan kry jy die tipe dinge wat ek kry en verdien die geld wat ek hier het. Die hotnot wat die hardste werk, vat huistoe die meeste geld.”

My jaw clenched and I asked, quietly, what work exactly he’d done today to earn ‘die meeste geld’. I don’t know why this suddenly raised my ire, but it did. It felt important.

“Nee sien, dis die beauty van alles – die Baas het my vanoggend al afgelaai nog voor die son opkom, en ek’t net tot vyf-uur gewerk. En die Baas se vriend, Percy – hy gee my toe net pik-werk. Spit en pik, skoffel op die grond wat selfs ‘n ou blinde man kan doen. Hulle bou nou ‘n nuwe huis. Toe gee hy my sommer R10 ekstra want ek’t mooi stil gebly en niks gesteel nie. Ek doen dit gereeld, ons bly in die Paarl maar sy Kaapse vriende is mal oor my. Ek’s nie ‘n verniet kaffir nie. Ek’s nie…”

He’d have finished the sentence but he stopped when I slapped the small change out of his hand. I couldn’t hear the clattering of the coins over the deluge, or his gasp of surprise. Rain was dripping from his lower lip, stretched downwards. His eyes showed nothing – they were as milky white and unyielding as ever. I wanted to say:

Jou patetiese poes.
Jou dom kaffir.
Jou fokken nuttelose stuk kak.
Wat dink jy is jy werd?

But I didn’t, and I was too shocked by my own hand still raised in the air to say anything else then ‘jammer’ in a small voice, a whisper really… and the hand didn’t drop, it stayed there, and suddenly I’m a Boer and he’s a slave and Kloof street is a deserted terrain awash in a Cape storm.
There’s a roaring in my ears. Silence stretched between us again, this time filled with a flavourless, taught tension. Then it snapped – the old man bent down and furiously pawed at the ground, fingers searching for the touch of silver, mouth moving soundlessly, brow furrowed.

He found a few coins, but many had rolled down Camp street. The rest he passed over sometimes, missing the edges by centimetres, and still he foraged, frenetically, for the Baas’ money. He’s trying to count but it’s like he’s never learnt braille. He’s feeling the size and texture, looking for the R5s, looking for the biggest coins, looking for the bulk of his day’s wages… and I’m wondering whether I know any blind people, or any black people, and his hands rub and feel and roll over the multitude of small change while I’m doing so. The only thing I hate more than him in that moment is myself. I’m torn two ways between ignorant shame and inexplicable anger and I’m pulling out my wallet with one hand while the other refuses to return to its place at my side.

“Jammer. Jissis. Jammer. Vat hier. Vat dit. Vat dit, asseblief. Vat dit net.”

I’m holding out a R100 note and it’s quivering, wet already in the rain. He’s not looking up – he’s busy searching, a low moan, a babbling murmur now coming from his mouth. He’s no longer proud, composed, the elder. He’s a shadow on the ground, a fearful shell of a man; I hear the words “oh fok, die Baas, oh fok, die Baas,” repeated ad infinitum and in between slaps at the ground he’s looking up and around, like some kind of wild animal is about to spring from the misty showers. Splashes rise up around his massive palms as he splats around. I can’t tell if he’s crying and if he was I wouldn’t know why. I can only feel.

“Vat dit! Jissis, vat die fokken R100!”

I’m disgusted. This is vile, this is horrible. I want to run away but the window, my fucking room window, looks out over this scene, this tragedy shrouded in normalcy, and now I’m also looking around for a monster to come barrelling down the road to exact vengeance on the hotnot oom in front of me. So I stay, frozen, literally and figuratively, to the spot. I can’t escape the rain and I can’t escape him. And I keep waving the purple note at him. I’m reaching fever pitch, desperate, but he doesn’t notice anything. He’s blind. He doesn’t know what I’m holding above his head. He’s below me, beneath me, groping at the tarmac for cents.

Just take my money man, make the shaking stop.

There are two rivulets running down his face, and I don’t know which is which – rain or tears. He’s looking up at me with incomprehensible sorrow. Just take the money. Both of us are scanning the area between moments, looking for the reaper, looking for the Baas.

Fuck you, Botha. Fuck this country and this man for being blind. Blind to what and who he is.

I have nothing else to offer. I touch his shoulder and he shrugs it off. He’s given up looking for the cash. He’s given up on me. He’s on his knees, sobbing, I know this now. The road is a silent snake, pitter patter long forgotten and childish in the face of this spectacle. How did this happen so fast?

This is an epitaph. Like he’s going to live much longer. Look at the state of him. Grovelling, brainwashed.

Help me.
I can’t be here anymore.
I shouldn’t have come and now I can’t leave.

Headlights penetrate the fog. A white Ford F150 pulls up from the mountain’s side. Suddenly, everything is real. There is a Baas. There is a Botha. He’s emerged from the cascades of water straight from the 70s and he’s Vorster, Malan, and my grandfather in one, from a big car-door swinging in the wind and he sprays out words to the area in general and noticing me mid-stream;

“God, Hendrik! Wat de fok doen jy? Jy okay boeta? Het die kaffir iets aan jou gedoen?”

And me, his accomplice, his little Boer in training whose an apologist but unaware of it, I look down at stoic, brave, blind old Hendrik crying on the floor and I say,

“Ja. Ja hy het.”

*Read Part I

**Illustration by Samora Chapman

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