This uncle of mine, the one who died of a heart attack on the toilet, once told me a story that really grabbed me and stayed in my memory and sat there festering in my imagination like some parasite trying to make an illegal connection to the synaptic grid. To die of a heart attack on the toilet is an ignominious way to go, but it shouldn’t affect the veracity of the bullshit stories one has passed off as no word of a lie and as true’s God. This is something I feel firmly about, and I can say that the fact he died on the toilet made fuckall difference to the way I remember his story.
It went like this.
When he finally topped the rise the twilight had faded into dusk. In the murk ahead he was just able to discern a broad flat valley backed by a line of black hills. The building stood on the open plain, unprotected and solitary. To his surprise a feeble light glimmered at a window. What was there for people to do out here in this barren waste? He hurried on, anxious to beat the dark.
As he approached the building he began to worry about dogs. He had heard no barking but at any moment he expected the silence to be torn by a warning howl followed by furious baying. He had no means of protecting himself. From what he could make out the house was in a state of neglect but the windows were still glazed and he saw the glint of metal against the dark solidity of the front door. As quietly as he could he approached the lighted window and looked in. The room was dimly lit by candles and a single oil lamp. On the table lay the body of a man covered with a plain white sheet. The sheet was drawn up to his neck and his chin pointed sharply ceilingward. Not a young man, maybe fifty or sixty, a gaunt face and bald dome of a head.. Then from the right there appeared a woman, barefoot, long hair flowing loose, tying the belt of a bathrobe. Carelessly she tossed a towel over a chair and went to the sideboard. She lit a cigarette and began to pour from a bottle into a glass. Jesus, what was he to do? It was almost completely dark and a hard wind had sprung up, helping him to make up his mind.
"Who is it?" In response to his knock on the door her voice was aggressive and without fear.
"A stranger. I'm a hitchhiker, stranded on the road."
After a few moments the door opened. It had been unlocked all the time. A flashlight shone in his face and then dropped to his chest and he saw she was holding an extremely large pistol.
"I'm so sorry to disturb you, madam. I've been overtaken by nightfall. You don't have an outbuilding where I could get out of the cold, just for the night, do you? If you can help me I'll be on my way again at first light."
"Come in." She lowered the gun and he followed her into the room. "You've chosen a bad time. My husband's just died on me." He stood looking down at the pale skin drawn tight across the facial bones, the half-closed eyelids, the gaping thin-lipped mouth, the scrawny neck of a chicken. "Want a brandy?" She was at the sideboard.
"Er, yes please. Just to keep you company. For the shock. You must be…"
"He was ill for a long time. I treated him badly and he hated me. It's a relief." She spoke flatly, without emotion. This woman wasn't more than thirty-five, forty at the most. He ran his eye over the shrouded body and noted the splay of the feet beneath the sheet. The outlines struck him as entirely authentic, one hundred percent cadaverous. "The undertakers are coming in the morning."
He took the glass and drank the neat brandy.
My uncle stopped the story right there, but it was understood that he had gone to bed with the widow, and then hit the road again in the morning.
I like this story because it’s audacious and so improbable it might well be true. It has a startling freshness to it that makes me wonder if there isn’t something archetypal at work here. Like it seems to be loaded with unexplained symbolism of the type Carl Jung babbled on about. Something like a dream dredged up from the collective unconscious. Not that I believe for one moment in unscientific crap like the collective unconscious.
Now, the reason why I have recounted my uncle’s story is because just the other day I was reminded of it by another story told by no less of a gifted bullshitter than my good buddy, Cupcake.
We were at the other guy’s place and we were also drinking brandy, but it was topped up with Coke and not neat like in my uncle’s story. Cupcake had just got back from Joburg, where he had been visiting his sister. He had nearly written himself off while driving through the Karoo, and was still shaken up and in need of more than his fair share of brandewyn to calm his nerves.
“It was in the middle of the Karoo, about 50 k’s from the nearest town,” he said. “It was just getting dark when this buck runs out in front of me. Instinctively, I swerved, my wheels hit the gravel verge, and the next thing I knew I was crashing through a barbed wire fence and bouncing off into sheep country. Lucky I didn’t roll.”
“Did you hit the buck?” asked the other guy.
“No,” said Cupcake. “But when I went through the fence I smashed my lights. Otherwise there was no major damage. Just a whole lot more dents and scratches.
“You must have got one helluva skrik,” I said.
“That’s for sure,” said Cupcake. “But anyway, there I was, trying to get back up on the road, and it was fully dark by then, when along comes this black dude in a bakkie and gives me a hand. He’s the farm foreman and says I can follow him to the farm house and stay there for the night. But when we got to the house, which wasn’t far away, a young woman opened the door, and she wasn’t charmed to see me. She said this wasn’t a good time, because her father had just gone and died. But I could sleep on the couch in the living room.”
“So there was a corpse in the house?” I said.
“Yah, in the bedroom,” said Cupcake. “Anyway, after a while the woman offers me a drink and we sit there in the living room. She tells me she’s glad her father is dead, because he was a bastard. He treated her dead mother like shit and he treated her like shit, too. In fact, he treated everyone like shit. We had another drink and then the foreman dude comes in. He doesn’t say anything but goes down the passage and I hear a door close. The woman finishes her drink and says she’s going to sleep now, and also goes off down the passage and I hear a door open and close. So there I am, alone in the living room and it’s getting late but I don’t feel like trying to sleep. I drink more of her brandy and start thinking about the dead man lying in the bedroom.”
“Creepy, hey?” I said.
“Not really,” said Cupcake. “I was more curious than anything. So I get up and go and look down the passage, and there’s a door standing open and the light’s on. When I look inside I see the corpse lying stretched out on the bed with a sheet over it up to the neck. I go in and take a closer look at this guy, and he looks a real old bastard, just like his daughter said. Heavy, brutal features. Now, just as I’m about to turn away, I take a last look and the fucking corpse goes and opens its eyes and looks straight at me.”
“What?” said the other guy, nearly choking on his b&c.
“Yah,” said Cupcake. “Looks me straight in the eye and I jump about a foot in the air. Then the corpse sits up and says He’s not really dead. He’s only been acting dead so he can catch his slut of a daughter carrying on with that fokken kaffer of a foreman. He gets up and goes to the wardrobe and takes out a sjambok. Then he walks down the passage, throws open a door, and all hell breaks loose.”
“Jesus!” said the other guy. “Then what did you do?”
“I thought to myself, Fuck it, I don’t need to get caught up in this kind of shit, and I ran outside, jumped in my car and drove off at speed, even though it was the middle of the night and I had no lights. I somehow managed to make it to the next dorp, where I stopped and waited for daybreak. Then I carried on back to Cape Town.”
By this time I was experiencing an acute bout of déjà vu, and then I remembered my uncle’s story and realised why. Cupcake’s advemture bore some strikingly similar features to my dead relative’s, and both my buddies agreed with this observation once I had finished recounting the uncle version.
“Have either of you read anything by the Irish playwright JM Synge?” asked the other guy. There was a kind of startled look in his eyes.
“Nope,” I said.
“Negative,” said Cupcake.
The other guy doesn’t have shelves but there are piles of books on just about every flat surface. He went to one of them and extricated a volume.
“This is uncanny, man,’ he said. “Synge also wrote short pieces, and this one is called ‘Pat’s Story’. Let me read it to you.”
When he was done we sat looking at each other with our mouths open, like we were a trio of half-wits. This Irish story was just too similar to the other two for there to be a rational response forthcoming.
“Well, I dunno what to say,” said Cupcake.
“This can’t be possible,” said the other guy.
“There’s something seriously fucking weird going on here,” I said.
‘Pat’s Story’ can be read here: http://wwwgatecrasher.blogspot.com/