Boy Friday

2012-11-28 00:00

IN his smart blue suit with the trouser legs tucked into Argyle socks, Ernest was a flamboyant and familiar sight around the Pinetown CBD in the late eighties.

A bicycle messenger of the old school, he was a small wiry man in his early 60s, who took great pride in his job and the trust placed in him to make his deliveries timeously.

His bicycle was a relic from a bygone era; a gargantuan black iron contraption fitted with a large wicker carrier basket and a saddle that would not have looked out of place on a horse. Ironically, because of its titanic proportions, the bike took considerable muscle power to pedal, but the momentum it gathered once mobile was like that of a runaway horse and just as tricky to control.

Unlike today’s lightweight, 12-speed wonders of engineering, Ernest’s tank had only one speed and no brakes — or none that worked anyway.

But, despite the obstreperous nature of his transport, the bike was Ernest’s most prized possession.

Following a series of near misses and a couple of fender benders, from which both messenger and bicycle emerged unscathed, word soon got around that any encounter with Ernest and his demon bike spelt disaster, as both, it seemed, were indestructible.

In an attempt to prevent further altercations, Ernest’s employers decided some sort of warning device was needed and his conveyance was duly equipped with a bugle horn — an instrument that Ernest made full use of.

Thus, the messenger and his bike became both dangerous and deafening.

I was employed by one of the local banks during Ernest’s reign of terror and, with the building’s large glass frontage overlooking the high street, I had a front-row seat to his daily antics.

If the traffic lights were not in his favour, with a sharp blast of his horn Ernest simply mounted the pavement and cycled around them. Sending pedestrians scuttling in all directions, without any warning, he would then swerve back into the traffic to a symphony of hooting and screeching brakes.

But such was the affable nature of the man, it was impossible to get too angry with him.

Despite missing several teeth, he had the biggest smile of anyone I have ever known and took such pride in his job that I doubt it ever occurred to him that he risked life and limb (and not always his own) on a daily basis.

Unfortunately, although Ernest took his duty very seriously and was undeniably a reliable and honest worker, he was not without a vice — albeit one he succumbed to only once a month.

Rain or shine, on the last Friday of each month — which also coincided with his payday — Ernest’s bicycle could be seen parked outside the bottle store across the street from the bank.

He had a particular fondness for milk stout and by mid-afternoon, with several pints under his belt and another clasped firmly in hand, he would mount his trusty steed and venture forth into the Friday afternoon traffic.

Not only was he deafening and dangerous, but now also decidedly drunk.

On the first day of September each year, it was traditional for our banking hall to be decorated with flowers and plants to welcome the arrival of Spring. It was a custom enjoyed by staff and customers alike, and huge effort and enthusiasm were invested in the task.

In the particular year in question, a local garden centre had put up a display and the banking hall was host to an elaborate water feature involving a fibreglass pond surrounded by rocks, potted palm trees and a jungle of frondy foliage.

Right on cue, at three o’clock in the afternoon, Ernest lurched from the bottle store three sheets to the wind, clutching the inevitable bottle of stout. It was a hot and blustery day, and as he prepared to impart his usual brand of chaos on the high street, he espied the inviting oasis within the bank.

Leaving a trail of near-destruction as he veered across the road, Ernest abandoned his bicycle in the bank’s entrance foyer. Grinning from ear to ear and still clutching his bottle of booze, he tottered giddily towards the Spring display.

He leaned precariously over the pond and gazed in bewilderment at his reflection in the water. Then to the vast amusement of the customers waiting to be served, he carefully placed his bottle among the ferns and sat down upon an adjacent rock.

As the titters of his audience grew louder, Ernest proceeded to remove his shoes and socks. Muttering happily to himself, he carefully rolled up his trousers and immersed his hot and tired feet in the cool water. Finally, giving a loud sigh of relief, he retrieved his beverage and, like a man on his own private beach, adopted an air of utter contentment.

Unfortunately, our bank manager was far from contented. Puce with agitation, he marched up and began to remonstrate with the errant messenger.

However, by this time the effects of all the stout had taken hold and, having found his utopia, Ernest was extremely reluctant to leave. In fact, to the added delight of the folk still in the queue, he put aside his drink and began to wash his socks in the pond.

Apoplectic, the manager stormed off in search of reinforcements.

“He looks like Robinson Crusoe,” joked someone as Ernest calmly completed his laundry and draped his dripping socks over a fern.

“No, he’s definitely Boy Friday,” said another to a gale of laughter.

And the more people laughed, the more Ernest performed, such that by the time the manager returned with two security guards, he was practically wallowing in the pond.

Mindful of Ernest’s popularity and not wanting to instigate an unseemly brawl, the guards were instructed to negotiate with the pond dweller. But Ernest was beyond negotiation. So when diplomacy failed, the guards seized his bottle of stout and tried to coax him out with that — a tactic that may well have worked had the bottle actually had anything left in it.

Realising the situation was fast turning into a circus, the manager cast about in desperation.

Then he spotted Ernest’s beloved bicycle blocking the foyer and realised he had the leverage needed for an eviction. Under the amused gaze of his staff and several customers, who on account of the entertainment had also been reluctant to leave, he trotted out to the entrance way.

Sweating with exertion but determined to maintain an air of decorum, he wheeled the giant bike towards the pond and began to parp the bugle horn. By this time, most of the bank’s staff were peering around corners and everyone waited, agog.

The noise of the horn seemed to rouse Ernest from his stupor and he peered from among the foliage and gave a groan.

“Let’s go Boy Friday!” gasped the manager, breathless from his efforts, “or I’m going to take your bike.” This was a brave statement given the man could barely hold it upright, much less ride it anywhere. Fortunately for him though, his threat seemed to have the desired effect and as he laboured towards the door, Ernest climbed grudgingly from his pond.

The last time I saw Ernest he was hobbling barefoot down the high street, waving his wet socks at the bank manager, who was clinging to his last shreds of dignity and having great difficulty trying to control the messenger’s runaway bike.


• This is the last of the finalists’ stories. The winners will be announced in The Witness on Wednesday, December 5. Thereafter we will publish the remainder of the semi-finalists’ stories.

opencategory finalist

About the writer:

BORN in Britain, Heidi Steyn immigrated to South Africa with her family in 1975. After matriculating in 1983, she worked in the commercial banking sector for 14 years.

As a freelance columnist and writer, she is drawn to humour and enjoys looking for the lighter side of every situation.

She has lived in Pietermaritzburg for the past 20 years.

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