2013-06-03 00:00

BACK in those days you could travel alone on a train when 13 years old without some dread drugperson stealing you intact and selling you into slavery or something. I had these two old aunts in Durbs, you see, who’d had a bit of money left to them and a nice old house near that little zoo at Mitchell Park, and when I felt like a long weekend of wildlife drawing I could take off from Maritzburg on the 4 am Durban Special, a short train parked on a little side-platform at the Maritzburg station at 7 pm the night before; you could climb aboard after the Friday bioscope and order a bed and get a good night’s kip and wake up all sparkly eyed at the old station in the middle of Durbs at 8 am Saturday.

A modest spread, this zoo, although along with assorted small creatures, parrots and monkeys and things, they did have a bloody big Indian elephant name of Nellie, and it was fun to lie in bed at the aunts’ and imagine myself on safari with all these beasts squealing and trumpeting and stomping around just outside my tent.

I took my pal Loonybin Bettleham along once, an event he hasn’t forgotten in 74 years. These aunts had neither children nor husbands, see, but two Scots terriers instead, named Donald and Dougal because the aunts were McTavishes, Jean and Jessie. One dog each. Vegetarians. Fed upon Marie biscuits and lettuce and stuff, also jubejubes and chocolates, so by the time they achieved adulthood all their teeth had either been pulled or fallen out and their testes had shrivelled up entirely and people thought they were girl-dogs. But the toothlessness was okay because they fought bitterly over a certain pink blanket and bit each other mercilessly, and buying a second (blue) blanket didn’t help, for each now claimed both blankets.

But then their claws fell out too. Jean was the alpha-auntie, she did the praying in times of crisis, like when Auntie Jessie was doing that thing again with her green peas and mashed potatoes and Auntie Jean would cry For pity’s sake I wish you wouldn’t push your peas around like that with your fork, it drives one off one’s head!

Whereupon Auntie Jessie would go into crisis, and her hands would tremble so the peas would fly off both plate and table and Auntie Jean would have to Know the Truth, which is what praying is called in Christian Science. And now she had to Know the Truth also about the claws falling out. Indeed I myself perceived a certain hazard, for D&D had now no defence against their natural parasites: neither Darwin’s tooth nor claw. But that also turned out okay after sufficient Truth-Knowledge, for all their hair fell out too and the indigenous vermin baled out upon the carpet. Living upon D&D was like walking on the surface of the moon, exposed to every menace of the universe. Fearing for their pets’ sanity, my aunts knitted two jerseys, blue and pink, also rubbed them down with Vaseline which didn’t count as medicine in their faith so that was okay, though I must confess their appearance put one off a little, like those shiny stuffed leather armchairs in a posh London club for gentlemen, polished smooth by a thousand bums.

Both D&D evinced an immediate hatred of Loonybin, both of them. As he entered the gate they flung at him from under the house, each fixing his boneless gums to an ankle, hideously snarling, wrenching and jerking terrier-style until Loonybin was likely to split in two. I beat them with my bag until the aunts appeared. OH SIS! cried Loonybin, my shoes are full of spit! Clean saliva! cried the aunts, they don’t lick their bottoms, you know, we wash them with Dettol! He rinsed and wrung out his socks and hung them out of reach and settled himself cross-legged on the couch while A/Jean calmed him down with readings from her scriptures. Selecting a chapter called Animal Magnetism, Mesmerism and Necromancy Denounced, she fell into recitativo mode, measured and sonorous, and L/bin soon fell into deep sleep. Hey! said he when Auntie Jean went off to fetch tea and Marie biscuits, Hey that mesmerism thing’s bloody nice, man, I’ve just had a lovely little ziz! Garn shurrup, man! said I, it’s supposed to be against mesmerism, f’chrissakes!

But the memory of it remains, vividly. We went our ways, five years. Now I’m 18, the spectre of Das Drittes Reich looms, I kiss the flag and betake myself to Pretoria and prepare to wage war on A. Hitler from the sky. And there down at the Kerkplein on my very first weekend pass whom should I bump into but ol’ Bettleham himself, trainee pilot, SAAF. Loonybin! I cry, it’s been years! Indeed, says he, the memory of our last meeting remains vividly in my mind, oft have I thought of trying a bit of mesmerism myself on somebody, preferably a woman. Therefore let us approach these two tarts ’neath the statue of President Kruger and apply our skills.

I’m not too good at this, say I to my tart, I haven’t tried it before. Shame, says she, quite motherly, never mind, we’ll have a nice talk for five bob instead of 10. Ol’ Loonybin stares into his tart’s eyes sort of ghostly and waves his fingers about and murmurs You vill come vis me und you do not know ... and she droops her eyelids and wrists and somnambulates off to a crummy hotel bedroom and turns off the light. We tag along. My tart tells me all about life in Potchefstroom while the other two pound about on a squeaky mattress, then all falls silent and after a bit a voice says That will be 15 shillings, please. But you said 10 bob! replies another voice. Ja, says first voice, but the extra five bob is for the mesmerism.

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