Joe Kitchen | Raging against the machine

An old Underwood typerwriter (Supplied)
An old Underwood typerwriter (Supplied)

Joe Kitchen feels the strong pull of nostalgia after he comes across an old typerwiter in his dressing room before going on stage on night to perform.

I see it out of the corner of my eye, one evening as I'm getting ready to go on stage.

That...thing, taunting me.

It is eight o'clock. Half an hour from now, I will put on my bandana, pick up my notebook with handwritten song lyrics, exit the backstage area, and take my tentative, anxious steps out into the spotlight, where I will exchange the anonymous and quiet safety of this little room for the noisy and raucous crowd waiting for me out there in the theatre.

I will seat myself on the bar stool, which is already on stage. Then I will pick up my guitar, reach out, with slightly trembling hands, to take a sip of red wine from the glass which they have placed there for me, and start strumming the tune of the first song of the evening.

Why I still get these stage jitters after so many years, God only knows.

Surely it's all very simple!

I have been doing this exact same thing for ages, weekend after weekend. I am a singer, after all. Not a very good singer, I must admit, and my guitar is almost always slightly out of tune, but this is what I am.

It's just a job, really.

Tonight is different, though.

Because of that thing.

I could not help noticing it. I blinked briefly when I saw it, and looked again.

It has noticed me, too, I know. It is almost alive, a threatening presence.

An ancient typwriter 

It is standing on the bottom shelf of a wooden workbench, half-hidden between lots of stored junk and paraphernalia.

An ancient typewriter.

Nobody uses it anymore, that's for sure. The keypad is dilapidated and broken. There is no ribbon. No-one will ever be able to restore it to its former glory. It is too old to be renovated.

And anyway, who still wants a typewriter nowadays? There are more accessible and simpler ways to express oneself in words. Gone are the days of buying typing paper and Tipp-Ex! I doubt if stationery shops will even stock Tipp-Ex in this age of computers, laptops and phones.

Of course, I have seen lots of old typewriters in my time. They are all over the place. There is at least one of them – usually a Remington - in every second-hand shop. They all look the same - huge, square, black things. Useless relics of a forgotten era.

And yet.

I can't tear my eyes away from an old typewriter. I always stare at them for a while. They are such a big part of my past. 

My dark, anxious past, shrouded in denial. 

It takes me a little while to realise why this typewriter is different from all the other old typewriters I have seen in shops and antique stores.

The logo at the top of the machine is different. 

This is not a Remington. It's an Underwood.

Goodness me! I simply have to touch it. I take a few steps towards it. Try to pick it up. It is rather heavy. I feel the metal against my palms. 

Heaving, I drag it from the bottom shelf to put it down on the top of the workbench.

An Underwood 

An Underwood! This is really an Underwood! When last did I see an Underwood?

The last Underwood I saw looked very much like this one, but appeared to be much bigger. It was a humongous thing back then. But then I was so much smaller.

How old was I? Four years old? Five?

Of course, to be quite honest, I wasn't able to read properly at that age. But I recognised some letters of the alphabet. I did not know how to pronounce them properly, and even the little bit I could read, I could not often understand. I still felt the lure though. I was mesmerised by the mysteries of the written and the printed word. 

The first time I saw that machine, I could not stay away from it.

It stood perched on top of a desk in my father's working area. It was big, and black, and complicated, and it looked dangerous.

It was an Underwood.

And, just by standing there, passively, not moving, it threw out its challenge.

It was as if that Underwood was saying: "I DARE you to try me."

I accepted the challenge.

I ran through the house, frantically, as fast as my short legs could carry me, collecting cushions and pillows. I stacked these on the chair standing in front of the desk, one cushion on top of the other, until, by hoisting my body up, I could sit on the top one.

I tried to reach the keypad with my fingers, the way I had seen my father do it so often. But my arms were way too short.

I returned to gathering some more cushions. And back up the chair.

Finally I managed, by sitting up straight on my knees on the very top of the heap of pillows, leaning slightly forward, to reach teh typewriter. 

Fortunately, there was already a blank piece of paper in the machine.

When I brought down my hand on one of the keys, and banged it, a letter appeared as if by magic on the piece of paper. A capital "A".

I banged yet another one. The letter "E" was formed, miraculously.

I started typing more letters, in quick succession. Some of them I recognised, others I did not know. When I reached the end of the first line, the machine made a clackety sound, and a little bell rang out.

That was the instant that I was hooked.

I remember telling myself: 

This is what I want to do for the rest of my life.

As I grew older, the conviction of my vocation grew stronger and stronger. I bought my own typewriter. Later I got an electric typewriter. Eventually, a word processor.

I made up stories, songs, and poems. Mostly in Afrikaans. Sometimes in English. I did not really have a preference. I just wanted to be a writer.

I dabbled in words, because words were my way of attempting to make sense of my ghastly life, my confused youth, all the horrors I saw around me.

I raged against the machine, wresting meaning out of it, forcing it to obey me, manipulating it to try and create literature.

Did I succeed?

I'm still not sure. I hope I did… 

There is a gentle knock on the door of the backstage area, waking me up from my reverie. Someone pokes his head around the corner of the door. It's the sound engineer.

"It's time to start the show," he says. 

Are you ready? Have you got your book with the song lyrics?

I pick up the book. I follow him out the door, walking in a semi-trance-like daze.

Such a distance I've travelled. 

Just to seat myself on this barstool. Just to take a sip of this wine.

Just to hear the people clap, and applause, and shout my name.

For this moment, though, the noise is still unclear, distant, and I don't really hear anything.

My eyes are closed.

All I see in front of me, is the large, bulky, dark and menacing shape of that old Underwood.

- Joe Kitchen is a South African musician, singer, songwriter and writer who sometimes goes by the name of Koos Kombuis, André Letoit and/or André le Roux du Toit.

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