“The kids these days always roam around in packs.” said Bobby “You will swear that they are up to something. But you guys are bored. You have nothing to do. You don’t want to work, you don’t want to go to school. You roam around the streets like zombies. When I was growing up, we could never roam around the streets in packs like this. Every time you saw a group of people you knew they were up to no good. The police knew they were up to no good. That is why they banned groups of people being together, plotting espionage or some things like that. But you guys, you guys are just lazy. The only thing you are plotting is where you’re going to buy your grass, and how much alcohol you’re going to drink on the weekend, or which girls you want to sleep with”
We were in his car, driving around looking for an address to one of his customers who wanted his fridge fixed. A group of young people passed by next to his car, trying to look menacing, slowing down as they crossed the street, as if looking for a confrontation. I looked at Bobby as he clenched his teeth, his palm on the car horn, willing himself no to press it, looking at the passing youth with the contempt they deserved.
I first met Bobby when the fridge at my home stopped working. And my uncle suggested that we call his friend, Bobby, to come and fix it. He drove an old, light green Toyota Creseda. He had this intense look in his eyes, as if he was looking for something to criticise. My mother decided that she did not like him, just by the look of him. I reserved my judgement, as I always do, but I could tell that he was not an easy person to like. He charged us eight hundred rands to refill the depleted gas of our fridge. My mom told him that he was too expensive. He told her that life was expensive and that nothing in life was for free. She told him that she would rather buy a new one than pay that amount just for a bit of gas. He told her that he was a busy man and she must stop wasting his time.
“Poor people talking about buying a new fridge. Mxm.” He said under his breath as he left.
A few weeks later he came back. It was already dark outside. When he opened the door he stared right ahead of him and the new fridge stared right back. He blinked and pretended not to see it.
“I have a job for you.” he said.
The job description was so simple, I was afraid I might not be able to do it. He wanted me to have his phone in my pocket and answer it when someone called. But job descriptions are often misleading. You end up doing way more than what you were hired to do, at way less pay. He came back to fetch me the next morning. Even though I knew his place of work and could have easily walked there. But I suppose he wanted to make sure that I got there in time. My uncle was with us as well. He was busy installing tiles for Bobby at his workshop. I wondered why he was doing such work on a place that was used for storing broken fridges. I understood that my uncle and Bobby had been friends for a long while, they attended high school together. Like all the people who attended high school with my uncle, Bobby told the same story about my uncle. That my uncle was the smartest one in class. Had a quick and agile mind. Not only that but everyone was afraid of him, because he trained as a boxer and never lost a fight. But now all traces of the man they talked about were gone. My uncle looked ten years older than Bobby, than all the people he supposedly went to school with. Most of those people were now his superiors. They came to him when they needed their grass cut, or their yards cleaned, or their rubble thrown away. Or like Bobby, when they needed to install broken tiles in their workshops. I found it peculiar that most of my uncles former school mates did not drink. While my uncle drank cheap liquor almost every day. Bobby drank little, and only on certain occasions. He credited his lack of drinking for his youthful looks, and his still sharp mind. I always got the feeling, every time I met one of these youthful looking non drinking former school mates of my uncles, that he was going to outlive all of them. I don’t know why I thought that, my uncle looked like death, but there was life in him. Much more than there was in his healthy looking friends.
His workshop looked out onto the free way, opposite the hostel. He had built a sort of balcony around the entrance, and it seemed he had been renovating the place for a while. He did not want to fix fridges anymore.
“I want to have a restaurant here one day.” he said “Maybe you can come and work for me when everything is ready.”
There was already a kitchen, with a gas stove and a place for washing the dishes. He had partitioned the place into three parts, using low walls. There was to be two service areas, one for food and one for drinks, and a place for people to sit, with tables inside and outside, where they were currently installing those broken tiles. But at that moment the place was filled with broken fridges and rat droppings and two old sofas next to the entrance. I spent most of my time sitting on those sofas, because they were so close to the entrance. The interior of the place felt strange, especially the kitchen, as if there were eyes watching your every move. Bobby did not spent a lot of time in the workshop. He came in a few times a day to take messages and check if no one came to look for him. So most of the time I was alone, reading books about insurance. They were the only books there, left by someone who was studying to understand the business of insurance. House hold insurance, business insurance, personal insurance, natural and unnatural disasters, etcetera. I spent a lot of time reading that mind numbing academic text on insurance. And I have forgotten all of it. Its amazing how many books I have read, whose contents have completely vanished from my mind, eaten by the monster of time, rendered obsolete. Probably lost in the many bouts of intense binge drinking of which I have engaged. So many wasted hours. I wonder how much of my time on earth I will consider wasted when I am lying on my death bed. Probably ninety percent. Even that is an optimistic estimate. Its probably ninety nine percent. So much wasted life, its amazing.
Anyway, only three people called on that day. The first caller was a man who wanted to know if Bobby was available. He was still busy outside with my uncle. So I asked him if he would be able to talk with the man.
“I hired you to take my calls, not to give them to me.” he said “Take a message, is that so difficult for you?”
So I took a message. I told you, so simple that it was quiet difficult to do. It felt like I was taking some kind of odd test that I could not define. It did not help that I have always been uncomfortable with phone calls. When you phone me I am already looking forward to dropping the call. The disembodied voice is to me a horrific nightmare.
“I have a problem with my ears you hear me. These phones have a kind of radiation that is damaging to my ears. They give me a headache.” said Bobby.
The second person who called was his daughter. They were done with the tiles and they had already left. I was inspecting their work and thinking what a shabby job it was, almost like it was done by someone who had a hungover, and in a hurry to get paid and get a drink. I smiled to my self thinking of my uncle already at the tavern.
“Where’s my father.” she said. She sounded like she was pouting. It was clear that she was angry at something.
“He’s not here at the moment, but I can take a message.” I said
“Why do you have his phone? Who are you?”
“Tell him I called okay, I need to speak to him. Its urgent.”
“Okay I will.”
“You won’t forget?”
“Of course not.”
“It’s just that…I need to speak to him.”
“Yes you do, I mean..”
Then she hung up. She had such a beautiful voice too. But like I said, I was not at ease while speaking to her. I even forgot to ask for her name.
These voice calls though. This reminds me of all those years ago, when I was still a teenager. All those hours spent rehearsing what I was going to say when about to make a phone call to a girl. Writing little notes to structure the conversation and use them as a reference. The sweet agony of being a teenager. I outgrew most things from that time. Like listening to sad music for hours and wondering why I am depressed, all that bloody punk, and also wondering why my intense sadness felt so good, a beautiful sadness like quiet nights in the Karoo desert, with the clear dark sky reflecting a deserted universe. I outgrew all that, these days sadness is days spent binging on alcoholic poison half hoping to die. It feels like a constant headache. But I never outgrew the fear of the voice call. I still catch myself hyperventilating in those moments of dialling and dropping the call, through sheer force of will I get myself through it. Like in those two weeks I was taking calls for Bobby. I wonder why voice calls still scare me so much. It doesn’t make any sense really. It must be more than just the horror of a disembodied voice. I’m convinced there must be a medical condition for it. Not that I would want a label to yet another problem that I have. Just that I am certain that there are others out there like myself, who are scared of voice calls. That is the nature of pathologies I suppose. There has to be other people who suffer from the same problem. Otherwise if you are all alone in your predicament…I am rambling, this is of no import to the story. And it will not help me get any meaning from it. That is my sole occupation. Trying to find meaning in the lives of the people I encounter, hoping that it will help to illuminate the meaning of my own life. Its a weird thing if you think about it. I mean if you really allow yourself the time to contemplate it.
Anyway, in the days that followed I got more comfortable in my position, despite the fact that I had to answer calls. Besides, there weren’t that many calls to take, only two or three. Four or five in a good day. Not a good day for me, you understand, but a good day for Bobby, since it meant more money for him if more people called wanting to have their fridges fixed, especially considering the fact that he overcharged them. None of them complained though. For me it didn’t mean much, in terms of remuneration. I would still receive the same fifty rand daily wage no matter how many fridges got fixed in a day. And the calls did increase as time went on. It was during the festive season, the week after Christmas, towards the new year. It seemed an awful lot of fridges died during that time, and people were eager to have them come back to life before new years eve, quiet possibly the most important day of the year for most people, and none of them wanted the taste of warm beer to ruin it.
For the most part I had nothing much to do. Sweeping the floor and reading boring books on insurance did not fill up enough time for me to banish the boredom monster, and I was getting restless, even though I had only been there for a few days. Bobby must have seen this restlessness. So, towards the end of the day, he would close the workshop early, and take me with to the house where he had to fix a fridge. Besides, no one ever came to the workshop anyway. Why would they come to him when they could just call for him to come to their houses. The pretext he used was that his eyes were getting old and he could not see the numbers on the houses anymore. He needed young eyes to help him see where he was going. But I supposed that he too was bored driving around in his car the whole day, and he needed someone to talk to. Or rather, he needed someone to listen while he ranted about everything and everyone.
“I have a couple of beers every once in a while, but I have never been drunk in my life. Black people have an unhealthy relationship with alcohol, like your uncle, they drink themselves to death. They also have an unhealthy relationship with money, when they have money, the first thing they think about is buying alcohol. If we had a healthy relationship with money we would use it to grow ourselves, instead of killing ourselves as we do, maybe then we would start building wealth and not chase after death while making other people wealthy. We live, we die, and all we can say about our lives is that other people became rich because of it. I hope you are not one of those people, build something for yourselves, otherwise you will be a slave all your life.”
This should not have affected me negatively. But I suppose when the truth is spoken about you, and you don’t want to hear it, you became bitter. I was one of those black people. Just then I was thinking about the new years eve party that was to come. I was thinking about the money I would have to contribute to buy alcohol with my friends. It would be a single night of the worst kind of binge drinking. And most of us would be waking up the next morning with no memory of what happened the previous night. Having gained nothing but a splitting headache and a reduced life span. And emptier pockets, coupled with an undefinable sense of regret, even as we try to cheer ourselves up by talking about how great a time we had.
On new years eve he dropped me off at home. We were having the new years eve party at my house. This was during the days when my grandmother still liked to travel to Mafikeng, and my mother had gone back to her husband, so it was just my uncle and I left, and he didn’t mind when me and my friends hosted a party at the house, as long as we gave him something to drink as well. Besides, he would be out most of the night. Come back home drunk and go to sleep almost immediately.
I was told the next day that Bobby came back the next morning. He had not told me anything but apparently he expected me to work on new years day. But I was out still drinking at a friends party when I got bored of my own.
Later on Bobby told me that new years day was one of his busiest time of the year. Fixing ones fridge becomes an emergency when all the beers are hot, and you have plans to hang out at the park later on.
“I had to risk my life answering phone calls. Who knows what could have happened? I may already have a cancerous tumour in my head, and taking that one phone call may just kill me.”
It would have been tragic if it wasn’t so funny. I would have laughed if I wasn’t still hungover. Instead I just grimaced and kept my head down, consoling myself with the fact that it was my last week working for him and I will never have to see him again.
I just needed money to register for school in a week, and I would be off chasing after a better life. A week before, someone told me that I could get a government bursary if I register for an National Vocational Course. I already had my Matric and an NCV would be like going backwards, but I needed something to do. Another year spent roaming the streets and smoking weed filled me with dread.
That week went by without incident. Just a typical hot January week after the festive season, when it seems that the days demand an irresponsible indolence, and you have to drag yourself through everything that you do, like an old machine going through a reboot. It was a slow week, as the calls trickled out, with people thinking of other things to spend their money on. Bobby and I established a calm camaraderie. Not that we were friends or anything. But I suppose we had grown a certain respect for one another. At that time I had never personally know a man like Bobby in my life. A man of drive and ambition. A man who had built a successful business and had the vision to build another one, working on what he already has, with patience and determination, instead of coming up with all manner of theories as to why his dreams cannot be possible at the moment, like so many of us do. I admired him for that. Yes he had a shitty personality. He was brash and patronising. He was always rude to people. Disrespect was his default setting. He was a man who saw everyone around him as a lesser being. But I understood where he was coming from. He was of a generation of men who had everything against them. And they had two choices in life. Either to accept that the odds were against them and give in, to probably spend the rest of their lives being dictated to by other people, then drown in alcohol until the day of death. Or fight to assert their humanity and their right to be, to live freely, to build wealth, and a desirable life. He chose the latter. But that kind of battle changes a man. For better or for worse. I got a feeling that he was bitter because he had to fight so hard while most of the people around him could not be bothered, he was angry at the world because the world was not like him. But I decided that I liked him, in a kind of distant don’t ever come to visit kind of like. Even though I would later satirize him in one of my stories about a maniacal villain who wants to rule the world by robbing it of knowledge. It was a fun story to write, although I don’t think he would have been impressed. I on the other hand am of a generation of absent fathers. I have always found it difficult to relate to older men, most times to men in general. Considering that I am a man, I have become both alien and alienated. That is why I was happy, and a little surprised that we got along so well on that last week. So well that he found it necessary to invite me over to his house on a Saturday. It may have been that he did not have the money to pay me on that Friday. At least that is what he said, but he also said;
“I want to see if you still remember where I live. Remember I want you to work for me during the holidays, but feel free to come by at any time, you know, if you need advice and stuff. Its not proper that a young man like you should drift about the world without any guidance. I don’t think your uncle can do that for you. Before long you will be pissing your future away like a hopeless drunk at a shebeen.”
He lived in a corner house. There was a garage entrance for his car and a smaller gate for people. The tall wall around his yard hid the three bedroom house that he lived in. The atmosphere inside his house was the same as the one found in his workshop, and soon to be restaurant. It was dark and cold. It raised the hairs on my arms when I entered, and I wondered why his wife had left him, where she lived now, was she still alive? Was it her dead spirit haunting all the places he went to? And what was the story with her daughter anyway? But I could not ask him any of this. So I just sat on his large leather sofa and waited for him to give me my money.
There was someone else with him. A thin tall men he had introduced to me before. He was to be his chef when the restaurant was running. His only qualification was that he once worked as a cook in some Joburg down town eatery. Bobby seemed to have complete faith in him. And the man had complete faith in himself. He had already compiled the menu. Although, I sensed a certain uneasiness in him. I suspected that it had something to do with the person of Bobby, no one was ever in complete ease around Bobby. He on the other hand seemed more relaxed than I had ever seen him before. He even smiled when he spoke to me. He wanted to know all about my plans. He sat back in his chair with his hands behind his head, one hairy leg on top of the other, and listened to me speak with a smile that reached his eyes. It felt like for the first time he was actually listening to me, he was interested in what I had to say. It may have been the ease that came with being at home, or the ease that came with the short pants he wore, that made him so much at ease with himself, and made him comfortable enough to reveal a different side of himself. A self that was not weighed down by the pressures of trying to make a living, of making dreams come true, of dealing with a world that did not care. I found that I liked this Bobby much more than the Bobby I had come to know.
We were all smiling when I left, I, Bobby and his friend. The light mood seemed to have lightened the heavy darkness of his house. And for a moment I even felt guilty about leaving him, and entertained thoughts of coming back to work for him once the restaurant was done. Yet I knew that was never going to happen. I knew that he was always going to be an unpleasant person to work for. He was probably an unpleasant person to live with as well, the reason why his wife left him, or wanted to leave, leading to her murder, I was almost sure of it.
Things did not go as well as I have hoped with my new ventures. Nothing I had planned materialized, a reality which would become the dominating feature of my life. I was to spent the next two years slowly becoming the young man that Bobby was always ranting against. I roamed the streets aimlessly, I smoked weed and got high with my friends everyday, I slept during the day, my life was slowly spiralling out of my reach, and it seemed that there was nothing I could do to bring myself back. In time I forgot all about that period I spent answering phone calls for Bobby. Until one night, while I was watching television, struggling to keep my eyes open, waiting for everyone to go to sleep so that I could lay my bed on the dining room floor, a news and investigative show called Special assignment came on. I watched for a while without really paying attention, just letting the images pass over the screen, while my mind wandered. Then the image of a man lying on a cold slab came on, the kind used to put dead bodies on at the mortuary. The man was dead of course, and his body was covered with peeling scabs and a strange rush. On top of the screen was the face of the man. I recognised him immediately, it was the face of Bobby, and his dead body was the one lying on that metal slab. I forced myself to pay attention. The show was about the rising number of men in South African prisons who die mysterious deaths. And Bobby was one of those men. He was serving a fifteen years sentence. He was in prison for raping his own daughter. The same one who had called me that one morning asking to speak to her father, sounding desperate. I didn’t know how to feel, my mind struggled to make sense of it. But I could see it, the man who ranted against the world during the day, who acted superior against all people, who thought he was too good for the world, going back home each evening, to pray on his own daughter. He may have even killed her mother when she found out the truth. I didn’t know how to feel. All I could think was how even a man as outwardly unpleasant as Bobby, was using that unpleasantness to hide an even deeper unpleasantness. Some people use the mask of politeness to hide the face of evil. Some people were a mask that gives a hint as to the true nature of their self. We feel it, we can almost taste it every time they are near, but none of that instinctive knowledge can ever prevent anything. Until we find ourselves watching television one night, and learning of their atrocious acts, and not knowing how to feel.