When Adam's life fell apart, he turned to his brother for help. But charity can be hard to swallowby Damon Galgut / June 29, 2008 / Leave a comment
A set of unfortunate circumstances had led Adam to this point. In the normal course of things he wouldn’t have been here at all, but his life hadn’t been normal for a while. Everything had unravelled for him a few months before when two things happened at the same time to undo him. First he’d lost his job and then he’d lost his house.
He shouldn’t have been surprised about the job. All the signs were there, but Adam was oblivious, and it was a deep, cold shock to discover that the young black intern he’d been training for the past six months was, in fact, being groomed to replace him. His boss had been apologetic, talking about racial quotas and telling him it was nothing personal. But how could it not be personal? It was he, nobody else, who had to pack up his desk and take his pictures off the wall and walk through the door for the last time. Afterwards, remembering this scene, what he felt most keenly was humiliation that he hadn’t seen it coming.
The house was a different story. It had been clear for a long time how things were going. The area of Johannesburg in which he’d bought—trendy and vibrant and multicultural when he’d first moved in—had been sliding badly for a few years. All his friends who lived nearby had been selling up and getting out, and they’d urged Adam to do the same. But for some reason, some passivity in his character, he hadn’t done anything about it. He’d just sat there, watching it all go to pieces: the gangsters taking over, the squatters moving in, the crime and drugs getting worse and worse, until it was too late. He couldn’t find anybody reliable to rent the house and nobody wanted to buy it. In the end he couldn’t even give the place away. The bank didn’t want to repossess it and they only took it when they saw that Adam was in no position to keep up any repayments at all.
It was a real mess, a real stroke of bad luck. In just a few months he’d found himself stranded—alone and futureless in the middle of his life. Eventually he’d had to turn to his brother for help. Gavin was three years younger than Adam and had always done things in a very different way. He was down in Cape Town, at the other end of the country, and they had stayed only tangentially in touch over the years. But since Adam had got into trouble, Gavin had been calling a lot, affecting serious concern.
“Why don’t you move down here?” he said now. “You could take your time, stay with us till you find your feet.”
“I’ll think about it,” Adam said. But he didn’t have to think for too long. He’d been hoping, in fact, that Gavin would make the offer. He was tired of Johannesburg, tired of his life up there. The idea of a big move, a completely fresh start, was appealing.
It was amazing, when he packed up his life, how little there was. The bank had taken all the furniture along with the house. He was left with his clothes, a few household implements, some boxes of books. All of it fitted into his car.
As a young man, Gavin had been muscular and powerful, but he was running to fat these days. He had an affluent, satisfied look to him. He wore expensive clothes and jewellery, and he had cultivated a smug little moustache. He’d recently moved into a huge penthouse apartment on the top floor of a fancy block of flats that he owned.
From Adam’s bedroom window there was a spectacular view of Table Mountain and Lion’s Head. A certain unreality attached to this vista, which reflected the unreality of Adam’s position. Here he was, without prospects or cash, living like a king.
Gavin rubbed it in. “Relax, no hurry,” he told Adam. “I can afford to look after you, until you get things worked out.”
There was irony in this. Until just a few years ago, Adam had been the staid, dependable, predictable one, while Gavin was financially straitened and directionless. Now they seemed to have changed places. But the history went back further and deeper than that, and it didn’t take long for Adam to sense that Gavin was using his weakened state to try to settle some obscure moral score. He was constantly on his case, wearing him down. “You’ve got to pull yourself together,” he told Adam just a day or two after he arrived. “Look at you, you’re a wreck. There are food stains on your shirt.”
“Who cares? Oh, all right, I’ll change the shirt.”
“The shirt’s not the point here, Ad. It’s you. You’re letting yourself go, you’re collapsing. Why don’t you fight back? You can’t just give up. So you lost your job, big deal. Get another one.”
He made it sound so easy. That was the way Gavin thought: you sidestepped bad luck, you rolled with the punches. And maybe he was right—maybe Adam was indulging himself, giving in to self-pity. In his place, Gavin wouldn’t be folding up like this; he had proved it before. He had changed jobs a few times already, without suffering the slightest self-doubt. He had been through two marriages, both ending in ugly divorces, but the experience hadn’t stopped him from getting involved with a series of unlikely women, the newest of whom was hanging on his arm now, chewing gum and staring at Adam. Her name was Charmaine.
“I’ve got a friend who’s lonely too,” she put in. “I could introduce you.”
“I’m not lonely.”
“That’s your problem right there,” Gavin said. “Denial. You’ve got to confront this thing. Get up, get out. Don’t lie around, staring at the ceiling.”
“I’m different to you, Gavin. I reflect on things. I’m Hamlet to your Laertes.”
“What? What are you talking about? All I’m saying, get out and socialise a bit. Why don’t you come out with us tonight? We’re meeting some of my buddies for drinks.”
He’d met some of Gavin’s friends already. A bunch of them had come over for a braai in the garden downstairs a few nights before—big, boozy men with simpering wives, who talked about business deals and cars and insurance, and made jokes about blondes and blowjobs. One of them had asked Adam what line of work he was in, and when he’d answered that he was unemployed, a hot, scratchy silence had fallen.
As they got up to go, Charmaine said to Adam, “I can read auras. Your aura is very dark.”
“Jeez, babe,” Gavin said. “Leave my brother alone.”
“I’m just observing. You need to clear yourself,” she told Adam. “You need to change your life.”
He thought about that the whole evening. He didn’t know about the aura, but she was right about the rest of it. He did need to clear himself, he did need to change his life.
This idea was still on Adam’s mind a few days later when Gavin took him to visit a building site. It was a scene of frenzied activity. Hundreds of men were toiling with machines to raise a massive concrete structure from the ground. It was while they were up on the top floor, both wearing hard hats, Adam beset by vertigo, that Gavin offered him a job.
“Nothing too big or high-powered, obviously,” he said. “You’re not qualified. But you could come and work at the office. I need an assistant. I could train you, show you the ropes. No, don’t answer now, just think about it for a few days, all right?”
Gavin had made a fortune in just a few years out of property development. He’d started out up the west coast, getting involved in a marina and surf resort that had destroyed a wetlands conservation site. These days his energies were mostly focused on Cape Town. He was teamed up with people who were buying old buildings and gutting them or ripping them down and putting up shiny modern apartment blocks in their place. Some of these deals were unscrupulous and Gavin had pointed out proudly to Adam that one of their company directors was a black man who was paid a healthy retainer just to stay at home in Gugulethu while his name on the letterhead brought in legitimacy and investment. The sums of money involved were staggering.
More than anything, it was the idea of the money that swayed Adam. He’d never been seriously poor before and it wasn’t nice. In recent years there had appeared a new phenomenon in Johannesburg: white people at the traffic lights, wearing old clothes and a hopeless air, begging. He wasn’t anywhere near that state himself, but the possibility of it pulled at him with a powerful gravity. Losing everything, having nothing—the notion stirred contradictory feelings of panic and excitement.
So he did think about Gavin’s offer. It was tempting. Later he would realise that Gavin had chosen his moment carefully: the view from the top of the construction site was heady, full of the promise of industry and power. It was only when they were back down at ground level that the real world returned. While they were walking to the car he heard his brother having a vehement conversation on his mobile phone. “Rip it all out,” Gavin was saying. “All the old fittings… ja, ja, I’ve got a buyer for the stuff… no, we’ll put in copper… the cheapest, I told you, it’s got to look good, that’s the point… I know a guy, he’ll handle it… take out the silver, put copper in…”
A blue melancholy rolled down over Adam. Cheap fittings. Copper instead of silver. No, he couldn’t do it.
Although he’d agreed to think about it for a few days, he spoke to Gavin that night. It was better to talk while the urgency was there. He felt full of moral clarity, a sense of freedom and release. “I want to make a contribution,” he said, “not a fast buck.”
Gavin was instantly set bristling. “What, I’m not contributing?”
“I employ hundreds of people. Construction work—that’s a lot of jobs. It’s good for bosses and workers, it’s good for everybody. And it’s all part of opening up the country. Where’s the problem?”
It was a difficult argument to answer. But Adam remembered that, in the years leading up to South Africa’s big change, Gavin had been gloomy and frightened. He’d even spoken about emigrating. Adam had been the positive one, full of hope for the future. It didn’t seem right that it should have worked out like this: with Adam unemployed and homeless, and his brother talking loudly about opening up the country.
“The way I see it,” Gavin finished angrily, “you’re not in any position to refuse.”
“I’m grateful for the offer. Really. But it’s a matter of principle.”
“Oh, right. It’s like that. Great to keep your principles while other people are looking after you.”
“You offered,” Adam said. “I didn’t force you.”
‘Out of interest, what will your principles allow you to do?”
He hesitated, but then he answered. “I want to write poetry,” he said.
As a very young man, Adam had published a book of poems. The collection had been called The Flaming Sword, a title he had taken from Genesis. It had been a small local publication and had sold only a few hundred copies, but it had attracted some attention, mostly because of his age. The poems were about the natural world, ardent and intense and romantic, and he felt quite embarrassed by them now. He had never written or published anything since, but he had always—secretly, inside himself—thought of himself as a poet. It had felt more like a condition than a vocation, especially while he was holding down another, ordinary job, trying to make his way in the world.
Now that the other job and life had fallen away, the poet in him felt renewed. It seemed to him that he’d returned to his true calling. Accordingly, he’d started to conceive of this crisis he was going through as something he’d willed upon himself. He hadn’t lost his job; he had given it up. He hadn’t lost his house; he was shedding his possessions. He was paring his life to the core.
Till now, he hadn’t voiced these thoughts to anybody. He had barely acknowledged them to himself. But Gavin’s offer of a job, and his reaction to it, had brought the whole issue into focus. He had reached a moment of truth.
“Poetry,” Gavin said. He made it sound like a perversion.
Adam blushed. “Yes,” he said, feeling more certain than ever. He resolved that from this moment he would declare it to anybody who asked: that was what he was—a poet.
Charmaine was nodding at him. “I think that’s so amazing,” she breathed.
“Maybe it’s amazing,” Gavin said, “but it doesn’t pay the rent.”
“The rent isn’t important.”
“It is, if you don’t have it.” Gavin glared at his brother. “Look,” he said, “things are good at the moment. The country’s rolling along. There’s a lot of money flowing, if you just know where to look. You’ve had a bit of bad luck, that’s all. But there’s no excuse for a white man to go starving here, whatever anybody says.”
“I’m sure that’s all true,” Adam said. “But I’m not after money. I’m after something else.”
How could he explain? His brother would never understand. Adam believed in beauty for its own sake: Beauty with a capital B. He couldn’t talk to Gavin about Beauty, but he saw his way forward clearly in that moment. He was a penniless poet, with nothing to offer anybody except words, but he was the real soul of the country. He was at the centre of things. His feeling of exultant certainty lasted the rest of the day. In his room that evening, he studied himself in the mirror. He had a theory, which was that people’s faces gradually became set around one overriding expression. There were satisfied faces, angry faces, sad faces. His own expression, he’d realised, was one of disappointment: it seemed to be the dominant theme of his life. But now, as he gazed at his image in the glass, he imagined he could see a transformation in his face. The little defeats, the compromises, had burned away. What remained was his essential self.
Adam was still a good-looking man. He didn’t have the lush handsomeness of his early years, it was true, with his wild locks and saturnine stare; he had really looked the part of a poet back then. His hair had greyed and thinned, he had put on a bit of weight, there were creases next to his eyes. But the basic outline, the shape, was still in place. His intrinsic nature showed through, his creative, bohemian spirit. The young man had matured into something less dramatic, but he was still pleasing on the eye.
He fell asleep that night secure in his conviction. But he woke in the small hours into doubt. He lay there for a long time, with the lights of the city spread out below the window, corroded by questions. What was he playing at? Who did he think he was? Thank God he hadn’t used that line on Gavin, about being the real soul of the country. It didn’t feel true any more. Of the two of them, perhaps it was Gavin who stood closer to the core of things. Maybe the soul of South Africa wasn’t a poet; maybe it was a crooked property developer, obsessed with cheap fittings.
I’ve got an idea to put to you,” Gavin said. “No, no, not the job. Something different.” This was a few days later. Adam had lapsed into a more normal state meanwhile, neither triumphant nor despairing. He knew what he wanted, but he wasn’t sure he was right. In this cautious frame of mind, he paid attention to his brother, and the proposal he was listening to gradually took hold of him.
A few years before, Gavin said, he’d bought a house in a tiny Karoo town, about eight hours away. He’d meant to fix it up, to use as a place for long weekends and holidays, but somehow he’d never got around to it. So the house was just standing there, empty and unused, slowly going to pieces.
“You could go and stay there, if you like. I bought it complete, with all the furniture and everything. It wouldn’t cost you much—just the electricity and water. You say you want to write poetry. Well, this could be the perfect spot for you.”
When he’d finished speaking, Gavin watched Adam with a little smirk on his face. There seemed to be some challenge in the look. It was only afterwards that Adam understood: Gavin was throwing down the gauntlet. In his mind, it was a crazy proposal. He was saying, in effect, “You talk about writing poems. Well, let’s see how badly you want to do that.”
Adam saw himself sitting at a window, a vista of rolling hills and fields outside, words proceeding from his pen in a long, unbroken flow, and it was exactly where he wanted to be. “Yes!” he said. “I’ll do it.”
Gavin’s face fell and almost immediately he tried to persuade his brother why it was a really terrible idea. But every argument that he put forward—that the place was rough and old, that he hadn’t been up there in years, that it was miles from anybody he knew—only made Adam more determined to go. It felt to him that his life had narrowed in on a tiny point of fate, on the other side of which lay regeneration and renewal. He had been worshipping false gods, but all the old idols were broken now. What would take their place was unknown, but it was almost in his grasp.
Which was how, not long afterwards, he came to find himself driving into the countryside on a Sunday morning in his old Fiat, following behind Gavin and Charmaine, who were speeding along in Gavin’s red sports car. Once he was out of the city, he felt that he could breathe. He opened all the windows to let air into the car, and it was like a new, fierce wind blowing through his life.
Like a physical symbol of this change, the landscape they were driving through resembled nothing that he knew. He had seen the Karoo before, of course, but always in passing, on his way to Cape Town or back to Jo’burg. He had never given it his full attention till now. There were sun-blasted stretches of plain, then sudden eruptions of oddly shaped hills. The emptiness was powerful and strange. It had the feel mostly of desert, but it was springtime and in certain fertile valleys, where there was water, the green was vivid and intense. Sometimes there would be a farmhouse, with a scattering of buildings, a few stick-like human figures. And sometimes there was a tiny dwelling, no bigger than a room or two, in the middle of a huge desolation. It didn’t seem possible that anybody could live there.
He had even begun tentatively to consider the poems that he might write. His early work, from the first collection, had been rooted in a very different landscape. Those were African poems: hymns to the bushveld. The stark, stripped-down countryside he was passing through now was of a different order entirely. It wasn’t African; not in any conventional way. It was more like the surface of some arid, airless planet, or perhaps it was the bottom of the sea. But still, he could imagine that one might come to love all this vast vacancy. One might respond to the hugeness of the sky, or the brilliance that a blossom took on against the pale severity of the scrub. Up close, it was probably teeming with its own versions of life and vitality. Its beauty would be more valuable for having to be learned. No doubt the enormous spaces would fold the spirit inwards, on some core of contemplation and insight. Yes, it was a religious sort of landscape; and he felt a corresponding rhetoric stirring in him.
He was actually on the verge of a promising phrase, something he could build a stanza around, though its full cadence remained just out of reach, when the cop stepped out into the road.