At one o’clock on the dot, he walks into the room with a tray of food for his dying father. Privately, he uses the word dying in lower case – unlike the oncologist who rubs it in: I give your father another month or so. He’s also taking along a request that he may be ashamed of. And yet he will – he wants to – ask his father for the cheque so that he can start his own business. Every word has been sifted and weighed; and lunch is tomato and lamb stew, his father’s favourite.
He’s surprised to find the old man propped up already, his back against two cushions – the willpower that must have taken. Without preamble, the voice issues from the decrepit body, forceful and peremptory, just as he remembers it. Pa wants to be moved from the bedroom to the study. Irrespective of Mattheüs’s opinion concerning his condition.
‘Now, this afternoon, Mattie.’ He says: Now. This. Afternoon. ‘No point in putting it off, my son. I’m here on borrowed time.’ He inclines his head towards the spot where he imagines Mattheüs is standing with the tray of food, pinning him to the striped kelim, the eyes behind their closed lids holding him captive.
For weeks now, he’s been mulling over the request, considering its consequences: in truth, it’s a final favour to the dying man. His father would depart serene in the knowledge that his son is not a wastrel: Mattie will land on his feet again. He’d bought lamb and ripe tomatoes and baby carrots and left it all to simmer. He’s thought of everything.
His saliva thickens in his mouth. The entirety of what he hasn’t planned for flashes before him: double bed, mattress, bedside cabinet with pills and medication and special sweets for dry mouth, and the Sorbolene, all Pa’s clothes and handkerchiefs and toiletries, slippers – the pictures on the walls can surely be left behind? – everything will have to be schlepped across. The bed remade, and pillows shaken down and puffed up and, finally: the frail body. And then the grumbling at the slightest mishandling. Now. It must all happen now. The cheque he wants to ask for, his carefully considered request, is fading into the background. He’s beginning to tread water.
He’s facing a man who’s never been known for his tact, at least not in his own home. Who wants to be moved just as the week is drawing to a close, the day almost at an end. And his father knows perfectly well that Friday evening is his night on the town with Jack. Part of his plan was that they’d kick off with a double brandy, a shooter or two in between, then an ice-cold beer. (The cheque by now snug in his pocket.) At dusk he’d come to say his goodbye, his hand in his father’s, with its thin, worn papery feel. Take my car, Pa would say, as always. And even though Mattheüs knew that he and Jack would get wasted, he’d take it all the same.
The study is on the south side of the house, while the en suite master bedroom is on the north; the mattress and base will have to be lugged all the way down the passage to the entrance hall and then left into the study, where they’ll need to clear a space for the double bed and all. And then, what about ablutions and going to the toilet, has he even considered that? Up to three times a night while he’s surfing the Net in the small hours, he hears Pa’s toilet flushing.
‘This afternoon, then, and it’ll all be over and done with. I’m not asking for much, my son.’ At the tail end of the instruction there’s just a shred of a scruple.
It becomes, admittedly by mere degree, something between a request and an instruction. He places the tray with the tomato stew on his father’s lap. It has been prepared according to his mother’s recipe on page three of her dog-eared book. The only difference is the ground cumin that he adds.
He tucks the linen serviette into his father’s pyjama top; he can smell the disease emanating from his body. Then he sits down on the wooden chair with its slatted sides and adjustable backrest and two fat cushions, the kind you come across in Afrikaner homes where old things are still cherished. The chair will go to his sister, which is okay; he’s getting the house.
When he notices the frown about to form, he jumps up and adjusts the tray. The stew has sloshed around, leaving reddish- orange crescents on the rim of the plate. Pa’s hands flutter about, his fingers groping for the tray, fossicking to find out what’s what and where everything is.
Mattheüs sits down again. Beyond the French doors, which are always open to the fresh air except in a storm, are the wrought-iron security gates opening on to a small garden with a fountain, and flowers, white and pale-pink and yellow and so on, and two plovers on the patch of lawn that realise they’re being watched and kick up a racket, a bird call with usually pleasant associations that now drills discordantly into Mattheüs’s ear: his father’s request throws him and reason goes overboard, so that it becomes a command pure and simple, raking up similar commands from his past with Pa, and smothering him under them.
In the meantime, Pa has sensed what inner nourishment is on offer today, and instead of taking up his knife and fork and eating like a good boy, his little paws clutch at the handles of the tray, his stretched skin translucent over the bone. Thin, thin. Weight loss, and a ring finger long since ringless. Clutch, release, clutch and release yet again.
Attuned as he is to his father’s every move, he understands the drill: the request has morphed into an order, delivered with the brute force or, to put it more mildly, the authority of a man who in his prime had everyone at his beck and call, with his staff, twenty-five at one time if memory serves, all taking note of who was speaking. And in this selfsame house, proclamations and instructions prevailed ‘because I love you’, to ensure that the two offspring of his loins should stick to the straight and narrow, and there was a final set of rules specially for his wife, matriarch in her own right, but ultimately totally demoralised. Fuck.
‘My son,’ Pa once again directs his gaze at the spot where he imagines his son’s head to be, where Mattheüs is still seated on the wooden chair that Sissy will definitely inherit, ‘come over here to your father, please.’
The request that was growing into a command is tempered once again. This is Benjamin Duiker recalling that he is at the mercy of Mattie – he’s the only one who calls him that – and of Samantha. Samantha, who arrives on Fridays just after one o’clock, which is to say any moment now, to toil in the footsteps of her mother, Auntie Mary, who on account of her arthritic claws has had to abdicate the task of keeping this house spic and span.
Pa wants him right beside him. Close enough to communicate, in the physical proximity of his son, the only true path open to him. While he’s waiting for Mattheüs, his eyelids remain closed over the glaucous, blind eyeballs.
Now and again he slides the eyelids upwards, and the sight of what’s become of his father’s eyes, once deep-green and command- ing, makes Mattheüs just about shrivel up, even though he’s wit- nessed it often enough.
Tempered. The command has been diluted to a relatively mild request. Nothing more. The request, surely one of the very last, of study. But begging it’s not, and never could be. Mattheüs would be highly embarrassed if he were ever to hear his father beg.
The books in the study – not that many really – are about trees, Pa’s great love, and cars, his first love, and then there’s the usual, familiar library: Langenhoven, the complete works, and Pakenham’s book on the Boer War and Roberts’s Birds of Southern Africa and Shell’s Succulents of the Karoo and Goldblatt’s Some Afrikaners Photographed, which his father regarded as a scandalous denigration of his people, and a concordance to the Bible in which you can look up the origin of a word like ‘shibboleth’. Some of the top shelves have no books. Pa was never a great reader – never really had the time. So he put a White Horse Whisky horse up there, and a row of model cars, each of them a Mercedes. As a child, the car that made Mattheüs’s heart beat fastest was the convertible, a red one with a suede top that you could unhook and push back to reveal the driver and his girlfriend and on the back seat another couple, and Pa’s hand on his finger all the time to guide him, helping him push back the top carefully without breaking it. He was allowed to play with it for a while, and then the convertible was put back in its place, out of reach.
It’s not just for the books that Pa wants to move there, it’s for the atmosphere of the place. A cigar-smelling, masculine atmosphere, an inner sanctum, you’re really somewhere when you’re in there. The long velvet curtains are golden and his broad-backed desk chair is upholstered in gold brocade that scratches your bare thighs. In High Society, Pa once told him, Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby sing that Cole Porter song in a study like this. A bit of a copycat. High Society – Pa chuckled.