out now from Archipelago Books
Malgas donned his overalls and went next door. He found Nieuwenhuizen lying on his side in the shade under the hedge. He appeared to be sleeping, but as Malgas drew near he raised his head and opened his eyes.
“Making a plan, I see.”
“Ingenious, if you don’t mind me saying so.”
“Not at all. Thanks.”
“Plans are interesting. Fascinating, actually. I suppose I’ll always have a soft spot for materials, it’s in my blood, along with packaging, but as I get older I find I become more and more curious about the planning side of things.”
“Stop beating about the bush,” Nieuwenhuizen said, sitting up and dusting off his sleeve. “What do you want?”
“To give you a hand here, if you’ll have me.”
Nieuwenhuizen looked dubious. “I don’t know. Are you ready for it, I wonder? I don’t want to rush you.”
“I’m as ready as I’ll ever be. I can’t see the new house yet, but it goes without saying that you can. And I’m eager to learn. I have a great hunger and thirst for knowledge of the house. If necessary I’m prepared to start at the bottom and work my way up. You’ll teach me everything you know, and in the mean time I’ll fetch and carry the tools and so on. I took the liberty of bringing this mallet – with rubber you don’t damage the heads.”
“I’m not sure . . .”
“Look at it this way: I have my own field of expertise, or ‘know-how’ as we call it in the trade, and one day I’ll be able to repay every little kindness shown me in these difficult times. Just shout: Mr Hardware, A World of Materials under One Roof.”
Nieuwenhuizen sprang to his feet. He stuck one of his skinny fingers through a loop of the bandoleer and said, “You’re just in time to reload me. I didn’t want to ask, but since you’re offering . . .”
They walked towards the camp, where the boxes of nails were standing one on top of the other, and Malgas ventured to walk at Nieuwenhuizen’s side.
With Malgas’s enthusiastic assistance, the mapping out of the ground-plan proceeded apace. A less elaborate drafting procedure was called for now, and the acrobatics of the early morning therefore gave way to more conventional pacing and pointing; and while before there had been as many different marks as there are parts of the human body, now there was one standardized sign, a plump full stop made with the heel, so that the apprentice could not fail to recognize it.
Malgas politely commandeered the bandoleer and took charge of placing the nails according to Nieuwenhuizen’s wishes. Although he assumed that the grid system was finally coming into its own, he accepted the given division of labour and made no attempt to decipher the plan: he concentrated instead on inserting the nails expertly. Now was the time to explore the ins and outs of the undervalued art of hammering. As he perfected his swing, he brought the effort required for each insertion down to a single preliminary tap to make the nail stand on end; two decisive double-fisted smashes to sink it; and a concluding salvo of tiny blows to ensure that the head was protruding above the surface to the specified extent (the thickness of his thumb).
Nieuwenhuizen sang a song. It was his tent-pitching song, and its haunting tones brought the bitter-sweet memory of his advent into Malgas’s mind as clearly as if it was yesterday. However, it also broke his concentration, and he was relieved when Nieuwenhuizen fell silent and focused on the measurements.
As for Nieuwenhuizen, when he judged that Malgas had mastered the full stop, he added the colon and the ellipsis to his repertoire, although he was careful to keep the combinations simple. Malgas took it in his stride.
The world turned. The sun trundled like a brass ball across the leaden bowl of the sky. They didn’t miss a beat.
At one o’clock Mrs Malgas flung her window open and offered “Lunch!,” and was turned down by the muted rhythm of the mallet and the sky resounding like a cracked gong. She shut the window and went away.
Hour after hour, Nieuwenhuizen fumed over the plot, disseminating his indelible punctuation. Malgas dogged his footsteps, discharged volley after volley of nails, reloaded the bandoleer again and again, and never once complained.
Night fell at last. The second box of ammunition was broached. By now the nails had been scattered far and wide; their heads glistened everywhere, like tiny pools holding the lees of the light. Still there was work to be done.
Nieuwenhuizen lit the lamp and carried it with him, swinging wildly from one hand, as he paced. He held it so close to the action that he singed the hairs on Malgas’s arm. And through it all he kept demanding, “More light!” and imploring the moon to rise, which it didn’t. Then Malgas took the unprecedented step of running a leadlight through his kitchen window (Mrs wept) and they soldiered on with new vigour. In the light cast by the cowled globe Nieuwenhuizen acquired the stature of a giant, striding across immense, uninhabited plains, while Malgas, shambling after him, brought his master’s mallet crashing down on nails as tall as flagstaffs.
Finally the moment came when Malgas reached into the box and grasped nothing but a mulch of shredded paper. Permission was granted for him to tear open the brown-paper bundle containing the Twelve. He intended to slip these too into the bandoleer, but Nieuwenhuizen intervened. The final dozen required special attention.
Nieuwenhuizen curled the forefinger and thumb of his left hand into a loophole and peered through it with his right eye. He panned across the entire landscape, apprehending each and every nail both as a distinct entity and as part of a complex pattern, computing the most abstruse distances and obtuse angles, and considering entirely unexpected relationships between them. Then he took the lead-light and explored the spangled darkness, pointing out nooks and crannies among the glittering constellations underfoot, and Malgas flew the nails to those spots.
It was done.
A half-jack of Johnny Walker and a nip of Drambuie had been laid down in the portmanteau and now came to light. “I’ve been saving them for a rainy day,” Nieuwenhuizen explained, “but this star-crossed evening will do.” He also produced a cocktail shaker, made out of a lampshade and a surgical glove, and in two shakes they had their feet up and were sipping cocktails out of tin mugs.
“It’s a little late for sundowners, and a little early for nightcaps, but cheers anyway. To you and yours!”
His host’s gratitude, so deeply felt and tastefully expressed, brought a lump to Malgas’s throat, and he had to wash it down with a slug of the mixture before he could voice his own appreciation for everything.
Then Nieuwenhuizen said, “If you don’t mind I’d like to go over the plan now, while it’s fresh. If you’re not ready for such heady stuff, perhaps you should block your ears. Better still, go home to the Mrs. I don’t want to cause any trouble. Go on, take your drink with you.”
“I’d be grateful if I could stay,” Malgas protested. “Plans aren’t my thing, I admit, I’m a supplier at heart – but I’ve got to start somewhere.”
“That’s my boy, I was hoping you’d say that. Are you comfortable? Okay…where to begin? Yes: the corners. See that nail there, on the edge of the shadows, and the two behind it, with their heads together? Well, that, my Malgas, delimits the north-eastern extremity of the rumpus room.”
“That one there, in line with the letter-box, is the left-hand what’s-its-name . . . jamb of the front door. Not that one, my left.”
The long shadow of Nieuwenhuizen’s forefinger brushed over the smooth heads of the nails, weaving a web of diaphanous intent in which Malgas was willingly ensnared and cocooned. Nieuwenhuizen’s hand, moving now with the delicate poise of a spirit-level, now with the brute force of a bulldozer blade, levelled terraces and threw up embankments, laid paving and plastered walls. With a touch, his skittery fingers could open a tracery of light and air in a concrete slab, and through it his papery palms would waft a sea breeze laden with salt and the fruity scents of the orchard. Apricot, blueberry, coconut-milk. He made it seem so simple.
He began with the situation and dimensions of the rooms, which were many and various. Then he took the rooms one at a time and elaborated on the location of doors and windows, built-in cupboards, electricity outlets, switches and light fixtures. He catalogued special features, such as burglarproofing, air-conditioning and knotty-pine ceilings. He dwelt upon the observation deck, the rumpus room and the bomb shelter, all of which, he assured Malgas, had an integral place in the conception.
“Fascinating,” said Malgas, shaking off the narcotic effects of the presentation. “But I must admit that I still can’t really see it. There’s no point in lying about it, is there?”
“Of course not. You’re finding it heavy going because the plan isn’t quite finished; we’ve still got to join up the dots. When that’s done it will all become clear. For the time being, don’t lose heart, and practise, practise, practise. You know what they say.”
“I’ll try. But I feel so clumsy.”
“Let me give you a tip. I find that it helps if I . . . I shouldn’t be telling you this, I’m rushing you again. Let’s wait until you begin to see on your own.”
“No, no, please go on,” Malgas pleaded, “I’ll stop you if it’s too much too soon.”
“Just say when. I find that it helps if I think along the following lines: layers, levels; colour schemes, cutaway views and cross-sections; also surfaces and sheens; and last but not least, varnishes and veneers. Consider: the letter-box of the new house. No minor detail, this. The letter-box. Not exactly a replica of the new house itself, not exactly a scale model, that’s too obvious, but . . . reminiscent. An Alpine chalet, of the kind you associate with the better sort of pleasure resort, but not thatched. A roof of painted metal, red, but faded to a cooldrink colour, strawberry – no, that’s not it – faded to a – yes, this is good – to a pale shade of mercurochrome, a grazed knee after two or three baths, and just beginning to blister. The rusty door, for example, yes, I like this too, the rusty door has the scabrous texture of a cold sore. No, no: impetigo. Are you with me? You open the door, scree, you look in, the walls are galvanized, hygienic, hard-wearing and maintenance-free. There’s a letter in the box, a tilted plane of pure white, you reach in, your hand glides over the floorboards, tongued and grooved meranti, sealed against the elements, yes —”
Malgas paused at the letter-box. He looked in through a sash-window. Empty.
As he made his way home he heard Mrs saying, Where is everybody? Does He have relatives? He never gets visitors. What does He want with that letter-box? Is He on mailing lists? Does He get items marked Private and Confidential? Manila envelopes and cardboard tubes, magazines in plastic wrappers, tax returns, advertising flyers, free literature with a money-back guarantee?
Mr came in from the wilds reeking of whisky and gunpowder. His palms were covered in blisters and he showed them off like handfuls of medals.
“What have you done to your thumbs?” Mrs demanded.
But he silenced her with a speech about the plan, the mystery of the new house, and the special techniques Nieuwenhuizen had revealed to him for understanding it. Very impressive it was, she had to agree. Gratified, he marched to the bathroom, flung off his overalls and admired his aches and pains in the mirror. Then he sat in the tub with his knees jutting out of the foam like desert islands, while Mrs soaped the broad beach of his back.
“I think I understand about the plan,” she said, “and the palace fit for an emperor, even though I don’t approve. But what’s this about special techniques?”
“I probably shouldn’t be telling you at all, but I’ll go over it once more.” He dipped the sponge in the water and held it up. “Take this sponge, Mrs. Solid, not so? Look at the surface here, that’s it, the surface. Full of holes, craters yes? Craters yes, mouths, leading to subsurface tunnels, souterrains, catacombs, sewers – yes, I like that – twists and turns. Squeeze it out, go on, schquee, full of water, not any old water, second-hand bathwater, I should think so, yes.”
“I’ve never heard such nonsense in my life! Really. I wish you could hear yourself.”
“You’d appreciate it if you’d been in the wars like me.” He let in more hot to cauterize his wounds.
While Mr was shovelling down his cold supper Mrs said, “You used to have your feet on the ground. That’s why I married you. That’s why you went into Hardware.”
This set Mr thinking about Nieuwenhuizen again, and he replied, “I think he’s a bit of a hardware man himself, you know, although he won’t admit it. He’s good with his hands. And this stuff about varnish and veneer, it boils down to materials. Doesn’t it?”
One hand poured fuel on the other. Then the pouring hand flicked an orange lighter and the doused hand burst into flames. The burning hand! Then the flicking hand snuffed out the flames with a silver cloth. The charred hand! Then the snuffing hand peeled off a charred glove. The pink flesh of the inner hand. The perfect hand! The perfect hand turned this way and that, and waved (hello or goodbye), a V sign (for victory, approval, or vulgar derision), thumbs up (sl. excl. of satisfaction), finger language (up yours!), fist language (Viva!), so that you could see it was perfect.
Mr fell asleep in his La-Z-Boy with the TV glaring. Mrs went to the bedroom, seated herself before the winged mirror of her dressing-table and said, “Although I appear to be thin and small, and fading away before your eyes, I am a substantial person. At least, it feels that way to me.”
Her pale reflection repeated the lines in triplicate.
Yet she saw through the pretence. It was clear: she was made of glass. And under the bell-jar of her skin, in a rarefied atmosphere, lashed by electrical storms and soused by chemical precipitations, her vital organs were squirming.
In the middle of that same night, somewhere around three, as if he hadn’t endured enough already, it happened that Malgas was boiled alive in a gigantic cauldron. Nieuwenhuizen was in there too, fully clothed. It was rough. Logs of carrot and cubic metres of diced potato swirled up on torrents of bubbles and buffeted them. Hot spices seared the skin off their faces and onion-rings strangled them. They clung together in the seething liquid. A pea the size of a cannon-ball caromed off the side of the pot and struck Malgas in the eye. He went under once. Twice. The third time he grabbed hold of Nieuwenhuizen and dragged him down for luck. Now it was every man for himself. Nieuwenhuizen seized a bouquet garni bound in muslin and held it over Malgas’s face. Bubbles, Bisto, Malgas began to lose consciousness. His lungs filled up with gravy, gasp, gasp, sinking, spinach, must hold on, everything went brown . . . He awoke in a sweat, clutching his pillow.
The stock left a bitter taste in his mouth, and he had to go to the bathroom to rinse it out. On the way there he made a detour past the lounge window to confirm that Nieuwenhuizen had never existed at all. But no sooner had he parted the curtains than a match flared and the hurricane-lamp bloomed into light.
Holding the lamp high, rocking it portentously like a censer, Nieuwenhuizen circled the ash-heap. After three circuits, he waded into the ashes and scuffed a clearing with his boots. He took a nail folded in a bandanna from his pocket, unwrapped it under the light, kissed it, knelt and pressed its point into the ground. It kept falling over, and in the end he had to prop it up with a forked twig. For a while he was silent, on his knees in the grey surf. Then he began to sway backwards and forwards from the waist, solemnly, gathering momentum slowly, extending his range, until at length his bony forehead, at the limit of its forward swing, began to meet the head of the nail. And by these means he kowtowed it into the ground. When the ashes had settled he killed the lamp and went back to bed.
Mr recognized the secret nail at once: it was the one Nieuwenhuizen had annealed in the fire on the night he placed his order. It was the odd nail out, and yet it was the very model of a nail. Fire and ash. What did it signify? He made a note of its secret location (IIIC) but still he was baffled. Then all at once bafflement gave way to an embarrassing abundance, and his empty mind was cluttered with possibilities: chains of mnemonics shaped like knuckle-bones and skeleton keys; a tissue of lies, knitted on nails and pencils; the family tree of fire, leaves of flame, seeds of ash. He pushed these shop-soiled articles aside and found a small, hard certainty, which he strung on the scale of intimacy between Nieuwenhuizen and himself: communion.
Ivan VladislaviĆ was born in Pretoria in 1957 and lives in Johannesburg. His fiction includes The Restless Supermarket, The Exploded View, Double Negative, 101 Detectives, The Loss Library, and Flashback Hotel. In 2006, he published Portrait with Keys: The City of Johannesburg Unlocked. He has edited and contributed to books on architecture and art, and has collaborated with visual artists. Vladislavić has received the Sunday Times Fiction Prize, the Alan Paton Award, the University of Johannesburg Prize, and, most recently, a 2015 Windham Campbell Prize for fiction.