Tuesday, July 26, 2016


It was a cold, clear, night when Ayal, Dror and Shalom 'borrowed' some potatoes. They parked the jeeps in a dark field on the outskirts of Gaza city and dug a hole in the ground. Soon a fire was blazing, and they sat round it, warming their hands and baking the potatoes. Gavriel, who wanted to show his disapproval of them and their stolen food, sat shivering in the dark, a little way off.
A shape emerged from the darkness.
Why don't you sit with us?' it asked.
'I don't feel like it,' said Gavriel, surprised that the obtuse Shalom had even bothered to ask.
'Is it coz of politics and all,' asked Shalom nasally, 'because you don't agree with us being here?'
Gavriel felt a lump rising in his throat. It was the first time his lonely stand had been acknowledged.
'It's because of the way you act. Stealing, humiliating...no wonder they hate us.'
'They've always hated us. My grandfather came from Iraq. He told us exactly what the Arabs did to the Jews there. And what about Ofer Sharabi last week. Kidnapped, hands tied behind his back, stabbed 19 times and left to bleed to death in a cave...I promise you, they don't care if you're a lefty or not - they'll slaughter you just the same.' Shalom drew a meditative line across his own throat, as if reminding himself of something. 'If they want to riot let them riot in their own countries. Jordan. Or Iraq. Or Iran. Or -'
'The Iranians aren't Arabs,' Gavriel interrupted.
Another shape stepped out of the night. It stood there quietly, listening, huddled in its dubon the army parka which rendered its wearer bear-like. Only the red glow of a cigarette tip indicating where its mouth was.
'You should see how they deal with their own,' said Shalom. 'Like in Rafiach. As soon as trouble began the Egyptians brought a squad, no rubber, no tear gas, just live. Killed eleven, thirty wounded. Now they're behaving themselves. No intifada there. But we're shit scared, we're scared what the world will say, we're too soft.'
'You can't just go shooting people,' said Gavriel, wondering how to say it so as not to lose Shalom and the silent listener. 'When terrorists murder one of us, it doesn't make us weaker, it makes us more determined. It's the same for them. If we kill Palestinians, their people turn them into martyrs."
There was a silence.
"Anyway, we're not trying to be like Egypt or Syria or Iraq. We're supposed to be a first world country, not a place where you can just shoot anyone who demonstrates against you.'
Gavriel wondered if he'd overdone it, come across as too much of a bleeding heart. Not that he'd shared  even a quarter of his anguished thoughts.
'What's a first world country?' said Shalom.
'It's a modern country' answered Gavriel gladly, 'an advanced country, like America.'Another silence. A breeze passed them by on its way to the sea. It brought with it an odour of wood smoke, animals, and garbage from Shati refugee camp. The hardy little weeds in the beach soil shivered along with Gavriel. Then Shalom burst out angrily:
'If I were you, I'd worry a little bit more about your own, and less about the Arabs!'
'Don't waste your time,' said Dror's voice, and the glowing ember in front of the cowled figure moved in the air. 'Have you seen how he acts on patrol? Like he's in the middle of Dizengoff. A danger to the guys with him.'
'I'm not,' said Gavriel, his voice sounding unconvincing to his own ears. 'You're the ones who break explicit orders, who take people into the orchards, tie teenagers to the jeeps I didn't join the army...
'They're done,' came a shout out of the darkness, and Shalom and Dror disappeared. 'to be here,' said Gavriel to himself.
The next day they got stuck on the road to Gibalia refugee camp, and had to perform one of the endless tyre changes. The Shebab - Palestinian youth - drove nails through flat bits of metal, and sprinkled these on the roads. 'Ninjot,' the soldiers called them, after the Ninja weapons they had seen in the movies. On some patrols these ninjot caused as many as six punctures.
Gavriel was standing alongside the second jeep, near the radio.
'Take off the spare,' said Ayal, the young lieutenant who used a cigarette holder to smoke his cigarettes, and who was, like the platoon commander Nevo, the son of a kibbutz.
Gavriel hesitated. He didn't want to help out with anything. He didn't care if they reached Gibalia or not. Better to wait out their three-month tour of service in barracks, playing backgammon, or, in his case, reading and listening to music on his walkman. They'd do less damage that way. It was easy to disobey Ayal's command. When you didn't want to do something, you pretended you hadn't understood - a technique much favoured by immigrant soldiers like himself. But they weren't safe stuck here, and besides, he had a strong need to make himself useful. Gavriel looked around in the back for the spanner. Avikam was nearby, tying the punctured tyre to the bonnet of the jeep. He would know where the spanner was, but Gavriel hated to ask Avikam anything. He had seen the ginger-haired soldier grinning as other soldiers held a Palestinian down on the bonnet of one of the jeeps. The Palestinian had earlier pulled a pair of scissors from his pocket when asked to presented his ID, and attempted - according to the soldiers - to stab one of them. Avikam had then proceeded to methodically smash the man's legs.
Eventually Gavriel found the spanner in a box full of rubber grenades and tear gas canisters. The first nut was very tight and the spanner slipped off and fell in the dust.
'What's taking so long,' asked AyaI.
'I'll do it,' said Avikam, 'you can't expect anything from him. He's useless.'
Gavriel handed the spanner over wordlessly. Then he stood back, leaning against the jeep, noting with satisfaction that Avikam was also struggling with the nut. So they thought he was useless, did they? Very well, he would be useless. He wouldn't lift a finger to help them. But years from now he would...
'Answer it,' snapped  Ayal, 'can't you hear they're calling us?'
Gavriel, busy with his thoughts, hadn't heard. He always tensed up when he had to talk on the radio. Sometimes there were unfamiliar words,and he couldn't work out what was being said. He picked up the handset and asked them to repeat. A crackly voice said something which Gavriel found incomprehensible. He hesitated, at a loss what to reply. Ayal snatched the handpiece from him.
'Phosphorus six here,' he said, 'we're on our way. There in five.'
Gavriel stood aside, went back into his golem mode. Let them handle it, it was their affair.
When they rejoined the others, Gavriel saw that a young woman from the Red Cross had attached herself to Nevo. She had white hair and thin pinched nostrils. Probably Scandinavian.
'Some of us,' Gavriel mentally beamed at her, 'are as distressed by all of this as you are.'
Their little convoy, three jeeps and a blue Subaru with a red cross on its roof, moved slowly down the main 'street' of Gibalia. Brown water in an open sewer trickled lazily along besides them. The sun beat down on the soldiers, on the corrugated tin roof held in place with bricks and stones, on the empty street. Some children emerged from an alley, smiled, and waved their hands in greeting. Gavriel, surprised, waved back uncertainly. Then whistles - the Shebab warning each other of the army's approach - began to precede and to follow them. Gavriel lowed the vizier attached to his helmet. They rounded a corner and the first jeep screeched to a halt. At the other end of the street was a crowd of forty or fifty gesticulating youths, hurling stones and insults.
'Shamir fucks his mother,' came towards them in thicly accented Hebrew.
'Arafat fucks dogs,' Dror shouted back in Arabic.
Most of the stones landed short of them, one hit the bonnet of the jeep with a metallic clunk.
'Reverse.' Nevo indicated to the other two jeeps with his hands. He didn't want a confrontation, especially with the Red Cross there. They started back, but the road was now blocked by an old fridge, washing machine, and burning tractor tyre.
'World's best prop movers,' joked the platoon commander, 'go into the houses, get them out to clear this.'
Dror started off.
'Not alone,' barked Nevo, 'you, Gavriel, go with him.'
Unwillingly Gavriel went. They knocked on the first door. No one answered.
Dror began hammering on it with the stock of his rifle while Gavriel stood nervously by, holding the grip of his gun tightly, expecting a molotov cocktail or grenade to be hurled at them from a neighbouring courtyard. Eventually an old lady answered the door. Dror conversed with her in what sounded to Gavriel like fluent Arabic.
'There are no men here,' she told them.
They went to the second house. Again Dror hammered at the door until it opened. This time a young woman appeared.
'There are no men here,' she said.
Dror forced his way past her, and Gavriel followed, uncertain whether to guard outside or come in. The desire not to be left alone decided for him, and he followed Dror into a dirty blue courtyard. Wood smoke and earth and cooking mutton smells filled the shaded enclosure.
'Come here,' said Dror to the four men sitting cross-legged on the floor.
The men stood up to go with them. The woman grabbed hold of Gavriel's sleeve, and sobbed at him in Arabic, spittle flying from her mouth onto his face.. .
 'Don't worry,' he gabbled stupidly, hoping she understood Hebrew, trying to get his sleeve loose, careful not to touch her. He had heard that touching 'their' women made Arabs go absolutely berserk. He backed out of the courtyard, following Dror and the Arab men out through the cramped alleyway. By the time they arrived back at the jeeps, one of the men had slipped away in the confusion. The Red Cross representative was poised to pounce, hoping an atrocity was about to occur, so that she could step in and save the day.
'Vy you don't at least try and look for the people vhich haf built it,' said the woman, 'instead of just dragging these people out.'
The officer grinned and swept his arm in a broad gesture which encompassed the jumble of densely packed shacks, houses and alleys.
'In this?'
'I'm going to report you,' said the woman.
Gavriel listened to them arguing in their broken English. He longed to step in and offer to translate. He imagined even Dror standing by respectfully as he displayed his linguistic skills. Perhaps the red cross woman knew some Spanish, and he could discreetly fill her in, explain the context to her, explain that not all the soldiers agreed with being here.
Nevo ended the debate with a shrug of his shoulders. '
'Get on with it,' he said to the soldiers, 'take their ID's and hurry them up' .
Gavriel 'supervised' the men, two of whom looked rather dangerous to him. He disobeyed his desire to smile at them. It was too late for that. The weight of everybody's expectations - both Arabs and soldiers - prevented it. Instead he tried to make his voice and face opaque, to stop his softness from being observed.
The youngsters were closer now, and their throws were more accurate. Shalom, without being told, loaded a tear gas canister and fired. It landed behind the advancing youths, but the wind took it to them, and it temporanly halted their forward momentum.
'It's dangerous here,' said Nevo to the woman.
He was worried they were going to have to fire on the youths, who numbered about a hundred now, and wanted to get rid of her. 'But you people should take these road-blocks apart yourselfs,' she stubbornly insisted, retreating from the stones.
A large missile - almost a half brick - hit Nevo - who was standing without a helmet - on the ear. He shook his head to clear it and put his hand up to the numb flesh.  When he took his hand away there was blood on the fingers.
'Don't think I haven't seen everything,' said the Red Cross representative, who was looking down at her notebook, busily recording the registration numbers of the jeeps.  Nevo finally lost his temper.
'We're not taking them apart ourself because they may have explosion inside. Now you understand?'
'Oh,' said the woman, outraged, 'and then these innocent people will be killed.'
'It's them or us, lady'
The woman stalked off, her back radiating moral indignation, and got into the Subaru. The Arabs had finished clearing the road.
'If the people who place these roadblock know they're only going to hurt their own then maybe they stop,' Nevo shouted after her, 'stupid bitch!'
The Subaru reversed. Dror fired several rounds into the air.
'Don't shoot live,' said Nevo, 'let's get out of here.'
They scrambled for the jeeps. Gavriel was on the last jeep to reverse. He stood facing backwards, as the yelling crowd, ran towards them. He was the only one with a rubber grenade on his gun.
'Shoot,' yelled Ayal.
Gavriel didn't.
'Shoot already,' shouted Ayal and Dror and Shalom.
Gavriel hesitated, standing up on the back seat, facing the jeering youths.
Shoot fuck head,' screamed someone in his ear.
Gavriel pulled the trigger. He didn't even think to point down, so that the rubber would go towards their feet, not their faces. Then the jeep shot round a corner, and he couldn't see if his grenade had halted them or not. His hands were trembling and his heart: pumping wildly. He felt the adrenalin flowing freely and eliminating all fear. What a strange interesting taste to have thoughtlesly pulled the trigger. It was something new, to witness an action outpacing his endless inner debates.
Gavriel savoured that for a while hunched in the back of the jeep as it careened out of Gibalia. But tomorrow he would certainly go to Nevo and tell him he refused to serve here any longer, that he was prepared - no wanted - to go to jail.
Yes, tomorrow.

Monday, July 25, 2016

The Puddle

Some friends of mine had been house-sitting in Randburg, and decided in the middle they wanted to go off to Malawi.
"It's a cinch," they told me, "the fridge is full of food, there's a great collection of videos and CDs, and besides, you need the change."
I willingly agreed, glad at the chance to get out of my stuffy little flat.
The first night in my new home I got down the wok and made myself a sumptuous stir fry, then sat with my feet up on the Chippendale watching 'Pretty Woman.' After several glasses of carrot juice, a long conversation with Australia, and a night swim in the buff, I began to feel sleepy. I locked the Rottweiler and the house cat up in the laundry, and climbed into my hosts' double bed, content with only a cursory examination of their wardrobes.
As soon as I lay down I became aware of a steady dripping emanating from the bathroom. I got up, lit a candle, and went to seek out the source of the trouble. It was the cold tap in the bath, and I tightened it. The dripping didn't stop, so I figured the washer must be gone. I loosened the tap and the whole thing came off. Water gushed all over me, and onto the floor. I tried to force the cover back on, but the thread had rusted away, and wouldn't hold. I would have to get the Swedish wrench out of the car.
I unlocked the back door, but the security gate refused to open. When I tried to force the key, it snapped off I therefore went out through the front door, and walked around to the garage. It was surprisingly chilly, and the flimsy negligee I had borrowed gave no warmth. I took the wrench from under the front seat, where I keep it for protection. I tiptoed back through the rose garden, one hand holding the wrench, the other modestly holding the nightie from blowing up above my erection. I don't know why—cold air on my flesh always does that to me.
Even before I got to the front door I sensed something else had gone wrong. And indeed it had. The door had blown shut. My warm bed called to me, but I was locked out, with no way in. The windows all had burglar bars, and the Rottweiler, who had somehow gotten loose, stuck his head out and growled at me. I could hear the water in the bathroom. Soon it would begin to soak the bedroom carpet. If I tried to climb in, I faced getting stuck, being shot by a passing patrol of Eagle Security, or savaged by the dog. The only other person who had a set of keys was Salamina, the maid, who stayed in Meadowlands, Soweto.
I got into the car and raced down the M1, before merging onto the M2. In White City Jabavu  I was abducted by an APLA cell, painted black, and coerced into joining them in a raid on a sperm bank. They were all very disappointed when they saw the giant cold rooms filled with little plastic jars. "I thought they kept ambergris here," explained their leader, who sounded a little like old Opperman from Military Intelligence. They tied me to a policeman, and after driving my car into a wall, went off.
After I had stopped trembling uncontrollably I woke up the officer.
"We value feedback from the public," he said, "and certainly if any members of the force have been amiss then we will spare no effort to bring them to brook. However, unsubstantiated allegations are......"
I silenced him with a fifty and continued on foot, arriving at Salamina's house at three a.m. It took some time to explain to the terrified woman that I was not a supernatural winged apparition, but rather a middle aged bachelor with a shredded nightie and a thick layer of black paint. I took a taxi back, looking at my watch every two minutes and cursing the driver at each unscheduled stop. None of the constant stream of passengers getting in and out commented on my rather foreign appearance. Their gaze might rest upon me for a moment, but was then averted rapidly, as if they were very used to seeing strange sights and had become inured to them.
I didn't have too much time to reflect on this because I was busy worrying about the house. The wooden floors and carpets were probably knee-deep in water by now. In Louis Botha, my head was flung sideways into the large bosom of the lady beside me. After two of the drivers had swopped details (the third one just drove off), a gun battle broke out between rival tow truck drivers who had magically arrived on the scene seconds after the accident occurred. I hid under a pile of bodies until the shooting was over. The taxi driver, whistling softly to himself, stretched some plastic across the shattered glass of his Hi-Ace, and then we limped on to Republic road where I disembarked.
Empty suburban streets with their greenery and high walls make a very pretty sight in the pearly morning-glow. I vaulted the garden wall just as the sun was rising. Strangely enough, I couldn't hear the gushing of water within. Only the gentle throbbing of the automatic pool cleaner disturbed the silence. Even stranger was that there was no water seeping out under the front door. I unlocked it, but it wouldn't open. Looking through the lounge window I saw that someone had pushed the grand piano against the door. Eventually I managed to push it back, and enter. The house seemed empty. Absolutely empty. They had even unscrewed the light bulbs and plug covers and taken them. In the kitchen little marks on the tiles indicated where the melamine units had once stood. Someone had scratched "Thlokomelo Nja**" on the side of the piano. The Rottweiler was snoozing on the bare lounge floor, and cuddled up next to it was the cat. Inexplicably angered by this graphic explosion of yet another myth, I did for them both with an AK47 I had taken from the taxi by mistake, and then went to see if the thieves had at least left the lady of the house's underwear for me to try on.
"What incredible monsters" I thought to myself when I discovered the bedroom cupboard had vanished. But my worst fears were confirmed when I walked into the bathroom. They had even taken the puddle.

First published by Peter Esterhuysen (z"l) in a Hippogriff Press anthology around 1993, and subsequently published in "Running Towards Us" a Heinnemann anthology of new South African writing edited by Isabel Baleseiro. 

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

The Chicken Coop

I was just making supper when there was a knock on the door. Solomon, my eldest, went to hide in the chicken coop, and I went off to answer.
Before I got there, the door was smashed open. "Were  looking for Solomon Madingwane" said a young lieutenant, while his soldiers shook the wardrobe apart.
"My son" I told them, "he has not been home for three days."
"I'll tell you what", said the lieutenant, "we have to make some other house calls in this neighbourhood, but well be back just now. See if you can find him by then. If not..." He pointed threateningly at the TV.
"Also, have some tea ready. I'm thirsty."
"I want coffee" said one of the young soldiers.
"Shut up" said the lieutenant, and then added more politely, "you'll drink whatever Mrs Madingwane prepares."
They went out I fitted the various bits of door back together as best I could. Then I put the kettle on to boil. I sprinkled dirt from the floor into seven glasses, and spat into each one in turn. The tea was just cooling when there was a knock on the door.
My husband hid in the chicken coop, while I went to open. Before I could get to what remained of the door it was kicked in, and several comrades entered.
"Were looking for Abel Madingwane" said their leader, who wore a balaclava.
"My husband" I told them, "he has not been home for three days."
"I'll tell you what" said the leader, "we have to make some other house calls in the neighbourhood. We'll be back just now. Have him ready for us by then."
Their eyes fell upon the tea.
"You shouldnt" I warned them, but they drained the tea before I could stop them.
"Dont worry" they reassured me, "its for the struggle. We all have to make sacrifices you know."
They went out through the back. Abel waited two minutes, and then came into the house dusting feathers and chichen shit off his clothes.
"Solomons snoring away in the coop" he told me.
The soldiers came back in through the broken door, which flapped loosely on its hinges.
"Vie is hierdie hoender ?" said the lieutenant, and all the soldiers laughed.
He's my husband", I explained, "he was just repairing the chicken coop."
"So he's a Madingwane ?" queried the lieutenant.
"I am Abel Madingwane" said Abel, drawing himself up proudly and ignoring my warning glare. More feathers scattered over the floor.
"Good," said the lieutenant, "we'll take you"
The coffee-soldier pointed out, that the warrant read S Madingwane not A Madingwane
"Viljoen" said the officer, "dont argue in front of the natives. It makes us look stupid. Give me that warrant." Painstakingly he changed the S into an A.
"Right" he said, "we'll have that tea and be off."
"I'd still prefer coffee" said Viljoen stubbornly.
"I explained that the water was just coming to the boil.
"We cant wait" said the lieutenant disappointedly, "we have to he back in the casspirs before the shooting starts."
"Wait" said Viljoen, "you haven't given her a receipt for her husband yet."
"OK" said the lieutenant, turning towards his other men, "tie him to the bed."
They tied Viljoen to the bed. In the struggle his glasses fell off and got broken. They tied us to the bed too. "Inkatha will deal with you" said the lieutenant as they hurried out.
Solomon was woken up by the gunfire. He came in and untied us. Then we all went to hide in the chicken coop. Solomon went back to sleep.
"Excuse me" said Viijoen, whose pimply chin was digging into my bosom.
"Thats all right young man", I told him, "theres plenty of room for us all.
(This little sketch was written about 1992, about a year after I returned to South Africa from Israel.)