The dying days of the old regime were an odd time indeed. Weirdness was afoot. Weirdness was everywhere.
People were trying to come to grips with the demise of an extravagantly distorted worldview: some clung tenaciously to old mores, some tentatively experimented with the new. Everyone was confused.
And that’s how I came to meet Corporal X, nameless now to prevent undue embarrassment, and a zealot of the old guard. And how my adventure in two-colour two-timing was exposed.
We were two people at two ends of something quite strange. His lust for the imagined order of the past was matched only by mine for the idealistic chaos of the new.
The dying days of the old regime were a strange time indeed.
I had a new girlfriend: luminously blue-black she was, leggy and lithe, somebody quite unreal, like an impossibly exotic Tretchikoff nude. And a delicious double delight for an arts student of my age and inclinations.
She was brazen, bright, and sassy. Independent. Adventuresome. She was everything an ardentheart like me could ever hope for. She should have been fiction. Only she was real, with her own real desires, fears, idiosyncracies, smells ....and appetite.
Jeeez, could she eat! My student budget was already creaking at the seams of its overdraft, but still I fed her: it was just so exciting taking her to the seedy eating houses of the great, gritty, city Johannesburg that was our home at the time. The on-the-leading-edge eating places, where we could be seen together.
OK, it wasn’t exactly legal in those days, love across the colour bar, but we figured we could get away with it in the confusion that existed at the merge of the two worlds that were and would be our country. In retrospect, it was weird stuff alright.
Eating houses where heads craned, necks swiveled, when she walked in with me; and where eyes popped when they saw her eat! I was proud.
Where faces watched as we left: where dark figures noticed the car we left in. So what if it wasn’t exactly kosher in the old order? I was proud!
Arts student as bold iconoclast! Someone up there somewhere had written the perfect script for me. Man, was I proud!
And horny too. Feeding her was for me, just the start of greater pleasures. Of pleasures in sex that had been the stuff of dreams for this middle-class boy raised in the English way: of adventures of the flesh, imported specially for me, it seemed, from that mysterious island-almost-continent off our African coast.
But.... but,but,but. (Every story like this has significant buts).
But I also had another girl. A different entity altogether. Music student of the over-earnest, round-shiny-glasses, knee-length-skirt, clarinet-in-a-case type. Not PC in both ways - neither politically correct; nor particularly cool.
To be more exact, I had another girl who I thought was an ex.
But you know how these things are. Sometimes in life affairs of the heart overlap; they don’t always have crisp and clean endings. Especially when you’re nineteen. Especially with Clarinet being so fragile, so dependent, so quivering, so vibrato.
(She would have been tremolando if she was a string section.)
One girl was murmuring water music, soft-focus Pre Raphaelite stuff. Tasteful. Dependable. The kind-of-art-school-my-mother-thought-I-was-going-to stuff.
One girl was jazz, with saxophones, trombones, trumpets, fugelhorns – the whole frigging brass band. Jumping Voodoo Music. The art-school-in-my-dreams kind of woman. More, much more, than a girl. And more, much more perhaps, than me.
At that stage in my life, none of my adventures were crisp or clear. And in the bigger picture of the Dying Days, nothing else was either...
So, Saxophone was working, waitressing. Knee-length needed a lift home. We had bumped into each other in a drafty canyon between two stern and darkening buildings, heading in different directions. She to the bus stop, me to the car park.
It was a cold evening, with a surly, mustard-coloured sun dipping into the sweat-stained smog that lays like a pall over the city in evenings in June. A cold, dirty, unhelpful evening. And even if she was supposed to be an Ex-Clarinet, you would have to offer her a lift home. Our town was dangerous, as well as dirty.
For all their other faults, at least VeeDub bugs had great heaters. Mine was beckoning. And besides, she made great soup.
What is it about student digs that makes them smell so? Is it because these living holes always find themselves on the shadowy side of old and mouldy buildings? Because they so seldom get aired? The quality of the food that gets cooked there? The layers of dust, old newspapers, and radical texts lying around? The printed page, imprisoned, encased in such a small space? The stale smells of bargain beer and cheap sherry; of pots of old soup? The secondhand carpets, the semen on the sheets?
Ahhhhh! That smell, it comes alive again as I write this.
Anyway, Clarinet and I enjoy the soup, and the remnants of the wine box I left there three weeks ago. The flat begins to get warmer, a tiny, rust-spotted bar heater tinking and spitting as it gets into its work. The flat gets downright cosy. And so does Clarinet. So what? Life’s chapters never have clear endings, do they? And independent Saxophone is working on the other side of town tonight.
When I described Clarinet earlier, I forgot to include she’s the always-wear-dark-stockings-type too. And that has a bearing on this story, so I need to mention it now.
Stockings, that is. One on each leg. Not pantyhose. For some reason, she hated the nylon enclosure over the top of her cotton panties. Must have been something her mother told her. (“Now dear, wherever in the world you go, with whatever orchestra you may be fixed: remember, nylon and cotton do not mix.”)
Yeah, ma, yeah. I’m all for letting the fannies of this world breathe a little easier.
Anyway, we’ll just mosey into this here cramped little bed, and play a little music of our own. Sing a little aria.
The evening begins to get more and more musical. There’s a lot to be said for slow-moving, tender familiarity. And a wee bit of quivering vibrato...
This is where Corporal X now enters the piece.
The shadowy figures I had mentioned so flippantly, earlier? The glowing cigarette ends in dark cars on the other side of the street, half a block down?
Corporal X, undercover, plainclothes (and man, were they plain), campus investigative vice squad operative.
In the Dying Days, there were a number of vices to be victims of. And a number of undercover operatives to try and police the unpoliceable on campus. You kind of got tired of looking out for them.
Intellectuals and academics in the field of national order will use examples of unenforceable laws as pointers to sickening, and dying, systems. Where basic, common decency and sense make way for frantic lawmongering in last-ditch attempts to prop up the unproppable.
Corporal X was one of the unwitting props of the unproppable. But he couldn’t see the big picture. Admittedly, in the Dying Days, the big picture was one big mess.
So he follows us home. It turns out he’s been following Saxophone and me for a while already. Looking for hard proof.
Only now he’s following Clarinet and me, but he can’t tell the difference, two overcoated figures hunched in the cold of a VeeDub (the heaters do take time), swaying through the darkening streets ahead of him.
We arrive. We pull in. We climb the steps. We let ourselves in.
He waits. He smokes a cigarette. Gunston Toasted, the man’s brand. He waits. He knows my timing, my endurance limits. He’s done his homework.
And then he climbs a tree. The spindly bluegum that wipes its grimy leaves against the second floor window of the flat of my friend Clarinet.
He edges out to the end of a limb. He tries to focus through a slit in the curtains, through steamed-up glass.
He peers; he cranes his neck. He edges forwards and outwards along the branch. All in the line of duty.
He makes something out, behind the fogged up window. Black legs, he sees, entwined around my very white backside. All the movements he sees! Black legs, white bottom! Black legs, white bottom! All the movements he sees!
Proof positive! Class A vice! The fabric of the Dying Days will be rent asunder by this mischief in the night! Love across the colour bar! The proof is there for seeing! Fair cop! In for the kill! Uitsa!
But how to apprehend us? No time to think! So the tree does the thinking for him. The branch breaks, slides down the wall, comes to rest on the windowsill. Corporal X slithers down the inclined member – gathering speed, can’t stop – and crashes through the windows and curtains of the second floor flat of my friend Clarinet!
All this at the precise moment of our combined orgasms.
It’s like a game a friend of mine is going to invent: you’re given a bunch of sounds, and have to describe what’s going on.
In this case there’s the initial sharp CRRACKK! of the tree branch, swiftly followed by the scraping of the tips and leaves on the roof, gutter, wall and window; our huffing, our musical, muted sounds of urgency in love; and the subtle smack of sweating skins sticking and parting (allegro, allegro); a squealing, skin on smooth bark; the huge crash of broken glass; the ruffled whump of curtains flapped aside; the heavy thump of a body, and the OOOF! it makes as it lands on the floor of the bedroom in the flat of my friend Clarinet!
She turns, screams, (crescendo!), leaps up and away; I yelp (the only word for it) as she damn-near rips my acorn off!
Brief silence. I’m thinking – Sax! Only she could make an entrance like that.
But it’s only Corporal X. Picking himself off the floor. All in the course of duty.
Not that Clarinet knows that, as she delivers him a roundhouse whack to the head with her handy clarinet case. (I get the feeling she’s rehearsed that move – “How I’ll defend myself in a dark alley.”)
We dress. He comes to.
We stand about. He arrests us.
“For nefarious cavortings in breach of the immorality act,” he gravely intones, “For mischief in the night.”
It’s obvious he doesn’t notice that only her legs are black. Perhaps he thinks her face and hands are a triumph of skin-lightening cream.
We demur. He still insists on taking us in.
What does it say about our state, that we meekly follow him into his police car?
The station commander was a world-weary man. He appeared to have given up trying to police the unpoliceable; given up trying to prop up the unproppable.
He certainly thought it futile to even begin to explain the complexities of our big, messy picture to the likes of zealous Corporal X.
Perhaps he already knew that our particular vice wasn’t destined to be listed as such for very much longer.
Bail was set at modest levels. It was only pre-marital sex after all. Clarinet and I were even offered a medicinal pull from his emergency top-drawer half-jack of Oude Meester brandy. She was still shaking – from cold, rage, and fright.
Tiredly, he waved us away, out of his already complicated life.
Bail. What a word. Bail. But how do you effect bail? How does it come about? Who would be contactable at this unearthly hour? Who would be awake, with a ready stash of cash? Who would understand?
What could I do? Clarinet was verging on losing it (hysterico?). Would she last the night, cold and alone in the women offenders’ separate cell?
With my one phone call, I reached Sax. She was just leaving the restaurant. Luckily she had a healthy swag of tips.
Yes, she fetched my car. She had the spare keys.
Yes, she fetched us, and bailed us out.
Yes, she drove us each home. Three different addresses. She returned the car and the spare keys.
No, she didn’t understand.
So, at least that particular, triangular little chapter in my life had a short and sharp and crisp little ending.
But Sax and Clarinet became friends. A shared interest in my vices, it seems.
The Dying Days did come to an end. But the big picture stayed a wee bit messy for a little while longer.
And that’s the story of the black stockings, of Clarinet, Saxophone and me.