A good price



I suppose they pretty well threw us out that Saturday afternoon, the barman long ago cashed up, mopped up and fed up, leaning back with his arms folded and like me, enduring Natie’s sneering loudness against a backdrop of Hout Bay winter. Until, polite but firm, the manager came, and we reeled out into the drizzle, the bolts shot behind us as though we might return.

Drunk as I was, I admired Natie’s control. In the fresh air, he seemed to shrug off the drink and his nose came up like a dog at point. His hard eyes looked up and down the main street and my heart sank as he set off without a word.

“Car’s the other way, Natie,” I offered hopefully, but that gleam in his eyes was all too familiar. Three hours left in Cape Town meant three hours left to make a profit out of something. I hunched into my coat and started after him. Maybe the cold would sober me up for the drive to the airport. The thought of him missing his flight and staying over was enough to give me strength.

“Love these street markets, Jimmy-boy. Never a waste of time. Pick up some real bargains amongst the junk.” I hadn’t noticed the stalls from the hotel steps, but those sharp eyes must have caught the flash of a wind-rocked umbrella in the car-park. Already he was prowling up and down the few stalls, watched by the huddled owners, their flasks and other small comforts almost exhausted. Natie picked up things, and with a muttered comment or two, dropped them carelessly. Even his silence was contemptuous. I looked the other way and rattled the car keys, unable to meet the eyes of the stall people.

Natie’s my boss, I wanted to say to them. You don’t think I approve of his manner, do you? When we go, you’ll be free of him. I won’t. I need this job and Natie knows it. Just put up with it a few moments more - for me, it’s a life sentence.

From time to time, I had flashes of courage, but they always faded when Natie reminded me about the money. He hadn’t asked me to pay back a cent. The police had never been mentioned. Just “Jimmy-boy, I’d have thought you’d appreciate the house more. And the car. And the living wage I pay you.”

“Yes, Natie,” I’d sigh and back down again. If only I didn’t have to do the things he made me do.

“Somebody has to do it Jimmy-boy, and you have such a nice way about you. Sort of blunts the pain a bit, y’know ? Now…..how’d the old cow react to the notice to vacate? Yeah ? Aah well, she’d had a good innings.”

And that would be that.

Now, predictably, Natie had found something out of the ordinary. At the end of the row of trestles, and some little way removed, a crude windbreak of plastic was stretched across thin sticks, snapping and crackling in the chill wind. There was no table, and a strange collection of articles on sale were spread on another plastic sheet. The stallholder squatted in the lee of his shelter, a blanket drawn tightly across his shoulders as he hugged himself against the cold.

Natie stirred the nearest object with a Gucci-shod toe.

“What’s this?” he demanded. Even I could see it was a root of some kind. Natie wasn’t much interested in Nature. Unless it could be plundered in some way.

The black man shifted his weight and narrowed his eyes.

“For stomach. You have stomach?” he looked up enquiringly.

“ Stomach? Yeah, I got stomach ... but nothing wrong with it. An’ if there was, I wouldn’t be taking any of that crap!” and Natie gave the thing a little kick that sent it amongst the other stuff. The man took his time about moving, as if weighing it up against letting in the cold. When he did, the blanket fell open and I caught a glimpse of a small, pinched face between his knees. He picked up the root and returned it to its original place.

Natie was relishing this now. He squatted down opposite the man and went through the remedies on the plastic, picking them up and discarding them one by one, each with a contemptuous dismissal of

their reputed properties. The other face was set like stone, the voice low in even, dignified reply to each question.

I think I’ve mentioned how quick Natie was. Well, it still caught me by surprise when he reached across and pulled aside the man’s blanket, exposing the child beneath. But even more remarkable was that in that first very brief glimpse, he must have seen and registered a toy that the child was holding tightly against its chest.

“I want to see tha,” said Natie in a flat voice.

“No,” said the man “Is mine… is boy’s.” As if there was no more to be said

“Maybe I will buy it,” said Natie, in a tone I’d heard a few times too many.

“Is not to sell,” replied the man, “only these things,” indicating his rain-sodden stock.

“Where do you live? Where do you get these things?” asked Natie. A sudden change of tack. Typical. I sighed and settled down to wait for the inevitable.

The man waved a limp hand over his own shoulder. Natie stared across the bay at the far slope. The tops of the mountains were shrouded from view. Because I was standing, I could see a thin tendril of smoke lower down against the darkness of the Port Jackson, almost lost in the drifting mist. I shivered.

“Looks like a squatter camp,” I said

Natie grunted.

“And before that, where did you live?” he asked. The man studied him for a moment and then indicated North.

“Transkei? Ciskei?” queried Natie.

“Kwazulu. Tugela Ferry.”

“Oh yes? Is that where you learned all this mumbo-jumbo?” again indicating the homeopathic supplies between them. The man nodded and fixed his eyes on a point above Natie’s head.


“Maybe … maybe … if you let me see that, I pay you good money and one day you go back there. Tugela Ferry, I mean.” Natie’s voice was suggestive, almost a caress. The man’s eyes narrowed again, considering the rain driving across the face of the mountain behind us. Reluctantly, he opened the blanket and coaxed the toy from the child with a few words in their own language. He held it against himself and looked at Natie crouching there impatiently.

“Five rand. Only look. Not sell,” he said warningly.

“Five? Oh, yeah, yeah…c’mon give it here.” And Natie closed his hand roughly around the doll. The boy squirmed uncomfortably as though it was his own thin body that was being squeezed.

The doll was made of clay or perhaps some sort of dark wood. It was an amazingly accurate carving of the boy himself. The same huge eyes, fixed and staring in the doll, sunken and feverish in the child. The full lips of the doll were parted in a carved smile, but the boy’s mouth moved constantly in a sort of silent pleading. Intent on the little figurine in his hands Natie stood up. At his feet, the black man started, his eyes wide. Natie felt for his wallet and pulled out a couple of notes, weighing them. Not against his conscience, I was sure. Hardly stooping, he let them flutter down into the blanketed lap.

“O.K. There y’go. Good price as I said. Got a niece that collects dolls. Needs a touch of disinfectant, but she’ll love it.” And he started to turn away.

The man was up in a flurry of smoky blanket, his eyes wild and the child, silent until now, uttering piping cries of alarm into his father’s chest.

“No! No! No! Not to sell! You say only to look! Not to sell!” The man was skipping ahead of Natie, trying to stop him leaving, but afraid to make contact. His hand hovered over a Balenciaga sleeve but he could not bring himself to touch the white man.

Natie strode along, the doll thrust carelessly into a pocket, occasionally stepping this way or that to avoid the man. I followed miserably, conscious of the curious stares of the other stall-holders. The

black man ran an unauthorized stall, but even so, they looked sympathetic. Natie had that effect on people.

We got to the car, the man in close and capering attendance. He was beside himself, obviously trying to explain something to Natie in his own language and broken English. With supreme indifference, Natie waved to me to start up and drive.

As I accelerated, the man ran despairingly after us, but burdened with the sobbing boy, he soon fell away and I glanced only once in the mirror at his forlorn figure, standing back there in the rain.

I was pretty choked up, but Natie, true to form, was quite pleased with himself. He didn’t seem to mind that I sat in the car while he spent a leisurely forty minutes inside, showering and packing his stuff. He whistled and chatted all the way to the airport and waved an airy goodbye.

I drank a lot at home that night, looking for release from the scenes of the day.

In the morning, I struggled up and stared out at the rain. The house is high up on the southern slope so you can see a long way. The Port Jackson was a drab smear across the distant dunes but today there was no smoke. I took something for my head and got dressed.

Then I went to the car and drove around the bay. In the new housing area, I tried a few dead ends, reversing out past still-life building projects to try again until at last, I saw the start of a path. It wound away into the dripping thickets but nothing stirred in that gloomy place. I locked the car and was setting off when the sound of another vehicle halted me. I cocked my head and waited until a battered Volkswagen whistled and clattered to a stop behind my car. From it, a lanky bearded figure straightened and then leaned back inside to hoist out a pack.

“Good day for a walk,” he said cheerily. “You know the area?”

“Well, actually….no. I was err….just looking for the squatters.”

“Really? What’s your interest?” he asked with an appraising look.

I hesitated, then chose vagueness. “I just wanted to see for myself. It looks like a bad place.”

“Bad? I suppose you could say that. They seem to make a go of it somehow. My own interest is professional. Thesis. Interrupted cultures and so on. Come on, I’ll show you around.”

Then he turned away and struck out along the path. Two minutes later, we had entered another world. The bush gave way to a series of clearings, center growth cut to the ground and the earth beaten flat. Lopsided shelters occupied each clearing and meagre possession lay about in the green twilight but there was nobody to be seen.

The young man strode through the area until we reached another path which we followed until it reached yet another clearing. Here, there squatted or stood motionless, a collection of people. They relaxed when they saw my companion but some continued to watch me curiously.

“That’s my main subject….there in that shelter. The nganga…you know?…medicine man, whatever you want to call him.” The man’s beard brushed my ear he was so close as he whispered to me.

I looked at the faces. Patient, enduring, waiting. Africa in microcosm. There was no sign of the stall holder but I guessed this was his clearing and that the humble shelter must be his home. The bearded researcher had started scribbling notes, preoccupied with his pencil and pad. I simply stood, waiting like the others.

There was a stir amongst the people as the door flap suddenly moved aside. I was riveted by the figure that backed out. Almost naked, the nganga was festooned with beadwork, inflated bladders and the tiny skulls of birds and small mammals. This was a fleeting impression, because when he turned to face us, I saw that he held in his arms the child I had seen with him the day before. From the way the thin arms flopped and the small head lolled back, I knew the boy was dead. The researcher stopped writing, beard parted in a round ‘O’ of surprised dismay.

“Aaaaah no! No! No! The boy’s dead … he was doing so well! What a blow! To the research, that is. Hey, don’t think I’m callous, it’s just that….” He must have misinterpreted my stricken face for he seemed anxious to explain.

“The child picked up double pneumonia … I mean, look at these conditions … anyway, he wouldn’t see a doctor. The nganga,that is. Touch and go for a long time then he produced this doll. The sickness was supposed to pass into the doll. Autosuggestion, whatever ... it was working. I could see the improvement every time I came. What the hell happened?”

The nganga laid the boy beside the glowing coals of a small fire outside the shelter, gently arranging the flaccid limbs as though for comfort. I was turning away, my eyes full of tears, when the nganga ducked back into the shelter. He emerged with something in his hand and as he straightened and extended his arm aloft for all to see, I saw that he held banknotes. Two ten rand notes. Natie’s good price.

With just a few words, he dropped the notes onto the coals. Silent, we watched the green paper smoke until it writhed and twisted in the intense heat. It seemed a long time before the notes were charred beyond recognition. I excused myself at last and walked away through the clearing and out to the car. As I turned the ignition key, I noted dully that the dash clock showed 11.30.


Natie always drove fast. He liked to take chances and if there was a gap, he’d take it, revelling in the acceleration of the claret Porsche. On that Sunday morning, he finally took one chance too many. He completely misjudged the speed of the 11.30 from Nelspruit at the Booysens crossing.

It flung the sleek car aside like a toy, so that it cartwheeled along between the stony, banked sides of the track in a shower of sparks that ignited the ruptured petrol tank so that it burst into flames before coming to rest. The impact must have jammed the central locking because horrified commuters could only watch helplessly as the blackened thing that was Natie writhed and twisted in the inferno.

I believe it was a long time before he died.

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