APOPHRADES: OR, A BEGINNER'S MODERNISM

 

24 October 1970

A sinkhole appeared on this Saturday afternoon at the tennis courts of the miner's recreation centre at Venterspost, swallowing part of the clubhouse and one spectator, Karl Nortje. Four people [were] playing a game of tennis at the time, and three others in the clubhouse ... narrowly escaped....

             A.B.A Brink, Engineering Geology of Southern Africa.

 

 

I Karl Nortje,

Perceived the scene, and,

Not without some anxiety,

Foretold the rest -

 

It was in the October of 1970

That I, Karl Nortje,

Was sitting as reported

One quiet Saturday afternoon

In the clubhouse of the Venterspost

Miner's recreation centre

Having, as cliche will have it

And Professor Brink omits to mention,

 

 

A last brandy and coke

While watching four friends

At a game of tennis.

 

There were four of us spectators too,

Three of whom, as Brink says, narrowly escaped -

I was number four;

Along with a good proportion of the clubhouse,

I was swallowed whole

By that sinkhole -

And I'm prepared to admit

What the good academic's style forbids him,

That there is something quite amusing

About my exit,

Like falling off a chair in public -

Only in this case I wasn't able to get up,

Red-faced, dust myself off

And hide my embarrassment with that old standby,

~`And now for my next act...'

 

After all,

How did Lazarus

Top his?

 

Still, it turns out that in this version

I've been given another trick up my sleeve

(A reward, perhaps, for bringing

The house down);

So, here I am again -

But, please remember that the circumstances

That bring me to your attention here

Rather restrict me to

One-liners.

 

Oh, I know we're a comical bunch,

The whole lot of us, in our way -

Fall-down if not stand-up comedians:

The mine doctors tell stories

About our legendary drinking, for example;

You must have heard

The one about imposing a half-jack

On the x-ray of Visagie's liver,

Or the time when Van Es's wife put

Oil and Dettol in his bath when he was drunk,

And samboked him while he skidded about helplessly

On the enamel.

 

But surface clowns

Can be heroes underground:

You should have seen the likes of us

Take on the three hundred and sixty

Megalitres a day

That poured into a stope at West Driefontein

In 'sixty-eight;

Even old Brink

Cracked the clinical pose

Of his textbook prose

In his account of this:

`After an epic battle had been waged

Against the torrent for 23 days,

Two concrete plugs were successfully installed...',

He almost enthuses

Before going on to report,

Straight-faced, matter-of-fact,

How the water

Got us back:

 

Caught us unaware,

Tracked us down

Even in our leisure time -

Six months after

My spectacular exit

At the tennis court,

The bowling green sank at

Venterspost recreation centre.

From the air

It could be seen that

This hole lined up with

The one from which I speak to you

And two earlier ones,

Innocent in the veld,

But silently,

Inevitably,

Closing in

On us.

 

It took a while,

But by 1975 we had learnt to avoid,

If not entirely control,

These unfortunate byproducts

Of our means of production -

 

they happen harmlessly now: sudden subsidence somewhere out in the sleeping veld, sensed just ahead of time by a meerkat, perhaps, sprinting away over the sparse, dewy grass

 

- just in time, of course,

For other sorts of underground problems

To surface;

But with this the allegory

Becomes rather heavy-handed,

Despite all the attempts

Of our infamous social engineering

To keep the obvious at bay.

Still, let's let it, at last,

Come thumping home:

Pumping as hard as we could,

We could not stem the flow

Of Durban 'seventy-three,

Luanda 'seventy-four,

Soweto 'seventy-six....

 

It seems I shall die at the beginning of an era;

When history is against you,

A common refuge is metaphysics;

Given my present condition,

Who in this story

Is better qualified to make

Such an appeal?

So, if God is the last laugh

Somewhere beyond our punch-lines,

I join him now

With my mouth full of sand

And, from the omniscience of my extinction,

What I see,

With Blyvoor behind me,

Is the end of our history -

That history that so many saw as the

~`Concentration of world history'

In which we modern Manichees lived out

Racism's Last Word-

For the contraries of our obsessions

Dissolve now,

Diluted into the hum-drum of democracy,

The day-to-day of civil liberties,

The various and dubious freedoms

That sweep us away now

As we emerge from our past,

Fall into your present,

Disappear into another's future.

 

No apocalypse,

No whimper even -

No, for I, Karl Nortje,

Mere spectator,

It's just a game of tennis,

An afternoon drink in the clubhouse

And then

No more of me;

 

I join the Oosthuizen family,

The West Driefontein morning shift,

And a gathering host of once-scattered

Others swelling into

Communities, villages, cities,

A nation, even,

Pouring out of a broken pipe

Into a hole in history;

I flow into all these others

Until otherness itself

Lacks its necessary reference

And we blur into everything

And nothing,

Awaiting you...

 

So I, Karl Nortje,

Perceived the scene and

Foretold the rest:

Looking happily forward,

I raised my glass, and,

Lips parted in anticipation,

 

Sank,

                                                    Without trace

 

(The good tidings which the historian of the past

brings with throbbing heart

may be lost in a void the very moment

he opens his mouth)

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