The Black Suit
The Cambridge Literary Review, 2011
HE CAME OFF the road long after sunset. The dark began to seem impassable and it was straining his eyes. Light fanned out from his headlamps and scoured the ceaseless black. When at last he picked out a pocket of grey hewn from the bush, a lay-by, he pulled in and the pickup juddered to a halt. Dust plumed up from the wheels, furling in sheets over the windscreen. He stared long amid the confusion of it. He was tired.
Sitting on an upturned jerrycan beside the pickup, he spooned beans from a can to his mouth. His arm and hand worked like an automated lever and there was no suggestion he chewed anything. He wore a black suit several sizes too big. It smelled stale and old over the white envelope of a shirt. He had long ago loosened his tie.
Later he curled up in the cab. The night got cold so he wrapped the crochet blanket round his shoulders. Mottled colours and squares. All knitted together. Something about it, scored deep in memory, reminded him of her. The presence of a cold winter’s night, her shape in the near dark. There were few mosquitoes out there and that was a mercy.
In the morning the smell of the sweet grass was soothing. It cut through his outer self, seeping inwards, and he felt a little better. The low dawn light across the veld plain pulsed and he felt a mild pang off the back of its strokes, an alertness of a kind he’d not known for some time. Pulling away the blanket he stretched out the crook in his back, lit a smoke, and staggered to the sprawl scrub unzipping himself. The suit felt bigger in daylight. It hung off him like a monk’s robe. It was always going to be too big, but he wore it anyway. He drove on out straight after it was over. He didn’t change. He just got in the pickup and drove.
He started off down the road again with no destination in mind, no place he called home now. There was little of the world he knew beyond the tiny mining dorp where he grew up.
Over the extended dyke range, down through a vast stretch of flatlands and on was the city. He had not been to the city for some years and didn’t miss it. Or else he could drive just beyond the arid sink of scrublands, take the road as it climbed and wound and dipped down to the broad glimmering stretch of the lake district. He missed the lake where he’d been most happy, casting and trawling for fish he’d pull from the waters in dull spurts of fulfilment.
After a few hours he reached a town on the main road. He had a slim recollection of it from his youth. A town he knew but was not known in. He pulled up to a narrow kiosk at the side of a garage.
‘Ja, box of Madison,’ he said to a boy behind the counter.
They exchanged a silent moment, then he sat in the cab smoking. Four smokes without pause until an hour had gone by and the sultry boy was looking at him from behind his hatch so he started the engine and pulled away.
For a while he slept rough on the back of the pickup, staying clear of the town where he was a stranger. He found a spot down by the municipal dam, at the far side where it was quiet, away from the ground-shudder of the turbines, the muted judder of the pump house. There were no furtive lovers fucking in cars, no drunken youths smashing bottles on rocks. Just the reeds and bushes crackling with heat and insects, frogs barking, fish flicking their tails on the glassy water, and somehow he felt akin to this, to the stagnancy and solitude.
For bedding there was the blanket he drew over himself and a green canvas tarp he folded up and lay on. He burrowed himself a small nest. He bundled his leather jacket round his feet, tucked his knees to his chest and lay there still and foetal. There was a satchel for a pillow. In it his clothes were rolled tight in balls. Still his neck was stiff in the mornings. His back ached from the cold metal ruts as hard as railway track. His Leatherman lay beside him, always half in his clutch, the blade flicked. The suit hung on its hanger against the cab window until the moon one night rose behind it, and traced its outline in a spectral glow so he pulled it down.
So those few nights went. The mosquitoes were insufferable out in the open. If he slept in the cab he was able to keep out the persistent drone of the mosquitoes but it was as hot as a sauna. He tossed and turned, swotting and slapping in an automated gesture, the night air prickling around him. Once he woke to a departing squelch of feet, and suffered the impression that a malign presence had been peering over him. Another night there was soft lowing in the surrounding vlei. Something unseen in the deeps.
He didn’t know how to approach the town, how to make an appearance, an arrival. As far as he ventured was to the kiosk where the sulky teen sat behind his counter and he, the stranger, the unannounced, approached out of the heat and dust and they engaged in a few cursory words. He bought smokes, he bought cans of food, baked beans, tinned spaghetti, corned beef, cans of sweet corn. The money in his wallet that wasn’t his - it thinned. He used the toilets at the garage, he washed up there a bit. So far no one had become suspicious and told his trashy white ass to move off.
But one night there were three other white men at the kiosk who stared at him long and hard, resentful of what they saw in him. Across the tense silence they issued a challenge, a warning. He didn't want to cause trouble so he retreated quickly to the dam with the six-pack he’d bought. It was almost dusk, the sun’s lemon sparkle had lost its edge, the cooling water spread itself out in relief. He hauled the tarp from the pickup and laid it out over spiky tufts of grass. He lit up, popped a can of beer, and let the rawness of his mind spool out over all that brown vastness.
He moved to the cab, turned on the ignition, thumbed up the electric fan. He smoked and drank the remainder of the six pack. Sometime later he was slumped against the window, a crick in his neck, staring ahead at the dark outline of trees and bush and hills, sure that beings were moving all about, probing the pickup, sniffing him. At first he thought it was the men at the kiosk come to sort him out, give him a sound thrashing for daring to be poor and white and pathetic. His mind left the cab, scanned the perimeter, there was coldness over him, an otherworldliness.
At some point he might have been standing barefoot on cold gravel, his arms readied like a wrestler’s, the knife blade erect. But the night was just thick and fulsome until finally the darkness thinned to liquid. The sky mellowed, hung like a lighted x-ray and when he felt he wasn’t so afraid anymore, he moved his hand across that limpid light and dared to touch, only faintly, the black satiny fabric of the suit.
The suit had hung in the wardrobe. It was the only one and he’d never seen it worn except in a lone photograph of their wedding. It was in colour but it was grainy. He’d looked at it long and hard as a child when he’d wondered what happiness was. Next to the suit in the wardrobe were miners’ overalls. Issue brown with a fat black number stencilled onto the left breast and across the back. B772. That was his father. B772. Like a convict in every sense, he always said, sentenced for life. Dark tunnels and caves and ore: a prisoner of the earth.
All those years at the mine house. The starkness of day, the sanctity of night. The blankets over his head were a good muffler, burying himself in the soundless dark. But the memory too is linked to his mother. Those nights at the dam would transport him back in time: he’d look up, and think he’d see her there, sitting on the end of his boyhood bed, an outline of her entire self. The faintest tincture of her golden hair shone in the outer dark. She lowered a hand to his padded thigh, signalling all was calm now, the worst of his drunken father’s rage was over.
Then the house fell quiet beyond the reaches of his bed. And years later a tear welled up and rolled down his face at last, out there by a distant dam in all that open space, and he cried into those coloured, knitted squares when he remembered her like that.
When his old man’s hacking cough was finally silenced there was only him left to carry them on. He picked up the pieces of their fractured life. No one suspected a thing. His mother must have known but such acts are sacred. He never went to school much, never was a scholar. She needed him home. First he was a buffer against a brute of a man, then her sole protector against the stark elements of widowhood. In the end she wouldn’t leave the house, she thought all miners were him. Ghosts and embodiments. She wouldn’t leave the district either. The house wasn’t hers to sell, but part of a company policy for her lifetime only. Caught between the fear and the prospect of destitution, she too took to booze. She’d drink away her pension before the month was out, sometimes sold bits of silver, odd gems, the old black and white.
She slept lots. When she was out so was he, running wild about the dorp and dust dunes, a boy with too much time on his hands. At 14 he fell in with the Jones brothers. He remembered the Jones brothers well. Dark studs for eyes, grim toothy smiles, nothing they wouldn’t do or try. They plied the Louw girl with gin and Sprite one night, pinned her shoulders to the ground and held her legs apart for him while he lowered his shorts, jabbed and poked away at her lithe writhing body.
And the nights were so many and so long. Time and dormant space would conspire, their liquid minds would flow with the devil. It was all vague and chaotic and sometimes counterpointed with a piercing vision, moments of clarity, brief tense seconds when he thought he glimpsed a brimming future. But those Jones brothers. They always smoked a joint too many, down dark in those astral quarry pits. They always had to take things a step too far. He couldn’t go their distances, his head dissolved into blotted specks, often he was sick to the gut for the excess of it.
They got work on the mines when they came of age. Somehow reality grew them up. He followed them a few years later. Born to inherit the helmet and head torch. Anointed with arcs of blue light, down he went, the bowels of the warm earth, there with every evil thing. He supervised gangs of Africans but even this was too much. He confused instructions, got mixed up. The tunnels throbbed and swelled and his chest tightened and by then he was in that prison where the walls of the cells were unbreakable. You couldn’t beat them down. There was nothing on the other side. He was his father all over again, although the suit never fitted him like the overalls did.
For ten years then he did his time while he was a slave to her wounded mind until one night he reached for the pillow to silence her as he’d silenced his father before her. Still he missed her, the cold claw that held his chin, stroked his stubble, the puffed, narrow eyes that looked on him with distant hope.
And where was he now? He’d left and gotten out, but not really. He’d broken away from that God-awful pit of a place, yet it was still all about him. He had to quit the dorp. He couldn’t stay on. He packed up what little was his to take. He packed her clothes in boxes, left them in a corner of her room. It was full of clutter but it looked empty. The furniture, the stove, the fridge, even the wooden cross above the hearth belonged to the mine. Only the pickup was his now. And a suit too big for him.
So he put it on and after her funeral he drove away. When her corpse was still fresh in the ground. They laid scant flowers at her graveside. Someone did that.
In the day he slept but that evening he drove to the garage and parked on the large tarmac parking-lot. His pickup was dwarfed by the hulk of a ten-tonne lorry but there was no driver. He stooped to the kiosk, the boy was gone, replaced by a faceless African petrol attendant. He bought smokes, beer, crisps.
Sitting in the cab again he cracked a can and sucked at the froth. It was quiet in the lot, the dour landscape of ashen concrete was mute and sterile. Its tautness seemed to rest beneath his thoughts - he felt edgy at first. The occasional gauze of a car flew along the main road, a swift, canting beam of headlights. After his fifth beer he lumbered out and relieved himself, drenching one of the lorry’s dust-clung tyres the sleekest black. Slouched in the cab again he caught a startling glimpse of himself in the rear-view mirror, static and white, exposed by the lights of a car trawling along the road.
He looked across at the suit beside him. It lay against the back of the passenger seat, stiffened up on its hanger. It looked full and swollen. He stroked the lapel between his thumb and forefinger. He lifted a sleeve to his nose and sniffed it. Memories shifted across his mind. Both times it was easy - he just held the pillow across them and applied a little pressure - and what was the point of them carrying on anyway? Morbid and violent and sick of life. They didn’t have the strength to fight him off and that meant something to him. It wasn’t vindication but a distant cousin of something he likened to mercy. Their happiness only ever existed in a photograph and his biggest fear had always been the thought that sometimes even pictures lie.
He shuffled about in the cab. He pulled off his t-shirt and slid off his denims. He took the white shirt from under the jacket and put it on, fastening up the buttons. He wrestled with the black trousers. He donned the jacket.
The beams of stark fluorescent lights from the garage wavered in his eyes like some hypnotic dare. He turned the engine, glided along the main road, pulled a random sharp left into a narrow puckered crescent and trawled along that quiet road. He stopped in the shadowy sprawl of a gnarled tree, grey and tall as a water tower. He got out and walked. There were houses to his left and to his right. Low prefabricated walls, slabs of grey.
Beyond the dull yellow of lighted rooms, curtains were drawn, actions unfolded behind scrims, the black shadow of a fat figure sat in an armchair, arms swinging like an inverted puppet show. He stood there, in the driveway of that house, before the spokes of a wrought iron gate, looking on, looking in. He stood for a long time thinking about things. This was himself in his entirety. A combination of happenings and events had conspired to bring him here. Had visited on him.
He drove back to the dam and sat for a while. Then he opened the cab door, got out. He moved forward, peeling off the clothes one garment at a time. The black jacket, the white shirt. He unzipped the trousers and stepped out of them. He laid them out across the spiny bank and stood looking down at them flat and bodiless. Then he walked towards the water line and ploughed into the dam, the coldness stinging him like an electric bolt. He paddled about in the emollient coolness, soaked himself in those lapping, moon-cast waters. Afterwards he lay naked on the blanket on the bank, his back arched like a sail, looking up at the vast spores across the sky. When it was time, he rested his head on a folded corner of the blanket and allowed himself to drift off.
The following morning it was cold when he awoke. The morning chill chewed at his bare flesh. He folded the blanket and placed it on the seat in the cab. He pulled away from the dam for the last time, and at the main road he took a left. Past the kiosk and the garage. He drove on out, heading now for those low scrublands and then onwards.
Image - Man in Black, by John Springfield.
©Neal Hovelmeier (Ian Holding), 2020