Robin Fabelt’s (St John's College, 1955) wonderful short story, Durban 1942, was one of the winners of our creative writing competition this year. It transports the reader to wartime Durban, but tells a timeless story of childhood concerns. Find a moment to settle down and read it.
“Get out of here, you sod,” the man said to Nigel, softly, but not playfully.
“Killer vocab for his age,” Mrs Van Zyl had told his mother, but Nigel did not know what ‘sod’ meant. He sensed menace behind the word, and expected his mother to defend him. Instead she giggled, and slapped the man’s hand. Both sat on her bed, she with her back to the man, he with his arms around her waist. “Oh, Jack!” was all she said.
Nigel stood tongue-tied. He felt his face turning red.
His mother fumbled in the pocket of her dressing gown. “Here!” she said. “Here’s a tickey, Nigel!” and she tossed him a coin.
Nigel looked at the threepenny bit. “It’s not much,” he gulped. “Won’t even buy a Superman comic.”
“It’ll get you into the bioscope. Besides, it’s all I’ve got.”
Nigel disliked the man, whose name, he now knew, was Jack. His skin was like red sandpaper, and the hairy hands that now clasped his mother revolted him. He had seen Jack twice before in the hotel room where Nigel lived with his mother. Both times she had been with Jack, but not touching; just sitting on opposite beds, between them a small table on which sat two tumblers and a bottle of Kommando brandy. Missing, Nigel noted, had been a framed photograph normally on the table. It showed a moustached man in a bush hat, Nigel’s father, about whom nothing had been heard since Singapore had surrendered to the Japanese.
Nigel could not believe that his father would have let himself be captured. Sure that he was somewhere safe, he made up Dad stories. Dad was leading jungle Malays in raids on the Japanese occupiers of Singapore, or perhaps was sailing to South Africa in a stolen boat. But now, thwarted in his plan to organize his stamp collection in the hotel room, Nigel lingered in the corridor outside, pondering what to do. It was true that threepence could get him into the cinema, as his mother had suggested. It advertised a double feature, two love stories. His elder sister, now at a birthday party, for which Nigel was too young, would probably like them. Nigel preferred comedies or war films. He had particularly enjoyed one of the few made about the fighting up north. In it Humphrey Bogart had commanded a tank. He did not want celluloid love this afternoon.
A burly Zulu on his knees was waxing the floor near Nigel. The man said nothing, but Nigel was in his way. In any case the corridor air was stuffy, so Nigel moved downstairs to the hotel lounge. There he stood under its clicking ceiling fan. Sometimes the clicking seemed to sound words, even relay messages. “Semaphore,” “Tell me more,” and “Man the phone,” were some of them. “Daddy’s home,” was the best.
This afternoon the fan clicked away wordlessly. All the small hotels in the wartime port were packed, but in the middle of this hot afternoon the lounge was empty of people, and there was not even a newspaper comic strip to read. Nigel’s intention to stick into his album a gift of coronation stamps – King George and Queen Elizabeth on a red background – was impossible while Jack was with his mother in their room. He envied his sister Gillian, whom he imagined now scoffing ice cream and jelly.
Even as he pictured her, Gillian was all at once in the lounge in her party dress.
“What are you doing here, boetjie?”
“Kicked out! That man – you know, the one with the bad skin – he’s in the room with Mummy. He was rude. Scared me. Why aren’t you at the party?”
“Cancelled. Millie’s sick.”
“So what will you do?”
“Don’t know. Tell you what, though, Nige. We could go swimming. Let’s go to the beach!”
“No, I can’t. I need my trunks. They’re in the room. Daren’t go back there.”
“Swim in what you’ve got on. Khaki shorts, always in fashion!”
“We have to tell Mummy.”
“No – she’s busy, you gek. She’ll find us when she needs to; I’ll leave word at reception on our way out. We need to go! Now, while the sun is high. We’ll hire surfoplanes. Then ice cream and cola – or something. What say?”
“Money! What about money? All I’ve got is a tickey.”
“But I’ve got ten shillings!” Gillian wafted a note in the air. “Mum gave it me to buy a birthday present.”
Nigel lost his worried look and beamed. “Oh, listen to the fan, Gill! “It’s saying ‘Off you go! Off you go!’”
“I’m hearing ‘Give me oil! Give me oil!’”