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A short story by John Eppel

Updated: Feb 10

White Man Walking


He was striding down the pedestrian track between Ruskin Road and the Hillside School playing field.  I was cycling in the other direction, on my way to Girls' College, which is situated in Suburbs.  It was early, before the traffic build-up, so the road was pretty empty: one or two Townsend girls, their satchelled dresses riding up their back legs; a Milton boy with a crooked leg, taking his rest on the corner of Walpole Road; an old tramp with cataracts in his eyes, rummaging in dustbins for empty plastic bottles.  And the ubiquitous pied crows.

 

It must have been late August because the bauhinia variegata - white, pink, and magenta - were in full flower; and from behind more than one ugly durawall wafted the sweet scent of buddleja.  The mornings were still rather chilly so I was wearing my long-sleeved Rupert Bear jersey.  He didn't seem to mind the cold since he wore only a thin khaki shirt with short sleeves rolled above his biceps, a tiny pair of faded blue rugby shorts, and veldskoen without socks or laces.  He carried a walking stick, which looked more like a weapon in his hand.  Slightly ahead of him, straining against a leather choker, was the biggest Staffordshire bull terrier I had ever seen.  It was brindle in colour and it was the size of a ten gallon drum.

 

We exchanged glances: mine satirical, his contemptuous.  I judged that he had recently retired and was learning to contend with empty hours, empty days, weeks, months....  Striding with his long, muscular legs, one slightly thinner and less muscular than the other: evidence of a rugby injury: snapped tendon perhaps, or torn cartilage.  Wielding his stick rather than using it as a support. Searching the horizon, with half closed eyes, for challenges to his Old Boy vigour.  Attached to the other knuckly hand, barely controlled, panting, eyes popping, was his correlate: an affectionate dog that liked nothing better than a good scrap with the wheel of a motor car slowing down.

 

Perhaps he had been sales manager for a spare parts factory; or senior representative for a company that built swimming pools; or chief security officer for a firm that specialized in burglar alarms.  Perhaps he had been a school teacher like me.  Perhaps he had been to Rhodes University in South Africa and majored in Geography and Physical Education, with Sociology, Social anthropology, and Bantu Law as fillers.  I turned my head to look at him but he did not turn his head to look at me.  He had a soldier's bearing; I slouched, even on my bicycle, like a lily, straining after light, that had grown too heavy for its stem.

 

When next we passed each other, more or less the same time the following day, we exchanged slightly altered glances: mine curious, his amused.  His full crop of hair, I noticed, was cut in such a way as to give maximum exposure to his ears, the lobes of which resembled brussels sprouts.  Keloids.  My hair was too long for my age, and for the age.  Beatles style, it made me look a bit like John Lennon might have looked in middle age.  His dog's pink tongue was foaming.

 

Our brief encounters went on for years, season after season.  We shared the experience of cement durawalls going up and hibiscus hedges coming down.  We shared the times with children dawdling to school, and domestic workers waiting outside locked gates; tramps and pied crows ransacking dustbins; the mingled suburban smells of floor polish, coal smoke, chrysanthemums, tomato plants, dog poo, and the exhaust fumes of cars that should long since have been taken off the road.  And over the years our glances altered to looks of friendliness accompanied with smiles and nods.  His dog, no longer straining ahead, but lagging behind, greying muzzle, suppurating eyes, would recognize me and wag his stumpy tail.

 

Then, one day, he came alone, not wielding his walking stick but using it to support his damaged leg, which had been slowing him down, and bending him, by almost imperceptible degrees, through the years.  No dog.  I looked at him with sympathy and he looked at me, briefly, with embarrassment for his grief.  The line of his jaw had begun folding into his neck. Like mine.  Like mine, the skin around the muscles of his legs and arms had begun to loosen and sag.  I noticed for the first time that he was wearing stockings, and that his shoes were tightly laced.

 

School holidays came and went, and when I resumed my school routine, I noticed that he was not on the road.  Day after day, no sign of him.  The poinsettias were particularly grand that wintry season.  I fantasized that he must once have adored scarlet lips like that: Rita Hayworth's in his case; Sylvia Plath's in mine.  

 

He was my analogue, and I missed him.

 

It must have been a good two months later - the jacarandas were coming out - that I saw him again, and I was shocked at what I saw.  The once challenging stride had been reduced to a shuffle.  When he saw me he smiled sheepishly and tried to straighten his back, but only his dewlap reacted.  He was streaming saliva, and his eyes were lustreless.  But there he was, on the pedestrian track between Ruskin Road and the Hillside school playing field, shuffling along in slippers and pyjamas, and a cordless dressing gown.

 

And he was there the next day, and the next.  And we smiled at each other and wordlessly acknowledged the beauty of the jacaranda blossom and, a month later, the flamboyants on Kipling Drive.  When the harvester ants came out we looked at each other knowingly - a sign of rain.  He used the point of his stick to poke gently at chongololos, to see if they would curl up (girls), or writhe on their backs (boys).  Once, a passing crow crapped on his head and, for the first time we communicated with laughter, silent though it was.

 

The last time I saw him before I changed schools and therefore routes, a miniature fox terrier trotted at his heels, a mere puppy, and when it saw me on my bike it growled.  He winked at me and shuffled on his way.  Not so the dog.  It charged at me and sank its little teeth into the back tyre of my bicycle.  I screamed at it to let go, and I could have sworn I heard the old man chuckle.


***


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