Through Time and Distance

A native Johannesburger, NADINE GORDIMER is one of the most gifted novelists writing about the divided world of the Union of South Africa. Last spring, Miss Gordimer spent two months in the United States on a visiting professor fellowship given by the Institute of Contemporary Arts in Washington. During that, time she gave a reading of her short stones at the Poetry Center in New York and delivered the Ann Radcliffe lecture at Radcliffe College.


THEY had been on the road together seven or eight years, Mondays to Fridays. They did the Free State one week, the northern and eastern Transvaal the next, Natal and Zululand a third. Now and then they did Bechuanaland and Southern Rhodesia and were gone for a month. They sat side by side, for thousands of miles and thousands of hours, the commercial traveler, Hirsch, and his boy. The boy was a youngster when Hirsch took him on, with one pair of gray flannels, a clean shirt, and a nervous sniff; he said he’d been a lorry driver, and at least he didn’t stink—“When you’re shut up with them in a car all day, believe me, you want to find a native who doesn’t stink.” Now the boy wore, like Hirsch, the line of American-cut suits that Hirsch carried, and fancy socks, suede shoes, and an antimagnetic watch with a strap of thick gilt links, all bought wholesale. He had an ear of white handkerchief always showing in his breast pocket, though he still economically blew his nose in his fingers when they made a stop out in the veld.

He drove, and Hirsch sat beside him, peeling back the pages of paperbacks, jerking slowly in and out of sleep, or scribbling in his order books. They did not speak. When the car flourished to a stop outside the veranda of some country store, Hirsch got out without haste and went in ahead — he hated to “make an impression like a hawker,” coming into a store with his goods behind him. When he had exchanged greetings with the storekeeper and leaned on the counter chatting for a minute or two, as if he had nothing to do but enjoy the dimness of the interior, he would stir with a good-humored sigh: “I’d better show you what I’ve got. It’s a shame to drag such lovely stuff about in this dust. Phillip!” — his face loomed in the dimness of the doorway a moment — “get a move on there.”

So long as it was not raining, Phillip kept one elbow on the rolled-down window, the long lorearm reaching up to where his slender hand, shaded like the coat of some rare animal from tea-rose pink on the palm to dark mat brown on the back, appeared to support the car’s gleaming roof like a caryatid. The hand would withdraw, he would swing out of the car onto his feet, he would carry into the store the cardboard boxes, suitcases, and, if the store carried what Hirsch called “high-class goods” as well, the special stand of men’s suits hanging on a rail that was made to fit into the back of the car. Then he would saunter out into the street again, giving his tall shoulders a cat s pleasurable movement under fur—a movement that conveyed to him the excellent drape of his jacket. He would take cigarettes out of his pocket and lean, smoking, against the car’s warm flank.

Sometimes he held court; like Hirsch, he had become well known on the regular routes. The country people were not exactly shy of him and his kind, but his clothes and his air of city know-how imposed a certain admiring constraint on them, even if, as in the case of some of the older men and women, they disapproved of the city and the aping of the white man’s ways. He was not above playing a game of morabaraba, an ancient African kind of draughts, with the blacks from the grainand-feed store in a dorp on the Free State run. Hirsch was always a long time in the general store next door, and meanwhile, Phillip pulled up the perfect creases of his trousers and kneeled over the lines of the board drawn with a stone in the dust, ready to show them that you couldn’t beat a chap who had got his training in the big lunchhour games that are played every day outside the wholesale houses in Johannesburg. At one or two garages, where the petrol attendants in foam-rubber baseball caps given by Shell had picked up a lick of passing sophistication, he sometimes got a poker game. The first time his boss, Hirsch, discovered him at this (Phillip had overestimated the time Hirsch would spend over the quick hand of Klabberyas he was obliged to take, in the way of business, with a local storekeeper), Hirsch’s anger at being kept waiting vanished in a kind of amused and grudging pride. “You’re a big fella, now, eh, Phillip? I’ve made a man of you. When you came to me you were a real pickanin. Now you’ve been around so much, you’re taking the boys’ money off them on the road. Did you wan?”

“Ah, no, sir,” Phillip suddenly lied, with a grin.

“Ah-h-h, what’s the matter with you? You didn’t win?” For a moment Hirsch looked almost as if he were about to give him a few tips. After that, he always passed his worn packs of cards on to his boy. And Phillip learned, as time went by, to say without so much as a flicker of an eyelid, “I don’t like the sound of the engine, boss. There’s something loose there. I’m going to get underneath and have a look while I’m down at the garage taking petrol.”

IT WAS true that Hirsch had taught his boy everything the boy knew, although the years of silence between them in the car had never been broken by conversation or an exchange of ideas. Hirsch was one of those pale, plump, freckled Jews, with paleblue eyes, a thick snub nose, and the remains of curly blond hair that had begun to fall out before he was twenty. A number of his best stories depended for their denouement on the fact that somebody or other had not realized that he was a Jew. His pride in this belief that nobody would take him for one was not conventionally antiSemitic, but based on the reasoning that it was a matter of pride, on the part of the Jewish people, that they could count him among them whe he was fitted by nature with the distinguishing characteristics of a more privileged race. Another of his advantages was that he spoke Afrikaans as fluently and idiomatically as any Afrikaner. This, as his boy had heard him explain time and again to English-speaking people, was essential, because, low and ignorant as these back-veld Afrikaners were — hardly better than the natives, most of them — they knew that they had their government up there in power now, and they wouldn’t buy a sixpenny line from you if you spoke the language of the rooineks — the red-neck English.

With the Jewish shopkeepers, he showed that he was quite at home, because, as Phillip, unpacking the sample range, had overheard him admit a thousand times, he was Jewish born and bred — why, his mother’s brother was a rabbi — even though he knew he didn’t look it for a minute. Many of these shops were husband-and-wife affairs, and Hirsch knew how to make himself pleasant to the wives as well. In his chaff with them, the phrases “the old country” and “my father, God rest his soul” were recurrent. There was also an earnest conversation that began: “If you want to meet a character, I wish you could see my mother. What a spirit. She’s seventy-five, she’s got sugar, and she’s just been operated for cataract, but I’m telling you, there’s more go in her than — ”

Every now and then there would be a store with a daughter, as well: not very young, not very beautiful, a worry to the mother, who stood with her hands folded under her apron, hoping the girl would slim down and make the best of herself, and to the father, who wasn’t getting any younger and would like to see her settled. Hirsch had an opening for this subject, too, tested and tried. “Not much life for a girl in a place like this, eh? It’s a pity. But some of the town girls are such rubbish, perhaps it’s better to marry some nice girl from the country. Such rubbish — the Jewish girls, too; oh, yes, they’re just as bad as the rest these days. I wouldn’t mind settling down with a decent girl who hasn’t run around so much. If she’s not so smart, if she doesn’t get herself up like a film star, well, isn’t it better?”

Phillip thought that his boss was married — in some places, at any rate, he talked about “the wife” — but perhaps it was only that he had once been married, and, anyway, what was the difference when you were on the road? The fat, ugly white girl at the store went and hid herself among the biscuit tins, the mother, half daring to hope, became vivacious by proxy, and the father suddenly began to talk to the traveler intimately about business affairs. Phillip found he could make the same kind of stir among country blacks. Hirsch had a permit to enter certain African reserves in his rounds, and there, in the humble little shops owned by Africans — shanties, with the inevitable man at work on a treadle sewing machine outside —he used his boy to do business with them in their own lingo. The boy wasn’t half bad at it, either. He caught on so quick, he was often the one to suggest that a line that was unpopular in the white dorps could be got rid of in the reserves. He would palm off the stuff like a real showman. “They can be glad to get anything, boss,” he said, with a grin. “They can’t take a bus to town and look in the shops.” In spite of his city clothes and his signet ring and all, the boy was exactly as simple as they were, underneath, and he got on with them like a house on fire. Many’s the time some old woman or little kid came running up to the car when it was all packed to go on again and gave him a few eggs or a couple of roasted mealies in a bit of newspaper.

Early on in his job driving for Hirsch, Phillip had run into a calf; it did not stir on the deserted red-earth road between walls of mealie fields that creaked in a breeze. “Go on,” said his boss, with the authority of one who knows what he is doing, who has learned in a hard school. “Go on, its dead, there’s nothing to do.” The young man hesitated, appalled by the soft thump of the impact with which he had given his first death-dealing blow. “Go on. There could have been a terrible accident. We could have turned over. These farmers should be prosecuted, the way they don’t look after the cattle.”

Phillip reversed quickly, avoided the body in a wide curve, and drove on. That was what made life on the road; whatever it was, soft touch or hard going, lie or truth, it was left behind. By the time you came by again in a month or two months, things had changed, forgotten and forgiven, and whatever you got yourself into this time, you had always the secret assurance that there would be another breathing space before you could be got at again.

Phillip had married after he had been traveling with Hirsch for a couple of years; the girl had had a baby by him earlier, but they waited, as Africans sometimes do, until he could get a house for her before they actually got married. They had two more children, and he kept them pretty well — he wasn’t too badly paid, and of course he could get things wholesale, like the stove for the house. But up Piet Retief way, on one of the routes they took every month, there was a girl he had been sleeping with regularly for years. She swept up the hair cuttings in the local barbershop, where Hirsch sometimes went for a trim it he hadn’t had a chance over the weekend, in Johannesburg. That was how Phillip had met her; he was waiting in the car for Hirsch one day, and the girl came out to sweep the step at the shop’s entrance. “Hi, voena sisi [you, sister]. I wish you would come and sweep my house for me,” he called out drowsily.

For a long time now she had worn a signet ring, nine carats, engraved with his first name and hers; Hirsch did not carry anything in the jewelry line, but of course Phillip, in the fraternity of the road, knew the boys of other travelers who did. She was a plump, hysterical little thing, with very large eyes that could accommodate unshed tears for minutes on end, and — something unusual for black women — a faint mustache outlining her top lip. She would have been a shrew to live with, but it was pleasant to see how she awaited him every month with coy, bridling passion. When she pressed him to settle the date when they might marry, he filched some minor item from the extensive women’s range that Hirsch carried, and that kept her quiet until next time. Phillip did not consider this as stealing, but as part of the runningexpenses of the road to which he was entitled, and he was trustworthy with his boss’s money or goods in all other circumstances. In fact, if he had known it and if Hirsch had known it, his filching fell below the margin for dishonesty that Hirsch, in his reckoning of the running expenses of the road, allowed: “They all steal, what’s the good of worrying about it? You change one, you get a worse thief, that’s all.” It was one of Hirsch’s maxims in the philosophy of the road.

Tmorning they left on the Bechuanaland run, Hirsch looked up from the newspaper and said to his boy, “You’ve got your passbook, eh?” There was the slightest emphasis on the “you’ve,” an emphasis confident rather than questioning. Hirsch was well aware that, although the blurred frontpage picture before him showed black faces openmouthed, black hands flung up triumphant around a bonfire of passbooks, Phillip was not the type to look for trouble, “Yes, sir, I’ve got it,” said Phillip, overtaking, as the traffic lights changed, a row of cars driven by white men; he had driven so much and so well that there was a certain beauty in his performance — he might have been skiing, or jumping hurdles.

Hirsch went back to the paper; there was nothing in it but reports of this anti-pass campaign that the natives had started up. He read them all with a deep distrust of the amorphous threat that he thought of as “trouble,” taking on any particular form. Trouble was always there, hanging over every human head, of course; it was only when it drew near, “came down,” that it took on a specific guise: illness, a drop in business, the blacks wanting to live like white men. Anyway, he himself had nothing to worry about: his boy knew his job, and he knew he must have his pass on him in case, in a routine demand in the streets of any of the villages they passed through, a policeman should ask him to show it.

Phillip was not worried, either. When the men in the location came to the door to urge him to destroy his pass, he was away on the road, and only his wife was at home to assure them that he had done so; when some policeman in a dorp stopped him to see it, there it was, in the inner pocket of the rayon lining of his jacket. And one day, when this campaign or another was successful, he would never need to carry it again.

At every call they made on that trip, people were eager for news of what was happening in Johannesburg. Old barefoot men in the dignity of battered hats came from the yards behind the stores, trembling with dread and wild hope. Was it true that so many people were burning their passes that the police couldn’t arrest them all? Was it true that in such-and-such a location people had gone to the police station and left passes in a pile in front of the door? Was it the wild young men who called themselves Africanists who were doing this? Or did Congress want it, did the old Chief, Luthuli, call for it too? “We are going to free you all of the pass,” Phillip found himself declaiming. Children, hanging about, gave the Congress raised-thumb salute. “The white man won’t bend our backs like yours, old man.” They could see for themselves how much he had already taken from the white man, wearing the same clothes as the white man, driving the white man’s big car — an emissary from the knowledgeable, political world of the city, where black men were learning to be masters. Even Hirsch’s cry, “Phillip, get a move on there!”, came as an insignificant interruption, a relic of the present almost become the past.

Over the border, in the British protectorate, Bechuanaland, the interest was just as high. Phillip found it remarkably easy to talk to the little groups of men who approached him in the luxurious dust that surrounded village buildings, the kitchen boys who gathered in country hotel yards where cats fought beside glittering mounds of empty beer bottles. “We are going to see that this is the end of the pass. The struggle for freedom — The white man won’t stand on our backs —”

It was a long, hot trip. Hirsch, pale and exhausted, dozed and twitched in his sleep between one dorp and the next. For the last few months he had been putting pills instead of sugar into his tea, and he no longer drank the endless bottles of lemonade and ginger beer that he had sent the boy to buy at every stop for as long as he could remember. There was a strange, sweetish smell that seemed to follow Hirsch around these days; it settled in the car on that long trip and was there even when Hirsch wasn’t; but Phillip, who, like most travelers’ boys, slept in the car at night, soon got used to it.

They went as far as Francistown, where, all day, while they were in and out of the long line of stores facing the railway station, a truckload of Herero women from further north in the Kalahari Desert sat beside the road in their Victorian dress, turbaned, unsmiling, stiff and voluminous, like a row of tea cozies. They did not go on to Rhodesia. From Francistown they turned back for Johannesburg, with a stop overnight at Palapye Road, so that they could make a detour to Serowe, an African town of round mud houses, dark euphorbia hedges, and tinkling goat bells, where the deposed chief and his English wife lived on a hill in a large house with many bathrooms, but there was no hotel. The hotel in Palapye Road was a fly-screened box on the railway station, and Hirsch spent a bad night among the huffing and blowing of trains taking water and the bursts of stamping — a gigantic Spanish dance — of shunting trains.

THEY left for home early on Friday morning. By hall past five in the afternoon they were flying along toward the outskirts of Johannesburg, with the weary heat of the day blowing out of the windows in whiffs of high land and the sweat suddenly deliciously cool on their hands and foreheads. The row of suits on the rack behind them slid obediently down and up again with each rise and dip accomplished in the turn of the road. The usual landmarks, all in their places, passed unlooked at: straggling, small-enterprise factories, a brickfield, a chicken farm, the rose nursery with the toy Dutch windmill, various gatherings of low, patchy huts and sagging houses — small locations where the blacks who worked round about lived. At one point, the road closely skirted one of these places; the children would wave and shout from where they played in the dirt. Today, quite suddenly, a shower of stones came from them. For a moment Hirsch truly thought that he had become aware of a sudden summer hailstorm; he was always so totally enclosed by the car it would not have been unusual for him not to have noticed a storm rising. He put his hand on the handle that raised the window; instantly, a sharp gray chip pitted the fold of flesh between thumb and first finger.

“Drive on,” he yelled, putting the blood to his mouth. “Drive on!” But his boy, Phillip, had at the same moment seen what he had blundered into. Fifty yards ahead a laboring green bus, its windows, under flapping canvas, crammed with black heads, had lurched to a stop. It appeared to burst as people jumped out at door and windows; from the houses, a jagged rush of more people met them and spread around the bus over the road.

Phillip stopped the car so fiercely that Hirsch was nearly pitched through the windscreen. With a roar the car reversed, swinging off the road sideways into the veld, and then swung wildly around onto the road again, facing where it had come from. The wheel spun in the ferocious, urgent skill of the pink-and-brown hands. Hirsch understood and anxiously trusted; at the feel of the car righting itself, a grin broke through in his boy’s face.

But as Phillip’s suede shoe was coming down on the accelerator, a black hand in a greasy, buttonless coat sleeve seized his arm through the window, and the car rocked with the weight of the bodies that flung and clung against it. When the engine stalled, there was quiet; the hand let go of Phillip’s arm. The men and women around the car were murmuring to themselves, pausing for breath; their power and indecision gave Hirsch the strongest feeling he had ever had in his life, a sheer, pure cleavage of terror that, as he fell apart, exposed — tiny kernel, his only defense, his only hope, his only truth —the will to live. “You talk to them,” he whispered, rapping it out, confidential, desperately confident. “You tell them — one of their own people, what can they want with you? Make it right. Let them take the stuff’. Anything, for God’s sake. You understand me? Speak to them.”

“They can’t want nothing with this car,” Phillip was saying loudly and in a superior tone. “This car is not the government.”

But a woman’s shrill demand came again and again, and apparently it was to have them out. “Get out, come on, get out,” came threateningly, in English, at Hirsch’s window, and at his boy’s side, a heated, fast-breathing exchange in their own language.

Phillip’s voice was injured, protesting, and angry. “What do you want to stop us for? We’re going home from a w7eek selling on the road. Any harm in that? I work for him, and I’m driving back to Jo’burg. Come on, now, clear off. I’m a Congress man myself—” A thin woman broke the hearing with a derisive sound like a shake of castanets at the back of her tongue. “Congress! Everybody can say. Why you’re working?” And a man in a sweat shirt, with a knitted woolen cap on his head, shouted, “Stay-at-home. Nobody but traitors work today. What are you driving the white man for?”

“I’ve just told you, man, I’ve been a week away in Bechuanaland. I must get home somehow, mustn’t I? Finish this, man, let us get on, I tell you.”

They made Hirsch and his boy get out of the car, but Hirsch, watching and listening to the explosive vehemence between his boy and the crowd, clung to the edge of a desperate, icy confidence: the boy was explaining to them — one of their own people. They did not actually hold Hirsch, but they stood around him, men whose nostrils moved in and out as they breathed; big-breasted warriors from the washtub who looked at him, spoke together, and spat; even children, who tilled up the spaces between the legs so that the stirring human press that surrounded him was solid and all alive. “Tell them, can’t you?” he kept appealing, encouragingly.

“Where’s your pass?”

“His pass, his pass!” The women began to yell.

“Where’s your pass?” the man who had caught Phillip through the car window screamed in his face. And he yelled back, too quickly, “I’ve burned it! It’s burned! I’ve finished with the pass!”

The women began to pull at his clothes. The men might have let him go, but the women set upon his fine city clothes as if he were an effigy. They tore and poked and snatched, and there — perhaps they had not really been looking for it or expected it — at once, fell the passbook. One of them ran off with it through the crowd, yelling and holding it high and hitting herself on the breast with it. People began to fight over it, like a souvenir. “Burn! Burn!” “Kill him!” Somebody gave Phillip a felling blow aimed for the back of his neck, but whoever it was was too short to reach the target and the blow caught him on the shoulder blade instead. “O my God, tell them, tell them, your own people!” Hirsch was shouting angrily. With a perfect, hypnotizing swiftness — the moment of survival, when the buck outleaps the arc of its own strength past the lion’s jaws — his boy was in the car, and with a shuddering rush of power, shaking the men off as they came, crushing someone’s foot as the tires scudded madly, drove on.

“Come back!” Hirsch’s voice, although he could not hear it, swelled so thick in his throat it almost choked him. “Come back, I tell you !” Beside him and around him, the crowd ran. Their mouths were wide, and he did not know for whom they were clamoring — himself or the boy.