Radium Nights (73k wds) is a highly-accessible read, ribald and comic, which is neither Science Fiction nor a short story collection.
It is a composite novel, as defined by Dunn and Morris (1995): A literary work composed of shorter texts that – although individually complete and autonomous – are interrelated in a coherent whole according to one or more organising principles.
The novel is set in a famous Joburg pub where the recently-widowed hero treats his broken heart with Tassenberg. He is Kyle Callant (31), a struggling photographer. His search for a new love is the mainspring of the frame story. In the Radium, Callant hears 19 interlinked first-person accounts, which unfold into a vast social, mythological, geographic and historical portrait of the city and Southern Africa. Some of the tales are non-fiction – but the author refuses to say which. Here’s a sample:
CHAPTER FIVE: THE AVIATOR’S TALE
I grew up in the southern suburbs, said Rocky. I was an only child, and we lived in a red brick semi-detached. The Old Man had a gammy leg from the War; he was a fitter and turner. Ma worked in the OK. I used to read the Outspan; Ma read the Huisgenoot. The Old Man had no time for reading – not with his pigeons. But he loved Springbok Radio.
We had problems, but no big worries about South Africa, if you know what I mean. Maybe ignorance is bliss. But when I think back, it was a kind of golden age. Weekends we went to swim at a plesieroord with a foefieslaaid. Kids drank Hubbly-Bubbly and Sparletta Cream Soda – too much made you piss green, like Dr McKenzie’s Veinoids. The Old Man used to swear by them, the Veinoids.
I was keen on bike racing. Those were the days of Bobby Fowler and Jimmy Swift, Abe Jonker and Jan Hettema. I did holiday jobs and saved up to buy high-pressure wheels from Mr Huth at Deale and Huth, then joined Rand Roads as a junior. We used to race on the track at Malvern Stadium. One time I was fifth in the Devil-Take-the-Hindmost at Hector Norris Park. But when I was an appie at eighteen it was motorbikes all the way. I started with a second hand 250 Francis Barnett, and the big jollers had 500 Triumphs and Nortons. Sex, zol and rock n’ roll, ek sê. To say nothing of goengaai. Charcoal jacket and fourteen-inch stovepipes with a pink shirt and blue suede Tom-Toms. I used to Brylcreem my hair into a cowlick like Bill Haley; later a duck’s arse like Elvis.
We called ourselves jollers, and spoke joller-talk. Your bike was your bonny, and your girlfriend was your crow – or your goose. If you wanted to borrow a skyf, which was a smoke, from your mate, you’d say: “Work us a wagon, ou pellie.” I remember so many dances, so many fights. No guns, hardly ever a knife. We tried to stay away from the Hells Angels in Hillbrow, but we had big bloodshed with the Lebs and the Porras. They were decent guys really, not like the lahnee gangsters from the northern suburbs. The dirtiest fighters were the St Johns boys. I suppose they were learning from their fathers how to boss up the country. When it ended in court they’d sit there like clean-cut young victims in square hairstyles, blazers and wide flannels with turn ups. And Daddy’s lawyer to get them off, ja.
We used to go through to Alexandra township for the music and the boom. It was still too early for apartheid to have made everything seem shameful and dangerous. Those black guys made us welcome. And there was a lot going on – jazz, rock and kwela. Spokes Mashiyane was the king. We could all dance the kwela, the pennywhistle jive. Shake our knees. I thought jazz at the Orange Grove Hotel with Dan Hill and Archie Silansky would last for ever. And then I discovered what I really wanted to do.
It started with Ma’s little brother, Uncle Ekkie. He went up to the Copperbelt in Northern Rhodesia and worked his arse off on Nchanga Mine for four years. And every year he got a huge copper bonus – so he had plenty of tom when he came down at Christmas. Once he drove all the way home in a brand new midnight-blue Austin Healey 100-4. He put it up on blocks and flew back on a Viscount.
And when he finally came home for good and started his own business, he bought himself a plane. You see, he’d been in the flying club at Nchanga, and logged a few hours on De Havilland Tiger Moths and Chipmunks. He had this bright yellow Tiger Moth which he got cheap and kept at Rand Airport. And the day that changed my life was the Sunday old Ekkie took me for a flip in his 1940 DH 82 biplane, just before my twentieth birthday. I helped him get it out of the hangar. He asked me to hold the tail off the ground while he pushed behind the wing to roll the Tiger out into the sunshine.
Ekkie shouted at me not to lift the tail too high, or the plane would tip forward onto its nose. When he put chocks on the wheels, I asked if it didn’t have a handbrake. “It’s got no brakes at all,” says Ekkie. ”Asiku!” He helped me climb into the front cockpit under the top wing; there’s a little door in the left side that lets down to make it easier. Uncle Ekkie bopha’d me into the Sutton harness – two webbing straps from below that went over my legs, and two from behind that came over my shoulders. They all had brass eyelets that went over a big metal peg on my lap, with a quick-release split pin through it to keep everything in place, nice and tight.
I couldn’t see much except the compass between my legs and the control column, of course. And the instrument panel, which didn’t mean much to me at that stage of my life. Meanwhile Ekkie got into the cockpit behind me and one of his mates swung the prop. Ekkie warmed up the engine, then it was chocks away.
We taxied, and I couldn’t see over the nose of the plane. Ekkie revved up and I felt the tail rise off the runway. But I still couldn’t see over the engine cowling. Then, like the French pilots say, we came unstuck from the ground. It was pure magic. There was and is nothing else like it – nothing! It was a bit like a motorbike; same wind, same engine noise, same hot-oil smell and vibrations – but it was like going to heaven.
You know, I’ve handled lots of planes, I’ve logged a few hours and no mistake. But that first flip was the best of all – like losing your virginity, man. I just wanted to go on for ever, doing circuits on a glorious afternoon. I was looking out to the left side, with my head in the slipstream, watching the side of the runway come closer. I felt the wheels touch, and saw the stick come back as the tail sank to the ground.
And all of a sudden I knew what I was meant to do in life. For the next few hours I was beyond excitement. All I wanted to know was when I could start flying lessons, and what I’d have to do to afford them. I was going to be a pilot – even if it took murder. My early life was over-scodover.
Okay, it’s my round. Got it. None of your nonsense, have a bottle on me. Smiley! If you’d be so kind – two double Klippies-en-Coke, one catemba and a new bottle of Tassies. Look, I’m not going to bore you ouens. I could go on for hours before I get to the awful tragedy, but let’s keep it short.
The next big scene was the day of my solo. I went up for an hour with my instructor. I had nearly ten hours in my logbook, and I was hoping he’d let me go solo that day. We did a couple of spins, and I showed him I knew how to recover. That plane is very forgiving when you make a bugger-up; it stalls gently and you lose fifty feet at most. Look, it has its little problems, like having to take off and fly without really seeing where the fuck you’re going. And to taxi that thing on throttle and rudder is an art, with no brakes. But in those days it was all I knew, and I was happy as a pig in shit.
The instructor gave me a quiz, then said there was no crosswind to speak of, and not much traffic, so I might as well do my solo. The fuel was still turned on, and there were about twelve gallons left in the tank, which was above the front cockpit, between the upper wings. We’d checked the oil earlier, during the walk around. It was a funny old engine, the Gypsy Moth – air-cooled, and upside down compared to a car, with the crank at the top. The two-bladed prop was a massive wooden thing, as long as a tall man.
I strapped myself in, and checked that all switches were off. I primed the engine, and my instructor pulled the prop through four forward rotations, then back against the compression a couple of times. He shouted to me, and I opened the throttle a little and turned on the magneto switches. Then he swung the prop and stepped back. She fired, and I kept the revs at 1000 for a couple of minutes till the engine warmed. The oil pressure came up nicely. I checked the magnetos again, and blipped the throttle to 2000 rpm. That was the max.
My instructor pulled the chocks away and I got the thumbs up. I had trimmed ⅔ forward because I was in the rear cockpit. You could see even less from there. It was my good luck that I was facing the right way to start with and it was a very still afternoon; rudder steering was enough to get me to the end of the runway at 1000 rpm. I stuck my head out the left side to check that I was lined up, and kept my eye on the side of the runway. I revved up to 2000 rpm, saw the oil pressure was a healthy forty, and pushed the stick gently forward. The tail left the ground, and I pulled the stick back a bit.
I’d done it all before a dozen times before from the front cockpit, with my instructor squawking at me through the Gosport speaking tube, which was like an old-fashioned hearing trumpet and a stethoscope – connected by a garden hose. But now there was only the roar of the engine as she sailed off the strip at 45 knots. The Tiger just lifts itself into the air. Man, it was schweet!
When I was safely off the ground I throttled back and checked airspeed was 65 knots, then watched the rate of climb indicator. The old Moth you have to fly all the way; hand on the stick, feet on the rudder bar. No time to relax. But once you get the hang of it, it’s great. I went round the circuit, and came in too high, so I sideslipped and got lined up. I throttled back to 50 knots and and let her sink to the runway. After the wheels touched, I pulled the stick back all the way, which tilted the elevator up and brought the tail wheel down to the dry, yellow highveld grass.
Then I taxied straight in. But I was so scared of hitting something on the ground that I stopped a long way short of the hangar. I cut the fuel and let her tick over for a couple of minutes while I went through all my checks. Then I cut the mags and opened the throttle to stop the engine. I needed help to push the Tiger all the way back into the hangar, but I was such a happy camper that day. The instructor stood me a beer, and so did Uncle Ekkie. That was one of the days of my life. The grand catastrophe was yet to come.
A week later it was Easter, and on the Friday afternoon we all flew down to Portuguese East for an international air show. Ekkie took me in the Tiger. Two guys brought most of our luggage by road, in a Ford Fairlane and a Humber Super Snipe. The Tiger was just as thirsty as those big old cars, about fifteen miles per gallon. The Humber actually puza’d more petrol than the plane – wil jy nou meer? Ekkie and I started with a full tank of nineteen imperial gallons which gave us a range of about 275 miles. That would have been cutting it a bit fine from Joburg to Lourenço Marques, so we landed at Witbank to top up and take a slash.
We touched down to a big welcome from the Aero Club guys. They gave us a drinks party in the evening and served prawns for Africa. We didn’t know a word of Portuguese, but I quickly learned that ‘now fashmal’ means ‘moenie werrie nie‘. The next day was humid, but with a little sea breeze. Funny how a highveld boy can taste the salt on his tongue, even if the beach is miles away. The air show programme started at 11h00 with a brass band, and the whole town was there.
Including lots of crows. You know what the girls used to wear in those days? They had these little cardigans, and a dozen sugared petticoats to fluff out the skirts of their gingham shirtwaisters. Ja, they used to dip all those petticoats in sugar-water to stiffen them and make them rustle. But underneath the petticoats was the problem. The real sugar was wrapped up tight – even in the heat of summer – in an elasticated tubular thing called the two-way stretch step-in, with straps and clips to keep the nylons up.
Even with enthusiastic cooperation, in the back row of the drive-in, you’d never get that fucken foundation garment thing off! It was the chastity belt of the Fifties, ek sê. That was many years before they invented pantyhose. I think the step-in must have gone out when the Pill came in.
Now just imagine all those Portuguese petticoat girls. Giggling, tossing their curls and ponytails, flapping their eyelashes, tilting their heads sideways, fussing with their hair, posing with their feet turned out at ninety degrees in ballet slippers. There was a dance advertised at the club for that night and all those sugared petticoats made us jags. I don’t know what we were hoping to achieve, with the language barrier and all, but you can’t blame an ouk for trying.
Most of the goosies were in a big klomp, listening to a handsome guy with big brown eyes who was tjaafing them. They were smitten – like the tannies who used to surround Tromp van Diggelen at platteland agricultural shows. This ouk was the aerobatic champion and he was on at three in the afternoon with his Tiger Moth. They kept advertising him over the Tannoy for three o’ clock, saying “tresh oarash”, whch is pork-and-cheese for 15h00. So we called him Tresh Oarash.
The guy had cowboy boots, jeans, a leather lummie with chrome studs all over, and a blue silk scarf nogal. A blerrie Brylcreem ad. Ekkie makes a plan, to get to know the girls. He tjoens me I must go over and ask Tresh Oarash please won’t he give me his autograph ’cause I’m a fan of his.
My instructor says, “Say you read about him in the Joburg papers. I scheme Old Tresh Oarash has such a swollen head he’ll sommer lap that up. Get talking to him, and then you can tjaaf some of those crows for us, okay?”
The plan works one hundred per cent. Tresh Oarash speaks English with a Yankee accent and he signs the air show programme for me. I tell him I did my solo in a Tiger the week before. Then I get talking to the goosies in basic English. Next thing I know, Tresh Oarash has invited me to come with – when he does his aerobatic display. I can hardly back out, can I? The guys tell me I did well, and Ekkie says I’d better have a light lunch – nothing too greasy or fruity. And no beans.
So at 15h00 I’m strapped into the front cockpit of a Portuguese-built Tiger. I’m sitting on an old cushion, which goes where the wartime parachute used to fit. We take off into a sea breeze, heading out over the Indian Ocean. Then we come back to make a low pass over the Aero Club. Moerava low. According to Ekkie, Tresh Oarash is blowing kisses to the tjerries as we go past them, just above stalling speed. He gains some altitude and does a spin, then a couple of stall turns. We climb to 1500 feet and go for a loop. The engine is up to 2000 revs and we’re hitting 100 knots in a dive. He eases the stick back and round we go. I can feel the cushion squash under my bum at first – then my stomach gets left behind as we go vertical. When we’re upside down I suddenly drop six inches off the cushion before the harness catches me, which is a skrik I wasn’t expecting.
But that’s nothing to the shock I get when the roof of the Aero Club appears directly in front of me 1000 feet below, with the Tiger in a vertical dive at full throttle. Man, you’re supposed to throttle back at the top of a loop. 105 knots – and I scheme the wings are going to tear off. Half of me knows something very bad is going on; the other half takes command – I throttle back and pull the stick toward me. There is no resistance to the controls.
I’m thinking that Tresh Oarash has passed out, maybe got the gripes or spuitkak from a vrot prawn, or fainted with the G force, perhaps even threw a thrombie like my Oupa in Walkerville. I manage to pull out of the dive at 500 feet and carry on out over the sea. I tell you, ouens – it was the longest ten seconds of my whole life. I turn back and come in for a downwind landing on the nearest end of the strip, cause I’m in such a panic. And this is where I fuck up big time.
It’s humid, at sea level, with a grass strip much softer than Rand Airport – and a gusting tailwind. I touch down gently enough, and throttle back to an idle. But the tail doesn’t sink like it’s supposed to do with the stick all the way back. What I don’t know is that you’re supposed to shove the stick forward when landing in a tailwind. Because with full up elevator, it only takes a little puff from behind to flip a rolling Tiger Moth arse over tit.
I’ve got the stick right back to my balls, praying for the tail to drop. But she just runs on for what seems like a lifetime, slowly comes to a standstill – and tips onto her nose. The prop starts battering itself to splinters, digging into the ground, which kills the engine. Now I’m frantic – I’m hanging in the harness, going blue in the face, and I can smell avgas. First I cut the fuel and the mags, then brace my left arm on the top edge of the cockpit and pull the harness pin. I half fall, half jump clear of the plane. The tail is pointing to the sky, the nose is buried in the dirt – and the rear cockpit is empty.
You know the old song? “They scraped him off the tarmac like a lump of strawberry jam…” That was Tres Oarash. Sowaar. He hit right next to the girls, and they had to cancel the dance. At the inquiry it came out that two of the canvas straps on his old Sutton harness were perished, and had failed at the top of the loop. And the one good shoulder strap was not pinned down. The verdict was that the pilot had loosened the top straps to blow kisses but had failed to resecure one of them properly. When the plane reached the inverted position, his full body weight had dropped on the perished shoulder strap, and one of the lap straps had also given way under the strain.
But if you ask me for my verdict on the cause of death, I have to say it was sugared petticoats.