Excerpt from The House Gun by Nadine Gordimer. Copyright © 1998 by Felix Licensing, B.V. To be published in January, 1998 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.
Something terrible happened.
They are watching it on the screen with their after-dinner coffee cups beside them. It is Bosnia or Somalia or the earthquake shaking a Japanese island between apocalytic teeth like a dog; whatever were the disasters of that time. When the intercom buzzes each looks to the other with a friendly reluctance; you go, your turn. It's part of the covenant of living together. They made the decision to give up the house and move into this townhouse complex with grounds maintained and security-monitored entrance only recently and they are not yet accustomed, or rather are inclined momentarily to forget that it's not the barking of Robbie and the old-fangled ring of the front door bell that summons them, now. No pets allowed in the complex, but luckily there was the solution that theirs could go to their son who has a garden cottage.
He, she--twitch of a smile, he got himself up with langhuor directed at her and went to lift the nearest receiver. Who, she half-heard him say, half-listening to the commentary following the images, Who. It could be someone wanting to convert to some religious sect, or the delivery of a summons for a parking offence, casual workers did this, moon-lighting. He said something else she didn't catch but she heard the purr of the electronic release button.
What he said then was, Do you know who a Julian-somebody might be? Friend of Duncan?
He, she--they didn't, either of them. Nothing unusual about that, Duncan, twenty-seven years old, had his own circle just as his parents had theirs, and these intersected only occasionally where interests, inculcated in him as a child by his parents, met.
What does he want?
Just said to speak to us.
Both at the same instant were touched by a live voltage of alarm. What is there to fear, defined in the known context of a twenty-seven-year-old in this city--a car crash, a street mugging, a violent break-in at the cottage. Both stood at the door, confronting these, confronting the footsteps they heard approaching their private paved path beneath the crossed swords of Strelitzia leaves, the signal of the second buzzer, and this young man, come from? for? Duncan. He stared at the floor as he came in, so they couldn't read him. He sat down without a word.
He, she--whose turn.
There's been an accident?
She's a doctor, she sees what the ambulances bring in to Intensive Care. If something's broken she can gauge whether it ever can be put together again.
This Julian draws in his lips over his teeth and clamps his mouth, a moment.
A kind of ... Not Duncan, no no! Someone's been shot. He's arrested. Duncan.
They both stand up.
For God's sake--what are you talking about--what is all this--how arrested, arrested for what--
The messenger is attacked, he becomes almost sullen, unable to bear what he has to tell. The obscene word comes ashamedly from him. Murder.
Everything has come to a stop. What can be understood is a car crash, a street mugging, a violent break-in.
He/she. He strides over and switches off the television. And expels a violent breath. So long as nobody moved, nobody uttered, the word and the act within the word could not enter here. Now with the touch of a switch and the gush of a breath a new calendar is opened. The old Gregorian cannot register this day. It does not exist in that means of measure.
This Julian now tells them that a magistrate was called `after hours' (he gives the detail with the weight of its urgent gravity) to lay a charge at the police station and bail was refused. That is the practical purpose of his visit: Duncan says, Duncan says, Duncan's message is that there's no point in their coming, there's no point in trying for bail, he will appear in court on Monday morning. He has his own lawyer.
He/she. She has marked the date on patients' prescriptions a dozen times since morning but she turns to find a question that will bring some kind of answer to that word pronounced by the messenger. She cries out.
What day is it today?
It was on a Friday.
It is probable that neither of the Lindgards had ever been in a court before. During the forty-eight hours of the weekend of waiting they had gone over every explanation possible in the absence of being able to talk to him, their son, himself. Because of the preposterousness of the charge they felt they had to respect his instruction that they not visit him; this must indicate that the whole business was ridiculous, that's it, horribly ridiculous, his own ridiculous affair, soon to be resolved, better not given the confirmation of being taken in alarm by mother and father arriving at a prison accompanied by their lawyer, states of high emotion etc. That was the way they brought themselves to read his injunction; a mixture between consideration for them--no need to be mixed up in the business--and the independence of the young he had been granted and asserted in mutual understanding since he was an adolescent.
But dread attends the unknown. Dread was a drug that came to, them both not out of something administered from her pharmacopoeia; they calmly walked without anything to say to one another along the corridors of the courts, Harald standing back for his wife Claudia with the politeness of a stranger as they found the right door, entered and shuffled awkwardly sideways to be seated on the benches.
The very smell of the place was that of a foreign country to which they were deported. The odour of polished wooden barriers and waxed floor. The windows above head height, sloping down searchlights. The uniforms occupied by men with the impersonality of cult members, all interchangeable. The presence of a few figures seated somewhere near, the kind who stare from park benches or lie face-down in public gardens. The mind dashes from what confronts it, as a bird that has flown into a confined space does, there must be an opening. Harald collided against the awareness of school, too far back to be consciously remembered; institutional smell and hard wood under his buttocks. Even the name of a master was blundered into; nothing from the past could be more remote than this present. In a flick of attention he saw Claudia rouse from her immobility to disconnect the beeper that kept her in touch with her surgery. She felt the distraction and turned her head to read his oblique glance nothing. She gave the stiff smile with which one greets somebody one isn't sure one knows.
He comes up from the well of a stairway between two policemen. Duncan. Can it be? He has to be recognized in a persona that doesn't belong to him, as they know him, have always known him--and who could identify him better? He is wearing black jeans and a black cotton T-shirt. The kind of clothes he customarily wears, but the neat collar of a white shirt is turned down outside the neck of the T-shirt. They both notice this, it's an unspoken focus of attention between them; this is the detail, token submission to the conventions expected by a court, that
fs20makes the connection of reality between the one they knew, him, and this other, flanked by policemen.
A blast of heat came over Harald, confusion like anxiety or anger, but neither. Some reaction that never before has had occasion to be called up.
Duncan, yes. He looked at them, acknowledging himself. Claudia smiled at him with lifted head, for everyone to see. And he inclined his head to her. But he did not look at his parents directly again during the proceedings that followed, except as his controlled, almost musing glance swept over them as it went round the public gallery across the two young black men with their legs sprawled relaxedly before them, the old white man sitting forward with his head in his hands, and the family group, probably wandered in bewildered to pass the time before a case that concerned them came up, who were whispering among themselves of their own affairs.
The magistrate made his stage entrance, all fidgeted to their feet, sank again. He was tall or short, bald or not--doesn't matter, there was the hitch of shoulders under the voluminous gown and, his hunch lowered over papers presented to him, he made a few brief comments in the tone of questions addressed to the tables in the well of the court where the backs of what presumably were the prosecutor and defence lawyer presented themselves to the gallery. Under the ladders of light tilted down, policemen on errands came in and out conferring in hoarse whispers, the rote of proceedings concluded. Duncan Peter Lindgard was committed for trial on a charge of murder. A second application for bail was refused.
Over. But beginning. The parents approached the barrier between the gallery and the well of the court and were not prevented from contact with the son. Each embraced him while he kept his head turned from their faces.
Do you need anything?
It's just not on, the young lawyer was saying, I'm serving notice to contest the refusal, right now, Duncan. I won't let the prosecutor get away with it. Don't worry.
This last said to her, the doctor, in exactly the tone of reassurance she herself would use with patients of whose prognosis she herself was not sure.
The son had an air of impatience, the shifting gaze of one who wished the well-meaning to leave; an urgent need of some preoccupation, business with himself. They could read it to mean confidence; of his innocence--of course; or it could be a cover for dread, akin to the dread they had felt, concealing his dread out of pride, not wanting to be associated with theirs. He was now officially an accused, on record as such. The accused has a status of dread that is his own, hasn't he!
I'll see to everything, Duncan needs--the lawyer squeezed his client's shoulder as he swung a briefcase and was off.
If there was nothing, then ...
Nothing. Nothing they could ask, not what is it all about, what is it you did, you are supposed to have done?
His father took courage: Is he really a competent lawyer? We could get someone else. Anyone.
A good friend.
I'll get in touch with him later, find out what happened when he saw the prosecutor.
The son will know that his father means money, he'll be ready to supply surety for the contingency that it is impossible to believe has arisen between them, money for bail.
He turns away--the prisoner, that's what he is now--in anticipation of the policemen's move to order him to, he doesn't want them to touch him, he has his own volition, and his mother's clasp just catches the ends of his fingers as he goes.
They see him led down the stairwell to whatever is there beneath the court. As they make to leave Court B17 they become aware that the other friend, the messenger Julian, has been standing just behind them to assure Duncan of his presence but not wanting to intrude upon those with the closest claims. They greet him and walk out together with him but do not speak. He feels guilty about his mission, that night, and hurries ahead.