The Commonwealth Short Story Prize has announced the five regional winners from Africa, Asia, Canada & Europe, Caribbean, and the Pacific regions. In partnership with Commonwealth Writers, Granta is publishing each of the winning stories online this week. This selection showcases the exciting emerging talents, writers who bring a thrilling and essential glimpse of the world and the worlds that are within Britain. Today we bring you the winning entry from the Africa (South Africa), Julian Jackson’s ‘The New Customers’. You can also read an interview with the author here.
I found ‘Die Wawiel’ at the end of town, where the tar ends and the gravel starts. It was a tired looking little bar with a pine-panelled interior, true to its name with a tacky ox-wagon theme. When I went in it was warm and they sold draught beer. It suited me. The barman – I guessed he was the owner – was white, in his late fifties. He brought my beer over without small talk and went back to doing some paperwork on the counter. The only other customers were two black men sitting at the end of the bar a few seats away from me. I could see their leather jackets were cheap and their shoes were worn down, but they had made an effort and looked clean and smart. They wore ironed shirts and trousers with a crisp crease, and one of them sported a trilby hat, slightly tilted to the side. They were murmuring quietly among themselves. It was the winter of 1995, the year after Nelson Mandela became President of South Africa.
I thought about the next day. I would meet the local businessman with my client at eight o’ clock in the morning. My client lived locally and we would meet at the businessman’s farm, a twenty minute drive from my hotel. The negotiations should be reasonably straightforward, since the details of the deal were essentially agreed. With any luck, I might be done with the meeting and on the road back to Johannesburg by lunchtime, and in the suburbs before the afternoon traffic started.
It was almost six o’ clock and getting dark outside. A Toyota Hilux pulled up from the road and parked in one of the diagonal parking bays outside the bar window. The driver came in and a swirl of cold air followed as the door closed. It had been a warm day but the heat fled away after sunset into the clear Highveld sky. The barman greeted the driver in Afrikaans, but he did not reply. Instead, he stood looking at the two black men who were sitting at the bar facing away from him. He stared intently at their backs and after some time he shook his head. Then he moved in my direction and chose a barstool nearby. I greeted him and this time he nodded in acknowledgment. Without waiting for an order, the barman measured out a double brandy, added Coke and then spooned in some ice from a Gilbeys Gin ice bucket. He brought the drink over to the man, who took it and said ‘Dankie.’
Evidently, he was a farmer: khaki safari suit, shorts and matching short-sleeved two-tone shirt in khaki and green. The shirt had an extra flap of cloth covering his shoulders, designed, one imagined, to fend off the African sun and any unseasonal rain that one might encounter on the farmlands. Tan velskoens and long khaki-green socks, pulled up to below the knee, completed his Boer image. I wondered, where did one buy such clothes? Perhaps the agricultural co-operative stores stocked them, alongside cattle feed and irrigation pipes? The farmer’s skin was fair, though its dry texture and sun-moles showed signs of a losing battle against the sun. His blond hair was cut short, a military back-and-sides. He had powerful legs and arms and clothes that looked a size too small for him. I reckoned he weighed at least 110 kilos.
The barman took a bottle of brandy over to the black men, gestured a circle, index finger pointing up, and one of the men nodded in reply. They watched as he poured doubles into their glasses on the counter. Then he pushed the ice bucket towards them and jotted down the tots in a notebook. They took their own ice from the bucket.
The barman made no conversation, keeping to himself except when a drink was required by one of his four customers. After serving he would return to his notebook. In a short time the farmer had ordered twice more, wordlessly holding his empty glass up in the barman’s direction and tilting it slightly back and forth. The barman seemed to take no offence and brought over the required drink. There was a slight urgency about the farmer’s drinking; I sensed he was preoccupied. He made no attempt to talk to me, for which I was grateful. After some time – I had drifted off into my own thoughts – I noticed the conversation of the black men becoming animated, until eventually both laughed out loud. The laugh instantly emphasized the gap between those sitting at one end of the bar and those at the other. I did not know what they had been talking about, but I wondered if they were laughing at the farmer.
In a delayed reaction, the farmer rotated his entire body in a quick movement to face the black men. I saw that the farmer’s neck was reddening, and though his back was to me I could feel him bristling with rising hostility. Something about his body said that he was about to move into a fight. The black men both glanced over at him and although they must have noticed the threat they did not react. Their eyes slid away and they continued speaking quietly. The farmer stared in their direction, but they didn’t return his looks. After a while, he swung back towards the bar and returned his attention to his drink once again, apparently satisfied for the moment that he’d subdued these signs of disorder. With an unexpected sideways look at me the farmer caught me observing him.
‘Do you like them?’ He nodded sideways towards the two black men.
At first I failed to understand, then I realized the farmer was speaking about an entire race.
‘I’ve not met these guys, so I wouldn’t know them.’
I hoped this sounded natural while avoiding the direction of his comment, but then I noticed that the black men had stopped talking and were listening, and I regretted having used his term ‘them’.
‘I don’t like them. They is stuffing everything up. They is stuffing up this country, spoiling it for everybody.’
He paused to reflect on this, then continued.
‘Some of these guys steal three of my cattle on Wednesday. If I find them they pay for what they did.’
He clenched a fist by his side and glared at me, blue eyes fixed, as though warning me, or perhaps the world in general. Again I noticed his arms: he could crush anyone present in the bar without breaking into a sweat.
‘You mean these particular men in the bar stole your cattle?’
I knew I sounded idiotic, but I could not find a voice that seemed right for the situation. It occurred to me that he might think I was mocking him.
‘Them or their uncles or their brothers. They is all related, and all of them likes to steal from us.’
He did not seem to feel mocked. I was unsure what to say next and nodded, as if registering a factual statement which I had not heard before. In contrast to his appearance and the harsh meaning conveyed by his words, he had a surprisingly soft voice, and he rolled his r’s pleasantly like the Cape Afrikaners did. Maybe he was not originally from this area. For an Afrikaans farmer, his English was unexpectedly good.
All the time I could sense the watchful eyes and listening ears at the end of the bar. The barman too looked as if he was listening, though he was now busy rearranging some things behind the counter. Then the bar door opened and another black man came in. He walked straight up to the other two. The three of them spoke to each other quietly in their vernacular. The black man sitting closest to us, the one wearing the hat, got to his feet and the new man took over his barstool. There was more mumbling and then the new man looked over briefly to the farmer and me. The farmer was staring at them in open provocation, and he seemed to be working himself up again. Then the man who had given up his seat walked out. The men continued their conversation quietly. The barman gave me a quick glance. I thought he looked anxious. Then the farmer turned to me, and again nodded his head sideways in the direction of the black men.
‘They is everywhere. You can never get away from them.’
He was expecting a response but I looked at him blankly, waiting for what was to come.
‘You go anywhere you want, you find these guys are there. In the towns, on the farms, doesn’t matter. You go in the bushveld, to the middle of hellandgone, you travel for hundreds of k’s. You find them there. You go for a piss in the bush, one of them pop out from behind a tree. They is everywhere, true’s God.’
Just then the barman began to pour a drink for the newcomer at the end of the bar. The farmer noticed this and, evidently annoyed, turned to address the barman loudly.
‘You even find them in places like this where they is not supposed to be.’
I could now hear the brandies in his voice. He stared at the barman provokingly but the barman finished pouring the drink and then noted it down in his book. He pretended to be entirely preoccupied with this task and ignored the farmer’s comment. But the black men now visibly reacted to the farmer’s more direct offensive: they seemed electrified and alert, and spoke a few words to each other quickly. They were ready for a fight and I noticed there was something experienced about their movements, as if they were practised in confrontation. They looked as if they meant business and they did not seem to be afraid of the farmer despite his vast size and his aggression. They were waiting for the farmer’s next move. It struck me then that they might have guns under their jackets and as I considered the implications of this, metallic-tasting fear gushed into my mouth. But the farmer did not rise to the men, he simply ignored them, as one might ignore snarling dogs which ought to calm down if left alone. Then he addressed me again, as if all was quite normal.
‘You got a overseas passport?’
I had my eye on the black men, and both men had their eyes on the farmer. They did not make any movement or sound. Was his question a strategic retreat? I thought any distraction would be a good thing.
‘Yes, I have, but also a South African passport. I have dual nationality.’
The farmer’s expression became serious.
He nodded at me significantly, in case I did not appreciate this.
‘If the situation in this place get too bad you souties all go overseas. But I got my farm in this place.’
I assumed he meant the Afrikaans term ‘salties’ to be an insult: one foot in South Africa and the other overseas, private parts dangling in the salty sea. Perhaps the insult was not directed at me individually, it was just what he thought of English-speaking people in general. I did not respond. He looked preoccupied for a moment, then he called the barman – this time by his name – and ordered another drink. He continued to ignore the black men as if they were not there. They were observing him closely. The barman poured the brandy and as he did offered a mild smile to the farmer – but he got no response.
The black men continued to be watchful but I sensed they were not seeking a confrontation. Eventually, they turned away from the farmer and resumed a quiet conversation, casting an occasional eye in his direction. But the farmer was focusing on his drink. The mood had changed, and I felt there would be no confrontation tonight. The farmer looked tired and drunk.
There seemed to be nothing for me to do or say. I decided to leave and paid my tab. As the barman took the money from me his look said, that was close. Outside, the shop windows were dark and only a few street lights were on. It was cold now. The parking bays on the side of the street were empty, except for the farmer’s Hilux and a minivan taxi parked a few metres away from the bar entrance. I wondered if it had been there on my way in. Its sliding side-door was open onto the pavement and I could hear African pop music playing. As I approached the van I could see six or seven people sitting on the benches inside. They were sharing quart bottles of Black Label beer. I recognized the man with the trilby hat who had traded places with the newcomer in the bar; he was sitting near the doorway of the van smoking a cigarette. I thought, they must be taking turns going to drink inside the bar. The mood in the van was serious, despite the music and the beer, and I thought of soldiers on the eve of a battle. They watched me silently as I walked past.
Photograph by Kalyan Chakravarthy