Stowaway

 

by Richard de Nooy

Brother Niftistow was lost in the dead of night on the icy hairpin pass between Liberec and Rokytnice nad Jizerou in the high north of the Czech Republic. Tired and frozen, he must have slipped off the roof and tumbled down a steep embankment, spilling tools along the way until he struck a tree and sank slowly into the pristine snow.

There were seven of us when we left our home in Azania. But that was more than twenty years ago. Perhaps the cloudburst and pandemonium that accompanied our departure were portents of the hardships we were to face – the loss, the trauma, the neglect.

On our way to the airport, the Man and his brother discovered that the windscreen wipers of their mother’s car were faulty. ‘Intermittent’ is not a good setting when one is driving through the world’s longest carwash. The Man latched onto the tail lights of the car ahead and he and his brother, who were not avid conversationalists at the best of times, restricted their exchanges to two exclamations: ‘Fuck this’ and ‘Jesus’. They were duly punished for the latter on arrival at the airport where the Man realised he had forgotten to bring along his winter coat. This omission was understandable, as it was midsummer in Azania, but would be unforgivable when he arrived in Amsterdam where it was midwinter. The Man’s brother offered to drive home and fetch the coat, suggesting that the Man check in for his flight in the meantime. In their haste, however, they forgot to unload us. And so we were driven back home through the blinding rain, while the Man stood eating his ticket at the check-in desk, berating himself, God, genetics and all things Azanian.

When we were eventually reunited, minutes before the check-in deadline, we were drenched and muddy. The Man’s brother had loaded us onto a trolley, but had rammed a pavement to avoid an oncoming car as he dashed across the flooded parking lot. Owing to our sleek synthetic hide, we slipped lithely off the trolley into the brown rapids that gurgled at the mouth of a drain. Fortunately, the Man’s brother was swift and nimble; otherwise we would have lost Brother Handistow there and then.

We were rapidly reloaded and rushed into the departure hall where the Man’s brother delivered us, sealing our fate with a demonic blessing: ‘Jesus, fuck this luggage!’ The brothers laughed and clumsily embraced for the first time. The Man began transferring us to the belt, cursing through his nose. He was too preoccupied to see his brother turn and stifle a wave in midair, before stepping through the sliding doors into the rain.

And so we got off to a very bad start. In fact, we had gone from bad to worse, because the Man had disliked us from the moment we were presented to him by his mother, a diminutive but powerful woman with a neat helmet of silver hair and bright eyes that twinkled ferociously behind her spectacles. She never raised her voice, but her words always echoed long after they had been spoken. When he questioned our worth, his mother pursed her lips, forming the little wrinkled volcano that always spelt trouble.

‘You’ll come to see how handy they are, believe me,’ she said.

‘They’ll remind me of your hair,’ said the Man.

‘None of your nonsense now,’ said his mother, who had effectively used this admonition on high-ranking Nazi officers trying to commandeer Dutch schools, as well as errant toddlers trying to get out of swimming lessons. Without wasting another word, she donned her wetsuit and made her way out to the pool, leaving the Man to work out how seven odd-shaped brothers could best be used to transport the selected remains of one life into the next.

 

‘Very nice,’ said the stewardess.

‘A gift from my mother,’ said the Man.

‘Aren’t those the ones that—’

‘Yes, you can zip them up into nifty little parcels, but you can’t actually fit anything into them,’ said the Man.

The stewardess giggled. (Perhaps the Man’s mother had been right.) ‘Are you going for always?’ she asked.

‘Pardon?’ said the Man.

‘This is a one-way ticket.’

‘Yes. Amsterdam. For good.’

‘Very nice place. And your mother?’

‘She’s staying here.’

‘She is sad?’

‘Probably. I never asked.’

‘She is sad,’ said the stewardess, nodding her conviction. Then she pressed a button and we were conveyed into darkness.

 

The Man was furious the next time he saw us. He almost missed his bus waiting for us to be reunited. Other passengers had a single suitcase, sometimes two or three, but the Man was lumped with a set of six. (Brother Ministow had been slotted snugly inside Brother Maxistow.) The Man wrenched us from the carousel and slammed us onto a trolley, then rushed out into the tracked and dirty snow, trying in vain to hang on to all our handles and straps with one hand while he pushed with the other.

The driver of the bus to Amsterdam was already closing the baggage compartment when the Man rushed up with cold sweat on his back and vapour smoking from his mouth, a constant reminder of his craving for a cigarette. The driver shook his head when the Man asked if he was allowed to smoke on board. ‘Better djoo smock it now. Und vee stopping in Bruxelles, Antverpen, Breda und Utrecht,’ said the driver. The Man’s heart sank: luggage would be offloaded at every stop, offering ample opportunity for one of us to slip away unnoticed. And so he became a sharp-eyed, smoking collie at every stop, guarding his flock of silver sheep.

Unfortunately, the Man was distracted on arrival in Amsterdam, which was when we lost Brother Omnistow, who was too small for bigger things and too big for smaller things and had therefore been assigned to carry underpants and T-shirts. The Man did not see who took Bra Omni. He was too busy greeting his aunt, who had come to meet him at the bus station. He noticed the theft only when he loaded us into his aunt’s car. He decided not to mention the incident, not only because it was annoying and embarrassing, but also because his aunt closely resembled his mother, which meant there was a good chance she would have a very clear opinion on the Man’s lack of regard for the security of his property.

Safely ensconced in his new room, the Man’s conscience continued to nag: what had made Bra Omni so appealing to the thief? Was it his size? His shape? Had he strayed too far from the flock? The Man wondered whether he should report the theft to the police. What would he tell his mother? And then it dawned on him that he wouldn’t have to tell her. He would simply go out and buy new underwear and T-shirts, with his own money, for the very first time. In fact, the Man relished the thought of celebrating his sartorial independence the very next day. He was to discover that you can learn a great deal about a city by going in search of the cheapest underwear. His quest ended at a nearby market, where he bought three black T-shirts (the first he had ever owned) and two three-packs of underpants. When the Man asked the vendor if he had black-only packs, the vendor smiled and said, ‘That’s not how it works here,’ as if he was sharing some snippet of arcane wisdom. And so the Man accepted that for the foreseeable future he would be wearing black, white or mauve scants. Fortunately, he soon found that almost any colour, including mauve, looks cool under a black T-shirt.

This marked the start of a brief, low-risk period for the Brotherhood of Azanian Baggage. The Man unpacked the remnants of his former life, zipped us up into hyper-handy little packages, placed us inside Brother Niftistow, and then shoved us under the bed. We saw little action, except when the Man’s aunt moved us to vacuum under the bed. Sometimes she even took the trouble to unzip Bra Nifti to check if we were still safe and sound inside. And so it was that she discovered the small bag of pungent herbs the Man had entrusted to us. This led to a sharp but civil tête-à-tête between the Man and his aunt, which ushered in his departure soon thereafter.

When the Man unzipped us and began packing, we discovered that almost all of our original contents had been replaced by local ware. Bright colours had turned to murky black and grey. Brother Shoestow was made to carry grimy combat boots as well as a pair of steel-trimmed cowboy boots, while the Man pranced around in feather-light, patent-leather winkle-pickers. To top it all, the suit I had so proudly carried – worn once only: to the Man’s matric dance – had been replaced by a heavy duffel coat and two long-sleeved shirts that reeked of stale smoke and patchouli. It was as if the Man wanted to erase every last trace of the beach boy he had once been, so that he could blend into his new habitat as swiftly as possible.

The Man’s metamorphosis had certainly lightened his load. He did not need a trolley or any other assistance to carry us. He simply gathered our handles, slung us over the shoulder of his leather jacket and walked out to the waiting taxi – the first he had ever beckoned personally. He took great pride in politely directing the driver to the first of a series of addresses he would inhabit temporarily and illegally. Yes, illegally. The Man’s mother would have had a thing or two to say about that. But the Man’s new friends convinced him that even white Azanian freedom fighters had every right to demand a temporary and illegal roof over their heads, and the Man had not taken the trouble to contradict them.

Despite the Man’s new and somewhat cavalier attitude to property, the Brotherhood of Azanian Baggage was never really at risk, not even during the Man’s three-month tour of France. Perhaps our safety was ensured by the boundless squalor that prevailed in the cantankerous VW Combi the Man had purchased with a friend. Few thieves are tempted to steal a vagrant’s knapsack. We were left unguarded in the bleakest streets of Lille, Paris, Lyon, Marseille, Narbonne and Nice, but even the most desperate criminals passed us by.

The real risk awaited us when we returned to the lowlands, where the Man met the woman who would go on to torch Brother Handistow.

She seemed very nice at first – helpful, warm, generous, loving. So much so, in fact, that the Man gave up his illegal digs and moved in with Miss Sweet. But little by little the Man found himself giving up his newfound freedom to ensure that Miss Sweet did not bring out her evil twin, Miss Bitter, who was helpless, cold, calculating and spiteful. After a running battle lasting several weeks, Miss Bitter was on the warpath, seeking vengeance. She chanced upon Brother Handistow, zipped him open and found the letters the Man had received from friends and previous lovers, as well as a cache of irreplaceable Instamatic snapshots of the Man in various states of inebriation and undress, embracing men and women seemingly at random. Miss Bitter could not bear the thought that Bra Handi might some day carry her letters and snapshots. And so she took him out into the yard, sprayed lighter fluid on him and struck a match.

It took a while for the smoke to filter through to the attic where the Man was working. When he saw the smouldering blaze in his garden, he thumped downstairs but was too late to save Bra Handi, whose charred remains were lost forever along with some of the Man’s fondest Azanian memories. But the Man seemed unperturbed, mainly because he now had a very good reason to leave Miss Bitter.

It was during this next move that Maxistow, our biggest brother, was mortally wounded. The Man made him carry all his paperwork, which included the accumulated flotsam and jetsam of four years in academia. As they made their way down the narrow stairs, Brother Maxistow was overcome by the heavy load, his strap snapped and he tumbled down onto the landing. His zip split from end to end and he lay bleeding extracts, essays and whatnot, until the Man returned with several plastic bags into which he stuffed some of Bra Maxi’s entrails.

Bra Maxi went on to serve as a wastepaper carrier for several years. He was eventually put out of his misery when the Man moved in with the woman who was to become his wife. This Bluebird of Happiness loved to travel; my smaller brothers, Niftistow and Ministow, were put to very good use and often disappeared for weeks on end, returning with tales of high adventure. I listened with gnawing envy and cursed my own inconvenience and the Man’s preference for casual wear.

There was, however, a brief glimmer of hope when the Man and his Bluebird produced their first offspring. The Man needed a bag to carry the baby’s blankets on their trip to Azania, where they would visit the Man’s mother. He dug down deep in the luggage drawer and pulled me up by my strap. He laughed when he saw me and showed me to his wife.

‘I’d forgotten I had this!’ he said.

‘Suitstow?!’ she laughed.

‘It’s part of that set my mother bought me, remember? I use the smaller ones for tools and toiletries.’

‘That thing is useless. And those other two are disgusting. You’re not taking them along, are you?’

‘But it would be so … symbolic,’ said the Man.

His wife twisted her face in mock-disgust, bringing the discussion to a close and sealing the fate of the Brotherhood of Azanian Baggage. Despite proudly serving as a periodic reminder of the Man’s former life for nigh on two decades, we would never see the country of our birth again.

This brief encounter did, however, plant a seed in the Man’s mind, as if our failed reunion had prompted a pathetic yearning to cling to the remnants of his past. After his trip to Azania the Man always took at least one member of the Brotherhood along on his travels, as if he owed us the privilege of being part of his new life. And so it was Brother Ministow who informed me of the tragic passing of Brother Niftistow.

The Man had taken his wife and children on a skiing holiday to the Czech Republic. He had loaded a selection of tools into Bra Nifti, who was big enough to carry screwdrivers, spanners, pliers and even a hammer, albeit with the shaft protruding from the zip. They had raced over the autobahn at high speed and, as daylight faded, they had even managed to negotiate the potholed freeways of the Czech Republic. Having stopped for a late dinner in the town of Liberec, the family set off for the last leg of their outbound trip. It would take them three hours to cover the fifty kilometres to the village of Rokytnice nad Jizerou. The Man spent at least an hour of that time fitting snow chains around his tires. When he eventually succeeded, his whoops of joy echoed around the valley, where shortly before his curses had scared the local wildlife out of hibernation. On purchasing the snow chains, the Man had not been warned that it was ill-advised to fit them in the dead of night, in a desperately narrow lay-by, with sharp snow whipping around like angry ghosts seeking vengeance. His hands were stiff and bleeding when he stepped back into the car, where he was welcomed by his proud and joyous family, who urged him to hit the road with all due speed before they froze to death.

It was thus that Brother Niftistow was forgotten on the roof and lost. The Man noticed his absence only when one of the snow chains came loose, whacking loudly against the wheel casing. The Man pulled over once more. As he stepped out into the snowbound road, winter’s icy claw reached into the car, stifling the despondent cries of his wife and children. He ignored their angry knocking as he rounded the car to confirm what he already knew. A couple of barely visible smudges marked the place where Bra Nifti had slipped off into oblivion. The Man turned his face to the wind and let the full force of the blizzard erase his fatigue. When he stepped back into the car, he parried his wife’s questions with a lie: ‘Can’t be fixed. Nothing serious.’

But as they pressed on through the swirling shroud, the Man felt his heart grow heavier and heavier as the chain beat a solemn drum for Bra Nifti. Each whack a grim reminder of what was lost and could never be regained, of the many worthy souls whose valour and charity lay buried deep beneath the frozen wastes of history, and of those who had survived to tell the tale because they were useless and inert.

 

And so the silver-grey set of seven synthetic siblings is down to three. Brother Ministow recently heard the Man’s wife pronounce his death sentence: ‘Are you still using that filthy thing?’ It is unlikely that he will accompany the Man on his next holiday. But at least he has not lived in vain. Sadly, the same cannot be said of myself and of Brother Shoestow, who is utterly useless unless your want to transport two pairs of boots or three shoeboxes (two upright, with one lying flat on its side on top). Like me, he spends his days at the bottom of the deepest drawer where we lie buried beneath many more useful friends who whisper of their frequent travels – their adventurous, dangerous lives ­­– and leave us feeling profoundly empty.