A Short Story by Khanya Mashabela
Lee was well-versed in the art of escapism. Two of his escape routes were paved for frequent passage. The first was money, or rather what money could buy. When his account was full, no matter where he was or what he did, he felt as if he were lying on a chaise longue facing a blue sky on a day not too hot, wearing his sunglasses. And as he made his way through the money, maybe he found that his pitcher of Pimm’s wasn’t as full as he’d like. The chaise longue would turn from bamboo and fine linen into one of those ugly plastic white chairs. Then clouds would begin to appear and the air would develop the edge of an impending chill. And just when the dreaded fleck of drizzle would splash his cheek his father, bestower of the Infinite Summer, would fill his account and the clouds would glide away. Lee was not deceived of money’s vulgarity, its dulling effect on his imagination or the childish way he got it, but he banished those thoughts by making elaborate plans that he pretended to follow, and by paying with his card instead of cash.
The second escape route was more virtuous. He read his way through ever-growing mounds of literary fiction. Often he read according to his likes in life, following the tragic accounts of the young, beautiful, and rich. The Plague bored him for months but he devoured Swann’s Way in half the time. Of course he was open-minded, and he did not expect his protaganists to be young and rich and beautiful all at once. He was willing to settle for young and beautiful (On the Road) or even just beautiful (Esmeralda saved The Hunchback of Notre Dame from his bin). He was the best reader a writer could ask for. He read quickly but with care, leaving no word and no sentence untouched. He debated themes and ideological implications in bed, and allowed the images that writers evoked to soak his subconscious so that his dreams could be spent walking in the world of whichever book he was currently involved in. Money may have dulled his imagination but books sharpened it.
A day spent in a museum, running from a university assignment and sheltering himself from the literal and metaphorical rain lead to the re-discovery of an escape route that had fallen into disrepair from lack of use. A friend had insisted that he see the Walter Battiss exhibition. Lee knew who Walter Battiss was in a very general way: A South African artist from the ‘60s and ‘70s. Frankly, he only interested himself in contemporary art enough to confirm that he was cultured, and to be able to take advantage of the free wine at Michaelis openings with a bit of dignity. But the friend that insisted was a trusted one and he was nothing if not open-minded. His eyes had been sanitised by the museum’s bleached white exterior and the uniform grey of a rainy day, so the sight of primary and secondary colours ranging from earthy to a sincere neon struck him. He was intrigued by Battiss’s prehistoric figures and a paint-splattered, fish net bound Bible that he found in the first room, but upstairs is where he had felt the grasp of infatuation. A video of hands flicking through the ‘Fook Book’ let him make the connection between the act of being, feeling or pretending to be young and with that very western ideal of being prehistoric, primitive. He went back downstairs and looked at the exhibition again, from beginning to end and then, exhilarated, he went back to his apartment, sat at his desk and started researching Fook Island.
What state of being was so blameless, beautiful, authentic, sincere, and so free as childhood besides the primitive state? The day had provided multiple realisations. The first was that not only was he beginning to feel old, he was actually becoming old. The second realisation was that he was not okay with this. Even then, at the ripe old age of twenty-two, he felt a nostalgia for his younger, more imaginative, less cynical self weigh down upon him more heavily every day. When he sat behind the counter at his bookshop job, paid a bill, even cooked a meal from out of a nice cookbook instead of just stuffing himself with what was easy and close, he felt his few years in the way that only the young can. There was no ‘clinging to one’s youth’. Time came and time went with no regard for him.
But he read Walter Battiss’ Wikipedia page and was enthralled by the man who substituted the virtues of youth with the virtues of primitivism at the moment in his life when he’d been white haired and potbellied for about as long as Lee had been alive. Lee began to plan his reconstruction of Fook Island in the medium with which he felt most at ease: a party.
He convinced his friends to come over with paint and brushes, old magazines, food, booze, drugs, and more friends. He made a mixtape with music as different as Kraftwerk, Camille Saint Saens, and J-rock to set the tone. Ten people sat around his table and on his floor appropriating San rock art in acrylic paint with nowhere near the nuance of Battiss, but having a ball doing so. They got drunk and more people came and Lee did his best to direct the party’s tone from Battiss’s early works to the New York-phase. They painted each other’s faces and made masks out of Vogue’s celebrity covers.
They kissed and fought and danced. There was even a streaker. In the middle of it all, Lee looked around himself and felt as if he’d discovered a country. A country where they could make all the rules from scratch, where they could dictate what normality was. How to dress or talk or be. But it wasn’t a place. They kept going until sunrise. By 8:00 the last flies had dropped. Lee woke up at noon with a magazine cutting of Lindsay Lohan stuck to his face. He kicked out the last of the stragglers and he and the girl he was seeing began clearing up the mess, throwing all but the best paintings and collages into a black bin bag. They had just been discussing how to best create a new language when his phone buzzed. It was a deposit alert, making it known that his father had sent him more money.
Lee turned to his girlfriend “Want to get brunch at Clarke’s just now? It’ll be on me.”
“Yeah, sure. Everyone’s going to see John’s new band play, wanna go?”
“Can’t. I have assignments that I need to wrap up this weekend.”
It wasn’t a place. It was a time that could be remembered. But besides the physical space a country can be reduced to a moment in time, the way that Ancient Rome was more a time than an unchangeable space. And like the Neo-classicists of the 18th century, Lee and anyone else could revive Fook Island in any form they wanted, staying as true or untrue to the original, and having as petty or as grand an aim as their hearts desired.