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Authors: Mark Behr

Tags: #Fiction, #Coming of Age


BOOK: Embrace
7.52Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub


Mark Behr was born in Tanzania in 1963 and as a child moved to South Africa with his parents. His first novel,
The Smell of Apples,
was lauded by critics throughout the world and won awards in Africa, the United Kingdom and the USA, and is already recognised as a South African classic.
is his second novel.


‘Behr wants to turn all our received notions on their heads, to discomfit liberal and reactionary alike . . . [his] portrait of the Afrikaner family, with its myriad prejudices and conflicts, is by turns affectionate and exasperated, and rings utterly true . . . the most persistent of the themes [ . . . is] the crippling psychic damage caused by selfdeception, and the pain and the necessity of facing the truth about oneself and one’s heritage’


‘Behrs story of Karl de Man, aged 13 and standing at that awkward, yet magical, intersection between childhood and manhood is a powerful commentary on love, sexuality, politics and power . . . [There] are moments of exquisite understanding of the love that is possible between people — flawed people . . . There are layers to this book and layers to almost every chapter’
Cape Times


explores not only Karls transition from child to young adult, but also the fickle nature of both love and memory . . . The ungrammatical, urgent syntax of the child contrasts with the lush descriptions of the South African bush and the musings of the young man as he begins to apprehend the world about him intellectually as opposed to sensually’


is a huge book . . . It is a genuine achievement... that Mark Behr manages to sustain his narrative for so long without flagging. This is because the themes are universal’
Gay Times


‘The writing is steeped in zoology and natural history and good allegorical use is made of both: dangerous brute forces stalk the grass in this Eden before the Fall’
The Times


Praise for
The Smell of Apples


‘Masterly . . . a disturbing story which subtly lays bare the twisted logic of apartheid’
The Times


‘Compelling . . . the disturbing and powerful story of a child’s introduction to hypocrisy and disillusion
Sunday Telegraph


‘Mesmerising . . .
The Smell of Apples
is an astounding first novel’
Sunday Times


Also by Mark Behr


The Smell Apples



First published in Great Britain in 2000
by Little, Brown and Company
This edition published in 2001 by Abacus


Copyright © Mark Behr, 2000


The moral right of the author has been asserted


All characters in this publication other than those clearly in the public domain are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead

is purely coincidental.


The author gratefully acknowledges permission to quote from the following: ‘Do-Re-Mi’ by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II © 1959 Williamson Music International USA. Reproduced by permission of EMI Music Ltd, London, WC2H

‘Both Sides Now’ by Joni Mitchell © (UK and British Commonwealth) 1967 Siquomb Publishing Corp., USA. Reproduced by permission of Westminster Music Ltd., London, SWI0 0SW. © (Canada) 1967 (renewed) Crazy Crow Music. All rights administered by Sony/ATV Music Publishing, 8 Music Square West, Nashville, TN 37203. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

Age of Iron
by J.M. Coetzee © 1990 J.M. Coetzee. Reprinted by permission of Seeker & Warburg


All rights reserved.

No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, without the prior permission in writing of the publisher, nor be otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.


A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.


ISBN 0 349 11300 9

Typeset in Centaur by M Rules Printed and bound in Great Britain by Clays Ltd, St Ives pic



A Division of

Little, Brown and Company (UK)

Brettenham House

Lancaster Place

London WC2E 7EN


to my friends and family

for laughter, moral imagination and trust


I begin to understand the true meaning of the embrace. We embrace to be embraced. We embrace our children to be folded in the arms of the future, to pass ourselves on beyond death, to be transported. That is how it was when I embraced you, always.


J.M. Coetzee,
Age of Iron


A grand Mass which could also he performed as an oratorio (for the benefit of the poor — an excellent practice that has now been introduced) . . . with slight alterations it could even be performed by voices alone.


Ludwig van Beethoven,



Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start. When you read you begin with a, b, c. When you sing you begin with do, re, mi.

Do, re, mi.

Do, re, mi, the first three notes just happen to be, do, re, mi.

Do, re, mi.

Do, re, mi, fa, so, la, te . . .

Oh, let’s see if I can make it easier . . .




I — no, we, I suppose — lived in the mountain country of the dragon. Here the school gave each of us two hundred Hills a week, the institution’s own currency to ensure none of us had real money lying around lockers to tempt us boys or, as Mathison said in our first year, the long black fingers of the Munts. Money unguarded in a locker was a magnet to a black hand.

The Juniors broke up an hour before we Seniors. By the time we got out of Latin and then Art to line up and be paid, the younger ones from Standards Two up to Five were already sated on the sweets and cool drinks they ran down the hill to purchase from the shop in the Dragon’s Ridge holiday resort. We qualified for extra pocket money if our parents thought it a good idea or if they could afford it. Mervy s and Dominic’s could and did and they shared their extra Fridayafternoon purchases with those of us whose parents sometimes did give, sometimes couldn’t, or wouldn’t or simply didn’t. Lukas’s parents — wealthy sheep-and horse-farmers from Indwe — did not give extra money as they couldn’t see the necessity for more than two hundred Hills a week. Times when I didn’t have the weekly extra, Dominic bought me two Eveready torch batteries and a tin of Nestles Condensed Milk, even though I never said directly that I didn’t have the money. Always Nestles, not Gold Cross at twenty cents cheaper, because that had a thicker texture and an odd after-taste as if the sugar had not been properly dissolved. Since our second year, all I had to say on a Friday afternoon was that I wished I had a fix of sweetness and Dominic obliged, always with mock indignation:

‘Dreadful for the voice,’ he said, jutting out his chin and rolling his eyes. ‘But what can I do? You’re an addict. I’m your accomplice and willing buyer.’

At the store, like everywhere else, we stood in line. Only two in at a time. This way Mr Buthelezi kept an eye on what was leaving the shop. Our buying done, we stood eating and drinking while we watched the game in the small reserve. A couple of eland, ostriches, zebra and the lone wildebeest bull. Poor excuse for a game pen, I thought, throwing back my head to suck on the tin of Nestles. Thankfully the pen wasn’t overstocked and it was large, so at least the poor animals had space to move. From the fence we strolled in groups to join the smaller ones already cavorting in the holiday park’s Olympic-size pool.


On the high diving board I waited for Lukas down below to pull himself onto the side. From the pen came a zebra’s call like bubbles through water. I waved at Dominic on the lawn with the others. He jumped up and called that he’d take a photograph of me in mid-air. I grinned, nodding.

Lukas took hold of the poolsides lip and hoisted himself to his haunches, straightened, pulling the Speedo’s fabric from the cleavagebetween his buttocks. I glanced at Dominic, then back at Lukas, to whom I was about to whistle to watch my combined pike and forward somersault. I caught sight of Mr Cilliers passing with Ma’am. Head unobtrusively turned, he was staring at Lukas, who was turning to face up at me. Lukas didn’t see Mr Cilliers.

Behind me younger boys concertinaed up the ladder, waiting, growing impatient. I was by then no longer looking at Lukas. My eyes were taking in Mr Cilliers and blurred in the corner of my vision the object of his gaze. Poised, prepared in anticipation of the bounce, I registered the way he regarded Lukas. It might have been simply the sidelong glance of a man at an arbitrary boy beside a pool of clear blue water — Dominic calling he’s ready to take the photograph — but not to me. The gaze had already transposed itself over images and other frames from recent memory and Saturday night movies. Of three men, rigid behind a desk. Of pain; shame; something like resentment. Intrigue. A thought or a memory had flashed through the folds of my brain, or a series of hitherto inconspicuous recollections had stirred into alien symmetry like ripples on a seemingly controlled surface.

It was in the moments after I again became conscious of Lukas’s eyes and Dominic’s camera on me, when from behind a line of boys was telling me to move and I — barely aware — sneered that I’d drown them if they didn’t shut up; when I looked ahead into the sky; noticed the zebra in a straight row at the fence, their eyes concentrated near the shop; bounced twice and shot into the air; tucked my legs into a perfect pike then folded myself into a ball and snapped straight and Dominic’s camera must have clicked as I dropped vertically to the surface, cleaved the water and felt a brief sting in my back, swished downward, opened my eyes and headed for the bottom and lingered a second, listening to the humming of the motor and watching air pop from my mouth, watched it rise, felt my lungs burn and shot myself up.

It can be in any of these instants I — through the distortions andravages of memory two decades later — recall that the initial impulses about Mr Cilliers might have come together for me.


It was not difficult. Within weeks, I had found little excuses to stay for a few minutes after rehearsal. By the time the others rushed for the doors I had already selected a particularly difficult transition, just a few bars, in the first soprano score. This would be my point of access. Over the previous days I had simply lingered for a while, ignoring Dom’s call for us to get to the supper line together. At first I did little beyond collecting the sheet music from the piano and squaring off the pile into a rectangle of white geometric precision.

Now, alone in the hall with him and ignoring the pounding fear of possibly being asked to sing alone, I willed myself to speech: ‘We can’t seem to go from the C to the D sharp and then all the way down to the B on the final eleisons, Mr Cilliers. The words don’t seem to quite correspond with the notes, Sir. If we could just repeat those bars — without the rest of the choir — maybe we could synchronise it with the second sopranos, Sir.’

I had anticipated his surprise at this exhibition of sudden interest: never once in the previous two years had I shown more than a remote — even a strained and resentful — commitment to most of the music. I will not let his frown put me off, I told myself. I looked away, continued talking, arranging the music, ignoring the raised eyebrows. Nothing could tell me that subde, diffident-seeming persistence would not, eventually — even if it took months — be accepted as genuine alteration of character; as evidence that something had happened to transform my sullen tolerance into a full-fledged interest.

Standing in front of the piano, he watched me. He flicked open his score and I felt the initial stirring of relief. Clearly he was paging to the end of the first section. Still standing, he dropped one hand to the keyboard. Played the four notes. I was unsure whether I should smile or frown. Then there was an unexpected pressure, like tears, in thesockets of my eyes and I blinked, repeatedly, certain that crying must not take place now.

‘This here? The fourteenth bar before the rondo?’

‘Yes, Mr Cilliers,’ I answered. I cleared my throat and continued collecting the pages.


In the hours we had stood facing him since that day at the pool, I forced myself to never allow my eyes to venture from his face for a fraction of a second. His rare moments of lapsed vigilance — used till then to inflict a burning pain to the ears or neck of Niklaas Bruin one removed from me — I now grasped as openings through which I could project alert concentration: a hint of a frown; contemplation; my head inclined, nodding. The soft grunt of an alto’s fart, the smell reaching all our nostrils at the same instant, was ignored by me, even as I longed to cover my nose and the others giggled without twitching. I now noticed the grey strands in the black curls of his temples and around his ears; had at some time become conscious of the way the hair across the forehead jumped a split second before the jerk of his hands. For the first time I was seeing the extraordinarily white skin against the dark stubble shading his chin by afternoon or at evening rehearsals. I had already acquired the habit, at the moment of dismissal when his eyes swept over us — making us register his feelings at the outcome of the session — to let mine linger on his face. When he showed satisfaction — rare as that was during those initial introductions to the Mass — or if the mood just felt good, I allowed the faintest of faint smiles, something I imagined to resemble awe, to appear at the corners of my lips.

Knowing that the teachers speak amongst themselves, Ma’am Sanders’s classroom, even Art where we were allowed a measure of informality and fun, had for me become terrain in which I could be seen investing additional effort. In Latin too, I tried my best, translating every word, learning what is verb, noun, declension, conjunction, nominative, dative, accusative. Checking and double-checking, sometimes even asking Niklaas Bruin for help. And the recorder, onceevery two weeks with Marabou! God, that remained the biggest struggle. After two years my Music Theory and note-reading were stuck way below standard. Barring a miracle there was no way I was going to catch up any time soon. At most I could practise the prescribed pieces and forget the deadly breath of the carnivore when she stood behind me and over my shoulder moved her little baton, bar for bar across the music, grunting through her nose. Marabou, I knew, could not ignore how little I had ever known of my instrument. No one could. Yet, surely, that also meant she would have to see how hard I was now trying. Effort, in the absence of talent, would have to be rewarded.

Alone upstairs in the library I looked up from whatever I was reading to smile at whomever passed by. Sometimes it was Cilliers himself.

In the dormitory I no longer spoke, joked or quarrelled during quiet time. Before lights-out I remained sprawled across my bed with my head to the passageway where Uncle Charlie was certain to see me pore over the Bible. In the showers I had become first in and first out. Soon, I suspected,
they would all have to see that I had emerged into a reformed patriot, something for them to be proud of; a citizen they could praise and adore. Exacdy what Mr Mathison said whenever we prepared for tour: ‘Behave yourselves like citizens. Patriots who have earned the right to be in one of the best boys’ music schools in the world.’

The afternoon sun cast elongated shadows of aloes across the grand piano’s shiny black surface. Without looking from the pages — aware of a deeper flush spreading into my neck and cheeks and no longer seeing the music in my own hands — I felt his eyes on me; looking into me. The four notes were being repeated, over and over. I sensed him take in my movements as surely as I could feel the sun’s glare and that other heat emanating from my face. I placed the collected scores in a neat heap atop the organ to one side of the hall. I turned, allowing my eyes to meet briefly those behind the piano. What I read from the face was neither smile nor frown; rather something akin to beneweling, a word that might translate to English asbemusement. I smiled, shrugged my shoulders, then turned and strode from the hall’s open outside door.

From that instant, dreading that even suspicion of misdemeanour might throw me back to square one, I began inventing excuses to go as seldom as possible to Dominic after lights-out on Saturday nights. And if, from this sudden change of behaviour and altered routine, Dom suspected anything amiss, he said nothing, himself perhaps relieved that I was for once, for the first time after two years, out of trouble.




The aim had been to kill on average one hundred and twenty each night. Frozen in blindness brought instantly by six hundred glaring watts, they stood dazed and trembling. The rifles were aimed, fired, hesitating only to make sure the shot was a kill. Then lifted deftly towards the next.

In the moonless dark the antelope were so easily stunned that the rangers were often able to cull almost double the nightly quota. When the open Land Rovers were filled with carcasses — loaded by Jonas and Boy — the vehicles headed for the park gates where kraals, butchers, hospitals and the nearby school would collect their share. Twice Dademan and Mumdeman came from Charters to collect impala for biltong. Mkuzi’s carrying capacity for impala had for years been assessed at twelve thousand head. In the last year we lived there an estimated twenty-two thousand were depleting the yellow grass and shrubbery in a season when the water-holes had long disappeared and become first muddy death traps, then hollows tiled with large chocolaty rectangles that curled up and left empty dustbowls where only zebra and wildebeest still occasionally came to roll. All that remained green around our house was the magic guarri, the aloes and sisal Bokkie had planted, and the tambotie trees from where I collected jumping beans.

Bok’s marksmanship was undisputed in the Natal Parks Board.With his .222 BRNO, he could score a perfect hit between the eyes from about 100 yards: a precision that would collapse an animals legs on the spot where a moment before it was grazing. At home Bok had an intense dislike for men who could not be trusted for a clean kill. Only at home, or when he was alone with me on Vonk or in the Land Rover, did he articulate his disdain for the likes of Wilcox who, time and time again, had to fire a second or even third shot before the animal would either be brought down or cease its twitching and lie still.

‘Bad enough, having to kill all these animals. No need to let them suffer.’

For the two months the slaughter took, Wilcox from Ndumu Reserve and Jerome Newman from Mkuzi town came to stay in a tent erected by Jonas and Boy on a flat sandy patch under the water tank and the tamboties.
Spirostachys africana,
Bok read the Latin to me from his manual, and I started learning plant names to show off to my sisters when they returned from boarding school.

BOOK: Embrace
7.52Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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