Their famous guest published an essay in which he described what happened that day. He called it Luncheon at Pretoria. It was jocular; wry. He built up the narrative with his customary care, beginning with a description of the drive from Jo’burg (thus we called it, he wrote) to Pretoria. The dust was like any other dust, he went on, and there was a good deal of it, and the trees were greyish and lankyi.
By the time St John got to read it, it was thirty years after the luncheon itself. He was then a middle-aged man, living in England; near
Stevenage in Hertfordshire. Mother and Father were aged, still in Pretoria. He had had no contact with them for years. It was late February, the sky an unremitting grey and the wind icy. St John came in from a trip to the grocer; he took off his scarf, wiped his nose, sat by the heater and read. From time to time he lifted his eyes from the page and stared pensively at the window. It had begun to rain and the glass was streaked with water.
He paused and tried to remember. Was that his experience too of the journey from Johannesburg to Pretoria – of a road he had travelled so often?
And what about Pretoria itself? The renowned author called it a dear little place, with the touch of two civilisations upon it. He found the mix of Boer and British charming; and in a little aside – easy to miss, but telling
– he called them both civilisations, giving them equal status.
St John was nineteen years old when the luncheon took place. He wasn’t a great reader, had read nothing written by their world-famous guest; in fact, he hadn’t even heard of him. Mother said he was a Big Name and she fawned over him when he arrived, as she did over all Big Names.
Unlike Mother, St John had no interest in impressing Society and most of the Big Names she sought to ingratiate herself with he thought of as pompous bores. The men always seemed to have florid faces in which big red veins pushed through the skin and nose hairs grew like weeds in an untended garden. They said things like make no mistake and no argument about it and when all’s said and done; and guffawed at their own jokes. When they laughed, spittle gathered in the corners of their mouths.
The women had waxen faces and wore stiff smiles beneath large hats.
Father was a banker; a very successful one. He was away on business the day the famous guest came to lunch. Mother was dismayed: she was anxious about hosting the gathering of dignitaries on her own. ‘It
will go well, Mabel,’ Father reassured her. ‘Like clockwork. Don’t worry.’
He had faith in Mother. She had hosted many luncheons and dinner parties and not once had anything gone awry. This one, he assured her, would proceed just as smoothly.
He was wrong.
In the essay the luncheon at Pretoria was described magnanimously as a great success. The famous guest made light of what happened. But for Mother it was devastating.
St John slept late that morning and then remained in his bedroom.
He hated the prospect of changing into a suit; of having to make small talk. He anticipated sourly the questions that would come: what would he do now, would he study, would he travel, would he go into Father’s business?
He hadn’t decided on anything and didn’t know how to say so without seeming evasive. He resented having to play a part in Mother’s social aspirations; in what he saw as her petty and gratuitous triumphs.
He had no idea who the guests were to be that day or why they came to his parents’ home. Even afterwards, when the luncheon turned out to be so much more memorable than he had imagined any ‘do’ of
Mother’s could ever be, he still didn’t know what the purpose of it had been. He had to read an essay in a book published a long time afterwards in England to learn more about the gathering his own mother presided over on that day in Pretoria in the 1920s. He discovered only then how the visitors’ day had been ordered: after sightseeing in the morning and lunch at their home (his parents, it seemed, were nothing more than acquaintances of the writer’s acquaintances, yet the dignitaries dined at their home – how had his mother managed to pull that off?) there was to be an official reception at the Union Buildings, which the writer called a fine Imperial effort. What a curious sensation it was to be informed in this way, years later, about a day which he had lived through but which at the time did not interest him in any way. How odd it was to find the present leaning backwards to reanimate the past.
St John may have been ill read but he was not unobservant. After years of luncheons and dinner parties, he had perfected a faintly supercilious politeness. He knew how to make people much older than he feel uncertain of themselves in his company; as if the insouciance, the sleekness of his youth were a judgement against them. He had learned to pretend to listen; to say quite when boring people spoke to him. He intended to practise these finely-honed skills again that day.
It was a hot summer morning; even before breakfast the light was thick, like pale honey, and the air somnolent. Even the fly which buzzed at the window seemed lethargic. St John lay almost naked on his bed. He had big hands and big feet, like Father, but he was taller than Father. When he walked, his long legs gave him a loping gait, like a lopsided antelope.
He was enamoured of his own body. It wasn’t merely a frame that he inhabited; it was also external to him, beckoning to him, colluding with him. He gazed at it now, lifting his arms to inspect his armpits, tracing with his fingers the faint line of dark-blond downy hair leading from his navel to his crotch. Some of his body was visible in the mirror on the other side of the room. If he raised his legs, he could see his muscular thighs and calves reflected there, moving as if they had a life of their own.
This admiration of his own body both excited and embarrassed him.
He had a vague feeling that it wasn’t the done thing to revel so in something he had been born with. But he couldn’t help himself.
There was a sharp knock at the door. ‘Come in,’ murmured St John.
He made no effort to cover himself up.
‘Aren’t you dressed yet?’ boomed Mother. ‘And why are you lying here naked?’ She had several voices at her disposal. When she was speaking to Big Names, she contrived to speak in a low, syrupy voice, her words punctuated by bursts of trilling laughter. When she was displeased with her family or spoke to the servants, she used a swelling stentorian tone that echoed from room to room.
‘I’m not naked,’ he muttered.
Mother distrusted unclad skin. Nudity was anathema to her. She spoke of people’s ‘birthday suits’ with a mixture of distaste and apprehension.
‘Get up’, she ordered. ‘Get dressed. It’s a big day.’
‘Not for me,’ muttered St John. But she had already turned her back
to him, her heels tapping out her impatience.
The hostess, St John read all those years later in Luncheon at Pretoria, was a dignified handsome and civil lady. She was not named. He wondered about this. Was it perfunctory politeness? An uncharacteristic failure of perspicacity on the part of the author? Or did others see qualities in his mother which his experience of her blinded him to? She’d never been a mystery to him; she was all too transparent. But the essay made him think of her in a different way, as of everything else that happened that day.
Through the open window he saw the new servant walk past: Abednego. He walked slowly and purposefully, swinging his arms. A few minutes later he came past again, walking in the other direction. When St
John’s parents were present, he took small steps, keeping his eyes down and the top half of his body bent slightly forward. But now he walked with his back straight and his head up. He looked through the window and saw
St John. A servant who saw his employer’s son wearing almost nothing would immediately avert his gaze but Abednego did not do so. St John’s parents saw only that the new boy was raw, his edges still rough from his rural origins; but their son had seen something else in him, and he saw it again now: an unabashed light in the eyes; a directness which his servantly diffidence only partially hid.
Abednego had the face of a boy but the body of a man. His arms and legs were muscular and they strained against the servants’ uniform as if they longed to be free of it. He stroked his chin, clasped and unclasped his hands. He remained outside the window, looking in. It was St John who brought an end to this silent encounter. He got up and closed the curtains.
The famous guest and his party arrived exactly on time. St John thought that he had never seen so unprepossessing a man. He had receding brown hair, a large forehead and an absconding chin. He nodded quickly while people spoke to him and gave a high, almost girlish laugh. The only thing about him which stood out was his clothing: he was wearing a blue suit, which St John found surprising.
It was, he discovered when he sat reading the essay three decades later in Stevenage, a blue serge suit which had cost, when new, eleven pounds.
The suit was to play a major role in the events of that afternoon.
After cocktails in the drawing-room they moved into the diningroom. St John was seated directly opposite the famous guest, between one of the florid-faced men and one of the waxen ladies. He gave what he thought of as a rehearsed smile; it looked more like a defensive baring of the teeth.
St John paused, put the book down and got up to boil the kettle. It was the middle of the afternoon but already it was growing dark. There was nothing he found more difficult to get used to when he moved to England in 1935: the paucity of light throughout the late autumn and winter months and the weakness of the sun when it did shine. He never knew, until he got here, that light could be so thin; that it could be in retreat from the moment it appeared.
In the essay his parents’ home was described as a cool marblified house. Was it a cool house? It had been a sweltering day; putting his clothes on had been an ordeal and wearing them an even greater trial. All he could remember was prickly discomfort, sweat trickling down his back and sides. And yet: in another sense the description was not entirely off the mark. For at the core of the house there was indeed an icy churlishness. For all the lavishness, the mounds of uneaten food, the untouched drinks and cigars, there was never enough. Within the laden hospitality something was always withheld. It was one of the reasons he left home. With time and in self-chosen exile he came to feel that it was symptomatic of a deeper malady – afflicting the country itself.
He didn’t know it at the time but when it came to discerning hollow generosity, social niceties in which there was no true feeling – no heart – there was no one with more insight than their famous guest.
The first course was served; it was a grim business. St John looked down at his plate, pursued the shrimps (drenched in sauce) and impaled the hapless creatures with his fork. From time to time the guests on either side of him addressed remarks to him. ‘An honour for your mother to host such a famous man,’ one of the waxen ladies said. ‘A real coup.’ ‘Quite,’ replied St John.
At last they got to the main course. With it appeared Abednego, now dressed in a starched white shirt, black trousers, shiny black shoes and a maroon cummerbund. He had never before been asked to serve at table; it was a step up for him. His responsibility was the northernmost part of the table where eight people, including St John and the famous guest, were seated.
The main course was chicken fricassee, described in the essay as being of the moister persuasion. It was also called the dish which transformed our lives – a comment meant, presumably, to be humorous in the mock-heroic vein.
But that’s exactly what it did – at least for some of those present.
Abednego (called the house-boy in Luncheon at Pretoria) bent over the guests and they helped themselves from the large platter which he bore with little effort, the muscles in his arms swelling slightly as he lowered himself and then stood erect again. From time to time he looked across the table at St John and, although his features were tightly controlled and his expression flat, St John thought he saw a glimmer of what he had seen before: that faintly mocking, wayward look. Their eyes met across the table.
Abednego approached the famous guest and stooped over him. Yet again he glanced at St John. And this time St John didn’t simply look
back: he opened his mouth, stuck the tip of his tongue out, and then moved it slowly from one side of his upper lip to the other.
Did he distract Abednego from his work? Or did what happened at that moment have nothing to do with him? He never knew how much responsibility – if any – he bore.
Either way, that was the moment when the humiliation of St John’s mother descended on them all.
In the essay it was described humorously: the house-boy tilted the platter a little, to convenience me further. A piece of chicken dragged the moorings and slid to the edge, another followed, and then the gravy gathered in a great tidal wave, gathering strength as it moved, and rolling little onions in its depths…the entire fricassee poured over me and splashed on to the carpet.
The great man described how he responded to the house-boy’s apology – ‘Sah, sorry sah, sorry’ – with a shriek of laughter; how the hostess leapt up to lead him out of the room and how she too was weak with laughter.
St John’s memory of the incident and its aftermath was completely different. He once read an article about how when several people witness a crime their accounts of it may be starkly discrepant; yet they all believe them to be accurate. In this case – and what was it if not a crime? Abednego was gone before nightfall, never to be seen again – he recalled no countervailing mirth, no light geniality, either in the moment of the calamity or in the consequential attentions it required. Instead he remembered the famous guest yelping and leaping to his feet as the hot liquid descended on him. He remembered how the entire table suddenly fell silent. And, above all, he remembered a look on his mother’s face such as he had never seen before. It was as if she had seen the very ramparts of her home collapse; the ruin of everything she had built up so carefully for so many years.
‘Go!’ his mother hissed at him when she came back into the diningroom, having escorted the soggy guest out of it. ‘I can’t enter the room when he’s in his undergarments. He’s in the damask suite. For God’s sake, go and sit with him and see if he’s all right!’
He found the famous man sitting on the edge of the bed. His was wearing one of his father’s dressing-gowns – sky blue Japanese he called it in Luncheon at Pretoria, making it sound very grand; in fact it was faded and didn’t fit him. One pale shoulder was exposed as were his thin, hairy calves and stockinged feet. Servants rushed in and out, fussing over him and bearing his clothes away to be cleaned; but soon they were all gone and he was alone with St John.
‘I’m very sorry, Mr Forster,’ he said, although he didn’t know why he was offering an apology: the catastrophe was either entirely his fault or it had nothing whatsoever to do with him; either way, saying sorry wouldn’t achieve anything.
‘Call me Morgan,’ their guest replied. ‘Everyone does.’
‘Morgan,’ he repeated dutifully.
‘And what shall I call you?’
‘Don’t look so stricken, St John.’ Morgan smiled at him. ‘I suspect I shall survive this. And I dare say I shall even have a clean suit to wear when I visit the Union Buildings later this afternoon.’
‘My mother feels awful. Mortified.’
‘There’s no need.’
A silence followed.
‘Sit, please.’ Morgan pointed at a chair. St John perched uncomfortably on it. He stretched his long legs out before him and then, feeling that there was something indecorous about that position, tried unsuccessfully to tuck them under the chair.
‘My only concern,’ said Morgan, ‘is that no action should be taken against the house-boy.’
‘None will be taken,’ St John reassured him.
‘After all, it was an accident.’
St John was about to say, ‘not in my mother’s house, they don’t’; but instead he muttered, ‘they do.’
‘What is his name?
‘The young native boy.’
‘Oh, him. Abednego.’
Morgan laughed; that same high-pitched laugh. ‘How very biblical.
Well, at least we know he shall not be consumed by the fire.’
St John had no idea what he was talking about.
Morgan was looking intently at him. ‘An interesting specimen, our young Abednego, wouldn’t you agree? A strong body…under that uniform.’
‘I suppose so.’
‘And that mouth.’ Morgan shifted on the bed and the dressing-gown
slipped off his other shoulder. ‘Those lips. Ah, such promise in those lips.’
St John wondered if Morgan had witnessed what passed between him and Abednego before the disaster; whether there was something accusatory in these questions. Either way, the conversation was making him uncomfortable; and he was also beginning to feel angry. He couldn’t believe that Morgan was talking like this to him – to a complete stranger! He seemed to be assuming some sort of kinship between them. It was preposterous. What possible affinity had he, St John, with this ridiculous spectacle before him: the balding head, the near-absent chin, the neck perched on the pale slope of the shoulders, the thin little legs sticking out of the dressing-gown? He felt a physical revulsion which began in his throat and moved all the way down to his toes. His body itself was offended. Youth demurred. Beauty recoiled. In unison they cried: we have nothing in common with you.
‘We shan’t forget this afternoon in a hurry,’ said Morgan. ‘And this little talk we’ve had – well, that’ll be our secret.’ He stared openly at St John, his gaze travelling all the way down the young man’s body. St John rose to his feet. He saw no reason why he should endure these comments and looks. He had scorned for years the stuffy men who were his parents’ friends and acquaintances. They tried to make him one of them, but they were laughably inept. Morgan wasn’t at all like them yet he too seemed to
be intent on recruiting him. Why could men not let other men alone?
Morgan’s eyes had at first had made no impression on St John. But looking at them now he saw in them a searching clarity; something not readily evaded. They bore into him with a penetration which made him squirm. He felt they saw him naked beneath his clothes; saw how his own body aroused him; saw all his furtive, priapic dreams.
‘Where does he come from?’ asked Morgan.
‘Our young Abednego…he of the sly eyes and the ripe lips. And the fumbling hands.’
‘I don’t know…from the country.’
‘I mean the rural areas. Somewhere up north, I think.’
‘I should like to see his home,’ said Morgan. ‘I should like to see more of this country. This vast yet narrow land.’
‘I better get back to our other guests,’ St John said. ‘Mother will…’
‘Not the Union Buildings. Not your mother’s house, elegant as it is. I should like to see what people such as I are never shown. I should like to know what forms the unseen assumes here.’
‘I’m not sure what…’ St John began. ‘The unseen?’
‘Those things that have no palpable form, yet they exercise control over us in powerful ways.’
Something strange began to happen to St John. He had never experienced it before. His heart beat as swiftly as if he had been running.
He gasped for breath. A sensation as of a blade slicing through his viscera moved through him. He thought he might topple over. Was he ill? Had he eaten something which didn’t agree with him – those little shrimps,
An excoriating sensitivity seemed to overcome him; a white-hot flame burned. For the first time in his life his own skin seemed to be afflicting him. He was panic-stricken, yet he knew not the source of his trepidation.
There was a knock on the door. ‘Mr Forster,’ called out his mother in a shrill voice. And then, softly, as if reminding herself to add the syrup:
‘Morgan? May I come in? Is my son with you?’
St John revisited the day, remembering how agitated he had become; how something within him had been disrupted.
A phrase towards the beginning of Luncheon at Pretoria, which he had not thought much of the first time he read it, stood out now. The boundless spaces of South Africa, Forster had written, were in a measured mood.
It didn’t make sense. One cannot measure what is boundless.
Or can one?
Sometimes revelations hide in the crevice of a paradox. Morgan, he recalled, had spoken of a vast yet narrow land.
Pausing, he closed his eyes. Then he read on.
i Quotations from E. M. Forster: ‘Luncheon at Pretoria’ in Two Cheers for Democracy.
London: Edward Arnold, 1951.
Read more great short stories and poetry in New Contrast 198.
Artwork by Kosie Thiart – Feral child with seal skull.