Johnny slumped down next to the river and threw his bag to the ground. Bone-tired and weary, he closed his eyes and put his hands to his face, his blonde hair falling over his fingers. He sat like that for a few moments before his shoulders started to shake – slowly, imperceptively, like the trickle that signals the first cracks before a dam bursts; and soon gut-wrenching sobs wracked his young frame.
He fought the tears like a wild animal ripping at the bars to its cage, clenching his teeth in shame and frustration. But still they came, and in the end, he surrendered to the pain, and let the tears stream down his face.
He could imagine his father’s voice in his head as he wept, ‘Stop crying you damn baby! I swear, I’ve had enough of you and your bloody crap! I’m counting to three! One … two … three!’
Still the tears came.
Over the years, Johnny had taught himself to control the pain and rage that stormed within when his father hit him, or shouted and swore at him, and called him names. He thought himself inured to the abuse, but where there should have been the warmth of love and security, Johnny just had a big, dark hole.
He raised his head, wiped his nose on his sleeve and dried his eyes with the back of his hands. The sun would be down soon, and at this time of the year it would be cold at night. He worried about wild animals too. The old hunters had driven elephant, lion, rhino and leopard out of South Africa over a hundred or more years ago, but the forest can be a big, lonely place for a thirteen-year-old boy on his own at night.
His thoughts wandered to earlier that morning. He had been so excited he had hardly slept that night. They were going fishing again!
Every year, Johnny and his father would go away on a two-week fishing trip to the Eastern Transvaal, known officially as Mpumalanga, or ‘the place of the rising sun’, home to some of the best trout fishing in the world. Some still called it the Eastern Transvaal though, usually those who had a hard time accepting the radical changes in the country, and his father, Hendrik “Robbie” Roberts, was definitely the latter.
Early that morning they had packed all their gear into his father’s old Ford bakkie and hooked up the equally squalid little Jurgens caravan his parents had spent their honeymoon in twenty years ago. Caravanning was highly popular amongst South Africans during the apartheid years, and although in severe decline these days, one could still find the odd caravan park hidden away, sometimes in the most charming little places.
Robbie had looked Johnny in the eye and said, ‘Ja, my boy, so it’s off on another adventure, just you and me. Maybe this year you’ll finally catch the big one, hey?’
Robbie Roberts loved Johnny in his own peculiar way, and there were the odd moments when Johnny felt a sudden stab of feeling towards his father, but it never lasted long. The moment he started drinking, he turned nasty – real nasty – and then all the frustrations of a failed career and the loss of his wife would find focus in Johnny, and Robbie Roberts drank every evening without fail.
Johnny’s only defence was to make himself scarce at night, something he had been doing for as long as he could remember. He wandered the streets at night until long after other kids his age were in bed, often falling asleep behind the train shed, or inside the old flour mill, before finally creeping back into the house and making himself a cold sandwich and crawling into bed.
The drive had been pleasant enough, and Johnny looked forward to two weeks of beautiful, sunlit days, spent fishing and swimming. He stared happily out of the window as they drove north, watching with delight as the grey cityscape dropped out of sight behind them, and the land opened up on both sides, the greens and browns of Africa that Johnny loved so well.
‘So, your teacher tells me you bliksemed the Viljoen kid last week?’ Caught unawares, Johnny had had to think quickly.
‘He said we were trailer trash, and he called you a bad name, Dad.’
‘Really? What did he call me?’
‘He said you were a poephol!’
His father found this highly amusing, and he chuckled to himself behind the steering wheel for a moment before looking at Johnny again.
‘So you beat him up?’ he asked. ‘How old is he?’
‘He’s seventeen, Dad, but he fights like a girl.’
‘No my boy, it’s you who fights like a man! I’m proud of you,’ he said and put an arm around Johnny’s shoulder.
Johnny sat with his back against the tree and remembered the conflicting emotions that gesture had caused in him. Love and pain; bittersweet.
They had arrived at the campsite at about midday and quickly gotten everything set up. Once the caravan was unhitched it was a simple matter of erecting the canvas tent that adjoined it and created a living room of sorts, and unpacking the accessories. The small orange portable television with its bunny-ear aerial, the folding camp chairs and table, and Johnny’s camping cot. He would sleep in the tented living area, while his father slept in the caravan. It suited them both.
Once done, Johnny had run to the edge of the lake in pleasure and taken a deep breath of the beautifully clean air of the countryside, so different to the stale air one usually breathed back in Jo’Burg. He spent half an hour splashing happily on the water’s edge, startling the trout beneath the surface, before returning to the campsite.
His pleasure had turned to dismay when he got back to the caravan and saw the bottle of brandy on the table outside. Robbie sat on a folding canvas camping chair with a glass in his hand, looking pleased and content.
‘Hey my boy, there you are! This is the life, hey!’ His father always became overbearingly jovial after his first drink, and Johnny knew from experience that by the second drink, the jovial spirit would be replaced by a sullen intensity that could avalanche into rage and violence at any moment. He secretly hoped that perhaps their surroundings would douse his father’s aggression, particularly as they were away from the grey world they normally inhabited. Perhaps the cycle would be broken.
‘Hey Dad, let’s try catch some fish!’ said Johnny eagerly, hoping to curb his father’s early drinking.
‘Nah my boy. Tonight we’ll light a fire and braai us some meat. There’ll be plenty of time for fishing tomorrow,’ he replied. ‘I’m bloody tired after that long drive, but the doctor is in the house, and he’s already prescribed me my medicine!’ Robbie laughed and drained his glass. Reaching for the bottle, he poured himself another liberal dose, and after topping it up with cola and ice, he sat back with a satisfied sigh and looked around.
‘Ja, Johnny, this is the life. This is what I work so flipping hard all year for, so we can come here and be happy for two weeks,’ he said.
‘You see, my boy,’ he continued with a slightly martyred air, ‘when you have to look after your own kids one day, when you have to work your fingers to the bone for a minimum wage for some damned darkie in a flashy car, then you’ll see just how important these few days away really are.’
Johnny let out a silent sigh. Everything was going right on schedule… soon his father’s self-pity would turn to self-loathing, and then the cycle would begin again.
‘So while you play with your friends, I’m working myself to a standstill,’ his father continued, ‘and to think I do it all for you.’
Robbie became pensive, pondering, as he drained his glass – again. When he peered up at Johnny, he could see his father’s eyes were already becoming bloodshot. He seemed upset about something… he’s probably thinking about Ma, he thought.
‘What are you looking at?’ asked Robbie, half-jokingly, half irritably. ‘Here – pour me another drink,’ he said, handing Johnny his glass. ‘And start the fire while you’re at it. It’s about time you did something productive around here. You’ve spent enough time splashing around in the water, now it’s time to earn your keep.’
Johnny refilled his father’s glass as quickly as he could, and then started getting the fire started. Robbie wasn’t angry – not yet anyways; he was still in high spirits as the brandy warmed his blood as he sat in the sun, but he was already becoming belligerent, and Johnny recognized the warning signs.
‘Phaark! What’s this?’ Robbie spat. ‘I didn’t ask for a cup of bloody tea! If you’re going to pour me a drink make sure it bloody well tastes like one!’ Robbie leaned forward and added another two fingers of brandy to his glass, sloshing a fair amount onto his lap.
‘Aah crap it and all! Now look what you’ve made me do!’ he shouted standing up. Now he was angry.
‘I’m sorry, Dad. I didn’t mean it, really.’ Johnny was wary now, and he dodged backwards nimbly as his father aimed a lazy open-handed swing at his head. Robbie hadn’t put much heart into it, but he was already unsteady on his feet and now he overbalanced as he missed, and crashed into the table, sending the glass and the bottle crashing to the ground.
‘You little twerp!’ he shouted, still sprawled on the table. ‘Get back here you bliksem!’ but Johnny was already running away towards the lake as fast as his legs could carry him.
Johnny looked around him and knew he should start moving again soon. He didn’t think his father would be capable of following him, not tonight, not in the state he was in… but having made the decision to leave, he had no intention of being caught and going back. He stood up, brushed the leaves off his pants, picked up his bag and started walking.
Earlier, Johnny had decided to sneak back to the caravan after a few hours, as he hoped his father would have been asleep by then – although it was still only mid-afternoon. Johnny wasn’t sure what to expect, as his father didn’t usually drink so early in the day. Typically, his dad would only start drinking after he got home from work, and would have passed out in the lounge by ten o’clock or so, or occasionally staggered off to bed after about six or eight brandies. This time it was different; he didn’t have to get up for work in the morning, and the sun was still high in the sky.
‘So … you’re back?’
Johnny jumped with fright. His father was still in the chair where he had left him earlier, and still drinking.
‘The fire … went … it went out. Hell, I don’t know …’ Robbie slurred and looked down at the half empty glass clasped in his hand. Johnny had never seen his father this drunk before, and it frightened him.
Robbie looked up suddenly and stared at Johnny with clear, white eyes. They weren’t bloodshot anymore, and Johnny saw madness in them. That frightened him even more.
‘You know Johnny, it makes no difference if you leave and don’t come back. Blood is thicker than water, and all that crap.’ Johnny didn’t know what he was talking about.
‘I told Magda that adopting you was a mistake,’ he went on. ‘I told her, but she wouldn’t listen … such a good woman.’ Johnny listened in silence, not sure what his father was saying.
‘And those damned nuns, all holier than thou, telling us what a clever little boy you were. I knew we should never have done it.’
‘What are you talking about Dad?’ Johnny asked, his heart in his throat.
‘Don’t call me that! I am not your father! I don’t know who your father is, but it isn’t me!’ he shouted.
Johnny took an involuntary step backwards, his hand to his mouth. Never in all the years of beatings and abuse had his father hurt him so severely. He felt a wrenching pain in his gut that felt like a knife had been stuck into him. All his life had been spent trying to impress his father, trying to find some way of earning his love and respect.
‘But …, but … I’m your son, Dad. Aren’t I? Please say that I am.’
He could feel the tears burning the back of his eyes and he tried desperately to force them down because he knew how much his father hated it when he cried, and he wanted his father to be proud of him. He wanted his father to love him. He wanted his father to – to … he just wanted his father.
‘I AM NOT YOUR FATHER!’ Robbie roared. ‘You are a bastard! You hear me? A stinking little bastard! Perhaps the devil spawned you, but you are no son of mine! Hell, you don’t even look like me!’
That caught Johnny completely off guard. He knew he didn’t look anything like his father, who was dark-haired, dark-eyed, short and stocky; whereas he was blonde, blue-eyed, tall and athletic for his age. In fact, even at thirteen, he was already half a head taller than his father was.
The photographs of his mother in the lounge at home showed a merry little woman with clear, blue eyes and a shock of red hair. But… Johnny knew many people who didn’t look like their parents, didn’t he?
‘Finally figured it out have you? Took you long enough, you stupid little turd!’ Robbie sneered, reading Johnny like a book.
‘I’ve decided the orphanage can have you back. I’m finished with you. When we get back home, I’m sending you back! I’m sure I’ve still got the receipt somewhere.’ Robbie started chuckling so hard that he nearly spilled his drink for the second time that day.
Time seemed to slow down. Finally convinced of the truth, Johnny felt a blinding rage surge within him. The pain and desolation he had endured for so many years became anger and hatred as a lifetime of abuse and degradation overwhelmed him. He took three steps forward until he was standing directly over his father.
‘So I’m not your son?’ he hissed through clenched teeth, his face inches from his fathers. ‘You’re sending me back where you found me?
‘Okay Robbie, but first we have a few accounts to settle. Only a father has the right to hit his kid. If I am not your son, as you claim, then I’m calling you out. Stand up!’
For the first time in his life, Robbie Roberts was completely at a loss for words. Johnny had never stood up to him before. It occurred to him that perhaps it wasn’t cowardice or fear, but rather respect, that had held him back.
‘Stand up!’ Johnny shouted.
‘Now you listen here, boy, if I stand up there’s going to be hell to pay …’
Johnny grabbed his father by the front of his shirt and pulled him upright out of his chair. Placing his right foot behind Robbie’s, he pushed, sending his father sprawling to the ground in a tangle. With a shout of rage, Robbie jumped to his feet and lunged at Johnny, and met a solid wall of fists. Stars exploded inside his head and the last thought he had before losing consciousness was how much it hurt.
Johnny peered down at his father’s unconscious body that lay slumped on the ground. In the distance, from one of the nearby campsites, he heard faint shouts of concern; they must have noticed the commotion. He knew it would only be a matter of minutes before they came along to investigate. The cold reality of what he had just done finally penetrated, and he panicked. Without thinking, Johnny ran into his tent, grabbed his rucksack from his bunk, and fled. It was done – there was no going back now.
As Johnny now wandered through the darkening woods, he replayed the scene repeatedly in his mind. Consumed with guilt, and another emotion that he couldn’t quite fathom, he realized that he had reacted very violently to his so-called father, when in truth, Robbie hadn’t even laid a hand on him – for once. Robbie had hit Johnny countless times in his violent outbursts, and on a few occasions, had even beaten Johnny senseless; but never before had Johnny contemplated retaliating so violently. Instead, he was more concerned about impressing his father, finding ways in which he could gain his respect. This time it was different; their roles reversed; he had beaten Robbie senseless and to his surprise, it had felt good. It felt really good. It dawned upon him then that this emotion so foreign to him was pride. He was proud of himself.
He continued walking, deeper and deeper into the forest… away from the only life he had ever known.
Published Titles in the Johnny Roberts Series:
Book Two: Johnny Roberts and the Gods of Eden
Andrew Noble © 2012
Cover artwork: Adam Van Der Riet © 2012
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© 2012 Andrew Noble All Rights Reserved