There is a well-known Afrikaans short story Die Gog (The Thing) about an unidentified creature nursed and doted upon by a couple. The thing (die gog) is kept in a box, feed and protected. Eventually the couple’s mutual obsession destroys their relationship. This serves as an imagined prelude to the un-dramatic domestic tragedy of Die Gog. The time and cultural context of the story has been revised.
Ben was so proud of himself the autumn when they moved into the flat. A regular role in a TV series plus a key character in an historical Shakespeare had brought in a sizeable amount towards the deposit. A percentage of Graciella’s earnings from two season’s worth of catalogue shoots had topped up the amount. Then his parents had offered a windfall for the first three months of mortgage payments. He and Graciella had made an offer in early August. In October they moved in. Things had moved quickly, but everything else had moved so slowly for them in those early years of the recession that this acceleration seemed right. It was welcome, timely compensation.
Their relocation into the flat was a young couple’s move. Ben and Graciella believed they could save by doing it themselves. The smaller items – books, plants, linen, winter jackets and three pairs of forgotten ski boots – had been carried piecemeal over to the new flat in the week leading up to the mammoth move. Dozens of friends were roped in, but Min and Steve were the stalwarts who gave up a Saturday to hard labour. On that final day of the clear-out, they filled the rented removal van with the larger items of furniture.
“Cuidadoso! Careful! With those drawers,” Graciella called down as Ben and his friend Steve stumbled down the stairs. Min completed a sweep through the bathroom. The contents of the cabinet and windowsill were transferred into a large plastic container. The towels were rolled up into a black plastic bag. Min dragged the bag to the top of the stairs. “We need to take these out on the other side or else they’ll mould.”
In the kitchen, Steven and Ben packed the last of the kitchen utensils, spices and unused boxes of rice, pasta and dried peas. Ben stood up. From the kitchen counter, he gathered up a pile of letters. He tipped it into a carrier bag, but missed. Bills, take-away fliers and miscellaneous loose papers scattered across the floor. A scuffed, soil-marked note in his handwriting caught Ben’s attention. He picked it up.
Only two summers previously Ben had posted half-a-dozen humble advertisements. Acting work had been in short supply since his graduation and he needed to be out of the house. His parents meant well with their questions. How many job applications have you sent this week? What does your agent suggest about improving your likelihood of castings? Don’t you think it’s time to consider something sensible to fall back on? Have you called the academy about that electrician’s training course?
His parents wanted a materially sound future for him. He imagined the question marks as shepherds’ crooks intended to pull him out of a dangerous ravine. Any misstep in this ravine could mean a tumble further from redemption. He knew their questions were meant to propel him towards action. But wires and circuits held no appeal. Ben’s desire was to be under the spotlight. He was the golden boy of the stage. Light, bright, fire, bright, that was what he wanted to capture and spin into a performance. If Ben could not find that, there had to be some preferable alternative.
His parents’ badgering drove him to the local council library where he meant to read the classics. Instead, with the other men of his restless tribe, the immigrant pensioners and homeless, Ben waited his turn in the understood queue for the daily newspapers.
And Ben paged through glossy gardening books. While he read through the How To’s and seasonal To Do’s, a bulb of remembrance sprouted. “Today Ben, we shall go down to the allotment.” He recalled two years of his grandmother’s Saturday instruction. A pre-teen Ben had moved from raking leaves to planting seedlings. He graduated to carefully pruning her roses and the small fruit-bearing trees on the allotment. In each of those autumns, he had helped his grandmother gather up material for a night-licking bonfire.
From his parents’ printer, Ben took two pieces of blank A4, folded them into eight and marked out in his best handwriting:
Graduate with gardening
and DIY skills.
No job too small.
Call Ben 0784 7889 387
It was his message in a bottle. Of course, he could have printed those twelve words. But Ben’s intention was for his handwriting to ignite someone by his call. Robed in his handwriting, he felt his request wore a fitting costume. He paid for window-space in the shopping hubs of his parents’ suburb and a neighbouring postcode. Posting those advertisements cost him two nights from his pint fund.
Time passed and he had to decide whether or not to renew these window placements. It weighed on Ben like a dismal final dress rehearsal. The show did not look promising, but to pull all at this moment would be defeatist. The day before he had to make the final decision, he received the first call of interest: an elderly, flat-dwelling lady who wondered if he would tidy the communal garden and possibly help her with her laundry.
“Your careful handwriting,” she sighed, “amongst all those printed notices, it touched me like a small flame.”
For the remainder of that summer, Ben spent three days a week gardening and following up on small DIY tasks: patching peeling paint, replacing door handles, securing unstable shelves. Most of his work was clustered around Lanhedge Avenue, thanks to the recommendations of his first caller. A For Sale sign in the road stoked his imagination. Me, ever buy in this area? Ben thought he was stretching reality.
On Thursday and Friday nights Ben performed in a pub-theatre production. He gave of his time as a favour for a director friend. With sunlight by day and spotlights on the boards at night, Ben felt ignited. The crowd was young and drawn in by the promise of pie plus pint with live entertainment more than the content of the play. Ubu Roi was heavy viewing for youthful summer audiences. The staging pulled in regular crowds. It was sensationalist on a budget, which meant it included gratuitous nudity and plastic turds. Together with the curious, many came to support the cast and technical crew, and thanks to the pub’s marketing, the run had been well-attended. Among the audience members had been Graciella. Ben grinned at the memory.
Graciella had little interest in theatre, pies or pubs. She had come with a group of friends of her housemate’s and because she was new in town. Someone in her group knew someone who knew someone in the technical crew. Ben had been introduced to the gaggle after the performance. After removing his character garb, he had sought her out at the bar. Of course, she was the loveliest woman in the room. She tossed her hair and magnetism. As a master of captivation, Ben knew he had to make an impression. In his pocket he found one of his handwritten advertisements. If you ever need some gardening or DIY… It sounded so cheesy. But it worked.
“Your handwriting?” she asked.
Three weeks after moving in, Ben and Graciella invited the couple above them and the three flat-sharers on the top floor to join them for a bonfire night. The novelty of enough space to burn leaves in his own back garden prompted Ben to suggest the gathering.
Ben, recently returned from ten days of filming on the coast, spent the Saturday afternoon raking up leaves. He laid out the vital fuel logs at the bonfire’s base and angled the structural supports. He then piled up a pyramid of leaves, dried twigs, bark and garden debris. Ben stood back to admire his work. A chill whipped up. He jammed his hands into his jacket pockets. In the recesses of his right pocket, a scrap of paper scratched his hand. He pulled it out. It was the old soil-marked advertisement. He smiled at his talisman. Handing them over had always brought him good fortune. It was time for this piece to join the tinder. He would hand this last one over to the bonfire.
All seven inhabitants of 27a Lanhedge Avenue stood around Ben’s bonfire. He lit it ceremoniously by setting prepared cones of paper alight and inserting them in the pyramid. The twigs and leaves caught and everyone oohed at the ever-enlarging fingers of flame. The heat increased. A slick of blue could be spotted every now and then in the fire.
“Benni, I hear a noise.” Graciella pointed to the base of Ben’s glowing pyramid.
All were directed to a scuttling sound at the bonfire’s base paired with a faint squeaking in the flames. On instinct, Ben stepped forward. The dangerous heat of the bonfire stopped him.
“Quick, get the bucket of water!”
One of the flat-sharers stepped forward and doused the nearest corner of the pyramid. It collapsed in a sizzle. Sodden ash and twigs shaped themselves around a carapace with protruding spikes. Everyone took a step towards the scene. Ben picked up the oven gloves, which had been alongside the tray of warmed spanakopita. He slid his hand under the grey ball. It uncurled. Everyone gathered around and stared at the hedgehog. Two pink hands and two pink feet twitched back at them.
“You’d better find a box and wrap him up. That little thing’s going to need some TLC.”