The Friday Night Book Club: Read a short story from Phumlani Pikoli’s ‘intense and provocative’ The Fatuous State of Severity
More about the book!
The Friday Night Book Club: Exclusive excerpts from Pan Macmillan every weekend!
Staying in this evening? Settle in with some popcorn and this extended excerpt from Phumlani Pikoli’s debut short story collection, The Fatuous State of Severity.
About the book
The Fatuous State of Severity is a fresh collection of short stories and illustrations that explores themes surrounding the experiences of a generation of young, urban South Africans coping with the tensions of social media, language insecurities and relationships of various kinds.
Intense and provocative, this new edition of the book, which was first self-published in 2016, features six additional stories as well as an introductory essay on Pikoli’s publishing journey.
Read the excerpt:
So we’ve decided to create a blog about our nights out together. Instead of the typical one-sided point of view, we wanted to create stories from both our perspectives of the individual nights. It’s a no-holds-barred attempt at making sense of the crazy times we live in! So, like, share, tweet and retweet and we promise to always keep it real no matter how real it gets! Here’s our first post! Peace and love, Hern 🙂 #Blogging4Likes
It’s been a long flight home and all I wanna do is put my bags down, forget about work and have a beer away from the ties and suits I deal with daily. Where I don’t have to pull bullshit figures out of thin air and make promises no one realises I won’t keep. The wonderfully insane thing that people believe about Africa is that money works here in the same way it does wherever they are. They really believe that we dance at fast-food outlets when we spend our salaries there at the end of the month. I could give myself space to be angry at all of this, but that’s what the ‘columnists’ and ‘vloggers’ of our time are there for. Of course, no one pays these people any mind until their companies are highlighted by Twitter for an hour or two. Because of this, in the Year of Our Lord and Saviour ‘Digitisation’, any black kid who had internet growing up is automatically qualified to do PR for any major company operating out of Africa. We have a ‘particular viewpoint’ that speaks to the greater demographic. We ‘understand the nuances’ of the contemporary social landscape and can make sure that the ‘light-hearted humour’ is not ‘taken out of context’. Three Bachelor’s degrees and a Master’s later, this is my life: compiling social media strategies for companies trying to target a young black audience with first generation expendable income. Did you make it to that Travis Scott concert? Thanks for paying SAB to pay me.
Now that you know what I do, let’s go to the bar. Vern is waiting, as promised. It might be 11 pm on a Sunday, but she knows I need to vent and that – obviously – I’m buying. Renato is placing down her second draught by the time I arrive.
‘You’re late!’ he shouts at me, Vern’s glass in the air.
‘Renato, please!’ I say with my hands together. I sit next to Vern, throwing my jacket over the back of her chair.
‘Hardly landed and already you’re spreading,’ she says, looking into the mirror across the bar and taking a swig. I put my wallet on the bar. ‘You also smell like shit,’ she burps through her second sip.
Renato is back with my beer and three tequilas. Saltless and lemonless, the stains they leave in our mouths are foul enough for us all to cough at least once. The shot glasses are off the table and
the other regulars are being tended to. He knows there’s catching up to be done.
This is exactly the debriefing I need. I love how sticky these unvarnished wooden floors are. The cigarette musk inhaled by all the surrounding wooden furniture. The newest feature in here is the jukebox and that’s only by five years. There’s no cake in the urinals, no shit paper in the one-and-only stall, nor a lock, and there probably isn’t even a working tap for us to wash our hands. ‘Special Star’ by Mango Groove blares over the VH1 images of George Michael’s blue-and-white hotpants, silently mouthing, ‘Wake me up, before you go go’.
‘You managed to get fired yet?’ I ask rhetorically. Vern has a habit of waiting for her third beer before she starts talking and I’m finding it hard to deal with the clashing sights and sounds of gumboot dances and Georgie’s jitterbug to fawning women. Finally she finishes it, as do I. Renato notes our eyes on the TV and empty glasses. He brings refills of both, as well as tequilas. He smiles, I smile, Vern keeps watching the TV.
‘The second shot is always better!’ Renato boasts.
‘The second shot is always better.’ Vern approves.
‘It truly is.’ I concur.
Renato is off back to the corner to speak to his Mango Groove-playing customers. They’re all weather-beaten middle-aged white people. Sometimes you can’t immediately tell with these places, but on closer inspection they’re not exactly poor, nor are they being obnoxious enough to be rich. Rich whites would have bothered us by now, and asked what we were doing in a place like this. Even if they think it’s beneath them, they still believe they own it. I mean, that’s a general white problem, but these ones are reasonably tame. They’re just twirling to ‘Special Star’ and singing, ‘Ooh … ooh-whaaa’. My amusement must show on my face, because one of the red-faced men suddenly gives me a thumbs-up; I smile and hold up my beer to him. He goes back to twirling one of his companions.
‘I’m the one playing this shit.’ Vern finally looks at me in the mirror. My jaw drops. Finally she breaks into a smile. ‘Can’t you at least shower before you come out? You smell like the sweat of the people you were flying with.’
‘I will next time. Promise. But, fuck, I needed this shit. That bullshit is killing me.’
‘It’s feeding you. Remember that.’
‘Like food can’t kill you.’
‘Food poisoning or starvation?’
‘At least you get to travel.’
‘Like you don’t for your job!’
‘Yeah, I know, that’s why I said it.’ She gets up and leaves me for the bathroom.
So, for those of you who are new to us, Vern is short for Veronica. An inside joke between my father and me. The quit-my-job jibe was Henry’s stupid humour. I love what I do and I don’t complain about it. Henry claims to hate what he’s doing, but every time one of his strategies is actually executed by these companies, he comes home, complains and spends all the money he claims to hate making. I’m not too far removed from his line of work – what’s with the one-ply in these bathrooms? – I just don’t bitch and moan every step of the way. I conceptualise, shoot and edit videos for most of his campaigns actually. I travel to places where I learn a lot more about the shit I enjoy doing from people I’d otherwise never have access to. Yeah, the job quality is primarily shit, but no one gets to make money from their art off the bat without a trust fund. He has one, by the way …
We met through mutual friends a few years after varsity and he’s been a lost dog in my lap ever since. He has this whole persecution complex that comes with having money thrown at you while being mediocre. The whole ‘hating being a social media strategist who supposedly gives insight to Africa’s “emerging” markets thing’ is just fodder for dinner conversation. He’s the kind of person who doesn’t see the irony of encouraging veganism among poor communities purely for nutritional purposes.
What I love about Renato is that he never skips a beat with the drinks. I sit down to a fresh one waiting for me and another round of tequila. It always gets me that no matter how much we drink, Renato drinks with all his regulars and remains the last man standing. We take our shots.
‘It only gets better from here!’ Renato declares.
‘It only gets better from here!’ I say to him.
‘It surely will,’ sighs Henry. Renato leaves us again.
I had lined up ‘My African Dream’ after ‘Special Star’. The whites are loving the nostalgia of it all. I don’t know why I feel like winding Henry up today, but he’s definitely confused about the theme I’ve chosen for tonight. I smile at him through the mirror.
‘What are you doing here?’ he asks, looking into the same mirror.
‘Guess I’m celebrating our jobs. Isn’t this what we’re really trying to sell? Afro-optimism?’
He looks at me for a while in the mirror and then sinks back in his high-backed barstool. I don’t feel bad about teasing him. He’s always looking for some form of pity – and he gets enough from everyone else. Just not me.
‘How is she?’ There it is. Finally. The ‘reason’ for all our catchups. The ‘reason’ we’re friends. It’s the same bullshit over and over, what guys do. They always need one friend who’s a woman, the one who’ll be their voice to understand the other side.
‘Call her, send her a message, write her, I don’t care, but I’ve told you over and over again that I’m not doing this for you any more.’
‘She won’t speak to me.’
‘I hope she doesn’t, to be honest.’
He’s injured by that statement. I really do mean it, but I guess it’s always a shitty thing to kick a person in the gut when they’re already squirming on the floor. I order another round of tequilas from Renato on his dime as a sorry. There’s no toast this time. I remember one of the reasons why I started compiling this playlist. It wasn’t just to fuck with him.
‘You hear about Simon Molefe?’
‘The saxophone dude?’ Henry asks. We’re still only looking at each other through the mirror across the bar. ‘No, I haven’t checked anything since landing.’
‘Oh, yeah, well … he’s dead.’
‘Oh shit! What the fuck happened?’
‘Apparently he snapped his neck when he fell down a flight of stairs leaving his flat.’
‘Goddamn!’ Henry gasped. ‘That’s a pretty fucked-up way to go, though … How old was the dude?’
‘Why? You thinking of developing a strategy for life insurance?’
‘Stop being so shitty.’
‘Okay. Fair. He was like 59 or something.’
‘Wait, that guy also used to come here and talk his ass off about all his tours and shit, didn’t he?’ He finally catches the theme of the jukebox. ‘Ah, I see now! Asshole!’
‘Still, though, that’s such a weird way to die,’ he continues.
‘Yeah, I know, right?’
‘Yeah.’ He takes a sip from his emptying beer. As Renato approaches, Henry asks whether he’d heard about Simon. Renato is very rarely anything but optimistic and chirpy, but he looks at us and sighs.
‘Eish, my man Simon.’ He shrugs, pours the shots, and refills our beers. ‘May the restless finally find rest.’ And he walks off with a smile.
I can see Henry’s mind working. I watch through the mirror how his eyes squint in Renato’s direction before he climbs off the barstool and heads off to the bathroom.
The first relief is always the best. It’s the one that confirms the fuzziness of it all. It’s the stretch after sitting still for hours. That release of pressure is the most pleasurable. The sound of the verve with which the water explodes is everything. My shoulders shrug off their tension and I get to click my neck. The alcohol also has a habit of putting me in my feels. I really wish that faucet switch was here to help. Some water on the face would steady me to the present.
Vern is cool with her not speaking to me. She won’t even try to see shit from my perspective or understand my part. But she’s the only one of our mutual friends who’ll still speak to me. Fuck Vern for being this cold. Jesus fucking Christ, I’m in agony here! Who the fuck is she to pass judgement on a relationship she has absolutely no idea about? Okay, wait let me steady myself. Breathe, breathe, breathe, breathe. Just go drink.
She watches me through the mirror as I approach, the soundtrack PJ Powers singing ‘World in Union’. The music’s really starting to get to me. I’ve got to stay calm though. Before she has a chance to say anything, Renato is back for our ritual. My thoughts swim back to before I left for the bathroom and I remember I had had a question for him.
‘Ren, my man, what d’you mean when you said, “May the restless finally find rest”? You mean Simon?’ I catch Vern’s eye-roll in the mirror but I bring my concentration back to Renato. He gives me a pained look and says, ‘Some stories aren’t ours to tell, my man.’
My last tequila and solid memory.
That’s the problem with drinking with Henry, he’s a messy fucking drunk. It doesn’t take him long to finally make his way to the table, enjoying my selection to sing along. Arm in arm at the top of their voices, ‘God bless the rains in Aaaafrica!’ They love him, obviously. They’re touching his hair. He’s their drink supplier now. His unfocused bloodshot eyes are trying to focus on me. I repeatedly tell him I’m not going to speak to him about his fucking dysfunctional relationship with his sister. He’s apologising to me. I’m out … Let him enjoy being a pet.