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Bullet Club

In a society torn apart by crime, the Bullet Club fills a special need and comes with exacting entry requirements. New members must have suffered a near-death experience from gunshot wounds – and be driven by an unslakable love of life. Not to mention booze.

Original publication: SL, 1999.

David Southwood series Shrapnel

It began when the world ended. It began when Carl Botha pulled up behind the car stalled on the off-ramp and, gun drawn, walked through the night to ask what the matter was. No, boss, said the shrouded driver: engine trouble. Carl had been pursuing this car. He had chanced by an all-night garage and the attendants pointed out a car that was idling up and down past them with its lights off. Carl gave chase, and the car sped onto a freeway. Now it stood waiting for him. Engine trouble, huh? He glanced inside. The five occupants sat in silence. Something wasn’t right. Carl drew back and pulled the door open. He’d noticed what was wrong. There was no key in the ignition: a stolen vehicle, hotwired for the ride. ‘Listen,’ he announced, ‘I’m a policeman and you’re all under arrest. Keep your hands where I can see them.’

Time stood still on the empty road; the dice rolled.

When the gunshots came – twice, in quick succession, ‘like a cracker in the dark, you just see sparks’ – the first bullet drilled into his stomach, the next ripped into the base of his neck and tore out through the shoulder. Carl stumbled down the road and collapsed. At that moment he discovered something extraordinary in its simplicity.

‘I lay there and thought, ‘Fuck – I’m not dead! That’s crazy!’ So I stood up again – and this shows you what an arse I am – I unloaded my gun into the vehicle. I remember the car’s doors opening and the oke’s bailing out. Only the next day did they tell me that these guys had robbed two garages that night and that I’d killed one and shot another in the legs. I put eight bullets into the car and lay down again. One of the bullets went straight through and hit a yellow street light. The whole thing exploded. I remember thinking, ‘Hell, that’s actually quite pretty.’’

The shooting happened in July 1994. Flash forward by four years and Carl is standing at the centre of a commotion that’s very different, even if life-threatening in its own way: a monster piss-up where the only shooters he has to confront are Springboks and tequilas. Laughter rises above the noise of the bar. Above the greetings, the oaths of welcome, the joking, clinking of glasses, and conversation, a high, snarling cackle spirals up to the ceiling every so often. Heads are thrown back in hilarity, the mouths agape, the eyes shut; thighs are being slapped, tom-tom style, in a war dance of mirth.

A genial totem pole of a man, Carl is holding court, whether ferrying rum and cokes to old friends, or spending a quiet moment with newcomers. Life in Pietermarizburg goes on as usual for Carl. He owns a panel-beating shop, he’s still a police reservist as he was in 1994, and runs the Comrades Marathon, despite the fragment of bullet lodged in his leg. He’s turned 50. ‘Fifty?’ you echo, incredulous at his good health. ‘Yes, 50 inches. Oh, sorry, you wanted my age,’ he jokes.

Four years have passed since Carl’s near death experience, but while life goes on, the incident was the start of a rare social institution. Every year Carl commemorates its anniversary in a special style. What does he do? He throws a party.

‘It’s important to carry on with your life,’ he explains. ‘Some people’s brains are fucked when something happens. But you just have to learn to handle it.’ So popular have these parties proved that they are evolving into an annual event for more than just Carl and his friends, and every year a few more victims of violent crime join him. Carl shrugs and laughs, slightly perplexed by the thought that attendance at these events is likely to grow in the future. ‘Maybe we should get a club tie, something with a bullet hole in it, or whatever.’

With or without a members’ tie, Carl’s annual commemorations have developed into an informal club that is symptomatic of South Africa’s new, covert state of emergency. For want of an official name at present, it could be dubbed The Bullet Club, and its seven or so members are distinguished by the fact that each has been a gunshot victim.

‘The idea came from my sister,’ Carl says. ‘She had a hysterectomy, and she invited all her mates who’d had hysterectomies to a hysterectomy party.’ Carl and his friends, some of whom were also battle-scarred police reservists, decided ‘on the anniversary of my shooting we were gonna go out and enjoy ourselves. Originally, we wanted to go to the spot where it happened and sit on the side of the highway with a carry-pack, but we thought, ag blow this! Let’s rather have a few beers in town. The excuse behind it was to see if I was still leaking from my wounds.

‘The thing grew from there. I thought it was unfair that should just be about me. I heard about more people getting shot, and I’d contact them and say, ‘This is what I do every year – why don’t you join me?’ It’s been growing like that for two years now. It’s helluva informal, just a couple of people who say, ‘C’mon, it’s time for us to have our annual get-together.’ I think it’ll grow, because it’s a common thing that people like to join. You feel at ease, like you’re among friends. We’ve all got a common bond.’

The 1998 meeting is in full swing. Booze and conviviality are flowing, and the laughter from the Bullet Club’s still crying out in the bar’s mêlée. As Carl says, the club’s growing because it’s based on a common experience of violent crime in South Africa. Yet your awareness of this is partly what accounts for the evening’s weirdness. As an outsider, you join in the club’s high-jinks, content with the apparent normality of it all, but every so often you’re conscious that you’re in the company of dead men drinking. Worse, it comes to you that they’ve survived a death-dealing fate that is somewhere out there, an arrow in the night coming for mother, father, brother, sister, lover, friend – coming for you. Shit will happen; shit wants to fuck you up. One day shit will find you. What will it be like?

So, for an outsider it’s curious drinking with the Bullet Club. You feel like an impostor, sharing their éspirit de corps without having achieved the right to do so. It’s as if you’re celebrating among people who’ve survived Russian roulette, prematurely believing yourself to be one of the lucky gang when in fact you’re still in the queue somewhere, waiting with other South Africans for your turn to have the revolver put at your head.

The magical survivors stand in a loose cluster, ordinary people doing ordinary things, but it would take an Oliver Stone to film them, intercutting these public scenes with eye-blink flashbacks of their private horror shows: lurid colours; a severed, dislocated montage of images; the bloodwashed eye of a fallen camera; a soundtrack of screams, and voices distorting in slow-mo playback.

There’s Henry, a businessman shot while driving home. There’s a cop who laughs that the club has ‘scraped the barrel’ in finding pretexts for piss-ups, then confesses that ‘things make you question whether God exists, but if you have love in your heart you won’t stay angry for long.’ There’s Pete and Elizabeth, bottle-store owners who were shot by armed robbers. Elizabeth describes how doctors drained 1,5 litres of blood from each of her husband’s lungs, and how their medical aid scheme liquidated at the time, leaving them with hospital debts worth R385,000. On the group’s outskirts is a young woman, another gunshot victim sussing out the club.

Then there’s Thatch Engelbrecht, 28, who was invited to the Bullet Club after being shot in July 1997. Thatch is a muscular guy – ‘he wears a Harley Davidson for an H-frame,’ his buddies joke – and with his shaven head, goatee, and arrowed sideburns, he’s a popular figure in ‘Maritzburg. He’s a legend, in fact. For Thatch is almost literally the survivor of Russian roulette, and when he was wheeled into hospital, the doctor said, ‘Do me a favour – have a word for me Upstairs, because you’ve got contacts there.’

Thatch had been living with the boss and his wife. One morning the house was attacked. ‘They pushed the door open on the maid, and tied her up,’ Thatch says, speaking in the hoarse whisper he acquired after his vocal chords were damaged in the shooting. ‘The carpet cleaners came, and they tied them up. My driver arrived to fetch something – they tied him fucking up as well. My boss’s wife arrived; they tied her up. Then I arrived.’

As Thatch pulled into the driveway, the robbers were leaving. ‘The guy came to me with a gun and said stay in the car. Then he walked past the front of the door, came round, and shot me.’

He shot Thatch in the face, under his right eye, and the bullet exited behind his ear.

‘You don’t feel fuckall. I thought I’d been shot in the temple. The guy ran past me, thinking I was dead, there was so much blood and shit.’

Help quickly arrived and Thatch was rushed to hospital. ‘I’d lost so much blood I was starting to lose it. I couldn’t stay upright. I thought if I close my eyes I’m dead, so I tried to stay awake. The hospital staff thought I’d been shot in the back of the head, there was so much blood, and I was try’na tell them, No, under my eye. You can’t breathe, that was the worst. The blood’s going straight into your lungs. Jesus, after 30 minutes the pain started coming. They gave me morphine, fucking wonderful stuff. I was praying for water, dreaming of flowing water. I tried to drink but I’d throw up. You can’t swallow, blood’s everywhere. A nurse told me, ‘You’re very lucky.’ I said, ‘I’m glad you think I’m fucking lucky.’ I apologised later.

‘My mother said she walked into my ward and had to walk out again. She was almost sick. She saw stars – she talks of the stench of blood. I had lots of visitors that Friday night. I woke up feeling my head was exploding. On Saturday morning I read the newspaper, and saw something I’ll never forget in my life. There’s a story about a youngster who played basketball for ‘Maritzburg Tuskers. He hit his chin during a game and died. I’ll never forget reading that and thinking, Fuck! I’ve been shot in the head and I’m fine, and this poor guy’s been hit on the chin and he’s dead.’

On Sunday his morphine was replaced by aspirin, Thatch protesting that ‘this wouldn’t even cure a hangover’, and by Monday, three days after admission, he was discharged. ‘I told the doctor, “You’re fucking mad – I can’t go home yet. I’ve been shot in the head!” I walked out of hospital and was back at work ten days later. The wound healed – no stitches, no scars.’

Thatch has a message on his cell phone he’ll never erase: the sound of his original voice, his past self still innocent of what was to come. His new self speaks in a soft asthmatic bark, and Thatch’s many close friends tease him on this score, good-naturedly urging him to ‘speak up’ or filing behind him if they’re in a dodgy situation. ‘Let Thatch go first,’ they’ll say, as if he were a Highlander Immortal: ‘He’s bullet-proof.’

Thatch loves this banter. ‘I could worry myself shitless: how can you be shot in the head and it doesn’t hit your brain?’ As Carl Botha exclaimed, it’s ‘crazy’ that you should still be alive. There’s triumph in the ‘craziness’ of being alive, but the near-miss also causes anxiety. If the bullet’s direction had been fractionally different, Thatch might have died. And if the hold on life depends on arbitrary probabilities and million-to-one odds beyond your control, doesn’t that bring home what a tight-ripe walk life is, how slender the things are that keep you in one piece, and how unlimited the things that will plunge you into free-fall? Isn’t it easy to freeze up in dread, alone above the abyss?

Thatch moves on bravely, anchoring himself in friendships. ‘I enjoy myself,’ he says. ‘Why save yourself for tomorrow? Tomorrow might never come.’ He seldom sleeps. ‘All you do when you sleep is sleep. It’s a waste of time. … I was fucking unhappy that I might die because I was happy with myself. But if I die tomorrow I can say, Fuck it all, I had a brilliant time last night.’

Thatch is a leading protagonist in the Bullet Club, but on its fringes is 40-year-old newcomer Gabriel,* a Sting-lookalike trying to quit smoking by sucking an unlit cigarette. He recently immigrated to South Africa. Before then he’d been trampled by a horse and crushed under an excavator. Four months ago Gabriel came close to death again.

He’d driven to a farming district in KwaZulu-Natal to visit a 70-year-old woman living alone. The driveway gate of her house hadn’t been opened as promised, so he vaulted it and knocked at the door. Through the window he noticed ‘a black guy’ and an overturned chair in the hallway. He vaulted the gate again to retrieve his cell phone from the car but reception was non-existent. What now? He was in a remote area, and concerned for his friend.

Taking a pick-axe handle from the garage, Gabriel made his way to the back of the house, finding the kitchen door open. Two Alsatians were kept in the courtyard. He released them, hoping they’d enter the house, but they wouldn’t. He had to go in himself.

The kitchen floor was streaked in blood. He moved down the passage, opening each door in turn with the axe handle. He peered into the lounge – torn sofas, upended tables. Gabriel stepped back into the hallway.

Detonation.

‘I was shot in the chest without warning. The force knocked me to the ground, and the guy came towards me, pointing the gun to shoot me in the head. I lay there, and all I could do was talk to him: ‘You haven’t killed me – if you do, you’ll be in trouble. Let me go. I can’t harm you .’ He thought about it for a while and said, okay, you wanna hamba?’

Gabriel staggered from the house, retracing his steps to the gate. ‘My mind went into survival mode, and it’s saying to me, What’s going on? My front was saturated in blood. I couldn’t see where I’d been shot, nor was there any concentration of pain, no burning or searing, just numbness. I’m thinking, okay, breathing’s worsening, the bullet must’ve hit the lungs, so I’ve gotta take smaller breaths.’

Reaching the gate, he toppled over it, breaking some ribs, and jogged towards the farm track in pouring rain. ‘Now I’m feeling queasy, my senses are starting to disappear, it’s hard to keep my eyes open, and I feel like I’ve run a marathon. I fell over and a young black kid run and pulled me off the road. The rain’s so hard the kid holds his shirt over my eyes. I remember grasping a thorn bush and squeezing it to stay awake. Something told me I mustn’t fall asleep, so I’m squeezing the thorns every time I start going off.’

The kid’s friends alerted a farmer, and an hour later Gabriel was in intensive care. ‘Survival was the only thing on my mind from the time I was shot to when I was stabilised. In some ways there was a feeling of euphoria: okay, I’ve survived this. It’s like climbing Everest. It was the biggest battle of my life. I survived by remembering what I’d learned, but it was probably more luck than anything else. The bullet could’ve crippled me, or killed me. No one knows how’ll they’ll react when it happens. I just wanted to survive.

‘More frightening than being shot was seeing the horror on visitor’s faces when I was in hospital. It came home to them that this can happen to anyone. It always happens to someone else; that day it happened to me. It wasn’t them, but it was close to them and it frightened them more than me. I used to joke that everybody expects to be shot sometime, so I felt I’ve had my turn, it’s behind me: lightening doesn’t strike twice. The chance of my being shot again is greatly reduced. But maybe I’m just kidding myself.’

Speaking softly, slowly, Gabriel says, ‘This isn’t something I discuss a great deal. It brings a chill to me – the old lady was raped, then killed. The hardest thing I have to live with is that I couldn’t help her. I don’t blame myself … It was just such a waste.’

And his reaction to the Bullet Club? ‘I came here out of curiosity. It’s not therapy to me at all. In some ways it’s rather morbid.’

This is a newcomer’s dubious verdict. How does Carl Botha, the club’s leader, respond? Is it a support group? ‘I’m not the sorta person who’s into talking about ‘how it happened’ and that kind of shit,’ he replies modestly. ‘Yeah, people do like telling their stories to people who know what it’s like: it’s frustrating talking to those who don’t, like describing a parachute jump to someone who’s never done it. But it’s horrible to say, at the moment we really just get pissed.’

The club’s ethos is less introspective than forward-looking, claiming back the right to normality after a season of suffering, and celebrating the ‘crazy’ fact that against the odds its members are alive. ‘The idea,’ Carl says, ‘is to show that life carries on and that you’re not gonna be put down by what happened. I’m not lying down and dying for criminals. Stuff that.’

 

* Names have been changed.

 

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