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The Shadow Knows

Gordon was an outlaw on the run from justice, marriage and a steady job. Yet he is Everyman at heart, and every man has a friend who’s like him: the troublemaker, agent provocateur and shit-stirring demon-seed who bedevils plans for a better, cleaner life.

Original publication: SL, 1998.

shadow knows

‘The prankster’s ultimatum is simple. Where do you stand – with Us or Them? If they rate at all, commitments to women and work are regarded as secondary interference; what’s paramount is loyalty before else to the untamed male pack.’

No one knows where Gordon* is now. Dead, a car park wino, or on the run from the law for assault and battery – it’s anybody’s guess. Gordon always said he travelled the world because he feared settling down and becoming a ‘number and a fixed address’. So perhaps, in an ironic twist, he’s lying low somewhere as a married suburbanite, disguised as Everyman, and waiting, like Everyman, for the chance to break cover from his nine-to-five duties and run wild again with the male pack. One day the phone will ring in his friends’ townhouses and Gordon will be on the other end, crackling in a foreign accent and more sulphurous than ever.

Gordon was like a hand grenade that had had its pin removed yet had not detonated. You could never tell when he’d go off. Fetching up at his pal Roger’s* parental home years ago, he’d be courteous one moment, and then seconds later casually ask Roger’s mother, ‘So, how the fuck are you?’ He’d follow this by yelling to his unseen friend, ‘Rog, hurry up! Are you wanking in the bath?’ Together the lads would head off for an all-nighter.

His shirt still tucked in, Roger would be sipping an early beer in a restaurant when Gordon would return grinning from the john. ‘Let’s fuck off,’ he’d announce: ‘I’ve just trashed the toilets.’ Roger would take a look. Sure enough, the toilet lids would’ve been kicked in and the taps turned full blast to overflow on the floor; in an artistic touch, a plastic bulb snapped from a cistern would lie in the urinal trough, along with toilet rolls and twisted brushes. Yep, Gordon’s grenade had exploded. Time to leave and never come back.

The onus would fall on Roger to outdo this stunt at their next stop, and thus would begin a typical spiral of vandalism, boozing, drug-taking and fornication that would only terminate at sunrise after they’d stolen braai wood and petrol from a dozing garage attendant, then returned on a second trip to plunder whatever goodies they couldn’t fit in the car the first time.

In his late twenties now, Roger’s respectably employed, but if Gordon ever broke radio silence from his underworld whereabouts and phoned up, Roger would find it hard to resist the temptation to join his schoolmate and former travelling companion on a renewed quest for evil. ‘We brought the worst out in each other – or the best,’ Roger says, reminiscing about the gift Gordon gave him before they parted. ‘It was Christmas Eve in London,’ he says, ‘and as we left a pub Gordon said, “Here’s your present.” He turned around to a stranger and said, “Hey, pom!” and – pah! – headbutted him to the ground. “Merry Christmas, Rog,” he said, and we went home.’

Gordon’s an outlaw figure, an outsider to the domestic norm. He may still be fleeing justice after one of his later brawls nearly turned homicidal; equally, he might be masquerading as someone who’s ‘settled down’ with fixed employment and a wife or steady girlfriend. Yet Gordon is Everyman at heart, and every man has a friend who’s something like Gordon: the troublemaker, agent provocateur, twister of rubber arms, and shit-stirring demon seed whose name stinks in the nostrils of honest society. Every man dreads – yet perversely desires – his midnight phone call. Beware his invitation to join him for ‘one or two quiet drinks’. Should you return from this rendezvous, you’ll have lost both job and girlfriend, your name will be in the bin, and you won’t even be able to look your Jack Russell in the eye.

Roger denies that Gordon was a bad influence. ‘I won’t do anything I don’t want to. If you’re in the mood for shit, you’ll do it. If someone else’s in the same mood, it’s easier for you, that’s all. With some people you have a chemistry that makes you wild.’ As Roger explains, he himself had been a corrupting influence on his cousin. ‘He’s easily led astray, and I got him to drink, smoke dope, take prostitutes home, and just see the light. He’s never looked back. But with him it’s still different. I’ll get as pissed with him as I usually do, but there’ll be no shit involved – it’s just clean, conscience-clear drunkenness.

‘With other guys like Gordon, though, there’ll be trouble whenever we go out, be it a fight, or car accident, or an all-nighter. You never know when you’ll be back. The night could just go on forever. It could be your last night every fucking time you go out with guys like that.’

Certain types of male bonding ignite dangerous chemistries between participants, and the more self-destructive the interpersonal chemistry, the more complex the bonds of mutual allegiance and complicity. As Leo* says, ‘The vibe between some guys becomes a drug in itself, never mind what they’re consuming. A group of nerds will have a few drinks and go home early. But put a bunch of hooligans together and they’ll spur each other on to become more hooligan-like. If you wanna leave, it’s like ‘Naah, Leo, when last have you seen me, I haven’t been out with you for months. Let’s make the most of it!’ They create a crazed atmosphere and you get caught in their euphoria.’

Leo illustrates the argument that ‘guys psyche each other into being fucked’ by describing how, at their insistence, he got clean-cut friends of his to smoke joints on a college train trip. ‘I said, “Here, kap it, boys,’ but little did they know all they were smoking was tobacco. It didn’t matter, because they convinced themselves they were goofed. That tobacco was good shit.’

With his slow blink-rate and watchful eyes, Leo counts himself as one of the Gordons of the world. ‘I wanted to make their name gat[arshehole],’ he says of his college mates, who revered him as an anti-role model. ‘Anyway, I didn’t want to disappoint them. Some guys are bad influences on themselves, let alone the people around them, and if you have a reputation like that, you’re obliged to live up to the crowd’s expectations and behave more hyper than usual. But I can’t make anyone do anything they don’t want to. I can plant the seed,’ he reflects, ‘but I can’t make the tree grow.’

Leo’s m.o. works like this. ‘You want to go out, so you choose a victim you can influence. You phone him and he says, “Nah, I want to be clear-headed tomorrow.” You’ll reply, “Bullshit. It’s not like you’re working in a nuclear silo. I’ve also gotta work tomorrow, so we’ll just have one or two scoops and go home.” But fuck him! Once he’s in your car, there’s no way out. You know that, deep down, he actually wants to get trashed. You both know there’s no such thing as “a quiet drink” but you still go out, knowing that at least someone else’s in the same boat – he’s also got responsibilities he’s neglecting, so you’re not going down alone. When he complains about getting home at five in the morning, you say, “You fucked up – you trusted me.”’

There are buddies, Leo remarks, who mix together, whether in pairs or groups, like the active and passive elements of ‘fire and gasoline’. One element takes the initiative, the other is briefly inert before erupting in chaos. Take Laurel* and Hardy* as examples, Leo suggests ‘With me, Laurel’s a drunkard; with Hardy, he’s an alcoholic. If they’re together and deciding, ‘Should we, or shouldn’t we, have another bottle of vodka?’ I guarantee you they will.’

Then there’s the flatmates Jessie* and James.* Jessie is a corporate employee, James self-employed. Touching thirty, Jessie struggled to get his life in order, but he says, ‘When James started drinking, it was like trying to stop the tide from coming in, and he’d take me down with him. It’s hard to build a future when you’re so hungover you can’t tie your shoelaces.’ He would return from a binge with James, shower, and head straight for work; while James slumbered in his fartsack at home all day, Jessie would be red-carpeted for sleeping at his computer. That evening the nightmare would repeat itself.

Abandoning his gym membership, Jessie also lapsed extravagantly in his fidelity to a long-distance relationship. He and James progressed from hard drinking to gambling to sussing out city bordellos, first as curiosity-seekers, later as aficionados. On the rare evenings when Jessie stayed home, James would return to their flat after stopping on the way for pizzas and prostitutes. Jessie’s bedroom lights would blaze up, and there would stand a rugged woman brandishing an alarm clock and saying through her chewing gum, ‘The clock’s on, lover – we’ve got 30 minutes.’

What are friends for? The Bad Friend is a prankster who bedevils his friends’ plans to transcend the gutter of post-adolescence towards a better, cleaner life. It’s as if he were a satirist intent on stripping away his friend’s pretensions and forcing them to confront their inherent macho baseness. As Tyler* remarks affectionately of Archie*, ‘He’s the most insensitive fucker I’ve ever met. He’ll go out of his way to embarrass everyone around him – lighting joints in public, driving like an arsehole, shouting at pedestrians. When I lived with him, I’d just started a demanding job and had to catch a train at 5.30 a.m. Reluctantly I’d join him for the proverbial “one or two” at a suburban bar. Come midnight, though, Archie’d decide he’s going to town, and if I wasn’t coming – “Well, find your own fucking lift home,” he says.’

The prankster’s ultimatum is simple. Where do you stand – with Us or Them? If they rate at all, commitments to women and work are regarded as secondary interference; what’s paramount is loyalty before else to the untamed male pack. Leaving the pack is ‘wimping out’, putting it in second place and enslaving yourself to the false gods of Work and Family. On the other hand, shedding your civilised garb and running naked with the dogs, fearless of consequences, shows self-sacrificing loyalty to your friends – and love. Buddies consummate friendships in alcoholic trysts; not for nothing are these trysts described as ‘getting fucked together’.

Some pranksters good-naturedly set their buddies’ priorities straight, reminding them that they are essentially dogs who need to run free; others operate from an envious sense of exclusion from the world of commitment and work and undermine friends who possess that apparent stability.

This was the case with Stanley* and Vincent.* When Vincent’s father divorced his promiscuous wife and bought a new car to signify a fresh start in his life, Vincent’s little joke was to drive it through the garage doors. These pranks continued when Vincent began work, and Stanley, his senior in rank and years, took a shine to him and intervened to save him from dismissal.

They became another ‘fire and gasoline’ duo, with Stanley, a young parent, ‘scrounging from the baby’s milk money’ to subsidise their jaunts. Stanley was always aware of Vincent’s ‘spitefulness’ and how he vented it in vicious practical jokes. But only later did he realise that this spitefulness was also directed at him, and that his act of kindness in saving Vincent’s job would be repaid with resentment over their on-off 20-year association.

Vincent married into a wealthy family, and would invite Stanley and wife to his home to belittle them and flaunt his upmarket acquaintances. Not content with that, he’d pressurise Stanley into going out, then secretly supply his friend’s already furious wife with embellished accounts of Stanley’s transgressions. ‘He’d pour oil on fire,’ Stanley remarks. As for his own wife, Vincent ‘was itching to tell her, let’s say, that he’d screwed a whore. What’s he do? He tells her everything but claims I did it. He painted my name black. She thought I was the dirtiest animal alive.’

Helped into the bourgeois mainstream by Stan the Family Man, Vincent wanted to demonstrate that the tables had turned, and that he was the respectable insider, Stanley the outsider. Indeed, Vincent’s history indicates repeated failures of integration: expulsions from charities, short-lived dabblings in churches, fly-by-night address changes …

Why did Stanley let their friendship continue? ‘Vincent’s charming and fun, but he can become a bastard at the snap of the fingers. I feel sorry for him. He’s sick, and what can I do? I’m the only real friend he’s got.’

If the Bad Influence is often a maverick on the mainstream’s fringes, this doesn’t mean he can’t manifest himself as a bloke in a suit and wedding band. In fact, says Julian,* ‘the worst are the married guys, because when they slip their leashes their only goal is to misbehave. My friend Gary’s* the married, house-mortgaged, three-kids type, and when he tries to escape the drudgery of home life, he’s on a mission to destroy his buddies.’ Not only is Gary a family man, he’s also Julian’s boss.

A gargantuan piss-up during working hours began innocently enough when Gary suggested that he and Julian pop out the office to plan their day over a short lunch. ‘It quickly became apparent,’ says Julian, ‘that the plan had already been made without my being consulted and that there were no work issues on the agenda at all. We were in the queue in a fast-food place when Gary suggested – well, while we’re out, let’s have a pub lunch instead. We went to some bar, and he says, well, while we’re here, we may as well have a quick beer … And, ah what the fuck, while we’re here, let’s have five tequilas …double whiskeys … a game of coinage … more beers. I left seven hours later. Gary stayed till midnight. Without a shadow of a doubt it was all premeditated.

‘The five tequilas over lunch were a little warning sign,’ says Julian, ‘and when I resisted, Gary says, “Aw, don’t be a fuckin’ girl!” – shit like that. All the time I’m mentally planning my schedule to prevent matters compounding into the following day and ruining the rest of the week. I’m that kinda person – I do things now. Gary’s also that kinda person – if he wants to get drunk, he’ll do it now. And through the wonder of technology, he can phone 20 pals to join him at the bar. His reasoning is, well, all these guys are here now, so I definitely can’t leave.

‘I think inherently Gary likes being drunk, but he knows it’s socially taboo to get pissed on his own every single night. If he invites his friends, he can blame it on them, and if he varies the company every time, he’s got a different set of excuses for each occasion. He thinks like this: When I drink I get into shit at home, but if I get all my friends drunk, they’ll also get into shit. Then it doesn’t matter: we’re all the same. It’s not me drinking as one isolated person – it’s all the guys drinking as a big, happy team and fucking up our lives together.’

As a team, as a pack, male bonds can thrive on potent, and sometimes combustible, chemistries. The Bad Friend, the shadow who knows the evil in men’s hearts, unrelentingly reminds his peers that, however much they pay lip-service to the importance of their wives, girlfriends, jobs and social standing, their first allegiance is to the pack. Yet the anxieties his phone call introduces into his buddies’ lives is merely a foretaste of the chaos the pack as a whole can wreak. For the pack’s geared to ‘fuck up their lives together’ and its collective death-wish makes the men who run with it less dogs than lemmings, racing to the sea.

This is what Ryan* discovered after several months in an informal nudist colony on Sandy Bay. A group of ten partygoers – army veterans, out-of-works, psychos – had built a warren of bush huts there, eventually attracting a group of around 30 transient revellers to their Eden.

As they shed their clothes, so they shed inhibitions. ‘It was like a hippie commune,’ Ryan says: ‘Free love, drugs and sex … We were like a pack of dogs. Inside it the pack had its ranks, but intruders would have to prove themselves or else everyone would turn on them.’

But over time Eden began to rot, becoming an asylum for delinquents and ‘weirdos who’d stick their dicks in anything and have sex in full view of everyone’. Clans formed inside clans, like the one headed by the father who frolicked with his naked daughter and was suspected of instigating ‘occult rituals’. Police raids and arson attacks raised the temperature in the oasis, and guys, ‘permanently fucked’, became aggressive. The revels followed a logic of escalating transgression – what was outrageous one week was passé the next. One ‘test of manhood’, Ryan says, involved drunkenly leaping into the sea from a high ledge; some tourists followed suit and had to be rescued by helicopter after being raked on mussel beds.

The turning point for Ryan came when they scattered the ashes of a ringleader who’d been murdered outside a nightclub. ‘He was a follower of Dionysus, and it seemed appropriate to have a mass orgy. But that night a sif vibe came over the place.’

What happened? ‘Something didn’t feel good. We were going too far beyond the norm, and I heard warning bells that I was in danger. I’ve seen too many people who’ve never left that denigrating situation. It went from being fun to making a statement to being a heavy scene where I was afraid of the person I was turning into … After that night I never went back and I lost contact with all those people. To this day I don’t know what’s happened to them.’

 

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