Away from the Dead

Karen Jennings

A collection of short stories putting ordinary African lives into words

Sample Passages

  • The opening of the title story

    Rumours spread among the workers that the farm had been sold. The old man, dead two weeks previously, had left the farm to his children; children who lived in cities overseas; who had no interest in farming. In that respect, the workers comforted each other, the sale of the farm was a good thing. For what good could have come from it being run by those who did not know how? Yet, behind the words of reassurance, they worried privately. Would they keep their current wages? How much would change? And most importantly, would the new owners keep them all on?
    Before long the answer came. None would remain. Farming was an expensive and unreliable business. The new owners, property developers, explained in letters addressed to each individual worker that money could no longer be made from farming. Climate change, the expense of irrigation, regulations with regard to pesticides, all of these made farming too much of a liability. Money, the developers asserted, came from having something people wanted to buy. Therefore they had chosen to build luxury holiday chalets, import game for hunting, and build a nine-hole golf course, marketed at an overseas clientele. This, of course, meant that there would no longer be any need for farm workers. The new owners therefore respectfully included severance packages (of a more than compensatory amount), and requested the workers to leave before the end of the month, otherwise legal action would be taken.
    Standing outside their small cottages, showing their letters to one another, they read the same words over and over. They did not speak any more. They did not cry. Instead they turned and looked at their cottages, their small gardens and washing lines. Behind their homes, in the distance, they saw the cemetery: grey gravestones neatly spaced, surrounded by a low wall of white. A marker of those they had lost; the old, the young, the stillborn; it had formed the background to their lives. What would happen, they wondered, to the dead? Who would tend to them once the living had left?
    Isaac Witbooi stood to one side, away from the others. His grief was his own. His grandparents, parents, siblings, wife and children had all been buried in that earth, leaving him with no one. He carried silently the loneliness of years. Ageing now, perhaps sixty, perhaps more, he had come to look forward with certainty to the day he would join his family in the cemetery. Robbed of that possibility, Isaac Witbooi looked to the future as an empty plain without end. There was no horizon; only stretching out, flat and dim, the years to come.
    In the week that followed, Isaac went to neighbouring farms, asking for jobs from people he had known for years. He did not beg or plead, nor did he remind them of the past when he had given advice or the sweat of his brow in times of need. Instead, he anticipated their words, knowing full well what they would say: ‘You were always a good worker, but you’re an old man now. What can we give you to do?’
    As the end of the month neared, Isaac packed his belongings into a brown cardboard suitcase which had belonged to his wife. Over the years of disuse its fastening had rusted so that he had to tie a length of rope around it in order to keep it closed. The few items inside – clothes, razor, Bible, mug, plates and cutlery – rattled against each other as he lifted it. Glancing around the small cottage to see if he had everything, Isaac then stepped outside and closed the door behind him, before removing the key from the lock and pushing it under the door as they had been asked to do.
    Among the last to leave, Isaac said goodbye to nobody. Those who remained stayed only out of a reckless hope that the end of the month would never come, or if it did that something miraculous would happen to prevent their eviction. Unwilling to see the desperate looks on their faces, Isaac said nothing, feeling only their eyes on him from behind the windows of their cottages as he passed by. He felt no remorse at parting from these people he had known since their births, for it was, after all, not them that he was abandoning. Instead it was the cemetery that he was leaving, and with it all the years of his life, and those of his parents’ and his grandparents’ lives too. They were years he could not put a number to, nothing exact, because each year held so much of every other. Whether a hundred, or whether less or more, those years made up his past, and with every step he took, the suitcase banging against his thigh, it was as though a moment of that past was beaten out of him.
    All morning he walked, passing families he recognised who had made camp on the side of the road.
    ‘Sit, have a rest, Oupa,’ they greeted him, sipping tea boiled over small fires. Isaac shook his head, pressed on.
    ‘What’s the rush?’ they called after him. ‘There’s no work that way! You’re walking to nothing!’
    By the time he approached his destination, a large service station with a restaurant and café, his ears were ringing with fatigue. He felt dizzy – from the walk, from thirst, from age, and from the weight of the suitcase, heavy and awkward at his side. Dizziness settled in his throat as he approached the intersection beside the service station. Already the roadside was crowded with workers who had left the farm a day, a week before. They greeted him with wariness, silently making a space for him beside them. As he put down his suitcase, sitting upon it like a chair, they asked whom he had seen, what news he had. But Isaac had nothing to share, and soon they tired of him, returning to standing with their hands in their pockets, frowning up and down the intersection, waiting for something that wouldn’t come.
    From where he sat, Isaac looked back towards the large area taken up by the service station. Among the uniform-clad petrol attendants he recognised Randall, a young man he had taken under his wing a few years previously, teaching him all he knew about farming and maintenance of vines. Further away, near the doorway to the toilets, Isaac could make out Randall’s wife and sister carrying mops and buckets. They, too, were in the service station’s uniform; bright colours covering them from head to toe. Keeping their faces low, their eyes on the ground, neither Randall nor the women allowed themselves to look up towards where their friends and family sat beside the road, their belongings scattered around them. Even from a distance, Isaac understood by their expressions the guilt they felt for their good fortune. He turned around, facing the road so that his shame need not become theirs.
    For five days Isaac remained, as men younger than himself were picked up on the backs of farm bakkies, either for jobs or simply hitching rides to anywhere else. By the afternoon of the third day he no longer joined the other men as they crowded around the windows of stopping cars, murmuring qualifications. The drivers took in his old and lined face, his trembling hands and watery eyes and shook their heads. They had no work for him. ‘You should go home,’ they said. ‘You are too old to be hired. It is time for you to rest, to have your children take care of you.’ Isaac stepped back from the rolled-down car windows, allowing others to take his place in the crowd.

    © Karen Jennings – The full story has been published in Karen’s latest short story collection Away from the Dead. You can buy this book in print or e-format from the top of this page.

  • Development

    It wasn’t my first solo job, but it was the years after the Depression and even companies like the one I worked for were struggling. There was talk of halving the workforce and doubling the hours, so when the Durandeau file came to me alone, I made a point of seeing to it as soon as possible and telling the boss I could handle it. After all, I had a wife at home, a baby soon to be born.
    It was busy work in those days with all the businesses going bust and the abandoned buildings numbering more than the occupied. Someone – our boss’s boss – bought these, at less than a dollar some days, and it was our job to go inspect them. To remove any valuables – once a butcher’s freezer full of newly hanging carcasses, another time a trader in furs who’d left his entire stock behind – and to make sure that none of the recently homeless had made a place for themselves in the vacant properties. A job easy enough to do on paper, but less so when you walked through the doors and saw forgotten personal possessions or had to throw out a family of squatters whose faces, beyond the grime, looked too much like your own. But it was a job and that was enough to mean it was worth keeping.
    My boss’s boss had sent through the Durandeau case as a matter of urgency. The plot was large and he needed the building demolished and a new tenement block erected by the end of the year, before the economy had a chance to stabilise. Cheap places were in high demand and he wanted to squeeze what he could out of the Depression. It was March already and I saw little hope of the tenement being completed in time, but I would do my part and leave it at that.
    I drove to the Durandeau place on the same morning that the file came to me. The streets were full of the unemployed. Men with placards begging, women with children in bread queues and, all along that part of the city, townhouses, apartment blocks and stores falling into disrepair. Montgomery Street was no different with its bare windows, cracked walls with peeling paint and weed-heavy yards, so much so that I missed the place at first and had to drive to the end of the road and circle back. As I was parking in front of Durandeau Enterprises, an old man came out of the neighbouring derelict building. He had on a dressing gown and a pipe, empty, in his mouth. He saw me approach the gate and shuffled forward saying, ‘I wouldn’t go in there. It’s haunted.’
    ‘I beg your pardon?’
    ‘Haunted. Full of strange sounds. Like voices but not like voices if you know what I mean.’
    ‘I see.’
    ‘It’s Durandeau, I guess. That’s what we all think,’ he said, gesturing to take in the immediate neighbourhood. ‘Unhappy in life, unhappy in death.’
    ‘Yes, I see,’ I said again, beginning to make my way up the path.
    He followed, the pipe clenched between his teeth, and continued to tell me of the man who had been his neighbour for some fifty years. ‘Came from Paris in 1882. His granddaddy had a business there, renting out ugly people.  So, if you’re only so-so, you hire someone ugly and beside them – BAM! – you’re a looker. Just like that. So Durandeau, the grandson now, he says, it’s such a hit in Paris, I will bring it to the good ol’ US of A. But I don’t know, maybe it’s the American attitude or ’cause we’re so damned fine looking,’ he snorted, ‘but it failed. Kinda chugged along for a few years, and then began to fail. Durandeau sold his house, divorced his wife, moved into the building here and spent all the time working, working to try and make the business succeed, even after his last client left fifteen years after the business began. Lived here like that until his death maybe five, six months ago.’
    We had by now reached the offices, the front door standing ajar, its handle missing. All the windows on the ground floor were broken and the glass crunched beneath our feet.
    ‘I’m afraid I can’t invite you in,’ I said.
    ‘Well, on you go then. Don’t let me keep you,’ the man said, turning back towards the road. ‘I’m not interested in going there anyway. Anything worthwhile’s been taken already.’
    The door was swollen in place with damp, so I had to squeeze through the opening the looters had left me. In the passageway several pigeons fluttered at my entrance, before settling on the light fittings. The carpet was littered with their droppings and feathers, the wallpaper was peeling and the portraits were crooked or on the floor. Other than that, it was a normal enough building. Four large offices downstairs, six smaller ones upstairs. One of these appeared to have been a storeroom for clothing. They hung there, suits and dresses of every colour and fashion. Against a wall were long mirrors, so blemished that my body and face came back at me distorted. On a row of shelves wigs sat on wooden heads, their curls unravelled and shadowy with dust. A safe had been ripped from the wall and lay open on the floor. No doubt it had contained jewellery at one time, but now it was empty.
    In a bottom office a filing cabinet had been overturned, scattering paper and photographs across the carpet. The photographs showed mostly country girls: rough, sunburnt, with coarse hair and narrow eyes. Annie from Johnsontown. Sarah from Greeneville. Peasant women uncomfortable in fine clothes, who carried that discomfort with them in their general demeanour. I found, too, amongst it all, part of a list dated 1905: Miss M. Willard had hired Clara three nights running before switching to Fanny for five. Mr Edward Landy had hired Samuel to be seen with him at the Opera on three separate occasions. Mrs O. Faber had paid for Lucy’s company for one night in every week for a period of two months. In another room I found what must have been Durandeau’s bedroom. It was sparsely furnished with a slim cot, a flat pillow, a blanket, and on the floor beside the cot, a pile of notebooks, the writing all in French, of which I knew none.
    Those were the rooms and they contained nothing of interest or value. According to the site plans, I had only one more to go – a basement that was to be entered from the outside. I went through the front door again, round the side of the building and into a narrow alleyway where four steps led down to a door. It was banded by three separate crossbars, each with a lock of its own. I returned to the car for my bolt-cutters and struggled to cut open the thick metal. When, at last, I was able to drag the heavy door open, it was the stench that made me think something was awry. I had never smelled anything like it and was forced to bring my jacket to my nose in order to be able to move forward. I walked several metres into the dark, scanning my flashlight across the area. It took some time before I understood what it was that I was seeing. But once I did, I retreated hastily, shutting the door, pulling the cross bars to, and all the time gagging at the stink that had glued itself to my nose and mouth.
    Of course I refused to go back there again, though the authorities went many times and carried me back there, too, with their endless questioning.
    ‘What did you see exactly?’
    ‘Tell us again, what was it that you saw down there?’
    ‘What do you know about this? What did you find during your search?’
    But my answer could not change. ‘I keep telling you. I know nothing. All I know is what I saw and I don’t even know what it was. Things like people, but not like people.’
    The interviews lasted several days and nights. I was detained in a room all the while, brought food and given a cot – like Durandeau’s – to sleep on between sessions, until at last, it was the Thursday, I think, they said I could go if I agreed to sign some documents about what I had seen.
    ‘Please,’ I said to my inquisitor, a middle-aged man with a wiry moustache and various badges on his lapels, ‘how can I sign about what I’ve seen when I don’t even know… What did I see? What were they?’
    ‘Son,’ the man replied, ‘this Durandeau was – I don’t know what you’d call it – breeding, I guess, hideous people. Deformed. That’s what we’ve been able to determine from the notebooks he kept and the basement where you found them.’
    As he spoke, I began to understand what I had seen, what Durandeau had occupied himself with all those years alone. And I began to imagine it – the confinement of an unattractive couple or couples. Their copulation controlled and limited until they bred with their own offspring, until they became father, brother, grandfather, nephew all at once. In this way brains were weakened, reason grew increasingly distant, and deformities of the body were common. Hanging lips in front of toothless gums, infants born without ears or eyeballs, without feet or forearms. Kept in the dark, their diet inadequate, their bones either fused or brittled, their backs curved, goitres growing at their throats. No longer were they able to walk, moving by crab-like motion across the basement floor.
    The man with the badges and moustache told me that rainwater had been piped in from outside so that Durandeau’s pets always had enough. But after his death there had been no one to continue his daily feeding and cleaning. It was believed, based on bones found in the basement, that they had resorted to eating one another.
    ‘They are not human. That’s all you need to know,’ the man told me as I left the interrogation room.
    No word of Durandeau’s scheme was breathed to the public, and the documents I signed swore me to secrecy on the matter. I kept my word and have never mentioned what I saw, until now. A fortnight after my visit to the place, a local newspaper reported a spate of gunshots late one night coming from the Durandeau place and police vans parked nearby into which witnesses claimed to have seen numerous covered bodies hauled. Cops, when interviewed, were vague, speaking of bootleggers in general and the constant fight against the criminal classes.
    I did not go by there again. Not till more than a year later when I had to inspect a nearby building. By then the Durandeau place was gone and the tenement building had been erected. From its windows stared out the poor inhabitants, victims of the Depression, their faces grown unsightly with need.

    © Karen Jennings – Development has been published in Karen’s latest short story collection Away from the Dead. You can buy this book in print or e-format from the top of this page.

Summary

Karen Jennings is a wonderful story writer. In just a few sentences she is able to paint a picture of a community, frame a life, and to make you see and even almost smell a place.

Together the stories highlight facets of African society and in particular South Africa. Karen Jennings has a touching way of writing about the lives of the underdogs. The distinctions between the different layers in society are beautifully captured.

In the title story Away from the Dead we meet Isaac Witbooi, a farm worker, who has to come to grips with losing everything including the graves of his entire deceased family.

In After Spring a couple takes a holiday but we’re drawn into the issue of identity:

Even if they hadn’t heard us speaking English earlier, they would have known our foreignness simply by sight. It is visible to them in our facial features, the way we wear our clothes, our hair. The fact that we are third and fifth generation South Africans respectively matters little to them.

Making Challah is a touching picture of an ageing woman, and it uses the baking of challah as a wonderful metaphor of passing time.

Ridwaan and Chadley are On the Train, a seemingly routine journey but somehow a dog has been acquired and it’s been Chadley’s first time to kill.

Find out how it felt to be Andries Tatane who, on 13 April 2012, died during a service delivery protest in Ficksburg, South Africa.

In the Narrative of Emily Louw, a true story, a young woman regrets not having given something to old Emily after listening to her sad story:

At the second, a policeman had looked at the blanketed child, her worn face and bleeding feet and he had smirked, as though to indicate that her husband had left by choice and couldn’t be blamed for his departure.

Next is a thoughtful reflection on being called Muzungu when a white South African woman visits Uganda.

From Dark is a rallying call to remember that illegal mining causes the deaths of hundreds every year.  Zama-zamas (Zulu for ‘chancers’) live underground for months at a time, dying in police raids, fires, cave-ins and poor conditions.

A young couple’s outing goes horribly wrong in At the Seaside. Grandmother’s great big wicker picnic basket, which was supposed to be a treat, takes the blame.

An ‘informal settlement’ of zinc shacks on the flatlands sets the scene in Allotment. Warda Meintjes and her husband struggle to survive. A great stadium for the World Cup is being built but Warda’s unborn child stops moving.

The homeless were being rounded up by police, placed in trucks, driven out into the countryside and dumped. ‘Thank God we’re spared that,’ one woman said. ‘Don’t fool yourself,’ another replied. ‘That is us. It has already happened to us.’

In The Shark Mia’s very sense of being gets overtaken by events. A dark story leading on to Development, darker still, but thought-provoking, and about what it is to be human.

The Wall is almost surreal and deals with growing old on the street.

Alletjie lives with her husband Jan Bakker and Solly, her disabled brother, next to an old mine built by Cornish miners in the 1880s. Their circumstances are a cut above those of Warda and her husband, yet, ‘living on the old goats and chickens and a disability grant was never enough’, and Alletjie who ‘does everything’ thinks it isn’t fair, ‘the mine owned her this future for herself’.

Resurrecting again exerts a certain surreal appeal. A father takes to his bed because of a crushed pigeon or is it a metaphor for a crushed soul in the office? His son is told to pray but is there going to be a resurrection?

The stories:

Away from the Dead
After Spring
Making Challah
On the Train
Andries Tatane
Narrative of Emily Louw
Muzungu
From Dark
At the Seaside
Allotment
The Shark
Development
The Wall
Alletjie Everything
Resurrecting

Most of the stories have been published. From Dark won the Africa Region prize in the Commonwealth Short Story Competition and The Shark won the English section of the Maskew Miller Longman short story competition in 2009.

You can read From Dark on the Berfrois website.

Away from the Dead was launched at Open Book in Cape Town South Africa on Wed 17 Sept.

Karen Jennings’s debut novel Finding Soutbek was shortlisted for the 2013 inaugural Etisalat Prize for Literature.

Karen’s Travels with My Father, an autobiographical novel was published in November 2016.

ISBN: 9781907320439
Number of pages: 107
Price: £0

Reviews

‘Jennings’ searing collection, which so poetically depicts life at all levels of South African Society.’

‘Stories such as Jennings’ offer a powerful tribute to the complexity of lives inhabiting this remarkable globe.’ – Alice Robinson in Arena Magazine, Australia

‘Within a few sentences Jennings sets the scene and her characterisation is deft and feels authentic. Jennings is seriously talented and I would definitely read her next book.’ – Novel Escapes

‘Karen Jennings’ short stories are like searchlight beams’ & ‘Jennings has the good storyteller’s intuitive knack of saying a great deal in a very few words’ & ‘a collection of beautifully crafted and poignant stories that can stand side by side with the very best.’ – David Gardiner on facebook

‘In each story, the characters are in three dimensions and live on long after the story is finished.’ – Emma Lee’s Blog

‘The characters are vivid and easily recognizable. The reader connects immediately and is engaged throughout.’ – Henry Tobias on Amazon

‘Jennings’ writing is evocative, bringing everyday existence in Africa alive with her sharp descriptions and intriguing characters.

‘The sadness that Africa, and South Africa especially, is still such an unequal society haunts every page but the lack of self-pity is admirable. This is a fine short story collection that shows a maturity belying the author’s relatively tender years.’ –  Shirley Whiteside on Book Oxygen 

‘Karen is poignant. She seizes on the individual, and casts them alone, bringing to bear, the ‘long road’ that is life.’ – The Star, Kenya

‘Throughout Away from the Dead Jennings sensitively lifts the veil shrouding the concept of death.’ – Book Bites on Books Live

‘This collection of short stories stands out not only because of Jennings’s rich and poignant writing, but also for how she portrayed the chilling realities of those left behind as death lingers and finds its place within us.’ – Kholofelo Maenetsha on Books Live