Sunday, 27 May 2007

Sleaze in a small town

I often used to drive past or through small towns in South Africa and wonder what the people did there – the old joke about watching the traffic lights change springs to mind. Then I moved to a small town myself – one that didn’t have any traffic lights and only got its first stop street about three years after I arrived (but no, not because of me).

I’ve lived here for seven years and can now reliably report on what people in small South African towns do for fun. Mainly, they drink. And as a secondary – and not entirely unrelated – pastime they commit adultery on a fairly impressive scale.

I know they drink because about a year after having moved to the country in search of peace, tranquillity and a cleaner way of life, I’d become a raging wino. Because the truth is, there isn’t much to do out here in the boondocks. If you don’t have wheat to grow or cows to milk or sheep to shear or chickens to do whatever you do with chickens (kill, I suppose), you’re left with a lot of time on your hands. And when you go over to your neighbour’s for a morning cup of coffee and they say, ‘White or …?’ and you say, ‘Oh, black, please, and one sugar,’ and they say, ‘No, white or red?’ you eventually come to regard this as normal. As you do your afternoon siesta, taken not to hide from the heat or recover from your morning’s toils, but because you’re too pie-eyed to stay standing.

An offshoot of this rural dipsomania is the regular collapse (usually on a Saturday night, but it can happen at any time) of normal civil society’s ethic and moral codes. I went to a party once and, predictably too pissed to drive, walked home in the early hours of the morning. I returned the next day to reclaim my car (which I discovered I’d parked cunningly in a ditch) and found a harassed-looking man combing the area. ‘Lost your car?’ I asked.

‘No, my wife,’ he said.

I once had a boyfriend who worked at one of the local pubs. One evening, needing to deliver an urgent message to him and knowing he’d never hear his cellphone ring (it gets very, very loud in the locals on a Saturday night), I walked up to the pub. Having battled my way through the three-deep crowd at the bar and leaned over the counter to shout the information in his ear, I turned to leave. An attractive but catastrophically inebriated woman gripped me by the shoulder. ‘Don’t waste your time,’ she slurred. ‘I’ve already tried to pick him up but the bastard says he’s got a girlfriend.’

‘Thanks for the advice,’ I said, but she wasn’t done yet. ‘But hey!’ she added, ‘the other barman’s an MBA!’

I know the other barman very well and if he’s got an MBA, I’m a tin of sardines. ‘Really?’ I said.

‘Yes. He’s Married But Available!’ she crowed.

Obviously, when my boyfriend got off shift I enthusiastically showed him my appreciation for his fidelity (ref any of Tony Park’s books for details). But here’s the thing: the drunken slag was actually right about the other barman, and word in the village is that later that night she availed herself of his education.

And, as evidenced by that anecdote, it’s not only the men who are irretrievably sleazy. The women are, if anything, more so. And what I find really astonishing is how the women will unashamedly fight over a man, even if (a) the man is married, (b) to a friend of theirs, or (c) they themselves are married, (d) to a friend of the man’s.

There are two things about life in a small town that make regrettable dalliances difficult to deal with. The first is that there’s just no getting away from them: there they are, fresh and early the next morning, buying bread in the local co-op (often in the company of their wives/husbands and/or children); and there they are again, at a local fete (wives/husbands, children, etc); and again, on the verandah of the Royal Hotel on a Friday afternoon; and again, walking their dogs past your house; and again, at a meeting to decide a town-planning issue; and again, at little Johnny’s birthday party…

The second is that small towns thrive on gossip. Before I entirely clocked this, I would do ill-advised things, like meet a neighbour for a quick drink at the Royal or go walking with someone around the dam or invite an acquaintance over for dinner in order for us to get to know each other better. And if the person involved was a male, it wasn’t long before the news was zipping around town that I was having an affair with him. So there is nothing – nothing! – you can do in a small town that you can keep secret, and many things you don’t do that also aren’t kept secret.

(I have, over the years, learnt to moderate my alcohol intake, and let the record show that I have never had sexual relations – no, not even in the Bill Clinton way – with anyone local who is/was married and/or romantically and/or sexually involved with any other person in any way.)

How people in small towns amuse themselves reminds me of how a friend of mine reacted to an impertinent question posed to her at a dinner party once. She was the only wife present who didn’t have some sort of wildly impressive and high-flying career – all the others were lawyers, doctors and astronauts, and let everyone know it – so when one of these paragons of modern womanhood asked her, ‘And what do you do?’ she squared her shoulders and answered, ‘I wash dishes and I fuck.’

What people in small towns do for fun? They drink and they fuck.

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tonypark said...

Proof, if ever there was, that truth is stranger and more interesting than fiction.

Thanks for the plug.

Pun intended.

Guy McLaren said...

OK this is fucking awesome. This blog shall be favorited

Juno said...

Thanks Guy (although I admit I didn't write the piece - my darling Muriel did). I don't mind basking her reflected glory though....

Muriel said...

Guy, do I assume correctly that you know small towns? Scary, aren't they?