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Barry Ronge Fiction Prize shortlist: Claire Robertson on the genesis of her book The Magistrate of Gower (Plus: Excerpt)

Published in the Sunday Times

The Magistrate of GowerThe Magistrate of Gower
Claire Robertson (Umuzi)

I came across the story of General Sir Hector MacDonald, a British officer in the Boer War. He was the epitome of the noble outsider, a brave and brilliant general who was hounded to death for being of humble birth and gay (I am still not sure which the Establishment felt less able to forgive).

The discovery of his story (and the fact that one of his lovers was said to have been a Boer prisoner of war) coincided with growing unease on my part at the resurgence of nationalism and the current rise of false history – a distortion of the recent past to serve a dishonourable political agenda.

These two preoccupations came together in The Magistrate of Gower. Very fortunately for the reader, though, such Big Ideas tend to take a back seat to the human lives and loves when one comes to tell the story, and in the end the book is about a young woman and the magistrate of a small town playing out the proof of Oscar Wilde’s subversive observation: “The advantage of the emotions is that they lead us astray.”

Extract

(The year is 1938, the scene a street in the town of Gower. Mrs Poley is a leading figure in the shack settlement on the town’s outskirts.)

It is almost summer, and on Church Street children in cotton nightdresses and pyjamas chase one another among the adults. About halfway down the street the magistrate is speaking quietly to Mr Theron, watching Mrs Cordier rattle her collecting box. And here it comes, a rough shriek. A shriek, a screech, a scream:

“Tim! You bloody bastard! Tim! I will bloody smash you!”

It is Mrs Poley, out of breath and in a terrible dress. She is trying to run and at the same time has one of her bosoms in her left hand to push it back behind the bib of her apron as she comes around a corner into the bright light of Church Street. She stops dead at the sight of them, a street of people playing Statues and all of them looking at her. For a long second she does not move either — her hand on her breast in its loose dress as though she is holding a spanspek high on her chest, breathing like a running dog, and a boy’s stupid giggle the only other sound.

She folds her arms across her bosom. She starts to smile a sorry-boss smile, then lifts her chin and scowls at them.

Somewhere among the stock-still people on the street the dog Tim is still running, and as he comes into the light they can see that he has in his jaws a leguaan, dead, its monkeylike black claws moving as he runs, as though they are reaching for something and falling back, reaching and falling. Its tail hangs almost to the ground and the dog has to hold its head high to keep it from dragging on the tar. Now the town dogs are streaking up the street to attack, and although men shout at them and try to block them, there is no chance that these dogs will not go after something that is, rolled into one, an intruder and limping and carrying a trophy.

In a second they have it from him.

The dog Tim trots a few steps away from them and looks back, as a jackal would, but the town dogs, curiously enough, just stop where they are, as though they are waiting for orders.

Mrs Poley, meanwhile, is on the move towards her dog, her face dark with risen blood. Mr Theron says, “No, man,” in Afrikaans, softly, and as Mrs Poley passes Vena Cordier, Vena lifts the fingers of one gloved hand to her nose, an extra unkindness.

Before the woman can reach her dog, Mr Villiers from the bank steps up and speaks the name of his dog; it is a ridiculous town name, Monroe. The big yellow dog with the leguaan in its mouth comes to its master at once. Mr Villiers waits a moment and then says, in the same actor’s tenor: “Sit. Sit. Drop it.”

Monroe obeys to the letter and Mr Villiers takes out his handkerchief and picks up the great lizard, holds it away from him with both hands, a strangler’s grip, and steps into the sanitation lane left over from when Gower was on buckets. They hear the dustbin lid lifting and being jammed tight again, then Mr Villiers is back in the light, wiping his hands on the same hanky. He gives Mrs Poley a schoolmaster’s look. She, breathless with anger, tries to catch sight of her dog among the people on the street, calling “Tim! Tim!”, but something in her voice scares him worse than the town dogs and he takes off, splashing urine on his paws. The giggling boy laughs like a bark. Mr Theron says again, under his breath, “Ag, no, man.”

The magistrate steps out from among the townsfolk and walks quickly across the street to where the big woman stands alone among the proper Gower people. He takes her elbow and turns her, and all the time he has his head down near her face, talking to her, pointing with his free hand. In this way he brings her away from staring Gower and back to her corner, where he takes leave of her with a tip of his hat.

The magistrate, returning to Theron’s side, is already regretting his actions. He had felt the heat and agitation of the woman’s outrage when he held her arm and brought her away from the lit street to the threshold of the darker part of Gower. He regretted doing so, regretted doing anything at all. She had hated him, was humiliated, he thought, had furiously strained against a world where cunning and strength and the essential art of veld foraging to feed a family (if that was the intended fate of the leguaan) must bend the knee to the bland ambitions of respectability, to this ascendancy of herd animals.

The dogs have returned to sit at their masters’ feet.

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