Back to Table of Contents >

In late January 1991, I was in a private Johannesburg hospital. Four feet of rubber tube drained the blood from my left lung into a glass receptacle. I had been stabbed.

* * * * *

I was on a semi-working holiday. My idea was to investigate the South African phenomenon of ‘family suicide’, in which the depressed Afrikaner father would shoot, or poison, his wife and children – and then himself. The main purpose of my trip, though, was to visit old family friends. I was staying in their bungalow in a northern suburb of Jo’burg – a kilometre from Alexandra. Alexandra was an incendiary township even by apartheid standards.

Warren was an expat Englishman and a devout Lubbavitcheh Jew in his late fifties. Now dead, he was in 1991 the survivor of not one, but two aortic ruptures. He found himself in Jo’burg after several unhappy, disillusioning years in Israel. His South African-born wife, fifteen years younger, greeted my arrival with a detailed lecture – about the locking of security gates and the use of panic buttons. I smiled quietly to myself at this paranoia, and thought little more about it.

* * * * *

The following Monday morning, exactly a week later, the radio clock by my bed informed me it was 4.37 a.m. It wasn’t the first alarm – an unthreatening basso profundo monotone – at 4.35 a.m. that gave concern. I had heard this sound a dozen times a day, and more, since arriving. Anything from the sharp movement of a spider to a sneeze would provoke it. Within a few seconds, someone turned it off. I drifted back into the sleep from which I had never fully emerged.

The second alarm, though – the one activated by pressing a red button on a hand-held panic panel connected to a private security firm – was another matter. A mortifying, two-tone counter-tenor screech, like a New York police car on helium. Remember the scene in Silkwood when the nuclear power plant worker activates the radiation sensors after contamination with uranium dust?

This one was impossible to ignore – even before I heard increasingly desperate cries of ‘Matthew, Matthew, he’s killing me. For God’s sake, Matthew’. The cries came from the kitchen. My reaction was less automatic, perhaps, and certainly less brave, than it may appear. For a fraction of a second I ran over the options. But by the time I was on my feet, it was already clear that my reflex response – to hide in the cupboard until the noise abated – was not a serious option.

That would have been the courageous act, the one truest to myself.

The coward’s reaction, having gauged how reports of this valour would play back in London, was to light a Marlboro red and take a trip to the scene of the action. What I saw there – fag hanging from mouth and clad only in a pair of Wacky Races Y-fronts – came, initially, as an intense relief. A slim black boy (more accurately, the café-au-lait boy), about 5ft 6in tall, barefoot and wearing an engaging ensemble – orange shorts, blue and white hooped T-shirt – was bent over Warren, repeatedly crashing a hammer on to his skull. The hammer was prima facie evidence that, unlike most Jo’burg house-breakers of that era, at least this one wasn’t packing an AK47.

It is impossible to guess accurately how long the ensuing struggle took – in the absence of a clock radio, and given the distortion of time caused by traumatic events. Common sense suggests three or four minutes.

Still puffing on the Marlboro, I picked up a dinner chair, holding it in front of me as I edged forward. A series of hammer blows caused it to disintegrate like a bar stool in a Wild West saloon brawl. Then the boy took his hammer to my head – freeing Warren to crawl off into the hall where he slumped on the carpet.

Warren’s wife was screaming. She had somehow managed to pick up a hammer wound of her own to the forehead. The siren whooped. The boy yelled – reedily hysterical yells – and I shouted wheezy shouts. It was medieval Bedlam in a third rate BBC costume drama.

Warren was motionless in the hall. His wife tended to what appeared to be his corpse. So the dining room was cleared now for an eccentric duel. Another chair was smashed to pieces. As I sashayed across the floor towards the kitchen, my right hand gripped his bony left wrist, while his right hand looked in vain for the space and trajectory to deliver a knock-out hammer blow.

We rested for a while by the fridge – a brief period of incongruous tranquillity that brought to mind those Christmas Day football matches in no-man’s-land between British and German troops in the First World War.

Then hostilities resumed. The drunken dance retraced its preposterous steps to the dining room table. I may vaguely have noticed a quick hand movement and a glint of stainless steel. But, if so, I thought nothing of it – preferring to point out to the boy that if he didn’t make a run for it at once, the security people were sure to arrive within minutes and would shoot him dead in lukewarm, if not cold, blood.

‘Then turn the alarm off,’ he screamed. I picked up the device and pressed the ‘off’ button. It was now that I remembered a brief conversation over dinner the night before – about the need to replace its batteries.

‘Turn it off,’ he repeated, a little louder, raising the hammer and giving me a whack on the left arm.

‘Look, it doesn’t work. Try it for yourself.’ Realising the truth of this, after a farewell hammer blow to my head, the slim boy departed. How he squeezed himself through one of the iron grilles guarding all the windows I have never understood. But that was how he got in, and that was how he got out.

The scene he left was schlock horror banal. Out in the hall, Warren’s wife was sobbing down the phone as she bent over what still seemed a dead body. Blood was splattered over the white walls and skirting boards. It lay in little rivulets on the carpet. My next action was starkly at odds with orthodox medical advice. Had I known then about my punctured lung, I would have thought twice about it. I lit another Marlboro and dragged deeply on it.

Halfway through the cigarette, I noticed for the first time a sharp, precise ache five or six inches below the left shoulder blade – the site, a doctor later explained, of the nerve endings of the lung. There had been no pain from the hammer blows – the torrent of adrenaline had seen to that. Nor from the stab wound, of which I was still unaware. But as the ache became excruciating, first inhaling smoke, then the act of breathing itself became almost impossible.

I must, I assumed with bizarre detachment, be dying.

Quiet now fell over the bungalow, punctuated only by the restrained weeping from the hallway and my own muted gasps. As we waited for the ambulance, I was perplexed to find that my primary concern now was not survival – but leaving a note on the front door explaining my absence to the friendly taxi driver due to arrive at 7 a.m. to take me on a tour of Soweto.

I never did write that note. The ambulance arrived. Two bored paramedics, all too familiar with such events, strapped Warren into the back. An oxygen mask was slid over my face. Almost instantly, my breathing improved and the agony began to subside.

Aurally, it had already proved a morning of intriguing contrasts, and so it continued. As I lay on a trolley in the lobby of Jo’burg general hospital, I could hear twin sounds. One was a violent electrical storm sizzling above the high altitude city. The other was the heart monitor strapped to Warren in a nearby cubicle. Due to a fault, it was emitting the continuous dull bleep well known to viewers of ER and Casualty as the dreary song of cardiac arrest.

In fact, Warren was alive – with a fractured skull and the several broken vertebrae that were to keep him in hospital for two months and a back brace for a further six. He had been moved to intensive care by the time I was wheeled for the X-ray. A few minutes later, a young Asian doctor came over and gravely announced ‘there’s air in your lung’.

Adopting a supercilious, insouciant tone, I said I’d always thought that having air in them was rather the point of lungs. No, he said, the lung was punctured. I needed an emergency pneumothorax – an operation, under local anaesthetic, to insert a tube to drain the blood and reinflate the lung. He gave me a jab, waited a minute, produced a scalpel and made a deep, four inch incision just below the left armpit. ‘Fuck,’ he said in all apparent seriousness, as the blood plashed on to his smart black shoes, ‘this is my best pair, I’ve got a hot date tonight, and you’ve ruined them’. ‘Dreadfully sorry,’ I said faux-nonchalantly, ‘I can’t imagine how I could have been so thoughtless.’

An hour or so later, I was transferred to a room in the private clinic, the machine bubbling away at my side. Strangers began to arrive. The first was a lavishly bearded Lubbavitcheh friend of Warren, who stood in the doorway repeatedly thanking God in Hebrew – ‘Baruch Hachem, Baruch Hachem!’ – before asking for my mother’s maiden name. Post-shock low blood pressure and pain, now the anaesthetic had worn off, had driven out the insouciance. I asked him sharply what, in the name of Hachem, he thought he was doing. He intended, he replied, to fax the Lubbavitcheh Rebbe in New York. The Lubbavitcheh Rebbe is the sect’s closest thing to a Messiah – a former nuclear physicist whose subsequent death his followers still refuse to acknowledge. He would ask the Rebbe to say a prayer for me. My aggressive atheism was no barrier. The significance of my mother’s maiden name, I later realised, was to confirm that, however rigorous an unbeliever, I was of the faith. I pointed out that, on current form, I wasn’t convinced that his God was doing a bang up job. He grinned the impenetrable beatific grin of the religious zealot – and Baruch Hachemed his way towards the door.

The second visitor, a thoracic specialist, perched on the edge of the bed. ‘Well, well,’ he said, glancing at the X-ray, ‘you’ve been a very lucky boy.’ I asked him what he meant. ‘The knife missed your heart by, ooh, about an eighteenth of an inch. Another couple of millimetres,’ he added, switching deftly from imperial to metric, ‘and it would have pierced the aorta.’

The third visitor, apparently a clone of the first, entered without knocking. ‘Baruch Hachem’.

‘Turower,’ I snapped.

‘What do you mean?’

‘My mother’s maiden name. Turower. Now out.’

'Arete is a journal as exquisite in its execution as in its intentions.'
John Updike

'Vous m’avez donné un grand plaisir … votre revue m’est très sympathique et proche.'
Milan Kundera