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Byron Loker

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Death in Venice part II

Dalebrook tidal pool in Kalk Bay

HEAVY WATER: The hardest thing I have ever done in my life happened during that winter, and it was to get out of bed just a handful of times and walk down the Main Road to the Dalebrook tidal pool, dive into the ice-cold water and swim a few lengths and then sit for a time with Hans and talk to him about the fight for my life.

Click here for Death in Venice part I

For Hans Soltau: 05 05 1945 — 09 09 2015.

“You are fighting for your life,” Hans reminded me, “And my job is to corrupt your thinking. Let me tell me you something that might surprise you—do what is evil. You don’t have to do what you think you have to do, or what you think other people want you to do. Do what is evil.”

“Walk. Walk every day. And even at night. Go walking at midnight if you want to. You’ll find others of us out walking at midnight, going through what you are going through. Don’t think, just walk aimlessly. Walk on the mountain. You live on the foot of a mountain, when you can, just go walking on the mountain.”

“Do you listen to music? Put some music on when you are home and don’t know what to do and listen to it. You don’t have to do anything, just listen to the music,” Hans said.

“Write down everything that you have to do every day. Everything, and then try and stick to the list and cross things off when you complete them.”

I nodded. “That will help,” I said. “I find that my memory is gone. I can’t remember the smallest things.”

“Yes,” Hans replied, “that will happen. Depression affects memory badly.”

“I just wish I knew why this is all happening to me,” I said.

Hans nodded. “Never ask why,” he said. “It’s the wrong question.”

“OK,” I said.

“Also,” Hans said, “form a relationship with a girl.”

“Why?” I asked.

“It’s the only way you can truly get to know yourself,” Hans told me.

I nodded. “I’ll try,” I said.

“You don’t have to try and do anything. Just imagine the girl that you would like in your life, for a few minutes. And then forget about it. The universe has a way of obliging.”

“When you go to the movies, I know you go often,” Hans went on, “don’t bother with the art films and the critics, go and watch the comedies. It doesn’t matter how silly they are, just go and watch comedies.”

I said I would try to go to the movies and watch comedies and imagine girls falling on me from the universe. I wanted to tell Hans about maybe going to a doctor again and getting medication, but somehow I felt ashamed of that. It felt to me to be a betrayal of everything that Hans was teaching me—to “resort” to medication again.

Once or twice more when we met for a coffee and a talk after that, Hans brought some print-outs of information on meditation, also a study on Depression in patients with terminal cancer and how they had been taught some basic meditation techniques, described in the study, and how these techniques contributed to improving their mental health. I listened to Hans and read the documents he gave me and hoped that I might get better after that, but I didn’t much.

Jonathan called me a few days after that meeting with Hans at the coffee shop and asked, “Have you been to see a psychiatrist, boet?”

“No,” I said, “I don’t know who to see.”

“I asked Charles,” Jonathan replied, “but he doesn’t know anyone in Cape Town. What you need to do is go and see your GP now and ask him to recommend somebody.”

“OK,” I said.

“Promise me, boet,” Jonathan said, “you’ll make an appointment to see your doctor. Do it now. I’m going to call you later, or tomorrow, and I want to know that you have made an appointment.”

“OK,” I said, knowing that I wouldn’t be able to make an appointment with my doctor or a psychiatrist and that I would think of some excuse not to. I often didn’t do what Jonathan said I should do. Like write—especially poetry; keep a diary; keep a dream journal; visit him in Johannesburg; read Hamlet; listen to Bach; sing in the shower. Often when Jonathan and I would talk, he would ask me, “Have you read Death in Venice yet, boet?”

“No,” I would say.

“Why not?” Jonathan would ask. “What kind of literary education have you got if you haven’t read Death in Venice?” I didn’t know what kind of literary education I had, so I did start reading Death in Venice that winter. I started reading it but didn’t get very far. I wasn’t able to read for any long stretch of time, even though I would stay awake for most of the night. I started reading Death in Venice, also Climbing out of Depression, The Land of Decoration and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet that winter and I still haven’t finished any of them.


One of the nights that I was staying up all night not reading things, someone tried to break into the English Professor’s house that I was looking after. Sometimes when people say that they haven’t slept of a night, they are glossing over that they probably did nod off for a few minutes or an hour or two here and there—that’s the kind of sleep I had most of that time. But that night when someone tried to break in, I hadn’t fallen asleep at all. It was about three in the morning when I heard an odd, muted knocking sound coming from the lounge.

Almost exactly a year previously, I had had the ‘flu—the proper ‘flu, not the ‘flu that people say they have when what they have is a cold. I had the ‘flu where you can’t get out of bed or eat much or talk properly for a week. I was almost dying of the ‘flu that time when there was a loud smashing noise that woke me from my fever-filled dreams. I knew there was something very wrong about that sound. I managed to get out of bed, picked up the torch that was on my bedside table and moved quietly through the dining room, which leads to the kitchen that opens onto the lounge. There I encountered a burglar in blue workman’s overalls who had come in through the lounge window that he had smashed and was moving quickly towards where I was and wherever it was he hoped to find something valuable to steal.

I shined my torch at him, stepped quickly two, three steps towards him and screamed, “I’m going to kill you, fucker!” Depression makes you very, very angry. Some people say that that’s actually what causes Depression—anger. (Or that what Depression is is the inability to imagine a future). Anyway, my anger was useful right then in frightening off that housebreaker—he turned and fled the way he had come, through the broken window; so quickly that he seem to evaporate from the spot where he had been seconds before.

This second time, when there was probably another burglar in my house, when I made it to the kitchen to check, the would-be burglar was still on the patio. The sound he was trying not to make came from the screwdriver he had jammed through the wooden window frame and was using to try and jimmy open the window lever. This time I shouted, “Oi, Oi, Oi!” oddly, because what I had meant to shout was, “I am going to fucken kill you, you fucken, fucken, cunt!” I was very, very angry. This new, failed robber also evaporated, leaving his Phillips-head still wedged and bobbing in the window frame.

On some of the other nights that I spent not sleeping and causing failed housebreakers to evaporate, I would think long and hard about a way of killing myself that didn’t look like I had. Eventually, what I decided I would do is take one of my surfboards, put on my wetsuit and walk down very late one night to the beach and paddle out as far as I could into the Bay. I would then duck under the water and breathe in.

So that’s how I decided I would kill myself. I wondered if I should wear a divers weight-belt, so that my body would sink quickly. My best hope was that my body would be eaten by sharks and so if a piece of it was somehow found and identified, or if my surfboard washed ashore and I was so identified, it would be assumed that I had been attacked by a shark while surfing. I thought about how, though, if the weight-belt wasn’t dislodged if I was eaten by sharks, or if my body wasn’t eaten by sharks at all and washed up, the weight-belt would give away my suicide. Eventually I gave up on the idea and just thought long and hard about all the ordinary ways that people kill themselves.


I turned forty that winter and perhaps that had something to do with getting Depression so badly, but who knows? The previous year, while I was feeling just fine about things, I had gone out and bought myself a Harley Davidson on hire purchase as an early fortieth birthday present to myself. Ha, I actually thought the first time I rode it really fast over a flat stretch on the top of a mountain pass, This’ll make you feel better than Prozac any day, who needs Prozac? (I had decided to stop taking the Prozac because I had made up my mind that it was a “regime” and that I was fine and didn’t need it anymore). Unfortunately, however, buying oneself a Harley Davidson just doesn’t help cure Depression.

On the day of my fortieth birthday my friend Kev came down from Johannesburg to spend it with me. He was down on business during the week, so he extended his stay to spend the weekend. Kev works as a project manager for one of our other best friends, Rick, who owns a project management and construction company that builds shops and restaurants in shopping malls. Kev and I met to go surfing at Muizenberg and then we had a meal at the Brass Bell, followed by many a Jagermeister shot and eventually we finished up at The Polana in the harbour where there was a band playing and people were dancing. Somewhere in those proceedings I told Kev I was having trouble with the Depression and we landed up like in a bromance movie, saying things like, “I love you, man, I love you.” But that doesn’t help cure Depression either.

As a fortieth birthday present, Kev bought he and I tickets to the Dave Matthews Band concert at Grand West Casino. This was about two months after my birthday and Kev flew down to stay for the weekend and for the concert which was on a Sunday night. I still hadn’t been to see a doctor or a psychiatrist and things were still not looking good.

On the Saturday night before the Dave Matthews concert, Kev and I went to watch a soon-to-be-forgotten folk singer sing his folk songs to about six people including the two of us at a relatively newly-established vegetarian cafe in Muizenberg, that, if it hasn’t already closed down, will soon enough. I was feeling very, very bad then, despite having one of my best friends for company. While sitting at the table trying to listen to the folk singer, I gradually became unable to move. I felt myself freeze up. I felt it especially in my thighs. I didn’t think I would be able to get up and walk when the show was over. When the show was over, I told Kev things were feeling really, really bad right then, but neither of us had any idea what exactly to do about that.

I told Kev about some of the things that may have been causing the bad feelings. My job was a dead-end—something I had been certain of for years but had done nothing about. The company I worked for was floundering and it looked like we were not going to be paid our full salaries in the short-term. The house-sitting gig was coming to an end and I had taken out a lease on a tiny granny-flat in someone’s backyard in windswept Muizenberg—as it happened, the only accommodation I could find that I could afford in the area. Kev listened carefully to me. And, talking about specific and real problems to him began to put things better in perspective for me. Kev asked a few questions: “Can you get out of the lease? What’s your salary? When is the gig up at the Professor’s place?” After a time I felt OK enough to move and we left the cafe and went back to the Professor’s place to sleep on things and figure out what we could do. Kev said he had a few ideas.

The next morning I woke with the same frozen feeling in my legs. I managed to get up and go and sit outside on the couch on the patio where Kev was having a smoke. “I think you should move up to Jo’burg,” Kev said. “We can definitely work something out with Rick for work. The company is growing fast and we need people, but that’s beside the point. I’m worried here about those of us who now know how bad things are for you. I’m seeing people talk about it, but I’m not seeing anybody doing anything about it.”

“Maybe that’s my fault,” I said, “people have offered but I don’t know what I want anybody to do. Maybe I’m not getting through how severe this is. I feel like I’m letting people down, not being myself anymore, I don’t want them to know how bad it really is.”

“Loaf,” Kev said—Loafer is his and Rick’s nickname for me—“if this goes the worst way it can, there are going to be a lot of people who will feel very, very let down.” I knew what he meant and I nodded.

“Driving on the highway. Swerve into an oncoming truck. That’s the way I used to think about doing it. During the worst of my drug days. It would look like an accident,” Kev told me. I nodded.

 ”What Jo’burg won’t give you is a spiritual solution,” Kev said. “That you’ll still have to work on. But what it will give you is a closer support network. You can stay with me, or Rick and Isa. You can work with us. I know it’s a complete change of line of work—it’s hard but you’ll get the hang of it soon enough. It’ll raise your income so you can afford medication, or some psychological treatment. Do you have any medical aid now?” Kev asked.

“A hospital plan. I don’t think it covers brain damage though,” I said.

“Let’s check,” Kev said.

“Now?” I asked.

“Ja. Go take a shower. Also I’m going to give Pat a call, also Hans.”

Kev and Pat had had a falling out some years back and were no longer friends, so I said, “No way, bru, that’s not going to work, please don’t aggravate things.”

“You need to trust me on this,” Kev said, “we are bigger than that. This is about helping you out now.”

“OK,” I said.


Things started getting better after that. Kev project managed me. He called every day from Johannesburg or Zambia or Botswana, where he was busy building fried chicken restaurants, and asked me how things were going. After my shower that Sunday we had checked on the Internet with my hospital plan company but they wouldn’t be of any help to me. So I began to pay for things with my credit card. I went to my doctor who prescribed some medication immediately and gave me the number of a psychologist whom he had recommended in the past that I see but I hadn’t, and the number of a psychiatrist named Belinda who practised in an office in the next building.

I went to the psychologist once only and decided not to go again because it would cost about R10 000 to pay for all the sessions he needed me have with him. I told him I was talking to Hans and he was helping and things were looking up. Mostly in that session I had with the psychologist, I told him my sad story of how I had failed in life and couldn’t get a better job for more money and I was now going to go live in a tool shed in Muizenberg and probably just die.

Mostly the psychologist listened and he asked things like: “Why can’t you get a better job? Have you tried? Really tried?” which was a good question. “If you want those things that you feel you should have by now—a little house with a garden, what-not, it’s up to you to make the changes needed to get those things.” At the end, when we were wrapping up, he told me, “Let me just explain how this works. You have to be pushed,” he made the universal sign for being pushed—two hands extended palm forward rapidly—“out of your comfort zone. Somebody has to push you and it has to happen now, or you will respond with terror.”

Some time after that, after Kev had pushed me, I decided, costs be damned, that I would go and see Belinda, the psychiatrist, which I did, for, I think, six sessions. I told her too my sad story about all my failings in life and the dog kennel I had to go live in now. To tell her all of that over some time cost something like R25 000, if you count the medication. Every hard, cold, unearned bit and byte of that is still sitting on a server in a bank somewhere in Sandton, gathering interest and dust and shame. But it was “worth every cent”, as they say.

Belinda was very kind and sympathetic and wrote to my doctor to let him know she was treating me. The first kind of medication Belinda prescribed didn’t work after some weeks and she said it should have, so she prescribed something else. When I think of her now and that time, I always think of Leonard Cohen in the DVD he made about being Live in London. He steps up to the microphone on stage in his fedora and in his inimitable way he introduces his next song, Ain’t No Cure For Love. He says, “I’ve taken a lot of Prozac, Paxil, Wellbutrin, Effexor, Ritalin. I’ve also studied deeply in philosophies and the religions, but…one thing I am still certain of, is that there ain’t no cure for love.”

Well, I’ve now taken a lot of Nuzac, Lorien, Serdep, Wellbutrin, Alzam, Zolpidem Hemitartrate and Venlor. I tried one of the religions—that didn’t work out—studied shallowly in Philosophy 101, and the one thing that I’m still certain of is that there ain’t no cure for Depression. But just maybe you can get better and stay alive if you let people help you.

The landlord of the bywoner shack let me out of the lease after that and Kev and Rick paid for me to fly up to Johannesburg to spend some time with them and see how it would be to be an assistant project manager in Rick’s company. Rick called me before I went up and said,”Listen, brother, don’t do anything stupid, we are going to get you through this. If you need work, I’ll give you work. If you need money, I’ll give you money. Just hang in there and let us help you”

After I had been in Jo’burg for a week with Rick and his family and Kev, and spent some time in their office seeing how it might be to be a project manager, and before I left to go back to Cape Town to quit my job and pack my car and move to Johannesburg, Rick gave me a contract to sign and said I could start work right away and that I could come and live with him and his wife, Isabelle, and their young daughters, Emma and Zoe. So I did.

Kev drove me back to the Lanseria airport after that week in Johannesburg and as I was getting out of the car I said, “Thanks, Kev. You know, you are the only ou that actually went out of your way for me.”

“I know you would do the same for me,” Kev said.

So I live in Jo’burg now in a ground floor flat with a small garden and Kev and me and Rick work together, busting our guts trying to get people—who don’t really feel like working—to build chain stores and restaurants in shopping malls. I’m trying my best to do evil but it’s not as easy as you might think.

I see Jonathan from time to time. He invites me over to dinner at his grand old home in Forest Town. He plays Bach on YouTube, and the first time I went over, about two weeks after I had moved to Jo’burg, he asked me, “Have you read Death in Venice yet, boet?”

“No,” I replied, and laughed. Jonathan said something about my education and then looked up the classic movie version on YouTube and played a bit of it—the part where Aschenbach decides to return in the gondola and not leave Venice after all because he has fallen in love with the young dude.

“It’s a good film,” Jonathan said. “Do you want to go to Venice? We should go some time.” Earlier, Jonathan had shown me around his house and garden. In the garden, I looked through the leaves of the trees and pointed at a purple-hued building that I thought was somehow important and I should know about and asked, “What building is that?” Jonathan looked briefly and said, “Not sure, the Vodacom tower, perhaps. Come on, boet,” he said, “let’s go eat.”



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