EXTRACT: The Wisdom of Adders

An extract from the novella by Dan Wylie.Dan Wylie

It was the Entu. Right enough, but it looked nothing like she had envisaged. In a great broadening swathe across the flat country to the west, a tongue of shimmering silver flecked with rust and peppery black flanked a twinned strip of concrete highway, like the striped down a skunk’s back. Immediately below them this tongue was petering out in tufted grass, the surface broken up and the roadway narrowing to scale she could recognise. To the east, the track curved away towards the hills of home.

And now she could locate what had disturbed her – not so much an emptier sough of wind across that waste areas, but a scent: metallic and caustic.

“Is it the Atomscorch?”

“Not really,” said Mali. “An extension of it, I suppose. The edge of Nummers’ industrial zone, as far as it got before the oil and power died out. Take a look.”

Through Mali’s telescope she could see that the bare areas constituted of bleached gravel shot through with granules of glass and laced with streaks of poisonous black. Here and there were visible ribs of old drainage channels and stubs of rusted stanchions or half-buried elbows of massive machineries.

“No grass,” Shawn noted. “It has to be seriously toxic – radioactive even.”

“I doubt that. A hundred years after the accident, not so much radioactivity left, even in the middle of the Scorch. People even living and breeding on it, with deformities sometimes though. Like MuKechnie.”

“Oh. But it got some close to home!”

Realising as she said so that this, really, was the point of real decision. They had in effect completed three sides of a square, and they were probably just a good day’s walk back along the Entu to get home. Her Spartan flat, her familiar sheets.

Or head west and north and into the total unknown.

She was momentarily distracted by a movement further up the highway, nothing much, no more than a flapping of some discarded rag, perhaps. But as she watched through the telescope, a figure straightened up from behind a sloping slab of concrete. At this distance, half a ki or so, she could discern only a sense of blackened shabbiness under some sort of greatcoat, a beard maybe. The figure appeared to have filled a sack or bag with something and began to drag it across the blue-grey gravel towards the edge of the open swathe. Following him, she now saw that a kind of bunker had been established against a slight slope, so covered with the surrounding materials, its asymmetric entrance so tiny, it was all but invisible. Through the narrow slot another figure now immerged, equally ragged, coated with disguising rags and dust, but Shawn had the impression it was a woman. Together the pair crouched in front of the bunker, and she could just make out a shimmer of heated air between them; some kind of smokeless fire, or heating unit.

“What are they doing?”

“Scavengers,” said Mali. “Getting out heavy metals, maybe, or melting glass down for trinkets.”

There were no other signs of life. They waited. There seemed nothing else to do. Shawn was reluctant to try to cross this strip of bleached disaster in broad daylight. To the west the sky seemed heavy with a kind of fervent bronze energy; she did not want to go any closer to that, but wondered what the territory north of the Entu might hold in store. And she wondered when she ought to tell Mali to go home. It was getting late in the day; maybe in the morning. And there was, she had to admit, a certain apprehension lurking in the pit of her belly about spending this particular night alone.

Mali, for his part, seemed content to sit in silence, self-contained as a carving in oiled teak.

Shawn watched the ragged couple for a while in their mysterious activity, but could make nothing of it. Then she noticed they had straightened up and were staring down the highway. Shawn followed their gaze with the telescope. Out of the wavering haze, the sun dropping a brassy glaze over the wasteland, emerged two figures, then three, no, four – tall, spiky, seeming for a time to float on molten glass. The scavengers began to scurry and bend, hiding or preparing things it was impossible to say. Advancing, the newcomers resolved into four horsemen. In that light, they seemed plated with metal and to bristle with spears or rifles, or both; Shawn couldn’t make out. As she watched they urged their mounts into a gallop; by the time they reached the bunker the scavengers had vanished. The horsemen halted and circled, raising a threatening swirl of dust. One dismounted and bent to peer into the lop-sided slot of the bunker.

The Wisdom of Adders can be purchased from Amazon. Read the review here.

Sound lines

BY HARRY OWEN

In the blurb to his new collection, Stranger, Grahamstown based poet Sihle Ntuli describes himself as “a soft spoken stranger whose main concerns are blackness, love, morality, and music”. And all of these aspects of his personality are to be found within its pages.

He may be “soft-spoken”, but much of his subject matter is the resolutely hard reality of everyday existence, especially that of the friends, family and acquaintances of his upbringing in the Durban township of KwaMashu:

the sneezing sound
opening           closing
and away their souls go
they get on
they travel to find what they can 

the pavements are made cold
by bodies starved of the city’s pulse
(From ‘kwa mashu f section bus stop’)

This is a world inhabited by “kings and shebeen queens”, where a man accused of a crime “grips the floor for dear life” as a vigilante mob drags him away while “onlookers look on /…/ doing nothing”, and “eyes scream eyes scream and eyes scream”. There is a tough, even brutal, honesty in Ntuli’s treatment of these themes but it is never cased in sensationalism. Indeed, the subtle understatement – even bleakly playful quality – of much of his language adds a power and resonance that angry rant would miss.

Ntuli chooses his words deftly, aware of the cumulative effects of sound and repetition, of assonance and alliteration, as here:

the sun losing colour when it dies
the aggressive night
black blood protrudes
moon blows cold wind on wounds
the heart weighing tons upon tons
(From ‘Friday’)

He delights in the wit of musical puns too, as when (in ‘jazz’) he writes of “davis taking mind miles away / benson takes you back / masakela and the coal train…”

Or here:

scars on the days
without saying
my veins love you
 
through vein    you’re so vain
you suffocate me
(From ‘poem dropped then duct taped’)

The “stranger” of the book’s title could, of course, be any or all of the numerous characters who appear in the poetry, but the main one – the one for whom the whole collection seems to be a search – is probably the poet himself.

In ‘gospel gold’, for instance, he glances back to the generation before his own and notes, with maybe a hint of sadness, that although in “those days everybody wanted to be a poet /…/ nowadays everybody wants to be a dj”. Yet there is something of his own intelligent voice to be heard throughout, persisting despite life’s inevitable distractions and this is hopeful:

you lose beautiful
you win ugly
the sounds you make
the music you play
 
i could hear myself thinking
if you let me
(From ‘volume’)

There is both honesty and personal courage expressed in the pages of Stranger. It is never easy to write of private doubts, fears or concerns but when these are approached with sensitivity and a committed love of the best language to articulate them, as well as with meticulous editing, the result can be, as it is here, a genuinely admirable piece of literature.

This is Ntuli’s first poetry collection but I very much hope it will not be his last.

Stranger is published by Aerial Publishing.

FICTION: Homecoming

BY DAVID CORNWELL

You know when it hit me?

It wasn’t when I got the call from Mrs Shaw. Or even those few days after, while I delayed and delayed on talking to Phil about letting me take a few days off. It wasn’t even the day before, when I woke up sweating in the freezing dark and threw all my warm stuff in a bag and just jumped in the car anyway, telling myself: You’ll call Phil when you get to Grahamstown.

It wasn’t when I drove through those sad, red hills outside Fort Beaufort, with their wreaths and crosses strung around king aloes on every second bend; it wasn’t when I hit the outskirts of town and saw places and things I remembered with a sweet, stabbing pain in my chest; not even when I got out at the gate and saw that yellowed, chipped golfball mailbox that’d been there since we’d moved in— that thing’d survived twenty years of threats and plotting to have it taken out, and there it stood still, stuffed full of junkmail.

It was after my key’d slid through the lock, and I’d got inside and that smell’d hit me — every time I ever came home I smelt it, it made me think of the sun shining on clean laundry — it was after that and after I’d put my bag down in the lounge and I went through to the bathroom and lifted the toilet seat and saw this bowlful of days-old brown piss — and lying on the floor next to the toilet, a newspaper with a half-finished crossword and a pen without a cap on it — and resting on the cistern, the photo of me and the two of them and Cindy on my first day of school, behind some burned-out tealight candles and a crumbly pile of black matches— that’s when it hit me, right then, the full weight of the thing sunk down deep into my stomach

 *

And if I’d known what to do about it — if I could’ve known to weep, to be sick, to get angry and punch a wall, to get drunk — I’d never’ve just left the house, door wide open, and gone walking

And I never would’ve run into Fritz.

From the start — the whole thing was a kind of accident.

I did a lot of walking growing up, and I was on one of my old smoking routes — I was at the top of Ayliff Street and I could see the turnoff to the dirt track that goes up the hill and to the top of Sugar Loaf. There used to be a massive jacaranda that stood at the bottom of that path like a gatekeeper, and I guess I was staring at that — the space that tree left behind — when I heard someone shout, “Holy shit, Simon?”

And I spun around and I saw Fritz standing there in the street, right in the middle of the crossroad.

“Hey, Fritz,” I said — then remembered his name was actually Frederic — but I didn’t feel like I could correct myself and so I just stuck out my hand.

He shook it and I remembered that was another thing about him. He was one of those guys who always tried to hurt you when he said hello.

“What’re you doing in town, oke? You at your folks’ place?” he said.

“Uh, ja.” And then — the first time I’d said it out loud — “My folks died, actually. Car crash. I’m just down here to sort their stuff out.”

“Shit, man,” he said. He spat in the road. “Shit. That’s life, hey?”

“Ja, apparently,” I said, and then my face started burning and I felt out of breath

“Listen — Fred,” I said, “I think I just need to keep walking right now.”

“Ja, sure. Hundreds, bru. I’ll come check you tomorrow,” he said

The words already at my back

I was already gaining speed down the hill, twisting through a side street and onto Fitzroy, staring at the trough of evening light that’d pooled in the Kowie ditch, my heart hammering, and for some reason — of all the things I might’ve been worrying about right then — the only thought that actually formed in my head was Phil, and what the hell I’d do with myself if he ever did, one day, just tell me to fuck off and never come back to the bar.

It felt like a dam was breaking. I tried to sing to myself while I walked, but I couldn’t remember any words to any songs. And, anyway, the words in my head weren’t so much of a tune as a drum beat. Call Phil. Don’t fuck this up. Call Phil.

*

I’m not sure when, but somewhere along the way my parents must’ve sold my bed — and I found it impossible to fall asleep in theirs and so around midnight I dragged the quilt and a pillow out into the hall and lay down there.

It was even worse out there, though. It started to feel like I was gaining consciousness — and then before I knew it, my thoughts’d come loose — these strands and snarls of cassette tape playing warped old tunes.

I was 16-years-old in 1989. So ja, there was a lot of stuff going on in the country at the time — I’ve read about it now, and I’ve seen pictures— but the valley kind of kept us out of it while we were growing up, and — never mind the riots and bullets and casspirs and necklacing that was going on everywhere else — I can’t say I remember life ever feeling any different to any of us.

Until they started coming back from the border. I think about it, sometimes, and I think that’s when it all started to change for me. My first taste of proper darkness. There were a few of them around town — these young guys, you only had to see them once and you knew — these guys who left home and came back way different, with scars and shaky hands and faces like masks. Mostly they kept to themselves — the story was they all hung out together up at the army base on Thursday nights — but Fritz, he wasn’t just a haunt — even from the start, he was a very real thing in my life.

Frederic.

We called him Fritz, but we always tried to keep it behind his back. We called him Fritz because he was obsessed with war stuff, and we were learning about the Nazis at the time so for us it was kind of clever. He actively sought us out — we met him because one week, just from nowhere, he started hanging out outside the school gates and offering us cigarettes on our way home — and we kept him around because, never mind how deeply and obviously fucked the guy might’ve been, he was twenty-one years old and he could buy us booze and cigarettes and anything else, and sometimes he could borrow a car.

But jesus, that stuff always came at a high price. I mean, when I was sixteen the furthest I’d ever been from Grahamstown was the Fish River Sun, for three nights — but even then, when I knew absolutely nothing about the world, I knew in my bones that Fritz was a special case. He was a phenomenon. The guy was obsessed with war stuff — I can’t tell you. No matter what conversation you were trying to have, and it got worse when he got drunk which was always — but he’d take control of what you were saying and he’d turn it and twist it and beat it into some nasty story from Angola every time.

That was the one side to it. The other — and I mean, I’m no expert — I’ll be thirty-three in a few months and all I own in the world is a rusted VW Fox; I live in my boss’s sister’s place where I’m not allowed to use any of the cupboards in case she comes back and I have to fuck off in a hurry; I’ve worked in a bar for eight years and I still serve drinks — but at least I’m aware, you know, that there is a code out there. There’s a proper way of doing things, even if I’m not doing it very well.

Fritz, though — I don’t think that sense was there. It was lots of things — how mean he was when he spoke to waitresses and cashiers and petrol attendants; how when he’d come for a braai he’d pitch up with crazy stuff, like guavas and a bag of walkie-talkies; how he’d always try to fall asleep at your place when he got hammered — and I remember, even back then it used to make me so sad — to think that on top of everything else, Fritz’d just forgotten, somehow, how to a live like a normal person anymore.

And then when it happened — the big thing of my life — when Cindy went missing — could you blame me? Obviously I thought it was Fritz. And I was young and I was loud about it — and my family and friends took my side — and pretty soon I was hearing the same thing from strangers around town.

But then my sister’s body turned up in a lagoon somewhere the other side of East London — and time went on, and they still couldn’t find the guy who did it and we fell out of the news and none of us took it very well — this was when my mom was drinking and taking handfuls of pills —

And one day, I took her shopping and Fritz came up to us in one of the aisles in Shoprite. And my mom just freaked out — she chucked a jar of mayonnaise at him and she was screaming so much I had to drag her outside

And I felt guilted into hanging around Fritz a bit more often after that, while my mom got better and I lost the thread — and I left town

And I’ve done what I’ve done since

But they stayed here.

They stayed here.

How’d they bear it?

I didn’t want to cry again so I tried to think of something else —

And immediately, with a feeling like ice-cold hands pressing on my insides — I remembered about Phil and how when I’d got home from my walk I’d spent an hour with the phone in my hand, too scared to actually dial the number —

And with that sense of failure starting to catch like coals in my stomach, I couldn’t just lie there

And I got up and turned on the lights and dressed in layers and layers and dug in a cupboard and laid two suitcases out on the bed and started looking around for stuff to put in them.

 *

The meeting with the lady from Sanlam was surprisingly brief.

I’d just finished filling out the form, then when I looked up — on the table in front of me — there it was, a small thing, standing in a ziploc bag with stickers and labels all over it.

“Jeez, are they both in there?”

The lady said, “With blessings.” She was old and her make-up looked like pastel crayon on tissue paper. She took the urn out the bag and handed it to me.

“So this is mine now? I can do anything I want with it?”

She nodded at me.

“Um… Do I owe you any money?”

“Excuse me?”

“Like for this thing — the urn. Or the — the burning.”

“No, sir,” she said. “It’s all done” — and then she couldn’t help herself — she reached across the table and put her hand on my hand and squeezed it.

And so when I went into the bank I was still feeling like it said something about me, about my whole fucking look, being mothered like that by the Sanlam lady — and even though I sat down and started speaking to the guy in the office, I wasn’t really there at all. The conversation was far past me before I started hearing what he was saying — and so in the end, along with the bad news, I also had to deal with his pissy attitude while he ran it all by me again.

The whole morning was so bad, when I got home I ended up calling Phil just for something else to think about. It rang and rang. I hung up and tried again. Same story. I waited ten minutes then tried two more times and then realised he was probably punishing me — he did that — he loved it when you were squirming

And I was considering busting open the liquor cabinet in the lounge — it was still part of my mom’s thing that my dad kept the only key to it — I was staring at the thing and wondering how hard I’d have to kick it

When I heard this voice saying, “Knock knock” — and then all of a sudden there was Fritz standing in the light spilling through the front door.

“Do you still drink, Fred?” I asked him.

“Simon.” He laughed. “Do birds still fly?”

 *

Fritz and I were on New Street for ten hours. Just three places, I think. I think I’ve pieced most of it together now — but there’re still long stretches of the thing I can’t remember, and I doubt I’ll ever get them back.

The first place was good for me. It was just some pub with cheap food and a couple of pool tables, but I was feeling so ugly inside and angry and sorry for myself, and Fritz was pretty good at being commiserative. We’d been there for hours and then after some vodka shots I started to get a bit teary, and then halfway through a story about the last time I was in town — when my mom made her big pitch to me about moving back in — I started crying, properly. Fritz didn’t say anything. Didn’t put his hand on my shoulder or do anything at all. He just let me finish. Then he gave me a cigarette and he said to me, “Crying’s good, hey. People don’t always say so but think about it. You’re a rock out there in the ocean and all day there’s just waves crashing on you, crashing and crashing. And you repel most of that shit, but obviously some water gets in through the cracks — and it’s salt water, and if it doesn’t come out sometime it’s going to eat you on the inside.”

So when we left that place — sure, I was drunk — but I was also feeling safe and buoyed up, and sort of stitched together in a way that I hadn’t for a while. I remember feeling like I’d already got what I needed from the night. And when we walked down New Street, with the streetlamps like liquid and the trees with their storybook shapes stamped out in black against the purple sky — I remember feeling like all I wanted to do, really, was keep walking home

But not Fritz.

He was just warming up, and the second place we went to — it was a new place — and jesus, it was like a fucking midnight carnival’d come to town. A freakshow.

My memory’s a bit ragged — actually, more like, I remember it the same way as a bad dream —

I couldn’t believe you got places like that in Grahamstown —

The bass in the speakers knocking your heart around in your chest, and those club lights and so many people with black makeup on their eyes, and people doing drugs just right there on the tables in front of everyone else and there was a stripper pole and just ordinary, normal girls would get up and have a go, not always with their clothes on

And I started seeing something wolfish in Fritz — then he started grabbing people at the bar

And I got us out of there and I’m not sure if we went anywhere else but I know for sure that we ended up in a booth in the corner of Champs. I don’t know how long we sat there — I might’ve napped, briefly — but eventually we got a kind of second wind and they were selling cans of Black Label for R7 so I bought and we sipped them and we didn’t speak much.

And then there was some noise at the door, and a bunch of guys came in — a few of them I knew, the rest were friends of theirs — and they were carrying Daryl into the bar. Daryl had MD or MS or one of those terrible diseases — he was paraplegic and his left arm was permanently bent at the elbow and the wrist — but his right arm was steady, and the guy loved to drink. We’d been carrying him around to parties since we were fourteen and it was a good moment to see them coming in like that, and they came over and sat down with us and looked at me a little funny — there was this general question just hanging in the air, What the fuck is Fritz doing here? — but then they got over that and soon we were talking and laughing and I ploughed straight through my second wind in no time flat.

I was drinking bits of everything, and I remember — the last thing I have that’s distinct — I remember the bartender bringing over a tray of shots and me telling myself, If you drink this, you might die — and drinking it anyway

*

And then, the next thing I know, everyone’s gone home except me and Fritz and Daryl.

I don’t remember walking back down to New Street — even though we must’ve carried Daryl — or getting into Fritz’s car. I don’t remember heading off and — whichever way we got there — driving up the slope to Daryl’s digs on Hillsview.

It’s only this

And I’m lying in the backseat and laughing about something. Why the hell I’m in the backseat, I can’t tell you — but that’s where I am, and the passenger seat’s tilted way back and Daryl’s in front. He leans back and slaps me on the chest and says goodbye with a big smile on his face. I try sit up and say goodbye properly, but I can’t — I’m that fucked.

Fritz goes round the front and opens Daryl’s door. I’m watching through the gap between the front seats. The cabin light’s on — and I watch all of this happen

And I swear to god I try, but I can’t stop it — I promise, I just can’t move.

Daryl leans out the car and puts his arms out, like he’s going to be picked up. But Fritz just looks at him. Daryl laughs and sits there with his arms out and Fritz tells him to get out the car. Daryl laughs again, and he looks back at me, but there’s something about it all that has me spooked, and I start to sweat and get nauseous and I’m trying everything just to sit up, sit up, sit up

Fritz pulls Daryl out the car. I swallow and struggle and then shout at him, and he leans in through the passenger door and tells me to shut up and — god — there’s something there in his face that I’ve never seen before in my life

And I see him turn round and kick Daryl so hard something cracks. I see Daryl start to crawl away, and I see Fritz get down on his knees and start screaming stuff right into Daryl’s ear. I get my door open and I stick my head out the car and throw up. I’m trying to fall out the car but my arms and legs are so heavy I can’t do it, and then Fritz climbs back in and tells me, “Check here — watch.” He turns the brights on and he starts laughing and he keeps telling me to sit up and watch and somehow I do it

I get myself out the car and I can see Daryl with the brights on him dragging himself up the driveway to his house, crying, with the dirt from the road swirling around in the lights in the cold air and he looks like he’s lost in a blizzard. I start to go to him but I throw up what’s left in my stomach — and then everything disappears.

 *

When I come round my clothes are soaked with cold dew. It burns my skin and I get to my feet, and I can see the rim of the valley’s gone bright blue already. Almost like a gas ring.

I look up the steep driveway to Daryl’s house, and even though the whole place is dark I know the right thing would be to go knock on the door

But I can’t — I can’t do that.

Instead, I start walking home down the hill.

To my right, I can see those huge orange pylons in the township — they’re still there, that hasn’t changed — and in the bit of fog that’s rising up from the valley floor, it looks like there’re fires burning on the hillside. I walk and walk, and I don’t see one car. Just guys sitting on chairs at the petrol stations and a few dogs sleeping in a pile under a vent outside the Graham Hotel.

I think about Phil, and how the hell I’m going to maneuver myself when I get back. I already know I’m going — I’m going to get in the car as soon as I’ve got home, had a shower and zipped up those suitcases. Maybe I’ll just tell him everything. I’ll go straight in to see him and I’ll start at the top and I won’t worry about crying and I’ll tell him everything — and I’ll tell him something happened to me while I was back home, and I can feel it — the numbness I’ve been feeling is gone and I’m here now, and I’ve got a house to save and I’m ready to work more shifts and start taking things more seriously.

I’ve got a house to save.

When I get to the train tracks the sun’s broken out over Makana’s Kop. The air’s clear and pale and the stanchions are dripping bright, shiny water. As I go over the footbridge, I can smell the rust on the tracks — that sweet smell — and the whole way home after that, it’s weird, but I’m sort of talking to myself ­— maybe even to my folks — saying over and over again: Watch me, watch me save this.

I round the corner and our road’s still full of shadows. It’s almost like slipping underwater. My mind goes to that tiny urn with my folks’ ashes in it, and right away I think about a few nice things to do with it — Sugar Loaf, Mountain Drive, maybe even Fish River — then I think, You’d better not rush it. You get so few chances in life to do your best.

At the top of the driveway I think about Daryl again, how he was crawling, and I shake my head and as I do my eyes fix on the mailbox. I clench my teeth and kick the thing as hard as I can, about halfway up — and a sharp pain goes right through the base of my foot and up to my knee

And the thing creaks back in the cold earth. I have a quick look up and down the street to check if anyone else is around, then I go to the other side of the mailbox and squat on my haunches and link my arms around the ball — like I’m helping to birth the hideous thing from the ground — and I lean back and I pull and I pull.

EXTRACT: Adults Only

I go for long walks along the Cape avenues, the oak trees shattering form, exploring every branching possibility, the leaves splattering colour, their own flesh lignified, crumbling, becoming dust with such beauty, their maroon and ochre fires drifting along the gutters.

I think of Louka from time to time. I think of her in the present tense. She has maroon lips. She takes her lower lip between her teeth when she reflects on grave matters. Her hair is completely white, always was, trimmed short enough to leave her neck naked. Her thighs are slender and curve in slightly, she has the proportions and long muscles of a dancer. She reminds me of a waterdrop falling, something shaped by gravity and surface tension and air resistance only, fluid becoming itself at all times and then finally splattering to destruction against the logical obstacle. Yet there is quicksilver in the way she comes together again, resuming selfhood without a trace of embarrassment or care at the leave she has taken.

Her lips aren’t really maroon. She only paints them that colour when she wants to torment me, when she wants to be outrageous, when she has decided quite early in the day that she is going to argue, when she goes shopping for men or perhaps a woman, and so on. But why do I insist on talking about her as if she is still part of my life?

Her earlobes are very small, they slope into her jawline, glinting under their finest down, and she tastes sometimes of crushed nasturtium stems, which is to say a clean lemon tang, but less sweet, more aerial – yes, that is the word – than lemon could hope to be.

The aerial Louka is back. After roughly two decades. I see her in a supermarket, pushing her trolley around. I follow her for a while, wondering what to do. What will I say to her? More important, more frightening, what will she say to me? Maybe I will say, ‘Time has been kind to you, Louka.’ How laughable! Besides, I’m not sure if that is true. I’m quite short-sighted, and I’m too far away to see her clearly.

Eventually I do approach as she leans over, helping herself to a bottle of Ajax. I call out her name, she straightens up. Time hasn’t been particularly kind to her. Her skin is wrinkled and her mouth is more downturned than before and it looks as if she has been through a hard time. But her beauty remains and it still has great power over me. She looks at me puzzled, shaking her head.

‘Do I know you?’ she asks.

I smile wryly. ‘Probably not. I’m Mark Berger. Do you remember me?’

‘Mark? Mark – God, it’s you!’

‘So it is. And quite amazed to see you here.’

‘I would never have recognised you. You’re so much older!’

‘Thanks,’ I reply. She raises her hand to her mouth as if in dismay, but her eyes dance.

‘My goodness,’ she says. Then we suddenly run out of things to say.

‘Well –’ she says, and I interrupt her with the same word, and we stand in the middle of the crowded shop as if we float in space or under the sea.

She places her hand on my wrist. ‘We must meet and talk sometime. I must run. Here.’ She takes out a card and gives it to me. ‘I’m an estate agent, can you believe it? Do you have a family? Where are you? I mean where do you live?’

I smile bitterly, avoiding her questions. ‘Yes, we must meet sometime and go over it all. All that missing biography.’

‘Biography,’ she repeats, smiling faintly to herself, remembering something not entirely pleasant. We leave it at that, with myself holding her card, watching her wheel her trolley up the aisle, loaded with the unremarkable clutter of unremarkable middle-class life, her movement graceful but unmistakably older.

 

I still have the card. I haven’t phoned her. Sometimes I wake up in the small hours intending firmly to phone the very next day. But morning brings its stupefying routines and its brutal clarity, every morning, and nothing happens.

On the day my divorce papers come through I force myself to phone Louka. She answers, her voice breathless and swift as always. I keep silent, feeling like a frightened idiot.

‘Who is that?’ She asks. She repeats the question only once, then keeps quiet and listens briefly to my silence, the small noises that come through from my room to hers, but I cannot bring myself to speak. She hangs up.

I sit perfectly still, for a long time. Eventually I realise I am in my flat, surrounded by four walls and a plate-glass window in front of me that looks down on the reservoir. Cold wind ripples the pewter surface of the water. The beauty of the Cape is gone, the reservoir is a mirror of its ugliness.

*

Twenty years ago I slept without sheets. I slept naked under a blanket and kept a notepad and pen on the floor next to the bed. I would write things like, ‘There are no metaphors, there is only experience.’ I still don’t know what I meant. I would write poems that began, ‘Ambulances in the windy night/my body a yawn in your soft broad bed of down.’ Long lines, I was addicted to long lines. I was addicted to Louka too, to the long lines of her body, her broad shoulders, the swing of her hips. I don’t think she was addicted to me; she tried me on for a summer.

Here is a picture of Louka and myself in the bed without sheets. We are wrapped about each other, naked, limbs tangled up, juices swopped. She won’t let me penetrate (her virginity is something she wants to preserve, at least for the time being; mine is something I want to get rid of as soon as possible) and I feel in place that tight membrane; I am sure there is a small round hole in it – is this possible? Love with Louka is ecstatic pain, knowledge withheld, territory unknown – the mystery of Louka remains extreme, is never resolved. Afterwards I lie back against the pillows and stop thinking while she wipes her flat golden stomach with my shirt and says – no, I can’t remember what she says. The silence of twenty years buries her sentence too thickly. Perhaps she spoke another language, pig-Latin for example, or spoke backwards so rapidly I couldn’t retain the message. I think it was an accusation, something like: you use me, or I’ve taught you everything you know about relationships but I still don’t know who you are.

I prefer to concentrate on the fine-grained skin of her stomach as it slides backwards and forwards under the shirt and then she releases it, throwing the shirt off the side of the bed and I say, letting my breath out slowly, ‘God, that was so sharp.’ I meant the sex, so limited and therefore sharp.

 

Denise’s voice is flat and cold, over the phone. So cold.

‘It’s a turntable,’ she says. ‘A record player.’ I know exactly what she is talking about: my little joke. ‘Completely, utterly, useless.’

I am careful, pedantic. ‘The contract says that you take possession of a hi-fi set. Among other things. I gave the packers a hi-fi set. Exactly what the contract says. It doesn’t say which hi-fi set.’

‘I have no records, Mark. You know that.’

I don’t answer.

‘Mark, I have no records. You can’t buy records any more. It’s completely useless to me.’

I’ve been holding my breath, God knows why. I let it out and reply, ‘Well, I’m sorry, Denise, but your welfare is no longer my concern.’

‘You are a very unhappy man. That is all I have to say to you.’

I put the phone down. My voice resonates in the cold room: ‘Enjoy our turntable.’

Down on the reservoir a cormorant etches its progress, its wake, onto surface. The narrow head snakes down and the whole bird vanishes after. I wait for it to surface. There is no sign of it, though I wait a long time. Was the bird real, I wonder, or did I imagine it? Did it commit suicide or become a fish? Is there an underwater nest in the reservoir where cormorants go?

 

Saturday afternoon twenty years ago: Louka and I sit in the sun at the Brass Bell, nursing draught lager, listening to a fusion band. The singer keeps one hand to his ear as he sings, bending forward as if listening, as if his hand were a phone. His phrasing is exact, the words march out of the song, sophisticated drill squads deployed to excellent music.

‘Look at that,’ cries Louka, pointing at a child who has begun dancing in the open square before the band. She is about two years old, wearing a yellow T-shirt and red Wellingtons and a paper nappy. The child dances delightful stumpy steps, swaying in time to the music. The crowd sitting on the sea wall notices her, tunes in, begins swaying to her unsteady beat.

Louka throws back her head and laughs and laughs. This uproar unwrapped from deep in her body thrills me suddenly, runs through my nerves joyously while a light sea breeze carries salt and diesel fuel from the fishing harbour, and the ripe odour of kelp. The child dances on. I rest my hand on Louka’s thigh, exclaiming, ‘Isn’t that fantastic?’

Her response? A dismissive glance, flat and feline. Have I mentioned that her eyes are green? Things go vague. When I look again the little girl has gone, taking with her the future.

Eventually I do phone Louka. ‘This is Mark here,’ I say.

‘Mark who?’

‘Mark Berger –’

‘Oh, that Mark! I’m sorry –’

So it goes. I ask her to have lunch with me somewhere. She says, ‘I can’t, Mark. I usually eat with Carlo.’

‘Who?’

‘Carlo. My son. I usually pick him up from play school and have lunch at home.’

‘Your son.’

She laughs, a rich, indulgent sound, and says, ‘You sound so –surprised. Surprised and regretful.’

‘Biography,’ I reply, and we settle for a breakfast at Zerbans.

 

I concentrate meanwhile on the tedious pain of being divorced. Yesterday I walked into my flat and the enormity of it hit me and I collapsed slowly – was this theatrical, or did I have no choice? – sliding down against the wall until I sat with my knees drawn up against my chest and waited till it seemed possible to stand again. Now the pain gyres more quietly through my arteries, infects my muscles with weakness, but slowly, slowly diminishes; I concentrate on healing, on the getting of wisdom that only pain offers.

Breakfast with Louka takes the following form. I arrive at Zerbans. I am politely shown to a table in the non-smoking section and given a menu. I order coffee only, as I am waiting for a friend. Three coffees later I am still waiting for a friend. I order bacon and egg on toast, but don’t feel hungry. I eat the bacon and leave the toast and egg. After an hour and twenty minutes has elapsed, I get up, neglect to tip the waiter, and leave.

I deposit a message on her answering machine. ‘Louka, this is Mark here. We were supposed to meet for breakfast today. I suppose something went wrong.’ I sound querulous. I sound like a plaintiff. I put the phone down, wishing I hadn’t made the call, wishing I could somehow remove the message, hating myself. Too late, too late. Over a week goes by. Louka doesn’t reply.

 

A Thursday morning twenty years ago. I walk into Louka’s digs unannounced. I have no key; the green door is unlocked. Twined about Louka is a similar vision of golden skin and platinum hair. Its name is Ivor Khan, a mutual friend. He too has feline eyes. His eyes always seem either drugged or aroused. And now? I don’t know. Bleeding inside, I watch them couple. They look up at me (his eyes are aroused; and yes, her lips are maroon) and Louka says, ‘Hullo Mark.’

And Ivor says, ‘Oh it’s Mark. Is that you, Mark?’

I don’t know what to do. I think that they don’t know what to do either. There is no frantic clutching at bedclothes. ‘You make a great couple,’ I say. They say, ‘Thank you.’ I say, ‘Have a nice day.’ They say, ‘You too.’

It is not a nice day. I walk down Lansdowne Road and up again. It is an extremely long road, and this takes a good part of the morning.

Later, Louka explains. ‘He is so much like me. I mean physically. At one point, I looked down at one of our arms, and I wasn’t sure whose it was – the skin texture I mean, the colour, the identity of his flesh. It was such a narcissistic experience. It was too wonderful.’

I feel very glum, I feel stodgy, I feel provincial. I must be boring.

She says, ‘Can you imagine if the male part of you – well of course in your case it would be reversed, I mean the female part of you, the opposite – separated out, and approached you physically, and you made love? Oh God, it was so terribly, achingly intimate, almost cruelly intimate.’

Can I compete with her animus made flesh? It is too much to ask.

 

Denise phones. Her voice is over the edge of shaky. She says, ‘Mark, I’m in therapy now.’

‘I’m glad, Denise. I’m sure you could use the support.’

‘Don’t speak to me about support. Don’t.’

‘I’m sorry, I didn’t mean –’

‘I phoned for one purpose only.’

‘And what is that purpose, Denise?’

‘I’m discovering how intensely I hate you. That’s what therapy is doing for me. You can’t imagine how much I hate you. How deeply.’

I feel emptied out by her voice.

‘It is such a relief to tell you this,’ she says. ‘You are a limited, castrative, critical, unimaginative, horrible person.’

Dry I am, and empty. ‘Thank you for passing on the, the feedback. Thank you. I feel very affirmed. Thank you for that life-giving message.’

Her voice rises, strident now, her viciousness in full song. ‘You’ve used me! You’ve ruined my life!’

‘Have you finished, Denise?’

‘I’ll never finish telling –’

I put the phone down. She rings again. I pick up the receiver and put it down, cancelling the call. She rings a third time and I disconnect the instrument. No-one can call me now.

 

Life is shapeless, without form. I live in a mist, past and present swirled together, destroying the difference between each other. Destroying each other. As I write this two guinea fowl in the Norfolk pine outside my window burst into cackling laughter, a nerve-wracking stereo. Is that necessary, I ask the birds, is my pain insufficient?

They switch off their laughter suddenly. But autumn grinds on wearily. These compelling images of Louka melt into one another – Louka with Mike, Louka with Albie – no, it wasn’t Albie, it was Janek – Louka with Yvonne – and wash away with the first rains of winter proper. I very nearly manage to forget about her, until one day I see her in the supermarket again. She straightens up as she sees me and takes her lower lip between her teeth, so fetching.

I greet her warily, a stranger’s greeting. She asks, ‘Where have you been? I’ve been trying to get hold of you for ages! I thought you’d left town or at least moved. Have you?’

‘No, I’ve just been out of touch.’

She smiles and says, ‘Always the elliptical Mark.’

I bow slightly.

She looks at her watch. ‘I’ve got a bit of time to kill. Will you join me for a cup of coffee?’

I think about it. ‘Maybe.’ Then that sounds too blunt, so I ask, ‘Where?’

‘Oh, I don’t know. Why not my place? It’s not far from here; we can walk in fact.’

‘Sure,’ I hear myself say, ‘Why not?’

We leave the supermarket and begin a leisurely walk up the hill to her apartment. As we walk I glance covertly at her. Her earlobes are very small, they slope into her jawline, still glinting under their finest down. An essence of crushed nasturtium rises off her – not a scent exactly, more a psychic essence, something like a clean lemon tang that jogs hard memories. I take her hand and she glances at me askance, quizzical, amused. But she lets me do it. We fall into an easy rhythm, sauntering along. My breathing slows down. But I feel all the missing years pass between us, from hand to hand, and I let go.

‘Where is Carlo?’ I ask, relieved I can remember her son’s name.

‘With my mother for a few days.’

‘And his father?’ I ask cautiously.

‘That was over a long time ago.’

‘So you’re a free agent?’

‘Free as a bird. At least for a few days.’

‘Freedom,’ I say, tasting the word carefully, measuring it on the tongue like unknown wine. ‘I’ve forgotten the taste of it. We were free then, weren’t we?’

‘I don’t know,’ she replies.

When we reach her door, I say, ‘I don’t think I’ll come in.’

‘Oh?’ she asks, frowning beautifully. ‘Why not?’

‘I never allow myself in on the first date.’

As she looks at me, mildly puzzled, her lips part. I’ve forgotten how beautiful her teeth are, how perfect their irregularity.

‘You’re joking, aren’t you?’

I shake my head, not understanding my own reaction. But by then it is too late. I look vaguely down the street and say, ‘Give me a ring some time will you?’ And then an afterthought: ‘Maybe I’ll plug in my phone in case you do.’

‘Sure,’ she replies guardedly. Then I wave, as if from a distance, and walk back down the hill. Right at the bottom I turn around and look up. She is still there at the door (this one is also green), a slender figure holding a shopping bag.

Adults OnlyLouka in Autumn by Ken Barris is one of the stories in Adults Only (Mercury), the anthology containing the best stories entered into the National Arts Festival’s second annual Short.Sharp.Stories Awards. The book is available from Kalahari.com.