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