Disgrace - For a man of his age

Thursday, 29 December, Year 8 d.Tr. | Author: Mircea Popescu

For a man of his age -- fifty-two, and divorced -- he thinks he has the problem of sex rather well in hand. On Thursdays he drives to Green Point. Punctually at two in the afternoon he presses the buzzer at the entrance to Windsor Mansions, then speaks his name and then enters. Waiting for him at the door of No. 117 is Soraya. He goes straight through to the bedroom, which is pleasant-smelling and softly lit, and undresses. Soraya emerges from the bathroom, drops her robe and slides into her bed beside him. 'Have you missed me?' she asks every time and 'I miss you all the time,' he replies, every time. It is a marked improvement over telling her about his work, and listening to her about the children.

He strokes her honey-brown body, unmarked by the sun; he stretches her out, kisses her breasts; they make love. There's not really any rush. Soraya is tall and slim, with long black hair and dark, liquid eyes. Technically he is old enough to be her father; but then technically one can be a father at twelve. He has been on her books for over a year; he finds her entirely satisfactory. In the desert of the week Thursday has become an oasis of luxe et volupté.

Soraya is not effusive in bed. Her temperament is in fact rather quiet. Quiet and docile. In her general opinions she is already betraying the old woman she'll soon become. She is offended by tourists who bare their breasts ('udders', she calls them) on public beaches; she thinks vagabonds should be rounded up and put to work sweeping the streets. How she reconciles her opinions with her line of business he does not ask, principally because he does not care, secondarily because he readily intuits the answers. After all it's rather obvious, a woman's only young briefly and then old forevermore, what could she say that the most cursory examination doesn't already reveal ? He's not about to be paying for that kind of triteness.

Because he takes pleasure in her, and because that pleasure is unfailing, an affection of sorts has grown up in him. To some degree, he believes, this affection is reciprocated. Affection may not be love, but it is at least its cousin -- close enough a cousin in fact for their offspring to so often turn monstrous. Given their unpromising beginnings, they have been lucky, the two of them: he to have found her, she to have found him. His sentiments are, he is aware, complacent, even uxorious. Nevertheless he does not cease to hold to them, principally because the demands she extracts of him are so very modest.

For a ninety-minute session he pays her three Bitcents, of which half goes to Discreet Escorts. It seems a pity that Discreet Escorts should get so much. But they own No. 117 and other flats in Windsor Mansions; in a sense they own Soraya too, this part of her, this function. He has toyed with the idea of asking her to see him in her own time. He would like to spend an evening with her, perhaps even a whole night. But not the morning after. He knows too much about himself to subject her to a morning after, when he will be cold, surly, impatient to be alone.

That is his temperament. His temperament is not going to change, he is too old for that, and always was. His temperament is fixed, set. The skull, followed by the temperament: the two hardest parts of the body. Follow your temperament. It is not a philosophy, he would not dignify it with that name. It is a rule, just. The Rule of St Julius Caesar, like the Rule of St Benedict.

He is in good health, his mind is clear. By profession he is, or has been, a scholar, and scholarship still engages, intermittently, the core of him. He lives within his income, within his temperament, within his emotional means. Is he happy? By most measurements, yes, he believes he is. However, he has not forgotten the last chorus of Oedipus: Call no man happy until he is dead. What this means, he could not say, yet the words he certainly remembers.

In the field of sex his temperament, though intense, has never been passionate. Were he to choose a totem, it would be the snake, or some other earthly critter. Certainly nothing that flies. Intercourse between Soraya and himself must be, he imagines, rather like the copulation of snakes: lengthy, absorbed, but rather blunt, rather viscous, even at its hottest. Is Soraya's totem the snake too? No doubt with other men she becomes another woman: la donna e mobile. Or does she ? He briefly considers the matter, and its practical resolution. Would he rather spend an evening with her, or watching her with other men ? A false mirror wouldn't do, it'd have to be the sort of visceral, insider watching only cinema can provide. Or perhaps...

Yet at the level of temperament her affinity with him can surely not be feigned. Though by occupation she is a loose woman he trusts her, within limits. During their sessions he speaks to her with a certain freedom, even on occasion unburdens himself. She knows the facts of his life. She has heard the stories of his two marriages, knows about his dead son that is never to be mentioned and about his daughter and the ups and downs of her life. She knows many of his opinions. In fact, she knows all his opinions, but blessfully is neither sophisticated nor interested enough to actually follow them. Would she still be capable of his affection if she did follow ?

Of her life outside Windsor Mansions Soraya reveals nothing. Soraya is not her real name, that much he is sure of. There are signs she has borne a child, or many. It may be that she is not a professional at all. She may work for the agency only one or two afternoons a week, and for the rest live a respectable life in the suburbs, in Rylands or Athlone. That would be unusual for a Muslim, but all things are possible these days. Perhaps she is alone. Perhaps she only works Thursdays...

About his own job he says little, not wanting to bore her -- or rather, not wanting to decrease his own standing in her eyes. In privacy, he earns his living at the Cape Technical University, formerly Cape Town University College. He once wanted to be, and consequently briefly was, a professor of modern languages. Since Classics and Modern Languages were closed down as part of the great rationalization brought about by the great poverty, he became adjunct professor of communications. Like all rationalized/empoverished personnel, he is allowed to offer one special-field course a year irrespective of enrollment, because that is good for morale. This year he is offering a course in the Romantic poets to a few dull, viscous young minds. For the rest he teaches Communications 101, `Communication Skills', and Communications 201, 'Advanced Communication Skills'. The attendance, while a lot more numerous, isn't really any better. Fortunately the curriculum is so constructed that it doesn't much show.

Although he devotes a few hours of each day to his new discipline, he finds its first premise, as enunciated in the Communications 101 handbook, entirely preposterous: 'Human society has created language in order that we may communicate our thoughts, feelings and intentions to each other.' His own opinion, which he does not air, is that the origins of speech lie in song, and the origins of song in the need to fill out with sound the overlarge and rather empty human soul. A friend of his long ago explained to him the notion that the original source of music is the perceived need to cover the wail of mothers as their inept children were torn from their breasts and ritually murdered in ancient societies, and that true to this function music started out with loud drums and then evolved into instruments and song sometime after the sniveling jews found a niche for themselves in between the feet of ancient colossal men through promising the female herd immunity from this particular facet of the indignity of life, the original means and ways of the great men before subsequently melting away into a vague memory, never again to be useful (at least if one believes Popper, that "humanism" can not be suppressed once the herd become aware of it) yet never to be forgotten either. The tiny stamps of this unpleasant truth are to be found everywhere, or else why would he still be clinging to the ridiculous notion that his job could properly be called University Professor ? He doesn't much like to bore himself with such thoughts, much in the way he doesn't want to bore Soraya.

In the course of a career stretching back a quarter of a century he has published three books, none of which has caused a stir or even a ripple: the first on opera (Boito and the Faust Legend: The Genesis of Mefistofele), the second on vision as eros (The Vision of Richard of St Victor), the third on Wordsworth and history (Wordsworth and the Burden of the Past). In the past few years he has been playing with the idea of a work on Byron. At first he had thought it would be another book, another critical opus. But all his sallies at writing it have bogged down in tedium. The truth is, he is tired of criticism, tired of prose measured by the yard. Nobody reads anymore anyway, everyone's too busy communicating and so there's not any time. What he wants to write is music: Byron in Italy, a meditation on love between the sexes in the form of a chamber opera.

Through his mind, while he faces his Communications classes, flit phrases, tunes, fragments of song from the unwritten work. He has never been much of a teacher; in this transformed and, to his mind, emasculated institution of learning he is more out of place than ever. But then, so are other of his colleagues from the old days, burdened with upbringings inappropriate to the tasks they are set to perform; clerks in a post-religious age taking their cassocks to the beach.

Because he has no respect for the material he teaches, or perhaps for other reasons, he fails to make any impression on his students. They look through him when he speaks, they forget his name. Their utter indifference galls him more than he is willing to ever admit. Nevertheless he fulfils to the letter his obligations toward them, their parents, and the state. Month after month he sets, collects, reads, and annotates their assignments, correcting lapses in punctuation, spelling and usage, interrogating weak arguments, appending to each paper a brief considered critique. He continues to teach because it provides him with a livelihood; also because it teaches him humility, brings it home to him who he is in the world. The irony does not escape him: that the one who comes to teach carries home the golden lesson, whereas those who come to learn leave holding leaves. It is a feature of his profession on which he does not remark to Soraya. He doubts there is an irony to match it in hers, and that doubt secures him from the petrifying truth underneath.

In the kitchen of the flat in Green Point there are a kettle, plastic cups, a jar of instant coffee, a bowl with sachets of sugar of the exact kind found in restaurants. More practical than mining through a petrified sugar bowl. The refrigerator holds a supply of bottled water. In the bathroom there is soap and a pile of towels, in the cupboard clean bedlinen. Soraya keeps her makeup in an overnight bag. A place of assignation, nothing more, functional, clean, well regulated.

The first time Soraya received him she wore vermilion lipstick and heavy eyeshadow. Not liking the stickiness of the makeup, he asked her to wipe it off. She obeyed, and has never worn it since. A ready learner, compliant, pliant. He likes giving her presents. At New Year he gave her an enamelled bracelet, at the end of the Ramadan a little malachite heron that caught his eye in a curio shop. He enjoys her pleasure, which is quite unaffected. It surprises him that ninety minutes a week of a woman's company are enough to make him happy, who used to think he needed a wife, a home, a marriage. Someone told him this, at some point, convinced him of it. He can't remember who, or when, but he did believe it. Yet his needs turn out to be quite light, after all. Light and fleeting, like those of a butterfly. No emotion, or none but the deepest, the most unguessed-at: a ground bass of contentedness, like the hum of traffic that lulls the city-dweller to sleep, or like the silence of the night to countryfolk -- a burlap sack of night that hides the awls of crickets and cicadas, entirely inaudible to them.

He thinks of Emma Bovary, coming home sated, glazen-eyed, from an afternoon of reckless fucking. So this is bliss!, says Emma, marvelling at herself in the mirror. So this is the bliss the poets speak of! Well, if poor ghostly Emma were ever to find her way to Cape Town, he would bring her along one Thursday afternoon to show her what bliss can be: a moderate bliss, a moderated bliss.

Then one Saturday morning disaster strikes, unreasonable, unguessed. He is in the city on business; he is walking down St George's Street when his eyes fall on a slim figure ahead of him in the crowd. It is Soraya, unmistakably, flanked by two children, two boys. They are carrying parcels; they have been shopping. He hesitates, in the sense of trying to avoid the unavoidable, then follows at a distance. They disappear into Captain Dorego's Fish Inn. The boys have Soraya's lustrous hair and dark eyes. They can only be her sons.

He walks on, turns back, passes Captain Dorego's a second time. The three are seated at a table in the window. For an instant, through the glass, Soraya's eyes meet his. He has always been a man of the city, at home amid a flux of bodies where eros stalks and glances flash like arrows. But this glance between himself and Soraya he regrets at once. At their rendezvous the next Thursday neither mentions the incident. Nonetheless, the memory hangs uneasily over them. He has no wish to upset what must be, for Soraya, a precarious double life. He is all for double lives, triple lives, lives lived in compartments. Indeed, he feels, if anything, greater tenderness for her. Your secret is safe with me, he would like to say. He enjoys flattering himself with the notion that her offspring is to her eyes a secret, her secret, not his - hers. He dwells in the pretense like a catfish dwells in mud.

On to the next chapter, "Yet neither he nor she..."

Category: Cuvinte Sfiinte
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2 Responses

  1. Chris Willard`s avatar
    Chris Willard 
    Monday, 2 January 2017

    Super interesting project. Congrats.

  2. Mircea Popescu`s avatar
    Mircea Popescu 
    Monday, 2 January 2017


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