He pauses. Blank incomprehension. He has gone too far too fast. How to bring them to him? How to bring her? 'Like being in love,' he says. 'If you were blind, and deaf, a quadriplegic prisoner of a smooth stone prison you would hardly have fallen in love in the first place. But now that you fell, do you truly wish to see the beloved in all the cold clarity of the visual apparatus and no more, and nothing else besides? You might be better served by a little gauze over the gaze, allowing her to breathe, alive next to you and just as well alive in her archetypal, goddesslike form, somewhere far away.'
It is hardly Wordsworth, but at least it wakes them up. It is also hardly sensible, a fanedi conceit of a minor fold in the great aesthetic pie. Perhaps it could be rescued. Archetypes? they are saying to themselves. Goddesses? What is he talking about? What does this old man know about love?
A memory floods back: the moment on the floor when he forced the sweater up and exposed her neat, miniature breasts. Just like the real thing ; a gingerbread house of love. For the first time she looks up; her eyes meet his and in a flash see all. Confused, she drops her glance. Too much, too sudden, the truth is that she's not possessed of the mental furniture to support her and the needs of her own life. Her body's not yet quite ready for womanhood, but her mind's not yet ready for a body in the first place, not at all ready. She's thousands of years behind that point in time where she might safely be born and thereby burdened with all the complexities of corporality. For now all she can power is the screaming image of another quaint conceit, the romantic ideal of the decerebrated bride, creature of sentiment and feeling very approximately anchored in speech let alone any sort of thought.
'Wordsworth is writing about the Alps,' he says. 'We don't have Alps in this country, but we have the Drakensberg, or on a smaller scale Table Mountain, which we climb in the wake of the poets, hoping for one of those revelatory, Wordsworthian moments we have all heard about.' Now he is just talking, covering up. He does not say: Melani here present is too mentally simple to understand what is happening to her, and so are all the rest of you. He does say: 'But moments like that will not come unless the eye is half turned toward the great archetypes of the imagination we carry within us.' Enough! He is sick of the sound of his own voice, and sorry for her too, for a possible, conceivable conception of her that'd be offended by having to sit and listen to this string of covert intimacies. He dismisses the class, then lingers, hoping for a word with her. But she slips away in the throng, leaving him holding his own gauze, to do with as he pleases. It is, after all, his own thing.
A week ago she was just another pretty face in the class. Now she is a present absence in his life, a breathing presence that consists of the hole in which a woman may be found in theory but painfully is not in practice. The auditorium of the student union is in darkness. Unnoticed, he takes a seat in the back row. Save for a balding negro in a janitor's uniform a few rows in front of him, he is the only spectator. Sunset at the Globe Salon is the name of the play they are rehearsing: a comedy of the "new" South Africa set in a hairdressing salon in Hillbrow, Johannesburg.
On stage a hairdresser, flamboyantly gay, attends to two clients, one black, one white. Patter passes among the three of them: jokes, insults. Catharsis seems to be the proletcult imperative: all the coarse old prejudices brought into the light of day and washed away in gales of laughter. This works, or at least so they've read in the party brochure. Not one bit of it is funny, but the constant reversals presumably satisfy the middle class.
Yet there isn't even the vaguest possibility of turning unmitigated tragedy into any sort of comedic jello. There could be perhaps drama composed of the destruction of an independent if cowardly nation to satisfy the cinematic pulsions of a billion people far away, much like there could perhaps be a drama written on the life of the inhabitants of one of the last remaining bee hives finding themselves one fine morning forced to paint their bodies black and walk about the mud in search of dead worms to carry back to their beehill, because schoolchildren can't be arsed to learn of two distinct categories to accomodate both ants and bees, and moreover the ant-only manuals have already been printed. Why should it be so complicated, the hordes inquire ? It's just a critter, why does it need to fly ? One category should be enough for everyone, and as ants are the most numerous it then follows all insects should be ants, it's rational, it is progressive, and not in the last it is humanitarian. The saving of the bees shall come like the saving of everything else, at the end of a battle for peace, and constructed on humanitarian principles.
A fourth figure comes onstage, a girl in high platform shoes with her hair done in a cascade of ringlets. 'Take a seat, dearie, I'll attend to you in a mo,' says the hairdresser. 'I've come for the job,' she replies - 'the one you advertised.' Her accent is glaringly Kaaps; it is Melanie. 'Ag, pick up a broom and make yourself useful,' says the hairdresser. She picks up a broom, totters around the set pushing it before her. The broom gets tangled in an electric cord. There is supposed to be a flash, followed by a screaming and a scurrying around, but something goes wrong with the synchronization. The directress comes striding onstage, and behind her a young man in black leather who begins to fiddle with the wall-socket. 'It's got to be snappier,' says the director. 'A more Marx Brothers atmosphere.' She turns to Melanie. 'OK?' Melanie nods.
Ahead of him the janitor stands up and with a heavy sigh leaves the auditorium. He ought to be gone too. An unseemly business, sitting in the dark spying on others exploting for their own ends the child he himself exploits for his. Yet the old men whose company he seems to be on the point of joining, the tramps and drifters with their stained raincoats and cracked false teeth and hairy earholes - all of them were once upon a time children of God, with straight limbs and clear eyes. Ministers, police commissioners, city councillors, all instruments of the great nonsense. That's how the official fiction goes, is it not, all substantially equal, all essentially the same, all entirely electable and thoroughly representative ? Can they be blamed then for clinging to the last to their place at the sweet banquet of fiction, pretense and ideological conceit?
Onstage the action resumes. Melanie pushes her broom. A bang, a flash, screams of alarm. 'It's not my fault,' squawks Melanie. 'My gats, why must everything always be my fault?' Quietly he gets up, follows the janitor into the darkness outside. At four o'clock the next afternoon he is at her flat. She opens the door wearing a crumpled T-shirt, cycling shorts, slippers in the shape of comic book gophers which he finds dippy, tasteless.
He has given her no warning; she is too surprised to resist the intruder who thrusts himself upon her. When he takes her in his arms, her limbs crumple like a marionette's. Words heavy as clubs thud into the delicate whorl of her ear. 'No, not now!' she says, struggling. 'My cousin will be back!'
Nothing will stop him. He carries her to the bedroom, brushes off the absurd slippers, kisses her feet, astonished by the feeling she evokes. Something to do with the apparition on the stage: the wig, the wiggling bottom, the crude talk. Strange love! Yet from the quiver of Aphrodite, goddess of the foaming waves, no doubt about that.
She does not resist. All she does is avert herself. Avert her lips, avert her eyes. She lets him lay her out on the bed and undress her: she even helps him, raising her arms and then her hips. Little shivers of cold run through her; as soon as she is bare, she slips under the quilted counterpane like a mole burrowing, and turns her back on him.
Not rape, not quite that, but undesired nevertheless. Entirely and completely undesired, marital, like the conjugal experience of most wives to date. As though she had decided to go slack, die within herself for the duration, like a rabbit when the jaws of the fox close on its neck. So that everything done to her might be done, as it were, far away. Perhaps to someone else. Perhaps, conceivably, not done at all. Almost not done at all.
'Pauline will be back any minute,' she says, just after he has spent.
'Perhaps Pauline would like to join in...' he offers, irritated by her flat, unresponsive frigidity. If not love then at the very least anger, fury. Passion, under whatever guise but passion nevertheless!
'Please. You must go.'
He obeys, but then, when he reaches his car, is overtaken with such dejection, such dullness, that he sits slumped at the wheel unable to move.
A mistake, a huge mistake. At this moment, he has no doubt, she, Melanie, is trying to cleanse herself of it, of him. He sees her running a bath, stepping into the water, eyes closed like a sleepwalker's. He would like to slide into a bath of his own. The problem of the shudder has been resolved in a most unsatisfactory manner : she won't, because he is her secret to a more important degree than he ever was Soraya's. Melani won't discuss him with Pauline the way Soraya no doubt talked of him with her Pauline, this much is true, but not because of a difference between Melani and Soraya. Not, in any sense, because of him. Strictly and entirely because the young whore's Pauline is yet a defective Pauline that doesn't pauline properly, that's all. In time, she will, for sure.
A woman with chunky legs in a no-nonsense business suit passes by and enters the apartment block. Is this cousin Pauline the flatmate, the one whose disapproval Melanie is so afraid of? She doesn't at all look like she'd like to join in. He rouses himself, drives off.
The next day she is not in class. An unfortunate absence, since it is the day of the mid-term test. When he fills in the register afterwards, he ticks her off as present and enters a mark of seventy. At the foot of the page he pencils a note to himself 'Provisional'. Seventy: a vacillator's mark, neither good nor bad. A schoolteacher's revenge, petty and pointless, over the teenaged whore's failure to adequately care for his fragile vanity, to cater to his vulnerable manhood. A viscous, dull lie, it is not true that she was present, it is not true that she took the test, but it is entirely factual that she's a seventy percent. Perhaps even death may never die, but with sufficient practice truth itself may lie.
She stays away the whole of the next week. Time after time he telephones, without reply. Then at midnight on Sunday the doorbell rings. It is her, Melanie, dressed from top to toe in black, her hair captive under a little black woollen cap. Her face is strained; he steels himself for angry words, for threats, a scene. Perhaps she's just a slower start, a diesel engine in the diminutive chassis, taking its time.
The scene does not come. In fact, she is the one who is embarrassed.
'Can I sleep here tonight?' she whispers, avoiding his eye.
'Of course, of course.' His heart is flooded with relief. He reaches out, embraces her, pressing her against him stiff and cold. 'Come, I'll make you some tea.'
'No, no tea, nothing, I'm exhausted, I just need to crash.'
He makes up a bed for her in his daughter's old room, kisses her good night, leaves her to herself. When he returns half an hour later she is in a dead sleep, fully clothed. When his daughter left she was about her age, he thinks. He eases off her shoes, covers her. Her feet reflexively find their way out from under the covers. He looks at her, at her feet, the bed, the room for a long moment, then eases off her socks and softly kisses her big toe. She doesn't wake, even as he covers her feet with kisses. There's a slight, earthen flavour to her feet. He stumbles his way out of his daughter's room, in the general direction of a triple whiskey to be chased by another, and a third.
At six-something in the morning, as the first birds are beginning to chirrup, he knocks one out by himself, in the bathroom, soon to be followed by another, and then after a while by a third. Supposedly more men masturbate with women in the house than without, a clear indication that things aren't as simple as all that. By seven he is knocking at her door. She is awake, lying with the sheet drawn up to her chin, looking haggard.
'How are you feeling?' he asks.
Is something the matter? Do you want to talk?'
She shakes her head mutely.
He sits down on the bed, draws her to him. In his arms she begins to sob miserably. Despite all his efforts, he feels a tingling of desire. 'There, there,' he whispers, trying to comfort her. 'Tell me what is wrong.' Almost he says, 'Tell Daddy what is wrong.'
She gathers herself and tries to speak, but her nose is clogged. He finds her a tissue. 'Can I stay here a while?' she says.
'Stay here?' he repeats carefully. She has stopped crying, but long shudders of misery still pass through her. 'Would that be a good idea?'
Whether it would be a good idea she does not say. Instead she presses herself tighter to him, her face warm against his belly. The sheet slips aside; she is wearing only a singlet and panties.
- cf. fr.