Disgrace - The house is just as

Saturday, 31 December, Year 8 d.Tr. | Author: Mircea Popescu

The house is just as he had imagined it would be: rubbishy furniture, a clutter of ornaments (porcelain shepherdesses, cowbells, an ostrich-feather flywhisk), the yammer of a radio, the chirping of birds in cages, cats everywhere underfoot. There is not only Bev Shaw, there is Bill Shaw too, equally squat, drinking tea at the kitchen table, with a beet-red face and silver hair and a sweater with a floppy collar. 'Sit down, sit down, Dave,' says Bill. 'Have a cup, make yourself at home.'

It has been a long morning, he is tired, the last thing he wants to do is trade small talk with these people. He casts Lucy a glance. 'We won't stay, Bill,' she says, 'I'm just picking up some medicines.' Through a window he glimpses the Shaws' back yard: an apple tree dropping wormridden fruit, rampant weeds, an area fenced in with galvanized-iron sheets, wooden pallets, old tyres, where chickens scratch around and what looks uncommonly like a duiker snoozes in a corner.

'What do you think?' says Lucy afterwards in the car.
'I don't want to be rude. It's a subculture of its own, I'm sure. Don't they have children?'
'No, no children. Don't underestimate Bev. She's not a fool. She does an enormous amount of good. She's been going into D Village for years, first for Animal Welfare, now on her own.'
'It must be a losing battle.'
'Yes, it is. There is no funding any longer. On the list of the nation's priorities, animals come nowhere.'
'This is a great thing - if she can no longer afford the gasoline to go all the way into D Village, she might find the time to go into her own back yard. Maybe help her own apple tree a little. Maybe sort out some of the rubbish invading her house a shade. How is she not a fool ? That's what a fool is, Lucy, one who deliberately daydreams about approaching problems too big for them to tackle because they aim to avoid doing the useful work of handling the smaller problems in their own back yard.'
Lucy is silent, stubbornly, womanly silent. She does not wish to talk about it, of course, it'd be too easy, too simple. No, she wants to hold it all in, wait for the surge of events to drown her, so she can then write out a complaint on a special complaint form and pretend she had no part in any of it, at least to herself. In more Romantic times it was required of the maidens to pretend to be asleep through copulation, to faint, to absentee themselves lest they somehow get involved. Fortunately things progressed, and in these modern times they... the more things change, the more things stay the same ; and the more things stay the same, the more evident the decay. The parent in him eventually broke through. 'She must get despondent.' he offered, in a flat tone. He did not say: "You, too" because he did not want to say "Me, also."
'Yes. No. Does it matter? The animals she helps aren't despondent. They are greatly relieved.'
'That's wonderful, then. I'm sorry, my child, I just find it hard to whip up an interest in the subject. It's admirable, what you do, what she does, but to me animal-welfare people are a bit like Christians of a certain kind. Everyone is so cheerful and well-intentioned that after a while you itch to go off and do some raping and pillaging. Or to kick a cat.'
He is surprised by his outburst. He is not in a bad temper, not in the least.
'You think I ought to involve myself in more important things,' says Lucy. They are on the open road; she drives without glancing at him. 'You think, because I am your daughter, I ought to be doing something better with my life.'
He is already shaking his head. 'No . . . no ... no,' he murmurs. But yes, he does think so. He does.
'You think I ought to be painting still lives or teaching myself Russian. You don't approve of friends like Bev and Bill Shaw because they are not going to lead me to a higher life.'
'Not a matter of higher, Lucy. In all these years you've spent with all known kind and manner of dogs, have you collected anything besides their fleas?'
'It is true. These dogs, as you call them, Bev and Bill and Helen no doubt, every person I've known' and she accentuates the word 'person' in a downright murderous way, 'are not going to lead me to a higher life. They are not. And the reason is, there is no higher life. This is the only life there is. As it is. With the mud, which we share with animals. That's the example that people like Bev try to set. That's the example I try to follow. To share some of our human privilege with the beasts. I don't want to
come back in another existence as a dog or pig and have to live as dogs or pigs live under us.'
'Lucy, my dearest, don't be cross. Yes, I agree, this is the only life there is. As for animals, by all means, let us be kind to them. But let us not lose perspective. We are of a different order of creation from the animals. Not higher, necessarily, just different. So if we are going to be kind, let it be out of simple generosity, not because we feel guilty or fear retribution.'
Lucy draws a breath. She seems about to respond to his homily, but then does not. They arrive at the house in silence.

He is sitting in the front room, watching soccer on television. The score is nil-all; neither team seems interested in winning. They are, perhaps, catering to their future lives, when they shall come back as snails, or cautious, conservative sloths. The commentary alternates between Sotho and Xhosa, languages of which he understands not a word. He never felt the slightest impulse to change that situation, over the many years of his "life of the mind". Their abrupt sound does not, to his ear, suggest any thought, or even possiblity of thought, being conveyed. He never bothered to even attempt learning Xhosa like he never bothered to even attempt learning how to bark properly. He has no doubt that he could, even as he is convinced that it would be impossible -- a duality reduced of a trinity that never in fact occurred.

He turns the sound down to a murmur. Saturday afternoon in South Africa: a time consecrated to men and their pleasures. He nods off. When he awakes, Petrus is beside him on the sofa with a bottle of beer in his hand. He has turned the volume higher.
'Bushbucks,' says Petrus. 'My team. Bushbucks and Sundowns.'

Sundowns take a corner. There is a melee in the goalmouth. Petrus groans and clasps his head. When the dust clears, the Bushbucks goalkeeper is lying on the ground with the ball under his chest. 'He is good! He is good!' says Petrus. 'He is a good goalkeeper. They must keep him.'

The game ends scoreless. Petrus switches channels, with easy, practiced familiarity, without perceiving any need to ask for permission. He is well and truly at home. Boxing: two tiny men, so tiny that they barely come up to the referee's chest, circle, leap in, belabour each other. He gets up, wanders through to the back of the house. Lucy is lying on her bed, reading. 'What are you reading?' he says. She looks at him quizzically, then takes the earplugs out of her ears. 'What are you reading?' he repeats; and then, 'It's not working out, is it? Shall I leave?'

She smiles, lays her book aside. The Mystery of Edwin Drood: not what he would have expected. Perhaps exactly what could be expected. 'Sit down,' she says.
He sits on the bed, idly fondles her bare foot. A good foot, shapely. Good bones, like her mother. A woman in the flower of her years, attractive despite the heaviness, despite the unflattering clothes.
'From my point of view, David, it is working out perfectly well. I'm glad to have you here. It takes a while to adjust to the pace of country life, that's all. Once you find things to do you won't be so bored.'
He nods absentmindedly. Attractive, he is thinking, yet lost to men. Need he reproach himself, or would it have worked out like that anyway? From the day his daughter was born he has felt for her nothing but the most spontaneous, most unstinting love. Impossible she has been unaware of it. Has it been too much, that love? Has she found it a burden? Has it pressed down on her? Has she given it a darker reading?
He wonders how it is for Lucy with her lovers, how it is for her lovers with her. He has never been afraid to follow a thought down its winding track, and he is not afraid now. Has he fathered a woman of passion? What can she draw on, what not, in the realm of the senses? Are he and she capable of talking about that too? Lucy has not led a protected life. Why should they not be open with each other, why should they draw lines, in times when no one else does?

'Once I find things to do,' he says, coming back from his wanderings. 'What do you suggest?'
'You could help with the dogs. You could cut up the dog-meat. I've always found that difficult. Then there is Petrus. Petrus is busy establishing his own lands. You could give him a hand.'
'Give Petrus a hand, in establishing his lands. I like that. I like the historical piquancy. Will he pay me a wage for my labour, do you think?'
'Ask him. I believe he will. He got a Land Affairs grant earlier this year, enough to buy a hectare and a bit from me. I didn't tell you? The boundary line goes through the dam. We share the dam. Everything from there to the fence is his. He has a cow that will calve in the spring. He has two wives, or a wife and a girlfriend, or two... If he plays his cards right he could get a second grant to put up a house; then he can move out of the stable. By Eastern Cape standards he is a man of substance. Ask him to pay you. He can afford it. I'm not sure I can afford him any more.'
'It sounds like soon enough you shan't afford him in any case. Who throws in half rights to the dam in a one hectare deal ?'
'I admit I am not as shrewd a business woman as you might have met in Cape Town. What would have been the right thing to do, watch him shrivel from thirst and shoot him if he tried to get to water ?'
'All right, I'll handle the dog-meat, I'll offer to dig for Petrus. What else?'
'You can help at the clinic. They are desperate for volunteers.'

'You mean Bev Shaw.'
'Yes.'
'I don't think she and I will hit it off.'
'You don't need to hit it off with her. It's good enough to help her. But don't expect to be paid. You will have to do it out of the goodness of your heart.'
'I don't know, Lucy. It sounds suspiciously like community service. It sounds like someone trying to make reparation for past misdeeds.'
'As to your motives, David, I can assure you, the animals at the clinic won't query them. They won't ask and they won't care. You may come to discover in that a great relief.'
'All right, I'll do it. But only as long as I don't have to become a better person. I am not prepared to be reformed. I want to go on being myself. I'll do it on that basis.' His hand still rests on her foot; now he grips her ankle tight. 'Understood?'
She gives him what he can only call the sweetest smile. 'So you are determined to go on being bad. Mad, bad, and dangerous to know. The death of all the girls in town. I promise, no one will ask you to change.'

She teases him as her mother used to tease him. Her wit, if anything, sharper. He has always been drawn to women of wit. Wit and beauty. With the best will in the world he could not find much wit in Meláni. But plenty of beauty. Again it runs through him: a light shudder of voluptuousness. He is aware of Lucy observing him yet he does not appear to be able to conceal it. Interesting.

He gets up, goes out into the yard. The younger dogs are entirely delighted to see him, they trot back and forth in their cages, whining eagerly. Twenty three hours a day in a cage, and then a walk. Solitary confinement in a high security penitentiary. What is their penitence ? The old bulldog barely stirs. He enters her cage, closes the door behind him. She raises her head, regards him, lets her head fall again; her old dugs hang slack. He squats down, tickles her behind the ears. 'Abandoned, are we?' he murmurs. He stretches out beside her on the bare concrete. Above is the pale blue sky. His limbs relax. This is how Lucy finds him. He must have fallen asleep: the first he knows, she is in the cage with the water-can, and the bitch is up, sniffing her feet.
'Making friends?' says Lucy.
'She's not easy to make friends with.'
'Poor old Katy, she's in mourning. No one wants her, and she knows it. The irony is, she must have offspring all over the district who would be happy to share their homes with her. But it's not in their power to invite her. They are part of the furniture, part of the alarm system. They do us the honour of treating us like gods, and we respond by treating them like things.'
They leave the cage. The bitch slumps down, closes her eyes.
'The Church Fathers had a long debate about them, and decided they don't have proper souls,' he observes. 'Insufficiently buoyant. Their souls are tied to their bodies and die with them.'
Lucy shrugs. 'I'm not sure that I have a soul. I wouldn't know a soul if I saw one.'
'That's not true. You are a soul. We are all souls. We are souls before we are born.'
She regards him oddly.

'What will you do with her?' he says.
'With Katy? I'll keep her, if it comes to that.'
'Don't you ever put animals down?'
'No, I don't. Bev does. It is a job no one else wants to do, so she has taken it upon herself. It cuts her up terribly. You underestimate her. She is a more interesting person than you think. Even in your own terms.'
His own terms: what are they? That dumpy little women with ugly voices deserve to be ignored? A shadow of grief falls over him: for Katy, alone in her cage, for himself, for everyone. He sighs deeply, not stifling the sigh. 'Forgive me, Lucy,' he says.
'Forgive you? For what?' She is smiling lightly, mockingly.
'For being one of the two mortals assigned to usher you into the world and for not turning out to be a better guide. But I'll go and help Bev Shaw. Provided that I don't have to call her Bev. It's a silly name to go by. It reminds me of cattle. When shall I start?'
'I'll give her a call.'

Category: Cuvinte Sfiinte
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