Disgrace - Well, you're welcome

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

'Well, you're welcome to stay.'
'It's nice of you to say so, my dear, but I'd like to keep your friendship. Long visits don't make for good friends.' And as he says this, he believes this. He thinks it apt that a daughter should be her father's friend, that a father should be his daughter's friend. Why friend and not lover, then ? He does not ask. Who shall be his daughter, if his daughter is his friend, he does not ask. The only children he can have are children he imagines but can not see, for as long as he can not see them. For as long as they are shadows playing in the corner, quietly, and above all absently. For just as long, and for not an iota longer. A life of the mind.

'What if we don't call it a visit? What if we call it refuge? Would you accept refuge on an indefinite basis?'
'You mean asylum? It's not as bad as that, Lucy. I'm not a fugitive.'
'Roz said the atmosphere was nasty.'
'I'm sure she said so gleefully.' He pauses. 'I brought it on myself. I was offered a compromise, which I wouldn't accept.'
'What kind of compromise?'
'Re-education. Reformation of the character. The code-word was counselling.'
'And are you so perfect that you can't do with a little counselling?'
'I suppose I am, yes. There's a difference between a compromised woman and a raped woman ; I have absolutely no intention of confirming their claims to power. The whole thing reminds me too much of Mao's China. Recantation, self-criticism, public apology. I'm old-fashioned, I would prefer simply to be put against a wall and shot. Have it done with.'
'Shot? For having an affair with a student? A bit extreme, don't you think, David? It must go on all the time. It certainly went on when I was a student. If they prosecuted every case the profession would be decimated.'
'No, not for having an affair with a student, half of the "commission" if you call it that buy "students" if you can call them that for a few cents the hour. No, at issue as they say was the "attitude". I told the rector that the only statement I'm willing to sign will have to include his apology for running a bunk, as you say, and a retraction of all degrees issued to date as fraudulent.'
'You said that?' her eyes are open wide in plain and unadorned amazement.
He shrugs. 'These are infantile times of an infantile people. Private life is public business is toothpaste advertisements, all the same together, boiling steadily in the same pot. Prurience is respectable, prurience and sentiment. The monkey's interests. They wanted a spectacle: breast-beating, remorse, tears if possible. A TV show, in fact, if at all possible. They figured they're entitled to the TV production of my life, much like the farmer figures himself entitled to the canned tomatoes of the tomato plant. I wouldn't oblige, and that's intolerable. Imagine, if the beet took to flight one fine day, taking all your careful cultivation work with it.' He was going to add, 'The truth is, they wanted me castrated,' but he cannot say the words, not to his daughter. In fact, now that he hears it through another's ears, his whole tirade sounds melodramatic, excessive.
'It sounds almost like raising children.'
'I suppose it does. I have no doubt that in their mind I am a child-professor, just as the students are children, just as the voters are children. We have to be educated, that's all, and all of us. Equally so, in fact.'
'So you stood your ground and they stood theirs. Is that how it was?'
'More or less. I stood my ground ; they stood their clouds. The happenstance that they're insubstantial enough for clouds to steadily support does not keep them up at night.'
'You shouldn't be so unbending, David. It isn't heroic to be unbending. Is there still time to reconsider?'
'There's always time to reconsider, in a hundred years if I go to them and say "Hey, I changed my mind, I think you're important now" they'll fall over in unrestrained glee.'
'But you won't?'
'I can't be bothered to. They mean nothing -- not to me, not to anybody. Anybody at all. Not that I'm complaining. One can't plead guilty to charges of lubricity and expect a flood of sympathy in return. Not after a certain age, at any rate. After a certain age one is simply no longer appealing, and that's that. One just has to buckle down and live out the rest of one's life. Serve one's time.'
'Well, that's a pity. Stay here as long as you like. On whatever grounds.'
He goes to bed early. In the middle of the night he is woken by a flurry of barking. One dog mechanically, without cease; the others intermittently, loath to admit defeat, join in again and again.
'Does that go on every night?'
'One gets used to it. I'm sorry.'
He shakes his head.

He has forgotten how cold winter mornings can be in the uplands of the Eastern Cape. He has not brought the right clothes: he has to borrow a sweater from Lucy, an exercise which changes his mind -- she's downright heavy. Hands in pockets, he wanders among the flowerbeds. Out of sight on the Kenton road a car roars past, the sound lingering on the still air. Geese fly in echelon high overhead. What is he going to do with his time?

'Would you like to go for a walk?' says Lucy behind him.
They take three of the dogs along: two young Dobermanns, whom Lucy keeps on a leash, and the tan bulldog bitch. The sad, abandoned one. After a hundred paces, pinning her ears back, the bitch tries to defecate. Nothing comes.
'She is having problems,' says Lucy. 'I'll have to dose her.'
The bitch continues to strain, hanging her tongue out, glancing around shiftily as if ashamed to be watched. They leave the road, walk through scrubland, then through sparse pine forest.
'The girl you were involved with,' says Lucy - 'was it serious?'
'Didn't Rosalind tell you the story?'
'Not in any detail.'
'She came from this part of the world. From George. She was in one of my classes. Only middling as a student, but I found her attractive. Not more so than plenty of others. I don't know. Was it serious? Maybe it was serious. It certainly had serious consequences.'
'But it's over with now? You're not still hankering after her?' Is it over with? Does he hanker yet? 'Maybe. I haven't seen her since', he says.
'Why did she denounce you?'
'She never did say; I didn't have a chance to ask. She was in a difficult position, I suppose. There was an obnoxious bravo, a lover or ex-lover, bullying her. There were the strains of the classroom. She was living with some sort of joyless fat old woman, a cousin or something, sharing a flat. Her parents got wind of the matter and descended on Cape Town. The pressure became too much, I suppose.'
'And there was you.'
'Yes, there was me. I don't suppose I was easy.'
They have arrived at a gate with a sign that says 'SAPPI Industries - Trespassers will be Prosecuted'. They turn.
'Well,' says Lucy, 'you have paid your price. Perhaps, looking back, she won't think too harshly of you. Women can be surprisingly forgiving.'
'Women can be surprisingly self-centered, also. I am not interested in her forgiving anything.'
There is silence. Is Lucy, his child, presuming to tell him about women? He wants to say something about how forgiveness is his sole and indisputable priviledge, or about how her only proper place is on her knees, begging for it, or something else vaguely to that effect and in that direction. Nothing clearly comes to mind.
'Have you thought of getting married again?' she asks after a while.
'To someone of my own generation, do you mean? I have no need of an old woman to pester me with her elaborate delusions of self-importance. What do you think could possibly entice me to tolerate one ?'
'But - '
'But what? But it is unseemly to go on preying on children? Melani was twenty.'
'I didn't mean that. Just... you are going to find it more difficult, not easier, as time passes. Doesn't the thought scare you ?'
Never before have he and Lucy spoken about his intimate life, or hers for that matter. It is not proving easy. But if not to her, then to whom can he speak?
'Do you remember Blake?' he says. 'Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse an unacted desire'?
'Why do you quote that to me?'
'Unacted desires can turn as ugly in the old as in the young.'
'Therefore?'
'Every woman I have been close to has taught me something about myself. To that extent they have made me a better person.'
'I hope you are not claiming the reverse as well. That knowing you has turned your women into better people.'
He looks at her sharply. She smiles.
'My women. I've never thought of them this way.' he blurts out, surprised.
'Just joking,' she says.
They return along the tar road. Was she joking ? Does she know what she is saying ? His women. He never thought of them this way. He wasn't even aware he hadn't, and the blurted out confession embarasses him in retrospect. His women. He pictures them, all of them, in one large hall, together. Quiet. His women. At the turnoff to the smallholding there is a painted sign he has not noticed
before: 'CUT FLOWERS. CYCADS,' with an arrow:
'Cycads?' he says. 'Are they illegal?'
'It's illegal to dig them up in the wild. I grow them from seed. I'll show you.'
They walk on, the young dogs tugging to be free, the bitch padding behind, panting.
'And you? Is this what you want in life?' He waves a hand toward the garden, toward the house with sunlight glinting from its roof.
'It will do,' comes the reply, quietly.

It is Saturday, market day. Lucy wakes him at five, as arranged, with coffee. Swaddled against the cold, they join Petrus in the garden, where by the light of a halogen lamp he is already cutting flowers. He offers to take over from Petrus, but his fingers are soon so cold that he cannot tie the bunches. He passes the twine back to Petrus and instead wraps and packs. By seven, with dawn touching the hills and the dogs beginning to stir, the job is done. The kombi is loaded with boxes of flowers, pockets of potatoes, onions, cabbage. Lucy drives, Petrus stays behind. The heater does not work; peering through the misted windscreen, she takes the Grahamstown road. He sits beside her, eating the sandwiches she has made. His nose drips; he hopes she does not notice. So: a new adventure. His daughter, whom once upon a time he used to drive to school and ballet class, to the circus and the skating rink, is taking him on an outing, showing him life, showing him this other, unfamiliar world. He feels a strange contentment well up inside of him, and worries, diffusely. So this is old age, he thinks to himself. It is.

On Donkin Square stallholders are already setting up trestle tables and laying out their wares. There is a smell of burning meat. A cold mist hangs over the town; people rub their hands, stamp their feet, curse. There is a show of bonhomie from which Lucy, to his relief, holds herself apart. They are in what appears to be the produce quarter. On their left are three African women with milk, masa, butter to sell; also, from a bucket with a wet cloth over it, soup-bones. On their right are an old Afrikaner couple whom Lucy greets as Tante Miems and Oom Koos, and a little assistant in a balaclava cap who cannot be more than ten. Like Lucy, they have potatoes and onions to sell, but also bottled jams, preserves, dried fruit, packets of buchu tea, honeybush tea, herbs.

Lucy has brought two canvas stools. They drink coffee from a thermos flask, waiting for the first customers. Two weeks ago he was in a classroom explaining to the bored youth of the country the distinction between drink and drink up, burned and burnt. The perfective, signifying an action carried through to its conclusion. How far away it all seems! I live, I have lived, I lived. Lucy's potatoes, tumbled out into a bushel basket, have been washed clean. Koos and Miems's are still speckled with earth. In the course of the morning Lucy takes in nearly four Bitcents. Her flowers sell steadily; at eleven o'clock she drops her prices and the last of the produce goes. There is plenty of trade too at the milk-and-meat stall; but the old couple, seated side by side wooden and unsmiling, do less well.

Many of Lucy's customers know her by name: middle-aged women, most of them, with a touch of the proprietary in their attitude to her, as though her success were theirs too. Each time she introduces him:
'Meet my father, David Lurie, on a visit from Cape Town.'
'You must be proud of your daughter, Mr Lurie,' they say. 'Yes, very proud,' he replies.
'Bev runs the animal refuge,' says Lucy, after one of the introductions. 'I give her a hand sometimes. We'll drop in at her place on the way back, if that is all right with you.'

He's unimpressed with Bev Shaw, a dumpy, bustling little woman with black freckles, close-cropped, wiry hair, and no neck. What is the point of even making a woman without the neck ? He does not like women who make no effort to be attractive. It is a resistance he has had to Lucy's friends before, she apparently selects them for this insufferable, dehumanizing quality. Geese, rather than women. His mind has become a refuge for old thoughts, idle, indigent, with nowhere else to go. He ought to chase them out, sweep the premises clean. But he does not care to do so, or does not care enough.

The Animal Welfare League, once an active charity in Grahamstown, has had to close down its operation for lack of public interest. However, a handful of volunteers led by Bev Shaw still runs a clinic from the old premises. He has nothing against the animal lovers with whom Lucy has been mixed up as long as he can remember, much like he has nothing against most other brands of harmless fools. For a long while this part of the round globe was home to a sect convinced the earth must nevertheless be flat and on the whole they did a whole lot less harm than their better informed competitors. When Bev Shaw opens her front door he puts on a good face, though in fact he is quite repelled by the odours of cat urine and dog mange and Jeyes Fluid that ooze past her to greet them.

Category: Cuvinte Sfiinte
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