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Authors: Diane Awerbuck

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Cabin Fever (18 page)

BOOK: Cabin Fever
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Sophie looked up, and then stood up. What would her mother do if she saw her now? She might as well look around, and if she blocked her ears and concentrated, the noise was bearable. She pivoted on her heels, staring at the beams. Christian angels swooped among the Moorish lilies, interleaving hearts and swords. Long-dead artisans had painted every inch of wall and roof; vanished men had laid floor tiles in old geometries, made mazes of the new idolatries. The designs flourished and multiplied up over the ceilings, as if they had fed on bone meal and grown in the night. Five hundred years later the paint was a faded rusty red but still filled the church with its glow.

Sophie’s head ached with the radiance. She crept forward, looking for a quiet place away from the blood-warm light. A small staircase twined up on the left-hand side of the church, distinct from the nave. No one else was up there. Sophie made her way over to it, her boots sacrilegious on the tiles. She stepped over the rope slung across the bottom stairs and then dodged up the rest of the flight, her backpack thumping against her shoulder blades. Her footsteps rang on the iron as she searched.

Rows of glass cabinets were ranked on either side of the Lady Chapel. Inside them were dusty icons, the empty purple vestments of forgotten priests, tiny metatarsals rolled like dice on felt: all abandoned. She thought how easy it would be to lift the unattended lid of a cabinet and slip whatever attracted her into her backpack. But nothing did. The combined weight of the relics’ faith and fear made Sophie’s shoulders sag: she had no use for the past. She turned to leave them to their rest.

The statue stood high in a corner, smoky, lacquered black over centuries, remote behind its glass. The Madonna of Loreto watched her, transplanted and unannounced. She was a much smaller person than Sophie had imagined: the child she proffered seemd too heavy for her to carry much longer. The black baby was an emissary for his mother: he had his right arm raised to bless Sophie. He seemed to be missing some fingers. With his perfect left hand he held out the world.

The pulse throbbed between Sophie’s ribs, in her throat, between her eyes. She wanted to fall on her knees, as if she was asking for the Madonna’s hand, but she was afraid of the security guards below finally looking up.

Scully knew, thought Sophie. Her mouth was dry and sticky, her armpits wet. He knew. It wasn’t smoke, or filth, or time. He made them black to begin with. Their ebony cheeks shone down on her. She was shaking.

Sophie stayed with the Black Madonna as long as she could, until a bell rang for closing. She considered staying the night, but her dread of the other powdery keepsakes oppressed her.

She made her way back out through the bowels of the church and wandered up the stone steps into the last of the daylight. She wandered back to the castle ramparts for a look at the spired city. It was still there, but this time there was a hot air balloon floating over the river, a striped illustration from another book. She leaned over the edge into its lightness until a guard in a peaked cap came up to her and made her step back.

‘Where do you come from, you lady who want to stand on the edge, ha?’ He said this with a thin smile. It was the first one she’d seen on the face of a Hungarian.

She chose the easy answer.

‘Africa.’

‘Africa?’

It was incomprehensible to him.


South
Africa,’ said Sophie, abandoning simplicity. The guard stared at her, at her polished skin and the curls of her hair. Then he looked down and shuffled his feet. The two of them waited while he searched for the shape of her continent in the puzzle of his private geography.

He smiled again, shy with his discovery.

‘South Africa. They say it is heaven.’

Sophie looked at him, the conversational veil between them torn. The arteries in her heart were bursting with her knowledge. She wanted to throw her arms around him and squeeze him so that his deprived ribs creaked, the way her mother would hug her when she saw her again at the airport. Sophie smiled back at him.

‘It is.’

‘Don’t stand so close,’ he said, and touched his cap. Then he strolled amiably off.

Phosphorescence

‘I
T GETS THE BLOOD GOING
, my dear.’

Her granddaughter stared disbelievingly at Alice’s answer, straight on, in a way that Alice herself would never have dared to regard her elders, especially her own grandmother. Brittany shook her dyed fringe down and replaced the earphone of her iPod, signalling the end of interaction. Alice could hear the notes’ angry reverberation in her granddaughter’s skull, like bees. She assumed that Brittany’s throat was still too raw for much speech.

Alice tucked her own wispy hair into her rubber cap and draped the old striped towel over the rocks, her flesh goosebumped in anticipation. She began her simple, resolute walk towards the whitewashed pathway to Graaf’s Pool, as she had every evening for more than fifty years, feeling the lightness as she always did, feeling like a showgirl, feeling like a bride.

It didn’t show on the outside, Alice knew. Brittany was watching her progress, her face in the dusk unlined, her eyes sleepy and blank, idly counting Alice’s sun spots like the pips on dice. Being sixteen meant not having to care about damage, not even the kind you did to yourself on a Saturday night with a bottle of Panado. ‘It takes eight pills to cause permanent liver damage,’ the reproving nurse in the Medi-Clinic had said as she removed the pan with its swirls of charcoal and vomit. ‘Eight. You are a very lucky girl.’ The pan had slopped dangerously.

Brittany didn’t feel lucky. She sat on the sand and waited for moonrise because her grandmother had thought it was a good idea to get her off the couch and out of the flat, but when she looked at the water now she saw only her sharp edges refracted: she was immune to the smell and sound of the sea, and everything in it.

Under Brittany’s dumb gaze Alice straightened her back in her black costume as much as she could, grateful for the coming dark. Still, her bones curved like forceps and there was only so much good posture could do. Her son Sidney, the plastic surgeon, always said that it was the skeleton you couldn’t change. Boob jobs, tummy tucks, facelifts were easy to execute, but when your patients hauled themselves up from their towels on the sand to hobble to the water, they hunched over like the old ladies they were. Plastic surgery was as much a mystery to Alice as the idea that in another century Sidney himself had emerged, smeared and screaming, from her body. She couldn’t imagine wilfully visiting radical change upon herself.

Her granddaughter evidently could. It was, lately, all that Brittany thought about. Last weekend’s attempt to cut herself loose from them altogether had ended in her sullen flight to Cape Town. She would stay with Alice in the beachfront flat until the new school term started in Jo’burg. She needed a change of scene, Sidney had said, from behind the phone on his mahogany desk. Get her away from those people she hangs out with. Alice had a sudden vision of Brittany as a red-striped dishcloth on a washing line. No one had said ‘suicide’, but the word had stung like a thrown stone.

Alice lifted the construction tape that was meant to bar her from the walkway and ducked under it. She was careful in the way that people who know the cost of falling are. She was familiar with the water arriving from the other side of the planet, with it leaving as it did, rapidly. The rocks on either side were slippery, but the path this evening was more than usually treacherous, splattered with periodic candle wax melting weakly. Small groups of people had taken to coming to the pool in a kind of nightly vigil. They sat on the rocks. From her flat Alice could see the tiny flames flickering in the dark.

Now she shaded her eyes and squinted back at the play area above the strip of sand where Brittany sat motionless. There was no one else at this time of day except for the workers. The municipality couldn’t leave the place alone. Men still mowed relentlessly, sending the shorn blades of grass into the air over their heads; they raked and trimmed. Others, with
SOLID WASTE
emblazoned on their backs, scooped up the stinking kelp in sacks and tipped them into the waiting lorries. One woman raked the sand. Alice wondered if she also rearranged the shells. They were always obstructing the promenade, four or five men working on the sewage plant located right next to Mouille Point Lighthouse, the smell of decay wafting onshore with the wind to all the travellers who sat sipping lattes, a reminder of the contents of their expensive insides.

Since the municipality had first tacked the demolition notices to the lampposts, swimmers had stopped coming to Graaf’s Pool, spooked by the tape. There had been one or two nostalgic articles in the free suburban papers and a small, largely ignored, outcry, mainly from the gay men who used the pool as their own. Alice was glad that there was someone else who felt the same clench of heart at the destruction of this half-secret place.

The bulldozers appeared a few weeks later and were left on the lawns overnight, expectant. That first night Alice woke up every few hours from her light old-woman’s doze and thought that she could hear their metal ticking as it contracted, their hinged claws creaking in the wind that also rattled the notices on the lampposts, that pulled at the strings of coloured light bulbs swinging between them, regardless.

But the lights would go too. It would all go. The ellipsis made her afraid of the changes that could be forced on a body overnight, without consent. Still, the carnage and the flattening hadn’t happened yet. The old Jews sat on their benches and the rentboys washed their used parts in the showers; children in transparent underpants paddled in the shallows and seagulls perched on the poured concrete pillars of the promenade, the red dots on their beaks like blood.

Maybe the men from the municipality had forgotten about bulldozing Graaf’s Pool. The machines had been squatting for nearly twenty-eight days now, leaving stretches of dead yellow grass under their bellies. Alice marked each reprieve on her tidal calendar, the way she had when she was first married and had to diarise her cycle: safe-unsafe-safe. Everything we know is pulled towards the moon; the earth can hold onto most of its subjects, except water. That recedes and swells as we turn by degrees, so slowly that we feel it only as a change in the pressure between the ears.

Alice saw that the levels were low when she reached the pool, below even the cement line left by the workers who whitewashed the walls twice every season. High tide this morning had lapped against the retaining wall of the promenade, the waves splashing passers-by with their dirty brown foam. Brittany, hugging herself at the window, had almost smiled at their squeals and jumps. Low tide tonight, under the rabbit’s moon, would abandon the sand for the far shore.

Alice didn’t hesitate; she never did. The water froze your marrow solid. It was always better to immerse yourself. The shock ended sooner; you adjusted. She pushed off from the wall, keeping her eyes open though the salt stung, watching the bottom. Sometimes things washed in with the tide and couldn’t wash out again: a transparent octopus had once flailed at her in terror.

With every length she swam, Alice wondered if this one would be her last, if a man with roses of sweat on his T-shirt and a paunch over his belt would order her out of the water; she would have to lift herself out to lie panting on the rocks before him, an ancient mermaid, scaly and songless.

No one came. Alice gave up her lengths and clung to the side. Lately she tired more easily. She leaned back on her elbows and regarded the sky. It was almost purple now, the first stars out, the volume of the traffic turning up a notch as other people sat down to dinner, peered into cocktails, listened to music in bars. Alice studied the lights on the shore. She could barely make Brittany’s figure out but she could imagine her pose: hugging her knees, legs crossed at the ankles, impenetrable.

Alice kicked her feet in the water, feeling its resistance. What if this really
was
the last time she swam in Graaf’s Pool? The misery of the subtraction astounded her. She wanted some tribute, a final act. Alice glanced around and saw she was still alone. She took off her cap, a few tiny hairs at the nape yanked out in her hurry. She slipped the straps of her costume off her speckled shoulders, and the sand trapped in the folds of her body sank to the bottom of the pool. The rest of the black nylon was easily pulled over her belly and thighs. It floated away from her grasp, the shed thing in the water like a sealskin. Alice wondered why she had ever bothered with it. She dived experimentally; the currents swirled between her legs, the temperature changing as the cold met the warm, as if she had cast off decades with the material. It really did get the blood going.

When Alice broke the surface she already knew what was waiting. Brittany stood at the edge of the pool, fully clothed in the darkness.

‘You were gone so long,’ she said. Alice regarded her steadily. Somewhere behind her the costume was bobbing like seaweed. I wonder if she can see my pubic hair, she thought.

‘You never know,’ she told Brittany. ‘The next time we come here, the pool might be gone.’

Her granddaughter shrugged in the night air. Her hands were jammed into the pockets of her hooded top. They said, very clearly,
That’s not an excuse
.

‘How cold is it, anyway?’

‘Colder than an ice-cream headache,’ said Alice. Colder than a near-death experience in the Emergency Room, she said in her head. ‘Don’t slip on the wax.’

Brittany bent and unlaced her sneakers. She divested herself of her ankle socks and her black jeans, her haunches thin as a deer’s. Her top went next, then the shirts – three of them, layered archaeologically – until she was standing in her girlish underwear, a mystifying combination of cotton and wire scaffolding. She doesn’t need a bra, thought Alice, looking at her unpromising chest. Why is she even wearing one? Her granddaughter’s body was a collection of straws, white in the moonlight.

Brittany stored her iPod carefully in her top and then stood for a moment longer. She bent down and tumbled her panties over her knees and bony feet, fumbled at the clasp of her triple A. It left lines on her body that Alice saw briefly, and then Brittany fell forward into the water. Alice had to stroke backwards in a flurry to avoid being bombed.

BOOK: Cabin Fever
2.83Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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