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Authors: Diane Awerbuck

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BOOK: Cabin Fever
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Her tearfulness had disappeared as the terrain became familiar. What replaced it was resentment. It was all very well to talk about the healing journey, but every counselling session Karina had to attend meant another
R
400 she hadn’t been able to spare, another two hours of work she hadn’t been able to do, another day surrendered to panic. She had come to hate even the tarmac on Kommetjie Road, because it led there. Driving home again – feeling the steering wheel under her hands – was a relief, even though she was going back to the waiting quiet.

Without Saul the fever in the house had broken. Saul stayed in rehab, sulking, where the Damascene moment eluded him. He refused to respond to the counsellors, told Karina when she went faithfully to see him that he’d had enough of this bullshit, that he couldn’t wait to get out of there, that these losers were driving him crazy. Karina wasn’t sure whether the rage that had been exhumed in rehab was better than his usual drooling dream-state.

On the night after her last visit she lay awake for much longer, imagining the new, red Saul in bed beside her. Karina thought, This thing is going to kill him, and then it will kill me. It made the baby twitch in her body.

She couldn’t have him back here. The plain fact of it was calming, unambiguous. It wasn’t Saul who had stood at the centre of the labyrinth so many nights ago, waving his cigarette. It wasn’t a person at all; it was a place. She had always thought the Funny Farm was somewhere else, a destination you could avoid if you just stayed off the road that led to it, but that wasn’t true. Sometimes it came to you.

Karina got up, placing her hands on either side of her heavy body to steady herself, the baby helping her, sinking low and slow in her belly, ballast. Her feet felt for her slippers. She didn’t need her gown. It wouldn’t be cold in the garage.

She made her way to the kitchen, where the matches waited in their patient tin by the gas ring. Fifty bags, she thought. Or a hundred and fifty. It sounds like a lot but I think it’s manageable. The burning wood will cover the smell.

Splodge Gets Married

O
UTSIDE THE
C
OLLEGE CHAPEL THE STATUES
of Saint Joseph and Saint Patrick scrutinised the wedding party. Now that we looked them back in the cold eye, they were shrunken, effete. They stood sexless and diminished in the afternoon light and we needed to get a move on: the ceremony had to happen before sundown.

Between the statues the bride – the beautiful, made-up girl – would swish past in her crackling white wedding dress and her lipsticked smile. Belinda would know when to slow down to the right pace for going up the aisle. Her father would hold her arm but it would seem to the congregation that she was supporting him instead; he would be bent over, dwarfed like Joseph and stunted like Patrick.

After that we could get on with the real business of getting very drunk among the ghosts at The Kimberley Club, of settling old scores. There would be no mention of her first love, the best man, who all through the service would resolutely refuse to look at Belinda’s face behind its veil.

She waited with her father in the long white car, idling. The groom was late. The groomsmen scuffed at the gravel with their shiny shoes, smoked cigarettes and squinted into the light hitting off the College pool like tinfoil. Ceremony made them nervous. It made us all nervous. The congregation, bored, had already streamed inside the chapel, the women trailing perfume that made me cough, the men sliding their fingers between their shirt collars and the tender flesh of their thickened necks. The hangovers humming in their heads merged with the engine of the bridal car throbbing at the gates. Then the driver capitulated and sat back to wait as we were all waiting, making jokes about cold feet and eyeing the emptiness of Cornwell Street.

‘So what happened last night?’ I asked the men. The smoke around their heads burned my throat but it was a good burn; I hadn’t smoked since Standard Seven. The school chapel brought it all back: the thin paper, the shreds of tobacco lodged in the gaps between incisors. We used to creep up the alley beside the stone building at break time; the only place on the grounds where you could see but not be seen.

‘What
didn’t
happen …’ boasted the best man. His nickname came back to me: they used to call him Scrubber. The others sniggered and glanced at one another, slit-eyed with secrets. Oh, Christ, I thought. What had they done with Splodge? The Blue Heaven. Die Danskraal. All those clubs near The Big Hole that brought on moral vertigo: some low place where it didn’t matter what you did because someone else was doing something messier nearby.

Except that it did matter. You just paid for it later, in the daytime.

And last night was heavy; last night was warm. Last night was made for mischief. I lay in my old bed at mother’s house, listening to the cars burn rubber round The Honoured Dead Memorial, and the dogs howl. It made me glad, suddenly, to be a girl, not to have to prove myself outside, beyond the fence, on the tarmac. I lay there and thought about Belinda when she was in Standard Seven too, how she would pretend to swim laps in the College pool in the afternoons. She was training.

She wore a white swimming costume that turned transparent. Scrubber would swim under the water and propel himself up between her legs. She would be torpedoed skywards, shrieking and covering her breasts. She had to hook her ankles under his armpits to keep from being dislodged. They were there all summer long, with their red eyes and their reek of semen and chlorine.

Splodge would watch them from the boarding house. He refused to swim with his shirt off. The other boys had chests scribbled with hair; his own was bulbous, white as a grub. In the afternoons before Study he perched fatly in the clock tower, adjusting the iron arms on the clock face, intent on making the minutes count, on setting things to rights. He looked down over the pool and I know what he saw: the two of them in the water, the other swimmers, me on the side with my knees against my flat chest.

I thought about how long your life would be if you counted it in minutes: this many heartbeats; this many stinging blue lengths of the pool. The years made me shiver under the sheet. It wasn’t easy to sleep, the night before the wedding.

The next day took longer than its course. The hours until the ceremony dragged, and there was no relief even when we were gathered at last on the gravel outside the chapel. A hundred metres away the mute pool water moved.

I tried another tack, one I hoped sounded less like interrogation. ‘Where did you guys end up?’

‘Oh,’ they said airily, ‘everywhere,’ and doubled over, looking at each other again, laughing and then stopping as the blood tried to circulate through the dry, cramped arteries. It took a long time but this is what I made the men tell me while we waited for the groom.

At three o’clock in the morning Splodge and the wedding party pushed themselves back from the bar.

‘I think that’s me, okes,’ he said. He laughed the self-conscious laugh of a fleshy man who has been a fat boy: he knew excuses for what they were. ‘We’ve got to be mature about these things.’ He wobbled a little, but righted himself, victorious, like the old-fashioned skittles at the derelict bowling alley. There was sighing, nodding, the slow collecting of jackets and keys. The boys agreed; there were feelings that needed sleeping off.

Scrubber leaned his elbows in a pool of beer on the bar.

‘I bet,’ he said, ‘that I can still take you.’ It was intended to be lazy, but he spoke quickly into that last blue moment of bachelorhood.

‘What?’ said Splodge. There were whistles from the other men in the wedding party; the barmaid rolled her eyes. So this was what would happen before he would be allowed a bride.

The old disbelief built in him. Splodge found himself puffing as he slid shakily off his bar stool to face his best man: in the sequel he found that he was upright, taller, weighted with purpose.

‘Are you crazy, man?’

The other wedding boys knew a challenge. They slapped their solid thighs; they laughed their deep men’s laughs so that the buttons strained on their shirts. One snorted beer through his nose: it arced in a stream like a rainbow.

Scrubber refused the loophole. ‘Three lengths,’ he said. Three lengths, so that they would finish where they began. He sounded sober. Later, nobody would remember him drinking much the whole evening.

Splodge reached out and shoved a pointed finger into the best man’s chest: it was softer than he imagined. He used his long, strong, time-setting arm, and the proper insults came back to him.

‘I’ll take you right
now
, you dickhead. Where do you want to do this?’

‘The College pool.’ The reply overlapped Splodge’s speech. ‘The same place I kicked your butt a thousand times before.’

The time for talking was over. The boys elbowed their way out into the road where their big Jo’burg cars were parked and the barmaid bolted the door behind them. The machines coughed, their tyres spinning on the gravel of the cracked parking lot before gripping the tar underneath it. Inside the machines, each boy in his tight new man-skin clenched his fingers on the steering wheel. Then they screeched beyond the black three o’clock, into the silent, violent night.

When they got to the school grounds the wedding boys found that the intervening years had thrown up a spiked fence. Through it the smell of the water was the same. They stood on the wrong side, breathing and perplexed.

‘The trees,’ Splodge said, his hands at his sides, his car keys forgotten. He looked up so that the pale underside of his chin was exposed to the moonlight. ‘So tall. How can they be so tall? I remember they’d only just planted them when we were here.’ He was sweating; he smelled of beer and nerves; his keys jangled like a jailer’s.

‘It’s been fifteen years,’ Scrubber told him softly.

‘Well,’ said the groom, thrusting out his doubtful bottom lip and swivelling his head for approval, ‘I don’t know so much about this fence.’ Behind them the College clock in the tower said midnight, as it always had.

‘What’s the problem?’ said the best man. ‘You’re going to let a pissy little fence like that stop you from a skinny-dip
on the night before your wedding
? I always knew you were chicken.’ He dug his thumbs into his armpits and hunched down, flapping his elbows and squawking, shedding years like feathers.

The other wedding boys, night watchmen, leaned against the wire. Their eyes glistened in their sockets; the stars strained to listen.

In reply Splodge bent and stripped off his socks and trainers, hopping a little to the side as he did. He grabbed at the wire to steady himself, and the accessories of his new life thudded to the ground in ones and then twos. His toes flinched from the little stones.

Splodge set his stiff fingers into the wire and hoisted himself a metre into the air. The fence jingled but held under his weight. It would have seemed to someone in the tower that he was climbing into the night.

The boys on the pavement turned their heads to follow his progress. The fence towered above him, but they had seen how it could be done, clawing your way up. They set down their own socks and shoes, giggling and falling against one another.

When the spotlight was trained on the groom he was almost at the top, readying himself like a burglar to hoist his weight over and jump down safely on the other side.

‘Mannetjie!’ came the voice out of the dark. ‘Wat dink jy doen jy?’

Splodge peered down, feeling his new skin shrinking around his organs, but the policeman was real.

‘I’m getting married tomorrow,’ he said.

He was familiar with the noise that floated up to him from the ground. It was the soundtrack to his life so far: laughter.

All the King’s Horses

L
AST NIGHT
I
COULDN

T
SLEEP
. Outside my bedroom a man stood and looked in at me, trying to decide whether to bang his pink-palmed hands against the glass and splinter the wood to get in. When I turned over to look him full in the face (leering, goblin-eyed) he wasn’t there, but that doesn’t matter. It’s the idea of the men, always with me.

Last night there were no flesh-and-blood intruders in the banana fronds, but they have tried to get at me before. We women pay for our privacy, even in a democracy. Especially in a democracy. The bulletproof glass stars a little when the boys swing their amateur hammers. They make off with my white ironwork chairs instead. The furniture is heavy. The thieves cut themselves on the razor wire, like a Pink Floyd clip: drops of their blood are left behind, eyes staring up from the bricks. They follow me around the garden when I emerge, intact, before the sun is fully up. I feel their gaze upon me. I sluice away the blood so that it doesn’t attract the flies. Everything here is neat and in its place, and I will not be moved. The daylight hours belong to me. I’ve bought them free and clear with every spinster stereotype. It’s a fair swap.

This morning I did what I always do: I drank a cup of English Breakfast Tea at the long wooden table in the shade. There is just enough time to do the sudoku before I have to be at the Observatory Library.

Today I have the old craving for a sesame baguette. I edge down to the KwikSpar in Station Road. My irritable bowel will exact its payment, but I am expecting that too. We make our choices, little and large. In the streets the cars are dead insects, the pavement splotched with last night’s vomit. After a block I stop in the hot, still air. I peer down Trill Road, though there is no traffic: I can hear God, exhaling.

Bouquets of flowers have been tied to the burglar bars of Carte Blanche, the old magenta saloon with its two thin storeys leaning against the clouds. In the old days it was a whorehouse, they say. My friend Clare swears that upstairs there are mirrors on the ceiling – fungal, age-spotted, indistinct.

On the far corner of Trill a few other people have stopped. They are peering in at the windows of Carte Blanche. The bergie lady totters eagerly across the street to me. She wears a copper wig; her hands are claws. In Obs the homeless look like French tourists, like tennis pros. They wait outside the library until it opens and then linger over the day’s papers. Colette prefers
You
magazine, but only for the crossword.

BOOK: Cabin Fever
13.5Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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