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Authors: Anne Landsman

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BOOK: The Rowing Lesson
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Corpora Cavernosa! You stop, in terror, in front of the Roman guards. They tear off their breastplates. They have breasts! You hold Koeka’s breasts in your hands, and they’re beasts not breasts. They snuffle at you, red-eyed and heavy, luminous moles, night animals. You can see tiny blue roads in the semi-demi dark. You trace them with your fingers and the world explodes around you. Everything goes. You’re alone,
stoksielalleen
. Even Maisie is finished. Over and done with.

You follow your hands, your mouth, your throbbing fishtail. Your mother called it that, uncovering you on chilly mornings, your penis erect under your pajamas. You laughed at it. My long penis, you said and she covered you with a sheet. Put that fishtail away.

It’s driving you now, that fishtail, corpora cavernosa, with its crus and its bulb and its fossa. Oh, God, vessels of pleasure filling and overflowing, your hands holding the sacred gourds. A coelacanth is driving you from here to eternity. You’re holding its scales, its funny legs, its puppy dog’s tail and it’s pulling you under, into the blackest part of the ocean. Koeka’s face swims above you, someone staring at you from dry land. You want to stop but you can’t. You’ve lost everything. Don’t go, they’re shrieking, the voice of your mother and your sister and Bertie. Don’t leave us behind. Your dad is waving and screaming and he has his hand out. Koeka takes something from him. It’s a French letter and she’s wrapping you in it. The tightness makes you scream. She covers your mouth and you’re on top of her now, and the fish goes in.

The window’s all cockeyed and Table Mountain’s upside down. You lift yourself, looking at Koeka from inside out, your lungs buried in her chest, your heart stuffed into her throat. The burning, beating sound is coming from outside, from the drumming Coons, beating and banging their drums as you slide in and out.
Eina!
Koeka is talking to you but the words float past like balloons.
Eina!
Your hand is wrapped in her hair and her face twists. A tear squirts out of her eye, hot and sad, but you’re too far gone. She arches her back and grabs her ta-tas and they’re all over you. It’s raining nipples and soft skin and God, this is too, too much! The fishtail lifts you up, raises you, and you’re almost there, edging off the cliff, still hanging, not quite fallen, still holding on. Koeka brushes her left nipple, squeezing it and you tumble off the burning cliff, lost in lava, man eaten by fire, torched by his own sword. A thousand gleaming fish scales settle on your head, slowly settle, as you land.

The crowds are cheering. You run around the arena, the laurel wreath circling your forehead. Harry, Harry! You can hear them shouting your name. You close your eyes. Peace. Peace in our time. Koeka blows her nose on a greyish handkerchief, which she stuffs under her pillow. She gets up, and on goes the dressing gown. The way she’s wrapping the cloth belt around her waist you’d think she was tying up a prisoner. She leans out of the window to watch the last of the carnival and her back makes you randy all over again. Go, she says, out of the window, just go. The
klopse
are coming again.
Boem
, pffff,
boem
, pffff. . . . And Koeka’s waving.

It’s all over. How about that.
Boem
, pfff,
boem
, pffff . . . Koeka comes towards you with your pants as if she’s your ma and she’s going to dress you. I’m not a baby, you tell her. Sorry. I have a boy in Matric, she tells you, opening the door before you can say anything.

You’re back in the passage and this time there is hair in your mouth, a long damp string of it that you almost swallowed. Where is Mickey, the canna man? You hear a woman’s muffled scream and a groan from someone’s gut. Mickey? Mickey? You almost whisper.

At the bar, this time, you have a real drink. Whiskey. Koeka’s probably back in the window, smoking, but you’re down here now, and it seems like wonderland, soft lights, glowing bottles. Moses has a little shine to him. He’s standing in a cup of light and he’s pouring gold. Here, have some gold!

Mickey is back, his shirt browned a little from the yellow one’s makeup, and he says to you, Let’s take a walk by the sea. You’re on a bus again, rumbling past Signal Hill, towards Sea Point and that’s where you get off, to walk along the beachfront with your pal, looking at girls again, watching the waves suck and gurgle around the black rocks. Where is the world? You think, staring out to sea. Where is the rest of the world?

Chapter 8

DR. DANIELS DOESN’T want Americans asking him a million questions! Ma’s hands are flying to her ears. All I want to know, I’m saying between gritted teeth, is what went wrong? Why can’t I ask him that?

Your father knew he wasn’t going to make it, she says, rocking backwards and forwards in the chair. If something bad happens, he told me, I don’t want them to bring me back.

He’d just fallen and broken his arm! I say, but she shakes her head. No, no. It wasn’t a simple break. Because of the Paget’s Disease, his bones were brittle. That’s why the operation took so long. He said, Stella, this is a balls-up, just before he went in to surgery. He knew!

You’re still her husband, even with your loud voice suddenly quiet, all your thoughts and your stories and your bad moods swirling in the room with us. Perhaps she knows that this is how you wanted to go but as I look at your still, closed eyes I have trouble believing it.

She’s fidgeting now, with the engagement ring on her bony finger, telling me how she’s thinking of giving me something for my fortieth birthday which came and went several months ago. Wouldn’t I like this diamond reset into a necklace? I’m staring into it, the unblinking hard stone of your marriage, and I can hear ma’s screams in the middle of the night, when you came at her with your bare hands and you woke us up with what you threatened to do but didn’t. You needed us there, the boy and the girl to stop you when you had your hands around her throat and she glared at you, eyes ice-cold and withholding. I was sobbing my eyes out and Simon was screaming and kicking you in the balls and then you let go and we all traipsed off to bed and went to sleep and that was the end of that. The next morning, she read the newspaper with a scarf around her neck, her lips painted bright-red and she didn’t look up when you came into the room to have your breakfast. You drank your tea standing up, pouring the tea into the saucer to cool it down, making a slurping, sucking sound. When she shook the newspaper, turning it inside out, I almost jumped out of my skin thinking you were going to fly at her neck again, black eyes bulging, eyebrows on fire.

Betsy, Ma says, would you like to have it? And I’m back at your bedside looking at Ma’s diamond and I can’t say no and I can’t say yes so all I do is nod.

THE FROGS ARE roaring in the Wilderness lagoon, a croaking so loud it’s bound to wake you up, make you shake off your coma like a bad dream. Did you know frogs and toads never eat with their eyes open? They have to push down with the back of their eyeballs to force food into their stomachs. You and Mickey and Mattie and Chris, Louis and Tom are having breakfast before Botany, loose eggs on toast, in the big hall at Men’s Residence. Tom is talking and he gets coffee on his tie.
Ag
no, he says, and he doesn’t swallow with his eyes closed. He just dabs and dabs his tie. He knows the professors look at you up and down when you go into the class. They notice spots and stains and dirty pants. You all wear suits and ties and they have to be clean, clean, clean. No one wants a dirty doctor.

You try closing your eyes and yes, it works, the horrible egg slides down and maybe it’ll stick to your ribs or your legs. Maybe you’ll get a little fatter, a little bigger. Maybe Dorothy, the only girl, the clever girl, will move her frog next to yours. She doesn’t mind the smell of for-malin. She likes to cut. When she sits, her leg twitches and Mattie says it’s because she likes frogs so much she keeps a spare one under her skirt. Just in case.

Anemophily. Pollination where pollen is carried on the wind. Anemophilous flowers are usually unscented. The male flowers have numerous exposed stamens. The female flowers have long, feathery stigmas. You can’t help laughing and Mickey kicks you under the table. Don’t expose your stamen, old chap. Don’t give away our secret.

And the class hasn’t even started yet. For a moment, the room vibrates and you wonder where you are. The man’s clothes on your body, even your hand cupping your shaven chin seem to belong to someone else, someone living the life of a grown man, someone who isn’t you. You are a
pikkie
, still, holding onto the chair leg to pull yourself up, looking up at the world from under the table. The day you heard the
klopse
sing was a dream. It wasn’t true and all you really remember about Mickey is that he once put a canna in your beer. Don’t ever do that to me again. You give him a thick eyebrow look, over the top of your nose but he’s getting up already. He doesn’t care.

Everything is new here, and there are rules about everything. There is a warden called Smithy and you can’t come back too late, and you can’t bring a girl past the front door unless she’s your mother or your sister or your aunt. You have books galore and a nice brown suitcase to put them in. You share a bathroom with a lot of other young men and sometimes there’s mud from their rugby boots all over the floor or no hot water or the toilet gets blocked and you can’t even walk into the place without feeling
naar
. You miss the mists of George, the hydrangeas, Maisie and Mom, and even your bicycle father, with his gaiters and his shop and his friends, the commercial travellers. The small streets run through your heart, a map of love and remembrance, places and faces grown in your bones, Hibernia and Meade, Dean and Church, the old road to the Wilderness, Wolfie and Gertrude and Bunny and all the boats bobbing on the lagoon, the dip of the oars and the journey to the beginning of the river, the moss dripping and the throbbing quiet of Ebb ’n Flow.

You are homesick, sometimes sick with longing for the old home and sometimes sick of the home that is sometimes sick with its misery and whirling fights and ma mad as a snake and dad puffing under the counter, hidden in the shop like his very own mouse. Still, you miss them all, especially Mum’s God Bless, without a King or a Queen or anything. Just God Bless.

Epiphora, an overflow of tears. You saw the word one dusty, rusty afternoon, deep in the leatherbound
Home Physician,
in the back, back room of the George Library. Watering may be caused by excess tear production due to emotion or to conjunctival or corneal irritation. You can’t have epiphora right now, with the others stamping and growling like young tigers around you, their heads cocked above yours. Drop the amphora on the ground, and let all the tears run out. The old man on the train had it, you tell Mattie. The bugger had amphora and he wasn’t even sad.

The chairs scrape the floor and it’s all up and away we go, off to Botany. You leave your tears, uncried, in the crumpled serviette. Under Flora, look for the forest of the heart, tiny flowers that are paper thin, mantis coloured, and grow just beneath the surface.

Miss Simmons calls you Mr. Klein, Mickey is Mr. Levin, Chris is Mr. Smit. Dorothy, of course, is Miss May. Miss May has her finger inside the book. She’s got the right page, and she knows the xylem-phloem story off-by-heart. There are thin dark hairs on her pale arms and under the desk, one of her legs rattles. You aren’t the only one who’s watching her breathe. Gentlemen, Miss Simmons calls out, and Dorothy May looks up, along with you and Chris and Mickey and the Kimberley boys. One of them, Petrus, is a member of the Ossewabrandwag. He marches once a fortnight with the rest of the members, holding a flaming torch up high, and he wants most of the Jews to jump off Cape Point and drown in the sea. The rest of you can tumble down Table Mountain and die on the rocks. At least that’s what he said last Sunday, when he and his pals came to Men’s Residence, filled up with liquor, wearing their brown shirts. The warden was there and said he would call the police so they marched off, backwards, forwards, full of threats.

You have to listen if you want your name on a brass plate. Dr. Harold Klein. Not plain old mister. Doctor.

Miss Simmons is saying, Now gentlemen, even though the men aren’t gentle and one is a girl. There are two rooms. One is full of big cats and the other is full of little kittens. Between the rooms, there is a membrane through which the little kittens can pass. Osmosis occurs when there are the same amount of cats and kittens in each room . . . and continues until the two solutions are of equal strength unless the movement of the solvent is opposed by applying pressure to the stronger solution. The stronger solution? What is the stronger solution? You write this on a page to Chris. War, he writes back and both of you stare at the board again, where Miss Simmons is resting the point of her chalk, her tall, bony body converging on that one tiny tip. She’s purring now, and yes, she’s the big cat in the room and you are all the little kittens rushing towards her to restore equilibrium, to osmote. Let’s osmote. Your place or mine? Chris laughs and you know he’s thinking of dancing tonight, a girl pressed tight against him, her skirt swirling and lifting, her legs following his, back two steps, forward and then back again.

Diffusion is the spread of a substance (by movement of its molecules) in a fluid from an area of high concentration to one of lower concentration, thus producing a uniform concentration throughout. You drift back to the Blue Lodge, and your own diffusion, the sound of the klopse in your ears. You remember how Koeka tried to put on your pants at the end, buckle your buckle. She called you
boytjie
, didn’t she? There’s a knot in your stomach, rage wrapped around pleasure, and you can’t get it undone.

Mr. Sloan! It’s Maxwell Sloan, the fellow sitting behind you. Simmons is ready to pounce but Maxwell has all the answers. He’s the chap who knows about naked mole rats, Russian cinema and the Antarctic. He has a stamp collection with first day covers from the Boer War. Mickey drawls, He must be pulling your leg. I don’t think so, you say. Look at him. Maxwell has the skin of a boy, with old man’s eyes behind glasses. He throws and catches sentences like a juggler tossing knives. His mother lived in Brighton when she was a girl, and she tore tickets for her dad at the bioscope. Now she and Mr. Sloan sell shoes in Kenilworth and everybody comes to their shop, even
Ouma
Smuts. Maxwell’s brother, Lawrence, is in the poker-
klawerjas
crowd. They’re all studying law or history or accounting and they’re not dreaming about diffusion or phloeming the xylem. That’s another Maxwellism, you tell Mickey but he doesn’t blink. He just looks through you the way Wolfie did, that day on the beach when you borrowed the boat.

Another knot tightens on top of the first one. Another bugger spits in your eye. Mickey took the wooden slatted bath mat from the bathroom yesterday because he and some of the rugby chaps are going to toboggan down the steps in front of Jameson Hall. It’s Rag, the varsity festival with floats and dances and costumes, boat races with tankards of beer, and the toboggans bouncing and bumping down the stone steps, dozens of steps, then a landing, the men picking up their toboggans and then diving again, bumpity-bump all the way down to the bottom, Devil’s Peak frowning behind them. Maxwell told you about
Battleship Potemkin
and the theory of montage, the baby carriage bouncing down the stairs and the broken glasses. His own glasses are never broken, or even smudged. You like to watch him clean them, almost purring as he stares through them, a man looking into his own bright future.

By the time you and Maxwell and Chris get to the top of the steps, there’s a crowd there, stamping and chanting, Go, go, go!

It looks like two of the Ossewabrandwag men are in the crowd, in their uniforms, breathing fire on everyone. But then you’re not sure if it’s real or not because one of the older fellows from Men’s Residence is dressed up like Hitler. And there’s Haile Selassie in some sort of cape, his face covered with a woolly black beard. Anthony Eden and Mussolini are right in front, and they’re about to pick up their bathmat toboggans. Mussolini swaggers a bit first, salutes everyone with a stiff arm. Anthony Eden hands someone his bowler.

The chaps dive down the steps—and Haile Selassie’s in front! There’s a wave of shrill screams, girls with their red mouths open, but they’re lost in the sea of young men, chanting Go, go, go! as the toboggans bang and scrape on their way down. No, wait, it’s Hitler in the lead, he just lept off that last landing, his lean body lifting into the air for a moment, then cracking down, wood against stone, bone against wood. He’s at the bottom, everyone’s around him, raising his arm victoriously, but he can’t stand up, he’s slumping. He’s bleeding.

Maxwell leaps his way down the steps, two at a time, with you behind him. God, it’s Mickey! Mickey dressed up as Hitler! His jaw slopes off to one side. He looks like a broken monkey, drool mixed with blood dripping down his shirt. Serves you right, you silly bugger. Mickey looks at you, his face askew. He can’t even wink. He’s trying to ask, Did I win? but he spits out a tooth instead. Jesus Christ, man, you say, kneeling down and picking up the tooth. Of course you bloody well won.

There’s mist in the air, a celebration spray of rain. Maxwell has his palms on Mickey’s face, one on each cheek, and for one mad moment it looks as if they’re going to kiss. It’s dislocated, Maxwell says, and he pops and twists Mickey’s jaw back into place. Mickey gives a grunt from the bottom of his chest.

BOOK: The Rowing Lesson
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