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Authors: Anne Landsman

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BOOK: The Rowing Lesson
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The syringes are in the bag. Penicillin and then erythromycin and tetracycline, since you’re almost sure it’s bacterial. Not a coronary, you decided when you left the ECG machine behind. You can tell from the sound of a man’s breathing, the timbre of his cough, the way he complains and sometimes what he doesn’t say. You listen all day long to people saying, Doctor, I have a pain and you know that pain has many faces, and occasionally wears a long, pointy hat, with frills and bells. Sometimes it’s dull and other times it lights up like a bloody Christmas tree.

Hennie slurred on the phone. There was drunken shame in his voice, and terror at the pain.
Roes met die hoes
. Rust with the coughing. You’ve come to love the shades of Afrikaans, the language that’s a mirror into the soul of these earthbound people who tower over you. It’s also the heartbeat of the
on the farm. Their voices pluck at you in the dark, as one squelching foot follows another.
. Bloody idiot. Hennie’s not yet forty-five and his liver’s grey with scars. A dog starts to bark and now your heart is suddenly beating in your ears and the Hennie fear is completely gone and it’s you on the block. There’s a racket on the farm, not one dog but ten and a door slams somewhere. Hennie’s screaming. You know it’s him because there’s a flurry of coughing and his croaking voice shouting,
! Then a leaden crack, the sound of a gun.

This is it, Harold. The pee dribbles down your leg and you look into the sky racked with clouds, scarred like Hennie’s liver and your own failing courage. You put down the black bag. Hennie thinks it’s a
, a bogeyman, a
, a
, someone dark as this velvety night, coming to get him, his wife Marietjie, and their two little boys, Petrus and Kosie. Help, help, you shout, but the dogs don’t listen. Oh God, you’re walking past the convent again, and your pants are soiled and the nuns are coming to get you, sailing towards you like a thousand black ships. They’re going to tell your mother. HELP, you scream, Hennie, you bloody bastard! It’s me. It’s the doctor!

You’ve stopped walking. It’s you and the cocked gun and Hennie drawing a circle around his family. He’s scared of the
, the
swart gevaar
, all the bumps and the lumps in the night. Hennie, put the gun down. Put the bloody gun down. This time, the dogs stop and you can almost see their ears pricking. Help! Help!
My kar is in die rivier
. My car is stuck in the river. Hennie coughs and he asks, “
” “
” you shriek, “
Jou blerrie onnosel!
” Hennie laughs.

You’re standing in the kitchen drinking tea from the saucer and the kitchen smells of warm milk and wet dog. Hennie’s gone back to bed and you’re wearing his huge pants tied around your waist with a rope and his
are on your feet. It’s a big joke because you’re two bricks and a tickey high and Hennie was a scrum-half for Western Province once, and he’s six foot four. Your feet, not much bigger than your wife’s feet, are lost in these big man’s shoes. Hennie’s blonde, red-eyed wife, Marietjie, is standing over you and she has your clothes in a plastic bag. I told you to put the dogs away, you tell her, your voice gruff. They eat a Jew for breakfast every morning.

Hennie’s flat on his back in the bedroom, waiting for Doctor God and when you come in, his hand reaches for you.
Ekskuus tog
, he apologizes, his cheeks flaming red. You fill the syringe with penicillin, and Hennie’s eyes watch you. Don’t worry, man, you tell him. It doesn’t hurt me. Then it’s over and he’s rolling down his sleeve. What about the car, doctor? The battery got wet, you tell him. He’s coughing again, and he shows you the rust-coloured phlegm inside his hanky and you look at it carefully. It’s your father’s five-penny hanky. It’s still raining at the Wilderness and you and Morry and Bunny came home late with Wolfie’s boat and the tablecloth was gone and your mother shouted at you and your father shouted at you and you never ever forgot where you threw the tablecloth. Years later when you took Simon and Betsy up the river to Ebb ’n Flow, you went looking behind some bushes for the tablecloth but it was gone. Even the picture of the basket.

We can pull the car out with the tractor. Hennie coughs again and you give him the cough mixture. Two tablespoons every four hours. You call Mrs. God on the telephone and you tell her about the car and how you screamed help, help, and Hennie thought you were one of the
drunk in the night. You don’t say anything about the pants in the plastic bag and already you’ve put them in the same place you put the tablecloth with the basket picture. It’s past midnight when you drive into town past the blue gum trees, over the railway bridge. Mrs. God is asleep and you walk into Simon’s room and watch your son sleeping and then you go to my room and you stand at the door. She looks just like Maisie, you’re thinking as I roll over. Then you tiptoe away.

In the morning when you’ve already gone to the hospital, I see the farmer’s shoes,
so big they must belong to a giant and then I see Hennie’s pants, hanging over the chair. Something happened in the night and my father grew so big that his head burst through the roof like a beanstalk. Ma says, no, his car got stuck in the causeway because of the rain. These are the farmer’s pants. I smell them and they smell like farmer’s pants and the big shoes are caked with mud. Even when the pants and the shoes have left the house and gone back to the farm in Slanghoek, I can see their shadow in your bedroom, the shadow of a father the size of a giant.

Chapter 4

MA PRESSES A Saran-wrapped hospital sandwich into my hand, white bread, white butter, a thin slice of cheese folded back. Eat! She says. I peel the layer of buttery plastic off the bread, and roll it into a tight ball which I place next to the unopened yogurt. We are living in the garage with you, Dad, and the nurses are here to look under the bonnet.

Outside, the wind has shifted from the southeast to the northwest. The
cape doctor
has packed his bags and gone home. Rain is sweeping across the slopes of the mountain and on De Waal Drive the cars have their windshield wipers going. I’m looking out of the window and behind me Simon is talking to a nurse about the cardiac arrhythmias on the computer screen. Yees, she says, fluting and elongating her vowels. It’s the potassium building up.

You’re supposed to be eating for two, Ma says, after I take two bites of the pale sandwich and toss it in the rubbish bin. I’m not hungry, I answer, as I always have. She looks at the small carry-on suitcase parked near the foot of your bed. Is that all you brought? She pulls the suitcase over to her by its pull-out handle. It falls on its side with a soft thump. She props it up again, and unzips it. Her hands are on my clothes, searching for the right things. She holds up a simple dark red shift and matching pants with an elasticated waistband. Not bad, she says. If it still fits you. You can borrow one of my jerseys to wear with it.

I don’t tell her that I bought it the day before yesterday. When the shop assistant asked if I was looking for something for a special occasion, I said, the occasion I’m looking for is a service, of the religious kind. I want something that’s a little bit solemn but definitely expandable and I’m taking it in a suitcase on a plane, that shouldn’t be too crushable. I’m pregnant you see. The service is for a person I know very well who isn’t feeling so very well, who isn’t, in fact, feeling anything very much at all, in the current situation he’s in. At least that’s what I’ve been told. And it’s not a prayer meeting. The religious service, I mean.

(He’s not an old friend although he could be, but never has been. He’s older than a brother, but sometimes just as jealous. He’s close to my mother but he’s not her sister, or her best friend either. Married he has been, and to her, but it’s been on the wry side, with its own twist of bitters. So, festive the dress should not be, celebrating an occasion as spartan as this, but he never was too serious, and he was capable of lots of laughs, both giving and receiving, as well as all the other ills, which he could both incite and cure, in his very best mode.)

I know just what you need. And it’s not something you crush or chew, or take lightly. She handed me a deep-red dress, with three-quarter length sleeves and a scooped neckline. When I looked at myself in the mirror, I saw a woman from overseas, who left donkeys years ago.

The saleswoman sang from the cash register, snipping the tags, You’ll get so much wear out of it. You can dress it up. You can dress it down. You’ll be able to wear it after the baby comes. See, you can lift up the top and nurse!

He knows you’re pregnant, Ma says. I told him last week when he still had the breathing tube in. He jiggled all his wires and cords and hoses.

You don’t budge when she tells me this, not even the slightest quiver of the IV or tremor of the blood-pressure cuff. How about his eyes? I ask, Were they open? Yes, she says. Very.

I look at the stage curtains of your eyelids, ready to roll them back with a fingertip, to see if you can look at me just once more time to let me know you really heard what she was saying.

They thought it was the
, Ma says. When he was thrashing like that. At one point they even poured whiskey down his throat to try to calm him down. Simon lifts his eyes off the heart monitor. Uremia is like a kind of drunkenness.

I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy, Ma says, with a shiver. No one should have to suffer the way he did, not even a dog. Outside, sunlight still gleams on the wet road, and there’s a tangle of clouds and blue sky swirling around the mountain. A chill sweeps over me, and now I’m shivering too in this icebox of a room, with its stainless-steel surfaces and dials and gauges. We could be in the deep freeze, I tell Simon. Here, take my cardigan, Ma says, and she hands me something light-blue off the back of her chair. Thanks, I say, putting my arms into the sleeves of the cardigan. It’s loose on me, several sizes too big and smells of camphor and old perfume, the smell of Romanze, the only dress shop for ladies in the town of Worcester that had black-velvet blazers from Paris, and jerseys that fell between your hands.

THERE WAS ALWAYS a tea tray on the antique table where Fay Sampson sat, her long hair twisted in a sleek, brown bun, dark red outlining her full lips, often dressed in a cool shiver of a blouse, dark pencil skirt and perfectly angular jacket showing off her neat waist, black-and-white sling back shoes dressed with rosettes sharp as French pastries. If I’m not mistaken there was a knot of big pearls at her throat, catching the soft interior light. Wherever you looked there were dresses hanging, flat and empty, waiting to be filled with dreams. Some glittered with gold thread, others announced their presence with swirling, promising paisley and a select few shied away from immediate attention, dark and sultry, waiting to cling to the right shape. There was a faded pink chaise lounge where Stan the dog slept, an ancient asthmatic poodle, the fur below his eyes damp with rheum. I sat on the edge of the chaise, finding a biscuit on the tray as Fay poured a cup of tea for my mother. There were no windows.

A curtain separated a room where the Malay alteration hands sat, the clatter of their sewing machines and the occasional glimpse of their presence a comfort to the ladies sweeping in and out of the dressing rooms, sashaying backwards and moving in closer to the big mirrors, finding many faces in their reflections, their heads tipped, their arms akimbo. No this one’s too tight.
Kyk hoe vet ek lyk!
Look how fat I look! This one’s just perfect.
Fay was a careful presence, cigarette in a cigarette holder, never ready to lie. She was the high priestess of Romanze and would only tell you the truth. At least, that’s what all the ladies believed, even the hoity-toity farmers’ wives from the Valley. When Fay approved of the way you looked, you bought whatever you were trying on, no matter how much it cost.

My mother was thickening at the waist, middle age congealing like a slow-cooking stew. Fay cast an expert eye through the racks, precise as a surgeon. Stella, try the yellow and white linen suit. It looks good on. And the red one as well. I patted the dog, trying to avoid the sticky parts while my mother stepped out of her skirt, her legs still girlish. Betsy! She called me in to help her with the yellow suit. She couldn’t reach the bottom of the zip. I was in the dressing room with her, the air still with talcum powder, stale lipstick. At ten, my head bobbed close to hers, the fresh extremity of a two-headed monster. In the mirror, we glided past each other’s eyes like midnight rowers. I won’t see you if you don’t see me.

Then I was back on the couch with Stan, sinking into dull contentment, watching the dresses rise and fall. There was no end to the places the dresses would take you. Romanze was on the other side of paradise, where there were no screams in the night, no knife wounds. Even the smoke from Fay’s cigarette breathed elegance, the promise of leaving your own skin and travelling far, far away.

She picked the yellow linen in the end. The red dress had a lopsided bow at the neck and the black lace dress Fay handed to her through the curtain was too small. There was no need to ring anything up because Stella had an account at Romanze. She was one of the lucky ones who got a special box at the beginning of each season, delivered to the house and filled with dresses wrapped in tissue paper, hand-picked by Fay, I thought these would look good on you, on a creamy notecard in Fay’s long longhand. She tried them on and you and I nodded or shook our heads. Buy it or put in back in the box, sighing between its wrappings. We watched without watching, you bustling in and out of the bedroom, walking your doctor walk, clearing your throat. I was on your bed, head cupped on one hand, raised up on an elbow.

OUTSIDE THE HOSPITAL, water drips from the wide-canopied trees on the lower slopes of the mountain. The monkeys are throwing confetti in the wet sunlight. It doesn’t matter to them that ma has lost her looks and that we can’t find them hidden in the tissue paper in the box of dresses. Her looks have just upped and gone, folded into her disappointment at living a country life with a country doctor, at living with you.

She’s looking past you now, to the other side. And you’re quiet, finally. The years of your voice have ended. You’ve stopped shouting, calling all of us names, swearing and joking and needling, talking about George and the War and the Freemasons, your favorite songs, the doctors you hate, the patients you treat and everything else in between, from the stock market to a film you once saw, to
The Water Babies
which your mother loved and read to you over and over again, and your father, your poor father, who could barely make it past the first page. What we can hear in this room is a very faint echo—hell’s teeth, poor blighters and
— whistling between your lips with each breath you take. Your watery reflection shimmers on the damp window, and I can almost make out that madcap twinkle in your eyes, or is the headlights of the cars, turned on in the middle of the day because of the rain?

I think we should get a second opinion, I say to Ma and to Simon as they watch the nurses move you and turn you, as if you were an oversized doll.
Ekskuus tog
, I say to the older nurse, her grey-streaked hair tucked and folded under her white cap.
Is dit te laat vir die bloodversuiwering?
Is it too late to purify my father’s blood? To turn the headlights back on?

Betsy! Ma takes in a breath, the corners of her mouth drawing down, her side teeth lengthening. Why do you want to do this to him? What for? He’s suffered so much already!

Simon looks at me, his eyes clouding over. Listen, he says. That door is closed. We made a decision. We had to.

(Funny you should talk about doors, Si-Si. All the doors that were never shut, the parade of doctors marching in and out of our house, my body and yours. You never go there, Si. And maybe you never should.)

I still think we should ask! My voice is tight, louder than it means to be. There’s a second engine whirring inside me, a motor just reserved for you.

* * *

OUTSIDE, THERE’S A soft summer rain falling that’s good for the hydrangeas and the lavender and all the trees in the Kynsna forest and maybe some of the last Kynsna elephants too. Harold is going to leave the forest forever and he’s going to climb into the dusty pages of the
Encyclopedia Britannica, Fourteenth edition, 1929, A New Survey of Universal Knowledge,
right here in the George public library, this last summer before medical school.

He’s diving straight into “Medicine, General” and “Medicine, History of ” and it’s very, very deep over there. It’s going to be a helluva long time before he comes up for air, with or without golf balls. The pages are very thin and the encyclopedia is very thick. It’s Volume 15, Mary, Duchess of Burgundy to Mushet Steel, that’s making you sneeze and you don’t even have a hanky. Mrs. van der Vyver, the librarian who showed you where to find this volume, has a squeak in her skirt and you wonder if you’re going to see a mouse running down her leg anytime soon.

“Influence of the World War. Since 1910, the progress of medicine has been much influenced by the four years of the war. . . .” You’re staring at the page so hard now that it’s almost making you
. Trench fever and shell shock, boetie. Paratyphoid fevers. Maybe it’s her foundation garment that’s going to snap. She’s walking around reshelving books and you can see the wisps of hair pressed against her neck as if they’ve been flattened between the pages of a book, pressed like violets or pansies or something.

Under the encyclopedia, you’ve hidden
Gray’s Anatomy,
which you slowly withdraw, turning to page 1, 025, “the External Organs of Generation in the Female.” A face with a hairy bonnet yawns at you, all folds and holes with its own backyard fouchette. You’re settling nicely into the froenum of the clitoris when you hear your father’s voice drifting towards you, a curl of smoke from the old country. Oh God, he’s asking Mrs. van der Vyver for something. She’s even smiling a little, patiently listening through his Lithuanian accent, the way he can’t help raking words like “please” and “Can I have?” through the coals. But Mrs. van der Vyver doesn’t speak the King’s English either, even though she has a nice sing-songy voice and likes to flute “Yeeeees?” at all the people who come past her desk.

“This way please . . .” Joseph Klein follows the squeak-squeak of Mrs. van der Vyver’s thighs, and her rising voice, which flows backwards, the trickle eking out of the mountain, to the tiny high place that’s green and pure, where spinster ladies sing and do crochet work in the still afternoons. Your father is following this fold-up rose lady to the children’s section and he’s pulling up a small chair and putting on his round glasses. Joseph Klein is reading to himself, softly, carefully, and you’re not sure if it’s
Treasure Island
The House at Pooh Corner
but it’s words written for children. Your father, your poor father, who was almost trampled by a Cossack once, is trying to read your old books and sit in your old chair. You can’t leave and you can’t breathe and you’d like to break every chair in this place over your father’s stupid head.

BOOK: The Rowing Lesson
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