The Presence of Peacocks CHAPTER 1
Catriona Ross A novel featuring music, tango, chocolate, true stories, the search for true love, the art of novel writing, secrets to happiness, my world map, sensuality, and peacocks.
Foreword Introduce your protagonist This is my story. As the Guru says, every story needs a strong central character, and in this one, I am it. Me. Moi. Hello. My grand plan is to be a best-selling writer. Nobody knows how often I sit on The Blue Sofa (sometimes, I confess, for a whole afternoon) and daydream of holding my first novel. Forgive my self-indulgence, but I regularly imagine running my fingers over the sleek cover, across the author’s name embossed in matt gold. If that novel were about me, the blurb on the back cover would read, ‘Meet Sabrina Bell, unrepentant romantic, chocolate connoisseur and fan of the full skirt. Life in her home town is filled with diversion and intrigue – but there are two things missing, and these she desires more than anything. More than world peace. More, even, than a triple-layer box of Godiva truffles. She wants to meet her match, and she wants to be published. Unfortunately, our heroine is drawn to old-fashioned items whose beauty is equalled only by their impracticality, including large hats, fountain pens, and handsome men with commitment issues. Add to this her sensitivity and tendency to become disheartened, and she may be writing herself into a tragic romance. To succeed, Sabrina will have to learn to take life’s knocks less personally, for the life of an aspirant novelist in search of true love is a harsh one, stacked with false starts, setbacks and heartless rejections (and that’s just the computer-generated letters from literary agents). Will she acquire the resilience to make her dreams come true…or will she lose the whole chocolate-smeared plot entirely?’
Introduce the cast of Chapter 1 Presenting, in order of appearance, Lawrence Silberman: Sabrina’s current boyfriend. Reggie Harper: a friend who dispenses practical advice. Wanda Harper: a best friend who sends Sabrina inspirational greeting cards. The Hermit: a mysterious character who sends Sabrina pieces of music. Paulina Carmichael: Sabrina’s best friend since childhood; a fellow writer. Sabrina’s mother: a woman who, when the going gets tough, tells a story.
1. The Gazebo A summer house in the city centre: the place I go for reassurance.
Present the problem It is preferable to be sitting somewhere beautiful when you realise your world is falling apart. Ideally, this should be a quiet garden at the height of its summer bloom, so that when you arrive at a thought like My life is over, there is merely the sound of leaves rustling in a warm breeze. I have loved and lost, and sugarbirds flit among the flowers. What will become of me? and overhead clouds drift elegantly by. Loveliness is reassuring when you are about to lose everything. This year is turning out to be my worst ever. What I imagined would be a dream job – assistant editor of Glossy magazine – has revealed itself to be a nightmare, a soul-destroying grind that has me weeping in the office ladies’ room and howling with frustration while driving home. From the moment I sat at that sought-after desk beside the editor a year ago, nothing flowed. Nothing. Each supposedly ‘hot’ new journalist I’ve commissioned to write for Glossy has disappointed; each sorry story I try to salvage mysteriously turns bad. Three hundred emails arrive daily in my inbox, along with last-minute copy changes from the editor, editorial director and nitpicking company chairman, none of whom seem to agree on anything. Have I mentioned the constant emergency meetings or the regular requests, delivered in an offhand tone, for the impossible? ‘Sabrina, won’t you write us a proposal detailing how Glossy could partner with Wonderbra to promote breast cancer awareness? Oh, and we need it by lunchtime tomorrow. Thanks darling, you’re a star.’ All that looms ahead is an infinite tidal pattern of deadlines, whooshing onto my shore with increased speed and intensity, each more draining than the last. I feel as if I’m drowning. It doesn’t help that I’m permanently ill. Colds, flu and throat infections involving grotesque balls of mucous have rampaged through my system since I accepted the job last September. Bright dots and dashes have begun infiltrating my vision too – escaped punctuation, perhaps, from the hundreds of magazine articles I’ve written during my career as a staff writer, from every shoddy piece of copy I’ve rewritten as features editor, from the many manuscripts of novels I’ve unsuccessfully sent to publishers and literary agents for a decade. Clearly, I’m falling apart. I’d resign from the magazine world today if I could. I’d happily leave this season’s hippest handbags and the makeup department freebies behind me. But where would I go? What would I do? To establish myself as a freelance writer, I’d need six months’ savings to pay my
bills and home loan until payments for my articles started coming. Moi? Iâ€™m hopelessly overdrawn. People, Iâ€™m trapped.
Complicate things Lawrence is the answer, I conclude on Monday after another unbearable day at work. He’s the live-in love of my life; we’ve talked about marriage and children. Why didn’t I request his help earlier? Law has plenty of money – he keeps me handsomely in French perfume, Cape wine and Belgian chocolates – so I’m sure he’d loan me the cash to set up shop as a freelance writer. He’s lent me money on previous occasions, most recently to install burglar bars in the apartment I bought in Tokai, currently leased to a tenant. I’ll promise to pay him out when I’ve won the Booker Prize. Ha, that will amuse him. I’m feeling lighter than I have in weeks as I take the lift to our apartment, a high perch in a swanky historic building in the city centre. Lawrence enjoys gazing down from its art deco windows at the tiny heads of trendy Capetonians. I like to see Table Mountain up close, and the string of cars below the cableway glinting like a Tiffany necklace in the sun. ‘Baby,’ I call as I unlock our front door. ‘I’m home.’ ‘Hi, I’m in the bath,’ replies his muffled voice. I run up the steps to the marble-rich bathroom to find Lawrence reclining, in customary emperor style, in steamy water, a glass of pomegranate juice in one hand and The Spectator in the other. ‘Guess what? I’ve decided to start freelancing!’ I announce. ‘This deadline-driven job isn’t right for me. I’ve been ill five times in the last four months; my body is telling me to do something less stressful, don’t you think? I know I’ll be much happier working from home. Perhaps I can turn the spare room into an office.’ For a few seconds, Lawrence is silent. ‘So you’re going to resign,’ he muses, still staring at the High Life and Low Life page, his favourite. He glances up. ‘Do you really think that’s a good idea, babe? Don’t you think it will put a strain on our relationship?’ Oh my word. He doesn’t get it at all. I’m dying and I need a lifeline, and all he can think about is how it’s going to impact him. Scanning the page for witticisms, he says, ‘You’ve got a great job. You’ve worked hard to get where you are. You’ll really go places if you stick it out.’ He flicks his eyes my way. ‘Why give it all up on a whim? What about the future of your career?’ ‘You don’t understand. I feel like I’m about to have some kind of breakdown,’ I say, suddenly exhausted. Leaving him in his bath, I limp to our bedroom and flop onto my pillow. I can’t deal with this. I think I’m having a crisis and I’ve just discovered that my partner in life will not be offering his emotional support. Please, somebody, help me.
Choose a supporter Beep beep! Hey all, come to my birthday bash, 7pm Sat 12 September. Dress as if your greatest dream has come true. Pls bring yr own drinks. Reg Greatest dream, ugh. I am so not in the mood for that. Thanks but am in midst of crippling life crisis and NOBODY understands. Not even Law. Help! Sabrina x Beep beep! Sounds serious. Want 2 meet 4 T @ Melissa’s on Sat morning? I reply: Yes, yes, yes! See u then. O thank you, King Reg. S xxx Thank heavens for Reggie Harper, husband of my New Best Friend, Wanda. Tomorrow Lawrence leaves for a ten-day trip to Denmark, and I’m feeling a strong need to drink tea with an empathetic human being. Reggie, a motivational speaker, cares primarily about people, while Lawrence, being Mr Hedge Fund, is accustomed to answering the question ‘What’s in this for me?’ But before judging my boyfriend too harshly, I must admit that Lawrence Silberman can be expansive and hugely generous at times, to street children and moi alike. That’s one of the many reasons I adore this tall, rangy, hawk-nosed, Marcus Aurelius-haired, articulate, intelligent man. Listen to this This is a perfect Saturday morning, the kind Cape Town specialises in, but my chest is filled with dread. After watching the light spread like buttercream icing across our bedroom walls, I shower, dress and step onto the bustling street. The air whispers of heat to come, the giant green mountain guards Kloof Street, and the sky is deep African blue. Scents of watermelon, suntan lotion and Issey Miyake eau de parfum swirl as the cool people of my city pass me by. Today, as usual, they are radiating a holiday mood, the lucky sods. Let me tell you the collective secret of the people of Cape Town: they think they are special. This is due to the proximity of Table Mountain, flanked by Lion’s Head and Devil’s Peak like the first and second princesses at a Miss World pageant. You can’t grow up beside these natural wonders and be ordinary; accustomed to daily magnificence, you start believing you’re part of it. In this city, the student waiters have flair, the school mothers are as fearless
as Greek goddesses, and the bergies who sleep under bridges are famed for their flamboyant wit. Even Capetonian villains – bold, bad and often unrepentant – somehow garner one’s admiration. Every inhabitant has a certain je ne sais quois, a sparkle, a dash of X-factor, though I’m definitely not feeling mine today. I walk across the road to Melissa’s Food Shop. Reggie is waving from a window table inside, giving his wide, bespectacled grin. As I enter, his smile drops. Rising, he takes hold of my shoulders. ‘Sabrina, my God. Are you okay? You look so…different. Hey, I’m worried about you.’ I know. This is the new moi. Reggie hasn’t seen me for a couple of months, and in that time I have deteriorated in a multitude of ways. The woman standing before him – once attractive and sparkling with youthful impertinence – has aged. The new Sabrina Bell is thin as a mascara wand and has a pinched face an almost fashionable décor shade of grey. I sit. ‘Reggie, I’m not okay. To be honest,’ I whisper, checking over my shoulders to ensure nobody hears, ‘I think I’m losing my mind. I can’t bear being at work any more, and don’t know why. The slightest upset throws me; I’m in tears half the time. I can’t go on. I could resign and start freelancing, but Lawrence doesn’t think I should leave my hot-shot job.’ Reggie nods, listens and looks genuinely concerned – and that’s a lot more than my boyfriend of three years has managed to do. I start eating my slice of Melissa’s Polka Dot Cake, which offers momentary respite, and drink a cup of Amazingly Beautiful Tea, which I am evidently in need of. ‘Would your parents consider helping you financially?’ Reggie tactfully proposes. ‘Not my mother. She lives on fresh air and Weet-Bix,’ I say. ‘And when I approached my dad for help with the deposit on the apartment, he said he couldn’t afford it. I know he lives in a nice house in Florida but it actually belongs to my stepmother.’ ‘How about Lawrence?’ I pull a regretful face. Oh dear, I’m going to start crying. ‘I don’t think…’ I say shakily as tears sidle down my cheekbones. ‘I don’t know if this relationship is going to last. Things are not looking too rosy at the moment.’ ‘I’m so sorry to hear that, Sab. I had no idea,’ Reggie says. ‘Things haven’t gone well since I moved in, come to think of it,’ I continue. ‘I know Lawrence has always been rather wary of commitment and has never lived with a girlfriend before, so asking me to move into his apartment was a major step for him. But he’s become so distant, and he goes on business trips overseas all the time… He’s almost avoiding me. Could that be possible? It sometimes feels as if we’re strangers staying in the same guest house.’ I wipe my eyes with the napkin Reggie passes me. He says, ‘Sabrina, resign tomorrow.’ My heart does a little jump.
‘You’ll love freelancing,’ he says. ‘I think you’ll be brilliant at it, and now is a good time to leave. You’re well-known enough as a journalist, you write damn well, and you won’t be short of work. Plus you’ll have more time on your hands to write your novel, which will make you happy, won’t it? As for the money, let me show you how.’ And then darling Reggie, an accountant by training, describes a simple plan that will enable me to buy my freedom and save my life. He takes my paper napkin (slightly smeared with Polka Dot Cake icing) and spreads it on the table. Pulling out a pen, he calmly explains how my problem is not one of income but of cash flow. Aha! I will start earning income the moment I begin writing freelance articles. He draws a diagrammatic projection of the next few months in my imaginary new life, incorporating arrows and reassuring amounts of rands. ‘You have an access home loan on your apartment in Tokai, don’t you? By now you should have a tidy sum you are allowed to withdraw, which will keep you going for the next four months or so. Just promise me you’ll pay it back as soon as you have the cash.’ He tells me to make an appointment with my bank tomorrow and siphon off the emergency fund I didn’t know I had. ‘And I want you to cancel all those monthly debit orders to charities immediately. No more dishing out money to homeless beadworker projects and tree-planting initiatives for a while. Right now you need to be your own charity, Sabrina. Okay?’ He’s right. I am about to become jobless, incomeless Sabrina Bell. ‘Pay off your credit card as soon as possible,’ Reggie advises. ‘And while you’re working out your month-long leaving period, save as much as you can.’ ‘Reggie, I will save as if my life depends on it,’ I vow. ‘Thank you. You’re a genius.’ ‘Well, you know what they say: not just a pretty face,’ he quips, and we giggle because Reggie has always been on the wrong side of skinny and pale. He adds, ‘If you have any problems, or need a loan, come to me and we’ll make a plan. Wanda and I believe in you one hundred percent.’
GIVE UP WITH GRACE Dearest Sab, I don’t know if you’ve noticed but, um, your plan for your life isn’t working. Sorry to have to point it out. Anyway, this isn’t the end of the world. There is a two-step trick to surviving any situation: Step 1. Take care of your 50% of the issue. Make a decision. Act. Do your best. Step 2. The other 50%? Leave it to the universe to sort out. Just let it go… Hold up your hands, step away from your desk, and give in to the grand plan for you. This plan works, and is already working out perfectly, thank you very much. You’ll see. One big, strong hug, Wand*a xxx
Wanda, my tall friend, likes to send me cards. Owner of the Perfect Card Shop in Observatory, she tries out new card concepts on her friends before releasing them into the wild (to her customers, in other words). Mine get delivered in lilac envelopes; other people have their own signature colours – turquoise, sea green, lemon yellow, lipstick red. The uncanny thing about Wanda’s cards is the way they arrive at exactly the moment you need them most. Where would Capetonians in crisis be without Wanda Harper and her husband Reggie?
Find a place to think It’s been ten days since my tea-and-polka-dot-cake date with Reggie. Today is a typically frantic Monday, Lawrence arrives back from Denmark this afternoon, and my troubled soul craves peace and inspiration. That’s why I’ve left the office for a lunch break in the best possible spot for a person in emotional turmoil: the gazebo. Let me tell you how I found this place. Our apartment building has an open-air swimming pool on the roof. (Lawrence loves that sort of thing). The first time I swam in the pool, eighteen floors above the city, I leaned over the side to admire Table Mountain, to watch the scooters zooming the streets and the people eating sushi at the pavement restaurant below – when I saw a most unusual sight. Between the offices and apartment blocks was a perfect postage-stamp of lawn, in the middle of which stood a small, white gazebo. I knew it was meant for me. When I visited it the next day, nobody was there. Strangely enough, the gate was open, as if the place had been waiting for me. I have been back to the gazebo many times since then. It’s the place I go when in need of beauty, calm and the reassurance that things will turn out all right.
Describe it If you want to find the gazebo, look carefully for a well-hidden historic Cape townhouse, built circa 1800 and painted the colour of oranges preserved in Van der Hum. A black-and-white cat stretches on the stoep, and the front door is ajar. Inside the house, the cool, high-ceilinged rooms smell of centuries of floor polish. The walls are hung with paintings of domestic scenes by lesser-known Dutch masters. On an antique table in the hallway, somebody has arranged old roses from the garden in a copper bowl. I inhale their scent, deep and slow. As always, nobody is home. I walk down the steps and onto the gravel paths of the garden. Today butterflies loop in the air. I pick lavender and rosemary, stroke my neck with rose petals, and sniff the tangy leaves of lemon trees, which remind me fleetingly of Olympia Café’s French lemon tart. Across the lawn I walk, to sit in the gazebo’s wicker chair. A gardener appears, singing quietly as he rakes leaves in the corner. Somebody owns this garden with its elegant National Monument house – the government, a dead man’s trust – but I consider it mine. After all, I’m invariably the sole visitor. This is not the only place I have taken ownership of: I have an entire network of locations I privately regard as mine. Assemble them and they form a map of my city, Sabrina Bell’s Cape Town. The gardener has vanished, leaving a ghost of tobacco smoke. Kicking off my sandals, I flex my feet in the spring sun. It’s time – time to slip the mini slab of Lindt 70% from my handbag and place a piece on my tongue. As the
chocolate melts, cars swish by, protestors chant outside parliament, sirens wail, the city roars, magazines sell, but for now all that is far away. I watch a white butterfly change direction with exquisite ease, carried by the warm air like a piece of tissue paper. It must be possible to become as calm as a butterfly. Do I have the ability to surrender to my career-and-relationship crisis, as Wanda suggests? I consider this while breaking off a second piece of chocolate and introducing it to my lips. I also consider Lawrence, who returns home in a matter of hours, and the fact that the supposed love of my love has become so distant. Why? Am I doing something wrong? During our first year together, Lawrence told me, ‘I used to see you with old what’s-his-face, your ex, and I knew we were meant to be together. Babe, just think, we’ll holiday in France and Italy every year, and conceive our first child in a springy old four-poster bed in a Tuscan villa. It’ll be completely unplanned, but it’ll be the best thing that ever happened to us…’ Eighteen months ago, he invited me to move into his apartment. Though our first few months of cohabitation were fun, our life as a couple has descended to a state of so-so-ness. Each day, Lawrence walks in from work, says he needs to unwind, and takes a long bath. After a virtually silent supper with moi, he buries himself in books on Hitler and Rommel, or watches programmes about Tutankhamun’s tombs on History Channel. We used to go out to dinner with friends, to concerts and shows and glamorous parties, but for the past year he’s lost all interest in social activities. ‘Shall we do something this weekend? Maybe go on that Gourmet Greyton Getaway Roger and Daniella invited us to?’ I’ll suggest hopefully. A crease will appear on Lawrence’s brow. ‘Babe, I’m a bit tired,’ he’ll say. ‘Work is hectic at the moment. Can’t we just have a low-key weekend at home?’ Of course, he is still affectionate, but bedroom activity has faded almost completely, and that’s tragic in my books. I’m feeling increasingly bored, ignored and frustrated. This is not at all what I intended for my life. What should I do? Lawrence has also started leaving phone messages like, ‘Hi, babe. It’s me. I’m working late again tonight, so don’t expect me home until much later. And I think I forget to tell you I’m off to Australia for three weeks, leaving on Wednesday. Sorry, but it looks like I won’t be able to make your cousin’s wedding.’ Click. He’s definitely not seeing anyone else, if that’s what you’re thinking. The sad truth is that he’s a workaholic. Lawrence pours his energy into his clients, meetings, deals and strategies, and uses the rest of his available time to recover for the next round of money-making. He’s devoted and loyal to me, but his work will always come first. This is not ideal in a partner, but no man is perfect – a fact I know because I have truckloads of relationship experience. I am a thirty-something woman who has been hoping to meet the hero of her life story since the age of sixteen. This is my fifth serious relationship. Each one I thought was The One.
Every relationship began fabulously but reached a point where I thought, ‘Oh no, not again…’ And now this too seems to be destined for disaster. If my relationship with Lawrence must end, do I have it in me to open myself to love again, to risk having my heart trampled on for the umpteenth time? Why is it taking me so damn long to find the right man? Final thought: if one more woman shows me her diamond engagement ring, I shall kill myself by overdosing on Cote D’Or hazelnut praline fingers. You just watch me. I roll the Lindt 70% paper into a ball and rise to leave the gazebo, knowing that tonight is the night I request a final answer from Lawrence, and tomorrow is the day I write my resignation letter, with or without my boyfriend’s blessing. From now on, I am on my own. From the Notebook: Things I would ban if I were boss of the world • • • • • • • • • •
Engagement parties Baby showers Leaf blowers The use of chainsaws and other power tools on weekends Minimalist restaurant interiors The phrase ‘needless to say’ Bathroom doors without locks Bathrooms without doors. Attention all decorators: a bead curtain will not suffice The clichéd phrase ‘hospitality at its best’, as seen on promotional literature for hotels and restaurants (usually with an apostrophe incorrectly inserted: ie. it’s) Successful, charming, commitment-phobic men who lure nice girls like me into relationships. Ban them all.
Make an important decision Lawrence is home. He’s brought me a gift, a tin of Godiva chocolates with a picture of a naked lady on her white horse on the lid, but, uncharacteristically, I have not yet unwrapped a single truffle. We’re standing in the kitchen – he’s throwing turmeric into a lamb curry, I’m bristling with nerves – when I blurt out my declaration. ‘I think we need to talk about where this relationship is going,’ I say. ‘Well,’ says Law in the slow, accommodating tone he uses for difficult clients, ‘I’ll tell you what. Why don’t you email me the list of issues you have with our relationship, and what you would need to be happy, since you seem so unhappy with the way things are.’ (He has told me, in response to my negative feedback on previous occasions, that he thinks things are Fine.) ‘I’ll look through your list and get back to you. How does that sound?’ In other words, sure thing, babe, but don’t think you’re going to ruin my homecoming evening of lamb curry with mango chutney, washed down with Meerlust cabernet, and perhaps a touch of History Channel afterwards.
I resist the urge to lurch forward and throttle Lawrence as he stands at the stove in his striped butcher’s apron. At least he is taking my concerns seriously, I suppose. Over an al desko lunch at work the next day, I dutifully type out the relationship issues. Then I go back to the top of this absurdly long list and pose a single question to him: Am I the person you want to be with long term? That is the crux of it all. I hit ‘Send’ and realise that we are one of those sad couples you read about in magazine articles, who barely have sex and have resorted to communicating via email. This is not very reassuring at all. Lawrence is braced and ready to talk when I get home. We sit on opposite sofas while the evening sun traces patterns on the walls, and we talk our way through my notes. With a quivering hand, I scribble down his answers so I don’t forget or misinterpret them, or make rash decisions based on something I thought I heard but didn’t actually. This feels horrid, heartless and cold. We start with the question at the top of the page: Am I the person? ‘Law, I need to know that you definitely want to be with me, that you feel certain you have a future with me,’ I say. He shuffles a little on the sofa, tugs at his sock. ‘Er, well, you see, it’s just that I’m…not sure,’ he says. He makes a face that says Sorry about that. Not sure? About me? All my hopes implode. How can I live the most fabulous life possible with a man who is not sure about me? This means I’ll have to move out, change all my plans, start again from scratch. How dreadfully exhausting. And I shall have to leave him – this lovely, funny, exuberant man who has been my partner and companion these past few years. ‘I love you,’ he adds, and I go to him to be held and hugged. As my heart swells, my logical mind tries to wrestle out a compromise, a way of staying that makes sense. He loves me; can’t I stay? But then my true voice leans in and says, He’s not sure about you. He can’t commit. You know that will never be enough for you, Sabrina. And it’s the reason this relationship is dying a slow, painful death. Lawrence can’t open himself to intimacy, no matter how gorgeous and loving you are. It has nothing to do with you. Get it? ‘I’ll have to move out,’ I say. ‘What? Is this over?’ he asks in disbelief. I nod slowly. ‘But, babe, what are you expecting?’ Lawrence protests gently. ‘Do you honestly think you’re going to find the perfect relationship? Don’t you think you’re expecting too much? You know, Sab, I look at my friends’ marriages and they aren’t that great, to be honest. They’re boring and mundane. But my friends are all pretty happy. Come on, this relationship isn’t so bad.’ ‘Not so bad isn’t good enough for me,’ I say quietly. ‘I’m sorry.’
Heavens, maybe he’s right. What if I never meet anyone again? What if I look back from lonely spinsterhood and realise Lawrence was the best there was, but I gave him up? His credentials are great on paper. Terrifying doubts start creeping in. This is a major decision that will alter the course of your life, a grave inner voice commands. Don’t screw it up. But suddenly, the person I think I’m destined to be chips in: Doesn’t this man know who I am inside? Who I’m going to be one day? Can’t he see that, despite the current confusion in my life, I am actually a famous novelist, visionary and billionaire? That my greatest wish is to write books that inspire, entertain and empower people around the globe? That I am here to experience this world to the max? How can he not see that? ‘Then I suppose it is a sensible idea for you to move out,’ he is saying with reluctance. ‘I will miss you, babe. A lot.’ ‘Me too,’ I say. And I know I am about to embark on a time of emptiness no box of Godiva chocolates can fill. From: ‘Hermitage’ To: ‘Sabrina Bell’ Sent: Wednesday, September 23, 2009 10:59 PM Subject: A gift of sound Dear Miss Bell, You do not know me but Lionel Wolfe-Valentine does. I am under the impression that you are in need of beautiful music. I have therefore appointed myself temporary deejay in your life. Please listen to the attachment. It is the Countess’s ‘Dove Sono’ aria from The Marriage of Figaro by Mozart. She is bemoaning the absence of her errant husband. She sings ‘Where is he?’ with sadness, poignancy and lyricism. I too have had some disappointments lately. This helped. H Listen to this Could ‘H’ be the Hermit? Could this be the mysterious man my mother mentioned, who is living alone in the cottage on the slope between her house and the Guru’s? Listening to the aria, I am startled by its synchronous message. This countess is resigned to living with a disappointing man. Her mournful voice shoots shivers across my cheeks as I realise how grateful I am not to be her.
Add insult to injury This morning I resigned from my job. It turns out I have accumulated some leave and may depart in a fortnight’s time. The chief sub will fill my position until a new features editor is found. I have also given the tenant in my Tokai apartment notice. She can vacate within two weeks, she says, if that suits me. So it seems the universe is supporting this move of mine. But as if a break-up and career crisis aren’t enough, friends everywhere are texting vile messages like ‘Guess what???!!! 12 weeks pregnant today! Nick SO excited about being a dad. Me xxx’. No man. No job. No home. No money. No sense of humour. No meaning in life. No life at all, come to think of it. How on earth am I going to cope?
One thing nobody knows about me is… how completely and utterly I detest baby showers. All those women sitting around a living room, cooing over pastel-coloured babygrows and stuffed toys. All the lies about how ‘petite’ the pregnant woman is looking, even if she’s the size of a humpback whale with ankles to match. The storkthemed giftwrap; the Winnie the Pooh paper plates. The competitive comparisons of gifts: who gave the most expensive present? Whose was the most creative? A baby shower is one big consumer fest. Yuck, yuck, yuck. I sit there as the older women offer lemon meringue pie and sausage rolls, and take tea orders – ‘so that’s six with milk and no sugar; one no milk, two sugars’– and I just want to scream. It’s all so clichéd and sexist: blue receiving blankets for a boy, everything dripping with pink if it’s a girl. And don’t get me started on those ghastly baby Tshirts with slogans like ‘If you think I’m cute, wait till you see my mom!’ No more. I can’t do it. From now on, I am boycotting baby showers. Events or organisations that exclude men – and these include sewing circles, book clubs, women’s spiritual groups – make me suspicious. Females need some male influence to save them from their bitchy, perfectionist selves (or am I just speaking for myself?) From now on I am living authentically. Whenever anyone invites me to a baby shower, I shall say I have a dental appointment. Word count: 247
As I might have mentioned, I have been trying to get a novel published for the last ten years. Of late I have felt my writerly life force dimming, my patience wearing thin. Will I ever make it as an author? Should I pack the whole idea in now in order to save myself future misery, or should I continue plodding along? During this decade, I have sent off countless covering letters, synopses and copies of the first three chapters of various novels to literary agents and publishers worldwide, yet have merely succeeded in turning myself into a record-breaking recipient of computer-generated rejection letters. Which, apparently, is how the road to authordom goes, but do I really need this in my life? Additionally (and thank you for listening so patiently to my complaints), I have applied for the Masters in Creative Writing course at the University of Cape Town three times and have been refused on each occasion. The course accepts fourteen or so students per year to learn from such luminaries as Nobel laureate J.M. Coetzee and fellow South African literary legends André Brink and Antjie Krog. If only I could slip into the programme, I’m certain I would gain the skills, confidence and gold dust to crack it as a novelist. It would be the turning point for me. Why is the universe holding me back? My office phone rings. I have a meeting with an angry designereyewear mogul in five minutes, so this had better be quick. ‘Sabbie? Is that you?’ The well-bred tones belong to my Old Best Friend, Paulina Carmichael. Three years ago, Paulina decided to become a writer – a novelist, no less. She astonished us all by leaving her glittering career as a fashion buyer in order to write. (Good luck to you, my friend, I thought at the time. Let’s see how long this little flirtation will last. Being a novelist isn’t all lying on a velvet chaise and scribbling self-indulgent thoughts, you know.) I met the elfin, eccentric Paulina when she was four and I seven. (Wanda, who met me five years ago and is therefore my New Best Friend, is slightly jealous of Paulina. Wanda likes to be number one in everything.) ‘I’m so glad you’ve phoned,’ I begin, grateful for the brief chance to tell her my shock news – that Lawrence and I split up last night, that I must vacate the city and relocate to my mini villa in unfashionable suburbia, that today I officially resigned from my job and my editor actually hugged me, that my life is one mega balls-up – but before I can unroll my scroll of tidings, she says, ‘Guess what? I’ve just heard I’ve been accepted for the UCT Creative Writing Masters course!’ Her words jolt me like electricity. A wave of despair rises from the floor and rolls up through my body. ‘That’s great,’ I manage to whisper. ‘I’ve got to go, Paulina. Sorry. Got a meeting. Bye.’ I walk briskly to the ladies’ restrooms, which are thankfully unoccupied, lock myself into a cubicle and cry. Who cares if I’m five minutes late for the meeting? I’m leaving the magazine anyway. Besides, if Mr
Sunglasses Mogul thinks he’s touchy because he’s had no editorial coverage from Glossy in the past year, despite ‘giving’ the magazine thousands in the form of advertising revenue, I’m far, far angrier. How dare Paulina! How could my best friend apply for the course closest to my heart without even telling me? How could the university accept her, a complete unknown, a fashion buyer, when I have been writing for a decade, conscientiously honing my craft and making my name as a journalist! What about moi? Later that night, my mother phones. She listens to my sorry tale and then she says, ‘Well, darling, I’ll tell you a story to take your mind off all that.’ My mother is from England, and the English do not do emotions. They prefer doing other things when life gets tricky – laying snail bait in the garden, cleaning out their toiletry bags, or telling you interesting stories they’ve heard from people they’ve bumped into. So she tells me about her new neighbour, the Hermit. I do not mention that he has emailed me a piece of music. I just let her talk. Only my tenacious, loquacious mother could persuade a hermit to come out of his house and tell her a story, and the thought makes me smile.
True Story: The Hermit’s Long-Lost Cat Many years ago, long before his retreat into seclusion, the Hermit rescued a black-and-white cat with a white splash on the end of her tail, who was drowning in the sea in Greece. This cat, the plucky, nine-lived Madame Chat, travelled with the Hermit to war zones during his career as a conflict photographer, and was his closest companion during some very dark times indeed. On the single occasion Madame was left behind while her master was on assignment, something dreadful happened. The day the Hermit flew back from Sudan, his cat sitters, a couple from Kalk Bay with a young son, drove Madame home to Hermanus as arranged. She was secured in a padlocked cage in the back of their bakkie, but when they arrived at the Hermit’s house an hour and a half later, Madame was no longer there. She must have escaped through the canopy window, left ajar for air, somewhere between Kalk Bay and home. The Hermit was distraught, though he tried not to show it. The cat-sitter couple felt extremely bad. They hunted the length of the road, but 130 kilometres doesn’t narrow your chances much. They informed their network, placed ads in newspapers offering a reward, and distributed fliers far and wide: Where is Madame Chat? Three days went by. That night the Hermit and the couple agreed to meet at Fish Hoek train station three characters who claimed to have found a black-and-white cat with a white splash on the tail. But when the trio stepped menacingly onto the platform and demanded reward
money first, the Hermit and friends realised it was a scam. A week passed, and the entire staff of the Hermit’s former office at the Cape Times was on the lookout for Madame. The cat-sitter couple, both set designers working on the movie Disgrace based on J.M. Coetzee’s novel, involved their entire cast and crew in the search for the missing cat. Two weeks passed. The Hermit consulted an animal medium in Canada, another in Cape Town. The Canadian said his dead grandmother was helping him find Madame from the Other Side – and indeed, the Hermit would close his eyes and hear Grandma saying, ‘Try it again, my boy, don’t give up,’ as she had throughout his boyhood. The Capetonian medium said he would find Madame but he just had to be patient. Eventually, after twenty days, a woman phoned the Hermit to say she had spotted a black-and-white cat near a scrap yard in Muizenberg. The Hermit drove the 120 kilometres instantly, whistled in his particular way, and Madame crept out from a pile of rusting corrugated iron, thin but intact. When the Hermit phoned the cat sitters to tell them the news, he could hear the cheers from the entire set of Disgrace in the background. How had Madame escaped? It turned out that the couple’s bored young son had loosened the bolts on the cat’s cage while waiting to leave for Hermanus. What this story is really about: The struggles of life. Patience. Persistence. Faith. Words: 495
Find an inspiring image One image is sustaining me through this depressing time. It came to me yesterday afternoon while driving home from work. In my mind’s eye I suddenly saw a dressing table – a romantic, bohemian dressing table with a hinged mirror and a padded chintz stool; a dressing table with fairy lights and strings of beads, with roses, perfume bottles, and black-and-white photographs of the cities I hope to visit. I felt warmth in my belly. I can create a new home for myself at the Mini Villa, and this time I can make it exactly the way I’d like it to be. From now on I won’t have to compromise. Creating a girly boudoir is one thing, but do I have the ability to make a happy future for myself? This evening, with a leaden heart, I start preparing to leave Lawrence’s apartment. I try my best to stay in the moment, methodically packing my books into wine boxes, marking them and sealing the lids with brown tape. My newly appointed ex-boyfriend has asked to keep the painting I did, a
nude which hangs in the main bedroom. I have agreed that it may remain on permanent loan to the Lawrence Collection. In return, he has graciously given me a brand-new microwave and a case of mixed fine wines, to ease the transition. He will even help me move my large items – the Blue Sofa, my desk, and my old bed, which we’d kept in the guest room – in two weekends’ time. Lawrence is bullish about our break-up. ‘We’ll be great friends and see loads of each other, you’ll see,’ he declares as he fills my wine glass during one of our last dinners at home together. ‘And I’ll still buy you boxes of chocolate from foreign lands.’ With a scheming look he says, ‘You know, babe, I don’t think our time is over. Not completely. I sort of understand why you’re doing this, but if you ask me,’ and he gives a satisfied chuckle, ‘I think we still have a future together at some point. It’s just a matter of time.’ I wonder to myself: is he right?
Author photos by Anthony Koeslag Dressing table photo courtesy of Vintage Vixen
Do you dream of writing a novel? Want to star in a fabulous, fictional account of your ideal life story? Wish you could write your deepest d...