THE PRESENCE OF PEACOCKS: CHAPTER 2
The Mini Villa
2. The Mini Villa A small apartment with a balcony: The place I go to recover.
Describe your arrival I close the front door and stand, alone, in my silent new apartment. It’s not too bad, this place. The white walls are soothing, my muslin curtains are drawn back to reveal the Constantiaberg mountains, and coir carpet strokes my bare feet as I pad to the mirror at the end of the passage. A house-warning gift from my friends, the mirror has a frame made from silvered seed pods, whitewashed shells and crystal beads. It is a work of art. The face peering into the mirror, however, is not. Grey, old and drained, this is a picture of Dorianne Gray. What’s happened to me? My life force seems to have left for somewhere more fun and sunny – Hawaii, Johannesburg, Pofadder; anywhere from here, where I must face the fact that my life has disintegrated. The Story of Sabrina Bell once had a solid plot and a successful heroine; today it feels like tatters of paper. Like a rejected manuscript. (Oh no, Sabrina. Come, now.) Like all my other rejections, especially relationships. Nothing I do ever works out. (No self-pity today, please. Haven’t we shed enough tears?) ‘Okay,’ I tell the face in the mirror. ‘I’ll try to feel better.’ After opening the French doors to let in some mountain air, I flop onto the Blue Sofa. Bless you, Wanda, for arranging my décor and furniture. The sofa now forms the central point of the open-plan living area. My New Best Friend has lain white organza cushions for my head at one end, a fleecy blanket for my feet at the other, and on the coffee table has placed candles, roses, spiritual books, and, judging by the lilac envelope, a card. I close my eyes. Exhaustion throbs through my limbs, and I can still hear that soft hum of stress in my ears. But somewhere a bird is singing a two-note tune. After a while, I notice the air on my cheeks is cool and smells of moist leaves; the blanket on my feet feels luxuriously soft. Despite myself, a small smile crosses my lips. So I may be exhausted, spent, angry and defeated, but I think I have found my spiritual home, my place of healing, right here on this sofa.
BE NICE TO YOURSELF Dear Sab, Welcome to the Mini Villa! From now on, I want you to treat yourself very, very well. Okay? Don’t get snarky or criticise yourself. See yourself as the best chocolate in the box, the perfect short story, the richest shade of purple, the freshest spring day, the treasure on the map. You are it! (If you can’t see that, you’re crazier than I thought). Every time you look in a mirror, tell yourself, ‘Sabrina, I adore you. I think you’re fabulous.’ Mwah, mwah. Kiss, kiss. Fall in love with you. It’s so easy to do… Love deluxe, Wand*a xxx
Status update: Friday 26 November Fatigue has come like a grey blanket and covered me. Weeks have become months, and I’ve become weaker and sicker, forced to lie in bed for most of the day. My face is ashen, mind groggy, and my joints ache with excruciating pain. Sapped of energy, I struggle to walk the stairs up to the Mini Villa. I can’t tolerate people, noise, movement, colour, pictures on the walls. Will my vitality return? The uncertainty is worrying. The doctor’s blood tests show I am in ‘perfect health’ – as if! – and the vitamins and homeopathic tonics don’t seem to be helping. Hmm. Status update: Tuesday 21 December Today I am 100% irritable, achy, coldy, sneezing, mouth ulcerish and drained. UNIVERSE! Help me! I cannot go on like this. It’s too awful. Something has to change. I’ve decided to try food combining to see if this will give me more energy. None of the professionally recommended ‘cures’ I’ve tried so far has worked; in fact, I feel worse. So I shall try to heal myself.
The realisation Three months go by. I start writing freelance articles for magazines in the mornings, and spend long afternoons on the Blue Sofa. Here I lie, read and think. I watch clouds move across the sky, engulfing whole mountain peaks with ease. I listen to mournful Eva Cassidy songs and cry wet patches onto the sofa cushions. (From time to time, I also yell ‘You emotional pygmy!’ at the photograph of Lawrence taken at that fateful birthday party of mine: he was the stranger who tagged along with Greg, my neighbour, and ended up inviting me for a champagne breakfast at the Twelve Apostles Hotel the following morning. Breakfast became brunch, lunch and tea, and then we walked on Bakoven Beach and had sushi at the Codfather, and he told me… No, no, no! I must stop thinking about him.) On the Blue Sofa, I ponder Wanda’s cards. I make notes from my conversations with the Guru, who says wise things like, ‘When it seems as if we’ve lost everything, what’s important always remains. We should look carefully through the ruins of our lives, Sabrina; there’s always some buried treasure to uncover.’ I realise that spring has passed and summer has teetered in on her high gold heels. It’s already mid-December and most people are thinking about their holidays and New Year’s Eve parties, and whether to wear that beach wrap as a skirt or halter-neck dress, but oh no, not moi. I keep to myself. I scribble in my purple-covered journal, and in the process uncover some shards of wisdom. For example, this seems to be a good time to declutter my life (what, or who, do I want to drop?), reinvent myself (who do I want to be?) and indulge myself (what do I want to do?) Led by these three questions, I find myself having The Realisation. Which is: I am going to come up with a whole new life for myself – a new me, actually, happier and better than the last version. Sabrina Bell will become Sabrina belle. Yes! I will live life on my terms. The new Sabrina will be more fun, more spontaneous and self-indulgent, utterly more shameless and far, far less prone to heartbreak. The previous moi fell for the ham acting of a commitment-phobic man; this will not happen again. But that’s not all. After all these years of squandering my time in mundane office jobs, humouring tyrant bosses and putting my dreams on hold, the time has come to reveal my true self. The new me will be what I have always wanted to be: a novelist. From the Notebook: Why Idleness Pays ‘I don’t think necessity is the mother of invention; invention arises directly from idleness, possible also from laziness.’ – Agatha Christie, crime writer.
A writer’s requirements That was yesterday. Today I woke up feeling irritated. As a dedicated novelist, it is important that I jot down irritations in my notebook, a small, spiral-bound book stowed in my handbag. My irritations range from small (the habit some men have of blowing out the candle on a restaurant table the moment you sit down, thereby obliterating the romantic ambience) to great (the capitalist system I find myself living under. If this were a socialist society, everyone would be as poor as freelance writers like moi, even top brain surgeons. It’s just not fair.) A notebook is surely the first necessity for writing. Whether you hope to win the Booker Prize, as the Guru once did (hope, that is; she was shortlisted), or merely entertain yourself by rereading your memoirs one day, you must have something to say. From now on, whenever I see startling sights, hear interesting comments, taste, feel or smell anything of interest, I shall write it down in my notebook and use it as material for my next novel. From the Notebook: The 6 Things You Need to be a Novelist 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6.
A notebook A computer Something to say and a great desire to say it Two hours a day to write A place to write, ideally with a door you can close.
Talent, you may notice, is not on the list. That’s because talent isn’t essential for commercial success. (‘Well, look at Dan Brown’, Paulina remarked after reading The Da Vinci Code.) A strong desire to express yourself will probably suffice. However, if you aspire to high-class literary fiction, talent is useful, along with one other thing: 7. Determination bordering on madness.
Meet your mentor If you wish to be a novelist, it helps to know somebody who can show you how it is done. A mentor. A supervisor. A guide. My person is the Guru. The Guru was once almost famous, in her twenties when her ‘provocative’ first novel The Stranger Speaks rocked the literary fiction racks. Don’t tell anyone but she’s considered a one-hit wonder nowadays, a reclusive has-been whose subsequent novels did not satisfy expectations. She too used to be beautiful but is no longer. When people turn to look at a lissom young woman walking beside her, the Guru assumes the favourable attention is directed at her – early conditioning, you know. I think this, her total selfbelief, is partly the secret to her contentment as a writer. Inside she believes she’s slightly better than everyone else, especially other writers, and merely misunderstood. I first met the Guru shortly after my mother moved to her renovated barn in the Writers’ Valley, an hour’s drive from Cape Town in a direction you’ve never been. I was standing at a small gate that led down a path crowded with olive trees. During my walk across the valley, I had followed a dust track and found myself, I realised, outside somebody’s well-concealed house. Voices rose behind the branches, very nearby. I froze. These were chocolaty, figgy, after-lunch voices; those of friends who, believing themselves to be alone, are gossiping about people of their mutual acquaintance. The woman who emerged from between the trees did not see me. An Amazonian figure with bare feet, she wore pinstriped trousers rolled to her knees, a white shirt and a waistcoat with fob watch chain. Her face was sticky with heat, her mouth painted two shades too red. Dipping her head to avoid a branch, she made a comment about the garden being in need of a trim, and this being a sign that her life had become overgrown with extraneous characters, and – She saw me at the gate. ‘Oh, hello,’ she said. Her eyes were gold-green. ‘Where did you appear from?’ She cut a formidable figure in her nineteenth-century male attire, despite her hair being dyed the colour of tinned marmalade. I noted the lipstick bleeding into cracks around her lips, the chipped nail polish on her toes, and I knew this was a woman who thought a lot. Before the two other guests appeared – a bearded man in a kaftan, a thin woman with short pink hair I recognised as a Durban fashion designer – the woman in the waistcoat studied me. I’ve never forgotten that look, though it lasted only a few seconds. She seemed drawn to something in me, or in the scene I had unwittingly presented. Whatever I had been or done in the past was of no consequence to her, I sensed; what intrigued her lay in the present moment. And I now suspect she was doing what all novelists do when they stop to look at something. She was sizing me up to see if I could fit into her fictional world.
Did I belong in her web of characters and plot? With a bit of touching up, could I be incorporated into some tale one day? Would I be of use? Lionel Wolfe-Valentine saw the potential for story in me, and I love her for that. ‘I’m Sabrina Bell,’ I said. ‘My mother lives across the valley.’ Status update: Thursday 25 March An emotional meltdown tonight: blind rage, frustration, depression, despair. I sobbed and sobbed at my dining table. I feel as though I’ve been in a bad mood for a year and have lost my happiness. Great anger is constantly bubbling just below my surface. This constant emotional pain exhausts me. I feel I could sleep for a hundred years.
Spend a weekend away The Guru is an angel of sorts. When she intuits my need for advice or support, she phones and invites me to spend a night at her house in the Writers’ Valley. Never two nights, mind you; only one. ‘The best thing my parents ever did,’ she declares, lying in the outdoor bath with her eyes shut, ‘was give me a man’s name. Pass me the loofah, darling.’ It is dusk in the valley. Crickets are trilling. Bath steam rises into chilly autumn air and baboons are barking in the kloof. I give her the long-handled loofah that hangs from the branch of a pepper tree, and settle back into the guest chair to sip my Amarula Cream. ‘Endowed with the name “Lionel”, I felt no obligation to be one thing or the other – male, female, strong, sensitive, this way, that way. I realised that I could reside anywhere on any spectrum. In fact, I could move along it at will.’ She opens an eye. ‘Would you scrub my back? Thank you.’ As she leans forward, foam sucks and bubbles around her body. Gripping the loofah head, I rub my mentor’s dimpled back until it shines red. The Guru is a large woman with pendulous breasts and rolls of voluptuous flesh. ‘More, more. Yes, good,’ she sighs. ‘I need to lose some skin. Exfoliation is the key if you want to rid yourself of the person you were last week. I used to be a size eight, you know,’ she tells me yet again, ‘like you, only much taller. Thin as an adolescent giraffe I was, my dear. You wouldn’t have recognised me. No bosom, hips or derrière until my mid-thirties.’ I have seen photographs from the Seventies of boyish Lionel WolfeValentine, age twenty-seven, signing copies of her first novel at Hatchards in London, wearing a pinstriped suit, cravat and fedora. Some things don’t change. In a moment, the evening light has turned everything an exquisite, smoky lilac.
‘Oh look at that,’ she murmurs. ‘The whole world in your favourite colour, Sabrina.’ She gives me goose bumps when she speaks my thoughts.
The Guru leans back, sending splashes into the lavender beds. I love her Victorian slipper bath with its leonine feet, though the gold-painted exterior is starting to peel. When I’ve spent a night here, I sometimes find tiny curls of gilt paint on my clothes, in my bed, even among the pages of books I’m reading – pieces of her life that have drifted into mine when I wasn’t looking. ‘You wouldn’t believe the confusion one causes,’ she continues, ‘when one is a fifty-five-year-old overweight woman dressed in a gentleman’s suit, introducing oneself with a man’s name. It happened again last Saturday, at the Valley Antiques Fair, when the dominee introduced me to his brother-inlaw. Suddenly, nobody was sure of anything. Was I a cross-dresser? A paid performer? A joke? Funny how people must know exactly what you are before everyone can relax and talk about the weather, not so?’ ‘Did you really talk about the weather with the dominee?’ I ask. Through the shrinking foam her breasts are revealed – pale islands on dark water. ‘You know me better than that,’ she says. ‘We talked about pig prices. The dominee’s brother-in-law is a farmer.’ ‘What do you know about pigs?’ ‘Everything. I grew up with them.’
This does not surprise me, for the Guru’s childhood is allencompassing. I was told, initially, that her parents owned a circus, a seedy set-up with a depressed elephant that trailed from one small platteland town to the next during the Fifties and Sixties. Then I looked up a few archival interviews from, oh, The Times Literary Supplement, Vanity Fair, Vogue, The Guardian and The New York Times, and discovered the Guru’s past is another of her unfinished works of fiction. The story line is always in flux: formative years spent in an orphanage; lived with a grandmother who had sung at La Scala; home schooled on the family farm (whereabouts unclear) and treated as a boy; raised in suburbia and sent to a finishing school in Switzerland, from which she absconded and roamed Europe for a year with a band of gypsies. With the Guru, I never know which facts are fiction. I think she prefers it that way. From the Notebook: Trademarks To be distinctive, you need a trademark. The Guru: Wears old-fashioned men’s suits and ties. Paulina: Her perfectly straight fringe. Wand*a: Inserts an asterisk into her name for business purposes. This draws customers’ attention to the magic word ‘wand’ contained therein. Moi: My favourite colour is the colour purple. If you look closely, there’s always something purple on or near me – a scarf, necklace, silk rose, pair of stockings, fountain pen with purple ink. (If you still can’t see anything, use your imagination.)
Accept help ‘Another Amarula?’ The Guru reaches for the bottle beside the bath and offers it to me. I shake my head. ‘Be a darling and light a ciggie for me,’ she wheedles. She knows I disapprove of her habit. Yet I light a cigarette from the tin and hand it to her without a word. The tip glows orange in the dusk. ‘Tell me about you,’ she says kindly. ‘Are you coping?’ ‘Oh,’ I say, rather embarrassed. ‘I’m all right.’ I’m not, actually. I still cry over my dinners-for-one at the Mini Villa, and crumple up when I look at photos of Lawrence, and wonder what the point of love is anyway. ‘It’s still early days,’ I add. The light is fading fast. I see only ribbons of steam and the whites of her eyes, and hear the sounds magnified around us – birds calling, branches creaking. ‘Is it? It’s been some time, not so?’ the Guru asks coolly. ‘Six months,’ I admit. Half a year since Lawrence pecked my cheek good-bye, as if we were strangers who’d conversed on a train and were
parting ways, not two people who had been in love and shared a life for almost three years. ‘You’re having trouble moving on,’ she says. I sit in the dark. The moon has not yet risen over Castle Mountain. ‘Light the lanterns for me, Sabrina,’ she says. ‘Let’s create some ambience.’ When I stand, my body feels heavy. My arms and legs have ached continually since the break-up, as if I’d run a marathon (which, in case you were wondering, I certainly have not). Besides minimal freelance work to pay my bills, I don’t do much. I read spiritual texts recommended by Wanda on the Blue Sofa, meet Paulina for hot chocolate dates at the book shop, and write painful screeds in my journal. It’s not much of a life. I move from branch to branch, lighting the red Moroccan glass lanterns hanging from the pepper and olive trees. A few stars are blinking, and a shaving of moon is visible above the mountain. I know the Guru’s heavylidded eyes are following me. She turns the hot tap and steaming water roars into the bath. Back in my chair, I pull the mohair blanket around my shoulders. ‘You’re hating it, aren’t you, the fact that suffering is an integral part of a story?’ she says, sucking on her cigarette. ‘The truth is that, without pain, there is no story. Happiness is The End, Sabrina. Though it may be picturesque, happiness is boring. There’s no grit, no reason to move to a better place. When everything’s fiddle-dee-dee, there’s nothing to write about. Nothing anyone would consider publishing, at any rate,’ she mutters. ‘What do you do about emotional pain, Lionel?’ I ask. In red lamplight, she rises from the bath like the prow of a galleon. ‘I write about my times of suffering. It makes me hate them slightly less,’ she says, wrapping herself in a vast towel. ‘Sometimes, I’m even grateful for them. Sabrina, my dear, consider this: thanks to your disappointment in love, you have something significant to write about.’ As we walk in single file down the path to her house, I consider the story potential of a) disappointment in love, versus b) this season’s new Fendi bag. The woman has a point. I recline on the salon’s chaise longue while the Guru dresses in her bedroom. She steps out in an ensemble that would have made Howard Hughes swoon: a bespoke black suit teamed with a silk cravat in sea green, a tie pin with teardrop peridot, and two-tone men’s brogues. Masterful tailoring is the only way to flatter a large body, she believes. Always dressed to devastating effect, my mentor is proof that perfect looks are irrelevant. Personal style is paramount. ‘We are dining tonight at a charming new bistro with a fireplace and a rather good wine list,’ she informs me. ‘Before I forget,’ she says, pulling a cheque book from her antique doctor’s bag and inking details onto it, ‘this is my gift to you. Here, two thousand rand’s worth of sessions with Marion de Kok. You need a decent therapist. All right?’
I nod, feeling tears rise. The cheque is smooth and comforting in my fingers. ‘That should buy you eight sessions, if you haggle a bit,’ she says. ‘Tell Marion I sent you. Ask for the famed Wolfe-Valentine discount, ha! Once you’re finished with that,’ she says, plucking a daisy from a blue vase and threading it through her lapel buttonhole, ‘you will take tango lessons.’ I smile weakly. There is nostalgia in her eyes. ‘Trust me on the tango, Sabrina,’ she says softly. ‘Oh, and I’m starting a little writing class, by popular demand from the village: eight sessions of fun and creativity for aspirant novelists. I would like you to join.’ Me? Join a group of rustic journalers, senders of letters to newspapers, pensioner poets in white cardigans? Does she expect me to read out my writing to them? ‘Come,’ the Guru says briskly. So this is her prescription, and she won’t let me slip through her net. Not this time. Damn. The Guru fixes me with her gold-green eyes. ‘You’ll love it,’ she declares. ‘Enough shilly-shallying. Let us go.’
From: ‘Hermitage’ To: ‘Sabrina Bell’ Sent: Sunday, March 28, 2010 7:45 PM Subject: A gift of sound Dear Miss Bell, I believe you are still troubled by affairs of the heart. My condolences. Though I shall avoid mentioning names, not everyone understands the need to grieve. Allow me to commiserate by offering you something grand and emotional: ‘O Mensch, bewein’ dein Sünde groß’ from St Matthew Passion by Johann Sebastian Bach. In other words, ‘O man, bewail your great sins.’ May I be so bold as to suggest that a good cry might help? I am currently inhabiting a small farm dwelling in a country backwater - one you know well. This is not where I imagined I would be at this age and stage, but there you are. H PS. I have met your mother!
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From the Notebook: Interesting occupations Hermit Recluse Writer manqué Poet laureate Prodigy Polymath Professional malcontent (like Marat, who helped stir up the French Revolution) Swing band leader Debutante Bon vivant Butler Gentleman Gigolo Femme fatale Enfant terrible Impresario Voluptuary
Find a place to write Back at the Mini Villa on Sunday night, I walk into my office and realise I cannot become a novelist in this drab place of files and tax forms. The Guru blooms like a wild rose in her environment – in her outdoor bath, her blue salon, and her writing room painted the brown of fertile soil, gleaming with jewelled objets from Morocco, India and Sri Lanka. I consider the cerise lamp that spills passion-coloured light, and the postcards that form a skyline of imagery above her desk: black horse, golden temple, New York cake, red lips, Helmut Newton seductress, keyhole, goblin, hat, face. Lionel lives in black and white when she feels the need: typed words on paper, a black suit and snowy satin tie. On other days she invites in colour: tangerine candles, yellow sunflowers, a cool drink from a green glass. Believing in colour’s alchemical powers, the Guru employs it as both medicine and mood enhancer. Orange boosts the digestion and outlook, she claims, while pink can make you feel more loving. Green is for healing, yellow for confidence and concentration. Gold gives wisdom and strength. Blue is the communication colour, red the grounding one. My writing room is all wrong. I could ask Wanda to help me change it. The queen of décor makeovers, she’s always looking for blank canvases on which to experiment – but it’s too late to phone her now. I start rummaging through the storage boxes in my cupboard, pulling out treasured items that didn’t fit my new white, minimalist, post-Lawrence, spiritually healing décor. What was I thinking? This room should be bohemian! Opulent! Frivolous! A bit like the novel I want to write, and, come to think of it, the life I want to live. Surely that’s doable?
Decorate your writing room •
Choose your colours. My favourite shades are purple, cerise, Turkish Delight pink and chocolate brown. On Monday I bought a small pot of cerise paint from the hardware shop, plus a paintbrush and masking tape to keep the edges neat. After two hours of painting I had (trumpet fanfare, please) an accent wall. Create an inspiration board. On Tuesday I drove to a polystyrene factory in Salt River to buy a notice-board-to-be. After covering my board with brown-and-white African shweshwe fabric, I pinned up uplifting pictures and quotes, and hung it above my writing desk. Hang a curtain of great beauty. My bead curtain, from Paulina for my 27th birthday, has red and pink lozenges that hang from my window and catch morning sun. Install a daybed. This is for resting, thinking and puzzling out tricky bits of plot (as soon as I have a plot, that is.) Mine is a bit of a cheat –
cushions arranged on my guest bed – but the effect is very Ottomanempire harem. Arrange flowers. Scented roses leaning wantonly from an art deco vase bring a whiff of romance. Keep chocolates nearby. Three different truffles: not too few, not too many. A novelist can never have too many nice things in one day.
Beep beep! Hey, like to meet for a friendly dinner on Mon night, just to check in? How about Anatoli’s? Missing u. Law x My heart lurches. Maybe Lawrence wants to get back together. No, wait – I’m the one who left him. To myself I sigh. But is his ‘x’ a friendly peck on the cheek or the lengthy French variety? I wish I could tell. If I have dinner with him, will he try to persuade me to come back? Will he ply me with Colmant brut and feed me a few of my favourite things: Anatoli’s famous potato cakes; the molten-cheese filo cigars? If so, I’ll probably waver and give in. I miss him too and would like to see him, but I must be strong. And the cheese cigars and potato cakes must not come within ten metres of me or I don’t stand a chance. I reply, Hi! Mon night 7.30 is good. S
Attend a significant meeting A Monday night dinner cannot be considered a date, I realise as I enter the garlic-laced Turkish food sensorium, Anatoli, concealed in a side road in Green Point. Monday is a decidedly unsexy night, devoid of the promising sparkle of a Friday or Saturday. Monday nights are usually reserved for ratepayers’ association meetings, gluten allergy support groups, and women trying out new hair dye at home. The message is clear: Lawrence is not trying to get into my pants. The maitre d’ leads me round a corner and, ouch, a pang hits my chest. For there is Lawrence, waving from a corner table, his smile still crooked, his gaze still senatorial, his curly hair cropped a touch shorter. He’s wearing a green-striped shirt I know intimately. This was once my boyfriend. The thought is surreal. As I approach, I see too, for the first time, his ordinariness, and realise how much I have already detached from this man. ‘Hi, Sab.’ He kisses my cheek. No ‘babe’ any more. ‘Hi, Law.’ I sit down opposite him. There’s an air of formality between us, the result of six months without physical contact. Immediately, I see the impossibility of a reunion; the vital spark between us has vanished. Lawrence and I will be friends from now on.
This conclusion feels disappointing, yet what have I been expecting? That he’ll tell me he’s thought long and hard and has decided he is a) still in love with me, and b) completely sure that I am the woman he wants to marry? Looking bashful, Lawrence opens his mouth: ‘I wasn’t sure whether to tell you this or not,’ he begins, unable to quell a smile. I hold my breath. Maybe he’s changed – become decisive, committed, passionate. Could it be? ‘I’m seeing someone,’ he says. My stomach twists. ‘Who?’ I ask in a strangled voice. ‘She’s a trainee at the firm, joined us a few months ago. We hit it off.’ ‘What’s her name?’ I ask, shocked. ‘Bianca.’ Bianca. Not plain old Bianca, mind you, but Bi-unck-a, the exotic, foreign version. While the waiter plants a garlic-studded flatbread on the paper tablecloth and slices it into diagonals, I sit, stunned. So I’ve well and truly lost him, and sooner than I expected. Stupidly, arrogantly, I somehow expected Lawrence to remain single and available, in case I changed my mind. Silly moi. I suppose it’s better this way, though. The Guru will be pleased: with Lawrence spoken for, I’ll be forced to get on with my life. Naturally, as is the way of recently replaced ex-girlfriends, I picture Bianca in the most intimidating light – a tall, serene, 23-year-old chartered accountant cum laude with a prominent bust, a curtain of Pantene blonde hair, and no frown lines (ha, wait till she’s spent three years with him), who excels at tennis and snooker, and can deal poker cards without dropping them all on the floor. In other words, I imagine her to be all the things I am not and never will be. Once the waiter has gone, Lawrence touches my hand. ‘Sab, she’s not like you,’ he says gently. ‘We had something special, didn’t we?’ When I look up, his eyes are sad. ‘She’s a nice girl,’ he says. I chuckle. I pray nobody ever says that about me. Lawrence relaxes, as though relieved to have conveyed his news, and says, ‘I was thinking we should order the Delheim gewűrztraminer – it’ll go nicely with the meze. What are your thoughts on the matter?’ I say, ‘Law, you must be the only South African who feels confident enough in his pronunciation of gefritzthingypashmina to order it in a restaurant.’ ‘Sab, how I have missed your high-grade silliness,’ he grins. When our waiter brings the great tray of assorted meze from which we must make our selection, I really start to enjoy myself. We choose bowls of rich hummus, thick tzatziki, olives rolling in herb oil, grilled halloumi cheese (I love the way it squeaks against the teeth), red pepper couscous salad,
spiced lentil patties with yoghurt dressing, plus at least ten other dishes – including the transcendental potato cakes and cheese-filled filo cigars. We toast each other. ‘And now, my peasants, let us feast,’ Lawrence declares. This expansive, decadent streak counterbalances the man’s calculating, achieving side. Both attracted me initially. When Lawrence first told me his occupation, I assumed a hedge fund was something to do with saving the environment. Au contraire: Lawrence is a super-ambitious type who has dreamed of owning his own Lear jet since the age of eight. He is known for his merciless handshake. (Ronnie goes so far as to say Lawrence tries to kill people when he shakes hands with them.) What Lawrence Silberman can imagine, he can make happen – from a corner office with a view of the Atlantic, to a game farm in Namibia and a ski apartment in Lech, to exactly the right sized shoes on sale (you know how millionaires like a bargain), not to mention pots of rands alchemised from thin air for his clients on the average working day. We’ve mopped up most of the meze with a second garlic flatbread. Now I sit with this master of manifestation, twirling my wine glass and talking about my work in rather negative terms. Somehow, I haven’t managed to start my award-winning novel. I’m not sure how, where, when, or what to write. I tell him that the only thing I am sure of is my desire to stop writing fatuous freelance articles on lunch-hour botox treatments and the best way to wear the new pencil skirt. I want to give all that up and write something meaningful. I want to be a Writer – not of superficial 1200-word featurettes, but of novels: long, deep, happy, sad books that will change people’s lives. Moan, moan, moan. Lawrence drains his glass of gefrostycamino and fixes me with his analytical gaze. ‘If you want to be a writer,’ he says, ‘then be one. Start now! Start writing. What’s the issue?’ ‘Oh. You mean, act as though I am one already – writing every day, working on a novel, going on writer’s dates, hanging out in coffee shops?’ He waves my ideas back at me. ‘Yes, Sab, all of that. But then you wouldn’t be “acting as though” you were a writer; you’d be writing, wouldn’t you? Therefore, you would in fact be a writer.’ He’s bored of the conversation now. Lawrence tires easily of talkers and complainers. He prefers doers. The waiter swoops on the bill as we rise from our seats. Law’s napkin lies crumpled on the dinner table like an opened fortune cookie. The advice it contains is one word, printed in invisible ink: write.
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True Story: Sabrina’s Money Miracle I had been working for two years as a low-paid junior journalist at Glossy when the chance to walk the newly opened Whale Trail surfaced. Friends of mine, recently qualified attorneys and bankers, were planning to go on this five-day adventure in which porters deliver one’s Le Creuset saucepans and bottles of Beyerskloof cabernet to each night’s destination. I’d heard about the visual splendour of this five-star new hiking trail – the pristine fynbos and mountain peaks, the Breede River snaking in the distance, the sandy beaches where whales and their young flop around just metres away in turquoise water. All this, plus hot showers, gourmet dinners, and conversations with old friends by firelight. I wanted to go. The catch was that I had to deposit the R450 hike fee into the chief organiser’s bank account within two weeks. But I had no money, and no credit card at that stage. ‘Are you still coming?’ they kept asking? I didn’t know what to do. The night before my hike payment was due, I was invited to a media function. I had been nominated for a writing award, for my work in de-stigmatising mental illness through magazine articles. I sat with a drink and an olive-and-feta tartlet, watching fellow journalists collecting prizes in various categories. The magazine category was won by a woman from Marie Clare. I applauded her, as well as the winners of the newspaper, TV, radio and Internet categories. The ceremony was winding down. I stood up to leave. ‘And now, for the first time ever, we have a special overall award which goes to a writer who has gone beyond the call of duty in promoting mental health in the media. This year’s overall winner is… Sabrina Bell from Glossy.’ Astonished, I walked to the podium to collect my certificate. When I opened the envelope with my name upon it, my eyes stung with joy: a cheque for R450 exactly. Well, well, Universe, I smiled to myself. You certainly pulled some strings. Thank you. I deposited the hike fee the following morning, and went on the Whale Trail, which was everything I’d hoped it would be, and more. What this story is really about: Having faith. Trusting that you will receive what you need. Words: 376
Sign up for a course There is a message from the Guru on my answering machine. ‘Sabrina, darling.’ A pause. ‘I’m starting my little writing course the weekend after next and would like you to attend. It should prove diverting, especially if we’re blessed with a romance or a personality clash among the attendees: let’s hold thumbs, shall we? There will be six of us in total – seven actually, though the seventh attendee will not be there in person.’ (A snort of laughter.) ‘All will be revealed in due course,’ she adds mysteriously. ‘We begin at 10am this Saturday at my house. Bring a pen and notebook. Lunch and refreshments will be supplied.’ Another pause; a tell-tale sucking sound. Heavens, she’s having a cigarette. She’s nervous. ‘Don’t be late,’ she warns. ‘Writing is not a picnic.’ Click. A seventh member who will not be there. Such as a ghost? A deceased someone who bequeathed important unpublished writings to Lionel WolfeValentine? An overseas member who will make appearances on webcam? Somebody with extreme performance anxiety, or a facial disfigurement that makes people run screaming, or… You know, it’s possible she has invented this seventh member to spice things up. To the Guru, even a phone message should contain the potential for a story. Mystery keeps readers turning pages, she believes. Drop clues at key points in your novel, Sabrina, but let them fall as lightly as feathers. The Guru told me this the second time I visited her in the Writers’ Valley. In the corner of her salon stood a spinet, a dinky, harpsichord-like musical instrument inlaid with ivory. I remember her being on the telephone in her office, having an urgent conversation with somebody who might have been a lover, and seemed to be calling from a mid-Atlantic yacht or other faraway place. ‘Damn you, Bertrand, I can’t hear you. Don’t do this to me,’ I heard her say. I raised the lid. Wooden keys in two shades of honey. I played middle C, and out came the sound of Christmas. Delighted, I sat and played the first movement of a Haydn sonata. Tinkle, tinkle, tinkle; the end. She stood in the doorway, an eyebrow arched. ‘I didn’t know you could do that.’ ‘There are a few things you don’t know about me,’ I said. ‘Good,’ she said. ‘Keep it that way. Never be an open book, Sabrina. A novelist must have secrets. Your own life must be your greatest story.’ When we lunched at Café Felix later that day, she wore huge sunglasses indoors, which meant fellow patrons peered at her constantly and whispered among themselves. My customary advice to people who wear sunglasses indoors is ‘please get a life’, but the Guru made me reconsider. Exuding contentment, she smiled at me from time to time as if to say, Look and learn, Sabrina. A little mystery goes a long way.
From: ‘Lionel Wolfe-Valentine’ To: ‘Sabrina Bell’, ‘Misty Franks’, ‘Gareth Rudd’, ‘Judith M. Trevelyan’, ‘Donald Carter’ Cc: ‘Hermitage’ Sent: Thursday, April 8, 2010 10:59 PM Subject: Writing Course Dear writers, Here’s a little something to help us get to know each other. As your first task, please write a personal story beginning with the words “The best thing I ever did was….” It must be true, it must be 500 words or less, and it should be a story you are willing to share with the group. Please email it to me by Wednesday 14 April. LWV Share with the group. Horrors. Yuck deluxe. This could not be further from the lofty, ivy-clad walls of the University of Cape Town and its Masters Course in Creative Writing. By signing up for this bucolic writers’ circle, I hereby commit myself to eight whole Saturdays in the Writers’ Valley among hopeless amateurs. Can I cope with being in this homespun group? Will I gain anything from it? Will I stick it out? Well, here goes – and Lionel, this is for you.
Author photo by Anthony Koeslag Office photo posted by http://thatbohemiangirl.tumblr.com
The best thing I ever did was accept a job at a women’s magazine. When unexpectedly offered the position of features writer, I almost didn’t take it. Could I cope with being a Glossy girl, wearing pelmet skirts and churning out articles on how to handle boyfriend issues and clumpy mascara? Wasn’t I too intellectual and literary for such frippery? Wasn’t magazine journalism beneath me? Eventually, I shrugged and went to work in magazines - for ten years. Looking back, I realise that my magazine decade was essential. I had to serve my apprenticeship as a writer, and I was fortunate to have a talented editor as my guide. I became a human sponge, sucking up as much business knowledge and writing skill as I could. I also had absurd amounts of fun, jetting around the world on assignment, skiing in the Alps, diving in tropical islands, microlighting over African bushveld, visiting European castles, interviewing celebrities and tasting life’s luxuries (not to mention every type of schnapps produced in Austria. Regrettably, I had to take a week’s sick leave after that). My glamorous colleagues and I laughed ever day and got paid for it. Successful and stimulated, I moved up the career ladder until I was positioned to become a magazine editor myself. The problem is, things never felt completely right. Inside, I knew I didn’t truly fit in; that working in an office, for other people, wasn’t my path. And one day, everything started feeling wrong: I became disenchanted, and finally sickened, by the superficial media whirl. It took me a year to resign. After pondering this for six months on The Blue Sofa, I realise that it was simply time: time to move on, time to start pursuing my dreams. Although leaving the security of the salaried world was frightening, I’m proud that I made a change and started freelancing from home. All around me, I see stressed people, unhappy in their jobs. They feel stuck, as I did for a while, because they can’t see that they have simply finished one phase of life and need to enter the next. My friend Wanda says the universe never conspires against you; it’s always working in your favour, though often you can’t see that. She says that when you surrender to the way your story is going, a whole new chapter of life opens up for you. I’m hoping mine will turn into a book – a best-selling novel. Words: 409
In The Presence of Peacocks' second chapter, Sabrina Bell moves to the Mini Villa, a tiny apartment in unfashionable suburbia. While lying o...