THE PRESENCE OF PEACOCKS: CHAPTER 3
The Writers’ Valley
3. The Writers’ Valley A village one hour’s journey from home: The place I go for guidance.
Introduce a writer friend I have known Paulina Carmichael since she was four years old. For a long time, she was just the annoying younger sister of my school friend Clare, who lived around the corner. In fact, Clare and I used to bribe Paulina with marshmallow fish to keep her out of the bedroom she shared with her middle sister, so that we could discuss girlie matters in peace. Poor little black-haired Paulina, she of the troubled psyche, the nervous tics, the precocious theories on life. I remember her being taken every Tuesday afternoon to a psychologist at age eight or something, and having to join a gifted children’s programme to prevent her from becoming bored and depressed, and writing a miniature book about her mother’s boyfriends, which she took to school to show her teachers, to the mortification of everyone involved. In short, Paulina Carmichael has always been a problem. One day, while Clare was backpacking across the United States and I was at my first job, editorial assistant on a small newspaper, I found myself missing the Carmichaels’ house. You know how it is – some people’s homes become extensions of your life. I kept having nostalgic flashbacks to the allfemale family in their rambling Victorian villa, to their flocks of male suitors (Margot, the beautiful eldest daughter, was a major drawcard), to their eccentric dinner parties and the constant piano playing from the room at the back of the house. So I phoned and got invited for supper, and ended up at the kitchen table the following evening with Helena, the girls’ mother, and another, unexpected person. This other guest was about to turn eighteen, and I fell in love with her. Well, you know what I mean; we fell in like. She was quirky and funny, and asked strange questions without caring whether they made her seem idiotic or not. (‘I made myself eat three tablespoons of raw garlic because the book said so, but I suspect there may have been a printing error’; ‘What is the best thing about being a nun?’; ‘Do you think advice from a parrot should be trusted? I am about to take some’; and ‘I have been in love with three dead men.’) Paulina wasn’t at all the way I had been at seventeen, and I admired her for that. By the way, the three dead men were William Shakespeare, Johann Sebastian Bach and Jesus of Nazareth. ‘Oh, darling,’ her mother had sighed, ‘Never settle for a dead man. But don’t expect too much, mind you. Live men aren’t necessarily more interesting.’
True Story: Paulina’s Life-Changing Sticker My Old Best Friend Paulina is not like other people. Besides being a creative genius who designs, draws, dances, acts, sings, composes, cooks – and yes, writes too - she differs from most in that she sees no boundaries. If she feels the urge to walk around the world, living off wild almonds and windfall avocados, she will do it. Because why not? She once was a model, became a book designer for a publisher, turned to fabric and clothing design, then became a high-paid fashion buyer, but she gave all this up to be free. Yes, Paulina sold her car, her possessions, her trendy City Bowl apartment, and went travelling. Her parents, understandably, were not overjoyed by this development. That was three years ago, and Paulina is not one to look back in anger or regret. Living simply and doing what she wants to do has become a lifestyle, and everyone, her parents included, seems used to it by now. From time to time, she disappears on pilgrimages, takes solo trips through war-torn countries and teaches English on islands you’ve never heard of. The purpose of these sojourns is to gather stories. When she returns home, she moves back into her commune in Woodstock, never minding which room she is allocated. ‘Nobody really owns anything anyway, Sabbie,’ she says, ‘so it doesn’t matter.’ What does matter is having the time and space to turn her stories into plays, operettas and movie scripts Yesterday I discovered why Paulina turned out this way. Over tea and angel cards under the oaks at Groot Constantia, she told me a true story about herself. ‘On the light switch in my bedroom as a child was a sticker,’ she recalled. ‘It had been left there by the previous owners of the house, and of course my mother, being an aesthete with interior decorating tendencies, tried to peel the sticker off. But it would not budge, so it stayed there for the duration of my childhood. On the sticker were printed the words, “NOTHING IS IMPOSSIBLE.” I slept under that message every day. I saw it every morning and evening as I grew up. Sabbie, I think that is why I have always thought that everything is possible. I believe it.’ What this story is really about: Possibilities and choices. Choosing carefully the words you tell yourself, because, positive or negative, you’ll end up believing them. Word count: 400
The day after hearing of Lawrence’s new girlfriend, I schedule a Writer’s Crisis Meeting with Paulina at our headquarters, the Seattle Coffee Company adjoining the Constantia bookshop. Curling up in a leather armchair with a shot of hot chocolate usually helps me regain perspective on life. Paulina, in her black twinset and pearls, sips green tea and listens. ‘It’s not so much that I’m jealous of this Bianca,’ I explain. ‘It’s more my personal feelings of failure in the relationship department. Is there something seriously wrong with me? Why aren’t I attracted to nice, well-adjusted men? Why do I always choose non-communicative, commitment-phobic Heathcliff and Darcy types and think it will work out?’ Gruff, brooding men with strong jawlines and high collars are all very well in a 350-page novel, but quite another thing as real life companions. Maybe I read too much Austen and Brontë as a teenager. ‘It is indeed an inconvenience but a conventional man would probably bore you,’ Paulina says. Having read Wuthering Heights even more obsessively than I, she speaks with a quaint turn of phrase. Looks-wise, Paulina could be the heroine of an old-fashioned novel, with her small red mouth and skin so white you can see the aristocratic blue veins beneath. ‘Do you think I should stop falling in love so readily?’ I ask. Unlike Paulina, who kisses one man every five years or so and then spends the next two months avoiding his bouquets and phone calls, I savour romance like Belgian praline truffles. I’m not closed to men, as she is – though I’ve been lying rather low these past six months. At heart, I’m a passionate woman who is open to possibilities. Why, then, have I still not found true love? ‘Do you think it would be better for me to turn down all dinner invitations from now on,’ I propose, ‘and insist on being friends with a man for six months before deciding whether or not to take things further?’ Paulina shakes her head. ‘Sabbie, I sincerely think you should not minimise your natural exuberance,’ she says in grave tone. ‘That would not make you happy. What I suggest is this: next time you feel yourself falling for a man, try to keep one foot on the ground. Remind yourself that there will be a negative side to him that will balance out all his delightful positives. Every situation is always perfectly balanced.’ I’ll try. I really, really will. One foot on the ground. ‘When does your writing course with Lionel start?’ she inquires. ‘Oh, that. This weekend,’ I say flatly. I’m embarrassed to be joining a country writers’ circle while Paulina is mingling with literary giants at the university. ‘How’s your novel coming along?’ I ask. ‘The first one? I printed it out last week,’ she says. ‘I’ve started working on another book.’ My innards recoil with envy. ‘Wow,’ I say, trying to keep my voice steady. ‘You finished that in just six months.’ ‘Well, five and a half months, actually,’ Paulina admits with a blush. ‘I made an agreement with myself that I would sit down to write for a few hours every day. Towards the end, I worked on it night and day, and now it
is done. I suppose living with two other writers helps. Nick, Baran and I encourage each other.’ Her first novel is written? I am freshly dismayed by my apathy, illdiscipline and lack of motivation. While my friend, the former fashion buyer, was writing her debut novel, where was I? Lying in a bed of tissues, crying over a man. Where are my priorities? If I intend to be an internationally acclaimed writer, I must get cracking. I must start writing today. ‘Your professors on the masters course must be impressed,’ I say. ‘You’ve only been under their tutelage for two months, and already you’ve finished a novel.’ ‘I haven’t told them,’ Paulina says, finishing her second cup of tea. ‘Sabbie, the main thing is that writing this book has helped me. You know how depressed I’d been about the fact that my fashion-dependent life had no purpose? Well, writing about my pilgrimage across Spain changed all that. I sat down at my computer each day, and the book seemed to come from up there’ (twirls fingers in direction of heaven) ‘through me, onto my screen. This may sound bizarre but it was as if this novel wanted to come into the world, and I was the one who had to write it.’ Great. My Old Best Friend is not only a novelist, but a spiritual channel too. Sometimes I feel so inadequate in her presence. She continues, ‘It may sound strange but at times I reread parts of my novel and think, “Gosh, that’s rather good. I didn’t write that.’ So she’s the next Mozart, channelling source energy, composing with sublime ease. He did this while playing billiards on his own. Lucky them. Paulina is regarding me with affection. ‘When life is horrid, the best remedy is to create something beautiful, don’t you think? A novel is ideal. Sabbie, have you ever noticed that the word “novel” contains the word “love”?’ ‘An anagram,’ I say. ‘NLOVE. In love.’ ‘And I now know that when you write a novel, you fall in love – with your words, your world, yourself,’ says Paulina, who is prone to philosophising when she drinks green tea. ‘This romance feels better than anything, Sabbie.’ Which is exactly the sort of statement you’d expect from someone who has never spent an afternoon being fed Lindt Mini Nussfins by a gorgeous man, which is by far the best feeling in the world. Yet I see what my Old Best Friend is trying to tell me. My shot at true love missed, so I should go home and write about the things I love. As we’re saying goodbye, I ask her a daring question, one that has been on my mind lately. ‘Paulie, when are you going to allow yourself to fall in love with a man?’ Her eyes narrow. Paulina is afraid of men, always has been. Clare thinks this may be the result of a traumatic schoolgirl romance with a much older man, but who would know? Paulina has never spoken of it to me, despite my investigative journalistic attempts.
‘One day I shall be ready for romance,’ Paulina says, ‘but now is not the time.’ Will it ever be the time?
OPEN UP TO NEW THINGS Dear Sab, I think it’s time, don’t you? Yup, time to loosen up and start welcoming new things into your life. You might want to practise saying, ‘Yes, thank you, I’d love that,’ in the mirror a few times a day. Works like a charm. This is a cool world – very, very cool. There’s lots of fun stuff to do and see. Why waste your time here (which isn’t going to last forever, I might add) feeling down? Choose to feel good again. Be open to new things that could make you feel better, starting now. With novel wishes, Wand*a xxx
The Guru’s Writing Class Cast your characters ‘Welcome, welcome, everyone,’ says the Guru grandly. Six people of varying age are seated in a circle in Lionel WolfeValentine’s salon, a place of blue velvet and first-edition novels, at ten minutes past ten on this Saturday morning in autumn. I can hear an antique clock ticking on the mantelpiece, starlings in the garden, and, all around me, the shallow breathing of scared aspirant writers. ‘You are here today for two important reasons,’ she says. ‘Firstly, I feel your writing shows promise. Secondly, you are interesting to me, each of you in a different way – and everyone likes to be surrounded by interesting characters, both in real life and in the books we read, not so? Remember that.’ The Guru is wearing a rather tight suit of aubergine velvet, teamed with an orange silk shirt. ‘Before you introduce yourselves, spend a few minutes observing the people in the room,’ she says. ‘Imagine they constitute the cast of characters in a novel you are writing. Next, based on your first impressions, make notes on each character – age, appearance, mood, personality. Character is all about specific details. Please also venture a motive for each. In any story, motive is crucial. Ask yourself, What does this character want? And what is he or she going to do about it?’ The Guru appears amused by the terror inscribed on our faces. ‘Don’t worry, my dears. These notes are for your eyes alone. Now let your imaginations run wild. Include me in your line-up of characters; include yourself. You have ten minutes, starting now.’
From the Notebook: My cast of characters 1. To my right, Misty Franks. 28? Slim and balletic with sun-streaked hair. She is married (see ring), softly spoken and far too forgiving for her own benefit. What she wants is to cook her way through a book called 1001 Soups to Warm your Heart as a way of escaping the suicidal thoughts she experiences whenever she hears her husband open the front door. 2. Beyond her, Donald Carter. Spry, 60ish. Bifocals, khaki shirt, well-ironed jeans. What he wants is to document the lesser-known indigenous dialects of Southern Africa. His stepfather was a feared minister of labour affairs during the apartheid years, and Donald rebelled by becoming a struggle activist. He spends sleepless nights worrying about the earth’s treasures disappearing, from Zululand’s linguistic heritage to the polar ice caps. He never kills ants. 3. Judith M. Trevelyan. Late 40s, no makeup, greying hair, permanent frown. Her leather sandals speak volumes about her disdain for make-up, hair tongs, fashion, vanity, hamburgers
and capitalism. What she secretly desires is to live in a self-sufficient nudist colony where everyone has a doctorate in either gender studies or politics, which will ensure plenty of lively debates. She is having trouble persuading her long-suffering husband, Len, to become a ‘naturalist’ too. The clock ticks. We scribble in our notebooks. The Guru smokes furtively in a corner, holding her cigarette up to an open window as she studies us. With a cough like hers, she really ought to give up, but you try telling her. Her peridot eyes catch mine; I hasten to my next subject. Oh, him. He smiled at me when I walked in. 4. Gareth Rudd. 27. Cute caramel-skinned guy with toned abs beneath his t-shirt. Earnest face, grey eyes. He thinks about women almost as much as he ponders Bob Dylan lyrics. What he wants is to lie naked in a field one golden evening, and have three women in chiffon dresses ritually decorate his body with honey and wild flowers, then wash him in a stream, and carry him to their cave in the mountains…
Listen to this The Guru is glaring at me. The woman can read me like a book. ‘Don’t get sidetracked. You have two more minutes,’ she says sternly, settling herself into an armchair. 5. Lionel Wolfe-Valentine. Age: who knows? What she wants is the reassurance that she is valued. She may once have been almost famous for a few months, but that does not mean life has been easy for her. She has been let down by her parents, by a gypsy lothario when she was 15, by critics on the Times Literary Supplement, among countless others. To keep her spirits up, she eats miniature Swiss rolls, and allows herself to weep one day a month on her chaise longue. Her enemies never escape unscathed: she inflicts revenge by writing them into her novels. 6. Moi, Sabrina Bell, thirty-something. What she wants is 1) to be an internationally published author, and 2) to find her soul mate. What is she doing about it? Re 1) She has joined a writing group; in fact, she is writing something this very moment. Re 2) On Tuesday night, she will be clutching her courage in her hand like an evening bag and going to her first tango lesson.
Let reality inspire you We take turns to introduce ourselves, describing our day jobs (if applicable) and reasons for participating in the writing course. When it’s my turn, I do not say ‘Lionel made me join’, tempted though I am. Instead, I toss back my hair and say, ‘Hello everyone, I’m Sabrina Bell. By day, I’m a freelance writer for glossy magazines. By night, I dream of being an author and dancing the tango. Why am I doing this course? Well, I’d like to write a novel that’s good enough to get published, and I know my fiction-writing needs all the help it can get.’ ‘Gee, you’re a magazine journalist – you’re already a published writer,’ says Misty, the girl with the placid face. ‘Only magazine articles,’ I explain. ‘Books are what I really want to write.’ Judith M. Trevelyan, the leather-sandal woman (who in fact runs a non-governmental organisation for the empowerment of rural women), loudly declares, ‘So you’re a hack. I hope you are not intending to use us as fodder for your fiction.’ I flinch. In the past, I have admittedly woven my life into my unpublished manuscripts – characters met, conversations heard, lessons learnt the hard way – and I might end up doing so again. ‘Personally, I have always considered the mining of other people’s experiences for the purposes of fiction an indicator of sloth on the part of the author,’ Judith says, regarding me as if I am dog poo on her doorstep. Imperiously, she turns to the Guru: ‘Lionel, what are your thoughts on the matter?’ Ha, Lionel mines all the time, in the grand tradition of Hemingway and other great writers who’ve lost friends because they can’t resist writing about them. The Guru clears her throat and stubs out her cigarette in a jade ashtray. ‘Judith, in principle you are absolutely right,’ she says, ‘but principles can become prisons.’ ‘Perhaps I may take the liberty of drawing up a confidentiality agreement for the attendees present,’ Judith suggests, ‘to ensure that the personal stories and opinions we share between these walls go no further?’ ‘An interesting issue,’ says twinkly-eyed Donald Carter, who is actually a retired engineering professor, and the owner of the florist shop in the village. ‘Judith, I agree with you to an extent. On the other hand, it’s accepted that writers draw on personal experience when creating fiction. If everything we have experienced shapes us – and that includes the lives of others – perhaps it is legitimate to use other people as inspiration?’ ‘I definitely think we write best about the things we know,’ says Misty sweetly. ‘I’m one of those people who struggles to think up original characters and situations. I always end up writing about the people in my life.
Maybe not them exactly, but the aspects of them that interest me. Or repulse me.’ The room goes quiet. Could someone as nice as Misty Franks be repulsed by people? Gareth, who has been slouching in silence, stretches his legs. ‘What Misty says makes sense,’ he says, giving her sleek calves a glance. ‘Stuff I write that’s based on reality is way more powerful. I don’t think it’s necessary to sign some confidentiality form. Can’t we trust each other not to overstep the mark?’ Judith turns to glare at him. ‘Or,’ the Guru says with a tone of finality, ‘agree now that if you would like to use somebody’s story in your novel, you will ask their permission. It is perfectly acceptable to use aspects of real people in your writing – these traits belong to the collective. Nobody owns humanity and its foibles, my dears. But particular experiences – especially humiliating or potentially damaging stories – do belong to their owners. If airing these stories could bring somebody into disrepute, shame them, or damage them emotionally or in any other way, think again.’ She pauses, and adds slyly, ‘And of course, I sincerely doubt there is anybody present who’d be so thoughtless as to sell details of my private life to Heat magazine…’ The woman has delusions of fame. Or perhaps there really are people who might read a featurette headlined ‘Reclusive novelist binges on polony sandwiches!’ ‘… but if you do, rest assured that you will be immortalised as an unattractive turd of a character in my next novel. All’s fair in love and fiction,’ says the Guru.
After our mid-morning tea break, Misty and I sit companionably on a sofa. The Guru leans against the mantelpiece and expounds on the topic of character. ‘I want you to think of somebody you know,’ she says, ‘somebody who intrigues you. You may feel strangely drawn to this person –’ ‘Or strangely repelled,’ Judith Trevelyan cuts in. Rrrrepelled: she rolls her r’s like a 1950s BBC radio announcer. She probably had elocution lessons as a child. ‘Absolutely,’ says the Guru. ‘We will tolerate anything in this circle except indifference. To a writer, indifference is of no use at all. Passion, fear, loathing, elation: these are far better. If you feel strongly about your characters, it is likely your readers will do the same – and when people are moved emotionally, they will keep reading. Your job is to ensure your reader never gets bored, never strays, sticks with you till the bittersweet end, my dears. Boring somebody is a serious literary crime.’ ‘Like, how serious a crime?’ Gareth asks. ‘I mean, what’s the equivalent in the real world? Getting caught with dope? Or, uh, beating someone up?’ he asks. I glance at Misty – he’s cute but a bit flaky, don’t you think? She smiles in discreet agreement. The Guru shakes her head. ‘Murder,’ she declares, ‘is the only equivalent. Why? Because it is the death of the connection between reader and writer. As an author, you build a bridge between your thoughts and theirs. But if you allow your prose to become dull, rambling, egotistical or self-indulgent, the bridge collapses. Your reader falls into the abyss and is never seen again.’ Donald Carter coughs. The Guru can be a touch melodramatic at times. ‘Where was I?’ she says. ‘Ah yes, asking you to think of somebody who interests you. For the next ten minutes, I would like you to list in your notebook his or her quirks. Endearing or annoying, these are what make a person unique. Start now.’ From the Notebook: A character’s quirks My New Best Friend WANDA - Is very tall, taller even than her lanky husband Reggie. Unlike most women in her height range, she loves it. - Eats a boiled egg every single morning because she ‘can’t function without some decent protein.’ - Is the most insanely creative person ever. She makes cards, dream catchers, cupcakes, mosaic frames, papier maché sculptures, knitted scarves, ice bowls with flower petals frozen inside them, lanterns from watermelons etc. - Says what she thinks. For her friends, this can be trying at times. - Is generally positive and encouraging, but every so often explodes and says, ‘That’s ridiculous! How can you say/do that?’; or ‘Oh, please’ in withering tones. - Collects self-help and spirituality books.
- Kisses Ramona (white bull terrier) on her scabby ears. Yuck. - Is often heard talking about ‘the universe’ as if it’s a highly organised and generous friend of hers. Eg, ‘Don’t worry about that; the universe will sort it out’ and, ‘That’s all very well, but have you put your order out to the universe?’ - Is so punctual it’s almost a personality disorder. - Chews the ends of her hair when thinking, and if you mention this, has no recollection of doing so. - Is always barefoot when at home – maybe because she grew up on a sheep farm and didn’t wear shoes until the age of ten.
‘Enough,’ snaps The Guru. ‘That was fifteen minutes.’ ‘Once I started, I couldn’t stop,’ chuckles Donald. ‘Especially, ahem, when it comes to undesirable hygiene habits.’ Was he writing about his ex-wife? Was she one of those people who blow their noses without a tissue? ‘On that subject, a convincing fictional character must possess fears and weaknesses, just as we do,’ says the Guru. ‘Flaws are helpful. Flaws give us flair. Our flaws are an integral part of our complex human nature. For instance, some of us may fear emotional intimacy, which drives us into the comforting arms of miniature Swiss rolls.’ She pauses and fidgets with a stuffed bird on the mantelpiece. The Guru always gets distracted when the subject of confectionary arises. ‘What does this person fear most? What does he or she lie awake and worry about at three in the morning?’ She fixes her protruding eyes on us, one by one. A chill spreads around the room. I think Wanda lies awake worrying that Ramona’s cancer will spread from the ears to the rest of the body: will she have to euthanase her dog at some point? ‘Now,’ says the Guru quietly, ‘ask this question of yourself. What do you fear most? What do you fear most often? What puts you in a state of worry, anxiety, nervousness or abject fear? Why? And – this is the interesting bit – how does this fear serve you?’ This is our homework, to be completed before our next meeting, in two weeks’ time. ‘My dears, it’s time for a break,’ says the Guru. ‘Lunch will be served on the veranda.’
Imagine being successful Before joining the others outside, I flip through the stack of Vanity Fair magazines on the satinwood side table. When I am a rich and successful author, I shall have an eternal subscription to Vanity Fair. Here’s an issue with a group of elderly writers on its cover: Where are they now? VF catches up with past hit novelists. Well, well, look at this: gazing archly from the background is ‘South African woman of letters, Lionel Wolfe-Valentine’, wearing a teal smoking jacket and riding boots.
Sometimes I forget the Guru was once almost famous. I wouldn’t mind being on the cover of Vanity Fair myself one day. Anything is possible. They could photograph me in a rose garden, wearing a purple satin Vivienne Westwood ball gown. The stylist would dust bronzer into my cleavage; the lighting assistant would make my Lawrence-induced frown lines vanish. As for the celebrity questionnaire inside, my answers would go something like this: What is your idea of perfect happiness? A summer afternoon, all deadlines met, and a mini slab of Lindt 70% chocolate at my side. What is your greatest fear? Not having a novel published, ever. Which living person do you most admire? Wanda, and anyone else who can buy a slab of chocolate, eat two pieces, fold the wrapper over and leave it in the kitchen cupboard for two weeks without thinking about it. What is the trait you most deplore in others? Aggressive complaining in restaurants. Complain, by all means, but do it with civility and style. What is your greatest extravagance? Second-hand books. What is your favorite journey? Driving up the avenue to my country estate. (Though I haven’t yet done it in real life). On what occasion do you lie? When asked how I am on a very, very tired day. I just can’t go there. I say ‘fine, thanks’. Which living person do you most despise? Anyone who is a producer of styrofoam cups and unrecyclable plastic. Exactly where do they think all this non-biodegradable junk must go once used? Which words or phrases do you most overuse? “What you should do is… ” “How hilarious.” “When I’m rich…”
What is your greatest regret? Not becoming fluent in French and Afrikaans at an early age. When and where were you happiest? Friday afternoon, while driving the long, empty road to The Writers’ Valley. I love the sense of escape. What is your current state of mind? Mildly frustated. If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be? I’d be more emotionally stable; my thoughts would be less extreme, more balanced. What do you consider your greatest achievement? My decision to start introducing myself as ‘a writer’ to people I meet. If you were to die and come back as a person or thing, what do you think it would be? A male florist. If you could choose what to come back as, what would it be? An orchestra conductor. What is your most treasured possession? My blue sofa. What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery? Not feeling passionate about anything. Where would you like to live? In a Cape Dutch manor house at the foot of a mountain. What is your favorite occupation? Dancing the close-embrace Argentine tango (though I haven’t yet done it). What is your most marked characteristic? Sudden mood changes. What is the quality you most like in a man? Warmth and humility. (These tie for first place).
What is the quality you most like in a woman? Wit and enthusiasm. (Ditto). Who are your favorite writers? They are, in chronological order, Jane Austen, Margaret Atwood, Jonathan Raban and Justin Cartwright. Who is your favorite hero of fiction? Mr Knightley from Emma. Who are your heroes in real life? Helen Suzman (may she rest in peace), political activist; Helen Zille, firebrand leader of South Africaâ€™s Democratic Alliance; Desmond Tutu; Nelson Mandela; Lionel Wolfe-Valentine; my mother. What is it that you most dislike? Carelessness with the worldâ€™s resources. I dislike food wastage at restaurants. I abhor the way cops in American movies always start eating a perfectly good doughnut or chilli dog, get an emergency call, and chuck the mostly uneaten food in the bin. How would you like to die? Suddenly and for no good reason, on a beautiful day, at a ripe age, surrounded by jasmine and my loved ones, after a lifetime of love, good health and literary success. What is your motto? Life is what you make of it.
Flirt a little We lunch on the Guru’s veranda. The sun slow-dances across the garden, and beyond the Lombardy poplars rises Castle Mountain. We serve ourselves cold meats, salad, olives, Cape seed bread, smoked snoek paté and orange wedges of spanspek melon, and sit on the assorted chairs and sofas. The Guru’s cutlery is engraved silver bearing a curly ‘WV’ motif, for Wolfe-Valentine. I’m convinced Lionel invented her name. Nobody is actually called WolfeValentine. There aren’t any others in the phone book; I’ve checked. ‘These eating implements, Sabrina, were a gift from an admirer in London many years ago,’ the Guru says, joining me on the sofa. The way she intercepts my inner thoughts always surprises me. ‘He was a judge, a dashing QC called Vernon. He had one of those puffy white wigs for court appearances,’ she recalls fondly, rolling up a plump slice of ham between her fingers. ‘When the wig wouldn’t sit flat, he’d say, “My darling, I washed it this morning and I can’t do a thing with it.”’ The knives and forks are rattail design, solid and elegant. How lovely a flirtation with a judge left her with something so lasting and beautiful. ‘Thanks for the spread, by the way,’ I say. ‘Indeed, quite the hostess I am this weekend. It is a pleasure to serve others, but thank you for bringing to my attention the fact that I am overextending myself again. What possessed me?’ she mutters. Standing, the Guru announces, ‘At our next meeting, in a fortnight, please bring packed lunches.’ She turns to me: ‘That feels much better. One cannot be all things to all people all the time, Sabrina – especially if one is a novelist.’ She walks inside, probably in search of a cigarette.
I shed my jewelled flip-flops and tuck feet under my derrière on the sofa. On a riempie bench at the other end of the veranda, Misty and Judith M. Trevelyan are in intense conversation. Donald, perched on an embroidered footstool at Judith’s feet, is eating a second helping of cold meat and salad with gusto. Gareth was last seen wandering into the garden, past the poplars, with his plate of lunch. A seventh member who will not be there. What is the Hermit doing at this moment? He could be spying on us with binoculars through the trees. The air is as warm as breath. I’m savouring being alone, as I always do. After a task, before another: these in-between times are the best. Right now there is no clock ticking, no pressing thing to be done. Starlings swoop. A dragonfly appears in front of my face, hovers, and flies on. In the distance, poplar leaves shimmer in breeze. As always, my body responds to this sense of freedom with a tingling of the skin. The bare soles of my feet touch my velvet skirt, sending threads of pleasure upwards. I stroke my warm neck, and draw my fingers through my hair, all the way down to the ends. My hand is moving down the inside curve of my arm, then slowly, very smoothly upwards, from inner wrist to the hollow halfway… ‘I’ve noticed you doing that,’ says a voice. Startled, I turn to see Gareth standing behind the sofa. ‘Doing what?’ I ask, slightly embarrassed. ‘You touch yourself the way…yeah, the way a lover would,’ he says. Gareth’s eyes are clear grey. His hair, tousled as though having been through a bush, has a leaf in it. I laugh. ‘Do I? Please tell me I don’t do it all the time.’ He flops onto the sofa; his tanned legs almost touch my feet. ‘Hey, I’d say you do,’ he muses, ‘without thinking. You know the way people in love absently touch each other? You kinda do it to yourself.’ He’s so close to me that I can see on his cheek the line where he stops shaving and the downy hairs resume. Gareth is younger than me, still in his twenties, and very attractive. ‘Do you study everyone this closely?’ I ask, surprised by my flirtatious tone. It’s been months, maybe years, since I last flirted. He is looking at my mouth. ‘Probably, yeah,’ he says. ‘But I’m especially attracted to sensual women.’ ‘Five minutes until we start again,’ announces the Guru from the doorway. ‘Excuse me. I must go to the boy’s room,’ Gareth says. How on earth will I concentrate during the afternoon session?
From the Notebook: Attractive things in a man Honesty Open appreciation Direct eye contact Smooth, tanned forearms with blond hairs Shapely back of neck Voluptuous lips Boldness After lunch, we share our ‘The best thing I ever did was…’ stories with the group. The best thing Judith M. Trevelyan ever did was convert her whole house to an eco-wise system involving solar power and grey water. Yawn. And to stop shaving her armpits in defiance of the patriarchal system that keeps women sexually subjugated. No, I just made that up, but you know what I mean. While Judith is reading out the bit about ‘being a beacon of solarpowered light in a dim world of public apathy and political hypocrisy’, Gareth shoots me a smirk that almost makes me giggle out loud. And, by the way, it’s ‘Judith M. Trevelyan’. Never leave the M out. ‘What does the ‘M’ stand for?’ Gareth asks after she has finished reading. She turns to Gareth coldly, as if he’s dared to pry into the recesses of her soul. ‘Marguerite,’ she says with a frown. ‘After my mother.’ ‘Nice,’ he nods. ‘Cool.’ Donald Carter, his cheeks blushing like summer plums, reveals his best move yet: ‘To marry the woman I had always admired but presumed was beyond my reach.’ He had apparently been locked in a long, loveless marriage to somebody called Trudy, who created knitting patterns for Your Family magazine, while fancying a brilliant microbiology professor called Elizabeth. Too hot-shot, too desirable, too brainy and beautiful, he thought. But when Trudy threw in her knitting needles and left long-suffering Donald for their dentist five years ago, the dear man made a decisive move. ‘I was at a university cocktail party in the New Education Building when I saw her across the room. She was wearing a cherry-red jacket,’ he recalls with admiration. (Trudy must have been a beige-and-pastels type). ‘I plucked up the courage to chat to Prof Liz, as she is known to her students, and ended up inviting her to a play at the Masque Theatre in which my neighbour was performing. I do not know what came over me; the words simply escaped my lips. And, blow me down, she agreed to come.’ Things blossomed from there. The couple married last year and shortly thereafter moved to the Writers’ Valley. Donald, now retired from academia, set up his florist shop in the village, while Prof Liz lectures two days a week in Cape Town and spends the other days making pesto from home-grown basil – and making Donald grin, it seems.
It’s Gareth’s turn. I nudge Misty. ‘The best thing I ever did was go around Europe for a year with my mate Alasdair on our motorbikes. It was a time of exploration, poetry-reading Irish barmaids, and minimal sleep.’ He goes on to share extremely personal lines such as ‘reading her milky skin in my sleep’ and ‘finding her long hairs like calling cards on my pillow’ in a completely unembarrassed voice. From time to time, he catches my eye. My neck is perspiring. After I have read my story, during which Gareth’s face is a picture of concentration, it is Misty’s turn. ‘The best thing I ever did was decide to commit to this writing course,’ she reads sweetly. ‘I am married and I have an interesting job working with troubled horses in the Valley, and the average stranger might presume my life to a happy one – ’ she pauses to inhale, ‘but I need to get out.’ As she continues, I realise she doesn’t mean ‘get out more’ as in go to more parties or meet new people. She needs to get out of her marriage. ‘Ben is a lovely man, but he doesn’t know who I am,’ she reads, and her voice starts disintegrating. ‘He’s been spending a lot of time in Cape Town. He stays at a friend’s house,’ she whispers. The room is absolutely silent. ‘I don’t really know why I’m here but I thought it would be beneficial for me,’ Misty sniffs. She hadn’t written that, I’m sure. ‘The End,’ she manages to say. Tears have started running down her cheeks. Donald hands her a tissue. ‘Misty dearest,’ says the Guru, ‘I applaud your honesty. We have all had to muster courage to join this group, myself included.’ Misty gives a faint smile. ‘Thanks for listening, guys,’ she says. ‘I’m actually feeling better than I did when I wrote that. I suppose now that I’ve admitted to myself how I feel, I’ll have to make some changes.’ She blows her nose. ‘Writing can be a cathartic business, make no mistake,’ the Guru warns. ‘Put your deeply personal thoughts on paper and you may feel odd – uncomfortable, afraid, wracked with flashbacks of past pain you thought had been buried for good. Then again,’ she adds, ‘getting it out and onto the page can leave you feeling lighter.’ From the Notebook: The insanity of writing ‘A writer is someone for whom writing is harder than it is for other people.’ – Thomas Mann When Gareth says good-bye to me at the Guru’s gate, he touches my arm. It is the lightest of touches but one I feel for the next few hours. A peacock feather is lying on the ground beside my car door, so I take it with me, for luck.
I feel different as I drive home – as though, after months of holding my breath, I have suddenly remembered to breathe again. Gareth has something to do with it. Initially I had written him off as a good-looking flirt, a bad idea for a woman repairing a broken heart, but he is in fact kind and earnest. And I can’t help thinking about his grey eyes, the caramel-coloured back of his neck, the way his hair musses up like a puppy’s… My word, I must get a grip. Or, as Wanda suggests, perhaps I must stop gripping on so tightly, to life and everything else. Should I open up to new possibilities? Should I let go?
From the Notebook: Well, I never! I’ve recently discovered I enjoy… - Having long hair to swish over my skin - A tot of Amarula Cream on the rocks, sipped slowly - Watching rock bands composed entirely of young men - Driving barefoot on warm days - Treating myself to sumptuous products for everyday use, such as truffle-infused olive oil and chocolate body butter - Sleeping over at Paulina’s and Wanda’s houses. It’s like having two extra homes - Jumping on trampolines - Sleeping with my window open to the night air - Wearing lots of mismatched jewellery - Spontaneity. Saying ‘yes’ to things more often
From: ‘Hermitage’ To: ‘Sabrina Bell’ Sent: Tuesday, April 20, 2010 10:59 PM Subject: A gift of sound Dear Miss Bell, I believe you are venturing out more often these days. Congratulations on attending Lionel’s writing course. I, alas, lack the nerve for formal gatherings at present. However, you did inspire me to take a short trip to the village this morning to peruse a photographic exhibition. I spoke to two people. May I interest your ears in some gentle flirtation? Here is ‘Let’s Fall in Love’ with Oscar Peterson on piano and Louis Armstrong on trumpet and vocals. Sometimes a duo makes more sense than a solo act. H
Listen to this On Wednesday afternoon, my limbs are aching and my spirits sinking again. Prostrate on The Blue Sofa, I wonder how best to perk myself up. Beyond my balcony, the mountains look like curvaceous belly dancers resting on cushions. I think about Gareth. Wanda will be proud of me for having exchanged words with a man. For a few minutes I ponder my New Best Friend, the most energetic and fulfilled person I know. I am so not feeling like her right now. Wanda gives of herself daily through her cards and advice, and although common sense suggests that giving something away might leave you with less of it, the opposite seems true in her case. Strangely, all that giving energises her. Maybe I should stop focusing on moi and what’s going wrong in my life, and think of something to do today for someone else. What might be fun? I wouldn’t mind baking a chocolate cake. I text her, R u available 4 tea and cake at the Mini Villa after work, say 6pm today? Sab xx Beep beep! Sure am! C u later. Wandxxxxa Oscar Peterson tickles the ivories from my sound system as I beat cake mixture until smooth, pour it into two cake tins, and sniff the rich aroma wafting from my oven. For me, the scent of chocolate produces spikes of happiness. From Easter mornings as a child, my fingers smeared with melting Springer chocolate eggs, to grown-up afternoons in bed with 70% Lindt as my
romantic companion, I thank chocolate for the everyday sensuality it has brought to my life. Chocolate makes me feel I am living a life of luxury. Chocolate is my elixir. No, chocolate is my medicine. A knock at the door, and a warm berg wind rushes in, carrying Wanda. She is wearing an ensemble that emphasises her willowy figure: skinny jeans and high boots, a fitted dove-grey cardigan, and a long, stripy scarf that draws the eye up and down the length of her. (I remember her once flipping through a Glossy fashion feature aimed at helping women disguise undesirable physical features, and scoffing at the dressing tips for tall women. ‘Are they nuts? I love being tall!’ she exclaimed. ‘I was born tall for a reason, obviously. Why the hell would I want to make myself look shorter? I mean, hello? Why should I gravitate towards “average”? From now on I’m going to celebrate being tall. I am going to become as tall as possible. Watch me! If you see a woman rising head and shoulders above the crowd, that will be me. ‘) ‘My!’ Wanda says as she takes in the picturesque tableau on my balcony. ‘Look at your tea table, fit for Marie Antoinette.’ It is Marie-A in miniature: a grey satin tablecloth, my grandmother’s bone china tea set with the purple rose pattern, silver cake forks, damask napkins, a vase of tiny white roses, and the lucky peacock feather I found after flirting with Gareth on Saturday. Tea for two. She hugs me, and I am so glad I made the effort. The chocolate cake is decorated with silver balls and purple sugar flowers. With white icing, I’ve written upon it, ‘I ♥ MAGIC WAND*A’. ‘Wow. I wasn’t expecting this. Thank you, Sab,’ she says. I say, ‘This is to say a giant thank-you for being the most wonderful friend anyone could wish for. I couldn’t have made it through my recovery without you, Wands.’ ‘Nonsense, don’t be ridiculous. Of course you would have survived,’ she says. ‘But it’s a pleasure. Any time.’ She grins like a child. ‘Nobody has made me a cake since my tenth birthday! This is brilliant.’ The cake is moist, spongy and dark, and the chocolate icing so erotic I feel almost moved to write a sonnet about it. We talk and laugh on my balcony as the mountains turn pink, and Wanda confides that she’s tempted to go bigger in her work, to franchise her Perfect Card Shop in order to sell her inspirational cards nationally. ‘I mean, I’m already thirty and I haven’t yet made my first million! That’s been my plan since childhood,’ she says. ‘On the other hand, I intentionally started small, with one modest shop, so as to get the formula for my business just right. Reggie suggested I do that, and although I was impatient and wanted to go big in the beginning, it was a sound idea.’ Starting small has not been easy for Wanda, who lives in the shadow of three swashbuckling businessmen. Her father and two brothers are entrepreneurs who wear intimidating ties, discuss deals at the Sunday lunch table, and are forever jetting off to China, Brazil, India and Russia to set up new ventures in anything from telecoms to herbal tea. Reggie has positioned
himself as a human buffer to stop his wife obsessively comparing her level of success to theirs. ‘Reggie’s advice is usually spot-on,’ I say. ‘He’s a natural voice of reason. He could help anyone with anything.’ ‘No he couldn’t,’ snaps Wanda. ‘He completely sucks, for example, at parallel parking. He makes my grandmother look like a Formula One driver. Don’t you know that he always has to drive around the block at least twice, looking for two parallel parking bays in a row so he won’t have to reverse in? It’s pathetic.’ ‘Come on,’ I say, ‘Reggie helped me formulate a financial plan that saved my life. He’s good at customising advice for people, based on their personalities.’ ‘You’re right,’ Wanda concedes. ‘He has this knack for telling you what you need to know.’ ‘Like you,’ I say, ‘only you turn your advice into cards.’ ‘Thanks,’ she says. ‘I must say, I’m glad I listened to him that time, because the shop is running perfectly, and you know how I like everything to be perfect.’ She titters at herself. ‘In fact, the business has been going so smoothly that I’ve been bored. Reggie said to me, “Angel, do you think you’re ready for the next stage of our lives – expansion?’ He means a family. I thought to myself, “Wands, what’s it going to be: have a baby or franchise your business?” I decided that the baby can wait; I want to make some serious money.’ ‘So do I,’ I say. Although one of the nice things about being a writer is that you don’t have to be rich, you don’t have to be poor either. ‘I like the sound of billionaire novelist,’ I muse. ‘I like the sound of billionaire anything,’ Wanda says. To be a writer, you surely need not be extreme and sell all your possessions, like Paulina, who now claims she’s allergic to money. Cashing up at the bookshop where she works evenings has become an ordeal. Apparently her eyes start streaming when she handles the money, especially the brown coins. I tell Wanda that I’m struggling to start writing my new novel. My freelance work for magazines only takes up half the day. I have plenty of time. What’s stopping me? ‘You’re taking on too much again,’ sighs Wanda. ‘Oh,’ I say. ‘Do I do that?’ Wanda is sense to my sensibility, realist to my romantic. While I automatically veer towards the dramatic, emotional side of the personality spectrum, my New Best Friend stands tall on the practical end. She can be relied upon to tell me when I’m sabotaging myself, screwing up, or simply whining too much. She rolls her eyes with impatience. ‘Yes, you do that all the time. Listen, Sab, what you need to do is start small. I did it, and it works. Sure, it’s wonderful to have grand dreams of global domination, but when it comes to approaching a major creative project, you must take baby steps, and take
them one at a time. Okay? You’ll only overwhelm yourself – again – if you try to sit down and write The Great South African Novel in one go. You’ve got to start being sensible about this.’ She shakes her head at my folly, picks up the cake knife and cleaves a neat third slice of chocolate cake. ‘I mean, why not be practical and just commit to writing one page per day? That’s manageable. In the space of a year, you’ll have 365 pages! Isn’t that enough for a book?’ she asks, waving her hand in as if to say What’s all the fuss about? Writing a novel can’t be so freaking hard. ‘Another thing,’ she continues. ‘Since you’re getting over a life crisis, how about writing something fun for a change? Forget the heavy, serious stuff. I think you should write that cute booklet you were talking about a while ago, Sensuality on a Shoestring. I like the title – it’s funny, it’s quirky, and I’m sure it will fly off the shelves. I could sell it in my shop, packaged with a set of special-edition greeting cards. How’s that?’ ‘Er, how do I start?’ ‘Just be yourself, Sab,’ she says. ‘Write down all those funny things you like to do. Candlelit dinners for one,’ (I blush), ‘stroking your neck with rose petals…’ ‘You know about the rose petals?’ She narrows her eyes. ‘I may not be a writer, like some of your other friends,’ (she means Paulina), ‘but I am observant.’ Plucking up the peacock feather, Wanda extends it across the table to stroke my cheek. ‘I’ve been looking for peacock feathers for my winter window display. Where did you find this?’ she asks. ‘In the Guru’s garden, after the first session of the writing course,’ I say coyly. ‘A lucky charm,’ she says with a knowing look. ‘You must have had a good experience.’ ‘Well,’ I admit, ‘there is quite a nice guy on the course. After I’d said goodbye to him, I noticed the feather on the ground at my feet. The colours were almost glowing in the evening light.’ ‘Oh my, she’s getting poetic; she’s finding signs from the universe,’ says Wanda with mock drama. ‘You know, a bit of male action may be exactly what you need. But don’t get so distracted you forget to write your book.’ One page a day. I can do that. Here goes.
Sensuality on a Shoestring First, let us discuss the gentle art of self-nurturing, for this practice leads one naturally into the realms of high sensuality. Being nice to oneself is tremendously important for the writer, the person with creative aspirations, and the human being in general. It is the most dignified way to navigate a life crisis or literary meltdown. Over the years, I have realised that when I am feeling drained, depressed, fractious, self-pitying, bitter, vengeful or merely out of sorts, certain simple activities make me feel much better. Ideally, one should build these activities into one’s weekly schedule, creating a permanent cushion against the harshness of daily life. 1. Get into bed with yourself. Life seems far more manageable from the pillow vantage point, don’t you think? There are plenty of exciting things to do in bed alone. Let your bed be your adventure. Reading is my cure for fatigue or over-stimulation. It may be ten o’ clock on a Monday morning, and others are at work, but I care not. I close the curtains, switch off the phone, and crawl into my boudoir bed with a few companions: velvet cushions, books and magazines, a mug of hot chocolate, possibly a Lindor ball or three. Incidentally, chocolate is the ideal bed food. Compared with toast, crackers or biscuits, which leave sharp crumbs in the sheets, chocolate is forgiving, melting onto the skin. After a couple of hours spent thus, I emerge refreshed. 2. Invite yourself to a romantic evening for one. I set the table with my best china, crystal and candles. After drinking a toast to myself, I savour my solo gourmet meal and congratulate myself on my culinary prowess. Later, I take a rose-scented bath, then slip into a satin nightgown and write in my journal. I have made this a standing date with myself on Sunday nights. 3. An afternoon movie. I am partial to the romantic comedy featuring a witty script, a floppy-haired man and a happy ending. I take grapes and my lilac pashmina to the cinema, settle cross-legged into my seat, and daydream of possibilities. 4. A walk in Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens. Having packed a bag with snacks, drinks, books, blanket and journal, I wander through the vast garden that I have claimed as my own. Tension falls from my shoulders as I sniff the fynbos, meditate on variations of green, and watch children chasing guinea fowl. Sometimes, when nobody is looking, I hug a tree. Yes, really. If you feel you have not been hugged in a while, take the initiative and show a tree some arboreal ardour. Standing there with their huge arms outstretched, they’re asking for it.
Photos by Anthony Koeslag
In The Presence of Peacocks' third chapter, Sabrina Bell reluctantly heads to the Writers’ Valley to attend the first session of the Guru’s...