In 2013 I won the Thomas Pringle Award for Best South African Short Story for this story that I wrote with a mixture of love, humour and pain.
Duel over a Dear
This old codger I know said to me, he was looking for redemption as he approached his dotage. He’d figured out a way to achieve it. He would babysit for this girl he’d once known. She lived down the road from him now. With her handsome husband and their three beautiful kids. She was twenty five years younger than him and he could still remember the blush of her freckles when she had loved him. And loved him she had, he seemed to imply. Not that anything untoward had ever happened between them, he assured me. I think he did this because he saw the quizzical expression on my face. No, not that, he said. He being a faithfully married man, and she being young enough to be his daughter. I didn’t believe him for a minute of course. No doubt he’d had his bits on the side during the long span of his life. He was that kind of guy. Handsome with the plumage of intellect and charm, ruddy cheeked, luxuriant white hair always dishevelled, utterly dishonest, loud as a hailer when he laughed. But let him keep his stories, I thought. So nothing had ever happened between them, that was fine too. For whatever reason, now at his ripening age he wanted to go out and babysit instead of going out to pasture.
Now that’s a funny fate for a man chained to books. Kids never interested him, and he thought them silly most of the time. His own kid he ignored until she was old enough to make him laugh. Then he laughed with her, sometimes at her. She grew up into a handsome loud mouthed girl. She was my friend and I loved her for it. She didn’t trust her old dad, but she loved him so much it hurt to see. Once I thought I would marry her, but she didn’t want to so I left it. Better a friend in need than a title deed, or something to that effect I thought at the time, thinking I was witty to make myself feel better. She didn’t mind that I had asked. Ignored me for awhile, then we were friends again.
She went to University. The University, I should say, of Cape Town. Under the mountain. She was very clever, like her dad, and she said she was going to teach in a high school as soon as she had her PhD. I had been to university but wasn’t much good at it. Was much better at planting gardens, so that’s what I did. Got a technical qualification, ‘landscape gardener’, and started making a fortune prettying up rich people’s gardens. It was easy, fun work and it kept me in great shape. It was also distracting. I had always suffered the visitations of the beast people like doctors and teachers and my mother call ‘depression’. It came and went, punching me down, leaving me with claw marks in my brain. The mud and smells and sweat of my job were like running all the time, staying ahead of myself. That’s another reason why I liked my job so much. I suppose I was like a suburban South African ‘Constant Gardner’, ever lost in the world of my flowers until real life slammed into me and I had to stand up and take notice.
This analogy held true for me on many occasions, but most happy-sadly in relation to the codger and his daughter. For in fact, this is how I met that fateful family. I face-lifted their garden. Right from the start it was an experience. Her dad would come out from his study and watch me work and say things like the weather was hot or what did I think about politics. I didn’t give much of a hell about politics, but I tried to act interested because I liked him.
The codger didn’t say much about serious things, he rather talked about the weather or joked about people. He especially liked to joke about himself, saying that he was getting old and should be put out to pasture. That was his favourite joke when I worked for them, so the ‘pasture’ thing is from him, though it works as a literary image. I am good at literary images. I know this because they told me so at university. I just can’t be bothered with them too much. Except now there is this story to tell and so I have to start remembering how to write again. Digging and planting is good for the body, but you start forgetting words after awhile. I was grateful to the old man’s daughter because she made me read again. Right from the start she was always telling me to read more and lending me her books. I didn’t tell her that I had already read many of them. I think it made her happy to think she was educating me, and I was always happy if she was happy. I was that devoted to her. I notice that I’m writing mainly about her, but this story is mainly about her dad. I think that further indicates my devotion to her.
I worked in their back garden for two months and it changed my life because I met her and I met the old codger. I haven’t mentioned the old man’s wife. She was a strange lady. A bit younger than him, maybe ten years, and she looked eerily young even for that. Had a shock of bright red hair and eyes that, though blue, kind of flamed whenever you looked at them. I wondered if maybe it was the impression created by her red hair, or whether she was just angry all the time. Looking back now, I suspect it was the latter. She probably knew her husband was a cheating bastard. For all that, I liked him.
As I said, the main reason I liked him was that he laughed at himself all the time. And he laughed at other people, but never in a nasty or hostile way. He just noticed the small and big ways in which people can be ridiculous. Instead of that making him sad, it made him laugh. His daughter was more serious and worried about life, but she could still chug out a mighty roar of a laugh if the moment was right. Sometimes she surprised me with her laughter, as did the old boy. Once I said, about some guy in the news, well that he needed his head read (quoting my own pa) and the old man just shouted with laughter. I got the fright of my life. I didn’t think I was that funny. But he was like that, surprising in his enthusiasms.
What I haven’t explained, and it’s the most important point, is that the old man was a successful writer. He wrote detective novels and had made a fair amount of money doing it. He hadn’t always lived in South Africa. He was English by birth, as they say. Had come to South African when he had the money to live in the sun, he never tired of telling me. I got the feeling his wife didn’t like the sun as much as he did. She was an academic. She taught in the linguistics department at the University, and scared all the students there with her short temper. I felt sorry for her whenever I saw her at home. There she was outnumbered by laughter, her husband’s and her daughter’s. She seemed to have no laughter in her at all.
I don’t know why a guy who laughs all the time marries a lady who never laughs at all. Maybe once long ago she laughed. Maybe he had liked her red hair. It was certainly like a light in the room , I used to think, beautiful with its lifting curls dancing above her head. Happier than her, that was her hair. The daughter, by the way, didn’t have red hair. She had brown hair, which she wore long and sometimes it was straight and sometimes it curled. Since I never saw a hairdryer in her untidy room I came to the conclusion that her hair was somehow moody (that must come from the mom) and that was why it changed all the time. I liked that so much about her. When I came to see her I would never know whether her hair would be straight and sleek, or curly and a bit flyaway. When Cape Town is misty in winter, then it is especially difficult for curls to hide themselves. That was when hers’ came out in their glory, and we would go and drink coffee or hot chocolate down the road from her house, across from a bookstore, and argue about things. Whatever we were saying, I was noticing her beautiful hair. But there I am, talking about the girl again.
The story part of all this started one day when I was working for them. It was a Tuesday morning. April in Cape Town is the best month. It’s the best time for digging up gardens, when the winter is coming and you can hide the seeds in the ground and see what comes up in Spring. And it’s the best time for light. The light is silvery, it hovers above the ground, yet at the same time it seems sunken deep into everything. Green is somehow greener in Autumn here. Well, Arcadian rhapsodies aside, I felt really happy that day. I knew that later the daughter would pop around to the house after university and chat to her dad. Then maybe she would come out and talk to me and offer me tea. As I set about digging into a bed, noticing the strange tumours of white sand amongst the rich earth that came down from the mountain, I heard the old man laughing. It was a particularly loud burst, like machine gun fire, although that analogy has its obvious limitations. I stretched my back and looked around. He was coming out the backdoor into the garden carrying a drink and reading a magazine. It seemed early to be drinking. I noticed that he was a little unsteady on his feet. Maybe he wasn’t as happy as he sounded. I went over to him and stood waiting for him to take some notice of my presence. Drunk or sober, he was fun to be around. He eventually looked up at me and smiled. Then he said that he was old. Just that. I realised I didn’t have much to say in response. He didn’t seem all that old to me. Maybe sixty five. Maybe even younger. He patted his stomach and said he was getting fat. Then he giggled to himself. I thought that this was turning into some kind of private moment where I didn’t belong so I turned to walk away. But he said, after me,
‘Look at this. I found it this morning in a book of mine. From an old friend.’
I turned back a little unwillingly. Much as I liked him, I didn’t feel that it was right for him to get too sentimental in front of me, or to start showing me secrets. I worked for him. More to the point, I fancied his daughter. There might be a conflict of interest here.
He was holding out a card in his hand. It looked careworn, like it had been much handled. It looked secret too, somehow, in the way that inanimate objects sometimes do. You just know they’re not to be seen. I was right then, there were revelations coming. I had to admit that I could not help feeling interested. I sauntered back. He handed me the card.
It was a postcard. It had a silly cartoon on the front. I didn’t get the joke. On the back it said, in a woman’s sprawling hand, ‘thank you.’ And then ‘with warmest regards’. The name was hard to read. I felt disappointed and relieved at the same time. Not much of a story here, then. The old man was watching me. He took a slug of his drink and giggled again.
‘I liked her. She was a great girl. She edited my first book. We used to spend hours together, working on the book. But I never found out anything about her, she kept it all to herself. I respected her for that. I sent her flowers after the book was published. But she didn’t want to work with me anymore. I never understood….but she sent me that card. I thought about it for ages after. Ages.’
‘Thought about what?’
‘What she wrote. With warmest regards. Played those words over and over again in my mind. What do you think she meant?’
I looked down uncertainly at the old man. His head had come out in beads of sweat, no doubt from the brandy. He eyes were oily and a bit protruding. I thought he looked like he wanted to cry. I’d expected more, somehow. Now I had to think fast to make him feel better. I said what seemed obvious.
‘She must have liked you.’
He giggled again.
That was all he said. He went inside later and I didn’t see him for the rest of the day. It turned into a shitty day. The weather turned bad, and his daughter never came to visit. But I knew something then about the old man. He liked women, and he had stories to tell that he didn’t put in his detective novels. I wondered about that as I drove home that evening, in the spurty Autumn rain.
After that day two things happened. Firstly, I became better friends with his daughter. She started hanging out with me in the back yard, smoking and talking about life in general. We made each other laugh and she said she liked the way I looked when I worked. I was flattered and made sure that I flexed my muscles or worked shirtless when she was around. Secondly, her pa started acting like he and I shared a secret. He would come watch me work when no one was around, and we’d talk about the cricket or how stupid the politicians were. Even though I hated politics I found myself keeping an eye on the news so I could follow his jokes better. Underneath all our talk though there was something else, and I could just about put my finger on it. It was a hankering to tell me things that were on his mind. For some reason though he could never get past the jokes and the silly comments, or offering me coffee or gossiping with me about his fat publisher who shouted at him over the phone all the time. I was happy about this. I didn’t want to know things about the old man that would interfere in my friendship with his daughter. So I kept to the coffee and the fruitless conversation, and enjoyed it for what it was, just hanging out.
But then one day he told me that he had seen the girl with freckles in the supermarket. That was when he had had the idea about the babysitting. He knew where she lived, he said. He would go offer his help. He could sit and watch television whilst her kids slept. He didn’t mind that, he said. They were all toddlers now, one was even a kid of almost six. So they didn’t need nappy changes or anything. It would be a form of redemption, he said.
I didn’t understand him for a single minute. How could babysitting a pile of kids make up for your sins? And what did he need redemption for? I didn’t ask this, just listened to him talk about her. She’d put on weight, he said, but she still made him laugh. I asked him who she was. He shrugged and said, just a girl he’d known once. Women again, I thought. He said that she was happily married to her husband, whose name was Kevin. He said he hated the name ‘Kevin’. This was where I smelt danger. If he didn’t like poor Kev, it probably meant that he was lying as usual and that his feelings for Freckles were less than pure. It was time for me to step up, I thought. Man to man. Feeling a little self conscious, I ventured the opinion that this babysitting idea was off somehow. He seemed genuinely puzzled by my words. In retrospect, I think that was more because for the first time I’d uttered an opinion in contradiction to him instead of just laughing along with his big persuasive jokes. He hesitated, then did one of his dismissive snorts where he crossed his arms and shrugged his shoulders and blew out his chest all in one loud movement.
‘Well,’ he said, ‘it’s better than being put out to pasture. I’ll babysit in my old age. Better than nothing, and it’s nothing in the end.’
I lost my nerve at that point. Who was I to tell him what to do. I thought it was a bloody stupid idea, but he was probably just joking. The seriousness I was sensing in him had nothing to do with the babysitting. That was about him being sad, and he’d seemed increasingly sad of late.
That was about the end of it, I thought. My job was finished at their house. I went on to other jobs. Luckily for me, I still saw his daughter quite often. The marriage/rejection incident was still to come, and so I lived on in blissful hope, in the love equivalent of an Indian Summer.
The rest of this story I can only tell through hearsay and piecing things together. Some of it I heard from the old man himself, and some of it I picked up from the newspapers. The rest I’ve adequately imagined, sometimes over and over again. It isn’t too hard to picture the scene. I’ve taken the time to write it out with care.
So, the old Codger offered his services as babysitter to his freckled friend. She, being the courteous and sprightly figure that he had made her out to be, accepted his offer with aplomb. And apparently with a torrent of witticisms about the redoubtable heart of suburbia and its dead ends and dormancy. Maybe he should have read that as a warning, but he pushed on, no doubt by now teased by the pleasant thought of seeing her in her natural habitat and then getting to snoop through her things. I know he was going to snoop through her things because he had said as much when we were kicking the idea around together. Not snoop in a nasty way, as in rifle through her bedroom drawers or something sinister like that. Rather just take a peek around to see what they ate, what was in their study, what they read, what was on their walls, you know, to get a sense of their life together. He liked knowing that sort of thing. I imagine it helped him when he wrote his claustrophobic detective novels full of dissolute old men.
The great night came. He went over to their house in his best blue shirt and jeans, looking casually fine, he thought. She met him at the door and introduced him to the kids. The husband was a bit sour, dressed in a starchy shirt and looking restless and freshly showered. It was winter and a fire was lit in their roomy lounge. My codger made embarrassed small talk with the grumpy husband, whilst Freckles put the kids to bed. They showed him where the drinks cabinet was and then left. He mooched around for awhile, discouraged by the predominance of generic art on the walls and the piles of cheesy women’s magazines lying about. He had remembered Freckles as a burgeoning intellect, not some pool-cleaning housewife. The kitchen had that frozen quietness that clean kitchens often have, and he helped himself to the colourful sweets in a bowl. Their purpose turned out to be decorative because they were glass. He almost chipped a tooth and cursed at the artifice of it all. He went into the guest bathroom and saw to his horror that there was a doily on the back of the commode. Feeling thoroughly nonplussed, he sought solace in the drinks cabinet. What a life these young women chose, he thought, they started out as ‘Suzanne’ and they ended up in suburbia surrounded by doylies. He scratched through the cd’s looking for a glimmer of taste, and found Bob Dylan. Mollified, he settled in front of the fire to drink and listen. At that point Freckles returned.
She came in flushed and a bit stuttery. She had a cold, she said, and was feeling awful. In a flash the doilies and the magazines vanished before his eyes. He leapt up and began preparing a mighty flagon of brandy, such as his mother had administered to his colds when he was a child. She was grateful and drank it down, all the while bemoaning the horror of the boring function she had been at. It had been full of accountants and lawyers and their tedious wives, and she had accidently sneezed on one woman who had been unforgiving about it and had made her want to cry. She was fed up with the lot of them. The brandy had opened her mouth and her nose, which streamed in a most becoming way, my codger thought. He offered her his hanky and said she could have it, and then she started to cry, and laugh, and he turned up the music and they began to reminisce about the old days when she had been a student and he a younger man. Who knows, maybe her crush came back, and she started to feel that silly nonsensical but sensual feeling that certain kinds of older and powerful men can inspire in the hearts of maidens everywhere. Perhaps she merely remembered less bland and tedious days, and became lost in the moment with this funny charming man who had always made her laugh so, and still did. Whatever the reason, when he asked her to dance she agreed, and they began to move awkwardly together in front of the scampering fire. My codger can’t dance, and she was a little drunk, so it probably wasn’t terribly sexy, but it must have been sweet in its way: the old man flushed and sensuous with his remembering Suzanne in his arms. When the song ended, he reached down and picked up the brandy to refill her glass. She stepped in close to him to accept the offering, and he, excited and abashed by her pretty closeness, knocked the bottle against the side of the glass and spilled a great deal of the brandy over the great tufty bunches of dried flowers that were arranged on the one side of the fireplace. At once the fire made its hungry leap. The dried flowers (whose hideousness my codger had noted on entry) burst into flame. Disorientated and horrified, Freckles and the codger stepped back in shock. Alcohol and dried flowers are a highly flammable combination. Within minutes the front room was wreathed in flame. Sense returned and they ran upstairs to get the children. By the time they were outside on the front lawn with the three crying kids, the alcohol in the drinks cabinet had exploded and the front room was burning fiercely. Neighbours were pouring out of their houses, and cell phones were coming out. The husband was summoned, as was the fire brigade. In mere minutes their very private scene had splattered into high drama on the front lawn with a crowd of gawking onlookers. And then the husband arrived back. Kevin, Kelvin, Cameron, the codger couldn’t remember his name but there he was striding like a maniac across the lawn, shouting at Freckles and making menacing motions at my codger.
In the meantime the fire brigade arrived. My codger stood there as if possessed by the spirit of Lot’s Wife. The newspaper reporter (whose aunty happened to witness the whole thing) even used the word ‘transfixed’ to describe his demeanour. The house was burning. The husband was shouting at Freckles, and maybe in the noise the codger thought he was remonstrating with her over her infidelity that night, but instead the word ‘insurance’ and again ‘insurance’ was heard most insistently above the roar of the blaze. Hubbie didn’t even notice that fast fading flush under the freckles, that last romantic pirouette smile gone to rest for good.
And the codger….there was Kev, there were the cops, there were cups of tea, there were cameras, there were the neighbourhood courtiers of this high drama…and suddenly it happened. The dog, to his chagrin trapped behind the chained backyard gate, had finally broken free. He had witnessed the whole thing from beginning to end. The arrival of the codger, the snooping, the courting, the dancing, the fire, the razing and the raging. No one had asked him, though he’d barked his lungs out. Now he’d broken free and he charged, with all the will and power of his doggy moral loyalty to Kev and country. He went straight at my codger. A straight line from zero to zenith. With all the outrage of his broken home and smoking den, he drove his teeth into the codger’s Achilles heel. Straight through skin, bone, tendon. The old man cried out in agony above the roaring flames and sank down into a pile of legs and arms on the lawn. His face he pressed into the wet dewy grass to the stifle the pain and then he tasted the cold earth and felt still the heat from the rising pyre of the house and heard the cries of onlookers and of Freckles. He blacked out to the sound of Kev shouting ‘insurance’ and the dog barking joyously at its outright victory. He was still thinking about Freckles, even then.
I visited him when he came out of hospital a week later. They’d had to reset the whole foot and he would walk with a limp for the rest of his life because his Achilles tendon was basically now like a string of overcooked spaghetti. He told me his version of the events and left the rest to my imagination. I handed him the flowers I had stolen for him from the garden I was working in and we smoked some cigarettes together. It was a new habit of mine, taken up in solidarity with his daughter. He didn’t have a whole lot left in him to say. But suddenly, as I left, he began to laugh with his whole stomach and his face was creased up in sad wrinkles of mirth. I asked him what it was, and he said, still chuckling like a steam train pulling out of the station, that only once they had sewn him up as best they could, had he found out that his dog nemesis’s name was Tycoon.
© Lauren van Vuuren 2010