I asked Janita about THE MEMORY OF WATER, her bookstore, and her plans for the future.
Slade Harris will do anything for a story. He doesn’t think twice about jumping out of a plane or conducting disastrous love affairs to gather material for his writing. But his selfish way seems to be catching up with him: stumbling through his late thirties hopeless and a little drunk, his agent after him like a particularly stubborn strain of venereal disease, Slade has a dazzling, dangerous idea, which sets off a motion of events that will change his life forever.
It’s going to be Slade’s ultimate story, and all he’s hoping for is to survive it.
"Absorbing, chilling, funny and original ... definitely a fresh new voice in South African fiction." - Hamilton Wende
Wednesday, June 5, 2013
I asked Janita about THE MEMORY OF WATER, her bookstore, and her plans for the future.
Saturday, June 1, 2013
Friday, January 13, 2012
Monday, December 5, 2011
Friday, September 23, 2011
She Brought Me Grapes
Just as I turn on the shower I hear my phone ring. I shirk it. If it’s Eve, I’ll call her back. If it’s someone wanting money, I’m sure they’ll be calling again.
I have the best showerhead in the world. It’s the size of a prize-winning Camperdown cabbage and has fourteen different settings, all judiciously trademarked to halt copyright infringers in their soggy steps. I can choose anything from ‘Waikiki Waterfall™’ – a deep tissue massage which hurts like hell – to ‘Rain Forest™’. It has lights that blink and change according to which setting you choose. The rain forest lights are the best for a hangover; dim with soothing flickers of green and yellow, although the misty water is a bit annoying if you want to have a good scrub. ‘Monsoon™’ is much better for that. Plus it reminds me of our Highveld thunderstorms, with its hot noisy jets and bright flashes. If I ever emigrate I’m taking this shower with me. Even the floor is perfect: it’s tiled in some kind of natural stone that feels like suede underfoot. I’m trying the ‘Desert Drizzle™’ today. I like it. Despite the name, it reminds me of the eternally-saturated taupe skies of Berlin and leaves me suitably depressed. I love my shower. I tell everyone I know about it. I’ll tell strangers, if they’re interested and I find they usually are. I just think ShowerLux™ could have been a little more imaginative with their setting names. I would have more fun with ‘Prison Hosedown™’ and ‘Tropical Tsunami™’.
I find myself rubbing my temples again. My brain is swollen on Jose Cuervo. I couldn’t get my breakfast bagel down. I must stop drinking so much. A pickled brain is worthless to me.
I shower for a good twenty minutes, swapping from setting to setting, watching the lights change. The bathroom is steaming twilight. The dark fog swirls around me. I feel dizzy and then the lights go out.
I am woken by an hysterical black woman slapping me on the chest. I gasp and open my eyes. I seem to be splayed out on the bathroom floor. I touch my head and come away with bright red fingertips.
“Mister Harris! Mister Harris!” she screeches, as if someone is murdering her. She is on her knees beside me. There is a flurry of ebony arms in the air and high-pitched hysteria.
“What the …”
“Stop screaming, woman!”
Francina has always been a drama queen.
Oh my God, I’m naked.
Mid-screech, Francina recoils. I think she’s just noticed the same thing.
“Mister Harris. You slip and fall! I find you here with water pouring and disco lights. I think you’re dead.”
“Okay, okay. Hand me a towel, won’t you?”
“I think you’re dead of heart problems like Ridge Forrester.” She passes the towel and makes an exaggerated effort to look in the opposite direction as I fumble to stand. My limbs are marble. I shiver in wide tics.
“Bless you Jesus that I come in today!” she proclaims, arms akimbo. “You be dead without me, Mister Harris. And then I don’t have no job. Bless you Jesus!”
Francina has the habit of blessing Jesus at every opportunity, as if he were a great sneezer. Sneezin’ Jesus. She has also watched way too many reruns of Gone With The Wind and likes to model herself on Mammy.
“I don’t think the situation was quite that dire, Francina,” I say, not wanting to be reminded I owe her my life every Tuesday and Thursday, for the rest of my life.
I’ve stopped bleeding but I have a handsome red slash on the side of my head. Using my shaving mirror I see that it’s superficial and doesn’t need stitches. In the hazy background the phone rings. Francina stands on the bath rug and looks at me, transfixed.
“I think I’ll be alright now,” I say, as a way of dismissal.
“Bless you Jesus,” she whispers, and I am left alone.
Finally, dried and dressed, I put down some words. I can describe how it feels to be found, wet and naked, by a berserk domestic worker. I gingerly pat my wound. The pain is sharp and fleeting, like being cut by just the edge of a blade. My head is a little numb, my thoughts cloudy. Wrinkledskinbluelips. I can describe this. I can bring it to life in a way I would never have been able to do if it were yesterday. I’ve written a hundred words before I wonder what the hell I’m doing. I don’t even have an idea for the new book but I have a scene of a sad man fainting in his overpriced shower. If my MacBook were a typewriter, I would yank out the page, crumple it up and slam it into the bin. Instead I drag the virtual document into my computer-world trashcan and feel empty inside.
Perhaps I’m being too harsh. Maybe it will lead to something. A knock on the head has led to all kinds of things in the past, most notably temporary amnesia in the soap operas Francina watches, where I’m guessing Ridge Forrester (R.I.P.) comes from. That could be the beginning of something. I open my Moleskine, crack the spine and pick up a pen. Man passes out in shower and when he wakes up, he doesn’t know who or where he is. It could be interesting. Innumerable plots jostle in my head, the various confused, amnesiac protagonists elbowing each other and shouting to be heard. And then as soon as hope flickers, it is snuffed out. Amnesia is the lamest idea ever, by far the least original, hence its popularity in American soap operas where they can’t have the CEO of the major fashion corporation die again … unless you write it in a brilliantly innovative way, which has itself been done. Damn that genius Aranofsky. It’s not often that I question my talent but today I feel I should be doing the coffee run for the writers of Days of our Lives.
I sigh and twirl my pen. Francina brings in a bottle of Italian mineral water and a sandwich on a side plate, then goes back for a paper serviette.
She must be feeling sorry for me – she is never usually this kind. It’s ham and tomato on rye, with enough Dijon mustard to singe your sinuses. She must have done the grocery shopping. The cool heat travels up my nose and spikes my eyeballs. It feels good. Perhaps she thought I really was going to die. I suppose that’s enough to make anyone feel generous for a day. Death definitely has a way of kicking you in the arse, forcing you to live.
If you survive it.
I spend the rest of the afternoon smashing my already-wounded head against the wall. I try free-association, reading the paper, reciting poetry, brainstorming, masturbating, listening to Lady Gaga, flipping a coin. It doesn’t help. Poet Friedrich von Schiller had a habit of keeping nasty apples in his writing desk and sniffing them before starting his work. Auden preferred tea; Coleridge, opium. Kipling fantasized about having his own Indian ‘ink-boy’ to grind him fresh ink every day. I, on the other hand, would be happy with a burnt stick and a cave wall, as long as the words came. Writing has never been this hard.
I skydived once. I’ve been scared of heights ever since. It started well with a lovely lady-instructor, who went on to give me ‘extra lessons’ in my chalet the night before the jump. I was pretty blasé about it (the jump, I mean, not the sex. I was rather enthusiastic about the sex) and it sounds dull-witted, but it didn’t actually occur to me that I would end up so very high in the sky. When the realisation struck and I decided that I couldn’t possibly go through with it, I turned around to my lady-friend and told her. Either she didn’t hear what I said, or she thought I was joking. She threw her head back, laughed, and pushed me out of the plane. In an instant I forgot everything she’d taught me, extramurally or otherwise, as I was caught up in sheer bowel-dissolving panic. I was so shocked by what was happening I didn’t even have time to indulge in the whole life-flashing-before-my-eyes phenomenon, which I think I would have rather enjoyed. Luckily for me I was on a static line, so the cord I forgot to pull didn’t kill me. My parachute lines were tangled, so I screamed and rocked from side to side which somehow loosened them. It seemed that Jesus (Bless You) was on my side and I remember a few moments of utter exhilaration as I took in everything around me: the topographical map beneath, the overwhelming amount of sky and, most of all, the silence. I have never since heard that startlingly clear complete absence of sound. I remember saying my name out loud as a way to assert my – meagre – existence. I was definitely having a moment. It was thrilling to the toes. I wondered why I had never done this before and swore it would be my new hobby. Which was when I saw the power lines. By then it was too late to do anything about it, even if I had remembered how to adjust my toggles to land.
I know it sounds like I knock myself out a lot but I don’t, not really. I mean it’s not a thing I’m known for. At a cocktail party you wouldn’t introduce me as the accident-prone guy, or the bandaged/broken/concussion guy. I’m not the guy in slapsticks who falls into manholes and skis into trees. I don’t even have a lot of scars. One fine line on my cheek from a scratch when I was a child. A small button on my back from the tomato-crate-stake. A silver gash on one of my fingers, hardly noticeable. Oh, and I don’t have all of my teeth, not the original ones anyway. I can’t tell the porcelain veneers from the real ones anymore. I’ve been bashed up a bit, that’s true, but I’m just not that guy, despite all previous evidence presented to the contrary.
But I did have a concussion when I woke up in hospital the next day. Fractured ribs, smashed scapula and a collarbone broken in three places. A sprained ankle that took the longest time to heal. That’s how I met Eve. She came to me like an angel in the night: a beddable Florence Nightingale. Sifiso had sent her with the latest artwork for a book cover that needed ‘urgent’ approval. How urgent can something possibly be? I had just looked Death in the eyes for God’s sake.
Despite being exceptionally cheerful on all the morphine they were pumping into me, I disliked the artwork and told her so. As I was trying to check her out through the dark clouds of pain, the conversation went a little like this:
(SFX: convincing hospital equipment bleeping in the background, squeaking rubber soles of nurses on linoleum, et cetera.)
Eve (looking hot): “So this is where we are at the moment. Obviously it’s still quite rough, a work in progress which needs crafting, but Sifiso wanted to make sure you bought into the concept before we refine it any further.”
(Shuffling of papers and then: awkward pause.)
Me: “What? Is that it?”
(Everyone in the room pauses to look over at us.)
(Everyone in the hospital stops what they are doing to hear what comes next.)
Me: “Two months of work and I get this?”
Eve: silence. (Still looking hot. Red cheeks. Blushing. She must like me. I must show off.)
Me: “It’s dogshit. I hate it.” (Actually it wasn’t that bad.)
Eve: “Oh … Okay. Maybe if you could you be more precise with …”
Me: “Precise? Sure. I wouldn’t use it to wipe my arse. I think the artist should be stripped.”
Yep, I’m that powerful.
Did I just say stripped?
Me: “Whipped, I mean. Whipped.”
I make vague cuckoo gestures at my head to communicate the large amount of drugs circulating in my battered brain.
Eve crosses her arms. I am hooked.
Eve: “What I meant was, could you be more precise about what you don’t like about it?”
The black clouds are getting thicker. I am riding on pink-purple pain-laced delirium.
Me: “The writing is post-modern, for God’s sake. Avant-garde! It needs more chaos! More shaking up! Tell Sifiso I never want to use this piss-ant artist again. He has the talent of an … an … aardvark; and he clearly hasn’t read my book.”
I hammed it up a bit because Eve was particularly attractive and I thought she might end up thinking I was more important than I really was. Also, I was very high.
Despite being happily married – if there is such a thing, but that is a conversation for another day – Sifiso only hires gorgeous Girl Fridays. They are his own Playboy Bunnies in the little mansion that is his mind. Eve seemed to be the most delicious so far. I wanted to grandstand a little, fluff my tail feathers, show this pretty lady who The Big Guy was.
Eve (smiling): “That’s a shame.”
Me (caught off guard by her blazing smile): “Why’s that?” I see rainbows. Lots of little rainbows emanating from her skin. Mmm, pretty.
Eve: “Because I was really looking forward to working with you.” (Exit Eve.)
Me (under my breath): “Crap.”
Then, on second thoughts: “Can I get some more morphine?”
Sifiso called me later that day to let me know how annoyed he was. He had spent weeks trying to persuade Eve to agree to do a cover for us. She was then an up-and-coming artist who was receiving great press for her latest exhibition and not keen to do anything too commercial.
Sifiso has a short temper and shouts a lot. He’s short and shouty. Or perhaps shouty because he’s short. He likes putting a lot of emphasis on the keywords in his admonitions; he especially loves shouting over the phone. Usually editors are quite nice to their writers, but not mine.
“She’s an ARTIST!” he screamed down the phone. “A REAL artist! Not like the two-bit Corel Draw designers we usually get! I finally pull someone fantastic to do it as a FAVOUR and you tell her you’d like to WHIP her? What was THAT about?”
“I didn’t quite say …”
“You didn’t know it would OFFEND her? Telling her she looked like an wild pig and that she should be BURNED at the STAKE?”
“Now, I don’t think I quite said that …” I mumbled, hoping to God that I hadn’t. “But you need to shoulder a bit of the blame here, man. I mean what were you thinking?”
“What was I thinking?” he shouted.
Despite my shattered collarbone I was doing lots of forehead-holding and frowning.
Nasty silence from Sifiso.
“I was out of my head with the drugs! I was seeing in goddamn Technicolor! No wonder I was saying bizarre things. What did you expect? Besides, what on earth were you doing sending the artist on a run? Are things that bad?”
“Eish,” he said.
“Don’t speak Zulu to me. What the hell does that mean?”
“Slade,” he sighs, “I am Xhosa.” All I can hear is clicking.
“And?” I shout.
“And I had the courier all set up but Eve’s such a great fan of your work, she asked if she could take it in person, so she could meet you.”
“Oh,” I said. Crap.
So Sifiso sent Eve flowers and I called to apologise. I outright lied to her and said that I didn’t really remember much but, apparently, I had been rude to her and I was very sorry, would she please reconsider the contract she had shredded, burned and posted back to Sifiso. She laughed a lot and I knew from that moment that I liked her. She told me the contract was in fact still in fine form and sitting on her desk, and she would be happy to work on a new cover with us. It seemed Eve, unlike Sifiso and me, was a Grown-Up.
I’m sure she knows I’m in love with her but she’s never been that into me. She is my Unattainable. Daisy Buchanan to my Gatsby. Rosebud to my Kane. Even though I live in hope, I know I will never have her. When I have sex with other women I am mostly fantasizing about Eve. Her petite frame; her generous tits; her cheekbones; her distracted glance; her creative mind; her short-nailed fingers. I am rougher when I think of her, and usually don’t last long enough. I forget myself.
She cares about me, I know that. Even after I was such a prick to her in the hospital that day, she continued to visit to see how I was doing. That’s probably when it happened. When I fell in love with her. Psychobabblers will tell you I’m obsessed with Eve because of my unresolved Oedipus complex, exacerbated by my mother leaving me at such a vulnerable age.
She brought me grapes, for God’s sake. What did she expect?
Friday, September 9, 2011
Chapter 2: Likefatherlikeson
A few days later I wake up with a grim sense of purpose. It’s Emily’s birthday. Born two years after me, she would have been thirty-six today. I can’t really imagine it. She is frozen in my mind as she was on That Day – tangled hair, summer freckles and a milk-tooth smile – all but bursting with sunshine and promise. And here I am: limping towards forty with the bleakness that comes with age. Knowing the dull pain of the thought that I am past my prime. Some people peak at sixty, I know. It would be nice to look forward to something like that. Instead of what I have.
She probably would have done more with her life than I have with mine; had more meaning. Chances are she would have had a family with a faithful (read: tedious) husband and two little scurrilous sprogs. Dogs, too. She would definitely have had dogs. She would be like those yuppies I used to jog past in the morning with their golden labs and 4x4 strollers, who run right past people like me, who are more like the red-cheeked, defeated-looking fat man being pulled along by his huskies.
I arrive at my father’s house in Belgravia with a bottle of Johnny Walker and some food supplies from Fournos. Every now and then I do a bit of grocery shopping for him. Like me, he is always more grateful for the whisky. Grumpy, but grateful. Likefatherlikeson. I do it out of guilt more than feelings of benevolence. I’ve never been particularly kind. I just feel the guilt weighing heavier and heavier the longer I put off seeing the old man; eventually I have to go just to salvage what sanity I have left. Shopping postpones the moment I actually have to start spending time with him, so it’s usually a pretty drawn-out affair. There is always a new bottle of pickles to inspect, or a fresh artichoke to stroke. In The Godfather Don Corleone says that a man who doesn’t spend time with his family can never be a real man. I guess I’ve never really been one.
I press the buzzer on the gate. It will take him a while to reach the front door so I wait, watching the paint peel. God, I wish he’d listen to sense and get the hell out of this place. It’s so grotty. Probably not the safest neighbourhood, either.
I feel I am being watched so I look around a bit, feigning nonchalance, trying to not look like a paranoid white man. No one needs to know that I am a paranoid white man. Who isn’t suspicious, in this country, where a healthy sense of paranoia keeps you alive? Stupid people, I guess, and people who have given up. I wind my watch.
The house takes up the entire block and is fenced off with dark, rotting planks. The gaps in it, like decaying teeth, serve as an invitation to opportunistic thieves. The front door is opposite a municipal park, full of drunken sun-sleepers and litter and lazy lovers with arses too big to sit comfortably on the knee-high gum poles of the wooden perimeter. In The Bad Old Days the grass was green and the playground full of bright new colours. Loiterers would be chased away (if you were black you were a loiterer, white – a visitor). I remember the taste of the painted metal of the jungle gym, I’m not sure why; I suppose kids try to taste everything. Metallic, cool and hard, with a softer, thick paint-skin.
I ring the bell again, just in case he didn’t hear it the first time.
We used to be able to play there under the casual eye of my mother, who, more often than not, seemed far more interested in the depths of whichever paperback she happened to be reading, than in anything we were doing. She would shake out an old Transvaal Scottish tartan blanket, as if in preparation for a family picnic, then instruct us to have fun while she eyeballed her own version of make-believe. She’d flick her gaze up at us now and then for a headcount, not really seeing, but making sure we were still there.
I fell once, around the back of the house. There’s a giant oak tree in the backyard. Staunch and towering, it will probably outlast all of my family’s line.
I was climbing, probably showing off to Emily. The boasting made me feel cocky; overconfident. I don’t remember why I fell, perhaps my foot slipped as I was scrambling, or my arm grabbed for a branch that wasn’t there. But I do remember falling and what a strange feeling it was, actually being airborne. And then the crunch of backbone-on-land. Emily’s scream. Little bubblegummer footsteps taking off to summon help. Not knowing what the warmstickyspreading feeling was on my back. I thought I should stand up, so that I wouldn’t get into trouble. But I couldn’t, so I stayed splayed in the shadow of the tree. Granny was first to run out, wiping her hands absent-mindedly on her ragged apron, her eyes trained on me. She never saw the need for hysterics. Decades of volunteering at the Red Cross, two dead husbands and a near-fatal car accident made her immune to dramatics in general. A Dutch immigrant with more common sense than you could shake a stick at. But she was running.
“Slade,” she had said without alarm, “are you alright?”
“Yes,” I said, or perhaps I nodded.
Yes, just fine. Except that I couldn’t get up.
She used her cool, dry palms and swollen-knuckled fingers to feel for broken bones. Emily wailed in the background and was roughly hoisted, one-armed, onto Dad’s hip.
“Can you stand?” Gran asked.
All eyes on me, I tried again, and it worked. I must have been numbed by the shock, earlier. I remember looking down on a smashed stack of tomato crates. You don’t see them nowadays but they were made of rough-edged plywood strips held together with little nails. I had a blade of the wood wedged in my back, as if I were the victim of a half-hearted game of junior vampire slaying. A shallow wound, eager to bleed, but at least the sickening crunch hadn’t been my spinal cord.
The lock of the door jiggles. Through the textured glass panels I see the large stooped figure that is my father. Stuck behind the black bars of the pedestrian gate, I watch his mottled silhouette fuss with the door until finally it opens, and he shuffles out on to the verandah, giving me an indignant look.
“Have you just arrived?” he demands, giving me no time to reply. “Why didn’t you ring the bell?”
Does he think I’m an idiot? That I would just skulk here arbitrarily until he decides, on a whim, to open the door?
“I did, Dad,” through clenched teeth.
“Well, are you sure? I didn’t hear anything.”
Don’t lose your patience, Slade. You’ve got a good few hours to get through.
“Maybe it’s broken. Here, let me ring it again.”
I jab, with more violence than strictly necessary, at the button with my index finger.
“Can you hear it?”
“Of course I can’t bloody hear it now. I’m standing outside!”
He is dressed in old tracksuit pants and a faded blue cardigan. There is a toothpaste stain on his shirtfront. His voice shakes with indignation. I would also be indignant, if I were him. If I’d had his life, his past.
“Come on, Dad,” I say, “let’s go inside. We’ll sort this out later.”
The interior of the house is a museum. Scratched wooden floors, faded Persian carpets, Vermeers staring down at you, their dusty eyes following your movement through the house. Cheap prints of Girl with a Pearl Earring, The Milkmaid, The Astronomer. Chandeliers with their original light switches.
In the children’s rooms, huge oak built-in bunk beds as big as boats. Enough space for eight adults per room, never mind the children. In the bathroom, black and white floor tiles and a large, sloping bath on claws with enough of an angle to slide down if Gran’s feeling mellow enough to let you splash around a bit. Emily being scolded for licking the pink soap which smelled so good. God, I wish he would just sell this place. Hanging onto it like a sentimental old fool. I sniff deeply and rub my temples. The memories are suffocating.
I dump the plastic packets of food on the maroon linoleum floor and hear something break. Typical. I don’t want to get a rag and clean it up but I do. I carry the whole packet to the sink. He has laid out a box of water crackers and a tin of sardines for lunch. Sardines and vomit occupy the same little space in my brain, along with the smell of boiling tripe. My father is a millionaire but he eats oily fish out of a can as a treat. My grandparents took the whole post-war economic to heart, and my father seemed to inherit it. I would go as far as to say I think he actually enjoyed the recession. Just another justification for his white-knuckle-tight fists. I spend money like water. I think sardines are cat food. It’s 2011 for God’s sake. The war has been over for more than sixty years. It’s the age of globalisation and consumerism. Spending money like water – where does that come from? It’s not mine – it doesn’t taste right in my mouth.
It was the stuffed olive jar that broke. Not too much damage done, everything else in the packet just needs a bit of a wipe. I pick an olive out of the broken glass and pop it into my mouth. I can’t resist. I have the vague feeling that Francina is going to jump out from behind somewhere and scold me, which is what happens when I drink milk out of the bottle in my own kitchen. The olive is salty and I move it around in my mouth to feel its smooth, oily skin. I let my tongue trap it on the roof of my mouth, bruising it to release a little juice. Perhaps it’ll be worth the shard of glass I may unknowingly swallow. It would be a pretty undignified way to leave this earth. I can see the newspaper headline: ‘Famous Local Author Dies After Eating Stray Glass Shard’; or, worse: ‘R.I.P. Slade Harris (Previously Famous Author).’
I know a guy who died choking on a piece of toast; I swear I’m not making this up. He was an alcoholic and crack addict most of his life and he lost everything he ever owned, including his wife and bewildered kids. He finally puts his life on track and chokes on a bloody piece of toast at the breakfast table. Maybe that’s worse. Maybe, maybe not.
Dad shuffles in wearing his stokies. I can’t believe how shabby he’s looking. He is starting to smell like an old person. The sour scent of decay. What is it exactly? I try to work it out. Damp wool; un-flossed teeth; cat food; cheap aftershave. I give him an uncharacteristically generous smile. We have the same green eyes. His eyebrows are long and bushy, he has untrimmed nose and ear hair; I wonder how it feels for him to look at me and see this younger version of himself. It’s probably a good thing I don’t have kids. They would remind me of my decline and I’d resent the buggers. I’d probably have a lot more grey hair if I were a father. I went the safe route: I had books instead of kids.
He clears his throat noisily as if no one else is in the room. Living on your own makes you do things like that. You’re used to being alone and lose the need to be polite with your bodily functions. I’ve lived alone for twenty-plus years now and, despite years of resisting it, feel my own slide into this hermit-like comfort. Open-mouthed throat-clearing at high volume is the least of it.
Dad opens the vintage fridge and takes two clinking bottles of beer out of the icebox. For however long either of us live I will always associate that sound with him. It’s a friendly, comforting sound, like a wine-cork popping, or a gas ring being lit.
“There’s a match on,” he announces.
I knew. Of course I knew. Arsenal versus Chelsea. It’s the perfect excuse to spend time together without talking. Especially without talking about Emily. Arsenal doesn’t stand a chance.
“Really?” I ask, wide-eyed, “Who’s playing?”
That night I go to a Mexican bar in Melville and get drunk. Family seems to have that effect on me. A lot of things seem to have that effect on me. The music is loud and upbeat and there is a huge portrait of Frieda Kahlo on the wall. I eat quesadillas that make my mouth burn with their fresh green chillies and I sip gold tequila: fighting fire with fire. ‘One fire burns out another’s burning’ – I think that’s Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet.
I went to Mexico once on a journo assignment. Wouldn’t mind going back. Maybe a Cuba-to-Cancun cruise is what I need: a slow yacht, with warm sea air and crushed-ice cocktails; maybe lick a little coke off dark-skinned girls in metallic bikinis. God, I definitely need something. Sometimes I feel like I’ve done everything and that there’s nothing new out there. Maybe I’m just a bit burnt out. I signal the bartender to top up my glass. He looks wary but does it anyway. What I need is a fresh, exciting experience, one which will bring the words back to my fingers. I need to think about it; perhaps when I am sober.
Feeling sentimental, I think back to Mr. Robinson, an English teacher I had in primary school. The only teacher with whom I ever really connected; an eccentric man who wore hats and had perennially ink-stained fingers. He never took any notice of me until I wrote an essay about our family dog, Maxwell, going missing. He was a vicious brak stray my parents had adopted when they were still young and idealistic. He tore up couches, swallowed shoes whole, and attacked trembling old ladies. By the time Emily and I started school he was corpsestiff with arthritis but he tried to bite us anyway with his black gummy jaws.
Mr. Robinson used to spout writing tips at us as if we were all aspiring Kafkas. It was about writing The Truth, he said. He quoted Hemingway: ‘All you have to do is write one true sentence’. Then Merton: ‘We make our selves real by telling the truth.’ I was entranced. Money? For words? Words that had come so easily when I recounted Maxwell’s short, crabby life, and the mystery of his disappearance. It turned out that my first muse was a dog.
Phuza-face glowing, eyes popping, Mr. Robinson taught me the oldest and most controversial writing lesson of all: to be able to write well – that is, convincingly enough to make your reader feel, really feel, your story – is entirely based on your experience of what you are writing about. Many experts have since rubbished this notion or seconded it, but I know that it is my truth. I have tried again and again to write purely from imagination but I am either stuck halfway through or end up so shamed by the prose I burn it (a delete button is sometimes not enough to purge yourself of truly horrible work). And so between Mr. Robinson and Vicious Maxwell (R.I.P.) I was able to learn my secret to great writing. And experience, as Oscar Wilde famously said, is one thing you can’t get for nothing. As the tequila warms my throat under Frieda’s monobrowed glare I wonder what my life would have been like if I had not been in class that day.
I wanted to write about the tree-climbing accident; I wanted to describe that feeling of weightlessness I had during the fall. But my mother was so angry with me I didn’t dare ever bring it up again. She didn’t speak to me for a week after the accident and when I offered her the shirt for washing, hard and stained with my old brown blood, she grabbed the skin on my cheek with her thumb and index finger and pinched it: a parrot-bite.
I never saw the shirt again.
I get up off my barstool without stumbling, pull some notes out of my wallet and slide them onto the well-worn, greasy counter, next to my dinner plate. Note to self: wallet feels a bit light.
Disgrace: ‘spending money like water’. That’s where I first read it; I wonder where he happened on it. ‘No matter,’ he says. An exhilaratingly desolate scene by Coetzee at his best, describing Lurie after the farm attack, when the dogs are shot and his daughter gang-raped. Alienated beyond the point of no return, Lurie sits in a sinking plastic chair surrounded by the smell of rotting apples and chicken feathers, feeling his will to live draining out of him like blood. Coetzee describes him as an empty fly-casing in a spider’s web. The beauty. The bleakness.
I down what’s left in my glass and leave.