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

Friday, September 23, 2011

Chapter 3: She Bought Me Grapes

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 …”
“Mister Harris!”
“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.)
Eve: “Yes.”
(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?

1 comment:

  1. Love your blog, it's just a lovely, happy place to spend hours and hours reading!!

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