May for December
It was an awkward way to start a relationship. David had asked her if she would be his date to the formal. She seldom wore makeup, but she said yes, and arrived a little late. They chatted easily, she caught his uncertain humour. Things went better than expected. They danced a little too close for friends, but that might have been the wine. Afterwards she spent the night in his room too drunk to drive home. It was the end of the semester and David’s roommate had already left.
“I’ll sleep on his bed. You take mine.”
“Don’t be silly,” she said, slightly slurring: “There’s no blankets.”
He waited outside while she got undressed.
“Ok come in.”
She was curled up under his duvet. Her dress hung from the chair. David turned off the light and stripped to his boxers and a T-shirt for decency. He climbed in next to her. The single bed ensured that no matter how he arranged himself he was touching her.
May turned to him smiling, said, “I had fun. This was fun.”
Then she rolled away. “Goodnight.”
They lay breathing for a while. She didn’t move.
He counted to twenty-one and then he propped himself up in the dark and kissed her. After a while she turned a little, but barely returned his kisses. He could tell she enjoyed it, but there was also something closed off inside of her. He didn’t understand. After a while he stopped. She turned away and fell asleep.
The next morning at dawn her alarm went off.
She got up, pulled on her dress.
“I have to go shower before work.”
He walked her out in the faint light between rows of cars. It was strangely quiet. She scratched for her keys. He was going home later that day, he explained, and wanted to know where things stood between them. He thought about the way she lay still when he kissed her. It was old-fashioned, he knew, but he asked her out. Her eyes flicked across the deserted parking lot. She said no one asks that anymore. Then she leaned in and gave him a peck on the cheek. “Okay,” she said as she climbed into her car and drove home before the morning traffic.
He walked back to his room. He packed his bags. Later he went for a haircut. It was a bad haircut, too short; it made him feel like a schoolboy. His father arrived, they carried his bags to the car and left Cape Town; a three hour drive home for the holidays.
It’s Friday afternoon. David catches a train from Newlands to the city. He sinks into the seat, rests his head against the rattling window. He is exhausted, but he guards himself against drifting off. Can’t be too careful on a train. He has been working. A holiday job, a two week contract – Monday to Friday he helps run beach cricket matches for primary school kids from the townships. The first week is behind him now, the away leg. The team has returned from Durban, been through PE and Plett and Hermanus and Somerset West.
The daily routine is taxing. Up at 5.30 AM. Drive to the local beach. Stand for hours in the relentless summer sun. Drive to the next town. Spend the night in a cheap hotel. Repeat; on a new stretch of sand, with a different few hundred children. No time for names.
His voice is hoarse from shouting. The children are easily distracted, they have no discipline. Who can blame them - cricket is hardly a team sport. Most of it is spent watching someone else bowl or waiting for your turn to bat. Besides, all the kids really want to do is splash around in the waves. For many of them it is their first time on a beach. Many of them don’t speak English very well. Communication is strained.
The train rattles through the stops: Claremont, Rondebosch, Rosebank.
He has a headache; he can feel the first tingles of sunburn on his arms and neck. Next week it will be the home leg: they will meet in the mornings at the Newlands office and from there go to nearby beaches for the day. He is not looking forward to it. But a job is a job. He will do what is expected of him.
He could have skipped the second leg, but he has taken the opportunity to get to Cape Town. May stays in Sea Point, a short stretch along the coast from the city centre. He hasn’t seen her since he went home. They had barely communicated since he started the job. They are both very independent-natured. Besides, May thought phone calls were cheesy. They had sent each other the odd email. “Perhaps it’s for the best though,” he thinks. The first leg was a chance for him to prove to her that he can leave her to her own devices; that he isn’t one of those jealous clingy boyfriends who have to be informed of his girlfriend’s every move, every conversation.
But he could feel the distance that had slid between them, feared that too much independence would result in a loss of interest, a brief display of fireworks fizzling out. The second leg, he decided, was a chance to make sure that didn’t happen.
Her flatmate was away on leave for December, they had the flat all to themselves.
He had called her a few nights ago all excited to tell her his plans.
“I have a surprise for you. I’m going to be working in Cape Town next week.”
“You haven’t been to the flat yet. Come visit! Cara’s staying with me this weekend.”
“Where are you staying, in Newlands?”
“Actually, I don’t have a place to stay. So I was thinking I’d just come crash at your place.”
“How will you get to work? I can’t give you a lift every morning; I have to get to campus.”
“I’ll just catch the train through.”
“Oh. Ok. Um, you know I’m doing summer school, right? I’m pretty busy. I’ve got a test on Monday.”
“Ja, I know. I’ll be at work during the day. We’ll see each other in the evenings. It’ll be all grown up. And we’ll have the whole weekend free.”
“David, I just told you Cara will be here. I haven’t seen her in two years. She flew in from Perth.”
His enthusiasm was a little dampened; he had expected her to be more excited, hadn’t bargained on a random visit from an old friend. But he would have a whole week to impress her. And he had no place else to stay; had simply assumed it would be fine, that she would be eager to have him.
He asked, “So can I come?”
A little pause. “If you want to.”
They ironed out the technicalities. He would contribute towards groceries, water and electricity for the duration of his stay, would give her space to study.
The train pulls into the terminal. “Here I am, back in Cape Town!” he thinks and walks out into the busy city. His bags weigh down his tired frame. He hadn’t planned past this point, but he is optimistic. He knew that May had caught a taxi or a bus into town when she worked for the call centre, he was assuming he would just hop onto one and be delivered to her door. How hard can it be? He sends her an SMS saying he’s on his way, does a loop of the train station. The buses he passes are all heading far out of town, in the wrong direction: Paarl, Stellenbosch. The taxi hub, the deck above the station, is chaos. Incessant hooting and scores of haggard, irritated people shouting at each other. He doesn’t recognize the names of the destinations on the boards above the idling vehicles. He receives odd looks: a white boy sagging under his luggage with sand on his bare calves. He approaches a coloured driver leaning out the window of a decrepit mini-bus, questions him in halting Afrikaans.
“Daa’s gin Sea Point taxis hie-nie.” No Sea Point taxi’s here. He spits out his p’s.
David retreats, walks another loop of the station, heads up into the CBD. The wheeled bag scrapes loudly over the gravel behind him.
Despite having been a student at UCT for the past two years his knowledge of the city itself is shaky. He doesn’t have a car, hasn’t paid close enough attention while in the back seats of his friends’ cars. The names of the roads he walks past sound familiar, but they do not form a map in his mind, no useful diagram. All he has is a message from May explaining in short sharp sentences how to get from the main road to her flat complex. Of no use to him in the city. Likewise his landmarks: the station, the ABSA building, Long Street. The cord of the wheeled bag he pulls behind him is cutting into his arm. It would take more than half an hour to walk to Sea Point. He can’t pull it all the way. He crosses a wide highway, sees a taxi driving in the right direction out of town. David tries to flag it down but he is on the opposite side of the road and the driver doesn’t see his desperate gestures. He scurries back to the other side of the highway, sits on the pavement, resolves himself to wait for the next taxi.
As the light fades the sidewalks empty. The towering buildings take on a menacing aspect. A weather-beaten man wheels a shopping trolley lined with cardboard boxes down an alley. David fights his mounting anxiety, convinces himself there will be another taxi. It has become a matter of pride; he refuses to give up, to phone May and ask her to come fetch him like some schoolboy whose lift is not there waiting for him. What would she think, seeing him sitting on his luggage in the dark wearing shorts and flip-flops? A pathetic figure. An unacceptable first impression after weeks apart. No. He would rather force his limbs all that way on foot than suffer such a humiliation.
David had become so distracted that he nearly missed the stubby white minibus hooting intermittently as it approached him. He shot up, waving his arms about, nearly ran into the road. The taxi pulls up next to him. He swallows his pride and asks the driver where he’s headed.
“Cemp’s Bay, jong.”
“Can you stop in Sea Point?”
“Ja. Get in.”
There is no one in the taxi besides the driver. They drive a circuitous route down back roads David thinks are taking them off course, but couldn’t quite tell, he doesn’t know this area well enough. His anxiety returns; perhaps he had been too trusting, had climbed into this vehicle under false pretences. The driver is not hooting at pedestrians. It is too late now though. He has no option left but to trust this man.
A minute of silence, a few more turns and the taxi emerges back on the main road. David sees the Greenpoint Stadium floodlights stick up into the gloom, can just glimpse the ocean some distance further, parallel to the road. He breathes a sigh of relief.
A few kilometres after they have passed the stadium the driver stops at the requested intersection. David is unsure how much the fare is, he hands over a fifty. The man squints at him wordlessly, rummages for change, hands him back a forty-five Rand in coins. The taxi door slams closed and the vehicle rattles away into the fast fading light.
David heads up the road. May’s directions are precise. He finds the flat complex without difficulty. It is typical of the area; high walls, an electric fence, four storeys. The ocean-facing flats each have a small balcony protruding from the wall. He hears laughter. The faces of her neighbours peer down at him. He presses the buzzer button next to the corresponding number. After a short pause the gate clicks open. He walks up the stairs past the balconies to the side of the building. Another gate. Footsteps on the stairs and then May appears behind the bars, unlocks it.
“Where have you been?”
“Um, the taxi only left late.”
“Why didn’t you catch a bus?”
He refuses to admit his ignorance, shrugs his shoulders. He drops his bags, gives her a hug.
“Hello. I missed you.”
“You’re all sandy. Hello. What happened to your hair?” It was still stubbornly short.
He releases the annoyed knot of her shoulders.
She disappears back up the stairs. He hefts his bags and follows.
They go straight to the balcony where Cara is sitting having a smoke. David is not in the mood for small talk, but this is May’s best friend, who has flown here from Australia. He will have to make an effort.
The girls make fun of his hair, May tussles it into a cowlick.
“When I went for an interview with my boss,” David explains, “he told me to get rid of ‘that hippie hair.’ This is a man who has had a crew cut since he was born.”
Cara leans in: “So you just did as he said, hmm?”
May flashes her a smile. She is joking. Or not. David can’t tell just yet.
There is some surfer movie being screened on Clifton. Cara wants to go. He is late. There is no time for a shower. May drives them.
A projector screen has been set up on the beach. People are stretched out on blankets beside the lapping waves. There are lamps dotted between them. The movie grips May, but David is sick of sand. The sunset, the mixed sound of real surf and movie surf are soothing, he nods off.
During the drive back the girls swap their own surfing stories. May was paddling far out one afternoon to catch the bigger waves when a black fin swum right by her. Another one scraped her leg. She was terrified. Then two seals popped their heads out of the water and swam off, barking. Cara laughs. David has never surfed before.
He helps May lay a spare mattress on the floor of her room. Cara will be sleeping in her bed; he will be sleeping on the floor with May. In the quiet dark David kisses May on the cheek.
She hisses, “Cara is right there.”
Saturday goes by in a blur. The three of them spend the morning at the Old Biscuit Mill, strolling through the organic market. It is busy, loud, and mildly pretentious. David finds himself wandering off. He discovers a photography shop, its walls covered in stunning prints. He remembers May telling him about art class in school; about how she used to roam the suburbs taking grittily real photos of urban decay. David retraces his steps, excited, drags May to the shop. She is uninterested, says she’s seen the place before and returns Cara. She buys pesto.
After a lunch at an expensive restaurant in Camp’s Bay they go for a drive. Then they get ready for Obzfest. May usually hates big, organized parties, but tonight she’s bursting to go. And yet.
They can hear the bass pumping blocks away already; can smell the smoke mixed with something a little stronger. A kilometre of the main road is designated as a pedestrian only zone. It is jam-packed with writhing bodies; dancing, tripping, shouting. The girls are dressed provocatively, and the night is wild. May and Cara are two little delinquents. Shots, strawpedoes, shotguns. Throwing beer bottles from the balconies. Dancing like the possessed, hundreds of bare feet pounding. He loses the girls for minutes at a time. Cara kisses dreadlocked men. He can’t keep up with their consumption. He has to carry-drag May out of a dark bathroom. And yet. She staggers into the flat and passes out. Cara throws up on the carpet. He gets them into May’s bed.
And yet all this was like some guilty pleasure. A reliving, never in the moment. Strangely passionless.
He sinks into the mattress-oblivion. His last thought is of her eyes as he held her hair back; her eyes somehow so cold, so hardened, so old.
Hangovers. A clean up. Mop. Cara leaves early to visit family.
David and May walk the winding three kilometres to the Sea Point Pick ‘n Pay. She does this several times a week, alone, twenty-two minutes there and twenty-three back carrying all her groceries.
He says, “Aren’t you scared of, you know.... It’s a pretty dodgy area.”
She tells him she has been mugged three times already. Once in London, twice on this walk. The second time she demanded her SIM card back.
“He was more scared than I was.”
The third time the man had a knife and a throbbing malevolence. She pepper-sprayed him in the face and ran back to the complex. The slam-lock and electric fence kept him out.
David has never had an experience like this. His shoes look clean next hers; those well-worn All Stars she bought to identify with the crowd she hung out with in high school. May has worn them ever since. She has walked along the coast of China in them, has braved the London underground in them too. And has run away from a man with a knife in them.
She continues, “I shouldn’t have to feel scared when I walk to the shops. I refuse to live in fear. I don’t care what the statistics are.”
“You could just drive, avoid the whole thing.”
“I have to pay for petrol out of my own pocket, David.”
Her father is currently living in London; he paid for her studies in full, bought her the little Citroen. In return she has to pay her own rent, buy her own food and clothes, generate her own spending money.
It irritated him that she had a car but walked to the shops, that her studies were already paid for. His parents had not bought him a car. He had years of loans still to pay off. And yet he was glad of the bubble world that university created, glad that he did not have to worry about rent and petrol and the price of milk just yet. For her there has never been a bubble. Her varsity life has been very much integrated into the real world. She can’t wait for the next year to be over, for her graduation, for the next step. She laughs at his reluctance.
They carry on in silence for a while, till they emerge onto the bustle of Main Road. They pass the facades of small businesses. A laundromat, an internet cafe, a locksmith. Some windows stand empty, the ones who didn’t make it. Signs advertise this space available for rent. The road is busy; he is always amazed at all the cars, at all the single occupants. He muses aloud. What reason could all these people have for being here: Sea Point Main Road on a Sunday morning? May doesn’t answer, isn’t much interested by such questions. The Pick ‘n Pay is equally busy. She checks her shopping list. They move between people and aisles adding items to the basket he has offered to carry. She is efficient, well-practised. They wait in line, pay, carry the bags out, begin the walk back.
A mundane activity. The sharing of everyday routines that distinguishes casual relationships from those of more substance. He doesn’t give voice to this opinion.
The sharing of a prolonged silence. This frustrates David. He racks his mind for something to discuss, he feels he must keep her entertained, must fend of the accumulation of ordinary moments that will make him slide into the dismissible space of “just another guy”.
An old Volkswagen Beetle rumbles by. He punches her playfully on the shoulder, chants, “Punch buggy white!”
Her eyebrows contract.
She unpacks the plastic bags, puts the purchases in the fridge and on the shelves. May goes over the slip with a pen. She calculates how much money he owes her so far. He pays her. They eat lunch: peanut butter sandwiches and some grapes. May has to prepare for a test first thing the next morning. David is exiled to the balcony where he sits reading in the afternoon heat. He is bored, he takes a catnap, he entertains idle thoughts.
Cara will only rejoin them in the evening. It is a beautiful day. He feels it has been wasted. Why hadn’t May studied before the weekend? She knew he was coming. He had pictured them lying in on a sunny morning sharing secrets, just the two of them, progressing with what they had started weeks ago. Now here he was idling, waiting for her, while she was caught up in her everyday obligations. The time he got was shared with Cara. No intimacy, no closing distance, no opening hearts.
“Is this married life?” he thinks, “Shunted to the side during obligations, an obstacle to old friends, someone to eat polite dinners with in the evenings after work?”
He puts down his book. Too cluttered to read, too hot. Stares out into the back windows across the street. May finds fiction a waste of time. She says she has never learnt anything from reading.
Cara arrives. May immediately stops studying, whips up some pasta with olives and feta cheese and pesto she bought at the market. They sit outside in the cool evening. The conversation excludes David - reminiscences over their high school days in Australia. He gains no ground in his efforts to change the topic, the girls are having too much fun. Defeated he leans back and resigns himself to listening. He can’t help but wonder what happened to this girl who used to throw eggs through school windows, shout frustration at her parents, bunk classes to photograph beggars. This is the first he has seen of her, this buried younger spirit Cara has summoned. And May has been enjoying the revival. But that familiar sense of closure hangs suspended over the conversation. A deep resistance preparing itself for a rehearsed foreclosure.
He sees May suddenly as a woman looking back thinking “I’ve had my fun.” A calm acceptance of the adult world, withdrawing resolutely into a career in the physical sciences. Her frown really wrinkles.
Tentatively he suggests that they all go to bed early, he reasons that May has a test early the next morning, that Cara’s flight too is early. May agrees with him, then ignores him and carries on talking late into the night. His attempt to acknowledge his vision fails; it is mistimed. She is quite capable on her own, thank you – is simply enjoying this while it lasts. David senses the subtle rebuke. There is no chance of falling into fantasy.
He excuses himself, gets undressed and lies down on the mattress. May has chosen. Cara has won. He feels estranged, somehow further away from her now than before he arrived.
He falls asleep to the murmurs through the wall.
His alarm goes off at 5:30 AM. He wakes up alone. May has already left to take Cara to the airport. He fixes himself a bowl of muesli and eats it quickly in the kitchen. Then he packs his rucksack and lets himself out of the complex – he only has to be at the office at seven, but doesn’t want to be late on the first day of the new week. Besides, he doesn’t know how long it will take to get all the way to Newlands. He goes to stand on the side of Main Road. A couple of cars pass, in lengthy intervals. Finally he sees a taxi approaching and flags it down. It is one of the newer models he has noticed here and there on the roads. Upgrades in preparation for the World Cup. The government expects the taxi companies to replace their veteran minibus fleets. The new vehicle has a flat-screen TV behind the driver’s seat. The taxi stops to pick up other passengers on the way. Soon there are more passengers than there are seats. David sits on half a seat between two women. The folds of their arms press against his skin. This invasion of personal space is an everyday necessity to them; to him it is intensely uncomfortable.
The taxi drops them all off outside Cape Town station. David is swept along in the plodding mass of commuters. Hundreds of lined faces and calloused hands and uniforms and liver spots. The working class moving into position while the rest of the system is still snug under their duvets.
He boards a train and half an hour late is deposited at the stop outside Newlands Stadium. From there it is a short walk to the office and the start of the second week of his contract. He arrives first; makes a mental note to catch a later train the next day.
After work he turns his phone back on, checks his messages. There is an SMS from May: “Going to Beluga’s at 5. Meet us after work.” Before he boards the train he stops at an internet cafe, finds directions, prints them out.
His initiative is a success; he reaches Beluga’s at half past five. He strides into the restaurant, privately proud of his achievement. It is an upmarket place, frequented by people with practised articulation. The decor is lavish; there is art on the walls. David’s slip-slops leave a leave a trail of sand on the crisp white tiles. He spots May amongst a group of snappishly dressed young people at a long table.
A uniformed waiter eyes David’s plain t-shirt and exercise shorts: “Can I help you, sir?”
“I’m just joining my friends. There they are.”
He slips past the waiter and goes to sit next to May, fighting embarrassment. He recognizes a few of the faces around the table. They are her Chemistry friends, mostly guys. He has not had a shower. He acts as nonchalant as he is able while re-introductions are made. Afterwards May and her friends continue exchanging anecdotes about their lecturers, methodically finding fault with particular facets of their personalities, with their teaching inadequacies.
“Sperman. Old Sperm-man. What a legend. It was his fortieth birthday last week. He celebrated it with his parents. He still lives with them.”
“Who, Prof Sperm? He can’t even read his own handwriting. Which is why every time you ask him a question he turns to the board and goes, ‘Err....’ Sperman. A joke of a man.”
Every contribution is delivered with biting sarcasm. May is in her element. The comments ring rehearsed, as if in their spare time these students sit and think up Sperman gags.
The guys are loud, vying for the attention of the few girls among them. David feels their eyes on him, on his wind-wild hair and his slip-slops. But he meets their eyes, rising to the silent challenges one after the other, buoyed by the fact that May is with him, knowing that she has her pick of these bulging egos. David signals a waiter, orders a Heineken. He sets the beer down firmly between the mojitos and margheritas and pina coladas.
He makes some small talk, but mostly just listens. He is disinterested by the conversation, finds the condescension childish and showy. Vincent asks him about his job, asks if the trains really are so dodgy, asks if anyone still uses them.
“Of course. They’re packed.”
“But aren’t the people on the trains, you know...“
“No, they’re not. They’re just normal people getting to work and back. People who can’t afford cars. That’s it.”
Vincent says he heard something on the news; something about the taxi’s striking again, threatening to shoot passengers. David dismisses him: “I just caught a taxi here. The people on the trains, the taxis, they’re exhausted after a whole day at a shitty job, just want to get home to their families. Just like everyone else. They are not running around shooting each other.”
May has heard this exchange. She really does fit into this crowd, but she hates their pretentiousness, how completely out of touch they are with the realities right outside their comfy little suburbs on the slopes of Table Mountain. May has done the same commute before. She knows what it’s like. She smiles at David, they share a moment. He can tell she is pleased that he doesn’t take part in their snobbish affectations, doesn’t ingratiate himself.
He slips an arm around her waist. They have discussed public displays of affection; both agree that it is selfish and immature and unsightly, that it just makes others feel awkward. But she enjoys the subtlety, is impressed that he is not trying to compete with the guys, that he is not fazed by their bravado. She rewards him with the odd touch, with an undisguised peck on the lips. David is pleased. He has impressed her.
The sun is setting when they get back to the flat. He showers then goes to sit on the balcony with her. Past the hotel across the road their eyes catch the last rays glinting golden on the flat ocean blue.
“How was your test?”
“I didn’t study enough. But it went well. Thanks. For not bugging me yesterday.”
His reward is a softening of the eyes above a slow smile.
He returns it. He is grateful.
He notices that he can see directly into some of the lower level hotel rooms. He nudges her, points to a morbidly obese man slouched in front of a tiny TV.
“I’ve actually seen some pretty nasty things down there,” she says.
He reads out the hotel’s tacky signboard: “Sleep-Easy. Haha! Gotta love it.”
May cocks an eyebrow at him, “More like Sleep-Sleazy.”
The corner of her lip twitches.
That night they sit on her bed and she shows him some photos. Shots of her gap year in China and in London visiting her father. That closed space inside of her is chinked a little and he is invited into that part of her stuck there on the pages.
A tilted doorway; in it a gap-toothed man grinning out from under a wrinkled brow. She really did have an artist’s eye.
“These were some of the best months of my life. But the whole time I felt like I was missing something, like when you think you’ve forgotten something at home, or you’ve left the gate open. I was glad when I got back.”
A shot from the open back of a truck, along a beachfront, sunbeams streaming through the branches in blocks rippled on sand. The colours are drained, almost to black and white.
“That one’s processed,” she explains, then sighs. “I haven’t taken a photo since China.”
“Why did you stop?”
“Studies. You have to choose.”
That night is the first night they spend alone together in the flat. It is May who turns the lights off and who makes the first moves. There is an urgency behind her kisses, but still he senses that a deeper part of her is withdrawn, she is withholding, or holding back. She is controlled, precise. And her skin is like silk but it is cool to the touch. He realizes that she is not prepared to reveal it, to bare herself more fully than this. It saddens him, but it is enough for now. She can feel his distraction but she ignores it. She moves with more intensity and with more control.
“The station’s not so crowded this morning,” David thinks. “Maybe it’s just because I left a little later.” Even his carriage is noticeably less full. But the journey is without incident, despite the train being delayed by ten minutes. He gets to the Newlands office and sets off for Kommetjie beach with the team.
They measure out the makeshift pitches in the firm sand near the water, hammer in the wickets.
There has been some holdup with the buses from the townships. They wait for the buses that do not come; some of the wickets are washed away as the tide creeps up. It is hot. They go to sit in the shade of the cars, listen to the radio. There is talk of mass transport strikes throughout the Cape: taxis, buses, trains. Rival taxi cartels have threatened violence against both drivers and passengers who don’t support the strike. The taxi-bosses are refusing to upgrade their fleets, venting their anger with riots and random acts of violence.
David’s boss is on the phone with the bus drivers, angry.
“I don’t care about the strikes! Get those kids here. Your company is privately owned - we have paid you to deliver them. You have an hour then I phone your boss.” Jabs the disconnect button.
He tells the team to stop slacking, stalks off, receiving in turn angry calls from the event sponsors. Their branding lines the beach, buffeted by the wind, unseen. The team has erected these too. It is part of the job. More important than the floating stumps.
The minutes pass in agonizing slowness. Eventually one bus arrives, nearly four hours late. The driver says that the rest of kids aren’t coming. The other buses have no drivers. His face is haggard.
“Dit gaan woes daar innie stad.” Things are rough in the city. He has taken a risk driving out here. He doesn’t say it, but he is scared of the return journey. More than his job is at stake.
They spend a half-hearted, half day on the beach. The wind is fierce, sweeping the tennis balls off course. The children’s eyes are smarting; they can barely stand in the wind, let alone bowl into it. A frustrating day for all involved. David is glad when finally he is shepherding the sandy little bodies back onto the bus, clutching their branded goodie-packs. His eyes track the retreating bus. He hopes they make it back safely. He has not yet given any thought to his own return journey.
As they are driving back to the office, he begins to worry. The roads are all but empty. He checks his phone, sees messages from a couple of friends warning him to be careful, reads through several frantic messages from his mother. There is no message from May.
They listen to a traffic report on the radio. The driver of a taxi has been gunned down on the N2 into Cape Town. Men in a bakkie pulled up alongside it and opened fire with semi-automatic weapons, killing the driver, wounding passengers. While certain services, such as the trains, are still running, the newsreader is urging caution to anyone thinking of using them.
They get back to Newlands. The team members voice their concern over David. Rob gives him his number, offers him a lift if the trains are too dangerous. Rob lives in Kalk Bay, in the opposite direction to Sea Point. David thanks Rob. He knows the offer is genuine, Rob is good guy. David shoulders his rucksack, says cheers to the team. As he is leaving, his boss grabs him by the shoulder.
“David. I don’t want you to catch a train today. We’ll make a plan. Spend the night in the office or go home with someone on the team.”
All this attention has started to irritate David. Suddenly he feels patronised, he resents all this fuss. He can manage on his own. Thank you. Mostly he is angry with May. He wants to confront her - how can she be so uncaring, not even an SMS asking if he’s alright?
“Thanks. I’ll be fine. If there’s a problem I’ll give you a call.”
He turns his back on them and walks to Newlands station.
It is past five, he boards the train that is usually full with one other man. The man wears a cheap suit and a tense expression, stares out the window. Cape Town station is eerily quiet. David passes beneath the electronic notice board. Half of the trains have “Delayed” blinking next to their names. Most of the ticket-seller cubicles are empty. Scattered groups of police officers have replaced the usual lines of commuters. They are armed, alert. David approaches an officer, asks him if it’s safe to catch a taxi to Sea Point. The reply is stony.
“Rather phone someone to come pick you up.”
David climbs up the stairs to the deck. The taxi hub is completely deserted. Just an empty strip of concrete. Bare benches beneath the rows of rain shelters. The lid of a dustbin wheels past him, driven by the wind. He walks back down the stairs, out onto the city streets, fingers his phone. He can’t believe how few cars are driving by, how deserted the sidewalks are. The situation must be far more serious than he had bargained on. He is unnerved. He thinks of phoning Rob, but can’t force himself to call in the favour, to summon him all the way from Kalk Bay. Instead he calls May.
“Hi. Listen, I’m at Cape Town station. Can you come pick me up?”
Preoccupied: “What’s wrong?”
“Have you not heard about the strikes? About the shooting?”
“Heard they weren’t affecting town. What shooting?”
She had no idea, doesn’t realize the gravity of the situation. Distractedly says she will ask a friend if he can give David a lift, hangs up. He can’t believe it.
He starts walking along the Sea Point taxi route. After twenty minutes a single minibus pulls up alongside him. He gets in, he is the only passenger. The driver is edgy, sweating, staying very alert of every car he passes. They make it to Sea Point. David thanks the driver, pays his fare and asks him why he isn’t on strike.
“My boss says if we don’t work today he’s not ginna pay us. He isn’t warried about strikes.”
She opens the door for him. He is angry. He walks into the flat like a loaded spring.
“Hi,” she says, gives him a hug. He shakes it off.
She is holding a green bottle in her hand.
“I bought you some Heinekens. You must’ve had a heavy day.”
His anger evaporates. It is suddenly impossible to throw the words he has been preparing at her. And somehow this makes him feel cheated, or cheapened – such a small gesture shouldn’t be enough negate the gravity of his objections. But somehow it is. May has casually eased away a fight; their first fight. David suddenly wonders if this is a test. It feels calculated. What is she probing for?
“I’m busy making dinner. Come keep me company after you’ve showered.”
She flashes him a smile, turns the corner.
He turns the water off, steps dripping out of the shower. He dries himself vigorously, wonders how the hours of frustrated anger have melted into affection. A chess piece on the bathroom tiles.
In her room he pulls on a clean shirt. Her phone beeps, it’s lying on the bed. He picks it up and shouts into the kitchen: “You’ve got a message! I’ll read it to you.”
She is instantly in the doorway. Steel green glare. Bluntly: “No.”
For the rest of the night she is cold towards him. He is a little thrown by the unexpected display of fierceness. He has overstepped his bounds. He has assumed that the label ‘boyfriend’ immediately allowed him certain privileges. His relationship mindset is underdeveloped, is still too childishly simplistic. He feels silly he tells her. He would expect the same from her; he too is wary and likes to keep certain things to himself.
She stands over the basin.
“I’m not wary. You have no right to look at my messages.”
Of course. Some rights must be earned, some spaces one can only enter into upon invitation, and some which must remain forever private. He is cowed. He has failed a test he didn’t know was being run, but really should have been prepared for. A careless moment.
Today it is Sunrise Beach, Muizenberg. Despite layers of sunscreen the sun scorches their skins. He can feel his ears throbbing. He realizes he has forgotten to rub sunscreen on them.
When he gets to the flat she is neutral. He takes a shower, washes the oiliness and the sand off his tingle-burnt body. He dries himself, uses the mirror to survey the damage. Bulging lines of blisters have formed along the tips of both ears. His bottom lip is swollen; there is a white bubble on one side.
They eat dinner inside; he is feeling too delicate to sit in the evening sun. May does her best to bottle derisive laughter. The corners of her lips twitch compulsively.
Chewing is painful, conversation worse. He can feel the bubble on his lip tear, the skin beneath is raw. It stings from the salt. He stops eating.
“My sides are actually hurting,” she says, full fork hovering beneath sparkling eyes. She is truly amused by his suffering.
“Don’t you have some cream or something?” he asks, feeling like a clown, trying to sound flippant.
After the meal she looks and finds a tube of ointment. It is clearly marked: “For External Use Only.” He thinks “What the hell,” and spreads the liquid across his ears, his lip, over the burst blister. He is immediately rewarded by a blinding pain from the raw skin. His lip swells up double and then goes numb. She laughs cruelly, says she’s not taking him to the hospital. It’s only half a joke.
Later that night the swelling subsides and feeling returns. He rolls towards her. She rolls away.
“Are you serious?”
David gets back from work on Thursday evening as quickly as he is able. This is their last night together. He refuses to leave on a sour note. They walk down to the promenade; drink a couple of beers she smuggled down in her handbag. They exaggerate their stealthy sips; try to bust each other as other couples stroll by. A tension slackens.
She takes a boldly visible swig; he stops a serious man walking an Alsatian: “Sir! This young woman is drinking in public. Scandalous.”
The man is taken aback; he hurries on, yanking at the leash.
May scoffs and punches him on the shoulder: “Punch buggy asshole!”
The sun sits on top of Table Mountain slanting down its warmth. David and May clamber laughing over the boulders. They take their shoes off, splash their feet in the rock pools, splash each other. David watches her watching the waves break. He realizes he could fall in love with those freckles. Dartingly May catches his eye; a slight blush. She feels like a child again today, her cares and her routines seem much less pressing than she is used to.
“This is nice,” she says.
The sun slips sinks below the crest of the mountain and a sudden coolness falls. She shivers as the ocean spray settles on her skin. When they walk back the ground is still warm and she takes his hand.
After dinner he has an impulsive idea.
“Let’s go to Rhodes Mem. Right now.”
May hesitates for a moment, thinks about varsity, then says, “Ok. Let’s go.”
The gate is closed when they arrive; it is after hours. So they park on the university campus and walk up to the face of the mountain till they arrive at the squared stone memorial overlooking the city. In the cool night the tiny streetlights twinkle up at them. They are alone. There is a hush that surrounds them and the stone they sit on is firm. They decide to stay for a while.
And under the blanket that night for the first time he feels her body respond unreservedly. Little moans.
They fall asleep under the stars and wake up with the dawn.
Far over the still sleeping city they see the Sea Point ocean shimmer – today he must return to his ocean over the mountains.
She is still holding his arm. Without words they roll up the warm blanket and walk to the car slowly.
On the drive back home they say very little and keep the radio off. There something special in the space between them. No cars, no pedestrians, it is as if they are alone and have the whole city to themselves. She flashes him a devilish smile and runs red traffic lights.
He thinks of a similar morning a month ago when she drove back home alone after giving him a peck on the cheek.
He packs his bags. He says a reluctant goodbye but he must go: she will be late for summer school; he is already late for work. She walks with him to the gate.
A hug, awkward with his bags.
He catches a taxi, then a train, and in the afternoon he is picked up from the beach by his father, who drives him back home. It is a two hour journey. He is exhausted. He sinks into the seat and sleeps for most of it.
David sits on a bench by the sea eating his sandwiches. He is on lunch break; he has been working at the book shop since he got back from Cape Town. The Christmas rush is taxing even in this little town. People are still buying books. His phone rings – it’s May. Unexpected. He answers.
“Hi! This is a nice surprise.”
The line is noisy. It’s her end, sounds like she’s in a shopping mall.
He smiles, continues, “You buying me a present?”
Her voice sounds strange, a bit choked.
“This is really hard for me. I’m phoning to break up with you.”
The filtered sound of voices and of footsteps shuffling.
“I just...No, I don’t have to explain myself. We can’t keep this up.”
Some halting words pass between them and then she hangs up. He sits there holding the phone for a while.
His first clear reaction is a mild annoyance. Her birthday is a few days before Christmas and he has bought her a really expensive gift to cover both occasions. He feels conned. The feeling is lasting.
His confusion, however, isn’t. He immediately sees why she has ended things, has always half expected it. Although overall he thought the Sea Point visit went well, might have tipped the scales in his favour. Wrong. She is too set in her ways. Like someone so much older.
He recalls something she told him just after they met. They were sipping coffee and having one of those frank conversations that only really happen between relative strangers.
“The way I see it,” she said, “is that you have two ways of achieving fulfilment in life; to have lasting happiness. One: you fall in love and dedicate the rest of your life to that one person. That’s what most people go for. Or, two: you throw yourself into your career, your passion, and become the best you can be at that one thing. Less people choose this option. Much harder because to be the best you have to sacrifice relationships.”
David had frowned at her, replied: “Can’t you have both?”
May had looked at him with those earnest eyes.
“No. Anything in between is a compromise. You will never be fulfilled. Always wanting more.”
David finishes his stale sandwiches. He has five minutes left before he is due back at work. He gets up from the bench and walks back quickly to the shop. An experiment, he thinks. Her last attempt at love before she fully embraces the cold clinical world she has constructed for herself.
He thinks about that one photo in China and then he is back behind the counter “Yes, sir” sucked again into the routine.