Drew has kept mum. Not a word, he had promised himself, would he breathe to anyone, not even to his clever Janie, because cleverness does not always come in handy with such projects. Janie is a no-nonsense person, not given to flights of fancy, and that, he knows, is why he has fallen for her. But he will not risk a discussion; there is the danger of her thinking the work childish and, although he doesn’t have a clear idea of what this project is all about, he does know that secrecy is crucial to guarding plans that are still in their infancy, to thinking things through.
Drew admits to a boyish sense of adventure that takes him back to the drowsy afternoons at high school where Mr Wilton the history teacher settled in his chair with legs wide apart to read aloud from the textbook. Then the boy drummed his heels on the floor to quell the need to escape, had to imagine a pair of strong hands pinning down his shoulders, for the voice of the man ventriloquising Fowler & Smit brought an irrepressible urge to run. His pulse quickened at the thought of running, breathless, without stopping, to the rim of the disk that was the real world where, looking down, newness would lie sprawling before him in another disk, spinning like a polished coin around the sun. Had he been an athlete he would have leapt and landed in that alien landscape: mountain ranges with high snow-capped peaks, trees burning in autumnal colours that he had seen only in pictures, colours so distant and so subtle that they had never been named. He would have been the one that got away. And all the time old Wilton was reading aloud in a dominee’s voice the sentences that had to be memorised for the examination, and that the class had to underline in their Fowler & Smit, now reduced to roughly half the history. Stick to the facts, and underline neatly, with a ruler and in pencil, Wilton said, as a mark of respect for the book, since pencil being erasable, did not deface. All marks made in a book in ink was vandalism.
Drew used five colours of ballpoint pen and an HB pencil, leaving none of the text unmarked, and as his ruler slid into angles and verticals, the pages turned into dazzling works, every one of them different. In the first row, almost under Wilton’s nose, he bent industriously over his book, and the project of turning every printed page of Fowler & Smit into something new was all the more exciting for being a secret act performed so publicly.
Fowler & Smit is of course garish, but it could be seen as Andrew Brown’s first work of art, and as far as juvenilia goes, a significant pointer to Brown’s mature iconoclasm. Drew laughs aloud at this foolishness that he dreams up in the name of Willem Stirling, the dreaded Cape Town art critic. He had once met Stirling at the National Gallery where he had just made the opening speech, and come to think of it, that was much like listening to old Wilton. These formal events are killers. At his own grand opening at Irma Stern, or why not the National Gallery itself, there will be no pompous speeches, no, it will be a Cape Flats djol, or else he, the artist, will refuse to attend. Not negotiable.
Jane keeps her distance from his world, but she worries when he larks about. They differ on whether it is healthy to fantasise. Ambition unhealthy? he queries, but she says no, it’s a matter of indecency, this fantasising out loud. If he kept it under his hat as a dark brooding secret, he would keep slim, she says, and then she lunges at him under the covers, tries to grab handfuls of what she says are love handles. Which is of course not possible since there is not an ounce of spare flesh.
Drew is pleased with himself for combining the project he has in mind with their honeymoon. It could be said that the project has brought about the marriage and honeymoon, for how else would he have justified a trip to Glasgow? Janie was not keen on being married, why couldn’t they carry on as they were, and she poked fun at the idea of a honeymoon. That’s crap, she said; if it’s a holiday let’s call it that. Anyway it will be more of a wittebroodsreis than a honeymoon. That’s all we’ll be able to afford if we go to Scotland for our white-bread-journey – pale, pre-sliced, flannelly white loaves from the supermarket with Bride’s Pride in blue logotype on the plastic wrapping. They laughed at the translation, the paucity of down-to-earth, frugal Presbyterian pleasure. Let’s not bother with marrying, Jane said, wittebrood doesn’t go with a tiara. But, Drew said, Scotland, the home of Presbyterianism, is just the place to go for an authentic wittebrood. Imagine, you’ll give them sutz a skrik, simmying in your Cape Flats bling like the Queen of Seba. Please think of your mother, he said, of how Grace can’t hold her head up in Manenberg for the shame brought on her family by a layabout artist. So in the din of mockery and laughter she said yes, alright then, let’s do it, at least marriage would please her mother. That is how their own differences are resolved, the banding together against a world that seems to them sentimental, thoughtless, conventional, and one in which they flaunt their difference.
Drew was over the moon. Yee-ha, he whooped, there was plenty of art he wanted to see in Scotland, and he also wouldn’t mind doing a spot of work in Glasgow. And so the two things go hand in hand, which is another reason why his project must, for the moment at least, be kept secret.
Glasgow, as they both knew beforehand, is hardly the place for a Presbyterian wittebrood. Even bread is a designer item of many variations housed in what looks like exclusive bread boutiques; bling is to be found everywhere; and many a kirk has given up the holy ghost in order to become fashionable bar cafés. The opulence is awesome; their cents count for nothing, and they have to keep track of each paper-thin pound note. Which is why they’ve moved to a cheap hotel-cum-boarding house in the scruffier east end of the city.
Jane is irritated with herself for expecting Drew to behave as if they are on honeymoon. Even though the wedding was a hurried registry office affair in their everyday clothes with only her mother carrying an absurd posy of red roses and wearing a crazy hat, marriage has brought nothing but complication. If they were not married, she would certainly have expected them to do things together. Now, because it means nothing, because it is no more than a convenience, she must put up with Drew rushing about the place, leaving her to her own devices. It is as Jane thought: being a wife is rubbish, precisely because you have to be careful not to behave like a wife, or rather, not to be thought to behave like a wife. Which also sounds like rubbish … Oh, it makes her head spin. She is sitting in an amazing space constructed from the backs of grand old buildings now enclosed, galleried, and domed into a modern square. The combination of old and new is piquant, and sitting in a café on the top gallery, she looks down onto the modern floor mosaic where a jazz pianist is absorbed in his playing, as if the place were not teeming with people.
Yesterday turned out to be expensive so that now she can only stare at the chocolate brownies, but there is a curious Presbyterian pleasure to be had from the deprivation, and the coffee will taste all the better. If Drew cannot be persuaded of the deliberate virtues of imposed daily rationing – he would rather run out of rands – she finds that being in control softens the blow.
Jane is as comfortable as can be. The music seems to encourage or at least legitimize loitering; after the coffee she will browse in the shops, so that I have no compunction leaving her in Princess Square. Besides, the rain has stopped and the glass cupola allows light to flood the place. Should she get bored, I could wheel in a juggler or a clown since the terraced space on the ground floor is large enough to accommodate a number of municipal activities laid on for the season of tourists and children’s outings.
And so back to Drew whose story this is: he is forced into dissembling. He has in the last two days returned to the hotel to work on the book. It would have been so much better if the work had been done at home, but the truth is that until the very day they left, Drew was not sure what he would do, what it entailed. Now he puts up the Do Not Disturb sign and pays no attention to the cleaner who rattles the door in disbelief. Some monkey business going on here – she has after all seen with her own eyes the couple buttoning up their coats and leaving the place only an hour ago, but in deference to the sign does not use her key.
The book had been a green hardback without a dust jacket. Yesterday he scraped away at the embossed title on the cover before painting it red. The title on the spine is set into the fabric, with words arranged vertically, one by one: The One that Got Away by Helen McCloy, and at the bottom, the name of the publisher, Gollancz. Now painted, the letters are less clearly incised, barely readable. It is on the front cover that he works today with a stencil to print in large capitals an alternative title: GOLD MINING IN SOUTH AFRICA. Drew feels a momentary twinge of unease: what would Helen McCloy have thought of the alteration? He thinks of the author as dead, as indeed he thinks of all authors, who, if not actually dead, are ancient and chair-bound with long white beards. McCloy will of course not have a beard, or at least not a long one. He thinks of Aunt Trudie’s, of the half-hearted migration from her thinning crown to the sparse crop of hair on her chin.
It is unease about the author that makes him flick through the pages, not for the first time, although he has no desire to read the book. His eyes are drawn to a word in italics. This is the h our we call forenicht, he reads, when you can see anything – ghosts of the dead and of the living, too, if you’re a true Highlander. For a second he shudders at the thought of seeing the ghostly author with her wispy beard, but then takes comfort in the fact that he is not a Highlander. He fills in the new title with black paint; tomorrow he will alter the flyleaf and title-page. The book is placed carefully, open and face down, in his briefcase, which, before they go to sleep, he will unlock and leave slightly open for the drying of the paint. It is time for him to go; he has promised to meet Jane in Princess Square for tea at four.
But Jane is not there and her cellphone is switched off. Jane has been driven out by a pack of hungry-looking teenage girls, deathly pale in identical white sports outfits with hooded tops, who crowded round her. Leaning against the railing, facing her, they jeered in demotic that she could not understand, and as she bent down to secure her handbag, they split their sides, pointed and shouted, seeming to demand answers. But how was she to know what those questions were? The act of surreptitiously slipping her handbag into safety had to be recast as getting ready to pay the bill, so that she left for the safety of the till. The waiter thanked her effusively for the large tip, but he did not follow her out to the gallery where the jeering girls waited. Why on earth had she given a tip she couldn’t afford? She stepped out briskly, running the gauntlet of girls, and shook them off as she made for the door. Outside it was pouring once again, and the girls did not follow her in the rain. Sugar lumps, she muttered gratefully.
The rain is by no means summerish; it does not fall gently like mercy from heaven. A vicious wind drives it in at an angle, so that Jane all but doubles up clutching her coat. She will go back to the room, to her bed, and snuggle down with a book. Drew will know where to find her.
The landlady, Mrs Buchanan, stops Jane on the landing. She is what is known as motherly, which is to say soft-spoken, kindly, full-bosomed, with rosy cheeks and fair hair fixed in the helmet style of middle-aged women of this town, no, of the world over. Jane notes her hair because she pats it compulsively, first with one hand, then with the other, and at times with both hands.
One or two days, the woman says, that’s not a problem – and Jane wonders if she has just returned from an incident with her hairdresser, perhaps a new girl, an apprentice that she agreed to let loose on her hair, and now the regret – but tomorrow, the coiffured landlady hopes, her cleaner will have access to the room. Perhaps they could decide on a time that is convenient to both parties? And now both hands slap insistently like windscreen wipers at her temples.
Jane’s look of incomprehension confuses the woman, who then remembers the cleaner muttering something about monkey business, so that she says she has just baked chocolate brownies, still warm they are, and wouldn’t Jane join her for tea? Her kitchen is nice and toasty, just the ticket for drying off with a nice cup of tea. Jane is ashamed of her anthropological interest in the woman’s kitchen and hairdo, for having scorned the motherly look since it is precisely what is known as motherliness that admits her into the warm sanctuary. Which brings a pang of homesickness for Grace’s kitchen with its bubbling pot of soup, even though Grace is anything but, and in any case lacks the layer of plump that makes for motherliness. Puzzled as Jane is by the story about access and cleaning, she notes the detail of chocolate brownies, that which she had to forego in the café. The woman then is the counterpart of the jeering girls in tracksuits, and so Jane must not resist the pattern that presents itself, the story whose cast is growing, and which is sure to throw light on the darkness that is Drew’s role, for it occurs to her as she bites into the sweetness of the chocolate brownie, that Drew must be up to something.
Drew had been researching the history of mining on the Rand for a collaborative art project with his pal, Stan-the-Man. In the special collection of the Cape Town City Library he pulled out the dusty volume, and the novel literally fell off the shelf. He had not noticed it in the row of mining books. Perhaps it had been wedged behind the one he removed? Drew could not tell. The cloth binding was the exact green of the mining volumes, and the book was only slightly slimmer than the others. The title on the spine, The One That Got Away, suggested that it had nothing to do with mining, but fascinated with his find, Drew leafed through it. On the flyleaf was pasted the lending sheet of Glasgow City Libraries, and below, Dennistoun Public Library –
Adult Department. The last date stamped in the final column of the lending sheet was 16 JUN 1976. Pasted onto the bottom of the gridded sheet was the standard information for lenders about the return and renewal of books.
Only later, after the meeting with Stan, did Drew wonder why he had, without thinking, tucked the book into his folder. It couldn’t be called theft; perhaps it was to test whether the library alarm system would allow it, in other words, whether the book was a hoax of some kind. He did not think at all of why he had kept the find a secret. Immersed in the mining project, he gave little thought to the book, but kept it like pornography – from the Adult Department – under wrap in a manila envelope. It was a good two weeks before he had another look. He flicked through the book and gathered that it was a mystery set in the Scottish Highlands. Not his kind of thing, but it was the object and its history rather than the text that interested him. What would he do with it? He didn’t know, but there was also the title that resonated, and the fiction that made him think of himself as a character whose role would become clear in time. He too, after all, was the one who got away, at least from the pin-stripe world of his brothers, the businessmen, the hollow men, the invisible men …
Occasionally, he took the book out of the envelope and browsed through the pages. A mystery alright, although sections here and there appeared to be excursions into Scottish history and traditions. The faded pages were yellow around the edges, and Drew’s nose twitched, as if foreign Highland spores trapped for decades between the pages leapt out to attack his sinuses. Thereafter he would turn the object this way and that, but try not to open the book.
Then came the business of marriage and honeymoon, or perhaps it was the other way round, since by then he knew with absolute clarity why he had taken the book. The last sentence on the library’s lending sheet read: A book must be returned to the library from which it was borrowed. Such an injunction has to be taken seriously. It is the imperative, the indefinite article, and the mode of address that targets any reader, that at the same time orders him, Drew, to carry out the task. The text speaks to him: responsibility for returning the book does not remain with the one who borrowed it. Like any traveller then, the book will return, showing the scars of its journey, the markings of travel and adventure; it should return, flaunting its history and its difference. But how? That he didn’t know until the very day of their arrival, so that he now has the task of transforming the object in a cheap boarding-house room.
Drew arrives at the café ten minutes late and Jane has gone. Her phone has been switched off, an infuriating habit that she cannot, will not be cured of. Just as she predicted, he knows that she has gone back to the room, knows that she has been driven back by the rain. He leaves a message for her – that he’ll wander about for a while, that she should call him.
Mrs Buchanan’s kitchen is unremarkable. There are the usual cupboards that hide mod cons like a refrigerator and who knows what else, as well as a large double stove. An Aga, she says, that is what she’d really like, just imagine, a warm kitchen with stockpot bubbling and loads of wee ovens to bake different things, over there a meringue in a cool oven, a casserole in another, and perhaps a nice loaf of bread in the hot oven here, all happening at the same time, and that, she says, is the beauty of it, the many things going on simultaneously, which surely must save time. Gesticulating, she loses the rhythm of patting her hair. Does Jane have an Aga? Jane has no idea what an Aga is. And what do people eat in South Africa? Jane has little interest in cooking, but she has a number of keywords at her fingertips and so does not disappoint Mrs Buchanan. Biltong, bobotie, boerewors, she recites, and then: frikkadel, sosatie – although she really has no idea what sosatie is. She passes on a tip that Drew’s mother offered, the thing that makes Cape cooking so distinctive: a pinch of ground clove with all red-meat dishes. Mrs Buchanan says she’ll try it, she’s game for all kinds of culinary tricks, because if the truth be told, people here are fed up with bland food. Did Jane know that curry was now the favourite British dish?
The chocolate brownie is delicious. Jane eats two and out of politeness asks for the recipe. Then she spills her tea on the tartan tablecloth, but the woman says it doesn’t matter. She giggles, It’s a bit of a laugh isn’t it, the tartan, but the tourist board recommends a piece of tartan here and there.
Before Jane goes she says, About the cleaning of the room … But Mrs Buchanan brushes it aside. No need to worry dear; it really isn’t a problem, and she pats her hair vigorously before adding that the forecast for tomorrow is dry and sunny, but cold, mind.
Jane does not consciously search the room, but she does wander in and out of the en-suite bathroom before settling into bed. What could Drew be up to? Again, if they were not married she could have grabbed him by the collar and shaken it out of him, but now she must be careful not to behave like a wife. She remembers the phone, and calls Drew who is on his way back.
Ah, he sighs as he comes in, dripping with rain, just the ticket, just what honeymooners are supposed to do, and he whips off his clothes to snuggle into bed.
Jane recounts the events of her day, including tea with Mrs Buchanan, but says nothing of the room that has not been cleaned. A funny old thing hey, she says, this business of ‘sharing’ your life with someone. And she lifts her hands out of the covers to hook index fingers around the word. What is it good for? she asks, this telling of the things you did, the things that happened. Why do we do it? So the telling can tame the happening, the strangeness of experience, and ease it into the order of your shared life? Like writing the essay after reading the book: Discuss the role of chocolate brownies in Jane’s day, she mocks. Perhaps if you were to keep it to yourself, undiluted, you’d deal quite differently with the dangers that breed in the day.
Drew looks into her eyes, smiling. He smooths back her hair. You’re crackers, he says. Take it easy man, things happen, or we make things happen, and the talking is okay only if you feel like it. Listen, he yawns, there’s a whole hour left before we get ready for dinner, please can we stop talking now, and hardly has he spoken before his breathing softens into sleep. When he wakes he says, You must have understood what the hooded girls were saying. No, she says, really, not a word. They just stopped in their tracks at the sight of me and started laughing and shouting.
Say shibboleth, he says, and she says, Sibboleth.
The next day it is Drew who suggests they do the Mackintosh architecture together. They visit the School of Art where she waits patiently while he examines the building in tiring detail. But at the Mackintosh House it is Jane who lingers, marvelling at the design of furniture and fabric and the simple magic of white gauze. That’s it, she says, I’m going to take down those curtains in the flat; it’s going to be all white gauze and diffused Cape light, and Drew laughs, Look who cares about décor all of a sudden. Jane has always deferred to him in such matters. Watch me, she says, I’m going shopping this afternoon with my credit card.
It is that afternoon that Drew finishes the alteration of the book. There are now two title pages: The One That Got Away, and another before it that reads in the same typeface: Gold Mining on the Rand: 1886 – 1899 by Gavin Wilton. He chuckles at the thought of old Wilton finding his name attached to a novel. With the book in a plastic bag, Drew goes to Dennistoun library on the next street, and has no difficulty slipping it into the fiction section between Wickham and Witworth. There are only two people in the reading room and they are stationed in front of computers. An attendant at the front desk is cleaning his nails. Drew nods briefly, formally, at the row of books and leaves. There is the satisfaction, but also the sense of loss that goes with finishing a project. Done, he says. He must have said it out loud, since one of the people at the computer looks up, and he leaves. The book has been returned to the library from which it was borrowed. Nothing major, Drew thinks, just a modest little project to go with a wittebrood. Before they go home he’ll take Jane to the library; he will have to think of something to ensure that she takes the book from the shelf.
We sit in the twilight, the hour of forenicht, on the stoep looking out at Table Mountain on fire. Tonight’s news says that a British tourist has set it alight with his cigarette. When the others go in to get drinks I ask Drew what he thinks. He fishes the typescript out of his bag and hands it over. I had imagined that he would keep it.
It’s okay, he says, even if it’s hardly a subject for a story. Really, it was just idle chat, just another event amongst things that happened on the honeymoon. He didn’t think that someone would weave an elaborate story around it, hadn’t imagined himself and Jane as characters in someone’s story.
It is difficult not to be offended, difficult not to be defensive. Well, it’s obviously not about you, or the two of you; it’s just that I used your project – as one does, I add lamely. I just thought you’d find it amusing to see what I came up with.
Ja, it’s okay, Drew repeats, shaking his head. Ag, I don’t know, can’t put my finger on it; I’ve always been rubbish with words. Perhaps it’s the casting into words that seems to make a song and a dance about something that was not meant to be weighty. Now tamed further in the telling, as your Jane would say. All Chinese boxes hey, where will it all end?
There is a terrifying, cracking sound of fire, and a flare from the mountain lights both our faces.