Keeping Bad Company (Chapter Two)

November 3, 2009

Although she did her best to maintain a dialogue with Auntie Claire over the next ten years, the girl squeezed uneasily into the vestments of womanhood without the support of her old mentor.

The clamor of hormones deafened reason and the fading reflection of Auntie Claire wobbled uneasily before breaking up in the waters of Nepenthe. Surely she would have advised that marriage and motherhood at nineteen was no escape from a tyrannical father, nor a drug to dull the ache of abandoned dreams.

Then along came Nerina, brimming with life and sympathy; a mentor for all seasons.

#

When the woman’s husband enlisted the help of her parents in their divorce proceedings, she felt betrayed on all fronts. That her husband would endeavor to get custody of their little boy was expected; she had been warned. Her parents’ collusion was not all that surprising either. From the beginning of their marriage, her hapless spouse had appealed to them whenever his general impotence reached critical mass. He could count on them to shake their heads and mournfully agree that she was incorrigible and had been so from the time she started to talk. If her mother was to be believed, and she had indeed spoken her first words at six months, her parents had endured a long road of bewilderment and humiliation.

Her husband was sixteen years older than she. It was inevitable that she should feel like a child, guilty and helpless in the face of adult censure.

Her husband said, “I told you what would happen if you left.” Her parents said, “You have made your bed, now lie on it.”

By the time the case went to court their amassed armory held three lethal weapons. The first, a poisonous fabrication; an affidavit that had been obtained from their former maid, a middle aged Malay woman who had never much approved of her. There were times when the older woman would cease her clattering of pots and utensils in the kitchen and silently listen to the new wife helplessly crying with the baby, fearing she was being a terrible mother and not knowing how to fix it. But she never abused the baby and the Malay woman must have been compensated generously for swearing that her young mistress neglected to feed the child and on occasion, hit him.

The second weapon, a curdling humiliation, was the presenting in evidence of her journal of very personal poetry. She had no idea that her husband knew of its existence. But the third weapon, supported by very concrete evidence in the form of two “love” letters contained their trump card; “Keeping Bad Company.”

These two seemingly innocent declarations of unrequited devotion were to prove more damning that that scarlet letter pinned to the gown of Hester Pryne.

#

All three weapons presented convincing proof that she was an unfit mother (the affidavit), of unsound mind (the poetry), and an amoral degenerate whose lifestyle threatened to put the child in danger. The Bad Company was populated by homosexuals and foreign sailors who would no doubt abuse the child. As far as the venerable and upstanding lawyers were concerned, there was no distinction between alternate sexual preference and pederasty.

The fact that her husband was an alcoholic and addicted to various other stimulants was attributed to the stress of his business obligations, and even her own lawyer neglected to bring it up. The lawyer, (a patient of her father’s brother–the family had a tight hold on the reigns) had read the journal and thought she was pretty crazy, himself. He exerted himself to the extent of obtaining physical custody for her parents. At one point in the proceedings, as she sat in his office on the other side of his lake-sized Stinkwood desk, he opened her journal at a pre-marked page and gazed at her patronizingly over his heavy horn-rims. “Actually, this one’s pretty good.”– A literary critic. She resolved never to write another word. The act of writing became ineluctably linked to draconian punishment and degradation.

She appealed for help to Owen Williams, theatre and bona fide literary critic for The Cape Times, her self-appointed mentor and the only person to have ever read any of her pathetic attempts. He encouraged her either because of seething lust, or because he genuinely believed she had some talent. Because he was a frequent afternoon visitor to her home and the child was invariably with her, except for the times he stayed with his grandparents, she begged him to make a statement attesting to her diligent parenting. Owen swayed on his feet and blinked in distress. He maintained a state of constant and stupefying inebriation throughout his waking hours. He managed to stay upright, but only just, at all hours of the day. The fact that he managed to drive himself around and had not yet killed himself was a miracle, and a testament to the rumor that God protected drunks. His habitual stutter became more agitated than ever as he tried to weasel his way out of this one. He tucked his barely-covert lust back under wraps, and stammered that he “could not interfere”.

As usual, when things got this bad, she escaped to Pepys.

#

She was standing in the street talking to her neighbor, Yvonne Bryceland when Nerina came striding down the Cliff Road on her impossibly long legs like an avenging Amazon, ready to tackle anything; life, the beach, every waking hour and new acquaintances. Yvonne was just beginning to gain recognition as an actor. Her roles in Athol Fugard’s plays were putting her as well as the playwright well in the forefront of the theatre scene. The two actors greeted each other with dramatic cries of “Darling, how lovely!” and fond kisses. Holding hands, they leaned back and gazed on each other admiringly for a long moment, then turned their attention on the bystander. When Nerina was introduced to the new young woman she immediately grabbed her hands and kissed her roundly. “Darling, darling, how perfectly lovely too. Where have you been hiding? We must introduce you to everyone. You must let me take you to a party right now, now, now. I’m on my way to a braai at Pepys.” Tucking her new friend’s arm in hers, she hauled her off.

As they strode down Cliff Road, the bemused younger woman snuck sidelong glances at her new mentor and tour guide, who kept up a running commentary of observations and instruction. Nerina had the face of a Byzantine bishop, gaunt and aesthetic; her heavy lidded eyes were outlined in black liner, her aggressive jaw belied the brazen slash of crimson paint that highlighted her wide and narrow mouth. The cosmetics did nothing to relieve the stark severity of her face; she could have been taken for a transvestite if only she looked more feminine. Where transvestites swanned, Nerina strode through life. Where the drag-queens simpered, Nerina barked forth directions, anecdotes and advice in a parade-sergeant voice, habituated to quelling the transgressions of adolescent boys (she was a school-teacher).

Nerina looked like three women in one. Her face, torso and legs inhabited space in bewildering contradiction; her masculine features in stark contrast to her flagrantly sexual body and surprisingly delicate legs. Her magnificent breasts were served up high and proud on an elevated ribcage beneath swimmer’s shoulders. There was virtually no definition between her waist and boyish pelvis. Her legs were unimaginably long, slender and beautiful, almost fragile-looking in contrast with her imposing torso, giving her the appearance of a large stork. Then her prodigious intellect confounded the total, administering yet more cognitive dissonance to the awesome phenomenon that was this pre-feminist force of freedom. The numerous “darlings” that peppered her every sentence did nothing to soften her forcefulness, and only spiced up the impact.

Nerina lost no time in imposing her influence. She bemoaned the fact that the young woman’s name did not suit her at all. “Don’t you have another name, darling? If you don’t we must find one for you, more suited to a Pepys’ party”. Five minutes after meeting her, Nerina was already making her over. The by now dizzy young woman admitted that she had a first name, never used as her mother has deemed it too ponderous for a baby, and had taken to calling her by her middle name. Nerina instantly approved her first appendage which was considerably more dramatic, and in her estimation, a vast improvement; not ponderous at all. She cried enthusiastically, “Really, darling, much more you. ‘Davina darling’. It’s perfect!”

From that moment she became “Davina, darling!”- Never just “Davina” and never without an implied exclamation point. Like any initiate into a mystery school or sect, renaming was a priority. Nerina just swept into her life on that Saturday afternoon during the summer of nineteen fifty nine, claimed her, renamed her and started her education in a world as alien to middle class morality as Henry Doolittle on Ecstasy. From that first Pepys’ celebration she was to live in wildly disparate worlds, with a different name and separate persona for each.

#

She had heard of Pepys — who hadn’t? — but had never been there. At this, her first Pepys’ party, South African lobster, (crayfish), potatoes and assorted salads were being prepared for the main course by their hosts: Hansel, a slender blond German with unnaturally moist red lips and an excruciating accent; Michael, a huge blond Afrikaner, with a boiled-looking sunburn and a mop of babyish curls; Ciccio, a truly flamboyant Jewish queen, who had spent one memorable vacation in Portugal, and returned with this new name, “Cyril” having been relegated to the bitter past with his family in Paarl, where they all moldered in rural stagnation.

Several young men in white were scattered among their more colorful hosts like peppermint patties in a mélange of jelly beans; the visiting sailors. They were destined to be dessert. Nerina, Hansel and an Italian-speaking young man acted as interpreters. The rest of the gay boys were there to inveigle the seamen out of their uniforms and into borrowed swimwear, the skimpier, the better.

The stronger swimmers, hosts and sailors, were encouraged to dive off into the freezing sea and pull crayfish off the underside of the rocks. A fire was built near the edge where a huge barrel of sea-water sat steaming, ready for live crayfish and dozens of potatoes. There is really nothing as delicious as crayfish and new potatoes cooked in sea-water. Sea food washed in fresh water is a travesty.

Potatoes were slathered in butter, mildly inebriated sailors slathered in sun-tan oil, and an endlessly repeated Johnny Mathis record replaced by Tito Puente. An atmosphere of carpe diem and come- what- may held sovereign rule well into the night.

#

Because the baby was spending the weekend with his grandparents and her husband had been sitting on their balcony drinking Tuborg with a particularly obnoxious colleague since early morning, working his way to a deeper tan and sweaty catatonia, she lingered on and on, until the party faded into the oncoming sunrise.

Nerina was nowhere to be seen. Three sleepy women were arguing about a proposed Sunday excursion in somebody’s boat. A slender girl with long blonde hair and delicate features was insisting that no men were to be included. “They stand up and rock the boat, and they pee over the side!” Unconscious bodies of visiting sailors were scattered on the floors of open apartments and out over the rocks like a vanquished army.

She sat alone on an outjutting rock, feeling suddenly fragile and shivery. There was something about the slowly breaking day, silvery light skating over a flat sea, that unnerved and distressed her. Dawn stuck in her throat like an omen of sorrow to come. The prone bodies, scattered like broken toys, detritus of the dead bacchanal, offered insult to the pristine flush of daybreak, like a scattering of acne on a flawless face.

A young man, naked but for a pair of borrowed briefs, still wearing his round white hat over an ear, sat immobile, gazing out to the horizon with glazed and unblinking eyes as if he could conjure up a mirage of home from the light glinting off the water.

For a moment she felt homeless too; homeless and hopeless. The enviable luxury of her beach-front living space, provided by a man who was nothing if not upwardly mobile would have brought unbridled bliss to any card-carrying Jewish Princess, a role she had scorned, membership in a club that would never have her anyway.

She pulled herself to her feet and climbed the steps to the Cliff road, turned right and set off to the beautiful flat perched over Clifton’s First Beach. She resolved to return to bed earlier in the future and escape the weight of dawn. In order to preserve the celebratory high, one must leave before the end.

When she reached her front door, she discovered that her husband, stirring into consciousness at some late hour, and finding her gone, had, in justifiable wrath, set the chain on the front door, effectively barring her entry.

The smoldering coals of her depression ignited. She crossly contemplated the fact that he had suffered no anxiety at her absence and had condemned her out of hand. She was outraged at being treated like an errant teenager. That he was correct in his assumptions and she was behaving like an errant teenager, made no difference. She was suddenly furious. He was behaving like her father, and she had married to escape her father. Adrenalin rushed through her sleep-deprived veins like hot caffeine. The kitchen window was unlatched and she forced it open, stepped on a pipe and pulled herself up and through, then ran to the door that opened onto the interior, only to find that he had locked that too. By now her blood was pounding in her head and the combined forces of temper and guilt had her shaking. Hanging along one wall, in shining wedding- gift splendor was a row of chef’s knives, among them, a meat ax. The vicious pleasure she derived from chopping the lock out of the kitchen door was almost orgasmic. When she wrenched the door open, panting, sweaty and triumphant, her hung-over spouse stood in the passage way, squinting in pain, arms hanging helplessly at his sides. War was declared.

#

Nerina became her mentor and role model. Nerina’s reputation came before her. Not to mention her usefulness. Nerina had had been a huge help three years before their meeting.

The final year of high school had presented two major challenges in the form of mathematics and the Afrikaans language. Her family was still insisting on a matriculation score that would meet the requirements of Medical school, the family profession. Dance, her real passion, was a laughable non-option.

Nerina was famous among the matriculating English speakers as a provider of a sure-fire antidote to failure in Afrikaans literature. The granddaughter of a defunct prime minister of South Africa, she was a polyglot phenomenon. The only female member of the staff of the prestigious St. George’s Grammar School for boys, she was also an actress, a playwright and had translated into Afrikaans the works of Shakespeare, Chekhov and Ibsen, to mention only a few. She had provided for matriculating private students a number of book reports on the obligatory Afrikaans book list. The boys lost no time in sharing these with friends and selling them to acquaintances. A brisk business in Pass-Afrikaans soon spread to the girls’ schools. Nerina’s essays, designed as templates or simply rough examples were summarized or blatantly plagiarized throughout the Cape Province. The fact that no-one was caught or taken to task became a historical mystery as fraught with controversy as King Richard’s implication in the death of the Little Princes. The various teachers, principals and even school inspectors were rumored to be in collusion in the attainment of good results in English –speaking schools. Everyone wanted to believe that South Africa was bilingual and happy to be so. (The Soweto uprising of African schoolchildren against an enforced Afrikaans language curriculum was more than a decade in the future). The truth was probably a lot more mundane; ignorance, stupefied boredom and disinterest on the part of the bureaucracy.

Now, less than three years out of school, having successfully passed Matric, she was miserably failing marriage and motherhood. Escape from the tyranny of her father’s rule lead not to freedom, but to a new form of imprisonment. She married the second man she dated. For a girl who had never been allowed out much, and never after ten thirty PM, an older man who bore the sobriquet of “Where’s- The- Party- Issy”, had an attractive European accent, a face like Tyrone Power and sang “Volare” out loud and everywhere, proved to be an irresistible suitor. His thirty-six years of stubborn resistance to commitment was conquered by her stubborn commitment to virginity. Her mother’s promise that her wedding night would be glorious if she came to it intact was unfulfilled. There were no bangs and only muted and disappointed whimpers. She felt guilty and miserable and suspected that God was punishing her for all the successful self-pleasuring she had done since the age of four.

She was ill-prepared for the kind of socialization that was expected of the wife of a businessman. The wives were all at least a decade older and stupefyingly boring with their babies and birth-control, recipes, weekly hairdo’s and covert competition. Endless cocktail parties to promote business deals had the women bitching and gossiping on one side of the room, the men drinking steadily on the other. Her husband was a sloppy drunk and an indifferent lover. Practice did not make perfect. She had come to marriage as inexperienced as a Victorian maiden, and now her rage and frustration knew no bounds. By the time her baby was born, less than a year after the wedding, a month before her twentieth birthday, she slept in a separate room. She had no idea that sex could be fun before Nerina took her to her first Pepys’ party and she listened to the gay boys’ endless discourse on the subject. The conversation was dramatically different from that of the Business Wives, which was all about the excessive demands of their spouses, and how to plot their way to less sex and more new clothes. With the gay boys it was all about more sex; more, more, more, as well as lots of new clothes.

#

Planet Pepys was fun. A low rambling chain of one-story apartments, it clung to the rocks at Bantry Bay like a scattering of white-washed limpets. The large expanse of flat rock that stretched from individual doorways down to the ocean lapping and sucking at its edges provided ample room for picnics, braais (barbeques) and celebrations. At Pepys everything and nothing were reasons to celebrate. Here the roots of the term “Gay” were self-evident. Right on the rocks liaisons were formed and broken. New partners sought, found, and old partners discarded. Celibacy bemoaned, rejected and abdicated. Betrayals were decried. Temporary solace welcomed. – And all to music.

Life at Pepys was a soap-opera with a score. There was Johnny Mathis for unrequited love, Billie Holliday for enduring grief, Anita O’Day for unrepentant break-ups, Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald for fresh seductions and anything with a Cha- Cha beat for celebration.

Johnny Mathis however, ruled. Hansel’s merciless Teutonic invincibility swept over Pepys like the invasion of Europe, and his idol reigned. If Johnny’s siren’s song wafting over the waves achingly and relentlessly day and night did not lure sailors to the rocks, there were always the night-clubs down at the docks. Friday night forays to The Den proved reliably fruitful. Recruits were found, seduced or press-ganged back to the party planet.

The fact that Pepys existed was credo to the relatively liberal ambiance that permeated Cape Town. In a country ruled by extreme right –wing members of the Dutch Reformed Church, an organization whose joyless, God-fearing righteousness was tempered by neither humor nor compassion, Pepys survived in brave and cheerful defiance of the status quo. It was like a tiny alien asteroid that lay spinning in a wrinkle in the time-space continuum, and on weekends rose like Bali Hi out of the waves. Sprawling atop its rocky foundations, Pepys was a party-planet that defied credence; inhabited by gays, lesbians, and a few beat –generation wannabe writers addicted to Henry Miller, Jack Kerouac, Anais Nin, and Jean Genet,- and for spiritual sustenance, the writings of DT Suzuki.

The gay boys eschewed Dr Suzuki’s Zen mantras in favor of endless repetitions of Johnny Mathis singing “Misty”. But all in all, everyone there co-existed in amiable tolerance. There must have been occasional disputes but for some reason she was oblivious, or had blocked them out. The gay boys swapped bitchy anecdotes about each other and predictable comments about the questionable heterosexuality of the writers, but the malice lacked heat. For the first time she was confronted with the philosophy that all males were gay and those that were not, were in the closet. Even Jesus was suspect (surrounding himself with a dozen men. — As far as the gay boys were concerned, Mary Magdalene was just the maid).

At Pepys she felt like a child who had always been convinced that she was a changeling, and had now, miraculously, been returned to her birth family. She felt safe there. The gay boys would never come on to her and the one or two writers that did, once rejected, retreated to their one-room studios to lick their wounds and convert them into prose. Then told their friends that she was probably lesbian (closeted). All in all, she was treated like a precocious and protected child.

The fact that everyone there was highly unlikely to ever produce a child of their own was insignificant. Hansel, the little German with the excruciating accent and the Johnny Mathis fixation wanted only two things in life; “a Caaadill-yak” to drive, and (with eyes brimming and a little sob), “a baaaaby!”

She never took her little boy to Pepys. The rocks were too dangerous and it was no place for an infant. But whenever any of the residents came upon her, pushing his stroller along the cliff road in Bantry Bay, they would stop and coo and tickle and exclaim like a bunch of maiden aunts.

#

When the baby had been born, tiny and underweight, the support of her parents sustained her for the very first time. The baby was unable to nurse normally and she was filled with terror. Every three hours had proved an exercise in despair. Her fear mounted with the rising of the unclaimed milk that engorged her body and terminated in virulent fever. Her father’s cool medical expertise and the sweet tenderness and patience he showered on his grandson were a revelation. All the years of distant unavailability dissolved when he was around the baby. She remembered now how solicitous he had been whenever a patient gave birth, making house calls nightly “to help bath the baby”, helping a new mother gain confidence. She had vague memories of him carrying her on his shoulders around the children’s wards of local hospitals when she was very young. What had happened in the intervening years? It did not occur to her that a man, so fearful of life itself that he kept a pistol on a bedside table when he slept, could only be at peace with helpless beings that he could protect and control. That any sign of autonomy terrified him, and he projected his terror onto a daughter who was outspoken and rebellious, was beyond her deductive process.

Now, with this tiny, underweight being, he could exercise all the fierce protective energies that kept his world stable. When he showed her how to prepare formula, swaddle the baby, do all the things that women usually learned from their mothers, she was hopelessly grateful, and increasingly dependant. She dared not object when he bounced the baby to sleep, soon habituating him so that he refused to go down without twenty minutes or more of bouncing. Eventually her father returned home, and weakened by fever and exhausted by weeks of fearing that the child was not being nourished, when the baby screamed to be constantly bounced as was his right, she cried with him; a child with a child.

As communication with her husband dwindled and he sought solace elsewhere, guilt and failure swamped her. She cried when the baby cried and slept when he slept. She constantly checked to see that he was still breathing; terrified that she would lose him as she had lost his father. When her parents took the baby out with them for a whole day, secure in the knowledge that he was safe, she breathed freely for the first time.

Her parents took to keeping the baby on weekends as often as she would let them. They treated her like a child with a doll that she might break without supervision. She did not foresee the trouble it portended. It allowed her an adolescence she had never enjoyed; parties, dances and excursions that she grabbed with all the thoughtless hedonism of a teenager.

By the time the baby was six months old, things had improved to the point where she dared to enjoy him. Once he was weaned and started gaining weight he grew sturdy and more beautiful by the day. Relieved of the fear that he would not survive, she was free to indulge playing with a living doll. She tied him to her hip and took him everywhere. Dark-skinned as his father, he grew round and brown in the sun. By the time he reached two years old, he became a fixture on Clifton beach, where the surfers adopted him as a mascot, baby-sat him for hours on end, riding him on their surf boards in the shallows and tumbling his fearless little body in the foam that broke on the shore. But by this time she could no longer endure living with his father, and sealed her fate by gathering her son on her hip one summer morning and hitch-hiking back to her parents’ home.

It had started with her own dependence and the novel feeling of bonding with her father as he bonded with her son. When her parents had suggested that the baby spend entire weekends with them on occasion, she had felt liberated. When Nerina introduced her to Planet Pepys, her belated adolescence began, and there was no-one to punish her when she came home after curfew.

When she stubbornly refused to return to her husband and divorce proceedings began, everything started to descend into inevitable disaster. Part of her family’s anger at her was fueled by the fact that “divorcee” was still an indecent word in South Africa in the fifties. As she saw her son slipping away from her, and her own freedom dissolving at the same time that her family treated her like a pariah, she knew that she had to achieve some form of independence. That was when Georgie came to the rescue and she landed a teaching job at Arthur Murray’s.

#

She met Georgie at Pepys. A teacher at Arthur Murray’s ballroom school, he would be instrumental in getting her an interview when the divorce was instigated. Georgie possessed the frigid dignity of a corseted Victorian matron. He had the manicured talons of a Siamese Dragon Lady, and his enlightened sense of style inspired epiphanies in the fashion-conscious; satori satorialis! Custom silk suits, black Sobranies (in an amber holder) and hand-tooled pumps. On the hottest day he wore a tie. At Arthur Murray’s Georgie had an entourage of old ladies to rival Liberace. During lessons he led his disciples sloooowly across the floor in ceremonial stateliness. He brought dignity to swing and unimpeachable poise to the tamped down heat of the Cha Cha Cha. He almost never smiled and his teaching style was strict and haughty. His ladies adored him and signed up for lifetime courses. This required two or three lessons per week as there was not a lot of lifetime left to them. Georgie was raking it in.

Mornings were filled with training sessions, then afternoons and evenings with lessons with students. Weekends were escapes to Pepys or to Nerina’s flat that nestled in the curve where the Bantry Bay Main Street evolved into the Cliff Road. She spent less and less time at home where the little boy and she grew less like mother and son and more like siblings daily.

The job at Murray’s gave her independence and a whole new life. But this was after she lost physical custody of the child.

All in all, keeping bad company caused her to lose the child, then provided her with a whole new life when she did.

#

When parties at Pepys got out of hand which was rare, but did happen on occasion, when celebration escalated to full-blown bacchanal, and acts were performed on drunken men whose wedding rings failed to protect them from the amnesia wrought by alcohol and lust, she retreated to a corner and sat quietly at the periphery of the Bacchic revelry. She was neither shocked nor threatened as her presence was largely ignored, and the visiting men had all been warned that she was out of bounds and disinterested. She felt like Alice in a Dantean Wonderland and expected at any moment to be shot back up out of the rabbit hole into the real world where sex-education consisted of biological diagrams of body parts; various glands, eggs, ovaries, tubes- and the missionary position. To be fair, there was only one member of the Pepys enclave who ever forgot himself enough to abandon all social boundaries and throw discretion into the winds of Nepenthe. Ciccio’s pain at the rejection of his very respectable, horrified family intensified at times to an agonized rebellion that manifested in wild gestures that seemed to scream “Yes, I’m depraved. Yes, I’m everything you accuse me of—and more!” He would fall to his knees and set upon some inebriated, half-conscious man with tears streaming down his face. There would be more tears the next morning as he hiccupped his apologies and remorse to anyone who would listen.

All in all she had much preferred the smaller, more intimate parties at Nerina’s flat, and once she was included there, she went to Pepys less and less. Nerina proved a source of gentle education and soothing wisdom. Nerina was full of calming reason and as the accepted wise-woman was elevated to the position of resident mentor by all the gay boys too.

All the queens became princesses in the presence of Nerina. The term Fag Hag was not so much as whispered. She held court with dignity and grace, and even conversation about sex was airy and faintly amused, never prurient. Nerina’s center of bliss was christened Esmerelda; crude anatomical terms were left to the Puritans. Nerina informed her of the importance of the Little Man in the Boat, or the Little Man in Esmeralda’s Boat, thank you very much. Nerina reassured her that her choice of detached celibacy was perfectly acceptable, but that she should preserve these snippets of wisdom for such future time as would prove necessary, as all men needed extensive education– with the exception of Nooka, Nerina’s sort-of semi-permanent lover, a muscular fisherman with the wild good looks of the Black Irish and the free-wheeling sexuality of a good-natured pirate. Nooka, Nerina assured her knew all about the importance of the Little Man in the Boat, and for this reason was welcomed into Nerina’s bed whenever he was in town. For the rest, Nerina, with the gay boys, recruited her endless stream of lovers down at the docks or at The Den.

To say that Nerina “picked up men” would be a crass and myopic rush to judgment. The young men who consented to avail themselves of her hospitality were recruited into Nerina’s cultural program. Some could say that they were press-ganged into an educational weekend in which sex was just the gilding of a lily that flourished in the fertile soil of elegant discourse, eclectic music (the Fado of Amelia Rodriguez, the hoarse seduction of Melina Mercouri singing “Never On Sunday”) and gourmet cuisine. – For Nerina could not stop teaching; not for a moment.

Her main lesson was “Life is serious and short; work hard and have fun. Don’t count pennies.” For a young woman who had been accused of “only wanting to have fun” and who was raised in an atmosphere where the threat of poverty ruled, this was balm to the spirit. She had been taught that if ruin was not yet here, it was just around the corner. The family was in a constant state of imminent annihilation; save, save, save. We cannot afford vacations, luxuries, new clothes or to forget what a dire, hostile world we lived in. In her eyes, Nerina’s embrace of strange men, seedy nightclubs and total disregard of the opinions of moralists, together with her irrefutable work –ethic and prodigious intelligence, made her a formidable role-model. Nerina was a one-woman Bloomsbury set, and established a bar for intellectual and sexual freedom that would not exist in South Africa for another forty years, if ever. She thought like a man and fucked like a man and nurtured her conquests like the most motherly of hausfraus. When neophyte paramours were ordered into the kitchen to peel potatoes and chop vegetables they sprang to with military alacrity. They doubtless obeyed orders in bed with similar acquiescence.

She was too much in love with the idea of love to want Nerina’s lifestyle, but she did want her invincible courage and adherence to her own truth.

#

She was not so naïve as to be unaware of the fact that the group took her with them to The Den with somewhat ulterior motives. The exhibitionist in her did not mind being bait and the voyeur was fascinated. She felt perfectly safe as the group was cruising, (she was just along for the forbidden thrill of it all), and she was fast learning that men were indiscriminate in their search for sex, turning almost immediately to someone more available, of either gender. Who knew if they behaved similarly on their native turf? – Strange cities and one-time encounters made hedonistic risk-takers of all.

The gay boys and the prostitutes reeled them in effortlessly as they poured through the doors on waves of Cape brandy, their availability fueled by loneliness, weeks of endless expanse of ocean and an immeasurable distance from home.

The Den was all darkness; black floors, walls and ceiling, the lighting low enough to render insignificant the ostensibly forbidden mix of races. There were no Africans, but a number of light-skinned colored prostitutes and moffies,(Malay gay men)outdoing each other in neon colored satins, clouds of Evening in Paris and glistening hair pomade that wafted jasmine, lavender and tropical fruit in their wake. She couldn’t help finding delicious these blatant aromas that white ladies considered impossibly “cheap”, and for years afterward was addicted to floral perfumes and bright colors.

The shadowy figures glued and gyrating on the miniscule dance floor, sitting at scattered tables and lining the walls, intermingled with the seamen’s white ducks that glowed like random scatterings of glowworms in the dusky gloom.

Their group sat at a large round table; Nerina, Hansel, Michael and Nerina’s son accompanied by his girlfriend, Charlotte. Of all of them, Charlotte was the only one that was ever less than kind. She not-so- secretly referred to her as the “Divine Comedy”, a play on her name where wit so outdid malice, she could not feel resentment. Besides, Charlotte was intimidating; an amalgam of coal- black hair, chain- smoking of little cheroots and loudly voiced opinions. Not to mention her impressive reputation. She was said to rise each morning and greet the dawn by striding naked into the garden, where she plunged her huge breasts into the birdbath, raised her face to the skies and cried “Bonjour Tristesse!”

They were soon joined by Dionne and her new “husband”. If Nerina was the queen of Pepys, Dionne was queen of The Den. She greeted the visiting royalty like a gracious hostess. She was dressed in a black spaghetti-strapped cocktail number, large patent stilettos and a rhinestone tiara that encircled her huge, teased bouffant do. She introduced her live-in lover all round. “This is Pat, darlings. Pat, this is everyone.” Dionne was as unimpressed with the fact that Pat had left a wife and three children back in a little house in Woodstock, as he was to discover that the ravishing creature with whom he had become so smitten, had a penis. That was soon to be remedied, as Dionne had long-standing plans for a visit to Sweden and a sex-change. Pat did not care, either way. He was in love. A slender, prematurely graying little man, he stood a good few inches shorter than his beloved, and gazed on her adoringly.

Drinks all round (tomato juice for the naïf) and everyone crowded onto the dance floor. The young woman generally danced with one of the lesbians. They were safer and did not constantly try to rub up against you. Approached by Shirl, the butchest dyke in the place, she let herself be lead into the melee. Shirl was a poster child for aggressive lesbianism; dirty, scuffed jeans, black t-shirt under a black leather waist-coat, equally black fingernails, and more cheroots than Charlotte. She actually drove a truck, a big old dented Ford, and in her spare time constructed massive, metal sculptures, the hammering of which had caused her to lose the hearing in one ear. But she was fun and safe to dance with. She was invariably polite and made no advances, exhibiting a strangely feminine sensitivity to possible rejection. She had come with a friend who had once shown a romantic interest in the young woman. The friend had gone as far as to write her a forlorn letter, which was never again mentioned by either. Everyone behaved as if it had never happened. Shirl might have known of it, but that was unsure. The nice thing about women was that they were less predatory than the men; discreet in their advances and ready to retreat at the slightest sign of disinterest. Also, they never pouted at rejection, or called you names. They just adjusted their approach to one of platonic and easy-going tolerance and were perfectly happy to dance, or just talk and laugh. She spent a lot of time at The Den dancing with the women.

There was a very funny story going the rounds tonight about one of the colored girls who had been arrested on charges of prostitution the previous week. On entering the courtroom, she had recognized a regular customer. Wiggling her rear and her fingers merrily, she swanned past the bench with a huge gapped smile (A fashion popular amongst the colored girls who generously removed four upper teeth in the service of state-of-the –art fellatio.) “Hullo, Judgie. Howzit?” She got a stricter sentence for her indiscretion, but was hugely compensated by the subsequent notoriety. Back on the job tonight, she was followed by hoots and cheers and offers of free drinks.

Visitors to their table (several Swedes and a young Frenchman from Marseilles) were offered paraphrased versions of the story. The cheerful vulgarity of “Howzit” was hard to translate. – “Ca va” did not really do it, – but the newcomers joined in the hilarity like good sports. They had to be good sports if they were to come home with the group; passing good looks and a visible sense of humor were de rigueur chez Nerina.

#

By two AM everyone was ready to pile into the three available vehicles and gather at Nerina’s. The Swedes and the Frenchman were democratically sandwiched between alternate hosts. No-one was making any claims yet, although there was the veriest frisson of tension between Hansel and Michael, who both had their eye on the biggest Swede.

Alas, the biggest Swede went to Nerina, perhaps because she was the only one who could speak his language, or equally, that once everyone had climbed the steps to her flat and gathered around the bar in the foyer-come-living room, she hauled him into the kitchen and had him chopping onions and garlic for Paella.

The kitchen opened onto the foyer, which apart from the mirror-backed bar against the far wall, had four barstools up against it, one arm chair next to the kitchen door and for the rest, standing room only. People mostly milled around here or gathered on benches on the plant- bedecked stoop. Interestingly enough, no-one ever settled in Nerina’s bedroom, the largest space in the house, between the foyer and the stoop. There existed some unwritten rule that this exclusive holy of holies was invaded by invitation only.

Soon delicious aromas of frying garlic and boiling crayfish wafted from the kitchen. The lilting strains of Amalia singing Casa Portuguesa threaded through scattered phrases of Swedish, French and fractured English, with an occasional Afrikaans endearment coming from the kitchen where Nerina encouraged her sous-chef and rewarded him with equal doses of aperitif and affectionate camaraderie.

Gallons of red wine were being consumed and the young woman found herself dancing with the Frenchman, no more than a boy really, who persuaded her to have a glass of wine with him.

By the time the paella arrived and everyone gathered around on the available seats, or sat cross-legged on the floor, plates precariously balanced on their laps, any lingering sobriety was long gone, and new friendships blossomed into imminent intimacy. She had another glass of wine, this one going down a lot easier than the first. When all the empty plates were piled into the kitchen sink, couples slowly disappeared out the door and into the night.

She felt decidedly light-headed; the paella had done little to aleve this novel sensation, and when she found herself sitting on the edge of Nerina’s bed, alongside the Frenchman, she had no idea how she had arrived here, and suddenly became aware of the silence of the empty flat. Where was everybody—most of all, where was Nerina and her Swede?

Was that a huge fleur-de-lis cresting the drapery on Nerina’s bed-head, or did the mind supply the appropriate inevitable? No matter, the effect was the same. She had always felt a little dizzy, looking at Nerina’s bed. There was so much energy buzzing around it. The surrounding walls sort of fizzed into a wavy waking dream before your eyes, and the bed seemed to float a few inches above the Oriental rug. The combined energy of all the men who had lain here over so many years leaked from a heated vortex in the center of the mattress and gathering force, expanded into a swirling tornado of pheromones that pressed against the walls until they positively bulged.

The French boy’s face pressed closer, looking younger and sweeter by the minute as he poured a torrent of passionate entreaty into her ear and tried to lower her to the mattress. At first she dreamily succumbed. “Why not?” she thought, “He’s nice and he smells good and feels good and what’s wrong with me anyway? I can just do this, (it’s not so hard).

But a few moments later, she knew that she couldn’t. It was if a cool wave dispelled all the warmth and left her chilled and clear-headed. A yawning expanse of emptiness settled into the center of her chest. She turned her head away from his kiss and pushed against the weight that had become a suffocating alien pressure. She felt its reluctant retreat. She sat up and gazed apologetically into the eyes of the stranger, huge and soft and disappointed, and sad enough to weep. Then it was she who was weeping almost uncontrollably. Confusing emotions of guilt, regret and shame suffused her. She felt hurt for his hurt, guilt at rejecting him after coming this far. Most of all she felt humiliation at her own childishness, and unable to fathom its meaning. “Sorry,” she whispered “I’m so, so sorry.”

“C’est rien.” He gamely replied, putting his arms around her and rocking her against his chest. His kindness made her cry all the harder. She didn’t know who she was, or what was wrong with her. How was it that blatant exhibitions of excess left her unmoved; the rampant promiscuity of her friends unshocked, without judgment, even approving? — While she behaved with the reticence of a Carmelite.

She had searched for answers. First she had tried to read the Zen texts of Dr. Suzuki, so popular with the Beat writers at Pepys’. The words had just flowed right past her; left her floating in a liquid zone of incomprehension. Then she had discovered a ratty little paperback in her husband’s sock drawer, all about dwarfs and whips and sacrificial chambermaids. She was enlightened by neither one. Instead she felt her orphaned identity, adrift in an anonymous sea that lapped forlornly at the edges of her consciousness, entreating, “Give me a home.”

Then Nerina was back, all sympathy and solicitous action. She clucked and soothed and filled her bathtub with scented bubbles; every woman’s remedy and consolation.

Nerina sat on the edge of the tub and patiently listened as she wept. All at once her grief had nothing to do with the present situation. It was about the slow and inexorable loss of her child, and mixed feelings that confounded her. When she confessed her guilt and confusion at the relief she felt at her parents’ increasing assumption of guardianship of her son, Nerina shushed her. She told her it was a good thing and reassured her that this was, in fact, a tribal tradition among the African people, who deemed it necessary that young people give birth to offspring but were unfit to raise them. African children, once weaned were automatically given into their grandmothers’ care, where the unrealistic expectations of parents would not be imposed upon them, and the collective wisdom of the village would.

The younger woman sat in the warm water and looked out of the open bathroom door into the empty foyer. It was two weeks to Christmas, and the ceiling of the foyer was crisscrossed with lines of string from which hung countless gaily colored greeting cards, from all the ports in the world; each one an affectionate affirmation that had transformed a brief encounter into a lasting connection.

She too, received a card from Marseilles some weeks later; inside an outpouring of emotion from the smitten French boy. She put it away with the letter from the woman.

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6 Responses

  1. Anthony BerkowNovember 6, 2009 @ 10:24 pmReply

    Wonderfully written – you really have the knack of bringing the blur of the past into vivid focus. I enjoyed sharing in your memories and look forward to reading more!

  2. Thank you – I’m reading along and loving these pieces so – as always – and am reminded here, in your fiction, of how hard a chore writing is for you in fact – and yet you do it so beautifully – a warrior to the last – lots of xx, L.

    Lynn Vannucci, Author of Coyote; Revolution in the Garden; and Beyond the G-Spot.

  3. Jennifer StaceNovember 7, 2009 @ 3:00 pmReply

    Quite marvelous, Joan. Sensual yet pristine. It’s good, wonderful infact… your writing is vibrant and luxurious. Thank you for sharing… with love, jenny benny

  4. Christiane LedakisMay 23, 2010 @ 4:49 amReply

    Whatever you write is filled with an incredible faith in life, the fiercest of struggles you bravely take on and go through with so much determination, however hopeless things may look – and you triumph because of your deep love and your bright, luminous spirit!
    What a great thing to spread your healing wisdom through a great magazine like this!
    Love and admire you!
    Christiane



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