Fiction

Departure

Alistair Morgan

The man was walking in the middle of the road. He stumbled, fell to his knees, and then stood up again, swaying slightly as he found his balance.

“Careful,” Anna said to Miles, who had already changed down a gear. She and Miles were looking for a wedding venue. They had driven three hours out of Cape Town in a rented Polo to visit a lavender farm. The farm’s distance from Cape Town was compensated for by the charm of the old stone farmhouse and stables, which had been converted into rooms. It was the first venue that they had both liked. This oasis of mutual agreement was a relief to Anna. For a time it had seemed as if she and Miles would never agree on anything. Apart from the car and the man the road was empty. Dusk was fast approaching and the shadows of eucalyptus trees were cast diagonally across the tarmac. Set back from the road, on the other side of a ditch and slightly obscured by the trees, was a row of five farm laborers’ houses. They were simple, flat-roofed structures, each with windows on either side of a single door. All the windows were dark, although gray tails of smoke rose from two chimneys. Beyond the houses the landscape was flat, rising up only near the horizon where mountains finally broke the monotony, their peaks as blue as oxygen-starved lips. The nearest town was almost thirty miles away.

The man had his back to Anna and Miles. He was barefoot and walking with a pronounced limp. If the tarmac was hot he did not seem to feel it. He appeared not to have heard or seen their car. Anna gripped the handle of the armrest as Miles applied more pressure to the brakes.

“What’s he doing?” she said.

“He’s probably drunk.”

“Shouldn’t we stop? Maybe he’s hurt.”

“It’s not our problem.”

Anna looked sideways at Miles. She did not feel like another argument now, not after being in disagreement for so long over wedding venues and dates and costs. Perhaps Miles was right: they had planned to spend the night at a guest farm more than fifty miles away, and there was still some distance to travel on an unfamiliar road. And besides, she thought, the man probably lived with his family in one of the houses nearby.

Miles slowed the car and steered to the left of the man, honking as he did so. The man spun around and faced the car. He was wearing khaki shorts and a T-shirt with a faded green and yellow petrol logo on its front. He was lean, with a deeply creased face and a light beard. His head was moving from side to side, as if he was trying to balance it on his neck. With both arms waving out in front of him he came running toward the car. Miles braked hard and tried to turn away, but it was futile. The man’s arms and torso struck the hood and then, with a loud crack, his head hit the windshield. Miles brought the car to a halt on the verge of the road. A cloud of dust enveloped them. When it cleared, they saw that the man had tumbled off the hood and was lying on his back.

Later, when her mind returned to the scene, Anna tried to recall whether she or Miles had spoken first. She wondered about this because when she realized that Miles was speaking it seemed to her that he was answering a question:

“I didn’t hit him. He hit me. Didn’t you see? He hit the car!”

And then, again, she could not clearly recall whether it was she or Miles who had first climbed out to see how hurt the man was. All she remembered was that they had both crouched down next to him almost simultaneously. The man was trying to say something. He lifted his head and looked at Anna and then at Miles. Mumbled words were coming out of his mouth. And then he let his head drop back onto the tarmac with a thud that made Anna wince. Miles returned to the car and maneuvered it so that the headlights, which were growing stronger as night fell, shone on the man. He brought a shirt from his suitcase to put under the man’s head. The man’s eyes were closed now. His chest rose and fell heavily. A faint groan echoed in his throat every time he breathed out. The air that escaped from him was sweet and thick with alcohol. There did not seem to be any obvious signs of injury to him, although his face bore the scars of a life accustomed to physical damage.

It was only when Miles asked her if she was all right that Anna appreciated how shaken she was. She was still gripping a small souvenir bunch of dried lavender from the lavender farm. Her mouth was dry and she had to lick her lips in order to answer, “Yes.”

Heat rose up off the tarmac. It was February and the evening temperature was still up in the nineties. The air carried with it a bouquet of dried lavender mixed with engine oil. The only sounds were the man’s breathing, the measured flicking of the car’s hazard lights and, from the houses behind the trees, the soft beat of music.

“I couldn’t avoid him,” said Miles. “I tried but I couldn’t!”

“I know.”

“Can you smell it? Can you smell the alcohol on him?”

“Do you think he’s badly hurt?”

“I wasn’t going that fast, was I? I mean, it was more like he fell on the car than the car hit him. What the fuck was he doing? I mean, what the fuck?”

They both looked down at the man, as if expecting him to provide an answer. Miles shook the man’s shoulder.

“Hey, can you hear me? Are you hurt? What’s your name?”

The man opened his eyes and then closed them. Miles stood up.

“I’m going to see if anyone in those houses knows him. Maybe they can help. Stay here and if a car comes try and flag it down.”

Miles turned and ran off toward the houses. Anna looked up and down the road. There was no sign of any approaching traffic. She knew nothing of first aid and couldn’t tell if the man lying in the headlights had burst his insides or if any of his bones were broken. She shivered. What sounded like a sigh blew through the eucalyptus leaves. The sky had turned to purple, although the trunks of the eucalyptus trees still reflected traces of blotchy pink, like limbs with poor circulation.

The evening was settling now and the air was starting to cool. Anna was wearing a denim skirt and a black singlet. She was short and slightly built and seemed to detect shifts in temperature more than most people. She had always struggled to put on weight and she envied women with fleshy curves. Her curly brown hair, which she wore down to her shoulders, was, to her mind, her best feature.

She opened the trunk and found her denim jacket. She had bought it only two weeks before, in Covent Garden. London seemed like an impossibly distant place now. Though she could not tell which was more foreign: the landscape she was in now, or London. She did not put on the jacket but instead clutched it against her side, as if for security. In Miles’s suitcase she found a sweatshirt with which to cover the man. When she closed the trunk the man was sitting up. Insects flew in and out of the beams of the headlights and around the man’s head. He tried to stand and then fell back, leaning on his elbows. It was clear now that he had a large swelling on his forehead, the size of a tennis ball cut in half.

“You must keep still,” Anna said. “People are coming to help, OK? Just relax. Are you cold? Here, here’s a jersey.”

He just stared at it.

“Does your head hurt?” she asked.

He sat up and wiped his mouth on his forearm. Anna tried to spot Miles among the houses, but it was too dark to make out any detail beyond the trees. The man was holding out his hand, palm up, expectantly. He was mumbling. If he was speaking a language it was not one Anna understood. He rocked forward onto his knees, and then, with an effort that caused his body to expel air, he stood up.

“No,” said Anna. “You must sit down. People are coming to help you.”

He made a loose waving motion with his hand and started walking away from the car.

“Wait,” said Anna, trotting after him and putting a hand on his shoulder. “Where are you going? Where do you live?”

The man stopped and looked at Anna. The headlights lit up his face, emphasizing the swelling above his left eye. His eyes were unfocused. Then he put both arms around Anna’s shoulders and fell against her. She could not hold up his weight and they both collapsed to the tarmac, he on top of her. She rolled from side to side until she was free from him. She pushed his legs off hers and stood up. A feeling of terror gripped her throat and sent her heart into a spasmodic set of beats. It had only occurred to her then that the man could have been bluffing his injuries.

He was lying still again. Anna stood back at a safe distance and watched for possible signs of treachery. But it seemed unlikely to her that he was faking it. She patted him on his back and asked if he was OK. He didn’t reply. She walked around him slowly, watching him. Then she got down on her knees and listened for his breathing. It was very faint. A branch snapped somewhere out in the darkness. Voices were coming nearer.

“Anna?” Miles ran up to her. “Did he move?”

“He got up and walked a bit. But he’s out again.”

Two men stepped into the light behind Miles. They were both of modest height and their bodies seemed to carry only weight that was essential. One of the men was wearing blue overalls and a white shirt. He was smoking a pipe. The other man was dressed in polyester tracksuit pants and a short-sleeve collared shirt, patterned with a brightly colored row of palm trees. Several buttons were missing from the shirt. The resulting gap offered Anna a glimpse of his stomach muscles, in the same way that a wall with peeling paint exposes its underlying brickwork. The men were not much older than Miles and Anna, perhaps forty at most.

The man smoking the pipe made a clicking noise with his tongue. “Samuel? Samuel, wat maak jy? Het jy weer seer gekry?”

The man opened his eyes. He tried to speak but only managed a series of grunts.

The man in the palm-tree shirt said, “Jy’s oppie verkeerde pad, Samuel.”

“Do you know him?” said Miles.

“Ja, dis Samuel,” said the man with the pipe. “Sy kop issie reg nie.” He tapped the side of his head with the end of the pipe.

“Is he mentally disturbed?” Anna asked.

“Looks like it,” said Miles.

“But he smells of booze.”

The two men helped Samuel to his feet. Anna heard laughing and turned to see three children looking on.

“Who looks after him?” asked Miles.

“Sy broer,” said the man in the palm-tree shirt. “Ons sal hom huis toe vat. Kom, Samuel, jy moet probeer opstaan.”

One of the children picked up a stone and threw it at Samuel. It bounced off his chest and landed at his feet, but he did not react in any way.

“Hey! Voetsek!” shouted the pipe-smoker. The children giggled and ran back into the darkness.

“Shouldn’t he get checked by a doctor?” said Anna.

Miles shook his head. “He’ll be OK. Doesn’t look like this is the first time it’s happened.”

“Have you seen his forehead? What if he’s got a fracture or something? We can’t just leave him.”

“These guys know him. Let them take care of him. We should get going.”

Anna grabbed Miles by the forearm and led him back to the car.

“Miles, I’m not leaving him here without knowing if he’s going to be OK. I’m not having that on my conscience.”

“Well where can we take him? You heard what they said. He’s mad. He ran into the car. But he’s standing up now. Look.”

The two men were helping Samuel to walk.

“There’s a town about half an hour back. Let’s at least drop him off at a hospital.”

“How do you know he’s not just pissed? He’ll be fine once he sobers up.”

“We don’t know that. He could have a serious head injury. We’re not leaving him here, Miles.” Anna was speaking in a tone Miles had not heard before. There was a surprising level of authority in her voice. But fear too.

He walked over to the three men. He was taller than all of them, and thicker limbed. His shoulders were wide and lent his appearance a sense of resilience. But his round face was covered with a smooth skin that was always pink around the cheekbones. At thirty-five years of age he still did not have to shave every day. He kept his blond hair short. It would not be long before the hair on his crown was gone for good.

“Hang on,” he said. “He should see a doctor. We can take him.”

The two men looked at one another and then at Samuel. “Nee, hy’s oraait, master,” said the man with the pipe.

Miles pointed to the bump on Samuel’s forehead and then at Anna. “She’d feel better if we took him. Please.”

The men shrugged their shoulders and clicked their tongues. There followed a brief discussion on how to find the hospital in the town. Then they helped lay Samuel down on the backseat of the car. He went straight to sleep.

 

To get to the hospital, which was on a hill overlooking the town, they had to drive down the main street, passing second-hand furniture shops, a farmers’ co-op, a pharmacy, at least two liquor stores, and a white two-story Art Deco building with a neon HOTEL sign over the entrance. At the end of the street was a dimly lit, cream-colored Dutch Reformed church with white buttresses sticking out from its sides like ribs on an emaciated animal.

The hospital was a cluster of red-roofed Victorian buildings. They parked next to the only building with any lights on. The sudden silence that followed the cutting of the car’s engine woke Samuel. He sat up, leaning on one arm, but keeping his head bowed. A plump, bespectacled woman in a light blue uniform appeared at a window. She disappeared from view before emerging outside the main doors. She looked nervous and asked if she could help them. Miles explained what had happened. The woman tilted her head sideways to get a better view of Samuel. She went back into the building and returned pushing a wheelchair. Miles helped her to drag Samuel onto it. The front of Samuel’s shorts was soaking wet. The woman looked at the wet patch and shook her head.

“At least it’s not blood,” she said.

Miles pushed Samuel inside and the woman sat down at a desk and started typing briskly on a yellowed computer keyboard. A badge on her chest gave her name: Sister Steyn. She said she’d admit him as an H1 patient, a state patient, and keep him overnight for observation. A doctor would see him in the morning.

“In the morning?” said Anna. “But shouldn’t he be examined tonight?”

The sister looked at Samuel, slouched over in the wheelchair, and then back at Anna. “Would you like me to call the duty doctor?”

“Yes, we would. That’s why we brought him here.”

Sister Steyn checked a number on a list on the wall behind her and picked up the phone. After a brief conversation she hung up and pointed to a wooden bench in the main corridor where she said they could wait for a Doctor Prinsloo to arrive. A nurse pushed Samuel down the corridor and through a pair of swing doors. Sister Steyn picked up a clipboard and followed them.

Anna and Miles sat down on the bench. They were silent for a few moments until Anna cleared her throat and said, “Do you think we should phone the guest farm we were going to stay at? I don’t think we’re going to make it tonight.”

Miles had been leaning forward with his elbows on his knees and his chin cupped in his hands. He sat up straight and said, “Let’s wait and see what the doctor says. Maybe it’s not that serious and we won’t have to stay here long.”

“But don’t you think it’s too late anyway?”

“I don’t want to stay here any longer than we have to.”

“It’s dark, Miles. And we don’t know the road. It’s not safe.” She paused, then felt the words slipping over her tongue: “We’ve already had one accident.”

Anna could feel Miles’s eyes boring into the side of her face.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” he said.

“Nothing. Just that it would be better to drive in the daylight.”

“He ran into the car, Anna. I didn’t hit him.”

“I never said you did.”

He stood up and faced her. “But you think it was my fault, don’t you?”

“No, of course not. Sit down. You’re right, let’s just wait and see what the doctor says.”

Miles remained standing. He placed his hands on his hips. “The doctor is going to tell us exactly what I’ve already said. The guy is pissed and didn’t know what he was doing. The car was hardly moving when we hit him. Tomorrow morning he’ll have a headache, nothing more.”

“I’d still feel better hearing it from a doctor.”

“Yes, well, obviously. So would I. And then you’ll see that coming all the way here was a waste of time.”

Their voices were echoing down the corridor now, ricocheting off the shining linoleum floor.

“Peace of mind is not a waste of time, Miles. How could you even think of leaving him by the side of the road?”

“You make it sound as if he had bones sticking out of his flesh and a gaping crack down the middle of his skull. For God’s sake, he was walking, wasn’t he? His friends were there. He’s going to be fine. You’ll see.”

“How do you know that?”

“Christ, I don’t know. But it was just a bump. He’s probably not even going to remember it in the morning. Why are you acting like I’ve committed some terrible crime?”

“I’m not. Don’t be ridiculous. Let’s just wait till the doctor’s been, OK?”

“That’s exactly what I’ve been saying. Let’s wait for the fucking doctor to tell us what we already know.”

“Good evening.”

The voice came from behind Miles. He and Anna turned around. A young woman, perhaps not much older than thirty, was standing next to the admissions desk. Her hair, a dirty russet color, was tied back in a ponytail. She was wearing glasses and had on a white coat over jeans and a yellow blouse. In her right hand was a black medical bag. 

“Is Sister Steyn here?” she asked.

“Yes,” said Miles.

“She went through the doors,” said Anna, who was also standing now.

“Are you Doctor Prinsloo?” asked Miles.

She nodded. “Is it your friend who is hurt?”

“No, a stranger. A pedestrian,” replied Anna.

Miles pointed to the swing doors. “They took him somewhere through there.”

“Thank you,” said Doctor Prinsloo. And then she too was swallowed by the doors.

Twenty minutes went by before Doctor Prinsloo and Sister Steyn returned. They were deep in conversation and walked straight past Miles and Anna, who had stood up expectantly. At the admissions desk the sister sat down and began typing. The doctor came back down the corridor. She gave Anna and Miles a brief but insincere smile, as if it was something she was obliged to do. Two pimples were clearly evident on her chin, undisguised by any cream or base. Her face was not feminine and the bone structure was broad and uncomplicated. She had a capability for beauty, but this was a result of a careful balancing of proportions rather than a combination of striking features. Her eyes were a dull gray and her lips, though a rich plum color, were thin strips of parsimonious flesh.

Doctor Prinsloo folded her arms and said, “The patient is too intoxicated for me to make an accurate assessment of his condition. It’s very difficult to tell the extent of his concussion, or even if he is concussed. He’s dehydrated and we’ve put him on a glucose drip. I’ll examine him again in the morning when the effects of the alcohol have worn off. He’s still conscious so I don’t think an X ray is necessary, but I’ll take one tomorrow. Other than that there’s not much I can do for him tonight.”

“Do you think it’s just a bump to the head?” said Miles.

“There is significant bruising on his forehead, but as I said, I can’t tell now how concussed he is. His pupils are dilated, although that could be from the alcohol. I’ll know more in the morning. Are you staying in town tonight?”

“We were only passing through,” said Anna.

“He was walking in the middle of the road,” said Miles.

The doctor nodded. “We get a lot of injured pedestrians in here. Most of them are drunk.”

She turned and walked back to Sister Steyn who was still typing at the desk. They spoke softly, and then the doctor left.

“We should go to the police,” said Anna.

“What for?” said Miles. “The doctor doesn’t seem too concerned.”

“If something happens to him and we haven’t reported it we’ll be in more trouble.”

“He’s drunk, Anna. What is there to tell the police?”

“I don’t want to argue about this. We’re going to the police. End of story.”

Sister Steyn told Anna and Miles how to find the town’s police station, a plain yellow brick building a block away from the Art Deco hotel they had passed earlier. They reported the accident and were told to return the following day to get the case number. Miles canceled their booking at the guest farm and they went to the hotel. There was no one at reception, but on the opposite side of the parquet entrance hall there was a door leading into a noisy bar. A black-and-white sheepdog was curled up asleep on an armchair to the right of the door. As Anna and Miles approached the door the dog lifted its head and thumped its tail.

The bar was smaller and emptier than it sounded from the outside. Five men of varying ages sat at a wooden counter. Behind the counter a woman in her early twenties was doing a magazine sex quiz. The men were trying to help her, shouting out their suggestions over the music, which seemed to be cascading down all four walls. The walls were covered in beer labels from around the world, a surprising number of outdated South African bank notes, photographs of people raising their glasses to the camera, and a vinyl record framed and signed by a local musician. Above the record was a cardboard sign with WORK IS THE CURSE OF THE DRINKING CLASS written on it in felt-tip pen. The quote was attributed to Idi Amin.

No one noticed Anna and Miles standing in the doorway. Miles went over to the bar and waited until one of the men tapped the barlady on the arm. The other four men turned around and looked first at Anna and then at Miles.

“Who do I speak to about booking a room?” said Miles. He had to repeat himself twice to be heard over the music.

The barlady pointed to a corner of the bar. Only then did Miles register a man sitting in a low chair next to an empty fireplace and smoking a cigarette. The barlady finally turned down the music.

“Pappa! Hulle soek ’n kamer.”

The man in the chair nodded. His grey hair was combed in a neat side parting and he wore thick, square-framed glasses. He flicked his cigarette into the frozen yawn of the fireplace and stood up. He was wearing a short-sleeve checkered shirt, chinos, and flannel bedroom slippers.

“This way,” he said to Miles.

Miles and Anna followed him back to the reception desk. He gave Miles a form to fill out but when Miles took out his credit card the man coughed and nodded toward a sign next to the desk: REGRET NO CREDIT CARDS. Miles paid the hundred and eighty rand in cash. Behind the desk were two rows of room keys hanging on brass hooks. There was not one empty hook. The man took down a key and slid it across the desk.

“Seeing as it’s midweek and we’re a bit quiet you can have the honeymoon suite.” He winked at Anna. “And if you have any problems my name is Danie.”

The honeymoon suite was up the stairs and at the end of a bare corridor. To Anna it felt as if the floor of the corridor was sloping downward. She had to put her hand on the wall to steady herself.

 

The undulating whine of a vacuum cleaner woke Anna. It was growing louder. Sunlight was leaking into the room through gaps in the curtains. Anna lay in bed, waiting for Miles to finish in the bathroom. She thought of getting up to open the curtains, but she was prolonging the start of the day for as long as possible. She did not want to acknowledge the previous night’s events until she was more awake. The hotel room smelled of stale sweat and sour breath.

In London, before she met Miles, there had been a period when Anna had striven to experience as much as she could with her body. Occasionally she had woken up to find a strange, snoring weight lying next to her. And then she would have to carefully prod her body to check for the telltale tenderness that told her considerable activity had taken place during the night. Other times she’d woken up alone, even though she was sure a man had been with her, inside her, hours before. She’d heard of this phenomenon being described as a phantom fuck, because one was not entirely sure if it had actually occurred at all.

Anna first met Miles at a party held by mutual friends from South Africa. Like her, he was from Cape Town. She’d thought he was average looking, but later they’d ended up sharing a cab home. By the time they’d arrived outside her flat in Putney Bridge his hand was nesting high up on the bough of her thigh. It stayed in that vicinity for most of the night. She’d expected it to be nothing more than a reasonably pleasant one-off event, and she’d told him as much in the morning. But instead of being grateful, as most of her previous one-offs had been, Miles had shown a keen interest in seeing her again. After seeing him a couple of times a week for three months she realized that they were probably having a relationship.

It was this relationship with Miles, she realized one Sunday morning as she watched him on top of her, that had begun to define her more than anything else. They were invited to parties together, were referred to as “Anna and Miles” in conversations, and even received Christmas cards addressed to the both of them. It eventually occurred to Anna that Miles was perhaps not defining her, but undefining her.

It did not help matters much that her friends often told her how relaxed she was in his company. She could never bring herself to tell them that the reason she looked so relaxed around Miles was that she didn’t really care if he was there or not.

Miles came out the bathroom wrapped in a beige towel that looked as if it could’ve once been white. The towel was tucked high above his bellybutton so that his plump stomach didn’t show. He started picking clean clothes out of his bag. He smelled of sandalwood aftershave. There were still droplets of water clinging to his freckled shoulders, and a smudged line of blood mingled with shaving cream was running below his ear.

Last night they’d made love on top of the bed, which had been sprinkled with crumbs from the chicken and mushroom pies they’d bought from a service station. (The hotel restaurant had already closed by the time they’d checked in.) After the accident and the argument in the hospital Anna had needed the comforting motions of a familiar body rather than words of reconciliation. It was in Miles’s favorite position, with him beneath her, his mouth attending to her nipples and both his hands gripping her buttocks. When they first started sleeping together she had been shy of her nakedness. She did not think of herself as particularly attractive and was often surprised by how much pleasure men seemed to derive from the soft folds of her body. And her face, she felt, lacked any defining elements, so that when she first met people she was often aware of their eyes desperately searching its surface for a place of interest on which to focus, in the same way a mountaineer’s hands frisk a cliff face for somewhere to grip. Men usually ended up staring at her breasts.

Miles opened the curtains and daylight immediately filled the room. Anna had forgotten how enthusiastic the African sun was.

“Come on,” said Miles. “I’ve run you a bath. We should get up to the hospital and see if our friend has recovered. Then we can get out of here.”

Anna pulled the sheet up over her face. She searched inside herself for something to help her rise and go through the pretense of being in control. Sometimes when she bathed and had finished washing she would pull the plug out and lie on her back as the water drained away. Gradually she’d feel her body getting heavier and heavier and pressing against the bottom of the bath. When all the water had gone she’d slowly lift her arms with what felt like a great effort. It made her appreciate how much gravity her body silently coped with. There were times, though, when she felt as if she was too weak to climb out the bath without someone’s help.

 

A new shift of staff was on duty at the hospital. There was furtive activity in the corridors and the bench in the main corridor was occupied by three sullen-looking women with plastic packets at their feet. The packets were filled with clothes and toiletries. Anna and Miles stood in a short queue at the admissions desk. When their turn came the nurse behind the desk could not help them.

“I cannot give out information about patients,” she said. “The doctors are doing their rounds at the moment. Come back at visiting time and perhaps someone can help you then.”

“Can’t we just find out if he’s all right?” said Miles.

“Try again this afternoon. You can visit from three o’clock to half past.”

“Is Doctor Prinsloo here?” asked Anna.

The woman sighed. “She’s either doing her rounds, or she’s back at her practice in town. But if you come at visiting time one of the sisters can help.”

“Well at least he’s not dead,” said Miles as they walked back to the car. “Other-wise the police would’ve been waiting for us.”

“That’s true. Speaking of which, we should get our case number,” said Anna.

When they’d finished at the police station they decided to take a slow drive around the town. The streets and avenues away from the main street were lined with neat little houses, some rectangular and flat-roofed in the Karoo style, others more ornate with delicate Victorian balconies. There were even a couple of extravagant volstruispaleise, built during the ostrich-feather boom in the twenties and thirties. But both were dilapidated and one was for sale. Some of the houses were not fenced in and their lawns, which were surprisingly green and well kept, ran down to the street unimpeded. Occasionally they saw an elderly couple sitting on garden furniture on a stoep or a gardener tending to a flower bed.

“It’s like a glorified retirement village,” said Miles.

At the end of a cul-de-sac they came upon a high white wall with double wooden doors in the middle of it. A sign above the doors read MUNICIPAL SWIMMING POOL. USE AT OWN RISK. There was a latch on the doors, but no lock.

The temperature was already up in the mid-nineties again, and the sky was cloudless.

“Let’s get our costumes and have a swim,” said Anna.

They returned to the hotel to change. At the café across the road they bought cool drinks, a newspaper, and a packet of crisps. Although Samuel was far from forgotten, they had not discussed the accident since the previous night’s argument in the hospital. Anna and Miles rarely saw an argument through to its final conclusion. Their arguments were often interrupted by sleep or by having to rush off to work or answering a telephone call. The contents of these arguments were then stored for later use, like fatty deposits in a body, until the relationship started to lose its original shape.

Anna was looking forward to the cool grip of the water on her arms and legs. She had bought her bikini in a little boutique off Kensington High Street. The sales woman, unable to disguise her envy, had asked Anna where she was going on holiday.

“I’m going home,” Anna had replied. “To Cape Town.”

Saying these words had filled her with a strange sense of relief; it comforted her to know that she had an escape clause in her contract with London. But in her relationship with Miles she had not yet worked out what her escape clause was. Six months ago she’d discovered that she was pregnant. Miles had suggested marriage without being prompted by her. Abortion, he already knew, was not an option. Anna had polycystic ovaries, and it was a pleasant surprise to her that she’d managed to get pregnant. It was something she’d presumed would never happen. And so she was prepared to have the child with or without Miles. One Saturday morning they went out and bought a ring together. But after thirteen and a half weeks her body had announced, by way of torrential bleeding, that it just wasn’t equipped for the capricious business of reproduction. She was reminded of this every time she looked at the ring on her finger.

The town seemed resigned to the heaviness of the midday heat. Sunlight bleached the streets and houses. Dogs lay in driveways, apparently comatose; at a crossroads a man was sprawled on a grass verge, his weed-eater and plastic visor discarded by his side; a child’s tricycle stood abandoned and glinting on a scorched pavement. It could have been a scene from a movie in which a town has been struck by a deadly virus.

For a town that was seemingly uninhabited there were a surprising number of bed-and-breakfast signs on the streets. Miles commented on this as he parked the car outside the gates of the municipal pool. Perhaps, he said, instead of returning to Cape Town from London—as they planned to do in a year’s time—they should open a bed and breakfast in the town. For the cost of a one-bedroom flat in Battersea they could probably buy a four-bedroom house here and still have money left over for renovations.

Miles took Anna’s hand as they walked up to the pool’s entrance. Something—the touch of his skin, the prospect of swimming—drove a wave of blood through her body. There was no sound of splashing from the pool and the thought of being alone in the water with Miles sent a warm tingle down to her navel. Perhaps, she thought, for the first time in weeks she would initiate sex. Miles pushed the wooden doors and they swung back, almost with too much ease, to reveal a large rectangular pool, twenty-five yards in length, surrounded on all sides by knee-high grass. Anna walked to the edge, and then groaned. The pool was empty.

 

They returned to the hospital at three o’clock. In lieu of swimming, they’d settled for cold showers in their hotel room, then packed their bags and checked out. When Dr. Prinsloo arrived she nodded at Anna and Miles and they followed her into a small office. She sat down and focused her gray eyes on the desk in front of her. As she spoke she pushed her glasses up against the bridge of her nose with her forefinger.

“This morning Samuel failed to wake up. His body seems to be in a state of shock. He’s not in a coma, but he is unconscious.”

“But he was conscious last night,” said Miles.

“Yes. Which is why I think his body has gone into a delayed form of shock. He’s undernourished and probably hasn’t been sober in years. It’s too much for his body to handle. It needs to rest.”

“And the X rays?” asked Anna.

“We found a small hairline fracture at the back of the skull. But I’m not sure whether it was caused by yesterday’s collision. It seems to me that most of the impact was on the forehead, which is just badly bruised, nothing more.”

Anna looked at Miles and then at the doctor. “So what happens now?”

“There’s not much we can do until his condition changes. He’s stable for the time being, so there’s no real cause for concern. As I said, he’s unconscious, not in a coma.”

“And what if he falls into a coma?” said Miles.

“Then we’d have to transfer him to the provincial hospital in George. But it’s unlikely.”

“How long do you think he’ll be unconscious for?” said Anna.

“It’s impossible to say really. Perhaps another hour or two. Or maybe a couple of weeks. I’m sorry I can’t be more precise, but everyone’s body reacts differently to these things, and God knows what his body has been through.”

“We’re only out here for a short time,” said Miles. “We can’t just wait around indefinitely.”

“I understand. Legally, you aren’t obliged to wait around.” 

“Unless he dies,” said Anna.

The doctor smiled. “I think he’ll be OK. He’s getting good care. Sorry I can’t give you better news.”

“What about his relatives?” said Anna.

The doctor shrugged. “No one has come yet.” There was a silence. Then the doctor said, “Where are you from, if you don’t mind me asking?”

“London,” replied Anna. “We came out to find a wedding venue. We’re thinking of moving back next year.”

“To here?”

“No, no. Cape Town.”

“Where did you stay last night?” The doctor’s tone had softened and Anna felt as if there was genuine interest in her voice. Perhaps, she thought, this was her way of packaging and distributing bad news.

“The hotel in the main street.”

The doctor nodded.

“We were only planning on staying for one night. But it looks like we might have to stay longer.” Anna turned and looked at Miles. “Don’t you think so?”

“Is it really necessary?” Miles asked the doctor.

“No one can force you to stay, if that’s what you mean, although I presume you’ve been to the police.”

“Yes,” said Anna.

Miles shifted in his chair.

“Then perhaps you’d feel better if you waited for his condition to improve. It’s your decision though.”

“I think we should stay for at least one more night,” said Anna.

The doctor rose to her feet, as if to say that this final bid had been accepted. “I’m sorry but I have to get back to work.”

Anna and Miles stood up and followed the doctor to the door. But at the door the doctor stopped and turned to Anna.

“If you are staying another night, you’re welcome to have a drink with me. I know what it feels like to be alone in a strange town.”

Anna and Miles looked at one another but said nothing.

“I know it’s an odd invitation from someone you hardly know. It’s just that I don’t get to see people of my own age very often.”

“Sure . . . OK,” said Miles.

“Is six-thirty all right?”

“That sounds good, thanks,” said Anna.

They watched in silence as the doctor drew a rough map on a Post-it and handed it to Miles as if it were a prescription. “It’s very easy to find. See you later.” And then she opened the door and was gone, leaving behind a faint scent of lavender in her wake.

 

Miles splashed his face with cold water. He’d never sweated like this before. Even the slightest exertion resulted in a small flood from under his arms or down his forehead. He dried himself with a hand towel and walked back into the room. Anna was fast asleep. They’d booked into the same room at the hotel and decided to avoid the heat of the afternoon by having a siesta. But Miles could not sleep. The room was not air-conditioned and he’d drawn the curtains in an effort to keep out the heat. Now, instead of being bright and hot, the room was dark and muggy. Miles found it difficult to breathe, although he could hear Anna’s lungs exhaling and inhaling, deeply and steadily, as if supported by a machine. It annoyed him that she could sleep with such ease. He lay on the bed and leafed through a brochure from the lavender farm. But the thought of the wedding left him feeling exhausted.

Next he tried reading a woman’s magazine that Anna had bought at a service station because it had a feature on flower arrangements for weddings. Anna muttered something in her sleep and rolled onto her side, facing Miles. Her upper lip twitched slightly. Just above it Miles saw little drops of sweat gathered like dew on the soft hairs that she occasionally had to peroxide. She also had hairs on her chin, which she plucked from time to time.

Miles tossed the magazine onto a chair. With an exaggerated sigh that he hoped would wake Anna he rose, put on a fresh T-shirt and went downstairs to the bar. It was the only air-conditioned room in the hotel. He sat at the counter and smiled at Danie, the hotel owner, who was doing a stock count behind the bar. A cigarette was loosely impaled in the corner of his mouth.

“What can I get for you?” he asked Miles.

Miles ordered a Windhoek Lager. Danie placed a chilled beer glass down next to it, but Miles had already started drinking from the bottle. To explain his thirst Miles felt obliged to comment on the heat.

“You never get used to it,” said Danie. “But you do get used to sweating.”

Miles did not attempt to take the conversation any further and Danie went back to his stock count. Miles sipped the beer and wondered how long he should wait before waking Anna. Although the more he thought about it the more he realized that he needed some time on his own. He wasn’t sure whether he was just imagining the distance that had grown between him and Anna, but recently when he spoke to her it seemed as if there was a time delay, as if he was speaking to someone on an overseas phone call, complete with the echoes and reverberations of entire continents and oceans, which provided a backdrop to the stilted words being pushed back and forth between them. He knew that the situation could not stay as it was for long. Sooner or later there would have to be either a rapid improvement or a fatal decline.

“You from Cape Town?” asked Danie, who was on his knees behind the counter.

Miles cleared his throat. “Originally.”

Danie stood up and poured himself a tumbler of brandy and Coke. He stirred it with his index finger.

“Will you be joining us for dinner tonight?”

“I don’t think so. We’ve been invited out.”

Danie stopped stirring his drink and sucked his finger. “You have friends here?”

“No. Just someone we met. A doctor.”

“Ah. Doctor Prinsloo.”

“Yes, how—”

“There’s only two doctors in town. Doctor Prinsloo and Doctor Jacobs. And I can’t see Doctor Jacobs making friends with you.” Danie took a long sip of his drink.

“So you know Doctor Prinsloo?” said Miles.

“I can’t say I know her, but I’ve been to her once or twice about my arthritis. A pretty girl that one. But I think she finds living here a bit lonely. This isn’t a place for young people. Most of them are like you: just visitors. Another beer?”

Miles nodded.

“Why are there so many guest houses here?”

“Don’t talk to me about guest houses. They’re the reason this hotel is closing down.”

“Why?” Miles leaned forward with both elbows on the bar.

“Look around you. Do you see any guests? Do you see me printing money? Man, I’ve been making a steady loss for the past five years. But every year another moffie arrives in the town and opens a B and bloody B. They bring nothing to this town, man, nothing. They don’t hire locals. They cook and clean themselves. What does that do for the community? They’re not providing jobs. So I’m moving into property. I might as well make some money selling houses to the moffies.” Danie coughed and then lit a fresh cigarette with the embers of his old one.

“Smoke?” He held the pack up to Miles.

“Thanks.”

As Miles lit the cigarette he felt something brush against his leg. He looked down and saw the sheepdog that had been sleeping on the armchair in the foyer the previous night. Miles stroked its head and the dog sat back on its haunches and lifted a paw up against Miles’s shin.

“We went to the municipal pool this morning,” said Miles.

“Ja, that’s a bloody waste of space too.”

“I don’t understand how you can have an empty swimming pool in a place as hot as this.”

“Well, it used to be full. And it used to be very popular. But that was in the old days, before the Separate Amenities Act got repealed. Suddenly, overnight, everyone could use the pool. The municipality was still white then, and they emptied the pool rather than share it. Nowadays, of course, the municipality is black. But as you saw the pool is still empty. Why? Because they’re too bloody corrupt to afford the upkeep. Makes no difference to them anyway. They don’t know how to swim. But you can’t blame them for that—they were never allowed in the pool in the first place.”

Danie started to laugh but it escalated into a prolonged bout of coughing.

“Doesn’t anyone complain?”

“Complain? My friend, who are you going to complain to? Are you going to knock on the doors of the municipality in your swimming shorts and sunglasses and ask the mayor to be so kind as to fill up the pool? He’s too busy rebuilding the community, man. Haven’t you noticed all the lovely new bus shelters in town? Have a look when you go out tonight. There’s one on every street. State-of-the-art bus shelters. And they have to be because you’re going to wait a very long time for a bus. There’s never been a bus service in this town. But guess who got the contract to build the bus shelters. The mayor’s brother-in-law. Ja, anyway. Another beer?”

 

Miles had turned the car’s air conditioner up high. Anna was driving, he was giving directions. Dr. Prinsloo’s house was on the outskirts of the town, on a dirt road leading toward a mountain with a hoof-shaped peak that was something of a landmark in the district. Above it, in the early evening sky, an airplane was silently tugging a vapor trail in the direction of Cape Town. A reminder, thought Miles, that the world was still going about its business, no matter what happened with Samuel or Anna. When he’d returned to the hotel room from the bar Anna was already up and going to some effort to make herself look attractive. Miles had commented on this—although probably more because of the beer than Anna’s clothes and make-up—and Anna had kissed him on the lips, sending, momentarily, a quiver through the nerves in his stomach. This was after all, he reminded himself, the woman he was going to marry. He reached over the gearstick and squeezed Anna’s thigh through her skirt. He held his hand there for some time, steady and firm, like a sailor keeping his hand on the tiller in rough weather.

Dr. Prinsloo was sitting on the steps that led up to the stoep of her house. On the step next to her was a beer can that she was using as an ashtray. She waved when she saw Miles and Anna pulling into her driveway and stood up to welcome them. She was wearing faded jeans and a white blouse. Her hair was hanging down to her shoulders and the colors of the dying afternoon light emphasized its redness. As she approached the car she lifted her hair up off her neck with both hands, running her fingers through it and then flicking it back over her shoulders. Like Anna, she had put on make-up. Her house was square and solid looking—comfortably modest, thought Miles—with a corrugated roof and a slightly overgrown patch of lawn that went around both sides.

“Oh, please, call me Miranda,” Dr. Prinsloo was saying to Anna.

Miles shook Miranda’s hand and then followed the two women up to the stoep. Miranda took the six-pack of beer and the bottle of wine that Miles and Anna had brought, scolding them playfully for bringing so much to drink, and then told them to make themselves comfortable around a cane-and-glass table while she took the beer and wine inside. She returned carrying a small tray of drinks, an ice bucket, and a bowl of biltong. After lighting a mosquito coil she sat back in her chair and smiled at Anna and Miles. There was still something of her work demeanor about her face, as if she were preparing to deliver some unpleasant news about a tricky operation.

“Just so you can relax, Samuel is still stable. Try not to worry.”

“Thanks,” said Anna. Miles nodded in agreement. His stomach had tightened at the mention of Samuel’s name.

“And his relatives?” asked Anna.

Miranda shook her head.

Anna turned to Miles. “Tomorrow we should go back to those houses and tell the people what’s happened to him.”

“Sure. Let’s not talk about it now though. OK?”

“I was only saying . . .”

“I know, I know. You just want to do the right thing.” Miles put his hand on Anna’s thigh but she crossed her legs and his arm fell into the void between their chairs.

Miranda pushed the bowl of biltong toward Miles and Anna. “So you were just passing through?”

“Yes,” said Anna, and she explained about the wedding and the lavender farm.

Miles suddenly felt that sitting there on the stoep and listening to Anna’s small talk was the last thing in the world he wanted to be doing. He was tired and hot and his mind was on other things. They should never have accepted the doctor’s drinks invitation. But it was too late now. It was too late for many things. Mostly, it was too late for him to stand up and calmly announce that he’d rather be doing anything else than sitting there and talking about wedding plans and pretending that all was well. He felt like grabbing Anna’s hand and dragging her off somewhere and having the whole thing out, once and for all. Instead he sat pressed back into his chair as if he were in a car that was attempting to break the land-speed record.

Miranda was saying how suitable she thought the lavender farm would be for their wedding. It fascinated Miles how talk of a wedding can instantly bond two women. He chewed on a piece of biltong and arranged his face until it had his best thoughtful expression on it. It was an expression he wore in meetings at work when he was hungover. From time to time he nodded to lend added weight to some or other point that Anna was making about wedding cakes or table settings. Something about the scene reminded him of his childhood, of listening to his mother talking to one of her friends about some adult business that he didn’t understand. And he felt then that he was possibly only pretending to be an adult, and that at any second a real adult might appear on the stoep and tell him to sit up straight or tuck in his shirt. He shifted self-consciously in his chair, pretending to swat at a mosquito to explain his restlessness.

“And you?” Anna asked Miranda. “How long have you been living here?”

“About a year. This was my mother’s house. After she died I decided to move from Cape Town.”

As Miles pretended to listen he removed Miranda’s blouse with his eyes. Underneath was a lacy white bra, which came off with surprising ease. While Miranda explained something about a long-term relationship fizzling out and her needing to get away from Cape Town, Miles began to kiss her breasts, which were ample in size. She stood up so that he could slide her jeans off her legs. Her thighs were smooth, although, postulated Miles, perhaps a little too white. She was not wearing panties and her pubic hair had been neatly manicured into a soft rust-colored wedge. Living in a small town, Miranda was telling Anna, was a major adjustment after the city, but she was enjoying the work in the hospital, especially as she was one of only two doctors in the town. It must be difficult at times, said Anna, as Miles moved behind Miranda and gently pushed her facedown onto the table with one hand, while slapping her buttocks with the other. Well, there’s more responsibility, and I’m also learning to run my own practice, said Miranda, groaning slightly as Miles entered her from behind. Have some more biltong, Miranda said to Anna, while Miles began to slide deeper into her. Anna asked Miranda how long she intended to stay in the town. Miranda didn’t answer straight away because she was busy spreading her arms out wide to steady herself against Miles’s rapidly strengthening thrusts. But Miles decided that it would be better if Miranda were on her back, so he flipped her round, using the break in activity to take a much needed sip of his beer. Miranda placed her legs over Miles’s shoulders and told Anna that she planned on moving back to Cape Town one day, and that she’d keep the house as a place to retire to.

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