The house to themselves. Children with the house to themselves. When they were still children, what wild release that signaled; romping from room to room, all lights burning, bedtime banished, the thrills of outlawry within the safety of home; the housemaid’s protests to scatter them, shrieking, only to recommence the game of freedom, because Bettie’s authority was no more founded in reality than the game.
On Friday night, after Pauline, Joe and the third child of the family, Carole had left for the weekend, Bettie cooked the meal of chops and chips—Sasha’s favorite as a child—for which his mother, Pauline, had left instructions. Hillela sat on the floor untidily as a rag doll propped there, telephoning, all animation gathered into her chance to talk without interruption from others wanting to use the phone. She was making arrangements to go out, Sasha knew. He went away to some other part of the house so as not to listen to his cousin’s conversation. But she did not go out.
He heard her looking for him.
She was in the garden, now. He went to his mother’s room, that overlooked the direction of the voice. From the silent observation of the room that held the engine hum of Pauline and Joe’s lives, he saw her shadow sloping away from her. He waited to hear her call again.
The cat came running, as it would to anything that sounded like a summons to food or fondling. Their shadows joined as she stopped to chide and croon at it for being so stupid. He opened the closed window that marked the absence of his parents and jumped. Out of the stiff cold oleander bushes whose dead leaves smoothed past his legs like blunt knives, his shadow joined hers and the cat’s. For a while the angled, elongated mobile that was the three shadows jazzed, darted, and leant towards and away from the tilted phantom of the house, all cast over the dead lawn by the light of stars piercing a spill of jagged ice across the sky. The cat’s eyes, as she drew the pair into one of her zany night ecstasies, were moons, rather than the sliver lifted too high and far in the black clarity of space. Their round phosphorescent gold, the flash of translucence as she pranced in profile, brought back the moons of summer, the nights of the smell of burning flesh from suburban braaivleis. Then she was gone.
Sasha had on his sweater but like most young males who live in a climate of long summers and never accept the brief reality of winter, he wore about the house, in all seasons, the same shorts and rubber-thonged sandals. The cold steeped his legs palpably as water; Hillela puffed out a breath to see it hang in the air. They went through the gate, each with arms crossed, hugging self, and began to walk; to walk the streets of the suburb as people are brought out by a summer night. Block after block; they passed through planes, bared horizontals and verticals stripped by winter. Abstract shapes; only among the pavement jacarandas, that do not shed their leaves till spring, each streetlight swam, a luminous fish in a cave of green carved out of the night. Although when the three young people—Hillela and her cousins, Sasha and Carole—were together, there was the fidgety adolescent abhorrence of silence, the need to talk simply because one is alive, the two did not talk much. Hillela hummed one of her guitar tunes now and then. When they did exchange a remark, a phrase or laugh shattered the clear cold like a stone thrown. At times there was the feeling, in the rhythm of their progress, that they might be making for somewhere; at others (when a corner was reached), that they were looking for a destination. There was none; or none other. They arrived back at the gate. All the lights were burning in the house except in Pauline and Joe’s bedroom, where a window stood open. Bettie had not locked up, knowing there was no one to reproach her neglect. The house was one of those legendary ships that sail on, fully rigged, without a living soul aboard.
They stamped in, Hillela putting her hands, warm from her pockets, over red-cold ears. Now she would go to the telephone, now she would put on lipstick, fluff her hair with her fingers and leave him there … Now he waited for her to call goodbye. She appeared with a pair of his football socks on over her jeans, threw a second pair for him to catch. —Don’t worry, I haven’t been into any of your things. They weren’t put in your room yet, they were among stuff Bettie’s washed.—
The house to themselves. Even the children they had been had slipped away forever in the adult silences of a night walk. He offered: —D’you want a fire?—
—Too much fag to go out for wood.—
—I feel like a drink.—
—Okay, I’ll make tea. Coffee?—
—I mean a drink. What about you?—
But without waiting for her to say, he went to take a bottle of wine from his father’s rack and forgot the glasses. She brought the first thing she saw in the kitchen, two cocoa mugs.
—It’ll taste the same.—
He went for glasses.
Smiling, she watched him open the bottle. —You’re supposed to wipe the rim.—
—Why, it’s not dirty.—
—I don’t know. They always do—when I’m staying at Aunt Olga’s. And Uncle Arthur always sniffs it first.—
—And what’s that in aid of.—
To see if it’s corked.—
He filled the glasses. —The education you’re getting—what a great start in life.—
Hillela took his sharpness kindly, with enjoyment. Her cheekbones, dusky-red with cold, lifted under her strange eyes whose iris, he had examined and explained to her, had no grain to differentiate it from the dark pupil. —At least I’m learning to drive.—
—Ja, more than I am. But you ought to get your learner’s licence, you know. I suppose you’re driving around illegally all over the place.—
—In what? Olga gives me the lessons, but you don’t think she’d lend me her car!—
—Your friends let you, I’m sure. They wouldn’t have any better sense, that crowd of yours.—
Hillela was always in command of any subject of conversation, changed it at will. —You teach me to play chess.—
He looked at her. —Now?—
He drank, struck a note from the glass with thumb and forefinger. —What for?—
—What for. To play, of course. Oh you think I’m too stupid.—
At once his face was sullen with anxiety. —You are not stupid, Hillela.— He moved his head as if tethered somewhere; and broke loose. —You are the most intelligent person living in this house.—
She laughed and made an exaggerated movement pretending to spill her wine. —Of course. There’s no one here except you.—
—And it’s true.—
—Then only you think so.— At once she turned away quickly from what she had said. —Come on. We’ve got all night.—
They took the bottle and went into Joe’s study, intending to fetch the chess set that was kept on a filing cabinet, but instead of returning to the living room, settled themselves there with the radiator turned on and the wine at hand, in that room in the house that was never for general use, where Bettie was not even allowed to dust because of the importance and confidentiality of the papers and documents filed and piled within it. (Like most conscientious lawyers, Joe did much of his work at home, after office hours.) They lifted the legs of the burdened desk and pulled from beneath it the sheepskin foot rug, to sit on, they dumped the papers from a stool to make of it a low table between them. Given in, Sasha was explaining to her. —It’s too abstract for you. You’ll learn, all right. But you’ll only want to play when there’s nothing else to do. And that’s not what chess is. How shall I say—you’ll always be wanting to do something else.—
She was setting up the men, an Africanized set made of malachite. —I don’t want to do something else.—
Sasha was looking at Hillela, looking at her. Yes, she was there; she had not, tonight, called out goodbye.
In the small hours, the child abandoned in the dark and cold came back to possess a body again for a moment. Sasha woke to some awful interruption; he had the sensation of a terrible discovery and disbelief he had had when, for a period when he was already around eight years old, he would find he had wet the bed. But it was a regular slamming sound, and not a tactile sensation, that had wakened him; his bed was dry, he was not alone, there was the wonderful heavy warmth of breasts against him, and the passing time that brought him to consciousness was measured by the gentle clock of another’s breathing. Hillela was there. There was nobody else. He got up and went, knowing his way in the dark in this empty house, to that bedroom where the window had been left open and was banging to and fro in the wind.