Issue 183, Winter 2007
Toward the end of last summer, when I was combating a bout of loneliness after the death of my wife, a new neighbor moved in next door. He arrived at number 16—I’m number 14—late one night. I had seen the color advertisement for the house in the property section of the Cape Times: panoramic views of the Atlantic; three-minute walk from the beach; twenty-minute drive from the center of Cape Town; six bedrooms en suite; swimming pool; double garage; price on application.
The for sale signs went down the same day he moved in. Although when I say “moved in,” I don’t mean that he was accompanied by a moving van and a stream of brown boxes; he came only with his driver, who, I would later discover, was also his bodyguard. If there were any suitcases I never saw them. I was sitting on my pool deck, having a final cigarette before bed, when I heard him step out onto the balcony of what I imagined was the master bedroom. Even at such a late hour he was formally dressed in a suit and tie. His face was in shadow but I could still make out the glint of his glasses. He stood with one hand in his trouser pocket and stared into the darkness for several minutes. There was no sound apart from the waves throwing themselves onto the rocks below us. We couldn’t have been more than ten or fifteen yards from one another, and the cool Atlantic breeze was carrying the smoke from my cigarette up toward him. He cleared his throat, and from out of the shadows around his head I heard a crisp, well-spoken voice say, “Good evening.”
“Evening,” I replied. “Welcome to Llandudno.”
“Thank you. It’s very pleasant out here.”
“You can feel that autumn’s on its way, though.”
Whatever he said in reply was lost in the pounding of the waves. After a few moments he said, “Well, good night,” and as he turned back toward the light of the curtainless bedroom I caught a brief glimpse of a slender, graying man with dark skin.
He stayed for only two days and then I didn’t see him for nearly a month. While he was away several vans delivered furniture, still wrapped in plastic, and later I noticed that curtains had been fitted in the master bedroom. I had recently retired and so had plenty of time to watch these comings and goings. Mostly I am on my own. Three years ago my wife was taken from me in pieces: first her right breast went; then her left breast; then her will to fight; until, finally, what remained of her was wheeled away down a corridor. My two boys are in London, and my daughter still insists on living in Johannesburg, in the same house in which we were all once a family.
For many years I ran an advertising agency in Johannesburg. When I sold my shares in it my wife and I bought the house in which I now live. We were lucky because that was just before the property market erupted and I doubt that I could afford the house today. My wife did most of the interior decorating and oversaw the renovations, but toward the end she became too ill to leave Johannesburg and she never did get to live here. She made me promise to move in after she was gone, as she didn’t want strangers living in the dream house we had worked so hard for together. So I spend my days alone, although I am constantly surrounded by her.
Most of the houses here are holiday homes. They stand empty for long periods of the year, and in the summer they fill with tourists—those that can afford the ridiculous weekly rates for a rental—and local people who have either had the houses in their families for decades or were fortunate enough to buy at the right time. Few people move in permanently. Because of this there isn’t any sense of community and people rarely acknowledge their neighbors. And so for company I have to make do with the echoes of my wife’s voice.
I suppose it was company I was looking for when I invited my new neighbor over for a drink one afternoon. He was just getting out of his car in the driveway as I was walking back from the beach. As usual he was dressed formally in a suit. He nodded at me, and I walked over and stretched my hand out to him
“Dennis Moorcraft,” I said, feeling his smooth fingers tentatively squeeze my hand
Later I would read in the newspapers that this was his Christian name. He seemed slightly surprised when I suggested he join me for a sundowner or two, and he glanced at his driver, who was scrutinizing me with heavy-lidded eyes, before politely accepting my offer.
From my pool deck there is an unrestricted view of the Atlantic. My wife had designed it so that it would be the ideal spot to watch the sun setting over the sea. With the ocean so near, and the sounds of the waves as constant as a heartbeat, it sometimes feels as though I’m sitting aboard an ocean liner. As my brother, who now lives in Canada, once said when he came out on a visit, “It’s like standing on the upper deck of the Titanic.”
Bradshaw and I sat side by side, facing out to sea, he in a linen suit and tie, me in a golf shirt and Bermuda shorts. My eyes were drawn to his hands, which seemed to hang in the air in front of him as he spoke, as though they were wet and he was waiting for someone to pass him a hand towel. From time to time he would straighten and bend his wrists to emphasize certain points of his conversation. His fingers were long and thin, like the teeth of a comb, and the nails were in immaculate condition. In fact, everything about him and his clothing was precise and carefully measured. Before speaking, and between sentences, he would suck in his lips and it almost looked as if he were checking the words in his mouth, rolling them over with his tongue, before letting them out.
He appeared to be about my age, but his face did not bear the creases and folds that mine had. We made cautious inquiries about one another’s background, as strangers do, and how we had come to be living where we were. He kept his questions vague and circumspect, and I got the impression that he wished me to do the same.
It turned out he was not from South Africa. He was, he said, a businessman from a neighboring country. From what I could gather he was involved in imports and exports. However he was gradually phasing himself out of his work and he hoped to be fully retired within three months. When I asked him about his family he shrugged and said, “They may visit from time to time.” I thought it odd that he would move all this way on his own, particularly when he had such a large house, but then I realized that I was in a similar position and I ushered the conversation on to a less personal subject.
We discovered that we had both spent some time in England. He had studied at the London School of Economics, and I had spent several years working in advertising in London before coming home to start up my own agency. We were drinking Scotch on the rocks, and by the time I’d refreshed our glasses for the third time we were both sitting a little lower in our chairs. Bradshaw’s hands became more animated as he spoke.
“A few months ago,” he said, “I had to entertain some English businessmen. At the end of their stay I asked them how they liked my country and one of them said, Well, it’s not England, and I replied, Oh, so you like it then?”
We both laughed out loud at this, and he reached over and squeezed my forearm.