Issue 224, Spring 2018
IN OUR PREVIOUS INSTALLMENT . . .
Mr. Field, a concert pianist, splinters his wrist in a train crash and uses his compensation to buy a house he has seen only in photographs: a replica of Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye on a stretch of coast outside Cape Town. He moves there with his wife, Mim, and within weeks, the house begins to have a disturbing effect on him. Its glass walls and open-plan spaces estrange the couple, while its unusually narrow windows, which, like a peep show, hold their contents tantalizingly out of view, excite him. As time passes, his thoughts are drawn, repeatedly, to a brief encounter with the house’s previous inhabitant, Hannah Kallenbach, with whom he felt an unusual intimacy. Then, one night, without warning or explanation, Mim leaves.
The capacity to love
Autumn arrived with a general spray of autumn color. It wasn’t winter yet, but it would be; there was a hint in the air of the cold to follow. The village was quiet. The cafés had covered their tables and upturned their chairs and the ice-cream shop had its roller shutters pulled shut. Waiters at the fish-and-chip shop loitered around with nobody to serve. The holidaymakers who’d swarmed the bead shops and art galleries (I’m looking for a painting with ocher in it, something to go with my Indian silk curtains) had covered their sofas, locked their houses, and left.
I hadn’t liked the holidaymakers. I hadn’t liked the way they clogged up the roads with their expensive cars and sat around in cafés—the men in cricket hats and the women with their hair curled under—staring at the sea over the tops of their newspapers with their mouths open as though they were so at ease with themselves that they’d forgotten they were in public. All summer I’d longed for them to be gone but when the cavalcade of -motorbikes and white sedans towing boats made its way out along the road toward Cape Town, I regretted their leaving. Surrounded by deserted roads and deserted windows, I felt like I’d been separated from the total mass of the population, like someone left in an environment that wasn’t intended for humans anymore.
I thought of Mim, but not often. I missed her, but in an ordinary way. I didn’t pine for her. I didn’t miss her in the way you’re meant to miss someone you love. And the truth is that sometimes I even enjoyed the small, unforeseen pleasures of my situation. Like the quiet, or the predictability of days spent alone, or being able to walk around the house naked without it seeming sexual. But there were times in bed, when my feet couldn’t find hers to warm themselves against, when all at once my body would register her absence with such shock that I’d go to the window and stare at the empty parking space where her car used to be as though its return were somehow more likely if my gaze was there, waiting for it.
Sometimes, in the afternoons, which were a lonely time, I’d go down to the café. Sitting among the families eating and couples fighting and friends meeting for coffee, I’d find myself thinking, though not explicitly, about myself. Or rather, thinking about myself in relation to them. They are so much better than me, I’d be thinking. Because as I watched people eating and talking and letting their knees touch under the table, the banal phenomena that are repeated in almost exactly the same way by hundreds of people day in, day out, I was, all the time, making comparisons between myself and them. I watched how long it took people to eat compared to me and thought, What’s the matter with me, why am I so hungry? I watched people adjusting their hair with their hands and thought, How often do they touch their hair compared to me? I watched friends exchanging platitudes and thought, How bored they look, sitting there. Do they like being together? Why do they choose to spend time with each other rather than being alone? I watched mothers feeding their children and answering their childish questions and thought, What is it about having children that gives people pleasure? Perhaps they liked teaching them things. Then I saw a boy touching his mother’s face and playing with her hair and thought, It must be nice to be adored in that way.
One afternoon, encircled by strange thoughts like these, I left the house. Instead of taking the coastal road into the village, I made my way along the dirt path that led through the nature reserve on the mountain. The trail was easy and popular with tourists; in summer it was overrun with rosy-faced holidaymakers in hiking gear, but that afternoon, although the cold and the winds had not yet set in, the car park had only the odd car in it, and the path itself was empty apart from a few people shuffling around in raincoats.
The path had started out in the direction of the village but it soon -became apparent that it didn’t lead toward it, or if it did, it did so -indirectly, circling toward its destination via a series of staircases and diversions. I walked slowly. All around me—the end of the day was looming—was white grass yellowing, green grass lightening to a yellower, more luminous green. Birds, invisible in some tree, were squawking. I was alert to people passing. I saw joggers and women walking in pairs, their shadows mingling with mine on the path. I saw rock rabbits. I saw a picture of a lost dog taped to a tree and this, for some reason, seemed significant. Leathery shrubs with pale-pink flowers poked from the rock face.