Issue 225, Summer 2018
FINAL INSTALLMENT . . .
Mr. Field, a concert pianist, splinters his wrist in a train crash and uses his compensation pay-out 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. Soon after their arrival, his wife, Mim, leaves without explanation. Left alone in the house, with its narrow windows and -unusual -arrangement of space, Mr. Field’s thoughts are -oriented away from his failed marriage and -toward the sea, the construction site next door, and a deceptively simple prelude by Chopin. As winter -approaches, he becomes -increasingly reclusive, until his only companion is an imaginary projection of the house’s prior -inhabitant Hannah Kallenbach.
It doesn’t look like life, it looks like sea life
I sometimes sat and looked backward: instead of facing the solarium window and looking at the panoramic part of the view, I’d sit with my back to it and look at the building site. Despite the weather, at eight o’clock each morning the construction site came to life. The workers arrived and started doing things, restoring the large sheets of plastic tacked to the window openings, refilling the ditches in which the matrix of pipes—the skeleton of the sewage system—had been laid. Their activities said, Everything can be made good again. The bricklaying said, One thing stacked on another will amount to something. In the context of a peninsula that seemed to be slipping into the sea, there was something satisfyingly contrary about the way that, a row at a time, the circular walls were rising from the perfectly square podium. It’s better than the alternative, said Hannah Kallenbach. What’s the alternative? I said. Erosion.
And it’s true; if there’s one thing that bored me it was watching the coastline in its losing battle with the sea. I was tired of how the ocean pulled up and subtracted a few inches of shore. I was sick of the gigantic waves pressing so constantly against the harbor wall that I feared one day I’d wake to find it gone completely. I was tired of the mountain dirt tumbling down the mountain and the stagnating seaweed making the air reek of rotting chicken and the salt corroding the window frames, how every day the ocean drew things into itself—a sandbag, kelp, it even swept away two boys (who were later recovered by lifeguards).
Sometimes, with the sun shining brightly through the blueness of a winter’s afternoon, I’d go driving. Not for any particular reason or in any particular direction, just heading out for an hour or two until (as happens sometimes when one is tired or has been driving for some time) I couldn’t say which direction I was facing or which way was home. I’d start out, as was my habit, along the coastal road, winding my way around the peninsula through seaside suburbs whose names and streets I didn’t know. At the beginning, the sea would be on my right. In the middle of the ocean was an iron structure—not a building, a large machine for retrieving or measuring things. On my left were churches and B and Bs and retirement homes, their windows hidden behind lace curtains.
Mostly I headed out in the general direction of the city—which is where the coastal road ended up—because I liked the company of the city workers heading home, their routes intersecting with mine at traffic lights and roundabouts. And although I’d sometimes veer inland, through the poorer suburbs, I’d always keep the sea nearby (I couldn’t see it but there were seagulls circling overhead) so that if I turned right, before long, I would see it again.
But one day, having lost my bearings in a suburb with rows of identically shaped houses, I arrived in an industrial area somewhere west of the city. It was early evening and traffic was at a standstill. A group of begging children threaded their way down the aisle of cars with a cardboard sign—your kindness is appreciated god bless—and, because I was frightened of them, I opened my wallet and emptied out a wad of cash, mostly pounds.
I didn’t recognize Hannah Kallenbach at first because she looked so different from the Hannah Kallenbach I’d been carrying around in my mind. I might not have recognized her at all were it not for her dangly flower earrings, the ones she had worn when first we met. I was so surprised to see her in the car beside me that I didn’t notice the traffic moving until a man behind me hooted, shouting, You’ve got a car, now learn how to drive it!
I lost her for a while and then she drew up beside me again. She wore a blue mackintosh and her hair was wet, from swimming or getting caught in the rain. She had an amused expression, maybe someone had said something funny on the radio, and was less severe looking than I remembered, perhaps because she was eating something from a polystyrene box. Perhaps she looked less formidable because she looked more tanned than before, or more muscular maybe. Or because her hair had grown quite bushy. I felt drawn to her. It was more than just the pleasure of recognition, more than the pleasure of seeing someone again. She was an attractive woman, I thought. Though perhaps, like the redbrick textile factories and low-rise carpet warehouses beside the road that grew more brooding as the evening approached, it was just the way her face was backlit by the setting sun which gave it a romantic sort of mysteriousness.
When the row of cars moved forward, Hannah Kallenbach looked over at me with the narrow eyes I remembered so clearly. I lowered my head and turned the knobs on the stereo. Remember, a man on the radio said, you are the master of your emotions. At night things feel worse because your power over your emotions weakens. On another station, a lawyer was talking about a man who’d stabbed his wife nine times because she’d told him his kids weren’t his and she was going to leave him for someone younger and thinner.
I stayed behind Hannah Kallenbach, indicating when she did, taking her turnoffs. I don’t know why I was following her, and the imaginary Hannah Kallenbach, displaced by the proximity of the real one, wasn’t there to ensure that every move I made was tracked down and accounted for.
Hannah Kallenbach drove slowly, as if allowing me to keep sight of her taillights as the streets darkened. Following her had produced a pleasant sensation in me, a kind of lightness, a floating sensation, the sort of dizziness you get from singing or the weightlessness which makes someone who is happy or traveling very fast say, It feels like I’m flying. I turned right and left along the grid of city streets, which narrowed eventually, until the buildings got shorter and further apart and their vertical thrust gave way to jacaranda branches curving over me, which made the streets feel less like streets and more like tunnels leading to another world. I knew I was driving badly. I nearly knocked over an old man crossing the road with a crutch, but I had the feeling that I was not in charge of where I was going, that I was being moved by something, something bigger than me, as one gets carried along by faith or a body of ideas, so when he swore at me I just shook my head as if to say that it wasn’t me driving and I couldn’t be expected to take any responsibility for it. Swathes of time passed in which I couldn’t say where I’d been or what had happened around me. I tried to concentrate. Eyes, do your work! I said, as though my eyes weren’t automatically watching where I was going, as though without instruction they might stray off or spend too long looking at the signs beside the road.