Stephen Watson, renowned Cape Town writer and poet, passed away on Sunday. He was recently awarded the Thomas Pringle Award for his short story “Buiten Street”, which appeared in the 144th issue of New Contrast. For this special edition of Fiction Friday we bring you the story in its entirety.
Special thanks to New Contrast for this contribution:
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by Stephen Watson
All creatures on this earth, I know,
Must suffer love’s ordeal.
It is always, as they say, by chance.
The printer late for our appointment, with time to kill, I had stepped outside his shop and wandered off, empty-headed, tense, my mind snowing like a TV screen. I was walking in any direction, past those non-spaces—parking-garages, business parks—which Cape Town, no less than any other 21st-century city, abounds in today, too preoccupied to register the street I had turned into.
In our daily routines each of us inscribes a private map upon the city we inhabit. Such maps highlight the district in which we live, those roads we most often travel to and from work, perhaps a café we prefer. But they are also defined by certain blank spots—spaces never traversed or which, marked by certain episodes in our biography, we do not especially wish to revisit.
This hundred-metre stretch connecting Long and Loop Streets was a through-road I had not set foot on for years. What had begun as a conscious decision, a matter of self-preservation it seemed, had long since become part of a pattern of avoidance. Haunted or otherwise contaminated ground, it had been off-limits to me for a quarter of a century.
But it was here, in Buiten Street, that she—she and I—had lived through the winter of 1980 in one of those love-affairs whose fall-out is out of all proportion to its brevity, at least for one of us. Now there was a skip of builder’s rubble beached in the parking-bay alongside the street door at No. 2, open wide to her old apartment up on the first floor. Over it, the beautiful half-moon of the fan-light still arced. Labourers were manhauling a consignment of cement up a timber staircase whose slats were dry with brick-dust, dented by a century of wear.
It was 2005, late in the year, early summer. Up at the top end of Buiten Street, Signal Hill drew its own slow dented line across a sky bleached by the southeasterly. Down-wind, the traffic of Long Street was towing its own sound behind it, like a barge. I glanced both ways. And then, uninvited, unnoticed, anonymous, I followed one of the builders, his hod of bricks, up the stairs.
She had taken over the lease from one of the sons of a famous South African artist. A costume designer, he had recently departed for New York, leaving behind his yellowwood furniture, Persian carpets, some of his father’s pastels and a kitchen stocked with the kind of utensils—earthenware crocks for casseroles, covered dishes for poaching whole fish—that made this apartment something other than a set of student digs.
Such objects had all of them long since vanished, of course, along with the walls that once separated the kitchen from the rest of the apartment. They had recently been demolished. I was standing in what had been the living-room, now empty but for a stash of cement against one wall. But it was an emptiness echoing once more, peopled.
It was here one night, in late June of that year, that we had had dinner for the first time. In the noon darkness of the room, I could almost make them out: a young woman in her early twenties, a man not much older dressed in corduroys, tweed jacket, a piece of coloured cloth wound round his neck. They had been joined by a couple who lived just across the way, above the Italian delicatessen on the upper east side of Long Street. There had been an argument, at some length, about Lina Wertmuller’s Seven Beauties, a movie almost as controversial at that time as Last Tango in Paris had been a few years earlier. But at the time of which I speak, it was past midnight; those guests had left.
We were alone, she and I, sitting on the floor, sitting close. A room above a street in the old part of the city: Long Street long since drained of its traffic, the cold at the window-panes, the remains of a fire, the lamplight. We were alone at last, our mouths dry from cigarettes, the whisky we were drinking. We were both of us teeter-tottering on the verge of that barrier always impassable till passed, about to step out of our separate lives into a very old story.
She was wearing one of those skirts from Rajasthan, stitched with sequins like tiny mirrors. A young woman, tall, her hair cut shoulderlength, worn loose, she possessed the kind of beauty by which we hope, still—we cannot help it, some of us—our lives might be redeemed. And already I loved her in the way one loves another who is patently out of one’s league. I loved her with the intensity, the edge of desperation with which one loves someone whom one knows, even at the outset, one is bound to lose and who (certain signs were clear, even then) will very likely destroy one.
Of course no more than the prohibition nailed to the street door—No Unauthorised Entry—had this deterred me from accompanying her, only moments later, here where, twenty-five years later, I was trespassing once more.
This was where the bed had been, just below the sash-window that, illfitting in its frame, had let in all the draughts of that winter’s cold fronts. Opposite had stood the table where she did her hair, below a postersize photograph of her back, unclothed, bisected only by a rope of long blonde hair. But so much else—things I had once thought irrevocable, unforgettable—were now irrecoverable.
They were like the night itself. I could remember it only as one remembers books once loved the details of which are lost: as a presence, an aura.
Stepping down to ground-level the morning after that first night, we entered the depressed precinct of Long Street, ca. 1980, with its brothel, doss-houses, its single palm-tree leaning halfway down the street, near the bottle store—all that faded world, but now vivid even in its fadedness. I remember the exultation. We felt as young lovers do: that love itself had favoured, fallen in love with us. Involuntarily in those first few days, in the middle of the morning, the afternoon, her name would rise to my lips; my mouth would move to kiss the air.
As I drifted down Long Street, past the whiffs of dagga from the doorways, myself afloat in the dangerous, sweet smell of my own nirvana, all of this belonged to me, to her. It was our city, the Victorian lodges with their fussy wrought-iron verandahs, the parapets with their balustrades along the rooflines of the buildings. Even the muezzin and his call to prayer from the Indian mosque around the corner, in Loop Street, called for us, in the depths of our profane world.
Even so, there were shadows other than the one lodged in the central well of the apartment block, and which never budged, it seemed, throughout that winter.
Early on the two of us had paid a visit to the mother of the man amidst whose borrowed furniture we were living in Buiten Street. Nothing remains from that afternoon except the expression on this woman’s face, widow of the artist, when it was time for us to take our leave. Perhaps she was one of those women who had reached that stage in her life when it was hard for her not to regard all love affairs, at least from one point of view, as a kind of misfortune. But she had known my lover from her schooldays. As she said goodbye she looked at me as if to suggest that, in advance, she pitied me.
As to why, there were other intimations.
Sometimes, on those winter evenings, making the most of the Atlantic sunset that would hold the earlier dark at bay, we would walk out along the contour path, coarse with granite sand, beneath the Twelve Apostles, following the antique pipe that once fed Cape Town with water from the system of reservoirs up on the mountain. I will see her always, high on those slopes above the sea, Camps Bay far below, and dropping away behind us, the silver trees on Lion’s Head almost phosphorescent in the cold shadow of that peak. And one night above all.
It was at that hour when the light is washing at one’s sense of self, so blurring the boundaries of one’s skin that one can no longer feel one’s separateness from the other presences, loose-textured, of stone and pine and shadow.
It was a feeling I had always loved. Perhaps she had felt it too. Imperceptibly her pace was quickening; she was striding ahead, faster and faster, following the curve of the path into the next stand of umbrella pines, her arms spread wide to embrace the darkness even as it swallowed her. Stretch followed stretch as she plunged on, lost in her own abandon, far beyond the point where we usually turned back, heedless of all: the night now flooding in, the man who languished in her wake. All the while I could feel my body hardening in its separateness even as the world about us softened and blurred. I was slipping behind. Like an athlete whose legs have gone, grinding to a halt, I was suddenly overcome by a great weariness.
Some way offshore, a band of cloud spanning the sea horizon had grown as solid in its darkness, the light behind it, as a mountain range. It would be there too, always, imprinted on my memory, because that was the moment it was borne in on me that the person I loved walked to a different rhythm, was possessed by inclinations that were alien to me—that she would remain first and last one of those women whom only one’s longing could follow.
Perhaps at the time I was not able to understand it like this. In fact it is doubtful. At the time one is able to do only what one can with such knowledge: one suffers it. I understood this, in other words, only as the sad, helpless yearning that brings someone to a halt when he is forced to recognise that another human being is the door to a life that he can never lead—a life that precisely because it is barred to him, seems not only intensely desirable, but life itself. In any case, from day to day that door was closing.
From time to time it would re-open.
There were moments of reprieve, one day in particular, when it seemed the kind of thing that grounds a human relationship in something enduring might be there.
We were returning from the coastal town of Hermanus, crossing the Overberg. There was snow on the mountains, still far off across the orchards of the Cape high country, the Boland; the roadside was dry with dust even though it was midwinter. Clouds were crossing the peaks, their shadows deepening the pitch of the lower slopes as they climbed and cleared the summit ridge-lines.
It was early afternoon, the road both open, empty, a wind buffeting the car, the grey of the fynbos turned silver in the winter light. Harry Nilsson was singing the theme song ‘Everybody’s Talkin’’ from Midnight Cowboy, a song made still more echoing, thinned by the cheap speakers through which it was issuing. She had been up all hours the previous night, drinking, energy turned up high, never flagging. But now, tired for once, she had bundled herself up against the door-frame of our VW, legs tucked under her (in the way she preferred.) For a while, I thought that sleep had taken her.
It was that, perhaps—the textures of snow far off, the dust on the shoulders of the road and the cloud shadows rich in their darkness on the mountains up ahead. That and the song. But both of us as if by some unspoken agreement had fallen silent.
For a moment all things, even in their least aspect, possessed a resonance, an implication of meaning, which life ordinarily lacks. And for one moment we two were included in it. We were together, not speaking, needing to speak, moving through time as if time itself had taken on another substance.
They were, these stolen interludes, the pay-dirt in the dirt. They would shine all the more brightly because of the surrounding dross. Having known them, one knew a little better what was meant when, in certain books, it was said of someone that henceforth his life had changed, the centre of its gravity had shifted. And why it was that he had become one of those human beings who, forever after, would be haunted in the daylight—and perhaps especially in the world of daylight—by a memory of light.
‘Alluring, yes, but all over the show.’—Such had been the judgement of a friend of mine, a cooler head, on meeting my new lover. One saw what he meant, particularly by his initial words, when, in those first few weeks, she and I would go to parties. On entering a room, it was her élan that all noticed. She was magnificent—and, that red rag to the libido of men, often haughty and contemptuous as well. On seeing her, they would clutch their drinks despairingly, as if imploring me, if only out of male solidarity, to take her away.
But I think my friend had intended his ‘all over the show’ in an emotional, not literal, sense. It was part of that élan that she could no more desist from converging, more or less passionately, with those who took her fancy than I could cast off my reserve. Years later, when I heard the Leonard Cohen song—Everybody knows you’ve been discreet,/but there were so many people you had to meet/without your clothes—I would think of her. And smile.
At the actual time, needless to say, one does not smile. More and more, come evening, I would find myself out here, on the balcony that shaded two sides of her apartment block and which, whitewashed, deep, was cool even on days of heat. From the corner of it you could see the mountain, the upper cableway station, and from time to time the cablecar itself, its claw hooked weirdly in thin air as it climbed. But by late July it was mostly alone that I would watch. Propped against one of its columns, chain-smoking, I used to wait here for her to return from places not disclosed. And more and more she would arrive late, flushed by alcohol. There were never any explanations. That was not her style.
Intellectual respectability at the time demanded that one ignore matters of fidelity or infidelity. The flesh and its inclinations were below the horizon of one’s attention. Pride—or what was left of it—doubtless had its role as well. At any rate, we never spoke. I, for my part, was paralysed by the disaster, in all its blatancy, unfolding before my eyes. I was mesmerised by the curious autonomy, the impersonality of endings—the way they so often begin snowballing as if of their own accord, in thrall only to their own momentum, fattening on themselves as they gather speed. So much so that I could no longer summon the strength to do the one thing that needs to be done in such circumstances: to cry out. Standing here again—you could step out onto the balcony through her bedroom’s French doors—what was to ensue was coming back. Not the names of those whom she was meeting, with or without her clothes—there was a blank in memory as regards such things—but the kind of passion known by those about to be abandoned.
I was remembering the emotional prostration of the cuckold, his central nervous system always on permanent red alert, not knowing when and where next he is going to be deceived. Like a Victorian lady, I was, as the winter of that year edged towards spring, always lying down.
Perhaps a discussion might have forestalled the end, issuing in a new understanding, even a reconciliation. Perhaps this was one possibility that, above all, she wished to preclude. At any rate, as night followed night, I would be out here, picking mental daisies off the weathervane on the corner turret of the Blue Lodge down the street, hearing the drunks from Carnival Court opposite. They would blow me kisses from their cast-iron verandah and, caterwauling, beg me to throw them small change for a cigarette or two.
It was coming back, how we were, so many of us in our small student circle, still prisoners of that true age of anxiety, that most difficult of decades, one’s twenties. We were people who had not yet fallen into themselves, unable to create or inhabit an emotional economy workable for ourselves, liveable for others. In my pockets were always stockpiles of cigarettes, as well as a vial of tranquillizers, Lexotan. In my lover’s notebook were long lists of foods consumed and unconsumed, all of them itemized with an obsessiveness which suggested something other than a person on diet.
Always at a certain point, throat raw, I would get into her bed, under those bed-clothes never large enough to cover both of us, and lie there listening to the sash-window rattling in its frame as the winds, ricocheting off the mountain, gathered speed in the after-hours emptiness down Long Street. I was waiting, once again, for her to come back, hearing the trucks from the City Cleansing Department moving up the street— they always came after 2 am—their giant brushes whirring, orange lights flashing, beeping incessantly like my insomnia, my panic.
My lover had a flat-mate with whose boyfriend she would sleep both before and after this still younger woman had moved into No. 2—as I was to later learn. It was she who, taking pity on me one August night, in the living-room of this apartment, had put me out of my misery, confirming what I must have known all along but could not bear to admit to myself. ‘The banal deceits of the body’, someone once called them. But young, one is painfully vulnerable to the insult of betrayal; the shell of one’s sexual self-confidence is easily broken. Worse, the heart that loves wholeheartedly is always rendered innocent by its own ardour; there is no space left for guile. Undefended as it is, there is only the capacity, almost bottomless, for outrage when it discovers that the purity of its intent has been profaned—and it is forced to learn the lesson that literature, perhaps more readily than life, teaches: that the prototype of all romantic love is the love that kills.
Of course one doesn’t kill; and one doesn’t die. Rather, something dies in one. One goes on. But things are not the same again. Or one is oneself not the same. One’s way of being in the world has been altered—sometimes to the good, but not always so.
Perhaps she and I were permitted to share her bed for several more weeks after that knowledge. In fact it must have been so if only because one never quite forgets the quality of desperation which a human being can bring to the act of lovemaking with another whom he knows he is losing all the while and which nothing that he is (or ever could be) will enable him to keep.
Even today it remains branded on me, those last futile efforts of mine not only to imprint myself on her body, but to remember every detail of it—so that when she had gone for good there would be something left, at least in memory; so that I would not have to know this which I already knew: how soon it would be, how well and truly—completely—I would be lost.
I was, in short, learning something of the erotics of despair—and more surely than the movie that had so impressed itself upon me a few years earlier, Last Tango in Paris, could ever teach them. It was like a malign parody of the sexual act itself, those final nights of striving with the body to possess that which went so far beyond the body, to love this woman who would not consent to love, not now, or not from me, the strain of it rising to a pitch of strain as the futility of that same effort ballooned.
At such moments—in its own malignant way this, too, is unforgettable—something goes rigid in the region of one’s heart, and, for want of any issue, dies away, leaving one awash in the melancholy of the defeated.
Still, all at sea though I was, sick at heart, instinct was pushing me towards that default position—that one form of honourable discharge—for all spurned lovers. It has never been more bluntly or better stated than by Charles Aznavour: When love is not being served, one must learn to leave the table.
There was a final altercation in which I managed to blurt the sorts of things people say when they feel another is destroying them. But she did not respond. There is nothing to be said at such a juncture. There never is. The telephone, as they say, was off at the hook. I gathered a few personal items—it was around the 1st of September, our affair had not quite made it to the Cape spring—and descended to street level for the last time.
Henceforth my life would be lived out in several other quarters of the city, often far from Buiten Street, always circumventing it. But in reality that street, our brief passage there together, would remain my life’s secret centre for some years after, even when I had retreated to a friend’s house in Observatory—along with my humiliation.
For rejected lovers are always shame-faced: they have lost, another has won. What has well and truly ended for one party (she has, after all, sailed off into the embrace of the future), has only just begun, albeit in a very different key, for the other. Chained to his need for precisely the one—and only that one—who can no longer answer to it, its absolute demand, he is forced to embark upon the long process of uncoupling, of dispossession—a road as effortful, painful, as the process of possession is so often miraculous in its ease.
For weeks, even months thereafter, I gave myself over, more or less completely, to the rituals of the lost. I took to the highways of the city, as if by driving, always moving, I could disperse the pain of an awarenessthat would tyrannise my mind whenever I halted: that she was gone. One night, in the dark, I climbed the Back Table of the mountain and, in the teeth of a southeaster gale, waited the night through without protection on a pinnacle of rock. Like an anchorite on his pillar, perhaps it was my hope that, through mortification of the flesh, I could burn out of myself the love with which I had been branded. But all I did was return a day or two later half crazed by cold and hunger, as well as a bronchitis soon to become pneumonia.
It was all of it spectacular, dismal, self-indulgent. But the goddess of love is, as we know, the cruellest of gods. On those she favours she bestows the greatest of all gifts: to those in love there is no question that life might lack a meaning. To those from whom she takes away, she takes away, in this sense, not just one thing—one person—but everything. And into the subsequent nothingness—human hydraulics no less than nature abhor a vacuum—she commonly gives the kind of thing she was to give to me: obsession.
On mornings stale with wind, waking in the early heat, hung-over, I would already be hauling at that especial hobble of the bereaved: pleading with myself not to remember. Images—the bathroom in the Buiten Street apartment, the soap with which she soaped her breasts, the smaller one, the above her heart—rained down on me all the same. From hour to hour I lived in their shadow like the survivor of a ruined city after a war, foraging in the rubble, searching for a sign, trying to infer a former life from bits and pieces, ruins.
Those were the nights, night after night, disfigured by that root human contradiction, when a longing for what has gone meets and deadlocks with the knowledge, no less absolute, that it has gone. It is the primal, most profane of all crucifixes, older than any in Galilee or after. Nailed to it, the sound of something tearing almost impersonally within, it’s when a person understands, perhaps as not before, why passion is a word that also once meant mortal agony; how certain kinds of suffering can excruciate the human substance into shapes almost grotesque, obscene. ‘I want to be free of the dread/Of waking up in the morning. Waking at night’. Such was my repeated plea, the fragments of an ancient poetry: Sophocles. Yet always, rising through the body, the squalor of its cravings, the mind and its prostrations—re-surfacing through whatever love and hate spooled and re-spooled itself—there would return the hope that she who had vanished just like that (there was never any word; she would not look back)—that she would come back.
‘He told himself that in this life there should be a key, a code for expressing, in concise and unambiguous terms, all the complexity of our attempts, so natural and so grievously confused, at living and loving.’ It is with these words that the hero of Andrei Makine’s novella, A Life’s Music, brings his narrative to a head.
In later years, in whatever precinct of the city, there would be occasion enough for me to witness those attempts play havoc with other lives. Again and again one saw—and never without pity and terror—the spasms of obsession sink their teeth into those people who had been jilted or otherwise violently, summarily dispossessed of a love that was once theirs. But the key itself, if such existed, contrived to elude me. Cape Town was a city on the verge of the last and worst decades of the apartheid era. But now it seemed no less—perhaps all the more—a city of those who had already spent much of their adult lives locked into a conversation with someone to whom they had not spoken in years, who had no idea that they were still being addressed, and who in all likelihood would have disdained the opportunity to converse had it arisen.
I seemed to see them everywhere. At times they were not just uncountable but a true underground, those people now forced to live with a memory of a time in their lives which was both more intense than any other and at the same time unliveable, unbearable. They constituted an alternative city, those legions who were constantly returning, if only in memory, to that which had long since cast them out, unable to escape the lure of that which had violently defected from their lives—and then, the suction of their own subsequent defeat, the fatal sense of their worthlessness.
There were moments when I feared my three months in Buiten Street had opened up a wound that ran so live and deep into the quick of my life that I would remain among those who spend the rest of their lives alternately filling in the hole left by that wound and then excavating it again—often doing both at the same time.
And then? Then, nothing. Days lengthening, becoming weeks; those weeks emptying into months. Until, as is sometimes said in certain novels, chronicles, and always more or less in passing, casually: time passed.
The city went about its business as before. Come winter, the same shadow would doubtless lodge itself in this building’s central well, damp with drains, the same bad plumbing. Other lives, unknown to me, would decant their possessions into these rooms, parcel them up again, move on. At some point this apartment must have ceased to be residential.
In one later incarnation—so a sign stacked against the balcony wall indicated—it had become a school teaching beauty care. Below, at street level, the Victorian thoroughfare of Long Street would be freshened up as one building after another would be renovated and restored, including the teak shop-front just across the way. Soon it was a street re-cast for another fate or destiny, not that of vagabonds and students, but whole plane-loads of tourists. And all the while, outside the closed circle of my obsession, another agency was at work. The gabled tower along the roofline of this building, the date 1902 moulded in plaster on it; the quoining on the vertical edge of the building; the columns that supported this balcony and the elegance of the curves that linked them to the beams above—I would forget such details almost immediately. Even those things I thought could not be lost were steadily losing their definition. Unassisted by builders, renovators, the rooms in this apartment were being reconfigured. Under the wash of days, other lives, years, their space was thinning, flattening, draining away into time.
Once, a long time after, I travelled down through the Overberg as a winter front was drawing over it, the colours draining from the hills as they darkened and I drove through them once again. But arriving in the coastal town where we’d spent the weekend of her birthday and where, one sunlit winter afternoon, she’d sat bare-breasted in the garden of our rented house, I could not remember the name of the street, or perhaps the house had been re-modelled. In any case, I could find neither. More and more it was only in dreams, the images random, ill-sorted, themselves half-smudged, that she would return with any reality. Like paper that first parches before darkening and bursting into flame, her image was breaking up.
She was leaving for the second time. The memory was going—and with it that last line of defence that memory always constitutes: meaning itself.
On certain evenings, my face cold to the window, I would look up, as if in that momentary glance at sea or sky, the precise image, the reality sought and now not to be found—the revelation never to be vouchsafed—would be granted me once more: her face, her voice, and the beauty of her voice. But nothing would come. She was only a memory and that memory leached of its colour like a leaf still attached to some tree long past its autumn.
It was only the old story, I told myself. It was no different from the others with its beginning, middle, and an end that in the manner of all stories, endings, often outweighs that with which it once began. It was only the old story, I would repeat, these passions and their declension, in time, into neutral memory; and then their freefall through time, its still further reaches, into that time that neuters memory itself. Except, there was no other story.
Or not for me. Or not then, in those years.
‘To think that I’ve wasted years of my life … for a woman … who wasn’t even my type.’
Swann’s realisation in Proust’s novel is often taken, with reason, to be the final irony in that arena of ironies which is romantic love itself. But if his words, marking his liberation from Odette, must come close to the last of all last words on that interminable subject—the heart and its non-sequiturs—there is one further recognition that can surface long after a love affair is over and which can make itself felt with a force that finally precludes irony.
It was—it always is—unbearable that someone whom one adores should sleep with someone else and then abscond, scot-free (such is one’s fantasy at any rate) into another life. For a long time I hated her. I hated her for having made me feel this hatred in the first place, leaving me to stew (as I had done out on this balcony, night after night) in my own poisoned and poisonous juices.
But that was then. Something was surfacing as I stood here now—something more overwhelming, finally, than any betrayal. And doubtless it could never have done so had this chance to re-enter her apartment not come my way. It was surfacing through a music unknown to me, rising from the ground-floor lunch bar, thinned by traffic, the wind amidst the awnings of the pavement cafés now playing havoc with the sunlight, setting the shadows wavering through these rooms.
That my lover had been the kind of person who puts on other people’s lives like clothes, leaving them strewn about the floor when they have ceased to amuse her—yes, that was probably true enough. Thather greed for life was not the same thing as a love of life—in fact the former is as often destructive as the latter is creative, generative—this is a distinction whose difference becomes more and more real to one over time. That it had all been very much my own fault—that final shame of all failed lovers—that was obvious from the outset of our affair. But none of this was of the essence.
Across the thickness of time, the other lives I had lived, there was something that had locked onto me, missile-like, its power more difficult to withstand than the most enduring and bitter of hatreds. And I was going under, succumbing as helplessly as years before, because it was the one thing the actual feeling of which had been most displaced, forgotten, or otherwise consigned to oblivion in all the days and nights, the years, since our brief interlude together.
For a moment I could do no more than stand here, in the midst of this dusty, vacated floor, an undefended heart once more, subject to that form of words with which love itself supplants whatever other convictions its most imperfect practitioners might cling to. Yes, I loved you dearly, I found myself murmuring, repeating. And as one does a mantra, to oneself, over and over.
Who was she? What was her name? they always want to know. But that is of little importance now.
It matters still less that, years ago, a young woman, no less prey to her own compulsions than I, would betray me. And that, in the aftermath, I would know a suffering that to any outsider is ludicrously in excess of its cause—that too is neither here nor there. After all, it is only through misadventures of this sort, their excesses, that a certain kind of young man can grow up.
Besides, those years when everything had depended on who was sleeping with who had long since receded. Upstairs at 2 Buiten Street had squatted an itinerant English actress with a very beautiful face and very ugly voice who would, not long after my departure from that street, return to the UK. She had joked with my lover that she could pass me on to her, once she was finished with me. I phoned the actress once while visiting London in the lost years after 1980. But she was working as a nurse-aid somewhere in the Midlands while living with a man on ambiguous terms with the law and it was too complicated, as she explained, to meet.
The couple across the road, with whom we’d dined on our first night, was soon to separate, he to mutate, in one of those sexual doubledeclutchings still relatively uncommon even in our world, into a gay activist, she to move up-country. Hannes, amidst whose furniture she and I had played out our time, I was never to meet. He was among the waves of young men to be cut down by AIDS, dying in New York in 1988.
Those lives that had seemed so close-knit were breaking up, breaking apart, becoming what they doubtless had always been: lives tangential to one another. We had each of us always been different—different in ways that over time come to matter. The close-knit living of that time had only been one of those optical illusions to which youth is prey.
All along my lover had been in transit herself, this apartment no more than a temporary way-station. By the end of 1980, so I was told, she had headed off for Johannesburg and the prospects there. Over the years there would be chance sightings, but always by others. Much later I was to hear third-hand—somehow such things are always third-hand—that she had moved to London. There were rumours about some very wealthy businessman. What had become of her I had little notion, though in later years an acquaintance would relay to me something that my ex-, now middle-aged, had been adamant about: nothing—such was now her conviction—was more important than money.
Of course so much else is also, as in that last sentence, in the past tense. After a while—a long, long while—it had ceased to matter that I was not to see her again. The longing had long since evaporated. Obsession, whose secret vice it is to live off nothing, literally, interminably, had delivered me up to its further, perhaps final truth: that this which had once seemed to have everything to do with one young woman now concerned only myself. It was, as it were, a matter for private consumption only. To all intents and purposes, she had ceased to exist.
But this room existed. Like a glacier with its cargo of boulders and rubble, it had inched its way forward through time, absorbing other lives, depositing them far and wide. It had survived even as these bricks had survived, with all the patience of brick. I was absurdly, shamelessly happy to be standing here once more. I felt like a prisoner who, convinced that his sentence is immutable, not even thinking to lodge an appeal, is suddenly told that he is free to go. The universal law of oblivion, that comes more and more to define the special quality of loneliness that can take possession of a person in middle age, had been rolled back for a while. The lunch-time clamour of Long Street was receding, towed away in the slipstream of its own passing. For a moment the shades of a younger self came near. Closing my eyes, it was as if I could almost see him, that young man in his corduroys, his ardour, his misery, that absurd
scarf around his neck.
Then one of the builders came in, bearing a jackhammer. He was unduly considerate, even apologetic. This wall my hand was resting upon—so he was instructing me—they were about to knock it down. I was please to go. They needed more space for a dance-floor, for what this place was soon to become: a night-club, ‘Fiction’ its name. They were concerned that if I did not go now, I might do myself an injury.
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- The Light Echo and Other Poems by Stephen Watson
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