The Heads (2010)

Patience had left, taking that smell with her.  In a minute it came to him: roast chicken. And the reason he struggled to associate aroma with foodstuff had nothing to do with anything the earnest young man with the clipboard might have suggested.   The fact was that for what seemed like weeks, AJ had returned to the big house on the bluff to find it suffused with that therapeutic, soulful odour.   But eventually it dawned on him that very few chickens, none in fact, were passing his lips.  Instead they were being stockpiled for P’s extended family ahead of the festive season.  One day she loaded them into a bus at the Shell Ultra and was gone.

A Grand Prix whined in the background, round and round. He pulled himself pints from the home-built sports pub and wandered onto the deck, thinking about why it had gone wrong between them.

Patience had never liked Coleridge, this was the thing.  She was always complaining about him playing music too loud (he liked Tom Petty); that he was sleeping on the job

‘I say Coleridge, jo! Get out of this room, and he just starting to swear at me.’

            It wasn’t news to AJ.  A couple of times he’d seen Coleridge in the guest bedroom, sprawled half on the mattress, boots still laced and dangling over the edge. He did seemed so fatigued all the time, but had a cough, and a face that said he surely didn’t need any more hassle in this life.  

AJ promised to have a word, just to get rid of her, so he could resume looking into the fuchsia. But then she brought up the matter of the clothes horse, and the hoover.  And the way that the sink sealant had warped away from the kitchen wall so that a mouldy deposit was beginning to form at the back of the cupboard. She opened the doors, showed it to him; opened the fridge to reveal its meagre contents.

            ‘Just sauce, sauce, sauce, sauce. And this.’

            She brought out a jar of vintage anchovies.  He had never seen her so irate.

            ‘I’ll get onto it, P. I’ll phone someone, get a delivery. And your money.’

            AJ thought of all the cash he’d given her over the years, never asking for it back.  The weddings, the funerals, the visits to the doctor when her knee was playing up and he saw her waddling across the tiles. But maybe that was just the problem – he’d been too ready to give it, practically throwing money at everyone for too long. Handing over hundred Rands, herds of the big notes watermarked with blue buffalo stampeding out of his wallet at the slightest provocation; just so that he could be left in that peace which the earnest young man, the Johannesburg office and everyone else seemed desperate to disturb.

            ‘Come on chief, open up. Site inspection at Weaverbosch, then a major stakholders meeting at Dolphin Rock.’

            Here he was again, looming into view on the video phone. But AJ could hardly face another morning trailing behind as his relentlessly optimistic associate dragged suits in hard hats along ridges and valley floors.

            ‘That statement to the press, about frogspawn not standing in the way of development. It was bold, umhlobo wam; it sent out a message.’

This intense young man had a permanently unfortunate turn of phrase, AJ reckoned; he took a few minutes to watch a business partner that for the life of him he could not remember choosing fretting, pacing, working the cell at the security gate. Retrospective approvals, unique lifestyle opportunities – everything was a unique lifestyle opportunity.

‘We got vervet monkeys in place, Lesego, zebra at the water holes, ostriches that are going to swallow your Dunlop if you're not careful.  It's the perfect place to work this one out, umhlobo wam.’

No, it was out of the question. He slipped out the patio door, trying one last time to placate Patience with the promise of new appliances and frozen goods. But even as he said the words he knew that it was utterly impossible that he could go anywhere near the centre of town now, in high Season, with its hot acres of shopping precinct, school leavers ramping daddy’s Discovery onto the pavements and a hundred other things that were just so many insults to his intelligence.

He might find himself walking towards it, but then would inevitably peel off on the cliff path again. Down to the viewpoint and then to Harry’s, where his old school friend was – following Mother Nature’s recent rethink of the coastal topography in these parts – energetically remarketing what had once been a beach bar as a Portuguese-themed riverside restaurant. He found himself down there of an afternoon, amid spatchcocks, laminated Da Gamas and oily espetadas, on a deck which stuck out into the sky a little, where he could listen to Harry give the waiters hell when he was working, or else join him for a few rum and Cokes on his off days. 

Letting his legs carry him downhill, first along the fences of the new developments marked out in the scrub, Angus J. Maclellan reflected how momentous a walk to the beach could become.

            If, for example, it took you past the old settler stone church where you had been married, as well as the smart restaurant on stilts in front of which she had reversed her MG in an irrevocable rage, several decades later: that little British racing green number, barrelling north through the twisty mountain passes, never to come back.

            You should make sure there was a library where you checked out books on sharks and odd sea creatures with your Hebridean grandpa as a boy on family holidays when the hillsides were just scrub, birds and the odd dirt road. As you approached the viewpoint bench, tramping over the wooden slats, a peak should rise up above the others in its range, far across the bay. One that you had set out for with some friends before dawn, asked the farmer for permission to climb and then scrambled up in high summer, feeling the credit balance of youth, the burning sun coming right down into your lungs, the very zenith.

            So when the mountain glowered at you, shark toothish and skew on its haunches, you could look straight back at it.

There should also be an impossibly ancient headland, but in the opposite direction, just to the west, where the bay curled to its close. And it should be dotted with prehistoric middens in all its caves, marked with a single falling dune, like a white eye.  In that place, your mother’s ashes should have been scattered, so that you could sunbathe in clear view of it, and understand what she used to say, when she got old, about wanting to go down there, really not that much further; just to lie down among the warm rocks and bushes, be quietly forgotten about.

            Behind that headland which stank of seals, redbait and other ripe sea creatures, at the foot of the long falling dune there should be, no, there should once have been an old angler’s club hut.  Far in the distance now, on the outside edge, the very rampart of the bay, where the freak waves slammed in.  A winter storm had done for that structure, sucking stones, timber and the long drop out to sea. 

Now there was a sturdier place where German hikers could overnight and cook with bags of responsibly sourced firewood handed out at the gate.  But nonetheless, in that other, earlier, place, within walking distance of the ashes now scattered on the wind, fallen down with the sand into the ocean; at the point where the dune collapsed into a massive hourglass of beach stretching out to a rocky islet, there should once have been an old fishing hut with a warped roof, rainwater butts and a stoep where you had sat as a young man, on your own, after a long morning’s swimming and fishing, salt and sun tight on your shoulders as someone appeared on the edge of vision, clambering over the broken rocks…

‘These goddamn locals AJ – look at them. Look at this guy, brown as a lizard. It’s a flipping full time job keeping these people on the ball.’

            Harry’s fingers never stopped punching at a calculator even when he wasn’t at the helm.

            ‘People these Dom Pedros are sweating. These espressos are getting bitter!’

He talked about the coastal inertia that descended not only on his staff but also some of the regulars, a few hippies still holding out in this brash resort town who liked to come and linger over a filter in the quieter months.

            ‘Outeniqua Fever. Eventually I just give them the bill. It’s food that makes the money: crayfish, calamari, prawns. As my wife can tell you.’

            ‘Bluejackets!’ she was shouting backstage, ‘Bluejackets let’s do a sweep.’

            If the sun-browned teenagers were a torpid bunch, the black men in blue shirts who swept up prawn husks and cigarette stubs from around the feet of the punters were a crack squad. Harry liked to speak of them in terms of a Presidential guard, a unit that could be sent out to neutralise the situation at the height of the Season, when school leavers were pouring beer into each other with funnels, when wine glasses had tipped over in the wind and empty seafood baskets smeared with sauce tartare were mounting up.

            Finding himself here each day AJ had been able to conduct an anthropological survey of the various holidaying tribes and the people who served them. 

It was a place of strong accents, certainly. The locals drawled out their seaside vowels, hardly seeming to finish their words. The other locals you could hear from the kitchen, shouting and laughing along their different vocal lines. Scots and Irishmen bellowing in the corner, a lot of Irish voices in recent years, what with their economy doing so well.  Lina, the waitress who usually took care of him and her boss back here in their corner, said they were the best tippers.

‘Jooh – we always fighting over the Irish when they come in.’

Her accent was remarkable, having metamorphosed from broad Polish halfway to broad Afrikaans over the months. AJ often had an eye on her muscular back as she bent over to unload the glasswasher. Thick arms and short peasant legs which he appreciated in a woman; a slight underbiting jaw like a sea trout which made the whole effect more striking.

She placed a pint o’ prawns on their up-ended barrel and then went off to attend to some English braying in the corner. There were plenty of them too, fake aristocrats still getting away with it in the colonies, dashing between the polo club and second homes that stood empty most of the year, big modern boxes plonked down on the dunes.

            Harry was at loggerheads for what passed as old money in these parts, though, and it was all because of the awning.

            ‘No more rained-off days in the outdoor section’, he had said as the Bluejackets bolted the turquoise eyesore into place, ‘No more pissing around with umbrellas.’

            He looked so pleased with himself that AJ refrained from pointing out that the thing was a real two fingers to the town, and one positioned squarely in the sightline of the chairwoman of the local society of watercolourists. She didn’t take kindly to her shifting abstract of the lagoon being joined by a luminous right-angled triangle poking out of the milkwoods, one made from the same crinkle-cut polymer that was such a favourite with hypermarkets and discount liquor stores.

            They forced him to take it down in the end, that committee she headed up, and it cost him a packet.

            ‘I shouldn’t still be here, AJ. I should’ve been out of this place years ago, sitting pretty inMauritius.  And now look at the state of the car park. The insurance people won’t even take my calls.’

            When last the river came down in spate, dissolving what was left of the sandy strip between lagoon and open ocean, it took most of the beach carpark with it. When Harry realised that no municipal task teams were on their way with cement and sandbags, he hired some JCBs of his own and spent a morning tipping debris into a makeshift breakwater. A boardwalk strung with fairy lights led to where a few sedans could still be wedged in, but just a few metres away, the tarmac came to an end. Bitten off by the murky water of what was now an enormous estuary, and one which seemed to widen every day.

For if there was one thing which he had been paying far more attention to than exactly what the people all around him were saying, it was that relentless disintegration, just behind their talking, chewing heads, of virtually the whole eastern prong of the resort. The long white catwalk of a beach where all the beauties and poseurs had once paraded at Christmas, Easter and all those holidays flipped a hemisphere, inverted into high pagan summer – was gone.  AJ missed those lovely visions, but in another way it was a big improvement, this unbroken stretch of bay which had been created; the surfers and fishermen were all for this new configuration of channels and tidal flats.

            Each afternoon it opened up afresh, after the walk downhill. Out the back gate of this fenced complex where he now found himself and into town on the hard shoulder, refusing when people offered a lift. Past the roundabout spindled with a concrete dolphin, the library, the church, the house of the ex-Finance Minister and down to the viewpoint, where they had replaced the solid, simple benches with another installation involving sea mammals. 

AJ felt silly perched in the fluke of a whale’s prefabricated tail. But still you could sit and watch the surfers, paddling out from the rocks now that the beach had washed away. And then when a golden bracket of swell detached itself from the pool of light out to sea and began moving towards the coast, a figure was up, quick as a cat, riding it in swerves and charges. 

They baled, duckdived, regrouped and met again out there at the point where rivermouth was, no, had once been.  And if he could picture that, picture the way the lagoon once was from the sandbanks at different depths now giving the water different colours, then perhaps it might help him to the other side of the bay, to the fishing hut, the bait smell, the salt tight on your back, the figure clambering over the rocks and into the edge of vision…

A young woman who waved briefly, then eyes quickly averted as she walked past. Onto the vast hourglass toward the island white and orange with gullshit and lichen, the wide ocean rollers tipping up beyond.

You followed her tracks after an hour or so, left it almost too long, but she just happened to wander back along the tideline when you were coming out of the water, along the edge of the hourglass. Delicate shorts, some shells adorning her collar bones, an inland accent: he noticed these things in that order. And then it was:

            ‘Do you live there?’

            Or perhaps:

            ‘Do you live there?’

One ruby grapefruit, in the morning, split with a fishing knife. And because of something unnerving at that place, she said, because of the voices, she went down after breakfast, poked around the rock pools for signs that others had been there overnight.  Empty 2 L bottles and bait cotton spools; empty boxes of chokka.

‘These are old,’ he assured her, ‘From the day trippers.’

Walking back to the car park that morning, they stopped below the cliffs with the cave high up in them and listened again.  But there were only gulls, the insects, the licking and chucking sounds of the inlet. 

She had wanted to ignore the Parks Board signs, deviate from the path and go up there to see what the archaeologists had found.  An unbroken habitation, she said, thousands of years, hundreds of thousands.  Even when the ocean drew back and the cave looked onto a river and broad savannah.  The site was knee-deep in ostrich shell pendants and flints; it had even given its name to some prehistoric industry.

            ‘Come and see some real hunter gathering,’ he shouted from the rockpools.

She liked those old middens but not the fishermen’s rubbish.  And the voices kept sounding for her on that cabin’s porch, echoing into a dusk lit with candles in the alikreukels.  Made her nervous, made her movements slightly, deliciously nervous as they splayed out on the sagging porch of the old angling hut which was out of sight from here and from now but not yet out of mind, not yet eroded, a memory (it had taken him a long time today) he intended to clutch tighter than any other against the rip.

Others that he had brought to that place in years to follow – tourists, adulterers, models from the Swimwear Edition, out and out figments of a steadily more unsteady imagination – had far fewer qualms.  They took the whole pageant of breakers, tombolo and sunset as read; as nothing less than what they deserved, and nothing more.  Positively paraded themselves to the barnacle-covered rocks, opened themselves up fully to the elements.  So that if (and here, staring at the broken TV-VCR protruding from the Medicare wall, AJ felt he could give himself at least some credit) or rather when they came to finishing, the noises they made were robust, confident, well-rehearsed. 

With her though: just a short intake of breath, a mere pluck of pleasure.  She didn't think about making a noise for the barnacles’ benefit.  She didn't want an audience and she worried about the fishermen.

Locals always liked to complain about the slow start to the Season. But it didn’t seem that way as AJ sat out here, late afternoon on Harry’s deck, with all the people who would once have been on the beach trooping up the stairs and being shown to their table by stern-jawed Lina. Lina of the fetching peasant legs, such a welcome contrast to the knock-kneed, sun damaged beach babes.  Books and shades were coming out; tables were shunted together. It seemed like the Season was building to AJ as he gripped a can below the umbrellas which Harry had been forced to get out again.

            And because of the car park situation, and the way that the sea was lapping right up to the boardwalk strung with fairylights, punters had to park all the way uphill and into the town, doing the last bit of the walk he had done earlier, coming down tipsy and laughing as if to some festival that was going to carry on right up until the point when some big roller breached the stockade that should never been built in the first place.

            Yes, a real end of the century attitude was beginning to build here, AJ reckoned; something was coming to a head. He looked at the people capering on tables as the afternoon wore on, the whale watching boat cutting across the bay behind them, the sight-seeing glider behind that and then way up in the sky those planes that skydivers fell out of, once straight into the waves, right in front of the restaurant, stone dead.

            A fall onto a sea hard as concrete. It came back to him, that day, combined with the smell of suncream and rum to make him think that he should have a few more drinks and ask Lina to come home with him; or at least suggest that he come home with her, given that unfortunate business with the car.  He tipped heavily and tried to convince her on the boardwalk after her shift.  And although he knew they had exchanged some banter in the past, he was shocked to his core when in her wondrous, bewildering accent, she said:

            ‘Always, always you ask me. And I tell you, it’s far in the past; it’s over. Not again.’

            Which was on the one hand glorious; but also plainly ridiculous, since AJ had no such memory, and so went on remonstrating with her.

‘I read the papers, AJ. I knows what happened. I know who you are.’

            It was the longest, most idiomatic and authoritative clutch of sentences he had ever heard her deliver, and it left him reeling.  And then heaving, bent over in what was left of the dunes, wondering how he had got here, and how he was going to get home.

            For this, he remembered as the light over the sea began to go out and all the restaurant neon came on, was how it went each day as the dusk came on.  The euphoria which he had pinched off the revellers all around him began to ebb, leaving him each day more confused in a dark carpark. Confused, slightly aggrieved and entirely at a loss for how he was going to get all the way back up the hill to his sunny morning balcony.  Midday momentum had carried him down, the afternoon wiled away against the rum barrel table, the early evening festival air which built up but then seemed to dissipate all at once.

            ‘I can’t keep calling you taxis, AJ.’

            Harry started his evening shift as the tables filled up; he went down into the walk-in fridge with his wide-eyed head waiter and came out much less tolerant of his old school chum.

            ‘I already have to pay Bluejackets and bar staff out of the table tips. The waitresses aren’t happy.’

            Once AJ had called Coleridge to pick him up.  It took a bit of persuading but eventually a car with tinted windows pulled up, belonging to someone in the driver’s seat who his gardener stroke handyman seemed a bit afraid of.  They didn’t come again though; not after AJ had opened his wallet and offered them a R50 for their pains which, they pointed out to him, was actually an airtime voucher from the Kwikspar, and a used up one at that. 

Then they suggested rather forcefully that he provide his phone as alternative payment, but he had to explain that the twinkling Nokia was long gone.  It had stayed blinking on a rock, left behind the last time he had tried to walk to the fishing hut.  He wondered if it was still there, being eroded by wind and sand, or if a wave had popped it off and into the sea as soon as he was round the bend, toiling up toward the last rivermouth, feeling that attack of pins and needles in his mind.

            Since then he had left things far more to chance, or to unfold in their own way, taking the line of least resistance which seemed so right and inevitable as it carried him long-legged down through the town but then landed him here, at the edge of the dark oily water making sounds just over there and everything that was not built on rock slowly disintegrating. Some sewage main had been compromised, and so when Harry’s wife strode over and said no, they really needed this table now, AJ found himself in a building site, a huge ruck of Caterpillar tracks all through the bushes, drills that would start up sometimes under fixed lights, men working overtime.  It had the look of something irreversible.

In closing, he supposed all he wanted to say: this how a walk to the beach should be. Cosmic, but gritty at the same time, with components that (he remembered afresh each day), were no longer there: the beach no longer a beach, the hut sucked out to sea.

            She had been scared, that night, about the noise of the ocean. He reassured her; told her it was hundreds of yards off, breaking on the ledges of the islet.

            She lay in his arms always anxious, with him thinking smugly that he could make it right. But he couldn’t, and so (or was it because?) he had taken other women there, sat some weekends like a spider in his web, telling her that he was going fishing when he knew she knew full well what that meant. Their faces got in the way when all he wanted to remember was her, with the delicate cowrie shells, collar bones and legs that were not quite brown. Her face, shockingly, he struggled with; but this was, as his for the most part ignorant but oh so earnest young observer had accurately diagnosed, the memory he would hold onto tightest. 

So he constructed his one true love from whatever was to hand; even if he had to buttress her with cheekbones, legs and torsos from the cherished Swimwear Issue which was probably still lying down in his bedroom in the big house on the bluff that that he had been exiled from, down among the crumpled linen which P. had not quite been able to get finished before the chickens went home to roost.

No but of course, the earnest young man had salvaged it, and was (as AJ had always guessed would be the case) no longer so earnest, but short-tempered and sarcastic now, some might say sadistic.  He brandished it in AJ’s face, asking the woman he kept babbling about was her (bent over a sea kayak in mirrored shades) Kerry, or (lying in a Mauritian hammock) Minki, or Mindy, Mandy, fucking Bimbo or Bambi and when for Christ’s sake would he, an ill old man, let go of all this, take his hand off his cock and go quietly.

Oh it was fair pouring out of him now! This character in wraparound shades who persisted in calling him ‘old man’ and even (absurdly) ‘Pop’ had given him to understand that his playboy days were over, that from now on he would be moving to a unit in a secure complex just set back off the highway. Because these walks were getting out of hand. Remember, remember when he had been on the hard shoulder of the N2, just about to get into that car full of the most unsavoury types. The ones who knocked off the gardener, the gang from PE who went on to shoot that duty manageress dead when she was cashing up? The Eastern European – did he remember how badly that all turned out, how many things and people he’d fucked up and over in his bigshot businessman’s life?

AJ feigned ignorance, as he did when it came to the trouble of remembering most things these days. He had to conserve his powers, score in the fundamentals: the falling dune, the fishing hut, her walking onto the white hourglass. Just that single day he would be happy with, since it contained everything.

He sat on the bed in the unit, while the sprinklers chucked round on the lawns, trying to reassemble it.  A nurse called, well goodness, was it Patience, back again at the last, feeding him a grape? But there were certain things he wanted to check on site, like the relation between the curve of the long young back and that of the tideline behind her, and how these variables changed as the sundown wore on.  He wanted to check on the ants, to see if they were still doing their thing; decide if the smell of seals was as bad as he remembered.

The obstacles had mounted up, sure. The hut was gone, she was gone, swerved off the road in the twisty passes.  The laps of his thoughts grew smaller and slower, the pit stops less efficient, the metaphors more inept; and it would still be a while before he could work out quite how to get out of this room. So their bodies on the sagging balcony played in his mind; he rewound the sun and watched again, but each time it was dimmer, had less time before setting and it was only alikreukels, candles and (it had taken a long time today, but thank Christ) Jenny asking about the fishermen on the rocks, if they were still in the reserve, out there in the darkness, watching.