Many years ago, Jack and I had a mutual friend called Adrian (see the story Degrees of freedom). In addition to being an extremely talented mathematician, Adrian had an extremely annoying musical gift. He had taught himself to play the preludes and fugues of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier on a synthesiser, without ever having had any musical training. This upset me. I had grown up hearing these pieces on Sundays when my father declared anew that Kiss and Foreigner were never to darken our house again. When he was done declaring, my father sat down at the piano and played and replayed many of the forty-eight pieces from the first book, haltingly, then with fervour, and then testily, always returning to the 8th prelude in E flat minor for solace and foundation. I often stood beside him, wishing that we could play chess instead, watching his fingers as he probed the keys to resuscitate Bach. The 8th prelude is a haunting piece. To this day it evokes for me the memory of what my father smelled like. It was therefore fundamentally unacceptable that Adrian could play it while I could hardly hum its main theme.

Adrian’s musical interests included only Bach. He could not care less about other composers. They were mere imposters, borrowing from Bach and then missing the quintessence of him, lapsing into saccharine refrains or fringe-bouncing key bashing. The more Adrian practised Bach to the exclusion of all others, the more he became capable of improvising in his style. This, needless to say, was upsetting too. But it was so beguiling that I forgave him and spent hours listening as he played, at a moment’s notice, whatever tune I’d put forward as a challenge, but in the counterpoint of Bach. I tried everything from Happy Birthday to You, to Yesterday, but Adrian, like my father, drew the line at Kiss and Foreigner and claimed not to know the songs Beth and Waiting for a girl like you.

Shortly after Adrian had granted himself a degree and enrolled in a doctoral programme in Computer Science—a programme he would later abandon in disgust—he met Samantha, a mousy woman doing a doctorate in Music. How this happened was never revealed. But Samantha had access to a harpsichord that stood in the basement of the university concert hall, the Aula, and that’s what mattered. Through Samantha, Adrian would gain access to this harpsichord and finally be able to practise Bach the way Bach did.

“She’s given me this key,” he announced when he’d brought us to a side door at the back of the Aula, behind the coffee shop where we always met. The hall was used daily by music students and now and then for debates and graduation ceremonies, and so Adrian added, “It opens onto the stage. Be quiet.”

He unlocked the door and eased it open gingerly, but there was no one around. We crossed the stage, on which stood a lone grand piano, and descended into the basement beneath it using a spiral stairway on the opposite side.

“She says I can come and practise as long as no one knows,” Adrian beamed when we came to the harpsichord.

The harpsichord was a thing of beauty, longer than I’d ever imagined, with two rows of keys.

“Are you fucking this Samantha?” Jack asked abruptly.

We would find out many years later that Adrian had always been gay, something we had been too obtuse to even notice.

“No,” Adrian waved the suggestion away. “But I like her.”

“She sure likes you,” I said. “You know, giving you a key and all that. Letting you use this.”

“I don’t think so,” Adrian said after what looked like careful consideration. “She’s just impressed that I could teach myself to play, that’s all.”

Over the next year, as Adrian mastered the harpsichord, Samantha became less impressed. Their friendship began to deteriorate. We found out because Adrian would drop subtle hints or sigh, and then explain how one thing or another wasn’t quite the way it had been. It was clear to us that he had done to her what he had done to his Applied Mathematics lecturer, and had overshadowed her work with his raw talent.

“She’s just stressed,” he said. “Her thesis is at a difficult point, and she hasn’t performed in a long while.”

“She’s stressed because of you,” Jack remarked.

“She’s asked for the key,” Adrian added glumly.


“But I’ve made a copy.”

“You have?”

Now Adrian could only practise on weekends, or very late at night, whenever he was sure that Samantha would not be around. His musical career had gone underground.

“I’m playing in a basement,” he sniffed a few months later, unamused.

“You’re the Jane Austen of music,” Jack said.

Adrian smiled by moving his ears. “It shouldn’t be this way,” he complained. “Music should be elevated above human pettiness.”

Nothing is elevated above human pettiness,” I said. “It’s our highest achievement.”

“Playing on the synthesiser is not the same,” Adrian sighed and waved me away. “I need to play on the harpsichord.”

Instead of being thankful for what time he could get on the harpsichord, Adrian became increasingly enraged by the indignity of having to sneak around. One afternoon, in the Aula coffee shop, he started again. “I’m playing Bach for fuck’s sake,” he said, visibly exercised by the novelty of using the words Bach and fuck in the same sentence.

“So what?” Jack retorted with some irritation. “Who cares if you’re playing Beethoven’s eardrum?”

Adrian looked at Jack as though he had just noticed him for the first time.

“Where’s she now?” Jack asked before Adrian could recover.


“Your mother,” Jack said loudly. “Samantha.”

Adrian blanched. “She’s practising on the stage piano,” he hesitated. “Why?”

“How do you know?”

“I heard her,” Adrian said sheepishly. “I listened outside the stage door before I came here. She’s probably rehearsing for some recital.”

“Then let’s go,” I said.


“Let’s go talk to her.”

“Now,” Jack said, pulling Adrian out of his chair.

“But—” Adrian protested as we frogmarched him from the coffee shop.

“But nothing.”

“But what must I say?” Adrian asked when we came to the stage door.

We could just make out the third fugue of the Well-Tempered Clavier being played inside. Samantha was playing it as Mozart might have, exploiting what the piano allowed but the harpsichord hadn’t in Bach’s day.

“Go on,” Jack said and gave Adrian a little shove. “Open up.”

“But what must I say?” Adrian pleaded again. “It’s crap. Listen!”

“Think about the harpsichord,” I said.

Adrian fumbled in his pocket and produced the key he had cut. “I’ll wait until she’s nearer the end,” he explained, holding up a stipulating finger. “And you two wait out here.”

We all knew the fugue well. At the last few measures, Adrian inserted the key into the lock, turned it, and eased open the door. A sliver of afternoon sun fell across the darkened stage and across Samantha, who sat with her back toward us, hunched over the piano in the coda of the fugue. When her fingers came away from the keys, Adrian opened the door all the way and marched onto the stage.

“Bravo!” he roared, applauding loudly, striding along like a stork. “Encore!”

Then he stopped. The pianist had not turned around and seemed to arch away from the sound of his voice. It was also clear now that it was not Samantha, but a man. To his left, almost invisible in contrast with the bright wedge of sunlight that fell across the stage, was a rather large audience.

A few days later Adrian was forced to return the key he’d made and was formally banned from the Music Department and all its buildings forever. Barging onto the stage during a post-graduate recital—Samantha and other doctoral students were reinterpreting composers in the style of later movements—was an unthinkable violation of all things civilised. Shortly after, I visited my parents for a Sunday lunch. My father had long before given up on the idea of meeting Bach at the piano, and had instead put on the only recording of the three violin concertos that he believed to do them justice—the 1962 recording by David and Igor Oistrakh—which now played in the living room.

“Is this the same Adrian you told me about a while ago?” he asked, wiping his glasses after a good laugh.

“The same.”

“Jesus,” my father sighed and sat back in his chair. “Play it again, Sam.”

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Degrees of freedom

At university, Jack and I befriended a talented guy called Adrian. At the time, Adrian knew everything there was to know about terminals and mainframes, things we were only dimly aware of. This was slightly annoying. He often spoke about computers and networks in sentences comprised almost entirely of words we didn’t understand. All the same, we viewed this skill of his as something quaintly foreign and unimportant, like calligraphy. What was more immediately upsetting was Adrian’s gift for mathematics. Jack and I were once interested in a puzzle that required fitting different pieces into a rectangular tray. While we argued about possible solutions, Adrian wrote down what I would much later recognize as a generating function. This beast, he explained, could be used to find the total number of solutions to the puzzle we were fumbling with, as well as others like it. All he needed to do was get to a terminal so he could explain the whole thing to the mainframe.

Perhaps as a direct consequence of his mathematical talent, Adrian failed Applied Mathematics 101, the first half of the first-year Applied Mathematics course. Many lesser people had passed this course, but it was simply too mundane to warrant Adrian’s attention. When he sat for the exam it turned out that there were a few things that even he couldn’t figure out from scratch in the allotted time.

“Plus,” he fumed quietly, “the lecturer is an idiot. He has the mathematical intuition of a forklift.”

“Who’s he?” we asked.

“Morton,” Adrian said with visible disgust. “The t is silent.”

Despite Morton’s efforts to stop him, Adrian obtained permission to continue with the second half of the year’s course, Applied Mathematics 102, taught by a different lecturer, and passed it. Yet, he had not passed Applied Mathematics 1 in its entirety. With special permission, he progressed to second-year courses in Mathematics and Applied Mathematics the following year. In a twist of fate, the Applied Mathematics Department combined Applied Mathematics 101 and 102, and from then on there was a single final exam, presided over by Morton.

At the end of the year, Adrian sat for the Applied Mathematics 1 exam, having first had to overcome the objections of Morton who claimed that as he hadn’t even attended class, he wasn’t eligible to take the exam. But the head of the department, Professor Sauer, liked Adrian and overruled Morton.

Adrian took the exam, and failed.

“Isn’t this moron just marking you down?” we asked.

“No,” Adrian admitted. “I failed.”

“Why?” we wondered. “You’re beyond all that.”

“I know,” he said dryly, “but things look smaller in the rearview mirror than they actually are.”

This pattern continued for two more years. Adrian obtained renewed special permissions to advance. Professor Sauer overruled the increasingly strident objections from Morton. Adrian took the exam without any preparation, and failed. At the end of four years, he had completed his entire degree but still had not passed Applied Mathematics 1.

“It’s stupid,” he moaned. “By now it should be obvious that I can pass it.”

“Sure,” we agreed.

“Plus,” he added, “I’ve passed the important half of it already.”

He wrangled some extraordinary permission from Professor Sauer and was allowed to enrol in a Master’s programme, with the private understanding that he’d pass Applied Mathematics 1 as soon as possible.

“As soon as humanly possible,” Adrian quoted.

“I forgot to mention,” he went on as though it was an afterthought, “Morton has moved up in the world, as all morons do, and is now a PhD student.”

While Morton continued to jealously guard the elusive Applied Mathematics 1, it turned out that he was now also the lecturer for some of Adrian’s Master’s classes. For a few weeks, everything was fine. Then, in what must be a rare superposition of genius and stupidity, Adrian solved the very problem Morton was building his PhD around.

“I don’t know why he’s so upset,” Adrian marvelled. “In fact, he should be grateful. All I did was to prove that his planned approach couldn’t work.”

But Morton didn’t see things this way. He made life difficult for Adrian at every turn and told whoever would listen that Adrian had not even been able to pass Applied Mathematics 1. After a few more weeks, Adrian quit the Mathematics programme and moved to the one-year Master’s programme in Computer Science. This move required a breathtaking combination of extraordinary permissions and begging. Professor Sauer, who had to do most of the begging, was clear. “I had to convince them of your brilliance,” Adrian quoted, “and so it’s now or never. You pass Applied Mathematics 1 at the end of the year, or you’re done.”

Adrian slipped into the Master’s programme in Computer Science against the same low resistance he’d experienced in Mathematics. Things came easily to him. He paid attention to his coursework and his thesis only intermittently. Behind the scenes, Morton worked to sour the Computer Science Department against him, but Adrian was philosophical about it.

“With enemies like Morton, who needs friends?”

On weekends, Adrian assisted in the lab where all the terminals were.

“Shouldn’t you study some Applied Mathematics?” we asked.

“I’m working on it,” he smiled.

“I’m graduating,” he told us near the end of the year. “I’m getting a Bachelor’s and a Master’s.”

“Did you pass?” we asked.


“What do you mean, yes?”

“Actually,” Adrian said, “I took Prof Sauer’s advice.”

“What advice?”

“When he said humanly. As soon as humanly possible, remember?”


“It got me to thinking,” he clarified, “that word, humanly. All that’s needed to pass is that a human says you’ve passed. Actually passing isn’t required, is it?”


“I got Morton to pass me.”

Jack and I looked at one another. “How?”

“Well,” Adrian explained with some relish, “the university admin system has this login screen—”

It was sounding like calligraphy again, but we had to listen.

“—and I made a screen that looks just like it. Each time a session started, my fake screen would show, and someone would type in their credentials.

“What’s a session?” we asked.

Adrian waved this away. “Then I’d save their username and password to a file, and kill my screen.”


“And so they’d curse and log in again.”

While we still didn’t understand calligraphy, it was beginning to look useful.

“And after a few weeks, I found Morton’s credentials,” Adrian beamed. “I logged in as him and gave myself a pass for Applied Mathematics 1.”

A few years later my father became the head of the Department of Informatics. As he was now close to where Adrian’s fraud had been committed, I told him about it.

“Apparently this Morton guy raised a stink,” I said, “saying he’d never passed Adrian. But Sauer had had enough of Morton and gave him an ultimatum to shut up or ship out.”

“I’ve always liked Prof Sauer,” my father mused.

“But aren’t you upset?”

“Why should I be upset?”

“Because you care about the truth,” I countered.

My father tamped his pipe and looked out the window.

“I care about many things,” he said after a moment. He struck a match and puffed on his pipe to char the tobacco, moving the flame around the bowl the way I’d seen him do for as long as I could remember. “I’ve never met this Adrian friend of yours, but it sounds to me like he deserves a degree of some kind.”

The aroma of my father’s tobacco was new. Until recently he’d smoked a locally made cherry tobacco, but now he’d discovered Davidoff’s Danish Mixture. He struck another match and sucked its flame more deeply into the bowl.

“But,” he said between puffs, “I have met Morton.”


My father sighed a plume of smoke toward the ceiling. “Isn’t this wonderful?” he said.

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His master’s voice

Tania had a slight moustache. She sighed a lot and constantly complained that she hadn’t slept and was tired. This was a little out of place in our group. We styled ourselves as an unpublished version of the Algonquin Round Table. We met at a coffee shop on campus every day. We were young and we were convinced that we’d soon be famous. Perhaps most of all, we slept too little and we never complained that we were tired. It wasn’t clear to me why Tania was there.

“She’s doing a Master’s in business management,” my friend whispered with some distaste. “I think she knew someone who’s left. Now she’s a leftover organ of sorts, you know, like a coccyx.”

“I don’t care how she got here,” I said. “I was smuggled in from physics.”

“Yeah,” my friend shrugged, “but you say things.”

“I guess. But why is she always exhausted?”

“If you ignore the moustache,” my friend explained, “then, on the outside, she’s twenty-two.” He checked to make sure that she couldn’t hear us and added, “But deep down she’s ninety.”

I always marvelled at this paradox when I saw her. Being old before your time was surely worse than the problem I had. I was young after my time. I was immature, and it certainly looked like I would stay that way. Just as I tried to compare these two states, I would catch myself entertaining a perverse fantasy in which I grabbed Tania and kissed her to find out what the moustache felt like.

One day, Tania made an announcement. “My grandmother is dead,” she said.

We couldn’t tell whether she had mentioned a fact of history or a detail of an unfolding event.

“When did she die?” someone asked uncertainly.

“Oh,” Tania said and checked her watch, “three hours ago.”

“But you didn’t say—”

“Oh,” Tania smiled, “it’s alright. She was ninety.”

My friend and I exchanged a glance.

“I’ll appreciate some help with her things later this week,” Tania added. “Especially the parrot.”

This last bit energised us considerably. “A parrot?”

“She had a grumpy sulphur-crested cockatoo,” Tania said.

“A grumpy cockatoo?”

Tania flattened the tablecloth around her cup and mumbled, “He swears.”



We leant forward. “Like what?”

“Oh,” Tania whispered and blushed, “like shit—” Then, after a pause, she continued, “—and fuck. And so on.”

We had all heard of swearing parrots, but we’d never met one in person. Three days later we went with Tania to her grandmother’s house. The house was a Victorian-style mansion near campus, on a large plot.

“Was your grandmother rich?” someone asked as Tania pointed out a framed photograph of her in the vast foyer. The photo showed a rather masculine woman, likely in her sixties at the time the picture was taken, glaring at the camera. She sat in a chair and behind her stood a smallish man, with his hand on her shoulder in the style of photos taken in the late nineteenth century. It was clear who wore the pants in the house and it was also clear where Tania’s moustache had come from.

“Oh,” Tania said with a little smile, “I don’t know. Maybe.”

The house had the faint powdery smell of an old person. Pink hydrangeas grew at every window. There were rows and rows of Royal Doulton figurines in Victorian display cabinets of such ornate carving as to suggest that they had grown like vines from the floor. Everything was hideous. It seemed entirely reasonable for the people of Victorian England to have gone off to administer colonies. They probably couldn’t bear it at home.

“This is fabulous!” a girl who wrote maudlin poetry exclaimed. “It’s the Bather!”

She indicated a fairly un-Victorian figurine of a bashful girl disrobing, and whispered, “It’s very rare.”

“Is that from Victorian times?” I asked, surprised at the nudity.

“No,” she said, “it’s more like the 1920s, I think.”

I couldn’t have cared less if it had once belonged to Cleopatra. It looked like trash to me.

“Well,” I asked, “is it—is it expensive?”

I had swallowed the words at least just in time not to say them, but it was clear that I’d thought them.

“Oh,” Tania said and did a bonsai smile, “I don’t know. My grandfather collected them. It was his passion. My grandmother always hated those things.”

“Oo!” the poet exclaimed and clasped her cheeks at the sight of a crimson sofa that looked like a giant, mutant butterfly.

“Where’s the parrot?” someone else got to the point.

“Oh,” Tania said, “Pete’s upstairs. He’s upset.”

“Pete the Parrot?”

Tania nodded. “My grandmother got him when my grandfather died. My grandfather was Pete, and so Pete was Pete.”

“Why’s he upset?” we wondered.

“He’s plucked out his feathers,” Tania shrugged.

There was a pause as we absorbed this new possibility.

“Is he upset because he plucked them,” I asked, “or did he pluck them because he was already upset?”

“Don’t get technical,” someone chided me. “You’re so insensitive.”

“Poor thing,” someone else cut in. “He misses his mistress.”

“Oh,” Tania said, “it’s not because of that. Two days ago I put his cage on the lawn while I cleaned the attic. When I returned, he’d killed five pigeons.”

We looked at one another.

“How’d he do that?”

“Oh,” Tania said, “he put his food just inside the bars of his cage, like bait, and when the pigeons poked their heads through to get it, he decapitated them.”

For a few moments, no one said anything.

“I think he’s angry because I stopped him,” Tania added reassuringly. “That’s when he plucked his feathers. He’s very grumpy. He’s always been that way.”

“Maybe he killed the pigeons because he’s sad,” someone tried. “You know, about your grandmother.”

“Oh, no,” Tania said. “He was nasty to her too.”


Tania shrugged. “They hated one another.” She brushed a fleck of dust from a secretaire. “My grandmother hated my grandfather,” she said. “And when he died, about ten years ago, she got Pete so she could hate him too.”

“Did she say so?”

“Oh,” Tania said, “no, but my grandparents always argued. Always. They sat on the patio out front and swore at one another as though there was some sort of contest to see who could make up the worst insults.”

“That doesn’t sound like—” I began.

“My dad said so too,” Tania cut me short. “He always insisted that it’s just the way they were. I was twelve when my grandfather died, but I can still remember those arguments.”

Tania’s parents had died in a car crash a few years earlier. As far as we knew, her late grandmother was the only family she’d had left.

“But surely your father would have known,” my friend said.

Tania waved this away.

And she kept those ceramic things she didn’t like,” he added.

“It was the same with the parrot,” Tania continued. “Constant bickering.”

It’s a strange thing that you can get to know people as readily through someone who never understood them as you can through someone who truly did. It was obvious that Tania had missed out on the better parts of her grandmother and had instead ended up with only her moustache. The glaring woman in the foyer was very likely annoyed with the photographer.

“Business management,” my friend whispered.

“Go get Pete,” Tania said.

The sight of Pete was one you couldn’t prepare for. When Tania said that he’d plucked out his feathers, she neglected to mention that he had plucked out everything he could reach. Only the downy feathers on his face and the fan of his crest remained. He was an outsized head floating atop a scrawny, mechanical body. This strange combination perched on a rod in a large cage and scowled at us.

“Beautiful plumage,” someone joked.

“Fuck off!” Pete squawked.

We burst out laughing. It was just too much.

“The Victorian Blue,” someone else added.

“Wanker!” Pete screeched in an old woman’s voice.

“Oh Jesus,” my friend said, “do you think the grandmother—?”

“Jesus,” Pete nodded vigorously and spread the feathers of his crest like the fingers of a hand. “Cunt.”

If you’d shaved a male lion a Mohican, he would not have been a more surprising sight. Yet Pete was headstrong and proud, despite his condition. He had learnt what he could say from a misunderstood and lonely woman, and now he was misunderstood and lonely in turn. It wasn’t the pigeons. We were torn between provoking him some more and feeling sorry for him, and while we hesitated, Pete shifted on his perch and eyed us.

“He must be cold,” the poet crooned. “Are you cold, sweety?”

“Shit!” Pete bobbed up and down.

“I think he wants to be insulted,” I said. “Maybe that’s how it worked.”

My friend put his face near Pete’s cage and said in his most menacing voice, “You ugly motherfucker.”

Pete flicked his crest and did a little dance. “Slut!” he crowed.

A few minutes later, after everyone had gone to help Tania, I stood by Pete’s cage and wondered what it was that would now become of him. Tania would inherit this house, I thought, and him with it, but I wasn’t sure that she understood either of the two in the way her grandmother would’ve wanted. I picked up the cage and headed for the stairs under Pete’s watchful gaze.

“Uh,” he grunted.

I stopped on the second step. “What?”

Pete sighed.

I put another foot forward and as the stairs creaked, he spoke up again. “Uh.”

When I took another step, he did so again.

“Shut up,” he groaned.

With a chill I realised that I was hearing Tania’s dead grandmother, grunting and sighing as she carried Pete down these same stairs every day. The three of us proceeded, grunting and sighing, and as we did I thought about this old woman in whose place I now stood. I would never know her, but I suddenly wished that I had. She had lived here in her eighties, alone, for ten years, telling a bird about a man. Only now and then was she interrupted by a visit from her frumpy granddaughter. But what was she like before that? An hour earlier I would have given it no further thought, judging by the house and the ugly things within it. But now I wasn’t so sure. Now I could picture her and the original Pete on the patio outside, sparring as they sipped their gin and tonics under the canopy of bougainvillea and jasmine I saw as we came in. There was something strangely familiar about them. My parents had devoted a large fraction of their energy to an argument that broke out in their last year of high school and to which they returned in a game of verbal violence that had more rules than it appeared to break. To me, this had always been the grammar of love.

I stopped on the last, wider step. From here I could see a part of the patio through mullioned French doors. In recent years, I was sure, the old lady had taken Pete outside whenever the weather permitted, and there the two of them had spent hours expanding his vocabulary. But years before that, in the spring and early summer, those doors would have stood ajar. From here, I supposed, I would have smelled the heady perfume of jasmine carried in on the still air of the late afternoon. And from this very step, if I strained just a little, I would have heard the two old lovers on the patio as they remembered their life together and traded insults. It was obvious to me that Tania had no inkling of the terms of their endearment.

“Pete’s lonely,” I told her in the kitchen. “He’s like a mirror in an empty room.”

“Oh,” she sighed, “he’s just grumpy.”

Pete fanned his crest and said nothing.

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In camera

In the early 2000s, Mia and I owned an apartment in Three Anchor Bay, in Cape Town. The apartment was a magical place. It was on the ground floor and had ample patios and its own garden and a pool. We had made some changes when we bought it, one of which was to install custom-made closets in the dressing room off the main bedroom, closets that were almost as tall as the four-meter-high ceilings.

In 2007 we sold this apartment to a German guy called Tom. Tom was fussy and had several demands.

“He wants the wine glass shelves removed,” Mia said after she’d met with him.

The glass shelves in question hid the hot water cylinder that sat in a cupboard in the kitchen, near the ceiling. We had closed off its cavity on purpose to reclaim some stacking space.

“But he’s insane,” I said. “Sure, they’re hard to reach, but it’s perfect!”

“He’s right,” Mia sighed. “The cylinder is now hard to reach. It’s against regulation.”

From her face I could see that there was more.

“What else?”

“He wants the garden door lock fixed,” she added with a wry smile.

Mia and I had long argued about the door of the garden onto Camberwell Road. The door and its frame were not meant for one another, and the lock had to be persuaded every time you used it. I saw this as a security feature, but Mia didn’t.

“Why?” I demanded. “Did you tell him?”

“No,” she said. “The problem presented itself anew.”

“I’ll install a new door,” I snapped. “What else?”

Mia smiled. “He wants us to add soffits to the closets in the dressing room.”

“What’s a soffit?”

“I was surprised he knew,” she said. “They’re boards that close off the space between the closets and the ceilings.”

“What for?”

“He says he wants to stop the dust,” Mia said and dented her dimples. “We’re not doing that.”

We removed the shelves that concealed the hot water cylinder, and we replaced the garden door. Then, a few months before moving out, Mia lost our camera. Despite being the only one who ever used it, she argued that any of an infinity of things could have happened to it, cosmically speaking, and that it was therefore silly of me to blame her, and even sillier to continue to look for it. It was gone.

Mia moved on with Buddhistic composure, but I could not. Every now and then I’d see the camera in my mind’s eye, wedged between this and that, or somehow inside of one thing or another.

“It’s not there,” Mia would say with what sounded suspiciously like certainty.

“How do you know?”

“Move on,” she’d say, and moved on.

But I’d look, and it wouldn’t be where I’d hoped. I even got onto a ladder and searched the space of the newly revealed hot water cylinder, in case Mia had left the camera in there during the renovations. By the time we had to move out of the apartment it was obvious to any reasonable person that the camera was, as Mia had put it, gone. We moved to the suburbs and Tom took over our beloved apartment. Over the years, every now and then, I pictured the camera again, hidden inside some box or drawer I had not looked in yet, and then I’d go digging against all hope. And sure enough, it wasn’t there.

In 2016 we moved to Seattle. My continued hope of finding the camera—which would’ve been outdated and useless even if found—waned considerably as the only place it could now be was inside something we hadn’t opened in a decade. Yet, I still thought of it now and then, and Mia and I still had arguments that started out with an innocent question about the camera and then spilled over into other differences.

In 2018 I visited Cape Town on business. My stay included a weekend and I planned to do an excessively long walk. On the Friday I sat in a meeting at work and once again pondered the fate of the camera. If the camera wasn’t in Seattle, as seemed to be the case, then it had to be here. And if it was here, I thought, then I was within striking distance of whatever crevice or nook it was in. As people droned on about web services, I scanned our old apartment as I remembered it, and tried to think of places we hadn’t looked. And then a terrific thought struck me. I suddenly remembered putting an old briefcase of mine into the corner cavity that the closets in our dressing room made with the ceiling. I did this just before we left on an overseas trip because no thief would even know the cavity existed, nor be able to reach it without a ladder. I had completely forgotten about this somehow. What if I’d hidden the camera there too? I could see myself doing it, and the more I thought of it, the more real it became. If it was so, it would mean that the camera had been in what was now Tom’s place for almost twelve years.

“Have you gone mad?” Mia asked when I told her about this on the phone that evening. “The thing is gone man. Get a grip!”

“But what if it’s there?” I asked. “Can you imagine?”

“I can imagine you’d have to apologise,” she said.


“Well, it would mean that it was you who’d put it there, not me. I wouldn’t be that stupid.”

“Sure,” I said, “whatever. I’m going to ask Tom.”


“I’m going to knock on his new door and ask him.”

“You’re going to do no such thing!” Mia insisted.

On the Saturday I went for a very long walk. I walked from my hotel in the city bowl to the neck between Table Mountain and Lion’s Head, down the Glen, around Lion’s Head through Clifton and Bantry Bay, and then I followed the long Sea Point esplanade. I had to walk through Three Anchor Bay on my way back to the city bowl anyway, and could stop by our old place, despite promising Mia that I wouldn’t. It would not be a significant detour. Did Tom still own it? Would he even remember me?

“Mein Gott!” Tom exclaimed, “ov course I remember you! Come in.”

I said that it was wonderful that he still owned the place, and even more wonderful that he’d kept some designs I’d painted on pillars and in the hallway. But then I got to the point.

“Wot?” Tom asked. “Wot iz here?”

“Well,” I said, “it’s a large cavity, really, a hole, in the corner of the dressing room.”

“Ze dressing room—” Tom echoed.

“Wait,” I said, “I’ll show you.”

“But wot—” Tom followed me as I led him into our old bedroom and then into the dressing room.

“There,” I said and pointed. “There’s a hole up there.”

“A hole—” Tom repeated after me, his voice trailing off.

“Yes,” I said. “See, the two closets make a cubical cavity that you can only reach from the top.”

Tom was silent for a few seconds and then he snapped out of his hypnotised state. “But wot does zis mean?” he sputtered. “A hole in my place, all zis time?”

He opened the corner closet doors and examined the inside. Once you knew what to look for, it was clear that there was a large space unaccounted for.

“You never noticed that?” I asked. “It’s almost like the wine shelves we used to have.”

“No,” Tom said in muted wonder. “And zere’s a suitcase up zere—”

“An old briefcase,” I said. “And, I hope, a missing camera.”

“—here,” Tom continued, “in my place?”

“Yes. Can we look?”

Tom looked from me to the closets, and then up at the ceiling, and back again, as though in a trance.

“We’ll need a ladder,” I suggested.

Tom went off to fetch a ladder from the garage, muttering in German, while some friends who were visiting him from Germany came inside from the garden to inspect the closets.

“Zis iz madness,” Tom grunted a few minutes later as he groped around in the gap, standing on the ladder and bending his head against the ceiling. “Zis hole haz been—”

His eyes widened. “Was zum Teufel—”

“Do you feel it?” I asked.

“Ja—” he cried and hauled my stowaway briefcase over the edge.

He passed it down to me with the look of a man asked to handle his own tumour after surgery.

“See if there’s anything else,” I said.

Tom was transfixed by the briefcase and stared at it from where he stood awkwardly atop the ladder.

“In the hole,” I urged.

He groped around and grunted, but found nothing. When he came down from the ladder I was opening the dusty case with the codes I still remembered.

“But zat iz like a—” he hesitated, searching for the word, “like a vault! Here, all zees years!”

The latches snapped open, but the case was empty. I straightened and started slowly toward the door. Tom followed me while carrying the briefcase at arm’s length. In the hallway and on our way outside I recounted how we’d lost our camera and how it had occurred to me that it could be here, inside the case, or in the hole. But Tom seemed dazed and didn’t really listen.

“Wot else iz zere?” he asked at the garden door.

“What do you mean?”

“Here, in zis house?”

“There might be my ex camera,” I said. “But nothing else.”

As I was about to leave, Tom remembered the case. “Zis iz yours,” he said and pushed it at me.

“You keep it,” I said, thinking how ridiculous I’d look walking along in shorts, carrying a briefcase. “I have far still to go.”

When I was a few steps up Camberwell Road, Tom called after me, “But wot must I do wiz it?”

“Just throw it away,” I called over my shoulder.

At the top of the street I looked back before turning into High Level Road. Tom was still standing on the sidewalk, holding the briefcase, and so I waved at him. After a few moments he turned and went back inside.

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Down and under

In 1995 I worked for an actuarial firm in Cape Town. The job itself was as dull as a mortality table, but I couldn’t really complain. That this firm had taken the risk to employ me in the first place had been a miracle. When I interviewed with them I had just spent the previous three years on a farm in the middle of nowhere, leading a moneyless and wholly unactuarial existence. I owned only T-shirts and had to borrow an old suit of my father’s for the interview. My mother hastily shortened the legs and overdid it, but there was no time for the sleeves and so they hung past my hands. The only tie that matched the suit was a wide atrocity that my father had last worn in the seventies. I looked like a pinstriped clown. Minutes before the interview, as I crossed Bree Street without looking, I stepped in front of a Volkswagen Beetle driven by an old Jewish man on his way to Synagogue. Even though he wasn’t going very fast I was scooped over the windshield and did what I’m now sure was a momentary headstand on the roof of the car. Then I landed in the road on the seat of my father’s suit. Two women rushed from a parked car and helped me up.

“Are you OK?” one grunted as they steered me toward the sidewalk. “Is anything broken?”

My one leg hurt but nothing felt broken.

“Do you know where you are?” she pressed on.

I wasn’t sure.

“You should look where you’re going,” the other one suggested and wagged a finger at me.

“I have to ask,” the actuary who interviewed me said a few minutes later, after some introductory pleasantries, “is that a ponytail tucked into your shirt?”

He had introduced himself as Rod. Rod was a name that I thought went very well with his profession.

“It is, Rod,” I mumbled. “I lost a bet with friends almost three years ago and I’ve had to grow my hair since then. But I can cut it on the twenty-third of March.”

He shook his head in disbelief and pressed on, “And the suit?”

“Well—” I hesitated.

“It’s all torn,” he said and pointed at me and at the suit. “Is it even your suit?”

I gave up and told him everything. It was over anyway. There was no point in lying.

“Are you OK?” Rod asked when I was done.

“My right leg is stiff,” I said. “And my hair hurts.”

“You’ll be needing a better tie,” he announced and slapped his knees.

While passing the interview was surely a miracle, my continued employment with this firm was an act of faith on their part. I sat in my little office overlooking Bree street and played around on what was then the beginnings of the internet as we now know it, enthralled by things that had no tangible intersection with the expectations of the people who paid me. Even so I was invited to join five actuaries to attend a conference, hosted by the American firm Towers Perrin, in Washington D.C. The conference was billed, rather optimistically, as Flexible Liability. I didn’t really know what that meant, but I didn’t care. They could’ve called it Permanent Astrology and I still wouldn’t have cared. I had never been to America and this was my chance.

“Don’t fuck around,” Rod warned me after he’d explained why we were going. “These people could become our partners.”

“I won’t,” I said.

Rod nodded slowly and appeared to examine my words for their individual meaning.

Don’t,” he emphasised.

Then he remembered something.

“In D.C. I’ll take you to see the most beautiful woman in the whole world.”

To get to Washington we had to fly via Johannesburg, Isla de Sal in the Cape Verde islands, and New York. The trip took thirty-two hours. In the muggy terminal building at Isla de Sal a sweaty official warned us not to drink the water and invited us to buy a Dr Pepper from a small table. I was thirsty but I wasn’t going to be told what to buy and so I drank the water anyway. As it turned out, this water was a key ingredient of an accelerated weight loss programme. I arrived in Washington at two on a Friday afternoon, haggard and gaunt. I was jet-lagged but I wanted to see the city and so I went for a walk. I walked from our hotel in Foggy Bottom to Lafayette Square so I could see the White House. Then I walked all around it so I could see it better. I felt like an ancient Greek visiting slightly less ancient Rome, gawking at the newfangled excess of it all, but near the Washington Monument I was reminded otherwise.

“You from Australia?” a street vendor asked with what sounded like regret.

I had decided to find out what a Dr Pepper tasted like after all, and had simply asked for one.

“I most certainly am not—”

“Yep,” she went on and handed me a can and a straw. “Down under.”

“No,” I insisted as I returned the straw. “South Africa.”

She handed me the straw again, now warming to the challenge, and jutted out her chin, “Where’s that?”

“In Africa,” I said, suddenly aware that this might not qualify.

She leant back and folded her arms. I mimed south with the straw and added, “You know, at the bottom?”

“Like I said,” she remarked as she turned to another customer, “down under.”

From there I walked to the Lincoln Memorial, and then all the way back along the expanse of the Mall past the Smithsonian Museums to the Reflecting Pool near the Capitol building. By then it was getting dark and I was ready to eat again. An old man was selling hot dogs from a cart with a sign that advertised Dogs with Everything. The Dr Pepper had not tasted much better than the water of Isla de Sal, and so I pinned my hopes on an American hot dog.

“I’ll have a dog with everything,” I announced.

For a moment the old man seemed pained, as though I’d said something slightly obscene, but then he moved slowly into action.

“You sound funny,” he observed as he lay a thin, wrinkled sausage into a roll.

I had expected that a dog with everything would start out with more of something.

“To me, you sound funny,” I replied. “Will that become a dog with everything?”

The old man smiled wistfully and squirted some mustard and ketchup onto the sausage, obscuring it.

“Ireland?” he ventured.

“Irish? How can I—”

“No, wait,” he said and held up the unfinished hot dog, apparently resampling the few words I had said. Then he shook his head, scooped some relish from a container, added some fried onions, and looked into the distance.

“New Zealand,” he tried again.

“No,” I said, “I’m—”

“That’s everything,” the old man cut me short and handed me a smallish hot dog. “Definitely Australia then.”

“I’m from South Africa,” I tried again. “You know, it’s—”

“I don’t really mind,” he chuckled as he turned away. “I’m from South Dakota.”

As I sloped off in the direction of the Peace Monument, he called after me, “I liked it better when you were Irish.”

The next morning I was awake at four and couldn’t get to sleep again. I turned on the television and discovered to my dismay that American ad breaks were significantly longer than the ones I was used to, and significantly sillier. I had three hours before the dining hall opened for breakfast and so I pored over a map of Washington I was given when I checked in. It was a colourful map, almost childlike in its three-dimensional depictions of major landmarks. I planned various routes along the laid-out grid of the city, a grid made simple by its use of numbers for streets running north-south and letters for those running east-west. The only complication I could see were avenues that cut across the grid at forty-five degrees and connected various circles. It wouldn’t matter if I got a little lost, I thought, as I had a whole weekend ahead of me. If I could avoid having to do some stupid tour with the actuaries, the capital of the free world awaited me. I was going to walk across Key Bridge to Arlington Cemetery and the Pentagon. I wanted to retrace my walk of the previous afternoon and visit the Smithsonian Museums. I wanted to take a leisurely stroll along the Potomac. And perhaps, I thought, I could hang around outside the White House again, but this time for so long that the Secret Service would open a file on me.

As I was about to leave my room and go down to breakfast, I remembered something—I was not going to stand accused of being Australian again. By coincidence I had brought along what I was sure would put an end to that. It was a T-shirt that depicted the mountains of Cape Town—Devil’s Peak, Table Mountain, and Lion’s Head—with the words Cape Town in large lettering beneath them. I changed into this T-shirt and stepped into the day.

The hotel had a single elevator. It took forever to arrive and even longer to move between floors. In the elevator on this morning were two older women. One was very short and nearly spherical, with thick glasses and a vast bosom that undulated gently. The other one was thin and tall. They stood closely together. As we slowly descended I tried my best to ignore the mental image of a first grader’s letter d, with the short woman as its bowl and the other one its stem.

“Guten Tag,” Bowl broke the silence and beamed up at me. “Wie geht’s?”

It was now obvious that she was quite squint too.

“Guten Tag,” I hesitated. “Alles gut. Mit Sie?”

Bowl and Stem exchanged a bewildered glance.

“Aw!” Bowl exclaimed. “Now you got me! I dunno more German than that!”

“Why German?” I asked, wondering if I somehow looked German on top of sounding Australian.

“Cape Town,” Stem observed with Holmes-like satisfaction, and pointed at my T-shirt.

“What about it?”

Stem and Bowl exchanged another glance.

“It’s in Germany,” Stem said.

We trundled downward in silence for a second or two while I tried to come to terms with this new intelligence.

“Does it sound German?” I asked.

“No—” Bowl hesitated.

“It doesn’t,” I said, “because it’s not. Cape Town is in Africa. At the southern tip.”

“I don’t think so,” Stem objected and shook her head slowly.

“Nope,” Bowl nodded.

“Look,” I said, “I was there forty-eight hours ago. Unless they’ve scooped the whole thing out and moved it to Germany, I assure you that Cape Town is in South Africa.”

Stem pursed her lips the way people do who disagree with you but don’t feel like arguing.

“Take a look at a map,” I suggested.

Just then the elevator came to a shuddering stop at the ground level.

“Well,” Bowl guffawed, “what do we know! We’re from California!”

With that they marched off, now looking like a b as they made their way to a table near the window.

A few minutes later I was staring at a soggy waffle when Bowl summoned me.

“Psst!” she hissed from their table and waved her arms to attract my attention. “Come here,” she mouthed and beckoned.

Having talked in the elevator we were clearly now friends. I took my coffee and walked over. Stem had the same map I’d studied in my room spread out across their table.

“We want to see the White House,” she got to the point and tapped the map. “But should we go like this,” she said, tracing her finger from our hotel toward Dupont Circle, “or like this?”

The rather large picture of the White House was visible to the east of her hand, nowhere near the two routes she was considering.

“I’d go like this,” I said, unable to stop myself, “to Dupont Circle, and then further north along Connecticut Avenue.”

“How far to the White House?” Bowl asked and eyed the map with her good eye.

“Well,” I said, “it’s going to feel like you’re not getting there. I walked to the White House yesterday and it took a long time.”

“Was it worth it?” she asked and glanced at Stem.

“It was totally worth it,” I said.

“That’s settled then,” Stem snapped and folded the map away. “Thank you.”

I spent the Saturday as I’d planned, getting lost here and there but generally finding my way in the end. The T-shirt seemed to work and I was asked instead whether I was from England. A cashier in a CD shop, once we’d established that I was from Africa and not Brittany, as she put it, told me that she knew someone who lived in Utopia.

“You mean Ethiopia?”

“Of course,” she agreed. “It’s around there, ain’it?”

I was baffled to be among people who had had all the benefits of scale and yet had turned out to be so small. How was this the capital of the world when it knew almost nothing about it?

The next morning, as I entered the dining hall, I heard an eerily familiar sound, “Psst!”

It was Bowl again, but she looked less friendly than she had the day before.

“Did you see the White House?” I asked when I reached their table.

I was hoping that they’d gotten lost and as a result had found their way to the White House despite my misdirections.

“Yes,” Bowl said unhappily and adjusted her thick glasses. She glanced nervously at Stem and continued, “But it was very far away.”

This was not what I wanted to hear.

“How far?” I asked with some trepidation.

“It didn’t look like the White House,” Stem remarked darkly.

“But it was smaller than we thought it’d be,” Bowl added quickly.

From this I took it that Bowl wasn’t the brains of the outfit and instead took care of public relations.

“Where did you go?” I asked.

Stem unfolded her map. “Here,” she said icily and dragged a bony finger along Connecticut Avenue, “like you said.”

I wanted to run away but I was trapped.

“Like this?” I asked to buy some time as I traced the same route and hovered a finger north of Dupont Circle. “How far?”

“It was very far,” Bowl sighed. “I was very tired.”

“And you found the White House?”

“Yes,” Stem hissed and paused for effect, “and quite frankly, it was extremely disappointing.”

For a moment I considered saying how I, too, was disappointed, but then it occurred to me that I might see them again, and that this could drag on.

“Actually,” I said instead, “it’s not along Connecticut Avenue at all.” I pointed at the large icon of the White House on the map to the south-east. “It’s here.”

Stem tapped the icon while she considered this. “No,” she concluded and shook her head, “it’s not.”

“Look,” I said again.

“It’s not,” Stem insisted.

“Perhaps it’s in Germany,” I smiled.

Bowl giggled nervously but was silenced at once by a withering look from Stem.

“What does this say?” I asked and traced the words The White House that were clearly printed below the picture of the White House.

“But we saw the White House,” Stem countered with an air of finality.

It was becoming clear to me that the geographic incompetence I had experienced of Americans was more pronounced in those who were from California, where they seemed to laminate their ignorance with certainty.

“You saw some white house,” I tried, “not the White House. This is Washington. Everything is white.”

Stem frowned and tapped the pictures of the White House and Dupont Circle with her index fingers, apparently still unconvinced that she hadn’t seen the White House.

“You played a trick on us!” Bowl exclaimed.

“I did,” I confessed.

“But why?” she asked with childlike wonder.

“You said I was from Germany,” I mumbled sheepishly. “I thought you’d figure it out.”

“But we’re from California!” she brayed and sputtered until her bosom heaved unevenly.

The rest of the Sunday was spoiled by the actuaries. They intercepted me as I was about to leave for the day.

“Where have you been?” Rod asked with some irritation. “We’re late.”

“For what?”

“It’s in the the itinerary—”

A van pulled up to the curb outside the hotel. It bore the ominous sign UCDC.

“What itinerary?”

Rod stared at me for a moment and then he said, “Don’t fuck around.”

We got into the van and went on a paid tour of the city to see the the things I’d already seen. After a mind-numbing dinner at a restaurant on K street, during which the actuaries cracked jokes about funds and factors, Rod insisted that we visit 20-twenty, a strip club on 20th street.

“You’ll see Kerry,” he cried hoarsely and knocked back a cognac like one would a tequila, “the most beautiful woman in the whole world!”

He waved a drunken hand to include what passed for the world. “You have to see her.”

I could think of no reason to see Kerry. I would rather have watched two hobos argue over a soiled mattress than visit a strip club, especially one rumoured to contain the most beautiful woman in the whole world.

“I’m going back to the hotel,” I announced as we stepped out onto K street.

“But what about Kerry?” Rod cried. “What are you, a pussy?”

“I’m tired,” I called back to them as I walked off.

“You’ll be sorry,” Rod called after me.

The week dragged on painfully. My worry that Stem and Bowl might see me again was totally warranted. They worked for Towers Perrin and were at the hotel for the same conference I was, in charge of its administration. Somehow, this was a function they performed as an inseparable, bipolar duo. On the first day, Stem announced lunch in such a matronly tone as to suggest that stool samples would be collected later. Bowl beamed beside her and nodded eagerly. They presided over the rationing of refreshments, the keeping of time, and the agendas of sessions. It was from them that I first learned of the existence of the breakout session. Until then it had not occurred to me that people at a conference could want to stay at the conference for a nanosecond longer than was absolutely necessary. I was therefore flabbergasted to find that some people would intentionally sequester themselves in a smaller conference, under intensified scrutiny, only to regroup and then reprise what had been discussed as though they were revenant explorers of the unknown.

When Stem announced the first breakout session, I snuck off. It was around three in the afternoon and I figured that no one would miss me anyway.

“Are you lost?”

It was Bowl.

“The breakout rooms are that way,” Stem pointed with her bony finger. “Where it says Breakout Rooms.”

“I was just—”

“We’ll show you,” Bowl purred as they steered me back past the Breakout Rooms sign and down a dingy corridor.

The next day they caught me again as I was about to escape the finer points of flexible liability. They guided me to a room where Rod and four people from Towers Perrin were discussing, as far as I could tell, how the liability of an employer with regards to its healthcare insurance differed, fundamentally, from its other liabilities. Sitting there, listening to Rod and these people, I had what I can only call an out-of-body experience. I wasn’t floating above my own body, mind you, but it felt as though I was floating above theirs. The more I looked at them, and the more I listened, the more I became convinced that they were hand puppets, with a voiceover provided from somewhere outside the room, possibly by Stem and Bowl. As I was thinking this, Rod leant forward and whispered, “Don’t fuck around.”

“What?” I whispered and I smiled at the other four.

Don’t,” Rod hissed.

Stem and Bowl caught me again on the Wednesday and Thursday, despite what I thought were cunning plans to escape the hotel. The Californian ineptitude of earlier had been replaced by a spatial awareness I couldn’t compete with. To add to my misery, the actuaries teased me about Kerry whenever they could.

“You missed out big time,” Alan said at supper on Thursday.

Alan was a runt of a man, even for an actuary, and it was clear from how he said this that he was extending to me what had started out as a private regret.

“Why?” I asked. “What did you get?”

“We got to see the Grand Canyon,” Rod said, “so to speak.”

They all laughed at this pun.

“Is she a stripper?” I asked.

“Oh God, no,” Alan sighed. “She does the door.”

“I don’t like redheads,” another actuary reflected, “but for Kerry I’ll make an exception.”

This was not what I had wanted to hear. I loved redheads, without exception, and now it turned out that Kerry was only the maître d’.

“She is simply the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen,” another actuary recapped dreamily.

Rod smiled. “I see we have your attention.”

“I thought she was a stripper,” I mumbled.

On Friday I tried one last time to escape the inevitable breakout sessions that were announced, as glumly as all week, by Stem. As a ruse, I followed some others to one of the breakout rooms. I had no intention of attending this session and instead planned to walk past the room and somehow find a way out of the hotel. But Stem and Bowl had anticipated this.

“You don’t seem to know your way around,” Stem observed as they stepped from behind a pillar. “How will you get to the venue tonight?”

“What venue?”

“Oh dear,” Bowl giggled. “The closing dinner.”

“There’s a bus for those of us from out of town,” Stem admonished as they escorted me back to the breakout room. “Be on it.”

The venue for the closing dinner was the Washington Convention Center, a thirty minute walk from the hotel. There was no way I was going to be bused to something I could walk to. As I skipped down the entrance steps of the hotel that evening, I was intercepted once again by the actuaries.

“Where are you going?” Rod demanded.

“I’m going to walk,” I said. “It’s not too far.”

“But the bus leaves in fifteen minutes. You’ll be late.”

“He wants to swing by 20th street,” another actuary suggested.

“I’ll be fine,” I said as I headed out. “I don’t even know where that club is.”

“Don’t fuck around,” Rod called after me.

As it turned out, it was easier to find club 20-twenty than it was to find the Washington Convention Center. At the north end of Lafayette Square I got confused and headed farther north instead of east, and soon was lost. I took a turn in K Street that I thought would thread me back to I Street and New York Avenue, and thus to the Convention Center, but I ended up on 20th Street. When I walked a block along it, I found myself in front of the rather muted entrance of club 20-twenty. By then I was late for the closing dinner. There was no harm in seeing Kerry, surely? What if she was indeed the most beautiful woman in the whole world, despite the actuaries saying so? What if she was beautiful in that haunting way that only smart women who are troubled can be? If she was at the front desk, I would not even have to go inside.

The maître d’ at the front desk was not Kerry. I could tell because he was a man.

“Welcome to 20-twenty,” he said before I could turn around. “Will it be just you tonight?”

“Uhm—” I hesitated. “Is Kerry around?”

“Who are you?” he asked with narrowed eyes.

“I’m no one,” I stammered. “I just thought—”

“You sound funny,” he cut me short. “Where are you from?”

“I’m from Australia,” I blurted.

“Well mate,” the maître d’ replied with undisguised satisfaction, “Kerry doesn’t work on Fridays.”

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The names of words

“Can you try not to ogle?” my friend Jack muttered.

The woman I was ogling sat by herself at the next table, reading a book while she dragged her finger slowly along the rim of her wine glass.

“She’s nice,” Jack wheezed as he struggled to wedge himself into his seat. “I get it.”

While he grunted and heaved, I marvelled at the contrasts of this woman. Her fingers and wrists were delicate, like those of someone who played the piano, but her body was poised with the endurance of a hiker or a climber. She wore outdoor gear and looked a little flushed. There was a small tattoo in the notch of her throat. She wasn’t just nice. She was beautiful in that singular way that only women can be who don’t know it.

“And you don’t have to smile at her,” Jack resumed under his breath, “or start a fucking conversation.”

“I’m not,” I said and gestured at the window. “I won’t. She sits between me and the window, and beyond the window is the mountain.”

I couldn’t quite make out what book she was reading.

“Whatever you do,” Jack went on, “please don’t talk about her. She’ll hear.”

Our waiter arrived and introduced himself as Richard.

“What does this mean, Richard?” Jack growled without a pause and pointed at an item he’d discovered on the menu. “Spanish ham. Which Spanish ham?”

“I’ll find out for you,” Richard gushed in a way that wasn’t going to do him any good. “I mean,” he said and swallowed when Jack just stared at him, “the chef will know.”

Richard’s name tag said dick. The nickname was embossed onto a copper plate in lettering of singular silliness. The chummy use of lower-case throughout made the tag look like a schoolyard prank.

“I’m sort of new,” Richard added.

In my physics class at university there had been a stunning girl named Vanessa. Vanessa was sort of new too, having transferred from another university mid-term. It didn’t take us long to figure out that she was as sharp as a razor, but it took a lot longer to realise that she was also as blunt as a barmaid. On weekends, it turned out, she danced as a stripper at a joint on route 62 where they called her Dusty. Richard could be another Vanessa.

“Ask the chef,” Jack said, “and tell him to be specific.”

“It’s a she,” Richard whimpered. “Uh, the chef. She’s—”

“Good,” Jack cut him short. “Tell her then.”

While Richard shivered in the gathering dusk of Jack’s disapproval, I tried to imagine him as a male stripper. Like Vanessa, I decided, he led a double life. What had started out as salsa classes with his girlfriend had become, years after she was gone, something else altogether. Now he danced at all-girls parties in Clifton and Camps Bay on Saturday nights. It didn’t pay as much as he thought it should but the sensation of being so vulnerable as to disappear never quite lost its novelty, and so he continued to do it. Like Vanessa, he used a different name when he danced, but probably not dick.

“I’ll ask her,” Richard said and sniffed.

Perhaps it was Duane. On Sunday mornings he showered twice before he left his small apartment in Mowbray. Then he drove along the gentle scallops of the mountain to this restaurant, set like a gem in the grassy slopes of the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens. Here he waited on tables for the rest of the week to finance his studies at UCT. A major in botany would be too predictable, I thought.

“But it’s definitely Spanish ham,” the pinkly scrubbed Richard insisted and shot me a searching glance. “Can I tell you about our specials?”

“No,” Jack sighed and dragged his finger to another entry on the menu. “What’s this?”

I smiled at the woman and the mountain behind her. There was no stopping Jack when he got like this. No matter what one said or did, he always managed to turn a meal into a culinary inquisition. Once, in another restaurant, I had made the claim that he did not care about the actual food but cared instead about what other people called it. Names made things invisible, I said. I had hoped that he would see it my way, that he would stop, but instead he became so angry that he knocked over our bottle of wine and broke two glasses.

“What does authentic paella mean?” Jack now asked.

“Well—” Richard began.

“I mean, is there another kind?”

The problem was not that Jack ate too much and had become a walrus. The problem was that he preferred foreign food. It annoyed me that he always wanted something you couldn’t pronounce or couldn’t afford. I was sure that he did this because foreign food was a substitute for travel and invited the same urge to label experience. If a menu read Habas con Jamón, like it had now, Jack was baffled and outraged. Which of the Spanish hams was it? Was it just any Serrano? Or was it Bellota? Or Pata Negra? He couldn’t enjoy it if he didn’t know its name.

“It’s a Spanish paella,” I said on a whim. “Who cares?”

Richard didn’t even look my way. Whatever courses he was taking included a primer in psychology.

I care,” Jack said with some restraint.

I’m paying,” I countered.

“And this?” Jack asked again and returned to the next entry on the menu.

I’ll call her Jane. She had looked up once or twice while we talked with Richard, almost as though to check on us. I could picture her as an orderly in a clinic where Jack and I were under observation. Jack had been committed by concerned friends because he knew the names of all the words. I had come of my own when I noticed that the only real things I knew of were all imagined. Jane had seen these obsessions before and so they did not interest her. In the afternoons she came from the cubicle at the front of the ward to do her rounds—

“And to drink?” Richard asked, having clearly forgotten about me.

“Let’s find out about that ham first,” Jack said, “shall we? And the paella.”

“I’ll have the scallops and the calamari,” I tried. “Just starters.”

“I’m sorry,” Richard stammered.

“I forgot about starters,” Jack mumbled and turned over his menu.

While Jack held Richard hostage as he vacillated between the goulash and the borscht, I looked again at Jane and the mountain. Despite her athletic looks, she had soft skin and full lips. She giggled as she read and now and then she repeated a line and mouthed it to herself, taking her time to savour the words. There was a fresh scratch down her one shin, from just below her knee to the tongue of her hiking shoe. She came here often, I decided, after climbing one of the ravines that led from these gardens up the Table Mountain massif. I liked that she was careless with herself.

“Wine?” Jack asked and loudly cleared his throat.

Jane glanced up from her book as I quickly pointed at the run of scree that scarred the mountainside in the distance behind her.

“Isn’t that just amazing?” I asked Jack.

“When we’re done here,” he growled, “I’m going to beat the shit out of you.”

“That must be two hundred meters long,” I said as Jane resumed her reading.

“Wine,” Jack asked again and visibly darkened. “You know, to drink, here, at this table.”

Richard had gone to consult with the chef before Jack could make his decisions. I wanted wine so that I’d have something to do when Jack resumed his interrogation, but choosing a wine near Jack was a mental root canal.

“Pick a red,” I hesitated.

In his twenties, Jack had given himself to wine like nuns give themselves to Jesus. His love and devotion apprenticed him to a holy order that forsook its ordained members. Now he no longer enjoyed wine. The wonder it originally inspired had been replaced by a habit of stoic disappointment.

“What kind of red?” he said through clenched teeth.

It was clear that he’d happily lunge across the table and strangle me if I provoked him any further. I glanced at Jane.

“Something that grew against a mountain,” I ventured. “Tokara?”

“Why Tokara?” he snorted.

“Well,” I sighed, “I like that they have all those different grapes growing in little rows at the entrance so you can see them.”

“Cultivars,” Jack hissed but pressed on. “And why do you like that?”

The truth was that I didn’t. I liked that those grapes existed, and I liked that there were people who knew what to make of them. But I didn’t have to inspect the grapes at the entrance to enjoy the wines they ended up in. In fact, I didn’t want to. I felt robbed the day I found out that Primitivo was the same thing as Zinfandel. It was Jack who spoiled it for me, just like he had once spoiled a two-day hike in the Cedarberg by naming every flower we came across. I had seen them all as different. To me, each one was like Jane, alone, and unlike any other. But what had looked beautifully individual to me, Jack had collapsed into sameness. By the second day there were no longer flowers with names, but only names for flowers. As for the grapes, there was no way I could tell him any of this and escape alive.

“Well,” I tried, “I like that they don’t look nice to eat.”

“Jesus,” Jack shook his head and inspected the menu. “Which Tokara?”

“A Pinotage?”

While Jack continued to shake his head, I glanced at Jane. Perhaps, I thought, she was the only woman in a place of broken men. An all-male ward of weirdos would be so much more appropriate.

“They have only one Pinotage,” Jack announced grimly, “and it’s no good. I’m going to look for one from Thelema or Delaire.”

But she wasn’t the orderly. She was the psychiatrist. She was in complete control and tolerated our idiosyncrasies with casual indulgence. Yet, because we were men and she was beautiful, we didn’t mind. Her beauty was the kind one had to learn, the kind that was only revealed in movement and proximity, and it inspired in us an unreasonable sense of ownership. We noticed small things about her and felt convinced that we were the only ones to see them.

“How about Oldenburg?” Jack mused.

But some things were hard to miss. It was clear to us that the cartoon-like tattoo of a bee in the notch of her throat was not a teenage memory, but a mark of wildness. She was dangerous and feral despite an appearance of tameness, like a caged hawk no one dared to touch.

“It’s not Spanish,” Richard announced with a hint of triumph as he returned to our table, “it’s Portuguese.”

Jane looked up and flattened her book with her one hand.

“Portuguese?” Jack said as he carefully closed the wine list. “A Portuguese ham in a Habas con Jamón—”

Jamón means ham,” Richard explained.

Jack tensed with tectonic slowness.

“—which is a Spanish dish,” he continued with some effort.

“It’s a dry ham,” Richard stipulated.

I dared not turn but I could tell that Jane was still looking our way. Jack rearranged his cutlery to compose himself.

“Is this ham a refugee?” he asked. “Has it escaped the injustice of Portugal, only to end up as a second-rate citizen among Spanish hams?”


Richard would soon wish to be where he was last night, I thought. Jack held his hands together in mock prayer and ploughed on. “Please tell me,” he said, “that this immigrant ham is a Presunto de Barrancos?


Jack continued to torture Richard with more questions, and so I returned to Jane. But she had closed her book and was settling her bill. While Jack laid out a taxonomy of world hams and Jane gathered her things, it occurred to me that I had done the very thing I always accused Jack of doing—I had looked at her but had only seen myself. She was not the psychiatrist, I realised, but the girlfriend I had taken for granted. I watched her move toward us and the door beyond, and suppressed a sudden impulse to get up and leave with her. Later, while I sipped at a wine that Jack didn’t like, I tried to imagine my clearest memory of her, still painful many years after we’d broken up and gone our separate ways. It was a late Sunday afternoon in the early spring. We had hiked up Skeleton Gorge and now we returned through these gardens before the lengthening shadow of the mountain. We paused on the little wooden bridge across the pond and watched the ducks among the reeds below. I put my nose to the flushed skin near the base of her neck, to the warm dimple above her collar bone. Here was the steady tremor of her heart. Here she smelled of cinnamon, and of water, and of flowers I couldn’t name.

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A day apart

When I was a kid, the second hardest part about the day-long drive from Johannesburg to Cape Town to visit my grandmother was always the two hundred and twenty-six kilometer stretch of the N1 highway between Bloemfontein and Colesberg. By the time we reached Bloemfontein our tempers were short and we’d been in the car for longer than buttocks are meant to be sat upon. For a long while the signs that said Bloemfontein had suggested an oasis of burbling water and cool shadows, but when we refueled the car at a baking pitstop amid grassy knolls, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, it was reasonable to wonder yet again whether Bloemfontein really existed, or whether it was just a naming trick to make the distance to Colesberg seem shorter.

The hardest part about the drive to Cape Town was actually my father. He either delayed our trip, or extended it. Sometimes he remembered to do his taxes just before we were supposed to leave, which pushed out our departure by hours and ensured that we did the worst stretches of road during the hottest hours of the day. The rest of the time he managed to prolong an already near-infinite trip with a digression that threatened to approach infinity all by itself. He’d spot a turn-off to some forgotten town, several light-years from the highway, where British soldiers and Afrikaner families alike died during the second Boer War, and take it.

“What the hell are you doing?” my mother would cry.

“It’ll only be a few minutes,” my father always said.

My sister and I raved in the throes of a tantrum but my father just gripped the wheel as we trundled into oblivion. One year, at the Brandfort cemetery, we spent hours draped over headstones in the blazing sun while my father marvelled at the futility of war.

“Private Michael Mead of Thorneycroft’s Mounted Infantry,” he murmured as he examined one grave. “Died 25 April 1901. He was twenty-two.”

My mother was angry at my father but she also knew that these experiences were more important than the inconvenience of the moment.

“Just imagine,” she said to revive my sister and I, “that you’re sent here all the way from England, or Australia, for no reason that makes any sense today, nor, I think, made much then, and on a clear morning in April these hills are the last things you see.”

While we whined that these hills were going to be the last things we’d see and wondered aloud how my mother could know that the soldier had died in the morning, my father moved on to a grave in which a mother and three children were interred. There he crouched in silence and traced the outlines of their names on the weathered stone before we drove back to the highway.

After Bloemfontein the serious arguments broke out. Now there were just the straight lines of the highway stretching to a mirage on the horizon, the shrubby landscape, and my father’s driving. He never exceeded the speed limit, even when we owned a car that could actually do so if driven by someone else. Whatever my father drove seemed to have only two gears—reverse, and asymptotic. Whatever mental arithmetic I’m capable of today is due to the endless calculations of distance and time I did on those trips, trapped in the backseat while my father resisted all entreaties to speed the fuck up.

“There’s no one out here,” my mother would beg. “The road is straight.”

“The law is the law,” my father said and slowed down fractionally.

“What nonsense is that?” my mother fumed. “A grapefruit is a grapefruit.”

“There are reasons for speed limits,” my father insisted and slowed down a little more.

“Our lives are finite,” my mother hissed. “At this speed, I’ll be eighty before we reach Colesberg.”

My father flexed his jaw muscles and gripped the wheel.

“At this speed,” he muttered, “you might actually reach Colesberg. And you might survive to turn eighty.”

“I want a superpower,” I piped up.

“Oh Jesus,” my father sighed.

My mother turned in her seat and lit a cigarette. “Given your father’s driving, so do I.”

“I want a six million Volt finger,” I said to open the betting.

“For now,” my mother remarked as she gave my father a hard look, “I want teleportation—”

“I want to fly,” I interrupted.

“—or time travel. Either will suffice.”

“I want to breathe under water,” my sister said.

“What’s this bullshit?” my father exploded. “Superpowers? Jesus Christ! If you’re going to wish for something, why don’t you wish for something creative, like the ability to compose music, or talk to animals, or raise the dead?”

“I want those too,” I said.

“Raising the dead’s not a bad power,” my mother agreed. “If I had that, you’d drive faster.”

My father ignored her.

“Why do these powers you wish for have no limits?” he asked. “Even Iron Man has a drinking problem. There must be some weakness, some limit.”

“Who’s Iron Man?” my sister wondered.

“I don’t want limits,” I said. “I want powers.”

“Without limits you can never have power,” my father sighed. “That’s how life works.”

For a few minutes, no one said anything. The barren landscape slid past like the banks of a river seen from a boat. My mother lit another cigarette, and one for my father.

“Let them fantasize,” she told him as he took it. “It’s good for them. Besides, what else can they do?”

A few years after that, when I was a little older, we started out late, this time not because my father had decided to do his taxes at the last moment, but because he’d stayed up all night to look for my mother’s hidden money. Before that, he was already in a bad mood because of an argument they’d had about terrorists. Earlier that week, separatists had hijacked a plane and held its passengers hostage on the tarmac.

“See,” my father had said, “those idiots think that their cause will somehow be remembered when all of this is over. As though people are going to say, gee, let’s not forget those separatist weirdos in the Navarre.”

He continued, “But if their cause was really worth it they wouldn’t be fucking around on that plane, now would they? They’d be sitting down somewhere, writing a book or a manifesto, or making something.”

The night before we were to leave, crack troops stormed the plane and killed the terrorists.

“There you go,” my father said with some satisfaction. “Who said evolution was done with us? Those guys didn’t fit and they didn’t survive.”

My mother was busy packing for our trip but she stopped what she was doing. “Everything you respect was done by people who didn’t fit.”

My father followed her about the kitchen.

“The people I respect didn’t fit intellectually,” he objected. “They never got on some plane and waved guns about. They got on planes and left places where people waved guns about.”

“That only works if the thing you want to change is intellectual,” my mother said.

My father sat down at the kitchen table in preparation for the defeat that was always so inevitable in arguments with my mother.

“You can take the Navarre with a pencil,” he insisted.

My mother didn’t even look at him.

“To take a plane,” she said, “guns are better.”

A few minutes later, after he’d licked his wounds and regrouped, my father asked, “How can you be so blasé about everything? How can you move with such guiltless ease between different lines of reasoning?”

But asking her this was useless. My mother respected rules the way a bird respects heights.

“I’m not blasé,” she said. “I’m just busy.”

“Like you’re busy looking for that money?” my father asked with a hint of triumph.

My mother sat down at the table with him and lit a cigarette.

“It’s my money,” she said. “I can look for it when I damn well feel like it.”

A few months earlier she’d hidden twenty-one thousand Rand of her students’ fees somewhere in the house before we went away for a weekend, and she had not been able to remember where she’d put it since. This was not the first time she’d hidden something so well as to effectively lose it. Most famously, she once hid her passport and it only surfaced eleven years later when a man came to tune the piano and found it tucked in a gap between the rim and the frame.

Now the idea that a mini-treasure lay undiscovered in some devious nook of my mother’s devising drove my father insane.

“It’s not your money,” my father countered. “Until it’s found, it’s no one’s money.”

My mother was not as moved by it all as my father was.

“It’s mine,” she said, “and I will find it eventually.”

“What do you mean, eventually?”

“Some time next year.”

Next year?”

My mother got up and resumed what she was doing before she’d sat down.

“What if we tried hypnosis,” my father said to calm himself, “or some form of meditation?”

My mother returned to the table.

“Look,” she said, “are you insane? You go and meditate.”

“Did you put it in an envelope?” my father asked.

“I think I might have split it up,” my mother said flatly.

Split it up?” he sputtered.

This new possibility laid waste to his visions of finding a fat bundle of notes if he just looked under the right cushion, or inside the right vase.

“I think that’s what I would have done,” my mother mused as she moved out of sight.

“Split it up?” he cried after her.

“Very likely,” she called out from the next room.

Then a new and terrible thought occurred to my father.

“Into how many parts?” he called out.

My mother put her head around the corner. “Who knows? I would have used a theme to hide it—you know, everything behind loose tiles, or everything inside books—so based on that I would have made parcels of money.”

A theme?” my father croaked.

“Yes. That way I’d be able to remember where to look later.”

“Jesus! And?”

“Once I remember the theme,” she called out, “I’ll find it.”

“A theme?” my father remarked to us in wonder. “What kind of person hides things according to a theme? Who is this woman you know as your mother?”

When I went to bed my father was standing on a ladder and rummaging around the ceiling space of the hot water cylinder.

“I don’t recall using a ladder,” my mother remarked as she walked past. “It’s definitely not up there. Plus, it’s late. We have to leave early.”

In the morning my father was tired but he resumed his futile search for the money and we left four hours later than planned. We ended up doing the dreaded stretch between Bloemfontein and Colesberg around sunset. He drove even slower than his usual slowness, nodding off every now and then, and yet he bluntly refused to let my mother take over.

“Goddammit!” she cried. “Pull off the road. Let me drive.”

“I’ff got a speesch imfediment,” my father explained, half asleep. “I can’t thtop.”

While they continued to argue, my sister and I huddled in the back and devised theories to explain how screwed up our parents were. Perhaps they were simply mad, we thought. Perhaps our father actually always sounded like this, and when he seemed normal, that was the real speech impediment. Or maybe one of them was mad and the other one was just along for the ride.

As an adult, long after that, I used to think that my parents were essentially opposites, that the one complained while the other one accepted things, that the one cared about the rules while the other one flouted them. But now, so many years later still, I know that it was simpler than that. My father longed to become while my mother was happy to be. In this way they were the same person, really, encountered a day apart. I can still see them like that, in the growing dusk as we crept slowly toward Colesberg, my father with his eyes on the road as he drove into the night, and my mother beside him, staring out the window at the craggy hills while she told him stories to help him stay awake.

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My mother’s game

The girl was five, maybe six. She had red pigtails and freckles and looked to be a bit of a tomboy, with dirty knees and a scratch along her one calf. She strained at her mother’s hand and stared into our car as they crossed the street in front of us. Even though my sister and I were older than she was, we cringed in the backseat at the thought that this girl was very likely trying to see what kind of idiots drove around in a car as ugly and pointless as the orange 1100 Colt we were in.

“What’s the problem?” my mother asked as she fumbled for a cigarette in her handbag. “What do you mean I don’t know what comes next? Just say what comes to mind.”

As she said this, the light changed.

“Shit,” she grunted and began the embarrassing process of grinding the gears of the Colt.

This was the moment my sister and I dreaded at every intersection. The gearstick of the Colt was a thin spindle and it looked entirely possible that my mother would snap it if she yanked and shoved it any harder. The Colt neighed and bucked while my mother became thin-lipped with determination and oblivious to the honking and yelling behind us.

“Damn your father,” she groaned while she grated the gears.

My father had bought the Colt in a fit of poverty but had somehow expected that my mother would think it quaint. She did not. She resented my father and hated the Colt right up to the moment, less than a year later, when she jumped the curb and drove the Colt right through the window of a store that sold school uniforms.

“Why don’t you keep it in gear?” I asked as I tried to sink into the footwell.

“Shut up!” my mother barked at the rearview mirror and pushed at the gearstick.

There was another honk from somewhere behind us as the gears meshed and we shuddered across the intersection and down the road.

“Nothing comes to mind,” my sister Demri complained.

My mother lit her cigarette and looked at us in the mirror.

“You can tell any story you like,” she said. “Anything.”

It always amazed and somewhat worried me that my mother and sister could continue a conversation seconds after being at the epicentre of road rage and mortifying humiliation. Now my mother jabbed her cigarette at the mirror to emphasise her point.

“It doesn’t matter how it starts,” she said.

As my mother studied us in the mirror we slowly began to drift into the oncoming lane. She turned in her seat to see us better. In the distance a cement truck loomed.

“If you want to tell a story about a boy who dives for pearls—” she continued and gave me a withering look for trying to sink from view, “you—”


“—you can start with a line like, let’s say, Some dolls blink when you tilt them backward, or—”



My mother yanked the Colt back into our lane and shook her fist at the cement truck as it disappeared in the rearview mirror. Then she turned to us again.

“Where was I?”

The game my mother made us play was meant to bolster our narrative abilities. She would start with any random line she could come up with, and then we had to continue.

“The next morning the man was gone,” she’d say. “Go.”

We didn’t like this game, but this didn’t deter my mother.

“Just say what comes next,” she urged.

We complained that we didn’t know what came next, but my mother always brushed aside such arguments with her cigarette.

“Just listen,” she said.

“To what?” we hissed through clenched teeth.

We were always in a car or at the doctor’s rooms or standing in a queue when she did this—somewhere where she was hemmed in herself—and we couldn’t be loud.

“Imagine,” she once said when she’d started a story in a restaurant, “that instead of having to pick up the story right now, you could somehow teleport, just for a minute, to where you were in the audience at a talk given by a great speaker, or a writer you loved, and that the story they were telling started with this same line.”

In the desert was a lake?” one of us repeated the line she’d given.

“Yes,” she said flatly. “Why not?”


“Just listen to what they say next,” she explained. “Then say what you’ve heard. That’s how you continue.”

My father didn’t like my mother’s game either. He interrupted and objected, but my mother brushed aside his objections with her cigarette. At the time we thought that he wanted to defend us, but over the years, as we got better at my mother’s game and began to understand what she’d meant, we realised that he didn’t like it because he couldn’t do it. My mother had probably worked on him before we came along, and now he had to watch us making progress where he had failed. More importantly, perhaps, he didn’t like her game because it encouraged in us an unsteady relationship with the truth.

“You can bullshit them all you want,” he now said, loud enough to galvanise the people at the next table, “and tell them to imagine hearing someone speak, but in the end they’ll just have to make something up.”

“Yeah,” I agreed.

“And we don’t want to,” Demri added with a hint of triumph.

“Of course you’ll have to make something up,” my mother insisted. “That’s the whole point of storytelling. What I meant when I said that you should listen is not that you should actually listen, but rather that you should say what you’d most like to hear.”

“Oh Jesus,” my father muttered.

“What would you most like to hear?” I asked my mother.

“After the lake in the desert?”


“It depends on the story I want to tell.”

I remembered the day in the Colt, and so I said, “The boy who dives for pearls.”

“The heavy stone tied to a loop around his foot pulled the boy deeper and deeper beneath the water,” my mother said without hesitation, “and as he sank he played out the line to his float on the surface. He did not look up until he’d reached the bottom of the narrow cove. Then, for a moment, as though he was standing on land, he looked up. The surface and the sky beyond were a blue oasis between the sandstone cliffs.”

As we got better at my mother’s game, it became easier to listen, as she’d put it, and to say what we’d most like to hear. Once we’d mastered that, it was obvious that she was also right when she’d said that you could tell any story you wanted, no matter how you’d started out. And once we’d mastered that, we knew that the truth, as my father saw it, was merely a version of how things were.

Nowhere was this more vital than when we were in trouble. My mother, of course, allowed storytelling especially then.

“Tell me what happened,” she’d say. “Go.”

When I’d put a dog turd into Danny Lowe’s pencil pouch at school and teetered on the brink of being expelled, my mother was willing to entertain a story that outlined how this was actually not my fault at all and instead depicted my hands as unwitting agents in a long chain of cosmic happenstance. This story had to start in the distant past, involve as many characters as were needed to people a multi-season soapy—characters whom themselves were required to have complicated relationships and troubles of their own—be entirely and outrageously far-fetched, and funny.

“This is bullshit!” my father cried and pointed at me. “He put that turd in there! What the fuck does your grandmother dying of the Spanish Flu have to do with it!?”

But my mother brushed my father aside with her cigarette and heard me out. In the end, hours later, I was more exhausted than I would have been after a long talking-to, and forever opposed to putting turds into pencil pouches.

“Maybe he does get it?” my father said in wonder as I stumbled off.

“Shape is not a constant thing,” my mother said and patted his knee. “We see what we want to see.”

My father never played my mother’s game but he got better at letting us do it. I think he secretly admired my mother’s ability to bend the world to her description, even though he made a show of resistance and took a solitary stand in defence of the truth every now and then. Years later, when he became ill and it was clear that he wouldn’t see out the year, he admitted to us that he toyed with the idea that the shape of dying could be just as that of a shallow dream. Perhaps, he wondered, we sank from the voices around us when we died like we do when we fall asleep in a conversation, clinging to words as we sank ever deeper, never really dead but always dying.

A few months later my mother and I took turns to sit by his hospital bed where he’d lain in a coma for three days. We told him that we could see him, that he hadn’t disappeared. We said these things so that he could hear them, but mostly we said them so that we could hear them ourselves. During the third night he got much worse. His breathing became gargled and his hands and fingers gripped the sheets like vines. By the morning he was no longer the man we knew but a body clinging to life with the will of its parts. Every time his breathing seemed to stop I checked his heart rate and blood pressure on the monitors beside his bed. The graphs were easier to watch than he was. Their staves and stems moved across the screen and I knew what they’d look like when his breathing stopped for the last time.

“Demri isn’t here yet,” my mother said.

She stood by my father’s bed and stared unseeing into the wall behind him.

“Let go when you’re ready,” she whispered to him. “I’ll tell her.”

She squeezed my arm as she walked out to the patio to get some air.

My father died while she was away. His breathing stopped and I stood by his bed as I’d stood behind the door of his study many years before, waiting to tell him that I was sorry. I hesitated and he sank away without the lifeline of my voice. The staves and stems played across the screen in a way that was almost predictable, and then he was gone.

A few hours later we drove away from the hospital in silence. My mother’s fingers shook as she tried to light a cigarette. She managed when we stopped at a traffic light just before the onramp to the highway. It was a Sunday in late September. The streets were quiet except for a woman and a small girl who crossed the intersection. My mother watched them as they paused in front of our car while the girl scratched her leg, and until they’d disappeared through the gates of the apartment building at the corner. Then she turned to me.

“The girl was five,” my mother said as the light changed. “Go.”

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Professor Paxton elaborates

The Five Sails restaurant in Vancouver is right on the waters of the harbour. If you sit at the window, as I always do, you can see the five sail-like structures that mark the Canada Place Convention Centre and for which the restaurant is named, the Lion’s Gate Bridge that spans the first narrows to the northwest, and, if the light is just right, the eery cones of yellow sulphur across the water to the northeast. The restaurant is technically a part of the Pan Pacific Hotel, which means that I can dine there on my room bill whenever I’m in town on business.

When I went to the Five Sails the first time, I was worried that they might be booked out.

“Well,” said the maître d’ from behind her ornate lamp, “let me see.”

She looked like Kristin Scott Thomas could have looked like before she was Kristin Scott Thomas.

“Hmm,” she hesitated and consulted a large book while I scanned the restaurant that seemed extremely unoccupied at that moment.

“Will it be busier later?” I asked.

“Oh no,” Kristin smiled absently. “I’m just making sure that Guido can seat you at table 64.”

The name Guido seemed out of place at the Five Sails, but this was Canada.

“Table 64?”

“It’s lovely,” Kristin said and smiled the tight little smile she did in Four Weddings and a Funeral, “and private.”

Table 64 was indeed lovely, tucked away behind a pillar and yet right at the window, with a view across the harbour and enough of an angle into the restaurant itself to allow for eavesdropping and mental gossip. As Kristin left, Guido stepped from behind the pillar.

“Gooda evening,” he rasped.

Guido looked to be on the wrong side of eighty. He sighed and rearranged the knives and forks I had moved aside to make space for my laptop and a little notepad, and stood back to survey me.

“Welcome,” he explained with tired Italian hand signals. “Vine?”

He stood at my shoulder as I dragged my finger slowly down the short section of the wine list dedicated to British Columbia. When I reached the Burrowing Owl Syrah, Guido cleared his throat.

“Very good,” he nodded.

I continued down the list, but he cleared his throat again. “Very good.”

The Burrowing Owl was a mere $68, and it was indeed very good, helped along in that direction by the knowledge that I had an evening before me with nothing to do but eat fabulous food, stare out across the water, read, and look at people. A benign warmth enveloped me and within a few minutes I had fallen in love with the Five Sails. A willowy, tall young man appeared with a basket of bread and retreated after explaining its contents with references to leavening that I couldn’t quite follow. He didn’t so much walk away as propagate, a wobbly wave of thinness that reminded me of the character Ichabod Crane in a cartoon version of Sleepy Hollow I once saw. Now and then Guido reappeared to top up my wine and rearrange my cutlery, and once Kristin came to smile at me. I was smitten.

After that first visit, we fell into a happy rhythm. Kristin would greet me at the door, remember my name, and then wonder playfully about table 64. Guido would insist on the Burrowing Owl, upon which we’d settle after I’d put up some token resistance. I would sit in quiet repose, reading or trying to write, while Ichabod undulated back and forth with small plates of scallops and baskets of bread. At a tacitly agreed moment, about half-way into the Burrowing Owl, Ichabod would oscillate to an obsequious standstill at my table.

“And how are we enjoying the scallops?” he would enquire as he rippled toward the ceiling.

“Are you having some with me?” I would ask, and we’d both smile at our little joke.

Now and then Guido would come to spill some of the Burrowing Owl on the tablecloth, and always there’d be the white chocolate mousse and apple compote dessert called Beautiful British Columbia to round off the evening.

My visits to the Five Sails became the highlight of my trips to Vancouver. They stood as an established ritual of pleasant inaction until the day Professor Paxton came. I knew something was wrong when Kristin greeted me at the entrance.

“Let’s see what table we can get for you tonight,” she smiled.

“Table 64 is perfect,” I said uneasily. “I love the pillar.”

“Unfortunately,” she murmured without looking up, “so does Professor Paxton.”

It took me a moment to absorb this.

“Who’s Professor Paxton?”

“He’s a regular guest,” Kristin said as she collected menus and prepared to seat me, “like yourself.”

As it turned out, Professor Paxton was a somewhat more regular guest than I was. Guido and Ichabod were doting on him when Kristin seated me at the table right next to my beloved number 64.

“What I’m saying,” Professor Paxton, a bearded man in his seventies, intoned, “is that when I was here last, the soufflé was grainy.”

“Grainy?” Ichabod warbled like an egret.

“Yes,” the older man insisted. “Tell Ernst. Like me, he’s a precise man. He’ll understand.”

Guido nodded and signalled for Ichabod to stop being surprised.

“That not good,” he agreed. “I tell chef.”

“While you’re at it Guido,” Professor Paxton said, “fetch me another Hennessy, will you?”

Guido and Ichabod hurried off while Professor Paxton sighed and sat back in my chair. As he gazed out across the waters of the harbour, I fumbled with my cutlery and tried to get used to my vicarious position. From what I’d heard, the professor was clearly not Canadian, and sounded instead as though he came from New York, or perhaps New Jersey. With my luck, he was from Princeton, and worked at the Institute for Advanced Study. To rub it in, he was a physicist, involved in various forms of preciseness—perhaps cosmology, or quantum gravity. His tweed jacket looked like a physicist’s jacket. He came to Vancouver, I decided, to visit his daughter who taught at Berkley down in California. Because he didn’t like California, they met here every few months. Her husband was a sociologist, and originally from California, and the professor had never really liked him either.

“The Burrowing Owl,” Guido said far away and drifted from my view.

I noticed that Ichabod had already brought my bread and I nibbled unhappily at a piece. At my table the professor was sipping his Hennessy and poring over the wine list while Guido wrung his hands nearby.

“Let’s have the Château Latour 2012,” the professor said after a near-infinite interlude, “shall we?”

“Very good,” Guido nodded.

I made a mental note to discuss how Italy had switched sides during the Second World War when I next spoke to Guido. The professor, I realized after a peek at the wine list, must have left the Institute to pursue a business venture with former colleagues. He had abandoned physics and was now making money in biophysics. He travelled to Vancouver every now and then to attend a board meeting of the company he’d helped found. They’d invented a machine that could record brain waves and then induce those same waves in other brains. They were going to make a killing.

As I reviewed the growing indictment against the professor, I was filled with an irrational envy, the kind I’d felt once before when I drove by a property I’d rented on Lake Chelan, only to see the owner in residence.

“How are the scallops?” Ichabod wondered beside me.

I was clearly dining alone tonight.

“They’re fine,” I said.

“Excellent,” he warbled and went to stand nearby as Guido took the professor’s order.

I had settled on the sablefish as a main course but I stopped looking forward to it when the professor described something that was clearly not on the menu. I strained to hear what he was saying, but it was no use.

“As always,” Guido nodded, “with Madeira sauce.”

When Guido and Ichabod had gone, Professor Paxton sat back and sighed with contentment. He took out a little book and carefully jotted a note to himself. This worried me. Was it a formula he’d written, despite the Château Latour, or a line I would wish I’d written myself, inspired by it? I toyed with the different shapes these lines could take until our food arrived—his mystery dish remaining a mystery but looking better than my sablefish—and while we both ate. The prospect that the professor was now a man of letters, bringing to bear upon his writing the many years he’d spent in science, was simply too much to handle. What had started out as a mere displacement from my beloved table had become a cruel annexation of my desires.

Just then, as if choreographed by a sadistic demigod, Kristin came to smile at him.

“How’s Megan?” she asked coyly.

“She’s fine,” the professor nodded as if to suggest that Megan was, in point of fact, not so fine. “It’s her boy I’m worried about.”

“Nathan, right?”

The professor nodded grimly.

“And her sister—” Kristin hesitated.

“Anna is always good,” the professor said as he motioned for Kristin to sit. “She has a book coming out this week. I’ll see her tomorrow.”

There were two sisters, I realized, not one. Anna lived here, in Vancouver, and taught creative writing at UBC. Her novels shared a central theme of loss and regained purpose. Her husband was a scientist—the son the professor never had—and their boy attended a local Montessori School. Megan’s boy, upon the insistence of his father, went to a Waldorf School in California. Family gatherings were always tense and the professor sometimes went for long walks without telling anyone where he’d gone.

Kristin sat with her one leg folded beneath her. “How long has it been?” she asked softly.

The professor looked at his hands and swirled his Château Latour. I had always nursed a tiny crush on Kristin, the sort that unfolds without warning from a hint of perfume and the timbre of a voice. In truth, my earlier crush on the actress had likely carried over to Kristin when I saw her at the door the first time. I had no possessive need to speak to her, but I felt an inexplicable jealousy at seeing someone else do it.

“Mousse?” Guido startled me from my sulking reverie.

“Not tonight,” I said. “Just the check please.”

When I returned from the restroom, the professor had left. As I sat and watched Guido and Ichabod clear table 64, I thought about what Kristin had asked him. How long has it been? I had been so preoccupied with the fact that the professor had ruined my evening that I could only now take in what he’d answered, Nine years this September. With a pang I realized that his wife never saw this restaurant and probably died before Anna’s first book came out. Before her illness, they sometimes travelled to California to visit Megan. While there they always took an overnight trip down to Paso Robles to visit the Turley winery. His wife, who had an artistic flair, doodled the iconic flourish of the Turley logo on a napkin while they sipped Zinfandel and talked about their lives and their plans. It wasn’t California that he didn’t like. It was the memories of California that he dared not disturb. It was obvious to me that the professor had more right to sit at my table than I ever had to sit at his.

The next morning, as I walked out toward Howe Street and my office, the professor stood at the curb, waiting for a taxi. He looked less trim than he had the night before, and tired. On a whim I walked up to him.

“I need to thank you,” I said.

Professor Paxton nodded almost imperceptibly as he took my hand. “What for?”

“For a story,” I hesitated. “And a lesson.”

“Ah,” he said and smiled. “I thought so. You’ve sat there too.”

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We’re the most adaptable creatures on earth, at least among those visible to the naked eye, and yet we’re a pretty sorry lot. Even though we’ve unravelled the laws of nature as far as we can tell, have conquered most of the surface of the planet, its skies, and some of the space beyond it, we’re only really cozy at room temperature, a range of just a few degrees. If our own core temperature drops by that same margin, we sink into hypothermia and death. If it rises by as much, we have a fever and could keel over at the other end of the thermometer. We live in a thin patina of air trapped near the earth’s surface, a layer so thin that it’s about the same part of the earth as our skin is of us. We can go without food for about three weeks, without water for only three days, and without oxygen for less than three minutes.

Most of all, we cannot stay put for more than three seconds. We’re a fidgety bunch. We blink and we scratch and we pace around, and we have to open a fridge eleven times per hour. We’re normally quite happy to do this in the relatively small space of our homes, as long as we know that we’re free to go and open someone else’s fridge whenever the whim takes us. Tell us that we can’t, and we go mad. Tell us that a wall has been built around our city and we’ll dig our way out even though we have no real need to leave. If you want to stimulate private investment in space travel, tell us that an invisible, impenetrable barrier has been placed around the earth, and farmers will be launching themselves into orbit to attack this celestial sphere before the decade is out.

But why do we so hate to be locked in when we’ve always been that way? Each of us was born locked in, and will die that way, at the conclusion of a life sentence in the singular prison that is our head. Like a monk in a cell, we’re all alone in a little dark hole. We have never moved beyond it, and we never will. And yet we’re quite happy to be in there. It’s not as lonely as it sounds because inside our heads are an actor, a director, and a biased critic—a trinity that puts on a show that is so compelling as to literally defy imagination. To help us out there is what could be called the Einstein-Galileo effect, a condition that ensures that our heads will always appear to be the central head, with other heads wandering around them in strange orbits. Most importantly, we usually get to move our heads around as we wish, and take them on holidays and wherever else we want to have the illusion of going.

The moment we cannot do that, we start to fall apart. Even though untold freedom unfolds behind our eyes—dreams and nightmares attest to that—we’re not satisfied. No. We want to get out. Under normal circumstances, we’ll kill for a chance to not have to go to work, but tell us that we cannot, tell us that we have to stay home with the people we usually miss, and we’re not so keen anymore. Instead, we begin to miss other people. There’s a guy in the building where I work who walks with his head tilted to one side, as though he’s trying to hear a funny noise his foot is making. I can honestly say that I miss him now that I haven’t seen him for about six weeks or so. During this time I’ve also developed an abiding urge to drive to Utah. I want to be with people and I want to be in places. I want to smell things and touch them, and I’d rather pour salad dressing into my eyes than look at a screen for one more second.

Yet here we are, made to stay put by a virus I will not name because it’s been named enough. It isn’t quite alive—a virus is a reverse-zombie, and doesn’t have the common decency to be fully alive—and it’s so small that a single one at the center of our index fingerprint would be like a marble at the center of an area the size of Lebanon. Our collective reaction has been very much aligned with the first four of the five stages of grief—anger, denial, bargaining, and depression. If you’re like me, you’ve been stuck in depression for a while now. I punish myself. Instead of reading what I’ve never had the time to read, I stream shows and movies that make me feel right at home—127 Hours, The Lighthouse, and Money Heist, in which the masks are better. I scratch myself and I open the fridge every few minutes. And I wonder—as I’m sure you do too—how this will end?

I’ll put a symbolic dollar on the following: cure or no cure, we’ll beat it. We’re talking about it, and thinking about it, while it’s not even scratching itself. Its power is that it doesn’t know about us, and doesn’t care, but that will also be its undoing. We’ll beat it because we can make jokes about it. Jokes provide a kind of mental immunity that is at the heart of the human spirit. It helps to put things in their place, and it sustains our defiance. Instead of acceptance as the final stage of our grief, there will be defiance. If our distant ancestors could beat five mass extinctions, and our more recent ancestors could beat the Black Plague in the fourteenth century and the Spanish Flu in the twentieth, we can surely will beat this one too. On that day we will come out into the sunlight, blink, and scratch, and go and open someone else’s fridge.

See you V-day.

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