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Flakes of Dark and Light  -  Roy Holland
 

 

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Flakes of Dark and Light: Tales from Southern Africa and Elsewhere  

20 tales by ROY HOLLAND
 

Flakes of Dark and Light
Tales from Southern Africa and Elsewhere       
by Roy Holland   

US price: $14.95        UK Price: £9.59

Format: Paperback
Size: 6 x 9
Pages: 252
ISBN: 0-595-17423-X
Publication Date: Feb-2001

                      

Pithy and humorous tales that cover diverse themes and settings — from the England of the Thirties to the South Africa of the Nineties.


The title Flakes of Dark and Light is evocative of the sharp flakes of insight and colour which characterise these tales. The tales in the first part mostly depict an African setting and, in fact, are more recent, often suggesting the climate of change and violence that has gripped southern Africa in the last two decades. The stories in the second part were inspired by a more English tradition and, in fact, capture the climate of change that brooded over life during the Thirties and the war years. A contemporary of Ted Hughes, and with many of his stories set in the depressed, sometimes seedy England of the Thirties and Forties which Graham Greene depicted in his early novels, it’s not surprising that Roy Holland’s images and sentences are like flakes that cut like broken glass. A true artist, he does not take sides, but holds up a mirror to show life as it is — or was — whether in a pre-war England or an Africa ravaged by drought and violence. His tales are snapshots, truthful, sometimes startling, of two quite distinct cultures. However disparate they may seem, one is invariably aware of an underlying tenderness and sympathetic vision in the portrayal of character, regardless of race or background, that binds them together.

The author has written a quartet of stories, the other three titles of the quartet being News from Parched Mountain: Tales from the Karoo in the new South Africa, Just a Bit Touched: Tales of Perspective; and Pivot of Violence: Tales from the new South Africa. All make a very vivid and lasting impression.

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Reproduced in full, here, is one of the 20 tales from Flakes of Dark & Light:

Comfort Me With Apples

1

Alex Norfolk had recently arrived in Rhodesia but he had already taken up his post at the University. He entered the Registrar’s office without assurance. He no longer expected things to go smoothly. Life had undermined his optimism.

“I’ve heard nothing from Victoria and it’s our last chance to get all our goods and chattels brought over from the UK. Free! D’ you know that, Peter?”

“I know!” said Peter Huddett.

“Safmarine’s baggage allowance is generous—very generous! It’s the only way I’ll ever get my books across—together with the University’s removal allowance, that is!”

“I know! I know! Don’t worry. Your wife and kids are booked on the Windsor Castle. Leaves Southampton November 15. Arrives Cape Town November 30.”

Then the Registrar added in a more mollifying tone:

“You know, Alex, I’ve been doing this job for years!”

“It’s Safmarine’s last boat! After that –“, Alex persisted.

“—What can go wrong? Don’t worry!” interrupted Peter Huddett, a little miffed. He didn’t like his professional competence questioned.

Alex Norfolk looked at the certainty on the smiling brown face of the Registrar, sitting so solidly in his linen safari suit behind his big oaken desk, and wished he had more faith in the people he met. Or even in those he loved.

“I suppose you’re right, Peter,” he conceded grudgingly.

“Of course, I’m right!”

“Okay, thanks!

But now, Alex had to turn his mind to the lectures he must give.

***

Soon, he had to find a house for his family. One he could afford. It might be a long search. He had arrived with nothing.

Three years on the dole in the seventies in Britain had left him with few resources, financial or spiritual. There, they didn’t want people like him any more. Things had developed so fast in his absence. At 40, he was a `retread’—an ex-colonial—an academic with unfashionable qualifications and faulty views, a species obsolete in the land of his birth. The best he had been able to get was a series of temporary contracts, ‘twelve months a go’. A supervision here, a short course there. Then the old grinding job-hunt again.

Victoria had not been keen on him taking this post. Another tour of duty overseas, in a country that had declared UDI, with a Bush War going on!

Well!

She hadn’t actually told him so. But he knew.

She rarely said anything that revealed her true feelings. Especially when they differed strongly from his. Silence, evasive silence, was the largest element in her protective colouring. A grimace, a lift of the eyebrows, possibly an oblique comment here or there: those were her survival mechanisms in the habitat of their marriage. Those -- and her endless chatter about trivialities: the latest soap opera on TV, the last book review in The Observer; and all the things he knew by heart -- amusing incidents she remembered from her childhood, how she had become an art student, how a teacher. And so on.

He had lived with her for twenty years so he knew every story by heart.

Yet he felt he knew her outsides only. He had tried many times to infiltrate her psyche; but her mind was like a shelf of books whose covers he knew intimately but couldn’t bring himself to open. He was afraid he might discover the pages were stuck together. Or worse -- blank!

He had argued with her about working in Rhodesia.

“But it’s a permanent post! With a good salary and all the customary emoluments. Surely, that’s better than living here on the liquorice-stick? I can’t stand the indignity of asking for free coal-coupons in the Winter. Or extra blankets! Doesn’t it worry you!”

“The kids will have to be uprooted yet again!” she had objected. “A new country. New schools. Besieged by terrorists! At least, we’re safe here!”

The only times she came out into the open was when she spoke up for her children. He tried to placate her.

“In Salisbury itself, the capital, there’s no war! Perfectly safe. Here, we are beggars!”

Of course, he had said that before ZIPRA blew up the oil storage depot in the city and before they shot down the Air Rhodesia Viscount with a Russian Sam-7 heat-seeking missile and then machine-gunned the civilian survivors on the ground.

Victoria had a point all right!

She was unashamedly fearful and hedonistic. Although her hedonism had been one of the qualities that had attracted him to her when they first met as young students. But after twenty years...their own survival had forced some things upon them, hadn’t it?

Her answer, if he could have teased one from her -- which wasn’t at all likely -- would have been, he supposed:

“It doesn’t force us to go to a country at war.”

And that reply would have ended any further discussion.

His campus apartment was sparsely furnished but fairly comfortable.

He made himself a ratatouille and sat on the balcony to eat it out of the pan with a spoon.

He looked out over the balustrade at the dry grass that was still virtually veldt. Here, it was a yellow featureless stretch, except for the narrow strips of tarmac that vehicles went in and out on. At the boundary, the scarlet bracts of the poinsettias flaunted themselves silently, like shouts for help.

It didn’t look like Africa. It could have been almost anywhere—Virginia or Queensland, Maryland or Kuala Lumpur. Only the bland airs and equable temperatures of day and night, and a few plants he thought of as `exotic’, told him he was in Africa. Otherwise, the lecture halls, laboratories, library and apartments were the usual bastions of a Western educational complex.

He hadn’t made any friends yet, just plenty of acquaintances. The lonliness wouldn’t faze him if it didn’t go on too long. It was only a couple of months now before Victoria and the children would arrive on the Windsor Castle. He would cling to that!

Do you remember how, Victoria, soon after we had become lovers, I told you one day when our passion was over, that the wonderful pinkness and juices of you were -- how do the Italians say it -- ’ una fica’. And how I loved to taste the fruit of you?

And how, a few days later, I dreamed of us, naked both of us, and your hair as grey as a dry slate, and how it meant we would be together until both of us were old and dry ourselves?

Do you remember that?

He had come by air, urgently, four weeks ago. The English Department had been in need of an Eighteenth Century specialist. Most of his off-duty hours he spent in the Library, preparing lectures. There was only a sprinkling of black students in his classes. It didn’t require much adjustment.

He hadn’t seen a sign of the war. Not a single `terr’.

***

Over breakfast, he usually scanned the property columns of The Rhodesia Herald. As the advertisements said, `for next to nothing’ large beautiful houses were available with acres of land around them’! ‘Whites’ were leaving the country in their thousands every month for what they believed were `better climes’.

The Colonial legacy.

He smiled ruefully to himself at the thought, recalling the interminable British winters and the long wet summers.

How did the popular joke go?

“Summer came on a Thursday last year!”

He was glad and relieved to be in the bright African sun again. England, with its suffocating tininess and oppressive ceilings of perpetual cloud, made him feel as if he had lived on a sodden pocket handkerchief at the entrance of a long gloomy tunnel closed at the other end. On his very first tour of duty in Africa, he realized that, for thirty years, he had never felt warm enough. The days that were fine in Britain had been so few and far between they had felt like mistakes.

The properties within daily cycling distance he marked in red. If he thought he could afford one, he marked it with two stars. The ones he would like to buy, but could not afford, got one star. These latter had double or treble garages, stables, swimming pools, tennis courts, underground lawn-sprinklers, braai areas and night arc-lights, as well as spacious well-appointed living areas with air-conditioners; and two or three bathrooms and showers. In fact, every modern convenience!

The agents said they were `going for a song’. He wished he could sing.

These Colonials knew how to live!

Every evening, after he had eaten, he got on his bicycle—he could not yet afford a car—and rode to inspect houses. He inspected dozens. If they were a long way from the University, they were probably too far away to buy. But sometimes, if one promised to be a great bargain, he took a taxi, and then spent hours going over the pros and cons: bond repayments, upkeep; where Margaret, his eldest, where Riana, his second daughter, and where Theresa, his youngest, would sleep; the pleasantness of the master bedroom, the en suite arrangements. And so on, endlessly, pro, con, pro, con.

Visiting properties, thinking properties and calculating costs made him feel agitated, so he went to see Peter Huddett far too often.

“No, no news. Just relax, man! It’ll come right!”

All the properties, even the ones he could afford, were luxurious by the British standards he had become accustomed to. They would cost a fortune there! A bonus for emigrating to a country his compatriots believed to be `politically unacceptable’.

He had lived under so-called `oppressive regimes’ before: Franco in Spain, the Colonels in Greece, Jonathan in Lesotho. None of them had bothered him! The quality of life had been good. He just went on with his work. He never got involved in politics. He believed that teaching English was a sufficiently subversive activity in itself. Particularly the way he taught it

His job was hard. He had a heavy timetable of lectures. There was a lot of preparation and a lot of scripts to mark. He often worked late into the night.

***

However, his first priority was to find a suitable house for Vicky and the kids. He wrote a number of letters to her describing the ones he saw, pointing out how well or otherwise they would suit them. When she wrote back, she said nothing about his suggestions, confining herself to what the children were doing at school and at home, and telling him how beastly the Summer in England was that year. The only thing she mentioned about Rhodesia was the BBC’s television. coverage of the Bush War.

It was by now only six weeks or so before their boat sailed. Soon, they would be here! They would be here!

He found himself calculating the days, hours and minutes before the boat docked in Cape Town.

To pacify his restless mind, he visited the Registrar again. Peter Huddett was obviously preoccupied with more important tasks.

“Has Victoria been in touch about the voyage, Peter?”

“Not for weeks! So yet again I’ve got nothing fresh to tell you, Alex.”

“You’ve sent her the tickets for the passage, of course?”

“That’s all in the hands of Cook’s. They make the detailed arrangements.”

“Okay! Give me their phone number, Peter, and I’ll contact them.”

When he phoned, a rather stupid girl answered and said their agent dealing with UK passages was presently down at the harbour and she promised she would instruct him to ring Alex back. But he heard nothing for days and was too busy at the University himself to phone during office hours. So he decided to wait until the day the boat docked.

There was nothing he could do at this stage, anyway.

***

A little later on, he inspected a property about ten minutes cycle ride from the Campus. No price was stated in the advertisement.

The grounds seemed extensive, a quarter acre or more, surrounded by a low whitewashed wall. The driveway had two square pillars, taller than a man, and the front wall extended for nearly the whole length of the short road. There was a house at either end of it and rolling parkland on the opposite side of the road which he knew belonged to the Anglo American Mining Corporation. It was in an exclusive district of the town. There’d be no trouble from neighbours!

The house’s nameplate was on one of the pillars: Welgevonden. Well founded! His spirits dropped. This was surely another he couldn’t afford?

He rode up the curving gravel drive, admiring the scarlet poinsettias that lined it as he went. They really were striking!

A long low whitewashed house with a galvanized roof was built transversely across the plot. A mosquito-netted stoep in front: Purple Bougainvillea and Cape Honeysuckle smouldered beautifully along its length. Other tropical shrubs and flowers he did not know the name of grew profusely in the narrow bed directly in front of the stoep.

A woman came out on the stoep to meet him. She was tallish with a good figure. As she approached him, he saw that, although she was not young, she was beautiful.

“Hello!” she said.

She held out her hand. Bright blue eyes, a sensual mouth. A pleasant smile showed good teeth.

“You’re Alex Norfolk, I presume? I’m Drina Harding.”

He leaned his bicycle against the stoep.

“How do you do?” he said, taking her hand. It was cool and soft and intimate.

“Well, thank you! And you?”

“Fine!” he said.

There was no awkwardness in her. He guessed she was usually at ease with herself and others. He found her confidence attractive.

“Where shall we begin?” she asked, indicating the house.

“Anywhere!” he smiled.

She took him through it.

It was old, very large and wandered a lot, having had bits added to it through the years. Many of the rooms were on different levels. All the usual fittings -- nothing lavish or modern -- but practically equipped. He described it to himself as `dispersed with a nice feel to it’.

The kitchen had a big Aga stove and there was a door that had been boarded up. He looked at it wonderingly.

“Oh, that now leads to separate quarters!” she said with a little laugh. “When my second husband left me, I had to keep body and soul together, so I took a lodger. It’s an old Rhodesian farmhouse! Maybe it’s too big for you?”

“Not at all! It’s quite charming! Plenty of room for my family. Even a study for me and a studio for Victoria.”

“Your wife?”

“Yes! She’s always wanted to paint and sculpt.”

“That’s nice!” she said. Then, quickly: “Come and see the main bedroom,” and she walked abruptly out.

He followed her, watching the way she moved her hips.

“Oh, yes, it’s a lovely room!” he said, looking round him.

“Plenty of light, without getting too hot in the Summer and the French doors lead directly out on to the verandah, what we call a stoep here. Do you swim, Mr Norfolk?”

“A little.”

“I swim every day.”

He looked at her, anticipating how she would look in a swimsuit: long slim legs, lovely hips, firm full breasts. She saw him looking and smiled contentedly to herself.

“Come! Now the swimming pool and the garden!”

He followed her out, noting a conscious sensuality in her movements. He had to acknowledge a rising excitement in his blood. She disturbed him.

The pool was large with a short flight of curving steps descending into its shallow end. It had a springboard.

“It’s a lovely pool!” he said.

“Yes! My second husband was—is—quite a wealthy man. He owns a wine-farm in the Cape. He’s also a stringer for a newspaper in London. You might --.”

She stopped and changed her tack, abruptly.

“ --I came here after my first husband died. We farmed out at Rusape. This plot was just full of trees, then.”

“It’s pretty full now.”

“Yes, but we cleared a lot. The ones we left are indigenous! Too beautiful! Except, of course, for that Norfolk pine in the middle.”

She seemed to look at it with nostalgia.

“My namesake!” he said foolishly.

“So it is! How quaint!”

She laughed again.

“Shrubs all the way down to the front wall. An African Flame Tree over there, and here a Sweet Thorn. And this Bottle-Brush Tree over the gazebo! I love them!”

“You’ll be sorry to leave them!”

“Sad, isn’t it?”

He got a glimpse of the passion in her then.

“And here are Guelder Roses, Poinsettias and Frangipannis.”

She indicated the frangipannis. Somehow, she gave the names of the trees and the plants capital letters when she spoke of them.

“Did you know they are also called Temple Flowers?”

“No, I didn’t!” he said, apologetically. ”I know the poinsettias. But that’s about all.”

At that moment, he felt as if he had been deprived of knowing these names all his life: that is how her feeling for them affected him.

“And, dare I mention it, Lion’s Ear?”

“What’s that?”  

“There! See! I love the orange flowers in the Autumn. It’s Dagga!”

Dagga?”

“Perhaps you know it as Cannabis or Hemp?”

“So that’s what it looks like in the raw!”

“Yes! It grows wild here. And periodically the police come and I have to pull it up. But I always leave a little of the root and it grows again. Wicked of me, I know! But I love it!”

She was being deliberately ambiguous. She laughed again.

After she had given him tea on the stoep he took his leave. The price she mentioned was out of his range. But the house was just right for his family.

“The kids would love it here. The pool! The space!”

He heard their shrieks of delight in his mind’s ear.

Afterwards he realized Drina Harding had disturbed him.

***

For the next couple of weeks he turned the prospect over and over while he continued to inspect other properties. However, hers was the one he kept coming back to. He returned a number of times to see it. He told himself he needed to refresh his memory, and then felt uncomfortable because he knew he went to see Drina Harding.

She was always glad to see him and asked every time if he had made arrangements for the bond yet.

“I’m negotiating with the University to see if they’ll assist me.”

“Let’s hope!” she said simply. “I need the money.”

Three days later, he had good news from the University Council: they would grant him a loan! Not a lot, but sufficient to cover the deposit on the house. He was delighted!

And do you remember the drawings and paintings you made at the Art School? With the lines vibrant and the colours radiant, and the admiration that flowed from me like a stream when I saw them? And I wanted to make you a studio fit to house them and for you to work in?

But we were poor and the children came and the life was hard. Oh, how you wanted the children and, do you remember, how I did not? Not because I would not love them but because I was afraid they would divide us. And divide us they did. Although, still I love them.

He phoned the UK at once and gave Victoria the news. Her lilting Scots accent sounded non-committal. She hated telephones! It must be that!

***

Drina Harding came often to his mind—more than he cared to admit. He gave her a call to tell her about the loan.

“I’m so relieved the sale will go through!” was all she said.

By now he had managed to mollify a little the deep unease Victoria had aroused in him; but he was still edgy with anticipation. Then, an unexpected University holiday intervened and upset the little sense of security he had managed to build up. Anything unexpected upset him these days, even small things!

So, just before the boat was expected, he went to see Peter Huddett again.

“What time does the boat dock?”

“It’s due at 3.00p.m. —as I said!”

“Did you? Sorry! I’d better phone Cook’s!”

“What for?”

“Make sure they get properly looked after.”

“Soon enough tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow!”

“Of course! It’s Thursday today. The boat arrives on Fridays.”

“So it does! I’m really thrown!”

Peter Huddett laughed.

“You’re as nervous as a bridegroom! Go and play tennis! Or take a swim!”

He thought immediately of going for a swim in Drina Harding’s pool but changed his mind at once. Peter’s quip about the bridegroom had penetrated somewhere.

On Friday, he tried to keep his mind on his teaching chores, but succeeded badly.

At three o’clock on the dot, he phoned Cape Town.

“We can’t tell you anything at the moment, Mr Norfolk. The agent is dockside now, checking everything. We’ll let you know as soon as we can. It’ll take maybe an hour for the passengers to disembark, clear Customs and unload the baggage.”

“An hour!”

“’Fraid so! We have all your keys, I suppose? Our agent must be able to unlock anything Customs wants to see.”

Luckily, on Friday afternoons he was free from lectures.

He made himself tea at his flat and fretted away an hour or so, his thoughts and feelings in disarray. Victoria had always felt their tour of duty in Lesotho was a sojourn in a savage world. She had never settled down there. She had never lifted a chisel or a paintbrush. Once, she had done some typing at home for the British Council in Maseru. But, mostly, she had done nothing—not even needlework or cooking. The maid had done all the housework.

“I’m in a dwam!” she used to say, in her dialect. ‘Culture-shock’, she called it, later. Yes, it was true! Lesotho had then been a hardship station. But, Salisbury was another kettle of fish. Civilized! Civilized!

He let another half-hour pass by before he rang Cooks again.

“You said you were going to let me know,” he grumbled.

“We said—as soon as we had anything to report, sir! We have nothing to report.”

“Haven’t the passengers disembarked?”

“Oh, yes! But your wife and children were not on the boat!”

“That’s impossible! They must be!”

“I’m sorry, sir! There’s nobody with the surname of Norfolk! The passenger list is before me at this moment.”

He was stunned.

“What’s happened?”

“I couldn’t say, sir! We rang our Southampton office. Your family just didn’t embark.”

“Isn’t this the last passenger vessel ever? To South Africa, I mean!”

“Quite correct, sir. From today, the Safmarine passenger service ceases to exist! A liquidation, I think.”

He put the receiver back without thanking her.

One by one, like dominoes, his feelings were falling down, clatter, clatter! He felt utterly flattened.

“What on earth has happened? What can I do? What can I do?”

Now, the fig is wrinkled and dry, not because we are old, but because the root of us has been severed and the fruit dropped. Thrown away.

Oh, the drought of it!

2

 

As soon as he could get himself together, Alex Norfolk telephoned the U.K.

“Why didn’t you tell me you weren’t coming—for God’s sake?”

Victoria was quite unrepentant.

“I tried!”

“Tried? When? How?”

“In my letters.”

“Not so! You said absolutely nothing!”

“About the war!”

“But those were asides. Misgiving only, I thought! I tried to reassure you!”

“I’m not reassured!”

“So you’re saying you didn’t come because there’s a war on?”

“That’s right.”

“And that’s what you call `telling’ me? Have you any idea what a shock it’s been for me?”

Silence!

Have you?”

Silence!

“I can’t say any more! This call is costing. I’ll write.”

He put the phone down, trembling -- with what, he wasn’t sure. Anger? Humiliation? Desolation?

All these weeks and weeks of his anticipation and longing, and her pretence in seeming to play along with the arrangements! She had always called herself `a moral coward’ and he knew she had been quite unable to face telling him

He was under attack from so many feelings that he wasn’t sure what he felt. What about her communications with Peter Huddett? He’d have to go into that with the bastard! What about the house he had bought? The costs incurred? The emotional capital he had put into everything? What would the reaction of his colleagues be?

He suddenly felt betrayed.

He was overwhelmed with questions to which he had no answers.

He’d helped her as much as he could -- offering to pay for professional packers, for instance. All those books! The furniture! He well knew what a job it was. Not a single objection about the details. He knew how she evaded issues by silence. He knew it of old. But never once had it occurred to him that she just wouldn’t come.

Even his new next-door neighbour, who had recently been to the UK on holiday, had, while she was there, paid a visit to Victoria personally, just to reassure her how safe Salisbury was: the absence of violence, the quality of education and the schools, the conditions of life generally, the climate. And so on. His neighbour had left him with the impression that Victoria was reassured!

Reassured! Hell!

He reached through his memories for an incident to hang his feelings on: something he had done, something he had said to hurt her, something she had said.

Their marriage had been peaceful. They didn’t quarrel, although they disagreed about things that didn’t much matter -- book reviews, films, crosswords -- things like that! Nothing fundamental. Except that, during the last two years -- it was true! -- Victoria’s mother had interfered over the children. At least, Alex treated it as interference.

When Grandma took the children for surprise holidays, he presumed Grandma had cleared it with Victoria. Nothing was said to him about the arrangements. She took the children on trips to London. Or took them on shopping expeditions to buy them what they did not need -- expensive clothes, for example. Or gave them pocket money -- a wad of notes equivalent to a week of his salary. Or, without asking either parent, had their long hair cut off, which they had all wanted so much to grow! Grandma brought them back like shorn lambs! It’s true, he flipped!

But Victoria! Well, she didn’t seem to mind! He recalled it had been so from the beginning.

With their first child, Margaret, Grandma had visited soon after the birth and taken over. She had bathed the child, dressed her, changed her nappies, paraded her in the pram, and put her to sleep! Everything! She would have breast-fed the child also if she had been able to!

He objected quietly to Victoria. But it made no difference. He was outnumbered.

Her mother stayed for months. Eventually, after she had gone home, on his insistence, they moved house. But not even the length and breadth of the British Isles could keep Grandma away. He felt like a small reconnaissance force under constant fire from enemy guns. You never knew when the next salvo would come. It shook one’s nerves. Grandma was one of the reasons -- the main reason, actually -- that he first decided to work in Africa.

Had those early circumstances any bearing on Victoria’s present behaviour?

Until now, he would have said that they had a good marriage. Now, he wasn’t so sure. But they shared interests—many of them. The way they looked at the world was fairly consonant. Their basic values were harmonious. They talked to each other a lot. They made love a lot  -- which was deep and satisfying to them both.  They often laughed together. Oh yes, she was very competitive by nature and wanted to beat him at most things. But he didn’t mind. He didn’t feel he had anything to prove: no particular talents to protect. He wished he had.

There is no doubt she was intelligent.

She prided herself on being a member of Mensa. He had never tried to join: Elites unified by nothing but IQ’s seemed highly artificial to him. `Images yoked by violence together’ as Dr Johnson said of the poetry of the Metaphysicals. That’s how they seemed to him. The Mensates! A collection of hyperbolical images yoked by intelligence together! Like a cargo of floating barrels! Intelligence was no guarantee for loving someone! Intelligence does not, alas, automatically improve one’s moral nature! He felt it should. But somehow it doesn’t. Universities are no more moral than other kinds of organizations. More often than not—less so! From experience he knew that only too well.

“Education often makes a person who is dishonest just a cleverer crook,” he claimed. “That’s the basic flaw in the concept of a `meritocracy’”!

Victoria believed implicitly in Education. To her it was a Panacea for the World’s Ills.

That was one of their biggest disagreements!

Anyway, one day, Alex’s friend Owen Brannigan, who was a University lecturer in Mathematics, gave them a puzzle to solve. He said it had been done successfully by only a few people.

“The very best brains,” his phrase was.

That was enough for Victoria! She dropped everything to solve it. Alex worked at it intermittently.

She beat him to the solution by about a quarter of an hour. Of course, it was a sign of her superior mind!  

Owen was impressed by us both:

“I honestly thought you wouldn’t manage to do it!” he said.

When Alex had first met Victoria she had been an art student. She wanted passionately to be a painter and sculptor of note. She was good. Oh yes, she was very good! The best student in her class. Consciously Bohemian in her dress, in her style of life: long flowing scarves, long flowing skirts, colourful boleros, beads, ornaments, long flowing ideas, short witticisms, short boots, long poses and colourful attitudes.

Alex was a dull sketch in charcoal beside her. But he was young enough to be impressed. So —impressed he was! He admired her large gestures and her large boobs and her little Italian antecedents. Soon, they were lovers.

She read by the dozen the biographies of artists: Picasso, Matisse, Rodin -- particularly the Impressionists, --and the Post-Impressionists, and the Pre-Raphaelites. And whatever artists did in their daily lives -- seemed all right to her.

So he asked her:

“What if I slept around? Like your precious painters! How would you feel about that?”

“Oh, that wouldn’t matter! I wouldn’t mind if you had mistresses!”

He often wondered if that was part of her Bohemian pose, too. For her, it seemed, continually sniffing after women wasn’t `seducing’, or `being promiscuous’, or `screwing around’. No! Mistresses were what artists had! `Mistresses’ and `philandering’ were okay words with her. They seemed somehow to sanctify things for her.

“Not even if I went sniffing around like a little dog?”

“Not even then!”

“Not much of a compliment to me!”

“I didn’t know you were after compliments. I thought you were after the truth!”

Thus, in subsequent years, he had had a few `mistresses’.  Even if she knew of them -- and he thought she did -- she never objected.

“I’m a jealous male! I wouldn’t feel the same way about you if you hopped in and out of bed with a few roisterers. Or even one.”

“I don’t want to. You’re more than enough for me!”

More than enough! Well, thank you very much!” he said, sarcastically.

“My  pleasure!” she replied, smiling, bland as a paw-paw.

Had it been a pose, after all? Had she really resented his women? If so, he thought, why had she waited twenty years to register her protest?

What was the explanation? He was at a loss.

He spent days going through her letters -- the ones she had written since he arrived in Rhodesia. There were a few misgivings expressed about the Bush War. But no indication that it was an obstacle big enough to prevent her coming. Nothing that explicitly said:

“I have decided not to come because of the Bush War,” or “We shall stay in the UK.”

On the basis of her misgivings, had she expected he would agree?

Then, he went through all those letters he had had from her years back. She was a good letter-writer -- which isn’t quite the same thing as a good correspondent. Her letters were full of details of amusing incidents and streams about books and paintings but nothing that gave him a clue about her present refusal to come out.

He had always been as encouraging as he could when she had children to look after. For years he had tried to encourage her to paint, to sketch, to get together a portfolio. But lethargy was her `besetting sin’, as she called it. She could do nothing for hours, weeks, or months together and not be bored.  She did nothing better than anybody he had ever met!

He knew how hard it was -- looking after the kids and trying to be an artist. But, essentially, she was a dilettante. She said so herself. The dream was more alluring and enjoyable than the work. Rather than being an artist, living like one was what had hooked her.

At least, that was how he saw her then.

He remembered the time she suddenly decided she wanted to draw for a well-known women’s magazine -- balloons, cartoons, that kind of thing. She worked hard at it. After studying their style sheet and requirements, she sent off a portfolio.

“That’s terrific!” he said.

The publishing house was quite complimentary. But they rejected them. Yes, they said, she had skill, lots of it; talent, lots of it; but she hadn’t quite got the knack of what they wanted, hadn’t quite got the slant. They encouraged her to try again. She did so and after a few weeks she sent off another batch of drawings.

“No!” they said. “They’re still not there!”

That took all the puff out of her!

No matter how much encouragement he gave her, no matter how many dishes he washed, she had lost her motivation. Looking back on it, something must have shattered inside her. Like one of the plates he dropped.

He did not know it then, but he guessed now that her dreams had turned sour.

Do you remember how the children exhausted you, overwhelmed you, and how the vibrancy went out of your lines and the radiance out of your colours and the vitality out of your brushstrokes and how, finally, you drew no more and painted no more and the hope in you dwindled like a dying fire?

And how I tried to blow with the breath of my love on it and with the breath of my spirit to light up again what seemed to have failed to an ember in you?

And how I exhorted you to work, work at your dreams, and how you thought my exhortations were judgements and castigations? But they were not. They were the breathings and agitations of love, perhaps not gentle enough, not coaxing enough. But how could you think them oppressive? If I have any poetry in me, it failed me then.

Sad!

For years afterwards, she sketched practically nothing, and painted and sculpted absolutely nothing. Should he have been more sympathetic? But she irritated him, giving up so easily. And he was busy, almost overwhelmed with teaching duties, tired, with little energy left for himself, and none to psychologize with her about it all.

I was full of sadness as a cistern is of water to see your drought, your lethargy, your stillness, when I wanted movement and colour and growth.

Do you remember?

Was it desperation that made you try the comic-strips and picture magazines? And how sad I was to see it, and how I knew you were worth so much more, with your dreams glowing on a canvas, or in marble, and not speaking from the balloons of stereotypes in comic-strips.

What could I do?

But he supposed the truth was, he had failed her. When she needed his support, he quizzed her:

“Why don’t you sculpt something? Or paint? You’ve got the time and opportunity now.”

“Maybe I will,” came the lethargic reply.

He realized now he should have soothed her.

Then, when they first went to Africa -- to a little country called, at that time, Basutoland -- she seemed to be happier. She gave herself to bringing up the children. But she could have gone back to her art. After all, she had servants to do all the donkeywork. Instead, she went the rounds of Campus coffee-mornings and afternoon tea parties. She read a lot: classic novelists and poets, hundreds of women’s magazines; she joined a film society and a Bible class. She seemed contented enough.

But eventually it became apparent that something had gone dead inside her.

“If you want something different to occupy your fingers, you could try typing out some of my poems,” he suggested one day.

“Is there much to do?”

“Oh, lots!”

She typed a few scripts for him, but the spell was soon broken and she decided she would rather do some typing for money -- part-time secretarial work for the University. She worked at home as the impulse took her.

That fizzled out after a time, as well.

Then, one day, she surprised him. She showed him a poem she had written. It wasn’t half bad! In fact, it was damned good! He said so when they discussed it, but his remarks didn’t seem to be what she wanted to hear. She showed no pleasure in his praise. The comments sank like coins in quicksand, quietly, leaving no traces behind them.

After that, he saw no more poems. She returned to her torpor. In the flurry of lectures, meetings, marking scripts, and tutorials, he forgot about the incident.

It was only now after the shock of her failure to turn up in Cape Town, he recalled the incident. He worried and analyzed and dissected their past: feelings, conversations, and so on and on. Like a dog with a bone it could not crunch, he just couldn’t make sense of her decision.

Sometimes, a colleague would ask:

“When is the wife and family coming out? You’ve bought a nice house for them!”

“Victoria is uneasy about the war.”

“Tell her we never see a sign of it!”

“I have! But I will again.”

The questions went on for months. He kept putting them off: with half-truths, evasions, lies.

He didn’t want to believe she wouldn’t come. At last, he could stand it no longer. December and January came and went -- the hot months before the rains: ‘suicide months’ they called them when everyone seemed to be under stress. His patience suffered. He wrote and gave her an ultimatum.

“If you’re not here in six months, I shall think of a divorce. A marriage is a living relationship. All the time, it is getting better or worse. It doesn’t stand still -- not even when we are living together. When we’re apart, there is effectively no marriage. The relationship is in abeyance. That can only harm us.”

Right or wrong, that is how he felt. Of course, he had told her (hadn’t he?) that he didn’t want a divorce, that he wanted her, and he had no intention of deserting her. It was true he didn’t want to lose her but had he told her? She didn’t want a divorce, either. But it made no difference to her decision to remain in England. She didn’t say she would come. In her own good time, or in anybody else’s time. Or ever.

After the legal transfer of Drina Harding’s house went through, he lived there on his own. He rattled around like a dry single pea in a pod. Drina Harding collected her money, said goodbye, and left for South Africa. He continued to work hard in his new job and whenever he got the time went on writing his poems and stories.

Six months passed by and then twelve. Victoria did nothing. He had asked her to set the divorce in motion in the UK. The grounds would be `irretrievable breakdown’. Under English law, he could have sued for desertion. But it would be kinder to her the other way.

After eighteen months not one book or file had been packed and shipped across to him despite his offer to pay for professional packers to do the job for her. He couldn’t puzzle out what was behind her attitude. And it was three years before he could get the money together to go to the UK and see to the legal proceedings for himself and get his goods and chattels together and ship them to Africa.

He began to think that she might have a lover in the offing. But, nothing of the kind!

A year later the divorce was over.

They no longer corresponded but he heard from friends that Victoria had made her debut as a poet!

The news astounded him!

Her volume was well received. She sent copies to – interestingly enough -- all his friends, not, it seemed, to her friends -- with little printed orders for more. Then she told everybody — her mother (especially her mother, a lifelong Roman Catholic), the children, her relatives, his friends -- that he had deserted her! That for years, throughout their marriage, he had oppressed her! He was stunned by the enormity of the lie -- desertion -- and the enormity of the charge -- oppression!

3

 

Then, Drina Harding returned from South Africa. She visited him -- to have tea, and he felt the old attraction growing. They became friends. And then lovers. It was only after they had been married for five or six years that he began to put two and two together. At last, he thought he understood what was behind Victoria’s behaviour.

My words were wrong for you. You heard, not the tones of love, but the volume and pitch of some alien voice, the carpings of a critic and the voice of judgement of some oppressor! My rhetoric, my style, was wrong for you.

And how silent you were! You did not tell me what was inside you.

Always, you have been timorous. Always you have looked out of your feelings as if they were a thicket in which you must hide and must look out only with frightened eyes, as if I were an enemy. And you made no murmurs to tell me where you were, where you were hiding. You knew you were like a tiny frightened life of fur. You called yourself a moral coward. That was another barrier, the phrases you hid behind, or used as a justification and an excuse.

If you had spoken, if some inkling of what was inside you had come through, I would have come to you. But it was as if a muddied pool submerged you, or a thicket hid you, and I did not see and I did not hear. So your timorousness led thus to my deceit, and to your lies about me, to your misreadings of me. And to my ignorance of you.

Oh, you should have spoken!

But I was left to guess, left to misunderstand, left to send my words winging away from you like emigrating birds, instead of toward you, the warmest climate for my heart.

Once, in all those years, once, a long time ago, once when we first came to Africa, once only did you give me a sign and I did not read it. Once, shyly, you showed me something you had written. I was hoping to see some new sketches, or drawings, or sculptures, things you had dreamed of producing for years, their lines full of your whimsicalities, your humour in their conceptions, your vitality in their colours.

But you showed me typed words on a page -- and sweet enough words they were, too -- of a bird you had seen in a mealie field, a Secretary Bird, a raptorial bird, and I praised the words as much as I could praise them.

And was this the sign you wanted me to read?

Was it for me to understand that you had changed and that this was what was inside you? A predator that would snap me up in its long beak? That would gobble up me and my poems? That you could not be my Secretary Bird, but only another kind of bird of beautiful independent plumage?

Or simply to say that no longer did you want to put your dreams on canvas, or into clay or marble, but only into words? And did you feel your words to be the equal of, or better, than mine, and was your envy satisfied and your resolution made then? That very then?

And so my words of encouragement were sung to the wrong tune and the wrong beat, not what your ears were attuned to hear. And was it thus that your little foray out of the thicket of your feelings and fears and hopes did not bring forth from me what you wanted and you slunk back into your thicket and hid there for many many years, not again to emerge, for me, at least?

And thus I missed my chance with one of the dawnings of life. My fault, my deficiency, my sin -- not to see that you no longer cherished the dreams I had met in you when we were young. My failing to see that your competitiveness was really an envy of me?

Your dreams had died, changed, grown again. They were different. Were they dreamed in part to show me my place?

No! I did not see it.

My exhortations that you paint and draw and sculpt turned sour in your mind and what I breathed on you with the gentle breath of love roared in your ears like the hateful voice of the lions of oppression.

I became oppressor, critic, jailer!

Oh, the fruits of misunderstanding!

Now that I think I understand, is that what you remember?

And the children, their long hair shorn, their suitcases full of new clothes, more money in their purses than we ever had to spend on ourselves. I understand now that your Mother freed you, you about to do what I had no idea you dreamed of doing.

What was the lethargy I saw? The days when I left you sitting on the sofa, old copies of women’s magazines scattered around you -- under the cushions, on the chairs -- the drawers full of everything you had shifted out of sight, days of dishes still in the sink. Was it laziness? Was it depression? Was it that you had gone into your lair, your thicket of feelings, full of your musings, your dreamings, that I knew nothing of?

When I returned a long day later, I saw you sitting exactly where you were sitting when I had left in the morning -- on the sofa among the litter of magazines, the drawers still full of unwashed clothes, pegs, knives and forks, and bits of washed coal, the furniture heaped with unwashed washing, unironed washing, and discarded books you had read or not read.

What was it? Whatever it was, you didn’t say. You did not speak. I could not ask. I did not know.

But never once did I attack you about the mess. Do you remember? The chaos you expected me to live among and in?

It was very much later, when your Mother angered me, when I asked and learned nothing, when I was told nothing, that the dam broke. Then my anger washed over us in a flood.

I hope you remember the years and years when you got nothing but love and patience and tolerance and the absence of any word of displeasure from me. And how you simply looked without speech from your thicket of fears, the little furry animal you were?

Oh, that I had understood what was inside you! Oh, that I could have said: Come with me to Africa, my love! And that you would have radiantly come!

Now, it is all too late!

Because you have poured calumny on my head, anointed me with the stinking names of deserter and oppressor, smeared the smell of a false lubricant in the nostrils of my friends and your own kith and kin; therefore, I cannot forgive you.

If you wanted to be free and alone for the stirrings inside you that had to find form and breath, for that alone, I could have forgiven you—even given you my help. But for the falsity of the aroma, the evil smell of your words that you caused to cling about me, I cannot forgive you. Nor for your deceit of me. It is sad.

Sad!

If only I had understood what your problem was, I would have continued to give what whisperings of encouragement I could. If only I had known what the source of deadness in you had been, where the fountains of lethargy were. But I did not know. I did not understand. Only now, many years later, do I understand what it was you wanted to do.

But do you now, will you in later years, understand how you misjudged me?

My faults in other ways, I freely admit. I can overweigh myself. I can calumniate myself. But, oh, the terribleness of your misjudgment, will you understand that?

Involuntarily, he murmured, softly aloud:

“My love, my dove, my undefiled!”

Drina and Alex were sitting together in the cool of the African evening, listening to the melodious whoo-whoos of the fruit bats. The swimming pool glittered in the brightness of the moon. The silence of the trees and all the shrubs and the flowers Drina loved were about them like a cloak of odours.

They had been silent for a long time.

“A penny for ’em, Alex!”

He brought himself back with difficulty.

“Oh! Just thinking! Just thoughts!”

“What kind of thoughts?”

He looked up at her slowly, fondly, and reached for his glass half-full of wine and held it aloft.

“Bolster me with flagons; comfort me with apples!”

Knowing then where his thoughts had been, she responded:

“Are you sick of women, of love?”

“You? No! Yours? No!”

“That’s good! That is very, very good!”

She held her own glass high, then.

“Because my orchards are prolific. My ciders are sweet!”

And she gave him a blinding smile that penetrated to the dark roots of him, lighting up his being. He reached across the white metal top of the table to hold her hand.

“Drina! I know! I know!”

She could not reply. Her eyes were full of tears. For herself and for him.


Other short story collections by Roy Holland:

                          

Novel in THE JONATHAN THREE trilogy:

THE NOWHERE MAN
by Roy Holland      
UK price: £8.99     US price: $17.95
Publisher: DIADEM BOOKS
Format: Paperback:
Perfect binding , cream interior
Size : 6 x 9 (US trade)
Pages: 262
ISBN: 978-0-9559741-0-6
Published: July-2008
A young man in Birmingham, in the sixties, escapes the humdrum mundanity of life through fantasies, tries to find himself, and finally escapes his dead-end lifestyle by gaining a place at a university.

JOURNEY TOWARDS HIMSELF            
by Roy Holland
UK price: £8.99     US price: $17.95
Publisher: DIADEM BOOKS
Format: Paperback:
Perfect binding , cream interior
Size : 6 x 9 (US trade)
Pages: 262
ISBN: 978-0-9559741-1-3
Published: July-2008

A hilarious evocation of life as a student at Cambridge University in the sixties, shortly after the time of such notable figures as F. R. Leavis, C.S. Lewis and E.M. Forster.


NOW LEAD ME HOME
by Roy Holland        
UK price: £10.99     US price: $21.95
Publisher: DIADEM BOOKS
Format: Paperback:
Perfect binding , cream interior
Size : 6 x 9 (US trade)
Pages: 262
ISBN: 978-0-9559741-2-0
Published: July-2008

In this third book of the ‘Jonathan Three’, the experiences conveyed by the protagonist’s stream-of-consciousness place the reader in the mind of the young man who eventually finds real love and meaning in a fulfilling relationship. 


THE WAKING & MAKING OF PAUL GAUGUIN        
A Play for Voices

by Roy Holland
UK price: £6.99     US price: $15.02
Publisher: DIADEM BOOKS
Format: Paperback:
Perfect binding , cream interior
Size : 6 x 9 (US trade)
Pages: 98
ISBN: 978-0-9559741-3-7
Published: July-2008

It was during his illness, in 1887, when Gauguin was 39 years old, that the battle dramatised in this play – a battle imagined in his body, and in his mind, and in his moral nature – could have taken place


ALAN PATON SPEAKING   
The Lintrose Conversations:
Interview with Alan Paton  

by Roy Holland
edited by Charles Muller
UK price: £14.60     US price: $28.95
Publisher: DIADEM BOOKS
Format: Paperback:
Perfect binding , cream interior
Size : 6 x 9 (US trade)
Pages: 114
ISBN: 978-0-9559741-4-4
Published: August-2008

This interview with Alan Paton by Roy Holland has never, until now, been published. The interview took place on June 19 and June 20, 1973, when Holland was a guest in Paton’s home, Lintrose, at Bothas Hill, Kloof, Natal. It provides many insights into Paton’s life, his political involvement as the founder of the Liberal party in South Africa, and his writings


Contact the author by email:  roy@royholland.fsnet.co.uk

Roy Holland