30 August 2011

Jewels and Other Stories by Dawn Promislow (Book Excerpt)


Bella’s husband has a job at a hotel in the city centre. He’s a security guard on the night shift. During the day he goes back to Orlando, first one bus, then another, and then a two-mile walk along a rutted road. His wages are enough to pay the rent on the two rooms, and to buy tea, bread and jam. They drink tea in the morning, with thick slices of bread and apricot jam. He, and the three children. The children are supposed to go to school, but, often, they are not at school. Bella’s husband’s mother, who's supposed to supervise them going to school, and who’s in the house at night while they sleep, has trouble with the children. Her legs are bad. She says she can’t run after children any more. And the children are always running: running here, running there, barefoot in the dusty pathway behind their house. The white school shirts are not so white any more, and they have missing buttons that don’t get replaced. Things are not so good in Orlando.

This is what Bella’s husband tells Bella, when he visits her in Illovo once a month. Once a month, on his day off, he travels again by bus, a different bus this time, and then another bus. He has a long, hot walk along Oxford Road, his jacket trailing behind him. When he reaches the white-walled house, half hidden behind greenery, he goes to the back gate. He knocks tentatively on the white-washed wood. He stands for a long time, then knocks again, and again. There’s just the stillness of the trees. He’s very thirsty now, and very tired. He pushes the gate open, latches it carefully shut behind him, and goes in. He walks straight across the paved yard, and straight to Bella’s room. Bella will find him there later, fast asleep on her bed. He lies on his back, his jacket hung over her chair. She will make him tea, and he will drink. They will talk. About Orlando. About his mother’s bad legs. About the children not going to school. About the shirts with no buttons.

Next month, Bella tells him, he won’t be able to visit, because she’s going away. Away with the family. Away? They want to take the nannies this time. Where is away? They’re going to the sea, to Plettenberg Bay. He’s never heard of Plettenberg Bay. It’s at the sea, she tells him. The sea.

He thinks that would be nice. He’s heard about the sea. He knows it’s far away.

Bella makes her preparations. She and Iris, both, will go to Plettenberg Bay, by train. They will be at the house on the beach to help the family. To cook, to clean the house. The usual. So Iris tells her.

And so it is, that while Bella’s husband is doing the night shift at the hotel, and Bella’s children are not going to school in Orlando, and Bella’s husband’s mother is moving heavily on her legs, Bella arrives at the house near the beach, in Plettenberg Bay.

In the morning, she and Iris do their work. They may as well be in Johannesburg. They sweep and vacuum, they wash clothes and hang them on the line to dry. They wonder if this is all Plettenberg Bay will be, after all.

But the next afternoon the man of the house tells them he’ll take them to the beach. He’s found a beach where they can go. (They cannot go to the beach nearby, which is reserved for whites.) He’ll drive them; perhaps they can get a ride back with one of the other nannies’ employers? All the nannies go swimming there, he tells them. Swimming? Bella and Iris don’t have bathing suits, but they will certainly go swimming.

And so they set off, in the car. The man of the house wears no shoes, here in Plettenberg Bay. Bella sees his feet, with their dark hairs, on the foot pedals of the car. There’s sand everywhere on the floor of the car. She’s sitting in the front, while Iris, holding the packages with their towels, sits at the back. The man wears his shirt loose and untucked here, too. He’s in a good mood. This is what Iris says to Bella, in their language. They laugh a little about the good mood. The car drives up a hill, away from the house, then down. They see a far-off flatness under the palest blue sky. The car speeds along a tarred road, faded to a dull black by the distant sun. The road stretches ahead. After a while the man curses: he’s missed the turn. He stops, pulls over to the side of the road. Bella hears the crickets ringing like sirens in the bush. Otherwise it is silent. The man reverses the car, frowning a little, and starts driving back. He finds the turn this time, next to a small, faded sign. He turns down a dirt road. The car bumps along, scuddering stones as it goes. The windows are open. The road dust gusts up behind them. Bella hears the crinkle of the plastic packets next to Iris in the back.

And then, suddenly, they’re at the end of the road. All they can see are scrubby bushes, and the sand dunes. Almost-white dunes, under a wide pale sky. That is all.

The car pulls up next to a dune. There’s just stillness. Iris and Bella gather their packages and climb out of the car, laughing with the man about the bumpy road, about getting lost, about the unlikely expedition they have just shared. He starts his engine, honks the car’s horn as they wave goodbye. The car drives away, its wheels crunching in the gravel.

They are two small figures, suddenly. They pick their way up an uneven pathway, through the dune.

And now Bella feels a wind. Her towel, billowing, catches in the prickly scrub. She clambers up, her shoes filling with sand. And then they’re there, the beach in front of them.

Bella feels the air, pure and cold. The wind whips her cheeks. Her headscarf snaps wildly behind her. And it is the light that is astonishing. She squints her eyes, because the light is so white. It is blinding; it is dazzling. And the sand; the sand is dazzling white too. And when her eyes are used to the light, Bella hears the roar in her ears. The roar of waves, the roar of the surf. And she sees the waves, how they pound and crash; advance, then recede. She sees their power. And when she’s closer to the water (shoes in hand, feet wet in the sinking sand), she feels the spray blown onto her cheeks. It’s ice cold, and it’s salt. She can taste the rough salt on her lips.

Bella sees the other nannies, headscarves billowing too. They’re shrieking, shrieking with excitement. There are gulls that shriek too: grey-and-white streaks that swoop by.

Bella thinks this is the most amazing thing she’s ever seen. She’s standing, yes, she’s standing at the edge of the sea. She remembers, now, her lessons in the dusty schoolhouse on the farm, long ago. How she sat, so still, a girl in her school uniform, the smooth scores in the wood (the wooden flatness of her desk) under her hand. Listening, listening as he spoke. That was her teacher, in his buttoned white shirt, his spectacles glinting as he turned. And there's her mother, too, bending over the ironing board and the white shirts, in the dim light of long ago. But the schoolhouse map: the map, with its colours (a bit faded) and its creases, spread out in front of her on the desk. There’s the blue expanse that she learned was the sea.

It’s the Indian Ocean, Iris. The Indian Ocean, Bella says. But Iris's not listening. Iris is laughing in the wind.

They go to the beach in the afternoons after that, when their work is done. The man drives, and drops them next to the dunes. They come back in a car with other nannies, carrying the packages, damp towels, seashells. They are laughing and wind-blown. There is sand in their toes, in their ears, in their eyes. Iris laughs as she takes off her glasses and wipes them on her apron.

On the last day, the day before they go back home, Bella goes to the beach with some empty bottles she has found. She has all sorts of bottles, with screw-top lids. Empty Coke bottles, made of thick, greenish glass, and juice bottles, with clearer glass: Bella retrieved them all. This time, driving to the beach, Bella hears a clink, clink – the bottles bumping against each other - as Iris shifts with the packages at the back of the car. And in the wind they walk more carefully, clinking, up the dune.

Together, they fill the bottles with sea water. Their skirts are tucked up, away from the waves. They submerge each bottle, and the water gurgles in with a wave. Then the wave recedes, and they wait until the next one comes. They screw the bottle tops on, with the rough scrape of sea sand against glass.

The man will ask them, intrigued: Why are you taking the bottles back to Johannesburg?

We’re taking the sea back, says Bella. We’re taking the sea back.

The man shakes his head. He tells his wife about it later. It’s a lot of trouble, carrying all those bottles of sea water, he says. And breakable, on the train. His wife is busy. She’s packing the bags (the sarongs, the sandals), to go home.

The bottles make it homoe. Bella keeps one in her room in Johannesburg afterwards. She picks it up sometimes when she’s finished her work. When she’s resting in her chair. Sea sand swirls up, when she shakes it.

It’s her bottle. Hers. It is – she thinks – her claim. Her claim to have been there. Her claim to have traveled the length (the breadth) of her country, over two long days. She smiles (to herself).

And she tells her husband about it all, the next time he visits. She tells him about the beach. About how the wind whips, and about the sand that’s so white, and about the sea that roars day in and day out. Day in, and day out. Bella’s husband likes that part especially: day in, day out.

In the dim light of Bella’s room she shows him the bottle. He sees it: a watery dullness, contained. That is all. Bella unscrews the bottle and pours some of the water into a cup. She wants him to taste it. He holds it up: a toast. And he sips. He pulls his mouth downward. Is it a grimace? He looks at Bella. It tastes...very strange, he says. Very strange.

He looks at the bottle, again. And as he watches, a shaft of afternoon sunlight comes through the window onto the grey floor, then slants up onto the small cloth-covered table, and lands, gently, on the bottle. The water within is lit: a momentary transformation. The water – the bottle - glows. It is golden. Bella’s husband smiles. He smiles and smiles.

Bottles was written by Dawn Promislow and is a story from her collection Jewels and Other Stories.
(Tsar Books, October 2010)

Copyright © Dawn Promislow 2010.

Dawn Promislow was born and raised in South Africa, and has lived in Toronto since 1987. Her collection Jewels and Other Stories was published in 2010. One of the collection's stories was short-listed for UK-based Wasafiri's New Writing Prize 2009, while the title story was anthologised in TOK: Writing the New Toronto, Book 5. Jewels and Other Stories will be launched in South Africa in September 2011, and was recently long-listed for the 2011 Frank O'Connor Short Story Award.


Capey said...

I felt the sea spray in the air as I sat at my desk. A strong reminder of the powerful beauty of small moments and seemingly everyday things.
Also of the freedoms we now enjoy in South Africa. Without writing such as this, it is all too easy to forget the way things were.

Thank You
Dion Loubser

Dawn Promislow said...

Thank you for these kind words, Dion!
Dawn Promislow

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