Fiction

December 21, 2017 Fiction , Literature , POETRY / FICTION

Mosa Moseneke photo

 

By

Abigail George

 

 

Three short stories: Day after ChristmasOlivia and Ruthie and Tampa

 

 

 

Day after Christmas

 

 

 

Hildegard was cleaning out the fridge.

 

“Look at all this waste. Waste, waste, waste want not. And I’m always the one cleaning up. Doesn’t matter how old your children get. The holidays are the holidays.”

“Did, you say something Hildegard,” Reuben yelled from the family’s den. He was eating a sandwich, sloppily, and slurping iced tea. Ice cubes tinkled in the glass.

“No, I didn’t say anything. Watch your show. Do you want another sandwich, make it yourself, buster.”

 

Later, Hildegard and Reuben sat outside in the backyard, barefoot. She was knitting, Reuben was smoking.

 

“It’s nice like this.”

“Yes, it is, Reuben. Sitting outside underneath the stars. Day after Christmas. All the family gone. We should do this kind of thing more often. Remind me again why we don’t do this more often.”

“I don’t know, Hildegard. Never crossed my mind before, sweetheart.”

 

“You’ve unloved me.” He thought she didn’t hear so he repeated himself.

“There’s a part of you that’s unloved me.”

“No, that’s wrong. There’s parts of me, I can’t identity which, right now exactly, that have stopped loving you a long, long time ago, honey.”

 

“There’s no living without you. You want to live the way you write, in thought-patterns. Peak meeting peak. Trough meeting trough.”

 

“What’s wrong with that, hey. When you’re young you make allowances for the power of love. Think that it will get you through everything. War only stops being war after negotiation, compromise, conflict only stops being conflict when you think things through, consummate struggle, obtuse challenge, the seawalls of loneliness, after illness comes the decay and wasting away of the body, broody unloved emptiness.”

 

“Why’d you always have to be so cold, Hildegard. I mean, for you that’s your truth but you only see life one way, and that’s your way. Why not be more forgiving, a little more loving, partygoing. Spiritual.”

“Don’t you leave me Reuben,” was what was on Hildegard’s lips. It was often what she thought when she was washing the dishes, or answering emails. Don’t you even think of leaving me. “Now it’s my turn, Reuben, to beg for your forgiveness, I guess, for not loving you more than I do. Loving you in the ways of a young woman. I sound desperate. A woman in despair. A woman in love is always a woman in despair.”

 

“If I did leave, you’d soon see that you’d go on living without me as if we never existed in each other’s world. You don’t need me to protect you, Hildegard.”

“Listen, if you listen very carefully you can hear me smile, Reuben. Do I still make you smile?”

“Do you still make me smile. I warm your feet at night. I’d give you my last blanket. What does all of that signal to you, if it isn’t triumph. Man will always triumph over a woman.”

 

“Next you’ll be telling me that men are more powerful than women, Reuben.”

“Aren’t all men all-powerful, Hildegard. Be honest. Weren’t you falling for the older man, after all, I was the older man in our relationship.”

“Speaking of men being all-powerful, Reuben. Perhaps in youth, I guess. That bright spark of athleticism and intelligence in youth. That’s all-powerful. Aren’t men powerful, well, I think that women are powerful too.”

 

 

“You want me to agree with you, Hildegard. You always want me to agree with you. I know that tone in your voice by now.”

“Perhaps, look at it this way, look at sexuality. Sexuality is all-powerful in both genders. Gay, straight. Straight. Gay. I am being honest, Reuben. There’s truth, that all men are sexist and misogynist at point or other in their lives, until they fall in love, or have a daughter.”

 

 

“I love our children. No, don’t look at me like that. I really do. They’re cheerful about whatever life throws at them. They make the best of it, and when they’re depressed they don’t talk about it.”

“Reuben, you say that, as if it’s a good thing. You forgot about my depression after Marjorie was born. Please don’t give that look that says don’t go there.”

 

“I love you. I mean, there’re couples that stay together for the children and others for love. I do love you, I mean that.”

“You still make me laugh, Reuben, if that counts. Why’re you thinking about it so. You’ve seen me cry. Stroke your ego. You’ve seen me love you, raise, shelter, discipline, and love our children. Daughters and sons. I could have walked away from all that. Become someone else’s wife.”

 

“Why’d you have to say that? It kind of hurts my feelings, a little. Could you think of sparing my feelings, instead of speaking so bluntly.”

“Oh, Reuben. You exasperate me sometimes. I just want you to know that I had choices. I had a life before you and the children.”

“You make it sound as if I was the lucky one, Hildegard.”

 

“But, Reuben, dear, you were lucky. You were. I was a catch. Just a young thing, a beautiful girl and intelligent creature, and out of your league if it wasn’t for your letters.”

“Quite, I see. How long have we been married now, Hildegard?”

“Too long. Looking back on the memories we’ve had a wonderful life. Raised beautiful children together. I never wanted to teach English. I wanted to write novels. Did I ever tell you that, Reuben.

 

“No, you never told me that, Hildegard.”

“Even after all this time we don’t have nicknames, pet names for each other. Don’t you think that’s strange, Reuben. That our roles never reversed or changed, or morphed or transformed us from teacher and student. That mutual respect and admiration in the classroom followed us all through the passage of our lives.”

“Well, Hildegard, that’s one way of looking at it. What would you have wanted to call me anyway?”

“I would have liked there to have been a choice, Reuben.”

“There wasn’t. Make your peace with that, Hildegard. Do you think I’m still handsome? You don’t have to think about it so long.”

“Yes, Reuben, of course you’re still handsome. Older, wiser.”

 

“I’m hungry, Hildegard. Fix me something to eat, be a dear. Don’t stare so. Don’t be angry about it now.”

“But you just ate, Reuben. You just ate ten minutes ago, how can you be hungry again.”
“It’s the holidays. Having the children and the grandchildren around wears these bones out.”
“Well, that’s tragic. I’m not going to get up now. I’m too comfortable. Please don’t beg.”

 

“There were other girls who were in love with me too, you know,” He wanted her to say the following words, turn her face towards him, the porchlight framing her hairstyle, “Oh, I know Reuben. It was a long time ago, but I still remember your confidence. You’re probably thinking, Reuben, how did I know. There was always talk. Always gossip,” but instead she put down her knitting, looked across at him and smiled, and he wanted to lean in toward her and take her in his arms, and kiss her sweet vulnerable face.

 

“I think I’ll get up and fix you that sandwich now, Reuben.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Olivia and Ruthie

 

 

 

“How are you? Are you well, Liver. How’s Tanya, the married lady? Still bodybuilding. Sculpting the perfect figure.”

 

“I don’t know, Ruthie. What’s Tanya to you? Is she your friend?” Came the sharp, almost explosive, superior reply. Oh, I am sorry I phoned, you seem busy, distracted, torn between your priorities and life, loving, flirting with men, going for coffee and breakfast on a Saturday morning, torn between living and your partygoing lifestyle. You forget that I live in your shadow, now, when in the past our roles were reversed, Ruthie wanted to say to Olivia, her twin.

 

“I’m only asking to be polite, Olivia.”

“I guess Tanya’s fine, Ruthie. I don’t see her as often as I used to. She’s married now to a gym teacher. They’re in the honeymoon phase of their relationship. She’s a big girl. She can take care of herself.”

“Are you taking anything for the pain? Have you seen the chiropractor?”

“The married sleaze ball. No, I haven’t. He just wanted to get his freak on, with me, can you imagine.”

 

“Is race an issue? She’s Indian. He’s a Jehovah’s Witness. What about his mother? Is she still taking the anti-depressants?”

“Is race an issue? I’m not sure. Look, I’m not a qualified therapist. And it’s not my business. Also, I don’t care. I have my own problems. I swear Ruth-Ann that you’re the only person who sees that. We’re not living in olden times. How will I know that, Ruthie? I don’t live with them. They tried to buy a car but got swindled out of the deal. The guy got their money and they got a piece of junk.”

 

“Don’t you want daughters. Don’t you ever think about it.”

‘I don’t know, Ruthie. I’m too busy. I have work. Who am I going to meet at work. I can’t meet someone that I want to make babies with at work. I’m tired in the evenings when I get home. Overworked and underpaid, all that jazz. You would know if you had a 9 to 5 job. I’m not judging, just saying, just asking when you’re going to join the rest of us. When are you going to join the human race, Ruthie.”

 

“I work. It’s not the kind of work that you do but I’m living my dream, Olivia.”

“Do you now. You call the funny kind of writing that you do work Ruthie, ask yourself this. If you’re happy. If you’re making other people happy, and if this is your life purpose.

“Yes. Yes, as a matter of fact I do. You could be more supportive, loyal.”

“I’m tired, Ruth-Ann. I need to eat. I’m starving. I could eat anything. I took meat out to defrost this morning. I’m thinking of making myself a big fat Texan steak to spoil myself.”

 

“I’ll let you go in a minute, Olivia. Tell me about the chiropractor who made inappropriate comments to you. Make me laugh. Tell me how he wanted to take you out for a drink. How he wanted to buy you a glass of wine.”

“Will you now, Ruth-Ann. Will you only let me go in a minute?”

“Why’re you repeating what I say like that. You always call to speak to our mother. I’m just a polite afterthought that you feel obligated to speak to.”

 

“Ruth-Ann, I need to take a shower. I need to wash my hair. I need to use the bathroom. I need to pee. I can’t hold it in much longer. I need to feed the dogs.”

“We never talk, Liver. Are you still there? Oh, I thought you were gone. Tell me about the people at work. The Indians.”

“No, Ruthie. That’s the last thing I want to talk about. I don’t bring my problems in the workplace home with me. You of all people should know that by now.”

 

“Oh,” said Ruthie. “Okay, fine. Don’t talk about it. I thought I could help. Thought you could let off some steam. Are you still in pain, Olivia. The last time you said something about your back. Your spine. Something about a tingling sensation.”

“I go to boot-camp for that. Ruthie, you know I go to boot-camp for that.” Olivia laughed.

“Sometimes. The pain comes and it goes. I live with it. It’s not that serious.”

“Back pain is always serious. You should go see a proper doctor or something.”

 

“Oh, phooey, Ruth-Ann. You’re such a worry-wart.”

“I have to worry. Who’s going to worry about you if I don’t worry?”

“Worry about this. Worry about that. Stop worrying. Live, girl! It’s going to be over far too soon. You don’t live, that’s your problem. Or you don’t know how to. You need one of those how-to guides. You need to get the app for that, if there is one for nerds like you.”

 

“You know, you don’t have to live with pain. Tell me about your supervisor. Is he cute? Is he a bully? Is he sexist in meetings? Does he flirt with you?”

“What do you want to know about Indians that we don’t already know.”

“The people, I mean, the managers in charge of managing your supervisor and the people, the women of colour working in the department with you.”

 

“More worrying. No, I don’t want to talk about them.”

“Oh, okay, then. Are there many women in your department?”

“The ones who are in my department are mostly athletic, and blonde. Gym bunnies.”

“Gym bunnies.”

“They’re okay. I mean, I’m not going to complain anymore, or stress, or complain, or act irresponsible and call out people on their sexist, ageist agenda.”

 

“It is what it is, is that what you’re saying. Are you there? Olivia, are you there. Oh, I thought you were gone. We can talk about something else if you want to.”

“I have things to do. Do you know how much my phone bill is every month?”

“Do you have to go, Olivia? Last question before you go.”

“Yes, Ruthie. I have to go.”

 

“Do you want to have children, Olivia? Do you ever think about it? I don’t want someone to just come along and sweep you off your feet, yet, and after that I’ll only see you once a year or never. And when the children come, when the children come, things, things just won’t be the same anymore. We won’t have the kind of relationship that we have now where I can just pick up the phone and you’re a telephone call away.”

 

“Doesn’t everybody want kids, watch porn, experiment with marijuana, Ruth-Ann. You’re such a baby! If it happens, it happens. If I have children one day, with or without a husband. I mean, I can adopt. I have a car. I have a house. I’m not going to hold my breath until it happens. It’s not going to destroy me, if it doesn’t happen. There’s always something to do.”

“I’m happy. Yes, some people, like me, are happy alone.”

 

“Well, some people are happy alone. Some people don’t want to do anything with their lives. Some people love dogs. That’s the truth.”

 

“Ruth-Ann, you don’t have to explain to me what you do. You don’t need my permission. You’ve only got one life.” Ruthie decided to change the subject. She felt as if she were hitchhiking through snow whenever she spoke to Olivia. Every careful step into the difficulties of a winter exterior, a wall made of exquisite torture, up a glacial mountain. Her breath the glimpse of a cloud underneath.

 

“You’re always meeting new people. You run marathons at the weekend.”

“Ruth-Ann, I don’t run marathons to meet men.” Came the sharp, almost explosive, superior reply from Olivia.

“You’re too thin. Did Emma come today?” Emma was the housekeeper from Bulawayo. School holidays, she travelled by bus to visit her children in Zimbabwe. Paid for new clothes, new shoes, school fees. Olivia said nothing so, Ruthie said nothing too.

 

“More and more people are coming out. Coming out with bipolar, I mean.”

“Ruthie, there’s nothing tragic about having bipolar. It is what it is.” Ruthie bit her bottom lip, reached for the remote, muted the television, and in the silence of the room she noticed that she wasn’t alone. The tomcat was on the kitchen countertop, sniffing an empty dinner plate.

“I have to go now, Olivia. I have to feed the cat. He’s trying to eat spaghetti.”

 

 

 

 

 

Tampa

 

 

 

That summer he found himself playing the piano in a hotel in Tampa. He was a lounge singer who sang opera, played advertisement jingles for tips. He made friends with the regulars, was invited to their homes. They could have just felt sorry for him because he was so far away from home. In Knysna, his elderly parents were getting a divorce. His sister was moving house to London with her daughters and accountant husband. Yes, everybody they knew was moving up in the world. He met Nick in Tampa. In Nick’s bed, time seemed to be suspended. For the rest of that first evening when he had met Nick, Nick seemed to float across the room. Nick winking at him, while he blinked back. Nick smiling at him, and giving him the peace sign, the thumbs’ up. Nick even blew him a kiss. This made him blush.

 

“You’re gifted with those keys.” Nick said one evening (Nick was a waiter, he needed to make a fast buck to get out to Los Angeles). “Where did learn to play like that?”

“Knysna.”

“Where again? You said, Knysna. Never heard of it. I’m from the East Coast. Heard of that?”

“In books. In books and magazines and online. Knysna’s near Wilderness. Perhaps you’ve heard of it. The Garden Route.”

“No, no. I have to be honest with you. I’ve never heard of it.” Nick smiled, “Play something sexy, for me.” Nick smiled again. “The way you play that piano you can make anything sound sexy.”

 

They were watching cartoons. Nick was resting his head on his chest. They were eating Doritos with guacamole and salsa.

 

“Is this all that’s on? Why don’t we watch the news?” Nick ignored him, picked up another chip.

“Do you want to make love again?” Nick leaned across him, picked up a fashion magazine, said in passing, while paging through it, “I always found the life of a photographer fascinating. I mean, if I weren’t an actor, I think I would have gone to art school. Taken a photography class. Maybe, even explored painting. Now, what do you think about that. You’re so quiet. Cat got your tongue.”

 

“I’m tired, that’s all. All those late evenings are catching up with me. I need to sleep. I think I’m homesick.”

“Oh,” Nick said in a hurt voice. “I thought you wanted to be with me. Don’t you want to be with me, lover?” He stroked Nick’s arm then, brushed his hand through Nick’s unkempt hair.

Nick closed his eyes. “That feels nice. Don’t you want to stay here with me, in Tampa, I mean.”

 

“I have a mother back in Knysna. She needs me. She’s getting old. It always feels nice when I’m with you.” Nick had opened his eyes, reached for his box of cigarettes on the bedside table.

“So, you’re leaving after Christmas. That doesn’t give me much time. I mean it doesn’t give us much time. I should be used to this by now, I guess.” Nick laughed, and then grimaced as if he were in pain. “I shouldn’t have made you that sandwich. Why’d you make me fall in love with you?”

 

“I did no such thing.”

“Which means you’re not in love with me. I should have known. I should have known.”

“I do. I do want to be with you.” He said it because he thought that was what Nick wanted to hear, to shut him up, (yes, to shut Nick up), but Nick was also beginning to become something of a bore. He didn’t listen to classical music or know anything about the opera, they were boring. He didn’t read, that was boring too. The only things he did read (collect) were Cosmopolitan and Elle.

 

“Will you miss me? Be homesick for me too?”

“Oh, alright then, that is if you want me to.”

“I do. Say you will. I’ve never been in love like this.” Nick lit the cigarette then, his hand shaking. He put his free hand on Nick’s. Holding a teacup in his other hand.

“You’re shaking, honey. Oh, Nick, buddy. Yes, of course, I’ll be homesick for you too, if that is going to make you happy. I’ll tell you something. I’ve never felt like this over a man before.”

 

“You’ve never been with a man before like this, I mean.”

“No, no. There’s a first time for everything, isn’t there.”

“That makes me sad. It, really, really makes me sad.”

“Why does it make you sad? Please don’t cry for me, sweetheart.”

 

“I’m going to cry. Please don’t make me cry. Please don’t make me ask you to stay. I’m thinking of the next person you’re probably going to fall in love with, and that I won’t be around to see it.”

“So, you’re in love with me?”

“You act as if you didn’t know anything about this chemistry between us from that first instant I met you.” He didn’t want to argue with Nick. So, he changed subject.

 

“Can we change the channel? Watch something more grownup.”

“Documentaries are boring.” Nick said on the defensive. “So, is the news. Everything’s about terrorists or immigrants, the recession and unemployment, sexual assault and police brutality.”

“Okay, then let’s keep watching cartoons, then.”

“Cartoons are the only things that make sense to me.” Nick rubbed his chin.

 

“I don’t know, yes, I guess, yes. I will miss you, Nick. You’re too adorable for words.”

“Even when I was young, everybody thought I was cute. I never got picked last in gym, and you? Do you love me?”

“I don’t know, yes, Nick, I guess, yes.”

 

In America, it was late to bed. He would rise in the early afternoon. Shower, fix his hair before his show. Have a late-ish breakfast of toast, orange juice, fish fingers or bacon or an omelette stuffed with ham. The hotel food never disappointed him. Nick had a way of stroking his beard when he was deep in thought. Nick was stroking his beard now. He thought that this was a safe place. Nick wouldn’t make a scene in this diner. They ordered breakfast food, even though it was early afternoon. Waffles and coffee.

 

“Give me a reason. I need a reason to stay. My mother is old. She’s deaf. She needs me.” But Nick’s eyes were already flashing.

“I need you too. I just want you to remember that.”

 

The waffle was too big on the plate, tasted like cardboard and paste in his mouth. He thought of his mother. Once, she had been a socialite. He missed the Knysna-oysters too.

 

 

 

 

 

Abigail George

Pushcart Prize nominee Abigail George is a South African-based blogger, essayist, poet and short story writer. She briefly studied film at the Newtown Film and Television School followed by a stint at a production company in Johannesburg. She has received two writing grants from the National Arts Council in Johannesburg, one from the Centre for the Book in Cape Town, and another from ECPACC in East London. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Aerodrome, Africanwriter.com, Bluepepper, Dying Dahlia Review, ELJ, Entropy, Fourth and Sycamore, Gnarled Oak, Hackwriters.com, Itch, LitNet, Mortar Magazine, Off the Coast, Ovi Magazine: Finland’s English Online Magazine, Peeking Cat Poetry Magazine, Piker Press, Praxis Magazine Online, Sentinel Literary Quarterly, Spontaneity, The New York Review, and Vigil Pub Mag. She has been published in various anthologies, numerous times in print in South Africa, and online in zines based in Australia, Canada, Finland, India, Ireland, the UK, the United States, across Africa from Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Turkey and Zimbabwe.

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