When Graeme Owen left the embassy, he tried to appear offhand. “Say,” he suggested to Tom Swayze, “could we do coffee?” They were in Antananarivo, the capital of the island nation of Madagascar, and Graeme had just interviewed the American Ambassador. As press attache, Tom had set up the interview. “I’d like to check a few things.”
Tom regarded Graeme through the dark glasses he had just put on, measuring him, suspicious perhaps of the “do coffee” phrase. Then he said, “Sure. There’s a place nearby.”
They walked to a milkbar. As they approached it, a young woman – French, in her early 20s – left the place. Seeing Tom, color came to her cheeks. She smiled and offered her hand. Tom smiled back, his eyes affectionate. He introduced her to Graeme simply as Vivienne and lingered with her a moment. Graeme went on inside the milkbar. He understood that Tom and the woman were lovers.
He thought: How Gallic! How American! This was certainly not Johannesburg where Graeme lived. Never on the super-conventional streets of that place would a man Tom’s age – he must be 38 – act in a way that notified the world that he and a young woman had sex. Yet Graeme also felt thrilled. A curious worldliness gripped – and agitated – him. This kind of freedom South Africans did not yet enjoy. In its presence Graeme felt both stimulated and nervous.
After Vivienne hurried off, the two men had coffee on a terrace. Graeme verified quotes and some spellings, then confessed, “My bosses want sexy copy out of Madagascar. I’m not sure I can provide it.” Sexy: he figured that was something an American would understand. But Swayze only smiled.
“Actually it’s a couple of kilometers short of astonishing that I got sent here,” Graeme went on – even though “sent” was not precisely the word. Graeme had told his editors at the South African Press Service, where local news was the mainstay, that he and his wife were planning a vacation in Madagascar. He asked SAPS to pick up a week’s expenses for them in exchange for a series of situationers.
“Situationers, man?” his editors had asked. “About what? Nothing’s going on there.” Graeme had reminded them that within the past year Madagascar had experienced a change of government almost as revolutionary as the one South Africans had lived through. SAPS readers might want to know how change was working in one of their closest neighbors. Graeme stressed that he would pick up the travel costs; he had the time coming. Finally his editors agreed. But with stipulations. “When we get it, man,” they warned, “that copy better sing!”
Once SAPS approved the plan, Graeme told Nella that he was being sent on assignment to the island nation. She did not want to join him – she was pregnant, after all – but he insisted. The trip, he stressed, was sure to lead to better things for him. For them. “You’ve never been outside the Republic,” he reminded her. “Time you went.” Nella agreed only at her father’s urging. Andries DeKock was impressed that SAPS had sufficient confidence in Graeme to send him on an overseas assignment.
To win Tom’s trust, Graeme joked about his own people. Tom smiled, aware of being courted. Finally Graeme said, “You wouldn’t know how a bloke like me could get a job on an American paper, would you? I’ve got to get to the States.”
“Why?” Tom asked. “It’s out of control. Full of crime, pollution, violence.”
“And opportunity. Which is one thing we don’t have in South Africa.”
Tom said, “You play your cards right, there’s opportunity for you.”
“South Africa will go the way all Africa has gone,” Graeme predicted. “Crime. Corruption. Tribal slaughter.” Tom shrugged. “Maybe that’s opportunity for a journalist. But I’ve got a wife. She’s expecting a baby.”
Tom finally said, “My speaking frankly won’t insult you, will it?”
Graeme managed a smile. “Is it going to be that bad?”
“I’ve visited South Africa,” Tom said. “In so many ways you’re thirty, forty years behind us. You’re just beginning to do away with race. We in America are doing away with families. An outsider like you can’t catch up with our pace of self-destruction, not in a cutting edge profession like journalism. The question, of course, is why you’d want to.”
Graeme did not know what to say. Tom watched him as if he were an unfamiliar life-form that might be worthy of study, perhaps from outer space.
“You said your wife’s with you?” Tom asked. Graeme nodded “Why don’t you stay with me?” Graeme’s surprise was so obvious that Tom smiled. It struck Graeme that an American journalist would have masked his reaction. Perhaps he did have some catching up to do.
“I know how the hotels are,” Tom said. Again Graeme felt himself being scrutinized. “I’m single, but I’m assigned a mansion. So I have plenty of room. I’m sure your wife would be more comfortable there.”
Graeme made no effort to hide his delight. “I know Nella would be glad to be in a home,” he said. Let Tom study him, he thought. He wanted to study Tom.
“We could go up to Antsirabe for the weekend,” Tom suggested. “It’s an old French watering-hole on the high plateau. You ought to see it. I could bring a friend along.”
“I’d love that,” Graeme said. Nella might refuse to go on a weekend with a couple who were not married, but he would persuade her. He felt sure she would like Vivienne. “Let me try it on my wife,” he said. “I’m sure she’ll agree.”
Tom put the Owens into the guest wing of his house. It was like no set of rooms Graeme had ever seen. In the hall expensively framed photographs of Africans hung. One showed a tall, slender girl, naked except for a necklace. With a stately, sculptural grace, she stood before a river, oblivious to her nakedness. “Gracious!” exclaimed Nella. The corners of her mouth tightened. But the photographs awakened in Graeme an awareness of Africa’s primitive beauty.
The guest bedroom contained the largest bed Graeme had ever seen. “A sandbox for the senses,” he said, laughing. He immediately regretted the words, for Nella shuddered. He could see her wondering how many people had soiled the sandbox.
While Nella was in the bathroom, Graeme picked up several books from the bedside table. They were paperbacks, illustrated scenarios of artsy soft-porn films. Graeme recognized the titles. The films would not be shown in South Africa, at least not in cinemas that he was likely to patronize. He thumbed through the books. One contained a photo essay, stunningly designed, of a man and a woman having sex; it showed how their bodies joined. The man was black, the woman white.
Graeme studied the photos with rapt disbelief. His throat thickened; saliva flooded his mouth. He had seen photos of sex taken in Swaziland brothels, but in those the men were white and the women black. He had never seen anything like this. When Nella entered, she asked, “What’s that?” Graeme blushed and closed the book. She pulled it from him and opened it. When she saw the photographs, she threw the book into a chair.
“What kind of place is this?” she asked. “Wait till you see the photos in the bathroom! I knew we shouldn’t come.”
In fact, when Graeme broached the idea of staying with Tom Swayze, Nella blurted out, “But we don’t even know him!”
“I want to see how Americans live,” he replied. “This is our chance. Anyway, he seems a good sort.”
Graeme had a theory that people developed long-term interests in those they helped. So he gave anyone who might possibly assist him the opportunity to do so. He intended that Tom would help him get to America.
“There’s one of those bidet things in there,” Nella said of the bathroom. She gathered up the books and handed them to Graeme. “I won’t sleep in the same room with these.”
In the bathroom Graeme found expensive, scented soap, recently used, lying in the bidet soap dish. Toys lay in a rack beside the bathtub: wind-up frogs, swans that floated, a water pistol. On a wall two photographs hung. One showed twin boys sitting naked on training potties. Tom himself smiled from the other photograph. He, too, was naked, perched spread-legged on a toilet; one of the twins, a year or two older, sat naked before him, now a master of the pot. The photograph made Graeme smile; it seemed an invitation to enjoy life.
“Well, what did you think?” Nella asked when he returned to the bedroom.
“I thought it was funny. You don’t really see anything.”
“What about the pictures in those books?”
Graeme shrugged. He shoved the books under the bed. Nella seemed relieved. She sat on the bed, tired and puzzled. “Do you think Tom’s playing some kind of joke on us?” she asked.
“I think he just lives this way. Maybe Americans have this kind of stuff around their homes.”
“Then why does he want us here?”
“He’s hospitable.” Graeme lifted Nella’s suitcase onto the bed beside her. “Maybe he’s lonely. Maybe he’s interested in us.”
“I asked him about emigrating to the States,” Graeme said. “I think he’d like to help.”
Tears began to stream down Nella’s cheeks.
“It wouldn’t be forever.” Nella said nothing. “Just while I got some training, some American experience that I– Why don’t you take a nap, Nell? You’re tired.”
“How long would it be?”
“Two years. Maybe three.” He tried to smile. “That’s not forever. Come on and take a nap.”
She kicked off her shoes and lay down. “What are you going to do?”
“I should do a story. I made some notes this morning.” He opened the suitcase, fished his wife’s dressing gown out of it and covered her with it. “You mustn’t get overtired, Nell.”
“I’m sorry to be this way,” she said. He kissed her forehead and saw fresh tears in her eyes.
“What is it?”
“I can’t sleep in the same room with those books.”
“Sweet one!” Graeme embraced her, careful not to place his weight against the baby. He took the books from under the bed, got his laptop and found a room down the hall. Before starting to work, he thumbed again through the paperbacks. His throat thickened; he shook his head. It seemed astonishing to him that societies existed – even functioned successfully – where such books were not banned. Once he laid the books aside, he found it difficult to work.
Tom was going to a party and asked the Owens to accompany him. Nella begged off; she was too tired, she said. With her eyes she implored Graeme to stay with her. He knew she felt ungainly, but he would not forego the opportunity to socialize with diplomats as a friend of Tom’s. And, indeed, Tom seemed to know everyone. At the party Graeme met Lucie and Joelle, both French, two Marie-Claires, both Malagasy, and several Chantals. One of these was the Liberian ambassador’s daughter.
“So you’re Tom’s friend” this Chantal said as they chatted in English. “Tell me what you know about him. Has style, doesn’t he?” She watched Graeme with an amused expression as the party’s gossip drifted about them in French.
Graeme nodded. “He’s very ‘hip,’ as Americans say.”
“The most glamorous man in Antananarivo.”
“That covers a lot of territory, I expect.”
“But so does Tom.” Chantal laughed slyly. “But maybe you do, too, eh? I think I like you.”
“I rather like you,” Graeme heard himself saying. The words surprised him.
“You have a funny accent.”
“In my country only the best-educated people speak this way,” he replied exaggeratedly, conscious of trying to charm her. He was not doing anything behind Nella’s back, he told himself. He was merely performing a patriotic duty: proving that white South Africans were human beings. He noticed the light glowing in Chantal’s Bantu eyes and the milk-chocolate fineness of her skin. “I’m one of those people,” he said. “I went to our best university.”
“Oh, bloody shit!” she said. “I assumed you were American.”
“Do I say thanks?”
She cocked her eyebrow, a glint of irony flashing in her eyes. “Is South Africa different these days? Or is it the more things change the more they’re the same?”
“A little of both,” he said. “Does it bother you that I’m South African?”
She studied him, started to say something, then changed her mind.
“You can say it,” Graeme told her. “I’m a consenting adult.” She laughed. Graeme glowed at the success of his banter. He wondered what Nella would think of his flirting – and was annoyed with himself for wondering.
“Does it bother you that my mother’s French and my father from West Africa?”
“You’re beautiful,” Graeme said. “They obviously do good work together.” She smiled. He felt pleased with his compliment. At the same time he wondered at the words, at the way they tumbled out. What made me say that, he asked himself – and to a Bantu! He never talked that way to women at home.
Chantal gazed at him, glowing with his compliment. “Would you like to make love to me?” she asked. Graeme was dumbfounded. She smiled, enjoying his confusion. “There’s a bedroom upstairs.”
Graeme swallowed. Had he heard her correctly? She gazed at him – with a look of readiness. Graeme blushed.
“What a lovely color,” she teased. “Let’s go upstairs. We can lock the door.”
Graeme felt flummoxed. He reached for his drink and took a long swallow.
“Have I embarrassed you?” Chantal asked, delighted. “Let me read your palm. Maybe we’ll find the answer there.” She took his hand. “My grandfather’s a witchdoctor. He taught me.” Graeme looked at her quizzically. She laughed. “He
really did,” she said. Her hands held his softly. Graeme finished off his drink.
“I see this trip,” she said, studying his palm. “It’s a landmark in your life.” She paused. “Just a minute. What’s this?” She looked deeper, turned his palm toward the light. “I see… A girl. You will have a romance here.”
“On Madagascar!” Graeme pulled his palm away, grinning. “That will surprise my wife!”
“Is she here?”
“She’s at Tom’s. She needs her sleep. She’s seven months pregnant.”
“Double bloody shit!” Chantal laughed, covering her mouth with her hand, her eyes shining. “Have I said the wrong thing!” She moved closer to him, still giggling, her breast pushing against his arm. “In fact, I know nothing about palms,” she confessed. “My grandfather was a diplomat like my father. All I know is
that men in strange countries like that fortune. It’s the only one I know.”
They laughed together. Chantal took his arm and led him to a couch. They sat and talked quietly like friends. She told him of the places she had lived and what she thought of them. He knew that Nella would not have liked nor trusted their rapport. Neither would she have understood the sense of freedom Graeme felt in talking openly with this dark-skinned woman. But he did not think of Nella; she was home asleep.
Later someone put Malagasy music on the CD player. It pulsed with surging, intoxicating rhythms. The guests began to dance. They determined to teach Graeme some of the island’s folklore. “Come on, it’s easy,” Chantal said. “I’ll show you.”
Graeme smiled, but shook his head. It was one thing to talk with this woman, but something quite different to dance with her. For Nella’s sake, he could not do that. “I really don’t dance,” he told Chantal. She grinned, standing before him, his hands in hers. Playfully she attempted to pull him to his feet.
“I’m dreadfully clumsy,” he pleaded. “Really I am.”
“Come along,” Chantal urged. “I promise not to take you upstairs.”
“Debout! Debout!” the Malagasy guests chanted.
“I can’t!” Graeme called out over the music. He wanted to dance. But he could not break faith with Nella, not when she was pregnant. “Really, I can’t.”
Chantal tossed her shoulders invitingly, sexily. Graeme shook his head. He felt himself excited, his body responding to her. That made him afraid. He pulled his hands away. Chantal suddenly froze, offended, angry. “It has nothing to do with you,” Graeme said quickly. He stood. “My wife wouldn’t–”
Chantal turned from him. She picked her way across the crowded room. He followed, took her by the arm. “All right then. Let’s dance.”
“Let go of me!” she whispered furiously. She jerked free and ran upstairs. Graeme started after her, but stopped himself. No, he told himself, he mustn’t be upstairs with her. He went outside. When he returned to the party, he watched Chantal, but he talked only with men, mainly Americans.
While packing for Antsirabe, Nella expressed reservations about the trip. “Maybe if I spoke French,” she said. “I know this girlfriend of Tom’s won’t like me.”
“I’m sure she will,” Graeme replied. “Tom wouldn’t bring someone you can’t talk to.” He assured her that when she saw Tom and Vivienne together, she would know that special feelings existed between them. Those feelings weren’t the same as marriage, that was true, but the world was changing. Who knew that better than South Africans? Special feelings were enough for now. He promised that she and Vivienne would get along.
When the Owens went down to meet Vivienne, they were surprised to find Chantal in Tom’s car. “Nice to see you again,” Graeme said to her. Nella seemed disoriented. How did her husband know this Bantu woman? She regarded her with distrust and glared at him as if he had intentionally deceived her. He introduced them. “Chantal and I met at that party Tom took me to,” he explained. Nella shook the woman’s hand and laced her arm through Graeme’s.
She was still holding onto him when Tom finished loading the trunk. “Nella,” he said, “why don’t you sit in front with me?” Graeme felt Nella’s grip on his arm tighten. She glanced at him; he saw the uncertainty in her eyes. “You’ll be more comfortable up here,” Tom explained.
“You won’t feel the bumps so much there, Koekie,” Graeme pointed out. He smiled and she agreed, thanking them all for their thoughtfulness.
As Graeme climbed into the rear seat, his arm brushed against Chantal. He settled into a corner, away from her, but his arm where he touched her tingled. He thought of her standing before him, imploring him to dance.
The car started off. As Tom chatted with Nella, driving through the suburbs of Antananarivo, past horse carts and rice fields and the plateau people’s burial tombs, Graeme and Chantal did not once look at one another. But Graeme thought only of her: her skin so dark and lustrous, the scent she gave off, her laugh and teasing wit.
At lunch he talked sociably with his three companions, prattling actually, not always making sense, because in fact he was conscious only of Chantal. He rarely addressed her directly, yet never stopped watching her. Nella did not notice. She sat beside him like a mindless lump of matter, her hand resting on his forearm. Tom chatted with the maitre d, playing at being gourmet.
When conversation lapsed, Graeme gazed at the hills, seeing nothing, aware only of Chantal’s dark fingers, of the way they held the straw, of her dark lips taking the straw and drawing Coca-Cola into her mouth. Agitated, he patted Nella’s hand. She gave him the bovine smile she had begun to wear in pregnancy. He returned the smile, not thinking of Nella, thinking: Chantal is so slender; she moves so lightly.
At the end of the meal Nella waddled off to the ladies’ room. Tom left to compliment the chef. After a long moment Graeme said: “You’re so beautiful, Chantal. If I were single and living here, I’d want to see you.”
He asked himself: What’s happening? Why am I saying just what I’m thinking? Even so, he had a feeling of release, of pleasurable danger, in saying such things to her. And yet he was afraid to look at her. She did not answer him.
“I do apologize for the other night,” he said. “I told you I was clumsy.” He managed to look at her at last.
She gazed at him. “I accept your apology.”
“I really meant no offense.”
“I wasn’t offended.”
An urge to touch her seized him. In order to control it he stood.
Later in the car he surrendered to the urge. Their knees touched as Tom swung the car around a curve. Graeme allowed his knee to rest against hers. A strange sensation of heat swept over him. He glanced at her legs, at the short skirt. Then at her eyes. She was watching him. Her expression was enigmatic, neither friendly nor hostile. He smiled slightly, without full control of his features, and removed his knee.
Later, as he tried to nap, the car’s swaying sent his knee against the outside of her thigh. The drowsiness vanished immediately. He feigned sleep so as not to withdraw the knee. His mind threw up unbidden images from the books he had seen in Tom’s house. His thoughts grew snarled: by the warmth of her African skin, by his own uncertainty about what he was doing, by the beating of his heart.
He pretended to wake. Withdrawing his knee, he rolled down his window, muttered, “Sorry,” in Chantal’s direction and held his breath. She smiled again, less enigmatically now. Graeme thrust his face into the airstream. He watched Madagascar’s rice paddies flash past. Their new shoots made a green blur. After the breeze had cooled him, he glanced over at Nella. She sat in dreamy contentment – like a great overripe pear – musing about the baby. Graeme relaxed. He felt more absent from his wife than if he had left her at home.
A Malagasy bellboy, dark-skinned but slight, with straight black hair, led the two couples down a stuffy corridor of the Hotel Truchet. Nella moved beside Graeme, still wearing her smile of sublime contentment. “What a nice ride,” she said. “I was thinking of names. I dreamt you let me call him Andries.”
“We’ll see,” Graeme answered. He would not have his son called after his father-in-law, but he was not thinking of that now. As they followed Tom and Chantal, Graeme studied Chantal’s dark, slim legs, watched the round, lustrous part of her left thigh just behind the place where his knee had rested.
“Father would be so pleased,” Nella said. “That would make things easier.”
“The baby may be a girl.” Graeme watched Chantal’s hips.
“We could call her Andrea then,” Nella said.
“What if we later had a boy?”
The reception had assigned them corner rooms. They stood opposite each other at the end of a hall that looked through French doors onto a balcony.
“Do you like the name Andrea?”
Graeme watched Tom close the door behind Chantal and felt suddenly short-tempered. “Do we have to decide now?” The bellboy showed them into their room. “Malagasies look so Oriental!” Nella exclaimed after he had gone.
“You like them better because of it?”
“No,” she replied. “But it does explain the rice paddies and the rickshas.” Then she looked at him defensively. “Are you mad at me?”
“I’m tired, I guess.” Then more softly: “Of course, I’m not mad at you. Why don’t you have a wash?”
There was no door to their bathroom, only plastic strips. Nella made a face. “I’m sorry it’s so French,” Graeme said. He went out onto the balcony.
The balcony spanned the entire end of the building. It contained a wicker table, some chairs and a chaise longue, and it overlooked a garden less well tended now, Graeme was sure, than in the days when Antsirabe had been the Deauville of the island. In the garden wrought-iron benches stood among beds of flowers. A group of people, dark Malagasies and pale Frenchmen and the children of their marriages, sat on them eating cakes. The benches had never borne labels – “Whites Only;” “Non-Whites Only” – and the people seemed happy together. Graeme watched them. He felt a kind of joy, almost an envy, at the naturalness they expressed.
When he looked away, he saw Chantal standing at the opposite end of the balcony. Inspecting her face in a compact, she touched a lipstick to her mouth. As Graeme watched, agitation replaced his joy. Then Chantal looked up. Their eyes met. Graeme bowed with mock chivalry. She smiled, flirtatiously, Graeme thought. She seemed about to speak, then suddenly turned and went inside.
Going to Tom. Lucky Tom. Graeme felt annoyed.
He remained irritable most of the afternoon: throughout Nella’s nap, during their ricksha ride and their walk through the open-air market. His testiness increased when he saw Tom and Chantal walking together. But he soon noticed that, although they were laughing, they did not exude the affectionate energy so remarkable when Tom was with Vivienne. Perhaps they had not yet slept together. Perhaps they were just pals. Graeme’s irritability dissolved. He led Nella to the cathedral, chatting jovially. She took his hand, smiling, and said, “I’m glad you’re feeling better.”
That night in the hotel room, Graeme lay awake. Outside insects sang. Graeme listened to them. He stared into the darkness, uncomfortable on the sagging bed with the mosquito netting about it. Beside him Nella stirred and called his name. “Sweet Koekie,” he answered. “Haven’t you slept yet?” He reached over and touched her hair.
“What are you thinking?” she asked. Her voice was heavy with slumber.
“You thinking of Tom and Chantal?”
“No,” he said. But he had been thinking of them. She had, too, he knew.
“What do you think they’re doing?”
He wanted to say, “Fucking, of course,” but he did not use rough language with Nella. Especially now that she was pregnant, so very pregnant. He listened to the crickets – or cicadas or whatever the hell they were – and finally said, “On the balcony this afternoon, I watched families having tea and cakes in the garden. Mixed couple families.”
“Whites and Bantus together?” she asked.
“Europeans and Malagasies,” he corrected. He felt annoyed. They had left the Republic, but she had brought its racial classifications with them. “The Malagasies came from the east. They’re Malays, not Bantus.”
“I may never get used to that,” she said. “They’re being together.”
“People do live that way,” he said. “They’ve lived that way here for decades.” And because her father always contended that mixed race children inherited the worst traits of both racial strains, he added, “And the children are beautiful.”
“I’m glad,” Nella said. “I’ve never thought the ones at home were. Shame.”
Graeme smiled grimly to himself. Her father’s daughter. Nella snuggled into his side. He lay still. The damn French with their beds, he thought. Damn mattress! Nella turned again, awkward in her seventh month. “You all right?” he asked. “The drive wasn’t too bumpy, was it?”
“Un-un.” Then: “You think Tom and Chantal are ‘doing it’?”
“Of course,” Graeme said, hating her school-girl expression. “They’re enjoying unspeakable perversions.”
“Do you wish we were?”
“I’m not sure we’d know one, even if we did it.”
Nella laughed and curled against him, feeling safe.
He listened to the damn cicadas and their buzz. And acknowledged to himself that there was a buzz inside him. Was he annoyed with her because she was pregnant? He hoped not.
“You’re incredibly beautiful the way you are now,” he said to reassure her. “But once the baby comes, I’ll be glad to get back to ‘having parties.'” The words sounded pompous to him, but Nella would not care. She wouldn’t even know.
“Tom’s really awfully nice,” she said at last. “For an American. Isn’t he?” A short silence. “She’s even rather nice. So cultured. Is Chantal a French name?”
“Her mother’s French. From Martinique or someplace. She studied at the Sorbonne.”
“She’s the Liberian Ambassador’s daughter?”
“Something like that.”
“Liberia– Isn’t that where the Americans sent their slaves? Don’t they speak English?”
“I think so,” Graeme said.
“A kind of English,” she said with a laugh. “Just like me. The vowels and consonants of English with the music of Afrikaans.” She yawned. Then she asked, “Isn’t Liberia where they’ve had that dreadful civil war?” Before he could answer, she went on, “Or is that Sierra Leone? Or Rwanda? Hard to keep it all straight.”
She was teasing him. But instead of smiling and touching her, he thought: That’s what you get for marrying an Afrikaner. He wondered if he would ever escape the self-justifying Afrikaner banter. Probably not. Afrikaners were a righteous crowd, especially when they were wrong. He would have to endure the we-were-right jesting all his life. Unless they left South Africa. Or unless he left Nella. Would that happen? Would he prove her father right? Or would the baby keep them together?
Nella settled into sleep, murmuring endearments in Afrikaans.
And now Graeme’s other nocturnal companion settled heavily upon him, like a weight on his chest. That companion was a near-desperation about the course of his life. He felt imprisoned. He had to leave South Africa; he had to get free. He would offer Madagascar pieces to the American newspapers for which he had done some Joburg stringing. That might lead to a reporter’s job on one of them. And that might lead to freedom.
Later Nella stirred, waking out of slumber. Once she sensed that Graeme was awake, she said: “Tom’s been divorced three times. That little boy in the bathroom photograph is his son. Funny, I…” Her voice trailed off.
“Marriage is not for everyone, sweet. He has tried.”
“I keep being surprised that he’s so thoughtful. He really is.” Then: “We never meet people like this at home.” She cuddled against him. “It’s good for us. Are you glad you brought me along?”
“I haven’t decided yet,” he said and kissed her shoulder.
“Do you always work this hard on trips?”
“Harder,” he said. “This is vacation, remember.”
“Ha! You’ve filed every day.” Then she asked, “Do you think Tom and Chantal had been together before we saw them at the market? They seemed shy with each other. Did you notice?” He said nothing. After a moment she asked, “Do you think Chantal’s pretty?”
“I suppose.” It was a trick question and must be handled carefully. So he elaborated in the language of apartheid. “For a Bantu,” he said.
“You think Tom’s fond of her?”
“Can’t you guess what Tom’s fond of?”
“It must be awful for you,” Nella said. “I know you miss it. It has been a long time.” Graeme said nothing. “You poor thing, lying here, thinking about them–”
“I’m not thinking about them. Go to sleep.”
“I’ll make it up to you.”
Graeme smiled in the darkness. Make it up? Nella would never surprise him with unspeakable perversions. “All right, silly,” he said. “Go to sleep.”
She curled beside him, trying now to fall asleep like an obedient six-year-old. He wondered: Was she learning anything? She seemed not to understand that he had brought her here for her education, that he wanted her capable of moving into the wider world beyond her homeland. She spent so much time sleeping! And
seemed content merely to be amused.
But even if she had refused to come here, he would not have let her stay alone. Now that blacks moved about unchallenged anywhere in the country the threat of crime was too great. And he would not let her go to her parents. Whenever she stayed with them, the Afrikaner mind-set reasserted its claims. It was bad enough that she was affected. Graeme did not want her father’s ideas seeping into her womb, and he did not want her parents to think the child was theirs.
Nella’s breathing grew regular: up and down, up and down. If he did land a job overseas, Graeme wondered, would Nella come with him? Would he dare go without her? Yes, he would. He wondered what Andries DeKock would think of Tom and Chantal. He would certainly take Graeme to task for exposing his daughter to mixed-race lovers. Old Andries hunkered down in his mental redoubt. Plagued with pigmentation obsession. The Madagascar trip would confirm his conviction that Graeme was subversive to his daughter’s morals. Graeme grinned in the darkness and saw himself escaping. He ripped through the mosquito net, leapt over the balcony and soared into the night.
But in fairness to Old Andries, Graeme had to admit that he was not certain what he himself thought of Tom and Chantal. True, they were different from people he and Nella met at home – and were stimulating for that reason. But, despite Tom’s hospitality, Graeme felt off balance with him. More like a specimen than a person. And he was even more unsure of himself with Chantal.
Chantal. Thinking of her, Graeme grew restless, caught inside the mosquito net. He crawled outside it and looked at his watch. He took a blanket and wrapping himself in it, listened to Nella. She breathed with heavy regularity. He opened the door and stepped onto the balcony.
The night air was cold. It smelled of pines. Graeme leaned against the railing, trying to clear his mind. He thought of nothing. After a while he glanced toward Tom’s and Chantal’s room. The windows were dark. They would be asleep, wound about each other. He pulled the blanket close about him.
“Hello,” a voice said softly.
Graeme did not move.
“Hello,” it said again.
Graeme felt a pang of nervousness. He peered into the darkness. Chantal was sitting on the chaise longue. He nerved himself and tiptoed to it. “Have you been there all this time?” he asked.
“You must be freezing.” He took the blanket off and gave it to her. “Why have you been sitting there?”
“I’ve been waiting for you.”
Had she spoken those words? Graeme could not believe it. He said nothing, hardly breathing.
“I’ve been waiting for you,” she said again. “Tom and I had an argument.” Then: “I arranged for us to have it.”
Graeme tightened his hold on the balcony railing.
“I felt you calling me.”
Graeme held his breath. He felt almost too nervous now to think.
“I’ve been calling you.”
Graeme rubbed his arms. “Is this like the exotic fortune?” he tried to ask lightly. “Something you tell all men?”
“I’m very good at fortunes,” Chantal said. She laughed in a way Graeme thought of as Bantu; he felt her pulling him closer as if by witchcraft. He took a step backwards.
“Don’t be frightened,” she said. “Let’s see. I’ll tell you something less scary.” She hesitated, pondering. “I know: eventually Tom, even Tom, gets tired. We didn’t argue. He fell asleep. So I came out for a smoke. Is that better?”
He stood, his hands on the railing, for what seemed a very long time.
“Don’t hold back, Graeme. You’re not at home.”
For the first time she spoke his name. He felt himself pulled toward her. He gripped the railing tighter, fearful that if he moved, he would leap across a brink.
“Don’t you want this?”
He closed his eyes. For a moment he held his breath. Then he reached out to touch her.
“Hello,” she said.
He fumbled in the darkness. “Where are you?” He laughed stealthily, nervously. She took his hand. “Thanks.” She pulled him beside her. His confidence returned. It’s going to be all right, he told himself.
Groping about, he wrapped the blanket around them. They kissed. She laughed welcomingly and bit his neck. At last his mind stopped working. Sensation filled him, like music. He moved with it, holding the African girl, and their bodies flowed together. He felt himself leap, truly over the brink now, and Chantal clung to him as Nella never had.
Finally he leaned away from her and laughed with relief. “God,” he said. He felt more satisfied physically than he ever had. His body ached lightly, pleasurably.
Somewhat later he thought of Nella, trustful, pregnant Nella. He suddenly felt overcome with guilt. What had he done? He withdrew his hand from Chantal’s skin, as if he were touching a whore. “Do you do this with anyone?” he asked.
“Don’t spoil it.”
“I do it with men I like. Isn’t that natural?”
For a while Graeme said nothing, thinking of what Chantal had said, but also thinking of Nella. Sweet Nella, he said to himself; she’ll never suspect this. He felt safe and caressed the African girl again. He said, “You like me, do you?”
“Poor Graeme,” Chantal said. “You’re looking out at the world through a plate glass window. You want to come join us and you’re trying. I like that.” She paused. “You can’t know how flattering it’s been to watch you discover me as a person and as a woman. Tom could never pay me such compliments!” She took his hand and Graeme watched her press his white fingers against her dark cheek.
Later he woke from the cold. Chantal had gone. He lay on the chaise for a long time and at last tiptoed into the warm room. In the bed Nella was still lightly snoring. He regarded her fondly – his Nella – and did not feel as if he had betrayed her. He told himself that most South African men – probably even her father – had at one time or another had a Bantu girl. It was not a betrayal; it was a safety valve. It meant nothing.
He and Nella slept until 8:30. At breakfast Tom asked if they had spent a good night. Smiling vacantly, Nella said they had. Tom left to conduct some business. Chantal did not appear.
Nella napped most of the morning, a contented smile on her face. Graeme left her sleeping. He quietly closed the door and tiptoed across the hall. With blood pounding in his head he knocked at the door. Chantal’s voice called, “Entrez.” Graeme did not move. When she called a second time, he opened the door
and stepped inside. “Good morning,” he said.
“Hello, Graeme.” She was sitting in bed in a dressing gown eating petit dejeuner from a tray. She smiled at him. “Come in. I saved you a croissant.” She buttered the pastry and handed it to him. Graeme took it, thrilled, but nervous. “Do sit down.”
He took a chair. Not knowing what to say, he bit into the croissant. Chantal poured herself coffee. “Want some?” she asked, already pouring him a cup. Graeme took the cup, chewing on the croissant and feeling amazed at himself. Finally he said, “I hope your bed is better than ours. Ours sags in the middle.” It seemed almost traitorous for him to speak to this woman, his Bantu lover, of “our bed,” his and Nella’s, and yet he was doing this.
“This coffee smells of Paris,” she said, sniffing it.
“It tastes awful.”
“Yes, but it smells of Paris.” She smiled at him and he felt comfortable.
“Tell me about Paris,” he said. He kicked off his shoes and put his feet on the bottom of the bed.
She told him about Paris and West Africa and Martinique. As they talked, she left the bed, slipped through the plastic strips hanging at the bathroom entrance and ran water for a bath. Graeme put on his shoes. “Don’t go,” Chantal said. “Come talk.” Graeme hesitated, uncertain what to do. “I love to talk in the bath,” she said. She took his hand and led him into the bathroom. As he watched, she slipped out of her dressing gown. With the same unconsciousness of her nakedness as the woman in the hallway photo in Tom’s house, she stepped into the tub.
Graeme thought he must be inside some dream. Was this happening? Had he and Chantal really been together the night before? He sat on the floor beside the tub, talking to Chantal and thinking that at any moment he might wake up to find Nella sleeping beside him.
“There’s room enough for you,” Chantal finally said. “Want to come in?”
He shed his clothes, very conscious of his nakedness and the obviousness of his excitement. “Hmmm,” she said with a grin. He returned the smile, slipped into the water beside her and held her, clung to her.
Later they washed each other, Chantal bathing him like a mother, soaping and rinsing every inch of him. When they left the bath, he towelled her dry and kissed her when they finished. “I’m going back to bed,” she said, putting on a nightie. “Come tuck me in.”
In fact, he joined her in bed. He lay holding her for a long while, thinking with his skin, not with his mind. He felt strangely content merely to hold her.
When he went back across the hall, Nella was still asleep. He smiled at her tenderly. Above her mountainous body her face wore an expression of contentment. Graeme felt released and full of joy; he regarded his wife with profound affection. He loved her, he thought, almost more than he ever had.
Chantal did not appear at lunch. Graeme and Nella and Tom ate alone. After they finished, Chantal strolled onto the dining terrace, a bag slung a la Parisienne over her shoulder. She shook hands with all of them and, hardly speaking, drank some coffee.
Tom insisted on a siesta after lunch. He and Chantal arrived at the car twenty minutes later than the two couples had agreed to meet. Tom complained of a headache, so severe, he said, that he could not drive. He asked Graeme to chauffeur them back to Antananarivo. Nella smiled knowingly at Graeme as Tom and Chantal slid into the rear of the car. They had hardly left Antsirabe before Tom fell asleep, his white palm resting on Chantal’s brown thigh.
Back in the capital Graeme bade Chantal a warm goodbye. She gave him what seemed an encouraging smile and his heart leaped. He hoped to see her again.
But he found it impossible to contact her. It turned out that the Liberian Embassy had closed. Instead of returning to Monrovia, the ambassador had bought a trading company in Antananarivo. Graeme could think of no plausible way to trace Chantal through the company. He was a married man, after all.
Naturally, he lacked the courage to ask Tom for Chantal’s phone number. He did not want Tom to know what he was thinking. Nor Nella either. When they were together at his house, Graeme felt Tom watching him – as if waiting for him to make some move. He sometimes wondered if Tom had put Chantal up to widening his experience of life. As it worked out, he did not see her again.
Once Graeme was back in Johannesburg, he stayed busy covering developments in the new South Africa. Madagascar seemed a dream. Chantal became a figure who was never quite real. Memory transformed Antsirabe into a virtual reality interlude that never truly occurred.
When Nella went to hospital for the baby, Andries DeKock paid Graeme a visit. “Look, lad,” he said. “Fatherhood’s upon you. Time to give up this notion about America. Its racial problem is more entrenched than ours and there’s no will there to solve it. Here we’re coming to grips with the problem. There’s more opportunity here than you know.”
“I need overseas experience,” Graeme told him.
“They think highly of you at the Press Service,” DeKock assured Graeme. “You know the managing director’s an old friend of mine. Shall I speak to him?”
“Please, don’t! I’ve got to know if I can get ahead on my own.”
Once the baby arrived, Graeme felt a strange erosion of ambition. He became more content with his life. He chose to regard this condition as evidence of new maturity. Parenthood made him feel less constrained in his homeland, less hungry for freedom and experience.
Now and then something would remind him of Chantal. Yes, he would think, he had slept with an African woman. He felt more of a man for that and recognized that Chantal had contributed to his improved view of himself. Because of her he felt himself a better reporter, too. He always regarded the Madagascar pieces as some of his best writing, the most colorful and atmospheric.
His stories from the island produced appreciative letters from editors overseas. He followed up with inquiries about positions on their newspapers although, because of the baby, less quickly than he intended. He received an offer of a paid internship in Philadelphia and accepted it, but lost time sorting out the immigration procedures. Learning that he was serious about America, the Press Service offered Graeme an editorship.
Shortly afterwards Nella informed him that she was pregnant again. They had a long talk about their lives. Graeme agreed to accept the editorship. He knew Nella was right: it was time to settle down.
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