Here’s a terse, direct, almost telegraphic tale of South Africa, race, danger, immaculate whiteness and denial. It’s haunting, disturbing—reminiscent of J. M. Coetzee himself. Dawn Promislow is another hugely promising writer dg discovered when he read her fine first collection Jewels (the collection from which this story is taken) while jurying for the 2011 Danuta Gleed Literary Award. Of this book, Jim Bartley wrote in the Globe and Mail:
At their best, the stories have a compression of description and a simplicity of narrative arc that can indeed be jewel-like in lucidity. The real strength of the collection is its success at bridging the polarities of race and class that so distress its liberal white folks, characters whose pained awareness of the brutally enforced otherness of black lives forms the spine of many stories.
Between and within stories, Promislow shifts us repeatedly from white households to the lives of the servants who do their dull and dirty work. We’re admitted to both worlds, yet the essential otherness of the black world remains intact, never allowing us to forget the entrenched privilege distorting the white viewpoint. The deadlocked society of apartheid is strikingly rendered.
Dawn Promislow was born and raised in South Africa, but has lived in Toronto since 1987. Jewels and Other Stories was published by Tsar Books 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 anthologized in TOK: Writing the New Toronto, Book 5. Jewels and Other Stories will be launched in South Africa next month (September). It has been long-listed for the Frank O’Connor Short Story Award 2011. You can read an interview with Dawn Promislow here at Open Book Ontario and another one here at Rob McLennan’s Blog. And here is another review of the book.
A Short Story by Dawn Promislow
The grapefruit was sharp in my mouth when I read the report. I was on the terrace, the morning sun filtering through the trees – a hot, still day it would be. It was one of those reports we read all the time, back then. Attempted sabotage of power plant. Et cetera. I got tired of it. I turned to the theatre listings – I was to book tickets for a play.
And then I went in to dress. There was my face, wan in the morning light, I remember it, that day.
My husband mentioned it a few days later. He said there was a colleague’s friend who needed somewhere to stay – a few weeks, that was all. Someone involved in the recent attempt. He’d stay in the garden room, there was a bathroom there, we’d not need to see him. Is this necessary Howard, I said. It’s necessary, yes, he said, you know it’s necessary. We had had someone else like this stay once, in that room. My husband was not afraid; I was not either. He thought the police would never touch him. I told the servants a man from Howard’s work would be in the room for a few weeks. They weren’t much interested, of course. I told them not to bother him, he’d take care of the room himself.
A few days later he came home with my husband. He shook my hand. Thank you, thank you, he said. I’ll be moving on soon. It’ll be alright, my husband said, it’ll be fine. The three of us had a drink. It was a strange time, then.
And then I forgot about it. Or I tried to forget about it. I never saw him. Howard said he had books with him. He was a university professor, before. At night, very late, he had visitors, the servants told me that. The visitors came in cars, headlights pooling in the darkness, they let themselves in at the side gate, I never heard them. My husband assured me, again, he’d be gone soon.
I had my own preoccupations. The children, both, finally away at university. I was free. I was working, then, on my series – the white series. You’ve seen it. It was before then that I started it.
I wanted to create a painting that was a space, just a space. I had an image in my mind of a large white canvas, and no line, no mark to deface it, or cross it. The canvas would contain its own, white, light. Not a bright light, but a white light. D’you see what I mean? And the shape, the rectangular shape, the straight lines, the right angles of their intersections at the corners. I had been struggling, struggling so long to create this painting. I had made so many canvasses, each one defaced, despoiled in some way – a line that strayed in, the wrong shade of white, of cream, of ivory, wrong, wrong. How anguished I was. I struggled with it every morning. The light poured in through the large window – it was that light, yes, that I wanted to capture on the canvas.
At lunch time I’d emerge from the room, hands spattered with paint, as with blood. I’d have my avocado, sliced. The lemon glistened. Then I’d drink my coffee. The servants glided, here, and there. They did their work. I think they did their work. The house, in any event, was in order.
I’d go out then, in my car. The air inside was close and warm. The car was a space, an empty space, and an engine, alive. I did an errand or two. Sometimes I went to the hairdresser. I’d watch my face in the mirror, and my hair that fell, a smooth wave, on my shoulder.
In the late afternoons I would be in my bedroom, where I lay down in the silence. It was then that the image of the canvas would come to me. I would say the image haunted me, like a shadow, but it was a light shadow, and I’ve never seen one of those. Its largeness, and squareness. A rectangle, actually, was my canvas. I would think and think about which shades to try, tomorrow. Which faint gradation — this one, or that one – it mattered so much.
I was not supposed to be aware of him, staying in the garden room. I never saw him, at all. But I felt his presence, down there at the end of the garden. The room was a white-washed brick, shaded by deep trees, you could see only bits of it, if you looked. I wondered and wondered what he was doing there in the room all day, behind the trees, in the shadows of the trees that bent. He was working, of course, it was work he was doing: planning and planning, writing and writing. I thought I could hear his pen scratching on paper, through the long afternoons. But I didn’t hear him, of course, at all. Then I came to see his face, stubbled, and his dark eyes, in my mind.
He was a slight man, I started to worry about what he had to eat, in the room. His visitors – comrades, I should say – brought him food at night, there was a small fridge in his room. I imagined bread and cheese. Water, water, of course. And there was his bed, I knew that bed, it was my son’s narrow old bed, with the springs that creaked. He would be able to hear the soft rustle of trees from where he was, and his room would be dim – emerald-dim – in the afternoons, from the shade of the trees outside.
I pictured myself walking across the shadowed expanse of lawn, to the room. I pictured the stone step, at its door.
I told Howard he had to go, I couldn’t stand it. Howard didn’t understand. You never see him, you never hear him, he said. What’s the problem, what’s the problem. The problem was his presence oppressed me, I came to feel it as a weight, a weight. I was used to the room being empty, somehow the garden room being empty satisfied me, I can’t say why. Now there was the scratch of his pen, I heard it. Oh for God’s sake, Howard said. No-one’s asking you to be involved, even I’m not involved. He’s going soon, forget about it, forget about it.
I tried, I did try, to forget about it.
Every morning, as before, I made my way into my painting room, to my canvas. But now I balked, when I saw it. It loomed at me, no light within it, I saw that now. I struggled with it, trying different things, different things. But the colour eluded me, the colour I sought.
At night I lay next to Howard. He in the garden room, on the narrow bed, shifting. I listened for the visitors, the comrades, but I never heard them. Howard slept on. I hated him, then.
And there were the newspapers. Morning after morning they were there, with their reports. Reports about the saboteurs, who were thought to be overseas. I’d sit on the terrace with my coffee. The trees stirred, like beings.
I thought, then, I would not read the newspapers any more. That was an idea, I would try that, yes.
But the newspapers, the headlines, remained.
The servants moved, hither, and thither, but slowly. More slowly, it seemed. The garden room filled with the sound of a scratching pen, it filled with many things.
I abandoned my canvas. I couldn’t go near it. Instead I spent hours in my room. Sometimes, during the day, I would sleep. Then I would wake, with a start. I heard scratching, the scratching of a pen. One of the servants brought me tea. Howard told me there was a delay with moving the man, to another safe place. The afternoons wore on.
And then it came to me, on one of those afternoons, what I would do. The idea was quite startling, but so clear I could hardly believe I’d not thought of it before.
I nursed the idea for many days, like a vision. I would do it.
The morning – the morning I chose – came. I got up at dawn. I combed my hair at the mirror, my hair so beautiful. It lay like a snake on my shoulder, and it’s true, that morning it frightened me, just a little: the curve, and the weight of it, glossy on my shoulder. I had beautiful hair, then.
I gave the servants dinner instructions, as always. Then I got into my car and drove. Rather slowly, I drove. I didn’t drive to the hairdresser, down the street, or to the greengrocer, or to the paint store, with its shelves and shelves of tubes and bottles, a little further away. I didn’t even drive aimlessly through the streets, the engine purring, as I sometimes did, just so. I drove into town. It took a little time, not much time. There was no traffic, after all. Ten o’clock in the morning, everyone at work, or at school. The buildings loomed, corner after corner, traffic light after traffic light. I drove straight to the building that I knew to be the police headquarters. I knew where it was, everyone knew where it was. I parked, the parking lot was wide and grey. I walked to the building, to the doorway, which was a double one, and high. I walked through it, and up to the counter. I rested my arms – my bare arms – on it. The young man in uniform looked up. Madam, he said. Perhaps he had never seen someone like me in there before. I am certain he had never seen someone like me there before. I have to report something, I said.
They took me into an inner office, then, and sat me down. They offered me tea. Men, of course, all men. No, thank you, I said. And then I told them where to find him. I told them my husband knew nothing about it, it was me, just me, who’d let him stay there, unwittingly. But now I knew, I said, I knew who he was. I described the garden room, its bed, its fridge, its window, the trees. I described the garden room, again: its stone floor. I heard my own voice, as I spoke. I have a very soft voice, I think.
They came for him in the garden room in the dead of night. We slept through it. The servants told us about it in the morning, they were very rattled. That’s how they always do it, in the dead of night, Howard told me. He doesn’t know how they found him, it’s something I’ve never told him, not ever since. And we are old, now.
But my canvas. You’ve seen it, you know it, it’s in the gallery. I completed it, yes. It’s a large white rectangle. It’s perfect, just as I envisioned it. It is unviolated by any line or smudge or mark. Unviolated. Inviolate. Inviolable. I made the painting, I did it, and you can see it, you can see it, you can see it. What else could I do, I ask you, I ask you. I have no answer, and I am old now, old.
Haunting and beautiful.