If one door slams…

 

I gripped the letter with such force it split down the middle. The paper fluttered autumnally to the ground. I was as discarded as the carpet of leaves outside.

Watching the raindrops roll down the glass I allowed the heavens to do my crying for me. I was too angry to acknowledge the sadness pulsing behind my eyes. The years felt brittle as yesterday. When did I start pinning my dreams on Richard? I had always been fiercely independent. My Father had predicted that I would be an old maid if I kept it up. Men wanted to feel needed. Nothing good could come from an independent woman. And I thought I could cheat destiny even if I had to contort myself to avoid it.

Richard hypnotised me with his azure eyes and his toothpaste commercial smile. He was everything I had avoided for years. Popular, beautiful and irreverent, he radiated confidence and had a following reminiscent of a messiah. I prided myself a loner, following anyone or anything except a story, was not a possibility.

The night we met I was sipping a cocktail surrounded by the journalists of the newspaper I served but immersed in my own thoughts. My colleagues had learnt to give me a wide berth. The war had made it starkly evident that all was not equal and I was still bristling from the meeting with Doug.

“Too dangerous!” Douglas, our editor had bellowed, his handlebar moustache trembling with indignation. “God, woman, look around. Men are getting blown to bits and you want to join them? Bring me the fashion piece I asked you for days ago. Women will never make war correspondent on my paper.” And he dismissed me with a flick of his wrist.

I was peevish with disappointment and observed this man in uniform strut like a pigeon. My face must have been as dark as my thoughts because he broke from his adoring disciples and marched over to me.

“Hello beautiful lady, why so serious?” His face crinkled into a lopsided smile. I struggled to maintain my scowl. “Point out the rascal and I will sort him out.” He said smacking his fist into his palm.

His gaze never wavered that night. It was a light shining onto my face. I felt seen for the first time. We spent stolen moments from his military engagements intertwined like vines. I resented his easy comings and goings. I felt rooted, earth bound by him. No man had ever entered my soul as he did. I was trapped as surely as a gazelle in the jaws of a lion.

Years of screaming sirens and distant explosions muffled the waiting, nights of passion amongst the bleeding and the pain. I never realised how much I waited. How could I put my life on hold for something so prosaic?

“Colette, God sake, woman where are you? Dreaming into space. That’s why women would make God awful soldiers.” I had been miles away dreaming of languishing in Richard’s arms. I resolved to put him from my mind until his jaunty rat-a-tat on my door but he remained on the periphery of my thoughts always.

Now he has put me outside his life. The letter informing me of his impending marriage was sour with memories of his kisses. I turned back to the window. The rain had stopped and a shaft of sunlight lit up my desk. I shifted my chair and sought the heat on my face.

I read once ‘It is better to have loved and lost than to never to have loved at all.’ One day I may feel that way but for now I needed to erase the smell of him. I closed my eyes and breathed slowly as if breathing in the rays of the sun.

“Colette!” I opened my eyes with a start. “You still want to be a war correspondent?” Douglas’s protuberant eyes bored into me.

“Ye…Yes.” I stammered.

“Stupidest idea ever but the board want a woman on the front. Woman’s perspective my arse…! Apologies, Colette but you want the job, it’s yours.”

Abruptly the gloom of moments before was bleached by sunlight. This was my destiny. The one I had always longed for. One door closed as another opened. The invitation was to step through this open door.

I didn’t hesitate.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Stiff upper lip…

 

Then let me bravely leap into the shadows alone I thought looking out of the window. An oak tree was tapping on the glass, its bough heavy with acorns. Dr Ashbury was still staring sympathetically at me, his pen half-mast between the desk and his ear as if he was unsure what to do next. He had delivered a severe blow and I was not reacting as he was expecting.

It is a matter of honour that I process bad news in the sanctity of my own home. Public displays of emotion are vulgar and I hardly know this man sitting across from me. I can still feel his cool fingers palpating my breast. Nobody has touched me there since Dennis and he’s been gone for eleven years, six months and three days already. And now Dr Ashbury with his clipped moustache and lanky limbs has had the honour. I am not about to bestow any further on the man.

“Thank you.” I said standing and held out my hand to shake his. He scrambled up from his chair almost stumbling over his legs to cradle my hand with both of his. I gave him a tight smile although I was desperate to leave this place.

Johnson was leaning against the side of the Bentley and he leapt away when he saw me, his cap wedged under his armpit. His balding head glistened in the midday sun. He opened the car door with a bow. I was too tired to be irritated. Dennis had tried for years to get the staff to stop this antiquated behaviour. Tears pricked at the corners of my eyes and I blinked them away. Johnson drove smoothly, intermittently sneaking a look at me in the rear view mirror. I kept my face neutral sitting upright with my hands in my lap.

Mrs Melville was waiting at the door as I stepped from the car. She took my coat.

“I took the liberty of arranging tea in the drawing room, Ma’am. It’s nice this time of year. The sun does shine so prettily…”

“Thank you but I am not hungry. Please ensure I am not disturbed. I have a headache.” Mrs Melville has a habit of rambling on and whereas I indulge her often today was not one of those days.

“Oh dear can I get you an aspirin Ma’am?” She wrung her hands like a vaudeville actor.

“You may, thank you.” I said walking up the stairs holding the bannisters tightly. My legs felt shaky. I dropped my handbag on the writing desk and waited, feeling light headed. I hoped she would not be long with the aspirin. I did not know whether I could keep standing. She entered with Daisy carrying a tray.

“I’ve taken the liberty of….” Mrs Melville began.

“Yes, Yes!” My voice was sharp and her eyes filled with tears. “I’m sorry I have the most dreadful headache. Thank you Mrs Melville, and Daisy, thank you.” I said. Mrs Melville nodded not quite forgiving me. Daisy smiled, curtsied and they closed the door with a click.

I poured milk into a cup and picked up the teapot. My wrist buckled and scalding tea splashed over my hand. I dropped the teapot onto the tray with a whimper. Tears that I had controlled throughout the day seemed to burst from me and I sobbed like a child.

I cried because I have breast cancer and because Dennis who had sworn to love and protect me forever was not here to fulfil his promise. I mourned the loss of his strong arms and the smell of his pipe and the scratchiness of his chin. We were supposed to grow old together instead he has stayed forever in his prime while I grow older and frailer. Alone.

I cried the tears that for eleven years, six months and three days I had been unable to shed.

All that glitters…

 

The cave was partly hidden but unmistakable from Cutter’s elaborate description. The steep slope, at least fifty meters down, was daunting but if what he said was true, well worth it. Cutter was a strange one; I still question his motives for telling me about the coins. But I have always been a sucker for an adventure. So here I was standing on this precipice looking for a way down that would not splatter my brains onto the rocks.

I approached it like the Climbing Wall in my gym. Without the harness any misstep would be fatal so I took my time testing my footing before putting my weight on the rock. It was arduous and exhausting work. The cliff-face was too jagged to abseil but I still took the precaution of tying a rope around the bull bar of my Hilux parked as close to the edge as possible.

I rested on a huge boulder jutting straight out about thirty meters from the bottom and peered over the edge. The ledge was a long drop into the foamy waves crashing against sharp rocks. I had no way of knowing whether the water was deep enough to dive and the rope fell depressingly short. I had chosen to do this during low tide but still there was only a thin line of white sand separating the cave from the churning ocean. I wouldn’t have much time before the cave flooded.

I grabbed the rope once more and heaved myself over the edge. I didn’t anticipate the serrated rock obscured by the ledge and it sliced into my shin. I gasped in pain sliding down the rope until I hung about three meters from the water. Drenched by the spray I leapt feet first. The water tossed me like a salad but I was able to navigate the rocks and flung myself towards the sliver of beach.

It was wider than I thought and I lay gasping for breath. I sat up mesmerised by the blood soaking into the sand. A flash of white told me the cut opened to the bone. I removed my t-shirt and tearing a strip off the bottom I tied it around the wound. I haven’t got time for this, I told myself sternly and stood. My shin hurt like hell and the makeshift bandage was crimson in seconds. I hobbled to the mouth of the cave.

It was dark and smelt of bat urine and rotting seaweed. I removed the headlamp from my waist pouch and put it on. The outer cave led to a smaller one, which I had to bend to enter.   An odd whooshing noise made me feel as though I had my ear to a conch shell. I turned my head, the light leached into the corners and shadows danced off the oily walls. I saw the small bag tucked into a ledge cut out of the rock. It was heavy in my hand. I pulled it open and the coins shimmered under the gaze of my headlamp. I tucked it into the pouch, which slumped heavily against my stomach and limped out of the cave.

Getting back up was going to be a challenge especially with my throbbing shin. Blood pooled in my shoe and my foot was sticky. I gazed up at the rope out of my reach and my stomach lurched. The tide was surging in and time was running out. The rocks were uneven and slippery and I heaved myself up, climbing on my hands and knees, ignoring my screaming shin. I steadied myself and leaned over to clasp the rope but it swung away from my fingers. The waves crashed against the rocks almost knocking me over. I bent again and finally grabbed the rope with one hand. Years of weight lifting and bench pressing had finally paid off as my muscles strained under my weight. I kicked myself away from the sheer wall of stone careful to watch out for jutting rocks and pulled myself up the rope. I was breathing heavily from the effort but made headway achingly slowly. I reached the ledge and climbed the rest of the way up. I staggered over the edge with a yell of triumph.

There grinning malevolently was Cutter, a pistol glittering in the afternoon sun pointed at my head…

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kisses from strangers.

She had forgotten what it felt like to breathe. This man had unleashed something in her. She didn’t even know his name but he had laid bare all her secrets and freed her from them. She turned over to look at his beautiful face as he slept. His dark lashes emphasised his ivory skin and his mouth was parted. She recalled that mouth exploring her body and the unusual stillness of her mind.

They had seen each other across the crowded club and she had gravitated towards him as if being pushed by an invisible force. She had indulged in a couple of tequila shots only moments before with Carla and the girls but it would normally take much more than that to throw herself at someone. But she could not resist the lure of his gaze. Was it his smoky eyes that drew her or the amused incline of his mouth? She flushed when she remembering standing in front of him.

“Hello.” She had said as though it held hidden meaning.

“Hello.” He said and his smile splintered into a grin. His teeth were white and straight and she longed to kiss his generous mouth. “Drink?” He said and she nodded. He laughed and it was strong and masculine and unbelievably captivating. She remembers having to sit down on a barstool. Her knees were wobbling. I am absolutely friggin’ weak at the knees, she thought, wondering whether Carla was watching her make a fool of herself. “What can I get you? Beer?” He said, his eyes like the ashes of fires. She nodded again not trusting herself to speak although she hated beer.

They took the beers with them and stood outside leaning up against a car and he kissed her. The beer dropped from her hands splashing up against their jeans but they barely noticed. His tongue teased and probed her mouth until she felt all of her disappearing.

“My car is around the corner.” She said and he nodded. Her keys were in her pocket but Carla still had her bag. She thrust it from her mind and concentrated on driving. His hand was on her thigh, which felt feverish. All thought was driven away by sensation. She parked the car outside the apartment building and they were quiet for moments. She stared out of the windscreen acutely aware of his gaze on her. His hand was still on her thigh and he flickered his fingers further up her leg. She gasped and flung her arms around his neck and they kissed once more. He broke away and looked intently into her eyes.

“Should we go in?” He said.

“Yes.” She said and it came out strident as though she was trying to convince herself but she needed no convincing. This felt more right that the three year relationship with Drew.

She was gratified that she and Carla had tidied up before they left and the flat looked attractive and inviting. Her sketches were on the pegboard and Carla’s photographs fanned out over the walls.

“Do you want something to drink?” she asked although she couldn’t remember if they had anything. He shook his head and she opened her bedroom door. She had left her nightlight on that she’d had since she was a kid. Complete darkness still made her uneasy. It gave the room a pink hue. He sat on the bed and pulled her down next to him. He was unhurried, his fingers leaving a trail of warmth on her skin as he peeled the clothes from her body…

She slept better than she had in years.

“Morning.” He said smiling up at her. He smelt of dew and sunshine. She leant over and kissed him.

Second chances

 

There wasn’t much going on, but there was a sense of expectancy today as Maggie McCloud padded to the front door in her slippers. Foster her sleek black cat was meowing piteously on the other side. She opened the door. Foster gazed at her for a second, juddered his tail in greeting and strode into the house.

“Good Morning Foster have you been out all night then?” Said Maggie filling his bowl with cat food from the tin on the sideboard. She turned on the kettle. It was still early and the sky, framed by her kitchen window, was flushed.

Maggie made it a rule not to rise before six. She did not want to become like Mrs Gillis next door who wore her carpets thin pacing the floors all hours of the day and night. Time is a strange one, to be sure, she thought with a smile. When she had the children living at home there were never enough hours in the day. Now she struggled to fill them. She was not one for the telly. David, her husband of forty–two years had loved the football and the game shows.

“Come now love, leave the cleaning and sit here next to me. Lets watch ‘Who wants to be a millionaire’ together.” He would say and pat the worn sofa. She’d sit for a few seconds but it was torture doing nothing. Maggie wished now she had sat, held his hand and watched the programmes he had loved so much. There are no second chances in life she brooded, pouring hot water over the teabag. She shook her head and scolded herself. She was one of the lucky ones. She had enjoyed forty-two years with David. She still had two beautiful children and three adorable grandchildren who visited her on the last Sunday of every month.

She took her tea out into the garden and welcomed the sun’s salute to the start of the day. The garden called out for her attention and before long she was happily weeding with Foster weaving in and out of the flowerbeds.

Her doorbell chimed and she looked down at her wristwatch. Goodness me, she thought, it is almost lunchtime and I haven’t even thought about breakfast. I wonder who that could be? Visitors were rare these days. She shook the soil from her clothes, removed her gloves and walked back inside. The doorbell chimed again.

“I’m coming!” She called hurrying to open the door.

“Maggie?” A craggy face with a shock of white hair said.

“Yes…may I help you?” She peered up at him. He looked vaguely familiar but she could not place him.

“It’s Donny…er…Donald Masters.” He said shuffling. He looked embarrassed that she had not recognised him.

“Oh my word, Donny!” She flushed now. He had been her boyfriend before she met David. How had he found her? “Come in, come in.” She said standing back for him.

He walked inside the house and stood stiffly in the hallway.

“I’m sorry, I should have called. I have moved into the area and someone mentioned that you lived here. I should have called.” He said again.

“I’m happy to see you. My goodness, Donny it’s been years.” Maggie said. His face was lined but his blue eyes were unmistakable.

“Forty –six years this September.” He said and smiled.

“You remember?” Maggie smiled up at him.

“How could I forget? It was my greatest regret letting you go. You still look exactly the same Maggie.”

“Oh now that’s not true.” Maggie said and laughed. She blushed and turned to switch on the kettle. She made tea and brought out the biscuits she reserved for family visits. She felt an unusual fluttering of excitement. You never could be sure what life had in store for you from one moment to the next.

Atonement.

My chest fills with the thin mountain air of Tibet and my orange robe sways gently in the afternoon breeze. I have been here for eight months already and my past is finally fading into insignificance. I was older coming into this meditative life, all of twenty years. Most of the monks come as children.

It is quiet in the gardens as most of the others are resting in their quarters having been up since four this morning for prayers. I cannot sleep preferring to study the Buddhist texts under a tree. I have so much to learn. I still receive the odd thwack between the shoulder blades for yawning during morning prayers.

My mind wanders and I close my eyes to regain the sense of peace I had moments before. It eludes me and I put the heavy book down on the cool grass and lean against the trunk of the tree. Bells tinkle in the breeze and the smell of apple blossom suffuses the air.

I remember the day I arrived at the ornate doors of the monastery. The deep rumble of monks chanting evening prayers seemed to swirl in the valley. I was exhausted, dehydrated and near death. I fell down at the foot of the door weakly hammering the heavy wood. The chanting was without pause but someone lifted me up. I remember drifting in and out of consciousness as a cool hand mopped my brow or coaxed warm soup between my lips. Later I heard that it was many days that my sickness lasted. They asked no questions and I gave no explanations.

It is as though no time has passed and I am plunged back into that time.

My parents were simple farmers in the mountains. I had loftier ideals and left for the city to seek adventure and wealth. I met a man called Hassid with stubble on his chin and a shifty eye but I noticed only the coins he held out so willingly. If I had known accepting his money would lead me down a path so dark and painful, I would have turned away to look no more on his face. But I did not. He took me to a man he called Hakima, whose mouth held much cruelty and his eyes knowledge of evil that up to that point I had no inkling.

“You are now mine.” He said handing me a wad of more money than I had ever seen. I ignored the uneasiness in my body.

It was not even a day before I was ordered to deliver and pick up packages all over town. I did not open them preferring not to know what they contained. It was through Hassid that I took my orders.

“You go to Hakima now.” He said one morning and his mouth was sulky.

“I don’t want to.” I said, afraid.

“You go now or you go nowhere ever again.” He said ominously.

Hakima was like a tiger circling me. I held my breath as he prodded my chest with his finger.

“I am happy with your work but it is now time to prove your loyalty to me. You will go with Sadat and follow his instructions.” He held out a handgun. I shied away but he took a step towards me. I took the pistol from his hand although I trembled.

Sadat was a big man with a shaved head and I followed him without speaking. He walked fast and purposefully up and down deserted alleyways. I followed tripping to keep up with him. He stopped and took out a pistol tucked into his belt. The gun Hakima had given me was still clasped in my hand.

A fat man with sparse strands of hair plastered wetly over his scalp was standing smoking a cigar and talking to three men listening with furrowed brows.

“This comes compliments from Hakima!” Shouted Sadat and his gun exploded and the man fell to the ground. I dropped the gun and ran. I ran for days without food, drinking from stagnant puddles and finally dropped at the doors of the Monastery.

The bells ring out the start of evening prayers bringing me back to this place. I pick up the manuscript and walk back inside. The Monastery is my sanctuary. I have been called to this life of quiet contemplation and I will live out my days here.

Do unto others…

 

She felt a fizz of excitement, like an electric shock running through her body. What had felt overwhelming just moments before now seemed quite manageable.

Rayne had been in this position before. Why had she felt so trapped? Cape Town wasn’t the only place to live. She could move to Durban. The sea was a significant part of her life now she was reluctant to return to concrete and landscaped gardens. The constant humming in her head had confused her but that was starting to fade. She would move and leave it all behind. Like before. Disappearing had solved the problem of Kevin.

The cave wall was cool against her hand and the rumble of the ocean was background music. Her mood had fluctuated the last few days but today she felt more optimistic. She pushed aside the recurring vision of Jake lying in that awkward position on the floor of their apartment. She hadn’t hit him hard although the vase had shattered scattering glass all over the parquet floor. The shards were like diamonds catching the light from the huge picture window that had sold the flat to them both. She had panicked and run to the only place that felt safe.

Jake had brought her here right in the beginning. They met two years ago only a day after she arrived in Cape Town and the sea was thrilling and foreign. He had crossed through a throng of people on the beach to introduce himself to her. He had pursued her and looked intently into her eyes and said she was beautiful.

Perhaps they had moved in together too quickly? He changed when all he had to do was roll over in the bed to find her. She only wanted to be noticed, acknowledged. Was that too much to ask? But he had sneered, his lips curling in that dismissive way he had. High maintenance, he called her and then he turned away. It was instinct to grab the vase. Kevin had been the same. She chose the wrong people every time. Or maybe she was too eager when they chose her? Next time she will be elusive and make them work harder for her.

The cave was a good place to think. The rhythm of the waves soothed like a mantra and she felt rejuvenated. She repacked her beach tog bag, hitching it over her shoulder. The scramble up the steep path took all her attention so the two burly men holding badges out in front of them startled her. Her car was bathed in oily sunlight behind them but they barred the way.

She smiled and flicked her coppery hair over her shoulder. The men looked disconcerted and shuffled nervously.

“How can I help you fellows?” She said.

“You need to come with us to the station, miss.” They said in unison.

“Okay. You can tell me why in the car.” She said and smiled again. She had been in this situation many times before and always got out of it. There was no reason why she shouldn’t again.