Tortoise shell

The cat was a large and handsome animal, its fur thick and deep, brindle. Or tortoise shell? When was the last time Shay had seen something made out of tortoise shell? Her grandmother’s set of combs? Her fingers rub the cat’s warm belly. Her grandmother’s house had been her model of fantasy worlds. Rich and dark textures. Every piece of furniture was arcane and specific to a purpose, from the roll-top writing desk with its hundred tiny draws, to the cutlery caddy that opened up a green felt chamber in which all the ivory handled silverware waited in their precisely fitted positions. Even the wood of these wonders wasn’t the wood of the rest of the world. A thousand dark shades, a thousand patterns of grain and knot, arranged as inlays or in a symmetry that seemed magical – like the far edge of a lake, where the land meets its mirror.

Shay was twenty when they moved her grandmother out of her old house and into a care home. Twenty when they sold the treasures. The only thing that went with her grandmother to the place that could never be her home was a little vanity table. Her tortoise shell combs in their silver case in one of the secret drawers. Thirty-three now, Shay wonders what happened to the table and to the combs. The cat purrs, its ear flicks.

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Morning Rituals

He stood on the crate to reach the basin. I stood behind him and we observed each other in the mirror. This younger me, stamped with my jaw line and the subtly bent nose of my mother’s folk. He’d grow into his shoulders sooner than I had, I hoped so at least. His red-blonde hair was his mother’s though, so were his slate grey eyes. I leaned over him and showed him the strange morning ritual of the fellowship he wanted to join.

I had him cup his small hands and dispensed a blob of expanding white foam onto his palms. Then the same into my left. I spread it across my face with small circles and he imitated me on his. My fingers could feel the short rough regrowth since my shave yesterday morning. His face was soft and fresh and would be for a very long time. But it wasn’t about the practicality, the need was for a ritual. My father had taught me to shave in the same way. Inducting me into the society of men. The first step down a strange path that had led me to boarding school, to drinking, to rugby, to the army, to the border and to this moment… being a father. It’s not a path I wanted my child to walk and I thought I’d been lucky, life has other plans though. I took up my own razor and gave him a toothless mimic – he didn’t need a blade to learn. Not yet. There’d come a time for blood, but it wasn’t now.

We worked the razors across our faces, stripping off the foam and rinsing the implements in the basin of hot water. It was like peeling off a mask as we looked at ourselves with intent. At our exteriors. And it was done. Faces clean. I gave him a rough towel and his cheeks shone red.

“Go on, get dressed,” I said and the pride fled his face.

“It’s only til the end of term,” I said. “Then you’re at Andervale and you can wear what you like.”

He nodded and went to his room. I looked at myself in the mirror. I should have fought for him. But I couldn’t afford to, I told myself. Just get him into a new school where he could be happy and that would be it. My child would be fine, no matter where his path took him.

“OK, dad. I’m ready to go.”

He looked brave in the dress they made him wear to school. The dress I had made him wear for too long. He looked braver than me.

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Flashback

“Tell it from the beginning. Where ever that is. Where ever the story starts, that where you start telling it.” He was pacing in front of the whiteboard, holding forth on the failings of screenwriters. “Withholding information for effect is a cheap technique. But revealing it in flashback doubles down on the offence.”

“What about ‘Rashomon’? That’s a classic.” It was a small class and informal, Sara hadn’t raised a hand to speak out.

“If you think ‘Rashomon’ is an example of flashback then you have fundamentally misunderstood the film and the concept. ‘Rashomon’ is a tale retold from different perspectives. There’s no truth revealed by the stories. A flashback changes our perception of the present, immediate action by revealing new information, the viewer has no choice but to believe it.”

Sara blushes. He doesn’t notice.

“Here is your assignment for the weekend: Take a film with a lot of flashbacks and put them into chronological order. What does that do to the story? What’s missing? Where is the tension now? Where is the climax? Where is the inciting incident?”

The class gathers up notes and laptops snap shut as they exit with mutters and murmur.

“Sara.” He says. “Hang back a moment.”

She stays seated in the front row as the lecture room empties and she’s alone with him. The wooden desk is a barrier between them. He sits on it. Perches. So she has to look up at him.

“Sara, I’d appreciate it if you didn’t interrupt me during the lecture.”

She doesn’t know what to say, so she nods.

He puts a hand on her shoulder.

“You’re a very bright girl, I’m interested in your opinions – so if you want feel free to visit me in my office. Anytime.”

“Sure. Thanks.” She says.

He smiles and lifts his hand from her shoulder to give her a little pat on the cheek. Then he gets up, grabs his satchel and heads out the double doors of the lecture room.

Sara can feel his touch lingering on her cheek, and the weight of his hand still on her shoulder. It stays there for the rest of the day.

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Like Me

It’s always easier than you think it’ll be. Than I think it’ll be. Sorry, that’s a thing I do. Universalise. See, I want to say, ‘it’s a thing we do.’ Meaning humans. People. But it’s not universal. I mean, I know I’m not alone in doing it. There’s eight billion other minds on this planet. There’s probably about a million people exactly like me just in China. Mentally like me I mean – obviously they’d be Chinese and speaking Chinese. So I could say, ‘it’s a thing we do.’ Me and my million Chinese twins. But I think that’d be a lie, because it’s really not what I mean. I mean all of us. And that’s not true. Because I’m not like you. I could be – no, uh. I mean you could be. Like me. But it’s very unlikely. So when I say that it’s always easier than I think it’ll be, it’s probably better for us all to remember that it’s not universally true. It’s always easier for me than I expect it to be. But you might discover that it’s far, far harder than you would have guessed. If you’d even want to try of course. Murder isn’t for everyone.

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Ticking Red

The clock chopped seconds off her life with an implacable rhythm. In the darkness, her mind made the sounds into bursts of colour – like bubbles popping. Like fireworks. It wasn’t something she did, it was just the way her brain worked. It was something she had assumed everyone experienced, and when she discovered that she was unusual she struggled to explain it. Fortunately, there was a word for it. Unfortunately, the word was synesthesia, which felt like moving marbles from the front to the back of your mouth without choking and didn’t really explain what it was.
She didn’t really have to though. Just as she had been unaware that other people didn’t see sound as colour or any of the other things she perceived, so they could be unaware that their words bubbled out in rainbow ripples and their footsteps echoed greenly to her. It was a pity for them. Mostly. She liked the colours, liked them more when she learned they were hers. But there were things she didn’t like. The bruise purple of machines humming. The slick of yellow left by squeaky white board markers that took so long to fade. And the blood red bursts of a clock ticking, like an alarm going off. An alarm for time crumbling away.
She got out of bed as quietly as possible, a faint green rustle of sheets. He snored vermillion once, but settled again unaware. With a soft crimson pop she removed the batteries from the clock. She sat for a moment in the almost perfect black silence. She would apologise in the morning, if she was still there. Perhaps even explain.

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Good Wine

Every time I handed a wine bottle down to him there would be a soft clink of metal on glass. His wedding ring. I was elbow deep in the hall cupboard, helping my father to unpack a lifetime of dinner parties from the shelves. My lifetime specifically, as we had lived in this house since before I could walk.

I pulled bottle off the rack, wiped off the crusted years of dust with a damp cloth, and passed them down to my father to sort into boxes. ‘Spoiled’ – the corks flecked with mold. ‘Good’ – wine that would presumably find a new cupboard in my parents’ new house in Cape Town. ‘Jonathan’ – wine of dubious merit but probably fit for consumption. Wine meant for me to take. On many of the bottles there’s a label written in my father’s well practiced hand, a name and a date – the wine’s provenance as it pertained to my family: who gave it to them, and when. He has always been a note taker, a recorder of data. He has charted decades of rainfall and temperature on our little farm. He records daily life not in journals but in letters, most sent to my sister who lives abroad. An orderly mind that projects order on his world. “James, 1998” – my father reads aloud. Does this summon the memory of that night? He nods to himself and files the bottle. ‘Good’.

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Easy to love

She said, “You’re easy to love.”

Her tone was a simple statement but boredom and condescension creased the corners of her mouth in ways he could only register unconsciously, so her words left him with a sense of unease at odds with their content. Rather than look at her he looked out over the trees of the complex’s garden, his fingers gathering round the warmth of his mug like vagrants around a fire. She wasn’t looking at him either, her eyes were directed at the city lights but her mind was farther away than that. The wind caught at the smoke of her cigarette and the cherry glowed bright for a moment. It was going to be one of those nights when the wind tore through the streets of Vredehoek. One of those nights when the wind screamed at every crack and shook every window and door. One of those nights when the city lay restless, harried by furies.

“Would you like another cup of tea?” he asked. She hardly touched hers while she smoked so it was still high in the mug. He was nursing his. It was a useless offer. It was a craving for comfort. She didn’t answer.

They watched the wind shake the branches, turning the leaves into susurrating ocean waves, neither wanting to be alone.

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