Mark from Pennsylvania wrote, about my novel, words that have stuck in my mind for the past couple of weeks like a pick inserted under a clod of earth, with the aim of prising it loose. He assumed, he said, that the voice of these blogs was the real voice of the writer, a voice he had searched for in vain, in the pages of what I had posted here as the early sections of my novel. Then Mark added something about Hemingway and Bulwer Lytton. Ouch!
But you hit a nerve, Mark, let me tell you. No – you uttered the truth. I saw instantly in your remarks why it was that I was getting so bogged down with my writing; why it wouldnt move forward (I have a hundred other excuses, of course, but they don’t count any more). And in that moment of realisation, quite literally, I had a stark insight into a totally different story, which would let me explore the themes I was struggling to hold, like a big slippery porpoise, in my initial attempt.
I decided right then to abandon the earlier novel, and set about writing this, instead. Mark, is this any closer to the ‘real thing’?
I happened to be in Cape Town when Sarah called. Her name came up when the phone rang, and immediately I wondered what this could be about.
‘Dad said you were coming out for a visit. Where are you right now?’
‘I’m at the Victoria Junction,’ I told her.
‘Oh.’ She sounded surprised. ‘I thought you were still in Johannesburg.’
‘I flew down last night.’
‘Well,’ she said. ‘Welcome back. Have you spoken to my father?’
‘We’re getting together on the weekend, I believe. I haven’t spoken to him, no.’
There was a pause while Sarah appeared to arrange her thoughts.
‘It’s odd,’ she said tentatively, ‘but I can’t get hold of him. I’m beginning to think he may have gone missing.’
‘Surely not. Why would you think that?’
‘It’s rather odd,’ she repeated, as if she were issuing a disclaimer. ‘Let me tell you.’
It seemed that she had called David five or six times, wanting to invite him over for dinner with Jasper and the children, but had had no response. There was no reply when she called the house, and she had left several messages on his cell phone, but he had not got back to her. David did not like her to call him at work, so she had been reluctant to call the university, but eventually she could not see what else she could do. David’s secretary, Marlene, a small, disapproving sort of woman who I knew well, had answered. Professor had left the office around three on Thursday afternoon, Marlene believed. She was under the impression that he was on his way home to work on a paper he was preparing for the Education Conference next month in Oxford, but she could not be sure. It was not her business or her place to ask him where he was going, and Professor did not always feel it necessary to tell her.
Marlene’s subtly injured tone had annoyed Sarah, as usual. That was another reason she had hesitated to call the Dean’s office. But now she began to feel the first obscure prickling of alarm. She called the house again, and when there was no reply she got into her car and drove through to Rondebosch. She rang the doorbell, and waited. When there was no response, she walked around the side of the house, but the curtains were drawn. She rang the doorbell a second time, and let herself in. There were no signs of disturbance, no evidence of breaking and entry. The house was perfectly neat and tidy, uncharacteristically so, Sarah thought. Apart from a glass of water beside the sink there was none of the usual mess in the kitchen – the dishes had all been washed and packed away. She had opened the door to his study, feeling a little like an intruder herself. There was a stack of papers in an orderly pile on his desk, next to a copy of the Journal of Comparative Education. A blank notepad lay open on the desk in front of his empty chair. By this time her heart was beginning to thud in her chest. She closed the study door, softly, while she steeled herself to look into his bedroom. David’s – her father’s, bed was made, the cupboard doors were closed – he might have been gone for an evening, she imagined, or a week.
She found the key to the garage hanging on a hook in the kitchen, and opening the back door stepped outside into the bare sunlit garden. David liked a well-laid out garden, I knew, but he was surely no gardener. I pictured the short, paved path leading to the garage, between two sandy strips of lawn and a clump of sunburned geraniums. Sarah found herself hesitating before she rolled up the heavy garage door; she understood that she was merely confirming what she already knew, but she had experienced an irrational moment of dread, too, at what she might find – a length of hose, and the engine running; a body, perhaps. She was not sure whether she was more relieved than alarmed to discover that David’s car was missing.
Her first thought was that her father had been hijacked. I thought I understood why she might leap to such a conclusion. The road from the university passed through some dodgy Cape Flats neighbourhoods, the bleak Council tenements an inhuman scar on the depressing landscape of coloured destitution. Poverty, tik, and predatory gangs were the images that likely rose in her mind. For as long as she could remember, ever since she was a child, Sarah had nursed a nagging fear for her father’s safety. Growing up in the affluent, sheltered southern suburbs of Cape Town, Bonteheuwel, Belhar, were to her mind the alien provinces of a foreign country. I liked Sarah, I have to confess, but her father’s progressive ideals had not exactly rubbed off on her. She was more like her mother, in that respect.
‘Have you reported David missing to the police?’ I asked.
‘I don’t know what to do. I don’t want to start a hue and cry, dad would be furious, but what if – ‘
She stopped there, as if the enormity of the question had suddenly dawned on her.
As sympathetically as I could, I agreed with her. ‘Why not wait till morning? You’ll be able to think more clearly then. There’s probably a perfectly reasonable explanation. Perhaps he’s simply gone away for a couple of days.’
‘Perhaps,’ Sarah said doubtfully. ‘But why didn’t he say to Marlene, that he wouldn’t be in on Friday? Why didn’t he return my calls?’
‘Maybe he’s out of range. Maybe he’s up hiking in the mountains somewhere. You know your father.’
‘I hope you’re right,’ Sarah said. ‘Probably you are.’
‘I’m sure there’s a perfectly ordinary explanation,’ I repeated.
I knew the answer already, but for some reason I asked Sarah if she wanted to come round to my hotel for a drink. Perhaps I just needed some company; perhaps I was tired of being alone. Sarah was gracious but said that she needed to put the children to bed. Besides, it was late, and she was expecting Jasper home shortly. He had been up in Johannesburg for a couple of days, and was coming in on the eight ‘o clock flight. No doubt David would turn up somehow, and we would all laugh at ourselves for getting so worked up. It was hard to think that he wouldn’t turn up. Despite her anxiety, Sarah could not begin to imagine that he might actually be gone, it was way too early for that – that he was missing, was enough for her to deal with. If she hadn’t heard from him by morning, she added, perhaps she could join me for a cup of coffee around ten? Jasper would be taking the kids to a soccer match, and she would be free until lunch time.
‘That would be good. Shall we meet at the Waterfront?’
‘Good idea. They say it’s going to be hot.’
‘How are the children?’
‘They’re fine. Little Daniel has a cold, but nothing serious.’
‘Perhaps we should meet at the entrance to Quay Four? Will that do? But you’ll call me if there’s any news.’
‘I will. I promise. Good night. Don’t let this keep you awake.
‘I won’t. You sleep well, too.’
When Sarah rang off I finished my Lagavulin and ordered another. I eyed the plate of snacks on the bar counter rather gloomily, I reckon, before deciding there was nothing there that I fancied, and that I had no need to indulge, when I had had a good dinner. I took a slow sip of the whisky, breathing it in. The situation was a bit unusual, I had to admit. Though my instinct was to downplay the whole thing – David was a big boy, there must, as I had said to Sarah, be a perfectly reasonable explanation – a nagging uncertainty remained, like the echo of a voice after the voice has gone. We were scheduled to meet for lunch on Sunday, so I thought, a little deviously I confess, that I might try calling David to confirm. Besides, I had not called him since I had landed in the country, and it would be nice to catch up.
David’s phone rang, and then the answering service asked me to leave a message. It felt a little odd, knowing that there was a possibility that something had happened to him, but I left a short message anyway. Doing so was a declaration of normality, I imagine, and in any event, I felt pretty sure that he would pick up the message and call me back in the morning.
I sat for a while nursing my drink. It was not like Sarah to panic, I thought. Perhaps when Jasper got home, he would be able to reassure her. Perhaps her husband knew something that we didn’t, or he might remember something David had said, about his plans for the weekend, or some meeting or workshop he had had to go to. I told myself that I was concerned about David, but not unduly. The thought went through my mind that perhaps he had gone to a party on the Cape Flats, at one of his student’s; he might have had a bit too much to drink, and decided to spend the night. His wilder days were long past, so far as I knew, but still, it wouldn’t have been the first time. But even as I sought to explain it away, I could see that this wouldn’t work. Why had he not come home on Friday? If he was planning on not going in to the university, why had he not informed Marlene?
Eventually I signed for the drinks and took the lift to my room on the third floor, feeling, I have to admit, a little uneasy. I put it down to the long trip, and the feeling of isolation one sometimes experiences, away from home and the children and grand-children, with only the manufactured discourse and polite inconsequentialities of travel agents and hotel staff and business partners for human company. I wondered, not for the first time, if I was not getting too old for this and yet, perversely, the fact is that I like to travel, and I need to get away sometimes from the stifling complacencies of a dormitory village in southeast England.
Before I got into bed I parted the curtains and looked down from above into the contrasty image of Somerset Road. Some Friday night revellers were just leaving Sloppy Sam’s, the Greek restaurant where I sometimes dined when I was in town; a young couple were peering into the window of a furniture shop, arms around one another’s waists; a stream of cars passed by on their way to the bars and night clubs of Green Point and Sea Point and Camps Bay. Directly across from me the inevitable drunk had wrapped himself around a lamp-post and was gesticulating wordlessly into the night. I climbed under the duvet and read for a while, a weighty and rather pedestrian history of MI5 that had received favourable reviews simply because it was a history of MI5, until my eyes grew tired and I decided that it was time to turn out the light.
Saturday, it turned out, was one of those perfect Cape days that you tell your friends back home about; bright and clear, sunny and windless. Fat seals rolled idly beside the quays, the reflections of masts and brightly coloured hulls seemed painted on the slick green canvas of the Victoria Basin. I arrived early, crossing over the swing-bridge by the Clock Tower, and strolled about in the warm sunshine. Precisely at ten, I was outside Quay Four, waiting for Sarah.
She was a few minutes late, making her way a little breathlessly through the milling crowd of tourists and buskers.
‘Roy! It’s good to see you again. How are you keeping?’
We kissed and laughed, a little awkwardly I felt. I had always thought she was an attractive young woman.
‘Let’s see if we can find a table.’
We found one without difficulty, right at the water’s edge, with a jetty leading out between the cruise boats below us. On the iron bollard behind Sarah a pair of impudent gulls jostled for a footing.
While she ordered her coffee I took the opportunity to look at her more closely. She looked tired, I thought, as though she had not slept too well, but she had gathered up her finely-spun blonde hair loosely and with her bare neck and fresh, unblemished skin she seemed surprisingly youthful for a married woman with a child who was already playing junior school rugby.
She waved away the waiter then turned to me with a tight little smile.
‘Now, Roy, please tell me what I am to make of all this.’
‘I take it you’ve tried calling your father again?’
She nodded. ‘Jasper says he will slip away while Danny is playing, and take another look around the house. I might have missed something, he says. He’s a man, and he doesn’t entirely trust me,’ she added, with an abrupt laugh that was part amusement, part derision.
‘It seems to me,’ I said, as levelly as I could, ‘it’s probably time to go to the police.’
‘I agree with you.’ Sarah stared hard at me for a moment, before looking away. ‘I should probably have reported him missing yesterday. What was the worst that could have happened? That dad would turn up, and give me a rocket for causing a fuss? Now we’ve lost another twenty four hours.’
‘You shouldn’t think of it like that.’
She rested her chin on the back of her hand, leaning forward and lifting her translucent blue eyes to mine. It made me feel distinctly uneasy, as if she were looking to me for some kind of reassurance. Her voice trembled when she spoke.
‘What do you think might have happened.’
‘I’ve as much idea as you have, I’m afraid.’ I thought for a moment, choosing my words with some care. ‘Is David in any kind of trouble, that you know of?’
‘Oh my god no. I don’t think so. Dad is practically a saint, you know?’
I looked up sharply, and was relieved to see that she was joking. David Honiman was a lovely man, and a good friend, but he was too much mortal man for me to have believed him a saint.