One of my keener readers and critics wrote, some time back, about my fiction: presumably the ‘voice’ of my blog was the authentic voice of the author – and nowhere was this authentic voice evident in the fiction. Shit! So I started over: and here is a very different first chapter, a very different narrative; a bone tossed to my critics….
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, 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 unsettling, 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, 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 professional colleagues 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, like a black and white photo from the sixties, 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 oily 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 clumsily 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 and yachts. 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. ‘None of his friends or colleagues have heard from dad for several days. Jasper says he will slip away while Danny is playing, and take another look around the house. I might have missed something, he thinks. 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 hadn’t consciously been giving the matter too much attention, but as soon as I spoke, I realised that I had come to the right conclusion.
‘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 unsettled, 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 that.
Yet I have to say that I was drawn to David, from the moment I met him. He was younger than me, by ten years or so, forty five at the time to my fifty-something. At that age, ours was hardly a filial relationship, but I think that he looked up to me, in a way. Perhaps it was because I was doing some of the things that he would have liked to be doing, flying out from London to advise the new South African government, in those heady, optimistic days after the end of apartheid and the installation of Nelson Mandela as the country’s first black president. I remember how much fun we used to have, imagining the white prime ministers and cabinet ministers of the republic turning in their segregated graves – graves that were tended, of course, by black people. I relished the thought, as did David. Those were innocent and hopeful days, indeed.
This was a man who had left behind the privilege and status of the University of Cape Town for a professorship at the ‘coloured’ University of the Western Cape; a man who believed, until events began to lay bare the unfortunate truth that the noblest of ideals tend to be subverted over time, in the redeeming power of ‘transformation’ and the liberating potential of political change. He might, as I say, have looked up to me in a sense, but I admired his courage and envied him his conviction. I was sorry to observe, in more recent years, his increasing disillusionment.
Sarah and I finished our coffees and sat for a while chatting. The late morning sun had become uncomfortably hot and the waiters came round to put up the umbrellas. I found myself reminiscing too much about the early days of my professional collaboration with David, and pulled myself up short.
‘I’m holding you up,’ I apologised.
‘Not really. I can’t do anything until Jasper calls.’
‘Another coffee, perhaps? Or would you rather we went for a stroll?’
‘I need to walk,’ Sarah said. ‘If you don’t mind. It’s hard to just sit here like this.’
I settled the bill and we made our way out into the crowd and down towards the water’s edge. Billboards were advertising harbour tours and evening cruises, and touts loudly punted the various offerings. There was an American warship moored against the far sea wall, and we went over to have a look. She had a number, and not a name, and her hull was grey and streaked with rust. It was while we were looking at the ship and talking that Jasper called from the house.
I had to look away for a moment, while Sarah bent into the phone, her eyes widening. It was hard on such a perfect day to imagine anything less than perfection. Table Mountain stood like a chiselled monument, and the world turned upside-down reflected exactly across the harbour from the opposite quayside and the resting cranes. When I looked again at Sarah, she had gone perfectly still and quiet.
She closed her eyes, and her shoulders rose once or twice and fell, before she folded away her phone and looked at me. She shook her head.
I waited, not knowing what to expect or what to say.
‘His paddle-ski is gone,’ Sarah grated out, eventually. ‘Jasper says his paddle-ski isn’t there. It’s not in the garage. Oh my god, Roy.’
I was still processing this information when she grasped me by the arm.
‘I need to go. I’m sorry.’
‘No, no, I understand.’ Without thinking I said, ‘Would you like me to go with you?’
Sarah nodded, but I doubt if she had heard me. I followed her as she turned and began to walk quickly back towards the shops and restaurants. Neither of us spoke, we were separately wrestling with a thousand possibilities I imagine, each one more alarming than the other, and we had to dodge and weave through the Saturday morning throng, fathers carrying daughters on their shoulders, mothers herding their inattentive children, tourists poring over maps or guide books and gawping lazily or anxiously or cluelessly about. I caught up with Sarah at her car, I was a little out of breath and I saw how she examined me briefly, as if I were a stranger, but before I could speak she had pulled open her door and ducked into the driver’s seat.
‘Are you all right?’ I asked, climbing in after her.
‘Sure. Close your door.’
I closed the door, and pulled the seatbelt over my chest.
With an almost preternatural calm, Sarah put the car into gear and nosed out of the parking bay, following the exit signs to the pay station. She fumbled in her handbag for the parking ticket.
‘Shit!’ she exclaimed angrily, ‘I forgot to pay.’
‘Here, let me.’
I took the ticket and got out of the car. Fortunately there was no-one behind us. I found the required amount and slotted the coins into the machine; in a few moments the boom lifted and we were out on the street. As soon as we were on the freeway Sarah put her foot down and swung into the right-hand lane that would take us onto the Eastern Boulevard towards Rondebosch and False Bay.
‘What did Jasper say?’ I asked her then.
Sarah shot me a quick glance then faced ahead, concentrating on the slow-moving traffic. Her small hands clenched on the wheel were pale, almost transparent at the knuckles.
‘There wasn’t much that he could say. Only that dad’s paddle-ski wasn’t there, and he thought we should check the beaches. He had already called the NSRI.’
I looked at her inquiringly.
‘The National Sea Rescue Institute. They will have put out an alarm by now, I imagine. Then Jasper was going to call the police. They’ll want him to come in and make a statement, of course.’
She shrugged her shoulders; it was clear she did not set much store by the South African Police Services.
‘We’re picking Jasper up at dad’s house, and then we’ll go through to Fish Hoek. That’s where dad usually went paddle-skiing.’
‘What about Daniel?’ I asked.
‘He’ll go home with a friend.’
The rest of the drive passed in silence. As soon as we reached David’s house Sarah stopped the car and ran up the steps to the front door. The door opened before she could ring the bell and Jasper came out. He put his arms about his wife and for a long moment held her; I sensed rather than saw Sarah relax bodily into him and then pull away. Jasper took her face in his hands and kissed her on the forehead, smiling a little grimly as I came towards him. He put out his hand.
‘Good to see you, Roy.’
‘I’m sorry about this,’ I said.
‘Well,’ Jasper said, and he was addressing his words more to Sarah than to me. ‘We don’t exactly know what has happened, do we? Let’s not jump to conclusions. Do you want me to drive?’
Sarah nodded wordlessly.
I got into the back seat and Sarah sat in front, and Jasper slid the driver’s seat back and started the car.
As we went over the hill and down into the Constantia valley, following the Blue Route towards Muizenberg, the pale grey-blue map of False Bay was charted against the Silvermine mountains, on our side of the water and, hazy in the distance, the sunny alpine peaks of the Hottentots Holland shimmered. From the freeway we turned onto the old Main Road, passing a few dispirited buildings which lined the tarred pavements, and then Jasper took the turn onto Boyes Drive and we began to climb. The silvery vlei unfolded itself on our left, and the long expanse of Muizenberg beach came into view, the endless lines of rollers crawling towards the shore and the white horses beginning to kick up in the midday breeze. The boats had come in, at Kalk Bay, and from the road above the harbour seemed alive with activity. We had to wait at the lights while the slow stream of coastal traffic inched past the harbour entrance. Jasper was tense now, his fingers tapping restlessly on the wheel. Sarah had said not a word the whole way. A train rumbled past, filled with beach-goers, and when it had gone one could see the children splashing in the shallows and the gaily painted fishing boats, like so many sardines in a tin, lined up at anchor. It was a perfect picture postcard; and it all seemed unreal, somehow. I can only imagine how Sarah felt.
The knot in my stomach tightened as we rounded the cliff and Fish Hoek came in sight. There was a brisk wind scuffing the surface of the water and the sea was green and azure. We followed the traffic through the town and then, turning down towards the beach, crossed over the railway line. There was a small wooden hut at the entrance to the parking lot, and Jasper unfastened his seat belt and leaned to one side so that he could get his wallet out from his trouser pocket. The attendant tore a numbered ticket off a roll, the kind I remembered from the Odeon when I was a boy and taking my first girlfriend to the movies, and Jasper reached out of the open window and took it and passed it to his wife. The attendant waved us in, gesturing to the car behind us to come forward. We were in luck, for someone was reversing out of a parking bay just as we turned towards the beach.
We sat in silence as our car crunched to a halt, facing the sea.
‘It’s pretty full,’ Jasper remarked, as if we were simply out for a drive. ‘It looks like everybody’s out today.’
Sarah opened her door and I climbed out behind her. You could feel the heat of the sun, but the wind was cold. When I looked round I saw that Sarah was still seated, one slim bare leg stretched out, her sandaled foot resting on the tarmac. Jasper came round the front of the car and took her hand.
‘Come on. It’s got to be done.’
‘I know,’ Sarah said, with sudden firmness.
Jasper locked the car and pushed the keys down into his pocket and we looked about. Regimented lines of motor cars baked in the sun, their windshields winking. I shielded my eyes as we began to walk. It seemed logical to begin with the cars that, like ours, were in the front rank facing the sea. If David had taken his paddle-ski he would have wanted to park as close to the beach and the sea as possible. Jasper held Sarah’s hand as they walked in front of me. The wind was not too bad, once we got moving. Down on the beach the umbrellas fluttered, and one pulled up suddenly and cart-wheeled away towards the sea, chased by a laughing man. Suddenly exposed, a woman sitting on a striped beach towel called something after him.
We were halfway along the car park when Sarah picked up her pace and hurried ahead.
‘Here it is!’ she called out loud, turning back to face us. We caught up with her as she bent to examine the number plate, and then straightened up again.
‘It’s dad’s car,’ she stated emphatically, looking from Jasper to me and back to Jasper again.
‘You’re quite sure of the registration?’ I asked, tentatively.
‘There’s no paddle-ski,’ Jasper said.
We looked upwards.
‘No. No, it’s not there.’
We stared, all three of us, at the roof-rack, as if we were imagining the ski which should have been there, that we wanted to be there, but which definitely wasn’t there. Sarah looked out to sea. There was a hoby-cat, scudding across the bay, and in the far corner, away towards Kalk Bay and Muizenberg, a small fleet of wind-surfers tacked in the stiffening south-easter.
Slowly Jasper walked around the silver Jetta, peering in through the closed windows. There was nothing on the seats, nothing on the dashboard either. There was no sign at all of the car’s owner, nothing to indicate a person or a personality.
‘We’d better look along the beach,’ Sarah said, doubtfully.
‘I’d better call first, and say we’ve located the car.’
‘Yes, do,’ Sarah answered, moving away from us towards the low dunes. I saw the helpless wave of her arm and went after her as Jasper made his call, and caught up with her as she reached the wet sand where the waves fizzled out and the water reached coldly like a shadow up the beach and subsided again. She was carrying her sandals in her hand and clutched her arms to herself and shivered, looking out at the green waves, their white tops shearing in the wind. She murmured something, and I bent forward to hear.
‘I have a bad feeling about this,’ she repeated, and I saw her staring at me again, as if I were a stranger, outside the range of her fear, who might stand and watch but who could do nothing to help her.
‘I think I’ll stay behind,’ I said, when Jasper joined us.
I watched them walk slowly away down the beach, side by side but not touching, together but, or so it looked from a distance, infinitely alone. When they had dwindled into the crowd I retreated a few steps to where the sand was fine and dry and sat down to wait. There were children playing with buckets and spades in the shallows, and a little further out, waist deep when the small waves broke, middle-aged women in bathing suits and a few portly old men, paddling with clumsy strokes in the water. Beyond, a line of body surfers patiently waited, rising up with the slow blue-green swell and falling again.
Who knows what thoughts went through my head? There was a part of me that wanted to approach this rationally, and I felt the need, certainly, if only for Sarah’s sake and Jasper’s, to put my thoughts in some sort of order. But it was difficult to stay with one idea for too long – my mind was jumping in too many directions, and in between theories and speculation, between trying to fit together the few bits of information that we had, I found myself wondering, with a kind of horror, what might have been in David’s mind.
I had to remind myself, several times, that David should not, at this stage, strictly be regarded as missing. There might yet be, though it was beginning to seem unlikely, a perfectly straightforward, or even a counter-intuitive but factual, explanation. More likely, I could not help thinking, David might have had some sort of accident; a heart attack, whilst he was paddling out at sea, or – god forbid – a shark might have taken him. There had been a number of shark attacks along this coast, I knew; the stories made the UK papers occasionally. Some years back, a seventy-year-old woman, a retired college lecturer, English as I recalled, had been seen by an observer on the rock path, just off to my right, taken in one thrashing moment of watery oblivion as she set about her daily swim across the mouth of the busy resort.
There were fine grains of sand glistening between the dark hairs on my forearm; I could feel the wind and salt drying on my skin. I looked back out to sea, knowing there would still be no sign of a paddle-ski, and I can’t say if I was relieved or afraid when the orange-hulled NSRI boat rounded the promontory. I could see quite clearly her crew in their life-jackets, standing upright towards the stern, and the pilot at the wheel in front. The boat slowed as she approached the edge of the breakers, dropping deeper down into the water, and disappearing for a moment as a long swell rose up and swept toward the shore. When I saw her again the boat had moved on, further down the bay, and soon she came up with the windsurfers and hove to. She lay there for a while, rolling in the swell, and then I saw her bow rise up and she headed further out to sea.
I watched with diminishing expectation as the rescue craft slowly searched the bay. I had not held out much hope, to begin with. Further out, the wind had drawn a dark blue line and the sea was turbulent and flecked with white. I found myself thinking about Megan, David’s partner, or ex-partner, I was no longer sure which: she would need to be told. I wondered if I had her address in Australia – David might have included it, in one of his emails to me, I could not be sure. I had her email address, at least; I knew that much. It was not easy to contemplate, but it might be better if I wrote her myself – it seemed unfair to expect that Sarah should deal with this. I was less certain about Madeleine – was one supposed to call her, I wondered, or did she not qualify, at least not now, in this first, intimate moment of anxiety and portent of loss. I did not know what the protocol was, for a former mistress and lover.
Sarah and Jasper were picking their way back along the glistening shoreline. Jasper had his arm about Sarah’s shoulders and they were walking with seeming aimlessness, stopping from time to time. I was momentarily annoyed with myself for fearing the worst, telling myself I ought to try and take a hopeful view, if only for their sakes, but I was all too conscious, as they drew closer, that they had turned up nothing.
‘There’s no sign,’ Jasper confirmed, looming over me. Sarah shielded her eyes and looked away.
‘Nothing. Nothing at all.’
He looked lost, for a moment, as though in saying these words out loud he had discovered something unexpected and harsh.
‘So what do we do now?’ Sarah asked, angrily.
We were all silent, for a moment.
I was about to get to my feet when Sarah flopped unexpectedly onto the soft sand beside me. She drew her knees up under her chin, and with a lowered gaze looked for a long time out to sea. Still no-one spoke.
‘It doesn’t seem real, does it?’ Sarah said, eventually.
It was a statement, more than a question. I knew in that moment, that Sarah had understood that it was real. A look almost of panic flitted across Jasper’s face, and he squatted on his haunches before her.
‘Come on baby,’ he crooned. ‘We have no sure proof of anything, yet. No paddle-ski, nothing.’ He did not have to say, no body. And indeed, with one part of my mind, I half expected David to come up to us at any moment, laughing, with some utterly simple explanation. It seemed impossible that someone could simply vanish. Not here, amongst all these people; in the broad light of day.
Jasper held out his hand, and Sarah took it. He pulled her to her feet, and I scrambled up.
‘We should have another look at the car,’ Jasper said. ‘Perhaps we missed something.’
‘Sure,’ Sarah responded, but I saw she was not convinced, and was merely going through the motions, to reassure Jasper.
As we approached David’s parked car across the painful glare of the sand I had the absurd thought, that each of us had the irrational wish that the silver Jetta would speak to us, and tell us what had happened to David. Jasper peered again through the windows, circling from the driver’s side round to the passenger window at the rear, while Sarah looked away towards the beach and out to sea. She was not really looking, I could see, though she was turned away from me. Her head was quite still; she appeared to be thinking.
‘We can’t leave the car here,’ she said, matter-of-factly, when Jasper had finished his inspection. ‘What are we going to do about it?’
‘I don’t know,’ Jasper said, uncertainly.
‘Roy? What would you suggest we do?’
I said I thought we should leave the car as it was; the police might want to examine it. And, Sarah might need to get permission, if she intended to move it; it would be prudent to make sure, at least, that the police were informed, before she had it towed away.
‘Roy’s right,’ Jasper said, nodding his head in agreement.
‘We should make that statement,’ Sarah said, looking at her husband.
We made our way back to our car, with Jasper in the lead. Sarah was still carrying her sandals in her hand and stopped to slip them on, balancing with one hand resting lightly on my shoulder.
‘It’s hot,’ she murmured, with a quick smile at me, and it was a relief to think of something as normal and ordinary as the hot tarmac burning a woman’s bare feet.
We got to the police station, and Jasper and Sarah went inside. They were gone a long time, so that I was about to go in search of them when finally they came out again, emerging from the shadow of the entrance into the bright sunlight. Sarah was seething.
‘That policeman was practically illiterate,’ she snapped, gesticulating angrily as they came up to me. ‘Is this what this country’s coming to?’
Jasper shrugged unhappily; evidently he did not want an argument.
‘Why couldn’t he let me write out the statement myself, or you? Why did he have to take down every word himself? He could hardly speak English, we had to repeat everything twice – I wonder if he’d ever held a pen in his hand before! Why, Daniel – ‘
‘Hello, Roy,’ Jasper said. ‘I’m sorry we’ve kept you waiting.’
Sarah fell silent, and I could see that she was struggling with herself.
‘No matter,’ I said. ‘It’s given me time to think. Not that I’ve come up with anything. I hope you don’t mind,’ I continued, ‘but I’m conscious of the time. I was wondering if I should ask if you wouldn’t mind dropping me back at the Waterfront?’
I added, ‘I’m sure you two don’t need me hanging around. You’ve got enough on your minds.’
Jasper looked inquiringly at his wife. She turned her wrist – I had noticed her watch before, it was a very elegant and simple Georg Jensen – and saw that it was past two in the afternoon. She drew a deep breath, and her shoulders dropped.
‘No, don’t be silly. We can’t send you back to your hotel hungry. I’m sorry, Roy. We’re a little tense, I guess. I’m sure we could all use a bite to eat.’
‘Shall we see if we can find somewhere in Kalk Bay?’ Jasper proposed. ‘How about the Brass Bell?’
‘That’s sweet,’ Sarah replied, ‘but I’d rather go home. There’s cold meat and cheese in the fridge, we could pick up some bread in the Village.’
‘Okay, that’s settled, then,’ Jasper said, too cheerfully, looking from Sarah to me. ‘Roy, all right with you?’
I hesitated, my better judgement told me they would be better off alone, but I did not want to argue, either. And perhaps they were right, it might be easier on them if they had someone else to consider and to talk to.
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Thank you.’
We got into the car, and Jasper started the engine.
Jasper was about to say something to me, looking at me over his shoulder as he reversed out of the parking bay, when suddenly Sarah put her head in her hands and bent forward, exposing her bare neck and the small vulnerable bones of her vertebrae. She made no sound, and I could not be sure if she was crying. Jasper stopped the car and drew his wife towards him. She rested her head on his shoulder for a moment, wiping her eyes with the back of her hand.
‘I’m sorry,’ she sniffed. ‘You shouldn’t mind me.’
‘Don’t be silly,’ Jasper said, gently.
‘I don’t know what to think,’ Sarah said in a strangled voice. She slumped against her husband, and then she pulled herself upright. ‘The trouble is, I do know what to think,’ she continued, wiping her eyes again. ‘I just don’t want to think it.’
‘I’m as worried as you are, I have to admit,’ Jasper said, and I could see that he was choosing his words, ‘but the fact is, we can’t be sure of anything right now. I think we just have to give this some time. We need to see what the NSRI turns up – your dad can’t simply have vanished. Something will turn up, I’m sure of it – and hopefully, it will be David.’
‘I know,’ Sarah nodded, ‘I know.’ She let out a long breath, and turned to Jasper with a bright smile. ‘Let’s go home, shall we?’
We drove in fits and starts along the congested, charmless main road and the thought crossed my mind that we were fleeing the scene of some natural disaster; awful and unknowable in its causes and consequences. But if this were not an accident, I could not help thinking, I could hazard a guess as to what might have been in David’s mind. It was not a happy thought, and it was too early to be thinking in such a way, but I could not shake it. Instead I leaned forward, between the seats, and said to Sarah and Jasper with as much conviction as I could muster, ‘I was thinking how the wind has come up, back there. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if David has been blown out to sea. As long as he sticks to his paddle ski, he’ll be okay. I think you need to give the NSRI some time – False Bay is a big bay, I know, but he can’t be too far out. And if he’s there, we can be sure they’ll find him. It’s just a matter of time, that’s all.’
Sarah said gratefully, ‘Thanks Roy, I’m sure you’re right. I guess we just need to stay calm and positive. There’s nothing more we can do right now.’
We picked up some bread and some pickles and olive tapenade at the Village and as soon as we were home, Sarah took the brown paper bag of groceries inside and busied herself in the kitchen. I had not been to their house before and Jasper pointed out the living room and dining area and the guest bathroom before leading me outside onto the patio. There was a small, kidney-shaped pool and the bricked patio stepped off into a modest but well-designed sanctuary with indigenous plants, flowers, and a formal herb garden. It was all very pretty and secure, I thought – lock-up and go convenience and a modern life-style. I don’t know what it is, but there is something peculiarly insular and complacent about middle class Cape Town, especially the Southern Suburbs, something cosseted and almost too nice, lacking that aggressive urban edginess one finds in other parts of the country.
Jasper asked me if I would like a beer or a glass of wine and I asked if he had wine open.
‘There’s chardonnay in the fridge,’ he said. ‘I don’t know if you’re one of the Anything But Chardonnay brigade? There’s sauvignon blanc, but it’s not cold. Unless you’d prefer red?’
‘White, I think. The chardonnay will be fine thanks.’
Jasper went indoors and I could hear him talking to his wife, but I could not hear what they were saying. I preferred to be out of earshot, and took a few steps into the garden. The grass was green and springy beneath my feet, a white butterfly danced ecstatically about the lavender, and I could hear the humming of bees. A deep torpor stole suddenly over me and I realised I was still tired from the long flight out; no doubt the strain and uncertainty of the day had also taken its toll. I was not getting any younger, I reflected – as one does, at my age, from time to time. David and I had often talked about it, this awareness of time passing, the years ahead telescoping inwards, and the inevitability of death. He would say that this was why it was so important to get on with the business of living. All life hangs by a thread, the most ordinary and apparently secure of lives rests on an illusion of infinity, etcetera. I remembered him talking about this, when he first confided in me about Madeleine – it was a kind of justification, I could see, but I believe he meant it, too.
There were voices behind me and when I turned Jasper and Sarah had come outside together; Sarah was setting out plates on the table, and Jasper was advancing towards me with a glass of wine in his hand.
‘Well,’ I said, lifting my glass and waiting for the two of them to lift theirs. ‘Here’s to finding David, and the end of the mystery.’
It was an awkward moment, but we gulped down our wine, and Sarah said, with feeling, ‘To Dad,’ and we drank again.
‘Come,’ Sarah said, pulling out a chair, ‘let’s sit down, shall we?’
She had prepared quite a spread, and took pleasure in pointing out some of the delicacies: there was Serrano ham, salami, a little bowl of mixed olives, cherry tomatoes, even some foie gras. She had rustled up a salad, and there was brown country bread and melba toast, goats milk cheese and camembert from Fairview, a bowl of hummus drizzled with olive oil and decorated with wedges of lemon and a sprinkling of red cayenne pepper.
‘Please start,’ Sarah said.
I took my plate and reached for the bread. Inside the house the telephone rang, and we all looked up. No-one moved, and then Jasper said, ‘I’ll get it. You carry on.’
I set down my plate, and Sarah and I exchanged glances before we both looked away. The tension was almost unbearable. I looked at Sarah again, and saw that her lip was trembling; her eyes were moist, and she stared straight ahead.
It was some minutes before Jasper returned, and as he came slowly towards us it was apparent that something was wrong. Instinctively Sarah rose, and Jasper took her into his arms.
He held her for a long time, rocking her slightly, as one might rock a small child, and eventually he said, over her shoulder, ‘A fishing boat has picked up David’s paddle ski. The boat has docked at Kalk Bay, and the police are on their way to collect it.’
Sarah pulled away, and her eyes searched Jasper’s face for a sign – I suppose I had never seen such an imploring look.
Jasper’s voice was unsteady, and he said, with difficulty, ‘The odd thing is this. The fishing boat found David’s life jacket, too. That’s how they could identify the ski. Apparently the life jacket was floating a hundred yards away. There was no sign of the person on the ski. The boat spent some time in the area, searching. They found nothing. Not a body, not a sign. Nothing.’
Sarah slowly sank back into her chair, and covered her face with her hands.