Morning. I am woken by a bar of light across my face from where those damn second-hand curtains don’t meet. That means it’s late. I can’t budge, not to check the time, not to move out of the sun’s line of fire. Not to get the cup of coffee I crave. I’m pinned to the pillow by that staple of light, and by the fear that if I move, I might just tear the fragile web of vessels around my pounding brain. I lie still, trying to figure out what the hell happened last night.
Caranina’s party. It’s coming back. I don’t know why I stayed. Boring as hell, with all those Gucci-type couples plastered to each other’s sides. So I went to the drinks table and flirted with the bartender. He was ripe if his acne was anything to go by. Other than the mess on his face he was quite cute.
Can’t remember… did I actually fuck him?
I fucked someone.
Oh. God. He’s still in my bed.
I reach over, touch Ricky’s cold freckled shoulder. He doesn’t move.
That gets me going. I lurch up, force myself to my feet, stagger through to the bathroom. Chuck the imbecile cat curled and sleeping in the basin, toss down a tank of water and three Panados. Splash my face.
She’s looking at me, desperate, frightened, hair plastered down in front, sticking up behind, water dripping off her chin. What have we done? she wants to know.
I pick up a brush and pull it viciously through her hair. I hate her.
I love him, she pleads, her eyes all innocent.
Do me a favour, stop thinking with your twat. He’s a dead end, but you never learn. You keep driving us into the same dead end.
She grabs a towel, hides her face in it. I didn’t know what I was doing, she muffles.
Extenuating circs don’t wash. I’m not hanging around watching you waste your life.
I shrug on a dressing gown, or he won’t take me seriously. ‘Ricky! Wake up.’ My mattress creaks with the effort of his body as I shake him. I watch his face as he surfaces. It’s creased and spiky and bloated. It’s old and mean. I can’t understand why I’ve loved him for so long.
‘Huh? What?’ His eyes, ringed with sleep drag me into focus. ‘Oh for God’s sake,’ he says, releasing halitosis from his arsehole mouth. His eyelids slide closed.
‘I don’t know how you got me to bring you home, but get out. Now.’ Where do I get the courage? For years I’ve been hoping for a car accident, or a fatal fall downstairs. Perhaps it’s this easy.
‘Leave me alone,’ he grunts, turning away and smashing a pillow over his head.
A rush of pure rage. I fling the pillow across the room and grab a tuft of his precious thinning hair. He scrambles up, terrified, trying to stop me from pulling. ‘It’s my bed, Ricky. And it’s my life. Now get out.’ My voice like an ice pick.
But he’s harder than ice. He grips and crushes my wrist till I let go. Pulls me towards him, patronising, grinning as though there’s nothing wrong. ‘Come off it, Linda. Stop being a bully.’
I reach under the duvet to feel for his hard-on one last time. Claudia says corpses have these amazing erections. She spent two years at medical school before dropping out to do art, so she should know. But Ricky’s dicky shows no sign.
He smooths his hair down, and stares up at me. ‘You were so damn grateful last night when I saved you from getting off with a juvenile.’ The man can’t tell the difference between gratitude and annoyance.
‘I’m calling the police.’
The bastard’s laughing like a stuck track. He has yet to find out: this time I’ve won.
A knock. I know that knock. ‘Get under the bed.’ He looks at me, astonished. ‘I said, get under. Quick!’
‘What the fuck’s got into you, Linda? You’re thirty-nine years old! You’re allowed to have men in your bed.’
‘Not you. You are not in my bed.’ He is heavy, but not as heavy asI expected.
Knock, knock. Knock, knock, knock.
‘Coming!’ I pull the duvet so it drapes down to the floor, then run to the door. ‘Hullo Mum. What time is it?’
‘Hullo dear’. Breezes in, peck on the cheek, flings the curtains open. Puts the kettle on. ‘Nine-thirty.’ Takes her glasses off, cleans them in a pinch of her skirt. ‘Why?’
‘Got to see my shrink at ten. Sorry Mum, have to go.’
She glides the arms of her glasses over her ears, stares hard at me, frowning. She hates to think of me talking to crazy people about her. ‘On a Saturday morning?’
‘She’s fitting me in. Can’t make my usual time next week.’
‘She sees you every week?’
‘Yes, Mum. That’s how therapy works.’
‘But I don’t get to see you that often.’ She starts picking up my clothes, folding them, and draping them neatly over the back of a chair.
‘Will you stop that?’
She reins herself in, and stands with her fists on her hips, surveying the room. ‘Well,’ she says, ‘she isn’t doing you much good.’
All this while I’m chain-smoking. I’ve got to get her out of here, before she starts vacuuming under the bed. ‘Mum, I really have to go. Another time, I promise.’ Guiding her to the door.
Ricky’s asleep amongst the dust drifts and furze, so I leave him be. Pull on my clothes.
Outside, the day is sizzling bright, searing through my Ray-Bans. The bling woman wedged next to me in the taxi, the man with freaked-out hair pushing a trolley stuffed with black bags along the pavement, the cop standing and waving in chest-deep traffic – none of them know who I am or what I have done. None of them can hear the thoughts that lie coiled inside my head. None of them know about Ricky.
I’m late. I always am. She’s stopped commenting on this. I’m breaking her in slowly. I’ve got her to realise I’m not an easy nut to crack. But she’s sharp, I’ll give her that. As I walk into her consulting room, she spots it right away. I know it, and she knows that I know, but she’s not saying anything. Yet.
‘My mother still picks up my clothes,’ I tell her, for something to say. She nods patiently. I pick at my nails. ‘She’s jealous of you.’
That should give her something to work on. But she says nothing.
I hate sitting in this middle-class house, in this chrome and leather chair, my armpits damp, my eyes weaving around and around the pattern on her Persian carpet. Patterns. Patterns and design. ‘Maybe that’s what life’s all about,’ I suggest, trying to help. ‘Patterns and design.’
She nods again, approvingly. She thinks I am about to confess last night’s binge. ‘It’s Ricky, isn’t it?’ she asks, in her smug therapist voice. A cat who’s cornered a mouse.
I want to smoke, I want to pull those toxins way, way in and keep them there. I pick up a pencil, suck hard on the end. ‘I kicked Ricky out three months ago, remember?’ Bitch. I’m paying her a fortune, and she can’t even remember what I tell her.
The seat beneath me is suddenly warm from all the bums that have sat there over the years, all the pathetic people who bring their burdens, laying them out at the therapist’s feet like wares for sale. Must get confusing, which problem belongs to which vendor.
‘He cheated on me,’ I remind her. ‘Fucked that model he cast in the toothpaste ad. Wouldn’t admit the truth, accused me of paranoia.’
‘Ah… the truth…’ She says the word like she has slipped it into her handbag.
‘The truth is: my mother thinks I see you too often.’
‘What do you think?’ She pushes herself out of her padded leather armchair, and walks around the room, gathering my thoughts, folding them and draping them neatly over the back of my chair.
Actually, I’m glad I left therapy last year. She reminded me of God. Thought she had a bird’s eye view of my inner carpet.
Having got rid of my mother on the pretext of a therapy appointment, I set about putting the flat right, dropping my clothes back onto the floor. And notice Ricky’s whisky glass, on the table next to the sofa. Evidence. Got to get rid of all the evidence. Think like a detective. Start with the glass.
I feel like I’m in my own movie.
I take it through to the kitchen and wash it hard under the tap with dishwashing liquid and a cloth, all those little chemical molecules coming unstuck and rushing down the drain, through the pipes, out to sea, far away from me. I like to think about all those interconnecting pipes laid out, anchoring the whole city. Like hems and seams, out of sight, yet they hold the whole show together.
One thing: I am thorough. I hold the glass, dripping, over the kitchen floor. Drop it. A satisfying smash, shards of glass exploding over the tiles. I get a hand broom and pan, and sweep them up. Sweeping, sweeping, brushing the red from my cut foot into lines and patterns against the white.
Imagine. The whole universe, held together by lines of force. The weave of gravity binding me to the earth, the earth strung to its orbit round the sun, the sun doing its loop in the Milky Way. Etceteraaah.
What happens, I want to know, if you refuse to play? If you step out of the old habit, sail right out of the tight centrifugal suck that keeps you to the predictable? Start again without arrogant therapists, interfering mothers, philandering lovers?
I wash the floor down, limp to the bathroom, fix my foot with a large plaster. Find the canister in the medicine cupboard, flush it down the toilet. What do they do when objects like this bob up at the sewerage farm, along with foetuses, drug paraphernalia, incriminating letters and body parts? Piles of evidence must arrive daily, that can never be used to finger an individual, but merely points to the general human tendency to dispose of error using questionable means.
The phone. Claudia: ‘Where are you?’
When I get to the gallery, I realise I haven’t had breakfast, so we head straight for the tea room. Claudia sits opposite, excitedly licking her finger and sticking it deep into the sugar bowl. She has the air of a wet-nosed bloodhound. We order massively inflated scones and smear them with great clots of strawberry jam. I draw a line at cream. Cream is so over the top.
‘So, what happened?’
Oh. Right. Claudia was at the party. I can tell – she has a whole story lined up that she wants me to open my mouth and confirm. Like an identity parade. Who did what to whom. She might well be an up-and-coming landscape painter, but watching me self-destruct is what she loves best.
‘Nothing. I went home and threw up.’ I eye her evenly. ‘And you? I suppose you went home and had great sex with your dreadful husband.’
Claudia laughs. She thinks I’m joking. ‘Oh come on! You don’t expect me to believe that you two just happened to leave the party at the same time.’
Some conversations are entirely predictable and therefore utterly avoidable. I decide I cannot face Claudia, nor her retrospective at the gallery. ‘Sorry, I can’t make it. Been vomiting all night, and it’s not what you think. Got the runs too, got to go.’ I hang up.
Go and lie in the sun on my balcony. Tiny people jog along the Sea Point promenade, or stroll with their dogs and their kids. They are all acting normal. Normal is an act, a pretence, so we can appear to get on with each other. Underneath we all have these feelings, kicking, like crayfish lowered into boiling water.
I watch two tankers sliding like grey blades along the horizon. I’m having a little retrospective of my own. Claudia’s work lacks development, it stays on its own turf, playing safe. That’s not for me, not any more. I mean, take Robben Island, out there in the bay. It was a prison, for years. People died there. Now it’s just a museum. Normal, harmless. Just when you think life is an endless trap, things change, in a moment. Soon it’ll be my turn. I’ll walk out of the prison of my bad habit like Mandela, my fist held high.
I am turning over to give my bum a chance to brown when the phone goes. Again. There is no-one in the world I want to hear from, so I let it ring. But it won’t let up.
‘I want… to speak… to Ricky.’ A woman’s voice, strained, half choked. His wife. She’s never done this before.
‘Ricky? Excuse me, who is this please?’
‘You know exactly who I am!’
‘Sorry, you have the wrong number.’ I hang up. It starts ringing again, so I take the receiver off the hook. Amazing how some people think it’s okay to invade another person’s privacy.
If only all my problems could be fixed that easily, like taking the phone off the hook. But even she’ll be back, eventually. People can’t help themselves, going over the same old territory, like a dog going back and back to the inevitable tree, making sure his piss still smells good, adding a little more.
Ricky’s one tree I will never visit again.
Come Monday morning, I still haven’t decided. Had another fight with my mother who accused me of hiding something from her. Ha ha!
I’m lying in bed, thinking about it, trying to build up enough energy to get up and do the getting-ready-for-work routine: make coffee, feed the cat, run a bath. I get as far as stepping into the bath water when there’s a knock at the door. So many people, trying to get in.
Through the peephole, I see it’s the police. Two of them. I’m racking my brain, trying to remember when last I had a speeding fine, whether I got round to paying it. But these aren’t meter maids, this is King Shaka and his henchman. I pull on a dressing gown, fling open the door, and invite them into my kraal.
‘You’re up early,’ I comment.
‘Yes, Miss Penman.’ Shaka’s thin moustache rides his lip. ‘We wanted to catch you before you went to work.’ He glances at his mate, and clears his throat. ‘Manner of speaking.’
They’re looking around my bachelor pad, hoping for a rash of clues. Following their eyes, I see a trail of red marks, like blood, on the carpet, leading from the kitchen towards the bathroom. And Ricky’s clothes. God. They’re over the arm of the sofa, the jeans clearly not my size.
‘How can I help?’ I flutter, to distract.
Henchman is standing on my favourite jersey. This says nothing for his powers of observation. I don’t like the look of him; he is the kind of guy who could smash his way through an armoury. But Shaka, he’s cute, in a breakdancing kind of way.
‘You wouldn’t know the whereabouts of a Mr Ricky du Plessis, would you?’ Shaka fixes his interrogation beam on to me.
‘At this hour he is likely to be in bed.’ I suggest. ‘I can look up the address if you like. His wife, maid and dog will let you in.’ I look from one to the other. ‘Why, is he in some kind of trouble?’
‘That’s what we’ve been asked to find out.’ Shaka pulls a notebook out of his pocket. ‘We don’t make it our business to get involved in domestic affairs, but Mrs du Plessis has opened a Missing Persons docket on her husband. She gave your name as one of the last people seen in his company.’
I shrug. ‘Sorry. Can’t help. We were at the same party on Friday night, but you know, I don’t speak to him any more.’
They question me about my movements over the weekend, then turn to leave. At the door, Shaka asks, as though it has only just occurred to him: ‘You wouldn’t mind if we searched the flat, would you?’
‘Please,’ I say, gesturing widely. ‘Look wherever you like. Only I need to be at work in half an hour, so…’
Shaka puts up his hand, and the henchman snorts. ‘Only joking,’ he says. I can hear them laughing all the way down the passage.
I lock and bolt the door, rush to my bedside table, pull out a parcel and roll myself a big joint. That was close. I wander out onto the balcony and watch the two policemen walking towards their van.
‘Good luck!’ I shout, waving the hand that holds the joint. They turn, squint up at me, and wave back.
What a crazy start to the day. I decide that work is a bad idea, go inside and phone Stella. ‘I can’t make it,’ I tell her.
‘But the new winter range!’ she squeals. ‘It’s got to be out by Friday.’
‘I’m having an emergency gynaecological procedure this morning,’ I tell her. ‘Nothing major. I’ll be in tomorrow.’ That’ll give them something to talk about. Nosy parkers. I just couldn’t face sitting down to a day of patterns and design. The new fucking winter range. How to look sexy, but still stay reasonably warm. How to change your appearance because nothing else in your boring life does. How to drag your man’s attention away from your failing face, your candyfloss hair, your sagging body, and onto someone else’s idea of elegant wrappings.
Actually, I’m glad I left Glam Inc. Haven’t told anyone yet. Even though I’m running out of money, I am compelled to spend my days at the movies. I’m getting to be quite an expert. I’ve discovered that once you’ve seen one American film, you’ve seen them all. They’re designed around the same basic outline. Bit like a man’s dick. The mere thought fills you with excitement, anticipation. Then, during, it is quite absorbing. But afterwards, well, you can’t remember much about what happened.
Tuesday I am woken by something insistent. Something’s wrong, but I can’t place it. A wave of nausea hits. Damn, I can’t be pregnant, surely! I lie in bed trying to remember when last I fed the cat. Whether the bastard ate it all. Whether it was liver. He hates liver. It must have maggots.
I stumble out of bed. The cat’s dish is empty.
The cat. Where’s the bloody cat? Usually he is gnawing at my ankles by now, desperate for his Kitty Nibbles. Must have shut him in the cupboard by mistake. I go through them all, banging doors, but no dead cat.
The stench is terrible.
I open the windows, make myself a strong cup of coffee, go back to bed and prop myself up on my pillows. There’s no doubt about it. The smell is stronger here.
Right, my girl, this is it. You can’t put it off any longer. You have to decide what to do about Ricky.
What To Do About Ricky won the inaugural Short Sharp Stories Award for Best Story and is published in the competition’s collection of top stories, Bloody Satisfied (Mercury, R170).
DAWN GARISCH is a practising medical doctor and writer. Her latest book is Eloquent Body, a work which combines memoir with popular science. In 2010, her novel, Trespass, was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Prize in Africa, and in 2011 her poem Miracle, from her poetry collection Difficult Gifts, won the EU Sol Plaatje Poetry Award. She lives in Cape Town.