The death of Summer

FICTION: The death of Summer

A holiday proves hard to forget in this new short story by Jana van Niekerk

BY JANA VAN NIEKERK

Just like that, it was over. The revellers went home. They left dry patches on the grass where their tents had been. He saw his last fish. He slept his last night in the marital bed. He fell faster than we did and we saw him fall past us.

He was an old man and he had been on holiday with us, one of the few people who slept in the big abandoned house while the rest of us camped. His family, his wife and grown son and daughter had been with him and they had had Christmas together but in the New Year he waved them off as they drove away in a car full of snacks.

He had come to the place alone too: they had arrived first, and then he had tried to drive out to join them and his clutch had gone. In the middle of the night they had hurried to fetch him, to tow him in our strong car, and that’s how he arrived here. The car was stuck outside a garage somewhere and it was a Sunday night and Summer was here to stay.

He had given up drinking four years ago and he had started again. The thing is, he said, being sober and alone. For many people this is not an issue or a question but when I heard this conversation through the wall of my tent I knew exactly what he meant. Also, he did not want to be among friends when he could not drink. People were saying they loved him and that’s why they wanted him to stop, but what he wanted to know was, if they loved him why didn’t they just leave him be? I suppose in a way we did.

We were living on the banks of the beautiful river. Summer mostly sat on the porch but one day he fell in – ostensibly to help some damsels whom, he tried to convince, had been in distress. He lost his cell phone and his keys. He showered at two in the morning. He kissed people awake. He did not eat much but there was always a bowl of leftovers in the fridge demarcated as his: somehow both fatty and desiccated at the same time, he lost these sometimes too.

He told stories and he sang. Sometimes they were the same stories again, and it was just one song:

Sitting in a chair of bamboo sipping grenadine
Straining my eyes for a surfacing submarine
Kingdoms of ants walk across my feet
I’m a-shaking in my seat in Mexico

We left then and he was meant to follow. But Summer went on and on and on, seeming unable to go. He was entirely alone in that vast place, surrounded by birds. He had his camera and all his knowledge. He was going to write a book when he got home, and when he stopped drinking. Redemption, restitution, restoration, resurrection. He died a month after Christmas. At the start of our holiday there was a dead Loerie on the stoep and at the end there was a dead alcoholic in the upstairs bedroom. His liver imploded and he bled to death, haemorrhaging from his mouth and rectum. They had to take out the carpet and repaint the walls.

I wake up scared. At the sink, still half in my dreams

The sun was going down behind a tattoo tree
And the simple act of an oar’s stroke put diamonds in the sea
And all because of the phosphorus there in quantity
As I dug you digging me in Mexico

How things die, the dreadful struggle, a moth limply beating its life away in a drop of water. There must have been a last night when he ascended the stairs. Lying quietly in the sand, breathing rapidly. Opening my mouth. Attempting to get air, attempting to say something. What’s the point of being alive in Paradise? We’re all writing bloody books.

People died here. People left us here. Summer swam in the underground river. I know nothing lasts. I am celebrating in my own way.

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