I woke up that Sunday to be a stranger in my own house. The floor had been swept, the stale bread was feeding some desperate doves outside and every pencil and scrap of paper placed neatly on the desk. Even the previous night’s empty wine bottles had disappeared somewhere…I had no clue what happened to them. And of course, the cursor had lost its threatening behaviour..
It all started on the windy Saturday – barely twenty-four hours before – with a knock on the door (the doorbell never worked, anyway). That’s the first time – as far as I know – I met Lucienne. She was gorgeous.
“You advertised, Sir,” she said, “and I’d like to apply.”
I stared at her. Young – twenty-something. Close-cropped hair and with no need for make-up, she might as well have stepped out of a fairytale. Cinderella, maybe, complete with the faded jeans and checked shirt. Much the way Mary used to dress – not for elegance, but for comfort. Blond, blue eyes, a body to die for. Radiant smile, freckles. Pixie-like ears and a pert, pointed nose. The picture of health, femininity. Vibrant, alive.
“Er…yes…,” I managed.
“Well, I’m here. I’m Lucienne.” As if I should have known.
My advert in the local little rag simply stated, Housekeeper needed. Apply at No 7, Forrest Drive, during office hours. Lodging available. And now she was there, the only response to my plea.
“I clean, cook, wash and iron. I’ll need the spare room on the first floor for lodging. I don’t eat much and don’t drink at all. Hate smoking. And when I’ve finished working, I’ll be around somewhere, doing my own thing.”
Her direct approach was so surprising, so self-assured, that I simply nodded. She seemed to know exactly what the house was all about. A woman who did her homework as well as my housework?
“Move aside,” she said, and stepping into the lounge. She stopped, stared, and let out a low whistle.
“The place is a mess. I hate it when it looks like this.” Sighing, she flopped down on my favourite chair. I could not help noticing the well-formed calves.
She was right, of course. After my successful bid at the auction (‘You bought a bargain, Mister. We expected a lot of interest, but only you showed up. Well, there you are. Sometimes it happens this way.’); I moved in and unpacked my clothes. The rest was already there: the ancient furniture a testimony to the craftsmanship of a time long past.
The dining room housed the massive mahogany table with twelve matching chairs. A sideboard of solid oak and a three-shelved dinner wagon were filled with antique silver cutlery and bone China. The scene set the tone for the rest of the old house. Brass beds, relief decorations for the walls and the cast-iron ceilings, parquet flooring, and numerous Edwardian and George Rex cupboards, chests, ornamental hearths and much, much more. This was a house that must have seen several generations weave their ways through life and now carried the evidence of many decade’s worth of collecting, hoarding and storing.
The library is my favourite. Mahogany shelves lined the walls, straining under matching leather-bound volumes of books by Poe, Rider Haggard, Shakespeare, Byron and Kipling. All the classics were there – from Greek mythology to Africana. A surprisingly large section of the shelves housed a more modern collection of the works of Sagan, Hancock, Grigsby, Gribbon and Reese. Whoever stayed here last, must have had a taste for science fiction. I didn’t think much of it at the time. Maybe I should have.
Despite my curiosity, nobody could tell much about the previous occupants. A small, bald man with a pointed nose, the shop assistant said. The newspaper boy said no, he was a burly man with budging biceps and a pirate-like face. Ah yes, declared Mister Vorster at the bookstore, the thin chap with the reading glasses suspended by a piece of string around his sinewy neck. It made no sense. It was obvious they had never met the man.
The one cupboard in the bedroom did contain clothes. Victorian dresses and some frilly stuff, some with whale bones in the sides. Female attire of long ago. Sexy, if you like vintage stuff. I left that just the way I found it – my few jeans and T-shirts barely filled a shelf in the other huge Rex standalone.
The question caught me off-guard. Yes, of course I write and in my sober moments I sometimes think of myself as an author. The occasional story I produce get published in one of those glossy magazines nobody reads, but looks good on the strategically placed coffee table in game lodge or ambassador’s residence. People page through those during bored minutes of waiting for whatever must happen next, to glance at the pictures of old cars or dilapidated wind pumps or elephants with raised trunks and impossibly-long tusks.
“Yes. I’m working on a book.”
That’s true as well. The Book has been nagging at my creative mind for years now, which is the other reason why I resigned at Cluster & Constellation, the advertising agency where I had churned out jingles for a living. Surely, I reckoned, my writing demanded something more of a challenge than thinking out lines like: We put the style back in your lifestyle, or Whoop up your golden years at Shady Pines. The Book will be the Ultimate Love Story about love and life and overcoming impossible odds. Writing allows one such fantasies – and do we not all harbour these even in our saddest realties?
And, of course, I had promised Mary I’d write; that I’d follow the dream we once shared. This story would have been pointless if I didn’t mention that.
She surveyed the mess in the livingroom, where papers, notebooks and pencils cluttered almost every available surface.
“You’re not very neat.” The statement had an accusing tone.
“I’m sorry.” Staring at the fine lines of the curves under the shirt made me speak without thinking.
“I’ll just have to get started, then.” She got up. I gawped at the perfectly formed derriere as it retreated towards the kitchen.
I sat down at the keyboard. Here, at least, I feel safe. Writing is my haven – I can escape the memories of the attack and invent a more pleasing reality for my mind. I never write – or talk – about the past. The three masked men, the gun, the blindfold. I shouted, they thrust a rag into my mouth. Then I heard them arguing about Mary.
Mary is – was – my wife-to-be. An artist. She painted. She was very good and her pieces sold at surprising prices. She believed in beauty and joy, and her work left you smiling. She was that sort of person.
They found a coat hanger and tied my hands and feet, rendering me helpless. Then I heard them rape her.
And then they shot her.
And I sold the small-holding and all her paintings because I didn’t want to see her joy on the canvasses and remember her smile. I wanted to forget about her. Her smile. Her eyes. Her screams…
But I couldn’t, of course…
The blinking cursor stared back at me, daring me to depress a key – any key. My fingers refused, simply because I should not have been thinking about Mary. It happens every time when I allow my mind to call up the memories I have tried so desperately to bury under sentences and paragraphs I create. In my word-world I can prevent rape and murder. I can write about love and beauty and couples sipping cocktails at sunset. In my world families stay in comfortable houses behind picket fences where the Labrador slobbers a welcome whenever the hero returns from yet another adventure. Oh, and the crooks and the thieves and the rapists always get what’s coming to them. Happy endings. Smiling faces.
It’s just become so hard to keep my word-world alive. It has to survive despite the fact that my real-life reality is so obscenely terrible.
“Do you mind if I make the bed?”
The question catches me off-guard. The bed. The one where Mary died. The forensics removed the blankets and sheets for evidence (Exhibits D, 1 to 3, they called it at the trial). I moved it here but can never sleep on it again.
“No, I don’t use that room at all. I sleep down here, in the library. On the couch.” I pointed. “Sleeping bag.”
“I’ll make the bed, then.” Said with finality.
I want to protest, but she stares me down. Her eyes tell me to shut up, she wants to get on with the job. I sigh and slouch over to the kitchen. Coffee. I must have coffee, my staple diet since the attack. As I push open the door, my jaw drops.
The place is spotless. The mugs gleam down from their shelf, the sink shines happily, the floor is spotless. The percolator on the stove emits the wonderful aroma of fresh coffee. A mug, the sugar and a small milk jar wait patiently next to the stove.
I’m on my third mug (still haven’t written anything), when Lucienne tells me she’s done for the day. Thank you, I’ll be in my room if you need anything. Just like that. I can’t think of anything to say.
Oh, she says while standing in the doorway, I opened the Pinotage. To let it breathe, she says. It allows the wine to show off its bouquet, she says.
I continue my fight with the empty screen and the accusing cursor until it all becomes too much and I allow myself a small glass of wine. Pinotage. How many bottles of the stuff did Mary and me guzzle down, smiling into each other’s eyes? And now, for the first time since the funeral, I close my eyes to recall her laughter, her joy de vivre, her uninhibited love-making. I get a bigger glass. I have to drown out the pictures that come flooding into my mind. No! I shall not remember! No!
But I do.
And I open the next bottle.
It is dark outside. Curiously, I notice there is no light under the door to the spare room. Did she go to bed this early? Then I look at my watch to realise it is past midnight already.
Finish the glass, you fool. You’re not going to write anything tonight. Go to bed. Sleep it off. Try again tomorrow.
That’s how it happened, I swear. And then…
Sometime during the night, I heard the rustle of silk as she sat down on the couch next to me. Soft silk…of a time long gone by.
“I’m an artist too,” she said. “I restore things. That’s why I love this house – I fix things here.”
I can’t say why it happened. Or even how. But I remember her hands. Gentle, warm fingers. Her warm breath in my neck as she tells me the past is past, but never gone. Then her arms circled my body, hugging me close.
She sighed, resting her head on my chest. Be happy, she said, become the man who dreamed stories of beauty and love again. That is your destiny, you cannot escape it. We shared the silence then; a long and comfortable quiet; while her fingers explored my face, my chest…and more. And when the release came, my mind exploded in a display of a million colours. Images of Mary filled my thoughts – laughing Mary, happy Mary, joyful Mary.
And sleep rolled over me like a foggy mist.
I remember nothing after that.
And now, the next morning, I stumble bleary-eyed to the kitchen, where the percolator has just started perking. Coffee. The mug and the sugar and the milk stand ready.
After the second mug, I knock on Lucienne’s door to thank her for the coffee. Or so I tell myself.
I’m almost not surprised to see the bed made, the room as neat as can be. Like nobody has been there for a long, long time. Just a note on the pillow.
I am Lucienne. I’ll be around, but my work here is done for now. Sell the house. It’ll take time, so finish the book. In September a sad man will make an offer, which you must accept so I can continue working here. Please leave my clothes undisturbed – I’ll need them again in the future.
The cursor blinks at me. Invitingly, not accusingly.
And at last I’ll start writing. A love story – a story of a house, or maybe a heart, occupied by beauty. And, as all lovers know, a story like this knows no time, neither does it have an ending.
I’ll tell the story of Mary. And Lucienne. Both…because there is a dimension to Love that refuses to acknowledge the boundaries mere mortals live by.