At 6.30 in the morning, the Writer tapped her husband’s shoulder and placed a cup of tea on the bedside table.
He opened his eyes, held a sleeved arm against his mouth and yawned.
“UP so early? What, are you on a new piece or something?
He was an art collector. Each story she wrote was for him a piece.
“No,” she said. “We’re having a visitor. The Great Man called. He is coming for breakfast”.
“Great Man?” He paused for just one moment, stretched and nodded when realization dawned. He set aside the sheets and hopped up. With the energy of one thirty years younger.
“But how? I thought he would be too busy for the next few months, if not years. And to think that he is coming, not asking you to go see him”.
“He also wants to see you. He made sure that you would be around. He said that he had something important to tell us, and only us. Remember? You used to be his best friend before they took him away. I’m only a writer who sometimes writes about him and his cause.”
“May be he liked your last story”. He began unbuttoning his nightshirt, “I thought I would skip a shave today, holiday and all. Now no choice.”
“No need to rush”, she called back after him as he was shutting the bathroom door. “He is a brunch man. Won’t be here before 11.30”.
His favourite chair in the hall had worn and had been removed to the attic. The husband found it in a heap of dust, ran a rag over it and brought it down. She got Thelma, more a friend than a servant, to dust and polish it till the grains on the wood showed. Thelma found a cushion and placed it on top of the torn back upholstery.
The husband’s chair was placed nearer to his chair; her’s opposite, enough place between them for him to stretch out, and for her to place one leg over the other. He loved closeness when they talked. A small table was placed in the middle for his brunch of sandwiches , a dish made of corn and tripe that his granddaughter once told her was his favourite food, and chocolates for his sweet tooth.
They heard the car and stood up. At 11.30 sharp, his silhouette blocked the sunlight streaming through the door. The Writer noticed that the tall frame had hunched a little and the gait wasn’t as sure as before. She couldn’t judge the face till he came closer and extended a hand – to him first, then to her. He still had the firm grip of a close friend; fat fingers clenched under a big fist that could as well belong to Muhammad Ali.
“Ah, my chair”, he said, with childish glee, placing an affectionate hand over the chair’s shoulder. “But this cushion I do not know – well, it’s not bad. Good for my back.”
They were glad that he didn’t try to remove the cushion which would have exposed the tears and the tatters on the ancient discarded piece of furniture. A sigh escaped the Writer.
“A pleasant surprise,” said the husband.
“Surprise, yes. Not very pleasant, I’m afraid”, he said, stretching a hand to hold his shoulder as if for steadying himself.
“I thought it was about your future plans, or may be about my last story which was about you,” she said, hopefully.
She loved his comments on her work, and generally enjoyed adulation.
“I haven’t read the story, though Thabo told me about it. Been too busy. Even without reading it, I know it would be the best ever written about me. You know that I’m not modest. I like praises.”
She knew, of course, though she didn’t say so.
His smile was wide, showing large white teeth. She noticed that above the natty suit and white collar, his neck had formed wrinkles; ligaments stood out like they were holding up his jaws. There were sure signs of onion rings forming under his fat cheeks; skin hung lose below his jaws. Age struck even the best and the bravest, the Writer mused. She was barely five years younger.
He sat down.
“Let’s eat breakfast. Ah, my fvourite corn and tripe. Who told you I’m still a bushman at heart?”.
He laughed with them. Unlike in his younger days, his laugh was muffled, almost a pretense.
“Your granddaughter told me,”
He looked taken aback, annoyed. His voice betrayed agitation.
“What?..but how..how did she know? What did she tell you?”
“About corn and tripe, not that you were still a bushman”.
He looked relieved. This was a man who was given to cool calculations, logical conclusions. And now he was having the best time of his life. Fame, Adulations, praises all of that which, she knew, he loved so much. Yet his demeanor was intriguing.
He bent over the small table, dropped his head and whispered a small prayer under his breath before the food. The writer, a non-believer and the husband, a neutral, sat in respectful silence.
He prodded the dish, then put the fork down and reached for the sandwich. She poured him sweetened black tea.
He picked up the cup with his left hand and reached for her husband’s arm again with the right. The cup shook a little, and then steadied.
“We’re parting ,” he said, simply
She was incredulous: “How could Oliver or anybody else in the party agree to that?”
Her voice was agitated, urgent. “All these years..”
“Yes,” he said. “All these years. But I’m not parting with the party, but with my wife.”
The Writer sat stunned, while the husband kept rolling a closed fist on the palm of the other open one. How many times haven’t he and his wife quarreled? How many times hasn’t he threatened to walk out, and she had said that was fine with her? Yet he couldn’t be without her for even a week. At one time she had famously written that she couldn’t be with someone who couldn’t be without her. Yet she kept telephoning him after the third day of his absence. Women, by God, women can drive you nuts.
Yet the man wasn’t the kind who was easily driven nuts. There had to be something.
“Whatever the problem between you, it will pass. It will have to pass. Both of us have gone through bitter partings and divorces. But you are different, You’re a statesman, not private people like us,” he said after a minute of silence, not sure that he said the right words.
The Great Man laughed dryly.
Silence hung like a gathering storm. He lit a cigarette and held it without puffing. The cigarette moved up and down between his fingers while he took another sip of tea from the cup in his other hand.
“She has a lover,” he said with a straight face. Suddenly, his face relaxed, as if he had just put down a burden.
“Nonsense,” said the husband. He wouldn’t have normally used that word to the Great Man despite the friendship . This was different. This was utter, utter nonsense.
“Yours is a relationship that history would marvel at,” he said.
“She admitted it herself – not about history, but about the lover. She wasn’t joking. We don’t joke about such things. Our life has been too serious.She said my remote love didn’t give her the protection a woman needed. It didn’t put food in children’s plates when she lost her jobs.”
“Don’t I know,” the Writer sighed.
They sat in silence, he staring over her shoulders, beyond the open window while the Writer and the husband sat awkwardly. A long stick of ash from his cigarette threatened to fall on the table, but the writer resisted the temptation to push an ashtray under it. The clock struck twelve.
Half hour had gone. Precious time for him; he had so much to do. The corn-and-tripe that Thelma cooked with cringed nose while dressing the intestines remained untouched. The sandwich was only half eaten. His shoes kept tapping the carpeted floor; his knees were jerking up and down furiously. Nervousness so uncharacteristic of the Great Man.
“All these years..” she began
“All these years, yes. Lonely years for her, not so lonely for me. She had so many responsibilities, doing it all by herself. Yet never letting up her fight with the authorities till she could make those flights to see me, to bring the things I liked hidden under her clothes. Putting her palms pressed against the glass so I could pretend to feel the touch of her. Then she had to bear with those rumours, fights, accusations, all because of me and yet without me to share them, not knowing when I will be back. Even whether I will ever be back. I didn’t even blame her for being wild with our own people in her outbursts when people told me. How could I? Life was bl..too hard for her.”
“Wasn’t too cozy for you either.”
“ Too many sacrifices on her part. Nobody assaulted me, rarely a guard dared man-handle me. I didn’t have to go home after a day’s work or fight and then find that my house had been burnt down and that the children were out on the road, crying. No one to my face threatened to rape my daughters. Not within my earshot.”
The writer noticed that his knuckles were tightening . Even his imagination fell short of the actual sufferings his wife went through.
“Do people know? Does the party know? The news will be a scoop for the press.” Saying that, the husband rose and turned to pick up the day’s paper from the mantle.
“No, nobody knows yet outside the close family circle. And, of course, the lover.”
He smirked at the word, leaned back and closed his eyes. “Well, he at least gave her some joy in life, which I couldn’t”.
“No, nobody knows. I wanted to tell you first. You wouldn’t try and console me.Some day, years later, you might want to write about it with understanding. I am resigned, almost relieved, as if a part of my failures as a husband stands redeemed. Only you would understand that.”
He was looking straight at the Writer when he spoke, but her husband nodded as well. He would understand too.
Yet the pain was obvious. Since he had made it clear that he would brook no advice or words of consolation, they didn’t try.
“It’s in the papers that you have a meeting with the Big Boss tomorrow morning,” the Husband said, wanting to change subject, and pointing at the headlines. “Seems you’re coming to some kind of firm arrangement.”
“No firm arrangement. The Party is suspicious of him more than of anybody else. He’s a clever cheat, running with the hares and chasing with the wolves.”
He braced up. “You can bet that an arrangement there will be. We will run along till the wolves tire. We hares have the stamina of having run for three centuries. Oliver is tiring a little, I am not.”
“You built up better stamina through an extra couple of decades,” the Writer said, half in jest.
His face clouded again with the memory. “I wasn’t the only one. You can’t give me all the credit… I wish she had told me when she brought those long-awaited food packets and clothes. I would have had time to adjust myself to face the public.”
He laughed that dry laugh again.: “Well, if If I ever got a chance to face the public again. Who knew then?”
“I know,” is all that she could say.”So many years of waiting..”
“I didn’t say I blamed her”.
He stood up and took her hand. “I’m not a Calvinist like one of those man-hating missionaries, but an ordinary Methodist. Yet I do believe that some things had to happen the way they happened. May be I will carry a broken heart for just a little while. I’m quite capable of forgetting, you know.”
His chin went up in a show of bold acceptance, “May be that was another reason. She couldn’t forgive me for forgetting so easily”.
His next words came amidst an uncomfortable wheeze, perhaps designed to hide the grief and the unseen tears.
He extended his hands. “I had to get it out of my chest before I made an announcement,” he said. “People have a right to know. Thanks for making it possible. Good Bye”.
“’Bye, Sir,” they both said, their voices soft and hardly audible. Somewhat taken aback at the honorific, he smiled.
He turned around, his hand on the door frame.
“I’m forgetting my manners. Thanks for the brunch, Nadine. Sorry I couldn’t do justice to it. Thanks, Rein, for the patience”.
“Do justice the next time,” the writer said. She walked alongside him till the gate and waited till he got in and the car reversed.
Then she watched him pick up speed as if to catch up with the rainbow that lay four years ahead.
(NOTE : As the title suggests, this story was inspired by a blog. The famous blogger is not to blame if my imagination went wild).
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