By Sam Grieve
The first climb he suggests starts on the Pipe Track. She meets him near the lower cable station. This is before the cable car is redone, before the city reintroduces itself to the world. The old cable car is a rectangular, white box. A thousand feet up and you could open the windows from the inside.
That summer her grandfather buys an old VW Beetle for the kids to use. It is tangerine orange and only turns left. Of course, it turns right too, but it only indicates left, so if you are a stickler for the law, as she is, this is the direction she must take. Going left would get her to Muizenberg, which is all well and good, but she needs to go the other way. She indicates out of her window using her right hand, her left lurching between the warm bulb of the gear stick and the steering wheel. The car clunks through the gear changes; she rides the clutch the entire way around Devil’s Peak, and then jerks up Kloof Nek in second. Her armpits are damp with sweat when she arrives.
He is waiting under an umbrella pine. The shade is sparse, the shadows folding into each other. He carries a small canvas backpack, and another lies at his feet. He wears khaki bush shorts and a striped T-shirt and hiking boots. His glasses are wire-rimmed and too old for him. She feels that if she looks at him out of one eye, he’s cute, not so out of the other.
They set off down the Pipe Track. It winds around the back of the mountain. It is already hot. They probably should have started earlier in the morning, but he has driven in from Stellenbosch. Tiny crickets leap from the fynbos around her feet. Down in Camp’s Bay the water is the color of dream, the beach a curved, golden eyelid. They walk and talk. He is a bit of a know-it-all. But she also likes his company. He doesn’t give a shit about a lot of things. He is the kind of guy who would wear flip-flops to a nice restaurant. But he also knows which fork to use.
The path is empty, it is just them. She finds this astounding, this big city and all this space. In London she can barely move for knocking into someone. He agrees, cities are for rats. It’s not quite what she meant. Mostly, as they walk, he is in front and sometimes she is. At these moments she wonders if he is looking at her bum.
They finally reach the point when they must ascend. He points out the different routes: a path hidden in the vegetation, really tough, and the more well-trodden track. Trodden by goats, she thinks, eyeing the narrow trail switch-backing up the slope. They set off. The vegetation whispers around her. She wipes her brow, licks her upper lip. She is like a piece of lamb, infused by salt and herb. In the shade of an overhang, she stops to drink from her canteen and to take photographs: the tubular, fuchsia bells of Erica, the ancient Rorschach patterns of lichen on the rocks. He drinks from the canteen after her, admires the flower. In this they are in perfect communion. Their appreciation of the view, the sky, the city, this place.
They climb higher and higher. The sun is a fist beating on her head. She is an African girl, why would she wear a hat? Gung ho, can do. But she is also an English girl now, London leavened. The climb gets steeper. She begins to feel a bit dizzy. She will not give in. Each step upward is a heave. She watches the muscles above her kneecaps clench and unclench.
“I’m a bit nauseous,” she finally admits. She feels like a fool. He opens his pack, retrieves a pot of honey, then spoons a drooping, bright globe into her mouth. The honey is warm and sweet. A gleaming thread loops over her chin. His fingertip grazes her skin; he scoops the thread up, licks it.
“Can’t let it go to waste,” he says. He is not looking at her. “Sugarbird.”
Sugarbird? Is he flirting? She is filled with a sudden, strange panic.
But then he points. “Down there. On the Suikerbossie. A sugarbird.”
Up, up they go. The honey courses through her veins, fills her with sugary vim. Thank God, into a valley of cool. A breeze tickles the nape of her neck. Great rocks tower up on all sides, mottled and marked and beautiful. It is a labyrinth. They wind their way through it, gaps between the boulders giving glimpses of sea and mountain. A secret temple of the gods. They are both quiet. Again she feels the streams of their beings moving together. They take a break on a tongue of rock that hangs over the abyss. They eat peaches and nuts, swig water from the same canteen. He offers more honey but she declines. His bone structure is slight, wiry. He has small, neat knees. Is he attractive?
She can’t decide.
The second climb is at sunset. They leave an hour before, spiraling up the track that circles the butte of Lion’s Head. The sun slides down a pacific ramp of sky. They pass a clump of silver trees, a Tolkien dream, with silken, spearheaded leaves. The air is sharp, peppery, and she breathes it in to the deepest crevices of her lungs to save and carry home. On the Seapoint side she spots the kramat, its green dome bright against the vegetation. She thinks of the auliyah buried inside, of the holy circle of kramats circling the city, keeping it safe. In the distance Robben Island lies like a dark penny in the sea. It has been a year since Nelson Mandela was released.
Her friend is planning on moving back. He is an accountant. He has a good job. She feels a pang of jealousy. Not about the job, of course, but about his ability to choose. She has always hankered after other people’s freedoms, particularly men’s. The friend who drove the entire length of the Americas, from Maine to Patagonia. The friend who traversed Africa and afterward told her stories of the Sahara at night, jackals barking in the dark. Later she will realize that she is caught in a net of her own devising. What she should do. Not what she could.
At the ladders she goes first, then he takes the lead on the rock scramble. The rocks are cooling now that the sun is setting. It is a real climb, arms and legs involved. She feels like a happy spider. Climbing like this is natural to her. In this moment she has absolute trust in her body.
“Put your hand here,” he motions.
The summit is smaller than it looks from low down, a flattened disk of rocks and scrub. They find a perch and he pulls out some wine, plastic cups, a bag of nuts, cheese. It is casual but artful.
“You’ll like this,” he says, pouring her some sauvignon. He always knows what she will like. The sun melts in its own heat as it nears the horizon, like an upside-down candle.
He invites her out to his parents’ house for the day. He picks her up in an ancient Mercedes, the passenger seat so low she can barely see over the dash. There is a gaping gash in the floor, a rusty mouth. She could touch the tarmac through it. “Watch your feet,” he says. After Stellenbosch they turn into a valley in the mountains. The wine farm lies up a track. Rows of vines net the lower slopes.
“Up for a walk in the berg?”
The house is an old Cape Dutch surrounded by oaks, the swimming pool deep and black. His father is out on the farm; his mother lies on a deck chair in the garden. She has a man’s name. She wears linen pants, and wooden bangles above suntanned hands. Not a speck of makeup but her face is beautiful in an old way.
They shake hands. His mother is friendly but aloof. “Change in Vanessa’s room,” she says, “second one down the hall.”
In the bedroom she slips on her shorts, her socks, her T-shirt, her new hat. She folds her dress, leaves it on the bed. Vanessa’s room is dimly lit. It has wide plank floors, a kilim rug, and whitewashed walls bearing an oil painting of a blond woman with piercing blue eyes. An antique silver toiletry set is arranged on the dressing table. She feels like an interloper. Plumago tumbles in a blue mist outside the open window.
They drive up to the reserve, park on the verge off the track. There are no other cars. Again he brings out his knapsacks; she slings hers over her shoulders, he admires her hat. They set off up the path. He tells her about the farm, his parents, his grandparents, and Vanessa, his older sister. They grow sauvignon blanc and cabernet. Later he will show her the winery.
“I hope I can stomp on some grapes,” she says.
“I am sure we can organize that for you.”
An hour into the hike, they reach the end of the valley. The path veers up toward the summit, but here ahead of them is a pool filled with white, smooth stones, and water the color of old beer bottles. A waterfall tumbles down a crevasse interlined with moss. Her neck is slick with sweat.
“Perfect for a skinny dip.”
She means it jokingly but, at the same time, she yearns for that water. For the mountain cold of it on her skin.
“I will if you will.” He’s grinning, taunting her.
She weighs the moment and he senses her hesitation. “I’ll take my glasses off,” he tells her. “I’m blind as a bat without them. You’ll just be a blur.”
He does. Folds them up and puts them on his shirt. She turns her back, slips out of her shoes, socks, shorts, shirt. Unhooks her bra, peels down her knickers. She wades into the water. It is ice-cold. She pushes through, her feet stumbling over the pebbles to the waterfall. The water rushes over face, into her mouth, her eyes. It tastes of mountain and earth and rain. Even with her eyes shut, she is aware of him, but in truth, she is more interested in herself right now. That she is the sort of girl who does these things. This is the person she wants to be.
Afterward they walk down the hill. Their clothes are slightly damp. A blur. He was right. She is blurred; the sharp lines of her self softened. The air has settled between them, but there is still something left. She twists her hair into a knot at the nape of her neck.
At the house the table has been set under the trees. A girl, big-boned and heartily beautiful, sits in his mother’s deck chair.
Vanessa? she wonders as he heads toward her.
“This is Anneliese,” he says. “My girlfriend.”
Your girlfriend? All those walks and he didn’t think to mention her? Now she feels cross, betrayed, but also slightly relieved. She thinks of his skinny knees.
Anneliese glances at her damp clothes.
They eat lunch with his parents. Strawberry soup with goat cheese and pepper. Their own wine in unmarked bottles. Couscous. An apricot tart. They discover their grandparents are friends. He winks at her over the table. If this was India she suspects they would be betrothed. Anneliese barely opens her mouth.
After lunch she walks down to the rough lawn above the reservoir to take pictures. He follows and kindly shows her how to use her camera. Years later, in a dive in London, he says, “I’ll marry if you want.” They also kiss—once—on an ugly floral sofa. The memory of that sofa lingers in her mind. Who would choose a fabric like that? But that is all in the future. Still unwritten.
Category: Featured, Fiction, Short Story