Cleo and Nic

by Arja Salafranca

 

It comes up quickly. Years roll on, and suddenly there’s a scar cut into your midriff where an appendix nearly burst at 55. He has a mark to indicate where his gallbladder was removed and most of his teeth are crowned now. His hair is nearly gone, hers has grey showing through her red curls. What passes for a life? Forty years gone; children, a wife; an eye on retirement? A mother passed away.
Tuesday nights and Saturday afternoons. A routine as fixed as a marriage now.
What you really want is some contentment, some security now, and all you have, though, is this. The sound of waterfalls rushing outside your tented window; the flapping of a luxury tent in the middle of nowhere, perched on an island that straddles three countries: Botswana, Namibia, Zambia. Officially you’re in Namibia, according to your passport stamp. But, officially doesn’t count for much now.
He’s meant to be at a conference in Durban, talking profitability and shares and productivity. Instead he’s here, on an island somewhere in Africa, with the woman he has loved since the age of seventeen. The woman he married is at home in Johannesburg, pruning roses, or supervising the pruning, visiting grandchildren or going to her woman’s lunches. Nic hasn’t discounted the fact that perhaps she knows, now, but it’s all too late.
Instead there’s this: an early morning in late winter, but still temperatures are going to rise soon. Cleo next to him in a double-bed in a luxury tent overlooking a river. The birds woke them as did the noise of the waterfalls further downstream. They arrived late yesterday afternoon, went for a water safari, observing elephants and lechwes from their small boat, and then supper and talk with the other guests. And then, despite their stolen time together and the briefness of it, they had both just fallen asleep.
They are both still tired this morning, and sex comes, but it’s not easy. Increasingly, thinks Cleo, it’s like this, an almost reluctance to begin, but the pulse is there, the snatched time lends an urgency to it. They can’t waste it. They do it anyway, noting marks and time. They’re in another century now, but the past has marked everything they have done together.

They will have breakfast, they will go fly fishing with the other couple, Americans, after which, lunch. They will pass the day. The routine stamps itself powerfully on them, wherever they are now, as though they had been married for the past forty years, as though life had taken a different turning all those years ago.

It started after her mother died. After she had cleared out the room where her mother had slept, after she had rearranged the furniture, and transformed the space into a sort of spare room. Why, she had no idea. Her niece and nephew weren’t going to stay over now; they had families and lives of their own. Surprisingly other family members still lived in the city she had been born in. Few of the Rosenbergs had gone overseas, emigrating to English-speaking countries like Canada or Australia or New Zealand. She was glad of it; it kept the family together, brother still living a few minutes away by car, cousins still in the country, their children close by. Unlike friends whose had family members scattered on just about every other continent.
But still, she had a spare room now. She gave away her mother’s pink chenille bedspread, and the matching pink curtains. She bought neutral cream-coloured curtains, a duvet with a bold black and white African print, and made the room look anonymous, neutral. Almost, she thought, like a hotel room.
It was months before he called.
He had sent a card, the day of the funeral. Sent flowers on the night she held prayers. She knew it was him: no name, just a message, “I’m thinking of you. Love, X.” The X was no affection: but it would not be traced to him, sitting on the table with the other flowers and food for the guests. X, for Xenopooulos, his surname. X, for love and X for anonymous.
She knew where he lived, of course. From time to time she even heard news of him. Although she worked, and didn’t have time for ladies’ lunches, she still occasionally ran into his wife. There was that day at Woolworth’s, putting a packet of sirloin in a handheld basket, his wife filling a trolley.
“How are you, Cleo?” she’d asked.
“I’m fine.”
“I heard about your mother. I’m so sorry…”
“Thank you, but she lived a long life …I had her for many years.”
“Yes. Still, after all those years. I am sorry. If you’d married, had children, grandchildren…”
The words were out before she could stop, or had she wanted to stop them anyway? Was this her final revenge, even as this woman stood towering over her, years and decades between them? “I’m sorry.” she said again, “I didn’t mean, I just meant that they help you cope, take your mind off things…”
But Cleo was already moving away. “Goodbye Penelope,” she was saying, placing another package of steak in her basket

He’d called. He was sorry, so sorry to hear about her mother’s death. The spoke a while; she was at work, he was at the office. What about lunch?
Lunch. Speared asparagus slices. The sun shining, making everything bright and luminous. Life rolled back, years unpeeled as she spoke, telling him her mother’s death, the last lingering weeks. The death of her aunt had sparked it, she thought. For years the three of them, Cleo, her mother and her aunt, her mother’s sister, had shared a flat. Her father had died, and Cleo had moved back home to be with her mother for a while. She had moved out two years previously, at forty, finally. Coming of age, getting your own place. But, her mother hated to be left alone, especially in the big house she had shared with her husband. Crime was getting bad in Joburg now, and Cleo, frankly, hated the thought of leaving her mother there. So she gave up her lease, moved back in, mixing her furniture in with the worn couches of her parents. Another two years later and her aunt, her mother’s sister, was widowed. She moved into the big house with them. Safety in numbers.
“But I got so scared, driving at night, coming home, opening the gates in the dark. I used to drive straight up to the front door, open it as quickly as I could and bolt the door behind me. You hear all those hijacking stories…” Cleo described, drinking rosé carelessly, recklessly, in the middle of the afternoon, at their lunch. “So, we sold the house. My mother was devastated, but I just couldn’t take it anymore. We rented a beautiful old flat, three large bedrooms. My mother had companionship in the day. Stopped phoning me every five minutes. I could go out at night, there was a guard who let you in at night.”
“What happened?” Nic asked. He too was drinking wine in the afternoon now, doctor’s warnings be damned.
“Then Aunt Jennie died. Well, it took a while. She went senile, driving Mom and I both mad, it took a year. Her daughter wouldn’t have her, wouldn’t put her in a home. We had a nurse for her. She died two years ago, but Mom went downhill from then. God, she’d phone me every few hours from work. She wanted to make tea, but there was no tea, or she wanted to read her book, but she couldn’t find it, or could I buy food for supper, even though the fridge was full. Yet she wouldn’t go out. I’d ask her to come to Bridge with me, and she’d say no, she was tired, she couldn’t walk far now. So I went alone, or had the Bridge evenings at us. These last few years have been a nightmare…”
“They must’ve been.”
“But through it all I wasn’t wishing her dead …”
“Of course not.”
“Then she died. Got pneumonia, in this day and age. She was in hospital a week, they thought she was getting better, and then, that was it. I got the call as I was leaving work.”
He reached across, touched her hand. They were silent as he took her fingers in his. Suddenly she felt cold, as though the sun had plunged behind buildings… but it was a bright February day, hottest month of the year. When she reached to touch her face, she was sweating.
“I saw Penelope at Woolworths a few weeks after Mom died.”
“Yes,” his tone was guarded.
“Did she tell you?”
“She says she sees you there, from time to time.”
“She said I should’ve married, had children, grandchildren. As though that would lessen the pain of losing someone you’ve known for nearly sixty years.”
“That was insensitive.”
“Yes, it was.”

***

It wasn’t the first time they had met like this. After Cleo had moved out of home finally. His children were teenagers now. They met in her flat, and he said his marriage was over. He needed to wait until his children were at university, five, six, seven years….they could start over. She believed him. She wondered if she could wait, again, more years, more time going by. He said: “We can meet whenever you want. I travel often, Pen won’t suspect a thing.”

It was an option, she thought, a strange option. Why couldn’t she let this man go? Why couldn’t she forget him, find someone else? Let him go, be with his wife and children, he had made choices, they had both made choices. Why couldn’t they stick with them? What strange kind of lure drew them together? He was starting to put on weight, lose his hair and still she wanted him as much as a seventeen-year-old girl-woman she had been. And he, with his gifts and kisses, loved her equally. Years went by, and they still, they came together now, years after it all ended, and she couldn’t imagine ever loving anyone the way she had loved him. She had tried. A married man – another married man – who kept her dangling. More kids, more promises. A decade had gone by. This time her parents disapproved as much as before – but there was always the excuse of poker evenings, Bridge evenings. Then she moved out and was free for a while.
And so, it began again. Clandestine meetings on odd evenings, meeting him at conferences he was attending. A year like this. Then her father died. She moved back home.
“I can’t see you for a while.” She was flaming angry. Angry at losing her father to a heart attack, he was only 69, her mother widowed at 60. And angry, so damn angry at Nic, Nic calling late at night, whispering into the phone so that Penelope wouldn’t hear him, angry at scared Nic, so angry at the fact that she couldn’t get rid of him, couldn’t shut off the switch, the button. Couldn’t turn him off like a movie become boring, and unpleasant.
“I can’t see you ever, ever again. That’s it.” She told him late at night over the phone. She was busy arranging her mother’s life, filling her mother’s days while she would be at work. Life flowed on, eating away at her days. At first, she was so busy, and still, she admitted, so angry, that she didn’t miss him at all. She went away on her annual two-week break to the South Coast with friends, and that was that.
The December break led to a new year and something seemed to cut away from her. She accepted this, her life, she realised. A job as a secretary in a big company that manufactured TVs, radios, fridges and hifis; two weeks at the coast in summer, a week off in winter. She played cards for money, entered tournaments. Life was safe, safe in the way she had always longed for it to be safe. Safe, secure, comfortable, predictable if you analysed it. But she was getting on too and had no patience for the cut and parry of new relationships, getting to know you dinners, sly shy evenings of removing your clothes and wondering where this one was going to lead.
She didn’t hear from him. She heard about him – as he, no doubt, heard news and rumours of her and what she was doing. The children were young adults now. This was the time he would have left his wife, or so he had promised. She wondered if he would have, in the end. She now doubted it. Was she finally getting to know him better? Was she finally getting to know him?
Then, on her fiftieth birthday he called. Ten years later, she said. She was delighted to hear from him. The cycle began again. As it did, as it always did. This time he took her to Greece, two weeks in Greece on an island where no-one would find them. Years later, she remembered this as a time of magic. Lazy days in a whitewashed village, tinged by the certainty that this time he would end it.
Then the words again: Penelope still needed him; his parents were still alive, this would have an impact.

***

You can’t believe in love at first sight unless you’ve felt it yourself. Unless you’ve stood at the door watching him come up the stairs, leather jacket on his masculine shoulders, a cigarette smouldering in his lips, and that wide-eyed smile he reserves for you. You understand the concept of now, of living now and only in this moment, all you have is now, now stretching out into the anticipation of an evening.
She’d felt this way the first time he had bounded up the stairs of her parents’ home. She was seventeen and he was nineteen and all that mattered was that moment. Her parents liked him immediately. They took to him as a second son, more so. For this second son was brighter, more handsome than theirs. He became a part of Friday evenings at the Rosenbergs; that year after high school they went on holiday together with friends. She took a secretarial course; he finished his university degree in business, poised to take over his father’s firm.
He graduated; she too, graduated from secretarial college and started working. It was the middle of the sixties, miniskirts made their way to conservative South Africa, and beehives grew higher. In photos, Cleo and her friends would wonder how they had thought they looked good this way, but back then the false eyelashes and high hairdos were the height of glamour and beauty.
And the, one day, she was 23 and he had turned 25. Cleo had become as much a part of the his family as he had of hers. She was invited to his holiday home every year; his sister became her best friend. They had been together nearly six years, six years in which each still lived at home – even though friends of each had married and set up home together. Some part of them was waiting, waiting silent, still and cold. Neither was given to much introspection. Life happened as it did, it was enough to go along, to catch those moments of happiness, the future was out there somewhere, but in the meantime there was fun, there were parties, there was some still cold part of where they were that could not be touched.
“Dad wants me to start taking over,” he said one night. They sat outside her home, in his car, sharing a cigarette before she went in.
“That’s great Nic. Do you feel ready for it?”
“Ja, I think I do.”
“When?”
“He wants to announce it at the next annual meeting. But Cleo,”
“Ja…”
“He’s been talking about me getting married…”
“Ja….?”
“I want us to get married Cleo.”
They had discussed it before, of course. Her parents wouldn’t allow any grandchildren of theirs to be raised as anything but Jewish.
“We can raise them as both Jews and Christians,” Nic had said one night after love in the dark.
“You can’t have Jewish Christians!” she had laughed. “I know, we’ll have a boy and a girl. The girl will be Jewish, the boy Christian!”
It was wildly funny. “No, I know,” he said, “we’ll become Hindus and they’ll be perfect Hindus!”
“Buddhists!” she yelled.
“No, Sikhs!”
It ended there; this premature debate on what religion their future children would take. Now Cleo looked at him, threw her arms around him, breathing in that familiar smell of leather jacket and smoke, and whispered in his ear: ”I also want us to get married Nic.”

***

She had felt the lump in her breast ten days ago. The oncologist drew a lump of tissue, confirmed the diagnosis, said with sad and grave eyes, “You’re lucky, we caught it in time.”
“In time….?”
“We’ll do a lumpectomy, then a course of radiation. It’s really at stage one only.”
“How long have I got to live?”
“We have caught it early, we’ll have to see, you may go on to enjoy many more years of health. We will test you and if, in five years, you are cancer-free, I am sure you will die of nothing more serious than old age.”
Cancer. The scourge of modern living, she had told him bitterly. “If you don’t get Aids from screwing around, you get cancer. No one escapes. Now I am going to die from a poisoned breast. Maybe Penelope was right. I should have had children. Don’t they say being pregnancy or having children gives you protection or something?”
“Not breast cancer. I think that’s uterine cancer or something.”
“Who the fuck cares,” she said.
“Let’s go away,” he said.
“You going to be there for me?”
“Of course I am, you know that.”
“No, I don’t know that. What’s Penelope going to say, if you’re caring for me, dying alone somewhere?”
“You’re not going to die. The doctor said he caught it in time. They’re not even going to remove your breast. You’re going to live as long as your mother, longer even. They have made tremendous strides in cancer treatment.”
He’d pay for everything, he said, but first, she said, she wanted to go away, far away from doctors and crime-filled Joburg streets and hijackings and beggars at every corner. He had suggested a week at the coast, but she had found an article about a lodge on an island, at the confluence of three countries. “I want to go there,” she said. “I want to look at three countries at once. I want to go somewhere where there’s no electricity and the generator shuts down at night, where we’ll bump into no-one we know.”
He booked.

***

The first words are lost, the subsequent arguments remembered.
“You can’t marry Nic, Cleo,” her mother said.
They ate breakfast together in the dining room, Mary bringing in toast and hot coffee as her mother stared at Cleo, “My god, Cleo, what were you thinking?”
“Daddy?” Cleo said turning to her father in his blue tartan dressing gown. Saturday morning, but he was going into the office later.
“Your mother’s right, Cleo honey. You can’t marry Nic. You know that. You’ve always known that.”
“Why? Why? Because he’s not Jewish? I’m not Christian either!”
“Cleo, we can’t let you marry Nic, he’s not Jewish and no grandchild of ours will be raised Christian.”
“We’ve discussed all that. Our children will be raised as Jews and Christians, others have done it.”
“Cleo,” her mother, her adored mother said, “if you marry Nic, that’s it. You won’t be welcome in this family again; as far as we will be concerned we won’t have a daughter anymore. Let’s hope Nic’s family will be accommodating, because that’s all the family you’ll have, My parents didn’t die in the Holocaust so that you would marry a Goyim!”
She was in tears as she left the room, Cleo staring after her, her father staring down at his coffee cup.
“Daddy?”
“We love you honey, but we can’t let this happen. Don’t break our hearts. Do what’s right.”
“Why did you let me go out with him then?”
“You never seriously thought about marrying him did you?”
”He’s the only man I have ever loved.”
“You’ll love others.”
“I won’t.”
“We all learn to love other people, Cleo, that’s life.”
“What do you mean?”
But her father was already getting up from his chair.

***

“They threatened to cut me out of the family business, cut me out of the will. I’ll have nothing Cleo. No money, nothing.”
“We can start over. You can build your own business.”
“It’s not that easy.”
“What are you saying Nic?”
“Nothing Cleo. I’m just saying that if I marry you that’s what they said. I have to figure this out. I have to figure something out. Look at what your parents are saying.”
“I can’t believe this Nic. In all these years they haven’t said anything bad about you. They accepted you as part of the family. Not once…. I knew that they would have preferred it if you were Jewish, but I thought, I just thought, we’d work it out. I love my parents Nic, I can’t believe this, but I also can’t live without them. What now?”
Back and forth, back and forth. By now furtively seeing each other, they had endless conversations on the telephone at night, hurried lunches by day, picnics in a park on Sundays. Back and forth, back and forth. Nic’s parents were adamant: they’d disinherit him if he married Cleo. They loved her like a daughter, but she wasn’t Greek, and she wasn’t Christian, and she wasn’t, they knew, going to convert.
“We’re not going to have Jewish grandchildren,” his father said.
“It’s all about the future grandchildren,” Cleo and Nic told each other.
“What if we don’t have children?” he asked.
“I want children,” she said.
Back and forth, a tennis match that could not be won.

***

Then there was the incident with the gun. One night, when Nic showed up to take her out, Cleo’s father got his gun out. Normally kept under the lock and key, he had the pistol cocked and ready when Nic showed up one night, months later. They had been seeing each secretly, but now Nic had had enough.
“I’m taking you out,” he said. “Get your best dress on. We’re going dancing. We’re going to have dinner at that new French bistro and then we’re going to paint the town red. I’ve had enough.”
But when he bounded up the stairs, hair slicked on his boyish face, wearing a new blazer, Cleo’s father was waiting for him at the door.
“If you ever come near my daughter again I’ll kill you!” He pointed the gun at Nic, “You understand? Don’t call her, don’t even think about her. It’s over.”
Cleo watched him leave, flowers in one hand, body drooping. He climbed into the car, reversed. Cleo watched as he got out of the car, placed the flowers on top of the post-box and glanced in at her watching from her bedroom window.
Later, she picked up the flowers, red roses, and put them in water in a vase he’d given her years before.
It was ten years before she saw him again. Ten years before she saw him at a party, pretty Greek woman beside him. His wife of the last five years, small dark and Greek. Not tall, blowsy and red-haired as she was.

***

And now, close to forty years later, she lies on an island hearing the waterfall rush in the distance. It’s late. The day, a full one, of fly fishing, lunch, talk with a the elderly Italian professor of science, out on her annual African holiday – “I always spend a few days here” – a water safari, cocktails ordered around a deepening night, and supper at a large wooden square table. To all here, they are Mr and Mrs Xenopolous, as they are so frequently when they travel. A fake wedding band around her finger.
“How long have you been married?” the Italian professor asks.
“Nearly forty years,” Cleo says. “We married when I was 23.”
“How wonderful. I never married, myself.”
“We were teen sweethearts.”
“Do you have children?”
“We have four children,” Cleo smiles proudly, looking over at Nic in animated conversation with the lodge owner, a disshelveled man in late sixties. “Three boys and the last, a girl.” Thinking, I’d better let Nic know that we now have four children and have been married nearly forty years.
Now, lying on the bed, waiting for him to come back to the tent, she remembers that she didn’t tell him. That the Italian woman might still be there with him, still talking, asking him about his children. Automatically he’d be telling her about his real children, two children, not four. Perhaps, if asked, he’ll look surprised, bluff his way through Cleo’s lie, realising what she has said. It won’t be the first time.
She looks over at her watch, why hasn’t he come to bed? One more night, and they fly home, and back to Johannesburg for Cleo’s operation on Monday. Who is he talking to? Doesn’t he realise they have so little time now?
In the bathroom adjoining the tent, Cleo washes her face of the day’s sweat. Canvas flaps above the room, tacked on, more outdoors than indoors. Leaves have fallen onto the floor, carpeting the bathroom in patterns of green and yellow. The light here is dim and flattering, she looks younger than the sixty she’ll be next year. Perhaps fifty, that’s right, she could, she often does pass for fifty.
“You can have any man you want,” her mother had said, months after the break-up with Nic.
“You’ve never felt resentful towards your parents?” a friend had asked once, hearing the story.
“I’ve always adored my parents,” Cleo had replied. “They’ve always wanted the best for me.”
“But,” the friend had faltered, “but they stopped you from marrying the man you really, really wanted to marry.”
“They wanted the best for me,” Cleo had replied.
“But you never met anyone else after that, I mean, who meant as much, who you wanted to marry.”
“No, I didn’t. I met other men, had other relationships. No-one compared.”
“But you could have had it all.”
“No, no I couldn’t. And the kids, you can’t raise kids as half Jews, half Christians. You have to choose, it’s not fair to them. So, you see, it couldn’t have worked out. My parents knew what was best for me after all.”

Nic stands at the entrance to the bathroom, staring at Cleo through the mirror.
“Did you have a good time?” she asks him, looking at him through the mirror.
“Yes, ok.”
“Who were you talking to?”
“That Franca woman, fascinating stuff. Heard about our four kids by the way. Thanks for warning me, hey.”
“Sorry. Thought you’d figure it out.”
He comes towards her, “How are you feeling?”
“Fine, thanks. Just fine.”
He grabs a towel off the railing, wipes his face.
“Nic?”
“Yes?”
He looks at her, he looks worried, creases between his brows, and he looks tired, so so tired.
You have to choose, she wants to say. You have to choose, I may be dying and now you have to make a decision. Will it be me, or Penelope? Choose. This is your last chance.
“I love you,” she says to his concerned face. “I have always loved you. I always will.”
“I know,” he says, “I know.”
The words sound soothing, but flat.
She takes the towel from him, places it back on the railing. Looking down she sees the basin is strewn with leaves again.

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