Joburg Gothic

by Gary Cumminskey

 

The midnight streets were empty. As Paul drove from his townhouse he shivered from the cold, but it would only be a short journey, especially at this hour. He battled to believe he had been in bed only a few minutes earlier and had quickly thrown on some clothes to drive at such a late hour for a meeting with this woman from Cape Town, Aurelia, a potential novelist. He prided himself on being a professional editor at his publishing company, of setting up meetings at the office or at most at coffee shops. He had never agreed to meet at midnight at some unknown hotel, even if it was only a twenty-minute drive from where he lived.

Aurelia had contacted him about five months before, enquiring about submitting a novel for publication. A few weeks later he received the bulky manuscript in the mail. It was a month before he looked at it. It showed promise, there was depth, a strong narrative and good characterisation, but it required substantial editing. At times the writing was too ponderous, with too much unnecessary detail, at others it hurried jauntily over incidents like a child playing hopscotch. But it had potential.

Their initial correspondence about the novel had been formal. He sent her a brief evaluation report, highlighting its strengths and making suggestions for improvements. She then started sending him long letters explaining, in a roundabout way, the background to the novel, rooted as it was in her own life, with her being brought up by an abusive father and a timid mother, a hasty early marriage to a garage mechanic followed a few years later by an equally hasty divorce. And now she was married to an academic and had a four-year-old daughter. She repeated these facts again and again, almost to the point of insistence, perhaps as a justification for the novel’s haphazard, unstructured shape. “I don’t have time for literature,” she wrote, “only for what is.”

He had written back, again highlighting the novel’s potential, but stressing the need for revision. He told her whole sections would have to be reworked, especially as there were inconsistencies, to which she replied: “We shouldn’t believe everything we write.”

She wasn’t happy in her marriage, Aurelia confided. Her husband was sweet, thoughtful and considerate, but he could not get in contact with her. He doesn’t know me. He doesn’t touch me. He only touches my body. When Paul had read her words he felt a stirring in his groin.

Now, months later, after much wrangling about the novel and how it might be received by the market, he had agreed to meet her. She worked for a small public relations firm and was coming to Joburg on business with her boss, whom she called the Ogre. “He knows how unhappy I am but instead of being supportive, he seems to enjoy it. My unhappiness gives him a sense of power,” she wrote. Paul had suggested there would be no time to meet, but she was insistent. “No, we must meet and discuss the novel. I agree with your suggestions, but we need to discuss it face to face. Then perhaps you will understand. But the novel must be published. It has to be published,” she wrote.

They exchanged cellphone numbers and on the day of her arrival in Joburg she called him. “We must meet tonight for supper. We will discuss the novel. We will meet at about eight.” But by late afternoon she called again: “We have a meeting that will last until eight, perhaps we can only do coffee – but the novel must be discussed!”

In the evening she phoned a third time. “We will be in this meeting until almost midnight. Perhaps we could meet tomorrow morning?” That was impossible, Paul told her. He had an early meeting. It was best to leave it for another time. Besides, he had given her enough feedback on the book.

And so they left it at that. Paul had gone to bed about ten, read for a while then drifted off to sleep. At about half-past eleven his cellphone rang. “It’s Aurelia. We are coming home now. Let’s meet at the hotel for coffee and discuss the novel in my room,” she said.

“But it’s almost midnight!” Paul had protested.

“No, I want you to come. I want you to be there,” she said.

His initial thought was he should tell her to go to hell; he’d had enough of her nonsense. He had begun to have serious reservations about whether the book could ever be put into decent shape.

“You must come! I need to discuss the novel. It is important to me!” she almost yelled. Reluctantly, he took down directions to the hotel. He leapt out of bed, got dressed hurriedly, and took his car keys. “This is madness,” he thought. “I can’t believe I am allowing myself to be bullied by this crazy woman.”

Yet as he drew nearer to the hotel, turning into the street where it was situated, Paul felt a strange sense of exhilaration. He recalled how when he was younger he used to hitchhike around the city at night, always convinced that at some point he would be picked up by a young blonde woman wearing a short skirt and no panties. How she would want him to feel her between her thighs while she was driving. But it never happened.

Paul slowed down as he approached a traffic boom. The security guard approached the car warily and rudely asked where he was driving. Paul told him the name of the hotel in the boomed-off street. The guard looked at him suspiciously.

“Are you staying there?” he asked.

“No, I am just visiting,” Paul replied. The guard peered into the car for a moment, looked directly at him, then walked off to lift the boom. “Thank you,” Paul said as he drove through, but the guard did not reply.

Paul drove slowly down the street, peering into the darkness, looking for the hotel, when he was confronted by another boom. “This is unbelievable,” he thought.

This time, the guard simply lifted the boom and let him through without any questions, but Paul pulled to a stop to ask the guard where the hotel was. “It is the second building on the left-hand side,” the guard said coldly. Paul noticed a knife scar down the side of his face and shuddered, then drove off slowly.

Sure enough, there was the hotel, a large old building, locked behind electronic security gates. Aurelia had told him to call her when he arrived, so she could arrive with the remote control to let him through.

Paul dialled her number and as she answered, before he could say anything, she said: “Shush, I am coming to let you in.”

About ten seconds later she arrived. She was tall, slender, with long blonde hair, wearing a black evening dress with a choker around her throat. She opened the gate and as he drove into the courtyard, she led him through to the visitor’s parking space.

As he locked the car, she said: “At last! I have so much wanted to meet you to discuss my novel. I’m sorry it’s so late. We can go to my room. But first we have to go through the Ogre’s room. With the main doors being locked this time of night, it is the only way through.”

Paul hadn’t counted on meeting this mysterious Ogre she had frequently referred to, this overbearing and demanding boss who seemed to delight in her unhappiness. But he walked with her towards the open French windows leading into the Ogre’s room, following behind her tall, willowy figure.

The Ogre was sitting on the bed, busy with his laptop. As they entered the room, she introduced them. The Ogre looked up at Paul and shook hands. He looked old, grey-haired before his time, frustrated and irritated. “None of my e-mails will download,” he complained. “Where do you live that you were willing to come out here at this time of night?” he asked.

Paul could sense Aurelia felt intimidated by the Ogre, but he saw nothing challenging in this tired, prematurely ageing man. After a few pleasantries, Aurelia said: “And now Paul and I must discuss my novel.”

“Oh yes, the novel. We are all looking forward to its publication,” said the Ogre with a hint of sarcasm. Paul saw Aurelia winch, visibly wounded by the remark, but she said nothing and led him through a door into a hallway.

The hallway was long, narrow, dark and silent. There were doors on each side and Paul wondered how many of the rooms were occupied, and who was in them.

“This is a fascinating old house,” he said as they walked into her room.

The room was nondescript, like any other hotel room: a double bed, side tables, and a bathroom. No television, though. There was a small area in the corner with a kettle and some cups, with sachets of coffee.

“Not the best,” said Aurelia, as she plugged in the kettle, “but under the circumstances, what can one expect?”

“It’s fine,” Paul replied, “especially at this time of night!” He laughed, awkwardly; she looked at him strangely, as if for a moment she did not know who he was or why he was in her room.

Paul was watching her closely, how her long evening dress clung to her body. She was attractive, stunning and far sexier than he had imagined her to be.

“I realise it’s late at night, but we must talk,” she said “What is your feeling about the novel?” she asked, bringing two cups of coffee to the bed, where they sat down. “Do you think it will sell? Will it do the job?”

“Well, it’s not really a matter of its doing the job,” Paul said, “but rather of whether the novel will do the job for the market. It needs serious work. You need to work at it, I told you that.”

“I know,” she replied, “but I don’t have time for that nonsense. I admit I’m lazy in that respect, I have no time for rewriting.”

“But the novel needs rewriting,” he insisted. “It can’t be published in its current shape.”

Aurelia stood up and went over to her handbag. “Can I show you a photo of my daughter? She is everything to me. She is my life.”

Paul wasn’t particularly interested, but agreed. She sat down beside him and showed him a small photo of a young girl, a nondescript, blonde-haired youngster, nothing exceptional.

“She is beautiful, don’t you think?” she asked.

“Sure,” Paul said. “She is a wonderful little girl.”

“She is crippled,” Aurelia said suddenly.

Paul said nothing, stunned into silence, not knowing what to say.

“She was crippled from birth,” Aurelia said as she stood up and began to pace the room. “We knew it would be a difficult birth, but I insisted on her being born at home. I wouldn’t go to a hospital. I was against such nonsense. The birth was awkward and so she was crippled. Does it show in the photo?”

“No,” Paul said quickly, feeling uncomfortable.

“My husband blamed me,” she said as she walked around the room. She looked down at Paul. “Do you think I am guilty? Did I injure my child?” she asked.

“No, not at all,” Paul stammered. “You can’t be blamed. You acted with the best of intentions. It’s not your fault.”

“My husband says I am guilty!” she almost shouted. “I need to get away from him! Every day I hear his accusations! Every time I look into my child’s eyes, I see his accusing stare!”

Paul put his coffee down. This wasn’t what he expected. In fact, he hadn’t known what to expect.

“But my novel,” she said, getting down on her knees before him, as he sat on the edge of the bed. “Will it sell? That is the most important thing, will it sell?” she demanded.

“I’ve already told you, many times, it needs work,” Paul said, reaching for his coffee again. He needed to keep his hands occupied; he felt like he wanted to hit this woman.

“But what will it fetch?” she asked.

“Fetch?” he asked, not sure what she was referring to.

“Fetch! How much money will it bring me?” she said as she stood up and began to pace the room again.

Paul almost burst out laughing. “You must be joking!” he said. “Novels don’t bring in much money these days, not even enough for three meals a day!”

She looked as if he had slapped her. She threw herself at his knees. “But the novel must sell! It must sell!”

Aurelia’s eyes looked so strange he wondered if she was on drugs. He looked at her staring up at him.

“It must sell!” she said again. “Then I will have enough money to leave my husband! Take my daughter with me! Leave his accusing eyes!” she pleaded.

This woman was insane, Paul decided. Why on earth had he agreed to meet with her?

“One book doesn’t sell well enough for a person to become financially independent,” he said. “Really, I thought you realised that. We would be lucky to recover the costs on your book.”

“Don’t say that!” she yelled. “This book is the key! It will let me … let me out there!” she said, pointing out of the window.

Paul put his coffee down. “I’m sorry,” he said, “I don’t think this will work…the novel…perhaps it is best forgotten.”

He got up from the bed to leave when she suddenly grabbed his arms. “No, you can’t do this! I need to escape!”

Paul didn’t say anything. He suddenly thought about his hitchhiking past and his fantasies about a mysterious woman picking him up late at night.  He was putting his hand up her skirt. An impulse took hold of him and he began kissing Aurelia full on the mouth. She did not reject him, nor did she respond. He put his arms around her, stroking her back, feeling her breasts, then as she gasped he slid his hand under her dress, up the inside of her legs and began caressing the inside of her thighs.

“Yes,” she whispered, “do it to me, fuck me!”

Paul’s hand moved under her panties slightly; he could feel her pubic hair.

“No!” she said, pulling away. “The Ogre will know! He knows everything!”

“He won’t hear anything,” Paul said, trying to hold her and slipping his hand back up to her panties.

“No!” she insisted, pushing his hand away and pulling away from him. “You don’t understand! I’m on my period!”

Paul froze. He was eight years old. His mother called him into the toilet. He looked in and she was sitting on the pan holding a bloody tampon out to him. “Little boys should not see this,” she said to him, “but I’m showing it to you so you will see how women suffer. It’s because we have to give birth; that is why we bleed like this.”

He moved away from Aurelia, leaving her standing solitary in the room. He wiped his mouth and said, “I’m sorry, this should never have happened. I should never have agreed to this meeting. It was bizarre from the beginning.”

She did not reply.

“I should be going now, it is late,” he said quietly.

“Yes,” Aurelia replied. She rubbed her hands, then said: “I guess I should forget about my novel…”

Paul was silent for a moment then said, “Yes, perhaps you should …approach a different publisher.”

He started towards the door. He turned back to look at her, watching her standing in the middle of the room, looking bewildered.

“I must let you out through the Ogre’s room,” she said. “Please don’t let on anything has happened! He tortures me!”

Paul looked at her. She was insane. He wanted to leave. He had to get back home.

Without a word, she led him out of the room, back through the long dark corridor, and opened the door to the Ogre’s room.

The Ogre was still sitting on the bed, working at his laptop. “Well,” he said, taking off his glasses and looking up at them. “That is two hundred e-mails finally downloaded. How many e-mails do you get a day?” he asked Paul.

“Not two hundred,” Paul said, laughing, as Aurelia stood at his side.

“Paul is leaving now,” she said. “We have discussed my novel.”

“Ah,” said the Ogre, “and how are the prospects?” he asked with a leer.

“The novel is under serious consideration,” said Paul, with a sudden distaste for him. “We will decide how things go…but things are looking…favourable.”

“Excellent!” said the Ogre, clapping his hands. “Then we will look forward to a bestseller!”

Paul shook hands with him and then Aurelia led him silently to his car. As he opened his car door, he said: “It was nice meeting you.”

“Don’t be sarcastic!” she spat.

“No,” Paul said quickly, “I mean it. You are a wonderful person.” He realised he was lying, so added: “Perhaps we can talk again about the novel…under different circumstances.”

“Yes, I’m sure,” she said coldly.

She followed Paul’s car through to the gate, then watched him drive off into the night. Into his life. Into something she did not know.

She strolled slowly back to the Ogre’s room. It was cold, but she liked the cold. It cured sickness, she thought.

Aurelia walked back into the room. He did not look at her. Instead, he asked quietly: “And was it a worthwhile encounter?”

Aurelia hesitated, then said: “Yes, we discussed my novel. It will do well.”

“And what is the full name of your midnight visitor?” he asked, again without looking up at her.

She told him. “Why do you want to know?” she asked. “Are you planning to hurt him?”

“No, not at all,” he replied. “But if need be, I will have my contacts check him out. Make sure he is genuine. You know I can do that.”

“I’m sick of you!” Aurelia yelled. “You interfere all the time!”

“I do?” he asked, looking up. “And may I enquire about your dear husband and child?” he said sarcastically.

Aurelia wanted to tell him to go to hell, but said nothing. She walked towards the door to the corridor, her hand on the doorknob.

“You have a husband and child, remember?” the Ogre said, looking back down at his laptop. “That poor crippled child…”

“Damn you! I hate you!” Aurelia yelled at him.

“You do?” the Ogre asked harshly, looking up at her. “Well, what about last time? What about our last business trip, when you went mad -”

“I didn’t go mad!” Aurelia interrupted.

“You did go mad!” the Ogre yelled back at her. “You went mad, and who was the one who went looking for you, brought you back, cleaned up the mess you left behind, took you back to your child, to your husband, to the man who knows nothing of what happened? Who was it?” he demanded.

Aurelia felt suffocated. She wanted to rip the choker from her throat and throw it at him.

“Don’t do that,” he said, as if sensing her thoughts. “It didn’t cost much, but it means something.”

Aurelia stood breathless, saying nothing.

The Ogre looked at his watch. “We are due to have a meeting at nine. There is a lot to be done, so I suggest you go to bed,” he said, switching off his laptop.

Aurelia reluctantly agreed; there was no point in arguing. Yes, she should go to bed.

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