By Michael Shafto
LEFT YESTERDAY, went home to England. Went to see his Mom, he said. Except he says “Mum”, of course, as in that
stupid English expression, mum’s the word. If I sound a little bitter, it shouldn’t be too surprising. For starters,
I’m pregnant. Secondly, I’ve no idea if he’s coming back.
Saw the doctor during lunch hour last Friday and he confirmed it. Just on
two months, he said. Silly little man, with round florid face and rimless oblong specs that make his face look even rounder.
Beamed at me and said: “Congratulations, Mrs. er...” even though there are no rings on any of my fingers. Or in
my ears or nose for that matter.
Gave him the news over dinner that night, a small restaurant with outside
tables for when the weather’s good, where we sometimes eat at weekends.
“Oh,” was all he said, eyes firmly on his plate, as he went on
chewing at his fillet steak. It seemed he was sort of expecting it. Then after a while he put aside his knife and fork, took
a deep swig of his beer, and announced he was going home to see Mum.
Will he come back? The plain truth is I don’t know.
I started throwing up in the morning about ten days ago. These days I can’t
keep breakfast down for love or money. There I go again, more bitterness – but in the circumstances that’s quite
apt, don’t you think? Reminds me of the Beatles – Can’t buy me lu-urve. Damn! And I thought we had such a wonderful understanding. I wouldn’t have slept with him otherwise, would
We had been dating – what a trite word that is – for almost six months. He’s not very forthcoming, but I understand Mummy lives somewhere north of
London, in a village near Cambridge. None of this used to matter. It was him I was interested in, not where he came from or
who his parents were. We met at this private hotel up on the Berea, where we both live. Southleigh
Lodge, it’s called. I’m an aspiring actress. I’m employed by a theatrical company
in the city, Jo’burg, of course. I haven’t played a major role yet, just understudying. But I could get a chance
soon: I’m doing Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire – and the woman
actually doing the part, Tanya Latham-Smith, has come down just yesterday with some virus or other. They suspect it’s
chicken-pox. If that’s confirmed it could be my big chance. The show opens in a week.
Then this has to happen.
My name’s Anna Kirkwood, by the way; his is Norman Morgan. He’s
lived here, in South Africa, for the last eighteen months. He works for an insurance company, transferred out here from the
parent company in England. Their head office is in Manchester. No, he doesn’t talk like a North Country lad. On the
contrary, very upper class. British stiff upper-lip and all that. He’s an enigma, and as I said not very forthcoming
where personal matters are concerned.
So we’re at this restaurant when I blurt it out. “Norm,”
I say casually as I can manage – as though we’re discussing the price of lettuce heads at the supermarket, “I
thought I ought to tell you: I’m pregnant.”
“Oh.” He pushes his steak around, like a surgeon looking for
the right spot to start his incision.
That riles me a bit. “That all you got to say?”
He looks briefly up at me. “Well um, I mean, you not feeling sick right
now, are you?”
“Not right now, no.”
“Well that’s good.” He chews and swallows, then lifts his
head again. “It’s just that, I meant to tell you this earlier. This morning actually, but then you dashed off...
said you’d be late for rehearsal or something, so I didn’t get the chance.”
“Tell me what?”
“Just that I booked a ticket earlier this week...” He lowers
his mouth to take in more of the fillet steak, skewering some chips with it.
“A ticket? What you mean – plane?”
“Sorry, I thought I said plane. Well, yes. Ticket to London.”
It comes out so matter-of-factly, as though I must be daft not to have got it first time. “Got a spot of leave due,
you see, and thought I might as well go home and see Mum. Her only sister, who used to live with her – has done since
the Old Man died two years ago – has done the craziest thing. She met this man in a pub... I mean, would you believe?
Next thing she’s gone to live with him in Manchester or somewhere – and now the Old Girl’s all alone. So,
well... you know?”
I know nothing – feathers. This is the first time I’ve even heard
of the aunt, his mother’s sister.
I gape at him, trying not to shake my head.
“I’m sorry,” he says. “I know this must be a bit
of a shock.”
That’s an understatement. “When d’you go?” I don’t
know whether to start bawling or kick his shins under the table.
“Wednesday. Morning flight.” We don’t say a word in the
car on the way back to Southleigh Lodge. He comes to my room as usual. His
is just down the passageway, but he almost never sleeps there.
that more or less was it.
He went off for a bath, stayed there for an age; I was so tired after a heavy
day of rehearsals that I fell asleep. Next day, Saturday, I had rehearsals at ten. He went off with some of his mates to cricket
at the Wanderers. Came home late. Burbling about Kevin Pietersen and his “incredible hundred” for England. Then
on and on about “idiotic SA cricket authorities, losing a player like that over these silly bloody quotas”. He
was a little drunk; sat in bed with head wobbling a little, looking at me dreamily. I kept gazing at the clean sculpted look
of his bare chest. Then he reached across
took my face in the fork of his large, long-fingered hand, kissed me gently on the cheek, flopped over and went to sleep.
Sunday he was up early and out in the yard at the back of the hotel, washing
his car; then waxed and polished it. I came out and asked if I could help. “No, sweetie, no,” he says. “It’s
such mucky work, you’ll only get yourself all dirtied up. Why don’t you put on that new Abba CD I got for you
last week” – God! Only last week when everything seemed so normal
– “and look over your lines in Streetcar. You can go over them
with me later. How’s that?”
We do that after a take-away lunch in my room; him watching me from the chair
in the corner, me striding about gesturing, saying the lines. Norman’s very good with things like that; he has an uncanny
intuition about theatre for someone who’s not an actor. He makes all the right suggestions for the delivery of a line;
the pitch of the voice, body language, facial expression. He’d make a good director.
While we’re working half my mind goes back to when we first met. It
was at breakfast that first morning. The management had put him at my table. The two other regulars at the table – a
young bank clerk and a middle-aged divorcee who worked in the accounts department at Woolworths – had already hurried
off to the bus-stop. He was all ears when I told him I worked for a theatrical company. He liked plays, he said; the movies,
too. He used to go regularly to the theatre in England, he said. He told me some of the plays he’d seen; the names of
his favourites on the screen. Then we got onto books, and it soon became evident he was crazy about Scott Fitzgerald; reckoned
The Great Gatsby was about the best book ever written.
“I’ll bet you’ll say the second best is Tender is the Night,”
“Right first time.”
At that time the company was doing the English farce, See
How they Run, and I was understudying the female lead, being played, of course, by Tanya. I arranged
for tickets for Norman and he enjoyed it, and enjoyed even more the Saturday night get-together at a nearby nightclub after
the show. He got on famously with everyone, danced quite a bit with Tanya. He often came to our parties after that.
But then a strange thing happened. He began making excuses not to come
to the theatre. Then he confessed he found them all rather shallow – “except you, of course, my love.”
We were in bed. It was a Sunday morning, after he’d picked me up after the late show the night before. He’d said
he just didn’t feel like the nightclub scene, so we’d driven straight home. “I’d rather cut them out
if you don’t mind,” he said.
Anyway the rest of that Sunday, with him helping me rehearse as Blanche everything
was almost normal. In the afternoon we went for a long walk down Houghton Drive and pottered about The Wilds a bit before
heading home. We go to bed early. We make love that night. He is thoughtful, tender. “Tender is the night,” he
whispers against my ear.
“Oh, Scott,” I whisper back. Corny, I know. But it dates back
to the very start of the relationship, when everything was beautiful, nothing was corny. I bite my lip, but then I say it.
“Norman, you are coming back, aren’t you?”
“Of course! What makes you say such a thing?”
I mumble something, holding on tightly to this stardust spray of happiness
before falling asleep. Monday morning he’s gone before I’m awake. On his pillow is a note, torn from one of the
spiral-backed notebooks he always carries with him. Annie, it says, Got to be at the office early – tidy up etc. Also conference
with the boss. See you early this evening. We’ll make it a night to remember. Extra “Tender”. Love you lots
incredibly, I’ve got the part. I’m Blanche. It turns out the other girl has left the company in a huff over a
huge row with the director. She was having an affair with him and – here’s irony for you – is four months
pregnant. He swears it can’t be his child. He’s had a vasectomy! She threw an ashtray at him, gashed his forehead.
But, of course, the show must go on. We rehearse until two in the morning. One day to spare, we open Thursday night.
All day I’ve tried to phone him to give him the news. His cellphone
is off. I hang on to the picture of his face, the earnestness of his eyes when he spoke those words: What
makes you say such a thing? Is it possible for a man to look at you with such openness and not mean
When I get back to the hotel it’s going on for three o’clock.
He’s nowhere to be found. He’s gone. He has a key to my room; he has cleared all the clothes and personal belongings
he kept there. His room is unlocked. It’s bare. At Reception, the night-duty porter confirms by checking the register
that he left mid-morning. In a daze I stagger off to bed. It’s scant comfort but I hang on to it desperately –
Fitzgerald’s epigraph for Norman’s second favourite book: Already with thee! Tender is
Somehow I fall asleep. In the morning I’ll phone his work. Then I’ll
know the truth. I’ll know whether or not he’s coming back....
Click here to read more Short Stories in this