Sunday Times Books LIVE Community Sign up

Login to Sunday Times Books LIVE

Forgotten password?

Forgotten your password?

Enter your username or email address and we'll send you reset instructions

Sunday Times Books LIVE

Finuala Dowling

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Gratuitous information

This short story appeared in the January edition of The Big Issue. The February edition is now out – buy your copy today!

The book wasn’t very interesting. Only Pat had made it past chapter one. The book club was fascinated by the author, though. He was known around Cape Town for making women fall in love with him before cruelly rejecting them.

“Genevieve tried to climb the drainpipe outside his bedroom,” offered Lily. “The bastard wouldn’t open the window. She’d have fallen to her death if the Chubb Alarm guy hadn’t caught her.”

It was absurd how much they all knew about each other in this town, thought Pat. For instance, she knew that Lily herself had arrived drunk at a dinner party given by the famous but hard-to-read author and thrown up in the soup. What was one supposed to do with all this gratuitous information?

The book club’s talk turned to sex, which was easier than pretending to have read the roué’s eleventh novel. Pat listened without participating. She wanted sex as much as she wanted a carrot in her ear. No, that was not true – she’d prefer the carrot because then at least she could get on with chores. You could get a load of towels folded with a carrot in your ear, if you had good balance and didn’t need to answer the telephone in between. The same could not be said of sex. On the other hand, she only had to have sex once a month, whereas she did the towels daily.

“If I come into the bedroom and see that he’s lit candles and put out my dominatrix outfit, I think: Oh no, what a chore!”

It was their hostess, Debs, exclaiming. Debs was utterly feminine, a Charlize Theron of the Marina.

“Your dominatrix outfit!” Then they laughed because they’d said it in unison.

“I just get on with it, you know, because Des is really so sweet and generous. If he occasionally wants to be whipped and then penetrated with a dildo, it’s the least I can do. Afterwards, when he’s asleep, I get out of that silly outfit, clean up the paraphernalia and put it away where the kids and the maid won’t find it. Then I put on my kimono, walk outside and I fantasize.”

As if acting out her own story, Debs approached the glass sliding doors and opened them slightly.

“I slip off the kimono, and step into the pool. Goose bumps rise up and firm my breasts, my nipples.”

“But you guys don’t have a pool,” said Maxine.

“Shhh!” said the others.

Debs had reached the point of disclosure, the point where most women pull back and offer cups of coffee or a joke. If they held their breath, Debs would keep walking down those imaginary steps with her round, full breasts.

“I start to swim towards the deep end, where the blossoms droop over the rock feature. It’s too deep for me to stand. I turn around so that my back is against the wall, stretch my arms out along the ledge. I move my legs around – not exactly exercising, but enjoying the silky feel of the water against every crevice.”

“Suddenly I hear twigs breaking – a thud. My heart stops. An intruder! I recognize him. It’s the student who rents our neighbour’s cottage. He’s wearing nothing but a towel around his waist. He’s obviously been making a habit of this – jumping over the wall for a midnight swim. I stay quietly in my shady bower, suspended, naked, defenceless. He drops the towel and stands there rubbing his lean, broad chest.”

Maxine swallowed wetly, audibly. The room had grown dark but no one dared to switch on the light.

“He sits on the edge of the pool and then ducks in. He’s swum a few strokes before he sees me.”

“Then what did you do?” asked Maxine.

Pat poured more wine into their glasses. “It’s Debs’ fantasy, remember? Not real. Go on Debs.”

“I’m still filled with all these feelings of frustration from the unsatisfying sex with Des. Watching Des having his pleasure has aroused me in a strange way. It’s made me think about how I want sex without add-ons, gadgets, gizmos. I want to be me, Debs, with my thighs wrapped round a second-year B.Com student who can’t believe his luck. So when he looks up, mid-stroke, and sees me, I smile in that way that says: keep coming in this direction. He’s a bright boy; it takes him only a second to adjust. Then I’m in his arms and we’re kissing and he’s drawing me back a little, to a place where he can stand.”

Debs yawned and reached for her wine.

“Ja, so that’s my fantasy.”

“Does this boy really live next to you?” persisted Maxine.

“Ja. And he even jumps over the wall sometimes — in his baggies, though. The kids love it.”

“So it is real, then,” said Maxine. “You could catch your death of cold.”

It really was tedious having someone like Maxine in the book club, thought Pat as she drove home. She’d nearly interrupted Debs at a crucial point. They had not wanted Debs to stop. Every step of the way, they had wanted to ask: “And then what?” Debs wasn’t even a writer and yet she’d got it right.

If she could write the way Debs fantasized, maybe she’d earn more money. Her husband Jesse gave her a generous housekeeping allowance. She didn’t long for a new kitchen or a pool. What Pat really wanted was nine months off; to be able to hire an au pair during the week and maybe even retire to a country cottage for whole weekends. Then she’d write another novel – uninterrupted.

She knew that this one would be set slightly in the future, when borders would be closing against immigrants, when countries with functioning hospitals and roads would be so saturated with supplicant humanity that airports would become refugee camps, points of deportation. Then her character … the character would come, if only she were left alone to think. But always when she sat down to write, a child came in looking for a sandwich or Elastoplast.

At home, the children were asleep and Jesse was sitting at the kitchen table reading a copy of Bedmate. He said he’d leave it there for her, he was going to shower. The kitchen was clean and he’d folded the towels.

Jesse’s monthly copy of Bedmate did the rounds of his friends in much the same way as the latest novels circulated in Pat’s book club. Des would be next, then Alain.

Pat glanced at the pictures — not noticeably different from the previous month’s — before turning to the editorial pages.

Typically, the story began in medias res. No context. A woman with enormous breasts is drinking coffee in a café. She eyes the waiter. He eyes her. She goes to the restroom. He joins her. The cubicle is small and their clothes get in the way. Her bazoombas, smothering him, are the point of the story.

In a text box at the bottom of the page was some advice about how to submit your stories to Bedmate, and an email address. The magazine paid $1 a word. Her novel had paid her sixteen South African cents a word, Pat calculated. A 1000-word piece of erotica could earn R6000, once the bank had carved off its ledger fee. Her growing excitement reminded her that Jesse was waiting.

Before the children woke, she’d typed and mailed Debs’ sex-in-the-pool story, adding lubricity and thrusting. By suppertime, she’d received a reply. The editor found her story “a bit prosey” but was going to run it. He said he’d like more.

It was easy to get Lily drunk and talking about the famous author. She’d interviewed him when he was newly famous, ended up staying the night. Things were never peaceful, though.

They’d fight – real fisticuffs, slapping and smashed crystal. Then at some point in the altercation, the violence would turn into sex: exhilarating, clothes-ripping sex. Lily was tall, with muscled calves. Pat believed her.

He was in pursuit now, calling her a whore and a slut. Then he slipped on a rug, lost his balance, crying out as he fell back. He tried to clutch onto a bookcase, but only succeeded in bring his latest book down over his face. She was on him now, astride his hips, pulling off his belt so that she could lash his wrists together. He begged her to remove the novel from his face, but she refused. “You lick that,” she said. In the hollow between waistband and skin, she could see a tuft of pubic hair. She pulled down the zip of his jeans to see

“Mommy, Kylie’s hitting me”

“Hit her back,” said Pat.

She put in fewer elements of disguise this time because there was no chance that Lily, who was divorced, would come across a copy of Bedmate. She hadn’t factored in the way this city chattered.

“How could you? Of course someone showed it to him. He’s utterly recognizable. He knows it’s me! He’s never going to invite me to lunch again and you know that’s the only place I get to meet the straight men of Cape Town! It’s like you just sat there and let me dictate the whole scene to you. You – you amanuensis of porn!”

“But that’s what I do,” replied Pat. “And if literary fiction won’t pay my way, I’m justified in finding a genre that will.”

Pat wasn’t sure what to do about Maxine’s story. It was so sad, really. All Maxine wanted was for Alain to make love to her. “Anywhere in particular?” asked Pat, hoping for something unusual, like a dog kennel. But Maxine would be happy to have Alain in bed, lights off, duvet up to the chin.

Her husband, Maxine revealed, surfed porn. He didn’t want her at all, shuddered if she touched him. “What about divorce?” suggested Pat. Maxine shook her head. She wanted to keep her loser.

Pat set Maxine’s story in a time of crisis, with permanent power outages. That got rid of the computer. She reduced Maxine and Alain to castaways. She stripped them of everything but a few drops of water dripping off the eaves of their blackened and shell-holed home. She made them work naked in the sun and sleep on cardboard, rolled together in a moulting eiderdown. Because Maxine accepted that Alain found her repulsive, in Pat’s story she conducted herself modestly, lay quietly and neutrally beside him in the porn-free night. He craved her now, but had to seduce her all over again, with slow and tender caresses that sloughed dry mud from her body.

In October, Des came home with a pool brochure for Debs. Both of them wanted a rock feature at the deep end, with hanging plants. “Kind of like a bower,” said Debs.

In November, Maxine announced that she was building a wattle-and-daub hideaway, without electricity or running water, on a farm out of town.

Pat needed one more story to secure her sabbatical. She’d run out of friends’ hay bale-, blind men-, motorcyclist-, sun cream- and clitoris-detecting-lesbian fantasies.

In the trance state she used when writing, Pat imagined the cottage she would hire. Evenings on the stoep would be particularly beautiful in this platteland town. Jesse arrives at dusk, unexpectedly, without the children. He sits in a low armchair. She comes out with their drinks, wearing a wide-skirted frock and no underwear. She sits on his lap; they look out at the mountains, his breath in her nape. Aroused, he shifts unobtrusively to allow penetration. Passers-by, unaware, wave politely from the street below.

Evenings on the stoep were indeed particularly beautiful in the platteland town. Pat wrote for uninterrupted hours, in a state of visionary inspiration.

Her second novel was short-listed for the Orange prize. Pat was reluctant to attend the award ceremony. A scandal was breaking around her head. When she’d confronted Lily about it, all Lily would say was: “But it’s what I do.”

The man in the middle of the road was holding his batch of newspapers aloft as if he knew that the headline applied to the woman in the airport shuttle drawing up alongside him. LOCAL ORANGE PRIZE AUTHOR IN PORN SHOCK. Already, sales had doubled.


Please register or log in to comment