I am not feeling good, in fact I am feeling downright lousy, morose, uncommunicative and ready to kill given enough provocation. The idea of stopping in for a drink before going home had been a stupid one. Here I sit staring at a mirror, bevelled no less, encased in red Cuban mahogany. The edges are starting to show de lamination of the silver reducing its glamorous effect reminding me of a woman I knew who got some sort of dread disease and in a couple of months went from bright and sparkly to dull and lined with care and pain. The mirror reflects the movement, the life, the happiness of the people behind me which jars with my present mood. Cynically I wonder how many of those really beautiful jolly people behind me, being so happy, so alive, so engaged are actually hurting inside like me and just don't have the strength of character to be downright miserable. I take another sip of whiskey, breathe in at the wrong moment and start to choke on the stuff. Expensive it is too. Johnny Walker Black, served in a wine glass at my request. The barman knows me well enough to start racking up the triple as I walk in the door. What's that you say? Triples are illegal? Possibly they are, but money persuaded even the most conservative barman to ignore the rules and give me what I want. Part of my philosophy. Got a problem? Throw money at it. The bigger the problem the more money you throw. Simple. If you don't have enough money to resolve the issue, and violence is not an option, then walk away. Makes decision making simple and uncomplicated.
I have just gotten control of the whiskey when my thought patterns are shattered entirely. It's the flash of emerald that catches my eye, the red gold hair coming almost as an afterthought. The hour glass figure is merely a frame on which the emerald dress is hung, more like stretched. The colours, the movement, the presence captivate me entirely and I watch her weave her way across to a large group of fashionistas, talk for a few moments and then drift like a green mist through the crowd of sweating dancers towards the bar and me. I didn't move, I am not going to swivel and watch her move across the floor in real life, I am going to do it second hand, via that old, scruffy mirror. The mirror adds a patina of interesting murk, grubbiness, sleaze to the woman whom I know will be a vapour headed prattling stream of consciousness, whose stream will only be punctuated by messages arriving on the large phablet I can see clutched in her hand.
I sigh and move over slightly as she winds up sliding in next to me. I can feel the warmth of her body radiating from her, a faint spicy perfume wafts across my nose and I make a mental note not to drink any more whiskey until she is well gone. The barman Richard, is gay so all her pouting and waving doesn't get her any preferential treatment especially as there was a rich and fairly handsome man flirting with him. She sigh and settles down to wait as Richard prances and preens and hopes for a score this evening.
"How do you get served here?" she asks, less petulantly than I expect.
"Patience, and if you are waiting for Richard, a penis."
"I don't have either but you look like you have both'
I sigh again, wave my arm vaguely in Richards direction and go back to staring at the woman in the mirror. The heavy tipping works as I expected it to, and Richard hurries over, stares at my half glass of whiskey suspiciously, then at me.
"Another?" Incredulity stains his voice and his face.
I sigh again, look at the woman directly because Richard is blocking my view.
"Well?" I ask.
She looks at me, looks at my glass and back at Richard.
"Same as him please?"
"Triple?" Richard asks somewhat maliciously.
"Of course. If he is having triple then so am I?"
Richard looks at me. "On your tab?" knowing it will beef up his tip at the end of the night. I just nod and he hurries away.
Comes back with a wine glass filled with a triple, puts it down and hurries back to the rich man at the other end of the bar.
She lifts the glass and somewhat injudiciously takes a largish mouthful of whiskey without first sniffing. The effect is not what I expect. I am waiting for choking, for sprayed whiskey, for anything except what happens. She swallows the entire mouthful, stares at the glass for a few seconds, nods;
"Lovely. Strange way to serve Black, but quite understandable."
I nod and go back to contemplating the world through the grubby mirror.
She stares at me in the mirror for a while, looks at me directly.
"Do I know you?"
"Why do you say that?"
"I am allergic to fashionistas."
She nods and we contemplate each other in the sordid mirror for a long while in complete silence.
"Have you got back the results of the lactate tolerance tests yet?" she asks.
I process the question slowly and thoroughly.
"What is the mean spread across the population?"
"East west migration? Messes with the present theories a bit."
I nod. Mind processing slowly as usual. Not many people would understand the conversation, event less would have initiated it.
A few options present themselves.
I look at her directly for the first time. She holds out a hand,
That stops me dead in my tracks. I look her up and down again then raise my right eyebrow. That is the problem with email. Doctor Smythe is just a name, genderless.
She shrugs. "I knew you were presenting tomorrow so I worked a couple of long shifts and finished earlier than my boss predicted. Your eDNA results are in a brief case in my room."
She grins elfin-like
"Want to come up and see my eDNA? Sorry, the mummy's."
I go back to staring at the mirror. Contemplating.
"We can go through the results and you can announce them as an unpublished extra. They are dynamite I reckon.
"We may not get much sleep." I say somewhat cautiously.
"It won't be the first time I have spent the night in a man's company and not got much sleep." The smile comes from nowhere, brightens up the room and is gone almost as quickly as it came.
Needless to say I pay Richard, tip heavily to ensure his future co-operation and leave with the red head her arm looped somewhat possessively through mine, She winks at Richard as we leave and, for the first time since I have known Richard looks non nonplussed.
As I predicted, we do work through the night. As she predicted the results are dynamite. As dawn starts to paint the Cape Town skies with reds and oranges I drive back to my home, shower, shave and change. 3 hours later having fought the traffic all the way into town I am in the conference centre and am staring glassy eyed at the screen as a colleague drones through a rehashed version of an outdated and probably discredited theory on distribution of ceramics. It comes as a bit of surprise when my name is called and I have to drag myself down to the podium.
The scripted part of my presentation is easy. I could probably do it in my sleep and in fact I am close to being asleep as I deliver the paper. I finish with enough time to present Julie Smythe's figures. I can see her sitting there in the audience some rows back, I am just about to launch into my surprise package when a thought strikes me. As usual it takes a few moments for it to process. I cough, look around.
"Now, I come to my surprise package. Problem is it isn't properly mine. I asked for the tests, and Dr Smythe did them for me and put herself out to do it. I am going break with an old, tried and true tradition, mine, and ask Dr Smythe to join me up here and present her findings." She has the good grace to look stunned and horrified all at once. The silence was the most rewarding part of the whole situation. I wait patiently, then the chairman starts to clap and Julie is propelled forward on a wave of applause.
She stammers, stutters at first, but then gets into her stride, presents her findings and links it to mine. Together we leave the stage to applause that is not certain of its origins.
"You absolute bastard."
"Yes, you. I needed some warning of that. I hate presenting data when I am prepared and I wasn't prepared."
"Yes you were, we worked through the thing together. You were better versed in those figures than I was."
"Buy your a drink?"
I watch her slim body go striding off into the crowd. I shrug and head into the bar. Richard is on duty as usual and my Johnny Walker Black arrives without prompting as usual.
"No red head today?"
"No. We broke up. Women are impossible. I am thinking of becoming gay. Make life a lot easier."
Richard studies me for a while.
"Na, don't do it the guys are just as difficult." and he wanders away to serve another customer.
I haul out my papers and start working through them carefully, concentrating furiously. Suddenly Richard is back, places another glass of whiskey on the counter next to me. I check. My whiskey is half full still. I look at him quizzically. He nods to my left, I look left and find myself staring into Julies ice blue eyes.
"Bastard." she says, picks up the glass and drinks.
I nod and look forward, find her eyes and we stare at each other in the scruffy mirror.
"Why did you drag me up to the podium?"
"I told you and the audience. Fair and due recognition."
"Nope, that doesn't work for me and it sure as shit doesn't work for you. You have a reputation as a loner, self centred, attention grabbing recluse."
"Attention grabbing recluse? A contradiction surely?"
She shrugs. "That is what they told me about you."
"But you didn't leave it at that did you? You went in search of the real Matthew Johnson didn't you? Google overdrive. What did you find?"
"Academically you appear on the scene about 10 years ago. Three solid, good papers, peer reviewed and all being cited by respected people. One written before you finished your B. Then the well known meteoric rise to fame and infamy. Lots of flattened toes, dented egos along the way. Make yourself very unpopular but also gain grudging respect."
"Not much to get excited about."
"Yep. But everybody knows that. I wondered what you did before you started that degree as a mature student. So I went looking."
"Matthew Johnson makes not a ripple on the cybersphere. Nothing."
I wait. Silent. Eventually I wave her on. "Go on, what did you do next?"
"I kept looking at Matthews and Johnsons from South Africa prior to your sudden appearance. I looked at a lot of profile pictures"
"I find Donald, Matthew Johnnson. Looked a lot like you. Married, widowed, disappears."
I applaud gently. "Well done. So now you know more about me than most of our colleagues."
She smiles slowly, gently. As it did before, it wrenches my heart. I swallow hard and pray that no more is to come. I wait.
"That's not all."
"Oh?" A bad feeling starts to creep through my psyche.
"I wondered why Donald disappeared like that. Off the radar completely. I kept searching. Then I found something that you had been very careful to hide. An online avatar. A persona that you kept very distinct from your real identity. Now when you realise that I have a secret passion that I keep hidden from all my colleagues, I was intrigued that you had an avatar, much like mine. I was even more surprised when I discovered that the avatar, led to another persona. A poet and a writer whose name I recognised."
She reaches into a voluminous bag that women seem to tote all sorts of things and extracted a thin book and dumps it down in front of me. It's old, tattered and well read. Annotations in the margins, sentences underlined, exclamation marks, happy faces, sad faces. Even one line that had been scrawled out.
"I never did like that line, but we needed another poem to take up space."
She nods. "Clunky. Not up to your usual standards."
"Whose book is this?"
"Mine. A treasured possession. My favourite book of verse."
"And you want me to autograph it for you?"
"Only when I am finished my story."
"There is more?" The feeling of dread that has been growing in my heart, balloons. I take a deep swallow of whiskey and wave Richard over. "More." I croak to him.
"Now, where was I?"
"You are enjoying this aren't you?"
"Yep. Immensely. Now a little about me.
I sigh theatrically, wondering how I can escape.
"You are going to listen, cos it is important to the rest of my story."
I make to get up. "I have an appointment in a few minutes."
"No, you don't. This is far more important. Sit down." A hint of steel in her voice. I recognise the steel, the tone, everything. I collapse back in my chair.
She smiles again trapping me with her eyes in that grubby filthy despicable mirror.
"I was adopted. Put out for adoption at 2 weeks. I was adopted by a wonderful couple who looked after me, raised me, educated me, loved me. The one thing in my life was that the biological parents had specified that their names never be revealed to me. I pleaded, I threatened, I demanded, I went to law. All to no avail. My biological parents were hidden.
"And so you find a poet whose work you enjoy and create a fantasy that he is your long lost father."
"You really are a mean bastard aren't you? Because you know where this is going. You knew from the moment you saw me."
I say nothing. I look down into my whiskey praying for an earth quake, a heart attack, anything to get me out of that chair and away from here.
"I became obsessed with you and your wife. I had no idea why, I just kept on digging, then one day as I was looking at a picture of you and your wife a friend walked by. Asked me how I knew you. I said I didn't. She remarked that the woman next to you looked an awful lot like me."
"What do you want from me? Take you in my arms, call you daughter, sunset fading into grey."
"You are worse than they said you were. All I want from you shit head is what happened to my mother. Aside from a lucky escape from you that is, and then you will be free of me."
She is almost growling with rage. I can hear her mother in her clear as a bell. Reincarnation, possession, whatever. It is eerie, painful, frightening. I want to die, run away, strike out but I can do nothing, except sit staring down into my glass, reliving those awful, terrifying hours when my wife died and my daughter was born.
I turn to stare at Julie who is looking ferocious and ready for battle.
"OK. You want an answer?"
She nods furiously.
"You sure, it isn't pretty, it isn't nice and you are probably going to be sorry I told you. If you are OK with that, then I will tell you."
"Get on with it. Stop fucking about."
Richard is watching me with concern. I gesture him over. He looks at my half empty glass and then waits.
"Empty ice bucket please."
He doesn't show any surprise, fetches the bucket and puts it next to me on the bar counter and walks away to the other end of the bar. I notice him watching us from that safe distance.
"Do you have friends here? Close friends, family."
"No. Stop playing for time. Get on with it."
I turn away from her. I cannot bear to look at her. All the pain I had locked away carefully is now rampaging through me. I sigh. I don't want to start, I don't want to talk, but I must. I cannot escape. I tried and failed. I had to face the pain I had tried to avoid by running from my daughter, from my life, from everything I held dear. I built an new life just to avoid this moment and it had all been in vain.
Your mother and I were surfers so we naturally stayed in Kommetjie, deep in the South Peninsula close to what we believed were the best breaks in the whole of cape town. We surfed, we played, we loved and finally a child was conceived. You."
I look at her and look away almost immediately.
"You were to be the eldest of a huge family. Your mother loved children and she was ecstatic when she conceived. We both were. She did everything to ensure your health, your safety, your intelligence. She loved you deeply and almost obsessively while you were still in the womb. You were due in August and we were prepared, the baby room, all the things that we could think of, piled up. Ready for your arrival."
I can still see the room, my arm around her waist, her leaning against me. I shake the memory away.
"We were expecting you any day and were prepared, hospital bags, car always full of petrol. And we waited. It was a Sunday evening when a huge storm swept across the Hout Bay mountains, down across Long Beach and into Kommetjie. It hurled foam and salt spray hundreds of metres into the sky and inland. The rain, driven by gale force winds smashed against the windows of the lounge. Trees were being wrenched about, branches breaking. They said that wind gusts of up to 130 km/h tore down the peninsula. It was cold and dark. We went to bed early and lay listening to the storm. At 2 am the contractions started, and her water broke quickly. We hurried out to the car, and drove toward Fish Hoek and the nearest hospital."
I stop, I can hear the roar of the wind, the car dancing in the huge gusts of wind, the gum trees that line the road whipping and bending under the wind force.
"I am frightened by the force of the wind, by the broken branches I can see being hurled across the road. We have to drive around broken branches in the road. Your mothers contractions are coming faster and faster and I am beginning to believe I will have to help her deliver you in the back of the car in this monstrous wind. And that frightens me even more. Your mother is calm, collected. Teases me that if I have to deliver you, I must not faint from seeing the blood."
I stop, remembering, wishing I could just somehow change the story. Or just forget, but I am driven on by the narrative. I, like the Ancient Mariner, cannot stop.
"We make it halfway, maybe a bit more than halfway when a huge tree crashes down in front of us, a side branch smashing on top of the car, crushing the roof. I jump out the car and try to rip the back door open. It is jammed by the crushed roof. Your mother is screaming. I drum with my hands on the window trying to get to her. Suddenly there is a hand on my shoulder, pulling me back. A huge man steps in front of me and, using a rock smashes the window. I shout at him to be careful, my wife is in labour. He just nods, and somehow wrenches the door open and we drag her out. She is bleeding from a wound in her jugular, she is dying and you with her."
I cannot look up. I am shaking, crying. Looking at my hands. Not seeing the clean pristine hands of now, but the bloodstained hands of then.
"We carry her to a shack on the edge of Masiphumelele, the informal settlement and someone hurries off to fetch the nurse who lives down the way. I have my tee shirt rolled around my fist and in the hole in your mothers neck, but I am not staunching the flow, she is bleeding to death as I watch. She shudders, once more then is still. The blood no longer pulses, it oozes between my fingers.
The nurse arrives, takes one look at the situation and starts giving orders. She turns to me, "The child must come out. How many weeks to term?"
I cannot think, I a grieving, the big man shakes me hard.
"Answer her." he shouts.
"Now, now! She was in labour."
I held your mothers body in my arms as the nurse cut you out of your dead mothers body. You shouted, you screamed and I held you in my arms and I swore then I would never tell you this story."
I reach across the bar, grab the ice bucket and hold it out, Julie takes it and vomits into the bucket. Huge racking spasm of pain, of anguish, of despair. We found a doctor and he sedated her. People more connected, more sympathetic, loving, kind took over and cared for her. We have never spoken since and now I carry a double load of guilt.