Message in a Bottle

Nadine Gordimer

From the Kenyon Review, Spring 1962, Vol. XXIV, No. 2

There are days when the world pauses, gets stuck, senselessly, like one of those machines that ought to give cigarettes or make balls bump round but simply becomes an object that takes kicks, shakes, unyieldingly. You drop out of step with the daily work or habit that carries you along and stare about. Halt, halt! It’s fatal. This is not Sunday, with cows beside winter willows and dried-up streams, and white egrets catching up with their own forward- jerking necks. I notice a face in the strip of mirror attached with crystal knobs to the pillar in the coffee shop. An uneven face, looks as if it’s been up all night for years: my own. Once I had no face to speak of, only a smile, bright eyes and powdered cheeks, nicely arranged. I order two coffees, one for myself, one for the child—”Would you like a cup of coffee?”: it is a piece of clumsy flattery, a status I confer upon her because she has just been to a doctor and suffered a painful treatment. She accepts it, her token smile knowing its worth.

She shivers a little, from shock, in her dusty school clothes; at this time of the morning, she ought to be doing mental arithmetic. I am in my work clothes too, interrupted by necessity. I do not know what to talk to the child about because she has plumbed cheerful, jollying reassurances over months of pain, and efforts at distraction she takes as a kind of insult. She resents my sympathy because I have not her pain; my solicitously gentle voice is easy enough for me, it does not help her, she has discovered. So we don’t talk, and I eat a piece of cheesecake, not so much because I want it, but to show her that life must go on. By such moves and signals do we conduct the battle that is waged between the sick and the well.

I eat the cheesecake and look again at the only other two customers in the place at this time on a Wednesday morning. I half-saw them when we came in, but my awareness was merely of a presence that brought to light my old trousers and cardigan. An oldish man and a blonde girl out of a fashion magazine. She is tall as they always are and she sits not with her knees under the table but with the length of her body from seat to head turned diagonally toward him and supported by her elbow on the table. From the door, without detail, they fell into an image of a girl making up to a man. But she is weeping. Tears fill and refract marvellously the one eye I can see and then run slowly down the pale beige cheek. She stretches the muscles of her face to hold them and puts up the forefinger of a clenched hand to catch them. One distinctly runs over the finger and drops to the tablecloth. There will be a little splotch there, where it fell.

I look away, but when I look back again the tears are still coming, in slow twos and threes down the matte and perfect cheek. She is talking all the time to the man, not looking at him but talking without a sound that I can hear, directly to his ear with the dark shadow in it that must be a tuft of hair. That tense tendon in her neck may become permanent when she is older; but there is no reason why she will be so unhappy often. It looks like the kind of misery one grows out of.

She is a beautiful girl dressed from head to foot in pale beige that matches her face and hair. He would be ugly if he were a poor man, sucked dry, at his age, and leathery; but his crowded features, thin ridged nose and eyes and line of mouth, are filled out, smoothly built up, deal by deal, as a sculptor adds clay daub by daub, by ease and money-making. He has never been a good-looking young man, never. While she talks he looks out across the room, listening. He does not look at her but at the waiters passing, the door opening, the woman at the cash register ringing up the sale of a packet of cigarettes. It is a face that has put love into making money. Yes, he is ugly, but I do not know whether I imagine that she already has the look of one of those lovely creatures whose beauty—that makes them feel they may have any man—brings them nothing but one of these owners of textile factories; while we others, who are ignored by the many, carry off the particular prizes, the distinguished, the gentle, the passionately attractive, the adventurous. Is she pleading with him not to break off an affair? The one remark I do hear belies this: “. . . what about that boy friend of yours, doesn’t he . . .” The very tone of his voice, raised plainly above the confidential, is that of the confidant importuned, stonily turning nasty and wanting to give up his privilege to anyone who seems under a more valid obligation to deal with the situation. Yet I don’t know. She is still pleading, clearly going over and over what she has said a dozen times before. How beautifully she weeps, without a bloated nose; why should one feel not moved by her just because she is beautiful, why, in spite of everything, is there the obstinate cold resentment that her face is more than she deserves?

The man’s eyes (he is obviously keenly long-sighted) follow the passing of someone on the other side of the glass barrier, in the street. As he changes focus we meet, my piece of cheesecake halfway to my mouth. We know each other, this morning, above the heads of the child and the weeping one. I should never have thought it; but you don’t always choose the ones you know. The girl has not paused in her desperate monologue and the child. beside me, has her one uncovered eye screwed up, nuzzling to- ward brightness without seeing, like a mole.

I pay and the child and I walk out just behind the other two. There is a big black car outside the door and a black chauffeur, fat henchman, opens the door for them. One feels the girl likes this, it turns up the fragment of a fairy tale. She steps inside elegantly, with a certain melancholy pleasure, balanced like a brimming glass.

I drive out of the city to an address where the child is to have a culture made from the infected tissues in her eyelids. The doctor has drawn a little map for me; through suburbs, past country clubs and chicken farms, everywhere the sun shines evenly through a bloom of blue smoke that marks the position of the city, from far off, like the spout of a whale. The research institute is spread out pleasantly on a rise; there are gardens, and horses standing in a field. We get out of the car and it’s as if a felt-lined door has been shut—the sound of life in the city comes only as a slight vibration under one’s feet. I take her by the arm and we cross some grass, city people in the sunlight, and wander from building to building. They are white inside and, although we hear voices through frosted doors, all desks are empty. We see an African in a white coat blocking the light at the end of corridor. He directs us to another building. He has a kind of trolley full of small cages with dark shapes in them that don’t move. Out of the clean buildings, round the goldfish ponds (she is too old to want to linger beside them any more), we come into a courtyard full of gray monkeys in cages. She forgets about her eye and breaks away from me, finding her way: “Oh aren’t they sweet!” They swing from gray tails, they have black masks through which amber eyes shine with questions. They have patches where the fur has been shaved and the skin has been punctured again and again and painted with medicaments; oh why, but why? She pulls back from my arm when I tell her. There are rats, crouched guinea pigs, piles of empty cages in yards. The horses, that were standing so peacefully in the field, have glazed eyes and the hopelessness of working animals who have come out of the shafts for good. On their rumps and necks are the shaved and painted patches. Their stalls are being swilled out and scrubbed by men in rubber boots; it is so clean, all this death and disease.

“Now we’re going to try and grow these nasty goggas from your eye, dear, we’re going to grow them in an egg and see whether we can make you well.” The woman in the white coat talks soothingly as she works on the eye. While she is out of the laboratory for a moment we listen to a kettle that is singing up to the boil, and I say, “Don’t rub it.” The child says after a silence, “I wish I could be the one who sits and watches.” Pain is taking her innocence, she is getting to know me. But if she indicts, she begins at the same time to take on some of the guilt: “They will grow mine in an egg? Only in an egg?” The sun is high; we do not know what time it is, driving back. She tells time by the school bell, I by the cardboard file growing thinner.

My husband has a story to tell when he comes home in the evening. An acquaintance, who took him out shooting, last week- end, has committed suicide. He does not tell it baldly like this but begins slowly at what led up to the beginning, although we can tell, almost from the beginning, what is coming. “He was in wonderful form. I stood next to him and watched him bring down four birds with five cartridges. Alba worked so well and he asked me whether I couldn’t ask Jack Strahan to sell him one from the next litter. He couldn’t get over the way Alba worked; he said he’d never seen a dog like it, for range. And he asked when I was going to bring you on a shoot again, when’re you going to bring your wife out here with you, he said; he remembered that time last year when we had such a good time in the camp.”

The man kissed his wife, dropped his children at their school, telephoned his office to say he would be a little late, and then drove out into the veld. “Shut himself in the boot of the car and shot himself through the head.” I scarcely knew the man, met him only that once at the camp, but, at this detail of the manner of his death, I suddenly think of something: “But don’t you remember, his used to shut his hunting dogs in the boot? He did it that day, and when I picked him out about it he said it wasn’t cruel and they didn’t mind being shut up in there!” Nobody knows why he killed himself, he has gone without a word to anyone—except this. The stranger who cannot remember clearly what he looked like is the one into whose hands his last message has fallen. What can I do with it? It’s like a message picked up on the beach, that may be a joke, a hoax, or a genuine call of distress—one can’t tell, and ends by throwing the bottle back into the sea. If it’s genuine, the sender is beyond help already. Or some- one else may pick it up and know what it’s all about.

If I keep it perhaps I might crack the code one day? If only it were the sort of code that children or spies use, made out of numbers or lines from the Bible. But it is made of what couldn’t be equated or spelled out to anyone in the world, that could leave communication only in the awkward movement of his body through the air as he scrambled into the smell of dust and petrol, where the dogs had crouched, and closed the lid over his head.

For no reason at all, my mind begins to construct a dialogue with the girl—that girl. I see her somewhere, years later. She is laughing, she is conscious of her beauty. I say to her quite abruptly, “What happened that morning, anyway? —You know, he has developed hardened arteries and his teeth are giving him trouble. He’s on a strict diet—no wine, no red meat—and his old wife cooks for him again. He never goes out.”

The child comes in and stands squarely before me. She has put her dark glasses on and I can’t see her eyes. “And if the egg should hatch,” she says, “if the egg hatches?”

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