The JRB presents an excerpt from Kirsten Miller’s forthcoming novel, All That Is Left.
All That Is Left will be published by Kwela in March 2020. Under its previous title, Comfortable Skin, the unpublished manuscript of this novel won the 2017 Aziz Hassim Literary Award.
Extracted from an uncorrected proof.
Read the excerpt:
A green car pulls up alongside the curb. The door is flung open and a woman, thin and angular, steps out from the driver’s side. Her dark waist-length hair flies backwards as she moves around the car. ‘Maya,’ Rachel says.
When they finally let go of each other, Maya snaps open the boot of the car and heaves Rachel’s suitcase into it. As the vehicle manoeuvres out of the brightly lit airport, Maya leans across Rachel’s lap and pulls at the latch of the cubbyhole. Her bony fingers fold around a pack of cigarettes and a blue lighter. With a practised hand she withdraws a cigarette from the pack and lights it, then places the box and lighter in Rachel’s lap. ‘Have one if you want,’ she says.
‘I haven’t smoked in years. I’ll be sick.’
‘Whoever thought I’d be smoking again?’
‘If there was ever a reason to start, this must be it,’ Rachel says. ‘Can’t think of a better one.’
A truck veers out of the next lane without warning and swerves in front of them. Maya hits her foot hard on the brake and hoots and pulls a middle finger at the driver as she pulls out and passes him again. She leans forward with her cigarette dangling from her lips and places both hands on the wheel, concentrating on the lights of the traffic that penetrate the darkness surrounding them. Her face glistens behind hair that hangs as a curtain half-drawn. Rachel sees that it is neither the lights nor the bright traffic outside that illuminates her face and makes it glisten, but that her cheeks are wet with tears.
‘They haven’t found him yet,’ Rachel says.
‘Of course they haven’t fucking found him. They’ll probably only pull his case file out of a drawer in five years’ time.’
‘I can’t imagine what you must be going through.’
Maya looks at her with eyes round and heavy-lidded and Rachel wishes she would look at the road ahead instead. ‘You can’t imagine? He was your brother. You’re going through it too.’
‘My brother. Not my husband.’
‘You’ve known him since he was born.’
‘Your future’s just been obliterated,’ Rachel stares out of the window, trying to imagine the face of her own husband, trying to capture it in her mind’s eye. And then she knows that she is talking, her lips are moving and her mind knows what she should say but her heart doesn’t believe it, doesn’t believe in any kind of future when she thinks of the face of the man to whom she is married. She doesn’t know what love is, any more. She doesn’t have any words left, even for the man she is joined to.
At the house the stillness crushes with the gravel beneath their feet as they walk the path to the kitchen door. ‘How can you still bear to live here?’ Rachel asks.
‘How can I not?’ Maya says.
‘What if he just walked through the door?’
‘He’d better bloody not. Not after what I’ve been through.’
Rachel thinks that she is only half-joking.
There are flowers everywhere in the sitting room, formally arranged in bouquets beside the television and on the mantelpiece and looser collections of wild bunches, the ones Thomas would have liked, on the floor and on the table. ‘Not really my thing, flowers,’ Maya says as Rachel moves into the room. ‘Not like this anyway. I like them in the ground. Think how much money is in this room, in the form of these fucking flowers.’
‘Maybe the flowers aren’t for you.’
‘Thomas is dead. He can’t even see them. It’s a waste. He would’ve hated them.’ Maya’s shoulders rise and fall. ‘How the hell did it happen, Rach?’
‘How do you know he’s dead? Maybe … maybe he is locked up in a room somewhere. A prisoner, or …’
‘I’m sick of people fucking saying that. He’s dead. I can feel it in my bones. I know he is. I have to believe it now. It’s the only thing.’ As she leaves the room, Maya says, ‘I could always picture myself alone.’ From the kitchen her voice is raised so Rachel can still hear her. ‘But not so early in my life. Not like this. I thought I could choose. I thought I might choose, one day. But there aren’t any choices, are there? Everything just happens to us. We grin and bear it. Or just bear it.’
On the wall to the right of the television set is a picture of Thomas on a rockface, gripping an overhang with strong, sure fingers as he looks up at the obscured summit, the world sprawling below him. Rachel remembers the day it was taken, long ago, before marriages and children, before contracts and home loans and mowed lawns and responsibilities, before they had anything to spend their salaries on apart from their own leisure and entertainment. Before life had brought them a kind of endless ambivalence. He could have fallen then, she thinks. She wants to say it aloud, that just to live still feels like a risk every day. It is true. Anything can happen, to anyone. At any time.
Maya comes back into the room with a plate of sandwiches and coffee on a tray, accompanied by the cigarettes and lighter. She sits down on the couch opposite Rachel. ‘How are Kamal and Jack?’ she asks. Though her mouth is smiling, her eyes are glimmering and watery.
‘They’re fine. Kamal sends love,’ Rachel answers. But it isn’t true. She didn’t give Kamal the space to send anything. She sits and takes a cup between her hands, warming them from the winter chill in this house that has central heating and underfloor insulation, but she doesn’t drink the coffee. She puts the mug to one side. Just a sip would make her sick. She can picture herself alone, too.
The cat walks into the room on soft paws. She arches her back and sits on the floor like a carved figurine. Maya calls to her with a whistling sound, but the cat narrows her eyes and looks away.
‘I still can’t get used to the thought that you have a child,’ Maya says. ‘It’s so strange.’ She looks up from the abyss of her own cup into Rachel’s eyes. ‘I want to get to know Jack,’ she says. ‘And Thomas … Thomas never got to see him.’
‘There’s not that much to know,’ Rachel replies. ‘He’s still so small.’ She pauses and wonders how much of the truth she can tell. ‘My old life feels strange to me now. The time when there was no Jack.’
‘How old is he?’
‘Twenty-seven months. Almost.’ Someone else might have said he’s two and a bit, but Rachel doesn’t think like that. She counts only the weeks and months as they pass, and she knows that time really ticks by very slowly, minute by endless minute.
Maya pushes the plate of sandwiches across the table. Leaning back in her chair, she takes one for herself and bites into it. ‘Will we see them on Saturday?’ she asks.
‘Kamal will fly up if he can get his mother to babysit. It’s difficult to have Jack out of his normal routine.’
Kamal loves Durban and its heat. He walks naked around the house when the summer envelopes the suburbs and gets trapped between the still branches of trees. He sits at his desk and works in the unbearable evenings without clothes on. She suggests air-conditioning, but he hates the idea of an artificial cold. Sometimes the rains come, and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes she lies beside him on the bed with the covers off and the fan’s blades racing on the ceiling above them. In the early days of their life together, she’d lie naked beside her husband at night. Then she’d enjoyed the different tones of their flesh pressed together. Later she’d started to wear a cotton vest and a pair of shorts to bed. Clothes made her feel secure, as though her flesh, craving a boundary, could be contained, held together by the weave of cloth.
Rachel eyes the sandwiches and imagines sinking her teeth into the comforting mixture of baked bread, soft yellow cheese and crisp lettuce, combined with the tart sharp tang of the tomato. Her mouth waters for wanting, for hunger and comfort, but she can’t bring herself to do it.
‘You must eat something,’ Maya says, as though reading her mind. ‘You must eat or you’ll fall over. Look at you, you look like a twig. Snappable.’
‘I’m fine. I ate on the plane,’ Rachel lies. It borders on bizarre, she thinks, this need to feed. Nobody tells an overweight person, You’re too fat, you must stop eating. That would be rude. But to try to feed someone up is acceptable, noble even, and a sign of concern.
There is something else between them. The food sits as a side issue. Maya shifts, then says, ‘Rachel. Max is coming.’
Rachel stares at the sandwiches.
‘He’ll be in the city for a week. I told him he could stay here.’
Rachel looks up. ‘I know,’ she smiles. ‘He emailed me.’ She takes a sandwich, then stops herself and puts it back.
Maya’s forehead folds in puzzled creases. ‘I didn’t know you were still in contact.’
‘We’re not. I … I suppose he thought he should check with me.’
‘I hope it’s okay. That it’s not too weird between you.’
‘Max is a married man. I have a husband and child at home. Please Maya, I haven’t seen him for years. Why should I mind?’
‘His wife’s not coming. She’s staying in New York, with the children.’
Rachel says nothing. She looks back at the picture of her brother ascending the cliff face. Besides the flowers it is the only evidence in the room that Thomas ever actually lived here.
‘Rach? Are you sure you’re fine with that?’
Rachel lets out a sigh that ends in a laugh. ‘I don’t really have a choice.’
They don’t speak of Thomas again, but he is there in the picture and in the air all around them. Rachel has a strange feeling that at any moment he might walk through the door. If he is dead now she doesn’t know what the concept means. Maya must have been living with this feeling all the time, living with the dead half-alive in her head, watching his ghost walk through the door again and again and knowing each time that there is no parallel universe or place from which he is watching. That he is not coming back, no matter what.
- Kirsten Miller is the author of All is Fish, shortlisted for the EU Literary Award, Sister Moon, and The Hum of the Sun, winner of the Wilbur and Niso Smith Foundation’s Prize for Best Unpublished Manuscript and the 2019 Minara Aziz Hassim Literary Award. Her non-fiction book, Children on the Bridge, on working in the field of autism, was longlisted for the Alan Paton Award. She lives in Durban. Follow her on Twitter.