The JRB presents an excerpt from A Little Light, the forthcoming collection of short stories by Nthikeng Mohlele.
A Little Light
Jacana Media, 2021
Read the excerpt:
Beauty and Ugliness
Everything came to not so much an abrupt halt, but a slow approach, methodical and calculated, rhythmic almost, perhaps like a steam train of yore easing into a station, a platform where multitudes await to be whisked away to unknown and different destinations. I am not sure if it’s a halt, if it is permanent, or a momentary pause, if things will one day resume, and proceed as they always have, without drama or fanfare: discreet, planned, and maybe just a little dangerous. A stillness has descended on the apartment, a sense of calm the likes of which I have never known. I have always led a busy life, an occupied life, one in which I have been pulled in many different directions by many different personalities and events that, in hindsight, do not mean I have had a full or meaningful life. There are flashes of brilliance, that’s for sure, memories and public achievements that have confirmed me as a life force, a loyal friend, a trusted advisor and confidant to some and, to most, a fleeting shadow. I have come to know that wisdom is a precarious thing, that it can date, often mislead, for it does not, in its nature, take into account the scheming and temperaments of people. That has always been my weakness, trusting too much—in both my abilities and the goodwill of others. I have been wrong on both counts: I, despite my best intentions and confidence, fell short in the most unforeseen of ways, and people closest to my heart wounded and betrayed me in the most brutal ways. I learned from it all, or at least I continue to fool myself that I have learned, lessons that are relative at best, and often unreliable when applied to real life.
That leg, sticking out from under the bed sheets, belongs to Anne Grace, the most beautiful thing I have ever laid my eyes on in human form. I can’t allow you to step closer, to peep, for I am very unpredictable when it comes to her. It’s not quite jealousy—that is too crude an emotion—but a protective instinct that is admittedly too strong to be subjected to graceful liaisons as far as she is concerned. I am suspicious and overly sensitive that less-deserving mortals might harm or offend her, even by accident. She is unaware of this, my inner turmoil, for you cannot love and cherish a woman this beautiful while unsure of what you stand for. I stand for uncontaminated beauty, for keeping any and all forms of impurities or pollutants as far away from her as is humanly possible—much like the bodyguard of her skin and bones and soul. I see your eyes are over eager, that you lack the discipline to be both attentive and discreet. It is bad manners to stare at a man’s lover like that, with that hunger so evident in your eyes, to be so captivated by her undergarments that you forget to breathe, that you stare as if into oblivion, breathless and ashen faced. She is a scorcher, I know, so maybe I should be a little lenient, a little more understanding that you have never—and might never—see a woman so accomplished in looks and demeanour, even when fast asleep.
Oh, you cannot believe that bellybutton, those sculptured knees, those armpits that seem to be vases of eternity? I know; I understand. It took me fifty-four months to finally manage to sleep when she is next to me. It has always been hard, near impossible, for I feared that I would wake up and she would be gone, that it was simply untenable for someone to be this beautiful, so dauntingly so, for that beauty to be awarded to me with such abundant selflessness; someone of such measured precision, such intoxicating charms. I have written countless poems in my life, as you might know, but none seems to come close to even hinting at the splendour of her grace, her effortless wink, the scent of her skin on hot and humid nights, when the moon plays hide and seek from behind the clouds, when the curtains boast that they are of the finest silk, as they, to a hesitant breeze, play with light and shadow, obscuring and revealing Anne Grace’s gifts, a form that seems have been carved with the most infinite patience and skill. I know she is a feast for the senses, clothed or nude, the reason I witness all manner of manly lunacy whenever we dine at The Butchers Club or shop for beads at the Rosebank Crafts Market, on days when we take leisurely drives for our ice-cream ritual at the Menlyn Maine, or in pursuit of fictional worlds at the Market Theatre. I sense their desperation, their disbelief, their envy in words and deed and, calmly and quietly, suggest: I have home urges, my human. Shall we elope, escape home, my Moon Tide? In five minutes and twenty-six seconds, she says with a playful smile.
What do you have in mind, Mr Home Urges?
Nothing. Some reading, maybe a little music. And it will not be my fault should it happen that I am compelled, by some unknown forces, to disrobe you.
She laughs, quietly and intensely, and says: Maybe music; reading is always the best elixir to help unwind evenings, though I cannot commit to being disrobed. Disrobing comes with temptations, nocturnal sensual criminality.
Criminality? I love the sound of that. I was born in handcuffs.
You are such a corrupter, you with your addictive paws. What is a girl supposed to do when confronted by such illegalities, by such treasons of the heart?
That’s how we talk, Anne Grace and me; we bend language to breaking point for the thrill it brings, converse with the scalpel of poets. It would be impossible to follow any of our deep conversations past midnight, when we speak between and away from the conventions of language, like spies in Moscow or Tel Aviv.
Mother was a gorgeous woman, of Ethiopian descent, one my father met and charmed and wooed and married on his many travels across the African continent. I have never forgotten his narration of their very first meeting, when Mother apparently walked into the boardroom where Father was meeting Ethiopian bank executives; it was like watching light hit a diamond prism, radiating rainbows of varying densities and crispness, this intangible but very present and awe-inducing beauty. Papa Mzimkulu dared me to find a woman more beautiful than my mother, said it was impossible to, but when I introduced him to Anne Grace, on the occasion of his seventy-fourth birthday, his jaw dropped, and the whisky glass slid right out of his hand and shattered to the floor. He looked out of breath, somewhat defeated and, strangely emotional. He nodded to Anne Grace, patted me on the shoulder and, with a twinkle in his eye, said: I did not mean it this literally, sir. But, for what is worth, your lady is a gift to the universe. Anne Grace, I had no idea my son was capable of such daring and precision. I wish all the very best for you love birds. Let me know if he misbehaves—I will kill him for you. We laughed, he chuckled, assailed by utter disbelief. Mother, observing from a few paces, joined us, introduced herself and rubbed it in: Allow me to save my old man … He looks like he has seen a ghost.
Your mother is very beautiful, said Anne Grace when we were alone in the garden.
Yes, I said. But she does not come close to you.
Ann Grace smiled and said: Thank you, love. But that is a dangerous comparison to make.
I know, beauty is supposed to be dangerous and unpredictable, not as sure and defiant as ugliness.
We had no idea then that both Mama and Papa would die barely a week after the birthday celebrations: helicopter crash in pumpkin fields west of Johannesburg. I never fully recovered from the news of that helicopter crash and, naturally, became suspicious of anything flying in the air that God never intended to fly, suffering bruising anxiety every time Anne Grace piloted a plane on one of her long-haul destinations. I still cannot bear the thought of her drenched in jet fuel and set ablaze, or bits of her scattered for miles, strewn across some ocean or mountain range, or some residential area somewhere where I will never get to touch the ankle bracelet, to kiss it, to lay my head on her buttocks with a disclaimer: it’s a punishable offence to fart in your man’s ear, to which she, laughing, would say something to the effect of: This is a secure military base. Bomb testing completely allowed. But such has and would never happen, for Anne Grace is a lady in the strictest sense of the word.
I imagine the long-distance flights to be draining and exhausting things. Look at how deeply and peacefully she sleeps. Now that you are here, in our apartment with a vantage view of the master bedroom, of Anne Grace’s elbow and calf because she has adjusted her sleeping position, it makes sense to familiarise you with a few house rules. You cannot, for instance, photograph anything inside this apartment. Importantly, we frown upon any gossip-mongering or mischievous leaking of information that is meant to put you at ease, ensuring that you feel at home here. I must be frank with you: I do not like journalists very much, or rather, I am disturbed by the power in the hands of an incompetent journalist. I hope and pray you are not one of those, preying on chaos and misunderstandings. I directed you to the visitor’s toilet, in clear and uncomplicated language, but you for some strange reason wandered off in the opposite direction. That the bedroom doors were open gave you no permission (I certainly did not) to leer at my sleeping lover like that, to ogle her, though I understand that instincts can get the better of some men. Besides, where have you ever seen an interview conducted in the subject’s bedroom, in the presence of their sleeping lover, practically in her knickers? I am offended that you would wander off like that, unaccompanied, when I have made it clear that the interview will be restricted to the study. I have known you for just over two weeks, Albert; I consider you a friend and a professional, but I do not take lightly that you are determined to see things you are not sanctioned to see. I am not moaning or complaining, though, or accusing you of deliberate overzealousness, of ulterior motives. It is not by omission that I have never introduced Anne Grace to you. This is because, if you do not mind me saying so—and I speak here of matters in the spiritual realm—some situations are prone to all manner of contamination, even when that is circumstantial rather than by design. I am embarrassed, enraged, and disappointed—and my daring you to take a closer look is an act of defiance rather than gloating, for the alternative would be to punch you in the face. I cannot do that, for the obvious reason that you are a guest in our home and so must grant you the benefit of the doubt, that it is understandable, I suppose, that a full bladder can cause confusion and disorientation. I imagine it would be humiliating for you to wet yourself while out on assignment, thus risking your reputation and professional standing.
But now that we have gotten the unpleasantness (though I know you are completely taken by what you saw in my bed) out of the way and you have declined either coffee or water or any beverage of any kind, we can officially proceed with the interview. What is it that you would like to know? My humble request is that we keep our voices and general noise down, not to disturb that sleeping soul.
Let’s start with the ex-wife. Did you at any point in your marriage assault her?
No, I did not. First, she is an ex-lover and not an ex-wife. Second, she was on drugs and attacked me with a knife at a public event. Third, she was restrained by Montecasino security, and the entire episode is captured on CCTV cameras. That was eleven years ago, and, no, I never assaulted anyone.
Good. Are you saying the police case was phoney?
No, you are saying the police case was phoney. I merely told you what happened.
Are you still in love with her?
That is too personal and intrusive a question. You should know better. But, no, I am not.
Except for that drunken incident and the misinformation surrounding it, your record seems very clean for a writer. Should we expect some skeletons to crawl out of unexpected places in the future?
No, no skeletons. None that I am aware of.
You seem apprehensive. I wish to assure you that you can trust me. Completely.
You might be an editor, Albert, but you are still essentially a journalist. I don’t want to come across as rude or suspicious, but it is too great a leap that I should trust you completely, particularly given the matters at hand. I could lose my life over this, and yet … and yet my conscience does not allow me to remain silent.
That’s both courageous and commendable; not many people will stick their necks out like you are doing.
I have no business dying so young, Albert, so you had better make absolutely certain that my name does not appear anywhere when you publish your story. I don’t have to tell you … You already know that there will be a shit storm when your paper hits the streets. Don’t think for a moment that these people won’t retaliate, that I won’t possibly wake up to find a pistol pointed at my forehead.
Are you afraid?
Of course I am. What do you expect?
Do you, really, Albert? Do you really and truly comprehend the scale of the rot you are about to unravel?
I do. It is scary. I know it’s just the tip of the iceberg, that it will take a long time to connect all the dots, that gruesome details will erupt like boils in the public imagination.
You did not hear this from me. But what I wish to tell you is that the most unlikely person has been visiting the most unlikely people in the name of friendship and, in the process, there have been some rather uncomfortable developments.
How bad is it?
Like entire-government-system bad.
People, systems, institutions.
Do you have any proof? Anything that will help substantiate your claims?
Not in the traditional sense, no, but all you need do is follow the money.
How high does this thing go?
Well, as high as your imagination allows you—and that is high indeed.
Will you testify when the time comes?
If I am alive.
What makes you say that?
I already told you. What makes you think people are going to walk straight towards a guillotine without any qualms, without seeking revenge? This is some industrial-scale operation, not a handful of misplaced cents.
Who told you?
I know people. A friend of a friend of a friend.
Give me a name. Just one name.
I cannot do that. That was not our agreement.
I never said anything about the president; I said ‘high’.
Maybe. Maybe not. You edit an investigative paper, so maybe you should do your job and investigate.
But I need sources. Reliable sources.
I already told you everything you need to know. I am not indebted to you in any way; neither am I even remotely interested in your scoops. You are now on your own.
Why are you doing this? If it scares you so much, I mean.
I don’t know. Foolishness. Madness. A touch of vanity maybe?
I think you’re something much greater: a patriot.
Well, there are countless patriot graves strewn around the world. I have no interest in being a martyr.
Does Anne Grace know?
Maybe she does, maybe she doesn’t. What difference does it make? What do you think?
I think lovers are sworn to all manner of secrets, treasonous information too.
Well, use your own judgement. But please leave Anne Grace out of all this.
Your country will thank you for it. I have a strong feeling about that.
That’s wishful thinking; very superficial. JFK’s grave is guarded by the eternal flame. A man in his prime, shot in full view of the people, all sorts of cover-ups, and how has that changed America? Closer to home: Biko, Webster, Mahlangu. You think that these graves have made us better people?
Now you’re just being cynical. Emotions will make you lose perspective. Focus.
Easy for you to say. You are reasonably old … well, oldish. You have lived your life. My best years are still ahead of me. Why would I want to throw them away like that by stirring hornets’ nests?
Because you are a patriot, because you have a conscience.
No, because I am foolish.
Do you have other documents?
No, I wouldn’t give them to you even if I had. But I don’t. Follow the money? How?
I am not an investigative journalist, Alfred. Ask me about prosecutions; I am a law man.
Does anyone else know of this information?
I don’t know, Alfred. You, as esteemed editor of the Sunday Chronicle, will be publishing these things, so others will know soon enough. I will be on standby to prosecute the cases whenever they reach the courts. Do not hold your breath, though. These things are known to take time.
Is that all you wish to tell me?
Yes. And this meeting never happened.
I guess I should be going then.
Sure, thanks for coming. Be careful out there.
I hear Alfred’s Volvo start up and reverse down the driveway. It is a beautiful summer morning in Johannesburg: chirping birds, a slight breeze, a beautiful lover in bed. I stand at the study window, part the blinds and, from above, see the sun bounce light swords off the windshield of the Volvo. Beautiful automobile, cherry red; so clean, you can almost lick it. I have a weakness for good design, for beautiful things. I will brew some coffee now, the best way to say ‘good morning’ to Anne Grace. There is nothing like the curvatures of her nose when she breathes in the aroma of her coffee and says: I am the luckiest girl in the world.
I am anxious, maybe a little sad. It is strange that I am already lonely, with Anne Grace still home before she jets off to Buenos Aires via Frankfurt. There is a standing invitation for me to accompany her anywhere and everywhere, but then there are also dockets in courtrooms waiting to be reviewed, and guilt sought and confirmed. I am a creature of the courtrooms, a silk, Immanuel Zulu, SC. Hear that? I think that is Anne Grace sneezing. I must go.
- Nthikeng Mohlele was partly raised in Limpopo and Tembisa Township, and attended Wits University, where he obtained a Bachelor of Arts in Dramatic Art, Publishing Studies and African Literature. He is the author of six critically acclaimed novels, The Scent of Bliss (2008), Small Things (2013), Rusty Bell (2014), Pleasure (2016), Michael K (2018) and Illumination (2019), and the collections of short stories The Discovery of Love (2021) and A Little Light (forthcoming, 2023).