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Authors: Gerda Pearce

Long Lies the Shadow

BOOK: Long Lies the Shadow
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Long Lies the Shadow
Gerda Pearce
RSA
(2011)

In Cape Town, Gin survives a car crash that kills her lover Simon. Detective Nick Retief suspects it is not an accident. Gin returns to London to discover she is pregnant with Simon's child. Her emotional recovery is hampered by partial amnesia about the crash, and she turns to a childhood friend for help. Gin must cope alone with the birth of her baby, and she is forced to face the ghosts that haunt her, and deal with the consequences of lies told and secrets kept. The truth behind her brother Gabe's death is gradually revealed, as events lead towards a final confrontation and a shocking conclusion. Moving between South Africa and London, the past and the present, this beautifully written and many-layered story reveals the damage wrought during the apartheid era and how its legacy continues to affect people's lives today

Long Lies the Shadow

GERDA PEARCE

For Brent Michael Allis
18th July 1964–28th February 1986

When she woke they had already buried him.

Gin lay in the small white room, watching the doctor’s mouth move as he told her. And for once she was grateful to the ancient Hasidic laws, the quick burial that saved her from having to face his father’s broken stare, his mother’s swollen eyes. She did not have to stand and watch his weeping wife and sons, nor answer unspoken questions, clear the confusion as to why she had been there at all. Was she the reason for his silence in his last two days of life? And if she could have borne to get past the guilt, the rage, would she have been able to so glibly lie? To deny her past, her part in his life, and his in hers? He, who once so savoured honesty, what would he have said? Lie? Protect his family yet again? She would have, for that.

A moot point.
So unusual for a BMW to roll
.

But how would she have been able to stem her own pain and look into his wife’s eyes, pretend it was his wife’s name on his lips as he died?

Perhaps they could have found some mutual comfort in the truth, the shared pain. But then she realised, with a small shock, that even now if she mentioned Leila there would be questions as to who Leila was. What irony that even at his death, she, Gin, was still the only one who knew. At least she had allowed him honesty at death. She held onto this as the only comfort. Held fast, to silence herself, and any shame.

Gin lay in the hospital room and relished the semblance of peace.

She was allowed no visitors in the first days and, indeed, expected
none. Later when, of all people, Viv arrived, Gin said little of consequence, still drugged and uninclined to the weariness of talk while Viv’s chatter assumed an air of desperate cheer. Inevitable that her family would call Viv, when Gin herself would have been content alone. She fell asleep, waking to an empty, dark room, lit only dimly by the lights from the mountain.

The doctors came, and went, and came again, each time with updates of her progress that she found herself indifferent to. She lay there, gazing out the window at the immovable mountain. She would be left with a slight limp, they said, and she thought it inappropriate to laugh. Was that all? It seemed obscene that his death should mark her so little, and she was glad for the news. Her leg would probably ache in London’s winter, they said. Overwhelmingly she longed suddenly for hard, grey rain and the hustle of a wet Saturday afternoon market. The African sunshine could never capture that. Lying alone in the small white room, she remembered why here the irrepressible sun could depress her with its falsity, how it could burn and be bright when all around was pain and poverty. In England she would be able to resonate with the coldness that sat now in her soul.

But for now, she is here, in Cape Town. For now, beneath the mountain’s watch, she will slowly repair. Ignoring the hollow ache, the need to mourn, to cut her hair and rend her garments, to cry and keen. To kneel over the ashes of all she thinks forsaken, lost, or dead.

It is her fourth day in the small white room, a time twice as long as they had spent together. There is a knock. Light but firm, and unnecessary since the door is always left ajar. Not quite so private a room, it seems.

“Miss McMann. Miss Virginia McMann,” says a voice, and it is not a question. He enters despite her silence, her lack of invitation. “I’m Nick Retief.”

He is a tall white man, in his early thirties, some five years younger than herself. Hair like hers, more blond than brown, and in need of a trim.

“Detective Sergeant Nick Retief.”

She notes a touch of emphasis, a touch of pride perhaps, and wonders at this most peculiar of South African anomalies, a man with an Afrikaans name but an English accent.

He seems unperturbed by her continued reticence to speak. “I’m investigating your –” and here he falters slightly, “accident.” He says the word as if it is foreign, as if it exists in a world he seldom inhabits. A world of unconnected incidents and random events, as if his own is certain and assured, where every action is determined exactly by a clear and measured motivation.

Gin blinks at him. Waits. He seems to wait also. Unhurried. Eventually she says, “Yes, Mr Retief?” the question formed in almost exactly the manner in which he has said
accident
to her. And indeed, to herself, her voice sounds thinly accented with an exaggerated Englishness, summoning her years in England so as to separate herself from him, and his Afrikaans name.

He squints slowly back at her, as if deciding something. “Miss McMann,” he says again.

His eyes, she notices, are gunmetal grey, but when the light hits them, they opacify to blue.

“Can you tell me what you remember?”

She wants to laugh at him. She has thought of nothing else.

“I wanted a coffee,” she starts, and then stops.

Empty coffee houses lined the street; it was too early in the morning. She was longing for the froth of a London cappuccino, but would have to wait instead for the strong black filter of the hotel breakfast. White linen curtains twitched in the breeze, caressing the window. African air was already warm against her skin. And where to now, she mused? Simon was still asleep, an unruly black mop of hair, greying. She was touched by nostalgia and an ache she could call yearning. These moments were just that. Moments, and not forever. Once, a long season ago, she might have dreamed of forever. But time was passing. She tousled the mop and, never an early riser, he grumbled.

“Hello,” she said, sweetly. Wanting to brush the hair from his eyes.

He stretched and yawned, ran his fingers through his hair. “You sound so English.”

Was it compliment or slur, a reminder of her treachery, or his? Did he miss his wife that morning? She was unused to the duplicity, the complication of feeling. Yet it did not feel like it ought; she was more happy than guilty. As if time were an affirmation. As if she had prior claim.

They drove out early after breakfast, sexual tension sated, an ease between them. He had lied about being here, about being with her, he said. She was strangely moved at his need to protect her as much as himself. She held no illusions, discovering a lightness to her limbs that morning, an unusual joy unfettered by the future, fruit of an elusive search. The sun glinted silver on the sea, its reflection imprinting on her retina, overpowering. They drove first to Rondebosch, the leafy suburb.
He showed her Grove Road, where he had lived, a walk away from the university. She took him over the small hump of a bridge, past the little gallery of shops that in her memory always made her tingle in its proximity to Jonnie. She did not mention Jonnie, wondering if Simon would still be jealous, still feel a kind of fury for the only other man she had ever loved. But she showed him the house in Observatory, its colonial façade intact despite the Cape winters. They walked like lovers ten years younger. Amidst stalls in Greenmarket Square they held hands, secure in anonymity. Had coffee on the sidewalk in Seapoint.

So unusual for a BMW to roll. His hands gripping the wheel.

There is a patter of noise on the window, rain tapping gently on the pane. Detective Sergeant Nick Retief has stayed silent, waiting for her to continue, and Gin turns her head to look out at the mountain. The coffee at breakfast, Simon’s face as he made love to her; these are not details that interest this man. The weather has darkened the mountain, and wisps of cloud have shrouded its peak.

Gin starts again. “We drove around the city,” she says.

On a whim, Simon took her to Kornfeld and Gold jewellers. She picked a sapphire ring close to the colour of her twin brother Gabriel’s eyes, close to the colour of her own.

“It matches your eyes, Ginny,” he said as he paid for it. He was smiling.

She felt the thrill of walking into the shop owned by their families, the thrill of no one knowing who they were.

He whispered to her and his voice was full of laughter. “Something to tell the grandchildren,” he said. But his eyes were serious and sad.

Years before he had said this same sentence, in a tiny hotel on the coast. Hope had lived full in her chest then.

Today, said Simon, he had something to tell her. Something he should have told her years ago. She was startled, curious.

A white car, heading directly at them. They were already round Kloofnek, ready to sail down the high-set suburb of Tamboerskloof.

“There was a white car,” says Gin. She thought the memory was clean and clear. Only now, in the retelling, does she realise how fractured it is. She thinks slowly, stupidly, how unfair it was to have an accident, when they had already rounded the coast, past Llandudno and Hout Bay, safely.

Back in the city, swerving. His hands gripping the wheel. The white car closer, her world starting to tilt. So unusual for a BMW to roll.

“Is that all?” asks Nick Retief.

She hears a caustic dissatisfaction in his tone. Gin closes her eyes. The accident is a blur. She can only remember the urgency in Simon’s voice, his eyes.

The mountain tumbling to meet them, his hand outstretched to her. Through heavy-lidded eyes, like a lover, she looked at him, his hand outstretched to her.

“Ginny,” he gasped, like a lover, when making love to her. Urgently, his hand outstretched to her.

“Is that all you remember?” repeats Retief, although his tone seems kinder than before.

She cannot bring herself to tell him Simon’s final words. What does it matter now if he called a name? So she nods, awkwardly, silently, at this man. Like a child, chastised, instead of a woman of thirty-nine.

Then, “Leila.” Like a message.

His hand outstretched to her.

Nick Retief turns to leave. She imagines he is as contemptuous of her faithless memory as she.

His voice sounds harsh again to her now, echoing off the stark walls. “I’ll come again in a few days. Perhaps you’ll remember more then.” A pause. “And you will need to make a statement at the station.”

After Retief has left, Gin watches the raindrops increase against the pane till they streak in rivulets down its length.

She did not think of Simon dying, all that loss. It was her soul soaring free, looking down at him. The beach at Clifton, the palm trees at Camps Bay. Hot searing sun. Was it the sun she felt burning her skin? The road, sign-writing itself across the brown earth, the cool mist of foam at the edge of the ocean. Washing-powder-white clouds. The city, sparkling below. Up, up into the blue sky, sapphire-blue like Gabriel’s eyes, sapphire-blue like the ring on her hand. Her hand, outstretched to him.

Simon will walk the passages of her soul forever. No bond will be broken now; there is only this eternal longing. And the horror replay, over and over again, with its missing pieces, till it fades in sleep but returns to her restless in dreams. A second time in Cape Town he will haunt her. She wakes to find him her first thought, grief soaking her skin like sweat. It is not as expected. She has waited for the enormity of guilt, but it has not come. Not even with visitors, not even with the flowers from his family, the bouquet of white an offer of forgiveness and understanding, if only she will proffer more than silence, give some sort of explanation. It is as before, as if merely an ocean or a continent separates them, as if a phone call or a plane ride could reunite.

She remembers their first parting, first loss.

His voice was warm and deep. His eyes would not meet hers. Simon had
held her so gently. And gently, he had let her go. She had sat for a long time on the three stone steps, sat in the afternoon shade for a long time after his car had pulled from the cobbled courtyard. Something was lost between them. And a week later she herself had left, packed up her battered blue suitcase, closed the door.

He is leaving her again. She is losing him, for the last time.

Perhaps, thinks Gin, the love is there still. Perhaps it could not leave, though the lovers had. It must be there still, in the little flat. On a good day, perhaps it could be glimpsed. Like incense wafting through the air. Like dust in sunlight. At first, this thought depresses her, but later it is comforting. By then she is up and walking, the promised limp more evident with fatigue. The doctors fuss her less, the nurses more.

Nick Retief visits once again, but she is asleep, and she wakes to find he has left a note, and an incongruous bunch of stiff proteas on the table. The note is brief; she is vaguely surprised at the even strokes of black ink, demanding her presence at the station on her discharge. The bouquet lasts the rest of her stay, and when Viv comes to fetch her, when Gin is well enough to leave the small white room with its view of the mountain, she takes the rigid flowers with her.

BOOK: Long Lies the Shadow
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