“The Sound of the Sea” by Stuart Stromin
He had driven more than a thousand kilometers from Johannesburg to Cape Town, simply to say goodbye to her. Drowsy in the middle of the night, he parked behind a truck in dusty siding somewhere in the Orange Free State, and fell asleep behind the wheel. Loud, tinny jazz woke him abruptly at dawn, as a solitary farm laborer on a rusty black bicycle pedaled steadily past him with a bulky wireless propped between the handlebars. Miles of empty veldt lay all around, and still blinking back sleep, at first, he could not understand the source of the music in that starkly beautiful deserted spot. But then the cyclist called out cheerfully, “Morning, boss,” and raised his floppy hat, and the surprised young man, waving back, started the ignition and continued his journey.
It was already twilight when Tommy saw the long flat ridge of Table Mountain, halving the sky, and it took him another hour to find Kirsty’s white cottage tucked between the expensive holiday houses and the hotels in the zig-zag of streets which crossed up and down the littoral hills of Seapoint. Through the kitchen window, she saw his old familiar Fiat 1600 stop at the gate, upon which her address was painted, and with a shriek of delight, she ran, barefoot on the yellow-wood floor, through the front door, and down the porch steps to meet him.
She took a deep breath. “Thomas Travers,” she declared firmly, her hands planted on her delicate hips as her former lover walked up the short path towards her with a small canvas suitcase in one hand, “I do not believe that you drove all the way here just to see me.”
“I wanted a last glimpse of the Atlantic,” he shrugged, embarrassed at how much he still loved her.
She flung her arms around him and he dropped his suitcase on the patchy lawn.
“You can see the Atlantic from America too,” she told him, squeezing her slim body close to his.
“It’s not the same, Kirsty,” he mumbled, twisting the soft cloth of her loose dress as he hugged her. “Not one drop is the same.” Then, taking a step back, he smiled warmly, “How are you?”
“Okay,” she replied, as she took his hand, “Let me show you where I live now.”
They went up the steps into the house, which was very clean, because she had a down-to-earth mother who had taught her about hygiene and practical matters, but dimly-lit, dark, in fact, like her father who was a gloomy cynical man with a dark nature. Her furniture was bright and there were colorful posters on the walls, of dancers and stallions, mostly. There was one print of a famous painting which was hanging in a gallery in Europe. A flowery feminine scent was faintly noticeable and there was a chipped vase of proteas in one corner. The living-room and even the little bedroom were both very spacious and airy, or so it seemed because she had always arranged the interior of wherever she lived so that she would have enough room to practice her dancing and her choreography. She had always given herself a lot of space.
Tommy sat down on the sofa, tugged at his shoelaces and kicked off his Adidas. Sitting down on the big orange armchair from the second-hand shop, she watched with amusement how quickly he made himself at home.
“Well,” she said, unsure of what to say, “It has been a long time.”
“Don’t get corny, Kirsty,” he said, putting her at ease, “Its only me. Make us some tea, put some music on.”
“Oh, Tommy,” she grinned, standing up to comply with his suggestions, “I’m so happy to see you again.”
She walked pertly across to the turntable, trying to find a record that she knew he would like. Most of her records were classical symphonies and ballets; sandwiched between a Mozart concerto and The Nutcracker Suite. She managed to find a scratched old Moody Blues album that a friend had left one evening, and she played that.
“I see your taste has improved,” he commented playfully.
Kirsty admitted, “It’s the only rock LP that I have.”
“One day, I’ll finally succeed with you, “ he boasted, and then, not knowing how to reply, she went to make the tea.
There was no milk left in the milk-jug, and she had no saucers but she knew he would not mind.
She brought the fine small-handled cups carefully into the room, holding his – sugarless – by the rim so that he would not burn his fingers when he took it from her. Then she sat down beside him.
“So,” she said, “You’ve made up your mind, Tommy.”
“It won’t be easy for you,” she warned him.
“It’s already not easy, Kirsty,” he said, bending slightly to sip the hot tea, “But I don’t have to talk about it now.”
“Okay,” she said, “But tomorrow, if you like, we will go up to Cape Point together.”
“A last look at the Atlantic,” Tommy agreed, “Yes. We will.” He took another sip of tea, regarding her as he drank, and he put the cup down on the low wooden table, still watching her face.
She had large green-blue eyes, and thick soft curly hair the color of beach-sand, and he put his arm around her affectionately.
Kirsty said, “I suppose you had to say goodbye to a lot of people in Johannesburg.”
“A few,” he replied, gently stroking her hair.
“A dozen glossy girlfriends, I suppose,” she said, laughing lightly for she knew she was right.
“A few,” he repeated carelessly, then he asked, “How do you like Cape Town?”
“Its nice,” she answered simply, “My dancing keeps me busy…”
“How’s your sex life?” Tommy asked, pretending not to care.
“Lousy,” she lied, “The women here outnumber the men six to one. All the good ones have been taken. The others are all making money in Jo’burg, or in the army fighting for apartheid.”
She peered down into her tea-cup.
“There must be someone, Kirsty,” he insisted.
“I see one guy. He’s all right. He reminds me of you. He also hates politics.”
“I don’t hate politics,” Tommy said hollowly.
She snuggled close to him on the sofa. “Politicians.”
A slow ballad began. They grew silent to listen to the lush arrangement of the song, trusting each other in the conversational stillness like a brother and sister, not needing the security of words for declarations.
Kirsty drank half of her cup of tea and put it down beside his. He yawned once, and when the music ended, she asked if he was tired.
“I had a heavy day’s driving,” he said apologetically, “We will have time to talk tomorrow. Plenty of time still.”
She said slowly, “I have a narrow single bed, Tommy. It’s better if you sleep on the sofa. I’ll give you blankets and a pillow.”
She stood up to take the cups into the kitchen.
“Okay,” he said, after a moment, patting the hard wooden arm of the furniture.
There was only the slightest breath of a breeze through the windows, for it was not a cold evening, but Kirsty gave him a thick pile of blankets and sheets, just in case it got chilly later. He fell asleep almost immediately, stretched skew across the sofa, still wearing his jeans and his socks. His short-sleeved shirt was lying on the bare floor, and she picked it up and draped it over the back of the armchair. She watched him for a while, his broad lightly-tanned chest rising and falling with sleep, and then, she tip-toed across the room to turn out the light, and she crept into her bedroom, and into her narrow bed, and asleep.
Often, when they were living together in Johannesburg, if he was home late after a few drinks with his squash partners, or if they had quarreled, Tommy used to steal into bed with her in the early hours of the morning and they would set off for classes together at the university the next day as if nothing had happened. But now, exhausted from traveling, he hardly stirred.
In the distance, the icy tempestuous waters that had first inspired the title, Cape of Storms, thundered against the rocks. Swelling and crashing, the steady hiss of the cold rhythmic waves reached across the dark lagoons, and across the shore and the hills, even as the man and woman were slumbering; it pounded inside them like a pulse, infiltrating their deepest dreams like a lingering memory prodding the unconscious. She saw tiny sea horses and romantic mariners all night long, and he dreamed of mermaids, wet with surf. And the ocean was the first sound that they heard when they woke in the daylight.
After breakfast, they drove up to Cape Point.
Cape Point, at the end of Africa, where the warm mild currents of the Indian Ocean collided restlessly with the frozen Atlantic tides, towered high above the water. From the cliff-top, it was as if the whole world were liquid. Unsteady, moody, fickle, the wild oceans seemed to be in perfect temper for the vast continent, at this timeless southern rendezvous.
Underwater, the persistent backwash was as ruthless as treachery, the reef as sharp. Poetry has been written and legends have been told about the place, and ghosts of drowned or shipwrecked seamen were said to sail on certain evenings when the moon was low. Even by day, there was a sense of breathlessness.
Cargo ships passed cautiously in the distance, balancing on the horizon like tightrope walkers treading on a risky rope. Meters below, fishermen, braving the bay in small boats, dripped with spray. The slapping wind there beat so furiously that the seagulls were thrown around like rags in the sky, as if they had forgotten how to fly, and plummeted at the whim of the gusts, narrowly missing the sheer walls of the cliff. One could hear their throaty squawks in the whir of the wind. But, the birds, submitting, were inhabitants. Seas combined, like centuries turning, like noisy gray elephants mating, and in the presence of such hugely passionate ageless activity, all human witnesses were awed into dumbness.
Tommy only had one sentence for Kirsty when they had climbed the wide steep paths to reach the summit of the crags. The rock-face blurred with primitive colors as the lashing waves stretched upwards, like a grip of gauntlets clawing on the stone bricks of a medieval fortress under siege. Gazing down into the magnificence and the terror, he said almost inaudibly, “Come and live with me in America.”
“That would be nice,” Kirsty said, when the pair of friends had returned to his car. “You and me and L.A.” She sat back on the faded sheepskin cover of the car seat. “We would fight as much as we used to when we were at university.”
“I know that,” he said scornfully, and then, turning to face her, “But it doesn’t matter.”
“No. It doesn’t matter, Tommy.”
He turned the ignition key and revved the engine. “Perhaps people always argue with whoever means the most to them.” Then he grinned at her. “What do you know about L.A. anyway? You’ve never been further than Swaziland, and that was only for a weekend.”
She laughed and touched his knee. “Let’s go home now.”
“Okay,” he said, reluctantly releasing the hand brake.
They drove away on the lonely roads.
That evening they went for a lazy walk along the beachfront near her cottage. The sun had not yet set, though the air was cool and pleasant, and there still were strong sandy surfers, and attractive teenage girls in long printed t-shirts with big fluffy towels and paperbacks, returning from Clifton and Camp’s Bay.
A Malay fisherman, in ragged knee-length trousers and a torn shirt, was selling fresh Kabeljou on the rocks. He told the two friends that he had caught the fishes in one of his nets about three minutes earlier. One was still flapping when he wrapped it up in newspaper for them to take it. Kirsty and Tommy argued about who would prepare the meal, but eventually he relented for she was the better cook, and he promised that he would wash the dishes, though he knew she would not let him. The old brown angler grinned toothlessly, winking at Tommy and implying that the fish had aphrodisiac properties.
“Like oysters,” he chuckled, and Tommy paid him five rand for his catch.
Further along, they bought a bottle of Grunbergerstein to drink with their dinner, although Tommy vowed he would have only one glassful because the tiring drive back to Johannesburg still lay ahead of him later that night. They had to smuggle the damp green bottle of wine, uncorked, from a cheap bar in a two-star hotel because all the shops were already closed. A waiter wearing a crimson fez squarely on his head and a matching diagonal sash across his drab white jacket noticed the odd bulge beneath Kirsty’s sweater, but he pretended not to see. A swinging black tassel circled his fez as he turned his head and folded his arms. Kirsty felt so guilty, however, that she could not stop giggling and Tommy had to muffle her, covering her mouth with his hand, until they left the hotel premises.
Outside, the moon was hanging over the bay.
“You know,” Kirsty remarked, pointing into the air as they began to stroll home, “The moon is upside-down in America.”
“The whole sky is upside-down. Even the constellations are different there.”
“Maybe they think we’re upside down,” she suggested.
He squeezed her hand. “We are,” Tommy said, and she did not think he was referring to the astronomy of the hemisphere.
Lights from the harbor and the city glistened in the sea. The silhouettes of the mountains blended shapelessly into the sky. Night was falling quickly.
When they returned to Kirsty’s dark little cottage, she lit a twisted round candle on the table in the living room. The thin wisp of smoke left a sweet spicy odor in the house. It burned slowly, and they watched the single flame all through dinner. Wax trickled onto the wood, but Kirsty said she knew a trick to remove the stains, which her mother had shown her. He had already packed his things into the car, so there was no reason to hurry and they let the candle melt all the way down before they stood up, and took the plates back into the kitchen.
She left the dishes lying in the sink. “It will give me something to do when you’re gone,” she told him, as she walked with him to the front door.
They could hear the fizzy ringing of the sea as they stepped onto the porch.
Tommy said, without looking at her, “I’ll write to you.”
“It’s not the same,” she said tenderly, “But it’s nice.” A smell of seaweed was in the air. It occurred to her that she might never see him again. “Well, as long as you remember me,” she sighed.
He kissed her for a long time, sensing her small breasts heaving up and down against his chest and her hands on his back holding him very tightly. She had never seemed so fragile or so precious. When he opened his eyes, he saw how desperately she was staring at him.
“Well, goodbye, Kirsty,” he said, feeling foolish, and though she did not respond, he walked stumblingly down the steps, and down the path towards his car and his journey.
Leaning on the doorjamb, she watched him go and when he turned to look back, he saw full tears streaming down her cheeks. He rushed back up the steps and held her in his arms again.
They kissed and he could taste the salty wetness of her tears.
But she pulled away from him, urgently, as if she wanted to tell him something. The sea-wind was rising with the moon and the night, and he could hear the powerful tireless rush of the ocean, as she whispered, “I love you, Tommy.”
He pushed her away, his heart beating like a breaker, and she was still sobbing as he fled down the path again. It seemed like a million miles to the rickety little gate and he knew that she was trying hard not to watch him leave. He did not dare to turn back now.
Stuart Stromin is a South African-American writer and filmmaker, living in Los Angeles. He was educated at Rhodes University, South Africa, the Alliance Francaise de Paris, and the University of California, Los Angeles. His work has appeared in Immigrant Report, Dissident Voice, Conceit, Rigorous, etc
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