Saaleha Bhamjee is a grower of children and of all things green. A baker of cakes and of stories. Currently working on the God-alone-knows-how-many-eth draft of her novel, she blogs at http://afrocentric-muslimah.blogspot.com/. Here you’ll find snippets of her work and her opinions.
This is what he would call it, were he to write … would that he could write … about the slant of the sun through the bedroom window. About the weight of her head resting on his chest. The tickle of her breath on his skin.
Absolute madness of it all!
The one night stand.
No. He shakes his head. Even the word doesn’t quite fit.
Mostly because it isn’t night. He smiles wryly.
Seduction is a two-way street. She wanted this as much as I did.
He feels himself harden at the memory of her eager mouth, hands, body. Yes, she’d wanted it. Wanted him.
But I wasn’t supposed to want her. That’s what being married means. Remember?
The thought makes him shift a little in bed. He detours. Tries to recall the one night stands of his youth.
The memories are blurred. Wasn’t I beaten once? The girl…the one who said she’d perfected her technique? He shudders.
But this, today, has been the languorous meeting of old lovers.
She touched him as though she knew him. Taunted, teased until his need for her became a sickness. Not even his…No. No comparisons. To do that is a disservice to them both.
Still, her skin beneath his hands, perfect joy. Kissing her whittled the entire world down to the perfect V at her upper lip. She tasted like … Jelly Tots? His mind had paused then, on the incongruity of his daughter’s favourite childhood sweet inserting itself into this selfish indulgence.
But then he was distracted by her teeth, nibbling on his lower lip, teasing him with such tenderness that he’d fragmented into a zillion pieces of aching want.
And then he was whole again, her head bent forward onto his chest, hair tumbling free of its tie, body limp from the implosion she’d experienced.
She snuggled up beside him, head on his chest, hand splayed on his shoulder and slept. He lay there, drawing lazy circles on her back, watching the afternoon sun grow cold. Gold. Until it now streamed in the window, lighting a patch of wall. The final salvo of a dying day.
Sounds from below reach him in stolen snatches, spirited his way by a thieving wind.
And no, I don’t feel like a thieving cheat. One has to be practical.Divorce oneself from silly romantic notions. Besides, what’s romantic about fuckery? And that’s exactly what this is. Two people surrendering to lust. Right?
Just then she stirs, throws a leg over his. Presses up against him. Still a little wet. His body responds immediately and he doesn’t even think to be embarrassed by his own eagerness.
This time they make love. Well, almost. Or maybe their fucking is just slower. He rolls off her, disentangling limbs.
They’re both breathing hard. Her hair is plastered to her cheek; face, flushed. They lie staring up at the ceiling until their breathing slows. Synchronises. Wordless. He marvels at how even now, the space between them, the silence, it doesn’t trip them up. It just is.
How is it even possible for something so wrong to feel perfectly right?
“Come.” He wants to hold her.
She looks at him, eyes dancing. “Aah, but I have. Several times in fact.” She grins.
He is reminded of his twelve-year-old, in one of her more sassy moments.
Guilt stains his mind. Out, damned spot.
What guilt is to be found in feeling whole? In feeling like the missing pieces of your being, the hollowed-out bits, are filled?
“And for that, I thank you, kind sir. You were my knight in shining … Uhm, never mind.” She laughs. Rainbow-filled bubbles that flit out of the window, fix themselves to the sky. Stars.
They spoon. Like an old, married couple. The hand he throws around her brushes the swell of her breast from time to time. It all feels dream-like.
“Tell me about your dreams,” he murmurs against her hair.
“Touring. I dream of touring the world, someday.” Her answer like a childhood rhyme.
“May I tour with you?” He smiles. “Our dreams match.”
She nods. They listen to night unfurl around them. Crickets outside the window. Mating calls under a blanket of stars.
She clears her throat. “I want to see the Northern lights … ”
He closes his eyes, sees an inky sky filled with smudged stars, a fingerprint of a moon. “Sleep beneath a cold Northern sky? See the North Star and think of all the voyages that were taken under its guidance? Voyag- es that reshaped our world?”
“Or fucked it up. Depends which side of colonialism you’re on.” “Shshhhh … No serious talk. We’re dreaming here. Dream with me.” He kisses the top of her head.
“Okay. Let’s see … I want to be a beach bum for a week.” “Yes! Be burnt a rich, nut brown as you laze on the snowy sands
and take in the too-blue waters. The praying palms.” He paints the picture for them.
“Poetic. I like that.”
Her ‘liking that’ makes him feel stupidly happy.
She continues, “I want to go to Central Park. New York.” “And feed the birds?” he asks.
“Are there birds in Central Park?” She turns to look at him. “I don’t know. Are there?” He steals a kiss.
She shrugs. “No idea. We’ll discover together, then.” She curves up to him again. He rests his chin on her shoulder.
“I want to walk the streets of New York. Find hidden shops that tourists have never heard of. Shops where the aroma of coffee reminds me that I am. A little like … your perfume did today … ” His face grows warm as these words escape.
“Silly. I don’t need flattery. I wanted you the minute I saw you. It’s your hands, see. Musician’s hands,” she splays his hand against her own, flips it over, kisses his palm, “and you sure coaxed some interesting notes out of me today.” He can hear her smile.
Writer’s hands actually. But you don’t need to know. She continues. “I want to adopt a child one day.”
“From a country where hope is a broken promise and wretchedness is sincere?”
“Yep. But you’re going to make me sad if you start talking about sincere wretchedness. Subject change: I want to go to the Louvre in Paris.” She tries to be French about Paris, ends up butchering Louvre.
He laughs. She swats his arm. “Sshhh!” she chides. “It’s a dream, remember?”
“Okay, I won’t laugh.” He clears his throat, rearranges his face– or tries to – a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. “I want to get lost in a painting. Imagine the artist’s hands as he painted his dream into being.”
“I love that! But tell me, why is it romantic to be an artist when it’s the graphic artists who make the real money? The guys who design cereal boxes and toothpaste tubes?”
“Because we romanticise suffering. Too many artists die poor, right? Think of Van Gogh?” He clears his throat, enunciates in a fake English accent, “One must suffer for one’s art.”
“There’s nothing romantic about suffering. Believe me.” She turns to look at him as she says this. Her face is blank. Eyes, shuttered. He finds that the idea of her suffering tugs at his heart. He frowns.
“Pfftttt … Why do you keep trying to wake up? We’re dreaming! Work with me wummun!” He wants them to laugh again. Wants her to laugh again.
“You want to know what’s really romantic?” he asks. “What?”
“Walking the streets of Paris. Seeing lovers. Basking in the glow of their love.”
“But what if it’s not love? What if it’s lust? Like … ” she falls quiet, then whispers, “ … this?”
“Then he’ll have his hand up her skirt and his other will be squeezing her boob. Like so,” and he cups her breast. “Either way, it’s still fun to watch.”
She laughs and he wraps himself in happiness.
They fall silent. Music filters in through the curtains. The writ- ers must be having an early dinner. Storytelling Evening. Once they’re done, he can just imagine the cleverness they will serve.
“You’re very quiet?” She interlaces her fingers through his, squeezes his hand. He squeezes back. “I’ve always dreamt of walking a narrow Egyptian street. There in the half light, I’ll see an Arab man and he’ll speak with his hands. Like he’s conducting the music of his words. And the air will smell like coffee. And his hair will look like coffee swirls.”
“Hmmm … gorgeous picture. But do you speak Arabic?” He wants to peel away all of her layers.
“No. But I want to learn.” He files this fact away.
“Take a boat down the Nile. Imagine life during the time of the Pharaohs. Be awed by the pyramids. Then stand on a dune, watch the wind mould them. Waves.” He strokes her hair.
“Take some sand in my hand and feel it trickle between my fingers.” She squeezes his hand again. “You know what else I’ve always wanted to do?”
“What?” He kisses her shoulder. “The Serengeti. Masai Mara.”
“Too much National Geographic, young lady,” he teases. “Ja ja! Whatever!” She feigns irritation.
“Seriously though, I want to do that too. See the herds migrate. Watch the Maasai do their dance in the red African dust. And while we’re in Africa, I’d like to stand on a plain in the Free State. Watch the wind bend the grass.” He closes his eyes, imagines the ochre sea of bowing grass.
“Lie down? Find shapes in the clouds? Feel an ant crawl up your arm?” She walks her fingers up his forearm, giving him goosebumps.
“Lie beneath a jacaranda in full flower and feel the rain of blooms.” He blows the skin of her shoulder. She shivers.
“Walk along the St Lucia beaches at night and watch the turtles hatch and scramble for the shelter of the sea.”
“Yess!! That’s on my bucket list, actually … ” He makes a mental note to look into a St Lucia holiday when he gets back home.
“Just drive. Follow the road from Jozi and go where it takes you. I’ve always wanted to do that. There’s something special about a journey that has no real destination, don’t you think?” She turns to face him. Their faces are so close, if he moves just a little, their noses will touch.
“Yes.” He smiles against her lips.
“I want to lose myself in you over and over again,” she whis- pers. He presses his nose to hers. For that moment, they’re Inuit. Exploring one another’s faces with their noses, inhaling deeply, skin mapping skin.
“Depends? Are you offering food? Because…uhm…” She pulls the sheet up to cover her breasts and sits up, sliding a pillow between her back and the headboard. He’s seated by the window, a towel wrapped around his waist, hair in wet whorls.
“I was thinking food. Don’t know about you, but I’m starved.
Worked up quite an appetite.” He grins.
She blushes, tucks the sheet a little tighter under her armpits and he imagines that this is what Eve must have felt like when she took that first bite of the forbidden fruit and realised she was, in fact, naked. Post indulgence guilt. Interesting how that works.
“I hear this hotel owes its reputation to the culinary genius of its chef. It’s probably why the w … uhm … my group decided to meet here. They’re a greedy bunch. The room service menu is pretty extensive.”
“I’m too tired to make decisions. Order for us.” He raises a brow. “Really?”
“Yeah. Not like I’m offering to marry you and cook for you and pick up your dirty socks just cos I let you order one meal for me. Besides, you’re married. So … ” She chews on her thumbnail and studies a brochure from the bedside as she says this.
He clears his throat.
“Surprise me.” Her smile is pure sweetness. “I’m allergic to peanuts, by the way. Anything else is fine. And, I don’t drink.”
He agonises over the menu. Tries to imagine what she’d like. In the end, he settles on dishes that are homecoming. He places their order while she goes to shower.
Over the spray of the water, he hears her sing. Something sweet that he doesn’t recognise. He smiles. Goes out to stand on the balcony, waits for their meal to arrive.
So this, this is Utopia, then?
He surveys the hotel grounds. Candlelight flickers beneath the lapa. Waiters move between tables, the white of their jackets, luminescent. He catches the glint of gleaming glasses, hears the chink of crockery, the hum of voices. The breeze is a perfume of roasting meat laced with rosemary, garlic and the occasional whiff of freshly brewed coffee.
By the time the server arrives bearing a trolley that is all polished silver and twinkling glass, his stomach is rumbling. The server sets to work, laying a table in the middle of the suite.
She emerges from the dressing room. She’s slipped back into her clothes rescued from the bedroom floor. Her hair has been scraped into a ponytail. It brushes against her shoulders when she talks, leaves a patch of damp on her shirt that reveals the strap of her bra.
They settle down to the starter. ‘A light crimson soup of beet- root, mascarpone and fennel.’
He watches her face as she takes the first sip. Is distracted by his own first mouthful. The flavours meld so perfectly that he feels as though a secret of the universe has just been laid bare. She closes her eyes as she takes her second sip.
He smiles. “There is no love sincerer than the love of food.” “Said by?” Her spoon is halfway to her mouth.
“George Bernard Shaw.”
“Aaah. I suspect he said that with a delicious Irish accent.” She takes a mouthful of crimson magic.
He feels a pang of nostalgia when he reaches the bottom of his bowl.
The second course is served. A Porcini mushroom Risotto topped with whipped Boerenkaas, garnished with a handful of fresh herbs.
The grains of rice are almost nutty, the broth, buttery, rich. “They say the secret to the ultimate risotto is to add the stock a little at a time, stirring all the while so that you tease the rice into yielding its starch. That’s what makes the perfect creamy broth. Sounds like sex?” She spoons a little more of the earthy broth into her mouth.
He laughs. “We didn’t do anything slowly today but it was still good. No?”
“Like seared steak?” she asks. “Yes, just so.”
The main course, Swartland boerbok, slow-braised until it falls apart at the lightest touch, served on buttery umngqusho – samp and beans, cooked until creamy and tender – topped with a dollop of mustard cream, and a side of grilled cabbage.
There is such honesty in this dish. He is humbled.
“You must admit though, this entire meal makes a case for lingering over things?” he asks when he has recovered his faculty of speech.
“Perhaps.” She smiles. “I’m too stuffed for dessert.” She leans back in her chair, patting her tummy which curves outward now.
“Vanilla Marshmallow, Basil and Mango Frozen Yoghurt and Burnt Soft Meringues? Come now, just a little? I’ll ask for one. We can share?”
She groans. In the end, she relents.
Heavy from indulgence, they decide to take a walk in the garden of fairy lit trees and Narnia-esque lamps. Her head is bowed, catching the light at intervals and gleams, fiery copper. Sometimes she looks up at the sky as though searching for something.
What are you thinking? Just how much he’d like this question answered scares him.
“Did you know that stars don’t really twinkle? The twinkle we see is caused by earth’s turbulent atmosphere,” she says at last.
He looks up. How often is not the truth of a thing obscured by the prism of our own vision? And then it clicks. The problem he’s been having with plot, he sees it.
So THIS is what my story is about?!
“Fuuuck me,” he breathes. “Thank you.” He pulls her into a tight hug, kisses her hard on her mouth. “Look, I really wanted to go back to my room and do things slowly this time. But there’s something I really need to do.”
Her face is a mask.
“Can I come to your room later?” He hears himself sounding like an asshole, even as his words are eaten by the night.
“Hey you don’t owe me anything. In fact, I think it’s better if you go … ” She’s already walking away, across the weeping lawn. She passes under a lamp and her auburn hair burns.
“Wait.” He runs to catch up. Falls in step beside her. “It’s not like that. It’s just … I’ve got a story I need to write. I came here on a Retreat. Been battling severe writer’s block.” He reaches for her hand. She does not return his squeeze. They stop beneath a tree. The white blooms are stars in the deepening night.
“You don’t need to explain. This is a dream. You’re a dream. I’m a dream.” She smiles. Stands on tiptoe. Kisses him. It tastes of farewell.
He watches her walk away. Catches himself before he runs after her. She vanishes around a corner. The night feels darker.
He returns to his room. It feels colder. He makes a cup of coffee then settles down in front of his laptop. His room breathes to the rhythm of his fingers dancing across the keyboard all that night.
In the greying dawn, he stands on the balcony, hand wrapped around a mug of coffee. It sighs into the cool morning air. He stretches. Inhales deeply. Scours the grounds for a copper-haired woman. Finds noth- ing.
The eastern horizon unfurls like a crimson ribbon before him.
“That retreat really did a number on you.” She settles back into her seat, hands clasped over her tummy. Surveys the wooden panelled walls of the teeming restaurant.
He frowns. “Meaning?”
“Since you got home we’ve spent every date night at a different posh restaurant when you’re actually a movie/pissy machine Coke/buttery popcorn kinda guy?”
“I told you. I ate an amazing meal there. I’m trying to find bits of it.” He smiles.
“Any luck?” She tilts her head to one side.
“Nope.” His eyes rake over the restaurant. There’s an auburn- haired woman at a table in the corner. He looks away.
“You know sometimes food is not so much about the…well…food. It’s about a time. A place. Maybe it’s because you found your mojo there and that’s what you’re looking for?”
“You know what I think we need to do?” She leans forward.
Rests her elbows on the table.
“Hmmm?” He spoons some Nectarine Sorbet topped Almond Tart into his mouth.
“Book a weekend for us there. Then you can eat that again and be done with this obsession.” She forms air quotes with her fingers as she says the words amazing meal.
He takes a gulp of his coffee. Scalds his mouth.
“But aren’t you enjoying all these astonishing meals?” His face is all mock gravitas.
“You want the truth or do you want me to humour you?” She smiles dryly.
“Overpriced. Pretentious.” They say this together. Fall over laughing.
“What’s with all the weird gels though?” She rolls her eyes. “Cutting edge culinary art, my love.” He grins. “I have an announcement.” He lifts his wineglass. It holds Appletiser. He clinks his dessertspoon against its rim. She sits up straight. “I’m cooking samp and beans tomorrow for supper.”
She claps her hands. “Bravo! Some sense at last! All this ridicu- lous food has had my digestion in revolt!”
“Urgh! Too. Much. Info.” He laughs. “Actually, I was going to suggest a side of grilled cabbage, but … er … maybe not?”
“Get with the programme daahling. Shit happens.”
They leave the restaurant hand in hand. While they wait for the valet to bring their car around, he looks back at the restaurant. The auburn- haired woman has left.
They settle into their car. He starts up the engine, then rummag- es in his pocket and produces a little packet of sweets.
“Those After Eights just didn’t do it for me. Jelly Tot?” He holds out the packet.
She frowns. “I thought you hated those. You were always lecturing poor Kay on how bad … ”
“Shshhhhh.” He leans in to kiss her. Slips a Jelly Tot between her lips as he does so. And, for just this moment, he is whole again and the world is pure perfection.