Heathrow at dawn is quiet and full of sleepwalkers. Slanting rain wets chalky poplars and ragwort blooms freely along the motorway, its pretty flowers yellow amidst pale wild carrot. Our taxi driver is Irish. He left Dublin because the troubles became a way of life. “Thank Goodness the English are self-made men,” he laughs,” therefore relieving God of a great responsibility.”
He tells us that ragwort is poisonous to horses, but wonderful for butterflies. The city slowly gives way to barley fields; red poppies dot pastures; sweet peas spill across a split chestnut trellis; lupins like candles waiting to be lit by sunlight. I lean against the window while droplets run up against the glass. The English summer. I feel sorry for the bride.
We are here for one night only, then on to France for two.
In the summer of 1951 Oupa and Ouma embarked on a Grand European Tour; a three-month return journey on a mail ship through the Suez Canal. The Volksblad ran an article on their once-in-a-lifetime trip abroad. The whole of Kroonstad sent letters.
Is dit wonderbaarlik mooi? Hoe lyk Switzerland, sekerlik ′n sprokieswêreld? Hier is dit koud en die wind waai aanhoudend en ons bid op reën om die sand tot ruste te laat kom.
I found the correspondence in an old leather trunk, under a brass bed on the farm, marked in Pa's uneven font, Familie Geskiedenis.
“Here we go lovelies,” the driver says as he pulls up to our B&B. The driveway is hemmed with St. Joseph’s lilies in glazed royal blue pots. Chintz lines our bedroom windows, and Herefords rest fattened in the meadows below. A valley folds away into wheat fields trimmed with woodland of lime, hawthorn, ash and hazel. Archangels bloom in the forest. Crows circle above silver birches. The sun comes out and gently touches a stone arch.
England is full of grand estates, courtesy of primogeniture and self-made men. When the upkeep becomes onerous, they give their castles to the National Trust. Before that they roll up the Tintoretto for sale and argue with ramblers who insist on a right to walk the countryside.
I lie on the sofa and fish out a book from a glass case, in which Milan Kundera defines the word ‘collaborator’.
In the course of the war against Nazism, the word collaboration took on a new meaning: putting oneself voluntarily at the service of a vile power. What a fundamental notion! How did we do without it until 1944? … All those who extoll the mass media din, advertising's imbecilic smile, the neglect of the natural world, indiscretion raised to the status of a virtue – they deserve to be called collaborators with the modern.
I feel tempted to steal the book. Adi brings me tea. It’s time to get ready.
My vintage floor-length silk dress came from a junk shop in Cape Town. It was too small, but the drunk owner was insistent: “Loulou will fix it up for you.” When I asked for her dressmaker’s full name, she slurred, “Dahling, we don’t need surnames. We are not Jews.”
Adi is wearing what they call a morning suit. We look at ourselves in the mirror and giggle.
The ceremony takes place in the late afternoon at a Doric folly overlooking an ornamental lake. A violinist plays the lament of a rusalka, those malcontent water spirits that haunt the rivers of central Europe, luring men to join them in their loneliness. Two labradors collapse at the feet of the groom. A breeze off the lake whips at the agapanthus and silver wattle bouquets. The bride is beautiful, and her new husband is tender with love.
It is the custom at European wedding receptions to split partners and I lose heart at the thought. I am seated next to an Australian who is a man in a way that men from Europe never are.
“Why do you live in London?” I ask him.
“Because it’s not provincial.”
“I suspect most provincial lives are lived in cosmopolitan places.”
“Quite.” He smiles. “Do I hear the ire of the slighted south?”
The main course is Beef Wellington.
The Australian is writing a novel about human trafficking.
“Aren’t you supposed to write what you know?” I ask.
“I know rootlessness,” he says. “Provenance is destiny, and so is the absence thereof. You are wearing a wonderful dress, by the way, who is it by?”
“I bought it from a tramp.”
We share dessert.
Adi and I go to bed after midnight. I ask Adi how his table was. “Hard work,” he mumbles, pulling the pillow over his head. “And yours?”
“I sat next to an insomniac. He is also a writer. I could have run away with him had my heels not been so chafed.” Adi is already fast asleep.
I lie awake in the dark.
Below the itinerary of Oupa and Ouma’s European tour were yellowed and moth-eaten newspaper clippings of the accident. Jong boer sterf in tragiese ongeluk. Pa was nineteen when his brother Paul was shot through the heart by a close friend. Pa has kept his brother’s tie, wristwatch and pocket knife. Also letters of sympathy, held together by an elastic band, addressed to Bedroefdes, Doringdraai, distrik Kroonstad. It has been almost fifty years. Pa never speaks of it, but stores all these things in a trunk under his bed.
Eventually I switch on the bedside lamp and read further.
Milan Kundera calls Central Europe a “laboratory of twilight”.
In summer the locals flee Paris. We emerge from the catacombs of the Châtelet metro and follow directions. Addresses in the 1st arrondissement are stacked around deep hidden courtyards. Our friends have left us their keys under a pot of nasturtiums.
I look up. The stairwell fans upwards like a chambered nautilus, the walls covered in a mother-of-pearl frieze. A candelabra hangs low from an ancient beam, filled with butter-yellow candles. Linen is kept in a satinwood armoire. Some charcoal drawings rest against a wall.
I open a window onto a mansard roof garden, lace curtains and discreet neighbours. Clouds float over flowerpot chimneys and a breeze cools the attic rooms. The floor sags lightly.
Adi pours some wine for us and puts his head down on my lap. We wait for my mother and father to arrive from the Czech Republic. My sister Nadia lives in Paris and has gone to buy olives stuffed with almonds.
On the eve of my birthday I know this ... we are all collaborators in our neglect of the natural world. Excess is collaboration. Fantasies of carbon-neutral luxury are hubris.
Adi has fallen asleep.
We drink coffee at Cafe Pistache overlooking a restrained garden behind the Louvre, fresh with the smell of leaves.
Pa reads to us from a guidebook: “We have got to see this. The rodent catchers of Maison Aurouze display their fine collection of dead rats in the window of their premises in Les Halles. Prices start from 1.20 euro for a mousetrap.”
Ma says, “I would rather go shoe shopping.”
Nadia tells us that Berluti lays out his couture shoes in the rays of the waxing moon to acquire their legendary patina and comfort.
Pa shuffles around in the iron café stool. “Het jy al ooit sulke stront gehoor. Ek sny sommer self die hakke van my skoene af met ′n metaal saag by die werkswinkel op die plaas. Dan is hulle lekker gemaklik."
Ma raises her eyebrows.
"Sani help my natuurlik. Hy kry die skoen aan die sool beet met ′n tang terwyl ek saag. Ek sê altyd vir hom, Sani sit om Godsnaam die safety bril op want jy het net een oog, maar hy wil nie luister nie."
Nadia bites at the square sugar cube next to her coffee. I wonder how it was for Breyten, all those years ago, exiled in paradise, exiled from paradise.
We wander around an enormous antique market in the banlieue. Nadia leads us into an ivy-covered archway where you can buy stuffed giraffes sliced in half, or the face of a gorilla on a stick. "Peut-être une grenouille musicale pour vous, madame?" the proprietor asks, dragging a stick across the ribbed back of a carved frog, in the delicate antiphony of wood on wood.
We leave the markets and take a taxi to the Grand Palais for lunch.
On the Place de la Concorde traffic stalls around a stolen obelisk with a gold tipped apex and scrolling hieroglyphs. Tall hedgerows screen the Louvre. Violets bloom in front of an imitation acropolis. “L'église de la Madeleine,” says the driver. We walk onto a colonnaded verandah with giant potted ferns. Tables are covered in starched linen and discreetly solicitous waiters hover near.
We order rosé and Pa says, “Ek ken daai vrou daar by die oorkanste tafel. Here, moet net nie vir my vra wat haar naam is nie. Sandra, is sy ′n kollega van ons?
Ma sighs. “It's Isabella Rossellini.”
“A Serbian war criminal.”
“O, ek wou sê sy lyk bekend,” Pa says. "Nou wat gaan ek eet, hierdie Franse kos is so ryk en vol fieterjasies."
We eat avocado soup and pork belly under tapering acanthus columns five stories high.
I tell Pa about the itinerary I found, of Oupa and Ouma's trip to Europe. He remembers it well. “Ek moes by tannie Dots en Oom Dolf hulle bly, ons moes alewig bid.” Pa says Ouma told him that when they crossed the equator there was a fancy- dress dinner to celebrate. After the Second World War there were hardly any cars; Europe was a continent for pedestrians. People travelled seldom and with decorum.
“The Duke of Wellington was right,” Pa mumbles, “when he predicted that the invention of the railways would enable the lower classes to travel about needlessly.” He laughs. “Ons is besig om die wêreld te vermors.”
I want to go home.
Ma and Pa leave, back into the laboratory of twilight.
The apartment is quiet, full of paintings and candles burnt down into their footholds. There are fresh lemons in a bowl on an oval cherry wood table, and the bells of evensong ring through an opened window.
Across the way in a tall Venetian mirror a man is standing in front of a bed. A woman is lying on her back facing him. She is naked, but for delicate velvet heels that arch her feet. He tells her that she is beautiful. She sighs and he takes a picture of her. She turns over and backs onto her haunches. She has long brown hair that falls over her shoulders. He puts the camera down and buries his face between her legs. She sighs and moans and eventually he leans over and into her. It is late afternoon on a Tuesday in Paris and the courtyard is still but for their lovemaking. Afterwards she puts her head on his chest and he kisses her fingers.
A gargoyle loosens himself from the prow of a buttress, an angel pulls a door shut, dragging heavy wings down many flights of stairs, a soft rustling as feathers catch on the marble steps. His work done.
Kundera, Milan. 2005. The Art of the Novel. London: Faber and Faber.