The One That Got Away: Short Stories

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9781595584571: The One That Got Away: Short Stories
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The appearance of Zoë Wicomb’s first set of short stories, You Can’t Get Lost in Cape Town, precipitated the founding of a fan club that has come to include Toni Morrison, J.M. Coetzee, Bharati Mukherjee, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, and writers at The New York Times, The London Times, The Wall Street Journal, The New Yorker, and The Christian Science Monitor. Now, after two novels, Wicomb returns to the genre that first brought her international acclaim.

Set mostly in Cape Town and Glasgow, Wicomb’s new collection of short stories straddles dual worlds. An array of characters drawn with extraordinary acuity inhabits a complexly interconnected, twenty-first-century universe. The fourteen stories in this collection explore a range of human relationships: marriage, friendship, family ties, and relations with those who serve us. Wicomb’s fluid, shifting technique questions conventional certainties and makes for exhilarating reading, full of ironic twists, ambiguities, and moments of startling insight.

Long awaited, The One That Got Away showcases this established, award-winning author at the height of her powers.

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About the Author:

Zoë Wicomb was born in South Africa and now lives in Glasgow. She is currently a professor in the department of English studies at Strathclyde University, Glasgow, and Visiting Professor Extraordinaire at Stellenbosch University, South Africa. In addition to two collections of short stories, she has published two novels, David’s Story and Playing in the Light (The New Press). She is the winner of a 2013 Windham Campbell Prize.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

BOY IN A JUTE-SACK HOOD

Grant Fotheringay is at a loose end. These are his own words. He has said them aloud, and now having struggled with the new-fangled coffee machine, he paces the length of the room that Stella — bless her bloody cotton socks — called the lounge. He is alarmed: that is what old men do, mutter to themselves. So there’s nothing for it, such a malarkey must be confronted head on since the unexamined life etcetera Defining his condition, raking over his thoughts, over his own words, has become habit, the old ballast that chains the dog etcetera There seems to be no accounting for the words that slither into the mind, and then he is duty-bound, owes it to himself because you are worth it, as the ads declare to investigate, which is to say poke, even if it is with a retractable ruler, gingerly, at that writhing tangle of decanted worms.
What then does it mean to be at a loose end? Grant thinks images: a rope dangling from a mizzen sail; the frayed edge of fabric, something rough like jute; the forlornness of something or other; and he sighs theatrically, at the unfinished that passes itself off as freedom or enticement. He supposes, as he stands in front of the window, waiting for the kettle to boil, that his arms are dangling. Then, before him, like a vision, a child charges across the lawn, purposefully, a zephyr whose arms, swivelled in their sockets, stretch out behind him. The child’s cheeks are puffed out. He is running backwards, but with the confidence of one who knows the terrain, knows where he is going. Grant steps back from the window. Weird: it would seem to be the image of the child, an after-image of streamers taut in the west wind, that has brought to mind, as it does for the time-traveller, the notion of a loose end.

Loose ends belong to another country, another time. And when the rest of South Africa bangs on about memory, he is reminded that there is another history, one that has no truck with memory. But being at a loose end and seeing the child charge across the rain-spangled lawn bring an irrepressible image of himself as child charging with a kite on Glasgow Green, a picture no doubt puffed up, he thinks, by kail-yard tales, or rather, his scorn for kail-yard. Grant winces at the thought of a yard, and the mean space of a Gorbals close. That surely accounted for his childhood asthma, that close of fag-ends, hawked-up phlegm, and the smell of neeps and sprouts cooked to death, that squeezed the air from your lungs and made you wheeze. Then he knew nothing of mangoes, avocado pears, could not have known of the Queen of Sheba leading her soft camels widdershins round the kirk-yaird a full two decades later. Instead, there was the Green vast, bright, defiant under a pewter sky — for a boy with a kite that soared like an eagle. Lucy in the sky-y with di-iamonds. His blood-red kite, a diamond with a tail, thumbed its nose at the Presbyterian sky, taunted that grey lid until it lifted and light came crashing through the cloud. Before his very eyes the Green buckled into fells and highveld where lions roared and flashed their yellow eyes in the bracken.

It was from the grand old derelict fountain on the Green, its cracked, blunt-nosed sculptures, that his dreams were fed. There a child from the Gorbals could escape to far-off lands via the terracotta tableaux of the colonies. He did not mind the broken meths bottles, the smell of piss and vinegary pokes of chips as he wandered around the peoples of the colonies. Trailing his red kite, he became an explorer, a discoverer of things that no Glaswegian had dreamt of; he wandered through weird vegetation, slew the giants of Africa and sailed off to India. He favoured the bearded man in the South African tableau with a gun by his side, and at his feet a sweet, odd-looking girl who would speak in a lovely sing-song voice, quite unlike the slags who smoked and cursed in the close. But best of all was the ostrich with a long snake-neck and full, soft feathers like the girl’s bosom, an image that guided his hand at night under the blanket and brought wet dreams of coupling with a continent. The worn school atlas that he claimed to have lost, and for which his teacher demanded three shillings, he kept under the mattress, safe from the younger children.

Yesterday afternoon, and only three months late, Grant sent off his manuscript, a monograph of one hundred and thirty thousand, two hundred and seventeen words, the fruit of four years’ research and painful writing; although the pain after the first draft had abated. It is his first-born. It is not surprising then, he consoles himself, that he feels at a loose end, even if he had expected something else, something at least distantly related to pleasure or relief. For two of those years, more or less after Stella moved out (Jesus, what timing, what a bitch), he has lived the life of a recluse, other than the minimal conversation with colleagues and necessary interaction with students. Now he supposes he will have to think of a new project but not yet. First there should be a loosening off, a settling of the mind so steeped in the late-nineteenth century. Should he take a deep breath and join a gym? No, he is neither ready for the sweat of the middle-aged, nor for the lycra-clad limbs of youth.

On the cream sofa, wide as a boat, the red silk cushions are lined up into stiff lozenges just touching at the corners to form a row of diamonds, which makes the blood rush to his face with rage. Why should he have to put up with this, twice a week, after Poppie has been? Why should he have to struggle with a maid who insists on having her own way, her own aesthetic? he supposes. He rearranges the cushions into careless piles, as if they had been tossed from afar; he hates the orderly line that stands on tip-toe to attention. The girl must imagine that he doesn’t care, doesn’t know that the untidy tumble of red is no accident, and all because he is a man, yes that’s what it’s about. As a progressive who has long since given up on manhood, he resents the stereotype, for what else could it be that blinds the girl or woman, he should say to the plumped up cushions that she finds each time so obviously, so artlessly, arranged into random heaps?

The rain comes and goes. Grant Fotheringay stretches out on the sofa, but no sooner does he settle down with the Mail & Guardian, than the child again crosses the lawn from right to left. This time over his thin T-shirt the child wears a folded jute sack, the type in which sugar is sold in bulk. With one corner tucked like a lining into the other and slipped over his head, the sack is a cape with a peaked hood, which keeps him dry. This time with arms stretched before him and puffed-out cheeks, he describes a wide arc across the lawn, his left wing dipping dangerously before landing. Then the child seems to rebuke himself, for suddenly he straightens, sober, pensive, as his cheeks deflate; he is too old for such nonsense. From his pocket he draws a rolled-up exercise book, saunters over to the large picture window, and with book in hand measures its length in wide strides, twice, back and forth, as if he cannot believe his own findings. He makes a note in his book, possibly of the number of strides. The rain stops once again.

Light bounces off the window, so that glancing into the room the child sees only dark shapes, only furniture, he thinks. He presses his nose against the pane, curious about the interior that he is sure will be wonderful. He has puzzled over the wonky wrought-iron table with a fully rusted top and the frayed stuff of the wicker chair on the stop. He knows the man to be rich and grand. Why then does he keep such ramshackle, such shameful old things?

Can the child really not see Grant? He sees what he expects to see. For months now he has known the man to work all day in the study at the back of the house that looks out at the mountain. Sitting with his back to the window, the man would not have seen anyone running across the lawn, backwards, without bumping into anything, or anyone peering into the livingroom window.

Is the child staring at him? Grant flushes, doesn’t know whether to stir. This is the sort of thing that Stella would have taken care of. When the rain starts beating against the window, the face spreads across the pane; the sugar-sack hood frames black eyes around which he has cupped his hands the better to exclude the glare. Heavens above, what insolence, and Grant leaps to his feet and goes to the window where the child now stares in horror before putting his palms over his eyes with shame. Grant taps at the pane and with a wave beckons him in.

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