archive - issue 14
Karina Magdalena Szczurek
The range of submissions to this issue of Itch perfectly exemplifies the versatility of our TABOOS theme. Images and words flicker on the screen, promising a revelation, but the elusiveness of the theme seems to retain the upper hand. Not surprisingly, most of it is all about sex, drugs, religion and politics, but there are also less obvious explorations. Anything in a given context can become a taboo. For some, politicians and penises don't belong on the same canvas. Others are upset by a picture of a young white woman with braids straight out of a Nigerian hair salon. A music video with a scene of someone urinating might not be everyone's cup of tea. And in the end, who is to say whose feelings and perceptions are to be the yardstick? Itch 12 only complicates matters further, and so it should be, because there are no taboos in a creative space. Or are there?
Partridge has won the M.E.R. Prize for Best Youth Novel twice and has been honoured by IBBY International for her work. Two years ago she was named one of Mail & Guardian's 200 Young South Africans to watch out for, and there is no doubt that all these forms of recognitions were only the beginning.
KMS: Your novels are not only entertaining, fast-paced reads, but also astutely committed works of literature. In your work, you take up many socially-relevant issues like bullying, violence, the pitfalls of our online reality, but your novels don't preach. Sharp Edges is not different. In it, you turn to drug abuse. But drugs are not really the issue. The real tragedy begins somewhere else. Can you tell us more about that?
SAP: For me, the greatest tragedy in the novel is Demi's death because it was totally avoidable, yet none of the characters see that. They're too busy blaming each other and themselves. After she died, Demi's friends made her out to be this perfect, golden-haired girl that was cruelly snatched from their lives. But Demi was anything but perfect. She was an unapologetic party girl with a growing substance problem that none of her friends had ever addressed. The Voice of Reason in this girl's life was absent and she was as oblivious to her problem as much as everyone else was. Friendship is a big theme of the book, but this group of friends didn't know each other as well as they thought they did. James didn't know anything about his best friend Siya, neither Demi nor V saw that Ashley was a dormant volcano of uncertainty and low self-worth. They all communicated in various ways, from talking to each other directly to writing letters and sending text messages, but none of them said the things that they should have. Instead they focused on frivolous things like girl-boy talk and partying. All these broken lives would have been so different if they had just communicated properly with each other from the start. James and V's promised love story, which held so much potential, was sabotaged by their inability to say how they really felt about each other.
KMS: Your characters are often outsiders. Do you find them more interesting to write about?
SAP: I could be wrong, but I think everyone sees themselves as outsiders. This is especially true for teenagers, who are just starting to develop their awareness of the world. We all have this little voice in our head that only we can hear that questions everything we do. We all keep quiet about what we really think about people, choosing to display this outer mask of insincerity and cheerfulness. I love writing in first-person perspective because not only can I display this outer mask the characters wear but the internal dialogue as well. The reader gets a full picture of the character – how they act around the other characters, and what they're really like on the inside.
I've mentioned in the past that most of my characters are hooligans, which I suppose makes them more fun to write about. But I think I could take any type of teenager, even the well-behaved bookish types, and find some way to turn them into a misfit. Someone may seem like a good kid on the outside but what they're like on the inside is a whole different story. As a writer I'm most interested in what makes people tick.
KMS: What is the greatest challenge for you when writing for a teenage audience?
SAP: Relevance. I could write what I think is the best story I've ever written, but at the end of the day the young person that picks it up has to find it interesting. That's why plot is so important. Sharp Edges deals with so many issues and themes, from drug abuse and grief to identity and perception, but a teenage reader is not going to care about any of that. They want a good story that they can devour in a matter of hours so that they swirl around in the aftermath for a bit before picking up the next book. In Sharp Edges I have the mystery element. What actually happened to Demi Crowley? Without a good story and a solid plot you're basically just writing a long essay about the teenage psyche that academics will love, but no teenager in their right mind would ever touch.
KMS: Are there any taboo topics in YA literature?
SAP: I don't think so, especially when it comes to contemporary YA which is based soundly in the real world. Life is hard. Life is ugly. Teenagers have a full plate in their everyday life comprising school, social hierarchies, peer pressure, bullying, their awareness of the opposite (or same) sex. And this is just the suburban teenager. There are kids living in abject poverty, kids in war-torn countries, victims of abuse, child-headed families, rape victims. Bad things happen in real life and it would be remiss of me to not write about it.
In Sharp Edges my characters all experience real-world problems. One character's parents are divorced, one hasn't told his parents that he's gay, two attempt suicide, one deals drugs, one tries to seduce her friend's father. The world isn't perfect. Our paths are full of sharp edges that graze us as we pass.
KMS: You partner Warren Talmarkes was part of the creative team behind the evocative cover and design of Sharp Edges. Can you tell us more about the collaboration?
SAP: Sharp Edges tells the story of a group of friends that go to a music festival in the Cederberg, but the book isn't about kids going to party and having a good time. It's about what happened after the party. The book touches on death, grief, friendship, perception, sadness, and the ghosts that shape who we are. It was important for me that the cover provides a true representation of that content. Warren is an amazing designer and he understood exactly what I wanted. He's also a live music photographer so if I wanted a cover that depicted young people going crazy at a music concert I could have easily had that, but that's the opposite of what I wanted. I wanted something eerie, whimsical and soulful that hinted at the dark nature of the book. Demi is the ghost that haunts the lives of the other five characters. The disembodied girl on the cover is that ghost. It's perfect.
KMS: What is next for you?
SAP: I am, as always, writing. I have several draft manuscripts in the pipeline, and am currently busy with another. If I'm not writing, I go insane. There will definitely be a next book, but which one I can't tell you yet.
I am also currently writing a short story about Siya and Terry for a short story anthology for charity. Siya's chapter was such a special moment of lightness in the story. When someone suggested that I explore that relationship more I jumped at the opportunity.
A little over a year ago, three friends walked into a restaurant as Sarah Lotz, Nick Paige and Helen Moffett, and walked out as Helena S. Paige, the author of the "Girl" series that is making waves in the literary world. Over lunch, the three successful writers conceived of a series of "choose your own erotic destiny" books which made international literary headlines by scooping up almost two dozen publishing deals within a few weeks of being pitched to an agent. The first title in the series, A Girl Walks into a Bar: Choose Your Own Erotic Destiny, has been available as an e-book since July and has been released as a paperback in South Africa in November by the local publishing house, Jonathan Ball. The next one, A Girl Walks into a Wedding: Your Fantasy, Your Rules will hit the electronic and literal shelves this year.
KMS: It is not difficult to imagine that you have had a lot of fun writing the first two books of the series. Could you share some of your funniest moments of the past few months when you were working on A Girl Walks into a Bar, and its sequel, A Girl Walks into a Wedding?
PAIGE: Some of the conversations we find ourselves having are hilarious. I remember a very long, serious, detailed conversation about whether one could have sex while flying a helicopter. And then there was The Great Cock Ring Debate of 2013. We have to be careful what restaurants we go to, as not all are appropriate for the kinds of conversations we tend to have, mostly while shrieking with laughter.
HELEN: The best thing about this entire adventure is the laughter. When we're editing and collating, we circulate the manuscript and write comments to each other in the margins, some of which are hysterical. (Sarah still hasn't recovered from my description of a hero's "artisanal baked goods", and no, I have no idea what I was smoking that day.) One day we need to publish "The Girl – The Annotated Edition".
KMS: What was the most challenging aspect of writing the books?
PAIGE: Finding new words for vagina, penis, groan, thrust and pant. At one point Helen suggested that after this we write a sex thesaurus. As in sex, so in writing sex, variety is the spice of life. We tried very hard to keep things original and not use cheesy terms like lady garden, or throbbing manhood. And we banned all lip-biting, by way of homage to Fifty Shades.
SARAH: I find writing sex scenes extraordinarily difficult, and I'm not sure it's a skill that can be learned. Thankfully, Paige and Helen write all the sex in the books, and do so without the cringe factor that can make reading sex either uncomfortable or unintentionally hilarious. Maybe one day I'll have learned enough from my co-writers to take the plunge – I'll probably have to be drunk though.
KMS: Sex sells, always, but there seems to be a renewed, more intense interest in erotic fiction since the publication of EL James's Fifty Shades of Grey. Why do you think is this the case?
PAIGE: It might be a matter of main-stream acceptability. A friend was on the tube in London last month and there was a lady in a full burqa reading book two of the Fifty Shades series. The almost inexplicable phenomena of this book (right time, right place, maybe?) has done so much to make this an acceptable subject, whereas before perhaps it was more of a taboo subject in many cultural circles.
HELEN: Maybe it's related to the resurgence of erotica for women at exactly the same time that ebooks have gone mainstream. I think this has created "perfect storm" conditions for circulating and marketing erotica.
KMS: Have you had some surprising fan mail?
Surprising, no. I think when you write a series of choose-your-own-adventure erotic novels, you can't be surprised by some of the feedback you get.
KMS: Is there a topic that would be taboo for you to write about, individually or as Helena S. Paige?
PAIGE: For me it's not the topic you write about that's taboo, more how you write about it. I think any subject can be written about, if it's done sensitively and from the right perspective.
HELEN: Paige is braver than me. As an individual writer, my taboo list is quite substantial: I could not write scenes in which animals or children got hurt or killed, for instance. And although I write about sexual violence as an academic in a non-fiction context, I could never create fictional scenes involving that kind of violence, or even the threat of it. But then I am a famous wimp. Fortunately, erotica is all about pleasure, so (perhaps, ironically) for me as part of HSP, the writing we do is the opposite of taboo. It's all feel-good stuff – ahem, literally.
Kgebetli Moele knows no fear when it comes to picking the most challenging narrators for his novels. His debut, Room 207 (2006), was straightforward enough, telling the story from the perspective of a young man trying to survive the highs and lows of Hillbrow. However, the follow-up, The Book of the Dead (2009), began as an ordinary third-person narrative, and then, in the middle switched to the most unusual first-person narrator. Quite shockingly, the storyteller who took over was no other than HIV personified. It was a stroke of genius on the author’s part that drove home the ruthlessness with which the idea of the virus operates in present-day South Africa. Moele’s latest offering is no less daring. In Untitled (2013), he writes from the perspective of Mokgethi, a seventeen year-old girl who is struggling to navigate puberty in a poverty-stricken community that seems to offer no breaks but only broken lives to young people, girls in particular.
As Untitled’s simple but effective cover signals, the novel is Mokgethi’s school notebook. But its innocent look is frighteningly deceiving. The book opens with the narrator’s attempt at expressing herself in poetry, and the striking statement at the bottom of the page which is intended as the last line of a poem: “I now pronounce myself deflowered”. But this is no story of a teenage romance which will end for the heroine with an unforgettable First Time with the Boy of Her Dreams. Instead, Untitled is a devastating chronicle of other unforgettables: the abuse and violence – emotional, psychological and physical – that girls face in South Africa.
Mokgethi and her brother Khutso grow up with their maternal family after their mother dies and their father starts another family. The father pays maintenance for the children and he very clumsily tries to establish contact with them, but he is never around when needed most, and his money disappears into the pockets of Mokgethi’s aunt and grandmother instead of being used for her education as intended. She is taken out of the private school she’d attended and her dreams of going to a top university are threatened, but the situation is never explained to her. Confused, she attempts to figure out the adults around her, but the task is simply too overwhelming. Even though she does not understand everything she witnesses, she is a keen observer and she cannot help seeing what is happening to the girls in her community.
Pheladi is raped by a taxi driver when she is eleven, and at fourteen she aborts her first child. Lebo is seduced by the local school principal into having phone sex with him before he repeatedly rapes her. Little Bonolo is raped by her class teacher when she is eleven. When she lays charges against her attacker, the police allow him to threaten her into abandoning the case: “Go ahead, open a docket – I will visit jail but you will sleep at the mortuary … I will be out in time to help dig your grave.” Tebogo dies in the toilet on a hot day, naked and bleeding, after the last of three abortions that she has had that year. MmaSetshaba is raped and married off to her rapist by her family to erase the shame cast on both families. A few cows change hands to seal the deal.
Under the circumstances, there is no escape for Mokgethi. When he rapes her the perpetrator tells Mokgethi that he loves her while she begs him repeatedly to stop hurting her. “Cry, little girls of my beloved country,” she writes, “the Bonolos, the Pheladis, the Lebos and the Dineos that have to live, are living, in communities full of men who prey on us every day.”
Mokgethi spares us no details. Unable, however, to process what she is witnessing, her traumatised voice constantly splits into first and third person: “In the part of this big world where I live, young girls are celebrated for a short time, the beautiful ones worshipped until they fall. Yes, we all do fall. I knew Mokgethi’s fall was coming, I knew. I do not know why I call it a fall, but when you have fallen the celebration stops and then you see your surroundings differently.” The layout of the novel – Mokgethi’s notebook – suggests a fragmented, unprocessed reality that is way beyond its young narrator.
And if all these horrors the girls encounter are not enough, their community’s response to them is even more terrifying. At the most basic level, the double standards for the genders are encapsulated in Mokgethi’s comment: “That is what I have seen in all parents; they like it when their sons are breaking girls’ hearts but they hate it when boys are playing with their daughters.” The male perpetrators are tolerated or at worst excused. Concepts like "statutory rape" or "paedophile", Mokgethi tells us, are “only relevant in law books and not in social reality.” The blame for what happens to these girls is always laid at their doorstep – because they “wanted it”, because they are “influencing the break-up of families and marriages” (when the perpetrators are married!). “Community, please stop turning a blind eye and blaming us,” Mokgethi pleads.
Reading Mokgethi’s notebook is heart-wrenching because it’s true. Although Untitled is a work of fiction, the author said in an interview that he based the novel on authentic stories told to him by girls and women he knows.
The real story’s title is The War on Girls. We have to stop it.
by Kgebetli Moele
Cape Town: Kwela, 2013
Niq Mhlongo is making waves. Way Back Home, his third novel in not even a decade, is out. His local publisher Kwela has reissued Mhlongo's two previous novels, Dog Eat Dog (2004) and After Tears (2007). To most South African authors a second imprint in itself would be a great achievement. But Mhlongo's work is being translated and published overseas, which is a rarity for local writers of his generation (one can count the others on the fingers of one hand). Hailed as one of the front-runners of the "kwaito generation" (a label he himself expresses doubts about, although he sees its marketing value), Mhlongo is a popular guest at literary festival worldwide, and no wonder: his gutsy outspokenness and mischievous attitude not only impress, but also inspire.
Is the hype around his books justified? Critics say yes. Vibrant, street-wise, witty, hilarious, must-read, high-spirited – are all terms that reverberate through the reviews. Thousands of books sold reaffirm the author's popularity. Personally, I had some reservations about Dog Eat Dog, occasionally cringing during dialogues about HIV/AIDS and women, yet I understood that it wasn't Mhlongo speaking, but his characters, reflecting some common views, no matter how misguided. It was undoubtedly a feisty debut, and despite the rough spots, the novel captured something vital about the New South Africa. The talent was unmistakably there, and the book intriguing enough to let me look forward to the follow-up.
After Tears did not disappoint. Whereas Dog Eat Dog focused on the student life of a bunch of friends at Wits around the time of the first democratic elections, After Tears followed Bafana, its main character, through the shock of post-graduation life, which he attempts to tackle with a fake law degree and booze, ending up – predictably maybe – nowhere.
In his latest novel, Way Back Home, Mhlongo's characters are all grown-up but none the wiser. On the surface, Kimathi Tito seems to have it all: glowing political credentials, power, money, and a villa in the right part of town. And yet, his life begins to unravel. His wife divorces him, his bid for a tender goes awry, his comrades and the police are on his case, and on top of it all, he begins to see ghosts. Corrupt to the core, Kimathi tries to save his skin any way he can, but there are some things that cannot be undone or forgotten, and not all dreams and visions are what they seem.
Mhlongo has a penchant for creating characters that are highly unlikable. Kimathi might be the most despicable of them all. It is no small feat to tell the story of a character readers will hate and yet to sustain the narrative tension to keep them interested. And that is because Mhlongo is not afraid to speak truth to power. Strikingly, he chose a quote from Fanon's Black Skin, White Masks for one of the epigraphs of Way Back Home: "Why write this book? No one has asked me for it, especially those to whom it is directed. Well, well, I reply quite calmly that there are too many idiots in this world. And having said it, I have the burden of proving it..."
Mhlongo does as well. He is fearless in confronting the worst present-day society has on offer, and because it comes from the pen of a thoughtful young black man (he is turning only 40 this year), his message is even more powerful. His novels depict a world not many readers, whether here in South Africa or abroad, have had access to before. There are no sugar-coated endings, no easy solutions, for Mhlongo. In Way Back Home, he gives us a world of bling (the list of brand names in this novel is endless), power-abuse, violence, chauvinism and cronyism. It is a dangerous world, rooted deeply in an even more dangerous past that refuses simply to go away. And it seems that what Mhlongo is telling us is that we need to confront that past again, not in the ways we have been doing in the last decades of our flawed transition, but in a more holistic, accepting way that combines the best of all our problem-solving tools, whether indigenous or Western, modern or traditional, black or white.
Way Back Home shows that there is enough time to come clean about the past, to heal and forgive, but that window of opportunity is not going to stay open forever. The "way back home" of the title can still be travelled. South Africa as a country, and individually, many of her people cannot afford to miss it. And readers should not miss this daring and insightful novel.
Way Back Home
by Niq Mhlongo
Cape Town: Kwela, 2013
The threshold between a private, fleeting thought and its fully fledged manifestation in the real world. I picture her standing there, her hair newly braided, her hands nervously smoothing out her freshly ironed skirt. The smile is tentative, but she holds her head high. There is pride in her posture and an eagerness to engage with what lies ahead. She takes a bold step forward. People look up and pay attention to her message.
I remember writing my very first manifesto for an art project I conceived with Qra, a friend. It was the beginning of the mass-scale internet age. Qra was based in Sieradz, Poland, I in Aberystwyth, Wales. We hardly knew each other outside our favourite radio station’s chat room, but we shared a passion for the beauty of the written, sung and spoken word. We wanted to proclaim it to the world and create a platform for creativity on the internet. Nothing ever came of it. We never managed to go beyond the declaration of intent, but I recall the wondrous moment of anticipation: standing there on that threshold, the Manifesto in our virtual hands.
Years have gone by. My passions have grown and strengthened. And here I am, part of the kind of online creativity platform Qra and I had once dreamt of, working with others, who in the words of Lucinda de Leeuw are not afraid to “uncover the blank page” (“The Pen’s Manifesto”).
He didn't want to bother about the fuss, the pretence, of going out, wooing, and in the end, having to explain his preferences, the lack of further interest. He was in it for the thrill.
She discovered his internet ad completely by accident. The attached photograph of an old-fashioned red hat with a ludicrously big feather on the side attracted her attention. Most of the others were tastelessly obscene. The ad was straightforward, funny and intelligent, she thought. In her first email, on purpose, she did not refer to the hat, but she was flirty and open. She liked his witty reply. They exchanged a few more emails, their photographs, some subtle promises, but nothing really binding. Then they chatted a couple of times on the phone. He liked the way she responded to some of his remarks with silence. 'Are you still there?' 'Yes, yes; I was just smiling.' She thought his voice was sexy. A meeting seemed only natural. It was really what they had both hoped for from the start; the reason why he had placed the ad, and why she'd responded.
Part of the deal was that he would take care of all the practical arrangements, although she insisted on sharing the bill. In the meantime, she indulged in some underwear shopping. At the chemist, she bought a few strawberry flavoured condoms, although she was sure he would have his own. He chose one of the bigger chain hotels to safeguard their anonymity, but he confessed to her that he was not bold enough to book a double room straight-out. Two single-occupancy doubles on the same floor had to do. It never occurred to her that he might have tried to fool her, although afterwards she realised that it should have. There was something about the ease of their determination, equally divided, that made her feel relaxed and confident.
She arrived first and checked in. The room was not exactly spacious but practical. She liked the sterile look, the soft wine-red carpet, and the small eucalyptus soap bars in the bathroom. After the initial inspection, she drew the curtains, switched the TV on to one of the international news channels, and unpacked her little suitcase. She slipped easily into the hotel routine she knew from work for which she had to travel a lot around the continent. She made sure that she had enough time for a bath and poured the whole tiny bottle of bath foam into the cascading water. She mixed herself a gin and tonic from the minibar and got into the luxuriant bathtub.
It occurred to her that she should be nervous, but she was too excited to really feel anything else. It had been a while, a few months, since her last little escapade, as she preferred to call the relationships she sometimes indulged in with men. Nothing serious, she just did not have the time, nor the energy to get properly involved, and the years of immature heartaches were once and for all over. No misunderstandings. Which also constituted the appeal of the present situation. On the phone during their last conversation, they confirmed the one simple rule for their encounter: No strings attached.
She patted herself dry, applied make-up, decided to let her hair hang loose in curls around her shoulders. The new cream-white bra emphasised the fullness of her breasts. The little black butterfly between the cups and on the back of the matching G-string looked kinky, just as she'd intended. The black dress she chose to wear was plain in comparison, but moulded her body effectively.
At half past six, she went downstairs to the bar where they had agreed to meet. He was wearing the grey pants and the pale pink shirt he'd promised he would. A dark red rose rested on the bar counter next to him. For a while, she stood in the entrance to the room and watched him. He did not look around or seemed agitated, even though she was late. She interpreted it as a good sign. From the distance she could already see that the photographs did not exaggerate, nor play down his looks. He was the classical soap opera type, running around emergency rooms full of human drama, or playing hard to get with glamorous Barbies of the fashion world. Masculine, with a hard shell and the vulnerability of a soft core shinning through, just enough to make the heroine want to 'save' him.
She liked what she saw. Perfect for the game they were about to play.
She sat next to him at the bar and turned to face him. 'Alice,' she said but he recognised her immediately. She enjoyed the pleasant surprise spreading across his face when he stretched out his hand to greet her, 'Chris, enchanté!' The photographs she had sent him were enough to secure his interest, but skilfully underplayed the real effect of her presence.
'You look…,' he began and laughed when she interrupted.
'No, of course not, on the contrary.'
They were the scriptwriters of the episode about to enfold, so it was easy to step into their roles.
A light stylish dinner followed the drink they had at the bar. They easily picked up their conversation from were it was abandoned in their emails and the few phone calls. Looking at each other, sipping the cool Pouilly Fuissé, talking and laughing, they were both reaffirmed in their decision to go through with their plan.
When it was time to go up, she kissed him teasingly on the cheek and told him to wait for her in his room. She put the rose in one of the water glasses in her own room, but it was already wilting. Walking down the corridor she smiled. When she was about to knock on his door, she heard the cork of a bubbly popping inside. It was real champagne. She felt flattered by the price of the bottle.
His room was the same as hers. He handed her a tall glass and they stood staring at each other in silence. Before any awkwardness crept in, she took a sip and asked, 'Don't you just love the mirror?' She turned sideways and continued looking at him in the reflection of the big shiny surface hanging conveniently opposite the bed.
There was no time for an answer.
The sex was good from the start. By the third time, the champagne bottle emptied, they both felt truly satisfied.
'God, I like your butterflies,' he said, picking up the G-string from the floor where it landed when he threw it aside. He rubbed the tiny satin butterfly between his forefinger and thumb and handed the garment back to her. He went over to a chair standing in the corner and poured himself some water from a bottle standing next to it on a small glass table. The colour of the chair and his nakedness reminded her of something.
'So! Tell me about the red hat.'
'Ah! The crimson hat, as my grandmother used to call it. I was wondering when you would ask,' he said with a coy grin forming around his lips.
'Well, it's a family heirloom, sort of, with a potentially juicy story attached to it.'
'Yeah. When my father was a small boy, his older sisters prepared a nice lunch for the family to celebrate Mother's Day together. But I must tell you first that my grandfather was a real womaniser, a ladies' man, as one would have called it in those…'
'Runs in the genes, doesn't it? By whatever name you want to call it,' she interrupted, amused.
He laughed and continued, 'I suppose! Now you know.' He stopped and looked at her, her head resting on her right hand in one of the big white pillows, the duvet pulled up to cover her breasts. The sight of the hollow of her armpit distracted him for a second. 'Anyway,' he continued, 'my grandfather went out that morning to buy flowers, he said. Instead he disappeared and was late for lunch, eventually turning up totally drunk, without flowers, holding on to this crimson hat. They couldn't get a word out of him that day, and the next day he didn't remember a thing about it. Or at least that is what he always told his family. I helped my father clean out his house when grandfather died. We discovered the famous, or infamous, hat in one of his cupboards. And I kept it.'
'How did your grandmother react?' She was intrigued to know.
'Well, everyone guessed that the hat must have come from a mistress. Apparently, it looked new at the time, so it might even have been a present for one of his mistresses. He might have been rejected and got drunk because of that. We could only speculate. My grandmother knew all about his philandering ways, but never had the strength to leave him. She learned to live with all the triangles in her life.'
'I'm glad that you're not married, although it wouldn't have made a big difference, I suppose. But I like to keep things in the open.'
'If I had been married, I might have advertised for a third party to join up for a nice threesome,' he said, a smile surfacing on his lips.
'I don't know whether I would have been interested,' she seemed to challenge him with her eyes.
'Ever done it?'
'Ever wanted to?'
'Never really thought about it, but I think it could be considered under special circumstances.' Her eyes continued the game they were playing.
'It's a big city. The night is young. Special circumstance can be arranged,…' he hesitated, unsure of whether he was interpreting her signs correctly.
'I'm sure the concierge of such a hotel would know where to look for a bit of excitement.'
'I wouldn't know,' she said, but the look of intrigue in her eyes was unmistakable.
'Would you like me to find out?'
She lifted herself off the pillow, the duvet falling to her waist. 'Do you think you could order us another bottle of champagne, and while you are at it, inquire? Discreetly.'
It was only when he left the room that she suddenly jumped out of bed and realised that she might have been too hasty in her decision. She had never planned this. She went up to the mirror, looked into her own eyes and questioned her sanity. What she was doing was risky enough. And just because it had worked out, it did not mean that they had to take their experiment even further. The alarm clock next to the bed told her that it was just after midnight. It might be too late to organise anything anyway, she comforted herself. 'You're crazy!' She accused herself with a forefinger in the mirror, and could not avoid noticing her flushed cheeks and glossy eyes. She looked stunning.
She put on the hotel bathrobe, sat down in the chair and finished the glass of water he had poured for himself while she composed her thoughts. 'Right, let's just see what happens,' she told herself, 'You can always say no.' That was also part of their agreement, and there was no reason for her to believe that he would not continue being the perfect gentleman.
He came back with another expensive bottle and a fresh ice bucket in his hands. She didn't says anything, waiting for him to make the first move. He noticed the hesitant air around her and just proceeded with opening the champagne.
'I should have brought new glasses as well,' he said, refilling their used ones.
'No, no, it's fine like that.'
He raised his glass. 'To special circumstances!,' he proposed.
'Did you…? I mean did he…,' she was at a loss for words.
'Relax, really. It's alright. The concierge was very understanding. I didn't have to spell out anything. He simply invited me to his office, dialled a number and walked out. She should be here in about forty-five minutes. They said her name would be Mireille.'
'You really went ahead with it?'
'Yes. No! I mean, I don't know. It's just all so sudden. We never…I didn't plan…You know what I mean?'
'C'mon, it will be fun. You'll see. This night is magic. And there is a first for everything, right?'
'I suppose.' She did not seem convinced.
'Look, if it's too much, I'm sorry, but we can't back out of it now. She is on her way. The concierge assured me that it's a respectable, very professional company, specialising in good-quality service. She will know what to do. And if you want to, you can…you know…go back to your own room. I'll explain.'
She bit her bottom lip, and drank some more of her champagne. It relaxed her a bit again, and she asked for another glass. In the following silence, they watched each other, drinking slowly.
'OK, I'll stay. But I can't promise that I'll be able to go through with this,' she concluded eventually.
He took the glass out of her hand, untied the knot of her bathrobe and slipped his arms around her waist, pulling her closer. One of his hands was cool from holding his glass. She felt her desire returning.
When the knock came, they were almost ready to have sex again. They froze when the knock was repeated. 'Coming,' he shouted, and started pulling on his pants and shirt, while she reached for the bathrobe.
They were in highly professional hands. Without discussing it, the woman understood the delicate situation and took charge. The ease and confidence with which she invaded their twosome, along with the last drops and bubbles, relaxed them both. As if by intuition, Mireille proposed that she and Chris begin and Alice join them when she was ready. Duly she nodded her agreement.
Mireille looked around the room, found the remote for the TV, 'May I?,' she asked and before any of them could answer, she switched it to one of the available music channels. Then she proceeded to take off her clothes. Alice watched her every move.
The other woman was strikingly attractive. The word 'prostitute' did not seem to fit her at all. Underneath her black leather coat, she wore a shiny silver top, nipples pointing, and a tight black mini. Now, most of her clothes lay discarded on the chair. The brown skin of her legs and arms shimmered and Alice couldn't help thinking that she should also get herself one of those special creams. Wearing only a black slip and silver high-heeled sandals, Mireille stood in front of Chris who was sitting on the bed enthralled with what he was seeing. When he reached out to remove the black slip from Mireille's hips, Alice turned around slowly and closed her eyes for what seemed to her were only a few seconds. The others did not seem to have noticed.
Opening her eyes again, she saw the two figures reflected in the mirror. They were both naked already, but for Mireille's sandals. She watched their bodies intertwine, oblivious of her stare. It was impossible to take them in as a whole, lost in their passion. Alice could only focus on parts of them at a time. The pointed silver heels, the creased white sheets, flashes of blood-red nails on pale skin. Her heartbeat accelerated, desire rose in her, she wanted to turn around, but she did not dare take her eyes off them, afraid to break some kind of a spell they all seemed to be under. As long as she did not look at them directly, she felt, they would remain there in the silver depths of the mirror. The sight almost too exhilarating to face.
For a split of a second Alice looked at herself in the mirror, her face flushed with desire again, and then her eyes returned to the naked figures behind her, attracted by something red flashing in and out of her field of vision.
She blinked and refocused. She swung around with her mouth open. No words came out.
All she could do was follow the movements of the crimson hat Mireille was wearing. The feather on its side swaying from left to right like a baton in the hands of a conductor in charge of a perfectly orchestrated performance.