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Story Excerpt

by Sheila Kohler

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At the end of the summer, for the first time in years, Jane called me. We had been best friends at boarding school in Johannesburg, where we had met at five years old. Jane was a Rhodesian and that first night at school when she arrived, after traveling by train for two days and a night and stumbling at midnight half dead into the dark of the dormitory, I had heard her sobbing in the bed beside me. In order to get some sleep I told her to get into mine, which she did and fell asleep eventually with her little arms around my neck.

I had had letters from her recently, but never before had she called me long-distance from Italy, from their place near Rome. I imagined her standing in a long loggia in the moonlight, with a fountain playing in the courtyard and the smell of jasmine. She had described the ancient villa to me in detail in her letters, an extraordinary place, she said, surrounded by vineyards, near the sea.

“Sheil, I need you to come here,” she said, her voice like her handwriting, so familiar, with the same accent as mine, it could almost have been my own, but trembling now with emotion.

“But I can’t possibly. I just started classes. It’s my last year. Besides, I’m broke,” I said.

“If you don’t—I can’t go on,” she said angrily.

“Don’t be so melodramatic. What’s happening?” I asked. I remembered her rages at the other girls at school. “They are so dumb and so cruel,” she would say.

“They are just idiots,” I would say.

She was always first in the class, though the teachers disliked her too, as she would point out when they made a mistake. She had an extraordinary eye for detail and never learned to curb her tongue. “That’s not how you spell Tess of the d’Urbervilles,” she told poor Miss Milne in class one day.

“I can’t tell you over the phone. Just come soon,” she said now and hung up as though someone had walked into the room or as though she could not bear to say another word.

I lay awake for a long time, thinking of the somber tone of her last letters to me in Paris. Both Jane and I had left South Africa as soon as we had finished high school. The country was still in the iron grip of apartheid, and it was clear to us we would either have to leave or do something brave and go to jail. Jane had gone first to Switzerland, which was considered a safe place for young girls and for money, and then on to Rome, while I had gone to France.

To me, France, the country of the Rights of Man, the country where they did not speak my mother tongue, seemed an ideal place at seventeen, which was when I first arrived there. It was the sixties and I was studying psychology in Paris at something called the Institut Catholique, a private university.

Now I tossed back and forth in my narrow bed in the room I shared with a pale, silent Swedish girl, also a paying guest, who had been moved in with me once Mother had left her check for the baronne, a minor noble with very blue eyes who had fallen on hard times. The Swedish girl slept behind a screen with the sole basin and a towel horse for her wet underwear in the ugly apartment in the un-fashionable Fifteenth Arrondissment, where the Louis Quinze furniture in the salon was kept covered with oil cloth.

I kept remembering how Jane, as an adolescent, had gone through a period when she traipsed around in dark clothes in the evenings when we were allowed to change out of our school uniforms, her hair unwashed, her nails dirty. She could not even bring herself to brush her teeth. It was a time in our friendship when she would talk to no one, not even me. We walked silently side by side across the veld when it was raining and we were obliged to go out walking instead of swimming or playing hockey. It was as though we were shackled together by invisible and secret chains. When I tried to talk to her in the common room she would fall asleep in her chair. Or she would climb up and sit in the window sill above her bed in the dormitory and hang out dangerously at night reciting Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale,” the part about being half in love with easeful death. Or she would say something she must have read somewhere about seeing in death a defeat that would be sweet.

I thought of the last time I had seen her at that extraordinary wedding in Johannesburg, two years before. She—the girl everyone, including me at times, I have to admit, called Jane the Brain—was the first in our class to marry, so unexpectedly, at just nineteen, and in a white silk dress which clung to her now slim shape, with a long train and ancient emerald earrings dangling from her ears, which she touched from time to time as if to make sure they were still there, as she walked up the long aisle of the Catholic cathedral going triumphantly to her Italian prince (or almost prince, as he turned out to be), who greeted her with the sweetest of smiles.

I called her back in the early morning and told her I would take the first train I could. “Come and get me at the station,” I said.

“Bring your hunting clothes,” she said.

“Hunting clothes? You’ve got to be kidding!”

It was autumn, the hunting season in Italy, she explained. They hunted cinghiale, wild boar on the property.

“Oh, for goodness’ sake,” I said.


Before my arrival in Rome, thinking of the prince, I will admit, I felt it necessary to change out of my habitual blue jeans and into a short, tight skirt (it was the time of minis) and a smart little brown leather jacket. I took my time walking toward Jane, my black patent-leather high heels clacking loudly on the quay, dragging my suitcase, trying to size up the situation. What was going on here?

I wondered, too, if Jane remembered our arrival at thirteen in Salisbury, when Jane had invited me to stay on her tobacco farm in Rhodesia, and I had gone into the bathroom on the train and changed into a short cotton frock and brushed out my light brown hair to meet her family, her mother and her two brothers who had come to pick us up at the station. I didn’t meet her father until later the next day when I got lost in the hills and he had to rescue me, much to his ire.

In Rome too, to my surprise, there were two men waiting by Jane’s side. Fabrizio, the prince, was there, naturally, looking as handsome as I remembered him. Though he was not particularly tall or arrogant in any way we had all decided he looked regal and extremely handsome at the wedding. I remembered how he had come up to each of us, all the girls in Jane’s class, to bend over our hands, moving so gracefully he seemed to be dancing in his small, dark, shiny shoes. He had said something charming to me, his green-brown eyes glowing. “Jane is so lucky to have such a good friend,” or perhaps he said “such a beautiful friend,” something about bella or buona. He didn’t speak much English and he and Jane spoke mostly French.

Wearing a light linen suit, his long lashes lowered languorously on his cheeks, his curly, perfumed hair neatly brushed back from the high forehead, he was leaning slightly against a taller man, Sergei, I realized it must be. He was standing there grinning a great Russian grin, long arms folded on his chest, blond forelock falling on his forehead, blue eyes shifting back and forth warily watching me advance.

Jane had met him first in Lausanne, where she had gone to learn French, I knew from her letters, and it was he who had persuaded her and her mother to move to Rome for some months. It was there that he had brought her to the villa in his MG with its red leather seats and introduced her to Fabrizio and the rest of the family. It was the year of the summer Olympic Games.

I could not help smiling as both Fabrizio and Sergei reached for the old leather suitcase I had had since school with its initials, S.K., just as Jane’s brothers had once done so long ago in Africa, bumping heads. Would these two prove as helpless as those boys, I wondered, remembering their dazzled expressions when they saw me at the train station in Salisbury, and hope, that old harpy, came to me and perhaps to Jane as well at the sight of me. Certainly she smiled and gave me a warm hug.

I thought too of my arrival at school on various occasions where I had found Jane surrounded by a group of bullies in the bathroom. I am not sure why they picked on her or who had devised their devilish game. Was it because she was small and short-sighted and poor and wanted so much to be liked, or because she was cleverer than they were, could work the figures in her head while they had to write them down, and she knew what they were thinking, and they knew it? Whatever it was, I would find them all stuffed into a stall, circling her, holding her head down in the toilet and chanting, “Shit to shit.”

“What’s going on here?” I would say and watch as they let her go, gasping and crying, sputtering watery urine which was trickling down her chin. Miraculously, tails between their legs, they would melt away. For some reason, they were frightened of me, perhaps because I was tall and slim and good at games, and Miss Milne had once actually found a carving knife in my satchel.

“What on earth are you doing with a carving knife in your satchel, Sheila?” she asked me.

“It’s to sharpen my pencils,” I said.

This time I turned toward Sergei and said, “You must be Sergei. I have heard so much about you,” and took his hand and looked into his grey-blue, shifting eyes. Jane had told me his father had escaped during the Russian Revolution, driven a taxi in Paris, and emigrated to America where he lived in Harlem with his wife, who made lampshades. His parents were divorced, and the mother, who suffered from asthma, lived in Rome with her Italian lover, an impoverished count. “Count No-account,” she would say.

I greeted Fabrizio with a soft kiss on both of his smooth cheeks, left, right, left, the way they do in France, and he said he was delighted to see me.

It was quite a different car ride to Jane’s home this time. No giant baobab trees or tracks in the dirt road for the car’s tires or Jane’s mother in her dusty jodhpurs, who had had to stop in the heat and buy the groceries. We drove through the golden Roman countryside in Fabrizio’s white Alfa Romeo (a birthday gift from Jane, he said). Jane made me sit in the front beside Sergei, whom Fabrizio asked to drive, as though we were two couples.

Jane leaned forward to point out the sights as we drove through Rome: the Coliseum, the Circus Maximus, the Forum. She seemed cheerful, happy to show me the splendid villa and all the surroundings, the long, tree-lined alley that led slowly up the hill, the umbrella pine trees, the oaks, the vines, the olive trees, all the silver leaves jangling in the bright light like cymbals. I was stunned into silence when I saw the villa with its simple, solid lines, the ancient columns, the blond stone. It was a sunny late-summer afternoon, the whole place in all its now-restored glory. I just turned to Jane and widened my eyes and opened my mouth. I wanted to say, “Don’t give up! Don’t give this up! Life is there for you to grasp!”

Then she took my hand and led me up the steps and through the vast reception rooms. I marveled at each room, each painting, the high, painted ceilings, all the trompe l’oeil, the view of the sea! She showed me the inner courtyard with the fountain, the honeysuckle, the jasmine, the long loggia with the weet weet of the swallows. She took me up the spiral stone flight of stairs, which led to all the many bedrooms. She showed me Fabrizio’s and her own separate bedrooms—“This is where I sleep,” she said. “I see,” I said, looking at her. It was something she had mentioned in her letters, the separate bedrooms, the separate beds, which she said was how things were done in the Italian aristocracy.

She showed me the guest room where she had put me, with its pink bathroom with all the fluffy monogrammed towels. She even let me see the room where Sergei was staying, with its mahogany sleigh bed. We walked down the endless corridor and she said, laughing at my expression, “No scorpions or snakes in the slippers here!”

I didn’t say, “No sole bathroom at the end of the corridor with its high open window and the possibility of marauders. No leopards in the hills.”

We roamed together all through the garden in the deepening twilight, arm in arm, as we used to do at school, where Jane would calculate the size of the lawns. Here she said nothing about the telephone call but thanked me for coming so promptly and talked about other things, asking me about my studies, the many books I was reading. She had always been good at questions. On the train, I had been reading Freud’s five famous case histories, which had been assigned to us by Dr. Barrois, a psychoanalyst at the Institut Catholique. The book started with the story of “Dora” and her father, who had dragged her to see Freud so that she would be more “reasonable,” which meant allowing the husband of her father’s mistress to make love to her, a quid pro quo. “You take my daughter; I take your wife.”

Jane did mention money and how much of the money she had inherited from her uncle had gone into the restoration of the villa. “Nothing like an old house to absorb money. Like a sponge,” she said. “There is not much left,” and opened up her small hands to show me.

I wanted to ask if the villa was in her name, but I had been taught it was rude to talk about money. Besides, I presumed that eventually she would inherit the house if anything happened to her husband.

When we came inside, we found Sergei and Fabrizio in Fabrizio’s study, with all the bound books and the green velvet curtains and a Louis Quinze desk. They were sitting opposite one another smoking in two comfortable brown leather armchairs placed on either side of the window. They were sitting in silence. All you could hear in the room was the sound of the sea in the distance, the waves breaking on the sand; then the sprinklers Jane had had installed in the garden started to whirr. It was something about the silence, I think, that spoke so clearly to me, or perhaps the way they were looking at one another, something in the brown-green and the blue-grey eyes which, young though I was, I recognized. I looked at Jane. Did she, smart girl that she was, understand what was going on?

I asked, “So when do the festivities begin?’

Fabrizio said that within a few days the guests would be coming from near and far, at least fifty of them, though not all would hunt. The canai would come with the dogs, and soon the hunting season would begin.

“I hear you are a good shot,” he said, smiling up at me so sweetly.

I was good at it, shooting, that is. “A regular Annie Oakley,” Jane’s father had said. I remembered him teaching us how to shoot at bottles on a brick wall the December I stayed with them on the farm in Rhodesia. It was after I got lost in the hills and sprained an ankle, lying so helplessly beneath a tree with a leopard’s bright gold eyes peering down at me from a branch above. It was Jane’s father who had arrived at the crucial moment, or so it seemed to me, and shot the leopard, and it was her father who had had to carry me piggyback all the way home, jumping over boulders, his gun slung over his shoulder, banging against his back. . . .

Read the exciting conclusion in this month’s issue on sale now!

Copyright © 2024 Turnabout by Sheila Kohler

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