A Jewish family of South African expatriates is torn by emotional conflicts and a battle over possessions, revealing their illusions about the past and the realities of life in South Africa post Nelson Mandela.
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About the Author
David Schmahmann was born in Durban, South Africa. He is a graduate of Dartmouth College and the Cornell Law School and has studied in India and Israel and worked in Burma. He practices law in Boston.
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Ivory from Paradise
By David Schmahmann
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 2011 David Schmahmann
All rights reserved.
My mother lies in the ornate master bedroom of Arnold's penthouse flat. The room overlooks Hyde Park, and from other windows in the apartment you can see Wellington Arch and even the tops of trees in the gardens of Buckingham Palace. The bedroom is peaceful and clean and smells of flowers and talcum powder.
Bridget brushes my mother's hair and applies touches of moisturizer and make up to her face. If you stand outside the door you can hear them talking.
"Here, Mommella," Bridget says. "Today we're putting on eye shadow. A little here. A little there."
"I don't feel good," my mother says.
"Don't you want to look beautiful?" Bridget says.
"For whom am I supposed to look beautiful?" my mother asks wryly.
Bridget smiles. My mother has not completely lost her sense of humor.
"For me," Bridget suggests. "And for Danny. He's visiting, don't you remember?"
"Danny's here? In Durban?"
Bridget is taken aback, but just for a moment. She could say, may be tempted to say, "We're not in Durban, Mom. We're in London," but she doesn't.
"Of course he's here," she says instead. "You saw him yesterday."
"I don't remember," Helga says. "I don't remember anything. I feel like shit."
"Don't swear now," Bridget says, a mocking firmness in her voice. "And hold still. How am I supposed to make you beautiful if you bob around all the time?"
"Where's Arnold?" Helga asks meekly, and not for the first time.
"He's in the next room," Bridget says, not wholly convincingly. "He'll be in later."
"Why doesn't he spend time with me?" Helga asks.
"He does, Mommella," Bridget says calmly. "He'll be in soon."
He won't, of course. He may be her husband — her second husband that is, not Bridget's and my father — but while our mother lies day in and day out in a large carved bed in the room she once shared with him, until Bridget arrives to be with her she spends most of her time alone.
What has made Bridget stay so much longer than she had intended is the thought of my mother lying alone in that large, airy room.CHAPTER 2
The news that my mother had cancer came in the middle of the night. I took the call and then sat on the edge of the bed with my head in my hands. Though Tesseba, my wife, did not understand why — tried to stop me in fact — I left the house at two in the morning and waited for dawn on a bench at the airport. I landed in London and rushed from Heathrow to Arnold's home, but even as I walked in the door I realized that something more than a change in my mother's health had taken place. She had always served as a buffer between Arnold and me — Tibor, my sister Bridget's sturdy Bulgarian husband, once called my mother Arnold's "human shield." Her well-being demanded that we avoid open conflict — but it was immediately clear that those days were over. Arnold met me at the front door, a rare event, and insisted on detaining me in his study while he "prepared" me for what I was about to see. When I was finally permitted up into the bedroom I found my mother changed, newly fragile, as if in shock, almost absent.
My secretary had made reservations for me and Bridget, who arrived later the same day, at a nearby hotel, but leaving my mother's side once she had seen her condition was unthinkable for Bridget.
"Are you sure you want to do this, Bridgie?" I asked. "Staying here means exposure to an awful lot of Arnold."
"As sure as I am of anything," she answered, and yet the next morning she was not so sure any more. That first night, after a long flight and hours of panic, she received a preview of what lay ahead.
"Time to leave Mom alone now," Arnold had said shortly after dinner, even though Bridget and my mother were involved in some discussion or other, talking about the things they always did, engrossed, as was often true, in each other.
"She's fine," Bridget had said. "Quite peppy, in fact."
"Out, out," Arnold had insisted as if she had not spoken, pretending to be acting with good humor but quite determined nonetheless. "My Helgie needs her sleep."
"In a while," Bridget had said, but then, almost inevitably, the betrayal: "Perhaps I am tired," my mother had said. "We can talk in the morning."CHAPTER 3
Arnold's home is, by any measure, a grand place. The building is white with bold pillars in front and a circular drive, has a large, well-kept garden complete with a topiary and several fountains, and you reach Arnold's apartment through a lofty entrance hall hung with portraits and a wide marble stairway. The apartment is all Arnold's, of course, the faux Edwardian grandeur and suitably worn Persian carpets, but another, not altogether congruent presence is there too. My mother has brought to her new home my late father's collection of Africana, and to me, at least, this almost restores a balance, prevents the place from being entirely Arnold's domain. My father's collection is embedded in the public rooms without much attention to ownership, to the origin of things, and over the years the house's contents might have come to seem to others to fit together, to be part of a single seamless construct, like a marriage, perhaps, but that was never so for me. I was always acutely aware of what was Arnold's and what was once my father's.
It is unsettling, to both Bridget and to me, but especially to me now that my mother is so weak, to watch Arnold act as if he has become, by default, the custodian of everything, including, of course, of my mother. She has lost her independence, and because she is his wife, like it or not, and we are in his home, there is a fine line to tread. Most of the time Arnold does not seem to care what we do, but if he did care, if he were to challenge us on something, it is not clear whose word would govern. My mother is no longer walking about the house, her perfume filling its rooms, arranging the flowers, answering the phone, and a balance has quite tipped. Arnold's presence, his old man's scent, is everywhere, and everything in the house has become, if not inaccessible, somehow unfriendly.
This is true of little things too, things like plates and the knives, even the television set. We touch Arnold's buttons, when we have to, with an edge of distaste.CHAPTER 4
Bridget does not stay in Arnold's house very long. She tells me she has considered moving from the top floor, where my mother's bedroom is, to another part of the house, and the place is certainly large enough that you could get quite lost in it. The downstairs rooms, for instance, even though they are no longer occupied by servants but rather by a wine cellar, exercise equipment still in its original packaging, and a "media room" that nobody, so far as I can tell, has ever used, are spacious enough. But it would be a futile gesture. What Arnold exacts for his hospitality is insidious and persistent, and for Bridget remaining under his roof is impossible.
"He keeps asking me how long she has," she says to Tibor when he calls from Boston. "I try to avoid him but tonight he posted himself outside the bathroom door, waiting for me. It's like he's counting down."
"What did you say to him?" Tibor asks.
"I said that she was stabilizing and might even get better."
"He can't believe that."
"He tried to talk to the doctor, but the doctor can't abide him and says whatever I ask him to say."
"But why? Why the subterfuge?"
"If you have to ask, you don't understand Arnold," Bridget says. "If he got the sense that she was about to die, he would taunt her with it, in his inimitable way rub it in as if it were some sort of weakness on her part. He would make her feel like a fool."
Tibor listens, may raise an eyebrow, does not pass judgment. "There's one other thing," Bridget adds. "He would lose no time telling Mom she was dying, and if she thought it were true she would give up the ghost. It's hard enough motivating her to eat and talk now. Can you imagine how it would be if she lost whatever remains of her will to live?"
"She knows she's dying," Tibor says
"She doesn't know she's dying."
"She knows she's dying," he repeats.
"No, that's not true," Bridget insists. "And even if it were true, how would you like to have it confirmed in the snide asides of a spouse who wants to discard you?"CHAPTER 5
Bridget finds a small furnished flat not far from Arnold's, but what was to have been a rental of several weeks stretches into several months, and Tibor finally takes a leave of absence from his job as a high school counselor to be with her. Their daughter Leora, back in Boston, is living with the family of a friend and she does not take her desertion gracefully. She is seventeen and a senior in high school. There are proms to plan for, social crises of one sort or another, colleges to think about.
"I want you to come home," she says on the telephone. "I need you. There's so much going on."
As she speaks Leora can picture her mother's face. When Leora broaches a subject that Bridget does not want to discuss, it is as if the words themselves have not been said, as if Leora has spoken in a foreign language.
"Did you remember your dentist appointment," her mother might reply or, "Uncle Danny says he took you to dinner last night."
Leora can almost see the face, the blank, uncomprehending face.
"You can't just move somewhere else," she repeats. "You live here."
I keep an eye on my niece, speak to her each night, see her at least once during the week, but I begin to find her increasingly monosyllabic. ("I'm fine." "School's fine." "Yes, she called.") In a restaurant she looks into her plate, twirls her hair, can't help but smile when I am particularly provocative.
"What happened to that boy Mumbles who couldn't take his eyes off you?"
"His name is Barry."
"It should be Mumbles. I didn't understand a word he said."
Still, she keeps to herself, particularly about what is most important in her adolescent life.
I cannot drop everything and move to London as Bridget has done. I also wonder whether that would be a normal thing to do, for an adult, a man in his forties with a wife and more than his share of responsibilities, to put everything on hold and to move across the world to tend a dying parent. There are people who count on me, for one thing, people who have entrusted their money to me and who rely on my judgment in a variety of quickly changing markets. And there is my wife, Tesseba, tolerant but critical too, tolerant but evaluating at the same time.
And yet, yet, backwards and forwards, the exhausting jet travel, a manic pace. I have decided that I cannot drop everything, but I have also decided that I cannot not drop everything. As my mother's health worsens I find myself careening between Boston and London until it seems as if I am constantly in motion. At first Tesseba and Leora travel with me, and they quickly fall into habits like seasoned travelers. Leora does her homework at the window. Tesseba reads. I work on my laptop until I fall asleep with a black velvet mask over my eyes. And then, just as I think things have settled into a pattern that works well for everyone, they surprise me. Tesseba says that she finds it too exhausting, the time changes, the long flights, the seemingly pointless hanging about once we finally arrive, and decides to stay home. As for Leora, I had assumed this was something of an adventure for her — what teenage girl gets to fly, first class, to London every weekend? — but there I am mistaken too.
Leora, who at first accepted without comment the arrangements I made for her — "The plane leaves Logan at seven, Lee. The limo will pick you up at four thirty." — now begins to find excuses not to accompany me.
"You don't want to come?" I ask, surprised.
"I can't just leave town all the time," she says. "I have things I need to do here."CHAPTER 6
"Bridgie," I say to my sister on one of my trips. "May I raise a sensitive subject?"
"What could possibly be sensitive?" she asks.
"Are you and Tibor okay?" I ask. "I mean, moneywise. This has all got to be something of a strain."
Bridget looks at me with that blank face I am so used to.
"We're okay," she says, and leaves the room.
I was a teenager when I left South Africa. I arrived in Boston without the right papers and in the dead of winter and struggled for years to find my footing, but those days are long gone. Tesseba and I live in a gracious house west of Boston, and while we do not live lavishly, this is a matter of choice. Bridget and Tibor, on the other hand, have never had money. You could say that they have never wanted money, but an outsider can never be too sure of things like that. In the early days, as I found my feet and worked my way up the business ladder, my sister seemed to become particularly vigilant not to let any balance be tipped by this, by the growing disparity in our circumstances.
It was an uphill battle. My mother, when she was still a frequent visitor to Boston with Arnold in tow, used to make the invidious comparison relentlessly.
"You and Tibor live on the smell of an oil rag," she used to say and Bridget, hearing her say it, would seem not to hear, would let the words drop away as if the comment had somehow not been made at all. "It makes me sick, watching you struggle when my father's money sits in South Africa doing as much good as a toytn bankes."
And that was the odd part of it, that this apparition of wealth had followed us to Boston, no more real or useful or accessible than ever, but almost a generation later continuing to haunt us.CHAPTER 7
For most of our lives my mother's privileged background has wrapped itself around us like some smothering golden fleece, and yet in all important ways my grumpy, parsimonious grandfather's money has always been irrelevant. It certainly made no difference to my poor father when we were children. It was of no help at all when Bridget and I first came to Boston. It's simply a distraction, or worse, a point of contention, now.
I have tried more than once to explain it, to Tesseba, to my business partners, but in the end I always give up. People tend to ask questions as if I haven't thought of them myself, questions for which there are no easy answers. The short of it is that when my grandfather died we learned that he had set up a convoluted trust designed to last for years and years, and then when that was done — we had all long since left South Africa — the money continued to be unavailable, trapped by laws that prevented people from taking their money out of the country if they left. It's just the way it was, a system put in place to protect apartheid, carried over long after apartheid was gone. In the end it seemed simpler, and more realistic, simply to ignore the whole thing and to start over.
"It's your money, Mom," Bridget would say when my mother pressed the subject on her. "And we're fine."
"Millions," my mother would spit, not letting up. "Not for me but for you kids. One day, when things come right in South Africa, it'll all be yours. Danny's done well for himself, thank God, but I just hope it isn't too late for you to have a little comfort as well."
Tibor didn't even know the money existed, honestly, until two years before Helga became ill when I was persuaded to go back to South Africa to see about smuggling it out in an elaborate scheme that had Arnold's fingerprints all over it. While I was away, and for the first time, Bridget did begin to talk about it, about how the money might change things in her life, and in Leora's. When I came back empty-handed her disappointment quickly turned to anger.
"Why didn't you go through with it?" she demanded. "Arnold says it was all arranged, that you could have gotten the money out once and for all."
"You know why I didn't," I said.
"No," she had insisted. "You tell me."
"It's illegal to take money out of South Africa," I said. "What Arnold arranged was illegal."
"But you knew that when you agreed to go," Bridget said, and of course that was true too. "Everyone does it and nobody gets caught. Who knows? I might have gone myself if I'd known you'd lose your nerve at the last minute."
I would not respond to this, would just sit in her kitchen and listen, but something changed between Bridget and me after I came back. I could not have explained it to her in any event, although there was an explanation. I could not have explained it if I'd had a million years to do so. How could I tell her, how could I begin to tell her, about Santi, about the real reason I went back to Durban, how I lost my nerve, why I lost my nerve?
It surprised me how angry she was. I had always assumed that the money was unimportant to her.
Excerpted from Ivory from Paradise by David Schmahmann. Copyright © 2011 David Schmahmann. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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