I know I’ve lost the battle when King Jesus tells me to quit bluffing.
It happens, this divine revelation, on the last Friday of my three-month stress leave as I head to my weekly session with the social worker. Her office is behind the Protea barracks in Soweto, and its dank curtains smell like magnolia air freshener and too much grief.
As I pass Zoo Lake, ducks are waddling towards the boathouse. I’m thinking about Captain van Jaarsveld, whom I am going to see. A fish must have swum through her mouth while she was still a foetus. Oh, that a duck should have eaten that fish that gave her pretty face an ugly cleft palate.
I slow down at the traffic lights at the zoo, change gears and accidentally bump the radio on. It’s preset to Classic FM. The announcer, who sounds like she ate a heavy dictionary for breakfast, says, “The next item on our programme is the ‘Cantilena’ by Francis Poulenc. Composed in 1957, it will be performed by flautist Melané Hofmeyr-Burger and Wessel van Wyk.”
I know Melané. She has curly black hair that swings down her back. She plays a gold flute with long thin fingers that are pale as sea sand. She’s kind too. Once she heard me play the “Ave Maria” at a policeman’s funeral. She said I had a nice sound. She didn’t have to say that.
Melané plays the first phrase of the Poulenc and I am lost. All the hope in the world is pink and orange clouds holding onto sunset, grieving because after the sun slips over the horizon there will be nothing, no starlight, no moon. Only black silence and the sky falling into the sea forever. The last light fades away as the call of the night bird soars. There is too much hope in this cantilena. It does not know that the soul of the world is seeping into the abyss. And then it is finished. The glare is too bright and I’m crying for this pure sorrow.
The announcer says, “That was the flute sonata by . . .” and King Jesus butts in saying, “Attention female Constable de Vos. Attention female Constable de Vos.”
I’m nearly on the Jan Smuts onramp to the M2 South, and I brace up at the wheel, locking my elbows to make the driver’s salute. “Sir, yes Sir!”
King Jesus says, “Will female Constable de Vos please desist forthwith from further hypochondriacal hysterics and report for duty at oh-seven hours at the Diepkloof Band Room on Monday?”
“Sir, yes Sir!” I answer, veering alongside the retaining wall of the onramp where ivy hangs down the concrete drop. It has turned into seaweed. Birds used to pause on the hanging fronds to sing to passing motorists, but now fish flit through the waving strands. Barbel and mottled eels mouth dire warnings, “Repent, repent. The end of the world is nigh.”
Beyond the bridge that joins the university’s east and west campus is a brightly painted sign: “Ten Years of Democracy.” Seagulls perch above it, shitting and flapping and cawing in an atonal pattern. Another sign proclaims “Blue IQ.” The seagulls leave that one alone.
I will get up early on Monday morning to dress. King Jesus interrupts the advert for a trip to see the pyramids. “Report at the Band Room for inspection and parade in full ceremonial dress.”
First I will put on my blue shirt and tie, then I’ll roll up my pantyhose, slipping my feet in so the tips of my toes line up with the seam. Then I’ll pull on my woollen skirt, my ceremonial jacket with the brass buttons and lanyard. I’ll wear my navy hat with the badge held on by screws too long for my big head.
“Remember, name plate on the right, lyre badge on the left.” King Jesus is quite precise that way.
I don’t tell the social worker about King Jesus. It would just get her praying, and when she starts that, it is a long and tiresome affair. Perhaps I should tell her about my lover, Theodor, taking me to see Maestro Trinchero, the retired flautist who lives in a house too close to the water’s edge.
We drove three full days to the old man’s place. The Brixton and Hillbrow towers stood against the skyline like lighthouses. Theodor said it was not three days, just thirty minutes in the traffic. He said the pills were making me confused, but that if we bought a flute, a good flute, and if I started practising once more, I would see everything level again; I would stop feeling like I was walking through water.
When we got there, the maestro opened the gate at the end of his jetty to let us in. The maestro was old and his movements were jerky. He is dying. Or so he said in an Italian accent. That’s why he wanted to sell his collection of vintage flutes. I asked whether it was wise to do that, would he not need a flute in the hereafter?
“An harp,” he said, pronouncing it “arp,” “is what I play on the other side.”
His house was floating. I asked him why. He assured me it was anchored firmly. “What water is that?” I asked, pointing out the window. “There is no water,” said Theodor. I asked again. I wanted to know. “Hartbeespoort Dam? Emmarentia? The musical fountains of Wemmer Pan?” Theodor told the old man that I was confused.
He also told him about my stolen my flute. Theodor didn’t tell the maestro that it happened on the day I played truant to attend the Mother’s Day Festival at my child’s school, nor did he say that since the flute disappeared I have not been able to work.
When I had arrived at work that morning, I told the bandmaster, Captain Maropeng, that the school had called me, complaining that my child had been caught telling lies. I told him that—even though it was untrue—because I knew the captain didn’t like liars. He would see my commitment to remedying my child’s waywardness as a virtue to be encouraged. He would let me go if I said I had to see the Headmistress.
“Make sure the child’s sinning ways are dealt with in the most severely appropriate fashion,” he had said. With a flick of his baton he gave me leave to go.
When I got to the school, my daughter gave me a bunch of daisies and the choir sang, “I Love You Mommy” to the tune of “You Are My Sunshine.” Then they sang, “King Jesus hath a garden full of diver’s flowers,” and my daughter played the cymbal in the percussion group.
Afterwards we had tea and koeksusters in the sunshine. The headmistress and I exchanged pleasantries while I dripped cinnamon syrup on my uniform. In the car as I drove my daughter home, she asked, “What are diver’s flowers?”
“Seaweed,” I said.
“Of course,” she said.
I never went back to work that day. I meant to. I should have. I forgot that I’d left my flute on my music stand. Captain Maropeng said he had instructed Inspector Mthuli, the piccolo player, to put my flute away in the storeroom. The next morning it was gone.
“One week later,” said Theodor to the maestro, “detectives at Mondeor arrested one of her colleagues.”
That was Constable Govender, the handsome drummer with Bible-black eyes, but they could not find my flute, so they released him. After that he creeped me out. I could not march if he stood in the line behind me.
Theodor took me to see Dr. van Tonder at the Diepkloof Prison, and I told him that my colleagues were casting spells on me. I said they put muti in my food, snake’s urine in my tea. I took him reed shavings, which the clarinet players left on my chair, as evidence. I said the trombonist spits on my shoes. The doctor gave me three months’ stress leave and told me I had to visit a social worker once a week, to make sure I was not a suicide risk.
“Can you believe it?” says Theodor.
The maestro nodded his head and said, “Ah, ah, ah,” but his teeth were loose, so it sounded like he was saying, “Arp, arp, arp.” The waves lapped against the little jetty as we prepared to leave with the maestro’s flute.
I think that if I tell this story to the social worker, she will call Dr. van Tonder and book me off for another three months.
I tell her instead about the American catalogues that have arrived. I ordered them from the Internet.
“They have pretty names,” I say: “Lark in the Morning, Musician’s Friend, By the Sword and Song, and Peddler. They arrive as ‘catalogs’, misspelled, missing the ‘u’ and ‘e’. The pictures are pretty, but the information they contain is no good. I suspect that the instruments they are peddling are also missing some vital element, like a trill key, or a mouth plate.”
Well, that’s what I mean to say, “mouth plate,” but out comes “mouth palate” because I’m nervous talking to her about mouths or lips and teeth. How can you not talk about these things if you talk about the flute?
The social worker’s face twitches. The silvery scar on her lip quavers and forms a ragged fish tail. I have embarrassed her. I feel bad. I can’t stop talking even though I should say sorry.
“The catalogues contain chanters and bodrhans too, which are pretty in a Celtic way, but I do not want to replace my flute with anything but a flute. The next catalogue has junky beginner models with ambitious names like Pearl and Jupiter. I know those flutes. Students play them. Beginner models. They would serve better as porridge stirrers.”
I’m gabbling. I can’t stop.
“One catalogue has pictures of bagpipes, dressed in daunting tartan. That fabric: nylon. Ugh! Doubly daunting. I don’t like nylon. I’m so glad my uniform is made of wool.”
Today I wear shorts and a spaghetti-strap top. The social worker in her crimplene frock and nylon pantyhose envies me. After today’s session I’ll write in my journal that the social worker is a suicide risk.
“But I’m going back to work, I’m going to . . .”
I wish I knew which body of water splashes below the old man’s house. I stood on his deck while Theodor paid him. I looked through the slatted beams and saw jellyfish in the water below. If there were jellyfish, it had to be an ocean, but the old man said it was a lake. What happens to the house when the tide rises, I wondered. What happens to the flutes when the jellyfish chant? A dog in the old man’s parrot cage answered in the old man’s voice, “Scales and long notes, scales and long notes . . .”
After we took home the ancient flute made by Rudall & Carte, I discovered another instrument hidden inside it. I couldn’t understand why the old man had done that. I tried to figure out how to slide the inner flute out, piece by piece. It was like a camper’s fold-up walking stick.
Back in the car after seeing the social worker, I drive along the beach. Waves lap against the passenger door and I wonder how the ocean has moved to the Highveld.
I unpack my instrument.
once I caught a fish alive.
King Jesus has little to say. In a voice that comes from the bottom of the ocean I hear, “Scales and long notes, scales and long notes.”
Copyright © 2007 by Liesl Jobson
"Diver's Flowers" first appeared in Twist, an anthology of short stories by South African women writers (Oshun, 2006)