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Authors: J M Coetzee

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BOOK: Disgrace
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Onstage the action resumes. Melanie pushes her broom. A bang, a flash, screams of alarm. ‘It's not my fault,' squawks Melanie. ‘
My gats
, why must everything always be my fault?' Quietly he gets up, follows the janitor into the darkness outside.
At four o'clock the next afternoon he is at her flat. She opens the door wearing a crumpled T-shirt, cycling shorts, slippers in the shape of comic-book gophers which he finds silly, tasteless.
He has given her no warning; she is too surprised to resist the intruder who thrusts himself upon her. When he takes her in his arms, her limbs crumple like a marionette's. Words heavy as clubs thud into the delicate whorl of her ear. ‘No, not now!' she says, struggling. ‘My cousin will be back!'
But nothing will stop him. He carries her to the bedroom, brushes off the absurd slippers, kisses her feet, astonished by the feeling she evokes. Something to do with the apparition on the stage: the wig, the wiggling bottom, the crude talk. Strange love! Yet from the quiver of Aphrodite, goddess of the foaming waves, no doubt about that.
She does not resist. All she does is avert herself: avert her lips, avert her eyes. She lets him lay her out on the bed and undress her: she even helps him, raising her arms and then her hips. Little shivers of cold run through her; as soon as she is bare, she slips under the quilted counterpane like a mole burrowing, and turns her back on him.
Not rape, not quite that, but undesired nevertheless, undesired to the core. As though she had decided to go slack, die within herself for the duration, like a rabbit when the jaws of the fox close on its neck. So that everything done to her might be done, as it were, far away.
‘Pauline will be back any minute,' she says when it is over. ‘Please. You must go.'
He obeys, but then, when he reaches his car, is overtaken with such dejection, such dullness, that he sits slumped at the wheel unable to move.
A mistake, a huge mistake. At this moment, he has no doubt, she, Melanie, is trying to cleanse herself of it, of him. He sees her running a bath, stepping into the water, eyes closed like a sleepwalker's. He would like to slide into a bath of his own.
A woman with chunky legs and a no-nonsense business suit passes by and enters the apartment block. Is this cousin Pauline the flatmate, the one whose disapproval Melanie is so afraid of? He rouses himself, drives off.
The next day she is not in class. An unfortunate absence, since it is the day of the mid-term test. When he fills in the register afterwards, he ticks her off as present and enters a mark of seventy. At the foot of the page he pencils a note to himself: ‘Provisional'. Seventy: a vacillator's mark, neither good nor bad.
She stays away the whole of the next week. Time after time he telephones, without reply. Then at midnight on Sunday the doorbell rings. It is Melanie, dressed from top to toe in black, with a little black woollen cap. Her face is strained; he steels himself for angry words, for a scene.
The scene does not come. In fact, she is the one who is embarrassed. ‘Can I sleep here tonight?' she whispers, avoiding his eye.
‘Of course, of course.' His heart is flooded with relief. He reaches out, embraces her, pressing her against him stiff and cold. ‘Come, I'll make you some tea.'
‘No, no tea, nothing, I'm exhausted, I just need to crash.'
He makes up a bed for her in his daughter's old room, kisses her good night, leaves her to herself. When he returns half an hour later she is in a dead sleep, fully clothed. He eases off her shoes, covers her.
At seven in the morning, as the first birds are beginning to chirrup, he knocks at her door. She is awake, lying with the sheet drawn up to her chin, looking haggard.
‘How are you feeling?' he asks.
She shrugs.
‘Is something the matter? Do you want to talk?'
She shakes her head mutely.
He sits down on the bed, draws her to him. In his arms she begins to sob miserably. Despite all, he feels a tingling of desire. ‘There, there,' he whispers, trying to comfort her. ‘Tell me what is wrong.' Almost he says, ‘Tell Daddy what is wrong.'
She gathers herself and tries to speak, but her nose is clogged. He finds her a tissue. ‘Can I stay here a while?' she says.
‘Stay here?' he repeats carefully. She has stopped crying, but long shudders of misery still pass through her. ‘Would that be a good idea?'
Whether it would be a good idea she does not say. Instead she presses herself tighter to him, her face warm against his belly. The sheet slips aside; she is wearing only a singlet and panties.
Does she know what she is up to, at this moment?
When he made the first move, in the college gardens, he had thought of it as a quick little affair – quickly in, quickly out. Now here she is in his house, trailing complications behind her. What game is she playing? He should be wary, no doubt about that. But he should have been wary from the start.
He stretches out on the bed beside her. The last thing in the world he needs is for Melanie Isaacs to take up residence with him. Yet at this moment the thought is intoxicating. Every night she will be here; every night he can slip into her bed like this, slip into her. People will find out, they always do; there will be whispering, there might even be scandal. But what will that matter? A last leap of the flame of sense before it goes out. He folds the bedclothes aside, reaches down, strokes her breasts, her buttocks. ‘Of course you can stay,' he murmurs. ‘Of course.'
In his bedroom, two doors away, the alarm clock goes off. She turns away from him, pulls the covers up over her shoulders.
‘I'm going to leave now,' he says. ‘I have classes to meet. Try to sleep again. I'll be back at noon, then we can talk.' He strokes her hair, kisses her forehead. Mistress? Daughter? What, in her heart, is she trying to be? What is she offering him?
When he returns at noon, she is up, sitting at the kitchen table, eating toast and honey and drinking tea. She seems thoroughly at home.
‘So,' he says, ‘you are looking much better.'
‘I slept after you left.'
‘Will you tell me now what this is all about?'
She avoids his eye. ‘Not now,' she says. ‘I have to go, I'm late. I'll explain next time.'
‘And when will next time be?'
‘This evening, after rehearsal. Is that OK?'
She gets up, carries her cup and plate to the sink (but does not wash them), turns to face him. ‘Are you sure it's OK?' she says.
‘Yes, it's OK.'
‘I wanted to say, I know I've missed a lot of classes, but the production is taking up all my time.'
‘I understand. You are telling me your drama work has priority. It would have helped if you had explained earlier. Will you be in class tomorrow?'
‘Yes. I promise.'
She promises, but with a promise that is not enforceable. He is vexed, irritated. She is behaving badly, getting away with too much; she is learning to exploit him and will probably exploit him further. But if she has got away with much, he has got away with more; if she is behaving badly, he has behaved worse. To the extent that they are together, if they are together, he is the one who leads, she the one who follows. Let him not forget that.
to her one more time, on the bed in his daughter's room. It is good, as good as the first time; he is beginning to learn the way her body moves. She is quick, and greedy for experience. If he does not sense in her a fully sexual appetite, that is only because she is still young. One moment stands out in recollection, when she hooks a leg behind his buttocks to draw him in closer: as the tendon of her inner thigh tightens against him, he feels a surge of joy and desire. Who knows, he thinks: there might, despite all, be a future.
‘Do you do this kind of thing often?' she asks afterwards.
‘Do what?'
‘Sleep with your students. Have you slept with Amanda?'
He does not answer. Amanda is another student in the class, a wispy blonde. He has no interest in Amanda.
‘Why did you get divorced?' she asks.
‘I've been divorced twice. Married twice, divorced twice.'
‘What happened to your first wife?'
‘It's a long story. I'll tell you some other time.'
‘Do you have pictures?'
‘I don't collect pictures. I don't collect women.'
‘Aren't you collecting me?'
‘No, of course not.'
She gets up, strolls around the room picking up her clothes, as little bashful as if she were alone. He is used to women more self-conscious in their dressing and undressing. But the women he is used to are not as young, as perfectly formed.
The same afternoon there is a knock at his office door and a young man enters whom he has not seen before. Without invitation he sits down, casts a look around the room, nods appreciatively at the bookcases.
He is tall and wiry; he has a thin goatee and an ear-ring; he wears a black leather jacket and black leather trousers. He looks older than most students; he looks like trouble.
‘So you are the professor,' he says. ‘Professor David. Melanie has told me about you.'
‘Indeed. And what has she told you?'
‘That you fuck her.'
There is a long silence. So, he thinks: the chickens come home to roost. I should have guessed it: a girl like that would not come unencumbered.
‘Who are you?' he says.
The visitor ignores his question. ‘You think you're smart,' he continues. ‘A real ladies' man. You think you will still look so smart when your wife hears what you are up to?'
‘That's enough. What do you want?'
‘Don't you tell me what's enough.' The words come faster now, in a patter of menace. ‘And don't think you can just walk into people's lives and walk out again when it suits you.' Light dances on his black eyeballs. He leans forward, sweeps right and left with his hands. The papers on the desk go flying.
He rises. ‘That's enough! It's time for you to leave!'
It's time for you to leave!
' the boy repeats, mimicking him. ‘OK.' He gets up, saunters to the door. ‘Goodbye, Professor Chips! But just wait and see!' Then he is gone.
A bravo, he thinks. She is mixed up with a bravo and now I am mixed up with her bravo too! His stomach churns.
Though he stays up late into the night, waiting for her, Melanie does not come. Instead, his car, parked in the street, is vandalized. The tyres are deflated, glue is injected into the doorlocks, newspaper is pasted over the windscreen, the paintwork is scratched. The locks have to be replaced; the bill comes to six hundred rand.
‘Any idea who did it?' asks the locksmith.
‘None at all,' he replies curtly.
After this
coup de main
Melanie keeps her distance. He is not surprised: if he has been shamed, she is shamed too. But on Monday she reappears in class; and beside her, leaning back in his seat, hands in pockets, with an air of cocky ease, is the boy in black, the boyfriend.
Usually there is a buzz of talk from the students. Today there is a hush. Though he cannot believe they know what is afoot, they are clearly waiting to see what he will do about the intruder.
What will he do indeed? What happened to his car was evidently not enough. Evidently there are more instalments to come. What can he do? He must grit his teeth and pay, what else?
‘We continue with Byron,' he says, plunging into his notes. ‘As we saw last week, notoriety and scandal affected not only Byron's life but the way in which his poems were received by the public. Byron the man found himself conflated with his own poetic creations – with Harold, Manfred, even Don Juan.'
Scandal. A pity that must be his theme, but he is in no state to improvise.
He steals a glance at Melanie. Usually she is a busy writer. Today, looking thin and exhausted, she sits huddled over her book. Despite himself, his heart goes out to her. Poor little bird, he thinks, whom I have held against my breast!
He has told them to read ‘Lara'. His notes deal with ‘Lara'. There is no way in which he can evade the poem. He reads aloud:
He stood a stranger in this breathing world,
An erring spirit from another hurled;
A thing of dark imaginings, that shaped
By choice the perils he by chance escaped.
‘Who will gloss these lines for me? Who is this “erring spirit”? Why does he call himself “a thing”? From what world does he come?'
He has long ceased to be surprised at the range of ignorance of his students. Post-Christian, posthistorical, postliterate, they might as well have been hatched from eggs yesterday. So he does not expect them to know about fallen angels or where Byron might have read of them. What he does expect is a round of goodnatured guesses which, with luck, he can guide toward the mark. But today he is met with silence, a dogged silence that organizes itself palpably around the stranger in their midst. They will not speak, they will not play his game, as long as a stranger is there to listen and judge and mock.
‘Lucifer,' he says. ‘The angel hurled out of heaven. Of how angels live we know little, but we can assume they do not require oxygen. At home Lucifer, the dark angel, does not need to breathe. All of a sudden he finds himself cast out into this strange “breathing world” of ours. “Erring”: a being who chooses his own path, who lives dangerously, even creating danger for himself. Let us read further.'
The boy has not looked down once at the text. Instead, with a little smile on his lips, a smile in which there is, just possibly, a touch of bemusement, he takes in his words.
BOOK: Disgrace
9.45Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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