‘Encounter’ by Jaco Fouché

Encounter.jpg

Illustration by Andres Garzon

 

Some years before, I had moved to a coastal town thinking that fortune smiled on writers in picturesque places. But after much time had passed, I was in a bad state. I had hardly any friends. Writing no longer interested me. I wasn’t working at a proper job which contributed to my condition. There was a lot of time to waste fretting about old regrets and fears of the future.

So I slept. And dreamt. There was one in which I wandered into a vast building visiting room after room on floor after floor. I could never leave it. I’d wake up with a feeling of searing regret, something that some prisoner might feel, but that did not stop me from turning over for more sleep.

I slept at night, I slept in the mornings. In the afternoons I got up to go to the shops, or with effort write one of the stories that were my mainstay at the time. In the evenings I’d watch television before once again falling asleep.

One day I awoke early from a bad dream. In it I had decided enough was enough, I could no longer bear my own history, I couldn’t stand my own feeble attempts at art. I saw that it had all rushed away from me, everything that constituted a good and meaningful life. What was left to do? I had literary visions of the windswept cliffs the town was famous for. Perhaps I’d gain something like insight or guidance from the gulls and water and bracing sea air.

I dressed and ventured into the strange chilly morning, walking along the badly lit streets to the beach where I stood looking out over the bay.

There were other people there; old people, happy people. So happy did a particular group of three of them seem where they stood at the top of the stairs leading down to the sand that I walked over.

“Morning,” a bald man said, “are you joining us?”

“Yes, do,” a woman said.

All three of them had with them some baggage that made me ask:

“Are you planning a picnic?”

“No, we’re going swimming, of course,” the bald man said.

“Good grief,” I muttered, as to me it was a cold day. They laughed in delight at this. I said I was going for a walk.

“Before work?” the woman asked.

“Work, with that head of hair?” the third man said skeptically. I hadn’t had a decent haircut in a long time.

“I’m self-employed,” I said. I walked some distance along the path from where I could watch them put down their baggage, take of some clothes, and in their bathing costumes go into the water.

There must have been ten of them in the early light, their forms cutting into the backdrop of small white breakers rolling into the shallows. The bald man and his female companion turned and looked in my direction. Were they discussing me? Beyond the breakers, the water was darker but beyond that, across the bay, the sun was rising behind a great bank of clouds.

How beautiful all this was, I told myself. Why wouldn’t I do things like this more often? But I knew the next day would come and I might wake up only to turn over and sleep. I was stuck in something I couldn’t clearly explain. Still, this particular morning was happening and I decided to make good use of it, and followed the path through rocks and milkwood trees. It was wonderful to be out in the chill and the noise of the sea, water churning white against the rocks.

After a while, I returned to the beach where the bathers were leaving the water and heading for their towels and warm clothes.

“Oh, wasn’t that splendid,” the bald man said on noticing me.

The woman nodded and said, evidently for my benefit, “I’d suggest that even the younger generation might have use of such an experience.”

I remained standing there, drawn by their warmth. The bald man produced a half-bottle of sherry from his bag and grinned at me. “How about a toot now,” he said. We drank in turn, small polite sips which were more about the company than anything else.

“What work do you do?” the man asked.

“Writer,” I muttered. “Nothing you would’ve read.”

“I say,” the man said to me, “I hope you don’t think I’m prying, but is everything all right? There’s something about you, some malaise.”

“Yes, and you seem overdressed for the beach,” the woman said kindly. “This isn’t just a walk you’re taking, is it?”

There was very little I could think of to say to that so I laughed as carelessly as I knew how. We drank some more of the sherry, which filled me with warmth as much as did my companions.

“You know,” the bald man said, “fifty years ago I had a head of hair like that.” The woman laughed. The man stroked his pate and looked out over the sea, which had grown much lighter. “I’d just started a business. Construction. Things were great. The economy was strong, my timing was right. I was doing well. Then I got a diagnosis. I was told I had months to live. So I closed my business and moved back in with my folks. I didn’t do anything but read. After some time I’d worked my way through the Waverley Novels, the James Bonds and about half of the Canadians and my dad asked me, ‘So when do you plan to die?’ And I realized even if it was happening any day now, I might as well go out and face life. I went back into construction, got married, had a family, lost my wife, saw my grandkids grow up. Then I met this one. All that in fifty years.”

“And I met you, John,” the woman said softly and then to me, “It’s true it’s not all about good times. Sometimes you have to accept what’s downright bad too. Long ago when I was in my late forties I felt very alone. My kids were grown, my husband had left me. I moved to another town and worked there. I met a man who I had my doubts about. He wasn’t working, but he claimed to be looking for a business to buy and run. After a while, he was still looking and talking about it and living with me. I told friends that even if he was a swindler, at least I would have had someone in my life for a while. But sure enough, I eventually had to accept that he was simply a layabout and a braggart. One day I drove him to the station and bought him a ticket to a town on the other side of the country. He went. He left me without resistance. After some months he phoned me to say he was happy. Despite what you might think, that it sounds tacky, it was sort of special. It was life, you know. And that only happens to you when you allow it to.”

I nodded. I was very self-conscious. The two people seemed so kind and wise to someone who often felt like a foreigner even to himself. I was a citizen of some desolate country. I wondered if I should be concerned that my plight seemed to be written all over my person.

“What we mean,” the bald man slowly said, “is that we could tell something is up with you. If we could, we’d point you in some direction and say, there, that’s the way to go.”

“But what do we know?” the woman said.

Some of the other bathers had joined us and there seemed to be no point in continuing the discussion. I thanked the couple for their time and they wished me well and I walked back to my flat, where I looked around me.

The place was a mess. I cleaned it all day long. Shortly before the end of business hours, I went out for food and when I came back, I cleaned some more. Late at night the people below me knocked on the door to urge me to be quieter and expressed their surprise at the fact that they’d never seen me before. They left. I stayed up to write down what I could remember of the morning’s meeting at the beach.

At around four o’clock I fell asleep and dreamt. Once more I entered a vast building with many rooms and floors. But instead of waking up without having left it, this time I passed through it and walked away and I felt powerful.

When it was daylight, I began to dial numbers and look up businesses before deciding that a more personal touch was called for. I set out for the main part of town where with some effort I managed to ingratiate myself into a position with a retailer situated in a busy street. It wasn’t really sales, nothing so fanciful, just an assistant’s position, but it was a job that I could do while being among people all day. I was with company.

After going home at night, I chiseled away at my thoughts about the people on the beach. A few times I went back there early in the morning. I never saw them again.

Some years before, I had moved to a coastal town thinking that fortune smiled on writers in picturesque places. But after much time had passed, I was in a bad state. I had hardly any friends. Writing no longer interested me. I wasn’t working at a proper job which contributed to my condition. There was a lot of time to waste fretting about old regrets and fears of the future.

So I slept. And dreamt. There was one in which I wandered into a vast building visiting room after room on floor after floor. I could never leave it. I’d wake up with a feeling of searing regret, something that some prisoner might feel, but that did not stop me from turning over for more sleep.

I slept at night, I slept in the mornings. In the afternoons I got up to go to the shops, or with effort write one of the stories that were my mainstay at the time. In the evenings I’d watch television before once again falling asleep.

One day I awoke early from a bad dream. In it I had decided enough was enough, I could no longer bear my own history, I couldn’t stand my own feeble attempts at art. I saw that it had all rushed away from me, everything that constituted a good and meaningful life. What was left to do? I had literary visions of the windswept cliffs the town was famous for. Perhaps I’d gain something like insight or guidance from the gulls and water and bracing sea air.

I dressed and ventured into the strange chilly morning, walking along the badly lit streets to the beach where I stood looking out over the bay.

There were other people there; old people, happy people. So happy did a particular group of three of them seem where they stood at the top of the stairs leading down to the sand that I walked over.

“Morning,” a bald man said, “are you joining us?”

“Yes, do,” a woman said.

All three of them had with them some baggage that made me ask:

“Are you planning a picnic?”

“No, we’re going swimming, of course,” the bald man said.

“Good grief,” I muttered, as to me it was a cold day. They laughed in delight at this. I said I was going for a walk.

“Before work?” the woman asked.

“Work, with that head of hair?” the third man said skeptically. I hadn’t had a decent haircut in a long time.

“I’m self-employed,” I said. I walked some distance along the path from where I could watch them put down their baggage, take off some clothes, and in their bathing costumes go into the water.

There must have been ten of them in the early light, their forms cutting into the backdrop of small white breakers rolling into the shallows. The bald man and his female companion turned and looked in my direction. Were they discussing me? Beyond the breakers, the water was darker but beyond that, across the bay, the sun was rising behind a great bank of clouds.

How beautiful all this was, I told myself. Why wouldn’t I do things like this more often? But I knew the next day would come and I might wake up only to turn over and sleep. I was stuck in something I couldn’t clearly explain. Still, this particular morning was happening and I decided to make good use of it and followed the path through rocks and milkwood trees. It was wonderful to be out in the chill and the noise of the sea, water churning white against the rocks.

After a while, I returned to the beach where the bathers were leaving the water and heading for their towels and warm clothes.

“Oh, wasn’t that splendid,” the bald man said on noticing me.

The woman nodded and said, evidently for my benefit, “I’d suggest that even the younger generation might have use of such an experience.”

I remained standing there, drawn by their warmth. The bald man produced a half-bottle of sherry from his bag and grinned at me. “How about a toot now,” he said. We drank in turn, small polite sips which were more about the company than anything else.

“What work do you do?” the man asked.

“Writer,” I muttered. “Nothing you would’ve read.”

“I say,” the man said to me, “I hope you don’t think I’m prying, but is everything all right? There’s something about you, some malaise.”

“Yes, and you seem overdressed for the beach,” the woman said kindly. “This isn’t just a walk you’re taking, is it?”

There was very little I could think of to say to that so I laughed as carelessly as I knew how. We drank some more of the sherry, which filled me with warmth as much as did my companions.

“You know,” the bald man said, “fifty years ago I had ahead of hair like that.” The woman laughed. The man stroked his pate and looked out over the sea, which had grown much lighter. “I’d just started a business. Construction. Things were great. The economy was strong, my timing was right. I was doing well. Then I got a diagnosis. I was told I had months to live. So I closed my business and moved back in with my folks. I didn’t do anything but read. After some time I’d worked my way through the Waverley Novels, the James Bonds and about half of the Canadians and my dad asked me, ‘So when do you plan to die?’ And I realized even if it was happening any day now, I might as well go out and face life. I went back into construction, got married, had a family, lost my wife, saw my grandkids grow up. Then I met this one. All that in fifty years.”

“And I met you, John,” the woman said softly and then to me, “It’s true it’s not all about good times. Sometimes you have to accept what’s downright bad too. Long ago when I was in my late forties I felt very alone. My kids were grown, my husband had left me. I moved to another town and worked there. I met a man who I had my doubts about. He wasn’t working, but he claimed to be looking for a business to buy and run. After a while, he was still looking and talking about it and living with me. I told friends that even if he was a swindler, at least I would have had someone in my life for a while. But sure enough, I eventually had to accept that he was simply a layabout and a braggart. One day I drove him to the station and bought him a ticket to a town on the other side of the country. He went. He left me without resistance. After some months he phoned me to say he was happy. Despite what you might think, that it sounds tacky, it was sort of special. It was life, you know. And that only happens to you when you allow it to.”

I nodded. I was very self-conscious. The two people seemed so kind and wise to someone who often felt like a foreigner even to himself. I was a citizen of some desolate country. I wondered if I should be concerned that my plight seemed to be written all over my person.

“What we mean,” the bald man slowly said, “is that we could tell something is up with you. If we could, we’d point you in some direction and say, there, that’s the way to go.”

“But what do we know?” the woman said.

Some of the other bathers had joined us and there seemed to be no point in continuing the discussion. I thanked the couple for their time and they wished me well and I walked back to my flat, where I looked around me.

The place was a mess. I cleaned it all day long. Shortly before the end of business hours, I went out for food and when I came back, I cleaned some more. Late at night the people below me knocked on the door to urge me to be quieter and expressed their surprise at the fact that they’d never seen me before. They left. I stayed up to write down what I could remember of the morning’s meeting at the beach.

At around four o’clock I fell asleep and dreamt. Once more I entered a vast building with many rooms and floors. But instead of waking up without having left it, this time I passed through it and walked away and I felt powerful.

When it was daylight, I began to dial numbers and look up businesses before deciding that a more personal touch was called for. I set out for the main part of town where with some effort I managed to ingratiate myself into a position with a retailer situated in a busy street. It wasn’t really sales, nothing so fanciful, just an assistant’s position, but it was a job that I could do while being among people all day. I was with company.

After going home at night, I chiseled away at my thoughts about the people on the beach. A few times I went back there early in the morning. I never saw them again.

 


JACO FOUCHÉ is a South African writer who has published ten books in Afrikaans and who is interested in publishing in Canada. He was won awards for his Afrikaans writing. His most recent award was for an English poem in the AVBOB Poetry Project, “A Feeling like Leaving Harbour”, of which the theme was death and loss and which earned him first prize in the English category.

Copyright © 2019 by Jaco Fouché. All rights reserved.