Freya Stone waited by the high golden sign that said BERNI FORTUNE’S GARAGE. The O, cut out from the metal, was painted to look like a coin. The open space drew a wind that spun the O dizzily around.
‘Finish and klaar.’ Berni’s accent was coloured though his skin was dark even for a black man from these parts. The office door blew closed behind him. ‘The papers for the bike.’ He smiled at her broadly. Freya took the sheaf, about to smile back, when he said, ‘You’ve got grease on you, here.’ He dabbed his chin. ‘And here also.’ She rubbed with her sleeve. ‘You’re making it worse.’ She looked away to the scuffed toes of her heavy duty trainers. Berni’s trainers were canvas, lighter and thinner. He wore them without socks. ‘There’s a bathroom round the side,’ he said, handing her a key on a key ring made from a bent coat hanger.
She went where he’d said, and felt like an idiot. She could always leave the key there and make her escape. Ride off, ride home. The bike was hers now. No reason, besides manners, to go back.
And yet, as she closed the door she was oddly touched by the pride taken in the bathroom. Mr Blue in the loo and the bottles of Jik and Handy Andy next to it. A couple of rolls of white toilet paper and a box of tissues. A bunch of artificial yellow roses in a vase on the windowsill. She pulled back the shower curtain. The white tiles were scrubbed cleaner than hers at home. Timotei shampoo and Old Spice in one corner, soap, a scrubbing brush, razor and shaving foam in the other. She closed the curtain and washed her hands in the basin. There wasn’t a mirror so she rubbed her whole face hard with Lux and dried it off with tissues.
When she turned to leave, she saw out-of-work clothes on a hanger behind the towel on the door. She moved the towel aside. Dark grey trousers and a smart green shirt. The trousers were baubled though freshly ironed and perfectly creased, let out at the hem and with an unfashionably high waist. A small hole on the thigh had been subtly patched over. Freya let the towel fall back into place. Noticed a sponge and shoeshine and a perfectly polished pair of smart black shoes. At the surgery, there were separate toilets for the men and women. It was a long time since she’d been into a grown man’s personal space.
Back outside, Berni was leaning against the fence peeling a naartjie. His overalls were open to the waist. His chest and arms were gently muscled rather than skinny as she’d have imagined them. He offered her a segment.
‘Do you run this show by yourself?’
‘Nee wat, there’s a team. Except on Mondays when we’re closed.’
The juice was sweet though the pip was bitter.
‘Well, thanks for letting me see the bike – get it – today.’
He aimed the naartjie peel and it scored, plonk, in a mesh bin. ‘You in a rush?’
There was work – but as it was, she was going to be late. ‘Not particularly.’
‘Want a Coke?’
‘That’d be nice.’
‘You can wait in the office. Or round the back, if you like, there’s a sofa.’
True to his word, around the back an old sofa had been laid out in the sun. She could feel the heat of the green plastic cushions even through her thick denim.
He joined her with the pop of a bottle so chilled that the breath of a genie escaped. He handed the bottle to her, then opened his own. The iciness went right through her teeth. She grimaced and put her hand to her lips, trying to let the heat of her breath warm the inside of her mouth. He laughed, then sat alongside her. His arm stretched out across the top of the sofa.
She half closed her eyes and squizzed him out through the fuzz of her lashes. Though she knew she’d never met him before there was this vaguely familiar feeling about him. As if he resembled a character she’d known in a previous life. Or, more likely, one from some childhood TV show or storybook. With the mild déjà vu a dreamy throbbing started between her legs. She closed her eyes fully and leaned her head back.
She felt the pulse where her neck was exposed matching the one against the inner seam of her jeans. She heard Berni shift closer. This was her moment to get up. She thought she would – but that hot lazy throbbing held her in a kind of torpor. And then she felt his breath at her ear. She smelt the mint of Colgate on top of another deeper scent of dust and grease mingled with an almost tropical sweat.
His finger traced the vein that appeared sometimes on her forehead. Keeping her eyes closed she turned towards him. Right up against him, she let her body press into his. She saw the two of them in bright colours, brighter than real life, while he took the permission to kiss her throat. Then he brushed his lips tenderly against hers. She let his tongue open them.
Almost at once something started to be not right. The more powerfully his kisses came, the less she felt. He seemed to be losing himself in what they were doing, while she – a part of her was draining away. Leaking out. Separating from her body. Is this what dying feels like, she thought. The body left behind while others mess with it.
‘You okay?’ he asked.
Of course it would never feel right with someone who was not Jake.
‘Yes,’ she said. She dug her nails into her palms.
He opened a battered wallet. Slipped a condom out and slit the wrapper.
‘Geez,’ she said. ‘Well prepared.’
‘You never know when a lovely lady might come along.’
She didn’t smile; he didn’t smile back.
‘You sure you okay?’ he said.
She took off her shoestring vest. She remembered Jake – but kept her eyes open. Landscape through a window was how to deal with it. She’d read that somewhere. Not the place where you are. Not the here and now.
Here and now was a texture of skin new to her. Smooth and muscled in a warmly rounded way. Enough flesh there not to feel the edges of bone. She ran her fingers across his chest. Like warm wax. His nipples erect like rubber press studs.
‘Nobody can see us, huh?’ she said.
‘Not here – we’re alone.’
And then he grabbed her and pulled her roughly to him. He kissed her neck. Her collar bone. Her shoulders. His force, though it was passionate, nothing worse, shocked her. He kissed her lips and then tongued between them. Insistently was how he was going to do it, insisting the passion into place. He sucked at her flesh, didn’t bite but sucked hard. And back to her torso. Her breasts. Sucking and kissing. She thought of the leeches in the dam when she was a kid, prying them off with a stick. He ran his lips over the keys of her ribs. She started to giggle – but he stopped and she caught a glance of anger. Then he tickled her again deliberately with fingers light as insect legs and she made herself do a laugh again.
He unlaced her shoes. Then took her socks off as carefully as though preparing a child for bed.
He unbuttoned her jeans and pulled them away in one with her panties.
His overall went twah twah twah twah as he opened it but he didn’t take his legs out or remove his shoes. He pushed big white underpants around the middle of his thighs and put the condom on.
Inside her, he was alternately tender and rough, but she couldn’t get either to feel good. When he was on top of her she felt as though she was a child. But when she pushed his shoulders down and straddled him, grinding against his pelvis, arching her back, she felt as though she was madam.
Whatever – it was not working between them.
She wanted to stop.
Then he said, ‘Have you had sex with a black guy before?’
‘Of course,’ she lied. ‘How about you? With white women?’
‘Ja, nee. Not so much with South Africans, more with the Germans who come here. Tourists are more up for it.’
‘Works the other way round too,’ she said. ‘My first was with an American, not a local.’
He wriggled out from under her.
Talk surely meant an admittance that they were done. But he got up only to flip her around, bum to sun. And then he was pumping her, hard. The springs in the sofa were going yeeek yeeek yeeek yeeek. Her face was stuffed into the crack between the seat and the sofa back but when she tried to move, he ran his fingers through her hair. He stroked and pressed down, both together. Yeeek yeeek yeeek.
Then the constipated baby cry – and it was over.
She wanted to leave in a manner that seemed easy-going and cool. Not as though she was relieved it was finished. Or chuffed to have done it. Or desperate to be alone. More just like – it was time to go home.
Before putting the visor down, she said, ‘We’ll keep this between us?’
‘I’ve got a son and – you know, teenage boys –’
‘Ja, fine. We’ve mos done a deal’s all.’
She slid the keys into the ignition. As they turned, her fingers slipped. The bike stalled. In the office, the phone was ringing. With a tilt of the head, Berni left to take the call.
Always, she’d felt this fear around bikes – the power, the vulnerability, the speed – and there’d been only one way to conquer it. She clenched her jaw and turned the keys again. No longer watched, the bike started easily. She counted slow steady breaths while it idled between her legs.
Jake had given his bikes names. Ray. Faith. Gloria had been the one that had taken him. Bloody stupid names for a machine. Her eyes filled and she gripped the bars. Tried to swallow her tears back. But they were wetting her cheeks, nose running, face already a mess of wet.
The bike revved.
Not wanting Berni to come out again was what got her going. Gearing through from a jerky first to a slow second. Third was smoother and easier. You couldn’t ride and cry simultaneously. She accelerated and as she did so, she felt the sensation of sloughing something off. Leaving it in her wake. By fourth gear she felt the intimacy with the machine. Leaning into it, she knew the bike was hers. She cornered just for the hell of it through the parking lot, then took a light yield and verged left into the side street. There was a stop sign ahead but nothing coming so she treated it as a yield again and was out on the open road.
The route home was straight and dark as a river slicing through the scrub and dust. Holding her steady in its current, it drew her onward. The sameness gave the sensation both of speed faster than could her mind could compute and of scarcely moving at all. Ahead was an ever distant place where mirages pooled.
She kept an eye on the thin black needle of the speedometer until it hovered at one-fifty. Then she pushed it further, rode it out, as far as it would go. One-sixty and climbing. One-seventy. She slowed. Good girl. The needle slid back until the bike was at the right pace for lifting the front wheel off the tar. Up, up, and up – and – a wheelie. She came down easily knowing that she could do it again.
Absolute control, extreme concentration, complete absorption.
Donnie had been so right about getting this.
The road reached a fork – either up the mountain pass or straight back to hide the bike, then off to work. She really was late but… aaaargh fuck it. The indicator flicked decisively and snaking to the left, she let the pass suck her in. She rode the curl and the curve with a surfer’s lean and sway, keeping her eyes on what was in front of her with an awareness of what was around her too, of the turquoise stretch of sea and, on either side, the view.
In the moment, the memory came back, raw and real, of riding up here with Jake, pressed against his jacket, holding him. The exhilarating slap of the wind, the steep gape of the drop. The fierce high blue forever. Her eyes widened.
This had been how they’d taken it, grabbed at life, at what it offered. This had been their way. This was how it felt.