Below are extracts from Below Luck Level, Chameleon, even with insects and Kaleidoscope.
BELOW LUCK LEVEL
She was dead when I woke up beside her the next morning.
I wasn’t immediately certain she was dead. I’d never seen a dead person before. She looked just like herself. As if she was sleeping. Her eyes were shut, the white sheet still folded neatly under her chin – exactly as she’d been when I switched off the bedside light the night before, praying I’d somehow fall asleep myself. I registered a stillness in the room.
‘Mom?’ I asked tentatively. ‘Mom, are you awake?’
She said nothing. Why didn’t she answer?
‘Mom?’ I asked again, dread snaking through my veins like icy water. My fingers reached out to touch her face, almost of their own volition, and then recoiled defensively, like a curling centipede. Was it her coldness? Or the lack of movement?
I panicked. ‘Mom!’ I cried out, a note of hysteria invading my voice, pitching it at a higher tone than usual. ‘Mom! Are you all right?’ I pulled back the sheet and shook her. Recoiled again – at the stiffness this time? I shook her once again before I knew the truth. My shaking fingers snatched up the cell phone, which I’d left on the bedside table. Just in case. I punched in D. Dial D for Dave. Double D for Dr Dave.
He answered almost immediately. Perhaps you’re programmed to do that if you know you’re the doctor on call. Even if it’s not really morning yet. I started crying when I heard his voice. I wanted to speak but my words were drowning. I couldn’t haul them to the surface.
‘Hello?’ he said again. ‘Who is this?’
‘She’s dead,’ I said at last. ‘I think she’s dead.’
‘Who is this?’ he repeated. I could hear the urgency in his voice, the note of concern that was his trademark. He was intrinsically compassionate. I must have remembered that in my subconscious so I found the words to tell him who I was. Who she was.
‘It’s Hannah,’ I said. ‘My mother’s not moving. She’s so cold. I think she may be dead.’
‘Hannah,’ he said at once. ‘I’m coming, Hannah. I’m on my way.’
‘But what must I do?’ I asked despairingly. ‘What must I do until you get here?’
‘Stay with her, Hannah,’ he said gently. ‘Just sit beside her. I’ll be with you soon. Just sit beside her until I come.’
I couldn’t put the phone down when he rang off. I clutched it like a lifebelt but the silence persuaded me that it was pointless. I replaced the handset carefully on the bedside table, as if it was made of fragile porcelain. I didn’t want to break my link to Dave, because he was the doctor. He would intervene. He would know how to replay the hours between then and now.
I sat down beside her. I don’t know how much time passed before the doorbell rang. It seemed interminable. I tried to stroke her hair but I flinched at the coldness of her face. I thought I should run a bath to warm her. I thought I should perhaps make a cup of tea to pass the time until the doorbell rang. But I couldn’t get up to switch the kettle on while she lay there. I couldn’t leave her all alone.
I looked at her quiet face against the white pillow. A sliver of early-morning sun sidled in and settled across her features. It made her look faded. As if she was a stranger, with a worn-out version of my mother’s face. I wanted to shut the sunlight out but I was rooted to the bed. I couldn’t get up to close the gap in the curtains.
It seemed a long time before the doorbell rang.
It seemed like fate when they pulled up beside her at the traffic lights. Divine intervention. Statistically, the chances of it happening were close to zero. She recognized them immediately. Dread seeped in through the sealed windows. She could scarcely breathe. Her stomach churned and knotted. Her hands grew clammy as they tightened around the wheel. The car felt claustrophobic.
She knew it would be different in their car.
It was a white BMW. The 5 Series. Naturally. Inevitably. She knew they’d drive a car like that. She couldn’t see the face of the woman in the passenger seat. Her hair was thick and blonde – sleek and styled like the women in the brochures you page through at the hairdresser’s. She knew there would be labels on all the clothes she wore – brand names from Rome and Paris and the fashion capitals of the world. She watched as the woman leaned over and touched the driver’s cheek. The woman in the back reached forward and squeezed her outstretched hand.
She willed herself to look away. She thought the lights would never change – Cape Town must have the slowest robots in the world. But when they turned to green, she slid into the lane behind and followed them.
She couldn’t stop herself.
It proved surprisingly easy to keep them in her sights. More divine intervention. On a normal day, the lights on Main Road aren’t noted for synchronicity. She expected to be trapped by a red or orange light. She anticipated watching helplessly as her quarry sped off without her. But it didn’t happen. At each intersection, the robots slotted exactly into the time-frame she needed. The car turned left at the Kenilworth intersection. She felt surprise when she realised that they were heading for the factory shops at Access Park. Even yuppies like a bargain…
Her stomach tied itself in knots again when she saw their destination. There were SALE notices in all the windows. The shop was crowded and parking was at a premium. She had to watch from a sideline as they parked and headed across street to the entrance. She could read their body language, even with a stretch of tarmac to divide them. She knew they were excited. Her radar picked them up when she slid into the shop behind them. She tried to make her way unobtrusively towards them. Her hands sifted aimlessly through random products on a nearby shelf. She forced herself to look.
The shop stocked products she never knew existed.
Enormous feeding bras – tailor-made to fit a woolly mammoth. Nipple caps. A steam humidifier promising to banish air-pollution. Giant bottles of Purity. A device with an audible signal to monitor room temperature. Another one which rang an alarm if it detected babies crying. Educational playpens. A baby in the new millennium appeared to require more strategy planning than the D-day invasions on the beaches of Normandy.
She was close enough to be in earshot. They were standing by the prams. Up-market prams – they wouldn’t have looked out of place on a Grand Prix circuit. The younger woman seemed to share her views.
‘But Mom! Look at the price! I can’t pay this for a pram! How long will a baby need a pram? It’s hardly a long term investment!’
‘It’s far too much!’ her husband nodded, examining the price-tag. ‘We’re going to have to buy a container to get all this back home!’ His voice had strong European inflection.
Not French or Italian. Something unfamiliar. Maybe Spanish?
The older woman swept aside their protests.
‘But I want you to have it. I insist. It’s got all the safety features. I want it to be special….’
‘You’re getting totally carried away! We can’t justify it!’
The younger woman laughed and shook her head as she argued with her mother. “This range is cheaper,’ she gestured.
As she turned to show her mother the alternative, she caught a glimpse of the woman watching. Recognition sparked like a current across the crowded aisle. Her face froze. The intake of her breath was audible. She clutched her husband’s arm and he turned to look in the direction she was pointing.
But there was no-one there.
The woman left the shop as silently as she’d entered.
EVEN WITH INSECTS
I watched in pensive silence as the shadows lengthened over the garden, green with creepers, white with roses. My eyes shifted with characteristic indecision from the length of hose to the trio of pillboxes I’d saved for the occasion. I was certain of the desired end – the girls made deviation unthinkable – but the means was still a topic for debate. For someone with my technical limitations, the hose might prove too great a challenge. What if I was merely maimed? Maimed was definitely unappealing. I suppose the same could prove true for the pills. How many would be enough? What if I was found alive but unpleasantly vegetable?
What if everything had been different.
I thought, inevitably, of the girls. I could not think of Steven. It was impossible to think of Steven. I thought instead of Hannah and Gudrun. I thought of their dearness, their warmth. I thought of the trust in their eyes. They had not doubted me, right up until the sleep slid through them and they grew still.
Surely it could all have been different.
My thoughts meandered back through the chess board moves that led me to this checkmate. My gameplay hadn’t been original. If I wrote an autobiography on my life to date, I’d struggle to get it published. It wouldn’t have a plot. It’s been an ordinary life, lacking major twists and turns. Not much there to keep the reader glued. I’ve kept an even keel – two parents, two men, two friends, two jobs. Even two dogs.
But I only had one son.
Maybe that’s all the gods were trying to do. Perhaps celestial equations have to balance.
My life started slowly. It was like switching on my mother’s ancient Vanguard on a chilly morning in July. Although the engine turned over and spluttered into life, you had to let it idle until it warmed up and got going. My life was like that. My engine was idling for eighteen years until I pushed the accelerator down and started moving forward.
I suppose I had a happy childhood. It certainly wasn’t actively unhappy but I felt it lacked dimensions. It was neutral – like my name. I’ve always been sorry that my parents named me Ann. I’d have preferred Bianca or Natasha. Ann sounds so bland and colourless. There’s no thrill of anticipation at the prospect of a girl named Ann. Richard called me Annie but it didn’t last. Like Richard. I was too tall for Annie and I slid back into Annhood. I know Anne of Green Gables was very successful but she at least had an E. I lacked the finishing touches.
I can hardly remember being small. I have no recollection of little dresses, tiny shoes. It seems I always had these giant feet. Endless legs. I was the first cloned mosquito – a giant, spindly insect of a girl. I blamed my luckless, inoffensive parents for their insect genes – a paternal mosquito and a matriarchal bee. It was an insect union – a mixed marriage in a way. They were illegal in South Africa at the time. They’re lucky they weren’t arrested.
I’ve always had a phenomenal memory – for certain things. I’m not much good at general knowledge. I can’t lay claim to an encyclopaedic grasp of art or music. Lists are my speciality – rows of unrelated items. I’ve always liked lists. The Oxford Dictionary is my bible. I’m very familiar with the Oxford – I relate more to a dictionary than to a novel.
I remember lists verbatim.
I learned to keep this talent hidden when I saw how it unnerved my mother. I’ve a clear recollection of an early incident at Pick ’n Pay. I was about seven years old – Kate must have been five. My mother was having a dinner party. Perhaps that’s why it stands out in my memory – my parents seldom entertained. Our dining room table was littered with cookery books as my mother planned her menu. Nothing too risky, she told me. Fillet with wine and mushrooms, followed by a baked cheesecake – my grandmother’s recipe never failed. I was sitting beside her as she wrote down the ingredients she needed. 1 kilogram fillet. 2 cloves garlic. 5 millilitres mustard. 200 milligrams olive oil. 6 sprigs of thyme. 200 grams mushrooms. And so on . . .
Kate was whining by the time we got to Pick ’n Pay. My mother rashly bribed Kate with a trolley of her own. She might as well have handed over a loaded machine gun. Kate tore off down the aisle as if it was a Grand Prix circuit, stretching up on tiptoe for tempting tins and packets – she’s always been drawn to anything out of reach. My mother and I scrambled in her wake, anticipating chaos. Kate and a supermarket were not a winning combination. My mother was already stressed about the dinner party. She ran her fingers through her hair as she rummaged in her handbag with a feverish expression.
‘I don’t know why I ever write a list,’ she told me. ‘I can never find it when I get here.’
‘1 kilogram fillet,’ I said helpfully. ‘2 cloves garlic. 5 millilitres mustard . . .’
She’d spoken out loud when she wrote down her list of ingredients. I could remember every single item. In the right order. Order is important to me. I worked my way through both the main course and the cheesecake. I thought my mother would be pleased when she heard my recitation. She said she was pleased. She said I was a clever girl. But she looked bemused.
I heard her talking to Ruth on the phone that evening. Ruth was her sister. They were as close as Kate and I were distant. She didn’t see me standing in the passage. She had her back to me. She thought I was in bed.
‘Claire’s so strange,’ she said. ‘David says I’m making an issue out of nothing. He says he’s more worried about Kate. She’s like a demolition squad. But at least Kate’s childish. Claire sometimes gives me the creeps. It’s not normal. She’s only seven years old, for God’s sake. She can’t even read.