16 April 1973
The same Sunday Times which, in among exposés of torrid love affairs between teachers and schoolgirls in country towns, in among pictures of pouting starlets in exiguous bikinis, comes out with revelations of atrocities committed by the security forces, reports that the minister of the interior has granted a visa allowing Breyten Breytenbach to come back to the land of his birth to visit his ailing parents. A compassionate visa, it is called; it covers both Breytenbach and his wife.
Breytenbach left the country years ago to live in Paris, and soon thereafter queered his pitch by marrying a Vietnamese woman, that is to say, a non-white, an Asiatic. He not only married her but, if one is to believe the poems in which she figures, is passionately in love with her. Despite which, says the Sunday Times, the minister in his compassion will permit the couple a thirty-day visit during which the so-called Mrs. Breytenbach will be treated as a white person, a temporary white, an honorary white.
From the moment they arrive in South Africa Breyten and Yolande, he swarthily handsome, she delicately beautiful, are dogged by the press. Zoom lenses capture every intimate moment as they picnic with friends or paddle in a mountain stream.
The Breytenbachs make a public appearance at a literary conference in Cape Town. The hall is packed to the rafters with people come to gape. In his speech Breyten calls Afrikaners a bastard people. It is because they are bastards and ashamed of their bastardy, he says, that they have concocted their cloud-cuckoo scheme of forced separation of the races.
His speech is greeted with huge applause. Soon thereafter he and Yolande fly home to Paris, and the Sunday newspapers return to their menu of naughty nymphets, errant spouses, and state murders.
To be explored: the envy felt by white South Africans (men) for Breytenbach, for his freedom to roam the world and for his unlimited access to a beautiful, exotic sex-companion.
The next day, on his way to Acme, he is caught in a rain shower. He arrives sodden. The glass of the cubicle is fogged; he enters without knocking. His father is hunched over his desk. There is a second presence in the cubicle, a woman, young, gazelle-eyed, softly curved, in the act of putting on her raincoat.
He halts in his tracks, transfixed.
His father rises from his seat. "Mrs. Noerdien, this is my son John."
Mrs. Noerdien averts her gaze, does not offer a hand. "I'll go now," she says in a low voice, addressing not him but his father.
An hour later the brothers too take their leave. His father boils the kettle and makes them coffee. Page after page, column after column they press on with the work, until ten o'clock, until his father is blinking with exhaustion.
The rain has stopped. Down a deserted Riebeeck Street they head for the station: two men, able-bodied more or less, safer at night than a single man, many times safer than a single woman.
"How long has Mrs. Noerdien been working for you?" he asks.
"She came last February."
He waits for more. There is no more. There is plenty he could ask. For instance: How does it happen that Mrs. Noerdien, who wears a headscarf and is presumably Muslim, comes to be working for a Jewish firm, one where there is no male relative to keep a protective eye on her?
"Is she good at her job? Is she efficient?"
"Very good. Very meticulous."
Again he waits for more. Again, that is the end of it.
The question he cannot ask is: What does it do to the heart of a lonely man like yourself to be sitting side by side, day after day, in a cubicle no larger than many prison cells, with a woman who is not only as good at her job and as meticulous as Mrs. Noerdien, but also as feminine?
For that is the chief impression he carries away from his brush with her. He calls her feminine because he has no better word: the feminine, a higher rarefaction of the female, to the point of becoming spirit. With Mrs. Noerdien, how would a man, how even would Mr. Noerdien, traverse the space from the exalted heights of the feminine to the earthly body of the female? To sleep with a being like that, to embrace such a body, to smell and taste it—what would it do to a man? And to be beside her all day, conscious of her slightest stirring: did his father's sad response to Dr. Schwarz's lifestyle quiz—"Have relations with the opposite sex been a source of satisfaction to you?"—"No"—have something to do with coming face to face, in the wintertime of his life, with beauty such as he has not known before and can never hope to possess