Last night we went to have supper with Niall and his friend whom I shall call Justin. Niall has transformed a small Cape cottage into a an urban town house with great skill. Not something I would do myself, but the open-plan split-level interiors are luminous with discreet light and the kitchen area has wonderful black-and-white photographs of New York on the walls.
Niall was living in New York, buying textiles from Bloomingdale’s on the day the Twin Towers were attacked on 9/11 – he couldn’t understand what he was seeing on that crisp cloudless autumn morning and was curiously wandering down towards what is now called Ground Zero when a woman in very high red heels came sprinting past him, running for her life. As if on cue, everyone turned tail and ran as the towers of the World Trade Centre collapsed. I asked Niall what he thought of the New Yorkers’ collective response, those gritty fast-talking urbanites who are somehow a tribe unlike any other. (Going to an AA meeting in Manhattan was like attending an unearthly ritual on Mars. I’ve never quite got over it.)
‘There was no collective response amongst the New Yorkers I saw,’ replied Niall, pouring me some more lime juice and soda. ‘Some people stopped to help the elderly and those in wheel chairs. Some snatched up dropped purses and coats, a kind of instant looting instinct. Some just left children and partners and ran for their lives. Some were paralysed and stood as if frozen in doorways, hands covering their eyes. Some were angry and cursing and wanting to get their hands on a gun, immediate revenge and retribution uppermost in their minds. Others were moving away from the rolling clouds of smoke and dust in an orderly manner, calling out to one another, trying to understand the enormity of it all. Heroes, cowards, crooks and the unflappable. Do any of us know how we would react to sudden life-threatening violence?‘
It was a lively and successful supper — we brought along an abalone starter and a sourdough bread — there was a fillet done on the coals, autumn chanterelles and ceps tossed in truffle oil, a salad of endives, walnut and pear, braised zucchini with mint and lemon, caramelised butternut with Parmesan – followed by a sublime Olde English Toffee Pudding with cream.
Justin, who is a shy and tentative man in his late 30s, relaxed and talked about his life in Johannesburg and decision to relocate to the countryside and ‘spend time in nature’. He wants to take a bell tent and camp out under the stars. If he isn’t eaten alive by mosquitos and survives the odd encounter with bad-tempered ant eaters or rural homophobes, he may find he enjoys country life. But he seemed wistful when he spoke of city delis and film previews and art galleries and unexpected encounters with fabulous ex-lovers in trendy restaurants, so he may opt for city lights after all.
He went off to an art exhibition in a neighbouring village and found only large bad paintings of red or black cows and squinty sheep, along with daubs of thatched homesteads with more cows standing about under tall poplars. For no aesthetic reason, I enjoy local art done by self-styled artists who have grown up in this part of the world because the cows and sheep are painted from life and the artist can tell you their names and bloodlines and how old they were when he or she painted them. If there is a sheepdog or border collie in the painting it usually has a rubber ball in its mouth and the artwork will be titled ‘Skip, aged three years and four months, in front of Mooiplaas Farmhouse, January 1998.’ It will often have been painted from a colour photograph and will have huge sentimental value for all who knew Skip the collie or who admire Dorper sheep breeds. The skies are always an improbably bright blue with a lurid sunset attempted in the left corner.
Sometimes I pine for city life too, but I have always known that at heart I am someone who likes quiet country life and who can look at mountains and trees every day with undiminshed pleasure. When I was drinking, I carried my obliviousness and misery everywhere I went. Now I believe that many of us can choose to be happy, can learn to focus on life-enhancing activities and enriching relationships. Service is core — primarily with other alcoholics wanting to get sober, but also with anyone who may need our support or neighbourliness. Nothing banishes self-pity faster than the reality of being able to do something for another person in need.
Back home last night, we found the streets and garden and fields an unshadowed white from the moon waxing full, the first of our great golden autumn moons that seem to hang low over the valley like a radiant lantern. The owls hunt by these moons, and we saw two barn owls gliding over our rooftop as we let the dogs out into the garden before heading off to bed.