His handshake was one of those combative ones people make when they’re challenging you. But his dark eyes were even more worrying. He stared at me, pupils narrowing like he was scanning for weakness or character flaws. The words were polite enough, his voice smooth and measured.
‘I’m Clifford, but everyone calls me Cliff.’
And there I was thinking that it was Cliff Castle because it was built on a cliff. I managed to release my hand and braced myself for the third degree.
‘So what do you do then, Mikey?’
Immediately we were into the deep end with this, the most probing of questions. I couldn’t think of a worst possible start – especially where a girl’s father was concerned. Of course, the grand old professions of medicine, law, architecture and even accountancy would have served me well here. I may even have got away with university student as long as it wasn’t art, social or media studies. But telling him that his daughter may be committing herself to a musician was tantamount to telling him that he was about to lose the light of his eye to a booze-crazed, drug-addicted pervert who would chuck her the moment she became pregnant, a confirmed heroin addict, a pimped prostitute, or all of the above. However, there was nothing else I could do – lying wasn’t really an option.
‘I'm a musician,’ I said. ‘I play keyboards for a band at the Laguna hotel.’
‘Oh, which bar are you in?’
‘The Ship Inn. The little club downstairs.'
‘I know it well,’ he said, blowing me sideways. ‘Never been inside, but me and some of the boys sometimes have a quick one at The Circle Bar on the fourth floor. There’s a good keyboard player in there too.’
‘Yes, Geoff,’ I said, noticing that he’d stopped listening and had turned to Emily.
‘Go and get the cigars, girl. Oh and tell the guys to help themselves to beer, I’ll be along in a minute.’
He hadn’t raised his voice, and yet it was nothing less than an order. Emily said nothing, leaving her chair to descend the stairs. Jane had joined us, sitting silently at the table, her eyes fixed on a point somewhere out to sea.
‘What school did you go to then, Mikey?’
‘Oh yes, I know it,’ he smiled. ‘We used to beat them at rugby every year.’
I didn’t take the bait. Instead I waited for the next question which wasn’t long in coming.
‘What were your favourite subjects then? What did you do well at?’
‘Well music, I suppose. But I didn’t do it as a school subject... that was an extra. But I also liked English and History.’
‘Ah History…that’s what I enjoyed... I still do. I’ve read books and books on the wars, the depression, the Russian Revolution and the spread of communism.
I thought of the book lying on his bedroom table and decided to be a bit careful, pulling the conversation back a few decades.
‘Yeah, I particularly enjoyed reading about the Second World War. And my Dad tells me some great stories about North Africa and his time in The British Army of Occupation. It kindof brings the whole thing to life for me.’
He looked at me with a hint of curiosity, then shrugged his shoulders and stared out to sea.
‘Very interesting times,’ he said. ‘The wrong result, of course.’ Drumming his fingers impatiently across the table, he turned to his wife. ‘Jane, go and see what the hell has happened to the cigars! And I really hope that the guys have been given some beer.’
Jane didn’t look in any hurry to move. I watched Cliff’s eyes narrow a fraction and noticed the way the fingers of his left hand rubbed impulsively at the knuckles of his right. Then, just as she started to rise, Emily reappeared with a smart wooden box.
‘Cuban, Mikey. Would you like to join me?’
‘Thank you, Cliff,’ I said, feeling slightly uncomfortable using his first name, ‘But I don’t smoke.’
‘But this is a special occasion, man. And these are the best money can buy.’
‘No really, Cliff. Smoke just doesn’t agree with me.’
I was still wondering what the special occasion was when I felt his hand on my shoulder and his hot breath in my ear:
‘Come on, son. Are you really telling me that you’ve never tried one before?’
‘Leave him alone!’ Jane had broken her silence although at first it appeared to me as if she was talking to someone else. Her head was turned away from us, her eyes still fixed at some point in the distance and both her hands were jammed into her armpits. It almost seemed as though she was hugging herself. ‘Cliff, you’d better not keep your friends waiting any longer, she continued. ‘Emily, go with Mikey on his way out in case the dogs are loose.’
I watched Cliff’s face and was a bit shocked by what I saw. It was pretty obvious that he wasn’t used to being told what to do. But there was also no doubt that I was being dismissed and that these family tensions were not to be shared with me. Emily reacted immediately, walking towards the stairs and signalling me to follow. I trailed behind, letting her get to the first floor before I asked:
‘What’s the special occasion, then?’
She raised her eyebrows:
‘You’re the special occasion Mikey. Now come on, I’ll show you out.’
‘Can I at least use your toilet first?’
‘I'll wait for you by the front door. But don’t go out without me, okay. The dogs don’t like strangers.’
They take after your old man, I thought as I pulled the bathroom door behind me. Washing my hands I caught my reflection in the mirror above the hand basin and frowned as the questions filled my head. What was I doing here? Why was I even trying to understand this girl and her peculiar family? And why was my visit here such a special occasion? I thought I knew the answer to the last question. In a sense, it was depressingly obvious: no other bugger would dare come. Maybe I had been the first ever to call.
Walking out of the bathroom I heard voices. The door to the first floor balcony was open and although the men were out of sight, the breeze was blowing their cigar smoke back into the corridor.
‘I’ll pick him up tonight.’
‘You make the bastard talk, you hear!’ I recognised Cliff’s voice. ‘We don’t have much time. If we can get a location before daylight we can get the lot of them before they realise what’s hit them.’
I decided to take the risk and took a quick look around the door. The man facing me was the other officer in a suit. He had a face you couldn’t forget: pockmarked with acne, long and thin with a nose that reminded me of a weasel. All he was lacking was whiskers, the ugly bastard.
‘Don’t worry, Cliff,’ he said. ‘He’ll talk alright. We’ll make this kaffir talk.’
I’d heard enough and daren’t risk discovery. I withdrew my head and moved smartly down the stairs where Emily was waiting. She led me to the gate, opened it, and gently kissed me on the cheek before securing it behind me.
‘When are you coming to the club again?’ I asked.
‘I don’t know, Mikey. I’m needed here and there’s also my work.’
‘The dancing? Teaching dancing?’
‘Yes Mikey. I want to come and I will when I can.’
I turned away and walked slowly towards the car. My arms were heavy at my sides, I felt tired and in spite of the blazing sunshine, strangely cold. I was unlocking the driver’s door when she shouted from the gate:
‘I feel the same way, Mikey.’
It was what she’d said last Friday: our first night. It had meant a lot to me then. But I wasn’t sure what it meant now. It seemed the more I learnt, the less I knew.
* * * * * * * * * *
I got home to find the door to my flat slightly open. I stood staring at it, puzzled and wary, my mind racing. The maids could have left it open by mistake. But that had never happened before. Perhaps they hadn’t finished cleaning and were still bringing some towels or something. Once again, that seemed unlikely – they normally came before lunch time and did everything in one go.
I pushed the door slowly open and entered. Everything seemed fine in the kitchen and all the dishes had been washed and put away indicating that the maids had, in fact, been and done their work. I went into the main room and noticed that one of the windows was ajar and the curtains were open, just as I had left them. The bed was made and everything was tidy and in place. Opening the cupboard, I looked through my clothes and shoes before opening the top drawer and counting through my money and loose change. It was all there.
I used the toilet and even went over to the sink to splash water on my face before I realised that something was wrong. Only then did I glance up to look at the mirror above the sink. It was written in what seemed to be red lipstick:
‘No-one loves you like I do.’
* * * * * * * * * *
[The end of The Bluff at Durban Harbour entrance.]
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