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Alex Smith

lex Smith

Smith was born in Cape Town. Her first novel, Algeria’s Way, set in Spain was published in 2007 and her first non-fiction novel, Drinking from the Dragon’s Well, set in China, was published in 2008 and was long-listed for the Sunday Times Alan Paton Award. Her third novel, Four Drunk Beauties, set in Iran is due for publication in May 2010. She is a finalist in the 2010 Sanlam Youth Literature Award for Agency Blue. She was shortlisted for the 2009 PEN/Studinsky Literary Awards. She was a finalist in the 2009 SA Blog Awards in the category Best Post on a South African Blog for A Video to Celebrate International Mother Language Day and the Close of International Year of the Languages, a blog post written in 29 languages of Africa. Smith has an MA from UCT.


 Venus and the Cat

The Son: in the year 2010 in Nairobi

The Eclipse Salon smelled of cigarettes and shaved heads. Little Charles Henri Mahout, named for a famous explorer, crinkled his face and refused to put his feet clad in Ferragamo shoes on the broken board floor of that market barber shop. His pop, a hip kind of photographer from Paris who began his life as a ballet dancer, but made his name photographing Africa, looked on through turquoise rimmed specs with some chagrin. His pop’s camera was positioned on a tripod and ready for action.

“Mamman, it stinks in here like cat’s piss,” said the little boy, Charles, in French, in a prim voice.

“Shh, my bijou, my lovely,” said his mama, a six foot tall model from Ethiopia originally, whose career of extreme thinness had left her infertile. “You will hurt Mr Njuguna’s feelings. He’s going to give you a nice haircut, and daddy is going to photograph the whole thing for his new exhibition on the market places of Africa and you will be famous my lovely, my bijou because they will make book too…and Papa will ensure your picture is on the cover.”

The wooden shack of a shop creaked and a florescent light flickered as another customer came in wanting and ‘office box’ cut. That other customer sat in the chair next to Little Charles and unwrapped a bag of fried chips and a charred barbecued goat’s hoof doused in ketchup. “I will not shh!” Little Charles crinkled his nose, and said in French. “I’m going to vomit, it stinks so bad in here.”

The other customer began nibbling at the tasty sauced-up hoof with relish. “I want to go back to Paris, now!” Little Charles burst into tears. “I hate Africa!” His pop rolled his eyes, and told his wife she pandered to the child and spoiled him dreadful and his pop thought too: this child cannot possibly have an African mother, there must have been a mistake. With some exasperation, his pop couldn’t help nodding in agreement at the barber shop’s disintegrating pink chipboard wall on which was painted in red: There is nothing automatic in this world. “I want to go back to school!” Little Charles bawled. “I miss my mathematics teacher!”

At that his pop said ‘ah, fuck’, and left his camera and his wife and son, and walked out into the Nairobi afternoon, and walked and walked through the throng of the city until his temper had cooled and he was enchanted by a place called Hope Tailoring Shop. He went in there and a tailor from Kisumu offered to measure him for an outfit, and while he measured the tailor from Kisumu offered some advice on love and God and family. The next day that photographer from Paris left Nairobi with a new suit, but no family. He’d resolved to ask his beautiful wife for a divorce, and was only too happy for her to have full custody of the child.



The mother: in the year 2000, in Cape Town

Lerato sold her eggs to buy tango lessons. Mid-way through writing up her PhD thesis on the impact of laws and policies on Africa’s equity markets and equity pricing she had signed the deal that would pay for two terms of Close Embrace at the Albert Hall in Woodstock. Her agency billed themselves as Africa’s premier egg donor and surrogacy program, but even as Lerato had initialed ‘LK’ on the bottom corner of each page of the contract, using a disconcertingly weightless, plastic ball-point pen marked with the donor company’s logo, she fended off concerns about contradictions in the company’s peachy-hued website. For money she had overlooked the flippant almost patronizing tone of the candy-striped online egg-shop, trading through legal loopholes in a commodity, which by law should not be sold for gain.

Q: How many handbags can I buy with my R5000 token of thanks from the egg recipients?
A: Sista Love, that depends on whether you’re buying Armani or Ackermans!

Lerato had forced down the slight revulsion she felt for that website and initialed on and on, each time more quickly to get it over with. The company’s big claim in pink cursive font was to be making eggs available and affordable for locals, but a quick tour around had left Lerato in no doubt of the site’s true target audience: foreigners on fertility safaris.

Done! She had breathed a sigh of relief, handed over the contract and now at the Albert Hall two months later was remembering the feel of the paper the contract was printed on: expensive, ridged ecruwhite. The tips of her fingers recalled those ridges. Sitting in the bar adjacent to the red hall on a red, plastic banquette, Lerato was overcome with seller's-remorse. It was made worse by two week’s worth of mood-altering hormone injections aimed at upping her egg production, or as the doctor put it: ‘ovarian hyperstimulation’. Lerato ordered coffee and stared at the glitter ball and fairy lights over the red-corrugated-iron bar. She’d done Ken’s Argentine Tango Basics at Albert Hall several months before—the steps weren’t easy to master at first, it was a struggle, but one night at a milonga towards the end of the term, everything came together and for the first time, Lerato was euphoric, giddy, swirling around the dance floor with whoever would dance with her, old charmers and young flirts alike, vertiginous, radiant, in love, with music, impassioned, twirling in an ocean of bliss. 

After the falsely induced menopause, followed by the managed hyperstimulation, an injection had been administered and thirty hours later Lerato’s finely matured eggs were sucked out of her. Over the bar a clock told more than hours and minutes, it said House Rules Nothing Until After 5. Above the clock and bottles of whisky, gin, rum, and vodka, stood a man carved out of wood. His trousers were painted green and his belt red. He was blowing on a saxophone and unfortunately the saxophone reminded Lerato of the aspiration needle used for harvesting her eggs. Some drug they gave her during the procedure had made her feel as sick as bloody death, but it was over fairly quickly and she had suffered no other side-effects, until this, a day after the procedure: sellers-remorse. Letswalô, remordimiento, remords, Gewissensbisse: remorse came to her in the four languages she spoke fluently in addition to English and it would not go away; she felt it in her hips (those hips of legs, yesterday, unceremoniously stripped and splayed open for the harvesting of gametes; the procedure, not painful but invasive). Earlier, when the regrets began surfacing, Lerato had Googled ‘egg-donation psychology’ and found a typology of egg-recipient couples. There were eight case-scenarios and Lerato hoped her eggs had gone to a type seven couple, the young infertiles.

Behind the bar at eye-level, thin cans of fizzy drinks were lined up: soda, lemonade, ginger ale, tonic water, diet coke, and coca-cola. The bar wall was configured like a great printer’s tray with spaces for drinks and the Albert Hall owner’s objects, collected from around Africa. In one space was a bottle of Roses Lime Juice and a vintage advert for Fanta Orange: It Freshivates! Beer bottles of all brands stood in a block below: Black Label, Castle, Amstel, Hansa … What would the young infertiles drink? Would the child grow up to drink their choice of beer, or milky coffee with two sugars like Lerato? It was not wise to wonder about this, she knew that, but the thoughts kept coming.

A waiter brought a menu. She asked for a cappuccino with extra hot milk and some vetkoek. Handing back the menu she became caught in a rush of questions:

why did the young infertiles end up choosing my eggs from the menu of donor profiles? Didn’t they mind that I have a slight stigmatism in my left eye and wear glasses? Did they particularly want to choose a donor who was tall and had siblings who were tall too? Can I assume they valued the fact that I am doing a PhD in African politics and so that they are likely to be academics and concerned with Africa, therefore will raise the baby in an Africa-conscious home of letters?

That seemed too much to ask. She realised she was still holding the menu and released her grip. If nothing else, perhaps the parents wore glasses, like she did. So went her thoughts as her eyes traced and re-traced the contours of all the objects on the shelves behind the bar. When the vetkoek order arrived, six on a platter, it was served with curried mince. The hormone treatment had caused Lerato to put on weight. This will be my last vetkoek, she pledged to herself. She slit it open, stuffed it with mince, and before she took a bite, she realised she cared about the future of the child or children, for it could be twins, perhaps two little girls, who resulted from her eggs.

She hadn’t felt concern when she went through the psychological screening; at that stage all she could think about was the money: five thousand Rand urgently needed to pay for tango lessons and two pairs of excellent quality, hand-made Comme Il Faut tango shoes from Buenos Aires. Comme Il Faut were the kind of shoes only a shoe lover could understand, and only a shoe lover would stroke—the pair she had on was a super-saturated bright red and black suede Mary-Jane style with a curved peep toe, and sloping heel cage with single strap across top of instep. The heel was a 3.75 inch red and black stiletto. The other pair, still in their box, were sling-back stiletto sandals in baby-soft burgundy suede with tiny silver glitter dots.

Music started up, a Candombe, a kind of African tango, setting the scene for the Close Embrace lessons due to begin in an hour. It wasn’t the first lesson of the term—the head of the tango school, a Belgian man with wild grey hair, had allowed Lerato to IOU the fees for Intermediate Close Embrace, while she waited to be selected from the menu of egg-donors. Lerato chewed, she stared at the bar. She filled her already full mouth with milky coffee so that curry, mince, koek and coffee mingled nicely. Next to that clock, House Rules Nothing Until After 5, was a row of peculiar porcelain, wooden and plastic dolls. One touristy doll from Zimbabwe, a child was wearing a traditional wedding dress of beads. Beside it the wooden doll with long, stretched neck and disc-shaped face was Akua'mma, a carved fertility doll from Ghana. Akua’mma must have been on that shelf next to the clock all along, but Lerato had not registered her before. The pregnant doll’s wooden belly and bosoms shone darkly in the glow of the red bar, a promise of hope to the young infertile she might have originally been carved for.  

For a long moment Lerato could not unlock her eyes from the protruding belly-buttoned, curvaceous alternative of dealing with the trouble of being unable to conceive a child. Now she is on a shelf in a bar, thought Lerato, but once Akua’mma may have been in the hand of a woman advised by a priest to care for the carving like she would a child, to bathe with it, sleep with it, to give it gifts, to speak, sing and tell it stories. Will the young infertiles read to the child, or children, the two little girls, like my mother read to me every night from Aesop’s Funky Fables? The thought of the book, the sweet childhood emotions it evoked, made Lerato’s left hand go to her mouth as if to stop it from speaking out; in her right hand she still held the cup of coffee. The cover of Aesop’s Funky Fables appeared vividly in her mind’s eye, transporting Lerato away from the Albert Hall fertility doll, fairy lights and Fanta Orange sign. The alcohol bottles were replaced by a lion with gold locks, a fat and hapless rat with yellow eyes, two foxes, a tortoise, a bat, a pelican, a crow, a long-eared rabbit and a love-sick cat-maiden.

Lerato glowed from the memory of those pictures, so colourful, reminding her of dream times, of sitting close with her mother on the edge of her bed, listening to stories. Ma was a voracious reader. Her mother had started Lerato on reading as soon as possible—at age three Lerato was already learning, but she liked it best when her mother read to her because she put on silly voices. Lerato clearly remembers herself around the age of seven laughing at all the animals in Funky Fables and asking to hear their tales again and again.

The reverie dissolved and Lerato found herself gazing at a greenboard on which was written: Zebra Beer R10, EFES Pilsener R12. Above the board was a framed advert for Voortrekker Transvaal Tobacco: Genuine Magaliesberg. And there was a picture of a fox-coloured buffalo. Being a pragmatist, like her mother, possibly like the ‘product’ of the traded eggs would become, Lerato took out a notebook and began to write motives, a list of the reasons why she had originally decided to sell her eggs. First off, they were just eggs. This she underlined. Eggs are only part of the equation, not a child, only an ingredient, she underlined it again, but in truth, she had been too touched by her memories of reading with her mother to think of eggs as a mere commodity; inconveniently, her eggs had become something more precious than she had originally allowed. Second on the list was money; she wouldn’t have done it, if not for the money.

The donor company’s website was full of assurances of how eggs were such a great gift to be giving, but well as the company might like to paint the idea of the eggs as gift, they were not a gift: they were sold, not given, not free. Egg-donor was a beguiling misnomer, a legal convenience, as was donor-agency—it was a commercial transaction between egg-buyers, egg-sellers and egg-brokers. Against her better judgment, Lerato couldn’t stave off a rushing sense that she had committed some form of sacrilege, sold a part of herself. A good cappuccino was going cold, while her principles were warring with each other. She tried to remain objective; she reminded herself she was at risk of  hormone-induced irrationality. But, retorted the flurry of guilt, this sale of my body tissue was not in a bid to save a life, like donating a kidney, it was simply to make money to pay for tango lessons and shoes! Lerato covered her mouth with her hand again, as if to stopper any outcry.

She looked up at the Albert Hall ceiling and the overcast sky beyond it and out towards heavens where her father’s God resided. Dad, a Christian lay-pastor, would definitely not approve—of course she’d never tell him; she could do without the inevitable lectures and lamentations such a deed as egg-trading would provoke.  Making a list of pros and cons was not working, the sellers-remorse was growing and with it a sense of bellowing doom. That was Dad’s voice she heard over the tango music at the Albert Hall. She couldn’t help it, although she wasn’t a practicing Christian, Dad’s voice, impressive, with deep-timbre, and irrefutable resonance, had a way of inspiring guilt very effectively even in his absence, and Dad was saying that God would punish her for selling what should not be sold, that one day when she wanted children of her own, she would find the egg bank empty, all sold and for nothing but five thousand Rands to pay for dancing lessons. Ridiculous! Not just any dancing lessons, Dad, Argentine Tango—two terms of the Close Embrace including a weekend master-class with the famous tango teacher Jean-Sébastien Rampazzi.  

Besides, Dad’s voice was wrong, the egg bank would not be empty, not in theory, not according to the brochures and the doctor who did the harvesting. But Dad’s voice boomed: Five thousand Rands! You fool those eggs are God’s gift to you and they are priceless! She began to worry over the price of eggs. If she had been in America and not in Africa, her eggs would have been worth seven-times as much: $5000 instead of R5000. It was blatantly iniquitous that her African eggs were so undervalued. In the laissez-faire free-market model of egg pricing in America a beautiful post-graduate student would probably get more than five, possibly ten or fifteen thousand dollars for her eggs. Should Lerato’s third-world eggs be worth less? She imagined herself posing that question to a tutorial group of undergraduate students.

Momentarily she was incensed, enraged and then sickened for obsessing over the price of her eggs—the whole point of selling the eggs to buy tango lessons had been to escape the academic rigours of pricing theories, supply and demand. Demand! she thought, the simple microeconomic realities of effective demand will make Dad’s lovely voice inaudible and ultimately irrelevant on this issue of selling eggs. Still it concerned her that egg-sellers around the world may be taken advantage of under the auspices of the donor-fallacy. Was the myth of the ‘gift’ of eggs resulting in artificially low egg-price fixing? Eggs ought to be expensive, they are not priceless, that is no longer true, but Dad, you’re right, they are a precious commodity. In an immense wave of panic, the monetary theory of eggs was washed away by what if that child made in part by my eggs is born in Cape Town and what if I have a sense of the child, a spiritual bond? What if, as this baby lives its life, I am connected to the child’s joys and sorrows? If the child, in curiosity reaches out and touches a hot stove, will I feel the burn? And as he or she turns the pages of a favourite picture book, might I feel the paper and somehow will my thoughts be infiltrated by the stories the child of my egg grows up listening to? If the child in another suburb is reading ‘Venus and the Cat’, will I in my Woodstock home think for no reason of the story’s moral: nature will out?

The tango teacher had arrived; he was calling his students into the dance-hall. I could, I should phone the donor agency and cancel the contract, tell them I want my eggs back! Or at least destroyed. Lerato’s coffee had gone cold and the curry mince too, but she took a last mouthful of both, wiped her lips, leaving a yellow imprint, a kiss, on the paper napkin. It’s probably too late; by now they will be planted, was her last thought before she proceeded to the lesson on close embrace. Lerato’s regular partner welcomed her with a hug, and Lerato was friendly in return, but distracted. Before new music began, Lerato and her partner became an A-frame: on the balls of their feet, they leaned in until they touched at chest and shoulders, keeping each-other supported. In the fairy lighted dance hall, the tango teacher was comparing tango to a game of chess, a duel in several hundred dance steps, but more than a duel will ever be, he said and read from an article on Argentine tango a quote by a master named Igor Polk:

Argentine Tango is to the great extent the art of touch which leads to the art of embrace. We touch each other with our palms, arms, shoulders, chests, abdomens, heads, cheeks, backs, hips, legs, fingers, and feet. We do not pay each other, and there is no relationship between us other than we are together in a dance. Art of touch is a complex and great undertaking, but it pays off when in stepping around a room we with our minds and feelings dissolve in music in the greatest ecstasy.”

Lerato’s face was turned left, her partner’s right. A student of the close embrace ran in late, wet from the spring downpour, thundering on the Albert Hall roof. Sirens howled from the direction of the Salt River Circle. A Cayengue beat began and a frisson of excitement passed through the room. For an instant, the twinkle of lights faltered, then the current surged and the lights blazed even more brightly as Lerato and her partner stepped out to Caminada. She breathed in and before immersing herself in the rhythm and the glitter—of silver buckles on new dance shoes, of diminutive light bulbs scintillating, of multitudinous glass squares on the mirror ball reflecting her as whirring, untrammeled, coral-red gold—she said softly, almost as a prayer: “Be well child, read Aesop’s Fables and please God, learn to tango.”

“What did you say about Aesop?” asked her partner, like Lerato, a novice at the close embrace.

Sharing one axis, they were chest to chest and she could feel his heart beating. “I said: did you ever read a fable called Venus and the Cat?” And some part of Lerato hoped Aesop was right: that nature would exceed nurture; that her child would be a thinker, and a dancer, and would have a great passion for Africa. 

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