A Tenderness Rarely Seen
Even now, decades later, whites leading quiet lives of exile in London and Canberra still mention the humidity that suffused everything in the days just before the colonial government fell. The humidity imbued the air with a leaden quality and made it impossible, at times, to ignore the insurgency. It carried hints of phosphorous, smoke from petrol bombs, the stench of burning tires and traces of defoliants that had been released over insurgents’ strongholds, only to drift back into town and wither the hibiscus surrounding the Governor’s Mansion. The humidity distorted perceptions. The hills north of the capital seemed to waver and swell in the distance, and sagging clouds brushed the jungle’s dense canopy. Stray bullets embedded in the town’s pockmarked walls seemed to float in convections of reflected heat. The humidity made it impossible to preserve any sort of façade. Revolutionary slogans painted red across storefronts bubbled in the morning sun. Anyone who tried to whitewash them only smeared the paint, leaving ghastly pink streaks that conjured thoughts of violent births and bloody hands.
By this time, the few whites remaining in town had retreated further and further into exclusive clubs and the shade of manicured gardens, where unassuming servants continued to serve bergamot tea, aperitifs, and lemon tarts on eggshell saucers. In public, they maintained the appearance of stolid bureaucrats by dressing defiantly to the nines, flaunting the heat in full linen suits and heavy nylons. They spent their days hunched over desks, cursing lazy ceiling fans and filling out reports about agricultural production, tax collection and insurgent activity. After sunset, they expended themselves in inconsequential bacchanals, swilling gin in elegant parlors and dimly lit clubs, smoking imported cigarettes and perspiring liquor and lime into claw-footed couches.
Their social forays became less frequent as the insurgency gathered strength. The streets, it was said, had become unsafe. One by one, the owners of bankrupt clubs and restaurants locked their doors and shuttered their windows. Only one establishment survived right up until the end. Only the Fairfax justified the risk of walking the streets after dark, for its dedicated staff managed against all odds to preserve some semblance of normalcy. They say the head waiter was a paragon of excellence. He had no tolerance for slipshod work or histrionics. Once, after a spray of bullets shattered one of the restaurant’s front shutters, he used a pair of ice tongs to remove a piece of shrapnel from his wrist, draped a fresh white towel over his arm and calmly proceeded to serve a vintage Bordeaux. The sheer price of the bottle would have made a lesser man tremble. If a nearby explosion ever loosened plaster dust from the ceiling, his staff would circulate through the dining room, dispensing soothing bon mots, refreshing water glasses and sweeping chips of paint from tables. As the humidity worsened, the staff, entirely undeterred, employed tweezers to dislodge soft paint flecks from the fine threads of linen tablecloths.
The staff’s unerring attention to detail ensured the loyal patronage of those seeking comfort in familiar routines. Every evening, steadfast regulars gathered on the patio to draw assurance from each other’s company. They sat beneath the starless sky and drank white wine, cooling their fingers in the beads of condensation clinging to their glasses. Whenever a lurid red glow appeared in the sky, they traded fragile smiles, off-color jokes and nervous laughter. In the dining room, they ordered roast chicken or Beef Wellington and ended up eating alligator or iguana disguised in rich cream sauces and sherry reductions. Most remained oblivious to the chef’s brilliant substitutions. Discerning patrons – those with exceedingly refined palates – hailed the chef as a master illusionist and, contrary to prevailing convention, generously tipped him.
Among these resolute diners, Eleanor stood out for what many described as her incurable eccentricities. Even accounting for disruptions caused by sniper fire and distant shelling, Eleanor posed the first real challenge to the precarious status quo maintained at the Fairfax. Few can claim to know what motivated Eleanor to create a disturbance at the Fairfax that Tuesday evening, only one week before the evacuations began. Perhaps Eleanor felt uniquely emboldened by the impending collapse of what many had long considered to be the natural order of things; given her proclivities, she might have been possessed by some clouded sense of possibility. Or, she might simply have sensed her time running out. The insurgents’ violently puritanical zeal was, by then, well-known. Even Eleanor must have heard about the public shamings and executions taking place in overrun districts. Perhaps she felt compelled to dance in public, for the first and last time, to the beguiling sounds of Nero’s fiddle.
Whatever the case, Eleanor appeared awkward and nervous that evening. She tripped once crossing the dining room and blushed when she sat down beside her good friend Charlotte. She briefly swooned, and most blamed the sweltering heat. She recovered quickly but ate very little, seemingly consumed by her whispered conversation and the feverish expression on Charlotte’s face. With perspiration darkening her neckline, she began to stroke Charlotte’s fingers with a tenderness rarely seen. Quite suddenly, then, she kissed Charlotte on the mouth. When she drew away, her red lipstick was melting on Charlotte’s lips, and streaks of mascara were running down her own cheeks. Barring a burst of distant gunfire, the room was silent when Eleanor took Charlotte’s hand and rose from the table. At the door, Eleanor collapsed into Charlotte’s arms, exhausted. Twisted in the damp folds of an emerald evening dress, she looked like a wilting flower culled from a dying arrangement. As many now recall, the vision of black mascara washing over white skin and humidity beading on smeared red lipstick signaled something irrevocable, some final dissolution and disgrace. It signaled the end of everything they had known, or as some still insist, had created.
Alice Hatcher’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Alaska Quarterly Review, The Beloitt Fiction Journal, Notre Dame Review, Fiction International, Lascaux Review, Fourth Genre, Contrary, Chautauqua and Gargoyle, among other journals. Her novel The Wonder That Was Ours just won Dzanc Books’ 2017 Fiction Prize and will be published in fall of 2018. Hatcher lives in Tucson, AZ. Her work can be found at www.alice-hatcher.com.
(Previous: Cleveland, 2009 by Kat Gonso)
Feel like submitting? Check out our submission guidelines
We particularly welcome well-written stories that highlight prejudice and discrimination.