Pantry Prose: Hercules by Abigail George

Emotions run high. Knees go weak. Elaine thinks about kissing him all the time, kissing his warm lips, being his partner, being the chosen one amongst all of the girls.

Elaine thinks about another late-night rendezvous, visits to theatres and museums, gifts of flowers, books, and chocolates, long and relaxed lunches, and early dinners. She dreams about having a beautiful home. Henry London meeting her parents, introducing him as the “man of my dreams”. She dreams of building a life together, a future, a life, starting a family, of becoming Henry’s wife, but Henry is a closet bisexual.

Only his closest friends know this, and secretly they laugh behind Elaine’s back, calling her love, a passing phase, an infatuation. All her life Elaine’s been a joke, had few friends, never had a proper boyfriend until university days, to Elaine Henry is more than a man, and she’s never felt like this, this glorious anticipation whenever they meet in the evenings, usually in Elaine’s out of the way flat. Henry says he likes “slumming”.

To this Elaine has no reaction. “Why do I watch so much television, so much Netflix, soap opera after soap opera, what did Henry mean by “slumming”. Maureen laughed at first when I told her, then she took my hand in hers, and kissed it, and not for the first time have I wondered that Maureen has romantic feelings for me. I could never tell Henry. He would tell his pal Epstein. I’d be a joke; Elaine told her diary.

She smiles, she cooks, she irons (perfectly) his shirts sometimes, she loves him. Epstein, Henry’s business partner is his lover, and confidante. They’re both handsome, rich, and can have any partner they want. Epstein and Henry are voracious lovers, Vikings in the boardroom, Vikings in bed. Elaine had a lovely smile, all the interns and volunteers said so. She was the epitome of style and grace on a budget, they tittered.

Yes, Elaine had a lovely smile. But would she be able to keep up with Epstein’s appetite for women and men, Henry London’s captivating life, his multi-million rand lifestyle, Paris on a break, Cambodia on a summer vacation, Hawaii next to the pool for Easter, Namibia on a weekend, and then there were his holiday homes dotted all over South Africa. Shame, poor Elaine, the girls tut-tutted amongst themselves. She really has no idea what she was letting herself in for. Elaine was lonely.

In her loneliness, she dreamed about sailing, boating for beginners, and Martha’s Vineyard. Sometimes she read Gillian Slovo, or Anne Tyler novels. Anne Tyler beat out Gillian Slovo for her favourite novelist. She discovered the love story between Zadie Smith and the poet Nick Laird, felt like Smith on Henry London’s arm. Confided in Henry of the aspects of her mother’s creativity in her childhood, and mental illness in adolescence.

Henry made her feel lonely. There were evenings when he was in one room, and she was in another, feeling lonely. Elaine can’t cope sometimes. She does the line of cocaine, and then sneezes. She listens to Carly Simon because Henry London loves listening to Carly Simon. Her only friend, the chubby Maureen says that Henry, the love of Elaine’s life is vain. He smokes a joint halfway, Elaine smokes the other half. She wanted to be seen as cool, as completely belonging girlfriend body and soul to Henry London.

Elaine doesn’t like Epstein. He said once that he wanted to come in her mouth. Elaine was shocked, went to the bathroom and cried, smoked a menthol cigarette, thought of how it made her feel when Henry called her sweetheart, suggested something to listen to other than Carly Simon in the evenings when they went to his mansion in Summerstrand, and, besides, Henry liked it when she smoked.

It made her feel slightly nauseous sometimes, gave her a headache, but it was worth it just for the look that Henry London gave her. He would tell her that he was grooming her for a better life, that all small-town girls deserved French perfume. The European fashion designed-clothes, the cocaine, Henry London’s life, his partner in crime Epstein made Elaine feel forlorn, sad, wretchedly depressed.

She thought it was romantic braving winter with Henry on her arm, when they walked into an expensive restaurant, or a nightclub for drinks, or into his house, and when she walked into his bedroom she felt as if she was walking on air, as if she could float up to the ceiling with happiness, and joy painted on her face for the world to see, and afterwards Henry would hold Elaine’s hand in bed as if he was a gentleman.

And she, the backward, religious gentlewoman-lover would smooth her hair, ask him if it had been alright for him, he would stroke her arm, said it had been perfect. She would wake up in the morning to breakfast, Henry’s father had often made breakfast for his family in the mornings, now he lived as a recluse in Louis Trichardt, and slept with his housekeeper who was of mixed-race descent, from Saint Helena.

The housekeeper’s parents had come from Cape Verde. Rufus Epstein took Prozac, besides other illicit drugs. He was a social animal, an extrovert, subjected his lovers to public arguments, drug-induced tantrums. He drank, and wasn’t ashamed of it either. Henry confided in him that Elaine made him gentler, kinder, Epstein laughed at this in Henry’s face, told him to come on a binge-drinking bender with him.

Epstein invited Henry to sleep with multiple partners that night. Henry said that Elaine was coming over to his house later that evening. Henry was going to cook his famous chicken. Epstein said that Henry was becoming to use to Elaine’s self-conscious and innocent ways. Epstein told London that he was a fool, a coward, that he was coming to romanticise love, and even worse romanticise life. Elaine was a little girl. Wait until she’s jaded, Epstein suggested wildly, or you ask her if another woman can join you in bed, watch her face fall, watch her react.

Watch her response to you, and watch the love, and respect go out of her eyes for you. But Henry London wasn’t surprised by Epstein’s reaction, Epstein all along had been secretly in love with Henry for years, and Henry had known this (all along), played along with it, used it to his advantage in business dealings. Elaine the mouse, had turned into something competent, someone of value to Henry London.

She was, by all male accounts that he spoke to, something wanted, something desired now that she was on Henry’s arm at all the right social gatherings, parties, functions. Elaine was a socialite now. Henry could even see the desire in Epstein’s eyes, but he also knew that Epstein wanted to make a mockery out of Elaine, he wanted to sabotage her squeaky-clean reputation.

And that was one of the finest things about Elaine, Henry thought to himself. She was so innocent. She wasn’t like the women in his entourage, who had seen everything, had done everything, travelled to death, experienced, and tasted the world. Elaine unusually did most of the talking at the dining room table at Henry’s palatial mansion, in the bedroom, while Henry London did all of the lovemaking.

I thought that nobody would ever love me. I was so scared of him, not intimidated, just scared. He was a man’s-man, Elaine told her diary. It was Epstein who had proudly given Henry London the nickname “Hercules”. Elaine had been a virgin before she had slept with Henry. He had been confused when she at first refused his advances.

Girls liked Henry London, girls loved Henry London, most of them wanted to sleep with him too. Henry had to court Elaine, woo her, promise her the world, be kind, and considerate, sweet, and gentle. Elaine wanted a husband. Maureen had told her that every girl secretly wants their very first boyfriend for a husband. It was a dashing Henry London that “awakened” Elaine physical body, and soul, and spirit.

She felt elated lying in Henry’s arms, thought of him as a kind of prophet when it came to a woman’s body. Then there was Carly Simon’s voice again, telling them both to worship each other all over again. Elaine had even read one of her stories to Henry. Henry London had clapped his hands at the end of the reading, and called it energetic, and intelligent. Elaine thought that she would die of happiness, her face painted with joy again for all the world to see.

“Rita is a woman who has had visions from childhood. At night she always left her bedroom door ajar, slept with the light on, with the bible under her pillow. She is visited by men and women who have passed on to the hereafter who think that they are still in some indefinable way connected, tethered to this world, this earthly plane and to the ones they have left behind. Children, husbands, spouses, pets.

She believes her auditory hallucinations are very, very real and that it is her duty, her moral obligation to record the conversations that she has with them be they writers and poets who have suffered the anguish and despair of suicidal depression (Assia Wevill, Sylvia Plath, David Foster Wallace, and Anne Sexton). Be they South African men and women detained during apartheid.

(Dulcie September, George Botha, Biko aka Frank Talk), men and women of African, British (Anna Kavan, Ann Quin), North American, Dominican descent (Jean Rhys) or from the Biblical era (for example Moses, Jonah and the whale, Elijah, Job, Noah, David, Solomon, and Jesus key figures in the history of civilization).This she does fastidiously handwritten in black Croxley notebooks.

But when people around her can see that she is different, special in a rather extraordinary way they begin to doubt her sanity and she is found to be certifiable, told that she should get plenty of rest, be put under psychiatric treatment and put under the care of a team of doctors. She soon though discovers her identity. Its borders in the powers of her own feminine sensuality, her ego.

The perpetual balancing act between the psychological framework of her intelligence, and intellectualism, and the final analysis of the sexual transaction. With that said she rises to the occasion and meets her new life head under feet. She soon finds herself in the tiny one roomed library of the hospital and begins to read everything she can get her hands on from Doris Lessing but most importantly the genius poetry of T.S. Eliot.

Once she surrenders to the fact that everyone around her thinks that she has lost touch with reality she pursues love with an art second to none. She is or rather becomes Orlando in an asylum and finds that she must play her role in this establishment’s class, gender and economic system. She becomes a phenomenal African version of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando.

Beautiful, wanted, adored, worshiped by men and women for her intellect in a dazed, confused world where pharmaceuticals, head doctors with textbook knowledge of case studies are the elixir, the essence of life. She negotiates the shark infested waters of having intimate relationships with both men and women acutely aware of the danger she finds herself in of engaging in licentious behaviour.

Of losing more than the fabric of her psyche, her soul. The safe world as she knew it as a child, youth and adult in her twenties. She finds herself in danger of losing everything. In the hospital Rita has flashbacks, embodies another personality that she, and her psychiatrist Dr Naomi Prinsloo calls ‘Julia’, she writes and she journals.”

Epstein walked in then completely naked into Henry’s bedroom. Elaine caught unawares blushed deeply. “Little girl,” he said nonchalantly, “it is time for you to smell the Malawian-roasted coffee beans in this room, and grow up.”

Abigail George is a writer who lives in a coastal town in South Africa.

Leave a Reply