Other & miscellaneous

The Mask under the Skin

Petra Langa

The Mask under the Skin

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It was a warm afternoon in the Highveld bush when Johan strode through the tall dry grasses in his rough hiking boots. He wore woollen socks and khaki pants, and a short-sleeved shirt that revealed muscular arms bronzed by the sun. He was holding a hunting rifle in both hands, ready to use it if he needed to. He wore a cap against the sun, yet his eyes were narrowed to slits, his brow furrowed, his fleshy face a mask of concentration. He was sweating, and it was not due to the mild winter sun. Johan was scared to death, and it was not the lions that worried him; it was a much more dangerous game he had to face now. He was alone, and he was the prey. They were coming for him. His hunting buddies had been conspiring against him for a long time now, and this was how they would do it. Of course it made sense. It would look like a hunting accident. Johan did not care how they would explain it – whether it had been his own gun going off or that he’d been attacked by an animal – he knew they would get away with it. And he knew they would give him a clean shot; he deserved that, at least.
He had always enjoyed the rush of adrenalin when they were going in for the kill. Now he felt nothing but naked fear. So this was where it would finally end. He thought he had prepared for this, but now he found he was not prepared at all. It was one thing to sort his finances and ensure that his investments would not be lost. It was quite another thing to face down the barrel of a gun. He had been living in fear for quite some time now and even thought that it would be a relief to know when the final moment would come at last. But the brutality of his own death scared him now, although he had seen so many large animals die. Killing and dying was as natural in the bush as grazing and mating. But he had always been the hunter and the killer, never the prey or the victim.
They were stalking him, and he knew he could not escape. But, like all the cornered animals he had seen, he would resist until the end. This was his final hunt. He would live through the fear, he would feel the pain, and then it would be over. The thought of being gone made him think of his daughter Iris. She would miss him, but she had her own life now, and he had provided well for her. She would get through this. This was his last day, and he welcomed the familiar sound of a gun finally going off.


1

At 45, Iris was at the top of her game. Her dinner parties were going well, the designer dresses looked great on her still slim figure, her son Guy had passed his A-levels with flying colours, and her distinguished-looking husband continued to have a successful career. Iris was intensely competitive, and it gave her great satisfaction to know that she was not only doing well, but better than most of the people in her circle. And her circle consisted of very refined people – diplomats, wealthy business people, privateers and philanthropists, successful artists and reputable academics. Iris basked in the conviction that every one of these people appreciated her ability to create perfect social settings and invite the right group of people each time; she was a good cook and an even better supervisor in the kitchen, where she issued precise orders with self-assurance and clarity; consequently, the service at her sit-down dinners and cocktail parties was brisk and efficient. Her house was tastefully decorated and spotless due to a varying number of maids equipped with equally clear instructions as to how the rooms were to be kept and cared for.
Iris had learned all that from her mother when she grew up in a mansion in the rolling hills of what was then called Natal on the South African east coast. Her mother had also emphasised the importance of entertainment beyond food and drink, and whereas her mother’s idea of entertainment had been restricted to card games and board games and piano playing and singing, Iris was organising whole classical orchestras and evenings of ballroom dancing in her large reception rooms, or she was creating makeshift stages for bands and afternoons of jazz in the garden. Well, her mother’s possibilities had been limited due to the rural, although breathtakingly beautiful, environment of her residence. Iris had moved on and out into the world with her husband, and her current villa stood on the steep hills of The Peak in Hong Kong, a place of wealthy colonialists’ longing quite similar in that respect to the gentler hills of the South African east coast, albeit very different in climate and people. But then, the wealth of settlers and expats is able to create certain similarities of life in foreign lands that allow comparisons of how such people live the world over. Iris was proud that she was able to ‘maintain standards’ as she liked to put it, and one had to admit that she worked hard on the things that were important to her. Every social occasion at her house was carefully planned and delivered with apparent ease. Some guests came for the sake of other invitees, others to see how Iris had appointed the various reception rooms, some to eat a really good multiple course dinner in an atmosphere of refinement, to listen to carefully chosen music, to get a little drunk – there was always champagne, well aged whisky, the best wines and sherries. Social event management and its constant innovation and optimisation had indeed become routine for Iris, and her efforts were richly rewarded whenever she noticed that guests were trying to copy some of what they’d experienced at her parties – decorations, recipes, catering, music – Iris noticed every little thing, every tablecloth, every bathroom towel at other people’s houses. She only went there because she had to reciprocate their acceptance of her own invitations, to do research and satisfy herself that she was doing better than them.
Most of the time, Iris was so pleased with herself that her husband John’s routine praises for her abilities, delivered at the end of each successful evening, were really that to her: routine. Yet they were necessary because she believed that a large part of what she did was aimed at furthering his career. She routinely ignored the fact that the career she was furthering was not the career John had or wished to have, but the one she wished him to have.
And so it was not surprising to either of them when, at the end of a particularly long evening that had involved ballroom dancing with masques and a late sumptuous supper based on the sort of novel Iris liked reading – stories about old-fashioned aristocrats who had tea in the library and played cards in the smoking room and had midnight suppers – she and John had one of their usual after-party conversations:
‘You really outdid yourself this time, darling, thank you,’ John said dutifully, sounding tired as he removed his polished Italian shoes. They were in the upstairs bedroom, still hearing the distant clinking sound of glasses and dishes being cleared away by the maids downstairs. Iris had taken off her silver heels and carefully removed her silver-grey dress which now hung in the dressing room waiting to be dry cleaned. She was sitting in front of the vanity mirror in her silky underwear removing make-up with cotton pads and cream.
‘I’m glad you had this opportunity,’ Iris said and drank down a glass of Alka Seltzer – once the guests left, cleaning up began almost immediately, not only downstairs but also in Iris’ face and stomach. She would never simply fall down drunk on the bed in her dress and high heels, smearing the pillow with makeup. She never drank too much at her parties to begin with. There was nothing as horrid as a hostess who was drunk and out of control.
‘I thought they’d never leave,’ John sighed as he sat on the large bed removing his tie and taking off his jacket. He took a sip from a tumbler containing a generous amount of warm whisky.
‘Yes, that is the idea of a late supper,’ Iris pointed out a little sharply. Of course she had planned for it to be a long night. If she had wanted them to leave early she would have had an early dinner with not much to follow afterwards. People almost always complied with Iris’ ideas of an evening. It was John’s perception of how these things worked that had always been a bit muddled.
‘They probably had a good time,’ John conceded.
‘Of course they did. The Ambassador postponed his return flight to Beijing to tomorrow. I heard him give instructions on the phone,’ Iris said triumphantly.
John sighed. He knew she had organised the ball because the end of the year was the ideal time for that sort of thing, but the main reason had been the presence of the Ambassador in Hong Kong this weekend and the fact that John’s tour of duty as secret service attaché in the consulate was drawing to an end. John’s work was not exactly conducive to large social gatherings and vice versa, but John had managed to make the best of Iris’ bringing together so many people at their house at regular intervals. He had learned to work around that, even benefit from it at times. It had made him feel as though he was a covert agent in his own house, hiding in broad daylight, so to say. The problem was that Iris had other, bigger plans for John.
‘I’m glad he had a good time.’
‘His wife certainly had a very good time. She asked me for some of the recipes. She must be struggling with all that government issue furniture up there in Beijing, but then I doubt she has much taste anyway, seeing that shapeless dress she wore. Probably done by a Chinese hot stitch. A bit of exercise would help her too. So out of shape.’ Iris looked down at her own presentable figure with satisfaction. She did look quite attractive in the mellow light of the rose and apricot coloured bedroom, and John took another large sip from his whisky glass. She looked after herself, he had to admit; she looked after the house, after him, after Guy. She was ambitious, but she was neither lazy nor fat.
‘Come here,’ John said and held out an unsteady arm. Iris took his hand and sat next to him on the bed. He kissed her forehead. Her face was shiny with cold cream, her breath minty with mouthwash.
‘Have a sip,’ John said, holding out his whisky glass.
It was the last thing she wanted right then, but Iris was clever enough to know that she needed John to soften up considerably before she could continue with what was important to her. She smiled, took the glass and sat astride on his lap, facing him. She took a tiny sip from the glass and felt John’s arms around her waist. He buried his face in her lacy camisole, his hands moved up her back, and he opened her bra. Her breasts sprang free underneath the silk, and she could feel him harden between her legs. As their bodies melted into each other, they made love with the practised movements of long-term lovers, and Iris, feeling John’s need for sex after a night like this, ended up enjoying the pleasure she was able to give him. Afterwards they lay facing each other in the rose tinted light, smiling.
‘It is quiet at long last,’ John said. Iris was glad she had told the maids earlier to leave everything in the kitchen. They could come back and mop up tomorrow when John was at work.
‘I know you appreciate your peace and quiet,’ Iris said and looked into his tired face.
‘And you like your parties.’ John smiled and playfully tipped his forefinger on her nose.
‘They are for you.’ Iris smiled beautifully in the semi-darkness between their faces.
‘Yes, I know. And for the Ambassador.’ John smiled back. He was still in the mood to tease her. Then he exhaled quietly, hoping the discussion would end there, on a light and playful note, but the odds were against him. Their term here would end soon, and Iris wanted him to join the diplomatic corps, rise in the ranks and become Ambassador one day. They would travel the world, and Guy would be the son of an Ambassador. This was not about money – Iris had her own money, a generous inheritance from her father that she managed well. This was about status, and being at the top of the diplomatic service would give Iris free rein to rise to the absolute heights of her ambitions and abilities. It was logical from her perspective. She would be an excellent Ambassador’s wife. Not least, he thought a little cynically, because Iris liked masquerades, play-acting in fancy dress, and any form of disguise and pretence.
‘He congratulated me on my impeccable taste. He said my advice regarding social events is welcome at the Embassy any time.’
‘I’m sure it is. I’m proud of you.’
‘Just look at the General Consul’s residence. They have no taste whatsoever. They are badly organised; the catering is just awful.’
John sighed, a little more audibly this time. Of course, the Consul General’s position was the next step. Then the Head of Mission. Why couldn’t Iris be happy where they were now? Why was it not enough to be quietly superior to those above them?
‘You know I like my job,’ he began; they both knew that this was not about the Consul’s residence.
‘Yes, darling, but you have so much potential! You are so much better than all of them!’ And so was she, Iris thought, so much better, and so were they together.
John couldn’t help but be flattered by all the wifely love he was getting that night even though he knew she had an agenda. He loved her for who she was, but sometimes her ambitions got in the way of his need to quietly do his job and simply enjoy his life. They were doing fine. Why could Iris not see that? Why did it always have to be more and better and higher? She was excessive and relentless.
‘It is not easy to simply switch between services. And the top positions depend on political connections. You know I don’t have enough of those within the new dispensation.’
‘But I’ve been working on that. The Ambassador –’
‘Yes, Iris, I know. But this is not about dinner parties. I am considered to be part of the old system. They keep me on because I am very good at my job, and I have proven to serve the new government well, now and in the past. They trust me with very sensitive issues. I love my job, and if I can’t get the top positions, then I might as well stay where I am.’ John turned away from Iris’ flushed aristocratic face – the combination of her refined features and the rosy glow after sex always confused him. He lay on his back facing the ceiling. He had to be calm. Maybe it was good to have this conversation and make sure it was really the last time. Maybe it was necessary to tell her that even if they offered him a top diplomatic post he wouldn’t want it, not even for her sake. He was tired of this conversation, and he needed to be assertive now, end it once and for all. He prepared to face her again. She was strangely quiet. He turned towards her and was shocked to see a fat tear rolling down her cheek. She never cried. He cupped her face in his hands, feeling the wetness of tears.
‘Sorry darling, I didn’t mean to say that your dinner parties weren’t important. They mean a lot to me. But a revolution has taken place back home. I have kept my head above the water. Let’s not be unrealistic.’ He pulled her into his arms and held her as she was crying. Let her cry, he thought as he felt her trembling body against his, maybe it will allow her to finally let go.
It was only much later that it occurred to him that these tears were the first indication of things to come for Iris, and for him, too. But that night, John hoped that all was going to be well. As it turned out, Iris might have cried for a while, but she was not about to let go so easily.


2

When Iris was a teenager, she frequently had to help out at her mother’s dinner parties. She had always liked the formal atmosphere of the dining room – the long, gleaming mahogany table, the matching chairs upholstered in red velvet, the crystal chandelier above, the dark sideboards housing the silver teaset, the candle stands, the fruit bowls and cutlery. She had opened the doors and leaned in to smell the wood polish. The dark wooden atmosphere acquired life and colour as the table was laid, flowers were brought in, silver polished, candles lit. People came in and took their places, filling the otherwise quiet, austere room with talk and laughter, the clink of crystal and porcelain as servants brought and removed dishes, poured wines, came and went with quiet efficiency. Afterwards, the room would be returned to its empty waiting stage, with sunlight quietly filtering in through lace curtains, elegantly reflected by the crystal drops of the chandelier before being absorbed by the solid dark wood panelling.
Iris did not care much for the dinner guests themselves, and she suspected her mother didn’t either; they were part of a white rural set – the Swanepoels, Geldenhuyses, Rossiters, Potgieters. They were the same couples almost every time: friends, family, neighbours, her father’s business associates and hunting partners. They made an effort to avoid politics at the table since it was not polite to discuss dirty games of power with ladies, but it was not always possible. Everything in South Africa seemed to be political in some way. Iris’ mother Sheila chose the guests according to the occasion and how they would get on with one another, or rather, how much they would argue and provoke one another. Sheila believed that it was important to provide people with a bit of excitement, and since her dining room was always the same, and so was her sitting room with the piano and card table by the fireplace, the only variation she could come up with were new dishes and new combinations of guests. She would seat people rather than leave it to them to find the most comfortable place at the table. She liked people with interesting stories to tell and an ability to tell them well, she ensured the easy flow of alcohol to loosen tongues and provoke laughter and all sorts of emotional outbursts, but most of all she enjoyed watching people quarrel. She was convinced it would send people home with a sense of having experienced something remarkable if someone lost control – a man shouting perhaps, hitting the table with the flat of his hand, a woman crying or embarrassed, leaving the room in a huff, secrets being exposed, uncomfortable questions being asked, and so on.
It was thus always in the same spirit that Sheila planned these evening events: who to invite and where to place them, what to cook and which subjects would create a maximum of controversy. Sheila did most of the cooking herself, albeit with the aid of a cook and a maid, and she always took great care to perfect each dish and give the servants a good talking to. It was here that Iris first honed her skills in the formal entertainment of people, and it was a coldly functional world, the purpose of which neither Iris nor Sheila ever questioned: it was simply a part of life in a rural colonial mansion inside a certain social set, and it was an obligation most people followed if they wanted to remain part of a functioning neighbourhood. As Iris’ father Johan increased his wealth, an important part of Sheila’s satisfaction regarding her dinner parties was derived from her ability to show off her material rise in the world by offering expensive wines and imported foods, and by inviting new people. She dressed up Iris like a doll when she was a little girl, and when she was older, Iris was wearing extravagant silk gowns and ribbons like a princess, always attracting her father’s admiring glances.
At 17, Iris began to question her mother’s way of doing things. She felt used by Sheila, as though she was an adornment her mother was embellishing herself with. She made her mother look good in front of people, she decorated her mother’s house and dinner table, she was used to extract all sorts of things from her father on Sheila’s behalf, from an increase in her household allowance to agreements regarding the refurbishment of the house or clothes shopping in Durban and holidays in the Cape, or simply the request to be home in time for dinner. Iris increasingly felt as though she was nothing but a pretty doll that was remote controlled by her mother.
For a long time, she didn’t mind, because she was able to get everything from Johan, at least everything that involved the spending of money. But there came a time when, more often than not, he wasn’t home for dinner. Iris did not want to challenge him on this, and Sheila could not challenge him on anything; she knew her husband only barely tolerated her in his house; he allowed her to run household matters, to raise his daughter and generally keep up appearances. Sheila knew that as long as she fulfilled that role without complaint, she was fine, but she dreaded the moment when Iris would leave the house. Neither woman ever questioned Johan’s role as the patriarch, as the man who performed all the valuable work in the family, because he made the money for them to spend.
Iris realized she would be relieved to leave the house; she was sure of her father’s support wherever she went. She would have been sorry to leave her mother behind, alone and unloved, devoid of her support, but Sheila had become angry and quarrelsome, and Iris was counting the days before she would take up her studies at Pretoria University.
Her impending departure seemed to tighten the atmosphere in the house – the days of carefree holidays, shopping sprees and family dinners were drawing to a close. Iris was impatient; Sheila was alternatively morose and angrily frustrated, and Johan spent all his time hunting.


Format: 13.5 x 21.5
Number of Pages: 240
ISBN: 978-3-99064-299-3
Release Date: 07.09.2018
GBP 14,50
GBP 8,99