Friday Night Book Club: Read an excerpt from Craig Higginson’s The Dream House, a novel of dark wit, a stark poetic style and extraordinary tenderness
The Friday Night Book Club: Exclusive excerpts from Pan Macmillan every weekend!
Staying in this evening? Get comfortable with a glass of wine and Craig Higginson’s award-winning novel The Dream House.
Higginson is an internationally renowned, multi-award-winning playwright and novelist. The Dream House, published by Picador Africa in 2015, won the UJ Prize for South African Writing in English and was shortlisted for the Sunday Times Barry Ronge Fiction Prize. The novel was also published in French in 2016 (Mercure de France).
About the book
A farmhouse is being reproduced a dozen times, with slight variations, throughout a valley. Three small graves have been dug in the front garden, the middle one lying empty. A woman in a wheelchair sorts through boxes while her husband clambers around the old demolished buildings, wondering where the animals have gone. A young woman – called ‘the barren one’ behind her back – dreams of love, while an ageing headmaster contemplates the end of his life. At the entrance to the long dirt driveway, a car appears and pauses – pointed towards the house like a silver bullet, ticking with heat.
So begins The Dream House, Craig Higginson’s riveting and unforgettable novel set in the Midlands of KwaZulu-Natal.
Written with dark wit, a stark poetic style and extraordinary tenderness, this is a story about the state of a nation and a deep meditation on memory, ageing, meaning, family, love and loss.
The Dream House is written with such a fierce and steady compassion that the reader can only come away from it transformed – ready to take on the challenges of living with a renewed heart and a bigger vision.
‘It’s here at last – the South African novel that throws off all the literary baggage of political cliché and posturing, and gives us an honest exploration of not only what it is to be human, but what it is to be South African.’ – City Press
‘The Dream House is an open and frank exploration of human life that resonates beyond race. Looksmart is a welcome new kind of character in the constantly evolving reality of African literature.’ – Nadine Gordimer
‘The Dream House is beautifully written. Its politics is understated and its portrayal of South Africa is characterised by a constant movement between affection, anger, nostalgia, resistance and the characters’ acceptance of what is part of the human condition.’ – Mark Behr
Read the excerpt:
She draws back the curtains to reveal the mist. It has filled the whole valley and invaded every cupboard of the house. Her bedroom overlooks a row of kennels, silvery grey and subsiding at odd angles under a great green wave of brambles. The bloodwoods, solemn as totems, are barely visible above the old dog-run. She doesn’t know what possessed them to plant those trees. To protect them from the wind, the sun, the view? It hardly matters now. Soon the trees will be cut down and cleared away, along with everything else. The people who come to live here afterwards will know nothing about any of them, and maybe it will be better that way.
All that Patricia has told him is that they are going away for a while. It doesn’t make much sense. They have sold off all the livestock and equipment and packed the little they want to keep into boxes. Already the developers have moved in, reducing the stables and farm buildings to rubble, making fresh orange gashes across the fields to where the new houses will be, reduc- ing the driveway – which went on for a kilometre through their valley – to a muddy bog. But Richard rarely leaves the house these days and nothing makes much sense to him anyway. To his queries about the recent packing up, all she has told him is that they are going away to the sea.
She can hear Beauty’s footsteps progressing along the corridor: swift but provisional, expecting fresh instructions. Beauty will be on her way to dress Richard, the oats will have been cooked, the coffee brewed and the kitchen windows will be busy with the previous day’s flies. Patricia knows every moment and mood of the house as intimately as she knows her own body. Better, in fact, as everything in the house can be reached for and grasped. Her body is an ageing and not quite trustworthy companion whose inner workings have only grown more mysterious over time.
Beauty will have heard her the first time, but she only ever responded on the second or third call, perhaps hoping Patricia would forget what she wanted, or forget that she wanted anything at all.
‘Have you made the oats?’
Beauty is wearing her blue overalls and a white doek, even though it’s their last day. Her feet are bare, as usual. The rhythmic whisper of her feet up and down the corridor, like a conversation between two conspirators, once irritated Patricia, but these days she finds the sound comforting. In Durban, Beauty will go for driving and English lessons. She deserves a better job. Possibly as an au pair. Patricia and Richard will not be there forever and the girl will need to move on. She has a whole life ahead of her.
‘I think we should have breakfast together today. Could you bring Richard through?’
Patricia can see herself in the large mirror near the door. It was once attached to the wall and is speckled around the edges. There is a crack across the reflection of her throat. Her body is no longer able to fit into the mirror. It stands there like a pale floating lantern.
‘This morning I have to go and see Mr Ford.’
‘Yebo, Mesis. I will tell Bheki.’
Beauty crosses the room to fetch Patricia’s walker – a battered metal frame that relieves some of the pressure off her back. The wheelchair, which lives in the sitting room, is something she tries to avoid: not only does it embarrass her, more recently it has started to dig into her back.
‘I couldn’t sleep last night. Could you?’
‘Not so good, Mesis.’
‘No, not so good at all.’
Outside, the old Rottweiler has started barking. Patricia always knows at once what the sound means: Ethunzini has seen one of the stable cats, a woman from the dairy is bringing in the morning milk, a stranger has arrived at the house, their car having survived the driveway. These days there is more traffic up and down their road, but it’s usually earthmovers and trucks. Ethunzini, who hasn’t quite worked out how to handle them, contents herself with barking from the apparent safety of the lawn.
This eruption means the morning milk, so they both ignore it. Breakfast is laid out as usual in the small room at the back of the house, which adjoins the kitchen. The window panes are indeed being patrolled by flies. Through the mist, Patricia can see the fir tree outside where the bodies of freshly slaughtered lambs were hung. The two rows of bloodwoods that lead towards the dairy and the larger sheds march off in ever-diminishing tones of grey.
Rupert and George would normally have been there to greet her before returning to snapping up the flies, but she had them shot a week ago and buried under the fir tree at the front. Only Ethunzini remains. Although of the same dotage as the two Alsatians, Patricia hasn’t yet had the stomach to have the Rottweiler killed. But her grave has been waiting for her all week, flanked by those of the Alsatians, as though the other two dogs, who were always more adventurous, have gone to secure the underworld ahead of her.
All her life, Patricia has been accompanied by a hurricane of dogs. Usu- ally Chihuahuas and a Rottweiler, and a few variations between. The last Chihuahua – Finnegan – died in her lap eighteen months ago. Her heart just stopped. When her body had gone cold, Patricia asked Bheki to bury her in the bloodwood grove, where all the other dogs had been buried. It was on that day that she decided to sell the farm.
It was the right decision, of course. Even back then Richard needed a proper trained nurse. And it was ridiculous the way he sometimes wandered about. Shortly after the death of Finnegan, he disappeared for a whole night. Bheki later found him naked inside a disused porcupine hole that he’d scooped out. There were bits of grass and burrs in his beard. Patricia and Beauty had a private laugh about it, but it couldn’t carry on. None of it could. She worked out that if she sold the farm, there would still be enough to live off.
The Durban house was a hundred and fifty years old and whenever anyone walked inside it, it creaked like an ancient ship. It stood on top of the hill in Glenwood and overlooked the harbour and the bluff. It was the house she had grown up in and she has had dreams about it her whole adult life. She wanted to spend her last days doing little more than staring at the sea. She pours a glass of orange juice from the Toby jug and, grunting with the pain of it, sits. There are still weaver birds nesting in the fir tree. They sway and twitter and clack. The room smells of Alsatian and oats and leaking gas. She has decided not to get the cooker fixed: she has been rather hoping the whole house would go up in smoke, with all of them inside it.
Even now Richard has the ability to appear by magic. He must have evaded Beauty as he’s still wearing his pyjamas: pale blue cotton, stained with tea and smears of bran rusk. The pyjamas are the same steady tone as his gaze, which is fixed on Patricia as if she’s an oncoming storm.
‘Morning, Richard. Are you going to sit?’
‘Would you like a cup of tea? Beau-ty!’
‘I want to take the dogs.’
‘To my father’s place. I want to take them there tonight.’
It is not the fact of the dogs being shot that amuses her: it is that his father died twenty years ago.
‘What’s there to laugh about?’ he wants to know.
‘Your father is – no longer with us.’
‘What are you talking about?’
‘Too many pies.’
Richard turns away from this and sits. He stares at his hands.
‘But I saw him only yesterday. We shared a cigarette.’
Beauty appears and goes over to the stove to revive the oats. Richard doesn’t seem to notice her. Although he was never much of a farmer, he has the hands of one. How long has it been since Patricia last touched them? Or been touched by them? She probably comes into contact with them every day, but contact is very far from touch.
‘Where’s the television gone?’
‘Someone must have taken it.’
‘We’re leaving. Tomorrow. Everything has to be packed.’
Richard turns towards her, perhaps about to scream at her, or throw his mug against the wall, but still he seems unable to meet her gaze.
‘Are we dead yet?’
‘You will tell me when we’re dead?’
‘If I can, Roo, I will.’
She can feel Beauty’s bemusement as she approaches and scoops some oats into each of their bowls. Patricia takes her bowl and adds brown sugar – from a fluted sugar bowl that once belonged to her grandmother – and cream, leaving Richard to fend for himself. Sugar will be the death of her, but you have to die of something, and it’s better to die of something you like – like pies.
‘I was dreaming.’
‘That we were dead.’
Patricia starts to eat her oats.
‘We were in heaven or hell, I can’t say which. I doubt it mattered. All that mattered was that we were dead and we didn’t bloody well know it. No one had told us.’
‘Who would have?’
‘Well he won’t have, because we’re not.’
She has many strategies to silence him. One of them, and often the most effective, is wit.
Richard gives himself sugar and cream, like one who deserves a treat. He has always eaten exactly the same as her, yet he has remained wiry and tough throughout, like a jockey. There is no justice in this – nor in anything else.
‘Because it’s coming.’
‘What is coming?’
‘The ambulance. I said I have two dead children for you to pick up.’
‘What do you mean two?’
‘You know what?’
‘No, I don’t.’
‘You think I’m not here, but I am.’
‘Roo, I know very well you’re here.’
Patricia has owned the same car for twenty-five years. A cream-coloured Mercedes. Rupert and George ripped the beige plastic panelling off the doors several years ago, leaving the metal of the doorframes exposed, but she has long ceased to notice this. There are more recent tartan rugs and horse blankets covering the back seats, each of which has been shredded. The damage usually takes place when Patricia and Bheki go into the Spar and leave the dogs – paradoxically – to protect the car. They try to attack whoever passes, and then turn on the car as the only alternative.
They have been a familiar sight in the village: the large muddy Mercedes, the agitated dogs, the shy Zulu man in the impeccable dark blue overalls, and the woman emerging, pale and strangely buoyant, her metal walker measuring their progress towards the shop. But in recent years they have started to appear out of place. What was once a working farmers’ village – the air full of muck from the former cattle market and the honking of trains carrying timber – has become more upmarket. Surrounding farms are being turned into golfing estates and syndicated trout farms. Small shops selling handmade pottery, woven rugs and leather goods have sprung up. This air of gentility is only disrupted at weekends at the liquor store, when farm workers gather to play mrabaraba and get drunk on quarts of beer.
Bheki is waiting for her at the front stoep after breakfast. He folds the walker and puts it into the boot. Bheki will be driving them down to Durban the next day and has agreed to stay on as their gardener and chauffeur. Patricia tried to send him to a better school when he was still a boy, but it soon became clear that Bheki had no interest in books. What he seemed to love more than anything else was the car, which he would clean for a few rand whenever he had the opportunity. Patricia would let him sit inside the car for whole afternoons, until one day she showed him how to start it up, put it into gear and edge forward. By the time it was becoming too painful for Patricia to drive herself, Bheki had long since attained his licence.
‘We have to go across to Mr Ford.’
‘While I’m there, perhaps you could take the car to the garage and fill her up. Remember to check the tyres. We have a long journey ahead of us tomorrow.’
Bheki has driven to Durban before. Unlike Beauty, he has seen the sea – but he has never spent more than a few nights outside the boundaries of the farm, let alone lived in a large city. Whenever she has asked him about the move, he has remained evasive, so she has no idea whether it is quiet excitement or dread he feels, or a combination of the two. Bheki rarely speaks to her outside of what is practical. The driveway of Dwaleni passes the long line of rubble that was once the stables before entering what remains of the paddocks. The road then declines gradually towards the marshlands, passes one of the larger dams and ends in a gum and wattle plantation, where it finally joins the tarmac road. Previously, mountain streams crossed the road in several places, and whenever there was a thunderstorm, sections of the meandering orange driveway would be washed into the bush. But now the road is worse than before: huge corrugated tyre tracks criss-cross it, leading off into the fields to one of the new half-constructed houses. All around are trenches filled with yellow sludge, blasted trees and torn fences. This verdant stretch, which was once a favourite place of Patricia’s – a breathing place between the real world and the farm – has been reduced to a war zone, in which men wander about in the mist like wounded soldiers, their boots heavy with mud.
The car labours past lopsided orange trucks, a row of tin shacks that some workers have crudely assembled, and a fire in an old oil barrel. By now the rain has thickened to a steady mizzle and everything is blurred with it. They are just passing out of this nightmare zone and are nearing the marsh when the car slithers off to one side and smacks against a wall of clay and rock.
‘Christ, be careful!’
The engine has cut out and for a while they watch the fine rain against the windscreen, the wipers vainly swiping it aside, an exercise in futility.
‘You’ll have to reverse. Slowly. Otherwise we’ll get stuck.’
Without a word, Bheki backs the car and regains the track. It is almost impossible to see out of the steamed-up windows and when a rock clumps dubiously against the bottom of the car, neither of them comments. After that, Bheki drives with exaggerated deliberation and care. If blame is to be attributed – he seems to be implying – it lies with the chaos of the road, or the folly of the builders, or the folly of having builders in the first place.
At the marsh they find a long-tailed widowbird labouring under his heavy wet tail. Red bishops swing in the reeds, their feathers ruffled and fluffed out. A solitary stray donkey stares at them as they pass, his body streaked with wet, making him resemble a quagga. Between Patricia and Bheki, the silence feels deeper than usual. Maybe Bheki will be delighted to see the back of this place tomorrow after all.
Which in clearer moments is her attitude too. The farm, which she inherited from her father when she and Richard made their mismatch, has never managed to make much profit. It’s too rocky and – at least in the summer months – too wet. It started to do slightly better only in the seventies, when Patricia decided to breed Welsh ponies and started to take over the management of the farm from Richard. As for Richard, he gave up any pretence at being any good at anything after her father died. Before Richard’s illness, he contented himself with little more than a barn full of chickens, a modest dairy herd and some general meandering about.
‘Do you think the old man would be unhappy we’re leaving?’
Bheki stares ahead, saying nothing to this. It isn’t rudeness. Or if it is, it has been so characteristic over the last years that it no longer seems to matter. Bheki tends to let conversation pass him by, like a pleasant breeze occupying an altogether different landscape, and she has developed the habit of using this vacant space to talk freely, as one might with a priest, or – heaven forbid – some kind of analyst.
‘Do you remember my father, Bheki?’
‘Yebo, Madam. I was already cleaning your car when he passed.’
‘I’ve been thinking a lot about him lately. He might have died too young, but even then he had a full life to look back on. And a great deal to be proud of. He was fortunate in that way. Most of us don’t have that, do we?’ Bheki inclines his head but declines to comment.
‘He’d also earned it, mind you. Through hard work. And what my mother used to call character. He never complained. He used to say if you don’t like it, change it. Don’t sit with a problem, feeling sorry for yourself. He was always up at five every morning and he only sat down again at five that evening, usually with a glass of whisky in his hand. And that was when he made himself available to his family and his friends. Oh – and the dinners we used to have at that house! You’ll see it, Bheki. The house has a lovely view of the harbour. My favourite view in all the world.’
‘I do not like to look at the sea,’ Bheki says, barely audible.
‘My father only spoke against Richard once – when I said I wanted to marry him. But he gave his consent when he found out I was pregnant, and he never spoke against Richard again after that. Even after he’d seen the disaster he was already making of – everything.’
‘They say he was a good man.’
‘The one good man in my life.’