I wondered if I had heard her right.
"What was that? Can you repeat that?"
It was obvious that the cricket had done her ego a lot of good and some forthrightness was beginning to show.
"It's a simple question. Are you gay? G-A-Y."
I didn't answer for a few seconds but in that brief time my life flashed by before me.
I thought of my early life on the farm. Milking cows. Leading the oxen pulling a plough. Coming two hours late for a 3 hour exam and still passing. Scoring the winning goal in the intervarsity. Dancing the Samba for hours non stop in Rio.
About six years ago, I moved into a low cost apartment block. My career was just beginning and I wanted to live cheaply for a while. After a while I noticed to my horror that I had chosen a Dante's Inferno and that the other tenants lived in various stages of decadence. I first noticed that when I found that mornings and evenings I had to step over bodies in various stages of neglect.
At that time, I was saved by a spiritual experience. Not a vision. Not a blaze of light. Just an instant knowledge. I knew that I had been called to fight for compassion. I was not prepared for this task but after I said "Yes" my whole world changed. Each day after that had a glow. Each day had a new delight. I realised, with a smile, that I had had a full life but being gay was never part of it.
Meanwhile, with my mind back at Nando's, I saw her looking at me curiously. I burst out laughing.
"What's so funny, Bardo?"
"Ho boy, you should see my buddies. No fatal attractions there I'm afraid. Well anyway, no I'm not gay, dear. What made you ask?
She shrugged her shoulders and looked up at the sky.
"Come come, Zastri. Don't be like that. Let's talk about it. What's going on."
"I can't say. I don't understand anything that has happened and is happening. I slept in your home and you didn't crawl into my bed. When you talk to me, you're not making suggestions all the time. I can't figure you out."
"I think that we're on a voyage of discovery." "We are but where and when? Where are you taking this?"
I thought for a while before I spoke. I looked at the the river and that gave me my cue.
"It's like this. When a fish gets sick, it loses its balance and swims upside down. If I should see such a fish I could pick it up and eat it or throw it away."
"But you wouldn't?"
"No. I'd pick it up and put it in a bowl of river water. I'd feed it and give it lots of oxygen."
It was the comical way with which she was looking at me that made me laugh.
"So now you're giving me oxygen?" she said.
"Yea. Isn't it strange? I mean how life works?"
"Do you know something Bardo. That whiff of oxygen has made me go crazy. I mean really mad."
"Whoa girl. How so? What's on your mind?"
"To hell with those two bastards. Come let's go and get my stuff."
"Right now. Come on. Let's go."
When we arrived at her old apartment, she didn't bother to knock. She used her own keys to get in. They found her husband Manu and her friend sprawled on furniture in the lounge. They looked as if they had just got out of bed. There were bottles of beer on the table and some half filled glasses.
Zastri nodded at them briefly.
"Please don't get up. Stay just where you are. No formalities Just a flying visit. I've come for my things and that's all. Then we'll be outta here."
Manu clumsily rose to his feet and held his hands out to Zastri.
"Zastri, my dear. Wait. It's not what it seems. I love you. I can explain everything."
As she said "go and tell it to the horse's backside" she tilted a half bottle of beer over his head and then went to stand in front of her friend.
"Now there he is, my dear loyal friend. There he is now right down at your level."
We packed her cases and then went back to the lounge. There Zastri dropped the apartment keys in her friend's glass of beer.
"Bye sweetheart. I've cancelled the lease and so you two had better get jobs. Pronto."
"Manu, for your information, we're divorced. The papers are coming. Ta Ta."
As we left, Zastri latched the front door and slammed it so hard that the timbers shook. I held up my hand and she high-fived it in triumphal delight.
"Hoo ha" I said "let's get the hell out of here."
We loaded her stuff into the boot and drove off. She looked excited even devastating. I wanted to reach out to her but something stopped me.
She nudged me and said "Come on. Let's drop my stuff and let's celebrate."
I stared silently at the road as I drove on. I was deep in thought.
"No Zastri. Let's not do that. Let's go to Nando's. There is something to discuss."
"What ! What's there to discuss. Wait. D'you mean that. You look so serious."
"It's very serious ... but not now. Let's wait till we get to Nando's."
We sat down at our place and, as usual, I ordered a meal and wine. When the waiter had left, Zastri looked at me with intense interest.
"So what's up?"
"First thing, Zastri, I want you to go back to work. Tomorrow."
"What? Back to work. I'd forgotten about that. Yea, why not. Sure, I'll do that."
"Next. Listen to me. I've only one aim. I want to bring back order into your life."
"Aha. I see. The upside down fish thing."
I nearly burst out laughing but she did not seem in the mood for that.
"Spit it out, Bardo. Let me hear what's eating you."
"On the floor below my apartment is a furnished place. The people are away. It's available for two months. I want you to move in there."
"Is that so, Bardo. You're kicking me out? Is that it?"
"When we go back now, I'm taking your things there. 207 will be your home in future."
I'll never forget the look on her face. If I had slapped her she wouldn't have looked more devastated. The blood drained from her face and her lips began to quiver. She got up and walked to a railing about 12 meters away.
I stared at her. A thousand thoughts tumbled through my mind. I wanted to go to her but instead I poured a lot of wine into a water tumbler and drank it all up in one go. A small voice was telling me not to go to her. I did not want to accept that and so I poured a second tumbler full for myself
When she arrived back, she sat down. I could see that she was deadly calm. I looked at her eyes but they had become opaque to me.
"So you're drinking all the wine on your own?"
"Oh? Look I'm sorry. Let me order some more."
"Yes let's celebrate."
"For heavens sake Zastri. What's there to celebrate?"
"Celebrate. You've picked up a fish, given it a bowl, fed it and now you're giving it oxygen ... and by that I mean lots of space. So now that fish wants wine. Why not?"
When the wine arrived, she drank two glassfuls in a row and wiped her lips clean with the back of her hand.
"OK Bardo. Let's eat, drink and be merry and then you take me to my new home. Yes. I'll stay there in 207. I'll go back to work. Anything else m'lord?"
Then she lifted her third glass to me."I drink to you. The man who does everything just right. Mr damn Perfect. The man who can dot every i and cross every t. Here's to Mr. Saviour of all upside down fish. Cheers."
"No, dammit. I'll drink to us. To us, dear Zastri."
"Us. Ha ha ha. You in 304 and me in 207. Where's the us?"
As she spoke she poured her last drink out on the slate paving and stood up.
"Come. Take me to my home."
We went to my apartment and I took all of her stuff to her new place.
Our farewell was a study in formal behaviour.
I didn't see her for 10 days but I did call her every day. She was polite at first and a little more relaxed after a few days. On the 10 th day, she told me that the divorce papers had been duly served on Manu.
When she told me that, I invited her to a dinner at my place at seven. To celebrate.
I went to some trouble. OK, the dinner consisted of take outs but I did arrange it all the cutlery, the plates and the flowers very well. Ah yes. There were flowers, candles and the best wine that I could afford. When the door bell rang I rushed to open it. After 10 long days of not seeing her, she had become a vision. I looked at her up and down until she raised her eyebrows.
"Hi. May I come in?"
"Sure. Sure. Come in, please."
The dinner seemed to flash by. We chatted merrily about many things. As we sipped our
glasses of red wine we recalled our game of cricket and laughed about it.
But there was something in the air. Even though her eyes sparkled there was always that hint of reserve that she had worn all evening.
"....and so Bardo, I'm working. I'm enjoying that. I've a place to stay. No Manu to pollute my life...and, hey, I'm going to buy a car. What d'you think of that?"
I nodded encouragingly.
"Yes Bardo. The fish is back on its feet again."
I leant back in his chair and burst out laughing. She had a delightful sense of humour. She had more to tell me.
"D'you know what's funny. I don't feel as if I was ever married. We just married. That's all. There was nothing for me after the marriage. We had nothing in common."
Something in her voice made me walk over to the balcony where I pretended to study the view. "So you're footloose and fancy free?"
"Are you asking me if I'm now independent of any man? That I can choose to do whatever I like?"
"Yes my dear. Exactly that."
She came to stand next to me.
"Yes. Thanks to you Bardo."
‘No not me, Zastri. You did it."
Then I took her hand and led her back to the sofa.
She had changed. She was now looking at me with eyes that were thoughtful. Eyes that saw. I also thought that I saw a kindness in them.
I placed my arm around her and ran my fingers through her hair. When I reached out and brushed a few strands of hair away from her eyes, I heard her catch her breath.
"Wait Bardo, I've something to tell you. I'm leaving tomorrow. I'm going away. To start a new life."
I looked at her stunned. For a while I said nothing. My inner feelings were suddenly in turmoil and that prevented me from crystallising any thoughts.
"Yes I'm going back to my home town. An old friend phoned me. He has a job for me. He wants me to start immediately."
I looked at her steadily trying to read her mind.
"One of your village cricket team?"
"Yes Bardo. Isn't life strange?"
I reached out to take her hands.
"And what about us?"
She held my hands in a firm warm grip and gave a strange smile spiced with mystery.
"Bardo, remember when you gave me ten days?"
"Yes I do. Ten whole days."
She rose and began to reach for her handbag and her saffron coloured scarf. One with fine gold embroidery. She played with it for a while and finally wrapped it around her neck. Then she looked at me with a great tenderness.
"Well, I'm giving you ten times ten days."
I remembered that scarf. I had bought it for her on that first day when we went shopping for some essential clothing for her. When I discovered that she had had nothing worthwhile in her back pack. She had seen the scarf and at that time couldn't take her eyes off it.