A little more than seven months after we first met, Shania was gone.
On the night she came into my life, I was a sullen and spiteful guest of the natural wonder that is the Great Rift Valley in Africa, watching my friend Steve seduce yet another female American tourist. I could see his target was already weak-kneed and moist-eyed, defenseless as he deployed his soft Scottish accent and charm to maximum effect. I slapped my arm irritably, wiping away another smear of blood. The Lodge bar was buzzing with as many mosquitoes as it was hormones.
Consumed by perhaps one too many beers, my mood darkened. The rawness of the place seemed to strip away some of the veneer of life’s pretense and I was reluctant to join in the usual social games. I didn’t want to come out to play.
I turned away, leaning on the bar’s railings gazing out over the blackness of the empty Masai Mara, feeling the heat of the African day being released in gentle gusts against my face. A distant cackle from a hyena drifted out of the night on the dry air, reminding me that something out there had died to sustain that laugh. In the distance, perhaps catching scent of the recent kill, a lioness called.
‘Where are you?’
I turned to face the owner of the question, a woman in her early twenties, one of the women Steve had repeatedly been casting his line towards. I remembered that her weird laugh – an irritatingly strange half-strangled choking sound – had made me studiously avoid her during the day. Inventing a smart reply just seemed too much trouble right now. So I studied and rattled the ice in my Gin & Tonic in order to give the impression of thought before saying lamely, ‘I’m out there.’
I hoped the disinterest in my voice would send her away. As far as I was concerned, Steve was welcome to her. Instead she moved closer, leaning on the railings next to me, looking out into the velvet blackness. I was annoyed by her intrusion into my introspection and made to leave, when she said: ‘Do you think there is any escape, I mean, out there?’
Was she in some way attuned to my melancholy? Her empathy shamed my crassness. She continued to stare into the night as if I wasn’t there. The breeze lifted her long hair in waves over bare shoulders, the skin tanned to a deep bronze. She turned to meet my gaze and gave me a smile as open as the vastness of the Mara. This time there was no pretense at thought as I rattled my ice at the night and said, ‘Probably, yes, if you’re brave enough, for a while at least, before something eats you.’
‘Ah yes, but in living such a short life … such a vital experience, such an escape, would be worth a lifetime of boring safety, don’t you think?’
I shrugged, ‘Perhaps, but you don’t seem to me to be the sort of person that’d want to live like that.’ I heard the contempt in my voice and cursed myself.
‘You might be surprised at how I’d might like to live … or die.’
‘Surprise me then.’ My tone was still dismissive.
‘Ah, but that’s my secret,’ she said flatly.
My mood must have made me a little sensitive to a sadness hidden in that reply, as it at least made me decide not to press for an answer. Another hyena laughed in the darkness, mocking us both. The spell broken, she turned back to me.
‘I think you’re not such a bad person, even though you are rude and a bit of a pig.’
‘Yes, a pig. I think that was a good description of you … before. Now? Well now I’m not so sure. Anyway, I like pigs, the non-human kind that is.’
She turned and faced me, eyes narrowed, head slightly tilted, curious, as if inspecting a slightly revolting insect.
‘You might just be more than the pompous arrogant oaf you appeared,’ she said, turning back to the darkness of the Mara before adding, ’You’re still rude though.’
She ignored me. Had she bothered to turn and look, she would have seen me doing a fair impression of a drowning fish. Gasping, lost for breath let alone words as I flapped around silently next to her, stunned by her boldness to state things plainly. And, of course, she was right. I had ignored her to the point of rudeness and been arrogant and dismissive. Reminders if they’re needed, that we all carry a persona that should never be taken so readily at face value. I picked my jaw up from the floor and put it back into place while she waited patiently.
‘I’m Paul,’ I said at last, putting down my glass and holding out my hand.
‘I know your name already.’
There was no hint of a smile in her tone. Sheepishly, I let my hand fall. ‘Look, I’m really sorry, perhaps we could start afresh?’
Once again she studied me and this time I found myself hoping the insect under scrutiny did not seem so revolting. I tried not to squirm. Eventually she relented.
‘My name’s Shania,’ she said into the darkness. Then, turning to me with a face that had been transformed by a smile that took my breath away, ice-blue eyes twinkling mischievously, she said, ‘Yes, let’s start again.’
And we did, and perhaps thanks to the power of the Mara, this time completely free of artifice.
Dawn was only a few hours away as we left the bar and walked to her room, and there I wrapped my arms around her. The sky of the African bush was Moonless, filled with stars cascading undimmed to the horizon. Her hair effervesced under my hands in the starlight as I drew her close to me, her lips to mine. It was she who led me by the hand inside and in the morning and without tears, she whispered to me of her terrible secret and of the fate she could not escape.
That strangled laugh that I had despised was a symptom. She had little life left to live so we shared what was left to us; intense meetings interspersed by desolate, enforced absences. We both had a life to experience, and quickly. Her illness was inoperable and relentless. Instead of opting for the uncertainty, the terrible hope, the half-life existence of chemotherapy, she chose acceptance and the desire to burn brightly.
Her answer to me that time, while looking into the dead heart of Africa, talking of escape and death, still haunts me. “In living such a short life, an escape like that would be worth a lifetime of boring safety, don’t you think?”
When I gave her a small gift, on the night that unknown to us would be our last, her eyes lit up in that mischievous way I loved so much.
‘Paul, you sly devil, you bought them!’
I shrugged, unable to speak after she shot me a smoldering glance of a promised reward.
‘Oh, Paul, they’re so beautiful, thank you …’
As she thanked me, I could see her quickly check the size, glancing towards me with a embarrassed half-smile.
‘Well, go on, why not try them on?’ I said, hoping my smile wasn’t too much of a leer.
‘I will, just let me put them on in the bathroom ….’
I was smiling yet crying inside. She had become so painfully thin she was ashamed to undress in front of me. I sat down, remembering how she used to delight in peeling off her clothes one by one, in a delicious, deliberate, motion. I knew every part of her yet she always held me captivated. Even now I was like a rabbit caught in the headlights of her sexuality.
When she came back into the bedroom dressed in the red silk pyjamas, she turned and fluttered her eyelashes at me in mock seduction. I laughed, stood up and took her in my arms.
‘Remember the old joke? The one about those clothes looking better on the bedroom floor?’
‘No, don’t think I do,’ she whispered, ‘remind me again how it goes?’
Her body felt hot beneath the silk as she shivered under my touch and my heart ached as I felt the bones beneath her flesh. My hands slowly tracing the contours of her body, following the delicious curve of her hips, into the pinch of her waist, up and along the smooth valley of her back. Molding her body against mine, her breath warming my neck, her teeth teasing the soft skin of my earlobe as my hands explored.
She began to sway, moving against my arousal as her head slowly fell back. I studied her face as if for the first time; eyes closed, mouth slightly open, the tip of her tongue captured on moist lips. My hand went beneath her hair, caressing her neck, my thumb resting briefly on a rapidly pulsing vein; the drum beat of her life and desire. So little time.
My lips took hers as my hands moved down. Her breasts were transformed to the texture of warm oil by the silk and slid beneath my caress, erect nipples raking my palms. The buttons of her new pyjamas fell open one by one as silken clothing slithered to the floor, discarded in defeat and surrender. She stepped into my arms, leaving my little gift forgotten on the bedroom floor as we made love.
In the morning, the warm light of dawn failed to lift the greyness from her complexion. Unable to speak, except through her eyes, she implored me. At the hospital I insisted she wore her pyjamas and held her hand until she slipped away.
A month a year or a lifetime, it’s never long enough. Neither of us expected the end to happen so fast. She was wearing them now, though nobody in the room knew. I smoothed her jacket and held her cold hands for the last time. She loved those pyjamas. I walked away from the coffin, unable to stop the tears, wondering how I could face a life without her.