#WeekendRead - Efemia Chela's 'Perigee'

Perigee was first published in the NIHSS award-winning, 2014 Short.Sharp.Stories Anthology, Adults Only. The story is about youth, sex and losing. Its title refers to the stage in the moon's orbit when it is nearest to the earth.

As soon as my phone brought news of where she was, I tore up my room looking for perfume and the cleanest of the clothes on the floor. I thought anything would be fine as long as I could cover it with this fine brocade coat that was hiding somewhere. In hindsight I don’t know why I bothered. I had known her for so long then that she knew how the crevices of my body drew in all fabrics, no matter how loosely draped. And how I smelt a little like alliums and sour milk when I attended early morning lectures without showering.

I slammed the door and jumped two at a time down the stairs. Behind me, my next-door neighbour shouted threats of filing a complaint. I wondered why loud noises bothered her in a way that my dealing never did. I ran, wind rushing in my ears, ricocheting off the clips in my hair. So fast, I didn’t even notice the girth of the moon. Only later I would realise how full, how round, how milky it was. And so close. It was at its perigee waiting to be plucked from that vast black cloth by someone brave. I avoided its pupil-less gaze, afraid of what I would see in its surface.

I got there quickly, my heavy breath arrived a step ahead of me. The bar was full of locals who didn’t bother look up when I walked in. They could smell I was harmless. I caught a glimpse of myself in the cracked mirror just before the pool tables. I looked uncharacteristically beautiful. Maybe it was the moonlight. My looks flickered on and off like a faulty lamp and I never knew when things were in my favour aesthetically. I took a second look in the mirror and saw a kind of mournful beauty like an old silent movie star, losing to the talkies. Losing. Losing. Losing.   

I searched for her. Now that she had cut her hair it took double the time. Still that wasn’t very long. I had memorised her silhouette like a redemptive prayer. “Meryl. Meryl,”my heart murmured. I knew almost certainly she’d be in the outdoor bunker, under the fairy lights where you could smoke a joint with the owner’s blessing. I pushed the slow stickied door with an open palm and regretted it instantly. Should have used my sleeve. I put my clean hand on her sloping left shoulder. She looked up and smiled all the way to the curve of her eyelashes. That smile had the same effect on me every time. It stirred the pot and thickened the evening’s plot. My lips queasily formed the word, “Hi.”

“You look really bleak with life, friend,” Meryl said as I sat down opposite her in the bottle green booth. “I’m so glad you came. I was really worried about you.”

She reached over to clasp my hand. I felt the jab of one her pointy rings.

“Yeah. Well... unrequited love isn’t easy. It’s a fucking nightmare. It’s a lot like being a monk but there are no orange robes,” I said.

“Bummer. You look good in orange,” she joked. “But I don’t get it, monks? How? No sex?”

“You’re believing in something. Something... which most people don’t believe in. And honestly which can’t, with real incontrovertible proof, be said to truly exist.”

“Or a person. A person who doesn’t exist,” she said. “He can’t exist the way you want him to. You know that. He’s a bastard! I get it. I know what you see in him. You see everything that’s bad for you and that makes you want it more.”

“My moth tendencies...,” I offered weakly.

“He’s going to fuck you up!”

I ignored her. The pot calling the kettle harmful and all that.

Betty swaggered up to Meryl, the intrusion stopping wherever our conversation was going. All bound breasts and big lies she placed her hand firmly where mine had just been. It seemed to fit there better. It might as well have been a hot brand. Fuck, I hated her and her greasy confidence. She could make you feel like you were enough. “You were all and that was it,” her exes all testified. Betty had the pushiness of someone much older spiked with the hard-headedness of someone much younger. I’d never seen her sit down. Her grasping nature wouldn’t permit it. That and I’m sure one of her exes had a hit out on her. She used her ruthlessness to beat her way in the world and beat people out of it. She didn’t meet people so much as manhandle them. Sometimes I thought I could see the very cogs whirring behind her sharp temples.


This was who Meryl had chosen to be hurt by. But people can live off hurt. They can’t live off nothing. So they kept on.


There wasn’t a lot of motivation to stop. Life was boring and the winters here were harsh. I avoided Betty’s eyes like I would a growling bear. Her gaze withered me anyway. I felt increasingly dry and irrelevant so I left to get a drink. “Maker’s Mark. Neat. No rocks,” I must have said to the barwoman. I only realised what I’d asked for when it was resting, brown and quiet in a tumbler in front of me. It wasn’t my drink; it was his. He’d taken over. I didn’t know what to do with it. Bourbon was a plantation owner’s drink. Nothing to do with me. Or him either. He was ex-struggle. What was a small-town lecturer doing sucking down the oppressor's fuel?

I looked left down the bar hoping he would appear at my side. I waited to feel his hand cinch my waist. It would have been a good time to be distracted by a long story about where he’d picked up the Maker’s habit. No one was there. I heaved myself onto the barstool for something to do. As I did I felt something pop out of place inside of me. It was like this sometimes. I felt dizzy and not just from all the joints I’d smoked that evening. From time to time a part of me broke off and then I felt watery. Like my legs were ill-fitting prostheses and after years of chafing, were about to give out.

I looked back at the two of them, through the smudged glass window. Meryl looked at Betty; she looked at her, in love. Her small pudgy hands were weighted with the rings she never took off and they glinted as she stroked Betty’s hair. They whispered soft as feathers to each other. Betty bit her ear playfully. They shared the same whisky and water passing it between each other like a chalice. Priest and sinner? Who was who? No matter. They kissed. Pulling tenderly at each others’ lips. Then Betty moved up and whispered something into her girlfriend’s hairline. When she curled her arm round Meryl’s neck it looked like a chokehold. All hell broke loose. Meryl slapped her. Betty blushed all the way to her dirty blonde roots and ran off to the pool table, forgetting her usual swagger, to lick her wounds. Or make some nice boy lick them for her while she schemed revenge. She put on being straight like an old hat. Even boys who knew the truth let themselves be fooled. They thought the lesbian thing was a cool little quirk. It meant someday they might get to watch. Meryl looked at me through the window. I couldn’t tell if it was her or the window clouding over.

I rushed across the room like a silent ambulance. She lay her head on my breast and shuddered. Not quite crying but not quite dry-eyed either. She’d been there before. But I might never get this close again. I mumbled things I can’t remember now and laced my fingers with hers. We sat like this for some time then she pulled her hand away to fumble blindly for a tissue or a lighter or something else in the  black hole of her bag. I traced letters in the water left by her glass while stamping out a smile. How glad I was near to be her and how sure I was that I was right.

Prof liked to be right too. It was his job. He was a scavenger of dead languages and reveled in his colleagues thinking what he did was useless. It meant they never bothered him; they never read his sprawling papers or reprimanded him for having a sleeper couch in his office. He was an agile speaker. Not content with wild gesticulating, he paced, and rocked back and forth, and bounced from one leg to the other. Which was a small feat since one of his legs was slightly shorter than the other. The book in his hand was a formality. He knew stretches of those ancient poems by heart, those he performed to us. We listened rapt to his rollicking voice that shook each character from centuries of sleep. We circled and underlined and translated and analysed the remains of Greco-Roman mythic incest.


Betrayal, love and rape, all running and feeding and borrowing from each other. Sin and glory. Zombie poetry. Pages and pages of old words that we knew to be dead though they felt so alive.


Maybe he picked me out from early on. Set me aside for some alternate purpose. I was never top of any classes apart from his. He groomed me with recommendations from his personal library. We tea-d and talked every afternoon. I tried to pry him open like a pistachio. He was polite enough to let me think I had. Lying on his office couch, I offered myself up to him, if he was willing. So much of nothing happened and it all meant the world to me. I tried to infuse my every touch with all of my mixed-up emotions about him. And just when I thought we were something I’d just made up he’d let something small and potent drop into conversation. He’d take a rare and peculiar interest in a kink in my wire. A flaw in my thigh. A dent in my back. Instinctively, he knew the rotting disused trail to my heart - how to tend all those bushes I’d cultivated alone.

It was too much, to think of you and him in such quick succession. In such close orbit. My hand started to shake as I tried to keep stroking your shoulder. I was perverse. I was wet. I recoiled at the thought of having wet myself in a fit of nervousness. In public. Near you. At my age.

“I’ve just got to-,” I said. She was too distraught to care.

I walked to the bathroom trying too hard to look normal. I ducked my forehead into a stall. When, by the tail of my skirt, I was yanked into a dark place.

Fear chilled me. My ankles itched and the backs of my arms prickled. I tried to break away. The stranger’s descending hand was about to become nastily damp. I waited for rejection. My cheeks warmed up for anger and shame. Instead, a sultry calm blossomed below. Pleasure unfurled in my hips. It, this tremendous feeling, spread out all over me and gripped the nape of my neck. I was wet. I was deliciously wet. He pushed me into his chest and I fumbled with his hair. Those tight curls - it was Prof! He silenced me with a torrent of kisses. His head disappeared between my legs. I lost myself in him and melted. Melted into someone I didn’t know. When I came, he left. He left me half-clothed.


* * *

I met her twice before she met me. Her right ear jutted out of her hair.  She later intimated that she always caught a tan first on the very tips of her body - the knobbles of her knee, her nipples, her snub nose. In the winter she was sallow and in summer she was olive. I would have re-focused myself on Prof’s lecture in the following seconds but then she laughed. It was so mirthful that the tickling genesis of a laugh bubbled in my own stomach. Like a magnet, Meryl’s laugh drew all the world’s happiness into the room. She was laughing at Prof.  By then he’d already burnt himself into me. He made me want things I’d never known I’d wanted. But he never made me do anything I didn’t want. At least anything I’d admit to

I met her again by way of her left ear. I was waiting uneasily for a march to start. A feeling of powerlessness pressed down on me. I knew the protest would be heralded as a success even though its effects would be short and concentrated, then dissipate without a trace like the modest crowd after half an hour. But in the diaries and CVs of the leaders it was the best they could do and their best was good enough. I was meant to be listening to Prof’s self-proclaimed bold attempts to ‘speak truth to power’. There was a constant ruffle as power had instructed someone underpaid to sweep away dropped flyers for recycling during the proceedings. Then his part was over and someone privileged recited their suffering cred for the crowd of bleeding hearts in matching T-shirts. She turned around abruptly and smiled cautiously. One half of her face at a time. Meryl always smiled like a broken puppet. Disjointedly, like half of her didn’t want to.

She grabbed my hand and said, “We’re power. No one likes us. We should go.”

And so we did. We ran and ran and ran. I looked at her, blurred a little in motion. She looked at me. We whipped our heads back to see. It was only our own hair and legs. We started slowing down, disappointed no one was following us.

We broke into the vault of the old library together. It had fallen to the new world-class library erected on top of it. We would sit between the stacks of bound theses and set-works for discontinued gods and courses. She cross-legged, and me, struggling to copy her with my bigger thighs that went dead too quickly then tingled sharply back to life when I moved. We wondered to each other whether we’d written down essay questions correctly. Usually our hearsay and half-listening came close to a whole assignment. More often than not we lit a joint and got extra-curricular. We rose higher and our voices swelled in the book cellar. We rose higher and our voices. They echoed off the walls forming parallel lives of their own and imbuing the trivialities we spoke of with a booming gravitas.

It was perfect lying on our tummies, our eyes half-closed, reading a piece from a randomly selected book off the shelf. Cinematic Review 1934. Ornithorhynchus anatinus : A Webbed Life.

“The unusual appearance of this egg-laying, duck-billed, beaver-tailed, otter-footed mammal baffled European naturalists when they first encountered it, with some considering it an elaborate hoax”

Dust motes coasted lazily on the air. Once a piece of hot ash fell on her sheer creamy blouse while she was lying on her side. She brushed it away but not quickly enough. We were in a world of our own and time had gone gooey for us. It melted a small hole in her top revealing her nipple. I swooped in and kissed it gently. It was brown and hot like a penny warm from the sun. I felt her hand tighten on my arm. She moaned in pleasure while I nibbled and sucked.

I underestimated the joy of not knowing. I basked in her company and the light in her eyes. We were so close I could see into her heart and know things she didn’t want me to. We had sex when we were lonely. We didn’t discuss it. I didn’t know too much about my feelings for her then. For years they were just an abstract nebula of warmth and wonder in my breast. Later I knew it to be love. And love hurt. Before love it was a blessed time. It was before enthusiasm for our studies got extinguished by debt and cynicism.


We ate badly, that is to say we ate too well and didn’t exercise beyond laughing. We drank too much but it was without menace.


It was just part of our culture - youth culture.

“But there’s no such thing as youth culture,” she said.

We were on my balcony trying to light up. It was just at the start of winter when everyone was still denying it was here. So were we. We squinted in the wind. She was trying to rub the goosepimples out of her flesh while I was trying to keep a joint going.

“There isn’t. We’re unenchantingly normal. We’re just like grown-ups but no one believes us,” she said.

“No. We’re not like our parents at all,” I insisted. “They were of a people. They stayed and knew a place just so they could know it well and take comfort in it.”

“ Maybe you’re on to something. We’re not like that,” she said, “We mill and seethe.”

I thought uncomfortably of the place embossed on my passport. I couldn’t differentiate my country from a row of depressing statistics or dusty pictures on the news. My parents lived there. They had selfishly made it so much theirs that it could never be mine. I couldn’t see myself there. Or anywhere yet.

And maybe that was what derailed everything.The blank sweep of life stretching out in front of me was too much to bear. It demanded of me, silently and sternly. It’s very presence demanded a response. One it deemed worthy. It asked me to make myself up and I couldn’t. I was paralysed by the stark white space. Formless but palpable; a desert of expectations. It stopped me mid-thought, mid-sentence, mid-life. It trailed after me like a clubfoot and wouldn’t let me hide. When I was alone I could feel it forcing its way into every orifice. My ears, the space under my nails, my nostrils, my vagina, the gaps in my gritted teeth. Relentlessly past every little hair into each pore of my skin. Pushing, pushing and pushing. At first I could ignore it. It let me act normally. It let me see people. It let me work. And then it drowned everything and made me watch.

The nurses and therapists and psychiatrists made me cry myself back to life. I cried and cried and cried. The sad noises of my racking body rang out a small pathetic space for me in the world. I stopped to swallow pills and snot. My voice became hoarse with the stress of recovery and the talking of feelings. Such routine self-scrutiny only either kills you or makes you well. Gradually I got better. Or maybe just different. Every bad day felt predictable and every good day felt like a lie. I no longer cried. The tears no longer came. They blocked up my head and nasal passages. My body re-absorbed them. My head felt hot and swollen all the time, like rotten fruit engorged in the sun. And that’s why when I found them together, naked, on top of a Makana District Marriage Register from 1888, I couldn’t cry.


* * *

“2, 2, 4, 3, 5, 4, 4, 4.”, she announced. “This bar is full of fucking fours! What a bust.”

“Just let it go, Betts. Another night, okay?” Meryl said into her blue check collar.

I could have told her there was no use trying drag Betty away from the scent but I didn’t feel like being right any more for some reason. Betty said it would happen and it would happen tonight. He was here, they just hadn’t found him yet.

“Oh look, a 6,” she said, pointing.

She left the booth and wandered off for closer inspection. I followed her gaze - green and concentrated as a laser. She looked like she had half a mind to open his mouth and count his teeth like a slave trader. But with a simper and a flick of her hair that person was gone and someone else was asking him coquettishly for a cigarette, putting her right leg behind the other and stroking it.

I heard the scrape and burst of a lighter coming to life across from me. A smoke was born. Poppy-coloured lipstick stained the cigarette butts on the table scattered in front of her.

“You just don’t have any say in it. That’s the thing,” Meryl said apropos to nothing.

I took it from her and inhaled deeply in lieu of a response.

“I just don’t want to lose.” She sighed and motioned for me to give it back.

It seemed like just another one of those long nights of trailing admiration. I rolled and lit up until time glazed over it. I couldn’t sleep for fear of missing out. None of us wanted to miss out but on what we weren’t really sure. People sang about it, people wrote about it, people died for it even. But we didn’t. We sat around bars, kicked lamp posts and shuffled around dance floors waiting for something to happen. For someone to happen. I’d wake up at three the next aftermoon with cottonmouth, an aching heart and sore heels. I knew it had to stop but I’d go out and follow them again. Padding along behind and beside them. They didn’t mind.


I’d say we hung out as a group but our proximity was merely a coincidence of space and clinginess on my part rather than shared camaraderie.


I just didn’t want to miss the moment she was vulnerable again. Vulnerable enough to give herself up to me.

“You know I’ve always wanted you,” I said.            

It escaped out of my lips. As easy as reckless things do. In the awkward silence afterwards my hands trembled on my knees and my insides crumpled and re-crumpled on themselves until I could barely breathe. Still nothing. She looked away. I looked down into my lap moving away and towards me. Away and towards me like a swing. The soundtrack of pool balls clacking against each other continued. Some men by the pool table cheered. Someone was losing.

“You don’t understand. It’s hard when you’re in a relationship to keep things alive and interesting. Y’know, you see each other all the time and when you don’t you hear rumours about each other. You fuck every day. The only way to stop it becoming boring is to bring someone new in. They don’t stay forever. They’re just visiting.”

“We’re all just visiting each other aren’t we?” I said. “No one gets to stay.”

Betty brought over her pick.

“Shuffle up,” she barked.

Meryl slammed her hands on the table and moved up. He slid into the booth, gripping a dictaphone in his mouth. I thought he was crazy and clenched my hands into fists, warily. His eyes glinted with lust as he explained it was an electric cigarette. I’d never seen one before. It had an orange electric flame that even stoked itself when he inhaled. I retaliated by smoking my Camel, harder. I didn’t get what men had to do with lesbians. They were unlikely saviours. He wasn’t my type. He’d live and die in this town. A boy in his dad’s shoes. He had on a beige shirt worn one day too long and a dusty navy blazer with the lapels fraying at the corners. He talked and talked but didn’t ever say what he meant. Worst of all his canned pheromones stung my nostrils. We said no names.

He was an adequate human being. Not adequate at anything in particular. Just adequate. No qualifiers. I doubted he knew he was making a foray into an imploding relationship, and that even if he had, he wouldn’t have been sorry about it.

I was resigned. Disappointment weighed down my throat. I retreated, into my usual posture of bitterness. Betty walked ahead of me, arguing with Meryl. Anger was their foreplay and I didn’t intervene. She pushed open the door to my own residence block and tramped up the stairs as if she knew where the communal government-issue condoms were kept. I hung back and let her arrogance tire itself out. Eventually she’d have to concede only I knew where they were and that I was good for something. They were in the phone box on second floor, affectionately called Slag Row for girls that lived there. I opened the box and there was one left. I briefly considered lying, saying that all the slags had gotten there first and the box was empty. But that wouldn’t have stopped anything. I picked it up, walked over and handed it to Meryl.

We walked through the hallway, down the main stairs and back to the car in silence. Someone shouted through their wall that we should “STOP BANGING THE FUCKING DOOR!” The night was calm and unusually bright. I hadn’t noticed it before but it could have been day. We stepped on to the avenue lined with trees, as sturdy and leafy as the admissions brochure had promised. Betty’s blue car was parked underneath them, Meryl and my doors still left open. The wind blew half-heartedly making the leaves above quiver.


Only then did I look up at the moon. This strange ghost fruit hanging in the night.


I felt like time and space had buckled under the weight of it and that was all this night was. I got a good look at it before it ducked out of view. Its power radiated anyway. Thick fingers of moonlight shot through the navy clouds and illuminated everything below. The clouds exited my gaze, stage left. A bit of the moon was revealed. Then another cloud swept over. Exit stage left.

I could sense something coming in the distance though I couldn’t tear my eyes away from the drama of the sky. The blood in my head drained to the back of my skull as I kept looking up for an answer to a question I hadn’t really asked. Something somewhere rustled. But maybe not. I brushed it off as a hallucination. My senses running wild and overstimulated. Set alight by drugs and the moon’s cool fire. My senses running sticks along my cage. But then I was sure I could feel it. That night I had felt it all and was sponge, saturated by the life bursting around me. I could feel it even though it was still far away. The freedom, the rush. The friction of bodies moving. The stick and release of damp skin on damp skin. Life bristling rebelliously in the night when all should be still. Sounds of screaming and laughing and jeering and whooping and slapping feet reached my ears. A crowd of boys approached. Unbridled and naked. Thundering towards us. Possessed by an unnameable desire. Swinging and running they came up the road like a pale white wave. Like a flock of white geese. Like I sign I couldn’t understand. They ran down the avenue, and glowed with lunar energy. All of a sudden I started laughing and laughing and laughing. Peals of laughter and tears. These boys. They were flying. These boys were flying.



Efemia Chela was born in Zambia in 1991, but grew up all over the world. She studied at Rhodes University, South Africa and Institut D’Etudes Politiques in Aix-En-Provence, France. When she grows up she would like to be a better writer and literary translator. She enjoys eating pizza, reading graphic novels and watching black and white films.

Her first published story, ‘Chicken’ was nominated for The 2014 Caine Prize For African Writing. Efemia’s subsequent stories and poems have been published in places like Brittle Paper, Jalada,  Prufrock and PEN Passages: Africa. Efemia is currently a fellow of the inaugural Short Story Day Africa / Worldreader Editing Mentorship Programme and continues to write fiction whenever she can find a moment on the train and a working pen.



Plans for "...world domination." An Interview with #WriterPrompt winner, Lester Hashimoto

Are you really you?

Morning light has yet to cross our feet. Calluses bump his. They are beautiful. I know them well. I look at mine and hide them under his leg; they need more mileage. 
Burnished skin stretches over his length; it contains him, his strength, his every potential. I draw the tip of my finger to his nipple. It hardens. He stirs. 
The toilet is hot. It is summer and I have forgotten to leave the window open. A drop of sweat rolls down my back. My pee hits the water in a thick stream.

His embrace awaits me.
Morning, says his sleepy smile.
I climb into his arms. They enfold me, like petals.
“How did you sleep?” I always ask.
“Mmmmm,” he always says.
“Last night was good.”
A kiss is his reply.
He runs his nail across my chest and flicks my nipple. It puckers up.
His face, his brow defy wrinkling; his mouth stays set; his eyes dart from side to side, over the whole of mine, and I wonder what he is looking for.
My eyes are calm, an antidote to the fever in his.
He climbs atop. His weight pinches my arm to the bed. I smile.
“I want you,” he says.
“You have all of me,” I say because he is perfect.
His lips brush mine and I wonder, again, “Are you, really you?”

#WriterPrompt is a flash fiction writing workshop hosted by Short Story Day Africa team, on our Facebook page. Lester Hashimoto was the winner of #WriterPrompt 10 and told us a bit about his writing routines, past and present as well as his travels. 


Can you tell us a little about your writing world?

LESTER: Writing has been sporadic. I used to teach English as a second language in Japan but have recently moved back to South Africa. In between the moving I've not had much chance to sit down and actually write. Before that, I used to write for an hour in the mornings.

There is no 'writing world' for me really. I don't know any other writers or writerly things apart from the guys I met attending a monthly workshop in Tokyo and, of course, the community at SSDA's #WriterPrompt.


Who are your top favourite authors?

LESTER: I'm fiercely non-committal, so my favorite authors are usually the ones I'm reading at the moment. In the past it has been Yukio Mishima, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Stephen King, Sidney Sheldon. I'm currently enjoying the fantastical Jorge Luis Borges.


What writing plans do you have for the future? 

LESTER: World domination. I started writing quite late and there is no room for modesty. I want a book deal. I want to get published.


Lester Hashimoto has taught English as a second language in Japan for the past eight years but has recently moved back to South Africa. A short story of his has been published in Die Laughing, the 2016 anthology of Short. Sharp. Stories, which is part of The National Arts Festival.


Interview by Jason Mykl Snyman

#WeekendRead - Greg Lazarus' award-winning story, 'This Could Get Messy'.

"This Could Get Messy" won the 2016 Short.Sharp.Stories Award and is collected in an anthology of wit, satire and humour called Die Laughing


This Could Get Messy


Tues, Sept 15, 4:11 PM
Subject: Love

Dear Dr Schiff,

I hope you will forgive my writing to you. I have perused the university website, examined the faces of the philosophers and decided who to contact based on appearance. You may say that it is a shallow and immature method, and you will be right. I am shallow and immature, Dr Schiff, but I am trying to make myself deeper. That is where you come in, if you are willing.

Dear Doctor, tell me truly: how does love arise? As a philosopher, I expect that you have plumbed this profound question. What a moment it will be to receive your response, an oasis in the desert of my routine. Today’s activities: I spent the morning in the clutches of Mrs Baderoon (Noor Ul Islam Girls’ College, Grade 11, the ‘clever class’). This afternoon I played with my little brothers and helped to prepare dinner. Now I shall do my homework, ‘keenly’ (languages) or ‘disappointingly’ (physics, biology, geography, all else). Then TV (with the remote control in the hands of Hamza, my older brother, therefore bad TV). Then bed (with one or two wake-ups, heart thudding, before morning). And the pattern of the days will remain the same until I receive your wisdom.

With kind and respectful and interested wishes,

Ilhaam Nassif


Fri, Sept 18, 5:38 PM
Re: Love

Dear Ms Nassif,

Thank you for your email enquiring about love. Unfortunately, I do not deal with love but with issues in the philosophy of mathematics.

However, I would advise that you phone Ms Briggs (ext: 397), the departmental administrative officer, to enquire about our high school philosophy programme. It is offered in March next year and I’m sure you will find it most stimulating.

Kind regards,

Gary Schiff


Fri, Sept 18, 6:47 PM
Re: Love

Dear Dr Schiff

Thank you for your message, but I sadly cannot wait for your classes next year. I am at a crossroads. Matters are to be decided very soon.

I understand that you are not a philosopher of love, but I found no philosophers of love on the university website. Hence, I had to choose another. Your picture indicated to me a person of substance, of feeling. I am highly intuitive.

Our school motto, in case you are interested, is ‘Knowledge is Light’. A thought: what is the point of light, if you are not willing to share it?

Kind regards, and apologies for my extreme rudeness, which I unfortunately cannot entirely help, because I am uncorrectable, according to my mother, teacher and (few) friends,

Ilhaam Nassif


Mon, Sept 21, 9:25 AM
Re: Love

Dear Ms Nassif,

Thank you again for your message. To clarify: in any academic field, including philosophy, one specialises. Some philosophers are professionally interested in emotional topics, but my own focus is on mathematics and logic. As you will appreciate, these are quite different realms. Perhaps speaking to your parents and teachers could be a good start.

Good wishes,

Gary Schiff


Mon, Sept 21, 4:55 PM
Subject: Misled by beard?

Dear Dr Schiff,

Forgive me, but have I been misled by your beard? It seemed to me a warm and welcoming beard – I have studied a number of them, and they are not always pleasant – and I sensed that its owner would be forthcoming. Perhaps the problem is really that I have not explained myself in detail. In one month, an ‘excellent’ young man, the first cousin of a colleague at my mother’s work, will be coming from a distant country (Australia) to visit me. Intention: marriage. He has seen a photograph, and believes that I would make a suitable wife. I too have seen his picture. I cannot tell much from it, or from the fact that he lives in a house of his own and works for Australia’s second-largest bank. My mother says that I am a romantic, that I have been reading the wrong books, that I need to listen to centuries of good sense, and that in the absence of my father her wishes for me are to be given very great weight.

With my teacher I cannot discuss such matters. If you knew Mrs Baderoon, you would understand.

Eager regards,



Tues, Sep 22 at 8:47 AM
Subject: Contact Details

Dear Ms Nassif,

Dr Schiff has passed on your contact details to me. I am pleased to say that you have been added to our contact list for First Steps in Philosophy, our programme for high school students.

I am about to leave the departmental administrative team, but you can rest assured that my successor will be delighted to send you details in due course.

Best wishes,

Melanie Briggs


Tues, Sep 22 at 11:53 PM
Subject: Lava


It can’t be over. This morning in the shower I was soaping myself and I saw your hands, with those nails of sullen fire. Red hair, white skin, lava nails. Jesus.

You’re right, it’s a mess. I have to see you again. I’m going to be at the airport on Sunday morning just before nine. If it has to be over, at least let me look at you one more time.





Tues, Sep 22 at 11:57 PM
Re: Lava

Dear Dr Schiff,

I believe you may have sent this message to the incorrect address. I am not Melanie, of course.

Kind regards,



Wed, Sep 23 at 7: 15 AM
Subject: Apology

Dear Ms Nassif,

My apologies. Yes, it was a private message, intended only for the addressee. Please could you simply delete it from your mailbox.


Gary Schiff


Wed, Sept 23, 4:15 PM
Re: Apology

Dear Dr Schiff,

I will certainly delete it.


P.S. The Quran: ‘Allah will not give mercy to anyone, except those who give mercy to other creatures.’ You would be doing a great mercy to offer a word or two in assistance.


Wed, Sept 23, 5:47 PM
Subject: Question

Dear Ms Nassif,

Since you are clearly deeply engaged with your issue, I will set aside what small portion of time I have for discussion, to the extent that I am competent. Please could you explain, as clearly and precisely as possible, the question you have in mind?

Best wishes,

Gary Schiff


Wed, Sept 23, 7:48 PM
Subject: How does love arise?

Dear Dr Schiff,

Thank you so much! In response to you, I feel as though I could write for hours. But my sense is that you are looking for succinctness, and so I shall rein myself in. Fortunately, my education has emphasised discipline.

Remark number 1 (to introduce a little mathematics, for your interest):

My question demands a certain amount of background. Otherwise it will be comprehensible only on the shallowest level. Let me take the time machine seven years back, to fourth grade, one drowsy afternoon at my after-school religious class. I was reciting a verse from the Quran when I noticed that my teacher was smiling into the air, like he’d seen some kind of friendly ghost. After class he came over and said that he was going to call my father. ‘It’s a good thing, Ilhaam,’ he reassured me.

At home my parents were together in the sitting room. My father hadn’t yet gone off to his night shift; I had caused him to wait, which was unusual because his young girl was maybe not the highest on his list of priorities. My mother said, ‘Your teacher has honoured us. He tells us that you have something of the sakinah in you, and he suggests that you take the path of the hafiz.’ My father said, ‘It’s not a good idea for a girl in grade four. It’ll take – what – five, six years? – and during that time she won’t be studying anything else, so she’ll be behind in her work. It’ll be hard to catch up when she goes back to school.’

I remember the way my mother looked at him, like he didn’t get it. She didn’t bother to argue with him. That’s my mother: what is resolved is resolved. She just stared at him, shook her head – my mother and my father, that’s a huge book in itself, to rival the nineteenth century novels in the public library, except that in their case there was a divorce – and then turned back to me.

‘Ilhaam,’ she said, ‘this is a big moment. We don’t have a hafiz in the family, you know that. I started, but then things got in the way. Marriage, children – ’ She stared at my father; he was clearly to be implicated in this. ‘I started too late. And you have the sakinah in you, just as I had.’

The sakinah – the spirit of peace? Me??

‘This must be her decision,’ my father said. This time my mother probably didn’t bother to look at him, but she did say, ‘Yes, your decision. And how you decide is going to change your life. Do you have what it takes to learn the entire Quran by heart? To take the sacredness into your heart?’

In the silence I wondered what to do. The room seemed brighter than usual, and I was at the centre. I realised that the room was brighter for a reason – the light came from a special source. I’ve thought back again and again on that illuminated room. As I sat there, with my father saying in the background, well, if she does this thing, she has to study the sciences also, that’s something you must keep up with or you lose it – as I sat there, that was probably the happiest I’ve been.

If love is anything like this feeling, Dr Schiff, it is not easy to imagine that I will come to love the Australian who is due to begin his journey towards me in one month’s time. But am I wrong? Which is why I ask: how does love arise?

(Remark number 2: I try to be dutiful, but I am also hoping to be happy. If duty conflicts with happiness, must duty always win? Can happiness be allowed a victory?)

Even a single drop of help will be precious,


P.S. After all, mathematics is not really that far from holiness. We come to learn something that is true beyond doubt, that could not possibly have been otherwise. Surely human beings working on their own could not acquire knowledge so profound. It is incredible that we can be guided to mathematics, except by divine grace. I imagine that you are well aware of this, of course, being a philosopher of mathematics.


Thurs, Sept 24, 1:53 PM
Re: How does love arise?

Dear Ms Nassif,

Thank you for the message. You suggest that love is something like a revelatory religious experience. I suppose it can be that, but it need not be. Perhaps love can be of a more grounded kind, based on a strong commitment to someone. If that’s the case, then maybe it can arise simply from living together, without any single moment of revelation.

Of course, you may not wish to marry and live with this man, in which case I suggest that you explain your reservations to your mother.

Best wishes, whatever your decision,

Gary Schiff


Thurs, Sept 24, 5:47 PM
Subject: More questions than answers

Dr Schiff, your message raises so many questions that I can barely keep still. To take just one: is ‘commitment’ love as valuable as the ‘revelation’ kind? (Is it, maybe, more valuable?)

I must reveal more. I tried to withhold it, but your penetrating line of thought has forced it from me. Remember when I was telling you about the ‘happiest I’d ever been’ – does that make sense? How can it? I was embarking on a sacred project that brings serenity and joy, so how could my peak of happiness have been the moment before the project began? I will tell you.

After my father had contacted my teacher, after the mutual expressions of happiness at my wise choice, after – I must admit – my pleasurable leave-taking from the school, where I had begun to feel slightly bored – I found myself within a few weeks at the hafiz school, where my teacher was waiting for me. This was different from my usual school: no big class, this time, just me and two others, both teenagers. It was nine o’clock in the morning, and the day stretched before us.

‘Excuse me,’ I said very politely, ‘my father said that I was also to learn the sciences, so I am just mentioning that to you if you don’t mind.’

‘Of course you will do some science,’ said my teacher. ‘We are not here to deprive you of any knowledge of the pattern that the almighty has laid down on the world.’

It was a dazzling thought. That science too was divine. My teacher seemed to notice my dazzlement – he was a person who saw into those he taught, and drew out the best from them.

‘Now, how shall we begin?’ he asked the class. The other girls, who were fifteen years old to my ten, waited to be instructed, but I flatter myself that they did so without my eagerness. I was straining to begin, though I kept my face composed.

‘We could begin at the beginning,’ my teacher said. ‘That is the logical place to start. Or we could try something else. When you are faced with a glittering sea of beauty, you may wish to greet it not by immersing yourself slowly, but by diving in and swimming deep, searching for the greatest treasures. So let us begin by holding in our hands a gem. Who knows Ayat An-Nur, the Verse of Light?’

The most beautiful, mystical verse of the Quran. I knew it from my mother, but I could not say it, because I feared that then he would not teach it. My teacher spoke softly, but we all heard him perfectly, and this was my introduction to the sacred labour of the next five years.

It is obviously a duty not only to control one’s actions, but also one’s thoughts. Our minds are a part of the world as much as our deeds, and we cannot let them run wild. But I did permit myself to dwell on some features of my teacher himself: his hair was black and thick, his white robe perfectly pressed, his hands as he moved them strong and fine. These thoughts, I knew, were not proper, but it was hard not to feel that they were entirely right, because my teacher was a vessel, and the vessel takes on something of what it carries.    

Yes, as you have rightly guessed, looking back on it all, I had acquired feelings for my teacher. They grew stronger as the years passed. Now, two years after the triumphal ceremony in which I displayed my Quranic knowledge to family and friends, two years after returning to school, I still see him on the street sometimes. I go over and greet him respectfully, and when he smiles, calls me his best student and asks after my family, my heart is a boiling vat of happiness and pain. (‘This could get messy,’ according to a soulful singer whose music I once heard in a shopping mall.)

How can I marry one man when another one makes me feel like this? If – to use terms you might prefer – x is merely an unknown quantity but y produces tremendous feelings in me, feelings that I suspect may even be eternal (why, after bodily death, would a soul lose its love? isn’t love at the centre of a soul?), then surely I cannot choose x. But y is a religious teacher, and a man who is himself married! (I have not mentioned this. I do not like to think of it.) For me he must be unthinkable. And yet the thoughts creep in. If I were to confess my feelings to my teacher of the Quran, surely he would understand their purity and sincerity. Surely he would – well. I do not know exactly what I would be asking from him. But I know where he teaches, of course. I could go over one afternoon and explain myself to him, if you think it is a good idea.

I approached you because of course I cannot talk to my mother or Mrs Baderoon about this, and because philosophers are wise. Please, Dr Schiff: please speak.

Agitated regards,



Thurs, Sept 24, 8:00 PM
Re: More questions than answers

Dear Ilhaam,

Thank you for your open and engaging message. It seems to me, though, that your remarks about the challenges you are facing might better be offered to someone in your life, perhaps a counsellor in your community.

Best wishes,

Gary Schiff


Thurs, Sept 24, 8:41PM
Re: More questions than answers

Dear Dr Schiff,

I can take a hint. I am sure you are busy, and unable to enlighten a girl who seeks direction in life. I will not contact you again.

With the exception of this question: what is the point of the old novels I have read, of large sections of the public library, of Jane Austen and the rest of them, if all they do is bring torment? Are the passions of nineteenth century Englishwomen not suitable for me?

But I suppose those books were in the fiction section for a reason.




Fri, Sept 25, 2:17 AM
Re: More questions than answers

You have the right idea: stick to the mathematics, communicate with God in abstract and blissful symbols, and you will not be unsettled by human foolishness. Dr Schiff, you are a wise man; it is now more obvious to me than ever.

Forlorn algebraic farewells,



Mon, Sept 28, 5:20PM
Subject: Confession

I am ashamed of myself, Dr Schiff. Unreservedly, I apologise – it is deeply wrong behaviour from any perspective. You could probably prove its wrongness mathematically, so clear is it.

What I did was – and this confession cannot even begin to make amends – was to ask my aunt Laylaa to take me out early yesterday morning, Sunday. In the car, I explained that I did not wish to go for a walk after all, as I had told her on the phone, but rather to the airport in order to see a group of pilgrims departing for Mecca. She is such a kind woman, and used to my eccentricities, and so off we went. It does not take long from Rondebosch East to the airport, and all the while, past the sad shacks on the highway, my mind was cold and efficient. I thought: it is Departures, because he wishes to see her one more time, and it is probably International, because the drama of his message demands it. We arrived, and after ten minutes of waiting (my aunt: ‘Where is the group of pilgrims, darling girl? Have you not got it wrong?’) I was rewarded: a bearded man (I recognised you instantly) came darting from the entrance of the building towards the departures board, scanned it rapidly and then hurried towards a distant aisle.

I followed, my aunt sweetly quacking behind me. When I got to the Lufthansa section, I saw you talking to a red-haired woman in the middle of the queue. Well, really talking at her: she was facing resolutely forward, one large suitcase on either side of her, looking pale and anxious. One hand gripping each suitcase. (I checked her for nail polish: none.) I sidled slowly up, but my aunt was by now gripping my arm, demanding an explanation, and you in your turn were being eyed by a security guard, who was slowly moving towards you, so I turned and left. My aunt and I even received a few stares. Usually we get a couple of wary glances anyway, because of the niqaab – only our eyes are visible when we go out in public – but this time, my aunt’s agitation showed even through the black robe, and it took me several minutes to calm her with soothing falsehoods.

I wanted to see another kind of love enacted. I wanted to see how you really feel about things. I understand that you might be alarmed that this girl ninja followed you. I will never do it again, I promise. You were wearing a wedding ring, tight around your finger, but I know that the woman you were saying goodbye to – indeed, she did not even wish to offer you the chance to do so – was not your wife. I was sure she was not your wife when I saw her face and how she turned away, her finger ringless. I wonder whether your wife knows, and how you felt when you returned from the airport to her, whether you will now be content with a ‘commitment’ love.

But I must thank you, because I have indeed learnt something from you. If even the philosopher is approached by a concerned security guard, then this is a world in which we must all find our own way.   

The man journeying to me in a month’s time has made his own choice, whether he knows it or not, and when I see him I shall make mine.

Ayat An-Nur, the Verse of Light:

His light is a niche, and in it a lamp;

the lamp enclosed in glass; the glass a brilliant star,

lit from a blessed olive tree,

neither of east nor west.

We do not make our own light, it is all His, but we cannot be content merely to absorb it: we must choose for ourselves how we reflect it.



P.S. Here, at least, is something that might please you. I have spoken about you to my religious teacher, who is interested to hear of your interest in divinity and mathematics (I know you must be well-versed in such things), and will be happy for you to speak to his religious studies class. I shall send you details of the date and time. I too will be present at the talk, of course, as the link between him and you. And perhaps the three of us can have tea afterwards to continue our discussion of mathematics and related lofty matters.



GREG LAZARUS is the pen name of husband-and-wife writing duo Greg Fried and Lisa Lazarus. Lisa is a psychologist and freelance writer.

She has Masters degrees in educational psychology and creative writing, G LAZAR and a higher diploma in education. She has written for publications including Men’s Health, Femina, Shape, Cosmopolitan, Cape Town’s Child, O: GRE Psychologies, and Mail & Guardian. Lisa tutors Magazine Journalism, Feature Writing and Memoir Writing for SA Writer’s College. Greg is a philosopher at the University of Cape Town, where he teaches various topics, OR BIH including the history of philosophy and the philosophy of mathematics.

Currently his research is in social choice theory (which deals with methods A of reaching collective decisions) and in connections between mathematics and theology. The couple have written two novels, Paradise and When in Broad Daylight I Open My Eyes, as well as a memoir, The Book of Jacob: A Journey into Parenthood. Their short stories have appeared in various anthologies.

“The incongruity theory of humour,” write the duo, “says that situations involving the unexpected, the odd, unusual or out of place are funny. Clearly that’s not always true: when the two of us first watched Ghostbusters, we definitely didn’t laugh when that monster loomed out of the mist in Sigourney Weaver’s fridge. But it can be entertaining to watch incongruous things rub up against each other, and South Africa provides plenty of examples.”

Of This Could Get Messy, they write, “A pompous and staid philosopher of mathematics comes into contact with a passionate and intelligent schoolgirl. We enjoyed finding out what happens when this oddly-matched pair interact.” Greg adds: “Please note, my philosophical colleagues and I are entirely professional, and do not at all resemble the characters in the story!”

Follow their news at greglazarus.wordpress.com