Get a Life

A Novel

Nadine Gordimer

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Excerpted from Get a Life by Nadine Gordimer. Copyright © 2005 by Nadine Gordimer Published in December 2005 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.

i / Child’s Play

Only the street-sweeper swishing his broom to collect fallen leaves from the gutter.

The neighbours might have seen, but in the middle of a weekday morning everyone would be out at work or away for other daily-life reasons.

She was there, at the parents’ driveway gate as he arrived, able to smile for him, and quickly sense the signal for them to laugh at, accept the strangely absurd situation (only temporary) that they could not hug one another. A foregone hug is less emotional than a foregone embrace. Everything is ordinary. The sweeper passes pushing the summer’s end before him.

Radiant.

Literally radiant. But not giving off light as saints are shown with a halo. He radiates unseen danger to others from a destructive substance that has been directed to counter what was destroying him. Had him by the throat. Cancer of the thyroid gland. In hospital he was kept in isolation. Even that of silence; he had no voice for a while, mute. Vocal cords affected. He remains, he will be still, out of his control, exposing others and objects to what he emanates, whomever and whatever he touches.

Everything must be ordinary.

Calling from one car window to the other: Has she remembered his laptop? Some cassettes? His Adidas? The book on the behaviour of relocated elephants he was in the middle of reading when he went back to hospital? Berenice—Benni—why do parents burden their children with fancy names—has packed a bag for him. She wept while she made decisions on his behalf, put this in, take that out. But she not only remembered; familiarity knew what he would need, miss. In one of the books he will find she has slipped a photograph of herself he liked particularly, he’d taken before their love affair turned into marriage. There’s a snap of the boy as a baby.

His mother fetched him from the hospital. He opened a door of the rear seat of the car, to sit in there, right from the start he must begin to follow a certain conduct of himself, make it a habit for the time being, but his mother is like him (if that’s not a reverse order of inherited characteristics), she has decided on her own code of conduct in response to the threat he represents. She leans to open the door of the passenger seat beside her and pats it authoritatively.

He has a wife and child.

Whose life, whose risk is worth less than these?

Parents are responsible for bringing into the world their progeniture whether deliberately or carelessly and theirs is an unwritten covenant that the life of the child, and by descent the child’s child, is to be valued above that of the original progenitors.

So Paul—that’s him, the son—he has come home—oh differently, for the time being, yes—to the old home, that of his parents.

Lyndsay and Adrian are not old. The ladder of ageing has extended since medical science, sensible exercise, healthy diet have enabled people to linger longer and younger before ascending to disappear in the mystery at the top. (‘Passing away’ is the euphemism, but to where?) Unthinkable that the son is preceding, ahead of them, up there. His father is about to retire at a vigorous sixty-five from managing directorship of an agricultural vehicle and equipment plant. His mother, fifty-nine looking forty-nine, a longtime natural beauty with no wish for face-lifts, is considering whether or not she should leave her partnership in a legal practice and join her other partner in this new phase of existence.

The dog jumps and paws at him, sniffs the cold hospital pungency of his bulging hold-all and the delivered suitcase with what his wife anticipated his needs might be here, in this phase of his existence.—Which room?—It is not his old room, it’s his sister’s that has been turned into a study where his father will follow whatever interests he’s supposed to have in readiness for retirement. This sister and brother born only twelve months apart due to excessive youthful passion or a mistaken reliance on the contraceptive efficacy of breast-feeding—Lyndsay still laughs at her ignorance and the opportunism of quick breeding! There are two other sisters, better biologically spaced. He has no brother.

He’s unique.