The following is an extract from a story by Ivan Vladislavić featured in the 54th issue of Harvard Review. Ivan Vladislavić’s books include The Folly, The Restless Supermarket, The Exploded View, Portrait with Keys, Double Negative and Flashback Hotel. His latest novel The Distance is forthcoming from Archipelago in 2020. In 2015, he was awarded Yale University’s Windham-Campbell Prize for fiction. He lives in Johannesburg where he is a Distinguished Professor in Creative Writing at the University of the Witwatersrand.
When she turned 50 our friend Steph threw a party. It happened that her daughter, Amber, had just graduated with a BA in psychology and so they decided to celebrate together. A transgenerational jol, the invitation said. It’s the sort of thing you’d expect of the Gilberts, they’re a close family, but it seemed like a bad idea to me.
What about the music? I wanted to know. You can’t dance to this doef-doef stuff unless you’re 22 and full of Red Bull.
They’re getting a DJ, said Jen. Snuffy D, I think. Or G. He caters for all ages. Twenty minutes of David Guetta and then some Talking Heads to keep the old folks moving.
Jen’s a party animal. She’ll dance all night. If she can drag me onto the floor, we’ll do the frenetic tickey-draai that we’ve devised over the years. It looks good in a crowd. But I’m not much of a dancer. You’ll always find me in the kitchen.
The Gilberts live in a house with a magnificent open-plan entertainment area (as the estate agents say). There’s a huge glass-walled lounge and dining room, with a showy kitchen at one end and a bar at the other, and it all opens onto the patio and pool. You need actual friends to fill a space this size.
My general theory of party dynamics goes like this: everyone wants to dance when they’re young. Call it natural exuberance, an excess of hormones and energy, the mating ritual. In their 30s most people slow down. Some want to talk or eat, the drinkers want to drink, the young parents want to get home early (the babysitter has already called), but you can still rely on the singles to dance, the ones who think they might get lucky if enough bodies bump together, and the new mothers who’ve got themselves back in shape and want to show it. Then you’re pushing 50, or God forbid pulling it, and your dancing shoes start to pinch. The hosts try their luck anyway, they move the chairs out of the TV room and rig up some speakers, they might even put a red bulb in the fitting. As the night wears on, the keen dancers turn up the volume and a few partners are pulled away from their conversations, but the action might fizzle out in half an hour if the talkers hold their ground.
The transgenerational jol arranged by the Gilberts made nonsense of my theory. The music was pumping when we walked up the drive and the dance floor was already full. There was Snuffy D (or G) behind the decks, haloed in light like a priest at the altar. The message was clear: if you don’t feel like dancing, turn around now.
Jen joined the action straightaway, she’s quite happy to dance on her own, while I slunk along the patio, dropped the presents we’d been urged not to bring on the designated table, and headed for the kitchen. I found a spot out of the crush, where I could watch the dancers and stash my bottle of Springfield behind the espresso machine. A brushed metal extravaganza by Smeg. Steph’s always had her style.
Tebogo was taking chicken satay kebabs out of the oven, while a couple of younger domestic workers washed plates. They must have called in reinforcements for the evening to keep things running smoothly. The woman in black was Moira’s Sindi, whose daughter died in a taxi accident last year. People squeezed in and out, picking at the snacks, looking for glasses, clattering ice out of the fridge door. Marvin collared me and started going on about price fixing in the construction industry. He was wearing a straw-colored Stetson like Bono’s. Then I chatted with Jerome about kickbacks in the commissioning system at the national broadcaster. A lost contract had nearly sunk his production studio. Corruption was on everybody’s lips. Mandy gave me a PowerPoint presentation, without the slides, on Kenny Ngcingwana, the Minister of Social Pathology, as she called him.
The music started again and I found myself dancing with my wife. “When a Man Loves a Woman,” the Percy Sledge version, Jonty’s request.
Pity about the name, I said. If it was easier to get your tongue around, we could slag him off without feeling silly.
Speak for yourself, she said. Don’t make me sing the bloody Click Song.
But what do you make of his plan? I asked.
Plan my arse, she said. It’s a shambles. You can read my piece on Politicsweb tomorrow.
Over her shoulder, I saw Jen doing the lumberjack flamenco she learnt when she was an exchange student in Ontario. It was going to be a long night. And there was Becky dancing with her new boyfriend. My daughter and I do not usually go to the same parties. In the car driving over here Jen had alerted me to the love interest—does anyone still say that?—although she knew nothing about him.
He’ll be there and he’s new, she said. And I think it’s serious.
We should meet him then, I said.
But she warned me off: When she’s ready. Give them some space.
He was a skinny kid in crap-in-the-nappy pants, as we call them in our house. Fine blond hair strangely inflated on top, a long fringe that flopped over one eye, freckles. An emaciated Dennis the Menace. Becky takes after her mother, she fancies herself on the dance floor, and so I noticed at once that he was a bad dancer, awkward but flamboyant, as if a cloud of hand gestures would obscure his lack of rhythm. You’d think it would be impossible not to keep time with the jackhammer bass, but Dennis was managing to go up when everyone else went down, fingers and thumbs twitching. For a moment I thought it was sign language. Could he be deaf? Surely not.
I felt a bit sorry for him. Fact is, he reminded me of myself. The first dancing party I ever went to, I tried too hard and came to grief. We were at the end of primary school and Brett Lombard had thrown the class a farewell party. There were colored lights over the concrete slab in the Lombards’ backyard and if you were dancing under the lucky bulb when the music stopped—no one knew what color it was, it changed all the time—you got a chocolate bar. It was all going well until “Wild Thing” came on the turntable and I was inspired to do the frug.
Snuffy killed the music and tapped on the mike. Time for the speeches. The Gilberts were a verbal bunch. Jen summoned me with a scoop of her hand and we pushed our way into the crowd to listen. It was delightful. I mean that. Jonty made a speech about his lovely wife, Steph, and how she was even more beautiful now than when he met her 30 years ago. Then Steph made a speech about her brilliant daughter, Amber, and how she had grown into just the kind of young woman they had always hoped she would be. And finally Amber made a speech about her awesome parents, and how they’d always been there for her, and she told a story about being fetched from piano lessons by her dad that made Jen cry, and I was glad for Jonty that he’d also been mentioned in dispatches. The Gilberts were model parents, so involved in their kids’ lives, always hands on, never hovering. While Amber was speaking, Tebogo and her crew brought out the bubbly, and when the speech was over we sang “For She’s a Jolly Good Fellow” twice for good measure.
The music started again and I found myself dancing with my wife. “When a Man Loves a Woman,” the Percy Sledge version, Jonty’s request. This one’s for you, doll. Tears welled up in my eyes. The effects of the booze, obviously. It was hard to believe Steph was fifty. She’d always been the baby of our circle. The rest of us had passed the milestone a few years ago and now she was there too. We’d known Amber all her life. When Jonty and Steph brought her back from the nursing home to their flat in Jolly Street, we were there. Now she was a grown woman. Next year she was off to China or somewhere to teach English or work in a children’s home. Helping to make the world a better place. My own daughter was doing a master’s. When I met Jen, she was the age Becky is now. Among the swaying bodies I saw the back of my daughter’s head and the boy’s face lolling on her shoulder behind a smear of hair, lovesick. I clung to Jen for dear life and tried to remember how I felt the first time we danced together.
Things were getting too slow for Snuffy’s liking, but old school was killer, as he put it, and so he hit us with “No Woman, No Cry. ” Perfect. Jen and I had argued about it once. Where was it? Perhaps at some party in a student house in Yeoville. She said she hated the song, it was so sexist.
What do you mean?
He thinks that women are nothing but trouble, she said, that you’re better off alone. No woman, no cry.
But you’ve misunderstood it completely. It’s not about that at all. He’s consoling this woman. He’s telling her to dry her tears!
When we got home, we had to dig the cassette out of a plastic case in the bottom of a cupboard and listen to the words to resolve the argument. I wonder if she remembers? What struck me then was how quickly she admitted she was wrong. That’s always been one of her strong points. I’m the exact opposite. I’ll go on arguing the wrong side till the cows come home.
Now the transgenerational jol gets hazy. Blame the bubbly. I was trying to make my way back to the kitchen and kept bumping into people I hadn’t seen for a while. Harry, Marvin’s daughter Thembi, Les Untermeyer. I had a long conversation with Herman Johnstone about the shenanigans at KPMG. Can you believe it, he said, the people employed to keep us honest are a bunch of shysters. Herman’s a mumbler. Half the story vanished down the front of his shirt, the rest was ground to dust by the beat. Snuffy had pumped up the volume. Now that the speeches were over, he meant to annihilate all other communication. When Herm paused to bite into a spring roll, I pointed to my ear, punched him on the shoulder and headed for my corner near the fridge. The women were washing plates for the pudding: Tebogo’s been with the Gilberts for 20 years and she runs a tight ship. I took a clean glass off the drying rack and reached for my bottle behind the coffee machine. Except that it wasn’t my bottle, it was a Fat Bastard chardonnay, half-empty nogal.
I carried my empty glass out onto the patio.
From issue 54 of the Harvard Review. Copyright © 2019 Ivan Vladislavić.