2013 SA Writers' College Short Story Competition Fourth Place

'Room Number 25' - by Zainub E Dala


When the time came for them to be lovers, they were useless at it. Months and months of flirtation and the decadent hinting at a torrid affair, had found them at last in Room number 25 in a mediocre beachfront hotel. Like the poles of a magnet, they had thrown themselves at each other in the brightness of noon, making sure the thick heavy drapes were drawn, only to find that the poles repelled each other. A still-life in watercolours, they stood facing each other in owlish surprise – the slow, steady realisation that their attraction had been inert after all.

Miriam had insisted on a daytime tryst, knowing that the children would be safely stowed in their kindergarten rambunctious bliss, that her husband would be punching figures into a machine. Ian had agreed, for the same reason of course, his wife would surely be seated at a table watching as a talkative teenager manicured her nails into talons.

The anticipation of it all had threatened to raze through them both like a bush fire, and when the moment arrived, the disappointment was all that was left.

He watched as she awkwardly settled her brown body against a wall, the picture of Tretchikoff’s “Lost Orchids” behind her mirroring the kitsch nature of the affair. 

Ian imagined the millions of lovers sprinkled all over the world, making love under the murky glare of a Tretchikoff print, the orchids and the roses sprinkling them with passion.

Outside on the hot street, branches of humanity walked dogs, ate ice cream cones, and warbled in beautiful tongues. Unaware of the boiling questions and frightening passion that seemed to bubble out from a second story room in a nondescript beachfront hotel.

He approached her with the tentative shyness of a teenager, and as she shrank deeper into the wall, becoming one with the orchids, he reached his arm out to remove her black headscarf.

“May I?” Ian said, not asking, not waiting for her response.

A cascade of fragrant hair came tumbling into his hands, the silkiness of it he rubbed between thumb and fingers. She transformed before his eyes from a frumpy mother into a lover with warm expectant eyes.

“Show me pleasure,” her eyes seemed to say to him in the semi dark, and he cupped his hands into a basket filled with the dark brown fragrant hair.

“Beautiful,” he whispered, kissing a lock of hair and his whisper seemed to please her as she advanced, away from the orchid stained wall, and held her smooth armoured self against him. In his shirtsleeves he felt like her protector, like an avenger with a fallen princess in his arms. He smoothed the beautiful mass of hair away from her face and watched as she closed her eyes in anticipation of his kiss. When it did come, the kiss was chaste – the kiss of a brother, he held her shoulders and stared at her fully open face sensing deeply that she needed to be taken away.

Ian knew more than she, that fast and rapid entanglements, voracious intimacy and a grabbing dance was what Miriam wanted. It would prevent her from thinking too much.

“Seize the moment,” he thought, but he watched her eyes begin to cloud over. He was losing her. The cogwheels in her brain beginning to move in time to a song of resolution.

As if she were a mirror held up to his face, he began thinking as well, but his thoughts were easier to push to the back of his nebulous mind with cold tenacity. He would act now. Think later.

Perhaps if he had grabbed her right then and peeled her long body away from the protective wall...

Perhaps if he had ravaged her then, silenced the whispers and the thoughts, perhaps things would have gone differently. But it was too late. She was shutting down. She was withdrawing into her inner world of babies and husbands, and dinners that needed cooking, and clothes that needed to be folded neatly into piles.

“Don’t go!” Ian whispered and they both knew he was calling her back from the edge of a murky bottomed well wherein deep inside sat her children, reaching their arms out to grasp her. To pull her in.

“Stay with me,” he whispered, and into her fragrant hair, the whisper was a sensual beacon, a lighthouse at which Miriam threw herself like a whale beached to die. He grabbed her shoulders and avoided her eyes as he began to dryly kiss her neck and pull her subtly onto the bed. She followed like a compliant gazelle and lay next to him, both fully clothed.

They both recalled the flirtatious conversations over coffee, the deleted text messages, the vibrant fire each had ignited in each other. But as they lay on the bed side by side, a dullness overcame their landscape. A fire only in thought. A ravaging only in anticipation. Fallow.

Their intention to take the flirtation to the next level, the physical level came as a surprise to both of them. Their conversations had never included hotel rooms and surreptitious clambering in semi-dark places. They had simply fallen in a sort of love with one another... a conversational love. The physical act was simply an afterthought.

He tried again. He reached for her and began to act out the play that lovers the world over could act. The pulling and the tugging and the breathiness began. Coiled into each other like alien vines they found a place where they both fit. And the dance that was so staccato became a fluid dance of arms and legs and fingers.

She felt like she was perched at the edge of the world then. Had the world been flat, this could so easily have passed off as the edge. Instead it was just a pathetic rocky shelf in a world filled with pathos, the ideas that maybe, just maybe you could inject some drama into a day. Make the mundane seem exciting. They became courting peacocks; they danced in horizontal rhyme trying ever so hard to make this tryst all it was built up to be.

“Is this what forty feels like?” Ian thought, running his hand down her thigh, “is it the coveting of another man’s wife that will bring the waters of my youth back into this aging body?”

His question was silent, but it screamed into the hotel-room air, the smell of it, so oily, so wanton, so ungainly. There was no subtle pride in what they were doing. It was an ugly act. And she felt his hesitation, his fingers come to rest on a waistband.

The unsaid, the vacant words, the matrix between words spoken by lovers sat quietly in a corner, running a thumb across a fleshy lower lip....waiting.

Miriam pulled herself from his rapid embrace, ducking her head away from one of his kisses. She held his head between her two cool hands, and forced him to stare squarely into her eyes. Asking. What she saw in his eyes was not passion. It was fear. And what he saw in hers was terror.

This cannot go on.

Miriam recalled fleetingly him telling her that he had and Autistic son, who he loved in a strange removed sort of way. He told her a secret, that he felt he could never love the child completely, that he was afraid of the child. His own child terrified him with vacant stares.

He said his wife had moved away from him, tangling herself into nets of doctors, faith healers and priests...a world he rejected. His wife had thrown herself into the stew of self destruction, hoping beyond reason that those strange amulets and badges, hospital tags and notebooks would bring her child back to normal again. Her belief was stronger than his. Yet she resented him with all her body and soul. She rejected his quiet acceptance of the type of child they had been given. She hated him. And she loved him. And he...loved no one.

Ian belonged in a no man’s land. A cold, dark place where you sit with your thoughts and wonder how badly your life had turned out. His mundane job as a high school Maths teacher, the humdrum of existence, it all pecked at him anxiously like hadeda’s pecking for worms. And there were many, many worms.

She recalls the day where they had met. At a swimming pool. She had taken her children for their lessons. He had reluctantly brought along his son.  Their flirtations had begun, followed by more meetings, and it was she who had boldly told him to book a hotel room.

She was tired of her life. Tired of being looked over, passed over like an invisible trapped dragonfly bashing at the windows to get out of the room. She wanted more, so much more from this life. He understood. He listened. He spoke and he consoled. And the affair had swelled into importance.

But here, in Room number 25, as they lay together fully clothed, side by side on a springy mattress, a wave of surprise and disappointment washed over them. They could not do it. They just could not do it. Miriam wondered if he would sensitively touch the silvery stretch marks sprinkled over her thighs and abdomen – the result of two wonderful babies. He wondered if his stamina would carry him through.

Frustration washed over their inert bodies, and in a huff, he rapidly swung his legs over the edge of the bed, and stalked out onto the balcony. The claustrophobia of the room and all its intentions threatened to suffocate him. He left her lying there, breathing shallow breaths with a million questions in her mind.

“Should we do this, Can we Do This, Must we do This, Help me to Do This, Show me How to do This...”

On the balcony Ian smoked a cigarette, settling his mind on concentrating on a couple on the ocean boardwalk below. They were perhaps in their twenties, trendy in beach wear; the woman wore a fetching bikini in bright orange and aqua. They stood in battle stance, aiming arrows at each other, verbal daggers he caught only the tone of, but missed the words. The woman’s blazing red hair tossed like ocean waves, her arms flailing. The man stood with his hands on his hips, squarely...holding his ground.

What they were arguing about, Ian could not ascertain, but suddenly in their argument the man had grabbed the woman’s wrist, and yanked her towards him. The force and velocity of the unexpected movement made her bounce like a rag doll against his chest. She reached out long arms to steady herself, and then placed a palm on his ample muscular chest, looked beyond him into the horizon. She was facing the hotel room, and her eyes caught Ian’s as he stood on the balcony of the hotel. Her eyes held his for longer than a second, and he grew self conscious. He was ashamed of his eavesdropping. The woman held his stare and then in the barest of gestures, had shrugged and folded her body onto her angry lover’s frame. 

“What can I do? That’s life.” her shrug told him, and Ian had tossed his still burning cigarette onto the street.

Inside, he found Miriam lying on her side, her amazing hair splayed over hotel pillows, dark and daring.

He grabbed a fistful of hair and yanked her face to look directly at his.

She opened her enormous eyes and whispered,

“Help me to do this.”

He let go of the masses of hair, turned away from her, and threw her headscarf towards her.

“No! Go home,” he said gruffly, “Go home. You would be doing the right thing by leaving now.”

He watched her as she tied her black headscarf around her perfumed hair, and shrugged as she walked away.



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