She had not felt like going away but she had promised to show Paul Prague and he had been a friend through several London years. She had last seen the city with snow humped on the pavements, her first European winter. It was crowded with dark spires and statues edged with gold, which shone enticingly through the darkness; its river had untamed shores and wooden boats tied up, their striped awnings frozen. Now, when the airport’s minibus taxi dropped them off, the day was drizzly but warm and yellow leaves drifted from the trees.
Her guidebook had listed their apartment as a good budget bet in the oldest quarter. It had two bedrooms, she checked on that, and belonged to the new trend of arty B&Bs. They were early, it was still being cleaned, and they chatted to the male owner who was her generation, mid-40s. It was fun to meet someone who had also grown up in a repressive society, on a different continent, that had changed at about the same time hers had. She talked about Mandela’s release, and he described riotous East German cars pouring into the city, and Paul joined in with his memories of working as a Fleet Street sub-editor when the momentous news they had each lived through came in to the newsdesk.
Then they were being led through steep streets, and the owner unlocked an iron gate, with a key cut from the Middle Ages, and showed them their front door set in a courtyard. With a flourish he indicated the bedroom, flooded with cool light, an antique wrought iron bed, white bedding and luxurious pillows, tall, wood-framed windows against which drifted transparent curtains. What a pity she wasn’t here with a lover. She could hear a woman’s heels negotiating the cobbles outside and the boom of cathedral bells. ‘And the other room?’ she asked. It was small, shuttered. He gestured to its sofabed, saw her dismay. ‘But of course you won’t be needing that,’ he said. She felt a clash of confusion; could he be thinking that she and her friend of 73 were lovers just because they had sat on his sofa and talked about the liberation of Prague as if it was their own?
On the last day of the long weekend she saw that Abdulla Ibrahim, a world renowned Cape Town musician exiled under apartheid, was playing that night. They found the venue, a domed church with plaster monks and a Madonna with a child enfolded in her robes; the piano stood next to a marble altar which was covered with an embroidered cloth. Ibrahim bowed wordlessly, sat, his notes filled the air. She was carried to Cape Town on a summer evening, driving home to Rondebosch as the sun set into the Atlantic, seawater heaving in its orange trail, the darkening mountain crouched above the city for another night in its long history. She smelt the dusty wind as it flattened newspapers against fences, rattled palm trees along the Parade and whipped the sea into peaks of cream. In Salt River, the turquoise sky was suffused with pink, terraced houses dark against the mauve air, children squealing in the streets.
The notes faded and she realised her head was resting on Paul’s shoulder, and that it felt strangely natural; his hand had found hers and that felt natural, too. Some in the black poloneck-clad audience were staring. She heard the wheeze in his breathing and felt his heart beating inside his shirt; his skin was as soft as fine leather, his fingers alive with feeling, she felt the gold signet ring that had been his father’s. The piano notes started again, kelp stewing in the sea at Mouille Point and the smell of porridge wafting over Observatory on a winter morning thick with fog. His hand in hers tightened, she danced into the shelter of his heart.