Fiction | A Third Presence by Nadine Gordimer

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When Rose and Naomi, daughters of poor Rasovsky the tailor, left school in the same year there was no discussion about what they should do, because there was no question about the necessity to do it. Naomi was pretty and must marry the scrap metal dealer who would give a home to the old Rasovskys and the girls’ brother. Rose was clever and must get a job to help support them. The boys flocked around Naomi and with one of whom she might have fallen in love  didn’t come into it any more than the university scholarship that Rose had won. Certainly, necessity being what it was, Naomi was the one who came off best: the husband built her a red-brick house in the new suburb marked out in the veld outside the small South African town, she enjoyed the fun of choosing furniture and the status of being called ‘Mrs,’ and soon she had the importance of having produced a baby, and a son at that. The old Rasovskys had got the naming of their daughters all wrong; Naomi was everything that ‘Rose’ suggested, while Rose bore her name along with the cruelty of the sad Jewish ugliness of her face. Rose, on a Sunday afternoon, came to see the baby for the first time and at the bedside, where Naomi was surrounded by frilly jackets, shawls and flowers as by the panoply of a throne, said with wonder, ‘Was it very painful?’ Naomi, full of secret knowledge, said, ‘Oh no, I wouldn’t say very painful.’

Rose had brought a beautiful little garment for the baby, something exquisite and expensive; she supplemented her salary as a junior in a lawyer’s office by doing bookkeeping for a small indent agency, at night. She became quite famous for her presents, and Naomi’s children used to look forward to the visits of Auntie Rose with special anticipation. These delicate and lovely offerings, unlike anything they saw about them in their own home, were discovered only by Rose; it was she, too, who found that there was a vocational center to which Raymond, the sisters’ younger brother who had had some damage to his brain at birth and had not developed mentally beyond the age of eleven, could go.  He should, of course, have been sent to a special school when he was little, but the Rasovskys had been too poor and ignorant to arrange that.

The Centre’s fees were high and Ben, Naomi’s husband, with a growing family to support, could not be expected to be responsible. Rose looked for a better-paid job and hired herself out to a political party as an election agent, in addition to her bookkeeping. Every month she asked her employer to give her two cheques: one was made payable directly to the vocational center, the other was hers to live on She never quite gave up the idea of studying by correspondence for the university degree for which she had missed the scholarship, but the books lay about in the back room where she lived alone in the city and served only to fill her with the sudden realization of time passing and a preoccupation with her many jobs from which she rarely, in the sense of personal liberation, looked up. There would be a time next year, perhaps, to study for a Bachelor of Arts degree; and next year… And then the time came when she knew: what should she do with a B.A. if she got it? She could not afford to take a junior lecturer’s job at a university. And anyway, all that had stood for— the participation with other young minds in the world of ideas, and so on— she was nearly thirty, and surely had by-passed all that. It was too late to splash around in the shallows; so far as the world of ideas was concerned she had had to enter dark water breast-deep.

For there had been Dr. Ferovec, by then, the Hungarian Catholic philosopher who had come out to South Africa as a refugee in 1956. His English was too poor for him to be given a professorship, and his temperament was too difficult for him to keep a lesser post at a university, so he had ended up teaching in a crammers’ ‘college’ in Johannesburg. Because she needed the money, Rose was expected to charge less for her work than others, and she was always being recommended to people like Dr. Ferovec who wanted typing cheaply done. She went to take dictation in his room on Sundays, and there, at last, in this stranger of strangers, talking to himself in an unrecognizable tongue, his grey hair full of bald patches due to a nervous disease, she found her first lover. He lost his job but she believed in him and cooked for him each night before she settled down to type his philosophical treatise, which they had decided they must translate together, if her were ever to get the recognition he deserved. He said to her, ‘You know nothing, nothing’ and it was true that the Jewish tailor’s daughter had never seen Budapest in the good days, nor the beautiful woman who had been his mistress, nor lived through revolution and counter-revolution. All she had were the backroom tasks of petty business— the drawing up of balance sheets, the analysis of some merchant’s brand of profit and loss— and the absolutely private and incommunicable matter of her face. But in their distance from one another he and she were nearer than in their distance from others; she was there when he put out his hand for all he had lost.

Rose took him home, once, to Naomi’s house, presenting him, with timid assurance, as her ‘friend.’ But the shrill atmosphere of Sunday lunch among bright children and trite family exchanges repelled his intellectual qualities, antennae-like, into the shell of a beaten, sickly, shabby man. Naomi’s husband was not really young, either, but his fleshy chest in a striped towelling shirt as he cavorted round the lawn with the children, and his big face with a cleft chin as he insisted, taking another piece of cake, ‘So if I put on another pound? So what’s the difference, I’ll only live once?’ looked full-blooded in comparison. If you couldn’t talk to Ferovec— or rather if he saw he couldn’t talk to you— you simply couldn’t understand what he was. Rose could see that they felt a family shame and pity for her. She could hear her old mother, when they had gone, taking advantage of her near-blindness to say to Naomi, ‘What sort of man is that friend of Rose’s? What does he do for a living?’ and Naomi saying, ‘Well, Naomi lives a life of her own, Ma. She knows all sorts of people. I don’t know, perhaps he’s someone she works for.’

But of course Naomi knew that, at least, her sister had a man, this elderly man with the patches on his head. Out of a need to be kind she would say on the telephone, ‘And how’s your friend, the one who came that day… Oh, I’m glad…’ Face to face with Rose, she did not mention him, and they confined their communications, as usual, to discussions about the welfare of the parents, the problem of Raymond (who was now thought to be capable of taking sheltered employment) and Rose’s perception of the exploits of the children, the new curtains, the sun-porch that was being built on, and Naomi’s latest dress. Naomi had never looked better than she did at this time. Her three children were all at the indiscriminately charming puppy stage between two and seven, and, seen among them, although no longer the appealing child-mother she had been, her wonderful complexion suggested at once to all sorts of men the simplest pleasure of acknowledging this without ever having the urge to gratify it. Like many sexually unawakened woman, Naomi was a born tease. Rose gave surcease and even joy to Ferovec but no man even saw her as she went about her work in her quiet clothes, making the best of herself.

After Ferovec (the translation of his treatise had caught the attention of an Oxford don who had quoted from it extensively in his own paperback popularization of a related subject, and Ferovec was suddenly offered a chair at one of the new English universities) there was Dirk MOsbacher. The family never saw Dirk Mosbacher but no doubt they got to hear about him, remote as they were from the life Rose was living now. They certainly would have heard that poor Rose was being sponged on by another misfit‚ at least ten years younger than herself, this time, and an Afrikaner, into the bargain. Naomi was not aware of it, but she felt guilty about Rose, and she even tried to bring her together with a distant relative of her husband— shame-facedly, because the man was the owner of a mineral water factory whose only pretension to interests outside business was freemasonry, and, after all, Rose as a serious-minded girl. But at least he was a decent Jew. Rose was polite, as always, when she found him in Naomi’s house, and, as always, seemed to have no idea how to attract a man. The mineral water factory owner badly wanted to get married, but it was clear that he couldn’t have brought himself to consider a girl like that, unless there happened to be money as well.

Rose had a lot of trouble with herself over Dirk. Through him she fought and discarded once and for all the standards and ambitious by which she had once been disqualified, all her life. She had always thought of herself as the one who stood outside the warm-lit house where the faithful husband and the desirable wife created the future in their children. Because she knew no other, in this image she made every private compact she got herself into, however absurdly unsuitable the facts were. When Dirk slept with other women and never thought to conceal this from her, she felt the double affrontation of the wife neither preferred nor sufficiently feared to command deceit. Yet why had Ferovec been ‘faithful’ to her? Because he knew few other women and was not at a stage in his life when he was attracted to them; not because he was a ‘husband.’ And why should Dirk, who shared, as she well knew, a number of strange dependencies and loyalties with different people, keep this one form of human intimacy exclusive to her? Would she have expected him to talk to no one but her of his ideas about the relation of man to shelter (he was an architect who had never quite finished his course) or about politics? Yet these were as important to him as sex. There were women and even men, occasionally, with whom, in sex, he had certain things in common, just as there were people with whom he had ideas in common. He was not a ‘husband’ who left his plain, older ‘wife’ for a pretty face; he was a man, free and answerable to the whole world. He lived with her, he told her, because she was the only honest person he knew; and she could believe him, although he took money from her. She threw away the strange structure, semblance of the nest, that she had patiently stuck together again and again out of torn-up bits and pieces of incongruous instincts.

Often when Rose went home to Naomi’s for Sunday lunch it was after one of those Saturday nights that seemed to blow up atmospherically around Dirk. Painter friends, political friends, jazz friends crowded into the flat. They all drank a lot and Rose provided food, though this was not expected. Dirk Mosbacher disliked what he called polite sterility in human contact, and would sit up all night among people who struck sparks off one another, no matter how aggressive the atmosphere might become. His little, yellow face with the thin black beard outlining the mouth perpetually contorted in talk was the curious Mandarin face of many intellectual Afrikaners— a bulky, blue-eyed people in the mass. He was tender to those who did not survive the evening, and would give up his bed and blankets to let them sleep it off until morning. He also gave asylum in Rose’s flat to various Africans whose talents or political ideas interested him.

Rose would creep out of the sleeping flat on Sunday morning and take the train home. There was always some occasion in Naomi’s house; Naomi was like a child, for whom time is spaced by small personal events. On her tenth wedding anniversary there was her diamond engagement ring, re-set, to show on her thrust-out hand. At one time she tinted her hair, and was waiting in the doorway with an air of sensation when Rose appeared, while the old mother looked on indulgently— ‘Meshuggah, what can you do with them today?— and then brought her eyes to rest on the other one, a good girl, the image of her father, with her thick glasses and sad, heavy nose. Rose was the perfect audience. ‘It looks fine on you,’ she would say without a trace of bitterness, to some hat Naomi was displaying. ‘You put it on, Auntie Rose, you put it on!’ And to please her niece, Rose would consent unembarrassedly to the spectacle of herself, looking back from the mirror with silk petals pressed down over the face of some old Talmudic scholar from Eastern Europe. Her family did not ask her about her life because they feared that it was empty. She did not speak about it because she did not want them to know how pathetically limited and meagre the preoccupations of Naomi’s household were.

Dirk Mosbacher was derisive about Rose’s former association with ‘that posthumous old Popish pundit’ Dr. Ferovec, but his derision, displayed among friends, partook of the distinction Johannesburg people feel in anyone who has a connection with the intellectual centres of Europe. Ferovec had become one of the popular protagonists in the fashionable newspaper and pamphlet debates on religion and authority then current in England; even if the group who frequented the flat were not interested in the whole business, they still saw in Rose, quiet Rose, the woman who had been close to one of the ‘new philosophers’ they read about in the English papers. It gave her the certain quality of an unknown quantity; one of the painters’ girls decided that her looks were immensely interesting, and that she ought to dress to match: Rose slowly gave way to severe, strong-coloured, robe-like dresses in place of the enat suits that had been her protective colouring for years. With the rigid self-discipline of those who know they cannot rely on any obvious pleasing qualities to excuse their deficiencies, she had never dared to allow the emotional strain and private trials of her personal life to show in the office, and— a marvel without sickness or tears— she had become the most invaluable person in a big indent agency (she had been with the boss from the beginning, in the days when he rented a tiny office and she worked for him in her spare time). She drove a small car, and did not have time to visit her family more than once a month, now.

One of the black men with whom Dirk had argued and drunk and for whom Rose had bought shirts and typed letters made his way to England to study, and wrote a book. It was a bitter book, one of the first of its kind, and it created a small stir; the English papers called it a ‘scathing indictment of white South Africa’ and the South African papers called it an ‘anti-white tirade’, but it was prominently dedicated, in flowery language, to two white people, Dirk Mosbacher and Rose Rasovsky, but for whom, the author would have ‘succumbed fatally to the hate in my heart’. It was not the sort of book that Naomi’s ladies’ book circle would buy, but the story of the dedication was the sort of thing that makes news for the Sunday papers. Naomi’s oldest daughter, Carolyn, saw it. ‘Don’t show it to granny,’ said Naomi. She decided not to mention it to Rose, now that Naomi was old enough to look back, what a terrible thing it was to have pushed Rose out into Johannesburg, a little girl of seventeen alone in some miserable room. What sort of chance had Rose been given? What had their parents had to offer them when they were girls? Poor old papa Rasovsky, dead many years now, and the old lady, still going strong although she couldn’t see more than blurred shapes— they had a lot to answer for. Naomi felt suddenly sad and heavy; it was true that she had begun to put on flesh and when she sat back in a chair she saw the solid weight of herself.

But Miss Carolyn was a cocky girl, in her first year at the university and full of the superior social status of higher education if not a love of learning, and she twitted Aunt Rose, ‘I see you’ve been getting yourself in the papers, eh? Couldn’t they have taken a better picture— honestly, I hardly recognized you!’

Poor Naomi! Rose had lately often seen her face exasperated and bewildered by that girl. The children were so charming when they were little; the boys had grown into louts who looked up from comic books only to growl, ‘Man, leave me alone.’ Naomi complained about them in their presence: a sign of helplessness. But what could Naomi know of the delicate business, the pain and rebuff, the unexpected acceptance and unexplained rejection of approaching the mystery of the individual? Since she was hardly more than a child she had known nothing but extensions of herself and her own interest, with her parents and her husband she shared the blood of her children, and the milk imbibed from her body was assumed as an identity with her. Naomi had not dreamed of the strange reassurance one could experience, seventeen and alone in the back room of a lodging house in an unfamiliar city, in the daily contact with the black woman who came to clean. Naomi had had no chance to learn that a man who had lived a whole life in another continent, another age, another tongue, could be patiently reached through the body. She had no way of knowing the moments of rest in understanding that come, outside sex, outside intellectual compatibility, outside dependency, between people more than strangers: Roser herself when she was unofficial ‘teacher’ years ago, and Dirk’s ambitions, half-literate young black friends.

Dirk Mosbacher left the country and perhaps it was unlikely that he would come back. He had given evidence to the anti-Apartheid committee at United Nations and had been offered the opportunity of setting up a cultural centre in one of the new African states. It was exactly the sort of thing that suited him; he would have a jazz group working in one room while a play was being improvised in another, and an adults’ summer school was painting in the yard. He wrote long, critical letters to Rose, which she read out to friends at the flat. The flat was as full as ever, though the composition of people was changing somewhat; Rose was living with the correspondent of an overseas newspaper, and he brought along a number of journalists. She accompanied him to press dinners and other social events to which a newspaperman of standing was invited. Naomi had seen a picture of him in  group with Rose on the social page. He was a tall, stooping Englishman, with a moustache and an expression of private amusement. No one would have expected Rose to bring him home to the family; what on earth would they have to say to Rose’s friends? Yet Rose continued to come home, regularly, dutifully, and as soon as she was there the old relationship of the situation that underlay their lives came into existence in silence between the sisters as if nothing had happened since: they were the two girls of seventeen and eighteen who had not discussed what had to be done.

But when, on her fortieth birthday, Naomi opened the door to her sister Rose there was a difference about their being together. It was as if someone else were also in the room. It was only after Rose had put down the flowers and the box of peaches bought on the road, and they were sitting in the living room, that Naomi looked at Rose gazing out into the garden. The third presence, like a phenomenon of double vision, slid into the single outline of focus. ‘Something’s been done to your nose.’

Rose kept her head steady so that it could be looked at, moving only her eyes. ‘Yes. I was wondering when you would notice.’

‘As soon as you came in. I didn’t know what it was.’

Rose still kept her head on display, the habit of obedience of the younger sister, but Naomi was not looking at the nose.

She said, ‘Was it painful?’

And Rose answered, ‘No, not at all, really.’

Naomi sat with her mouth parted, patting the arm of her chair. The children didn’t like the Jacobean style she had chosen for the room when she got married, but it had been the very latest, then; now Ben said they couldn’t afford to throw good furniture away.

Rose said, ‘People think it’s a great improvement.’

Her sister gave a consenting shrug, as if conscious of the obligation to doubt the need for improvement.

‘I hated my nose more than anything’ Said Rose. But because they had never talked about such things her tone was the one in which, on her visits, she would praise the soup at lunch or remark on the traffic that had delayed her.

‘What’s it all matter, in the end. It’s not the face that counts, it’s what’s behind it.’ Naomi’s polite platitudes hung in the air, and confronted with the honesty with which her sister sat before her, she added, ‘It’s nicely done.’

Rose mentioned the name of the plastic surgeon, a very expensive one. Rose’s little car was new, too. Naomi had never had a car of her own, though it was the fashionable thing in the small town for wives to have their own runabouts; it was the same with the house that had been built for her— what had seemed status and luxury to her then, was now ordinary and almost humble; people going up in the world had left the suburb and gone to a newer one, where they had patios and swimming pools instead of red-brick stoeps.

Fortunately it was a weekday and at lunch there were only Rose, Naomi, the old mother and their brother, so there was no one to pass remarks. The old lady could not see well enough to distinguish the change in Rose, and Raymond, in the downcast timidity of his slow mind, had always been afraid to look directly at anybody; when he looked up from his food, his glance flickered wildly round the table. He had been back living with Naomi for some years, since the only kind of sheltered employment he didn’t run away from was being allowed to potter round among the mounds of twisted metal in Ben’s yard. Although old Mrs. Rasovsky could scarcely make out Rose’s shape, she kept putting out her hand to touch her, with sentimental tears in her eyes that embarrassed her daughters.

‘Let Rose have her food, ma,’ said Naomi.

‘You’re all right, thank God, you’re keeping well,?’ the old lady kept saying, in Yiddish. It was all she had ever said; it was the formula with which she had disposed of their lives, helpless to ask further or do more. When Naomi said goodbye to Rose at the car she felt the necessity to make some mention of the new nose. She wanted to say something nice about it, but she suddenly said: ‘Now the next thing is contact lenses.’

Rose looked terribly uncertai, the smile went out of her eyes though her lips still held it, she had none of the calm self-acceptance with which she used to try on Naomi’s pretty hats. She said, with an effort at deprecation, ‘Do you think so.’ And the little car drove away.

Naomi walked back along the gravel path between the yellow privets. She went into the room where the old woman sat, legs apart, in her corner, and said, ‘The next thing is contact lenses. And then she could have married Ben Sharman instead of me.’ But the old lady was deaf now, as well as nearly blind.