Absolution: A Story

Posted on: October 19, 2009
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By Michael Shafto



THERE WAS SOMETHING different about him from the very beginning. His name was Peter Blackwell and more than anything, I suppose, it was this reserve of his amounting to almost impenetrable aloofness, that quickened my interest. He was so different to the rest of the boys of my acquaintance, the majority of whom I found to be pushovers. Boring puppies dying to be pampered.
Why was he so aloof? That’s what intrigued me. There was a secret there somewhere that he seemed to be hiding. What could it be? That’s what spurred me on. But then when I learnt what it was – I got it from Molly Kritzinger who grew up with him in Bloemfontein – I was quite disappointed. It didn’t seem such a big deal, after all. That is, not until Peter told me what no-one else, except he himself, knew.
I was in first year varsity at the time, studying for a BA, and all I wanted was to complete my degree and get on with becoming a teacher. At the time it was my life’s ambition – and I really wasn’t much interested in men. I’m moderately good-looking and at school, I knew, boys had found me interesting. There were plenty of this sort at varsity, too. Boys, who hung about, giving me leering, hopeful looks. But they didn’t interest me. Not in the least.
My name is Naomi Dawson. When this all happened I was at varsity in Pietermaritzburg, and Molly and Peter were also in the first year BA Lit. group. There were twenty-four of us altogether. Some, like me, were preparing to be teachers, others wanted to be journalists, and some, who were fortunate enough, were just marking time and wasting rich parents’ money.
Some of them played rugger. Peter was one of these. He had plenty of potential, too, everyone said. But even this he approached half-heartedly, as though it were a silly, hardly worthwhile pastime. So they dropped him to the second team, but it didn’t worry him. Not in the least.
He also just happened to be the cleverest in the class and, yes, as I’ve already conceded, he stirred my interest. I mean, how could a guy write such great essays and articles, and shrug them off as though they were child’s play? He knew so much about such a wide variety of subjects – from politics to the migratory habits of the plover. And he put you right very quickly if you pronounced the bird’s species the way it’s spelt. “No, no,” he’d say, “it’s pluvver…” and he’d laugh with a shy grin – he wanted you to understand he wasn’t making a pass – “y’know, like lover.”

AFTER several false starts, we started going out together. One weekend in that first semester, his parents travelled down from Bloemfontein. They were on their way to their beach home near Umkomaas for their annual month at the coast and stayed over in the provincial capital. They stayed at the city’s most expensive hotel. Peter told me about this, and invited me to come to dinner with he and his parents that Saturday night. First thing I noticed was how different he was in the company of his parents – awkward, almost diffident. I also noticed the puzzling reaction he evoked in his parents. They each treated him quite differently. His dad was so gentle in his approach: his manner shifting between jocularity and sudden spasms of diffidence, almost as though trying to ingratiate himself in his son’s estimation.

“So how’re things going with the studies, lad?” Mr Blackwell said. “Doing well?” Peter mumbled some reply, shrugged and skewered a piece of beef with his fork. “And rugger? Firsts are winning a few matches lately, I see. I catch up with the Maritzburg league occasionally in the Sunday Times.” Peter lifted one shoulder, like a broken wing, grimaced. “Dunno, Dad. Playing in the Seconds these days.” His father’s face clouded with disappointment. “Oh…”
It made me wonder whether Mr. Blackwell had been something of a martinet in the boy’s youth. Perhaps, appearances to the contrary, he had a vicious temper and had beaten Peter for the slightest infraction of strict family rules. Now he was trying to compensate. Could that be it?
His mother, on the other hand, treated him with a curtness that was cold and strangely unloving. It was embarrassing to witness. She was a small attractive woman, tastefully dressed and turned out to the tips of her pale pink fingernails and matching lipstick.
“Your cousin, Prudence, came by the other day. She complains you never answer her letters. That’s very tiresome, y’know? She is your cousin, after all – my sister’s daughter.”
“Mm… yes, sorry. I will, Ma. I’ll drop her a line soon.”
“I should jolly well hope so, Peter. See that you do!”
And so on.
I tried to switch off. It really was mortifying. It was a lunch, despite the elaborate trimmings and expense involved, that I was glad to see the end of. Afterwards Peter seemed downcast, and somehow ashamed – and I felt sorry for him as I watched him try hard to reciprocate, without much success, the heartiness of his father’s handshake, and the embarrassment with which he reacted to his mother’s proffered cheek for a goodbye kiss. There was no warmth there at all; it was just a duty – something that Mrs. Blackwell clearly felt beholden to endure for the sake of appearances.

MOLLY Kritzinger and I met up later that evening – Peter said he had to do some swotting for an upcoming test – and the two of us wound up in a cosy nook of the bar of a small hotel in Berg Street. After a few glasses of wine Molly started prodding me for news about my “romance” with Peter Blackwell.
I laughed. “Mol, I wouldn’t exactly call it a romance. You know what he’s like. When he drops me at my digs he gives me a peck on the cheek – if I’m lucky – and mutters something while looking at his shoes!”
“Oh, go on!”
“You asked for it. That’s the honest truth.”

Molly is dumpy and lovely; full of bounce. She clicked her fingers at the Indian barman. “Hey, Raj. Two more here, please.” The barman sent one of his co-workers over with the drinks.
I took a sip of my wine. “He really is funny – strange, I mean.”
“Funny, peculiar. Ja, you can say that again.” Mol offered me a cigarette, lit them both. “Did you know he’s a twin?”
“What! You’re kidding,” I said, with disbelief.
“Naomi, I’m not joking. He had a twin brother – identical.”
“What you mean, had?”
“He’s dead, doll.”
“Oh, my God! How – how’d he die? When – I mean, how old was he?”
“Run over. Stupid drunk kid in a stolen car. He – they – were thirteen at the time.”
I puffed at the cigarette Molly had given me; I don’t smoke much, even now, but that evening in the bar of that little hotel, it helped steady my nerves and gave me something to do with my hands, which – the more I think about the habit – is half the reason why many people smoke in the first place.
“You’ve known them a long time, Mol, haven’t you?”
“All my life really. We lived in the same street in Bloem. My folks are still there. We went to kindergarten together, then primary school before the Blackwell boys went on to Grey College.”
“What was the other boy’s name?”
“Walter. You couldn’t tell them apart. They were so much fun, always playing tricks on the teachers. Walter was the more outgoing one though. Walter was born second and – so the story goes – they almost lost him, and the mother – can’t say I liked her much: stiff, stuck-up woman, I always found – favoured him from birth onwards. Everything was about Walter. In her book Peter came a bad second!”
I didn’t say anything. I took another sip of my cabernet. That explained a lot. I could see how a mother of twins, whose favourite of the two died, would behave towards the surviving sibling. Coldly. Always wondering why it couldn’t have been the other, less loved one.
“So what actually happened?” I asked.
Molly said it was a Saturday afternoon. The two boys were busy with different pursuits. Walter was in the backyard making a kite; in was August apparently and the winds were just right for kite-flying. Peter was in the the garage workshop, doing something or other. Their mother was in the kitchen fixing afternoon tea.

Their father was across the road with the neighbour in his front garden, discussing plants Mr. Blackwell wanted to put it. Mrs. Blackwell wanted her husband to come in for tea – and also there was a Currie Cup rugby match on the box, starting just after four o’clock.
“Well, she looked out the kitchen window and thought she saw Peter, but it was Walter,” Molly said, enjoying the drama. “She would always pick on him for errands, my Mom says, and so she said, ‘Peter go and get your father – he’s across the road with Mr Elliott – and tell him it’s teatime and not to forget about the rugby.’ Well, at first Walter didn’t react. The garage was directly behind him, with its only window wide open. I suppose he thought Pete must be able to hear and would do like their mom said in a moment. But when his mom shouted again, still thinking he was Pete, he just put down what he was doing, went around the house and out the front gate. He stood on the pavement and shouted for his dad. When his dad, standing there yakking to the neighbour, didn’t react, Walter – without looking – ran across the road. This drunk kid came screaming round the corner and hit him square-on. They say he died instantly.”
“My God! How awful!”
“My mom said Mrs. Blackwell just never got over it. The worst is, of course, she blames it all on Pete – not her mistake in thinking Walter was Pete. It was an easy enough mistake to make, looking up from the kitchen window to where Walter was working at the far end of the yard, beyond the washing line. Poor guy, Peter – he hasn’t forgiven himself to this day.”
“That’s so sad. So… so unnecessary,” I interjected hotly. “It really wasn’t his fault.”

THAT, I suppose, was the moment I fell really heavily for Peter. I went round to his digs next day. I knew he’d be seeing his parents off some time in the morning, so I waited until after lunch. He was studying in his room.
I didn’t waste much time. I told him all I had come to know about him.
“So Molly told you.” He sighed. “I suppose it was only a matter of time.”
“It’s time you stopped blaming yourself, Pete. It wasn’t your fault. And – excuse me for saying this – but it’s unfair of your mother to lay all the blame on you!”
“No, it’s not!” he said sharply. “None of you knows the half of it – not you or Molly or her mom. You see it was me all along. I was the one making the kite. When she called out a second time, probably not even looking up, I had just ducked out of sight behind the maid’s toilet. I thought: Stuff her! Why’s she always pick on me? Then Walter came out of the workshop and ran around the house to call dad. And then – then it bloody happened!”
He had started to cry. I got up from the couch and stood by his desk. I put my arms around him. “You must stop this! It’s your mother. She’s mean to you always has been. Everyone says so. What you’ve described could’ve happened to anyone.”

He shook his head. He was crying hard now, hot angry tears streaming down his face. “No, there’s more. When it… happened – there was this squeal of brakes, the sound of violent impact and then everyone was shouting and screaming, and rushing out front – I went into the garage and carried on with what Walter had been doing. I stayed there until they called me. I pretended not to know a thing! I said I’d been in the garage all the time. I said it was Walter working on the kite, not me. So you see, I’m just a horrible, dirty liar!”
“No, you’re not,” I said. “Just a victim of circumstance.”
That’s all a long time ago. We’re still together, Peter and me. We have kids of our own. Two teenagers, boys – thankfully not twins.


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