Peter van Straten Art by Peter van Straten


Phillip de Haas walked hurriedly along the broad and busy concourse of a mall, quite out of step with the relaxed and aimless post-work throng all around him. He was handsome enough that in any crowd at least one woman, or man, would turn to take a second look at him. He had a slender face with piercing brown eyes, at once thoughtful and intense beneath emphatic brows, anchored by a nose that was nothing short of aristocratic, without being pretentiously so. He had the most beautiful hands too, with long, elegant fingers – fingers that looked as if they belonged between the pages of books, or pressed together in prayer. He was also intelligent and kind, and was made all the more interesting, in fact intriguing, by an air of self-conscious nervousness that was central to his character. An intensity of introspection that undermined, and therefore complemented, his good looks. He seemed isolated, in a way that made it impossible to dismiss him for his handsome features, either out of jealousy, or suspicion of arrogance. He was friendly, as aware of others as he was of himself, and this self-awareness also acknowledged all these agreeable attributes in himself. In fact Phillip de Haas was totally aware of how wonderful he was! All his life, he had harbored secret suspicions that perhaps he was wonderful. Like a secret seed this suspicion had slumbered, patient (and safe after all) in the damp cotton wool of a protestant world view. But he had woken this very morning to find that, like Jack’s beanstalk, the seed had leaped to heaven! The myriad stems, branches, and tendrils of his self discovery burst through to a place of such exquisite self awareness that it felt to him as if his every synapse was in orgasm.

He was smitten, and he had asked himself out on a date.

Why not?

So now he stood, confused and indecisive in a crowded mall bookshop. In a mere three hours he would be on his first date and he wanted to buy himself a book as a present. He was used to looking at books: he worked after all at the National Archive in the Company Gardens, but this was different. He was beside himself with nerves.

He looked at his beautiful fingers as they touched the books and their beauty distracted him. In fact he was beginning to think that perhaps a book wasn’t such a good idea after all. Wasn’t it a bit much, he fretted – a book, on a first date? And wasn’t it a bit insensitive? Knowing as he did that he had spent all day amongst books? And couldn’t a book, he worried, be too easily interpreted as a veiled message; either through theme, title, or author? Phillip felt suddenly bewildered and claustrophobic, and decided to leave, on his way out bestowing an awkward and suddenly intimate smile on the young woman behind the till. Outside in the street he smiled even more broadly at himself, for his largess. For he imagined he had made the cashier’s night with that smile of his. Indeed, he suddenly felt as if he could be intimate with anyone! He could care deeply about absolutely anyone! He was living a miracle!

Oh, and what love can do to a city! Everyone Phillip passed seemed beautiful to him, or at the very least interesting. He also caught glimpses of his own reflection in shop windows, and was delighted each time by how gracefully and humbly he carried his beauty.

Indeed just a millimeter below consciousness there lurked an honest astonishment that people were not staring at him! But had he noticed this he would have forgiven them instantly. Such was the generosity of spirit that love had awoken.

On Orange Street he saw a flower seller and his heart leapt.

“How obvious,” he thought, chastising and forgiving himself in an instant for having overlooked so perfect and obvious a gift. As he approached the woman he tried to remember which flowers he liked best. His arms swung at his sides like those of a school boy and from time to time his fingers touched in front of him. In fact, so distracted was he that he nearly put his hands in his pockets! Unthinkable intimacy!

“One step at a time,” he admonished himself playfully, “flowers first!”

Of course he disliked all kitsch flowers, anything pink and frilly. Roses were out also, since they were so clichéd. But lilies he liked. All kinds of lilies.

He approached the flower seller with a warm and generous smile. Although she didn’t look old her face was deeply wrinkled by years outdoors, and crow’s feet spread in profusion from the corners of her eyes. She wore a baby-blue apron and was in every way the very picture of a flower lady. Infatuation turns all strangers into extras, leaving only the adored one in focus, and Phillip was delighted by the marvelous bit of casting that was responsible for this flower lady. And to add to his delight, she had orange flame lilies.

Phillip pointed to the bunch he wanted and as he reached for his wallet she wrapped the stems in newspaper.

“Who’s the lucky lady?” she asked with practised familiarity as she handed him the flowers. In that instant she brought down his house of cards. He stood stiffly to his full height, and glared at her.

“Why does there have to be a lucky lady?” he asked brusquely, surprising both of them with his tone. “Why can’t there just be a lucky me?” He shoved twenty Rand into her hand, turned and left. He crossed the road without deigning to look, forcing a car to screech and hoot but he didn’t care.

“Fools!” he thought, his cheeks red with rage as he approached the bus stop.

To think that for years and years he had looked to these people, these extras, these strangers, for fulfillment. For love! Thinking about his former neediness embarrassed him profoundly as might the memory of an unfortunate sexual experiment, and he blushed.

“’Lucky Lady’ my arse!” he hissed under his breath as he stepped onto the bus. But the flowers in his hands, like some dreadful flashing beacon, drew further “knowing” smiles from women he passed on his way to his seat.

What did they know about love, he wondered as he sat heavily on the cold plastic seat, its air escaping in a slow hiss as he sank into it. How could you seriously love another human being? It was pure nonsense! A fanciful and ridiculous remedy for loneliness and neediness and nothing more!

He wished they hadn’t smiled!

He suddenly wished there were no people in the world! What did they know about love?

How could you love someone other than yourself, he wanted to know, as he watched the street blocks pass, when really it was impossible to know anyone as you knew yourself? What other person could compete with all the things you did for yourself? Who could compete with such devotion?

What dizzying height of self-deception was this business of loving another! Just thinking about it made him sick with vertigo.

As the bus jolted him fitfully towards his home he thought about his therapist, Lucy Miller, and such was his affinity for her that merely by calling to mind her kindly face he was able to pull himself back from the sheer, crumbling edge of imminent depression.

God, she had helped him! She had opened his eyes. Opened them wide to the madness all around him. The orgy of need he had not even noticed before therapy – and he had been one of the neediest of all!

She had helped him see that he could find emotional fulfillment in himself. Well, he thought, with no small amount of self-satisfaction, now he had, and they could all just go to hell!

He looked at the head of the person sitting in front of him: One of the members of They, of Them.

He looked down at his fingers, gripped tight around the wet newspaper, and there it was again in the personal ads: advertisements for loneliness. He felt like squeezing the newspaper into a gross little ball, squeezing out one filthy drop of concentrated gray neediness, and then squeezing the ball into the ear of the person in front of him!

But how fitting, he suddenly realized – loosening his grip – that from these pathetic little cries on this wet newspaper should rise – like a phoenix! – these glorious flowers! Perfect metaphors, he decided, for his self-discovery!

His good spirits returned. He was tremendously proud of himself for this little bit of emotional and intellectual gymnastics. What fun he was to be with!

He re-tightened his grip on the stems and gazed out of the window.

The same Lucy Miller, meanwhile, was sitting at her desk, reflecting on the day’s therapy, her chin resting on the palm of her right hand.

She had missed Phillip again today, just as she had yesterday, and the day before. She wished she could see him every day instead of just once a week.

“Oh Lord,” she sighed. For the first time in her life she was really in love, and it hurt. She was a mess. She was restless, euphoric and utterly disconsolate.

She’d go home, she decided, feed the puppy, shower, then eat out. The idea of spending the evening alone at home was too ghastly.

What hurt most was that after about forty sessions with him she knew absolutely everything about him while he new nothing about her.

What a dreadful profession she had, she thought for the thousandth time. It brought someone like him to her, then prevented her from befriending him. She was nothing more than a ghost, an empty vessel into which others poured their lives.

She stood and put away the day’s last file – between its covers the scared and lonely psyche of a housewife whose son was schizophrenic.

“Consider the Poplar,” thought Phillip de Haas meanwhile as the bus entered the quiet familiarity of the suburb in which he lived. He was still deeply concerned by the lack of understanding he witnessed all around him

The Poplar tree doesn’t wilt and die if there isn’t another Poplar tree growing right next to it. Indeed it would suffer under such proximity – subterranean water sucked away from its thirsty, starving roots! Next however he saw a thick, thriving mass of agapanthus, framing a well manicured lawn.

“Well, what do they know?” he answered his own unspoken question. Did aggies ever reach the height of the Poplar, or the majestic Oak?

“Oh no friends,” he replied aloud, drawing a questioning glance from a man in a suit across the isle.

With these and similar reflections he passed a most pleasant journey to his final stop.

Lucy Miller drove home in a daze. She was thinking about the beach. She had found a dried up sea horse, with all its exquisite detail immaculately preserved by the sun, which she was keeping on her dresser for him.

“Oh God I’m so far gone!” she shouted in the private bubble of her car, tightening her grip on the steering wheel.

In fifteen years as a therapist she hadn’t once faltered in her professionalism, but she knew now that she had to make a decision, and she knew what it had to be.

So many times she had considered suggesting that he find another therapist, freeing herself to pursue him. But every time the naked, empty moment arrived, usually at the end of a session, she froze, hopeless at calculating the risk to either of them and profoundly territorial – though she didn’t know it – towards his well-being.

“Oh Lordy” she sighed again, close to tears, as she pulled into her driveway.

But she was a woman too, damn it all! Not just some therapeutic automaton! She stayed in the car for a while, allowing the tears to run unchecked down her cheeks. When she finally stepped out she heard the puppy go crazy inside the house, whining and scratching at the front door.

She opened the door, and Rabbit, the four month old golden retriever, went berserk. He yelped, chased his tale, jumped up at her, and left droplets of warm yellow delight on the parquet floor. Lucy looked around at the sitting room. The floor and sofa were strewn with half chewed objects, including her favourite slippers.

“What a pitiful substitute,” she said aloud, shaking her head at herself.

Phillip meanwhile stood glued to the step before his front door and suffered another brief dissipation of his growing euphoria.

Wasn’t it a little inappropriate, he was wondering, to come home like this? Before he had even been on his first date? But where else, he wondered, could he go?

He looked round at his front garden and up and down the road. Then, as he stood there, rooted to the doormat, he was saved by yet another brilliant insight: Weren’t the last thirty-seven years of his life essentially meaningless? Couldn’t one argue, he thought rather grandly, that a person who does not truly appreciate himself doesn’t really exist? And was it not therefore irrelevant what he did before his date? Were not all his actions prior to his date fundamentally meaningless, belonging as they did to a sort of previous non-life? Tonight his real life would begin, he concluded triumphantly, and opened the door.

“A whole life of true love ahead” he fantasized, and thinking about it felt his ears glow hot. He put the flowers in the kitchen sink but when he opened the tap he was struck dead still by yet another realization: he would have to shower before his date! Despite the mental agility that had allowed him access to his house, he found this contradiction troubling.

What a conundrum! One couldn’t go on a first date without having showered, and one couldn’t shower together before a first date!

There was nothing for it: he would shower in his underpants.

“Oh what fun!” he thought wickedly. As he headed up the stairs, his beautiful fingers already at the buttons of his shirt he sang, in faux-operatic voice:

Bobby Shaftoe’s gone to sea

Silver buckles on his knee

He’ll come back and marry me-ee

Bonny Bobby Shaftoe.

Oh what fun he was! What a pleasure to be around, and what a very appropriate song his clever old mind had picked out.

Wasn’t it true that he had been at sea all these years?

He realized as he got undressed – his eyes fixed firmly on the tiled wall – that in all the years before he had fallen in love he had treated himself like a mere acquaintance! Someone he just had to live with. A roommate! What an apology he owed himself! He wondered – ever so fleetingly – if he shouldn’t administer the official apology in the shower, but instantly felt ashamed of the idea.

Wearing only his white boxer shorts he stepped behind the plastic shower curtain, and turned the taps. He shut his eyes as the water beat down on his body, pounding his head and shoulders, and inside this thunderous cave of water he began to sing again, singing as he had never sung in the shower before. He felt an overwhelming sense of well-being and imagined that he was standing on a rock in the middle of the ocean as waves crashed dramatically over his indestructible self – strong and naked as glass!

On switching off the taps however, and returning to reality, he realized that he now had wet underpants to deal with.

Summoning every amp of athleticism he leapt from the shower and tried to pull down his wet boxer shorts as he jumped, but the underpants tripped him and he fell to the floor. Squirming across the slippery tiles he kicked the shorts wildly off his feet and pulling himself up with the towel rack – his efforts retarded by laughter – pulled a towel around himself.

Ah, to be in love!

Precisely 3.7 kilometers to the east Lucy Miller unhooked her bra and stepped naked into the shower, and as she turned on the taps she felt relief for the first time that day. She felt as if the water was penetrating her skull and shoulders, flowing down inside her. But as she began soaping herself her hands betrayed her, and as they stroked she imagined they were his hands. So real was the fantasy that she could even feel him pushing tight against her from behind with his hot soapy body. He caressed her breasts, stomach and thighs. Her fingers knew what she needed. They worked until they brought her up to the cliff’s edge, then over the edge to a thunderous, waterfall-like orgasm. She felt the week’s unbearable tension fall from her and flow down the drain between her feet. Gasping, she pressed her forehead hard against the cold, smooth tiles.

At seven sharp Phillip arrived at the restaurant he had chosen for this momentous occasion, flame lilies in hand. He wore his best corduroy trousers and an eighty year old smoking jacket – in mint condition – he had inherited from and uncle. The waitress smiled at him and his flowers, and he smiled right back. She showed him to his table, and brought him a menu and a champagne bucket for his flowers.

He was about to order a glass of white wine, but thought better of it. A night like tonight, he decided, called for something unusual. From the cocktail menu – something he had never consulted before – he ordered a Green Martini, then studied the main menu.

When the waitress returned with his drink she asked him whether he would like to order a starter so long, or whether he’d prefer to wait.

Phillip was confused.“Wait for what?”

“I mean,” replied the waitress, “when will you be joined?”

She glanced at the flowers.

“But I am joined,” replied Phillip.

And then his bubble burst. He saw her confusion for what it was. He saw the mountain of incomprehension before which he stood in this society. He felt their dreadful vacuity gather and begin trembling over him like some hideous gelatinous wave.

The waitress didn’t know what to say. They looked at each other. Then she smiled, because she thought he might be joking, but mainly because she was terribly confused and didn’t know what else to do.

This smile, which Phillip in that instant read the wrong way, was the last straw, and his face contorted as he bowed his head.

The waitress left.

Sitting like a statue, he stared at his place-mat and watched it grow blurry before him as the drops fell, silently soaking into the pink cloth, brutal pools of darkness growing.

He didn’t move. He kept absolutely still, fighting to control himself.

Suddenly a hand touched his shoulder and he jerked.

He forced himself to look up, cheeks wet with tears, expecting to see the waitress again, but instead he saw Lucy Miller!

“Are you OK?” she asked leaning in close.

Seeing her beautiful, concerned face, he began sobbing in earnest. Lucy placed one hand on his shoulder and with the other handed him his napkin.

“Can I sit?” she whispered, and without waiting for a reply sat opposite him.

Phillip took a while to compose himself. He wiped his eyes and cheeks with the napkin. He looked at her then and his heart filled with gratitude and confusion. He saw her shift her gaze to the flowers, mistaken understanding dawning in her eyes.

“Was someone going to join you?” she asked very quietly, reaching out a hand across the table, to touch his.

“Yes,” he managed. Then, “no.”

The waitress returned with his drink, and he looked down at the table. She smiled at Lucy Miller and asked if she would like to order a drink.

“Phillip?” whispered Lucy.

He nodded almost imperceptibly, without looking up.

As the waitress left Lucy leaned closer.

“I’m so proud of you,” she whispered, and she was, but her voice came out all wrong. She was devastated by the flowers. She felt the way the flowers would look if a truck drove over them.

Phillip felt exposed in the silence between them, mistaking her concern as its cause.

“Remember you said that I should love myself?” he sniffed.

“Well,” he continued, looking directly up at her for the first time, “the flowers are for me.”

He leaned closer, and whispered conspiratorially: “And this is my first date.”

Lucy was struck dumb. She sat there staring at him, her mouth hanging open.

“That’s wonderful,” she managed to stutter.

But Phillip saw her despair and confusion and again mistook it for professional concern. Incapable of knowing of her true feelings for him, he felt dreadfully exposed and vulnerable, and decided to leave. His night was ruined! If there was no hope of being understood even here, then there was no hope anywhere!

He pushed back his chair and stood.

“No, no!” cried Lucy, standing also. She believed that her moment had come.

“Please stay,” she begged him. “There’s something I need to tell you”

When he didn’t sit she grabbed his hands where they hung limp beside him, and blurted it out: “I love you!”

Now it was Phillip who stared at her. He didn’t know what to do or where to look.

Like mime artists, they both sat down again.

“I want to be your lover, Phillip,” she said, staring down at the table cloth.

“But I’m in love with myself,” Phillip whispered urgently.

“But can’t you love me also?” she replied, so softly that he could hardly hear her.

“No,” replied Phillip. It came out more harshly than he wanted, and his voice was trembling. “I like you more than anyone else I know,” he tried again, more kindly, “but I’m in love… I’m in a relationship!

He didn’t know what else to say or do, and, as if in a trance, he stood, picked up his flowers and left her alone at the table.

Outside, he hailed the first taxi he could see and was driven straight home. He felt sorry for any pain he may have caused Lucy Miller but he knew he had done the right thing.

When he got home he didn’t switch on any of the lights, and in moon softened darkness, put his flowers in a vase on the dining room table.

He put on the Bach cello suites by Yo Yo Ma and swayed to the notes in the moonlit eyrie of his sitting room. He felt as if he were standing alone at the very top of Mount Everest. Like skittish moths his fingertips fluttered to the buttons of his shirt. He felt a bolt of white-blue lightening burn its way along his spine as pinpricks of touch from his fingernails trailed down his open chest and stomach, to the buckle of his belt…

And outside in her car sat Lucy Miller. For a very long time indeed she watched the dark windows of his house, knowing she shouldn’t be there but powerless to obey the stark wisdom of self denial, a part of herself, made devious by the torture of unrequited love, had convinced herself that more than ever before Phillip needed her help. Surely he couldn’t be serious about what he had said, and yet… She fought with herself and stared at his dark windows until she could stand it no longer. She left her car, ran across his garden, and finding the front door unlocked, opened it without knocking. The house was filled with darkness but the darkness was filled with music, the most beautiful music, hopeful and profound. With a pounding heart she made her way down the dark passage, through the dark cello jelly, towards the music’s source.

But when she reached the sitting room she stopped dead.

What she had expected to find here, she hadn’t stopped to think.

Had she expected to find Phillip sitting on a sofa, lonely, confused, and grateful for her arrival? That the two of them would sip hot chocolate and talk late into the night? Had she assumed he’d be in bed, and that she’d creep softly in behind him and hold him as he cried?

Instead she found Phillip dancing naked in the moonlight, his erect penis waving about before him like some strange director’s baton.

She couldn’t move. Trapped, she watched him dance, his beautiful body, naturally graceful, comic now with invented dance moves, and ridiculous. She was appalled by her accidental voyeurism and her horror froze her where she stood.

When Phillip spun around with his next “arabesque” he caught sight of her in the doorway and yelled, stumbling backwards.

She couldn’t move, or speak. Instead, helpless in the storm of infatuation and embarrassment she burst into tears again, covering her face with her hands.

Phillip stood where he was and stared, flabbergasted and alone amidst the Bach, his penis drooping between his legs. He stood staring at her, and anger, which had been rising like flood-water all day, finally burst the dam wall. Like some crazed naked Bach Zombie he walked towards her, and she, mistaking his cautious approach and blank face for forgiveness, wiped the tears from her cheeks, and permitted herself a tired smile. Preparing for the forgiving hug she believed imminent she opened her arms, closed her eyes, and ever so slightly raised her chin. Stepping up to her Phillip clamped both hands around her neck and squeezed.

“You are a liar,” he said softly, watching her terrified eyes bulge violently open, his voice drained of emotion.

She tried to shake her head, but managed only the slightest movement; his grip was too tight, her oxygen already too little.

“Then you are a fool,” shouted Phillip, releasing her by throwing her head backward so that it hit the wall. He stepped backwards, away from her, as she crawled blindly about, gasping for breath on her elbows and knees.

He paced around her, not knowing what else to do. “You said we only needed ourselves,” he shouted, his face suddenly ugly with emotion, as if from the depths of a nightmare.

“I say what I believe is most important,” she whispered, barely able to talk. “For the client. To understand. To move to the next step.”

“But it’s true!” shouted Phillip. “Relationships are for curing loneliness, or for making children. But I’m not lonely, and I don’t want children. The age of the couple is over! I am all I need.”

Lucy could no longer look at him, and kept her tear-blurred gaze on the floor.

“But what about, love…”

“It’s not love!” screamed Philip, “it’s infatuation. You sound like an adolescent, or, or a child! Get out!

She felt so tired, so depleted and humiliated that she could hardly move. But somehow she managed to get to her feet. She couldn’t look at him. She bowed her head and dragged herself out, and into the darkness.

Phillip stood dead still in his entrance hall, waiting for the sound of her car departing. He too felt tired. It had been a very long day, but it had ended in triumph. He was very proud of himself. He was well again. He locked the front door, and went up to bed.

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