Sarah Thomas

The Best Is Yet to Come

My parents have this crazy friend called Sylvia. In 1978 she made a pilgrimage to Graceland; she ended up nursing one of the King’s elderly relatives, a great Aunt called Pats, for months. When Sylvia was low on money in the nineties my parents let her live with us for a while, she did our birth charts and painted a mural of dolphins on the courtyard wall. And here she is now: I hear our garden gates opening, the sound of a pickup with poor suspension bouncing up the ruts of our drive. Her coming to us is another pilgrimage; she’s one of many to make it. I myself have made it. Sylvia has come here to say goodbye to my mother before she dies.

Sylvia has brought something important with her: it’s a great big book, it’s the book of her life. She shows us after dinner. She looks holy: silver hair and horse teeth, eyes the colour of smoke. So many pages of photographs – we come across pictures of a beautiful young man, lounging on a veranda with a drink in his hand and a face like Frank Sinatra and then in the next photo he’s with Sylvia. Sylvia! No more than twenty-five, she is in his lap, hair streaming and with her head on his shoulder. ‘He,’ she says, smiling, ‘was the love of my life.’ And those words are unbearable to me, so I yawn, I stand up, I say ‘Goodnight, everyone’ and go off to bed.

Dad’s moved to the guest room because Mum’s nights are unpredictable, she’ll wake up several times, a TV has been set up at the foot of her bed, the move was her idea, not his. She refused the last round of chemo so now she’s just waiting to die. She loves this programme about a couple renovating a crumbling French château. I go and sit on the bed, ask if she wants some weak herbal tea, the hot sun of noon at the edges of the still-drawn curtains. ‘Maybe later,’ she says, smiling, the programme paused; ‘What have you been up to this morning?’ she asks, but I see her eyes shift one, two times to the TV screen as I answer and I know that the real effortless engaging stuff of life will resume only once I’m gone and she’s left once again to solitude, to her own devices. She told me once that her ideal state was to be alone in a room in a crowded house. I thought of this last night at dinner: Dad, Sylvia and me chattering away at the table, her lying behind her closed bedroom door, the sound of us filtering through, the sounds of life but now she has the ultimate excuse to remain at a distance from them, to let them lap at her edges, free, at last, from all obligation to join in.

Jakob would lie watching the TV at the foot of his bed too, but he was in a hospital, not at home. He could bear only sport, because it was clean of emotion, sterile; luckily, the football World Cup coincided with his accident. I saw it happen. I was coming out of the Margaretenstrasse U-Bahn on my way to his apartment when he phoned: ‘I forgot to take those documents back to the university, I’m going to run them there on my bike, I’ll give you the keys so you can go ahead to my place.’ We met in the Bruno Kreisky park next to the station, him flying towards me, golden on his bike. I turned to wave goodbye and saw the car hit him as he crossed the bridge. His face when I reached him was a little boy’s. Already a crowd around him, the man who had hit him distraught. ‘I can’t move,’ he said. And then, when I leaned closer, his lips against my ear: ‘Everything has changed.

In the hospital he was bloated with tubes, feeding stuff in, taking stuff out; once they moved him to rehab in Innsbruck the scene was quieter, he was thinner. I stayed with his parents for a while and went daily to visit him but he was in there for months, I had to go back to Vienna and then I came to visit him every weekend. Until he told me not to. ‘I don’t want anyone,’ he said, ‘to see me this weak.’ But he had never seemed stronger to me than he did in there. In the early days it was his toes: he would spend hours wiggling this foot, then that foot. On one visit it was his hands: he had a red children’s schoolbook and he was filling it, page by page, with pencil marks.

‘I don’t think you should visit me anymore.’

He is lying back against the pillows. His blonde hair brushed to one side; it falls in a curl over his forehead. His eyes very blue, his nose a beautiful shape, crafted. Thinness has sculpted his features, emphasised their definitions. Nothing sloppy or accidental here. Yesterday, his Dad and I wheeled him down the corridor. Ahead, we saw a man walking on crutches. Motorbike accident. ‘That is the goal,’ his Dad said. ‘No,’ said Jakob. ‘The goal is not crutches.’ His Dad and I looked at each other and continued to wheel him along, deferential. Hercules in his labours. Later, when his Dad had gone, a young and pretty blonde nurse brought dinner into the room. Healthy and blooming, sturdy, apple-cheeks. She chaffed and joked with Jakob in a Tirolian dialect I didn’t understand. She set his tray down briskly, plumped the pillows around him. His whole aspect brightened. I told myself: control, control, don’t show it, your jealousy, she is his nurse, anything that lightens his mood is good, but the door shut behind her and Jakob sighed with pleasure, looked at me and said, ‘She is like an angel for me’ and it was suddenly clear: the license this event in his life, his accident, had given him.

‘Every seven years your life starts a new cycle’, that’s what they say, and I love beginnings, embarkations. I go to Vienna in my twenty-eighth year, I meet Jakob weeks after arriving and he is the new city for me. Sitting in the kitchen of the friends I was staying with, that’s where I first see him, one of the many people who come over, at eleven in the morning or three in the afternoon, as everyone seems to work for themselves and keep to their own schedules: he is sitting there pouring coffee from an aluminium stovetop espresso-maker into a small espresso cup, an orchid on the window-sill behind him, the window overlooking an inner courtyard – everything so foreign and redolent and engrossing – and he smiles as I appear in the doorway: ‘Hello, Lara?’ He lingers in the kitchen several hours, all of Ellie and Kristof’s friends in Vienna linger, over cigarettes and coffee and drinks, one thing drifting into another, it is high summer, we roll shrimp and lettuce leaves into rice paper, drink green gold wine from the vineyards and when it’s dark we go swimming in the Old Danube. I get work teaching English in a kindergarten and in the afternoons I like to go to the cafes: Café Eiles with its faded chintz booths, Café Braunerhof where Thomas Bernhard used to sit and read the newspapers in their wooden holders. Jakob comes and finds me. ‘Ellie and Kristof told me you were here. I have my car.’ He takes me up to Café Cobenzl in the forested hills above the city and we sit in its rotunda. A middle-aged couple drink Weisser Spritzer in a shaft of sunlight in an empty part of the café, wearing 1970s clothes. Jakob makes a rectangle out of his fingers to fix them in, squints through it. ‘Spies,’ he says, ‘meeting for the first time since they were separated, different sides of the Wall.’

After drinks we walk down through the vineyard, he disappears abruptly then reappears, a lizard on his hand, tiny and bright green, he brings it to show me then lets it go. How did he manage to catch it, make it sit calm on his hand? We go back to his car; he parks outside Ellie and Kristof’s place. He looks at me shyly and it is me who leans in, to kiss him. The fresh smell of him, the healthy heat of his skin, his young muscles under his faded green shirt – we are two simple animals and it is right and healthy that we should have sex, straight away, now, so we drive to his place and yes, it is right and so simple, we play little games like two children, I am dark-haired and he blonde and so I am his Puma and he is my Leopard, afterwards I stand on his balcony and he comes up behind me and encloses me in his arms. He is five years younger than me. ‘It doesn’t matter!’ he says. ‘Why would it matter?’ And I am helpless, from this day, to do anything but put my faith in him and so I believe, that it does not matter.

And after all, I feel younger here in Vienna than I ever did in all the years before in London. Getting the tube home from work, waiting for the bus at Archway station, I remember calculating, aged twenty-five, the years remaining until I could retire, imagining a life of silver-haired freedom. One weekend I drive with Alex, the boyfriend I was living with back then, all the way to Wales. We consult maps down gouged backroads and eventually find ourselves outside a gate, it is crested with black wrought- iron dachshunds, as our car proceeds down the drive I spy dachshunds surveying us from various windows of the pebble-dashed house. Inside, dachshunds draped on every surface, three of them on the spine of a single sofa. We buy the smallest one and Alex calls her Mabel. Mabel is a millstone round our necks but Alex loves the millstone and I hate it and that is the difference between us. There is a party on Saturday night. ‘OK, but we can’t stay long,’ Alex replies. ‘Mabel.’ At the musical theatre company where I work as a receptionist the office manager has his suspicions about me, he can tell I have other interests, that I would not lay down body and soul for the honour of the company and so he tries to catch me out, to punish me; he lurks and surprises: health and safety quizzes land in my inbox to be completed and returned to him within the hour; fire drills are sprung on me without notice. One day the owner of the company, the famous impresario himself is having a meeting with some media bigwig;

I lay out the coffee cups and fill the silver flasks; afterwards the bigwig’s assistant and I kneel on either side of the dishwasher putting the old rich men’s soiled crockery away. We pause as one, each holding a dirty cup aloft. ‘It has got,’ the assistant says, ‘to get better than this.’

And it does get better because I leave Alex and my unwanted dachshund child and I quit my receptionist’s job and I fly to Vienna to stay with my old school friend Ellie and her boyfriend Kristof and I get a job as an English assistant in a kindergarten and I meet Jakob.

Sometimes Mum gets up, she isn’t bedridden, I see her out by the pond, lying on a sun lounger. She’s been out here for a while, Dad was with her, then Sylvia, they both wandered off and she’s been alone for about an hour. I go to her. ‘Are you OK out here?’ I ask. ‘Do you want to come inside?’ She turns her head to me. An umbrella has been set up to shade her. ‘Not yet,’ she says. ‘It’s so beautiful here. I love to just look.’ She gestures towards the pond, some birds hopping about in the water from the pump. Her hair has grown back in sporadic white tufts, her face is bloated but her body thin. Mum came out to Kenya when she was twenty- eight, the same age I was when I went out to Vienna. I think of this often. There are further overlaps. She too went to stay with an old schoolfriend for what was meant to be a holiday. She too stayed longer because of meeting a man. The man was not my Dad.

Mum sits up for dinner that night, she manages a few sips of soup and after dinner when she’s settled on the sofa we look through more of Sylvia’s book. Lamu. It’s a small island 150 miles up the coast from Mombasa. Concrete hollows by the front doors, filled with water and floating with frangipani blossoms, to wash your feet of sand before entering the houses. Here are Dad and Nils, his best friend: they are tanned, in tinted aviators and white shirts at an outdoor table and behind them a wall full of vines. Nils’ family owned the hotel on Lamu and for a few years Dad helped him run it. Here are Mum and Sylvia, forty years ago, on the balcony of the room Mum had rented near the hotel some two months after arriving in the country, cooking beans on her gas stove. Here are a group of them walking down the beach, here are a group of them in the hotel bar, here is Sylvia lying on her back on a circle of rush-matting next to a bulky old 1980s cassette player, face helpless with laughter. I turn page after page, Mum on one side of me, Sylvia on the other.

And here he is: here is Lars, Nils’ brother, lifting a sailfish out of the sea on the end of his fishing line and then, on the next page, lifting my mother, lifting her on a dancefloor it looks like, there are flowers in her hair, here he is behind her, suntanned arm across her chest holding her to him, sand dunes in the background, here he is bending down towards the engine of a boat, his body a tapered curve, loose shirt showing collarbones, Mum standing behind him, another page, another, and now all four of them out at sea with the white furl of a sail behind them: Mum and Lars, Sylvia and Nils, because Nils is the man with the Frank Sinatra face, the man of whom Sylvia said, with such a peaceful smile, ‘He was the love of my life.’ Was. They sit here, on either side of me, these two women, so untroubled, so reconciled, looking at their ‘was’. They got two years with them. Nils went and ran a camp for a while in Northern Tanzania and came back with a well-bred blonde on his arm, capable and tough, younger and everything Sylvia was not, to run the hotel for him, to be the practical one, taking care of everything so that he didn’t have to, so that he could occupy the role of expansive host, entertaining the guests at the bar, taking them fishing, presiding over competitions, becoming a legend, the one they remembered when they all went back to their real lives, president of a software company in Dallas, Texas, they’d shake their heads and chuckle, back in the first board meeting: ‘What a guy, that Nils!’ Lars got wanderlust, set off to sail his dhow down the coast and round the Cape but veered towards Mauritius, stopped and set up a fishing outfit there. In their absence, Sylvia got a job teaching art; Mum moved to the mainland and married my Dad.

We’ve gone back to Lamu many times over the years on family holidays, to stay at the old hotel and sometimes Lars will be there, on a gap between solitary expeditions, sitting at the bar like some spirit of Hemingway with his tales of peril and adventure. We went when I was fourteen, during Mum’s bad time, I remember her at the bar, braless in a tight white bodice top, exuding sexuality in a way I’d never seen: it was repulsive to me, my adolescent self, to see such sex in my own mother, her nipples pushing out against the white fabric. Around Nils and Lars my Dad changed too, became younger, laughing and helping Charles the barman mix cocktails like in the old days, drinking till dawn when they’d fill a flask of Bloody Mary and go out on the boat, looking for marlin. That night in the bar when my mother held her body like a sphinx, nipples pressing at her white top, Lars looked at her tenderly, his eyes so soft, that’s the way he always is with her when he’s crossed our path over the years, either when we go down to Lamu or when he comes and stays with us for a night or two on his way upcountry, us his last night of domestic comforts, clean sheets and hot water, before months in the wilderness, up in the moonscape of Lake Turkana or that dry bandit country, the Northern Frontier District. That soft and tender look, infinitely gentle, the gentleness that all good people show towards those helplessly in their power. I know that look. I too have been on the receiving end of such a look.

Mum’s bad time came when Dad got a job with the Red Cross flying relief into South Sudan. He was away for months at a time, working out of a base right up on the border; I was away at school, in England. A white woman in Kenya, with servants and time on her hands; she did what many of them do: she got drunk all day. I could tell, when I was there, I could tell from the very first sip: something in her eyes would change. She never worked. And Dad was solid and dependable, always in employment after he got his pilot’s license. On that trip to Lamu, Dad left after a few days to get back to work but Mum and I stayed on and she sat there night after night drunk and sexy at the hotel bar and on our last night she and Lars went home together. As the boat took us across the water to the small airfield the next morning I looked at her sitting there, tears streaking down from under her dark sunglasses and when Dad picked us up at the airport and took us out to lunch the dark sunglasses were still on and a single tear slid down now and then, she just didn’t give a shit. Dad was shaken by something that had happened up in Sudan two days previously. He had picked up two men and a small boy to carry back over the border to the field hospital; the little boy, he said, had a foot blown off. ‘As soon we got him into the plane the nurse hooked him up to intravenous pethidine. When the pethidine hit home, the boy smiled. It’s the smile I can’t forget, the smile, the little boy closed his eyes and smiled.’ I looked at my mother, unresponsive, still in her fucking sunglasses, lost in her own private melodrama and indifferent to the epic pain my father had just described and I wanted to smack her, to smack the sunglasses right off her soused and self-indulgent face but now I relate, I relate only too well, a thousand World Trade Centres could burn down, a million displaced people could die and my grief, my regret, my longing for Jakob would still move me more.

It was me who suggested Jakob and I move in together when he came out of rehab. Maybe I took advantage of his weakness. ‘Just leave it all to me,’ I said. ‘I’ll find us a nice place.’ And I did find us a nice place because it was possible, in Vienna, with its rent-controlled city-owned housing stock, for people with low incomes to live somewhere pleasant. I found us an apartment on the top floor with lots of sunlight because Jakob still couldn’t go outside much, was still weak and shaky, still on crutches. I rented a car for the day and drove us to the woods; he managed a slow walk and in a very quiet part of the wood, on the soft ground in the shade of a tree we made love. He loved my thick brown hair, my Scottish hair he said. I was so proud of his determination, his diligent regimen, day after day after day, moving his legs one in front of the other.

Dad told Mum that if she didn’t stop drinking he would leave her and she was financially dependent on him so she did stop. By then it was unthinkable for her to ever go back to the UK, now she’d got used to the expat lifestyle, living far above her station. Back in Scotland she’d be one of the many but here in Kenya by dint of being white and middle class she was one of the few, living like an aristocrat in 1920s England, with tea made and brought to her on the veranda every afternoon at four. That’s why she never left, I think, even after she lost Lars. She replaced the booze with yoga and when Dad retired they started a garden design business together and became quite contented; I’d watch them when I visited, taking their evening ramble around the garden, discussing the plants in their nursery, sharing a joint. I knew the quality-of-life chasm between the gentle European social democracy I’d ended up in and the ravenous destabilising precarity of London but I had to leave, when Jakob ended it with me, I couldn’t stay there and bear witness to the life he was going to live after me. I remember, when it was still good between us, lying in bed next to him at night, reading novels and short stories full of women mourning lost loves and recounting their compromises and feeling so smug and so lucky that I wasn’t one of them, that the man next to me was the only one I wanted and would ever want but on one of those very nights I looked up from my book and saw him staring into space with a restless, dissatisfied look on his face and I asked him what was wrong. ‘After I had my accident,’ he said, ‘When I would lie there in rehab, there was one thing I thought over and over.’ ‘What was it?’ I asked. ‘I thought: I wish I had done more.’ ‘More of what,’ I asked, my chest already leaden, already pulling me right down through the bed. ‘More of everything,’ he said. And when he ended it with me two months later, months in which he was able to get up and out a bit more, to openings and parties; months in which, when he wasn’t out, when he was at home with me of an evening, he would be on his phone, on his Instagram and Facebook and WhatsApp, hungry and bored, wondering what he was missing out on: ‘I need a lot of excitement,’ he would say; ‘I don’t want to plan, I don’t even want to know what my life will be in three months’ time’ – well, when he ended it, I had to leave because I couldn’t stay there and see him having it, having more, of everything.

It’s the first time I’ve made the connection between our names, actually. Lara and Lars. Is it the same for all of us, then? For every woman, a golden ghost who haunts her.

Lying curled on the end of Mum’s bed in the glow of the TV it’s like I’m a child again. She’s getting fainter, she’s going away, she can hardly eat a thing. I don’t want to leave her at night, so I’ve brought in a single mattress and made it up on the floor. There are things she did in her drunk days but they are all receding now, there is just her, my Mum, her hand in mine as we watch the couple deal with damp and rot and planning contingencies in their crumbling French château.

The last time I saw Jakob, when I ran into him at a party about two months after we broke up and a week before I was due to go back to the UK, he said, ‘Hey, check this out,’ and he showed me his new stick. He’d finally moved from crutches to a walking stick and he’d celebrated by buying a louche, ebony creation; the handle was a silver panther. ‘I found it in a junk store on the Koppstrasse,’ he said. He lifted it in the air but wobbled slightly so put the stick back down on the ground. ‘If I have to have a stick I might as well have one like this.’ ‘For sure,’ I said. People kept calling his name, people I hadn’t met before, all his new friends, younger than me, club kids. ‘Hey, Jakob,’ one of them called now, it was a muscled girl, her clothes, her whole aspect was extraordinary: she wore just a metallic strip covering her breasts, toned abs bare beneath it, with more metallic strips over muscled buttocks and upper thighs, she looked like a warrior. I looked at her thighs, her hard stomach, her harsh, metallic clothing; when she saw me looking her face turned both blank and fierce. I imagined Jakob fucking her, her astride him, still looking blank and fierce; I imagined the noises he might make as he lay underneath her. She was so unhomely. If what stood right in front of you was large enough in its novelty you would be unable to see beyond it, along the days and months and years, to finality. When he’d been in the hospital in those early weeks and months, everything had been final. ‘This is it,’ he had thought. The moment he could see through to the end – moving in with me, maybe we’ll have kids someday, let’s commit to one another – the moment anything was in any way set down, settled, definite, he was back there, lying flat on his back in a hospital bed, with no more life, nothing dancing, tantalising and mysterious in front of him and, well, what was the point of having been given back life, if you didn’t throw yourself into everything, everything, it had to offer? More of everything.

The girl called his name again and before he turned to join her he gave me a look, a tender look, it was a look that seemed to want to communicate many things. Sadness, regret. But also something firm, something that said: I’m sorry, I wish it was different, but I haven’t changed my mind. I found Anna and Sofie, the friends I’d gone there with; I forced myself to stay another half-hour, just long enough that it wouldn’t be obvious, and then I left. I didn’t want to take the underground so I walked home, through the medieval streets of the city centre, past the Ringstrasse, along the empty boulevards.

Sylvia comes in sometimes and joins us on the bed and, in between these two women, one of them dying and one of them old, I feel so young and I can believe that it all still lies ahead of me, that the best is yet to come.

But another part of me thinks it doesn’t work like that, that there comes a time in your life when you have to reconcile yourself and one day you will live that reconciliation in grace, like Sylvia has done and like Mum managed to do, much later.

Have I already crossed over, to that latter part of life, where the best has already been? Sylvia crossed over when she was twenty-seven and that’s already ten years younger than I am now. The dream of Jakob, the dream of Vienna, was that the crowning moment? Nils had a sailing yacht, he sailed it round the horn of Africa, he called the sailing yacht Sylvia.

On the day before she died, I took Mum out to the pond she’d come to love so much. She lay there a long time on a sunbed under an umbrella. She was so happy just looking at the birds. Starlings and plovers and ring- necked doves, ruffling their feathers in the fountain. She was so happy!

We scattered her ashes from the Losiolo escarpment with its great sweeping views down the length of the Rift Valley, where the fossils of man’s earliest remains were found. The wind was just right, it carried her ashes down that ancient valley in the direction of the sun. I was there and Dad was there and Sylvia was there and Nils was there with his wife, Carol, and Lars was there, and many other people were there.

Sarah Thomas was born in Scotland, grew up in Kenya, and lives in London. Her first novel, Queen K, is published in February 2023 by Serpent’s Tail.

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