The hotel is near the airport, but not of the airport, so it can give itself an extra star for not officially being an ‘airport hotel’. Planes coming in and out of Johannesburg fly low overhead in timed clusters. Nothing for several hours, then suddenly, Air France, Qantas, Egyptair, United, South African Airlines. It’s easy to lie on the manicured grass around the hotel pool and watch the big white birds come and go.
At 6pm, the hotel restaurant and bar opens. A family gathers around a table. Mother and Father are joined by the younger daughter and her fiancé. The engagement party was some months before, and they talk wedding plans. She is tall, slim, dressed in tight white that off-sets her tan beautifully. A tasteful amount of gold jewellery adorns her neck, wrists, and most importantly, the third finger of her left hand. The diamond winks in candlelight.
She says little. Her fiancé says a lot. He is tall also, a little older than she, and it’s obvious that his handsome solidity will go to chunkiness with age. He has that look around the jawline, the hips, his upper arms. Now, he is still tightly muscled. He wears a thick gold bracelet and each big link is like an opinion he spouts.
They have come back from a safari not long ago, and he speaks knowingly of buffalo and giraffe. He did not shoot them with a camera. This is his country, and they are his animals to do with as he pleases.
She says something about her camera, and he places his strong hand on the underside of her arm. Even his gentle grip indents the soft flesh there. He has no interest in her photographs, and steers her parents away from their polite enquiries. She goes back to silence. He keeps his hand on her.
There is more conversation. She still glows with pride that she has bagged herself this man. She leans towards him, a ten degree incline that he sees both as his right, and with mild irritation. He leans away from her, perhaps twelve degrees. Nothing anyone would notice.
Her older sister arrives, also in white. She is the smart one, the one who married securely and well, has three children in good schools. She has servants and no servant problem, except that one girl is leaving and she must find another. The servant girl is doing something, oh who knows what they do, it’s just a nuisance.
Her even more subtle gold jewellery jangles in a pretty way, almost musical, chiming. The younger daughter’s bracelet suddenly looks heavy, over-stated.
The fiancé laughs at something the older sister says. He likes her, makes sure he likes the whole family. He turns his head fully in her direction, and she meets his eyes.
The younger daughter sips her wine, does not put the glass back down on the gleaming white table cloth. Her thumb moves through the condensation on the glass, over and over.
The waitress arrives to take their order. She is white. Only the gardener, the bell hops, the pool attendants are black in this hotel. They move through shadows and along walls, quiet and getting on with their jobs. They wear flat shoes, to be silent. The waitress’ heeled shoes click on the tiles of the open-air restaurant setting. She can make noise, mark the air with her passing.
The fiancé orders a dish heavy on meat and garnishes. The daughters take a while, sizing up what the other might order, and choosing something will be even more neat and elegant to eat. The younger daughter changes her order after her sister is done. She will have the steak and salad, no fries thankyou. She will fit into that wedding dress.
Her fiancé takes his hand off her arm to light another cigarette. Her own cigarettes are European, slim, long. Her father jokes about her special orders from Paris. She takes his teasing, does not reply.
Her fiancé is talking to her sister. She stays quiet.
As dusk descends into night, the pool attendant closes the pool for the night. He pads around the glittering blue expanse, placing white chains across the stepped pool entry.
Her fiancé slings his arm around the back of her chair and brings her into the conversation, at least as an active listener.
The chain of his bracelet gleams.
Photo: After the Party _ Ian Cochrane