The Trials And Travails Of Stella Bellamy by Barbara Schreiner is available now. This excerpt is published by permission.
Stella has an epiphany. A strange thing to happen standing over a pan of scrambled eggs, ignoring the sink full of yesterday’s dishes, but it’s her experience that enlightenment happens more often amongst the dirty dishes than in a shaft of light descending from the heavens accompanied by the far-off sound of violins.
She’s bored. Deep down in the marrow of her bones, she is bored, with getting up and going to the office and sitting behind her computer thinking and writing, or sitting at home thinking and writing, washing dishes, calling an artisan to fix the electrical or technical entropy that grips the house from time to time. Bored with her self-repeating circle of friends. With the ongoing cycle of diets that never work. Bored even with watching Game of Thrones to avoid being bored.
Bored with being bored.
What the hell does one do at nearly sixty when you are bored with your life, she wonders, scraping the eggs from the non-stick pan onto a white plate and sprinkling them with pink Himalayan mountain salt. Bored with bloody scrambled eggs even, she thinks, scraping them off the white plate into the shiny Italian steel rubbish bin. Bored with white plates, she thinks, tossing the plate into the bin with the eggs.
How does one un-bore a life?
Many years ago, she met a woman in the dining room of a hotel in Delhi. They were both alone in a dining room packed with eager-eyed computer techies gathered for a three-day conference. The woman, elegant in a green and red silk sari asked to share Stella’s table. Stella, not so grumpy in those days, smiled and nodded. Prof Akhalwaya was a professor of English at Delhi University, specialising, if Stella remembers correctly, in post-modern Indian literature. Whatever post-modern Indian literature might be. For six months of the year, at least. The other six months of the year, she spent as a nurse’s aide in a remote village in Bihar, administering vaccinations and basic medical treatment.
It seemed to Stella at the time to be a remarkably balanced way to spend one’s life, but somehow she never managed to implement anything like it, even on a small scale. Perhaps she’s too selfish? And besides, what skills does she have to offer someone in a poor rural village?
Get some skills, snaps the devil on her shoulder. Not so hard to do.
‘I don’t speak the languages of rural people in South Africa,’ she argues.
Then work in the city where people speak English, sneers the devil, a banner saying ‘soup kitchen’ hanging against the dingy wall behind him.
‘I’ve tried,’ mutters Stella, ‘I Googled a whole lot of charities to find somewhere to donate my time, but I couldn’t find anywhere that called to me.’
Called to you? The devil is beyond sneering now, well into the next level of contempt. You think this is a calling? Like Mother Theresa, or Desmond Tutu? The only thing calling to you is some way to avoid the boredom and guilt of your middle-class stupor. Hah! Calling indeed.
‘I didn’t mean it like that. It just didn’t seem there was anywhere that I would feel comfortable and that would fit with my work demands. My travelling schedule. All the stuff with kids needs you to be there on a regular basis. Half these places are run by devout Christians and they’re going to look at me oddly within half an hour of me getting there. One “f**k” and I’ll be iced out of the door.’
So don’t say f**k.
‘You know what I mean.’ Stella brushes the devil off her shoulder and there is a faint scrabbling, not unlike the scritchings of a cockroach, as the devil searches for her dignity amidst fluff and dust dogs behind the sofa.
Oh, Stella, she calls out, you know something – the back of this sofa is a metaphor for your life. Look a little behind the surface and you’ll find the dirt.
‘Oh, f**k off.’
So, she does it. She takes a step to avoid boredom. She decides to do something new every month, and the first step is skydiving. Tandem skydiving admittedly, but diving through the soft blue of the sky nonetheless.
On Sunday morning, she pulls on a pair of white jeans and a blue t-shirt, hoping that it is appropriate gear for jumping out of a plane. It’s horribly early for her on a Sunday, but she’s packed a light lunch – avo and cheese on health bread with a bottle of Sir Juice pomegranate – and she’s ready to go. She’s checked the tyres and filled up with petrol, and now she just has to find the place.
An hour later, she pulls onto a dirt road to the Rustenburg Flying Club, gripping the steering wheel to hide the slight tremor in her hands. The place is a hive of activity, and she wanders across to join the line of people as they sign away their rights in order to jump.
I will not hold Rustenburg Flying Club or any of its members … she reads, and signs without bothering to read the rest.
Chances are, she thinks, if anything goes wrong, I won’t be around to sue anyone. The thought makes her smile, but her signature is oddly uncertain on the page.
In the large hangar, two men fold parachutes carefully and methodically. She hopes they got a good night’s sleep, hopes they know what they’re doing. One of those contraptions of thin fabric and long strings might be the one that keeps her from hitting the ground at terminal velocity.
The instructor measures her middle-aged body with his eyes.
Not the slightest flicker of lust, Stella notes with sadness. There was a time when a man like him would have measured her up and down more than once. Now it is a cursory glance and he hands her a set of red overalls to put on.
She steps into the overalls, zips them up, and sits down on a bench to wait.
It is a slow process. There are only two tandem divers, and six people signed up to jump with them. She is number five. So, she waits. No book, no internet. Just the sun and the wind and a battered silver plane touching down and taking off. And coloured ’chutes that blossom in the sky and fall slowly, ever so slowly, to ground. Until they’re close to the ground, when they seem to Stella to fall frighteningly fast. More than once, she wonders why she is doing this. But she’s paid her not inconsiderable fee, and she’s determined to jump.
Quite why she is so determined to jump eludes her. She always swore that she’d never jump out of a plane. Bloody stupid idea, she’s always thought. And yet ennui has brought her to this place.
She knows she’ll be terrified, as she watches a young woman climb into the plane for a tandem jump, surrounded by eager solo parachutists. Oh my god, she thinks, heart thumping against her ribs like a large trapped frog, it’s going to be awful.
She watches the plane rise into the cloudless sky, smaller and smaller, until one by one, blue, red, white, green, the parachutes burst from its flank and begin their slow descent.
She watches the tandem dive, wondering what it will feel like. The dive looks wrong somehow, lumbering through the air, not drifting like dandelion seed. She watches with growing concern.
Is it meant to look like this? It seems off course, wounded. They’re coming down fast and they’re too close to the fence. Why is he so close to the fence? The two of them, tied together with webbing hit the ground heavily, roll, and for a moment, lie still.
Stella stares in shock as slowly the two of them get to their feet. The trainer helps the young woman to her feet, holds her arm as she walks. What the hell happened? Stella feels a surge of adrenaline hit the pit of her stomach.
‘She passed out!’ The trainer looks pale as he babbles to a colleague. ‘We jumped, and she passed out. Like jumping with a bloody sack of potatoes. I’ve never had that happen. Thirty years and no one has ever passed out on me. I heard about one guy who had a heart attack, but I’ve never had anyone pass out on me before.’
‘You next?’ He stares at Stella who blushes at being caught eavesdropping.
She nods. ‘I think so.’
‘Just don’t pass out!’
‘I’ll try not to.’ She smiles, but he’s not in a smiling mood. He turns away to check the packing of his parachute.
Half an hour later, it’s her turn. Without ceremony, she is thrust into a somewhat undignified harness, yanked tight by Oscar, her tandem partner. Then she is bundled into the plane amidst a group of young men, each with a parachute strapped to his back. Before she knows it, she is seated on the floor of the plane between Oscar’s thighs, and he has clipped webbing straps from her harness to his.
They taxi down the runway and she waits for the adrenaline to kick in, the terror to strike. But she finds herself curiously calm as she watches the young men run through a series of strange, personal rituals. One touches each of his fingers against his thumbs, twice. One appears to pray. Their rituals are more disconcerting than the idea of being strapped to a strange man and about to throw herself out of a plane.
She remembers just how dangerous this sport is. But still no fear. Perhaps her fear centre has shut down in the face of her stupidity.
‘We pull the cord at this height,’ Oscar breaks into her train of thought. She looks out of the window, still calm.
I’m going to sh*t myself when they open the door, she thinks.
And then Oscar pulls her up onto his lap and tightens the straps so that she is bound to his chest in an intimate embrace. He checks each of the straps. Tells her to put on her goggles. Reminds her how to jump, how to curve her body back when they are in free fall. She feels the anticipation, waits for the door to open, the terror to hit.
Instantly the door is open and there is no time for fear. She hangs in the air, a monstrous wind buffeting her. She feels motionless in time and space, just the violence of the wind reminding her that she is plummeting to the earth at terminal velocity.
Her body is arched back, head up, arms and legs up, and she is a dolphin in the waves, a glass of wine in coq au vin, chocolate sauce on vanilla ice cream. She laughs and her lips flaps in the turbulence. She is a Valkyrie of the air.
Oscar pulls the ripcord and with a painful yank of the harness on her crotch she is upright, the noise has gone and she drifts like dandelion seed above the world, looking around in meditation and delight.
Far too soon, the ground is close below them.
‘Pick up your legs,’ Oscar reminds her, and they slide, almost gracefully, onto the ground. His arms slips around her in a hug. ‘Thanks,’ he smiles, and she beams back.
She is in love. In love with Oscar, with the sky, with the ground, with herself. The club photographer snaps her smile for posterity and she walks, ten centimetres above the ground, back to the hangar to return her harness and her red overall and to collect her photos.
‘That,’ she thinks to herself, ‘was not boring!’
In the car, she must hang onto the steering wheel so as not to drift away like a dandelion seed, through the open window and out into the vast blue of the cloudless sky.