Life on the edge of love and lucidity

By Arja Salanfranca Time of article published Apr 14, 2011

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The Mistress’s Dog: Short Stories

1996-2010

by David Medalie

(Picador Africa, R154)

Small, one of the 12 short stories that comprise this volume, David Medalie’s second collection of short fiction, opens with a description of the insomniac Stella.

“At night, when the ticking of the clock reaches into every corner of the darkened room, Stella lies motionless, but awake. These are the hours she dreads… Stella has always had to make to do with small.”

What follows is a description of what most would term a “small” life. Now living in a small bedsit in a retirement home – her small life having precluded her affording a larger cottage – she soon befriends Gwen, who can and does afford a large cottage and soon Stella is manipulated into a friendship with this newcomer.

A newcomer whom no one else is comfortable befriending. Yet Stella makes excuses for this, even as her isolation in the home grows and her friendship with Gwen assumes largeness.

It’s when Gwen’s grown-up, 43-year-old, soon-to-be-divorced son, quaintly named Vernon, visits for the first time, that the balance of power shifts, and the desperation of loneliness and old age come shuddering to the fore of Stella’s life.

She has nourished the “worms of meanness” and finds herself “too greedy to spare Gwen even a scrap of the repast which has come to her so late in life”.

This is one of the most powerful stories in the collection, a story that thrums with the effects of a life lived on the margins, a small, too-small life, and the excoriating effects of that existence.

The title story of the collection, The Mistress’s Dog, is another powerful piece, again centred on the effects of ageing, but its protagon- ist, Nola, is caught in an entirely different web. She finds herself looking after her late husband’s mistress’ dog, an ailing, wheezing dog clinging to life, long after her husband and the mistress have died.

In this story, the dog becomes metaphor and vehicle for all sorts of unanswered questions Nola has about her life and the way she has allowed it to simply “happen” to her, to the point that she finds herself living her last days in the presence of a vivid reminder of her late husband’s infidelities and failings. It’s a startling gem of a story, and received the Thomas Pringle Award in 2008.

In other stories relationships also form a centre focus and are dissected with needlepoints of finesse. In The Wheels of God we are introduced to a triangle – Sue, visiting Ina, the mother of her dead lover, Glenda.

Sue is bringing Sello, the child she and Glenda adopted, to meet the grandmother he has not seen. It’s a story that circulates and loops back through time, and time heals, even if the repairs remain somewhat jagged around the edges.

In Toothless Tiger we again witness a triangle of relationships: a father, his divorced daughter and her son are on holiday in the Kruger National Park. Tensions come to the fore, and the secret of cancer will eventually be forced into the open.

In Friendly Fire, a long ago childhood incident in the lives of two sisters, Pam and Linda, forms the spine of their continuing ways of relating to each other.

In the foreword to this collection, academic and editor Michael Titlestad writes that “(modernist) short stories might be uniquely appropriate to… the contours of our experience”.

Medalie’s sharp, tightly focused stories of lives formed by the vagaries of experience certainly fall into the modernist camp. Medalie offers no neat, pat resolutions to the twists and dilemmas these characters fall into and through. I find that supremely satisfying.

Medalie’s short stories shine brightly: each is highly crafted, and ends where it should and yet, so often, the road ahead is ambiguously open-ended, yet lucidly clear.

lArja Salafranca is the author of The Thin Line,

a debut collection of short fiction published by Modjaji Books. This review was first published in the literary journal Wordsetc.

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