Fiction Friday | 'A Poor Season for Whales' by Michiel Heyns

20 March 2020 - 10:59 By jonathan ball publishers
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'A Poor Season for Whales' by Michiel Heyns.
'A Poor Season for Whales' by Michiel Heyns.
Image: Supplied

“Margaret Crowley, handsome, clever and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly fifty-six years in the world with very little to distress or vex her. It was therefore hardly to be foreseen that in her fifty- sixth year she would kill a man with a kitchen knife.”

When, after 26 years of marriage, Crowley’s husband leaves her for a younger man, she has to rethink her priorities and consider her options: as a free agent, with no “appurtenances”, how best to turn that freedom into a meaningful future rather than mulling over the past?

Opting to leave behind her support system of family and friends, she moves to the seaside town of Hermanus with her dog, Benjy, intent upon a simple, uncluttered existence.

But when the charismatic young Jimmy Prinsloo-Mazibuko enters her life and her home, apparently intent upon establishing himself as a general-purpose handyman and cook, she finds herself torn between distrust and attraction. Is he merely the helpful, cheerful young man he seems or is there a darker purpose to his assistance?


Michiel Heyns is an award-winning literary translator and author of eight novels: The Children’s Day, The Reluctant Passenger, The Typewriter’s Tale, Bodies Politic, Invisible Furies, Lost Ground, A Sportful Malice and I am Pandarus. He was previously professor of English at the University of Stellenbosch.


She’d hardly turned into the main road when she saw, next to the road, the young man – Willy? Jimmy? – from the day before, hitchhiking. For a moment she considered pretending not to see him, but he’d already caught her eye, and was making ‘Oh please’ gestures with his hands in prayer position. Well, it couldn’t do any harm, she thought, it was a longish walk to town, and he had, after all, saved Benjy’s life.

She stopped next to him and opened the door for him. ‘Hop in,’ she said.

‘Thanks,’ he said, warding off as best he could Benjy’s ecstatic greeting from the back seat. ‘There, there, boy, I love you too,’ he said, and then to Margaret, ‘We meet again. Small world.’

‘Well, the Hermanus part of it is quite small, especially out of season when there are so few people about.’

‘You mean so few white people.’

She could feel herself flushing. ‘I mean people in this part of Hermanus, where you and I find ourselves.’

‘Sure. It’s not an issue.’

‘That’s what I thought.’

They were silent for a while. She was irked with him for trying to catch her out, and irked with herself for giving him the opening.

‘This is a big car for a single lady,’ he said, looking about him.

‘Yes,’ she replied, not liking the designation, but knowing by now not to say so. ‘But then, I wasn’t always a single lady,’ she added.

‘I guess so,’ he said.

‘Where do you want to be dropped?’ she asked.

‘Anywhere. Where you going?’

‘Woolworths, probably.’

‘Of course,’ he said. ‘Why am I not surprised?’

‘Why should you be surprised?’

‘As I said, I’m not. But sure, thanks, Woolworths suits me as well’s anywhere else.’

There was another brief silence. Then, ‘You’re out very early,’ he said.

‘Yes,’ she replied. ‘I’ve got people coming to lunch.’

She thought he might comment on the likely quality of any lunch of her making, but he remained quiet, apparently lost in thought. She wondered what he was planning to do in the village on a Sunday, but did not want to seem inquisitive. She didn’t know, in any case, whether his directionless existence bore closer examination. If he was a drifter, by definition he drifted.

Her phone, on the console in front of her, chimed the jaunty little tune that Carl had selected for her on account of its ‘recognition factor’.

‘That will be my lunch guest,’ she said, reaching for her phone, but before she could pick it up, Jimmy had grabbed it, flicked it on, and was holding it to his ear.

‘Mrs Crowley is driving and can’t take your call at the moment. She’ll call you back at her earliest convenience.’ There was a pause, followed by an agitated remonstration at the other end; then Jimmy said, ‘Sure. I’ll tell her. You’re welcome.’

He switched off the phone. ‘It’s somebody called Frieda. She’s running late, about twenty minutes.’

Margaret didn’t reply, trying to recover her self-command. ‘Look,’ she said, as calmly as her annoyance allowed, ‘I would say I appreciate your readiness to be of help, but in fact I really do not appreciate your taking over my life as if I were incapable of running it myself.’

‘I wasn’t taking over your life. I was answering your phone.’

‘And you don’t think I can answer my own phone?’

‘Not while you’re driving, you can’t. At least not with me in the front seat and Benjy in the back. I didn’t rescue him off a ledge so you could write him off – not to mention the passengers in the car you connect while steering a monster vehicle with one hand on the wheel and the other clamped to your ear. It’s illegal, but more to the point, it’s fucking stupid, and you know it.’

Margaret was too angry to reply. The worst of it was that he was right, and that he was so smug about being right. But it was truly insufferable, being lectured to on phone etiquette by a boy hardly out of his teens. She had not invited him into her life, and had certainly not granted him jurisdiction over it.

In the Woolworths parking lot she bade him a curt and, she hoped, decisive farewell and went to do her shopping, still fuming, only gradually recovering her equanimity amidst the soothingly familiar orderliness of the Woolworths food bins, where everything knew its place, and even the tomatoes conformed to some Platonic ideal – not of tomato-ness but of compliance to man’s dominion over creation.

She took rather longer than she’d anticipated over her shopping, being waylaid by one of the members of her Newlands book club who had a holiday home in Hermanus, and who, professing delight at discovering that Margaret was now living here, declared her intention to have her ‘over for a bite to eat’ soon, even though in the twenty years they’d lived two blocks from each other in Cape Town they’d never as much as had a cup of tea together. Fiction Friday | 'A Poor Season for Whales' by Michiel Heyns. She was as concise as politeness permitted – apart from anything else, she was developing frostbite in her shoulder from standing next to the frozen foods section – but the woman was not to be hurried, needed to fill Margaret in on various people whom Margaret had only the vaguest recollection of, and it was a good half-hour before, having exchanged phone numbers with Madge Preston (she remembered the name just in time), she got back to her car. It was with a combination of alarm, irritation and … well, a jolt of something else she couldn’t place, that she saw the young man leaning against her car with a proprietary air. By his side, tongue lolling happily, was Benjy, attached to the lead she’d left on the seat next to him. She felt a twinge of annoyance at the dog for being won over so easily. After all, he didn’t know that the man had saved his life.

Seeing her approach, the young man raised a languid hand. ‘Hi. I saw your car was still here.’

She nodded. ‘So I see. And you let Benjy out.’

‘Sure. You shouldn’t leave him in an unlocked car with his lead next to him. Anybody could have walked off with him.’

‘Thanks for the advice. But I’ve managed to hang on to Benjy for five years without mishap.’ Then she recalled the day before, and waited for him to point out that she didn’t always manage to hang on to Benjy all that efficiently, but he merely smiled, uncoiled his length from its support and came towards her. ‘Here,’ he said, ‘let me help you carry.’

She wanted to decline, but judged that a refusal would be more of an issue than acceptance. ‘Thanks,’ she said, handing him one of her bags. ‘Just while I unlock …’ She fumbled for her keys in the pocket of her jacket.

‘It’s open,’ he said. ‘Remember?’

‘Of course. Thank you.’ She took the bag from him and placed it with the one she was carrying in the boot of the car. Then she walked to the driver’s door and opened it, not looking at the young man.

But as she made to get into the car he stepped forward. ‘Don’t forget Benjy,’ he said, with his provoking smile. ‘And aren’t you going to offer me a lift back?’

  • Extract provided by Jonathan Ball Publishers

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