Home > Love Like Poison

Love Like Poison
Author: Charmaine Pauls









Most people don’t know they’re going to get married the first time they meet. Relationships develop over time. Some men and women weigh up the pros and cons to decide if they can live with someone until death do them part. Others follow their heart.

Not me.

In my family, tradition dictates differently. The decision was made for me a long time ago. That’s how the business works. Money is power, and power is everything. Power means survival. It’s the most fundamental rule of the world.

Only the strongest survive.

That’s why I’m here, why we’re driving up the road that zigzags to the top of the hill and ends in a cul-de-sac. A mansion peeks from behind high walls. Beyond, the ocean glimmers in the golden dusk. Below, to the right, the lagoon is a flawless mirror surrounding the stilt cabins on the island. The town of Great Brak River lies a kilometer inland on the bank of the river, consisting of a supermarket, a post office, an old as well as a new church, a small police station, an art gallery, a gas station, and a handful of shops and restaurants.

Anticipation tightens my gut. The reaction is involuntary. Far from being pure or innocent, it’s born from instinct, from the darker, animalistic side of me that needs to claim and procreate.


That’s why we came all the way from Corsica to this secluded town in South Africa that’s no bigger than the point of a needle on the map.

To meet my bride.

I’ve known for ten years, but twenty or thirty couldn’t be long enough to prepare me for the moment. Whereas most human beings take the freedom of dating whoever they like for granted, I see it for what it is. A chore.

Dating is nothing but a tedious process of selection via elimination. There’s a certain calm in knowing one woman is destined to be mine. Our union will serve in fulfilling my duty. There’s logic in that. It gives stability to life in a world where little and few can be trusted. It gives meaning to existence. No soul searching or introspection are necessary.

It’s been decided.

The outcome has been predetermined.

The timing, however, could’ve been better. We left my mother and sister alone for New Year, but I understand only too well why my father is eager to see this contract to fruition. The reason for his haste eats at me too.

Instead of flying to the nearest airport, we rented a car in Cape Town and drove the four hundred and twenty-eight kilometers to George. My father wanted to see the Garden Route and stop on the way to buy wine. We took the scenic road along the coast, passing cliffs that broke off into the stormy sea and bays studded with smooth rocks and penguins. Sea bamboo drifting on the dark waters of small coves marked the whale coast. The rugged shores eventually gave way to dunes covered with Aloe Vera, their red flowers like flaming torches in the clear blue sky, and long stretches of white sand where the air smelled of salt and succulent groundcovers.

After booking into a hotel on the golf estate in the neighboring town of George, my father needed a day to rest and recover his strength. The following day, we did a reconnaissance of the area and paid our business partner—my future father-in-law—an unscheduled visit at his office. My father believes in catching his associates off guard. That way, they don’t have time to hide any unorthodox dealings they prefer to keep in the dark. “If you want to know the true nature of a man,” my father always says, “catch him with his pants down.”

My father stops next to an intercom with a camera and pushes the button. The gates swing open without a squeak. We follow the road to where several cars are parked around a fountain on a circular driveway.

Benjamin Edwards appears on his doorstep before my father has cut the engine. I get out and straighten my jacket, taking stock of the surroundings like a soldier scouts a battlefield.

The house is the most impressive for miles around, built on the highest hill. Edwards stands on the porch like a cock crowing on his dunghill. In this sparsely populated part of South Africa, he may be the wealthiest man living in the biggest house. Compared to our property in Corsica, which is nothing short of a castle, the house that defines Edwards’s status is unsubstantial. Inconsequential.

Much good all that money does us. Like Edwards’s pretentious residence, our stronghold and landscaped gardens are for show. It’s like putting a scumbag in a fancy suit. The centuries-old stigma still clings to our name. We come from a long line of vicious pirates and uneducated scoundrels. We’re not welcome in the circles of the refined, religious, and elite.

That will change soon.

Edwards descends the steps to meet us.

“I’m glad you could make it,” he says, shaking our hands, but his fake smile says otherwise.

The garden is buzzing with the commotion appropriate for a rich girl’s sixteenth birthday party. Staff wearing black uniforms and white aprons are running up and down between the house and a cool truck parked in the far corner of the garden. White and pink flower wreaths decorate the balustrades, and a silver balloon arch frames the doorway. The breeze carries the notes of string music from the front of the house.

Edwards leads us to the lounge, which is similarly decorated with flowers and balloons. Bouquets of lilies and roses perfume the air. A round table in the center of the room is piled high with parcels wrapped in pink with white ribbons and vice versa. Did they specify the color of the wrapping paper like a fucking dress code on the invitation? I won’t be surprised if Edwards introduces his daughter by marching her down the stairs in billows of white and pink voile.

What does she look like? I resisted the urge to look her up on social media. A part of me, the darker, more deviant part that can resist neither gamble nor dare, wanted to walk into this unprepared and let the surprise take me wherever it would. Shock me. Please me.

I’m about to find out which.

My father takes the box wrapped in golden paper from his jacket pocket and leaves it with the mountain of packets on the table. He’s gone to a great deal of trouble to select a fine piece of craftsmanship from one of the best jewelers in Italy.

The sliding doors are open, revealing the green lawn that sweeps to the edge of the dune and the sea that’s visible all the way to the convex curve of the horizon. The party is already in full swing. Guests mingle around cocktail tables, their droning conversations audible above the music. The string quartet is set up under a pine tree, the musicians expertly keeping the volume on a level that allows for chatter.

The women are decked out in their best, some of them sporting hats you’d see at the Derby, and, like my father and Edwards, the men are dressed in tuxedos. Personally, I prefer a style less universal. I opted for a modern European look with a designer jacket, a fitted shirt, and tailored pants.

“Welcome to my humble home,” Edwards says, waving a waiter closer. “Can I offer you a glass of champagne?”

“Maybe Scotch first,” my father says. “While we talk business.”

Edwards glances at the top of the stairs and then at his watch. “It’s hardly the moment.”

My father’s smile is indulgent. “It won’t take long.”

Our host doesn’t have a choice but to comply. Our family is an important service provider—for lack of a better word—in his business. Although, from our impromptu visit to his office yesterday, I got the impression he wasn’t ecstatic about our presence.

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