The telephone rang just before six am.
Vivienne was already awake, though still in bed. The sudden, aggressive sound gave her a fright. She inhaled quickly and used the armrest to lift herself onto her side. Her hand found her glasses, like a reflex; she looked at the screen. No number. She was annoyed. In principle, she did not approve of answering any call if the number was withheld. The phone stopped ringing. Vivienne cursed under her breath, resenting being forced wide awake so early on a Saturday. She sighed, lowered the barrier at the side of her bed and pulled her wheelchair closer. She needed to use the toilet, anyway.
The phone rang again. No number. Vivienne held it in her hand, wondering whether to push the green button or the red button. What if it’s news about Otto? Her brother had been ill for a while; his children promised to let her know if there was any change in his condition. She pressed the green button.
“Hello.” She spoke in a low voice, said the word quickly, sounding out of breath.
“May I speak to Ms Liebl, please?” It was a woman’s voice. Younger. Clear.
“This is Vivienne Liebl. Is this about Otto?”
There was a pause.
“No, Ms Liebl. This is about you.” The woman’s voice was very calm; she spoke slowly, as one would to a child.
“What do you want? What time is it?”
“I do apologise for the hour, Ms Liebl. Maybe I’ve miscalculated the time difference. Would you prefer me to phone you at another time?”
Vivienne was irritated, but curious. The young woman’s quiet confidence, her abstract politeness, was compelling.
“Well, you have me on the phone, now.”
“Thank you, Ms Liebl. I won’t keep you long. My name is Hannah. I’m associated with the Malach ha-Mavet prize. You may have heard of it?”
Vivienne had not heard of it. She was interested, now.
“Possibly. What does this have to do with me?”
Vivienne heard the rustle of papers, as though her interlocutor was checking something on a sheet of paper.
“The award is also known colloquially as the Azrael prize?” It sounded to Vivienne as if the young woman was smiling when she said this.
“Yes?” she said.
“Ms Liebl, it is my great honour to inform you that you are this year’s recipient of the Malach ha-Mavet prize, for your long career in and service to the arts, and for your contribution to the cultural improvement of the human condition.”
Vivienne did not know what to say.
“Ms Liebl, are you there?”
“Oh, I … Are you serious?”
“Oh, yes, Ms Liebl, quite serious. As you may know, the prize is not awarded every year, but the selection committee reviews deserving candidates on an ongoing basis. Your nomination was received some time ago, and this year the committee selected you from a very exclusive field of candidates. Congratulations.”
“My goodness. Who nominated me? What’s the prize?”
“My associate and I hope to visit you tomorrow morning to record an interview, to be televised in due course after the prize has been formally awarded. I shall bring with me the full dossier, including your nomination, a body of evidence in support of the award, covering your career in the theatre and personal testimonials, as well as the draft text of your formal laudation, which we would like to check with you.”
“My goodness. Tomorrow. Well …”
“I’m afraid this is rather time-sensitive, Ms Liebl. My colleague and I will only be in town tomorrow. And we have a fair bit of press and PR to negotiate in the next few days, as you can imagine.”
The young woman gave a quick, apologetic laugh, and then continued.
“Given your own physical challenges, we propose meeting you at your house. That might be most convenient for everyone? We don’t wish to inconvenience you in any way.”
When Vivienne did not answer, the woman on the phone continued. “Would nine-thirty tomorrow morning be convenient? Let me just double-check the address.” There was a brief delay, the sound of papers being consulted. “You are at 47 Vintner Road, Woodstock, Cape Town, yes?”
“That’s right. I am. Yes. But, how …”
“Splendid, Ms Liebl. It will be such an honour to meet you in person. Please do not go to any trouble for the interview. We’ll take care of your make-up ourselves, unless you would prefer to do it yourself. The interview won’t take longer than an hour. We shall see you at nine-thirty tomorrow morning. Now, I must run. But, again: many, many congratulations on receiving this well-deserved prize.”
The phone went dead. Vivienne closed her mouth and looked at the screen. Did that just happen? How absolutely surreal. A prize. An award. Something exotic-sounding. For her contribution to the arts, the human condition. Good God.
Vivienne possessed enough of the usual hubris of many a retired artist, but she was realistic about her own talent, performance and output over the years, and realised that she would not be laid to rest in the pantheon of the greats. But, maybe she had that wrong? After all, there had been awards, decades ago, for roles in Equus, and for a particularly splendid production of Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf? Sure, the South African theatre scene is tiny – always has been, even under the protective subsidy system of the sixties and seventies – but, she did achieve some celebrity locally. And everyone knows she wiped the floor with Janet Suzman when they both acted in The roses.
Vivienne put her hand on the shelf containing her photo albums, the formal portraits, the theatre notes, but pulled it back. She would not spend the day paging through all of those, like some has-been on a nostalgia trip. She was good – everyone said so; and, if it weren’t for the accident – so tragic, so harsh – in the mid-eighties, who knows where she might have ended up. The West End? Broadway? God, maybe even Hollywood, if she had desired it. But, that was then. That was before. End of story, nuff said. Though apparently not. An early-morning phone call. A charming young woman. An eminent prize. An exclusive award. Nine-thirty tomorrow. She had much to do, to prepare.
That night, Vivienne hardly slept. Even after the excitement of that day and all the expended energy (trips to the hair salon, a clothing boutique, a manicurist), she remained wide awake that night. Part of it was the excitement, but, gradually, as the evening wore on, the doubt set in. She resented her excitement, her need for this; and, at the same time, she felt herself giving in to it, being seduced by the approbation. But, the doubt clouded all of that: what if this was some kind of cruel prank? Was she falling for some corrupt scheme? Maybe no one would show up, or, if they did, maybe these people would take her to an ATM, forcing her to withdraw her money. She decided to banish these thoughts and to embrace the promise of the next day.
Vivienne got up in the crepuscular light before dawn. Her hair – newly done – looked good. She’d added some platinum to her regular grey and had the ends of her bob evened out. Her hair was combed into a neat side parting, and she was pleased with how it fell to just above her shoulders. She looked her age, but she looked good. She decided to go with the black polo neck top, with pearl earrings as her only adornment – this went well with her hair, though the whole was a bit less artfully dishevelled than she’d have liked. It was important that these people did not see her need to please, that they did not record any desperation as she looked at the camera. A bit of natural foundation to soften her face, very light mascara (and a bit to accentuate her eyebrows) and just a touch of lipstick. That’s it.
Her lounge required some work. After cleaning it that Saturday evening, she had removed some of the more quotidian photographs from the walls. She had replaced them with two or three of the more aesthetically meritorious pieces from upstairs. After she cleaned up the room, she found it too cold, too hotel-like, and so she added scatter pillows, carefully careless, and left a gardening magazine or two open on her coffee table. Yes, the room now seemed lived-in, but tasteful. In the kitchen, she’d prepared a tray and readied the coffee machine, filled the kettle if they wanted tea. She was ready.
When there was no sign of anyone at nine-thirty, Vivienne felt a nauseating wave of panic. But, half a minute later, a car stopped in front of her house, seemed to reconsider, then drove past and parked in front of the house two stops further along. A man and a woman in their late thirties approached her gate, looked up and down the street, opened the gate and walked towards her front door. There was a brief exchange between them that she couldn’t hear, and then the bell rang. Vivienne arranged her face into a look of surprised nonchalance, and then waited fifteen seconds before she opened the door.
Their greeting was formal, but friendly. Open smiles, much talking. Congratulations again on winning the prize, such an honour to meet her. Yes, let’s use the lounge. The man retreated to the car to collect a camera and lighting equipment, which he proceeded to install. Hannah introduced Jacob (the cameraman), who complimented Vivienne on the quality of the light in the lounge. The young woman removed a voluminous file from her briefcase, referred to it as Vivienne’s “dossier”, placed it on the coffee table and looked smilingly about the room. She held Vivienne’s hand, offered to push her chair, but Vivienne waved her away, receptive to Hannah’s compliments, eager to entertain. Hannah suggested that they keep the tea for last; in her experience, it was good to get the interview going as quickly as possible to capitalise on the spontaneity and the propulsive dynamic of their initial meeting. Vivienne had no idea what this meant, but agreed, nodding her head confidently, like an old pro.
Hannah suggested to Vivienne that she hold her questions about the prize, its provenance and her nomination, for the interview; they would edit it all in the studio afterwards. It was very important for Hannah to record natural, first reactions. Cell phones were switched off and placed on a side table out of sight. After a sound check (“one, two …; one, two …”) and then a brief interruption – to adjust the light – they were ready to begin. Vivienne sat in her wheelchair across the coffee table from Hannah; Jacob was behind the camera, out of sight. There was a small vase with two tulips on the table; next to it lay a magazine, something to do with architecture, in muted pastels.
“Vivienne Liebl, congratulations on winning the Malach ha-Mavet prize.”
“Thank you.” Vivienne nods briefly – graceful, but not unctuous.
“Are prizes and awards still meaningful in today’s global arts project?”
Vivienne considers carefully, looks away from the camera then back, directly at Hannah. “Recognition matters. Aesthetic accountability and accolades matter. I know this sounds arrogant, provincial, but they do. The artist does not matter. This is recognition of our larger collective undertaking, something we can do to mark and celebrate culture.”
“What is the artist’s role, morally and aesthetically? How do you view your own experience in all of this?”
“Artists are only people. But, we must reach beyond ourselves. It is our role to identify and expose what is true and universal. We must try to do justice to those values – their universality. And, what is true is good. Anything outside of that is a lie, is immoral.”
“And your own role?”
Vivienne blinks twice, sucks in her lip, studiedly thoughtful, looks back at Hannah. “My own role as artist is to protect those values, to embody authenticity. To embody what is universal and true, in the particular.”
“You see yourself as an agent of truth, aesthetic authenticity and morality.”
Vivienne hastens to answer. “Yes – but not moralism. Our enemy is indifference – and amoralism. Taking a moral stance is an act of bravery, of authenticity.”
“Is this a value set that you take into your private life? Is there even – and can one even talk about – a private life, versus a public or a professional life?”
“For the real artist, such categories become increasingly meaningless. One doesn’t always get it right, of course, but the aspiration must drive the action, that search, the quest.”
Hannah nods. She looks at the camera, then back at Vivienne. “And your extramarital affair with the playwright Edmund Villiers, from the mid to the late nineteen-seventies? How did this serve your stated aspiration towards moral authenticity and our collective artistic project?”
Silence. Vivienne stares at Hannah. She opens her mouth, then closes it. Hannah continues.
“Vivienne Liebl, your affair with Edmund Villiers, husband of Alice Adler, father of the twins Hannah and Jacob – please contextualise and explain for our viewers how that served your aesthetic obligations.”
Vivienne looks from Hannah to Jacob. They watch her impassively.
“What is this?” Vivienne talks softly. Then, more loudly: “What is this!”
“Vivienne Liebl, are you aware that your erotic correspondence with Edmund Villiers was discovered by Alice Adler, and that she then drove her car into the Emmarentia Dam at high speed on Sunday 23 July 1978 at nine pm, drowning herself and very nearly her two young children, whom she had in the car with her?”
“I demand that you stop this, this instant!” Vivienne slams her hand onto the side of her chair, ripping the microphone from her polo neck, makes a move to wheel her chair away.
Hannah Villiers speaks very quietly. “Vivienne Liebl, if you move from where you are right now, Jacob over there will tape shut your fucking whore mouth and cut off two of your fingers as a memento.”
Vivienne’s head starts to shake, slightly. She stops all other movement. There is something about the quiet in Hannah’s voice – and Jacob’s eyes – that brings the simple truth of this statement home for her.
Hannah inhales, seems to regroup within herself, then continues.
“Vivienne Liebl, do you have any comment before we award you your prize for your contribution to the arts, truth and the human condition?”
Vivienne is shaking; there are tears, but she does not make a sound.
“Very well, then. Vivienne Liebl, the children of Alice Adler have decided to award you the Malach ha-Mavet prize. Malach ha-Mavet – or Azrael – is the angel of death, or of destruction and renewal, depending on which literature you consult.”
When Vivienne says nothing, Hannah continues: “We thought the metaphysical touch would appeal to your stated moral aspirations.”
“Please don’t do this. Stop this.” Vivienne speaks softly, looks at Jacob. She does not like his expression, the emotional flatness, turns her face back towards Hannah.
Hannah opens the thick file on the coffee table, removing a scalpel, a large needle and fishing line (as one would find among fishing tackle) and an awl. “Now, then,” she says, “this is what we propose.” Hannah removes hand sanitiser from her handbag, squirts a small amount on her hands and rubs them vigorously. She regards the instruments in front of her, and turns to Vivienne. “I’m squeamish. In a minute, I shall take Jacob’s place behind the camera. He will come here, and do the following: the awl he’ll use to remove your eyes – you have lacked insight for many decades, so you don’t need them. The needle and fishing line he’ll use to close your mouth, and your other large orifices – not much good use for those anymore, or ever, really. The scalpel he’ll use to remove your nipples, so beautifully celebrated in our father’s poetry to you, and discovered by our mother on the evening of her death.”
Vivienne closes her eyes. “Don’t do this. Stop it.”
Hannah raises her hand in dramatic supplication, asking for silence. “But, we’re not animals, so in the spirit of the moral aesthetic – of your artful project – we’ll give you a choice. You either accept this prize from us, the children of Alice Adler, or you accept our suggested alternative. Clemency, if you will.”
Vivienne raises her face; she purses her lips together.
“I can tell that this alternative interests you, Ms Liebl,” says Hannah. “So, as an alternative to Jacob’s treatment, we propose that you kill yourself, here, today, while we film you. You can choose the method of your own demise. This can all be quite painless.”
Vivienne remains quiet.
“Die you will, make no mistake, Ms Liebl,” says Hannah. “But, you have a choice. You do it yourself, we clean up the mess, pack away your tray and cups in the kitchen, remove our own property and leave your house, for you to be discovered in due course. Or, we do it for you, with dramatic newspaper reports. Painless suicide or rather gruesome, painful execution, Ms Liebl?”
Hannah has stretched out her two hands on either side of her body, in imitation of the scales of Lady Justice.
“Which choice is more authentic, Ms Liebl? Which alternative is more aesthetically real? Which one is more just, given the scale and nature of your indictment? Which prize do you accept?”
“I never wanted to hurt Alice.” Vivienne has started to cry, quietly.
Jacob jumps towards her suddenly, grabs her hair from the back, pulls her head backwards, straining her neck. He hisses at Vivienne: “Don’t you say her name.”
“Goodness, he is angry, is he not, Ms Liebl? Our avenging Azrael over there.” Hannah smiles at Vivienne, nods at Jacob to let her go. He hesitates for a second, lets go of the old woman’s head, steps back behind the camera.
“Alice Adler’s children are giving you a choice, Ms Liebl. This is more than you gave her. Consider this award carefully.”
It is four days later. On page five of the regional newspaper, there is a small report in the bottom right-hand corner.
ACTRESS FOUND DEAD
Cape Town – The body of actress Vivienne Liebl was discovered in her house on Tuesday 4 October. Ms Liebl (77) became famous in the 1960s and 1970s for her roles in prominent theatre productions, while she worked for the Performing Arts Council of the Transvaal, and later for the Cape Performing Arts Board. She achieved celebrity and several accolades for her stage work in particular, winning Artes awards for Best Actress for Equus (1973) and for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1977). Speaking from London, UK, actors Antony Sher and Janet Suzman expressed their shock and disbelief at Ms Liebl’s sudden death. “She was an actor’s actress. A searing talent from a time when that term still had meaning. I’ll miss and mourn her,” Mr Sher said by phone. Ms Liebl, who was paralysed from the waist down in a car accident in the 1980s, was found dead by a medical helper in the living room of her Woodstock home. She is survived by a brother and two nieces. Police do not suspect foul play.