Rooms rambled and connected around the courtyard U.
Entangled leafy creepers lay between the flagstones. A large table, the surface splashed with wine and lavish dinners stood in the courtyard centre.
Dappled light broke the flatness of the plastered walls. Beveled panes held together by crafted frames, held images of within. All slightly a-symmetrical. A muddle of human choreography.
Light piano music often fell awkwardly out of the far door. Half-remembered pieces making their way across the wine-drenched synapses. Sometimes a couple swayed rhythmically in the corner.
It gave the afternoons a disheveled ambiance. A wildly frivolous undertone, crochet hooked together by the dowagers under the shade of the wisteria.
Warm well-worn bodies pressing against the seams of their dresses. Proper under garments trapped the stories of life lived. Dainty florals hiding what lay within.
The once gay girl or frightened teenager now heavily laden with age.
Sagging arms propped up by the canvas of the outdoor chairs. Strange tipping scale between child and advanced womanhood.
The house, when built, was occupied only by the family. As times changed and earnings fluctuated, parts of the house were rented out or divided off. At this stage a wall had been built across the garden giving a third of the land to the boarders.
The large kitchen was included in the boarders’ section of the house. This left a small room with the closed fire range, as the kitchen for the main part of the house.
The driveway extended past the end of the house, then turned left separating the workshop from the main building. It cut through the property and headed toward another gate. The workshop was a corrugated iron structure of double volume.
The machinery, imposing but silent over weekends. Behind the workshop the windmill whirred on days when the wind came in, gentle turner from the South West.
Fred was an inventor. Similar to his machinery, imposing and silent.
The household was supported by his ingenuity and design talent. He had bought this land and built the house a bold mark in the African veld.
He loved a game of draughts. A small table, checker-board top, and two colonial planter’s chairs had a place in the courtyard. He would patiently read while he waited for opponents. I was fearful of him but loved to be close to him. He read the classics. Small leather-bound books heaped beneath the seat of his chair.
When playing draughts, the one proviso was that the moves were swift. He hated a slow game and would mutter in irritation if you hesitated: Duffer!
The kitchen floor was discoloured, especially in front of the wood stove.
An indent in the patterned tile showed where Edwina stood.
Many hours of stirring and heating, spicing and tasting.
Great pots of creation.
It was a small room. Door facing the tennis court. Arched bougainvillea haphazardly framed the exterior. Cars were always parked down the driveway between the kitchen door and the giant oak.
The Ford, my father’s loved one, was in the row. Red leather bench seats, shiny black wings, lines etched with silver trim.
From the kitchen two doors led to the interior. One into the dining room, dark wood carved window seats, dado and picture rails, and above: Monaghan’s delicate pink swans, drifting pairs amongst collections of pond plants, painted in payment for his stay. The other doorway, draped with heavy velvet, led down the passage. Unlit and menacing, it was the way to the bar. The drape was on occasion hooked up and tied with a heavy ribbon, allowing some light to fall onto the polished floor and the hand prints left by the family’s drunks.
Monaghan had arrived many months before, it must have been his third, fourth or fifth time of staying. No-one remembered or kept count. He carried his brushes, paints and palette in a battered leather hold-all. His dress was eccentric and overly casual. Heavy woolen hand-knitted socks in thick leather sandals. Corduroy trousers with a bagged knee and a houndstooth jacket, which had seen better days. Dabs of oil paint marked the fabric above the pocket, a storage jar when he was up the ladder. He always arrived on foot, an obvious long walk from where he had come.
His shirt was washed every other day. While it hung limp on the line, he would wander seemingly aimlessly around the property dressed in his under garment, inspecting the plants. Days later those plants would appear in inexplicable beauty on the walls of the house. Voluptuous lilies with stamens hanging in juicy drape towards the floor. Stiff broad-leaved cannas growing out of the skirting. Startled starlings shooting across a frieze of camellia, heads dipping beneath the cornice.
Monaghan was in love with Ussher, so many men were. Fred hardly noticed anymore.
Her sweeping presence and tinkling laughter filled the rooms. It seemed enough for him. He would hear her while he worked, and wonder at her. Her ability to do nothing with such grace and aplomb. Monaghan was Irish, all the visitors were from somewhere abroad. She knew better than to irritate Fred. For all his distant observing and quiet demeanor, he had a giant temper. He’d fought against the Boers and held onto a prejudice that was seldom mentioned, but everyone was aware of.
Soup and bread, Sunday supper.
It had started elegantly. Cucumber sandwiches and G and T’s sipped and swilled as the tennis games deteriorated. Loss of focus scraping the net or propelling balls over the wire gate and into the garden. We sat now in the dining-room eating the broth and dipping warm crust wedges into our bowls.
The piano stood just inside the lounge, the stool’s upholstery collapsed from many heavy bottoms.
Greyson always played during dinner, appetite at the bottom of the glass that perched precariously next to the music sheets, and china urns all wobbling and shaking as he strummed his way through each remembered piece. Sometimes Willow squeezed up next to him. The gentle fall of her dress touching the ground. Her hourglass frame leaning against the rough knit of his cardigan.
Between songs his hand would touch the curve of her hip or the nape of her neck in such a seductive way it made me shiver.
Far across the room, in a tiny annex: lay O Foghlu. He’d been given a nickname which belonged to his previous self: Ogee, which was a fabulous answer to the house pastime of crosswords. Answer to the question, curved arch. Before his illness he had been a striking figure. Tall but bent forward in an attempt to minimize the distance between himself and whom ever was in front of him. Half-shut eyes over hooked nose. Chin resting on chest.
His now amputated body small in the raised bed.
Wrought iron bed end dropping shadows against the wall.
He called out at intervals wanting soup or a pillow to ease the pain in his back.
The bedpan, an object of interest to me, lent against the wall.
My thoughts drifted through the rooms wondering about the combination of these freaks and vagabonds balancing together in the circus of life.
Ogee and Eirlys had been part of this group for years.
He was well-read and good at conversation. Insight tumbling down the front of his pullover. Hard to hear and impossible to ignore. He hardly looked up. She often repeated what he said, making sure his words had not been wasted. Her eyes dark under the fringed black glossy crop, stared up at him and then at the group in fast even movements. Maintaining connection. Her body was petite but slightly rounded over the hip. Her tiny feet danced lightly on the ground. Buttoned straps held the T-bar in place on her shoe. Her movement and delicate frame belied her age.
She teetered and tipped on a fine line in front of him. Invisible strings attaching her movements to his needs. A co-dependent puppet and puppeteer. They often wore colours that complimented each other melding them into one.
Ogee had left Ireland and travelled to South Africa to fight in the Boer war. He was a Royalist like Fred. She was Welsh and I have no memory of how she had ended up here with him.
It was a dark day when Eirlys lost the fight. What had brought her to life’s edge? To the verandah of leaving. A lonely trundle down worn steps. Feet on smooth surface, the slippery slope to the dark beyond. Shadowed bush of the unknown. Held up flags of white peace paper let go to the wind of demise. Floating unanswerables to challenge all we leave behind. Limited smatterings of life half-lived.
A tiny bird of a woman when well, but when ill the embroidered covers barely showed her presence. A tiny ruffle or slow alteration when the pain became unbearable. Dark eyes hidden under the silk trim. And then she was gone. Ogee looked like the tree the wind had sent over the edge. Unshaven curved man, stooped over his loss. His Welsh black-capped warbler had fallen. Leaving his sky of admiration, leaving a cold grey, an icy absence. He felt stilled. Stood immovable like a floor lamp in the corner, head down. Usually the curve of his body would have her in its shadow. Looking up at him. Now the empty space felt like no-man’s land.
He was tormented by her loss. The twittering and feathered flutter of her warmth had left. The only person who seemed to understand was Ussher. She carefully moved toward the no-man’s land, stood quietly at the boundary with her hand on his arm.
Those hands were things of beauty. He had noticed them before. Long tendrils, almond manicure at their ends. Milky satin skin of disuse. She slowly drew him in.
Her voice a mere whisper of consoling. A moist lap at the dry corners of his mind.
She knew he would not survive alone. He felt like he would slowly curl up like a dry leaf. Crumble into the dust.
The funeral was excruciating. Head to toe black regalia. The grave on the far side of the cemetery. Laced and buckled shoes crunching the gravel. The curved figure staring down at the coffin. Tears hitting the ground.
He winced as the first clod hit the gleaming imbuia surface, red earth on polished dark wood. The thought of his love covered over, left alone in this vast landscape of monuments. The horror. He wanted to lie down next to the gaping hole in the ground. How could he let go? All these people had come to say goodbye, but they would not stay when she no longer pirouette-ed him into acceptance. The whirling top of distraction. He would be left with his thoughts, words that would not be given meaning. It would become a jumbled non existence. He knew.
He scanned all the shoes standing in higgledy-piggledy stripes on the overturned ground. He recognised people by their shoes, polished slip-on alongside well-heeled brogue, patent kitten heel touching black leather mule. All waiting in line to drop earth into the six-foot deep cavity. What a strange day. What kept him here watching the procession? Manners?
He thought of her body naked and lying close to him. The soft ends of her fingers tracing the arch of his brow. The beady flick of her eyes as she felt his need. The pain housed itself in his chest. The walls of his lungs swollen with the panic of loss.
The crowd hovered then slowly they moved away, the stony amble to the cemetery building accompanied by a wordless hum. Ussher’s tendril hand touched his mourning coat, wrapping its fingers around his wrist. “Come along”
The chief mourner was leaning against the hearse as they approached.
He stood up and assumed the appropriate expression.
How ridiculous this was, well-executed misery.
They called him Nero.
When I look back, many of them had names given to them by my uncle.
Nero was married to my cousin, Mary Quant magic girl.
She had herself a foreigner. Spoilt. Stove-pipe swagger and a hint of something other in his voice.
He had been part of our lives for a long while now and as with everyone else there was an open invitation to add someone into the Sunday shenanigans.
Nero and Slim, the good time boys, were a pair.
Slim had made himself a grimy shadow on the wall where he leant against one of my favourite hand-painted gentle scenes that Monaghan had mastered. Embossed clematis on an upward climb toward the picture rail. Detail, pale and waxy. Schiaparelli pink stamens darkened by his leaning.
Whenever anyone approached that corner he’d unfold himself, stand tall above them in some obsequious gesture of manners.
He had an uncomfortable allure.
I had been taught to like these men by my father.
The charmer, the snake, the circling reptile who mesmerized you then struck and left you poisoned on the floor.
The way his hand moved along the rattan surface as he pushed his scaly body to its feet.
“So young, lady.”
I always wondered why he spoke to me, little more than a child, with my mother sitting across the room.
What did he want?
She would have removed his head and torn his sexy body into a million shameful pieces.
Snapped his fingers off at the root. Stuffed his innards into the trash can where they belonged. But she was lulled, swinging in this hammock of family sun-drench.
This house was my mother’s haven. In childhood it was a long walk from Sogget’s Corner. Gas and candle lit dinners. Gentle music, poetry and performance. A table of shiny beings.
Who had let these creatures slither along the floor and lean on our wall like they belonged?
Most strangers came with a gift of some exuberance to offer to the carefully put- together whole. Some well-recited verse, some trick. Slim’s talent was hidden, held close, shoved in some dark corner. A hat without a rabbit.
I could not think of an answer to his question.
Was it a question? “So young, lady?”
I searched for a bright jewel, something similar to his rippling scales to lay before him.
I felt frozen, this kind of interaction was not familiar.
I felt awkwardly pinned on his words. Each letter from each word attached me, strangely posed next to him in lack of response.
Excusing myself seemed the easiest way out. A polite manoeuver. An escape.
I took a step but his body moved to block my way. No words, but the move was threatening. A dash across this room would have drawn attention to my plight. I felt the ridged texture of my dress. my hand firmly gripping the seam.
Darling, my uncle’s liquid voice raced through the room, Irish resonance cracking the freeze. I looked up.
He’d turned away and slid back down the wall.
Years later when I returned so much had changed. This could no longer be called the outskirts of the city. The bus that had its terminus at Soggert’s Corner now continued on for miles. The once lonely walk my mother had taken to visit her aunt and uncle was a continuous shamble of apartment blocks and work places. The stretch of veld had held so many secrets, had dispersed so many lies. Rotten seeds tumbling in the wind had fallen fallow and been covered by a new world.
I parked my car at the top of the road and walked the last mile. As I walked I felt an overwhelming presence. An animated shadow of so many conjured happenings walked with me. As I reached the property the sound of the windmill flung images into the air patterning a collage of thoughts across my mind.
I looked over the wall, death and devastation had eaten at everything. Rotten segments of my life lay in abundance under the persimmon tree.
Scavenged by scavengers and family alike. The orchard was mangled. Weeds filled once-tended circular clearings, slimy water filled each birdbath. Blood splashes of fallen Hibiscus heaps drenched the earth leaving it wet with dismay.
When I was young, I was in love with Loopy de Loop – the cartoon wolf. His calling was to redeem the bad name of his species, and to fail horribly at that. I got to know him at the drive-in, where my parents would take us in our faded station-wagon. There were two movies shown, the later one age-restricted, so my sister and I were instructed to hide behind the front seats, so that we could sneak through the ticket gate unseen. I’m not sure if this routine was actually necessary, or just down to my parents’ strangeness. It made an impression on me though, passing through the drive-in gates in this way, laying low and bundled in a woollen blanket. Like wolves in sheep’s clothing. Excited, yet uneasy that I was somehow letting good
Inside patient folds of tar waited to be lit by the screen and we wove between the arriving cars to find a space. The aluminium grill of the drive-in radio would scrape on the car window and scratch out announcements of the coming shows. The cars, the tar, and the people all full of expectation. They would show cartoons before the first movie, with Loopy de Loop among them, and I would peer out between the car seats. Transfixed by the moving images and under their spell. I remember that more than the details of the stories. It seemed that as much as on the screen, the theatre was on that stretch of tar, under the neon of the fast-food place where other children were allowed to eat hotdogs, and in the urgency of the misted cars, everything washed in thin light.
When the second movie started, my sister and I curled up in the back of the wagon to sleep. I once woke up and looked out at the forbidden images. A woman pursued a man up a staircase, grabbed him and tore his shirt open, vicious and animal. I was indignant for the man, even angry at him. Why did he stand there so passively, mutely accepting his role as prey while his clothes were ruined? I couldn’t say anything though, as I was supposed to be asleep. So I just had to let it pass as one of those confusions children have about adult behaviour.
Thinking back on Loopy now, there is something both noble and naive about him. He would persuade his sibling wolves into self-improvement schemes, hoping to civilise them and find acceptance in human eyes. Inevitably it was a botched effort, and he would end up taking the blame for their sins, like a bungling messiah. His band of reluctant disciples followed the law of their flesh, with its own bright truth and vitality. Wider than ideas of higher law was the drive-in, where everything was welcome and everything was good. Sins found their place in the steel shadows and were overlooked by the man selling tickets at the gate.
During the gap between the first and second shows, I would excuse myself from the car and run down to a grassy area of swings and slides beyond the tar, and under the great height of the screen. The air cool and silky, and stretched skywards – all the children gone wild. Screams and laughter rung up the rusted ladders, and between the bushes the darkness thickened into doorways. Where the wolves were waiting for you, redeemed of their evil now.
It’s a stinging hot day but we’re in the shade of Dad’s wattle plantation now. I’ve got her to myself at last. Grannie has her knobbly wooden walking stick with the little black rubber cap on the bottom. She’s wearing one of her pretty silky dresses. You can see through the material to her lacy petticoat underneath. She likes purply colours all linked up with black, swirling curls. If I look across at her, I can see her two melon-titties pointing out in front of her.
I sat on the bed this morning and watched her dressing. She puts on a corset which goes from her shoulder straps down to her waist with the two enormous bowls for her melons. Then the corset goes even further down, to just above the top of her legs and it has four suspenders hanging off it to attach to the dark rim at the top of her purplish nylon stockings.
She has to lean her titties into the bowls made for them and she has to do the whole thing up with hooks and eyes which go all the way down her back. She squeezes her face – open and shut, open and shut – as she curls her arms round to the hooks and eyes behind her. If she joins the wrong ones up at the top, then they’ll all be wrong and the bottom of the corset will be uneven and she’ll have to start all over again. Sometimes she looks at me with her pointy dark eyes after she’s heaved the first hook and eye together.
“Are they right? Do they match?”
And I’m allowed to say, “Yes” or “No”.
I don’t need to worry about the silver hooks and eyes stabbing into her puffy back. That’s because there’s a flap of pale, smooth satin that goes underneath them to keep her skin safe. Sometimes I’m allowed to pull it out into its right place if it’s been flapped backwards while she’s been hooking and eyeing.
It all takes a long time, and my mother is usually shouting down the passage, “Mummy, it’s nearly breakfast time. Boef, are you there with Grannie? Peter and your sisters will be back from milking any minute. Are you dressed?” Of course I’m dressed but Grannie is still struggling like a tortoise trying to turn onto its little feet from lying on its shell-back.
There’s still the stockings to do. She gets them out of my little sister’s drawer where she packed all her things after she got off the Orange Express from Cape Town. My little sister has moved all her things to our room. Her room is Grannie’s now for the Christmas holidays.
This morning I looked around at how it is when Grannie owns it. There’s a forest of creams and lipsticks and even eye-shadow and a bottle of rose water on the dressing table beneath the window. And all her hair brushes and the stick with a pad on the end for hitting under her chin at night to make her extra chin go away. There’s a rolled-up newspaper on the small wooden bedside cupboard.
That newspaper is The Natal Witness. We get it every day at the post office inside the railway station where the Orange Express stops for a few minutes to hurtle Grannie out into our arms and our kisses and bursting tears. Sometimes the guard has to blow his whistle twice before the train chuffs off again because there’s so much hello-ing that we nearly forget her suitcases.
Grannie opens The Natal Witness and wears it on her head in an upside-down long V-shape when she has to go the bathroom for a wee at night. That’s because a bat once got tangled in her long, thin, grey hair in the middle of the night. She screamed and screamed and every one of us five – my Dad, my Mum, my two sisters and I, all rushed into the passage to see what was happening.
At first I thought there was a snake, like the one that held my mother prisoner in the passage for ages one summer day while my Dad was on the hill. The kitchen girls were too scared to do anything. And so was Mshwathi, my nanny. Mswhathi and I watched from the dining room. My mother was as still as a stone. And so was the snake. It stood up on its own tummy and stared at my mother in a mean sort of way. The only thing that moved were the two silent streams down my mother’s cheeks and the spots of wet that grew on each front side of her green dress. In the end, the garden boy came in with a broom and killed it quite a few times and my mother fled to her bedroom and locked the door. I could hear her choking herself with loud tears but she wouldn’t let Mshwathi and me in. She stayed there, all locked, till my Dad came home from milking. I just sat in the passage on the green concrete floor outside her door, guarding her from snakes and everything.
I was quite shocked about the bat. So shocked to see it dancing in my Grannie’s hair in the moonlight that came in through the bathroom window with the dark poinsettia flowers shadowing the wall above the bath. The bat was busy lifting her grey hairs like strings on a silver harp in a crazy dance in that moonlight. Her scream didn’t stop – even when we were all pouring ourselves into the bathroom from the passage. Us three in our flowery shortie pyjamas, Mum in her nightie with no knickers and Dad with his no clothes on and his thing hanging down.
Grannie had her plastic suit pants pushed down to the floor. The plastic top – neck to wrists to waist – was all in place. You could see her through it, especially her titties. They were a bit flopped because of no corset in bed. At night she wore the plastic suit for sweating and getting thin while you sleep. As we pushed through the door, she was standing and screaming and her hands were trying to beat that little bat out. But it wouldn’t.
So even though you could see her bottom and everything, my Dad went straight in and, with his arm that has no hand, he pushed his way into her hair to reach and hold down the little bat. And with his hand-arm, he untangled the tiny mouse-thing and let it use its wings to fly out through the white-framed bathroom window.
My mother had done quite a few shrieks and had raced off down the passage before my Dad got the bat free. She came back with her giant silver sewing scissors to cut Grannie’s hair off and free the bat. Grannie yelled at her to NOT. Her boyfriend, Eric, was coming soon, she said, to take her away to a more civilised place.
I was laughing with terrified tears, and crying with scary feelings at the wildness and funniness of what was going on. And then she said about the boyfriend. Everything in me went still and very cold in my chest, like a hard chunk of ice from the freezer. What did she mean? My little sister blinked quite a few times as we turned away to go down the passage to our bedroom. She blinked and she whispered, “Grannies don’t have boyfriends – do they?”
“Don’t be stupid. They can’t. Because they’ve already been married.” My voice was hot, not like the ice block in my chest.
“Go to bed. Shoesh now. Go to bed and go to sleep,” my mother said.
I turned to look at her down her end of the passage. My Dad had his hand-arm on her shoulder and was looking right at her face. She had a terrible face on. It was the face she got when she was sad and cross with all of us – especially with Dad – because we lived on a dairy farm with cabbages and mielies and cows and wattle trees and not on Boyes Drive in the big, pale-yellow double-storey house in Muizenberg with Grannie in it and the sea down Jacob’s Ladder below, and with the grandfather clock in the hallway with the ship that sailed across the clock face, across the face and back, across and back, with each tick and each tock.
While I looked at her under the passage light, I saw she was crying again.
So, anyhow, there was the rolled-up The Natal Witness newspaper on the little white bedside cupboard this morning. (Of course my Dad always puts it there now when Grannie comes for Christmas so he doesn’t have to do the bat-saving thing with Grannie’s tricky hair.
There are always a few gum tree leaves sticking out from under her mattress. Dad puts those there when Grannie comes to stay. She says we have fleas in the house. So he gets one of the umfaans to bring some gum tree leaves from the bush and he stuffs a ton of them under her mattress which is really my little sister’s mattress. And, like I said, some of them stick out. I think my Dad does that on purpose so he doesn’t have to have the conversation with Grannie about the gum tree leaves and the dreadful fleas we breed all over the farm and in every crack in our house.
The thing we just can’t understand is why we never have fleas in our beds but Grannie does. Maybe it’s because she is from Cape Town, and Natal people maybe don’t get bothered by fleas. Maybe the fleas like Cape Town blood. Or maybe sweat. Because that plastic sleeping suit for getting thin has elastic at the neck, the wrists, the waist and the ankles and really makes a lot of sweat. Actually, perspiration or glow – my other grandmother has taught me that only farm workers and factory workers actually SWEAT. Gentlemen PERSPIRE and ladies GLOW. But I can promise you, what I see in the morning when she takes off the slimming suit…it is sweat. It really is. I can smell it. It makes my nose and my mouth and my eyes crunch up and salt burn my eyes under the lids.
Just about at the end of doing all the little silver hooks, Mummy is still calling us to come for breakfast.
So she gets her rolled-down stockings ready, one for each leg. She sits down on the bed and rolls them up each leg very carefully and very slowly. “They snag so easily,” she says, as if she is telling me a very important thing. I nod and look and swing my feet a bit to show I am listening.
Up, up – to nearly her bottom. Then she stands and hooks the little round, covered, silky buttons into the metal loop with the top end of the stocking stuck into each loop. Her bottom and everything is sticking out a bit because the corset ends before they end. Not like a swimming costume that goes over everything so there’s nothing to see.
Corsets are lovely things if you consider the front which has a satiny panel. Somehow the corset factory-people manage to put beautiful patterns on the panel which, if you look very carefully, are roses. “Barely visible roses,” she showed me once in a secret voice as if nobody else should know. Now I always see them. The panel goes right up to the bowl part and even is the bowl part. So there are roses shining and sliding all over the front of Grannie.
“Tummy control,” she teaches me.
Then it’s the silky knickers that go over it all. She likes those. She slides them out of the drawer and then softly skids them across her face, covering every bit: her cheeks, her nose, her closed eyes.
“Ah…silk,” she says.
When they are on, everything is covered up at last.
She really truly loves those silk knickers. She has lots. I picture all of them sliding around inside the knicker drawer all by themselves, even when the drawer is shut.
Then it’s the petticoat and the slippery purple dress – or one of her others. It can be a pinkish one, or mainly blue, or sometimes grey. They all have the dark swirls winding through the colour. All her dresses open low down the at the front and, where her corset pushes her bosoms together, you can see soft pink skin with a few of what she calls beauty spots (my mother calls them age blemishes) decorating them.
Today, she puts on a purply dress and her black walking shoes with laces. She has promised me, promised me at last, that she’ll go for a walk down to the wattle plantation and back and that we’ll go alone without my sisters, only with Gretel, my black Daxie, allowed to come with us. We’ll wait till my sisters have gone off with my Dad onto the farm and my mother has gone to town.
She’ll do this because I’m her favourite, I think. She’ll do it even though her knees, she says, are “riddled with arthritis” and the doctor in Howick has injected her right in the knees with a needle as big as her knitting needles. She’ll be fine, she says. She’ll take her shining knobbly walking stick to help.
And so here we are in the wattle plantation. The air is crackling with hot December sun. There are still yellow puff-ball flowers on the wattles. My nose is itching already. I hate that – and the line of joined-up sneezes that follow. But I don’t care. I’ve got Grannie. Gretel is yapping around us. She runs ahead and comes back. She yaps some more and then scuffles in the dust and dashes off the path into the trees for no good reason. Grannie loves Gretel and says dogs don’t need a reason.
This is Heaven and Grannie is telling me all the stories about how she was a grand lady in Norfolk in England, where I haven’t been, before my grandfather found her between The Great Wars and captured her heart and brought her back on the Union Castle Line to Muizenberg.
My grandfather had the garage on Main Road and bought her the huge house on Boyes Drive and they had three children, lickety-spit, then twins five years after the others. My Mum was third, after the two boys. The smallest twin shocked everybody because nobody – not even the doctor – knew she was there. She was so tiny and such a surprise she had to sleep in a shoe-box in an open drawer in the big bedroom and she was blue when she was born.
My grandfather doesn’t live in the big house anymore. Something bad in a foreign language happened. Whenever my parents speak about it, it is definitely foreign stuff that made my grandfather have to leave. My Grannie did in flagranto dilecto with the GP, that’s the doctor who didn’t know the smallest twin was there, in the lounge in the big house and then my grandfather left. I think it was something to do with having those twins and one of them so small. I think the doctor had to go to the big house a lot to check on the shoe-box baby.
I’ve heard the grown-ups talk about how, on the flagranto day, my mother, who was ten years old, got on her two-wheeler and rode away when no-one was looking. They always say how she was found half way to Cape Point, peddling like mad into the darkening sky, with tears like flags of solid water streaming off her face in the wind she made with her speed. They say it was like she was pursued by the Devil. I don’t like thinking about that little girl. I think they found her near Boulders Beach. They captured her and took her home. I think her Dad was the main person capturing her. My Grannie had locked herself in the big bedroom that looked over the Muizenberg sea. Only she wasn’t looking at the sea, I think, because I heard the grown-ups say she was howling on the bed with shame.
But now, here, in the wattle plantation, everything is perfect. I have Grannie all to myself. I keep saying that in my head. The world is big and hot and endless all around us. And when we get home I’ll have a swim in the pool my Dad built for my Mum in the front garden. “Her little bit of Muizenberg,” he calls it. My Mum is lucky. Grannie won’t swim. I think it’s because of being a Norfolk grand lady. They don’t swim.
Grannie suddenly stops her story in the middle.
There’s a cloud of dust hurtling down the summer road. She strains her neck upwards to look through the trees. It’s a car. I can see it. But it’s not my Mum coming back from town. I don’t know this car that’s coming so fast.
Grannie gets her walking stick going – step, snap, step, snap – back down the path towards the farm road. I call Gretel and run after her.
“What’s the matter, Grannie?”
She flies on and her grey hairs begin to fall out of the little bun at the back of her head. She begins to glow, but she doesn’t stop.
“It’s Eric. He’s come! He’s come to take me for Christmas. You’ll have to tell your mother when she gets back from town. Tell her Eric’s a member of Parliament, you know.”
But I don’t know. I don’t know anything about Parliament. Or Eric.
Grannie has very little breath but she waves her stick in the air. The big brown car with wings at the back sees her stick and it stops exactly where the wattle plantation path meets the farm road.
Grannie’s face is red. She leans right into the car window where the man is. And then she stands up and Eric is unfolding himself out of the car door and then he is folding his long arms all around my Grannie.
I feel a bit sick. Vomitty sick. I don’t know what Parliament is, or why I must say that to my mother. I just know my mother won’t like Parliament at all. Maybe it’s a flagranto foreign sort of thing.
“I’ve got to pack,” she says and rushes round to the passenger door. Her knees are fine. Our doctor’s knitting needle injections must be so strong. She’s nearly been running. Eric rushes after her and he opens the car door. She looks up at him as she melts into the car and her eyes are all silly. I hate Eric’s poky face.
“You walk home with Gretel. We can’t put a dog in this car,” she yells out of her wound-down window as the car jumps up and runs away from me and my small black dog.
I’m not even home, and I’m sweating, yes, sweating, in the hell of heat because I’ve been walking so fast to catch Grannie and the car, when I see that Eric’s fierce tiger-car has already turned around, and it’s coming back towards me. It swoops past, not slowing one bit as Gretel and I jump out of the way.
There’s dust on my face. And wet tracks through that dust. Like my Mum’s when she was ten years old and flying away from the Devil near Boulders Beach. There’s no-one here to come after me and capture me on the farm road, though. I have to blink my eyes a million times to stop the tears so I can see properly.
I won’t be able to tell my mother. Her face will be too angry and too sad. I’ll find my Dad and I’ll tell him what happened when he comes in from the farm.
Then I’ll go down past the camdeboo stinkwood tree, through the archway in the hedge and into the plumtree orchard. And wait.
The small boy has come in for his therapy session. He is flushed and excited and filled with joy.
“And what has made you so happy, Lwazi? “I ask.
I am eager to know. The words tumble out from his mouth with six-year-old enthusiasm.
“I have been running with my friends,” he gushes. A game of catches on the school field at breaktime it seems. He proceeds to demonstrate. He flings his arms onto the wheels of his wheelchair and swings the chair with vigour around the physiotherapy gym in a few haphazard circles to prove the speed of his running.
“Well done!” I enthuse.
A week previously, he had said, “I wish I could run with my legs like the other boys do.”
His voice had been sad and tinged with hope.
“And so, you can,” I had responded. I proceeded to explain that while some children ran with their legs, others, like his friend Noah, ran with the help of a walking frame.
“You’ve seen Noah?” I asked. Yes, he had nodded.
“And what about Esihle?” I had continued. “He runs with his crutches!” The erstwhile despondent head was now nodding vigorously. “And as for you, show me your strong arms.” He showed me his bulging biceps muscles with pride. “With these you can push yourself fast in your wheelchair,” I said. “You have wheels. You can run. Your wheels are your legs!” By this stage his smile was broad. He giggled.
It was the encouragement he’d needed.
He changed from the boy with the flail legs in the wheelchair who could not run, to the boy who ran on the field with his friends.
That was the name given to her by Joanne, our youngest sister, who surely resented her the most. She might have been Mildred or something, and her surname is lost to me, but we knew her as Aunt Millie, and somehow she managed to waddle around on a pair of grossly saturated legs, rather like sandbags, and which defied any laws of physics. She wasn’t really our aunt, but had been a kind neighbour in Kroonstad when our father was growing up, especially when he hid on the roof to avoid the wrath of his own irascible father. Being childless herself, she often gave him a refuge, plus sweet tea and biscuits.
In 1963, we had recently moved into 909 Church Street – a large double-storey house in Arcadia, Pretoria – and were relishing a new sense of space, when this portly stranger suddenly came to live with us along with some heavy furniture, crockery and a budgie. This meant that we four sisters had to squash into one room again, as the idea was that Auntie Millie’s railway widow’s pension would help to pay our rent at a difficult time. She also gave Daddy a lathe and workshop tools that belonged to her late husband, Harold, who had been a train driver. It wasn’t long before Dad had sold all the tools to a neighbour for some cash. I don’t know if Aunt Millie ever knew about this betrayal; but on the other hand, our mother gave her a warm home for the last years of her life, and kindness and respect.
Millie’s main pleasures were a daily box of Peter Stuyvesant, a glass of sweet sherry in the evenings, and letters from her relatives. She had to wait a whole day to do the crossword in Daddy’s Rand Daily Mail and Evening Star, as he needed time to finish the horse racing columns and plan his spread for Tattersalls. Being a railway widow, Millie was entitled to a free pass once a year so she always used it to visit the relatives who had never offered her a home as we did. But apart from that, her Saturday treat was to don a hat and gloves, catch the bus down Church Street and have cream tea with scones at Garlicks in central Pretoria. I don’t think Millie had friends in Pretoria but that didn’t make any difference to her weekly outings. And now I ask myself – how ever did she heave herself on and off that bus, never mind the steep steps to get up onto to railway coach for her annual train ride? It must have been a sore trial to her that we lived in a double-storey house. We all heard those slow gasps as she negotiated one step at a time, going up or down.
Aunt Millie soon adapted to us, her ’new family’, although it was not so easy for us to accept her old lady ways, especially as she sent us hither and thither to fetch pills, cigarettes, crochet work or crosswords which were always in another room. Joanne had the worst time of it and was not allowed to be cheeky. It was painful to watch Aunt Millie heave her waterlogged weight out of a chair, onto those misshapen tree stump legs. She also doused herself generously in a cloud of cloying lilac perfume. Wheezing or coughing, she left a trail of sweet-stale air and cohorts of upended stompies in ashtrays around the house – especially on the glass shelf above the bathroom basin. “Damn drowned submarines,” muttered our father.
But one afternoon, she must have been dozing while an unextinguished stompie next to her bed smouldered silently. It stood upright on the chest of drawers pushed hard against her bed, dropping hot ash onto her crocheted pillow case. Then it slowly burnt an acrid hole through the feathers and smouldered deep into the mattress. Even a corner of the bed base and the wooden headboard began to char and smoke.
A foul cloud suddenly billowed out of her upstairs window, and we heard her shouting. Rushing into Aunt Millie’s room, we saw the bed was on fire so, with one mind, my sister and I shoved the glowing mattress out of the window. We dragged it on to the grass and sprayed it with the garden hose, but the foul rubbery smoke spewed out unabated. So, we phoned the Hatfield Fire Brigade – merely to ask for advice as how to douse the stinky embers ̶ but they said they would send someone. They didn’t say they would send a monstrous brigade with flashing lights and siren jangling all the way up Church Street and into our modest driveway. Within minutes, a whole team of fire fighters in shiny black uniforms and hats were aiming heavy duty hoses at a ludicrous single mattress on the grass. We teenagers cringed in embarrassment as curious neighbours and passers-by gathered on the pavement to stare at the sight, and at us. It was all over when Daddy came home. One of his obsessions was extreme safety consciousness, and he fulminated if wall sockets were switched on when not in use. I can’t remember how he reacted but I imagine he must have been incandescent with fury that she had almost burnt our house down. And Millie would have been overcome with tears, distress and abject apologies. I have no idea how she slept that night on a blackened bed. We must have found an old spare mattress in the garage, so life went on. There were fewer flotillas of submarines for a while.
Like us, Millie was confused by Daddy’s rages, and she learned to keep well out of his way. But she became very fond of our mother who valued the extra household income and an adult presence for us children while she was at work. Aunt Millie didn’t endear herself to us, as she would reprimand or boss us, Joanne in particular. “Ag fie,” Mom would say when we grumbled about heavy-winded old Fat Legs, who competed with us for our mother’s attention at the end of a long day. I suppose the poor old woman had some charm, because, by Jove, she always responded warmly if one bothered to crack a joke or chatted with her. On the day of my matric dance, she gave me a tip to soften my hands by rubbing them with a spoon of sugar and cooking oil and then washing with soap. I haven’t done it for years, but it worked the other day after a muddy session in the garden.
Millie also had a litany of repetitive stories from her Kroonstad days – or Croonstard as she called it, trying to make dressing up for the Sunday evening promenade past the shops sound more like Paris than a boring dorp in the Free State. ‘Poor old sausage,’ Mom would say. ‘She means well.” And she reminded us how kind Millie had been to our father – as if that made it any better. For her part, Millie sometimes made us supper – her signature dish was ’hedgehogs’ or pale frikkadels wrapped and stewed in cabbage leaves, which we ate without relish. Cabbage poultices were part of her arsenal to treat those vast appendages that hardly looked like legs at all. Gargantuan old lady stockings and damp bandages dangled from a coat hanger at the bathroom window, and were also used to wrap pawpaw skins over suppurating ulcers. We children were not the most compassionate creatures, and spoke rudely behind her back, mocking her stock phrases,” My word! “and “By Jove!”
After her husband Harold’s death, the love of Millie’s life was a little blue budgie called Winkie. “Kiss me, kiss me,” she would croon as he sat on her shoulder, and he would dance from side to side, or nuzzle her ear. “Pretty boy, pretty boy,” he chirped repetitively for hours. I think a cat got him at some point and she was bereft, keeping the empty cage on a stand in her room.
Millie was away on one of her holidays when I was writing Matric, so I had the idea to camp in her room. It was musty and redolent of stale tobacco, but it gave me the quiet and privacy for last minute cramming late at night and again before dawn, without disturbing my sisters in our ’dormitory’. Somehow, I got used to the old lady smell and I slept in Millie’s charred bed until she returned. I regret to say that I also scratched through her chest of drawers looking for mottled chocolates or furry peppermints to keep me awake. Leaning against her blackened headboard gave me a different perspective on her life, and how she came to be part of our lives, and helped our parents to pay the rent.
Millie moved house with us from Arcadia to a plot at Mooiplaas, and then to Swartkoppies, and Mom made sure she always had a sunny room. Mom was as good as her word. She took care of Millie to the end, through all the chaotic years that she lived with our family. Meanwhile, I fled to Wits University and never gave her another thought. In one of my rare phone calls home, I heard that Millie was in hospital with bronchial pneumonia – or perhaps it was heart disease. The details are missing from my consciousness, as was my presence at her funeral. When I came home for the holidays, Joanne had appropriated Millie’s room and it was different. Life went on, and one by one, we all left home, taking bits and pieces with us, items that were useful, or which we were attached to.
Recently I was looking at the heavy chest of drawers that I appropriated when Arno and I set up home together, and I suddenly recalled that it used to belong to Aunt Millie. I could picture it in her room, housing her embroidered blouses, shawls, petticoats, corsets, stockings and stale peppermints, from when I had holed up for the duration of my Matric exams. That chest of drawers has been part of my own household for fifty years, and I seldom give a thought to poor old Fat Legs.
“Ag fie,” as Mom would say.
My first experience of life was death. Mind you, it is not as if I remember, but I know the story told often enough of how my mother, my baby brother and I crossed a street and were hit by a truck. My mother is Nkelani Deceased. Her features do not exist in my mind, but her body is the shape of all the models I drew when I wanted to become a fashion designer in my teenage years – a dream long forgotten. I imagine that Nkelani had a head wrap and a wax print cloth as a skirt tied at her waist with two cords perhaps, if she kept some weight after her pregnancy. Her top is from the same six yard piece of fabric she must have received as a gift for bearing a second son. She looked beautiful on the day she died, carrying the blessed one on her back, with his hands and legs clutching her sides, yet resting in the same cloth. I was holding her hand, not yet looking left and right, but enjoying the fast moving buses and cars, the hooting and shouting. It was before dusk. There were traders packing and people walking home. There was a truck and there was us.
I wake up. I am inside. Metal clanging. Something old. A jeep perhaps. There are men dressed in khaki green. I cannot hear what they are saying. There is a body laid down. I have tears in my eyes. I have pain all over. My insides are burning.
It is dark. There are lights. Some strange faces come close to me. Lips move. There is the sound of a beat nearby, and a voice singing.
I am in a car.
I am in a house.
My mother speaks to me in a language that I later learn is French. She tells me: If you don’t speak French, you cannot speak. My mother is harsh that way, but she carries me a lot. I am not on her back like the little boy was on Nkelani Deceased, but I am on her hip. I am light with a round tummy. Sometimes her body is cold but it is always warmer than that of the other mother. I do not know how I got here, but it is the house next to the plot where the shack is.
I now live at La Villa Ingrid. The house is named Ingrid for my sister. She is 8. I am 4. We met when I was crying and she gave me biscuits. It is before we were sisters, before her mother became my mother and her father became my father. I have an aunt with red hair and blue eyes who caresses my back and my arms and puts me on her lap. She is the warmest. I managed to walk up the stairs to reach her and I put my hand on her knee to bring myself closer to her body. She started to shout: ‘Food, food. Somebody bring food. This child is hungry!’ My tummy is still full from lunch and it is still round because it has always been like that. I put my head on Tata Danielle’s leg. I am happy when I can touch her.
My aunt’s husband died. I know because my father is crying.
‘Papy, why are you crying?’
‘Because Frans is dead chérie’.
‘He is dead?’
‘Yes, he won’t come back. We won’t see him again. Never.’
I cry. And I say ‘but you, you must not die. If you die, I want to die too.’
Frans Van den Broek’s passing brought another awareness of death to me, the one that would make me choose death rather than life and I was not yet five.
My eyes are moist now and so are my father’s. He is entertaining two couples. He tells the best stories over meals. Lunch today is a delicious canard à l’orange that his wife Tanya has cooked. The table and chairs have ivory inlaid, the tablecloth is cream and the cutlery is perfect. There are two people from our past and they know the story. The other two are new which is why my father tells it. They seem to be charmed. This is the way it always is with our visitors and even among ourselves. Our houses could be in glossy magazines, and we say beautiful things in a polite manner. We keep the dirty emotions hidden. Dad and I both have eyes shining with tears and I wipe mine then look away. He tells this story to prove how much I have loved him, always, ever since I was little. He is not wrong. But this is the story he chooses to tell. The one I speak of often is about the soldiers who picked up Nkelani’s body and took us to an army base. She had no face but she was my mother and then I had another mother and a father and a sister with white faces and that is why I need to explain who I am.
I am Philomène Luyindula. Until I was twelve, I thought I was Philomène Lasoen, but I am called out of class one day and when I return I am Philomène Luyindula and I feel ashamed of it. I follow the school principal to his grey office where he tells me to sit on a big chair that twists to the left as I put my bum on it. His hair is neither blond nor brown, it is short. He walks with his upper body bent forward as if he needs to get to his office before his legs get there. His white hands show me a page which I understand is not blank, but I cannot read it because his voice cuts as sharp as the scissors that must have given him that hair style. His words tell me that I am not a Lasoen and that I am not Belgian. From now on I am going to be called Luyindula and my father is going to pay the school fees at a higher rate, the one for the Congolese. I am at le Lycée Prince de Liège, the Belgian school in Kinshasa, the capital of Zaïre. Like me, my country has changed names twice already, but it will only revert back to Congo in 1998. As an adult I resent people who ask me if I come from the Belgian Congo. I wish people could find non colonial references for the second biggest country of Africa which happens to be right in the centre of the continent.
The principal is from Belgium like the previous principal of course. That one who used to smile at me and his grey hair had light and dark that waved gently around his ears. He always said ‘Philomène, Philomène’ in a singsong voice whenever our paths crossed. He once told me that his grand-mother was named Philomène. I like that name. I like Philomène Lasoen but now with this new principal I am called Philomène Luyindula. I do not know where one puts the emphasis, on the ‘du’ or on the ‘la’. I cannot speak Lingala anymore. I cannot speak Kikongo either, which is the language of ‘my people’. I know that I am from Bas-Congo, from the region of Cataractes and that my tribe makes me a Mukongo. It means nothing to me but that information is written on a green piece of smooth paper folded in three and it contains my other identity. I know that Luyindula Ndevolo means Think Before You Act. This is the name that Ndevolo Bibenga gave me. This is my other father. The one who comes to visit me and speaks the language that left my memory shortly after Nkelani’s last breath. Nkelani has totally disappeared except for the writing on a birth certificate with a stamp of the late seventies, that states that I was born in ‘74. After her name follows the word Deceased. No surname. For the date of my birth there is also the number 24 with the month April. My birthday has always been celebrated on the 12th and no one can tell me why.
When I was five, my step father took me on a journey. We made our way to a building in central London where, without explanation, I was told to be a good girl. As we stepped inside the self-satisfied polished odour of this place, I knew immediately I was somewhere important. We sat waiting in a dim high-ceilinged office until we were called into a room where a man with glasses sat behind a desk. I was frightened by the cavernous room, the glint of the man’s glasses.
I remember little of what was said. Mostly, I remember the falsely confident tone of my stepfather’s voice as he spoke to the man, the kind you might use when embarrassed, and you try to hide your discomfort through a feigned carelessness, a counterfeit bravado.
The man wrote with his pen as he listened, then instructed me to stand up and come towards him. Uncertain, I looked at my stepfather.
‘Go on. Listen to the man.’ Reluctantly I stepped forward.
‘She must lift up her dress.’ I didn’t move.
‘Go on!’ my step-father insisted. Then he softened his voice. ‘It’s okay.’ I lifted up my dress.
The man waved his pen upwards.
‘Higher.’ I obeyed again, this time lifting my dress so that my panties showed. Behind his glasses he eyed me coldly, measuring me against some invisible standard.
‘Now turn around.’ Slowly, wobbling with fear, I rotated before him.
‘You’ll need to pull her panties down a bit.’ I froze. It was worse not being able see his glittering glasses, only to feel them behind me.
My stepfather did as instructed. I could feel his uneasiness as he tugged down my panties. A moment of silence followed and then my father pulled my panties up again. I turned around while my stepfather retreated to his seat.
The man grunted as I faced him once more. Waved his pen again to show he was done with me. With relief, I ran the few steps to my stepfather.
Later we would learn I had passed.
As we walked away from the big building hand-in-hand, I looked up at my stepfather.
‘Papa, why did that man make me lift up my dress?’
Actually I don’t remember asking him that. By then I had already learned that to remain silent was a refuge from the frightening parts of my life I didn’t understand, a way of warding off danger. Still, in my fantasy, I like to think that I did ask, that the little girl who was me was brave enough to voice the more difficult question and that we had the following exchange.
‘Papa, why did you let that man make me lift up my dress?’ My stepfather looks down at me. ‘He needed to see if you were white enough.’
I imagine how it might take a moment for me to absorb this disturbing answer. I am silent. In the pause, my stepfather smiles in answer to my as-yet-unspoken question, and in his best final-line-of-a-fairy-story voice adds, ‘and of course you are.’
Despite being half-Japanese, my bathing costume line had shown me to be ‘white enough’. Now my parents and I, along with my younger, blonde brothers could travel unhindered back to South Africa, where being Japanese meant being classified as an honorary white. I had been given clearance as completely white, a whiter person than I had any right to be.
So began my initiation into being someone other than who I was. It would be many years before I understood the full burning shamefulness of that small but potent event. It was 1967.
Author’s Note: this is the prologue to a memoir in progress about growing up foreign in South Africa and the search for my Japanese father.
The terrible fault lines left by apartheid run very deep. Mostly the disturbances they cause
pass unnoticed. Not part of any statistics. Not cause for any marches. But sometimes there’s a reminder. This story is one of those reminders. It is all true. Only the names are fictional.
In a post-apartheid middle class Johannesburg primary school, there was William, grave, small for his ten years, his shoes a little heavy for his thin legs. He walked with a rather measured tread which immediately endeared him to me, because it reminded me of my grandfather who came from Northampton, where people are known for their studied steps. He would appear on the threshold of my classroom on Tuesday afternoons for extra English; he would pause and greet me courteously before entering, then decorously seat himself opposite me, eyes wide and solemn.
To start with he was quiet, a little stiff. In the conversations between us, the rules of English seemed to become like the dictates of an irascible and illogical old lady, too old to be bothered with consistency or logic. Because he was keen to learn and also hard-working, William would have preferred some hard and fast guidelines.
“First we say “cough”, then we say “through”, then we say “tough!”’, with a sad shake of his head.
However, he came to accept the vagaries of the old lady, because of the riches she yielded. He spent a lot of time in the school library and talked about what he had read. He would melt a little, become expansive, start telling me stories, making jokes. These were heralded by a crinkling on the outside corners of his eyes, which would shift to a twinkle.
“Do you know how many active volcanoes there are in the world?”
“No. How many?”
“One thousand five hundred,” slowly, with great emphasis. “But don’t be worried. None of them are near us.”
I imagined that he came from a home where people listened to each other. It seemed clear that he was a well-loved child, who knew he was a source of joy to his mother. He became one of those delights that lightens the increasingly onerous burdens of teaching.
But at the beginning of the following year, he was disturbingly different. Now he was in my Arts and Culture class.
He would slouch to the back, silent, heavy, producing no work, bringing no file, shrugging dumbly when I inquired about these things. Anxiety, exasperation, irritation, wrath; I went through them all. I tried talking to him. I gave him the usual demerits and detentions – all to no avail. He was a non-person in my lessons. I ambushed him alone, wanting to understand what had brought about this change, but the face and the silence remained stony.
More anxious than ever, I spoke to him again in the second term. He could not continue this way. Clearly, something was seriously amiss in his life. Could we not sort it out? The same stony silence. Well, if he couldn’t discuss it with me, was there someone else he might like to discuss it with? Still stony silence. Mr D, perhaps (a lovely humane man)? A reluctant nod. So, I sent him off to Mr D, checked that a conversation had taken place and concerned myself with more urgent but less important educational matters: the correct completion of my register, mark deadlines, meetings, book perusals, forms. William produced a grubby file at the next lesson and started doing a little work. I allowed myself to feel a little hopeful.
One third term morning, I was sitting on a step at the edge of the playground, on duty. I became aware that William had just slumped disconsolately onto a tree stump a little way behind me. He’d taken to associating with younger boys and they’d been playing marbles on a bare patch of ground. There was a sudden rising of exasperated voices. William was apparently being irritating, and, in the definite terms that little boys use, he was being told so.
“William, dude, you can’t just throw your ghoen like that!”
“Stop it, William, man! Give those ironies back. We’re playing for keeps!’ Now William’s head was bowed, the brim of his white floppy hat hiding his face. But sliding off his chin and plopping down into the dust were treacherous tears.
“Hey, you guys! Now he’s crying!” The younger boys clustered around him, peering up under the brim. No place to hide in a rule-bound school.
“William,’ I said, ‘would you like to sit in my classroom for a bit?’ Without a word he took my keys and went.
After break I found him. He didn’t want to talk.
“You seem to be so unhappy,” I said. Bowed head. “I know you don’t want to talk about it to me, but I think you need to talk about it to someone.” Bowed head. “Nobody should be so unhappy all alone.” Bowed head. “Does your mother know how unhappy you are?” Bowed head, then anguished sobs.
I’d touched the tender spot. Out it all came. From the beginning of the year, he had no longer been allowed to live with his mother. She was a domestic worker and until the end of the previous year, he had lived with her in the backyard of her employers’ home. But at Christmas time her employers had emigrated. Now she had a new job in Bryanston, and her new employers would not allow William to live with her in their yard. He had to stay with his aunt in Klipspruit. He was permitted to visit his mother certain Saturday afternoons. He caught taxis alone to school, to his mother. No, his aunt and her family were not unkind. He was his mother’s only child.
I discussed the matter with two sympathetic staff members. The short-term solution seemed to be to find domestic work for his mother nearby. Nearby and with understanding employers. It didn’t seem hopeful. And anyway, we weren’t quick enough.
Two weeks later William wasn’t at school. Breathless children came to my garden gate that afternoon with the bad news. He had been knocked down by a car. He had been only a few hundred metres from his aunt’s place in Klipspruit. On his way home from school. Killed instantly. He’d just alighted from the taxi.
I imagined his small figure, head bowed, schoolbag heavy, plodding through the dust, not caring much.
The big funeral was held far away in Bushbuck Ridge. A memorial service was held at the school. His mother came. Like him, she was slight and gentle. Nevertheless she climbed the steps onto the stage to address the whole assembly. I saw her son’s gravity and courtesy. She thanked the school for the money collected for William’s funeral. She wanted to say how grateful she was for the opportunity he’d had to get a good education. That was very, very important to her. And she was grateful for the kindness and care of the teachers. She had always trusted that he was in very good hands. She had always known that they were doing their best for him. She had faith in our school.
Of his ever having been unhappy she made no mention and nor did I. The fault lines separated us.
Having settled one-year-old Erik for his rest, I went to find Aidan. I unsuccessfully hunted the house, then into the garden I walked, calling and looking. In the middle of a newly-dug flower bed, I saw two-year-old Aidan covered in dark soil. His endearing mud-covered face grinned happily at me. This was an early vanishing Aidan, one that continued, even in older age.
My Grandfather and my cousins were all good magicians, as older brother Rolf and his own sons later became. Aidan, though, excelled as a vanishing magician from as soon as he learnt to crawl.
Like his glasses, Aidan himself was most proficient in hiding and disappearing. My friend Mary had taken the boys to give me an afternoon off. No grandparents living in Cape Town to assist, and no domestic help for me, just my wonderful friends.
“Janice, I love having your boys, but Aidan gave me such a fright today. He disappeared, we all hunted the house and called him. No reply. Then in the garden I called and called. Still no reply. I was so worried when eventually Aidan crawled out from under hydrangea bushes, happy and unconcerned. I was so relieved to find him. I just wish he would answer to his name.”
A common complaint. One day I was watching Aidan when Rolf called him from elsewhere. I observed that Aidan just nodded his head. Aidan did answer, but not enough for us to hear.
One weekend we were busy at home, early morning, when the front door bell rang. It was Howell from our shop. “Mrs Behr I have a delivery for you.” Looking into the large wicker delivery basket at the front of Howell’s bicycle, I was greeted with a great big smile from deep inside.
“Aidan what are you doing there?”
Howell explained that Aidan had walked down to the shop two blocks away and Fatima had asked him to return Aidan to us.
We had not even noticed that three-year-old Aidan had disappeared. What blessings to have all these caring neighbours.
Needless to say this prompted a higher fence, trying to Aidan-proof the garden. Erik, a year younger than Aidan, did not have this wanderlust need. Maybe it was the beginning of Aidan asserting his independent streak.
We knew Aidan would disappear if there was any form of water nearby and we had to watch him extra carefully at homes with ponds or pools, or on outings near streams.
I had volunteered to assist with Erik’s preschool outing to the World of Birds. Aidan had to come too as I would not be back in time to collect him from his preschool. What fun we all had on the journey singing together with extra children and a student teacher in my combi. We walked around enjoying looking at the fine birds, and some sorry rescued birds, until we walked through the monkey section. Again I counted heads for my little group. Where was five-year-old Aidan?
Aidan was so happy, grinning at me when I located him. He had climbed into a discarded indoor bath, now used for the monkeys, and containing faeces and feathered filthy black water.
“Oh you little rascal. And for once I have no spare clothes for you. Out now!”
School holidays. It was a Saturday morning, and Christmas Eve. Aidan was home after his first year at boarding school, aged eleven. Al and I had a few last-minute items to purchase down the road at Kenilworth Centre, and left thirteen-year-old Rolf caring for his brothers while we parents shopped.
We returned within the hour to be greeted at the gate by two very anxious faces.
“Aidan is missing,” said Rolf and Erik simultaneously.
Al immediately started panicking and I had to remain calm to pacify everyone.
“We will split up, Erik stay at the house, Rolf onto your bicycle. I will phone the police and Al, you drive towards the shopping centres.”
My anxiety made me stammer on the phone while reporting lost Aidan to the police and then shopping centre managements in case Aidan had walked to the Malls. Aidan knew what he wanted and could understand speech, though his expressive language was not clear, no more than single words or short sentences.
Rolf had already been to Adams corner store and now he went on his bicycle around the neighbourhood roads. I phoned Kenilworth Centre and Al went by the car to Maynard Mall. I walked up our road knocking on all doors until reaching Clare’s home.
“I saw Aidan some time ago walking up the road with his towel under his arm. I cannot remember when.”
“Oh thank you so much, Clare. What a relief that you saw him. I think I know where he has gone,” I replied.
Al was back home again. I said, “We must go to Kenilworth station, drive the car.” On arrival I scanned the platforms and rushed to the ticket office.
“Can you help? We have lost our son who wears glasses, cannot speak well, and has Down syndrome?”
Puzzled look. I explained: “He is Mongol, that is Down syndrome.” Oh that disliked term that everyone was trying to remove from the vocabulary, but still the only one some people understood in 1988.
The ticket officer replied, “Oh yes, we had a telephone call from Simon’s Town. A little boy was held on the train for his safety and he is on the approaching Cape Town train.”
“Oh, thank you,” I said, while emotional and panic-filled tears flooded my eyes and my body shook as I walked onto the platform to await the train.
Our prayers were answered as we had a guiding hand leading us to be at that station at the right time.
I wondered if Aidan was being taken to lost property on Cape Town Station. Aidan’s Medic Alert bracelet was broken and that day he needed it. For emergencies or lost intellectually disabled children, Medic Alert had contact phone numbers on record.
Off the rear of the train stepped the conductor and a happy Aidan, shoes on wrong feet, laces undone and a loosely wrapped towel, with his bathing costume almost falling out, held under his arm. Train driver and conductor had been radioed to let Aidan off at Kenilworth. Relief. How could I be cross? He had shown such independence and ability.
Aidan was told to thank the conductor and contentedly he waved goodbye as I hugged him, relieved that he was home and unharmed. Al came rushing onto the platform with a tearful face, and hugged Aidan too. Now we had to get home and inform our other two sons who were as distressed, concerned and worried as I had been.
I have always regretted not being able to thank those kind folk who had taken care of our son on his seaward outing. Thank goodness Aidan had been guided to the rear of the train, for in the apartheid-era, the front of the train would have been much emptier, and those occupants would have ignored our son.
The talk on not leaving our house on his own was reinforced for the remainder of the school holidays.
Why had Aidan gone to catch a train? We had been once to the beach by train in that year. And prior to that Christmas weekend, we had three car trips to Muizenberg beach, only to return home unable to swim due to the presence of blue bottles. Aidan had been so frustrated. And he does not forget directions to places he likes, even many, many years later.
I have never forgotten Aidan’s most proficient vanishing trick that included a train ride. Like other children and people with intellectual disabilities, consequences of actions are not part of Aidan’s life skills. That worry they leave to their families.
The moment my dad walked in through the front door after a long stressful day at work, David ran down the passage shouting with excitement
“Dad! Dad! I got in, I got accepted!”
“You can just forget it. No son of mine is going to that moffie school.”
David’s lip began to quiver. He was 14 and going to the Drakensberg Boys Choir School had been a dream of his for years. He didn’t object. He never stood up to my father for fear of being beaten with ‘the strap’ that lived at the front of the toy cupboard as a reminder to look after our toys, to put them back exactly where we had found them and to behave in general. The strap was a leather belt that left raised welts and sometimes cuts on soft flesh when we were bent naked over the cold enamel bath. David ran to my mom for love and holding while I braved the strap, already hardened to pain by the age of 11.
“Dad what is wrong with you? You know he’s desperate to go. He’s been practising for months at school and he sings so beautifully. Today all the judges voted for him.”
“I don’t care, that school is useless and it has a bad reputation.”
“That’s rubbish, you’re just a stupid idiot!” Oops. Gone too far as usual. I shook loose from his grip on my school jersey and ran to my room, locking myself in.
My father, probably still reading his newspaper, shouted from the lounge,
“Where’s that snivelling excuse for a boy? He needs to be taught a lesson.”
“Leave him alone Andrew, he’s already hurting enough.”
“It’s your fault he’s got no bloody backbone you stupid woman, you molly-coddle him. Moffie, get your sister and get into the bathroom.”
David knocked quietly on my door and I let him in. He had his school sports bag over his shoulder and tears streaming down his face.
“Sophie, I’m leaving,” he whispered, “don’t tell anyone. I can’t stay here with him anymore.”
“No Davy, please don’t go, don’t leave me here with them. Please!”
After ages of my father banging on my bedroom door, I found the courage to open it.
“Where’s your brother?”
“I don’t know.” Back hand to the face. I set my jaw and stared at him in defiant silence, then I went to cry with my mom. When I stopped sobbing I told her that David had run away.
Hours later she returned home with him, put him to bed and no-one ever spoke about it again. David swallowed hard and never went to choir school.
“Oh my God that boy can sing!” I heard the man next to me say of my brother. My heart swelled with pride. David was the lead in the Pretoria Boys High School musical production of Romeo and Juliet and he was the star. There were even newspaper articles written about him and all of a sudden all the girls wanted this shy dork of a boy with fluff on his upper lip and chin.
It was the final night. David was on fire and the audience was electric. They erupted into shouts, whistles and bravos as the curtain came down. Wow!
After the play David was whisked away to a dinner for the cast and when he came home later he was almost unrecognisable. He was seventeen, suddenly tall and handsome, smiling confidently, wearing bell bottom hipster jeans, a cerise pink jersey and a paisley neck scarf. He was flanked by 5 adoring matric girls whom I recognised as the super cool ones from my school. I ran and jumped into his arms for a hug.
“You were so awesome! Wow, seriously Davy, you’re a star!”
“Thank you sweetheart, it was a great night hey.”
He hugged me tightly while the girls said their hellos to my folks and then he slowly lowered me down, then up, then down again, rubbing me over his erect penis, all the while looking directly into my eyes with that smile I knew too well.
He wanted me.
Not the 5 adoring girls.
My heart exploded with joy and disgust in the same moment. I stood in utter confusion with a contorted smile, not knowing where to look or what to say. He turned his attention to the girls and I took my dirty 14 year old arousal to my room and cried myself to sleep. In the morning I put it in a steel box under my rib-cage and ate family breakfast.
Photo Credit: Courtesy Unsplash Kelly Sikkema