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.
The rows of dusty black shoes and ankle length white socks entered the great hall in single file. Always in a single file. Row after row of ill-fitting maroon blazers that were too long and too baggy. Hanging off our shoulders because our parents could no longer afford the changing bodies of a teenage girl.
We sat down in the great hall, yawning, fiddling with our cuticles and reapplying our sticky, sweet cherry-flavoured lip gloss. We had not been told why we were called to assembly today. Probably something about Jesus. It is always about Jesus, and when only the girls are called to assembly then it’s probably about Jesus and breasts or Jesus and the length of our skirts or how Jesus hates teenage girls who wear their mom’s mascara.
I was sitting between Jade and Kelly. I would rather have been sitting next to Tori. Jade was popular and the captain of the netball team, but my mom said she was a bit of a slut. I mean, she isn’t wrong; the whole school knows what she did with Matthew when they went to the movies last weekend. Or rather, to Matthew.
I keep trying to catch Tori’s eye, just so that I can roll my eyes. Private school girls love rolling their eyes. We learn it from our private school moms.
I am mid-eye roll when a lady I don’t know walks into the hall. Oh God, yup. This is definitely about Jesus, this lady definitely loves JC. Her hair is cut short, but not in the cool way like the girl from that 90210 tv show. She looks like she goes to the same hairdresser as Mrs Laategaan, my Afrikaans teacher. Surely only one hairdresser in Joburg can master that very particular kind of purple, red and orange highlighter combo. I feel Kelly’s shoulders shudder as she tries to swallow her giggle and I know we are thinking the same thing.
The longer I stare at this woman… no, scrutinise her… no, judge her, the more I start to crave a Steri Stumpie. She is shaped a bit like a Steri Stumpie, dumpy and round. She is also wearing a light pink blouse, with matching light pink slacks and creamy white sandals that make her look a bit like strawberry milk. Anyways, she is of course a ‘straight out of Foschini’ fashion emergency. I do love pink Steri Stumpies though; I’ll get one from the tuck shop at break.
‘’Good morning girls. My name is René, I am a friend of Mrs Laategaan and I have been invited here today to talk about sex..’’
I knew it.
‘’… And how important it is to wait for marriage.’’
I knew it.
Rene rummages through a small wicker basket. She looks more prepared for a picnic than a speech telling teenage girls about the eternity of fire that awaits them if they even think about fiddling around with a boy’s penis. She pulls out a marshmallow easter egg. I mean, niche. I have always hated those eggs, I far prefer the hard white ones, that you have to suck before they get soft. The marshmallow ones always feel more like a handout than a treat.
Nonetheless, she’s got me interested now. What the fuck is she going to do with this egg? A reward maybe, for the person who can shout “SIN!” the loudest?
She unwraps the chocolate and holds it up like a new age body of Christ. My Catholic father would hate this, his convenient Catholicism (my mom’s term) means that he hates everything even slightly new age. I recoil as I remember his tantrum when the priest made us sing happy birthday to Jesus on Christmas day.
OMG. I gasp as Rene starts aggressively breaking the egg apart. Pulling at the edges and stretching the sticky white marshmallow before throwing tiny pieces of egg onto the floor. Oh, she is stamping on them now.
‘’This’’, says Rene, her once mousy voice now booming through the hall, ‘’is what happens to your soul every time you have sex before marriage.’’
“I see my purpose as supporting individuals to nurture their greater potential,” I blurted out to Gabs when he asked me about my mission in life. I felt quite proud of myself for using words that sounded virtuous to my ears. After all, everyone else I said this to were impressed by this lofty purpose.
Gabs however, seemed unimpressed. We were in his office in Noordhoek for our weekly coaching session. I was sitting on the soft and comfortable black leather couch, and he was on a one-seater version opposite me. Even though we were in the middle of winter, natural light was streaming through his large office windows. The electric heater created a toasty warmth in the spacious urban-like studio. Aside from the space to sit and chat, there was room to work and many bookshelves filled with second-hand books. Behind Gabs’ chair was a big red heart – representing Gabs’ Heart Intelligence Coaching logo.
Gabs felt like the male version of me. We were born on the same day, both Aries. He from Venezuela, me from South Africa. He had a typical Latino sensual look, black hair and a two-day unshaved beard. Sometimes I convinced myself that Gabs’ good looks and accent that sealed the deal in me choosing him as my coach. However, in moments of radical truthfulness, the real reason we clicked was because he could see through my bullshit and call me on it, gently at times and at others taking a hard stance.
Gabs always said I’m like a Ferrari, that everything about me is in top form, I just need to be tuned in the right places – and he is the person to do it. I believe him, and know that coaching me was a big hairy challenge. He admitted to me in a moment of vulnerability when we celebrated our birthday together, that I intimidated the shit out of him when I first showed up at his studio. I could relate to this. When I am intimidated, I’ll fake it until I make it. The second quality that Gabs brought to our dynamic was a softness, one that I was not necessarily in touch with. I found it ironic that Gabs was more in touch with his feminine energy than I; to navigate this world I’ve shrouded myself in masculine energy.
Gabs continued to hold my gaze. I tried to distract myself by paying attention to the way his unruly hair kept falling into his face. Using his facial features as a focal point was a respite from a conversation that seemed to be heading into a danger zone. He knew I was stalling.
“Shamillah,” he said. “I wanna know the story behind what you just said. Tell me why you think that is what you are meant to do. If you want, tell me about the wound you are trying to heal.”
With a heightened sense of danger, and deep discomfort, I started fiddling with my fingers, changing my sitting position, and looking around the studio at the different pictures on the walls. My gaze landed on a sketch of a little girl in a field of flowers. The stark contrast of the girl sketched in black and white against the field of colourful flowers stirred my senses. I looked down at my hands, still avoiding his gaze.
The image on the wall evoked much more than I could handle. I felt myself gasping for breath, and realised that it was time to stop hiding. I looked at him, and made the brave decision to trust him and myself. ‘I am afraid to go there, Gabs,’ I whispered. In the most gentle way, he returned my gaze with unconditional love and acceptance. He said nothing and simply waited.
We had been doing these sessions for more than a year. Each week, I had to drive over Ou Kaapse Weg to get to Noordhoek. That drive over the mountainous pass was inevitably filled with noisy inner dialogue.
‘What more is there to say to Gabs? There’s nothing more that he can uncover. This is taking up too much of my time.’
On and on those voices went, rebuking me for continuing this very inconvenient trek up the mountain every week. Amidst all this noise, somehow, the voice I call my inner activist always managed to sound out all the others.
This voice would say: ‘Even if there is nothing more, making time for myself is a revolutionary act in and of itself.’ I liked the idea of an inner revolution.
Gabs continued holding space for me in that warm, soft manner. He sensed I was about to open a box, and that this was something I had never allowed myself to do before. So he simply waited, neither prodding nor encouraging. Letting me know that whatever I did would be ok.
I felt safe and held. So I said, ‘I am going to tell you something that I don’t think I have ever said out loud before. I have always prided myself on just getting on with life, of not dwelling on parts of my story, or to feel ‘sorry’ for myself. So, I don’t tell the story of my past or my circumstances that has made me who I am today. I am okay with others doing that, but I don’t give myself permission to do it.’
Although Gabs was saying nothing, I felt as if he was holding my hand – walking with me to gently open the box. Ready to catch me if I fall.
‘The truth about me and my wound, you ask? I have never even acknowledged this to myself. You have noticed this red birthmark on my face. When I was born, it was blue, and it covered half of my face. This mark, has not only visibly affected me, it is also one of the reasons I am who I am today.’
I began to tell the story of a little girl, born into a big family, who because of the mark on her face felt different. In this family, people often end up with nicknames, something related to a physical feature or character trait. This little girl’s nickname was ‘blou oog’ (blue eye) because of the appearance of the blue on her face, making her eye appear blue too. This nickname made her stand out even more, just like the ugly duckling amidst the other ducks, because she looked so different from her siblings and cousins.
In the years that she was growing up, everyone else was told they were beautiful or pretty, yet she cannot remember anyone saying those words to her. Like any other little girl, she craved acceptance, affirmation and acknowledgement, and in her child’s mind, the mark on her face prevented that. She imagined that the only way she could get positive regard was to be very good. She would be praised for being a good child, but soon she realised that being good over time meant you got even less attention, less acknowledgment. Not ready to give up, she decided to apply herself to be outstanding in everything. She completely shut her mind to the fact that she had a mark on her face, hardly looking into a mirror and avoiding being in photographs. Instead she focused all her energies on this mission to be exceptional.
The little girl grew into a teenager who discovered that because of the birthmark, she was completely blind in her right eye. Again, she absorbed this information, and never told anyone, except her mother. She was determined to maximize the use of her other eye, and managed this quite well without letting anyone know. The teenager was quite good at hiding, she cut and combed her hair so that her bangs would fall across her cheek and eye, so no one would notice. She excelled as the top student at her school, and at home she was the known as the most responsible and reliable member of her family. She was the only one in her entire school that got admitted to the University of Cape Town. Moving through early adulthood, even when she struggled, she kept at it – working on weekends to pay her fees and earn money for bus fare. The little girl had grown up to achieve the kind of success that others recognised and valued, for many years being the only one in her family who had a university degree, that had traveled outside Cape Town, that had traveled the world, and so much more. Even though she appeared as an adult, she was still nursing the wound of childhood. Up until her 30’s, she continued to hide her face from the world, afraid of being rejected or dismissed again.
This is one of the reasons she stumbled into the field of coaching, wanting to help young people who, for whatever reason are different, and may feel unseen, unloved, unworthy, and, as a result, might limit themselves. She supports these young people by helping them to discover their inner value so that they are not hurt when those around them do not recognise this. With a renewed confidence, they can set out to achieve what they want.
As I finished my story, I felt emotional and had to stop to control my breathing.
“So that is my wound, Gabs. Every time I work with the youth, and coach somebody, I want them to feel valued and accepted. Most of all, I want them to realise that the love and acceptance they need most is within themselves.”
Gabs helped me to see that the one who came up with the strategy of being exceptional was a child using childlike reasoning. He stood me in front of the mirror so that I could acknowledge a naked truth: as a result of my early experience, I had rejected myself. This truth bomb was the hardest to accept or own.
But I did.
Quietly, I stared at the reflection in the mirror, my naked face, my birthmark, my blind eye, and connected to a truth that the greatest rejection was actually within myself.
I knew that my healing journey had begun.
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.
When Grace came for her interview, she struck terror in the residents of our Group Home. She entered in the doorway which, in terms of width, she filled. In height she was but a gnome, barely reaching my shoulder. The group were genuinely afraid of her. She had deformities of her face and body but what unnerved them the most was the glare from her very large, green, ex-ophthalmic eyes. Everything about her stance and her expression proclaimed a fierce self-will.
From the background given by her family, the social worker and from her records we learned that Grace had been born with scoliosis, brain damage, a weak heart and generalised disabilities. The doctors predicted she would only live until she was about 16. Her parents therefore decided to give this child the best 16 years they could. They chose to do this by never saying “no” to her. By letting her do and have whatever she desired. While she was still very young, she spent many months in hospital undergoing surgeries to help straighten her spine. This only compounded the sympathy her parents felt for her and they simply gave in more and more to her every whim
So, this young girl grew up feeling thoroughly entitled. She was demanding and discourteous, especially to those closest to her. By the time she was twelve she had no idea of boundaries and it was not unheard of for her to walk into the family kitchen before a meal and eat an entire roasted chicken on her own. Nothing was ever done to correct this.
By sixteen she was still very much alive.
Then her father died and she stayed with her devoted mother until she was thirty-five. Then the mother passed on and her older brother and sister-in-law had to take her in. But they soon found they were out of their depth with her and they came to us desperate, explaining that she disrupted their household, was rude, spoilt and did not cooperate with them or their two growing children.
According to her medical records, Grace had Type 2 Diabetes, hypertension and the beginnings of heart failure. She was on medication for the blood pressure and the diabetes but her obesity and eating habits were never addressed
During the interview I was sitting on the same side of the long dining room table as Grace. So, I did not look directly at her but was strongly aware of her presence beside me. This turned out to be very fortunate because I did not expect what then emanated as a very clear feeling from this obviously difficult woman. I sensed in her something subtly different from the personality and form she was presenting. What came through to me was soft, kind and actually quite beautiful. This was the deciding factor for me in the meeting with Grace.
Over the years, anyone coming to be interviewed for our Group Home for Adults with Intellectual Disabilities would need to spend some time alone with our other residents. Afterwards we could ask them if they felt the person would fit in. Their opinion was always taken very seriously.
So, after Grace left, we waited for their reactions.
The response was unanimous – “NO!”
“Nee – she’s scary!” said Anna.
“Ouma, did you see her teeth? Her eyes?” said Edgar.
“She is so bossy and cheeky. No!” said Clive
“Sy lyk soos die tokolos Ouma**” whimpered Marie.
[**Ouma was my nickname, given to me by the residents. I was in my thirties.]
We had never admitted anyone that the group did not feel happy about. But this time I said,
“I really believe we must give her a chance”. After some discussion I could more or less reassure them that this was the right thing to do and we agreed to admit her for the usual 3-month trial period.
She arrived on a Sunday. Her brother took her many suitcases of clothes and boxes of personal items to her room. Then he fetched in about six fully laden shopping bags of cookies, chocolates, candies and potato chips which I thought must be a gift for our whole group.
“Should these go to the kitchen?” I asked.
“No, no these are for Grace.” he said, heading to her room.
“May she eat all those things? They are regular sweets, not diabetic ones.” I mentioned, astonished.
“Well…. she loves them…and…. you know how it is?” he said shrugging. He dropped off the bags and quickly ushered his wife out to their car.
Before speeding off, he handed me several containers of artificial sweetener through his open window, as if he had just remembered them. “She must use this in tea and coffee,” he said.
I just shook my head as they pulled away.
That Monday first thing I took Grace to the local doctor who found her blood pressure reasonably controlled but her blood glucose level was up in the high twenties. This was serious and could not go on he told her looking earnestly at her. I nodded. Grace scowled as if she knew she was about to be told “No” for the first time in her life.
“No more sweets Grace, no cakes, no puddings, no jam, no nothing unless Ouma puts it in front of you – alright?” he said to her firmly.
Green fire flashed at us, her jaw tightened and she clenched her little fists as we left the doctor’s office. She was still complaining loudly to me when we arrived home. She could not believe it when I removed all the snacks from her room.
“You heard Dr Simons.” I said.
So ensued a standoff of mutually dug in heels for some time. But there was no relenting on my part and no matter how many grumbles or tantrums, I made sure she remained scrupulously on the correct diet. Of course, I felt for her because it could not have been easy to suddenly have to watch others eating a malva pudding with custard dessert while she had to be satisfied with a piece of fruit and some unflavoured yogurt. But she was given so much consistent praise and endless encouragement for sticking to this regime that as the weeks went by, she began to adapt to the change with fewer grunts and glowers.
Integrating our residents into the community of our small rural town was a cornerstone of our program. So, getting Grace to stick to her new eating plan outside of the house also had to be faced. Our residents went visiting in town regularly and attended many functions where they were warmly welcomed and offered generous refreshments. We had to drill Grace to say “No thanks I am not allowed to, I am diabetic” and this was a lot harder than controlling her diet at home. Often, when I could not be at these outings, I would appoint one of the other residents to try to keep watch on what she ate. And as to be expected this often ended badly. Fights and arguments ensued and these discords needed resolving when they returned home. But in time, I was able to convince the very generous hostesses of the community to please offer Grace something not loaded with starch and sugar. And they did and this problem was then handled.
But during the first few weeks and months with Grace we not only worked to alter her appetites but we also had to challenge her behaviour especially towards her fellow residents. She had good “company manners” and was always charming and agreeable to the public. But she was so used to manipulative relationships with “family” that initially, at home with us, she was a tyrant, still expecting to always have her way and be put first. It was a surprise for her to find that although we wanted to love her and that we deeply cared about her, we refused to pander to rudeness.
Right from the start I had mainly been the one to correct Grace when she was bossing another resident around, giving orders or pushing someone out of her way. She refused to be contradicted ever and would answer back with venom. She did this once with me. But only once. And she was genuinely shocked at my immediate censure.
The difficulty was that she held the residents in a spell of almost superstitious fear. She only had to glare at someone to get her way or have her demands obeyed. This of course had to stop.
“Why do you allow her to yell at you, to boss you around, to grab things from you or make you do her chores?” I would ask them as one by one they came to me to complain about her bullying.
“But Ouma she gives us that look!” They would say, noticeably distressed. “She must go. Tell her brother to take her away.” I was often quite torn by their discomfort but kept remembering what I had felt about Grace during the interview.
“I can’t tell her to go just yet.” I said to them “But anyway she is half your height, most of you. She can do nothing to you.” I would say to both the men and the women who equally backed down for her. “She is not magic, no matter how she looks. Just say “no” to her and see what happens.”
I repeated this for weeks on end.
Eventually the group somehow gained resolve and began to react to her in a more realistic way. Together we could now go on grinding away at Grace’s stony surface and after a few months of this unified stance, Grace began to change. More and more often she would respond pleasantly. She would react in a fair and reasonable way towards the others. Until she seemed to realise how much better things turned out if she cooperated, was polite and got along with everyone. At last she must have experienced how it felt to be included and liked rather than just always obeyed.
Grace’s eventual transformation was astounding. All in all, it took place over about 1 year. By then she had also dropped about 4 dress sizes and in the process, had turned into a disarming elf. The bullfrog cheeks hollowed down. The strange undershot jaw and protruding lower teeth were no longer so disturbing in what emerged as the delicate face of a sprite. Those enormous green eyes still protruded but the brittle glare had completely dissolved. So that, now, diminutive in stature and open-hearted in demeanour, with an ethereal dignity, the Grace I had sensed that first day finally stepped free.
As with many transformations there is no one point where you can say ”Aha, that was what did it – that was the day it happened.” We simply realised, as time passed, that Grace had been so helpful, so sweet for so long; she had caused no fights, been loving and agreeable for so many months that no one could even remember what she had been like before. She was now a real treasure to have in our family.
Then one day she began to fade.
She returned from a short vacation on her uncle’s isolated farm in the cold shadow of the mountains, looking tired and drawn. She was very pale; her belly was badly distended and after the mildest activity she would be exhausted and breathless. Previously she could stride briskly along with the others but now she found that even the two blocks to church was too much for her.
Our local doctor examined her thoroughly and grimly told me he was sending her to the hospital in the city for tests. This process was to turn out lengthy but they eventually confirmed the diagnosis we had all dreaded. Her kidneys were failing. Years of uncontrolled diabetes had left her body ravaged and she had aplastic anaemia. There was nothing that would reverse this; we could only manage it for as long as possible. Bravely, without really understanding the full implications of her illness she began to submit gently to her growing discomfort and progressive loss of vitality.
She received regular blood transfusions which meant time in hospital. We preferred it when she could go to our small town’s cottage hospital so we could be with her. But most often she had to go to the city two hours away because other treatments were also needed. Despite having her brother there, she received virtually no visits. We would call the hospital every day and she could sometimes talk to us on the duty room phone. We always heard from the staff how she lit up the ward she shared with the poorest of the poor; of her friendliness and the beautiful prayers she said for them. Everyone, doctors, nurses and patients loved this elfin woman who smiled and chatted and never complained.
When she came home, she was more and more confined to bed. As she weakened, she could do little for herself. We bathed her, changed the diapers she eventually required and assisted with whatever she needed day and night. At this stage she was being showered with attention and pampering when she actually did not want it anymore. By now she had become so sensitive that she apologised continuously for needing so much care and expressed endless thanks. Neither were needed as it was a true pleasure to assist her.
Her room-mates Dana and Maxie were inspired. I have never seen such joyful, selfless care. Often, they would call me at 2 or 3 in the morning so we could change the bedding and lift Grace into a warm and cleansing bath. They helped me care for her like two professional nurses with tireless patience and thoroughness. Every so often Grace would whisper to me, out of their hearing, to buy them some gifts from her pocket money to show her appreciation. She would look utterly delighted when they showed her the new crayons or the chocolates she had given them.
As her physical state deteriorated so her radiant spirit came more into view, a significant light in our home as her condition worsened. And so, we could share in her brave and gracious preparation to release a body that had troubled her all her life.
On Easter Saturday the housefather had an idea to set up his video camera in the dining-room in front of our Easter display. Each of us in turn was to speak for a few moments, with only the eyes and ears of the camera present, alone in the room filled with green and gilded palm branches, painted eggs, black, red and green drapes and dozens of candles which we lit at all meals during that week. At the end of the day we gathered together to view our conversations.
Each one was perfect: innocent, uncontrived and unique, addressing their own perception of Deity or their departed loved ones. Some expressed many thoughts and feelings, others only spoke for a few seconds; some were funny, some shy and some messages were just silence or sighing or a smile.
We carried Grace from her bed in her yellow fluffy pyjamas and she had a turn speaking in a soft unhesitant voice. Like a prayer she said how much she loved and appreciated Jesus. She told him how she missed her mother and she shed a few tears. Then she thanked him for everything he did for her and for her wonderful friends.
As we watched Grace on the tape, all around her the screen began to glow, with a luminous golden yellow that had not appeared with any of the others’. Even long afterwards when we played that tape no-one could decide if it was just the candle flames reflected off her yellow pyjamas or did Grace, that last Easter, already begin to move off into the light.
Her birthday came that spring. It was a quiet and happy day. None of her relatives visited, but they called and sent gifts. She was forty-three.
A week later she had to return to the local hospital very ill and we were told to notify her family urgently that weekend.
They never arrived saying they were busy, or their car was broken.
We stayed with her. She was barely conscious and, on the Sunday, her little limbs could not find rest but thrashed around as if wanting to begin on a journey. She smiled a lot.
Early Monday morning she stepped across into the golden yellow light.
Now the family found the time and attended her funeral and I watched their tears and again could only shake my head.
We would visit her grave often and leave flowers but there was no money for a headstone. The following Easter Saturday, we packed the minibus with plants and a pile of clean, white river stones. We decorated her grave with pagan flourish in a riotous planting of flowers and set a large cross of the white stones into the silver-grey Karoo earth. We said prayers, one by one, as the autumn clouds lowered over us and we all felt Grace’s deep, glowing peace.
To my knowledge none of her family has ever visited her grave.
I had worked it out to the final detail. PO savings withdrawn, matric certificate, a family photograph – all packed, together with some clothes, biscuits and fruit. And the letter. I had hidden the backpack outside in a lantana-type bush known as Martingoolie the evening before, and then taken a short walk down the road to the small red local postbox attached to the street lamp-post. They would get the letter the following day … then they would know why and how and not worry, I thought.
The next morning I got dressed and ready for the job I had recently started so as to to earn some money before I started varsity. I said goodbye to Mom. We never kissed, and even though I wanted to hug her that morning, I didn’t want to behave suspiciously. I checked to see if anyone was watching whilst I retrieved the backpack and made my way up the hill to the bus-stop. That morning I would go to the train station instead of into Johannesburg city centre. I went through a mental checklist. All items ticked. I would catch a train out of town to where I could see the highway, get off the train and hitch from there. Johannesburg to Cape Town should take two, maybe three days.
I caught the train to Bloemfontein, and a lady, the caring maternal type, who was clearly wondering what I was up to, gave me a lift to the N1 highway – I told her I didn’t have too far to go. I was surprised by the icy breeze when I got out of the warm leathery-smelling car.
At last I was on the open road. My second lift dropped me somewhere between Colesberg and Beaufort West. It was around four in the afternoon and freezing cold. This was July and the Karoo can be brutal. I was not dressed for snow and it had begun to sleet. I was walking, sticking out my thumb, beginning to feel desolate, desperate, despondent. That was the word game I would play: find as many words as I could to describe the situation starting with “de”.
There was a loud vibrating groan behind me that increased in volume and vibration until it stopped, right next me.
A massive pantechnicon truck’s brakes had decompressed and ground to a basso halt. The passenger window opened about two stories above me. A face appeared at the window, he looked down at me for a good while, then the door opened and he said, “Get in”.
I clambered up with my scant luggage
“Where are you going?”
“That’s a helluva long way away … Ag well let’s see how you behave before I say I will give you a lift all the way there.” He looked at me, winked and snorted loudly on inhalation.
“What you gonna do in CT?”
“I’m going to get a job on a ship… I hope,” I said, shivering through partially numb lips.
“Ja well listen here girlie, from now on I’m gonna call you Tiny …OK?”
I was so tired and cold, and grateful to be moving, feeling the warm blast from the gear-box on my feet, he could have called me pretty much anything.
“Tiny! There’s a lunchbox at your feet. Open it and give me a sandwich. You know you aren’t here for fun hey? You can work for your ride.”
I passed him the sandwich, suddenly so hungry I almost stuffed the remaining sandwich into my mouth without asking. I looked at him hoping he might offer, but he looked at me, mouth full and winked again.
“Tiny …why you all alone hitchihiking? Didn’t your daddy tell you it’s fokken dangerous?”
Hunger and cold had taken full occupation of my brain. I so wanted to curl up into a ball and sleep. I looked out of the window feeling slight motion sickness, with the smell of diesel adding to the nausea.
“Hey Tiny! What you thinking or don’t you think?“ he chuckled, leaning across and stabbing his index finger into my ribcage. “Pass me my apple girlie.”
I could hear him, but he seemed miles away. I struggled to keep my eyelids from closing. Sleep, I just needed a short sleep.
“Hey, hey hey … no sleeping here little one! Not while I’m awake. You better stay awake, you can be my eyes too. How do you know you shouldn’t be watching me anyways?”
I realised then that I did indeed need to sharpen up. He was provoking me, pushing me to say or do what he wanted and this could get very tricky. I looked out of the window. It was almost dark, a springhare got caught in the truck’s lights and stopped, frozen for a second, before making a split second decision to run.
“Stupid bloody animal,” he said braking suddenly, then laughing loudly he looked at me. “Hey Tiny! You know what? I can sommer put my foot on the brake like this …” And he decompressed those brakes, opening the exhaust valves to release trapped air, much like a pipe organ, when I felt another jab in the ribs. ”Ja I can brake this baby and lift you out of your seat with one hand at the same time.” He snorted, “Like I won’t even have to stop … just like this.” He hit the brake lever again, shouting over the bassline hiss overlaid with something sounding like rocks being crushed. He was now excited, aroused, face pink and sweaty. ”What you think, Tiny? Wanna try?” Brakes were whining, hissing and grinding. The organ-master leant across again and grabbed my left plait, pulling me towards him and holding me over the gear console. I remembered my uncle telling me how they would catch springhares by their ears, driving past them when hypnotised by headlights.
“You getting the idea, hey Tiny? Lekker hey? Ag, otherwise I could just stop right in the middle of the road.” Brakes hissing, grinding, whining to a halt. “This is the Karoo man, there might not be another car passing by here for days, and if there is it’s gonna be one of my truck brothers – hah! Now that’s when the real fun will start.” He let go of my hair and shoved me back into my seat.
I knew then that ‘tricky’ was a gross understatement. My experience of facing male bravado was that it was like walking a very high tightrope with a very long drop beneath it. Resisting via debate or argument you could fall one way; surrendering and saying or doing nothing, you fell the other.
I had rejected all religions as a method of brainwashing, controlling us poor weak humans. Yet I found myself thinking that somehow, some god was going to intervene. It would happen because I was now actively praying.
“In fact, I could do what I wanted with you, chuck you in a ditch and nobody would find you for days.” He looked at me with a maniacal grin and, oh God no, he winked at me. Think Janet, think. I was barely balancing on the rope. I could not for a moment let him sense my fear. That would be instant pyrotechnics. Well, I reckoned, if God was not going to appear any time soon, I would have to make God appear.
I looked at him squarely. “Do it. Stop the truck now. Do it. Here in the middle of the road. It’s Ok.” I lowered my voice slightly and smiled at him. “You see, I have someone who looks after me wherever I am and He will help me. If I die, it’s because God wants me to, not you.”
And there it was. The magic word. As it left my lips, I swear I saw him instantly wipe his forehead, glance at me and then back at the road. “Ah so what hey, so God is going to help you now?” but the voice had weakened, the testosterone had drained, testicles migrated southwards and this man was now a child who had been caught stealing sweets, swearing innocence with the sweets falling out of his pockets.
He was furious.
He looked at me. He turned off the headlights. He leant across. I moved as far across my seat towards the door as I could, all the time searching around for a sharp object.
“What you scared of Tiny?” he grinned, leaning right in front of me and opening a hidden compartment. He pulled out a blanket and shoved it into my lap. “You can sleep now, because I am going to sleep.” He was wearing thin cotton trousers and a thin jersey. I watched his every move. He felt under his seat. My heart was pounding. What was his plan? He dragged out a rolled up thin foam mattress, opened his door, threw out the mattress and jumped down.
“Don’t do anything naughty now,” he said, faking a trembling female voice, and slammed the door. He slept in sub-zero temperatures on one inch of foam rubber under the belly of the truck until dawn. I didn’t sleep, not for a minute.
Next morning he climbed into the truck. He barely made eye contact. He started the engine and pulled back onto the road. We drove in total silence for some three hours. No more ‘Tinys’, no more rib poking, no more braking. A petrol station appeared on the horizon.
“I am going to buy you a bloody huge breakfast now and then we can drive on to Cape Town. What kind of ship do you think you can work on anyways?”
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
When I was 16, my parents sent me and my 8 year old brother to visit my grandmother where she lived in a tiny village near the German medieval town of Celle. Our visit was her Christmas gift, one she looked forward to with great joy. On the flight from Durban my brother, who was a cheerful and energetic child, ran up and down the aisles, pretending to be a lion roaring at the hostesses. He stole the airline blankets from the couple sitting in front of us and flung them over their heads. Pillows followed. This made them laugh; they found it endearing and delightful, I was embarrassed and apologised.
She had a European air, a nordic glamour which effortlessly undid all the anti-establishment rebellion of my braless Indian-print blouse and 70’s lace trimmed bell-bottom jeans. Her name was Sigrun, she said and held out a manicured hand with a glittering ring in greeting. I was in awe. Probably in their mid-30’s, they made an alluring couple. Cedric was undeniably handsome and wore a casual suit of some light fabric with a suave worldliness. This alone would have aroused my teenage mistrust of all things bourgeois had it not been offset by his flattering interest in everything I said. Was he flirting with me? I couldn’t tell. I very much wanted him to be.
They were in the pharmaceutical business, they said, speaking in perfect English with German precision, and had been in Durban researching opportunities. They thought my brother adorable and my straight dark hair and half-Japanese eyes intriguing and we made friends during that long flight. When we arrived in Frankfurt, they introduced themselves to my grandmother and told her they would love to host us for a weekend in Hamburg. My grandmother smiled while shooting them a look that said ‘over my dead body’. Clearly they had some sex-slave trafficking thing going on and she’d been around long enough to know what was what. She wasn’t fooled in the least, she snorted later when we were alone. I should be more careful about talking to strangers. I rolled my eyes.
Nevertheless, Sigrun persisted, calling her up and even driving the 90 minute journey from Hamburg to make a friendly persuasive visit. Eventually my grandmother relented and Sigrun arrived one day in her red Mercedes with black leather seats to whisk us away. We were enchanted, my grandmother full of misgiving.
Sigrun lived in a very smart modern apartment in Blankenase, one of Hamburg’s most exclusive suburbs, with her husband Rolf – a dark suited, aloof man who seemed to shrug us off as one of his wife’s mildly annoying foibles. For the first time I felt uneasy. Who was this cold, distant man? And where was Cedric? As if to make up for her husband’s cool reception, Sigrun was sunny and effervescent as she took us shopping for food. She couldn’t cook, she said, but we could have anything we wanted off the shelves. As we wandered up and down the aisles, she enthusiastically explained all her plans for the evening which lay ahead. My brother would be dropped off at a friend who also had young kids and I would go out with her to a few wonderful places she knew of. Oh what fun we would have exploring a little bit of Hamburg nightlife! I was elated.
That evening, I put on what I considered to be my best outfit; tight jeans and a soft, grey leather bomber jacket with a thin silk blouse underneath. Sigrun ran her eyes over me. ‘You’ll be cold in that,’ she observed. ‘You should try on one of my fur coats.’ She handed me an armful of slippery-soft auburn. I don’t remember what it was. Perhaps rabbit or fox, some hunted creature. What I do remember was a pagan stirring as I slipped into its voluptuous animal warmth. In her black mink, Sigrun’s eyes glowed. Why not wear it out tonight, she offered lightly. Never had I felt so supremely sumptuous. It was a young goddess who later descended the stairs from the apartment into the icy night air. And when we arrived at the bar, I was pleased to find Cedric waiting for us.
All evening, Sigrun and Cedric held hands and exchanged deep looks while we talked. The realisation they were having an affair was unsettling. Why did I feel complicit, as if I were instrumental to their assignation? Nothing was said but when Cedric twinkled attentively at me across the table, the gauche young girl with ugly braces and troubled thoughts melted away, and in her place sat a sophisticated fur-clad conspirator. I became aware of a young man with golden curls gazing wolfishly at me from the bar. Boldly, I returned his gaze.
And then we were leaving. As we approached the door, he came purposefully towards me. How could he find me, he wanted to know? His head bent close to mine in the noisy, smoke-filled room, casual, yet urgent. Inside the fur coat, I trembled. At first I demurely shook my head, smiling. He persisted. At last I murmured my grandmother’s name and address. A few days later, he would call her to ask for me and she would say I was not there and certainly not available to go out with him, did he realise I was only 16 for God’s sake, all the while throwing me fierce reproachful glances.
I don’t remember anything else about that night. Not what we drank or ate. I vaguely remember collecting my sleepy brother but not how the evening ended or where I slept. Nor breakfast the next day. Not the journey back to my relieved grandmother. I remember only that Sigrun and I exchanged a few letters after I returned to South Africa. Today, when I tell my children this story, they are horrified and baffled. ‘What were you thinking, Mom!’ They chide me, their eyes wide, protective of the naïve 16-year old they never were.
It‘s a story that makes no sense to me now. Was it just the generous whim of a rich lonely woman who longed to spoil two children in place of the children she herself would never have? Or was it an elaborate cover so she could snatch some time, however limited, with her lover? Perhaps it was neither but something else altogether I can’t fathom.
But at the time, to the young girl standing on the threshold of all the mysteries of the world, it didn’t need to make sense. Why shouldn’t a stranger bestow upon me a luxury fur coat making me feel ravishing for one night? That evening gave me a lens through which infidelity had never looked more glamorous or inviting. I had no discernment, no filter to distinguish ulterior motives masquerading as goodwill. It was an initiation into sex, power and deception, one that would leave me with an unfinished memory and the faint uneasiness that I was failing to see something just out of my line of sight.
It went straight over my head that from that moment on, I was no longer my grandmother’s favourite little girl. She had not been wrong about them.
*Photo credit: Louie Amal courtesy Unsplash
Sunday afternoons we’d all go over to Harold’s, the kids squirming against me in the back seat while Dad and Moira sat up front trying to act like it was the weekend. I hated Moira and her brat, and they hated me and my sister. My sister and I were running this clandestine relationship that consisted almost entirely in brushed glances and disguised hand signals, otherwise the brat would start screaming about favoritism, and then we’d get it. Dad didn’t trust me because I was an agent for my mother, about whom we didn’t speak. Moira was just watching for ways to claw through intact with her brat. When I think about the boil of agendas spilling over in that car, it still makes me sweat.
Over at Harold’s it was a different world. Everything was the way I thought I might like to live, except that I’d have been nervous around stuff that cost so much. Not that Harold had an attitude, not like Moira. He was just a lot richer than we were, which always made me breathless, even though Harold himself was pretty casual.
Harold’s garden put you at ease right away. It was laid out with round beds, and the paving stones had a few weeds sticking out between them, but not too many, and there was a cracked old cement birdbath in the middle of one of the beds, and rosebushes, and wire archways that had grapes and bougainvillea growing on them in the summertime. It was a much bigger garden than ours. The kids could play for hours, chasing each other around between bushes that looked like they’d been carefully manicured, but not too recently, or else rolling around on the gentle, uneven grass that always made me think of the word ‘wistful’, until they made themselves sick.
Harold would come out through the French doors when he heard our car. He usually looked as though he’d just been reading, or listening to Mozart, or thinking about getting up to stroll in the garden. Harold mostly seemed to have been just passing time, until we made his day by pulling up on the gravel outside his library.
That was another thing about Harold: he was the only person I’d ever met, outside the characters in the English children’s classics my Uncle Will sent me every birthday from Great Britain, who actually had a library in his house. To me, the Library was a cold, deathly quiet, marble building in Town where you let the slime accumulate in the back of your throat so you wouldn’t disturb anyone, and where the lavatories smelled of disinfectant. Books from the Library were public property you dared not dog-ear or spill milk on, that you had to read fast so you wouldn’t be fined, and that would very soon disappear from your life forever. But Harold’s library was like a sitting room, and his books were friends you could take over to a chair for a comfortable chat.
When we arrived, Harold’s little, crinkly gaze would light briefly on each of us with a flash of pleasure, but I wasn’t fooled. He was only happy to see me because I was part of the package that came with Dad. I knew this because Harold’s watery eyes would widen with real joy when he finally let them rest on my father. Then they would soften in a way I found embarrassing, until Dad cut the whole thing short by slapping Harold on the shoulder in an awkward, manly sort of way, and then everyone would reorient themselves toward the French doors, Dad making hearty small talk while Moira comported herself and the kids jostled and whined to be released to the garden. Harold would make little pleasure-noises, like a cat when you hit its favorite spot. I would just follow along, trying not to do anything gauche. So far, fourteen was feeling even worse than thirteen had. I was pinning my hopes on fifteen.
Too old to tumble on the grass and too young to discuss music, politics, and art, I would spend my Sunday afternoons eavesdropping at various levels of boredom, or strolling around the cement birdbath, composing poetry. But my favorite pastime at Harold’s was perusing his Things. These were scattered all over the house, and included his books, his Artworks, his records, his jade-and-pewter chess set, and especially his display cabinet, which was full of framed photographs of ancient men with long beards and yarmulkes and stout, stern women in black dresses holding squinting children on their laps.
In the middle of all the photographs was a very old menorah made out of what looked like silver. It had Hebrew letters chiseled deeply into each stalk, giving the whole thing a deliciously textured look that made me want to run my fingers up and down it. I would sit for whole afternoons, sometimes, gazing at the menorah, and at the faces and hands of the people I took to be Harold’s ancestors, trying to make out the likenesses and to guess who was related to whom, and how they all got along with each other.
Dad and Harold got along famously. Dad would often quote some remark of Harold’s to illustrate that being rich didn’t necessarily make you insensitive. This surprised me at first, because usually when Dad talked about rich people it was about how money corrupted you, which was why Socialism was the only hope for humanity. Dad could get pretty vicious about rich people. According to him, however, Harold was ‘the exception that proved the rule.’ I still don’t understand quite what that means.
Another exception Dad made for Harold had to do with his being a Jew. Dad was fond of telling me how, when he was my age, he used to fight with his bare fists in the streets of London against the Nazis. But the Jews he’d found in This Godforsaken Country, as he liked to call South Africa, were bloody racists, every one of them. This had confirmed his personal experience, that ninety-nine point nine percent of all Jews were thieving, lying gits. ‘Git’ is a word I’ve never heard from anyone except my father, but he would spit it out with such disgust that to this day, I can imagine nothing more contemptible than a git.
So Harold must really have had something special. Even the usually damning connection between a Jew and his riches had somehow skirted Harold and left him as blameless as any decent, Gentile, working-class male. Women, of course, were right down there with Jews and Capitalists. I understood that’s what Dad thought, even though I never heard him actually say so— at least not in front of me and Moira and the kids.
Maybe he and Harold talked about it when we weren’t around. I know he would sometimes drop by at Harold’s after work, because on those nights he’d come home late, always later than he’d told Moira to expect him, a little drunk and whistling the Beethoven sonata or the Haydn quartet Harold had been playing for him. He’d go on talking all through his solitary, dried-out supper about Harold’s fine appreciation of music, or the new chess gambit Harold had taught him, and once he let slip how relaxing it was to be just men together, no wives or kids around to distract them, and Moira slammed the pots around while she washed and I dried and after that she wouldn’t talk to Dad for three days, except when strictly necessary.
Another thing Moira and Dad didn’t discuss was my friend Clive. Usually, she was Dad’s right hand where I was concerned, listening when I used the phone in case I called my mother, or insisting that I get home from school by 3:30 so I wouldn’t fall in with delinquents. But even though she’d heard Dad’s ‘Clive’ lecture, about how little girls who play with little boys who play with mud get dirty, she’d turn a blind eye when I’d saunter out across the road, glance around, then disappear into the entrance between the German delicatessen and the chemist’s that led to the flats above the shops.
Clive lived with his mother, who wore a lot of jewelry and ran a Bridge Club every Wednesday afternoon in the living room of their little flat. She didn’t like me any more than Dad liked Clive. She referred to me as ‘that common girl,’ and only let Clive play with me because she knew that, in the end, she couldn’t stop him from doing anything he wanted to. My father would have killed me if I’d even tried half the things Clive got away with. I would watch, wide-eyed, from a corner near the door when Clive’s mother ordered him to stay home and pour tea for the Bridge Ladies, and Clive mimicked her affected British accent and peppered her with high-pitched insults. Then we’d both flee to the asphalt-covered roof of their building to play Films.
Films was Clive’s favorite game. I preferred climbing trees, or borrowing a pair of forbidden roller skates to careen down the hill that ran right into Main Road, saving myself from certain death by running into the curb or just sitting down, two feet from the steady stream of traffic ahead.
But Clive usually got his way. We played the same film every time, Cleopatra. I was always Antony. I’d never seen the film myself, so he’d direct me in endless variations of the same scene, which consisted of Cleopatra preening at her mirror or lounging in a sunken bath of milk while Antony waited on her hand and foot. There weren’t any love scenes.
Sometimes, Clive would smuggle out one of his mother’s imitation fur stoles, and once he took her entire makeup collection right off her dressing table. When he’d finished doing his face, we discovered that he’d forgotten the cold cream, so he had to wear the makeup all afternoon. He didn’t seem to mind. But when we tried to sneak back in to wash it off, his mother caught us and chased us all over the flat, Clive screaming back at her as he ran and making faces that looked even more grotesque through the powder and rouge.
I escaped, but Clive was locked in his room for two whole days. He let down a rope from his window and I tied shopping bags full of Cadbury’s chocolate and Schweppes Orange and Batman comics to the dangling end. He told me afterwards he’d pretended to be Cleopatra in prison, being secretly attended by a faithful manservant.
One night after I’d gone to bed, I heard Dad telling Moira that one day, that boy was going to get everything he was looking for, and then he’d be sorry. I couldn’t hear Moira’s voice, which might have been because she spoke softly, but my guess is that she wasn’t answering Dad at all. She’d get very, very quiet whenever he went on about Clive, which was quite often. As I listened, Dad got more and more worked up, the way he did when Moira wouldn’t respond, until finally he shouted, ‘It’s disgusting! It’s bloody disgusting, that’s what it is!’ Then I heard glass breaking, and Moira’s voice at last.
‘For Christ’s sake, Jack!’ she snapped. ‘Relax!’ After that it was quiet again, and soon I fell asleep.
The only time I ever saw Dad truly relax was at Harold’s. Even after work, when he’d settle down with his beer and paper, Dad had this brittle look to him, as though his body just wasn’t built to get comfortable. He looked like a tin soldier, sitting there with all his angles arranged in the worn armchair and his stern arms holding the newspaper upright in front of his face.
At Harold’s, though, we’d all lie on a gorgeous green oriental carpet with our eyes closed, Harold and Dad and Moira and me, while special Relaxing tapes played on the tape recorder. I wasn’t used to being that informal with Dad and Moira, so I generally felt uncomfortable. The tapes had a man’s voice telling you to turn each toe into rain, one by one, and then your foot, and then your ankle and so on, with waterfall sounds in the background. Then when you were really Relaxed, the man’s voice would tell you to imagine you were in a forest, and there’d be birds and leaves rustling for a long time, and when the tape was over you were supposed to not feel anxious about anything.
Dad and Harold would sit around afterwards and talk in lazy voices about how good the tapes were. Moira sat with her mouth shut, trying to look Sphinx-like, and I wondered how soon I dared jump up to walk around the house and look at Harold’s Things.
Especially the Jewish Things. I knew I was Jewish, because of my mother, but I never said so to anyone in case they told on me to Dad. At Harold’s, though, I could run my fingers over the leather spines of three whole shelves of Jewish books, and read their gold titles over and over until I felt saturated, inundated, dizzy with Jewishness.
Then I’d slink quietly over to the display cabinet and think myself into one photograph after another: the Jewish child bravely fasting her way through Yom Kippur; the Jewish grandfather rapturously contemplating the Torah; the pious Jewish wife, mentally planning an immaculately kosher Sabbath meal. It seemed to me self-evident that everything these mythic figures did and thought had to do with their essential Jewishness. I never imagined them attending to mundane tasks, or relating to each other in ordinary ways. Their conversations must all have been about their glorious heritage, or about little Mordechai’s bar mitzvah, or about whether there was enough matzoh for the Seder. Everything they did was tinged with ethnic magic.
I think Harold was tickled by my intense interest in his family portraits. But he knew there was something surreptitious about it, too. Every now and then, on his way to freshen up someone’s drink, he’d graze me with that soft, absent-minded smile of his. I don’t remember Harold actually saying anything to me at these moments, but I know I believed without question that he understood my attraction to the photographs. In my mind, Harold was a distant but benevolent Jewish guardian. It was as though his casual security in his own Jewishness rubbed off on me, in the form of some secret survival strategy. We were fellow travelers on the Jewish Underground, who, for fear of terrible punishment, may never acknowledge each other but who nevertheless drew courage from the simple fact of each other’s existence.
One afternoon, I was fondling Harold’s Jewish books and daydreaming about being a brilliant child scholar in the Warsaw Ghetto (I’d just finished secretly reading The Exodus), when Dad came up behind me on the way back from the toilet and asked me, in a dangerously soft voice I recognized immediately, whether there was something especially interesting to me on those particular shelves. I froze. I was frantically casting about for a good lie when Harold looked up from his small talk with Moira, whom he always treated with impenetrable courtesy, and said, ‘Oh, is that my Van der Veldt set you’re looking at?’ He got up from his chair in that compact, catlike way he had and strolled over to us, talking easily about this wonderful Dutch bookbinder in Swellendam, and all the special ways she’d rebound his heirloom volumes.
Dad affected polite interest, but I could tell from the exaggerated smoothness of his ‘Hmmm’s and ‘Ah!’s that he knew he had me. He was just biding his time until he could corner me later, alone. Like the time he found out that I went to Jewish Classes at school instead of Scripture.
I was swallowing an acid rush of dread when Harold put his hand casually on my head and said ‘I was telling Jessica about that trip to Swellendam just last week. She seems to have quite an appreciation for fine binding.’ Then he pulled a book off the shelf and opened it to show Dad the marbled end paper.
‘That one’s my favourite,’ I murmured, gazing fervently at the swirling greens and blues, and then suddenly the thrall was broken and Dad and Harold were deep into a discussion about true craftsmanship, and how you can only find it in eccentric foreigners in small towns.
The funny thing is that Harold had never told me about his Dutch bookbinder. Harold and I never had conversations at all. I think he saw me as A Child, or maybe just A Girl; something, at any rate, that he didn’t know how to talk to. After the incident with Dad, he wouldn’t even meet the grateful looks I sent him all the rest of that Sunday.
Still, I felt much less lonely at Harold’s after that. Even though no one ever spoke to me except to tell me to call the kids: it was time to go.
When it was time to go, Harold would make disappointed noises and ask again if we wouldn’t stay and take potluck with him. Moira would decline graciously and say she had to get the kids ready for school the next day. Then Harold would follow us forlornly out to the car while Dad got hearty again. After we were all packed inside and waiting, they’d shake hands, just before Dad climbed into the driver’s seat.
They looked so incongruous together, from the back window where I was watching: Dad tall and pasty, his thin blond hair dribbling into sideburns that ended short, like a British sergeant-major going to seed; and Harold, short and wiry, with a little paunch and a shiny pate in the middle of his thick black hair. He looked as though he hadn’t quite grown up yet, but when he did, he’d be one of those old men who play chess on metal tables in the park.
Harold would fasten Dad with that same look I’d seen when we arrived, and then they’d let go their hands and Dad would swing himself into the car and clear his throat, while Moira ducked down to wave a genteel goodbye through the space between Dad’s elbows and the top of the car window. Harold just stood there all by himself as the car began crunching away, down the gravel drive. I got the feeling that Harold never went back, afterwards, to whatever it was he’d been doing before we arrived.
After that, we’d have our usual, miserable drive home: my sister and me dreading another evening trapped in the house with the rest of them, the brat working up to a tired-kid tantrum, and Dad more or less talking to himself about what a fine human being Harold was, while Moira listened in her cold, controlled way and made occasional rational remarks. What she lacked in wit, Moira made up for in disdain.
By the time we pulled into our own crumbling, concrete driveway, the brat would have tranced herself into a sustained whine. My sister would be pale with anxiety; once she even threw up on my lap as we were sliding out of the back seat. Moira would have a limp, determined air about her so you knew she was tired, but she was going to do what needed to be done just the same.
Only Dad would be in high spirits. He’d put the car in the garage and then come into the kitchen whistling elaborate versions of the Trumpet Voluntary and making weak puns, which he would repeat several times in a roguish, querying tone of voice until Moira responded.
I’d try to get to my room, but Moira usually caught me and told me to water the garden, or go to the Indian’s for bread. Dad would settle himself in his armchair with the newspaper and a mug of warm beer—the way it was meant to be drunk, as he was always writing and telling the breweries—while Moira began making dinner and the kids hung around the kitchen table until she told them to go and play in their room.
At the supper table after we’d been to Harold’s, there’d be this strange mix of moods, as though each of us was playing a scene from a book none of the others had read. My sister and I made it through by keeping an eye on all the storylines and being in the right place when our cues came up.
By now, there’d be a mean, defensive edge to Dad’s humour, because Moira wouldn’t be responding to his jokes. This would make my sister even more nervous, and the brat would whine louder, to be heard over Moira’s headache. I’d be as mannerly and helpful as I could, when I could figure out what that was supposed to look like at any given moment. Most of the time I’d wind up getting whatever it was Dad and Moira had been saving up for each other, anyway.
Then it would be bedtime. I’d lie awake late into the night, listening to my sister grinding her teeth in her sleep. Things always went straight downhill, after we came home from Harold’s.
It had been a couple of weeks since we’d last been to Harold’s when I heard the phone ringing and ringing from my treehouse in the back yard. Actually, it wasn’t really a treehouse, more of a tree-seat, with a shelter for when it rained, a shelf for my ginger beer and chocolate and a basket on a pulley so I could hoist up books.
I wouldn’t let anyone else climb up to my treehouse. Not even Clive, not even if he’d liked climbing trees. But I hadn’t seen Clive for a while, anyway. My last time at his flat, I’d been lying on his bed, reading comics. He was pouring tea for the Bridge Club Ladies, but every few minutes he’d run in and mince around the room, repeating the bridge table gossip just shrilly enough to be heard from the living room.
Then all of a sudden my father was there. I think my heart probably stopped beating altogether. It was the middle of a Wednesday afternoon, when Dad should have been securely at work. It was terrifying enough that he’d gone to this extraordinary trouble to catch me, and to realize how severely I was likely to be punished. But the real horror was that Dad in Clive’s bedroom was an impossible collision of worlds. It was like the scary movies I still can’t stand to watch, where something so inconceivable happens that everything you count on to make sense turns inside out and you think you’re going to lose your mind.
I was still trying to find my balance amid waves of nausea when Dad crossed the room in two steps, grabbed my arm and pulled me off the bed. I’d have fallen, but he had me tightly gripped. He dragged me to the bedroom door, where we ran into Clive’s mother. I think she was just as shocked as I was, though not nearly as scared.
‘Mr. Norman!’ she started, so surprised her voice cracked. I could hear a strange and sudden silence as the bridge ladies stopped shuffling their cards. But Dad, still gripping my arm, cut Clive’s mother short by staring down into her eyes. When Dad stares into your eyes, you don’t make another sound. There’s no telling what might happen next.
‘Mrs. Hamilton.’ He spoke very clearly in his softest, most chilling voice. ‘I don’t know what you’ve done to raise this pervert you call your son. But I do know that I will not allow my children anywhere near his type of filth. If I find him on my property, I’ll kill him. And Jessica won’t be back here soon, I guarantee you that.’
Then he dragged me out the front door, down the stairs, across the road and into our house. Inside, he jerked me round to face him and said, ‘Put on your pajamas and go to bed.’ I knew what that meant. In a little while, he’d come into my room, take a coat hanger from my wardrobe, and tell me to roll on my stomach. Then he’d pull down my pajama pants and bring the hanger down on my bare bottom, again and again, until I screamed and begged forgiveness. Then he’d put the hanger away and leave the room. When I got my breath back, he’d come back in and question me quietly, until he was sure I understood why I was being punished. After I gave the right answer, he’d leave me to cry myself to sleep.
But after we came back from Clive’s, I lay waiting for a very long time while, behind their bedroom door, Dad’s and Moira’s muffled voices rose and fell. I was still waiting for my hiding when Moira called me to set the table, just as though it were an ordinary evening and I was doing homework or reading on my bed. I ate in my pajamas, the kids sneaking curious glances at me while Dad and Moira kept their eyes on their plates. Dad went out after supper, and in the morning I found him fast asleep on the toilet, his trousers around his ankles and the bathroom reeking of Scotch.
So Clive had to find someone else to play Films with. And since that afternoon, I’d been spending a lot more time in my treehouse. This particular Sunday the telephone rang so long that it penetrated even my reader’s trance. After a while, it got so I had to read the same paragraph over and over, because part of my mind was counting the rings and growing increasingly anxious. Twenty-seven; twenty-eight. I don’t think I’d ever heard a phone keep ringing for that long.
I knew that both Dad and Moira were home, so I wasn’t sure if I was meant to answer it. I could pretend I hadn’t heard it, but Dad would delight in phoning a friend, telling him to phone back, and then coming out to stand at the foot of my tree. ‘If I can hear it down here,’ I could hear him saying, ‘you can hear it up there.’ Dad got a lot of satisfaction out of catching me in a lie, and when he did, I’d get the hanger for sure. On the other hand, I could also hear Dad pointing out, with sarcastic emphasis, that since he and Moira weren’t answering, it obviously wasn’t meant to be answered. Either way, I could get in trouble.
At thirty-five rings, I finally swung myself out of my seat, alternately hesitating against the trunk in the hope that the ringing would stop and hurrying so as to answer before it did. The phone was still ringing after I’d climbed all the way down and trotted through the kitchen into the living room. Forty-one. I picked up the receiver and hesitated a moment before saying ‘Hello?’
It was Harold, and to my intense embarrassment he was crying.
‘Jessica?’ he croaked. ‘Jessica? Do you know why your Dad won’t talk to me? Have I done something wrong? Please …’
I’d never heard a grown man crying before. I knew right away that answering the phone had been a mistake. Now I was stuck. I couldn’t hang up on Harold, he sounded so miserable and desperate. On the other hand, it didn’t seem wise to call my father to the phone. I stood there holding the receiver for a few minutes, listening to Harold sniffle while my mind raced. Call Moira? Have a coughing fit and have to run to the kitchen for water? Lay the receiver down on the phone table and tiptoe back outside?
At last, I picked up the phone and, holding the receiver cradled against my still-flat chest, I stalked softly to the door of Dad and Moira’s bedroom. Moira was sitting propped up against her pillow, doggedly reading a book. She knew I was standing there, but she wouldn’t look up. My father was lying on his back with his arms over his eyes, the way he lay when he had a bad headache. His mouth was screwed tightly shut. I tiptoed back to the phone table and listened for another few seconds while Harold, sounding weaker and weaker, pleaded with me. ‘Won’t anyone talk to me? What have I done wrong?’ Then I gently replaced the receiver in its cradle.
When we gathered silently for our Sunday night supper of tomato soup and toasted cheese—it was early autumn by now—nobody spoke until Dad and I had nearly finished our second helpings and the kids were playing with the last of their tinned peaches. Then Dad cleared his throat and looked at me until I tore my eyes away from my empty bowl.
‘I’ve said it before, and now I’m going to tell you again, so listen carefully,’ he said. ‘Ninety-nine point nine percent of Jews are lying, thieving gits.’ I murmured obediently and waited for him to finish.
‘Never,’ he said, while the kids stared and Moira pretended to be tackling a peach, ‘never trust a rich Jew.’ Then he pushed back his chair and rose to find his newspaper and his beer. I couldn’t quite hear what he said between his teeth as he left the kitchen. Moira didn’t say a word to me while she washed and I dried that night, but then she often didn’t.
I never heard Harold’s name mentioned again, but once when I was washing the floor in Dad and Moira’s bedroom I found a slender, leather-bound book that had fallen behind Dad’s bedside table. It had some old-fashioned poetry in it that I didn’t understand—I never was very much into anyone else’s poetry—but inscribed on the title page were the words: ‘To Jack—I sing the Body Electric. Harold.’
I hid the book in the waistband of my pants and the first chance I got, I took it out to the dumpster behind the house, tore the pages up and buried them in potato peelings and old newspapers. Then I walked to the bus shelter a block down Main Road and pressed the leather cover with its beautiful marbled end paper deep into the rubbish bin next to the stop for the bus that went farthest out of town.
The swimming pool is calm and the water is freezing cold, I know this without even putting a finger in there. Such a beautiful setting really. The swimming pool complex smack in the middle of pristine fynbos, rolling up the hills a carpet of green indigenous vegetation, including some red data species all preserved on the farm, a private nature reserve. From the pool, especially from the infinity side of it, the view is simply magnificent. Down below there is the Biesbosch lake, a massive water expanse usually brimming with speed boats and water sport fanatics but not right now, it’s quieted down nicely in the late afternoon. The majestic Langeberg mountains to the back of the lake, rolling away all the way to Jamestown in the distant East and framing the coastline of Jana Bay. In the valley below the pool leading to the Chainoqua river. I remember our outing with a few tourists once. We took them on a ride through the reserve in the Land Rover to plant some trees there. It was quite the little adventure traversing up and through the bossies and protea fields, all huddled inside with our spades and excitement to give back to nature. Bart has done some amazing work in clearing the valley of alien vegetation, and in doing so, helped the water flow freely again from the kloof into the river. Still a long way to go but fantastic progress nonetheless.
As a local boy, I never really understood what all the fuss with the alien trees was all about. Now I know better thanks to Bart. Alien trees and vegetation were brought here, largely thanks to the old Dutch colonial masters, to build their settlement because our part of the world didn’t have many trees, at least none good enough to build their European civilisation in Africa. The trouble with these aliens though, they suck up far too much of the water, leaving the indigenous species far behind and adding to the burden of an already drought-prone country. So, they have to be removed at all cost to preserve our natural landscape, he said. I actually thought it funny or rather ironic that it took an expat Dutchman to teach me about my own land and correcting what the Dutch did to it all those hundreds of years ago.
In the distance to the west of the pool lies the beach, where the river deltas into the Atlantic ocean and where many a bottlenose dolphin can be found. This is the glorious vantage point from the pool and the setting of my world. In more ways than one, like the setting of the sun, so my old life and outlook was about to change for ever.
It’s nearing the end of my shift. Bart has just instructed me to leave my desk and to go to the pool. Guus is waiting there for me. He has been bugging me for the last few days and insisting on teaching me how to swim. He found it so strange that a local, born and bred in a coastal town, didn’t know how to swim. Coming from Amsterdam, surrounded by water where every child is required to pass a formal swimming exam, it was rather strange to him that I couldn’t swim. He made it his personal mission before going back to Holland to teach me and impart his wisdom upon me. And now he also managed to enlist the help of my boss.
I was scared, unsure and insecure. I mean, I barely knew the man! Sure, we’ve been getting along swimmingly while they were my guests in the guesthouse, but this is taking it to the next level. He was such a nice man though. I think we had a liking of each other. Jasper also, but not as much as his partner, Guus, the tall slender Dutchman. Did I mention how tall he was? Prior to this encounter, I’ve never actually met a man taller than two metres. This, apparently, is quite normal back in Holland where, on average, the tallest people in the world reside. Guus had a very distinct deep frown right between his eyes which gave him a rather angry sort of look, even though he is one of the gentlest of people you’ll meet. Strong and highly intelligent this lawyer friend Guus of mine was. Without his horn-rimmed glasses on, his eyes were quite squinty, almost Chinese-looking. He had this way of speaking, almost like someone with a speech impediment and a very heavy Dutch accent. In my ear it sounded like he was swallowing his words and it was rather difficult to follow his conversation or mumbling at times, at least in the beginning this was the case. I later learned that it was considered posh Dutch the way he spoke, like the queen of England but then in English of course.
Bart too had a posh Dutch accent and he later explained to me what they say to people who spoke like that back in Holland. They are called “kakkers” in Dutch, which in my native Afrikaans means something quite opposite to what I imagined posh would be! But there he was, waiting by the freezing swimming pool with his big smile, kitted out in speedos and goggles, shouting in Dutch: “Kom we gaan zwemmen!”, come let’s go swimming!
Growing up in this small town where everyone knows your name and business, where everyone goes to church and believes in the same bible and conservative teachings, I had a rather conventional small town Afrikaans Calvinist upbringing. I have always been the smartest kid in town and school, that’s how I was recognised by everyone. The clever boy with the nice accent. So, it didn’t come as too big a surprise that I got accepted to study at Stellenbosch University. However, after just more than two and a half years of study, it became evident that I was not doing so well. My grades kept going down and I was underperforming so badly that the University eventually decided not to allow me to complete my studies. I got kicked out basically.
So, there I was, proud young man with the weight of the family and an entire community on my shoulders, and I failed. I’ve let everyone down. All that hard-earned money that dad spent on me, that the bursary provided me, that the State poured into me, all for nothing. So much for being clever, for being the smartest kid in town, for getting straight As from sub A and continuing into high school. Although not quite as many As in high school, to be fair. High school was a different monster all on its own. There again I experienced being a first. The first person of colour from my community to enter an historically White Model C school. This was just after the end of apartheid. I remember entering the school in those early days and being able to count the number of non-White pupils on my one hand out of a sea of White children. Even so, I still managed to thrive academically, and while there were quite a number of kids smarter than me, I ended in the top 10 of my matric class.
Overcoming the odds and making the transition successfully, I was ready for Stellenbosch and getting the first ever degree in my family. There was also a deep sense of duty as well, being one of the first recipients of a free South Africa. My sister, 10 years prior, was in the streets marching and fighting for the end of unjust laws. It was their generation’s duty to fight the old system and it was my generation’s duty to build the new system. The weight of the country and of Nelson Mandela also firmly on my shoulders. I failed.
Regression followed. The short but eventful little steps into a new world of opportunity in Stellenbosch and the big city, dashed by my own actions. I have not only failed my family, my town and my country, I have also failed me. The chance to grow, to develop, to change, to escape the confines of conservative small-minded, small-town politics and people. I had to go back. How cruel that self-inflicted fate was. For the next two years I spent life as a recluse, unemployed, supported by parents with no friends or intellectual peers. All I had was my own thoughts and they weren’t very forgiving of my situation and of what I’ve lost through my own fault. The mind is a powerful thing and the negative self-talk soon became a full-blown onslaught on my sanity.
When I got the job as day manager on the farm, it felt like light at the end of the tunnel, though the negative thoughts persisted. I would sit many a day by the swimming pool, alone and weeping. Crying for my fate, for being stuck in the town and mindset. I was desperately yearning for more but not seeing how the more could come. It’s an interesting thing how you can put on a fake smile and appear to be so happy yet feel empty inside.
Compounding this were the personal feelings of attraction to other boys and not feeling free to explore or express that because of my upbringing and conservative Christian beliefs. It was a mess of epic proportions in my mind, slowing eating away inside of me.
And there he was standing by the pool, my tall Dutch saviour. He really did save me. Jumping into the ice-cold swimming pool with him was like washing myself off from all that negativity holding me back. Fighting, kicking and screaming, I jumped in not knowing I was on the cusp of great adventures. Little did I know how things were unfolding for me. Guus was the exact person that I needed to meet and the great facilitator that I required to get me back on track.
I held on to him for dear life as he tried to take me to the deep end. The water was freezing and I was as scared as a little child battling with him and with my fear. It felt strange being so close to another man, an older man, a half-naked older man. And here I was half-naked too and having to cling on to him. Feeling and being so exposed, fear, panic, angst, all these emotions bare. In these sorts of settings, when you have to confront all those negative feelings and then expose them and yourself to another, I think that is what bonds people together. In that moment of completely giving up and putting my life in his hands, that was probably the moment when we sealed our fate together.
Two nights later we went out for dinner in town and then they asked me. In that moment, I knew that my life would never be the same again. There was no hesitation or thinking required on my part, all that was needed was to say yes. I’ve reached a critical stage in my life at that point with the realisation that all the personal hardships and emotional abuse was about to come to an end. My yearning and desire to get away had finally materialised with their invitation to join them in Amsterdam to manage their small bed and breakfast business. And just like that, within six months of their departure back to Amsterdam, I was on a plane leaving behind an old life and jetting towards my new adventures in Holland.