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Tannie 1

Tannie, she speaks

Of eating flamingos

And skilpad

And the fisherman who cleaned 

The brak spring by the bay

A line of men

Passing 

The buckets of muddy water.

Of getting lost

In the veld, surviving

On veldkos

All day

Of all the people dead

And all her

Cousins and brothers

Twenty-three of them

That live in the

Dust Mountain fountain

Stofsbergfontein

Of the burn when she was five
Boiling water from the pot
An accident while cooking 


And the one place where the doctor coming from the town

Could cross the lagoon in a boat with a sail 

Of the oysters and everything 

That is now long gone.

Of the snakes that have come 

Cobra, pofadder and boomslang 

Since the Parks board

Have been here these

Twenty years

With their many rules

Of how first the rich came 

Then the thieves

At night 

No one knows from where

To take away from the rich

We say goodbye 

Her bright eyes 

Fading 

Alone here 

In the shadow of the past 

Organ of Remorse by Ian Bell

yesterday I drowned a rat, or rather
failed to rescue it from the rain barrel,
when that is the singular thing it needed.

had it been a mouse, say, or a shrew, a vole,
or a seriously misdirected mole, any rodent
cousin with anxious paws like a little

brown widow who’d lost her handbag, fine,
then I’d not have hesitated to offer it a twig;
but not a damned big rat, there I draw the line.

In school Biology we’d opened one with a
scalpel and I’d looked among the damp
glistening coils for some part of it to blame

for the Great Plagues, for the pestering of flesh
from corpses in Wars, the scaly tail looking
like the pickpocket implement of someone

who rigs races, sells stolen cars, takes good
watches off drunks in bars; then puzzled
all night about which part of me harbored

such callousness. Had places been reversed,
my thin-toed feet scrambling useless on a
course of sinking leaves, would any rat have
cared to look in me, for an organ of remorse?

THE SYRINGA BERRY TREE by Amilia Kishunlal

Between my childhood and youth – a time of innocent spring, there stood a great big syringa berry tree. Like a proud old man upon the green carpet of our uneven backyard.

Under his canopy of buzz and twitter and fresh green leaves, surrounded by scents of earth and perfumed fruit, sat two girls – similar yet different.

One was my dear sister of wedded womanhood and safe in her belly she held a hopeful life of growing possibilities. The other was my immature self – a sibling’s shadow but gaining substance as a would-be aunt.

A pair of pink little woollen socks I held. So soft and delicate, oh how joyous it was to spin a dream of butterfly feet.

With a frowning scowl, my mother stood, like an unhappy tigress by the water-stained kitchen window, around swirls of cake flour dust, appearing quite sinister.

We knew! Yes, we knew why drawn-down lines formed upon her tired brow. We knew why her old heart fluttered like a caged bird. We knew the bitter taste of silent dread – the aged rumoured superstition that they said.

It was cold and shrewd, spoken for decades, sparing no woman, telling of a witch deprived of a child. Cunning and ugly, snatching away possibilities. Fear she feasted and babies were a treat, living forever upon the syringa berry tree.

With an unseen child defiantly we sat, giddy with laughter – women of modern truth.

The balloon of happiness grew until autumn, bearing news of celebrated rejoicement, like strawberry twirls. A life was born, a little girl. Once a shadow, now I was an aunt.

But – oh this happiness! How short-lived it is. To a point where a little life lay hushed and blue in her small hospital crib.

What is this superstition, compelling me to tie the little woollen socks on the syringa berry tree, begging the witch to let the little life be?

What is this hope, to bring a little life home in a cold wooden box of silence?

Questions! So many questions!

But the White Coats say, “Maybe it was fate.”

I was an aunt for one whole day, now I am a shadow again.

Hear the wind, the witch chortles. See the dry, falling syringa berry tree leaves! Scars they be on my crying, bleeding heart.

UNTITLED by Annemarie Hendrikz

the oldness of old
when it comes
is so immense

so threadbare

will someone darn me
wrap me
around their shoulders

when they feel lonely
about being young
and so strong

SNAPSHOTS FROM SURGICAL ONE by Rose Jackson

High above the freeway,
and the harbour,
I see small tugs nudge giant tankers out into the bay.
All night twin lights flash at the entrance to the docks.
Early morning traffic inches along below,
catching flashes of early sunlight.
Sunrise over the Hottentot’s Holland.
Fullmoonrise.
One night: a helicopter, silently suspended just outside the window,
its underside lights blazing into the ward.

Beside my bed yellow roses light up the ward.
The kindnesses of staff nurse Thandeka and Mr Xholisa warm me.
Here, close to the sky, looking out over the city,
I am suspended, in time, an endless trance.

A week ago,
in the shadowy subterranean world
of ICU.
Ghostly figures – was it day? Night? –
appeared beside my bed to take blood,
to feed me bowls of ‘clear fluids’
and numbing opioids,
to bathe me.
And to fade away again.
Every hour a ghostly robotic rubber band tightened around my upper arm.
Machines humming, bleeping,
somewhere someone snoring through the night.

Now, here, in Surgical One, thoughts come unbidden.
Will I float again on the waves of the ocean?
Swim lengths in the Sea Point Pool?
I will – probably – never swim naked in a mountain pool again.
I am not immortal,
Indestructible,
The last verse of a Wopko Jensma poem [¡] comes to mind:
i hope to live to the age of… sixty (ninety?)
i hope to leave some evidence
that I inhabited this world
that I sensed my situation
that I created something
out of my situation
out of my life
that i lived
as human
alive
i
I hope to have glowed, however briefly,
to have warmed those close to me –
My daughter, my son, grandsons, granddaughter,
My students.

Home again,
independent,
there are endless SMSes from GEMS [¡¡] “A claim from Dr Patrick Morton for 431 rands and 99 cents received”
“ A claim from Dr Leon Varkel…”,
hospital authorisation numbers.
I owe the stoma clinic R3 000.
They supply the urostomy pouch,
the bag for nights.

My ten-year-old grandson,
keen marine biologist,
says my stoma “is like a sea anemone,
a closed- up one”.

Now memories of feelings felt two months ago arrive.
The post-surgery pain memory dissolves into the misty, floating, opioid Oxynorm distance.
Clearer is the memory of the kindnesses of the nurses, doctors, dietician, physio.

My daughter, in that long-ago time before the surgery,
distant, impatient,
now full of concern,
sweetly solicitous, bringing food, perfume, an orange squeezer.
My son calls every day.
There are affectionate, concerned phone calls, from my ex-husband,
messages, calls from friends.
I describe the surgery to them as “Life changing”.
Tessa replies, “Ah, but you have your life!”

I feel gently held by unfamiliar woven threads of care, of love.
My mind is drained,
emptied,
weighing less than a gossamer of dandelion seeds.
For a month I have not looked at FaceBook or emails.
I feel cleansed
of the endless low-grade bladder infection,
most of all washed clean of anxieties, long incubated resentments.
The nightly urostomy bag ritual,
the twice weekly
plastic bladder renewal,
the cleaning of the sea anemone…
A small price to pay.

i am wide awake again,
alive again,
i have swum twice in the Sea Point pool.

[¡] from ‘Spanner in the what?’ – Works by Wopko Jensma
[¡¡} Government Employees Medical Scheme

GOING TO JOBURG

I had the offer in my hands. I was going to Joburg! Or was I? I wondered as I walked into the palace, that is, the very first house I ever bought for myself. It was a palace of two tiny bedrooms, each two steps away from the bathroom, three steps away from the kitchen, that was in turn just one step over the edging separating the kitchen tiles from the lounge carpeting. My palace, one of the decisions I took despite good advice. I had bought it earlier in the year after I came back from the December holidays.

It was while I was at home in Cala that I made the decision to buy myself a house. I told my friend, Bulelwa, as we were taking a walk into town. I particularly remember this moment because we were walking past La Gilda Hotel. Some guys we had grown up with were hanging out on the veranda and we stood and had a chat with them. One of them asked if I was married yet, to which I said no.
“So, you are still playing hard to get?” he scoffed.
“If not wanting you means playing hard to get, then I still am.”
“It’s gonna take you a long time to get married.”
“I still wouldn’t want to marry you,” I said, a bit irritated.
“Voetsek! I don’t want you either.” He threw the words at me and walked into the bar.
Bulelwa and I walked on, passed Nosizwe’s home where her kids were playing skipping rope made of old pantyhose.
“I want to buy myself a house next year,” I told her.
“A house?” she asked as if she did not know what a house was.
“Yes, a house. I am tired of paying rent.”
“Don’t do it.” She cautioned.
“Why?”
“You will never get married if you have your own house.”
“Why?”
“Men don’t want women with their own things. You already have a car. If you add a house to that, that says you are independent.”
“Oh, I didn’t know that.”
We walked on in silence.

As we got to the corner of the second hotel in Cala, whose official name I never knew since everybody just called it KwaNkcenkce, the thought struck me: “What does having a house and a car have to do with being independent?” I asked Bulelwa.
“It says you can get your own things, you don’t need a man to provide for you,” she said slowly and clearly as if explaining to a child.

I was dumbstruck.

For days I was in doubt as to whether what Bulelwa said was true and whether I was prepared to follow my heart anyway. Her words had taken root in my mind because she was married and younger than me. I was not averse to marriage. In fact, I was hanging onto an on-off relationship that I was hoping would eventually blossom into something permanent.

I went back to Cape Town a woman of two minds. However, a month after yet another thing breaking in the flat I was renting in Claremont, I took the plunge and bought this palace. If I was meant to get married, it would happen despite the house and the car. Mind you, the car was not even mine. It was a company car.

Now, here I was on a Friday night, standing in the middle of my tiny lounge, with an offer of employment to a marketing and design agency in Joburg. I was thrilled by this offer. The company came highly recommended and I would be working with people I held in high regard in the field of marketing. But I also had some reservations. Joburg’s reputation as a fast-paced city with sophisticated and highly ambitious people scared me. Doubts flooded my mind – would I be able to live up to this image of sophistication and ambition? After all, I was only a girl from Cala. Lastly, even though I was sure my relationship with Themba was dead and gone, he kept making contact occasionally, making me wonder whether I had not been hasty in ending it. Some days I really thought we could make up and everything would be fine. On other days I would remember why we had broken up and wish I could get over him once and for all.

So I stood in the middle of my palace’s lounge wondering, “Where is that Voice when I need It?”

Silence.

I had until end of Monday to accept or reject the offer. I sat on the tiny two-seater couch waiting for The Voice to come.

Silence.

I thought of turning the TV on but decided against it. I wanted to hear The Voice loud and clear on this issue.

Silence.

I waited.

Nothing.

I got bored and went out to join some friends for a catch-up.

Saturday morning came in the continued silence. I went ahead with my day, running errands and shopping. The beauty of living in Kenilworth Park was that Kenilworth Centre was a short distance away. I could easily go and watch a movie there to while the day away.

“So, you are torn about the Joburg offer.” It was as if The Voice was waiting for me when I got home.
“Actually, yes!” I said with attitude.
“What are you torn about exactly?”
“Whether I should go or not.”
Was It stupid?
“What’s your heart telling you?”
“Well, on the one hand I want to go, but on the other I don’t want to give up the possibility of things working out between Themba and me.”
“So, what’s your heart telling you?” It asked again.
“I don’t know. That’s why I need your advice.”
“Really? Do you need my advice or do you want me to make this decision for you?”
That was odd. But, truth be told, it would be nice to have someone make this decision for me. I realised, as I went to into the kitchen to get some water, I had been making decisions by myself for a very long time now. I was tired, very tired. But I was not about to admit that to The Voice.
“No, I don’t want you to make the decision for me, I just need your advice,” I lied.
“Alright, here’s my advice – do what feels right for you.”
Really?
“Is that the best advice you can give me?”
“Yes.”

Silence.

“You must understand – every decision has consequences. It is better to make your decisions yourself because, if the consequences turn out bad, you are not burdened with living with them as well as the resentment and anger you’d feel if someone else had made the decision for you.”
“But I can’t tell the consequences of any decision I make now,” I protested.
“The trick is preparedness. Make a decision where the consequences, whether good or bad, you are prepared to live with.”
Good theory, I thought as I stood up and took the two steps into my bedroom. As far as I was concerned, that conversation was over.

That evening Themba came by. We had a conversation about the Joburg offer. I hoped that it was going to be a long conversation, covering the pros and cons of going or not going. I was even hoping he would ask me not to go. Instead, it was short.
“You must do what you want. It’s your career,” he said after I explained my predicament.

That hurt.

“Look, it’s not that I don’t want to be with you. It’s just that I have seen how important your career is to you. Right now, I can’t promise you anything in terms of where this relationship is going and I don’t want you to place your career on hold because of it.”
I could only nod to show my understanding.
As much as I felt Themba was rejecting me, there was some truth in what he was saying. In the journey of building a career in Cape Town I had had my fair share of tribulations. What had pulled me back from the brink of resigning from some jobs had been the mantra, “I came to Cape Town to work for my family.” At the hardest moments, this mantra held me together. It was no surprise that Themba understood that my career was important.
“So, what happens to us if I go to Joburg?”
“I don’t know. We’ll see.” He looked down.

At that moment I knew I was going to Joburg and that my relationship with Themba was finally over.

There was an awkward silence. We tried to get back to a comfortable, easy conversation. We even tried to cuddle, but we could not find a comfortable position. I understood, just as I was gone from Themba, he too was gone from me. We parted with a friendly hug at the door.

I was, yet again, back to being the queen of an empty palace. I cried over the death of this relationship. I cried for having to lay to rest any hopes of a future with Themba. I cried for the friends and family I would be leaving behind. I cried for leaving the palace I had not even lived in for a year. I cried for the advice Bulelwa had given me which I had ignored. I cried for this, I cried for that, I cried for any and everything. I cried until I was emptied out of any hopes and dreams I had of Cape Town. The hopes and dreams forming in my heart about Joburg were starting to shine brighter. I made contact with people who I had either grown up with or knew through work. Everyone was supportive. I remembered The Voice’s words from years ago when I was going to Mount Arthur, “Wherever you go, people will be sent ahead to receive you.”

My mantra changed from, “I came to Cape Town to work for my family” to “I came to the city to work for my family.” In accepting a job in Joburg, I came to realise that I was prepared to go to any city if it promised good prospects. Above all else, I was prepared to live with the consequences.

BATS

It’s a stinging hot day but we’re in the shade of Dad’s wattle plantation now. I’ve got her to myself at last. Grannie has her knobbly wooden walking stick with the little black rubber cap on the bottom. She’s wearing one of her pretty silky dresses. You can see through the material to her lacy petticoat underneath. She likes purply colours all linked up with black, swirling curls. If I look across at her, I can see her two melon-titties pointing out in front of her.
I sat on the bed this morning and watched her dressing. She puts on a corset which goes from her shoulder straps down to her waist with the two enormous bowls for her melons. Then the corset goes even further down, to just above the top of her legs and it has four suspenders hanging off it to attach to the dark rim at the top of her purplish nylon stockings.
She has to lean her titties into the bowls made for them and she has to do the whole thing up with hooks and eyes which go all the way down her back. She squeezes her face – open and shut, open and shut – as she curls her arms round to the hooks and eyes behind her. If she joins the wrong ones up at the top, then they’ll all be wrong and the bottom of the corset will be uneven and she’ll have to start all over again. Sometimes she looks at me with her pointy dark eyes after she’s heaved the first hook and eye together.
“Are they right? Do they match?”
And I’m allowed to say, “Yes” or “No”.
I don’t need to worry about the silver hooks and eyes stabbing into her puffy back. That’s because there’s a flap of pale, smooth satin that goes underneath them to keep her skin safe. Sometimes I’m allowed to pull it out into its right place if it’s been flapped backwards while she’s been hooking and eyeing.
It all takes a long time, and my mother is usually shouting down the passage, “Mummy, it’s nearly breakfast time. Boef, are you there with Grannie? Peter and your sisters will be back from milking any minute. Are you dressed?” Of course I’m dressed but Grannie is still struggling like a tortoise trying to turn onto its little feet from lying on its shell-back.
There’s still the stockings to do. She gets them out of my little sister’s drawer where she packed all her things after she got off the Orange Express from Cape Town. My little sister has moved all her things to our room. Her room is Grannie’s now for the Christmas holidays.
This morning I looked around at how it is when Grannie owns it. There’s a forest of creams and lipsticks and even eye-shadow and a bottle of rose water on the dressing table beneath the window. And all her hair brushes and the stick with a pad on the end for hitting under her chin at night to make her extra chin go away. There’s a rolled-up newspaper on the small wooden bedside cupboard.
That newspaper is The Natal Witness. We get it every day at the post office inside the railway station where the Orange Express stops for a few minutes to hurtle Grannie out into our arms and our kisses and bursting tears. Sometimes the guard has to blow his whistle twice before the train chuffs off again because there’s so much hello-ing that we nearly forget her suitcases.
Grannie opens The Natal Witness and wears it on her head in an upside-down long V-shape when she has to go the bathroom for a wee at night. That’s because a bat once got tangled in her long, thin, grey hair in the middle of the night. She screamed and screamed and every one of us five – my Dad, my Mum, my two sisters and I, all rushed into the passage to see what was happening.
At first I thought there was a snake, like the one that held my mother prisoner in the passage for ages one summer day while my Dad was on the hill. The kitchen girls were too scared to do anything. And so was Mshwathi, my nanny. Mswhathi and I watched from the dining room. My mother was as still as a stone. And so was the snake. It stood up on its own tummy and stared at my mother in a mean sort of way. The only thing that moved were the two silent streams down my mother’s cheeks and the spots of wet that grew on each front side of her green dress. In the end, the garden boy came in with a broom and killed it quite a few times and my mother fled to her bedroom and locked the door. I could hear her choking herself with loud tears but she wouldn’t let Mshwathi and me in. She stayed there, all locked, till my Dad came home from milking. I just sat in the passage on the green concrete floor outside her door, guarding her from snakes and everything.
I was quite shocked about the bat. So shocked to see it dancing in my Grannie’s hair in the moonlight that came in through the bathroom window with the dark poinsettia flowers shadowing the wall above the bath. The bat was busy lifting her grey hairs like strings on a silver harp in a crazy dance in that moonlight. Her scream didn’t stop – even when we were all pouring ourselves into the bathroom from the passage. Us three in our flowery shortie pyjamas, Mum in her nightie with no knickers and Dad with his no clothes on and his thing hanging down.
Grannie had her plastic suit pants pushed down to the floor. The plastic top – neck to wrists to waist – was all in place. You could see her through it, especially her titties. They were a bit flopped because of no corset in bed. At night she wore the plastic suit for sweating and getting thin while you sleep. As we pushed through the door, she was standing and screaming and her hands were trying to beat that little bat out. But it wouldn’t.
So even though you could see her bottom and everything, my Dad went straight in and, with his arm that has no hand, he pushed his way into her hair to reach and hold down the little bat. And with his hand-arm, he untangled the tiny mouse-thing and let it use its wings to fly out through the white-framed bathroom window.
My mother had done quite a few shrieks and had raced off down the passage before my Dad got the bat free. She came back with her giant silver sewing scissors to cut Grannie’s hair off and free the bat. Grannie yelled at her to NOT. Her boyfriend, Eric, was coming soon, she said, to take her away to a more civilised place.
I was laughing with terrified tears, and crying with scary feelings at the wildness and funniness of what was going on. And then she said about the boyfriend. Everything in me went still and very cold in my chest, like a hard chunk of ice from the freezer. What did she mean? My little sister blinked quite a few times as we turned away to go down the passage to our bedroom. She blinked and she whispered, “Grannies don’t have boyfriends – do they?”
“Don’t be stupid. They can’t. Because they’ve already been married.” My voice was hot, not like the ice block in my chest.
“Go to bed. Shoesh now. Go to bed and go to sleep,” my mother said.
I turned to look at her down her end of the passage. My Dad had his hand-arm on her shoulder and was looking right at her face. She had a terrible face on. It was the face she got when she was sad and cross with all of us – especially with Dad – because we lived on a dairy farm with cabbages and mielies and cows and wattle trees and not on Boyes Drive in the big, pale-yellow double-storey house in Muizenberg with Grannie in it and the sea down Jacob’s Ladder below, and with the grandfather clock in the hallway with the ship that sailed across the clock face, across the face and back, across and back, with each tick and each tock.
While I looked at her under the passage light, I saw she was crying again.
So, anyhow, there was the rolled-up The Natal Witness newspaper on the little white bedside cupboard this morning. (Of course my Dad always puts it there now when Grannie comes for Christmas so he doesn’t have to do the bat-saving thing with Grannie’s tricky hair.
There are always a few gum tree leaves sticking out from under her mattress. Dad puts those there when Grannie comes to stay. She says we have fleas in the house. So he gets one of the umfaans to bring some gum tree leaves from the bush and he stuffs a ton of them under her mattress which is really my little sister’s mattress. And, like I said, some of them stick out. I think my Dad does that on purpose so he doesn’t have to have the conversation with Grannie about the gum tree leaves and the dreadful fleas we breed all over the farm and in every crack in our house.
The thing we just can’t understand is why we never have fleas in our beds but Grannie does. Maybe it’s because she is from Cape Town, and Natal people maybe don’t get bothered by fleas. Maybe the fleas like Cape Town blood. Or maybe sweat. Because that plastic sleeping suit for getting thin has elastic at the neck, the wrists, the waist and the ankles and really makes a lot of sweat. Actually, perspiration or glow – my other grandmother has taught me that only farm workers and factory workers actually SWEAT. Gentlemen PERSPIRE and ladies GLOW. But I can promise you, what I see in the morning when she takes off the slimming suit…it is sweat. It really is. I can smell it. It makes my nose and my mouth and my eyes crunch up and salt burn my eyes under the lids.
Just about at the end of doing all the little silver hooks, Mummy is still calling us to come for breakfast.
So she gets her rolled-down stockings ready, one for each leg. She sits down on the bed and rolls them up each leg very carefully and very slowly. “They snag so easily,” she says, as if she is telling me a very important thing. I nod and look and swing my feet a bit to show I am listening.
Up, up – to nearly her bottom. Then she stands and hooks the little round, covered, silky buttons into the metal loop with the top end of the stocking stuck into each loop. Her bottom and everything is sticking out a bit because the corset ends before they end. Not like a swimming costume that goes over everything so there’s nothing to see.
Corsets are lovely things if you consider the front which has a satiny panel. Somehow the corset factory-people manage to put beautiful patterns on the panel which, if you look very carefully, are roses. “Barely visible roses,” she showed me once in a secret voice as if nobody else should know. Now I always see them. The panel goes right up to the bowl part and even is the bowl part. So there are roses shining and sliding all over the front of Grannie.
“Tummy control,” she teaches me.
Then it’s the silky knickers that go over it all. She likes those. She slides them out of the drawer and then softly skids them across her face, covering every bit: her cheeks, her nose, her closed eyes.
“Ah…silk,” she says.
When they are on, everything is covered up at last.
She really truly loves those silk knickers. She has lots. I picture all of them sliding around inside the knicker drawer all by themselves, even when the drawer is shut.
Then it’s the petticoat and the slippery purple dress – or one of her others. It can be a pinkish one, or mainly blue, or sometimes grey. They all have the dark swirls winding through the colour. All her dresses open low down the at the front and, where her corset pushes her bosoms together, you can see soft pink skin with a few of what she calls beauty spots (my mother calls them age blemishes) decorating them.
Today, she puts on a purply dress and her black walking shoes with laces. She has promised me, promised me at last, that she’ll go for a walk down to the wattle plantation and back and that we’ll go alone without my sisters, only with Gretel, my black Daxie, allowed to come with us. We’ll wait till my sisters have gone off with my Dad onto the farm and my mother has gone to town.
She’ll do this because I’m her favourite, I think. She’ll do it even though her knees, she says, are “riddled with arthritis” and the doctor in Howick has injected her right in the knees with a needle as big as her knitting needles. She’ll be fine, she says. She’ll take her shining knobbly walking stick to help.
And so here we are in the wattle plantation. The air is crackling with hot December sun. There are still yellow puff-ball flowers on the wattles. My nose is itching already. I hate that – and the line of joined-up sneezes that follow. But I don’t care. I’ve got Grannie. Gretel is yapping around us. She runs ahead and comes back. She yaps some more and then scuffles in the dust and dashes off the path into the trees for no good reason. Grannie loves Gretel and says dogs don’t need a reason.
This is Heaven and Grannie is telling me all the stories about how she was a grand lady in Norfolk in England, where I haven’t been, before my grandfather found her between The Great Wars and captured her heart and brought her back on the Union Castle Line to Muizenberg.
My grandfather had the garage on Main Road and bought her the huge house on Boyes Drive and they had three children, lickety-spit, then twins five years after the others. My Mum was third, after the two boys. The smallest twin shocked everybody because nobody – not even the doctor – knew she was there. She was so tiny and such a surprise she had to sleep in a shoe-box in an open drawer in the big bedroom and she was blue when she was born.
My grandfather doesn’t live in the big house anymore. Something bad in a foreign language happened. Whenever my parents speak about it, it is definitely foreign stuff that made my grandfather have to leave. My Grannie did in flagranto dilecto with the GP, that’s the doctor who didn’t know the smallest twin was there, in the lounge in the big house and then my grandfather left. I think it was something to do with having those twins and one of them so small. I think the doctor had to go to the big house a lot to check on the shoe-box baby.
I’ve heard the grown-ups talk about how, on the flagranto day, my mother, who was ten years old, got on her two-wheeler and rode away when no-one was looking. They always say how she was found half way to Cape Point, peddling like mad into the darkening sky, with tears like flags of solid water streaming off her face in the wind she made with her speed. They say it was like she was pursued by the Devil. I don’t like thinking about that little girl. I think they found her near Boulders Beach. They captured her and took her home. I think her Dad was the main person capturing her. My Grannie had locked herself in the big bedroom that looked over the Muizenberg sea. Only she wasn’t looking at the sea, I think, because I heard the grown-ups say she was howling on the bed with shame.
But now, here, in the wattle plantation, everything is perfect. I have Grannie all to myself. I keep saying that in my head. The world is big and hot and endless all around us. And when we get home I’ll have a swim in the pool my Dad built for my Mum in the front garden. “Her little bit of Muizenberg,” he calls it. My Mum is lucky. Grannie won’t swim. I think it’s because of being a Norfolk grand lady. They don’t swim.
Grannie suddenly stops her story in the middle.
There’s a cloud of dust hurtling down the summer road. She strains her neck upwards to look through the trees. It’s a car. I can see it. But it’s not my Mum coming back from town. I don’t know this car that’s coming so fast.
Grannie gets her walking stick going – step, snap, step, snap – back down the path towards the farm road. I call Gretel and run after her.
“What’s the matter, Grannie?”
She flies on and her grey hairs begin to fall out of the little bun at the back of her head. She begins to glow, but she doesn’t stop.
“It’s Eric. He’s come! He’s come to take me for Christmas. You’ll have to tell your mother when she gets back from town. Tell her Eric’s a member of Parliament, you know.”
But I don’t know. I don’t know anything about Parliament. Or Eric.
Grannie has very little breath but she waves her stick in the air. The big brown car with wings at the back sees her stick and it stops exactly where the wattle plantation path meets the farm road.
Grannie’s face is red. She leans right into the car window where the man is. And then she stands up and Eric is unfolding himself out of the car door and then he is folding his long arms all around my Grannie.
I feel a bit sick. Vomitty sick. I don’t know what Parliament is, or why I must say that to my mother. I just know my mother won’t like Parliament at all. Maybe it’s a flagranto foreign sort of thing.
“I’ve got to pack,” she says and rushes round to the passenger door. Her knees are fine. Our doctor’s knitting needle injections must be so strong. She’s nearly been running. Eric rushes after her and he opens the car door. She looks up at him as she melts into the car and her eyes are all silly. I hate Eric’s poky face.
“You walk home with Gretel. We can’t put a dog in this car,” she yells out of her wound-down window as the car jumps up and runs away from me and my small black dog.
I’m not even home, and I’m sweating, yes, sweating, in the hell of heat because I’ve been walking so fast to catch Grannie and the car, when I see that Eric’s fierce tiger-car has already turned around, and it’s coming back towards me. It swoops past, not slowing one bit as Gretel and I jump out of the way.
There’s dust on my face. And wet tracks through that dust. Like my Mum’s when she was ten years old and flying away from the Devil near Boulders Beach. There’s no-one here to come after me and capture me on the farm road, though. I have to blink my eyes a million times to stop the tears so I can see properly.
I won’t be able to tell my mother. Her face will be too angry and too sad. I’ll find my Dad and I’ll tell him what happened when he comes in from the farm.
Then I’ll go down past the camdeboo stinkwood tree, through the archway in the hedge and into the plumtree orchard. And wait.

GRACE

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.

WHEN BY SOME ACCOUNTS

When by some accounts
a vast and thrilling sound
shall resonate through the cosmos
and the dead shall arise in-
corruptible from various tombs,
heaps of ash now scattered
and recycled, and obscure
ditches and other places of dis-
solution, what would I
be wearing, if anything, beyond
my own reconstituted
skin, and what state of skin,
mind and experience would best
suit eternity? Fantasies
of youthful perfection
flicker like lightning
seen far off, with promise
of soothing rain, but my footing
is here, and there is no other
than joy in the vicissitudes
of my unalterable years.

RONALD, THE GATE AND THE GUN

Ron and Phyllis are a struggling couple in their late 70s. Until recently they lived directly opposite me in our quiet, friendly suburban street. Well, mostly quiet and friendly during the twenty years that I’ve lived here, the only exceptions being, two cases of arson, one accidental kitchen fire started by the computer geek in the cottage adjoining mine, and two murders.  But those are stories for another time. Here I aim to recount what I’ve seen of Ron’s story, one about the private hells churning beneath the tranquil surface of daily pleasantries about the lovely sunny weather and the need for some rain to favour our summer-stressed gardens.

A short while before they left, on a Saturday morning, I was up to my elbows in soap suds at the kitchen sink, trying to reverse the entropy generated by the previous evening’s meal, when I heard a thump from the direction of the front door – an errant bird hitting the front window maybe? Hands dripping, I went through to investigate and found Ron standing uncertainly on the front stoep, looking like he was on the verge of leaving before he’d arrived. He was in slippers, wearing his usual baggy brown sweater, and his gaunt face was unshaven. The morning back-lighting accentuated a drip suspended from his lean nose, and his eyes were red.

“Ron,” I said, “what’s the matter?”

“Phyllis is dead,” he squeezed out between a couple of stifled sobs. “The hospital called to tell me this morning.”

I knew she had been hospitalized few days earlier and had been admitted to ICU to deal with an acute case of septic gall stones. I also knew that his sister-in-law, Phyllis’ sister, was seeing to his needs.

“Have you let Phyllis’ sister know?,” I asked after some awkward attempts at sympathetic consolation.

“No, I don’t know how to use the cell phone she’s left me.”

“Let me try,” I suggested, taking the phone and going to the contact list to look for ‘Ingrid’.  She answered almost immediately, and was flabbergasted at the news, but also level-headed enough to say she’d call back after she’d spoken to the hospital. Minutes later the phone rang and the sister could report the good news that Phyllis was in good spirits and recovering well.

When I moved into my house two decades ago, Ron had an old brown Ford Escort with a seriously noisy silencer parked in their driveway. He only drove it occasionally, and after a while not at all. He seemed to be retired, while she went off to work every day at an insurance company, and played golf with a work colleague at the week-ends. The going started getting tough for them when she was retrenched. The car lapsed into total disuse, and the weeds grew up around it. One day, several years after its last outing, it was towed away by a rough and ready backyard mechanic for spare parts. So the sliding steel gate became a pedestrian portal to the property, and the electric motor was only called upon to make a 2-foot wide gap for Phyllis to take her daily walk up to the village to visit the library, buy supplies and probably meet a friend for coffee. Once a week it needed to be opened a little extra to accommodate the passage of her bag of golf clubs out and into the BMW boot of her ex-work colleague. In time this pattern also fell by the wayside, possibly because the green fees had become a drain on their now meagre resources. The next thing to go was the gate motor. For a while Ron took to unlocking the mechanism so that he could slide it by hand to let Phyllis out on her daily excursions. I never saw her operate the gate manually herself, and don’t know if it was beyond her physical strength, or whether Ron regarded it as his male role to be the gate-keeper. He would let her out, go back inside to do whatever he spent his time doing, then returning to gate duty to watch out for her to let her in again, sometimes posting himself there for up to an hour, peering up the road waiting for her to come around the corner.

I more or less got to know Ron through the bars of his gate during this period. Sometimes I would take advantage of his ritual guard duty to go across the road and put in an appearance to do a non-invasive neighbourly check on their well-being over a short chat.

If I waved and shouted “Hi Ron,” he would chirpily respond with one of two standard greetings – either: “Hail to thee, blithe Spirit!  Bird thou never wert,” or otherwise a wave and: “Good morrow kind sir.” If I were to ask him about his state of well-being, he would usually dig for a Scottish accent and respond with: “Nae sa wirse.” The first quote I Googled as being from Percy Bysshe Shelley’s To a Skylark, but the last has evaded me.

The next stage of the compounding gate crisis was when the override mechanism also failed. The procedure that Ron applied to get the gate open was one often used by strong-arm burglars wanting access to a property. Lifting one end of the tonne of steel off its tracks will disengage the driving gear from the toothed rack on the gate, making it possible to edge the gate sideways until there is enough room to provide passage for burglars and their swag, or in this case the gangly septuagenarian body of Phyllis.

Because of the demanding nature of the new opening technique, Ron would take considerably longer to open and close the gate. It was quite a noisy process as well, involving a metre and a half of heavy duty chain wrapped around gate and gate post several times, a sturdy padlock, and an enormous bunch of keys that, somewhere in its midst, was the one that fitted the lock. So from inside my house I would know by the clinks, rattles, clanks and creaks when an exit was being prepared for Phyllis … and then the reverse process to maintain security while she was out, and the whole procedure repeated in reverse when she returned.

This operational system was maintained for at least a year. I sometimes tried to help him lift the gate, but he would become irritated by my interference, while Phyllis stood by waiting to get in or out with a beatific smile.

That was until the gate jammed. One day I was aware of the opening ritual being in progress, but at a certain point I realized that the usual sequence of auditory markers didn’t reach the end of its cycle. It was replaced by random, indeterminate klinks and klanks, but no sound of a rolling steel wheel. I ventured out onto my front porch, and saw Ron doing battle to shift his cold steel nemesis. I sensed an element of panic rising out of their potential incarceration.

I crossed the road and waved a hullo to Phyllis, who stood on the steps of the house, her shopping bag over her arm, while Ron, straining, with his back to me, was putting in weight-lifting efforts trying to budge the jammed portal. Without being invited, I added my own energy, but to no avail. Sensing an opportunity, I went back home and rounded up a likely arsenal of heavy tools: crow-bar, pick-axe, sledge-hammer, hack-saw, monkey-wrench, and a few others. I first set to work with my long steel crow-bar to force a skinny-person sized gap so that I could be in direct contact with the offending mechanism. It was time for liberation! Ron hardly protested as I set about removing the rusty and seized electric motor, smashing the concrete pedestal to which it was bolted, and levering it out like a rotten wisdom tooth. It took me the best part of a sweaty hour to remove the machinery, but after that, with a dollop of grease on each of the little wheels, the gate could move relatively easily along its track. It was during that hour that I got some insight into Ron’s condition which I hadn’t picked up in my previous short interactions and pleasantries with him. The motorsectomy was an energetic one person job, necessitating him to stand back as a spectator, out of range of flying crow-bars and picks. While I was toiling away he said to no-one in particular: “At this point in the movie, someone will say ‘Son of a gun! This is one helluva stubborn customer’.”  I responded with a between-swings chuckle of agreement. But for the remainder of the operation he repeated that piece of dialogue, word for word, about five times before I had finished the task and was ready to enter into conversation with him. I’m sure that each time he presented the line it was, in his mind, equally fresh, innovative and witty.

Phyllis was highly appreciative of the physical and psychological release, and the next day they came together across the road and gave me a punnet of cloyingly sweet home-made fudge prepared from contents in her meagre social security grant kitchen.

Unfortunately, as life proceeds, small victories start to lose their promise as building blocks for a brighter future, and take on the role of softening the blows of mortality. Phyllis’ daily solo outings over the railway bridge and up into the village became weekly trips to the nearer convenience store, now with a walking stick and Ron for support and company.

Shortly after the taming of the gate, the two of them went out to do some shopping one day, but on the way they lost the keys to the front door. I happened to coincide with them on the street, and they explained the problem. There was a spare key, Phyllis said, in the bread bin standing on a table close to the back door, but how could we reach it? Luckily an adjacent window was not securely fastened and, with the help of sticks and wire found in the chaos of the back yard, we managed to pull the bread bin close enough to lift the prize between the burglar bars. I hoped that this would not prompt another batch of thank-you fudge. What fascinated me, though, was the fibre-glass body of a Dart sports car, which, like the Escort in the driveway, was in the process of being overtaken by the feral grass. The GSM Dart was a South African made sports car produced in small numbers in the late 50s/early 60s. It was surely a very valuable item, even in its current state of neglect. I asked Ron about it.

“I’ve got two engines for it in the garage. It’s a project I must get back to now that I’ve got rid of the bee colony.” Indeed, for a couple of years or more, the back corner of his garage had been taken over by a swarm of bees. They had built a large irregular hive easily the size of my writing desk, which took a bee expert nearly a week to remove.

Ron’s obsession with security went deeper than chains and locks, keys and gates. We were talking about security one day through the gate when he told me that if I ever had trouble with intruders, I should call him. He would come over, he said, and sort things out with his Smith and Wesson 38. I baulked at the thought of Ron’s infirm hand waving around a snub-nosed revolver and firing it into the darkness from between the bars of his securely locked gate at my assailant. “I don’t believe in guns,” was the limp response I could give in my state of shock.

One day I arrived home to find an ambulance outside their house. Phyllis had been loaded into it by the friendly pair of paramedics, while Ron came and went between the ambulance and the house looking for her ID book, in a bit of a spin. There was some support from Phyllis’s sister, who would keep an eye on things, but essentially Ron was going to be on his own while the hospital was sorting out Phyllis’ painful gall stone problem. I took the precaution of taking the sister’s phone number.

A morning, two or three days after her admission to hospital, I came out of my house to take my dog for a walk and to pick up the newspaper, and found Ron peering up and down the road in agitation.

“What’s the problem?” I asked.

“It’s Phyllis. She’s just disappeared. She went out and hasn’t come back. This is absolutely atypical behaviour. She always tells me where she’s going, and when she’ll be back.”

“Isn’t she still in hospital?” I suggested.

“I’m very worried,” he said, ignoring my suggestion. “This is not like her.”

I emptily consoled him and assured him that she would probably be back very soon. He was still there at his post when I returned from the corner store with the newspaper. I called his sister-in-law, and she said she would be fetching him within half an hour to go and see Phyllis. I reported that to him, but his eyes reflected fear and confusion and remained fixed on the horizon.

Ron’s dementia didn’t allow him much rest while Phyllis was absent, even with the support and care of Precious, a care-giver arranged by his sister-in-law. Precious was a cheerful young woman with a broad smile, and someone familiar with geriatric problems and the quirks of mentally disturbed souls.

A couple of mornings later, at the crack of dawn, Ron wandered out again before Precious arrived, and knocked on another door in the immediate neighbourhood, that of Hermione, a retired magistrate.  There was something to discuss that was criminal.  I paraphrase the conversation told me by Hermione:

Ron:              “Phyllis is dead.”

Hermione:    “Oh no! I’m so sorry.”

Ron:              “My gun has been stolen. It was in a plastic bag hanging on the back of a dining room chair, but now it’s gone and I believe has been used to kill Phyllis.”

Hermione:    “Who stole the gun?”

Ron:              “Precious. She’s a thief and steals everything, and also hides my keys. I don’t trust her an inch. The gun is probably in some Eastern Cape village by now, in the hands of criminals or anarchists.”

Hermione:    “Is Phyllis’s body still in the house?”

Ron:              “I can’t find it … But there’s a well in the back yard …”

At this point Hermione was sure that this was paranoid dementia speaking.

Hermione:    “Ron, you have to report this to the police, both the stolen gun and the suspected murder. Do you have a valid firearm licence?”

Ron:              “No, I don’t need a licence. It was issued to me as part of a Special Forces operation to assassinate Robert Mugabe.”

Ron was correct in saying that the gun had been removed from behind the dining-room chair. But it wasn’t the much maligned Precious who did it. This was the work of Phyllis’s sister and her husband, Billybob. They had spirited it away and taken it to the local Police Station where it was checked in with an appropriate affidavit to the Officer responsible for gun and liquor licences. On interrogation of the firearms register, he determined that, yes, the gun was registered to Ronald S of said address, but no valid licence had been issued. This is a serious offence that can carry a prison sentence. The records also revealed that there were three other unlicensed firearms registered to Ron. The Officer said that they would need to conduct a search of the house in an attempt to recover them. He made a concession that they could arrange to take Ron out, and that they would conduct the search in his absence.  This was done, and indeed these items, plus ammunition, were found and confiscated.

Not long after this that Phyllis was discharged from hospital. I saw Ron the day she arrived back. If before this he had been drifting, panic-stricken through deep oceanic water with no land in sight and unseen predators circling beneath his feet hanging into the dark water, he now at least had been provided with a friendly bobbing life-boat. The storm clouds moved off. Light and hope were restored, and the panic paranoia of torture and torment were discernible only as miniscule dots on the horizon, easy enough to ignore in favour of unfettered fantasy.

Plans were already afoot to relocate the couple to a home where Phyllis would have a private room on the first floor, and Ron would be cared for in the ground-floor dementia ward. Probably uninformed about some of the details, Ron seemed happy with the arrangement and said that he would finish rebuilding the Dart so that he could get out and about, and would be able to drive around on occasions to say hello to his former neighbours on the street. This was a different story to the one I heard from Billybob later that same day. He confided that he had managed to find a buyer for the pieces of the little Dart sports car, and got a good price that would cover at least three months of their accommodation in the old age home.

What will Ron remember about the gate, the guns and the Dart? What dim and fragmented memories will give him joy, and what dark voids will remain to haunt him?

Hail to thee, blithe Spirit…bird thou never wert

*Photo credit: Pixabay

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