Tannie, she speaks
Of eating flamingos
And the fisherman who cleaned
The brak spring by the bay
A line of men
The buckets of muddy water.
Of getting lost
In the veld, surviving
Of all the people dead
And all her
Cousins and brothers
Twenty-three of them
That live in the
Dust Mountain fountain
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
With their many rules
Of how first the rich came
Then the thieves
No one knows from where
To take away from the rich
We say goodbye
Her bright eyes
In the shadow of the past
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.
For this is not a poem
it’s black ink
lost over the page
For this is not a page
it’s me facing a screen
bring to play
For this is not play
four light people, one dark
For this is not struggle
women toil over dishes
home school and remote work
For this is not remote
it’s right here
in the virus eating your air
For this is not air
but salt and tears
drying my face
For this is not my face
no longer breathing next to me
Every part of my garden is a lyric
Under the shade of tall trees
Thorny cactus form the edges
The dark soil hides the relic
Crooked cracks lodge an army of bees
Its constant renewal and healing balm are worthy than wages
Little bird sings
Welcome to my world
Autumn leaves fall
Roll on a colorful carpet
The wind isn’t cold
It is Fall
The insects drum a trump
Little bird sings
Listen to the bruised barks and chopped trunks
Denounce it in melancholic melody
Dust and stones have replaced the green
Uprooted from its natural banks
Who could play a rhapsody?
The change can be seen.
Little bird sings
Hypnotic Winter call in a rusty voice
In Spring, I blossom
No more garments, my eyes cry
Frosted lawn offer a haunted peace
Destruction and devastation rise from the bosom
Beautiful Summers are now sting dry
Little bird sings.
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.
This week has been the saddest. Maybe it was just fatigue from time elapsed, but more likely it was lack of human presence. I live alone and this thing, connection, for which I scour the earth, mostly eludes me. On a daily basis, memes make their way into my inbox, and guiltily I pass them on, feeling not much, except so-and-so may enjoy this. Ping. I send it. You too can smile briefly at the eye-masked president, or the poem by Katy Tempest. My head hurts.
The worst has been other people’s troubles when you’re locked down. No agency. Just listen on my mobile to the almost inaudible voice telling of unimaginable stresses, and comfort them in what way you can. Send another meme. Cry dryly. And imagine the awfulness. Today my head hurts because of that. The inability to help. The path alone which I know quite well. I duck the light.
Now I send virtual messages when I meditate. No clear mind here. It’s a transmission station beaming out wishes and blessings and little pleas for comfort. So my headache has served as a recalibration instrument. Irritably it scolds me.
“Enough! Look after yourself now”, it says.
And the hard hand of tension grips between my shoulder blades, sending its metallic fingers up my neck and out along the edges of my skull to the hinge of my jaw.
And it says, “Stop trying to fix: this world is not a sanctuary. Don’t expect it, then the disappointment lessens and you’d feel less rattled. Shhhh now”.
Now it isn’t all bad. I found an escape. I read this week, as I haven’t been able to for years; I read novels which have their own searing truths. But here I couldn’t offer rescue, because their fictional characters’ fates were already mapped. That helped. I cannot intervene in these novels. I simply skim forward, and know the worst before it happens. Then I can read gently with no nasty surprises. Avoid the trouble when I need to.
But in defiance of sadness, I found another escape route this week. Tipped off by a neighbour, I drove with dog to Rocklands Farm, a legitimate food buying trip. I wind up the dirt road, rattle over the speed humps and it becomes prettier and prettier, with glimpses of the sea on every bend. There are shade trees, several leafy oaks, a few nostalgically crumbling labourers’ cottages. A pretty 17th century style Cape house. After some neglected vegetable tunnels, I stop under an oak at the shop’s small doorway, its handmade sign offering goats milk cheese and eggs. And the egg merchant hurries towards me from the cottages and opens up. ‘Einstein’s eggs’ they are called, and now I discover this is Einstein himself serving me. Child of a visionary mother, he has a good business in eggs, large or extra large. I buy 18 and only realise my foolishness once home, as I can only return in 18 eggs time. I should have bought three.
Now I ask about vegetables. And Einstein directs me towards the vegetable tunnels alongside the chicken hoks, lower down the hill. He advises me to drive and I do so, stopping near the enclosure where a good many goats watch me curiously. And as I get out, False Bay opens out ahead in a way that is actually breath-taking and breath-giving at the same moment. It opens out in its hugeness, in its spaciousness, in its entirety. I can see the chain of cliffs from Macassar to Hangklip. I can see the translucent purple-red mountains etched on the horizon. I can see every slope of scree. I can see where the mountain folds, how steep it is, the little settlements lodged in the valleys where earth has weathered, leaving a shelf to build on. Betty’s Bay, Rooi Els, and more. Strand stands out like a sort of sunlit Brasilia. Crazy towers, golden in the mid-afternoon sun, distinguish themselves starkly from the mountain barrier behind. The sea is uniformly blue today, solidly blue, rippled, but not busy. And beneath it, the unseen world which I have glimpsed these last few days when dolphins whisked past the harbour wall. And I am drawn forward into that expanse, in a way that I have not experienced for so long, hungrily, mesmerised. I sit on the grass while my dog sniffs and strains at the lead.
“He wants to walk?”, asks one of the gardeners.
He is short and stocky. His name is Edgar. Serious, with kind eyes. He has noticed the quarantined dog and seems to regard her affectionately. I nod and start walking in the direction he indicates. But I hesitate on the track because it is bushy and there are broken down buildings that have triggered my caution. He reads my hesitation and gestures to me that he will take the dog. Does he think I am reluctant to walk? Has he not noticed that I too am straining at my leash? I clarify my hesitation and he leads. I follow. Accepting this kindness from a stranger who has sensed that both of us – dog and pale haired woman – want to be out there, to tramp the sand path through the sunlit bushes down the slope to where the sea opens out like enfolding arms and the wonder of the sheer green mountain slope rises behind us, closer to heaven than I have ever known. Silently, we walk to a lookout place. In warmth, we tramp back. Do all vegetable buyers get this treatment? My heart smiles.
And then the gardeners show me their vegetable beds replete with spinach and basil, coriander, the few last brinjals, some parsley, some beetroot. I surmise they are farmers from Malawi, which is confirmed by their accents – gentle, a bit sing-song, their “r’s” replaced by “l’s”. We transact. They are pleased. I am pleased. A short delay as they cut their own spinach, “for the house’”, he says, and we part with a thank you so much and appreciative nods. They close the big gates of the vegetable tunnels to keep baboons out. They alert me to the radishes that will be ready soon. I jokingly ask if I can come and weed for them, gesturing to the sea. And they seem to understand my offer, and smile.
It is difficult to describe what I feel as we drive away but the small dog on my left is panting a little, eyes shining.
The terrible fault lines left by apartheid run very deep. Mostly the disturbances they cause
pass unnoticed. Not part of any statistics. Not cause for any marches. But sometimes there’s a reminder. This story is one of those reminders. It is all true. Only the names are fictional.
In a post-apartheid middle class Johannesburg primary school, there was William, grave, small for his ten years, his shoes a little heavy for his thin legs. He walked with a rather measured tread which immediately endeared him to me, because it reminded me of my grandfather who came from Northampton, where people are known for their studied steps. He would appear on the threshold of my classroom on Tuesday afternoons for extra English; he would pause and greet me courteously before entering, then decorously seat himself opposite me, eyes wide and solemn.
To start with he was quiet, a little stiff. In the conversations between us, the rules of English seemed to become like the dictates of an irascible and illogical old lady, too old to be bothered with consistency or logic. Because he was keen to learn and also hard-working, William would have preferred some hard and fast guidelines.
“First we say “cough”, then we say “through”, then we say “tough!”’, with a sad shake of his head.
However, he came to accept the vagaries of the old lady, because of the riches she yielded. He spent a lot of time in the school library and talked about what he had read. He would melt a little, become expansive, start telling me stories, making jokes. These were heralded by a crinkling on the outside corners of his eyes, which would shift to a twinkle.
“Do you know how many active volcanoes there are in the world?”
“No. How many?”
“One thousand five hundred,” slowly, with great emphasis. “But don’t be worried. None of them are near us.”
I imagined that he came from a home where people listened to each other. It seemed clear that he was a well-loved child, who knew he was a source of joy to his mother. He became one of those delights that lightens the increasingly onerous burdens of teaching.
But at the beginning of the following year, he was disturbingly different. Now he was in my Arts and Culture class.
He would slouch to the back, silent, heavy, producing no work, bringing no file, shrugging dumbly when I inquired about these things. Anxiety, exasperation, irritation, wrath; I went through them all. I tried talking to him. I gave him the usual demerits and detentions – all to no avail. He was a non-person in my lessons. I ambushed him alone, wanting to understand what had brought about this change, but the face and the silence remained stony.
More anxious than ever, I spoke to him again in the second term. He could not continue this way. Clearly, something was seriously amiss in his life. Could we not sort it out? The same stony silence. Well, if he couldn’t discuss it with me, was there someone else he might like to discuss it with? Still stony silence. Mr D, perhaps (a lovely humane man)? A reluctant nod. So, I sent him off to Mr D, checked that a conversation had taken place and concerned myself with more urgent but less important educational matters: the correct completion of my register, mark deadlines, meetings, book perusals, forms. William produced a grubby file at the next lesson and started doing a little work. I allowed myself to feel a little hopeful.
One third term morning, I was sitting on a step at the edge of the playground, on duty. I became aware that William had just slumped disconsolately onto a tree stump a little way behind me. He’d taken to associating with younger boys and they’d been playing marbles on a bare patch of ground. There was a sudden rising of exasperated voices. William was apparently being irritating, and, in the definite terms that little boys use, he was being told so.
“William, dude, you can’t just throw your ghoen like that!”
“Stop it, William, man! Give those ironies back. We’re playing for keeps!’ Now William’s head was bowed, the brim of his white floppy hat hiding his face. But sliding off his chin and plopping down into the dust were treacherous tears.
“Hey, you guys! Now he’s crying!” The younger boys clustered around him, peering up under the brim. No place to hide in a rule-bound school.
“William,’ I said, ‘would you like to sit in my classroom for a bit?’ Without a word he took my keys and went.
After break I found him. He didn’t want to talk.
“You seem to be so unhappy,” I said. Bowed head. “I know you don’t want to talk about it to me, but I think you need to talk about it to someone.” Bowed head. “Nobody should be so unhappy all alone.” Bowed head. “Does your mother know how unhappy you are?” Bowed head, then anguished sobs.
I’d touched the tender spot. Out it all came. From the beginning of the year, he had no longer been allowed to live with his mother. She was a domestic worker and until the end of the previous year, he had lived with her in the backyard of her employers’ home. But at Christmas time her employers had emigrated. Now she had a new job in Bryanston, and her new employers would not allow William to live with her in their yard. He had to stay with his aunt in Klipspruit. He was permitted to visit his mother certain Saturday afternoons. He caught taxis alone to school, to his mother. No, his aunt and her family were not unkind. He was his mother’s only child.
I discussed the matter with two sympathetic staff members. The short-term solution seemed to be to find domestic work for his mother nearby. Nearby and with understanding employers. It didn’t seem hopeful. And anyway, we weren’t quick enough.
Two weeks later William wasn’t at school. Breathless children came to my garden gate that afternoon with the bad news. He had been knocked down by a car. He had been only a few hundred metres from his aunt’s place in Klipspruit. On his way home from school. Killed instantly. He’d just alighted from the taxi.
I imagined his small figure, head bowed, schoolbag heavy, plodding through the dust, not caring much.
The big funeral was held far away in Bushbuck Ridge. A memorial service was held at the school. His mother came. Like him, she was slight and gentle. Nevertheless she climbed the steps onto the stage to address the whole assembly. I saw her son’s gravity and courtesy. She thanked the school for the money collected for William’s funeral. She wanted to say how grateful she was for the opportunity he’d had to get a good education. That was very, very important to her. And she was grateful for the kindness and care of the teachers. She had always trusted that he was in very good hands. She had always known that they were doing their best for him. She had faith in our school.
Of his ever having been unhappy she made no mention and nor did I. The fault lines separated us.
Lying empty on the floor at my feet, the worn leather holdall is a thing of beauty, harking back to a time of artisanal labours of love, quality and long life. It conjures the image of a dog lying close by, one of protective companionship.
Beautiful as it is, it’s not an easy carry. When full, the narrow strap doesn’t feel robust enough to hold its weight and the handles although strong, require the arm to be held at an unnatural angle if one is to avoid bruising one’s calves, and I bruise easily. It is not suited to airline travel, and a seasoned bushwhacker might argue that it wouldn’t be useful on safari either, as dust and unwanted curious creatures may enter the gaps between the zip and beautiful side folds. Even when packing, ideally someone needs to hold it open whilst you load it up. So why the sentimentality? Why the unnecessary friction to reclaim it during the breakup of my marriage? I had in fact gifted to my husband, then insisted that because it had belonged to Spike, it was mine.
I’m woken by a loud knock at the door, it’s pre-dawn on a Sunday morning. I sit bolt upright and scream a single scream. I’ve no idea why. My husband gets up and goes to the door. I hear voices, him asking what’s going on and their insistence that they need to talk to me. I venture down the open wooden staircase that separates the lounge and dining room of our Victorian home. James turns, concerned at once for me, the situation and the sheerness of a simple but pretty cotton nightie and my naked body beneath. The nightie had belonged to my late mother. She’d passed on 14 months earlier and I’d kept it when Spike and I had packed up her home in Durban. James and I had married, two months ahead of our planned wedding so she could be part of our celebration and union. After beginning married life as a grieving wife, it had felt good to say to the bereavement counsellor two weeks earlier, that I could feel spring in the air, I could notice the world around me again.
I take myself immediately to the couch, perhaps for the modesty sitting might provide whilst also intuiting I’d not be stable on my feet. The two young policemen remain in the doorway, not wanting to intrude and to ensure a hasty getaway. They reconfirm who I am and ask me what car my brother drove. They say there’s been an accident. I hear myself: ‘Is he ok?”
Images of hospitals and injuries flash through my mind. More bedside care; the world I’ve been all too familiar with in the final months in the lives of both my parents.
“I’m afraid he didn’t make it.”
James, who is standing midway between the police at the door and me on the couch, rushes over exclaiming loudly “She’s lost all her family”, as he wraps his arms around me.
I feel numb, the words seemingly hanging midway in the air. If I could only keep them suspended there, then I’d not have to feel the full blow of their impact. Instead I imagine these two young policemen on duty at the station, almost at the end of their Saturday all night shift, receiving the call from their colleagues in the Franschhoek station, possibly even drawing straws as to who would go. Is this their first time? Did I make a lousy job, a little easier? I marvel at how quickly I’ve been informed. Learning only later that the car windscreen had blown out, flinging the bag on the passenger seat out of the vehicle as it flipped on it’s head and caught alight. Spike, with a little Moleskin book that must have been fairly new, had listed me as his next-of-kin, address and all. If only he’d have been as thorough as to complete that will template I’d given him some months earlier and would find lying in its cellophane wrapper in his desk drawer in his office at the wine cellar.
I’m standing in my kitchen, preparing a spontaneous meal with my new, big love, sharing the spaces of uncertainty and anticipation ahead of this Life Righting Course I’m going on in the morning and these objects I need to take along…and I begin the story of the policemen at the door and my voice cracks all over again, tears prick my eyes and we are both taken by surprise. Some hours later, after a beautiful evening I walk him to his car, a Land Rover, and am reminded for the first time in decades of the awful fights with the man in KZN over the Land Rover Spike had bought, had customized and not yet taken delivery of at the time of his death. Me, screeching in desperation at the hole ripped right through me by the thought of journeying through life without my younger brother, accompanied instead by this worn, leather holdall…an awkward bag, so difficult to carry.
Usually he shaved in the shower. This time
he used the Maca root shave cream bought some
years back at the Body Shop in Djakarta. He ran his hand
over his chin which felt smooth, luxurious, clean.
He still had some Jaguar in a simple but stylish green
bottle with its silver stopper. The scent was immediate
and so distinct. Not sweet but intensely fragrant.
He had been eking out this lotion for years
since receiving it from his mother on one of her flights
from Europe to the Mother City. It was exactly the kind of gift
she would select – expensive, high quality and somewhat arcane.
He had never seen another bottle of Jaguar anywhere.
It was special, in itself and as a unique, one-off memory.
He would never again receive that Jaguar lotion from his mother,
as he would never again live this moment
or any other. There was no point in trying to replace
the precious bottle − the new one might prove to be
a subtle ‘improvement’ or more profitable facsimile,
but almost certainly the replacement would dilute his memory.
Nor was there any point in saving the dregs.
He splashed on some more,
and quietly saluted his mother.
*Photo credit: Axel Adelbert
Two years ago, I went into Musica at Canal Walk, and staring at me was Gary Moore from a Vinyl Cover, what we used to call an LP. I rushed for the earphones and asked the shop assistant to play the LP. I listened, feeling my brother’s presence; the music transported me back thirty years, and we are dancing to Still got the blues and Empty rooms by Gary Moore, and Fantasy by Kool and the Gang in the small room in our council house.
My brother, my Boeta – tall, dark handsome, caring and sensitive – never had a girlfriend, never knew the vices of life, because he was ripped from us on 2 July 1986. Maybe God needed him more.
My brother was the creative one in the family. With no money, all we knew was to go to school, finish matric, work hard so you can get a bursary and then go to university. Art School was not even part of my parents’ vocabulary. Who knows, he could have been our Picasso.
‘Kom gou! Kyk wat ek het gedraw!’ My brother, my little Boeta called Balie, had a light beaming from his eyes. He pointed to a painting of Elvis Presley on the outside wall of our house. It was the exact image of Elvis. He was only 9 years old.
Our three-roomed council house was home to six children and two adults, with an outside toilet. Warm water was a luxury and once a week we placed a big pot of water on a coal stove for our proper bath. Life was not easy, but we persevered. As long as we had food to eat, things were fine. Forget clothes – we all waited for hand-me-downs from my mother’s employer. Holidays did not exist, something I still struggle with today. My dear father worked two jobs to keep us afloat and to avoid having to take us out of school to work in a factory. That was and still is the norm on the Cape Flats.
My mother was very strict and disciplined. She made us believe that it is only through education that we could get ahead in life – it was ’our ticket out of poverty’.
Her famous words: ‘Paradise for some and hell for others’, so is this life. She meant paradise for white people and hell for black people, who we now refer to as people of colour.
Sometimes, when my brother and I would sing and dance to Gary Moore, Cool and the Gang and Elvis Presley, my father would enter the bedroom, and we would stand still in our tracks, feeling shy. We would wait for my father to leave the room and continue our beat.
My dad knew this and teased us. We would be happy.
While we were growing up, my brother slept in my parents’ room. Late at night, in the dark, I would creep into their room and feel the small bed next to my parent’s bed, checking to see whether my brother was there.
We used to play marbles, we kicked the ball and played kennetjie together. When we were small we even slept together on a mattress of ghoema hare. Sometimes our bronze coins would fall into the hole and we spent hours looking for the few cents because it is money for sweets! Only never to find the money. Oh! the disappointment.
Every Thursday, we would go to my father’s work to collect his weekly salary. Our first stop on the way home was a small café, where I would buy a big chocolate for us, then Pick ‘n Pay in Woodstock where we would buy the weekly groceries. Later my father would meet us at Pick ‘n Pay, and we would catch the bus home with my father, carrying bags of groceries.
My dad built a pond for the ducks in the back yard. He made a hole in the ground and cemented it with bricks. My papa loved animals, soft and kind-hearted he was, yet strong. My brother and I loved watching the ducks swimming in the pond and the hens hatching their eggs. We loved them so much that we could not eat their eggs and we could not bear the thought of killing them for food. Underneath the coal stove there was a storage place for the wood. In the evening we would convert it into a sleeping place for the chickens and ducks.
’Boeta, ons moet koolblare vir die eende en die hoenders gaan soek’. Every Sunday we woke early to scratch through the bins of the hawkers for green cabbage leaves for our ducks and chickens.
Every alternate week we would go to the hardware shop to buy mealies and grain feed. We pushed our handmade wagon over two fields, avoiding the gangsters. One day a rough girl was picking a fight with me. She wanted to box me with her bare hands; being tough and rough are values that are admired in the community.
The children were beginning to form a circle around us, I was petrified because I had a skirt with a washing peg on instead of a button and was afraid the skirt was going to fall off and I would stand only in my panties! These thoughts were racing through my mind, I cannot let it happen. The other children were eager for the big fight. The rough girl hit me hard in the face, but I held up my skirt with one hand and fought her off with the other. My young brother tried to help me, but he was too small. I had to think on my feet and, for my own dignity and self-respect, I gave up the fight and ended up with a blue eye.
Boeta, I have been feeling your presence around me and I know you are with me, especially now that we have lost both our parents. Remember the time we walked all along the railway line to Simba Chips in Parow? It was the June school holiday and I told you we can go to Simba Chips and peel potatoes to earn money. ’No,’ the white man said, ‘you are too young.’ We were both in primary school. We were so brave.
Trains on the Cape Flats line were and still are a symbol of anguish, suffering and pain, a living hell, as people are rushing to make a living to feed their families. Always a worrying factor – will my loved ones return home safely? .
One cold winter’s morning I rose early, and was rushing to get the 7am train to get to university. I stood in trepidation as I watched the beast entering the platform. The beast, adorned with human beings looking like ornaments: on the roof of the train, at the back of the train, in front of the train, in the windows of the train, between the carriages and the doors, wherever there is a hole it will be filled with people.
The managers and supervisors come from a different world – not knowing what their employees have to endure just to get to work, only to be ridiculed when arriving late.
Paradise for some and hell for others.
I can’t be late, I am writing an exam! I worried. I found a small space in the doorway where I could place my foot. As the train started to move, two hands lifted me up inside. I could have fallen into the tracks. The hands of God, I thought to myself. Usually it was a white conductor that blew the whistle for the train driver to leave the platform; ’Can’t he see? Why does he always blow the whistle so quickly?’ I mumbled to myself.
You have to be quick and swift or else you fall down off the platform. Who cares? Fifty years later nothing has changed, and today the situation is ten times worse. This line is now known as the notorious Central line.
The morning of the 2 July, I had just started working after graduating and took a day’s leave. Rain was falling hard on the asbestos roof.
My father, Babi, asked: ‘Gaan jy nie werk toe nie?’
‘Nie,’ sê ek, ‘ek is met verlof’.’
My brother replied, joking: ’Jy is lui!’ Those were his last words to me.
My brother was tossing and turning in bed, and my father warned him that he was going to miss his train. He liked to make himself two tin cups (bekers) of coffee. My eldest sister would often scold us when we were getting ready in the morning. As a comfort for my brother, I would prepare his two cups of coffee for him.
Maybe my brother wanted to speak to me that morning. Why was I so inattentive? If I wasn’t so half asleep, could I have prevented the tragedy?
That night I sneaked into his room and his bed felt cold. My brother never came home that day. My heart snaked.
Moni, my father’s eldest sister, said, ‘Balie het nie huistoe gekom nie.’
‘Ek moet hom gaan soek, Moni. Ek moet nou die hospitale bel, die polisie bel, miskien het iets met hom gebeur?’’ My father picked up the phone and started dialling.
I was twenty-one years old and did not know what to say … my poor dad.
‘Ä young man fell out of the train between Bontheuwel and Netreg station between 7 and 8am,’ the policeman told my father over the phone.
’They said he broke his neck and he died. We must now see if it is Balie’.
The rain was falling down hard and it was dark. I could not see in front of me as I drove behind my uncle to the mortuary in Salt River. I was still a learner driver.
My father came out with tears in his eyes. ’Dit is Balie…. ons moet hom huistoe vat.’ We put my brother in my uncle’s car, and drove in silence in the pouring rain to our house, tears streaming down my face.
It is tradition that the men prepare the body for the funeral, wrapping him in linen cloth. The sun had already set and it was too late to bury my brother that day, so we had to wait for the next day. My male cousins and uncles washed and embalmed his body for burying and laid his body on a cartel, or burial bed, in my parent’s room. Later, I took my mattress and I put it on the floor next to him and spent the night with him. It offered me a little comfort. My heart was outside of my body for a very long time.
Early the next morning when we woke, although no one had really slept, my mother went into a kind of silent coma. She never said a word, and carried him in her heart until it was her time to pass.
‘Balie, ek wil vir jou om vergifnis vra as ek nie ‘n goeie Pa vir jou gewees het nie.’ Tears welled and spilled down my father’s cheeks before he put the cottonwool over my brother’s face. ’Kom ons moet nou vir Balie groet … en ons moet sy gesig toemaak.’
I kissed my brother on the forehead, looked at him, and noticed that there was a smile on his face. ‘How can it be, he died so tragically, and he is smiling!’ My father closed my brother’s handsome face and wrapped a fez and linen around, and then the men took him away to be buried.
At the funeral people we didn’t know came to us and said that he always bought them food from the little money he received as pocket money.
One day I went to study at a friend’s house. As I arrived, her flat mate said; ‘Is your brother tall? Does he have a smile on his face?’ I replied yes, and she said: ‘He just walked in with you.’
Another time she told me she opened my bedroom door at 3am in the morning and she saw him sitting on my bed.
My brother, the gentle soul, turned twenty-one on 16 June 1986, and on 03 July 1986 he passed on. The meat that he bought for his twenty-first birthday was also used for food at his funeral.
Thirty-one years later my mom got ill and was hospitalized on the 28 June. I thought that it is strange, so close to Balie’s passing.
My mom slipped into a coma, and she passed on the same day my brother passed. She waited for the same date. We buried her on the same day we buried my brother.
This is my story, but so many other tears have fallen: mothers and fathers burying their children, untimely deaths, gone too soon.