From a very early age I’ve been obsessed with birds. Of course, as a young boy, I did not know the word obsessed, but I would have told you that I loved birds and I really meant it. I’ve spent more of my life thinking about birds than anything else.
During my childhood, my parents were quite strict and every day we had family lunch at the dining table, followed by a compulsory 30-minute lie down. For many kids that would have been a painful experience, but it didn’t bother me at all. My bed was positioned under a large window and I would lie on the bed, watching the bird feeder on a rock a few metres away. There were always birds there and I knew them all.
I didn’t only know their names, I knew them individually, their habits and their behaviours. In many ways, it resembled my school playground during break time. There was the pintail who was a real arrogant bloody bully, so full of himself and his importance, and the cheerful chatty bulbuls. I spent many hours watching these characters interacting with each other. I especially loved the mannikins and the white eyes, who both came in sociable little flocks; they were self-contained, mindful and dapper. Every now and then a new bird would suddenly show up and it would send a shiver of excitement through me. My family life was quite lonely on the farm and there were many days and hours that I found myself alone. During these times the birds were my close companions.
When I wasn’t watching them, I would turn over on my bed to study my Roberts Field guide of South African Birds. I read this book every day. The birds were described in detail, maps showed where they occurred, and, most importantly, every bird was beautifully illustrated. I studied them all and knew each one intimately. Each plate had a favourite bird, one that I desperately wanted to see. The artist, Norman Lighton, did a masterful job of illustrating the birds in various poses. Some were shown in flight, others perched on a branch and others feeding or displaying a habit typical of that bird. Those illustrations filled my mind and however the bird was illustrated was how I came to know the bird and also how I came to expect to see it one day.
More than fifty years later, I still love my birds and I still like to lie down after lunch, although I must admit that my eyes do sometimes close these days. I miss my childhood bedroom window and the bird feeder outside, but I still watch birds whenever I get the chance. My Roberts field guide is always close at hand; but it’s no longer shiny bottle green. Instead, it has faded to a speckled bird’s egg colour. Inside, the pages are filled with notes and observations, some written when I was a boy and some as fresh as yesterday.
Just a couple of days ago I accompanied my guide, Jabu, on a mission deep into some mangroves in search of an elusive kingfisher. We walked quietly for a couple of hours; the only sound was the squelching of our shoes in the soft mud. Crabs skedaddled away from us, but there was no sign of our bird. I was ready to turn back, but Jabu pushed on, insisting that he’d heard the bird in the thicket. Suddenly, as if he had orchestrated it, there was a bright flash of blue right in front of us as the Mangrove Kingfisher landed on an exposed branch a distance away, but in front of us. ‘Here I am’, he seemed to be saying. My heart was in my mouth as I raised the binoculars to my eyes. Jabu did a little jig beside me and jumped into the air with a huge smile, and I clasped his hand tightly. Time stood absolutely still for a moment as we watched the beautiful bird.
My mind moved back to the Roberts plate where I’d first seen and studied this bird as a boy. It looked so much brighter than I had imagined and, of course, it was no longer frozen into an artist’s pose. This time, in front of me, was a Mangrove Kingfisher flapping its azure blue wings in an expression of pure joy and it felt as if the bird was taking off out of the book and being set free.
My heart leaps with exhilaration each time I find a new bird and, bird by bird, I free them from the pages of the book. Slowly but surely, my Roberts book of frozen still-life birds is emptying as I find each bird in the wild and watch it come alive.
I think the author, Roberts himself, will be proud of me when, one day, I hope the book is blank as I’ve set all my birds free and watched them fly. It certainly brings me joy as I search the bush for more birds to set free from the pages of my mind.
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.
On winter mornings
it is still dark
when you get up.
I lie a little longer
watching light creep
into the room,
across the bed,
up the white wall
until it touches
You bring my tea
your black coffee.
We read a while,
news of our
woeful world –
of fires of floods
of births and deaths
I come back
into this room
I am sitting –
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.
1. Buying the car
In the fading daylight the jumbled strip of small traders were closing their shops for the night. The local corner cafés and fish and chips vendors were turning on their lights in anticipation of slow but steady business into the night. It was somewhere around my 40th year in the late 1980s and I needed to replace a car that had recently died. As I drove, I mused on the fact that here I was, a mid-life career scientist, looking for a very used car on the wrong side of the tracks. But somehow the scenario of meeting a grey-suited car salesman to finalise a hire-purchase agreement on a two-year old pre-owned medium-sized family sedan made me cringe. So, as instructed, I took a left turn off the Main Road into the dark maw of the disintegrating terraces of single-storey Victorian cottages that were like a set of teeth: discoloured, decaying and missing …
I looked over the car for a general feel of its physical and emotional condition, and requested a test drive. Nervous about my borrowed car being stolen while I was out around the block, I cut the test drive short. I couldn’t find any places where the rust was close to causing collapse, the engine felt smooth and didn’t smoke, and the steering and brakes worked alright. I took the plunge and said I’d take it. I arranged for payment and collection the following day, fairly confident that it would be able to meet the transport challenges I was going to place before it.
The car was an 11-year old blue Datsun 120Y station wagon, a model recognised as reliable, rugged and underpowered. If I were a person who gave cars personal names, I might have been tempted to call this one “Brak”.
Back home I set about doing the ‘too late’ finer inspection. The seller had done a reasonable clean of the car, but there were a few papers in the cubby hole. On shuffling through them, I came across an item that puzzled me by being out of context in this early dialogue with the car. It was a permit for entry into a country hiking area, one which I knew well – the idyllic Witels Kloof in the Hex River mountains that I’d traversed several times over the years. I couldn’t quite reconcile this clue to the car’s provenance with the seemingly embattled community where I had signed and sealed the back-street purchase. I hoped that this wasn’t indicative of an illegal transfer of ownership that might mark me as a receiver of stolen goods. But I chose instead to regard it as a positive sign, and how much joy it had brought to an anonymous hiker.
2. Character of the car.
The car turned out to be functional, economical and quirky. Not my own sort of quirkiness exactly, but rather a mischievous series of actions that you might expect from an intelligent rescue dog. One thing I soon learned was that security was not a strength of this blue Datsun. I discovered that the lock on the driver’s door would yield easily to a completely different range of keys and, that while driving sometimes, the key could be removed from the ignition switch without turning off the motor. It caught me out on a number of occasions. I’d pull up at my destination and reach down to cut the engine only to find the keyhole empty and my bunch of keys lying at my feet.
The issue of key promiscuity worked to my advantage one evening when I had worked late at the university, and had mislaid my full set of keys. Wondering how I might resolve the situation, my mind moved towards the interchangeability of key functions that this car had demonstrated. At which moment a car approached coming up the hill. To my cautious delight it was a Datsun 120Y. I stepped out into the road and waved the driver down. He wound down the window and looked at me quizzically when I asked him if I could borrow his key for a minute, but obliged. Being as calm as I could manage, I stepped over to my car, unlocked the driver’s door (right on!), inserted the same key into the ignition key-hole (a fit!), and gave it a twist. The engine sprang to life. Leaving the switch in the on position and the engine idling smoothly, I withdrew the key and returned it to its flabbergasted owner. I waited until he’d driven on around the corner before I punched the air with a match-point sense of achievement. It was a good moment for solidarity between naïve owner and impish car.
In time the ignition switch failed altogether. Fortunately, I had already learned the trick of hot-wiring, a simple procedure using a short length of electrical wire connecting two points in the fuse-box just under the dash-board at the level of the driver’s knee. After a while, I consolidated that method for ease of use by fixing more permanently to each of the critical points and a household light bulb socket on the other. In this way, insertion of a standard domestic bayonet light bulb brought the car’s electrical system to life. This solution, however, didn’t include activation of the starter motor, so parking on a hill became the norm – usually easy enough, living on the slopes of Tamboerskloof and working at the majestic University of Cape Town campus, blessed with lots of hilly terrain in the shadows of Devil’s Peak.
A less benign mishap occurred one morning when I was in a hurry to get to work and hadn’t tied my shoe laces. Unnoticed by me, the car door closed on the lace of my right shoe. Well, not noticed until I reached the first stop sign of the day. The slack in the shoe lace allowed me to use the accelerator as normal, but when it came to moving my right foot away from the door to the brake, it was pulled to a sudden halt inches away from the pedal. Fortunately, it was a minor intersection and no traffic was present to effect a much more calamitous halt. I learned to check on shoe lace status and the freedom of my right foot before setting off in the car.
3. Back on the rough side of town.
During that period, I was training regularly and rigorously in the art of Karate. Sensei Jack ran a homely dojo in the industrial area close to where I had bought the blue car. The Kushi Do Karate Academy comprised a single large room on the first floor of a functional concrete building whose ground level was occupied by a dubious ‘events organisation’ company. There was sufficient parking inside the gates of the property for both the cars of the cadre of martial artists and the vans of the business. Our vehicles were relatively safe from opportunistic smash and grabs that were common in the neighbourhood. I hadn’t foreseen an enemy from within, however.
One evening, after a tough and sweaty class, I came downstairs to find one of the event vans leaning its rear bumper on the now dented rear hatch door of my blue Datsun. Someone had parked the large delivery van without setting the hand-brake, and it had drifted backwards and come to rest with the help of my car. The building was closed and locked, and cell phones hadn’t yet been invented, so with the help a couple of karateka, we managed to push the offending van back up the slight gradient, and restrained it with a couple of feral bricks. I left a note under the wiper blade. The dent didn’t affect the functionality of the car – it was dented as badly in a couple of other places – but I was incensed in principle that someone should have been so careless.
The next day I got through to someone in a management position at the events company and laid out my grievance. He gave me a sympathetic hearing and said that they would have the dent removed by a local mechanic who did routine maintenance on their company vehicles. So, with some juggling with lifts, borrowed cars and other logistics associated with the busy but off-the-beaten track location, I got the car back to the scene of the crime and left it in the hands of the manager. After more than a couple of query calls, he said that the car would be ready the following evening and that I’d be able to pick it up after my karate class. He gave me an address somewhere in the immediate neighbourhood. When I arrived on foot at the address, I saw my car on the pavement outside a particularly run-down and litter-adorned terrace of houses. When I moved closer to inspect the work done, the single fairly clean dent had been replaced by a pool of jagged ripples, like a restive body of water in a high wind. Probably the tool used was the 4-pound sledge hammer lying on the floor of the car, which I could see through the hole that had previously housed the rear window.
“I’m sorry,” said the panel-beater. “It just shattered when I was nearly finished. But I’ll fix it, no charge.”
Choked with anger and dismay, I wasn’t able to reply immediately. A bit more desperately, he continued, “But I’m a bit broke at the moment, so it may only be next week before I can get one from the scrap-yard.”
I declined the offer and retrieved the low-security ignition key and went home for supper and a stiff whisky. After a few more angry calls to the events manager, who was now saying that the latest damage was not their responsibility, I gave up and resigned myself to my own devices, starting with a couple of months of driving without a rear window.
4. Hitchhikers on Kloof Nek Rd
Not having a rear window presented one with further security concerns. Not only did it make the car impossible to lock, even if that measure was pure placebo, but it also could permit invasion of one’s personal safety. I learned this a matter of days before I had the window replaced and its purpose as a shield restored. That evening I set out to visit a friend in Camps Bay, an up-market coastal enclave on the other side of the mountain. The most direct route from our Tamboerskloof house was up the steep, busy and well-lit Kloof Nek Road, over the Kloof Nek saddle and then down the snaking Camps Bay Drive, through the darkness towards the lights of the suburb. Close to the start of my journey, I stopped for a friendly-looking hitchhiker, a young black guy who said he was on his way to work a shift at one of the Camps Bay restaurants. I opened the passenger door for him and he clambered in. While he was doing this, I suddenly became aware – in the rear-view mirror – of a lithe body sliding gracefully through the missing window space.
“Hey,” I shouted.
“It’s OK,” said my passenger in the front seat. “He’s with me.”
I turned to face the newcomer in the back, and took in a slim young white guy with lanky dark hair in a leather jacket. I didn’t engage with him beyond giving him the most severe up-and-down look I could muster, before restarting up the steep hill towards Kloof Nek. The car was now loaded with three adults, and the small engine struggled a bit. In doing so, it held up a number of cars behind us, which I soon realised had the makings of a self-defence plan. The back-seat passenger remained sitting where I could see his profile in the mirror as a silhouette against the headlights of the car behind me. I awoke to the potentially sticky position I’d created for myself when, in the rear mirror, I saw that the rider behind me was running some long thin object through his long thin hair. I hoped for protection from a witness effect and began to swap lanes unpredictably to prevent the cars behind me from passing. At the summit of the pass, the road split and to my dismay they all turned off onto the alternative route towards the seaside suburb. I lost my silhouette view of the passenger in the back, and any further chance of monitoring his supposed weapon and body language. At this point. I gave up all pretenses that this was a normal drive over the hill. About 100 metres head of me, I could see the tail lights of a car travelling sedately. I sunk my accelerator foot to the floor and was soon tailgating it at close quarters. As soon as I had half a non-suicidal chance of overtaking, I did so at speed. I pulled in front of it and slowed right down so that its headlights once again enabled me to monitor the threat from behind. Within a few minutes we entered the suburb and its street-lamped roads. A measure of relief, but not out of the poorly-populated woods yet, I remarked inwardly. When the guardian angel car behind me turned off, I put my foot down again and was soon on the busy main road where I made a robust stop at the first traffic light that presented itself. Before I could say, “This is as far as I’m going. Have a good evening,” Jack in the back was out of the hole that he’d entered by and was gone. The front man was not quite as quick, but he didn’t stop to make conversation. I’ll never know whether they regarded the event as a failed felony, or just a terrifying ride with a very bad driver.
5. A family car
Its crude functionality and battered condition notwithstanding, the blue Datsun served well as a family car. Its back bumper carried a message for following drivers to stay their distance because ‘This car runs on prune juice” and, of course, there was an appeal to “Save the Whales”. Inside the car, littering the floor and seats, were a miscellany of toys, lost socks, unpaid utility bills and, in the cubby hole, various items including a spare light bulb for activating the ignition. The back seat was almost always folded away, allowing for a level playing field for kids, dogs, toys, frisbees and surfboards.
6. …now you don’t
The last time I saw the blue Datsun alive was when I parked in in front of Claude’s Fast Food trailer on the Grand Parade, not far from the pole that I would climb in order to see Nelson Mandela deliver his freedom speech a couple of years later. On the night in question, however, I was on my way to attend a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. It was to be a gala event involving an after-party with fine wines and canapes, and an opportunity to mix and mingle with members of the choir who sang under the baton of Langa’s own Duke Ngcukana. They had received a standing ovation on completion of Ode to Joy and were in high spirits as they socialised, with flashing smiles and heads thrown back in laughter. I enjoyed a half-glass of bubbly white wine and some interchanges of appreciation before I took my leave and strode out onto the Parade vocalizing my joie de vivre: “Ta ta teedum/ ta tatti teedum /ta tee ta/ …”. The soft celebratory sounds in my head faded and were replaced by a rapidly rising crescendo of screeching anxiety as I tried to come to terms with the empty parking bay in front of me. I walked the Parade in an expanding spiral just in case, but in my heart I knew that it was in the hands of callous carnappers.
About 10 days later, I had a telephone call from someone in the municipal cleansing department to tell me that a team of public open space cleaners had discovered a car in the dunes along the Strandfontein coast of False Bay. They had traced the car’s registration to me. He must have heard a rise of optimism in the tone of my voice and was quick to explain that I shouldn’t get my hopes up for the victim’s recovery. He gave me detailed, landmarked instructions as to where the car was in the dune system: off the main tarmac road, onto a gravel road, then onto a sandy track which petered out after 300 metres or so, and then a heart-stopping, isolated five minute walk to the far side of the big dune where the track ended. I wasn’t prepared for the sight that awaited me. The car was like the carcass of a Wildebeest, butchered and stripped bare by a violent squabble of vultures and hyenas: no wheels, no windows, no seats, no engine. Surrounding the mortal remains of the Datsun, amidst the sand and stunted dune vegetation, lay personal items clearly thrown from the car while the plunderers were making sure that nothing of value was being overlooked. Close to the car, next to where the passenger door had previously been, lying face-down in the sand, was a purple knitted cuddly companion belonging to our daughter. I picked it up and brushed off the sand, muttering tunelessly into the muffled wilderness,“…teedum/ ta tatti teedum /…”. Walking away from the crime scene, I stopped and turned round once to bid a last farewell to the blue Datsun who gestured good-bye with a reminder to me of our duty to “Save the Whales”.
That was the name given to her by Joanne, our youngest sister, who surely resented her the most. She might have been Mildred or something, and her surname is lost to me, but we knew her as Aunt Millie, and somehow she managed to waddle around on a pair of grossly saturated legs, rather like sandbags, and which defied any laws of physics. She wasn’t really our aunt, but had been a kind neighbour in Kroonstad when our father was growing up, especially when he hid on the roof to avoid the wrath of his own irascible father. Being childless herself, she often gave him a refuge, plus sweet tea and biscuits.
In 1963, we had recently moved into 909 Church Street – a large double-storey house in Arcadia, Pretoria – and were relishing a new sense of space, when this portly stranger suddenly came to live with us along with some heavy furniture, crockery and a budgie. This meant that we four sisters had to squash into one room again, as the idea was that Auntie Millie’s railway widow’s pension would help to pay our rent at a difficult time. She also gave Daddy a lathe and workshop tools that belonged to her late husband, Harold, who had been a train driver. It wasn’t long before Dad had sold all the tools to a neighbour for some cash. I don’t know if Aunt Millie ever knew about this betrayal; but on the other hand, our mother gave her a warm home for the last years of her life, and kindness and respect.
Millie’s main pleasures were a daily box of Peter Stuyvesant, a glass of sweet sherry in the evenings, and letters from her relatives. She had to wait a whole day to do the crossword in Daddy’s Rand Daily Mail and Evening Star, as he needed time to finish the horse racing columns and plan his spread for Tattersalls. Being a railway widow, Millie was entitled to a free pass once a year so she always used it to visit the relatives who had never offered her a home as we did. But apart from that, her Saturday treat was to don a hat and gloves, catch the bus down Church Street and have cream tea with scones at Garlicks in central Pretoria. I don’t think Millie had friends in Pretoria but that didn’t make any difference to her weekly outings. And now I ask myself – how ever did she heave herself on and off that bus, never mind the steep steps to get up onto to railway coach for her annual train ride? It must have been a sore trial to her that we lived in a double-storey house. We all heard those slow gasps as she negotiated one step at a time, going up or down.
Aunt Millie soon adapted to us, her ’new family’, although it was not so easy for us to accept her old lady ways, especially as she sent us hither and thither to fetch pills, cigarettes, crochet work or crosswords which were always in another room. Joanne had the worst time of it and was not allowed to be cheeky. It was painful to watch Aunt Millie heave her waterlogged weight out of a chair, onto those misshapen tree stump legs. She also doused herself generously in a cloud of cloying lilac perfume. Wheezing or coughing, she left a trail of sweet-stale air and cohorts of upended stompies in ashtrays around the house – especially on the glass shelf above the bathroom basin. “Damn drowned submarines,” muttered our father.
But one afternoon, she must have been dozing while an unextinguished stompie next to her bed smouldered silently. It stood upright on the chest of drawers pushed hard against her bed, dropping hot ash onto her crocheted pillow case. Then it slowly burnt an acrid hole through the feathers and smouldered deep into the mattress. Even a corner of the bed base and the wooden headboard began to char and smoke.
A foul cloud suddenly billowed out of her upstairs window, and we heard her shouting. Rushing into Aunt Millie’s room, we saw the bed was on fire so, with one mind, my sister and I shoved the glowing mattress out of the window. We dragged it on to the grass and sprayed it with the garden hose, but the foul rubbery smoke spewed out unabated. So, we phoned the Hatfield Fire Brigade – merely to ask for advice as how to douse the stinky embers ̶ but they said they would send someone. They didn’t say they would send a monstrous brigade with flashing lights and siren jangling all the way up Church Street and into our modest driveway. Within minutes, a whole team of fire fighters in shiny black uniforms and hats were aiming heavy duty hoses at a ludicrous single mattress on the grass. We teenagers cringed in embarrassment as curious neighbours and passers-by gathered on the pavement to stare at the sight, and at us. It was all over when Daddy came home. One of his obsessions was extreme safety consciousness, and he fulminated if wall sockets were switched on when not in use. I can’t remember how he reacted but I imagine he must have been incandescent with fury that she had almost burnt our house down. And Millie would have been overcome with tears, distress and abject apologies. I have no idea how she slept that night on a blackened bed. We must have found an old spare mattress in the garage, so life went on. There were fewer flotillas of submarines for a while.
Like us, Millie was confused by Daddy’s rages, and she learned to keep well out of his way. But she became very fond of our mother who valued the extra household income and an adult presence for us children while she was at work. Aunt Millie didn’t endear herself to us, as she would reprimand or boss us, Joanne in particular. “Ag fie,” Mom would say when we grumbled about heavy-winded old Fat Legs, who competed with us for our mother’s attention at the end of a long day. I suppose the poor old woman had some charm, because, by Jove, she always responded warmly if one bothered to crack a joke or chatted with her. On the day of my matric dance, she gave me a tip to soften my hands by rubbing them with a spoon of sugar and cooking oil and then washing with soap. I haven’t done it for years, but it worked the other day after a muddy session in the garden.
Millie also had a litany of repetitive stories from her Kroonstad days – or Croonstard as she called it, trying to make dressing up for the Sunday evening promenade past the shops sound more like Paris than a boring dorp in the Free State. ‘Poor old sausage,’ Mom would say. ‘She means well.” And she reminded us how kind Millie had been to our father – as if that made it any better. For her part, Millie sometimes made us supper – her signature dish was ’hedgehogs’ or pale frikkadels wrapped and stewed in cabbage leaves, which we ate without relish. Cabbage poultices were part of her arsenal to treat those vast appendages that hardly looked like legs at all. Gargantuan old lady stockings and damp bandages dangled from a coat hanger at the bathroom window, and were also used to wrap pawpaw skins over suppurating ulcers. We children were not the most compassionate creatures, and spoke rudely behind her back, mocking her stock phrases,” My word! “and “By Jove!”
After her husband Harold’s death, the love of Millie’s life was a little blue budgie called Winkie. “Kiss me, kiss me,” she would croon as he sat on her shoulder, and he would dance from side to side, or nuzzle her ear. “Pretty boy, pretty boy,” he chirped repetitively for hours. I think a cat got him at some point and she was bereft, keeping the empty cage on a stand in her room.
Millie was away on one of her holidays when I was writing Matric, so I had the idea to camp in her room. It was musty and redolent of stale tobacco, but it gave me the quiet and privacy for last minute cramming late at night and again before dawn, without disturbing my sisters in our ’dormitory’. Somehow, I got used to the old lady smell and I slept in Millie’s charred bed until she returned. I regret to say that I also scratched through her chest of drawers looking for mottled chocolates or furry peppermints to keep me awake. Leaning against her blackened headboard gave me a different perspective on her life, and how she came to be part of our lives, and helped our parents to pay the rent.
Millie moved house with us from Arcadia to a plot at Mooiplaas, and then to Swartkoppies, and Mom made sure she always had a sunny room. Mom was as good as her word. She took care of Millie to the end, through all the chaotic years that she lived with our family. Meanwhile, I fled to Wits University and never gave her another thought. In one of my rare phone calls home, I heard that Millie was in hospital with bronchial pneumonia – or perhaps it was heart disease. The details are missing from my consciousness, as was my presence at her funeral. When I came home for the holidays, Joanne had appropriated Millie’s room and it was different. Life went on, and one by one, we all left home, taking bits and pieces with us, items that were useful, or which we were attached to.
Recently I was looking at the heavy chest of drawers that I appropriated when Arno and I set up home together, and I suddenly recalled that it used to belong to Aunt Millie. I could picture it in her room, housing her embroidered blouses, shawls, petticoats, corsets, stockings and stale peppermints, from when I had holed up for the duration of my Matric exams. That chest of drawers has been part of my own household for fifty years, and I seldom give a thought to poor old Fat Legs.
“Ag fie,” as Mom would say.
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
heady syringas a garden in spring
a rhythmic mantra that the train tracks sing
amo amas amat as in a trance
they kiss entwined under a rising moon
she day-dreams of sheiks on the ride to school
romance true love exotic lands monsoons
but then she sees guillotined by the wheels
a headless chicken doing its manic dance
now her journey’s more confined from the train
she still climbs slopes flies kites surfs turquoise waves
sees a lone arum bloom in winter shade
picks ever-lastings hears a scops owl call
memories flash by ecstasy and pain
still-life framed by the windows of a train