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 –
I had the offer in my hands. I was going to Joburg! Or was I? I wondered as I walked into the palace, that is, the very first house I ever bought for myself. It was a palace of two tiny bedrooms, each two steps away from the bathroom, three steps away from the kitchen, that was in turn just one step over the edging separating the kitchen tiles from the lounge carpeting. My palace, one of the decisions I took despite good advice. I had bought it earlier in the year after I came back from the December holidays.
It was while I was at home in Cala that I made the decision to buy myself a house. I told my friend, Bulelwa, as we were taking a walk into town. I particularly remember this moment because we were walking past La Gilda Hotel. Some guys we had grown up with were hanging out on the veranda and we stood and had a chat with them. One of them asked if I was married yet, to which I said no.
“So, you are still playing hard to get?” he scoffed.
“If not wanting you means playing hard to get, then I still am.”
“It’s gonna take you a long time to get married.”
“I still wouldn’t want to marry you,” I said, a bit irritated.
“Voetsek! I don’t want you either.” He threw the words at me and walked into the bar.
Bulelwa and I walked on, passed Nosizwe’s home where her kids were playing skipping rope made of old pantyhose.
“I want to buy myself a house next year,” I told her.
“A house?” she asked as if she did not know what a house was.
“Yes, a house. I am tired of paying rent.”
“Don’t do it.” She cautioned.
“You will never get married if you have your own house.”
“Men don’t want women with their own things. You already have a car. If you add a house to that, that says you are independent.”
“Oh, I didn’t know that.”
We walked on in silence.
As we got to the corner of the second hotel in Cala, whose official name I never knew since everybody just called it KwaNkcenkce, the thought struck me: “What does having a house and a car have to do with being independent?” I asked Bulelwa.
“It says you can get your own things, you don’t need a man to provide for you,” she said slowly and clearly as if explaining to a child.
I was dumbstruck.
For days I was in doubt as to whether what Bulelwa said was true and whether I was prepared to follow my heart anyway. Her words had taken root in my mind because she was married and younger than me. I was not averse to marriage. In fact, I was hanging onto an on-off relationship that I was hoping would eventually blossom into something permanent.
I went back to Cape Town a woman of two minds. However, a month after yet another thing breaking in the flat I was renting in Claremont, I took the plunge and bought this palace. If I was meant to get married, it would happen despite the house and the car. Mind you, the car was not even mine. It was a company car.
Now, here I was on a Friday night, standing in the middle of my tiny lounge, with an offer of employment to a marketing and design agency in Joburg. I was thrilled by this offer. The company came highly recommended and I would be working with people I held in high regard in the field of marketing. But I also had some reservations. Joburg’s reputation as a fast-paced city with sophisticated and highly ambitious people scared me. Doubts flooded my mind – would I be able to live up to this image of sophistication and ambition? After all, I was only a girl from Cala. Lastly, even though I was sure my relationship with Themba was dead and gone, he kept making contact occasionally, making me wonder whether I had not been hasty in ending it. Some days I really thought we could make up and everything would be fine. On other days I would remember why we had broken up and wish I could get over him once and for all.
So I stood in the middle of my palace’s lounge wondering, “Where is that Voice when I need It?”
I had until end of Monday to accept or reject the offer. I sat on the tiny two-seater couch waiting for The Voice to come.
I thought of turning the TV on but decided against it. I wanted to hear The Voice loud and clear on this issue.
I got bored and went out to join some friends for a catch-up.
Saturday morning came in the continued silence. I went ahead with my day, running errands and shopping. The beauty of living in Kenilworth Park was that Kenilworth Centre was a short distance away. I could easily go and watch a movie there to while the day away.
“So, you are torn about the Joburg offer.” It was as if The Voice was waiting for me when I got home.
“Actually, yes!” I said with attitude.
“What are you torn about exactly?”
“Whether I should go or not.”
Was It stupid?
“What’s your heart telling you?”
“Well, on the one hand I want to go, but on the other I don’t want to give up the possibility of things working out between Themba and me.”
“So, what’s your heart telling you?” It asked again.
“I don’t know. That’s why I need your advice.”
“Really? Do you need my advice or do you want me to make this decision for you?”
That was odd. But, truth be told, it would be nice to have someone make this decision for me. I realised, as I went to into the kitchen to get some water, I had been making decisions by myself for a very long time now. I was tired, very tired. But I was not about to admit that to The Voice.
“No, I don’t want you to make the decision for me, I just need your advice,” I lied.
“Alright, here’s my advice – do what feels right for you.”
“Is that the best advice you can give me?”
“You must understand – every decision has consequences. It is better to make your decisions yourself because, if the consequences turn out bad, you are not burdened with living with them as well as the resentment and anger you’d feel if someone else had made the decision for you.”
“But I can’t tell the consequences of any decision I make now,” I protested.
“The trick is preparedness. Make a decision where the consequences, whether good or bad, you are prepared to live with.”
Good theory, I thought as I stood up and took the two steps into my bedroom. As far as I was concerned, that conversation was over.
That evening Themba came by. We had a conversation about the Joburg offer. I hoped that it was going to be a long conversation, covering the pros and cons of going or not going. I was even hoping he would ask me not to go. Instead, it was short.
“You must do what you want. It’s your career,” he said after I explained my predicament.
“Look, it’s not that I don’t want to be with you. It’s just that I have seen how important your career is to you. Right now, I can’t promise you anything in terms of where this relationship is going and I don’t want you to place your career on hold because of it.”
I could only nod to show my understanding.
As much as I felt Themba was rejecting me, there was some truth in what he was saying. In the journey of building a career in Cape Town I had had my fair share of tribulations. What had pulled me back from the brink of resigning from some jobs had been the mantra, “I came to Cape Town to work for my family.” At the hardest moments, this mantra held me together. It was no surprise that Themba understood that my career was important.
“So, what happens to us if I go to Joburg?”
“I don’t know. We’ll see.” He looked down.
At that moment I knew I was going to Joburg and that my relationship with Themba was finally over.
There was an awkward silence. We tried to get back to a comfortable, easy conversation. We even tried to cuddle, but we could not find a comfortable position. I understood, just as I was gone from Themba, he too was gone from me. We parted with a friendly hug at the door.
I was, yet again, back to being the queen of an empty palace. I cried over the death of this relationship. I cried for having to lay to rest any hopes of a future with Themba. I cried for the friends and family I would be leaving behind. I cried for leaving the palace I had not even lived in for a year. I cried for the advice Bulelwa had given me which I had ignored. I cried for this, I cried for that, I cried for any and everything. I cried until I was emptied out of any hopes and dreams I had of Cape Town. The hopes and dreams forming in my heart about Joburg were starting to shine brighter. I made contact with people who I had either grown up with or knew through work. Everyone was supportive. I remembered The Voice’s words from years ago when I was going to Mount Arthur, “Wherever you go, people will be sent ahead to receive you.”
My mantra changed from, “I came to Cape Town to work for my family” to “I came to the city to work for my family.” In accepting a job in Joburg, I came to realise that I was prepared to go to any city if it promised good prospects. Above all else, I was prepared to live with the consequences.
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.
Ron and Phyllis are a struggling couple in their late 70s. Until recently they lived directly opposite me in our quiet, friendly suburban street. Well, mostly quiet and friendly during the twenty years that I’ve lived here, the only exceptions being, two cases of arson, one accidental kitchen fire started by the computer geek in the cottage adjoining mine, and two murders. But those are stories for another time. Here I aim to recount what I’ve seen of Ron’s story, one about the private hells churning beneath the tranquil surface of daily pleasantries about the lovely sunny weather and the need for some rain to favour our summer-stressed gardens.
A short while before they left, on a Saturday morning, I was up to my elbows in soap suds at the kitchen sink, trying to reverse the entropy generated by the previous evening’s meal, when I heard a thump from the direction of the front door – an errant bird hitting the front window maybe? Hands dripping, I went through to investigate and found Ron standing uncertainly on the front stoep, looking like he was on the verge of leaving before he’d arrived. He was in slippers, wearing his usual baggy brown sweater, and his gaunt face was unshaven. The morning back-lighting accentuated a drip suspended from his lean nose, and his eyes were red.
“Ron,” I said, “what’s the matter?”
“Phyllis is dead,” he squeezed out between a couple of stifled sobs. “The hospital called to tell me this morning.”
I knew she had been hospitalized few days earlier and had been admitted to ICU to deal with an acute case of septic gall stones. I also knew that his sister-in-law, Phyllis’ sister, was seeing to his needs.
“Have you let Phyllis’ sister know?,” I asked after some awkward attempts at sympathetic consolation.
“No, I don’t know how to use the cell phone she’s left me.”
“Let me try,” I suggested, taking the phone and going to the contact list to look for ‘Ingrid’. She answered almost immediately, and was flabbergasted at the news, but also level-headed enough to say she’d call back after she’d spoken to the hospital. Minutes later the phone rang and the sister could report the good news that Phyllis was in good spirits and recovering well.
When I moved into my house two decades ago, Ron had an old brown Ford Escort with a seriously noisy silencer parked in their driveway. He only drove it occasionally, and after a while not at all. He seemed to be retired, while she went off to work every day at an insurance company, and played golf with a work colleague at the week-ends. The going started getting tough for them when she was retrenched. The car lapsed into total disuse, and the weeds grew up around it. One day, several years after its last outing, it was towed away by a rough and ready backyard mechanic for spare parts. So the sliding steel gate became a pedestrian portal to the property, and the electric motor was only called upon to make a 2-foot wide gap for Phyllis to take her daily walk up to the village to visit the library, buy supplies and probably meet a friend for coffee. Once a week it needed to be opened a little extra to accommodate the passage of her bag of golf clubs out and into the BMW boot of her ex-work colleague. In time this pattern also fell by the wayside, possibly because the green fees had become a drain on their now meagre resources. The next thing to go was the gate motor. For a while Ron took to unlocking the mechanism so that he could slide it by hand to let Phyllis out on her daily excursions. I never saw her operate the gate manually herself, and don’t know if it was beyond her physical strength, or whether Ron regarded it as his male role to be the gate-keeper. He would let her out, go back inside to do whatever he spent his time doing, then returning to gate duty to watch out for her to let her in again, sometimes posting himself there for up to an hour, peering up the road waiting for her to come around the corner.
I more or less got to know Ron through the bars of his gate during this period. Sometimes I would take advantage of his ritual guard duty to go across the road and put in an appearance to do a non-invasive neighbourly check on their well-being over a short chat.
If I waved and shouted “Hi Ron,” he would chirpily respond with one of two standard greetings – either: “Hail to thee, blithe Spirit! Bird thou never wert,” or otherwise a wave and: “Good morrow kind sir.” If I were to ask him about his state of well-being, he would usually dig for a Scottish accent and respond with: “Nae sa wirse.” The first quote I Googled as being from Percy Bysshe Shelley’s To a Skylark, but the last has evaded me.
The next stage of the compounding gate crisis was when the override mechanism also failed. The procedure that Ron applied to get the gate open was one often used by strong-arm burglars wanting access to a property. Lifting one end of the tonne of steel off its tracks will disengage the driving gear from the toothed rack on the gate, making it possible to edge the gate sideways until there is enough room to provide passage for burglars and their swag, or in this case the gangly septuagenarian body of Phyllis.
Because of the demanding nature of the new opening technique, Ron would take considerably longer to open and close the gate. It was quite a noisy process as well, involving a metre and a half of heavy duty chain wrapped around gate and gate post several times, a sturdy padlock, and an enormous bunch of keys that, somewhere in its midst, was the one that fitted the lock. So from inside my house I would know by the clinks, rattles, clanks and creaks when an exit was being prepared for Phyllis … and then the reverse process to maintain security while she was out, and the whole procedure repeated in reverse when she returned.
This operational system was maintained for at least a year. I sometimes tried to help him lift the gate, but he would become irritated by my interference, while Phyllis stood by waiting to get in or out with a beatific smile.
That was until the gate jammed. One day I was aware of the opening ritual being in progress, but at a certain point I realized that the usual sequence of auditory markers didn’t reach the end of its cycle. It was replaced by random, indeterminate klinks and klanks, but no sound of a rolling steel wheel. I ventured out onto my front porch, and saw Ron doing battle to shift his cold steel nemesis. I sensed an element of panic rising out of their potential incarceration.
I crossed the road and waved a hullo to Phyllis, who stood on the steps of the house, her shopping bag over her arm, while Ron, straining, with his back to me, was putting in weight-lifting efforts trying to budge the jammed portal. Without being invited, I added my own energy, but to no avail. Sensing an opportunity, I went back home and rounded up a likely arsenal of heavy tools: crow-bar, pick-axe, sledge-hammer, hack-saw, monkey-wrench, and a few others. I first set to work with my long steel crow-bar to force a skinny-person sized gap so that I could be in direct contact with the offending mechanism. It was time for liberation! Ron hardly protested as I set about removing the rusty and seized electric motor, smashing the concrete pedestal to which it was bolted, and levering it out like a rotten wisdom tooth. It took me the best part of a sweaty hour to remove the machinery, but after that, with a dollop of grease on each of the little wheels, the gate could move relatively easily along its track. It was during that hour that I got some insight into Ron’s condition which I hadn’t picked up in my previous short interactions and pleasantries with him. The motorsectomy was an energetic one person job, necessitating him to stand back as a spectator, out of range of flying crow-bars and picks. While I was toiling away he said to no-one in particular: “At this point in the movie, someone will say ‘Son of a gun! This is one helluva stubborn customer’.” I responded with a between-swings chuckle of agreement. But for the remainder of the operation he repeated that piece of dialogue, word for word, about five times before I had finished the task and was ready to enter into conversation with him. I’m sure that each time he presented the line it was, in his mind, equally fresh, innovative and witty.
Phyllis was highly appreciative of the physical and psychological release, and the next day they came together across the road and gave me a punnet of cloyingly sweet home-made fudge prepared from contents in her meagre social security grant kitchen.
Unfortunately, as life proceeds, small victories start to lose their promise as building blocks for a brighter future, and take on the role of softening the blows of mortality. Phyllis’ daily solo outings over the railway bridge and up into the village became weekly trips to the nearer convenience store, now with a walking stick and Ron for support and company.
Shortly after the taming of the gate, the two of them went out to do some shopping one day, but on the way they lost the keys to the front door. I happened to coincide with them on the street, and they explained the problem. There was a spare key, Phyllis said, in the bread bin standing on a table close to the back door, but how could we reach it? Luckily an adjacent window was not securely fastened and, with the help of sticks and wire found in the chaos of the back yard, we managed to pull the bread bin close enough to lift the prize between the burglar bars. I hoped that this would not prompt another batch of thank-you fudge. What fascinated me, though, was the fibre-glass body of a Dart sports car, which, like the Escort in the driveway, was in the process of being overtaken by the feral grass. The GSM Dart was a South African made sports car produced in small numbers in the late 50s/early 60s. It was surely a very valuable item, even in its current state of neglect. I asked Ron about it.
“I’ve got two engines for it in the garage. It’s a project I must get back to now that I’ve got rid of the bee colony.” Indeed, for a couple of years or more, the back corner of his garage had been taken over by a swarm of bees. They had built a large irregular hive easily the size of my writing desk, which took a bee expert nearly a week to remove.
Ron’s obsession with security went deeper than chains and locks, keys and gates. We were talking about security one day through the gate when he told me that if I ever had trouble with intruders, I should call him. He would come over, he said, and sort things out with his Smith and Wesson 38. I baulked at the thought of Ron’s infirm hand waving around a snub-nosed revolver and firing it into the darkness from between the bars of his securely locked gate at my assailant. “I don’t believe in guns,” was the limp response I could give in my state of shock.
One day I arrived home to find an ambulance outside their house. Phyllis had been loaded into it by the friendly pair of paramedics, while Ron came and went between the ambulance and the house looking for her ID book, in a bit of a spin. There was some support from Phyllis’s sister, who would keep an eye on things, but essentially Ron was going to be on his own while the hospital was sorting out Phyllis’ painful gall stone problem. I took the precaution of taking the sister’s phone number.
A morning, two or three days after her admission to hospital, I came out of my house to take my dog for a walk and to pick up the newspaper, and found Ron peering up and down the road in agitation.
“What’s the problem?” I asked.
“It’s Phyllis. She’s just disappeared. She went out and hasn’t come back. This is absolutely atypical behaviour. She always tells me where she’s going, and when she’ll be back.”
“Isn’t she still in hospital?” I suggested.
“I’m very worried,” he said, ignoring my suggestion. “This is not like her.”
I emptily consoled him and assured him that she would probably be back very soon. He was still there at his post when I returned from the corner store with the newspaper. I called his sister-in-law, and she said she would be fetching him within half an hour to go and see Phyllis. I reported that to him, but his eyes reflected fear and confusion and remained fixed on the horizon.
Ron’s dementia didn’t allow him much rest while Phyllis was absent, even with the support and care of Precious, a care-giver arranged by his sister-in-law. Precious was a cheerful young woman with a broad smile, and someone familiar with geriatric problems and the quirks of mentally disturbed souls.
A couple of mornings later, at the crack of dawn, Ron wandered out again before Precious arrived, and knocked on another door in the immediate neighbourhood, that of Hermione, a retired magistrate. There was something to discuss that was criminal. I paraphrase the conversation told me by Hermione:
Ron: “Phyllis is dead.”
Hermione: “Oh no! I’m so sorry.”
Ron: “My gun has been stolen. It was in a plastic bag hanging on the back of a dining room chair, but now it’s gone and I believe has been used to kill Phyllis.”
Hermione: “Who stole the gun?”
Ron: “Precious. She’s a thief and steals everything, and also hides my keys. I don’t trust her an inch. The gun is probably in some Eastern Cape village by now, in the hands of criminals or anarchists.”
Hermione: “Is Phyllis’s body still in the house?”
Ron: “I can’t find it … But there’s a well in the back yard …”
At this point Hermione was sure that this was paranoid dementia speaking.
Hermione: “Ron, you have to report this to the police, both the stolen gun and the suspected murder. Do you have a valid firearm licence?”
Ron: “No, I don’t need a licence. It was issued to me as part of a Special Forces operation to assassinate Robert Mugabe.”
Ron was correct in saying that the gun had been removed from behind the dining-room chair. But it wasn’t the much maligned Precious who did it. This was the work of Phyllis’s sister and her husband, Billybob. They had spirited it away and taken it to the local Police Station where it was checked in with an appropriate affidavit to the Officer responsible for gun and liquor licences. On interrogation of the firearms register, he determined that, yes, the gun was registered to Ronald S of said address, but no valid licence had been issued. This is a serious offence that can carry a prison sentence. The records also revealed that there were three other unlicensed firearms registered to Ron. The Officer said that they would need to conduct a search of the house in an attempt to recover them. He made a concession that they could arrange to take Ron out, and that they would conduct the search in his absence. This was done, and indeed these items, plus ammunition, were found and confiscated.
Not long after this that Phyllis was discharged from hospital. I saw Ron the day she arrived back. If before this he had been drifting, panic-stricken through deep oceanic water with no land in sight and unseen predators circling beneath his feet hanging into the dark water, he now at least had been provided with a friendly bobbing life-boat. The storm clouds moved off. Light and hope were restored, and the panic paranoia of torture and torment were discernible only as miniscule dots on the horizon, easy enough to ignore in favour of unfettered fantasy.
Plans were already afoot to relocate the couple to a home where Phyllis would have a private room on the first floor, and Ron would be cared for in the ground-floor dementia ward. Probably uninformed about some of the details, Ron seemed happy with the arrangement and said that he would finish rebuilding the Dart so that he could get out and about, and would be able to drive around on occasions to say hello to his former neighbours on the street. This was a different story to the one I heard from Billybob later that same day. He confided that he had managed to find a buyer for the pieces of the little Dart sports car, and got a good price that would cover at least three months of their accommodation in the old age home.
What will Ron remember about the gate, the guns and the Dart? What dim and fragmented memories will give him joy, and what dark voids will remain to haunt him?
Hail to thee, blithe Spirit…bird thou never wert
*Photo credit: Pixabay
Having settled one-year-old Erik for his rest, I went to find Aidan. I unsuccessfully hunted the house, then into the garden I walked, calling and looking. In the middle of a newly-dug flower bed, I saw two-year-old Aidan covered in dark soil. His endearing mud-covered face grinned happily at me. This was an early vanishing Aidan, one that continued, even in older age.
My Grandfather and my cousins were all good magicians, as older brother Rolf and his own sons later became. Aidan, though, excelled as a vanishing magician from as soon as he learnt to crawl.
Like his glasses, Aidan himself was most proficient in hiding and disappearing. My friend Mary had taken the boys to give me an afternoon off. No grandparents living in Cape Town to assist, and no domestic help for me, just my wonderful friends.
“Janice, I love having your boys, but Aidan gave me such a fright today. He disappeared, we all hunted the house and called him. No reply. Then in the garden I called and called. Still no reply. I was so worried when eventually Aidan crawled out from under hydrangea bushes, happy and unconcerned. I was so relieved to find him. I just wish he would answer to his name.”
A common complaint. One day I was watching Aidan when Rolf called him from elsewhere. I observed that Aidan just nodded his head. Aidan did answer, but not enough for us to hear.
One weekend we were busy at home, early morning, when the front door bell rang. It was Howell from our shop. “Mrs Behr I have a delivery for you.” Looking into the large wicker delivery basket at the front of Howell’s bicycle, I was greeted with a great big smile from deep inside.
“Aidan what are you doing there?”
Howell explained that Aidan had walked down to the shop two blocks away and Fatima had asked him to return Aidan to us.
We had not even noticed that three-year-old Aidan had disappeared. What blessings to have all these caring neighbours.
Needless to say this prompted a higher fence, trying to Aidan-proof the garden. Erik, a year younger than Aidan, did not have this wanderlust need. Maybe it was the beginning of Aidan asserting his independent streak.
We knew Aidan would disappear if there was any form of water nearby and we had to watch him extra carefully at homes with ponds or pools, or on outings near streams.
I had volunteered to assist with Erik’s preschool outing to the World of Birds. Aidan had to come too as I would not be back in time to collect him from his preschool. What fun we all had on the journey singing together with extra children and a student teacher in my combi. We walked around enjoying looking at the fine birds, and some sorry rescued birds, until we walked through the monkey section. Again I counted heads for my little group. Where was five-year-old Aidan?
Aidan was so happy, grinning at me when I located him. He had climbed into a discarded indoor bath, now used for the monkeys, and containing faeces and feathered filthy black water.
“Oh you little rascal. And for once I have no spare clothes for you. Out now!”
School holidays. It was a Saturday morning, and Christmas Eve. Aidan was home after his first year at boarding school, aged eleven. Al and I had a few last-minute items to purchase down the road at Kenilworth Centre, and left thirteen-year-old Rolf caring for his brothers while we parents shopped.
We returned within the hour to be greeted at the gate by two very anxious faces.
“Aidan is missing,” said Rolf and Erik simultaneously.
Al immediately started panicking and I had to remain calm to pacify everyone.
“We will split up, Erik stay at the house, Rolf onto your bicycle. I will phone the police and Al, you drive towards the shopping centres.”
My anxiety made me stammer on the phone while reporting lost Aidan to the police and then shopping centre managements in case Aidan had walked to the Malls. Aidan knew what he wanted and could understand speech, though his expressive language was not clear, no more than single words or short sentences.
Rolf had already been to Adams corner store and now he went on his bicycle around the neighbourhood roads. I phoned Kenilworth Centre and Al went by the car to Maynard Mall. I walked up our road knocking on all doors until reaching Clare’s home.
“I saw Aidan some time ago walking up the road with his towel under his arm. I cannot remember when.”
“Oh thank you so much, Clare. What a relief that you saw him. I think I know where he has gone,” I replied.
Al was back home again. I said, “We must go to Kenilworth station, drive the car.” On arrival I scanned the platforms and rushed to the ticket office.
“Can you help? We have lost our son who wears glasses, cannot speak well, and has Down syndrome?”
Puzzled look. I explained: “He is Mongol, that is Down syndrome.” Oh that disliked term that everyone was trying to remove from the vocabulary, but still the only one some people understood in 1988.
The ticket officer replied, “Oh yes, we had a telephone call from Simon’s Town. A little boy was held on the train for his safety and he is on the approaching Cape Town train.”
“Oh, thank you,” I said, while emotional and panic-filled tears flooded my eyes and my body shook as I walked onto the platform to await the train.
Our prayers were answered as we had a guiding hand leading us to be at that station at the right time.
I wondered if Aidan was being taken to lost property on Cape Town Station. Aidan’s Medic Alert bracelet was broken and that day he needed it. For emergencies or lost intellectually disabled children, Medic Alert had contact phone numbers on record.
Off the rear of the train stepped the conductor and a happy Aidan, shoes on wrong feet, laces undone and a loosely wrapped towel, with his bathing costume almost falling out, held under his arm. Train driver and conductor had been radioed to let Aidan off at Kenilworth. Relief. How could I be cross? He had shown such independence and ability.
Aidan was told to thank the conductor and contentedly he waved goodbye as I hugged him, relieved that he was home and unharmed. Al came rushing onto the platform with a tearful face, and hugged Aidan too. Now we had to get home and inform our other two sons who were as distressed, concerned and worried as I had been.
I have always regretted not being able to thank those kind folk who had taken care of our son on his seaward outing. Thank goodness Aidan had been guided to the rear of the train, for in the apartheid-era, the front of the train would have been much emptier, and those occupants would have ignored our son.
The talk on not leaving our house on his own was reinforced for the remainder of the school holidays.
Why had Aidan gone to catch a train? We had been once to the beach by train in that year. And prior to that Christmas weekend, we had three car trips to Muizenberg beach, only to return home unable to swim due to the presence of blue bottles. Aidan had been so frustrated. And he does not forget directions to places he likes, even many, many years later.
I have never forgotten Aidan’s most proficient vanishing trick that included a train ride. Like other children and people with intellectual disabilities, consequences of actions are not part of Aidan’s life skills. That worry they leave to their families.
Depression refuses to be a pretty poem
It bullies my lines and stanzas
And gives my beautiful images the middle finger
It doesn’t want to be subjected to any reflections or rhyme
It won’t sit on couch to talk about how it is feeling
Depression refuses to be romanticised
It hates fairy tales and happy endings
It feeds on wounds, and it wants snot and tears
Depression keeps a record of all my heartbreaks
And never hesitates to share excerpts with me
It is boastful of its ability to steal my joy mid-breath
Depression digs a grave in my bed
Other times it takes over the command of my body
It once sent me to train stations at 6am
So that it could flirt with suicide
It often tells me that I would not be missed
Depression refuses to be a pretty poem
It bullies my lines and stanzas
And gives my beautiful images the middle finger
It doesn’t want to be subjected to any reflections or rhyme
It won’t sit on couch to talk about how it is feeling
I am a leaking bottle
I am a leaking bottle
I tell her
I am decorated with holes and cracks
Life broke me
Filling up seems futile
Joy quickly seeps through me
I tell her
You are a watering can
Where does the water that seeps through you go
What happens when sadness comes
I would rather be a dam
That is full to the brim
I tell her
Are dams not man-made
Wouldn’t you rather be a river
Fresh water passing through you
Wouldn’t you rather be in communion
I constantly need patching up
I am a rainbow of patchwork
I tell her
Don’t people point in wonder at rainbows
But these cracks hurt
I tell her
But is that not our magic
That we feel so much