Saans lê ons kwaad vir mekaar
Maar in die oggende
Bly net die koffie bitter
My morbiede gedagtes
Nou is daar soveel liefde, soveel geluk
Maar die golf wat oor ons koppe gebreek het,
Sal weer teruggetrek word in die see in
(en jy weet ek kan nie swem nie)
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 –
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.
Lying empty on the floor at my feet, the worn leather holdall is a thing of beauty, harking back to a time of artisanal labours of love, quality and long life. It conjures the image of a dog lying close by, one of protective companionship.
Beautiful as it is, it’s not an easy carry. When full, the narrow strap doesn’t feel robust enough to hold its weight and the handles although strong, require the arm to be held at an unnatural angle if one is to avoid bruising one’s calves, and I bruise easily. It is not suited to airline travel, and a seasoned bushwhacker might argue that it wouldn’t be useful on safari either, as dust and unwanted curious creatures may enter the gaps between the zip and beautiful side folds. Even when packing, ideally someone needs to hold it open whilst you load it up. So why the sentimentality? Why the unnecessary friction to reclaim it during the breakup of my marriage? I had in fact gifted to my husband, then insisted that because it had belonged to Spike, it was mine.
I’m woken by a loud knock at the door, it’s pre-dawn on a Sunday morning. I sit bolt upright and scream a single scream. I’ve no idea why. My husband gets up and goes to the door. I hear voices, him asking what’s going on and their insistence that they need to talk to me. I venture down the open wooden staircase that separates the lounge and dining room of our Victorian home. James turns, concerned at once for me, the situation and the sheerness of a simple but pretty cotton nightie and my naked body beneath. The nightie had belonged to my late mother. She’d passed on 14 months earlier and I’d kept it when Spike and I had packed up her home in Durban. James and I had married, two months ahead of our planned wedding so she could be part of our celebration and union. After beginning married life as a grieving wife, it had felt good to say to the bereavement counsellor two weeks earlier, that I could feel spring in the air, I could notice the world around me again.
I take myself immediately to the couch, perhaps for the modesty sitting might provide whilst also intuiting I’d not be stable on my feet. The two young policemen remain in the doorway, not wanting to intrude and to ensure a hasty getaway. They reconfirm who I am and ask me what car my brother drove. They say there’s been an accident. I hear myself: ‘Is he ok?”
Images of hospitals and injuries flash through my mind. More bedside care; the world I’ve been all too familiar with in the final months in the lives of both my parents.
“I’m afraid he didn’t make it.”
James, who is standing midway between the police at the door and me on the couch, rushes over exclaiming loudly “She’s lost all her family”, as he wraps his arms around me.
I feel numb, the words seemingly hanging midway in the air. If I could only keep them suspended there, then I’d not have to feel the full blow of their impact. Instead I imagine these two young policemen on duty at the station, almost at the end of their Saturday all night shift, receiving the call from their colleagues in the Franschhoek station, possibly even drawing straws as to who would go. Is this their first time? Did I make a lousy job, a little easier? I marvel at how quickly I’ve been informed. Learning only later that the car windscreen had blown out, flinging the bag on the passenger seat out of the vehicle as it flipped on it’s head and caught alight. Spike, with a little Moleskin book that must have been fairly new, had listed me as his next-of-kin, address and all. If only he’d have been as thorough as to complete that will template I’d given him some months earlier and would find lying in its cellophane wrapper in his desk drawer in his office at the wine cellar.
I’m standing in my kitchen, preparing a spontaneous meal with my new, big love, sharing the spaces of uncertainty and anticipation ahead of this Life Righting Course I’m going on in the morning and these objects I need to take along…and I begin the story of the policemen at the door and my voice cracks all over again, tears prick my eyes and we are both taken by surprise. Some hours later, after a beautiful evening I walk him to his car, a Land Rover, and am reminded for the first time in decades of the awful fights with the man in KZN over the Land Rover Spike had bought, had customized and not yet taken delivery of at the time of his death. Me, screeching in desperation at the hole ripped right through me by the thought of journeying through life without my younger brother, accompanied instead by this worn, leather holdall…an awkward bag, so difficult to carry.
The moment my dad walked in through the front door after a long stressful day at work, David ran down the passage shouting with excitement
“Dad! Dad! I got in, I got accepted!”
“You can just forget it. No son of mine is going to that moffie school.”
David’s lip began to quiver. He was 14 and going to the Drakensberg Boys Choir School had been a dream of his for years. He didn’t object. He never stood up to my father for fear of being beaten with ‘the strap’ that lived at the front of the toy cupboard as a reminder to look after our toys, to put them back exactly where we had found them and to behave in general. The strap was a leather belt that left raised welts and sometimes cuts on soft flesh when we were bent naked over the cold enamel bath. David ran to my mom for love and holding while I braved the strap, already hardened to pain by the age of 11.
“Dad what is wrong with you? You know he’s desperate to go. He’s been practising for months at school and he sings so beautifully. Today all the judges voted for him.”
“I don’t care, that school is useless and it has a bad reputation.”
“That’s rubbish, you’re just a stupid idiot!” Oops. Gone too far as usual. I shook loose from his grip on my school jersey and ran to my room, locking myself in.
My father, probably still reading his newspaper, shouted from the lounge,
“Where’s that snivelling excuse for a boy? He needs to be taught a lesson.”
“Leave him alone Andrew, he’s already hurting enough.”
“It’s your fault he’s got no bloody backbone you stupid woman, you molly-coddle him. Moffie, get your sister and get into the bathroom.”
David knocked quietly on my door and I let him in. He had his school sports bag over his shoulder and tears streaming down his face.
“Sophie, I’m leaving,” he whispered, “don’t tell anyone. I can’t stay here with him anymore.”
“No Davy, please don’t go, don’t leave me here with them. Please!”
After ages of my father banging on my bedroom door, I found the courage to open it.
“Where’s your brother?”
“I don’t know.” Back hand to the face. I set my jaw and stared at him in defiant silence, then I went to cry with my mom. When I stopped sobbing I told her that David had run away.
Hours later she returned home with him, put him to bed and no-one ever spoke about it again. David swallowed hard and never went to choir school.
“Oh my God that boy can sing!” I heard the man next to me say of my brother. My heart swelled with pride. David was the lead in the Pretoria Boys High School musical production of Romeo and Juliet and he was the star. There were even newspaper articles written about him and all of a sudden all the girls wanted this shy dork of a boy with fluff on his upper lip and chin.
It was the final night. David was on fire and the audience was electric. They erupted into shouts, whistles and bravos as the curtain came down. Wow!
After the play David was whisked away to a dinner for the cast and when he came home later he was almost unrecognisable. He was seventeen, suddenly tall and handsome, smiling confidently, wearing bell bottom hipster jeans, a cerise pink jersey and a paisley neck scarf. He was flanked by 5 adoring matric girls whom I recognised as the super cool ones from my school. I ran and jumped into his arms for a hug.
“You were so awesome! Wow, seriously Davy, you’re a star!”
“Thank you sweetheart, it was a great night hey.”
He hugged me tightly while the girls said their hellos to my folks and then he slowly lowered me down, then up, then down again, rubbing me over his erect penis, all the while looking directly into my eyes with that smile I knew too well.
He wanted me.
Not the 5 adoring girls.
My heart exploded with joy and disgust in the same moment. I stood in utter confusion with a contorted smile, not knowing where to look or what to say. He turned his attention to the girls and I took my dirty 14 year old arousal to my room and cried myself to sleep. In the morning I put it in a steel box under my rib-cage and ate family breakfast.
Photo Credit: Courtesy Unsplash Kelly Sikkema
It’s our third winter in Toronto, and our first on Toronto Island. We have rented a modest two-bedroom cottage. We hardly know our neighbours, and our families are far away. Having been a university lecturer in South Africa, I am now a postgraduate student, a junior. Our small income is from my work as a part-time lecturer at the university. She may not work legally, but is studying part-time, struggling with the academic emphasis of the course in drama – she has, after all, already performed as a professional in South Africa. Our son is eleven months old.
It is dark and cold. The cottage is heated by a ‘space heater’ – a large box under the floor, covered by a metal grille. The fuel is oil, pumped into a tank at the back of the cottage from a small tanker custom-built for the Island and run by another Islander.
To light it, you open a flap in the grid and turn a little tap which allows a trickle of oil to spread slowly across the floor of the heater. You have some small crumpled papers ready, and you watch the oil with a torch. When there is just enough oil, you light some paper and drop it, hoping that the oil will start gently burning and sending warm air up through the grille. Too much oil, or too little, and nothing happens.
On this night the heater has gone out and has to be re-started. Unusually, this time it begins to smoke stinky black smoke, so I have to open the windows, which makes the room even colder. I am already jittery and irritable, escaping from the emotional demands and opportunities of a two-year-old marriage into becoming an academic automaton. My ‘Major Field Exam’ is next week. Our child is screaming.
Three months later she packs a small rucksack and walks out.
You saw me at full noon,
Leaving the stadium
Among the boys,
Clear-eyed, breathless, laurelled
A laugh rising from my lip.
You did not see me at midnight
Beside my lamp.
Eyes dissolved, brow crowned with sweat,
The sting of vomit in my nose,
My head, my gut the playing field.
I had never known you so white,
back arched over the pillow
like an ivory tusk.
Even now I cannot understand
the source of that light,
whether it was your own
or the reflection of another.
Whichever, my body still recalls
the soft moon-colour of your skin,
how it drew me over you,
like a summer tide.
My knowledge of food is quite limited. As a child we weren’t exposed to a wide variety of different kinds of food. My mother loved gardening and used to plant vegetables in the garden of our home. Therefore, as a child, her vegetables were the only kind of food I was familiar with. There were also animals at home; cows, sheep and some chickens. Whenever one of the cows had new calves, we were always excited because that meant a change in our daily diet; from eating mom’s vegetables to now having fresh milk from the cow.
So it was humiliating for me when I went out on a date with a new boyfriend I had met on campus during my first year of study. Khettie was his name. He took me to a very nice restaurant. It was spring and the weather was lovely, but since I didn’t have any pretty dresses, I’d had difficulty in finding a proper dress for the date that morning. Anyway, I just wore one of my simple summer dresses. The restaurant was in town, which meant we had to take a taxi from Roma, where the university is, to Maseru.
When we arrived, we were welcomed by a waiter, who ushered us to our seats. We were then given big books which I learned later on were the ones where the menus were written. Inside the restaurant, the food smelled nice, it was quiet and calm. Khettie took the menu and after peeping through, raised his hand and called upon the waiter. He then asked me if I was ready to make my order. I shook my head and said, ‘You can go ahead, I’m still deciding what I will take.’ I was clueless about what kind of food I should choose: I honestly had no idea at all what to order. I went back to the book in front of my eyes, staring at what was written, trying hard to search for any word familiar to me; but all the words were new to me.
Now my heart started beating hard. I then listened to Khettie ordering. ‘Pizza,’ he said. So I said to myself, I shall order pizza too even though I don’t know what it is. I then proudly raised my hand and looking at Khettie, said, ‘I’m ready to order.’ When the waiter came, I happily said, ‘I will take pizza.’ The waiter then asked me which one. I was puzzled for I didn’t know they were of different kinds. So I just told the waiter that I would have the same one Khettie had ordered. I was also asked which drink I wanted. Ooh my goodness here we go again, I said to myself. Since I only knew Coke, even though I hadn’t liked it the first time I had tasted it, I asked for Coke – because I didn’t know what else to say.
As we sat together keeping each other company, Khettie broke the ice between us and asked me what I liked doing during my spare time on campus. I told him I loved going to the library, though I didn’t know if that was an appropriate thing to tell a new boyfriend. However, he genuinely seemed interested, and then I went on to tell him about my passion for drama. He was a good listener, I admired him for that. Even though we were having this lovely chat, at the back of my mind I wasn’t relaxed at all. Something wasn’t sitting well with me; I then realised it was because of the pizza I had ordered. I kept asking myself a lot of questions, what if the pizza isn’t the type of food I enjoy, what will I do? What if it was something chilli? I didn’t like food with chilli, the thought of it made me sick in my tummy. I kept wondering if I would make a fool of myself when the pizza finally came? If I did, what would Khettie think of me? These questions kept bothering me.
At last the pizza came. It was something I had never seen before but it looked yummy! Khettie began eating his pizza; he seemed to be enjoying himself and I realised that maybe it wasn’t that bad after all. However, something else astonished me; he was eating with a fork and knife! How can someone eat with both a fork and knife at the same time? I now paid full attention to what he was doing, wondering will I be able to do that? I waited, scared to make a move. I was hungry but hesitant to start eating my pizza since I was worried how was I going to eat with those? Well, a fork is more understandable, unlike a knife, I thought to myself. Khettie soon noticed that I was not eating and asked, ‘Why are you not eating?’ With a shaking voice, I responded, feeling ashamed, ‘I don’t know how to eat using both a fork and knife at the same time.’
He looked up at me with wide eyes and then laughed. I was hurt, how can he laugh at me. When he saw tears coming to my eyes, he stopped and said, ‘Oh Annie, I’m sorry, I thought you were joking.’ I was no longer interested in what he wanted to say next. I excused myself from the table and ran to the bathroom. He stood up and followed me. When I entered the ladies room, I could hear him calling me. I ignored him and shut the door behind me. I was furious and ashamed at the same time and then went straight to the mirror and looked at my face. I was able to breathe in and out for a moment and take in what had just happened. Khettie was a nice person, this was one thing I had noticed about him during the previous weeks we had started hanging out. So I cooled down and opened the door. Leaning against the door of the bathroom, he held my hand and apologised. I fell for his charm and we went back to our table smiling at each other. He demonstrated to me how to use a fork and knife.
The pizza tasted delicious but because of the humiliation I had put myself through, I didn’t fully enjoy it. I wanted to go back to campus. So I lied, ‘Khettie, I have an assignment due tomorrow. Do you mind if we go back to campus, please?’ I think he must have realised I was lying; he just nodded his head and then asked me to wait for him to finish eating. He said I could take mine with me; he called the waiter and asked him to wrap my pizza as we had to hurry back to campus. I felt relieved when we left the restaurant.
When I arrived in campus after Khettie had accompanied me, I was in a hurry to taste and explore my pizza without any audience this time. However, it was cold and tasted funny as it kept on making cracky sounds whenever I tried eating it. As time went on, Khetthie was always busy and with that we ended up going our separate ways. I believe he realised I wasn’t that type of girl he was looking for. Soon he lost interest in me and never invited me to a second date… lol.
Sunday afternoons we’d all go over to Harold’s, the kids squirming against me in the back seat while Dad and Moira sat up front trying to act like it was the weekend. I hated Moira and her brat, and they hated me and my sister. My sister and I were running this clandestine relationship that consisted almost entirely in brushed glances and disguised hand signals, otherwise the brat would start screaming about favoritism, and then we’d get it. Dad didn’t trust me because I was an agent for my mother, about whom we didn’t speak. Moira was just watching for ways to claw through intact with her brat. When I think about the boil of agendas spilling over in that car, it still makes me sweat.
Over at Harold’s it was a different world. Everything was the way I thought I might like to live, except that I’d have been nervous around stuff that cost so much. Not that Harold had an attitude, not like Moira. He was just a lot richer than we were, which always made me breathless, even though Harold himself was pretty casual.
Harold’s garden put you at ease right away. It was laid out with round beds, and the paving stones had a few weeds sticking out between them, but not too many, and there was a cracked old cement birdbath in the middle of one of the beds, and rosebushes, and wire archways that had grapes and bougainvillea growing on them in the summertime. It was a much bigger garden than ours. The kids could play for hours, chasing each other around between bushes that looked like they’d been carefully manicured, but not too recently, or else rolling around on the gentle, uneven grass that always made me think of the word ‘wistful’, until they made themselves sick.
Harold would come out through the French doors when he heard our car. He usually looked as though he’d just been reading, or listening to Mozart, or thinking about getting up to stroll in the garden. Harold mostly seemed to have been just passing time, until we made his day by pulling up on the gravel outside his library.
That was another thing about Harold: he was the only person I’d ever met, outside the characters in the English children’s classics my Uncle Will sent me every birthday from Great Britain, who actually had a library in his house. To me, the Library was a cold, deathly quiet, marble building in Town where you let the slime accumulate in the back of your throat so you wouldn’t disturb anyone, and where the lavatories smelled of disinfectant. Books from the Library were public property you dared not dog-ear or spill milk on, that you had to read fast so you wouldn’t be fined, and that would very soon disappear from your life forever. But Harold’s library was like a sitting room, and his books were friends you could take over to a chair for a comfortable chat.
When we arrived, Harold’s little, crinkly gaze would light briefly on each of us with a flash of pleasure, but I wasn’t fooled. He was only happy to see me because I was part of the package that came with Dad. I knew this because Harold’s watery eyes would widen with real joy when he finally let them rest on my father. Then they would soften in a way I found embarrassing, until Dad cut the whole thing short by slapping Harold on the shoulder in an awkward, manly sort of way, and then everyone would reorient themselves toward the French doors, Dad making hearty small talk while Moira comported herself and the kids jostled and whined to be released to the garden. Harold would make little pleasure-noises, like a cat when you hit its favorite spot. I would just follow along, trying not to do anything gauche. So far, fourteen was feeling even worse than thirteen had. I was pinning my hopes on fifteen.
Too old to tumble on the grass and too young to discuss music, politics, and art, I would spend my Sunday afternoons eavesdropping at various levels of boredom, or strolling around the cement birdbath, composing poetry. But my favorite pastime at Harold’s was perusing his Things. These were scattered all over the house, and included his books, his Artworks, his records, his jade-and-pewter chess set, and especially his display cabinet, which was full of framed photographs of ancient men with long beards and yarmulkes and stout, stern women in black dresses holding squinting children on their laps.
In the middle of all the photographs was a very old menorah made out of what looked like silver. It had Hebrew letters chiseled deeply into each stalk, giving the whole thing a deliciously textured look that made me want to run my fingers up and down it. I would sit for whole afternoons, sometimes, gazing at the menorah, and at the faces and hands of the people I took to be Harold’s ancestors, trying to make out the likenesses and to guess who was related to whom, and how they all got along with each other.
Dad and Harold got along famously. Dad would often quote some remark of Harold’s to illustrate that being rich didn’t necessarily make you insensitive. This surprised me at first, because usually when Dad talked about rich people it was about how money corrupted you, which was why Socialism was the only hope for humanity. Dad could get pretty vicious about rich people. According to him, however, Harold was ‘the exception that proved the rule.’ I still don’t understand quite what that means.
Another exception Dad made for Harold had to do with his being a Jew. Dad was fond of telling me how, when he was my age, he used to fight with his bare fists in the streets of London against the Nazis. But the Jews he’d found in This Godforsaken Country, as he liked to call South Africa, were bloody racists, every one of them. This had confirmed his personal experience, that ninety-nine point nine percent of all Jews were thieving, lying gits. ‘Git’ is a word I’ve never heard from anyone except my father, but he would spit it out with such disgust that to this day, I can imagine nothing more contemptible than a git.
So Harold must really have had something special. Even the usually damning connection between a Jew and his riches had somehow skirted Harold and left him as blameless as any decent, Gentile, working-class male. Women, of course, were right down there with Jews and Capitalists. I understood that’s what Dad thought, even though I never heard him actually say so— at least not in front of me and Moira and the kids.
Maybe he and Harold talked about it when we weren’t around. I know he would sometimes drop by at Harold’s after work, because on those nights he’d come home late, always later than he’d told Moira to expect him, a little drunk and whistling the Beethoven sonata or the Haydn quartet Harold had been playing for him. He’d go on talking all through his solitary, dried-out supper about Harold’s fine appreciation of music, or the new chess gambit Harold had taught him, and once he let slip how relaxing it was to be just men together, no wives or kids around to distract them, and Moira slammed the pots around while she washed and I dried and after that she wouldn’t talk to Dad for three days, except when strictly necessary.
Another thing Moira and Dad didn’t discuss was my friend Clive. Usually, she was Dad’s right hand where I was concerned, listening when I used the phone in case I called my mother, or insisting that I get home from school by 3:30 so I wouldn’t fall in with delinquents. But even though she’d heard Dad’s ‘Clive’ lecture, about how little girls who play with little boys who play with mud get dirty, she’d turn a blind eye when I’d saunter out across the road, glance around, then disappear into the entrance between the German delicatessen and the chemist’s that led to the flats above the shops.
Clive lived with his mother, who wore a lot of jewelry and ran a Bridge Club every Wednesday afternoon in the living room of their little flat. She didn’t like me any more than Dad liked Clive. She referred to me as ‘that common girl,’ and only let Clive play with me because she knew that, in the end, she couldn’t stop him from doing anything he wanted to. My father would have killed me if I’d even tried half the things Clive got away with. I would watch, wide-eyed, from a corner near the door when Clive’s mother ordered him to stay home and pour tea for the Bridge Ladies, and Clive mimicked her affected British accent and peppered her with high-pitched insults. Then we’d both flee to the asphalt-covered roof of their building to play Films.
Films was Clive’s favorite game. I preferred climbing trees, or borrowing a pair of forbidden roller skates to careen down the hill that ran right into Main Road, saving myself from certain death by running into the curb or just sitting down, two feet from the steady stream of traffic ahead.
But Clive usually got his way. We played the same film every time, Cleopatra. I was always Antony. I’d never seen the film myself, so he’d direct me in endless variations of the same scene, which consisted of Cleopatra preening at her mirror or lounging in a sunken bath of milk while Antony waited on her hand and foot. There weren’t any love scenes.
Sometimes, Clive would smuggle out one of his mother’s imitation fur stoles, and once he took her entire makeup collection right off her dressing table. When he’d finished doing his face, we discovered that he’d forgotten the cold cream, so he had to wear the makeup all afternoon. He didn’t seem to mind. But when we tried to sneak back in to wash it off, his mother caught us and chased us all over the flat, Clive screaming back at her as he ran and making faces that looked even more grotesque through the powder and rouge.
I escaped, but Clive was locked in his room for two whole days. He let down a rope from his window and I tied shopping bags full of Cadbury’s chocolate and Schweppes Orange and Batman comics to the dangling end. He told me afterwards he’d pretended to be Cleopatra in prison, being secretly attended by a faithful manservant.
One night after I’d gone to bed, I heard Dad telling Moira that one day, that boy was going to get everything he was looking for, and then he’d be sorry. I couldn’t hear Moira’s voice, which might have been because she spoke softly, but my guess is that she wasn’t answering Dad at all. She’d get very, very quiet whenever he went on about Clive, which was quite often. As I listened, Dad got more and more worked up, the way he did when Moira wouldn’t respond, until finally he shouted, ‘It’s disgusting! It’s bloody disgusting, that’s what it is!’ Then I heard glass breaking, and Moira’s voice at last.
‘For Christ’s sake, Jack!’ she snapped. ‘Relax!’ After that it was quiet again, and soon I fell asleep.
The only time I ever saw Dad truly relax was at Harold’s. Even after work, when he’d settle down with his beer and paper, Dad had this brittle look to him, as though his body just wasn’t built to get comfortable. He looked like a tin soldier, sitting there with all his angles arranged in the worn armchair and his stern arms holding the newspaper upright in front of his face.
At Harold’s, though, we’d all lie on a gorgeous green oriental carpet with our eyes closed, Harold and Dad and Moira and me, while special Relaxing tapes played on the tape recorder. I wasn’t used to being that informal with Dad and Moira, so I generally felt uncomfortable. The tapes had a man’s voice telling you to turn each toe into rain, one by one, and then your foot, and then your ankle and so on, with waterfall sounds in the background. Then when you were really Relaxed, the man’s voice would tell you to imagine you were in a forest, and there’d be birds and leaves rustling for a long time, and when the tape was over you were supposed to not feel anxious about anything.
Dad and Harold would sit around afterwards and talk in lazy voices about how good the tapes were. Moira sat with her mouth shut, trying to look Sphinx-like, and I wondered how soon I dared jump up to walk around the house and look at Harold’s Things.
Especially the Jewish Things. I knew I was Jewish, because of my mother, but I never said so to anyone in case they told on me to Dad. At Harold’s, though, I could run my fingers over the leather spines of three whole shelves of Jewish books, and read their gold titles over and over until I felt saturated, inundated, dizzy with Jewishness.
Then I’d slink quietly over to the display cabinet and think myself into one photograph after another: the Jewish child bravely fasting her way through Yom Kippur; the Jewish grandfather rapturously contemplating the Torah; the pious Jewish wife, mentally planning an immaculately kosher Sabbath meal. It seemed to me self-evident that everything these mythic figures did and thought had to do with their essential Jewishness. I never imagined them attending to mundane tasks, or relating to each other in ordinary ways. Their conversations must all have been about their glorious heritage, or about little Mordechai’s bar mitzvah, or about whether there was enough matzoh for the Seder. Everything they did was tinged with ethnic magic.
I think Harold was tickled by my intense interest in his family portraits. But he knew there was something surreptitious about it, too. Every now and then, on his way to freshen up someone’s drink, he’d graze me with that soft, absent-minded smile of his. I don’t remember Harold actually saying anything to me at these moments, but I know I believed without question that he understood my attraction to the photographs. In my mind, Harold was a distant but benevolent Jewish guardian. It was as though his casual security in his own Jewishness rubbed off on me, in the form of some secret survival strategy. We were fellow travelers on the Jewish Underground, who, for fear of terrible punishment, may never acknowledge each other but who nevertheless drew courage from the simple fact of each other’s existence.
One afternoon, I was fondling Harold’s Jewish books and daydreaming about being a brilliant child scholar in the Warsaw Ghetto (I’d just finished secretly reading The Exodus), when Dad came up behind me on the way back from the toilet and asked me, in a dangerously soft voice I recognized immediately, whether there was something especially interesting to me on those particular shelves. I froze. I was frantically casting about for a good lie when Harold looked up from his small talk with Moira, whom he always treated with impenetrable courtesy, and said, ‘Oh, is that my Van der Veldt set you’re looking at?’ He got up from his chair in that compact, catlike way he had and strolled over to us, talking easily about this wonderful Dutch bookbinder in Swellendam, and all the special ways she’d rebound his heirloom volumes.
Dad affected polite interest, but I could tell from the exaggerated smoothness of his ‘Hmmm’s and ‘Ah!’s that he knew he had me. He was just biding his time until he could corner me later, alone. Like the time he found out that I went to Jewish Classes at school instead of Scripture.
I was swallowing an acid rush of dread when Harold put his hand casually on my head and said ‘I was telling Jessica about that trip to Swellendam just last week. She seems to have quite an appreciation for fine binding.’ Then he pulled a book off the shelf and opened it to show Dad the marbled end paper.
‘That one’s my favourite,’ I murmured, gazing fervently at the swirling greens and blues, and then suddenly the thrall was broken and Dad and Harold were deep into a discussion about true craftsmanship, and how you can only find it in eccentric foreigners in small towns.
The funny thing is that Harold had never told me about his Dutch bookbinder. Harold and I never had conversations at all. I think he saw me as A Child, or maybe just A Girl; something, at any rate, that he didn’t know how to talk to. After the incident with Dad, he wouldn’t even meet the grateful looks I sent him all the rest of that Sunday.
Still, I felt much less lonely at Harold’s after that. Even though no one ever spoke to me except to tell me to call the kids: it was time to go.
When it was time to go, Harold would make disappointed noises and ask again if we wouldn’t stay and take potluck with him. Moira would decline graciously and say she had to get the kids ready for school the next day. Then Harold would follow us forlornly out to the car while Dad got hearty again. After we were all packed inside and waiting, they’d shake hands, just before Dad climbed into the driver’s seat.
They looked so incongruous together, from the back window where I was watching: Dad tall and pasty, his thin blond hair dribbling into sideburns that ended short, like a British sergeant-major going to seed; and Harold, short and wiry, with a little paunch and a shiny pate in the middle of his thick black hair. He looked as though he hadn’t quite grown up yet, but when he did, he’d be one of those old men who play chess on metal tables in the park.
Harold would fasten Dad with that same look I’d seen when we arrived, and then they’d let go their hands and Dad would swing himself into the car and clear his throat, while Moira ducked down to wave a genteel goodbye through the space between Dad’s elbows and the top of the car window. Harold just stood there all by himself as the car began crunching away, down the gravel drive. I got the feeling that Harold never went back, afterwards, to whatever it was he’d been doing before we arrived.
After that, we’d have our usual, miserable drive home: my sister and me dreading another evening trapped in the house with the rest of them, the brat working up to a tired-kid tantrum, and Dad more or less talking to himself about what a fine human being Harold was, while Moira listened in her cold, controlled way and made occasional rational remarks. What she lacked in wit, Moira made up for in disdain.
By the time we pulled into our own crumbling, concrete driveway, the brat would have tranced herself into a sustained whine. My sister would be pale with anxiety; once she even threw up on my lap as we were sliding out of the back seat. Moira would have a limp, determined air about her so you knew she was tired, but she was going to do what needed to be done just the same.
Only Dad would be in high spirits. He’d put the car in the garage and then come into the kitchen whistling elaborate versions of the Trumpet Voluntary and making weak puns, which he would repeat several times in a roguish, querying tone of voice until Moira responded.
I’d try to get to my room, but Moira usually caught me and told me to water the garden, or go to the Indian’s for bread. Dad would settle himself in his armchair with the newspaper and a mug of warm beer—the way it was meant to be drunk, as he was always writing and telling the breweries—while Moira began making dinner and the kids hung around the kitchen table until she told them to go and play in their room.
At the supper table after we’d been to Harold’s, there’d be this strange mix of moods, as though each of us was playing a scene from a book none of the others had read. My sister and I made it through by keeping an eye on all the storylines and being in the right place when our cues came up.
By now, there’d be a mean, defensive edge to Dad’s humour, because Moira wouldn’t be responding to his jokes. This would make my sister even more nervous, and the brat would whine louder, to be heard over Moira’s headache. I’d be as mannerly and helpful as I could, when I could figure out what that was supposed to look like at any given moment. Most of the time I’d wind up getting whatever it was Dad and Moira had been saving up for each other, anyway.
Then it would be bedtime. I’d lie awake late into the night, listening to my sister grinding her teeth in her sleep. Things always went straight downhill, after we came home from Harold’s.
It had been a couple of weeks since we’d last been to Harold’s when I heard the phone ringing and ringing from my treehouse in the back yard. Actually, it wasn’t really a treehouse, more of a tree-seat, with a shelter for when it rained, a shelf for my ginger beer and chocolate and a basket on a pulley so I could hoist up books.
I wouldn’t let anyone else climb up to my treehouse. Not even Clive, not even if he’d liked climbing trees. But I hadn’t seen Clive for a while, anyway. My last time at his flat, I’d been lying on his bed, reading comics. He was pouring tea for the Bridge Club Ladies, but every few minutes he’d run in and mince around the room, repeating the bridge table gossip just shrilly enough to be heard from the living room.
Then all of a sudden my father was there. I think my heart probably stopped beating altogether. It was the middle of a Wednesday afternoon, when Dad should have been securely at work. It was terrifying enough that he’d gone to this extraordinary trouble to catch me, and to realize how severely I was likely to be punished. But the real horror was that Dad in Clive’s bedroom was an impossible collision of worlds. It was like the scary movies I still can’t stand to watch, where something so inconceivable happens that everything you count on to make sense turns inside out and you think you’re going to lose your mind.
I was still trying to find my balance amid waves of nausea when Dad crossed the room in two steps, grabbed my arm and pulled me off the bed. I’d have fallen, but he had me tightly gripped. He dragged me to the bedroom door, where we ran into Clive’s mother. I think she was just as shocked as I was, though not nearly as scared.
‘Mr. Norman!’ she started, so surprised her voice cracked. I could hear a strange and sudden silence as the bridge ladies stopped shuffling their cards. But Dad, still gripping my arm, cut Clive’s mother short by staring down into her eyes. When Dad stares into your eyes, you don’t make another sound. There’s no telling what might happen next.
‘Mrs. Hamilton.’ He spoke very clearly in his softest, most chilling voice. ‘I don’t know what you’ve done to raise this pervert you call your son. But I do know that I will not allow my children anywhere near his type of filth. If I find him on my property, I’ll kill him. And Jessica won’t be back here soon, I guarantee you that.’
Then he dragged me out the front door, down the stairs, across the road and into our house. Inside, he jerked me round to face him and said, ‘Put on your pajamas and go to bed.’ I knew what that meant. In a little while, he’d come into my room, take a coat hanger from my wardrobe, and tell me to roll on my stomach. Then he’d pull down my pajama pants and bring the hanger down on my bare bottom, again and again, until I screamed and begged forgiveness. Then he’d put the hanger away and leave the room. When I got my breath back, he’d come back in and question me quietly, until he was sure I understood why I was being punished. After I gave the right answer, he’d leave me to cry myself to sleep.
But after we came back from Clive’s, I lay waiting for a very long time while, behind their bedroom door, Dad’s and Moira’s muffled voices rose and fell. I was still waiting for my hiding when Moira called me to set the table, just as though it were an ordinary evening and I was doing homework or reading on my bed. I ate in my pajamas, the kids sneaking curious glances at me while Dad and Moira kept their eyes on their plates. Dad went out after supper, and in the morning I found him fast asleep on the toilet, his trousers around his ankles and the bathroom reeking of Scotch.
So Clive had to find someone else to play Films with. And since that afternoon, I’d been spending a lot more time in my treehouse. This particular Sunday the telephone rang so long that it penetrated even my reader’s trance. After a while, it got so I had to read the same paragraph over and over, because part of my mind was counting the rings and growing increasingly anxious. Twenty-seven; twenty-eight. I don’t think I’d ever heard a phone keep ringing for that long.
I knew that both Dad and Moira were home, so I wasn’t sure if I was meant to answer it. I could pretend I hadn’t heard it, but Dad would delight in phoning a friend, telling him to phone back, and then coming out to stand at the foot of my tree. ‘If I can hear it down here,’ I could hear him saying, ‘you can hear it up there.’ Dad got a lot of satisfaction out of catching me in a lie, and when he did, I’d get the hanger for sure. On the other hand, I could also hear Dad pointing out, with sarcastic emphasis, that since he and Moira weren’t answering, it obviously wasn’t meant to be answered. Either way, I could get in trouble.
At thirty-five rings, I finally swung myself out of my seat, alternately hesitating against the trunk in the hope that the ringing would stop and hurrying so as to answer before it did. The phone was still ringing after I’d climbed all the way down and trotted through the kitchen into the living room. Forty-one. I picked up the receiver and hesitated a moment before saying ‘Hello?’
It was Harold, and to my intense embarrassment he was crying.
‘Jessica?’ he croaked. ‘Jessica? Do you know why your Dad won’t talk to me? Have I done something wrong? Please …’
I’d never heard a grown man crying before. I knew right away that answering the phone had been a mistake. Now I was stuck. I couldn’t hang up on Harold, he sounded so miserable and desperate. On the other hand, it didn’t seem wise to call my father to the phone. I stood there holding the receiver for a few minutes, listening to Harold sniffle while my mind raced. Call Moira? Have a coughing fit and have to run to the kitchen for water? Lay the receiver down on the phone table and tiptoe back outside?
At last, I picked up the phone and, holding the receiver cradled against my still-flat chest, I stalked softly to the door of Dad and Moira’s bedroom. Moira was sitting propped up against her pillow, doggedly reading a book. She knew I was standing there, but she wouldn’t look up. My father was lying on his back with his arms over his eyes, the way he lay when he had a bad headache. His mouth was screwed tightly shut. I tiptoed back to the phone table and listened for another few seconds while Harold, sounding weaker and weaker, pleaded with me. ‘Won’t anyone talk to me? What have I done wrong?’ Then I gently replaced the receiver in its cradle.
When we gathered silently for our Sunday night supper of tomato soup and toasted cheese—it was early autumn by now—nobody spoke until Dad and I had nearly finished our second helpings and the kids were playing with the last of their tinned peaches. Then Dad cleared his throat and looked at me until I tore my eyes away from my empty bowl.
‘I’ve said it before, and now I’m going to tell you again, so listen carefully,’ he said. ‘Ninety-nine point nine percent of Jews are lying, thieving gits.’ I murmured obediently and waited for him to finish.
‘Never,’ he said, while the kids stared and Moira pretended to be tackling a peach, ‘never trust a rich Jew.’ Then he pushed back his chair and rose to find his newspaper and his beer. I couldn’t quite hear what he said between his teeth as he left the kitchen. Moira didn’t say a word to me while she washed and I dried that night, but then she often didn’t.
I never heard Harold’s name mentioned again, but once when I was washing the floor in Dad and Moira’s bedroom I found a slender, leather-bound book that had fallen behind Dad’s bedside table. It had some old-fashioned poetry in it that I didn’t understand—I never was very much into anyone else’s poetry—but inscribed on the title page were the words: ‘To Jack—I sing the Body Electric. Harold.’
I hid the book in the waistband of my pants and the first chance I got, I took it out to the dumpster behind the house, tore the pages up and buried them in potato peelings and old newspapers. Then I walked to the bus shelter a block down Main Road and pressed the leather cover with its beautiful marbled end paper deep into the rubbish bin next to the stop for the bus that went farthest out of town.
Ek wou my stad se poorte
wyd oopgooi vir jou.
Jou bring na my tuin
vol lekker ruik kruie. Jou
laat drink uit my fontein
Vir jou soet wyn en
geurige appels voer
Maar jou wagte
het my gewond.
Ek wou my in die holte
van jou linkerarm vlei.
My naakte wese
aan jou, en jy het
weggedraai van my.
Ek het geroep
Maar jou wagte
het my weggedryf.
Toe het ek my stad versterk
die toegang versper met
balke van sederhout.
Op die muur ‘n toring
van suiwer silwer gebou,
met kosbare linne en sy my
en daar, het ek
vir jou gewag.