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The Easter Egg

The rows of dusty black shoes and ankle length white socks entered the great hall in single file. Always in a single file. Row after row of ill-fitting maroon blazers that were too long and too baggy. Hanging off our shoulders because our parents could no longer afford the changing bodies of a teenage girl.

We sat down in the great hall, yawning, fiddling with our cuticles and reapplying our sticky, sweet cherry-flavoured lip gloss. We had not been told why we were called to assembly today. Probably something about Jesus. It is always about Jesus, and when only the girls are called to assembly then it’s probably about Jesus and breasts or Jesus and the length of our skirts or how Jesus hates teenage girls who wear their mom’s mascara.

I was sitting between Jade and Kelly. I would rather have been sitting next to Tori. Jade was popular and the captain of the netball team, but my mom said she was a bit of a slut. I mean, she isn’t wrong; the whole school knows what she did with Matthew when they went to the movies last weekend. Or rather, to Matthew.

I keep trying to catch Tori’s eye, just so that I can roll my eyes. Private school girls love rolling their eyes. We learn it from our private school moms.

I am mid-eye roll when a lady I don’t know walks into the hall. Oh God, yup. This is definitely about Jesus, this lady definitely loves JC. Her hair is cut short, but not in the cool way like the girl from that 90210 tv show. She looks like she goes to the same hairdresser as Mrs Laategaan, my Afrikaans teacher. Surely only one hairdresser in Joburg can master that very particular kind of purple, red and orange highlighter combo. I feel Kelly’s shoulders shudder as she tries to swallow her giggle and I know we are thinking the same thing.

The longer I stare at this woman… no, scrutinise her… no, judge her, the more I start to crave a Steri Stumpie. She is shaped a bit like a Steri Stumpie, dumpy and round. She is also wearing a light pink blouse, with matching light pink slacks and creamy white sandals that make her look a bit like strawberry milk. Anyways, she is of course a ‘straight out of Foschini’ fashion emergency. I do love pink Steri Stumpies though; I’ll get one from the tuck shop at break.

‘’Good morning girls. My name is René, I am a friend of Mrs Laategaan and I have been invited here today to talk about sex..’’

I knew it.

‘’… And how important it is to wait for marriage.’’

I knew it.

Rene rummages through a small wicker basket. She looks more prepared for a picnic than a speech telling teenage girls about the eternity of fire that awaits them if they even think about fiddling around with a boy’s penis. She pulls out a marshmallow easter egg. I mean, niche. I have always hated those eggs, I far prefer the hard white ones, that you have to suck before they get soft. The marshmallow ones always feel more like a handout than a treat.

Nonetheless, she’s got me interested now. What the fuck is she going to do with this egg? A reward maybe, for the person who can shout “SIN!” the loudest?

She unwraps the chocolate and holds it up like a new age body of Christ. My Catholic father would hate this, his convenient Catholicism (my mom’s term) means that he hates everything even slightly new age. I recoil as I remember his tantrum when the priest made us sing happy birthday to Jesus on Christmas day.

OMG. I gasp as Rene starts aggressively breaking the egg apart. Pulling at the edges and stretching the sticky white marshmallow before throwing tiny pieces of egg onto the floor. Oh, she is stamping on them now.

‘’This’’, says Rene, her once mousy voice now booming through the hall, ‘’is what happens to your soul every time you have sex before marriage.’’


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


When I was 16, my parents sent me and my 8 year old brother to visit my grandmother where she lived in a tiny village near the German medieval town of Celle. Our visit was her Christmas gift, one she looked forward to with great joy.  On the flight from Durban my brother, who was a cheerful and energetic child, ran up and down the aisles, pretending to be a lion roaring at the hostesses.  He stole the airline blankets from the couple sitting in front of us and flung them over their heads. Pillows followed.  This made them laugh; they found it endearing and delightful, I was embarrassed and apologised.

She had a European air, a nordic glamour which effortlessly undid all the anti-establishment rebellion of my braless Indian-print blouse and 70’s lace trimmed bell-bottom jeans. Her name was Sigrun, she said and held out a manicured hand with a glittering ring in greeting.  I was in awe. Probably in their mid-30’s, they made an alluring couple. Cedric was undeniably handsome and wore a casual suit of some light fabric with a suave worldliness. This alone would have aroused my teenage mistrust of all things bourgeois had it not been offset by his flattering interest in everything I said.  Was he flirting with me? I couldn’t tell.  I very much wanted him to be.

They were in the pharmaceutical business, they said, speaking in perfect English with German precision, and had been in Durban researching opportunities.   They thought my brother adorable and my straight dark hair and half-Japanese eyes intriguing and we made friends during that long flight.  When we arrived in Frankfurt, they introduced themselves to my grandmother and told her they would love to host us for a weekend in Hamburg. My grandmother smiled while shooting them a look that said ‘over my dead body’. Clearly they had some sex-slave trafficking thing going on and she’d been around long enough to know what was what. She wasn’t fooled in the least, she snorted later when we were alone. I should be more careful about talking to strangers. I rolled my eyes.

Nevertheless, Sigrun persisted, calling her up and even driving the 90 minute journey from Hamburg to make a friendly persuasive visit. Eventually my grandmother relented and Sigrun arrived one day in her red Mercedes with black leather seats to whisk us away.  We were enchanted,  my grandmother full of misgiving.

Sigrun lived in a very smart modern apartment in Blankenase, one of Hamburg’s most exclusive suburbs, with her husband Rolf – a dark suited, aloof man who seemed to shrug us off as one of his wife’s mildly annoying foibles.  For the first time I felt uneasy. Who was this cold, distant man? And where was Cedric?  As if to make up for her husband’s cool reception, Sigrun was sunny and effervescent as she took us shopping for food. She couldn’t cook, she said, but we could  have anything we wanted off the shelves. As we wandered up and down the aisles, she enthusiastically explained all her plans for the evening which lay ahead.  My brother would be dropped off at a friend who also had young kids and I would go out with her to a few wonderful places she knew of. Oh what fun we would have exploring a little bit of Hamburg nightlife! I was elated.

That evening,  I put on what I considered to be my best outfit; tight jeans and a soft, grey leather bomber jacket with a thin silk blouse underneath.  Sigrun ran her eyes over me.   ‘You’ll be cold in that,’ she observed.  ‘You should try on one of my fur coats.’ She handed me an armful of slippery-soft auburn.  I don’t remember what it was.  Perhaps rabbit or fox, some hunted creature.  What I do remember was a pagan stirring as I slipped into its voluptuous animal warmth. In her black mink, Sigrun’s eyes glowed.  Why not wear it out tonight, she offered lightly.  Never had I felt so supremely sumptuous. It was a young goddess who later descended the stairs from the apartment into the icy night air.  And when we arrived at the bar, I was pleased to find Cedric waiting for us.

All evening, Sigrun and Cedric held hands and exchanged deep looks while we talked.  The realisation they were having an affair was unsettling. Why did I feel complicit, as if I were instrumental to their assignation?   Nothing was said but when Cedric twinkled attentively at me across the table, the gauche young girl with ugly braces and troubled thoughts melted away, and in her place sat a sophisticated fur-clad conspirator.  I became aware of a young man with golden curls gazing wolfishly at me from the bar.  Boldly, I returned his gaze.

And then we were leaving.  As we approached the door, he came purposefully towards me.  How could he find me, he wanted to know? His head bent close to mine in the noisy, smoke-filled room, casual, yet urgent. Inside the fur coat, I trembled.  At first I demurely shook my head, smiling.  He persisted. At last I murmured my grandmother’s name and address.  A few days later, he would call her to ask for me and she would say I was not there and certainly not available to go out with him, did he realise I was only 16 for God’s sake, all the while throwing me fierce reproachful glances.

I don’t remember anything else about that night. Not what we drank or ate. I vaguely remember collecting my sleepy brother but not how the evening ended or where I slept. Nor breakfast the next day. Not the journey back to my relieved grandmother. I remember only that Sigrun and I exchanged a few letters after I returned to South Africa.  Today, when I tell my children this story, they are horrified and baffled.  ‘What were you thinking, Mom!’ They chide me, their eyes wide, protective of the naïve 16-year old they never were.

It‘s a story that makes no sense to me now. Was it just the generous whim of a rich lonely woman who longed to spoil two children in place of the children she herself would never have? Or was it an elaborate cover so she could snatch some time, however limited, with her lover?  Perhaps it was neither but something else altogether I can’t fathom.

But at the time, to the young girl standing on the threshold of all the mysteries of the world, it didn’t need to make sense. Why shouldn’t a stranger bestow upon me a luxury fur coat making me feel ravishing for one night?  That evening gave me a lens through which infidelity had never looked more glamorous or inviting.  I had no discernment, no filter to distinguish ulterior motives masquerading as goodwill.  It was an initiation into sex, power and deception, one that would leave me with an unfinished memory and the faint uneasiness that I was failing to see something just out of my line of sight.

It went straight over my head that from that moment on, I was no longer my grandmother’s favourite little girl.  She had not been wrong about them.

*Photo credit: Louie Amal courtesy Unsplash


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.


The swimming pool is calm and the water is freezing cold, I know this without even putting a finger in there. Such a beautiful setting really. The swimming pool complex smack in the middle of pristine fynbos, rolling up the hills a carpet of green indigenous vegetation, including some red data species all preserved on the farm, a private nature reserve. From the pool, especially from the infinity side of it, the view is simply magnificent. Down below there is the Biesbosch lake, a massive water expanse usually brimming with speed boats and water sport fanatics but not right now, it’s quieted down nicely in the late afternoon. The majestic Langeberg mountains to the back of the lake, rolling away all the way to Jamestown in the distant East and framing the coastline of Jana Bay. In the valley below the pool leading to the Chainoqua river. I remember our outing with a few tourists once. We took them on a ride through the reserve in the Land Rover to plant some trees there. It was quite the little adventure traversing up and through the bossies and protea fields, all huddled inside with our spades and excitement to give back to nature. Bart has done some amazing work in clearing the valley of alien vegetation, and in doing so, helped the water flow freely again from the kloof into the river. Still a long way to go but fantastic progress nonetheless.

As a local boy, I never really understood what all the fuss with the alien trees was all about. Now I know better thanks to Bart. Alien trees and vegetation were brought here, largely thanks to the old Dutch colonial masters, to build their settlement because our part of the world didn’t have many trees, at least none good enough to build their European civilisation in Africa. The trouble with these aliens though, they suck up far too much of the water, leaving the indigenous species far behind and adding to the burden of an already drought-prone country. So, they have to be removed at all cost to preserve our natural landscape, he said. I actually thought it funny or rather ironic that it took an expat Dutchman to teach me about my own land and correcting what the Dutch did to it all those hundreds of years ago.

In the distance to the west of the pool lies the beach, where the river deltas into the Atlantic ocean and where many a bottlenose dolphin can be found. This is the glorious vantage point from the pool and the setting of my world. In more ways than one, like the setting of the sun, so my old life and outlook was about to change for ever.

It’s nearing the end of my shift. Bart has just instructed me to leave my desk and to go to the pool.  Guus is waiting there for me. He has been bugging me for the last few days and insisting on teaching me how to swim. He found it so strange that a local, born and bred in a coastal town, didn’t know how to swim. Coming from Amsterdam, surrounded by water where every child is required to pass a formal swimming exam, it was rather strange to him that I couldn’t swim. He made it his personal mission before going back to Holland to teach me and impart his wisdom upon me. And now he also managed to enlist the help of my boss.

I was scared, unsure and insecure. I mean, I barely knew the man! Sure, we’ve been getting along swimmingly while they were my guests in the guesthouse, but this is taking it to the next level. He was such a nice man though. I think we had a liking of each other. Jasper also, but not as much as his partner, Guus, the tall slender Dutchman. Did I mention how tall he was? Prior to this encounter, I’ve never actually met a man taller than two metres. This, apparently, is quite normal back in Holland where, on average, the tallest people in the world reside. Guus had a very distinct deep frown right between his eyes which gave him a rather angry sort of look, even though he is one of the gentlest of people you’ll meet. Strong and highly intelligent this lawyer friend Guus of mine was. Without his horn-rimmed glasses on, his eyes were quite squinty, almost Chinese-looking. He had this way of speaking, almost like someone with a speech impediment and a very heavy Dutch accent. In my ear it sounded like he was swallowing his words and it was rather difficult to follow his conversation or mumbling at times, at least in the beginning this was the case. I later learned that it was considered posh Dutch the way he spoke, like the queen of England but then in English of course.

Bart too had a posh Dutch accent and he later explained to me what they say to people who spoke like that back in Holland. They are called “kakkers” in Dutch, which in my native Afrikaans means something quite opposite to what I imagined posh would be! But there he was, waiting by the freezing swimming pool with his big smile, kitted out in speedos and goggles, shouting in Dutch: “Kom we gaan zwemmen!”, come let’s go swimming!

Growing up in this small town where everyone knows your name and business, where everyone goes to church and believes in the same bible and conservative teachings, I had a rather conventional small town Afrikaans Calvinist upbringing. I have always been the smartest kid in town and school, that’s how I was recognised by everyone. The clever boy with the nice accent. So, it didn’t come as too big a surprise that I got accepted to study at Stellenbosch University. However, after just more than two and a half years of study, it became evident that I was not doing so well. My grades kept going down and I was underperforming so badly that the University eventually decided not to allow me to complete my studies. I got kicked out basically.

So, there I was, proud young man with the weight of the family and an entire community on my shoulders, and I failed. I’ve let everyone down. All that hard-earned money that dad spent on me, that the bursary provided me, that the State poured into me, all for nothing. So much for being clever, for being the smartest kid in town, for getting straight As from sub A and continuing into high school. Although not quite as many As in high school, to be fair. High school was a different monster all on its own. There again I experienced being a first. The first person of colour from my community to enter an historically White Model C school. This was just after the end of apartheid. I remember entering the school in those early days and being able to count the number of non-White pupils on my one hand out of a sea of White children. Even so, I still managed to thrive academically, and while there were quite a number of kids smarter than me, I ended in the top 10 of my matric class.

Overcoming the odds and making the transition successfully, I was ready for Stellenbosch and getting the first ever degree in my family. There was also a deep sense of duty as well, being one of the first recipients of a free South Africa. My sister, 10 years prior, was in the streets marching and fighting for the end of unjust laws. It was their generation’s duty to fight the old system and it was my generation’s duty to build the new system. The weight of the country and of Nelson Mandela also firmly on my shoulders. I failed.

Regression followed. The short but eventful little steps into a new world of opportunity in Stellenbosch and the big city, dashed by my own actions. I have not only failed my family, my town and my country, I have also failed me. The chance to grow, to develop, to change, to escape the confines of conservative small-minded, small-town politics and people. I had to go back. How cruel that self-inflicted fate was. For the next two years I spent life as a recluse, unemployed, supported by parents with no friends or intellectual peers. All I had was my own thoughts and they weren’t very forgiving of my situation and of what I’ve lost through my own fault. The mind is a powerful thing and the negative self-talk soon became a full-blown onslaught on my sanity.

When I got the job as day manager on the farm, it felt like light at the end of the tunnel, though the negative thoughts persisted. I would sit many a day by the swimming pool, alone and weeping.  Crying for my fate, for being stuck in the town and mindset. I was desperately yearning for more but not seeing how the more could come. It’s an interesting thing how you can put on a fake smile and appear to be so happy yet feel empty inside.

Compounding this were the personal feelings of attraction to other boys and not feeling free to explore or express that because of my upbringing and conservative Christian beliefs. It was a mess of epic proportions in my mind, slowing eating away inside of me.

And there he was standing by the pool, my tall Dutch saviour. He really did save me. Jumping into the ice-cold swimming pool with him was like washing myself off from all that negativity holding me back. Fighting, kicking and screaming, I jumped in not knowing I was on the cusp of great adventures. Little did I know how things were unfolding for me. Guus was the exact person that I needed to meet and the great facilitator that I required to get me back on track.

I held on to him for dear life as he tried to take me to the deep end. The water was freezing and I was as scared as a little child battling with him and with my fear. It felt strange being so close to another man, an older man, a half-naked older man. And here I was half-naked too and having to cling on to him. Feeling and being so exposed, fear, panic, angst, all these emotions bare. In these sorts of settings, when you have to confront all those negative feelings and then expose them and yourself to another, I think that is what bonds people together. In that moment of completely giving up and putting my life in his hands, that was probably the moment when we sealed our fate together.

Two nights later we went out for dinner in town and then they asked me. In that moment, I knew that my life would never be the same again. There was no hesitation or thinking required on my part, all that was needed was to say yes. I’ve reached a critical stage in my life at that point with the realisation that all the personal hardships and emotional abuse was about to come to an end. My yearning and desire to get away had finally materialised with their invitation to join them in Amsterdam to manage their small bed and breakfast business. And just like that, within six months of their departure back to Amsterdam, I was on a plane leaving behind an old life and jetting towards my new adventures in Holland.

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