“I see my purpose as supporting individuals to nurture their greater potential,” I blurted out to Gabs when he asked me about my mission in life. I felt quite proud of myself for using words that sounded virtuous to my ears. After all, everyone else I said this to were impressed by this lofty purpose.
Gabs however, seemed unimpressed. We were in his office in Noordhoek for our weekly coaching session. I was sitting on the soft and comfortable black leather couch, and he was on a one-seater version opposite me. Even though we were in the middle of winter, natural light was streaming through his large office windows. The electric heater created a toasty warmth in the spacious urban-like studio. Aside from the space to sit and chat, there was room to work and many bookshelves filled with second-hand books. Behind Gabs’ chair was a big red heart – representing Gabs’ Heart Intelligence Coaching logo.
Gabs felt like the male version of me. We were born on the same day, both Aries. He from Venezuela, me from South Africa. He had a typical Latino sensual look, black hair and a two-day unshaved beard. Sometimes I convinced myself that Gabs’ good looks and accent that sealed the deal in me choosing him as my coach. However, in moments of radical truthfulness, the real reason we clicked was because he could see through my bullshit and call me on it, gently at times and at others taking a hard stance.
Gabs always said I’m like a Ferrari, that everything about me is in top form, I just need to be tuned in the right places – and he is the person to do it. I believe him, and know that coaching me was a big hairy challenge. He admitted to me in a moment of vulnerability when we celebrated our birthday together, that I intimidated the shit out of him when I first showed up at his studio. I could relate to this. When I am intimidated, I’ll fake it until I make it. The second quality that Gabs brought to our dynamic was a softness, one that I was not necessarily in touch with. I found it ironic that Gabs was more in touch with his feminine energy than I; to navigate this world I’ve shrouded myself in masculine energy.
Gabs continued to hold my gaze. I tried to distract myself by paying attention to the way his unruly hair kept falling into his face. Using his facial features as a focal point was a respite from a conversation that seemed to be heading into a danger zone. He knew I was stalling.
“Shamillah,” he said. “I wanna know the story behind what you just said. Tell me why you think that is what you are meant to do. If you want, tell me about the wound you are trying to heal.”
With a heightened sense of danger, and deep discomfort, I started fiddling with my fingers, changing my sitting position, and looking around the studio at the different pictures on the walls. My gaze landed on a sketch of a little girl in a field of flowers. The stark contrast of the girl sketched in black and white against the field of colourful flowers stirred my senses. I looked down at my hands, still avoiding his gaze.
The image on the wall evoked much more than I could handle. I felt myself gasping for breath, and realised that it was time to stop hiding. I looked at him, and made the brave decision to trust him and myself. ‘I am afraid to go there, Gabs,’ I whispered. In the most gentle way, he returned my gaze with unconditional love and acceptance. He said nothing and simply waited.
We had been doing these sessions for more than a year. Each week, I had to drive over Ou Kaapse Weg to get to Noordhoek. That drive over the mountainous pass was inevitably filled with noisy inner dialogue.
‘What more is there to say to Gabs? There’s nothing more that he can uncover. This is taking up too much of my time.’
On and on those voices went, rebuking me for continuing this very inconvenient trek up the mountain every week. Amidst all this noise, somehow, the voice I call my inner activist always managed to sound out all the others.
This voice would say: ‘Even if there is nothing more, making time for myself is a revolutionary act in and of itself.’ I liked the idea of an inner revolution.
Gabs continued holding space for me in that warm, soft manner. He sensed I was about to open a box, and that this was something I had never allowed myself to do before. So he simply waited, neither prodding nor encouraging. Letting me know that whatever I did would be ok.
I felt safe and held. So I said, ‘I am going to tell you something that I don’t think I have ever said out loud before. I have always prided myself on just getting on with life, of not dwelling on parts of my story, or to feel ‘sorry’ for myself. So, I don’t tell the story of my past or my circumstances that has made me who I am today. I am okay with others doing that, but I don’t give myself permission to do it.’
Although Gabs was saying nothing, I felt as if he was holding my hand – walking with me to gently open the box. Ready to catch me if I fall.
‘The truth about me and my wound, you ask? I have never even acknowledged this to myself. You have noticed this red birthmark on my face. When I was born, it was blue, and it covered half of my face. This mark, has not only visibly affected me, it is also one of the reasons I am who I am today.’
I began to tell the story of a little girl, born into a big family, who because of the mark on her face felt different. In this family, people often end up with nicknames, something related to a physical feature or character trait. This little girl’s nickname was ‘blou oog’ (blue eye) because of the appearance of the blue on her face, making her eye appear blue too. This nickname made her stand out even more, just like the ugly duckling amidst the other ducks, because she looked so different from her siblings and cousins.
In the years that she was growing up, everyone else was told they were beautiful or pretty, yet she cannot remember anyone saying those words to her. Like any other little girl, she craved acceptance, affirmation and acknowledgement, and in her child’s mind, the mark on her face prevented that. She imagined that the only way she could get positive regard was to be very good. She would be praised for being a good child, but soon she realised that being good over time meant you got even less attention, less acknowledgment. Not ready to give up, she decided to apply herself to be outstanding in everything. She completely shut her mind to the fact that she had a mark on her face, hardly looking into a mirror and avoiding being in photographs. Instead she focused all her energies on this mission to be exceptional.
The little girl grew into a teenager who discovered that because of the birthmark, she was completely blind in her right eye. Again, she absorbed this information, and never told anyone, except her mother. She was determined to maximize the use of her other eye, and managed this quite well without letting anyone know. The teenager was quite good at hiding, she cut and combed her hair so that her bangs would fall across her cheek and eye, so no one would notice. She excelled as the top student at her school, and at home she was the known as the most responsible and reliable member of her family. She was the only one in her entire school that got admitted to the University of Cape Town. Moving through early adulthood, even when she struggled, she kept at it – working on weekends to pay her fees and earn money for bus fare. The little girl had grown up to achieve the kind of success that others recognised and valued, for many years being the only one in her family who had a university degree, that had traveled outside Cape Town, that had traveled the world, and so much more. Even though she appeared as an adult, she was still nursing the wound of childhood. Up until her 30’s, she continued to hide her face from the world, afraid of being rejected or dismissed again.
This is one of the reasons she stumbled into the field of coaching, wanting to help young people who, for whatever reason are different, and may feel unseen, unloved, unworthy, and, as a result, might limit themselves. She supports these young people by helping them to discover their inner value so that they are not hurt when those around them do not recognise this. With a renewed confidence, they can set out to achieve what they want.
As I finished my story, I felt emotional and had to stop to control my breathing.
“So that is my wound, Gabs. Every time I work with the youth, and coach somebody, I want them to feel valued and accepted. Most of all, I want them to realise that the love and acceptance they need most is within themselves.”
Gabs helped me to see that the one who came up with the strategy of being exceptional was a child using childlike reasoning. He stood me in front of the mirror so that I could acknowledge a naked truth: as a result of my early experience, I had rejected myself. This truth bomb was the hardest to accept or own.
But I did.
Quietly, I stared at the reflection in the mirror, my naked face, my birthmark, my blind eye, and connected to a truth that the greatest rejection was actually within myself.
I knew that my healing journey had begun.
It’s a stinging hot day but we’re in the shade of Dad’s wattle plantation now. I’ve got her to myself at last. Grannie has her knobbly wooden walking stick with the little black rubber cap on the bottom. She’s wearing one of her pretty silky dresses. You can see through the material to her lacy petticoat underneath. She likes purply colours all linked up with black, swirling curls. If I look across at her, I can see her two melon-titties pointing out in front of her.
I sat on the bed this morning and watched her dressing. She puts on a corset which goes from her shoulder straps down to her waist with the two enormous bowls for her melons. Then the corset goes even further down, to just above the top of her legs and it has four suspenders hanging off it to attach to the dark rim at the top of her purplish nylon stockings.
She has to lean her titties into the bowls made for them and she has to do the whole thing up with hooks and eyes which go all the way down her back. She squeezes her face – open and shut, open and shut – as she curls her arms round to the hooks and eyes behind her. If she joins the wrong ones up at the top, then they’ll all be wrong and the bottom of the corset will be uneven and she’ll have to start all over again. Sometimes she looks at me with her pointy dark eyes after she’s heaved the first hook and eye together.
“Are they right? Do they match?”
And I’m allowed to say, “Yes” or “No”.
I don’t need to worry about the silver hooks and eyes stabbing into her puffy back. That’s because there’s a flap of pale, smooth satin that goes underneath them to keep her skin safe. Sometimes I’m allowed to pull it out into its right place if it’s been flapped backwards while she’s been hooking and eyeing.
It all takes a long time, and my mother is usually shouting down the passage, “Mummy, it’s nearly breakfast time. Boef, are you there with Grannie? Peter and your sisters will be back from milking any minute. Are you dressed?” Of course I’m dressed but Grannie is still struggling like a tortoise trying to turn onto its little feet from lying on its shell-back.
There’s still the stockings to do. She gets them out of my little sister’s drawer where she packed all her things after she got off the Orange Express from Cape Town. My little sister has moved all her things to our room. Her room is Grannie’s now for the Christmas holidays.
This morning I looked around at how it is when Grannie owns it. There’s a forest of creams and lipsticks and even eye-shadow and a bottle of rose water on the dressing table beneath the window. And all her hair brushes and the stick with a pad on the end for hitting under her chin at night to make her extra chin go away. There’s a rolled-up newspaper on the small wooden bedside cupboard.
That newspaper is The Natal Witness. We get it every day at the post office inside the railway station where the Orange Express stops for a few minutes to hurtle Grannie out into our arms and our kisses and bursting tears. Sometimes the guard has to blow his whistle twice before the train chuffs off again because there’s so much hello-ing that we nearly forget her suitcases.
Grannie opens The Natal Witness and wears it on her head in an upside-down long V-shape when she has to go the bathroom for a wee at night. That’s because a bat once got tangled in her long, thin, grey hair in the middle of the night. She screamed and screamed and every one of us five – my Dad, my Mum, my two sisters and I, all rushed into the passage to see what was happening.
At first I thought there was a snake, like the one that held my mother prisoner in the passage for ages one summer day while my Dad was on the hill. The kitchen girls were too scared to do anything. And so was Mshwathi, my nanny. Mswhathi and I watched from the dining room. My mother was as still as a stone. And so was the snake. It stood up on its own tummy and stared at my mother in a mean sort of way. The only thing that moved were the two silent streams down my mother’s cheeks and the spots of wet that grew on each front side of her green dress. In the end, the garden boy came in with a broom and killed it quite a few times and my mother fled to her bedroom and locked the door. I could hear her choking herself with loud tears but she wouldn’t let Mshwathi and me in. She stayed there, all locked, till my Dad came home from milking. I just sat in the passage on the green concrete floor outside her door, guarding her from snakes and everything.
I was quite shocked about the bat. So shocked to see it dancing in my Grannie’s hair in the moonlight that came in through the bathroom window with the dark poinsettia flowers shadowing the wall above the bath. The bat was busy lifting her grey hairs like strings on a silver harp in a crazy dance in that moonlight. Her scream didn’t stop – even when we were all pouring ourselves into the bathroom from the passage. Us three in our flowery shortie pyjamas, Mum in her nightie with no knickers and Dad with his no clothes on and his thing hanging down.
Grannie had her plastic suit pants pushed down to the floor. The plastic top – neck to wrists to waist – was all in place. You could see her through it, especially her titties. They were a bit flopped because of no corset in bed. At night she wore the plastic suit for sweating and getting thin while you sleep. As we pushed through the door, she was standing and screaming and her hands were trying to beat that little bat out. But it wouldn’t.
So even though you could see her bottom and everything, my Dad went straight in and, with his arm that has no hand, he pushed his way into her hair to reach and hold down the little bat. And with his hand-arm, he untangled the tiny mouse-thing and let it use its wings to fly out through the white-framed bathroom window.
My mother had done quite a few shrieks and had raced off down the passage before my Dad got the bat free. She came back with her giant silver sewing scissors to cut Grannie’s hair off and free the bat. Grannie yelled at her to NOT. Her boyfriend, Eric, was coming soon, she said, to take her away to a more civilised place.
I was laughing with terrified tears, and crying with scary feelings at the wildness and funniness of what was going on. And then she said about the boyfriend. Everything in me went still and very cold in my chest, like a hard chunk of ice from the freezer. What did she mean? My little sister blinked quite a few times as we turned away to go down the passage to our bedroom. She blinked and she whispered, “Grannies don’t have boyfriends – do they?”
“Don’t be stupid. They can’t. Because they’ve already been married.” My voice was hot, not like the ice block in my chest.
“Go to bed. Shoesh now. Go to bed and go to sleep,” my mother said.
I turned to look at her down her end of the passage. My Dad had his hand-arm on her shoulder and was looking right at her face. She had a terrible face on. It was the face she got when she was sad and cross with all of us – especially with Dad – because we lived on a dairy farm with cabbages and mielies and cows and wattle trees and not on Boyes Drive in the big, pale-yellow double-storey house in Muizenberg with Grannie in it and the sea down Jacob’s Ladder below, and with the grandfather clock in the hallway with the ship that sailed across the clock face, across the face and back, across and back, with each tick and each tock.
While I looked at her under the passage light, I saw she was crying again.
So, anyhow, there was the rolled-up The Natal Witness newspaper on the little white bedside cupboard this morning. (Of course my Dad always puts it there now when Grannie comes for Christmas so he doesn’t have to do the bat-saving thing with Grannie’s tricky hair.
There are always a few gum tree leaves sticking out from under her mattress. Dad puts those there when Grannie comes to stay. She says we have fleas in the house. So he gets one of the umfaans to bring some gum tree leaves from the bush and he stuffs a ton of them under her mattress which is really my little sister’s mattress. And, like I said, some of them stick out. I think my Dad does that on purpose so he doesn’t have to have the conversation with Grannie about the gum tree leaves and the dreadful fleas we breed all over the farm and in every crack in our house.
The thing we just can’t understand is why we never have fleas in our beds but Grannie does. Maybe it’s because she is from Cape Town, and Natal people maybe don’t get bothered by fleas. Maybe the fleas like Cape Town blood. Or maybe sweat. Because that plastic sleeping suit for getting thin has elastic at the neck, the wrists, the waist and the ankles and really makes a lot of sweat. Actually, perspiration or glow – my other grandmother has taught me that only farm workers and factory workers actually SWEAT. Gentlemen PERSPIRE and ladies GLOW. But I can promise you, what I see in the morning when she takes off the slimming suit…it is sweat. It really is. I can smell it. It makes my nose and my mouth and my eyes crunch up and salt burn my eyes under the lids.
Just about at the end of doing all the little silver hooks, Mummy is still calling us to come for breakfast.
So she gets her rolled-down stockings ready, one for each leg. She sits down on the bed and rolls them up each leg very carefully and very slowly. “They snag so easily,” she says, as if she is telling me a very important thing. I nod and look and swing my feet a bit to show I am listening.
Up, up – to nearly her bottom. Then she stands and hooks the little round, covered, silky buttons into the metal loop with the top end of the stocking stuck into each loop. Her bottom and everything is sticking out a bit because the corset ends before they end. Not like a swimming costume that goes over everything so there’s nothing to see.
Corsets are lovely things if you consider the front which has a satiny panel. Somehow the corset factory-people manage to put beautiful patterns on the panel which, if you look very carefully, are roses. “Barely visible roses,” she showed me once in a secret voice as if nobody else should know. Now I always see them. The panel goes right up to the bowl part and even is the bowl part. So there are roses shining and sliding all over the front of Grannie.
“Tummy control,” she teaches me.
Then it’s the silky knickers that go over it all. She likes those. She slides them out of the drawer and then softly skids them across her face, covering every bit: her cheeks, her nose, her closed eyes.
“Ah…silk,” she says.
When they are on, everything is covered up at last.
She really truly loves those silk knickers. She has lots. I picture all of them sliding around inside the knicker drawer all by themselves, even when the drawer is shut.
Then it’s the petticoat and the slippery purple dress – or one of her others. It can be a pinkish one, or mainly blue, or sometimes grey. They all have the dark swirls winding through the colour. All her dresses open low down the at the front and, where her corset pushes her bosoms together, you can see soft pink skin with a few of what she calls beauty spots (my mother calls them age blemishes) decorating them.
Today, she puts on a purply dress and her black walking shoes with laces. She has promised me, promised me at last, that she’ll go for a walk down to the wattle plantation and back and that we’ll go alone without my sisters, only with Gretel, my black Daxie, allowed to come with us. We’ll wait till my sisters have gone off with my Dad onto the farm and my mother has gone to town.
She’ll do this because I’m her favourite, I think. She’ll do it even though her knees, she says, are “riddled with arthritis” and the doctor in Howick has injected her right in the knees with a needle as big as her knitting needles. She’ll be fine, she says. She’ll take her shining knobbly walking stick to help.
And so here we are in the wattle plantation. The air is crackling with hot December sun. There are still yellow puff-ball flowers on the wattles. My nose is itching already. I hate that – and the line of joined-up sneezes that follow. But I don’t care. I’ve got Grannie. Gretel is yapping around us. She runs ahead and comes back. She yaps some more and then scuffles in the dust and dashes off the path into the trees for no good reason. Grannie loves Gretel and says dogs don’t need a reason.
This is Heaven and Grannie is telling me all the stories about how she was a grand lady in Norfolk in England, where I haven’t been, before my grandfather found her between The Great Wars and captured her heart and brought her back on the Union Castle Line to Muizenberg.
My grandfather had the garage on Main Road and bought her the huge house on Boyes Drive and they had three children, lickety-spit, then twins five years after the others. My Mum was third, after the two boys. The smallest twin shocked everybody because nobody – not even the doctor – knew she was there. She was so tiny and such a surprise she had to sleep in a shoe-box in an open drawer in the big bedroom and she was blue when she was born.
My grandfather doesn’t live in the big house anymore. Something bad in a foreign language happened. Whenever my parents speak about it, it is definitely foreign stuff that made my grandfather have to leave. My Grannie did in flagranto dilecto with the GP, that’s the doctor who didn’t know the smallest twin was there, in the lounge in the big house and then my grandfather left. I think it was something to do with having those twins and one of them so small. I think the doctor had to go to the big house a lot to check on the shoe-box baby.
I’ve heard the grown-ups talk about how, on the flagranto day, my mother, who was ten years old, got on her two-wheeler and rode away when no-one was looking. They always say how she was found half way to Cape Point, peddling like mad into the darkening sky, with tears like flags of solid water streaming off her face in the wind she made with her speed. They say it was like she was pursued by the Devil. I don’t like thinking about that little girl. I think they found her near Boulders Beach. They captured her and took her home. I think her Dad was the main person capturing her. My Grannie had locked herself in the big bedroom that looked over the Muizenberg sea. Only she wasn’t looking at the sea, I think, because I heard the grown-ups say she was howling on the bed with shame.
But now, here, in the wattle plantation, everything is perfect. I have Grannie all to myself. I keep saying that in my head. The world is big and hot and endless all around us. And when we get home I’ll have a swim in the pool my Dad built for my Mum in the front garden. “Her little bit of Muizenberg,” he calls it. My Mum is lucky. Grannie won’t swim. I think it’s because of being a Norfolk grand lady. They don’t swim.
Grannie suddenly stops her story in the middle.
There’s a cloud of dust hurtling down the summer road. She strains her neck upwards to look through the trees. It’s a car. I can see it. But it’s not my Mum coming back from town. I don’t know this car that’s coming so fast.
Grannie gets her walking stick going – step, snap, step, snap – back down the path towards the farm road. I call Gretel and run after her.
“What’s the matter, Grannie?”
She flies on and her grey hairs begin to fall out of the little bun at the back of her head. She begins to glow, but she doesn’t stop.
“It’s Eric. He’s come! He’s come to take me for Christmas. You’ll have to tell your mother when she gets back from town. Tell her Eric’s a member of Parliament, you know.”
But I don’t know. I don’t know anything about Parliament. Or Eric.
Grannie has very little breath but she waves her stick in the air. The big brown car with wings at the back sees her stick and it stops exactly where the wattle plantation path meets the farm road.
Grannie’s face is red. She leans right into the car window where the man is. And then she stands up and Eric is unfolding himself out of the car door and then he is folding his long arms all around my Grannie.
I feel a bit sick. Vomitty sick. I don’t know what Parliament is, or why I must say that to my mother. I just know my mother won’t like Parliament at all. Maybe it’s a flagranto foreign sort of thing.
“I’ve got to pack,” she says and rushes round to the passenger door. Her knees are fine. Our doctor’s knitting needle injections must be so strong. She’s nearly been running. Eric rushes after her and he opens the car door. She looks up at him as she melts into the car and her eyes are all silly. I hate Eric’s poky face.
“You walk home with Gretel. We can’t put a dog in this car,” she yells out of her wound-down window as the car jumps up and runs away from me and my small black dog.
I’m not even home, and I’m sweating, yes, sweating, in the hell of heat because I’ve been walking so fast to catch Grannie and the car, when I see that Eric’s fierce tiger-car has already turned around, and it’s coming back towards me. It swoops past, not slowing one bit as Gretel and I jump out of the way.
There’s dust on my face. And wet tracks through that dust. Like my Mum’s when she was ten years old and flying away from the Devil near Boulders Beach. There’s no-one here to come after me and capture me on the farm road, though. I have to blink my eyes a million times to stop the tears so I can see properly.
I won’t be able to tell my mother. Her face will be too angry and too sad. I’ll find my Dad and I’ll tell him what happened when he comes in from the farm.
Then I’ll go down past the camdeboo stinkwood tree, through the archway in the hedge and into the plumtree orchard. And wait.
The small boy has come in for his therapy session. He is flushed and excited and filled with joy.
“And what has made you so happy, Lwazi? “I ask.
I am eager to know. The words tumble out from his mouth with six-year-old enthusiasm.
“I have been running with my friends,” he gushes. A game of catches on the school field at breaktime it seems. He proceeds to demonstrate. He flings his arms onto the wheels of his wheelchair and swings the chair with vigour around the physiotherapy gym in a few haphazard circles to prove the speed of his running.
“Well done!” I enthuse.
A week previously, he had said, “I wish I could run with my legs like the other boys do.”
His voice had been sad and tinged with hope.
“And so, you can,” I had responded. I proceeded to explain that while some children ran with their legs, others, like his friend Noah, ran with the help of a walking frame.
“You’ve seen Noah?” I asked. Yes, he had nodded.
“And what about Esihle?” I had continued. “He runs with his crutches!” The erstwhile despondent head was now nodding vigorously. “And as for you, show me your strong arms.” He showed me his bulging biceps muscles with pride. “With these you can push yourself fast in your wheelchair,” I said. “You have wheels. You can run. Your wheels are your legs!” By this stage his smile was broad. He giggled.
It was the encouragement he’d needed.
He changed from the boy with the flail legs in the wheelchair who could not run, to the boy who ran on the field with his friends.
When I was five, my step father took me on a journey. We made our way to a building in central London where, without explanation, I was told to be a good girl. As we stepped inside the self-satisfied polished odour of this place, I knew immediately I was somewhere important. We sat waiting in a dim high-ceilinged office until we were called into a room where a man with glasses sat behind a desk. I was frightened by the cavernous room, the glint of the man’s glasses.
I remember little of what was said. Mostly, I remember the falsely confident tone of my stepfather’s voice as he spoke to the man, the kind you might use when embarrassed, and you try to hide your discomfort through a feigned carelessness, a counterfeit bravado.
The man wrote with his pen as he listened, then instructed me to stand up and come towards him. Uncertain, I looked at my stepfather.
‘Go on. Listen to the man.’ Reluctantly I stepped forward.
‘She must lift up her dress.’ I didn’t move.
‘Go on!’ my step-father insisted. Then he softened his voice. ‘It’s okay.’ I lifted up my dress.
The man waved his pen upwards.
‘Higher.’ I obeyed again, this time lifting my dress so that my panties showed. Behind his glasses he eyed me coldly, measuring me against some invisible standard.
‘Now turn around.’ Slowly, wobbling with fear, I rotated before him.
‘You’ll need to pull her panties down a bit.’ I froze. It was worse not being able see his glittering glasses, only to feel them behind me.
My stepfather did as instructed. I could feel his uneasiness as he tugged down my panties. A moment of silence followed and then my father pulled my panties up again. I turned around while my stepfather retreated to his seat.
The man grunted as I faced him once more. Waved his pen again to show he was done with me. With relief, I ran the few steps to my stepfather.
Later we would learn I had passed.
As we walked away from the big building hand-in-hand, I looked up at my stepfather.
‘Papa, why did that man make me lift up my dress?’
Actually I don’t remember asking him that. By then I had already learned that to remain silent was a refuge from the frightening parts of my life I didn’t understand, a way of warding off danger. Still, in my fantasy, I like to think that I did ask, that the little girl who was me was brave enough to voice the more difficult question and that we had the following exchange.
‘Papa, why did you let that man make me lift up my dress?’ My stepfather looks down at me. ‘He needed to see if you were white enough.’
I imagine how it might take a moment for me to absorb this disturbing answer. I am silent. In the pause, my stepfather smiles in answer to my as-yet-unspoken question, and in his best final-line-of-a-fairy-story voice adds, ‘and of course you are.’
Despite being half-Japanese, my bathing costume line had shown me to be ‘white enough’. Now my parents and I, along with my younger, blonde brothers could travel unhindered back to South Africa, where being Japanese meant being classified as an honorary white. I had been given clearance as completely white, a whiter person than I had any right to be.
So began my initiation into being someone other than who I was. It would be many years before I understood the full burning shamefulness of that small but potent event. It was 1967.
Author’s Note: this is the prologue to a memoir in progress about growing up foreign in South Africa and the search for my Japanese father.
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