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THE AWKWARD BAG TO CARRY

14 OCTOBER 2018

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.

19 MARCH 2000

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.

TODAY

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.

A NIGHT AMONG THE DEAD

The sky is angry, the wind is mad, the blanket of dust spreads in the air, heavens are crashing down breaking loose the cords which maintain them in their foundation.  Confusion in the sky, the clouds are spitting fire, fuming, smoke from earth echoes the thunders and lighting from above.  The war has intensified.  Storms of dust follow the trajectory of the jet fighters pounding and launching bombs on the towns and surrounding villages.  Flames blaze, rising from the rumbles, the magnitude of the destruction is so immense.

The ruins have replaced the old beautiful town and surrounding villages, turning them into ghost towns, a land of the dead, a paradise of wild animals and insects.  Bodies are left to rot on the ruins, in open air; the lucky ones are dumped in shallow mass graves.  The decay of the corpses has left a haunting odour no amount of fine perfume can eradicate.

Dogs, vultures, wild dogs and hyenas are all over the place feasting.  The meat for ants, maggots, and insects is free and so abundant.  The flies have found a breeding ground like never before.

Two months have passed since the war began and no ceasefire has been declared.  What next? Next is tomorrow, tomorrow is a mystery, tomorrow is where God resides.  Two weeks ago, we left the town of Musumba, our residential sanctuary.  We are on the run, on a journey into the unknown destination, an unknown but hopefully safe place.

We move every day from one location to another.  We cross hundreds of streams, pass villages and go through the wild forest.  The group is shrinking day by day. Some comrades have given up and turned back to join the army of liberation of Katanga, some are lost in the jungle, some are dead; the mines, the shells and stray bullets are killing many more.  We don’t stop to mourn.  Let the dead bury the dead.

Hunger, lack of clean drinking water, malaria, meningitis outbreak, insects, scorpions, snake bites and poisonous thorns are ending the lives of many more.  Death has many stings in its arsenal.  A navy blue lady bag with a long strap, a gift from my cousin Genevieve on my confirmation day, is my treasure.  A Bible, a note book, a pen, my family photo and my rebel card or pass are my only belongings.  Same dress, a pair of shorts, a jersey, and a wrapper are the clothes on my body for months.  The black sneakers on my feet are torn, but they keep me going.  Limping from the injury I sustained on my left foot, I find myself tracking always at the end of the queue.

I wish for a quick death, rather than a long perilous journey into the unknown.  The lice are not invited, but they become my hosts.  There are ticks on my toes, and tropical bugs find a nest in my clothing, hair and body.  My entire body is covered with scabies, my nails are sharp, hard, long and dirty, but I need them for many chores and for my survival.

For three days the rain pours, and the downfall turns pathways into streams and rivers.  In one place the current is so strong it sweeps away a group of children.  We find refuge in the rubble and ruins of an old school.  Soaking wet, weak, cold, shivering, hungry, bruised and thirsty we manage to make a shelter with wood and pieces of iron sheets left from the aerial destructions.

‘People of God you must quit this place now. Run as fast as your legs can carry you.’ In his white garment, with beads around his neck and wrists, charms over his body, a hat of leopard skin on his head, we see that it is a traditional healer who warns us.  ‘I overheard an informant telling the soldiers that the mutineers of the army of liberation, a group of thirty to forty people, have found refuge in the school. They are traitors, friends of the government,’ he says.  ‘Don’t follow the stream, they will catch you, turn left and go straight wherever your ancestors lead you.’

Before the old man ends his sentence, we continue on the run, moving so quickly. The sun had set down. We keep moving in the dark until we are told by the leaders and the elders to stop and find a shelter nearby in the cassava farm. We are welcome to rest, to be quiet and to spend the night in the field.

We camp in the cassava fields. A fire is lit, and we warm our bodies and dry our clothes. The cassava trees are uprooted to keep the fire burning until dawn. Smoke engulfs us, we smell it, breath it and inhale it like never.

‘Abominations, sacrilege, taboo, unthinkable, confusion, curse − this is a cemetery,’ someone cries out. ‘Where is the cassava field?’

‘God of spirit have mercy! What have we done?’

No word can be uttered, no amount of ‘sorry’ and ‘forgive us’ can appease the act of such abomination. We have defiled the resting place of the spirits, the dead and the land of our ancestors.

We run like mad people. But before leaving the cemetery, the elders stop us.

‘No one steps out from this place. Come down, we have wronged the dead, disturbed the spirit and committed abominations.’

The elders and the leaders plead with the spirits on behalf of everyone who spent the night in the cemetery and made a fire with crosses.

Money and valuable items are deposited on the places where the fires were lit. The traditional healer and high priest are called to come and appease the spirits and cleanse us from evil and curses. They perform rituals and ceremonies. Then they tell us to leave the place, not to look back, to head towards the east and to bathe in the stream nearby.

*

On that fateful night, I spent time among the dead, in the land of spirits, the sanctuary of ghosts, I was running from death, but that night I sat side by side with the dead. I shared their tombs, resting place, but death showed mercy on me. The gates of death were closed and telling me in a language of the dead: It is not your time.

Your time will come. It is a mystery, said death to me. What is next in this journey into the unknown? Next is tomorrow, tomorrow is a mystery, tomorrow is where God dwells.

Charlotte, it is not your time. Go and sprout like a sweet potato.

PROLOGUE TO A MEMOIR

This is the prologue for Desiree-Anne Martin’s forthcoming memoir.

Words are my drug of choice.

They are my refuge; they are my panacea. They are the antidote to the poison that runs through every artery and vein of the anatomy of my childhood. Long before the hastily inhaled cigarettes that burned my throat during second break, half-hiding in between the crumbling headstones of the long-forgotten brides of Jesus up at the small convent cemetery. Long before the bottles of Bioplus mixed in cups of too-strong coffee that kept my heavy eyelids from drooping while I poured over mind-numbing high-school calculus equations and heady historical facts about dead people and disremembered places. Long before the back-end of the toothbrush connected with my epiglottis forcing the acidic, bilious contents of my stomach to lurch out of my mouth and leave telltale splatters across the toilet bowl. Long before the shiny blister packs of slimming tablets that would make my heart race and jaw tremble and makes me rub my hungry, concave belly with reticent glee. Long before that first sip of cheap, red wine ran into my parched veins and quenched every thirsty cell of my body until it felt like I had come home at last. Long before I submerged myself in the unbearable heat of that scorching bathwater over and over again to relieve the unbearable pain of what lay trapped within. Long before the codeine daydreams and the benzo comas. Long before the endless stream of men and women that filled my mouth, my cunt, that filled any void that existed. Long before LSD made my unconscious bleed all over my reality. Long before the dizzying nights of delirious dancing spurred on by the piles of cocaine I snorted up my raw nostrils and even before the chemical hazy halcyon Ecstasy-laced weekends where I fell in love with everything and everyone except myself; and long before the crack pipe burned my bottom lip and pinned me up against the wall, scrambling for an exit route; and yes, long before the needle pricked my flesh and sent that noxious, precious elixir straight to my orphaned soul and cradled it and made it whole. Long before all of that, there were words.

I remember smuggling a book into the toilet on a Sunday afternoon during my designated naptime when I was four years old. I already had problems sleeping when I was supposed to. I was teaching myself to read, having stolen my older brother’s Kathy and Mark readers from his brown boxy school case. Kathy has a bright red dress and milky white skin framed by hair cut in a severe brown bob that never moves no matter how much she was urged by Mark to: “Run, Kathy, run!” Mark also runs a lot, in his short blue shorts and knee-high socks accompanied everywhere by their dog, Spot. They run everywhere, they frequently sit on the mat, they ride on the bus to the City with their Mum who wears a smart green hat and a coat, and once they drive in the car with their Dad who also wears a hat which he takes off every evening when he comes home from work.

I recall sitting on that cold tiled toilet floor, the avocado green and white-patterned tiles – tracing the words with my index finger and matching them to the garishly coloured illustrations of a smug, dawdling tortoise and an arrogant, reckless hare. I remember my frustration at not being able to decipher some of the words. I wanted to know them. I needed to know what happened. I remember the look on my mother’s face as it appeared at the crack of the open door: surprise, then anger and disappointment. I felt ashamed, found out. I instinctively hid my book behind my back. I hid my words. Like I would hide everything else that would come after.

And later I would achieve small literary victories: having stared for what seemed like an eternity at a large ornate framed black-and-white photograph of my mother on her wedding day that rested on the white melamine TV unit – trying and failing to make sense of the words printed beneath the photo – one day the phonetically pieced together “VAN KALKER P-A-H-O-T-A-G-R-A-P-E-E-H-Y-A-H” suddenly and magically made sense and I yelled at the top of my childish voice, much as I imagined Archimedes proclaimed, “Eureka!”, “PHOTOGRAPHY!” I marched triumphantly around the house repeating the newly discovered word over and over again, “Photography! Photography! PHOTOGRAPHY!” This made no sense to any of my family members, but I didn’t care to explain it. The word, the unearthed treasure, the reconstructed jewel, was mine.

When my brother was in Standard One and I was in Sub A (which would later come to be known as Grade 3 and Grade 1 respectively), he would climb into the car after school bemoaning the fact that he had to learn a four stanza poem about seashells on the sandy seashore by the end of that week. I had it memorized and could recite it by the end of the 20 minute drive home.

Once I could read confidently, I consumed books, in fact, all reading matter I could get my hands on. I inhaled words, chewing and digesting them greedily at any given opportunity. Blurry-eyed and bent over my runny porridge, during car rides despite my stomach swirling and my head pounding from carsickness, propped up in my bed long after the 8 o’ clock TV news jingle had signaled that it was time for my brother and I to go to sleep, during school holidays where I would scour over prescribed set work books and finish them long before the academic year even began, anywhere and everywhere, I wrapped words around me like a steely suit of armour.

I would write too. I started my first “Secret Diary” at age 9, inspired by The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole and I would journal well into my late twenties and again in my thirties. I would religiously scribble my one-dimensional observations and fickle feelings down onto paper in my oft-criticized, untidy script. I would use the diaries as a tool of self-expression, but also as a tool of blatant manipulation, leaving them open on certain pages in strategically placed locales for my prying mother to find if I wanted to communicate something that I was too afraid to do directly. Like asking for my first bra.

Words became my guaranteed escape from the lies and the secrets, from the trauma and the terror. I found solace in the fantastical worlds that books offered and the inviting landscapes that my imagination conjured from the dry, sweet-scented pages.

Later I found refuge in the words of annotated scripts and dense screenplays. Words that had a transformative effect on my domain, and even more so on my identity. In drama class at school, at the theatre school that I secretly auditioned for and gained acceptance into, I could morph into anything, anyone. Just, please dear God, anyone that wasn’t me. I could take myself away from my reality and slip into any space and time, just by uttering a few appropriated lines or manipulating my larynx and changing my accent. I hid behind the safety of others’ words because mine always seemed insufficient or often entirely absent.

Words held unimaginable power. Words, when pieced together in a certain manner, exerted great influence. I became adept at weaving stories, a mixture of fabrications and quasi-truths, to cover up the reality of how utterly ruined I felt inside. I learnt early on that I was a remarkably convincing liar and that deception slipped off my forked tongue easily and without reason or apparent provocation. I lived in a constant state of semi-realism, blending fantasy with reality and spinning it around myself like a comforting cocoon. I used anything, any form of control, to not feel the excruciating pain of the truth.

But I am done with deceit. Lies hold no more allure for me. Laurie Penny, feminist commentator and author wrote, “All I’ve ever wanted to do with writing is to move the world in small ways with words,” and that is the sum total of my most humble hope. That I find my words again and that they form my truth and that truth is steadfast and undeniable.

That my words connect with another and move them to tell their truth.

And that words will, somehow, begin to heal what has been broken.

DEPRESSION | I AM A LEAKING BOTTLE

Depression refuses to be a pretty poem
It bullies my lines and stanzas
And gives my beautiful images the middle finger
It doesn’t want to be subjected to any reflections or rhyme
It won’t sit on couch to talk about how it is feeling

Depression refuses to be romanticised
It hates fairy tales and happy endings
It feeds on wounds, and it wants snot and tears
Depression keeps a record of all my heartbreaks
And never hesitates to share excerpts with me
It is boastful of its ability to steal my joy mid-breath

Depression digs a grave in my bed
Other times it takes over the command of my body
It once sent me to train stations at 6am
So that it could flirt with suicide
It often tells me that I would not be missed

Depression refuses to be a pretty poem
It bullies my lines and stanzas
And gives my beautiful images the middle finger
It doesn’t want to be subjected to any reflections or rhyme
It won’t sit on couch to talk about how it is feeling

I am a leaking bottle

I am a leaking bottle
I tell her

I am decorated with holes and cracks
Life broke me

Filling up seems futile
Joy quickly seeps through me
I tell her

You are a watering can
She says
Where does the water that seeps through you go
What happens when sadness comes
She asks

I would rather be a dam
That is full to the brim
I tell her

Are dams not man-made
She asks
Wouldn’t you rather be a river
Fresh water passing through you
To others
She asks
Wouldn’t you rather be in communion

I constantly need patching up
I am a rainbow of patchwork
I tell her

Don’t people point in wonder at rainbows
She asks

But these cracks hurt
I tell her

But is that not our magic
That we feel so much
She asks

UPROOTED

I was a mere twelve-year-old girl when it happened. My cousins and I were picking gooseberries and duinebessies in the veld opposite my grandmother’s house. Then we heard an adult shouting: “He is coming! He is coming!”

I ran to investigate who she was referring to. My heart skipped a beat and gave a hard throb when I saw who it was. By now everybody in Salisbury Park knew who this man, going by the name of Mr Ferreira, was. A large white man dressed in a brown suit, with grey hair, who walked upright.

My twelve-year-old being could not grasp what was happening at that very moment. He entered my grandmother’s house and I could hear her sigh, her protests. My heart felt sad and weak. I ran as fast as I could towards our house to alert my brother Anthony.

An hour later the same man came knocking on our door. The smell of toast was still roaming the air as I hesitantly headed to open the door. There he was. Standing tall with his file clutched under his arm. I invited him in reluctantly and showed him to the lounge area. He asked if he could speak to my parents.

My father was enjoying his breakfast. Bacon, eggs and toast. After finishing his coffee, he ventured down the passage. My father, who was always the height of sternness and pride, walked down the passage with his shoulders sagging. He taught us to be upright and not to ever lower or cover our heads when we walk. This time I noticed something that made me shudder. My father, my father was not his old self!

My mother emerged from the bedroom and they entered the lounge, closing the door behind them. My whole being was shivering. All that went through my mind was questions. What on earth is going to happen? Why is everybody so afraid of this man? This man that has all of the people in Salisbury Park, who are usually so serene and God-fearing, on their edges.

I entered my sister’s room that was adjacent to the lounge and eavesdropped by the door leading into the lounge from her room. What I heard sent anger and deprivation through my body. What does this “supreme race” of our country think? Who do they think they are? How can they do this to us?

How can the adults of Salisbury Park just give up? Behaving like Jews being led into the gas chambers or pigs being led to slaughter. I wanted to cry out and put him out of the house but had to suppress my feelings for fear of being heard.

I ran outside and only came to realisation when sister Margaret of St Dominic Priory asked me what I was doing so far from home. Without realising it, I came to a halt amongst the trees near our school that bordered the St Dominic Priory. I did not even answer her. I wanted to tell her what I thought about her and her race! It burned inside me to tell her, but I had to control myself.

What are we going to do? How can they tell our parents that our area has been declared whites only and that we had to move to an unknown location? An area without trees and plants. How are we going to survive?

My family enjoys nature and the great outdoors. Now, we must move to a place with limited space and no trees.

Apparently we will not be allowed to keep livestock. What is going to happen to my mother’s chickens and my father’s pigs? What about our rabbits?

My heart goes out to our neighbours, Oom Gossie and Aunt Mary. How is this going to affect this adorable, kind-hearted, elderly couple? I do not want to experience hate and dislike, but what the government is doing to us now is really uncalled for!

What about Anthony? He has his own gym for bodybuilders.

During that year, 1971, most of the families had moved out already. Our school ran empty and our grade seven class ended the year with only 15 learners. My mother had to discard all of her antique furniture.

When the day dawned that we had to move, I was not at ease. I tried to avoid this painful journey to the unknown. My grandmother still sent me to buy bully beef and a loaf of brown bread. She made sandwiches for us and I referred to it as our last supper.

The carefree living that I experienced in Salisbury Park shall live in my memory forever…

The Life Righting Collective runs courses to encourage self-exploration through life writing, raises funds for course fees and brings people together to share their stories and grow community.
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