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I Married My Mother uncovers the complex relationship between a mother and daughter, from a dreamlike quality of wonder to fragile emotional states. A surreal memoir about a little girl growing up in Cape Town in the fifties, set against the backdrop of a white middle class society, seen through the eyes and voice of the child. A holographic journey into the psychological effects of hosting the ‘enemy within,’ the heroine scarred by the myriad reflections of her mother’s negative entities. Delapse – Fairytale by hilary maraney 10 years old Kings Rd School 1952 delapse_ all fall down fairytale_ make believe Once upon a time there was a little girl who thought that life was beautiful. One day she met a bad wolf and spent the rest of her life trying to save herself and failed and finally gave up struggling and killed herself. And that didn’t help her because she had to come back and face the bad wolf again and again until she said no to the wolf but he didn’t listen so eventually she had to kill him which frightened her but she did it so she could be free. And it was only then that she could see the wolf ’s identity. It started with mother moved on to husband, son then another and another. Oh, she cried they’ve all become me … so she let go of all of them one by one and a beautiful pink rose grew in her heart and she spelt backwards and that became and the pink and grew until she lived happily ever after …
of love grew
Copyright © Hilary Maraney, 2007 Cover photograph: Benny Maraney All rights reserved. Made and printed in Cape Town, South Africa. ISBN 978-0-620-35086-0 (print edition) | 978-0-620-44264-0 (PDF ebook edition) No part of the publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, without the prior written permission of the publisher, nor be otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser. (publisher) www.dinky-bloc.com +27(0) 21-4397756
delusion-play sakkaku-kabuki keren-mi little robot holds a pose and is still ma hovering between the seen and unseen response vs motion I married my mother u a number named infinity
the fever hospital – london 1920
Lily shivered as she entered the hospital. She pulled the fox collar of her brown serge coat tight around her neck, hugging the warmth to her throat. A young nurse ushered her into an office. The matron, seated at the desk, looked flustered, a lamp casting a harsh circle of light on the papers piled in front and to the sides of her. She lifted her pen, dipped it into the inkwell. “Mrs. Barnett? “Yes. My husband couldn’t ...” Her voice became softer, hesitant. “He couldn’t bring himself to be here.” The matron shifted her position. Her starched uniform crackled slightly, revealing her impatience. A glistening drop of indigo had formed under the pen’s nib, threatening the clean page. She put the pen back in its holder. “It’s simply a formality, for identification purposes, really.” “I need to see her again before …” “Very well,” she said, turning briskly towards a girl seated at a small table. “Take Mrs. Barnett down to the morgue.” She picked up another paper from the left-hand pile. She had already dismissed her. The clerk led the way. They moved quickly, the tapping of their heels jarring the silence. Lily gripped the banisters as she followed the girl down the stairs to the basement. Dark green paint covered the lower half
of the walls, found it’s way through the cracks up to the ceiling, melted into the floor, gave off its own strange odour. She almost stumbled into a large, rectangular room. A few trolleys, a quiet figure leaning over the corner sink, a marble topped table the central point in the middle of the space. “I’ll not leave you,” whispered the girl. She stood close to Lily, drew the covering sheet down the body. The child appeared to be asleep. Her skin gave off a slightly mauve sheen. Lily looked at her heart-shaped face, the lashes sweeping her cheeks. Her jet-black hair shining, falling across the table. Brief pictures of Vera, before the dreaded diphtheria had sent her away to this grey building, smiling into the light from the five candles on her cake. Phyllis and Gladys on either side of her. Vera, the birthday girl, ready to blow them out. She forced herself to look at Vera’s neck, at the ugly scar - a mottled vermilion slash. The surgeon had insisted the jagged line would fade, that Vera would survive the operation. A question kept nagging at her. What dreadful thing had caused her death? a naughty little thing crept in stayed played wrought havoc in the end with temper it displayed She brought herself back to the present, rubbed her sleeve across her eyes, touched a bruise on Vera’s arm. She stared at it. Another on her upper thigh. Perhaps if she’d come more often, brought extra food. Lily bent down, picked up the white hands and held them, wrapped them into her lap and kissed Vera on the forehead. She straightened her body, then loosened her grip slowly, holding on to the twig thin wrists. She felt a flutter. A faint beat. She started choking. “I can feel a pulse. I feel her pulse!” The words came out, half crying, almost a scream. “She’s alive!”
The book of nursery rhymes, ‘Jack Be Nimble, Little Miss Muffet’ slipped to the floor as Lily drew the covers around Vera and tiptoed out of the bedroom, down the house stairs, through the passage and into the pub. Alf couldn’t face her. He felt ashamed, Lily having made the trip to the hospital alone. He’d always wanted a son. A boy who could keep up with skittles and hoops. On the night of Vera’s birth he’d been working, same as usual. His mates were scornful. “Come on, Alf, admit it. You haven’t got it in you. Not the right stuff for boys.” That was all they needed. The bets were chalked up then and there. At last the bell tinkled at the bar. Alf yelled down the tube at the midwife. “What’s it this time?” Her tired reply and then Alf, roaring “Not another bleedin’ girl.” Now he’d make it up to her. Lily squeezed past him. “She’ll pull through, won’t she, Lil?” he mumbled. “I can’t hear you.” “I’ll be shifting the scenery, alright?” She sighed, shrugging her shoulders as she stacked the glasses, pleased to see a number of new faces amongst the regulars. The noise level increased as the smoke filled room grew warmer. Trade was beginning to pick up now that the war was over. Florrie was calling her. “Lil. To you, darling.”
“Yeah,” echoed Joe. “Wish her better, eh, luv.” “We all do. She’ll be right as rain.” The doctor thought so too. “Don’t you go fretting yourself Mrs. Barnett. Love and care is what she needs. Children forget quickly. No one is to mention a word about it. Ever.” Alf moved the hand-painted sign to the left of the make-shift stage. He was proud of his handiwork. In large letters he’d printed ‘Vaudeville at the Bull and Bush. Entertainment with every pint.’ More often than not he was across the road painting Charlie Chaplin’s boards hoping for another chance to do a turn. He tugged at the old curtain, drew it aside and yelled. “Oi, shurrup, Ethel is going to sing.” The opening bars of ‘Goodbye Little Bird’ filled the room. Ethel stood in the middle of the stage, winking down at the audience, teasing the men, shaking her skirt around her knees and belting out the song as if her life depended on it. Ronald, at the piano, gazed up at her. Fresh-faced and boyish, his arms too long for his shirt, the gap between sleeve and hand revealing the slight, almost girlish wrist. He never forgot that kiss, like a rose petal. He’d survived the trenches and she was still single. The crowd clapped. Ethel winked. A man, lurching towards the stage, yelled “Come on girl, show us wot ya got.” Alfred didn’t hesitate. He was at the table instantly, pulling at the chair with one hand. “Watch yer bleedin’ mouth.” “He didn’t mean it,” said Lily. “He’s upset luv. I’ll get you another drink. What’ll it be? Drinks on the house for everyone.” A rumbling snore erupted from the corner of the pub. All the men turned around to look at Arnold, who stood up gawping at Ethel, scratching his ear up and down with embarrassment. Snickers and grunts followed him as he stumbled his way to the men’s lavatory. “Come on, Ronald, another tune,” called Florrie. She nudged Lily. ‘‘We hear Alf ’s thinking of opening a kinema. Who’d want to listen to all that noise? It’s flickers and stops and whirring projectors.’’ ‘‘Don’t be daft. When’s the grand opening? Will he be offering pound cake?’’ ‘‘Jellied eels or nothing?’’ ‘‘I want to see Clara Bow. Just a mention of her name and I’m all aglow.’’
Alf click clacked the knuckleduster rapidly on the bar as he rolled his cigar side to side between his lips. Load of old cobblers, he thought. ‘‘Have a laugh on me, why don’t you? Did I ever put a foot wrong? It’s big news in America, so look to the future. Then we’ll see who brings in the spundoolics.’’ ‘‘Alf, say what you like, we all know they’re stark raving mad over there.’’ “Go upstairs to Vera,” Lily said, turning to Phyllis. “Stay with her a bit. Now remember what the doctor said. You’re never to talk about the hospital, do you hear?” Phyllis had her pinafore off and was through the doors and up the stairs as fast as her plump body would move. She and Gladys adored their younger sister. Vera was lying in a foetal position when Phyllis entered the bedroom. Facing the wall, pressing her right hand against it, she dreamt that she was still in the hospital, shut in the cupboard, trying her hardest to see through the crack in the door. She moved her bottom, squeezing it so that she sat on the rags. The concrete floor was cold, as cold as Jones’s ice block her mother ordered for the larder. She banged on the door. “Please God, I’ll be good. I’ll be good,” she cried over and over again. Something, someone, touching the back of her neck. It stayed with her, it played with her. baggage through mists grey clogged spattered cobwebs curling sootsmudged torn-edged layered reminders tripping into long forgotten moments blown gently through the moving picture of her mind fragments brushed against her cheek sent a feather soft chill tiptoeing down her spine Her mother’s voice murmured softly through the cupboard door, then without warning a woman pulled at her arm. “You little bugger. You learnt your lesson, ’ave you?” She felt a sharp sting and cried out. Phyllis was smiling at her. “It’s only a dream. You’re safe now, home with your sisters. We’ll always look after you.”
My mother Vera, who was the most beautiful person in the world, and Benny, my dad, and my brother Larry left England in 1938. On route to Jan Van Riebeeck Land. It must have been sad because Mummy cried and cried; then I did. Although she missed her mother Lily and sisters Gladys and Phyllis, everything was alright now because she had me. The doctors said she was delicate and that her nerves would never stand up to war, so when the gas masks were handed out and they knew bombs would drop on them, she left. Sometimes I wondered what nerves looked like. I couldn’t see any standing up so how could they fall down? Our house was in London Road, Sea Point, two doors away from a Milk Bar. The road stretched all the way down to the sea front. I wished it could stretch to London Town. Then Mummy would stop crying. The Milk Bar was all shiny chrome and rows of coloured liquid in bottles. “I want my milkshake.” “Can you sing, baby?” “La la la …” “No, we want a real song.” “This is proper!” “Do your Shirley Temple for us.”
One of the maids sat me on a stool, with clucking tongue against teeth noises. The barstool spun round as I sang and then I had my bubblegum pink shake. I was nearly four and according to my mother, always wandering off on my own to be found either in the bar or the fish shop, clutching a hot chip runny with vinegar. My brother Larry, being especially clever, could ride a two-wheel bike, fix things with spanners, catch fish with live bait (worms, mostly) and fly kites. Best of all, he knew how to make boats out of giant brown seaweed. The rocks on the beach became our playground. Using a shell, he’d draw the outline of a boat on the seaweed, cut into it with the sharpened edge of the shell, then split the seaweed holding it open with a match placed in the middle. We’d find a pool and away the little boat would go. Chatting away, I followed wherever he led, though he hardly ever spoke except to give instructions. So it wasn’t a proper conversation. One terrible day Larry discovered an enormous rat in the back yard. “It’s coming to get you!” he teased. I screamed, then he got into trouble and hated me. He hated me so much that he stabbed my Wettoms doll. She had a hole in her arm. It was so sore nothing could ever heal it because she wasn’t made like us. I couldn’t stick her together again. No one could, not even dad. It was my fault she was poorly. No matter how I tried I could never mend her. She had to be broken forever. I filled the ocean with crying. My ears went funny. They hurt. Banging my head on the back of the sofa helped but that made Mummy angry. I had to go to a hospital to have my tonsils pulled out. Two nurses carried me up the stairs. No one spoke. They were dressed in white. Staring at me. Someone was bending over rows of silver knives and forks laid out neatly on a cupboard. I fought like mad but there were more of them and they were strong. They held me down on a high bed and stuck a rubber thing with a tube above my face. It smelt awful. I couldn’t breathe. It was choking me. When I awoke my throat hurt. Even the ice-cream didn’t help. Mummy kept sighing, telling me to be a good girl. I knew it was all my fault. She really couldn’t cope, she said. I wanted my father. He never minded if I was naughty. He loved me anyway.
Home for my mother meant London, so as soon as the war ended we sailed away in a Union Castle ship. It creaked back and forth in a lilting rhythm and smelt of oranges below deck. Every night the woman and girls crowded together in large cabins, all in bunks one above the other. My father kissed me goodnight, “sleep tight, Snooks,” then left us and made his way with Larry to the men’s quarters. The crew arranged a talent competition. Mother dressed me in her pink silk petticoat, tying a banana wrapped in a scarf in my corkscrew curls. I tottered off in her high-heeled shoes pretending to be Carmen Miranda, holding the microphone with its odd sound mimicking my voice. I shook a tambourine and sang ‘A South American Dream.’ Funny, Mummy never looked up at me while I was singing. Dad kissed me as I tripped over the shoes to collect my prize. A purple balloon. I held it high in the air. “Daddy, is the Karoo far away?” “Too far to walk,” said Larry. “Can I ride the ele’s? Umerica is so big.” “Africa, Snooks – not America,” said Dad. “Umericle country. Daddy, I love the sunshine so much. I’m going to tell my new cousins there’s lions on the mountain.” “Don’t be silly.” “There must be Larry. It’s called Lion’s Head.” “Why do you think they’re not walking the beach front? It’s not their home, gollywog – little Hickery Dickery Tot. The lions are in the bush.” “There’s bush on Table Mountain.” “The Hottentots stole your frizz.” “I hate my curls.” “Larry, they’re called Blacks,” said Mummy. “Vera, I think the word you’re looking for is Natives.” “Yes Dad, but they were once the Tot tribe. Just like Miss Hilary Dickery Tot.” “It’s Dock, Larry! Can I sing to the elephants, Daddy please? I know they’re waiting for a nursery rhyme.” “Oh Hilary,” said Mummy, “These animals don’t wish to hear you sing about some other land. Play with your Wettoms doll.” “Alright then, I will.” When Dad was young he left South Africa to seek his fortune and arrived in London with twenty-six pounds, his cousin’s address and an invitation
to meet my Aunt Gladys. She fetched him from Waterloo Station and that was the first time he saw Mummy. He was leaning out of the window of the train. He recognized Gladys and waved and stared at the beautiful girl with her. Her younger sister, Vera. She wore a sky blue dress and hat, her fringe peeping out and he loved her instantly. They were married like the prince and princess in my storybook and lived happily ever after. Then I asked about Larry and Dad said Larry had come first, being a boy. I didn’t think I liked being second. I could never catch up. I asked Mummy about it that night. She laughed as she tucked me up tightly in the bunk. “The first time I saw your father I thought he was an Indian. His skin was burnt from the sun. He was the best looking man I’d ever seen. You’re like him. An Indian princess.” “Will I marry a princess?” I whispered, half asleep. “Yes, of course. A prince. And be happy ever after. Now go to sleep. We’ll be docking tomorrow. You’ll meet your cousins.”
teddy and loo
We lived with Auntie Phyllis. All in one room above her and Uncle Mark’s Kinema. My cousin Esme-Sue was a few years older than me. Everyone called her Sue except Auntie Phyllis. Sue wore thick glasses and the prettiest dresses I’d ever seen. She was best friends with Aunt Gladys and Uncle Henry’s daughter, Sheila. My brother adored Sheila. She bossed him around but he didn’t notice. I was thrilled to be a cousin too and have girls to play with but it didn’t work out quite like that. I was the baby to be spoilt and petted when they felt like it, discarded when they didn’t. Mummy said Auntie Phyllis had waited eleven years to have Sue. She and Uncle Mark loved her so much that she could have anything she wanted. And so she did. She had a special room, a nursery filled with toys. A Forbidden Room … ‘you’re not allowed to be in Magic Land, Hilary.’ My cousin Sue showed me into the room and told me never, never to touch. Each and every toy lining the shelves was unique, hand-made and as far as I could tell alive, waiting to play. A teddy bear leaned against Jack-In-The-Box. Dolls in prams with pink satin bows, treasure chests, and in the corner back-lit by light from a window so high, stood the grandest prize of all. A doll’s house taller than me, in which it was plain to see, lived a family, their servants and pets. Aunt Phyllis lifted Sue high
in the air and seated her gently on Dobbs, who rocked proudly back and forth carrying his mistress with pride. Allowed to look but not touch. I secretly vowed I’d come back to hide in this magical room and nurse those dolls, arrange tea parties for two, invite Sailor Boy and Loo, the Wettoms doll with large blue eyes, real hair, her own pram. No one would know my deceit. On Sundays Sheila joined us. We played school with me as the pupil pretending to read the words I hadn’t already learnt, or Mums and Dads. Afterwards, because I always had to go to bed earliest they settled me down with a story and Sue brought out her special tin. Her plump fingers wrenched it open. The three of us stared longingly at its contents. We were allowed two sweets each or one biscuit and one sweet. Because of the war everything was rationed. Sue had more than most people because Auntie Phyl took supplies from the Kinema stock. I’d usually settle for a blackcurrant lozenge and chocolate wafer biscuit wrapped in silver paper. The papers became twinkle stars for the play school. Many an hour was spent in that room while Sue was away at school. All the toys woke up and together we’d travel to the end of the world. Dobbs, the rocking horse, never ever grew tired. One afternoon, just before tea, I noticed a bottle lying on its side on the bookshelf, half hidden behind the ‘Now-A-Day and Every Day Fairy Book.’ I couldn’t resist a bottle as small as my thumb. Dark navy blue with a round red stopper. It smelt like heaven. In my heart I knew it was wrong. But the dear little bottle was my delight. My secret and Loo’s. After all, I’d found it. Into my pocket it went to stay there ’til the night. I hid it in one of Dad’s old cigarette tins in my crayon box. I’d been wicked. I waited. Nothing happened for a week or two. Then one morning Sue said as she opened the front door, “Mum, I can’t find my perfume bottle.” “You go off to school. We’ll look for it this afternoon.” I didn’t put it back. Next day, a terrible cry from Sue, the girl with it all. “The bottle is missing. Oh, find it, do. I cannot rest ’til you do.” We all went hunting up and down and all around the house. Drawers were cleaned and re-arranged. I pretended to look, too. Larry kept saying “Own up or you’ll be like Pinocchio.”
I opened the big brown wardrobe door and peered into the mirror to study my reflection. It was difficult to make up my mind. My nose was big to start with. The search went on. They asked me to tell them if I found it. They all did, even Uncle Mark. He whispered in my ear. “It doesn’t matter terribly, Hilary. If you’ve found it, that’s all right.” I shook my head. What would they do to me? I dug my hand further into my pocket. It was too small to hide the handkerchief wrapped tight around the bottle. They went on and on and on until at last they turned to me. “You naughty girl. I know it’s you, the only one who’d steal. How could you do this awful deed? You give it back at once!” Tears were dripping on the pocket of my muslin pinafore. Sue saw the look, pounced at once and pulled the handkerchief out. There, revealed in all my shame the bottle fell. Sue scooped it up, turned in triumph to Auntie Phyl. “There, I told you so. Now will you lock my door? This terrible child is never allowed, never allowed I say, to enter my room, my special room while I’m at school or away.” I cried and said sorry but in my heart I wasn’t. I was so in love with the scent bottle that I felt it should be mine. Months went by. It seemed like years and years. Dad said we’d soon be in our own house. He promised to make me toys. Being an apprentice watchmaker at the age of twelve meant he was used to working with tiny bits. Matchboxes became beds, covered with coloured silk and lace glued together, and plans drawn up on paper to build me a doll’s house of my own with wooden furniture. Dad helped Larry for hours making model airplanes and boats. After they had been painted and the shellac dried we took them to the common. Larry twisted the plane’s propellers round and round almost ’til the elastic band burst, then they’d shoot up into the sky. The boats were best. Dad had a motor control panel that connected with the boat. It skimmed over the pond at top speed. I knew he’d make me a doll’s house. The nursery was strictly forbidden unless someone responsible watched over me. Everyone was mean, especially Auntie Phyl. I didn’t mind because I’d made a discovery.
In the afternoon when Mummy rested I ran downstairs quick as I could. In the Kinema below the flat I was allowed to sit and watch suitable films for a child my age. My greatest delight was through a door marked PRIVATE where I pushed aside velvet curtains, found my way in the inky light down the aisle and squeezed between the seats until I was in the middle. The seats were velvet too, with worn patches everywhere. Once I sat in one that had a hole in it large enough to wiggle my little finger. I usually took my Wettoms doll. It was her outing. She couldn’t stay upstairs alone. She might cry if she did. Gazing up at the wide screen, snowflakes of flickering grey white and black danced across the wall. Pictures appeared, a lion roared. He turned his head from side to side. A voice boomed in my ear, “British Movietone News Presents …” Music flooded the hall and I was off on adventures so wild nothing could ever compete. Every heroine was me. The only reality was on that screen. Half of me believed all the people were real, they spoke to each other but I couldn’t be certain. It seemed like the make-believe games I made up, only different. For grown-ups. After a minute or two I didn’t care. All I wanted was to be in the play. The King and Queen and Princess Elizabeth and her sister giving a soldier a medal. How grand it must be to be a princess, although they didn’t wear crowns and they only wore coats. Auntie Phyl’s voice boomed out as she walked down the aisle offering teas, hot chocolate and biscuits. All going for 5p. each. Musicals were the best. I promised myself. I vowed to God. I promised the doll on my knee that one day I’d be a star on that screen in that world of make believe, where everything imagined came true. Daddy thought so too. “You’ll be an actress, my actress.” As long as I told someone where I was I could watch the pictures. I never told about the scary ones. I had to shut my eyes and stick fingers in my ears. I couldn’t bear it. They called it war. People went to sleep if you hit them bad and never woke up again. Soon after that we moved to our own house. Grandmama Lily helped. Although she wasn’t really grand I loved her. She lived with Auntie Phyllis, Uncle Mark and Sue and looked after everybody. She and her two sisters, Rosie and Annie gave tea parties on Sundays in our front room and spoke about play acting. All the family came to
tea. Auntie Gladys sang and giggled with Uncle Henry. Rosie called out ‘Who wants currants’ as she put the hot buttered scones on the table. She lifted up her skirt to dance. They sang ‘Knees up Mother Brown’ as I bent down to catch a glimpse of her putty coloured knickers. They were enormous, ending just above her knees, held there with thick elastic, her grey Lyle stockings wrinkling out of them. Sheila said I was rude to look and worse to laugh. But Grandmama knew and winked at me. Two apple trees grew at the bottom of our garden. Dad attached a swing to one of them. I spent hours swinging, breathing in the summer garden scents all mingling together. Blackberries, redcurrants and gooseberries grew higgledy-piggledy over the rose bushes. My garden was filled with fairy friends calling out to me, dancing a fairy ring. I ran through the kitchen, out of the door tiptoeing on the fairy dew. Bluebells in the witching hour with cherub faces took my hand and led me to the dance. Round and round in this ring we danced, their clothing like mist enfolding me. Music played sweeter to my ear than any heard before as I sang, “Please God, I want to play all day. I’ll bring the dolls. I’ll make the tea. A celebration it will be, as fairy friends and I discourse, beneath the apple tree.” This was far better than Sue’s magic room. It was my special place where anything wished for came true and everything was safe. Larry unlocked a door in the fence near the apple tree. We walked along a path and suddenly we stood in open ground with waving grass and lilac and yellow flowers. Butterflies everywhere. Larry whooped, ran and called and I followed as fast as I could. After he caught them he put the creatures in a box. I made holes in the top for air. It didn’t help ’cause they died. Perhaps they were hungry. Larry and I were always hungry. We ate mostly date sandwiches from the war rations. My birthday party. Sue gave me her hand-me-down dress. It was made of organza. The pockets and Peter Pan collar had embroidery all over and the bodice was smocked. It even had its own petticoat to wear underneath. I dressed all my dolls and sat them in a circle for tea while we waited for the party guests. Sheila gave me a book with stories and pictures. I felt mean because she was being kind. Sue came in with a shoebox specially wrapped in shiny brown paper with string. Auntie Phyl
said “unwrap carefully and give me the paper back,” which I did. Inside the box was a porcelain toy tea set for two. Nothing could be better than that. But then it was. And all to do with my dad. When he came home that night he kissed me happy birthday, told me to shut my eyes and put something smooth and cold into my lap. A handbag with a zip and a long strap to go over my shoulder. In bright green. “Oh Benny, we’ll be rich, we’ll be rich,” Mum sang. “If we can find a couple of people to go in with us and manufacture to this standard,” he responded. He drew a pair of men’s braces out of his pocket, complete with holes for the trouser buttons. They were also green, made from the same hard shiny stuff as the bag. “It’s plastic. Soon the whole world will want it. Everything we use will be made from it. You’re the first little girl to have a plastic sling bag.” I was so proud of my dad. “Will it always be green?” “Oh no, every colour you can think of.” The bag stayed in my cupboard for ages, even after it faded with scratchy yellow markings. Of course, Dad was right, everyone wanted plastic but we didn’t get rich. We got cold. The winter came and with it snow. The first morning I saw the garden covered over I thought the fairies had turned the world white. It melted in dirty, splodged holes with the world peeping through. The air was so cold it made my throat sore. Mummy was cross because no one had money to buy plastic handbags so Daddy was making picture frames instead. She frowned; “Who needs picture frames? How are we going to live, Benny?” The grown-ups talked a great deal about washing machines. Dad knew a man who had a warehouse stacked high with machines from America. He wanted to buy them and find a shop. Customers would bring in their laundry, have a cup of tea and a chat and presto! the job would be done. Serious discussion took place between Dad and the family which always ended with upset and bad looks. Auntie Gladys took Mummy into the kitchen. “Henry feels Benny would be better off with a steady job.” Uncle Henry spoke beautifully. He’d been an important person in the army fighting the Germans. Now he worked in an office with a secretary.
“She is indispensable.” Auntie Gladys responded, “she is little more than a tea lady,” and gave him a mean look. He laughed and called her Gladie and said no one in the world was her equal especially when she served lokschen soup on Friday night. That made her look all soppy. She lowered her eyelids saying “Oh, Hen” as she moved the tea things. I could tell she was pleased. Of course, Auntie Phyl didn’t dither about. She was quite firm. “Benny, we’re family. If we could use you in the Kinema we would. You know that. It isn’t as if there’s money about. After all, Esme-Sue’s down for Roedean. It’s no good messing about with all these new fangled ideas.” “Phyl, Benny might have something here. Perhaps we should hear more about it,” offered Uncle Mark softly. “No, the best thing for you is a job,” she replied. “You’re smart Benny,” said Grandmama Lily. “I know you’ll take care of my Vera. You can always go home to Africa.” So that’s what happened. The goodbyes were sad. Mummy crying, wondering if she was doing the right thing. Everyone reassuring her, saying how much better the climate was in Africa and how much easier it was with maids and I wouldn’t catch colds and coughs anymore. The coughs were awful. Great wrenching wheezes which hurt my chest. They called it whooping cough and said it was all due to the freezing winter of ’47. Water froze in the pipes so perhaps it was all to do with waiting for the boiling bubbles. Even though it was a gas stove, the pots took ages. After Dad filled the bathtub, we took turns. It was all scrubbing down with the face flannel, a quick splash and then Larry’s turn. Larry looked miserable and didn’t speak. I made a fairy ring in the garden with a stick in the snow, stepped into the middle and promised one day to come back. I walked slowly round the edge where all the fruits and flowers had grown in the summer and thought hard about their taste and perfume so I could remember them. A week before we left Uncle Henry’s brother David came to visit to give us all vaccinations. I knew it would be dreadful as soon as they started sticking pieces of Elastoplast to the edge of the kitchen table and saying things like “Come on, Hilary, nothing to be scared of. Roll up your sleeve. You’re not a Silly Billy.”
The worst was Uncle Henry and his brother David laughing at my tears. We had a last goodbye tea at Auntie Phyl’s where we’d begun the adventure. I slipped away to say goodbye to the magic room. It was unlocked. Closing the door quietly I tiptoed round kissing the dolls. On the dressing table next to the brush and comb set was the perfume bottle. I snatched it up and dug my fist deep in my pocket. No one was ever going to take it away again. Then came the day we stood on deck of a Union Castle liner, my mother crying, waving goodbye. Boom boom, a deep drumming sound, the boat slipping away. Later, as Mummy was helping me settle in the narrow bunk, I told her about the bottle. “Where is it?” she asked. I reached under the pillow, drew it out and together we looked at the bottle. She started to giggle. “Just like your father,” she said, and seemed pleased. As I snuggled down I felt the bottle safely wedged in my handkerchief between mattress and wall. The dark navy blue shiny bottle was mine for evermore. I smiled and drifted off to sleep, away from Auntie Phyl and the law.
Days tick by on the whims of others. My painting is ahead of me. Images appear, men and women from another time, space, floating together. Two soldiers, defeated, hypnotized robots, their hands high above their heads marching into an exploding bomb. A moose head with soulful eyes dominates the upper right hand corner above a giant bear. Does he represent the might of the Russian army? A man in top hat, tails and a cane is waltzing his lady out of the left hand frame. She wears a white dress, a crinoline, her blonde hair a shining plait down her back. Oh my, there goes a toff bejewelled and gartered. Through it all running like a spider’s web of strongest silk, the odd assortment of dates, one-night stands that melted one into another, through it all the nights out with Jake. shrimp cocktail in a lettuce leaf lobster duck with orange a ladies portion of fettuccini and mushrooms I have no idea what we’re talking about no care for the inquisitive stare
fingertips and the click of champagne glasses my foot wound round your leg I am the liquid bubbles slaking your thirst the laughter from your eyes to mine food is your foreplay your amorous intent you’re feeding me desert, an orange delight slithers of zest laced with Cointreau we’re wrapped in an energy swirl I’m sinking into your space touching upon the divine Or better still, romance on a record machine, candlelight and Chivas, perfume from jasmine and cigars over the crumbled cloth. Him sprawled low in the easy chair, covered in damask the colour of his eyes, me at his feet in the golden super pile with cushions tasseled and fringed watching the spiral of smoke circle the space and him talking, talking, weaving the spell of his life and me telling him my story too. “I had a grandmother named Lily. Years ago, at Xmas time, a friend gave me a wonderful tip involving golden syrup being poured over the turkey.” The green and gold tin reminded me of her and all the family. Auntie Gladys in the kitchen rolling out the lokschen, the aroma of chicken soup and kneidals. Then, as if my grandmother Lily had visited I felt her standing there, bright as a button against the ficus tree, close to the oven. “Pluck the bird roast it stuff it first use sage and onion pine kernels sultanas a little parsley and fresh breadcrumbs invite a friend trim the tree.”
“ yes, yes, I will and oh, thank you.” I longed for this dinner to come, to share my life with you. “Have you met Manuel Gundel, Ned’s friend? Last week he took me to lunch.” Manuel came memory laden with a black and white snapshot from the past. I was glamorous in purple sequins and tulle, a modern make-over of a fish-tale number Auntie Phyllis had worn in the twenties. My ohso-handsome escort for the evening, Aidan’s father Ned, smiling into the lens. “Ned and I are friends, Hilary. We were uptight, crazy kids. Oh yes, once Ned won a live chicken on a penny raffle. He was in bed with a cold so I took the chicken on the bus to his flat and gave it to his mother. She ran round the flat squawking louder than the chicken. Now, how’s that? “I was a pole holder at your wedding. Remember? And say what you like, if Ned Hirsch is on your side he’s a bloody good attorney. Of course, that mother-in-law of yours. I say a dragon, Hilary.” I thought of my dad, packing me off to Johannesburg to stay with his sister Irene. “Anyone, but don’t marry him.” “Perhaps she’ll find someone in Johannesburg,” my mother said. “I hear they’re all rich and famous up there.” I didn’t find a man. I found death instead. My aunts held a regular poker game every Friday pre Shabbat. It began with lunch and if Irene was catering the spread was everything from the best imported smoked salmon on thinnest rye, to deep pink borscht with thick melting soured cream over new potatoes, homemade culibac encased in her secret puff pastry recipe, blinis, spring green salads, and American cheesecake strawberry topped. Fully sated, they sat down to play. Lilly had both diabetes and heart, Irene got stuck with the sugar thing. They all had to weigh in on a regular basis. The lounge echoed with their talk, smoke rings being blown from lipstick mouths ceiling high like children’s soap bubbles inbetween
chewed antacid tablets, calls to the kitchen staff for more ice, the sudden almost silence before a serious slammed move, open trays of Black Magic courtesy of Uncle Harry, Irene’s husband. He was a traveling salesman, a true character out of ‘Guys and Dolls,’ shorter than Irene, a walk, part swagger, part slide, a gravel toned voice with an American twang singing a cliché to his wife. I fully expected him to come home tonight laden with goodies, his hat angled down over one eye, cigar hanging from a low lip, singing, ‘We’ve got the horse right here, the name is Paul Revere.’ Irene could not contain herself, cigarette dangling, squirming around in her seat as she inched her tight girdle down under her bottom, her bosom heaving, swathed in gorgeous swirled printed satin, urging me to tell Aunt Lilly to get a move on, they couldn’t wait all day. How long did it take to pee? I knocked discreetly on the bathroom door “Auntie Lilly, they’ve asked me to call you.” then out of the silence Irene’s voice, hard and cold “ Open the door, Hilary. I tried something resisted jammed the door quarter way “Push, Hilary.” Irene’s voice, unnaturally high Lilly’s foot in brown calf-skin shoe slid out to wink at me strange shape the ankle something crashed behind the door I heard Irene scream saw the scrawny leg slide out she’d had a massive heart attack felt no pain a mercy, really felt no pain they had to remove the door she’d been the tallest of them all
I didn’t feel sad I thought they’d made a silly, dreadful mistake she never said goodbye, not to me, not to anyone her ankle had looked too thin for the long strange foot The house filled with mourning. The next day Dennis drove me back to Cape Town. Dennis Landsman, my brother’s childhood friend? Dad, weeping for his sister over the phone. We stopped over at a motel in Laingsburg. “I’ll book one room, shall I?” “I don’t think so!” “Please yourself.” The following morning all he said was “Remember, even expensive perfume, your ‘Miss Dior,’ goes off if left on a shelf too long.”
Augusta Pienaar. She was the reverse of living in the ‘shoosh’ world. I heard her running up the stairs to my flat to show me her fancy dress costume for the bunny girl party and I was hooked. Nothing would have kept me away from that Sunday champagne brunch on their farm in Stellenbosch. A hand-stitched, calf-length, crepe coat dress from Second Hand Rose, tights ending in patent stilletoes. Her made up face was flawless. She moved about tossing her head, gorgeous in a long wig covering her short auburn hair, the ash blonde a shocking statement against the black costume. She oozed a naked sexual power, at odds with her Sunday image, the young woman carrying her bible to church, resolute, determined to carry out the Word, whether of God or the interpretation given by the dominee I couldn’t say. Calvinism rules with an iron rod. “Why the whip?” She laughed. “I picked it up on my way out. It was lying next to my saddle. Look at me.” She unbuttoned the coat, spun around. “My God, Augusta, you look stunning.” “I’m a bunny girl,” she said, laughing as the hair turned round in the air with her. The tights ran way up to her thighs, disappeared into the skimpiest leotard which plunged down her back, ending in a fluffy white pom-pom. “You’ll be wiggling all day.”
“Now, you know what the crop’s for. Those men can look but not touch.” “You wouldn’t.” “You better believe it.” “Have you ever?” “Yes, when I worked on a ranch in the States. I must show you the photos some time. I was grooming one of the horses and the bugger bit me. I just saw red. I whipped him ’til I could not any more. He had to learn, to know who his master was.” “God, Augusta, be careful.” “Listen here, Hilary, you can’t stand by and let a beast tell you, a man or an animal. You know, I grew up on a farm surrounded by love. My parents worshipped me and my brothers treated me like a princess. It was only when I was sixteen or so I suddenly thought … I told the garden boy to wash my car, to do it now, whatever he was doing. I didn’t care. He had to obey. It had been that way forever. I stood there watching him and for the first time in my life I thought, but he’s not a boy, he’s a man. But you mustn’t take it in the wrong way. It is expected. A person has to be tough, fair but strong. Jy weet? That’s who we are, always. “One day, I was about four or so, my brothers were calling me to go to church. I was in the barn. One of the farmhands told me he had something to show me there so I went to see, maybe a mouse or so. Hilary, I trusted him. I let him lift me on to the hay, ag, you know, I was about level with his groin. He was pushing at me, fumbling. All I remember is my brothers shouting and he ran away and my mother and father looking so cross in the car and then I thought dit is snaaks, it was funny. My father caught him later that night, left him lying in a ditch at the side of the road. “I must show you my gun. Hey, you should come with me to the shooting range sometime. Ag Hilary, your head thinks fairy stories. You need a gun, to handle any man. That’s what Africa’s turned us into. I could go back to America, have a wonderful career in the film industry but I can’t leave. I’m an indigenous being of Africa, a tree or an animal. I won’t grow there, anywhere. I’m like my painting downstairs, my tiger. You know, I sleep with my gun under my head. “I’m telling you the surprise element is on the side of the perpetrator. One night I was dreaming my mother was fiddling with my hair. I woke
up. I thought someone had sneaked into the house and was touching my neck, so I thought I would assess the situation. I was calm. I was prepared to shoot to kill. I turned over slowly, pretending I was asleep. Something ran off, a spider or cockroach, perhaps a mouse. “Come now, don’t scream. Ag, you are so scared. We’re living on Voor-trekker land. It’s wild here. I jumped out of bed for the spray. Now that’s what Africa has made of me. Had it been a man, I would have killed him. “Anyway we must go and show face. As for the farmers, look at the rest of Africa - what would they have had here if the Dutch hadn’t colonized it? No, think about it, Hilary. You don’t know the real story. Pitbulls, no longer useful, chained to railway lines mothers giving birth on the tracks leaving behind their newborn babies … farmers forming vigilante groups desperate to prevent a reign of terror children forbidden to play outside the house a killer hiding on her sister-in-law’s farm two nights of tracking and still no trace her sister-in-law’s friend murdered while her husband was out working the farm their eleven year-old-daughter raped while protecting the baby two younger brothers helpless, managed to flee Augusta hopes the army get to him first they will shoot to kill a whole community in shock the manhunt continues two men are caught main suspect apparently avenging his father’s death twenty years ago an accident occurred whilst a group of farmers were out hunting birds, shot richoceted hit a farm labourer No one forgets … few forgive.
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