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co.First published by Jacana Media (Pty) Ltd in 2010 10 Orange Street Sunnyside Auckland Park 2092 South Africa +2711 628 3200 www. Cape Town Job No.jacana.co. 2010 All rights reserved. 001183 See a complete list of Jacana titles at www.jacana.za © This collection: Elleke Boehmer.za . ISBN 978-1-77009-810-7 Cover design by: Jacana Media Set in Ehrhardt 12/15pt Printed and bound by CTP Book Printers.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 43 Fado. . . . . . . . . 81 . . . . . . . . . . . .park . . . . . . . . . . . 33 Air. .the. . . . . . .in. . . . . . . . . .race . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 112 Her. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .garden . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 7 Mrs. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .OK. . . . . . . . .Island. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Wedlake . . . .tear-gas. . . .in. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 75 Robben. . .father. 16 Off-white. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Lissabon .bean-bag. . . . . . 64 For. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 53 Highveld. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .speaking. . . 3 The. . .India. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 98 Like. . . . . . . . . 165 . . . . . . . . . . . . .attack . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 23 The. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .love. . . . . . . . . . . . . 161 It’s. . . . . . . . . 146 Fold. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Contents Khaya . .in. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .antenna. . . . Zulu. . 48 Ginger. . . . . . . . . . .hibiscus. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 130 Sharmilla. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .a. . . . . . . . . . . . 163 Epilogue. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .walk. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
She is often in such a hurry that she slurps at her tea and then it slops over her lips and chin. At the table I am not allowed to do that. We also don’t talk much in the house. sitting there on the bed. We don’t ever talk much when I’m here and Eileen is eating. eat with my fingers. I can only vaguely make her out. that I go and sit there. warm from the sunny kitchen. with the clammy cold of the stone floor coming through.Khaya Her kHaya is always dark and damp and cool. I 3 . But I like to watch the way she purses her fingers when she plucks at the mielie meal. to open my curtains and give me tea. so it’s shadowy inside. cross-legged on the coarse carpet that used to be in the playroom. her dark arm moving regularly to and fro against the white bibapron. Here. even in the summertime. Mother. It is during the summer holidays especially. It is the smell of Eileen in the morning when she comes in. camphor cream and paraffin. when I have nothing to do. The window is small and high up and outside the hydrangea bushes have grown over it. Eileen is always in a hurry in the house. she must also hurry because she has to be back at two o’clock every day. while she eats her lunch. I also like the smell here of burnt mielie meal.
4 . though I wasn’t sure. Then she shines up her legs with Vaseline. Every Thursday she also washes her hair using Lifebuoy soap. Sometimes I finish her tea for her as she straightens her uniform and washes her hands. which is the path Eileen takes when she goes out to crochet with Gladys on the grass verge at the gate on Thursday afternoons.EllEkE BoEhmEr know. along her hairline. So now I leave the back way. Her mug is one of those big tin ones with a good wide handle. When I asked her once if she didn’t mind the hardness of the soap. and there’s a lot of it. The first time I watched her she made me look closely at the border of her slip. and that night Dad said he didn’t want me here again because I would make Eileen late for her afternoon duties. like the way she used to wash me when I was younger. watching her as she gets ready to go out. along by the hydrangea bushes. The first time I came she saw me walk back into the house with Eileen. She stands at her washbasin in her bra and slip and soaps her arms up to the elbow and her legs up to the knee with strong. holding hands. wouldn’t approve of that if I did it. Her tea is tastier than the tea she gives us in the mornings and again at four o’clock. with biscuits. she said her kind of hair didn’t need the same gentle care as ours. which has a thick band of lace decorated with tiny pink satin bows. Of course. but sweet. It’s dark and very strong. firm strokes. It is at lunchtime on Thursdays that I especially enjoy being with Eileen. She was proud of it. I also have to hurry because Mother doesn’t know I’m here and wouldn’t like it if she did. because sometimes she also smears Vaseline on her roots.
compared to Mother. One day I asked but she was shy. she stuck her hand in and pulled one out. she puts on her terylene black skirt. But every day I nagged and nagged so that in the end. and Aunt Sarah’s. rubbing it out. she spends ages fiddling with her face. or the silky one Mother gave her last Christmas. and muttered under her breath and looked strict when I laughed. She’s not really fat but. doing it over again. Eileen and Mother are different. Eileen doesn’t have a mirror at all. who’s growing up now but always hides herself. like small cornflower puddings. It looked full like a 5 . as though they might split at the seams if she is too rough. only turned away. and my sister Charmaine’s. Theirs are all white and pink and flattened out. Of course. The next time I offered her ten cents for a quick look but she said nothing. and the shirt she also always wears to church. when she stood there in her bra and slip. easing into the clothes so carefully. Eileen. Mother is very careless with her stuff though she tells me to keep my room tidy. saying I shouldn’t be naughty and that she’d tell on me. She has many beautiful clothes and is skinny. had such huge ones I wanted to see them close up. Mother looks very pretty when she’s done. Eileen is shorter and round. trying one colour. And sitting at her big mirror with the bright make-up lights Dad fitted on to either side. one day before putting on her Thursday clothes. her arms and legs are big and she has big tits. the brown one with the big orange flowers.khaya After washing. When I tugged at her she pushed me. I’d only ever seen Mother’s when she was in the bath. which she saved up for. who I barged in on once by mistake. or smoothing out her wrinkles as she says.
I was standing close to see better and reached up to touch because it was so black-black. her chin almost on her chest. when she took off her uniform and scrubbed. And then I looked up at her face. till Dad asked why she was so sullen. But the nipples were dark. But I didn’t want to catch her eye either. She wouldn’t look at me after that. dark black. which was turned right over to the side. a bit like a crunched-up dung beetle. After a while I started going back at lunchtimes. she kept her head well down. Her eyes. quickly. As I touched she seemed to shiver. she kept her back firmly turned. when she came in after lunch. puckered tight with something more than anger. 6 . she didn’t reply. but also not like anything I’d seen before. she wouldn’t let me come up close to examine the lace. But the first time. and dark brown. She still lets me drink her tea and watch her wash. though I thought it would be blacker. and her mouth.EllEkE BoEhmEr cow’s udder. I was glad for that. though it was weeks later. For days. staring open. was she sick? Though he was stern. though she didn’t move back. when one day she bought a new slip. and smooth like a cheek. made me move away again. And.
Wereldomroep during the cultural broadcast on Sunday afternoons? Her mamm had. civilization-bereft neck of the tropical woods. Was it duty. never-never. And in the end it hadn’t been the husband-to-be’s promise of a Dutch delicatessen (what. wires dangling from his raised arms. at the least pretext. aiming the two metal frames in his balled fists to the northern sky. his more-or-less wishful talk of the flower market downtown (those terrible heat7 . Nederland. wanted to come and live in this green and greasy Durban. this god-forsaken.The. a sinewy and grudging love? What was it that persuaded her father to stand out in their garden in all weathers. So she assured all possible comers.antenna On sunday afternOOns the stocky man in his safari shorts stood in the middle of the canna-lily patch. She had been dragged kicking and screaming. holding aloft two antler-like antennae. The child could never tell what made him do it.father. after all. even in later years. or some hard-bitten determination to force the hot continent to embrace his wife? Was it even. or personal honour. so that her mamm might listen to Radio. the child often heard her say. perhaps. at no point. one only?). to this cockroach-infested kontje of a country.
was despite appearances a solid reliable sort. it was no lie. that gave her the strength to persist. two-part instruction. In those days we obeyed our fathers. even for the child’s ever-hopeful father. it was none of these things that had persuaded her mother but rather Mamm’s own father. who delivered a firm. No matter that he couldn’t sing or dance. not then. by contrast. At a time when long-distance radio reception was a wavering affair. ‘Zo. No matter all of this – the man had honest eyes. The delicatessen shop sold excellent imported speculaas. and the municipal 8 . is. het. while singing and dancing men.’ For a while her mamm did try to give it a go and she did make do. the tennis club (too. ‘And so it came that I’m here. a claim too far. or that he had a tin ear and was unable to sustain a rhythm or hold a tune. her father meaningfully added. and who had gone ahead to make a new life in far-off Africa. acculturated Nederlander who had proposed to her. It was also not the mention of Radio. after any war there was a dearth of decent husbands for respectable girls. and try to make do. so she should be grateful for the offer she had so poutingly received (he was her bird in the hand). No matter that he couldn’t read music and that even his voice was unmusical (it was the first thing she’d noticed about him). Nederland Wereldomroep. First her papa told her that the crabby. No. or church-hall recitals (to an out-of-tune piano) that had persuaded her to stay on. this promise would have been.’ her mamm always ended the story of how she fetched up in this dismal wasteland in the tropics.EllEkE BoEhmEr blackened blooms). were not to be trusted.competitive). Secondly.
It made no difference how many letters home she wrote or tennis games she played. where they invited ‘busy-bee’ readers to write short book reviews for the foyer noticeboard (though she generally felt too shy to post hers up). The mail boat did as promised take a mere two weeks to sail from Holland.kern..als.. clammy.mijn. Summer holiday mornings began with her eyes welling with tears. But despite all her efforts. As each blue-sky day submitted to the next. the process of day-to-day survival – the survival of her European heart. for her mamm. Africa’s pressure on her soul felt like the insistent hand of some resentful foster child.het. It was even possible to accept that black people chose to avoid eye contact when you met them on the street and weren’t simply (though this remained your suspicion) hating the very guts of you as they passed. and to stuffing a sock in your mouth to try to suppress your screams at the sight of the city’s mousesized cockroaches. She felt she had nothing to give this foster child – not even her music. By noon. a slow washing 9 .ThE faThEr anTEnna library was a godsend. Africa cared nothing for her music – and there was nothing she might ask of it in return. yet inescapable. so her depression darkened. and you learned from your string of defeats at the too-competitive tennis club to abandon polite European-style play and slam the ball at your opponent from the baseline. It was possible to grow used to softsoaping the mildew off your beloved piano’s keys before playing. a precious godsend. three at the outside. though it pressed itself on her without respite.ziel – stayed tough. mijn. The sweltering summers were the worst. at the most minor of prompts. unloving.waren.
along with proper instruments. a kwartetje. She demanded of the empty air (or her daughter sitting on the kitchen step covering her ears with her hands) why. il. mostly quiet. And then. her inevitable tears mingling with the Mr 10 . The vast expanded choir was drawn from various local choral groups. just why. this hideous place denied her all comfort? Was it impossible to set up even an occasional opportunity of real culture? To offer just a little solace? She asked for so little. no. cleaned. that alone. waarom. He had complimented her on her low notes. the Singers of Scheveningen. she had formed them. she was in full sob. comme. when. reminiscing sometimes in a strange throaty voice about the spring beauty of Easter weekends back home. she said softly. Every year since she was eighteen she had participated.faut. Bach’s MatthäusPassion was performed in Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw and the soloists wore corsages of pale spring flowers. tuned and tastefully arranged on stage.EllEkE BoEhmEr machine. nou. all of a sudden. and even smiled at her from his dais when. The mother lay on the settee. Perhaps a mail-boat letter had carried a tip-off. just a small European ensemble. raising her chin as high as she could. By Easter time. including her own. there was a break in the mother’s imprisoning darkness. dusty footprints on the carpet. and the last year before leaving she had made a distinct impression on the choirmaster. the depression had harried her into exhaustion. more than a concert now and again. as she said she could never forget. on an Easter Sunday. or it was pure coincidence that brought Mamm to dusting the dark veneer Philips radiogram that late March afternoon.
Her mamm straightened up slowly. only now she was smiling through her tears and before too long singing along with the choir. so as not to bother Mamm. Pop music and sports other than tennis were far outside the realm of what counted for her as civilization. as if she were a long-lost relative who had returned home without warning. the cloth knocked the volume knob as well. Whatever it was. at the moment she bent to polish the glass dial in the front of the radiogram. Drawn by the music her father stepped in from outdoors and stood stock-still beside his daughter. The Philips was on that afternoon though her mother could not at the time have known it. as if some invisible force were powering her arms.ThE faThEr anTEnna Min polish she was spraying onto its surface. her duster accidentally flicked the tuner that switched the stations from FM to shortwave. The child did the very same with the Saturday hit parade. that exact music. The resonant contrapuntal of Bach’s St Matthew Passion. in the same instant. when it turned out that the 11 . Then. so he often had the radiogram almost inaudibly switched on and listened at the appropriate times with his ear pressed to the woven plastic speaker. she worked with a fury. The child’s father in those days was a closet follower of sports broadcasts. as if the slightest movement might break the magic spell that had so wonderfully been visited upon them. for the same reason. She did not immediately stop her usual weeping. She looked down at her daughter in disbelief. and. The child would never forget how her father’s collection of pewter mugs hummed on their glass display shelf as the sound first struck. filled the room like a miracle. Later.
barely believing their good fortune. Certainly this discovery would rescue her from the doctors with whom her husband had already threatened her. there must be. There must be a God. But now he borrowed from the neighbour on their righthand side a drill bit that was larger than those in his own toolbox and used it to bore a hole through the sitting room wall. because he began suddenly talking to the neighbours. reduced to silence. her one-time singing ground – the mother could only shake her head.’ Mamm gulped through her tears. the sound coming all the way through. its music radiating in a great spreading fan of harmony across the vast African continent. and the sound a napping blade. He and the child tried several times to rediscover the Radio Hilversum station setting.bin.Gottes. broadcast live on Radio. The child could tell he was up to something then.EllEkE BoEhmEr concert had been live. she finally breathed.’ he whispered. initially without success. 12 . The three-hour Sunday programme from Hilversum could have been designed for her. Wereldomroep from Amsterdam via Hilversum – yes. the very place.Sohn. striking open the moment on which he held his final note as if time were a flint. Ich. in the corner where the radiogram stood. more than once. ‘Nothing doing. after all. and still so pure?’ The father and the child silently made eyes at one another. In the days that followed the father maintained his amazed silence.Nederland. the tenor on the radio intoned. Most days he no more than grunted if he spied them over the fence. ‘All the way across Africa. his callused thumb rolling the dial. nothing doing. ‘Can you believe it.
borrowed a big steel contraption said to be a cow pacifier. so the child imagined it. And finally. A system was now in place. and no one other than he might now mess with it. but it was as if he were 13 . at the moment Radio Nederland came on stream. when that was put in place and hooked up to the wire. braced antennae in her father’s hands. announced themselves. they came beating along the high. those three precise words. through his guts and sclerotic veins and bones. The father claimed to have set it minutely. From the other neighbour. Mr Simmons. At three o’clock exactly that Sunday. But what success! What magic! At that very same instant the warm clear sound of ‘Radio Nederland Wereldomroep’. and so through his body. and over the Zambezi and the Limpopo rivers. the Radio Nederland newsreader informed them. and round the blue arc of the sky above their heads. The price of a barrel of oil was rocketing to record levels. frond-like shapes. and here into the sitting room. she thought. the blue veins bulging in his scrawny forearms. and down the Great Rift Valley. he bought an old antenna and then. and then became transfigured into spoken words. At the same instant Mamm switched on the radio but avoided the least touch to the tuner. They had pulsed through the dry air of the Sahara. This he rigged up beside the first antenna as its back-up. and moulded its looped arms into longer. Together the family waited for Sunday. a parttime handyman. to the micro-kilohertz. the child’s father stepped outside and raised his two antennae to the sky. Through his liver and lungs the pulse went.ThE faThEr anTEnna Through this he threaded the radiogram’s antenna wire.
EllEkE BoEhmEr singing Bach. The child thought of how that same static had thundered silently through her father’s body only moments before they all heard it. For the time being. she gestured. and wondered whether he had felt it in the slightest. Her father’d had to rub at the sweat collecting on his nose and for a moment had lowered one of the antennae. she cried. go tell your mother that at any given moment there is bound to be a tropical thunderstorm somewhere in Africa. irrevocably lost! The father raised the antennae again. though. The mother’s anxious face was pressed to the window. The loudness of the thrumming. a high-pitched buzzing now assaulted her. but was very crackly. so elated was Mamm’s expression. the father shrugged back. A snag of stormy static wasn’t about to scupper his efforts to give his wife and so himself an island of sanity on a Sunday afternoon. straining even higher. Mamm’s face again came to the window. The connection had returned. The string of sound connecting us to Europe will have to be snagging at some or other point. it is to be expected. and the child stretched tall behind him in a vain attempt to prop up his elbows. But the message did not dislodge her mamm’s bogged-down spirits. he instructed the child. she said. She was appalled to think of tropical storms at any time. was not so easily put off. and how he had stood it if he had. Trial and error across the next 14 . Go indoors. The station had been lost. It wasn’t to be helped. Where the newsreader’s voice had been. The father. A sudden yelp. and least of all as crashing into her radiogram in the form of this horrible roaring static. she was crestfallen and determined to stay that way.
And yet every Sunday he stood there for those three hours at a stretch. So the father’s afternoon antennae watch became a fixture. but even Mozart. and then maintained in the aloft position throughout the broadcast. if his arms grew very tired. in silence. and occasionally. the only time that he was allowed it. his comb-over dishevelled. All that Mamm loved about old Europe – its complicated manners and traditions – he resented. sweated through or soaking wet with rain. regardless of the intervening storms. Radio Nederland’s reception continued clear from start to finish. always cold beer.ThE faThEr anTEnna few weekends showed that as long as the antennae were held high at the moment of switching on. a small smile of contentment playing around the lips to which his daughter lifted. at peace with himself. What drove him? He had always hated sunshine and was indifferent to music. Especially if there was a concert or a recital. ever so gingerly. shifting himself up higher if Mamm so much as murmured from indoors that a burr of static had spoilt a favourite chord. Bach or Schubert especially. he committed himself to his garden post for a full three hours. He winced when the shrill arias on Radio Nederland pierced the walls of the house and reached his ears. Years later she retained the clear picture in her memory. 15 . It was the child’s job to keep him supplied with liquid refreshment. the long glasses of cold beer he loved. she would take a chair to stand up behind him and support his elbows in her palms. Her father out there in his mauve polyester shirt.
CHildHOOd dares – everyone entertains some regret about them. They regret duffing up a dare, or having pretended to do one and being found out, or they regret just missing one, not taking one on. There was the dare of breasting the waves out beyond the sandbank off North Beach, for example, that only the very foolhardy took. Or there was daring the switchback rollercoaster that visited town each year, a challenge that receded in force as the teenage years wore on. Several of Sharon Stevens’ friends shared the regret of not having dared to smoke Durban Poison zol on the beachfront before they turned sixteen, which was the bog-standard age to try it. But Sharon had grown up in a dormitory town at a distance from the city, a great flat stretch of suburbia called Parkwood where zol was over-plentiful and boring and real.dares were limited. Sharon’s chief regret concerning childhood dares was that, some years earlier, when given the chance, when the gauntlet was thrown down, she had failed to play Russian hopscotch with Mrs Wedlake along the pavement on Main Street. It was out of the blue one day that Mrs Wedlake moved into the Bewdley’s rented place with its high wooden fence about three blocks down towards town
from Sharon’s house. Within days, the news of her coming had spread across Parkwood. Within a week, all the school children had heard about her – her loud cawing voice, the big men’s shoes she wore, the bottle of brandy poking out of her dirty canvas satchel. She became a Local Topic. Parents spoke of her at the Golf Club, in the supermarket, when picking up children from school. Mrs Wedlake had frowsy clothes and no job and no husband, they said. No, not even a boyfriend. Maybe there were children but none had yet shown their faces. Like as not, she didn’t have any. ‘She could use a comb,’ Debbie Barker’s mother said to Mrs Eunice Summers at the school gates. ‘And skin lightener cream along with that,’ Mrs Summers said, patting her daughter Grace’s head. ‘I’d never tan that dark.’ ‘Believe she drinks, too,’ Mrs Stevens added. ‘Bill saw her chatting to the men in the queue at the bottle store. On the white side, thank goodness.’ ‘And she gets up late as noon,’ said Mrs Vesey, putting her head into their huddle, though how she could have known this was impossible to guess. There was no doubt about it, Mrs Wedlake was a Curiosity, a Scandal even. In Parkwood suburb babies generally arrived no sooner than nine months after the wedding party. Mrs Wedlake lived in another solar system. She broke into the public baths at night, especially on moonlit nights, and was heard singing there by passers-by, singing and splashing loudly, all alone. And the next day, people said, the pool attendant would have to dredge up the brandy bottles, and, worse, the flower garlands, scraps of coloured underwear, and
once, this is no lie, an effigy, a woven straw doll but without a head. One weekend, Sharon Stevens together with her friends Debbie Barker and Grace Summers spied on Mrs Wedlake by peering through the gaps between the slats in her garden fence. The whole time, Sharon had to hold herself tight between the legs, she was so nervous. Taking turns at the widest gap, the girls saw Mrs Wedlake lope around her yard with her three black dogs and cat – there was of course a cat, yellow-eyed and skinny. They saw her big men’s shoes flip-flop on the concrete, and they saw how she tucked her dress into her knickers to hunker down and mulch her flowerbeds, revealing brown legs thick with muscle. Once, she straightened up with a jerk and the girls hurtled back in fright, Debbie nearly falling in a heap on top of Grace, but Mrs Wedlake was not after them. She stood with her head to the side, as if listening, but she had not, it seemed, heard them. After a while, they saw her slowly raise her arms to the sky and then begin to sing a low chanting song, as if to praise the sun, while stirring her feet about in time. Summer came and the school buildings were abandoned for the long holidays. Creepers grew riotously over the walls and Sharon saw when walking past the Bewdley’s place how the herb plants flourished in Mrs Wedlake’s flowerbeds, and in the pots arranged around her yard. At the public baths and outside the shops on Main Street the stories about Mrs Wedlake’s strangeness also grew tall. Pimply Matt Vesey reported that his dad had spotted her prowling the streets at the dead of night. But the girls could go one better. Mrs
but walk straight on. Liquorice Allsorts. That way.out the fate of their victims. while dancing. the humouring felt like walking a tightrope. so it was difficult not to bump into her sometime. On the other side of 19 . pointing in the direction of an enemy’s house. in curlers. they said sitting side by side on the pool edge. that witches. a map of how to waylay someone. ‘with their feet they’d trace in the dust. somewhere. the shop where they bought their sweet supplies. ‘That’s to say. ten-a-cent jujubes. Still.’ The children decided the wisest course of action in respect of Mrs Wedlake should be to humour her whenever possible. always alone. candy baby-dummies. Sharon had been playing hopscotch by herself on the pavement at the entrance to the Greek’s. maybe even meet her eye. you name it. like primitive people. could dance. they should gather up all their courage and. Behind the net curtains of Giuseppe’s. said Grace. by mistake of course. The other children swam up close and leaned in to hear more. she wouldn’t have the need to dance against any of them. or track them down.’ Sharon cleared her throat importantly. danced magic dances in her garden. her mother was held fast under a peaked heating hood. bubblegum. calamitously. often singing. Mrs Wedlake roamed about everywhere. Grace’s mother had explained. you know. ritual stuff. If Mrs Wedlake were coming down the street.mrs WEdlakE Wedlake. say. not cross to the other side of the street as they had done up till now. sangomas and such. holding hands. Like the dreadful Friday outside the Greek shop on Main Street when Sharon tripped up Mrs Wedlake. next door to the Greek shop. or else a dagger shape.
Sharon definitely heard it. She straightened her skirt and ran a hand through her hair. she must’ve been drunk to fall like that. and her mother in her silly curlers was patting at the dust on her shorts. She must’ve been coming to my shop to get more drink. before people crowded round. I’m sorry. The crowd parted silently to let her pass through. I could see her the whole time. and turn to Sharon and fuss. she kicked Sharon’s hopscotch bottle-top into the gutter. quite suddenly. are you all right?’ She did say that one thing. and her heavy limbs catching her shin. But something about the people’s silence made them feel sheepish. Worried slapping hands dusted her down. But the warmth and the sitting did not still her shivering or calm her chattering teeth. in a thick European accent.EllEkE BoEhmEr Giuseppe’s was the bottle store where the man at the till doled out old beer bottle-tops and stubs of chalk to the children to mark their games on the pavement concrete. Not a word was spoken till she had stalked down to the end of Main Street and disappeared. and both of them thudding to the ground. And then. She was 20 . Her mother led her into Giuseppe’s and made her sit cross-legged on the floor within the dry aura of the heating hood. ‘Child. ‘I was watching her.’ But who could tell if Mrs Wedlake was drunk? Who could tell why she had fallen? Mrs Wedlake herself did not stop to explain. I’m sure of it. ‘The woman was drunk. tripping her. Look. there was Mrs Wedlake’s foot in its big flip-flopping shoe scuffing Sharon’s chalk hopscotch pattern. The bottle store man gave her an ice cream and a cold drink.’ said the bottle store man from his shop door.
because she had tangled with Mrs Wedlake. In the dark. At Sharon’s window grew late roses with great blowsy heads. made Sharon stand her ground. Sharon didn’t bolt. who knows what. brown eyes that seemed to gleam at her. Grace and Debby darted into the safety of the shop entrance. she knew. slowly. let her eyes meet Mrs Wedlake’s. Until the end of the summer and the day when the luxuriating creepers were pruned back from the school doors and windows. She stood still and. Because Mrs Wedlake with her effigies would now be well and truly after her. when Sharon was playing a final game of hopscotch with Grace and Debby outside the Greek shop. had now shown up Mrs Wedlake’s drunkenness. Because she. Sharon. how ordinary the hand was. on the very last afternoon of the holidays. And then. Because the tripping accident had interrupted Mrs Wedlake’s walk through town and to the bottle store. they became a dozen Mrs Wedlakes. Or it had to do with the shiny bottle-top she held out to Sharon in an open palm. Sharon’s nights were filled with nightmares. Mrs Wedlake suddenly stood before them as if she had stepped out of thin air. and each head singing. but something. Mrs Wedlake’s face squinnied out from the zigzags in her bedroom wallpaper. Whatever it was. 21 . her swaying drunken walk in her big clown shoes. each with a huge tousled head of hair. as their shadows danced on the curtain. Maybe it had to do with how much less scary Mrs Wedlake with her rumpled shirt and tired eyes looked in real life than she did in her nightmares. how straightforward the gesture. her dark voice asking after Sharon’s whereabouts. Mrs Wedlake strode up her garden path.mrs WEdlakE shivering.
in the middle of the chalk hopscotch pattern. ‘I’m sorry I spoiled your game the other day. back in Russia. She wondered what it looked like. And you change direction halfway through. ‘I dare you. ‘Let’s get out of here. ‘Come. her soft singing in her garden. She heard Mrs Wedlake breathe through her half-opened mouth and remembered without wanting to. tucking her shiny bottle-top back into her skirt pocket. Sharon had to drop her eyes and step backwards. raising her open palm higher. and she swayed a little on her feet. and not Mrs Wedlake’s. a hopscotch pattern with more branches.’ The footsteps clattering after her were her friends’. as if she were chasing after Sharon. let’s go home. At Mrs Wedlake’s word ‘dare’ the tousled roses of her nightmare floated again in front of her eyes.’ Mrs Wedlake said again. looking lost and silly. Now. the pattern’s longer. Mrs Wedlake’s footsteps would be heavy. ‘Let’s go!’ she shouted over her shoulder to her friends in the doorway.’ said Mrs Wedlake. would you like me to teach you Russian hopscotch? It’s different from yours. with more branches. well polished from living long in a pocket. I played it as a kid. used one. flip-flopping.’ On her left Sharon sensed Grace and Debby retreating further into the shadows of the shop.’ though she all of a sudden breathed harder. she knew. playfully. She saw that Mrs Wedlake’s bottle-top was an old. Then she felt her heels spin on the pavement. she saw Mrs Wedlake still standing there on the pavement. and then.EllEkE BoEhmEr ‘Come. Casting a glance over her shoulder. 22 .
I do not think of myself in those terms [of being white], I daren’t. I don’t let that into my life; you can’t; it’s a trap. (Athol.Fugard)
Slide One tHe way sHe bent back the small girl’s thumb, as if smoothing a wayward dog-ear in a favourite book. They sat in the white-tiled foyer of the Community Museum, the Gemeentemuseum, the early winter dark settling into its corners and alcoves. The darker it grew, and the quieter, the more vigorously the girl swung her legs, her polished, Bought-in-Europe Mary Janes. She swung deeper and higher, higher and deeper, feeling the edge of the oak bench on which they were both seated digging into her skin. She hoped her energetic activity might distract the attention of the elderly lady who pressed so warmly against her side, whose eyes pressed so intently into her own. She was instructed to call the lady tante, and her face was to some degree familiar. Her mother had left her in her care while she dashed to the Dames – it was a long bus ride back to their pension. The lady was one of her
mother’s many women friends who lived unemphatic lives in this quiet city of peace conferences. Even on this particular short stay in the city the small girl had met the lady at several afternoon teas. The genteel cafés in the old town where the teas were consumed, were places her mother had once frequented. The lady and her.lady friends continued regularly to visit the cafés together, these many years her mother had lived abroad, in Africa. She herself was, the girl had already figured out, the trophy, somehow, of her mother’s time away. She had, she suspected, been the topic of conversation at a number of the teas. She was after all ‘African-born’, in. Afrika geboren, the ladies whispered bemusedly, but with a kind of hard inquisitive edge. She had been born on a torrid midsummer afternoon when the palm trees visible from the hospital window stood rigid – frozen, said her mother – with the tropical heat. ‘Ella,’ said the lady, taking her hand in a papery clasp, ‘you know, don’t you, you’re named for me?’ ‘Ja-nee.’ Yes, no. The girl resorted to the safe seesawing noncommittal that her parents’ language conveniently lent her. ‘Yes!’ said the lady, strangely triumphant, the energy of her feeling pushing her to capture the girl’s free left hand, too, in her own. ‘Named for me, but so very foreign …’ The lady’s breath was unpleasantly moist, but the girl decided it wasn’t safe to shift away. Eyes askew, she spied, far down the long foyer, her mother returning. The lady realized time was short. ‘African born,’ she said directly into her ear. ‘Do you mind? Does it feel strange? Do you worry?’
It was then that, getting hold of the girl’s right thumb, she began to force it into a backbend with the ball of her own pale thumb. The thumb obligingly crooked itself. It was an inverted comma, it was a spandrel. It did not hurt. Experimentally the girl bent back her other thumb, without assistance. ‘Always so!’ the lady gloated. She spoke very softly now, as if to elude the mother who stood before them in her out-of-date winter coat and walking shoes. ‘You see it in the Indonesian-born also, and the folk from Surinam. All the children of the tropics. It changes them. The limbs grow softer. Bones, they change. The thumbs get limber. The colour, character, outwardly it seems to stay the same. Inwardly … who knows?’ ‘Ella, lieverd, get your coat.’ The mother pulled the tante to her feet. It was an abrupt gesture, the girl saw, for a woman as polite as her mother. * Slide Two They are driving in the sky-blue Valiant down the broad, sunlit street. To the right is the Bata shoe shop, to the left the liquor store, a queue of people snaking out of its entrance door. It is Saturday morning. The traffic lights show red. Just as the father begins braking a man dashes across the road, right in front of the car. The flat of his hand slaps the slowing bonnet, perhaps intentionally. He wears khaki trousers, an unkempt hat, and a light brown
as in that English poem they did at school. blue and red. his white side cream? She sees the back of him only.EllEkE BoEhmEr blazer that flares behind him as he darts. awake to any oddity. ‘Half-bloed. but not quite European. immediately look again. She thinks protectively of the coffeecoloured birthmark she carries on her lower back. more at ease with this question of who she is than since the meeting with the aunt in the museum lobby. half milk. His left side brown. Coloured people have different bloods mixed inside them. Suddenly she can pinpoint more closely what she is. Different colour liquids run through him.’ her mother obliges in Dutch. 26 . white feet? She imagines something half and half. not fitting in. Which means pied. like the illustrations of blood flow in her biology textbook. Coloured. Not English. is what she is: basically coloured. Yet he spoke just then in English. Coloured? Black head. yellow and brown. which seems from the glimpse of neck and hands to be perfectly monochrome. dappled. Pa?’ Her father chooses never to explain the obvious. Mixed up. ‘Bloody Coloured!’ father shouts. braking hard. the one about God and brindled cows. White. so whatever he meant was nothing self-evident. The eyes of childhood. ‘What’s “coloured”. She’s been given quite by chance a label for the confused feelings she often has. like a Droste chocolate.’ Straightaway the girl sees a picture of the man’s insides like an elaborate plumbing system. half dark. But she sits back relieved. ‘It means half-bred.
. her little mark of piedness. so used is she to it now. cast in a prominent role in a one-act farce. it. * Slide Three At the end of winter is the annual school play. The headmaster calls her father almost immediately at work. Dr Patel plays a po-faced verbal punch bag to the play’s eponymous character. maybe twelve. Using a hand mirror she checks the birthmark. ‘Nooit. oh happiness. She cries a little. feeling regret. The third or fourth row of boxes is marked ‘Race’. George. until the day she confirms it on an official form at school almost without thinking twice. 27 . to herself. What a sick. At the beginning of the year they fill in identity forms. Don’t you know they’re society’s stepchildren?’ She must never. It is tough to have the label denied her. other than that Coloured is somehow associated with shame. nooit. She has been. especially as she had grown so comfortable with it. thirteen. again. sick joke. But her father’s furious talking-to explains nothing. do. She ticks the place for Coloured. set out to humiliate her parents like this. ‘Never. the part of a doctor. rows and columns of tick boxes. weer. injustice. The girl is a little older.off -WhiTE She uses the term privately. repeat never again. to make sure of it.’ he shouts in two languages. Dr Patel.
‘now you must dress 28 .EllEkE BoEhmEr Tweenie. He speaks the lines.with.are. as he puts it.George . they live in Durban. They have Indian doctors there. shake her head. wrong.not. Jack Nicholson-style. and repeat ‘in a worried voice’. an extrovert redhead in an older class.what. The jokes depend on it. as her friends regularly remind her.’ the girl is instructed. A born joker. the text can’t be changed.not. The doctor. We. lady doctor (the teacher–producer says the words with a noticeable emphasis) pays him regular visits.wrong.knowing.knowing. How will she fit the frame of a second accent across her own awkward vowels? As for eavesdropping downtown. well. it’s impossible. he can do many voices. would ban her from going. Get the feel of their voices—’ But this is not exactly easy. for one. she mimics him. but the fact is that she already has an accent.are.is. One final ingredient remains to complete the act: the costume.what. the Indian. ‘Unfortunately.’ ‘You must get the accent right. It’s Indian territory. Go visit the Indian shops downtown. Her mother.’ they say. Before too long the teacher is smiling approval.we.with. ‘You talk real Indian. ‘It’s a British play. is.George. She comes to hold his hand. She puts tongue-flipping r’s in all the wrong places. OK. Eventually Tweenie bails her out. including a ripe ‘Coolie’. Tweenie will spend the entire play lying in a hospital bed centre-stage. doing nothing more than suffering delusions and turning them into jokes. will play the part of George. biggest Indian city in the southern hemisphere.
But she never said a word. at last. as if it carried bone china or the most fragile pastries. She sets the box down delicately. or cousin’s friend. Each white fold is swaddled in the whitest tissue paper. and the school’s lab assistant’s cousin. She has delayed coming up to this point. which the Indian lady does for the girl. As for the Indian doctor’s skin colour. an Indian. phones in. when again she circled the girl. is it. Yes. or browned. On dress rehearsal night. She enters the dressing room carrying a flat cardboard box and is not introduced.off -WhiTE the part. No one speaks the instruction. lady in jeans and a red t-shirt brings the sari. 29 . Shoe polish skin. On the night itself she will be fully browned up. prodding and pushing her to turn. without roughness. as if she’d been struck. decorated with tiny diamante beads. of the purest white. daubed on to her cheeks in order to get into character. when first she saw that her sari was to be worn against browned-down skin. look like an Indian doctor. The sari is a ceremonial garment of some sort: extremely long. How the woman’s eyes jerked wide open. Without a word she helped the lady doctor dress. a white sari of course.up. She maintained her silence at the end of the show. which has made everyone anxious. Browned. nor does she introduce herself. this goes without saying.’ A public call is made. Two things about that night the girl will never forget. The sari takes ten minutes to wind on. Wear something white. a white sari can be borrowed. no problem. who is Indian. The girl wears it at rehearsals.down? She’s not sure. The make-up box is already equipped with brown shoe polish.
And that was the second thing. But there is something else again too. She is now not so young as to be unaware that. she would not have been in a position to play an Indian lady doctor. We. she has learned. makes her feel deeply ashamed. Something about whiteness. in a pure white sari. is far from pure and simple. and must have heard how. Not. Every night after the play the girl resists taking her brown make-up off.knowing. had it not been for her accent. By the final performance the girl has learned something. Night after night the woman waited in silence in the cold dressing room to receive back her sari in good order. but she knows there is more to it than this. Far more ashamed than Coloured. she would not have been asked to play the role at all.is.not. with an accent. out in the hall.what. 30 . Her mother says she had better learn to launder her own bed linen as the treacly brown stain on the pillowcase is a devil to remove.white. in white sari and brown face. her own obvious difference. and walk in.EllEkE BoEhmEr unwinding the long glimmer of white sari. How to wind on. it hurts to scour her skin. keeping her brown cheeks off the pillow.knowing. Something about whiteness with a double accent. wrong.wrong . She says she wants to stay in character.what. She also suspects that.are. arms folded. a sari. and folded it back into its box. How she sat it out. The girl lies in bed staring at the ceiling.is. had she not been classified. an Indian voice was performed to universal white laughter. She sat motionless.
your hangnails. How you wear vests and eat raw onions on everything. Same. it’s not white really.’ ‘White as you. you know.’ ‘No way. Not white like ours. And things are different at your house. What does her friend know? Playing for effect she seems to be considering her choices. ‘Your skin’s not really white. ‘Yellow. ‘What d’ye mean?’ ‘You know how your name’s funny. It’s not like we do. The bleachers creak under her shifting feet.’ Suddenly awkward. Different. She remembers her father’s livid talkings-to on this precise question. probably.’ ‘What colour then?’ The girl can feel the sweat beading on her forehead.’ Immediately the girl begins to blush. Relaxed as they are Lila’s remark catches the girl unawares. ‘Yellow like Rosa 31 .off -WhiTE * Slide Four Sitting high up on the bleachers behind the back field at school the girl and her best-friend Lila watch the boys play rugby. With one eye on the game they are at the same time scrutinizing and comparing vital aspects of their bodies. my split ends. your blemishes as against my spots. ‘Look. Not really.’ ‘Not.’ Lila finally says. the girl presses her arm against her friend’s.
off-white.white Afrikaans twins no one plays with. or sallower. ‘not like them. These two are poor. like bath in chamomile. almost white. and hold her hand tight. she sees her friend is right. when she makes sure to stand alongside Rosa da Silva in the classroom line-up. But they look like a lot of trouble. In her mind’s eye it is yellow that she feels and yellow that she stays. eat carrots. barely white. they’re just plain brown. as now happens less and less often. Yes. Definitely yellow. She examines her skin against white paper.’ says her best-friend decisively. slightly pied.’ The girl looks down at where their skins. Her skin is probably slightly yellower. part-yellow. ‘No. Frik and Fanie don’t wear shoes. To her wonderment. She is deep yellow when she sits beside her best-friend Lila. 32 .EllEkE BoEhmEr da Silva. lie side by side. catch a suntan.’ Rosa da Silva is a white Angolan newly arrived in their class. And she is light yellow. They plainly don’t match. Later that day alone in her bedroom she checks again. yes-no. upper arms and thighs. though they are pillars of the rugby team. ‘Yellow like Frik and Fanie?’ the girl asks. She thinks of the remedies people try out to shift a tinge. holding her breath. whenever she can. And they do not change the colour you feel inside.
at the drum majorette show. ‘Why worry if this dress is old-fashioned? No one looks at me. and I worked every day from when you’re little for your education. Aggie. like I’m doing even here. like in the ad for Sunshine Margarine. Lavendar Samuels is my 33 .The. ‘Never forget. and smiling a stiff drum majorette smile. this is what my ma mutters deep inside her mouth. tall legs floating into the school gates as though I’ve got invisible skates on. Think proud and walk tall. I see myself as TV-person-size with straight. when she shifts her eyes slantwise in that way.’ ‘Yes Ma.race ‘wHy must i get thin when no one looks at my body anyway?’ When I nag her.’ I always say back. And I see myself as I speak floating in blue space. a big shame.’ What’s she refusing to own up to? is what I ask myself. It’s a shame. walk tall. But the truth’s different. long hair and long. no one checks me anyhow. thank you Ma. meaning it.bean-bag. you’re an only child and a clever girl. the curtain-raiser of our school’s Open Day. Think how all my life Ma has said. not meeting my eye. like a guilty child. So when you walk through the gates of that white school.
‘All welcome’. at the secondary school in Northdene. us new rainbowcoloured faces. I mean. And it’s compulsory anyway for the new Form 8s. and there’s a fête with craft stalls and tombolas. In twenty minutes or so the morning will end with athletics and ‘Fun Races’ for parents and children.EllEkE BoEhmEr ma. They’ve put on the drum majorette show. Mariah Carey. thick enough to disguise what we might be thinking. highkicking up and down the racetrack in front of us. smiling. a formerly white school. and my hair’s African and curly. one-time whites-only suburb. what difference is a morning going to make to what people have been used to doing for centuries? That is. Before Christmas. Even though I’m near the top of the class and meant to be obedient and studious. and I go to a white school. Paulie and I were enrolled here in Form 8. And we wear kohl pencil on our eyes. Paulie and I think the whole thing’s a waste of time. So at least for an hour they’ll have all of us. But we’re here because her step-ma and my ma say it’s the school’s way of starting everyone ‘on the same foot’. And me and my best friend Paulie Arends listen to Lauryn Hill. is not just some celebration to mark the beginning of the school year. Angie Stone. I’ve got seven pierces in each one of my ears. slapbang in the middle of a semi-rich. it’d never lie flat. 34 . yes. not talking. slow-burning black singers with Mother Wit. It’s also meant to welcome us new faces. I’d guess. an official way of saying God Help Us meet this weird democratic future. the girls spinning. Today’s Open Day. but I’m not tall. running in the same direction. who’ve never had chances to get on together before.
ThE BEan-Bag racE
Ma sits on a classroom chair beside me, her hips spread thick and wide, as I can’t help noticing, her face even darker than normal with her uncomfortableness at being here, as I also can’t help noticing. She leans heavily on our suitcase-size lunch-box crammed full of jam sandwiches planted in her lap. At regular intervals, whenever they do a high kick, she sniffs loudly at how the all-white, all-slim drum majorettes are flashing their coordinated sky-blue panties at the crowd. ‘Everyone on the same foot, Ma,’ I whisper, and get an elbow poke. ‘Shattup!’ On.the.same.foot, I think to myself swinging my legs, noticing how rough my shoes look, scabby around the toes, my ankles scuffed dry and.whitish. All.on.the.same. foot, but my ma must work three jobs, and one of them a serious moonlighting, to pay the school fees. ‘I want you to go out and grab it, Aggie,’ Ma says. ‘That’s what I ask. An education good as any white, grab it now you can.’ And then this year they doubled the school fees, most likely to keep non-white attendance low. Which means that every day but Sunday for the past four months, Ma has had to work her low-pay cleaning jobs, and then walk across town, ten blocks, to the Berea Blues Club to do the extra moonlighting, that’s to say, collecting glasses, mopping and wiping up, sometimes keeping the bar running till past midnight, serving drinks to customers even when they’re disorderly and drunk. At first I thought it sounded like better work, cooler, glitzier, till Jimmy Arends told me different. One Sunday Jimmy was smoking in the Arends’ backyard, and Paulie and I were hanging about to see if he would
share his smoke. Jimmy, her elder brother, is old enough to go out, when he’s got money, and visit cool places like the Berea Blues. ‘But your ma, Aggie,’ Jimmy said, narrowing his eyes through the smoke washing across his face. ‘She only works, eh? Sometimes she doesn’t even see me when I greet. She works like a dog, even cleaning up people’s sick. One of the first times I checked her I said, “Hey, Lavendar,” but she pushed her hat down on her eyes. Pretended like she wasn’t hearing. ‘Maybe it was the music,’ I said. ‘Too loud.’ But I know that what he said was fact because she does the same at the Kentucky Fried and the Broadway Centre where she works her other jobs, mopping and scrubbing with her shoulders low and her crocheted hat firmly on. Even to me she hardly says a word when I visit, just gives the look that stings like a slap. What are you doing here? her look says, I was fine till you came checking. ‘Walk tall,’ she always tells me, but with her own shoulders sloping to the ground, her palms blistered and cracked by Jik PowerAction Bleach. Still, I’d give a lot, even my Lauryn Hill CD, to go one night to the Berea Blues Club. That’s why I nag Ma and beg for news of what goes on. That’s why I want her to be happy with the place, because I know that if I was there, swinging to their live band music and the coloured lights swaying across the ceiling, I’d be in heaven. I wouldn’t worry about anyone else. ‘C’mon, Ma,’ I say over and over again. I said it earlier today when we were walking here to school. ‘Who played last night?.Please? What they sound like?’
ThE BEan-Bag racE
‘Don’t know about bands,’ Ma says. ‘Don’t know. I know about manners only. I only know that the longer those young boys there wear their ponytails, the ruder they are. And the smarter the girls, the more make-up, the ruder. We’re all proud citizens in this country now, but they go on sitting their empties down in front of me without a word, thinking the mess will vanish like magic. Hardly a thank you ever. And I’m not talking about tips even. They make like they don’t see me when I clear their mess, so let’s not even talk about tips.’ ‘Ma,’ I say. How many times recently haven’t I said this? ‘They don’t see you because, well, maybe you don’t want them to see you. You don’t yourself even give them a glance.’ But meeting that sharp stinging look of hers I know I’ve gone too far. ‘Chicken-and-egg story,’ my teacher at the old township school used to say. ‘It’s an egg-and-chicken, chicken-and-egg story. They don’t see you, Ma, so you don’t want to be seen. You don’t want to be seen, and so they don’t seem to see you.’ Either way of looking at the matter though, I still can’t drop it. I mean, we’re fine together mostly, Ma and I. At home we’re fine. We spend Sundays together and have hotdogs for breakfast and for every meal following, and she lets me groom her, pluck her eyebrows, do her nails. We talk about my school activities, about debating group and how to win an argument, and English composition and how to walk off with the prizes even if you’re Coloured. We don’t talk about her work at all. But still I can’t stop hassling now and again for news. ‘Ma, really, why not make a bit more effort? Try
’ she says. Maybe it’s that darkness in the club. Helpless I now watch her pick her way across the grass towards the starting line. Kliffden Primary. Aggie? I’m telling you now. put it down to that.’ Ma said. pretending to hide a yawn. Barbie-tall. ‘We did the bean-bag race at my girls’ primary.’ ‘But for what.EllEkE BoEhmEr looking just a bit smarter when you go to work. The drum majorette leader. as if stretching out for the open sky. gives her 38 . Maybe then they’ll notice you. almost to herself. When they announced the mothers’ bean-bag race over the loudspeaker a moment ago. And then I noticed Ma putting her hands on hips and shifting. The one school she ever attended. They might take notice by not being so rude. her back broad like a truck. I wasn’t expecting a thing. Checking out how Ma’s this minute getting up and taking off her crocheted hat and brown viscose jersey. Didn’t you once say cameras have trouble picking up black skin?’ ‘No one checks me anyhow. just sent another bored look over to Paulie sitting a row behind us with her dad and auntie. it’s a smart club after all. As if flapping her way upwards from the classroom chair like a great big dodo bird. with the Fun Races about to start. But here at this Open Day. I think the whole world must be checking us out. breathing hard like a woman with a purpose. I melt in. In reply she gaped her eyes. no one sees me anyway. ‘Ma—’ My fingers were fastened on to her dress but her first step forwards flicked them away. I thought to myself.
That check-pink dress. I notice also she’s the only nonwhite. ladies. who knows at what? Then it’s my new teacher. ‘And may the best mom win. The majorette is giggling. kidnap the crocheted hat and leave it at home. their bags smacking on to the ground. I don’t know what Paulie’s doing. I can focus on nothing but Ma. Miss Mink.’ At the sound of the start-gun. I want to die. The loudspeaker crackles pleasantly. passing out for my sake I hope. how to balance their bags. her arms snugly folded. A few seconds later and Ma is at least five long paces ahead of the next woman. Ma’s the only one who sets off dead on time. so I’d have had the chance to take some action. school colours. They’re bent double laughing at each other. and Ma grasps it. and definitely the fattest. ‘On the crowns of your heads. her bean-bag floating high and steady on her head. And will you run with arms folded?’ The teacher folds her forearms under her breasts. And I 39 . ‘It helps prevent competitors from pushing one another. on their crowns. in a tailored blazer who steps forward to show the row of six mothers who’ve materialized to take part in this circus. lend her some lipstick at least. This very minute I want a thunderstorm to blow in and blast away the whole event. I notice suddenly how Ma is definitely the worst dressed in the row of women. The other women are still battling to balance their red-green-and-sky-blue beanbags. exactly like some maid’s uniform! If only Ma’d told me she was planning this.ThE BEan-Bag racE a bean-bag. if.only.’ The world’s a blur.
The announcer repeats. She was certain that she could run the bean-bag race with her head high and her shoulders held well back and easy. and again. To me this works like an injection of energy. hey. I know that she set out to take this challenge because she was certain she had a good chance of making it. She gains a few more strides on the rest. way ahead of the group of yelling women who seem to think you need to bow and duck and loop about to balance a bean-bag on your head. I know more than this. and overtakes. and the grass whizzes under my feet. her bean-bag making a smooth. Ma’s out there because she’s sure of exactly what she’s doing. yes. a mother carrying an unbudging bean-bag balanced on her crown has swung out of some blind spot. or how Ma looked back there. her legs swinging strongly. All of a sudden I don’t care how stupid this race is. I’m sprinting in parallel with the track. curving path through the air. ‘May the best mom win!’ People in the crowd begin to cheer. she looks like she knows what she’s doing. Because. The racetrack leads away from where we’re sitting so her figure is growing smaller. No. because there’s the surprising sound of running footsteps coming up at my back. What I know is that she’s winning. There’s the finish line sprayed white on the 40 . I’m right. And now I’m running too. My legs are thin springs made of nothing but bone and air. I let myself take a deep breath. winded. I look round to check again. and suddenly I feel out of breath. and is pounding neck and neck with me. I know I want to be there at the finishing line when Ma gets in. Ma’s still ahead.EllEkE BoEhmEr suddenly think to myself.
“We need a handicap. ‘You did it. she had a hairgrip in her hair. that ma brings home. Ag. Me and that other woman.’ she says. you should’ve won. what’s the word? Level-pegged. Paulie and I occasionally pumping Ma’s arms.’ ‘No. The first prize is a book token. on the underside. ‘I won that race.ThE BEan-Bag racE mown grass. I feel her pant. couldn’t. Ma’s nearly across it.’ ‘I know Ma. She fixed the beanbag with it. The teacher knew anyhow. After Paulie goes home Ma finally snaps out of her silence. but this other runner spurts forward suddenly and darts across just before her. ‘I did do it. We weren’t on the same foot. The second prize for the bean-bag race. I know. the breath pulsing hugely in her throat. is a pink iced cake donated by a fête stall. “The non-whites. Paulie and I eat nearly that whole cake in one sitting. That other one. like you use to hold back your plaits. still striding. so you couldn’t see. you should’ve told!’ ‘I wouldn’t have told. 41 . We weren’t on the same foot.’ ‘Ma. Ma. you know Aggie. while the other ladies were horsing about. you know.” she said. Ma wordlessly watches. She’s wildly punching the air. She was looking over at me. is what I mean. As I hang about her neck. her mouth working. this new winner. still super-steady. Aggie. you did it!’ A severe hot light burns in Ma’s eye. I heard that winning lady whisper it. an ordinary old hairgrip. capering about with her beanbag held rigid on her smooth hair. we weren’t. she was checking me out top to toe. It’s a while since I’ve seen her this upset. I won it fairly and squarely.
beds. crates. “They’re taught to carry water from the river like they’ve always done. they learn how to balance. 42 . flat.”’ Ma divides the last piece of cake in two and slides a half on to my plate. they tote suitcases for their men. Flat heads they have because of it. fat heads.” She said it loudly to the teacher on purpose so’s I could hear. you name it.EllEkE BoEhmEr they carry pots on their heads from birth. sacks of mielie meal.
India tHe first time Ntombi Dube lets Craigie Scott speak to her is also the first time she sets him a task. first come first served. She is sitting this Friday in late August with her classmate Poona Patel inside the spreading green octopus of the weeping willow tree. veiled within its branches. Different groups book it by hot-footing over at the start of break-time.Air. two older boys who spend the time with their hands stuffed down each others’ shorts. Sometimes marble-players. sometimes a clutch of girls to tell each other secrets. later in the day. That day Ntombi and Poona notice Craigie Scott sneaking through the willow branches like a thief behind curtains but at first they ignore him. Beyond lies a wild area and then a moist riverbed. 43 . safely enveloped. During school hours the children like to play inside the tree. fenced off. sometimes. where rapists and other orclike men hover and prowl at night. ‘Craigie. In one quick swoop – it is a Friday during lunch break – she discovers a devoted companion and experiences the thrill of wielding power over him. When he sticks around they began to call him cooee style. The tree stands at the bottom of the school playground in a corner and makes plenty of good shady shelter.
mostly younger.’ she says to Poona in a whisper. crayon stubs. She sees the other children playing in the sunshine. out at the playground. He has a kind of squeaking wheeze in his breath. who is leaping outstretched. Bring it here to me. she can hear his breathing. Still he hangs back and she looks away.’ Ntombi says. weet . like tops from Christmas crackers.’ Poona decides she’s not in the game and backs away. their legs and arms twinkling through the branches as they run. ‘Craigie. I wan’ you to get that plastic plane off Justine Retief. She spies selfish Justine Retief holding an object up at arm’s length so that a shorter child. I know you’re there. with frowning force. Craigie has edged in right behind Ntombi. 44 . odds and ends of her mother’s make-up.’ The branches close over Craigie as he slinks off. children. She sees some of the boys from her class throwing lumps of clay at one another in the damp area behind the sports equipment shed. Ek. smooth things with which to taunt other. then. I’ll play with you first break Monday. and then louder. Ntombi can see his birdbright eyes and the sneaking angle of his chin. Poona nods in the direction of the playground and pulls at Ntombi’s arm. ‘Gwon. ‘I’ll give you iets if you do it. cannot get at it. Justine always carries in her jeans pockets tiny toys.’ He worms in closer. Justine sits at her table in class and Ntombi can guess what that thing is.EllEkE BoEhmEr Craigie. I wan’ you to do something for me. ‘Les-go.’ Ntombi shakes her head. bright. interesting bits of stick. ‘Craigie Scott.
cross-questions Justine. they’re no-goods.’ Poona snorts to hear this. Small whitish blackheads cluster right the way up her nose.idea what was going on. But the next minute she’s lying flat on her back pitifully holding up her wrist and yelling. playing with the toy plane in the grass. covering an eye with her hand. Her big chunky fillings have turned her molars into knuckle-dusters. Avril Desai. Justine is squatting on her own. is because everyone knows it’s the girls who are up to no good. and he’s back in amongst the branches with Ntombi. That afternoon before final registration their teacher. But which girl? Justine says Craigie took her toy plane to give to Ntombi and Poona lurking in amongst the trees like evil spirits. and cover the spot with fallen dead leaves and twigs.’ she repeats for good measure. Poona and Ntombi. She stands them against the wall. This. they prey on people. an Air India freebie.air india Ntombi watches with approval as he plots a route around the tree to surprise Justine from behind. He glows to see her approving smile. a red-and-white plane. Afterwards Craigie sulkily confesses that for his part he escaped a grilling. She wandered off before the rel started and is anyhow way too old to be interested in plastic planes. you are cheeky!’ 45 . ‘No-eye deer. They bury the toy for later in a soft place where the tree’s roots arch up through the ground. brings her face in close and opens her mouth very wide. ‘Well. She has absolutely no. landing it and then jetting it up into the air. Craigie has snatched the toy. he says. Mrs Desai says. Ntombi Dube especially. ‘This is what that sort do.
instructing the whole class to search their consciences and quietly give back the toy if they have it. off.’ She catches a hopeless. ja. The teacher drops the matter at last. and feels the sweet. ‘And. it could have been Craigie Scott.EllEkE BoEhmEr Ntombi’s story is that she saw a boy snatch the toy. OK. London. yebo. und’ the willow. They take turns wrenching at its wings and jumping on it but the tough plastic resists their efforts. The next Friday they unearth the toy plane and try hard to crush it under foot. no. hungry look in his eye. Ntombi tells him to get lost. Jis’ like Poona. she’s not interested in playing with planes. even if that means popping it on to Justine’s table when she isn’t looking. Yes. ‘Next Friday. This look is exactly what her latest dad Frank once recommended.’ Frank was probably doing the same all the time he spent with her ma and getting away with murder. but it could also have been any one of the other boys with short hair from that younger class. in the marshy place where the rapists and tsotsis live? But she also whispers. its densest clump of pimples poking out like anemones in a rock pool. sharp pain of being needed leap inside her. to. The following Monday at morning break when Craigie comes over to play. Does he want the teachers on playground duty smelling a rat? Is he asking for her to banish him over the fence. I’m. She’s never played with them in her life nor ever wanted to. yes. like Poona.’ So saying she looks straight at the top of Mrs Desai’s nose. The slogan 46 . ‘Look straight between the eyebrows and they’ll think you the honestest man around. Who’d ever want to steal a thing like that must be mad in the head.
’ Justine cuts her losses and shuts up. He’ll carry out whatever she says. keep tabs. bikes more or less the same route as her own. stay ahead of the game. She slides her bike’s front wheel in front of his and stops him. keep their followers loyal. it was you stole it. she’s sure. She knows now he will love her.air india painted in red writing on the side of the plane thumbs its nose at them. Ntombi Dube. Within the next hour it works its way loose. 47 . Justine. long time – love her for having him in mind all along. She feels victorious. Tomorrow she’ll tell him to scout in the area where the willow-tree boys are messing about and dragging at each other’s trousers. she has noticed. but the grubby toy has lost its charm. Ntombi later sees it lying discarded in the hall and rescues it. ‘It was you. He’ll do anything for her now. love her for a long. You put it down there jis’ waiting to blame me. report back if possible. She’ll ask him to creep up on them and have a proper look. ‘Is yours now. On the way home she catches up with Craigie who. See what rubbish they’re really up to.’ His lips tremble so furiously she thinks he’s about to cry. Eventually Ntombi stows the battered thing in her sock. ‘My Indian plane! Justine spots it lying under their table. She feels her cheeks flush with pleasure. This is what the best spies do. wasn’t it?’ ‘You’ mad. Then she slips the plane into his hand lying on the handlebar. Why would I want a dirty old thing like that? You’ been hiding it somewhere all this time.
He would have avoided the churches. They are dusty buildings clogged with wrought iron and marble bric-a-brac. He liked to burn his photographs from time to time. He did not usually sing. Lissabon. He played them softly. He played these records late at night and early in the morning. In them something is missing.Lissabon wHat He tOld Her. At the far end of the wharf men are bringing in jellyfish. of course. he said the name in his own language. when the rest of the family was asleep. the tall house in Rotterdam. that his heart was no good. He said.Fado. of 48 . not aloud. touching it musically. The air here is brackish. It contains everything. She takes the yellow-painted motor launch across the river and on the other side has salted cod. how he missed the sea. Usually. The waitress’s mouth is painted brick-red. The churches she discovers in side streets are quiet. sweet lemonade. The black nets filled with blubbery white. There were pictures of his youth. the whole world. Sometimes. He silently mouthed the songs of the woman with the black eyes who featured on every one of his album covers.in. I love to hear that voice. He avoided holy vessels of memory and spirit.
about then. liberating East Timor. having not made it into Lissabon. Song after song the woman’s voice was rich and strong and without hope.fado in lissaBon the years spent away in the navy. he added his navy epaulettes to the blaze. he played his music at noon for the first time. ’44. Having sailed the routes of the old explorers. He used his old letters for kindling. laughing. I. His attention wandered when he thought of these 49 . The area with the fado bars confuses her. a sea-faring man from a sea-faring nation. Perched on the bar is an albino canary in a cage. I have to make it. it’s fated. He said one day. Patrolling around Aden and Jakarta. mouthing the words. She and the two other customers make a short row at the edge of an empty raft of tables. what a pity. he did not make it here. When he came home that day. She chooses at random. fancy. Queen Wilhelmina in white lace shaking his hand. Each pumps songs of immense sorrow onto the street. But after all. On the table is a bottle of Dao and a vanilla pudding in a wine glass. knowing what he had suspected all along. The Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean. It was ’43. And then. The last time. The man rocked from side to side at the record player. A woman with a Pentax tells her. such beautiful monuments in this country and they don’t take care of them. Pigeons are nesting behind the altar. One church she visits is damaged by fire. I’ll get there though I die in the attempt. The bars look alike. The man at the door takes her coat and seats her beside the cigarette machine. In a corner stood two children in summer dresses giggling.
She croons a little and stands still. they’re out of kilter. he said. the album covers boasting of the woman with the black eyes and brick-red lips. The other two customers have struck up a conversation in English. The edge of her red shawl dusts the floor. On the dais she is unhappy. She is joined by a Mozambican. he would add.EllEkE BoEhmEr things. The smudged signature on the photograph has run into the complicated embroidery of her gown. sailed the white man bearing the astrolabe. unfinished maps of the world. But he took no notice. He says he is a student. he stopped playing his fado records. Out of that great city. influenza. the streets aren’t symmetrical.’ Then. He is wearing a checked blue and red shirt and a cap. The 50 . The singer here is not comfortable. ‘You’ll get used to it. After the earthquake they rebuilt all of Lissabon by careful design. Returning to a city which an earthquake had ground to dust. However I’m told they got it wrong. A few minutes ago she was laughing melodiously with the guitarist behind a wooden screen. I must go to see it all some day. He stayed in bed. and he would hum to himself. who smells of lemon soap. the telephone. Fancy that. Up that river he came again weighed down with the heaviness of his ambition. a fourth customer. stout on black stilettos. Can he sit with her? On the wall behind the Mozambican’s head she notices a signed and framed photograph of her father’s singer. soon after he’d heard what he had to hear. He murmured the names of distant cities.’ says one. ‘You should take a vacation. It’s hard to believe. They put the pile of records within reach beside the bed.
and she is not. Free. She thinks she hears him say the singer behind the screen was once his lover. and the broken photograph frame. take bus route 25. He says. The music is African. where the surf is good. Then he is explaining the pamphlets. mouthing the words. and pens and a notebook. The place has very quickly become loud and the singer is suddenly singing with great power and steadiness. She realizes he is asking her to join him tomorrow on the beach.Timor. He added to the bin rubbing alcohol and a yellowed journal. There. On the table he spreads red and black pamphlets. The Mozambican tells her he comes here every weekend for fado. He laughed also when he broke the photograph frame on the floor. He orders two bottles of Dao and gives one to the musicians behind the wooden screen. really. She shakes her head. He laughed to see the flames dance in the big metal waste bin. the children discovered.East. The Mozambican points to a small button on his shirt. and laughing again. She saw the red lips of the woman leap into flame. then jabs at the title of his pamphlets. she is having trouble hearing him. Two matches. He adds an extra vase of flowers taken from an unoccupied table. is his opinion. his old letters and navy epaulettes. The album covers and the photograph of his navy destroyer did. and she is not smiling. But vinyl does not burn easily. at the old Coke kiosk. But he had his children light the matches. and beating 51 . Later they watched him laughing and retching into his pillow. she doesn’t feel it.fado in lissaBon singer’s eyebrows are straight and black. These say. Hers was the second. The singer must be made drunk.
he translates. Because it was rebuilt askew. 52 . This is a difficult city for a stranger to find their way and feel happy. watching her lips. he says slowly. and aging dictators. She watches him draw. Then she speaks. The Mozambican draws a map to make clearer the route to the beach. It is a city full of junk. built askew. and woeful singers. She looks at the Mozambican with an expression of deep hopelessness. he adds.EllEkE BoEhmEr a silent rhythm with both hands on the mattress. The singer has come to sit at their table.
inertia maybe. She didn’t want to burst in on them. She spied Liz first.Ginger tHey were all at the airport to welcome her. Jannie of course in a leather jacket. the big nest of her hair. but something had held them.’ ‘An English woman. lifting the handlebar slightly so that the brake was half on. do you need it. Ali. and behind Ingrid the dark purple patch of Clare. Brisbane. They still lived in their old haunts. They were the friends who had stayed. They stayed on. But now Ingrid was coming round the barrier. And there was Ingrid.’ ‘Man. They all needed a bit of time. At some stage years ago. one-storey brick buildings in green streets where night-long parties were once held. Chris looking more like a 53 . Liz craning her body over the chrome barrier.’ Those were Clare and Liz’s voices beyond Ingrid’s soft shoulder. her arms open. about Perth. waving. Her scarlet shirt was voluminous. Auckland. The trolley veered off to one side. they’d thought about leaving. that’s what you look like. ‘Welcome to the sun. The men stood further off. Alison pushed her luggage trolley more slowly.
calling them robots. the bright light.EllEkE BoEhmEr GP than ever. His hair left a fuzzy sweat patch on the glass. In spite of the politicians. the smell of a spray-on deodorant. Jannie was leaning his head against the window as though sleepy. She looked shy. the big AngloAmerican buildings in the middle of the town still shone blindingly. improvements. A girl at work. She was driving. Further away on the horizon. Maybe they didn’t have much to say to each other. like glory. Ali. It’s great. It was taking time to come back to her. She had forgotten other things too. proud maybe of his advanced brand of marriage. which didn’t sound like her real name. also the intense sweetness the women carried on them. has called her baby Sizwe. Liz looked for new things to point out. Chris had brought his Indian wife.’ Ingrid was talking fast. a white girl. new developments. She was thinner even than Clare. She cursed the slowness of the lights. those townhouse clusters. ‘We’re into this new nation thing. they were pulled back together only by this visit. We’re trying loving and living together these days. and white men in their usual short haircuts strolling and shopping with black girlfriends. There was the extension to the mall. I have white friends looking for houses in Coloured neighbourhoods. her friends’ sunglasses. He introduced her as Susie. greasy frames. he looked proud. the bright tar. Alison thought. a new flower and crafts market. Like the smell of bare skin her friends had. Alison had forgotten they were called robots. She 54 . especially at the traffic lights.’ said Ingrid. After a while Liz gave up talking. ‘It’s like it’s the fashion. Alison saw.
She guided Alison to a fraillooking plastic chair beside the laden table.’ Liz said. pouring herself white wine from a box. ‘They’re doing okay. 55 . side dishes for a braai. those two. she informed them she’d miscarried again. nearly seven years ago. In their final year at university Clare had tried to have a child.gingEr looked round to where Chris and the woman he called Susie were following them in a shiny white Honda. ‘That must be Palmerosa pudding. She’d told everyone she wanted to be a single mother. still called the Namib Diviners. Every four months or so. Sometimes she shouted the news from the toilet. ‘I saw a recipe in an American cookbook not long ago. Ali.’ Ingrid said. Liz raised her eyebrows at Alison.’ said Clare. Lunch was at Jannie’s house because he was the one who had the space. ‘Look at the tiled patio and walk-through fitted kitchen. pointing with a raised arm. was doing well.’ whispered Ingrid. when they shared a house. regular as a menstrual cycle.’ Liz said. Alison recognized the bowl from the time. ‘I wanted us to have the party round the pool. ‘But James didn’t go golfing today. And the kids too. So he would’ve been in the way.’ ‘Once I thought I would bath my baby in that bowl. The food was mainly mayonnaise salads in Tupperware tureens. We wanted to have you to ourselves.’ Liz said. Jannie’s band.’ ‘All’s not well with the marriage. Then she spent days locked in her bedroom. Clare was spooning cream on to a large pink and white fruit pudding in a pottery bowl. Ingrid would leave cups of black tea mixed with Johnny Walker outside her door.
‘It must be so strange for you not to have family in this country any more. The remark was abrupt.’ said Liz. also carrying bottles.’ said Jannie.’ Chris said.’ ‘We still smoke far too much in this country. Chris came in carrying bottles of wine. Pictures of red dongas. waving her cigarette in the direction of the window. ‘Not so strange as for us to have friends in just about every Western capital of the world. Jannie had forgotten to buy charcoal for the braai. it sounded out of place. ‘Only on special occasions. She sat on the carpet besides her chair. ‘We took a detour to the off-licence. ‘We’re a Third World country after all.’ Liz was saying.’ said Clare. Susie behind him. She was reciting from one of her most recent letters.EllEkE BoEhmEr giving Alison white wine in a beer glass. Liz brought Alison more wine in a plastic party cup decorated with yellow and sky-blue squares. 56 . Her father was married to a handand-foot model in Toronto. She was pretending it was comfortable to sit cross-legged in high sandals. Behind her the chicken pieces and chops were blackening under the oven grill. ‘I usually don’t smoke.’ Liz poked his calf with her sandal heel. ‘We’re allowed to smoke and drink without guilt.’ said Jannie. ‘It’s killing the nation.’ said Alison.’ said Clare.’ She spoke from the kitchen door. ‘Your dad’s still in Canada?’ ‘Yes. He lectured at the university there about soil erosion and still used the slides he’d taken years ago in the Transkei. ‘They don’t drink box stuff.
‘Our old green-back passports have a new lease on life. Now they listened. I still do temping. Alison now had three helpings of wine on the table beside her. and try a joke. Alison wanted to say. India. ‘This place must look a bit different after all this time. He passed the plate to Susie. He didn’t look straight at Alison even though he faced her. It was time to declare herself. everyone wants to let us in. Liz. I haven’t changed. where he had helped himself to three pieces of meat. She wanted to lighten the situation. no one teased. there’s no time. just for a holiday.’ 57 . she saw. two portions of box wine and the glass. looking at her. ‘Things are definitely on the mend.’ ‘But you earn well on it. they were all silent now. she could say. Susie. Ali. Chris arranged mouthfuls of different kinds of salad on a plate. It was an ordinary thing this coming back. reward them for the occasion. lips pressed flat and pink against the glass. as if she wanted the reassurance. it’s not that different. There was a time when they used to tease him about being serious. Clare at the kitchen door.gingEr ‘What is it you do in London. ‘I’ve been doing it nearly four years. When you temp. to see friends. Chris. He spoke from where he stood at the table. But because she paused Chris must have thought she needed to be filled in. glasses’ rims at lips.’ said Liz. a proper glass this time. China.’ Chris said. Alison?’ said Susie.’ Chris said. She handed Alison a glass of wine.’ she said. you don’t change. tell a story. ‘Believe it or not. none of you are very different.
She tugged them off with her teeth one by one. she glanced around.’ ‘I don’t see the problem. ‘Some Sunday. what will we lose? What has all that wealth done for America?’ ‘We all need psychoanalysis. I mean. Alison. She had eaten none of the main course. We don’t want to become another poverty-stricken African nation. what do you think?’ asked Susie. ‘We need cash. If you like you can catch 58 . as though making a delicate point. His eyes were fixed on his plate. in the ground floor flat off the Holloway Road.’ she said. ‘I’ve saved a pile of Mail. ‘From your outside perspective?’ Alison didn’t know what to think.and. Clare was on her second bowl of Palmerosa dessert. ‘We desperately need the confidence of the international community. ‘If we try we could all be one happy family. the next she lived on powdered protein drinks smelling of lavender and soap. ‘The country needs psychoanalysis. Liz peeled a drumstick like a banana and held it so that the loose bits of skin flopped over her fingers. Everyone was looking at her again.’ said Clare. ‘Anyway. aid.Independents.’ said Clare.’ said Chris.EllEkE BoEhmEr Alison wondered if he’d said that for Susie’s benefit.’ said Chris slowly. Let’s have black-outs every night. They wanted to be put in the picture. The most interesting ones from the past few years. Alison. Plates were empty.Guardians. ‘We are an African nation. Alison remembered Clare’s food fads at university. One week she was a fruitarian.’ said Jannie. We need trust and better leaders. She smiled. There was her life in London.
to know about South Africa you really have to be here.’ ‘I’ve been following the news. ‘Your pudding was lovely. ‘But there’s nothing like the Mail. Everyone bent forward to look at the mask. ‘Remember the malls? I can take you along whenever you want.’ Clare winked at Liz to fill her glass. you’re looking okay even though you haven’t seen much sun.’ ‘Thanks. ‘Yes. ‘I want to discover more about international cuisine. ‘I mean. ‘Remember 59 .’ ‘What shall we do now?’ said Chris.’ said Ingrid. Clare took the cigarette that was burning between his fingers and stubbed it out in her dessert bowl. ‘I like your top. ‘And my taste is usually horrible.’ ‘We have things like that here too.’ said Alison.’ said Liz. The picture was an African mask done in bronze and silver sequins.and.gingEr up on our news.’ said Susie. even I think it’s okay. ‘Yes. I know some of the stores where Winnie Mandela used to buy clothes for her overseas trips. you must give me the recipe.’ Ingrid said suddenly. She didn’t want to interrupt Chris by speaking. She bent over her tightly-folded arms as though over a ledge to look more closely at the appliqué design on Alison’s white sweatshirt. Jannie’s eyes were closed. ‘Anyway.’ said Chris. you have to see it from inside.’ said Alison. Where Joan Collins shopped when she was here.’ said Clare. She had bought the sweatshirt on holiday in Greece.Guardian for hands-on opinion. Clare.’ said Liz.
She was trying to speak cosily but her heart wasn’t in it.’ Liz said the Zoo. To see.’ Ingrid said. I’ve only been shown the front rooms.EllEkE BoEhmEr what we planned? Shall we take Alison on a tour?’ His chops were chewed down to the raw bits congealed in the crevasses of the bone. Remove Promptly. responding to the silence. They didn’t want to run the risk of getting bored during the first meeting. Cool Wash. Ingrid pulled him out of his chair. The paving in the yard outside was of silky dark slate. ‘Liz said you had some nice garden paving round the back.’ she said.’ Jannie stirred at the mention of his name. It said.’ ‘That’s right.’ ‘Maybe Alison just wants to come to my house to unpack and settle in.’ Alison decided to help with the planning. Alison had to look to the side of Clare’s head.’ said Liz. Jannie. Under Alison’s nose was Clare’s shirt label.’ he murmured.’ Ingrid said crisply. ‘The rooms are really untidy. 60 . ‘They haven’t been done in days.’ she said. It was sticking out. ‘At least show us your yard. She sprayed more box wine into her glass.’ he added. Along the house wall were flowering azaleas in wooden vats. ‘I’d like to see that. They had spent time planning this reunion. Clare now said.’ said Jannie. Made in USA. I’d like to see round Jannie’s house. ‘She can see how town has changed. ‘I’m happy just to sit around. Alison saw. ‘Let’s see Soweto. ‘The times I was here before. ‘We’ve hardly even seen each other. They crowded at the kitchen door. ‘Personally.
On the top step of the door to the outhouse a woman was sitting. the outhouse to the garage. Chris looked at Alison watching her. She looked round the yard for something else to say.’ he said. She was drinking out of a paper cup patterned with yellow and sky-blue squares. On the step beside her was a halfloaf of bread. as if looking for an anchor.’ he said ‘Any of you can take that thing if you want.’ said Chris. attractively arranged. I don’t like dogs. a white fence that looked as if made of polystyrene slabs. ‘Even the dog house came with it.’ said someone. 61 . Jannie said it must be a professional job. with everything that was in it. and an American baseball cap the wrong way around. ‘You haven’t introduced us to your maid.’ To the left of the kitchen steps stood the blue dog house. The painted curtains were red and white polka-dot. There were the vats. ‘The words mean Dom’s place.’ said Liz. ‘But if she didn’t. I remember. a hosepipe. her long legs stretched out. words from a magazine. ‘Or Dom’s spot. stilettos. Jannie.’ said Alison. Dom. the furniture. He turned away from the door.’ said Liz. Over the entrance was written.’ said Clare. ‘I’m sure Alison remembers how to translate. It had Swiss chalet-style windows painted on either side of its entrance. ‘No.se. A heavy chain trailed out of it.gingEr ‘Yes. the azalea vats. painted blue. She wore high gold sandals. the lot.plek. she might feel left out if we didn’t say. He’d bought the house in this way.
When she said this Chris breathed loudly. She works at a place down the road. A smell rose out of the bucket of half-digested food. a smell of young babies. not as confident as when eating. talking. ‘I wonder why the dentist makes her wear that. It’s better for her than going all the way home to Soweto. Alison wanted to move. her back to him. a dentist’s or something. There was also Ginger’s little starched half-moon apron. dirty pink and dirty yellow. It seemed to be the curtain of plasticcoloured strips that hung in the doorframe of Ginger’s room.’ said Clare.EllEkE BoEhmEr ‘That’s Ginger. occasionally flicking Ginger’s shoulders. Susie said they’d had one hanging up in her old home.’ said Chris. Ingrid pointed to it.’ ‘That could be a good idea. at the entrance to her parents’ bedroom.’ said Jannie. ‘to turn maids’ khayas into boarding rooms. Chris had forced her up against the side of the rubbish bucket. The other women were still collected in the doorway. He was somehow uncomfortable. She was eating out of her apron. Palmerosa and vinegar. He began to glance over in Susie’s direction. and not looking at them. She must be an assistant.’ He stepped back into the kitchen. bumping against Alison. Then the 62 . Ginger was using the apron to collect the soft pieces of bread she was plucking from the inside of her loaf. Something in the yard continued to attract their interest. She was leaning against the door frame. ‘She’s not my maid. Individual strips blew out. She sleeps here. Ingrid remembered they had curtains like that in the sixties in places like butchers and hairdressers.
It was box wine again. She looks very clean and neat. it was Liz. Chris nudged Susie by prodding the arm leaning up against the doorframe. ‘What I want to know is where she got a name like Ginger. ‘Transparent Coke cans next. Alison dropped her gaze.’ Alison heard Liz say as she walked by. very slender. gathering pieces of food as they went. The rubbish bucket edge was wet against her knee.’ said someone else. had gone in too. The name’s from the American movies.gingEr person furthest out. Liz and Jannie were in conversation at the entrance to the living room. I could do with a nanny a few days a week. Then everyone began to stroll back in the direction of the living room.’ 63 . They all filed past her. He startled her. Her eyes looked back large and confused. She picked a lettuce leaf off a salad plate and it doused her hand in dressing. ‘Like transparent straws. it doesn’t really belong in South Africa. it was transparent. Then he dropped his voice. To me it’s not African.’ said Clare. ‘What do you think. pretending not to have seen. Ingrid handed Alison another glass. She had left her paper cup on the top step. The conversation looked private. ‘It’s the kids. Liz’s voice was low. Alison? Ginger? It’s not right somehow. Everyone liked it.’ said Jannie. it looked state-of-the-art. Ginger. ‘Even Ginger was drinking this stuff. Alison was the last to move. ‘I’ve told you what her work is.’ said someone.’ said Ingrid. She saw that the woman out in the yard. mentioned the garden hose coiled among the azaleas. nibbling.
as she usually did in conversation. the hibiscus plants she tended painstakingly. But. Her pride in the flowers might even have been ever so slightly stronger than her pleasure in the photos. But while she treated the roses. It had won municipal prizes. as anyone could see. The mature plants in the neat round beds cut into the lawn 64 . Ada’s garden was by common consent handsome. She forgot to tidy the back of her perm with a cupped hand. She began by rearing them on the kitchen windowsill.Highveld. the thriving syringa and poinsettia bushes and the huge beds of brilliant dahlias with quick efficiency. Ada’s pride talking about her hibiscus plants was almost as strong as the pleasure she took showing off the glossy photograph album to which her daughters-in-law contributed family pictures.hibiscus. She had five grandchildren growing up big-boned and sturdy in far-flung places like Sydney and Toronto. the azaleas.garden tHOugH sHy abOut most things Ada Dunlop was fiercely proud of her hibiscus. On frosty mornings she held the earthenware pots between her palms to coax warmth into them. as if they were children. When talking about hibiscus Ada leaned forward in her chair and her cheeks glowed.
At this altitude. But have you seen the orange? Let me show you my lovely orange hibiscus. her youngest. the wife of Ada’s middle son. I’m fond of the white too. There were other concoctions too. bright against the silver wire and the concrete blocks of the security wall. That glow of the petals in the sunlight. Do you have a minute? Orange hibiscus usually refuse to grow at all in this climate. so he could also watch his grandmother.’ And she would walk the guest to the sheltered corner round the side of the house where. ‘You know. If ever she had an audience – though this wasn’t very often – Ada went so far as to boast of her hibiscus. Laura. ‘I’m glad you like that red. A good witch with green fingers.highvEld hiBiscus gardEn she swaddled in special coats of her own devising. Laura.’ she would say to the interested neighbour carrying a basin of windfall apples. to the garden help she occasionally hired for big jobs. to the window-cleaner. stood at the guestroom window and watched her motherin-law watering the orange hibiscus. Dish water. Laura picked up Frankie. some of them secret. This morning. ‘The reds can be especially difficult to persuade to grow that large. I really do think she cares more about 65 . layers of sacking and felt and a central core of cotton wool lightly soaked in linseed oil. She jigged him on her hip. He patted the glass with a sticky hand. In the matter of her hibiscus plants Ada seemed to herself something of a witch. a drop of golden syrup and Johnson’s baby lotion basted on to the hibiscus leaves was good during a drying wind. the sheeny orange hibiscus drooped its thick red pistils. Yes. Charles and their two small sons were visiting for three weeks from Toronto.
no matter the conditions. For her. In the Kalahari. She’s usually liked English plants. they’re unusual. Maybe that’s why she’s so hooked.’ Ada heard the rhythms of Charles’ voice drifting down the stairs to the kitchen. The hibiscus is a new thing. Roses. ‘Remember this is her routine. Charles. if you lived this close? If it was your daily fare? Look. ‘No Frankie. in Zambia. Stories about armed raids and state corruption and God knows what here on her doorstep. just arrived.’ Charles was counting out their traveller’s cheques at the bedside table. here we are. She’ll come round. wherever the mining company sent Dad. We’d hardly unpacked. Laura. sweet peas. kind of obsessive? I had the garden tour for more than an hour yesterday afternoon.’ ‘But don’t you think it’s a bit weird? You know.’ ‘But wouldn’t you. Hibiscus is exotic for her. She began making tea 66 .’ She rubbed at the boy’s hand smudge with a tissue. Mum’s made a garden. love. the whole flowery shebang.’ Laura said. English oases in the savannah.EllEkE BoEhmEr her flowers than her grandchildren. Doesn’t she care about anything else? Your father had the Sunday papers spread around him in the living room. ‘I mean. off to the game park in only a few days. she always made a garden wherever we lived. not English. This is what she does on the hundreds of Monday mornings that we’re not here.’ he said. ‘Give her time. Like I’ve said before. and all she’s done this morning is fiddle in the garden. But when I began to talk about that stuff she changed the subject. She once constructed a honeysuckle trellis across a dried-out streambed. give her time.
They came so rarely. though of course it was a long way to fly. Being out of practice did it. It was lovely to have their company again. that force of Laura’s. about maybe putting the tea things out on the veranda. Ada thought. It made her feel nervous. How was it that she forgot about that side of Laura until she saw her again? Laura’s push and success. Losing her touch. An economic exile they called him. each meal. Maybe the little one would be at the stage to like them now. in a strange country. Yes. To make him feel at home. 67 . And then she was used to it. the spiky toys underfoot. Each time. a local girl. even for air travel. Laura worked on the same corridor at Coopers and Lybrand in Toronto as Charles. It was a good thing. He hadn’t been there a month before Laura took him in. Laura’s voice rose above the churning sound the kettle made before it boiled. The eldest had liked them the last time they visited.’ Laura once said. and she’d think she could still hear their shrieking and laughter out in the garden. She thought about teatime. bitterly cold. Lucky for Charles. Expensive. She wished she hadn’t slightly overdone them. It had been an office romance. and they were gone. ‘In terms of time and money very expensive. too rarely. the noise. She thought about how they’d all be together.highvEld hiBiscus gardEn and smiled to herself. Each time Ada had to get used to having children around again. it was like beginning from scratch. Ada arranged rock cakes on a plate for the little boys. Two and a half years ago. her push. she did the same auditing job. The raisins on top had melted into shiny black knobs. Stupid of her. and him an asthmatic. The smart shoes and ironed shirts she wore even for Sundays with the kids.
the thought came to her. usually at Christmas time and birthdays. what questions to ask. she didn’t know what first to say. They got so little news. safe gardens. she let them drop off again on to the mat when she came in. loopy handwriting under the greeting printed on the card. ‘Happy Xmas.’ the faxes said. plenty of vitamin-enriched milk for his children to drink. At tea on the veranda it would be nice to know how to begin. one of the special orange ones. Ada thought. She slupped her feet into the old leather gardening shoes.EllEkE BoEhmEr There was so much to ask. They drove themselves hard. like sap. A touch of paradise. he and Laura wanted. But she did crave more news. The insecurity. ‘All well?’ And Laura wrote twice. Charles sometimes sent faxes from work to Peter’s head office here. The rock cakes looked dry and inhospitable on their plate. all of her three sons did. It was natural. she couldn’t help that. In each generation the need arose. Charles took after Peter. It was a pity though that hibiscus didn’t have a scent. The familiar double thud. They had always insisted the company give them a spread-out bungalow with big bathrooms and lots of bedrooms. ‘All’s well. something like that. He wanted. of course Ada understood that.’ she’d scrawl in her big. To fill up the space. The pollen was 68 . Ada went out to pick a hibiscus flower. She stroked a satiny petal with one finger. they had wanted to do the best for their children. She and Peter had had it too. the best for their children. maybe three times a year. Of course the two of them had no time. He wanted stability. The need for safety. She put the glossy flower in the middle of the plate. That’s why he left this country. ‘Happy Birthday’.
Seeing the grandchildren so rarely. Laura suddenly spoke on the other side of the door. but she hadn’t yet liked to ask Laura if she could. Laura?’ ‘Well. show him round. Ada stood at the guestroom door. You never knew. A late walker but for all that steady on his feet. And maybe Laura and Charles didn’t believe in fairy stories. It was especially difficult with the children of sons. ‘Dah-do-dah. ‘Look. you have to be honest. a happy. But mainly 69 . Charles. You didn’t want to rile the mother. I’m sorry to go on about it but. Times changed. other stories she remembered reading out loud. She’d like to tell him about rose children and flower fairies. loudly. Fairy stories had warped hidden meanings. you didn’t want to make them grow too attached. from that green fairy-folk story-book the boys thumbed until it fell apart. of honey. heat and ginger. Charles said yesterday he’d taken his first steps four months ago. people said. You didn’t want to be clinging and interfering. steady and confident. and something fruity. He smiled like his father. Dreadful if Laura began to see her as possessive. Ada froze.’ she heard the little boy chant as he toddled around the guestroom. her hand raised to knock.’ ‘What is. plum pudding. really. open smile. You’ve got to admit it’s strange.highvEld hiBiscus gardEn so sticky and golden you’d imagine they’d smell rich and lovely. birthday cake. a lot of things about her are strange. with nice full lips. She mentioned it again to Peter the other night. She went upstairs in her stockinged feet to call the children down to tea. She’d like to take him out into the garden with her. A clinging mother-in-law.
who was now crying. She just stood at the door. Something that prevents her from bringing the boys close. and I’m not comfortable with whatever it is. waiting for us to come and greet her. Not in that harsh. Her excitement had infected the little boy. except she wouldn’t say all that to her face. growing louder. still as a post. so closed in. ‘I know it’s a dangerous society.’ The top step crackled under Ada’s weight but Laura wouldn’t have heard it. I’m reminded of it each time.EllEkE BoEhmEr it’s that everything in her life is so covered up. though I do worry the whole time that one of the boys will get his hands stuck in the wire or something. ‘Ma-ma-ma. I realize that. After almost three years. ‘Ma-ma-ma. Laura was talking about her. You need the alarm system on the house. But then to wait at the door. that’s why she didn’t come to meet us at the airport. all of it. OK. almost to her face. She holds people at arm’s length. biting tone. I think of how she was yesterday when we arrived.’ the boy’s crying 70 . the hibiscus needed to be covered. It’s more than that. Ada shut the kitchen door behind her and went to stand at the breakfast bar.’ his voice beat out. and the job took time. I’m not thinking of the hibiscus garden only. there on the other side of the door. Charles. Laura was pushy and startling and abrupt. It’s as though she herself is coated with some layer like her plants. All this cover and protection is a sign of something for me.’ Ada turned but couldn’t pull herself away. Ada could never have believed she was this sharp. the razor wire. But it’s like the security system has taken over her personality. your father said it was going to be a cold night. but never before this sharp. the security wall.
learning to fill up the day. Still warm. It was a colder climate up here on the high African shield than they were used to. She wheeled them in their Silverstream pram along the rows of snapdragons. Now she’d never be able to explain. Hibiscus signified making gardens out of mine dumps. so cross. how it felt. she could feel it. caring for the hibiscus. after what she’d heard. fearing for them. One evening maybe. How it was tending them. warming the frost out of them. spending the days caring for them. She could never have imagined it. if she got Laura on her own. In Namaqualand and the Richtersveld. in the middle of Broken Hill in Zambia. missing them and missing them. Comforting. She held the teapot tight. and they reached out their hands to touch the flowers. She cupped her hands round the teapot. She pressed the pot tightly to her. If only she could mention this to Laura one day over tea. when the children were 71 . She was so very sorry. How it was missing them. The pride in it. far north beyond the Makgadikgadi salt pans. desert. gardening. She might even explain more. So sharp. That this was why she liked hibiscus so much. beautiful Laura. It was dreadfully sad. rock fields.highvEld hiBiscus gardEn warbled through the ceiling. and eventually half getting used to it. They were tropical weather flowers and they reminded her of all the hot places where she’d brought up the boys. She thought of her baby hibiscus plants. Forceful. but her body was very cold and her arms and hands were trembling. bits of stone. In the Kalahari she used to put her boys to sleep under a mimosa tree she had planted. Casually. So sharp. month after month. She was blushing. foxgloves and tiger lilies. One day soon perhaps.
Do you have a minute?’ And Laura would take her hand. where’s that pack of recent photos got to? I seem to keep misplacing them. Laura.’ That’s how she would begin. or just off to fold some clothes.EllEkE BoEhmEr asleep. lucky enough to feel the courage to go up to her. It’s the combination of sudden frost and the cakey earth you get out here on the highveld. ‘Charles. For that there’s just this one remedy I know. and say. And maybe she will catch Laura’s eye at this point. Overnight they flop and die. As simple as that. It can kill them. here’s something you might find interesting. In this case women’s pee especially. and nod for her to go on.’ This with a laugh.’ But say. It’s wee. ‘Here’s something interesting and funny I’ve been meaning to tell you. then pull her down beside her on the settee. soaking them with pee. You know. wanting to see her reaction. a little embarrassed. she was lucky to get Laura alone. Laura made sure she was holding a child. especially an old woman’s pee. I wanted to show them to Peter and Ada. It’s about the hibiscus. It works for children’s chilblains. she remembered from before. say one day this visit. ‘Dear Laura. It must be the sourness in it. that the hibiscus especially don’t like. find a travel brochure. and they will giggle together. And it works. please help me. I remembered this from the past. so one day I thought I’d try it on my hibiscus. Laura’s dark 72 . the frosty nights at the cold season. Except she never could catch Laura alone. but it also says something about what an odd sort of person I am. it really does. of her own accord. Whenever Ada was in the room. ‘It’s when a frosty night is predicted.
Laura’s face still smiling. ‘You’re an old wise woman. still watchful but waiting to be surprised. even today. And then I go down to the kitchen and add warm water from the kettle. It had chilled. A good homely recipe.’ she will say. I mean Peter. I’m sure. savouring the words.’ Then she will feel Laura’s hand squeeze hers.’ And she will speak more slowly now. I always suspected you knew a thing or two about magical powers and growing spells. between you and me. mother. Old woman’s pee. He’d think it silly. I wanted to though. the petals blackened now and curled. just a little.highvEld hiBiscus gardEn showy eyes will light up. Hibiscus didn’t decorate well. ‘Yes. She switched the kettle on again. The old enamel chamber pot the little boys use holds the warmth nicely. I do it privately. I did it while Peter was picking you up at the airport. ‘I tried it again only the other day. but I was worried about the frost. She picked it off and put it in the refuse pail. ‘I always knew it.’ Ada put down the teapot. I pour the stuff on the feet of the hibiscus. They were really such perishable flowers though they looked so vivid. The flower decorating the plate of rock cakes looked the worse for wear. Dad. In the room overhead the little boy had stopped crying. doesn’t know about this of course. The frost came but the flowers are still lovely. And you can see how it works. and they will laugh. There were footsteps 73 . So keep it secret. just to chafe them and dry out any frost that might be edging its way down. This was why I didn’t come to meet you. I don’t know why but it works.
The youngest’s eyelashes were still dark with tears. Charles came in pushing the two little ones ahead of him. 74 . grimacing.EllEkE BoEhmEr on the stairs. Mum. staring at Ada. Grandma. She held out the plate of rock cakes. She noticed there was a thick pollen dusting on one of them. ‘Frankie doesn’t like rock cakes. ‘I think she must be completely exhausted after the flight. For a moment they stood in the doorway together.’ ‘Time for tea. The elder boy jammed his fingers in his mouth.’ Ada said. ‘Laura’s resting. It was too late to fix it. and backed towards the door. starting suddenly like a frightened animal. silhouetted. The little one held on to his shirt. the little boy tugged his brother along with him into the garden.’ said Charles.’ the elder boy said. Then.
Can’t begin. and breakfast cooking. him and 75 . and always the cluster of black guys hanging on behind. A time ago.For. wiry. cancer. tough-headed. no clearer understanding like you might’ve thought. sharp-eyed. This mouth and its sores. isn’t it? What he keeps noticing is how this old age of his brings a shrinking of horizons. which is a kindness of Susan’s. racing water-trucks down rocky roads after tell-tale wafts of smoke. Fleshy smell of the bacon bringing its strong pink taste against the back of his mouth. And Edward warming up the tractor in the far garage. Can’t begin to get out of bed these days without the room warm. Tongue tender and lumpy. Funny. not opening. Now there’s just Edward. Chief Forest Warden for the government plantation company. He spent the long days in high crow’s-nest towers. His mouth throbbing and the electric heater beside the bed glowing. Once they said he was the ablest man they had. but operable – the world has shrunk to smallness around the pain that is this mouth.love it’s tHe pOp-pOpping of the tractor engine in the far garage that nudges him awake.
eating the bready pap. working the smallholding. also the dog run along all four sides of the property. girlfriend. boss. like here over his mug of breakfast tea and his bacon sandwich softened in milk – he very nearly wants to say. Must be. I thought boss was never coming. Speaks with difficulty anyway. the closest mate I have.EllEkE BoEhmEr Edward the tall flat-faced Zulu. and waiting. Named for a king. even to Sue. Helpmate. when they walk the back fence planning their day’s work. less than a pipsqueak. a kind of steady joke. the cauliflower plots. Edward. can’t quite. King of my lands. What could I ever do without you? All this. but can’t quite manage it. a compliment he knows is like a hidden arm grip. That’s what he tells him. Edward’s own two-room hut. these things him and Edward have thought out and planned together. Where’s the boss? Morning. I thought boss was never coming. It crosses his mind to say this sometimes. even though no king of that name has ruled in Edward’s lifetime. 76 . just about. will have carried out to him. In his own lifetime when he was hardly knee-high. Edward who’s this minute astride the tractor seat. Closest. the water tower and its scrap-metal look-out post between the syringa trees (the look-out for old time’s sake). Helpmate. Susan’s kitchen extension. Everything they had to make and fix when him and Sue bought this place using the early retirement package – all these things are the work of Edward’s hands. his woman. walking the back fence. he sometimes says. next to my brother he must be. Named for a king.
the cupped seat warmed. She says. he has living with him. nursing this stupid mouth. Which is also why he likes this Edward. He offered to talk him through that ballot paper like a Christmas streamer. Edward doesn’t waste words. woman. long as an arm. Tongue aching with every sound he speaks. and I could be dozing. when it’s soft and comfortable beside the electric fire. Morning. plant next week. full of Third World guff. On Election Day a few years back they drove together to the high school where they had a polling station. the tractor engine muttering. how are you? in English. Without even a word Edward gets down and he climbs into his place. doesn’t waste his breath to use his voice more than necessary.for lovE You can say these things nowadays and almost not surprise yourself. they could see her sitting against the wall of the hut with a newspaper – she has matric. but no thank you boss. smoking a roll-up. I know 77 . he says. her family owns a farm in the Biggarsberg. Once Edward told him – they were standing at the west end of the small-holding. forcing me out to work everyday. then. He said it like another man might say. to shift these bones. Plough up the cauliflower field today. stupidly coloured. is well-spoken. Edward said. you. Susan went alone to vote in town. walking out to the tractor with Edward sitting waiting. As bad as Madam. Thank you boss. Edward let him say his say. Thank you boss. Careful with words in the way some people are careful with money. the two of them know without saying. Named for a king and as bad as Madam. Even the girl.
Maybe just lately he was.EllEkE BoEhmEr what I’m voting for. It was always going to be woman trouble. the hair twisted into those American plaits. the hut locked. Then they queued to vote in silence. was it? The one sign. he says to himself. sticking his head into the stuffy dark of the hut. the newspaper reading. shifting to one side. Morning. winks across the small round mirror hung on the wall. after putting his cross. The woman was always going to mean trouble. the curtains drawn tight. how are you? Edward himself didn’t let on there was anything the matter. the one real mention. He heard Edward’s pencil click on the ledge where he dropped it. mouth torn to pieces by these sores. the man says. well. it had to be the woman to bring him down and cause him ruin. A reflection. his own face. he should’ve foreseen. it had to be her. more correct than ever. almost whispered to speak. Didn’t waste his words. the smell of bananas and rat poison. A policeman squeezes past him into the room. it was clear as a blue sky from the start. that was when Edward said. matric or no matric. walked up to the booths side by side in silence. My woman – or was it wife he said? 78 . An excellent man like that. Ten days now Edward’s been gone. no one around to get the day’s work started. * Edward. But they didn’t discuss the change – wasn’t his business. and the woman AWOL too. It’s been four days he himself hasn’t really bothered to get out in the morning. more careful.
took seven hours getting here. one black.How. his mouth pulsing with pain as the saw. the tractor still silent in the far garage. says the white officer. the man said. H. hoping the pair’ll leave as soon as formalities are over. the man tells the two policemen.Mavango .you? Can’t begin to speak. Edward’s best saw.can.live. the pain would shake his skull like a leaf. grated through the shiny steel loop. hands it over in silence. ruled exercise-book paper. one white. these words printed neatly in pencil. It means he’s dead. But the officers insist on ‘taking steps’. can’t begin to say what’s happened. No. he says. * 79 . The shadows in here hang thick as wood smoke.Margaret. If he opened his lips and the cool air suddenly touched his sores.without.. Note on the bed. the man just manages to say. To. First step apparently was breaking the lock on the hut door. Edward’ll have followed the woman maybe. Can’t begin to say what could’ve happened. they shouldn’t be reading this. the neighbour persuaded him to call the police. That was one of J. You think this means she’s coming back? says the officer. He reads. he repeats.I. Can’t live.for lovE – my wife has gone to visit with relatives in Mpangeni. useless no-hopers that they are. the idiot. it’s impossible. Massey’s most expensive padlocks. But the message isn’t for their eyes. After the man told his neighbour this detail early this morning.
and again. knotted together. out loud. and the photo in the pocket. Her hair was unplaited but the city pose unchanged. she sighed. The body hung from the deodar tree heavy with corruption. I don’t know what I can say.EllEkE BoEhmEr She returned. the man said. he said to her now. for funeral expenses. she said. The woman raised her face higher to the sun. The noose was a rope of her pantyhose. Can’t understand. This straightforward young man. Maybe. she said. the face held up to the sun. For love. He died for love. Of her. nice good-sort black. several pairs. a mature plantation thick with trees. I got children to feed. a shimmering crust of teeming flies. Later he said it to himself. He recognized the overalls. The police called. Come identify. the spot that well hidden. slightly squinting. Smiling into the light. He couldn’t handle it. just the once. She seemed to hit herself in the stomach. More than three weeks after the death it was. she said. he killed himself for love. a huff of exasperation. As if saying it would make clearer what beggared belief. 80 . That hip thrust out. Life goes on. I got a new job. the hip thrust out. to collect his things and the wages still owing. He always knew I had the other man. two sons by him.
she unfolded the brochure about Cape Town harbour and its new visitor features and World Heritage sites with such keen pleasure. Her dad’s fingers had drawn the outlines of 81 .’ said the woman in the tiny boutique on the Waterfront with a certain yearning in her voice. ‘Nile green. Nile-green with dark patches of pond-green already creeping out from under her bra. And the tourist spot she has chosen for today will cook them without mercy. Ontario. she has been a fool to wear this green linen shirt.Island the threads of the untidy event (Pablo.Neruda) stepping up intO the heat of the bus Roberta Edwards can tell at once that this is a mistake. Back home in Simcoe.Robben. It’s the hottest day so far this summer. convinced it would be a highlight of the longplanned trip. the weather report said. One minute spent sitting on a couple of tissues spread on the burning plastic seat and she knows she shouldn’t have come. The UV levels must be something ridiculous. On top of that. ecstatic probably to sell at this extraordinary price.
he had made his family wait hours in a queue that snaked into the blue distances of Bloor Street south. There’s no way today’s outing can be a success.ek. Distric’ Six. He was taking trumpet lessons and toot-tooted tunes on a makeshift paper cone as they waited. ‘Can’t believe you can take a trip out to Robben Island these days. her little brother. But their faint hope faded to nothing when. straight home.’ he would instruct. Toronto. Once. staring out across the neat lawn of his retirement home. the small boy at last began to wail that he had lost all feeling in his feet and wanted to go home. The after-quease of the choppy harbour launch is still stirring up her insides.’ Dad said. She feels the sweat on her 82 . ‘Say ja with your mouth open like a gulping frog. The build-up across these years has been too intense. home. your dad. how many times on the kitchen table? ‘The original kaalvoet. one freezing Thursday night. the garden seats laced in ice. Make sure you go. ‘I remember it lying out there in Table Bay like some spinach pancake. it’s quite clear to Roberta. in the faint hope of hearing Hugh Masekela play. Trevvie. Saturday mornings at ten o’clock after ice-hockey practice without fail their dad had sat them down for drill in the basics of Afrikaans grammar. about twenty people still ahead of them. dis. had been excited. and grab his children’s chins and bring his face close to their faces to press home the words.’ She has made sure.EllEkE BoEhmEr that mountain. She closes her eyes and breathes deeply. me. and immediately wince in dramatic anguish as they mangled his beloved tongue.’ he’d say. klonkie from Kaapstad. this bay.
‘Hello. the thick white window bars. Tarik your tour-guide. his big solid stomach. Don’t they do the same somewhere else dreadful. His hands had flailed about. waiting especially for tourists of suffering like themselves to winkle it free. these unadorned cell blocks the bus is now creakily approaching. Dachau maybe. She feels him brush by. The tour-guide. this discomfort. the down-at-heel look. * ‘Tarik.roBBEn island forehead settle into her eyebrows. sickened by the unsparing light. laid on with purpose. The sweating in-your-face tour-guide. She’s glad that on this occasion she has managed to avoid his glance. the screeching seagulls. It could of course be intentional. Yes. the loud squeak of the landing jetty. The churning of the little harbour launch. it’s Tarik. this dusty tin-can oven of an Island tour-bus. As if some residue of pain continued to cling to the walls. Real-life simulation. yellow elephant-print shirt straining over his front. competing vociferously with the roaring of the boat’s engine. makes his way down the aisle of the bus. They want us to feel bad. Pleased to meet you. the sunlight ricocheting off the white concrete jetty and slap into her sunglasses. Auschwitz? As if one could immediately empathise. she speculates. one finger intermittently jabbing at the plastic name-badge on his left breast pocket.’ In point of fact he was bellowing at them. 83 .’ he had said as their group disembarked. raise it up and marvel at its extremity. the bricks.
she was sure. Madam. Helpful and can-do American. ‘Yes. How to Sound Positive.’ His eyes like polished stones. Their eyes had moved between their two faces. school teacher. The whole world. Ontario. There on the quay he had fastened his eyes on her face.’ ‘And before Canada. that’s right. fixing on some indexcard in his memory bank. waves.EllEkE BoEhmEr ‘The name’s Tarik and – you’ve guessed it – I was once an inmate of this famous institution.’ The easy manner was borrowed off some self-help tape. Roberta Edwards. You from India. It was the tried-and-tested trick of selecting points of contact in the crowd.’ ‘And this is your first visit here to the Mother City?’ ‘Yes. he’s learned his lesson. gulls. How to be a Successful Tour Guide. ‘Madam? Now. A couple of the other tourists had queried the focus of his attention. In Canada. let’s see. 84 .’ ‘From Canada. A school teacher. Ma’am. She had had to touch her fingers to the arm of the lady beside her in the crowd to steady herself. from Simcoe. maybe. Whatever his source. quay. Canada. Canada. suddenly began lurching crazily around the centre-point of his two searching eyes. ‘You OK?’ She had nodded and looked for a tissue in her bag. the East somewhere?’ She had looked away though his stare was prodding at her. Looks to me like you’re from – hem – the States!’ ‘No. How to Sound like an Authentic Ex-Prisoner.
a brilliant talker. you guessed it. like I was telling you. Political prisoners we were. Sobukwe. So is that right. who I called Baba. Yes. what can I say? We helped each other through the bad times. I took a correspondence degree for a couple years when I was inside. Once armed and dangerous. The seniors helped us. Sabotasie my crime. after all. My side just like Nelson’s side. he wasn’t allowed to mingle with us. well. relatively speaking. Wrong side. It was good just to know those comrades were close by. Prisoner number 466 stroke 64. OK. Leicester Square. And I lived here on this island nearly twenty years. ‘My name. you’re from England. Mandela. sir. like Sisulu’s side or Mbeki’s. During the bad times. Geography. he was one of the seniors. now studying at my own off-shore university. Lived – if that is the word. later on. combined with Religious Studies. Big Ben. There are embarrassed giggles as skirts balloon and shirts flap 85 . is Tarik Siddiqi. sir? Piccadilly. Thirty years I looked out at the cold. Yes. father.’ Maintaining his conversation flow Tarik shepherds them off the bus and across an asphalt space where a gust of sandy wind rasps at their legs. Another senior.’ Tarik is now retracing his way down the aisle of the bus. yes. the senior amongst the seniors. Only to weep. that was something allowed. inside here. I seen the pictures. OK times. wild ocean and couldn’t even see Table Mountain. they did allow us to study. Study days were. A combined degree. They say he wasn’t even allowed to study. Poqo prisoner in my case.roBBEn island * ‘OK. faced all the way back to England.
‘It’s Nelson’s corridor. She would hate herself if she had come just to stare. unyielding. fine tension nets them round. very like a wall.’ ‘Imagine. People look at each other as if for reassurance. She scorns parasiting on the historical pain of others. a thin. The group presses forwards to try to follow him more closely. Then a silence descends. provided she can take back to Dad some sharp new detail or anecdote. This is the phrase passed from mouth to mouth along the group. an apartheid voyeur. After the bright sun the indoors is dark as a seabed. But they seem willy-nilly committed to ogling. She is here for no more than a sliver of her father’s history – her own history. cool to the touch. straight down ‘Nelson’s corridor’. her job will be done. Roberta thinks. One by one they mount the four neat steps ahead and file into the main entrance hall of the prison building. and finds herself shuffling uneasily. if once removed. He has fallen silent. Roberta decides to go with the flow. What she cannot hear she will not worry about. his speech wavering and hesitant. Without further ceremony they are led off to the left.’ ‘Twenty-some years. The wall is hard. An indoors tour-guide has joined them who is noticeably older than Tarik. Provided she obtains some sense of the – what? – the atmosphere maybe. like 86 . moving slowly down the corridor behind the others. She does not catch his name.EllEkE BoEhmEr free. Like at the start of the Hell-Raisin’ Ghost Train Ride at the Simcoe County Potato Festival Fair. The green painted wall is cool against her hand as she drags it along. She is aware of Tarik working his way steadily to the back of the group.
endearingly folded. In fact it’s the general plainness of everything she can’t get over. Freezing cold on so hot a day. They haven’t done it up. They.here. and the stainless steel kitchen surfaces belong to any penitentiary anywhere that you may care to name. peers to the right. considering its World Heritage status. Roberta is so far back she half misses that this cell here. 87 .wanted. One thing she will say for the place. He read Anne. sighs. the offices. They are led past the recreation area where the prisoners broke stones. said a talking head on the intro-video they screened at the Waterfront. the very one. He folded his blankets into a pile and left the pile at his door just like everyone else.life. Tom’s.deep-freeze. Take away the racially distinct rations charts painted up on the wall. As they walk on Roberta’s hand is still against the wall and the wall is cold. Cabin. now. set high in the wall but not impossibly high.to. Subtract the whitewashed bars and the window frames are suburban. at the start of the journey across Table Bay.’ Still in single file everyone stops a moment. there the low simple bed. Look. exclaims. Diary and Uncle. Or so it seems.Frank’s. The everydayness. These smooth painted walls that reveal no crack or mark. Women when they step past the cell close their eyes as if to drink in its spirit. not a single interruption.for. the bookshelf where he stored his books. He had his desk at the window says the guide.us. They file through the kitchens. this is the one. neat like a stack of books. with their long metal catches. the mess. A pile of blankets indeed stands at the door. and the impression is left intact.roBBEn island a monk. the bars.
the road they have just driven down. The driver. gravestones no doubt. Roberta is the last to get off. She begins walking down the road away from the bus. Her tourist companions are pointing their cameras at various of the nondescript features surrounding them. Tarik climbs down without a word and four or five of the tourists follow him. as if gripped by some urgent emotion. whose badge names him Simon. their flushed faces staring blankly out of the windows.EllEkE BoEhmEr The green paint on the walls—her own school in Simcoe had something similar in the girls and boys’ toilets. whether she should 88 . the leper colony graveyard the intro-video on the harbour launch talked about. the field. Tarik himself wiping his brow and talking under his breath. Roberta leaves him to it. * Next stop after Prisoner Block B has no apparent purpose. It must have been much like this when those famous inmates discoursed together in their concrete yard and folded their blankets into piles. A little way off behind a row of trees she spies a second field filled with upright stones. She wonders whether the others might not like to see it too. everything just so. Tarik tears off a fistful of the grass swishing at his knees to mop his brow. Most of the group remains seated. The road borders a sandy bit of field separated from the curb by a grassy ditch. The neatness of the arrangements enhances the impression. draws up along a dusty curb but leaves the bus engine running.
‘You want to head on?’ He stares off down the road and says nothing. Would it make sense to repair something so infinitely desolate? The lepers were the island’s quintessential inhabitants. maybe managed the single shop. Would the Tourist Board eventually do something about restoration? she wonders. The driver has switched off the engine. For a second time she begins to move in the direction of the graveyard. the graveyard but 89 . Turning she has to jolt sideways to avoid bumping into him. in its windswept way. Give or take a century or so and the rain-mottled stones. How did he manage to creep up so close? ‘Sorry. At the turn alongside some trees and pylons is a tiny stone-built house with a porch. She notices more of her fellow passengers clamber down on to the curb. Roberta takes this as an indication that the stop is to be prolonged. beautiful. those who looked after the Island church. Roberta sees a turn in the road that was not visible from the bus.roBBEn island suggest it to Tarik. inexpertly veiled. As the area comes into clearer view. the ultimate despised and rejected. will have been reduced back into the island’s sandy surface. This place. Looking about from house to graveyard Roberta feels a measure of gratification that the place is. Tarik sticks to her elbow like a warder. A tall camera-bearer slopes his way into the field and relieves himself. She imagines he’d spring to the task of outlining in full detail the Island’s further histories of pain. A dwelling that might have belonged to a caretaker or verger.’ she apologizes. behind a wind-tossed shred of fynbos. toppled or listing over. almost a gatehouse.
my Allah. Muslim so-called infidels. it makes my heart sob. but there’s no need to say a word. She briefly nods. that little house. Allah. Tarik has taken the floor. ‘So dangerous. she is evilly tempted to reply. Six long years they held him in the solitary that killed him. to join the ranks of the infidels. As if reading her thoughts Tarik suddenly says: ‘You stand in the land of the god-forsaken. tears off grass and again presses the clump to his forehead. my Sobukwe.EllEkE BoEhmEr also its surrounds. so determined to return our land to its true inheritors that they created a law specially to detain him longer. ‘You know our PAC leader Robert Sobukwe.’ She had forgotten his presence. champion of the black man in Africa. remains their final signature. ‘They sent us kaffirs here since the beginning. Then the lepers.’ he snaps at her. he is rising to his occasion. them first. ‘So dangerous was he. The cottage was apparently itself once a one-man prison. since the Dutch. And then they created this little prison specially to hold him in solitary. Roberta discovers her dad’s Saturday morning lessons about this place were full of gaps.’ Tarik cries. The elite guys walking by to their work were forbidden to wave. spirit of warlike Poqo?’ Not exactly know. the outlaw chiefs. drawing up his shoulders.of. the chronic sick.’ She discerns he is rediscovering his tour-guide agenda and that’s a pity. ‘Robert Sobukwe. but heard. The verger’s cottage is now his theme.’ For a moment Roberta resists the impulse to look at 90 . Could not even sing or whistle to him.
my comrade. he touched me!’ This time. that Mandela. She has noticed quite suddenly. There is a fine precision to his features and when he makes one of his speeches his face glows from within. Sobukwe – Dad named that name in awe though with a little flinch of – what was it? – apprehension? But the energy of Tarik’s words gets the better of her. Tarik is not putting it on. some rag of memory or ailing ghost.’ * Another hour into the journey and Roberta realizes that the Robben Island Tour is a simulation of the Stations 91 . in spite of herself. brown house that betrays not a sign of its extraordinary history.’ he is exclaiming. I can tell you more.’ Tarik calls. by Allah. belie his years.ons. She turns to face him. Roberta is sure..kom. There is no imaginary audience out there to be transfixed by his speech. the low-slung belly and scraggy neck. If you like. She holds his gaze. but.roBBEn island him. ‘Mandela. by God. If you like. Something has got to him. It is some vast and unappeased force that moves him.. Under his breath he adds: ‘There are special privileges for specially interested guests. She surveys the small. that Tarik is not that old a man. Behind Tarik she sees the bus-driver gesticulating and waves back. His prison-wasted body. we’re coming. She likes that rich deepening of his colour around his nose and in the corners of his sharply carved lips. ‘Now he was a clever lawyer and a good man. his eyes wide and staring. ‘Ja. our Robert.ja.
She wipes her forehead and finds a sludgy grey deposit smeared on the Kleenex. gave our Great Leader the eye problems he has today. Mlangeni.EllEkE BoEhmEr of the Cross – or would it be the trials of Hercules? After a scorching hot drive to see the rusting ship-hulks down Long Bay the bus is now teetering on the edge of a striated chalky cliff. Ribbons of white dust extrude from the cracks in the door and the open windows. in for a pound. I was a far younger man. The woman’s lacquered fringe and the lines on her forehead are etched in white dust.’ an enthusiastic South African voice interjects from the front.’ ‘Do we have to?’ says the neatly coifed British woman seated behind Roberta. ‘You know the story. man. He had the operation not so long ago. ‘The snake pit. ‘In for a penny.’ ‘And sustained cataracts.’ Tarik nods. ‘is where the first president of our new republic broke stones for nearly twenty years. but 92 .’ Tarik raises his voice to make himself heard. its engine whining. ‘Twenty years squinting here in this lime pit along with his colleagues.’ Tarik says behind sunglasses. The sun-glare shatters on the limestone rock like an explosion. Sisulu. Roberta peers round to make a commiserating grimace. ‘Also known as the lime pit. screwing up his eyes and staring out of the window. Look at me. ‘This. The driver nudges the chalk-swathed bus carefully into what appears to be a roughly hewn crater and pulls up in a stony area slightly less uneven than the track.’ her husband murmurs.
’ Roberta tries to keep her sunglasses trained on his throughout this speech. Every weekend we loaded up the rock on boats. are. It is like walking into the heart of a snowstorm. this place can be wild with snakes. ‘Why shouldn’t I? I looked just then to feel the impact. Into a burning whiteout. We could stare at that rock no longer than was necessary. victory . to Cape Town harbour.’ she says lamely. The British woman behind her is beginning to fidget and there are sounds of distraction from around the bus.Nelson. of. Some message in a bottle. or more 93 . Man. ‘So?’ he says.’ ‘Of course I do. By God. the skin hanging loose on the bone. Stones.. alive with snakes big as my arm. Let me off your hook.Now into the rock? Free. Carve messages into the rock.’ He raises an arm skinny as a bit of wire. Could we carve Freedom. twenty years with your pickax! Unless you’ve been here driving at those stones. to be taken away to the outside world.’ ‘By Allah.’ Tarik cries. ‘You don’t believe me when I say about the suffering. As she hastily drops the glasses Tarik catches the movement. She slightly waggles her chin. In the lime pit is nothing to see other than stones. Robert.. ‘That you won’t do unless you’ve been here fifteen. signaling for respite. For a moment Roberta lifts her sunglasses to assess the intensity of the light. And that wasn’t the only problem. We. An even bigger problem we suffered here was snakes. did we hate the colour white by the end of our working week. Free. again trying to engage her. Mandela . Sobukwe . sure.roBBEn island I can’t look at this stone now without protection. We could carve nothing. Once we had a plan.
‘The snakes that bothered Madiba. He gives the students a theatrical. when they don’t respond. sterile. He leans precariously across two students seated a few rows down from Roberta and beats at their window with the flat of his hand. * 94 . unsure whether he can see this behind the dark glasses. stunningly white.’ the cry goes up among the somnolent passengers. The rock is bright. shame-faced smile and. directs a bashful grimace in Roberta’s direction. It may be that in the split second she was blinded she missed the snake’s rapid exit. ‘And there one of the bastards is. He’s spotted one of the snakes. ‘Let’s get the hell out of this hell-hole.’ says Tarik. a snake. Once again she has as quickly to retreat behind them. The bus driver is taking a long-sighted look at his clipboard timetable. ‘A snake. The coifed British woman casts her eyes to the ceiling. but the fact is that there is no vicious ratel or python visible on the snowy rocks. The bus begins to back its way up the track. ‘Thank goodness for that.EllEkE BoEhmEr precisely the glare of the stones.’ Tarik suddenly exclaims falsetto. The creak of his bones is audible. as if to himself. Tarik pulls himself into the vertical with difficulty. slithering thing. She crinkles her eyes at him. Again she raises her glasses. A young woman at the back announces in no uncertain terms that she saw some yellow.’ Roberta is on the side of the bus closest to the so-called snake. yes definitely. fast-moving.’ says the British woman.
95 . Tarik stands at the door to help down the elderly and overheated. Fancy that she never found reason to use it. This time the driver draws up parallel to the graveyard so that people can take pictures. Out of consideration to the group’s exhaustion Simon drives the bus close to the quayside. Her husband obligingly gets into position. Waiting for them to finish Roberta doubts for a moment whether Tarik will seek her out. He will try to press himself upon her one last time. Then. ‘If enjoy is the word?’ Metres away a bold seagull divebombs a tourist’s sandwiches. The British woman. his camera held aloft. He is standing directly before her as if confronting her with something.roBBEn island At the end of their round trip they find no gift-andcoffee-shop combination. ‘Enjoy it?’ he asks. She fiddles in her purse to check that her camera is still there. He misses entirely the dollar bill that one of the Americans is waving close to his cheek. She moves a few steps towards him to help clear his way. she knows it was inevitable. As they alight Roberta notices people press coins into his palm. The Island tour package is undecorated to the end. It is noon and the sun’s light is unforgiving. asks him to pose with her for a photo. as soon as he begins to scan the crowd for her face. They retrace their tracks down the straight road that begins at the verger’s cottage beside the leper graveyard and leads back to the prison. restored to her formerly crisp persona by the ocean breeze. Again they are invited to exit but none takes the opportunity.
His expression is desperate and agitated. Madam. It’s his eyes that beg something of her. The whole show is made to measure in every detail. All in all he’s a sniveling mess and she knows that if she doesn’t back away right now the hysteria will catch on and she will start crying with him. It’s as if in this final moment he’s 96 . He has brought his face alarmingly close to hers. ladies and gentleman.’ She can’t think what to do. It must be a tourist spectacle after all. He is out of order. ladies and gentleman.EllEkE BoEhmEr ‘You want a photo or something?’ ‘No. all those years. the arm gestures. his speeches.’ His fingers clacking together as he made the action. ‘This is how they tortured him. like this.’ For a second it crosses her mind to mention her own Cape roots. I’m probably OK. the whiplash crack. His rich brown skin is a paper parcel. maddened him. her father’s story of exile. broken. If he held out his hands she’d take them but he doesn’t. Robben Island’. of muddling through in a strange. She sees to her horror that Tarik’s bottom lip is trembling. no. Involuntarily she jams her sunglasses into the bridge of her nose. Beaten. She is pinching her eyes shut but she’s aware of him even so. snow-bound land – but where to begin? She looks away from the seagull. She thinks of her dad punching his middle finger into her eight-year-old breast-bone. ‘It was the silent centre of all our lives. crinkled at its edges. our Poqo leader. yes. Tears are squeezing from under his eyelids. She remembers how Tarik flailed his hands about. ‘It was just here on your right. not to be believed. even the private words at the graveyard. the great Robert Sobukwe.
her lips already slightly opening. As if he’s demanding some declaration from her. she notices he’s moving back. she is sure. hear more. A slight dizziness comes over her. The tightness in his body is slackening. is lining Tarik up for a photo. a decision to stay longer. 97 . She reaches into her handbag to find a fifty rand note. she will hand it over. thank god. She will see him wipe his cheeks clean of his tour-guide tears. But at the moment she’s about to respond. In a moment. and tuck the money into his elephant-print breast pocket. A thick-set man in hiking boots. She’s suddenly aware that she has peered and pried after all. the real thing.roBBEn island trying to tell her something that the cold walls and quarried stone could not. She has been all along a voyeur. she has spied on something she shouldn’t. after the photo is taken. How it really was.
who liked to have his wife support him in his golf tournaments and rugby games. soft to the touch. the business grew frantic. which didn’t impress sports-mad Charley. five metres in front of her nose. she worked late and caught up on her sleep at the weekends. twenty-five deliveries a day. Grace processed up to twenty. and she had done nothing about it. buzzing you could say. Eight in the morning to six in the evening and sometimes later. almost exactly six months ago. but then something would come up. a diary clash. the import–export trade in the country these days was busy. It had sat there staring at her. and the thought to take action would disappear from her mind. a phone call. The thing was.Zulu. Most nights. the office phone 98 . There wasn’t the time to make sure to carry out practical chores. shiny with over-use. when the exchange rate was especially jumpy and all over the place. At times. due to how it was based in the old-fashioned barter on which most parties in the world’s developing countries had the low-down. an urgent order.speaking tHe lOCk was asking for trouble. Grace had meant to mention it to her boss Mr Rodgers from the day she had come to work here as an assistant secretary. She had kept meaning to.
it said. even car parts – and the thousand other products that they. Still. Grace would sit on the phone here in the small reception room. into Grace’s office. kids’ toys. the column of drawers on either side of her chair. China. fruit and metals mainly. was keen on the raw materials of a free South Africa. with the phone pressed to her shoulder. even after the two new office buildings with their three floors of parking garages had sprung up on Church Street. There was no parking whatsoever connected to the bungalow. Grace took the bus into work. it stood to reason. brightly coloured plastic sandals. yoga mats. and this on a door leading off from the street. candles scented and unscented. at the big chipped 1950s desk. Faxes with Chinese letterheads spat out from the fax machine. that single Yale lock that was so worn the key slid into it like a hot knife through butter. In the import–export sector. A visitor stepped straight from the narrow earthen front porch. that still filled the Central Business District. in particular.Zulu spEaking never stopped ringing. I’m trouble. polished colonial red. Their office was located in one of the converted settler bungalows with thick stone walls and iron lattice details around the frontage. do something about me. also stationery items. Mr Rodgers of course had made sure to stick a laminated sign on the door saying no money was housed on the premises overnight. despite the frantic activity. were happy to give in exchange. petty cash is kept to a minimum. and she would see the lock taunting her. plastic kitchenware and tableware. including cheap melamine coasters and bread-boards. swapped at a favourable rate for light-bulbs. China. But 99 .
the knock at the door halfway through the morning. She was filing her nails. Mr Rodgers was at a morning meeting in Durban together with Jane. In the event – in the event – the thieves came during business hours. It was unusual to be doing this. even if not in ready-to-hand cash form. and rightly so. but when the moment came. Grace. and. the tried-and-tested method. his PA.’ Grace at the time was filing her nails (she was ashamed when she had to mention this in the crime report). It was the start of the week. because of Muslim prayers. stood to reason. Monday. too. opportunists that they were. 100 . of the Amphitheatre on a flawless summer’s day. just as if soliciting for work. even if they could. a KwaZulu-Natal Tour Board poster. ‘You trust too much. you’ll come a cropper. that they gave themselves the time to notice the warning when jimmying the door and forcing their way in? And what might lead them to believe such a notice anyway? A white-owned business would surely have money sitting about somewhere. too relaxed. One day. Her secretary friends had warned her of intruders’ favourite tricks like this one.’ they often said. did she remember? Did she hear warning bells? ‘You’re too laid-back.EllEkE BoEhmEr who could guarantee that thieves could read. and gazing away at the only poster she had on the wall. But the fax machine this morning had stayed silent. she added in her crime report statement. a relatively easy day. Grace knew. could be quiet in some trading partner countries. daydreaming basically. That. when you’re less on your mettle than on hectic Thursdays and Fridays – though Fridays.
if you were minded to make light of it. exactly as pictured. her left. Around the centre of town none of the offices in converted houses that led off the pavement kept an open door. the names of distant lands on the letters she daily received were beginning to tempt her fancy. He wanted to be assured – no. naturally. cleaner. The old Yale lock at the time was on.Zulu spEaking The only other person about was Samson. leaning back a little to admire her work. you might say. So she was taking the opportunity of the quiet time to neaten her nails while thinking about holidays. the province alone had so much of beauty. she was thinking. She was at that very moment finishing her second hand. The men even knocked. guaranteed – there would be at least a nine-hole golf course close to wherever they went on holiday. a few sharp raps. and in some countries the availability of such facilities wasn’t always easy to ascertain. as if they were legitimate visitors. where they might go for their winter break this year. Silent but violent. Over in an instant. their all-purposes man. He heard not a thing of the event. True. The distance was just a few steps. pottering somewhere in the office backyard. Grace took a moment to put the nail file back in the top drawer where she kept it. but she had to take into account that exotic locations left Charley cold. the top drawer on the right. 101 . about how the Amphitheatre National Park had been their honeymoon destination only two years back and had looked perfect. messenger. then walked over to the door. Generally. it was that quick. fixer. she preferred to take a short break close to home. nothing out of the ordinary.
The door was coming open and they had entered. the back of her head. hitting the floor. she soon found out. Two Africans. dropping the politeness. the first man indoors raising his hand. a delayed reaction. It was when she laid eyes on their clothes. in single file. and the snib slid back smoothly. The clothes were suspiciously new. She kept them closed and let her body slump. She heard something crack and bounce and only later worked out from the bruise and the lump that it must have been the sound of her own skull-bone. and swooped over to her desk. He was the one who ended up keeping lookout at the door.EllEkE BoEhmEr A quick check through the spy-hole revealed nothing unusual. the Yale obligingly clicking into place. His very pale pink palms spread wide were the last things she saw. Never put up a fight. hidden behind the first two. hardly mansized. his one normal black patent shoe and his tiny built-up shoe like a kid’s. grabbed her shoulders and fell to the floor on top of her. for an instant almost like a gentlemen. But by now it was too late. the ‘morning mem’ and ‘how are you?’. Her hand was on the Yale. that she felt the first tweak of alarm. the one who came in second. playing airplanes like a boy. as if doffing a non-existent hat. She only ever saw his feet. a short man. though difficult to spot through the spy-hole. and a third. with a leg shrivelled by polio. Then. one of the men. suddenly. The pain of the fall suddenly jolted through her head. his arms stretched out as if to grab everything off its top. they said 102 . and her eyes shut tight. the folds still sharp in the shirts. she thought at the time. The first man meanwhile kicked the outside door closed. very scuffed but real leather.
God. under the second man’s pressing knee. It’s July and it’s chilly and out there in the street everyone is carrying on as normal. at the back of her head. of course. the organ carrying out no more than what was required to live. She squeezed her eyes tighter shut. Fear had already turned her body to pulp. Neil Diamond’s ‘Hot August Night’. and wondered to whom she was addressing this unspoken plea. also increasing in force. if only for their outlay. wouldn’t the man set about using it at some point soon? She heard the first man put his shoulder to the door leading to Mr Rodgers’s office. Then she began to feel the growing pain in her chest. She heard music burst from a passing car out in the street. and the darting stabs of discomfort. no. of course. the polished shoes she had seen gleaming as they entered. closed but not locked. and then. was her thought. not stabbing. clinical functions. She registered that it was the end of the month. not rape. But it’s July. as if her brain was in hypothermia. she thought again. Not rape. This cold at her neck. payment. when there was something cold against her throat. but there was no need to make a conscious decision. feeling the man’s knee on her ribs. Please. she said to herself inconsequentially. Why hadn’t she realized this at the door. their smart clothes. when the lock was still safely on? These guys wanted money. please. she later thought. not rape. please. 103 . was it a knife or a gun? Seeing as he’d gone so far as to bring along a weapon. Her thoughts now shrank to nothing but basic.Zulu spEaking at physical defense classes.
Definitely. just as they’d hoped. though the wrenching drew blood. were busy with her neck and arms.box. to ease the discomfort. There was some reference to her. if they had to. they added. the papers said so every day. but maybe. Again. cash. pressing the knife to her skin. grab the 104 . They’ve put in the planning. but not blasting their lives. His hand wrenched her gold chain. Early to say. She heard the two men talking amongst themselves. As the man yanked she wanted to reach out. Maybe they were professional thieves. which would minimize damage. inconveniencing people. They’d the whole job worked out in advance. And no one else was about. They’ve talked this all through in advance. they’ve exercised forethought. a twenty-first birthday present from her parents.cell. just maybe.EllEkE BoEhmEr thank goodness. no. Then again. from her neck. harmless like a dead cow. alarm. fax. She could feel the wetness of it. rolling the back of her head on the floor just slightly. she could feel. she felt no immediate pain. she registered even at the time. gloating audibly. she thought not a gun. thieves did murder. lying there. her top half only. they did theft instead of doing rape. the second man only inches above her face. the instrument was too slim. lying there like a dead cow. cabinet? They seemed to know enough office vocabulary to get by. no more than just proper thieves. where was it? the filing. Sometimes killing happened as collateral damage. speaking Zulu but with English words mixed in. they said. her. their voices very low and quick. and sometimes even if not. Grace realized. alarm? cell. they must be proper thieves. The second man’s hands.
The kick hurt. She heard him smash something into one of the desk drawers. she crawled in under the desk as far as she could go. dragged like some dead cow. maybe just glanced through the film of her lashes. ‘Where the petty cash? Say. Eyes shut. not show. The skipping rope pulled at her wrists. did nothing.hamba . ‘Hamba. a yerch of disgust. cotton-shirted side.Go.. She was rolled onto her side. He shoved her again. the space where her legs went. till her forehead touched the wooden panel she sometimes rested her feet against. The man made a hoicking sound. using a kind of kick. shoving.. towards her own desk.’ said the man. But the drawer gave no trouble. as if she’d had a local anaesthetic at the dentist’s. round to the back of it. she didn’t know why. but the words stilled something in her. She’d been too slow. what felt like a heave of his foot into the small of her back. say. to get them to work. her own side. his only words to her so far. a pull at her arm. one lying under her back.’ But her lips wouldn’t move. And now. The petty cash 105 . she found when they’d left. She wanted to press a hand to her lips. but her neatly filed hands. or sack of potatoes. She was being pushed and pulled. yes. exactly. his shoe against her bottom. Say. probably the instrument that had been at her neck.Zulu spEaking chain back. and barked in rough English. go. She tried to shift an arm. She was sure she didn’t open her eyes. involving a household with kids. softened something. Her wrists were being tied with a bit of muddy skipping rope. a leftover from some previous job no doubt. One side of her mouth felt loose and foolish. the other clamped somehow against the man’s warm.
She tried to adjust the position of her left leg. They were getting the stuff out now. lying there anyway. she gauged from their oneword remarks. cardboard boxes. The cash box was the first of a string of items the men now seemed to be lining up on her desk. Again came the kick. they would be on their way. almost right up her bum this time. from Mr Rodgers’s room past the desk to the front. The kick didn’t hurt as much as the first one. this time to the seat of the chair. or pulling out the drawers. and the fax machine. hand bag. Her purse was pulled out. to and fro. which was folded under her right and had gone to sleep.’ the second man muttered. they were piling it at the front door in readiness. peeping. making sure nothing worth having was left behind. shopping bags. Her PC was already in place for them. ‘Bag. Maybe he was trying to find something. saw her bag elevate itself from where it had been standing under her chair. rattling nerves overhead. as if the first man was dismantling the filing cabinet. she heard the familiar rasp of the sequin decoration on the side as it scraped against the zipper opening of the bag. Her bag descended back down.EllEkE BoEhmEr box rattled as he pulled it out and placed it on the desk above her head. Feet began to thump the floor. There was Mr Rodgers’s radio. to and fro. to assist with carrying out the stuff. But she moved jerkily and ended up bumping the desk. and Mr Rodgers’s PC and printer. the heave to the small of her back. but the 106 . and her cell phone. they had to be. Meanwhile from Mr Rodgers’s room came the intermittent sound of crashing and banging. Grace thought to herself. even as she. it had been a while.
indifferent was good. hadn’t even consciously realized it. the significant pauses.’ He thinks nothing of me. They don’t know I understand their language. came from her. the awareness sliced through Grace. with what sounded like a sneer. ‘The cow is only half-dead.’ said one of the men. the whispers. She was white. inciting their anger. she knew. Even 107 . God knows what would have happened then. even as their words stilled her – she’d picked up their Zulu along with their English. Hadn’t she been as inanimate as possible? And. She wasn’t meant to get their meaning. no one had taught Zulu.Zulu spEaking shove forwards thudded the bruised place on her skull against the desk. She had followed them. she thought to herself. They didn’t mean for her to follow them. calling her a dead cow. Of course he’d be indifferent. bright look came like a balm to Grace’s tightly shut eyes. it made sense. A strange sound. ‘The cow’s groaning. but the thought aroused no particular reaction. after all. that she understood them. probably the first. Though she hadn’t meant to. Besides. not only their every word but also the expression in their voices. the men weren’t intending to insult her. from the start. Far worse would have been if she’d been an obstacle to them. The image of Florence’s quick. English-speaking. At her high school down in Durban. so how would she get Zulu? How in the world could she be Zulu-speaking? And then. it dawned on her – yes. they think their conversation slips me by. like a strangulated yawn. she’d been to primary school in the old system. in her twenties. suddenly.
not to learning. When she and Grace were alone together. her slack walk. Grace? Why? I own nothing.EllEkE BoEhmEr if Zulu had been offered at her school. she once explained in a hurry. her father had died and the family’s funds had run out. You’ve got to learn things to get by in this world. how quickly she moved. she turned her attentions to Grace. But Florence. Florence used Zulu for everything. gateways to great civilizations. but missed the final diploma exam because. was persistent. fast-moving. who liked to cultivate a blank look. it was only because of the bond they had. Grace the teenager was a dedicated resident of North Beach. spry. ‘You want to be brown as me. You must get off your bottom. I’m not even a teacher. loping walk like a boy’s. In this society I count for nothing. though most took pains to forget it as soon as they came down to boarding school in the city. a relaxed. and Grace admired her. uncharacteristically swallowing her words. she remembered. nothing bothered. even if you’re whiter 108 . But it was only because she. Why clog the brain with Zulu when there are important world languages. Florence. she had taught Grace Zulu regardless. at how she lay in the sun and basted her skin in sunflower oil. very dark. Florence had trained as a teacher. how her eyes missed nothing. Grace the banana girl was devoted to swimming and sun-bathing. and lemon juice bleached hair. short. her parents would have insisted she not take it. to be learned? Zulu was for rough white boys who’d grown up on farms. the ‘laundry girl’ for their entire street. then called a banana girl. that the Zulu words she taught stuck. how readily she laughed. Florence sniffed at her look. In the laundry room.
’ she added in English for good measure. Silence. The door was at last opened. na?. ‘Can I have my bus-fare home?’ ‘Hau?’ said the first man. banana? Banana. every time. what’s the word for.. the fare and a rand or so extra. She heard their breathing. There was the sound of money. ‘Uthini. They confirmed it for her. ‘Ngiyacela. a few coins.imali. then a scuffling. Even before they spoke she’d predicted the words they’d use.’ ‘You count for something. said the second man. ekhaya.yebhasi.. isiZulu . Grace. Zulu is special. A hand slapped down on another hand. ‘Ishiye.girl?’ And so today. Grace got the men’s meaning. elizongisa. now or never.yakhe.etafuleni.ekhaya . ngingayithola.Zulu spEaking than banana fruit inside. ‘Go.’ They were at the end of the job. ’course you do.’ 109 . isiZulu . Please. go.’ . imali. It was time for her to speak. ‘You’re Zulu.Hamba.’ She is speaking Zulu to us. let’s see. you say so yourself. even when they talked low and quick. learn it. crouched under her own desk with her wrists tied. then shut again. ‘Hamba. yebhasi.’ ‘Then learn your Zulu.. ‘Dlula . Go on. urgently. Tell me.elizomusa. enough. Florence. she is definitely speaking Zulu.’ Grace said in return. Uyasikhuluma. The obliging Yale lock barely clicked. rattling down on the desk overhead.’ they were saying to one another now. umfazi?’ What is the woman saying? ‘Uyasikhuluma. The lookout seemed to have departed and the other two were waiting for him. Florence had taught her well.
For a number of months she suffered embarrassing yawning fits whenever she passed a group of young black men in the street. which helped her enormously in getting back to her relaxed but efficient office-girl self. to which she added her winter holiday week. Most people in the area spoke either Xhosa or English. In Wilderness there wasn’t the temptation to listen into Zulu conversations. mainly she dreamed she was being kicked and shoved about. This fact of this lightly. she suspected. Even to herself she didn’t go into her reasons why. Immediately following the break-in Mr Rodgers gave her a fortnight’s leave with pay. But these too passed. She had the nightmares about the burglary she was expected to have. too. She didn’t want to say the words. as she’d read they would. and after a while the dreams passed. she didn’t get round to making the booking. had got over it lightly. She knew she’d got off the whole thing lightly. said for her benefit. but they weren’t too bad. Grace didn’t sign up. When she returned to work. but every time she agreed to his request. Leave the bus-fare on the table. explained her reluctance to seek counseling. ‘I got off lightly. Afterwards. in a hotel next to an 18-hole golf course. and she knew why this was so. and installed a thiefproof intercom system. Charley tried to persuade her to accept.EllEkE BoEhmEr As familiar as if Florence had spoken them. and she and Charley enjoyed a long break in Wilderness. Mr Rodgers had fitted a double Chubb lock to the door. It certainly explained why she didn’t want to talk about the experience. when free victim-support counselling was offered. I got off with 110 .
Something connected me to those thieves. Since the break-in she’d begun to suffer from occasional headaches.Zulu spEaking only a bad bruise on my head and a few bad dreams and I think I know why. and her legs stretched out. And by the end they knew it. Still. headache or no. it became her favourite thing to stay at home on Saturday afternoons. organic rooibos had been Florence’s favourite. She would sit in the comfortable armchair with her eyes shut. I know the language. of the laundry room and learning Zulu. in spite of myself. so her excuses weren’t always just white lies. It’s this unlikely thing. I know how. Or not just somehow.’ She didn’t want to say.’ The single change in her life was that she developed a secret liking for the radio. They acknowledged it. you could say I somehow followed my captors’ meaning. I’m a Zulu-speaking banana girl. 111 . I speak Zulu. she made excuses to stay at home on Saturday afternoons instead of going with Charley to the golf club. but early on in the experience I began to grasp what the thieves were after. nothing to worry about. and listen to the Zulu plays that were broadcast on Saturday afternoons on the radio. ‘Well. not too badly. too. it wasn’t exactly prisoner’s syndrome. Switched back on to her memories of Florence. though irksome. No sooner had Charley driven off than she would make a cup of tea.
that sound of riot.’ ‘We got no groundsheets. Pull their shirts over their faces. this is what remains with him. There was the ragged roar. It gripped his innards and his throat closed. people throwing themselves bodily off the stands in a desperate attempt to save themselves. The masses on the march again. Roll up the shirts and then pull them over them. nothing?’ ‘No. man. He remembers like yesterday the blue pulsing of the ambulance lights.a. the roar again.’ ‘What? Take the shirts off?’ ‘No. How they flickered helplessly over the heads of the crowd after the crisis 112 . How did we know what to expect? Just lay them out here behind the goals and pull their shirts over their faces. Like you do for a tear-gas attack. a brief pause. Even now. He remembers the human missiles.’ The noise of panic ripped through the crowd. standing here in the witness stand several weeks later. we got nothing like that. lay them down in rows.tear-gas.in. the thought was immediate. Troublemakers.attack ‘lOOk Here.Like. that sudden booming shift in the crowd’s noise. a massive choking breath. cloths.
gas aTTack struck at 8. He remembers these things but the noise memory has the power to shake him physically. The weird change. When he confronts those swimming eyes. The ragged roar. started screaming. the details were his business. Your brother. roar again – the sound so much rougher-edged than the sound they would normally have been making. the moaning gum trees at the back of the house. unable to drive on because of the crush. echoing the sound of cars on the road. ‘Who gave the order to stop the game?’ That was me also. and when he shocks awake from dreams of the noise it seems to linger in reality. the unseeing stare of the bereaved. It must have been then that men. and their moist. floppy hands. It was he himself insisted his company send someone along with the government representative and the team managers. we’re all so sorry. hooligans? But I put the extra security on the gates.’ In his sleep the roaring is there. were the gates then closed?’ Yes. The gates were already 113 . didn’t I? Roar. Your husband. he lived for soccer? Ja.likE in a TEar. ‘Who decided to keep the gates open at start of play?’ I did. ‘So sorry. happened about fifteen minutes into the match. As the Senior Exec on the night these details have stuck with him. your sister. so sorry. too. he feels himself shake. the Doppler shift in the chanting. Tsotsis? he remembers thinking. the gates were then closed.15. ‘When you decided to stop the game. a storming wind tearing through the massed and running crowd. so sad. On his sympathy visits he has felt it once again vibrate inside him. all the vehicles stuck fast at gate 7. which he has pressed and pressed in house after house. breath. chanting for their teams.
10 had just taken control of the ball. That’s the moment in his dreams. air-borne in that giant cockpit. floodlit pitch. that noise of riot. First he was up in the controls room. listening for routine crowd trouble. and then suddenly he heard the noise of the crowd crack and a split second later the seismic loosening of everything. He was looking out across the neon-green. Minutes later he was running along a pitch still orderly with play. ‘Mr. truth to tell. someone’s yelling into it. he knows this even now. yes. And then he began to run. and the landslide of people in the stand opposite. But just this minute his thoughts are scraped away by noise. Hickey. his cell phone in his ironedsmooth pocket. too. The noise is his responsibility: this is the key fact. No. He’s running this show. His walkie-talkie was firm in his hand. he remembers this exactly. where were you exactly when you decided to stop the game?’ He is good at taking charge of details and. He’s running. He was looking out across the pitch. that was a moment after. And then he was leaping down the fire-escape route four stairs at a time. The Bristol Kings no. The walkie-talkie is shrieking in his fist. and the roar is intensifying.EllEkE BoEhmEr closed by then. Later they’ll find it rang repeatedly unnoticed. by his feet pounding the damp grey stairs. He saw the Western Raiders goalie dive forwards to save a ball at the very same instant that he stumbled against the soft resistance of one of the 114 . plunging. by fear. he can’t make out who or what they’re saying. Right this minute there’s only noise. he’s flinging himself almost vertically down those concrete stairs. and his mobile is forgotten. by plain panic.
’ he tells the Government Commission of Inquiry. a son. This was a long moment and the next thing his confusion was focusing on to a single plain detail. ‘Been working for this management company only eighteen months. A teenage boy cast onto his side like a broken toy. there was only sound. He tries to report crisply but even so his voice warbles a little with pride. his head horribly askew. Was it because he blanked that the words were said that have since been so troubling? Did he lose perspective due to panic? Or was it the driving need to act.for. He pauses to give them time but the magistrate. The players were still playing – why was this? Minutes ago the game should have been stopped. ‘Pull up the shirts.’ he shouted. ‘Forty-two years old.’ The Tswana and Xhosa translators deliver their translations to the two judges in a husky. he’d almost say conspiratorial.gas aTTack first fallen bodies. from my first marriage. and there’s another. Like. Cover them quickly.’ he says. motions for him to continue straight on. The Tswana translator takes a heck of a time working through this last sentence. a nice young Afrikaner in an expensive Nehru-style suit. way. He didn’t have a clue what next to do.a. Married with two kids. SEO of the Oliver Tambo Stadium. He felt the breeze catch his sweatsoaked shirt and freeze his skin. this pushed him? This is why he used irresponsible words? ‘Lay them out in rows with shirts over their faces.attack. His mind blanked.tear-gas.’ ‘My name is Darren Hickey. 115 .likE in a TEar. And then the crowd noise possessed him completely. Now he is forced to pause.
‘Never before. He got up thank goodness earlier than usual this morning. ‘We are to shed light. the Inquiry is beamed live on all the country’s daytime channels. to make the space for a proper wash and shave before doing the kids’ breakfast. But thirty-four had died. ‘Eighteen months. Correction – is being beamed even as he sits here. 116 . Simpson trial. But it was important to determine basic safety conditions. He turns so as not to have to eyeball the probing lens but feels at the same time a kind of satisfaction. as if this were a detail bearing much weight. all young. the game of our future. ‘Once again.EllEkE BoEhmEr ‘Management company. three times. happen again.’ Judge Magubane said in his opening address this morning. and gnashing their teeth. ‘Never before had such a disaster befallen the radiant game of soccer in our renewed.’ he intoned. Once again our mothers stood weeping.’ he said. ‘the people in charge were white.’ he then reiterates. we all agreed.’ the judge said. In this particular case however no blame is to be laid.’ Hence the burning importance of the Inquiry. Wringing their hands. J.’ he hears him transliterate gutturally. Blame. Never. was collective and difficult to pinpoint. As he speaks Darren Hickey notices on his left a television camera centring on his own face. good-hope land. ensure that such a disaster never happen again. two. Like some sort of local O. in English. As had happened so many times before in our beloved nation. Darren imagined. many more were injured. All of them black. Soccer was the democratic game. the victims of the disaster were all black.
reliability. There’s no alimony to be earned on an orderly’s wages. he tells himself silently. that challenge of managing smoothly to lift. the Panther First Response Force. ‘It will shine light to the very bottom of it. You can check our record. they can probe if they want. They were carrying crowd control batons but not tear-gas canisters. no.gas aTTack ‘The Inquiry will shine light in dark places.likE in a TEar. managing stores of different sizes around the country. reinforced helmets. Because it was a prestige game we hired an extra security company. He made sure to ask and had no reason to doubt the serious look of them. But we’d had eighteen successful and problemfree months.’ The men in full uniform.’ Darren Hickey resumes at the magistrate’s nod.’ ‘It was your first job as manager in a sports capacity?’ ‘Yes. naturally. camouflage. not for a mass of supporters and fans.’ he said. to be exact. their silent and efficient manner. Started in the rag trade because of the money.’ ‘Eighteen months in the SEO job. he had met with beforehand in the controls room. bullet-proof jackets. even from the days he worked as a hospital orderly. first job after the army. they emphasized. to raise and glide the sick from bed to 117 . He’d got the biggest buzz from it though. especially at the gates. so they assured him. half intimidated himself by their intense appearance. No tear-gas for a football crowd. or. No fault in my record anywhere. nothing like that. Full marks for preparedness. He had believed them. The team was fully prepared for the night. thick boots. ‘And before that ten years in the rag trade. No tear-gas. because of the divorce from Hazel. to assist with keeping order.
Missus. Molema.’ Except the bodies they were lifting and straightening were already dead. he considers. you were aware that down on the pitch several dead already lay? You had yourself reached the pitch. ‘we were dealing with big forces here. With the result that several tens more people were wounded. What I think of is. ‘Sir. my boy. you yourself say. when. He has rehearsed this angling forwards. his close attention? Do they see this little frown he’s aware he’s frowning? Everywhere around the country. ‘Mr Hickey.’ You’d have thought it would’ve stood him in good stead down there on the football pitch. you’ll be all set in a minute. continue for some ten minutes. as you have already admitted. This 118 . the TV screens are on and he is on them. a household face. Do the viewers out there see this. Why was this?’ The cameras’ eyes wink as Darren shifts forwards in his chair to answer the question. You realized. your statement here says. But you let it continue for some ten minutes from that point. ‘There you go now.’ ‘All set now. Why did you let the soccer game in question continue. to quote Julie-Ann his secretary. Your foot had by your own admission connected with a body. He has therefore practised this particular bit. ‘One of the major questions we are facing here is this. ‘There you go now. It’s a question directed by the Tswana Judge.EllEkE BoEhmEr trolley without their betraying a wince. And you kept the stadium gates closed for the same length of time. behind the goals. this clearing of the throat. when it all went mad. sir. a jowly man.’ the translator on the left says. as I said. the game must stop. sir. Winston Churchill but no cigar. a tidal wave. the frown.’ he begins slowly.
yes.’ Now his breath begins to lag behind his words. When the crowd started to unsettle it was at first just local. you see. He sucks at the air. of keeping the mass under control. out of control completely. behind the locked door. And we opened the gates. But even this wasn’t a way of communicating with the crowd. face to face with the medicine cabinet mirror. But.’ ‘Rioting.likE in a TEar. But the crowd by then was rioting. It was in the stand opposite the grandstand. Due I believe to bribes there were more spectators than seats. I was afraid. I decided to give the order to stop and open the gates only when I saw a way to tell the crowd. but unruly. The only way was to turn the cameras on to themselves. GAME OVER. Keeping it going was a way. The judge sees this as an opportunity for another question. we flashed it on the screens. then. not rioting exactly. and maybe his message doesn’t sound as convincing as it did this morning.’ 119 . and I was afraid again down on the pitch. We opened the gates. We weren’t sure that all people could read the text on the giant screens. ‘Twice therefore you delayed dealing with the gates?’ ‘But both times to contain disorder.gas aTTack is why we left the gates of the stadium open until after the games had begun. To try to keep order. we flashed the message. sir. we had closed the gates by the time the disorder broke out. It was overcrowded and people began to stampede. GAME OVER. The noise was such that we could broadcast no messages. that stopping the game could only multiply the problem. Mr Hickey? You use the word advisedly? ‘OK.
it wasn’t so. The gates were open. This has become another scene in Darren Hickey’s recurring dreams.’ says the jowly judge in sudden sarcastic English. we showed the dead and dying on screen. sir. You were here when you said to yourself the game must stop? You were there when you gave the order? Where exactly were you. the brilliantly lit stadium like an upturned cone of light. that they were dead. ‘Before and during. the third day. answering questions. this is the bright axle his thoughts revolve around.’ the judge said. they ask. He will stand by his words. The platen burns against his skin. certainly it was – when the noise of the crowd rocked 120 . you see.’ ‘This was before you covered their faces?’ ‘Covered them with their own shirts. ‘Before and while covering them. he jabs. sir. That was my decision. no. where exactly? He points. sorry for saying. open again. There was no alternative. Point it out please on the OHP. pulled up. ‘By which you mean what.EllEkE BoEhmEr Judge Magubane directed a low word.’ ‘Shed light to the very bottom of it. it was so. As he stands on the second day. ‘By which I mean. The covering showed. Where exactly? It was in the controls room – yes.’ ‘It was you who decided to broadcast the images of broken bodies?’ ‘I did. huh? what? to his colleague. Yes.’ says Darren Hickey looking straight into the cameras now. closed. precisely?’ asked the Xhosa translator. sir.
then ten.likE in a TEar. Use the bodies for signs. Their heads momentarily caught up in the cloth. The Bristol Kings captain walks bang into him and stands 121 . he is pulling cotton. are helping him position the bodies as if they were footballers snapped in the act of swapping shirts after a match. man. It is now that he instructs. He is simultaneously bathed in blazing silver light and veiled in shadow. Darren straightens up to use his walkie-talkie. His legs felt leaden and reluctant even as he began to drag the first victim behind the goals. who began the evening selling Pepsi. caught within their dark netted shadow.’ ‘Just try to get to the crowd. ‘Use the bodies as signs. Was it about then he worked out how to stop the crowd? He had blanked. But he isn’t simply staring at these corpses. From every angle. their feet fallen awry like sleepers’ feet. thirteen.’ he shouts. He is tugging at the hems of shirts. Overhead his own image flashes suddenly on to the giant screens. on to this group of bodies. twenty lie behind the goals. But in spirit he is also suspended there behind the goal posts. he is busying himself with them. ripping buttons. covering faces. lights and cameras beam on to the three of them working here. and here at his feet are the first bodies flumped without ceremony on the neon-green grass. then six. In his mind’s eye he is standing minutes later at the blunt point of the cone of light that is the stadium.gas aTTack him. Two teenage volunteers. By the end of half-an-hour. And then he saw it. his teeth champing with the sudden cold. At first there are two or three bodies. almost stumbled. the only way.
’ As he shouts he sees his own mouth shockingly magnified overhead. ‘it’s simple really. and above. Everything feels suddenly strangely silenced around him even though the crowd is still roaring. ‘Stop the fucking game now. two-word answers. charging. whose hurt head left that stain on his chest. the white line of the rolled-up shirt. There on screen. Beyond. Where was the Panther team positioned in the stadium? Mainly at the gates.’ The OHP scalds the corner of his eye. as honest as possible. Just stick the image up there till they all know what’s happening. ‘You see. legs. He sees the Kings captain staring dazed on the edge of the picture and he sees his own ghastly purplish face looking up. shoulders. there was relatively speaking less crowd trouble at some of the other gates. behind him here. Stop the crowd rioting.EllEkE BoEhmEr rubbing at his skull. torsos. On this third day it is switched on almost continuously to show the ground plan of the OT stadium. fisting his eyes in bedazzlement. Seven and 8 were worst. dissolve into flashes of colour. especially Gate 7? Within view of the ambulances then? But wasn’t this where most of the dead fell? He furrows his brow deeply. spread at his feet. He sees on screen the jagged bloodstain on his khaki uniform. At his feet is the young man’s body whose face he has just covered. In the inquiry room the questions come without break. shoes. He gives one-word. is the same person’s unscathed. grainy and gigantic.’ he says. defenseless stomach. in the corner of the picture. the body he dragged from the stands. the emergency exits 122 . the densest part of the mass. and the shadow point of his navel.
about your sense of the crowd? Did you see them as a football crowd. Like. What were your available methods of crowd control? Tear-gas was an option. are you sure that you in fact acted as quickly as you might otherwise have done? Did you have the best interests of the crowd at heart? Would you have shown the same gruesome images on screen if.’ ‘Mr Hickey. of. rioting. had been tried. say. tested. Rubber bullets: but these. were the crowd in question?’ ‘I would. rugby supporters. maybe you and your security corps decided amongst yourselves to let them run and self-destruct. even if outlawed by your stadium policy: there are the sometimes fatal effects of the gas. ‘this was a black crowd. or should that be culpability? ‘In your hands was a crowd in full voice.tear-gas. The OHP light itself makes a shining cone.’ Darren feels keenly he is being goaded. a white crowd.a. 123 .gas aTTack marked in red crosses.for.attack. would you propose. Here lies the crux of the management company’s responsibility. a mass of African people? Once things got out of hand. sir. ‘Then again.’ says the magistrate. What does this say. leaving aside for a moment the question of whether tear-gas was in fact present. The stylish magistrate begins the afternoon session on the third day saying he wants to concentrate on the central incident involving the bodies at the goals.’ he says. Does it not betray a certain disrespect? And if disrespect.likE in a TEar. it has unfortunate associations. let us explore merely your use of this phrase. and found wanting in the old days. not so. too. to quote your own word. say. or as a mass of people from another time? Tear-gas.
EllEkE BoEhmEr ‘Could you enlarge. his legs wobbly in spite of how stiffly he’s holding himself. From this it seems to me it was the pictures persuaded the crowd something was the matter. The magistrate himself grips his arm in a brotherly way as he steps down from the stand. please. He does not want – with all of the nation looking on – to lose control. they must now try to leave in an orderly fashion. People however couldn’t be more kind. the Panther First Response chief brings a bowl of boiled sweets that has perched on a felt-top side-table throughout the week. for the first time. a story-line which the papers and TV news have 124 . The questions he has answered have fallen into a particular groove. With bizarre gentleness for such a block of a man. for a glass of water. sir. choosing an acid-green sweet. The fact is that there is little more for him to say or do. Darren accepts the gesture with good grace. Mr Hickey?’ ‘I can only enlarge in this way. The Tswana translator switches the OHP off. The Sports News. Everyone knows this. they were transmitting live at the time. Simply by running its course the Inquiry has. as it turns out. It was the overhead pictures told the crowd the game must stop. He feels a little light-headed. Since last night ample reason has developed to let him off the hook. created its own truth-making momentum.’ On the fourth and last day of his hearing Darren Hickey asks. The judges sit with their heads bowed studying their fingernails as if in discreet sympathy. Sports News counted seventeen minutes from us showing the first pictures to when the worst of the crush disappeared.
dead. squashed up against the side of his co-visitor.gas aTTack diligently been channeling. This story has a beginning – an overfull stadium. a weeping grandfather. They are clustered behind a plastic table drinking mugs of tea and Darren Hickey’s arm is braced across the wizened shoulders of another ‘victim relative’. He has been transformed into one of those points of light. Darren sips his water trying not to make slurping 125 . Her tears run like glycerine down her cheeks. but this was more than compensated for by the quick reaction and compassion of the manager who embodied responsibility on the night. he’s become a national hero. On day one he was a household face: now. the government representative Mr Gavin Lekalake. This is the repeated emphasis. Though disciplined. and unsteady spectator stand – and an end – thirty-four. even the president has said in an official statement. the security they drafted in was by all accounts at once too heavyhanded and yet slow to manoeuvre. the incredible odds. Between the beginning and the end are certain lows and certain points of light. He the SEO and his management team did their best against incredible odds. who himself is cheek-by-jowl with the team managers. the television morning news has nominated Darren Hickey their leading man of the stadium disaster rescue. a mere thirty-four. Here Darren Hickey is holding a mother’s moist hand. grasping one another in terror. On this last day of his testifying. were crushed dead by the crowd. Here he is again. It began with the pictures in the papers. The Monday papers repeated more or less the images on the Sunday front pages.likE in a TEar. The man’s two grandsons.
news last night gave its official stamp to the story and called his action a stroke of genius. he called his kids’ headmaster as a precautionary measure. saying. who had saved the day. He it was. The cameras’ scrutiny remains relentless. Let’s keep in mind it will be a difficult time for the kids. Thirty-four. and of these twenty were exposed to the crowds on screen. Jared.’ ‘The one what?’ ‘The one who single-handedly managed to bring the crowd under control.m. this ordinary white guy with his caring style and boyish grin found a way of bringing the stadium stampede under control and so of saving the hundreds of lives. But by Tuesday afternoon his eldest. a relatively inexperienced manager. the whole show would be live. compromising details would be laid bare. When you showed the victims on the big screen people were frightened like rabbits into keeping the peace. He was due to be in the witness stand probably four. but with their faces decently covered. 126 . Only late last week. He was making an appeal to the principle of common decency. once a hospital orderly. Inadequacies as regards security planning have been cast into the shadows. Against incredible odds.’ It’s his own straight-from-the-heart self-defence and everyone has bought it. Even the 8. had come home. He asked please to make sure no TVs were on in their school buildings for the duration of the hearing. five days. a relatively small number. Dad? I heard in school you were the one.00 p.EllEkE BoEhmEr sounds. he thinks back. Bloody. ‘Was it you. the papers say. had died. in danger of being crushed by masses on the run.
and those are my clothes. The cameras still turn to him. It’s unlikely that anything they reveal has the power to touch him now. One of the court stewards piercingly whispers the word testimony into the face of the Panther First Response chief. For the rest. and he remembers maybe one. Even what he’s been testifying to here does not run 127 . Showing incredible presence of mind in a hellish situation. estimating that the easier pace of the trial will permit the extra time. too. no more. He remembers a smell of burnt pap in one of the houses. he ordered. whose hand? so slippery wet he thought a dog’s muzzle was pressed into his palm. but search me. Mr Hickey moreover used an image sadly familiar to all our people to transmit his orders.likE in a TEar. probe the meaning of his bowed head. Darren Hickey drinks the last of his water. I have no exact memory. though. and there was the hand. These pictures in the papers of the sympathy visits to the bereaved. two individual faces. they search his features.gas aTTack so Mr Hickey had ordered. like torn film his memory is all in pieces. are somehow beyond him. one calculated to act as a spur straight out of history. They visited nearly twenty homes. Is that me? They of course say it’s me. He surmises that he himself must by now be almost in the clear. but he notices this in passing. He’s watched the visits on TV and catches himself thinking. although he was present on each and every occassion. Cover the faces with their shirts. He rests his forehead against his fists. like for a tear-gas attack. A lot about what’s happened is difficult to get a grip on. thinking on his feet.
This invisibility is suddenly unsettling to him. yes. extreme terror. He’d swear to the memory but it’s one that others. the Bristol Kings captain rubbed at bloodshot eyes. close to the gates. that nowhere does he see any sign of the Panther First Response Force. Why are they not more in evidence keeping order? There are some eye-witness reports of Panther beatings. He forces himself to think back. to see the distant blue flicker of the ambulances. The two key moments – the one up in the controls room. They’ve rerun the footage here at the hearing. but only in the exit areas. But if so. He looks up and catches himself on screen.EllEkE BoEhmEr smoothly. have disputed. His eyes. he remembers from his hospital work. foreshortened. at that blood stain blotting his magnified shirt. catapulting sideways. to see again the bodies at his feet. It bothers him that so many people were crying. There are gaps. He keeps seeing himself on screen. He’s looking across the floodlit field and he’s looking up at the screens. things that don’t fit or follow. He was suspended in the air. Why are they not more around? On none of the 128 . but terror isn’t usually tearful. what else has escaped him? The football players were weeping. probably with panic and tears. now that he no longer has his own role here to worry about. The ball was never close enough to the goals to warrant such an action. must have been blurred. fogged over. Darren can still see it clearly. There was stress. torn-off bits. he is forced to gather. At one and the same instant he’s aloft and on the ground. certainly. The Western Raiders goal-keeper dived for the ball. It occurs to him. the one down on the pitch – increasingly when he thinks back the images merge. and there is no such save. conversely.
their shirts shining whitely and their faces covered. is there so much as a helmet or a single camouflage uniform in sight. The bodies projected overhead are brilliantly illuminated. maybe he. ‘Once we saw through glass darkly. neither of the pitch nor of the stands. Cover them. ‘We saw very darkly. and he is stumbling about like a drunk.’ he shouts. It is the summing up of his testimony and he is once again sobbing. It’s an over-the-top expression even considering the cameras present. ‘I said. The stadium – Darren sees in his mind’s eye. protect them.gas aTTack footage they have watched. sitting down – is drenched in radiant light.likE in a TEar. He repeats it again now.’ The judge now gives a level stare as Darren resumes his place. he now thinks. The football players stumbling about dazed have pulled their own shirts over their mouths.’ Judge Magubane’s words come back to Darren Hickey as he walks to the witness stand. ‘Cover their faces. his eyes dim with weeping. Though he cannot put a name to it he feels a vast weight of sorrow gripping his heart. Maybe his own mouth is covered. is choking. cover their faces and turn the cameras on to them. But this hearing will shed light. The Panther Chief grins hugely.’ 129 . His ears are ringing with noise. pressing hard against his eyes. too. like in a tear-gas attack.
as she and Eunice approach. It’s not always this way.park The writer Simone Hawley and her helper Eunice Masemola cross the street at the stop sign. even say hello. with her bony forearm pressed into the helper’s smooth. The fallen deodar needles are silky underfoot.walk. the people out and about at this late afternoon hour step aside as the two of them approach. A few people. whatever the size of the pets.the. Almost as if the two of them were royalty.Her. the dog-walkers pull the leads short and stand to the side of the path. The stop sign has the word Danger graffitied across it in black. the bolder ones. her modest and better self. But most of the dog-walkers stare curiously for a second or two. They are dog-walkers.in. 130 . But. excitable dogs. then drop their eyes. by and large. accompanying what seem to be on this occasion mainly middle-sized. Simone notices that she is leaning heavily on Eunice tonight. The eveningtime dog population of the park can be more varied than this. As usual. in spite of herself. even panting a little. rounded flesh. she can’t help making the connection. nod and smile. turn left under the tall deodar trees and enter the park at the side gate. as usual. as if to attention.
an unofficial but worldwide club renowned for its gauging of the spirit of the age – the late Cold War. if. Eunice takes the lead up the rising path through the azalea shrubbery. as showy. were. the comparison came to mind. European monarchy included. she hopes. not our character. free country of ours. tribal practices. but she likes also to seem composed. as an assured but not presumptuous member. She has had little truck ever with the continuing existence of hereditary chiefs. There’s nothing so repellent in a writer. is her trademark demeanor. it is her skill at such assessments and prognostications that long ago smoothed her acceptance into the club. Assured yet not self-assuming: this. they.hEr Walk in ThE park In this democratic. feudal tosh. royalty. Nine-Eleven. they walk in the direction of the elevated rose garden. a thicket in the true sense of the word. at times even fierce. a writer should reflect on the world through the clear pane of glass of her writing. not attention-seeking. all that traditional. Beyond the shrubbery. it is of course a nonsensical exaggeration. That’s in the end all that will remain. our vision as writers. She can be steely. of a select circle of acclaimed writers and intellectuals. Simone Hawley thinks to herself. the implosion of apartheid. their evening’s destination. Indeed. As time has run on. She claims legitimate membership. after all. With a gentle pressure to the back of Simone’s elbow. she thinks. unclouded by character. that as. Simone notices that the shrubbery is densely overgrown. she feels. she has watched as now these and now those of her 131 . Still. For her. the End of the Century. she’s told. not showy. her arm pressed down on to Eunice’s arm.
though she doesn’t begrudge it them. We can’t imagine facing our responsibilities without you. in Kolkata. Our eyes are so fixedly fastened on the future. The intense involvement that is implied by those words. all these years. at the state gatherings to which she is so often. she sighs. And so. hooked to this most unpredictable and changeable carriage of all. the clarity of their eye in troubled or deluded times. they have made of her a modern chief. Her lucid testimony. her frank talk. Buenos Aires. in this place. too often. the embodied vision that is their books. not at all – it drags on her at times like some ball and chain. We are so earnestly in quest of fresh inspiration. a short story perhaps. if not her ongoing existence itself. Constantly she is told this. invited. were it not for their books. they have given her people an approach to the future. a review of a friend’s book – the legacy of her work. you speak for us. like the illuminated cage of bones in a Röntgen image. if she knows anything. That though she writes little nowadays. It means people look beyond her work to the symbol they want to find in her. in New York. What did that young Indian student. mean everything to her dear country. you are necessary to us. Berlin. the one who most recently interviewed her. 132 . She has watched how all have become in a very short time as if they never had existed. she knows this: the importance of what her writing has represented here. at the readings she still gives. call it? ‘Your virtually censurable and yet laudable complicity with our state’. ready-made.EllEkE BoEhmEr fellow worldwide-club members have dwindled and died off. lost to the world’s memory.
on the promontory of her great age. those who can still dye and acquire false tans and show them off without its looking grotesque. if not in fact super-young. didn’t they look askance and pause as they drew level? She has always liked to talk to people. She’d like to ask Eunice about the flat in Randburg she says she 133 . in an attempt to slow Eunice down. On their evening walks here in the park she tries to catch the eye of the young-old people about her. nod. Eunice after all is young. the young seem to have been in retreat even though their numbers are steadily swelling. especially to the young. The twenty-something couple she and Eunice just passed. poised on top of the world. She regrets that her rising seniority now introduces a sense of separation. She regrets that her reputation throws what she imagines as a no-fly zone. incline a chin. once so battened on to the past. She was hardly a teenager at the time that this country. How else to translate the secrets of humanity into her work? Lately. sanitaire. notice her as she passes. still primed for flight. But the leap from a polite greeting to a brief conversation is a tricky business. She remembers very well being fifty. at least from where she stands.hEr Walk in ThE park A reason for regret. one that would interrupt Eunice’s walking rhythm. though whether in them or in herself she can’t precisely tell. The young now comprise everyone under fifty. Now and again. around her person. a cordon. came to look to the future. which is to say. She searches for the gaze of those bold few who pause a minute. Simone tries to draw her into conversation. the regular padpad-pad of her sensible white nurse’s shoes. though. fully in command of her capabilities.
very spruce. play parasite on your thoughts. It has been her job. there is good weather outdoors. who works in the University administration.EllEkE BoEhmEr shares with her husband – she assumes he must be her husband. To take the evening air. a close-to retired novelist – is that possible. where her husband. hasn’t it. the. Her kitchen is small and square but functional. An archaic phrase from a distant northern world. none of those words do the job – what do they get up to when they’re not at work? What do they do at the weekend. Simone thinks. her fellow. boyfriend – no. that she would not be able to get away with in her fiction. There is even a small balcony. and. she has said. unless you are vigilant. a retired novelist? a nearly retired novelist? – could explore in conversation with Eunice. She’d like to talk to Eunice about what she and her husband. air . and there is a good-sized living room and a bedroom almost as large. likes to sit in the evenings.evening. with azaleas in flowerpots. of which she is proud. Take. Eunice has not corrected her when she has said husband. She imagines the flat to be spick and span because Eunice is tidy. Such tags and refrains lie embedded in the cultural nervous tissue of people as old as herself. and because she has from time to time made remarks about the flat’s interior. to accomplish the sympathetic leap into the heart of another? To imagine their veiled lives? But Eunice never says what she gets up to after134 . A phrase like. watch TV? There are so many possibilities that she as a novelist. for example? Would they perhaps take a drive and go to the mall? Read together on the sofa.
But Eunice shows no sign of heeding the pressure. even when asked. though now doing so little by way of real work. She might like to pause and sit down on the slatted bench here and encourage Eunice to go on alone up the slope to the topmost rose-beds. Eunice may not like to stop and chat while working. veiled lives. And so Simone doesn’t push her case too hard. if she is honest. a brisk walk a day. and this is as plausible. So there it is. A brisk walk a day reduces the water retention that causes swollen ankles and stiff knees in the elderly. Her mouth is pursed into a navel-like knot of concentration as they walk. much as they might agree in the same breath 135 . It is necessary exercise for Madam. she is signaling. If it weren’t for Eunice. She knows how dependent she is on Eunice not only for her ongoing existence as a national symbol. She could do with taking a break to catch her breath. Simone can already spot the rich red blooms that are out at this time of year – Eunice is deadly serious about her home-carer work. Then again. It is Eunice’s job to produce these positive results. This is no mere stroll in the park. Walking here in the park – almost at the elevated rose garden now. she is exerting a peaceful form of protest by slowing her feet and leaning down harder on Eunice’s arm.hEr Walk in ThE park hours. Simone. Even now. She brushes away the question. she. She cares not a toffee for imaginative vision. might like to protest a little at this point in their journey. the symbolic existence. but simply for the boon of leading her life in her own house. If Eunice weren’t so unbudging. Maybe she doesn’t want to let on that her life is as ordinary as the next person’s. people might advise her to think about a frailcare centre.
planted with a scrawny type of rose bush. but you never knew …. It very much looks like he has stood here a while waiting for them to approach. with this place as their destination. by some kind gesture of the gods. And he is a dog-walker. he has an open. good for game as well as for terrorists. Rhodesian ridgeback. would you? It would be a matter for public regret. this youngish man with the unambiguous grey at his temples. Surely names like that haven’t stuck. a place in the world of household pets once the jobs have died out for which they were bred? ‘Simone. too. she’s lost the knack of identifying dogs. Simone Hawley. hunting dogs. ‘Nick Hanson. I’d hoped to catch you here. You wouldn’t want a national symbol falling and breaking an arm due to a small domestic accident. Around him weave two dogs on leads. as if they have been on first name terms for years. They have reached the beds at the top of the incline. these dogs used to be called. One of the few emboldened. Is there still a role for these creatures. I’m often out at 136 . or so Simone thinks. It looks like he knows from prior observation that this is one of the paths they choose on their evening walk. and his eyes seek out hers. stunted as bonsai trees. boyish face. and here. stands a young-old man who looks positively keen to say an outright hello. and a blonde retriever with a raised pattern on its back.EllEkE BoEhmEr that the decision would be premature. Eunice draws to a halt. What would they be called now? she wonders.’ the young man says. how he stands there staring down at them with his arms folded. a terrier mix. It is the way his feet straddle the path. Jocks of the Bushveld. semi-smiling.
that his beauty perhaps once masked. any number of contexts and possible lecture theatres. not unkindly. you won’t remember me. The dogs’ jumping at the end of their leads has the effect of drawing the two of them.’ He has the dogs’ leads bunched in his left hand and drags the animals to one side. I was a mere hanger-on. His own eyes. but. Pleased to meet you. audiences … 137 . took you out afterwards for a drink.hEr Walk in ThE park this time of day walking these two pooches. away from her. and is checking his memory against the real thing. though there may now be a vacancy in the eyes. closer together. Simone and the youngish man. a thriftiness that has as its inevitable consequence the merging of one’s memories of different days. The first time we met was thirty years ago. ‘Mrs Hawley. begin their kneading. when you gave the Academic Freedom lecture down at the University. Then he offers her his right hand and she takes it. though remaining within earshot. the organisers and hangers-on. That’s why I thought I might introduce myself. are preoccupied with her features. well … I remember you very clearly. décors. a long time. She can’t be the first busy speaker on the international circuit to recycle her material from one place to another. A few of us. a habit she has acquired. a distraction. as if he has them by heart. a pleasantenough boy-man face that the years have padded and reddened about the jowls. Eunice walks a few paces down the path. She follows the contours of his face.’ But the lecture he is conjuring takes her back to several possible university venues. she sees. in sharp focus now. Her fingers move to her temples. they nod.
the hotel. she said that your novel Damocles. it was too hectic for her taste. towards Midrand. though reluctantly. ‘Let’s see. You bridled at the question.’ ‘I bridled? Surely not. with a country-style interior.’ 138 . she plunged in. full of opinions. We drove to a hotel on the outskirts of town. yes. if I can put it that crudely. what made us tick. I was sitting next to her. this you may remember. politically and in other ways. though full of talk. she’s made a university career for herself now. a crackling fire. there was one of them down here at the University. something has come back to mind. how we were personally dealing with that process—’ The man corrects his balance as the ridgeback pulls hard on her lead. the drink. but at the time was a hanger-on herself. this may bring the event back. Something of the Freedom talk. abroad. But this woman. No one else had so much as mentioned your work. This woman asked you a question. too directed to a certain meaning. And then.’ Simone feels herself smiling. she wanted to talk about your work. there was a woman present. she remembers a quiet appreciative audience … But she still gets no clear memory of the conversation he’s recalling. but his eyes do not leave Simone’s face. and you were interested in hearing about the ways in which the university was creating wider access. He seems to pick up something of her discomfiture. the woman didn’t want to talk about student politics. obviously. sitting down in a circle of students … ‘Well. I’m sure we were afraid to. too driven. It was the bad old days.EllEkE BoEhmEr ‘You said at the time you wanted to talk with us’ – he is still speaking – ‘You wanted to find out what we were up to.
and more reconciled too. he seems to be asking for a put-down from her. once partially glimpsed. Whatever it was.’ ‘You may have said my. I have never set out to write diatribes.’ Simone glances over at Eunice and catches her suddenly watchful eye. girl?’ She takes the opportunity of the nurse’s steady approach to try to lift the heavy weather he has so far been making of the conversation. ‘I said my. the woman felt incredibly deflated. I do not write tracts.girl? She was hardly a girl. she thinks. We writers. some fantasy of mutual understanding. ‘My.”’ Suddenly Simone isn’t sure where he is taking the conversation. a man with a personal case to make before history? If so.” you said. perhaps it is some sort of recognition he is seeking.’ ‘That is more or less what you said then. What does the man want from her? Is he poking fun? Or is he one of those hard-bitten people seeking retrospective justifications. but also remorseful.’ the man takes his turn to smile. You dismissed her questions. His dogs jerk him from the perpendicular a second time and his smile momentarily elongates in the air like the Cheshire Cat’s. dear. Although we’re so much older and wiser now. She 139 . ‘You were very sharp with her. I am not programmatic.hEr Walk in ThE park ‘And I can almost feel myself bridling yet again at the remark. now to be confirmed? She gives Eunice a nod. OK to come back now. we attract these types wherever we go. she sighs to herself. Then again. “you have misunderstood my work entirely. ‘At risk of repeating what I may have said then. we jurors of time. Mr Hanson. I have avoided tracts. it looks like for the second time in his life. “My girl.
a political biographer who returns to the country from time to time for her research. closed down. For years she thought about writing to you. She tries to bring the Harvard professor’s face to mind from the photographs she has seen on lecture posters but fails. the girl’s so-called admiration can’t have lasted. but again she can’t recompose the scene. She makes a small tug away from Eunice. against a country hotel backdrop. The impulse behind the young man’s abrupt intervention requires more scrutiny. But no. you may be interested to hear. The biographer has never to Simone’s knowledge written a word about her work. She finds women of letters especially of that interregnum period incredibly narrow still. yes. Then she tries to place this same blank face in the vicinity of a crackling fire. hanger-on was the right word. thank goodness. though perhaps she demanded too much of it. The pressure on her wrist asks if she is all right to go. that rings a bell. also shrill. She’s a professor of history at Harvard now. up front. Simone has heard of this person on the grapevine. to explain herself. I imagine. But she. without something more being at stake. In any case. a third-rate politico. who traded up as a woman of letters. she suddenly decides. but also to say how she felt.’ Ah. however keen the public figure might appear to be for contact. No one stops a public figure in a public spot like this. Eunice. has not paid much attention.EllEkE BoEhmEr admired your work. as they all do. 140 . Simone. undaring. has her warm hand cupping her elbow now and is eyeballing her conversant. wait. Simone is not yet quite ready to leave. though distantly.
In my experience young people are more than capable of standing up for themselves in debate.’ ‘Yes. though I’ll admit it’s still the only one of your works I’ve read. I changed the subject. friend. ‘At the time we wouldn’t have said girlfriend.’ the man drops his eyes. I asked whether existentialist views of living in the moment were at all meaningful to you in your work.hEr Walk in ThE park A kind of scribble pattern.’ ‘And you’re still interested in her in some way. do you still know her?’ ‘Not really. I hear of her on the internet. And I withheld myself from unleashing more ire in your direction?’ ‘You did. girlfriend. This woman. drops into her head.’ she asks. thank goodness. You were incredibly kind in giving us the time of day in the first place. But I remain intrigued. For them. He fiddles with their intertwined leads. too.’ ‘My. In the way people do now. You were grown-up enough. a scratchy confusion of thoughts. yes.’ ‘And then I said my. The girl knew she would be OK when she opened her mouth and spoke to me. I had read Damocles. I’d have been kind if that had been different. your girl.’ ‘Not kind. ‘This woman. ‘she was your girlfriend?’ ‘Lover. fearing that this might be like a red rag to a bull. am I right in thinking that?’ His dogs wheel about him. And I. It seems neither of you was unable to defend yourself.girl to her. it’s time to go home. not in any real way. uses 141 . He doesn’t like to be specific. stepped in the way of the ire I felt on both sides.
when they swoop in to seek worms around the muddy edges of the reed pond.’ he says stiffly. Well.’ she continues. for pitching into a conversation without forethought.’ she persists. I rather wanted to set the record straight. I can’t even remember the incident you’ve described. however retired she may be. Every evening she is glad if they are still in the park when the strong purple wings come beating overhead. ‘To explain.’ she says. In truth. and can hear the fretfulness in her own voice. Simone loves this moment. resenting you for brushing her off. at all times of day. ‘To explain. but they are especially loud in the evenings. to what end is that? All that past is gone. I resist that. you wanted to explain. yet also feeling guilty about her rudeness. ‘And there’s another thing.’ Eunice leads her back on to the path and turns her gently in a downhill direction. the hadedas are cawing. It was no reason to find fault with 142 . you still like to talk about her. Hadedas are usually audible here. following the erratic movements of the dogs.EllEkE BoEhmEr the distraction to sidestep the question. ‘You say your girlfriend demanded more from my work than it could give her. so many years on? You stand here in the park thinking about her?’ ‘That’s not why I stopped you today. on her behalf mainly. though it was so long ago. though she is no longer facing him. ‘whose questions I so rudely brushed to one side. but on mine also. I wanted to explain that she had felt awful. ‘This Harvard professor. no. During the conversation they’d imperceptibly shifted from the path on to the grass.’ Now that the light has begun to fade. But the sidestep is a prime goad for a writer. ‘It wasn’t just to talk about her.
Even at the time. Eunice witnessed the conversation.hEr Walk in ThE park my writing. or was the burden he wished to hand over as small and superficial as it seemed? It’s difficult to tell.’ she remarks to Eunice. would want to 143 . They move off. she remembers her earlier analogy. ‘That was something. I stood with you.’ She pulls on Eunice’s arm. My work pays back amply the attention it is given. It’s unlikely there will be another occasion to question him. Simone once again wishes that it were possible to press her a little.’ From the corner of her eye she catches how he attempts one of the lop-sided rakish grins with which he must have worked on women’s feelings in the past. no doubt. and again feels not the tiniest twinge of guilt at the comparison. She hears the man quietly talking to his dogs. She’d like to hear her opinion. She has said the only words she was intending to say. the first words she has spoken since they passed through the park gates.’ says Eunice mildly. even if they ever again meet on her walk in the park. that however he decided to hold back. Like the Queen of England when excusing herself from a room. ‘I can only agree with you. Who on facing a second rebuff thirty years after the first. ‘Please. ‘though I don’t quite know what kind of something. she wants to ask.’ he says. ‘Time for your supper.’ Eunice’s profile is closed. Did that youngish man have a lot to tell. She inclines her head slightly. those of the earnest Harvard-bound scholar included.
the 144 . she who had wanted conversation. And then. So the girl embarked for the world. Simone surmises. walking by himself. how it stung. If the girl – ambitious but also gauche. She sees the two of them grabbing hold of one another more determinedly than before. so she imagines it. felt on behalf of a girlfriend.EllEkE BoEhmEr risk a further overture. It was a curious interlude. Simone. not an awkward aspirant writer and her mate. the driven and hectic girl probably. She set her face against the provinces. unworldly – had been circumspect at first. some fading spark. and then it became too much for one of them. If she. of a comedy of manners at least. a story grown like scar tissue over a long-remembered moment of insult. now she embraced the boy-man who had stood up for her. pacing steadily beside Eunice. The boy had always been more attractive to her when he was on his own. How she must have cut the two of them! She can only imagine the hurt. perhaps later that evening. she might sit down tonight to record in her notebook what transpired this evening. a third attempt? And yet. articulate activists. Her goofish social fumbling finding a fit around his wary yet hungry heart. the famous writer’s sharpness. than attached to her. but with dedicated. Simone thinks to herself. of a kind of intellectual romance at best. Thereafter. there was interest in it. A story of a three-decade attachment. they turned to each other with a newly charged mutual longing. though possibly shared. were in a younger phase of life. a thirty-year-old memory of a time by a fireside. to build the jottings eventually into a story. and yet. hell-bent on improving herself.
that was something. she will not be able to grab hold of its meaning. moved from one job to another. she would need to find out more. who is smiling ever so slightly. not now. less shrill. more about the girl. a new girlfriend perhaps.’ Eunice says. and. We can think about supper. She glances over at Eunice. the girl. to get it right. she will not get round to writing it. He lost his puppy-like prettiness. Simone knows. acquired a few pets. For your supper I’m making you potted shrimps with butter.’ 145 . The boy-man managed for many years on his own. and. without writing it. imagine things in closer detail.hEr Walk in ThE park scene of crackling country-style fires and embarrassing conversations with world writers. Eunice. was that something?’ ‘Yes. Mrs Hawley. less arresting. and the two of them fell away from one another. Simone imagines. and a nice sherry to end. a cottage in someone’s garden. a small home. the young woman. and toast. We can forget about it. ‘But it’s over now. But. none of them sufficiently demanding of his faculties. no matter. ‘So what do you say. she will not get to the bottom of it. though occasionally he liked to talk about her. he resolved never … It would be a challenging story to write.
I was laying a fresh sheet. smoothing it down. Tuesdays and Thursdays. which he gauged before he set out. It was at the end of his hour. in spite of the stuffed velvet draught-catcher I had lying there. and there it’s recorded that for two years he was a regular Thursday man till this January. to the side of the block of holiday flats next door. It’s possible to see the road from the bathroom window of the agency flat. when Tuesdays were added. 146 . I keep an appointments diary. and he was doing up his tie with blind fingers. and it was blowing up a gale. a rain-storm. I remember when the change came.00 p. even slow traffic on Beach Road. exclusively initials and times of day. as I always did. I could tell he was dawdling. The wind was whistling under the front door. a sliver of it. any kind of unusual weather.m. instead of the Thursday only. the 2. without looking in the mirror. after every one of the clients.Sharmilla i saw tHat sOmetHing had got to him when he began coming more often. ‘Could I come Tuesday next week?’ He flung a length of his tie over his shoulder. slot on a Thursday. as he generally did at the least excuse.
right now. a few days after he disappeared. I’d like to see you on Thursday. an image in a shrine. he was not ordinary. I could feel that. For some months already. I’m a professional woman. I knew he liked to watch my every movement. measured to some mysterious standard no ordinary woman could maintain and. It killed me. every shift in expression. Straightaway. Attachments are trouble. had been worrying me. velcroed to my body in this way. but today his eyes freaked me out. this was the main area of my worry. worst of all. he was looking at me as if I was an idol.addition. I provide a service for my clients. then. but then also on a Tuesday. This was the first thing I told the two policemen when they came round to ask about him as a Missing Person. I was on my guard. He had an empty place inside him that no amount of my addition could ever begin to fill. It told me that no matter how hard he kneaded my breasts or sucked at my nipples. It told me what I had for a while suspected.’ That in. ‘Thursdays not good for you any more?’ ‘No. In addition. like any ordinary man. I didn’t like my clients to make attachments. But I didn’t let my feeling show.sharmilla An instant before his eyes had been fixed on my face but now he flicked his gaze away. It was not a comfortable sensation. matching up to some dreamwoman in his head. It’s a rule of this game: no attachments. ‘You’d like a new time?’ I said. I felt I was being tested. as before. I felt I was somehow meeting that standard. his attentions. In our dealings it’s not for me to lay bare my emotions or 147 . I said.
his destination unknown. From what the policemen said it looked like he. He had left food rotting in his fridge and unpaid bills on the doormat of his flat.EllEkE BoEhmEr express any kind of opinion concerning their interests or requests. set in code just the same as mine. it turned out. He had kept his own appointments diary. first name and surname. They shouldn’t have known about me in connection with Mr Charles. but for Sea Point. or I refuse to provide. Mr Charles. I was on edge. When I opened to their ring the shock nearly bowled me over. They can go elsewhere if they choose. No. He hadn’t told a soul of his going. Either I provide what they ask for. The thing was. where the Discreet Escort Agency has the flat. even more so. The police were helped in their investigations by a giveaway link. And this was without my having refused my services at any point except maybe that once. had gone well and truly elsewhere. they’d like my help with just one or two questions. There’d been a receipt for petrol bought from the Engen station on the corner of Bellevue and Kloof Road tucked 148 . He had left the country without trace. In each Thursday slot and lately also on Tuesdays he’d entered an SP entry. They shouldn’t have had down my real name either. standing not for my name the police assumed (he knew me only as Sharmilla). but they did. With the policemen I was as much on my guard as with my clients. and accurately spelt. Even after they’d reassured me and said they didn’t want to bother me. It was as if he had locked the door of his life and thrown away the key. they shouldn’t have known how to find me. which turned out not to be his name.
neither too big nor too narrow. They both wore wedding rings. Was there anything in Mr Charles’s manner that had changed of late? the policemen asked in ten different ways. the place where the client generally sits. The agency flat faces north. nice modest gold bands. and neither of them betrayed by word 149 . I do not have a sea view. I thought to myself. I was thinking all that time how I could have been doing something more worthwhile. without a backward glance? I shoved my arse up against the plumped cushion for a bit of lower-back support. I could have been treating my ten-yearold son to a hamburger at the new Aberdeen Angus Steakhouse on the sea front. I miss not having sight of the sea despite being close to it. I could have been taking my mother on a long-overdue shopping trip. going at them again and again. but they put their questions in so many ways. Monday early to Friday late he stays at boarding school – the school whose bills I work all week round here between these four walls to pay. Sitting there in the small armchair with its plumped cushion. planted across the coffee table from me in the flat’s tidy front-room.sharmilla into the page for the last day he had visited me. that it frustrated me. They seemed decent men. They wanted to ask just one or two questions. they had tracked me down. God knows how. From that. Something that might explain why he’d want to leave the country at what looked like a moment’s notice. they said. so though during a gale I can hear the high waves roaring and moaning. these police. I also desperately miss my child. for nearly an hour.
not to say their money also. and that applies to the provider. and to a great extent that’s true. yes. yes. We stand the chairs in their places. 150 . His manner generally was uptight but now. He was quieter and at the same time somehow more uptight. it was as if something was getting to Mr Charles. ah. fantasies. the shorter one who did the talking. My clients – I now told the policemen – may appear to you as mad-keen on coming here to lay bare their souls. looked him in the eye and replied that lately. Nirmeen and I – Nirmeen the girl who works here on weekends – we make sure to keep the flat looking decent and proper and the cushions plumped. I drew breath. Had Mr Charles at any point been different with me? the policeman. I supposed so. lives. which doesn’t suit a grown man. To myself I privately added. asked again. like nursing baby. if I can put it like that. there was also the thing about how he was more into me. their. ever since he’d asked for the extra day. at the end of every second session. bodies and their souls. We sweeten the clean linen in the linen cupboard with lavender sachets. But throughout the transactions I carry out we keep something held back. We keep a good pile of clean folded towels on the pinewood rack in the bathroom. We even scrub the toilet and the bidet ourselves. but in a butting wordless way. their feet lined up exactly to the dents in the carpet. They may seem ready to put their reputations. he was even more watchful than before. into my high-class hands.EllEkE BoEhmEr or deed their awareness of what kind of place they were visiting. Then again. something veiled and obscure.
the veiled areas inside my clients hook on to things to do with their race. a performance of interest and emotion. who wouldn’t? Especially the men who seem quite open and unguarded in front of me. suspect the personality he puts on display with me is close to how he is at home. For the fact of the matter is. so many years on from when it changed. even now.) This still takes me by surprise. did I just spy their real selves. And I ask myself. every 151 . I don’t share it with the policemen. but. and that’s as it should be. as if they were by themselves in the toilet – the kind who dig their fingers in their ears and inspect what they extract. When such things happen I occasionally catch in a mirror or out of the corner of my eye their darting glance at me. like some sort of mother. what does she know? She knows virtually nothing of their lives. Of course I speculate sometimes about the clients. me. I have no way of telling. or whether it’s all an act. right down to the final moment in the bed? Is it all an elaborate dance of the seven veils? This being the country it is. or bend and stagger like boys to pull on their socks. (Obviously I keep this bit to myself. She has no way of telling whether Mr Charles puts his real self in play when he is here in the comforting safety of the flat.sharmilla that is. to check if I have caught them drop their guard. as well as to the client. The escort holds something back: it’s the golden rule. She can’t begin to worry if clients like Mr Charles seem to be bothered and distracted. She cannot give more of herself than the job calls for. or is this activity they’re involved in behind the flat’s locked door a private pantomime. Sharmilla. I. truly.
here again I can talk (but to myself). The mess they make is not a worry.m. 152 . talcum powder even. sister. as if we were the lengths of kelp that wash about at low tide in Bakoven Bay. One. we slide about helplessly. sisi. The ones I’ve treated have liked creams and gels. stroke him nice. when I lower myself on to them. for example – and I can say this because of who I am – the Indian guys like being pampered and seduced. he lay on the bed with pink pools of Johnson’s Baby Lotion lying like marshmallows in his upturned palms. till. They can’t hold back on fun. if it wasn’t for you. Ask any escort and they will confirm it. In the privacy of the Discreet Escort Agency flat. smelly rubbing lotions. Laundry service comes every day at 5 p. making silly remarks at their own expense: I’d never get this one to stand to attention.EllEkE BoEhmEr time I notice it. to pick up whatever needs cleansing. You could say the guys wear their race like a set of readymade costumes plucked from a dressup box. The sheets I change. it bubbles from them as they tune me this and that. behind the windows misted with sea damp – misted with the sea’s breath I like to think – they act out the roles that they wouldn’t be seen dead carrying out in the real world. The Coloured clients though as few and far between as the black men. Some of the Indian guys. Stroke the boss. well. but it’s true. due to the slim wallets of both – these guys are always ready for a laugh. They ask to be massaged and creamed with the lotions. And then he invited me to scoop up the stuff and trickle it on to his matted old chest and hairy legs. As for the Coloured guys.
a barely-there but 153 . but by now these were lying in small heaps polka-dotting the beige carpet. straightforward. Even the occasional black American man’s gentlemanly politeness is a front. role-play Nirmeen calls it (and she has a UCT Arts degree). Something inside him seemed to be struggling to break free. that Mr Charles asked me. There was the job and then goodbye. as he put it. just like the Indian mens’ oriental pampering business is also role-play. held back. something they get into like a costume. Because when the time comes. the one time they can’t hold back on and can’t act out. all very formal. From this I realized that the white clients’ stiff-necked politeness was an act too. is it? You seem to be an educated person. ‘It’s all off.’ But he wasn’t listening. one of his first Tuesdays. a nylon-silk dressing gown and the standard black lingerie. it isn’t really you.sharmilla But it’s all a front. I’d been wearing my usual get-up. Mr Charles. or so I suspect. ‘to take everything off ’.’ he said.’ His face had turned very red and he was breathing audibly. my uniform you could say.’ I assured him nonsensically. it was a veil. without drama. Until the day. without jokes. Their ordinary and everyday look. ‘this job as escort. I thought in my ignorance that the white guys alone played it straight. a refined person. I want to get to know the person you are. I’m interested in the person you really are. For a long time. He became insistent and his top lip grew sweaty. ‘I’ve taken it all off. until Mr Charles in fact. ‘Your job. Please. the theatricals disappear like smoke.
The moment the front door clicked that day I should’ve put a call through. Everything was available to him. Something was going on with him. The following two Thursdays and the intervening Tuesday Mr Charles went through the motions. There hadn’t been the whisper of a possibility of sex. in the last five or so minutes. I said to the policemen. as long as my son has been at boarding school. you’ve got to start worrying. He was 154 . Clients are like dogs. He had paid in advance. at no point. I’ve been at this game a while. Mr Charles had spent nearly an hour stroking me and asking me to reveal myself when I was already lying there naked before him. That Tuesday was a wasted time. the time was up. and I like to carry it out properly. even at the end. There had been no desire in him.EllEkE BoEhmEr tangible veil. I said to myself the second the front door clicked behind him. The suspicions initially raised by the extra request for Tuesdays intensified. as he increased the pressure of his hand on my legs. This I told the police also. and worth telling the boss. for me as well as for him. it was one of those first Tuesdays when it became clear that some issue or vexation was getting to Mr Charles. But he seemed to leave happy. And then. and that was my only mistake. When their behaviour changes for no apparent reason. Yes. After that wasted hour his fixed smile had unsettled me more than if he had been downcast. However I didn’t register anything with the agency till some weeks later. that they had to work hard to keep on. a small smile playing on his face. I could tell that whatever was amiss with Mr Charles was ongoing and mounting.
That next afternoon he was as stiff and formal as always. I had to admit it. grabbed my child’s hand tight and headed for the car park.sharmilla as correct and polite as ever. in the reflection of the shop windows. I hated to think he had seen me with my son. But something about his skulking look stopped me. that he might in some way make himself known to the boy. ambling even. marking our footsteps between the various shops we had visited in search of new school shoes. I waited and watched and said nothing.’ I told the police. and immediately I felt the meeting was not by chance. on that following Tuesday. ambling manner told me he had been doing this for a while. his beaked nose. though in most other respects I was prepared to give them the details. That evening I nearly called the agency to curtail Mr Charles’ visits. I decided to give him one more appointment. blurt out in his hearing my working name. Our after-hours encounter changed my mind. something about how hunted he looked. Though I could have called out loud in fear. tracking us like a hunter. Again I waited. it changed everything. In fact. I reached down. (I didn’t mention to them my son. We aborted the shoe plan for the day. His easy.) I tried to gather 155 . would pass. walking. the problem. but alert in some new way. I first caught sight of him. On the second Saturday of that intervening fortnight I bumped into Mr Charles in Rondebosch Main Road. ‘He sat in the armchair and I on the bed. I bit my lip hard instead. whatever it was. hoping that the issue. some paces behind my son and me. but he was absent from the scene.
Sharmilla. Mr Charles did something unusual. What do you mean by it?’ ‘You must know what I mean. that out there on Main Road he hadn’t been able to learn too much about my child. The rules said that I should be the one who came over to him. ‘You have the power of empathy. Generally he kept to the rules. I so wish. face. taking everything off. deep down. You must know how much I feel for you. to read our number plate or check the direction in which we had driven. I’m sure you are proud. You are the authentic article.’ ‘But why. the real McCoy. not touching him. and his voice was kind. all your features are shaped by the 156 . his cotton boxer shorts rustling. After sitting for a while in silence.EllEkE BoEhmEr from Mr Charles’s body language. several times.’ Still he stroked my hair. I want so much for you to be more yourself. some reassurance. and came over to stand in front of me. ‘I wish we might be natural together. He let his hand run down the length of my hair. from the manner of how he planted his legs and placed his feet. from my forehead all the way over my skull and down to my waist. I drew a measure of comfort from that. ‘What is this thing you have about being ourselves. Your lips. You should be proud to claim them as your own. ‘I wish.’ he said. You are it. I wanted him to let me know by osmosis. Mr Charles?’ I said. you are this country of ours. his legs knobbly and flaky like two old sticks. When you are with me. and that’s why I want you to be more yourself. In your veins runs the blood of the original owners of this land. What I feel in you. requiring no words. But now he got up suddenly.
and so the true Cape. but there you have it. you should know that. held here in bondage. not distinguishable as African. Malay. I’m not an original. You are the soil of this Africa. You are the true Cape. but everything together. and of dust from beyond the seas. You are my dream made flesh. to my mind. Even had I taken a glancing pleasure in his fantasy of me 157 . a mingling of the dust of this land. My ancestors on my father’s side came from Malaya. Sharmilla. You are as close to that as anyone could be and that is why I want you. you’re mistaken.’ ‘Let me spell it out. But it only excited him further. I want you to embrace me. crush me against you. not from here originally. Do you know my dream? My dream is of the day when the people of this country are no longer just white or black or Coloured.’ At this he yanked my hair back so hard my neck made a cracking noise and the skin on my forehead stretched. ‘That’s it. I want you to know this. It’s the mix that makes you original.’ ‘Mr Charles.sharmilla gutturals and clicks of their ancient tongue. the mix of freeborn and slave. brought from across the Indian Ocean. entangled like threads. We are Cape Malay.’ ‘Sorry to seem to contradict.’ A reminder of how low my people had stood in relation to his. European. I’m not authentic in the way you describe. Being Malay makes me a descendant of slaves. so that my heart can beat as one with your Cape heart. South and East. I don’t know what you mean. would help to nip his flights of fancy in the bud and put him off. Khoi and Malay blended together. I thought. Mr Charles. now and everyday. Sharmilla. A mix.
on the other the pressure from my one-time client. must the clicking not be on two sides? Must it not be between. literally.’ My hair had become a rope with which he yanked at my head. Sharmilla. need one another. On the one side of this point I felt the pull of my love for my son. that odd word of his. my Afrikaner soul.’ I could sense this was a tipping point. But I was also strangely calm. I could feel gooseflesh rise on my arms and my tongue was dry in my mouth. Later I couldn’t tell from what deep place the force that now burst from me came. by now it would have vanished clean away. Your Cape soul and my Cape soul. Sometimes there arises between two people a match. if that really is your name. ‘Sharmilla. my would-be suitor. Mr Charles. trying to take his hand. pondering. This clicking I have with you. yes. You must feel it though you don’t yet acknowledge it.EllEkE BoEhmEr as some original but exotic blend. the common ground that joins us. what 158 . ‘I’m not what you think. But. His eyes were gleaming and blind to me. Not a matching of minds only but a clicking of souls.’ ‘You’re right it’s between. ‘Mr Charles. I have been pondering the matter for weeks.’ I said. but he wasn’t listening and he wasn’t looking. you say you feel a clicking with me. excuse me for saying.two people? I have to tell you that I don’t unfortunately feel a clicking with you. please. It is a dreamer and not an assailant who tries to seduce his afternoon escort with a vision of intertwined souls he has been pondering. ‘Please. yes. let me try to explain further. I decided to take him at his word. of course. Sharmilla.’ I said. I insist you feel it too. ‘Mr Charles.
sharmilla you hope for. retreated to the armchair and sat down heavily. my Malay slave side. Moments after he’d left. I did not go all the way along. part-Malay boy as possible. I’m being very clear here so that you will get my meaning. I phoned the agency office to ask if today could be Mr Charles’s last day. Never again interfere with my life. I said I’d appreciate being moved to another venue for a few weeks. He must have seen that I’d meant what I’d said because the same instant he turned away. in spite of how strongly you feel otherwise. you stifle my other side. * After work that evening.’ His hand came away from my hair. and then leave as soon as you can and not return. His eyes found mine and I saw for the last time the longing that was buried in him. The mix that I am can’t be separated out. I went for a stroll down Beach Road. I’m not purely of the Cape. my Malay side. with the wind buffeting 159 . But I noticed that towards the very point of Sea Point that evening stood a woman in an orange dress looking out to sea. ever. He did not press his case further. the door clicking to behind him. and it makes me unhappy. I was tired and may even have sat for a while on one of the benches. before packing up to go home. the longing that had to be kept as far away from my life and my part-Khoi. And your hopes are not my hopes. to make a break in my routine. take it in. When you insist to me that I’m something I am not.
not in the flat. unsettling things he told me. and the waves dancing and foaming on the black rocks. There were a number of people out and about. But ever since that day. Though she was far off. and haunting. blowing hard. and the wind was. I have thought not of his grip on my hair. not on Rondebosch Main Road. with a low thrumming resonance. but I noticed this woman in particular because she was singing. She had a trained voice. when I have thought of him. the sound was pure. but of that faint clear song. I didn’t know then for sure as I know now that I would not see Mr Charles again.EllEkE BoEhmEr the garment around her body. or might be involved with the sea and its unpredictable moods. The agency swung into action on my behalf. like a prayer for all who might be setting out on journeys. as always. or the strange. 160 . sweet.
So tired. The familiar skin. Turned on to the right. That and this. Their gentle hands. Three faces. is how it goes. they ask. Show. ‘she. This and that. back. the folded-down edge of the sheet. this and that again. Try thinking this and that. This and that. Say. fro. they ask. right. 161 . The light footsteps running and chasing.’ says one face. those years ago.Fold turned On tO the left.’ An asking comes down from the faces. Speak. Bones too heavy to be turned this often. The terrible grief pouring. A word. Morning. The grief pouring from the still and curious faces bent down. to. Turned on to the back. It was morning then. And then back again. long time ago. And the children rushing screaming through the interleading rooms. left. fro. Touching index finger to index finger here at the edge of the sheet. the familiar folds of the skin. Turned on to the left. once. a sign. they ask. ‘She. To. the other year. Speak. Turned on to the right. This and that. back again. the stooped back pressed against the flat bed. And then the back.
The moan bearing down from one of the bending faces. The grief rising and choking like mud. but can’t manage. back. morning. and the tears falling wet on to the cheek. Turned on to the right. The moan escaping. this. To and fro. do. Turned on to the back. The children playing catch through the interleading rooms and laughing. the pale light of the sun. The fold-down of the sheet hard against the chin. don’t know. the fold of the coarse sheet against the chin. It was years ago. Grief. the mother’s hand on the hot forehead in the applegreen room.’ ‘Speak. the still hand. ‘She. the sheet coarse between the bones.’ says another. The sandpaper sheet. Lying snug under a folded blanket on the mother’s bed. mud. The apple-green room. The footsteps. The chin rested on that hand and this fold. laughing. speak. Morning. ‘she. on to the sheet. The fingers pressing down on the sheet. Back. The index finger pressed to the index finger. but still the soft hand. and the sheet folded between them.’ they ask. Turned on to the back.EllEkE BoEhmEr Can’t manage. the faces. The coughing and the coughing. A hand to the face and away again.’ Turned to the left. Turned on to the left. ‘Say. Something to ask. and the middle finger pressed to the middle finger. Once. years ago. Say. 162 .
It ran back in strands along the windscreen wiper.OK On tHe day. He felt sure of the test’s outcome. So much blood. a lover you don’t leave but are left by and cannot forget. I’d stopped the train. and couldn’t face telling his parents. I told them. Always you’re teased by the magic 163 . rinsed of expression.It’s. his legs braced across the rails. That day he’d decided he could wait no longer. incredibly high. incredibly tall. when he confronted me straight on. I described the blood-jet across the windscreen to the police. as it happened. It was the selfsame blood. I’d stopped the train. Incredibly thick. Before the blood began running back down the glass. His face was calm. he had so much feared but. had no reason to fear. of course. He’d taken an AIDS test three weeks before and had been driven mad by the anxiety of awaiting the result. By then. he comes drifting towards me like a past lover. incredibly thick. The next minute his blood shot up against the windscreen in a tall spray. I dealt with the aftermath like filling in a tax return. said the police. I said. Now. in my dreams. when he stood facing my train.
waiting for the blood-jet. and so I awake with wetted cheeks. Mate. it’s cool. clearly. not don’t. your love. I wept for the missed opportunity of his life. your life. Your blood. At the inquest I saw again in my mind’s eye. the dip in his hairline. it’s good. When he looked into my eyes. the cheeks pulled tight by his focus on my train. as in my dream. younger. it’s all OK. The coroner said he was gay. happier. but rather. but my image was clearer. Take this with you. I wish I could’ve signaled. I wish I could’ve signaled … not don’t – by then my train had him in its sights. I see his face. my friend. You. No. your death. the promises lost. and the single missed opportunity of that moment before he died. gay like me.EllEkE BoEhmEr that could’ve been. 164 . that unblinking focus. and then I began to weep. There were photographs of him. it’s fine.
before one will be accepted as truly English: tests to face.outside. which he commands with ease. English. (J . Borrowing from Auden on Yeats I am able to say with some accuracy that my anglophile but Netherlands-born father ‘hurt’ me not into a form but a language.nor. and that this has ultimately committed me to a certain 165 .the. clearly. Yeats’ W. he allowed himself to be possessed by his own image of an enchanted traditional Ireland of song and story.writing.M . despite his best efforts to learn Irish. Auden famously observed: ‘mad Ireland hurt you into poetry’.Coetzee. There is England and everything that England stands for.mother. Despite bitter disillusionment. B. he embraced a spirit of nation that became central to his work..Epilogue Here.there:.Boyhood) In his unsparing 1939 elegy to his fellow-poet W. H. some of which he knows he will not pass. as Auden perceived.. The Anglo–Irish Yeats remained all his life resolutely monoglot. to which he believes he is loyal. yet. But more than that is required.tongue There is the English language.
Irish had he been able to use (that is. Despite having lived in England now for twenty odd years. as it’s said. if such it is. It is worth asking whether the tone-deaf Anglo–Irish poet would have been capable of writing verse of such extraordinary resonance and musicality in. I grew up. with my somewhat awry two-tonguedness. and where. reinforced of course by the fissures of 166 . for some part of my life. yet in fact does not? These uncertainties of my identity have almost everything to do with culture and language. is centred on the impact of that word hurt. So there is just one more thing to say about Yeats before I move on. as might ‘South African’ names like Du Biel or Heine. I find that at talks and readings. As a non-English writer in English. My analogy with Yeats. to prose not poetry. not psychically or emotionally so. I will set down here some of my observations since childhood on the ‘hurts’ and peculiarities of my out-of-language condition. English. which could signal Afrikaans roots. tropical Durbanby-the-sea – that I was born. And what of my name. I was never monoglot and in consequence have never felt the right to embrace any one nation singleheartedly.EllEkE BoEhmEr mode of writing. But I have never been completely sure. and on the always unequivocal internet. I am here and there still labelled a ‘South African’ writer. if that makes me strictly speaking a South African writer. this language I feel most comfortable writing. To begin with then I must make clearer some of the intricacies of this peculiar linguistic orphanhood – or so I often think of it. Boehmer without its Germanic umlaut. to master) that tongue. is after all one I do not viscerally feel I can claim as my own. It was indeed in South Africa – in balmy.
moved back to the mother-country Nederland before their old age set in. The song required that the marchers mime this refusal. One of my first memories is of singing Dutch marching songs while playing with my mother on our baking front lawn. I was born to Dutch or Netherlands parents. who congregated at the door of the Dutch-medium playgroup at pick-up time chatting. Of him I will speak in a moment. one of whom. glittering African country in which she found herself when giving birth to her first and only child. concerned a troop of swans (zwanen.EpiloguE racialised identity in apartheid South Africa itself. my mother. these sweltering tropen. curiously. always slightly aggrieved conversations in Nederlands. the source of civilization (witness its kindness to immigrants). but also of an originary imperial power (did the English not borrow from us in this respect. with their lilting. 167 . remained self-consciously a stranger in the hot. One song. represented my own mother’s only acquaintance in her new country. too?). such as this one. beauty (Golden Age painting of course). the best pastry (the English had no clue). My father by contrast found it in him to lay claim to places other than his birth-country and to a language other than his mother tongue. no doubt as she did to them. Indeed. including my mother. My early childhood games with my always Dutch-speaking playmates were wrapped around with the tissue of our expatriate mothers’ Dutch songs and rhymes. a code for sailing ships) attempting to swim to England only to be refused admittance. This group of mothers. Nederland was the axis of their world. most of this group.
I. indiscriminately seeded in the Cape by the early Dutch seafarers and colonists. But if Nederland was the centre of our migrant world and the English merely ‘Johnnies-come-lately’ in most respects. Within our small immigrant enclave there were however. with its slave history. that barrier to passing. she liked among English speakers ‘to pass’. My mother and her friends mocked their children’s language if we slipped up and allowed ‘Afrikaans-isms’ – clumpy double negatives. where I lived for a while. with impoverishments. Far from it. the ‘clumsy’ simplifications of a patois – to filter into our speech. thank goodness for her. awkward third-person locutions. South Africa’s close cousin. As black and Coloured Afrikaans writers have since had reason to celebrate.or even daughter-tongue to Dutch.EllEkE BoEhmEr Shopping in downtown Durban my mother got by with her lightly accented schoolgirl English. It is that marked tongue of mine. this did not imply that in my parental home Afrikaans. Despite her feelings of superiority. which always embarrassed her. was to her a ‘low-class’ bastard tongue. We did not have blatjang on our dinner table. have always spoken English with an accent. too. Afrikaans. an. was acceptable. whether in South Africa. Never. Quite other than her uncomfortable deference to English. or in Canada. lowerings. 168 . flavoured throughout like poorly mixed blatjang. flattenings. I was not permitted to speak Afrikaans. my mother made no bones about being a linguistic snob about Afrikaans. accent that cannot be located. few occasions when she had to rely on her English. in Britain. English with. a keukentaal. that for me puts a major question mark behind the label ‘South African writer’.
plump young women in black face would. spoken by those in Durban who were black – Zulu was completely separate from us and regarded as ‘difficult’. At Sinterklaas we happily consumed large quantities of borstplaat. and Zwarte Piet. As for Zulu – the majority tongue. did not employ (natuurlijk.. sent over by relatives. hyper-aware of our separate status. niet. Sint’s mischievous black helper in his funny pageboy hat. the house ‘girl’. formed the medium or agent involved in the laying down of my first neural pathways. as I remember.EpiloguE Although it represented the prime cultural treasure of the regime in power. as immigrant ‘liberal’ Dutch. a description which implied at once grudging respect and dismissal. represent Black Piet. So the Netherlands language. formed a friendly and melodious background murmur. as I now picture it. if a little puzzlingly. the garden ‘boy’. no connection between the Zulus living roundabout. In the St Nicolaas photo-postcards sent over by the same generous Dutch relatives. Zulu was the language spoken by servants. yet we made. an easy-to-forget ‘white noise’ to the ongoing fantasy of our transplanted Dutch lives. Afrikaans was everywhere still the language of the poor. If I allow myself in imagination to extrapolate back. of rough ‘white trash’ who went about shoeless. and amandelpers. to strip away the greater 169 . the rubber underlay to the texture and pile of my thoughts. or purchased at expensive delicatessens serving the immigrant community. gossiping in circles on grassy verges on warm afternoons. it was unthinkable!). It is still I suppose the basic stuff of my understanding. whom we. The Zulu of other white people’s servants.
the South African state’s term. which was spoken by Durban’s large Indian community. probably a little like Joseph Conrad. as biographers describe him.EllEkE BoEhmEr part of my self-aware life. and certainly not Zulu. However. as with Conrad. But the same does not apply to Netherlands. ‘shipshape’. To him it was a mark of the civility of Durban’s Indians. other speech. and rage woede. with whom my father shared 170 . My father’s spoken English was itself shipshape. sea is ultimately always zee. Though I would consider myself equally if differently comfortable in both languages. even gratifyingly. One forbore speaking it – speaking it well – at one’s peril. from his beloved Roget’s. laden with Latinate polysyllabics picked up. very like a Dutchman and a foreigner. whose cuisine he adored and tried to imitate. world-wide. For me. the language of the world-conquering English. As far as my father was concerned neither Dutch. this out-of-country Dutch that must not be confused with Afrikaans. that their English was. So much even for ‘Hindustani’. So much then for Dutch. So much for Zulu. were of any consequence. more so than my mother’s. as he put it. nor Afrikaans. Netherlands for me lies at the root of all things conscious. overlaid with other words. if not portentous. it was also that English. it is possible to figure a world in which there is no English. He spoke his English loudly. was superior to other languages. I imagine. It was also markedly accented. in short. even if that root is now often deeply. Thesaurus. was in some sense part of the air we all breathed. It wasn’t merely that English. his chosen language. with un-British emphases. ‘all correct’.
was stiff. like a fist in the ribs. life-changing decision with respect to his daughter. ‘Do you hear me. even though I have often since had reason to thank 171 . The keen pain I felt at the beginning later became a kind of deadening between us. But his love of the language. formal. Around about the time I turned four my father quite abruptly switched from Dutch to English in speaking to me and insisted I do the same in return. and his cultural investment in it and in that anglophile identity of his. not least a love of the East.EpiloguE several other interests. Father’s silent and immovable back represented at first a severe blow. His written English. To this day I cannot pinpoint exactly what his motive was for this sudden move. certainly a separation. was shaped within the medium of spoken English. His English was his badge of pride. this linguistic hurt. the ‘beautiful’ English of the King James Bible. ‘the Queen’s English’. I have since come to see. that he made his momentous. it would have been impossible ever to tell him so. This was the cynosure of all his attention. the language of someone to whom a second language did not come naturally. My father worked hard at his English. Though my growing proficiency in crisp English eventually rescued me from the Remedial Class at school to which I had been assigned within days of my first attendance. we talk English in this house now!’ If ever I slipped up and addressed him in Netherlands the words fell upon stone-deaf ears. Until I corrected myself by switching into the other language he would resolutely turn his back and pretend to ignore me. and again portentous. It was to this end. the promotion of good English.
he was happy especially when drunk to divulge a litany of complaint about their snobbery. Further reason. It lies in great ships. This is obviously reminiscent of Conrad’s Lord Jim. for. if not of the life-story of the portentously English-speaking author himself. England at such times signified the rule of law. Malaya. In fact it is probably in the image of ‘all hands on deck’ – all hands on a shipshape deck that the core reason for my father’s love of the English language lies. their airs and graces. The. Cruel. Sea and the inevitable Roget’s. My father owned a greenbound collected Shakespeare inscribed to him by his second wife. As for the English themselves. but. as her lover had been. Bangkok. His first wife.EllEkE BoEhmEr him for it. the. My father spent his young adulthood working in and around harbours in the Far East: Singapore. to resent the English. because it gave him access of a kind to the city streets of Dickens or the subtle architecture of a Shakespeare sonnet. a stiff upper lip. and all hands on deck. who loved the language because of the literature. ‘getting on with it’. Thesaurus.. In the abstract however. who preceded my mother. in other words. The man was after all no scholar. who divorced him when during the War she fell in love with someone else. He was no Mr Biswas. without noticeable signs of wear and tear. their refusal to ‘give anything away’. in war and war-work. Family politics and 172 . had been an ‘Engelse’. He was not in any formal sense well-educated. and after just a few drinks. Millions. too. as in Naipaul. standing on the bookshelf close to Mathematics. it had yellowed evenly. justice. in defence and Winston Churchill. fair dealing. my father lavished praise upon England and Englishness.
Hiddes which served with the aircraft carrier the Arc. He talked about the incredible sense of uplift and encouragement the words of Churchill gave during these dangerous years. for moral comfort. was ‘a matter of course’. England and English for my father therefore represented first and foremost the Allies and the Empire. Feeling called. Perfectly enunciated King James English from a daughter of his ‘went without saying’. or so I can only imagine. It was this language he wanted me to speak ‘perfectly’. yet too far. it seems. he had felt. most important of all. read out at funeral services on the Tjerk Hiddes. When at my English-medium school I was chosen to read the Bible at assembly he must have been proud but refused to show it. and. He told fierce tales of Bombay during Quit India (he reviled what the ‘untrustworthy fakir’ Gandhi had been up to). Nederland. English to him was not the tongue that Shakespeare knew. But perfect elocution did not of course make me English. distastefully cowardly (Holland having been neutral during WWI). in the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf. or anything that 173 . to be provincial. but Churchill’s language and the language of the Book of Job. At the invasion of the Netherlands in May 1940. He described being bombed by kamikaze planes around East Timor and off Australia’s northern shores. he returned to Europe. or English South African.EpiloguE a boyish love of adventure had drawn my father away from a country. he worked his way to Portsmouth and onto a Dutch destroyer bearing the name of the Frisian naval hero Tjerk.Royal throughout the war. as it turned out. The outbreak of the Second World War found him far from home. claustrophobic.
felt particularly authentic. It is here, in this matter of ‘more English than English’ speech, that my feelings of linguistic outsiderness have from the start clicked in. I grabbed at my father’s ‘English’ values with both hands, keen to impress, to pass on his behalf. Even as a teenager writing school projects I enjoyed working within the clean, precise dimensions of the English language, so different from the agglutinative coagulations of Nederlands – though Roget’s. Thesaurus remained a closed book to me. I took pride in being taken by the non-discerning listener as ‘proper English’. I struggled as a thirteen- and fourteen-year-old to lose all remaining traces of my Dutch-flavoured vowels. Yet, despite all this, I was aware that I did not ‘fit in’ in any meaningful, ‘truly’ English way. Englishspeaking people did not generally ‘pop in’ to see us. We did not ‘bump into’ the Engelse at the places where they congregated, which defined them – the local stone-built Anglican church, for example, the country club, the cricket fields. In a society where markers of identity were everything we would not have been made welcome there had we had the nerve to show up. We would not, for starters, have known the order of service, or what drinks to order at the bar, or the recondite terminologies of English games. The sleeve of the ‘English’ identity into which I kept trying to slip itched and chafed despite my best efforts. What had transpired essentially was that we were living in translation, on a borderline, though for many years I could not see it as such. I put my family’s social isolation down to my father’s drunken rages, my mother’s extreme social shyness, my own uncool
bookishness. Perhaps I first began to acknowledge our outsiderness only when my father, nearing the end of his life and desperately ill with cancer, high on morphine, forgot much of his English and reverted back to Dutch words for simple, everyday things, kop, lepel; for everyday bodily processes, plassen, eten, liggen. It is the case, as I understand, that bilingual or trilingual people do not as a rule feel fully at home in their different languages, do not feel they completely master, or have command over, any one tongue. They are linguistically neither here nor there. I know that late at night and when tired my English sounds to me ungrammatical and rough-edged. To this day I over-egg sentences with participles and have to think carefully about the different direction (towards me, not from me) represented by the word borrow as against lend (Netherlands has the one allpurpose verb lenen). For me, this sense of unhomeliness was exacerbated first by the forced suddenness of my father’s shift to English, and then by my own many shifts within and across the English-speaking world. Having lived in Canada for a time, and living now in England, I have on occasion been abruptly reminded of the foreignness of the language that I claim. Or, more accurately put, this language has, following a series of colonial concatenations at once personal and global, claimed me. During my first two years in England I was at pains to frame simple sentences to make myself understood in bus queues, at tills in shops. ‘Could I have a packet for my shopping, please?’ ‘How much does a ticket for this bus cost?’ Unwieldy non-native phrases. It felt like learning to speak the language all over again,
like putting myself back into translation. Yet Dutch, that original ‘root’ language of mine, too, has not grown in comfort with the years. If anything, the opposite. Nederlands remains the language of some dreams, of sudden emphasis, of half-inarticulate passing emotions muttered to the self. It was years before I could swear in English as I could in Dutch. My relatives in Leiden and Arnhem remark to this day on my perfectly idiomatic, homegrown-sounding speech, as they do on my ‘lovely’ ‘BBC’ English. But the very fact that they make their remarks signals that something, somewhere, must be amiss. Somewhere the rules are being broken. My Dutch, because it is the language of childhood, of play and domestic space, has not grown up with me. I am no longer able to curse in a plausible, twenty-first century way. My vocabulary is fuddy-duddy, clogged with 1950s verbal tics copied from my parents that long ago fell out of use. In Nederland, too, I feel I do not fully belong. If it came to some test of authenticity I would surely fail. The bilingual writer who works chiefly in one language yet deep-dreams chiefly in the other can perhaps be pictured as a heavy book squeezed between a pair of small, light bookends positioned on a short shelf. The bookends constantly threaten to tumble to the ground. The book is worked this way and that and will surely fall with them, one way or another. Somehow however the precariously balanced ensemble stays upright, keeps on its shelf. There is a kind of equilibrium. There is no law to explain this yet the system sustains itself. Something holds. The secret perhaps lies within that unsteady balance itself. It’s a
Language by taal.. Sea by zee. Woede by rage . 177 . It lies within the fact that every word in the one language is shadowed by its counterpart in the other.EpiloguE mutual weighting.
Celebrating. the.Other.(in). Moving. Nineties:.Stories (1999. Freedom.Postcolonial.der.Literatur (2006. A. Nadine. Flash. Gordimer (1998. ‘Like in a Tear-gas Attack). ‘Fado in Lissabon’). the. Worlds. Journal. Postcolonial. ‘The Father Antenna’). ‘Robben Island’). (2002. Staple (2001. Quarterly (1993. ‘Fold’). Spring (2005. Fiction (2008. ‘The Bean-bag Race’). Writing (1994. of. ‘It’s OK’). ‘Air India’).and. Critical. Stand. At. ‘Ginger’). Victory.of. Into. ‘For Love’).Writing. Magazine (2008. Life:. Rendezvous.Writing (2005. ‘Off-White. ‘Highveld Hibiscus Garden’). Exophonie: AndersSprachligkeit. . ‘Here nor There’/ published as ‘Hier noch dort: Schreiben auberhalf der Muttersprache’). 1989. Kunapipi (2003. ‘Khaya’). Women’s.The author’s gratitude is to the editors of the following journals and anthologies for permission to include stories first published in their pages: Touch (2009.
Other fiction titles available from Jacana Spilt.Sleeping.the. Black.Men Jane Taylor .co.Gates Zinaid Meeran . .Petals Bryan Rostron . Blood’s.Beauties Hazel Frankel .Transplant. Rainmaker Don Pinnock . Counting. Saracen.za for more information.Mist David Donald .jacana. Visit www. The.Milk Kopana Matlwa .at.
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