Monthly Archives: March 2015

OFF CENTRE

Fictitious names have been given to the individuals in this story to protect the identities of the living and the dead.

One of the things that I love most about my wife is that she calls it as she sees it. I don’t have to try and read between the lines with her. Thus I knew exactly what she was thinking when she responded to my question over dinner one evening.

“Would you describe me as a normal person?” I had asked her, apropos of nothing.

She considered my question briefly, then asked, “Do you want me to give you an honest answer, Tim?”

“No, don’t bother,” I replied.

This exchange may shed some light on why I have, from time to time, gravitated towards people who were a touch off centre in terms of normality.

When I first went to university in the 1960s I became friends with three fellow students who, in hindsight, were clearly a bit mad. I shall call them Lewis, Walter and Otto.

Lewis, a law student from South West Africa, had a dark cynical streak. He was endearingly charming in his interactions with females, but over time it became clear to me that he actually despised women. He treated them with utter contempt and with a complete lack of compassion that, to my surprise and horror, only fuelled their devotion to him.  Many a time I had to console his distraught girlfriends and dish out tissues.

His English was poor, so he practised an opening gambit to chat up the women whenever we paid a social visit to the English-language University of Cape Town campus. “My name is Lewis,” he would introduce himself in his thick Afrikaner accent. “I come from an obscure little place in South West Africa called Keetmanshoop.” The women loved him.

Lewis was a tortured soul. He never talked about his inner demons, but they exposed themselves sometimes. One night, for instance, we were walking on a beach when he picked up a piece of driftwood and used it to write on the sand in large block letters: “MY NAME IS CHAOS.” We eventually drifted apart after his politics had taken a sharp turn to the far right.

I had first met Walter during our year of army training, when we were in the same squadron. He was an atheist who had enrolled in a religious science degree course and had planned to become a minister of religion in the Dutch Reformed Church. Perhaps not surprisingly, in view of such contradictions that cohabited in his mind, he eventually did a stint in the Valkenberg Mental Hospital where I visited him. “The psychiatrist told me that I have absolutely no fear of death,” he told me proudly during one such visit.

Later, completely unexpectedly, he converted to an extreme brand of fundamentalist Christianity. He believed that God had created the earth less than four thousand years ago and that the world would end in December of that same year.

“But what about all those ancient fossils that they have dug up?” I challenged Walter.

“They were planted by the devil to mislead people,” he told me earnestly.

He left university to join a group of fellow believers in a remote area in the northern region of South Africa to await the imminent end of the world. I never heard from him again.

My third university friend, Otto, studied literature and was quite manic in his speech. His words would often overtake each other in a jumble because his mouth could not keep pace with his thoughts. In the room that I shared with him and with Lewis for a while, Otto would sometimes get up in the middle of the night and pace around restlessly, muttering in German, “Problemen! Problemen!”

We were at a beach one day when Otto got up from his beach towel and announced matter of factly that he was going for his big swim to China. He was a strong swimmer and, having battled his way through the wild surf, swam off until he was a mere speck in the distance before disappearing from view altogether. The other beachgoers had become agitated and someone must have called the police because a boat eventually picked him up miles out in the open sea. Further big swims to China followed from time to time. Lewis once remarked “You can always tell by the large crowd on the beach that Otto has gone for a swim.”

Otto married a famous poet’s sister, had a child, got divorced and disappeared completely off the radar. Perhaps he had gone for his big swim to China once too often.

Decades later I became friends with someone else who was a tad off centre. I liked my workmate, Mona, because of her touch of eccentricity. We found that we had some common ground in that she was bi-polar, as was someone close to me, and she would offer me moral support and advice on how to best deal with this.

Once I had to take a new staff member to Mona’s office area to introduce her to the staff there. Mona shook hands with her and enquired earnestly, “Tell me, do the people that you usually mix with use bad language?”

“No, they don’t,” replied the perplexed newbie.

Mona put on her friendliest grin. “Well, my role in this organisation is to desensitise people like you,” she said.

I discovered by accident that Mona was a lesbian. I was talking to her about work matters at her desk when I noticed a photo of her standing beside another woman. “Is that your sister?” I asked. “Nope, that’s my missus, Nicole,” she corrected me.

Not long afterwards I was walking along a corridor at work when someone behind me pinched me on the bum. I swung around. “Oh,” I said in surprise, “it’s you, Mona.”

“Yep,” she said, laughing, “and it’s just as well that you’re not a woman otherwise I’d be up for sexual harassment.”

She rode a large motorbike to work. “I know it’s none of my business,” I said, “but you really should stop riding that motorbike. They are far too dangerous.” To which she responded, “C’mon Tim, motorbikes are heaps of fun! We could all be so damned careful that we never have any fun in life at all.”

A week ago I was told that Mona had lost her battle with cancer. She was not yet fifty. With her death I have lost an unusual gem that had sparkled brightly in the grey shale of human normality.

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TAMBOERSKLOOF BOYS

There wasn’t much on offer in the line of entertainment for children when we lived in Tamboerskloof, a Cape Town suburb overlooking Table Bay, during my early years at high school more than fifty years ago. As we had few toys to play with we had to invent our own games. Television did not arrive in South Africa until more than a decade later and radio broadcasts accounted for our entire experience with the entertainment media. You would often find one or more of us huddled by the radio, listening to crackly Rock and Roll music on Radio Lourenco Marques, or to broadcasts of rugby or cricket test matches.

Friendship groups amongst children were mostly based on one’s street or neighbourhood as transport was not readily available. Our local group of boys included my brother Charel, two years my senior, his classmate Rouan who lived down the road from us, Kloppie from a nearby block of flats, who was adept at fisticuffs, and the quiet and low-key Johannes, Rouan’s cousin, who was in the class below me at school.

We also knew David Moon, who was a few years older than us. He owned the only rock music recording in our neighbourhood, Bill Haley’s “Rock around the clock.” One of us would say, “Let’s go and listen to David Moon’s record” and off we would go to his house where he would play his one and only 78 speed vinyl record for us four or five times.

Occasionally Kloppie would lend us one of his Lone Ranger comics. These prized items were unobtainable in Cape Town and Kloppie refused to divulge his source of supply, no matter how much we pleaded with him.

A major pastime was to go to the disused quarry up the slope towards the mountain known as Lion’s Head, where we would play kleilat (clay stick). We would each break off a green bough, about a meter in length, slightly springy and green. We would squeeze a small ball of doughy clay onto the thin end of the bough and whip the clay in the direction of one of the others. The ball of clay would fly off at high speed, causing a whelp of pain whenever it struck someone.

For us city kids the street was our playground. Charel once found an old discarded roller skate. We would take turns balancing a meter long plank on top of the roller skate, hopping onto it and going flying down the slope of Woodside Road where we lived, using our bare heels to brake when necessary.

Sometimes when we were bored we would lounge outside the neighbouring double-storey block of flats where the D’Ambrosios lived. It wouldn’t be long before old Granny D’Ambrosio, who disliked us intensely, would spot us and appear on the balcony, screaming abuse at us in Italian to our great merriment. At other times we would go to a small park and playground down the road. It was supervised by ‘Parkie,’ an elderly coloured gentleman who wore a khaki uniform and cap. We would climb into the kaffir plum trees, which was forbidden under the park rules, to pick the small fruit and he would chase us ineffectually around the park.

Apart from Johannes, we all smoked intermittently from an early age. None of us could afford to buy cigarettes, so we nicked them from the smokers in our families. As neither of my parents were smokers my grandparents, who lived two doors down from us, were Charel’s and my source of supply. I can vividly recall the seductive aromatic smell of the Woodbine cigarettes when we found them in one of the drawers in my grandparents’ house.

We were just an average group of white South African city kids of that era who were sometimes naughty, but never really evil. And yet, a germ of evil must have lurked in the heart of one amongst us, unnoticed by the others.

Fifty years later, when I was told about a criminal case involving someone I had known, I looked it up on the Internet. The headlines told the horrible story: “Mom tells court of sex assault by surgeon,” “Surgeon found guilty of rape,” “I wanted to vomit while he raped me,” and so forth. A surgeon had raped one of his female patients during a medical procedure in his surgery. His victim had testified in court that, after he had finished raping her, “he then held me and twice said ‘I’m sorry’.”

There were a number of other similar charges against the surgeon. He was eventually convicted of one charge of rape and 14 counts of indecent assault on nine women over a period of many years. His attorney argued for a lesser sentence for various reasons, including his advanced age and the fact that he was suffering from a degenerative brain disease, but most of the assaults had occurred before he had contracted the brain disease and he was sentenced to a term of eight years in prison.

Looking back now I am unable to equate the quiet, happy boy that was our friend and playmate all those years ago with the rapist that he had become. Of all of us, Johannes had been the best behaved and the least assertive or aggressive.

Now I wonder uneasily whether we ever really know what someone else is truly like, or what they are capable of.

CHAI

When I travelled to Vietnam with my Australian friends Genimaree, Jo and Barbara some years ago we had no fixed plan apart from starting our trip in Hanoi in North Vietnam. We had booked accommodation in a cheap hotel for one night and we would play the rest by ear.

After looking around Hanoi for a few days we decided to take the train to Sapa on Vietnam’s northern border with China. I have a great fondness for train travel. However, this particular train journey was pretty hard going. I normally sleep like a baby on trains, but the overnight train to Sapa swung wildly from side to side as it slithered around endless bends and struggled up into mountainous areas. Sleep was out of the question. I had to hang on to the side of my upper bunk for dear life all night to avoid being hurled out of it.

Bleary-eyed we arrived at the closest railway station to Sapa the next morning. To get to the town itself we had to travel by bus further up into the mountains for another hour. Through a grey mist we could see lush green rice paddies that had been laid out against impossibly steep mountain sides and down in the valleys.

Arriving at our hotel we asked the receptionist how we would go about getting around the area. She suggested that we employ a local guide. The rate that she quoted for a guide was very cheap by Australian standards and we accepted without hesitation. She called over a young woman who was standing in the foyer chatting to some of the other guides. They were all dressed in the distinctive traditional clothes of the Hmong people.

“This is Chai,” the receptionist said. “She will be your local guide.”

Chai looked to be about eighteen years old and communicated with us in broken English. It didn’t take us long to discover that she was a cheerful and smart young person with a strong sense of humour. Over the next few days, as we visited different places of interest and trudged up and down muddy mountains in the drizzle to spend a night in a remote Hmong village, we found out a little bit about her life.

She had numerous siblings and her father, a rice farmer on a smallholding, used to have a single mature water buffalo and a calf, but the calf had died from some disease. This would leave him with no animal to plough with if anything were to go wrong with the remaining buffalo. The price of rice seeds had sky-rocketed, placing a great strain on the finances of the local rice farmers. Her family’s livelihood as rice farmers appeared to be quite precarious.

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Chai had left school at an early age, as her family could not afford the costs of her ongoing education. She must have been a very good student because she had good numeracy skills and could read and write in Vietnamese, despite her limited years of formal schooling.

“Where did you learn to speak English?” I asked her one day.

“Oh, I just picked it up from tourists who passed by our area,” she answered nonchalantly. “I also speak bits of some other languages – German and French and such like,” she added.

There had been no future for her in the rice paddies, so she had walked to Sapa, where she had asked at a hotel whether she could become one of their local tour guides. Even though her English was nowhere near perfect, the hotel manager agreed to try her out as a guide. Chai is very personable and the enthusiastic feedback from the tourists whom she had shown around quickly ensured her future as a local guide.

I worked out how Chai went about expanding her English vocabulary. When one of us had used a word that she was not familiar with, she would ask what it meant and afterwards she would weave it into her own conversation a few times to embed it into her vocabulary. For instance, she overheard one of us referring to a helicopter and she asked, “What is a ‘helicoppa’?”

“It’s a ‘helicopter’, Chai.”

Then we would explain what a helicopter looked like and how it could hover and pick things up from difficult terrains. She had never seen a helicopter nor ever heard of one. She asked us to repeat the word and practised until she could pronounce it properly. A little while later, as we were trudging along a muddy path along the side of a steep mountain slope, Chai warned me, “You must be careful not to slip, Tim, otherwise you will slide all the way down there and a helicopter would have to come and pick you up.”

Wherever you travel in Hmong country, the assertive Hmong women will hound you to buy their local wares. They will follow you relentlessly up and down steep hills for long distances, insisting, “You buy from me! You buy from me!” Once, when no-one else was around, Chai sidled up to Genimaree and suddenly barked at her, “You buy from me! You buy from me!” before breaking up in uproarious laughter.

On the minibus back to Sapa on our last day there Chai suddenly started singing a Beatles song. I was astounded. “Where have you heard Beatles music Chai?” I asked

She rolled her eyes. “On the Internet of course, Tim, on YouTube.” Then she explained that in the town, where she shared a room with one of the other female guides, there is an Internet café where she had learnt how to use the Internet.

I have boundless admiration for someone like Chai who, deprived of the opportunities that young people in Australia take for granted, has nevertheless managed to improve her prospects through gritty determination and against all the odds. I can only wonder what she might have achieved if she had grown up in Australia, with her formidable intellect and her eagerness to learn. No doubt she would have achieved an impressive career in some field far beyond that of a local tour guide in the remote, muddy little town of Sapa, high up in the mountains of Vietnam.

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 Tim and Chai

 (Photo by Genimaree Panozzo)