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Twentieth birthday

Warning: This story includes scenes of graphic violence

A songbird’s cheerful melody penetrated the still morning. Light pastel patches of yellow and purple wildflowers brightened the landscape on that spring day, but the soldier barely registered the tranquil scene. It was his twentieth birthday and in normal times it would have been a day of celebration with his family. But these were not normal times. It was probably going to be the last day of his life. As he pictured his parents and his two sisters, tears trickled down his cheeks.

Their orders were unambiguous. There would be no retreat or surrender. The soldier and his comrades were to hold their defensive position at all costs, down to the last man, against an enemy that vastly outnumbered them. Soon, he knew, the stillness of the morning would be destroyed by a cacophony of explosions.

The previous afternoon the last of a torrent of ragged civilian refugees had passed by. Thin and haggard, carrying a few meagre belongings, they looked at the soldiers with hopeless expressions as they shuffled past.

In the far distance he could hear the sounds of the approaching enemy. It was the faint rumbling of tank engines. Soon afterwards he spotted the first signs of movement. Hundreds of enemy soldiers were approaching, followed closely by their tanks and artillery.

With a sinking heart he waited. The sergeant would give the order to fire when the enemy was closer. Then the artillery on both sides would also blast their way into action.

The rumble of tank engines grew ever louder. The soldier became increasingly tense and a fog of despair overwhelmed him. Even though it was an icy winter’s morning he was sweating profusely.

“FIRE!!”

He aimed at one of the approaching figures and pulled the trigger. Behind him the artillery also opened fire. He kept on shooting, seeing one after the other of the enemy soldiers crumpling, only to be replaced by an inexhaustible supply of others. His senses were dulled. He felt as though he were observing the scene from afar.

Soon bullets fired by the enemy began whistling through the trees where the soldier was lying. There was a series of massive explosions and the earth rocked and trembled. He saw one of his comrades being hurled into the air. The soldier’s body started trembling and he could barely hold his rifle steady.

A chip of wood from a tree that had been hit by a shell struck him just above his right eye and blood trickled into the eye, causing the scene to take on a hellish red glow. Nearby one of his comrades started howling in agony and cursing the gods who had abandoned him. He could see the man, blood spurting from a large shrapnel wound in his upper torso.

As the soldier gasped for air the nauseating smell of burning flesh filled his nostrils.

A terrific explosion close to the soldier deafened him. He could no longer see the enemy and he had lost all sense of direction. Clods of earth were hurled into the air by further explosions. All around him rifle fire and the crash of artillery shells continued unabated.

He glanced around. Tangled in a nearby tree branch he saw someone’s arm which had been ripped from the body. Blood dripped from the shoulder where it had been severed. It was still wearing a uniform sleeve onto which a sergeant’s three chevrons were stitched.

The soldier tried to get up, but lost his balance and fell onto his back. Dazed and disoriented he looked up into the sky. So this is what hell feels like, he thought.

Up above him he thought he could discern some movement in the sky. He wiped the blood from his eyes with his sleeve. Squinting, he could now see that it was the gods tumbling slowly from the sky. They were scorched, and wisps of smoke drifted from their bodies as they fell.

 

Finder’s keepers

A rare foray into fiction.

I’m getting old, Bertie muttered to himself as he made his way up the incline. The sun was about to disappear behind the hills. He walked past the bush block on his left, puffing harder and harder. Captain, his dog, had disappeared into the bush to explore, as he always did when they reached this point on their daily walk.

Suddenly the dog started yapping excitedly. A tiger snake! was Bertie’s first thought, before he realised that no snake would be out and about in this cool autumn weather. A minute later Captain appeared, wagging his tail and dragging something along in his mouth.

Bertie patted the dog. “Good boy! What have you got here, then?” It was one of those canvas man bags that had lately come into fashion amongst the blokes in the village.

He unzipped the bag and peered in astonishment at the banknotes that had been crammed tightly into the bag. Furtively he looked around. There was no-one in sight. Without thinking twice and overcome with excitement at his good fortune he quickly tucked the bag under his coat, called the dog and turned around to walk back to his house around the corner at the bottom of the hill.

As soon as he was inside the house he locked the deadlock on the front door with a shaking hand, put the bag down on the kitchen table and unzipped it again. Inside the bag were a variety of notes, mainly fifties and twenties. I reckon there’d be a few thousand quid in there, he thought.

It wouldn’t be someone who had accidentally lost his bag along the way, Bertie mused. The bag had been thrown into the bushes, probably by a drug dealer who had been pursued by his competitors, or by the cops. He hid the bag behind the cookbooks on the kitchen shelf.

Bertie’s wife had succumbed to the Big C five years earlier. The house mortgage had been paid off, but he was struggling to get by on the pension and of necessity he lived a very Spartan life. Now this was about to change.

He went to bed early that night, but he couldn’t sleep. He kept seeing the banknotes in his mind’s eye. Captain must have sensed his excitement, because the dog was unusually restless.

Now I’ll be able to afford a holiday, Bertie thought. Maybe I’ll go on one of those cruises to New Zealand that they are always advertising on the telly. Or perhaps I’ll trade the old Holden in for a later model. He was getting more and more excited.

In the middle of the night, however, a sense of disquiet began to reach its tentacles out to him. What if someone had seen me walking along there and had told the cops? Or what if the drug dealers had discovered who had taken their money and came after me? He had seen reports on the news of drive-by shootings and cold-blooded gangland executions. What if the money had belonged to the bikies? A shiver ran down his spine.

He tossed and turned until it was almost daybreak, when at last he fell into a fitful slumber.

Bertie was woken by Captain’s loud barking. Someone was knocking loudly on the front door. For a mad moment he thought about sneaking out the back door and running away as fast as he could. With difficulty he pulled himself together and croaked “Hang on, I’ll be there in a minute!”

He struggled to put on his dressing gown, first sticking his arm into an inside out sleeve in his hurry. He went to the front door and opened it with trepidation.

“Good grief, Bertie, are you OK? It’s eleven o’clock already and you look like you’ve just got out of bed. Besides, you look like death warmed up.”

It was his neighbour, George, clutching Bertie’s chainsaw which he had borrowed earlier in the week.

“I’m alright thanks, mate. Just feeling a bit crook, s’all. The Bombay Twostep or something.”

After George had left, Bertie drew all the curtains and fretted his way restlessly through the day. He jumped at the slightest of sounds, fearing another knock on his door.

Eventually, when the daylight began to fade, he carefully peered outside. There was no-one around. He retrieved the bag from its hiding place and unzipped it. Now the banknotes appeared to him as though they were the carriers of some awful disease. He put on his coat, hid the bag under the coat and put Captain on a leash, before setting off up the hill at a forced leisurely pace. He felt as if unseen eyes were watching his every step.

When he got to the bush block he surreptitiously peered around, but there was not a soul in sight. He took the bag out from under his coat and hurled it as far as he could into the bushes, before tugging on the excited dog’s leash and heading home with shaking knees.

 

THE CREATOR OF FLOODS

When I visited South Africa in 1992 after a prolonged absence I found that my brother Charel had changed into a different person during the intervening years. His job as a scientist with the Department of Water Affairs required him to spend about three months of every year in remote rural areas. We had both grown up as city boys, but he had morphed into a real bushie.

He invited me to go with him on a work trip to Zululand. On the way there he told me that the government had built a dam on the Phongolo River nineteen years earlier that had affected the ecology and the black villagers living along the flood plains downstream from the dam. During the wet season the river used to flood and the entire subsistence economy of the local Zulu villages had revolved around these floods. They had their cattle, but their main source of food was the maize, pumpkins and other vegetables that they would plant in the rich soil on the riverbank as the floods subsided.

The dam was constructed to provide irrigation for white farmers and recreational activities such as water skiing and fishing for white holiday-makers. In those days the needs of black people counted for nothing in the minds of the white government. The consequences of damming the river on the Zulu villagers downstream along the Phongolo River were completely ignored.

When the Phongolo River first attracted Charel’s attention as a limnologist he found that there were no roads that would allow him to get to the river and to the flood plains, so he asked a university in Durban to undertake a flight over the area and to take aerial photographs for him. He used the photos to locate cattle tracks along which he could drive his 4WD to get to the water. I was amazed at how easily this different version of my brother could find his way around in the remote bush.

“I’m going to show you the flood that I’ve just organised,” he told me. He said that he had discussed the absence of floods with the local Zulu chieftains, with Clive, an anthropologist friend who spoke Zulu fluently, acting as his interpreter. Clive had told him how outraged the chieftains were because the floods had stopped, with devastating effects on their crops.

Charel set up a water committee comprising himself and the local chieftains. At the first meeting of the committee he asked the chieftains when they would prefer a flood to occur. They negotiated a date that was acceptable to all of them. He told them that he would see what he could do about the floods.

Later, back in Pretoria at the Department of Water Affairs, Charel managed to convince his boss to allow him to arrange a flood by opening the sluice gates and letting water out of the dam for a limited period of time. The problems experienced by the Zulu villagers would not have swayed any white bureaucrat at the time, but he based his argument on the negative ecological effects downstream due to the lack of normal seasonal floods.

On the agreed date the sluice gates were opened and the first man-made flood on the Phongolo River occurred, to the amazement and delight of the Zulu chieftains downstream.

                                                                       *

Charel and I arrived at a Zulu village along the river. There were no mod cons such as electricity or water taps. The women would peer around carefully for crocodiles before quickly filling their buckets from the river. Afterwards they would boil the water on their open fires to kill off any water-borne parasites before using it for drinking water and for washing.

We slept on old mattresses on the ground under a stretched canvas that Charel had rigged up. The nearest pit toilet had no door. I asked him what to do if someone approached while I was sitting on the toilet. “When you hear anyone coming, just clear your throat to let them know you are using the toilet and they’ll keep their distance until you’ve finished.”

He opened a large metal trunk in the boot of his vehicle. It contained a great variety of foodstuffs, including delicacies such as tins of smoked mussels. “Good grief,” I exclaimed, “this is amazing!”

Charel grinned and said, “Just because we are in the middle of the Zululand bush it doesn’t mean we have to eat like the bloody blacks.”

That night I could hear the beating of drums somewhere in the distance and smell the smoke from the villagers’ fires. I could hear the click sounds of the Zulu language as the villagers conversed with each other. The stars were incredibly bright in the night sky. My heart soared.

The following day we drove to the dam wall and watched as the sluice gates opened at the pre-arranged time. A deafening torrent of water escaped from the dam and thundered down the riverbed.

Charel had asked one of the villagers to take me out on the river in a canoe the following day. Early that morning we were dropped off downstream with the canoe and spent the whole day paddling back up to the village. Only the tops of some large trees protruded above the water, which had risen by at least seven metres because of the flood. At one stage I suggested that we should row towards the top of a tree that was protruding out of the swirling water to have a look, but the villager said, “Au, that’s not a good idea. Every snake in this whole area will be up in that bit of tree.” We eventually arrived at the village just on dusk.

My brother is an old-fashioned Afrikaner who still clings tightly to his people’s original racist views in a country that has been governed by the black majority for more than twenty years since the end of Apartheid. During a recent visit I was appalled to find that he still used the old offensive Afrikaans racist terms when referring to black or coloured people.

But then, one morning, I asked him if he had been back to Zululand in recent times. He said that he had recently visited the same village where I had stayed with him. “I’ve told my family that they must send some of my ashes up there after I’ve died,” he told me. “The chieftain insists that a part of me must be buried in their village, because I was the one who had brought the annual floods back.”

BLACK MAMBA

The black mamba (Dendroaspis polylepis) is a highly venomous snake that is endemic to sub-Saharan Africa

 My heart sank when I spotted Black Mamba, a man in his forties, waiting at the bus stop as my bus was approaching it. With his nasty, thin moustache and round face, and wearing his black bus inspector’s uniform complete with cap, he could easily have passed for Heinrich Himmler’s twin brother. His nickname amongst my fellow Cape Town City Tramways bus conductors was “Black Mamba”, which befitted his reputation.

The inspectors would board our buses without prior warning to check that all the fares that we had issued had been charged correctly and that everyone on board had a valid ticket.

The bus conducting job was the only one that I had been able to secure for the three months’ university holidays. As an immature nineteen year old I was not coping well with the stresses of the job. I lacked the skills to deal effectively with the challenging behaviours of some of the passengers, who would from time to time spit on me, swear at me, refuse to pay their fares and physically threaten me. I also had to enforce the white government’s Apartheid laws, which I loathed, on the buses. I cringed every time I had to ask a black or coloured passenger to move because they were sitting in the area of the bus that was reserved for white persons only.

The so-called pickpockets who robbed passengers with impunity and would draw a knife if anyone, including the conductor, tried to take them to task, terrified me. One of my fellow conductors had already had a knife stuck through his hand, through the meaty bit between his fingers. Nevertheless one couldn’t help but be impressed with the way that the pickpockets could jump off a double-decker bus as it was still slowing down, pirouetting gracefully like ballet dancers in the process to show off.

I had come to the job with a lot of mental baggage from my year in the army; I had been conscripted on finishing my final year at school. For the duration of that whole year I had been subjected to a daily barrage of abuse and punishment from the psychopaths whose role it was to mould us into mindlessly obedient soldiers. Instead of succumbing to the brutally enforced discipline, I had developed a rock hard core of rebelliousness. Long after I had returned to civilian life I would still react with an immediate flash of anger if anyone so much as raised their voice at me.

I was close to a breakdown on the day that Black Mamba boarded my bus. I had seen him around the bus depot and had been told how mercilessly he persecuted any conductor who had made a mistake. I knew that if he found an incorrectly issued fare or someone without a valid ticket on my bus he would report me and I would have to appear in front of the bus company’s disciplinary panel, where I would be given a fine or be temporarily suspended from work. Mamba was known to consistently urge the panel to hand down the severest of penalties.

On that day I had issued a ticket to a boy who had told me that he was 13 years old. A higher fare applied to boys of 14 years and older. When the inspector checked his ticket the boy panicked and confessed that he was 14. Mamba took out his notebook. He was going to report me.

I was outraged at this injustice. “You can’t report me for that,” I told him. “When I asked him how old he was he told me that he was 13.”

“You’ve under-charged him. You gave him the wrong ticket,” he snapped, dismissing my objection out of hand.

Something instantly snapped in me. “That’s bullshit!” I snarled, advancing towards him. “You get off this f**king bus before I throw you off!”

He backed off, stomped towards the exit door and got off at the next stop.

I was beside myself, knowing full well that I would be dismissed for my outburst. I would not find another job before university resumed. How was I going to pay for my cigarette addiction and other vices for the duration of the academic year?

After a sleepless night and feeling sick with stress I fronted up at the bus depot as usual the next morning, expecting to be pulled off the job for which I had been rostered. Nothing happened, so I did my rostered shift. Perhaps Mamba was away sick, I thought.

Nothing happened the next day either, or the day after that.

Nothing ever happened.

Gradually it dawned on me that Mamba had not reported me.

At the time I was so relieved to discover that I had gotten away with such an unforgivable misdemeanour that I never wondered about Mamba’s behaviour. Now, many decades later, it is clear to me that he must have realised that I was just a kid who had lost the plot due to stress.

And that he had felt sorry for me.

At the time none of us conductors would ever have suspected that Black Mamba was not all snake.

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.

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.

LAAIPLEK

I am somewhat apprehensive when I am amongst blokes from fishing villages. They tend to be strong fellows who are not shy of throwing a punch, whereas my own physical prowess is at the lower end of the scale. Amongst such fellows one can easily get caught up in disputes that can only have unfortunate outcomes for one’s own health and safety.

Of course I shouldn’t generalise. I know from experience that not every bloke in a fishing village is hell bent on beating me up. Take Frankie, for instance. I met him in the bar of the Astoria Hotel in the fishing village of Hermanus when I was 19 years old. At the time of our first encounter we were both lying on the floor, having fallen off our respective bar stools as a result of extreme inebriation. Frankie was a truck driver who was covered in tattoos at a time when body art was the exclusive domain of those who belonged to the lowest strata of society. Frankie and I slurred our mutual introductions while prostrate on the floor and a friendship of sorts ensued.

Frankie was a heavy drinker while I was in the early stages of a binge drinking phase that continued for some years, so we shared a common interest. On the Friday night a week after we had met he came to pick me up at my parents’ house to spend a weekend at the place in Hermanus where he rented a room. I now wonder what my dad, a school principal and church elder, had made of Frankie, but he never commented at the time and I did not elicit his opinion then or later. Frankie and I got as far as the Royal Hotel in the main street of my home town, where we stopped for a while to drink glasses of beer topped up with double measures of Witblits (White Lightning) to increase the alcohol content. It is a miracle that we made it alive to Hermanus, 80 kilometres away across a couple of mountain passes. On arrival I found that Frankie’s middle-aged landlady was an alcoholic, so we all got on famously and drank ourselves into a stupor.

Hermanus in those days was home to quite a few tough nuts whose arms generally carried more muscle than my legs. One Saturday night I was at a dance at the Royal Hotel with my friend Dirk, who had a muscular build, but for some unfathomable reason was even physically weaker than me. We had had a few drinks and were minding our own business when my chair was suddenly plucked out from underneath me and I fell to the ground. I saw one of the locals walking off with my chair and, putting it down, making himself at home with a group of his mates.

I know, I know, I should have quietly slunk off while the going was good, but I didn’t. Instead, I walked up to him and said, quite politely but firmly, ‘That’s my chair that you’ve taken.’

He barely glanced at me. ‘Get lost,’ he said dismissively. ‘It was your chair. Now it’s mine.’ Then he continued his conversation with his mates.

In an insane moment of unbearably hurt pride my mouth took on a life of its own. ‘Well, f*** you!’ I retorted.

He jumped up from his chair. ‘Did you guys hear that?’ he enquired from his mates in an incredulous tone.

They all got up and formed a menacing circle around me. There was nowhere to go. He strode up to me and punched me mightily on the nose. Outmuscled by a large margin, I did not even lift a hand to try and defend myself as that would have been a pointless exercise. My nose, which was broken, started bleeding profusely.

At this juncture Dirk broke through the circle of onlookers and shouted at my attacker, ‘Leave him alone! He’s done nothing to you!’ The fellow lifted Dirk up with one hand and hurled him against the wall. Fortunately Dirk was uninjured and we managed to slink off with our tails between our legs.

Later, at our campsite, when my nose had stopped bleeding, I said to Dirk accusingly, ‘At least he could have punched you too. All he did was to throw you against the wall’.

During the following year I went with my university friends Louis and Quentin to Laaiplek (Loading Place) for a few days to dabble in door to door sales. Laaiplek is a small fishing village on the west coast to the north of Cape Town. We were flogging cheap vinyl records by little known Afrikaans country and western singers to the local populace for a small commission.

Laaiplek was a trawlerman’s town. The men had thick forearms and biceps from hauling in nets and most of them went around in shorts and bare feet. Financial planning over the duration of the year was not really their forte. During the high season for trawling for fish they earned substantial incomes and squandered it straight away on expensive cars, mostly Ford Mustangs, but during the rest of the year they barely managed to scrape by. It was a perfect town in which to sell cheap records by little known Afrikaans country and western artistes.

The three of us were sitting in the town’s only bar one evening after a day of door to door sales, having a few drinks, when the bar doors suddenly flew open and a barefooted trawlerman appeared in the doorway. ‘You three, come here!’ he bellowed in an angry voice. You can imagine my angst at this turn of events after that unfortunate incident in Hermanus. I braced myself for another battering of my body and my pride. We left our half empty glasses at the bar and did as we were told.

‘Come along and give my bakkie (ute) a push. The bloody thing won’t start.’

I was hugely relieved that his anger was directed at the bakkie and not at us.

He got into the driver’s seat, put the bakkie into gear and stepped on the clutch. ‘Let’s go!’ he bawled and we pushed with all our might. There was a downhill slope from the bar to the river below, about a hundred yards away. As the bakkie gathered speed he released the clutch and the engine grumbled into life as he hurtled towards the river. He slammed on the brakes and the bakkie skidded to within a short nose of the riverbank. Then he put it into reverse gear and put his foot down on the accelerator so that he came roaring back up the hill.

In front of the bar entrance he stopped with a skid and pulled the handbrake on. Leaving the vehicle idling, he slammed the door shut and strode off towards the bar door. Over his shoulder he snarled at the bakkie, ‘Now you can just stand there and idle while I go and have a drink, you useless piece of sh*t.’

We followed him in, gulped the remainder of our drinks down as fast as we could, and scurried off into the safety of the night.

It’s not easy being a feminist

I became a feminist of sorts long ago in a country where male chauvinism was traditional in both the white and the black communities. Not that South African women were left entirely outside the loop of male-dominated affairs. As early as the 1980s South African Airways had at least one female pilot. I know this for a fact because I was on the short flight from Johannesburg to Harare during that time when a woman’s voice came over the intercom, introducing herself as the pilot and welcoming us on board. The three redneck Afrikaners in the seats behind me sniggered derisively. “I hope she doesn’t have to go and have a pee while she’s supposed to be flying the plane,” one of them said, to the great amusement of his fellow Neanderthalers.

I first became aware of my feminist stirrings three years before Germaine Greer’s The female eunuch was published. At the time I was a mere twenty years old and working as a junior clerk in the Administration for Coloured Affairs in Cape Town. I had dropped out of university earlier that year and had unsuccessfully applied for jobs as a cigarette company rep (with company vehicle), trawlerman (I loved the sea), waiter on the Cape Town/Johannesburg train (I enjoyed traveling), and ladies’ underwear rep (don’t ask!). At long last I managed to secure a junior clerical position in the Misconduct Section of the Administration for Coloured Affairs. Our job was to punish misconduct by Coloured teachers.

There were seven of us sitting in desks positioned in two rows, with a glass wall at one end of the room beyond which our boss, Mr Van Deventer, sat and kept an eye on us from his office. Teacher misconduct embraced a wide range of misdemeanours. One of the most common of these, apart from unsatisfactory work, chronic absenteeism, drunkenness and making sexual advances to schoolgirls, was sexual relations between unmarried male and female teachers. The Administration for Coloured Affairs punished such behaviour under the provisions of Section 16 (i) of the Coloured Persons Education Act of 1963. Our job as clerks in the Misconduct Section was to write letters to offending teachers, advising them of the action that the Administration was taking against them under the provisions of the Act.

When an unmarried female teacher became pregnant to a male teacher, the standard penalty for the male teacher was a fine of sixty Rand, which was equivalent to three months’ salary. However, the female teacher’s appointment was immediately terminated without benefits and she was banned from teaching for a period of three years.

As a naïve twenty year old I took it upon myself to write a submission directly to our big boss, Mr Du Plessis, who had a large office on the floor above ours. In my submission I pointed out the inequity between the severity of the punishments that were meted out to female and male teachers in these circumstances. I suggested that this should be redressed by allowing a female teacher to return to teaching three months after her baby had been born.

I was summonsed to Mr Du Plessis’ office. I had barely had time to admire the size of his public service floor mat when he started berating me, his little moustache wobbling wildly on his upper lip with anger. “How dare you, a junior clerk, try and tell the Administration that its policy is wrong? Who do you think you are that you can write to me and comment on things that you know nothing about? Senior people set the policy, not junior clerks!” He raged on in this vein for a while longer before telling me to get out of his office and that he did not want to hear from me ever again.

Later, having emigrated to Australia, I worked for five years in the late 1970s at the Glen Waverley Library, which had a staff of 13 people. I was the only male staff member. During that time that I became better acquainted with women. Having had no sisters and having married young, the only women that I had known reasonably well until that time was my mum and my wife of the time. It was here that I realised that the majority of men of my age treated their wives and girlfriends pretty much as doormats.

One young woman, married to a plumber, complained to the others how her husband never cleared up anything or helped in the house, apart from fixing the odd thing. His clothes would lie on the floor wherever he had taken them off, the dirty dishes would be her responsibility to wash up and she did all the washing, cooking, ironing and cleaning. I thought that this was outrageously unfair, taking into account that she and her husband were both working fulltime.

“Just leave his clothes where he left them, and leave the dirty dishes in the sink,” one of the other female staff members, who was single, advised her. “That will soon make him sit up and take notice.”

The woman with the plumber husband reported a week later that it had taken her a whole weekend to clear up the mess. The clothes had just piled up higher and higher on the floor and the dirty dishes had merely increased in number, until she could stand the mess no longer.

On a very hot January day in 1980 I went with my fellow staff members from the library to have lunch at a pub in Clayton. On the way back to work afterwards I stopped at a red traffic light in my battered old Holden station wagon. Four of the women were in the car with me. My window was wound down because the Holden did not have mod cons such as air conditioning.

Unexpectedly someone said to me through the window: “Hey, mate, how do you do it? How do you pull all those women?” It was a bloke who was working on the road. His mates were consumed with mirth at this witticism.

I was quite embarrassed at this exhibition of male sexism in the presence of my female workmates and apologised to them for it. “You know, I don’t even think of you as women,” I said.

None of them responded to this and for the next couple of weeks there was a distinct chill in the air towards me from the women at work.

It’s not easy being a feminist.

Broken lives under repair

On a cold, windy winter’s morning they arrived in dribs and drabs at the featureless community meeting hall for an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. They were a mixed bag of people, from young and quite attractive through to the older ones, some of whose faces bore the signs of their long battles with alcohol and drugs. I’ve tootled along to the meeting to support someone who has a history of addiction.

It takes an iron resolve to overcome a severe addiction. The non-addict cannot imagine the daily torment of withdrawal which includes mental and physical anguish, enormous craving, depression, mood swings and stress levels so high that one feels as if one’s body might explode at any moment into a flaming inferno.

Addictive behaviour is firmly embedded in the genes of my mother’s side of my family. A number of my relatives became alcoholics and drug addicts and I was heavily addicted to smoking myself when I was young. At the age of thirteen I was already unable to get through a day without having a puff. Once I had reached the age of consent and I no longer had to skulk out of sight to have a smoke I quickly progressed to being a chain-smoker. Before I had even properly opened my eyes first thing in the morning I would light a cigarette or pipe and draw the smoke deep into my lungs to relieve my craving for nicotine.

I had tried many times to break the habit. In my late twenties I ‘cold-turkeyed’ and did not smoke for nine months, before taking up smoking once again. It was not until I was 32 years old that I succeeded. At that time I was so determined to stop smoking that I told myself I would die before I would smoke again even once, and I damn near died from the withdrawal symptoms because they were so severe. Years afterwards I still had recurring dreams of lighting a cigarette and deeply inhaling the smoke. Breaking my addiction to smoking was one of the most difficult things that I have ever done in my life.

The first person that I spotted outside the hall was one of my own people, an African who is a successful businessman from Uganda. I introduced myself and we first chatted about African affairs, as one does when one meets a fellow African. Then he confided to me that his wife had divorced him four years earlier. He was so heartbroken that he had purposely tried to drink himself to death, but he had survived and in the process he had become an alcoholic.

I told him that I had been through a divorce myself once. “Does the pain ever go away?” he asked me plaintively, and then added “I wish I could be married again, even if it is to someone who gives me a really hard time. That wouldn’t matter.”

During the meeting he recounted how he was shopping a few days earlier when he spotted a bottle of alcohol-free wine on the supermarket shelf. As he was about to put it in his trolley, a little voice in his head told him what would happen if he went ahead and bought it. He slapped himself on the side of the head for effect as he spoke. One bottle of alcohol-free wine, the little voice said, and the next one will surely be wine with alcohol. “That was my little victory for the week, putting that bottle back on the shelf.”

He had gone to see the movie Flight, in which Denzel Washington plays the role of an alcoholic pilot. In one scene the main character was in hospital and he had a water bottle by his bedside that contained an alcoholic drink. “Damn, I was so angry when I saw that. I thought I was the only one who had invented that water bottle trick!” He laughed heartily, his white teeth dazzling in his coal black face.

A man in his forties with a sorrowful countenance became an alcoholic after his daughter had died and he had found himself incapable of coping with his grief. He has had a couple of bad days during the week, he said, but he has survived them and has managed to stay clean. The others congratulated him and he smiled shyly.

There was an older bloke with a battered Akubra hat who wore his shirt inside out. “Why do you wear your shirt like that?” one of the others asked him.

“I do the same with me socks so I can wear them for longer before I have to wash them,” he explains.  He had been to Queensland for a holiday and while he was there he had stuck to his routine of going to AA meetings. He has not touched alcohol for twenty years, but he knows what he has to do to stay sober. For him, addiction is a lifelong affliction which he cannot afford to allow back in through any small crack in his routine.

The person whom I had accompanied to the meeting to support hung his head when it was his turn to speak. He has fallen off the wagon over the weekend, taking mega-doses of painkillers. “I can’t even remember the last few days,” he mumbled, “but I’m still going to try to be clean.” The others all offered unqualified encouragement. They have all been there before.

An attractive woman in her early thirties talked about her addictions to alcohol, heroin and crystal meth and how they had brought her to her knees. She was softly spoken and talked hesitantly about her love for her five year old son, who was being cared for by her mum whilst she was undergoing an extended residential rehab program.

One fellow recounted how he would go on a binge drinking session every time that he had an argument with his wife. He would disappear for days, drinking himself into oblivion in a park and regularly ending up in hospital, nearly dying on a couple of occasions. Another bloke responded laughingly, “Hell, I used to pick a fight with my wife on purpose so that I could storm out of the house and go on a drinking binge!”

Listening to these people who are trying so hard every single day to repair their broken lives, I was filled with admiration for their heroic efforts against their powerful demons. Instead of finding a group of hopeless hobos at the AA meeting as I had anticipated, I discovered some articulate battlers from every walk of life, supporting each other daily on a treacherous journey through life that the non-addicts have been spared.

A Karoo story of another kind, by Robert Jaentsch

Dedicated to Tim Bruwer who awakened an almost forgotten but cherished memory of the Karoo …

There are two main routes for travelling by road from Johannesburg to Cape Town in South Africa. You can take the N1 highway via Bloemfontein or the N12 via Kimberley. On this occasion we travelled via Kimberley.

A mighty interesting town is Kimberley. Nearly everyone knows about the Big Hole, also known as Kimberley Mine. It has an area of 38 acres at the surface, is 790 feet deep and nowadays is about half full of water. Between 1871 and 1914, 25 million tons of earth was excavated from it yielding fourteen and a half million carats, or roughly three tons, of diamonds.

Not everyone knows it was on a farm owned by the De Beer brothers and in 1871 they sold it for £6,000, after diamonds had been found. By 1892 Kimberley had a tent encampment of 50,000 diggers and it was plain to some that consolidation had to come. Enter a young man from London’s east end, named Barney Barnato, and a vicar’s son from Bishops Stortford, in England, named Cecil Rhodes. They each began buying up small claims. Eventually Rhodes bought out Barnato and the remaining small claims to form De Beers Mining Company, which to this day controls the distribution of most of the world’s diamonds.

Perhaps even less known is that when the Boer War started in October 1899, the Boers, in a series of daring raids, besieged the British garrison at Kimberley and also those at Ladysmith and Mafeking. It took the British over 200 days to liberate those garrisons and it was at Mafeking, during the siege, that Robert Baden-Powell formed the Boy Scout movement. In the early stages of that war the Brits, with their scarlet tunics and conventional war tactics, were no match for the Boers, in their Khaki drabs using guerrilla warfare tactics. That war was the most costly of all wars fought by Britain up to that time. They sent 500,000 men from most countries of the Commonwealth and it took two and a half years and a parched earth policy to subdue 35,000 Boers.

Kimberley sits at the eastern edge of the Karoo, a semi arid desert region that extends through much of central South Africa. The drive from Kimberley to Beaufort West is the South African equivalent of crossing the Nullarbor. It’s by no means so far but is similar because there is so little evidence of civilisation along the way. By one o’clock we were beginning to feel hungry and thirsty for the Karoo is a hot place to travel through, especially in summer. Though I stopped at every small congregation of buildings in the hope of finding sustenance there was nothing at all that would satisfy a vegetarian. Did I mention that Mrs J is a vegetarian?

At a place called Matjiesfontein we turned off the main road to fill the car with petrol. As far as we could see it comprised a railway station, post office, two petrol bowsers, a couple of fine two story houses, a scattering of cottages and the splendid Lord Milner Hotel which seemed so completely out of place here at the southern edge of the Great Karoo. After refuelling we walked along the only street to the hotel and stepped inside to see if it was possible to get something to eat and drink. The entrance foyer had a tessellated tile floor that was a work of art, an ornate ceiling of several different kinds of timber and a grand mahogany staircase that took you to the upper floor. Stepping inside you knew immediately this was pure luxury, but what was it doing out here in the desert?

At three o’clock in the afternoon we were the only patrons in the dining room and serving lunch had finished. It was cool and elegant with an unmistakably Victorian ambiance, furnished with antiques of the period and with the faintest fragrance of lemon balm in the air. A waitress in a servant’s dress of black with white cuffs and collar and a pale blue bonnet on her head courteously showed us to a table. We asked if they had anything that was cool and refreshing and suitable for a vegetarian. We were so hungry we’d have been grateful for Marmite on toast but when the waitress returned with bowls of chilled carrot and orange soup we could hardly believe our eyes. It was like being in some sort of time warp. Half an hour ago we were driving through a hot, desolate landscape, now we sat in the cool comfort of a sumptuous Victorian dining room being served chilled carrot and orange soup. How had it happened? The soup tasted so good and was so refreshing we each had a second bowl. As we drove out of Matjiesfontein towards Cape Town we promised ourselves we would stop here again on our return journey.

When the Cape Railway from Cape Town to Kimberley was being built, a Scotsman, one James Logan, was given the concession to supply food at the stations along the route. He suffered from a bronchial condition and found this benefitted from the warm, dry climate at the edge of the Karoo and was astute enough to recognise that many well heeled folk in Europe who suffered from similar complaints could benefit in the same way. He purchased Matjiesfontein farm, built a water pumping station there and turned it into a lush, green oasis with sculptured gardens, fountains, duck ponds, tennis courts and a swimming pool with luxurious villas to accommodate his wealthy guests. In 1899 he built a luxury hotel opposite the railway station and named it the Lord Milner after the Governor of the Cape Colony. His timing was a bit off for by the time it was finished the Boer War was under way and it became a military hospital and headquarters of the Cape Western Command with 10,000 British soldiers living in tents on the farm.

When the Boer War ended the Lord Milner became a fashionable and favoured holiday retreat and spa for those with the money to enjoy it, because of its salubrious climate, its luxurious appointments and the excellence of its food, wine and service. Randolph Churchill, Cecil Rhodes and Rudyard Kipling were frequent visitors and, Edgar Wallace, war correspondent, then crime writer and author of the original King Kong, sent his Boer War dispatches from there.

When James Logan died in 1920 Matjiesfontein began a slow decline that continued until the 1960s when South African entrepreneur David Rawdon bought the entire village and restored it to its former Victorian elegance.

On our return journey we stayed overnight at the Lord Milner so we could step back in time and enjoy the very best that the Victorian era could offer. After an enjoyable lunch we spent a relaxing afternoon just exploring all that was on offer that we had missed on our first visit and lazing about to take it all in. And it took some taking in, all this man made beauty and luxury in this desolate desert setting.

Dinner was formal and for me that meant a jacket and bow tie. Mrs J wore a loose fitting floral print dress that covered her from neck to ankles, the closest approximation to Victoriana from her holiday wardrobe. Of course no self respecting gentleman and woman would be seen in public without a hat in Victorian times and the hotel provided us with these. The three course dinner was excellent, with crisp white tablecloths, monogrammed fine china crockery, and real silver cutlery. I had the Karoo lamb, which South Africans will tell you is the best there is. Dessert was served from a trolley so that the senses of sight and smell could influence your choice, so much more satisfying than a description on a menu card. After dinner we walked again in the gardens and they were devastatingly romantic in the cool, clear, crisp, night air of the Karoo and a sky in which the stars twinkled with a clarity never matched in a city.

Next morning, after breakfast and before we departed, we walked through the veldt on the other side of the railway station. Amidst the delicate colours and sweet scent of the wild flowers which bloom from the merest sprinkle of summer rains, I tried to imagine the scene when it was inhabited by 10,000 British troops. A reflection of the sun caught my eye and I kicked at it, then bent and picked up a spent brass cartridge case from a Lee Enfield .303 rifle. For years it stood as a reminder of an enchanted visit back in time to the Victorian era in that most unlikely place at the edge of the Karoo.

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