Category Archives: Writings

10,000 steps

Now that I am at the stage of my life where I can faintly discern the skeleton figure holding a scythe in the distance, I have started thinking about where I would like my ashes to be laid to rest. My daughter told me she was going to keep them in an urn in her house. I can’t think of anywhere worse to end up than being cooped up in an urn on a shelf, gathering dust, so I had to start thinking of more palatable alternatives that I could foist onto my family.

My initial idea was to have my ashes scattered in our garden. Then I recalled disposing of my father-in-law’s ashes in their lovely rose garden in the village of Marlow in England, only to find some years later that the new owners of the house had converted the rose garden into a boring lawn. In any case, the thought of ending up in a garden eventually owned by total strangers does not appeal.

Having considered the matter further, I decided my ashes should be taken out to sea and scattered at the Devil’s Cauldron in the ocean at Hermanus, a small coastal village in South Africa where I had spent many happy holidays with my family as a child. The Devil’s Cauldron is a group of small rocks jutting out of the sea. Through all the twists and turns in my life over the years, this was a constant familiar sight to me since early childhood. One of the first things that I do whenever I visit Hermanus is to stand on the cliff and gaze at the Devil’s Cauldron.

099 Hermanus 5 - The Devil's Boiling Pot

The Devil’s Cauldron, Hermanus

A while ago I met up with my old aunt, Mara, who lives in Hermanus. She is a born again Christian who is well aware of the fact that I am an infidel. When I told her of my wish to have my ashes scattered at the Devil’s Cauldron, Mara looked me straight in the eye and declared, “Yes, that would be right!”

But recently I changed my mind again when I came to realise what bureaucratic and logistical hurdles and expense I would burden my family with if I insisted on the Devil’s Cauldron as my final abode. I was still trying to resolve the matter of my ashes in my mind when I met my friend Alan the Wandering Philosopher earlier this week on my daily walk along the Diamond Creek.

*

My obsession with walking 10,000 steps per day started fourteen years ago, when I was working at Moreland City Council in Melbourne. Our CEO had decided to encourage the members of the corporate management team to adopt a healthier lifestyle by walking 10,000 steps each day. He gave us each a step counter to wear on our belts so we could monitor our number of daily steps. At that time my job was all consuming. I spent most of my time sitting in meetings or in front of a computer at my desk. Due to work pressures I normally worked through my lunch hour and rarely ventured outside.

The first three days I wore the step counter I barely made it to 2,000 steps each day. Horrified by this result I started going for walks at lunchtimes and after dinner. I also began to park my car at the far end of the car park at the supermarket, instead of as close to the entrance as possible. Over a year or so I gradually changed my habits and increased my number of steps until I averaged 10,000 steps per day.

My wife calls me obsessive and I am not denying she has a point. “I’m just popping outside for a few minutes,” I would say after dinner.

She would roll her eyes and ask, “Still a few steps short of the 10,000 for the day then, are you?”

To which I would reply something like, “Yep, I still have another 327 steps to go. I’ll be back soon.”

When she remarks on my obsessive bent I tell her, in my own defence: “At least my obsessions are healthy ones. I could have been obsessed with chasing other women, or with getting drunk, so don’t complain.”

As part of my daily routine I walk along the Diamond Creek footpath every day. There is a spot just past the crest of an incline, before a long sweep in the path towards the west, where the local Council has done some repair works to the footpath. There is a cross-lying strain-relief groove across the path and the colour of the path changes there to a lighter shade of grey, where a section of the path has been replaced. It is exactly 4,800 steps from the car park to this point. It is here that I turn around each day after carefully stepping over the groove, in the knowledge I would make up the rest of my daily 10,000 steps by going to the supermarket and through normal other daily activity.

Alan the Wandering Philosopher, whom I often run into on my morning walk, knows all about my obsession. He texted me recently:

“I was walking along the creek path this morning. When I reached the exact spot at the path where you always turn around on your walk I couldn’t help wondering whether obsession might not be nine tenths of the law.”

“Closer to 99% in my case”, I texted back.

Earlier this week I ran into him again along the creek path and we walked together. When we got to the spot where I always turn back, he joked, “Make sure you step right across the groove before you turn back, eh.”

Suddenly a light bulb flashed inside my head.

“You know what? I think I’m going to ask my family to scatter my ashes right here after I’ve carked it.”

To which he replied: “Good idea! Just make sure they know to scatter them on the far side of the groove.”

The Jewish violinist

I was introduced to Ron by Audrey, my mother-in-law, at the aged care facility in Doncaster where she was living at the time. He was a psychologist who regularly visited the oldies to entertain them by performing with his violin. When Audrey discovered that Ron had grown up in South Africa like her son-in-law, she insisted on introducing us.

On meeting each other, Ron and I did the usual two-step that former South Africans in Australia do when they first meet. We skirted around in conversation until we had each established what kind of South African the other person was—cultural background, racist or anti-racist, economic or political migrant and suchlike. I learnt that Ron was Jewish and that, like me, he had no tolerance for racism. Once it had been clarified that we were both generally on the same page we compared experiences of growing up in South Africa during the Apartheid era with its legalised racism.

Ron told me that he had regularly played the violin in an orchestra in the early 1980s to earn some cash as a nineteen year old university student in Durban. On one occasion the orchestra had been engaged to perform in the town hall of a small town just outside Durban. The orchestra’s performance was paid for by the town Council and entry was free of charge to the public.

Ron had travelled to the venue by train. As the audience began arriving Ron noticed that the venue staff on duty were refusing entry to a family of coloured (mixed race) people that had come along to hear the orchestra performing. Ron walked to the entrance and asked a staff member why some people had been refused entry. He was told that the hall was a “Whites Only” venue and that the law forbade the races to mix at performance venues.

Ron was horrified. He immediately approached the conductor of the orchestra, a man of Afrikaner background in his fifties, and told him what he had witnessed. “This is outrageous” Ron declared. “We should cancel the performance.”

The conductor frowned and replied that it was the law of the land. “We are not here to dabble in politics, Ron. We are here merely to perform as an orchestra and that is what we are getting paid for.”

Ron took his violin out of its case to get ready for the performance, then hesitated and put it back. He went up to the conductor again. “Whether it is the law of the land or not, I really don’t think we should allow anyone coming to our performance to be humiliated like that. This is just disgusting and I feel very strongly that we should all just pack up and leave now.”

The conductor became visibly annoyed. “Listen to me, Ron,” he said, “just forget about the politics and get ready to do what you are getting paid for—to play the violin.” Ron returned to his seat, took his violin out again with shaking hands, but then put it back.

He went to confront the conductor once more and said, “I cannot in full conscience play in this hall after what has happened. Does it really take a Jew to tell a Christian how to behave like a Christian, sir?” Then he grabbed his violin case and angrily hurried off into the night.

The next few days Ron was racked by anxiety. He was convinced that he would be sacked from the orchestra because of his behaviour and with that his only source of income would be lost.

The next rehearsal was due a few days later. Ron was in two minds about attending, but he reluctantly decided to turn up and to have the matter over and done with. He anxiously wondered at what stage the issue would be raised and whether he would be held to account in front of the other members of the orchestra, or privately.

On arriving at the rehearsal neither the conductor nor any of the others made any reference to what had transpired. Once the rehearsal had finished Ron got up to leave, bracing himself for the conductor to call him aside. But the fellow simply picked up his things, said “Bye” with a slightly awkward smile in Ron’s direction and with a wave of his hand left the building.

Afterwards, the episode was never once mentioned by anyone, just as if it had never happened.

 

Papua New Guinean sojourn

In 1980 my wife and I went to Papua New Guinea on a three year contract to work for the National Library Service in Port Moresby. My job was to train Papua New Guinean staff so that they could take over positions held at the time by expatriates.

On my first day at work the Deputy National Librarian asked Ben Gar, a Papua New Guinean staff member from West New Britain, to show me where I could buy a take-away for lunch. Ben drove me to a little caravan that sold food and drinks. We each bought a hot dog and a bottle of Coke. Ben asked the seller for a bottle opener, but she said that someone had stolen it, so Ben gripped the top of my Coke bottle between his molars and prized the top off.

There was no television service in the country at the time, but there were two cinemas in town, one of which was a drive-in. The drive-in was the only public place where one could sit outside in the tropical evening in a folding chair, safe from the ‘rascals’ (young thugs) who ruled the streets after dark. Often people would take along a picnic dinner to eat there, or occasionally bring along a birthday cake with candles.

The first time we went to the cinema we saw “Saturday Night Fever”. During a scene where a young man fell to his death from a bridge, the Papua New Guinean policeman who was sitting next to me had an uncontrollable fit of laughter whilst grabbing me by the shoulder and shaking me.

I distinctly remember a double feature that we saw which was typical of the type of fare that the cinema dished up. The first film was an Israeli production called “Parachute dog”. The dog and his military master jumped out of an aeroplane behind the enemy lines in separate parachutes. The dog wobbled in the parachute. It was patently obvious that it was made from some solid substance, probably wood. In a later scene its master was ambushed and shot dead, only to reappear later in the film as though that incident had never happened. It was hilarious. The second film was “American disco”, about an Italian teenager whose entire dream was focused on going to America to become a DJ in an American disco. How could a viewer avoid being swept along in the excitement of someone chasing such an exotic dream?

Having fully explored the cultural offerings of the cinemas and having become bored of the menus at the only two restaurants in town, we started socialising in the evenings, playing bridge and backgammon and the like. At work the males of our motley crew of expatriates tried to outdo each other with colourful shirts on Fridays, the day on which the Papua New Guinean staff usually wore their traditional lap laps. My piece de resistance was a splotchy red batik shirt that I had bought in Cairns, but the competition petered out once an American colleague, Fraiser, came in to work sporting a shirt that he had bought in Hawaii whilst on holiday. The design comprised a combination of yachts and red lobsters. The rest of us lost heart for the Friday dress-ups after that.

The National Library staff played a series of cricket matches against the staff and students of the Library Diploma Course at the Administrative College. Our games started at 4.30 pm on Fridays and were invariably of quite brief duration, as it was very rare for a player on either side to get to double figures. We would hurry through the overs as the storm clouds gathered every afternoon in the rainy season, exploding in a deafening thunderstorm at around 6 pm.

Our best player was Rosa Memafu, a tall lady from the Gulf province, whose fast bowling was feared by all the players of the College team.

 

cricket-match-rosa-memafu-bowling

Rosa Memafu (second from right) lets fly with a fast ball

Few of us wore shoes to work and none of us wore ties, as it was just too hot and humid to wear such items. The pair of black shoes that I took along from Australia soon turned green with rot in my cupboard, while large cockroaches chewed holes in the leather. I went about my business in a pair of cheap rubber thongs. However, I had a pair of leather thongs in my office to wear on special occasions, such as to meetings with the Director of Education or with the Minister for Education.

During my time in Papua New Guinea I wore a tie on one occasion only, and that was for the Queen’s visit. I also wore my leather thongs. The National Librarian, Sir John Yocklunn, was responsible for arranging the visit by the Queen and Prince Philip and he had arranged good seats for us for the event.

neil-nicholls-tim-dressed-up-for-qeii-visit

Tim and a colleague with bilums (string bags), dressed up for the Queen’s visit

It was a spectacular affair. We watched from the sports pavilion, sitting within a stone’s throw from the Queen and Prince, while many different indigenous groups were dressed up in their traditional finery in honour of the royal visit.

qeii-visit-09

The Queen and Prince Philip wave to the Highlanders

The condition of the dogs in Port Moresby was a constant source of distress to me. The vast majority of dogs were underfed or were fed a poor diet consisting mostly of leftover rice or stale pieces of bread. A lot of the dogs had lost most of their hair and were covered in sores.

When I eventually returned to Australia I had to stop overnight in Sydney. A few of the passengers from my Air Niugini flight shared a small bus which transported us from the airport to the city hotels. An Australian missionary who had been in Papua New Guinea for a couple of years introduced himself to me. When our bus stopped at a red traffic light we noticed a big Alsatian dog sitting on the rear seat in the car next to us. We stared at its glossy fur in wonder. The missionary took the words out of my mouth. “Just look at that,” he said, pointing at the dog. “That dog looks good enough to eat!”

The next day when I arrived at Melbourne’s airport I looked around forlornly for a bright, colourful lap lap or bilum bag, but I found myself afloat in a sea of drab clothing.

The bad parent

I know full well how good parents behave. They are consistent in their dealings with their children, set clear parameters for the children’s behaviour and always take appropriate disciplinary action when their children step over the line of acceptable behaviour.

I have few illusions about my own performance as a parent. I admit that I was a hopeless parent and that I just did not have the right personality to be anything but mediocre in a parenting role.

In our household, as our children were growing up, there was a lot of inconsistency in how we dealt with them as parents and far too little discipline. Gill, my wife, who was intent on setting and enforcing the rules of appropriate behaviour, was constantly frustrated at what she viewed, with good reason, as my unsupportive if not downright undermining actions.

My problem is that I am a hopeless softie who lacks the toughness required to be a good parent. I would say, for instance, “If you do that again I’ll ground you tomorrow,” but the next day I would feel so sorry for the child that I would not enforce the threatened punishment. This probably stems from my own upbringing by loving but super-strict parents who never gave me any leeway when I was growing up. I knew the right thing to do as a parent, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it.

My daughter Laura could twist me around her little finger ever since she was quite small. When she was at primary school I would take her with me to the Greensborough Shopping Centre, where she would tell me out of the blue, for instance, that she had run out of jeans and needed a new pair.

“Are you sure?” I would ask. “I thought you had a few pairs of jeans.”

“No,” Laura would tell me firmly. “They’re all very old and daggy and I need a new pair. The other girls will laugh at me if I keep going around in those old jeans that are faded and full of holes.”

I would then buy her a new pair of jeans of her choice, not the cheap Target ones that her mum would have insisted on. As soon as we’d get home and Gill found out about the new jeans she would be outraged and tell me, “Why do you allow yourself to be sucked in by that child? I bought her a new pair of jeans just last week! You spoil her silly and then I always end up looking like the bad cop.”

Laura is a lovable child, but she would never listen to a thing that I told her. Her first car was an old Hyundai which you couldn’t lock or unlock remotely with the key. When she first had her P-plates she rang me one night at 2 a.m. to ask me to bring her spare car key from home, as she was in the city and had locked her keys in her car. Grumbling to myself, I did as she had asked.

“Don’t ever lock your car door by pushing in the locking button on the door,” I advised her when I got to the city. “Always lock your car door with the key. That way you can’t lock your keys in your car.”

Barely a week had gone by when she rang me mid-afternoon from Diamond Creek’s main road, about two kilometres from our house. She had locked her keys in her car again. When I got there, I said to her, “Why don’t you ever listen to me, Laura? I’ve told you that you must always lock your car door with the key.”

Quite matter-of-factly she replied, “When have I ever listened to a thing you’ve told me, Dad?”

I saw a program on television the other night in which they were discussing parenthood. “A parent should never try to be friends with their children,” an expert pronounced. “That is not the parent’s role. The parent is there to set boundaries and to teach the child appropriate behaviour, not to be the child’s friend.”

I thought about this and realised that I had never really cut the mustard as a parent. The day after I told Laura what the fellow on the television had said. “I have to apologise to you,” I told her. “I’ve been a really bad father when you grew up – erratic and inconsistent. And I never disciplined you like a good father should.”

Laura was silent for a little while. Then she smiled that cheeky smile of hers that always melts my heart and said, “That fellow on the television was talking rubbish. You were the best dad that anyone could ever hope for. I used to get away with everything. It was a great way to grow up! And I haven’t turned out too bad, have I?”

 

 

Day trip to Catembe

My friends Genimaree, Jo, and Ron travelled to Mozambique with me where we spent a few days in the capital, Maputo. Mozambique is one of the poorest countries in the world, with a GDP of US$605 per capita, as compared to Australia’s US$54,717. Everywhere in the city we were confronted by crumbling infrastructure, with a great many potholes in the roads and with the once luxurious buildings from the Portuguese colonial era looking like badly faded photographs of their former glory.

After a few days we were all yearning to see a place that was modern and well-maintained. Genimaree, the only one of us who had bothered to take a travel guide on our trip, told us excitedly one morning that there was a four star hotel in Catembe, on the other side of the bay, that we could go to for the day. It all sounded very pleasant and civilised and we were hooked.

We walked down to the wharf, where the guide book had said we could catch a water taxi to Catembe. When we arrived there we queued for a long time in the blazing sun for our turn to buy our tickets at a small, ramshackle ticket office that was well past its prime. Ours were the only European faces in the queue. The cost of a return ticket was only 60c per person. The old saying that you get what you pay for did cross my mind at the time.

110-maputo-waiting-for-catembe-boat

 

The water taxi, named Mapapai II, was small and overloaded and we were more than a little relieved when we made it safely across the bay to Catembe.

Upon arrival at Catembe we could see no sign of a taxi or any form of public transport. The prospect of a 4 km walk to the hotel along the dusty road in the searing tropical heat did not appeal to us.

113-catembe-02

 

Much to our relief a Mozambican man approached us and offered to take us to the hotel in his “small car” for a fee. We accepted his offer and he walked us to his car, which turned out to be an old ute. Beggars can’t be choosers, we thought, so we all hopped happily onto the back of the ute, where we sat on some old tyres. But the engine would not start.

The driver called over some boys who were lounging about and asked them to push-start the ute. Twice they pushed the vehicle and twice the engine refused to start. They all started wandering off. The driver jumped out and enticed them to have another go. This time the ute took off with a spluttering engine. Some of the boys jumped onto the back with us, beaming with happiness at the opportunity to go along for the ride.

dscf0435

 Photo courtesy of Ron Exiner

The hotel was nice and had a pool, but to our dismay we found that it was closed for renovations. We talked to the fellow in charge of the renovation work and asked him if we could use the pool, having travelled all the way to the hotel in the heat. Not only did he offer us use of the pool for as long as we wished, but he also arranged for one of his assistants to cook lunch for us at a very reasonable price. The fish dish was to die for.

We lounged around the pool until the late afternoon, when the fellow with the ute returned at the agreed time to pick us up and drive us back to the wharf. The young boys were also on the back with us again.

131-catembe-12

 

During the afternoon the sea had become quite rough and we boarded the water taxi with trepidation.

143-catembe-our-water-taxi-2

 

Ignoring a sign that stipulated a maximum of 14 passengers in rough weather, the pilot piled 32 people on to the boat. As soon as all the passengers were on board, the boat started to list to the port side. The pilot barked out urgent orders to rearrange some of the passengers so that the boat would remain upright.

144-catembe-our-water-taxi-3

 

Somewhat to our surprise the water taxi made it safely back across the bay to Maputo. As we stepped off onto the quay Ron said to me quietly, so that Genimaree or Jo would not hear, “Hey, Tim, I take you any bet that water taxi’s predecessor, the Mapapai 1, is lying somewhere on the bottom of the drink out there.”

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.

 

Something borrowed …

Warning: This short story contains adult themes that may offend some readers.

Lady Olivia opened the front door to Picton House, took one step into the hallway, then turned around to shake the worst of the raindrops from her umbrella before taking it to the boot room to dry. She was immaculately dressed, as always, and had managed to keep dry despite the grey drizzle on that English autumn day. She caught sight of herself in the hall mirror and sighed slightly as she observed the grey streak where she had parted her hair.

She took off her cashmere coat and hung it on the coat rack. The house was quiet, as it was Gretel’s day off. She was about to ascend the staircase to go to her bedroom and change into something less formal, when she heard the sound of groans and gasping coming from the direction of the snug. Lady Olivia was startled. Oh my God, she thought, Edward must be having a heart attack!

Concerned, she hurried into the snug, her heels clattering on the timber floor. Sir Edward turned around in his armchair, looking slightly bewildered. He had been watching something on the television, from where the sounds were emanating.

“Oh, it’s you Olivia! I thought you were going to have your hair done this morning.”

On the television a writhing couple were engaged in a type of private act that was never mentioned in polite society and which Lady Olivia had certainly never witnessed before.

“I did go to the hairdresser,” she explained, “but Nancy was just about to start washing my hair when her sister rang about some family emergency and she had to rush off urgently.”

There was an awkward silence that lasted a few brief moments. Then Sir Edward cleared his throat.

“I was just watching this film, which one of the chaps at the club had lent to me. Apparently it is something that he described as a ‘retro classic’. The main actor,” continued Sir Edward, “is quite well … er … proportioned.”

Lady Olivia looked intently at the screen. “Oh yes,” she agreed, after a minute or so had elapsed, “I do believe you are right.”

“His name was John Holmes,” Sir Edward elaborated. “Apparently he was quite well known in his time for his acting in this sort of … er … genre. I was told that his nickname was ‘Long John’ Holmes, for reasons that are quite clear when one watches him in this film.” Sir Edward guffawed loudly at his own witticism, as he invariably did when he had come up with some amusing statement.

He turned back in his armchair to watch the remainder of the film. Lady Olivia took a seat on the couch to his right. When the film ended a few minutes later and the credits were rolling up the screen, Sir Edward observed, “Ha! Quite an unusual film, what?”

Lady Olivia concurred that it was indeed a most unusual film.

Then she got up from the couch, pushed a stray hair back from her slightly damp forehead and asked brightly, “Shall I go and make us a nice cup of tea, then?”

Cape Town’s bio cafés

“Bio” is an abbreviation of “bioscope” (the term by which cinemas were referred to in South Africa)

In the late 1950s, when I was in my early teens living in Cape Town, there were a number of so-called bio cafés in the city. Cape Town also had its full-sized cinemas like the Colosseum, the Metro, the Alhambra with its twinkling stars on the firmament of its high, dark blue ceiling, and the Van Riebeeck. By contrast the bio cafés were small, narrow, dank places with the air thick with swirling cigarette smoke. Their popularity stemmed from the fact that they always showed a double feature and one could sit there all day if one wished to, watching the same two films over and over again. As an added bonus, you were served a free, sweet Kool Aid soft drink.

There were three bio cafés that my brother Charel and I frequented. They were called the Pigalle, the Elstree and the Roxy. It was in one of these cinemas that I had sat in my seat frozen with fear as I had watched a black and white horror movie about zombies. I had shut my eyes tightly in terror as the zombies, having risen from the dead, stumbled amongst the trees through a thick fog on their way to visit some unimaginable horror upon an unsuspecting victim.

I had a love-hate relationship with horror films, but that did not stop me from also going to see the 1956 movie “The werewolf” in a bio café. The lead character in the movie had been lost and had ended up in a remote village, where someone had injected him with a serum that contained wolf’s blood. This had caused him to sprout thick fur and to turn into a bloodthirsty werewolf whenever the moon was full. It was a scary film. I was a little surprised at the time that it had not been nominated for an Oscar, as it was a far better film than “Giant” or “The Ten Commandments”.

Another movie that sticks in my mind from the bio café days is “Reach for the sky”, the story of the British World War 2 fighter pilot Douglas Bader, who had kept on flying despite having lost both his legs in an aeroplane accident. And then there were my favourites, those American Western movies featuring Audie Murphy.

Charel, two and a half years my senior, is very tall. Even in his teens he could easily pass for someone much older than his actual age. He could therefore bypass the “No persons under 18 years” restrictions where they applied to films when he was no older than 14.

He told me in detail about “The fly”, a 1958 horror film which he had seen, but from which I had been excluded because at 13 years of age I couldn’t beat the 16 years age restriction. His mere account of the film’s storyline freaked me out so much that I was relieved that my bluff had been called and that I had been refused entry. It was about a scientist whose atoms had mutated with that of a fly during a scientific experiment. Terrifying stuff!

When I visited Charel in South Africa recently, we reminisced about the old bio cafés in Cape Town and how much we had enjoyed going to them. It transpired that he had other fish to fry in his mid-teens besides horror movies, when it came to going to the bio cafés. The object of every teenage boy’s fantasies in those days was Brigitte Bardot, a super-sexy French movie star.

“You know,” Charel told me, “the best show that I ever saw at a bio café was a double feature of two Brigitte Bardot movies. I rocked up as soon as the place opened in the morning and I stayed there the whole day, watching the same two movies over and over again. And you know what? The next day I went back and did the same thing again!”

Helderberg Hostel 1965

During my first year at university in 1965 my brother Charel and I shared a room at the Helderberg Men’s Student Hostel in Stellenbosch, a university town in South Africa. My parents had been very strict with us as we were growing up. It is therefore not surprising that we were disinclined to exert any sort of self-discipline when we were let off the leash and living away from home. 

We were frequent binge drinkers and the row of empty wine bottles on the pelmet above the window in our hostel room attested to our predilection for alcohol. On the rare occasion that our parents rang to tell us that they would be driving over from our home town 14 miles distant to bring us some cake or other treat, we would hurriedly hide the bottles in a cupboard. 

Once in a while there would be a promotion for Lieberstein wine at the hotel near the hostel. Lieberstein, affectionately known as “Liebies”, was a cheap, fruity white wine which was favoured by cash-strapped students such as ourselves. For an hour from 5 pm on the day of the promotion one could drink as much Lieberstein as one wanted, free of charge. The news of a Lieberstein promotion would spread like wildfire and many of the Helderberg Hostel students would rush to the hotel at 5 pm, crowd around the bar and gulp down glasses of the disgusting liquid as fast as they could. I was usually slumped on my knees over the toilet well before the Lieberstein hour had run its course. 

Returning to the hostel after one such Lieberstein promotion, we were informed that the men from our hostel had to join the female students at Minerva, one of the female hostels, for dinner. We arrived there with some of us lurching and slurring our words. During dinner a few of the students were overcome with nausea and had to rush off to the toilet. One fellow did not quite make it to the toilet door in time. I attempted to conduct myself with dignity, doing my best to appear sober, trying to speak clearly and grimly hanging on to the seat of my chair so that I wouldn’t fall off. 

One day Charel set off for his Chemistry practical class immediately after lunchtime, when we had spent the morning drinking cheap wine. Picture a 205 cm bloke in a white lab coat getting on his bicycle and wobbling drunkenly towards the exit of the car park in front of the hostel. He did not get far, toppling off the bicycle and crouching on his hands and knees. He was unable to get back up, so I rushed outside to help him back to our room. 

We were both keen snooker players. To use a snooker table one had to feed the coin machine to turn on the light above the table. Our problem was that we were chronically short of cash. What little money we did have was spent on alcohol and on feeding our nicotine addictions. The hostel had its own snooker table, so Charel opened the windows facing the adjacent tennis court to allow the light in so that we could play snooker without having to pay for the light. 

This practice eventually got us into trouble. One of the other students had walked in on us and had reported us to the hostel’s Student Representative Council (SRC). We had to appear before the SRC, comprising four unsmiling, ultra-conservative senior students. Charel was a master of bullsh*t, so I left all the talking to him. He earnestly protested our innocence, claiming that the light had gone off mere seconds before the informer had entered the snooker room. The SRC let us off with a stern warning. 

A week later we were once again reported to the SRC for the very same misdemeanour, this time by an anonymous informant. Charel told the SRC that we were innocent and that we had always paid for the snooker light. Raising his voice, he exclaimed that he was getting sick and tired of people accusing us falsely when we had done no wrong. It transpired, however, that we had been spotted playing snooker without the light by someone who had been on the tennis court at that time. Charel’s defense crumpled. That evening the president of the SRC announced in the dining hall to all the Helderberg residents that the Bruwer brothers had been banned from the snooker room for the remainder of the year. “That’s the Bruwer Youth Gang!” some wit shouted gleefully. 

Undeterred, Charel checked out the snooker tables at the hotel down the road from the hostel. He had somehow discovered that the coin mechanism for the light had a hidden switch, which one could turn on and off with one of those aluminium combs which were in fashion at that time. He tried it out and, lo and behold, the light came on. From then on we were able to play snooker at will, with Charel switching the light on and off with his comb. 

My brother had his deep philosophical moments, as befitted a second year university scholar. During one binge drinking session in our hostel room he told me earnestly, “If I die you must put a plate full of food and an empty wine bottle on my coffin, so that people could see that a died of thirst and not of hunger.” 

He had always been a rebel at heart who resisted any efforts to discipline him. His Physics 1 professor once ordered him to leave the lecture room because he was not wearing a tie. In those days a tie and jacket were compulsory attire for attending lectures. 

“Don’t bother returning to my class unless you are dressed appropriately,” the professor shouted crossly at Charel as he was leaving the lecture hall. 

The very next day Charel went back to attend his Physics lecture, which would commence once the bell pealed. When the professor entered the lecture room, he spotted my tie-less brother and glared at him with venom. Charel looked at this watch. Just as the bell was about to peal, he whipped a tie out of his pocket with a flourish and put it on, smiling triumphantly at the professor. 

That year I did not pass a single subject and I was refused accommodation by the hostel for the following year. Charel failed Physics 1. He failed it again the following year, before eventually scraping through with a pass mark in his final year at university. 

I suppose we were as unsuited to life on the campus of an ultra-conservative Afrikaner university as nomadic tribesmen would be to city life. The fact that we each acquired a master’s degree in the fullness of time is incontestable proof that miracles do happen.