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.

 

Bogan on board

We had been discussing the issue of hard-line community attitudes towards Muslims over the dinner table. I was quite chuffed when my daughter Laura told me, in the course of this discussion, that I was the most non-judgmental person of anyone that she had ever met. Whilst being enormously pleased with her declaration, I was under no illusion. Almost everyone, including myself, carries the invisible baggage of our prejudices with us through life. Sadly, I had to face up to this reality just a few weeks later.

Laura and I had boarded our flight in Fiji to fly back to Melbourne, when one of the passengers came up the aisle and sat down in a seat across from us. He was a large, unkempt bloke wearing shabby, loose-fitting jeans and a T-shirt with a slogan and picture of a motorbike on the back of it. He had a few days’ stubble on his face.

Bloody petrol-head, I thought to myself. Being of the tree hugging persuasion myself, I have a somewhat negative attitude towards petrol-heads. The fact that some hoon had done wheelies and snakies a fortnight earlier on the sodden lawn of the lovely park that I pass on my daily walk had done nothing to endear me to such people.

Once the flight was on its way a little girl crossed the aisle and sat down on the empty seat next to this fellow. He opened a picture book and quietly read the story to her while she leant against him. I realised that he was part of a family group. His partner and their child had been sitting across the aisle from him.

My attitude towards him softened somewhat. In my opinion anyone who reads books to children picks up quite a few Brownie points.

An hour or so later he got up to go to the toilet. On his way back to his seat I had a clearer view of the writing on the back of his T-shirt. Above a picture of a motorbike traveling at speed it read:

MEET THE CHALLENGE

100% survival Children’s Cancer

Snowy Ride 2015

 By now I was choking on my attitude and on the ease with which I had cast judgment solely on the basis of this man’s appearance.

Not long afterwards it was announced over the intercom that there was a medical emergency on the plane and a request was made that any doctor or nurse on board should make themselves known to the cabin crew as a matter of urgency. The fellow in the T-shirt immediately got up and waved to the stewardess. He opened the hand luggage locker above his seat, delved into his bag and extracted a stethoscope, before following the stewardess down the aisle.

Fifteen minutes later he returned to his seat. “How did you go?” his partner enquired from across the aisle.

“No problems. It’s all been sorted,” he replied nonchalantly as he was putting his stethoscope away in his bag.

I overheard one of the other passengers asking him whether he was a doctor. It transpired that he was a nurse and that he and his partner had just completed a two year stint training health workers in Fiji.

When Laura had described me as non-judgmental at the dinner table I had been really pleased with myself.

Non-judgmental??

I hang my head in shame.

2016 Elections

I was one of a handful of Australians who was elated on hearing the news that the Australian Prime Minister had called an early Federal election, to be held on 2 July 2016. The reason for my elation was that the stars appeared to have been aligned in my favour on this occasion. By sheer fortunate coincidence I had already arranged a trip to Southern Africa for the five weeks leading up to the election. This meant that I would miss out on most of the pork-barrelling, false promises, accusations and counter-accusations, as well as those cringeworthy ‘photo opportunities’ of politicians kissing babies and having friendly conversations with “ordinary Australians”.

In South Africa, where I am now traveling, politics and crime usually dominate the headlines. Here they are also leading up to an election. The municipal elections for all districts, local municipalities and provinces, which are held every five years, have been scheduled for 3 August 2016.

In this country, the political aspirants exhibit less restraint in their verbal jousting than their counterparts in Australia. Julius Malema, the controversial leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters political party, had recently claimed publicly that “if you’re not sleeping with an African National Congress (ANC) person, you can’t get work”. Malema is a former ANC Youth League president who had been booted out of the ANC in 2012 for sowing divisions within the party. The Deputy Speaker of the Gauteng Provincial Legislature struck back at Malema, demanding that Malema declare whether he had slept with women in exchange for tenders during his term as the ANC Youth League president.

Unlike in Australia, there is a distinct undercurrent of violence as the elections are approaching. “The Citizen” reported on 31 May that Michael Zane Phelembe aged 32, the ANC branch deputy chairperson in Ward 23 in Pienaar, Mpumalanga, had been shot dead on the previous Friday night outside his home.

His friend, Jealous Nyalunga, was quoted as saying:

I know Zane was killed within the political realm. He has always indicated to us that some people were after his head. Not so long ago, he had to hide from his home and his car was burnt.

He was a selfless leader who stood for principles and his political enemies clearly did not like that.

And on 23 June the “Cape Times” reported that “there is a battle to the death in many of our towns and cities as we edge closer to the August 3 local government elections”.

Three ANC members were buried in Pietermaritzburg on Sunday in what those close to the issues accept has to do with the process of choosing potential councillors. On the same day an ANC member in Pretoria was shot dead also in relation to who should represent the ANC in local government.

On Monday, ANC chairwoman in eThekwini , Zandile Gumede, was on the front pages of the newspapers saying she fears for her life. Gumede says some of the fears emanate from her own party …

I am due to arrive back in Australia a couple of days before our own Federal election. Mercifully this is likely to be a fairly sedate affair in comparison to the South African election.

On my return all I will have to do is avoid the Australian newspapers, television news and talkback radio programs during the last two days. Afterwards I will have to lie low until the election results have been analysed to death and until the post mortems and recriminations by the various parties have been done and dusted. Then I will hopefully be able to resume my normal life with some semblance of peace.

Stop the boats

This was written in 2013

I can picture the scene quite clearly. The horrified shouts of the refugees as their boat capsizes are in the Tamil language, but the fear in their voices has a timbre that is universal to all tongues. A woman surfaces and shouts desperately for her child, who has disappeared under the water. Sometime afterwards she is also silenced by the waves, her floating body one of the specks in the vast expanse of the ocean that these refugees were trying to cross.

I know a little about the fear and desperation that drives one to leave the country of one’s birth and to seek safety and a new life elsewhere. Even so, I can barely imagine how desperate today’s boat people must be to embark on highly dangerous sea journeys with their children and with young women in tow, subject to the possibility of drowning, or of attack, robbery and rape by ruthless pirates.

I was also a refugee and a boat person of sorts once. During the Apartheid era in South Africa I was a “person of interest” to the Security Police. At that time any perceived enemy of the state, including anyone who espoused views in support of the country’s oppressed non-white population, was deemed a “communist” and could be held in detention without trial for extended periods under the Suppression of Communism Act 44 of 1950.

The injustices of the Apartheid system preyed heavily on my mind and on a couple of occasions I was angry as well as foolish enough to express some of my views to fellow Afrikaners. I was aware that someone had reported me to the Security Police for being a communist because my boss had called me into his office and told me so. It was 1970, I was 23 years old and I was scared.

During the following year I drove to Signal Hill in Cape Town one night to visit and to express my support to Reverend Bernie Wrankmore, an Anglican Priest. He had gone on an extended hunger strike to show his outrage at the death of a Muslim cleric who had been beaten to death by the Security Police whilst in detention. A few days later I read in the newspaper that the Security Police had been keeping watch and had noted the registration numbers of all vehicles that had parked there. I had been found out once again and my anxiety escalated.

When you live as a dissident under an authoritarian regime it is impossible to tell whether the authorities view you as a minor irritation or as a more serious threat who need to be dealt with in some way. Despite the fact that I was not involved in any acts of violence or sabotage or in conspiracies to overthrow the government by force, I lived in trepidation during my last four years in South Africa. The authorities were aware of my opposition to racism and to the government’s Apartheid policies. I knew that some opponents of the Apartheid regime had been blown up by letter bombs, beaten and tortured by the Security Police, shot dead by anonymous gunmen as they were leaving their houses, had “jumped” out of windows of high rise buildings “to escape interrogation by the Security Police”, or had simply disappeared.

My parents were worried that harm of some sort would come my way if I remained in South Africa. I was scared and desperate to get out. Unlike the refugees coming to Australia by boat nowadays, there was no need for me to jump the queue to enter this country. After all, I had the benefit of highly regarded university qualifications from a university that was inaccessible to my non-white countrymen and I had work experience in a senior position that had been reserved for white people only.

When I travelled to Australia In 1974 it was in the relative comfort of a Greek migrant ship, the “Australis”, along with three thousand Ten Pound Poms. As I saw Cape Town’s Table Mountain disappear over the horizon I experienced immense relief and my fears dissipated. I could now stop looking over my shoulder or panicking every time someone knocked on my front door after dark.

I settled comfortably into Australian life in one of Melbourne’s safe, leafy suburbs. One of the first Australians that I met in Melbourne, an electrician named Peter, had a T-Shirt made for me with “Aussie Tim” printed on the front. From the beginning I was made to feel welcome and that I belonged, very unlike the reception given to the boat people of today.

Last year, as I went to pay for my fuel at a local service station, I was served by a black African man in his mid-thirties. No-one else was waiting behind me, so I introduced myself, told him where I had grown up, and asked him where he had come from. He was a Zimbabwean who had been in Australia for three years, having fled with his wife and two small children from the deadly violence meted out to his people by President Mugabe’s supporters.

“Isn’t this a fantastic country to live in?” I enthused. “Most Aussies would not have any idea of what it feels like to live in fear of your life every day.”

“Yes, it’s a wonderful country,” he agreed. “Here people know nothing about living with terror.” Tears welled up in his eyes. “Thank God my family and I are safe now.”

Many Australian voters are worried about our fortress island being swamped by refugee boats. Increasingly a siege mentality is developing, akin to that of my own people, the Afrikaners, whenever they had felt under threat by others from a different culture. During the previous months the politicians have continued to argue about the most effective measures for stopping the refugee boats with their queue jumping occupants from heading to Australia. They talk with grave concern about saving the lives of refugees by deterring them from coming here illegally on small boats. No-one mentions the terror that drives so many of them to risk their lives on shonky boats on the open sea.

It is Christmas time, the season of peace and goodwill to all. Having done some last minute Christmas shopping, I am waiting to pay for my purchases at a local store. There is some problem at the checkout and the line of customers has come to a standstill. The elderly man in front of me has become bored with the delay, so he turns around to engage me in small talk.

“They should sink those bloody refugee boats, you know,” he says to me in a thick European accent. “Just sink them!”

Charel’s less than triumphant entry into Napier

At the towering height of 6 feet 9 inches my brother Charel is a sight to behold at the best of times. You could never miss him in a crowd. These days he sports long, thinning hair and a longish grey beard. To say that he looks a tad eccentric would be somewhat of an under-statement.

When I visited him last year Marlien, my sister-in-law, told me about his less than triumphant entry into the country town of Napier in the Western Cape region of South Africa a few months earlier. She had received a call on her mobile phone from him, asking her to drive to Napier because his motorbike had conked out along the road, a few kilometres before arriving at the town. When she arrived there an hour or so later, he was still stranded.

He rang a service station in the town. The manager told him that he would send someone out to transport Charel’s motorbike to Napier and Marlien could then take him home. They could go back on another day to pick up the motorbike once it had been fixed.

A little while later the driver from the service station arrived. He had brought along a black youth to assist in getting the motorbike on to the trailer. What he had failed to take along were ties to secure the motorbike.

Annoyed at this oversight, Charel ripped off his belt once they had manoeuvred the bike onto the trailer and used it to tie the motorbike to one side of the trailer. As this would not suffice to keep the bike secure all the way to Napier, he hopped on to the seat of the bike, planted his feet firmly on the floor and told the driver to get going. By this time the reader would appreciate that the road rules in South Africa are considered to be rather rubbery when the circumstances require it to be so.

Just before the driver took off, the black youth jumped onto the trailer and climbed on to the seat of the motorbike behind my brother, hanging onto him tightly with his hands around my brother’s chest.

They set off for the town with Marlien following them in her car. When they arrived in the town it was at the hour of day when most people had just returned home from work. Some of the townsfolk were sitting on their verandahs drinking cups of coffee and watching the passing traffic. As the trailer with Charel and his dark companion went by, they stared at this spectacle in amazement. The black youth grinned from ear to ear and waved at the townsfolk as if he were a real life celebrity. Charel, hugely embarrassed at this turn of events, tried his damnedest to look invisible. His sheer size ensured that his attempt was doomed to failure.

On the evening of the day that Marlien had told me this story, I said to my brother, “That was a pretty amazing entry that you’d made into Napier with your motorbike on the trailer.”

He glared at Marlien and growled accusingly, “Why did you tell Tiens about that damn incident?”

Marlien responded with a bare-faced lie. “I wasn’t the one who told him about it. Someone had taken a photo of you that day and they’d put it up in one of the shop windows. We stopped in the town for coffee this morning and Tiens spotted it while we were there. He asked about it and then the whole story came out.”

“Bloody mongrels,” Charel grumbled. But I could tell that he was secretly quite pleased at the thought of having achieved a moment of notoriety on the main street of Napier.

133 Tim, Marlien & Charel

Tim, Marlien and Charel

Nefertiti

I am standing in the Neues Museum in Berlin, looking in wonder at the bust of Nefertiti, the Egyptian queen. She has borne the same enigmatic look for more than 3,300 years.

Nefertiti

It strikes me that this very Nefertiti sculpture in front of me has seen human folly in all its expressions over the aeons: the greed, the aggression, the cruelty and the violence, the self-delusion, superstition and xenophobia, the over-exploitation of the planet and the wanton killing of its non-human inhabitants.

She has witnessed the rise of a great many religions including Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism, all being claimed by their respective followers to be the one and only true religion. She has seen the believers of different religions and sects kill each other by the millions because of their differences in beliefs.

She has seen the development of increasingly sophisticated weapons which humans used to wage war against each other: guns and cannons, flame throwers and hand grenades, mustard gas, tanks and nuclear devices. She wears the exact same expression today as she did on the two days when atomic bombs were being dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

She has observed humans taking their warfare to the skies and to the oceans. She has seen the bombardment along the Western front, maiming and killing millions. She was around when the bombs were being dropped from the sky on London and on Berlin and when Dresden was bombed to a rubble.

Over the millennia she has seen genocide after genocide and the rape and murder of millions of women and children. She has witnessed the extinction of a vast number of animal species because of human greed and indifference. She has seen the temperature rising and the very life on earth being threatened by humankind’s continuing excesses, selfishness and short-sightedness.

I look at the sculpture of Nefertiti. She doesn’t blink an eye. She has seen at it all and nothing will surprise her now.

I think I can guess what she is thinking. She is regretting the fact that the apes have ever come down from the trees. Most likely she will still be around when we clever, self-destructive apes have vanished from the face of the earth.

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 opposite of handy

I will be the first to admit that I am not what you would call a handyman. Quite the opposite, in fact.

My lack of handyman skills was apparent from an early age. The only test that I ever failed at school was in woodwork, when we were given pictures of a variety of tools. We had to name these tools and write down what each one is used for. I couldn’t even tell the difference between a screwdriver and a chisel and any tool more complicated than those two baffled me completely.

Two years into high school every boy in our class had to do a woodwork project. I attempted to make a very basic small folding seat. It was a disaster. I just couldn’t do it. I was saved by the fact that our woodwork classroom had to be relocated near the end of the school year to another part of the school premises, around the time when our projects were due to be completed. Such was my desperation that I smuggled my attempt at the folding seat out in my school bag and dumped it into the bushes on the way home.

After we had moved into the new classroom, the teacher asked to see my project.

“I can’t find it, Sir. It must have been lost when they moved our stuff to the new classroom.”

In my first year at university I struggled to find my feet. I kept changing courses and was unable to find direction. Eventually one of my lecturers arranged for me to have an aptitude test.

A few days after completing the test I had to go and discuss the results with the person who had administered the test.

“Your aptitude test results are very mixed,” he told me. “I would recommend studies that would lead to a career in the diplomatic service.”

I was still digesting this, thinking how I could never become a diplomat in the service of the Apartheid regime, when he elaborated on the test results.

“Now, when it comes to mechanical skills, I have to tell you that you have achieved the lowest score of anyone that I have tested over the years. I suggest that you never try working with your hands. You’re an intelligent kid. Just stick to using your brains, but not your hands.”

Over the years my lack of handyman skills has become the stuff of legend, as becomes someone with as spectacular an aptitude test result as mine.

A few months ago I was standing outside a shop in Diamond Creek, talking to my mate Ken, when Digby from the local Mitre 10 hardware store came by.

“Hi Ken, How’re you going?” Digby said.

“I’m good,” said Ken. “This is my mate Tim.”

“Oh, I know Tim,” said Digby.

Ken was astounded. “Where do you know Tim from? Surely he’s never set foot in Mitre 10?”

“Oh yes, he does, sometimes. He comes in with his wife, that is. She buys the bits and pieces that she needs and if need be she asks me for advice. Tim just comes along for the company and to help her to carry stuff.”

Gill, my wife, contends that my inability to fix or make things is a matter of attitude, whereas I insist that it is a matter of aptitude. I have tried really hard, once or twice, like the time when we bought the wheelbarrow at KMart. It came in a cardboard box and we had to put it together ourselves.

“That’ll be simple,” Gill said. “Can you do it please?”

I asked her to find me the necessary tools and then I laboured for more than an hour, before realising that there were some components missing. “Bloody Kmart!” I raged. “You’d think that they would check that all the pieces are there before they sell the thing.”

Gill cocked her head to one side, inspected my handiwork and picked up the screwdriver and spanner. Within less than five minutes she had disassembled my construction completely and had reassembled it into a working wheelbarrow.

*        *        *

Sharing a house with someone else is challenging at the best of times, and so it is with us. I cannot stand background noise, but Gill likes to listen to John Pain (Faine) on talkback radio every morning and to that irritating Macka on a Sunday morning. She also likes the noise of the television in the background at times, whereas I love it when the house is dead quiet.

As if this is not challenging enough, Gill is a collector and a hoarder. I am a minimalist, but our house is full of stuff, small and big. Although I detest clutter, I cannot escape it in our house.

“If you cark it before me,” I told her grumpily one morning, raising my voice over John Faine’s, “I’m going to conduct proper interviews and have selection criteria for choosing my next wife. I’ll ask them if they like talkback radio, and whether they have ever collected anything.”

“Good idea!” she replied. Without missing a beat she added “And while you’re at it, ask them whether they can fix things.”

 

I miss my mum

To this day I become angry when I think about my mum’s treatment by her parents when she was a young woman.

She was the eldest of five children and the only female child. Her father should have known better, I tell myself. After all, he was someone who was passionate about the value of education, a professor of literature at the University of Cape Town and later the Superintendent-General of Education for South Africa. His four sons were all sent to university to pursue their areas of interest. Boet (Dr M C Botha) studied medicine and was the immunologist on Dr Chris Barnard’s team who performed the world’s first heart transplant. Paul became a corporate accountant, Jan a journalist and André a lawyer and eventually an appeals court judge. Sus, however, was not given a choice of what she could study. Her parents simply enrolled her in a Domestic Science degree course, an area of study in which she had no interest.

This occurred at a time when women were generally not afforded opportunities to pursue a tertiary education at all and I am sure that her parents meant well in sending their daughter to university. It nevertheless angers me that her parents had been so constrained by society’s cloistered view of women’s roles at that time that they had shackled a highly intelligent woman, who would no doubt have excelled in any course of study of her own choice. Her interests were in subjects like astronomy, botany, art and literature, rather than in the Domestic Science studies into which she had been corralled.

These shackles dragged her back for the remainder of her life. She only lasted at university for a few months before dropping out and, at the age of 21, married a school teacher fifteen years her senior. I know that she had married for love because I have read a couple of the love letters that she had written to my dad at the time. I suspect, though, that she must also have realised that marriage was the only ‘career option’ that had remained open to her.

 Sus in 1941 (2)

 Sus at the time of her engagement in 1941

My mum had an enquiring mind. She was an avid reader of books on a great variety of subjects and she enjoyed doing the newspaper crosswords, which she generally completed with little trouble. Although she was a good cook, she lacked enthusiasm for cooking. Fortunately my dad, having been a bachelor for many years, was adept in the kitchen and he willingly shared the responsibility for preparing meals.

*        *        *

On completion of my final year at high school I was conscripted for military service. As I said goodbye to my parents on the morning that my brother was driving me to the Cape Town railway station, where I had to catch the train to the army training camp in Oudtshoorn, my mum suddenly started weeping. I had not expected this and I told her not to be silly, because I was only going to be away for a year.

“You don’t have any children of your own”, she said. “You have no idea what it’s like for a mother. You were inside my tummy for nine long months and during all that time I was so excited that I could barely wait to see you. Now I won’t see you again for a whole year.”

Eleven years afterwards I said farewell to her once more. This time I was leaving South Africa permanently to emigrate to Australia. My mum knew about my opposition to the government of the time, with its abhorrent Apartheid policies and its merciless treatment of anyone who dared to criticise or to oppose them. I realise now that it was a measure of her concern for my safety and of her love for me that she never said a single word to discourage me from leaving.

My parents, who had never travelled overseas during their years of marriage, visited us regularly in Australia and also in Papua New Guinea, when my wife and I worked there in the early 1980s. Because I only saw my mum intermittently, the times we spent together were always special to both of us.

There was little to do in Port Moresby, so I took my parents to a coral beach to go snorkelling. As my mum and I swam over the coral towards the edge of the reef she became agitated and told me that she needed to get back to the shore. Back on the beach she told me that she had become exhausted. “I’m an old lady, you know,” she reminded me. “I’m 62.”

A few days afterwards she sheepishly confessed that she had not really been tired, but that she had lost her nerve. I was having none of that, so I took her back to the coral beach, where we took our time moving away from the shore. I got her to stand on a submerged rock every now and again, where she could look around for a while. We eventually made it to the edge of the reef, where the coral dropped away sharply and large tropical fish cruised through the deep water. She stood on a submerged rock and looked around in amazement at this colourful wonderland of coral and fish.

After a while I said, “Let’s go back to the beach. I’m getting cold.”

“You go along,” she said. “Don’t wait for me. I’ll just stay here for a bit longer.”

A year after my parents’ visit to Papua New Guinea my dad rang me with the news that my mum had developed a cancerous lump in her thigh muscle, which had been surgically removed. I was horrified, but the surgeon appeared to have removed the lump all in one piece and we were optimistic that it would be the end of the matter. However, the virulent cancer reappeared a few months later, spreading rapidly to her lungs and other organs.

In August 1984 my mum and dad visited me in Australia so that we could say our final farewells to her. At that time I was unable to travel to South Africa due to my anti-Apartheid activities in Australia. When time is running out, one values every minute spent with a loved one. I clearly remember the small slivers of happiness, like how she had beamed with joy whenever Pavarotti, our friendly magpie, had come to warble on our balcony and how she fed him by hand every day.

Sus, August 1984

 Tim’s last photo of his mum, August 1984

My mum died a mere four months later, shortly before Christmas Day. She was 64. Even though I was well aware that her illness was terminal, the actual news of her death ripped my heart open.

In time I got over the pain of losing my mum. Our kids were born, my job kept me very busy and life went on. More than a decade later I had a very vivid dream one night in which my mum suddenly appeared. She looked as real as if she were standing there in the flesh.

“I thought you had died!” I exclaimed.

“No, I’m still here,” she replied.

“But why do you never come to see me anymore?” I asked.

She just stood there, smiling at me kindly.

“You’re not real, are you?” I asked.

She instantly disappeared.

I woke up. My pillow was wet with tears.

I miss my mum.