When I was little

Germiston South Africa in the eighties

Everything is beige. The vast expanse of veldland across the road, the plants in our garden, a vaguely caramel Doberman called Diana (like the princess) and her mushy poop, which squishes between my  toes when I’m not paying attention, the air too—it all matches the dry, dead ground. With one exception: an oversized mint bush that gets its fix on the water dealt by a garden tap lurking against a wall near the steps leading up to the back door of our house. I collect snails and congregate them into families—a mommy, daddy and as many teency shells as I can find. One day, one of my snail babies is squashed by a rogue piece of propped-up wood that loses its footing. I weep the Nile. Mint and snails forever hold hands in the recesses of my memory, twinning inseparably. There is also a brightly coloured jungle-gym and a Wendy House built by my dad and painted red, blue and yellow—primary colours popping extravagantly against the grey concrete slabs that make up our all-encompassing garden wall.

The fortitude of our suburban coop is, however, no match for the curiosity of a small child. I use my dad’s step ladder to peer over into our neighbour’s garden. It is beige, like ours, and there are children, too. I tell them my name is Caitlyn because, at 5, I figure I can be whatever I want, which is to co-pilot a stealth helicopter that lives in a mountain and be in a fake-platonic relationship with an ex-army guy called Stringfellow. Which means I have to have hair to match: short, wispy, with a side-swept fringe. You know what I mean?—Your mom was probably the proud wearer of this hair back when spandex, neon and Jamie Lee Curtis were a thing. It was the bomb back when I was watching Airwolf – tomboyish, sassy – although undoubtedly the rest of world had moved on by then; South Africa was either banned or 10 years late when it came to anything of international significance, like killer hairstyles.

I knew exactly where the scissors are kept; when the coast was clear I snuck them from the drawer in the kitchen with feather-light fingers and stole away to my sacred spot. The Wendy House. Thus unfolded the great hair massacre of 1987…

The blades are twice the size of my arm, not delicate like the ones used by hairdressers. These are kitchen scissors with orange handles; sheers in my small-child hands. I marvel at their badassery. All the better to cut with. And so I cut—no mirror, sheer intuition.  The freedom is exhilarating. Slow, calculated snipping escalates into something more furious—like Edward Scissorhands trimming hedges into animal shapes. Except I am no Edward (who lived with scissors for hands his whole woebegone life and was adequately adapted)—only a 5-year-old girl with some blunt, orange-handled kitchen scissors and a plan to look cool, like Caitlyn. I can’t wait to admire my handiwork. I hope no one will notice my crime—and if they do, that I will be met with swooning and compliments (thus forgetting said crime). I walk back into my house with the confidence of a kid who has no idea that she wore a white jersey to the scene and the evidence is all over it—as in all over it.

It takes my mom mere seconds. There is no swooning. A sigh at the ruination of my locks and punishment for stealing the scissors; all of which pales in comparison to the embarrassment I feel at the state of my new hair. As it turns out, I am a kak hairdresser. The result, as you might imagine, is not good. Not entirely bad. But…not “the bomb”, as I had hoped. Rather, a sort of asymmetrical bob; Rihanna might’ve dug it; a tad uhpoofy but with some stylin’ it could’ve been less bad. I hide under my bed, my bad hair shrouded in the safety of darkness, and do not come out. Not even the gentle cajoling of my dad, home from work, can do it. He laughs. I refuse. And so it transpired that whilst Caitlyn contributed a killer-cool name to my childhood, she also inspired the worst hairstyle I’ve ever owned (other than the fringe I rocked, or tried to, at 13—that was pretty terrible). Luckily, I have a good imagination.

Whilst the walls in our back garden in Germiston are appropriately barrier-like, the front walls are lower, exposing a view of the great beige beyond. An apocalyptic desert. We like to play to the backdrop of this dystopian installation. Today we’re out in the front pretending and so on, and the boy next door drops a ceramic teapot into our garden. I don’t know why? We’re not part of his game or anything. I wouldn’t mind playing with a teapot like that though. We look at it, sitting comfortably amidst soil and flower, on our side of the wall. A conduit for high teas and teddy birthdays. An alien apparatus from yonder sea of mud. A pot for glitter flowers visited by fairies when the moon is full. A snail home. A mouse home. A witch’s… My brother walks over, picks up the teapot and returns it to our neighbour. The boy looks at us. He does not say “Thanks” or “Would you like to play our game?” No. He throws it. It lands on Christopher’s head and ricochets off his unsuspecting skull. There’s blood. Snot en trane. Deluxe. Winicia hears the wailing and bolts outside.

Mom is at school teaching and dad at work—the three of us are at home with our other mama, who, I am convinced, is not trained in first aid. But she lives in Katlehong and is thus qualified to deal with all sorts of crazy. I am confident. Also, maybe I’ll get to keep that tea pot now. Winicia does her best to placate the shrieking child in her care, thus achieved by putting a plaster on top of the gaping, bleeding wound that would surely have been worse if not for my brother’s mass of thatch-hair, which, in spite of its safeguard, impedes the functionality of the dressing. Out of sight, out of mind (top trauma tip here). Also, thank goodness because all this crying is killing me, sheesh. Christopher ploughs through the rest of the day with a plaster balanced precariously on top of his hair but it does do the job of making him feel better. And then my mom gets home and its more high drama. I’ll just go and look for that tea pot.

Instead, I find the other neighbours. My mom’s not keen on them because they gave me nits. Apparently. They’re boys and they’re Afrikaans, with less stuff than us—skollies, or something. I don’t understand much of what they say but our mutual love of dirt unites us. We grovel in the sand outside. There is a bottle with something gross in it and some sort of secret mission. And nits.

And Josephine. Our black cat. But best of all, my dolly house. Crafted by my dad. It has a red roof, a porch, an attic, two bedrooms, a kitchen and lounge, carpets and little furniture—lots of little furniture (be still my beating heart); everything (I mean everything) a doll needs to live comfortably and conveniently. My mom sewed curtains that hang neatly in every window (tied back during the day and left to fall loose at night time) and all the little beds have colour-coordinated bedding to match the meticulous wall paper in each room. Whether the dollies are relaxing in the lounge, cooking food or preparing for bed, they have the pleasure of gazing upon tastefully selected artworks decorating the walls—mouse princesses (my favourite is a picture of a mouse with a pointed headdress that makes her look like a small tsarina), little brown puppies and doe-eyed kittens. There’s a little broom to clean the house when it gets dirty, which I use with great care (a habit that only transpires in the world of dolly). Hand-painted flowers on the outside of the house give it a cottagey feel. I have two dolls (one with yellow hair and a blue dress, the other with brown hair and a yellow dress) who can’t help but lovingly run their little plastic hands along the surfaces of of the handmade furniture and designer décor.

The dollhouse is a labour of love, from my mom and dad to me. And what do my brothers do? Like Beatrix Potter’s horror-mice Tom Thumb and Hunca Munca, they go and pull the flowers out of the little window boxes, break furniture and ruin the carefully rendered tableaus in each room…oh, and mess up my dollies’ hair—sacrilege. Pure unadulterated tragedy. After their little horror show, the dolly house was moved into my parents’ room (the forbidden land) to prevent further destruction. But they always found a way. Luckily I have my stories to turn to. Lands far away, without annoying little brothers. Well, except one day when I refused to read Diggy Mole’s New Home to my mom for reading practise. I was just sick of Diggy Mole and his dumbass home. Nope. No more. The punishment for which was having my My Little Pony viewing privilege exterminated that day. It was a well-chosen, brutally agonising consequence. Mostly worth it.

And then we were gone. The beige-tinted Germiston landscape morphing into the purples and greens of Kensington before the advent of place had a chance to petrify the beginning into any sort of certainty.


Author & Storyteller: Andrea Zanin

Andrea is a writer, wife, mother and dreamer; also the author of this website. She moved to London in 2006 to earn £s, travel, see bands and buy 24-up Dr Martens—which she did, and then ended up staying. Andrea lives in North London with her husband (also a Saffa) and five children. She loves this grand old city but misses her home and wishes her children could say “lekker” (like a South African) and knew what a “khoki” is.

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