“There are no big stories left, just paths through the clutter and the inevitable soft landing.”
There are moments when I want slosh around in a pool of bottomless nostalgia; to indulge in all of the stuff and things that remind me of home. Snapshots of memory—fragmented and incoherent; vivid at times and at others, silhouettes void of colour and nuance. Vague impressions beautiful and tragic in their inconsistency. This is that…
Not so long ago – in fact, the day before the RWC 2019 final – I sat in my daughter’s school assembly wearing my Springbok rugby jersey (couldn’t resist taunting, just a little); there were two of us in green and gold although Leah, my Zambian friend, declared that she was wearing her colours for the last time, having sold her soul to the Roses. Unacceptable. We were debating the intricacies of this very obvious and unequivocal betrayal until the buzz in the hall quietened and Amelia’s class stood for their opening song. Thirty seconds into A World in Union I was chewing my lip raw in an effort to hold back tears. The heart of the song beat in the air as unfeigned voices imagined the far-off Utopia of a united world—I felt it in my bones. South Africa’s song—not really but it could so easily have been written for ’95, when the country stood on the precipice of a new age. So much hope. Yet here I sat, in England in a Springbok jersey, listening to my pseudo South African child, in an English school, singing a song that, to me, is home. The weight of the moment made visceral something that I have always known but not ever articulated in thought or emotion; that there’s a brutal sense of loss associated with the de-homing of the soul (and the person)—whether that de-homing is by choice or by force.
We won. And the country went mad…a good kind of mad. There were parades and hooting—and joy, extreme joy. I didn’t understand much about our fraught history (that came later) but I do know that ‘unity’ became something tangible—if only for a moment.
Its essence captured in the trees—great Oaks with strong, angular arms reaching over the streets from opposite sides to clasp hands, and Jacarandas (one right outside our house) spilling purple rain in spring— blossoms showering down like confetti that we’d scoop into bundles, marrying ourselves to the season as we threw them over one another.
JEPPE HIGH SCHOOL FOR GIRLS
Our spot. Winsome, Tara, Karyn and me. Every break—laughing and bitching whilst smashing out forgotten Geography homework, and talking about ‘Bold’ and ‘Days’ and how hot Johnny Depp is and whether Jordan Catelano would finally kiss Angela. Sometimes we’d talk with mouths full of Ghost Pops, four worms and a Caramello Bear from the tuckshop—R2’s worth of loot. And in winter the dry grass would stick to our jerseys and stockings, so we looked like children of Africa.
LEICESTER ROAD SCHOOL
Leicester Road Primary, where I went to school (1988-1994), is sandwiched between Derby Road and Leicester Road—named after British counties (Derbyshire and Leicestershire). Built on the rise of one of the smaller hills rambling through the area, three tall palm trees (to this day) stand sentinel in front of the main school building, a tier above the field where we played sport and ran around at break time—where friendships were forged and broken, and where I nearly cried when I had to hold a writhing earthworm one harrowing science lesson.
There is a long tar driveway accessed via Derby Road where the teachers parked their cars and senior kids walked up to the beige-coloured school building on their way to learning. As a Gradie, the Derby entrance was of mythological proportion; a gate of wonder and terror that would shoot flames into your soul like the Sphinxes that guarded the Oracle’s path in The Neverending Story; if you passed without rite of passage (an elusive, exclusive aura that came with being senior) you were dead. My pal Kirsty Redman lived opposite the school on Derby Road and I am pretty sure she didn’t walk all the way around the block when she could cut through the school via the great gates to get to the junior buildings…and she was not burnt to any sort of crisp; she must have known a spell or something.
Coloured in and a bit tatty but I still have the 1988 Jubilee magazine celebrating Leicester Road plus my 5-year-old self even had a story published in it (of course I kept it!) #tellingstoriessince1988
I was in the green house at school (Buffalo—one of the “big five”. Hashtag fist pump) and my first Sport’s Day involved some sort of bean bag race; I had green ribbons in my hair and one pinned onto my PE top, which was beige (ever been stalked by a colour?) with the orange LRS logo (two lions standing on either side of a shield). As the youngest in the school, we sat at the bottom of the grandstand and joined in on war cries: “I saw a cool cat walking down the street/ I said ‘Hey cool cat don’t you dig that jive?’/ Come on Buffalo, skin ‘em alive!”—it made no sense but also perfect sense; my tribe was going to war and we were yelling about it. This was enough to raise the spirit of competition in any mild-mannered Gradie. I quickly caught the vibe. Competing was serious stuff. Fun – always – but, for real.
Scatterlings of Africa
There’s a highway of stars across the heavens
There’s whispering song of the wind in the grass
There’s the rolling thunder across the savanna
A hope and dream at the edge of the sky
And your life is a story like the wind
Your life is a story like the wind
I’m searching for the spirit of the great heart
To hold and stand me by
I’m searching for the spirit of the great heart
Under African sky
– Johnny Clegg & Savuka
…when the children get stuck in the back of the van and use the rifle as a support to try and climb out, standing on the trigger and shooting it—poor things. #stilllaughing
“That morning, Xi saw the ugliest person he’d ever come across. She was as pale as something that had crawled out of a rotting log. Her hair was quite gruesome; long and stringy and white, as if she was very old. She was very big; you’d have to dig the whole day to find enough food to feed her.” – Narrator (The Gods must be Crazy)
“A stoep in Good Hope Street. The deep-blue garden walls hold a precise measure of the garden still…The women come back from the pool at Jeppe Girls’ High with their hair still wet, with the dam outlines of their swimming costumes showing through their cotton dresses. (Sally teaches history at the school and has a key to the gate.)” – Ivan Vladislavic
…my mom used to have this same key to the Jeppe pool when we lived at 18 Somerset Road, just around the corner from that stoep on Good Hope in Kensington. We’d walk down my road to the pool – my brothers and I, the neighbours – and spend hours diving, splashing, playing and basking on hot concrete as the African sun stretched out her fingers, tickling the skin of her children.
Sally and my mom taught history together at Jeppe. and Sally was my history teacher. Sally knows Ivan. I wish I knew Ivan—although, I kind of do.
“It is only the story…that saves our progeny from blundering like blind beggars into the spikes of the cactus fence. The story is our escort; without it, we are blind. Does the blind own his escort? No, neither do we the story; rather, it is the story that owns us.” – Chinua Achebe (Anthills of the Savannah)
It was dry and dusty; the vast expanse of veldland across the road from our house in Germiston always brown and dead, as if I saw the world through a beige-tinted lens—the colour of African grass in winter.
The fortitude of the wall was no match for the curiosity of a small child. I used my dad’s step ladder to peer over into our neighbour’s garden. It was brown like ours and there were children, too. I told them my name was Caitlyn—after Stringfellow Hawke’s girlfriend from Airwolf, the best TV show in the world. At 5, I figured I could be whatever I wanted, which was to co-pilot a stealth helicopter that lived in a mountain and be in a fake-platonic relationship with an ex-army guy called Stringfellow (gotta love the 80s)—pretending was the best part of life.
“There are no hills. There are no trees big enough for shade. There are no streams or lakes. In the winter glare, the colour is leached away.”