Stings

Did I ever tell you that a thick electric cable was once used as an instrument of choice to teach me manners and to beat bad language out of me? Okay, I know that I did wrong but did he have to go that far? He had got the cable from the power station, Rooivaal, that he was commissioning. Menacing, rubbery, full of wires.

Yes, okay, I admit it: we did lug the words from behind the screen of trees at our neighbour. Bryanston’s air was blue with fucks and shits. Not that I can remember using those words.

We were in the bath and he barked at us to get out. We stood wet and naked on the vinyl floor. A phone call from the neighbour had spilled the beans and so out came the thick black electric cable onto wet bottoms. A rightly-so-apology (in our dressing gowns) but the other humiliation of being beaten buck naked stings across the decades.

I now understand why I write

“But the fact is that writing is the only way in which I am able to cope with the memories which overwhelm me so frequently and so unexpectedly. If they remained locked away, they would become heavier and heavier as time went on, so that in the end I would succumb under their mounting weight. Memories lie slumbering within us for months and years, quietly proliferating, until they are woken by some trifle and in some strange way blind us to life.”

               Ring of Saturn, WG Sebald

Sentry duty

Sand-bagged night thoughts imagined the silence of a surprise attack out of the dark. Staccato-flashed-imaged and scattered fears in the gulp of the Adam’s apple bobbed up and down until a twist of brandy fused into the blood-stream. 

The scrape of the thorn branch on the corrugated steel roof haunts me still as each wind-rustle startled in the lonely night. An occasional wheeze from the radio sounded out from across the country, uneasy and restless, on edge for another day of war. I remember hearing all sorts of sounds but nothing came in a flash of gun-fire that I half-expected every waking moment.

Near Odzi, 1979

Call Sign

The Puma stutters out of the sky, black-metallic against the winter thorn trees, African sun-browned. The dust is parched, lifted by the swish, swish of the helicopter blades. Inside, I hold on to the rifle that consummates with the lethal machinery, alien to the haunting beauty of a land of deep-blue-sky, rocky-treed outlines.

We sit-tight for the fifteen minute helicopter hop. This is no joy-ride. I am not sure how to feel and the roar of the blades become my thoughts. Then we drop in on the red-splash-buds of musasa, awakening on the late August morning. An opening appears and the swirl-dust rises below. We make for the radio station , Oscar Alpha 3. We are about to hear the war on the radio.

 

Our beginnings

The baobabs squat, guarding our memory. They have witnessed our human story; they keep the secrets of our ancestors; they are our the eyes and ears of our beginnings. They have seen our squabbles and battles and heard our anger.

Our ancestors find their shade and they too watch out and stare into the loneliness: the long grass, which once rubbed their legs, the scrub that has felt their rough touch, the stones that have held their secrets.

They see our unhappiness and chuckle at our silliness.

The earth has turned countless times since then. Adam and Eve have left their garden and now we run wild in this Eden, the sun hot on our backs. We pick up the same stones and disturb the secrets that have slept in the shades. They gawk at our youthfulness and our voices mingle with theirs, although we don’t know it.

Turning back the clocks

Hills in Africa get bluer the further you are away from them and the blue mountains in the distance were no different. They shimmered like spirits in the African heat. They danced tantalizingly and, as the black Ford Zephyr drove towards them, they kept out of reach. The thick-set baobabs stood guard, watching out over the land.

The red vinyl seats stuck to the backs of my legs but the discomfort did not worry me. I was ten and excited about this new country the family were moving through on an open road with wide open spaces as far as the eye could see. 

We had left the border town on the big wide Limpopo River in the early morning and, as it was December, it was a hot-as-hell by ten o’clock in the morning. The place where my father had been born forty years earlier, lay in the distance with the chimney stack jutting out into the blue sky.

‘When are we going to get there?’ at different times we complained. ‘Just now,’ came the reply. Just now could mean anything up to a day. Fortunately, the only hotel in the village lurched into view and I unstuck myself from the red vinyl Zephyr seats and headed for the welcome cold Coke which we had been promised. My father immediately ordered a beer and crowed that at least you could buy a drink on a Sunday without a meal, which was the law south of the border. My mother chipped in that even the petrol was cheaper. Less than 25 cents a gallon. 

We teased father about the town he was born in and mother asked him if he ‘remembered a tree over there by the road’. I wondered (almost aloud) if I had been born there I would have wanted to take a one way ticket out of town. It was so utterly boring.

We then set off and headed for the capital, quite a few hours away.

‘I hate Harold Wilson!’ screamed the bumper sticker on the back of a Morris Traveller. You know, the one with the wooden panels. This was a country of old cars and strange values and a racism which would scar the land.  

Some called it ‘God’s own country’. To live there, you had to turn back the clock twenty years.

This country, caught in a time warp, out of step with the world, would be our home for quite some time. 

 

Raw-red bone of memory

He called out in a distress forged in the tangle-metal of an accident. Only the songbird-needle of morphine could ever so briefly-fleetingly extinguish the misery of the wide-open unhealed wound, gaping with flesh and blood.

I lay in the next bed to him in the hospital, having been admitted in the morning, doubled over with my own pale version of pain. An emergency had whipped out a fetid appendix (yes, I know, I am being dramatic) and my only experience then was of post-anaesthesia dullness and the odd stomach muscle smarting slightly in a sudden movement.

Summoned, the nurse was unable to ease his pain. He half-shouted out that he didn’t care about being addicted to that songbird in a vial. He simply needed the sweet relief, even if it only glanced him, took the edge off.

Until today, I had completely forgotten about those midnight hours lying in a hospital bed listening to a man who sobbed in his pain, and who cursed and swore at the world. I had been  remembering my own pain, gliding in on a songbird of hope, blowing away the awful what-have-beens that sometimes fester in the raw-red bone of memory when, startled, I thought of that hospital ward thirty four years ago.