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Rod Mackenzie

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Memory of Leaves

Memory of Leaves

Hundreds of feet down the path the leaves and bark
Finally muffle the clattering rickshaws and the last
Of the straw hats and wheels bob out of view.

Here, half a world away from home, I halt,
Listening to my mother returning
Within, walking and nodding wisely
To conversations she can no longer hear.
Her hearing aid buzzes and clings to a world
That’s fobbed her off. The silence is no longer
Something to be cradled and nursed.
Under her the leaves glimmer with memories
Of leaves crackled through, wintry drifts
Of serrations and veins splintering like parcels
Of tiny bones silently piled into graves.

First sexual encounters and shame

So I have to change her name. Well, at least to the name I have chosen to use in a semi-autobiographical novel I am writing, tentatively titled Shame. Well I remember being attracted to Alexis in what was then a rural part of Boksburg. She had a younger brother, Cosmo, and the three of us splashed through the nearby vlei, picked peaches, threw figs at one another, chased after cattle with my dogs. She was about 11 and I was about 12. It was more her eyes, her electric smile, and less her body that interested me (and the fact that she was not a boy). At least I think so.

Her face was sweet water brought into focus by those twinkling pebbles, her eyes. Bright pebbles. Later on in life in memory they would stare from deep inside a still pond up at me, unreadable, unattainable, with (I think) a hint of remorse, even shame, for what we had done. Of course, after our episode, which I will come to, Alexis was no longer the easy “catch” she had been. Why the metaphor of water for her face? Her face reminded me of a pond, which, like any body of water, puckers and wrinkles under a breath of wind. And her face would ripple with the moods and a child’s fancy of the moment. Whenever I secretly looked at her, and she knew that I was, Alexis’s favourite trick was to throw her long hair over her face and then stare at me, eyes hidden behind the astonishing fronds and watch me watching her, not knowing I could see her staring back. But she probably did know. And flicked back the mane, then looked for the next diversion, a fig to throw.

We had a small orchard of fig trees on the huge plot we lived on. The bees thickened and glittered around the sweetly rotting globes that had fallen till it seemed the critters would float off with the treasure. There were afternoons of flinging figs at one another, mud-caked neighbours’ children joining in the screaming, scampering and dodging. Alexis and I were never on the same side in those wars. I was too shy, preferring only to watch from the other side. I don’t know what she felt. By the time we were called in to wash before dinner the pink fruit innards lay splattered all over the veld, gaudy dead butterflies under the nearby creaking windmill.

Her body. I was alarmed by it, stood in awe of it, an almost boneless lightness as she skittered giggling away while her brother and I hurled figs at her. Often Alexis and Cosmo stayed over on weekends. We swam in the pool or the nearby Carlos Rolfe’s vlei. Alexis would be in a wet shirt and shorts. There was nothing to see; we were both too young to understand what seeing meant anyway. Just the rough jokes of adults overheard: a skin of words masking things, no depth. The play of her body under a veil of cotton, light and water simply enticed. It didn’t seem to have anything to do with sexuality. It had everything to do with sexuality. That is before the word “sexual” came along like an accusation with reverberations that knolled the death bell of received norms, such as what was taboo, disgusting and sies. Or as one aunt would often say about matters to do with the lavatory or the sexual: oh poof, Roddy. (The excretory and the sexual went together, I was then already noting, as suggested by the sheer proximity of the anus and genitals.)

Cosmo bought into the idea of how to get Alexis and me into bed together probably because he was keen for any naughtiness. Which of course meant he and I were like blood brothers. We only used the plan once. Whenever the two kids did a stayover at our home he and I shared the bed and Alexis was put in the guest room. So, that night, long after the adults had gone to bed, Cosmo stole through to his sister’s room, woke her up and she came padding over to join me. Alexis didn’t giggle now. Quietly she lay on top of me, warm as earth. We kissed till my mouth felt like one of those bruised figs and we swore eternal love, all that jazz. But we didn’t have the faintest clue what else to do with each other’s bodies. I was just a little too young to have any genuine arousal. Well … surely I would remember that. That first sexual encounter reminds me now of seeing a silly mutt chasing a pigeon and then one day miraculously catching one. He sat back on his backside and cocked his head and ears without the foggiest notion what to do with this prize he had hunted for God knows how long. Thankfully Cosmo remembered to wake up Alexis and me at some early hour to swap beds again.

It was to be our secret. Initially, was there shame? Guilt? I know I just felt uncomfortable around our parents the next day. Then I noticed over breakfast Alexis’s father (much later I learned he was the stepfather), grinning at me, Alexis sitting next to him, a little pale and withdrawn. The pond had iced over. My discomfort grew over what we had done. Only some time later could I name our experience with the words shame and guilt. We had been dirty. Poof, Roddy. But her flesh like earth packed against mine as we fell asleep was my first sexual awakening.

Our childhood relationship was never the same again. Sometime later Alexis’ mother divorced once more and she and her kids moved to Johannesburg. Alexis and I didn’t see each other again.

In the novel I am writing I am trying to grapple with just what a sense of childhood shame is and its consequences later in adulthood. Following the thinking of a child character loosely based on me I have written: “Sin: he had learned that word at St Andrew’s boarding school in Bloemfontein. The pale fire of the word burned into him long before he ever paged through a dictionary to find its definition. He felt so sinless, but the word echoed through him as if through an empty space as he lay in bed that night. So he looked up the word in his dictionary. The definition spoke nothing to him. It was then that he dimly began to realise that definition and meaning often parted ways.”

It’s now about 35 years later. That rural part of Boksburg is long gone, replaced by office blocks. I have seen Alexis on Facebook and sent her several messages, said hi, made a joke about the fig fights. She does not respond. In her online photos she still smiles the same way.

Explaining an SA crime story to a kiwi child

“So I got this cool plot nearly worked out for my new blockbuster novel,” I grinned at Dylan, Marion’s grandson.
“Blockbuster?” the eleven year old said. “You mean like it’s selling lots?”
“Well,” I haven’t got there yet,” I said with a mock bruised ego, while he was busy painting his Warhammer toy ogres. I grimaced at the slogan that seems everywhere on the Warhammer kit and guide books that accompanied his toy soldiers and war machines. “There is no time for peace. No respite. No forgiveness. There is only WAR.” I continued with the story of my novel: “What happens is this boy Tom, when he’s about sixteen is supposed to be killed, murdered, you know, by this mysterious man, Richard. But Tom doesn’t die. Richard thought he did.”

“You mean he comes back to life?” says Dylan, now intrigued, putting down the ork he was painting green and red.“
“No no no, he was left for dead. Richard thought Tom was dead. Tom recovers in ICU, gets on with his life, marries, other plot line stuff I won’t go into now. Anyway, the novel changes to about thirty years later. Now Tom, divorced, is hiking in the Cedarberg mountains near Cape Town and holes up in a mountain hut he rented for two weeks. Whilst there he goes for a walk and hears someone moaning in the bushes or a ravine. He rescues this man who apparently walked away from a car accident and collapsed in the bushes. And by the way I have written the story you as the reader know that the car accident survivor is…ta daahh… killer Richard. From thirty years ago. Tom hauls Richard up to his hut, not knowing who he is. Tom has a first aid kit. Richard’s injuries aren’t that bad and he recovers quickly. The next evening Richard, resting on a couch, takes out a mouth organ and starts playing tunes which remind Tom of his dead father who was actually close friends with Richard (the reader already knows this from earlier on in the novel). Tom takes out his harmonica and they swap memories and stories about each other. Of course, you as the reader are fascinated about when these two characters are going to find out who the other person really is and what will then happen.”

“Another plot line is developing. There is a black man, I think I might make him a guy from Mozambique, who is a refugee or illegal immigrant in SA. I knew a couple of them when I was growing up in a farming area in Boksburg. He is a mountain reserve warden of sorts or caretaker in this part of the Cedarberg. He’s herded cattle, seen a lot of grief in the old SA. I won’t go into all that now. I have called him Benoni because when I was a kid there was a great old guy from Mozambique who could fix anything and his name was Benoni and he disappeared like a sprite whenever the cops did a raid on the farm for illegals.”
“Why is he black; is he a criminal?” asked Dylan. That stopped me dead in my storytelling tracks. I mean, who did Dylan think Richard was?“Why should he be a criminal?” I replied, appalled. “Just because he’s black? That’s bloody racist.”“Well, he comes from SA,” said Dylan, who was born there but left with his parents when he was five. What are they teaching our kids? Who are “they”?
I patiently point out to Dylan the obvious: that the majority of people in SA are black. If the vast majority are black it is common sense that crime stats are going to reflect that most crimes are done by blacks.
“Anyway. Back to my novel. Benoni is busy collecting wood for the evening fire the evening after Richard and Tom meet each other. He sees the crashed car in a gully. He opens the car to see if anyone is still inside and under some tumbled hiking gear and a blanket on the floor in front of the back seat he finds a woman who he is sure is dead. Maybe from the car accident. He doesn’t want to tell the cops; he is very suspicious of them. He’s had enough trouble with them. His fingerprints are now all over the car. The narrative echoes Benoni’s thoughts: “The police, even thought they were now mostly black, also could not be trusted like their white predecessors, and that included the inspectors. He had met one inspector and although they could speak the same languages, Xhosa, English and Afrikaans, it was just the sounds that were the same, not the heartbeat behind the sounds”. Benoni notices the footprints from the car trail up in the direction of Tom’s hut which he can see up the hill. He decides to go there and tell Tom about the car accident, see if he knows anything about it. He decides to forget he saw the “dead” woman. He just saw the car. He has learned the hard way not have any more involvement.

“So now I am pleasantly stuck with these three men sitting around a rickety coffee table in Tom’s rented hut, enjoying the end of a day with whiskey. Richard’s leg has been treated and banadaged by Tom. Tom has also brought out his harmonica and they are swapping tunes, remembering the old times, their different African childhoods. Richard is eyeing Benoni and wondering if he knows anything about the woman he left in the car. Benoni is eyeing Richard. So…what happens next? I have a few ideas, but that’s what exploring themes through writing is about: exploring.”"What’s closure?” asked Dylan. I explain this.“One idea I have is for Benoni to stay over the night because the three of them get drunk on whiskey, all taking turns on the harmonica and I will probablyhave them reminiscing about their very different childhoods. Tom’s old mouth organ belonged to his father. The reader knows surely Richard is eventually going to recognize the old mouth organ which his old friend, Tom’s dad, used to play in pubs and ask where did Tom get it from. Pretty sure I will stick with that idea. Benoni is, according to post-Christian, Eurocentric thinking a bit disturbed. Not according to his half-forgotten traditions. For example, he hears his ancestors and his dead children (the latter victims of apartheid) and talks with them. When he hears in the middle of the night a harmonica playing and can see it is not Tom or Richard, he looks out the window and sees a woman disappearing through the trees. He recognises her as the woman in the crashed car. Of course the reader questions the validity of his experience. Which of course in turns questions what is real and what is not and if there ever can be such categories.

“What are categories? Why does Benoni have to be black?” asked Dylan, his Warhammer orks drying in the sun. I gave up trying to explain. He was only eleven. Dylan turned back to his Warhammer hobby: toys, computer games and thematic “There is no time for peace. No respite. No forgiveness. There is only WAR” slogan. I was uncomfortable with Dylan’s second question because of Dylan’s previous remark about blacks. It’s good to feel that kind of discomfort; it means you are being pushed out of “carbon copy thinking”. I just knew that it suited my character Benoni to be an ex-pat and an alien in his adopted country, South Africa. Nationhood and a sense of rooted ancestry is identity for many. So Benoni’s childhood displacement is an emblem for a broader angst felt by other main characters: Tom’s unresolved rage for the man who attempted to kill him as a youngster ( associated with his abusive father “killing” his sense of growing manhood, selfhood, creativity as a young artist). Tom and Richard are both fictions to each other, aliens, not in touch with their inner selves. There’s Tom’s need to forgive and Richard’s need to feel remorse, find forgiveness. They both may come to realise they are searching for something that used to be called grace.

Dylan’s “eleven year old” question about my character being black then made me realise I could not think about South Africa in the bitter-sweet, sensitive way I believe I do if I had not left my home country six years ago. Developing objectivity is only part of it. The rest I can’t explain. And that is what I am trying to understand through some of my writing. Writers can only draw from their own experiences, write their own inner autobiographies, just only in symbolic or metonymic form, or autrebiographies, (unless, perhaps, they are doing pulp fiction or spy thrillers, which is perfectly fine).In the last six years words and images have taken on a different meaning for me. This is especially so when I am chatting with other ex-pats, buddies from years ago, re-discovered through Facebook, now also in other countries. Those words and phrases are sometimes like innocent but collectible pebbles that are suddenly strange, haunting, found on a childhood beach that I had thought was as familiar as the palm of my hand. For example, one such friend, now in Australia, casually remarked via email to another friend in South Africa in answer to a question, “what are you doing, is it dark there now in Oz?” on an email thread. He casually answered, “Busy cooking curry, and yes, it’s dark outside.” I would never have noticed those plain, innocuous words before. I would have walked over those pebbles. But their possible meanings, coloured with the context of being an ex-pat far from home, just would not stop resonating in me. I experimented with the sentence and came up with the following poem, repeating and re-fashioning Garth’s simple reply.

Busy Cooking Curry

- For Garth and Radmila

My wife’s not home yet. Wine glows in me, a moonlit tide,
Like history after the rain has smoothed its sadness away.
Busy cooking curry for dinner, and yes, it’s dark outside.

Spice, onion, garlic: odours have nothing to hide
Like history, after the rain has smoothed its sadness away.
My hands are clean, open as the smile of my bride -

They’re cooking curry for our dinner, and it’s dark outside.
What hands can do, words like “blood” and “loss” cannot say,
But my fingers murmur over plates, calling her to my side.

I grew up beneath a gleam of clouds which slowly glide
Over khakibos, barbed wire, townships of tin and clay.
But today I’m in Sydney, and it’s dark outside.

Her fingers are the rain. Its music will always stay.
Try not to think of what other hands, bloodied, do every day.
Busy cooking curry; and now my love’s come inside.

The zol and the police helicopter

William was one of the hardest workers I knew. He simply loved working with his hands and believed it kept him young. He was always looking for extra work, was a sharp negotiator for the highest wage and I remember him cutting back the privet hedges of our home not long after Marion and I tied the knot and she came to live with me. The branches had grown to twelve feet in height and required a large saw. He slaved in that garden all day, pausing to gobble down the chicken pies and ice-cold Coke I brought out at lunch time.

A squat, bald man in his late forties (I think), William had few wrinkles on his face even when he squinted and grinned at me between mouthfuls of pie and drafts of Coke. He hailed from Soweto and he often proudly boasted of the home he had there.

“You know, Rod, people think I am only a caretaker for this place.” He waved dismissively at the Randburg townhouse cluster we lived in. “If they saw my home in Soweto, and how we look after money, people would not believe.” He shook his head, downed the last of the Coke, belched with satisfaction and picked up the clippers again to assault the privet in the dazzling January heat.

William also had a love for minding other people’s business. With his unsolicited aid I discovered that virtually all the homes around me in the townhouse cluster were occupied by people who grew and smoked marijuana. It explained why we regularly pulled the holy herb out of our flowerbeds and window boxes that were now overflowing with Marion’s cherished amaryllis and azaleas. Though I am not a regular partaker of pot I knew he had his eye on me: not so that he would report me to the police, but so that he had something more to gossip about.

One day off I nipped into one of my locals, Taffy’s, on Witkoppen road. The pub at the time was virtually falling down. (Dear reader, is it still there? I was last there six years ago.) I ordered a beer and got into conversation with the blokes, including a new chap, Bruce. He and I got into an amicable chat and it turned out he lived in a townhouse cluster near mine. We got on well, the beers went down like liquid heaven, he’d travelled a lot which made him interesting and so eventually I invited him home to join us for a sundowner. Bruce said yes, and then began to brag about the quality of the zol in his possession which he would love us to sample.

“Bruce was just going to join us for a sundowner and share a joint,” I announced when we got home, vaguely wondering about the grim look on Marion’s face as she eyed the slightly swaying Bruce. “Hell, I forgot the zol,” slurred Bruce, “I’ll go back to my bakkie.” Off he went. Though usually easy-going about unexpected guests, Marion looked at me sharply, was about to speak, but just then Bruce arrived back at the door and said he could not find his bakkie. I was surprised and realised he was more inebriated than what I had thought. “I know where your bakkie is,” I volunteered. “I will go get the stuff. Where did you say the zol was?” “In the ashtray. Maybe.”

I took his keys, strolled to his bakkie and looked inside the huge ashtray. There was a variety of odds and ends and loose cash in the ashtray and felt uncomfortable about sifting through it all. I decided to just bring him the ashtray and he could look.

As I arrived at the doorway Marion was standing there, arms folded. “I am not happy with that man in our home. There is something about him that makes me very uncomfortable. And for the life of me I don’t know why you can’t tell how much he has had to drink. He mumbled, Rod, mumbled about needing the loo and then disappeared into the gardens.” “Okay, we will lock all the doors and windows and maybe he will just go home. Which is just down the road, anyway.”

“Thank you.”

“Hey, this is your home.”

We were preparing dinner a few minutes later when there was a knock on the door. Then there was a knock on one window, followed by a silence, and then a knock on another window. There was something now sinister about it all and Marion looked frightened. I grabbed my cellphone and called William who doubled as security.

“William. There is an intruder on our property. Please can you come look?”

“Okay, no problem.”

The knocking stopped and we heard our garden gate swing open as — we assumed it was William — came into the garden. There was the sound of him and Bruce muttering to each other and then silence. We both breathed a sigh of relief and thought the matter had ended there.

The next day I was working from home, as I ran my own business, when I heard a clattering from somewhere above. The sound grew louder and I realised it was a helicopter and it now sounded like it was above my roof. I could not hear clients on the phone and went outside to see.

As true as hens lay eggs, there was a police helicopter circling above my townhouse. Alarmed, I turned around to see a policeman dressed in combat gear, a bullet-proof jacket, helmet and a nasty looking rifle (are there nice-looking ones?) as he approached the gate of my townhouse. Shocked, I instinctively put my hands up and he grinned, “Don’t worry,” he reassured me, “I am inspector Viljoen”. He pointed down the pathway. “Do you know whose bakkie that is, or how it came to be here?”

There was Bruce’s large white bakkie still parked skewly in a parking bay. “No,” I instantly replied, mind racing. Maybe not a good answer, but I now wanted nothing to do with last night’s visitor. Who was he? A convict on the run? A deadly criminal? So I asked the policeman, “Officer, what is the matter? You guys are out here in force,” I asked, seeing several other cops through the trees, armed with what looked like WMD to my frightened mind. “That bakkie has been stolen,” he said, losing interest in me and walking back to the other police.

An unpleasant thought then dawned on me. A certain car ashtray was sitting on the coffee table in my lounge. Walking rather briskly now while I heard the inspector radioing in to his station, I went inside. Nothing that I wanted miraculously to change had changed. There was the ashtray, crammed with loads of loose change, mostly one-rand coins, stompies or joint-ends and so forth. I gingerly picked it up, thinking about my fingerprints. Then I froze as I saw inside the ashtray an immobiliser key. Surely the bakkie’s. For a moment I felt like I was in one of those absurd, fatalistic events in a Quentin Tarantino or Guy Ritchie movie.

The swooping helicopter thundered again over my roof. So I did what any upright, responsible citizen should do. I carefully wiped the ashtray clean of any possible prints and went outside to put the ashtray into a dustbin. Feeling a sudden surge of cunning, I placed the ashtray in a rubbish bin that was not ours and did not seem to belong to anyone. I pulled some of the garbage inside the bin over it and sauntered back home, not looking up as the helicopter swept the area.

Being too curious, I could not just let the matter go. So I sauntered out again to see the cops lounging around their 4X4, laughing and chatting to one another and with William, who was wildly gesturing. Inspector Viljoen grinned at me again and said, “That oke must have had one helluva party.”

“Why?” I airily asked.

Viljoen looked at the broad black policeman next to him and they both burst out laughing. Viljoen then finished off the story he was telling the black cop, going back, as he spoke, into Afrikaans. “So when I phoned the owner of the car, ek kan hoor hy was lekker dik babbelas* ”. The other cop shook his head and chuckled, tears in his eyes.

“Yes,” said William. “I had to help him get to his bakkie, when your neighbour arrived to help.” With great drama and exaggeration William imitated Bruce’s floundering about the parking lot while the cops cackled.

“Ja so,” said Inspector Viljoen to me. “He got drunk somewhere, maybe in this complex, we don’t know, and the next-door neighbour took him home. When he woke up he had forgotten where his bakkie was so he reported it stolen and we found it because he has a satellite tracking device.”

“I see,” I said, “well all is well that ends well. Have a good day officers”. Just then one of the other policemen arrived with bags of crisps, Cokes and other snacks and they all lounged in or against the 4×4 with the music system cranked up. They were in no rush to leave and looked set to take an hour or more off from more demanding duties. As I walked back home I saw a car coming through the townhouse complex gate and immediately stepped up my pace to get home. Inside the car were Bruce and a woman.

From my garden I could just see him, dour-faced, getting into his bakkie with a spare immobiliser and the woman, furious, shaking her head. The 4×4’s music was almost blaring. Not once did Bruce glance in the direction of my home. That must have been because he could not remember.

I thought the matter was over. But the next day I was sitting writing on our porch table when William opened the gate, looked carefully around and walked up to me. “MacKenzie,” he said softly. “Yesterday was a very funny thing. You know, that man who tried to get into your house?”

“Oh what?”

“Your next-door neighbour is a thief. I think he maybe wanted that bakkie.”

“How so?”

William looked around a moment, far more enjoying the drama of the moment and the secret he was about to share.

“That man next door. He drove that drunken man home in his car. But this morning, when I went to take out the dustbins, you won’t believe what I found. You won’t believe!” I had an idea I was not in for any surprises.

William leaned closer, eyes glinting, and used a stage whisper. “There was this hidden car ashtray with the immobiliser key inside.” He glanced around again. “That is an ashtray for the bakkie and I know it was the key because that man who came back to get his bakkie complained that someone had stolen his ashtray with the immobiliser. But do not tell anyone. That is our secret.”

“Okay, sure. I will tell no one. Promise.”

Of course, being an equally upright, responsible citizen, William never mentioned the large amount of loose change in the ashtray he would have also found.

* For non-South Africans: roughly, “he had an awful hangover”.

Extract from another memoir in progress

Childhood Murder

Tom had become fearful when his father had picked him up from school, Boksburg High. He could tell straight away there was something wrong again with dad. It was often in the evenings that something was not right about his father: it could be seen in his father’s face through the windshield of the car as he pulled up outside Boksburg High to pick him up. That stupid look. Stupidity easily weds cruelty, violence, brutality. Owl-eyed, his father had magnanimously pushed open the passenger door for Tom and Tom sidled in. Tom could not smell the liquor. Perhaps because he was so used to it, just as he no longer (if ever) smelled the cigarettes mom and dad smoked. Tom had not yet made the association between drinking and stupidity, and the latter’s nuptial partners. He just felt the dread.

The next dread, or the same dread that thickened, was that they were going to Christo’s cafe tonight on the way home. Dad always deliberately stopped at this petrol station, because the Greek man who ran the cafe next door, Christo – everyone called him Christo – he regarded as a friend and made a point of buying the evening newspaper, bread and milk from Christo’s. Even now, after the recent murder. So tonight his father announced they were going to pay respects to Christo, because it was Christo’s lovely Greek wife Teressa who had recently been murdered. Dad wanted his son to be there to pay respects, because that was part of learning to be a man. This was back in the Seventies. Several men had held up the couple while they were closing the shop one night. They had grabbed her and demanded Christo open his till. Christo had instead pulled out a gun and one of the men had slashed the side of Teressa’s neck with a knife which appeared from nowhere. One of the men had shouted to the accomplice with the knife, “What have you done? We just wanted the money!” They turned to see the gun clatter to the floor. They may have noticed Christo’s face at that moment. But they could not, even if they had seen his face, imagined or seen the face the way Tom did when he heard his father telling the story in the lounge two nights later before they watched TV shows. Tom would have seen Christo’s face for what it was: strangely white and frail, ephemeral as peach blossoms, slowly crumpling in an invisible freeze, shedding the last vestige of welcome and humour which all his customers, including his father, had always received. The thieves had run out into the night with no cash.

Tom loved the sparkling smell of the shop: the fragrance of sweets and chocolates fighting with the fruit that was always polished and waiting in large wooden boxes. And of course the inky odour of comics. Captain America, X-men, Spiderman, Daredevil. But now father and son stood in front of bowed Christo, whom Tom was sure did not need his father’s sympathies, if such they were. “You’ve just got to pull yourself together,” dad was muttering to Christo. “Come on, you’re a Greek, dammit; things can turn around. You can turn things around”. Or rather, Tom’s father stood in front of Christo, while Tom stood uncomfortably somewhere behind, not wanting comic books or anything else, intuiting far more than his father as he watched Christo’s pale face, now a shade of yellow with grief and exhaustion, as Christo both served and ignored his father. Christo’s big grin and throaty chuckle had gone to heaven to be with Teressa. Eventually, feeling he had sorted out matters that come with unexpected widowerhood, dad shuffled together his bags of groceries and whistled to Tom, who had gone over to look at the comic books simply because he could no longer watch. Whistled to him like a dog: Tom used to like that because the same whistle had always been used to call their five dogs on the huge plot of land surrounding their home and Tom, when he was younger, would run up with the animals to the stoep where his father waited, sometimes with their food, sometimes not. He had loved to pretend he was one of the mutt gang: wild, feral, a character out of his beloved Rudyard Kipling books. When dad had friends around for a braai, he would brag to his friends about the solidarity between son and father: that his son would come at the sound of a whistle.

Tommy would stop whatever he was doing when he heard his father purse his lips and flute. Once he trotted out onto the balcony where his father and friends lounged with cans of beer, and Bruce the Labrador and Scruffy the mongrel were already there, sniffing inquisitively at the half-finished plates of steak, boerewors and potato salad. “Hi Dad, you called?” Dad looked at him and grinned smugly at his chums. “Nothing, Tommy, just checking,” came the slur, a slur which suggested the coming grand nuptial of stupidity and cruelty. It was indeed like a marriage. When two young, innocent partners come together in holy union, they are ignorant of who the other is. Ignorant of themselves: the truer selves that are shoved into the spotlight as the marriage progresses, and romance recedes. It resulted, as Tommy well knew, in smashed crockery, burned dinners and to hell with you, you bastard, look what you have done to your son. You are killing him.

This evening in Christo’s, Tom was now uncomfortable with the dog whistle, but preferred to hide under it, as under an old blanket. A blanket that should have been thrown out a long time ago by his mother, but which nevertheless still served a purpose. Father and son went out into the parking lot at Christo’s, where the Peugeot squatted, filled with petrol, windshield and rear window cleaned. Dad began to roar off in the car but within seconds came to a screeching halt as a man-shadow flitted past the front of the car and huddled under a tree. Dad peered at the man standing in the shadows. Tom could see he was a good-looking young man with a carefully wrought hairstyle. On both sides of his head three grooves in his coarse black hair had been neatly shaved out. The effect was striking, accentuating the man’s fine cheekbones, and was surely seen as very attractive among the young ladies, Tom thought. “Good evening,” Tom’s dad said in Zulu to the man. “Good evening, baas,” replied the man back in his native tongue (except for baas), clearly relieved by the friendly exchange. Tom’s father then asked in English, “Are you having a good time?” “No, no,” replied the man in English, uncertain how to respond, then suddenly said, “I am just waiting for my friend. He works at the petrol station,” pointing in the obvious direction. There was a silence which Tom’s father held in his hands while the stranger stood with hands empty: hands which were rubbing each other nervously while he wondered what Tom’s father was going to do or say next. The stranger stared at Tom in the car, then back at his father. “I asked,” said his father in a louder voice, “what are you doing here?” as though the answer had not already been suggested. The man did not know what to say, and put his hands in his pockets, and tried laughing, to capture the original welcoming tone in the car driver’s voice. Tom’s father then yelled, “It’s after dark! Go back to your location, you stupid – – !” The car roared off again.

Tom studied the ugly word his father had used to identify or insult the stranger; it was no matter which one. It was like finding a snake in a tree where one had expected to find a bird nesting. The conversation with the stranger had started off in such a welcoming manner, but from the beginning Tom had known better, known what the outcome would be. He studied his upturned, soft, pink palms, as if the awful word were in his hands, the same hands that had eagerly flipped through comic books or tousled his dogs’ furry heads. The emptiness of his hands suggested the word he had heard: one he could not bring himself to say.

Three weeks later on the weekend the police arrived at their home on the plot near Carlos Rolfe’s Pan in Boksburg. This was nothing very unusual; around the spacious houses were extensive farmlands, hectares of bush and a glistening spider’s web of tin-roofed structures which were easy hideouts for criminals and illegal immigrants from nearby countries. Many illegals were cheaply employed by the plot-owners and remaining farmers as industrialisation encroached.

‘Dag meneer,’ said the young policeman politely to Tom’s father. The officer had not needed to knock on the door as the dogs had started barking furiously at the arrival of the police van. “Good day to you,” said Tom’s dad in Afrikaans, beaming. “How can we help you?” “Do you know this person?” the policeman asked, as another officer brought a prisoner out of the back of the van. The dogs went into a frenzy and both Tom and his father shooed the animals away. “He may have been involved in the murder at Christo’s,” the policeman ventured. “Oh ja,” said Tom’s father. Everyone in the area knew Christo’s and what had happened. Tom recognised the prisoner immediately. The neat rows razored into the sides of the prisoner’s head had partly faded with new hair. Tom remained silent, perhaps because, as he’d many years later reflect, he had recognised a fellow hider under blankets. The prisoner only looked at the ground, after once glancing at Tom for a few seconds. In his eyes there was nothing. But Tom was sure for a second he had recognised Tom. But, already then, without knowing the words to express it, Tom knew that that acknowledgment may have led to a spark of life. Of kinship.

Tom’s father, ex-military, a John Wayne fan always happy to please fellow gun-slingers, strode up to the policeman’s prisoner, who shrunk even more. “Hold your head up!” the young officer snapped. The prisoner raised his head. “No, I don’t know him,” Tom’s father finally said with honesty and conviction. “I have never seen him before.”

Extract from a work in progress, an autre-biography

We are banks’ prisoners

On reading Charlene Smith’s two recent blogs on her utter nightmares with Standard Bank while in Italy, I immediately remembered narrowly escaping a bank and travel incident when living in China that still has me shuddering with the possible consequences. Years ago my wife and I were about to go on holiday from Shanghai to Xi’an, which was very, very far away from our home base in Shanghai. I happened to put my Bank of China card into the stand alone ATM machine at the convenience store downstairs from our home then in Shanghai, a store I have written about a couple of times, and the machine inexplicably swallowed my card. Now this is how many banks work in mainland China, and hopefully their complete lack of service will change. (At least they don’t lie to you about giving magnificent service, as Standard and Mastercard did to Charlene.)

In some banks if you lose a card, well…. That’s it. You cannot draw money for love or money (forgive pun) until you get a new card. Period. The Allbright bank, which owned the ATM I used, only got the card returned to Bank of China eight days later. Until then we had no money, and it just so happened that our British Halifax cards had expired, and the new ones were still on their way. Some Chinese banks will allow you to draw money (such as bank of China) if you have a little booklet that comes with the card and you produce your passport, and other just wont give you any cash, regardless of what documents you bring. This was no problem as one of the companies we worked for advanced us money to tide us over, but we had to cancel our trip to the relatively remote city, Xi’an. Tip to anyone wishing to open a bank account in Shanghai whilst working there: go with Shanghai Pudong Bank. We received excellent service from super-friendly people so much so we dearly wished to treat them out to dinner or something, but that would have been a breach of bank staff code.

The point to shudder at is what if they card had been swallowed in Xi’an? We would have been penniless in a very foreign, faraway city and in those days my Mandarin was very poor anyway. Very few people in those days in China could speak anything remotely near adequate English (except for some university students) and I hasten to add that that is not entirely their problem. It is their country, massive, largely insulated form the outside world and has their own languages (Mandarin is just one). But it is not really their problem that an outsider cannot speak their language. In European countries like Italy Charlene would have at least had access to English speaking bank officials. Given the unsophisticated, bureaucratic, government controlled nature of the banks anyway, I don’t know what we would have done. Here are some predictions of what commentators might advise. There were many commentators who sympathized with Charlene Smith’s horrific plight. Like them I agree that the unspeakable manner in which Standard Bank and MasterCard should be made as public as possible. But I could not believe some of the callous, idiotic remarks as well. But that is Thought Leader for you. Here are some predictions of what commentators might say or ask here, and none of these are idiotic at all.

“Just use the return ticket back to Shanghai from Xi’an. Have the return date brought forward.” some commentators might say. Reply: you can only buy single bus or train tickets in China, not returns. That is now starting to change.

“Go to the local embassy,” other commentators might remark. There isn’t one. Only ones are in large cities like Beijing and Shanghai. (For some reason Charlene does not mention if she tried this in her blogs, though commentators suggested it.)

“Why didn’t your bank issue a separate card to your wife on the same account? You could have used the other one in the meantime.” Answer: You don’t get joint bank accounts in China and therefore two cards for both partners. That may have changed now. I have never been in a country that is rapidly changing so fast and at such a seething rate. When we were there it was always one person, one card.

“Why didn’t you have your salaries deposited in Shanghai Pudong Development Bank, seeing you recommended this bank near the beginning of the blog?” Whatever company you work for as a rule will ONLY deposit salaries into the same bank the company is with, depriving you of customer choice. “Well…. Once you receive your salary, why not just transfer the money from that bank account into a Shanghai Pudong Development Bank account, say, by Internet transfer?” No, for the same reason. China Banks will not allow inter-bank transfers. Why? I don’t know. (Or rather, I would not come up with the lengthy theories as to why here.) The above presentation of some bewildering banking facts in China is why some people feel I have a patronising attitude to the Chinese. Nope. I am just presenting the facts.

“Go to a police station.” The last thing on earth I would ever do is go to a Chinese police station, especially one far from Shanghai, as suggested in the blog when my wife’s handbag was stolen, where she went to a Shanghai police station which is more used to dealing with foreigners, but are still very unhelpful and can’t see past bureaucratic paperwork. (Outside the places where foreigners hang out in certain places in Shanghai etc., anyone non-Chinese is stared at. After living there for a few years, you start to understand why. Westerners look waayyy different). I do not trust Chinese police. With regard to New Zealand immigration requirements (we now live in Auckland), a copy of a document certified by the Chinese police is unacceptable. Which speaks volumes. I know of someone who tried to use a 100 RMB bank note in a store in Hangzhou, China. It turned out the note was false and the shop phoned the police. He was arrested, put in a police cell and had to pay a fine. He had no clue he was even given a false note. No attempt to track down the con artists. The extra conundrum is that the 100 RMB bank note is the largest note and is only issued by banks and their ATMS. Hmmmm. But, no, no no. Do not go to a Chinese police station.

“Don’t go to China”, some commentators might advise, “unless it is with a well-organised tour, including tour bus and decent hotels”. Excellent point. But by the way, you will not see the real China, just the one put on show, like the current World Expo.

Sure, somehow we would have eventually got back to Shanghai. We would have had one helluva adventure, but it’s one I would rather do without.

China was a five-year, fascinating experience, but we really had to learn the rules. But a final point about banks and us as customers, bearing Charlene’s story and mine, which are just two in the ocean.

We really are banks’ prisoners. And we pay them for that.

To misquote from King Lear: “Let anarchy thrive!”

Who would you write or gossip about when they die?

We have had the Terre’blanche and Lolly Jackson deaths so far this year. The press that followed proved that more is said about the person or personage after his death. Well I remember the “truths” about incest that emerged after novelist and poet Lawrence Durrel’s death (brother to the perhaps more famous Gerald Durrell). It was strongly alleged that he had had an incestuous relationship with his daughter Sappho. She ensured that her journals and any documents on her therapy sessions pertaining to the alleged incest could only see the light of day once she died. It is not clear in any of the documentation that there was any incest with her father. It is a matter of psychoanalytic interpretation but it made world literary news after Sappho Durrell committed suicide. After an intense legal battle with the Durrell family after her death, portions of the documents – none of them conclusively proving incest – were released, initially in issue 37 of Granta, which had a rather less than euphemistic cover title, “They fuck you up”, a quote taken from the British poet Philip Larkin, who was commenting on what family does to a person.

There was a sudden huge surge of interest in Terre’blanche possibly involved in sodomy and that that act had perhaps led to his death. There seemed to be an air of disappointment when that was allegedly disproven. We love smut.

The dead themselves do not speak. The wakes they leave do. The wakes of course are made by people. In the case of Lawrence Durrell, his reputation and surviving family will always have that shadow of alleged incest.

Why do so many of us talk so much about people when they die; and I am talking about things that we were not prepared to say before their death? The legal reasons possibly involved are obvious. But the one more relevant as an insight into human nature is that the dead cannot defend themselves. This is the nature of gossip: it is not said when the person being derided is around.

Of course, in the example of Lolly Jackson, his lifestyle and brash, quotable comments were already well known before his death. The tweets and media headlines that followed his demise are what carry the amusing smut, the gossip and jokes, about him. This amuses many people, gives them something to do that appears meaningful, or existentially pisses on the cathedral door of meaning, declaring there is no meaning. And that death should be joked about. Perhaps it should be. It beats years of dealing with grief through expensive therapy. Many will hope that more juicy gossip will emerge now that neither Lolly Jackson nor Terre’blanche can shoot off their considerable mouths in their own defense. Why? Gossip rags like People, OK and Hello! don’t answer that question; they just exploit readers’ love for it. Without stories, and each one of us contains at least one unwritten story, lives would be even more a bric-a-brac on the mantelpiece where the dust need never be swept away.

With regard to some of my story. My father was retrenched from an international car firm, Peugeot, in the late Seventies. He had held a senior position. I was told his retrenchment was because of apartheid: Peugeot was pulling out of South Africa, in keeping with international sanctions. That made a lot of sense to me as a teenager. The truth emerged after my father’s death: he had been fired because he smelled of alcohol every day and was eventually fired after repeated warnings. This truth also made sense because I well knew his spectacular drinking bouts. He had sworn my mother to keep this secret from me. Why did I need to be told the truth after his death?

A close member of my family was once adopted by a woman when he was very young, in another country. She was in the medical profession and held in high regard. She was divorced and when I finally met her she told me she was a divorcée and one day she would tell me the details. I did not probe. Divorce for a long time has been more common than condoms. Much later I was told the gossip, which turned out to be quite juicy. Her husband went on holiday to the Netherlands, had a sex change, and came back home as a woman, more or less, expecting things could carry on as normal.

Ah, imagine life without scandal, gossip, stories. The image of a shell comes to mind. An empty shell washed up among the millions of others on a beach, its shell-ness a metaphor for meaninglessness until it is snatched up by a delighted child and added to her bedside collection, glinting with fresh discovery.

So who would you like to write about, gossip about, joke about, once that person is dead? Obama? Malema? Winnie? Sol Kerzner? Your mother-in-law? Or would you rather that dead person be left in peace: “left in peace” being an emblem ringing like a temple bell with transcendence and certainty in a world that, instead, increasingly celebrates “flatland”* jokes?

* See paragraph three of the link for a contextual understanding of flatland. Also Google “Ken Wilber flatland”.

Did Argus reviewer Bianca Capazorio actually read my book Cracking China?

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Greece could sell Corfu: what about SA selling Robben Island?

Greece is in financial crisis and Germany recently offered to buy the island of Corfu to help kick start the nation again. Now what if South Africa was in the same plight and was offered a purchase for her historical Robben Island? Just imagine the following South African personalities and others acting as brokers for the purchase of Robben Island:

Comedian John Vlismas as broker

“May we buy your island?”

“So long as you turn it into a nudists-only resort with a 24/7 reality TV show. Cameras everywhere. SA gets a percentage of the advertising revenue.”

Schabir Shaik as broker

“May we buy your island?”

“What .. ? cough cough … you seem to have forgotten the details of that little arms deal sometime ago. We were actually going to ask you when my connections could quietly buy it back without anyone … you know … ”

Archbishop Desmond Tutu

“Father, what about us buying your island?”

“I would rather be flagellated on her beach and crucified for all to see on her highest hilltop than sell you our island.”

Jacob Zuma

“Mr President, is it possible to purchase your island?”

“Okay, no problem … but when we visit, will we have to shower with our condoms still on?”

Helen Zille

“May we buy your island?”

“Only if you take Julius Malema as its full-time janitor. According to his school report, for the whale and dolphin watchers he can make wooden benches and sight-seeing towers that suddenly collapse. When the injured tourists sue you employ our attorneys.”

Julius Malema

“Sir, could we move your island for you?”

“Comrade, we are already in the business of selling land rights. I can cut you a deal for the following areas (points to map of SA) if you can bring enough eurodollars to the table. What?? As little as that? Get out, you bloody racist. This is a revolutionary house … put that rubbish back in your trouser … ”

David Bullard

China asks: “Could we acquire your island?”

“At fucking last! I always said they need someone like you to blame … ”

Robert Mugabe

“Hey, pssst … how about we buy that island?”

“Don’t know yet. I still need to know what percentage Malema will cut me for my advisory capacity.”

Evita Bezuidenhout

“Mevrou, kan ons miskien daardie stuk land koop?”

“Agh, skattie, sing saam: die land is my land

En nou is dit jou land

From Mbeki’s last stand

To Zuma leading the band

Met baie vroue in sy hand

Some call it a voting erection — agh — election stand …

Die land’s natgenaai for you and me …

“Agh toe. For you, I will throw a koeksuster franchise in with the ou island. Ons in die ou vaderland noem dit Koek en Moer™. Het jy geweet sommige mense dink dis baie hip om hulle tale to mix?”

Eugene Terre’Blanche (resurrected for the occasion)

“Meneer, may we buy your island?”

“Vok julle! Nou het die oorlog begin.”

O’Hagan’s barman

“May we buy your island?”

“You mean the one that comes with vodka, tequila, gin, triple sec and rum, sir?”

Bert Olivier, NMMU Professor of Philosophy
“Could we procure your island?”

“What IS an island?”

Rod MacKenzie (living now in New Zealand)

“Hey, could we buy your island?”

Buy this island? Here?? The New Zealand authorities would probably give me twenty years to life if they ever find out. But let’s talk … ”

Why aren’t women as (deliberately) comical as men?

Why aren’t women as (deliberately) comical as men? This is how you tell this quick Joke about Women (definitely one of those that are all in the acting). Ask, “Why does a woman with PMT take so much longer to bath and get dressed in the morning? Answer question by yelling at the top of your lungs, eyes bulging, mouth wide open and banging on the table: “Because it just DOES, okayyy?!?”

Down to earth men usually find that funny, usually told on boys’ night, or in our home of seven here in New Zealand, when the girls are out (Chook and Chook junior). Only some women do. They are always ones I become friends with. Jokes can be a good entrance test, come to think of it.

Watching the foretastes of the New Zealand Comedy Festival 2010 got me to realise something that had actually eluded me most of my life. Most of the comedians in the festival are men. One of the few women on stage had weak humour and seemed to rely too much on apologising for being a woman comedian. I thought that was cringeworthy, then remarked to the other blokes in the house (girls’ night out), “you hardly ever see woman comedians actually.” This turned into a scholarly and leisurely debate. The consensus among us men was that men are the ones who are the most deliberately funny by far. Women seem to look for a deeper meaning. Or something. Man, I had never, ever, truly thought about that.

Yeah, think about it: how many cartoonists do you know in SA or elsewhere that are women? Comedians? There’s Zapiro, the creators of Madam and Eve, the late, great Derek Bauer. There’s columnists like David Bullard and Jeremy Gordin. Would Malema be Malema if he were a woman? On Thought Leader I can’t think of any bloggers for the last two years who are female and really funny. But we have Ndumiso Ngcobo and Koos Kombuis. Llewellyn Kriel (for example, here), Michael Trapido and David J. Smith can be hilarious when they put their minds to it. And Traps has done even more witty ones than this one. The overwhelming majority of British cartoonists are blokes. I spotted just one woman; I could do more exhaustive research but the evidence is already overwhelming. Spend a week or more taking down stats on which sex joshes the most in all your circles. Or reflect back on who comes up with the most quips or other funny stuff like pranks. See what figures you come up with; please be objective. I am not saying there aren’t female comics. But the overpowering, perhaps devastating fact seems to be, women don’t do the funnies as a rule. Why? What does that mean?

Hell, I don’t know. I asked the Chook; she doesn’t know either. Or care. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde: women don’t need to be understood, they just need to be loved. Man, I upset ladies sometimes without having the faintest clue why. One girlfriend once buzzed me on my cluster main gate intercom in Jo’burg to come to a party I was throwing and I chirped, “We are not buying brooms today, sorry!” as she knew well our townhouse cluster was being plagued by all sorts of bloody salespeople. She drove off, mad as a hornet, and I had to explain to the rest of the party her absence. All the blokes just gave it back when I said we weren’t buying brooms, strongly suggesting, for example, which part of my anatomy they would shove aforementioned sweeping utensil once purchased. Heck, it was just a gag. A clear example of Wilde’s maxim.

Or the classic thing about the toilet seat. So we men are expected to put it back down after we take a leak. Courtesy. Respect. Reverence. Whatever. But that works either way. What is the effort involved in lifting the seat up (boys) or down (girls)? And, ah, the toothpaste tube. Don’t squeeze the front end. Sheez, can’t you see that is just subconscious ex-masturbation compensation?

Now I have been around for nearly half a century and by now in this blog I would imagine I have got some women’s backs up. I have done that inadvertently before. Been there, done that, got the T-shirt torn off. Grrrr. And this blog is more advertent than inadvertent. Ladies, I am not trying to be patronising. I can smell them rotten tomatoes coming. I am just looking at this interesting phenomenon.

However. At long last the however. Note the little joke at the beginning of the blog. The woman who would shout “because it just DOES okay?” (because she is stressed and inexplicable and best avoided right then and there) just does not find the situation funny. The viewers do. You see, women can actually be funny when they are not deliberately trying to be.

One of my best was when a group of us were standing outside the office, swapping jokes, and some bloke wanted to tell a blonde joke. There was a blonde in our group called Anne and he most chivalrously asked her if that was okay. She gave assent and he told the gag. We all laughed but Anne said, in all seriousness, “When was the punch line?”. So we laughed more, including the other women in the group. Well now, did young Anne get angry, let me tell you. She went red in the face and almost took flight with hand gestures of frustration at us all, asking for the joke to be repeated. Without trying to be cruel, that helplessly made us laugh even more, and because my laugh resembles the bray of a donkey or a bull who just got his nuts squeezed, I stood out. Anne now completely boiled over about me in particular. Which in itself, dammit, was so funny. She almost hit me. I later apologised with a note and a small gift, shaking my head about her obvious insecurity about herself. Laugh at yourself and get over yourself.

Let me make some corrections to soothe some of the female feathers out there. Of course, both men and women can be funny or stupid when they are not trying to be. I remember once kicking my suitcase along through a sweltering subway in China. All the handles had broken. I was cursing the suitcase and the Chook was walking ahead, resolutely ignoring my abuse of the luggage. All the Chinese were laughing. I screamed at them in their own language, “You got a problem?” They laughed even more. I got angrier. Oh yeah, years later, I now find it funny.

And both men and women are not comical when they try too hard to be comical. There is a new ad campaign for Libra Tampons going on in New Zealand. A young man is on his own in the bedroom he shares with his girlfriend. He takes out her Libra tampon pack. He sticks two on his arms and pretends he is some kind of kung fu fighter. He tries out different costumes with more and more tampons and eventually looks like a cross between Snow White and the DC comic book hero, Flash, showing off in front of the mirror. At that point his lovely girlfriend arrives home with her parents, because she wants to introduce them to him. Her last words are, “I’ve got my parents…[dramatic pause while parents and sweetheart take in the ridiculous male sight, a young man who now looks like he has been rolled in glue and white feathers]… and you’ve got my Libra invisible pads”. Good grief. Not quite my kind of humour. But the bloke does look ridiculous. Because he and/or his ad writers tried too hard to be funny. In all adverts the product should be the hero so the consumer remembers it. Bu in this ad the product fails to be the hero; the dickhead is. (Don’t believe me? Here’s the video of the ad.)