A Difficult Year. 2003.

I wrote the following open letter to my former landlady in a state of mental despondency. I initially included her full name in the title but I have decided that was going too far. I wish her and Daniel well. Although not mentioned here I had two housemates, Joy and Bianca, and later Travis, who lodged in the main house. Joy lived to the essence of her name which helped when I was sea and needed someone to talk to. Bianca, we fell out over the bacon – how silly! – but I think we reconciled by the end of the year? I wish you all well wherever life has led you.

Dear Marietjie,

People tell me all the time move on, forget the past, what’s done is done. Maybe they’re right, maybe they’re wrong. I think it depends on the situation. After all there are plenty of retrospective sayings: it’s never too late to say sorry; never too late to forgive and certainly never too late to say goodbye. I don’t know where you are or what trials and tribulations life has dealt you in the decade since I last saw you but I have often thought about the first house other than my parents’ that I would call home. I have to admit that it was a far smaller than that house in Harare, a sprawling multi-roomed, 3 acre property on a hill flanked by trees and a river, but nonetheless it was still a home.

I think it was the giant ferns outside the bedroom windows that made a favourable impression that morning I visited you in my turquoise Nissan twin-cab. You would ask me about that truck a few years later when I called you out of the blue: Do you still have it? you asked. I saw one the other day driving though Pretoria and I thought about you. Why don’t we catch up over a coffee? I was then in Durban living with family but I would have liked that.

During that last call I asked after Kobus and you said that he had divorced you. I’m sure you put it that way – he divorced me. Divorce; a separation, legally enforced, usually final and irreversible. Obviously I wasn’t the one you had said with a little laugh as if to mask the feeling of rejection I imagined you must feel. I lost your number somehow. We never did get to have that coffee and I never did get to say the stuff I really wanted to.

As I write I’m listening to a symphony by Mozart; classical music is the only sort I can actually listen and work to at the same time but whilst I’m listening to this I’m also thinking of music emanating from the house in Harare: obligatory clarinet practice in the evening for me; piano for Dan and mum; the flute for Ivan. I hated scales and theory and tricky sight reading, but the orchestral stuff was good. An orchestral arrangement has harmonies and melodies, brass, strings and percussion.

I may have been practising alone in my room but in my head I was not. I could usually tell who was playing the piano – Dan hit the notes with a certain urgency and tempo, my mum deliberate and given to doggedly repeating any bits of the musical score that were giving her trouble until stopping abruptly and often with a stern self-admonishment. I wished I could hear her play just one more time. Anything, anything at all.

And now I think of you Marietjie walking across from the main house to your music room and your piano, quietly unlocking it and letting yourself in. You were accomplished I could tell, the notes floating out on the evening air. What is it you were playing? How did you feel when you played? Like I did with my mum I listened from the comfort of my bedroom. More than likely the TV was chattering way at the same time. Still, I remember the piano; not every night, not even every week, but just every so often. Is it the memory of you or the memory of my mother I hear? She died a year before I came to live next to you and Kobus and Daniel.

Daniel! What a lovely smile he had and how his eyes still sparkled when he laughed. Not yet an adolescent his laugh was pitched high. He liked to sing too as he wandered around the yard, a little aimlessly it seemed. I remember Joy remarking that she thought he was a bit of a lonely little boy. I remember too that he would wander into our communal kitchen and sitting area; cold steel and glass dining table and chairs on a dark green tiled floor, not an area I remember with any particular affection.

During the day the sun at least warmed it a little and Daniel might come in looking for a cat or someone to talk to. He knocked on my door once and asked me to come with him outside around the side of the house to where a pedestrian gate was situated next to a clump of fuschia. He was building a little fort in the plants and he wanted me to join him, just for some company. I stood there in a state of unknowingness. I remember making an excuse to go back to my room. I’m sorry now. I should have played with you a bit longer. Is that little Daniel I’m thinking of or my brother of the same name? I wish we had had more time together too. Why did we grow up so fast?

Kobus was a lawyer I think, like my father. I thought he was Daniel’s biological father but he was quick to point out that he was only a stepfather by virtue of you having remarried. He never wants to do anything with us Daniel surprised me by saying one day. All he does is watch TV, especially golf. Always golf. I avoided the man if I could. He spoke little, laughed and smiled less. The most I ever saw of him was when he parked his car in front of our tenancy on the narrow brick driveway between your music room and the opposite wall which separated us from the horticultural plot next door.

We only ever had cause to speak once after we negotiated where our respective trucks would be parked and that I was to leave him just so much room to squeeze his white, single cab bakkie into position next to mine. I didn’t leave him enough space the one day and I thought he might shout at me. Or am I just imagining it? Only a matter of months earlier in Harare I had turned my back on my father and invited a stern reproach.

We hadn’t been on talking terms for a while and I still harboured a lot of anger for his long-standing affair and the years of lies. He had taken me outside to the front of the house away from Ivan and dressed me down thoroughly. I had felt like I was 10 again and being told off for a misdemeanour. I was wary of him and wary of Kobus.

He sometimes came out to smoke around the front of the house in the evening. I wonder what he thought about on such evenings? Should I have gone out and spoken to him? Good evening mineer, are you enjoying the air mineer? Or was it my father I really wanted to talk to? He was in my thoughts every day.

Quite often I think about my little room which I furnished as best I could with a desk and bookshelf to supplement the bed, wardrobe, glass and side table already there. All the same when I look back it feels empty. My room was always my sanctuary both then and before. You may not have known it but your tabby cat used to come and sleep at the foot of my bed most evenings –  Kitsy I think her name was.

She would arrive quietly and unexpectedly after I switched off the bedside light and leave just as independently before first light and if I stepped outside and sat down on the small wall fronting our tenancy in quiet contemplation she would startle me by bounding across the driveway from behind the trucks, chasing some real or imaginary nocturnal creature I never could tell. Perhaps she needed me as much as I needed her. After all she was the different one – the outcast? – amongst your strange collection of feline pedigrees who you kept interned in the laundry room. You garnished them with coloured bows and no doubt lavished them with love and attention, but Kitsy seemed hardly to belong there at all.

But what saddens me is this Marietjie: I never got to say goodbye. I knew you were selling the house. I was even there once when a prospective buyer stuck their nose through the door to have a look at my room. But I didn’t expect to come back from my week long trip to Cape Town to be at my brother’s graduation to find the house vacated and builders beginning to demolish our annex.

Joy arrived back at the same time and I remember how horrified she was to find her possessions covered in dust, the builders already smashing down the partition wall between her room and your soon-to-be flattened music room. We didn’t deserve that. I didn’t think to phone you but I should have. I was a paying tenant and the month was not yet up. It hurt deeply. But I don’t want to incriminate. Perhaps the buyer pressured you to move immediately? All I want you to do is read this letter. I think I understood you more than you imagine.

I liked it that you watched the Hallmark Channel and that I got the channel feed to my room. I never told you that. There were some good films on there. I missed saying goodbye to Daniel too, being able to wish him well, to hope that he would outgrow the boy and become a man in the fullness of time. How is he? Will you tell him I think of him too?

Kind regards,

Leo

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