Category Archives: Reflections

Chapter 3 of my Book: a Life Lost and Questions Unanswered (an excerpt)

Chapter Excerpt from Between Two Worlds: The Account of a Jet-Setting Vagrant

Actually, this bit of coastline has other significance to me. As a family we had holidayed in Durban and on the South Coast from as far back as my memory stretched. Besides the obvious attraction of having had my aunt Liz, her family and my grandparents in Durban, we had visited and stayed in various places up and down the coastline: Scottburgh and Uvongo spring first to mind. These were happy memories filled with endless sunshine, beaches, family and friends, including many co-vacationers from back home in Zimbabwe.

In later years we tended to stick to the environs of Durban and visited the north coast instead, aligning our holidays with those of our Harare cousins and shared family in Richard’s Bay and nearby Empangeni. These trips in my late teens and early twenties were of a different sort, bittersweet and nostalgic. In effect the South Coast mapped out many of the memories of my younger, more spontaneous and less complicated self. However, there is a caveat to this retrospection. Almost bang between the holiday towns of Scottburgh and Uvongo is another sleepy little coastal town called Hibberdene.

In 2003, whilst I was studying towards an Honours degree in geology at the University of Pretoria, otherwise known as Tukkies, we had visited Kwazulu-Natal and its environs during our mid-year field excursion with the second and third year undergraduates. Being well inland of the coast, just north of its larger and better known twin, Johannesburg, many of the students who hailed from Pretoria had never ventured to this part of the South African coast. To me it was terra familiare rather than terra incognito. We had entered the province to the north and journeyed south down through Richard’s Bay where we visited the RBM heavy-sands and dune mining operations. We had by-passed metropolitan Durban and arrived in Hibberdene via the N2 coastal motorway on a windy, grey afternoon sometime in June of that year. Arriving quite late in the day we were granted leave to venture out along the beach and do as we please.

I have included this recollection almost as an afterthought. I find it difficult to objectively recall the series of events that follow, let alone that year as a whole. I was one of six or seven Honours students that year, greatly outnumbered by the second and third year classes. As such we the de facto senior students on the trip. Broadly speaking the Honours group fell into two groups: the Afrikaans lads who had studied at Tukkies since first year and were bound not only by the bonds of friendship but to some degree by their language and origin. Me and Kelly, the only female member of the class at that point, had come from other universities and were not native Afrikaans speakers, although Kelly seemed to understand the language well enough.

I recall Kelly as a shy girl who kept to herself much of the time, but shared in the laughter of the others whilst I, for the most part, didn’t understand. I didn’t begrudge the other lads speaking their native language and on the other occasions there had been open discussion and presentations in English during class-time I had been able to participate. These moments were often supplemented by Guan Greyling, a highly intelligent and amusing young man, slight of build with thin sandy-blonde hair and sparkling grey-blue eyes.

My introduction to Guan had been memorable: whilst I had been nervously reaching for a canned beer at the departmental introductory party on the campus I had been splashed with icy water as someone had deliberately lobbed another can of beer into the tub. I had recoiled in shock, but when I looked up it wasn’t obvious who the perpetrator was. Guan and some mates were laughing about something amongst themselves but I couldn’t be sure who it was. I cautiously stepped forwards again and in the moment I took me eyes off the bystanders and reached for another can, ‘plop’ went another with the same result. This time round Guan laughed loudly and unashamedly.

“Man, how did you fall for the same trick twice?” he asked rhetorically with a broad grin and a twinkle in his eye. Thereafter Guan had proven to be the unabashed clown of the class. Not only did he elicit all the answers with apparent ease but he exhibited a great sense of humour. During one Powerpoint video projector presentation, for which he had evidently not prepared, he inserted some unconventional slides after the title page. “So what can I say about this topic?” he began suggestively, giving us, his audience, a meaningful pause. With our respective attentions captive he flicked to the subsequent slide of some flowers or some cuddly kids; then to one shaded blue; and finally a blank, white page, announcing each with a singular word so that together they spelt out: “sweet-blue-nothing”. Needless to say his audacity was met by hoots of laughter from our end and a stony silence by our German lecturer, Dr. Wolf Maier.

The truth of the matter was that Guan was a sensitive soul who was experiencing some deep insecurities. His girlfriend, a pretty Spanish girl called Jennifer, had recently broken up with him and it was common knowledge that he was struggling to come to terms with it. Sometime, not long before our mid-year fieldtrip, I had managed to talk with Guan one-on-one. We found a surprising amount of common ground – estranged fathers, shared interests and a yearning desire to find fulfilment in what we were doing. Was he as lonely as I’d found myself being? I can’t say, nor can I say how much the break-up with Jennifer had affected him.

We had tentatively arranged to meet up for a drink sometime in the near future. Going forward to the mid-year excursion, Guan had maintained his position as the clown, most likely enjoying the attention as he sought to plug the hole opened up by the break-up. One evening in camp he had discreetly climbed a tree to some ungodly height before making monkey noises and startling those of us below. “Come down Guan before you break your neck” someone had shouted up to him. Eventually he had and I recall a little later he, myself and a couple of English-speaking second year girls had crouched in the eve of a dome tent and laughed about it as we sipped wine from plastic cups. He was very gregarious, moving between the various groups, talking with one and all. In contrast the other lads in my year, Pieter, Chris and Johan, stuck mostly to themselves.

What happened on the beach that fateful day was this: we had all gone walking up the beach, spread out in little pockets of friends, ostensibly to find a safe place to swim. Pieter and the others took up the front whilst the rest of us followed. Guan had walked alongside me for a while, chatting about nothing in particular. I remember him wavering for a second before sprinting off to catch up with the other three lads up ahead. I had with me a green towel with my name embroidered on it and a picture of a tiger. It had been a Christmas present from my father, although I had never thanked him for it. We were barely on speaking terms back then, and writing now I can feel the dull ache of that fracture return. I also had a black Frisbee disc which I lent to two second years.

I lost both items that day, although their loss is immaterial in the face of a greater tragedy. A few of the second years, growing tired of walking had stripped down to their shorts and leapt into an opening between the rocks where the sea encroached upon the shoreline. It was choppy and it’s greyness mirrored that of the unsettled sky above. I remember Anton de Beer swimming out effortlessly for perhaps twenty metres or more, then treading water and looking back to the beach. Emboldened, others pulled off their shirts and waded into the waters. I remember feeling uneasy and glancing up the beach to where the others from my class had disappeared around a bend.

Maybe I said something, maybe I didn’t, but unwilling to be shown up I too entered the water alongside Conrad, a friendly second year student. I remember the strength of the backwash, relentlessly pulling on one’s legs as we both struggled to keep our heads above water. After a few minutes we struggled ashore, a quick glance from Conrad acknowledging what had been left unsaid: this was a dangerous sea. Only a strong, experienced swimmer like Anton could negotiate the riptide and swim as far as he had. On my last trip out to South Africa in 2010 I’d stayed with a friend in Johannesburg. One day whilst walking through Rosebank Mall I passed Conrad walking in the opposite direction. We made eye contact and I saw a flicker of recognition. It was only a little while later that I realised that it had been him by which time he had disappeared amongst the crowds of shoppers.

Harking back to that time at the beach in Hibberdene seven years before, I recall that after re-dressing I started walking further up the beach, meeting my four classmates as they returned from whence they had been. “What’s it like PW?” I had asked Pieter, whose full name was Pieter-Willem, abbreviated to PW.

“It’s all the same,” he had replied, or words to that effect. I’m not sure if I explicitly asked if there was a swimming beach round the bend, but I assumed that if there was he would have mentioned it. Nonetheless I can hardly take the moral high-ground when I myself chose to swim in an unregulated area. I’m not sure if all of them entered the water where Anton, myself and the others had done so because I moved off to explore the adjacent rocks where my friend Izak was sitting, staring out to sea in quiet contemplation. It was at some moment whilst I was on those rocks that Guan’s life had slipped away from him, drowning in the treacherous waters.

As I arrived back on the beach, Anton, Pieter and one or two others were struggling to get him to shore. When they finally did his body was limp and lifeless, his body white and pale and his face a blueish-grey. Pieter had dashed off up the beach, returning a few precious minutes later with a young, white lifeguard. He had given him CPR for what seemed like an age and I remember the copious amounts of foamy water that he elicited from Guan’s flooded lungs. I remember too the moment he looked up into my eyes whilst I stood a short distance away and shook his head.

I asked PW about the occasion many years later, after having moved over to the UK. “It was all a blur,” he wrote. “I guess I must have known there was a bathing beach around the corner but it’s all a blur in my memory.” The anger I felt dissipated as I realised that the tragedy was unforeseen and the responsibility of swimming where we had ultimately rested with each of us as individuals. If Pieter had seen the bathing beach then so had Guan.

My pain lay in feeling inadequate and unneeded. Pieter had later given a eulogy to Guan back at the university. It was entirely in Afrikaans so I had understood very little. Afterwards Pieter showed slides from the rest of the fieldtrip and a daytrip we had made a few weeks earlier to a local site of interest. Although I had submitted a few photographs of my own which had been scanned to CD these weren’t included.

There was a picture of me talking to a chap called Francois, brother to a second year student in the department. He was a bit of an awkward chap who battled to express himself. He had approached me with some short lines of childish verse, written in English. I recognised in him the desire to write poetically, but an inability to translate that into meaningful prose. After chatting with him for a short while I discovered that, like me, he possessed a love of nature and concern for the well-being of the landscapes, animals and people that we felt so deeply about. It wasn’t difficult to connect.

I noticed that he was shunned by many of the others and his sister, Lizelle, would look slightly embarrassed when his eccentric behaviour came up in conversation. When the picture of us appeared unexpectedly in the slide show Pieter looked across at me and commented with regards to Francois: “Leo se nuwe vriend [Leo’s new friend]”. I squirmed as some of the audience chuckled at my expense.

I am tempted to write about how much I despised PW and his haughtiness, but the simple truth is that I don’t. I may have my failings and eccentricities but I do possess a fairly keen awareness of other people’s moods and states of mind. From what little he subsequently said via correspondence and what I observed directly back then, a picture of a young man wrestling with his conscience emerges. That he was proud of his people and his language was obvious, but beneath this I dare to venture were doubts, serious doubts.

He was a natural leader, and had assumed that position amongst the undergraduates in the department. Under different circumstances I think we could have cemented a friendship once we had come to respect each other’s differences. What he later told me was that it was a terrible year for him and I can only take his word for it. For me it ebbed and flowed, but mostly I remember the loneliness. It was there before but in foreign surroundings it was acute.

So much I didn’t and still don’t really understand. In my mind those memories still have the power to bring me down, a source of negative energy. The trick for me is to remember that they are just memories of a transient situation. Despite the pain they can elicit, they are part of my story, and as valid and instructive as any other chapter of my life.

It is doubtful that the Pretoria I remember then is the same city that it is now. It was a time in which the changes initiated by independence barely a decade before (1994) were only beginning to take hold. Relict overtones of racism still lingered, evident in the student council elections that year: “Why vote for a dark one when you really want a milky one” was the slogan from one banner I recall being translated to me from Afrikaans, a questionable attempt to link the colour of chocolate to racial affiliation.

I like to think that these remnants of the old order have been dispelled and dispersed. To some degree they probably have. There’s no going back to the previous system of apartheid in the world as we know it today and despite what I may have felt about some people and some things, I remember most of my compatriots well. Both Chris and JC were kind and intelligent, and Izak is a remarkably perceptive and thoughtful individual with whom I still correspond. They all still reside in South Africa to the best of my knowledge.

Pieter did a further year’s MSc before emigrating with his new wife to Australia. He tells me that his parents emigrated to the UK not long afterwards and that, from time to time, he still visits his hometown Pretoria, and on those trips back he visits Guan’s grave to sit and talk to him and recall their friendship. And so it was with me this time around, on the trip to Ifafa with my uncle Derek. Although I didn’t think about it right then and there, the sea around Ifafa beach on that day was as full of life as Guan was whilst he was alive. Whales breaching, dolphins riding the shore break chasing the shad: Guan would have been smiling on a day such as that.

Paperback version of the book: http://www.lulu.com/shop/http://www.lulu.com/shop/leo-anthony/between-two-worlds-the-account-of-a-jet-setting-vagrant/paperback/product-20742395.html

eBook (Kindle platform): https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B008NAU7VG/ref=dbs_a_def_rwt_bibl_vppi_i0

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An August Wedding and a Quick 5-Day, Up-Down and Out again visit to England: What I learnt.

Every so often in life you get the chance to retrace the steps of a younger self, feeling both the proximity of place and the distance of time. Something of a paradox. Almost 10 years ago to the month I left my country, Zimbabwe, to venture to the land of my birth, England. I had no recollection of the place whatsoever bar a brief one week visit 5 years earlier (an aborted attempt!).

Thinking back it does seem a long way off. Some memories are quite vivid, others dim like an aged negative, the contrast fading and the detail losing its sharp edges. Catching the National Express in from Stansted brought the suburbs of north London into focus. A glimpse of a clear stream and a sign pointing in the direction of the Lee Valley reminded me that I wasn’t all that far away from Bedfordshire and the environs of Luton, where I spent a few fairly indifferent years of my life. The connections were tenuous but they were there. I’d made friends with a couple through a local church towards the end of my time. They had relocated to Germany where Marieke was from and they’d visited us in our community near the Dutch border with their 4 kids not long before.

There is something in the character of England and its people that exudes a confidence, sometimes verging on pomposity, sometimes crudeness, depending on circumstance and place. During the process of checking-in, boarding and the flight over I’d lazily observed my fellow passengers and attempted to mentally categorised them on the basis of nationality. Waiting on the tarmac I was in line with a British couple who bemoaned the price of the cab to the airport. They’d been visiting friends in Goch. She was very chipper, verging on flirtatious while he was more of the staid, happiest-when-mildly-cynical sort of a Brit. Did I know how much the British government had sold off the former army base that was now Weeze Airport (used mainly by low cost carriers like Ryan Air)? I professed not to but on being pressed guessed £100, 000. That pleased him. Nope, £1! he announced with disdain. Can you actually believe it? That’s our government for you.

On the flight over I found myself in an aisle seat next to 2 young ladies of apparent Middle-Eastern complexion. They prattled away in German, giggling and flicking through pictures on their phones. Later in the flight one of them attempted to buy duty-free cigarettes from the air hostess but was politely declined. On the adjacent row a young British teen watched a film on her phone. Later when she stood up to disembark I got a glimpse of her Whatsapp. Her user profile appeared to be ‘Little C**t’. How charming…

Back in the coach to London we moved deeper into the environs of the city. Shoreditch High Street hove into view and the driver stopped to let some people disembark. I looked across the road at a stupendously perfect advertisement for Swatch, not on a billboard, but applied in paint to the brickwork on the side of a building. With some admiration I wondered by what state-of-the-art technique it had been applied. Glancing upward I noticed a familiar looking, purple-flowering, shrub, emerging from between the whitewashed bricks. A Buddleia.

A little further on, or was it further back, a glimpse at a sign on a building at street level read Tower Hamlets Labour (the political party). Beneath it was scrawled some Asian-language script. I’m out of my depth here. Next to the Labour branch was a bar, its name boldly spelt out in neon: Satan’s Whiskers. Yip, I was definitely in one of the ‘mixed’ boroughs, the sort that I felt more attracted to if I was to be honest. Give me Tower Hamlets over Kensington most any day of the week.

The approach to Liverpool Street Station brought some memories flooding back: being disgorged from the tube late afternoon-evening and scurrying along to one assignment or another in the catering/hospitality industry. I’d initially worked in events as a champagne waiter and soon after signing up for the more regular pay provided through relief catering to offices, banquets and special events. With a wry smile I recalled the frigid occasion on which I’d hawked men’s suits for Marks and Spencers on these very same streets. It had reportedly been a hugely successful campaign for M&S, but less so for me. I worked my ass off but was paid by the hour (£10 or £12) just like the other slackers on my shift.

The London Underground had lost none of its charm: the urgency of the turnstiles (can I really use my contactless card now? What if it’s rejected and people behind me get annoyed?), the disorientation of the inclined escalators, the massed advertising whenever you were stationary for a brief moment. I spent that evening catching up with an old friend and it was good. He and his wife, both professionals and without kids, lived in an apartment overlooking one of the canals. They had renovated it tastefully. His father had been an acclaimed architect back in Africa, so perhaps some of it was transferred. After the wedding I’d return for another night’s stay.

On the train down to Winchester the following morning I noticed an abundance of Buddleia growing along the rail sidings. Funny that. Now that I knew what the plant looked like, courtesy of a lady in my community back in the community who’d donated one, it seemed to be popping up everywhere. It was certainly locally abundant but was it as widespread as my random sightings suggested?

Winchester
The High Street, Winchester.

I have to say that Winchester has some charm. The sort that tourists hanker for when seeking out history, and by that I mean cobbled streets, medieval churches and higgledy-piggledy streets which defy even the most adept of map-readers (I’m not amongst them). I had a few hours before my rendezvous with the wedding party at Brasserie Blanc, a restaurant neatly situated besides a small public car park and a Theatre-Library (couldn’t tell which) during which I checked into my accommodation and strolled through the city centre.

When the time came I was a few minutes later than the appointed hour. No matter. Champagne was being given out to the new arrivals and the other guests were chatting amiably on the upper level of the establishment. The groom guided me to the balcony below which was locked the pedal bike I’d hired for the weekend. I’m pretty sure I was the only guest traveling by that particular mode of transport but more of that later.

Weddings are strange affairs. They bring together people from all walks of life and, as in the case of JP and Menna, from at least two distinct English-speaking cultural backgrounds. Behold the smattering of individuals from the year group of ’97, St Georges College, Zimbabwe – Dan, Sean, Simon and Tom – none of whom I could consider close friends but with most of whom I was on amicable terms. Likewise most were as I remembered them, a few pounds heavier in some cases, a few grey hairs more in others. In the seating arrangements I landed up next to a varsity mate of the groom’s, Craig.

Attentive and unpretentious he had come down from Scotland where he worked in a family business. He had gone to one of the rival schools in Harare so there was fertile ground in which to sow the seeds of conversation: Rector’s Day rivalry, corporal punishment, waterpolo and the like. Craig was also the unofficial wedding photographer. He had been gifted a digital SLR but professed he was very much an amateur. It wasn’t as if JP couldn’t afford a wedding photographer considering his occupation but, being similarly unpretentious in such areas of life, a mate with a decent lens would do just fine.

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Listening to the speeches during the wedding lunch at Brasserie Blanc

Opposite me was the beautiful and elegant Sarah, wearing a pink floral dress of satin or silk. It certainly marked her out. Tall and slim, she possessed chiselled features – good bone structure they’d probably have said in Victorian times – and flawless olive skin. Whom I guessed to be her mum and sister were sat at an adjacent table and I could see the dark complexion, facial features and height were common traits. I imagined her perfectly in the role of a Latino-heroine in some Isabel Allende novel. A contemporary Daughter-of-Fortune.

Sitting directly to my left was the French wife of another contemporary of mine. Both she and he worked for a very large French company. They had an infant girl with them, Lena or Lana, an obvious source of happiness and many sleepless nights. Being closest to me and given the ambient noise it was easiest to talk to either her or Craig. For the first part of the evening I spoke with her. We could connect around the subject of parenthood but after talking for some time about her position in the company, her career aspirations and her demands for better pay and more recognition I found my attention drifting back to Craig.

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The Groom gives a heartfelt speech

The speeches were heartfelt and sincere. Firstly the Father-in-Law, Hugh, and then Menna, JP and Best Man, Scott, in turn. Scott had always had the good fortune of looking the fresh-faced youth but his face was filling out and lo-behold, a few lines had appeared. A decent slab of salmon, dessert and several glasses of red wine later and we were on to the next venue. By now it was early evening. Together we crossed the town, walking close by the historic Norman cathedral. Being the culture vulture that I am I would usually never pass up an opportunity to go inside a place like this. Today I did. It pained me a little but Hugh at least enlightened us with some trivia about the heroic deeds of Diver Bill in stabilising the foundations of the cathedral a century or more before.

The party was getting going when we arrived at the St George Tea Rooms. A young man with a guitar and silky voice crooned into a microphone. It was lost on most of the audience who were imbibing the next round of alcoholic beverages. Old college compatriot Terry was looking a little jaded and tales of the bachelor’s party two nights earlier explained it. Perhaps it served our relationship well on this occasion. At school I felt somehow beneath him, never quite matching his easy manner and charm on my own terms. Today it felt as though any pretensions were absent. After 20 years or so in the British Army he was now on Civvy Street and married with 2 boys. The kids weren’t there but his wife was.

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Old Boys Reunion. That’s me, bottom left putting on a mock serious expression. Seems only Sean was with me!

At first glance I had written her off as attractive but waggish – sorry! However, appearances can be deceptive. Belying her waifish figure, immaculate blonde hair and make-up was a surprisingly engaging and shrewd lady. She talked freely and outspokenly of motherhood, kids and her love of Zimbabwe which she’d visited with Terry. She was a Brit by upbringing but outward looking in sentiment.

Once the tea rooms had closed around midnight we drifted to first the pub across the road and from there to a club proper where the usual array of nightlife availed itself. Two girls in their mid to late twenties I’m guessing insisted on buying Dan and myself a shooter and following it up with a Gin and Tonic, a popular evening beverage with Zimbabweans of a certain demographic. The shorter of the two was so inebriated that she kept repeating the same questions: how old are you? how old do you think I am? and where are you from? It was like conversing with someone with chronic amnesia.

At some point she sobered a little and became a little teary. Something about her father dying from asbestosis or mesothelioma. I’m not sure I know the difference but both sound ghastly. She asked me to spare a thought for her mum, bereft as she was of her husband. It had been 3 or 4 years but obviously the trauma was still alive. At some point she stopped snivelling and looked up at me with round, hopeful eyes. I thought of a Basset hound and had to resist the urge to pat her on the head.

It seemed she had a decent job in the tobacco industry (no, she wasn’t proud of it) and a boyfriend. Did she want kids? I asked. She did. At 30 years of age what was stopping her? Not wanting to miss out was her reply. I told her to just get on with it but honestly, is there any right answer on this question?

The evening was brought to a close after we traipsed to a late night joint where the rest of the town awake at that hour appeared to converge. They were serving hot food. I settled for a houmous burger and another G&T. A few minutes later and it was only Craig, me and Dan remaining. I always enjoyed conversation with Dan although we met very infrequently down the years. He’d been in the travel agency business for some time but had dabbled in a few other things from time to time. He wore his heart on his sleeve, earnestly speaking of his highs and lows and what would be best for the world at that moment in time. I really missed these sorts of conversations with and about the people and places where I grew up.

Craig was going through a lacklustre period it appeared. He was part of  family-run business in the Scottish lowlands and he lamented the appalling lack of eligible women in the area. He broke it down for me statistically and it really did seem quite dire. Another down to earth sort like Dan he asked me as an aside if I could recommend any particular course of action. He had heard about my backpacking exploits, probably from JP, and wanted to know if I had found some enlightenment along the way. After chewing it over for a few minutes I had to confess that, in itself, it hadn’t. It presented new opportunities for sure but he would have to figure out the puzzle himself. He had nodded resignedly and said that was what he had expected to hear. Sorry mate!

A little while later I said my farewells and headed back in the direction of the Brasserie to collect my bike and cycle to my lodgings. On the walk across two young ladies, also in their 20s, giggled and teetered on heels. One of them asked me something inane. On making a similarly inane reply she perked up.

I know that accent. South Africa?

Nope I replied. A little further north.

Australia? she responded a little less certain this time. They knew nothing of Zimbabwe it appeared even when I explained its precise geographic location. Not for the first time did I come to the realisation that the bonds of Commonwealth were increasingly immaterial to this generation and the ones that would succeed it.

To be continued…

Note: Several names have been changed to conceal the identity of individuals. All observations and opinions are mine and are not meant to cause offence or to discredit the name or reputation of any person named or portrayed herein.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Harare, Oct 2017

This is a repost of poem by a Zimbabwean friend of mine who wrote this a year ago. It is no less valid or less meaningful than it was then. It not just a poem but a fable. When you read it you’ll understand and hopefully pause for a moment to let it sink in.

Credit to Jess Drury of the Jessaster Chronicles. Originally posted here.

You are gorgeous -
Replete with blossom:
Purple, yellow, red.
Bougainvillea tangles in
Careless clusters
And jasmine perfume hangs in the air
as night falls.
Skies are hazy blue
And soporific sun lulls us
Into feeling
Everything is OK.

Sounds of the city rise:
Chatter and laughter and
Business as usual
And a red-gold light-snake
Weaves its way through
Jacaranda-ed streets.

Your beauty is a curse
Permitting men,
Believing that they own you,
To exploit and abandon and
Numb themselves to
The ragged child begging cents
Under the purple rain
And the thousand thousand
Stomachs sleeping hungry.

We patch our pockmarked roads
Like we patch our integrity
And our pockets
And our make-a-plan spirit:
Plastic surgery disguising
Ugly Truth.

 

Forgiveness and Karma: My Quest for Reconciliation

I wrote an open letter to my former landlady about 5 years ago. It referenced the time I rented a room from her 10 years previously. Another 5 years have elapsed and I’ve had plenty of time to reflect on what I want from life and how I choose to deal with past events. I have traveled far and wide between 3 continents – Africa, Asia and Europe – seen my youngest brother marry and become a father, indeed become a father myself… but beneath it all there is still a deep wound from the past. I am in absolutely no doubt that it relates to my connection with my late parents, particularly my father, and I want that to change. But in order to change I must be courageous and go back to the times when the connections were broken.

Firstly, I must give some perspective. I have forgiven my father for his misdemeanors. Entirely. But 20 years ago, in the eyes of my mother, and probably to many in the fairly conservative community in which I was raised he was a pariah, a man without scruples. He cheated on his wife and family with a woman he worked with and had children by her in secret. On paper it looks pretty damning but if you knew the man, the person that he was, you might well think differently.

He had a kindness and gentleness to him when it came to young children, he laughed easily and in these moments his eyes shone with mirth. That’s how I remember him as a boy when he was still married to my mother. And it’s also true that I remember his other side as well: working late and missing dinner with the family, bringing work files and the hated Dictaphone home on weekends, and feeling as though my ambitions and studies were of little interest to him. The double life had begun to take its toll as my teenage years rolled on.

By the time I left for my first year of uni it seemed as though the marriage was on the rocks. Mum had confided in me that she might divorce you if things didn’t change. That upset me a lot. Not enough in itself to make me drop out perhaps, but it contributed to my struggles down at Rhodes Uni in Grahamstown, a long way from home. I ran away that first year or better put, cycled out of town, such was my shame at deserting. It was a crazy stunt but I somehow made it to Port Elizabeth the next afternoon after cycling through the night. I had cramped and as my blood sugar levels plunged I had become dangerously weak. Fortunately I had been able to purchase some sour goat milk from some local African villagers for R20 – a princely sum at the time – and that gave me the sustenance I needed.

From there I flew home on a return fare and after ten days or so mum put me on a bus straight back to Grahamstown. 6 or 8 months later she plucked up the courage – or was it premeditated? – to go and out my father one evening at the house of his mistress back in Harare. She did it with the help of her dad, my grandpa. They just parked nearby and watched my father playing affectionately with the two young boys. That was all the evidence she needed. The rest came out pretty quickly. 3 or 4 months later the divorce papers were on the counter-top. I dropped out of Rhodes early on in my 3rd year and went home.

I couldn’t see it at the time, but the having the affair was my father’s choice many years before and one that probably satisfied some very basic need of his, to have children with this woman and share a part of himself with her and their boys, for reasons of his own. For my mum’s part it was all shame and public humiliation and the way she saw it, completely undeserved.

I spoke of my own feelings of rejection to her and she spoke of hers. She didn’t seem to hear me and that annoyed me. I started seeking out a life away from her heaviness – her Catholicism, her guilt, her sense of keeping up with the Jones’s. It worked for a while. I got a job, a salary and a decent social life. But then she got a relapse of her cancer and it was all thrown back at me – why was I so selfish, so secretive? Why didn’t I ever do anything for her anymore? she wailed. I capitulated and it was back to university, this time the University of Zimbabwe or UZ for short.

Later I would look back and see that she was simply forcing me along the same road she had taken years before after some personal traumas at the University of Natal brought her back to Harare (then Salisbury). She did a 4th year at the University of Rhodesia (now the UZ) majoring in Sociology. Soon after she went into government-sponsored social work and met my father, a fledgling lawyer, and married.

It was with some difficulty that I managed to register at the UZ in September 2000 and get accredited for the 2 years I’d spent at Rhodes. All the same I had to repeat some 2nd year courses before I could start my 3rd year in September 2001. My mum wasn’t so happy about that but there was nothing she could do.

At some point we had driven down to Rhodes – my mum, myself and my youngest brother Ivan – to get my stuff. We tied it in with a trip to see her brother near Pretoria and maybe some other friends in the vicinity. I remember on the drive back thinking how unfair life was and how much I wanted divine retribution. I knew my mum would die of her cancer – she knew it too – but it was my father I really wanted dead. I couldn’t believe in a god who condoned such behavior without some sort of punishment.

Mum passed away in November 2001, not long after 9/11. Despite everything I loved my mother – we’d been close – and I cried genuine tears of grief at her bedside and her funeral. She had asked for a requiem mass at our family parish church: St Gerard’s. There were many people there from around town – perhaps as many as 200 – and it was obvious that she was well known in the community.

It was a bitter-sweet moment. I had loved her but I also felt that with her death things could be easier for my brothers and I. We wouldn’t have to shoulder any of her expectations, the one’s I just mentioned. I didn’t say that when I spoke in front of everyone there but I said it in my heart. My father was seated somewhere at the back of the church. He would have listened to my eulogy but I never noticed him and he slipped away early.

I chose not to speak to my father for another year. It hurt a lot but I wanted to punish him for his deceptions. It felt somehow justified. A friend of mine, Matt, who I cycled with and who was a close confidant, told me he could never do what I was doing. It would just be too painful, especially after losing his own mother to illness. The funny thing is that I knew what I was doing was not doing me any good. Even my mother before she died had implored me to forgive him. Just be happy, it’s a conscious choice. I told her I would be happy, just not right then. It would have to wait a bit

Meanwhile I continued with the degree, all the while feeling a growing loneliness there in Harare. There had been a large exodus of families and friends from the country after the government had started taking land from white farmers and in the process collapsing the formal economy and the currency. Not surprisingly I was the only white student in my department, not that it was a problem in itself, but I felt the weight of privilege. Most of the students were from working class families and would have seen my upbringing as just that, privileged. The academics were fleeing as well.

When I finished the degree at the UZ I picked up the transcript and left the place. I didn’t care to go the graduation especially since my father wasn’t much present. At the end of that year, ’02, he called me aside and with tears in eyes, implored me to talk with him again. We used to be friends he reminded me. We talked again a little while later and we both shed some tears I think as we remembered mum. He spoke of his guilt and pain through the tears (she never forgave me!) for the first time and I recalled the pain of being so far from home before and after they separated in an equally emotional way.

I look back now and think that could have been a watershed moment. If we had both been strong enough to make peace with her memory and not feel so beholden to it. The guilt had been killing him and I felt like I was living some pre-scripted existence. I didn’t know how to get out of it except to keep going in the same direction.

A few months later I was back in the bakkie, the one my mum had gotten from my father in the divorce settlement and which later came down to me, and driving back down south to Pretoria University where I would enroll in an Honours degree in Geology just as mum had wanted. Once I had my honours I was free to do as I wished. Just get your degree she had said, and as an aside, to get a 4-year degree was much better than 3 for future prospects.

For a week or two I stayed on the East Rand before I was able to find lodgings in the city. I was almost driven to despair trying to find a place that fitted my needs – close enough to cycle in to uni, not too noisy (certainly not a house share) and where I had a good deal of privacy. Basically somewhere just like home. What transpired over the next 8 or 9 months was uncanny. My life there unfolded almost as a mirror-image of my former life in Zimbabwe. If you believe in the laws of attraction, in a metaphysical sense, then I was attracting both positive and negative entities. I soon realised that I wasn’t really interested in being ordained a geologist. I just wanted to get through it and try and find a special someone on the way to help me make sense of it all.

My father called through a couple of times but I was still pretty angry and wrote him a letter to tell him as much. I kept his response closed for at least a week before I opened it. I was hoping for an I’m sorry sort of a reply but instead I perceived excuses and explanations. I kept my distance from other men especially the alphas – and there were a fair share of them around – and became very reclusive.

I guess somehow the life-energy that was so vital in him started to ebb and around late August/early September he phoned through to say that he had a been diagnosed with something in his brain – cancer? – and that he was coming down to be examined and get a prognosis. He came and borrowed the bakkie for a couple of weeks and drove it up and down the motorway to a place in Jo’burg where he was staying with Cheryl while being treated. I wasn’t happy with the inconvenience but what could I do. It was pretty obvious that I still owed him something on account of him paying my tuition, even if I didn’t look up to him anymore…

The prognosis wasn’t good – he had something called a Grade IV Astrocytoma. Apparently it could only be treated surgically in a limited way without causing serious damage to the surrounding brain tissue. The most serious symptom he suffered was an inability to speak but steroid medication reduced the brain swelling and it quickly returned. I returned home after quickly writing my finals in a dreadful depression and spent the next few years helping my father from time to time cope with his illness.

The corticosteroids he was medicated with caused him more suffering than the tumour itself but they did give him back his faculty of speech for long stretches of time. But for the last weeks speech deserted him and he could only listen to those around him. I didn’t know what to say except that I was so sorry for holding a grudge against him for so long. His grey eyes glistened for some moments and I knew he had heard me. He died shortly afterwards in early 2006.

Probably my biggest trauma from back then – a sense of abandonment – was mirrored in the sudden departure of the Els family from Sussex Rd during the time I was visiting my brother Dan in Cape Town for his end of year graduation.

They had been looking to sell the place but it came as a shock nonetheless to arrive back and find the house sold with my things still inside and builders already making modifications to the exterior. My housemate appeared shortly after, enraged that all her stuff was covered in plastering dust. It was a shock after everything that had happened in recent months.

It is important for me to write this because it is my truth.  There are many images and memories that I can call upon. In one I can picture my landlady’s hubbie walking slowly around the perimeter of the house, lighting a cigarette and contemplating life. What exactly I’ll never know. I felt your aloneness intuitively. I hope you figured it out whatever it was that you needed back then.

Do you remember the evening I found the big old white cat outside my window playing with a baby sparrow? I knocked on your door intending to give it over to your stepson but he was asleep. You took the bird from my grasp quite suddenly and tossed the bird in the air. Lo and behold it flew across to the top of the roof and to safety. It was a metaphorical moment. I’ve thought back on it often.

Maybe we’ll cross paths again someday, maybe we won’t. If we did I’d love to fill you in on my life after Sussex Rd. If not I hope you get to read these words. Maybe you’ll also see something in them that went unsaid…

Ode to my Child

O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!
He chortled in his joy…

No, I didn’t slay the Jabberwocky but a very special thing happened to me recently. Or perhaps I should say a special thing happened to the world: Raphael Mees Passaportis, my son was born. He arrived shortly before noon on the 12th August at the Radboud General Hospital in Nijmegen, the Netherlands.

My beautiful son

These last 10 days or so we’ve spent relatively privately in a nearby suburb courtesy of a friend of ours who was prepared to do a room-for-house exchange. In material terms we definitely came out tops. How nice though to hear our friend describe her first week in our one-room bungalow as luxurious. Well, compared to our previous lodgings at the Vlierhof Community I guess it is. As a shoebox is to a play-pen. We have another 5 days to relax here in relative peace.

Back at the Vlierhof they are gearing up for the annual summer festival. I felt a twinge of jealousy but it was quickly displaced. There will be some good music and some feel-good vibes no doubt, but I don’t practise any of the eastern religions, yoga nor meditation. And if there was a time to start it’s not now with a hungry toddler howling in our midst!

Ok, howling is a little exaggerated. Besides the indignation of nappy changes he abides most things well. As I write though the poor little fella is suffering some ailment – a sore tummy perhaps? – after breast feeding. It’s all we can do to allay his little whimpers by rubbing his tummy and rocking him gently. He sleeps intermittently (I guess that’s the norm?) and can feed voraciously. Nappy changes are a 3 or 4-hourly routine. I surprise myself – I can do it without too much fuss and bother (so far).

But I would be dishonest to say that I’ve been implacable. There are times I feel I desire to impose my authority through force: to punish his midnight wailing with a stern rebuke or to shake him to his senses. I’m told these are also normal responses of weary parents. This makes it marginally easier. I know he’s in no way conscious of the demands he’s placed upon us. How could he be? I must combat my reflex reactions with reason.

It is in those in-between moments when he is neither asleep nor in discomfort that the real magic is realised: a brand new little human being! Perfect in almost every way from his tiny little fingers to his chubby little legs and silky-soft cheeks. He looks at me with large, grey-blue eyes, unblinking. Does he register my face? I think he does. And then his gaze shifts over my shoulder. Now I’m not so sure.

“Raphael, Raphael,” I coo close to his ear. He visibly stops and I sense him sensing me; waiting, listening.

It’s moments like these that elicit a paternal tenderness I didn’t know I possessed. I want to kiss and cuddle him repeatedly. I want to be loved by him I realise, as much as he will soon need the love and attention of us, his parents. I feel a dull pain when I imagine my own father holding me like this in my first days of life. We had so little time together later on and he’s gone now. I realise that I miss him. I thought for a while of calling my boy Raphael Raymond or, conversely, Raymond Raphael. Mirjam wasn’t so sure and neither was I. Perhaps the next one…

He has finally settled down to sleep, punctuated every so often by little grunts and cries. Do babies dream? And if so, of what? The little baby vest he wears reads ‘Dream Big’ and a little further down ‘Little One’. Dream Big Little One. Yes, Dream Big Raphael. Dream, dream, dream.

Life is short, life is brief,
but dreams live on…

grief? relief? I’m not sure of that final line. You’ll have to pen it yourself one day my boy.

Your loving dad

Shuffling Along One Day at a Time

The week just gone has been a mixed bag. Early in the week I decided, against my better judgement, to prod around my right inner ear with an ear-bud in order to remove some of the copious wax that had build up over the last few months. This happens periodically. On the previous occasion the result was that I compacted the wax against the eardrum and only after the frequent use of ear drops and much probing did the wax eventually budge. This was a painful wait of at least a week and despite being advised against the use of anything “narrower than my elbow” I’ve tried to preempt matters and remove the offending material and gone and landed straight back in the same situation. Basically, it’s all my fault and I shouldn’t be boring you with this stuff! 

An aspect of my health that I haven’t had any control over is a cold and cough that’s bugged me all week. Considering that it pretty much overtook my entire respiratory system on Tuesday it could probably be classified as the flu. That said it has not been too severe, more just a hindrance. My sleep patterns have been all over the place and I look forward to reestablishing control over my feeble corporeal being with the help of a few nurofen and alcoholic beverages (vodka, whisky, hot toddies? All advice gratefully received).

I did make it to UP on Wednesday. I arrived at the department a little after the designated time but was received without much fuss (except that I didn’t have the relevant literature to hand) by James and his study group in the staff room. This would have been a privileged experience indeed as an undergraduate or an honours student. However, this was a small group of postgraduates and as anyone in the world of academia knows postgraduates occupy a niche far closer to the teaching and research staff than do the undergrad underlings.

Afterwards James and I went for a couple of beers at one of the campus cafes. I had scurried past it a couple of times in that ‘other life’ of mine but had never had the audacity to stop and indulge in – what! – an alcoholic beverage on campus! Okay, admittedly I’d been corrupted prior to that (I was 24 years old even at that time); I was just a bit insular. Back then the main campus in Pretoria was less heterogeneous: black students mixed by the student union whilst white students fraternised around this cafe and others like it. Many of them were Afrikaans speakers. That was part of the reason I felt a little intimidated I suppose.

What a change a decade can bring. It just seemed that much more relaxed on campus. Students of all colours and creeds chatted and socialized. To see a young white girl and balck guy evidently at ease in each other’s company walking along, books and files in hand, would have been exceptional back in 2003 but today no-one batted an eyelid. Still there’s no doubt there are still huge challenges working towards complete racial and social integration. James told me about the EFF and AfriForum clashes recently and on-going demonstrations country-wide, agitating against fees, Afrikaans language-instruction, employment contracts etc. One can read all about it on News 24.

So I will be looking seriously at acquiring a project at the department this year. The two questions besides what exactly I will be researching (something to do with Karoo-age dykes and their distribution – there are economic implications) relate to a) where I will live and b) which passport I will study on. There are large concessions for local (SADC) students versus international students. Oh, yeah, and the question of £/$/R. As always.

Anyway life goes on and go on we must, as Yoda might say.

To round out this match report some photos from Zoo Lake up the road, a place of interesting provenance vis-a-vie Cecil, Alfred and Julius (explained below).

 

 

  

 

I’ve Been Here Before…

One criticism I should level at myself is that I don’t do enough thought-blogging, by which I mean transferring current, unrefined thoughts to the blogosphere. Perhaps it’s my background in scientific study which puts great emphasis on critical analysis, accuracy and referencing. Everything must be referenced, although this could be said of academic writing generally. This is good and necessary when it comes to academia, bad when it comes to opinion pieces and artistic originality. Ok, so I’ve identified my achilles heel and I will make an attempt to be more spontaneous!

With regards to the title of the post: I’ve definitely been here before. In a temporal sense rather than a physical one. On the verge of something else, something undefined as of yet. I’ve given notice at work, a place I’ve been employed mostly part-time for since the beginning of Feb. I took 9 days off over Easter to visit friends and family and South Africa, otherwise I’ve been there every other working day to date. I feel a teeny-weeny bit proud of the fact I do. And I’ve covered for Phil for perhaps 2 weeks cumulative leave which involved some level of responsibility I guess. The job: working in warehouse. I dispatch motors and such stuff by packing it into boxes and on palettes. Nothing mind-blowing but with some pros. Firstly I only have to answer directly to Phil. Phil is cool. He listens to Frank Zappa and does mushrooms (not at work I must stress!). He’s actually a conscientious old fart, despite his apparent nonchalance. If he doesn’t have the day’s orders packed and the manifest printed by the time the couriers arrive mid-afternoon he gets a bit cranky. I’ve never seen him lose his cool with anyone but he has a grumble and that’s ok. He’s never taken anything out on me. At best he makes a tactful suggestion when I cock something up. I’m no dummy but I’m liable to be distracted at times and forget details: ticking a box here, submitting a form there. That sort of thing. Phil lives by a simple principle in life: be honest. He always tells his wife when he intends to go on a jolly and if something or someone is bothering him he verbalises it.

So why am I leaving the job? Because I’m bored; because I think I’m selling myself short; because I’m not happy in my personal life; because I don’t have a personal life. It also happens that it’s a family company. My boss (a relative through marriage to a cousin of mine) has his ex, two of his sons, his eldest son’s wife and now my cousin all working in various positions. Another son is at college being lined up for a future role. I don’t have any problem with this in principle (I would be a hypocrite if I did) except that my cousin is soon to take up a rather senior position which I think she’s completely unsuited too (she’s a hairdresser by trade). I suppose it’s a form of nepotism which has been relatively benign until now but is in danger of causing damage, if it hasn’t already done so. the former Ops Manager left because of this apparently, and I’ve just learnt that the accountant is also leaving. I don’t know his reason but it’s just a hunch I have. Anyway enough of that.

You want to know more about my personal life? Like I told you, I don’t have one! Do I have to elaborate? Ok ok. No juicy gossip but a few thoughts. One theme this year has been rejection. It’s not nice as some you may well know. My feelings in this department are directed towards a certain Polish lady who I had an intimate relationship with last year, severed ties, got back together with briefly, became ‘best friends’ with, and then fell out with before becoming the pitiful object of rejection. Truth be told, in that grey area between being with someone and not being with them, it seems there was very little room to manoeuvre. Deep down I know what I want: If I am not going to have the advantage of being the rejector, I would at least like to part on good terms, and by good I suppose I would settle for a definition of ‘without malice’. I think I have run out of opportunities. She is uncompromising. What is the lesson in this? It’s one you have probably heard before i.e. get to know someone before you start having sex. Sex complicates things. In hindsight we were not well matched.

I am glad of a few things this year, however. Apart from the stores job I have also earned about £1500 as an agency worker doing some truly dull jobs at some truly unsociable hours. One involved making compressed polystyrene products in a small factory running antiquated injection-moulding equipment. It was repetitive work but it helped ease me through the initial despondency of the rejection I talked about. That was late last year. I was assured of work in the new year but it never materialised. I never did feel completely safe around those heaving, steaming, temperamental machines anyhow. Rob, who had worked there longest, wasn’t very reassuring. One of them had blown a panel or a hose off with enough force to kill someone a few months earlier. Fortunately no one had been standing close to it at the time.

Another agency job earlier in the year was as a cleaner at a large bakery. It involved waking at 2am and slopping detergents into toilets, floors and other surfaces, mopping, vacuuming and sweeping. I admired anyone who was prepared to do that for more than two weeks. My mainstay of the agency work has however been as a parcel sorter. It’s work I had done a few years before in Bristol as a stopgap. Most of the shifts run from early morning, 0300 until 0700/0800. Once again it’s the monotony of it which gets to me. There are always a few blokes who make it a bit more bearable but who would really want to do that ad infinitum? Ironically the shift pays the minimum wage which is less than the hourly wage I was getting paid for night work in Bristol back in 2010!

But before I lose my audience and my point, I have to admit that there is a value to this: the people who do these jobs – the packing, sorting, cleaning and so forth – are the cogs that make the economic machinery turn. I think it’s important not to lose sight of this. Doing this sort of work from time to time is a good way to stay grounded and if not humble, at least a little more grateful for the day job. But perhaps most importantly it allows one to debate and discuss from the perspective of a participant. Yes I have seen capitalist Britain creaking at the seams, her native workforce disgruntled, and not necessarily without reason. The working conditions are sometimes shoddy and this culture of efficiency without accountability quite frankly sucks. Sadly, as an educated person, I can see how the system is geared towards maintaining a certain status quo. It scared the hell out of me a few years ago when my prospects were not looking good in the skilled sector. I have no excuse now after liquidating my assets in Africa, but I still feel vulnerable. I know I need to train in something that will cushion me against the buffeting winds of uncertainty the future always brings.

Now to temper these deep thoughts with anecdote! The title of the post is pertinent in another respect as well. I came to be where I am now, Bournemouth, via several other UK towns and cities, following the work or the prospect thereof. Well that was the general trend. In this instance I came to look after my nephew who is technically a cousin once-removed, but due to the age difference (35 versus 12), in a personal sense much more of a nephew.

What I like about Bournemouth is ironically the little bit that I actually likes about Luton: its diversity. I was living in Ringwood initially but now I live in the town proper and get to mix with a broad spectrum of nationalities. What I didn’t expect was to bump into Frazer! Rewind 15 years to a smokey pub in Harare, Zimbabwe (there were only three or so). There’s me, Frazer and some English guy who was about to return home (he may or may not have rekindled his relationship with his GF but he was going to give it a bash) sitting round a small table with pint glasses of lager in various stages of consumption strewn across it. Frazer was also of English origins but he’d been at high school (secondary) with me for as long as I could remember. Something about his dad moving over to run a security firm. I liked Frazer because he was gentle and unconventional. Most of the guys I went to school with seemed to feel the need to emulate American mannerisms and machismo and were just generally loud. I don’t remember particularly enjoying St Georges College because I felt like a misfit. Frazer was also something of a misfit so not surprisingly we came to hang in the same small group of geeks and quieter sorts. We used to assemble against an outer side-wall of the school chapel even when I was made a school prefect and could have sat in our exclusive common room with the rest of the feds.

So, as I was saying, Frazer and I were sitting in this bar in Harare a few years AFTER leaving school in ’98. I had finished phase I of university after returning prematurely (family issues) and was working at some audio-hire place in town. Naturally I had hooked up with Frazer when I found he was still there. What were we talking about? Buddhist philosophy and/or new age mumbo was part of it. I don’t lump the two together because I know very little about Buddhism but I think even back then Frazer was gravitating towards Eastern beliefs. I remember the English guy turning to me at some point late in the evening and telling me what he thought about Frazer’s notions on the ‘flower of life’ and that sort of thing. ‘He’s talking like a pot-head’ I remember him saying. The truth is that Frazer was a stoner. Later that evening or a subsequent evening I went back to his place where he had an enormous bag full of dried cannabis leaves. I think he told me that his gardener had grown them out back which was not unheard of. My very first joint (there haven’t been many to be honest) was smoked with Frazer. I got a serious case of ‘the greens’ on that occasion. I remember it well. Do not mix booze and nicotine and/or THC. Why have I never learnt that lesson properly? Not long after that Frazer literally dropped off the planet and I went back t uni. No-one knew what had become of the man and he remained mysteriously absent from all social media sites: Facebook, G+, Skype etc. None of our mutual friends from school were any the wiser either.

So fast forward to the present, or approximately 6 or 7 weeks back. The place: Boots Pharmacy, Bournemouth Town Centre. I was there to collect a prescription for a course of antibiotics prescribed my dentist for some pretty hectic toothache. You know what’s coming next. Yup, that’s right. I bumped into none other than that old dope-head Frazer. Except that he looked at me and just kept walking. There was no reunion then and there but it did prompt me to look him up in the local directory. When we did meet up properly I discovered that it was most definitely Frazer. He had given up the booze, cigarettes and dope but he was still the dreamy-eyed wanderer that I recalled from Zimbabwe. Now he practises yoga and follows a Buddhist lifestyle so far as possible. His life has mirrored mine to some degree. Loss of his mother in the early 2000’s as happened to me and some estrangement from his father (other woman/women, just like mine!). it was apparent that there had been some difficult times, some challenging times. Another development was that his health had also failed him a little. He had been diagnosed with MS which had affected his vision. I had to forgive him for not recognising me in Boots. He doesn’t have a paid job although he does voluntary work and I can only assume he gets some sort of government disability/ill-health benefit. Like me he’s not in a relationship but he seems to be very close to an older English lady, a divorcee he met whilst living in Malta. Like I said earlier, I felt like we’ve been here before…

Mmmmm, I could honestly keep on writing but I don’t want this to turn into a book. No, honestly, I do the memoir thing because I think I have a good memory for recollection. Who else has had a similar experience? Losing touch with someone only to discover them years later somewhere completely unexpected? Please share if you will.

Herewith a picture of Frazer in a very apt location:

Frazer, not quite at his house, but not far from it. In another sense this is the town where he grew up so yes indeed, The House of Fraser. It was interesting to learn that his name is spelt with an ‘s’ on his birth certificate and a ‘z’ in his passport!

Reminder of ‘That Other Place’

If perchance you read my last post, a poetic effort, you would have understood that I was writing on the reality of being in place far removed from that where I grew up: that ‘other place’ of both heart and of ancestral importance, principally because it is where my parents both lived and died. All the same it is a contemplation on the present as much as a reflection on the past.

There was a period of my life in ‘that other place’ that was particularly hard to bear and I am aware that it still permeates my current existence. Living meaningfully in the present necessitates that we put past events and experiences into some sort of philosophical framework that allows us to cope with what was difficult and draw upon those things which gave us happiness and meaning, the foundations upon which our life here and now has been constructed.

In my case a large part of my life, my entire childhood and early adult life in fact, was lived in ‘that other place’ on the African continent. Home was the town of Harare, known as Salisbury to my parents and grandparents generations, and the geographic territory was Zimbabwe. Many seaside holidays were spent in South Africa, our southerly neighbour, and later academic studies were also conducted there. I have spent much time reading other people’s accounts of my homeland, writing about my own experiences, and trying to construct my own meaningful philosophical framework. I self-published a book earlier last year on the topic of being a ‘Jet-Setting Vagrant’ which was met with very little comment from anyone really. This was probably a result of the fact that it was a very open-ended memoir – more of a diary really, interspersed with anecdotes, philosophising and periods of retrospection.

What I’ve hardly mentioned to anyone but a select few is that there was actually an earlier effort at self-publication which I never fulfilled. This was a memoir of my life in Africa. As you’d expect it is a real mix of nostalgia and childhood memories, both happy and bitter-sweet, the conflicts and challenges of adolescence etc, all set within the context of the society and family I grew up in. I think the truth is that some of it is a bit too raw for public the public domain which is why I drew back from publication. However, it’s a shame that it has all been archived on my computer for several years now. There were a number of positive experiences to share and having talked to many others who lived in that society at one point or another, some contemporaries, others not, there is a desire amongst many of them to share those experiences with the world at large. So in a number of subsequent posts (exact number unknown) I am going to try and see what I can dig up.

By the way the heading to this post and a stark reminder of the importance of celebrating one’s life and heritage, from wherever it’s drawn, came to me a few days back. I was buying some fruit and veg from an Asian grocer’s not far from me in Charminster, a particularly multi-ethnic stretch of shops, cafes and restaurants, when I was approached by a curious little man who had evidently fallen on hard times. He was asking for 50p in change which I initially refused on the basis that I thought he was simply gathering enough for a pint at the pub directly across the road. I said as much. Anyway, his accent was curious enough for me to ask where he hailed from. “Rhodesia” was his reply i.e. the former name for Zimbabwe. Once we realised we were from the same neck of the woods we were able to have a more balanced conversation. What came across to me was how bitter he still was towards England and the English, despite having fled what was then wartime Rhodesia in 1976. “They don’t understand me” he said. How sad.

“Why did he leave?” I asked him, assuming he had served in the army at some point and was fleeing the horrors of that particular conflict. No, it turned out he had pre-empted his call-up and fled first to South Africa and then to the UK. He talked variously of how Ian Smith and the Rhodesian cause had been petrayed by Vorster (the South African president of the time) and his determination not to live under a country ruled by the ‘terrorist’ Robert Mugabe. I know that many of his generation share those sentiments. I remained quiet on the issue although I have an uncertain stance somewhere in the grey reaches of the middle-ground.

He spoke of the harsh conditions of conscripts to the Rhodesian forces as related to him through others like his mother, a hospital matron. I know this first hand through my Uncle Paul who served in the Rhodesian army at that time and who now lives a secluded life in Plymouth, Devon. So maybe he was right to get out when he did? I can’t say. He would have had to wrestle with own conscience over many years I suppose. It was just a little sad to see a man still caught up in the past the way he was. A little glimmer of some self-esteem though: relating how he was bullied by an Afrikaaner senior at Guineafowl (a private school of some standing in Rhodesia) he proclaimed “I had the last laugh! I stood up to him”. (Something about not doing a punishment prescribed him.) “I’m Irish and I’m proud of it.” He could build on that I suppose.

This was only ten minutes worth of conversation and only at the end of it did we introduce ourselves. His name was William. Before we parted I asked him again if he wouldn’t mind telling me why he needed the money. “Horses” he said with a wry smile, avoiding my eye. Chance meeting or something more significant I can’t say except that I don’t want my story and that of my people to be lost in the sands of time. After all it’s my belief that we really only tell the tales and glories of our particular tribe in order to try and reach out to a common identity. It’s one that’s in a constant state of evolution and that’s why we need to keep the conversation going.

This Other Place

If any of you have read anything of my self-published writing you will have had a taste of my retrospection and introspection. For those of you who have no idea what I’m talking about I am essentially touching on the challenges encountered and observations made when one is uprooted from one society and plonked down in another, forcibly or by choice. I have elaborated on this in a previous post. Here I thought I would give flight to some of these thoughts in verse.

This Other Place

Life is spare in sentiment
now that I have travelled to this other place.
Stripped bare of pride and prejudice
I can look within and contemplate
memory, both the essence and the distillate.

Now thirty-five, man not child,
I have outlived my parents both.
Should I have remained, wed perhaps,
in that other place I once called home
where spirit-memories of them roam?

My mother’s ashes are within two casks:
One with her sister in the south,
the other with my brother Dan,
in that other place I once called home
hills of granite, red soils of loam.

My father’s ashes now far dispersed,
scattered in the mighty lake.
I imagine his cremated bones now blackened
settling in the sediment; or then again,
reincarnate in things too small to name.

***

I have often pondered
what truths and lessons can be taught,
in the recollection of these things,
which arise from sentimental thought?

Regardless of analysis,
It is a world of changing fortunes.
If my very blood could speak,
it would tell you of such things,
the weak made strong, the strong made weak.

Yet my tribe’s not gone,
only assimilated by another
whom to her bosom takes
her wayward children,
and like a mother
forgives our misplaced aspirations.

A Bird in a Gilded Pond

 

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About a swan, in verse.

I jumped the gate
to better see her sanctuary
a lone swan in a broad pond
beneath the old weir
of stone and rusted gears.

On the other side, upstream,
a family of mallard ducks, a moorhen and a gull,
here but she alone
proud queen of the lower reaches.

Did you see the cygnets?
A voice catches me unawares.
I start, expecting a reproach
but he is alone and means no ill.

I answer ‘no I did not’.
There were eight before,
and then two. He pauses,
his thoughts his own.
Perhaps they have fledged?

He shakes his head.
We discuss the possibilities of predation
by fox or heron.
We will never know. He moves on…

I turn back towards the pond
my heart going out to her,
proud and tragic regent.
Does she feel the pain of loss?
I do.