Category Archives: Reflections

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.

 

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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 travelled 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 misdemeanours. 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 countertop. 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 Joneses. 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.

Later I would look back and see that I 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 behaviour 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.

The River


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The River

To see a thing
One must look.
To see a place
One must look collectively,
as muscle fibres are to the muscle,
each a component on a quantum palette
related in space and time.

Through my dilated pupil each single photon
again and again, in constant repetition
discharges upon my retinal receptors,
creating an illusion of constancy.
The river flows, we see the reed bow;
Yet it nods and returns, nods and returns.
The ripples shimmer and distort the glassy interface
between air and aqua,
but the composition remains essentially the same.

We see collectively and it is enough, for now,
to see it so and not to consider the uniqueness of the moment,
the infinite variability of trajectory and velocity,
each molecule of water a voyager in the quantum lattice
oblivious to the palette of my mortal mind,
forever moving onwards in accordance
with thermodynamics laws.

I marvel at the minds of cleverer men than I
to deduce such things and to rejoice in their deduction.
Empowered to explore, manipulate and dissect
the palette becomes a mirror to our minds.
But if this is our ultimate trajectory where to the collective?
The palette of river, tree, sky and cloud?
Why should I dissect what is enough
to soothe my beating heart,
my yearning soul?

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