Category: memoir

The road

You remember the road, the drive, the peripheral blur of veldt. You know why cosmos smell like Marlboro Gold. You saw the sunflowers at first light through broken ribbons of mist. Shrikes hovered over a dead mouse on the road and you marvelled at how much detail the eye takes in whilst moving at that speed. Maybe looking slows down time? You remember the road.

You recall the cold air sweeping through the cabin. At the tree-lined hilltop bend that holds years of your regret, you stop. This is the last time, you must. It is less than you expected. Turns out, it’s just the side of the road. Cars pass. The air vibrates. You carry on.

Passing stand-out trees you’ve seen grow from saplings to bold silhouettes. A farmhouse whose colourful geometric patterns have faded, the mud walls crumbled. Fifteen year old giggles rolling from your daughters trying to say Ndebele, hover here still. Who will ever hear them again?

It’s an abrasive road. Tarmac is rough. Pain on leaving, pain on arriving. Pain on pain. Gethsemanal pain even, once on the side of the road. But also that walk through sunflower fields and thoughts of Vincent, of … and forever after the understanding of his painting of them.

Majuba. The mountain pass with awful imaginings and battlefields and arriving broken. Is my ghost already here? Is this why back in Perth my voice ridicules me? I, he, falls into the safety of second person.

Detached. Stitching memories into memoir. Chucking an unspoken life out the window and getting the hell out while there’s still something to salvage. Leaving a father under a tree on Matakenyane and a mother in a box on a brother’s bedside table.

Road. By Sean Scallan

The igoodea

I gotta igoodea he said under the Frangipani tree that summer and I sat in wonder of him. I still do.

We trawled the soft layers of perfumed petals loosened by time and rain and wind and gathered up falling handfulls of Frangipani. We let them fall soft, yellow-streaked parasols, into the birdbath. What we called the birdbath was actually a large stone that had been hollowed out by the manual crushing of maze over many years in the homes which were scattered throughout the valley. At the end of our childhood we learned that people were crushed too.

The bird bath now in my brother’s garden. Ngagane, Kwazulu Natal, South Africa.

There were these warm rains without lightning when we could sit and watch the slate paving change colour and save ants caught in onyx creases from drowning. We called everyone to see but only Sophie came and burst into a song of praise, ai ai yai, sshhoo sschhoo, halala … which startled us both to look again at our handiwork in case we’d missed something. She made us feel like heroes, a good thing to be when you are five and not yet broken.

Then my brother of the igoodea gathered cracked litchi shells to make pyramids on the round concrete steps granpa Jack had made at the garage end of the garden by the avo tree. The rough shells dripped between our toes still purple from sliding the purple river of Jakaranda blooms the rain pushed down the gutters from Lone Tree Hill.

Barberton made brothers of us. Gave us a glimpse of our wholeness before we broke. And now we remember the fractured ones who loved us when they were still gods: Granny Hazel’s tenderness, Granpa Jack’s booming laughter and the smell of paint, Old Granny turning soft and translucent like an exhaled breath of Lavender.

It takes 50 years to unwrap childhood. As long for old questions to be answered. Who taught you to be so brave? I once asked. A memory answered me. You and Aunt Ivy, hand in hand, walking up the road to the shop. She was regal and stern from her army Captain days. You were in drag: high heels, evening gown, string of pearls with ostrich feathers on your five year old head. What a gift she gave you that day!

With you we we’re always on the verge of a very important idea. Brother, you were quicker to see the wonder of the world at our feet. While I imagined things to be done, you would begin walking, and I would follow. We were brave enough together to go anywhere. And we did. You made the world feel like a good place to be. You do that still. I love you for that.

The Minotaur's Memoir: from the Book of Asterion

 ,but, despite the tensions we were soldiers first and Kreet was the land that bound us both, the unwilling and the blind.

The hour before sunrise is the coldest. The wind picks up and the chill settles on the bones. You can run for the whole hour and not feel warmed up inside. But any time away from the camp is a relief. Especially now with the prisoners there. The enemy prisoners. We prefer the 1am duty. The guardhouse is noisy until 11pm anyway and the chance of being hauled away for some dirty job is high. At one in the morning the world feels like a peaceful place. The lights in town shimmer, the lights of the main road hang beneath the horizon like pots of fire. Once a barn owl swooped over our heads as we sat in the grass smoking a cigarette, cupping our hands over it carefully to avoid detection and putting our heads between our knees to suck in the smoke and hide the soft glow. We felt it before we heard it. It sounded like something big breathing out over us. We felt a quick rush of cool air on our necks and then heard a swoosh. Between feeling the owl and hearing it we had rolled away and were aiming at the blackness behind us. After a kilometre we started laughing uncontrollably and sat down again and smoked a cigarette but coughed a lot through laughter. That was one of the happiest moments from that time. It bound us and allowed us to remain friends after the difficulties later. That we could laugh together gave each of us permission to forgive one another later.

There was this evening in the beer garden. Blokes getting drunk and forgetting stuff they had seen or done and finding absolution in the wordless confessional of alcohol.

We have to fight to hold onto our land, Kreet is ours someone said. Maybe the beer had given me courage? Maybe the guilt of silent collusion got the better of me?

Is it really our land? I said. The Company officer, the one who had forced us to leopard crawl over slate and laughed as we had bled, was there. Like dogs we were eager for his approval. We imagined he had become a friend.

You’re crossing a line he said.

A veil of distrust descended over us. Things continued as normal after that but dialogue strained as if emerging every time tired from a long journey through an internal labyrinth where pre verbalised thoughts were considered according to possible interpretations and consequences. Everyone became cautious, having to hold the thread of the original thought while surveying the various landscapes that began to form and take shape as a result of the words spoken. Conversation collapsed under the pressure and became chatter skimming along the surface of things: the weather, physical ailments, safe complaints about people mutually agreed upon to be fools and the camp dog, Asterion. It was always safe and comforting to share stories about Asterion’s antics as if talking about him bridged the abyss deepening between us.

That was all a long time ago and Kreet is reclaimed now. Those who were once prisoners now lead and those who used to lead have been imprisoned. I wonder now if we were soldiers protecting the land or minotaurs prowling the imagined idea of a country in the subterranean labyrinth of some nameless terrain in wait for a name change? The friend with the owl now farms the land and I exiled myself from it.

The new country has a name but I have become weary of names for land. Also there is nothing new. There or here. So how does one talk now about place? The words I have are from a different time? The ears that would have understood are gone, if they were ever there. There are leaders here, but I’m not sure yet whether they lead soldiers or minotaurs.  I was a minotaur once.  Now I look for Asterion instead. There is always an Asterion.  I only saw an owl once. There are prisoners here, they are everywhere. Here the street lights do not struggle against the dark. Days are much like nights, just with slightly sharper shadows.

The philosophy of cupboards: a memoir.

People and countries are much like cupboards. They contain much but most of it is forgotten. These dark spaces create the illusion of abundance, unpacked they reveal the superficiality of our existence. We keep things we don’t need and forget too soon what we have. On the other hand, opening a long forgotten drawer is like finding gifts you forgot to enjoy. Cupboards and drawers have been an important part of my life.

Not everything needs light to grow. When I was a child I found an old slice of chocolate cake in the furthest recess of my cupboard. I had hastily hidden it there when I was interrupted by my brother. Clearly I had forgotten to eat it. Months later it had grown fur. I recall considering whether it might be salvaged but I threw it out, I was not that brave. The mould had prospered in the dark. Much like the political ideology of apartheid. Much like me.

But, it is those who live in darkness who are most afraid of the light. So it was in the Dark Ages in South Africa. Of course, as a child, I did not see that, how could I? We lived in Plato’s cave, watching a fire we were told was called truth, recoiling from the shadows crawling the walls. But even when people call the darkness by another name it remains darkness. Eventually children will find language, no matter how well it is hidden. They will discover all the hidden things. Eventually a hand will reach into the furthest corner of the cupboard.

In the shadows of the cooling towers and through the incessant thunder of the turbines I discovered that if you stray from the road into a corn field in winter it gets cold quickly and one is easily disoriented. If the corn is high and the leaves are dead and brown and if there is wind moving through them, the noise becomes deafening and frightening. It feels like the end of the world.

We lived in a village. That sounds too pastoral, too Dickensian. We lived in a house amongst similarly designed red facebrick houses where other workers lived. There were large cantilevered, plastered flower boxes jutting out of the wall beneath the main bedroom window of each house. They were big enough, if unplanted, for two boys to hide in. Constructed during the 1960’s and 70’s, the houses accomodated the families of miners who worked in the power station. Worker accommodation close to the means of production. My father and mother worked there and later on, so did I. South easterly winds blew ash over the village, I’m calling it a village. When it rained the running drops left grey ash streaks on cars and windows. Everyone complained about the ash.  Some days everything was covered in a fine layer of ash. The patina of sacrifice at the altar of the gods of consumerism. Heavy rain left the world looking clean. Light rain left streaks the way mascara stains the face after crying. It was beautifully bleak. The way Van Gogh’s potato peelers are beautiful or Whistler’s trains steaming in cold mist are simulatneously solid steel and ethereal. Sunsets set the sky on fire against the black coal dumps and over the gashed countryside scarred to extract carbon. I read later on that industrial skies are red from the iron content in the air. Iron oxide reflects red light. We had an iron sky.

On one side of the village we were bound by a railway line that cut the veldt to the west and stitched a sutured track to Richards Bay. (I had no idea where that was but it sounded warm, far and blue). To the north and south was farmland, as far as the eye could see, fields of corn (mielie fields we called them). Three hours south east was Barberton, where my father and I were born. Where I was formed. What do you call the process of becoming? (The town is still there but now it is like a thing in the far corner of a large cupboard). We left after my grandparents died because, though my parents wanted to keep the home, they never had the money to hold onto it. (Money strengthens one’s grip on the world. Without it, life is an interminable letting go). I never wanted to leave. I remember the last night in the house, in torchlight and with a pen knife, I carved my initials onto a section of the floorboard under the bed. I collected stones, seed pods and leaves from every corner of the garden. They remained in my bedroom cupboard until I had to leave that home too. Cupboards are made to accommodate our attachment to the world. A world I seemed determined to archive piece by piece. I still bring back stones from places I visit. I have only succeeded in relocating minute pieces of the earth. That childhood trauma of losing a place instilled a fear of loving a place. We always leave or lose the places we love. People too. A few stones in my pocket lessen the loss. It is delusion of course. For we move on and lose our connection to the land, the symbolic pebbles end up in a cupboard somewhere, forgotten and ultimately discarded.

The roads leading to the village were dark at night and always broken from the incessant traffic of heavy coal trucks. The coal dust powdered over their brake lights making them invisible and we lost a friend who drove into the back of a truck. She was placed in a cupboard in the ground. “Please God watch the coal trucks” became mother’s mantra when I was travelling home at night. Another time our school bus drove into the back of one and our neighbour’s daughter nearly died. We hated the coal trucks.

On Saturday nights everyone went to the “Rec Hall” (community recreational hall) to watch movies. Westerns were our favourites. Charles Bronson was my hero. My brother and I and our friends always got front row seats. Mrs Harley patrolled the aisles with a torch to ensure no hanky-panky took place. If there had been it probably happened up in the lighting box where the older boys worked the projector. We all aspired to do that job. By the time I was old enough the films had stopped and people were leaving because the power station was shutting down, being “moth balled” they said. Essentially they would shut the doors, switch off the power, lock up and leave. One big cupboard.

Before the village shut down it was our wide open world and we loved it. Despite the overarching fear of God and communists (I grew up feeling personally responsible for the Anglo-Boer war and the moral decay that apparently surrounded us) there was music. Once the Buddy Holly Story was going to show. Then I did something or said something wrong and my parents said I could not go. I remember the quiet rage I felt. I retreated with tears to my bedroom and stepped into the cupboard. I closed the doors behind me. I sat down on the cool floor and found a box of pencils and began breaking them in two. The smaller bits were harder to break. I remember how that fuelled the rage. I stayed there for a long time. I found comfort in the isolated darkness. I still do. Cupboards store stuff, but also memories and pain. Later, older, tired and somewhat broken I faced the cupboard of my youth and found that in the interim years demons had taken up residence there, replaced the pencils with sharp memories, and were waiting.

Cupboards are really just reconfigured trees used for storage. The earliest examples belonged to wealthy people, working class people had no need for them. The cupboard enters popular culture on a wide scale in the 17th century. By the late 18th century, with the industrial revolution and the rising middle class that it spawned, economically elevated humans sought to do what they had hitherto been unable to do, luxuriate in their dwellings. They traded labour for money for things. At first they were needful things like items of clothing and cutlery. Once needs were met, desire set in, took up residence and like a perpetually hungry child demanded attention. Cupboards soon become symbols of excess, status symbols. Their compartments held a darker purpose. Secrecy was domesticated. Now cupboard space is as important as real estate. We have a walk in cupboard. With the lights off it feels strangely comforting.