When Rafael woke up at three that morning he was dripping with sweat. It took him a moment to realise that he was back in his childhood room. He had been dreaming about plunging the banderilla into the back of the bull’s neck. The accusation in the bull’s eyes as it lowered its head for the final blow haunted him.
They had all gone to the bar the previous night to celebrate his return. Posters were plastered on the walls outside and inside. They proclaimed that he was the grandson of el famoso, Jose Fernando Martinez, and the nephew of Luis Fernando Martinez.
It was his fate to be related to two of the most famous matadors Spain had ever seen. The nation had mourned after his grandfather had been gored to death in the bullring and a statue had been erected in Madrid at the entrance to the arena. His uncle had followed in his grandfather’s footsteps and his cousin, Jose Fernando, another great bullfighter in the making, had been carrying on the family tradition until he was killed in the car accident. He was from a family of bullfighters and he had been raised on its glory. Not for the first time, the burden of tradition weighed heavily.
He had never bought into the blood and gore, the displays of machismo. He could appreciate the beauty of the intricate dance and the skill of the matador. But was it necessary to kill the bull in such a cruel way, taunting the animal until it charged desperately to its end? The roar of the crowd reminded him of spectators at a gladiator show except here defenceless animals were slaughtered. The bullring even resembled a Roman amphitheatre.
Of course he had done the training, gone to bullfighting school for years, if only to keep the peace at home. In truth, he was happiest sitting with a book in the shade of the olive trees, breathing in the aroma released by the rows of lavender bushes, or sitting under the bougainvillea in the courtyard, the fountain creating cool sounds while he painted.
“Your mother does not want you to be a man! What is all this drawing and painting you do?”
It had been with great relief that he accepted the offer of a place at the art school in Barcelona. His father had thought it was a waste of time, and there had been a terrible fight with his mother. Getting the scholarship had made it easier to leave. Before he had left, his mother had taken him aside.
“Try to understand your father, Rafael. It has been hard for him to lose his father, then Luis and now, Jose too.”
“But I cannot be all those people for him. And why do you let him speak to you like that? Sometimes it is he who reminds me of a bull, raging around the ring!”
“Tranquilo, mi hijo. Your father has worked hard to give us a good life. I will be fine, don’t worry.”
But he had worried about leaving his mother. What was it that made his father so angry all the time? Perhaps it was tradition that weighed him down too. Everyone close to him had died and the Martinez name would no longer be heard around the arena. There had been many passionate debates around the dinner table till late into the night when everyone had had far too much red wine.
“It is not about the bull, not about the killing,” his father maintained. “It is art. Los toros needs grace and style…and bravery.”
“Dios mio! In other parts of Spain the bull fight has been banned!”
“We should never have sent you to Barcelona to study. Those Catalans do not even want to be part of Spain! Now that Europe is one you will forget what it is that makes you Spanish.”
“This display is for tourists who think they are seeing the real Spain.”
“Do not speak to me of drunken tourists who run with bulls in Pamplona. They complain when someone gets hurt. Stupid Americans, think they know it all from an old book. For hundreds of years, Spain has had bullfights. You young people want to change everything.”
“Spain has art and books, music and beautiful buildings, too. What of Picasso, Gaudi, Dali?”
He didn’t understand it. Surely Spain had moved away from all this? After the bloody civil war many people had had little appetite for the cruelty of bullfighting, even less so after Franco’s death. Bullfighting did not make sense in this century. He and Jose had been close. His mother had been as devastated by his death as if he were her own son. The flamboyant decorations glinting in the moonlight where the suit hung on the front of the cupboard, seemed to mock him. It had been made for Jose. It symbolised everything that he was not.
“Do it this one time, for Jose,” his mother had appealed. He had come home to pay tribute to Jose but he wasn’t sure that he would be able to go through with it. He’d never be able to return home again if he shamed his father in front of all those people.
Of course he was proud to be Spanish. But enough with the fighting! He remembered seeing Picasso’s Guernica for the first time. He had gone back to the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid many times to sit in front of the painting, to try to understand its message. To him, the bull in the haunting black and white painting was a symbol of hope, showing the continuity of the Spanish nation after the civil war. The bull seemed to be protecting the mother. That’s why he was doing this, to protect his mother from his father’s anger for the son she had raised.
This was a Creative Writing/Fiction exercise that we worked on over a few sessions with novelist, Consuelo Roland, who presented us with this picture of a bullfighter and cautioned us not to search for it on the internet before writing. I since discovered that it was not all it was made out to be. Read more here
My neighbour goes to the supermarket pretty regularly, because it’s there she sometimes sees the face of God…
…or so she swears. She has been known to have moments of Divine visitation. Like the time that she heard angels singing in the attic of our house and kept finding excuses to come round. It took a while to figure out why we were suddenly on the receiving end of the many trays of foil-wrapped lasagnas and chicken a la kings accumulating in the fridge, as if some family member had died and we needed consoling. She was the only one who could hear the singing though.
I am never quite sure what to make of these sightings. She comes back from the encounters glowing, words tripping over each other as she describes her latest vision. The first time it happened I remember clearly that I was trimming the hedge which divides our properties. “You’ll never guess what happened,” she shouted through her car window, not even waiting until she had parked and gotten out.
That time she was convinced that the bergie who helped her wheel her trolley of groceries to the car had had a special aura, perhaps some modern-day prophet who might reveal himself to the first person who treated him well.
“She means well,” says my wife. “No harm done. Wouldn’t be such a bad thing if we all saw the face of God occasionally. The last bit aimed at Mr Harris who lives opposite and who wouldn’t give any of us the time of day.
It’s not all good though. There was the time that she was convinced that the student who had answered the advert for the single bed that she had for sale was channeling angel Gabriel. That didn’t turn out so well when she offered him board and lodging and he disappeared with all her jewellery one Wednesday evening while she was at a fundraising meeting for the SPCA…
This is another Creative Writing/fiction exercise given to us by Christopher Hope: we were given the first line and had to write 350 words.
There were 97 New York advertising men in the hotel, and the way they were monopolizing the long-distance lines, the girl in 507 had to wait from noon till almost two-thirty to get her call through. She had been using the time well. She had packed her bag, sweeping the hotel shampoo and conditioner bottles into her vanity bag (she had paid for it, after all) and had made up her side of the bed.
There had been the inconvenient bit of blood on the pillow but she had popped it down the laundry chute which happened to be just outside her door. Luckily there had been a spare on the top shelf of the cupboard and she had put it on the bed. She had washed and dried the glass she had used and placed it on the tray on top of the little fridge. She had even checked the little bin in the bathroom to make sure that there was nothing of hers in there.
Before that she had put her hair up into a few curlers to set while she took a bath. She had made her face up carefully and brushed out her hair. She was now wearing the pale blue skirt suit that Mother had made her pack. Her white hat and gloves were on the chair at the door next to her handbag and little suitcase. As soon as the call was made she would be on her way.
When the phone rang she decided to take it in the bathroom and, clearing her throat, perched on the edge of the bath. Her mother’s voice boomed down the line.
Gloria! We have been worried sick about you. Your father has a bad heart, you know. We haven’t heard from you since you left on Sunday. You did say you would call as soon as you arrived.
Mother, the hotel is packed…some sort of a convention…I told you that it may be a day or two before I had a chance to call.
How is Roger behaving? We can’t believe that you still agreed to go away with him after Muriel told you about the affair he’s been having, and with your best friend at that. I must tell you that nothing good will come of this. Once he has strayed it will just be a matter of time before he runs after the next skirt that catches his fancy. You know I only want what is best for you.
If she didn’t cut her mother short now she would drone on and on.
Mother, you know I can take care of my own problems. Roger will be no trouble from now on. See you soon. Goodbye.
She put the phone down, picked up her bags and gloves and looked around the room one last time. Roger looked like he was sleeping peacefully. She had crossed his arms over his body on top of the bedspread. She opened the door and hung the “Do not disturb” sign up outside.
Roger would not be having anymore affairs. She closed the door and hurried towards the elevator.
This was a Creative Writing/fiction exercise we were given in a workshop by author Christopher Hope: We were given the first sentence and had to write a short story.
People are crammed into the Business Class Lounge at Livingstone airport. “Air-conditioned Lounge” the sign says – the fans are working furiously. I hesitate, briefly considering staying outside in the general lounge. It seems far more peaceful. But I hesitate too long and the seats I spotted have been taken. So it is into the Business Class lounge, which resembles an obstacle course. Every time someone opens the door, the receptionist is in danger of being squashed behind it.
I am not surprised that it is so basic – our boarding passes were manually ticked off by someone sitting at a little wooden desk as we came through security. My husband has cut a path for us and has found a corner to squeeze into. We are so tightly packed that he feels compelled to start a conversation with the person who he is sitting almost knee-to-knee with.
The décor in the lounge is from another era – all chintzy and chunky – cheap dark furniture with amateur paintings adorning the walls. Against the opposite wall is a table with an electric kettle, mugs and a row of jars with tea, coffee and creamer. Next to that is a table with boxes of wine, glasses and plastic-wrapped bowls of curly yellow chips and popcorn.
Opposite us are two doors, one emblazoned with a thorny branch, the other with a red rose. “No seats on the toilet,” my husband announces as he comes out of the door with the thorn branch. I wonder if the door with the rose signifies any better. After 20 years of travelling around the world I am suspicious of public toilets.
There is more than an hour’s wait before boarding, if all goes according to plan, so I am forced to heed the call of nature. I enter the door with the rose, not expecting much. This is reasonably clean and I have learnt to use the reasonably clean toilet because you never know what you will find next. The toilet seat is there but the lid of the cistern has gone missing. I have to position myself with right leg extended to hold the door shut with my foot – good thing I do yoga – because it will not stay closed, never mind lock. But I have seen worse.
My suspicions have been nurtured by the squatting toilets of India, an experience which for the first time made being a man an attractive prospect. Indian public toilets are definitely to be avoided. This is not so easy when you are travelling from city to city in a less than speedy 1950s Ambassador. Not only did you have to squat while gingerly arranging yourself (thank heavens I was not wearing seven metres of sari), but hygiene was not high on the list. “What can you do? Too many people,” my mother-in-law would declare with a shake of her head.
When we were forced to stop, I would send my husband in first. I reasoned that if the men’s toilets were halfway decent there was the chance that the women’s would be too. After all, he didn’t have to sit down. Too many times he came out holding his nose and giving it the thumbs down.
My daughter, who was not quite three at the time, had taken one look at the squatting toilet and pursing her lips, had declared, “I don’t have a wee anymore!” No amount of cajoling could change her mind. She developed a leak-proof bladder, waiting until we were back at the hotel so that she could use the Western-style toilet. It has stood her in good stead over the years.
There have been other occasions I have thought about being male, like on long game drives in the bush. My husband and son have hopped out during stops and marked their territory a little too proudly for my liking. I was not about to squat behind a bush so that a lion could tell me how low on the food chain I happened to be. So what’s a woman to do but limit the sundowners and cross her legs more tightly?
There have been many toilets in many countries over the years. My daughter has even acquainted herself with a spade called Oscar while canoeing down the Orange River and braved living in a rural village for three weeks in the north of Thailand while building water storage tanks.
It was in Thailand though, that we came across such clean public toilets that I was moved to take a photograph. Rows of plastic shoes stood on shelves outside under a sign that asked you to please remove your shoes and use the plastic ones. This was to protect your shoes since the floor of the toilet was being constantly washed. Finally, somebody had got it…“life is lived at lavatory level!”
As a first year Occupational Therapy student, learning about independence training for people in wheelchairs, our lecturer had regularly chanted this mantra to us. She believed that being able to use the toilet in a dignified manner, in spite of disability, was of paramount importance. Years later it had taken on a rather different significance for me.
This area, on the outskirts of what was once District Six, is familiar to me. The Sacks Futeran building next door which now houses the Fugard Theatre and the District Six Homecoming Centre, used to be a general wholesaler where seamstresses and tailors could buy textiles, and we rode the ancient lift to buy clothing, crockery and cutlery. I remember trips to the Grand Parade on a Saturday morning, clutching my grandmother’s hand as she went from stall to stall. And, of course, across the road, is the Caledon Police Station where I, along with many others, experienced the hospitality of the apartheid state in the 1980s.
One hundred years ago there was a vibrant community here of Indians, ‘coloureds’, Portuguese, Greeks and Jews. Freed slaves, merchants, immigrants, artisans and labourers all worked and lived peacefully side by side. They were an eclectic mix of cultures, religions and ethnicities in a melting pot typical of a port city like Cape Town … apparently a threat to the apartheid government which declared it a “whites only” area in 1966. It would take about 15 years to move the 60 000 people out, to the Cape Flats, to areas like Manenberg, Hanover Park and Mitchell’s Plain.
District Six is now unrecognisable from what it was before its destruction but I have fond memories of the area where my grandparents lived and my father was born. Hanover Street was the main artery which ran all the way up from the city centre, into Walmer Estate where I grew up. My life revolved around Hanover Street though: my uncle’s tailor shop, was a hive of activity; the doctor who delivered me in my grandparents’ home, had his surgery there, and Majiet’s barbershop was filled with people not necessarily having their hair cut, but playing dominoes and catching up on the news. A trip into town would inevitably involve a stop for roti and curry from the Crescent Café. My father says that you could buy anything in Hanover Street except petrol.
Tied up with my memories is the music which was played in the streets by minstrels, Malay choirs and Christmas bands. Some of this has been captured by Taliep Petersen and David Kramer in their musicals, District Six and Kat and the Kings. And then there was food with names like bredie, bobotie,denningvleis,frikkadels and oumens onder die kombers. One dish that, for me, represents the Cape with Malay, Dutch and Christian influences blended together with fragrant spices, was pickled fish. I remember my maternal grandmother making it in the last week of Lent, to eat on Good Friday. She would make it well in advance to give the spices a chance to penetrate the fish, and also to free up her Friday when she would spend many hours in church. The fish would have been bought either from the fish market on the corner of Hanover and Clifton Streets, opposite the Star bioscope, or from the fish cart which did the rounds in the neighbourhood. The hawker would sound his horn to alert housewives that he had arrived with the catch of the day and they would come out to the street to haggle.
Weddings and funerals were community affairs. When I was about six or seven I was a flower girl twice in the same year, once for my aunt, a Christian wedding and then for a Muslim neighbour, a dressmaker who sewed all the dresses for the wedding herself. The whole street turned out to see the bride when the wedding cars hooted to announce her arrival, and the neighbours followed behind to the reception in the Princess Street Hall. Funerals were another occasion when everyone would just turn up to pay their respects and support the family in any way they could. Christian men would borrow fezzes and take turns to carry the bier of their Muslim neighbour.
As the bulldozers moved in and the walls came tumbling around her, my paternal grandmother was banished to Mitchells Plain, far from the city centre where she had lived her whole life. She had been a fiercely independent woman, who had to earn a living after her husband died and left her to raise four children on her own. She made koeksisters and konfyt to sell door-to-door on Sunday mornings in District Six, and sewed and crocheted. She used public transport or walked wherever she had to go. What I remember most was her loss of independence. Suddenly she found herself in a foreign place without any infrastructure and no public transport to fetch her pension from the General Post Office in Cape Town. For the first time she had to ask for help.
Central to my motivation for going back to university, was to equip myself with skills to tell the stories of growing up, not only my stories but the stories of those who cannot tell their own. We’re a deeply divided society, still trying to recover from a brutal past. We cannot sweep it under the carpet, sooner or later the bump will trip us up.
I urge you to visit the District Six Museum. However painful the memories of apartheid may be, the exhibition there humanises the experiences while celebrating the rich diversity of people who once lived here. For me, it’s like settling into an old armchair and turning the pages of a well-worn family photo album. When I see the barber’s corner, the display case with the games we once played in the road, the photographs of the Peninsula Maternity Home where my sister was born or the wall-hanging with the name of the rugby club my father played for, I feel that our lives mattered. And when I walk up the stairs to the wall that bears the names of families who lived here, and I scroll down to find mine, I feel that our experiences have been validated and dignified.
This is an extract from a talk I gave prior to a performance of the musical, Orpheus in Africa, as part of an educational programme.
In 1989, I was arrested along with hundreds of others during a peaceful protest march in central Cape Town. When the crowd refused to disperse, the police attacked with teargas, batons and a water cannon filled with purple dye. As we were piled into the back of police vans, we carried on singing the freedom songs we had been singing during the march. What I remember most is the camaraderie among the forty women with whom I was packed into the cell at Caledon Square Police Station. I don’t remember who started singing but soon more and more voices had joined in and a policeman ordered us to keep it down. Buoyed by the music, we kept going through the night. By the time we were released, we were united by the conviction that our struggle was just.
The 1980s were characterised by the Defiance Campaign and a state of emergency as the apartheid government dug its heels in and enforced its policies. One day we would be reclaiming the beaches with Archbishop Tutu, policemen and dogs chasing and whipping us. Another we would be dodging rubber bullets and teargas and sometimes live ammunition would be flying in townships like Manenberg. When restrictions were imposed on public gatherings, concerts, clubs and house parties offered an alternative means of getting together. Activists would be at the jazz gigs and musicians would be playing at rallies; often the music concert would be the rally (Milton, 2010).
Funerals were another way to gather in defiance of the restrictions. Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika, our unofficial national anthem, would start slowly and build into a crescendo binding us all together, at once an act of resistance and a celebration of the lives lost.
Music was the background to my childhood during the 1960s and 1970s – traditional Malay liedjies sung at weddings, the sounds of the coons and marching bands at Christmas, or sitting on the stoep singing songs that my father had taught us. As children we would be taken to see the troupes parading through District Six. Bunting in different colours would be strung up high across the streets to show support for different teams. The whole community, including the tailors and seamstresses in Hanover Street, would have been preparing for months.
At all hours of the day music would stream from the house across the road, where our friend, Sean, lived. The house on the corner of Park and Princess had something that not many other houses in the neighbourhood had – a piano. Sean could listen to a song on the radio and then play it on the piano. He was spotted at church by the pianist, Henry February, when he was five years old; standing to play the organ so that he could reach the bass pedals. Mr February took him under his wing and Sean was fortunate to have the attention of a skilled teacher (O’Connell, personal interview 2013).
Many talented coloured and black children simply had no access to instruments or tuition. Because of Mr February, Sean was drawn to jazz and by the time he was 17 he was playing in venues in the coloured areas. The Galaxy, a well-known club on the Cape Flats, hosted live jazz bands where musicians like Errol Dyers and Robbie Jansen could be heard (O’Connell, personal interview 2013, April 9). The music played here was quite distinct from the pop music being played in white clubs. Bands like Blood, Sweat and Tears and Chicago were influential on local music, but because of the isolation brought about by apartheid, a more distinctive sound developed along with a style of “jazz dancing” unique to coloured people in the Cape (Smith, personal interview 2013).
Performing outside of coloured areas was fraught with difficulties. Group areas, pass regulations, and laws forbidding Africans to appear at venues where liquor was served, severely limited opportunities for performers. Sean remembers that when he and his band, Airborne, were booked to play at The Lido in Sea Point, a white suburb, they were not allowed to eat in the restaurant with white patrons and were given a table backstage. This time one of the wives who accompanied them was “not pale enough” to be allowed onto the premises. The band refused to perform and left in spite of the angry Greek owner.
Well-known jazz trumpeter, Ian Smith, recalls that in the 1970s there were only two places where musicians could play together – the Arts Centre in Green Point (now a McDonald’s takeout), or at the Space Theatre which was well-known for mixing of all the arts and was regularly raided by the police. At other venues like The Barn, at the Hohenhort Hotel, black and white musicians were able to perform together but to segregated audiences. Black musicians were not allowed to use the front entrance of the hotels, and often had to play behind a curtain.
Finding rehearsal spaces was challenging and they usually practised in a back room or a garage at someone’s house. “You had to be creative to find places to rehearse…and work harder to get your music out to an audience. Musicians were colour-blind. We just got on with it” (Smith, personal interview 2013, April 3). He recalls musicians like Merton Barrow, Morris Goldberg and Monty Weber, from the Jewish community, playing a key role in bringing musicians together.
South Africa’s rich legacy of music can be traced back to the 17th century when the indigenous Khoi people first played European folksongs on a ramkie, the guitar-like Malay instrument. Music was a highly valued skill which could ensure a higher price for slaves who often formed part of the estate’s orchestra. The Malays, who were brought to the Cape from the East Indies by the Dutch, blended their music with Dutch ballads. Further musical integration happened between Coloured and African labourers brought to work on the diamond mines in Kimberley.
The Lutheran missions and the Salvation Army, which offered free musical education, contributed to the development of African choral traditions. The most famous example of this, Enoch Sontonga’s Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika, came to symbolise the struggle for African unity and liberation in South Africa (SA). Another influence on local music was minstrelsy, which took hold after McAdoo’s American Jubilee Singers toured SA at the end of the 19th century. This influence can still be seen today in Cape Town’s annual coon carnival (Donaldson, 2000).
It was jazz that would influence and shape most black music, fusing with mbaqanga,marabi and kwela, and with rock and popular music (Coplan, 1985: 192). “By the 1920s and 30s, the churches, schools, clubs, drinking houses, parties and dance halls of the black locations were producing a new generation of performance professionals. Versatile musicians absorbed almost everything, played for almost everyone, and gave birth to an authentically South African jazz” (Coplan, 1985).
When the National Party came to power in 1948 they set about institutionalising racial segregation and started dividing communities through laws governing the movement of black people. As the government bulldozed what they called “black spots” like District Six to make way for whites, clubs and halls were destroyed, musicians were excluded, and jazz was gradually deprived of its multi-racial audience. Despite censorship, musicians used song lyrics to comment upon social issues within the African community. The sounds of resistance were being spread on the radio, in the community clubs and halls and shebeens.
Passive resistance and anti-pass campaigns characterised the 1950s but amid the aggression and brutality of the struggle, the arts flourished. In the early 1960s Hugh Masekela with The Jazz Epistles helped to establish a strong culture of jazz amongst urban blacks. He got his big break when he joined the orchestra of the musical, King Kong, which toured the world for two years. After the Sharpeville Massacre, Masekela went into exile in the USA where, with the help of Harry Belafonte he became a star (Pfeifer, 2011).
Black performers had to choose between limited careers and second-rate treatment in SA or cutting themselves off from their communities to go into exile abroad. Even musicians like Dollar Brand who famously declared, “Julle kan ma New York toe gaan, ek bly in die Manenberg”, (You can go to New York, I’ll stay in Manenberg) eventually left along with Miriam Makeba and others, disillusioned with conditions in South Africa (Miller, 2007). Those who stayed behind believed that the exiles were being treated well while they were left “to throw stones”, i.e., to carry on the struggle (Smith, personal interview 2013). But many black SA performers achieved international recognition and were able to broadcast anti-apartheid messages to an audience that the musicians left behind could not reach under the censorship laws. In the early 1990s when people like Louis Moholo, Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba started returning, they were given a hero’s welcome (Lombard, 2010).
Dollar Brand returned home in 1968. In 1974 against the backdrop of another wave of forced removals which spelled the destruction of District Six, he (now known as Abdullah Ibrahim) along with Basil Coetzee, Robbie Jansen, Monty Weber and Morris Goldberg, recorded Mannenberg, which was to become the beloved anthem of hope and resistance for South Africans at home and abroad. Playing this piece in clubs and parties was guaranteed to get the crowd going. Its success was due to the combination of many different forms of SA music which listeners of all kinds could identify with. It was an affirmation of the validity of our music culture (Valentine, 2006).
When I tried to source photographs of this time, I was told, “We were too busy with music…or the struggle…!” The few which I was offered were either out of focus or badly composed. It was left up to professional photographers, like Rashid Lombard, who were also grappling with recording protest action and police brutality, to capture some of the history. Lombard is well-known for his photographs of the mass democratic movement in SA during the 1980s when he was a freelance photographer for the BBC, NBC and others. During this time jazz became a form of healing and therapy for him (Lombard, 2010). The musicians became his friends and family, evident in his empathetic and intimate portrayal of his subjects. His images celebrate who we are.
“Today I am still amazed at how, in such totally difficult times, so many different voices came through in the jazz scene. Our music has this depth thanks to all those musicians.” (Lombard, 2010: 48)
Jazz seems to have been born out of a need for freedom of expression. More than once during this project, I heard the comment hesitantly put forward that, in some bizarre way, apartheid forced photographers, musicians and other artists, to be more creative, in ways that they may not have explored. Jazz helped to integrate musicians and audiences and got them speaking a common language. As American playwright, August Wilson, commented, “Because you can sing that song, that’s what enables you to survive. It wasn’t that “Aww, we sufferin’. It was like, we’re the people, we’re here, we’re vibin’” (Lewis, 2004).
FEATURED PHOTOGRAPH: Jazz lovers at a concert in Cape Town 1987
PHOTOGRAPHER: RASHID LOMBARD
This article is an edited version of a paper submitted towards my Public Culture in Africa course.
She was almost running, dragging the child by the hand behind her – through the Old City, past the castle – no time to watch the changing of the Royal Guard – and over the bridge, towards the square in the centre of Stockholm’s fashion district. He’d be waiting in front of the Nobis Hotel. It couldn’t be more than five minutes now. She wished that she hadn’t worn these shoes – high heels and cobblestones didn’t go well together. If there was one thing that she had learned in her time with him it was that he was a stickler for punctuality; he considered it an insult to be kept waiting. Nothing upset him more.
They waited for the tram to pass and crossed into the square. There were people milling around but she spotted him bending over to put something into his briefcase. As he straightened up, she saw that he was dressed, as always, in a dark suit and tie, white shirt. He checked his watch and scanned the square, squinting in the sun before he noticed her. With his case on the ground between his feet, he waited for them to approach him. Though she wasn’t late, she had to swallow the urge to apologise.
“Hello, Maria.” He folded her in a bear hug, almost lifting her off her feet. Before she would have taken it for affection, now she detected the underlying aggression. He was showing how much stronger he was than she. He turned and picked up the child, planting a kiss on his forehead. The little boy squirmed as he tried to get out of the grip and ran to stand behind his mother, grabbing onto her leg.
“Still a little mummy’s boy, I see,” he smirked. “You have something for me?”
She nodded as she took the flat brown-paper parcel out of her bag. She wondered what it contained. It was obviously something that they could not trust to the postal or courier service. When she had told Erik that she would not be coming to Stockholm again for a while and that she wanted to resign, he had told her that there was something that he needed her to do before she left. “Deliver this parcel to Marcus and we’ll be even.” Marcus was one of the reasons she was leaving but she suspected that Erik would not release her from her contract so easily if she said no.
“Coffee?” Marcus asked, gesturing to the café in the middle of the square. He seemed to relax now that the parcel was in his briefcase. He started walking without waiting for her to answer. She found herself following in spite of her intention to keep the meeting as brief as possible. He ordered an espresso for himself and a cappuccino for her as they walked in and then elbowed his way to an empty table near the window.
“You’re looking well. When did you arrive?”
“Thank you. Yesterday at 9. How have you been since the accident?”
She noticed that he was still squinting. He was also wearing his hair longer than the usual brush cut he favoured. There had been talk about a trip to Syria last year…a car bomb, being airlifted out. He had denied it. Said it was a skiing accident, something about going off-piste and hitting his head. She was more inclined to believe the bomb-in-Syria story. She knew that he was an excellent skier.
The coffees arrived. He leaned across the table to ruffle the boy’s hair and knocked her cup over into her lap. “Damn!” She jumped up pushing the chair over as the hot liquid seeped through her skirt.
“I’m so sorry. Here let me help.” He offered his napkin.
“It’s all right. The bathroom’s around the corner. I won’t be a moment.”
Holding her skirt away from her body, she pushed open the heavy door with her shoulder. That’s when she realized that she had left the boy with Marcus. Before she saw the empty table she knew. She grabbed onto the bar as her legs gave way.
This example of Flash Fiction was published in The New Contrast Volume 41, Number 4. 2013. Flash, or sudden, fiction has an upper word limit of 1000 words, that still offers character and plot development.
On a trip for her 20th wedding anniversary, Nadia Kamies has more fun than you can shake a stick at.
We are walking behind three lions, one male and two females. We are quiet and not making any sudden moves. Actually, I am trying to not even breathe. “Hold onto the tail, if you want,” says one of the guides. “Are you serious?” I ask. “Yes, he won’t mind,” he says. I have a feel of the rough, prickly tail but then pass it to my son, who is much keener. I keep a watchful eye, though I am not sure what I would, or could, do if things got nasty. It seems like we are in a bizarre dream. Whose idea was this again?
We are following a hot, dusty path, each of us holding a stick. There are six of us – my husband and me plus two teenagers, our son and a cousin, and a young couple we have just met at the lodge. It’s a strong stick, cleaned up from one of the trees in the area, but still a stick. The guide handed them over, saying: “If the lion looks at you, just hold the stick in front of his face.”
The walk has been organised through Mukuni Big Five Safaris, which runs a conservation and breeding centre for the Zambia National Parks. They also do elephant-back safaris and cheetah interaction.
When the lions stop, we stop. When they decide it is time to rest under a tree, we do too. But this is our opportunity to come closer and take pictures. The guides do seem in control but there are precautions to be observed – no sudden movements or loud noises; if the lion gets up, move away; if he looks at you, shove your stick forward. They are still wild animals, after all.
As if this was not enough adrenaline, the previous day we had jumped into the Devil’s Pool on the edge of the Victoria Falls. We had swum across the Zambezi, zigzagging behind the guide, to avoid being swept away by the current. We had left our clothes behind on the riverbank and handed our cameras to the guide, who carried them high above his head in a waterproof bag.
The guide was very reassuring. “As long as you can swim well, you’ll be fine,” he said. “I am sure there is a good reason for that name, though,” I thought .
We clambered over some rocks to get to the pool and were given the choice of sliding down into it or taking a jump. It was our 20th wedding anniversary, and it seemed something momentous was required. So I jumped! The guide was ready with our cameras to record the moment. My son had soared into the air and managed to hover there long enough for a perfect photo. My husband and I, being somewhat less adept at soaring, made it into the bottom right-hand corner of our shots.
After almost half a century of living south of Victoria Falls, I had finally made it there – and it did not disappoint. Even though we were there at the beginning of the rainy season (December) and the falls were not full, they were awe-inspiring. We took a cruise down the Zambezi, a helicopter flip over the falls, as well as a trip to the Zimbabwe side, for an even more spectacular view.
It being a special occasion, we stayed at the Royal Livingstone, which is as good as it gets – in full view of “the smoke that thunders”. Every time we looked out our window, some species of wildlife just happened to be wandering by – zebra, giraffe and monkeys.
Besides the encounter with the lions, we went for elephant rides (rather uncomfortable); played with lion and cheetah cubs; and my husband took the kids quad-biking and to the crocodile park. In four days we managed to pack in a lot of travel – and there was still much more that my son would have liked to do. Like the slide across the falls, which I think can wait until next time. Perhaps when he is old enough to go on his own and I don’t have to witness it.
This was published as Lions and Devils on Times Live and in the Sunday Times Travel supplement.
MY daughter has wrapped a scarf around her head as if to hold her brains together. She is writing an essay for the Politics course she is taking this year, her first year at university.
“Help me,” she says. “I have too many words.”
I glance down to the bottom of the screen – 780 words. “How long is this supposed to be?”
“Three hundred words,” she replies, winding the scarf more tightly. “Can you take some of the words away?” This is nothing new; the day before it was an Economics essay.
I don’t have a clue what she is writing about. This is a far cry from helping her with a school essay. She has always waffled on and on. She seems to think that I can wave a wand and, “Voila!” Half the words march off into cyberspace.
Being the daughter of a school teacher, I learned to cross my t’s and dot my i’s at an early age. Lynne Truss has me in raptures of delight. So when my daughter makes her appeal, my fingers curl over the keyboard, ready to make magic. It’s good practice for being an editor, but it’s a writer that I want to be.
Writing is a talent like music or dancing and, like I keep telling my son, if he doesn’t practise his music, he’s never going to be any good. So I have to practice my writing, and prepare for my moment on the stage.
I have always enjoyed languages although I didn’t study them beyond high school. When I felt that I needed to hone my skills, the Magazine Journalism Course provided the polish. I have learned how to pitch the query letter, how to sell myself without sounding desperate and how to be patient and wait for the busy editor to get back to me. “Wait six weeks and then make a polite enquiry,” they say and I count the days as six weeks plus six weeks goes by and nothing happens. And then I do it all over again and hope that this time my attention-grabbing introduction will do just that.
And then one day it did. We had been on an adventure to Victoria Falls for our twentieth wedding anniversary. Feeling the need to mark the occasion, I plucked up the courage and not only jumped into a pool on the edge of the Falls, but also literally grabbed the cat by the tail and went for a wildlife walk. “Walking with lions” – the story I penned about this experience – seemed just right for the Readers’ Africa competition of the local Sunday newspaper.
I sent it off, expecting little (Surely lots of people enter this competition?) and tried to forget about it. Then the phone call came. “We like your story. Can you send us a picture to go with it?” A little glow settled all over me – somebody liked what I wrote. “We’ll publish it in three weeks time.”
I read the piece again. Perhaps I should have said more about the lions…or the Falls or… Relax. He said that they would publish it. What if someone else sends in something better? He didn’t give me any guarantees. He could change his mind. And on and on the doubts went. I didn’t dare tell anyone unless this would jinx it somehow.
When I couldn’t keep it to myself any longer, I told my daughter. I waited. What if no one reads it because they don’t read the Travel section? So I told one or two other people. Three long weeks later the Sunday newspapers arrived. And there it was, just like he said it would be. My story. My name. My photograph. I sat down to read it even though I knew every word by heart.
“Hey guys, come and take a look!” I rallied the family. “I’m a writer now: my name is in print. Other people will read it. Oh, my gosh! Other people are going to read it. What will they think?”
That piece was my first bit of paid writing. Maybe that makes me a proper writer now. I haven’t spent the money yet. I need to buy something that in a few years’ time I will hold up and say, “Look what I bought with my first earnings as a writer.”
Afterwards my husband said, “You should just write.” The success has given me a licence. What did you do today? I wrote. I joined a writers’ support group. We are all busy with a project, a little apologetic about our aspirations. I can’t believe how critical everyone is of what they have written. Most of it sounds almost ready for publication to my ears. But, you need a thick skin in this writing business.
I know how many publishers rejected Jeffrey Archer’s first book (14). I have read Stephen King’s book On Writing and followed Julia Cameron on a journey to unlock my creativity. If another person tells me about JK Rowling’s difficult start (and look at her now) I am going to scream. I get it, writing is not for sissies! I started writing a blog to practise putting a little bit out there, to build up tolerance. A few people read it. Sometimes they even leave a comment.
I have learned to switch off the editorial in my head. I bash away at the keyboard, ignore the squiggly red and green lines flashing warnings, and control the urge to justify the margins or change the font. And then I let it sit. Later I go back and let the editor loose. I don’t mind pressing the delete button on a whole paragraph – rather something to correct or chuck out than to stare at the blank page. And then it slowly takes shape into something that I am reasonably proud of. Well, until I show it to someone. I watch their faces trying to guess what they are thinking. Why do I open myself up like this? What was I thinking?
But here I am, doing it all over again.
This piece won the Writers’ College June 2012 My Writing Journey Competition. See here.