TO – Toronto

TO – Toronto. I am on my way. Fittingly enough, there is a rainbow beyond the runway, a multi-hued ribbon of colour in the pinkish-grey highveld sky. The Swiss ‘plane is parked just below the window of the Business Lounge; in the morning we will come in over the Swiss Alps to land in Zurich. And then onwards to Toronto.

The hardest part is leaving my children, my mother, my family, and there is much that I may want to say, as the days and weeks and months pass by – but not today. Not now.

Now is about looking forward. The next step, the next adventure. And it is about Rob, and Canada.


An Evening in Philipolis

My mother always spoke disparagingly of Philipolis. The fact that I was almost born there was presented as an aggravating, not a mitigating factor.

The story, in essence, is as follows. Fifty eight years ago my father rolled the car just outside the little town, and he and my mother spent a cold and lonely winter’s night upside-down under a bridge, close to a running stream. My mother was very pregnant with me, and because of the shock, and the drama of the moment, there was every fear that I would be startled out of my comfortable slumber, and choose that moment to make my way out into the world, to see what on earth was going on.

Fortunately I didn’t, and was born properly, on 2 August, in Cape Town, in a nursing home I believe. A Sunday’s Child, what is more.

So perhaps in its quirky way, and notwithstanding my mother’s hostility, the little town of Philipolis was smiling on us all, and sending us on our way with the universe’s caution and blessing, and not its curse.

So it was that all these years later, Rob and I spent Friday night in Philipolis, on our way back up to Johannesburg en route to Canada, and were intrigued and happily surprised.

On the advice of our host at Die Groenhuis, the B&B where we had booked in for the night, we phoned ahead and arranged to go for dinner at Oom Japie se Huis, a turn-of-the-last century house become second-hand bookshop, pub and restaurant. Philipolis, we learned on our way back into town – we passed the museum with his image and name on the outside wall – was the birthplace of Sir Lourens van der Post, the writer, philosopher, sage and friend, so one is told, of Prince Charles. Oom Japie se Huis, however, turned out to be run, not by Oom Japie, but by a silver-haired, silver-tongued, genteel English gentleman, who ushered us into the bar and introduced us to everyone there – a local sheep farmer and his wife, a man who was talking about bird-watching to a visiting friend, a couple from Pretoria. Before coming in I had asked Richard, the proprietor, if he would mind very much if we brought our own bottle of wine to have at dinner; we would be happy to pay corkage. It was a bottle from the Cloof Estate, bought on our way back to Cape Town at the end of our stay in Paternoster.

‘No need for that,’ Richard double-barrelled surname said, ‘you can let me taste the wine instead!’ We said we would like a table outside, on the covered stoep fronting the street, if that was convenient, and as we passed indoors he placed our bottle on a table – the stoep was deserted – and went ahead to show the way.

Rob and I looked at each other, in some alarm. ‘Oh no,’ Richard said airily, turning when he realised we had fallen behind. ‘No-one will take it.’ And no-one did.

How long had he lived in Philipolis, and what had brought him here? ‘Seven years,’ he answered, and went on to explain that this was the first town to have been established across the Orange River, in 1822, by the early settlers; it had started out as a mission station. The following morning, as we were lying in bed, the other shoe dropped – the town must be named after Dr John Philip, the historical figure from the London Missionary Society, whose establishment of mission stations for ‘the natives’ was so loathed and resented by the Dutch farmers who would spend much of the nineteenth century trekking inland to get away from the pernicious native-loving British.

The source of Rob’s amusement, however, was Richard’s wife, whose name I forget – a rouged and obviously once-attractive woman, with elaborate golden hair, who was overheard saying, in tones of despair, ‘there is simply no way we can cope! this is too much!’

Two additional guests had walked in off the street, without a reservation, and eight guests for dinner, all at the same time, was beyond her ken.

We sat out on the porch, at a table which we had offered to share with the Pretoria couple, much to the slightly flustered Richard’s relief. The tomato soup was excellent; the springbok potjie was passable, and the preserved fruits with ice-cream were homely and quite good. I don’t think a single car passed by us in the quiet main street, while we were eating and talking.

A Shower with a View

Through the curved perspex doors of the shower, past the stone chimney of the outdoor braai-place, you can see as you sluice yourself down and soap yourself up a finger of aquamarine sea, the bright white teeth of the breaking waves, and the natural sea-wall of white-backed boulders reaching well out into the limitless Atlantic. The morning has dawned sunny and mild here in Paternoster, the little fishing village on the West Coast of the country, about two hours’ drive from Cape Town and an eternity from anywhere, after a gull-grey evening and a mistiness of salt and wind that hung like haze over miles and miles of empty beach.

The wind this morning is barely stirring, though likely it will pick up later. And later we will cross the few metres of grey-green fynbos that separates our beachfront cottage from the sand, and walk along the tidal flats to the incoming boats, and purchase, hopefully, a clutch of crayfish for our dinner, and some, perhaps, to take home to my mother in Cape Town.

We have cancelled our planned trip up to Wupperthal, in the Cederberg, and booked a third night here, by the sea, so that we can return to town on Thursday, before heading back north again, up the length of the N1, to Johannesburg. We are hoping – fingers crossed – to have our claim approved this morning, for Rob’s lost ring, in which case our jeweller has promised to have a new ring ready, before we leave. It will be a close-run thing, and Rob is on tenterhooks.

Meanwhile we have heard from one of our Johannesburg neighbours that the two houses on either side of us, at Msasa, were burgled on Saturday. It’s not hard to imagine that if we had still been there, we would have been hit, too.

Listening to the sea, the constant susurration that fills every crevice and occupies the pale blue sky and the powdery beach, watching the seagulls dive and cry around the incoming boats, it is time to head down to the water’s edge to see what they have caught.

Johannesburg seems far away. Toronto is still to come. Right now, this is the right place for us to be.

Leaving Jo’burg

After two days on the road, and two nights and a day in the stone-dry, harsh tranquility of the isolated little village of Nieu Bethesda (except that, on the second night, torrential rain, lightning, lashed the mountain tops and swept across the monochromatic landscape) we have arrived in Cape Town. Our comfortable Johannesburg home, at Number 3 Msasa, all packed up; all gone.

Gone too is Rob’s wedding ring.

Made especially for us, for the occasion, and based on a design we had seen at ANPA Jewellers in Cape Town, it had two cognac-coloured diamonds set in rose gold, in a white gold band – two peas in a pod, we liked to say, indulgently. Rob had taken it off, whilst packing, and placed it carefully in a velvet pouch with her other rings in the bedroom cupboard. On Sunday, when the movers came, one of them – a light-fingered thief, a soulless petty criminal, pocketed it.

We only found out on Tuesday morning, as we were driving away from Eve and Shaun’s, where we had spent the Sunday and Monday nights, after closing up our house and handing over the keys. Rob said suddenly, ‘well, I suppose I should put on my wedding ring again,’ and opened up her purse, and took out the little black pouch, and poured the rings into her hand. I turned to look at her, aware of a sudden shocked silence.

We have turned the car and our luggage upside down and inside out. There is no doubt that the ring is gone, and no doubt as to when – and how – it must have happened.

After a while, you swallow your anger, you bury the mental images of gleeful fingers pawing over the sparkly stones, you don’t even think of the miserable R500 the thief may have got for the ill-gotten, misbegotten spoils – and you move on. After all, as I said to Rob, later that first evening, after the discovery, we weren’t exactly robbed at knife-point, we weren’t mugged, we weren’t attacked, it was a non-violent crime. We weren’t even aware of it when it happened. We are luckier than some.

So good bye, Johannesburg.

This morning, in a blustery bright Cape Town, we are off to see our insurance company, and then to an appointment with the jewellers at ANPA. Getting a new ring made in under two weeks, and delivered to us in Johannesburg before we fly out to Toronto, will be a tall order. But we’ll try.

How to move a dishwasher

A woman from Soweto comes on Sunday to pick up the dishwasher. Rob has done a nice little trade, putting household things up for sale, sending a flyer around our townhouse complex, listing items on Gumtree. The proceeds will go into our ‘funny money’ stash, to be used on our holiday. Elizabeth, the Soweto lady, has called several times, and now she is here, at the gate, with her husband, to collect. She is well-groomed, good looking, charming. A big smile. A little girl, grinning, clambers out of the back of her father’s car and scampers around gleefully. The father, or husband, in jeans and a Cosatu teeshirt, shakes hands formally and drives up to our garage. He reverses and turns and parks facing the entrance. The car – an old Ford Telstar – creaks and squeaks like a pair of old bedsprings, and I notice that the rear bumper is hanging off, the bodywork is full of dents and scratches, the tyres are worn.

We go inside to inspect the dishwasher. They will take it, they immediately decide. My misgiving turns to concern. Where on earth do they think they are going to put it? No matter, the husband and I pick up the dishwasher and take it outside, down the few steps and out into the driveway. We set it down, and assess the situation. It is immediately apparent the dishwasher will go neither in the boot nor in the rear seat. ‘Where are you going to put it?’ I ask. ‘Don’t you know anyone who has a bakkie?’ ‘It is too far,’ the husband answers. He opens the front passenger-side door. ‘It will go here.’

I shake my head. Still, we pick up the dishwasher, and the husband reverses in, clambering over the seat and pulling the machine in after him. We push and heave and alter the angle of approach, but it won’t go. Out it comes, and we all stand around, scratching our heads. ‘I will take out the seat,’ the husband explains. He goes round to the boot and returns with a spanner. Wrong size. He comes back with another. He hunkers down in the rear of the car, grunting and sweating, undoing the bolts. Then he comes round to the front, and loosens another. One bolt turns, the nut won’t come loose. He stares, mutters something, attacks it again. No luck. ‘I need a hammer,’ he says.

At this point his wife intervenes. ‘How are you going to fix it,’ she asks, ‘later?’ He dismisses this comment airily, but hesitates. He is stumped. We all wait. I can’t see how this is ever going to work. But the husband climbs back into the car, into the driver’s seat, and calls for us to lift the dishwasher and angle it towards him, this time on its side. We comply, and this time we gain a little ground. A few more jiggles and scrapes, the sharp edges of the machine grating against the plastic dashboard and the roof-lining, the weight and pressure of it pushing down on the reclining, half-loosened passenger seat, and after a few minutes, surprisingly, the thing is in. Only the driver cannot manoeuvre the gear lever. More jostling, pushing, more creaking and scraping, and finally it is settled.

Some money changes hands, the woman smiles, the husband shakes hands with that double-clasp, the little girls gives a toothy grin, and that is that. They are off.

So that, I thought, as I turned back, alone, to the echoing house, is how you move a dishwasher.

Most of our boxes, on Saturday, were moved into storage. Eve, Shaun and Kathy came round and helped. Later on Sunday, Eve and Shaun came by again, and we loaded up stuff for Kathy’s house – a bookshelf, the firepit, the huge bedroom mirror. Our cookery books, and our vast supply of herbs, spices, vinegars, along with the remaining pastas, risotto rices, tins of chickpeas and beans, have all been divvied up. After a long, warm, funny, affectionate braai at Kathy’s charming little home, with Eve and Rob helping out in the kitchen and Shaun slaving away over the fire, Rob and I came home again, as it was growing cooler and the light was beginning to fade.

Now we could feel, for the first time, how empty the house is. The bare walls are cold and unfriendly, the spaces echo as we move about, talking, packing, preparing. We are all but on our way, now. You can feel it.

Packing up our world

Summer colds – raw throats, congestion – are dogging us both. We are both busy – Rob is counting the days at Soweto TV, and after completing one part of my current assignment for the Engineering Council, I must now focus on completing the other. It is hard to imagine that two weeks from now we will be packing up our little world, and putting it away for ever. Our first home, our first year together as a married couple – not Rob’s house, in Toronto, not mine, in Emmarentia, but ours, chosen and established together. I realised last night, for the first time, that I will be sad to leave it.

Back to School

The former head boy of my former high school, Camps Bay High, has decided to organise a 40th anniversary reunion for the matric class of ’71. Rob and I shan’t be there – it is taking place the day we pack up house – but we have all been asked to send through some photos and a short bio, so here is mine – written up like a good deputy head boy, which I was. I thought I might share it:

‘I visit Cape Town several times a year, and whenever I have time there is a route I follow, round the mountain from the City centre, past the old mill and the university, Kirstenbosch and Constantia Nek, down into Hout Bay and up again, past Llandudno tucked away below the road, and twisting my way back down toward the sea until, finally, I round a corner and there beyond the Oudekraal boulders is the Sphinx-like outline of Lions Head, and the shortened perspectives of Bakoven and Camps Bay, awash in a necklace of waves and foam.

The further I go from home the closer it seems, the more it is part of me, and I part of it. This is not some white South African version of ‘American Graffiti’ or – what was that movie, kids coming of age, endless summer nights, love and disappointment in the sand dunes? – in fact, I hardly ever think of school days, and when I do it is generally with a sense of how alien and remote it all is, how different I was – how different we all were, I suppose.

I don’t have to think of it – of school, I mean. The fact is, much of it has probably been so deeply absorbed, instilled, that it is part of me even when – especially when – I am not thinking of it. The lessons (understood only afterwards) about how not to be, as a human being; the conceptual and analytic discipline of analysing a sentence; the utter failure at maths and Latin; the difference that a teacher can make; the friends who – long gone from my life – marked and changed me when I was young and my shell was still forming.

I ended up, much to my surprise, teaching also – after a degree in English at UCT and English Honours at the University of Natal in Pietermaritzburg (there was a girl involved, why else would I go there?) I was all set, so I thought, for literature at Oxbridge, or something like that, but by then it was 1976, and suddenly literature as a career seemed bizarrely unhelpful – you see how naïve and simple-minded I was – and the South African army distinctly alarming  and indefensible (if you’ll pardon the pun). So I found my way to the Transkei, became a teacher, evaded the military and if I did not exactly teach, hopefully did not do too much damage to quite a few young South Africans, blacker than I was but not much younger. I taught English at St Johns College in Umtata, became a very young deputy principal there, and at 27 or so was principal of Ngangelizwe Senior Secondary School in the Umtata township (the day I was appointed to the post was the day Diana married Prince Charmless).

I married, had three beautiful children, moved after eight years to Johannesburg where I helped set up Khanya College; moved back to Cape Town; worked on the National Education Policy Investigation; was given a Hubert H. Humphrey Fellowship to the Pennsylvania State University in the US; was – improbably – a visiting professor for six weeks at New York University – and came back home to a newly liberated South Africa, to take up a research post at the Education Policy Unit at UWC and work on the Higher Education Commission and the National Committee on Further Education. Heady days! In 1997 I joined the National Business Initiative in Johannesburg as education director, setting up a five year initiative to try to build the capacity of the new further education and training colleges sector, and helping to conceptualise and launch the Joint Initiative on Priority Skills Acquisition, within the Mbeki Presidency.

And then, last year, after a long and bitter divorce, I (very happily – perhaps, late in life, I have learned something) remarried; I left the NBI and set out my stall as an independent consultant – and a couple of weeks ago, after more than a year of writing, I finally completed, all 58,000 words, the first draft of a novel.

In December, my Canadian wife, Rob(erta) Pazdro and I will be moving to Toronto, and over the next few years we will be exploring the possibilities of a two-country life. My eldest daughter, Kathy, has a Masters in neuropsychology, is newly married, productively employed and very happy; my son Jonathan has been living and working in London for five years and has just started a Masters in development management at Manchester University; and my youngest, Eve, after completing an M.Sc (where she got the maths and science from, I don’t know) is going hiking in Nepal with her boyfriend next month. I, meanwhile, am learning to change my priorities: much as the chattering monkey on my shoulder will likely continue sounding the alarm about employment and income, the task of becoming a writer seems – so long postponed – finally more interesting.’

To the Ale House

Out in the foothills of the Magaliesberg, an hour’s drive from Johannesburg, there is a rustic bush-pub, The Ale House – the kind of rural watering hole one imagines one might have found in farming country, in Anglo-Boer War days, or in the Australian outback, or in an Irish backwoods. Chickens and geese roam freely, a large turkey waits with no expectation of Christmas, and mine host hovers amiably, dispensing country humour and pints of artisanal beer, which he brews himself.

On Sunday we were there, under the trees, with Eve and Shaun, Kathy and Gareth – another notch on the stick of memory, on which we find ourselves recording our long (and temporary/provisional) farewell to this land I love, despite my deep misgivings: Kliptown on Saturday, our road trip coming up a few busy weeks from now – but on Sunday, to be sure, and in much the spirit of Virginia Woolf’s novel (what I recall of it, that is – a mood, an atmosphere, rather than a story) To the Alehouse it was.


Picture this

Dusk, filling in the deep shadows between the crowded Kliptown shacks, south of Johannesburg and Soweto, forty-five minutes’ drive away from affluent Hyde Park, where we live, and which might as well be a distant planet to the north of us. The Landy picks its way gingerly along a narrow, rutted track, Rob and I feeling conspicuous, out of place, uneasy. Children ignore us, lounging youths eye us stonily. We stop and ask the way. ‘Excuse me. Dumelang. We are looking for the open-air movie.’ A gesture directs us down an uneven side-path, the shacks hemming us in, and then we are up against a wall, a young man waving us forward in the headlights until he gestures to us to stop. ‘Welcome,’ he says, with a big smile as we climb warily out of the car. ‘Thank you for coming.’

In an open enclosure, behind the vibracrete walls, two hundred or more children, excited faces turned upward toward the threatening sky and the big white screen, hoisted like a sail above a modest building, lean forward on their plastic chairs, laughing and shouting. It is the monthly open-air cinema, run by Delphine de Blic, a French woman who during daytime runs a film school for Kliptown youth: their short film, ‘Eat my Dust’ is a small masterpiece of understated, choreographed comedy – showing, in the briefest of gestures and expressions, a concentration of form that takes the everyday out of itself and towards something different and new.

For the next few hours we sit amongst the restless, excitable audience, watching the shadowy images flit across the screen, looming into the night sky, the sound booming out over the roofs of the shacks, the shadowy figures watching from the sidelines, entering and leaving, children’s names called out – ‘Sipho! Tshepo!’ and Sipho or Tshepo slip out, responding to a mother’s or a sister’s call.

There is some gloom amidst all the happiness when we join up with Delphine and her partner after the movie. The crowd has vanished, like magic, and the crew is packing up. A woman has been raped, by someone in the community; someone known to them. The man has been arrested; the community is tense. ‘It happens all the time,’ Sandra says.

We follow Sandra and Delphine down the darkened alley, out into the muddy lane, over the railway bridge and through the outskirts of Soweto, to the Golden Highway. Half an hour later we are in their architect-designed home, in Melville, with a glass of wine in hand and dinner in the oven.