“People usually assume that being the youngest amongst my siblings I revelled in the indulgence normally afforded children in such positions. Truth is I often felt compromised by my position in the pecking order.
My brothers were, for most of my childhood, taller and stronger than I was. With five and three years respectively on me, they could usually be relied upon to be more intelligent and sharp-witted. I remember devising a logic, as a five or six year old perhaps, that no known world would ever corroborate. I must have had a moment of being overwhelmed by the sheer bad luck of it all. The thought that I was doomed to forever be the youngest, too heavy to bear. So I reasoned that surely everyone gets a chance to be the oldest and I vowed to have a field day when my turn came.
Needless to say this never came to pass. I’m thirty-five years old and my two brothers have remained, respectively, five and three years older than me. But maybe it’s this experience of age, as something to be coveted, this relationship to getting older as something to be cherished, that explains my current disappointment.”
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I remember my first friend. She had clay-brown skin and straw-coloured hair coaxed into chunky plaits. Shalewa wore ribbons and her hands were clammy when we touched. Her eyes swimmy. I’m convinced she liked a white dress with grey horizontal stripes (or maybe they were vertical) and a thin red sash and, for whatever reason, many of my memories have her with her hands on her hips and her face in a smile. Playgroup but I don’t remember the group, I remember Shalewa. And the name remains one of my favourite. If I ever see fit to bear a child I’d be prepared to arm-wrestle whoever on the merits of this name.
I haven’t lost many friends. And none of those losses were to death. I admit this is a strange and moribund thing to notice (that none of your friends are dead yet) but, yes, I notice it. Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy about what I notice but I know I can’t quite shake the weirdness of noticing such things; it’s normal to be thankful that the people you care about are still alive but it’s a bit freaky to be checking in the first place. Friends of friends have died. And once or twice removed friends (a kind of hey-hey friendship but nothing more) have died. A friend’s cousin died in a car accident on De Waal Drive. Resisting the appeal of the Grand-Prix like curves, Table Mountain egging me on and the smooth stretches, when I drive De Waal I slow down: may his death not be a waste to those of us he left living. A young boy in school took his own life, a little bird of a boy, I noticed when I saw his photograph in the school magazine commemorating him, publishing his short and cryptic (could it have been anything else?) poem.
Of course people I’ve loved very dearly, people in my family, have passed on but that’s a different kind of loss. None of my friends have died, and I’m not dead either. Not yet anyway.
It’s a whole other scenario, though, when you lose a friend who remains living. I don’t mean that you’ve lost touch or you live far apart and so struggle to maintain the friendship and that sort of thing. I mean it really is as if you’re dead to one another (even if you live on the same street) except you are both still breathing. There are certain things you get taught. Depending on where you live and perhaps on your various abilities, you get taught some way of communicating, maybe even several. This is important in life, that you be able to interact with others, express yourself, listen. You get numbers and letters. Things are more complex the older you become. There’s a whole world out there, stuff people did (mostly shitty stuff) and there’s apparently Geography. At some point the school takes pity on you and you’re shown a diagram of the female and male human body, with labels and scientific words you worry you might misspell if quizzed. It’s your own body with words which, if asked, you’d never have assigned to it. Things continue to get more complicated. You’re taught about the pursuit of beauty, the pursuit of knowledge, the pursuit of wealth, the pursuit of spiritual wealth.
Somewhere the world cracks open. After my first kiss I walked the streets rubbing my eyes. Everyone looked different.
Somewhere the world turns in on itself. The person (the one to whom all your love was determined to flow till death bade otherwise) is gone. Alive somewhere, just not with you. Of all the things the most intelligent of intelligent people took the trouble to think it was important we learn, no one considered explaining about love. Sure we grazed against it in English Setwork but that is like relying on a pornographic magazine to teach you about making the beast with two backs. It is like watching a baker and thinking that sufficient to becoming one. Why would someone planning my education omit a lesson on what to do with heartache; how to know, before it’s too late, whether you’re compatible with another; how to tell the difference between love and abuse because as certain as you think you might be about it, those two masquerade each other in a turbulent and tragic dance. Maybe the makers of education rely on the guardians of the child, the parents, except they were taught the same things, they too entered adulthood unprepared and there was no global memorandum that went out saying: Okay people, we didn’t teach this in school but now going forward as you start having babies make sure you cover this stuff, here’s a working syllabus, edition 2 out soon. None of that happened. I simply grew up and bumbled along like everyone else, like all of you, and now I’m 34. My mother was 33 when she gave birth to me, her third child. I figure I have a loving heart, I have good intentions, I am suitably kind and self-aware; my brothers as well and many many people I know. But so what? When it comes to interacting as hearts so much else seems required. So much more self-awareness, so much maturity. Opt for sex buddies, simpler than navigating intimacy. Except, my parents made it seem easy, were they just lucky? The right pattern in the sky, the right temperaments colliding. And there are countless stories of those that don’t get it right, are they just the unlucky? I don’t know. Some rely on their religion but whose version of which faith? It’s “life lessons” others say, you just have to sweat it out on the arena, no amount of preparation could make a real dent with stuff like this. It’s not, after all, like swatting for an Algebra test, it’s life, it’s the big stuff: love, compassion, generosity. And yet, a quick glance at statistics tells that the cost of learning on the job is high. I live in the world and violence is dripping from our fingertips, sweating the pavements, steaming the skies. And then tomorrow we go to school and learn the names of all the seas, the directions of the winds, the names of the planets. But no one has been charged to sit down for a double period and wonder about how to really love.
“I was listening to the radio and a man called in. He was commenting on the horrific (I don’t have words anymore to describe these things) incidence of a young woman gang-raped by 38 men. He was objecting to calling these rapists ‘men’. He said it made him, as a man, embarrassed and we should find another word for them.
Embarrassed is a start, I suppose. A kind of ‘Dudes you’re bringing the side down’. But actually his suggestion is problematic. His attention is on his own credibility as a man versus on the loud rampant prevalence of sexual violence and misogyny the world over, and how to eradicate it. He calls in to a radio show to charge the station with a different way of referring to men who rape versus charging himself with the task of hunting down these men (he might be surprised he doesn’t have to go very far to find them) and dealing with his “side”. Underneath his comment, he seemed to be saying ‘As long as I’m not associated with this we can proceed’.
Perhaps I’m being unfair, I was driving and had not the time, in that moment, to call in and begin the debate. I didn’t have the chance to engage with him and completely understand where he was coming from. And the nature of radio is that he spoke for a few short minutes and then was gone. But he raised something that I found hard to ignore.”
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ShortStoryDayAfrica is inviting us to think back on what were the key moments that turned you/me/us into readers and writers. Alex Smith is curating this year’s blog roll, and has compiled four questions to uncover the literary gems that sparked us all those years ago.
1 – What is your earliest memory of books and reading?
Lying in bed – I must have been seven or eight – with my mother reading to my brothers and I. She was great. She made accents and read lines like: “Yes the Rum Tum Tugger is a Curious Cat – And there isn’t any call for me to shout it: For he will do. As he do do. And there’s no doing anything about it!” (T.S. Eliot)
2 – As a small child, what book/s were your favourite?
There were many – too many to really name. ‘Old Possum’s…’ was special because my mother loved it so much and did such a brilliant job of making the poems come alive for us. I also remember ‘Haroun and the Sea of Stories’ by Salman Rushdie and and and…
3 – Where did you grow up? Do you have a particular memory of a library, bookshop or other place of books in your hometown?
I grew up in Ile-Ife on the residential campus of the Obafemi Awolowo University where my parents worked. I was lucky enough to grow up in a house that was a place of books. Books seemed as necessary to home as walls were.
4 – As an adult, in the role of parent or caregiver, what has been your experience of reading with children?
I love getting a chance to read to my nephews. I enjoy the way no matter how many times you’ve read the story they still want you to read it again, do the voices; it’s all the same old jokes but it’s still funny. Because being read to was such a big part of my own childhood reading to young children always feels special, sacred even.
I could dance. I just couldn’t do it with anyone else. My grandparents visited us in Cape Town, they flew many hours from Barbados. One evening slow music was on the record player and my Grandfather was listening. Something gripped him, not the gout, but some urge to move. And Granddaddy could move. He was a small man, soft grey hair, parted handsomely down the middle. Black-rimmed glasses, a sharp nose and a naughty-boy smile. He liked to giggle. Even then (I was eighteen, maybe nineteen) I was a head taller than my grandfather. He took a hold of me and tried to get me to glide along with him, on the patterned carpet in our living room. I have rhythm it’s just… maybe the proximity to another body, or my mind gets muddled, my concern for not being too manly, for relaxing, for letting him lead. I was always taller than all the girls and most of the boys. Heck I was the substitute boy in PT when someone was required to simulate the masculine. I went to my matric dance with my two best friends. A week before the dance a guy did in fact ask me out. I told him no. I was seventeen, happily subsisting on a diet of silent crushes. Like I said I went to my matric dance with my two best friends.
Then my Aunt got married. And I was a bridesmaid. I was required to dance with my partner. A sweet enough Guyanese boy, but I also saw him cackling, with an onlooker during the dress-rehearsal, about how soft my hands were. Liar. Anyway. Wedding over and party on he approached me to dance with him. He wasn’t much shorter than me but the heels didn’t help. He looked genuinely enchanted which was encouraging for a shy gal like me. He asked that I try not to step on his toes. At one point I think he even counted out the beat for me. It must be a huge credit to my beguiling nature (or his masochistic one) that several songs later he came back for more. By nightfall he declared love, within a week my mother and I flew from Guyana back to Barbados, my love affair unconsummated and all but forgotten.
Perhaps, if my Grandfather could have stuck around longer, I would be a better dance partner. He did stress one thing that solved a decent amount of my troubles. See I love music and I have an ear for it. My piano playing is laughable but still when I really listen I hear all the layers and sometimes they feel palpable enough that if I raised my arms high up and wide apart I believe I could just drift along on a wave of sound. This is why I love to dance. Alone. Well Granddaddy said “listen to the base, the beat. Dance to that.” This was an immense help. But clearly not enough.
Now when I say I love to dance I mean I’m that person who, if the music is right, enters the dance floor and never leaves. Many an office party found my colleagues and bemused bosses walking past me on the dance floor and saying, “You’re still here, aren’t you tired?”. The next day I’m tired, my legs ache, but while the music is playing fatigue is held at bay. The problem is people watching confuse me for being a great dancer. Women and men sidle up and attempt to join me, they come in close proximity, they reach for my hand and all too late realise that we are now in trouble. I get instantly nervous, I’m trying to remember what Granddaddy told me plus I’m looking down at this poor person’s shoes, worried about them on their behalf. I smile apologetically which is confusing only for a few seconds then the person sighs and spends the rest of the song dodging my feet, they are polite when they take their leave and I am embarrassed and relieved. I should wear a t-shirt when I dance, forget skinny jeans and tank tops. The shirt would read: “Don’t do it. Just don’t.”
And yet in my head it’s perfect. Crazy Love is playing, Aaron Neville’s voice straining with all the emotion in the world. The dance floor, wooden, crowded but not uncomfortably so. The man I’m with is tall or short. He has a naughty glimmer and he is somehow arrested by me, he’s stuck; him and his shoes, happily my prisoner. We’re dancing. Wound about each other, parting to do something fanciful and expert, then coming back together. My fantasy even allows for the odd moments when he counts for me, counts out the beat.
Sometimes, trying to write a novel is like interviewing a bunch of suspected criminals. You, the writer, are conducting the interview. The suspects are your characters and they are seldom co-operative. So you sit them down, together and separately, and you ask them questions about what really happened. And you go: was it like this? They scrunch their noses, contradict themselves and each other and leave you confused. But that’s the first draft. Then you take your case to your boss, an editor. Either the editor that lives in your head or some other editor that lives somewhere else. You say to the editor: it went like this. And the editor says are you sure, how about that, how about that? You go back to your suspects, disheartened and disappointed. They giggle at how gullible you were the first time. You sit them down again, separately and together, and you say: was it like this? So you do this a couple of times, each time, hopefully, you feel you’re getting closer and closer to what actually happened. One day several years down the line you storm into the investigating room. This is how it happened, you shout, momentarily certain and triumphant. The suspects have nothing more to say to you, your editor seems, at least for now, satisfied. The birth of a story with none of its parts missing. For now.
We’d been practicing for the end of year school concert. Uncle Fred was the piano, violin and singing teacher of Ile-Ife campus as I remember it. A man with a gentle face, moustache, great hands. He had that secret ingredient all piano teachers need to have which was a combination of saccharine niceness but also the eyes that said “This can go at any time and the monster can come, do you want the monster to come? Well then practice your scales.”
I practiced my scales along with the piece I would be playing at Oduduwa Hall. Which was it, was it the Habanera or maybe it was a more jolly piece – can’t remember now. Lots of excitement and the day finally arrived. We, us performers, were all seated in the front rows of the big hall. Everyone had a slot but no one seemed to know when their slot was. A slot, a time to saunter onto the stage, sit at the piano and wow the crowd, or sit by the microphone and pull tunes out of the fiddle, whatever your thing was, that would be your slot. Except I didn’t seem to have any comprehension of when my slot was. Others may have been better off but it seemed to me like Uncle Fred was the only one who knew the secret order of slots. Basically every few minutes Uncle Fred would turn and stare at someone and then they’d know – this is my slot. A fairly decent system except – as most things – it didn’t take into account bowel movements. You see you didn’t know when you were going to be up you only knew when you were up.
So what if you realised you needed to pee and now you couldn’t ascertain whether you had sufficient time to pee and come back and not have missed the stare from Uncle Fred? I think I debated in my head, Uncle Fred too far away to ask, too busy giving people, whose slots were up, the necessary stare. I must have thought, in my eight-year-old pea brain, that I’d be fine. That I’d manage to give a brilliant (the best actually) rendition of Habanera ever known and then go pee – seemed sensible enough. Except, after dutifully receiving my stare from Uncle Fred, I didn’t saunter onto the stage, I shuffled. After all how do you “hold it in” and saunter at the same time – no one’s figured this out and I certainly wasn’t breaking any new ground on the matter that night at Oduduwa Hall. I sat on the seat and began to play. By the time I’d replayed the first bar three times over my socks were soaked in the distinct-smelling yellow liquid us animals are all familiar with. Breaking all protocol, Uncle Fred, climbed onto the well-lit stage and rescued me. He folded away my piano book, helped me off the seat, took my hand and walked me off the set. The audience went “awwwwww” which is just as well ‘cause without that sound to distract, what they would have heard as I walked was squelch squelch squelch. Needless to say, I’m not very good at playing piano.