My watch said I’d been there for almost three hours already. I was sitting in the pee stinking alley between the flats, Earl’s Court and Sans Souci, where the bergies come to sleep once the street lights go off at night. My gut cramps were doing a weird dance to the steam drifting down from Mrs. Horowitz’s kitchen up in No. 23. On Fridays she goes the whole hog, even bakes her own kitke. It smelled like she was frying up liver and the aroma of simmering onions and chilli was driving me crazy.
I should have grabbed some money out of Mom’s bag before I stormed out of the flat. Slamming the door like that; man, it would have made her even madder than she already was. Thing was; she kept on and on about what a mess I’d left in the kitchen and how I thought money grows on trees and that I was just so full of it and eating her out of house and home. She carried on so, I’ m sure the whole of Observatory could hear her through the open windows.
Kev came walking down from Savva’s Café, long-legged, dipping gait, skateboard under his arm. I came out of the alley as he approached and bummed a smoke off him. Hey Stu, wanna go see who’s down at the canal? I didn’t really like the canal crowd, but sometimes Kev’s older brother would show up in his car and we’d get to go for a spin out to Muizenberg; hang out there and maybe catch a wave. If he was flush with bucks, we’d get some chips and a six-pack and stay until the sun went down.
Sure enough, some ten minutes after we got down to the canal, Goemf pulled up in his Tazz. His name was Gavin, but Kev had told me some story I couldn’t remember, about how he got the nickname when he was little and it just stuck. Nobody in Obz called him anything but Goemf.
Goemf was doing an apprenticeship at Mr. Mac’s garage and was dating a girl called Estelle, who lived with her folks in a larney spot just off Ladies Mile. He was on his way to pick her up and take her to a house party in Bergvliet. Kev wheedled and begged until he agreed to let us go too.
In the car, I started getting restless; Kev had put a Prime Circle cd in the deck and had cranked the volume too loud for the speakers, in the back I could feel the vibrations from the door against my arm. Mom would be laying the table for shabbas now, looking out of the window anxiously, to measure the position of the sun and fret that I wouldn’t be home before sunset. I’d have to ask Goemf if I could use his cell and call her, at least save her sitting and waiting for me to show up, either way I was in for another guilt trip.
Estelle came out to the car and I could see immediately that she was steaming in a bad way. She leaned in the window to kiss Goemf, long and slow, I looked away. I have to bring my sister, my folks are going out and it’s either bring her or stay home with her.
Janine came walking from the house; sulky, sixteen, in short-shorts and a Billabong tee. Kev got out from the front to let Estelle sit there and let Janine scoot over to the middle of the back seat next to me, before getting in and slamming the door. I saw the way he flicked his fringe and grinned and I knew he was going to try to make a move on her.
Goemf and Estelle lit cigarettes and Janine asked me to open the window, the breeze came in and made her hair brush my shoulder. She smelled of oranges, perhaps she’d eaten one just before we arrived. Kev was wisecracking and acting like a real chop, he had a big zit on his chin that he probably didn’t know about and I was embarrassed for him.
The party was being held in the garage of the birthday boy’s parents’ house and the crowd spilled out into the backyard, where someone was braaing boerewors and putting the cooked meat into a huge enamel dish next to a basket of rolls. I made myself a boerrie roll with a squirt of tomato sauce and made my way down to the pool to sit on a bench under a tree. I’d forgotten to ask Goemf for the use of his cell, it was now almost nine and I knew there would be a scene tomorrow; Mom would phone Dad and lay it on him about how selfish I was and how he wasn’t making enough effort to keep me in line.
I heard a soft footfall on the lawn and looked up to see Janine coming towards me. She flopped down on the grass and crossed her legs. They’re smoking zol up there, I don’t want to. Estelle is getting trashed; I wish we could go home now. I knew what she meant, Estelle was always getting drunk and I knew that she would start flirting with someone and Goemf would get pissed off. They’d fight on the way home and take the next two weeks to make up.
Janine raised her knees up and rested her chin on them, looking down as she plucked at blades of grass. In the dim light, I saw the downy hairs on her forearm and felt an urge to run my finger along her collarbone. A moth fluttered near her head and I leaned forward to wave it away, she looked up at me and smiled and I got a weird, tight feeling in my chest. I stood up, Let’s go and see if Goemf is ready to leave, and I leaned down to help her up.
She left her hand in mine as we walked back up to the fire. Goemf and Estelle weren’t there and we found Kev, who clearly had had one beer too many, and made our way through the dancers in the garage and out to the street, where the car was parked.
It was dark out there, but we could make out that they were on the back seat. Kev gave the roof two hard slaps and Goemf came tumbling out of the door, tucking his shirt in and digging in the pocket of his jeans for the keys. Estelle stayed on the back seat, pretending to be asleep. Kev raised his eyebrows at our linked hands, as Janine and I got in beside her.
I was dozy and the rhythmic fall of light from the street poles as we drove sent me into a trancelike state. Janine rested her head on my shoulder and for some reason, out of nowhere, a phrase popped into my head, King Of The Mountain, and I felt a surge of some unknown thing. Joy? Excitement? I don’t know what it was, but I felt as if anything was possible. The smell of summer fires and the warmth of the night, everything simply seemed beautiful to me.
As we neared their road, Janine leaned down and picked up a ballpoint pen off the floor and wrote her phone number on my palm, drawing a little heart under the digits.
Old Samson was snoozing, his grey head resting on the reception desk, when I got back to the flats. I tried to make no noise as I walked to the stairs, but he woke up, clucking his tongue and wagging his gnarled old finger at me. Where you coming from so late, kwedini?
I walked back to the desk and shook hands with him. How’s it been tonight, Sampson?
Ai, ai, ai! Mister Horowitz came home some sheets in the wind and Missus H, ai! She shout him long time!
So; it seemed to have been a normal Friday night at Earl’s court. Mister Horowitz, our neighbour, is a pawnbroker in Salt River. Repeated burglaries at his shop, one of which was an armed robbery where he was gagged and pistol whipped, had left him with a scar on the side of his face and a dependence on Bols Brandy, which he sipped at from a silver hip flask throughout the day. It had not completely wiped out his sense of humour and mischief and I relished Saturday mornings when I worked my little shift for him, dusting and rearranging the goods on his shelves.
Mister H, as everyone calls him, is the bane of Mrs. H’s life. An incorrigible snob, she has never forgiven him his sporadic attendance of shul and his drinking. There was a time when the pawn business was lucrative and she loved to remind people that she had once occupied an entire penthouse in Sea Point and had needed the services of two maids to service the place. She is also a very sharp thorn in my side and rats on me to my mother at every opportunity. Stuart had a lot of boys here this afternoon and my head is aching, I tell you, aching from the noise they made. One of them was a schwarze, even. The corridor reeked of cigarette smoke, oy! Mom would thank her, apologise and say she’d give me a talking to, then she’d close the door and raise her eyes and we would muffle our laughter.
As I reached our door, I made sure to turn the key softly, so as not to let Mrs. H know what time I’d come home. Mom was lying on the couch with the lights off, the flickering blue from the TV screen making patterns on her sleeping face. She was wearing her white toweling dressing gown and her bare feet hung over the arm rest. I moved quietly to the kitchen and opened the fridge to grab the milk bottle; I wasn’t really surprised to hear her voice behind me. Don’t you dare drink from the bottle, get a glass already!
I turned and gave her a hug and mumbled my apology for missing supper, mentioning the party and problems with transport. There was no telephone, Stuart? You let me sit here worrying and picturing ambulances and God knows what else and … Her glance moved to my hand and to Janine’s writing on it; the phone number and the little heart. Her face changed, it was subtle, almost imperceptible; as though she had experienced a moment of great significance. So, Stuart, there’s a girl?
I felt my face heat up and I swooped down to pick up my soccer ball from the floor and twirl it on my finger. Yes, Ma, maybe there’s a girl.
She ruffled my hair and gave me a peck on the cheek. Go to bed now, boychik, your father is fetching you at 11 tomorrow. It’s Andrea’s birthday and he’s booked a table for lunch. I ironed your good jeans.
Andrea is my father’s wife and business partner; they had also invited their third partner in their law firm, Oliver Gqunu and his son Malcolm to lunch. Malcolm’s mom died in a car accident a couple of years ago and he and Oliver have become our extended family, we go on family holidays to Smitswinkelbaai together and I often wondered if it was pure chance that Andrea married Dad instead of Oliver.
I refuse to allow you to call me your stepmother, Stuart. Andrea had said on the day they’d tied the knot in their offices; Oliver was a Justice Of The Peace or whatever you needed to be to marry people. Stepmother is a nasty word and it puts me at a disadvantage from the word go. Conflict is so boring, don’t you think? Let’s just get on with one another right away and not waste time, okay? I’d been nervous of my place in the new domestic arrangement and she took pains to allow me ample time alone with Dad, discreetly arranging several weekend business meetings so that she would be away for hours at a time. She need not have gone to the trouble; I enjoyed her company and liked to see the comfortable banter she and Dad exchanged. He was happy and that made me like Andrea a hell of a lot.
We were at the Black Marlin restaurant way out near Cape Point. While the folks had pre-lunch drinks out on the veranda, Malcolm and I took a walk down to the beach. As we sat on a rock I pulled out my Marlboro pack and lit up. Hey man, you got to stop that shit. I ignored him and lay back, shielding my eyes from the sun with my arm.
I asked him if he had a girlfriend yet, we hadn’t seen one another since the Easter holidays. I got plenty; the honeys love a Bishops boy! It was probably true; Malcolm was tall and handsome and with his swimming colours he probably did have a string of girls after him. He also had an easy confidence that I envied. I sat up and gave him a slap on the back, he slapped me back and we mock-wrestled for a few minutes.
Let’s go and eat.
After lunch my father and Oliver were selecting cigars and I asked Dad if I could use his cell. I walked over to a low stone wall in the parking lot, where a feral cat circled my legs hopeful of a leftover piece of hake, and dialed Janine’s number. Who is calling? Her mother’s voice was harsh and disapproving, I imagined a pinched face, a ramrod straight back. Stuart who? It was a while before Janine came on the line and we made totally inane conversation for a few minutes.
I have to go to a family birthday party with my parents tomorrow, are you going to the beach on Monday? She asked. And I said I was, without knowing how the hell I was going to get there. It was only the start of the school holidays and I’d already spent all my pocket money.
During the drive home, Dad asked about my plans for the holidays; did I want him to take some days off and go fishing? I told him I wanted to catch up on my surfing and try to get some work as a lifeguard. Your mother tells me there’s a girl? I looked down and picked at a scab on my elbow, a blush creeping upward from my neck. Dad!
When we pulled up at the kerb, he got out and gave me a hug and pressed a few folded notes into my hand. For milkshakes at the beach. Oh, and go see Old Liebowitz at his chemist, get some Durex.
I could have dissolved into a pool of embarrassment on the pavement.
I walked down to the bus stop in front of Savva’s Café at nine on Monday morning, stopping in at Mr. Mac’s to ask Goemf where Kev was. Goemf was bent over the open engine of a red Fiat. He’s in the back, Mr. Mac said he can help out over the vac; washing the cars when they’re done.
He straightened up and took a very dirty hanky from his pocket, wiped his oil-stained hands and gave me a long look. You and Janine, hey? I scuffed my shoe against the car’s tyre and cleared my throat; said nothing.
I’m going there after work to see Estelle, you want a lift? He asked, and I explained that I was on my way to meet Janine at the beach now and asked him to say hi to Kev. I was almost out of the yard when Goemf called me back.
Stu, the ol’ man; Janine’s dad. Watch it with him, he’s a real bastard.
He turned back to his work and I walked away wondering what he meant and what lay ahead.
Big Savva was an enormous Greek man, with a generous character to match. Ever since I came to stay at Earl’s Court, when I was four and my parents divorced, Savva had taken it upon himself to be my advisor on all things sartorial. He considered himself a man of extremely good taste and excellent dress sense. You musta always havva the socks to matcha the pants. He would advise solemnly, before forcing a bottle of Coke on me. I calculated that, over the years, I must have cost him a couple of thousand rand in lost profit.
Ah, hello Stoo-wart, he said as I walked into the cool, dim interior of the shop, eying my slip slops and the towel slung over my shoulder. You go to beach today? I told him I was and asked what time the next bus was due and that, as he said it was going to be a long wait, I’d rather walk down to the station and get a train to Muizenberg. I told him I was meeting my girlfriend there, feeling both stupid and great to use the unfamiliar word.
Savva acted as though he’d won the lottery. Throwing his arms up in the air and bringing them down on his counter with a loud thud. He moved as fast as his bulk would allow, around to the front where I stood and threw his arms around me. Stoo-wart, my boy, my lovely boy! You are becoming a man! He kissed me on both cheeks and gave one a pinch. Stretching out his arm to a nearby shelf, he handed me a box of Quality Street. You musta show the lady you havva the class!
I thanked him and set off for the station.
The train ride took less than the usual thirty minutes and I got off and crossed back over the tracks to walk to the beach. Outside the old cinema building, I saw Candice from my school class, carrying a surfboard and ran to catch up with her. She asked me what I was doing on this side of the world and I said I’d come to meet Janine Geldebloem.
She stopped walking and turned to look at me, laughter in her eyes. So I was right, you were just a shy guy all along. I knew you weren’t gay. I flicked at her leg with the corner of my towel and we carried on walking. There she is. Candice was pointing out near the water and there was Janine, in a small crowd of kids, wearing a navy and white striped bikini.
The walk across the sand felt like a thousand meters and I felt that they were all sizing me up. Janine looked up and saw me and she stood up and came to meet me halfway, brushing away the sand from her bum and taking my hand as we met up.
All seven other kids were from Janine’s school and were pretty OK. I borrowed a board from one of the guys and Janine lay on it while I paddled us out beyond the breakers, where I hopped up and we sat side by side, dangling our legs in the water. She told me that she loved to draw and I asked what her favourite colour was. I told her I’d study law after school and she asked what kind of music I liked. We spoke about astrology and movies and everything under the sun.
And then, with my heart thudding in my ears, I kissed her and we rowed back to shore where we lay drying on our towels and eating from the box of chocolates.
We went up to the beachfront shops later, and got a packet of hot chips and sat on a bench to share them with the seagulls. I knew I had to start making a move to get back uptown, but I didn’t want the day to end.
My mom is fetching me just now, why don’t you come to our house and you can phone your mom to fetch you there later? The way she smiled when she asked made me sure that I would risk any amount of Mom’s moaning to spend as much time as I possibly could with Janine.
Mrs. Geldebloem was an older version of Estelle and appeared to have every muscle in her body clenched in an effort to be in steely control of herself. Janine introduced me and I felt awkward as I got into the back of the car. Put your seatbelt on. She snapped at Janine.
When we got to the house, Janine led me down a side path to the back door, where we rinsed the sand off our feet, before going into the spotless kitchen. Use that phone she said, gesturing toward the table in the entrance hall; I’ll get us some juice.
Mom was cool on the phone, but not cross, and said she’d pick me up at around five thirty.
Janine had placed a carton of OJ and a packet of Oreos on the kitchen table and was pulling her sketch pad out of her beach bag. Can I see? And she nodded and passed it over. I was blown away; page after page of the most beautiful drawings I had ever seen. Drawings of beaches, trees, people; there was one of an electric guitar, with a rainbow reflecting in its glossy varnish that I just couldn’t get over.
She said she wanted to draw me and that’s what she did for the rest of the afternoon, while I spoke and spoke, more than I ever had before, until Mom rang the doorbell and we heard our mothers make the first contact in what would be a relationship that would alter their lives.
Hello, I am Ruth Slavin, I’m here to fetch my son, Stuart?
I’m pleased to meet you, Mrs. Slavin. I am Tilda Geldebloem, would you like to come inside?
The two women came into the kitchen and Mom met Janine, I notice she was careful to seem casual and to not appear to be weighing the girl up. I also noticed that Mrs. Geldebloem’s attitude had gotten a bit more relaxed, as if Mom’s elegance and poise had given me a few brownie points in the acceptability department.
As we reversed out of the drive, Estelle pulled up in her little yellow Beetle. Who’s that? Asked Mom and I told her it was Janine’s sister; Goemf’s girlfriend.
Mom gave her a long, measured look as Estelle strode up to the house, hips swinging in her black miniskirt. She’s going to be trouble for her mother, that one. Mark my words. Now, what about it boychik, what do you say we break the bank and get a take-out pizza and a movie?
My room was huge, the block of flats was about forty years old and had been built when the area was prosperous. The bedroom led on to a large enclosed balcony, where Mom had helped me set up my own study-come-den.
I threw my bag down on the floor next to my PC and unzipped it to get my wet towel hung up before Mom nagged me to do it. As I opened the bag, I saw that Janine had placed the drawing of the guitar inside. I fixed it to the wall by my bed with some Presstick and went out to join Mom in front of the TV.
We ate the pizza and I tried my best to get into the movie, but it was really boring; Mom’s kind of film about a girl who is always the bridesmaid at weddings, never the bride. I got up and went and booted up my PC and logged on to Facebook. Janine Geldebloem had sent me a friend request, I quickly accepted and clicked through to her profile to see that her latest status update, done an hour before, said she was now ‘in a relationship’! I quickly changed my status too, a really goofy grin on my face.
Immediately, a chat message popped up from Kev. Ooooooh, in a relationship, Stuey-pooey! I dialed his number on the phone and we chatted for a while and agreed to go skateboarding when he finished work the next day.
I walked down to meet him at five and we crossed the road to the park, Kev ramping the pavement on his board.
The minute I saw the Ash brothers, I knew there was going to be trouble. Jonno Ash had dated Estelle for a while and he harbored a serious hatred toward Goemf. As Kev’s skateboard landed on the concrete of the tennis court floor, Jonno’s foot shot out and flipped it over, sending Kev sprawling to the ground. Great, just what I wanted; a bloody fight with two guys who looked like they drank nothing but steroids since the day they were born!
In one smooth movement, Kev jumped up, grabbed his board and swung it in an arc; slamming an unprepared Jonno on the side of his face. Jonno staggered and it was clear that he was seeing stars, a trickle of blood was making its way down his neck from his ear. I took advantage of the fact that Nicky Ash was looking at his brother with concern, trying to ascertain how much damage had been done by Kev’s whack.
Run Kev! Now!
And run we did, faster than I knew was possible, collapsing in fits of hysterical relief when we reached our alley.
The next Saturday, Janine called early in the morning and asked if I wanted to come over; her parents were having a braai and Goemf was coming, so he could give me a lift. I said I’d ring Dad to cancel my planned lunch with him and Andrea.
As it happened, it suited my dad as he had been away to attend a meeting with a client in Johannesburg and needed to spend the time catching up with his work. No problem, kid, how about hitting a few balls on the courts tomorrow?
Estelle opened the door when we arrived, and she and Goemf did their usual gross tongue-wrestle thing, while I stared at my feet. Janine came down the passage and led me out to the patio, where a big man in denim shorts and a khaki shirt was setting a match to a perfect pyramid of charcoal briquettes. He turned stare down at me with eyes of the iciest blue, as Janine introduced me. I extended my hand and it was gripped in a steel vice. Pleased to meet you Stuart Slavin, what have you got to say for yourself?
Just then, his wife came out to the patio with a tray of bottles, an ice bucket and glasses which she set down on the table. She mixed a drink in a glass and took it over to her husband, who took a sip and handed it back to her with a look of disgust. It’s bloody warm, why wasn’t the soda water kept in the fridge? Tilda Geldebloem winced and apologized, rushing to the table to add more ice. I felt terribly embarrassed for her.
Luckily the family’s golden retriever, Penny, nudged my hand, ball in her mouth and Janine and I moved away from the tense atmosphere to play a game of ‘fetch’ on the lawn. About the only thing I felt lacking in my life as a result of my parents’ divorce was that I couldn’t have a dog. Penny was exactly what I would have chosen and I enjoyed playing with her now, chasing her right around the property until Janine and I fell down, out of breath, on the front lawn, the happy dog lying panting beside us.
I picked a long blade of grass and tickled the skin behind Janine’s ear, she giggled and grabbed my hands and tried to tickle me in my waist. I caught her in my arms and kissed her.
Wat dink julle maak julle? Hier in my voorplaas waar almal kan sien! Liewe hemel, Janine, staan op! The red-faced Martin Geldebloem grabbed his daughter by the wrist and hauled her to her feet, then turned on his heel and strode away.
We brushed the grass off our clothing and returned to the patio, where Mrs. G was putting the finishing touches to a salad. Estelle and Goemf were sitting on a swing-chair, paging through a copy of People magazine. Go wash your hands and come and sit, Father is ready to serve the meat.
After lunch and a swim, Goemf said there was a good movie on at the drive-in and we should go. I knew it would turn out that Janine and I sat on the tarmac in front of the car while Estelle and Goemf did the dirty inside, but I rang my mom and cleared it with her and we set off on the long drive to Goodwood, one of the only drive in theaters then still operating in Cape Town.
Mom is a social worker and she changed her schedule over the next weeks, making sure she called on cases in the Southern suburbs in the afternoons, so that she could pick me up from Janine’s house or the beach on her way home. She soon fell into the comfortable habit of sharing a glass of wine with Tilda, but made sure we left before Martin came home.
She’s terrified of the man, but equally afraid of losing her social standing as his wife. I can’t believe there are still women like her! He is truly a boor and an arrogant bore! She would say in the car. While she moaned about Dad when she was in a bad mood, their separation had been amicable and they really respected one another.
One day Tilda announced that Martin would be away for a ten days, on a fishing safari in Zambia. The women’s talk led to fish recipes and Mom mentioned gefilte fish; the Jewish recipe that is handed down over generations from mother to daughter. Tilda said she had never heard of it and Mom invited Tilda and Janine over for shabbas on the coming Friday evening.
When they arrived, Mom took Tilda into the kitchen for a crash course in Jewish cuisine and Janine and I went through to my room. She tacked up another drawing to my wall, which was rapidly becoming covered with her art. I strummed my guitar, trying to get a Dylan song right that I’d been battling with for ages and she sat doing a sketch of my hands. Sometimes she would stop and lean over to kiss me. She giggled at my curses when I got a chord wrong and I pinned her down and dug my chin in her neck until her squeals of laughter made my mom call us to say dinner was ready and to mind the noise, because Mrs. Horowitz would be over to see what all the fuss was about and we’d be stuck with her for the rest of the evening.
We were clearing the dishes from the table when Tilda’s cell phone rang. It was a screaming Estelle; her father had returned early from his trip. She and Goemf had been in her bed, they had not heard him open the door. He’d beaten them both with a hockey stick she’d left lying on her bedroom floor. Goemf had fled and Estelle had locked herself in the bathroom, with Martin Geldebloem beating on the door outside, saying he was going to shoot the door down.
A shaking Tilda quickly gathered her bag and told Janine to get her things.
No, said Mom, let Janine stay here. I’m coming with you. Stuart, phone your father and tell him to meet us there. And call the police too. Tell them to hurry!
I learned what happened later, from various sources. When I reached Dad’s answering service, I decided not to wait for him to call back and dialed Oliver Gqunu’s number instead. I gave him a brief outline of what was going on and waited while he fetched a pen to take down the address of the Geldebloem home.
According to mom, Martin and his friends had been traveling in convoy and had been drinking continuously on the journey. Martin had been abusive to an official at the border post and had been denied entry into Zambia, so he was forced to do a u-turn and retrace the two-day trip to Cape Town.
By the time he reached home he was soaked in liquor and angry with the world at large, naturally not pausing for a moment to admit that his own actions had caused the chain of events. When he saw Goemf’s car parked in the road outside the darkened house and that Tilda’s car was not in the garage, he lost his sense of reasoning completely and went berserk when he entered Estelle’s room.
He had laid into them with the hockey stick and with his fists when Goemf jumped up off the bed, all down the narrow passage as Goemf tried to get away. When Goemf fell at the front door, Martin had delivered a savage kick to his ribs and pushed him down the stairs.
Estelle had locked herself in the bathroom and he could hear her pleading on her cell phone. He went to his bedside cabinet, removed his gun and strode back to the bathroom door, firing a shot at it and yelling at Estelle to come out.
When Mom and Tilda arrived at the house, the blue lights of the police van were already illuminating the drive way; Goemf had driven to the police station and had alerted the cops before my phone call did. The women ran into the house followed by the two policemen. As Tilda entered, Martin lunged at her like a wild animal and grabbed her by the hair, punching her and screaming incoherently. The police officers took hold of him and seized the gun; one held his arms behind his back while the other prepared to handcuff him.
Into this commotion Oliver arrived, embracing Mom and making sure she was not harmed; speaking softly with her to get an idea of what had transpired. He was to tell me many years later that he realized then how he felt about Mom.
He then went over to Martin and began to try and reason with him, advising that the police would have to open a case of domestic violence and that they would have to arrest him if he didn’t calm down. Martin continued to shout and curse, saying he was going to shoot the whole lot of them and telling Oliver to get out of his kitchen, that nobody, not even the constitution, was going to let a black man tell him what to do in his own home.
I have no idea how long the whole business lasted before the policemen finally took Martin away in the back of their van, but Mom said it felt like the longest night of her life.
Together, she and Tilda bathed Estelle and attended to her cuts and bruises as best they could, until they were able to get her to a doctor. Mom tucked Estelle into bed with Tilda and Oliver drove her home when the watery sun was just waking over the mountain.
I was sitting on the couch when I heard the door open; Janine had fallen into a fitful sleep on my lap. I think the worry and crying had exhausted her. She had told me so much that I didn’t know, that nobody would ever have suspected, about her family life; about the terror they all lived with, constantly afraid to provoke her father’s lethal and unpredictable temper. Her mother, she said, often stayed indoors for days, avoiding people while her bruises healed.
She told me that she’d never been brave enough to invite a boy over to visit before she met me and that she was even wary of having her girl friends at home, because she never knew if he would have one of his ‘episodes’.
There was a time when Tilda had tried to leave him, I learned, but he had stood in the street pointing a gun at her and ordering her to go back inside the house. That time they had to call their family doctor to come to the house and Martin had cried and pleaded for the man to keep their secret, promising that it would never happen again.
I eased her head onto a cushion and went into the kitchen, where Mom was filling the kettle.
Oliver was on the phone filling Dad in on the story and arranging for an urgent restraining order to be served on Martin Geldebloem as soon as possible, as someone would surely post bail for him first thing in the morning.
I told Mom to sit down and I made a pot of tea for them.
Oliver thinks it’s better if we take Tilda and the girls down to the Smitswinkelbaai house until we can make more permanent arrangements for them. He and Oliver will deal with Martin from now on. Tilda has opened up to me and told me all about what life has been like for them, living with that monster.
From the age of twelve, Malcolm and I would put our bicycles on the train at the station and disembark at Simonstown. A hard pedal led to Miller’s Point, where we would stop for a swim before carrying on toward Cape Point. Just before the bend leading to the entrance of the Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve we would stop, hoist our bikes onto our shoulders and begin the steep hike down the mountain to the little clapboard cottage that Dad had inherited from his uncle.
The village of Smitswinkelbaai is inaccessible by any road; so cars have to park on a farm up on the main road and there often has to be two or three trips up and down the steep slope to fetch luggage and provisions. There are about twenty cottages, originally stop-overs for trek fishermen and their families; handed over from generation to generation. The property owners are fiercely protective of their privacy and gate crashing visitors are snubbed with blatant growls and frowns.
Few houses have electricity and there are no municipal services, so garbage must be brought back up the mountain at the end of our stay. The old owners, inevitably, have died off and some of their children have modernised the cottages to enable DSTV and microwave ovens. This is frowned on by many who believe the place should be left as is.
It is a place largely unchanged in a hundred years, a place where a child can disappear, at dawn; into the bush or to the lovely swimming beach and be in no danger other than having a chance encounter with a baboon and come; ravenous, grubby and exhausted, home at sunset. We collect mussels for a hot-pot, or – if we help the trek fisherman haul in their nets – we may have the prize of a Yellowtail to lay on the coals for our supper.
We drove out there in Mom’s car that morning, with Tilda, the girls and Penny following us in Tilda’s car. She and Estelle had both looked very pale and drawn when we had arrived at their house, Estelle was badly bruised, but felt that she didn’t need to see a doctor. Dad had called Mom earlier though, and said that she needed to take photographs of all the injuries to keep as records to support the restraining order they would serve on Martin.
When we got down to the house, I lifted the key out from under a rock next to the tap and unlocked the door. The familiar, musty smell of the interior always made me slip instantly into holiday mode. I threw open the balcony doors and went to light the gas fridge and geyser while Mom showed the others where they would sleep and went into the kitchen to unpack the fresh food she’d brought along. Soon there was too much female activity; beds were being made, floors swept of the salt and sand that always makes its way into unoccupied coastal houses, and talk of what to cook for lunch. I escaped with the excuse that I would go and find firewood, whistled for Penny to follow me and went to check in with Old Roy at the bottom cottage.
Old Roy was the only person who lived permanently at Smits. Malcolm and I used to make up stories that he had suffered a big romantic disappointment in his youth that led to him coming down here and living the life of a hermit, or that he was a pirate hiding from vengeful victims. He walked up the mountain once a week and waited at the roadside for someone to bring him things he needed and the occasional newspaper. He had a dog and, with the weekend and holiday residents arriving regularly; that was enough company for him. He was very pleased to see me. Jeez boy! Look at the bloody size of you, what are they feeding you?
I chatted to him for a while and then made my way into the wild bush above the beach to search for dry wood, flinging sticks for Penny to chase as I went along.
There is no cell phone reception at Smits, so when I returned to the house, Mom asked me to walk to a spot higher on the mountain and let Dad know we’d arrived safely. I also rang Malcolm to invite him to come down if he wanted to, and I phoned Kev; Estelle had asked me to tell him to give Goemf a message, she didn’t want to see him for a while and he should please not try to come and see her.
Back at the house, I lit the fire for our braai and told Janine to grab her towel and come for a quick swim. Estelle was sleeping and Mom and Tilda were in deep conversation in the lounge, side by side on the couch facing the ocean, their feet up on the coffee table. I saw Tilda wipe her eyes and crumple the tissue onto a pile of others lying on the floor next to her.
We spent the rest of that day and the next lazily; swimming, lying around talking and reading and eating long, slow meals at the table Mom set up under the tree outside the back door.
It was early days after the horrible incident with Martin, but Tilda and Estelle seemed to be more relaxed and, although her bruises looked worse now, Estelle had started to come out of the bedroom and sit outside with us.
On Monday afternoon Malcolm appeared on the veranda just as we were all heading down to the beach for a swim. He brought a note for Mom from Oliver, explaining that Martin was out of prison on bail and that a court order had been served on him, prohibiting him from making contact with Tilda. He had, however, come to their office and insisted on seeing Oliver and Dad; vowing to track Tilda and the girls down. He really thought he was above the law!
Tilda said that she had made up her mind to divorce Martin and that she realised there was no point in putting the matter off any longer. Mom said she would drive her to the city in the morning to meet with Dad and Oliver in order to advise them to start divorce proceedings on her behalf.
That afternoon, walking back up from the beach, Penny came scooting past me and as I stepped aside for her, I trod on a loose stone on the slope and lost my balance. I slid quite a way down, cutting the skin on my calf and ankle. Pain shot through my leg and I screamed as I tried to stand. Malcolm had to lend me his shoulder to lean on as I limped to the house.
By nightfall, I was in agony and my ankle was swollen to twice the normal size. Mom bathed it with Dettol and rubbed in some Arnica, but the throbbing pain was unbearable and I took two strong painkillers before collapsing into bed, sulky and resentful about the laughter of the others coming through the thin walls of the lounge.
In the morning it was clear that I needed to see a doctor and I made the excruciating hike with Mom and Tilda up to the road, and waited for Mom to bring the car around the bend from the parking lot.
We dropped Tilda at Dad’s office and drove to Doc Cohen’s rooms in Claremont, where I confirmed that my ankle had a hairline fracture. He cast the ankle in plaster of Paris and prescribed some meds and said it was out of the question for me to go back down to Smits for at least a week.
Totally pissed off, I returned to the flat with Mom.
Samson had moved his chair onto the pavement outside the flat and was chatting in the sunshine to the man who looked after the garden, when we pulled up. He rushed to open the door for Mom. There had been a man here every day asking if Mom had returned, he said. He is Afrikaans man, Missus, he say Missus take his wife away. He come and he park his car here every night!
With a feeling of foreboding we went upstairs.
When Oliver brought Tilda home later, Mom said she thought it better that they remain in town with me until the weekend. This suited Tilda, as she needed to arrange a meeting with Martin to discuss their living arrangements for the immediate future. Mom asked Oliver to stay for supper.
We were just sitting down to a big bowl of spaghetti when the phone rang. It was Goemf; he’d seen our car drive past the garage and wanted to know if he could come over to talk to Tilda about Estelle. I conveyed the request and she said it was OK.
Pretty soon there was a knock at the door and, thinking it was Goemf, I called out that the door was not locked. Martin stormed into the kitchen and hauled Tilda off her seat, things crashing to the floor as she clutched at the table cloth to resist. Waar is my kinders? Ek gaan jou leer hoe om ‘n ordentelike vrou te wees!
Oliver rose from his chair and moved towards Martin. Let her go, easy now!
Get away from me, you black bastard! You people have caused enough trouble. Keeping his eyes on us, Martin pulled Tilda down the hallway through the open door. Behind him Goemf was just coming up the stairs. Immediately taking in the scene, Goemf sped up the last steps and grabbed Martin from behind, spinning him around and slamming his fist into Martin’s face.
Martin roared like a wounded bull and grabbed at Goemf’s shirt; he tried to grip him in a bear hug and pummeled at his chest and ribs, pushing him back towards the stairs. Goemf came back with a sharp right hook under Martin’s chin that sent him flipping over backwards, somersaulting down the staircase, cracking his head repeatedly as it hit the hard concrete steps, until he came to rest on the landing, where the staircase curved towards the left wing of the building.
Mr. and Mrs. Horowitz and some of the other neighbours had come out of their flats to see what the commotion was, and Mrs. H was adding to the cacophony with repeated high-pitched shrieks. Mr. H told her to shut up and when she didn’t he gave her a resounding slap across her face and she looked up at him as though she had never seen him before.
Oliver ran past a stunned Goemf, down to Martin and put his hand out to feel the still man’s pulse. He looked up at my mother.
Ruth, you’d better call the cops. He’s dead.
It was well past midnight when the police left, having taken statements from all of us and photographs of the stairs and Martin’s body before it was taken by ambulance to the mortuary. Oliver followed in his car with a very shaken Goemf. They would have to meet with an investigating officer, who would open a case of manslaughter, but it seemed likely that there would be no legal repercussions for Goemf, given the circumstances.
Doc Cohen had come over and was giving Tilda a sedative injection in my bedroom, where she would spend the night. In the morning Oliver would fetch her and they would go down to Smits to break the dreadful news to the girls.
I started to clear up the mess in the kitchen, righting overthrown chairs and sweeping up pieces of broken plates and glass. I felt drained and exhausted by the chaos, horrified by the raw brutality and blind irrationality I had witnessed. I walked over to the window and looked out at the outline of the mountain against the grey sky. Mom came up behind me and put her hand on my shoulder. I turned around to face her and she opened her arms as, from somewhere deep inside me, the shock and grief came choking and sobbing to the surface.
Sh, it’s OK my boy, everything is going to be OK. She led me to the couch, we sat down and she placed a blanket over our legs and pulled my head onto her shoulder; all the while repeating the reassurance that things would be alright, until I fell asleep and she got up, placed my head on the armrest and went to see if Doc Cohen was ready to leave.
I was woken in the morning by a knock at the door, it was Dad and Andrea. Mom bought a tray of coffee from the kitchen and we sat talking about the events of the night before. She said that she and Tilda had been awake since the early hours and they had spent the time talking about the future, until Oliver had arrived to fetch her for the horrible trip to Smits. Tilda had decided that she didn’t want to live in the house she had shared with Martin. She wanted to enlist Mom’s help and turn it into a shelter for abused women. She would find a smaller place to stay; the girls were almost adults and would venture out on their own in coming years. For now, they would stay here, in our flat, with Mom.
It’ll be a bit cramped, Gordon; it’s probably better if Stuart moves in with you and Andrea until Tilda finds a new place. Mom said, and Dad and Andrea agreed. I fought back a wave of resentment that I was given no say in the matter and went through to my room to pack some stuff to take to Dad’s, and to leave a note for Janine.
Janine didn’t phone me that day, but I thought it would be expected; they’d all obviously be emotionally wrecked about the news of Martin being dead.
The next morning Dad and I had a game of tennis at his club and we stopped for sandwiches on the terrace afterwards. I asked him why he thought Tilda hadn’t left Martin earlier, how it was so stupid that she let things carry on for so long.
Son, she comes from a different time. When they got married he made her stop working, her sole role in life was to be his wife and to run his home while he built his business. She never dreamed that it was an option to pursue her own interests and, anyway, you’ve heard what happened to her when she did try.
I asked him if he had ever hit my mom, if that was why she had left him all those years ago.
Hit Ruth? Hell no, I wouldn’t have dared. Stuart, your mother has always been a very independent woman. She’s an academic and was simply not interested in the things I was; the sports and the socializing. She hated having to come along to the fancy do’s I was forced to attend as a young, upcoming lawyer. No, we just looked at each other over the breakfast table one morning and I knew she wanted a different life.
Life was weird, I thought to myself, really weird; there were my mom and dad, good friends because they had realized that they didn’t love each other as married people should. And there was Martin; dead because he claimed to love the woman he was married to so much, when all he really believed in was ownership.
C’mon then, let’s go to Kalk Bay and get ourselves a nice big Geelbek to put on the braai tonight. And Dad slung his arm around my shoulders as we walked across the club’s lawns to the parking lot.
That night, while Dad was fiddling with his fish on the Weber on the patio, I asked Andrea if I could use the telephone in her study to call home.
Mom answered and we chatted for a while before I asked to speak to Janine.
She was aloof, distant; it was like pulling hens’ teeth. I said I’d try and visit her the next day. No, Stuart, we’re probably going to go over to the house and start packing things; I guess we’ll be there all day.
Okay then, I said, give me a call in the evening anyway. I miss you. She said nothing and hung up.
Frustrated and confused, I went into the garage and laid into Dad’s punch bag until I could no longer lift my arms.
Three days later I still hadn’t seen or heard from Janine. Every time I rang, Mom said she was out. I was bored at Dad’s house and that night I told him I wanted to go back to Smits; at least there I could hang out with Malcolm and maybe do a bit of fishing.
Oh, I thought you knew Dad said; Malcolm came back to town with Tilda and the girls, he’s been helping them clear out their house. Oliver says he sleeps there at night to guard against burglars.
An unfamiliar feeling washed over me, a tingling burn rose from my chest to my cheeks and I turned on my heel and walked to my room. I instinctively knew that something was wrong; things were not as simple as I’d believed. After all, perhaps I’d kidded myself that Janete and I were a ‘we’; I thought she was my girl, when really all it boiled down to was that she’d given me some drawings and we’d kissed a few times.
I picked up my ipod from the bedside table and tried to drown out the noise in my head with music.
In the morning I caught a lift with Dad to his office and walked from there to the station to catch a train out to Heathfield station. The sun beat down on the hot pavements and the walk to Janine’s house seemed never ending.
The doors and windows to the house were all open, various bakkies stood in the driveway; signage on their sides indicated the presence of painters, electricians and plumbers. Sounds of hammering and a floor sander drifted in the air, masking my approach; so that Janine and Malcolm didn’t see me as I stood on the kitchen step for a moment, taking in the scene.
Malcolm sat on the kitchen floor, leaning his back against a cabinet and reading a paperback novel. Janine sat to his side on a kitchen chair with her feet in his lap. A sketch pad was balanced on the armrest and she was concentrating intently on shading her drawing, I could see over her shoulder that it was a profile portrait of Malcolm.
I reached out to tap on the door and the movement caught Janine’s eye. In one fluid movement she withdrew her feet and stood up, drawing her hair back from her blushing face. Malcolm looked up. Momentarily a look of surprise crossed his face, but he recovered and rose lazily with his handsome, cocky grin.
Hey, whaddup man? And he came toward me with his hand outstretched for his customary shake. Janine moved away, towards the fridge and busied herself pouring juice into three glasses, table before leaving the room, saying she was taking a glass to Estelle.
You going out with her? I asked, nodding my head in the direction of the passage.
Nah, man, got to play it cool with the honeys, you know. Just having a bit of holiday lovin’. He picked up the sketch pad from the table and tilted the drawing at me. She’s got some talent, hey? Check at this! I wanted to smash his face in.
I made some dumb excuse about how I was on my way to a school mate’s house, how I’d just stopped in as I was passing and that I should be on my way. He gave me a high five as I went out the door.
All the way back to the station in the sweltering heat, I berated myself for being such an idiot, the Coldplay lyrics ringing in my ears;
Everything I know is wrong
Everything I do it just comes undone
And everything is torn apart
Oh and that’s the hardest part.
Kev was coming out of Savva’s shop when I turned the corner. I was in no mood to talk to anyone, but he’d already caught sight of me and came sauntering over, his hand up in a high-five salute. We chatted for a while, he told me that Goemf would not be held legally responsible for Martin’s death and that he had decided to leave Cape Town for a couple of years; he wanted to sell his car and go backpacking in Australia. For a moment I thought about how cool it would be to just be able to escape like that, another country and endless days of surfing.
I said goodbye to Kev and walked on towards the flats.
Old Samson was playing a game of Solitaire with a really grubby pack of cards. Haibo kwedini he said and why is your face so long today? Go see upstairs, Mister H he has something going to give you a smile like a cat.
I ran up the stairs, throwing my bag down at our doorway and went to knock on Mister H’s door, which swung open at my touch. I called out, but there was no answer, so I walked through the lounge to the balcony, where I knew he liked to sit reading his newspaper. As I drew near, I heard the inimitable sound of my grandfather’s laughter and came upon the two old men sitting, each with a glass of wine and a bowl of pistachio shells that indicated they’d spent the entire afternoon talking.
He stood up and enveloped me in his thin arms, then stood back and held me at arm’s length and looked me up and down. Who is this young man, Horowitz? What did they do with the boy? Mister H laughed, Yes Hymie, he is growing fast, come Stuart, sit. Beryl will bring coffee just now.
My grandfather and Mr. H had known each other since childhood. They’d come from Europe with their parents as refugees and had never had an angry word, they’d even managed to stay out of the rivalry between Mrs. H and my grandmother over the years. When Granma died, Pops decided to retire to the little farm they’d had for years outside Robertson. It was the only time I’d seen these two men come close to an argument. Mr. H was convinced that Pops would die of loneliness, but he surprised us all by marrying a local widow, Emma Spies within eighteen months of his move.
Now Pops patted my knee. I had to come to see the bank and let old Cohen check my ticker. He says I’m fitter than any man he’s seen this year. I thought I’d stop in and leave your mother some jam and pickles, that Emma has the greenest fingers I ever saw. Can’t keep up with all the vegetables this year. What say you drive back with me and spend a few days? Long time since you were on the farm.
I thought about the two remaining weeks of the holidays; about all that had happened in the past weeks and I thought about Pops’s horse, fishing at the dam on the farm and the smell of Emma’s freshly baked bread.
I’ll phone Mom, I said and ran to pack a suitcase.