We were waiting for our lift to fetch us to go to a party at someone’s house. It was a hot summer night; my friend sat leaning against my bed and, opposite her, I had my back against the floor to ceiling window. We lit our cigarettes, wrists elegantly cocked, a exhaled plumes of menthol smoke. At my shoulder I heard my father’s voice “What do you think you’re doing?” I choked into a coughing spell and flung the cigarette into a glass of cold drink on the floor beside me. I hadn’t stopped to think that, with the curtains open, the brightly lit room was clearly visible from the dark terrace outside.

The incident was never mentioned again.

My parents moved away, to East London, and I remained in Bloemfontein to finish high school, boarding with a friend’s family. I still smoked covertly, foolishly assuming nobody knew.

The last day of school and I flew to my new home.

My father had taken the day off, he and my mother met me at the airport and took me to Mövenpick, a Swiss restaurant (children not allowed!). They were making a ceremony for me, a symbolic, unspoken acknowledgement that the rules were changed; I was an adult and would henceforth make my own decisions. The waiter came for our drinks orders and both my parents kept straight faces when I asked for a glass of dry white wine. My dad offered me a cigarette, which he lit for me with a gold lighter that smelled of benzene; my mother fidgeted and knocked her wine glass over.

And so commenced the long, lonely summer holiday before I was to begin studying Fine Art. I spent many solitary hours reading on the beach, hoping the locals would befriend me. I took to finding hidden pools, where I would take dreadful, pretentious photographs of seaweed draped over a broken bentwood chair I’d lugged down the hill. I gazed with abject self-pity at my acne-ridden face in the mirror and longed for the time to pass quickly; once college started I would quickly make friends, I was a good artist; it was an esteemed school and I was sure to fit right in.

How very wrong I was; I was in for three years of hell, a period of desperately trying to reinvent myself to conform to this new culture I found myself in. I was in the same country, but it was worlds apart from what I knew and it was to be many, many years before I recovered from that time, and accepted that I came in a uniquely-shaped box.


27 thoughts on “AN ALIEN IN EAST LONDON, PART 1

  1. Oh my, how I can identify with that!! I grew up in the vineyards of Stellenbosch…went to college in Paarl (to be a teacher) and, needless to say, it was the worst time of my life..I pursued for only one year after college and that was it. It just was not for me!! I had a smile on my face about the cigarette era…I think we all went through that stage!! Who would’ve thought that I’d end up in Australia???….you are such a good writer and I am really happy to have found you one here! Moenie te koud kry nie en lekker naweek vriendin 🙂

  2. Dry White wine ? Unusually good taste for one so young, most of us start of liking horribly sweet stuff.
    Very nicely written, Cinful One, describing how our teenage angst is at once self imposed and yet unavoidably real.

  3. I lived in EL, Sub B & Std1 (I think) and went to the convent. This was a huge culture shock as we wern’t Roman Catholic.
    Luckily I made friends with a girl my age who lived nearby and was ‘normal’ by my standards! Funny how all the bits and bobs from our past make us who we are today!

  4. Oh wow Cindy…memories flooding in on this side….had many a meal in that restuarant….lots of dancing too.
    I remember going to a resuarant with my Dad and stepmom and my Stepmom offerring me a smoke…when i accepted all my Dad said was “You bloody fool”
    He was so right!

  5. Excellent post . . .

    Makes me wonder about the time we’ve wasted trying to conform to a “norm” rather than being who we really want to be. ; )

  6. An excellent post indeed and I also thought about all the wasted time that I spent trying to conform to the rules of the game…rather than admitting I just didn’t quite fit.

  7. You absolutely are as individual and unique as the words from your heart reveal. Thanks for the great read Cindy…Will be following and anxiously awaiting the rest of the story.
    God Bless you

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