Mar 12, 2012
Billie can't poo
In a small town like Peterborough in the early seventies, you didn't meet many South Africans. But suddenly there she was at the desk Mr Chapman's secretary used to occupy, plugged into the dictaphone, looking over a file. ``Bitchy,'' some of the girls said, avoiding her in the lunch room. ``Judgemental and uptight.''
They were right. Everything that came out of her mouth was a biting remark. Canadians were insipid, ungrateful, unappreciative. They had to live in a country where you stood in the rain for a bus while an empty one for whites went by to understand the freedom they had.
The office played in a bowling league, and Sabah and her husband, Miles, were on our team. There wasn't much chatter those first months -- Sabah throwing mostly gutter balls, not good at any sports, she claimed. Still, we did somehow become friends, hard and fast by the end of the season when she threw a bad ball, costing us the game, and Miles had shown his true colors. She spoke of her marriage. The problem wasn't infidelity, cheating, or physical abuse, but a lie six years ago when he'd promised her that they would move to South Africa if she married him. In the end, after two children, he just laughed and said Canada was where his mother was.
I didn't know Ella from Lena before meeting Sabah, but took to going to her house on the weekends to listen to her great collection of jazz and stories of home. She'd grown up with the sounds of Satchmo, Gillespie and the Monk, she said -- both her brothers were sax players. One Saturday I arrived to a van outside the house, and Miles packing all his belongings into it. When the van had disappeared down the road, she turned to me. ``I'm going home to catch my breath for a few weeks, Billie. Wanna come?''
When the plane descended over DF Malan Airport in Cape Town, she burst out crying.
``Sabah, what's the matter?''
She pointed to the mountains below. I had seen these mountains in postcards, and heard much about them from her, but nothing prepared me for its size and dominance over the city.
``I don't cry when I leave, Billie. I cry when I come.''
It was a first for me, seeing her vulnerable like this.
At least people were at the airport to meet us, with bags and parcels and flowers and a guava juice someone had popped into my hand, everyone talking at once.
The first problem, scarcely ten minutes on South African soil, was who had first rights to us. Mrs Dollie -- she'd gone back to her maiden name -- claimed that as she was the mother she deserved the honour of Sabah coming home to her house, so the destination was Athlone, and ``Please, everybody, we'll see you there.'' Mr Solomon, Sabah's father, said that he had specially prepared a room with two single beds for Sabah and her friend, that his ex-wife didn't have first rights and that Sabah was going with him to Walmer Estate. Sabah's eldest brother, Riaz, then chimed in, saying he was married now, had a big house, and wanted his sister with him. All this in the parking lot while cousins and uncles and aunts waited to hear in which direction they should point their cars. In the end, Sabah refused to go anywhere and they finally agreed to one day with her mother, one day with her father, weekends left open for brothers, cousins and friends.
I stood with my bags at my feet listening. This wasn’t the city I’d imagined and heard so much about. I’d expected unrest, a darkness of spirit. Cape Town was nothing like that. The day was hot, sunny, and bright – a far cry from the grey skies of Peterborough - Table Mountain beckoning. And all around me were the sounds of the family, all speaking as fast as Sabah. I knew I was in for a heck of a holiday.
Mrs Dollie's house was a lovely, whitewashed, Spanish-style bungalow, chockful of antiques, African rugs and artifacts, with a pool surrounded by some unusual thorn and red-leaved trees in the yard. Mrs Dollie couldn't swim, and had once fallen into the pool trying to manouver an avocado from a branch overhead. Two people had to get her out, even though the water was only six feet deep.
``Don't stand near the edge, Billie,'' she warned. ``They wait for you to stand there in your nice clothes, then chuck you in. Riaz is just a terrible boy. When this house was first built and the Imam came to bless it, he knocked the Imam into the pool, clothes and all.''
``Don't laugh,'' Mrs Dollie said. ``The poor man's fez was floating in the deep end, he almost drowned.''
``Serves him right for telling us Muslims shouldn't have pools.''
Mrs Dollie lived alone with her youngest son, Fa’iq, and there was ample room, she said, so she didn't know why Sabah still had to go and sleep at her father's as if he deserved equal time. The kitchen was noisy with aunts and neighbors pouring tea, all waiting to hear about Canada. Mrs Dollie clucked like an excited hen over the proceedings.
That first night, watching Sabah with her family, the bossa nova rhythms of Stan Getz swelling and dipping over the laughter and noise, and tea and coffee coming non-stop from the kitchen with plates of jam tarts, custard rolls and chocolate eclairs, I felt swept up by the wave of events. No one was concerned about how much they ate, or the order in which food was served, and I watched enviously as brothers and cousins and friends just dug into dessert, later rounding it all off with chicken breyani and mango juice. Where I came from, you had to be invited to a meal. You said grace, you started with salad or soup, and everyone sat down, all at the same time. If there was music, it was usually some classical piece my father put on to aid digestion. The meal was understated, and you ate just enough. There was dessert only on weekends, and would be nothing more than custard with canned fruit, or a slice of fruit cake.
``You know, I've never heard a girl swear like that,'' a striking man in a cream suit who had sat quietly all evening, suddenly said.
``Really?'' Sabah responded. ``And who're you?''
``Your future brother-in-law, Suleiman Adams. My sister, Toeghfa over there, is engaged to your brother, Fa’iq.''
``She’s a doctor,'' Mrs Dollie said proudly. “From the BoKaap. Fa’iq, didn’t you introduce Toeghfa to Sabah?”
“Have I had a chance to say anything with you talking, Ma?” Fa’iq laughed. “Yes, I did introduce Toeghfa.”
Suleiman continued with Sabah, obviously fascinated by her. ``I've never heard the eff word used with so many variations,'' he said. He turned to Sabah’s mother in wonderment. ``I didn’t know, Mrs Dollie, that you have a daughter like this.''
Mrs Dollie laughed as if someone had praised her. “She’s like that. She’s very naughty.” She made no move to say anything to Sabah. Sabah could’ve done a somersault on the oak table, she would’ve loved it. She was just too glad for her daughter to be there. I became aware of myself as I sat there grinning, the onlooker, the friend. I was in an environment entirely different from my own in Canada. My home was a quiet one, with my mother playing bridge with friends on Tuesday nights, and my father building model airplanes in the basement in his spare time. A party would consist of no more than six or eight people in the backyard having a barbecue and one or two beers. It was in Cape Town I really came to see who Sabah was.
Suleiman came to the Dollie house several times, taking us out for scenic drives and dinners, trying to gain Sabah's interest. But Sabah was only at the beginning of her grief over her broken marriage, and wasn’t interested in anyone. That didn't mean, though, that she didn't have a darn good time teasing the heck out of Suleiman.
When the last guests finally left at around two in the morning, and I was starting to feel dizzy from the long flight and all the excitement, Sabah said she was taking a quick drive in her mother's car to Sea Point. She always went to this one particular place on her first night home. So off we went, in the middle of the night, up the mountainous De Waal Drive, overlooking the city and harbour lights, comforted by the smoothness of the Citroën on the winding road. Fifteen minutes later we arrived on Beach Road to the crashing sea and the rich salt air filling the car.
Driving past apartment blocks and restaurants, we came to a lonely spot along the boardwalk with a bench. She stopped. The bench was wet, and in front of it was a railing. Below the railing the waves rolled thunderously over the rocks, and splashed with great force over our heads, hitting the pavement. I saw a huge spray of foam rise up and quickly ran back to the car.
``This is it, Billie! This is it!'' she thrilled, holding on to the railing, turning her nose to the sky as the sea smacked into her. The girl was mad, I thought, as I watched through the car window. She was revelling in it. Finally, she got back into the car with sopping jeans. We drove back without a word. That was Sabah; high, with long moments of silence. I had seen this, even in Canada. She would invite me over for supper after work. We would have a great grand time playing Scrabble with her children – both her children were already avid players at the age of eight and ten - she would talk about her life back home, and then for no reason, she would fall silent. I never asked what she was thinking about. I knew. Her longing to return to South Africa for good was far more sorrowful than her disintegrating marriage. “A man I can get anywhere, Billie. I’m not saying he can replace the father. But a man I can find anywhere. I can’t find me a new family.”
Hardly six hours later the telephone rang. It was Sabah’s father asking what time we were coming. He was planning a barbecue for his side of the family, and expected us no later than two. Fa’iq drove us to Walmer Estate, where the house and yard were crowded with people excited to see Sabah, Riaz standing in shorts in front of a smoking brick barbecue turning sausages and chops. The noise was deafening. Mr Solomon had four Dobermans – “his built-in alarm system, he said” -- and the Solomon men were such a loud bunch you could hear them all the way down at the store. Once, the story went, while listening to a boxing match on the kitchen radio in the sixties, the dogs panting at their feet, they were making such a racket cheering on the great Cassius Clay, that burglars had come in through the bedroom window and stolen all the blankets from the beds.
Bright and early the morning following the barbecue, Mrs Dollie telephoned Sabah’s father’s house, saying she missed us and that Sabah had been at her father's long enough. And so it went, with phone calls back and forth every morning from one house to the other.
When we'd been in Cape Town three days and I still hadn't gone to the bathroom, I felt a little less strange and asked Mrs Dollie if she had a laxative. She gave me a dose of castor oil, squeezing the juice of an orange onto my tongue afterwards. ``Best thing, Billie,'' she said. ``I always gave Sabah and her brothers this when they were small. It’ll work. Probably you’re a little constipated because this is all so strange to you. It can upset your routine.''
Riaz and his wife, Saliyah, came over for breakfast that morning.
``And how're the Canadians?'' Riaz asked.
``Billie can't poo,'' Mrs Dollie said.
``Billie can't poo? What do you mean, Billie can't poo? Billie, can't you poo?''
I didn't know where to put my face.
``Did you go since you came?'' he asked, forking a grilled kidney into his mouth.
``Billie’s sitting vas,'' Mrs. Dollie said.
``What's that?'' I asked.
``My mother said you sat it into a cement block on the plane.''
``What's the matter with you guys,'' Sabah said. ``Leave Billie alone.''
``What did you give her, Mom?'' Riaz asked.
``Castor oil? Billie needs a bomb, not castor oil. I'll go to the chemist and get her something.''
``Wait till tomorrow,'' Mrs Dollie said. ``I gave her two teaspoons. We don't want Billie having accidents in her pants. Aren't you going to Caledon with Toyer tomorrow?''
``The day after. We're going to daddy's this afternoon.''
``I don't see why your father should get so many turns.''
``We'll give you a lift,'' Riaz said.
``Listen, don't you be in a hurry to take them away. I gave them the other car. Your father can wait his turn.''
``You gave them the Volksie, Ma? That car's dangerous.''
``They're not getting the Citroën again. You should see what they did to the seats, it was soaking wet. If they don't like the Volksie, Fa’iq can take them when he gets up. And he's another one. He came in at four this morning.''
``My mother's nagging, Billie, because Fa’iq's getting married in June. She misses him already.''
``He can be gone now, Billie, for all I care. Leaving his clothes on the bathroom floor and never making up his bed. And I have to beg him to put the chemicals in the pool or to vacuum it. I won't take his side one bit if Toeghfa complains. Fa’iq!'' she shouted towards the back of the house, ``Breakfast!''
``She's a pretender,'' Riaz said. ``Fa’iq's her favourite. Tell her, Ma, how you always brag that he's the only one who remembers Mother's Day. My mother's such a patsy for a phone call and chocolates, even if he takes the twenty right out of her purse to buy it.''
We arrived at the house on the hill late in the afternoon. Mr Solomon was drinking tea with two men on the stoep, playing dominoes.
``Billie! Where were you yesterday? Did you go out? We were waiting for you to play cards.'' I'd become a favorite, and taught them how to play scat.
``We went to town with Fa’iq.''
``And Friday we're going with Toyer to Caledon,'' Sabah added. ``Billie wants to go to a spa. Toyer also needs a woman to help in the house. He wants to get one from the farm.''
``What're you going with Toyer for? He's no relative of yours. Now everyone wants a piece of your time. You're only here for a month.''
``Don't be selfish, Daddy. We're all going. Fa’iq, Toeghfa, maybe even Suleiman.''
``You're just jealous because none of your children are doctors.''
``Billie, have you seen that boy? He sits so upright, you can boil an egg in his bum.''
``Mr Solomon!'' I have to say that I liked him. I liked the whole family, but he and his ex-wife were at the top of my list.
``That's right, Billie. All that studying's turned him into a prune. Even I have a better sense of humor than that does. So, what do you think of our beautiful country, Billie? Tell Mr Lawrence and Mr Fish what you think.''
``Well, Mr Solomon, I didn't see anyone with beads and feathers running around in the streets. Where’re the Zulus?”
He had an infectious laugh. ``So that's what the Canadians think of us?''
``Billie has a problem,'' Riaz said.
``What’s the problem?''
``Billie can't poo.''
``Billie can't poo? My goodness, nasty. Why can't you poo, Billie?''
``I don't know,'' I said, hoping for cramps.
``When was the last time you went to the toilet?''
``In Canada,'' Riaz laughed.
``Canada! Billie, you have a nerve to come and contaminate our land.''
I tell you my face was red most days in his company. He was the most outspoken man I’d ever met. I could see where Sabah got her attitude from. Her tenacity she got from her mother, but the spirit was all Solomon.
``Don't make fun of my friend,'' Sabah said, ``She already had castor oil.''
``My wife has some brown pills,'' Mr Fish said. ``I can pop over to the house later on and get some. Mr Solomon knows she always had that problem with open bowels.''
Mr Lawrence chimed in. ``Eat lots of pineapple, that's the best thing. All that acid will bring anything down. Don't they have pineapples in Canada?''
``Of course they have pineapples in Canada. How can Mr Lawrence then ask such a stupid question?'' Mr Solomon asked.
``Aagh, their pineapples are not like ours. Listen to me -- what's your name? Billie? Listen to me, Billie. Forget all these remedies. Just eat pineapple tonight. No meat and rice. And pineapple again in the morning. I guarantee you'll go.''
``Does Mr Lawrence then want her to turn into a pineapple? Look at her, she already looks a little yellow around the gills.''
They burst out laughing, Mr Solomon leading the pack.
``Don't worry, Billie, I have a good remedy for open bowels. I've got something in the kitchen that's bound to work. I made it four days ago.''
``And if Mr Solomon's ginger beer doesn't move you,'' Mr Lawrence said, ``nothing will.''
``That's right, Billie. Then we might as well take you in the van to Groote Schuur.''
And they burst out laughing all over again.
``I told you,'' Sabah said to me. ``My family's not well. My father can go on like this forever. He loves it.''
``Come, Billie, let's go inside. What kind of a name is Billie, anyway? The name Billie in this country always comes with a pair of horns.''
``You're too much, Mr Solomon.'' I felt a genuine affection for him.
I noted the difference in the two households. At the Dollie house, everything was spotless and in its place, with fresh flowers and lovely aromas. The radio was on low, the music switched off at sunset for half an hour to respect the maghrib prayers. You ate on time and you prayed on time. The Solomon place, on the other hand, was like a beach house for teenagers. There were sand prints from Dobermans, dirty ashtrays, dog bowls, piles of old newspapers and packs of cards right next to the condensed milk and sugar on the kitchen counter. The music was never switched off, and the fridge, when I opened it to get a can of condensed milk for Mr Solomon’s tea, made me take a step back. Nothing was sealed, and a big pot was jammed in on the same shelf with an opened can of peas, an overripe tomato, four biscuits on a saucer, and a half-eaten egg sandwich on a plate.
When we had been in Cape Town just a week, a relative died. After the funeral, ten of us were back around the huge table in the Solomon kitchen feeling depressed, and someone suggested gin rummy to cheer us up.
``No,'' Sabah said. ``We have to have respect. How can we play cards when someone just died? The man's hardly cold.''
``Aagh, what,'' Mr Solomon said, ``Boeta Braim would want us to enjoy ourselves. Riaz, get the cards. Toeghfa, put on the kettle for tea, my girl. Let's have a few hands for Boeta Braim.''
That’s how it was. I liked being in his house. There were no rules, no formal times for eating, and until you got hungry, no one knew whether someone was going to throw a few onions and potatoes and meat in a pot, or whether you were going to get a steak salad sandwich from Wembley. The spontaneity was in complete keeping with his character – which was also the same for Sabah.
Mr Solomon and I went into the oak trim kitchen. Everything in there he'd built with his own hands, he said, and showed me the missing thumb to prove it. He led me to two huge paraffin tins on the floor. He lifted the lid and the pungent ginger aroma hit my nose.
Riaz put out eight glasses. Mr Solomon took a mug, dipped it into the fizzing brew, and poured the potent brown liquid into a glass, giving Sabah a first taste.
``Whoofff!'' she said, blinking her eyes. ``This kicks!''
I took a sip and felt the fire rip down my throat.
``What did I tell you, hey?'' he smiled proudly. ``No later than tomorrow, Billie, you'll sing the national anthem.''
I couldn’t wait. Anyone’s national anthem. Even God Save the Queen. But nothing happened, and we spent the next morning playing cards in our pyjamas and gowns with friends who had come to find out which horses Mr Solomons was favoring for the jackpot, Mr Solomon all the while continuing to pour ginger beer into my glass. At lunch time there was the horn of a car hooting impatiently outside - Mrs Dollie in her polished Citroën, waiting to take us to Wynberg.
Mr Solomon raised his right brow in that way he had when he was about to get cocky. ``Your mother's getting mighty bold driving that car up my street every day,'' he said to no one in particular. ``I wouldn't be surprised if that woman still has a thing for me. Ever since I saw her in Salt River a few weeks ago, she's getting brave. I tell you, Billie, she couldn't get out of that car fast enough, preening like a peacock, almost falling over her feet.''
``Oh, stop it, Daddy,'' Sabah said. ``You think everyone's in love with you.''
We said goodbye to everyone and jumped into the car, pyjamas and all, and then had to listen to Mrs Dollie's version of how she had bumped into the old goat in Salt River, and him purposely parking his van behind her to have a better look. The man had to get over his ridiculousness. He was almost sixty.
It was a scorching day. We decided to spend the afternoon playing Scrabble by the pool.
``It's a heat wave out there,'' Mrs Dollie shouted from the kitchen window. ``I'm not coming out. You girls can come in if you want something to drink.''
``I'm taking off my bather, Billie,'' Sabah said, pulling the straps off her shoulder, stepping out of it, jumping into the pool. I sat for a few minutes watching her head break the surface, then her bum as she dove down again.
Her mother, despite what she'd said, came out with tall glasses of chilled guava juice on a tray.
``Mom, you have to keep watch,'' Sabah said from the pool. ``I'm skinny dipping.''
``Skinny dipping? What nonsense is this? Is that what you learned in Canada? To swim without clothes on? If my mother was alive now, she'd die all over again.''
``Don't be such a prude, Mom, it's just us. Who’s here to see?''
``God sees.'' She pretended to be cross, and went back inside, nodding her head.
Sabah got out of the pool. ``Ever pee standing up, Billie?''
She walked around the pool to the grass on the other side. ``You stand like this, and you lean your leg slightly inwards, then you let the pee run down your thigh.'' She closed her eyes to the sun, smiling like the devil as the pee trailed down her leg into the grass.
``God, this feels good! It's such a nice warm feeling against your leg, and straight into the ground. Don't you have to pee?''
Swimming without bathing suits, peeing on your own foot? Was this the frigid bitch everyone at the office had said had a peg up her arse?
Then we saw Suleiman Adams come through the garage. Mrs Dollie must've been performing her prayers and not heard him knock. I looked at Sabah. She had also just registered his presence and become aware of her nakedness. But she didn’t jump back into the pool. She looked at him, smiling innocently.
``You're naked,'' he said.
``Well, yeah. Wait till my mother sees you.''
I rolled up her towel and tossed it over. It was a foot or so short of landing on the other side and she could've caught it, but she let it fall in the pool.
``Maybe I should go back out again,'' he said.
``Throw my bather, Billie.''
This she caught, and stepped into, wriggling into the wet suit as Suleiman tried hard to keep his eyes on the trees.
“That’s a nice bather,” he smiled when she walked past him.
“Not nice buns?”
“That too. Are you married?”
“What does that mean?”
“It means that I am, and that soon I won’t be.”
We left early the next morning for Caledon, six of us jammed into Toyer's hump-backed Volvo. My stomach had rumbled a few times, giving me hope, and I was a little uncomfortable sitting between Sabah and Toeghfa in the back.
We stopped along the side of the road just before going on to Sir Lowry’s Pass. Toeghfa took out a hamper from the trunk.
``Salmon sandwiches, anyone? Mince pies?''
``Toeghfa makes good sandwiches,'' Fa’iq said.
``I'm having some really bad cramps,'' I told Sabah.
``Do you have to go?''
``I don't know. It's all in my stomach still.''
``You can't pick a worse place than this, Billie. We’re right in the open. We’ll have to drive quite a distance when we cross the pass before we find any trees.''
The cramps subsided a bit, and I had coffee and sandwiches with them.
Riaz took out a joint. ``Skuif, Billie?''
``Wait till your wife hears about this,'' Sabah said, taking a few heavy drags. She exhaled, giving a naughty smile. “We don't have this quality in Canada.''
We all stood around trekking skuif -- I was picking up the lingo -- and I almost forgot about the cramps.
We got back in the car and headed up the pass.
Two minutes later the cramps were back, and moved with knife-like force into my bowels.
``Can you stop the car?''
``What is it, Billie?'' Sabah asked.
``It's an emergency. Please!''
``Oh, my word,'' Toyer said. ``We can't stop here, we’re climbing. Can you hold it in?''
``No.'' I was close to panic.
We were in a line of cars high up on the mountain. When I looked down at the steep fall, I got dizzy. We moved higher, around a dangerous curve.
``Please, stop, I have to get out!''
Toyer put on the indicator and came to an abrupt halt. I climbed hastily over Toeghfa who was taking too long to get out. Out on the narrow gravel shoulder, I ripped at my jeans. I didn't dare look over the cliff and didn't care about the cars coming up the hill or the wind blowing up my arse. I hit everything, including the tire of the car.
``Holy, fuck!'' Sabah exclaimed, ``she's right next to the car. Give me something to cover her up.''
“There’s a blanket in the back.”
Sabah got out and opened the trunk, and took out an old picnic blanket. She held the blanket in front of me as a shield while I squatted and did my business - on and on, three minutes, six minutes, ignoring the by-passers or those in the car politely busying themselves.
``Look at these fuckers staring. What're you looking at?” she snarled at an old couple in a white Toyota Cressida.
``I'm sorry, Sabah. I'm so ashamed. Do you have any tissues?''
``Toeghfa,'' she thumped on the window. ``Some napkins, please.''
``We used them when we had the sandwiches.''
I was in a strange country with my arse over a cliff, shitting all over my jeans. Who would believe such a story? And who would’ve just packed up and crossed continents anyway with a co-worker they hardly knew?
``Isn't there any paper in the car?'' she asked again.
``Only Riaz's Times. Do you want that?''
``I haven’t looked at it yet,'' Riaz said.
``Don't get kak now, Riaz,'' Sabah snarled. ``Hand it over.''
``I'll give you the property guide. I don't read that. Or do you want the sports section?''
``Just any flippin’ section! You want Billie to die out here?''
She handed me some of the paper.
``What about my jeans? I can't keep them on. Oh my God, this is so embarrassing.''
She tore off more paper and handed it to me. ``Billie, it's just us here. Take off your jeans. You'll have to sit in this blanket.''
I stepped out of my pants, and with my foot scraped both my jeans and my mess over the cliff. Then kicked over my shoes. My bum burned. I felt crampy and soiled.
“Is there any water?” I asked.
“Some water here, please,” Sabah said.
Toeghfa handed her a bottle, which she gave to me. I washed my hands and my feet. Wrapped like a mummy from the waist down, I got back into the car.
``My father and his bladdy ginger beer,'' Riaz said. ``You okay, Billie?''
“I’m fine, thanks.”
``Wat nou, mense?'' Toyer asked. “What now, people?”
``Draai om,” Riaz said.” Turn around. We can't go with Billie in a blanket to a spa.''
When Mr Solomon heard what had happened, he gloated all over again about the potency of his home brew. For days there were enquiries about my bowels, and advice on follow-up maintenance. Mr Lawrence brought a box of pineapples and a few packets of dried fruit, just in case, and even Suleiman brought prunes.
There was only one incident during my visit to Cape Town to really remind me where I was. Sabah and I had to go to pick up something for her mother at a shop in Athlone and returned to find the car standing on four bricks. We couldn’t believe it. The tires had been stolen in broad daylight right in front of the Athlone Police Station.
The constable on duty had a friendly smile, and pointed us to the other side of the wooden partition.
``I want to report a theft,'' Sabah said.
``Over there, miss,'' he said again. ``You're standing in the section for non-whites.''
``I'm not white.''
``Please,'' he smiled patiently, ``if you go over there, someone can take your complaint.''
``I don't want to go over there.''
``Where do you live?'' he asked.
“I don’t live in this country. My mother lives in Athlone. Now, can I tell you what I’m here for? Our car was parked outside, and -''
``Miss, look, I'm sorry. If you and your friend -- and don't tell me she's from Athlone too -- if the two of you want to go over there, Constable Van Rijn can look after you.”
``Can you believe this, Billie? They can't make up their minds what the fuck I am. First I’m not white enough, and now I’m not black enough!''
I didn't know what she was talking about. She refused to do what the cop asked, and we went back outside. In the end we went looking for a public telephone to call Fa’iq to come and sort it all out.
A few days before our departure I noticed that Mrs Dollie was no longer clamoring for Sabah’s attention. In fact, she seemed to be attempting to create some distance. Coming into the kitchen early one morning, I caught her deep in thought at the sink, looking through the window at the trees in the yard. Sabah had warned me. Her mother went into mourning while she was still there.
``And what are your plans for today, Mrs Dollie?''
``Oh, nothing,'' she said, not her usual perky self. ``I think I'll stay home and make some pastries for next week. Are you missing Canada?''
``I miss my mother, yes.''
``What's a mother, hey? All children are the same. My own mother died six months after Sabah left in 1968. I still miss her today. Can you believe that? A grown woman like me? Sometimes, when I think of Sabah so far away, I cry for my mother, and I cry for Sabah. My mother always used to say that you can have ten sons, it doesn't equal one girl. My sons are good sons, Billie, don't get me wrong. But sons are not like daughters. They take wives and move on with their lives. A daughter is yours, no matter who she’s with. Do you have any brothers?''
``I'm an only child.''
``Shame. That must be lonely for you.''
``I'm used to it, Mrs Dollie. My mother and I are friends. We play bridge together in a club.”
“That’s nice. Me and Sabah are close too. We did a lot of things together before she left for Canada. Did she tell you why she went?”
She was silent for a while, and looked up at me. “Maybe one day she will.”
In Walmer Estate Mr Solomon also was saying his own goodbyes.
``I'm not coming to the airport on Friday,'' he mumbled one night when we came to see him. There were no cards, no visitors. The evening paper lay folded on the chair in the front room.
``It's all right,'' Sabah said.
``And don't still come out of your way to drive here when you leave. I'll say goodbye to you on the phone.''
Then his expression changed, and he seemed almost cross. ``I don't know when you're coming home, Sabah. You've been there eight years now.''
Sabah came to sit next to him. ``We've been through this before, Daddy. I have children there.''
``We all have children.''
``I know. But my children’s father lives in Canada. He won’t come here, and I can’t take them away from him.''
Nothing more was said.
On the day of our departure, Sabah asked Riaz to take her first to her father’s house before heading for the airport. She’d tried all day to get him on the telephone. When we got to the Solomon house, there was no one there – which in itself was very unusual as Mr Solomon never liked to leave the house, even to go shopping. Mr Lawrence, or one of his sons had to pick up things for him.
Our bags were checked in, and we started to edge towards the metal gate. All around us, sad faces looked on, people pushing chocolates and gifts into our hands. I noticed a hardness in Sabah. There was no emotion. Her mother was crying into a wad of tissues, supported by Toeghfa and Saliya on the bench.
``All right, Mom,'' she said, getting ready to go through the security gate. “Till next time, hey?''
Mrs Dollie blew harder into her tissues.
``Don't let me leave like this, Mom.''
``Go, Sabah,'' Fa’iq pushed her off. ``Leave Mummy with us.''
``Look after her, Saliya. You too, Toeghfa.”
We stepped through the metal gate. On the plane we said a few words to each other, and she went to sleep. She was that other Sabah again. Somewhere over Africa, I started to feel weepy.
“What’s wrong, Billie? Why are you crying?” She had woken up.
“I don’t know. I just feel strange.”
She summoned the stewardess who took me to the crew's quarters, where I was given a tranquilliser.
When I look back on that trip, I can’t say what happened. If it was the sea air, the magic of Africa, or the level of intimacy I experienced with Sabah’s family. I just know that I sat on that plane, and felt very exhausted and alone.
``They robbed me, Billie,'' was all she said when we touched down on the icy runway at Toronto. ``They robbed me, those fucking bastards.''