Mar 12, 2012

I count the bullets sometimes

I reckon before I tell you about Jeremy Vosloo, I should start with two years ago, the year the blacks started protesting the use of Afrikaans in their schools in Soweto and the protests grew into riots, setting off a wave of demonstrations spreading throughout the country until it arrived ugly and angry in Cape Town and my father had this bright idea to send me to private school. He always had these bright ideas, my father, from the brooders and turkey-cocks he brought home one Saturday afternoon in a cage in the back of the bakkie declaring that we no longer had to buy eggs from Mr Doep, the chicken pen eventually growing into a cacophony of red-combed birds snapping at your heels, no one collecting the eggs or raking up, to the sheep and goats, and a stubborn ewe charging all the visitors.

My father, you see, had grown up one of nine sons in a box in District Six, and had dreamed of a backyard where he could swing his arms without knocking into his neighbour's lavatory. When his clothing factory landed this big account, taking fashion stores from Cape Town to Mafeking, we moved from a comfortable house on the slopes of Walmer Estate, where there was life and civilisation, to this remote place in Philippi he likes to call the farm. Now, despite all the sudden complaints after the lorry pulled away with our things -- the place had been too cramped, too high on the hill, the hot-water cylinder didn't hold enough -- there was something about that Ravenscraig Road beauty, all highly polished oak smelling of lavendar wax and my grandmother's crunchy pine nuts tamaletjies, that was hard to resist. The kind of house you could run through from front door to kitchen and out the back in four seconds flat and travel years with all the history and life steeped in those high beams and plastered walls.

And that's another thing. Even my illiterate grandmother sitting with her huge bum on our folded pyjamas, pressing them on the stoep, eating raspberry ice blocks with condensed milk with sies Galima from across the street, needed some kind of excitement to survive, and refused to come with us, moving in with my uncle down the street. In any event, my father bought this plot, called in contractors and landscape artists and, with the blessings of Barclays Bank, produced for his family a Cape Dutch-style home, with oak doors and curved fanlights and brass knobs, velvet lawns, stables, servants' quarters, a kidney-shaped pool, and a pack of trained Dobermans. The fantasy was started and all sorts of animals started to arrive. The problem was, the more animals that came, the more people were hired, my father worked harder, not getting to enjoy the smell of all this warm chicken shit. So when he pushed his Argus aside one night, looking at my mother who was the real boss of the house, and broke the news that I was starting at a boys' high school in Bishopscourt, I wondered if he'd gone mad. My cousin Rudwan already said we lived like we thought we'd been born in the saddle when not one of us had raised a leg over a filly, and here he was setting me farther apart. Private school, I argued, was for those coloreds salivating through plate glass windows at the world of the whites. Didn't I already read the news in the Argus every night? Wasn't my English better than my sisters’s?

But I really should start with that first day, my mother driving me in the silver Benz, depositing me new satchel and all in front of this school with hundreds of green-blazered boys on the grounds, the only snoekie in a sea of yellowtail. I knew I was in the right class when I saw my name on the board, and in the wrong school when I stood by myself during break. I cursed my parents. How could they do this to me when I could've been with Rudwan at Sinton High?

I noticed this boy with platinum hair and a cowlick, a garden snake in his hand, chasing after a fat student called Albert Mostert, who was clearly horrified. Albert's short legs carried him chop chop to the principal's office where Jeremy got a warning, and was quickly relieved of his pet. Sitting three seats behind them in Biology class, I watched Jeremy look furtively behind him, take a chameleon out of his pocket, and put it down Albert's neck. Albert jumped up with a scream. Mr Greaves dropped the chalk he was busy writing with at the blackboard, demanding the name of the culprit. Jeremy looked about as curious as the rest of the class to see who could’ve done such a thing. It looked like I'd found a friend.

That weekend Rudwan visited, and watched from the safe side of the henhouse while I waded through a gang of angry birds collecting eggs for a neighbour, my takkies crunching in the grey and white shit. I mean, were we an eggerama or something that we had to supply the neighborhood? We ate so many things made with eggs -- puddings, omelettes, souffles -- you could pull fat worms from our veins. The pittance charged didn't even cover the chicken feed.

``I'm on the swimming team,'' I said to him.
``There's a pool?''
``And a tennis court and pingpong room.''
He hung his head, and the zing went out of the brag. ``But they're too strict, you can't even chew gum on the school grounds.''
``You’re joking.''
``And don't let them catch you wearing your uniform after school on the street. They also have this stupid rule that if a teacher comes down the stairs, you have to stop and let him pass, and say, good morning, sir, or afternoon, sir, and not move until he does.''
``That's stupid. Sinton hasn't got sturvy rules like that, and you can eat and chew what you want. Did you make any friends?''
``Jeremy Vosloo.''
``A boer?''
``Dunno. You want to go catch tadpoles after I take in the eggs?''
We went out with our jars, but it wasn't the same as before. At supper my sisters, taking advantage of Rudwan's presence and my father's good mood, made their own charges.
``I don't see why he gets to go to private school when we have to go around here,'' Layla, my second youngest sister complained. ``He gets everything.''
``Shut up, Layla. You're only in Standard Two.''
``I won't shut up. You get so much things just 'cause you're a boy.''
``So many things.''
``Stop correcting everyone. And keep quiet both of you,'' my mother warned.
``Layla's right. I'm going to high school next year. Will it be private school, too?'' Soraya asked.
``We'll see your marks in June.''
My father waited for his youngest child, but Ruby was too busy sucking on the bone of her chop. Ruby didn't care if she ever saw a classroom. All the notes and phone calls that came from the teachers were about Ruby. Ruby didn't do her homework, Ruby came to school with one shoe, Ruby came without a consent form for the outing to the museum, Ruby's failed math for the fourth time, Ruby's drawings won first prize.
``And you, Ruby? Do you want to go to private school too?''
Ruby licked her fingers. ``I told you, Daddy, I'm going to be an artist.''
``And what kind of money do you think you'll earn?''
``I don't know. But you said we could choose what we want to be when we grow up.''
``Do you want to sell paintings in Greenmarket Square and starve?''
``I'll be married, Daddy. My husband will take care of the money part.''
My father put his fork down, and laughed. When Ruby was three and refused to wear anything but purple underwear, he sent his typist to Woolworths for two dozen in that shade. I had to wait six weeks for Pacman, and Ruby had only to pout and flash those almond eyes and my father would give his okay.
After I'd been at my new school three months, I asked if I could have Jeremy over for the weekend. My mother said yes, but my father couldn't quite wrap himself around the idea of an Afrikaner boy in his home. Family visited on weekends, he said, he didn't want trouble and envy surrounding his son. But he agreed, with conditions and warnings.
The factory closed at four on Fridays, the one day we could count on him to sit down to supper with us, and a favorite time because he would listen to grievances, hand out pocket money, toffee rolls, comic books, putting Milano's troubles behind him for a few hours. I must say I was anxious to see what he thought of my blue-eyed friend – and also a bit nervous about my sisters putting me in the eyes. In between helpings of mash and peas, I found him glancing occasionally at Jeremy; how he held the fork, cut his meat, the way he put the food in his mouth -- not too different from us except he ate a little slower, giving the food a few more chews. But then Jeremy didn't have three siblings rushing to prong their forks into the last chop. Jeremy had a good way of speaking to his elders, sort of well-behaved without being overly reserved, and my father was impressed by things like that. Of course he had no idea that Jeremy was the school prankster and Mr Greaves' worst nightmare.
``What're your plans for the future, Jeremy, do you know what you want to be?'' I suddenly heard him ask.
``Yes, sir, I want to be a pilot.''
My father’s brows raised in surprise. ``That's nice. You like planes then, do you?''
``My father was a fighter pilot.''
``He was killed in an air raid five years ago.''
Something went the wrong way down my father's throat, and he coughed. ``I'm sorry to hear that.''
``That's all right, Mr. Levy. You didn't know.''
``My mom's a designer,'' Layla said. ``She makes all the patterns for my father's factory. And yours?''
``She’s a police sergeant.''
``A woman police sergeant? Does she come home with a gun?'' Ruby asked.
``Don't be silly, Ruby,” Somaya said. “Sergeants don't carry guns.''
``She does have one,” Jeremy responded. “I count the bullets sometimes.''
I sat there listening to my sisters ask the questions I hadn’t asked, and Jeremy answering all of them. But what a combo for parents; a police sergeant and a fighter pilot, protecting South Africa's inhabitants. Who couldn't be proud of that?
The next morning my father was ready to drive off in his bakkie when Ruby ran out to tell me that Rudwan had just called to say that he would get a lift with his father and would be there soon. I was busy wiping the windscreen, and my father leaned his head out the window. ``He's your cousin, you be nice.'' He had this stupid fear that because I was friends with Jeremy, I was going to think I was white. Parents, I tell you. They put you out in this dinghy without a life jacket, then blame you if you drown.
Rudwan arrived in the middle of our gluing together a complicated windmill made out of sucker sticks, and I knew the minute he pretended Jeremy wasn't in the room that inviting him had been a mistake.
``Let's play kennetjie,'' he suggested. He was a whiz at hitting the stubby stick over the roof.
``It's getting dark, and we have to glue everything together tonight. We can't play right now.''
``You can help us,'' Jeremy offered.
Rudwan didn't turn his head to acknowledge his presence.
``You forgot how to play kennetjie, now?'' he persisted.
``Did I say that? I said it was getting dark. How can we see how to play? And we have to finish this project.''
``Let's do it later,'' Jeremy suggested.
``No. Tomorrow it has to be dry.''
Rudwan left mumbling, and moments later my father summoned me into the living room.
``What's going on?''
``He's being stupid.''
``Now he's calling me stupid,'' Rudwan whined, ``He's oorgetrek with his friend.''
``I'm not oorgetrek, you idiot. We have to finish gluing this thing tonight so we can paint it in the morning, and he doesn't understand. He wants to go play kennetjie in the dark.''
``You two always get along, why are you acting this way?''
``He's forgetting who he is.''
It was just the sort of thing to set my father off. I wanted to punch the sneer off Rudwan's face.
``Then why did I ask you to come? And what's the big deal, anyway? We can play tomorrow, and then you can show off!''
``That's it,'' Rudwan snorted. ``I'm calling my father to pick me up.''
``Stop this nonsense now,'' my father raised his voice. ``You're not calling anyone and, you, mister, I told you beforehand what's what.''
``Are you satisfied now, you snot? We asked if you wanted to help, but you didn't want to. What's your problem, man?''
``Who cares about your stupid project anyway.''
``That's enough!'' my father roared. ``Go sort your selves out, or I'm driving everyone home!''
We slunk back into my room, and I cursed myself for inviting him. Jeremy pretended nothing was wrong, and I felt shitty having him there. We were showing a very bad side. Worse, when I'd told Rudwan he could come, I'd not thought of the sleeping arrangements. To prevent war, I threw three cushions between the twin beds and tossed restlessly all night on the floor listening to their machine-gun farts.
The next morning, on my way to the bathroom, I overheard my parents in the kitchen, who were up early for koeksisters and coffee.
``... on his best behaviour.''
``So are we.''
``Do you think he's sincere?''
``What do you mean?''
``You can't change what's in their hearts – what they believe.''
``He's just a child.''
``But conditioned from the time he saw his black nanny staring down at him.''
``It's not his fault. And he has no problem having a Muslim boy for a friend. It's today's children who're going to change things, not us.''
``Today's black children, and coloured children. Not them. Do you think that after three centuries, they can flush it out with epsom salts?''
``You must stop all this politics in front of the kids.''
``They should be aware.''
``What, every kid in South Africa isn't aware?''
There was silence for a moment, then I heard my mother’s voice change. “I still like him, though.”
“Me too.”
“When he said that his father had died in an air raid it kind of did something to me. There is glory in protecting your country.''

1977 had started with black schools reopening amid continued student boycotts, ending with Rhodesia announcing its acceptance of one man, one vote, and Black-majority rule -- a dream held by most but not all of us. Somaya came third in class with eighty percent, Layla passed with above average marks, Ruby played the lead in The Frog Prince, I finished a good first year, and my mother stunned us with the announcement that the Philippi air had thrown her cycle out, and a baby was on the way.
The factory closed for the Christmas holidays, and my father made plans for a trip to the Wilderness. A few days into the arrangements I asked if I could bring Jeremy with.
``You know, Nazeem,'' he started, with that resigned thing in his voice, ``I like Jeremy, but he's come here all year now, and he's never asked you to his house.''
``Maybe he has a reason.''
My father looked at me in that strange way. “Of course he has.''
``He's not like that, Daddy, you don't know him. And we can't blame him for the government.''
``Who said anything about the government? It’s you I’m thinking about. Doesn't it bother you that he hasn't asked you once to come and meet his family?''
``It does, when I think about it. I don't know where he lives, and he knows where we keep the cheese in the fridge. I think about it, but I put it out of my mind. We're friends, that hasn’t changed, and he's going nowhere for the holidays.''
``His family's never tried to find out about us. I find that very strange also. You don't think we'd let you spend weekends at someone's house without knowing where it is or who those people are? This is two weeks in the Wilderness.''
``His mother's a sergeant, maybe she checked us out.''
My father said no more. That night at supper he brought it up with my mother.
``Bring him with,'' she said.
``I don't know why I bother to ask you. You'll bring the whole soccer team if you can. You have four children, you know, not yet five. Don't you find it strange that his mother's never called us, or tried to find out who we are?''
``I do, but if that's how they do things and Jeremy wants to come, why not?''
The day before the trip my mother and I went to pick Jeremy up. He had given me the address, and I was looking forward to see where he lived. I don't know what I expected at 63 Crosby Street, but my spirits sank when we stopped in front of a crumbly-walled cottage with an overgrown path, a rusted bicycle leaning against a wheelbarrow growing weeds under a mulberry tree with trampled berries on the hard ground. I wanted to believe that we were at the wrong house, when the front door opened and Jeremy, who must've been watching from the window, came out with his rucksack and fishing rod. He didn’t close the door behind him, and no one came out to see him off.
Jeremy got into the car, and we all sat heavy with our thoughts. When we arrived at the wrought-iron gates to Faan and the gardeners, the Dobermans jumping the car, our spirits lifted, and I was even glad to see my sisters, anxious to show off the trailer my father had rented.
Later that evening Jeremy and I packed the coolers with frozen chops and boerewors, afterwards stealing smokes from the head gardener in the backyard. One of our favourite things was sitting with Faan and Piet outside their quarters dragging on their hand-rolled cigarettes, but that night Jeremy was strangely reserved. I don't know if it was the tobacco, the upcoming trip, or picking him up at his house, but several times while chewing the fat with the boys, I caught him staring off in the dark.
At eleven my mother turned off the TV, and we went to bed. Shortly after midnight, somewhere in the dimness of sleep, I heard the gates roll open, the car drive into the garage, and heard voices. I perked my ears, and turned to Jeremy in the next bed. He wasn't there. Through the window I saw his white hair reflected in the moonlight, standing on the verandah in the dark.
``... I was waiting to talk to you, Mr Levy.''
``Is something wrong, Jeremy?''
``I just wanted to say that I appreciate it, sir, that you said I could come along with you and your family. And that I … lied to you that first night.''
``The first night?''
``When I first had supper at your house ten months ago. My father was a fighter pilot, and he did die in an air raid – that was the truth. But my mother's not who I said she was.''
``What do you mean?''
``She's a Carnegie from Simonstown. That’s what I’ve been told. She gave me up when I was born.''
``I see.''
``Elspeth is the woman who looks after me. She and my father never married, but I look at her as my mother. Elspeth's a cashier at OK Bazaars.''
``Jeremy, I -- ''
``When my father died, Elspeth moved to Woodstock, and took me with her. Her boyfriend lives with us.''
There was a long silence. ``Do you have any other relatives?''
``An auntie in Jo'burg. She sends me a card at Christmastime. I haven’t seen her since I was eight.''
I sank back into my pillow, with the same hollow feeling as the time Miss Thebus in Standard Three had told us Merle, the girl who sat next to me in class, had died of TB.
I watched them there in the moonlight, my oppositionist father and my silver-haired friend.
``Do you think, Jeremy, that these figs will be ripe by the time we get back from the trip? My wife planted this tree five years ago, and every year these small little things come out and drop rock hard to the ground.''
Of course, we never spoke about it, Jeremy and me. On the trip my heart swelled when I saw my mother drape his socks over a branch to dry, and my father include him in everything. I turned the chops on the braai, noticing my parents for the first time. Maybe one day one of them or Jeremy will tell me about it and I won't have to wade through the Carnegies in the phone book.

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