Leopold Blue

Meg lives in a tiny town in rural 1990s South Africa - a hot-bed of traditionalism, racial tension and (in Meg's eyes) ordinariness. She has no friends until Xanthe arrives into Meg's life like a hurricane, offering her a look at a teenage life she never knew existed…

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2. Chapter 2

Marta had two children: Angelika, whom everyone called Angel, and Simon. Angel had been Marta’s favourite until she fell pregnant by a ‘good-for-nothing-rubbish’ at the age of thirteen, the same age that Marta had  given birth to her. Angel now lived two hours away in Portaville with the child and we didn’t talk about her anymore.

Since Angel’s ‘fall’, Simon had become the focus of Marta’s life. She took  to bringing him to work every day rather than leave him with her sister. Simon became a sort of big brother, four years faster, taller and brighter than me. However I wasn’t allowed to yell at or tell tales on him as one would ones own brother because he had so little. It wasn’t unusual to grow up with your maid’s children. The difference was that in our house Mum used it as a way of ‘fighting the system’. Mum was devoted to fighting the system, hence her current campaign of scaring the farm workers with her AIDS education. Dad didn’t find the system as intolerable as Mum, but  he  liked having Simon around because he doubled the number of boys in our house. The arrangement didn’t win us any friends amongst the  townsfolk. Here in Leopold, it made  us downright odd.

 

When  Simon  was twelve, his  teacher declared him too clever for the tiny coloured school up the road. Marta was distraught. Everyone knew that bright kids were the first to get into trouble. Dad secured him a scholarship to a private school in Cape Town. Simon was the first coloured boy to be educated outside of Leopold; he would be the first person in his family to finish school.

‘He carries a heavy burden, that  boy,’ Mum said the first time he’d  left.

‘What burden?’ I’d asked,  eeling the first twist of my stomach that would return each time his name was mentioned.

‘The hopes of a community.’ She looked wistfully after the retreating car.

I had burdens too, but Mum wasn’t interested in mine. For five long years we were fed one Simon story after another, until I’d automatically stop listening at the  mention of his name. There was a photo of him stuck on our fridge, taken on his last day of school, wearing an academic gown. His short, curly black hair was hidden under a square cap with a tassel hanging down. His eyes were crinkled almost shut. His normally wide smile was pulled tight with  embarrassment and impatience. He was trying to look ironic. His skin was brown ochre. We knew this  because one day we had found an old paint sample colour wheel and decided to code ourselves. Beth’s hair was chestnut brown; my eyes were dolphin blue. Beth claimed they were pigeon blue but she was jealous because her eyes were definitely rusty. Mum said my eyes were the colour of the sea in winter.

 

Simon’s glorious ‘A’ won him a place on an international exchange programme. He left as soon as he’d  finished school and had spent  six months travelling around Europe. At first Marta couldn’t wait to show off the postcards he sent home. Every sentence she spoke started with ‘Simon says’. But now that Simon was due back in a couple of months, Marta hadn’t mentioned him recently. I tried not to think about  his return. My life was bad enough without him prancing around with his academic genius and overseas adventure.

Marta stayed to cook us a Sunday roast. She insisted that we bring our unfinished homework to the kitchen table.

‘Start that again,’ she said, leaning over Beth’s exercise book.

‘Why?’ asked Beth.

‘Because neatliness is next to Godliness.’

‘It’s good enough for me,’ said Beth.

Marta leaned close to Beth and  said, ‘Well, it’s not good enough for me,’ and straightened up with a menacing look.

Beth laughed. ‘Why do you have to go back to church, Marta? You spent all morning there.’

‘Don’t whine,’ I said. ‘You sound like a baby.’

‘Until the peoples of this country put down their guns and pick up their bibles, we should all be down on our  knees.’

‘That too,’ I said. Beth pulled a face at me and turned back to Marta.

‘Will there be koeksisters (1)  and cakes and samoosas (2)  and doughnuts at  the  end?’ Beth had  never forgotten the one post-service tea Marta had taken us to.

’Of course!’ Marta sniffed. ‘Father Basil’s services feed the soul; it is up to the Mothers’ Union to feed the  body.’

 

By the time my parents returned Beth and I were at the bottom of the garden, spread out under the pecanut tree. The last of the winter sun was making a slow retreat across the lawn. Beth flipped through a pile of Archie comics. On my lap lay The Grapes of Wrath, but I was thinking about  Sinead O’Connor. She sang into my Walkman; her voice filled my head. The tape was stretched and the batteries were running low, but when I played it at full volume, all her anger and longing were trapped inside me and I felt  better.

‘I fee-eel soooo different,’ I sang with my  heart full and my eyes closed.

Beth pinched my arm.

I opened my eyes. ‘What?’

‘You are different,’ she said, and sat up. Mum was approaching across  the  lawn. I picked up  my  book.  She  was alone; Dad had no doubt taken refuge in his study after  a long  day with Florence Nightingale. Watching her  from behind the pages, I despaired. Her thick, rusty-brown hair was long – too long and heavy for her lean frame. It hung around her face like an old  velvet curtain. When I was little I’d loved to weave my fingers between the thick strands, but  ong hair did nothing for middle-aged women. And it was unhygienic. Strands of it clogged up the bathroom plugholes and clung to the sofa and cushions, as though she was everywhere.

She  hesitated halfway across the garden, her tall figure uncomfortably straight, and looked around, as if from behind an invisible screen. The longer she lived here, the more English she became. Whereas local women softened and spread, she was becoming stiff  and knobbly. Each year her voice sounded harsher. It rang out on the Main Street, distinguishable above all the  other noise.

She tucked her mane behind her ears and launched questions as she strode closer: ‘Take those things off your ears so that I can talk to you. What are you doing out here? Have you finished your homework? What did you  have for lunch? It’s getting late – are your uniforms ready?’ Her words flew at us, rat-a-tat-a-tat-a-tat, splintering our peaceful afternoon. I flicked over the tape in my Walkman and lay down.

‘Why was Marta here? Did you call her?’

‘No,’ said Beth.

‘Marta loves us,’ I said pointedly.

‘What did the two of you  get up to today?’ Mum asked in her most tolerant voice.

‘Nothing,’ I sat up quickly, before Beth could reply, ‘Nothing of interest.’

Mum’s eyes finally flashed as she looked at me. ‘If you want to be part of this  conversation, take those silly headphones off.’

‘What? I can’t hear  you,’ I said loudly, pointing to my  ears.

‘It’s time to come inside,’ she said, shaking her  head, then turned back to the house. I winked at Beth. But Beth was watching Mum. After a moment she ran to join her.

 

I followed them in. The sun had slipped behind the house, a blanket of cold air settling over the garden. A dikkop (3)  broke into song – its ghostly, mournful whistles confirmed the coming night. I paused on the stoep (4)  and looked out  across the lawn. From inside it would already look dark. But in the last light I could make out the pecanut tree, its spindly, bare branches reaching up into the night. The watchman. It marked the unofficial end of the garden, even though, like the other two houses in our road, our land stretched five acres down to the river. Dad had strung up a chicken-wire fence behind it when we  were little in a fit  of parental diligence, to keep us from wandering off and getting into trouble. Then it had seemed like a dare: to climb over, to go beyond. These days it represented a battered frontier line, a weak attempt at keeping the advancing wilderness at bay. The magistrate’s property next door was by contrast the essence of order and control. Past the rolled lawn and neat flowerbeds lay a large vegetable garden and beyond that pastureland, where up until two years ago the magistrate’s wife had  kept a cow. This wasn’t legal, but as the cow had kept the houses along our road in milk and butter, and as the magistrate’s wife was a sensitive woman and uncommonly attached to her cow, it had  been overlooked. But when her beloved Bessie  was bitten by a cobra and had to be shot, she let it be known that she blamed our ‘English wilderness’ next door. She and Mum had not since exchanged a word. But the name had stuck – Dad was very much taken with the idea of the ‘English wilderness’. He used  it regularly to refer  to the general chaos of our  house.

 

 

The air in the kitchen was heavy with roast chicken and onions and sweet potatoes. Dad and Beth were already seated at the table. Mum carved the  chicken at the  counter next to the stove. I ruffled Dad’s hair as I passed. It was thick and dark and somehow always carried the sharp, lemony smell of boegoe (5) leaves. He winked in reply. Dad was a man of the earth. His natural habitat was out in the mountains, studying his precious rock formations. There his conversation leaped about, trying to keep up as his  mind raced on ahead. Inside he preferred to keep  his thoughts to himself.

The kitchen table was the centre of our family. The history of our lives was etched into it with our crayons and scissors and pens. We had chiselled out crevices on the side deep enough to stash forbidden bubble gum or a Brussels sprout.

In the corner of the kitchen, on the old black and white TV, a newsreader announced another weekend of violence and death.

‘Where were the police in all of this?’ Mum demanded of the newsreader. ‘The so-called peace-keepers!’ She kept talking, as did he, neither of them interested in the other’s reply.

I looked at Dad. He raised his bushy eyebrows in a way that made me giggle.

‘This is exactly,’ Mum waved the carving fork at the TV, ‘the kind of reporting that incites violence. And hatred.’ She jabbed again at the unfortunate TV reader. This time she was going for his heart.

‘Turn off the TV before your mother sends her fork through it,’ Dad said to Beth.

‘It’s downright irresponsible,’ said Mum to the suddenly quiet room, as she delivered the butchered chicken and vegetables to the  table.

‘Yes, Vivvy.’ Dad looked tired.

‘It is,’ she insisted as she sat down.

As we began to eat, she sat up and glanced at the yellow clock above the door. She pushed her chair away from the table and looked at Dad. ‘It was exactly a week ago.’

‘I know,’ he  replied. He put down his knife and fork and closed his eyes.

‘What?’ I asked into the silence. When no one replied, I repeated: ‘What?’

Mum turned to me. ‘Don’t be obtuse, Margaret. The St James Church killings. When those men burst in on the evening service, spraying bullets across the church, killing eleven people. Did any of this  tragedy register with you?’

‘Yes, Mother, it did,’ I said. Of course I knew about it, it was a shocking thing to have happened. It was terrible. But what iota of difference could Mum make to the future of this country? In what way would her being  angry  at the government, or the newsreader, change anything?

We all sat and thought about the killings and the families of the dead people until Mum decided that  it was OK to start eating. As though waiting until our food was thoroughly cold was our small way of honouring those who had lost their lives.

‘Yummy!’ I said after a silence. ‘This is delicious. Well done, Marta!’

Dad shook  his head at me.

‘Does no one have anything cheerful to talk about?’ I asked.

‘The under-12s netball team is being announced on Monday,’ said  Beth, ‘and Juffrou (6) Kat  said I’ll be in it. Well, she said maybe, but she winked, so I’m pretty sure.’

‘Good girl!’ said Dad.

‘And,’ Beth continued, ‘and, for camp, next year, guess where we’re going?  Guess!’

‘Sun City,’ I replied.

‘Don’t be a spaz,’ said Beth.

‘Where then?’

‘Strandfontein! We’re going to the beach!’

‘Rubbish. They’ll never take you there. They’ll take you to Juffrou du Plessis’  arm, because that’s where the standard fives (7) always go.’

‘This time it’s different. Juffrou said it’s because we’re the best year. All the teachers think so.’

‘Sorry to crash the party, but I have even better news,’ said Dad.

He waited, enjoying a rare moment of our full attention.

‘My book is finally due to be out next year.’

‘Fantastic!’ said Mum.

‘What are you going to call it, Dad?’ asked Beth.

Hot Rocks and Flirty Fossils.’

‘Timothy!’ Mum groaned.

‘That’s more likely to sell than “A Palaeontological History of the Cederberg Region”.’ He turned to me. ‘How about you, princess? Any good news to share?’

‘Nothing,’ I said. ‘But don’t let that dampen the mood.’

‘Oh darling! The sweet agony of being  fifteen!’ said Mum.

I rolled my  eyes.

‘All those  hormones, all those feelings,’ said Beth, shaking her  head.

‘Hello! You’re eleven years old. What do you know?’

Dad put down his fork  and cleared his throat. ‘Beth, under no circumstances are you to enter adolescence until Meg is safely out the other side. This household will not survive both of you wandering the valley of despair at the same time.’

‘So hurry up!’ said Beth, leaning forward over the table.

‘Actually, I have some good news,’ said Mum.

‘You’re pregnant!’ said Beth. I snorted.

‘Pregnant?’ Mum  looked confused. ‘No! Thank God,’ she added, which caused Dad to sink. ‘My friend Bibi wants to write a feature for an English newspaper on the AIDS education I’m doing. Isn’t that  great?’ She put a forkful into her mouth and chewed on it for a moment. ‘Who knows, maybe we’ll even get some funding out  of it.’

‘I thought you  said you had  good news,’ I said.  It slipped out too quickly. I glanced at Mum to see her reaction. She made a show of breathing in slowly.

‘When are you  going to stop this?’ Beth asked.

Mum looked at Beth. ‘Sweetheart, if by “this” you mean telling very poor, uneducated people how they can avoid getting a disease that will kill them and their children, the answer is I’m not. It’s important.’

‘No, it’s not,’ replied Beth, unusually stubborn.

‘Yes, it is,’ Mum laughed, her eyes darting to Dad for support.

‘You’re not listening!’ I said.

‘How about for once in your life  –’ Mum started, her voice rising.

‘Ronel’s mum says you’re upsetting the volk and making the famers cross,’ Beth spoke over her. Her face was red. ‘And everyone wants you to stop.’

Everyone,’ I nodded.

Mum stared at Beth a moment, then scraped her chair back against the linoleum floor and left.

I looked at Dad, but he held up his hand and finished his supper in silence.

 

 

I couldn’t remember when my allergic reaction to Mum began. Everything she did annoyed me; everything I said to her sounded childish or whiny. I loved her of course; but recently I’d found it difficult to be in the same room. I lay on my bed, staring up at the poster of Kirk Cameron that was stuck to my ceiling. A nagging guilt wormed its way into my  thoughts.

‘I’m not going to apologise,’ I said aloud to the grinning Kirk.

‘Somebody has to stand up to her!’ Dad was incapable of doing it. Nevertheless the look on Mum’s face at supper made me feel mean. Many things made Mum angry, but she rarely got upset.

‘Oh, all right,’ I muttered, getting up with heavy feet. I would apologise for being rude. Then I would tell her about the way people looked at us, the  parties I wasn’t invited to, the raised eyebrows when her back was turned. Surely her family was more important to her than the farm workers?

I walked across the courtyard, around which our square house was built and into the family room. There was no reason  for it to be called that  – it had no purpose other than to link the courtyard to the stoep and garden. The far wall was a graveyard of discarded passions – our baby books, Dad’s record collection, the upright piano and Mum’s knitting machine. Ahead of me was the sitting room. I paused. Although I couldn’t see them, I knew my parents were spread out on the old brown corduroy sofa. Whilst everyone else in South Africa sat on a couch in their lounge, we had a sofa in our sitting room. ‘Airports have lounges,’ was one of Mum’s mantras, ‘people have sitting rooms.’

‘But Timothy,’ came  her voice through the open door, ‘AIDS is not  a construct of my imagination! It’s an epidemic, not a scare story. All the  evidence you need is there.’ Her tone  was softer alone  with Dad. ‘It will be on the new government’s agenda – there’s a committee drawing up a national response.’

‘A committee, hey? This is serious,’ Dad teased. The sofa creaked. He sipped loudly a couple of times. I couldn’t bear the way Dad slurped – it was the only thing about him that I didn’t like.

‘Life is short and hard, Vivvy, for the people you’re trying to help. You’re not bringing them good news. And you’re asking them to talk about the only thing in their lives that is private.’

‘I don’t understand you!’ Mum sounded tired. ‘You’re talking about a community where alcoholism and  domestic abuse are diseases themselves. Surely this is a perfect opportunity to change some of that?’

‘The things people are most  ashamed about  are the things they are least likely to talk about. It will take time. You’re not going to change ideas overnight because of some numbers on a piece of paper.’

‘But there isn’t time, Timothy! That’s why Bibi’s article is so important.’

‘That woman has  too much time on her hands,’ replied Dad, ‘She needs to settle down.’ Then he added. ‘You know what she needs, Vivvy…’

Mum laughed. ‘I don’t think it’s a man she’s after,’ she said.

‘Huh! That’s only because she hasn’t met a real man  yet. A South African man would sort that problem out. What about Hannes?’ Their laughter was warm and private. I didn’t want to be near them. I felt left out; my  awkwardness would make me rude. As I turned away, Mum spoke again.

‘I don’t know how to deal with that  child, Tim.’ I stopped.

‘She’s fine,’ came  Dad’s reply.

‘She’s a pain in the  bloody arse.’

My heart constricted at Mum’s words; I knew I shouldn’t be listening. But I couldn’t move.

She  sighed. ‘I don’t blame her.’

Outside the  crickets seemed  unbearably loud.

Mum continued: ‘I’m worried about her. She has no friends.’ I bit my bottom lip and squeezed my eyes shut.

Dad clicked his tongue. ‘Come now.’

‘It’s true,’ replied Mum, ‘We should be hanging up on boyfriends and barring her from using the phone, we should be finding cigarettes in her bag and gating her for months on end.’ I wanted to burst in on them and scream, ‘It’s not my  fault I’m a social retard! It’s yours! It’s this town!’ I wanted to shake her and yell: ‘Don’t you see, you stupid woman, don’t you get it? I would do anything to have a friend, let alone  a boyfriendanything!’

But I could not  bear to face their pity. What was there to say? Nothing they could say would make it any better.

The door leading out onto the stoep was slightly open. I pushed it further and stepped out. The moon had risen late. It was full and heavy and as it climbed silver light bathed the garden. Despite the cold air I sat down on the bench by the door until my breathing returned to normal and the tears dried up. Up in the Camp, Marta would be making her way back from her prayer service, along the narrow streets where even at this time there would be kids playing out on the road, light spilling out from open doors, radios playing and bursts of laughter or shouting. Here the creek-creek  of the crickets and the distant frogs were the only things that  kept  us from being swallowed up in the silence altogether.

 

1 koeksisters: Deep-fried syrup-coated doughnut in a braided shape
2 samoosas: fried pastry with a spicy, savoury filling
3 Cape Dikkop: spotted ‘thick-knee’ bird
4 
stoep: veranda
5 boegoe: indigenous South African plant with a strong odour, used in traditional medicines
Juffrou: Miss or lady  teacher
standard fives: Year 7
 

 

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