Islands in the stream
My grandfather had a tattoo of the popular song Mr Big Stuff by Jean Knight on his right arm. He was tall and big and commanded the attention in any room, not only because of his body but for his loud and outrageous personality. He was a big man in every sense of the word. When Covid put its arms around his neck until the life seeped out, he was reduced to a small box, to be carried out of the church by the smallest grandchild. No vast and elaborate send-off, no gatherings to be held in his name, no body for us to wash ceremoniously, no cheek to kiss before placing him back into the ground. Ashes to ashes.
Pulled from the region of my birth by military force (well, the army sent my father away, so it wasn’t physical, yet still violent), I grew up being breastfed on my parents’ memories of the Land of Milk and Honey, or, rather, the Land of cheap plastic-bottled-Seabreeze-wine and Sourdough bread. A place renowned for its remarkable transformation which occurs every spring when the near life-less scrubland explodes into colour from thousands of flowers hidden in the dry dusty earth, brought to life by winter rains.
A place with a people known for their swearing, “ ’fore one God, teacher, I don’t know you, and you don’t know me, so if you take me for a poes I will fuck you up stiffly”.
A land where the Nama-words of a long-forgotten tribe lay safely nestled in the tongues of light brown mouths, foaming out alongside rigid Afrikaans sentence constructions, like a river running into an ocean.
And because I grew up 800km away from the Promised Land, I felt robbed. Cheated out of my royal flush.
And as I eddied between Namaqualand, where I belong but do not fit, and Kimberley. where I fit but do not belong, I found myself a traveller in both places, a gambler aiming to play with the hand I was dealt.
The crickets are congregating, a band, playing their drums and singing loudly in the storeroom which we use to store our crates filled with empty beer bottles to be exchanged for full ones. A transaction waiting to occur.
We’re at my friend’s bachelor’s quarters at the first base. He’s a firefighter, but I’ve seen him start more fires than I’ve seen him put out.
He’s flicking through the channels to find a music channel, something that suits each of us, before Jared passes out with a glass of gin still standing in his hand, or I start to yell at someone for stealing the last beer.
I see a familiar face – one that looks like the smell of Cobra potpourri-polish and sourdough bread in the oven after a long day of school – on the 7 o’clock Etv-News. “Stop gou, asseblief”. He freezes the frame and my heart drops. I have one minute to go through the five stages of grief, to internally tear the clothes from my body and throw ash on my head, to mourn the loss of a man I have never met.
I feel a chunk of my childhood dissipate while the crickets continue to sing as though the comprehension of this entire world, this experience, this existence, is lost on them, or, as though they completely understand everything, but do not care.
My grandfather, who drove taxis and buses, used to hide my sister and I at the back, sometimes with a blanket thrown over our heads, in order to transport us free of charge from Kimberley to Springbok for school holidays. This was an activity I thoroughly enjoyed because in my 6-year-old mind, it was a game of hide and seek. I did not comprehend the risks.
On New Year’s Eve, we would drive up to Port Nolloth in the work’s Venture; my grandfather wearing his potjiekos-hat (and keeping hookah charcoal close-by so that, when pulled over by traffics, the alcohol would not be picked up on their little blowingthingy), and set up our tent on the beach where we would wait for the new year, the new beginning.
My great uncle would always steal the women’s flip-flops and sell them back to their original owners for R30, to buy three bottles of Seabreeze.
My grandparents would be the only ones seated on the two camping chairs we owned and drink a bottle of Three Ships whiskey on the rocks, and, when we got home, stick the red stamp on the fridge.
When their relationship later mimicked the way they drank their whiskey, he left my grandmother for a younger woman, giving birth to my motto that I’d rather lose the man I love to the arms of death than to those of another woman. And, hopefully, I wouldn’t lose him to both.
And the number of Three Ships stamps on the fridge stayed the same, year after year, mocking my grandmother.
I’m not leaving you forever.
But I got business farther down the line.
You got your troubles.
Baby I got mine.
I see my friend looking at me, becoming silent, the bereavement visible on my face, with the type of endearment you reserve for your dying mother, or your wife, for someone you’ve been with through the years. He does not realize that I’ve been giving him hints: Don’t fall in love with a dreamer.
“Hey, are you okay?” he asks, tilting the glass slightly while he pours the beer. He hands it to me and I nod. “Can we listen to Kenny Rogers?” I ask. He doesn’t answer.
My mother used to have a Kenny Rogers cassette she’d listen to while cleaning and baking. So many of my fondest memories are written between the lines, the notes, the melodies. My aunt later stole her cassette, and although we now have YouTube and can play her any song her heart desires, at any moment, she still mourns the loss of that very cassette, taped over a Britney Spears one saying that she’s not that innocent.
For nine months after Kenny’s death, which should not be so monumental to me, but is, I struggle to sleep. I writhe with dreams: it’s my parents’ wedding day and when the bridesmaids need to get dressed, they find that my grandmother has cut up all their dresses in a frantic fit. Or, my sister and I pick up 50c and 20c coins from the floor of my grandfather’s taxi. Many more weddings, many more brown coins, and I wake up knowing: my grandfather is going to die. And the hardest part of it is that I don’t know when. It’s like having the pudding and then waiting for the proof.
So, I stay awake for nine months, a gestation without birth. I run to the phone every time it rings. I start to mourn the living.
Jared is passed out on the couch. This time, he put the glass down on the floor. My friend and I are listening to the fine time Lucille picked to leave him. Four hungry children and a crop in the field.
“Do you believe in a xdwah?” I ask him in Afrikaans and let the remnants of Nama cypher through.
“That’s premonitions, right?”
I nod, I’ve taught him well. He laughs, takes another sip of his Castle lite, “No, man. Those things are like voodoo, things people invent to make sense of the things they experience, to blame something else”.
I look at his picture of Jesus on the cross on the wall, then down at the open Bible on his desk (covered in little green and brown pips, next to a pair of scissors that are green from cutting some plant) take a sip of my beer and I don’t tell him that I’ve seen Griquas place an enamel pot filled with water and sand on a fire at weddings, and it makes the rain go away instantaneously. I don’t tell him that my mother burns sage throughout the house when my dreams keep me awake and I become a thin shadow. He doesn’t deserve to know these things, these things are like racism, they only exist once you’ve experienced them.
I dream it’s Christmas and my grandfather never left us. That we’re all sitting in the living room with the tiny Christmas tree next to the white Santa Claus that we forgot to buy batteries for. It’s my sister and I, my three aunts, my uncle, my grandparents, all staying in the four-roomed RDP with the outside toilet. And it’s wonderful. We’re watching Christmas movies rented from Mr Video, because those will be our Christmas gifts, the gift of memories. Outside, Dwergie is starting the fire, and Barrie is playing Judy Boucher (who is evidently dreaming of a little island).
I wake up to my sister sitting on my bed, rubbing my leg tenderly. “Dedda is weg”, she says as if it’s news to me. As if I haven’t spent the last nine months trying to will his death away, trying to grasp at VCR-tapes and Three Ships-whiskey and Kenny Rogers-cassettes. I get up and go to the first base. To the storeroom we use to store our crates filled with empty bottles, all transactions will occur.
What will I do when you’re gone?
Who’s gonna tell me the truth?
Who’s gonna finish the stories I start
the way you used to do?