Archive for Human people
The perennial debate on which is more frightening, fire or water, reared its head again recently. As on past occasions, I’d sooner take my chance on surviving in water than flames. I’ve had so few encounters with fire in my lifetime that those there are tend to be memorable. At least two of them had an element that appeals to my sense of humour but I do sometimes wonder if the universe is symbolically closing doors behind me.
The first exposure I had to unintended fire was at an early age ; the farmhouse in the valley below Botha’s Hill was still being completed when we moved in. The bedroom wing was not electrified and we kept candles and matches next to our beds should we have needed to get up during the night. Something must have disturbed me on this night because I sat up and lit a match before deciding that the cause was not worth getting up for, even before the candle was lit. I extinguished the match and rolled over to go back to sleep. It must have been the noise of the cane rattan table-top igniting that caused me to roll back : the whole table-top next to my bed was alight within seconds of putting down the apparently dead match. I was only about six years old and way too young to understand how it could have happened but I clearly recall Dad responding to my shout for help by throwing the entire table and its contents out of my bedroom window, and then the sobering sight of the damage in the morning.
The next encounter was four or five years later. By this time we had moved to Inchanga and electricity was not a problem. Being a semi-rural area though, there was no service delivery in the form of refuse removal and we disposed of some garbage by burning it in a 44-gallon drum where the fire should have been out of harm’s way. On this Saturday afternoon the mountain went to Mohammed. My dad had gone out and we were due to attend an engagement party in the evening. Both my parents are musicians and my mother had been asked to play at the function so she was inside going over the manuscripts. It’s a family joke that as the elder I arranged my hapless brother’s life whenever the opportunity arose. On this occasion I was a mobile good intention cruising around looking for something nice to do for someone else and had access to the necessary beef to assist in the application of whatever plan presented itself. My folks had pruned a number of bushes in the morning and the clippings were neatly stacked. This orderly pile and the presence of the drum decided that we would surprise our parents by disposing of the clippings and saving them the task. The branches were dropped into the empty drum at which point it occurred to me that green wood would not be easily lit. We fortuitously used a petrol lawnmower. Although I’m sure I don’t need to elaborate on the plan, I poured about a cupful of petrol over the branches and, thankfully, took on the task of lighting the fire myself. Not being radically taller than the drum, this necessitated dangling by my waist into the drum to reach the wood. I have no doubt that I have been watched over at times. My eyes were screwed up to keep out the smoke from the match and resulting fire so when the whoosh blew past me it merely took a substantial percentage of my eyebrows and the top of my hair with it. Next postcard : I won’t easily forget the look of horror and disbelief on my brother’s face which had to have been echoed on mine when I put up my hand in a reflex action and the booty left behind by the blast came off in it. The look was most definitely reflected on my mom’s face when I went in to tell her what happened. She didn’t approve of my reverse Panda face at all. Like it or not, I was decked out in a headscarf when we attended the party that evening : #1 hairstyles were still a long way from being fashionable. Not much could be done about the red-rimmed eyes and nostrils or stubby eyelashes and eyebrows. A long long time later the latter grew back beautifully lush – eyelashes to die for, dahling.
It was many years before the fiery element and I crossed paths again. By the time this happened I was divorced and the headlines stating that the clubhouse on the local golf course had been struck by lightning and burnt to the ground interested me for a rather macabre reason. It had been the venue for the wedding reception of our now defunct marriage and, in the aftermath of the divorce, it struck me as exquisitely apt – and vastly amusing. The wedding dis-band came a full circle just a couple of years ago when the old Magistrate’s Court building a few hundred metres from our offices was set alight by vagrants one evening and suffered substantial damage. This was where the marriage had taken place. I was now, in all eyes, completely unfettered.
Just last year the imposing Colonial Building behind the same former Court caught alight during building renovations and was also badly damaged. The restoration from the fire has only just been completed. I walked up to see the blaze during our lunch break and happened to be interviewed by one of the Witness reporters on the scene. Having focussed on architecture in Pietermaritzburg for my Matric fine art project, seeing another historical building on fire was pretty shocking and I was quoted in the paper the following morning. Only a few months later Harwin’s Arcade about a hundred metres away in Theatre Lane was almost completely gutted and shows little sign of attention to this day, despite its central location.
I had inhabited a tiny office in the library at work for about seven years until my job description changed and I moved to a much bigger office at the opposite end of the building in August 2006. On Thursday last week I had no plans to go out at lunchtime but the day was much colder than usual and I’d discovered early in the morning that I possessed no stockings except those I’ve redeployed to tie up tomato bushes and a Staghorn Fern. Those were of no immediate use in the circumstances and I sneaked in a pair of proper socks to wear once installed behind my desk for the day. Therefore my midday plans changed and I walked into town to acquire more of the despised garments. As I turned the corner into the side street in which we are partly located on my way back, it became apparent that the street was blocked by a fire tender splurting water all over the road and in the general direction of our offices. It appears the fire started in my teeny former office which is pretty much no more.
Firemen are incredibly brave and a couple of them told stories to make one’s hair stand on end while we evacuees loitered in the parking area awaiting permission to move. The one that amused both the raconteur and me the most involved fire assessors who are not firemen. One of these arrived at a fire scene while this fireman was still there. After looking around knowledgeably for a while, the assessor stated that he was convinced the fire had been caused by an electrical fault. He was rather affronted when the fireman contradicted him and wanted to know the reason. The fireman pointed out it was a new building and had not yet been wired.
All in all, I’ve been extremely fortunate that none of the encounters with fire have caused me lasting harm. My respect for the element is enormous but I would prefer to close my own doors in future.
That old prayer about having the wisdom to know the difference between things one can change and those that cannot be changed gives food for thought. Just because I’m in a happier space in my life than I’ve been before doesn’t mean I’ve discovered an amulet that keeps problems out of my life. The last two weeks, today in particular, illustrate this perfectly.
At the bank teller’s window depositing our rent two weeks ago, I made the discovery that about R1000 was missing from my bag. It has been impossible to trace details but suffice it to say that it has made this one of the skinniest months in memory. Fortunately the fridge, cupboards and freezer had been stocked so R100 has had to buy us only bread and milk for three weeks.
The upside includes the kindness of the two service providers I was unable to pay this month. Also the extra creativity required to make meals out of existing stocks and not supplement with new purchases. Kimberley has been unbelievably helpful, lending me the outstanding amount to pay our rent in full.
Then the revenue service sent me notification that there is a refund of a couple of hundred rand due to me which I have to go in to claim. The call centre, Durban and Pietermaritzburg offices all told me that I only need to take in two specific documents. Having located these, I took them in three working days later – to meet the one person in Pietermaritzburg who insists on having an additional one of three possible documents. None of these exist so I am currently waiting for an affidavit posted on the other side of the province to reach me before I can try again. When I explained that the specific documents I needed had been itemised to me a matter of days earlier, I was told “things change”. Although small, this amount would have made a big difference to our housekeeping account this month of all months. Admittedly my sense of humour went walkabout for a few hours.
And then, Today.
Having got out of bed early to make oats to sustain my offspring, they kind of blew up and overflowed in the microwave – so I stopped washing the dishes and washed the microwave instead. Then, emptying some leftover salad into a rubbish bag, the bag slipped and the salad went all over the floor – so I stopped washing the dishes and washed the floor instead. Then, triumphantly reaching the last dirty pan, I ran extra hot water into the sink and it shot in a perfect stream around one of the muffin indentations and all down my front – so I stopped trying to tidy the kitchen and changed my clothes. This was all before I’d stepped more than a metre outside the front door.
Fortunately nothing else of note has gone wrong today – although I did survey all that still had to be done with trepidation as the potential for further problems was significant. I did have a brief bad moment in the loo when it seemed that I was peeing pink – until I realised the cleaning lady was using a new cleaner, and that the time had come to chill.
There has been plenty of laughter this morning too.
Today I’m wearing a purple embroidered tunic over black pants. Having been at work for all of two minutes, one of my favourite colleagues said if only I was wearing matching pants I’d look like I was in pyjamas. This was a bit of a blow but she’s a good sort so I took it on the chin. A few hours later we were in a group discussing a problem that had arisen in our work flow when I teased her about her earlier comment. She looked absolutely appalled and explained that she’d said if I was wearing matching pants I’d look like I was in a punjabi. A number of others in the office are wearing punjabis or saris today and, in context, her comment made a lot more sense than what I thought she’d said. We both had a really good laugh and I changed my slippers around. Not really.
But the point is that when events significant or minor conspire to frustrate one, attitude makes all the difference. I’ll probably ask Kimberley to take on the kitchen tonight to make supper as I burned two fingers in hot oil last night – something we use about once a month, if that – and I don’t want to end off today like it started.
All in all, a good time to ask for serenity and courage.
Today my colleagues and I received notification to attend a meeting next week to discuss the “Attire Policy”. The juxtaposition of this notice with a few other recent events has caused me to coagulate into words another thread in my life which doesn’t generally warrant much conscious attention.
My parents belong to a generation that dressed up to go to movies, eat out, and even to visit friends. It’s understandable as going to the movies or out for a meal before the rise of supermarkets and suburban shopping-centres entailed a trip ‘into town’. Also, being part of a post-war generation, either would have been a rarer event than they are today. I clearly remember numerous lamentations as fewer people dressed formally to go out socially.
Growing up in a rural environment, the clothing of choice in my formative years involved whatever we wore before t-shirts were invented and comfortable pants, generally shorts unless the season dictated long pants. At that age ironing of clothes didn’t cross my mind and I should be somewhat ashamed that I bitch about it in our day and age. Around age six I was given a pale blue, unspeakably frilly dress by someone who lived near Kearsney College : the memory cells are obstinately blank on particular identity but I remember their house which must have been within a few houses of where I now know Alan Paton lived. The dress is just as firmly etched in my mind. Blue was my favourite colour and I have never outgrown that particular preference. However I think I must have been born with an innate dislike of frills, although I’m not aware of anyone in the family known to detest them so presumably it’s not hereditary. (Reading this, Kimberley thinks it may be genetic as she also has a profound dislike of them). More practically, it could have had something to do with my tendency at the time to nick through barbed wire fences wherever my fancy took me. Maybe I converted some of my normal clothes into frills and never recovered from the consequences . . . I really don’t know but remain a committed frillophobe.
Equally I remember the first of only two outings on stage for dramatic purposes. In Class Two we put on a production involving fairies and a garden. The details are immersed in a pale yellow cloud of tulle. This resembles almost exactly the tutu I had to wear. So great is the mental scar, I clearly remember that at some point I had to step forward, bend down to pick up a couple of flowers and say “oh look at these beautiful flowers”. The stress and resulting flashbacks would not have happened if I’d been a Denim Fairy or a Green Toad instead of The Frighteningly Frilly Fairy introduced to the audience as The Yellow Fairy.
As an adult I’ve addressed a number of conferences and audiences from local to international in nature and find it a lot less daunting appearing in front of large numbers of people who are hopefully more interested in what’s coming out of my head than what I’m wearing.
When I think of the speakers who’ve made an impression on me it is impossible to recall what any of them were wearing on any given occasion : Clem Sunter, Albie Sachs, Kate O’Regan . . . They held audiences in their palms, I can even recall facial expressions, but don’t ask me about their choice of clothing. Haven’t a clue.
My daughter is much more of a girl than me ; half an hour to get ready to go anywhere, even the supermarket. At the moment her boyfriend still finds it amusing. Fast forward five years . . . But on the other hand, we only unpacked the box our combined cosmetic collections travelled in during our recent move about two weeks ago. We moved three and a half months earlier. Kimberley doesn’t need make-up to look stunning. I don’t mind wearing make-up, I just usually forget when I have other things on my mind. Among the items we unpacked, I unearthed the first cosmetic item I ever purchased : a very very green eyeshadow from the mid-Seventies. This shocked even Kimberley who pronounced that it smells like wax crayon. I have absolutely no intention of using it on anything but don’t want to part with a personal relic. Who else do you know who still has their first item of make-up? Anyway, if I threw it away now I’d probably have HazMat on my heels in milliseconds.
Back on the work front. As I approached my first winter in the formal employment sector, I asked the Chief Librarian at the time whether I was allowed to wear jeans to work. Her answer has remained with me as clear as a bell. “You don’t have to wear anything if you don’t want to. We just appreciate it if you do”, accompanied by a peal of laughter.
This policy has shaped my approach to dressing ever since. I am never seen in public without a stitch on. I tend to dress primarily with comfort in mind, love natural fibres – that’s related, isn’t it? – and don’t often notice what others are wearing.
There is another principle that I’d have sworn was burned into my DNA, but apparently not. In Standard Five the boys’ and girls’ changing rooms were adjacent to each other, we then formed parallel lines before going in to swim at opposite ends of the school pool. On this occasion, being in a hurry to get to the business part of the lesson, I leapt out of my clothes, into my costume seemingly without touching ground, and out into the queue. Thank heavens one of the girls noticed first that my costume was on back to front. If they’d been timing me I’d still hold the land speed record back to the change room. After thirty something years without a glitch that I can recall, about a month ago I arrived at work very early one (dark) morning to chuckles from one of the very few other people in the building. My top was on inside out.
Dressing super-formally for work has backfired on me. Without being too specific, some years ago I was called on to attend a fairly high profile function. I was travelling with and attending in the company of an eminent person and made quite a lot more effort with my appearance than usual. My personality flaws are no secret and the inability to resist a dare lead to my wearing a pair of those panty-free pantihose, the stockings with lace edges that stay up like magic (in the ads). As my dress and jacket more than covered everything to just above my knees I had no concern in the world. Until I was halfway across the lounge and felt one stocking jump over the widest part of my thigh and enthusiastically start winding itself downwards. Fortunately a group of friends was not far off so I could pause without drawing undue attention. As can be expected of most of my friends, they were seized with hilarity that I didn’t share. The function was about to start at any minute and obviously I couldn’t stay in the middle of the floor so I made like Donald Duck in the direction of the ladies’ room. Somehow I made it with my honour intact and slightly above my hemline. I just didn’t walk around much for the rest of the evening. I won the dare but have not worn those stockings since.
At about the same time (possibly still deliriously light-headed after getting the divorce behind me) I wore the same dress but with a different jacket and high-heeled boots to work on a day that I needed to visit the Surveyor-General’s Office. I’d visited quite regularly and still have a number of friends down there. None of them had been treated to the sight of me in formal dress. That dress hasn’t been worn since then either, come to think of it. What I hadn’t bargained on until I was halfway down one of Pietermaritzburg’s main streets is the static from the stockings that made my dress misbehave and think itself a blouse. The trip down escapes my recall but there was plenty of time to realise I wouldn’t be able to leave the vertical. The first two men braved the vision but my sense of humour overcame me when the third came into the room and spluttered before taking a bite out of his coffee mug. The return trip was a nightmare. Halfway up the block I noticed someone of my acquaintance coming in my direction. I rather rudely managed to duck behind a lamppost and thought I’d got away with it. A good couple of months later he phoned me at work and said “I *thought* I’d recognised you in Pietermaritz Street not so long ago”. The lesson was learned and now I dress in clothes that can be subdued. Comfortable clothes rarely think for themselves.
My footwear has also been moderated since I wore a pair of killer stilettos to work just for the hell of it. Getting caught abseiling along the passage wall by an attorney could have been worse. Next time I might slip right off my heels.
In my defence, I don’t remember going to the supermarket in a tracksuit ; I don’t own a pair of Crocs ; and I don’t walk around outside in my pyjamas – not in broad daylight anyway, but that’s another story. Conversely, my wardrobe is spilling over with t-shirts and denims ; I could live in slops and rejoiced when ‘stokies’ came back on the market.
And I’m happy like that. Free as a bee.
Nothing in my life brings me to the conclusion that people are meant to live on top of each other. Fortunately my own experience of communal and sectional title living are not extensive, but the exposure I have had indicates over and over again that it doesn’t generally bring out the best in human nature.
Once my parents and I moved from Oribi Gorge, we lived in a series of flats in Durban for a couple of years : my dad was a member of the Durban Philharmonic Orchestra and Port Shepstone was a much longer trip away than it is on today’s N2. By the time the farm was sold, my brother had been born and we all moved to Botha’s Hill. This is where my first memories are based so I can’t comment on lifestyles that affected me prior to four or five years of age.
From then right through until I married in 1982, apart from my dad’s parents living sometimes in a wing of the same house, occasionally in their own house on the same property, for a short while independently of us, we always lived in free-standing homes a comfortable distance away from the neighbouring families. Of course, three generations living under one roof came with its own set of problems, but that isn’t the subject of this particular set of observations.
For the first eleven months of our marriage we lived in a small block of flats in central Pietermaritzburg next to Oxenham’s bakery, the site that now houses McDonald’s Burgers – famously in Burger Street. There were about fifteen flats in the building and we had very little to do with most of our neighbours as almost everyone had fulltime day jobs. With two exceptions, whether we liked it or not. On one side lived a young nurse who brought home what seemed a never ending string of overnight visitors. This was more information than I needed even at the time, but she was obviously a sharing kind of person and we were given frequent updates on the status of her living arrangements. The other neighbour is the one of whom I have fond memories. Mrs Templeton was already in her eighties and lived with her adult blind daughter. We used to exchange frequent brief chats but it never occurred to me how much Mrs Templeton knew of our lifestyle. Then one day during our daily exchange in the communal corridor I was lamenting an uncommon cold when I was surprised by our neighbour suggesting that maybe it was because I went to bed so late at night. This was actually far from the way it was on our side of the shared brick wall – but I had apparently washed dishes after visitors left two evenings earlier, leading to the suggestion I would benefit from some earlier nights. That was the first time I realised what grand expectations of privacy we have from fifteen centimetres of clay and plaster. We also had a close encounter with the caretaker when we acquired a kitten a month before we moved out. She had direct access to the garden and I don’t think either of us considered that her presence could cause ructions, especially as there were a couple of other residential cats who all rumbled along famously together. It was a relief to move into our own home in its own garden with neighbours a respectable, and mutually respectful, distance away.
This property had a sectional title development on one side and one of the original Scottsville houses formed a pan-handle behind us. The house had apparently been condemned by the local municipality and was in use as a digs until the owner was compelled to sell. This he did to developers who subsequently built another sectional title development on the land. Our little house still stands, I understand as a unit of the greater plan, but it appears to all intents and purposes to be independent. We were not willing to sell at first and I suspect the delay until we were offered a price that made it silly to resist resulted in the building going ahead without the demolition of our two-bedroomed home. However, back to things as they were when we moved in. Considering that we were quite far from either development, their lifestyles did impact on us to quite a degree.
The development below us consisted of eight units but they were situated further up the property with the postboxes immediately outside our bedroom window. This wasn’t as disruptive as it sounds and it was the spouse of the owner of the first unit who disturbed the peace from time to time. They were an elderly couple and, rather unsurprisingly, it appeared that the husband could have been mute. I think he made himself deaf too. There were a few interactions between the bored wife and ourselves but I don’t remember most of them, with one exception. Just in case she has lived to be one hundred and fifty, I will refer to her as Mrs P. It is likely that the husband has been deceased for some years in self-defence.
Our kitten had grown up to be a free-thinking cat and had been seen digging and performing bodily functions in Mrs P’s garden. The problem must have been conveyed to me directly over the boundary wall because I clearly remember saying to Mrs P that no amount of counselling on my part would impress the cat and it would be best if she threw water at the culprit while engaged in her dastardly hobby. Not even two weeks later the whole neighbourhood was pale and faint because of an unbearable reek that permeated everything. Having a vantage point, my spouse soon identified the source of the smell as Mrs P’s garden which was covered inches thick in compost. He was quite pithy in his description, opining that it had come directly from the municipal sewage works. There are not many memories of marriage that make me laugh openly but this led to one. My husband placed a note in the owner’s postbox the same evening. It merely said : “Mrs P, you complained about my cat!”
Working on campus at the time, I had a lot to do with students and generally enjoyed them. However, it was soon brought to bear on me that living next to them is quite another matter. It is quite likely they will appear in other blog posts but on this occasion it is the digs parties that occupy the space. We had had cars driving right up our driveway and parking both in it and on our lawn, blocking the driveway by parking across it in the street, had the postbox torn from its mounting, cars damaged in the road, dah dah dah. So when we got wind of the next party we resigned ourselves to sitting up and protecting our turf. Our verandah faced onto the front garden and the students’ house was at the end of a very long driveway behind us. Despite this, the smell of alcohol from our verandah was still gut-wrenching (we are both partakers so this wasn’t an overreaction). Come our usual bedtime, we switched off the lights and settled down on the verandah, prepared to repel invaders on the front home front. There are many times in life I have been very grateful for my sense of humour and this evening provided a whole cluster of them. There was one highlight in particular. We finally went to bed at four in the morning ; about an hour earlier a seriously plastered guy and a couple of girls swayed down the road and paused in our driveway. At full volume the guy said to his companions, “hold on, I’m going to pee” and lurched onto our lawn. The other moment of marriage that makes me laugh (ok, I’m being mean – there must be more but I’ll have to think). With only a second’s pause my husband said loudly “no, you’re not”. Governed partly by our lack of visibility and partly by the state of the would-be-reliever-of-himself, there was a think-pause as this apparently divine instruction was absorbed and then the latter said in a rather puzzled way “oh, no I’m not” and staggered back to the group.
What brought me to brooding on how people’s behaviour affects others when our proximity to each other is less than desirable are a few events since we moved to our new home three and a half months ago. Although we have a lot of space and freedom, the only settlement between us and the end of Pietermaritzburg is *another* sectional title development. Fortunately the two homes parallel to our boundary are occupied by very quiet families ; I haven’t yet got to meet them. However, there are apparently a few residents who aren’t particularly concerned about the wellbeing of their hapless co-residents.
Our home was originally built as farm outbuildings and has recently been converted, making us the first people to occupy it. About a month after we moved in, I discovered that a couple of drug dealers had been using our verge as a meeting point and saw no reason to be inconvenienced by our arrival. This meant, sometimes three times a week, they and their clients would park off behind our garage and drink, smoke, whatever else, with no consideration for the fact that all of us in the vicinity have young families. Talking to others, I discovered that the Narcotics Squad, Dog Squad and Public Order Policing unit were all aware of their activities and had their own plans for dealing with the matter. This was all well and good but didn’t solve my immediate problem. Disregarding the advice of a couple of people, I decided to make it obvious to them that our property is now occupied and no longer a shelter for that type of activity. I already spend a lot of time in the garden, so I just upped the ante some notches. Whenever they started driving up and parking off on our verge, I’d do even more gardening and make sure I was visible. I was being a pain in the ear but quite deliberately so and hoped they would get the message and move off. It took weeks and weeks but we have now had about seven weeks of peace.
Up until today. Shortly after one o’clock this afternoon, a group of about eight male residents from the units next door decided to sprawl along our verge and have a drinking party. Due to the current extreme heat, I’d got up a lot earlier than I usually do on a Sunday in order to finish some varnishing around the house. As a result I had a midday nap which is generally a luxury I do without. The group outside made such a noise they woke me up. One of the neighbours contacted me and suggested I call the police. That is not my first choice of response, especially as my daughter and at least one elderly neighbour are at home on occasion during the week and I don’t want to alienate neighbours who could, for all I know, take it out on them – just as I’d had to consider with the drug dealers. After a bit of cogitation I opted for the direct approach and pottered up the hill, greeting them pleasantly and asking them to make sure they took all their bottles with them when they left. After eyeing my approach with large eyeballs, they opted to take the same tack, apologising for the noise and agreeing that the bottles would leave with them. They were true to their word. While I would have preferred them to party on their own premises, a compromise seems to have been a successful first step and I’ll take those one by one.
The litter matter is currently a sore point. Due to the location of the development at the end of a cul de sac, their weekly refuse is stacked on the top end of our verge awaiting collection. There is little I can do about it and it hasn’t generally been a problem. However, this week the municipal truck broke down (a frequent problem on the other side of town) and our refuse was not collected. Most of us left it out anticipating a late night catch-up which only happened today – six days later. By this time only one home in the street still had refuse waiting outside.
None of this would have been worthy of note – except that on Wednesday morning our small pile of rubbish had escalated by three hefty black bags. The truck didn’t come on Thursday and by Friday morning dogs had torn the ‘donated’ bags wide open exposing used nappies and worse. I only saw this on my way to work and had no time to do anything immediately. On my return, our neighbour on the other side was waiting for me and wanted to know how big my baby is and if that is all my rubbish. My ‘baby’ is eighteen and that definitely wasn’t all our rubbish. She had thought as much and was furious as it had spread between both our verges. It even included used sanitary wear and we had to pick it all up and pack it into new bags. She brought her wheelbarrow and we moved it all to the other end of our verge where the communal rubbish is collected. The next morning it was back along with a couple of extra bags. What annoyed me most is that it was done under cover of darkness so the person was well aware that what they were doing is not acceptable. Not one of the eight houses at this end of the road has a child young enough to be in nappies ; most of us have either adult or young adult offspring. The neighbour has spoken to the chairperson of the body corporate and I shall be launching a missive at the same hapless person in the next few days. Apart from the loaded and lethal nappies and towels, there were beer bottles, a broken dummy, a doll – and a business card. It’s no exaggeration to say that refuse could pose an identity risk. In this particular case, it’s just made it easier for the chairperson to approach the culprit and issue a couple of lessons in civilised neighbourly behaviour.
All in all, as much as I am generally very much a people kind of person, we rumble along together a lot more smoothly with a little bit of breathing room all round.
Life happens. Thankfully my glass is almost inevitably half full. There have been times when it’s felt and looked more like an urn than a glass : heavy, burdensome and opaque. I think I can count those times on four fingers. Less than one for each decade of my life.
The loss of my paternal grandfather in my Matric year was by far the biggest blow I had experienced up until then. He had lived on the same property for almost my entire life. My earliest memories are of getting up before the rest of my immediate family and joining him in the dairy, watching as he churned and shaped pats of butter. To this day there is no butter that matches my childhood memories.
I think we were alike in temperament too. He rarely became angry but the rarity of witnessing his occasional and brief sorties into the absence of geniality made them all the more memorable. Having said that, I don’t think I can recall even three of these. Admittedly my lid has popped a bit more than that but the expressions of disbelief on the faces around me at the time lead me to believe I’m also not considered to spend much time annoyed.
I sometimes wonder if Pa also shared my battle to keep a straight face when surrounded by the incredulous architects of his annoyance. This tendency has spoilt almost every hissy fit to come my way, terminating them soon after birth. Of one thing I am in no doubt : we both took a lot of goading to get even close to that point. However, we shared plenty of positive memories and I was in no way expecting his sudden death days before starting Matric trials.
The following year I faced the first serious romantic break-up of a few. In retrospect it was my pride that took the hiding but for a few months my glass was distinctly unshiny. Once again my appalling sense of humour saved the day. Bearing in mind that this was right at the end of the 70s and even discussion of sexual orientation was still pretty much taboo in our community, five months after ending our relationship my erstwhile boyfriend became the chairperson of the local gay association. This should have been an indication of my abilities with the other sex.
Of course the prelude to, process and aftermath of getting divorced also messed with the state of my glassware. Because I can sometimes be a total idiot, I jumped from the wreckage of one relationship right into another. The difference was that my former husband and I had known each other less than seven months when we married ; my rebound relationship was with someone I had known for thirty years. It didn’t turn out as risk-free as I had anticipated.
The long and the short (bigger and smaller / upper and lower) of it was that two days after I baked our wedding cakes the guy decided he was too traumatised from his divorce twelve years earlier to go ahead. Coming on top of the rejection that led to my own divorce, the double whammy heralded the darkest period of my life. For two and a half years I survived rather than lived. Then one day I woke up and the world was the right way up again.
This summary is in no way self-pitying. I must be one of the few people in the universe who has a card saying “thank you for your wedding cakes”. Really. I gave them to a young couple whose marriage was brought forward by the bride’s parents’ refusal to accept a cross-cultural union. The sunshine was already starting to peep through although it took a lot longer before I recognised it.
There is no bright edge to having lost my grandfather but each of the other events has taught me invaluable lessons that I can never wish undone. Undoubtedly future blog posts will make reference to these but I have found a serenity and abiding joy in life I could not have foreseen, a clarity in distinguishing qualities and possessions that are worthwhile from the transient ones.
A minor event two days ago has reinforced this peace of mind. After having no contact for about ten years, the person who walked out weeks before our planned wedding phoned me at work hoping I would use my job or contacts to do him a favour. I felt not the least interest : in where he is, what he is doing or anything else to do with him. He sounded put out that I wasn’t even surprised to hear from him. Why should I be? Hours later I realised his phone call had come on what could have been our thirteenth wedding anniversary. Out of three and a half thousand days. Now that tickled me.
The life I share with my daughter is good. I have genuinely valuable friendships. We love our new home, our pets are fully integrated family members, I recognise opportunities and details that I wouldn’t have a few years ago. My laughter once again comes from the soul, just deeper, with more feeling.
I need to purge my soul of a secret that is bound to emerge in a small community like ours. I stand slowly. Deep breath in.
My name is Mary. My daughter is a Tweezer Rat. I should have seen it coming years ago but every parent wants to see only the good in their child. Like her aunt (on the Other Side) she has long recoiled at the sight of hairy armpits on TV. I assumed this was a symptom of living in a largely female household except that it is my home too and I don’t give hairy armpits much thought, one way or the other.
The first indication that this could be a more deeply-seated phobia was clearly brought home to me a year ago. We have a single-parent tradition that involves The Issue reclining comfortably in my immediate vicinity. My role is to find a position conducive to holding a book and reading aloud for hours on end. In this manner we have entertained James Herriott, Roald Dahl, Gerald Durrell, Anne of Green Gables and many others – and the immediate neighbours too. It is a tradition close to my heart, leading me to believe my one and only offspring was absorbing a variety of literary works, expanding her vocabulary and generally becoming a better human being.
It was in this state of false security that I settled down on the lawn one Sunday afternoon, current Billabong tome in hand. The feline accomplice curled up, slitty eyes awaiting my imminent crash. The Issue settled at my feet and the story commenced. Maybe ten minutes later my life changed in an instant. Kaching! With lightning speed one hair on my right shin flew the familial follice with full fanfare. It was so quick I might have imagined it but for the flashing lights and streaming eyes and nose. And so the silver-tipped Tweezer Rat made her appearance.
Last weekend kharma finally rewarded me despite my being bed-bound with bronchitis. One of our male friends of Tweezer Rat’s generation called in and they settled down to chat on a bench immediately outside my window. Long before he left I expected to be put onto an air supply system, Type O. I tried putting my head under the pillow, but as I couldn’t breathe anyway that seemed like overkill. I tried co-ordinating my squeaks and rattles with the dog’s snores but that made both of us sound silly.
I do not know from where she produced the tweezers. Nor do I know how she persuaded an intelligent young man that she could single-handedly and painlessly cure him of his uni-brow. My eyes flew open with the first yelp. As a tweezer-survivor, it took only one more yelp for me to know exactly what was going on. The best part was when a mirror was produced.
“Where have they gone? My eyebrows are bald. Put those things down!” I could have prayed then that he doesn’t have visible nasal hair, but I didn’t. My delight increased with each utterance. He must have had his feet up on something because my downfall was only a hair’s breadth away with “I am going to leave if you start plucking my toes”.
Recently I offered to buy her a treat – she chose a mug of leg wax. Sadly, she is more deeply twisted than I imagined. Having submitted one leg to the procedure in the hope that nothing would be left to sacrifice to the fork-tongued object of evil, I was appalled to discover that only the instrument had changed. The wax was peeled back hair stalk by hair stalk, the reason advocated being that she was trying to get a grip on it. This was simply unbearable ; it was like being attacked by a swarm of tweezers, each intent on out-tweezering the next. My shin is as scarred as the left half of my brain. And the wax did not meet the high standard of all-encompassing smoothness set by the preferred tool and has since been relegated to the shelf. I have gone back to sleeping behind a locked door.
Unfortunately the number of us who are qualified to offer advice on this front is quite out of proportion to what it should be. However, having been a crime statistic five or six times I’m ready to share what I’ve learned from each ‘occurence’.
Event One was an attempt at indecent assault which took place while I was walking home from work along King Edward Avenue quite a few years ago. The perpetrator was a young adult male and fortunately for me his anatomical knowledge ranked at about the same level as his manners and a lot lower than my actual stature. It took place shortly after 4pm while there was a fair amount of traffic and it was the barefaced cheek of the incident, and I suppose the natural embarrassment of a 17-year old having to recount it, that kept me quiet for years afterwards. [Lesson one: stay in built-up areas particularly when on foot. Lesson two: don’t keep quiet, especially while it’s happening. Forget manners and yell like a banshee – or a foghorn – or anything else uncooperative and bolshy and really really loud]
Sadly Event Two was a very similar incident that took place in Lindup Road about five years later. On this occasion the wannabe pervert was a schoolboy and my husband and I pursued the matter. It resulted in being asked to do an identity parade at a local boys high school : a tad awkward in that a number of my friends’ younger brothers were among the inspected, leading to a lot of speculation ; after the initial reaction wore off, the interpretation some of these young men put on our visit lead to a lot of mirth but it wasn’t funny at the time. There were three or four boys who looked similar to what I’d seen of the person the previous day but I wasn’t prepared to tag anyone unless I was 300% certain. Hopefully the fact that the incident had been followed up would have been noted and put the person off trying again. [Lesson three: pursue the matter through whatever channels are appropriate]
Event Three was a lot more traumatic and one that does colour my attitude to security to this day. My daughter, recently turned nine at the time, and I lived in a garden flat in Epworth. At twenty to three in the morning on Heritage Day (how ironic) which happened to be the Sunday of a long-weekend, I heard the chain on our wall clock tap against the wall. Assuming it was the local mutant cat hoping to cause trouble with our cat yet again, I lay in bed and cogitated yelling at it. However, past experience had shown that had no effect and I eventually staggered out of bed and to the interleading doorway to evict the visitor in person. The number of coincidences that took place that night and that saved us from anything worse happening still amazes me. I was studying at the time which lead to later than usual bedtime ; as I was about to go to bed an obnoxious-looking flying cockroach had come in but I was too tired to chase it around. Instead I left a side-light on in the hopes of keeping it busy until I could capture it in the morning. We never slept with lights on. This chance decision led to me being in the shadows of the doorway and the intruder in the lounge being floodlit. Although I was half asleep I did have the element of surprise on my side. It sounds silly now but at the time my brain couldn’t believe there really was a man in our lounge. But once it got the message all hell broke loose. Despite being dressed only in a negligible tee-shirt nightie I took one step forward and took off like the aforementioned bolshy foghorn. All I could think of was my young daughter sleeping in the bedroom behind me. The guy was standing at right angles to me looking at a bookcase when I first saw him. When he heard me he turned his head sideways but made no effort to move. I didn’t realise why at the time – had I known he had three or four accomplices with him I don’t know what I would have done – and the fact that he didn’t listen just made me blindly angry. I remember taking a step towards him and raising the index finger of my right hand like a stereotypical teacher/librarian/politician and yelling “I told you to get out of my house”. At that point he pottered slowly off towards the kitchen and ambled out of the open doorway. Despite slamming the door behind him, it was more than I could do to bring myself to loiter in the room because by then I could see other shadows moving in the garden outside and I left the window standing wide open – they’d gained entry by pulling that burglar bar from its mounting. [Lesson four: don’t assume you know how you’ll behave when confronted with a criminal situation, rely on your instincts as they often know best. Lesson five: have burglar bars welded on, not screwed in]
Event Four followed hot on the heels of the previous one but in Bank Street in the CBD. A car had cut a corner in front of me as I drove into town and the heavy rain caused my car to skid. In controlling the skid I’d wrenched my wrist. Instead of being vigilant as I usually try to be, I was walking up Bank Street at 2.15pm thinking things like “owie, owie”. A slight sensation at my right elbow caused me to look down, only to see a rusty filthy dirty old knife blade an inch from my ribs while a hand held the strap of my bag. I understand entirely why you may be under the impression that I live my life on a cloud of rage, ready to vent at the least provocation, but this isn’t actually how I am. It is interesting that on the few occasions I have had to confront criminals my inner self becomes blindly furious ; each time it has paid off and the criminals have made themselves scarce but I can’t honestly recommend it as a planned response. For all I knew, it could equally have caused them to panic or retaliate. Instead they behaved like the naughty little brats they are and pulled out. This particular one had an accomplice a couple of metres away whom I had seen out of the corner of my eye. After dropping the packet I was carrying and latching onto my bag, I first asked the other person if he was with the one trying to attach himself surgically to my ribcage. He denied all knowledge and sidled off down the adjacent lane. This left me free to concentrate on the hapless freelance surgeon. I wasn’t yet becoming long-sighted with old age so having my nostrils three centimetres from his wasn’t at all a disadvantage. Heaven knows what he saw in my face but it was sufficient for him to back off and start leaving the scene. For some reason this was just the last straw and, to the shame of my vocabulary as I don’t usually speak like that, I bawled after him (right outside the Education Department nogal) “come back here, you bloody bastard”. The response was appalling. He actually turned around and came back. My vocabulary still wasn’t entirely reconstituted and all I could think was “damn, what am I going to say now?”. However, instinct ruled once more and The Finger was mobilised while I gave him a lecture on why he had better never try a similar stunt again. By then my sense of humour was reasserting itself and when he promised faithfully never to repeat his behaviour I was hurting with the urge to laugh. My day was made when a teeny weeny little old lady with an umbrella pottered up to me (the only other person in sight despite the time of day) and said “well done, my girl”. [Lesson six: do what you have to, even if you do penance afterwards – dribble like a ghoul if it’ll frighten them]
Which brings me to the most recent episode, Event Five, about which I have little to say. Just over a year ago I’d parked my car in Berg Street, about fifty metres from my desk. However, I work on the first floor of the building and cannot see the spot without walking across the building. I parked at a quarter to eight in the morning. By nine fifteen my car had been stolen. It turned out to be the fifth such loss among people in our building and one across the road. On each occasion the car guard who worked this section at the time was either “going to the toilet”, “at the restaurant around the corner” or somewhere else conveniently not where the thefts were taking place. In my case he claimed to be at the tearoom but colleagues saw him sitting in the nearby side street for about twenty minutes during the fateful time period. None of us could prove his involvement but he no longer patrols this particular joint. I have no specific lessons from this experience but feel abiding relief that neither my daughter nor I were in or near the car at the time. The police were extremely helpful, Red Alert staff went way beyond the call of duty to try to recover the vehicle, Woollam Brokers worked magic to get me a courtesy car until the claim was processed, Imperial Car Hire were stars and Barron’s dealership also couldn’t have done more to help me. Colleagues and friends made sure we had lifts wherever we needed to be until the courtesy car arrived.
What helps me most of all in the longterm is the refusal to see myself as a victim. I remain a crime statistic but I’m doing my level darndest to instantly turn my assailants into victims too and keep the stats dynamic.