Rod MacKenzie
Rod MacKenzie

Fleeing China

It was the very recent death of his mother that emerged in him during this time, this fleeing from snow-swept China.

Now in New Zealand, he felt his creative fingertips for the first time in months. He re-discovered the warmth of Marion’s hands and laugh again, the hearth which had always been there, the arms which held him on a pillow – or was that his mother who had just died?

In China, shortly before he and Marion bolted, he remembered sitting up in shock sometime in the night, and Marion telling him of an elderly woman standing in the corner, looking across at them. Stuttering, a child again, he asked Marion to describe the woman, and shivered. The portrait was his mother: the hunch from osteoporosis, the way she smiled with chin trembling, the teeth showing above the drooping lower lip as she gleamed with dark eyes at her boy; her musical voice, the voice of a five-year-old’s mouth near another phone, murmuring goodbye Roddy, goodbye Roddy.

* * *

You know how passport control officers the world over are taught to say, “Welcome home”, upon your arrival back in your country? It’s like the police saying, “We are sorry for your loss”, when reporting the death of a loved one, dead words making little attempt to heal the heart. For now, all I had of the news of my mother’s approaching death, and then of her “going home” (as her Christian friends would say), were emails.


We stood in Auckland airport, almost tottering before the silver-haired, New Zealand immigration officer, after a twelve hour flight and two days on the run. And roughly eight years of being nomads from South Africa. Managing a grin in my mind, I imagined the silhouette of a sickle behind him. For so long we had been country-less, at the mercy of petty officialdom. That silhouette behind the silvery officer was sharpened by my last (and very first), nightmarish experience of China …


Kunshan, near Shanghai, January 6 2013, 5am: Marion and I got up to flee. As the apartment block our terrible company had put us in had company Chinese staff in other apartments, I was wary about them – such spies – seeing us leave with our luggage on a working day.


We stumbled down the concrete steps from our apartment, which was right next to a garbage dump. We’d been living in a slum. I found an illegal taxi, a driver who disconnected his meter and shoved it into the cubby hole. Speaking Mandarin, I negotiated a reasonable fare. The next day we would be catching a flight straight to Auckland: the distance from Kunshan to Shanghai meant we needed to stay overnight in a Shanghai hotel to ensure we got to Pudong Airport on time.


I feared missing the flight. I feared the snow delaying our flight and our company trying to cancel our residency visas before we got past the airport departures police. Never in my life had I felt such fright; my eyes were myopic from anxiety. I was battling to read road signs. (One text message from our abusive company received that day was a threat that they were calling the police.)


Marion, stoic as ever, chattered away to me in the taxi about nostalgic sites we passed as the taxi sped to that spectacular hulk, Shanghai … to hell with all that Rod, enjoy watching the snow pile past the windows, a serene white death on the passing willows and the frozen canals, almost emblematic of the passing away of a mostly amazing seven years in China.


The taxi driver, used to his Kunshan dialect, suddenly decided to tell me in his thick Mandarin he didn’t actually know the way to Puxi in Shanghai. He was going to drop me off on the outskirts of Puxi where a cabby mate of his would take us to the hotel. I didn’t know whether to laugh or become more fearful. Bugger all this, laugh it off. I demanded a decrease in the fare because of the inconvenience. Old to this game, the driver reassured me but also refused to budge on the price.



* * *


We spent our last day drifting from haunt to nostalgic haunt in Puxi. An area composed more of people than high-rises, throngs thick as mist. A city’s peopled streets a necklace jangling on a pair of sweaty breasts. We had lived for years in this city, like a pair of backsides moulding the wood on a favourite park bench. Shanghai: Another place we can no longer call home, or sweeten her face with our touch, a face that may once have known that we belonged, had permission to explore intimate places.


* * *


Thump. The Kiwi Immigrations rubber stamp plunging down onto our passports. It only took a few seconds for the official to decide to do this. The kindly immigration officer looked up at our gaping mouths with a smile, a character out of The Hobbit, the movie advertised everywhere in Auckland airport. “Welcome home,” he said to us, nodding warmly. I could see in his gentleness he could see how shattered we looked. “Is that all??” I blurted, used to endless red tape. He smiled reassuringly.

Welcome home”.

The words reverberated, peeling open my heart. We were being told, for the first time in many years, that the land we were about to enter was home.


* * *


… her incredibly childlike, musical voice, its light now the purest, welling through her words. And her lips, untouched, pursed against a phone, whispering goodbye Roddy, bye-bye my boy. In his heart snow drifted like guilt over that recent funeral in Fish Hoek he was unable to attend. We were busy running away, Mommy. Just so busy running away. To have held your hand for that last time.

Can China and South Africa be so easily forgotten, a phone put down, two countries switched off with a click?



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  • The lens of roman noir: Ishiguro’s ‘When we were Orphans’
    • Lucky Ntuli

      Oy Rod..

    • Sue

      Thank you for your incredible writing – deeply felt, and a privilege to have shared it. Strength to you and yours, and may you find the kindness you so need in your new home.

    • Siobhan

      Dear Rod, I hadn’t looked at Thought Leader in a long time but something compelled me to do so today and I’m glad I followed that compulsion. I am sorry that you lost your mother under circumstances that prevented you from being with her at the end. My mother died two days and 13,000 km away after our last phone conversation. Despite the Alzheimer’s she knew immediately who I was and was in possession of her wits as I explained that my husband’s worsening cancer meant I could not leave him to be with her. I even joked with her that she shouldn’t keep God The Mother waiting so when she felt it was time to let go it would be good idea to do it and would be sure of a welcome when she arrived on the other side. She (a life-long Catholic) laughed with me (a life-long Agnostic) and that is how we said good-bye. Despite the physical distance, our bond in consciousness was intact and I feel confident yours with your mother was as well. Your love for her is obvious and I am persuaded that consciousness survives death and she knows both where you are and how you feel. We may not have tangible proof of that survival but the evidence in favour of it is piling up and, as Pascal said, we lose nothing by accepting the possibility.
      After your horrendous experience with the company that employed you, I am glad you are back in NZ. This planet is your home, Rod, more than any country. As a child of the universe you have a right to be here – wherever here is!
      Namaste. Siobhan

    • Benzo

      Hi, Rod, nice to hear from you again. Wishing you and Marion a happy and prosperous future under the white cloud.

      Talking about your mother’s departure, made me think about my mother’s. She was already 97 and becoming frail when I last saw her. Received a phone call somewhere in Sandton. “Mama is zojuist overleden”. Although mentally prepared, it still is a shock. The story of my two sisters who were on her bedsite did me smile. She was lying quietly resting in her bed, eyes closed.
      Then she opened her eyes and started to recite a little children rhyme she used often when bringing us to bed: “s avonds als ik slapen ga, volgen mij 14 engeltjes na…..” saying all 8 lines. When finished, she closed her eyes and was gone.

      We, her 7 children organised a funeral service -slightly deviating from the prescribed Roman Catholic service. Two of my brothers played her favourite music on piano and flute, my sisteres did a sketch together memorising some highlights, and all present participated in the “laugh and a tear” ceremony.
      My fondest memory.
      Back in SA, I often think with pleasure and fondness about this event.

      Will save you the rest before becoming all sentimental again.

      You and Marion, keep well. I have moved to the Northern Cape enjoying the rest and calm, only broken by meckering sheep and birds

    • GrahamJ

      My maternal grandmother, in the moments before she died, said to those by her bed, “The room is full of angels”, and she closed her eyes and joined them…

    • impedimenta

      Glad to have you back at Thought Leader, Rod. Sad to hear about your mom and the flight from China. God speed in New Zealand.

    • http://None Stan Thomas

      Hi Marion

      What do you think?

      Love to hear from you.


    • http://None Stan Thomas

      Moderated – English – Past Tense = Done! Marion’s opinions? Hope you both grow to love the All Black jersey. I wear an Irish one next to my heart and on top of that a Bok one. Met Colin Meads way back in the early seventies at Birkenhead Park near Liverpool – had a couple of beers with him. Next time you see give him my regards. He was a real gentleman and a real pleasure for me to have a beer or two with him. Of course he won’t remember me but I had very interesting conversation with him – it was all about training for rugby.

    • nguni

      Been there, still wearing the T-shirt of guilt, Rod. Except that my mom died amongst strangers in an old age home in Paarl. I too sat overseas, but I got no warning.

    • francois williams

      Uh, the pace and speed and numbers of Kiwis on the chicken run to OZ, and al over Asia, or any other part of the world who will take them, mean you wont be too long in the frozen wasteland of NZ I suspect…maybe back to SA…oh the horror, hahaha!!
      I just came back to China from SA,must say Africa is always gorgeous and welcoming, kind…China is so paranoid and polluted…but there is always Philippines nearby…now that is paradise.,.you will probably get a labouring job in Xtchurc…check out…

    • Citizen Mntu

      Hello Rod. That’s a trenchant, moving, haunting elegiac. Most beautifully written. I am so sorry to learn here about your mother’s passing. Some vivid memories remain: Toasted sandwiches for the assembled company. Dusted with a light dash of perfume. The old Combi passing by, packed with painted Garfields. Deep discussions; worries; philosophy; stoicism and laughter. Kalk Bay, Muizenberg, Woodstock…. the freighted 80s.