The most powerful memory of my father is the last one. I was starting to walk from our home to school on a large plot in Boksburg when I heard him calling me, “Rod, Roddy, Roddy!” Age seventeen, angry and rebellious, I was annoyed because he would often imperiously call me, summons me, without giving a reason why. I marched back down the long driveway, concerned I now might be late for the train that got me to school, Damelin College in faraway Johannesburg.
Dad waited in the doorway of the old Dutch-style house we were renting, the style with the long red balconies and plenty of space for dozens of guests for braais. In his hand he was triumphantly holding the keys of the house. I had forgotten to take my keys. Dramatically he bowed forward with an “at-your-service” extravagant flourish as he handed over my house keys while I sullenly muttered thanks and rushed down the driveway again to get to the railway station. I never saw my dad again.
The final memory of him over the decades that followed gathered more and more symbolism and resonance as I got on with life. The last time I saw him, the last thing he did for me, was hand over the keys to the home.
That was 1981. With black, wavy hair hanging to my shoulders, I despised authority, held apartheid in contempt. Walkman earphones on, I stalked that day to the station, listening, as I often did, to Pink Floyd’s The Wall. “We don’t need no education, we don’t need no thought control, no dark sarcasm in the classroom, teachers leave them kids alone”. I was particularly proud of my two copies of The Wall as shortly after I bought them the SA regime banned The Wall because the students in the black townships were using the “Brick in a Wall” song as a rebel chant to taunt the police in rallies. I had bought a second copy just before they were taken off the shelves as I loved the album so much I wanted a back-up cassette.
That evening: our landlord who lived on the plot next door drove my mother and me to the hospital in Benoni that had taken in my father. My mother could not drive at night. We had received a phone call to say he had collapsed in a street in Benoni and had to be rushed to a nearby hospital. The doctor on the phone had said, “he is not in very good condition”. We nervously joked in the car about my dad. “We don’t have to worry,” laughed my mom with fear in her voice to Ernie. “He has the constitution of a rhino.”
“Sure, said Ernie, “he’s a really tough bugger. Ha ha.”
When we got to the hospital, even in my rebellious, introspective state I could interpret the look on the nursing sister’s face as she looked at me and my mother. “He’s dead, isn’t he?” my mother gasped. The sister slowly nodded, looking curiously at me. While we waited for the doctor the young, red-haired, narrow-faced nursing sister kept staring at me as if I came from another planet. I watched the sister take it in that I actually belonged there. I knew the type; she knew mine. She was of conservative Dutch Calvinistic stock. My shoulder length hair did not receive approval, even in the face of tragedy. To her I looked like a meisie, a girl. I tried not to sob. She did not know what to do with her face: let it continue to show disapproval of me or allow some appropriate compassion to show? It occurred to me that she genuinely did not know if I was a girl or boy. It reminded me of how seldom I felt I fitted in.
Jessica, a friend of my mother’s, came to visit us that night while my mom sobbed at the large dining room table. It was a winter and for the first time in a long time the fireplace was cold, the wood and coals silent instead of crackling in the hearth. “I don’t care if he came home roaring drunk right now,” my mother gasped. “At least he came home.”
Never in my life had I ever regarded tears as such huge enemies as I did that night. My entire culture had taught me, a boy, not to cry. Beatings at school, whipped by bigger boys, teased about the endless books I read …You never, ever cried. My father taught me that. Some things desperately need to be unlearned.
I saw my role now as the man of the house and escorted Jessica to the door. “Nice to have you come round, Jessica,” I said in my most manly voice, trying not to husk. Dammit, don’t choke. To this day I remember her — also a red-haired woman, much older and of a different kind to the nursing sister altogether. She stood there, slightly turned away from me, looking at the stars. Then she slowly turned around and looked at me, an old hand at motherhood. “Have a good night’s sleep, Roddy. Look after your mom. And remember, it’s not a shame to cry. Never ever.” I desperately wanted to believe her.
That night I lay in bed, listening to my mother’s soft sobs, vision swirling and darkening as the heavy sleeping pill the hospital gave me took effect. Next to my bedside I watched my keys to the home, shining in the moonlight, slowly blur as I passed into an utterly dreamless sleep and a new life.
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The above is an experimental excerpt from my semi-sequel to the now published memoir, Cracking China, provisionally titled The Gift next to the Vase of Flowers.