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Marion Grammer



Marion Grammer

Grammer was born in Cape Town, South Africa of mixed descent. She is an
accountant, now living in Sydney, Australia. She works for a human rights advocacy centre and is writing a book of inter-related short stories. Her poems have been published on Pambazuka News.



‘Man, those white fuckers sure had a sick sense of humour,’ Clive said in a rare lucid moment. ‘Where’s the lavender hey?’ he asked old Mr. Janjies. They were sitting on the cold cement steps at the top of the stairs. At just the right time in winter, for a few minutes each day, the thin rays crawled up the side of the unit block and warmed the steps. Mr. Janjies had a couple of smokes here in the morning before work. Clive knew Mr. Janjies was good for a few stompies which would last him just long enough before his next hit.

Mr. Janjies took a long slow drag on his Cavallas. The smoke curled and mixed briefly with their exhalations, forming a bluish halo around their heads – the grey and the black. The wind had not yet picked up, but Mr. Janjies was prepared. His moth-eaten cap was pulled low over his ears and fore-head. A thread-bare but still serviceable coat covered his stooped frame. He was lucky. At CAFDA in Grassy Park last year, Mrs. Beukes had put aside the coat especially for him. She was a nice lady. A sharp tongue on her though. Quite formidable at times. She took no nonsense from the roughs and toughs who came through her doors every day. Her staff called her “The Chief” behind her back, but they had a lot of respect for her. Since she’d joined the staff a few years ago, the fighting and swearing amongst the customers had dropped dramatically.

‘Yes,’ thought Mr. Janjies, ‘A fine figure of a woman.’ Reminded him a bit of his wife, Marie, with her wide hips and heavy breasts and kind eyes. His milky eyes misted over. His Marie. What would she think if she saw him now. She would be so ashamed. She’d always made sure his shirts were starched and ironed before he left for work in the morning. He tries but sometimes the effort is just too much. The years they’d been married, living in District Six in Cape Town, were hard too, but it was a good life. They didn’t have much then, but they were rich in so many other ways.

He shuffled his feet restlessly in front of him. The cold was starting to seep in from the cement, despite lining his shoes with fresh newspapers this morning. His toes were feeling distinctly numb. He looked at Clive. What was happening to all the young people now, he thought.

‘Here man. Stop your shaking.’ He gave Clive his half-smoked cigarette. Clive lifted an unsteady hand and held the stompie pointing inwards toward his palm as he’d seen gangsters do on television. He sucked deeply and then let out a long shuddering breath.

‘You look like a bag of dirty clothes Clive. Have you no self-respect? And you stink man!’

‘She locked me out again last night Mr. J. Ma wouldn’t let me in. I slept in the hokkie in the back yard.’ His voice was petulant. Mr. Janjies sighed. Clive was still a child, barely out of his teens.

His eyes strayed across the courtyard below them. It was hemmed in by four low rise blocks of flats, a pattern repeated throughout the township. Across the way, Surrey Court; Dover Court to the right and on his left, Liverpool Court. He and Clive lived in Kent Court. What was it with place names, he thought. Did the government think when they built these monstrosities that if they named these concrete boxes after places in England it would distract the inhabitants from the grim reality of the forced resettlements? Yes, Clive was right. They were always fucking with our minds. Blurring was the function of the language of oppression. He thought of Lavender Hill where they lived and what Clive had said earlier. There was no lavender growing here when he and Marie arrived one bleak spring morning in the late Sixties. Just the endless rows of freshly minted concrete bunkers with concrete stairs clinging to the outer walls leading to the two levels above. And the endless stretches of sand and dunes covered in low tufts of sea-grass.

They knew many of the people who were relocated here, newly arrived from District Six and other places now deemed “White” under the Group Areas Act. Many had had their own houses; they weren’t all renting. The government gave those people only a few thousand rand compensation, not enough to buy a new house. So many lives uprooted, communities destroyed and the delicate ties that bound them together frayed and then irrevocably severed. It was asking too much from everyone to rebuild what they’d lost. People had walked around those first few years looking stunned, searching for things they didn’t even know they’d lost. He and Marie too. In the end, she had simply given up.

He remembered that first spring and summer. The south-easter blew for weeks on end. They couldn’t open doors or windows or everything would be coated in dust and sand. When you went outside to hang the washing the wind whipped the sand against your legs and face, scouring off a layer of skin. And Marie’s skin was already so thin, so many layers lost. She would come inside, shaking the sand from her thick black hair. He tried to make her laugh.

‘You look like a poodle that’s just had a bath,’ but her brown eyes had already started to empty and she’d walked past him without a word, the green plastic washing basket balanced on her hip. This wind was called “The Cape Doctor” because it was supposed to blow away all the germs out of the city. Instead it brought all its misery to those cast out on the Cape Flats.

She used to have a ready laugh, a deep rumble that spread across her ample chest and escaped through her ruby lips. They had no children of their own but their little house in Hanover Street always seemed to be overflowing with children, shouting, running, laughing, fighting. She looked after some of her neighbours children after school and the house frequently smelled of aniseed, the magic ingredient of mosbolletjies, the yeasty buns for which she was justly famous. He used to chide her sometimes when he came home from work. ‘They’re not paying you enough for all the money you’re pending on their children Marie.

‘Ag Abe. You don’t mean it hey? You know how everyone is struggling. We must share.’ He knew she was right and there was always some fresh eggs or vegetables or fruit left on their doorstep. Yes, those were the good times, only they didn’t realize it then.

‘Hey Mr. J.’ Clive tapped him with his bony elbow. ‘Do you have some spare change on you. I’ll pay you back.’

‘Pay me back? How will you pay me back. By robbing some people down the road, or selling off some more of your mother’s clothes and furniture?’

Clive looked away, a dull angry flush spreading up from his neck. He scratched at the barely-healed scabs on his cheek with his bitten fingernails.

‘Didn’t think I knew did you? And no, your Ma didn’t tell me. These walls are so thin I can hear everything that goes on in your house man. I can hear when you’re puking your guts out in the toilet! A boy stealing from his mother. Sies man. Don’t you have shame? Look what that Tik is doing to you and your mother. Remember when you were in primary school and you won those prizes for story writing. How you pounded on our door with your little fists. You couldn’t wait to tell Aunty Marie all about it. You’d sit on our couch and watch our faces with your mouth hanging open, eyes shining until she’d finished. Then she’d give you a thick slice of chocolate cake. How you’d try to stuff the whole slice into your mouth and then chew and chew, your eyes and cheeks bulging with the effort. You were such a lovely funny, clever boy then. So full of promise. Look at you now’.

‘Listen old man. I don’t have to sit and listen to your sentimental shit. Are you going to give me the fucking money or not.’ Clive had sprung to his feet, body tense and strung-out.

‘No, I’m not. I’m a pensioner and won’t waste my money on a useless tik-addict like you’.

‘Fuck off then,’ Clive shouted at him, spit flying from the corners of his mouth, his lips a thin snarl. ‘Fuck off the lot of you,’ he shouted as he ran down the stairs, stopping briefly at his mother’s front door to give it a kick.

Mr. Janjies looked out across the courtyard. In the hazy distance he could just discern the outlines of False Bay Mountains. In the early months after they’d arrived here, he thought he detected the faint briny smell of the ocean. So near, yet so far. Muizenberg was just a few miles up Prince George Drive, but it might as well have been a thousand miles away. Even if they could get there, the “Whites Only/Slegs Blankes” signs were everywhere. He laughed once when he passed by to see some wag had tampered with one of the signs - it read “Slegte Bankes – bad whites. That smell was soon replaced by that of uncollected garbage and stagnant pools of rainwater collecting in rutted streets filled with litter.

From his vantage point he now watched cars and taxi-vans jostle for supremacy on the busy road. There was no public transport here. You either walked to Retreat Station a couple of miles away or caught the taxi if you didn’t have a car. The taxis were always filled to capacity, people stuffed in like sardines in a tin can. Rival taxi groups were at war with one another and frequently innocent passengers were caught in the cross-fire. Their lethal jossling for fares, like hyenas looking for prey, caused many accidents on the road and Mr. Janjies preferred to walk if his health allowed.

A glint of reflected sunlight caught his attention. His old friend, Mr. Morkel was leaning out of his window at a precarious angle, having a furtive smoke. His wife Maudie, was a real harridan, always nagging at him to quit. ‘What does it matter now Abe. We’re going to die soon anyway. We might as well enjoy ourselves,’ he said once. But Maudie prevailed was usual. She’d recently put out an old mock-leather sofa, and the two friends had hauled it out into Charlie’s backyard, finding a sunny spot from where they discussed South Africa’s ills amid the escaping pink puffs of stuffing.

Charlie had been a history teacher at a high school in Steenberg, teaching “all those lies for all those years” as he put it. ‘Our children knew nothing of the true history of our country. We couldn’t tell them or we’d find ourselves locked up on Robben Island.’

Abe shook his head in acknowledgment. It’s been almost fifteen years and what has changed for our children, he wondered.

Charlie’s children were all married and had long since left the charms of Lavender Hill. They were living in former white areas like Marina da Gama and Meadowridge. One of his grand-daughters was even attending a former Model C school. The family was so proud, bragging to their neighbours, but Charlie was less sure. He wanted the best for his grand-children but had to ask himself whether this was what the struggle was all about. That a few privileged black kids could now go to a formerly white school? Why were the authorities not providing the necessary free education for all children. ‘Look how most of us are still living. After all these years. It’s not right.’

Abe watched the school children now, dawdling, shouting, laughing. What did the future hold for them. Sometimes he was almost glad he and Marie were unable to have any. He had thought that first summer in Lavender Hill that children would have distracted Marie from the deep depression that had settled over her like a heavy grey blanket. The mosquitoes breeding in the swampy vlei drove them mad. And the heat. The fetid air stood still that year. He actually welcomed the wind when it finally came through. Then came the winter. They couldn’t get warm, especially Marie. No matter what he did, the hot water bottles, the extra layers of blankets and clothing, she lay on the bed shivering and shaking. He rubbed her feet and hands. The fumes from the kerosene heater filled their flat but it was too cold to open any windows. When he came home from work, he’d find her still in bed, eyes vacant, looking at the ceiling. What could he do. She didn’t want to go to the doctor but he persisted. ‘Nerves,’ the doctor said and prescribed some pills.

‘There’s nothing wrong with me that he can fix,’ she’d said. She died just as the days started to lengthen. Now, every Sunday, he visits her at Grassy Park cemetery and tells her about his week. He’s not sure how much to tell her, but he’s sure she has a pretty good idea anyway.

He watched as Clive joined a group of gangsters at the corner of the square. He’d seen them around, even in broad daylight, selling their tik, even to children and parents. He used to phone the police when he first realized what was happening, but they took their time to come or sometimes they didn’t come at all. Now these gangsters seemed always to have been there, peddling their misery, a cancer in the townships, their murderous growths reaching into so many homes. Generations lost once again. Some nights he woke to the sounds of gunshots and screams. He no longer went to his window to look, just pulled his cap lower over his ears, trying to shut out the bad and remembering the good.

The sun had moved on and his legs felt stiff. He slowly got up and stretched. He checked his pockets for his smokes and small change. He felt tired. Yes, he had enough for a taxi to Retreat. It was pension day today. He’ll collect his money then go to CAFDA. Mrs. Beukes had a stout pair of work boots set aside for him and he’d collect them today. It might even be his size!

He woke around six as usual the next morning. Marie used to tease him;

‘I don’t need a cock to crow me awake. I have my own bird.’ She sometimes surprised him like that, and he was never too sure what to make of these jokes. But she looked at him with a straight face and he read no more into them. She was a straight-forward woman, though once he thought he heard her stifle a girlish giggle, but she said she was just clearing her throat.

It was still very cold and he piled on the layers. He’d had a good day yesterday. Mrs. Beukes had come good with the boots and if he wore two pairs of thick socks – she had supplied these too – they fitted perfectly. He didn’t have to spend too much of his pension. He’d have enough till the next payment. He’d gone on a little shopping spree at Pay Less as well and bought half a dozen eggs and some fruit and those soft buns that were on special. Only a day old. His teeth were not so good and he had trouble chewing. Marie was always nagging him to eat more fruit and vegetables and he liked to tell her on Sundays that he was still listening to her. He fried up some eggs, mopping up the yolk with fried bread, licking his fingers afterward. After rinsing his plate, he made a mug of strong black instant coffee, three sugars. Making sure his mouth was free of grease, he carried his mug to the front door, hoping to warm up in the early morning sun.

‘Damn, it’s still so cold’, he muttered, but the hot mug warmed his hands. He blew the coffee gently and took a tentative slurp. Hot, but not too hot. He placed the mug on the cement. “To my Valentine”, the red letters on the mug always made him smile. They were surrounded by tiny red hearts. He and Marie were never a sentimental couple but she had surprised him one year. He lit a cigarette and inhaled deeply. He watched as the blue smoke curled in lazy whorls around him. At such moments he was almost content.

He caught sight of Mrs. Thomas, his neighbour, sitting across the landing, her back against her front door. He was surprised to see her. She worked as a housekeeper for a rich white family in Simons Town and usually left at five to get to work on time. She needed to be at work early, she told him once, so that she could prepare the children’s breakfast and get them ready for school. Her employers were very busy people, she said.

‘Morning Missus. Taking the day off today?’ he lifted a hand. She was looking his way, but made no sign of having heard him. She was usually quite friendly, but quiet, mainly keeping to herself, not a nosy neighbour like some of the people around here. Always sticking their unwanted noses into other people’s affairs.

‘Everything OK Missus?’ He’d heard nothing untoward during the night, except for Clive pounding on her front door at one stage, pleading with his mother to be let in, but after a while he’d given up. He’d muttered a few curses and Mr. Janjies had heard him stumble down the stairs. He’d shaken his head sadly before falling asleep. He rose slowly, making sure his coffee mug was not in danger of tipping over. He walked the few steps across to his neighbour.

‘Mrs. Thomas. Mrs. Thomas? Are you OK? Are you sick?’ She looked at him, her eyes vacant. He touched her hands folded lightly on her lap. They were cold and sticky. He saw the dark stains on her gown. He had thought they were shadows cast by the shriveled pot plant at her door.

‘Are you hurt Mrs. Thomas? Stay here. I’m going to call for the ambulance. Just wait here.’ She opened her mouth and tried to speak, but her lips were dry. He ran across to get his coffee and pressed the still warm mug to her lips. She turned her head away.

‘I’m not hurt. It’s Clive’.

‘What about Clive. Did someone hurt him? Must I call the police?’

‘Yes, call the police. We don’t need an ambulance.’ She turned her head away.

‘Clive’s dead. My son’s free of the tik now.’ She looked up at Mr. Janjies and said in a calm voice, ‘I thought he was coming to rob me again, you see. I heard him in the back yard, trying to break through the burglar bars. I can’t live like this anymore. Have you seen my house? There’s not much furniture left anymore. He’s stolen the television, the jewellery my husband bought me when we got married. Almost everything’s gone. I keep my clothes in plastic garbage bags and take it to my friend when I’m not at home. How can anyone live like this?’ She took a long shuddering breath.

‘When I heard him early this morning I pretended it was a burglar. I took the knife and opened the door. He stood there looking at me with that stupid tik smile and when he came to the door I stabbed him in his chest. The knife went in so easily. He was always such a soft boy. He’s still lying there. Would you cover him up before you call the police? He must be so cold now.’

Mr. Janjies walked through the almost bare flat. At the back door Clive was lying on his side, his arm under his head, as though asleep. As though he’d been too tired to take those last few steps to his bedroom and decided to have a nap at the door. Mr. Janjies found a worn brown cotton bedspread on an iron bed in one of the bedrooms; Clive’s he supposed. It was covered in a pattern of purple flowers with grey-green leaves. Carefully avoiding the dark pool which had spread across the shining linoleum, Mr. Janjies lifted the spread over Clive and it settled with a soft sigh over his body.

‘Sleep well son, sleep well,’ Mr. Janjies murmured, before turning to the front door, leaving Clive under his field of lavender.

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