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African Writing Archives


Melissa De Villiers



Melissa De Villiers

de Villiers was born and raised in Grahamstown in South Africa's Eastern Cape. She now lives in London, where she works as a freelance writer and journalist. She is currently working on a collection of short stories set in South Africa.


Chameleon House

Ever seen a chameleon backed into a corner? They turn black with rage. Slowly, of course, but with a strange ferocity, the dark impulse fanning over that scaly body like a warrior’s flag. And all the while they’re keeping tjoepstill, those dot eyes staring in their crazy turret sockets, one checking ahead, the other behind. You’ll stare too for a while, because there’s always a weird kind of glamour in confrontation, even with a lizard, until it gets bored or you do. You might think about telling the ragged kid with the stick or whoever’s doing the tormenting to stop prodding the poor creature, to let it alone, but probably you don’t give a damn. There’s bigger trouble to deal with in the world.

The year I lived in that London house-share I thought Helene Bruwer was like that, a chameleon steadily being stripped of its camouflage and cornered while we rushed on by. Me and Karen and Steesh, we’d left South Africa for the first time that summer and even with the glare and roar of a massive new city to negotiate, we were greedy for something more. So all day long we ran, desperate to keep up, from gigs and parties and underground raves to the charity shops for those grunge threads all the hipsters wore, always with a portable stereo roaring out Hugh Masekela and the Happy Mondays parked on the end of our beds.

Plus I had other issues back then, strung out on Auret, my man from back home. I was a liability at work, forgetting change, dropping glasses, yelling at the chefs when my orders went through slow. Almost got fired for it a couple of times, but I didn’t really care. I couldn’t stay focused on much.




Helene scrubbed offices for the White Glove Cleaning Agency in Hammersmith. She’d been there for five or six months already by the time we turned up. We joked she must be scrubbing away her whitegirl guilt – most people quit after a few weeks. And she worked longer hours than any of us, turning up her Walkman, squeegeeing and vacuuming, until the routine lulled her into a kind of trance. She’d learned to hold her breath scraping the ammonia crusts off the urinals, she told us, or prising those clotted plaits of slime and hair from the plugs of blocked-up sinks. And she’d learned to hide how good she’d got at it because if the boss found out, he cut down on your hours to save himself a buck.

We liked it, this city full of restless passers-through like ourselves. The four of us rented a place together in Collingwood Road, a cramped, litter-strewn street lined with terraced houses whose bulging windows gave them the air of fat men wearing waistcoats buttoned too tight. At night I lay in bed and listened to our Polish neighbour knocking about, watching TV gameshows and muttering to himself. Like Karen and Steesh, who shared the sitting-room, and Helene, in the box-room at the back, I sukkeled for money, but that was supposed to be part of the deal, right? So couple of days a week I waitressed at Café Koha, weekends worked in a pub near Chinatown and spent the other nights bar-hopping or just getting out of it with whoever happened to be in the house at the time.

No matter how wasted I got I’d always wake when the clock radio would be going off in the Jo’burg flat, with Auret yawning his way out of bed and feeling sleepily for his jeans, and outside the quivering fingers of the bougainvillea vine stroking the window in the pearly light.

We all knew each other from student days, but us and Helene, we were never what you might call tight. She had had her own crowd back then, and anyway she was reserved; someone with high walls, you know? But now, in her own aloof way, she seemed just as determined to remake herself as the rest of us. Wednesday night was what we called our girl’s night out, cocktails and calamari at El Metro in Hammersmith tube station in our new grunge gear and piercings, London-style, while we debated which clubs and drugs we could afford. When we were broke, we cadged free drinks off a guy Steesh was sleeping with. He worked the bar at Club Afrique, this basement off the Strand where go-getters and fixers from all over the continent sipped beer and studied the crowd with coolly watchful eyes.

Helene never really let go, though; never got along with the drugs and the partying and the pretending to be wild. I kissed her once in some bar late at night, to get rid of a drunk who wouldn’t let her alone. I leaned over and kissed her on the mouth, softly but firmly, a long kiss, my hand in her hair, and afterwards she couldn’t look me in the eye, although her admirer disappeared without saying another word. She tasted like me – beer and cigarette smoke, plus some odd, sour backnote I couldn’t quite define. It was rare that she stayed the course, but if she was still around at three in the morning I thought it was easy to see what she really was, a nice Afrikaner doedie, sturdy, like most farm girls, in unobjectionable clothes, yellow hair scraped back, laughing politely on cue but always watchful from under her hooded eyes. Efficiently sorting out the taxi home and the house keys as the rest of us stood on the kerb, yelling drunkenly in the streetlamps’ dirty yellow light.

She stuck around with us because we helped her fit in, be cool; at least, that’s how we flattered ourselves. Helene had been through some tough times, and this gave her a kind of allure. She’d been involved – that’s what we called it then; part of a network of student activists who’d linked up with the Underground movement in exile. No child’s play, my china, with thousands of people getting arrested on public violence charges or jailed without trial, and many others beaten, tortured or shot. Eventually, the security police had tracked her down in hiding and taken her to Port Elizabeth, where she spent just short of four months in the North End jail. She hardly spoke of it, but she told me that her parents never visited her there. For them, her involvement was a crossing point, a tribal betrayal. Her people were godsdienstige, Helene said; they took the narrow road.

She gave me an ornamental chameleon once, strung with dark blue beads. The kind street kids make from copper wire. Me and Auret, we had a whole collection of those wire toys in the flat, starfish and bicycles, even a little train, and I told her one time I missed having them around.

For you, she said. So you can start a new hoard. Got it down by PE beachfront, she said. Day they let me out. Couldn’t think where to go for a while, so I took the bus and just parked off there by Summerstrand. Watched the moms playing with their kids, the seagulls flocking, ate the best ice-cream I’d ever tasted. Jirre, I had four of them, one after the other! Guy selling them thought I was mal, or high. That country, eh.

Auret and me used to love the sea. Liked to camp out on those big, bare Transkei beaches once the rains had come and gone, heading as far north as we could hack it in the 4X4 to where it gets so lush and wild you can stop wearing clothes for days because there’s no-one around to see. We’d planned to get married up there, throw a party in Port St Johns, at the Rhodes Hotel. Got the invitations done and all. Left my ma to deal with all that stuff; just walked away from it and she never asked what or why. I guess she had her theories.




Auret couldn’t get over why I’d done what I did. Listen, it meant nothing. I got out of it one night and pulled an action, I told him. Trying to make him smile, you check, using that old Durban surfer slang he grew up with, but he didn’t smile.

Sure, he was my man, had been since I was seventeen, and I never meant to do him down. But don’t we all do stuff that’s no good for you? You do it and afterwards there’s no feeling pleasant about it or anything like that.

In five years together we’d only spent a month apart, when he went home to Durban after his dad died. Day he got back he spent an age slashing away at the bougainvillea covering the front wall of our flat, trickling its tendrils over the windows and turning the room inside mermaid green. I told him, Auret, leave it, I like the way it falls; it makes our place private, a secret cave we can hide out in. He said no, what we needed was to keep tearing the damn stuff down. He said it’s easier than you think to get hooked on living a secret life.




Check this out, half-price deals to Ibiza, Helene said at one of our Wednesday night get-togethers. We were reading the Evening Standard’s travel section out loud, wincing every time the bar-room door banged open and a rainy wind blew in. It was early June. The movies paint a picture of these strawberry-filled English summers, with never a hint of how sodden they actually are. We were always fantasizing about which foreign beaches we were going to blow our hard-earned bucks on, to try and get warm.

Ja, but a hundred fifty pounds more gets you to Thailand, where it’s thirty degrees right now. This was Steesh, gingerly stroking her nose-stud as she scanned the room. Catch a full moon party on Ko Phangan, dance all night, they say it’s like meditation in action. Fully, man. A month there’ll sort out all our shit.

True, the vibes would be perfect for you there, nodded Helene, with a gracious tilt of the head. We watched as she sipped her beer, waiting until she’d swallowed, replacing her glass right in the middle of the stained beer-mat. All three of us had plenty to say, but we waited until Helene said something first and then jumped in. I thought of the queues that sprouted in shops and outside clubs in this sober northern city, static conga-lines that always seemed so tidy and well-behaved. People here swerved into line like it was a duty; we swerved behind Helene’s words in much the same way. Uncanny, you know, how quick she took that role from me, and without anyone even missing a beat.

That night Karen had something to tell and she was all lit up with it.

Listen, Helene. Graham phoned.

This was Karen’s brother. A whitey who had managed, even in the new order of things, to get accepted as a propaganda-maker by the state broadcaster.

Ja, there’s this new documentary coming up, perfect for you. Free tickets home for the interview and maybe a fee.

Hmm, what – political stuff? Because, you know, I’m putting all that behind me now. Helene pulled a face, but she was looking pleased.

Of course, said Karen, nodding admiringly. Karen revered Helene like she had the power of healing. I guess she was hoping some of that survivor’s karma would rub off on her, settle on her, but now she was pulling her chair closer, her round, shiny face earnest under her floppy brim hat.

This one’s big budget. You know the government’s going public with the old police records? So they’ll film activists from the struggle days checking out their files. All those search-and-destroy dirty tricks, Helene, how the boere spied on people fighting for justice, here’s your chance to expose what they did to you! To the world!

Star in a film? asked Steesh, bright-eyed. Nice one, Helene. Wonder if I’ve got a file.

Searched at a roadblock once, weren’t you, Steesh? Helene said, quickly. This time, her smile wasn’t quite lighting up her face.

Oh my god! That bonehead cop…

I pressed my lips together to stifle a giggle. We’d only heard this story a dozen times before.

… old as my grandad, patting my ass every which way! Dude must be shitting himself now he’s part of the Rainbow Nation, if he’s even still got a job.

You bet. Listen, let’s drink to that. And Helene was gone, shouldering through the crowd to buy another round.

By nine-thirty the room was filling up, bodies jostling, everyone gulping the drinks down, sweating and smoking, hot and loud. Times like this, with a kind of liquid hilarity rippling through the room, London seemed like the best place in the world. So you grew up in a police state that put you in jail? That was way too much information for people here. They got embarrassed if you brought it up, just like nobody cared if your father ass-kissed his colleagues at work and called them kaffirs at home. Our parents were spending a fortune on attack dogs and security guards, electric fences and glittering razor wire. But out here, it was different. We could take a punt on a second life, try on some fresh colours and no-one would slap you down. It was easy to fit in with the on-and-on of life, a long slow mash-up of music and talking and lights, everything going trippy as you touched it, smooth and warm like love.

Steesh’s voice cut through a lull. She was laughing at Karen who was bumping about unhappily on all fours, plump calves twinkling in the gloom. She’d dropped an earring, one of a pair I’d lent her. Pearl clip-ons, they were, flecked with marcasite. They’d belonged to my gran.

In the blue-tiled ladies’ room, Helene leaned over the basin and held something up to her face until the mirror danced with shards of light. In the right light she looked extraordinary, much more so than her newspaper photographs would later suggest, since the camera always underlined a thick-set cast to her features, ignoring the slanting clarity of her bones and hooded eyes, or, the biggest thing about her, her absolute self-belief. I myself never believed in her more than that night when she stole the earring, when I stood behind the door, seeing her as if for the first time, while she smiled at herself –– her glowing, dream self – in the mirror, and carried on smiling.

Was that the point at which things between her and us began to unravel? Looking back, perhaps we always kidded ourselves about her – that we were in it together, that we were mates. Probably Helene was already plotting her next move by then, the reinvention that was yet to come. But after that night something odd did take hold of her; something I thought I recognized, but didn’t quite understand. She began to brood, pretending to stay part of the gang without actually being involved. She would giggle automatically at the jokes the rest of us made, keep her hooded eyes down, light another cigarette, gnaw at her nails till they split – anything rather than join in, the way she used to. I remember being impressed at how well she kept it up.

July started out grey and damp, the wettest, they said, since records began. The Saturday the South Africans were scheduled to play at Lords, the rain fell in sheets, shutting us into a pinched and dreary world. All the rooftops echoed with the steady drum of it, and the afternoon grew airless round us like a shell.

Our landlord turned up around six. As usual, he’d brought a bottle of Bombay Sapphire gin, and takeaway pizza in a greasy box. Gulbash Singh was a Glaswegian who talked a lot about the 1980s, his Klondyke years, when he’d been an astrologer to the stars; Princess Di had once paid him a call. Now he eked out a meagre income as Psychic Singh, writing horoscopes for a knitting magazine.

He liked to get drunk with us now and again, usually after he’d had a letter from his ex-girlfriend in Edinburgh – a “super lady”, he called her, who had sun, moon and rising signs all astonishingly compatible with his own. “I really love her,” he would moan.

“Well, why don’t you marry her, then?” I said to him that day. But it wasn’t as easy as that; she was married already, it seems, with a kid, and she was a Catholic to boot. And sex was almost impossible anyway, what with the lady’s plastic hip from her ballooning accident. And I’m like, Damn, what is it with you Brits? Do you always have to look on the bright side?

Didn’t take long for Karen to fill him in on how her boet Graham had scored a luck with this documentary gig, how Singh must persuade Helene to quit being modest and take part. She really pushed it. Everyone who hung out with us had to hear the tale, and every time Helene would look away, ride it out with a tight little smile.

Have a drink with us, Helene, my fierce African queen, said Singh in his most placatory voice.

Cheers, but I’m about to go out. No expression on that pale, pointed face. She was methodically emptying the drying rack, putting pots and cutlery away.

Helene, Helene, said Singh cheerfully, munching on a pizza slice. You’re turning down this chance to shine, but why?

Plenty of others. They’ll do just fine without me.

Ha, ha. Tell me. You were a victim, too, yes? You suffered at the hands of those Dutch cretins, my poor child. So put the past to rest! Why not?

Done that already, Singh. By coming out here.

Och, Helene. But now that everything is being swept out into the open over there …

Helene slammed down the pan she held and spun around. I’m not needed there anymore, she hissed. So leave me the fuck alone and she ran from the room, banging the door behind her.

It was not her words, exactly, as much as the look on her face that was so startling. Singh stared, his mouth fallen slightly open. For about six long seconds there was no sound but the steady gurgling of the rainwater dripping through an outside drain.

All of a sudden, Singh cleared his throat and pointed to something on the table. Must a man die of thirst in his own house? he said.

His bottle of gin stood on the kitchen table. Karen mixed him another drink and he took a large, thoughtful swig.

Chin, chin, he said, and then: Let me give you a little tip about Helene, my girls.


He took another pull and turned to look at the closed kitchen door. She’s not what she seems.

What’s that supposed to mean? I said, after a longish pause.

It means, she’s not all you think she is, he said, louder this time. Or what Karen’s brother thinks she is or anyone else. He had another long swig of the gin. That Scorpio intensity of expression, always so fascinating. She will always be an excitingly unpredictable house-mate, my dear friends. My question is, what is going to occur with the emotional intensity of the coming full moon? Do you promise to keep me fully informed?

With a sigh, I set down my glass. I’d been clenching it, and my knuckles had turned quite white. Of course, I said. We’ll watch carefully for the effects of the moon, Gulbash. We’ll keep you fully informed.


Like I said, there was something about her I thought I recognized.

I met this guy at a party, before I left for London. A few weeks later, I went round to his flat in Yeoville and lay with him on his sagging bed, listening and then not listening to the noise of people shouting at the far end of the passage. When I opened my eyes, this is what I saw: his nipples, like apple pips. Our two bodies – one white, one brown – joined together. His frowning face as he came.

Three weeks, it took me to build up to that – three weeks of sleepless nights, of burning, of failing nerves; of learning to juggle the burning with the coldblooded business of getting the damn thing going. Messages, movements, meeting-places: all had needed secret negotiation, like two agents struggling to protect some tiny, doomed sect. Still, I’d worked it all out, how I’d behave when I came home to Auret and our big sad bed, fingers still wiped with that cheating smell, pumped with my stolen power. Trying all the time not to think about how the other guy had clearly gone through all this before, perhaps many times.

It didn’t pan out that way. Afterwards, he saw me back to my car, all the terrors of the Jo’burg night slinking back into the shadows as we roared down the stairs together, enormous, blazing. We’d had a smoke, we were very high. Couple of times in the car park I miscalculated my width, scraping into a bin, and the back of a blue BMW. Auret was waiting there, arms folded across that faded t-shirt that made his eyes look so blue. The other guy still had one hand over my shoulder, touching my breast. I couldn’t look as he flinched away. Take it easy, man, he said to Auret. Stammering, hoarse, he was so nervous. Auret said to me, We’ll talk about this at home, and I said, Piss off, and got into the car. Left them to it. Stayed at my ma’s that night, came back, listened to what Auret had to say and then I went and booked my plane ticket. Stood in the queue at Departures, hips and legs still splotched with bruises from the BMW. Black pearls. A thief’s reward.




Like Auret might say, keeping secrets can become a habit. But even those of us who lived with her couldn’t say just how or why Helene first got hooked. For sure, it must have started long before what the newspaper article told, that she spent years as a police spy. Ja, she sold her sob story to the papers right after she ducked back home. August rent money still in her back pocket. Singh was devastated.

See, she knew people were going to start combing those police files, and then they’d easily work out who’d been ratting on who. So she must have seen a bust coming. Running off to London was just one way of putting off the inevitable. One side or the other, they didn’t give a damn about her.
Anyway, Helene told the journalists that she started at school, final year. Her English teacher had a brother – a big shot cop – who recruited her. She kept going when she got to varsity, where the bucks the white government offered helped pay her fees. She never went to jail at all. In the end, she said, she got too terrified to stop because her handlers said they’d blow her cover. I’d give anything to undo what happened, anything. That’s what she tells them.

Picked her moment, give her that. The country awash with truth-telling and reconciliation and all. But once it blew over, it meant she could get straight down to business, no more questions asked.

She found a way to adapt. My ma heard she’d started up a job placement agency in Johannesburg, finding cleaners and gardeners for the new black elite. Few things show you’ve made it like getting someone in to do the garden – that’s something all South Africans understand, you know? And that’s what Helene was sharp enough to see.




People still say, but there must have been clues. Amazing, you didn’t guess a thing! Listen, I tell them, there was a lot going on. But I did try to pin her down once, before she left us, before she slipped away. I thought I’d summon the effort to find out what was bothering her, because I was curious. And because by then the spell was broken, her witchy power snuffed out. I’d seen that she was ordinary.

I remember it was a Sunday lunchtime. I tapped on her bedroom door when I heard a crash in there, like something heavy fell off a shelf.

When I went in she was still in her dressing-gown, her hands prodding and picking at stray threads on the sash. There was a big empty suitcase splayed open on the floor.

It was always so tidy, that room – scraped neat, no books or balled-up tights or messy jars of make-up, just a hot water bottle hooked behind the door, clean blouse on the narrow chair and on the wall, a poster in a curly script:

…Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds
Or bends with the remover to remove

I had taken an orange from the kitchen table, and I started to eat it, piece by piece. I made some crack about Helene’s poem, about her being an intellectual beacon in this house of degenerates, and she shrugged and said ja, the guy who taught them English at school, he’d been hot on Shakespeare. He’d scared the hell out of them, too. If anyone needed wrestling into line, Mr Engelbrecht had you stand at the front on an upturned wastepaper bin. When the bell rang, he’d make a big play of kicking it out from under you, like he was scoring a drop goal. You little shits need to learn about respect, she said, mimicking his accent, her mouth thin and tight.

I asked her if she was thinking about packing for home.

Ah, you’re quick, she said. What, and leave our little family?

She went on, It’s worked out well, don’t you think? It’s been great, us four living together.

It was the way she said it, like she was so sure of my answer.

You going to give my earring back, Helene? I asked her.

Oh, she goes. So that’s what this is all about, Della. Relax, man; just a bit of fun. Why are you so suspicious of me? Of course I was going to give it back. Jesus!

Hope we’ve provided some entertainment value for you at least, I said. How did we score?

What? she said, after waiting for a while.

Don’t think we haven’t noticed, I said. You couldn’t care less about us really, eh, Helene? Because you’re so clever. Always one step ahead. Always in control. But I know what you’re really like. You take from the people who trust you, and there’s no shame in you at all.

I don’t understand, Helene said. Me, entertain you? That’s good, that’s hilarious. Like I’d choose to hang out with you guys, if I didn’t have to? I feel sorry for you. You’re all so try-hard, with your shiny new nose-studs and your Camden Market caps. But you’re still a bunch of spoilt white bitches underneath. Do you even have a game-plan for dealing with all that – for the way you represent, back home? Because you don’t fool anyone over here, you know. The only people you manage to impress are other oddballs, like Singh.

Like I would ever let on to her how much I thought about all that.

I took a deep breath.

Ja, I said. But the world’s a bigger place now, Helene. No more visa restrictions now apartheid’s gone. Fitting in back home, that’s not our problem. It’s your problem. Think you’re good enough for the new South Africa, do you, Helene – you cheat?

Her face, her pale eyes – I can picture the anger there now, struggling with surprise. I remember the effort it took to keep my breathing slow. “And here’s Brenda Mackenzie with Open Book,” said a radio announcer’s voice through the wall.

Helene kept on staring at me, but now she looked afraid. Then she hid her face in her hands and said, almost in a whisper, Don’t look at me that way.

And I heard it at last, a familiar, choked sound: the same sound, small and raw, that forced its way out of me late at night as I lay guilty and sleepless in the dark, alone.

That was it, you know? I went and sat in the kitchen, peeled another orange. It tasted bitter and sweet all at once.

Really, I don’t think of her that often.

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