Dedications

2008-01-12 00:00

When I was very small in Pretoria I lived a curious double life; it was only 30 years since the Anglo-Boer War, you see, and I hadn’t yet worked out which side I should have been on. Certain uncles and half-oompies had spent years sleeping rough in the veld and they had skin like cardboard left in the rain and hands like the underside of a rhino’s foot, but then again, Pretoria was also full of victorious Brits and scary weird foreigners. One of my many oompies was “Bliksem” van Tonder, who would tell with dour concentration camp humour how his commando had made a cannon out of a cast-iron telephone pole and filled it with dynamite stolen from a gold mine plus old newspapers and a whole lot of rocks and remaining Mauser ammunition on the last day of the war, and fired it at a Rooinek column marching to the victory parade on Church Square, blasting a huge hole in the ground and felling a lot of gum trees but killing nobody, surprisingly not even themselves. On the other hand, just a few doors down our street there was Mme Hermione Piddllingham, Teacher of Wind Instruments, and you could understand why they call them wind instruments rather than breath instruments. We would hear her playing Rule Britannia on the bassoon, also God Save the King on her saxophone, gross beyond belief, disgusting to the point of prejudice against the entire British Empire, evermore.

So I found myself on Paul Kruger’s side. But then I moved up to Class 2, Senior Infants, and there was Miss Vaughan, from England, and I tell you, comrades, e’en today when I think of Miss Vaughan I have to sit down lest I spill my tea. At the age of six years I became so inflamed at the sexual fantasy of Miss Vaughan dancing the Charleston ’mongst the champagne glasses on a cabaret table I couldn’t tell you to this day what she was trying to teach me. Miss Vaughan had black bobbed hair cut straight across her eyebrows and a loose sleeveless tube silk frock hanging ungathered to mid-thigh so you could see every small movement of her athletic body inside where it touched the silk. As senior infants do, I had evesdropped on junior gents’ conversation, so I knew the rudiments of love-making, and boy do I mean rude. I would sit and take off all Miss Vaughan’s clothing excepting the long loose loops of glass beads that hung to her belly-button and her black stockings, and it was thus I moved over to the Empire side. Mme Hermione Piddlingham was also a Christian Science lady, and when she passed me in the street and I raised my school cap she would sort of yodel All is love! but I sure as hell couldn’t imagine her starkers in black stockings dancing on any sort of table, so I put her down as just plain loopy and my prejudice against the Empire fell away. Such was the condition of my mind when we moved to Maritzburg.

This place was but seriously weird, man! The natives didn’t speak Afrikaans, they just stood there and cocked their heads from side to side when you spoke, as puppy dogs do when they’re puzzled, and I was told I’d have to learn a language called Kitchen Kaffir round here. Round here everybody was Brit and thought the Boere — oops, Boors — were a bunch of no-good bums not worth thinking about at all, but they thought a lot about the Zulus as fine fighting men, though all I personally saw Zulu men doing was cleaning peoples’ houses and digging their gardens and standing around the pavements on Sunday afternoons in oversize blue cotton shirts and decorative waistcoats and playing concertinas and singing in quiet nostalgic voices. But there was a small Bushman among them name of Bellum, a genuine

24-carat Drakensberg-cave-painter-hunter-gatherer wee man, who said his father was the very last cave dweller but 10 years before, and Bellum spoke Afrikaans all right and showed me around. That tiny little church is what the amaBhunu gave to God for his help in killing the amaZulu at Blood River, said Bellum, but the amaBhunu said their Caucasian God was merciful, so surely he didn’t trade in human lives, if he had wanted a church so badly he could just have gone WOOF! and caused a great big cathedral to appear in the middle of the market square, Maritzburg.

Well, Bellum taught me the most intriguing thing in the world, the theory of flight. Aerodynamics. With a few primary chicken feathers and old drinking straws and some sticky stuff, he so delicately, patiently built a small small aircraft, a glider, explaining the while how a yellow-billed kite finds thermals, reads the dark patches of trees where warm air will rise, catches rising air in ridge-soaring. When he daintily launched his little plane, it flew, perfectly, like a yellow-billed kite, and it was with Bellum that I finally placed my dedication, at the age of eight.

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