The handicap of my heart

2011-06-15 00:00

THE house is quiet. Daddy’s little shadow is spending a week of the July holidays in Johannesburg. The only plus is that I can spend the afternoon watching rugby instead of Disney Channel. The house has been quiet for 60 minutes with little to cheer about if you are a Springbok supporter. My wife is curled up in bed to repel the severe Howick winter. After a while she says: “Isn’t the July Handicap on?”

Sadly, I relinquish control of the TV remote. But immediately I am caught up in the excitement of the July Handicap. The last bit of fashion is on, and I wonder whether horses are not fitted with blinkers to keep them focused on the race. As usual, the commentators say that every horse has a chance. Earlier in the day, The Witness had upset me by tipping my outsider, number 14, Bouquet Garni. It was then that I decided it was not worth betting because the odds would shorten drastically on this horse. But after seeing each horse canter down the straight, I tell my wife: “Watch that number seven — he is going to win.”

As usual, she is torn between the whole field.

Finally, the race gets off. Immediately, the favourite, Pocket Power, is dead last. After 400 metres, the phone rings. Now who would phone during the July?

Only my mother. Asking why I didn’t come to visit. Says I always watch the July at their house. “Call you back in 10 minutes,” I say. “The July is on.”

With about 800 metres to go, still no Pocket Power.

“As they hit the home stretch …,” the commentator shouts. I feel the excitement sprint through my body. With 500 metres to go, I stand up. Who can sit? My father back home must be cheering his horses on.

And then I see my horse — number seven, Bigcitylights. Initially, falls behind and then the surge forward. Sheer poetry in motion. I watch that jockey — no whip, and after the line, he caresses the horse. In that gesture I am reminded of those words of Farmer Hoggit in Babe: “That’ll do pig, that’ll do!”

Just my luck, I think to myself. Pick the winner with no money on it. And Pocket Power. Always thought it foolish to pick a horse with that name in the midst of a recession. Ah, the July. Might be known as the sport of kings, but on this day, experts usually get egg on their faces, and thousands of commoners pronounce how they always knew their horse was going to win.

Yours truly included.

That night, I tell my wife about my grandparents and how they would help us pick our July winner when we were children. They would write numbers down on paper, make boats out of them, put them in bath water and then pull out the plug. Then whichever boat made it to the finishing line would be our horse. Strange that I should think of this almost 35 years later. Must be because my mother’s words subconsciously triggered the memory banks.

She was right. I always watch the July at my parents’ home. From young, the July has always been a big part of our lives. My dad, I think, has a gambler’s heart. He once bought a book on the solar system and how it affects horses.

My granny had a chart. A number for every type of dream. A fafie chart, I think they called it. Our neighbour, Uncle Suresh Ramsundar, was even worse. He and his son, Sanjeev, even owned racehorses. After every July, we would meet at the boundary fence and find out the winners and the losers, before settling down to the ladies’ Wimbledon final.

But today, memories of my grandparents trot out from the palaces of my memory. Luke and Susan David, affectionately known as Ma and Pa to me. To them, I was simply “Boy”. Oh, how I loved them. A few days ago, I dreamt of my grandfather. After years. He was dancing like Fred Astaire and singing Raindrops keep Falling on my Head. I should have consulted the fafie guide. Maybe it would have told me: number seven.

I remember the stories my granny told me. How she lived in an orphanage. How they were fed only rice and dhall almost every day. Very rarely meat. And how she would eat chillies to spice up these bland meals. I’ll never forget how she smuggled a few pieces of meat under my rice when I had measles. (Indian superstition, I think, that you should not eat meat during measles.) Breakfast was no better at the orphanage. Porridge with no sugar. And of how she suffered with angina from very young.

My wife always recounts how frightened she was of my granny. She would always see this old lady with long hair seated in a Lazyboy chair through the curtains. That was after her stroke. How cruel I always thought that God should allow a faithful servant to suffer a bedridden existence for five years. I will always remember that night when she walked to my parents’ room and fell in my dad’s arms, saying something was wrong with her.

While other teenage boys chased girls at parties, I looked after the woman who brought me up. And my grandfather, ever the optimist, would try to get her stroke-ravaged legs to march to the words: “Left, right, ginger right.”

Some days, she would laugh. But on her down days, this fiercely independent woman who ran our house while my mother worked would just burst out and cry.

When she died, I remember laughin­g. Even during her funeral. Hardly shed a tear. Such are the inexplicable contours of grief.

And my grandfather. Maybe because he lived longer, I have more memories of him. He was a well-known man in Pietermaritzburg. A retired principal, who carried on as a music teacher until his 70s. When I was small, we would take the bus into town every week. We would get off at the corner of East and Church streets. Oh what a joy it was to walk with this man who did not know the phrase “a leisurely walk”. You had to run to keep up with him well into his 70s. Luckily, he knew so many people that he would stop to talk to people almost every five minutes. First stop — Phillip’s Fruiterers. I always got something to taste, while my grandfather chose the week’s fruit and veggies. Then on to Ganie’s Spices. There the owners would give me a few shrimps to eat. All free. How I loved that taste. And the taste of bhor and figs. Some days we would stop at Kara Nitcha’s for all those goodies like jumbo, sev&bhoondi and jelebi. If anyone was sick, Baxter’s Pharmacy in Church Street was our next stop. Then on to Meat O’ Rama. All the while, the packets never seemed heavy. From there, all the way up to Chapel Street to OK Bazaars. On our way back, he would stop at Shepstone Arcade and buy me a sausage roll. Ah, the joys of childhood.

On our birthdays, my grandfather would start our day to the tune of Happy Birthday on the organ. At full throttle at 6 am because he could not hear well. Even when we were well into our teens. I sometimes felt guilty at getting angry with him because he would wake us up at 6 am. But now, it ranks among the most precious gifts I have received on my birthdays.

Sadly, all these wonderful thoughts are blighted by his last few days, when he too suffered a stroke even worse than my granny. A stroke that twisted his entire face. I always think of this when I watch Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. I remember taking the kombi from the University of Durban-Westville on my 20th birthday to visit him in Northdale Hospital. He was disorientated, but I will never forget the tears in his eyes when my mum told him it was my birthday. Not since my 19th birthday have I woken to the tune of Happy Birthday on the organ.

Newspapers always report ad nauseum on the economic spinoffs of the July but it is a time of memory for me. Memories, I suppose, are very much like handicaps that horses carry. Sometimes they weigh you down. But others make you feel like a jockey winning the July Handicap.

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