Coming home

2010-07-30 00:00

I FELL through the floor when I returned to the Pietermaritzburg home I spent my school holidays in more than 15 years ago.

The house has been derelict for three years. The floors are weak and creak under foot — gnawed away by neglect and borer.

I put on a brave face when a friend took a photo of me in the lounge after my floor breakthrough. All the while my leg bled in three places and my eyes blurred with tears — not from pain but sadness. It was the very same lounge in which my cousins and I would wait for Santa to come down the chimney every Christmas; the venue of our annual family nativity play; the room where we watched hours of Saturday cartoons on M-Net, and the make-shift gym where we worked out to Body Beat (Hit That Perfect Beat) in the mornings.

I disguised my heartache with bursts of laughter, remembering what had been and how the house had withered in my absence while living in New Zealand.

“It’s as though the house didn’t want you to leave,” my friend said as I stood motionless outside what was once a beautiful home, as the tears slid hot into the corners of my mouth.

He was half right.

It was me who didn’t want to let go. I wanted to sit in every room for an hour at a time and let the memories trickle back. Instead, I was accosted by a rush of images from the eighties and nineties as I hobbled through the rooms.

The house smelled the same. Cool and woody with a hint of dust and damp. Every object contained a memory — the polished kitchen cupboards were Granny preparing roast ham with circles of pineapple skewered into the flesh with a cherry on top; the burglar guards in the bedroom were my first boyfriend and I lying together as night fell over Pietermaritzburg; the print on the bathroom tiles was my eldest cousin slipping from a height and landing as if astride a horse onto the hard bath’s edge; the toilet was my youngest cousin and I peeing simultaneously — our bums were so little then, we could sit on the seat at the same time.

Saying goodbye to that home 15 years ago was incredibly difficult. It was a house that shaped me, where I learnt to share, fight, love and enjoy my youth — a house that was a stone’s throw away from the Duzi. The very river my uncle floated down on an old door, for the hell of it.

My parents decided to emigrate to New Zealand when I was 15 years old. They were worried affirmative action would render jobs harder to acquire and university more difficult to qualify for. Violent crime was a major concern, and quality of life a priority.

Although my mother was politically liberal, she could not see a light at the end of the Rainbow Nation tunnel. So we three —  she, my stepfather and I — left. My West Street family followed two years later.

I was born in Durban, but spent my holidays in Pietermaritzburg with my two cousins, Kath and Jo, and my aunt and uncle, Sue and Mike. It was far from a perfect family, with most Christmases ending in screaming matches. But all was forgiven in the morning.

Someone told me that the way you find truth is to go back to your first school. I did. It was nostalgic and just as I remembered it. But I was more excited about going back to the house I was brought up in. First, my mum’s flat in Durban which is now surrounded by a barbed-wire fence, and is home to a Zulu family.

Second, this house in Pietermaritzburg with all the rooms bare, the garden completely stripped of its beauty, an empty bottle of booze half buried in the garden, and the bird bath dry and gathering leaves. It was too much to bear.

I know that house will never be the same, and I cannot afford to buy it in the hope of restoring those happy memories which are as much a part of the building as the insects which bore into its core.

I thought it would be cathartic to see my family’s old home. That I would find solace walking between those walls, and peering through those barred windows. In a way, it was both.

The first half of my life in Natal has always felt like a dream while living down under. And I literally dream about friends, family and places left behind in South Africa at least once a month. I wonder if I have closed this chapter of my life; whether I am ready to leave South Africa for good and go on with my life in New Zealand.

Honestly, I am torn. Split right down the middle. Johnny Clegg makes me as emotional as Crowded House; the Springboks as the All Blacks; Bafana Bafana as the All Whites. I want to live in South Africa and New Zealand.

I guarantee that if even I don’t return home for good, like an elephant, I will never forget Pietermaritzburg, uMgungundlovu.

• Dawn Tratt is a New Zealand journalist who returned to South Africa to report on the World Cup. Her family emigrated from South Africa to New Zealand in 1996.

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