From the cradle

2009-10-26 00:00

THIS is as I remember it. I am sure that my memory has faltered somewhat over the years; that my story is a little inaccurate in the telling, but such is life.

It happened in the midlands at the beginning of spring in 1977. There had been days of searing heat, but as yet, no rain. I was a teacher at a private school in Nottingham Road, alone in bed one night during the school holidays. I awoke before dawn with my heart racing. Something had disturbed my sleep but now there was nothing, except for the darkness.


Ah! The unmistakable tones of the headmaster. I let him in. It had turned quite cold during the night and he had on his brown, fleecy hat which crouched awkwardly above his ears.

“Problem,” he said in his plummy, private-school voice, as he stood embarrassed, at the foot of the bed. “ Duma’s daughter has lost her kid.”

“Lost?” I watched as he snatched the hat off his head and juggled it about.

“Well, died I mean. Poor thing was only a few months old.” He cleared his throat loudly.

“What of?”

“No idea. But the thing is they want to bury the child today in Impendle. They can use the Ford, but there’s no one to drive it. I’ve got the health inspector coming today, you’ll recall, to look at the kitchen. So sorry to do this.”

The kitchen was a dark cave of a place and since the recent surprise visit from the health authorities it had become a hive of activity

I couldn’t refuse him — he was the kindest and most honourable of men. The Ford — somewhat ancient — was one of those huge American bakkies with a column change, complete with six cylinders and running boards. It had two homemade wooden benches, running lengthways down either side, where we would pack in the luckless sports teams for away fixtures. We must have caused quite a stir, now that I think of it, as we swung into the opponents’ parking lot, engine pulsating and canvas canopy swaying precariously. Not quite kosher.

After a quick breakfast I steered it down over the railway line to the squalid warren of corrugated iron rooms where Duma’s daughter lived. Duma sat beside me. He was a slight, gaunt man some years my senior, with a tatty beard, painfully thin frame and loud, moist cough. He ran the staff dining room, doubling up as waiter and dishwasher-cleaner. Although he was renowned for his humour and impersonating skills, his eyes always seemed to be tinged with despair, accentuated somehow, by the deep crow’s feet that radiated out from their corners. Today his eyes seemed quite dead and I detected an edge of bitterness in his voice as he acknowledged my condolences. I parked and he disappeared among the doorways. I waited, feeling strangely uneasy.

After what seemed like an age, three very large women and a young man appeared. I had never seen any of them before. I remember the women were all dressed in a sort of Victorian baby doll-style of dress with pastel bath towels wrapped around their waists.

Duma materialised next to me and gently closed my door. I was to keep my distance. In the mirror I could see him lowering the tailgate and the women clambered in, gently rocking the vehicle. Then all was quiet again. The air was heavy with the smell of paraffin, wood smoke and burnt porridge. Finally, a tiny figure, almost completely covered in a blanket, was led out by a fourth woman. She was helped into the vehicle and sat on the floor with her back against the cab, sobbing steadily. Duma secured the tailgate and got in next to me.

“Impendle,” he said and sank into the corner of the seat.

I started up and we headed for that dusty and unforgiving dirt road. The sun was bright, but large clouds were gathering over the Drakensberg and it was still cold. Then the wind began to blow.

We passed Fort Nottingham in silence and journeyed on until we joined the Howick–Impendle road and turned right. Where was the baby, the body? Was it secreted away somewhere in the back? Were we going to pick it up along the way? I kept stealing glances at Duma and once he caught my eye, sighed and shook his head.

Upwind was a huge pall of belching smoke, spiralling towards us. Runaway fire. We seemed to be heading straight towards it and on the pass that took us over the back of the Nhlosane mountain we rounded a sharp corner and were suddenly engulfed in black acrid smoke and crackling heat. The wind buffeted us and huge untethered orange flames gyrated crazily across our path. The heat was appalling and I accelerated through the blackness, terrified that the canopy was going to catch fire. The smoke cleared momentarily and there right in front of us was another bakkie, abandoned in the middle of the road. God knows how we avoided hitting it. Even now, I can see the sheer drop outside my window as we skidded by on the wrong side of the road. I was seriously shaken as we pulled out of the conflagration and over the top of the hill. The sky was now full of huge, purple clouds and the heavens rumbled darkly. Lightning flashed all around; then it started to rain.

By the time we reached the Runnymeade turnoff it was bucketing down. We descended the pass into Impendle at a snail’s pace and as we approached the town, Duma signalled me to take the right road and pull up outside the trading store. He leapt out and belted inside through the downpour. Silence again, except for the drumming on the roof. Out he came and I caught a glimpse of a rectangular wooden box in his hands. I watched one of the women reach inside the blanket and retrieve a package about 46 centimetres long, shaped and wrapped like a giant cigar, with a tiny monk’s cowl at one end. She proceeded to try to fit it into the box. No success. Back inside went Duma, returning with another box, presumably a little larger. It finally dawned on me what they were doing. This one clearly fitted. Duma produced a lid and the other man a hammer. They began to nail it down. I was transfixed — both in horror and fascination. But there was much more to come.

We passed through the town and swung right towards Loteni. Right again, slithering and swaying through the deluge, and up along a rough track towards the mountains in the north. Visibility was minimal. The wipers were useless against the torrent and the track was turning into a river bed. Twice we got stuck and everybody clambered out into the storm, except for the blanketed figure in the back and me. They heaved, stuffed any vegetation that was handy under the wheels and then heaved again for all they were worth. I sprayed them with mud. Once we were rolling again I couldn’t stop, so they had to run and scramble back inside. I saw two of the women slip headlong into the mire.

Eventually, we rounded a bend and were brought to an abrupt halt by a roaring chocolate-brown torrent of water that pulsated across our path. Impotent, Duma and I stared through the windscreen. He turned to me and shouted, gesticulating with his finger into the distance. The noise was so loud that I could not hear a word and he had to bellow into my ear, his proximity a mix of mud, sweat, rain and stale Boxer. Apparently there were some huts just ahead — our destination. We sat in silence, waiting. Every time someone shifted, the vehicle would rock gently, a tiny communication from the saturated, mud- spattered and grieving people behind, sitting in limbo under the leaky canvas canopy in the pouring rain.

Eventually, the rain eased and stopped, the torrent began ebbing away, visibility cleared and lo, there before us were a couple of huts. Everyone got out, stood on the bank in a bedraggled little group and shouted. Doors opened, people emerged and made their way down to the stream, to form a second group. They began conversing loudly across the watery barrier, arms clasping their bodies against the cold and wet, leaning towards each other. Vaguely comical, they almost resembled two flocks of penguins. The figure under the blanket stood in silence, slightly apart. I couldn’t see the coffin any­where.

Duma came up and stood at my window. “We go now,” he said.

Everyone was looking my way and I waved. Goodbye. They shouted some sort of farewell and waved back. I watched as they all took off their shoes, hitched up their mud-spattered clothing and began to move carefully through the swirling brown water. The tiny figure in the blanket now bore the coffin firmly under her arm. The sun emerged fleetingly and for a moment, to my fanciful eye, the straggling little group was bathed in light. For the first time in my life, I glimpsed the inevitable, aching march of time and the noiseless and abandoned fate that awaits us all as we are discarded along the way. Then they were gone.

About the writer

BILLY Roberts was educated in Durban and Cape Town, obtaining a BA and teaching diploma at the then University of Natal, Durban. He taught in KwaZulu- Natal and the Cape, progressing to headmaster and then director-fundraiser of an adult skills training centre in Nottingham Road.

“In my spare time I designed and built two homes which I hope are still standing,” he writes. “My wife and I have taken 2009 off and are living in a tiny farm cottage next to the Weenen Nature Reserve.”


True Stories of KZN

THE Witness is currently publishing the stories written by finalists in our True Stories of KwaZulu-Natal competition.

In the Open category for stories under 1 500 words, 10 writers are competing for a grand prize of R10 000, with R3 000 for the runner- up. In the Snapshot category for stories under 800 words, five writers are competing for a prize of R3 000. The winners will be announced on November 27.

Each finalist will receive a unique ceramic pot crafted by Trayci Tompkins’s Zulululu Studio.

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