Winner 2004: Johnny's bones

2008-07-22 00:00

This is the story of the end of Johnny Botha's life. I write it imagining it may help take Johnny's bones home but is that idea the prompting of his spirit or of my conscience? And what might his family wish - if those remembering him are still alive? Like much about Johnny, the reasons for his estrangement from his family, and their whereabouts, remain unknown to me.

What I know is this: in the garden of a Bellair home where I lived lie buried the bones of Johnny Botha, deceased in 1984. I buried them there, in 1985, with my friend Jeremy's help.

Johnny, it seemed, had no other friends but me and Gunther, whose friendship was, in my eyes, suspect.

"Ashes," the keeper of the Clare crematorium had said, when asking whether I wanted Johnny's. But the shapes and weight of the bag's contents confounded my expectations. These were neither feathery nor lightweight but sizeable, dense objects: unmistakably human bones.

Perhaps Johnny's cancer defeated the fire. "Those ones take longest to burn, they've no fat left" - this from the cremator, along with other facts of his trade, like oven temperature and exploding bodies. Did the man skimp on incineration costs, I wondered, or was this gift of bones his subtle mockery of a white woman's connection with an impoverished coloured man? When he had asked me, sole attendant at Johnny's disgraceful last rites, whether I wanted the ashes, I had hesitated. What would I do with them?

"If they're not claimed," the man said, "they go on the ash heap." And so it was, two or three days later, that I returned to that lonely and unkempt place to claim Johnny's ashes, and was handed his bones.

I was shocked. I had imagined scattering the contents of a small container on the sea but throwing bones into the ocean? The waves would surely wash them up for discovery by passing beach walkers. And burial presented the problem of a permanent site. Try to obtain a postal address for Johnny's family? Conveying human remains through the postal service did not seem feasible nor dignified. But it may have been more dignified than the vagaries to which Johnny's bones were subjected over the following months, through my personal circumstances and ineptness.

Nineteen-eighty-five was State of Emergency time. I had met Johnny a year or so earlier, at Gunther's. Gunther: tall, smooth, somewhat elegant in appearance and manner; the antithesis of Johnny. His lifestyle, unlike Johnny's, entailed some pampering: meals in Morningside restaurants, blow-waved coiffure, suave clothing. So it was surprising to discover that he rented a shabby old wood-and-iron house on the Berea and apparently earned his living hawking flimsy security devices. This tenuous economy notwithstanding, one had impressions of business connections, perhaps European; Gunther was neither native nor resident South African. A slight nervous quiver infused his German accent, his long fingers trembled finely when he lit a cigarette. Pleasant enough, Gunther kept my housemate Martina and me at a distance; he didn't seem to want people to know where he lived. What was he doing here in Durban? Our curiosity was piqued.

When Martina discovered where Gunther lived, we went to invite him to a digs party but it was Johnny we found, sweeping the yard with a twig broomstick, giving the place its daily care; a routine either willingly taken on, or exacted by Gunther in return for lodging. Later, I realised Gunther was exacting more than yard care from Johnny.

Johnny was no taller than me, and skinny: his bones showed. A dilapidated little man, he could nevertheless muster a jaunty air in his shabby suit and bowler-style hat, as when I took him to collect his medicine at Addington Hospital. Returning, he asked me to park in the notorious Point Road area. We went to an upstairs flat; Johnny knocked, talked through the door. The person he sought was not there. His furtive manner deepened the puzzle for me.

Why did Johnny live with Gunther?

They made an unlikely pair. Why was he consigned to a mattress on the floor of a narrow room, probably formerly a pantry, when the house had other usable rooms? What was the connection between these two men, what tied them together? Mention of Gunther would cause Johnny's face to darken; he would scowl and swear. And Gunther was evasive. He felt sorry for Johnny - did he say that? At any rate, he kept Johnny going, bringing him a pie to eat, or some such takeaway; and Johnny, having no strength left to earn a living, apparently depended on Gunther's mercy.

And then, just a little, on mine. Something about him touched me, this sick man who faithfully raked the front yard every day, leaving a neat pattern of twig marks criss-crossing the sandy earth, then lay on the floor in his cupboard-like room coughing, coughing, and hating the man to whom he was beholden.

One day I found Johnny on his mattress, weak from illness. I went out, bought the ingredients for a salad, prepared it and gave it to him. I wandered through the house, noting its emptiness and decay, the hairdryer and girlie pin-ups in Gunther's bedroom; strolled around the garden - and then found Johnny in the kitchen, cooking his salad. The raw stuff, he said, was too hard for him. I felt foolish, insensitive: with so few teeth, how could he chew fresh vegetables? After that I brought only soft consumables.

What was Johnny's illness? I did not want to pry. His medicine was Welconal; this, I learned, was commonly prescribed for certain forms of cancer. Was it the Welconal, the cancer eating his body, or some other substance which generated that unidentifiable, sickly sweet odour in his room? Dagga, I knew, did not smell like that but what did?

Once, when Johnny muttered imprecations against Gunther, I asked why he did not seek boarding with a family in Wentworth, where he had lived while still painting houses. He scowled: those people treat you like rubbish, they charge too much, their food is bad. There was no love lost between Johnny and Wentworth people; no colour- or culture-based affinity there.

Did he not then want to go home? Where was his family? This was difficult terrain. He had left his family many years ago, hardly maintaining contact. Going home was not within his range of prospects or imagining, and the thought of communicating with his family, even through a third person, appeared simultaneously enticing and alarming. Gunther hinted that Johnny had fled his hometown having raped a woman. It seemed almost inconceivable that his puny body could once have had the power for that but, even if so, would he have disclosed it to Gunther?

There came a time when Johnny was not at home and the yard was no longer raked. He was in Addington, Gunther told me. Finding him asleep in a single ward, reluctant to wake him, I spoke to the ward sister. She said his cancer was terminal. She had no contact details for his family.

The next time, Johnny was awake, perking up at my arrival. Gunther had also been there. On my third visit, he was in the main ward with other patients, the sides of his cot imprisoning him. I asked why; he did not know, the nurses didn't want him getting up. Had Gunther visited again? Not since he had been moved into the general ward. Weak as Johnny was by then, Gunther's name evoked, again, a flash of anger, contempt. I stood by his bed, held his hand as we talked. He had given the sister a telephone number where they might be able to reach his family. As I was leaving, he called me to bend closer and, with a conspiratorial little smile, said, "When they ask me about you, I tell them you're my wife."

On my way out I spoke to the sister. Johnny had been moved into the general ward because the nurses suspected Gunther of appropriating his medicine: Welconal fetched a good price on the drug market. That was when the puzzle pieces came together and I thought I understood the basis of their relationship and Johnny's hatred for Gunther.

It was the last time I saw Johnny alive. The hospital phoned me saying they had notified his family; if no one claimed his body within a given period, he would have a pauper's burial. I asked for the family's telephone number and dialled. There is nothing we can do, his disembodied sister's, or aunt's, voice said. We can't come to Durban. East London is too far. No, we can't bring his body home, there's no money.

And so it was, the family finding no solution to the distant death of their prodigal son, that I found myself Johnny's lone mourner, awaiting the hearse's arrival. The shabby vehicle came an hour late. The cremator, who had already begun fulminating against the hearse driver, believing he had stopped en route for a drinking bout, rained anger and insults on him. A row broke out between the two men; Johnny in his cheap coffin was dumped unceremoniously on the ground.

His gaunt face was barely recognisable: emaciated skin over bone, the colour and texture of old biltong. When his coffin at last slid into the oven it was adorned with a few faded marigolds I had rescued from the grass.

That it took me more than a year to bury Johnny's bones might seem a betrayal, not a fulfillment, of friendship. What follows is explanation, not justification. Nineteen-eighty-three had brought me home to South Africa from several years of travelling overseas, after having quit teaching. In Durban I continued an "alternative" lifestyle, waitressing by night, acting by day. After Pinocchio, I played Juliet: my theatrical Romeo was Phakade Magwaza, an actor-activist from Lamontville. Pax, as we called him, was also performing in Mbongeni Ngema's Asinamali!, which documented township oppression and resistance. The aim of our workshopped production was to render Shakespeare's lovers' story comprehensible and relevant to black matriculants through interpreting it in the apartheid context. My stage relationship with Pax developed into a real-life one; love and political resistance then embroiled our lives in the turmoil of the times. It was sometime then that I met Johnny.

Our township performances of Romeo and Juliet ended when Pax disappeared, arrested; it took strenuous efforts to track him and obtain his release on bail. The Ecumenical Centre, where next I found work, was laid siege by the army. Suspicion and mistrust, as much as solidarity and courage, prevailed among anti-apartheid activists. We lived life on many edges, some sharper and more dangerous than others. Late in 1984, shortly after I fell pregnant, Pax came to trial. He was sentenced to eight years' imprisonment early in 1985.

It was during these politically and personally turbulent times that Johnny's bones were given into my care. I kept them in the bottom of my wardrobe, trying to decide what was best to do with them.

Soon after Pax's imprisonment, our Sydenham Road artists' community was evicted. I moved temporarily to my friend Pat's home, Johnny's bones travelling with me in the boot of my VW, where they remained. On one occasion an elderly African man, helping me change a punctured tyre, recognised the bag's contents. His horror, shock and mistrust were palpable as his eyes fled mine. No explanation was possible to mitigate his distress or redeem his perceptions, whatever they were.

Three months after giving birth to my son, I moved again, to Bellair. That house was shared with Richard and Anita, a couple on the run from, and eventually detained by, the Security Branch. Whether the incident which finally precipitated me burying Johnny's bones occurred before or after my own 10-day spell of imprisonment in Westville jail, just after Pax came out on bail pending his appeal, I cannot recall. Jeremy and I were driving near the Mobeni underpass when we realised that the vehicles ahead of us were slowing down. A roadblock. The police were searching cars and Johnny's bones were in the boot of mine.

Perhaps it was skin colour that saved us from a vehicle search that day. Back in Bellair, we dug a deep hole near the bottom of the garden, wrapped Johnny's bones in a clean white sheet, buried them and planted an azalea bush.

The azalea has flowered many times. Pietermaritzburg is now home to me and our sons, and to Pax; Anita and Richard still live in Bellair. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission has revealed many secret graves and the bodies of people murdered for opposing apartheid have been exhumed and taken home for proper burial. I ask myself: should Johnny's bones also go home? And if so, how? Or is the telling of this story enough?

Marie Odendaal, who grew up in Richmond, works at the University of KwaZulu-Natal's five campuses, where she is involved in leadership development with students through integrating leadership training, community empowerment and peace education. The latter includes Alternatives to Violence (AVP) workshops and Peace Studies internships. Her commitment to conflict resolution, peace and justice issues arises from personal experiences and through Quakers ("Friends").

She lives with her sons Delani, Mayibuye and Ntsike, and her partner John Inglis. "At last I'm finding time in my life to write (mostly short stories), and enjoy meeting with other writers for mutual encouragement."

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