The Long Distance South-African
The passage is an axis of hush and gloom running down the middle of our house.
At one end the black bakelite telephone rests on its ledge; at the other stands
the built-in cupboard, stacked with epochs of clothing and suitcases, along
with mothballs and Cobra floor-polish, toiletries and tins of anti-termite solution,
all ready to stink sweetly past the open door.
A mangy old settee leans against one side of the passage, with a seat that humps
up where the springs are bust. Against the other side, a tall iron bookcase
rises to the ceiling, its books squeezed together tight as a trainload of refugees.
Night after night adults pause there with skew heads, deciphering all the titles.
It is 1960, the year my parents buy the house in Johannesburg with its goose-pimpled
pale green walls and giant tree whose wood is soft as paper. It is 1961, 1962.
Still adults come to the bookcase, stop and hunch and tip-toe perilously on
a kitchen chair, necks bent under the moulded ceiling. Sometimes they slump
with a prize book on the settee, recovering.
But each year there are fewer of them. Several, I am told, have skipped the
country. I think of the country as a thick rope, and various adults gaily skipping.
I am forced to revise my ideas some time later when the newspaper publishes
a photograph of a motor car, in the boot of which police brought one of them
back from wherever he had skipped to.
Meanwhile, those survivors who come round are all sealed into the sitting room
with my father. No one is allowed to open the door onto the passage, where the
smooth-eared telephone waits patiently to pick up any stray phrases.
My mother is not in there with them. Quite late one night I see her go treading
down the passage in her slender dressing gown, past the sitting room where smoke
and strategies pile against the door. She is tired and her features are pale
as water, the fire of her glance doused. She has become a stranger in her own
It is 1964 and my father is arrested. He neither dies nor is he there. His shadow
dents the cushions of every chair. Outside, children dive-bomb swimming pools,
dogs barb the air with their din. History stops where the suburbs begin.
It is 1965 or 6. My mother buys a set of cups and saucers and stows them away
in the passage cupboard all the years of my father's sentence. They are her
porcelain dream of leaving, a constant lesson in tenuousness. Sitting in their
dark tissue paper they are forerunners, waiting for the other objects in the
house to join them on a long-delayed journey to somewhere else.
The garden gate is on its last legs. The worn latch hardly holds; one wooden
upright, wobbly with termites, is lashed to the same fence which it should be
saving from collapse. The ground under the gate has been removed by stormwater
summer after summer till any fat cat could worm its way through.
But right now there is nothing and no one at the gate. From the sitting room
window the only creature I can see is a butcher bird, high above the hedge on
a telephone wire, ticking away the seconds with its tail. It is November 30th,
1973. I watch the gate and wait.
In the garden, the sun drives against drought-ridden yellow grass, long arched
leaves of agapanthi and the lemon tree that never grew. Yet another car slides
under the plane leaves outside, gets mottled and doesn't stop. The more I wait,
the less he is there. Shadows on the meat-red porch deepen against the glare.
I turn from the window to the quiet inside. The whole house has been dusted
and waxed till it shines like a bride. My mother has weighed the kitchen table
down with delicacies for breakfast, fruits and cheeses and jams. It is nearly
lunch-time when I hear the car doors slam.
He advances down the garden path, jacket flapping, arms half-lifted from his
sides as if the earth were a tightrope, as if it were difficult to cross over,
as if after all this time we would still never reach each other's arms. My father,
and to one side my mother, pale with anxiety and elation. And behind them the
gate, closed against the minions of the state.
My father, full length for the first time in years, tipped sleek and alien into
our lives, my father whom I have supplanted, coming to hug me. I am against
him, buried in the good leather and olive smell of his skin. I am with him under
the nectarine tree, his smile is ripe but mine is aching and green.
He enters by the front door, and the floor tilts under his hesitant, uneven
steps; the walls incline, a brass pestle tremors in its mortar. He is in the
kitchen meeting Jane, the black woman who has mothered his children all this
time. She knows this is goodbye, but goes on glowing steadily. We've been given
three days in which to pack up and put to sea.
We sit down to breakfast, and sky pours at the windows, already water presses
under the floorboards. My father considers the feast before him, hardly knowing
what to choose. There is no glass across his face, no guard to snipe at forbidden
words, no bug snooping for them as they fall. We can talk about anything we
want, and for once there is nothing to say at all.
Three days. One brother and one sister return from school to find a long-waylaid
father. Five pairs of curtains are drawn against prying eyes, and the suburbs
disappear forever. Thousands of books lie down for the first time in ages. But
my father remains upright. I find him motionless in the passage in the middle
of the night, nine years of absence strapped securely as a parachute to his
Three days it takes for the waters to carry us away. They tear themselves white
from the shores of the Cape; tirelessly they buoy us up on their shoulders.
And when their task is done they retire from the far shore, mooring us in one
more harbour of estrangement as they have moored generations before.
This table did not follow us across the sea. It occupies a corner of my parents'
London kitchen, white and round and unremarkable on its one leg and three toes,
waiting to accumulate a bit of history. Meanwhile my mother bends at the nearby
oven, slides out a date loaf and announces that it is time for tea.
The other members of the family come gradually unstuck from various limpet occupations
that have lasted all the way through Sunday. And before long we are gathered
in the kitchen, where the plump, rectangular date loaf sits smoking on the table.
Here we are in our new lives, each finding out what it means to be a foreign
body. Here are the cups and saucers from before, filled with English tea-bag
tea. We sit down and set to, with a pitter of porcelain and steel. The heating
pipes burp intermittently.
Hardly four o'clock and the day fades, pot plants suck twilight from the window
panes. The sky goes toxic orange above suburban motorways. We finish our tea,
the cake, the crumbs; stack plates away and sit back down at the half-dark table.
Someone mentions gooseberries, and soon the old house in Johannesburg comes
up. Somewhere in the garden there was an unassuming bush that gave an annual
crop of little papery lanterns. Press one open and out popped a tight amber
Cape gooseberry, with a whiff of petrol and a taste of sour honey. But as to
the bush's exact location, we can't seem to agree.
So my father traces the house in the middle of the table, with a tentative cross
for the bush, just behind it, to the right. Someone adds in the giant tree,
the rockery, the outside room where Jane, our pillar of strength, lay down at
night. Someone else puts up a splitpole fence across one end of the table, and
resolutely replants the gooseberry bush against it.
One by one our hands record what we remember of the house and garden, till everything
of import is more or less where it should be. And when finally the wayward gooseberry
bush has been democratically rooted, we lean back and survey our bonds and our
Darkness fills the kitchen now, our hands rest empty at the table's edge. The
house and garden sink without a trace. Between us there is nothing but a flat
dim disk, an indecipherable stretch of water in a moonless place.
The man comes walking, tall and solemn and slow. One of his hands bends into
a fist, an old fist, tight with stamina and ash. He raises it before the crowd,
which presses in on him and takes possession of his name.
The man's suit has an executive cut and sheen for the TV cameras that scatter
his image across millions of screens. But the set of his face is answerable
to no one, more resolute as he comes closer, and more remote.
He advances warily, restraining with his pace the entire procession of loyal
aides and gunslingers, high priests, kith and kin, praise-singers and hangers-on.
It's been 27 years of bootsteps and breaking stones. Out of time with all the
elation, he is still alone.
There are only a few yards to go now, the ground widens under his feet. It is
February 11th, 1990. History waits for him like a big smart car and he gets
in. The crowd packs the rear-view mirror and windscreen; the ignition is switched
on. The man is back in the land of the living, his myth is in contact with oxygen.
One long ocean away I watch it happen. Wind spreads the chiffon curtains in
our flat; the lead roofs of Paris are lacquered with rain. I switch channels
following the man to the car again and again.
Then he is gone and another man comes walking. He is my newly freed father,
crossing the garden of absence to meet me. Above us, a single butcher bird on
a telephone wire. The sun is hot but I can't feel its fire.
I am against him and the ground under our feet changes to water. We belong to
no single place, ours is the history of those who cross over. And at the docks
to wave us goodbye there are only a few acquaintances and no doubt a few cops.
Car tyres stick like velcro to the wet streets outside; windows flicker with
the foggy light of TV. One more news programme and Mandela comes walking, behind
him the unsealed door of an entire country.
I pick up the phone and call South Africa. Hello, I say, and the echo of my
voice returns to me from under the sea. Hello, a friend answers. Are you all
right? I squeeze the receiver so hard my hand is white. When a vacuum is broken,
air rushes in. I'm at the far end of the world listening to the wind.
Originally published in the June-August 1993
issue of Boston Review