The shame of being a man – is there any better reason to write?– Gilles Deleuze
The Greek roots of “nostalgia” are nostos (“return home”) and algos (“pain”); the word does not refer only to what we think of as a soft-focus recollection of times or things past. It refers to a particular ache, an ache to return, and to return to a certain place. By naturalising nostalgia – by treating or dismissing it as a wistful (wasteful?) act of recollection that we all eventually will indulge in – we deny that there is also, or was, a possibility of retaining the thing now lost. Is this the ache that the Greek algos refers to: the pain of acknowledging a loss for which yet there was a possibility of retaining? Not the packet of Simba chips that cost only 2 cents when I was a child, the loss of which I could not control, but something else? What, exactly, is the mathematics of this ache for home?
If nostalgia was a function, it would be dependent on two variables, time and the thing lost. What was lost, when? But would such a function not also have to reckon with another variable? How does one ache for a past – nostalgically, for better or worse – that is also so significantly marred by that complicated, always revolving barb: apartheid.
Driving through the small, wine-farming towns of the Western Cape, seeing young boys walking in the heat on their way perhaps to the river, how can I wish for them a celebration that around them is still mountain, river, fynbos (some things I am nostalgic for), when I know that in ten years time, most of them will be working on the farm they were born on, drunk on weekends, taking their deprivations out in fistfuls on young, pregnant wives, who in their turn will drink away the pain? When I know that for many of them, apartheid isn’t a figurative barb, but present in their lives; present not as a ghost from the past, but still as an organising principle in their lives. Will some of them, years hence, look at boys going down to the river and reflect nostalgically on their own deprivations?
What am I looking for in the past of apartheid? What am I looking for in a group of small-town boys caught, most of them, in an enclosing world of misery? Are the words ‘home’ and ‘ache’ adequate at all? Accurate? To recollect, to describe something that survives only in memory? That survives nevertheless? That has or had a fullness which no language, try as I might from many different angles, that no language can bear into the world to my satisfaction? To say, this is how it was, in all its fullness. That it was full beyond apartheid; it was full despite apartheid. That apartheid did not matter at all; and yet, that it was all that mattered. That the life revolved at once around apartheid and not-apartheid. That apartheid was at once ever-present and never-present. That that schism between the ever- and never-present fractures the lens into myriad shards and the image breaks into the multi-faceted, as if seen through a kaleidoscope: an image that is individual, yet patterned. But beyond the charm of the kaleidoscope, the image remains at a distance, intangible, a chimera of something that is no more, but still a chimera, a ‘monster with a lion’s head, a goat’s body, and a serpent’s tail’ (Oxford Dictionary of English).
Leon Bock (Bokkie) and Sean Africa (Hare) are no more.
Leon (his parents hated that we called him ‘Bokkie’) died several years ago in a motor car accident on the way between Paarl and Malmesbury. I don’t know the exact date, know nothing about the circumstances surrounding his death nor the ones in which he lived immediately before his death. Nights I have scoured the internet for any information on him, a notice in the Paarl Post. Nothing.
Sean, eventually then a school principal at a poor school, had maintained his struggle roots from student activism through his care for the poor children at his school. He was much loved by the pupils, evident in their sadness at his funeral in 2007. He had hanged himself. He left behind an estranged wife and two daughters. My mother had seen him a few weeks before his death, and described him as looking well. He had had long trouble with drugs and, it seems, all manner of things, but was pulling himself together. He had no trouble looking her in the face. And then he hanged himself. “Don’t they say that once people have made the decision, they appear calm, in control?” asks my mother.
I do not mean any disrespect, to them or their families, in using the names of my late friends in my stories about our indiscretions with dagga, among other things. I hope, instead, that these disappointingly intangible portraits of them stand as small homages to them, to Sean and to Leon, and to others. But I hope also that my quasi-sociology is equal to them as individuals within a world, our world, in which we were friends within and without apartheid.
While I knew Sean – or knew who he was – since Standard 5, I cannot remember exactly when I met Leon. High school definitely, post-1980. Leon’s Afrikaans was different in accent and vocabulary, mainly Northern Cape, but littered also with Johannesburg slang. He often spent school holidays in Nbabeep, Upington or Joburg. Stories of his adventures in these places turned them into exotic locales. Johburg had Chicken Licken, and boys called girls ‘cherries’, not ‘kinnes’ (kinners = kinders; children). In Upington they said ‘dik klip’ instead of ‘groot klip’ (thick/fat stone vs. big stone), ‘boom’ not ‘boem’ (tree).
A good dancer, Leon had what my mother called a ‘perdeby lyfie’ (waspy little body). And girls liked him. But for the most part of our friendship, up until his early twenties, he never was romantically involved in any long-term relationship with a girl. Neither was he a ‘player’ in today’s parlance. It seems, however, that he was always in the process of developing an attachment; something was always in the process of development between him and a girl. That is, then, when we were teenagers, Leon had a way with girls without having his way with them.
At some point later, Leon finally struck up a romance with A–, a beautiful neighbour of his. I was at university already, but got to see him on weekends, at A—‘s house, where he would be visiting, hanging out with her sister and brothers too, and their friends, one of whom introduced me to Eliot’s ‘Prufrock’. Leon and A—‘s romance struck me with surprise because it seemed unlikely. He was a mischievous spirit and, from the outside, her house seemed a fortress. Her father had been a teacher of mine and I knew him as a strict one. She was very pretty and certainly could have any young man in Paarl, anyone with better prospects than someone who, almost dissolutely it seemed to me at the time, had opted to go to technical college to train as an auto-mechanic. That is, after matric, it didn’t seem for a while that Leon was interested in doing anything and it felt almost as if he had chosen to train as a mechanic as a kind of dissolution itself, giving in to parents and society to do something.
And Leon was changing. He was now more careful with his appearance, was going to Tiffany’s more regularly and had taken on the characteristics of a serious boyfriend. In with a crowd with habits very different from our high school boyhood, he had also started drinking.
In my recollections I must admit a pang of jealousy. No more endless days with Leon, sitting around listening to and recording music at his house, forever empty of his parents on some trip. Smoking in the sun on the front stoep. Walking the neighbourhood, and further afield, smoking joints of marijuana mixed with Borkum Riff cherry-flavoured tobacco or laced with aftershave (!) to hide the smell. Catching up on this and that, messing around with a 550cc motorcycle that belonged to Muhammad Tonnel (he worked at the Hugeunot Tunnel construction site), owner of a take-aways café where we also got to hang out late nights in summer. Now on a Saturday early afternoon, Leon would excuse himself to have a bath, get dressed and half say, half ask: “Come, let’s go round to A—‘s place.”
But before all that, to come back to dagga, Leon was an organiser. ‘To organise’ was to set up trysts. It may be that two people were interested in each other, but unaware of each other’s inclinations. Or, more regularly, when boys got together, the organiser was the one who cajoled girls to join up with the party: “Bokkie, organise ‘n paar kinnes man” (organise a few girls). A fixer, in a manner of speaking.
I don’t really know the inner workings of this; as a teenager or young man, I was shy with girls and would not have known at all how to approach a girl. I had already made a complete fool of myself with L–, who lived across the road from me and machinations with whom were scuttled by her best friend, R–. But that’s a story for another day.
So, one day, Leon organised. It was summer, either early 1982 or 1983, an inter-school athletics meeting. On a break, Leon dragged me down to the tuck shop where we ‘bumped’ into a friend of his. I played dumb, but hoped that I knew what was afoot. My lack of romantic action concerned Leon and he was generally looking out for me, looking to introduce me to someone or find out the possibilities from a girl. Fix me up.
He introduced me to MF, a girl from KN. Just taller than me, she was beautiful. The brown of her skin, a shade darker than mine, contrasted pleasingly with the light blue of her school skirt and moved mysteriously as a dark background underneath her white blouse. Or, underneath the white of the blouse, one could see, was a dark skin. With short hair, she also had the bearing of a Persis Khambatta, regal, but not as haughty.
No, she wasn’t sturvy or glampy, words reserved for the stiff-necked haughtiness with which girls from especially well-to-do families carried themselves. (Sturvy/sturffies – possibly from stiff/-necked; glampy – probably from glamour; ‘well-to-do’ actually perfectly denotes the bourgeois aesthetic that ‘sturvy’ indicts). Yet her mannerisms and body language expressed a confidence in herself, a confidence partly, one imagines, based on her attractiveness. MF’s beauty was the kind that pierces the heart.
And she was a playmaster. She could play at haughty, but this haughtiness was always clearly not a principled stance. All girls, I think now as I look back, were playmasters then, skilfully manipulating us hapless boys.
MF shook my hand, said ‘hello’ and smiled, then, shifting her weight every now and then from one foot to the other, had a coded conversation with Leon – half sentences, pronouns without prior referents – which I only half heard because I was pretending that no machinations were taking place: I was looking around, greeting passersby, acting out the routine of waiting for my friend to finish his conversation with his friend. I was pretending that they weren’t talking about me. Or, they may not have been talking about me, and I was hoping they were while pretending to myself not to want them talking about me… I dunno.
The truth is that I had only hopes, and it is only in retrospect and with later information that I realised that the meeting was all part of Leon’s organising. But if I had known before hand that I was to meet MF and that she was someone Leon was organising for me, I would have protested, refused, because such deliberate, conscious organising was not part of my vision and fantasies about romantic matters. It struck me as absurd that I could be standing there pretending that I didn’t know what Leon was doing and MF was standing there pretending that she didn’t know either. I would have wanted things to develop organically: meet a friend of a friend, perhaps you are attracted to each other, and, if necessary, you then use a go-between.
What I discovered later was this. MF had a crush on a cousin of mine, for whom back then I was a dead ringer. Leon, on the lookout for me, his friend, saw an opportunity: I could be my cousin’s substitute. When I met MF at the athletics meeting, my candidacy had already been mooted to her. The meeting was simply for her to appraise me: was I a good enough substitute? Everything else had already been organised.
Despite this very deliberate plan, of which I was a target and for which I was thus unwittingly offering myself to such evaluative scrutiny, there is still something, in recollection now, after all this knowledge, there is still something in MF’s brief smile and glance at me as she says goodbye and climbs the stairwell back to her seat among her girlfriends in the grandstand, her firm, dark calves working their way up the stairs in bright white socks and shiny black school shoes. It is a glance, but no matter its brevity, it is also consuming. It is a glance that, all at once and in a second, takes me in, lavishes me – shy me – with approval and signals a siren’s promise of carnal knowledge. Her full lips broke in a brief smile and I think I saw her surprisingly pink tongue lick the corner of her lips. It was as if she was saying “Yes, boy, I will show you things you cannot imagine,” while pretending only the warmth that protocol demanded in meeting the friend of a friend. A brief glance to her side as she turns up the steps, then she looks ahead, lifts her chin half an inch and disappears into the crowd of school uniforms.
“Hoe lykit?” Leon asked me, nudging me with his elbow.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“You know what I mean,” and his face lit with a wide, toothless grin.
No, I don’t. Etc.
What do you think of her?
I pretended indifference and only a hypothetical approval. If matters came to a head, yes, I would not say no to someone like MF.
Leon whipped his forearm, snapping his index finger thus.
Back to our seats. Leon whispering to W–. I pretend to ignore them. (Was W— in on this, I wonder now?). Then W— adopts a teacherly pose, his mouth pulled in contemplation and announces in formal tones: “Ek dink ons kan so maak, ja.”
The day arrived and so, then, also my introduction to the powers of dagga in enhancing sensual pleasures other than eating. Leon, W— and me were going to visit MF. Leon would occupy himself somehow, W—would be occupied with LR, a flame of his, and I would hopefully be preoccupied with MF.
From New Orleans we took a short cut past the primary school and through an area where there were then only a few houses. Most of it was bush and veld. Onto a footpath that ran up along the Hugo River, through a swathe of reeds taller than us, where we were forced into single file, like a small patrol somewhere in Vietnam. Along the way, Leon struggled rolling a joint: again majat, dust and pips and twigs and only one skin of Rizla. Rolling on the move, a test of any amateur’s skills, but rolling on the move because we were also near gang territories and feared that we may just alert yakkies hanging out in the bushes. Or, god forbid, encounter cops hunting such yakkies. (yakkies or jakkies, pronounced ‘yuckies’, etymology unknown – layabouts, loiterers; ‘to yak’ = ‘to sport’, as in a piece of clothing; comportment)
We quickly smoked that short, stubby joint and rolled on, getting unimaginably high in the hot sun. (rol, Afr., to walk, specifically if the gait resembles gangster gaits.) Thus high, we felt the journey to Capri or Sirenuse would take forever: along the bridge over the Hugo River near Chicago, up that hill on the other side, Charleston Hill, through Charleston Hill, down the other side, past the… was the abattoir still there then? I don’t know, but past where the abattoir was, past Leon’s cousin’s house… only a few hundred meters to go still.
I was high as a kite, somnambulant in the sun, but also in high anticipation – all three of these things ringing in my head like a colony of cicadas.
Tieng. When the sun hung high and hot, we used to say: Die son tieng; die diamond tieng (The sun tings). From that tinging sound in cartoon animations, when something shiny sparkles, but now appropriated to indicate heat. Sight, sound, heat.
We finally arrived and I sat down in a lazy heap on a low wall in front of the house. There appeared to be a problem.
The social protocol was that boys visiting girls’ homes while their parents were away at work only spelled trouble. So, we were already nervous about this visit. Now we were stoned – and thus a bit paranoid – and conspicuous to the whole street. Sitting on the wall outside, waiting around, we could be spotted by a nosy neighbour curious about die slamse jongens visiting Mr & Mrs So-and-so’s daughter and we all know that Muslim men just want to get girls pregnant and then force them to convert to Islam.
There was a delay because MF’s elder sister unexpectedly was at home or had not left yet for some appointment or had an unexpected appointment and had dropped by so that MF could sit her child. Perhaps MF had negotiated, using the babysitting as bargaining chip because, we eventually shuffled in, stoned, but working hard to pretend an innocent visit, while the elder sister gave us daggers. And then she left, leaving also an admonishment to her sister to behave: En gedra julle nou vir julle [And you behave yourselves now].
I did not lose my virginity then. That wasn’t part of the plan. Or, losing my virginity was far beyond the realms of what I thought was possible. Of course, it wasn’t that sex wasn’t on my mind, or the possibility of sex; rather, it was clear that Leon had organised a session of necking, so that the possibility of sex, the hope of sex, was a distant star: intriguing, beautiful, desirous to look at in the evening sky, nice to fantasize about and wanting to own it, but what does it look like close up, and how does one get one? It had never occurred to me that it could possibly happen, nor were the girls in any case going to have it happen. Besides, there was the child, who at 5 or 6, I forget, would be curious about her aunt MF disappearing into rooms. The child who was curious about her aunt disappearing into a room briefly where she, MF, drew me to her and kissed me until my stoned knees could bear no more. I think it was my first proper kiss (I had fumbled some in the past); it was a kiss that taught me the possibilities of kissing. And with the THC buzzing in my head and blood, it was – I have no better word for it – it was consumptive.
It felt as if MF wanted to consume me. And I wanted to consume her.
Since kissing involves the mouth, it naturally brings to mind – and to the body of the other mouth in reaction – notions of consumption. But this consumption was beyond mere anthrophagy. Kissing opens up the possibility of an almost existential assimilation of the other – or so, perhaps, it felt to my stoned self then. MF’s cool hands, despite the heat of summer, would eventually warm from touching me; the smell of her lotion rub off on me. In fact, to a shy, stoned boy, the smell alone of her lotion – so close, so close – became a part of my stoned self as the air I breathed was filled with its perfume. And there she was, the length of her pressing against me, my body pressed against her. And her inhaling my smell (of course I dabbed myself that morning with some sample of some cologne I had from somewhere). Or giggling as she nuzzled my neck and smelled the cologne. And my hands… were they cooling or warming as I held her face?
I was overwhelmed by both the ease and the intensity with which another body, another mouth, another’s smells – a body, a foreign object, another locus of (untold) entangled stories and complicated history made flesh – opened and gave so easily, so freely, so intensely. That this girl, this young woman whom I did not know, can through a kiss become a part of me and that a kiss can give me so much more of someone else via a process that is, when we think of it objectively, a messy, funny, Larkinite affair.
Now I was stoned and drunk, and breathed to her that I needed to sit down. She knew I was stoned and laughed at me (did she earlier, in mock disapproval, shake her head and click her tongue when she realised that the three of us were stoned?), but she knew also that she was a good kisser. Her laugh had several layers. It was full of the pleasure that we had just shared, it was a laugh at my ridiculous swoon, and it was also a challenge of sorts: You know nothing; I can show you what you do not know.
It wasn’t coquettish, don’t get me wrong, but it was pleasurably teasing, that shift in MF’s brown eyes, from the warmth of an automatic or impulsive fondness (I imagined and hoped) to the mock disapproval of our drugged states, to the necessary cliché: smouldering. And she was also showing off: she could turn it on and off as if she was flicking the switch of the kettle. She wasn’t only showing me that she had this power over me (over men), she was also showing me that she knew she was showing me this power. And laughing about it. Which was all part of my pleasure.
But yes, the damn child wanted to know where her aunt MF was and we theorised that the child was probably set on this mission by her mother. Leon, ever the concerned and politic organiser, would sit the child. But if the child saw us disappear into a room, she would remain curious and would want to come find MF.
Bribery! We bribed her with some sweets, then said we were off to the café to get more and Leon would stay with her. But why can’t she come with?
On and on it went until the child relented. But we – me and MF, W— and LR – had to be witnessed, by the child, ‘going to the café’. So, we found an absurd, comic solution to our plight. We left via the kitchen door and slipped into the garage where there was parked a car ticking in the heat…
Two couples necking in a car – not so unusual except that this car was parked in an airless, hot garage.
Well, whatever necking occurred there, the memories that stay with me are of the heat and of mischievous W— clowning about by occasionally petting my girl’s leg. The marijuana was also wearing off and soon sisters and parents would be home.
I never saw MF again in any social way. Occasionally we would wave at each other furiously and fondly when driving by each other. Our meeting was never intended to be more than a necking session – at least, that is how I understood it. But I desperately wanted to see her again, to feel her skin against mine in the touch of our lips or her hands on my face. Or see her full lips open in a smile, her white teeth, her brown eyes under its dark lashes, the moisturised but unclammy, cool, dark skin. And so I pestered Leon, but he would just laugh, saying: It was good, wasn’t it? Or he would encourage: But you yourself must organise, man.
What is it that I look for in these stories around my adventures in a drug as ordinary as dagga? And the second layer of stories and scrutiny that flow from those? Are these – the secondary stories – the ones I’m actually looking for, and the stories about dagga simply the dagga holding these other stories together?
‘Dagga’, pronounced with the ‘g’ as velar fricative [daxa], is marijuana. Pronounced with the ‘g’ as velar plosive [daga], ‘dagga’ is the mixture of cement, sand and water, generic thus for mortar.
I sit here as the cold of another Cape Town winter creeps into the walls and into the bones, overwhelmed by a kiss of 30 years ago, and wonder what became of MF. Has age been good to her? Is she married? Heterosexual? Children?
Does she sometimes sit and wonder about the stoned, shy boy she kissed into a swoon? Who will remind her of Leon. Or the other way round? And all the inter-connections that have frayed or that survive: so-and-so was friends with so-and-so, who was a cousin of Y. They lived down by….
Does she sit with friends sometimes, having a drink, and reminisce about childhood and is sometimes brought up sharp by an unbidden memory unexpected as a thorn on a childhood lawn? Of a beach not walked, a rest stop denied?
Leon, wherever you are, that was a good organise. I’ll see you again, in the pages ahead…