Liesl Jobson

Overload #30

Mary Ann’s Garden

Mary Anne’s garden is my sanctuary. Here I recover, find direction and seek my once-ordered self.

As I sit now behind her kitchen, I clutch my coffee in one hand and my shredded dignity in the other. I thought I was polite, a well-behaved woman. I thought I was a good mother. That’s all in question now. As the Indian Mynah flies from my front door to the polished glass entrance to her coffee shop, the distance is less than a mile. The short trip took 45 minutes today. Somewhere between home and here, I lost my self. Now I’m wondering, did I lose it or discover it?

I don’t know what is wrong anymore. The perpetual state of near chaos in my head threatens to degenerate into complete catastrophe any day soon. Last week, I went shopping without my wallet and forgot to take the children to their swimming lesson. I’m unkind to the dog and impatient in the traffic. Yesterday, I forgot to fetch the post then missed the turning for the road home and got lost in the city in which I grew up. I think it has something to do with taking too much medication, or maybe not enough. The other explanation is not enough sleep. I wonder if it will get worse. Can it get worse than cruelty to my children?

Only in the little haven where azalea blooms are unfurling pinkly underneath the bird feeder, can I review my hysteria and unclench my jaw. As I say my prayers, I watch the tiny black kitten stalking pigeons. They are twice her size. Under the shade of the Lilly Pilly tree, I hope my daily ritual might restore me. Once I knew it would. Now I am not so sure.

The Lilly Pillies are fat and red now. One drops unceremoniously onto the table between the coffee-pot and the sugar bowl. At the end of summer they begin to fall. I should sit at another table, I suppose, further away from the messy tree. But I am comfortable here and the barbed wire coils on the top of the wall are less visible from this corner. I can blank them out when I am under this tree. It is the same one that grows in the garden of my childhood. It connects me to my parents, ageing in Cape Town.

The tree is really a foreigner in South Africa. Like my mother-in-law, it is a native of Australia. Perhaps we will live there one day and I will have to find another haven. Then I shall be the foreigner sitting under the native tree. But today I am not going to think about that. I must write down what happened so that there is a documentary of my defeat. Once I work out how I got here, I shall find the way back to the locale of my loss.

The journey started badly. Keith dawdled brushing his teeth and Gail couldn’t find her hat. By twenty past seven, we were five minutes behind my careful schedule. When we pulled in at Larry’s two streets along, I was worried he’d gone. He takes Keith to school when we are there on time. When we miss the ride, I’m on my own.

“Quick quick get out!”

“I’m hurrying, Momma…”

“Hurry faster Lad.”

At five his great backpack dwarfs his frame. In the rush to leave home, I didn’t zip it up. In his rush to get out the car, he dropped it upside down on to the wet ground.

“Damn it, Son, why are you so clumsy?”

“I’m trying, Momma, I’m really trying.” He burst into tears.

“Oh Jesus!” I spat, revolted at myself. “Why am I such a bitch?”

I got out and reached for the crayons that had rolled under the car. When Larry opened the gate I was still on my knees in his driveway. I apologised for our lateness, repacked Keith’s bag and held him tight. As I kissed his teary face I wished my horrid words unsaid. I ran my fingers through his unbrushed hair, did a quick lick and spit to make it lie down. I opened the heavy door to Larry’s enormous four-by-four and scraped the sleep out his still damp eyes. Then whispered in his ear before I heaved the door shut: “I love you Boykie.”

The checked cloth on the table at Mary Anne’s is green and blue – the teal, aqua and turquoise of the January sea at Muizenberg Beach. The memory of last summer’s holiday with my parents comes back and my mother’s words haunt me today. “Such a lovely way you have with your children, my darling,” she said. “You are so gentle with them, so much kinder than I was…”

Oh Mom, not today. I’m not the same anymore. I get cross about such stupid things. But that’s how it is now — small matters have such terribly disproportionate power, such terrible proportions. When I am unhinged — and so suddenly it happens — there is no door to slam on my inner chaos.

My hand shakes slightly and I spill the coffee as I pour from the Bodum. In the black pool sliding across the bright fabric, the craziness slides out and the anxiety I usually contain is unrestrained. Thus revealed my own capacity for cruelty is exposed and I am embarrassed. I wonder if I redeemed myself with the too-brief kiss and cuddle. I hate leaving on a sour note. Gauteng Province is Gangsta Paradise. “Who’s number will be up today?” In the hi-jacking capital of the world that is the perpetual question, the theme with no variations.

Back in the car the pressure mounted. I restarted the engine with another five minutes lost. In Larry’s steep drive a Sousa march belted out merry inanity.

“Hey tiddley, Hi tiddley, Big band Big bang!”

Round and round it went till I wanted to scream. Instead I smacked the pre-set option and reversed up the incline.

“The weary Rand has fallen further against the Dollar and in London it has taken a hammering against the Pound.”

Smack!

At the top of the hill the puerile patter of a stoned DJ.

Smack!

At the bottom a bizarre commercial for satellite recovery tracking services “Guaranteed to get your vehicle back when hijacked or stolen…”

Smack!

“Peace, perfect peace I give to you…” No thankyou, Pastor Patrick. Your honeyed promise is entirely incredible. I would rather be piddle dumb with Sousa until the Eye In The Sky gives me its morning warning.

The cars were backed up at the exit of our enclosed suburb. At the guard hut that looks like a child’s Wendy-house, Steven Msomi was on duty. He is a Zulu with tribal scarification on his cheekbones. He waved at us, smiling broadly as he lifted the boom. When he smiles, the serried rows of depressed scar tissue bulge and cease to be parallel. I returned his welcome with a terse gesture and a tense grimace. In his presence I am ashamed of my whiteness and my wealth. Gail was sulking and refused to wave. I did not elucidate why she should be grateful to him. It would have served no purpose other than to frighten her. I did not berate her lack of respect. I ignored her fall from graciousness and bit my tongue. I touched my sunglasses habitually; glad they hid my guilt.

At Mary Anne’s the gardener sweeps the paving. He sings a four-note melody over again. The repetition is never identical, yet always the same as the rhythm expands, gaining syllables over the ground bass of his grass broom’s even hissing. The melody is a keening, a contracted syncopation, that releases a preverbal memory, an aural recollection. It is a lullaby I have always known — the servants sweeping verandas and raking leaves. These sounds are the songs of my pre-verbal security. Tied on my nanny’s back like an African infant, I knew a love I never deserved. Ten years ago we bought our hilltop house, where Steven Msomi swept the oak leaves off the expansive lawns. Then he got a permanent job as a night watchman. For a few extra hundreds, he got job security.

“Is good job, Madam, I lucky!”

Last week Evros Posteleros arrived home to find his mother and the servants gagged and bound. The trio of thieves did not appreciate the interruption to their dirty deeds and so one shot at him. Luckily for Evros he escaped to his car. Unluckily for the thief he returned to rescue his mother and emptied a cartridge into the gunman’s chest. I was writing out Superman invitations for Keith’s fifth birthday party at the time. I heard the shots and bolted the back door. Is that not like closing the stable door after the horse has bolted? Not at all. When there are shots, there is someone running away. I do not wish such a guest seeking refuge in my home.

Then came the refrain – the screaming sirens and screeching tyres of response vehicles. I tried to phone the security company to find out what was going on, but the exchange was down. The helicopter hovered above the oaks for hours. That is the noisy confirmation of hoods on the loose. There is an empty house opposite the Posteleros’s home. The Chinese family that lived there can’t sell it. I wonder if that is the hide out. It is next door to us.

When I drove past the Posteleros place a bit later, the blue van from the mortuary had arrived. A lump under canvas leaked red stuff onto the tar. On my way to fetch the children I stopped to greet Steven. The scars on his face were parallel. I smelled fear on his breath.

“Sawubona Baba” I see you Father

“Yebo Mama” Yes Mother

“Usaphila namhlanje?” Did you rise well today

“Eh! Ngisaphila. Wena usaphila?” Yes, I rose well, and you, did you rise well?

“Nami, ngisaphila.” I rose well too

I asked him what was going on.

“The master, she fire, the gangster, she decease, the two gangster, they run away.”

“Oh…” I wondered whether they would remove the corpse before I returned with wide-eyed children.

“Did you see them pass?” I phrased the question vaguely, not wishing to insult him. He might still have perceived an insinuated incompetence. It would be terribly rude to suggest he had been negligent.

“No,” he said, “I’m sure they enter by the river.”

“Siyabonga Baba” We are thankful Father

What I am thanking him for… the information? His failure in an impossible job? The 24-hour shifts he sometimes works without relief?

“Nami ngiyabonga” And me, I am thanking you

What does he thank me for, the pittance he is paid for my protection? The job that may yet cost him his life? We parted after the formal salutation

“Sala kahle, hamba kahle.” Go well, stay well

It is still early here and the curlicued iron-and-glass tables are mostly empty. The sun is not yet on my back and a premature member of The Loud Phone Set got up quickly and left. He was gesticulating noisily, then clutched his wallet and dashed out the repetitive lamentation “Holy Shit! Holy Shit! Holy Shit!”

The Cakefork Brigade will stalk in later pushing designer strollers and infertility clinic babies. They look like identically sculpted Barbie dolls dressed in DKNY kit and empty eyes. Their sweet fat babies look like they eat the cake their mummies sick up discreetly, but they only wave slimy Ladies’ Fingers in their chubby fists. In the still window before the trendy set twitters in, the silence is punctuated gently – a softly whirring air-conditioner, water gurgling at the kitchen drain and the stuttered promise of the rainbird.

The first big intersection was choked with cars. The helicopter’s voice cracked with static:

“… and in Sandringham there’s an accident … London, Van Riebeeck…Colchester… Kingsborough. Please avoid this route if possible. A ped…strian has … knocked over… Empire, Jan Smuts … motor bike…Windsor and… a bumper bashing on Barry Hertzog and Hyde Park… out all over the city, so treat …Queens … intersections … four-way stop – Blairgowrie Drive … Verwoerd… in… Grosvenor and DF Malan, Hans Strydom… at Sloane and Cumberland.”

The harsh names of Afrikaners clashed against the cool places in far away England. The chaos of the roads is reminiscent of other wars. This mayhem is born of a simmering despair and other dark forces render quaint and orderly recollections entirely futile. The roads are in disrepair and the municipality has no money to repair the ancient casings that allow water into the electrics whenever it rains. Where driver’s licenses are easily (if not cheaply) bought and rival gangs kill for route monopolies, can an inhuman heritage beget courtesy?

The lights turned green and nobody moved. I checked that the doors were all locked and put my handbag into the cubby hole. An avocado vendor swung his bags of fruit under my nose. I checked my review mirrors compulsively. It is what I do at every stop street and red light. When I do this, I am looking for hostile body language in the pedestrians that mooch through the cars. It is a defensive gesture that may give me an extra second in an attack. How paranoid I have become. “TEENAGER’S HIJACK DEATH”. The banality of the crime is rendered newsworthy merely by the victim’s having been a child. Before the lights turned red we moved a little more, and so the capitalising headlines caught my daughter’s eye.

“Tea-ee-ee-en…” lisped Gail between newly lost milk teeth. She is learning to read.

I distracted her from the newspaper banner by picking a fight.

“Do you see this traffic?”

“Momma, what is that word over there?”

“Never mind that bloody word, do you see this revolting traffic jam?”

“Yes. What about it?”

“This is the reason you should look after your hat.”

“My hat?”

“Your school hat. If you put it on the hat peg like I told you to when you came home from school yesterday afternoon, you would know where to find it and we wouldn’t be late now. You are never going to get to school on time now. When are you going to damned well obey me?”

The cinnamon buns smell sweet in the oven as I gather my fractured conscience. Joseph the cook fries bacon for the patrons. Each day as I arrive, he kneads the koeksister dough with experience and love. His long black fingers twist thin plaited ropes. Then he massages the lilly white croissant pastry into crescents and whirls. His strong hands curling the creamy shapes, scatter them with raisins, paint them with honey. They wait on a darkly oiled baking tray next to the warm oven, rising with a feminine rhythm under his tender gaze. Until he puts them to bed.

At last it was our turn to go. Then a taxi driver jumped the lights and nearly collided with us. In the Republic Road intersection, I hit the breaks and snarled,

“Fuckwit!”

Gail saw me coming apart and thought it was funny. As I took off again she started giggling. She intoned a sing-song under her breath.

“Fuck-wit, Fuck-wit…”

“Stop it, Gail, it’s not funny.”

“But you not allowed saying fuck Momma.”

“For fuck’s sake shut the fuck up!” I bellowed.

She giggled as the light just before the convent turned red.

I loosened my seat belt, turned around and slapped her face. I looked up and saw a truck driver behind me, watching me. My hand connected her cheek as our eyes met. He shook his head and looked at me. Not reproachful, just sad. In that gently damned insight, I lost my self. As I left her at school, her silent rebuke confirmed the loss.

The coffee is good at Mary Anne’s — an aromatic Kenyan blend. Not too expensive either. I didn’t feel the chaos so much when I was centered. When last was that? Yesterday, last week or has it been years. Lateness and traffic after the rain are a formula to loosen my acid tongue. I know my once-civilised veneer is slipping. Cursing is the yardstick. When I’m swearing, I know I am on the edge. From there I no longer judge accurately my own aggression. I can no longer tell whether or not it will hit its full expression. I was proud of my sophistication, intelligence and breeding. They are no match for this she-devil now. Mom, would you believe this preposterous tale? These are improbable times. Boundaries that once served sanity are as vague today as the sun, obscured by the hazy sky. March is muggy and I’m waiting for the dry winter so that I can breathe.

As I arrived at Mary’s there was an old man watering the pot plants outside the wrought iron gate that borders onto the cracked and scabby parking lot. I climbed up on the brick veranda where late summer geraniums bloom half-heartedly. I rang the bell. As I stood at the security gate waiting to be let in, the old man passed me. He did not look me in the eye nor returned my greeting. Maybe he is deaf. Perhaps he saw my shame and couldn’t stand to look on me.

Mary Anne’s garden is my sanctuary. For an hour a day, I sit until the voices stop sniping and howling. When the mocking questions recede to a bearable yammering, the answered taunts yield a measurable mutter.

Observing the search to find the way, I listen ‘til I see and look ‘til I hear. The inquisition will soon expire; the damnation abate.

Enough for another day.

Published in print (slightly shortened) by Red Wheelbarrow, De Anza College, California.

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