Monday, May 16, 2011

The three bachelors of Doris Straat

Last year at the Brass Bell, a quarter century later, the three bachelors as yet unbowed: oujongkerel innocence long gone, however. 'oujongkerel' is the Afrikaans for bachelor which may be rendered literally 'old young lads'. Now Peter will never be old.

The three bachelors comprised in fact a rotating cast of characters, like a sitcom or reality show. At first it was Peter, James and John: I broke the apostolic succession (the gospel according to Doug ? maybe a Monty Python skit). The small house in Doris Straat, Verwoerdburg, belonged to Peter. One day James was out for a walk when a small girl skidded to a halt on her bicycle next to him, asking excitedly "is Oom een van die drie oujongkerels van Doris Straat ?" - are you (respectful honorific) one of the three bachelors of Doris Street ? James admitted guilt. We were the cynosure of the neighbourhood.

This little piggy is unhappy because he has to live in Verwoerdburg, the suburb named for the architect of apartheid, its residents wholly of one mind with Dr Verwoerd. James had a job at the CSIR, Peter was working off a scholarship obligation as a nuclear physicist at Pelindaba, and I'd taken the first job offer I got after national disservice. I was introduced to Peter by another eccentric friend from the Army. We'd discussed James Joyce and so on at 2am while monitoring mock-enemy comms in training exercises, so he thought Pete and I would get along as well. Indeed we did. Soon James left to take up a postgraduate position at Cambridge studying (in his account) vibrators, in reality it involved abstruse calculations of the resonant frequencies of jet tailplanes. Greg, also from the CSIR, moved in to complete the set again.

The dining room had some truly horrible wallpaper which we ripped down in an aesthetic frenzy. The repaint was delayed for some years, so we went for a boho graffiti theme. The Freedom Charter was posted up next to the 1983 Constitution of Suid-Afrika, as a compare and contrast. If our neighbours had reported us we could have been jailed for this. People are strange.

Note the three carefully matched chairs. There was also a mock-leather sofa to which we took turns sticking in the heat of summer. I learnt how to cook in this house, inflicting a series of culinary catastrophes on us all, starting with the Famous Pancake, a two-inch thick lump of mostly raw dough. We went to a nouvelle cuisine place after one of these. It took two hours to eat a series of beautifully presented morsels, following which we had to go across the street to get hamburgers.

As shown here, there were strong overtones of artistic aspirations, even though the house was a congeries of engineers. As Greg used to say if someone accused him of being an intellectual, "..pseudo-intellectual, please.."

I still have that blue poster of the pinup girl. Next to her is a conscript in uniform. The text starts "the reason I fight has blue eyes and looks great in a bikini", goes on in similar vein to explicate all the things 'we' were fighting for in the old Suid-Afrika, then ends "but what I don't understand is, what is his reason for fighting ?" I thought then as now it is a question worth asking. Perhaps they don't simply hate our freedoms ?

Here is Frikkie, testing out Pete's new high-altitude fully shielded sunglasses on his babbelas. Frikkie like the rest of us was conscripted: unlike the rest of us, he was sitting on the lorry with fifty other unhappy young men on the way to camp, when he began to miss his wife unbearably: at the next robot he leaped from the back and ran back to her. As I recall the army never did catch up with him. He was subject to enthusiasms, one of which co-opted me into a fishing trip to the Natal north coast. A pretty cousin or inlaw rode up front in the two-seater bakkie, I rode in back under a tarpaulin and the night skies. Next day the cousin made us the best potjiekos I'd ever tasted while we failed to catch fish.

The house was chiefly a base from which to launch expeditions. My brother and Pete are fossicking in the innards of Pete's Opel Kadett, trying to find another horse or two to get up the mountains with.

Some contact of Pete's gave us access to this nice little house in Rhodes village, near Tiffindell. Those nights were the coldest I've ever been. Houses in SA don't have heating as such, and we couldn't find the coal scuttle. Not for the first time the other two had girls to stay warm with, while I attempted to content myself with an inadequate superlight down sleeping bag. The fog in this picture is condensation on the lens as the camera and I slowly warmed with tea and sun.

Mostly it was mountains. Greg and I ran to the top of the local high point, Ben McDhui, and brought back a film canister full of snow as souvenir, snow being a novelty in those climes. On the last morning we started up that white Volkswagen Kombi only to find it bleeding its life's oil in an ominously black puddle. There is a cunning device known as a 'freeze plug' in these engines, which helpfully blows itself out in case of low temperatures. There wasn't much for auto repair in Rhodes village but the barman sent us to his friend Toffee, an unreconstructed hippie who was able to carve us a new plug out of some remnant hardwood from one of his sculptures. Hammered that in, and so home.

Somewhere in the Drakensberg. If memory serves this is Bell cave below Cathedral peak, misty and cold outside.

This is certainly the Bell itself, perhaps from another trip. Pete and I were up taking photos in all directions using the glory of this morning's light. I have a great many indifferent landscape pictures with no human figures, which now seems a waste. The mountains became part of my internal topography and do not change anyway, the arc of a life is harder to trace.

In the Amatola mountains (Hogsback), after enduring two days of steady rain in a dire commercial campsite under dark pines, we gave up and went to James and John's old house. They weren't there nor were their parents, but Pete knew where the key was hidden. There were plenty of books as always, we purloined some tea and read quietly while the garden and roses enjoyed the mizzle. The flavour of that blackcurrant tea is still vivid in memory.

There isn't a good story to go with this picture, I just liked the characteristically jaunty pose. After the sodden Hogsback, down the hills to Port Alfred, rented some dodgy canoes and paddled up the Kowie river to overnight in the riverine forest with the vervet monkeys and duikers, impossibly delicate little deer.

Rhodesia had become Zimbabwe a few years previous. It was now possible to visit without having to travel in armed convoy, though the remembrance of those convoys rather haunted the long desolate roads through the bush. These are the eponymous ruins.

In ZA and Zimbabwe the petrol stations would always have attendants to pump the gas. One of these gentle men asked us how it was now, living in South Africa: we were at a bit of a loss to answer. Afterward Pete wondered what the attendant's new freedom could possibly mean to him, working the same job as under the colonialists, and still quite without any means of improving his lot.

Further down the road, another cave, this time in the Chimanimani mountains on the border with Mozambique. The ranger gave us a map with the safe trails marked on it: all the rest had not yet been cleared of APMs, and there was a possibility of Renamo guerrillas coming over on certain of the safe trails. This concentrated one's route-finding skills wonderfully.

We flew into Victoria Falls, abandoning my car with a busted u-joint and propshaft under the shade tree, with its mechanic breaking out his best sledgehammer as we left. One night in a nasty campground in town was enough. The cabins for rent on the Zambezi were several miles out of town, but fortunately there were also bicycles for rent. Riding out in the sun was fine, riding back at at 10pm from the Vic Falls Hotel among the marauding hippos would have been terrifying if we'd been quite sober.

Booze cruise on Lake Kariba, a safer form of hippo watching. All those beautiful girls went on and married someone else. Maybe we were just too young to know.

Pete and Greg were both doing BA degrees by correspondence course at Unisa. I joined in on the philosophy courses. When it was time for finals, we decided an appropriate place to study would be up the chain ladder to camp on top of the Amphitheater, near Tugela Falls.

At the top of the falls is a little plunge pool, like an icy jacuzzi, with views down a kilometer of cliff: expands the mind but constricts the circulation. In these streams there lives a little red-fin minnow Oreodaimon quathlambae. The genus Oreodaimon means spirit of the mountains, its sole species is quathlambae. Trout have been planted in the streams for tourists to catch, but the minnow hangs on grimly in the trickles of headwaters. I've never seen one but I like to know they are there.

We drove back in the morning to write the exam in the afternoon. Pete wrote one essay on alienation with me featured as leading man.

A short weekend trip to Swaziland, the Malolotja nature reserve. At that time sex across the colour line was streng verbode in ZA, with the natural result that all the white Johns streamed over the border to find their doubly illicit pleasures. One of the ladies in a downtown bar tried to pick up the three of us, not serially but altogether. Golly.

In the morning there was a strange quiet munching sound going on outside the tent, like a hundred herbivores browsing. Oddly enough that's exactly what it was - a mixed herd of zebra and wildebeest peacefully trimming the veldt. We were able to hike downriver to the falls since the big 5 were missing from the reserve: no lion, leopard, buffalo or elephant, just one lonely rhino who'd been orphaned, raised by humans, and now hung around the visitor center for company.

Greg decided to hare off to Swansea on some post-graduate quest. For a last Berg hike, Pete knew a place with an excellent cave and fine views which in the event hid itself irretrievably in the mists.

In the morning we made do with scrambled eggs and a bit of a view. I remember one morning like this when a freak of atmospherics seeded the air with ice crystals in a perfectly clear sky: the air sparkled, bright motes sliding down the morning light, tumbling and eddying over the cliffs, to disperse over the far dry plains.

Soon after Pete's obligation ended, he sold the house and embarked upon what looked from the outside to be a wholly successful life, lived on his own terms, always with kindness. The bachelors to their scattered bodies went but did not forget. The cancer diagnosis came about a week before the picture at the Brass Bell, now it is over. Another of his legacies is SERI. I admired Peter and enjoyed his company; I owe him a great deal; I'll miss him for the rest of my life. May his memory be eternal.

"When we lose certain people.. we may simply feel that we are undergoing something temporary, that mourning will be over and some restoration of prior order will be achieved. But maybe when we undergo what we do, something about who we are is revealed, something that delineates the ties we have to others, that shows us that these ties constitute what we are, ties or bonds that compose us. It is not as if an “I” exists independently over here and then simply loses a “you” over there, especially if the attachment to “you” is part of what composes who “I” am. If I lose you, under these conditions, then I not only mourn the loss, but I become inscrutable to myself. Who “am” I, without you? When we lose some of these ties by which we are constituted, we do not know who we are or what to do. On one level, I think "I have lost you” only to discover that “I” have gone missing as well."
- Judith Butler, via.