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And who was that?
There’s always someone nobody remembers. In the group photograph only those who have become prominent or infamous or whose faces may be traced back through experiences lived in common occupy that space and time, flattened glossily.
Who could it have been? The dangling hands and the pair of feet neatly aligned for the camera, the half-smile of profile turned to the personage who was to become the centre of the preserved moment, the single image developed to a higher intensity; on the edge of this focus there’s an appendage, might as well trim it off because, in the recognition and specific memory the photograph arouses, the peripheral figure was never present.
But if someone were to come along—wait!—and recognize the one whom nobody remembers, immediately another reading of the photograph would be developed. Something else, some other meaning would be there, the presence of what was taken on, along the way, then. Something secret, perhaps. Caught so insignificantly.
Vera Stark, lawyer-trained and with the impulse to order that brings tidiness with ageing, came upon a photograph she had long thought thrown out with all she had discarded in fresh starts over the years. But it wasn’t any print she had overlooked. It was the photograph she had sent to her first husband in his officers’ quarters in Egypt during the war—their war, the definitive war, not those following it which spawn without the resolution of victory parades. He must have kept the photograph. Must have brought it back in his kit. It was a postcard—the postcard—she had sent when on a trip to the mountains; a photograph of the little group of friends who made up the holiday party. What she had written on the back (turning it over now, the lifting of a stone) was the usual telegraphic few lines scribbled while buying stamps—the weather perfect, she was climbing, walking miles a day, swimming in clear pools, the hotel was as he would remember it but rather run-down. Best wishes from this one and that—for those linking arms were their mutual friends, there was only one new face: a man on her left, a circle round his head. He was identified by name in a line squeezed vertically alongside her account of the weather.
What was written on the back of the photograph was not her message. Her message was the inked ring round the face of the stranger: this is the image of the man who is my lover. I am in love with him, I’m sleeping with this man standing beside me; there, I’ve been open with you.
Her husband had read only the text on the back. When he came home he did not understand it was not to be to her. She defended herself, amazed, again and again:—I showed you, I ringed his photograph next to me. I thought at least we knew each other well enough … How could you not understand! You just refused to understand.—
But yes, he must have brought it back in all innocence with his other souvenir knick-knacks, the evidence of his war, brought it back and here it was, somehow hadn’t been torn up or thrown away when they divided their possessions in the practical processes of parting in divorce. After forty-five years she was looking at the photograph again and seeing there in its existence, come back to her and lying on a shelf under some old record sleeves, that it was true: the existence of his innocence, for ever.
Vera and Bennet Stark gave a party on one of their wedding anniversaries, the year the prisons opened. It was a season for celebration; sports club delegations, mothers’ unions and herded schoolchildren stood around Nelson Mandela’s old Soweto cottage queueing to embrace him, while foreign diplomats presented themselves to be filmed clasping his hand. The Starks have been married so long they don’t usually make an occasion of the recurrent day, but sometimes it suggested an opportunity to repay invitations, discharge all we owe in one go, as Vera says, and on this year of all years it seemed a good excuse to go further than that: to let themselves and their friends indulge a little in the euphoria they knew couldn’t last, but that they were entitled to enjoy now when, after decades when they had worked towards it without success, change suddenly emerged, alive, from entombment. There were her Legal Foundation colleagues, of course; and white men and women who had been active in campaigns against detention without trial, forced removals of communities, franchise that excluded blacks; student leaders, ganged up under a tree in the garden drinking beer from cans, who had supported striking workers; a couple of black militant clergymen and an Afrikaner dominee excommunicated for his heresy in condemning segregation; a black doctor who hid and treated young militants injured in street battles with the police and army; black community leaders who had led boycotts; one or two of the white eternals from the street meetings of the old Communist Party, from the passive resistance campaigns of the Fifties and rallies of the Congress Alliance, the committees of any and every front organization during the period of bannings, who had survived many guises. And there were some missing. Those who were Underground were not convinced it was safe to come up, yet. Negotiations with the Government on indemnity for political activists were not decisive. One of their number made a surprise appearance—a late-night cabaret turn bursting into the company in a purple-and-yellow flowered shirt, gleeful under the peak of a black leather cap. There were wrestling embraces and shoulder-punching bonhomie from his brothers-in-arms Above Ground, and the hostess reacted as she used to when she didn’t know how to show her son how moved she was by the pleasure of having him home from boarding school—she brought her best offerings of food and drink.
The occasion was already marked by the presence of that son—Ivan, on a visit from London, where he had made his way to become a successful banker. With his aura-he wore what Jermyn Street called leisure clothes, silky suede lumber jacket, Liberty cravat and tasselled loafers—he seemed an unacknowledged yet defensive embarrassment to his mother (his father never showed his feelings, anyway) in the illusion that he was one of the colleagues and comrades; that coming home meant the matter of taking a plane. If the party was supposed to be for him as well as to celebrate an enduring marriage (and who would remember, of that extraordinary era, what occasioned what) it became a clandestine welcome for one of his mother’s mysterious friends. Music began to shake the walls and billow out into the garden; political argument, drinking and dancing went on until three in the morning. Ivan danced wildly, laughing, with his mother; it was as if their resemblance to one another were a shared source between them. When the man who had come up from Underground was found to have gone as he had come, from where and to where, no one would ask, it was as if the music stopped abruptly. He left a strange hollow silence behind; the echo chamber of all those years, now closing, silence of prisons, of disappearance, of exile, and for some, death. Over? The guests driving away to sleep, the hosts collecting dirty glasses, could not answer themselves.
Vera opened the door to a ring at ten o’clock at night—no fear of muggings back in those days of the Forties. He stood, still in his uniform, come to see if he could find some keys missing in the possessions he had packed up and taken away to the hotel where he was living.—Can’t lock my suitcases, damn nuisance as everything’s still lying about stored here and there.—He didn’t have to apologize for turning up unannounced at that hour because, of course, he knew her habits, she stayed up late, sometimes even after he had gone to bed he used to wake from first sleep and feel her sole sliding down his naked leg.
She kept him standing a few moments in the doorway as if he were a travelling salesman, and then stalked before him into their old living-room, now hers. He rummaged through the desk; she stood looking on. He might have been a plumber mending a pipe. She made a few offhand, low-voiced suggestions of where the keys might be. He had come prepared to meet, in the civilized way already established between the three of them, her lover with the thick smooth black hair like the coat of some animal, a panther, maybe, and the clear ridged outline of turned-down lips—how was it he hadn’t taken notice of these striking features in a photograph? Poor stupid trusting bastard that he was! But the lover wasn’t there, or he hadn’t come ‘home’ yet.
—They just might be in the (he didn’t say ‘my’) old tallboy in the bedroom—I left some stuff I thought you might still want. D’you mind if I go in?—
He turned to her politely.
Suddenly she peaked the stiff fingers of her hands in a V over her mouth and couldn’t suppress snorts of laughter.
He smiled, the smile broadening, sending ease between them like circles from the broken surface of water.
They entered together. She behaved as if their bed weren’t there, walking past it as something she didn’t recognize, and pulling out drawers for him.—I haven’t got round to going through this—
He held up papers.—Your old school reports, believe it or not. I thought you might want to keep them.—
—Good god, what for? I’m sure I would have thrown them in the bin, it must have been you who stuck them away.–
She made a gesture of refusal, not interested.
—Maybe I did rescue them from you some time. You still want to become a lawyer?—
Her chin jerked vigorously towards her sternum, with the vehemence of a child whose determination is beyond words. And at once she casually deflected this intrusion of past confidences. —Why are you still in that outfit?—
—Not yet demobilized.—
Perhaps the remark was not so casual; a subconscious rebuttal of unease she had never admitted to herself—‘that outfit’, referred to as if it were some form of affected fancy dress, had never been taken on by her civilian lover.
There grew between them the silence of nothing left to say. Nothing of their boy-girl love affair, their clumsy assumption of adulthood together, when she was seventeen, in a marriage interrupted by war. Absently he took off to toss to a chair the jacket with its epaulettes and insignia, its strip of campaign ribbons, and got down on his hunkers, searching through the lowest drawers of the piece of furniture. She opened a window to establish that the closeness in the room was lack of air.
Arms crossed, she stood there, watching as he set aside papers in sorted piles, and his back with its muscles moving under the stretched cloth of the shirt, the unawareness of her expressed in the nape grained with sunburn and clipped pale hair bared before her, the warmth of the flesh releasing the smell of a clean, creased shirt—she could not believe the sensation this was bringing her. She fled from it to the kitchen and poured two glasses of fruit juice, but as she was lifting the tray went to the living-room, took a bottle of whisky, came back to the kitchen and in two fresh glasses poured the liquor slowly over ice. She returned to the bedroom with harmless words ready: I think you need a drink. But she approached that warm and redolent back, forgotten, familiar, discovered anew, and touched the shoulder with the hand that held a glass. He turned at the nudge and lifted eyebrows in acknowledgement of the welcome drink, getting to his feet with weight supported on one palm.
Nothing to say.
She tried to let the distraction of alcohol in her blood overcome the insistence that, clear of circumstance, unwanted, unreasonable, her body urged to her. She could not stop it from reaching him from her, as the flesh and soap smell of his shirt came from him to her. It took him by surprise; his face changed, resistance or pain passed across it, but swiftly. He took the glass out of her hand and put it down behind him. They stood, arms helpless at their sides, looking at each other in restless contradiction. He took her against his chest, her face pressed into the odour of the shirt. They made love for the first time in two years, on the floor among the papers, not on the bed where she belonged with the lover, now.
And what if the lover had walked in on them, he must have the key of the door, what change in direction would have happened then?
Vera was awarded the house in her divorce settlement and her lover Bennet Stark became her husband the day after her divorce was final. She gave up the wartime job she had had as secretary to someone in the set she had mixed with in her previous life, got herself articled to a legal firm and registered as a part-time law student at the university. There were no children of her previous marriage and, having lived with her lover in confident anticipation that they would be able to marry soon, she entered the second marriage already pregnant. The child—it was Ivan—grew inside her, her lover was secured as her rightful possession, she was working and studying to fulfil the ambition she had been deflected from in the rosy feminine submissions of a first marriage, but that had been hers since she was a schoolgirl. She sang as she lumbered heavily about the house. At night between the arms of her chosen man, with all the possibilities of her life envisioned in the dark, refrains of precise legal formulations she was learning ribboned pleasingly through her mind on the way to sleep. She saw her happiness as conscious and definitive. Once, in the first months when she was appearing in public with her lover as husband, a woman she did not know turned to her girlishly: ‘Who’s that terribly handsome guy talking to the woman in the red dress?’
He-hers. Sometimes when she woke before he did she would raise herself carefully on one elbow to gaze at his profile, the red bevelled scroll of his closed lips, the delicate hollow scooped beside the high bridge of his beautiful curved nose, the clear black shape his hairline cut against his white brow and temples, and, as if reflected, its blue shadow, the dark beard that was growing under the skin of the finely-turned shelf of jaw. If he stirred and the eye opened, black diamond mined from the depth of the subconscious, unfocussed, she suddenly was able to see him as the woman stranger had, existing in the eyes of others, her adoration—her luck—compounded by this. And there were times when, in the release of love-making, after the marvels he had first introduced her to in the mountains, caresses that had singled him out for her with an inked circle, Vera sobbed and huddled as if ecstasy were remorse or fear. Despite the extreme sensuality of his looks and the fascination it had for women, Bennet had not had much to do with them, inhibited by fastidiousness until he met this woman who, although so young, already had had the experience of marriage, abandoned a life, another man, chosen him. He understood that the passion she roused and they shared might find unexplained outlets of emotion through her; he would soothe her gently, unquestioningly. But she would take and roughly thrust his hands here and there on her distended breasts and swollen belly and between her legs so that he lost his head and they coupled wonderfully again, while he feared for the child tossed so wildly inside her.
The baby was born strong and healthy. His mother’s gaze during his gestation had been so concentrated on his father that he might have been expected to be imprinted with his father’s Celtic or Semitic beauty; but he came out favouring his mother, exactly, from his infant days; in Vera’s image, alone.
Mrs Stark is a fixture at the Legal Foundation. Although she has refused to take the executive directorship which has been offered to her, preferring—selfishly, she says—not to spend time on administration, no one can imagine the Foundation running without her. Her quiet acerbity at meetings, when she disagrees with aspects of policy (and the fact that she’s so often proved right), her ability, sitting back with her head in its close-cut cap of white-streaked dark blond hair held immobile in attention, the left corner of her mouth sometimes tucked in (the cleft could be expressing impatience or understanding) to recognize and separate the truth, or as she would qualify, the facts from the fantasies born of poverty and powerlessness in applicants for the Foundation’s intervention—these combine to make her the colleague to whom everyone from the director to the telephonist turns for the last word.
Nobody can con Vera, her colleagues agree with satisfaction. The Foundation is not a legal aid organization in the usual sense, it does not provide legal representation in the courts for individuals who cannot afford to hire lawyers. It came into existence in response to the plight of black communities who had become so much baggage, to be taken up and put down according to a logic of separation of black people from the proximity of white people. A logic can be made out of anything; it lies not in the truth or falsity of an idea, but in the means of its practical application. As part of their schedule of work for this week or that, Government officials commandeered the appropriate personnel from the appropriate department and went off to bulldoze the homes of a community, pack the inhabitants and their belongings onto trucks drawn, like any other government equipment, from the State’s stores, and transport them to an area designated by the appropriate department. There they were supplied with tin toilets, communal taps, and sometimes, if these could be drawn from the stores department, tents. Sheets of corrugated tin might be supplied for them to begin building shacks. They might be allowed to bring along bits and ends left intact by the demolition of their houses—a window-frame or some boards—but cows and goats had to be left behind; what would the beasts feed on, in a stretch of veld cleared and levelled for the barest human occupation?
All this process was perfectly logical, Mrs Stark would remind her colleagues; we have to come to terms with the fact that in the Foundation we are not dealing with the only real means to defend these people, which is to defeat the power that creates and puts the idea into practice—we are not tackling that at all, at all, let’s not kid ourselves—we are only grappling with its logical consequences, looking for the legal loopholes that will delay or frustrate or—occasionally—win out over that logic. They would smile in appreciation of her hard-headed sense of proportion, quite difficult to keep when confronted with the sort of trusting wretchedness facing them in supplicants every day.
Now that the Act that put the Idea into practice has been abolished by the beginning of political defeat of that power, the Foundation has not, as might be expected, become redundant. Mrs Stark was not entirely right—or rather she and her colleagues, absorbed in pragmatic strategies while the Act was in force, had no time to think how far beyond its old promulgation and logical enactment, beyond its abolition, its consequences would become yet new consequences. Now communities whose removal the Foundation had been unsuccessful in stalling are coming to present the case for having restored to them the village, the land, their place, which was taken from them and allotted to whites. The same old men in stained worn suits, taking off hats in hands that seem to be uprooted from earth, sit on the other side of the interviewer’s desk. There is the same patient alertness needed to listen to the tale and, while it is being told, assess where, out of desperation and guile, it is omitting something the emissary thinks might prejudice his case, where it is being exaggerated for sympathy, and where the facts and their truthful interpretation are the strength of the case, something to work on.
Although Mrs Stark is the one who prepares the yearly report for publication—it has to be both comprehensive and persuasive, because it goes out to existing and prospective donors—and she sometimes travels abroad as a fund-raiser, she does her share of interviewing and investigation. Nobody can con Mrs Stark, no. To some she seems forbidding—and what white person, who among all those whites who still have to be approached and convinced before you, a black, can come into what you are now told is your own, is not forbidding, still there, on the other side of the desk, just as before? But although with her discouraging coldness she doesn’t patronize these applicants struggling to express themselves in English—the language of the other side of the desks-and although she doesn’t try to ingratiate herself chummily, as many whites feel obliged to do, with the blacks among her colleagues, she has—how to categorize this?-connections with some of these colleagues that have come about rather than been sought and even, over the years, with individuals who to others would be scarcely distinguishable from any in the endless trudge of dispossessed in and out of the Foundation’s premises. The young clerk named Oupa will saunter into her office eating from his lunch packet of chips or takeaway of curried chicken, and sit there, sometimes in easy silence while she reads through notes she’s taken in an interview just concluded, a silence sometimes broken by talk between her bites at an apple and sips of yoghurt. He’s studying at night for a law degree by correspondence and started off by coming to ask her for an explanation of something he didn’t grasp; it was her very reserve itself that in his naïvety made him think she would be better qualified to give him the right answers than any of the other lawyers on the premises. She was the figure of the schoolmistress missing in his lonely self-education, she was the abstract image of authority that, resented all your life or not, you had to turn to in your powerlessness. Then he began to talk to her about his four years on Robben Island, seventeen to twenty-one. It was everyone’s prison story, of his kind and generation, but he found himself telling it differently to this white woman, not censored or touched up as he was drawn out to tell it to other whites eager for vicarious experience. He broke off and returned to it on other days, remembering things he had forgotten or not wanted to remember; not only the brutality and heedless insult of walls and warders, but also the distortions in his own behaviour he now looked back on. Sometimes with disbelief, talking to her, sometimes with puzzlement, even shame. There was the comradeship, the real meaning of brother (as he put it).—But you suddenly hate someone, you can hardly keep your hands off his throat—and it’s over nothing, a piece of string to tie your shoe, one time a fight in the shower about whose turn it was! And the same two people, when we were on hunger strike, we’d do anything for each other … I can’t think it was me.—
What did she say? He was a gentle person forced, too young, to see another version of himself that it needed only violence against him, degradation in suffering the lack of humanity in others, to bring to life. She didn’t console, didn’t assure him that that individual, that self, no longer existed.—It was you.—
He reached for a tissue from the box on her desk with a gloomy tilt of the head and the answering tilt of her head said it was not necessary to ask. He was wiping chicken-wing-greasy fingers. She passed him the waste-paper bin, dropping her apple core into it on the way.
Oupa doubled as driver of the Foundation’s station-wagon battered by the lawyers’ trips into the backveld to consult with communities under threat of removal. One day when Mrs Stark’s car had been stolen he gave her a lift home, and the theft revived something else. Before he went to the Island, he was awaiting trial on the mainland in a cell with criminals.—Murderers, man! Gangsters. I can tell you, they were brilliant. Nothing to touch them for brains. The things they’d brought off-robberies, bank hold-ups. And they’d play the whole show through for us. Exactly how they did it. Prison means nothing to them, they had the warders bribed and scared of them. Even whites. They had all their stuff waiting for them outside, for when they’d done their time. I tell you, those guys would make top-class lawyers and big businessmen.—He grinned, chin lifted as he drove.
Again Mrs Stark was comfortably silent, if she noted, she made no remark on what he had just innocently confirmed: something of the unacknowledged self that came into being in prison still existed within him, a pride in and defiant community with anyone, everyone, who had the daring to defy the power of white men, to take from them what was not theirs, whether by political rebellion or by the gangster’s gun; silent because this was a self that, by nature of what she was, could not exist among her selves.
—You ever come across any of them again, outside?—
Oupa pressed his elbows to his ribs and brought his shoulders up to his ears.—Those people! Man! Je-ss-uss! I’d be terrified.—
Copyright © 1994 by Felix Licensing, B.V.