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Desiree slams her hand on the picture as her shout rings out over the quiet back yard. We're sitting on the back steps of our house in Sir George Grey Street. Gabriel is turning the pages of an Outspan magazine.
Gabriel is the eldest and he keeps the peace between us. He slaps his hand on an advertisement that shows a woman in a bust bodice.
"Mine!" he giggles.
My hand comes down in a flash.
I have my hand on a building jutting out into the sea.
"Let's ask Mommy," says Desiree.
We find Mommy wiping the washing line with a cloth.
"Where's this, Mommy?
"The pier." Mommy gets a faraway look in her eyes. "It's called the pier. It was at the bottom of Adderley Street ... It had pretty gas lamps that looked like the ones in Paris. You want to see some photographs?"
Mommy wipes her hands on her big white apron and we traipse behind her in single file into the kitchen. "Get my memory box from the top of the wardrobe."
We settle around the kitchen table.
"Look, here's a snap of me promenading with my beau!"
"What's a beau?"
"On Sundays we dressed in our best and strolled up and down the pier with our boyfriends."
We peer over her shoulder. Mommy and the man have their arms linked. She has her eyes fixed on his face and she's smiling. It's a black-and-white photograph, but we know she has beautiful thick blonde hair and the bluest eyes, the colour of the forget-me-nots growing in our garden.
"What's his name?"
"Frank Hall. Isn't he handsome?"
Mommy looks sad, although she is smiling.
"Why didn't you marry him?"
"It's a long story."
"Where did you meet Daddy?" asks Gabriel.
"At a party in Parow."
"Where was your wedding?"
"We got married in the magistrate's court in Cape Town. I wore a blue two-piece and a hat."
"Did you get any presents?"
"Only a few pillow slips," laughs Mommy. "Even new, they were so thin you could shoot peas through them."
Desiree is still staring at the photograph. "Didn't your legs get tired? Walking up and down the pier, I mean."
"No, you could sit down and listen to beautiful music played on a baby grand piano."
"Is that like the piano in Aunty Gertruida's house, the one that's played by a ghost?"
"No," Mommy smiles, "Aunty Gertruida's piano is called a pianola." And then she says, "I wanted to be a concert pianist."
"Why didn't you?"
"What does that mean?"
"It doesn't matter." She pushes her chair out and stands up. "I have to hang up the washing or it'll never get dry. Hold the photographs by the edges so you don't leave finger marks in the middle."
Mommy looks as though she's in a bit of a huff.
"What have I done?" I ask, but nobody takes any notice.
Desiree takes over Mommy's chair. "Look at this one."
It's a picture of our mommy with her five sisters. "It looks like they're promenading."
They are striding along arm in arm, wearing pretty dresses made by my grandmother.
Mommy comes back from the washing line. "Put the photographs back in the box."
"Please, Mommy, tell us who comes first."
"First there's Ruby. Then Aunty Catherine-Jean, then there's Mavis. That's me, May."
I say the name May. It sounds funny to be saying my mommy's name.
"Then there's Rita, Katarina and Bubbles. See, you've got four fingers left over."
"What about Uncle Charles?"
We always forget about Uncle Charles, because he's the only boy. My grandmother loves to tell the story of his birth. He was so small they couldn't find him and he had to sleep in a shoebox. Everyone came to see the miracle baby just like baby Jesus in the Bible. His skin was so thin that you could see the veins carrying his blood round and round and throbbing in his head where the hole wouldn't close. He had to stay bare because there were no clothes to fit him. He had no fingernails or eyelashes. His toenails were still soft like jelly. When Grandma tells the part about the jelly I feel sick. And then, when he was old enough to walk, they noticed he had a funny foot, but they were just glad that it wasn't his head that was funny.
Mommy is over her huff, and it's not hard to get her to tell us about the olden days.
Her grandfather had a shop in Leeuwen Street, in the Bo-Kaap, and she could have as many sweets as her tummy could hold. My mommy and her brother and sisters were born above her father's own shop, the one in Wandel Street. Before she even started school, she had to mind the shop and if a customer came in she had to shout "Shop! Shop!" at the top of her lungs. Then Grandpa would come scurrying back. Mommy talks about the Sea Point Pavilion, hansom cabs and picnics in Bains Kloof. But most of all she talks about the pier at the bottom of Adderley Street.
"You know you were born the year the pier came down?" says Mommy, looking at me. "At the Booth Memorial Hospital, in Upper Orange Street, same as Gabriel."
"Tell about the skinny legs," says Gabriel.
"The scale tipped at five pounds. Colleen was born with skinny legs, like knife handles, and weak ankles. That's why she has to wear boots."
"She can't help it," Mommy scolds my brother.
"And what about your bullet-shaped head?" Desiree reminds Gabriel.
"He can't help that either."
"What about me?" asks Desiree. "Where was I born?"
"It was New Year's Eve and we were having a big party at our house in Parow. The midwife barely made it."
"Why was she at the party?"
"She came to bring you into the world. And do you know what she said when you were born? She said your baby girl has danced into the world on the night of so many parties. She'll be fleet of foot and spread her magic wherever she goes."
"Tell us more!"
"Desiree was born with beautiful deep dimples. And now Gabriel has beautiful even white teeth and Colleen has the most beautiful curly blonde hair. But never mind about all of that," she mutters as she packs the last photo back in the box.CHAPTER 2
"Mavis, we've been sent to Pretoria."
"But where will we stay?"
"We'll find a boarding house and the Public Works Department will pay."
And so Mommy gives up her job and packs the pillow slips you can shoot peas through. We travel on the train all the way to Pretoria and then we climb into a taxi.
"Take us to Haddon Hall," Daddy tells the man.
Mommy goes shopping.
"Sit at the window," she says, "and watch the blossoms fall from the trees. They're called jacarandas. You'll see, soon they'll lie in great purple heaps, thick as carpets on the pavements."
We watch the cars skid on the slippery petals and then, suddenly, big balls of hail tumble from the sky.
"Chicken Licken better watch out for his head," says Gabriel.
The Pretoria Zoo becomes our favourite place and we make new friends at the boarding house. We have delicious food, served by a big black lady in a white apron and cap, and pudding with every meal. Daddy learns to love toast and marmalade. We've never heard of marmalade before. Daddy says it's British. "Only two weeks to go before we leave Pretoria for Cape Town," says Daddy. "We'd better find somewhere to stay."
"Ruby's found a house for us in Third Avenue in Crawford, near Rondebosch. She knows the Cape Flats like the back of her hand. Aunty Ruby says it's a sad house, all closed up, and it needs some life, some young happy voices."
And before we know what's happening, the time has come for Gabriel to leave his new school and we're packing up again. We have to leave the jacarandas, the zoo and the hailstones too.
Before we move into the sad house in Third Avenue, we stay with his mother, our ouma, in her house in Parow, so Daddy has to stay sober. The postman brings Aunty Ruby's letter, thick as a book. Mommy reads the last bit aloud as we crowd around her knees.
There's Berg's and Chong the Chinaman in Taronga Road, and an Indian trader, a babbie, Mr Abdullah. There's another babbie on your side of the line. The school and the church are both in Fourth Avenue and the nearest doctor is Dr West, on the corner of Kromboom and Milner Roads in Rondebosch, not too far for emergencies. There's Plax Chemist and the Kritz Bioscope, both in Lansdowne. The coloureds live in a place called Mossienes, including Edna. She's a servant girl I've organised for you. Everyone knows her because she has blue-blue eyes. She's probably the envy of the neighbourhood. I hope you are all well. Love, Ruby and Norman.
P.S. I won't offer to meet you. I can only take Jacob in small doses. You know how I feel about his goings on.
"Why doesn't Aunty Ruby want to see Daddy?" Gabriel's eyes are as wide as one of Ouma's saucers.
Mommy pauses before she answers.
"Because she belongs to the South African Party, Jannie Smuts's Party, she is a Sap and Daddy is a NAT because he is a National Party supporter and if they meet they end up arguing about politics."
Aunty Ruby comes to visit at Ouma's house while Daddy is at work.
"Please don't let on to Jacob about Mossienes," Mommy says to Aunty Ruby.
"Ruby's directions are spot on," says Mommy without looking at Daddy as we walk from the station. "Look at our house!"
Desiree and Gabriel run to the gate and squabble over who gets to lift the latch. Mommy forgets to let go of my hand, so I can't budge. We are so lucky. Because the house stands all on its own, we have a wide, wild field to play on. The curved path snakes from the front gate to the red polished stoep. The grandest part of the house is the two tall pillars holding up the stoep roof.
"This stoep hasn't seen a sniff of polish for forever," says Mommy. "We'll have to buy some Sunbeam."
Daddy squints at the paper in his hand. "Says there are two bedrooms, a lounge, a kitchen, an afdak lean-to bathroom and a bucket lavatory."
I wonder which bedroom I'm going to sleep in.
"The only way to heat water is in a copper geyser."
"I know it isn't a palace, Jacob, but it'll have to do."
"Look at the beautiful cherry-guava tree," says Daddy. "The only other trees here are pines and Port Jackson ... But just you wait – I'm going to transform this garden. I'll plant agapanthus and plumbago bushes like the ones we had on the farm when I was a boy, and zinnias up the path and sunflowers and mealies in the backyard."
"Can we keep chickens?" asks Gabriel. "And pigeons?"
"Can we have a dog?" Desiree butts in.
"And what about a cat?" I squeeze in at last.
"This house is so small, we'll have to call it the Doll's House," Mommy laughs.
"Mavis, there're a lot of coloureds walking past. Mossienes is crawling with them!"
"Beggars can't be choosers, Jacob!"
I glance nervously at Gabriel and Desiree. I hope Mommy and Daddy are not going to fight. Daddy shrugs his shoulders. "At least there's a hokkie for me to keep my tools in. That's a bonus," he says, almost to himself.
Before we even see inside the house, we line up outside the lavatory to pee. Daddy comes out patting his fly buttons and looking cross.
"It stinks to high heaven in there. A whole household must've dropped their load and the kakabalie men haven't taken the bucket away."
Desiree skips down the path, climbs the steps and stands on the stoep. She sings 'Baa Baa Black Sheep' as though she's on a stage, then bows low and makes us laugh out loud.
Then, suddenly, from nowhere a strange hum interrupts our laughter. A man. He's making singing sounds. Near, but far.
"You better get used to that," snorts Daddy,
"What's it, Daddy? Why's he singing like that?"
Daddy points up the road, but I see nothing. "The Moslems. Part of their religion. You can set your watch by that sound, just like the noon-day gun. But I can do without it, thank you very much."
"Oh, come on, Jacob. They're calling the faithful to prayer. It's no different from the ringing of a church bell."
"Listen, you were probably born a stone's throw from a mosque. So maybe you don't mind the muezzin calling ... Me, if I had my way, I'd be miles away from them and their strange ways."CHAPTER 3
Daddy says our lives are going according to plan. With overtime pay, he has been able to put down a deposit on a navy-blue van.
"Soon we can enjoy life like the rest of the world and take drives to Brackenfell, or Stellenbosch, or Franschhoek, or anywhere we wish."
"And you can run to the bar whenever you want," mutters Mommy, but he ignores her.
"Just think, with a van I can start my own business. Mavis, you'd better find a job."
"Don't fret. I chatted to Mr Rosenberg this morning ... He'd be happy to take me on as his bookkeeper again."
"Thank heavens for that."
Daddy holds me in his arms over the closed half of the stable door into the back yard and pretends to throw me at the mountain. "I'm sending you back to where you belong. I caught you on the mountain and chopped your tail off. Here, feel your stygie where your tail used to be when you were a baboon."
I don't know if he is only playing the fool, so I get a funny feeling in my tummy. I want to laugh and cry all at the same time.
I meet a girl named Alice Haroldson. She often walks past, dragging her feet on the pavement outside our Doll's House. She tells me she was named after a princess. She wears goggles with glass as thick as milk-bottle bottoms. They make her pale blue eyes look twice their size, like the eyes of a googly doll. Alice says she's blind as a bat without them. There are twelve Haroldsons and they all look the same, with snow-white hair and invisible eyelashes. Daddy says they are descended from Norwegian fishermen and that's why there's not a dark one among them. He calls them the white rats, says all Mrs Haroldson is good for is making babies and going to the bioscope.
"She jaws a lot," says Mommy. "And I've never seen the children go to Sunday school."
"Bunch of bloody heathens."
"You've got room to talk. When last were you in a church?"
The Haroldsons' house is higgledy-piggledy and upside down. They sleep two to a bed in mismatched striped pyjamas, fighting over pillows. When Mrs Haroldson makes bread for her brood she turns the empty flour sacks into broeks. Wherever poor Alice goes, children chant, 'Alice, Alice, goes to town, with her flour-bag broekies upside down.' I teach Alice to shout back at them, 'Hou jou bek, stuk spanspek' and 'Screm, screm, blikkie jam,' the way the coloured children shout at me. Daddy says it means shut your mouth, you piece of melon, and scram, scram, tin of jam. Desiree and I have cream broeks with 'lastics in the legs and, as long as you don't run, you can carry an apple or a bun in them.
Our cousins all have wild curly hair. Daddy calls them the coir mattress explosions. The firstborn is Veronica and her younger sister is Susan. The middle one is Andrew and they all go to a posh school in Pinelands, where the children wear real blazers with shiny gold buttons and carry snow- white handkerchiefs. Uncle Norman is married to Aunty Ruby and he works for the traffic department at Gallows Hill in Green Point. He has a big handlebar moustache and kind blue eyes. He bakes cakes and cooks the Sunday roast, but he has never learned how to drive a motorcar. That's why they live right behind Crawford railway station. We think it's funny that he works for the traffic department and he can't even drive.
I am on my way with my cousin Andrew to the babbie shop one day when Andy Pandy tells me a rude joke. "There's a lady standing on Crawford station with her dog called Titswobble. The dog gets lost and she asks the man at the ticket counter: 'Have you seen my Titswobble?' He says: 'No, lady, but I'd like to!'" We laugh together until we are doubled over.
"Don't tell my mother!"
"Cross my heart."
Whenever he sees me he mouths "Titswobble" and we fall about laughing. It's our secret. I like Andy Pandy.
Veronica, his sister, is nothing like Andy Pandy. They live on the right side of the railway track and she speaks in a hoity-toity voice because she takes elocution lessons. There are no coloured children walking past their house shouting rude things and swearing. When she has a fight with Aunty Ruby, her mother, she calls her a beast and it causes such a to-do in their house. We don't understand why. In our house, Daddy strings lots of swear words together, especially on a Friday night when he smells like brandy. Mommy says Daddy's swear words are enough to make a sailor blush. Our Friday nights could make all the sailors in the world blush, including my Uncle Nicholas who is in the Royal Navy and is married to my Aunty Bubbles.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "All Things Bright and Broken"
Copyright © 2018 Carol Gibbs.
Excerpted by permission of Jacana Media (Pty) Ltd.
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