Joan de Groot
That Spring Mrs. Stack invited me and my mother to a pre-school concert. I can’t imagine why. We were a ‘dysfunctional’ family. In those days there wasn’t a name for it so I could never quite work out why we weren’t like other families. For one thing, except for my grandmother, no one ever visited us; no one had ever invited us out. My mother sometimes spoke to people she met in the shops. One day she met Mrs. Stack who had rushed in with her list of groceries.
“Bring Daisy,” she called out. “She can stand up with the others when they sing ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’. You’d like that wouldn’t you, dear? It’ll give you a taste of what school is all about!”
“All things bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small ……..!” This was the first song I ever learnt. I sang it before an audience for the first time that morning in Spring at Mrs. Stack’s school.
There were all these images of animals and mountains, rivers and oceans, everything in its place and my mother sitting in the front row in Mrs. Stack’s livingroom ‘…and the Lord God made them all ….’ I stood there among all the other children in my very best dress, my heart full.
Before the song ended, my mother leant forward and quickly pulled me towards her. She adjusted my knickers, wiped my nose and smoothed down my hair as though she were dusting off an ornament or something. She then put me back in place ….’the Lord God made them all …….!’
What had I done? I closed my eyes hoping that none of the others had seen this thing that I didn’t know I had done. My stomach churned. There were suppressed giggles. It was then I knew I was not like the others. I was different.
Overcome with shame I stamped my feet. I yelled out: “I wanna go home!”
As it happened, I didn’t go to Mrs. Stacks school. We rented rooms in an old apartment block on the Durban North Beach not far from the docks. My mother said we had come down in the world.
The building was semi-circular and faced on to a kind of court with palms and tubs of exotic plants. Paint peeled off the walls. It had bay windows with pillars and each apartment had a small protruding balcony with a portico where residents sat and stared out at the sea.
My mother told me I would have to go to Addington Primary just opposite where many of the kids went to school without shoes. Some of them had ringworm and lice in their hair and there were others who were too old to be at school. We had to be careful, my mother said.
It was then that I started to dream about islands, all day long and sometimes at night too. I knew there was an island somewhere far out to sea. I looked across the stretch of water and there, on the horizon, I saw this piece of land sticking out above the surface of the sea. The thing about islands is that they are often deserted and, like Robinson Crusoe, one can sometimes own an island.
I drew pictures of my island and the house where I lived. I drew a garden with a vegetable patch and an orchard of fruit trees. There were birds and flowers and a river with flying fish. I drew animals and mountains with winding pathways leading to cliffs and caves and other strange places. My Island was taking shape. I had it all planned.
“Don’t be silly, Daisy,” my mother said as she stirred the pudding and checked the casserole in the oven. “Why on earth would you want to live on an island? Islands are full of wild beasts and nasty insects – why don’t you run out and play like other children. For heavens sake, darling!”
One day we noticed we had a new neighbour. “She looks foreign ,” my mother said. In those days anyone who looked ‘different’ was sure to be foreign and regarded with some degree of suspicion.
“She does look elegant though, doesn’t she?” observed my grandmother who had dropped in on her way to the shops . After all she had spent five years in London during the First World War and knew about these things.
From then onwards our neighbour was considered to be ‘fascinating’ and speculation on her frequent comings and goings became an obsession. The fact she appeared always to be alone added to the mystery.
I suppose I was the first person in our building she befriended. I was playing hopscotch in the foyer when she entered the building. She was about to mount the stairs to her apartment when she turned and smiled at me. Her hair was a shiny black taken back in a large, loose bun. I noticed her eyes looked green rather like my grandmother’s tabby. We spoke for a moment and then she said: ‘Would you like to come in and see my books?’
We had very few books in our home. All we had really was a rack of old magazines. But we did have a radio. My mother was always busy in the kitchen and thought books a waste of time.
“In my young days,’ she said, “we were always busy doing things, playing tennis or out with our friends,” – all of which made me feel as if there was something not quite right about me because I didn’t have any friends and I loved books.
The lady’s lounge smelled of cloves and cinnamon and there were row upon row of beautifully bound books behind leaded glass cabinets.
“You may like this,” she said handing me a book with the title ‘Arabian Nights and other Stories’ embossed in gold on deep red leather. “Come whenever you like and choose a book,” she said and offered me a dish of syrupy biscuits, a kind I had never tasted before.
I got home late. “Where on earth have you been? My mother said, clattering plates in the kitchen. “Dinner’s spoilt!” She sounded tearful.
Surprisingly, at that moment, I didn’t feel at all bad. I didn’t care if my dinner was spoilt or where my next meal came from. All I could think of was my leather-bound book. I lay on the carpet in the living room and turned the pages. They were thin and gilt-edged like the wings of butterflies. I began to read. I turned the pages, sometimes leaving out large chunks where the paragraphs looked too long, but I kept on reading.
My new friend made me feel as though I was part of a very special world. I don’t ever remember having a conversation with her except to call and fetch another book. I suppose I was too shy but I always felt she accepted me. My mother was amused and decided she was just another of those lonely creatures who sometimes frequent beach-front hotels.
I remember the smell and feel of those books. One day I told myself I would become a famous author or an artist and live on my island and write and paint.
“Do something useful,” my mother said, “or go out and play, for heaven’s sake! In my young days we were always out and about.”
One evening, much to the consternation of my mother and grandmother as it turned out, our elegant neighbour appeared in her bay window. Her curtains were drawn way back. To me it was a moment of enchantment. I stared at my friend. Her hair was loose and tumbled across her shoulders. She danced starkers, in full view of her audience. She accompanied her sinuous movements with a strange song like some lovely nightingale I had heard of singing long ago in far off places.
At that moment my mother and grandmother appeared. They pulled me back from the window, switched off the lights and peered through the drapes.
“Common slut!,” my mother exclaimed. “The less we have to do with her, the better!” It was the first time I had heard my mother swear.
“Its just like the theatre,” my grandmother chuckled, “we all know what she’s up to!”
I wasn’t sure what it all meant but it filled me with horror. In a flash, the wonder and delight had gone, to be replaced by a creeping sense of shame.
Early next morning, before the others were up, I called our dog Rip for a run on the beach. Rip was a scruffy wire-haired terrier with a brown patch over one eye. He fought off every dog in sight. He loved being with me and barked and jumped for joy when I threw sticks into the sea. The wind blew and the foam from the waves flew up into the sky. As we danced along the sand, we saw the Indian fishermen beach their boats. Their nets were full. A young fisherman ran up and presented me with a fish to take home to my mother, for breakfast he said with a smile.
“Other children don’t do things like that,” my mother said, “nice children don’t go to the beach on their own Daisy.” Those were the days before I became conscious of ‘us’ and ‘them’ – before I knew about the ‘others’.
There was never enough money in the home and my mother was always anxious. “I never know where the next penny is coming from,” she said.
I suppose I had loving parents but they were not happy people. They worried when I went to the beach or played hopscotch or cops and robbers out on the pavement or among the derelict building sites with the other kids on the block. My mother said the area we lived in near Durban docks was not the right place to bring up children.
A time came when my grandmother offered to send me to boarding school in Pietermaritzburg. Epworth was selected.
“Its for your own good,” my mother said. “That’s where you’ll meet decent people.” She had come down in the world and that’s not what she wanted for her child. After all, she had been sent away to boarding school in Grahamstown and only came home once a year on a train.
“I couldn’t be bothered with books,” she said, “but we had a wonderful time playing tennis and hockey and giggling over the boys in church on Sundays.” Her eyes filled with tears. “Those were the best days of my life!”
And so off to boarding school I went – to yet another world. It wasn’t quite the idyllic island I had dreamt about. It was another world, terrifying and full of challenges.
The Head Teacher who interviewed me and my mother said I was an interesting child with lovely, dreamy eyes. I liked that and wondered for a moment whether she might not be a kindred spirit? What she couldn’t have known was my heavy eyes were symtomatic of insomnia brought on by years of illicit reading at night by the light of a torch. This was a condition I had diagnosed myself and didn’t think there was the possibility of a cure. I said nothing.
It didn’t help having a name like ‘Daisy’. The others laughed and called me ‘Lazy Daisy’ as I skirted around the perimeter of groups unable to make an entry. How could I explain that I was not a ‘socialised’ child. I had never mixed much with other children. I spent my time reading Dickens and drawing and running along the beach with my dog Rip. I didn’t know how to join a group.
‘And what does your father do?’ That was a question I most dreaded when I arrived at boarding school. I didn’t know what my father did. My mother said he was an Inventor. No one I had heard of had a father who was an Inventor. I had never thought it really mattered what my father did so long as my mother stopped worrying and I could run on the beach with Rip. But what your father did, at Epworth, really did matter.
I knew I was not like those others who had lice in their hair, sores on their knees and played on the streets.. At boarding school I discovered there were yet other ‘others’. These ‘others’ were the daughters of wealthy farming families from the midlands and the ‘sugar barons’ daughters from the Natal Sugar Estates on the Zululand coast. After the school ‘hols’ they came back with stories of beach parties and barracuda braais on the beach. There was music and boys and dancing. They got into huddles and exchanged gossip: ‘You won’t believe what he said …. what he did! …. all accompanied by squeals of laughter.
There was also a smaller group of missionaries’ daughters. Although they came on bursaries, they had status. There was something romantic about being a missionary’s child. We heard tales of the Congo, tribal drums, crocodile infested rivers, wild animals and the saving of savage souls. It didn’t matter if one wasn’t rich. One had status. No one listened to my stories of cops and robbers and being dumped and dragged out to sea by the huge waves on Addington beach. No one listened.
During the ‘hols’ the ‘others’ were invited to each other’s homes. They wore fashionable holiday clothes. They wore beach clothes, party clothes, casual clothes. They wore open sandals with heels and painted toe-nails. When we went anywhere special, like a trip to town on the tram, my mother insisted I wear my panama and school blazer. She said I had to look smart when we went out to the movies. I dreaded meeting up with my care-free class mates in their funky holiday garb.
I told the others that my father was an Inventor. “Oh yes? But what does he do? Tell us,” they teased glancing at each other.
How could I tell them that my father had invented a pomade to make black peoples’ frizzy hair straight; that I helped him stir the stuff on our kitchen stove and how we filled rows of little tins on our dining room table. How could I tell them that my father intended making a fortune out of all the black people who, unlike today, were ashamed of their frizzy hair. (Afro-hairstyles were something for the future.) How could I tell them about the black business man who came to our flat to place orders; how he complained that some of his customers’ hair turned red. “Oh, dear,” my father said, “that’s because of the caustic soda – they keep it on far too long”; how the black gentleman never came back and how we never became rich.
Upon receiving a report that my reading ranged from Sigmund Freud to ‘What Went on Behind the Mulberry Bush,” the Head Teacher called me in and said: “I see you have catholic tastes, Daisy. Would you, perhaps, like to prepare for Confirmation? Classes commence next week.” I wasn’t sure what she meant but I said ‘yes’.
And so began the long process of ‘fitting in’. Boarding school, I came to realise, with its intrigues and politicing, was a microcosm of the wider world. If I could succeed in this small island of a world, there was no saying what I could do in a much larger context. The truth was – I had become tired of being a social outcast. I began to collect certificates. My Confirmation Certificate was a good beginning. Being promoted centre-half to the first hockey team was even more prestigious. One year I won prizes for Art and English Lit. I was elected a Prefect. As a Prefect, I was able to exercise considerable power over the others, especially the newcomers.
“And what do you think you are doing wandering around the corridors at night when you should be in bed asleep, eh?” I became quite good at it.
Even though I had seemingly ‘arrived’ I knew I hadn’t really changed. I still dreamt of my island. There was only one difference, my island was no longer ‘out there.’ I found it had become lodged here, somewhere between my ribs. It was warm and it glowed and it told me it was OK to be different; that all creatures great and small are different one from the other. They all, somehow, managed to get along in the Ark. Noah didn’t seem to have any qualms. Neither did God, for that matter.
9 February 2011.