Instead of an interview, I have decided to introduce my friend Philippa Rees through her work. Set in South Africa, ‘Looking for Lucas‘ is a fictionalised true story based on her experiences at University circa 1957. It was a finalist in the Rubery Short Story Award.
Philippa has interviewed me for her fascinating blog, Careless Talk– the blog of things related to her book, Involution-An Odyssey. Unusually enough, she was interested not in my writing, but in the life behind it. You can read that interview on Careless Talk.
Although she is remarkably humble and understated, her award-winning work is well-worth reading. Personally, I find it haunting, with an authenticity that can only come from personal experience. You can find much of it available for free on her website.
Looking for Lucas
The problem of Sou’Thefrica has always been black and white. I’m not talking about skin colour here. I’m talking about reputation. When it was governed by Whites it was labelled as black as sin; after Mandela, when the Blacks got to punch air it was pure as the driven… Nobody realises that it wasn’t ever all black and it sure as hell isn’t all white now.
I should know because I am a Black living in a White skin, an albino with a dusky complexion and krilletjie hair dusted with ash. So I fit nowhere which gives me a unique view on the matter. There was once hope, and in the darkening days hope was oil that lit fires, and kept laughter and penny-whistles alive. That was before I could write, or I couldn’t be telling you this.
Writing was the problem and I should have kept my ambitions under wraps, because ambition got me hooked. That day I swung out, that careless Sunday, Special Branch was there when I came through the gate. It wasn’t until I was walking in full light that I realized a car was cruising…by then it was too late.
‘Hey Kaapse, Kom hierdie. Waar gaan jy?’
No point running. The ‘Kaapse’ tells you why they noticed me. Wrong colour, wrong hair, wrong place. Not that I’m a Cape Coloured, but I was neither decently black, nor white enough for that sleeping white suburb. The driver was an ugly brute; the other a jackal grinning like he’d spotted the day’s sport.
‘Waar werk jy?’
‘Spitut out. Waar gaan jy?’
‘Mm…mm..mm…’ The driver raised his fist, but the other said ‘Hy’se stammerer. Hy kannie spraak’ and then he said ‘Can you write?’ and I stupidly nodded, so he gave me his note book and said ‘Okay, write the answers’
‘Where are you going?’ So I wrote ‘To see mother. Day off.’
‘Day off where?’ So I pointed down the road, and jabbed a left turn; lucky they didn’t make me go and show them. I haven’t got a mother.
‘So where do you sleep?’
‘Sss…sss…..Sophiatown’ I couldn’t write Sophiatown.
‘Where’s your pass?’ I patted my shirt to show I did not have a pass. The big nearly got out but the other one asked ‘How old are you?’ So I wrote a ‘14’ like I was really seven. That time they let me go. If I was fourteen I did not need a pass. They drove off, slowly. I was really eighteen but small and stick thin.
In fact the writing was why I was coming out of that gate. I was there for lessons. If you can’t speak then writing is another country. The people who lived there let me sleep in the back room and just being around them taught me other things, like chess and food I never knew existed, olives and those salty fish in a tin, anchovies. They were supposed to be a luxury, but salt you can get anytime.
I’ll tell you about that odd collection because they were like a tuning fork before any music. They showed what life might have been under improvisation; not black, not white, maybe not even special. Just everybody different. Max was just back from USA, an architect. With shaven black hair, his face carved in soap, straight nose, short lip, eyes like raisins, always moving; restless as a constipated cat. Something about him made me suppose he was clever, and boy, he certainly agreed with that. Minette, the only girl in the house, used to tease him by beating him at chess. Another thing, he always wore white socks; I’d never seen American socks before.
Minette didn’t always sleep there because she was a student and not supposed to ‘fraternise’ with the lecturers. I never said. They were all from the University. She was nearer my age, maybe nineteen; best of all she liked to kwela on the grass after supper. Somebody once said ‘Honey. What’s in your blood? You dance like you got six toes!’ She laughed, and took my hand to dance again. But I was shy, so she dropped it. Her boyfriend Petrus taught Psychology and I couldn’t take to him. I don’t know why. I remember how he sat, one foot on top of the other, in case it got an idea to walk.
The one who had taken me there and who taught me was Oscar. Now Oscar was the really clever one, with a nose like a bird’s beak, whip thin and fast as a lizard. I had noticed him walking with Lucas down Market Street, the two of them talking in Zulu, and laughing; man I mean really laughing. In those days you never saw a black and a white sharing a joke till laughing smacked a leg. Lucas was as black as a hole in the sky, and he and Oscar were real friends. They opened new doors for each another. Oscar would take Lucas into white clubs and parties dressed as a waiter, or standing in the theatre lobby as his chauffeur in uniform and cap. Lucas had to put on fancy dress:When Lucas did the inviting Oscar had to take off his trendy clothes.
In return for servanting Lucas took Oscar to Alexandra Township or ‘Back of the Moon’ the shebeen where Masakela played trumpet. Lucas was doring sharp; he worked as a reporter on Drum Magazine, his ears sharper than a nagapie. Overhearing conversations gave him his leads on what Chinaman shipped money, where the latest safe-houses were, and who was going to be next. Drum was everyman’s latrine bible, always raided, always moving on, bio-degradable in every lean-to out-house.
I never knew what Oscar was after. He fooled around, making things. His Zulu was home-farm Zulu, not learnt out of books. Put him behind a wall and you couldn’t tell he was white. Often he pretended not to understand so as to catch black insults and black jokes like spiny cat-fish behind reeds. Oscar and Lucas were one handy duo in those times, when whites and blacks were camped on opposite koppies waiting for a signal to start Blood River again. Chances to meet were street chances. That’s when I made my best move, and stopped those friends and asked if they could teach me to write.
‘Better come with us now’ they said. So I did. Me in the back, they drove to this house in Parktown, about as swank an area as Jo’burg sported. Only their house was an old tin-roofed box behind a high hedge. Probably built by a mining speculator who kept his half-cast kids out of sight; but now squashed between mansions with lawn sprinklers. It was my first home; maybe why those days still seem mostly sunshine. There were other reasons for sunshine, though.
Until I was forced to spoil it.
We knew the house was bugged, because Max had just returned from MIT which made him a suspect. It wasn’t because of Lucas. Nobody knew about him. Lucas crawled through the hedge over the neighbour’s compost-heap, like a deaf-mute in the house, he spoke only in the garden. I ran errands, even going to the swank Zoo Restaurant for wine when they ran out. They gave me money; the cook there pocketed it, and the wine was dumped in paper bags behind the rubbish bins. I can remember the cries of the monkeys and the hyenas trotting behind the wire while I waited for the lights to go out, so I could make it through the trees back onto the road. In its way that laughing house was an oasis in the desert of waiting. For what?
Oscar gave me lessons, and Lucas made me copy his reports, in case he was nabbed. Speed writing helped. After he reached the Editor’s office he would pay-phone three rings and then hang up. If he didn’t ring I was to take the copy myself. I only had to do it once, when he was held in Marshall Street for three days. Then he published photographs of his bunged up eyes which just made Special Branch more determined to put him away. A pass infringement wasn’t enough. So they gave him enough rope and waited. For that reason Lucas never stayed over-night, just came for a bath, friendship and food.
Then I was caught again by the same two heavies.
‘Ok Kleurling. Game’s up. You still writing?’ They had me forced against the car, one with his knee in my balls. ‘Here’s the deal. If we let you stay, you write the names of everybody you see coming and going; times, dates…you put it everyday, in plastic, under this stone. You leave any name off, and yours is the first for a big-time charge. No trial, no Judge, yus forever in Chook, You understand? Okay?’. He pushed a notebook down my shirt front.
‘No excuses now. Who’s in the servant’s rooms?
‘Yus, these whites do their own cleaning? In Parktown?’ I nodded.
As I left one kicked the back of my knee. ‘Jus our signature’ he said.
So I looked on their books for new names. Mr Corbusier, Mr.S. Freud, Frank Lloyd Wright, even Charles Darwin honoured us with visits and disappeared back into a library where they’d never be found. Instead they were now transferred to a priority list in Special Branch waiting to charge them. I knew it couldn’t last.
In the end the rope that nearly hanged Lucas was a US Scholarship, and some boaster published the news. Then he was really on the run. Special Branch raided Drum, and every reporter on it. Lucas tried to get to Durban to jump ship but every road was ringed, so he came back. We had to hide him until friends in Botswana could figure a way out. On the telephone Oscar spoke only in Zulu and trusted any interpreter to scramble the message. Zulu was a forked tongue, the snake behind it would soon bite.
They came during supper. We saw the torches coming through the gate. Oscar grabbed my hand and dragged me out the back, after saying to Minette ‘Delay as long as possible’ We ran across the dark yard to the servant rooms where Lucas was asleep. Oscar slapped him awake. ‘Get up, put on this apron’ He had unhooked a white apron from the kitchen door. ‘Get under that blanket and be unconscious’ he said to me, ‘lock behind us.’
So I wasn’t there to see the finale. I was under a sweaty blanket, shivering, until Special Branch splintered the door, and dragged me out.
‘Fock you Kleurling. You supposed to be on duty.’
They slammed me back against the wall and left swearing.
When I returned to the kitchen Lucas was quietly washing up, in the apron that covered his wide-boy cleverness and floured him to stupid servant. They never even noticed him. That night the summons from Botswana came.
Before going, Lucas woke Minette before the sun was shining.
‘Come for a walk’ he said. ‘Let’s celebrate.’
They were crawling through the hedge when he saw me watching.
‘You’d better come too, you neither fish nor fowl…’
So the three of us walked through the sleeping streets; even dogs stayed quiet. We walked round Zoo Lake and sat on the ‘Whites Only’ bench. I remember Lucas writing with a stick in the water, a farewell to the fish. Just before we returned to the house he says to Minette
‘Do me a favour? Just sit with me on the pavement awhile…’
It seemed mad; a white girl with that very black man in full view; and me, a useless lookout.
‘What for?’ asks Minette.
‘Because if I ever come back I won’t be able to do this. Never. When you are living under sacking in Sophiatown you’ll do this everyday. If I return I will have to have pressed trousers, a clean hankerchief, and be a prisoner of a grand house…So, Madame, I grant you the freedom of the gutter, share with me my last chance to enjoy it.’
He’s not returned yet, even though he could now. Somehow I can’t see it. The country of compromise is now like every other, only shades of grey.
Who is Philippa Rees?
Philippa, now 74, was born in South Africa. Fatherless by two, life was always one of extreme contrasts: Sometimes on safari with her grandfather, shooting for the pot, while inspecting remote schools in Botswana, or imprisoned in boarding school, for a ‘British’ education.
She has lived on deserted islands in the Indian Ocean; at the Max Planck Institute in Bavaria with both the liberal Konrad Lorenz and an unrepentant Nazi landlady in an ancient water-mill; raised four daughters; and lectured to Bristol University students while designing and building a home and arts centre from what mostly came in skips.
Her two (self published) works are ‘Involution-An Odyssey Reconciling Science to God, a poetic history of Western Science (to uncover a new evolutionary hypothesis) which was awarded ‘runner-up Book of the Year (2013) by the Scientific and Medical Network and ‘A Shadow in Yucatan’ (a story portrait of the sixties).
Released from the yoke of Involution, she is now concentrating on publishing short stories. She was a finalist in Narrative competitions three times in 2014. Blerrie Fockin Beautiful was selected as one of Narrative’s five top stories of the year and her recording is available on Narrative’s ‘Backstage’.
She lives in Somerset in her converted barns with a long-suffering husband.
Her website/blog offers readings and reviews.
Her Amazon Author Page has links to her books, both available in all formats.
You can also contact Philippa by email.