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Authors: Nadine Gordimer

My Son's Story

BOOK: My Son's Story
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For Reinhold
You had a Father, let your son say so.
 
WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE
Sonnet 13
How did I find out?
I was deceiving him.
November. I was on study leave—for two weeks before the exams pupils in the senior classes were allowed to stay home to prepare themselves. I would say I was going to work with a friend at a friend's house, and then I'd slip off to a cinema. Cinemas had been open to us only a year or so; it was a double freedom I took: to bunk study and to sit in the maroon nylon velvet seat of a cinema in a suburb where whites live. My father was not well off but my parents wanted my sister and me to have a youth less stunted by the limits of an empty pocket than they had had, and my pocket-money was more generous than their precarious position, at the time, warranted. So I was in the foyer waiting to get into a five o'clock performance at one of the cinemas in a new complex and my father and a woman came out of the earlier performance in another.
There was my father; the moment we saw one another it was I who had discovered him, not he me. We stood there while
other people crossed our line of vision. Then he came towards me with her in the dazed way people emerge from the dark of a cinema to daylight.
He said, You remember Hannah, don't you—
And she prompted with a twitching smile to draw my gaze from him—for I was concentrating on him the great rush of questions, answers, realizations, credulity and dismay which stiffened my cheeks and gave the sensation of cold water rising up my neck—she prompted, Hannah Plowman, of course we know each other.
I said, Hullo. He drew it from me; we were back again in our little house across the veld from Benoni and I was being urged to overcome the surly shyness of a six-year-old presented with an aunt or cousin. What are you going to see? he said. While he spoke to me he drew back as if I might smell her on him. I didn't know. They managed to smile, almost laugh, almost make the exchange commonplace. But it was so: the title of the film I had planned to see was already banished from my mind, as this meeting would have to be, ground away under my heel, buried along with it. The Bertolucci—an Italian film—it's very good, he said, delicately avoiding the implications of the natural prefix, ‘We thought …' She nodded enthusiastically. That's the one to see, Will, he was saying. And the voice was an echo from another life, where he was my father giving me his usual measured, modest advice. Then he signalled a go-along-and-enjoy-yourself gesture, she murmured politely, and they left me as measuredly as they had approached. I watched their backs so I would believe it really had happened; that woman with her bare pink bottle-calves and clumsy sandals below the cotton outfit composed of a confusion of styles from different peasant cultures, him in his one good jacket that I had taken to the dry-cleaner for him many times, holding the shape of his shoulders
folded back over my arm. Then I ran from the cinema foyer, my vision confined straight ahead like a blinkered horse so that I wouldn't see which way they were going, and I took a bus home, home, home where I shut myself up in my room, safe among familiar schoolbooks.
 
 
He was a schoolteacher in one of the towns that had grown up long ago along the reef of gold-bearing rock east of the city—Johannesburg. Where his great-grandfather or grandfather had come from nobody had recorded—the rough hands of those generations did not write letters or keep notes; brick-layers and carpenters, the only documentation of their lives was their work-papers and the various, much-folded slips entitling them to be employed in the town and to live in the area, outside the town, designated by the municipality for their kind. He thought his great-grandfather might have come from the diamond diggings in Kimberley; a photograph had survived while oral family history had gone to the grave. Among a work gang holding sieves of the kind used in panning for alluvial diamonds, there stood beside the white overseer a toothless grinning face with a family resemblance. No identification on the back of the photograph.
The schoolteacher's own father, acquiring one of the traditional trades of the maternal, Cape Town side of the family, had set up in a garage as an upholsterer. There was no car; his sonny-boy bounced instead on the exposed springs of chairs and sofas, and had lint in his curls. The boy was the first in the family to leave earth, cement, wood and kapok behind and take up the pen and book. He was the first to complete the full years of schooling. Sonny became a teacher. He was the pride of the old people and the generic diminutive by which they had celebrated him as
the
son, the first-born male, was to stay with
him in the changing identities a man passes through, for the rest of his life.
He taught in the same school, earning regular increments for service and improving his position by ability and gradual seniority during the years when he married his wife, Aila, and their two children, a girl followed by a boy, were born. The girl, like her father, having been fondly welcomed as
the
baby, kept the generic and continued to be called Baby, would never be known as anything else, through all the circumstances of her life. The boy was Will, diminutive of William. He was named for Shakespeare, whose works, in a cheap complete edition bound in fake leather, stood in the glass-fronted bookcase in the small sitting-room and were no mere ornamental pretensions to culture. Sonny read and reread them with devotion; although the gilt lettering had been eaten away by fishmoth, and the volume he wanted had to be selected blindly, his hand always went straight to it.
The pride the old people took in him was not just the snobbery of the poor and uneducated, that rejoices in claiming one who has moved up out of their class, and which, although their hubris hides this aspect from them, contains also, always, the inevitability of sorrow: his desertion. The pride came from an instinct, like the water-diviner's for the pull of his twig, for Sonny's distinction. And this in spite of the fact that he had turned out darker– rather than lighter-skinned than the rest of the family—something that, normally, might have down-graded him among them. Everything he was and did evidenced distinction. The definitive face that begins to emerge with adolescence was long, slender, and tenderly responsive beneath thick-browed, great black eyes ringed with dark skin as if in physical manifestation of deep thought. Even the hands that emerged from the pudgy paws of early childhood were at once
extraordinary, the fingers growing very long in proportion to the curve of the palm, nervous in their alert touch and deftness, yet bestowing calm when resting in handshake or as a caress. It was proper, it was his
right
in the fitness of all he did and attracted to him, that he should marry a girl who seemed to have been set apart, for him. Not that it was an arranged marriage in what had been the custom of her ancestors and still lingered among her family, although the religion that went with it had been neglected or abandoned by the younger generation. Aila was so quiet it was irritably felt by others that her beauty was undeserved. Wasted; boys, men did not know what to say to her that would draw a response. Her coiled river of shining black hair looked as if it would never flow down for one of them. It was not possible to have thoughts about what her small body was like under her clothes. Her lovely lips and teeth formed a smile that greeted a man exactly as it did an old woman or a child; she did not seem to understand what the approach of a man was telling her.
Sonny was the one who knew what it was she rejected in the only way possible for someone like her: by silence. She spoke, with Sonny; when he came to see her for the first time, having been introduced a few days before by one of her brothers (the correct way to approach a girl, in her kind of family), they seemed to take up a conversation that had already begun, with him, in her silence among others. They mistook her gentleness for disdain; perhaps he mistook it, too, in another way, taking the gentleness for what it appeared to be instead of the strength of will it softly gloved. No-one knows the reserves that remain even in the most profound understanding between a man and woman. Aila had not known how to flirt, had never given a moment's attention to the thought of any other man as the singular being, lifelong friend and lover, a ‘husband' meant for
her; if she gave Sonny everything else of herself, it would have been worth less if she had not kept to herself some fibre of personality as a separate identity. Perhaps without his knowing what the element was, it was that which added to their love for each other his particular, unspoken respect for her—a sacred quality outside the subjectivity of passion and affection.
There was passion and affection. They married after a formal engagement—he even bought her a ring with a chip of diamond—and were not lovers until they were husband and wife. They never used endearments in public or displayed the behaviour expected of people to prove they are in love with one another, but there was a real body under her clothes, a lovely body with all its features there for him: the dark nipples like grapes in his mouth, the smooth belly with its tiny well of navel, her entry satiny within as the material of the nightgown her mother had provided for her bridal ‘bottom drawer'. All their long dreamy talks about their lives before they knew each other, their life as they were going to make it together, ended with him almost stealthily moving into her, and the pleasure that came to them both always as if a surprise. They were greatly moved, each by the other. The emotion expressed itself in sensitivity, telepathy. They arrived, often without discussion, at the same decisions affecting their lives; and in discussion, in daily responses, a way they wanted to live timidly evolved between them. Domestically they adjusted to one another as cats curl up in accommodation before a fire.
They decided to have children, but not more than two. The fecklessly begotten families of the poor, from which they came, were not for them. Yet they did not plan to privilege these children beyond the decencies of opportunity and healthy, happy growth they believed were a child's right. One of the early sweet intimacies between them was that both had rejected any religious
beliefs, although to please the old people she occasionally followed public rituals. They found that for them both the meaning of life seemed to be contained, if mysteriously, in living useful lives. They knew what that was not: not living only for oneself, or one's children, or the clan of relatives. They were not sure what it was; not yet. Only that it had to do with responsibility to a community; and that could only mean the community to which they were confined, to which they belonged because the law told them so, in the first place, and that to which the attachments and dependencies of daily life and the shared concerns that came from living within it, made them belong, of themselves.
Sonny felt his way was obviously through a special responsibility to the children in the school: it opened out from conscientiousness in teaching his own classes to an accountability for the welfare of all the children at the school. He saw the need to bring together the school and the community in which it performed an isolated function—education as a luxury, a privilege apart from the survival preoccupations of the parents. He bought books that kept him from Shakespeare. He read them over and over in order to grasp and adapt the theory that recognized social education of the community, the parents and relatives and neighbours of the pupils, as part of a school's function. He started a parent-teacher association and an advisory service for parents, collected money for special equipment for handicapped children, took groups of senior boys and girls to do repairs in the yard rooms of pensioners. What else might he do? For the uplift of the community he enterprisingly approached the Rotary Club and Lions' Club in the white town with respectful requests that they might graciously send their doctors, lawyers, and members of amateur theatre and music groups to lecture or perform in the school hall.
It was not so easy to find a way for Aila. There she was, in the watchful quiet of her readiness. She, too, had matriculated, but she had married from the close female domain of her parents' home at eighteen, and never worked in the world. He did not want a bed-and-board wife and she wanted to become what he wanted, so she took a secretarial course and studied psychology by correspondence as preparation for a useful working life. His poor salary was reason enough for her to need to earn; but that was not their primary concern. While she was pregnant with their first child they spent the evenings over her material from the correspondence college, he helping her with her assignments. When Baby was born, the young mother would sit at her books between feeds and household tasks, and the young father would be on the other side of the table, correcting his pupils' papers. He read out howlers to her and they softly laughed together, parenthetic to their concentration; sometimes Baby interrupted them with colic cries, sometimes his long-fingered caress on his wife's neck, across the table, or the touch of her hand placed momentarily over his, led to love-making.
 
 
They bought their furniture on hire purchase. On Saturday mornings went by bus and later in the car they had saved for, to shop in town. Baby was dressed up in white frill-topped socks and Will had his safari suit with long pants, a miniature of his father's Saturday outfit. Sonny and Aila carried their week's supply of groceries in the plastic bags whose O.K. Bazaars logo identified families like them everywhere in the streets, wageearners who had to buy in the cheapest store, with the weekly indulgence of ice-cream cones or peanuts for the kids and the luxury of queueing up for weekend beers on the side of the liquor stores segregated from where white people were served.
Like some sudden growth pushing up after rain, these people appeared in the town on Saturdays, covering the streets with trailing children and window-gazing men and women studying the advertised down-payments on bedroom ‘schemes' and lounge 'suites' named to bring to cramped and crumbling hovels the dimensions of palaces, ‘Granada', ‘Versailles'. During the week the throng vanished, obediently banished back to the areas set aside for them outside the town. The workers were in the factories, the schoolteacher went to his designated school; men, women, children—everyone kept to the daily pathways worn within that circumscribed area. In the town, the lawyer and estate agents and municipal officials moved unjostled about streets expanded, spacious, swept of the detritus of Saturday's common usage. A white town.
BOOK: My Son's Story
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