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Authors: Anne Landsman

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BOOK: The Rowing Lesson
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Your father says something about going back to the shop to lock up and your mother glares at him. Eat! You sit down and Bertie walks in, in his pajamas rubbing his eyes, and up he goes onto your mother’s lap. The food is cold. Your mother was right about that. Flat meat, and boiled cabbage and boiled potatoes. I’m surprised she didn’t boil the table and the chairs and the flypaper hanging from the ceiling, you’re thinking, as you pick up your knife and put it down again. I’m not hungry, you tell the beige shoes and they’re so angry you can almost see steam coming through the holes. Your plate lands on your lap, and then the bowl with the cabbage and there’s a tinkling and breaking and clattering as everything lands on the floor. Yes, she does have the tablecloth, but it’s still half on the table, one corner in her hand, and there are no baskets on this one. No sirree! Yetta! your father shouts, as if the Ice Age just ended and he stepped into the world. Maisie has one hand to her face, and there’s meat on her shoulder, a nice long piece, and suddenly you start to laugh. Your mother pulls the last piece of the tablecloth off the table. You can hear tinkling, the last plate breaking and an apple, a lonely apple, rolls across the floor.

Look at you. You won’t eat. Your legs are like matchsticks and now this. Supper’s on the floor. We might as well decorate the lampshades with cabbage, have a potato fight, toss the meat up into the air and catch it on our heads. You’ve never ever wanted to eat in this house, with its brown walls and brown food and brown couch, browning like the onions always browning, browning on the stove. You like salty fish and fresh fruit and the delicacies that aren’t in the cupboard. They don’t go on the table when all your father’s trying to do is make sure you aren’t the boy in the class with bare feet and ringworm and every other kind of worm that eats into the heart of poor people.

He’s a
guter
, a good man, your father is. Joseph Klein, the House for Value and Quality. General Merchant, Direct Importer and Showroom Specialists. Dealer in groceries, crockery, millinery, dress goods, boots, shoes, socks, stockings, headache powders. Everyone buys everything in his shop. Everyone loves Joe Klein. Nettie, who has worked in your house since the day you were born, always tells you how she and her husband, Isaac, sleep in the bed your father gave them when they got married. He gives extras, an extra bag of flour, two more eggs, a chocolate for the baby, smelling salts for ouma, to the customers who come into his shop sometimes to buy and sometimes just to stand and talk. A man is buying nails and he tells your father about his blind son and your father gives him a hammer too. Your father comes home and he’s tired and he sits low in his chair and you know what everyone says about him and you try to say something to him but he’s too, too tired. Your ma is never tired and she’s smacking things on the table and the clock is ticking and there’s something giddy and wrong in the house. When there’s a commercial traveller sleeping on the couch in the lounge, or your dad’s sister, Rose, sleeping over or your mother’s, Molly, then the house is a different place and there’s singing and laughing and you can eat what’s put in front of you without gagging.

Tonight is not one of those nights. It’s just the five of you, Ma, Pa, Maisie, you and the bloody baby and now this. Food everywhere. Maisie is bending down and picking up potatoes and now it’s her bum that’s showing and of course you’re not going to miss looking at that. Joseph! Your ma is screaming again. Teach your son to be a gentleman! Your pa tries to give you a look but he’s also noticing Maisie and her wet dress and even Bertie walks over to her and looks up her skirt. Oh God. Your mother just stepped on something soft, some cabbage, and she slid right onto the floor. Your father says something no one can understand and it sounds like Rumpelstiltskin or Gorilla. Maisie giggles her engine giggle and winds up little Bertie and then it’s your dad’s turn and he’s laughing so much the tears are plonking onto his shoes and you see this and you think it’s the funniest thing you’ve ever seen. No one wants to look at your ma but you know what? She’s laughing harder than anybody else. She’s so full of laughs and smiles that you half-expect the ceiling to fly open and confetti to come floating down on all of you, tiny bits of white and pink that cling to your hair and decorate the lampshades and the armchairs.

There are good times and bad on Meade and Hibernia. Good moves into bad like fizzy drink up your nose. Smack, cough, choke. Bad slips into good like a monkey’s wedding when it’s raining and the sun comes out and the rain and the sunshine are caught together in surprise. Nettie is pulling open the curtains and it’s the morning of the next day. There is a long line of sun coming in through the window, a spear that pierces the heart of the brown house and it’s gold suddenly and you’ve floated into the life you’re going to live next year. Harry, she says, Mister Harry, holding up a ribbon of cabbage,
Wat het gebuur
? What happened? Nettie, Nettie, you say, and you want to sweep this fat, ebony-skinned woman with hair that’s almost white into your arms. You want to show her the latest dance moves, you want to dance with her to the moon and back. But you don’t. You do a little tap-tap and a shuffle and she claps for you. My God, Mister Harry, that’s fancy. Save it for
Tweede Nuwejaar
. You take the cabbage from Nettie, and twirl it around your finger. Just how sour is this kraut? You ask her and you’re Harold Lloyd, not Harold Klein and what was the point of becoming a doctor anyway?

The radio is on and there’s cheering from jolly old England. It’s the Cup Final and Thomas Woodroffe, the commentator is saying, in his frosty voice, “If there’s a goal scored now, I’ll eat my hat!” Ssssh, you whisper to Nettie, the way you shushed the girls on the boat at Ebb ’n Flow so you could hear the monkeys. Sssh! It’s the closing minutes and Preston scores and yes, he’s going to eat his hat! The crowd is roaring and Woodroffe is chewing away! Maisie, you shout and she runs into the room. Woodroffe is eating his hat! Whoa! You spin her like a top and lift her and my god, those skinny arms are strong! MAISIE! She falls and you fall. You all fall down.

Chapter 2

WHAT ABOUT DIALYSIS? I ask the tall doctor with his white clogs and his silvering hair. Dr. Daniels looks straight through me and beyond, his eyes on the window behind me, framing Table Mountain, the Southeaster laying the tablecloth, a long expanse of cloud spreading and dissolving over the top of the mountain. The same wind has been blowing all night and it’s still blowing at seven o’clock this morning.

Your mother says no, that’s not what he would have wanted. And she’s probably right. All his organs have packed up, everything’s tired, worn out.

Just last week Dr. Daniels told me you were a bit cuckoo. I was on the phone with him in New York City, and his gruffness took me by surprise. Your father’s a hard arse, he went on. He’s not OK in the top storey. If we bring the urea level to below forty, we won’t have the confusion, just the hard arse. Hey, if I put that amount of urea in your blood, you’d also go cuckoo.

By the time I got here, you had stopped struggling. I miss the flailing you, grotesque as it was. At least you were alive then and not laid out flat in death’s waiting room, in an end-stage coma. His GFR should be 120 but it’s less than 12, Dr. Daniels tells me, his gaze flicking from the tablecloth to my swollen breasts, and then lower to my abdomen. I cross my arms.

If we could only get it up to thirty or forty . . . he’s almost hopeful, as if the old
chorrie
has a chance of springing back to life again. I’m the one escaping now, staring out of the hospital window, at the curve of De Waal Drive below, wide canopied trees mantling the lower slopes of the mountain, an aching blue sky above. Yesterday I was in the air flying over Africa and now I’m here, in Groote Schuur’s intensive care unit, the same hospital where you learned how to become a doctor, where, in 1967 Chris Barnard performed the world’s first heart transplant.

Aloud I ask the doctor, Can he hear? We turn towards you, shrouded under white sheets, the automatic sphygmomanometer, the ECG machine, the intravenous drip and the catheter recording and monitoring your blood pressure, the rhythms of your heart, your fluids, both incoming and outgoing. I can’t look properly at your face yet so I look at your left arm lying outside the sheet. A small monkey’s hand, laced with dark hairs, scrubbed clean as always, the line for the IV taped to your wrist and forearm. I carefully look over the white hump of your body at your right hand, fingers and thumb peeking out from a cast. All I want to see you do, just one more time, is sit up and wash your hands, one palm slipping over the other, raising a froth of foam, hot water pouring down on them from the tap, washing all the germs away. But the hands don’t move.

I don’t think so, Dr. Daniels shakes his head. If we did an EEG on him right now, the waves would be flat. No wind.

He could be asleep, I say. (I drew you once, when you looked like this, face hewn from rock, beak of a nose jutting out then down, eyebrows magisterial, thick shock of silver-black hair, fast asleep in an orange-flowered armchair.)

Last week he gave us a helluva time, Dr. Daniels says. He kept pulling out his tubes with his good hand and we had to tie him down. He was pointing at all these machines saying, This is a garage. I’m not a car. Take me to the hospital!

He clears his throat. It’s better this way. He’s not fighting us anymore.

Hot tears scald my eyelids. I blink, swallowing hard. He was a bloody good doctor, Dr. Daniels murmurs, his white clogs squeaking apologetically on the tiled floor. I turn to the wall, watching the ECG machine line-draw your heartbeat. Call me if you have any questions, he says. And then he’s gone, white coat flapping soundlessly down the corridor.

I’m pregnant, I tell the bag of fluid hooked onto the IV stand, making sure I’m at least three feet away from you, keeping a wide berth now that we’re alone together. Sixteen weeks the obstetrician says. I almost didn’t come, you know. William didn’t want me to fly. I look at you out of the corner of my eye and I imagine I see your foot twitch, that there’s a light burning inside your head somewhere, changing the grey of your face to a soft pink.

Remember what you said when you came to visit us the last time? When I took you up onto the roof of our loft?

YOU CHAPS ARE in the crow’s nest!

You weren’t listening to William telling you how he’d bought the loft for a song twenty years ago or when he told you that the street below was called Bond Street because of the bond traders and merchants who lived here before the factories came. You were staring at the lumps in the tar paper covering the roof, at the wooden water tower, and then finally you gazed out at the skyline. I’m in Manhattan, for Chrissake! Hell’s bells, man. That’s where the Jews used to live, and that’s the Bowery, and there’s Wall Street, for crying out loud.

When William went downstairs, I pulled open the swollen door of my studio and took you inside. You barely noticed what I’d pinned up on the walls to show you, the very beginning of my series of extinct animals. You glanced quickly at the quagga, the bandicoot, the potoroo, the Great Auk, the rat kangaroo, the gelinote and the kaka. You didn’t even comment on the mess, dabs of paint everywhere—on the walls, tables, as well as my palette—postcards tacked everywhere, shelves piled high with shells, tiny animal skeletons, rusted old toys, my drawings stacked on the floor, canvases leaning against the walls. Where are the naked women? you asked me. Dad! I could hear the plaintive mix of shame and fury in my voice. Come on Betsy, you said. You’ve got to have the big match temperament! Trying to recover, I pointed to my favorite, the quagga, extinct cousin of the zebra with its striped head and neck, the rest of its body plain brown, a creature that lived right where you were born. You looked at it as if you were looking at a rival. But I thought you painted nudes, you repeated. As we left, the Great Auk looked at me with a beady eye and I wondered why I bothered with him, big lug of a bird lost more than a hundred years ago.

Back on the roof, we were swept up into the buzzing, grunting, honking sounds from the streets below. I sat down on an upturned flowerpot, a relic of one of my failed experiments at roof gardening.

You pulled up a broken beach chair and sat down right next to me, talking the hind-leg off a donkey about Freemasonry, and your lodge brothers, ma’s repugnance at the lodge dinners, the Royal Arch, and the Third Degree. Of course I’m not supposed to tell you, you said. It’s a secret. Those chaps take it too seriously, man. They don’t have a sense of humour. Your mother hates the whole thing. But she and the other girls cook for us, and they do a damn good job. When I became Master of the Lodge, we had a big dinner. All the chaps and their wives came. I made a toast. It was quite something, even though I say so myself. I brought the house down. I should have been an actor.

You got up to look over the edge of the low parapet wall. Somebody’s going to have a terrible accident, you said, backing away. You know ever since my fall, my shoulder’s never been the same.
Wragtig
, that was something. I was at Tjoekie van der Merwe’s house, examining one of the kids who had chickenpox and I was just on my way out of the door. One minute I’m standing and the next minute I’m on my arse, twisted sideways, in their bloody conversation pit. I knew I’d fractured something. It hurt like hell. Your face was riven with melancholy, the hardest of memories. It’s hard when an old person falls, you sighed. Old bones take a long time to heal and they’re never the same again. Did you know I have Paget’s disease?

What’s that? I said airily, staring at up at the empty sky.

My spine is turning into bamboo, for Chrissake!

Wait, you said, let me take a picture of you up here. You took your camera out of the old leather camera case around your neck. Stand over there, you told me. Not near the edge, for God’s sake! Your mother wants lots and lots of pictures. Damn it. There’s something wrong with the mechanism.

Dad! I said, waving my hand in front of my face. You’re just like your mother. Impatient as hell. This camera is not as good as my old one. Hang on, chaps. Let’s get those towers in the background. They look like giant tuning forks!

You caught me squinting, the sun in my eyes.

Carefully you put the camera back into its case. I was so small they thought I’d never grow up, you went on, My legs were like matchsticks. I’ve survived a lot of those buggers. Half of them dropped dead on the golf course.

The river was bad this year. I only went to Ebb ’n Flow once. It was too low to get very far. Hard to believe that we used to dive off the bridge at the mouth of the lagoon. Now you’d break your bloody neck on all that sand. Remember that time you curled up in the front of the boat? That was one helluva storm. Your mother doesn’t go in the boat anymore. She never liked the water, not the way you did, or Simon. The last time he came from America, I took his girls up the river. They wore those headphones the whole time. What do you call them again?

Walkmen.

Betsy, don’t forget to remind me about the penicillin. Later that night, you remembered anyway, parting the giant curtain that separated our sleeping area from the rest of the loft, a big ziplock bag full of bottles and bottles of different antibiotics in your hands. Here take these. Call me in the morning.

Dad! (I scrambled back into the jeans that I was pulling off.) I don’t want your pills. What? They’re not good enough for you? No, it’s not that, Dad. When I get sick, I try to boost my immune system. Your immune system? What bloody rubbish are you talking? What do you know about immune systems?

You walked straight into the makeshift bathroom without knocking, straight into William who was thankfully just brushing his teeth. You handed him the bag full of pills. Compliments of the chef. Take in case of emergency. Wash down with a good Shiraz.

William had thrown up two Sheetrock walls and a door at the back of the loft, an instant bedroom just for you. You spilled out of the little room, telling us stories, asking us to help you read a map of the city, your glasses perched on your nose, your dressing gown gaping open. Dad! You looked down and tightened the cloth belt. You’re a bloody Victorian, just like your grandmother, you scolded. William, did you know that my daughter used to be the president, secretary and treasurer of the Worcester Teetotallers’ Society?

William’s answer was an unblinking stare over the top of the newspaper, levelled right at you. You as well! You said this with a sense of great injury. You buggers are against me, like all the rest of them. Your mother too! One day, when I’m dead you’ll be sorry. You folded your arms, chin thrust out, feet crossed at the ankles. You know how I want to go?

I shot a look at William. This is an old one.

I’m in my surgery and there’s a patient stretched out on the examination table. I go over, and I’m just about to put my stethoscope on his chest, when BOOM! Massive heart attack! I drop dead on the floor right next to him. No bloody hospital for me. No doctors, none of those clowns and cowboys you get these days. Jesus Christ man, they all specialize. The heart chappie doesn’t know where the abdomen is. The neurologists don’t go past the neck. Forget about the pathologists and the surgeons. They don’t know what a patient is! They’ve never been to his house, met his wife and kids, his mother-in-law, his dog— some of those dogs, man, they eat a Jew for breakfast every morning! But you know what I mean. In the old days, we used to do everything, from obstetrics to appendectomies. There weren’t all those bloody machines. You had to use the machine up here! You jab your finger at your head.

The old chaps were expert clinicians. They knew how to take a history. They knew how to listen to a heartbeat. They weren’t painting by fucking numbers. You know what one of my patients calls me? A deaf Afrikaans woman whose five children I’ve delivered?
Dokter God!
(pointing that same jabbing finger up into the sky, making the sign for God.)

Two nights before you left, I took you to see
Guys and Dolls
at the Martin Beck Theatre on Forty-fifth Street, in the dazzling heart of the city. I wore big earrings, a swingy black dress, my hair pulled back. You sat tilted forward on the edge of your seat as Nathan Lane and Faith Prince sang and danced the Damon Runyon stories of your youth. Bloody marvelous! you said, turning to me at intermission, the high beams of your enthusiasm shining right at me. I can’t believe I’m here, my girl. You did me a big favour. A wave of feeling spread across your features, black eyes softening, a rueful smile catching at me.

Harry the Horse! Nicely-Nicely Johnson! Mindy’s Restaurant! Maxie knew pages and pages off-by-heart. Me and him and Mickey Levin used to go to . . . never mind. Before your time. Still, District Six was full of all kinds of characters. It’s all gone now. Those bastards bulldozed the life out of Cape Town. Your mother and I saw it coming. It was not long after the war when the Nationalists came into power and the signs went up,
Blankes, Nie-Blankes
. Well it’s all changing again. Who knows what’s going to happen. It’s bloody fascinating, though. I just hope I live long enough to see the
verkramptes verkramped
!

BOOK: The Rowing Lesson
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