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Authors: Anne Landsman

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The third-class carriages are now in front, and the first-class carriages are at the back. The long line of panting elephants lumbers back, makes a left, heads inlands towards the looping mountain chains of the Western Cape. With a groan and a sigh, you leave the last breakfast you ate in your mum’s house neatly on the tracks, a mile outside of Mossel Bay, next to the battered skeleton of a
. What is the better part of valour? What is it? What is it? The train wheels hiss at you and you search outside in the veld for the lost word and there it is, an
, an acorn, a tiny
inside the folded leaf of a succulent. Discretion. Discretion is the better part of valour.

Albertinia is the next stop. It’s not much more than a railway station and a hotel with shade, a handful of farms with prickly pear fences and a few old ostriches who survived the ostrich-feather boom and then the crash, and watch the trains with hooded eyes. But the big thrill is just outside Albertinia, the Gouritz River bridge, a rickety wooden structure that spans a deep rift in the earth, with a sly trickle of brown water at the bottom. The train is on the bridge and there’s creaking galore, the wooden supports swaying and groaning under all that steel and panting machinery. Bertie would love this, you’re thinking. He’d throw something out of the window, down, down towards the mud puddle so far down below. But there’s no Bertie. There’s just you here, alone in the passageway of the swinging train, afraid to go back into the compartment with the infected boy who’s not your brother, who is not despised, loved-to-death Bertie.

The train is off the bridge now and everyone is still alive. You must go. You can’t stand here in the middle of the train all day, stuck inside the coils of your own colon, stuck like the shilling you once ate and then vomited up, your mother’s white face hanging over you, big as the moon. When you get into the compartment, it’s not the three you left, but five now, the two
ou toppies
, old ones, and the long boy and a couple of rough-looking extra ones, two
from Albertinia. It’s going to be Afrikaans all the way to Cape Town. And why not?
Waarom nie

Mum never learnt to speak Afrikaans properly. She tried in the shop and it was the sound of a
through and through, her tongue stepping gingerly over the hard g’s and the rumbling r’s. Your father was a different story, with his Russian and his Yiddish and his funny English, he took a dive into Afrikaans and never really came up.
Ja, meneer!
He loved to say when one of the hops farmers came into the shop. Then he was off and it always reminded you of those World War One flying aces doing double backflips in the sky. He didn’t care. He made double language mistakes and then he corrected himself with a fine, fat Afrikaans idiom, just like the fine, fat-tailed sheep you see out in the far Karoo. Of course you learned Afrikaans at school and although it wasn’t your best subject, you liked the sound of
in your mouth instead of fish,
instead of fire,
instead of match.

Albertinia, Riversdale, Heidelberg, Swellendam. Suurbraak. Sour Vomit. Nothing more than a siding where the train stops.
Waar is jou pappie?
Where is your father? The pipe-smoking white-haired
at the window looks at you with watery eyes, his pipe clenched between stained teeth.
Ek is alleen
. I am by myself. He is looking at you curiously, those watery eyes fixed on your long nose and you clench yourself for the next question.

Hoe oud is jy, my kind?
The old film is burning inside you. It has edges so hot they’re curling and setting the whole world on fire. Outside the sun is leaving the sky and suddenly the train is diving through flames, long ribbons of ruby and bright orange. The train window flashes like a thousand burning mirrors. God is fuming! He’s going to poke his fingers into the old man’s eyes and blind him forever!

Ek is agtien, oupa
. I am eighteen, grandpa. Everyone in the compartment is looking at you and you’re the one who’s going blind. You can’t see them because the sun is staring you down. The shadow of your nose falls between your feet and there’s nothing to shade your eyes from these rude giants with their halos of glittering veld and sky, their weeping sores, their big, earth-slapping feet. How old did they think he was? Twelve? Thirteen? A tiny Jew they could fold up and stick in their pockets, right next to the tobacco pouch and the smashed packets of cigarettes.

The sun dips and is gone. You are left alone with these men in the ash-coloured light, caught between the day and the night.
Ek kan nie meer so goed sien nie
, apologizes the
, tears dripping into his beard. I don’t see so well anymore. The fire inside you burns out. Soon you will be able to climb onto the old man’s nose and fix those overflowing gutters. You will be able to dry the pus on the sore boy’s arm. You will fix these people and they will say thank you. Thank you, doctor.
Baie dankie

The lights go on and there’s newspaper rustling in the compartment. The
have taken out their supper. It’s bread with a bit of
. Of course you have a chicken and a half, and some boiled tongue just in case. You’re reading the back of the newspaper wrapped around the
food and it’s all about the South African cabinet meeting to discuss Hertzog’s proposal that South Africa stay neutral if there’s a war in Europe.
, that’s old news isn’t it. Smuts agreed but then he got worried when Czechoslovakia was cut up just like the chicken you’re sharing with the runny-eyed
. Now Smuts is going everywhere to talk to people, to try to get them to change their mind if there’s a war. Smuts, Hertzog, Smuts, Hertzog. They used to be together and now they’re not. The train is singing a new song as you drive into the night, the lights of Bonnievale twinkling like fairy lights.

The other older man must be a schoolteacher or a deacon in the church but wait, he’s the one with the brandy bottle and now he’s pouring everyone a
. The stringy boy lifts his glass to yours and God, that wrist looks terrible! You colour in the rest. Poor white. His pa was a
and then he got a job with the railways. A salary of ten pounds a week, not twelve shillings like the Natives. Maybe he’s riding for free on the train and doesn’t even have a proper ticket. Maybe he has ringworm like Fanie Viljoen who used to sit in front of you in Latin with a handkerchief on top of his shaved head, knotted at each corner. Once you lifted up his hanky with your ruler and set it down again so softly he didn’t even notice.

The steward comes with the bedding and now it’s time to go to sleep. The blankets are brown and raspy and the sheet is so stiff it could slit your throat. The
ou toppies
are talking about Smuts and one is a Smuts man and the other isn’t.
Tweede Vryheidsoorlog
, the Second War of Liberation, is what the Hertzog man says, talking about the Boer War and the whole compartment crackles, just like the sheets. How is this talk going to end? The
start singing something dirty about
and wine and old men’s teeth and it’s the brandy bottle that caused all this trouble. Stop it, you want to say, call it whatever you want but the bloody Boer War is over and you can all go home now and go to sleep.

The train swings this way and that. Will there be war, or won’t there. Smuts wants to fight and Hertzog doesn’t. You’re in the top bunk and it’s hot up there, the smell of sweat and pants and tobacco and brandy in your hair, up your nose. Smuts was in the Boer War, wasn’t he? You want to tell the
ou toppie
with the dry eyes, who likes Germans and German beer and German everything, He’s an Afrikaner just like you! But Smuts went to England and that’s where the devil took him, and put an Englishman in his skin. In Cambridge they stole his heart. They turned him into wood and sent him home. He doesn’t remember his brothers anymore. They put the King in his brain. The
English will smile at you and steal your whole life.

The sore boy is snoring, his bad arm buried under him, probably stuck to the bed. You pull away from the sheet that lies over you, thinking of all the bad hands and arms and legs that have touched it, that have lain right where you are, in this dark, smelly compartment, swinging and puffing through the darkness, stopping and starting, stopping and starting. In Bonnievale the train wheezes, then comes to a standstill. The Langeberge lie still, dark mountains washed by the cool moon, giant soldiers bent over in sleep. The raggedy velvet sky has a million holes in it. You stare at one star in particular. You pray for it to move, for the earth to shift, for the train to roll towards Cape Town, like a stone rolling down a cliff into the sea. But you’re here forever and ever, lying awake, breathing and waiting for the train to move.

The cloth shrieks as you rip it in two. You give Gertrude one piece which she stuffs under her dress. Oh God, the boat is going backwards, and it’s almost back in the water. Remember after that, when she opened her legs? In the dark, there’s your own Langeberg under the sheets. Your heart is banging like a moth against glass. Bang, bang, bang. The louder it beats, the harder you are, and there’s nothing you can do except rub and push the printed sheet, turning the South of “South African Railways” into ou, outh, out, outh A. You can’t help noticing what’s seeping out of her, and slowly seeping into the compartment. Her long white thighs are floating over you, opening and closing, like the large wings of a real-life angel. The inside of her thigh is a miracle, a pale valley that slips into another darker one. You squeeze your eyes closed, and you’re the one with wings now, and you land on her mountains, right on the soft red beacon of her right nipple. You stay there, shaking and invisible, and you raise your flag.

Gertrude takes your hand. You’re sweating, wet lines of panic down your neck, into the hollow between your shoulder blades. She’s going to steal your flag! She’s going to take everything you’ve got and run screaming down the mountain. But she takes your hand and pushes it inside her and suddenly you burst, a sticky mess all over “Railways.” The men snore and the train puffs and grunts and it’s goodbye Bonnievale. The lights are still out in the bioscope and when you get outside, it’s burning bright but you’re tired. So you sleep. The train rubs itself against the mountains, coiling and hissing, its tail almost touching its head on the five chain-reverse curves. The sleeping
and the sleeping farmers don’t even wake up.

In the morning, the steward comes in with railway coffee, medium brown like the veld. The
ou toppie
with the runny eyes is waiting like a child, his lips pink and shiny. You climb down from the top bunk and the steward pushes the bunk up, and fastens it. You give him the messy sheet and the blanket in a big confused ball and his eyebrow lifts at you, up an inch.

Everybody sips the hot liquid. Everybody loves railway coffee. You breathe it in, and the heat reminds you of last night and flying Gertrude. You cross your legs and drink. Outside, the Langeberge clasp hands with the Brandwacht mountains and beyond Tulbagh, it’s the long chain of the Koue Bokkeveld. Peaks,
and gorges blushing the pinkest of pinks, waiting to deepen into blue, purple, then blue again, as the day goes on.

You pass through Worcester, where the George train meets up with the train going North, to Johannesburg. It’s wine and grape country, the country of your future, but you don’t know this, as you look at the green patchwork of vineyards and the gabled Cape-Dutch homesteads. You don’t know the difference yet between the Barlinka or the Alphonse Lavalle grape, or the special sweetness of a Hanepoot and you’ve never tasted a Pinotage wine. The names of the grapes and the cases of wine, purple and cherry red and white-yellow, the gables on the labels and the farmers tasting and drinking, paying their Coloured workers in drink and yes, selling you cases at special prices, lies past you, past Nuy and Rawsonville, somewhere lost in that swirling finger of cloud shifting and moving, as the train chortles past. The mountains never end and now you’re looping right through the middle of them, going up and around, Wolseley to Tulbagh, Tulbagh to Wellington, straight through to Huguenot, Paarl, Cape Town.

ou toppie
takes your hand when you tell him you’re going to Cape Town to become a doctor. Clever
, he says and you wonder if what’s dripping down his cheek landed on his hands, whether you’re going to catch it too, and dissolve into a pool of water before you have a chance to become anything. Clever
, he says again. Clever sounds like cleaver, cleaver sounds like clobber. Clever, cleaver, clobber. Clever, cleaver, clobber. You’re in the song, on the train, and flying up there with every goddamn bird in the sky. “All things bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small. All things wise and wonderful, the lord God made them all.” You’re going to see everything and make the world whole and look at bodies and babies and breasts, and touch and smell and feel every ounce of life that ever walked or rolled or crawled on this funny old planet!

Chapter 6

THE NURSES ARE back again, rolling and flipping you like a pancake, making sure one side doesn’t get more cooked than the other. Simon is staring bleakly out of the window, and Ma is talking to yet another doctor, a colleague who remembers you from the old days, his face breaking into a smile between liver spots and patches of red, flaky skin. The skin is the mirror of the mind, you always said, and I’m looking at the old gentleman’s sad-happy face as he remembers you from long ago, what you were and what you’ve become, putty in the nurses’ hands, as they unwrap you and twist you and wrap you up again. A
has come and gone. No thank you, Ma said, in no uncertain terms.
Ons is Jode
. We’re Jews.

Missus . . . Klein? A very young nurse with dimples and pimples is at my elbow. There’s someone on the telephone. From America. I’m walking through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, past rooms and rooms of men and women just like you, stacked in snowy white rows, a blur of grey faces, some breathing through masks, some staring at television sets, mounted above their heads, or a godly God high above the heads of their beds, above the red roofs of the hospital, above the roiling waters of the Cape of No More Good Hope.

I thought it was all a hoax, William says, as I’m crouching now, in the nurse’s station between computer screens, clipboards and trolleys. I thought he was up to his old tricks. I’m nodding even though he can’t see me bobbing my head furiously, Yes! I keep thinking he’s going to sit up and say, Got you, you buggers!

All he had was a broken arm! A pathological fracture, I tell him, a Fracture of the Upper Humerus. But still, he says. Why is he dying from a broken arm? I bite my lip, give the telephone cord a little pinch. It’s too late to ask anything, I say, tears bubbling in my throat. William’s quieter now, reminding me of the baby we saw floating on the sonogram screen the day before I left. How’s our little fish? he asks, and I’m smiling through wet lashes.

You’re arranged a little differently, your face bent towards the door, mouth slightly open, as I step back into the room, fresh from the phone. This time you’re really going to wake up. What the hell’s going on here? I can hear you shouting. Let’s get this bloody thing out of the river and back onto the road!

Simon’s got his reading glasses on and is studying a print-out of your bloodwork as if he became a doctor after all, and not a scientist, as if he can save you just by reading. I can’t figure this out, he says finally, putting the paper down next to the upopened yogurt, which he hands to me. I’m spooning it down in big gulps, tasting sour strawberries. Simon’s voice is faraway in 1965 and he’s telling me how you woke him up four Saturday mornings in a row to listen to rugby test-matches on the radio. It was three or four a.m. our time and the All-Blacks were playing the Springboks. They creamed the Springboks in the first two games. The third test the All-Blacks were winning 16–3 at halftime. Then the Springboks came back to win 19–16! He’s looking at you, and he’s looking at me and we can see you cheering and screaming in the room with us, part dervish, part doctor, hopping and laughing and slapping your only son on the back. Hell’s teeth, man. Now isn’t that bloody marvelous!

It was one of the best times of my life, Simon says, as the echo of your excitement still rings in our ears, those times when the sun burst out of your black eyes and we were all dancing at the same party. They came back to win 19–16! I say out loud, just in case you’re listening.

Simon looks over his shoulder quickly. I spoke to one of the nurses who told me what it was like when he came here from the other place in the middle of the night. Ma doesn’t know that I know and anyway it was all over by the time I got here. Uncle Bertie’s right outside, he whispers.

Bertie’s suddenly in the room, your bad baby brother grown big and fat and he’s in a blinding white coat like all the other doctors except he has the grandeur of a chief about him, his hair wilder than yours, leather tassels gleaming on his Italian shoes. I got him the best, he says, squeezing me in his arms. Those chaps do more shoulder surgeries than anyone in the country. They’re the specialists’ specialists! If it had been his heart I would have done it myself! He’s at your bedside now and this time I know you’re going to sit bolt upright and spit in his eye. For crying out loud, man, say something to us, he shouts. Tell us to go to hell just one more time!

Then he turns to Simon, and to me. I told your mother to go home and get some rest. Maybe you should go too. Simon looks at me and I look at him and we don’t move a muscle. We’re waiting for Bertie to tell us what he always tells us, about the times when he worked on Chris Barnard’s team and they transplanted the first human heart into Louis Washkansky and later, when they did the same for Philip Blaiberg. Christ man, when Chris Barnard came to Medical School, he didn’t even have shoes!

For once, Bertie stares directly at me, almost as if he’s seeing me for the very first time. Betsy, your mom says you’re going to have a baby. His eyes fall to my breasts, and below. You’ve got to look after yourself, my girl. Do you still live in that factory, with the fellow who is a waiter or something?

A sommelier, and it’s a loft, Uncle Bertie, in what’s become a very nice part of Manhattan. That’s not what your father said, Bertie goes on. When he had to walk up all those stairs. And your paintings? I always wondered who would buy a picture of a quagga or one of the dodo-type animals and birds you always paint. But your mom says you sold one to a museum or something. He looks at his watch, then he gives me another quick embrace. I’ve got a ward round on the cardiology floor but I’ll be back later on.

He did the same thing to me earlier, Bets, Simon says, as the slap and crackle of Bertie’s shoes fades slowly away. What’s new in the great big world of science,
? Split any more atoms lately or you are still cutting up sea urchins? No point in telling him that was my doctoral thesis donkey’s years ago. He’s a prick, that’s all.

Runs in the family, doesn’t it? I think but don’t say, as I watch the still peaks of your face, as a ray of light from the window falls on your forehead, and the formidable arch of your nose. The sun brightens the grey pall of your cheeks, glossing the bad blood with a sudden radiance, Bertie’s voice still echoing in the starched corners of the room. I’m thinking of Uncle Wolfie, an uncle who wasn’t really an uncle, but a doctor too, remembering how I used to believe that all uncles were doctors and all doctors were uncles.

THERE WAS A drought in the summer of seventy-one, when the sun just burned and burned. Crops were lost, and they let us off school one Friday so that the farmers could go to their Dutch Reformed churches and pray for rain. Despite their prayers, the rain never came. But something else came that summer, what Ma called the curse and it happened to me.

We were on our way to the Wilderness and just before I got in the car I went to the toilet with its stack of
British Medical Journals
piled up behind me on the tank, a juicy pantheon of ulcerated legs, disfiguring boils, elephantiasis deluxe, lesions and carcinomas for every mood and season. There was a red smear in my panties, the sign of sure death. Everyone whooped and cheered although I knew I was doomed. The skies stayed bright blue but I bled and bled and bled. Menorrhaggia, you said and it sounded like men are raging at you.

We were in the Wilderness and Ma covered the mattress in my room in our holiday cottage with a rubber sheet because every morning I’d wake up drenched in my own blood, having soaked through two pads in the night. I was eleven and it was more blood than I had ever dreamed of. Ma went into George and bought me waterproof panties from the babies’ section of the shop and I bled through those too.

We went to the beach one day, and I almost fell down the stairs at Lentjiesklip, dizzy from sun and loss of blood. Down below, under a blue floral umbrella, Uncle Wolfie, a gynaecologist now, was sitting with his wife in big black sunglasses and a straw hat while Warren, his freckled son, played beach bats with Simon on the sand. You and Uncle Wolfie had a little talk at the edge of the water, waves curling around your ankles and later that afternoon you and Ma drove me into George to Uncle Wolfie’s rooms at the side of his house just like yours. His waiting room had a gurgling fish tank near the receptionist’s desk with blue-streaked neons, gouramis and a pale, pale fish without eyes. A blind cave, the receptionist said, used to swimming in the darkest of black caves, in the blackest of deep seas.

Uncle Wolfie’s examination room was painted light yellow, with an examination table covered in tight brown leather, with a paper sheet over half of it. You and Ma and Uncle Wolfie were all in the room together and Ma told me to take my clothes off, and I handed them to her, blue shorts and a red-and-white checked shirt. I wasn’t wearing a bra yet but my breasts were just beginning to grow and there was hair under my arms which I was terribly embarrassed about. I didn’t know whether to hide my tit-ties or my underarm hair so I just rolled over onto my stomach, face right up against the leather. I was still wear- ing the waterproof panties over the sanitary napkin which was held in place by two loops and an elastic belt around my waist. Take that off, Uncle Wolfie said, pointing to the panties and Ma put a beach towel under me so that I didn’t get blood all over Uncle Wolfie’s table. Then he asked me to open my legs really wide the way the dentist asks you to open your mouth really wide and I closed my eyes pretending to be the blind cave swimming in the black sea, not seeing anything ever.

It was the same summer Simon had worms and I remember a similar thing happening to him, you and Ma examining him with a flashlight. He was almost fourteen and he looked like a very big insect upside down with his legs all over the place and the two of you looking for the tiny threadworms in his bum, ready to scoop them out with cotton buds. So between Simon and the blind cave it wasn’t so bad, lying there with the three grown-ups standing over me talking about girls getting their periods and how this sometimes happens in the beginning when the hormones are sorting themselves out. You were talking loudly, almost shouting, saying something about Gertrude and blood on your mother’s tablecloth at Ebb ’n Flow. Ma got really furious and said Harry, You’re talking rubbish again! And Uncle Wolfie said, Of course I remember Gertrude. Those were the days, old chap. Then he put this shiny metal thing that looked like two big spoons inside me and opened it. I saw this from between my shuttered eyelids and then I felt it, as if something had torn away my skin and was sitting right inside me, a big new guest of some sort. I was not sure whether it was better to breathe more or breathe less so I thought of the fish again, and Simon’s bare bum in the air, that I just caught a glimpse of, as I was walking past his bedroom on the way to the toilet in the night.

It’s going to be fine, Uncle Wolfie said. Everything looks alright in there. In a doctor’s quick second, you shifted places with Uncle Wolfie and it was you holding the thing with two spoons. I swallowed one breath on top of another, and then it was all over, Uncle Wolfie telling us as we were on our way out, She should take some iron pills in case she gets anemic. Ma was still angry when we drove back in the car, to our house on the river’s edge. She hated it when you spoke about the past, which you did all the time, and how jolly it was, life without her, life before her, life when you were just a boy from George. You got even angrier, calling her superior and her brothers even more superior, with their fancy, lah-di-da ways and their bullshit wives and how they looked down on you from their dizzy heights, looking down on everyone who wasn’t a Sacks. You started to drive faster and faster over the mountain pass between the Wilderness and George, faster and faster on the single lane road, as it swept higher and higher to the summit, with its breathtaking views of the long beach below. I could see our car flying off the road, and falling into the sea and all that would be left of me would be a baby’s blood-soaked rubber panties.

Soon after our trip to George, the bleeding stopped. The rest of the summer I looked away whenever I saw Uncle Wolfie on the beach. He mostly didn’t notice me but when he did, he leaned over and made this funny squeaking, whistling sound in my ear, his old trademark. It never used to bother me before but now it did.

A CLOUD CROSSES the face of the sun and you slide into the cold again, and I’m pulling Ma’s cardigan across my shoulders and shivering. She’s back in the room and Simon’s gone now. She’s reading the newspaper, searching perhaps for the comic strip from the old days, Modesty Blaise and Willie Garvin up to their tricks, scaling walls and deep-sea diving, flushing out evil wherever they go. But it’s a different time, and a different place, and I can’t even find the tongue that will ask, Do you remember Modesty?

Instead she’s plunging into a litany of terrible crimes, the four-year-old girl who was raped by ten men, the white housewife who was stabbed and thrown into her own pool to drown. I’m shouting, Stop it! And she says, I’m just telling you what it says in the newspaper.

BOOK: The Rowing Lesson
8.67Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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