At the end of every term, from standard three to Matric, I write you a letter.
I know that you expect these letters, in the dense coolth of La Lucia, written in my slow and deliberate scrawlings of dark-blue ink. When one is missing I receive a brief phone call. In refined, rounded, vowels you ask after me. Finding that I’ve had hepatitis (but have somehow still managed to write tests and teach myself trigonometry), you forgive my lapse and invite us to lunch.
Things are okay when you invite us to lunch.
As I stand on the cool marble floors, fingers still reddish from the removal of farm-dirt by forceful application of maternal scrubbing-brush, I see a series of butlers as though they were but one man, uniform and politic.
“Good morning Mr Mackenzie, Mrs Mackenzie, boys. Come this way.”
The patchwork of different faces and accents, gins and vermouths and whiskeys, cocktail gherkins and Pringle chips, mingles with the covers of the latest coffee-table books and conversations. The arrangement is a large square of engulfing couches, scattered with whippets and hand-embroidered cushions that you’d worked at yourself. But we don’t sit down, not at first. We greet, and kiss, and hug, and exchange our pleasantries for yours and theirs, and then I duck round the corner into the little bar next to the full-sized pool-table.
“Just a fruit-juice for me, please, CG.”
Returning from the grotto, I feel like I’ve somehow entered by the wrong door. I dodge into a buzz of discussions, opinions flying like amabhungezi over the snacks and whippets (and like the bumble-bees, harmless at first), with my parents at the centre of them.
Counts and tycoons, oil-barons and new money, old names and older politics, all jostle politely in that cooled space while the La Lucia sunlight tries its damnedest at the sheet class separating us from the pool.
Children are not banished from this first discussion. So I listen, and learn, and watch the way that people offer beliefs and investments to the rest of the group. I watch my parents ranckle more and more, my mother’s steadying hand on my father’s, until a sudden small voice emerges from the supposedly sleeping shape of your husband.
I don’t remember exactly what he says, but it’s like listening to the words of an oracle – clarifying and riddling all at once, leaving a silence after it that no one dares fill.
We are whisked off to lunch.
Through a bewildering flurry of forks and water-glasses, oysters and bobotie, questions and observations, we land at the end of the meal with a replete thud. Coffee is poured. Crystalline sugar is selected by shape and colour for addition to the strong dark liquid in your little cups.
Now we are banished. I am alone only in some of my memories of this habitual banishment. For many I am accompanied by another, sometimes four of us in total. These memories of lots of other children are like the photographs kept in collages now on a wall in my parents’ house. My real memories are those of loneliness. In them I am wandering past empty ponds and deserted duck-nests, long since rustled by the genet cats and ochakijana from your beloved indigenous forest.
Sometimes I wander back early, and listen.
Things are serious now, and there is no doubt that you and he are both worried about ‘things’. You ask my father which way the wind is blowing. He tells you. He shows you where ‘things’ are headed, I see you shake your head. For the first time I see your refusal.
We leave. The road home is darkened by mist, and nobody speaks. Time passes.
Then he, your rock (as you were his), dies. You totter and fall, and are suddenly reduced to a diminutive. The dream that you’d built together passes on to your children.
But I see you once more after that. As a young man, I sit across the lunch table from you, eye-to-eye. You begin by commending my successes. We talk about prize-giving, and meeting that other great man. You joke about my numbers never being terribly good, and forgive my marks in mathematics. And then you ask me a simple question:
“What are you going to do with all this, Cullen?”
After my answer, after I’ve charted a course through academia into writing and thinking and changing people’s minds, there is a silence. There is a full stop. A disinterest.
The topic changes after that, and soon it is time to go. We say our goodbyes, and I promise to give your regards to my mother.
The rest is a fizzling strand of contact – occasional phone-calls, letters, and stories relayed through my mother. But no more whippets. No more oysters. No more.
I missed you. I miss you. Rest in peace, my dear godmother.