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Melissa De Villiers
Melissa De Villiers

Melissa de Villiers grew up in Grahamstown in South Africa's Eastern Cape. She now lives between London and Singapore, where she works as an editor. Her debut collection of short stories is forthcoming in January 2014.

A Letter to Bianca


The old men running the apartheid regime finally threw up their hands and declared a state of emergency in 1985. By this time, my own emergency was already well underway. I had no qualifications and not a cent to my name, and a tormenting problem stood in the way of me acquiring any. I wanted to be a writer, although I hadn’t the courage to tell anyone just yet. The reason was simple: whenever I put pen to paper, the words evaporated. Deep in the dark root of me, something writhed and would not sit still. I couldn’t shake the queasy conviction that I had nothing original to say.

          My father, tired of paying for university courses I wasn’t managing to finish, found me a six-week internship on the Baviaan’s Drift Bugle. I would be given board and lodging by Mr Ossendryver, an accountancy teacher. My father knew him from his own, far-off student days in a Boland town. They’d drunk beer and played rugby together, and it was there that the two of them first heeded bookkeeping’s siren call.

          I have no idea why I agreed to this miserable venture. I didn’t want to leave the city for some godforsaken dorp in the middle of the Eastern Cape. Anyway, did desk jobs matter when a revolution was just around the bend? Anyone could see it was a touchpaper time, when to fuss over career prospects seemed at best, naïve; at worst, contemptible. There were stands to be taken, institutions to be overthrown. At parties in student flats, in city bars and back bedrooms, opinions flew from my lips in a jittery stream. I was nineteen and a half years old.

          My father listened to my tirades with bent head, gently swirling the ice in his glass of gin. One bright blue morning in early spring, he drove me to Johannesburg Park Station, pressed fifty rand into the pocket of my Indian print skirt and kissed me on the forehead. My tour of the provinces had begun.

          Twenty-two hours later, my near-empty bus arrived in Baviaan’s Drift; I was the only passenger to alight. A dawn breeze dried the sweat on my trembling hands. Mr Ossendryver, tall and owlish, with high, round glasses and a grey moustache, collected me from the station and took me to his home, an unappealing bungalow on Vermeulen Street.

          The house looked small from the outside, but was oddly capacious, with crooked steps leading down to one narrow room after another, stretching out so far behind that it resembled a railway carriage shunted onto a dead-end track. My room had a window scarcely larger than an envelope, through which a dreary half-light fell. Somehow, it came as no great surprise to find that the back yard overlooked a cemetery. All that stood between the tombstones and me was a solitary outbuilding – the maid’s quarters, as it turned out – that cleaved to Mr Ossendryver’s back wall.

          Mr Ossendryver and I ate together every evening. It was always hot in the dining room, so hot you couldn’t breathe. Everything would be sinking sleepily into the big, silent house until suddenly there was Leocardia clearing away the plates and Mr Ossendryver leaning back in his chair and lighting his pipe, and continuing with renewed vigour to pour out the story of his life in smoky, spiralling plumes: the death of Annalie, his wife, from a dog bite that went septic; his years of service at the high school, burdened with ungrateful students who did not wish to learn; the trials, living so far from the city, of keeping up to date with accounting trends; his struggles with athlete’s foot and the doctor’s advice. I just stared at the salt-and-pepper set, crushing the tips of my hair between two fingers and marvelling at the mess I’d made of things. Around nine, he’d leave the room with a copy of National Geographic tucked under his arm and I would know – with my gruesome new field awareness of all things Ossendryverish – that he was headed for a lengthy session in what he called ‘the lav’.

          Those years were a time of bewilderbees. The country was filled with a strange vibration; it shook like the skin of a drum. Mass rallies, murderous secret police, torture, bombs and jail – all these pulsed louder now into ordinary life, changing the centre of gravity, wrenching everything towards a rhythm that was unpredictable and new. The whole world heard it, and the Baviaan’s Drift Bugle heard it too, but only very faintly. The paper stood aloof from change; it was saving its voice for a more urgent occasion. I understood all this several days later than I should have done. Maybe I was disconcerted at first by how high the Bugle ranked itself in the scheme of things, a swan in muddy waters. Maybe I was just exceedingly self-absorbed.

          The paper occupied a thick-walled, Frontier War-era building with lacy fretwork balconies, set back from the broad main road. In the newsroom, rock-faced farmer’s sons with deep golf tans pored over stories about drunk driving arrests and pothole repairs, or sped off in their Ford Cortinas to report on rugby games. My first mission as one of their number was to visit the town’s lone hardware store and purchase a padlock. The editor – an old man with tinted lenses and a thin, disgusted smile – told me it was for the office stationery cupboard; he didn’t want people to think they could just help themselves to the Bugle’s notepads and ballpoint pens any more and give them out as Christmas presents. Rumour had it that he was a Special Branch spy.

          What to make of it all? Nothing manageable. I knew, at heart, that the situation was profoundly serious but it also just seemed absurd. Anyway, I was too tired to think about anything much. Every night, a flashlight came to find me, a dark strobe that beamed out anxiety and wouldn’t let go till morning. Shifting about in Mr Ossendryver’s narrow spare bed, searching for some cave in which to take cover, I’d drift through the night in a fuzzy wasteland of panic and bad dreams. I tried going to bed earlier, but it didn’t help. Sometimes, in my enervated state, the room with its homely furniture would seem to grow strange and magical, filled with discarded alien implements that were beyond all human ken. I’d rise and pace about before a glimpse of Mr Ossendryver on the back stoep brought me down to earth in an instant, the very banality of the scene – pipe; tobacco pouch; patio chair; him gazing vacantly out towards Leocardia’s shed – locking me back inside a reality apparently so temperamental that all traces had nearly disappeared.

          One morning, unable to bear the thought of drifting through another workday on a wash of tedium and fatigue, I decided to call in sick. I rolled a sizeable joint – the last of my stash from the city – and smoked it, brazenly, in bed, beneath an agitated fan. Outside, blossom covered Baviaan’s Drift in a white stupor. I felt like I was the last person left standing in a lunar landscape, and it was only a quarter to ten.

          It was time to find human company, so through the dark, stuffy house, full of combative chairlegs, I dragged my aching frame. Leocardia was in the kitchen feeding Baxter, a big ginger tom with a magnificent gossamer tail. He lived at an elderly neighbour’s but much preferred Leocardia, she of the plump, soft lap; Leocardia, who was equally indifferent to newcomers from the city and who viewed the world with the same impenetrable golden gaze.

          Leocardia returned to her ironing. Deftly, her small, fine-boned hands soothed the iron’s hissing muzzle with pliant folds of cloth, her eyes with their yellowish whites occasionally glancing my way. I planted myself at the table, in the middle of her kingdom, and slowly opened my book. Leocardia never said a word. I was reading The Great Gatsby at the time, and when I got to the scene where the young narrator’s relatives ponder his future with grave and hesitant faces – finally saying ‘Well, ye-es’ to him taking a job in New York – the indignity of my own, summary banishment to the countryside stabbed at me anew. I read on, the words and sentences slowly filling me with a pleasure that was almost painful: everything, the iron’s hiss, the cat’s purr, Leocardia’s yellow glance, grew extraordinarily sharp and still. I stared, rooted, at the floor, unable even to lift a hand to scratch my cheek, yet desperate to run away.

          A rap at the back door affronted Baxter and shattered the spell. At that moment, I hated the caller who stood on the threshold, even though I’d never seen him before: a burly man with greying hair, wearing faded blue overalls that smelled of smoke. His eyes raked Leocardia over; regally, she inclined her head. His forehead was stippled with sweat, even though it was cool outside. Leocardia stood upright with her arms folded, her legs like two pillars planted far apart. The conversation – in isiXhosa, which I didn’t understand – was as brief as it was baffling. Suddenly, she swivelled on her heel and clicked the door shut. The man’s eyes had never left her face.

          Leocardia threw me a strange look before burying her features in one of Mr Ossendryver’s freshly ironed pinstriped shirts. “He’s my brother, that one,” she said, or I thought she said through the folds. “He doesn’t like me living here.” But by then I’d found the thread of my book again, and so it did not occur to me until later, when Mr Ossendryver came home to a cold stove, and Leocardia’s room locked and dark, to ask myself if I had heard her right; why she had spoken to her relative so miserably in her low, gruff voice, or why he had thrown out so many angry-sounding questions, to which there had been just as many fierce replies.

          Mr Ossendryver took me to Steers’ Steakhouse for a substitute dinner of burgers with avocado and bacon and chips with tomato sauce. To begin with, both of us ate in silence. But when he had patted his moustache with a handkerchief and called for the bill, he started talking as usual about the limitations of small town life. We began the short walk back up the main road to Vermeulen Street, his precise, breathy tones never faltering.

          When we reached the big jacaranda by the petrol station he stopped and abruptly cleared his throat. “She’s at Nyami’s,” he said. 

          I looked at him. “Beg pardon?”

          “Nyami, the maid where Baxter lives. The note said. Ja, Leocardia and her are great pals, always popping back and forth between the houses with some little joke or other, or an interesting titbit to share about their day.”

          “Uh-huh,” I said.

          “An unusual woman, Leocardia,” he went on. “Lived in this area all her life, although her father’s people, I gather, come from somewhere near Addo. You’ve been to the elephant park there?”

          “No, I never have.”

          “Oh, you should,” he said. “What they’re doing for the wildlife there is outstanding. It’s only a three-hour drive. You know, when I feel under pressure about things, it’s the place I like to go. I just throw a few things in the back seat of the car and I set off for Addo with a packet of biltong for the road. Or sometimes tennis biscuits.”

          “Lovely,” I said, grinding the ends of my ponytail between a finger and thumb.

          “I take plenty of snaps and when I get them back from the chemist I show them first to Leocardia,” said Mr Ossendryver. “We sit at the kitchen table after I’ve washed up the plates, and she spreads them all out in a row. We spend hours looking at the pictures together, drinking a beer or two and listening to jazz on the wireless. She likes the smaller things; the birds. The Greater Double-Collared Sunbird, that’s her favourite. I want to take her there someday. When it’s allowed.”

          When it’s allowed. On the horizon, I could see a long line of purplish clouds patrolling the valley rim. It was getting late, the shadows lengthening into night. Earlier, I’d opened a letter from Bianca, one of my closest friends. How’s life on the sheep station? She said. Describe it to me; you must have so many stories by now, and I ached to begin at once, as if completing this simple task was the key to allowing life to finally declare itself to me and set out its demands, but I could not, the old fear again asserting itself: not enough dazzle, not enough flair. The Friday before, in the bar of the Windsor Hotel, the staff photographer asked if I had literary aspirations. He and I had been covering a story on the far side of town, where a woman who took in student lodgers from the African Theological College found her cat swinging from the doorway by its caked and seeping tail. YOU WHO WALK WITH THE BLACK NATION BEWARE, someone had squirted round the frame. Short and compact, with grey hair closely shorn around a face that was as pale and smooth-shaven as a stone, the staff photographer was a Scot; he had a blunt sense of humour that could be lethal, yet it was not unattractive. The Bugle rated his work highly. It was a mystery, most people said, why he hung around in the sticks when he could so easily have found a post on one of the nationals.

          “Me, a writer? No. No, not at all,” I replied.

          “No?” he persisted. “Every journalist I’ve ever met thinks they have a novel inside of them. But you’re not tempted? Not even the one short story fluttering within?”

          There was a silence that seemed to have been there a long time, waiting for me. I pictured throwing in my lot with the Bugle and settling down in Baviaan’s Drift forever. Perhaps I could become one of its ‘characters’, trailing ropes of ethnic jewellery, reciting weepy poetry to other people’s husbands in parked cars late at night.

          “And you?” I said, eventually. “Would you exhibit your work? You could show the rest of the country the truth about the unrest in the Eastern Cape.”

          “Ah, the truth!” he said, with a quick, delighted sneer; too late, I could have bitten off my tongue. “That’s far too complicated a notion for my poor brain to wrestle with. No, I’m a take-it-or-leave-it, point-and-shoot kind of guy; I leave the truth up to the romantics. To people like you.”

          He wiped his palms down the side of his jeans, picked up his camera and took a photograph, which I still have today: plump-cheeked and startled in a too-tight sparkly top, I’m making irresolute movements with a beer glass that leave my hands a blur. When we’d finished our drinks he took me to his flat above Foschini’s and fucked me against the kitchen counter, the zip of his leather jacket painfully grazing my hip. Then he dropped me back at Mr Ossendryver’s before barrelling off on his motorcycle; he was going to cover a police fundraiser. In the office, the staff photographer seemed exotic, a fish intriguingly too large for its pond, but really he fitted in perfectly, happy to play up to his role as the tame cynic, and happy to exploit its advantages, too. I watched his bike smoothly negotiate the twists and bends of Vermeulen Street until finally it disappeared. He didn’t look back.

          When it’s allowed. The phrase Mr Ossendryver used echoed in my head. I glanced at him, but he was silent now, his jaw working furiously. Was he sorry he spoke?

          A Buffel slammed past, slowing to a halt and pulling up a short distance in front of us. A group of soldiers got out. I don’t know why, but the absurd thought struck me that they had heard Mr Ossendryver speak in that forbidden way about Leocardia and were here to carry him off. With quickening strides I set off again, trying to nudge him faster up the street, slippery now from the jacaranda buds we were crushing underfoot.

          “Looks like we’re in for a bit of a thunderstorm!” I said, just to jolly things along.

          We made it to the front door without any further complications, and his key was just sliding into the lock when, with sinking heart, I saw him stop and pause once more. In the sodium glare of the streetlamp, Mr Ossendryver’s tufty hair glowed mauve, as if coated in luminous paint. Behind him, leaves and branches trembled in a hot wind suddenly heavy with the smell of rain. I half-closed my eyes so that everything flickered just beyond my field of vision. When you open them again, I said to myself, all this wierdness will have transformed itself into some straightforward pattern that right now you’re too myopic to see.

          I opened my eyes and cursed my naïveté.

          “It’s not easy,” Mr Ossendryver said, addressing the doorknocker in low and trembling tones. “No. And then for her own family to turn on her? But like I always say, we must pray and wait, wait and pray, and hope for better times.”

          I nodded, sagely.

          “Better times!” he said again. He turned his great, beaky face towards me with that odd, quick swivel that he had. “Actually, the problem is also with the outside room,” he added. “It’s not very nice out there. These days, we use it more for a shed. She’s only been back in it …”

          “… since I’ve been here?” I offered, and he nodded.

          For a while, neither of us spoke. I imagined Mr Ossendryver with a garden rake in his hand, pushing it out of sight beneath a narrow iron bed.

          “It’s only temporary!” he says to the person standing motionless by the door. She’s holding a toothbrush in one hand, and with the other, she’s clutching a perfectly ironed pink towel.

          It began to rain, softly at first, and then with greater force. Gutters gurgled, thunder rolled, monsters whistled up and down the dirty streets of Baviaan’s Drift, and still Mr Ossendryver and I stood there – miserably, apologetically, pointlessly – together in the streaming dark.

          I don’t know why we stayed like that; it just seemed logical, all things considered. Then a tremendous thunderclap came, very near, as if in the graveyard a thousand chalky fingerbones were snapping us to attention, and with the sound came Baxter, sliding a golden flank across my calf. Mr Ossendryver sighed, took out his handkerchief, gave a brief, decisive honk to his nose, and opened his front door at last.

          I went to my room and threw my wet clothes on the floor. I couldn’t get Mr Ossendryver’s sad, kind face out of my mind. Crashing the colour bar as he was doing was no small thing in those days: it was a central transgression. Maybe the guy was nuts – but I kind of liked him more for doing it. In fact, I almost envied him. He had found his green light at the end of the dock.

          There was an old copy of National Geographic lying by the bed, and to calm myself down, I started flipping through the pages. I came to a feature on birds. One picture caught my eye – I couldn’t make it out. It just looked like a tangle of branches to me.

          I gazed at the picture some more. And then it was as if the mass of undifferentiated leaves and twigs suddenly undulated and flashed apart, leaving a split-second space for something miraculous and new; I saw, disguised in the ripe shadows of the foliage, the shape of a marvellous creature, richly feathered and clawed, that I had not noticed before. Scops owl, said the caption, a superbly camouflaged species whose greyish plumage makes it almost indistinguishable when set against the branch of a tree, but to me the picture said something more. The world battens down on you, it seemed to say, and when that happens, you resist. But what if striving to be separate from a hated system didn’t require some kind of blindingly original display? What if ordinariness – rather than being the foe – was a strategy; what if it could act instead as a cunning concealer of strength?

          I stared at the picture a while longer. It seemed to glow like the pieces of glass in a chapel window.

          Then I lay down and turned out the light.

          I left for Johannesburg the following week. Mr Ossendryver had arranged a lift for me with his colleague Miriam, an art teacher at the high school. She and her husband were going to spend the long Christmas break with her parents, who lived somewhere on the East Rand.

          Miriam arrived promptly at half past six in the morning to pick me up from Mr Ossendryver’s place. It turned out that she and her husband had just bought the car we’d be travelling in, a pale-blue Honda Ballade. Mr Ossendryver spoke out at some length in praise of the Japanese motoring industry. Then he shook my hand and told me to give my father his best wishes for a merry Christmas and a very happy new year.

          I nodded; I kept on shaking his hand. In fact, I probably shook it for longer, and more vigorously than was strictly necessary.

          “And to you, too, sir,” I said. “A very happy new year to you, too.”

          I sat down in the back seat and wound down the window a crack. When the car started moving, I pulled off my jacket and spread it across my lap. I took a pen and a notepad out of my bag and began to write to Bianca, my hand moving smoothly across the page. The old men running the apartheid regime finally threw up their hands and declared a state of emergency in 1985 …

          By the time I remembered to turn and look out of the back window, he was gone.

 


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