Another dark image that captures a recreation of a memory: arriving in South Africa aged 5 and a bit. The sparkles below are Jhb from the air…
From an ongoing autobiography COLOUR IN CHILD. Here is the chapter that goes with this painting:
GOLD AND SILVER
The plane lurched and jolted, it changed gears like small planes still feel they are doing even in this day and age. The wings dipped, and I burst out of the black box in which I only realised I had been inside once I was free, and flew straight inside the blonde child’s body.
Someone said look, we are here, somewhere from above my head, more a feeling than words, and as the plane turned, the window, a sandwich of double glass, came up to me and met my cheek and I fell into the view, like I will fall throughout my childhood, into ruts which I see and yet into which I magnetically fail to avoid steering my bicycle, into rivers and swimming pools to be fished out spluttering like a drowned puppy.
Merely sounds until this moment, the two words that have floated down into my ears from the height of adult conversation -Joe-berg and Safrica -are brought to life and placed for me in a rounded hole in the side of a plane in the sky: against a vast soft, dense, black which stretches from one end of the horizon to the other, glittering gold and silver specks flicker. Many are in shapes, in straight lines and circles, wheels within wheels. I try to join them up into pictures- a dragon’s tail, a row of teeth, a river – but they change too quickly, sliding out of the stories that almost catch hold of them, slippery fish oiled by modern speed and time. The other glitters have no patterns I can discern. They are random as if they have been tossed by a jeweler displaying his wares on a velvet cloth. Here we are. Take your pick.
It is perfect fit with what I have learnt about this new place from my parents by a kind of osmosis. Safrica is the country where there is gold to be had, money to be made. Gold and diamonds are everywhere. Riches spill out of the ground. They line the streets. At every street corner there is an opportunity. People must take them. There is even such a thing as black gold, which I will find out is not what I thought it was – it is not coal or a rare type of gold, something like a blue diamond. It means people to work for you get out the gold gold. There will be servants that will do what ever you tell them. They will clean your shoes and serve your food to you at your own table as if you were at a restaurant. They will even wash out your gatges, your underpants, and hang them politely on the line to dry, without turning a hair.
There are lines but there are no lions in the streets of Joe-berg. This is a joke, this is what foreigners think, stupid them. Lions are also gold. The manes that they toss, the tails that they lazily swing, their liquid glass eyes, pools flecked with green. radiating lines that bisect the ring of their golden irises, drawing you in like targets. The eyelashes of the lion in my picture book are curved like reeds in the wind. No, it is the ostrich who has such darling, curly eyelashes. The lion is shown next to his wife who is more like a smooth heavy cat than a lion and between their paws, cubs are frolicking. No, I am wrong again. Two slides have got stuck in the projector in a single slot. At the very moment I am flying above the glitters, my future spread out below me, the lions in my mind’s eye are not from the book that has been packed into a box in the Tel-Aviv flat, but the neon lions we would visit on Jan Smuts Avenue all through the early years of living in Johannesburg.
We pile into the car in the evening and drive to see the family of neon lions at the bend of the road. This is the sole purpose of the drive. My father pulls up onto the pavement on the opposite side of the road because it is a busy road and a blind corner as well. There are four lions, a father and a mother who do not move, and two cubs. It is the familiar familial configuration, fourness, a pattern bonded in outlines of glowing orange-red. The tail of the one cub wags back and fro and the other cub jumps right out of his dim neon skin on the ground into a bright new one suspended in the air, and back again. In and out of his skin. Up and down, up and down.
“I’m the one who’s jumping,” I blurt out, determined to get my claim in first. The words are not out and Sahar has countered with, “I dabs him! I want the one who’s jumping. He’s mine!”
“No, I got him first. You can be the wagging one.”
“He can’t be yours because he’s the youngest.”
Jerry, my brother, nine years younger, does not even come into the equation. Either he has not been born yet, or, if he has, his existence is completely ignored by us.
“Too bad because he’s already mine.”
It’s a bitter argument. We are prepared to fight till the death. Until, from the thrones upfront, the inevitable, “Stop it!” from Ma backed up with “Now you listen here …” from Dad.
Up and down I go. For a whole year I jump. I do not walk, I do not skip, I do not run. I jump.
My pretty aunt comes to visit from America with her new husband, an American this time. She was once married to Eli. Sahar and I were flower girls at the wedding which took place a little while before we left Israel. Ettie and Eli, a perfect match of words, but now I must crack this perfect name-twin open and accept Ettie and Howard. It’s a difficult thing to do, to give up the rhyme. Howard’s cheeks are like sponges but he is nice enough.
They have brought me an Etch-a-Sketch which I love. It is a sturdy red frame around a glass screen of soft silver powder that sticks to the glass except where you scrape it off with a point. I twiddle the knobs to make circles. Circles are the hardest because you’ve got to get both knobs turning at just the right rate. Mostly I get these flattened ovals. That’s when I’m not jumping. I jump where he can see me, in the garden when he is on the veranda, or when Sahar is talking to him, especially when Sahar is talking to him.
Up, down, up down. Look at me, don’t. Notice me, don’t.
When you fly over Joe-berg in the day, it’s the myriad blue swimming pools that are the surprise. At night, it’s the dark unlit rectangles in the mass of glitters. These are the mine dumps on its west and south side, mine dumps that reveal themselves in daylight to be great flat tables of golden sand arranged in tiers, the sides shored up with rows of weak sticks and thin green growth. My father had slid down them on a piece of corrugated iron in his youth, the lucky, wild boy from Krugersdorp whose parents abandoned him to a life of pranks and capers with which to regale us. But locked up in a car behind parents and squeezed against Saphta, the mine dumps were inaccessible to us. Buildings, roads and fences separated their lovely tawny flanks and us.
It was said that there was still gold in the sand, but to get one ingot (What a word!!!) you had to sift through the sand of a whole mine dump. It was just this side of maybe. If you started work right now, then, when you were all grown up, there it would be – an ingot on the shelf in your house, a small rough, bright brick glinting over the fire place.
At the Rand Easter Show they had an ingot on a table guarded by a man in uniform with a gun. If you could pick it up with one hand you could take it home. It was a trick, like the gold in the mine dump sand. No one could do it. “An ingot is heavier than a truck,” my father explained to us when we were disappointed that he could barely lift it up with two hands. My mother loved to say, “Your father is as strong as an ox,” but he is not strong enough to take us the ingot back home.
They had made a complete recreation of a mine at the show. People were packed into a cage, the lights went off and the cage was rocked about in the dark. Then they opened the cage on the other side and this was underground in the mine. It was a straight passage, slightly darkened. Three black men wearing hard hats with lights mounted on them held machines that drill into rock, but they were too noisy to use, so they each mimed it, holding the tip gently against the wall, saying, “Dura, dura, dura” as the people passed. I looked back and one of the men had lit up a brown paper cigarette as he sat slumped against a wobbling papier mache rock, his drill neatly leaning up against the wall, as tall as him, like a friend.
My pretty aunt and American uncle are taken to the mine dances because this is Africa, remember? and when guests arrive, we get to remember as well. The venue is a red earth bowl ringed with rows of planked seats so far apart that they seem suspended in the air. The stadium is comparatively empty and the conversations of the waiting spectators reverberate in the thin morning air. When he talks my father is performing for the crowd. You can see he knows everybody is listening to him. He looks around to check on the visitors’ responses to the small bedraggled dance troops that take turns to dance below us. He points out the obvious. That one is not really drunk, it’s just an act. Do you see the witchdoctor? He’s the one with all the skins.
The thing I like is this: the dancers seem almost not to be dancing, but kind of milling about, and the thought dawns that they will fail to entertain, that my father will not be able to impress his visitors. The drumming and whistling and the exotic dress – the skins and feathers and ankle rattles – will have to suffice. The tension becomes palpable until, WHAM! Gaboom, WHAM! Gaboom, WHAM! WHAM! WHAM! Without the least visible signal from the drums or from their leader, all the feet land in unison and like a twitch of a tail, a spasm of hurdling and shaking runs through the line. The movement works itself through and out the troop although one or two dancers, like echoes, still hang onto it well after the others have stopped and gone back to panting and milling about again. The wait, the expectation, and then, once again – WHAM!
When my aunt and uncle leave their suitcases are stuffed to the brim with curios – assegaais, zebra skins and wooden statues. They call it African Art. Does this mean that the zebra painted his own stripes? From my new uncle’s twanging mouth it is unquestionable like the way he says aluminum for aliminium.
But on that night, the night we came into land, I have no idea of what it is that makes up the patterns of lights below me except the things I make up. Safrica is the word I hear. It is not yet soured by the insertion of that “south’ which will occur when I start speaking English: Sour Africa. The future is lying open below me and I am a big baby who cannot yet read. As I turn the pages of my books, I make up nonsense sounds, not even words.
Inside the plane there was a thrumming and the seats were covered in a catchy material that rubbed into balls wherever it was touched by people over and over again and strange people were closed in around my family as if they knew them. What surprised me is that I could be in both places at once, amongst the tumbling, glittering lights outside and on my father’s lap in the other. Now I see that it is he that is holding me up, his hands on each side of my body as support as I slump against the window.
A baby has started to cry above the revving engines.
“It’s her ears,” says my mother who has been in a plane once before, and Saphta agrees and adds, “She doesn’t know where she is, waking up like this. Give her something to drink. She needs to suck,” even though, like mine, this is her very first trip by air. She is the expert on babies, she knows how to quieten a child like no other person.
At my window each pinprick of light is growing, opening up into a searchlight seeking me out. If I move my head even a tiny bit the lines move with me, penetrating the thick air bubble between the double glass. The lights stream and wobble as if they are under water, they fill out into ellipses, and then those are squeezed and squeezed until they are blotted out.
I feel movements in the seat next to mine, rustlings, passings. Only when my face is forced around and a sweetie is popped into my mouth – “Here, here, shsh..”- do I realise that it is I who have been crying.
“Suck, suck,” they are saying, Saphta leaning over my sister and my father’s face apologising to the fellow-passengers from over the top of his seat. What can I do? She’s a nudnik, this one.
Then the ground comes up to the plane and wants to swallow it and the plane’s belly is my belly, its dark flickering wings, rigid, yet vibrating, are my outstretched arms. The shuddering woosh of the engine is the sound of my cries, and through my window, I watch the glitters break up their hard mineral selves and turn into burning streaks growing tails, running wildly past me. There is a bump and a bit of a hop and another bump and the plane is now really screaming as if it is in terrible pain, going faster and faster. And with that first bump, the sweetie goes click against my teeth and I am thrown against my father and with the second, I am bumped right out of my body again. Back into the tiny black box with you! We have arrived in South Africa.