Saturday, September 24, 2011

Sort of Spring

In some ways this is the worst time of year.
Waiting for Summer.

I took my daughter shopping on Saturday. I had noticed that she was looking particularly bedraggled. It was probably not really her, as such. Everything looks that way to me at this time of year.
The soggy sad shivering end of a season that simply will not die.

But died is what most of her jeans have done, with splits in the knees and her skinny's suffering from winter weight gain. And  then there are those tired winter woolies that keep on having to be pulled out from the back of the cupboard because, oh dear, its chilly again.

I conned myself into Spring. For a day. For a shopping spree. The shops, in case you haven't noticed, are bursting with Springiness. They made me feel the same. For a short time.

I am a very bad shopper. My daughter, is worse. She was grumpy by the time she had sloped off to the changing rooms for the first time only, heavily laden. I was grumpy by the time she came out. I got grumpier as I was forced to stand in the narrow changing room passageway, as she tossed clothes at me from inside the cubicle. I was denied entry. Her body, which was created in my womb, has now become a High Priority Secret.

This is strange to me. I have always been quite free and easy about bodies, perfect or not, with their wobbly bits holding not that much fascination, one way or the other. Bodies are bodies. Maybe its the nurse in me, or maybe the artist, or maybe I have just forgotten what its like to be thirteen.
More than likely. I have forgotten a lot. Like what it feels like, to try on one garment after another in a tiny space, with a mirror that reduces ones bodily proportions to those of a vertically challenged circus person that people might pay to see..

For many years now I have used the same trolley for my clothes as I do for my mince and veg.
Mostly my wardrobe is made up of the type of garments that have labels in Small Medium or Large, or Extra Large, for that matter. Trying on is really not necessary. The rest of my collection has simply 'happened' via jumble sales and other people's delightful cast offs.

So, you understand, my daughter really hasn't had a shopping role model.
In other words, its really not her fault.
She hated it, but we emerged with a couple of items. I think the most joy both of us had was finding some really 'cool' stuff for her brother who, at 17, has less interest in shopping than he does in shower gel, and that is saying something.

I blame the time of 'Sort of Spring' that we are in.
I eye my sheepskin boots with something akin to nausea most mornings, sliding them on with a 'not again' sort of sigh. I cannot believe that at the end of last Autumn I felt excited about boots.

How I long for slip slops, sun hats and loose cotton tops.
Of cause my daughter cannot yet wear the clothes she begrudgingly bought. We are having a cold spell again, and those purple 'chubbies' are back out in full force.
Who can blame her?

Pass the blanket.

Thursday, September 8, 2011


One day this week I helped out in a soup kitchen. 
The kind folk here at the Methodist Church in Knysna dispense containers of soup to over a hundred hungry people, every Tuesday and Thursday. And there are a few other soup kitchens too, in other parts of town.

I was quite sick that day, and as a result experienced it all through a feverish haze.
Still, I have dispensed soup before, and when L picked me up, and took me home, to fall headlong into my sick bed, the memories tumbled around my head before I slept.

Times spent in such different realities to my own linger on in my mind, anyway, like some dream or hallucination.
Memories of spaces and shadows falling into grotesque shapes, under bridges, under foggy, dim, street lights, late at night, came back to me in my delirius sleep. 
I remembered other times spent with people who live on the street, who gather in dark corners, mostly out of sight, with some security only lent by a concrete wall or a reinforced pillar, holding up a highway, way up above.

Those in need of soup, to be sipped, slowly, into a body not much used to food, can be found in these sorts of places. 
We joined them, a twenty something me and a couple of others, under the P E freeways, a long time ago.
Port Elizabeth had a docklands like no other South African city. It was bounded by a row of strip joints and sleazy nightclubs in old warehouses, which let out into the underbelly of the freeway network. 
It was a labyrinth of concrete pylons, holding up highways going no where - a world of cold cement and tar-kept back from the sea, by chicken wire fences, and a row of faceless buildings,with the waves  so near you could smell them crashing in the cold air curling round.

I remember fire lit faces with toothless smiles.
The people gathered under the bridges, warming themselves around those fires, mostly smelt incredibly bad. I, then not much accustomed to them, recoiled a little. But, I had a friend who brought her small, three year old daughter with her, and she let those dimly lit women dandle her, which they loved to do, and stroke her little smooth head, and she was not a bit afraid. 
And so, I let my hand be held, by one lady, who, still somewhat drunk, wanted to sing me a song, in exchange for my offered, polystyrene cup of soup. 
Everything changed for me after that.

Similar hands took soup from me again on Tuesday. Hands with long nails, ingrained with grime. Thin wrists emerging from stiff cuffs, ringed round with dirt. Grey hair tangled into dreadlocks, hanging down alongside thin, crusty and lined faces. 
They sat on the wall in the sun, and waited for their number or their name to be called, graciously accepting soup and samp, from my hand to theirs. I had had no part in the expense or preparation of the soup, and wondered at myself,  in between helping to wash containers, dry up, dispense, receive, smile, chat briefly, lapsing into my words used for those unknown to me, 'love', 'sweetheart', ' my dear'...

That turn of phrase, resident now in my speech, found its way there during my time in England. It has settled into my vocabulary, comfortably, cheek by jowl with 'skat', 'liefie' and other all encompassing terms that cover a wide variety of folk, and roll, effortlessly off my tongue.

I used those comfort words first, when working with the Homeless in Guildford, Surrey.
There, in that lap of luxurious Southern England, I spent some time, distributing soup and sandwiches. The Homeless there, when unable to make use of the various shelters, also gather in similar dark corners. 
We found them, in the icy winter, by breaking through the barracades of back, boarded up windows in a multitude of 'squats' - a dark warren of connected terraced houses, abandoned and derelict.

Finding our way in,  in the freezing dark, was the stuff of clothes, jeans and arms, being hooked on nails and shattered pieces of wood. It was clambering up, over, through, crumbling, tumbling, falling down stairs stuff, and missing a pothole and losing your foothold in the ripped up floorboards, and following a thin beam from a headtorch lamplight stuff  - at least that is how I remember it.

The people we found were wrapped round in a blanket and still and stiff with cold and alcohol and drugs. I am not sure how welcome our sudden, bursting upon them  presence was, really. 
But stumble over them we did.
And they mostly sat up and took the Sainsbury sandwiches from us -  yesterdays fare-  but quite exotic with  tasty chicken tikka, or prawn cocktail fillings, inbetween two soya seed, sourdough or rye layers of slightly curling bread.

They, the forced to rise for us, recipients of our worthy gifts, were grateful for the most part. Mad for the rest. 
One man, I remember, jumped at us, and swiped at us with a plank of skirting board, like a raging demon in the dark. We beat a hasty retreat and I panicked that I would not find my way out, but I did, and tumbled out, back into the dark, tangle weed garden. Quite safe.

I will, I think, be back at the soup kitchen, this Tuesday. 
Being older, and more cynical about myself, I do wander why I do it. 
Without thinking too long and deep,  my more philosophical side might present an argument about balance or justice or just doing good.
But probably its just because I like it. 
Just because I like to do it. 
Feed people.

And I like them, those of  the stripped away gaze, and the open eyes, of the stale sweat smell, and the stench of alcohol and dirt. I like the held out hand, the bad toothed smile.
Maybe it is a kind of love. 
I surely hope so. Then it is something more than like, and sense or understanding is not necessary. 
No answer. No solution to be found.
Just a cup, from hand to hand.

Thursday, September 1, 2011


The Ballet came to Knysna.
An old friend bought me and my daughter each a ticket. Turned out she bought a load of tickets and on the day we all followed her, splendid as she is with grey plait and jaunty hat, to take our front row seats, amongst the other ballet dames, with grey coiffed hair and legs crossed neatly at the ankles, in the Knysna NG Kerk Hall.

Ballet is not new to me, although seeing it so close up is not something my daughter takes for granted.
My sister did ballet for years. We started out together as little girls, me dropping out early and moving sideways to the more heavy handed (or footed) tap. Even the satisfying clickity clacks bored me pretty quickly and I moved out yet again. I found my niche in drama as siblings tend to unconsciously give space to each other , leaving my sister to the delights, and there are many, of ballet.

The most impressive things about ballet, to me as a child, were the concerts. Concerts and costumes. I remember my mother hunting down seamstresses and fumbling, panic stricken, with paper templates and dress patterns. A sewer and a maker of anything creative my mother was not. She was a secretary and an earthbound gardener. She still is.

Ballet teachers are a different breed. My memories of them are of tiny flexible feet, fluttery fingers,  and feathery beehive hairdos. They are eternally cast, for me, against a backdrop of church halls and rows of little girls with buns, clattering around and thumping jumping, spinning and falling.

The soundtrack is one of piano playing, by a retired ballet dancer, looking up and over all from behind her spectacles, while the teacher loudly shouts out single words - in French - pliƩ, pirouette - and first position, second position, third...
It was all fascinating for a very young me, sitting on the church chairs at the back with my mother and other mothers, fretful over the next concert and the whispered expense of it all, the bother...
But it always came together in the end. Temple Bell costumes, Thailand style, scratchy I thought, and stiff, with a large headdress which my sister wore without a murmur of complaint. She only vomited a lot, as I recall. Excitement did that to her, always. And so, she glided out from the wings, in tutus, Polish Mazerka peasant dresses or as a Temple Bell pretty pale beneath all that make up on a totally empty stomach, with my mother praying silently that she would not faint.

As it turns out Ballerinas and empty stomachs seem to go together.
You have to be light.
There's a lot of leaping and jumping and catching that goes on. I saw that close up in Knysna the other day. The dancers were right on top of us all. I loved being so close up. Its so much nicer than looking down or up to a performance on a stage. I did that often in the P E Opera House, growing up, where we regularly went to see Capab Productions and Phyllis Spira. Once two men stood up in long black coats and threw single stemmed roses at her feet. I was awestruck by that, feeling, for a moment quite transported to London or Paris, forgetting the limited charms of the Opera House, with its tiny stage and musty dimly lit foyer.

My sister danced on that Opera House stage later, many times, when she got older. I did moon over the star dressing room, the tutus all squashed together on a rail, the strange turned out feet and the delicate but hollow thunk thunk ballerinas make rushing about in points.
I tried to be very small backstage, so as to be smiled upon by a totally transformed face, now sporting eyelashes as long as a birds feather.

Oh, the magic of it all!
The magic of the dance does linger. I dreamt of the Knysna visitors that night.
I remembered
the hooks and eyes holding the extraordinary tutus of lace feathers sequins satins brocade and gossamer floating tightly together
the delightful lycra bottoms of the men
quivering fingers and gently perspiring foreheads
glossy lipstick smiles exactly tilted necks arms elbows knees ankles toes
lifts and legs and tight holds releases spins stops..

There is always an element of imperfection to any live performance, a crackle on the soundtrack, a piece of loose cellotape, a slipped strap, a feather fluttering down, a wiff of cigarette smoke from a fleeting flying figure...
the illusion slips
I enjoy the little girls, who run onto the sheets of floor covering laid down specially for the dancers, once they have skipped finally behind the velvet curtain. At their age no imperfections can be seen.

And me, I was transported.
Probably by their awesome commitment almost more than anything else. Their work. Their striving and attaining perfection in their craft. Their ability to transport me, in lifts and tilts, and to be so balanced...

I remembered other church halls.
Thanks Fi.