“How did if affect you, having your mother do that work in the townships back then?”
The question came from a social worker at my book launch in Knysna last year.
I laughed it off. “It didn’t affect me at all,” I said. “Except maybe that my mom often worked late, and there were many afternoons that I waited for her outside the library after it had closed. So now I’m paranoid about being late for anything, because I know what it”s like to be the one waiting.”
Recently, the same question came up again. I was out with an old friend: an ex-investigative journalist who’d discovered therapy – a dangerous combination when you”re on the receiving end of his probing questions.
I gave him a similar answer to the one I’d given that social worker, adding that even if my mother hadn’t been around much when I was little, my dad always was.
My friend didn’t buy it.
“There’s no way you weren’t affected,” he said.
I ignored him, and the conversation moved on to work; life in New York; the usual. And then somehow we landed on the topic of me and my ex-husband, and the marriage that was no more.
I told him about an incident years before, when my husband didn’t come home from a night out with friends. He’d texted me at midnight to say he was on his way, but when I woke up at 4am, he still wasn’t there. His phone went straight to voicemail and I didn’t hear from him for another five hours.
He was fine, of course (the clue being in ‘ex-husband’, not ‘late husband’). He’d had a few more drinks after the midnight text, and spent the night at a friend’s house rather than drunkenly manoeuvring his way home on a night bus.
But for those five hours between 4am and 9am, I was convinced that he was dead, imagining him being mugged and stabbed and bleeding to death on a dark street somewhere in South London.
By the time I got to work, my brain had processed the information, got over it, and gone to a strange, calm place where I was considering when to phone his parents, what to say to them when I did; even how to get into to his bank account to pay his half of our rent.
By the time he finally called, I was googling “stabbing South London” to verify my conviction.
“The thing is,” I said to my friend, “It wouldn’t have been such a big deal if he hadn’t texted me to say he was on his way.” I could feel myself getting worked up. “Because he knew that’s a thing in my family.”
My friend looked triumphant as memories long forgotten came back to me all at once, falling into place like Tetris blocks. I’m five years old, sitting on my haunches in the corridor above our dining room, peering through the wooden slats at my dad below. He’s on phone, calling the police, the hospital and eventually the morgue. All because my mother wasn’t back from the townships at the time she’d said she’d be.
When I saw my brothers last Christmas, I told them this story.
Being older than me, their memories were even more vivid. “Do you remember you and me, standing in the kitchen crying?” asked Rudolph. I genuinely didn’t.
“Ons het gedink Ma was dood,” he said. We thought Mom was dead. And the whole time, our father was on the phone, making those calls. Call after call after call.
Suddenly it all made sense; not just my reaction that night in London when my husband didn’t come home, but also the incredibly tangible fear that had set in from the moment we’d got married: that he would die. Because in my mind, modelled on my parents’ example, that was what marriage was: the constant fear of one of you dying; a fear that, at a time when my mother was going into a conflict zone during riots and unrest, was all too real.
Having realised this, I don’t exactly know what to do with the information.
But if I ever overreact when you don’t turn up after you’d said you were on your way, I hope you understand.