I have taken to publishing an online magazine of lefty stuff. I have just put issue 8 online, its a joy to work on and, as yet, I am not thwarted by the lack of comments.
I publish it through Yumpu which allows me to upload a pdf for free and it can be viewed/read by anyone for free.
To view/read current and previous issues of Sheep in the Road please go to http://issuu.com/handoverfistpress
where you will find a page dedicated to ‘Sheep in the Road’ … also on this website you can view all photobooks, books and artwork.
Publish online and be damned!
A week in the life of James Beckett Rutherford
3 July: Making plans to go over to South Africa after my sister, Anne, lets me know that dad is back in hospital. In a phone call last night she told me how they got him to the hospital. Nancy phoned Anne to say he needed to go back. Anne tried to get him into the hospice that Noel went to before he died, but they only take cancer and AIDS, then Nancy phoned again and said he was going back to the same hospital, St Augustines, that he was discharged from a week or so ago.
And apparently Nancy was having to wash and wipe him after toilet, etc. so it sounds like he is in a bad way, but I expect he is still smoking. Anyway, they had to get Bruce to carry him down the stairs and out of the flat, then there was a bit of a hitch at the hospital where no one knew where to go – and it just so happened that some black people gave them wrong directions and then, the story goes… Bruce found someone white who corrected them – I’m sure this happened but fascinating how old Suid Afrika is still there, and hard to believe that colour can be so correct… otherwise why mention it? Anne visited dad later and he had been fitted with a catheter because he had been unable to stop wetting the bed, and when she left she thought he had looked a bit better, even though he had an oxygen mask on.
A month or two ago Anne emailed me to tell me of his health deterioration, that she had visited him in the flat where he was smoking with one breath and then taking a hit from his oxygen tank the next, and being pleased with himself as if he’d found the miracle cure, and I’d remarked if it wasn’t so sad I would have burst out laughing to see such a spectacle. Both he and Nancy suffer from emphysema after years as heavy smokers, but now that Nancy had quit it was particularly thoughtless of him to smoke in front of her…
9 July: Its Wednesday, nearly seven in the morning and Sasha, one of the dogs, has come into the room, her head seeming to work the rest of her body and wagging her whole rear end – both dogs seem to have recognised me from our previous visits – unlike my dad, who maybe, just maybe, knows who I am… I remember suggesting to Callum, my grandson, that he should write all his thoughts down just after his dad, James, had suddenly died of a drugs overdose – so I am determined to write it all down, as time goes by memory can be so selective.
We eventually got a flight organised for me – and Ann, my darling wife, and I set off for Birmingham Airport on Sunday the 6th, at 10.30am. Emirates flew me to Dubai on the first leg of a very cosmopolitan and exotic flight, a plane full of what may have been every variety of human being, observing and listening was a delight. And I was one of the few not even bothered by mischievious and bored small dark children– sometimes I wonder at my reversed ‘racism’ and thought, if the children had been spoilt white would I have been the same…? Already I could pick out a few disdainful white South Africans and I took a perverse pleasure in watching their reaction at being in close proximity to Asians, Arabs and big black women!
It was the middle of the night when we landed and outside Dubai was 35° but inside the huge air-conditioned hall of the airport it just seemed warm as I wandered through the Duty Free, fake giant palm trees, truly grand opulance combined with painted reliefs of Arabian Nights and a phoney Irish Bar – well it did sell Guinness I suppose. Our stop here was a bit longer than it needed to be and after sitting on the cold marble floor, hoping to cool down but only losing some feeling in my legs, we ended up, still very cosmopolitan and being squeezed into a sparate lounge for the Dubai to Johannesburg flight, where every seat was taken, being forced to face each other.
There was me, being such a smug observer, still enjoying the obvious discomfort of some white South Africans when I faced my own dilema. An old white guy sat opposite me, staring me hard in the eye, beside him, and with him, sat an attractive black woman. This couple seemed to be shunned by both the small community of white South Africans, whose male components had even adopted me into their midst with their knowing winking and smiling, and by the groups of black South Africans. At first I just continued my observing in a detached way, taking in this variety of human sorts and letting my mind evaluate their attitudes, then I saw the hard staring guy was still staring at me, but I wanted him to know that my staring wasn’t the disapproving kind, I couldn’t care less about his relationship with a black person, my eyes looked everywhere but at him, but in the corner of my eye I could see and feel his glare – he was a hurt man. To my relief we were soon herded onto the plane, being very briefly exposed to the 35° which made the plane so cool.
Dad was flitting in and out of my thoughts, stories told to me and Ann when we had visited Milngavie a couple of years ago, like when his favourite older brother, Davie, who was working nights got my dad up and dressed for school in the middle of the night… and dad’s favourite retold tale about his dog which hung around Milngavie and stole fish off the fishmongers slab. I had brought a video camera to record anything he wanted to pass on, and this laptop loaded with photos of his great-grandchildren, and a card from Tanya and the boys – I was even trying to think of jokey ways to talk to him, always presuming he would be compos mentis, about death and life… remembering him as he was last time I had seen him, a couple of years ago when he had visited us for a week or so and we had chatted and chatted. Then the shock as I saw him in the hospital bed, almost unrecognisable, unshaven, sunken cheeks, the palest blue eyes flitting about with only the very merest hint of recognition – and that may have been wishful thinking on my part. Oh dad, I’ve arrived too late to burdon you on your journey from this life with all my excess baggage. It soon became very apparent that all my plans were void, here was a man whose mind had left the building, he was finding it hard to breathe, he looked like he was trying to focus, but on what? He did seem to know me and did ask where Ann was, I’d like to believe he knew I was there – but his countenance was just barely recognisable as my dad. Visiting time was an hour of mumblings, abrupt ‘what!’s where he almost seemed like he was going to say something to us, and then away again, very little made any sense, some ramblings about being chairman of a club and ‘there was some monkey business going on’ and that frightened look. I remembered as children how we used to come into mom and dads’ bedroom, when we lived in Hillary, on a Sunday morning and all three of us kids climb into his bed where he would read Robert Burns to us in his strongest Scots accent, ‘Wee, sleekit, cow’rin’, tim’rous beastie, O what a panic’s in thy breastie…’ – its you dad, its you! Oh dear…
Tuesday the 8th, and the second visit, he had been moved, and it was obvious to us and probably all in his ward that he had messed his nappy. Nancy, his second wife, was with us and obviously upset and distressed to see him in this condition. He seemed aware of our presence and the fact that he had shit himself. For such a proud, sometimes distant but always independent man to be reduced to this utterly helpless state is very very sad, and were he to realise his predicament would surely kill him, so fortunately or unfortunately he is still with us, but not really there at all. He was changed to ooohs, ahs and a very happy sounding giggle, which made us all wonder what the young nurse was up to behind those screens, once clean we again circled the bed waiting for his mind to return. But other than an almost frightened look of unrecognition and whatever they had fed him continuing to fill his clean nappy, with the smell causing his bed-neighbour to have handcream rubbed into his hand by a forced-smiling woman and then shoved under his nose, nothing.
Having said all that, as we left Anne had the most wonderful smile and hand salute directed at her, where he regained the face I recognise, but only for a few seconds and then he was gone again. A mixture of envy and generousity swept me – if he had returned for that brief period, it was a wonderful recognition for her efforts – Anne is trying to arrange Frail Care at a hospice as the hospital can do no more for him, it’s just a matter of making him comfortable for the rest of his days.
Wednesday the 9th, and during a visit to dad and Nancy’s flat I see that book of poems – the one from which the Burns poem was read from all those Sundays ago – I pick it up and find the poem, I ask Nancy if I can have it and then hold it close, all those memories tumbling out… After a day of meeting a social worker who seemed unaware that dad was in hospital and flitting about with Anne and Nancy trying to get this Frail Care set up, them two inside Anne’s bucky and me in the back, trying to look all casual as I watch the traffic trailing us through the Berea – visiting Natal Settlers – an elderly people’s home just below the Cemetry which just happened to be almost opposite Clivia Court where we had lived before I left in 1964!
Mentioning that we had lived in Clivia Court to the guy in the office at Natal Settlers elicited this reply, ‘Oh yes you were lucky to live there then, I lived nearby and as our neighbours died or left THEY (knowing look) moved in and soon there were fights and bottles tumbling down the stairs, and girls about and …you know…’ Shit, this new South Africa is still riddled with a racist cancer.
Third visit: Dad was a bit more agitated, he had on a blue gown with ties at the back and a matching nappy, he was soothed a bit when I held his hand, but his gaunt frightened expression, eyes darting and widening as if in shock, remained almost constant throughout our visit. I can only imagine that if he were there, facing death was scaring the shit out of him. I was transported back to Hillary, my mom was digging for a thorn in my foot and my dad was distracting me with tales of bravado – he was an observer-gunner in a Tiger Moth and he opened his shirt to show me his shrapnel wounds on his chest – a story I believed until he told me he had made it up – nearly thirty years later on one of his visits. All I wanted to do was hug the life out of him, but didn’t for fear of rejection – he was not a touchy-feely person – he was out of reach, maybe already gone.
We wondered if he slept at all, and couldn’t he be made more comfortable, morphine or something… Anne noticed something odd in his mouth which I thought were his teeth come loose, but when she scooped it out it was the remnants of a previous meal just hanging about in his mouth. He seemed in pain and in some distress and we all agreed we just wanted him free of pain and comfortable for the remaining days of his life. Both Anne and Nancy approached the nurses with this concern but were fobbed off – he’s not a priority as he is not really ill, he should not really be there, and they are just keeping an eye on him? It seems he may have a place at Natal Settlers, if the paperwork goes OK, but only from Monday, and that’s five days away…
In the evening Anne, Jade and I make a huge vegetable lasagne for Bruce and Madelaine, Ruth and Harry, Jade and Robbie, Anne and Charles, Mel, and me. Its OK. Anne mentions her plans to move to Bethulie in the Orange Free State to Ruth who, surprisingly, is dismissive of the idea to the point of being rude – I thought she would have been supportive of an adventurous idea like this, but there you go.
Ann phones like she has each night and I tell her about the day, we both end up sobbing and I really miss her.
Anne gives me a shake, it’s early Thursday the 10th, ‘dad died at about 2 last night’. I am relieved, happy and sad, he is gone.
Talking about him brings tears to my eyes, and then you realise you can’t talk for fear of just breaking down and the conversation dies in a strangled half sentence and averted watery eyes. We set off to tell Nancy, and she is very upset repeating that ‘she knew…’ We meet Trevor, Nancy’s son who is deaf, and I have a longish chat with him where I get the feeling that Nancy’s plans to have him live with her and eventually leave him the flat are not what Trevor wants – he wants to go over to England and live with his sisters…? Anne and I find that Nancy agrees with us when we say that dad would not have wanted any fuss or religion at his funeral. Then, with some documents we set off to find Doves the Undertakers. A friendly man called Dirk talked us through it and made arrangements for a service in their smallest chapel, 12 noon Friday. Dad’s ashes would be scattered in the Garden of Rememberance.
Death, a concept of sweet taboo, not to be talked about too openly, but can be written about surely – Anne, who claims to be a born again Christian, will believe dad is in heaven, with mom and Brian, and all his brothers and sisters, and so on, and that’s fine… whereas I find it very difficult, with all the inconsistencies thrown up by humans trying to explain the unexplainable, to believe in a higher being so cruel and merciless and consequently believe you live and then you die, in between you procreate like all species, giving encouragement to your offspring and making a mark in the history of some – and in that way you live on… I think dad thought the same way, but we never discussed it. I also think in life, because we humans have an ability– however feeble and narrow – to imagine and also reason methodically and intellectually, we will use whatever we need to get through this life, and if you need a crutch because you cannot face the fact that we are just a minute, and probably insignificant, part of the 4,600 million year evolution of the gaseous third planet of a minor sun in an infinite universe… then go for it! Reel me in, I’m done.
A visit to Jade and Robbies’ neat little house cements arrangements for the funeral when Jade agrees to make a sort of announcement and we would play some Frank Sinatra. A slight hiccup has risen to the top of the cup when Nancy, who agreed with the no religion bit, has now been influenced by Vivian, one of her friends, who thinks there should be a minister … or people will talk!
Ann phones after Anne and Charles have had an early night, the phone is in their room, so my end of the conversation is a bit subdued as two people stare at my back from their beds, Ann is very upset – more than I ever was and I wish I was there to console her. She is going to phone Ian in Milngavie. I miss her very much and cannot wait to get back. It’s been a long week and tomorrow concludes ‘my dad’. I think I might read out the ‘Vapour Trails’ story, well it depends…
Friday the 11th, I go with my nephew Bruce to visit his workplace, Bramprint, and get shown around – meeting Mervyn an Indian Hindu and ‘his brother’ (sorry the name eludes me), a muslim, who works on the printing press next to him. As I’m waiting for Bruce, who has to get a delivery together, Mervyn explains the sign ‘Lower your gaze’ above his machine – flirting with women is OK, but infidelity is wrong, so lower your gaze – refreshingly succinct. Bruce takes me to Doves, with CD player, Frank and my laptop with a couple of pics of dad.
We go in at about ten to twelve and set up laptop and CD player, we are not expecting many, if any, but about seven or so bowls club people turn up. I am surprised that there doesn’t seem to be a coffin, and that there are not any ‘mates’ that Nancy could have contacted, but then I remember he never was one for mates, and that I suppose the bowls club bunch were his pals – although none speak to me or Anne. Jade does her welcome chat and explains about no minister and that we would just like to play some music dad liked and those present should take a moment to celebrate and remember the life of James Beckett Rutherford. I’m trying desperately to think of dad but end up thinking of mom, and Brian, both I never got to say goodbye to either.
Added to a long list of serious illnesses Brian had to contend with my sibling teasing, I sometimes teased him until he cried… what an awful shit brother I must have been. Pulling myself back from the welling tears… Dad… yes he would come home from work, sit in his chair reading the paper with us all huddled around the radio, and as the evening wore on the shuffling turning of the pages of the Daily News would be replaced by a jerk-collapsing of the broadsheet as it crumpled over his face… and then that magnificent snoring.
Funny, I don’t ever remember him having a bath – and never saw him naked – even when we went swimming. In the changing rooms, he would change around a corner. Oh yes… swimming in the Municipal Baths in the centre of Durban was an early memory, where he could swim underwater from one end to the other – something I tried to copy… and that, I conclude, really sums it all up – my whole life has been about trying to please him, almost all achievements have been done with one eye looking for that spoken approval which never came, or to be fair, only seemed to come rarely and was muted to a whisper… oh well, goodbye dad.
Nancy just hangs her head and Anne smiles a bit. Frank croons Blue Moon, Always, When you’re smiling and Anything goes – Jade switches it off and thanks everyone for coming. Some, well all, of the bowls club crowd look a bit puzzled, but that’s it. Nancy mentioned that no one actually enquired about dad while he was in hospital and that they were only here now that the club had been told he was dead – also that they would be flying the flag at half-mast!
It’s almost like, after my mother died in 1969, I knew very little of his life with Nancy, and now here we were reclaiming our dad, but not really, as Nancy was married to dad for longer than my mom, but it kind of felt like that – anyway I think dad would have liked the brevity and respect of the occasion.
All during this visit I’ve had a wad of British pounds in my pocket, I wanted to change them into Rands but by design, I think, Anne has not taken me anywhere near an exchange – so I have not really paid my way… I leave £60 and a small lantern (gift) to light their way and maybe buy some knickknacks for their move to Bethulie.
The flights home are separated with a mind-numbing, middle of the night, seven and a half hour stop in Dubai, where all manner of humanity come and go, leaving me sat on one of the few seats, tired and dazed… and then I’m in Birmingham, Ann and home.
A letter to Thorpe & Hands about dad’s will
Dear Mr Phillips
Thank you for your letter dated 25 July, and your condolences.
Your letter included several sheets showing a copy of my fathers’ Will, an Inventory: Immovable and Movable Property, and on page 4 – Claims in Favour of the Estate…? This page 4, which I have been told by my sister, was included by mistake by you, and obviously refers to someone else’s Will… someone who had considerably more to leave than my father… caused some initial confusion and could easily have led to some embarrassing confrontations within the family. It would have, or has, further compounded a very sad time where my father died in a rather distressed state, taking a week or so to deteriorate from a very proud and independent man into someone almost unrecognisable, uncomfortable, incontinent, helpless, fearfully agitated and seemingly unable to recognise us when we visited him in a hospital which barely tolerated his presence… All in all, your letter, containing its still uncorrected inclusion, seems to me to complement the rather shoddy way my father was treated as he died – with no respect! I was also told by my sister that you would be sending another letter, which would have the correct details – neither she, nor I, have received this letter… As a matter of courtesy, an attempt at belated respect and just common decency… or just to earn your fee with some dignity…, please send me, and my sister, the correct details and let us sign whatever we have to sign.
Of course, if page 4 actually refers to my father and his estate, I appologise for the tone of this communique, but please explain, in layman’s terms, the discrepancy between R314000 mentioned in the meat of your letter and the R1074308 totalled up at the end of page 4?
A beautiful concluding email from my sister, Anne, after sending her the whole story above…
Thanks fot the letter, and it was quite somthing to read about dad again. I had a little cry (of course). You are lucky to have some nice memories of dad when we were young, I don’t remember him reading to us, I only remember him playing cricket with us at Hillary and that not too clearly. Slight memory of me going down the hill on that little cart thing he used to slide under his car when he worked on it, and coming off face first and him rubbing my hair… and then the only thing in Bellair was him sitting on a chair on the verander with his legs up on the wall and his balls were sticking out squashed on the side of his pants, I went and told mom and she woke him up (what a memory!). Not much else and when we stayed in the flat in Park Street nothing much of dad, more of mom with her tablets and walking around looking drunk and not wanting people to know she was my mom, terrible! Then in Clivia Court – not much about dad at all – only when I met Noel and he wouldn’t say hello to him so we used to meet outside! and the most important thing – he used to take me out and drop me off and pick me up every weekend, but we never spoke? Maybe a hello, that was it (so different with our kids ) – and you and Apples (Hedley Appleby) bunking and the most awful time at the Umbilo flat when I was going out with Noel (still) and mom tried to be polite, but the three of us sitting in the dining room whispering (not to disturb dad) and she always brought out pictures of you and Ann to show (anyone who came to visit, which was hardly anyone), and was Joanna born before mom died? sorry I don’t remember dates at all. Mom was usually always sick or zonked on her tablets and I can remember how awful I felt coming home every day because I never knew if she was going to be OK or funny (I really wish I could have that time again and be me now, not the stupid inconsiderate impatient daughter as I was then) how I long for mom …
And Brian as well, he was such a lost soul, not too many friends, couldn’t get on with dad, didn’t like Nancy. He came to stay with Noel, Paul and I and then we couldn’t handle his moods (smoking dagga). He used to read romsam lumpa (something like that) and throw coins which told him things? can’t remember what now, but he used to climb out and in the window at night, instead of using the door, and do you know what I did Alan, you will hate me … Noel said we couldn’t have Brian staying with us when we moved to Tongaat, so I told him and just left him with his little pile of belongings … and thats when he went to Guys’ to stay – he had nowhere else. When he died I felt so guilty … and mom, why didn’t I get her help … what was wrong with me?
Anyway I have cried this whole time – reading your note and writing this one, now I have a headache … I really don’t deserve three wonderful children who think I’m the best mom alive.
What a bladdy letter, I was going to tell you about the ducks, ect … don’t know what happened, Old guilt that I can’t get rid of maybe … can’t even remember what mom looked like.
Hope this letter doesn’t upset you but I am sending it. Will send you a cheerful one later after I write to Paul … going to watch a bit of tv now to get my mind clear of these dreary thoughts ….
Published in Writing Some Wrongs
Hand Over Fist Press, 2007
Pedro, Bellair Government School and some blubbering …
Days start to shorten, clocks go back. It’s that Sunday in the year again when we commit the same unnecessary confusion – I think Ann puts one clock back an hour and I do another, time zones can vary by two hours from room to room depending on our diligence. Both Monday and Tuesday I was awoken an hour early by one alarm clock, then spending a befuddled five minutes wandering the house, stubbing toes, muttering and checking clocks. Trying to find that clock with the trustworthy face to confirm I have woken too early and, once satisfied, being unable to sleep that loose vagrant hour away – my mind suddenly agile and alert, tripping on memories.
Mind-jogged I recall a round faced boy who often seemed to be in my class as I progressed through Bellair Government School. Names like Rogan Graham, Sandy Thomas, Anthony Dowdall, David Pullen, Derek Keegan, Martin Gardner, Podgy Goodwin, Roland something and Robin BabyWaters still linger from those formative years, but the exotic, easily tongue-tripped Pedro Avellini was the name I pulled out when quizzed by my nephew Paul for people I remembered from my school days. It’s 1997 and we are staying with my sister in Pinetown, Kwa Zulu Natal – it’s my first trip back to South Africa since I left in 1964.
Realising I was off at a tangent again and finding a pen and paper before these acute observations and fleeting quicktime movies of farce, slapstick and madness evaporate, I start to scribble knowing full well that when it comes time to transcribe I won’t be able to read half of it.
‘My first year at school, 1953, Miss Edgecombe’s class held in what later became the woodwork room where I, several years later, cut my finger with a tennon saw. That first year I was introduced to that smell of wooden floors that had been washed with some kind of disinfectant – that became the familiar aroma of school – bottle tops as counters and the gradual realisation that you could not rub out pencil errors with spit on your finger without making a hole in the paper. Oh yes, and that year we all got a coronation mug.’
‘1953 also saw my one and only active appearance on a sports day. The occassion being possibly marred by which ever way you want to look at it – in the 50 yard dash, my tacky coming off in the race and me stopping to pick it up – I prefer to see it as one of life’s calls, but it probably brought as many tears to the eyes of those watching as it it did to me. Morning assembly for the whole school, girls to the left and boys to the right, lined up in rows according to year and class, youngest in the front to oldest at the back. It took me a couple of years to realise that the hymns we sang by rote had actual words to them that meant something, and later that it was ‘All things bright and beautiful…’ and not ‘All things that bite are beautiful’.’
Pedro Avellini: I remembered his name more than the boy, but he was in my class some of the years so he is in class photographs salvaged from my dad’s box. As I recall he was one of those boys who, like me, lived in Hillary but went to Bellair School. But unlike me when we had PE or there were sides being picked in the playground, in the very hierarchical way teams were selected, he was usually picked early by the likes of Sandy Thomas or David Fielding, I was one of those gangly boys left until last – but not the very last. I would have been truly insulted if Richard Wilkinson or Robin Baby Waters were selected before me. Pedro was solid, a truly symmetrically round face topped with black brylcreemed hair. In the last year at Bellair, before we all went off to our chosen High Schools, he and the rest of the class were witness to my blubbering in answer to Mr Williams’, ‘Which High School have you been accepted in Alan?’ My parents had just not followed procedure and where everyone else in class had been accepted at the high school of their choice, I was left to wonder my future, head in hands, tears of embarrassment.
‘On my first day at high school I accompanied my mother to DHS where she made some arrangement (?) with the headmaster, Wrinkles McIver – the result being me accepted in at this prestigious speckled-boater-school, but squeezed into a class of no-hopers, some had been in the third form for 3 years and most lessons were ‘bait the teacher’ affairs. Consquently, lacking the character to overcome this situation, I became a lack-lustre student. Pedro, by the way, went to Glenwood High School, rival to DHS, and also the school my brother Brian went to – presumably to escape my long shadow.’
Surprisingly to all casually assembled in my sister’s spacious living room, Avellini was also a name Paul recognised from his work as a Safety Consultant, the Avellini Brothers is a firm he has done work for, but now, sadly, Pedro wishes to be called Peter.
The blues of Ali Farka Toure, the cranked up guitars of Zimbabwe’s Four Brothers, twists and turns of Franko’s OK Jazz, Bembeya Jazz and Orchestra Boabab – the lion’s growl of Mahlahtini and the sweet answering call of the Mohatella Queens, the bold, clearly devoted Baaba Maal, Youssou n’Dour and Salif Keita – the voices, the impenetrable lyrics, the mystique, the glorious rhythms, colour and range of a continent electrified. And then there was Andy Kershaw, Radio One’s (and then Radio Three’s) world music dj.
I was hooked, and with a group of people – Steve who became Yusuf, Joe, Billy, and others – collectively called Beat the Border, promoted World Music in Gloucestershire, where I, as Hand Over Fist Press, produced the artwork for posters and leaflets. Below are some music posters from the 1980’s …
THE SEA 1964–1966
Earlier it had been another sleepy afternoon, deckhands in their denim workclothes; some modified into shorts, some splattered with red oxide paint, but all with their knife and marlin spike dangling from a belt, out scraping and painting the bulkheads on the hot metal foredeck. The wheelhouse doors were wide open, trying unsuccessfully to entice a cooling breeze from the stagnant, warm equatorial air as the ship, fully laden and low in the water, sliced its way through the shimmering, glassy water. Dolphins had raced alongside as I came on the watch, gracefully and generously sharing our bow wave with the flying-fish, before launching themselves into our dimension for a few seconds – but then black clouds were coming at us from an ever-decreasing horizon, a decision not to change course and it had gone dark…
The bosun had his orders and he directed operations with a rough tongue, his West Indian patois peppered with ‘raas klaats’, his hands moved windmill-like and an experienced crew obeyed, battening down the hatches and stowing all loose gear away. Down on the main deck all hands turned to, galvanised, instinctively going from task to task; a sense of urgency and excitement took hold, teamwork against the elements, and once it was done, only those on watch would have to turn out. The wind we’d been praying for earlier whipped up small waves, their crests jostled each other for height. We had almost completed the task and our unsteady meandering up and down the wet deck became gross staggering as the rolling of the ship increased. The watch was well over by the time we, Doherty and I, the officer cadets, retired to our cabins behind the funnel on the lifeboat deck – wet through and tired, the excitement of the change caught us babbling like fools. Talk of previous storms coloured our conversation as we changed our clothes – I for a spot of rest and Doherty for the bridge and his watch. The waves were higher, the wind stronger, the sort of talk to give confidence where it was lacking.
Our trampship-progress along West Africa’s coastline behind us, we were set for Amsterdam, Hamburg and then dry-dock. The trip had been an eye-opening trudge through Dakar, Freetown, Abidjan, Takarodi, Cotonou, Lagos, Port Harcourt, Douala, and had seen us well into the Niger delta, and up to Sapele to load logs onto the afterdeck – the ship straining at her moorings as the river tried to expel us to the sea. Our route was not dissimilar from that taken by slave traders hundreds of years ago, a sobering thought to me now, but lost on me at the time. At each port crazy risks were taken as we danced on sliding hatch panels as they opened over yawning holds – we were mad, young, impetuous … idiots. Whilst waiting for agents to sort out a cargo and anchored outside Takoradi, the ship was almost empty and high in the water and some of us more inexperienced crew-members took turns at the thrill of jumping off the stern and letting the current carry us round to the pilot’s ladder, which, clinging to the rust exposed hull and fully extended, was only just reachable when on the top of a swell. The wiser members of the crew just watched, their blank expressions should have given us a clue, but only spurred us on to more daring forays away from the ship, treading water and calling for confirmation of being farthest from the ship – later in the day slops were thrown overboard to the five or six circling sharks…
As I peered from my porthole the ship lurched into a trough, waves soared up and away from us, thirty feet at least, with crests of white flecking spray pointing out the direction of the wind. The ship creaked and shuddered as the propeller whirred out of the water, we were now on the crest and through the mist and failing light I could see other monstrous waves forming to take the place of the one we were riding. All the while the ghostly whining and shriek of the wind as it whipped through the rigging. I lay on my bunk and my mind again took flight…
June 1964, and my dad had just brought me, on the back of his scooter, down to the dry-dock in Durban’s Harbour. My mom had managed, through a neighbour, to wangle me passage as a deck-boy on the Norwegian MV Thorscarrier. I went on board whilst my dad stayed on the wharf, a vodka and seven-up was forced on me as I went below aft to check out my quarters. I was to share with a French Canadian, with me sleeping in the top bunk. East Africa was a revelation for a white sixteen-year-old fresh out of Apartheid South Africa, a ten shilling note from my dad as I left, wide-eyed visits to red-light districts in Lourenzo Marques and Mombassa, getting drunk too often and vomiting, my seventeenth birthday in Montreal, condensed milk sandwiches, and Audrey and my first real kiss, in Cornerbrook, Newfoundland.
Durban High School: I had really made a mess of my secondary education – after such a promising stint at Bellair – I was one of the day boys embarrassed in class for not having bought all the textbooks, in my shiny-arsed grey trousers, Bata Toughie shoes (the ones with animal tracks on the soles), then doing the fifth form for the second year in a blazer one size down. Both Apples (Hedley Appleby) and I had failed our end of year exams in 1963, both ended up in Form 5G, bunking off school and regularly dreaming of going to sea on a Castle boat … and now here I was two years later, on the MS Ramon de Larrinaga out of Liverpool.
Then, a small boat, the Sarie Marais (I think…), pushed its way into my thoughts, through thick green viscous and then out on high swells as it followed its usual course on a trip around Durban Harbour and out through the breakwater onto the high sea, taking in the beach-front skyline – out past the shark nets on Addington and North Beach. It was the early 1950s and my mom had taken me on my first remembered trip on the sea. To the obvious delight of my mom the boat rolled and lolled about, dipping into valleys of blue where the beach disappeared and then rising high where she pointed out hotels on the beach front, she loved the sea… Our return to the calmer waters of the harbour was greeted by the glorious sight of a Sunderland flyingboat skimming the slightly choppy harbour and landing, its bow-wave and elegance reminiscent of a giant swan landing in a pond. My dad later made a wooden and brass model of the Sunderland whilst he worked at Harts, a ‘pots and pans’ factory at the bottom of Jacobs Ladder… wonder what happened to that? Blimey, mind-dredging now…
Fear and a particularly violent roll brought me back, drawn and white knuckled, sleep was out of the question, although maybe I had been asleep. Eating and drinking were also an obstacle course and then the test was to keep it down.
Midnight came and I went up on the bridge to relieve Doherty. The second mate took up his watch out in the night’s elements, from the wing of the bridge, his yellow oilskins making disturbing shapes on the rain streaked glass of the wheelhouse door. I stood at the wheel, the course 027° impossible to maintain. The captain, an aloof man with not many friends on board, skulked in the corner of the darkened bridge occasionally yelling ‘Port, to Port man for goodness sake!’ as the ship erred to starboard and started to take the storm broadside, ‘Into the waves laddie!’ From my protected vantage point in the darkness I watched as huge waves broke over the bows, tons of water covered the bow section with spumes of spray and green luminous curls. In that eerie light that accompanies tropical storms elements moved as if in slow motion and my horizon was the wave immediately before me.
As the watch wore on the rivet loosening jerking of the ship as the screw threshed exposed, became less and less frequent and a sense of safety, a confidence, new-found, filled me. The erratic course became easier to hold, the captain left the bridge and I whistled tunelessly as relief flooded through my tensed muscles. The second mate entered the wheelhouse, his oilskins dripping water, he winked as he passed on his way to the radar and chartroom and the bottle of brandy he kept hidden in there. We smiled as soon as we had downed our drinks, the brandy could be traced as it made its way to our stomachs and then sent its warmth extending and insinuating itself to all the extremities of our bodies.
The last hour of the watch saw a quarter-moon appear from behind scudding clouds and lay down its long reflection over almost gently rippling water. The ship ploughed on and the storm and its uncertainty were quickly forgotten, perhaps only to be remembered in another storm or as part of a collection of embroidered stories to impress, just like this one, perhaps.
From Writing Some Wrongs, Alan Rutherford
published by Hand Over Fist Press, 2007
JUST ANOTHER SHORT STORY
The kitchen was a hive of activity, Lucy moved from cooker to worktop, occasionally to the sink and often exercising a knowing expertise at the flip-top bin. Here, in her domain, she was queen, and she knew it, she had learnt the hard way – years of patronising guff – but now, she was showing off. Margo Van Niekerk watched her from the open kitchen door, still giving unnecessary advice and welling down a feeling of envy. Lucy acknowledged the superfluous advice with a carefully rehearsed tight-lipped smile, playing the kitchen like a TV chef, while cleverly deferring – showing she knew her place in the scheme of things – keeping Margo sweet and maintaining that smidgeon of dignity that kept her sane. The dinner prepared, it was served to the usual crowd of friends the Van Niekerks had invited. Lucy helped with the serving and Mrs Van Niekerk, without a flicker, ingraciously and with throwaway modesty, took credit for, what looked like, a wonderful meal.
As the after-dinner banter rose to shrieks Lucy dug her hands into the soapy water and thought of Jerome, how she missed him now. She remembered with tenderness the three nights last month they had been together in her kaya, a room at the bottom of the Van Niekerk’s garden. Mr Van Niekerk had said it was alright for ‘John’ to stay but had reminded her that it was against the law and they should be careful. Mr Van was a great guy, she thought, but she couldn’t understand why he kept calling Jerome ‘John’, or why Jerome suddenly volunteered to cut all the lawns, front and back. As she scoured the final pan, she pondered on this but came to no satisfactory conclusion, or, for that matter, why Jerome had left so abruptly… or why he hadn’t written since, now that was a worrying thought. She left the house for her room catching ‘… you’ll have to come over to us sometime, OK?’ and knowing it wasn’t for her ears. Her once narrow bunk, in the neon glare of her whitewashed room, became a vast ocean of tears in the gloom of the Transvaal night, now too big for her alone …oh Jerome.
Priscilla was woken by the cockerel’s cry that cold grey morning, the sun had not yet appeared from over the distant dark hills. The plain was deserted, with only the odd hut breaking the flatness with its grouping of goats, cattle, a tree standing proud in the early morning mist. She rose quickly, her breath clouding the air, she covered her nakedness with her best dress, today she would see Umfons again. She paused in her dressing to remember; nine months ago she and the boys had been taken from their home in the city in an open truck and left on this plain; Umfons had cried as they tied their belongings together with red and white string, they’d all cried, but the officials, even though moved by the emotion, had their orders to hide behind and whole families were uprooted – to be scattered in their homelands. Umfons had stayed. The date on the Dunlop calendar on the wall, today’s date, was heavily ringed. Her smile shone as she noticed the sun already above the horizon, wobbling in the heat haze like the egg yolk she’d just broken in the frying pan. She started singing and woke the boys.
Umfons was already on the train, his awkward posture in the crowded carriage dictated by the expensive, but ill-fitting new suit, so obviously admired by his fellow passengers that they made extra room for him, so’s he wouldn’t create new creases. He was going home, he’d told them, although he’d lived all his life in the city and this was his first trip to the Transkei. Good natured banter broke out in the carriage as the sun warmed the sleep from the occupants’ eyes, the distantly familiar clicking of his mother’s Xhosa, now all around him, brought back childhood memories – the slick smoothness of the Zulu he had lived with for so long now seemed ugly by comparison. Friendly suggestions on what to do when he and Priscilla were alone together again were sheepishly laughed off by an embarrassed Umfons, he enjoyed the attention but now he wished he could become just another anonymous passenger again. Someone started singing and he was happy and relieved to join in. He stared at the unchanging, flat, barren plain as they pursued their straight course, occassionally small boys would appear from nowhere to wave and shout as the train trundled by. His thoughts dwelled on the way things were; as a black man he was quite well paid at the Dunlop factory and had managed to save some money whilst staying in the hostel, even, after sending half his wages to Priscilla. Now he had two weeks’ leave and a suitcase full of presents, he was going home; they told him it was his home although he’d never been there. How can this be, he thought? Some of the men at the hostel had ideas about this state of affairs, but even he, Umfons, could see their struggle, however just, was almost impossible, yet when they spoke on Friday nights after the stick fights he found he could not fault their thinking. He cursed them for invading his homecoming thoughts.
The railway station was crowded with women and children and everyone was craning their necks, looking out along the tracks to the distant horizon, a small boy who had climbed the telegraph pole was dangerously close to losing his grip as he sang out, pointing to the distant smudge of smoke with his free arm. The station heaved with agitated anticipation, the train was coming! The women’s singing rose from the quiet murmur it had been for the last hour to a chorus of pure joy, tears left tracks in the fine dust on Priscilla’s cheeks. Umfons, and the others who were fortunate to be near a window, hung their heads out, risking their sight as small bits of coal from the locomotive peppered their faces. Umfons, screwed up face, searched the track ahead for a first sight of his destination. The station came into view, heads bobbed in and out of the carriage windows as those unfortunate enough to occupy seats in the core of the carriages were allowed a look. There were hurried farewells to friends of convenience, smiles all round as the train jerked into the station, the women’s far off singing had now become a reality of wonderment.
Priscilla, with little Steve and Nelson on either arm, scanned each carriage as it went by, Umfons saw her first, their eyes met and it was just like that day they’d first met, all those years ago, at her uncle’s wedding. As he stepped from the carriage, the awkwardness of the suit was gone, his smile broke his face and tears so long held back criss-crossed the folds of his grinning face, wetting both Steve and Nelson as they broke free from their mother’s grasp, burrowing their crinkly heads into his neck as he stooped to lift them. Priscilla looked on, unsure of herself all of a sudden, nine months was a long time, Umfons saw the hesitation and grasped her to him, the four clinging to each other on the emptying platform, oblivious to everyone and everything, two weeks would soon pass…
Dinertime and half-eaten sandwiches were being pushed through the chickenwire fencing; Jerome’s attempts to catch the bits before they fell to the floor were less than successful and soon his caged space beneath the Science Labs was littered with crumbled bread. The boys’ school was for the English-speaking elite; they used convicts to work on their sportsfields. Jerome poked about in the bread for the odd piece of meat, his eyes hooded, but defiant, as he flicked looks back at the well-fed, healthy, happy schoolboys who crowded around his cage – their curiosity not yet tempered by the racial spite of their elders. Joshua, Jerome’s warder, who was over six feet tall, impressively dressed in neatly pressed khaki and carrying an assegai, which he had promised Jerome he would never use, stood proudly on guard, his confident happy-with-my-lot smile countered by Jerome’s seemingly blank and acquiescing facade. Behind the face, overwhelmed by the reality of his situation, Jerome seethed and then simmered, his emotions in turmoil as he battled to control his rage, his systems of survival near to collapse and his only salvation being a relentless plotting of revenge, that bastard, Mr Van, still fresh in his thoughts, had said he had had no option but to report Jerome for his breach of the Pass Laws – and this, after Mr Van had encouraged him to stay, and after he had sweated blood cutting the lawns with a rusty old lawnmower! It seemed to him, his only crime had been to refuse to wash Mr Van’s car, Lucy, oh Lucy…
Written in 1982 with the vulgar and soul destroying absurdities of Apartheid in mind, with its vile enslavement of black peoples, draconian pass laws and upheavals of whole communities in the name of racial segregation. This is dedicated to all the Umfons, Pricillas, Lucys and Jeromes – some of whom I am honoured, but equally, in those circumstances, regret to have known – and sadly, initially, to have been a passive observer of their plight.
From Writing some Wrongs, Alan Rutherford
Published by Hand Over fist Press, 2007
After more tests it’s revealed that Ann’s dad has cancer of the lungs and is dying. A life-long smoker reaps the whirlwind, nevertheless it’s a shocking disclosure because no one really believes it will happen to them? Almost to prove the diagnosis he fades before our eyes and several months later is grey, frail, skin and bone. Once again death’s impending arrival denies any semblance of dignity… a body once full of vigour and strength misfunctions and resorts to an awkward, painful shuffle – unable even to rise from the toilet without help.
Ann’s mum and dad are both spiritualist healers who are well regarded amongst the Cheltenham and Gloucester spiritualist fraternity, and in this faith they both find some succour – friends from their church gather most days to give him their attention, which he rewards with a renewed thriving.
Back in hospital, we all visit him on Monday night – in the middle of a room on a mechanical bed contorted for his comfort and lying amidst heaped pillows like a small bird, his chest exposed to show a protruding ribcage rising and falling, lung(s) filling and emptying to a loud rattle in his throat. Eyes closed, gaunt, hair dishevelled and unusually long, mouth sunken by the absence of his false teeth – friends and family gather and stare… upset by such a spectacle, some watery eyed, others sobbing… just waiting. Instinctively breathing to cling to life, the rattle in his throat continues to fill the room, I look around, laughter and conversation comes in from the ward outside, life goes on as it ebbs from his body.
He died on Tuesday morning, 24 October 2006 and, according to Ann’s mum who, with some friends, stayed the night at his bedside – as she did not want him to die alone – it was a gradual slipping away. As you can imagine, Ann, who wears her heart on her sleeve, is very upset… as are all.
He was Ukrainian, born in Zawij in 1922 or 1926 (depending on which record you refer to), and as a young man was taken by the Nazis to work on a farm in Austria, eventually, through adventures never fully elaborated on, becoming a Free Polish soldier. At the end of WWII when maps in central Europe were redrawn and rumours of unsettled scores were rife – he took the safe route and stayed in Bishops Cleeve where he ended up living – being frustratingly caught between two cultures. Neither took him truly to their heart, he could not read or write but managed to survive in Britain for almost 60 years, probably missing all those nuances of the English language, the in-jokes, intellectual posturing over this or that and, possibly… just belonging. Polish and Ukranian clubs were places, with a shared language, where a kind of belonging could have flourished, but were soon exposed as refuges of right-wing nationalists living in the past.
For many years he lived in a house dominated by his mother-inlaw, excluded by a kitchen where only Welsh was spoken and used by a large extended family as a handyman obliged, for the sake of a quiet life, to neither ask for, nor accept, payment for his not inconsiderable efforts at pleasing his ungrateful adopted family – who made a point of extracting payment from him for any service they rendered.
I remember him at Smiths, working from bell to bell, hands a blur in the coolant as he raced through every job set up for him on his Mikron lathe, unable even to stop to handle or manage his fag – the roll-up masterfully kept alive to leave a yellow streak up his top lip. Shunned by workmates who accused him of being a company man due to his inability to play the system – a rate-fixer’s dream in that he assigned to jobs impossible times, where, when they returned to the machineshop, frantic and manic activity was necessary by anyone other than him to make any bonus at all on them – he just thought his critics were lazy.
In that typically colonial and very English dismissal and disrespect for other peoples and races, to this day he is called John, even by his wife – Ann’s mother – although his name is Pawel. His unsophistication seemed to require, rather undeservingly, that he was treated and spoken to like a half-wit and although I never really hit it off with him, I shared some of his alienation. Possibly to fit in, he seemed desperate for acceptance, he even adopted the family’s fascination with death, illness and pessimistic remarks and often his broken conversation, after mentioning that the weather was terrible, went… ‘something or other… was bloody ridiculous!’ To which Ann’s mum would immediately respond, ‘Do you have to curse John?’
Well yes, he did!!
Dylan Thomas once wrote:
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
I think if anyone had the right to rage at the dimming of the day it was Pawel, but to my knowledge and probably due to his strongly-held faith, sadly, he did not.
from Writing Some Wrongs, Hand Over Fist Press, 2007
Bishops Cleeve, the dormitory village to Smiths Industries, population enough for a town but amenities only sufficient for a small village. Overgrown housing estates twitching around and over what was once a cute little village before Smiths arrived. Smiths Industries, a well planned slack of grey flat-roofed concrete sheds on the edge of the Cotswolds. One of them, the Machine shop, CH1, a fat slab of retarded maleness, filled with noise, the smell of coolant and industrious green and blue besmocked men whose every third syllable was prefixed with ‘fukin’, no matter even if it was mid-word – this was where I was variously employed for eleven years on capstan lathes, drills, deburr bench, grinders and polishing bench as a setter-operator. Drudge, enlivened only by friendships, camaraderie and a good wage – without a doubt I am a product of that environment, as much as the precision ‘foreigners’ and the odd aerospace trinket that came out of that site.
A deep dark Gloucestershire winter mid-week morning in the 1970s, xmas had gone and now we looked forward to the Summer, but this was just like the day before. A jab in sleepy ribs and that awful panic as the realisation swept through my second wakening – the alarm had already gone off, but was switched off whilst still in that nowhere-land between dream and reality. In hindsight I can only suppose that my truly sensible self had convinced my utterly gullible brain to snuggle down in the covers and put off that mad dash in the freezing cold of an unheated house from unclothed to overdressed – but now it was urgent. A rebellious minute of remaining still followed where I vainly tried to persuade myself it was Saturday, before frantic movement, a two-fingers at the world and Smiths Industries.
Without breakfast, sleep still in my eyes, but warmly wrapped up, I leapt into the saddle of my bicycle and set off on the short, but potentially lethal, ride to Smiths. No lights, brakes that needed attention, tyres with just enough of a hint of air-pressure and tread to keep the wheel rims from the tarmac, and with James Taylor in my head – Going to Carolina in my mind – now there’s a thought. Chain slipping, gut-wrenching, stupidly dangerous moments later I am extremely lucky to be pushing the front wheel into a slot in the bike shed behind the canteen. My main concern now is to get clocked-in before 7.30 otherwise this mad rush was for nothing. From the silhouetted steamy mingled-breath of the shed, where rude greetings are being exchanged between familiar shapes as they come to recognise each other, and dodging the incoming, I stride out for the backdoor of the machine shop, wind moves in my empty belly and I fart loudly and rhythmically as I take the next four steps, adjusting my hips to feel the benefit and satisfaction of a multi-toned belter. It’s louder than I wanted it to be, I turn to see if anyone is close – two older guys are right behind me and they confuse my checking glance with an accusing one. Their initial guilty looks instantly replaced with indignant repudiation.
I think of this event often, never tire of its baseness, and always laugh out loud.