Archive for November, 2008

“What is a camel hair paintbrush made from?”

Mum was the only person who knew that the answer was squirrel hair. So we won the quiz.

My friend, Possum, and I dropped mum at home, and she asked us to come in for a celebratory drink. We said yes, what a good idea.

Four hours of red wine later saw us at 3am. On a Sunday night. Monday morning actually.

Possum and I decided it might be a good time to go home. As we turned into my street, I saw a battered car with one headlight cruising towards us.

“If you don’t mind,” I say to Possum, “I’d rather not open the garage now. Safe not sorry and all that, you know”

“Sure,” she says. “No problem.”

We look into the car as it passes. The driver is a woman. She ignores us.

“I don’t like this,” I say. “What is a woman doing cruising the suburbs at 3.30 on a Monday morning?”

“I don’t like this either. What should we do?” Possum knows that there have been several driveway hijackings in our area recently. Part of the modus operandi of the hijackers is to dispatch a scout who alerts the hijackers to residents arriving late at night. Who says the scout can’t be a woman?

So I ask Possum, “Do you mind if we follow her?”

“Absolutely not. I think it’s your duty.” (Possum’s visiting from America, and has forgotten how apathetic South Africans can be).

We turn around and start following the car. Possum writes down the registration number. The car is still cruising and goes though a stop street. By now, the driver must know we are following her. At the second house along, the car slows, and whoever is in the passenger seat throws something over the wall of one of the houses.

“Did you see that?” Possum’s eyes are wide.

“Yes. What was it?”

“I don’t know.” She pauses. “What shall we do?”

“Well, we must do something”. I look behind me, hoping to see a patrol vehicle. No luck.

“I’m not getting out of this car.”

“Me neither.”

We look at each other. Then I do what any civic-minded resident would do at 3.30am. I hoot. And I hoot some more.

Nothing happens.

“Now what?” Possum asks.

“We can’t just leave. I mean, what’s in that package? It could be drugs. Or a weapon. Maybe it’s a gun!”

I get out of the car, leaving the engine running. Just in case. Possum gets out too.

I ring the doorbell.

A man’s voice: “Hello?”

I move closer to the intercom, “I’m so sorry, I know it’s late, but a car has just driven past, and thrown something over your wall.”

“Who are you?”

“I’m Dusty Muffin. I live around the corner. I saw this suspicious car with one headlight, and decided to follow it. Just in case. Then I saw something being thrown over your wall.”

A light comes on. I hear a door open, voices and footsteps. The gate opens. An elderly couple in glasses and pyjamas peer out. I start explaining and apologising again. Possum joins in.

Meanwhile, I’m rubbernecking, looking for the Object. I can’t see it.

The woman asks me, “Where did they throw it over the wall?”

Possum points and answers, “About there.”

And then I see it, caught in a bush.

Their morning newspaper.


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It was quiet in the recreation room at the retirement village. Mr Beaton was doing his crossword and muttering to himself each time he had to look something up the dictionary. The television was on mute, and Mrs Goldsmith paged through last week’s People, looking up at the enthusiastic talk show host every now and then. If Alice listened carefully, she could hear the soft tick of the clock that the local Rotary Club had donated last year.

She sighed. She hadn’t heard from either of her children in over two months. Ben was so busy at his job in Cape Town, and Janet’s twins – her grandchildren – were enough to keep anybody busy full time.

I suppose I’ll spend Christmas here, just like I have for the last five years.

Alice thought back to Christmas the previous year.

I hope I don’t have to sit next to Mr Harrison at dinner. I hate the way food falls out of his mouth when he eats.

The roast chicken isn’t the same as turkey, but it’s tasty enough. The Christmas pudding is quite nice, but I hope the custard isn’t lumpy, like it was last time. Or am I thinking of the year before?

Alice frowned, trying to remember. The last few years merged into a blur of colour and sound. She looked up at the television, now showing an enthusiastic shopper mouthing about the virtues of her new furniture polish.

I wonder if those nice people from the dramatic society will put on a show for us again. What did they do last year? A bit from Christmas Carol? Or did they sing for us? Oh, I don’t know. Whatever they do, every Christmas just seems the same these days…

“Mrs Moss,” called Sister Joan from the doorway. “There’s a telephone call for you. I think it’s your daughter.”

“Oh, lovely. Ask her to hold on please. I’m coming as fast as I can.” Alice said as she reached for her walking stick.

“Don’t worry, Mrs Moss,” said Sister Joan, coming towards her,“I’ll bring it to you. We’ve got a nice new cordless phone now, remember?”

Alice smiled gratefully as she reached for the handset. It was difficult for her to walk, having twisted her ankle in a fall last week. Everyone had been so kind and helpful.


“Hello mum, it’s me.”

“Hello darling. How lovely to hear your voice.”

“Good to hear you too. I’m so sorry I haven’t called. Things have been very tough with this recession, and Rob’s been retrenched. Jamie and Nicky go to crèche now, as I’ve had to find a job.” Her voice caught, and she stopped talking. Alice knew how Janet had been so proud of being a stay-at-home mom, and it broke her heart to hear Janet so distressed.

“I’m so sorry my darling. Is there anything I can do?”

“Oh mum, I don’t know. I feel so helpless. And how must the really poor people be coping? I just feel like we’re all going down a big, black hole.”

Alice was aware of her own tears welling up. If only there was some way she could help…

“I’ve got an idea, Janet,” she said. “Why don’t you sell my old writing desk? “You should be able to get about R2,000 for it.”

“Oh no, mum, I couldn’t. It’s part of my childhood. I’d never forgive myself.”

“Oh come on, dear. Don’t be silly. It’s just a couple of pieces of wood. Christmas is coming up, and it’ll give you a few extra rands to spoil the children.”

Alice tried to sound cheerful. The desk had been given to her by Tom when she’d turned 21. It was the only piece of furniture she’d kept after he’d died and she’d moved into the village.

“And besides,” she continued, “It’s what your dad would have wanted.”

“Thanks mum. I’d rather not sell it though. I’ll speak to Rob, and see what he says. He’s got an interview today. Maybe he’ll get the job, and we’ll be okay.”

“Talking of Christmas,” Alice said, “Will I see you this year, or are you going up to Rob’s parents in Pretoria again?”

“That’s actually why I phoned, mum. We can’t afford to go up this year, so I wanted to know if you’d like to come to us for Christmas Lunch?”

“Oh, that sounds wonderful! I’d love to, thank you.”

“Right we’ll pick you up at 11.  See you next week. Bye, mum.”

“Bye-bye darling, and good luck.”

Alice didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. This was going to be a Christmas to remember after all.

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All choked up

Suddenly she felt a choking thing in her throat – she clutched at the keyboard and random letters spewed onto the screen. She couldn’t breathe. She coughed. Heaved. Retched. It wouldn’t budge. She screamed for help, but only a punctured gasp escaped. The keyboard skidded away across the desk, collecting her wineglass. She watched in horror as the glass took on a life of its own, reeling, rolling.

Time stood still as she waited for its final decision. It slowed and tipped to the right. Her universe closed in around her, dark, suffocating.

No, not my keyboard! Please God no. That’s my life…

The scarlet liquid swirled as it splashed across the keyboard, coating letters, numbers and punctuation with random indifference. She grabbed for the glass, missed, and pushed it over the far edge. As it shattered on the cold stone floor, the thing in her throat settled, cutting off the last of her air. Her index finger hit the keyboard, and a single letter played out on the screen, mocking her last breath.

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I’ve taken a few baby steps in a new life direction.

Tonight I met someone who could make a big difference in whether it will work. I was introduced, and because I hadn’t done my homework, I just held out my hand, smiled, and said hello. He smiled back, and said that my name sounded familiar. I said Oh.

I asked my host who he was, and was told that he’s one of the top writers in the country. So I googled him. And realised I’ve just missed one of the biggest PR opportunities of my life.

Anyone for hemlock?

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It’s nine o’clock and the radio is playing happy music in the background. The sun is playing with a breeze, creating a monochromatic kaleidoscope on my desk. The dog is snoring on the carpet behind me. In the garden, birds are playing in the spray from the sprinkler.

Enveloped in the delicious sloth of my dressing gown, I Alt-Tab between my daily blog fixes, email and arbitrary work stuff. Wisps of steam from my coffee cup swirl in the sunbeams.

I know it’s going to be a good week.

Until the phone rings and sucks me back to rude reality.

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“What do you think, Dusty?”

I think you’re an idiot.

“I don’t know, sir.”

“Come on Dusty, you must have an opinion?”

I do.  And don’t smile at me with those disgusting teeth.  You make me sick.

“It’s nice, sir”

“Just nice?  Surely you can see the beauty in those words?”

Yes I can, but you’re so ugly with that revolting beard of yours, you destroy all beauty in anything.  Why don’t you trim it?  Or better still, shave.  With any luck, you’ll cut yourself and bleed to death. Then we won’t have to put up with your crazy ideas any more.

“The lyrics alone speak volumes,” he continued.  “And when he sings, can’t you hear the passion and the pain?”

Yes I can.  You give me the pain. Peering at me through those Petrie-dish glasses of yours.  You look like a Bohemian mole.

“There you are. I can see you smiling.”  He was triumphant.  “I knew you’d see how lovely it is.  Come, I’ll sing it again, and then we’ll discuss the lyrics.”

Oh God no, please.  Please don’t inflict yourself on us again.  I hate the way you cross your legs like a girl when you play your guitar.  And you look so pathetic when you close your eyes and tilt your head back at the end.


“Starry, starry night.
Paint your palette blue and grey,
Look out on a summer’s day,…

There’s a knock at the door.  It’s the headmaster, Mr Steyn. 

“Mr Burger, could I have a word with you please?”

The silence in the classroom is thick with adolescent suspense.  The sultry summer breeze lifts some papers on the cupboard by the window.

“Excuse me class, I won’t be a moment,” said Mr Burger as he strode from the classroom, his unruly chin thrust forward in a caricature of a Dickensian tyrant. He closed the door so that we wouldn’t be able to hear.  But he had forgotten about the small ventilation windows above the notice boards.  The notice boards which were covered with the obligatory pictures of dead poets and quotations from Shakespeare.  All twenty-seven of us heard every word of the conversation.

“Mr Burger,” started the headmaster with his strong Afrikaans accent, “Why are you singing pop music in your classroom?”

“I’m using music as a way to communicate with the pupils.  It’s a medium they can identify with.”  He paused. “And I’d hardly call Don McClean ‘pop’ music, sir”. He made a sound which was a combination of a snort and a giggle.

Even when you’re speaking to the headmaster, you can’t behave like a normal person.  You’re such a freak.  I hope you get bust, and lose your job.

“I don’t care what you call it.  It is not acceptable in this school.”

“But Mr Steyn, the song is about the artist, Vincent van Gogh.  It’s perfect to illustrate how his brilliance was misunderstood by his peers and critics.”  He paused, but there was no response.  “We are also going to examine the construction of the lyrics in terms of traditional poetry conventions.  So not only is this a poetry lesson, but it also introduces the pupils to a little about the history of art.”

It was quiet in the corridor outside.  And in the classroom, nobody moved.

“That is not in the curriculum. I would remind you again to stick to the syllabus.”

Again the silence.

We heard footsteps, walking away, down the corridor.  A moment later, our English teacher entered the classroom, his face red.  He sat down at his table, which was covered with papers and dog-eared manuscripts, and reached for A Century of South African Poetry, Michael Chapman, 1981.

“Right class.  Please turn to Page 72.  Dusty, will you start by reading the first verse?”

Why do you always pick on me?  I always get good marks.  I wish you’d just leave me alone, and get on with your miserable life.




Twenty-five years later I still think of Mr Burger each time I hear Don McClean’s Vincent.

 But these days I smile, and admire the courage of that non-conformist eccentric whose passion for language overrode his survival instinct in a conservative, middle-class whites-only school.


Now I understand what you tried to say to me,
How you suffered for your sanity,
How you tried to set them free.
They would not listen, they did not know how.
Perhaps they’ll listen now.

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A friend asked me if I knew why non-whites are referred to as non-swimmers.

“Duh. Because they can’t swim.”
“Ah. But do you know why they can’t swim?”
“Well, it’s not really part of their culture.”
“Wrong. During the apartheid era there was nowhere to swim. They weren’t allowed to use the public baths. They were banned from the beaches. They weren’t allowed to build pools, even if they could afford one. How were they supposed to learn to swim?”

So again, I’m reminded how privileged I was. And how ignorant I am.

And that’s something I must never forget.

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