What I learned in my holidays

February 13, 2010

1. Betty’s Bay is good for the soul. This is the loft where I sit with my laptop and read blog-posts when I’m not gazing out at the view instead.

2. The sunsets aren’t bad either. This is just from my phone, so you can imagine how much better it is in reality.

3. You shouldn’t trim your bushy eyebrows with nail-clippers unless you’re trying for that slightly moth-eaten look.

4. Old cars need to be serviced once a year. Writing a reminder in November that I should “check for last service and schedule new one” didn’t help me in February when the car konked in.

5. Small-town mechanics can basically name their price. The expression “having you over a barrel” springs to mind.

6. If I want to get some writing done, I should be stricter about blocking off time and not getting distracted. I started working some old journal material into a story and then ran out of steam. I petered out.

7. Whoever came up with the expression “petered out” has some explaining to do. I’m sure I’m not the only Peter who objects to that phrase.

8. Being single on Valentine’s Day needn’t be so bad. I’m thinking of it as a celebration of love. Pet love, family love, friend love, book love. Romantic love can wait.

9. I should read more Alice Munro. Picked up her collection “Runaway” and was blown away. Not immediately but she has this way of working into your heart and then you wonder how you lived without her. Ok, perhaps not that dramatically. But she writes so simply and evocatively. Her short story “Runaway” has what Karen Russell (commenting on Carson McCuller’s story The Jockey on a New Yorker podcast) calls “unexploded bombs”. I would just say: read this story.

10. I tend to over-analyse things. Perhaps it’s part of my training. And I am a big fan of insight, which I now regard as necessary but insufficient for meaningful change. One of my supervisors used to say, “Just stay with the feeling”. You could probably say the same about writing. Don’t think your story too much. Feel it. Easier said than done though, right?

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Kermit starts to croak (and a small-town murder)

February 2, 2010

It all started on Saturday as I was driving to my long-anticipated week-long seaside retreat. It was mid-day and I had just passed the turn-off to Pringle Bay and was approaching the hill which leads to Betty’s Bay. Suddenly my car started making a ga-da-ga-da-ga-da kind of noise. I couldn’t decide whether it was coughing or spluttering or knocking. Whatever it was doing, it wasn’t happy. The oil light came on and then the engine started wheezing and I was preparing for the death-rattle. It started making something like a seizing-up type of noise, which is just about the worst kind of car sound that you can hear if you’ve ever, like me, had a car engine seize up on you for lack of oil.

I was scared. I don’t think I was trembling like the women seem to do a lot of in Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White but I was alarmed and anxious. And my heart beat faster and I feared the worst. (You see, that’s what reading thrillers does to you.) Anyway, my legs might have started feeling a little wobbly and my breathing was certainly shallower.

I managed to get up the hill and coasted down again and when we were going about 5km/hr I noticed that a silver golf GTI was cruising very slowly behind me and its four occupants were swaying along to their music, apparently oblivious to the croaking catastrophe in front of them. I waved at them to pass and they waved out of the windows in time to the music and seemed surprisingly merry. Perhaps they were a little drunk. I thought of the irony of the phrase “not waving but drowning” and waved at them again. This time they drove past in a rush of mellow R&B and seemed hardly to notice that their fellow Betty’s Bay traveller was about to come to a forlorn stop on a lonely country road.

I decided to jump out while the car was still moving and to use its momentum to help me push it as far as I could. This was not very far. I almost made it to a side-road which leads to my parents’ holiday house but not quite. And then we stopped. I thought of the food that would go off if not refrigerated within a few hours. My laptop and my luggage. How many trips would it take to lug all of this to the house and back?

And then I thought I would try and start the car and, surprisingly enough, it spluttered back into life. We chugged and wheezed and knocked our way to the house where I parked the car in the garage and left it alone to consider its fate.

To cut a long story short, I left the car for two days and then slowly drove it to the closest town (Kleinmond) this morning where the mechanic gave the verdict. A total engine overhaul which will cost at least about R7,500. By this stage I was not surprised. I was not terribly alarmed anymore. I was thinking about my car’s new name, given in honour of its croaking performance over the past few days. Add in the colour, which is a bluey-greeny shade of metallic green (or perhaps petrol, who knows?) and you have Kermit the frog, sadly lacking his Ms Piggy who seems to have long moved off to greener and less-croaky pastures.

I was already thinking of the blog-post that I would write and I was sufficiently distanced from the calamity to be quite entertained by the passing traffic on Harbour road, which is the most interesting street in Kleinmond. There are art galleries and a bar and coffee shops and restaurants and at least one pottery studio and also a beauty salon. I wondered what would happen if, Borat-like, I approached the beauty salon across the road with a secret camera and asked the bored assistant in the black top whether they provide happy-ending massages. I imagined a moment of strained hilarity as the Afrikaans girl tried to understand the correct meaning of this term. Perhaps it wouldn’t be so funny after all.

And then it was time for some reviving tea and to watch the two middle-aged guys a bit further down drinking coffee and commenting on anything interesting that passed by in the road. Just at that moment there passed by a double-cab bakkie painted in camouflage stripes.

“Now that oke has a complex,” said the pony-tailed guy, as if he and his friend talked about people’s complexes all the time. I wondered if they were also psychologists.

“Ja, maybe he’s in the army or he wants to be in the army,” commented his friend in the short-sleeved white shirt dismissively.

The mention of the army made me frown into my own tea and I thought of the camouflage outfit that awaited me when I returned to work.

On the drive back to Betty’s Bay the mechanic’s wife was all chatty and told me how Otto (her husband) and she moved to the town 10 years before and how their children still went to school in Paarl. And then we got to the real gossip of the town. A local murder and a suicide.

“It’s all in the forensics,” she told me concerning the murder. The angle of the bullet into the husband’s own leg and the angles of the bullets into the two coloured assistants who were lying on the floor.

‘What they don’t know,” she continued, “is whether he shot his wife himself or whether it was one of the other guys.”

“Shocking” was my reply. “Do they know why he did it?”

She rolled the thumb and middle finger of her left hand in the air between us and said simply “money”.

“He had an R11 million life assurance policy out on her,” she added, “but I knew something was fishy from the start. Who goes out leaving his front door unlocked in this day and age?”

“You’re right,” I said, trying to imagine the kind of man who could do such a thing to his own wife, and all for money.

“How old were they?”

“In their early thirties. And they had young children too.”

I’d forgotten all about my car by now. A murder! And right in this sleepy seaside town, hardly a block away from Otto’s workshop.

Mrs Otto then told me about the suicide, a tragic case of youthful depression. She struggled with the term “bipolar” and managed to explain that the 19-year old girl, a policeman’s daughter, had suffered from manic depression.

“It’s very sad,” she said, not looking particularly sad herself and I noticed that I was feeling a little sad but also relieved at the same time. I was at least safely back home, even if Kermit’s fate is still unknown.


Blame it on the mountain

January 25, 2010

• Climbing the mountain has to be one of the best things you can do in Cape Town. On Saturday morning I ascended up Skeleton Gorge and swam in the reservoir on top before running down Nursery Ravine. The reason that I was running is that I didn’t have any sunscreen and Nursery Ravine (unlike Skeleton Gorge) is exposed to the sun. And once I’d started running it was difficult to stop since gravity was pulling me down with irresistible force. The result is very sore calf muscles, which are even worse today than they were on Sunday. “Ooh”, “eeh” and “aah” followed by some swearing and also hobbling.

• There’s something magical about the mountain and you can tell when you’re a real Capetonian when you start mentioning it in revered tones. But perhaps that’s one of the key things that sets us apart from Joburgers. We have a transformational wilderness experience right on our doorsteps. And when I’m not typing with seven fingers rather than the usual eight (thanks to the metal dustbin) I will do a better job of detailing the experience.

• But a few highlights: swimming in cool, natural water at the top; the light filtering down through the trees that hug the Kirstenbosch side of the mountain; the hundreds of steps that make it easy to climb; the red disas which you spy at the top (if you’re lucky in summer); the stillness up there; the smile on your face when you come down.

• The wonderful thing about audio books is that when you’ve exercised yourself to a standstill and are too tired to hold up a book let alone turn pages for several hours, you can just lie back and let the voices wash over you. What a delight it was this weekend to listen to Emma Fielding reading Jane Eyre. I’m ashamed to admit that I’d never read any of the Brontes before but this was brilliant. Orphan Jane reminded me of David Copperfield and Harry Potter and then there were shades of Jane Austen and Gothic romances. The madwoman in the attic and earnest, lovable Jane. Mr Rochester was a lot gruffer than I expected but I’m sure you know that it all turned out alright in the end. I even liked the dog Pilot.

• Still on the English classics, I borrowed Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein from the library, this time on DVD. I’m not even going to attempt a review here but Kenneth Branagh’s production didn’t quite work for me. Robert de Niro was excellently cast as the monster though, and his patchwork face was one of the scariest parts of the movie. I can also see why Tim Burton gave Helena Bonham-Carter a second chance at being the corpse bride. But I think what I liked about it the most was having the chance to see the source of so much later science fiction. And I’m sure there were metaphors there about the things we create coming back to haunt us.

• In four days time I’ll be heading off my week-long retreat at Betty’s Bay. Reading, writing, walking on the beach, swimming in the sea and not a lot else (except eating and drinking perhaps). Small matter of a whole lot of work (and cases) to tie up before then though. I’ll check in from Betty’s.