Memories are like those eccentric relatives everybody has in their family. You know the one. Like the uncle who asks children to pull his finger and promptly farts loudly enough to chase the dog into the yard and set teacups and windows rattling. Or the granny who has the disconcerting habit of leaving her dentures in the strangest places. Like in the loo or next to the mashed potatoes on the dinner table. You’re fond of them and they’re family, so you tend to overlook the embarrassment of their eccentricities. Nevertheless, you still only introduce them to your closest friends or loved ones. Memories have the distinction of having the ability to make us both happy and sad at the same time. Melancholy. Just like a family member. By their nature they are very personal, and have feelings and bonds attached that are almost impossible to convey or share with another. They say that the older you get the more you remember of your more distant past. It is normally implied that this is a bad thing. I say that it is like the cream rising to the top. All the best coming to the surface. Although. I have never really had a problem recalling anything, anything after my father’s death, that is. Also excluding those howling-at-the-moon, drinking-dancing-fighting-singing-rutting kind of evenings of total abuse, that, thank God, end with blackouts. As I was saying though, because of the observer in my nature, that part of me that stands back and chronicles details of events, I am able to recall things with remarkable clarity. I like to say that I have a resonance with the past. An ability to slip back at will and with relative ease. This one of my memories:
I heard my mother calling for me as I closed the front gate. I reached down to touch my toes, sweat dripping from my fringe onto the baking garden path. I had just been for a long run, as was my habit when I was bored or had things on my mind. I did some of my best thinking on the road. It cleared my head.
“Andrew Peter Swanepoel! Is that you?” she shouted, irritation creeping into her voice. My mother calling me by my full names was a sure sign that she was displeased with me.
“Yes, Mother?” I shouted, wishing I had stayed out on the road longer.
“Telephone for you!” she called as she stuck her head out of the lounge window.
“Who is it?”
“I don’t know! I think its Andre. Are you coming?”
“Yes! Tell him to hold on!”
My mother and I had not been getting on well lately. The only getting we had been doing was getting on each other’s nerves, irritating each other. It had been a long, hot, excellent summer, but now it was drawing to an end. Add to that the fact that in a week I would be leaving for the Army to start my National Service, and it was understandable. We were both very sensitive at the moment. Unsure of what to say or do, terribly aware of the impending separation looming ahead, as well as the reality of my going off to war. The acts of terrorism such as car bombs and ambushes in our streets suddenly became a far more personal thing than they had been before. It also seemed as if everybody had some story, or every article or news broadcast was about Border clashes, training incidents or the merciless, ferocious stupidity of the enemy. It, they, were everywhere. SWAPO, ANC, the garden boy raking the yard next door. I, we, were sick of hearing about it!
And so I ran. And swam. And pushed weights. But eventually the fear always returned, the debilitating knowledge that I was going. Our embryonic, insulated little world was coming to an end. The wolf was at the door and his knock could no longer be ignored. “Let me in! Or I’ll huff and I’ll puff and I’ll blow the house down!”
What aggravated matters was the fact that although my mother and I had great love for each other, we could not and did not talk about sensitive and personal, potentially upsetting,matters. This was true of our family: we were each afraid that the other would breakdown, and that we would be helpless to make things better, to protect. The early death of my father had entrenched behaviour patterns in us that would never be altered.
And so we tiptoed around each other; an emotionally constipated, yet loving family.
“I said that I’m coming, Mother!” I yelled, sliding my wet teeshirt off. Purdy, our totally devoted as well as totally insane German Shepherd, barked a welcome as I headed around to the back door, which was actually our front door. Nobody used the front door except my brother David and his buds. “Hello, Purdy! How are you, girl?” I ran my hands through the gloriously thick mane around her neck. She whined her approval. “Where’s Gambit and Steed?” Gambit was a cat and Steed a Border Collie, and yes, we were huge fans of the television series, The New Avengers. In fact, it was a trend in our neighbourhood. Family pets could be dated by their names, much the same way that trees were by the number of circles in their wood. There was a Boxer named Manilito from Bonanza, a Poodle named Falconetti from Rich Man, Poor Man, and a Pom named Bobby from Dallas, and so on.
I jogged up the stairs, Purdy bounding alongside me, doing her best to trip me. At the door I held her back with my legs as she tried to squirm past me into the kitchen. She grunted, looked at me with disappointment and curled up on the top step. I closed and latched the bottom half of the back door, all the while apologising to Purdy.
“Hello?” I said, answering the phone in the lounge.
“Hello yourself! Do you always take so long to answer the phone, pal?”
“Howzit, man?” it was Andre.
“What are you doing tonight?”
“Dunno, haven’t got anything planned. You?”
“Let’s go for a wave and then we can go to the LA. Ladies Night! Should be a jol! We can change and eat at my place. Whaddaya say?”
“Yeah, that sounds cool,” I said, trying to think of how I was going to tell my mother that on one of the last nights left before the Army, I was going partying with my buds. “I’ll pick you up in fifteen minutes. Wait outside with your board, okay? Oh, have you got some Dr. Zogs? You know, Sex Wax? My board’s like a bar of soap at the moment. I need to wax up.”
“Ja, sure. See you in a few, bud.”
I put down the phone, braced myself and turned to face the accusing eyes of my mother.
“And so, where are you gallivanting off to now?” I knew what was coming next. “My boy, in a few days time you’re going to the Army and you’re not going to see us for a long time. The least you can do is spend some time with your family.”
“Aw, Ma. Don’t start with me. You think I don’t know that I’m going to the Army? Give me a break! I’ve just finished Matric and now I’m off to the Army for two years! I’d like to be able to have some fun with my friends before I go! Is that alright?” I regretted my tone and choice of words immediately but I just couldn’t help myself. I hated feeling guilty and she was so good at making me feel exactly that. My voice softened with genuine regret as I saw the gleam of tears in her eyes. “C’mon, Mom. We’ll do something tomorrow, promise. Let’s go to the Wimpy for dinner tomorrow night, okay?”
I gave her a big hug as she nodded, a weary smile lighting her strained face. “Yes, okay. But this is a definite, Andy. Don’t let me down!” A pause, and then she said, “Behave yourself tonight and tell Andre he owes me one. Oh, and no drinking and driving!”
“You know me.”
[17 year old me: a couple of months later I was in a uniform with a rifle being taught how to kill]
An hour later Andre and I were out shredding the surf at Cave Rock, our favourite break. Cave Rock was situated south of Durban, on the Bluff. It is famous for it’s huge thick tubes, generated from the same swells that exist at Jeffrey’s Bay. However, it is notorious for the shallow reef that keeps those who surf there honest. There was not one of us, the locals, who did not carry at least one scar as a reminder of its caress. When we got out beyond the break there was a horde of locals there already. The break was going off, so everybody was in a good mood and we were greeted cheerily and with much gusto. Howard Bisset alias Howie Biscuit, Brad Jones alias Jonesy, Terry Smith alias Lobster and Manuel Chaves alias Gummy were all there. Incidentally, I was known as Swany and Andre as Jap. The morphed surnames were Biscuit, Jonesy and Swany. Lobster because Terry was perpetually red and peeling never tanned. Gummy because Manuel had had his front teeth knocked out playing the surf local rules ticket with some Boksberg bikers down at Brighton Beach. Jap because of the Oriental cast to Andre’s eyes.
We were soon shredding and ripping with the rest of them, whooping it up. We were amped, totally stoked! Biscuit scoops the first wave and proceeds to take it apart: two hooks, hits the lip, floats, drops and then down the face of the wave with speed to burn. That set the afternoon afire. We were amped, feeding off each other’s energy. Two hours and many waves later found the six of us sitting out beyond the backline, mellowing out. The slapping of the water on our boards, the odd seagull call and the voices and music from the beach were the soundtrack to our moment. While we enjoyed the companionship of our group we watched the sun paint the ocean with its fiery brush as it blazed defiance at the approaching night. The topic of discussion, naturally, was that five of us were off to the Army on Sunday afternoon. Andre had decided to go to Varsity first so he was silent, feeling slightly isolated from the posse.
Biscuit was saying, “Fuck, man, if I were in the States I’d be heading for Mexico, bro! I swear! Permanent Force don’t’ surf, bro. PF don’t surf!”
“You know BC, old Brain Cell? Well, he’s ducked to Johannesburg. He says as long as he keeps moving they can’t send him his call-up papers,” Gummy interjected.
“What’s he doing up there?” I asked, slipping off my board to cool off.
“Dig this! He’s acting in porno movies!”
“Swear to God!”
“I always said that wiener of his needed its own set of lungs and heart. Good grief, when he got in the shower everybody else had to leave.”
“Ja true, bru. There was no space left except for BC and his prick.”
“Ja, he registered it at the police station as a lethal weapon.”
We all laughed, and as I looked from face to face I was suddenly acutely aware of the beauty of our youth … and its fleetingness and vulnerability. For a moment I could barely breathe as the premonition passed through me. I pounded a beat on my board in an attempt to shake the feeling of dread.
“Bloody gut-sliders and grommets!” Body surfers and pre-teen surfers. “Look at them!” I cursed. “Ja well, what can you do? Anyway, I’m kicking. Let’s duck, Andre. So we’ll see you guys at the LA tonight for a couple of frosties?”
“Spot ya later, Swany. You too, Jap.” “Bye girls.” “Ya faders.” “Try and kill a couple of groms on the way in.”
To much heckling, Andre and I paddled forward and then caught our last waves of the day, riding the foamy right to the beach. We jogged up the sand to the showers to rinse the sand and salt from our bodies and boards, sniffing together the entire time. Seawater is the laxative of the nasal cavity. Our noses would be dripping water and mucous for hours now. We duly tried to get rid of most of it while showering, much to the disgust of an enormous, fat woman in a flowery pink costume. She blanched and stormed off muttering. Andre and I laughed like hyenas, of course, and continued trying to empty the entire contents of our heads through our noses. With renewed vigour, now that we had an audience.
“Swany, have you ever thought of just ducking out of the country or becoming a Conscientious Objector?” Andre asked me when we were in the car on the way to his place.
“Ag, look, I don’t want to spend five years in a military jail. Plus my family and friends are here. The surf. Rugby. I’d miss everything. It won’t be that bad though. I’m going to SA Intelligence Corp in Kimberley. Who knows? I could become double-“O” Swany, secret agent for the Volk. Anyway Biscuit will be with me and Gummy will be just up the road in the Maintenance unit. They say its what you make of it.”
“Ja, I suppose so.”
“Anyway, why are you worried? You’re going to Varsity to take drugs, molest women and become a Communist!”
“Hey, fuck joo, Carlos, and the horse you rode in on!” and with that the angst of the moment passed. We cranked up the music and prepared to party.