I spent most of my time in Pretoria when I wasn’t at school up a tree with a book.
The tree was above a small round swimming pool at the top of the garden; green and dark.
Sometimes a monkey would keep me company.
She would perch on my shoulder, pulling out the pins that kept my bun in place until my hair fell round my shoulders.
I hope she was looking for salt, not nits.
I remember the quick pat of her small black hands, wrinkled and old; and the stiff feel of her grey fur.
Her expression was cool, analytical; unjudging. She was who she was; I was me.
So there we were; swinging gently together
On the same branch
Of the same tree.
We puttered up the hill in the little black Morris Minor
My mother and I.
The trees hung listless in the heat.
My brown school uniform stuck to the back of the seat.
My panama hat left a red sweat rim on my forehead.
My feet boiled inside socks and shoes.
No-one was around in the scorching afternoon.
Only the drowsy insects pulsed a singing silence.
And then, with a smash of thunder and a roll of drums
thundering over the rumbling hills
lightning splitting the sky,
the rain came.
cascading metallic sheets of water,
Cars stopped; from every house and garden people suddenly emerged;
dancing, laughing, drinking in the rain.
The blessed, blessed rain,
mercy falling from heaven
upon the place beneath.
I stood in the water as it soaked
through my clothes,
through my skin,
into my mouth,
into my bones,
cooling the racing heat of my blood,
As around me and inside me the world sprung into life.
I sat awkwardly in a spare bedroom
Balancing my books on a curved dressing-table
Eating a plate of small things on toothpicks
Trying to concentrate on Henry VIII.
The party was getting louder.
I stood up to look out of the window.
My father was holding forth in a small circle of men.
A roar of male laughter signalled the punchline.
Going home was always the worst.
The red hearty faces and slurred speech of my parents’ friends
The argument as we walked down the drive to the car,
Me stupid with sleep and longing for my bed.
‘I’m perfectly all right to drive. There was no need for Earnest.’
I needed Earnest.
I needed his calm back behind the wheel.
Not my father swearing and clashing the gears
My mother stiff beside him.
We hit the cat turning into our own road.
My father got out and we saw him in the headlights
bend down and come up with the limp body hanging from his hands.
He ran from house to house in the dark buzzing night
Trying to find the owner.
Big drunken tears running down his face.
While my mother and I sat in misery, waiting for it to stop.
He was repentant for days after.
But the cat stayed dead.
My plait lies hot and heavy on my back
As I bend my head to the book
And pick up the pen.
Outside the African sun blares
Between the arched pillars of the cloister.
In the library
The white veil of the nun
Cools the silent air
As we work.
Stillness brought peace.
In the different quiet
That pools undisturbed
In this empty house
Where I sit and write
I remember that peace.
I still feel it.