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from the May 2010 issue

from “Thirty Nights in Amsterdam”

[The narrator, Zan (Susan), is the daughter of MaOlivier de Melker, a prominent citizen of Graaff Reinet, a small conservative South African town. Also living with them is Henkie, the young son of Zan’s farmer brother. Zan is prone to epileptic fits; she is also, as a form of resistance to the conformity around her, publicly promiscuous.]

“A bicycle, a bike,” I nag at MaOlivier, and she has to phone around, first my old Snoozebrother on the farm, then the husband of my old Pretoria sister. MaOlivier phones the bunglebrothers first. If Henkie hadn’t been so small, his advice would also have been canvassed just because he’s a member of their sex.

“Do you think Zan is safe on a bicycle?”

I stand behind the curtain and eavesdrop, I hear only her part of the confab. “Yes, but what if she takes the bicycle and one day just keeps going and forgets to turn back . . .”

There’s a moment’s silence and MaOlivier sighs. “Yes, I remember that time. But it was the wrong medication and Doctor says . . .”

Ag, my brother-keepers erect ramparts and build blockhouses and dig moats everything to rein in the mad princess the one with the plait that reaches to the ground and the bats in her eyes. Breathe out tighten the girth! Cozily corseted the old loony-sis, we padlock her loins too and if we could, we’d blindfold the sorry creature and put her to bed, and strap her down with ropes like that one time god forbid when I went to entertain the convicts hoeing in the cemetery. When they caught me I was the wildbuck the hotmare the shecamel just see the shenanigans in the cemetery!

The town took two months to recover its repose and the convicts I hear call me Saint Susan ever since because I understand the locked-up men I stand for them and there under the funeral trees we do a jig-jig on the graves. I show what I can show and I help out, on all fours, on top of Nearer my God to Thee and We Await the Resurrection, on top of cold marble slabs, yes then my tsotsi my maybe-murderer, come my assault-and-battery lover my not-to-be-trusted my filcher of jewels and my little sheepsnatcher, come to me, I Zan am your revelation your alpha and your omega.

The episode (MaOlivier now also calls it ‘The Episode’ on the phone to BrotherPenPusher in Pretoria) towers like a beacon in the mountain range of family myths. It’s henceforth the Everest in the de Melker Himalayas, all our horrific experiences, Mount de Melker where blood flows thicker than water and where twice in a loony moon we picnic on the slopes.

After my grandstanding for my convicts they caught me. Bare-assed. The constable on his bicycle pedaling down Somerset Street. How I bolted wearing only my earrings and my watch and the constable in hot pursuit on his thick-wheeled bike! Not a stitch. So there I am weaving through the roadside trees and at length BlearyeyeBrother who comes charging along in his wagon with MaOlivier riding shotgun, Bit in the hand flask of dagga tea in the other and not far behind them Doctor Hands-up with syringe and behind them Dominee’s little gray car the old ogle-eye.

On him I turn my ass, they arrest me and clap me in irons, they gag my mouth tie my hands cut me down to size and there at the end of the street swarm the rioting convicts with their rakes and garden spades and forks. Their supervisor swings his cudgel and lambasts them and at this end of the street BrotherRockbottom covers my nakedness with a canvas sheet, one of those he flings over the backs of his rams when he drives them as rent-studs to the neighboring districts when he transports those two ponderous bollocks the jewels part of MaOlivier’s Considerability the heart of the matter investment number one the merino stud number three double eight.

MaOlivier drenches her pearls in tears. She wrings her hands. She’s in Biblical agony and Dominee casts his eyes down and then lifts them up again to the hills and wants to cut off his wilted old right hand right there the old ooze-eye. From way back his eyes have swabbed my body like damp facecloths.

Dominee knows it’s all God’s will. Of course! The Old Man up there talks to him every day, after all. Those two ancients have daily meetings and in the meantime Dominee hops onto the phone to God at the drop of an amen. “Oh my Domineeman my Domineeman, hark regarding yon de Melkers! Lead thou them in the paths, my son, the paths, like sheep they’ve gone astray. Oh! The daughter so lost beyond redemption, sold out to the Bloodred Ideology.”

A red under every bed! Hear the convicts rejoice as they lift me onto the back of the bakkie, my mug gagged. Rejoice, the Bit is also fixed between my teeth for good measure. Rejoice, I have hayfever from all the hoe-dust in the cemetery when I was eyeing up the convicts and there on the back of the ram-bakkie one of my nostrils blocks up, I suck air frantically through the other and toss my head this way and that suffocating and oxygen-starved. MaOlivier is up front with the Dominee, she had a hard time choosing in whose car to sit: for the sanctity of her soul next to Dominee, for bodily succour with Doc Hands-up the old syringe, or next to her son BrotherDay-off.

Street of shame. Stud parade.

“Lord, Lord, no.” That’s all that MaOlivier says as she’s helped into the dominee’s car. “Lord, Lord no.”

Because all the neighbors are lining the street, as well as the cookmaids and the inside maids and the laundrymaids and the ironing maids and the nurserymaids the shovelers the gardenboys the hang-about-hotnots the entire labor force of Somerset Street, they stand there and all the senior citizens in all the flatroofed houses, the pensioners and the slapped-silly-by-a-stroke and the leakhearts and gout-shufflers, all the old oxygen thieves with their camphor bodies pale as pillowless pillowslips. Somerset Street’s near-ghosts, they stand shaken out in the afternoon breeze and their mournful faces swivel slowly as our little procession passes. Do I see shame! Do I see humiliation on the faces of the just-about-dead!

And I groan in fury and kick with my bound feet and I writhe like a cheetah caught in the kloofs that day when the cat sat in the trap and was brought out into the yard, the yellow-stipple the spit-eye the hiss-cat, they swaddled him and bound his muzzle with steel wire his paws together his body racked on a pole. He lies there, the yellow blaze of furious life, so nailed down, the furious Jesus of the mountain the devilish bodycreature I remember the balls stretched tight like glossy loquats.

So I lie in the back of the bakkie, here next to the barrel of molasses and the half a bag of salt, the new stable broom and the roll of steel wire complete with pliers, a pair of kudu horns and our procession takes to the street and behind us Doctor Hand-up and in front of us the domineecar with sobbing ma and behind the wheel of the bakkie BrotherHanghisheadinshame.

Yes you buggers, you want to tame me, you want to shackle Zan de Melker, you want to temper her to an Aunty Psalmsing and Prissymissy for Henkie who’s now standing there on the stoep gaping at them unloading me off the bakkie. BrotherDesperate grabs my feet and Olddominee grabs my bum, the old scumprick. And Doctor Hands-up the head and in between Gardenman with the wheeze-chest also has to lend a hand and they lift me off and I tug to this side and that but cut no ice because they made me choke down the dagga tea as soon as they caught me. I’m headed for cloud-cuckooland. Craving the sweetness. BrotherStuckinthemud’s knee is in my stomach and Dominee’s hands around my cheeks to prise open my jaws. ‘Drink, sister Susan!’ And then oops on my butt the gravel chips clinging, all the pock-marks where the pebbles bit while the convicts and I were jig-jigging, you’d think I’d been peppered with buckshot, my bum is so pitted. Syringe that shiny scary sleepthing.

But I’m awake for Henkie and his eyes that flit his eyes that glint and his gazing aghast. He stands like a rabbit caught in a car’s headlights terror-stricken and a-quiver. I see on Henkie’s face the big-fright the last straw.

“Henkie, my child,” says MaOlivier in passing, “my child, go and play. Go and play, promise me you won’t stand here staring, God, Henkie-boy.”

“Off with you, Henkie,” snarls my old BrotherGetlost the armchair farmer.

“Go to your room, Henkie,” says Dominee in his Sundayschool voice. “Your aunt is indisposed.”

“Come, Henkie, Doctor thinks you should go to the back garden,” adds Doctor Hands-up the old Dettol-voice.

There goes Henkie as they carry me in and around the corner he skedaddles, takes a last look at me as I now enter the house like a sack of corn cobs lights out like Queen Cleopatra borne on the hands of the proud profiles of Egypt.

In bed the twelve plagues come upon me: the frogs the locusts Godknowswhat the plagues of sores the cooing demons of possession the munch of locusts the swelter-sweat of blood diseases. The boils the oozing pus.

For three weeks I lie there and they embalm me, they hush me and feed me sweets from lucky packets and I doze. I dream I dream the leopard loping off over the mountain I dream him in the kloofs after rain by waterfalls, I dream him by the Eye dream him on the rockface where lovely he gazes out over the Camdebo I dream him splendidly prowling the nightman the slypard the man in full dominion over his body. I dream him as he rides the ridges through the redgrass, you see him here you see him there, heavens, but he’s quick! My! Look at those strides, you tomcat!

"Tomcat! Tomcat!"

From Dominee I get a prayer it’s like a hessian sack pulled over my face, from Doctor I get an injection it’s like a Sunday dinner that paralyses my body, from MaOlivier I get a forgiving little pat on the hand. All of this settles on me like a blot on my name and after a proper interval my monthly arrives and I hear the family from my bed of stupor. The whole family and the dominee and his wife and the doctor and his wife, they’re all around the groaning table and they eat the fatted calf because I’m not with convict-child. They celebrate. God has gifted me an empty belly. Festive table prepared before thee. Hosanna. Susanna barrenwomb.



Bakkie:  a light pick-up truck

Dagga: marijuana

Dominee: Reverend, a Dutch Reformed minister

Hotnot: offensive term for a Coloured person

Kloof: a ravine

Kudu: a large African antelope


From 30 Nights in Amsterdam. Forthcoming from Penguin South Africa. By arrangement with the author and translator. All rights reserved.

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