THE STORIES WITHIN US

In his autobiography, The Outsider: my life in intrigue, Frederick Forsyth explains that within the mind of a writer entire worlds are created or erasedPeople come into being, work, love, fight, die and are replaced. Plots are devised, developed, amended and come to fruition or are frustrated … In children, daydreaming is rebuked; in a writer it is indispensable.

Few of us think our lives are particularly interesting or remarkable enough to record. If we did, publishers would be inundated by autobiographies. Yet, eavesdrop at dinners or the meeting of strangers on holiday and you will become attuned to the stories plucked from the lives of ordinary people to inform, build bridges, or merely to entertain. We all have a story to tell.

Some of these anecdotes have been told so often that partners often finish them for each other, or egg each other on towards the highlight. The familiarity of these stories fixes them, making them difficult to change. They nonetheless get retold to show an alternate side of ourselves to people who have come to know us in a different context; to confirm our allegiances to others; or to illustrate the connection between the present and the past. An element of trust is at play when we share our personal stories.

This was particularly evident when I attended a series of workshops a few years ago. The participants were issued with pens and paper and, as we sat in a circle, we were asked to write down various aspects of our lives on cue – describe one of your most frightening moments; an occasion that made you face your innermost fears; a choice you made that was out of character for you. Of course these did not happen all at once, but as we diligently set about writing in response to the first instruction, none of us realised we would be required to share them.

Sometimes we read them ourselves. At other times a randomly chosen partner read them on our behalf; yet on other occasions we were asked to talk about the particular experience during a shared ‘chat session’ with yet another randomly selected partner. As uncomfortable as this was initially, the experience proved to be both interesting and enlightening. We ended up being surprised at the hitherto unknown inner strengths, fears and accomplishments of colleagues who gave no hint of such things on the surface. We unwittingly learned about empathy, respect and to realise that so much more lies behind the faces we work with every day. I recently threw out my notes from those sessions. Before doing so, however, I reread what I had written and surprised myself by what had been laid bare – I would never have imagined that anything in my life was ‘write worthy’, yet some aspects of it had been gently coaxed out of me.

No matter the occasion, when people are together for any length of time, an exchange of stories will begin. This might be in the form of a tentative exploration of where we come from; a delicate process of sussing out what we have in common; an exchange of opinions; or even a confession of sorts about health, personal circumstances, concerns or joys.

Stories are part of the way we understand our history and shared anecdotes go a long way towards understanding the lives of the people within our social and working orbit. In this sense, the stories we tell about ourselves can be powerful – as are those stories we tell ourselves while seeking an understanding of where we are, why we are, and what we are becoming.

Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety is a marvellous depiction of the friendship between two couples through their waxing and waning fortunes, as well as their trials and tribulations spanning forty years or so. Their back stories and shared experiences form the weft of their relationship, weaving their lives together with increasing strength and flexibility.

I have just finished editing the first draft of my late father’s memoirs. On the surface he was as ordinary a person as any of us are: a miner, a farmer, an amateur historian, a husband, a father and grandfather. If only I had known about this endeavour before he died, I would have been able to explore so much more! What a story he has to tell of life as we will never know it again; of courage and perseverance; of love and adventure. It proves the point that the unfolding of our lives are stories with no end. As ordinary as they may be, they help others to make sense of our lives and they deserve to be shared – at least with the next generation.

Advertisements

PHILATELIC BEGINNINGS: ROMULUS AND REMUS

The hobby of stamp collecting – I would not hear of philately for many years to come – fascinated me from an early age, not least because of my father’s stamp album that nestled among the books in a glass-fronted bookshelf. I began my own modest collection by tearing off the stamps that arrived on letters in the mail – these stamps turned out to be a treasure trove for me.

I learned how to soak them, dry them and affix them to the pages of my first stamp album with special little hinges. What a fascinating world opened up for me as a result! Naturally enough, I suppose, stamps from countries other than South Africa seemed exotic and so much more interesting at first. I loved finding these countries in our atlas and – one of the unexpected benefits of this hobby – began to enjoy scouring the newspapers for news emanating from some of them. Reading newspapers from wherever we happen to be is an interest that has long outlived my ability to continue with philately as a hobby.

My father’s album contained stamps from countries I could not hope to find on the envelopes that came into our home – he must have begun his collection in his youth, although he added to it from time to time in a haphazard way. It was through studying the images on these and talking to my parents about them that I became interested in knowledge for its own sake.

An early example would be one such as this stamp from Italy:

The original looks as smudged and indistinct as this scan indicates, yet it fascinated me to be told of the story of Romulus and his twin brother Remus, the legendary founders of Rome. What a story! Their trough floating down the River Tiber is reminiscent of Moses being found in the bulrushes. That they would be rescued and suckled by a wolf until the herdsman Faustulus found them fired my imagination, which became quite ready to accept the story of Mowgli in Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book. What a feast of reading these links led to – another source of joy that has remained with me, including reading about the adventures of these twins many, many years later in Virgil’s The Aeneid.

A MONDAY SMILE

I had hardly entered the supermarket yesterday morning when my cell phone rang. A floor manager, let us call him Moustache Man, looked up in surprise at the jaunty tune, his eyes met mine and a shadow of amusement crossed his face as he walked off to attend to a query at a nearby till.

Moustache Man happened to be at the end of the same aisle I had entered when a woman dropped the bottle of chutney she was holding. It smashed on impact and the spicy contents spread over the floor and under her trolley. I saw an arm wave and in two ticks a cleaner arrived with paper towelling, a floor mop and a bucket. Moustache Man met my eye and gave the briefest shrug of his shoulders as he listened to the apologetic woman. I turned my trolley around to seek another item on my list.

It was in the frozen food aisle that we met again. Two men were ripping open cartons of frozen fish to pack into the wall freezers. Their empty boxes and discarded heavy plastic wrappings were blocking the aisle. “You can pile your boxes here,” Moustache Man indicated a vacant space next to one of the chest freezers, “but leave room for our customers to get through.” He sounded tired even though it was only nine in the morning. I wondered if he had been on shift since before the shop had opened.

The items I had selected were being rung up at the till and packed into the bags I had brought with me. The cashier paused, spoke briefly to the packer, who shook her head. She then leaned across to the cashier next to her, who also shook her head. Then she rang a little brass bell and held her hand up for attention. From my position I couldn’t see what was causing the hold up.

A harassed looking Moustache Man arrived and looked at the dishwashing liquid being held out to him. “I don’t know,” he said. “I’ll have to ask Nick.” He leaned forward to swipe his card. “Oh no!”

“What’s wrong?” the cashier and I asked in unison.

He looked up at me and smiled apologetically. “I’ve just wiped out something by accident.” He fiddled some more and left briefly while the rest of my items were rung up.

“We are just waiting for the price of the dishwashing liquid,” the cashier informed me.

Just then Moustache Man arrived. “No it’s not,” he told the cashier quietly, straightened up and again looked at me apologetically. “It’s not R19,99 I’m afraid. That was a weekend special only. It was only that price for the weekend.” His expression was akin to that of a hare pinned down by bright lights.

I shrugged my shoulders and laughed. “That’s okay. I have to use the stuff anyway.” Relief flooded his face. Had he been bracing himself for a tirade?

I needed a refund. The woman at the kiosk took my details and rang her little brass bell for attention. Moustache Man arrived to swipe his card and to enter various codes on the computer. “Oh no!” he exclaimed with a despairing note in his voice as he bent down to swipe the card again and to punch in more numbers.

“Today is clearly not your best one,” I couldn’t help saying.

“My password has changed,” he explained. “The old one is still stuck in my head.”

I received my refund, expressed the wish that his day would improve and was about to move off when a woman came in bearing an aerosol air freshener. “This doesn’t work,” she stated, handing him the container, “so I would like to change it.”

Moustache Man removed the cap and turned the container in his hands. He shook it and, as he was about to press the trigger, Shopper Woman and I called out, “Don’t point it at your face!”

He laughed then. Really laughed and his face became suffused with a joyous light. “Thank you both for caring, my day is definitely improving!”

RESTING IN PEACE

There was a time in this country when many farms in the platteland maintained a family graveyard. This would usually have been situated in a quiet corner of the property, probably not too far from the main dwellings, where the graves would have been looked after by the family in residence. Some of the graveyards are small, consisting of only a few graves, while others are larger – a lot depending on how long the family remained rooted to that particular farm and whether future generations were buried there in their turn.

With the increasing depopulation of rural areas and the number of farms that have either been abandoned or turned into game farms, many such graveyards have been left to the elements. We came across one this afternoon in a hot, thorny valley in the Eastern Cape. A tall white marble headstone stood proud in the midst of a tangle of thorn bushes some distance from the rough dirt road we had arrived on.

Approaching it on foot through the dense growth of thorn bushes and while dodging the very spiky jointed cactus, we assumed at first that it must be a single grave and wondered why it should be alone in such a desolate place.

The headstone revealed the grave to be that of a man who had died in 1906. It is inscribed in Dutch – Afrikaans, although spoken before that date, was only declared an official language of South Africa in 1925 – which suggests this is the language spoken by the family concerned.

Closer inspection of the grave showed that it was not alone: three tiny headstones mark the places where, we can only assume, babies or very young children must have been buried. If any inscriptions had been scratched into the surface of these, they have worn off in the century and a bit since then. All three are of a similar shape and size.

The family must have moved away at some stage after the death of this man and nature has taken over. The grave shows the kind of damage that would be inevitable in the veld over such a long period of time.

This is not the kind of vandalism so many cemeteries in towns have become subject to over the years. I like to think that this old man is indeed resting in peace with nothing but bird song, the wind, the rain, and perhaps an antelope or two passing by now and then.

UNIVERSITY ENTRANCE EXAMINATION

Look what fell out of a pile of papers I was sorting through the other day: the examination time-table for what we called Matric – the last year of our secondary schooling. How well I remember that time: so much depended on the results of those examinations. For me a university entrance pass would be the ticket to exploring another part of the country and an opportunity to broaden my horizons and future prospects in ways I was still unsure of.

There is no longer a Transvaal Education Department. Transvaal as a province no longer exists – the part of it we lived in is now called Mpumalanga.

How well I remember the lump in my stomach sitting for the two Mathematics papers – they were the biggest hurdle to my future.

Then came the other hurdle: Physical Science. This is because we had been taught that subject all the way through in Afrikaans, which meant that I had to turn to the Afrikaans side of the question paper to see what each question was requiring of me as I did not recognise the English names of anything!

There was such joy when all was over … I left the Transvaal to make my home in Natal (now KwaZulu-Natal) for many years and, after several moves, now reside in the Eastern Cape – which used to be part of the Cape Province. Just seeing this sheet of paper again after so many years makes me realise how different my life may have turned out had I not gained a university entrance – or not passed the examinations at all!

What memories do you have of your final school examinations?