Saturday, November 8, 2008

Slow Tram Coming

I'm twenty nine years old and living in Yeoville. Johannesburg is pretty flat but Yeoville slopes gently downward. I stay in a small bachelor flat near the water tower which crowns the suburb. My next door neighbour is a big blond haired guy with a pock marked face and bad breath called Stewart. Natal colonial gone slightly off. He's always juggling various debtors. He's three months behind on the rent. They'd throw him out but they can never find him to deliver an eviction notice. He smashes his car regularly, works night shift at a fast food place, and runs a T-shirt operation during the day. Business between he and his partner is conducted in the following manner:

"Come down Stewart or I'll fuck you up"
"I'm not coming down."
"I'm warning you china (= buddy in South African slang), I want my fridge."
"It's not your fridge."
"It's my fridge. And once you've given that back, you'll still owe me 2 000 bucks."
"I don't owe you anything."
"You fucking owe me for three hundred shirts. I'm warning you china, if I meet you in the street I'll beat the shit out of you."
"No you won't."
"Just wait and see."
"I'm waiting"

Then there is the noise of a Beetle roaring off and a window being slammed. Stewart knows a woman working in some company and he regularly pops in to her office to use her phone, fax, copier, laser printer. When she stays over at him she moans very loudly while they fuck and I get enormously turned on and stride up and down my flat. He also has a cat called Rambo, a bushy tailed creature who wakes me up every morning by meeping like an alarm clock. I open the window, Rambo comes in, and then we both go back to sleep. The neighbours feed Rambo, because Stewart never does.

On the other side of me lives an old Jewish lady who, when she was living in England, having come there as a refugee from Hitler, personally met and spent time with Jesus Christ. Since becoming a devout believer she's studied Hebrew and Aramaic through UNISA (a South African correspondence university) and has been teaching for years and years at the Baptist college next to Johannesburg General Hospital. We often meet on the stairs because she's always rushing in and out. For an old lady of seventy five she's got an enormous amount of energy. She's constantly shlepping people, or visiting the sick, or giving some Japanese student extra lessons in Corinthians II.

Sometimes when I'm walking past her door she pops out, at seventy words a minute, and hands me a lemon meringue pie she's made from tennis biscuits, condensed milk and lemons.
I go to my flat, lock the door, and immediately eat the entire pie. Afterwards my nose streams because milk kicks my mucus membranes into war time production. Occasionally I buy her some fruit or a cake in return. When I step down the corridor to deliver it, she's either not there, or in the bath.

She baths in the dark, perhaps because to look at your flesh is sinful, or perhaps because simply, at seventy five, it's sad. I wait while she stuffs her ample bean bag body into a dress and opens the door. Then we begin our little ritual.

"No, no, no you shoodn't. You spoil me."
"Please. Its nothing."
"No, really, you're very naughty. I can't accept this. You really shoodn't. I'm going to have to refuse."
"Well you're always giving me cakes."
"Only on your birthday."
"But you gave me one last week, and my birthday was six months ago..."

And so on. Eventually she takes it. She's often trying to convert me, in a gentle sort of way, but I feel fairly immune. If I think my own religion is confused, arbitrary, and blind, you can imagine my ambivalence about the blood stained pantheon of religions all pledging allegiance to a God in human form who stage managed his own death. But that's where I stay. Between a Mama Teresele and an ex Durbanite on a trajectory of big talk, unpaid bills, and nicotine-induced yellowing teeth. Between carelessness and a faith which seems harmless enough, between lovemaking which definitely does not have procreation as its goal, and cake baking which I suspect has proselytising as its chief ingredient.

Besides Rambo, I also have a lover called Merissa, who lives near by, two blocks away in fact. She took a flat there so that we could be close to each other, without actually moving in together, which we both thought would be too risky. Tonight we're going to friends for supper. At exactly seven thirty there is a soft knock on my door. Merissa's always very punctual. The moment I open the door and see her I fill with irritation. She's dressed all wrong. She's wearing bright red lipstick and I hate makeup. I peck her on the cheek and avoid eye contact. There is a silence which I refuse to break.

"How're you", she asks tentatively.

She has a Kenyan woven grass bag on her shoulder. She always has an enormous bag with her, filled with books, toiletries, an apple which never gets eaten, car keys, car immobilisers, a little troll doll with long spikey hair which can be combed, sugar free Dentyne, an umbrella, and it turns out, a bottle of shampoo not tested on animals she bought for me at a Woolies sale. She really is a good soul. I try to stuff my irritation into an inner cupboard and almost manage to shut the door on it, although bits of it, like some bulky duvet, keep on popping out.

We walk over to Vered and Ilan, who have invited us for supper. Vered and Ilan are Israelis who wish to be South Americans. Vered has an impressive flame of henna hair and does a pretty good hip swinging number which turns heads. Ilan imports bamboo steamers from Taiwan, which I sell on the weekends at Bruma flea market. So we have supper and then light a zol, except for Merissa who doesn't ever smoke. I have a few drags and nothing happens. So I have a few more. Still nothing. When the joint comes around again I have another.

We're sitting on mattresses against the wall and suddenly it hits me. Waves of stonedness climb up me, over me, into me. The dagga is trying to unzip me, and I am suddenly full of the most enormous terror. I will loose control. I will whimper like a baby and beg for help. I will call Ilan and Vered mommy and daddy. The strain of keeping my panic hidden is enormous. I grow very cold. Vered brings me a poncho, and I sit huddled in it, shivering and trying to make small talk. I take Merissa's hand for reassurance. She squeezes mine comfortingly. She's always there when I need her. I'm safe with her. Which is why I don't value her.

Several times during the evening I have substituted Vered's name for Merissa's, who doesn't seem to be hurt by my Freudian slips, but it adds to my worries. Now everyone knows I am secretly infatuated with Vered, and being stoned, I will probably make some worse gaffe. I'll never be able to come here again. They'll think I'm a weakling, afraid of my own shadow. Which right now I am.

I can't stand anymore of this holding my terror back. I must pace up and down, mumble, moan, express whatever is in me. The normal restraining mechanisms have been blown away by the weed. All I can do is to make rapid excuses and get away before I ruin the initially positive impression I imagine I made on Vered and Ilan. We leave. I'm always leaving. Maybe it's a Jewish thing. But then, Vered and Ilan are Jewish, and they're always arriving. Maybe it's the fact they're more Israeli than Jewish. Or maybe its just that I'm me.

Either way, in a long coat, holding Merissa's arm, we cross still streets. I am jabbering away. Is she OK ? She mustn't be frightened, this is what happens when people get stoned, its fine, everything's under control, did I say something stupid, am I making sense ?
"Yes", she says, but she's never seen me like this before.
We're now at my building, and I fumble for the keys for the downstairs gate. I'm desperate to be able to ride this out in the privacy of my own flat.
"It'll soon pass soon" I tell Merissa. "soon choon. Foon."
I feel I must allay any fears she has because I don't want her to freak out at my freaking out because then, boy, I'll really freak. We go upstairs, to my flat, and I shut the door behind us. Then I've taken off my coat and am lying on the mattress. It doesn't feel good. I'm dizzy. The room is spinning around me, and if I stay lying down I will slip off somewhere into space and not touch earth again. In addition I want to vomit up my supper. I must get up and pace.
I walk backwards and forwards, in the process tripping over the phone cord and pulling it out of the socket. All the while I am mumbling words in mantric-like fashion, little assurances to myself that its OK, that this panic is merely a small neurochemical sandstorm in my head, and that my body will continue to do the things it normally does - like breathe - even if the control centre is temporally out of whack.

While I am pacing, muttering snatches of the psalms and pop psychology self esteem slogans ("I am enough", "create in me a pure heart", "from a narrow space I called to you", "it's OK to be human") my nausea subsides, and in its place rises both the desire to eat and an enormous need for sex. Our months together have established that Merissa is pliant. She wants to be loved and needed - by whom or why seems to be of secondary importance. She finds it easier to give than to receive, both in and out of bed, which in my state of almost permanent hunger suits me fine. I feel relief and anticipation. How perfect the universe seems when a craving and the opportunity to satisfy it arrive on your doorstep at the same time ...which is why I find myself in the kitchen munching something, and then back on the bed, legs splayed, my head resting comfortably on a pillow.

I look at Merissa, who is sitting on the mattress near me. Then groaning a little, as if I am in pain, I ease my pants off. I let go of the pretence of being concerned about anything other than my own sweet pleasure. Here there is no hiding. I have been stripped - literally and metaphorically - down to one immense demand for gratification. Encased in a friendly mist which guarantees that this time there will be no boulders, no overhanging branches to get snagged on, I float downstream on a river of sensations towards some great and pounding waterfall. For this I was created, to lie at the centre of the universe and feel.

And feel I do. Not just the concentrated feelings of sex, which gather in the stomach and groin, and which in their specificity have a certain exclusiveness which leaves the rest of the body out in the cold. No, this is a warm blanket of feeling, the feelings you have when being massaged or stroked.

From all over the extension of my mind which is my body little pin pricks of heat, or current, or something touching and not touching are expanding and contracting, ebbing and rising, flowing in and back out. My scalp tingles as if I'd just eaten spoonfuls of mayonnaise or pure monosodium glutamate. My feet are buzzing. And I lie there, listening with my body to this gentle polyphony of sensations, curious about what will come next and finding it coming to me, independent of my will, unsolicited, freely, effortlessly.So this - as I knew all along - is what is meant by the hymn of the flesh.

Merissa's mouth feels soft and warm and persistent as it moves up and down and the fact that this all happens in slow motion while floating in a neural cloud means that it has been a slow tram coming, yes, but now I hear its horn, blasting warning, trumpeting, "Get out of my way, I'm a coming, I'm a coming."

Oh my God.I'm coming.

Afterwards I feel enormously grateful and thank Merissa and tell her that that was the most amazing blow job I have ever had. Just as I am lying there in a stoned post orgasmic stupor there is a knock on the door. It's Gavin:

"I tried to phone but it's so late so I thought I'd come and pick you up because I need your help urgently, you know my Gran's got very mild Alzheimer’s and she's vanished so I'm organising a search party to find her without involving my parents or the police. I'm sorry, I know its late but this is a real emergency. I tried to phone. You know what my gran's like. Oh, is Merissa here.If my folks find out they'll put her in the old aged home tomorrow, and then she's got maximum two weeks to live. I want to just find her and not say a word about this. She's so cute my Gran, a real sweety. You know what she's like. I must find her. Come with me now, both of you, we'll have some hot chocolate and then look for her. I've got Sam and Larry and Doris all looking for her. You know Sam, the gardener. And Doris the woman who takes care of my Gran. She's amazing. What's wrong with your phone ?"

Gavin's granny. About four foot two. Her back's so bent her head seems to emerge from her chest. A mouthful of rotting teeth. Deliciously senile, or aiverbottel, as they say in Yiddish. She has to manoeuvre, like a small tugboat, in order to see you, because of the angle of her head. First backs away, then swivels, till her reamy blue eyes find you.

Are old people still in there ? Hello, anyone at home ? Sometimes it's as if their soul's already jumped ship and only a skeleton crew remains behind to guide the faltering body until it reaches the last port of call.She is dressed each morning in a blue skirt, a girl's white blouse and a pink cardigan, with a tissue or two in the sleeve for safety. Most of her day is spent dozing or waiting or dozing again, in the sunroom of her decaying Houghton manor. In the 1940s it was a mansion. Now its a cross between a museum, a mausoleum, and a moulderheap. Old books. Old saggy massive furniture. Old bric a brac. Old photographs. An old radio which doesn't work when you plug it in and play around with the bakelite nobs. Old records: Richard Tucker, Great Tenor Arias. Freddy Martin and his Orchestra, Rythms from Latin America.

Sam the gardener runs a shebeen (unlicensed drinking establishment) from his back room and there's often riotous laughter coming from there. The property has only a low fence, which you can hop over with ease. People stroll across the lawn and no one knows who they are. Shebeen customers ? Passers by who've come to filch something ? Gavin’s parents don't want the cost of building a high wall. They installed a rapid response alarm but it doesn't make Doris, the black woman who looks after Gavin’s Granny, or Gavin, feel much more secure. The only one who feels secure in that house is Gavin's granny.

I often have quaint conversations with her where I get a chance to improvise, indulge my sense of the ridiculous, and in general explore the delights of non linear repartee.
"Please eat" she tells me.
"Thank you I will."
"How are the children ?"
"Fine, the little one's doing matric (Year 12) now."
"You must be very hungry. Have you eaten."
"More than enough."
"It's no trouble. Doris will get you something. Yoohoo, Doris."
"Yes kuku", says Doris, who is as patient and egoless as an ant colony.
"O kae ntate" Doris asks me. (Sesotho. How are you ?)
"Ke teng Rakgadi, wena o kae ?" (Ok Aunty. And you ?)
"She speaks a good Yiddish, don't you kuku", says granny.
"A bissele, ich red a bissel kuku" says Doris. (I speak a bit)
"Are you both kuku ?" I ask.
"Yes, both of us", explains Doris.
She's such a sweety, says Gavin's're the children ?"
"Getting bigger all the time. The eldest starts nursery school next year."
"I'm glad to hear it. Was she ill ?"
"Not too much."
"You mustn't go home hungry. I've so enjoyed talking to you. How's the family ?"

We follow Gavin back to Houghton. He is driving a big puce Datsun Laurel he inherited from an uncle who - like many other Jewish South Africans - now lives in Perth. We are in Melissa’s vintage 83 Golf. When we get to the house we reorganise - after much misunderstanding, especially on the part of Sam, the granny search party. Which is how I find myself at four o clock in the morning walking down a leafy Houghton avenue on a night where the half moon has almost vanished, the temperature is pleasantly warm, and I am starting to feel the sluggishness of thought produced by tiredness and the aftermath of dagga.

The stars are tiny overhead, and seem more numerous tonight because the street lamps aren't working. The big houses sit behind their walls. The pavements here are bigger than some people's garden's. I sit on the moist grass and lay my head, for a moment, upon it. I am about to doze off so I get up and continue walking. I take a left into 11th street. A dog barks somewhere, otherwise I'm alone in the world.

Big oak leaves crackle underfoot. Tennis courts peep out over high fences topped with metal spikes. Through wrought iron gates I catch a glimpse of panelled front doors or long driveways or several cars parked for the night. I go past a little electrical substation, down a dip in the road, over a bridge which crosses a water culvert, fenced with razor wire on which several plastic shopping bags have been festooned. There is a bus stop near the end of the next block. I will walk to the end of that block - the blocks are big here in Houghton - and then turn back. Unusual, actually to see a bus stop here. They're few and far between in this suburb. Maybe the residents didn't want their pavements disfigured with the ugly structures, or perhaps some municipal planner mused 'Houghton ? - let them use cars.'

I reach the bus stop. Someone has scrawled on the side, in thick purple marking pen "I am a round peg in a square hole." Under this is the addendum of another graffiti artist: "At least you found a hole." There is only one potential passenger sitting there. It is Gavin's granny, perhaps waiting for the celestial omnibus. She is awake.

"Hello, she says, "are you also waiting for the tram ?""Yes", I say, humbled by the stillness and the sadness of a bus stop at four o clock in the morning with two people in it waiting for a tram both have missed by thirty years."I'm very grateful you came to visit", she says, "Will the tram come ?"
"It will"
"Are you sure ?"
"It always has until now. Aren't you cold ?"
"Very well, thank you."
"Bist du kalt ?" (Are you cold ?)
"Oh, you speak Yiddish, that's very clever of you. Thank you for coming."
She's perched on the end of the bench and her feet just touch the ground. Both of her hands are on top of her stick, and her chin rests on top of her hands. I am curious to know what she sees.
"Where are you" I ask.
The head on a stick doesn’t answer.
"What year is it", I try again.
"The war’s over" she says.
"Hitler's dead " she says.
"I hope so." Silence. Then I see the head on the stick swivel and the blue reamy eyes bore into mine.
"Where are you ?" she says.
What ? For some reason my heart is pounding. Is this a message ? Is God trying to tell me something ? Using Gavin's granny to teach me a thing or two about staying calm even when you come face to face with the familiar estate of self being sold off and broken up ?
"I'm here with you kuku" I tell her, although that tells neither of us where here really is. But I'm back in virtuous mode, cos' maybe the universe doesn't like my scientific exploration of the contents of old ladies' heads.
"Have you had breakfast", she says, "kuku can make you an egg. I don’t think we have any sausage."
"I'll have some later. Let's walk to the next stop. We'll catch the tram there."
Unprotesting she takes my arm and I help her up. We walk down the lonely street. Into the sunrise. Fade. Cut. Young drugged nobleman rescues altzheimer granny. Grateful children shower him with gilt edged stocks. At press interview afterwards Granny admits: "I've been stoned since I was seventy eight. This Alzheimer’s is the worst trip ever. Shoin."

It is still dark and we are walking about an inch a minute. At this rate we'll be back in the sunroom in a fortnight. I yawn. I hear a car coming down the road, and then the street in front of us is lit up by it's headlamps. It slows behind us. Trouble. Drunkards ? Louts looking to beat someone up ? Muggers ? Granny jackers ?

It's Merissa in her beat up old Golf. Again she has rescued me. How terrible to be indebted to one you feel uncertain about. But how wonderful to see her.
"Are you the conductor", Gavin's granny asks me.
"Yes madam, and this tram will take you straight to Goch street."
The explanation seems to satisfy her. After much manoeuvring, we manage to get her in the car. Then we go back to the house, to general rejoicing and cups of hot chocolate or coffee, drunk in the subterranean kitchen with the linoleum floor, cracked tiles and the Fuchsware electric stove from 1938.
"I've had a wonderful time", says Gavin's granny.
Merissa, who is a nurse, goes off to work. I am tired. It is 6:00 and a grey light has dawned on all of us who are alive to see it. We drink more coffee. I get into my car and drive home. On the way I pass a newspaper vendor and an early jogger. I unlock my flat, pull off my shoes, let Rambo in, and climb into bed fully clothed. Rambo is purring, but neither he or I can get comfortable on the same bed. So I kick him off. After a while he settles on my one and only chair.
Then we both go to sleep.

(This story emerged in 1992 0r 1993. It was published in the UK magazine The Jewish Quarterly)

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