For four years they floated between wax candles and a broken thermos flask. They waited on the top shelf, hoarding dust, their chrome tops gleaming beneath the glow of an electric light bulb. Mom had forgotten to add the sugar.
I drank them for a childhood. They slide down the throat, pink-on-pink, velvet. They taste of cream swirls in summer sun; of plastic lunchbreaks in junior high; of the sand when the southeaster blows across the day; of early morning deliveries, glass clinking as steps echo down the path, breakfast on the doorstep.
We bought them from the black woman who sold them from the dust at the roadside, her baby tied to her back, sheltered from the world beyond the blanket. The guavas made the plastic bag sweat with the flavour of fruit. The sun drew the sweat from the body of the woman in waves of heat. I remember the flies and the dust-I remember the woman on the road in the dust and the heat and the flies as we drove away. The baby slept, unaware it was making a memory.
I ate those guavas on the banks of the Knysna, a slow brown river, as rivers are in Southern Africa. The banks, lined with grey bush, fringed with white sand, echo the dusk cry of the monkey, as all rivers do in this land. Pools of pale beer loiter in the shallows, trapped by white stones worn smooth in the river’s turbulence. All is slow now. Time has been paid.
The smell of riversand, goldenbrown breakwater, and dragonflies runs across my palate. I am there. Eight years old, red-striped T-shirt, scabby kneed, forever young, curls sand-stapled against my head, a child in the age of Africa. Bodybrown and eager, I throw myself down the sand dunes. A kaleidoscope flashes blue-brown-white-sky-hand-sand through my head. I sink into the brown stillness of the river and giggle. Daddy’s playing Buddha with his big fat belly.
Laura had a big fat belly. She had a big fat belly, white skinny legs, and a scar on her chin where she ran into the French doors when she was three. “Pudding,” Dad used to call her. Her tummy looked like the pudding Mom made when it was pouring rain outside. Mom doesn’t make the pudding anymore. It still rains though: winterwet days, sky completely grey, no mountains, lots of thunder and rain. (Nice to sit in bed and drink tea beneath orange-yellow colours of melted sun.) Laura still has that scar too. She still has those skinny legs. They ‘re tanned now. The tummy’s gone. The hair has turned ancient gold, the freckles burnt copper. Blue eyes crinkle, love me in laughter.
We went to school together. First Oakhurst Girls’ Junior School, knobbly knees between green skirts and white bobby socks. Maps of the wheatlands of the Cape Province compete in my memory with purple papier-mache pigs. Laura followed me to high school, the ivy-covered building on the Main Road next to the insurance company. Oak trees sheltered us from the outside noises of traffic and reality. The skirts are maroon now, the legs shaven, the knees still knobbly.
We walked home past the Newlands Rugby Grounds. Moments of international triumph ring silently across the stadium. Legions of South African fans haunt the stands, longing to show the world how the game is played. And old men sit on verandahs in slanting afternoon sun. Their eyes see a different horizon. Their mouths taste the side step, leather in hand, the try of 1942. We walked, ignorant to the aspirations of the past, looking only to vegetable soup and hours of history homework.
I remember the caramel streak of Arthur, bent low against the velvet green of winter rugby fields. Sleek, swift, straining catapult of caramel Arthur, the blood of kings racing in his veins. I thought Arthur had the joy of the moment. He ran. In the smoky dusk of the Cape winter,
Arthur ran. He ran around goalposts, around my feet, around his tail and through the willows to emerge grinning, that big cherry tongue bouncing red out of the side of his mouth, licking at the air filled with dead leaves and strange dogs. We laughed as our knees turned purple beneath the maroon of our uniforms.
It was a nightly event, those purple knees. Every evening at 5:30, Arthur would careen around the gatepost, heading for the high school, grinning. The smells of boarding house wafted down the oak-lined avenue, carrying images of sweaty rugby togs and tomato stew. I could see the white-coated waiters, their black faces gleaming through the glass. They served the grape farmers’ sons, whose thoughts were beyond the mountains in the golden valleys of Stellenbosch, in the wine lands, in the whitewashed, gabled houses where the accents are thick and the patriotism runs high. I often wondered when these farmboys in the dust of the vineyards changed to politicians amongst the rhetoric of “the brethren.” The mind of the English city cannot fathom the depth of that fierce claim to the land that swells in the heart of the Afrikaner, the farmer.
And the waiter?
Does he look past the iron bars on the window, past the rugby fields and the double-story houses to the rising smoke of the kraal, to his land where the buttocks sway in tribal harmony-his wives, his sons, his family. Tonight will find him in that drunken stupor, the bottle blue in his hand, dreaming of a bus ticket and a world away.
I can see mountains from my window. Not the mountains of the grape farmers’ sons, or of winterwet days—they are a world away. These are the mountains of other pioneers and another faith, these are the mountains of the Salt Lake Valley. Their snow lies uncertain in the September sun. Their trees blush at the thought of the coming winter, my first winter in this new land. The nervous flush of fall fills the slopes. Laura would love the mountains of Provo. She would write poems about them-long, sensitive poems. Or would she? Is it the feeling of Africa that inspires her 1 Laura belongs beneath the almost nightblue of the African sky, beneath the bedcovers of melted sun, beneath the watchful eye of the man in the woodwork who saw when I didn’t say my prayers. Laura belongs there, drinking tea in the winterwet rain.
I celebrated her birthday yesterday—her sixteenth—in the bowling alley snackbar on a yellow-frilled, wrought iron chair. And the pecan nuts slid down the vanilla into caramel. The caramel melted into chocolate, and somebody made a strike. A pin spun in the gutter. I licked the spoon clean. Another strike. I licked the envelope shut. I went to English. Happy birthday, Lau.
In Hansen ‘s Grocery, amongst purple Hershey bars and Starbursts, they sell caramel streaks against velvet wintergreen, they sell winterwet days beneath sunmelted bedcovers, they sell maroon school uniforms and knobbly knees, vegetable soup and blue eyes that crinkle, loving me in their laughter, they sell Kern’s Guava Juice 59¢ a can.