You ask me to describe to you my memories of a trip to the sea. You think because I come from the Cape, the world’s most beautiful Cape, that even someone like me could have only good memories of the sea. And yet, you know, not even a trip to the sea was free from the dichotomy of which my country was so long the epitome. Take, as an illustration of this point, the week of our honeymoon.
Shall I pander first to your romantic notions of what a honeymoon by the sea during a Cape summer was like?I suppose you wonder what honeymoons can be about, if not romance. Then let me describe to you, in the lyrical terms that it deserves (or that you desire), what that night was like, that first night of our short and belated honeymoon. I recall it well. It stands out because the struggle did not permit many such interludes for activists.
It was a night to stir poetry in any woman’s soul even one as calloused as mine. We sat on Peter’s front lawn, which sloped down from his porch to the beach below. Rustum, my newish husband, was playing the guitar, singing old Beatles songs, while I gazed across the sable sea. Stars in the jet-black sky sparkled like the most brilliant diamonds from my father’s native Kimberley. It seemed that some of them had dropped down on to the point at the far side of the bay, where the lights of the town of Mossel Bay twinkled. The moon was a huge lamp lighting a path across the inky blackness of the sea. Yes, the night was perfect poetry.
I had a sudden impulse to walk along the moon-made path. I stretched out my hand for my husband’s. He laid aside his guitar and wordlessly we leaped from the lawn on to the beach below. The soft sand, still warm from the heat of the sun, yielded beneath our feet as we ran. Rustum’s body gleamed pale in the moonlight, almost white, yet not quite. My dark arms and legs flashed like those of a dark shadow beside him. We plunged into the water and swam on that moonbeam for as far as we could, then turned and floated on our backs, gently paddling with our feet, to help the small waves take us back to the beach.
We made love in the shadow of an overhanging rock, giving as a gift to the night an act of beauty to complete its loveliness. There could have been few nights spent anywhere, or in any age, of such consummate perfection-and no, there is no tautology in my description. The richness of that night lives on in my memory as one of its greatest treasures and enables me to remember the day after with less bitterness.
We slept on Peter’s porch that night for we could not bear to be parted from the night by walls and windows. Between the gentle breathing of the dogs coming from the far side of the porch and the shushing of the sea, I was lulled into the deep, dreamless sleep of complete happiness and fulfilment.
I woke as the sun came up. Rustum was still sleeping I beside me but the dogs were stirring. I glanced at my watch. Six o’clock. The beach was still silent and undisturbed. To the left of us, on the terraces cut into the hill that run down to the sea, the tents and caravans of Peter’s campsite were quiet. If I hurried,I thought, I could get in a long run with the dogs before the people from those tents and caravans and from the holiday houses further along the ridge, looking out over the bay, came down to the beach.
I washed quickly, pulled on some running things, and whistled softly for the dogs. I leaped down on to the sand and the dogs flew down beside me. I delighted in the feeling of the firm, wet sand squelching beneath my feet and the waves lapping at my ankles. The dogs bounded along joyfully. This is the life, I thought. And one day it will be the life for all of us. The fresh air was obviously making me maudlin. Mile after mile I ran, around the bay, happiness putting spring in every step. Then I glanced at my watch and saw that time was running out. There would just be time to run back before those people came down to the beach.
I made it back to where Rustum and I had swum the previous night. The water lay calm and inviting. The dogs were already dashing towards it, yelping for me to follow. Why, I thought, should I resist the temptation? I dived in and swam out, turning on my back to let the clean salt water wash the sweat from my body. I swam back lazily, luxuriously stretching my muscles.
The sound of voices, raised in outrage, shattered my peace. I couldn’t make out where they were coming from, but it sounded like trouble. I made for the sand, ran for Peter’s lawn and hit the near side of the porch, just as an irate white woman came storming up the path from the campsite.
Peter emerged from the french windows and walked to the end of the porch which the woman was approaching. Hands on hips, breathless and bursting with rage, she confronted him.
‘That black bitch,’ she said, ‘has been in our sea water. Do you expect me and my children to swim in it now?’
I was about to protest that other dogs also swam in the sea, for most of the white campers and holidaymakers had dogs with them, when I realised that she wasn’t referring to my black collie. It was me she objected to. I shrugged inwardly. So what else was new? But I was embarrassed for Peter. I knew that it would upset him.
Peter’s usually placid, friendly face was pale with rage.
‘These are my guests,’ he said. ‘I own this caravan park and the bit of beach below it. They are entitled to use the sea at that point if I say so.’
The woman quivered with fury.
‘You are supposed to be a white man. Have you no shame, letting blacks stay in your house and dirty the water and the beach which our white children must play on? What kind of person are you? Are you sleeping with that slut? ls that why you let them stay?’ The tirade went on and on, filthier and filthier, more and more deranged.
Peter turned to look at me and Rustum-his face wore a look of deep shame. He turned back to the woman and broke furiously into her invective.
‘Pack your things and leave my land,’ he said harshly. ‘I will refund all the money you have paid me. If anyone else has objections to my guests then tell them that they too may have their money back and may leave.’
The woman stood open-mouthed with shock. Then she recovered and amidst threats against Peter’s licence, she marched off. Poor Peter. I wondered how long his bravery would last. Probably as long as his campsite licence.
We waved aside Peter’s apologies and set about getting breakfast as though nothing had happened. After all, this was South Africa, and we were more used to behaviour like that of the woman than like Peter’s. I felt sorry for him. He was new to our country and was still trying to come to terms with it. He would learn that he could not take upon himself the burden of shame and guilt of three hundred years of behaviour like that of the woman and her ilk. So, it was to Peter that Rustum murmured comforting things, not to me, for he was more in need of it. I was immune to insult. Or so I thought then.
Spread beneath us was evidence of Peter’s abnormality. Along the bottom of the ridge, just about on the beach, sat a row of black women in servants’ uniform, their backs stiffly upright, their legs stretched out in front of them. On no account were they to look as if they were there to enjoy themselves. They were not to lie down or lounge about. They were not on holiday. This was a white beach and they were here to work. Hour after hour they would sit so, motionless under the hot sun, unless seeing to the wants of masters and mistresses, both infants and adults. For them, the sand might as well be the quicksand of the desert and the water an intangible mirage. Only the heat of the sun was theirs to enjoy, if one could call it enjoyment on those terms.
On the wide expanse of golden sand played their little white charges, splashing in the waves, running about. The nannies watched over them, wishing, perhaps, that they would get into difficulties in the water, hoping that their balls would float out to sea, longing for some excuse to set foot on the beach or in the water, in the course of their duty. The children’s parents were off shopping in Mossel Bay, or lying reading, or tanning in the sun, or indulging themselves in windsurfing or some other sport.
We were sitting outside eating breakfast when a teenage girl approached. Here it comes, I thought, the first of the departures. Peter is going to pay dearly for our honeymoon.
The girl came up to our table hesitantly and said shyly to Peter, ‘May I speak to the lady and gentleman, please, Uncle?’ The English words contrasted starkly with the heavy Afrikaans accent.
‘Yes?’ I asked gently in her native tongue, ‘what is it?’
She turned to me, her eyes downcast. It is possible
that she had never had to address a black woman with respect before. I appreciated her difficulty and felt sorry for the child.
‘My father, Miss, he asks if you and the gentleman would like to come over to our site this afternoon.’
‘And who is your father?’ I asked.
‘He is Brigadier General Du Tait, Miss.’
Rustum and I exchanged glances. The only brigadiers we’d met was in the course of being interrogated concerning our political activities. The only others we knew of were those who’d ordered the troops into the townships. It was this which had delayed the honeymoon. What the hell did a brigadier want with us on a campsite? To run us off personally under the guise of an invitation?To fool Peter? Yet, the girl’s demeanour did not speak of such intentions.
I was at a loss. Ordinarily, I would simply refuse and, then, in not very polite terms. We were in a state of civil war against these people. And this brigadier was no innocent foot soldier. What did he want, I wondered. Then I thought, what the hell, let’s go and see. Who knew?Perhaps, he would be the saving of Peter’s licence. I looked at Rustum and he nodded.
‘At what time would he like us to come?’ I asked.
She named the time and pointed out the site.
‘Father says that if that is not a convenient time, perhaps you could give him a different one.”Thank your father for the invitation and tell him we shall be over at that time.’
We went over to the Brigadier’s site in the late afternoon. There had been no further departures after the woman and her family had left.
The Brigadier made us welcome under the veranda-like extension to his luxury caravan, reaching out to shake hands in the best tradition of Afrikaner hospitality-something we’d heard of but never experienced. We accepted a glass of wine, it being the lesser evil of cheap instant coffee and sweet red wine.
But, the coffee and wine aside, this was no crass Boer. This was the civilised face of Apartheid, the one which could talk at least passably of music and art and travel. Oh, yes, and of literature too, even though it confined itself to what he called ‘The Classics’. He crammed it all in, anxious to show off his erudition to these educated Kaffirs, as he no doubt called us when alone with his wife.And of the war which raged all over our country between his people and ours, we said nothing. We were his guests; he was our host. For either of us to introduce such a controversial subject would be ungracious indeed.
Finally, just as we decided to take our leave, the true Boer emerged. Having disallowed me the lesser insult of whore, bitch and filth, he calmly proceeded to deliver the worst insult of the day.
‘I wish’, said the Brigadier, ‘that all your people were like you. And what is more, I wish that people like that crazy woman would understand that not all blacks are like their servants. We have no objection to mixing with blacks like you-lawyers, teachers and so on. You are decent people. But, of course, it is those ones we must draw the line at,’ and he pointed in the direction of the nannies on the beach.
I felt bitter bile rise in my throat and the red in front of my eyes was not that of the wine in my glass. This was the new Afrikanerdom personified, asking me to play Judas to all whom I owned as mine-my factory-worker father, my seamstress mother, my ex-washerwoman grandmother. Asking our assurances that servants would never set foot in the sea. And in what coinage were his thirty pieces of silver? The right to enjoy the sand and the sea, which was not even his to give but mine to take.
In my head echoed my father’s restraining warning: ‘Patience. Not now. Show them that we are better than they.’ I was grateful then that Rusturn was calm enough to obey the injunctions of our mothers on the rules of hospitality, time-honoured amongst our people, by guests and hosts. With flawless politeness, he rose and took my hand in one of his, extending the other to the Brigadier. ‘I am afraid, Brigadier, that you will have to excuse us.
We’ve promised Peter some Malay cooking tonight and we’d better get started. Thank you so much for your hospitality.’
The Brigadier rose ponderously to his feet, no doubt relieved that the encounter was over. He had shown how civilised and progressive his people could be towards civilised blacks. Duty done, he engulfed Rustum’s small, brown hand in his huge paw. I was glad my right hand was taken.
‘See you in the townships, Brigadier,’ I thought. ‘See you in the bloody trenches.’
So you see, I have no untainted romantic seaside memory to offer you. But have patience. I’m going back to the Cape this year. Perhaps, when I return I shall have some happy memories. Ask me when we meet again.