When his twin brother dies in a freak accident, Douglas’s life begins to unravel. His mother leaves his father, taking Douglas with her to live in the Karoo region, a harsh desert landscape that is a far cry from Cape Town and the seaside life Douglas has always known. In this small village that is wary of outsiders, he makes two friends who change his life forever: a beautiful girl named Marika and an old man named Moses. Immersed in rich language and vivid detail, and set against the backdrop of 1970s South Africa, Karoo Boy is the story of a young man finding his way in the midst of chaos and loss.
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By Troy Blacklaws
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2004 Troy Blacklaws
All rights reserved.
Christmas day 1976 in Muizenberg, Cape Town. The midday sun blazes down. The air smells of coconut suntan oil and ribs on the braai. Smoke drifts up to cawing, squalling seagulls in the sky. On the tyre-hardened earth, between the tar road and the sand of Sunrise Beach, we Thomas men and boys play cricket barefoot. The earth under me is piping hot, and I rock from heel to toe, toe to heel.
My father is bowling. He rubs the leather ball against his bermudas, so it will swing in the air. He loves cricket and has high hopes that one of his boys, Marsden or me, will play cricket for the province one day.
I field on the far fringe of the parking lot. A sand yacht glides between me and the tomato-box wicket, risking the bone-hard ball.
Bulky Oom Jan, my winefarmer uncle from over the Simonsberg, turns the ribs on the braai with one hand and then licks the fat off his fingers. In the other hand he holds a dumpie of Lion Lager. If the fire jumps too high he douses it with a shake of beer.
The women lie on beach towels in the sand under the shade of wind-rippling umbrellas. The girls skip over waves at the water's edge, or float on lilos.
I can see my mother's red bikini and her butterfly sunglasses. I know she is biting the inside of her lip as she reads, and is dreaming of having her feet tickled, or of a drop of Tabasco on an oyster, or of plucking a periwinkle from a rock and sucking it out raw.
My twin brother, Marsden, lies in the shade with my mother, sketching. My mother sometimes calls him her little Picasso. He has an art scholarship for all his high school years, but the folks have to fork out the fees for me.
My mother just calls me Dee, although my name is Douglas. Douglas James Thomas.
My mother glances up from her book to wave at me. I wave back, wishing I was free to go in search of a periwinkle for my mother, but they are hard to find. You have to go up the east coast as far as Hermanus to find clusters of shellfish on the rocks. Oom Jan says it is the bloody coloureds who plunder the rocks. My father says it is the Transvalers from up north, Johannesburg way, who come down and ransack the Cape.
My eyes drift. If you want to be a journalist, my father often tells me, you need to have an eye for detail.
Behind me, coloured fruitsellers, sheltering from the sun under makeshift tents of canvas, call out their fruits: liiichis banaaanas avocaaados.
A coloured fisherman dodges motorcars on the road, jiggling his catch of snoek, a fish as long and speary as a barracuda.
– Hout Bay snoek, Hout Bay snoek, jus' a rand, he raps to the motorcars.
Just one rand for a barracuda-long snoek, for a taste of heaven when braaied in a dip of apricot jam, the way my father does it.
Some folk slow down to squint at the snoek. Others hit the gas as if to run the fisherman down. He skips aside, the way a mongoose jumps clear of darting snake fangs.
The ball bounces past me onto the tar road. I dash after it and a Ford bakkie full of jeering Transvalers hoots at me. A beer can clatters and spins across the tar, as if shot by a cowboy.
I throw the ball back to my father, hoping it will reach him without a bounce. The breeze coming off the sea pulls it down, short. I can tell by the jerky way my father rubs the ball against his bermudas that he is cross that my mind was not on the game. Then he bowls out cousin Dirkie, Oom Jan's boy, splintering the tomato-box wicket. My father is smiling again.
We have all had a chance to bat, so my father calls Marsden, still sketching seagulls in the shade. He wants to stay in the shade, but my father and uncles and boy cousins taunt him until he drops his pencils in the sand. His rice paper blows away in the wind. Beyond the girls and the breakers, windsurfers plane across the bay. A hang-glider loops in the azure sky.
Dirkie, all sour-faced because he was bowled out, chucks my brother the bat. It is a Gunn & Moore willowwood bat. I have often sat out on the stoep in the evenings when the sun sinks behind the Muizenberg mountain, rubbing linseed oil into the wood. I love the smell of the oil and the wood.
Marsden looks around to get a sense of where the gaps are and then taps the foot of the bat in the sand. To anyone other than my mother or father, it could be me, bat in hand. To the onlooker, Marsden and I are xeroxed, one like the other.
Over the sound of the surf, the cawing of gulls, and the rev and hum of motorcars on the road out to Stellenbosch, I hear the bell of a lollyboy on a bicycle. I would love a granadilla ice with the black pips that catch in your teeth so you have to fiddle them out with your tongue.
I watch my father run up and let the ball go early so that it arcs high. For a moment it is lost in the white glare of the sun, and then I catch sight of it again just as it curves down towards my brother. I think he is fooling because he takes a wild swipe at it that spins him around. I hear a dull thud, like a swallow flying into a windowpane. My brother drops to the sand. His face is out of focus in the mirage haze dancing on the sand.
I hear my father's raw cry and the earth goes wavy under my feet. My father runs to Marsden. He lifts my brother up in his arms, the way he carries firewood. He walks down to the sea, past the women who have abandoned umbrellas to clasp gog-eyed children. My brother's head flops as my father's feet sink into the beach sand.
My mother darts across the sand and clutches at my brother. But my father won't let him go. He spins away from her and my mother's nails scratch down his back.
My mother's cries are a skyful of gaping-beaked seagulls.
My father wades into the water until the waves break against him and wash over my brother. My brother's head lolls and my heart soars because the sea has revived him. But no, it is just the lilt of the wave that lifts his head, as if it were kelp on a rock.
Then I cannot see again, because my mother holds me against her cheek. The taste of her salt tears makes me cry.
My father is out deep with my brother, like a fisherman being pulled out by a hooked shark. Oom Jan wades in to drag him back to the beach.
Dirkie gawks at me. I smell the ribs on Oom Jan's braai burn.
Bent over my brother, my father sinks to his knees in the sand. He turns to face us. There is something wild in his eyes.
My mother's gaze is hard. I can see the bone in her cheek stand out.CHAPTER 2
A sugarbird's wings blur above pink hibiscus. My mother comes through the gate of our house on the edge of the Zandvlei lagoon. The bird flies over the fence, to Bessie Malan's yard. My mother lugs a cardboard box of books and things. It says Cape on the box because such boxes are used to export Cape fruit overseas.
– Dee, I have given up my teaching post, she says.
Given up after fifteen years of teaching history to high-school kids. Teaching them Blood River and Dingaan and Rhodes and the Boer War.
I wonder how things will go on from here. Marsden is gone. My father no longer taps away at his typewriter in his study in the yard. My mother is never going to come home again with chalk on her hands, or foolscap papers to stain with rooibos tea and red ink.
My mother drops the box on the pine floorboards that Hope, our Xhosa maid, waxes on her hands and knees with Cobra wax.
Hope is kipping outside in her backyard khaya. I hear her woodsawing snores. She is always saying that it is too shushu out there, with the sun beating down on the zinc roof. Before she has her afternoon kip she hoses down the roof with cold water.
Inside the house, under a thatched roof, it is cool.
– I want to turn the front room into a studio. I want to clear a space in this clutter, my mother says.
She heads for the front room that overlooks the lagoon. If she wants space, why not empty out Marsden's room? On his window sill: Tennessee, the tortoise, and a jar of porcupine quills and guineafowl feathers from Oom Jan's farm. Another jar just of paintbrushes. The big art books rippled by the dank sea air: Picasso and Miro and Matisse. The yellowwood box full of his sketches and paintings of Kalk Bay fishing boats, of seagulls, of Greenmarket Square, and of me.
Marsden once said to me, on the train to school: being a twin is being free to draw self-portraits without looking in a mirror.
For me, being a twin was having another boy on hand to throw a cricket ball to, to surf with, another mind for my thoughts to mingle with, and peel away from again, coloured by his. It was the feeling of being moored to another soul.
– Douglas, give me a hand, my mother calls.
In each hand she holds a tall lamp stand made from a Masai spear, from the twinless days when my mother and father lived in Kenya. She goes out, toting the spears as if she is on the warpath.
I pick up the hollow elephant-foot stool in which Nana, my grandmother, stored her balls of wool. As I go down the kitchen steps, Hope peeks her dozy-tortoise head out of her khaya window. She has forgotten to tie her spongy hair down in her doek. I giggle at Hope: hair undoeked and eyes agog.
I put the stool down under the shade of the coral tree. It used to be a kaffirboom, but the word kaffir is a rude word for blacks, so you may not call it a kaffirboom nowadays. Hope still calls it a kaffirboom, but she is black, so that is okay.
I tip up the lid of the elephant-foot stool to see colourful eggs of wool laid by an exotic bird.
Byron, the Xhosa gardenboy, abandons his digging to carry the armchairs across the kikuyu grass to the street kerb.
An old coloured man watches us from the edge of the lagoon. Perhaps he thinks: White folks are crazy. Before my eyes, a madam and her boy chuck good things out onto the street.
The debris from our front room gathers on the kerb, under the shade of the coral tree. There is the Morris chair my father tilts back to read the Cape Times. There is my dead grandmother Nana's Singer sewing-machine. There my dead grandfather Dodi's bentwood chairs from England.
My grandfather Dodi keeled over in a betting shop, after putting mucho money on the horse Jamaica. Jamaica was ahead when Dodi gasped and tipped forward, the beer glass slicing a half-moon in his forehead. Nana got the money Jamaica won for Dodi. She called it blood money. She split it for Marsden and me to inherit. Then she pined to death for him.
My father will not mind all the flotsam on the kerb. Nowadays he just goes from his outside study to the kitchen to cut himself a slice of bread, and back to his study. He never glances into Marsden's room, or detours into mine. He pees outside, under the frangipani. He goes to bed long after my mother and I fall asleep. I see his rippled sheets in the morning. When he is in his study, he stares at the postcard of the Venus de Milo on the wall, and does not sense me at the door. I have to knock to get him to swivel his chair.
Still jammed in his typewriter are the words he wrote over a fortnight ago, just before we went down to the beach on Christmas day, on how the magic of the sangoma, the witchdoctor, survives in the townships, so far from the Transkei.
When the bones rattle in the sangoma's hands, you instinctively
What do you instinctively do? Instinctively hold your breath? Instinctively believe?
Hope, in a hibiscus-pink pinafore, huffs past me. She has rescued Nana's Singer from under the coral and drags it into the dim of her khaya, where the sun mirages on the zinc roof.
I peer into the murky khaya. Before my eyes focus, smells of Vaseline and Lifebuoy waft to me. Out of a frame on the news-papered box by her bed, her boy September peeks at me. He lives in Peddie in the Ciskei with Hope's folks because Hope does not want him running around the townships like a footloose Langa skollie, a wild gangboy. No, she wants her September to learn the old ways.
Hope always tells us stories she hears from other maids: of old township folk baited by the skollies for bowing their heads to the whites all their life long. The old ones cower. For the young ones it is a joke. Hope rolls her eyes, as if to say this country is going downhill.
There is no school for black boys in Muizenberg, where Hope could keep an eye on September. So he stays up there in dusty Peddie. Hope sees him at Christmas when she rides the bus all the way up the Indian Ocean coast, through Port Elizabeth and Grahamstown, to Peddie. She says the ride is hell, as the bus is crowded and hot and slow. She always gives September a box of hand-me-downs from Marsden and me. Now there will be no castoffs from Marsden.
Everything is gone from the front room but the orange corduroy sofa, alone in the corner. The sofa is from the sixties when my mother and father came to the Cape from Kenya. Above the sofa is the ghost shape on the wall where the fake Dali hung: a clock melting under the desert sun. Under the sofa are the photo albums.
– If the house goes up in flames, my mother would say after a glass of red wine, rescue the photos, everything else can burn.
The sun floods in through the windows, as even the blinds have gone.
– Hey bro', I say into the dust-dancing emptiness, and I think I hear my brother's voice in the ripple of an echo.
My mother comes into the room and I swing around, wondering if she heard me.
– I am going to sleep on the sofa, my mother says.
What she means is that she is not going to sleep in the same bed as my father. I know she wants to let him suffer. I want to shout out: It was an accident. But I am scared of my mother's new-found vigour, the way she briskly crosses the yard and calls:
– Come on, Dee, don't just stand there in a daze.
I have a habit of standing in a daze. Whenever I play tennis doubles I stand at the net and the ball flies down the trams because I daydream.
Measure the net, a racquet, a head and two fingers (two fingers: same as the measure for my father's Jack Daniel's Tennessee whiskey). Spin for serve. Rough or smooth? Marsden and I spin a coin for who serves into the sun.
I stand around. I am not much help.
Chaka barks at the inside things outside. What a game, the flowing of our world out onto the kerb. He cocks his leg to pee against a Masai lamp stand but my mother gives him a kick in the ribs. Chaka yelps and darts back into the yard. Out of sheer shame he drags his ass along the grass.
This fazes me. I have never seen my mother hurt an animal before. Mossies land on her hands to peck seed, and goldfish swim through her seaweed fingers. She forbids Hope to flyswat the lizard-eating spider in the pantry. She forbade Marsden and me to shoot mossies, even though they are two a penny. When we shot pigeons on Oom Jan's farm we hid them from her.
You can tell she is sorry, for she lets the blinds clatter to the kerb and calls Chaka to her. He slinks along the yard wall. No way I'll risk another rib kick, he thinks. But he gives in to her calls, as dogs do, and she hugs him, the half-boxer, half-godknowswhat she picked out of a cage of bony, yipping pups at the dog pound.
Chaka licks her face and then spins around after his tail, which he will never catch, as it is docked. Fool dog chasing a lopped tail.
Then my mother comes over to me. She hugs me too and Hope melts at the kitchen door as tears fill my eyes.
– Oh Dee, life has gone all sour, my mother says to me.
Sour as milk left in the sun.
I begin to cry hard for Marsden dead and gone, and love gone too. But my tears turn to laughter because Chaka dances a giddy dance on the grass, biting at the wind. Crazy bobtail dog, always barking at seagulls and at the coloureds who walk by.
The old coloured man by the lagoon is still watching us, thinking maybe: What a carry-on for folks with a big brick house and grass yard and blackmama maid.
He wanders off with a Masai lamp stand in hand. It looks like the parasols the coloureds carry down Adderley Street during the Coon Carnival. Lips and eyes painted white and wide like the lips and eyes of a clown. Parasols jousting at the sky to the beat of the song that goes: My geliefde hang in die bos, my geliefde hang in die bos, my gelieeefde hang in die bitterbessiebos.
My love hangs in the bitterberry bush. The love of my mother for my father hangs in the bitterberry bush. It is as dead as a lizard spiked on a thorn by a butcher bird. It died when the ball hit my brother's head.
I pick up black-eyed, orange seeds from under the coral tree, among the tumbling relics of our front room. I pocket them because my father, teller of myths, told me they are juju seeds, they bring good luck.
– I want you to go back to school tomorrow, my mother says.
I do not want to ride the train without spinning a coin with Marsden for the window seat. I do not want the boys at school staring at me, the undead twin. But then I remember Mister Skinner, who coaches cricket. We schoolboys call him Skin for short. I know Skin will look into my eyes and say:
– Douglas, I'm sorry your brother is dead.
The other teachers will cast sorrowful glances at me and go on as if nothing has changed. I know this because of the time Drew Castle's mother died when a tossed stone flew through her windshield. Skin was the only teacher who went up to him and looked Drew in the eyes and said: I'm sorry.
Excerpted from Karoo Boy by Troy Blacklaws. Copyright © 2004 Troy Blacklaws. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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dog's eye view,