Here in Sub-Saharan Africa, in my hometown of Johannesburg – it has come – that time of year when the Jacarandas weep their purple bells. My whole street is covered in a jacaranda blue magic carpet. Sometimes you hear them plop-plop as they fall. When I sit on my front-door step in smoker’s exile, puffing at my cigarette, they tower over our fence and stir gracefully in the breeze.
The Jacarandas stir my memories of being a four year-old littly. Of learning to climb a tree. Of meeting Caroline and Helen for the very first time. Of learning to speak very posh Queen’s English.
My neighbour and bestie at the time was a little tomboy called Katrien. Our nanny called her Tinky. I’m sure any Afrikaner child who was four in 1980 will concur that (even a suburban) self-respecting Afrikaner child learned how to climb a tree. It was a rite of passage. A scratchy, tricky and sometimes seriously dangerous rite. Tinky and I would scale the electric box with its red skull and bones picture and hoist our tiny frames into the magic world of limbs and flowers and bees.
On one such a day, there in the Jacaranda tree of no.10, Third Avenue – along strolled Caroline and Helen. Katrien and I had climbed up higher than usual and the euphoria of achievement coupled with the vertigo at that height must have made me particularly petulant because I did something completely out of character for the four-and-a-half year old me. I shouted “Hello!” in a sing-song to the red and brown hair bobbing past me on the street.
Caroline looked up and shaded the sun from her eyes with her hand. She pointed up at us to her sister and Helen scrunched up her freckled nose and stared at us with her opaque black eyes. Words I did not understand passed between them. My whole parade had been pissed on. So what I can climb a tree? I couldn’t understand half of what they were talking about. And it sounded sublime…
“Excuse me”, Caroline said…”could you direct us to the corner shop?” My head spun. I looked at Katrien, who was beaming as she started chanting “Rooinek, parrabek!!!”* I clicked my tongue at her. Tsk. Helen, who was far more flighty than my dear friend Caroline, piped up. “You don’t speak English, dooo you?”
“Ag, I talk English very good!!!” was my indignant response. Then they laughed at me very politely behind their little hands. I was FURIOUS. Tsk. I made my way down to terra firma very gingerly and decided to have it out with them. When I made the last leap from the electric box, Caroline had her hand extended: “I am Caroline, pleased to meet you”. I loved her instantly. I shook her hand and said shyly: “I am Anel… plistomit you.” Helen was gasping for breath all over again behind her little freckled hand and Katrien sat by herself in the tree singing:”Rooinek parrabek!” Somehow I understood they were looking for, what we referred to as the ‘caffie’. Tinky stopped her taunting chant and walked with us to the shop.
My dear friends who taught me to speak such sweet English moved from no. 1 Slangkop Lane when we were in Primary School. We stayed in touch. There were dark years for my friends. Mrs Taylor had left Mr Taylor and they lived in a cramped apartment. A far cry from the house in the cul de sac where we watched ‘The royal romance of Charles and Diana’ and learned to dance like Michael Jackson in the ‘Thriller’ video and swam in the December sun until we looked like lobsters. Caroline started hanging with a tough crowd who smoked and wore black leather. I wasn’t on that page as a teenager and we drifted apart.
About 6 months ago I bumped into Caroline’s Mom and her Scottish Nanna in a mall. It was amazing to see Michelle, looking years younger than when she was Mrs Taylor. Nanna still full of life at 90 with the same bad bridgework in her mouth, grey bun on top of her head and her cornflour blue eyes all sparkly.
Caroline passed from Leukemia in 2004. It was a great shock for me to learn this. The last time I saw her was in a club. We were about 18. I was dating the First Frog of many I have kissed in the course of finding my prince. First frog and Caroline were well aquainted. They frequented the same ice rink in those days I couldn’t bear her antics. When I told First frog she taught me English…Caroline rolled her eyes at me. If only I knew she would be eaten alive by sorrow I may have taken that less personally…
Helen married a Boertjie and her Mom credits us growing up together as the reason she looked for an Afrikaner man as her life partner.
I continue adoring the English Language with which her posh little girls endowed me. Just last month Cambridge taught me how to teach English to speakers of other languages.
RIP my friend. And thank you.
* A taunting chant Afrikaner kids I grew up with used to refer to English speakers. It translates as ‘rednecks with frog mouths.’ In my neighbourhood the retort from the English kids was usually ‘Afrikaner vrot banana’ (Afrikaner rotten banana.)