One Small Mutualityby Brandon Edmonds, illustration by Jason Bronkhorst / 24.03.2010
This ought to topple another hundred trees in the forest of mystery that surrounds me (as I like to tell myself in weaker, vainglorious moments): I lived with an older woman throughout my twenties. Pretty hot huh? The cine-literate amongst you are seeing a startled 60s era Dustin Hoffman, framed between the skinny parted thighs of Anne Bancroft – here’s to you, Mrs. Robinson! Except her name was Myra, and she was my grandmother. Clashes with my stepfather ousted me from the family home. Granny was kind enough to take me in. Her husband had passed away, after she’d seen to his domestic needs, dutifully cooking and cleaning, for forty years, and I guess I was just another pair of underpants to throw into the washer.
She lived on the 8th floor of a block of flats overlooking the Lion Match Factory in Durban. There was a sweeping, wraparound vista of the Indian Ocean, railway tracks, the Jockey underwear factory and King’s Park Stadium, home of the Natal Sharks. That view, incidentally, contains many core elements of my sensibility: underwear (I’m obsessed with sex), trains (I’m an avid traveler), the ocean (swimming is maybe the third or fourth thing, after eating and boinking, I enjoy doing most on the planet) and King’s Park stadium (I learned to love the game in the mid-1990s, that peerless era of Andre Joubert, James Small and Henry Honiball et al – when liberal-democratic ‘liberation’ – the hard-won right to vote – made former Christian National leisure fetishes like rugby a tad more palatable).
I would watch rugby with Myra on a Saturday afternoon. It bonded us. It was our one small mutuality. An evanescent bridge of generational contact – narrated by Hugh Bladen, whose breath, luckily, we couldn’t smell, boozy, as it was, his excitement nevertheless infectious. At times, towards the end of a match, stricken with tension, close as fans can be, we would stand in unison, Myra and me, spontaneously, driven by an up rush of molten glee, as our neighborhood team, our doorstep vanquishers, sent another outfit packing with a late, late try by Andre Snyman, say, from an impossible line-out snatch by Mark Andrews; and we’d share in Gary Teichmann’s drenched dignity, post-match, his weary peasant-like restraint in victory. We were both amazed, I remember, at the staggering crush and scale of cars and people (around 50 000) surrounding King’s Park for the wet, dirty hardscrabble World Cup quarterfinal against France (back in June 1995). The view from the flat was apocalyptic. Fires going and rain lashing down, flags flying and huddled spectators cheering as Joel Stransky slotted penalty after penalty. The French later claimed food poisoning and the Springboks narrowly went on to Ellis Park (19-15), and that hallowed final. Myra opened the windows to hear the roar, and we stood there listening, for a long time, despite the rain…
We so seldom shared anything. I always seemed to be taking without giving. Was that the story of Myra’s life? Drained by male use. The story of so many women of her social epoch: post-war home-makers and domestic toilers, mothers and aunts, sisters and wives, scrubbers and bakers, sewers and radio-listeners, a whole world of women behind closed doors. So I might have exaggerated my happiness, might have forced rugby onto myself for her sake, might have dissembled somewhat, and, if so, I’m glad I did – it was the least I could do to show my gratitude.
It was high communion for us, rugby on Saturdays. A televised provincial mass: blood of Vleis Visagie, body of Wahl Bartmann.
All kinds of ‘mutuality’ was being worked out and negotiated in that early post-apartheid era: racial, social and constitutional – all sorts of compromises and continuities were being lost and won – and rugby, for Myra and me, thanks to our record-breaking team, that dream run of Sharks talent, which trained and performed below us, a mere stone’s throw away, rugby, was how we got along.
We had next to nothing else in common. I was loving university – drugs, shtupping, books – in sexual and intellectual ferment, beginning to test my powers of seduction and analysis, dipping into Foucault and tripping to Sonic Youth, while Myra shopped at the Hyper-by-the-Sea and took long silent baths brooding, no doubt, on the cost of hand-cream and the imminent Mau Mau murder of whites by ascendant blacks.
“You use this place like a hotel,” she’d say, regurgitating classic made-for-TV dialogue. She had no social life, really. TV defined her pleasures. The box, as it does for all too many neglected pensioners, set her imaginative and experiential limits daily, nightly. Egoli absorbed her. She was an early acolyte of Mnet, a dutiful subscriber; this was the mid-1990s, a devoted viewer not immune to the toothy white bread appeal of Scott Scott, or the bogus patriarchal gravitas of Eckhart Rabe.
How I’d count the minutes for Myra to fall asleep in the TV flicker, wading through hours of sub-par kak, like The Darling Buds of May, so I could finally prize the remote from her loose fingers, and latch onto some salacious art house fare: early Almodovar, Bigas Luna’s wonderful The Tit & the Moon, or an impossibly hot Laura Dern being verbally undone by Willem Defoe’s Bobby Peru in Lynch’s utterly depraved Wild at Heart – back when that stuff was still being broadcast nation-wide. (Talk of an Mnet porn channel: was it ever anything else?). I’d practice Guantanamo-like sonic assault techniques on my sleeping grandmother (pioneering this stuff, pre-Cheney), spiking the volume for a beat, ripping through her slumber, until she murmured the magic words: “Right, time for bed.” Which left the sordid night free for fridge raids and extended bouts of self-abuse.
Myra hoarded everything. Especially food. She expected butter to last as long as a pair of shoes. Her fridge was like an installation by Joseph Beuys – ghoulish clumps of matter decomposing in jars and plastic, like odes to memory, chiming with her own decrepitude, testifying to her losing battle with time. Her fridge was as sad as it was philosophical. You always had to check the lid for sell by dates. (As Beuys once powerfully claimed: “Everyone is an artist”, and that includes Myra.) There was a tree planted in her name in Israel for some reason. Laden with blood oranges? I’m not sure she even believed in God. She made banana fritters good enough to serve at Melrose Arch – crispy without, mucilaginous within. Her tea skills were top notch. Put them together, fritters and a good brew, and you’re talking true epicurean happiness, my taste buds are mnemonically oozing as I type.
Myra died ten years ago from respiratory complications. Her lungs gave out. Creepily, the fierce Durban weather meant I’d sweated a shadow outline of myself into the absorptive linen lounge chair, sitting alongside hers, before the television.
It was a near perfect replica. My doppelganger must have accompanied her on all those lonely TV nights, when I was out getting shit faced, through all those plots and murders, all those births and deaths, a grandson made of perspiration, a straw man made of sweat. I wonder if she ever talked to it, the near-me, the phantom Brandon? And now that she’s dead, increasingly, with fondness and shame, and love, I wonder what she told me?
Illustration © and courtesy Jason Bronkhorst.