“The Storm” by Sue Brown

Earth to Mom_illustration

The storm arrived in the darkest hours and mingled with my dream. Lashings of wind and rain adding to the confusion of finding myself inside the house that homed us when our children were little.

I had returned to where I once was immersed in the day and night continuum of young motherhood. As if traces remained, curated within the walls. Where I might gather a lost time in my arms like a just bathed child who wriggles to be set free, runs off still rosy and damp and naked to play.

Until the current owners arrived home to find me intruding, and utterly mortified.

~

Yesterday, the barometer needle dropped to nine o’clock. Seemingly at odds with such a clear sky, and baby wavelets plopping themselves down in the pastel yellow bay outside the window.

The day had been uncommonly windless, only the discordant jar of an angle grinder cutting the atmosphere, the plume of red brick dust giving away the fact that air was moving in from the northeast.

~

Just after midnight the storm tunnelled through to this ledge where our house perches, as if blasting through a hole in the edge of the world.

Where I lay pinioned, blankets anchored by the heat-seeking weights of four cats like a tarpaulin to stop a pile of builders’ sand from washing away.

~

My mind orientated itself to this house, this time, this winter’s storm. To my son nine years dead so beyond my clutches, and my daughter alone back in Newlands, where the rain would be bucketing down too.

Scenes haunted of shack dwellers, miserably knee deep in sewerage-tainted, icy water and I shivered. Reminded myself that my daughter was in a brick home, and a capable adult now.

~

I unlocked my jaw, failed to unknot the scapula muscles, and contemplated how to turn over onto the non-aching hip with minimum disturbance to the cats.

The sharp vertebrae and musty smell of the ancient one. The full figure and spontaneous combustion purr of the middle-aged ginger at my back. The pert tortoiseshell teenager in her hyena onesie against my shins. The eight-month-old, sleek as a snow-white seal pup, snuggled where my top had ridden up to expose my belly.

‘Empty nest fillers’, my daughter observed.

~

‘Betty’s Bay is creepy!’ the writers’ group once concurred. I confessed that their ideal murder mystery setting was my bolt hole.

They imagine the reedy bowels of Malkop’s Vlei being dredged for the remains of missing persons.

I know that place by another name, Bass Lake. A long, wide, watery aisle that shimmers like the surface of a brim-full cup that is blown gently across. One that culminates in the inverted pulpit of a reflected Hangklip, while the original version looks on benevolently.

~

The mossy dip at the foot of the lake, secluded inside an organ pipe curve of reeds where unseen frogs click and clack, is holy ground.

Where a domed blue sky forms a cupola like the one we sat before in my late son’s school chapel, at his funeral.

~

‘Don’t you find that overhanging mountain oppressive?’ ask the writers of this counterpoint to my grief. This mountain whose indifferent gales have stripped me bare, and are strong enough to swaddle flailing limbs.

Here I box in the correct weight division, cannot inadvertently injure another, or traumatise sensitive viewers.

Safe in this house within the jutting pit bull jaw of this mountain. Behind salivating teeth that are the sharp rocks where backs of fishermen stand braced against stinging winds, rogue waves.

~

Morning writings here inevitably turn to molten thoughts of my son. Like the tannin-stained milk of the waterfalls that unfurl like ribbons from the mountain’s forehead, they run to the rocky cairn on the edge of the sea. Where we scattered our son and brother’s ashes at sunset on the tail end of just such a storm.

Ink pools too around my concerns for my daughter, whose surety in the solid state of this world was scattered along with our handfuls of his ashes, released low to the ground on account of the wind, on that day.

~

I paraded for a time as ‘the lady of the house’, for whom the man selling compost outside our Victorian Rondebosch home asked – spotting the imposter in me before I did. When my external and internal personas, like a couple falling out of love, increasingly did not recognise each other.

~

A farm girl never truly at home where buildings interrupted horizons, obscured sightings of the miniature red and grey building blocks of container ships that snail inexorably along that faint meniscus. That other shore on which a great shout of welcome goes up when we die, so say the hymns.

~

My belonging in this place is acknowledged in dots and dashes by a stoep light across the bay on a gale force night.

This place where morning mists can obliterate the line between the heavens and the earth. Mute the outside world. Make null and void unspoken rules of conversation ‘making’, and the window dressing of ugly grief to keep the suburb’s insides feeling smug and safe.

I am silenced here. Held still by the collective gravity of a universe of stars overhead. Relieved to be insignificant, superfluous within such vastness.

~

For two full nights and days the storm raged, and this third morning has dawned across an overfull, labouring sea. A stiff breeze bullies clouds that drag their heels across a deep blue backdrop, and arcs of rainbows wax and wane in the gaps.

Seized by a great urgency I pull on shoes, jacket and scarf, stumble across the beach to my son’s cairn – the best place to watch giant rollers heave their way towards the sand.

To watch salty dragon-breath whipped from their crests, caught up by a cold sun and transfigured into iridescent, tumble-turning beach balls. And to hear a twelve-year-old’s throaty, exultant laughter in the air.

June 2020

On New Year’s Eve of 2010, Sue Brown’s twelve-year-old son, Craig, was diagnosed with a rare brain tumour. In the turmoil of the time, Sue instinctively turned her hand to writing. In 2017, six years after Craig had lost his battle with cancer, she published a memoir, The Twinkling of an Eye: A Mother’s Journey. She lives with her husband and their daughter in Cape Town. The family spends as much time as they can at Craig’s Cabin in Betty’s Bay. Sue continues to find hope and solace in the written word. Her new book, Earth to Mom: Personal Essays on Loss & Love, is a tribute to her son and the indelible mark he left on his family and friends.

Earth to Mom is about to reach bookshops. If your local bookshop does not have a copy, please ask them to order one for you: Protea Distribution will be able to assist all booksellers: orders@proteaboekhuis.co.za. The book’s ISBN: 978-1-990931-92-5.

Sindiwe Magona’s biography of Thembi Mtshali-Jones, Theatre Road, on the Exclusive Books HOMEBRU list

EB Homebru

Homebru: Meet South African authors in their own words

Themed under the banner of “Meet them in their own words”, this year we aim to make our valued authors the heroes of the campaign that celebrate the pens behind the text.

We have chosen books across a wide range of genres – reflective of the current burgeoning publishing of local writing. Cookery, biography, fiction, current affairs, inspirational and children’s are all covered in the selection.

This year, the Homebru campaign runs to the end of July 2020.

HOMEBRU – THEATRE ROAD

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Theatre Road: My Story

Writing While Feminist – a writing prompt series.

Wonderful idea! Thank you, Jen.

Jen Thorpe

At the start of the COVID19 lock down I saw a lot of people saying that they were going to use this time to GET SHIT DONE. Hm, I thought, not me. I feel like I need a nap. Nap I have done, dear reader. Many a nap has been had.

But I have also been writing.

In 2019, I completed what I’m pretty sure will be my first of many times reading The Artists Way – an incredible book on creativity and living a creative life written by Julia Cameron. One of the things that I have found so helpful from that project was the morning pages. Cameron encourages you to write at least three pages in a journal every day as a practice, much like people who practice meditation. The aim of this writing isn’t to produce a masterpiece, or even to write anything useful. It’s more of…

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THEATRE ROAD: 16 June 1976

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One cold midwinter morning, snuggling in bed because the
previous night had been one of those insufferably late ones, I wanted
to squeeze the last drop of sleep from the night gods. I had a vague
sense the sun had long risen, for the room had shed its gloomy night
coat; but, warm and cosy, I was in no hurry to get out of bed.
Suddenly, peace fled from the room as a loud, unruly noise rudely
peeled back my eyelids. Silently cursing, I dragged myself out of bed,
for the noise grew instead of subsiding, and I knew time to rest was
over. I went out to check what the din was about.
‘The school children are protesting!’ the announcement came
from an unidentifiable mouth, spreading to other sources with a
varying pitch.
‘They do not want to be taught in Afrikaans at school!’
As the information began pouring in from the communal radio,
the angry students drew nearer and nearer, the noise levels rising.
The electric mood in the air pushed me out of the house and yard,
into the thronging street. I could not resist joining the jittery crowd,
waiting to see the approaching students. The shouts and sounds
of stampeding feet coming our way were alarming. These were no
quietly marching Sunday school brigades but, by the sound and look
of it, young people angry enough to spit fire. The head of the crowd
emerged. Knees up in the air, fists stabbing the sky, mouths wide as
hot ovens: the angry, young people poured into our street.

Wednesday, 16 June 1976.
‘Come! Come, join us!’
The students were everywhere, although there was some semblance
of a body, the main body of the march. They spilled out into every
street, jumping fences and popping up in sleepy yards – shouting
and screaming, recruiting support.
‘Join us! Come and join us!’
‘This is your war, too, come!’
At the heart of the march was the rejection of Afrikaans as a
medium of instruction in most of the subjects in Higher Primary and
Secondary Schools. The students had taken to the street, marching
to Orlando Stadium, holding placards with ‘Down with Afrikaans!’
emblazoned prominently on most. Afrikaans was detested by most
Black people since it was the language of the ruling National Party.
It was seen as the language of the oppressor.
What began as a peaceful march slowly became chaotic as the
police moved in to stop the children from proceeding with their
protest. The police, using loudspeakers, ordered the children to go
back to their schools. We could hear the shouting. We could smell
teargas. And the children were running for shelter all over Orlando
West and Dube.
There were those who were crying, blinded by the teargas. We
soon became involved, taking sides, in something that had initially
nothing to do with us grownups. As the community, how could we
not offer to wash the faces of victims of police assault? We could hear
gunshots and were told the police were firing rubber bullets at not
only the students but anyone and everyone out in the streets now.
If the march had provoked police attack, their attack provoked
retaliation. Students began throwing stones at the police. By the
afternoon, we heard the police were firing real bullets directly at the
children. Two children had died and many were injured.
Before nightfall, the whole of Soweto was engulfed in smoke. I
remember trying to go to work late that afternoon and wondering if
we would be able to return.
That night, we performed and the white crowd rose to its feet. The
standing ovation was an every night occurrence. And it pleased us
to no end. But that night, our hearts were in Soweto. As the curtain
rolled down, we all ran to our dressing rooms. After a frenzied
change of clothing, we ran to our bus, hopped in, and then it roared
away. Rumours had already reached us about more and more people
being injured.
Soweto was a fortress that night. Soldiers everywhere. They
stopped each car driving into or out of Soweto. Our mini-bus had Ipi
Tombi conspicuously emblazoned all over it. It was stopped anyway.
‘Where d’you come from, this late?’
The driver explained.
Still the bus was searched.
Driving up to Ephefeni (Orlando West) felt like driving through
a war zone: terrifying. Smoke enveloped everything. The smell of
death hung in the air, palpable.
Trying to sleep that night, I wondered how a day that had started
so peacefully could end up like this.

The next morning, the nation was hit by the photo of a boy, mouth
wide open in a silent scream as he runs with all his might, eyes
bulging in search of help he hopes against hope will come. Every
muscle in the taut body strains under the sad, limp human cargo
he carries.
Hector Pieterson died in the arms of eighteen-year-old
Mbuyisa Makhubu. He was shot by the police and made history:
The First Victim of Police Shooting of Unarmed School Children –
June 16, 1976.
That was an event South Africa will, no doubt, forget one day.
But, that day is not in the country’s foreseeable future. Hector was
followed by many more, killed and injured, hospitals filling to
capacity, often overwhelmed. Mbuyisa eventually went into exile.
That unforgettable afternoon, on my way to work, I took a taxi
to Pimville to check on my daughter. Phumzile, then seven years
old, innocently showed me how ‘the big children, students, said we
must get out!’ Even children that young were ordered out of their
classroom and told to join the protests in the streets.
Turmoil. And, like a wild veld fire, that turmoil grew and grew
and grew until it filled the land. The students’ protest turned into
an uprising and then a revolution and engulfed all youth – those
in school as well as those who were not. The shooting in Soweto
sparked a massive national agitation and soon, even adults were
involved, politicians leading the rest. The fire of discontent had
spread everywhere. It crackled and sizzled throughout the country,
reaching urban and rural areas, big cities and small towns, dorpies
and villages.

Pages 109-112 of Thembi Mtshali-Jones’s Theatre Road: My Story as told to Sindiwe Magona.

Thembi and Sindiwe

Lockdown musings on survival

The publishing industry has always included an element of chance that we all accept and live with. From the question of which manuscript gets published – through editing, proofreading, designing, printing, distribution and promotion – to finally book selling and buying, few things are predictable. We are part of a creative industry, sustained mostly by the sweat and blood of artists. There are few creative people in this for the money. If you are a writer, from your usual royalties, you might be able to buy yourself a packet of cigarettes on the black market right now. Hardly anyone can live off writing alone. We all hustle and keep other jobs to sustain our love for the written word.

But now, like many other sectors of the economy, we are all facing The Great Unknown, way beyond the usual Russian roulette that is writing and publishing. Books can still be written and prepared for printing, but they cannot be printed, distributed, sold and bought in bookshops right now. Unless they are ebooks, of course. But there is a reason why ebooks have not replaced the book in our lives, and I still can’t bring myself to consider ebooks seriously. I have not become a publisher to bring ebooks into this world. I am old-fashioned and stubborn that way. I have always been in love with the book as a physical object. Karavan Press has only one title available as an ebook and only because I promised the author that I would brave e-publishing for her. I did and we produced a great e-version of a beautiful real book, but I cannot imagine it without the real thing being in the world. What consequences the lockdown will have for publishing is extremely difficult to predict, like everything else right now, and I think we are all apprehensive. We are all busy reinventing the world. Or just sitting still and waiting. Karavan Press is probably the smallest fish in the local publishing pond; we only started bringing out books in July last year. For us, this is not only uncharted territory, this is “here be dragons”.

Jacana Media tweeted the following today: “ARE BOOKS ESSENTIAL? In our small book publishing industry in SA, we believe they are. But can we ask President Cyril Ramaphosa to reconsider the government’s stance that books are non-essential?”

It is important to open up this conversation. I was asked for comment and wrote the following:

“In general, I agree. Books are essential in ways that a tweet can’t articulate, but relaxing the lockdown for one form of creativity would not be fair to others. Also, I don’t want readers or booksellers risking lives, their own and others’. There must be other avenues of support.”

“As a reader, I am trying to support the book industry by pre-ordering and paying for books for after the lockdown and reading and reviewing the ones I already have at home. I’m not an ebook reader, so this is my way of sustaining the booksellers/publishers for now.”

“As a writer, luckily I still have some paid work. And, as always, I am mostly writing for the love of it. I have seen in the past that I can survive nearly anything as long as words are not taken away from me. I write because I don’t know how else to be.”

“As a publisher, I don’t know whether Karavan Press will survive the cash-flow situation in the next few weeks. We are infants in the business, but I will do whatever I can to keep our dreams alive. I am confident that together with our authors & readers we will pull through.”

How? I don’t know. But I think of the amazing people I work with at Karavan Press – writers, designers, editors, proofreaders, distributors, booksellers, festival organisers, interviewers, reviewers and, of course, readers – I picture their faces, real, individual faces, and I know that I believe in this literary ecosystem and I believe it is worth saving, sustaining and supporting. To do it financially, cash-flow will be essential, especially for the smaller and independent fish in the pond that are already swimming against impossible currents.

I think that it is important not to break the chain that links the writer to the reader, that is why as a reader I am pre-ordering books and paying for them now. I am happy to wait for them to be printed and delivered to the bookshops for me to pick up after the lockdown. Luckily, books don’t go off. My gut-feeling is that if the booksellers manage to survive, the rest of the system will pull through with them. Where the government could step in, apart from the general relief measures that are being introduced right now? Not sure. All I can think of are ideas I have seen elsewhere in the world. Acknowledge that writers are vital contributor to the well-being of society and pay them properly for their work. Offer extensive, well-monitored grant schemes for authors, editors, proofreaders, designers. Support literary festivals. Reconsider VAT for books. Make sure that every library in the country can buy books on a regular basis that is curated for their readers’ wishes and needs. None of this is easy – it hasn’t been before either.

I think what is most important right now is that as individuals and collectively we understand our own expectations and responsibilities and communicate with the relevant parties about solutions to problems that arise as we all stumble along. I have been in touch with Karavan Press authors – published and in the process of being published by Karavan Press – in the beginning of the lockdown and together we will attempt to get to the other side of this scary, unprecedented time. I have asked for patience and kindness. Their responses made me believe that we will make it. Together.

 

“Being Still” by Sue Brown

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BEING STILL

When I was a child, we played a party game called “Musical Statues”. The rules were that, while the music played, everyone had to be in constant dancing motion until a parent pushed ‘stop’ on the cassette player (this was a long time ago, way back in the seventies). Then each child had to ‘freeze’. Any anticipatory slowing down during the crazy dance would be called out as ‘cheating’ by one’s fellow party competitors, and any wobbling after the sudden stop in the music meant elimination.

There would of course be the accompanying protests of ‘I didn’t move’ and ‘Unfair!’, followed by a sulk, of varying lengths, by the sidelined child – until they sufficiently recovered to lustily join the shrill ranks of those now eager to play judge. To spot an infinitesimal wiggle, even a smile, in one of the earnest, deadpan statues remaining counted too.

‘You moved!’

‘Didn’t’

‘Did!’

And so it went on until the last child standing was announced the winner, and triumphantly received their prize of a cream soda or strawberry fizzer, or a Chomp bar.

 

I grew up. But continued to behave as if still a contender in that game. Joined the continuous motion of a society ever more frenetic and frenzied. Slowed down only (and with a guilty relief) when one of my children was sick. And then only for the briefest time before returning my children – with myself hot on their heels – into the exhausting, unrelenting Southern suburbs schooling competition.

 

I sat out, watched a little longer from the sidelines when my son was life-threateningly ill. Gained a little perspective, a little wisdom, because I could manage nothing more.

Then, after he died, I somehow jumped back onto a new, garishly painted horse on a new merry-go-round. Breathlessly leaping, tomboy/cowboy-style, between horses on adjacent, rotating merry-go-rounds. Took pride in my agility to boot.

 

Yet lamented again my personal inability to slow down.

To reflect, ponder, to press my own pause button.

To think before reacting, before speaking.

To breathe.

To knit up all the wool in my stash at home rather than dash to the wool shop for the insatiable high of always starting something new.

To potter in my neglected garden, in which the stick of an Almond Tree has steadily got on with its business of growing where it was planted at the behest of our daughter, in memory of her brother.

To plant slips in anticipation of Easter time rain, and to laugh at my kitten, who follows me, thinking that the little trickle of water in the dusty bed can only be a wee, so she helps by covering it over with sand in my wake. To enjoy the dappled light on the stoep, beside the fuchsia tree that the sunbirds love so much – one of our reasons for buying this house when our son died. Before we began the big rush around again, and forgot.

 

I picture Pooh Bear patiently watching the changing of the seasons in our garden these past eight years, wondering when we might spot him sitting there under the Almond Tree.

I imagine him pondering – in a kindly manner, since that is his way – why it is that I blindly rush about like his friend Rabbit. Under the illusion that my busyness, my exhaustion, produce or prove something of worth to someone?

 

I had felt strangely becalmed on the ocean of a busy world during my son’s illness.

Could for that brief time prioritise the important over the urgent, recognise the tiny wonders that interspersed the horrors of the dying of a child. His wisdom and courage, and the wonderful compassion and togetherness of which humankind is capable.

Knew then on a cellular, mother level the sense of a great, universal story being revealed, regardless of my own fumblings, missteps and mistakes.

 

This 2020 global pandemic that has brought humanity to a collective halt, and to its knees, has driven home again the reality of the sanctity and frailty of a life. And my awe of the mysteries beyond my comprehension, or control.

 

I am left with a childlike desire to sit very still in Autumn’s sunlight beneath our Almond Tree soon to lose its leaves, with a kitten pouncing dramatically on insects that move in the brittle grass. To register the nip in the air. To hear variations on the theme in the songs of the birds.

To listen to what happens next in this story in which we live. And believe that this tree will breathe out, into a new dawn, a cloud of palest almond blossom come Spring.

On New Year’s Eve of 2010, Sue Brown’s twelve-year-old son, Craig, was diagnosed with a rare brain tumour. In the turmoil of the time, Sue instinctively turned her hand to writing. In 2017, six years after Craig had lost his battle with cancer, she published a memoir, The Twinkling of an Eye: A Mother’s Journey. She lives with her husband and their daughter in Cape Town. The family spends as much time as they can at Craig’s Cabin in Betty’s Bay. Sue continues to find hope and solace in the written word. Her new book, Earth to Mom: Personal Essays on Loss & Love, is a tribute to her son and the indelible mark he left on his family and friends. The book will be published the moment it becomes possible.

Frosty and Salieri know best

Nobody does quarantine better than literary cats. They know how to stay at home and snuggle up in bed with a great book. Here are Karavan Press’s Frosty and Salieri with Shadow Flicker by Melissa A. Volker. Up Lit at its best! If you would like to follow in Frosty’s and Salieri’s furry footsteps, but don’t have a physical copy of the book yet, we offer the ebook version on Kindle at a special quarantine price. Happy reading! Stay safe. Furry love from all of us.