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.
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: firstname.lastname@example.org. The book’s ISBN: 978-1-990931-92-5.