My early twenties was a time of change. We’d just moved to the economic hub of the country and made the adaptation from small town life to a large city and I was slowly emerging from a small town geeky youth to a big city geeky youth…
The first train trip back to the province of my birth to visit my maternal granny was nostalgic and beautiful. It had been almost two years since I’d last been down to the coast and so it was quite special. All the flowers were blooming in the fields and quilts of yellow were everywhere. You see things during train trips that you wouldn’t see by road. I think you see more because you don’t have to be on the lookout for other road users when travelling by train and you usually see more of the scenery.
On my next train trip down there had been heavy rains. All the rivers were running swiftly and everything was green and verdant. The train began to jerk and move erratically. One lady who had experienced a derailing before, was expecting something like that again. We were in a rugged, hilly area between two small towns, between which there are nine tunnels in a stretch of 50 kilometres. Eventually the train ground to a halt. There had been a landfall and the track was blocked. I was not expecting my gran to pitch up at the nearest little country station, having secured herself a lift from a nephew. She had made enquiries and come to meet me! So I did not need to board the bus which the railway service had laid on to ferry the passengers through to their destination.
At this time I was staying with my mother and stepfather. After some years they decided the time had come for them to return to their home province, I remained behind as I was working and moved to a boarding establishment about two kilometres from work. I made quite a few friends among the colourful misfits there. The meals were not too bad there. What I do still recall due to its sheer oddness was the blue ice cream that was occasionally served for dessert.
We got up to quite a few eccentric activities during my stay there, such as candlelight picnics in the grounds of the government buildings under the statue of a mounted general from the early part of the twentieth century. I noticed a police van cruising slowly along the road as though wondering what we were up to, although this was probably just my imagination. But anything was possible in those days… could an anti-government conspiracy be in the process of hatching at the very feet of the Union Buildings?
I also was one of the two witnesses to the wedding of a lady friend of 49 to a guy of 25, young enough to be her son, and younger than her daughter. Her daughter and her two sons were not aware of the marriage beforehand. I have always been open minded to things that are out of the “ordinary”. After the ceremony had been conducted in a small church near the city centre, attended by only the purple clad priest, the bride and groom and two witnesses, we celebrated the event with apple tart in their room at the boarding house.
One evening a very neatly dressed pastor accompanied my then best friend to my birthday party at the boarding house. There was a large group of us in my room on the second floor. We were eating cake and various snacks, and playing darts, when all of a sudden the manageress, Mrs Rottenmeyer, a disagreeable ogress who always wore a particularly depressing and severe shade of matronly blue, knocked on the door and requested me to please ask the black gentleman to leave. This stoked my blood pressure up to a dangerous level and an eruption of indignation, also known as a meltdown was forthcoming. Shutting the door in her interfering face, I put the chain on the door and turned around with a face like a hailstorm cloud about to break and release a barrage of hard missiles on a small country dorp. With the help of a young female friend, I managed to calm down enough to enjoy the rest of the party.
When the pastor eventually left with my friend, they alleged that the manageress wanted to call them into the office. Noticing that she had a gun there, they rightly ignored her and walked out into the fresh and colour-blind night air.
For the first time I began to realize that my shielded upbringing in a small and comparatively liberal town had made me quite unused to the extent to which racism affected even the most ordinary and innocent of encounters. I began to question the rigidity of social apartheid. After all, my gran had Coloured neighbours for many years, a bunch of unmarried sisters who lived with their aged mother and tended their garden lovingly. They always had plenty of wonderful meals and cakes to share. They stayed in the corner house. Next to them on a street lined chiefly with shops was the local Indian storekeeper, whose house adjoined his shop. I spent much of my pocket money as well as spare time carefully selecting some of the various sweet wares in his shop, to munch on while reading my comics. Beeno and Buster were my comics of choice after I graduated from Jack and Jill.
A few weeks after this incident of uncalled-for social racism reared its unwelcome head, another minor event occurred, but was the straw that broke the camel’s back. It was Sunday lunch and a guy with a mental disability asked the blue-clad manageress for some jam for his bread, as he was still hungry after his main course. Her brusque reply in Afrikaans was “there’s no jam on Sundays.” This caused my pent up frustrations to bring on a meltdown. In furious defence of the underdog, I jumped up and began haranguing her about why she couldn’t do such a little thing as supply some jam. I made it out to be the most unfair thing since a second helping of soup was denied to the fictional Oliver. Apparently I grabbed a fork and was trying to poke her with it, but I don’t remember this. This event prompted a remark years later by a witness to it that I must have been a buzzing mosquito in a previous life!
A few minutes later when I returned to my room after the meal we found that Mrs Rottenmeyer had locked the room. She insisted that I pack my belongings and vacate the room that day, rather than wait until month end which was a week hence. I managed to get a room at another boarding house in Central, just a few blocks from work but was offered the use of an empty flat in the meantime which my newly married friends were planning to move to at the beginning of the following month.
I realized that she had borne a grudge against me ever since I refused to give in to her racist views, already outdated in the 80’s, and just was looking for a suitable opportunity to send me packing. Luckily due to my frequently volatile nature, her chance was not long in coming!
Twice I’ve been on the verge of arrest by furious and inflexible traffic officers with no sense of humour or deviation from their robotic duties. Their inflexible one-track minds were firmly fixed on the issuing of fines and nothing else. Both little incidents started off as innocent parking offences and neither incident involved my own vehicle.
Both started out as reasonable and rational requests to their better nature, if such a thing existed. On the first occasion I wanted to save an elderly female colleague from being issued with a fine. We were in the office building and she remembered that she was parked in a spot that day where she had to renew the parking meter, and not a free parking spot. Having to descend from the fifth floor of the building and walk about a hundred meters around the corner I arrived on the scene was too late to put the coins in which she sent me down with, as an official had already appeared and began to write out a ticket from his little book. He refused to listen to my voice of reason and friendly negotiation. Soon things became confrontational as neither of us would back down from our position – we were like Israel and Palestine eyeing a little piece of prime riverfront land.
The first time, I wanted to stop an elderly female colleague from a fine, but was too late as the official had already started writing and refused to listen to my voice of reason, compassion for the elderly, and friendly negotiation. Soon things became confrontational as neither of us would back down. Blood pressures rose and the ticket was inexorably written out by the humourless man in khaki uniform.
The second occasion involved someone who came to see me at work in order to collect something. He had a car with a Government number plate, but as there was no parking available he ended up double parking outside the Department’s premises. But along from among the various obstacles in the street came a zealous and pompous traffic officer, clipboard and pen in hand and puffed up with his own officious importance. The officious khaki-clad one turned a deaf ear to my pleasant request to refrain from his robotic routine of writing out a ticket, so things once again became confrontational. At one point I recollect having a very strong urge to hurl his clipboard and pen onto a passing LDV, but just managed to stop myself. Once again I was threatened with arrest for trying to interfere with the officer’s duties, although he hadn’t even begun writing out the ticket yet when I told him nicely that the guy wasn’t going to be there long.
I seriously think they got commission from every ticket they wrote up, or had a predetermined daily quota to fulfill. Neither of these officers displayed even the slightest sense of humanity or humour.
However, when I helped marshal our club half-marathon, a traffic officer who was patrolling the traffic at the same intersection while I showed the runners which way to go by means of a red flag, chatted almost nonstop during quieter moments of our duty, and made me realise that there were indeed some friendly non-robotic traffic officers in the world.
The one serious incident when I was actually arrested and spent the weekend in jail and ended up being charged with a serious offence, was because of a major lapse of judgment on my part. I’d become friends with a colleague and wanted to have a few jokes with his fiancee’s mother, who was one of the switchboard operators at our Department. I called the switchboard from my internal extension phone and reported that I was from the IRA and that a bomb would go off at 3 pm. I spoke in Afrikaans, as I figured anyone that was really from that Irish organization would be unable to converse in that tongue, and thus my friend’s mother would realize that I was making a joke. The woman who answered was not my friend’s mother, but a stranger to me who quite naturally panicked and called her supervisor and security. In the few minutes it took for me to come to my senses, things had begun happening…
I mentioned to someone that I believed was in trouble and hastened to the building next door where the switchboard was housed, to try and explain to the operator that I thought I was talking to her colleague, the one that would have known my voice. But things were already out of hand… there were people with files and gathered around a large table. My initial thought was they were preparing to fire me. But I soon realized that the security chief had decided to lay charges with the cops and that these were plainclothes officers from Police HQ in the room. Before I could blink, I was on the brink of the clink. I had to accompany them up the road to the station, although I was not handcuffed and didn’t have to ride in the back like a typical criminal. On arrival fingerprints were taken and statements made to various detectives after which I was shown to the cells where I would spend the weekend in the company of a bunch of smooth talking “operators”. I was fortunate in that none of them were violent or prone to make unwanted advances during the three nights of enforced incarceration.
We had very basic food that entire weekend which someone tried to spice up for us with a bottle of Aromat. On the Monday morning I appeared before a magistrate and the case was adjourned. Bail was set and I came home to wash away the grime of the cells. My mom and stepfather decided to enlist the services of a good lawyer who was au fait with the law and can cover all the legal minefields without being caught on the wrong footing.
At times I imagined that the case would spark great media interest and that we would be hounded by pushy Press types trying to get the best shots, and surrounded by clicks and microphones as we descended the Court steps to the car. Fortunately nothing remotely of the sort happened; no notoriety resulted from my action and there was but one very brief article on an obscure page of the local newspaper. Despite being a first time offender I was not at all certain that the magistrate would see fit to suspend the entire sentence should he decide that I was “guilty as charged.”
I retained my position with the Government department and there was no change to my status.
The end result of the trial was a fully suspended sentence. The magistrate accepted the recommendation from my defence lawyer who certainly did his homework, although of course my actual mental condition was not mentioned except in passing as it would still be many years before I was correctly diagnosed with Aspergers.
Looking back, all these events shaped the way I look at things today and broadened my experiences. Not all of them were pleasant, but they could certainlky have been worse. I’ll be sharing more of my misadventures in the near future…