The ferocious wind dropped suddenly and I snatched up library books and rushed outdoors. The blossom is nearly gone on the ornamental plum trees and the oaks are massed bright green. A group of young truant schoolgirls had taken shelter behind large bushes, petting and cavorting. How do I know this? Because they had taken off their school uniform blouses and bras and laid them carefully over the foliage and I could hear the laughter of boys. Bare-breasted girls frolicking under trees in blossom. Sometimes Africa is a very pleasant place to live.
All over the village there are funerals for youngsters who have died of AIDS, many not even 20 years old. Families dressed in black are walking down to the graveyard or queueng for buses. But life goes on among the young as it always will, irrepressibly. Unstoppably, despite war and plague.
In the library the staff were playing Bonnie Tyler’s ‘Holding Out for a Hero’ loudly and I hummed as I searched for books. Alan Hollinghurst paperbacks with warnings ‘Unsuitable for teenagers’. Books I donated to a library starved of gay or lesbian literature. Nobody seems to have caught on to the indecency of Sarah Waters’ Tipping the Velvet yet. Great hideous flower arrangements of dried proteas on the tables, donated by a farmer’s wife, thick with dust on the feathery pink spikes. Billy Graham and Joseph Brodsky misfiled side by side. The young librarians in headscarves, poor and with bad teeth, bopping behind the main desk. A petition on the front desk that reads ‘Keep our library free of pornography’. The same person has listed all her friends and forged their signatures.
Came back out past the garage workshops blistered with sun and reeking of oil spills. The hot silent pavements, the silence and watching gazes behind shutters. Small towns hold terrors that only those who have grown up in them understand. I never drank as a teenager growing up in a small town of philistine hatred, but I escaped into books and wild fantasies as if my life depended on it, a bad start to life.
And I chose in mid-life to return to a village in South Africa, to live here where the freedom of thought is non-existent and endure again the parsimony and moralizing craziness of my youth.
It doesn’t always make sense. But I lived in the city for more than 20 years, the most beautiful city in the world, with Table Mountain toppling into the mirrored bay each morning, the silver trees glittering above Rhodes Drive, the blue skies and sweep of mountains and enthrallment of a city thrumming with jazz and brilliant printed fabrics, markets selling ebony and planed carved masks from Gabon and Mali, terraces hung with globes at night suspened over the ocean, cantilevered balconies for pleasure, golden globes swimming with moths. An infinitely lovable and heartbreaking city, unique and unforgettable. But I am not a city person at heart. I love the wilder empty spaces of Africa. So that was that.
And now the wind is coming up again in chaff and dust. I am in a house with the curtains drawn against the glare, listening to Stravinsky in a cottage with a field in front of it against a clear view of mountains. The landscape is heavenly, all I need to do is learn how to live with myself.