Father Time

For a year I lived next to the train tracks. Passengers and cargo rumbled past on parallel lines which made the soft ground shake and dance. Tiny frozen pellets piled next to the door shocked into springing life, resonating with the mighty, metal wheels of England. Always turning. I would lie awake late at night, feeling each passing train, trying to guess how long it was, what it was carrying, where it was going. My mind would fall into rhythm with the shaking bed, carried far into blackness, always with those twin lines leading forth, faintly captured in the train’s headlights.

The sound invaded my dreams, giving everything a mechanical, pulse-like feel. People spoke in staccato, waiting for the blinking red lights before proceeding, before unloading any of their hoarded cargo kept locked up in massive steel shipping containers. Sometimes, back in reality, I would ride the lines myself, marvelling at the passing countryside; the still lanes and old runes in the distance – overgrown and crumbling. The mighty fallen into quiet fields and meadows where cows and sheep grazed, heads bent before the endless cloud.

It felt like riding time back and forth, only the quiet whir of metal on metal and the odd screech of brakes to mark the passing moments, which seemed to get mixed up in late night stations built like great warehouses with a single clock hanging in the centre, firmly dictating its terms. It was so easy. Gliding through domesticated lands to a strict timetable, everyone normalised to the system, swiping cards and tickets, hopping on and off. Just another day of an endless, mostly grey, procession.

I went to visit my cousins and their mom for Christmas that year. Her and my uncle got divorced when I was young, so I barely remembered her. I just had a collection of stories and half-hinted at truths and lies from which I had built a composite picture around an empty name. She turned out to be nothing like what I had made up in my mind, for stories do not capture people, they capture the moments which people are doomed to outlast. Rather burned than held prisoner, we slippery fools.

It turns out that the stories we never get told are always far more interesting. It took two parallel tracks made of time itself to teach me that.

After Christmas dinner – roast beef so tender that it made my eyes water with longing for home, for a char-grilled braai beneath warm African skies – she went digging in a forgotten corner of her office. She came back bearing three albums in both her arms, tentatively cradled sepia memories, guarded by dust covers and layers of the other life she had come to lead for the last twenty years. The albums were made up of her and my uncle’s wedding photographs.

Gazing out from the still lifes of young and carefree people were both my parents, exactly the same age as I was on that cold and wet Christmas Eve. “You don’t look much like your dad,” my aunt mused, running her fingers over a photograph of the four of them together, smiling widely, flowers in the woman’s hair and the breast pockets of my dad and his brother. “But, when I heard you talking in the entrance hall, I could have sworn Rick had come back just like he was all those years ago.”

I didn’t know what to say. I just looked at the four people so young I could barely recognise them. So full of life and joy and expectancy of what was to come. Did they ever expect I would be sitting so far away gazing at faded photographs of them thirty years later? Could they have had any way of guessing?

My grandparents are there too, standing straight and tall at the marriage of their first son. My grandad’s arms around his boys’ shoulders, a picture of pride. My grandmother, breathtakingly beautiful, austere, graceful, mixes among the blossoms and flowers, wearing a grand hat that gives her, as ever, an air of mystery. A woman living fiercely on her own terms. At least, that’s how I like to imagine her.

And my dad’s younger brother, he was there too. Already half-fleeing from the frame. No-one ever talks about it. He stands at the edges, blond hair contrasting with his older brothers’ thick, brown side-partings, flopping over his eyes as the breeze blows gently past. His smile is the goofiest of the three and there’s some rare spark in his half-hidden eyes, something I’ve not seen before. Did he know what was coming? What would have been the colour of that knowledge? He seems carefree, happy, completely at ease in this strange night.

I sat there until early the next morning, paging through each memory, trying to imagine what it was like to be there, to have known my parents when they were my age. When they were young and stupid and naive and head-over-heels in love as the spring bloomed and rapt couples danced in the hall, doors flung open to let in the soft night. Trying to imagine the parts of the chapel the pictures don’t show, the late night dancing that seems to have disappeared from the photographic evidence. At the very end was a pile of extra photos, not placed into folders. Left-overs from history, unassigned. Amongst them was a picture of my dad standing next to his brother’s car – an old bakkie with the yellow Transvaal plates – admiring his handiwork, for he had transformed it into a wedding chariot without rival.

Cans, paint and ribbon exploded from every nook and cranny, displaying love for the whole world to see. Perhaps in the hope that it would somehow make it more real, somehow make it last like the photographs. Make it something to be grasped and held onto. It is one of the greatest lies we tell ourselves.

Still, my dad has never been conventional and, true to tradition, he had painted a massive cock and balls front and centre of the windscreen. In the top right, he had added the sign for male so that it appeared to be making some rather smudged love to the sign for female. It was truly a work of art, quite something to behold. Apparently my gran loved it, thought it showed how creative her boy was. She clearly had no idea. It was a different era.

I started laughing, softly at first, the sort of chuckle that forms deep in the stomach and only barely escapes as slightly modulated breath. Then harder as I looked at the photo and my dad next to the car. He’d clearly composed himself, it was impossible to read his face, but I could sense the smile at the corners of his eyes, see the delight his prank gave him in the slightly upturned mouth and tensed cheeks. Soon I was doubled over, laughing from some deep place I didn’t really know existed before then. The photos blurred as my eyes teared up, looking back into the past and seeing myself, only a tiny seed, slowly forming on that spring night.

Christmas ended and I returned to the tracks, following them over the horizon and back to my flat. Once more unto the breach. I was addicted though, couldn’t get enough of the sense of going back on myself, finding all the stories that lead to me, here, now, which I had never heard before. I felt like they would be right around the bend, waiting for intrepid time travellers to be lulled to sleep and into the regulated dreams of railway lines.

Some months later I travelled down to London to meet my godparents, who were visiting for a few weeks. My godfather and my dad had been best friend’s for more than thirty years, had served in the army together when conscription was still enforced under apartheid, had climbed the corporate ladder together after completing their service. They go way back. Often I’ve heard him tell stories about my dad – about how badly he used to drive his mini; about how they would get drunk in the Hillbrow Hotel, set the fire alarm off and then hose down the customers as they piled out in panic; about what a brilliantly intelligent man my dad is.

Over brunch, I got him to tell me about their time together in the army. There are some moments in history that are just unknowable. What it was like to be young in the summer of 1939 in London or Berlin; or in the violent, death-strewn South Africa of the 1980’s is truly unimaginable. There’s something which stops full knowledge of that time, some barrier the mind can’t overcome in its attempt to render it believably.

Yet, over orange juice and the full English, my godfather tried told me the story of my dad and one night in barracks. Both of them were older than most of the men in the regiment, having been through university, so there was a somewhat strange relationship between them and the officers. The officers respected them, used their cars on weekends, listened to their advice, but nevertheless outranked them. On the night this story happened, the townships were really beginning to explode under increasingly harsh repression from the government. Their regiment was ordered to make ready to move in to Sebokeng, a particularly violent township which was, at the time, pretty much engulfed in street war. My dad refused.

It feels strange to write that, to try and imagine him standing in some bare barracks, a private staring at an officer, refusing to obey a direct order. It’s tempting to see him standing tall, speaking calmly with steel emanating from his green eyes. A hero. I’m sure if I asked him about it, he would say that it wasn’t like that, that it was more a question of what he felt he could and could not do, rather than standing up to the apartheid government. That he was scared. That he was young and heedless, too, then. That life is just one thing after another and we can never know which moments will mean everything and which nothing, nor which photos and stories our kids will one day sift through, looking for the real person behind ‘dad’. The regiment ended up standing down, baffled by the rooinek who refused to fight.

My godfather told me another story after that, about one of their friends who had actually gone into the township some time earlier. He went into Soweto on the day of Steve Biko’s funeral, to stand guard at the stadium where it was being held. The country was alight, literally milliseconds away from civil war. I don’t feel he was exaggerating when he told me that, had shots been fired at Biko’s funeral, they would have been the death knells of any kind of democratic settlement which, as it stood, was still more than a decade away. Having never fired his R-1, the friend took up position watching the angry mourners march past, defiance etched into their faces, their fists, their songs, their sadness. Suddenly, about halfway through the day, a young boy appeared from nowhere and threw a burning dog into his hands. He dropped his gun as he groped to put out the flames.

Luckily, nothing happened after that, or maybe everything happened after that. Who can tell? The boy looked at him for a long time and then walked away. As I finished my eggs, I heard about how close we really came to full war on a day in 1977, and about how my father sat in his barracks, refusing to bear arms against his own countrymen when it came to be his turn.

What did apartheid do to those young men, bearing burning dogs and shooting unarmed children? How did we recover? Did we recover?

Time haunts us, as we fly back and forth between memory and ‘real life’, twin tracks tracing each other; always separated as they stretch behind and before us. Shaking every time a train rumbles over. Singing strange, metallic melodies to rhythms we don’t always recognise.

There’s a photo of my dad above my parents bed, framed in white by my mom. It’s my favourite. He’s staring down along the beach – wind gusting through his thinning and grey hair – our old German Shepherd bitch standing next to him, ears to attention. He seems absorbed in some memory, some fleeting thought of lives passed, each leaving its mark in his green eyes. In the background, the deep blue Indian Ocean stretches on forever.

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