I heard with great sadness that a South African friend of mine passed away this weekend. Being an inveterate romantic, he picked a good weekend to go. I met this wily nonagenarian when I was visiting his country in 2010 and immensely enjoyed the five days I spent at his home.
Since then, we enjoyed a semi-regular email correspondence that went in fits and spurts as the humour took him. I might hear from him every day for a week and then nothing for a month or three. Mixed in with the litany of complaints, which ranged from having no one of sound mind to talk to (the downside, he said, of living to such a great age), to the South African mail going on strike, L always had something interesting to say: an observation, a throwaway remark about times gone by, a fleeting thought so prescient that at times I wondered if he did indeed have second sight.
While I was in South Africa he found in me a willing ear for stories others had long since tired of hearing (could that man talk!). I was fascinated. By him, by the country, by everything that I had misunderstood and still failed to understand. He described me, back in 2011, in the first of his many emails, as a soundbox – a sort of drum that if someone strikes you can hear what the music means. In other words, he explained, I had acquired the ability to listen.
He had it in his head that I was a journalist and as I quickly learned, once he got something in his head, it was there to stay. No amount of explaining could shift that notion and in the years that followed he regularly sent me snippets of his memoirs, stories that I thoroughly enjoyed reading. He told me that I was shrewd enough to realise that people loved to talk about themselves and now that I’d asked the question – Tell me L, tell me about your life – he’d take his time in answering.
In 2011, he wrote to tell me that he’d been diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and that he had taken to writing poetry. He sent me this:
THE MAN THAT WAS
What are you staring at?
Did you see a ghost?
I will tell you what you saw!
You saw a man
Dressed in a Sheepskin coat that is glazed with dirt,
A hound that is going through Hell,
And now without the strength of a louse.
When I look in the mirror in front of me
I can understand why you are staring,
Then when I look in the mirror behind me
What do I see?
I see a dangerous giant,
Again I look at the mirror in front of me,
I cannot reconcile the two pictures, these pictures
But this I must state, and my words are true,
Where you are, I have long since been,
Where I am, you will sure arrive.
I tell you my words are straight,
And there is nothing you can do,
So Dear friend out of the past
I bid you farewell.
He said I’d recognise in it strains of Dan McGrew and Jack London – I didn’t. I just saw his fear in facing his mortality.
In the next few years, he told me stories of his father who fought in the Battle of Majuba Hill in 1881. I met Rassie, a reformed alcoholic gifted in the art of laying sewage pipes. I met Steenkamp, a mechanic who talked to his machines. And I met the infamous Polly, whose hands touched every major dam built in the country. I heard tales of working in RSA, of machines shops and idiotic laws, of drunken skirmishes and life lessons. I read of Bezuidenhout and his two wives, and L’s days on the ham radio with General de Villiers and how he was honoured to hold the man’s hand at his death. Each email brought something new. He told me stories of growing up amongst the Zulu. He told me of their customs, their games, their code of honour. He gave me a rare insight in to a world I would never see for myself.
English wasn’t L’s mother tongue and at times I wondered if I understood what he was telling me. My attempts to clarify things only made them worse. He expected so much of me that it was difficult for him to accept that I simply didn’t understand. Neither of us had much patience so there were a few virtual skirmishes and email hang-ups but eventually one of us caved.
His crowning glory in life, what he saw as his biggest success was that he ‘produced two most brilliant children’ and if ever a father was proud of his girls, L was.
What occupied him most lately was God, religion and life after death. ‘So you see, my dear Mary, after all these years of reading far and wide, I have to make up my mind where I stand.’
The most upsetting of all was when he said he could not write because of his deteriorating health. He thanked me for being ready to look at his views and he hoped that in the dim future that I would ‘sometime think of what an old, decrepit man had to say about the world in general’. And then he bounced back.
This happened a couple of times but this time, as the emails became more difficult to read and his frustration at the keyboard not typing what was in his head became more obvious, I began to doubt if he’d see his 100th birthday. And he didn’t.
This week, I’m grateful, extremely grateful, that I got to know L, however superficially, however briefly. The side I saw of this multifaceted man was quite remarkable. And my world will be a little less bright without his emails. He’d have liked to have had the last word, so I’ll borrow his:
So Dear friend out of the past
I bid you farewell.