Category Archives: The Trip

Angelo, Venieva, Jumani and Tobre’s road trip holiday from Johannesburg, to Durban, to Coffee Bay, to Port Elizabeth and to Cape Town.

My Way

And so it was. The doors slammed shut, the automated gate swung open, the lights turned green, the highway slipped under our wheels and the city, waking out of its rigor mortis on a winter’s dawn, receded in the rear view. The road, that harness the metropolis like straps do a beast of war, uncoiled and rolled us down the wide flat veld. On we went through the frost covered country side at pace past the city bound traffic which heaved and hauled at three cars abreast, shrouded in its fumes, plodding, like a legion marching into a futile war that had long outlived the promise of riches and pillage. To be the only vehicle  outbound, at such an early hour, alongside thousands upon thousands of cars that, in their various shapes and sizes represented every facet of our crumbling civilization, lent to the cabin an air of truant gilt.

How had we got away? How had we slipped out without notice or alarm? Could it have been that they were after us at that moment, mobilizing by the dozen, pilling into their various contraptions meant for pursuit and chase? Were they with haste loading into such things as motorcycles and helicopters, with their two-way radios crackling into life intermittently with messages of our most recent citing and our predicted direction? If one of our phones had rang then, at that time, that would have been enough tell us that the game was up. It would be proof that a groot bas somewhere, with his hair still wet from the shower that morning and after his assistant had brought him a pile of documents to sign, had paused with his first cup of coffee and noticed an alarmingly large claim for leave.

But no. The phones didn’t ring and we were gone. Well, Angelo’s phone may not have rang but it beeped. Often. It Black Berry Messanger beeped as messages streamed in from a vast network that channelled its energies through him and grew stronger from every touch of his key-tapping finger. In the rear view mirror I caught him once looking at the sun rise over the frost covered fields, with a furrowed brow. It was a face that could have belonged to a mounted Boer general (with a mixed race heritage that was a farm secret) before he gave the order for his guerrillas to take yet another English held town that stood before him on the horizon. In Angelo’s regiment, these would be the disciplined infantry of Stanford road who would, following orders, raid the saloons and night clubs and not rest until the DJs had collapsed from exhaustion and every spirit and mixer had been poured. But alas, before he could decide how to deploy the troops of his vast army on the veld, his pensive thoughts were again interrupted by yet another polyphonic beep on his phone.

“Jo, my blackberry does not make so much noise like Angelo’s neh?” Venieva said.

Her own blackberry phone, which is in fact purple, was not altogether inactive and had managed to string together two or three squeaks during the course of the morning drive. But that was nowhere near the symphonic orchestra that was the constant BBM chime of Angelo’s phone.

Though I couldn’t catch Venieva in the mirror from my position in the driver’s seat, I was certain she was casting out her own gaze over the fields with a pensive look, to imitate Angelo, except she would have on her a pair of lips gathered at the front to make an intense pout. If she was dreaming of an army to maraud over the countryside they would be riding ponies with white manes, purple harnesses  and hoofs decorated with gold coloured tassels. Her cohort, when they came upon a town, would make a gay cantor down the wide church street and hit first the boutique shops and then the makeup stores, empty the liquor stores, roundup the hair dressers, prostitutes and the street urchins (who tell jokes and perform short plays outside the corner shops at dusk for small change). She would take them all as her new recruits in what would grow into a large flamboyant regiment of people of varying sexualities to rove about the towns of the rand, use fireworks and dynamite to break into the safes at the banks, paint a huge purple rainbow in the sky with every explosion, and spend the largesse of their escapades on outrageous parties that would be held in the caves of disused mines. They would celebrate late into the night in an orgy of dancing, acting and acrobatics with performing animals and at the centre of it all, almost lost in the circling parades and the long train doing the cha-cha-cha, there would be Venieva seated on a large purple cushion with a selection of dresses and shoes littered all about her while she feasted on a bounty of candy and admired herself, in a large elaborately decorated mirror, applied lipstick, foundation and eye liner in ever increasing layers until the break of dawn.

In the front of the car sat Tobre and I with our concentration focused not on the weaving of social networks or on fantasies of revolution through intemperate merry making but on the mundane details of cause and effect. With my hands on the wheel, as they were for most of the driving on this holiday trip, I watched our following distances, the speedometer, the fuel gauge, the cars racing up to us in from the rear, and the trucks on their ceaseless pilgrimage to and from the ports without rest until they weir off and crash. Tobre watched but she also watched me watching, and spoke instructions in the guise of suggestions as they formed it in my mind. Before my hands or feet had the chance to perform of their own violation she wrote into speech their intent.

“Go baby” she had said before I had changed down a gear to overtake and “We stop at the next shell” before I had the chance to point out that there was a need to make a stop for petrol.

One evening Tobre had ventured into a cold and wet London autumn and soldiered through the underground and the overland trains, the reticent bus drivers and the dangerous teenagers to knock on my door in Peckham and ask if me if I wanted to sell curry for the rest of my life. Press ganged by her seductions into a life of service and devotion, my life changed forever. Now, years later, Tobre had booked the venues, made the schedules and worked out the budgets months before even a plane ticket had been bought for our road-trip holiday and relied the devoted disciple to bring all to fruition. Would Ceaser have subdued Gaul without Posca by his side? What of Octavian without Agrippa? Did Angelo win those modelling competitions without a childhood of Nieva’s coaching in his mother’s bedroom? Throughout the holiday trip, the two of them were happy to sit back and wallow in their ignorance about what plan had been agreed and where we were to go next (I doubt they even knew that Durban was our first stop) while I figured out the directions on the map, liaised with the staff at the B&B about breakfast times, made payments and always gave the impression that I knew what was about to happen next.

It was with the directions, I am afraid, that I was found to be wanting in my duties. At first, with the help of the iPad that Venieva had brought for me from the UK with great care (“iPad, iPad, he must have his iPad” she had said when she relieved herself of the burden transporting the expensive toy), I brought us into the city of Durban, once an English fort town, and piloted us to the gates of the B&B without a single wrong turn when Tobre had a guest appearance at the wheel. But on the following day when we were looking for a market in Victoria Street Market, as tourists are want to do, I found that Durban exists in two parallel worlds. There is the virtual one of commerce, tourism and retail where the maps and websites have streets named after the heroes of the Anglo-Boer war and the personalities of either tribe. And then there is the physical world of wholesalers, hawkers and crowded taxi ranks where the streets are the avatars of fallen and not quite yet fallen heroes of the struggle against apartheid. In our wandering, we saw a crowd of people tearing into a pile of clothes in a suitcase on the pavement in a bargain sale. We drove in circles about some of the most seedy parts of the inner city slum, up Joe Slovo st, down Ingcube rd and many freedom fighters in between before we gave up on the elusive Victoria street Flee market. Two nights later, on our last night in Durban, when making out one evening for a meal and drinks at the waterfront, a twist of criss-crossing one way streets on the map that turned out to be a knot of bridges and off-ramps in the real world that sent us down the M4, far and away past Africa’s biggest port and into one of the dark corners of the metropolis where the streets were poorly lit, trucks disappear goods from the docks and ambulances rushed about in pursuit of escalating calamities. We were lucky to stumble on a route that led us back into town and to the waterfront.

But undoubtedly, my near undoing came from our second push for the coast. Tobre had decided months before that between Durban and Port Elizabeth we would spend four nights at Coffee Bay. The bay is an unremarkable dent on the continent’s southern coast that is cherished by American and European colleague students for its rustic anonymity as a marvellous example of the virtuous life man lived before he was corrupted by the base evils of commerce, religion and law. Google maps on my iPad had plotted a course for us from the intercity highway to the coast by a route that minimized the total distance travelled. It took us down a narrow road that zigged and zagged up and down the bell shaped hills past hamlets and where sheep and cattle meandered freely. There were no other cars to be seen for hill after hill and all about there were adolescent girls and boys loitering along the roadside in the afternoon sun. Reluctantly they yielded the road for our passage but at every turn we found more roadside assemblies,  as if they were all conspiring a national cataclysm.

“Why is it taking so long?” Angelo had said when I lost my way looking for the Durban harbour when we could not find the Durban waterfront. Tobre was furious with me for getting us lost and Angelo wanted to stir things up so that he and Nieva could chuckle at my trembling before Tobre’s ire. But a few days hence, when we drifted through that agrarian waste land, where the wretched had been dumped after two centuries of defeat, wandering as we did through the South African underworld, even the gay mischief of the backseat had waned. How could Angelo’s guerrilla’s save us then when the nearest night club was in East London half a day’s drive away? From which boutique would Nieva’s colourful regiments spring to rescue us when the shops stocked only matches and carbolic soap? The ocean was within sight but it drew no closer as the gravel road wound over cliffs and alongside steep ravines and the light fast drained out of the day. Had darkness fallen on us then, we would have no doubt found a ditch dug across the road, the teenagers transmogrified into cattle-boy and sheep-girl monsters and the cattle morphed into blood thirsty Zombies. The next morning, all there would be left of us as evidence of our unfortunate choice of road would be a burnt-out husk smouldering by the roadside and a girl walking twenty kilometres to school with a purple blackberry and a pair of size 7 suede shoes.

And so, with defeat at hand and terror coursing through our veins I found the moment for my salvation. Although it was certain that surviving the situation only meant boyfriendicide by Tobre for insubordination by incompetence, there was the prospect of showing the children of Bethelsdorp that my obscure past in the interior of the continent could deliver to them their liberty. Armed only with the wheel and the Fiesta’s other apparatus I tore into the countryside and showed destiny the cold face of defiance. Speeding down a rare straight a sheep came out the bush and began hobbling across the road. Venieva had figured that we were on a collision course and yelled “They don’t stop, they don’t stop they are stupid!”  but I kept my pace. “They don’t stop!” she kept on but I didn’t flinch and we missed the dozy beast by the most narrow of margins. I had found my calling and I was going to deliver us from evil. I would save us from the abject of modernity. A baleful cloud of dust rose from under the Fiesta, dug out by the burden of a boot over loaded with clothes and shoes, and it bellowed an angry roar. The devil dashed ahead of us and cleared away animals, children and old women hobbling back from the municipal offices with their old age grant. I tore into the mayhem and raced to beat the setting sun. When the car came to a stop and the dust cleared we were greeted by the sight of fair colleague students carrying surf boards and naked children with gold locks playing in a pool by a sandy beach.

My Time

“No Angelo this is my time, my time” Venieva said but Angelo didn’t hear. He was on the phone with a telesales person on the balcony of Tobre’s second floor flat. It was on the drive back from the airport when Angelo’s phone rang and he was still on the phone after we had driven home and we had carried the bags upstairs and Venieva had began to unpack. We all got presents of various sorts, from an iPad and a netbook, to warm clothes and naughty underwear and Tobre and I were very excited (to be fair Angelo only got clothes). But Angelo was pacing up and down and searching the view, the way people do when they are on the phone, patiently explaining why he couldn’t take on any insurance from the telesales person.

Angelo had once before worked in telesales. He knew what it was like to phone up strangers and tell them what they wanted. He was familiar with the discomfort it brought and how it can eat you up inside when you invaded people’s privacy day after day. He felt empathy for the sales person. He knew what it was like to drag yourself through a week of phone calls chasing targets for modest rewards that were paid to you at the end of the week, after all that self loathing pent up inside of you, only to be spent on clothes, drink and entrance fees and then find yourself back at the call centre on a Saturday morning shift short of sleep and hung-over.

The salesperson was a woman, of course. Briefly, she was another woman in Angelo’s life in addition to his mother, his daughter, the mother of his child, his grandmother, his sister, his friends and his colleagues and many women more. She was stretching out the conversation with him, holding on to her piece of him, his voice, his empathy and the boundless depths of his understanding of her sad life.

“This is my time, my time!” Venieva yelled at him from behind the glass sliding door.

And then of course there is Venieva. For all the claims women have made on Angelo, none can say they shared a childhood with him they way she did. None of them can boast about afternoons with him in his mothers bedroom trying out his mother’s clothes, or racing through her magazines and making claims to shoes and dresses, for page after page. “That dress is mine”. “Those earrings are mine”. “I saw them first”.

Every Sunday afternoon Venieva would return from her ou Ma’s house, where she was obliged to spend her weekends away from her mother and Tobre, and run across the street to Angelo’s house without as much as a glance over her shoulder at her own mother and sister. Yes there were other kids on the street and she played with them all. But whatever the crowd or the configuration, there was always two people at the centre of it deciding which will be the next game to play and who cheated on a round of Dan-Dan.

And who, other than Venieva, had fought with him as many times? Who was it, soon after she had ran over to Angelo’s, would return with her arm over her eyes crying a snotty little cry? It could be none other than Venieva crying over her dear friend Angelo. He could be nasty of course, like all boys were. He once jumped over the fence to intercept and deliver retribution to the girl next door when she thought she could run away after she had made quarrel with Angelo. On occasion, after Venieva would come home in tears, her mother threatened to take it up with him or his mother but nothing ever came of it. Besides, the mothers were good friends and good neighbours. And then there was the time when the three of them were making mud-cakes behind Tobre and Venieva’s house when Angelo said something truly bad about Venieva’s cake and then (or shall I say “and then and then and then” the way Venieva would) Venieva put her foot in Angelo’s cake and then quickly ran into the house to hide and locked the door behind her. Angelo was so mad he took some of Venieva’s cake into his hands smeared it over the wall of the house to make an angry screed. Then it was Angelo that ran home across the street.

Or what about the time when they made Tamaletjie. Venieva, Angelo and Tobre cannot meet and not tell about the time they conspired to make Tamaletjie before aunty Mona got back from work. With kilograms of the precious reserves of sugar that was supposed to last the month, in the kitchen, they made homemade toffees in a pot. Apart from Tobre’s constant fretting that mummy would be back at any moment and they would all be in trouble, everything was going fine. That was until they poured the hot candy soup into ice trays over the sink which caused the plastic to melt instantly and stick to the sink. While Venieva tried to clean the mess up in a panic, Angelo laughed and Tobre jumped up and down saying how she told them so and so they were all going to be in so much trouble. Or maybe it is only Angelo who is laughing when they tell the story and in actual fact they were all quite terrified about their prospects at the time when there was melted plastic all over the sink. But when they do tell it, Tobre looks guilty and Venieva has on her face that mischievous smile. The smile she had on her face when she sprayed wood polish about the room without polishing any tables to give the impression that she had been cleaning the house.

Angelo lives in his mother’s house, with his mother and his Ouma, aunty Daisy, and up until recently his sister and her husband in the house in the back yard before she moved to Cape Town with the kids. Tobre and Venieva bought a house in Cape Town when they sold the house across the street from Angelo after their mother had died. But when they moved in, Venieva and Angelo’s mothers, those houses were theirs and no one else’s. They were young teachers with young children who had told the father’s of their children to fuck off and were living lives of their own making. Bethels Dorp was a new area then, growing by the street up Stanford road into the farms and the veld away from town. Many houses stood open, waiting to be occupied or were only partially built. And then there were the show houses. These were the three basic designs that were furnished, though unoccupied, that displayed to potential buyers of coloured Port Elizabeth what life up the hill along Stanford could be like. On Sunday afternoons the houses stood open and Venieva, Angelo and Tobre would claim one each for themselves in a fantastic game of let’s pretend. For the rest of the day then they were grownups, living their lives with their own homes and just next door from each other and showing off their cheap furniture that they had just bought on lay-by. They would visit each other and admire each other’s houses and make small talk in the kitchen.

“This is my time.”

We went shopping. What else is there to do in Sandton on a weekday afternoon? After we had pulled Angelo off the phone finally and each grouped our presents into little heaps.  We went to that sprawling and cavernous network of shops and corridors that is Sandton City.

“I must have service, I must have service!” Venieva said at Edgars. None of the pretty and thin girls in the make-up section had been quick to try out a foundation on Venieva’s cheeks and she was put out.

“Yes Queenie, don’t worry, we will find someone for you,” Angelo said.

His tone was snarky as if he were the shop assistant in a small boutique dealing with the shop’s most important and most impossible customer. As if it were a scene out of 7 de laan. Angelo plays all kinds of games. Sometimes he plays along with all his friends until the club is closed and the whole gang of them go on into the night and block by some kloof and take their drinks from the boot of a car or get another party started at someone’s house. But he can start games too.

Angelo told us about the time when they were about to close down his branch at work. “In the interview I was just rubbing my knee and I just kept rubbing and rubbing the same place. And then I told them. I said “how can you do this?” I said “How can you just come in here and ask us all these questions? How do you think this makes us feel?” And then they were very sorry. They even apologised to me. Can you believe. And then afterwards those other guys who were in the interview with me said “Angelo we thought you were going to cry?” and I said no I wasn’t serious. I was trying to make myself cry.”

“Yes Queenie” Angelo said to Nieva and she got her service.

Venieva liked being called that. On the holiday, when there was a brief lull in the conversation Venieva would chime “I am the duchess of Ilford”. She would say this with her chin held high in a tone of voice that mocked the proper classes of England and Angelo would laugh. On Venieva’s previous visit from England, she would do mock Chinese accents. She would say “I speak-a da Chinese”. She was a clown and Angelo was always the target audience, even if he was not there to clap. Back in the time of Stanford road, when she wanted money for sweets she would go to the shop close by and tell jokes to the men there making small talk and get paid for the impromptu show. This is why, Tobre explained, Nieva could spend such a long time buying groceries at the shop and Tobre would have to be sent to go find her. Nieva the clown. One night In Durban we went to a Cubana on Florida road and were asked to vacate our table in the lounge area because it was reserved. Angelo was not pleased and we left early with our tip. When we drove past the following night, Venieva rolled down the window and hurled out insults for the whole street to hear and Angelo laughed and laughed.

“My legs are swollen from the plane” Venieva said when the zip on the boot wouldn’t go up to her knees. We were at the shoe sale at Stuttafords. This time however, Angelo had to stifle his laughter. We all did.

Naturally, when a girl falls in love with Angelo she knows she must be good friends with Venieva. It is not that they are jealous but instead they understand, in a way, that what they cannot have with Angelo they could at least be close to in a friendship with Venieva. This is how Venieva came to be close friends with Angelo’s ex-girlfriend. When Angelo broke up with her, the ex-girlfriend, breaking her heart, Venieva was in a difficult position. How was she to maintain her now close friendship with the ex and embrace Angelo’s new girlfriend? Angelo, the understander of women and the breaker of hearts.

While Venieva had her service, sitting on the make-up artist’s high chair with an unctuous application of foundation and eye shadow to her face, Angelo went shoe shopping. Even though he said he was an eight, the shoes on sale across the aisle from Edgars were not easily overlooked, and so Angelo bought not one pair but two, in a size seven. He knew what he liked. He also knew what styles were in. I followed him around Edgars briefly, when Queenie was still sulking for her service, and took careful note of everything he said he liked and which items he looked at. Jerseys with no collars and two or three buttons near the top on the lapel for instance. Those were in. I took note of it all. I still lookout for those kinds of clothes to buy. Angelo always know what it is. Meanwhile Tobre, during this shopping sortie, had discovered a new irritation with me, as if I were a stop-gap boyfriend from school she was embarrassed to introduce to her family. She kept her distance from me in the shop.

When it came to packing the little Ford Fiesta for a road trip around the country, Angelo’s two pairs of shoes came to mind.

“How can you buy two pairs of shoes when we are going on a road trip?” Venieva said. “You don’t even need shoes” she said.

But Venieva only said that to deflect attention away from her own situation. She had come off the plane with two suitcases and Tobre, always the rule abiding and rule making younger sister, said that each of us was only allowed to pack one bag for the road.

“One bag, how do you expect me to have only one bag?!” Venieva complained the night before we left. This was on the night before the road trip and before Venieva had an attack of frost bite on that cold Johannesburg night. She was shuffling up and down Tobre’s small flat, moving shoes and items of clothing – most of them purple – between her suitcase, her one bag and numerous plastic bags. Every now and then as she packed, when she came across yet another item she didn’t know what to do with she said again “How do you expect me to have only one bag?” In the end, she packed one bag for the trip but she also had two large plastic bags filled to the brim to squeeze in as well. Both Angelo’s new pairs of shoes fit in as well somehow, and so too did his collection of clothes and shoes he had brought with him.

After a night of cold feet, stories about relatives and friends and memories about PE, we rose early, got into the car and drove down the N3 to Durban. The holiday had begun.

Cold Feet

Tobre’s sister had an attack of frost bite. The moment of terror visited us in the small hours of the morning and caused quite a commotion. When I could no longer ignore the talking and the raised voices and no longer pretend to be asleep, and the bright lights of the modest Johannesburg flat were ignited, I rose from the sofa where I was decked and saw Venieva, Tobre’s sister, wearing a pink head sock with a long puffy tassel hanging down to her shoulders and a sloppy set of pyjamas – the sort that have a matching top and bottom and are dotted with the smiling face of a chummy and chubby bear – duck into the shower room and promptly fire up the taps.

Tobre and Angelo, a man of women who was the boy from across the road – with whom Tobre and Venieva had played and fought and swore never to play with again, and played with again, week after week – were in the only room in the flat, whispering loudly and suffering from both fear and mirth. Already, as always, Angelo was relating the drama of the event, and Tobre was trying to swallow – unsuccessfully – a derisive laugh, the sort I have seldom seen her exercise, then or since, in my company alone.

“I am like Nieva what is wrong? Because you keep moving your feet and turning. And she says her feet hurt and she thinks she’s got frost bite. And I am like now what is this now?” Angelo says, with his dark eyes and a wide smile, though I cannot see because I am in the next room listening from the sofa where I lay.

“And she says she has deep veins . . . ” but Tobre is unable to follow through with her recollection because she is gripped doubly by the need to laugh and to not let Venieva hear them make fun of her, though of course she could hear them quite well, save maybe for a word or two, small as that flat was.

“And I said to Nieva what is it, why do your feet hurt? And she says that they hurt she and she is using these technical terms I don’t understand” Angelo says.

“It is not funny. You people don’t even want to take me to the hospital even when I’m dying.” Venieva said when she returned from the shower in a towel while drying her hair with a second, and was presumably warm enough to escape an amputation of the toes, or escape it long enough until the time of our early departure – then hardly two hours hence – for she was soon jumping back into her teddy bear spotted pyjamas.

Once Venieva had dressed into many layers of clothing, including the pink tasselled head sock, and was back into the bed she was sharing with Angelo, Tobre closed the door to the room and killed the lights. She hurried into the narrow space on the sofa I had kept for her under numerous layers of blankets. The following morning the radio DJs were abuzz with the talk about  the frost on the road, confirming that it had been one of Johannesburg’s signature winter nights, and I was glad to have had Tobre and her heavy thighs up against me.

More than half of the drama of the frost bite had passed while I was groping around in confusion between the dreams of my sleep and the voices floating in from the next room. When I had taken to sleep on the couch finally, late as it was, after it was clear to me that the three children of Port Elizabeth, from the neighbourhood of dwellings that are scattered about Stanford road, would not exchange stories with me or fill me in on the characters of their broktjie, or the nature of the subjects involved, or even to speak in a tongue that was less than half Afrikaans, I had understood the nature of the holiday that was to follow. When I woke to the commotion and the voices, and Tobre was not alongside me, I had no recollection of her brief visit, where she must have slept before Venieva’s feet were gripped in the tight vice that is Johannesburg winter cold and before Angelo and Tobre conspired to find it ridiculous and laugh. I was on the outside from this cabal of memories, anecdotes and manners of speech, that was unravelling before me and being refuelled with events anew and others which I was yet to witness them encounter. How could I, dull as I was then (as I continue to be), lost inside my thoughts, impress upon Tobre the depth and enchantment of my own character when a person as colourful and vain as Venieva, and as playful and faithless as Angelo, were back in Tobre’s life for a three week holiday across four of South Africa’s cities, and the roads in between, with adventures before us, then not too abundant but instead, too exciting to enumerate?