Neil Coppen

writings/ plays/ poetry/musings/travel journals and newspaper columns



“She’s dead”, wails Elaine into the telephone
“What?” replies Catherine, all mock shock and horror
“Rosy,” she blubs uncontrollably, ‘Rosy’
“Yes” her mother sobs “dead, dead, dead.’

Though she pretends to be, Catherine is hardly surprised at the news. Sadly she has anticipated or rather dreaded a call of this nature for some time. If anything, she is amazed it has taken so long. What chance did the poor creature have beneath her mothers suffocating wing? She is all too aware that such forms of kindness though carried out with the best of intentions are just another form of thinly disguised obsession- love suffused with paranoia. Recently Catherine has come to the understanding that each successive generation of a family is akin to a marathon runner, forwarding a baton grasped and passed down by the sweaty palm of history. That we are all somehow selected as haulers of our ancestor’s luggage, is something her sister Linda can confirm only she wryly suggests the replacement of the word ‘luggage’ with the more cumbersome synonym ‘baggage’. Both Catherine and Linda can remember their grandmother Olive as an even more harrowed version of their mother. An eighty -three year old who used to watch over them both with an oppressive intensity. It was only in later years that they discovered Granny Olive first child had drowned in a swimming pool which went a long way in explaining her obsession with filling family swimming pools with concrete and never permitting her grandchildren to leave the asylum of their padded play rooms.

Elaine is now a retired radio actress. The collapse of Springbok Radio years back has left her destitute, seeking solace in the act and art of useless recollection. Here the glory days are recalled in their every excruciating detail. Incited by a few glassed of wine at dinner parties, Elaine had been known to clear whole rooms with her laborious reminiscing. Now all that remains is a shelf of rusty awards, some stretched cassette tapes and an ailing memory through which to recall them. The cat used to help her to forget, the cat used to momentarily distract her from the trappings of such debilitating nostalgia. Now that the cat had gone, her daughters understandably fear the worst.

On hanging up the phone to her mother, Catherine is thankful it is the cat’s life and not hers; she has made it out alive. The lucky one then, her late father’s (an accountants) child: rational, practical, uncomplicated. One might call Catherine colorless and dour for the legacy of her father’s placidity but she does not mind, no rather she remains extremely grateful. Her elder sister Linda has survived the ordeal that is their upbringing less scathed. One might say that biology has dealt her the cruel hand: the inheritance of her mother’s unstable and loose fitting genes. Upon leaving high school she has subsequently lead a life of rebellion and defiance: flunking varsity, dabbling in narcotics and finally, much to the horror of her mother, falling pregnant with her Tantric instructor’s child. Linda’s current hard forged equanimity comes in the form of new age therapy (Elaine the centre of her visualizations, as the bull’s eye might be to the dart board.) Linda finds solace in these alternative forms of healing: ritual cleansing, moon dancing, crystal rubbing. Sordid sounding acts of redemption as her mother once called them ‘The type of phyco- cults that end up with everyone having sex in Teepees.’

Still Elaine can’t contain her curiosity, her meddling, she must investigate, pry- she must attend one of these weekend therapy sessions to know for sure. Linda agrees, reluctantly at first -She prefers the absolute minimum of contact with her mother but later she comes to embrace the idea: its high time mother and daughter confront their demons out in the wilderness.

So together they head off to Hermanus. Things go well on the first day. Elaine appears relaxed, partakes in the discussions, gathers sacred eagle fathers, even joins in the group hug. Linda is pleasantly surprised, briefly wonders whether her mother has achieved the impossible, mellowed out in her old age. The evening is less of a success. Elaine is taking a shower when the team leader Chris enters and begins showering alongside her. Of course Linda has conveniently failed to mention that the weekend involves bouts of communal showering. Elaine has not been naked in the presence of a man for over twenty years, she is horrified. While the man chats nonchalantly she makes every possible effort to conceal her breasts. Her heaps of withered exposed flesh.

“So how you finding the course Mrs T?” he asks sweetly
‘Oh fine,’ she stammers, ‘just fine’
Now eyeballing the ablution exit, the man smiling back at her with one hand innocently soaping his groin. She doesn’t know where to put her eyes, thanks god shampoo is running into them. She gropes for the nearest towel, gropes the man by mistake. The rest of the evening is spent horizontal back in the tent ,hyper ventilating. She refuses to elaborate to Elaine of the horror that was the shower. She packs her bags, leaving at first light, her suspicions confirmed.

Now back home in Durban, with her two daughters flown or rather fled to Cape Town from the nest, Elaine is left with only the cat to torment. Ever since her husbands passing she has threatened to relocate, a suggestion to which both Linda and Catherine have unanimously but politely vetoed. Catherine (the laat lametjie) and last to take the long walk to freedom, leaves her mother a farewell gift upon her departure- a sacrifice. A cat to ease the attentions, the intrusions she will attempt to wreak upon their adult lives. It has helped, a little. Though she still phones twice a day, at least now the conversation revolves around the ailing feline rather than interrogations into her and her sister’s private lives.

But now that the cat is no dead, what now? Linda suggests an Iguana as she’s heard they live forever. But she just as promptly retracts her comment claiming that nothing, not even the resilience of Iguanas’ might outlast their mother’s insufferable affections. Both sisters’ fear the worst. Now that their mother has poisoned the cat’s system with antibiotics it did not need, fed it more then it could hope to digest: Woolies ostrich meat, fresh tuna, full cream milk. Yes it was kindness but kindness tainted by cunning. ‘Immobility,’ quips Linda ‘her way of ensuring captivity.’ They can do nothing but empathise, with the cat rather than their mother. A majority of their childhood had been spent in doctors’ waiting rooms; grazed knees the cause for comprehensive X- rays. They were the only children in school to have never missed a day, sadly not out of choice but necessity. Rather hide their measles, cough discreetly into pillows, then arouse the attention of their mothers hyper reactive imagination.

For the cat it has been no different: each fatty lump- a burgeoning tumor, each meow - a cry of agony. Till eventually it had relented and turned belly up. Linda claims it was suicide, after all what chance did the poor thing stand? It couldn’t just get on a plane to Cape Town, screen phone calls- this was its only way out. The vet however rather considerately cites old age as the cause but Elaine is not so easily duped: the cat was barley three years old! Dissatisfied she decides she must get the bottom of it, scour the internet for alternative explanations eventually settling on a website that subscribes a rare human disease, passed from owner to animal. Now she must prove that she is the carrier, the culprit- the cat killer. She wracks up exorbitant medical bills going for tests. Second, third, forth opinions all arrive with the same answer: No, she does not carry the disease, the disease is in fact a cyber space speculation to which there is no founding medical basis.

Once again she turns her torment toward the long suffering Veterinarian
‘I want to know,” she demands “I want to know what killed my Rosy, and don’t give me that old age nonsense”.
He is apprehensive. He has had the misfortune of dealing with a grieving Mrs Thomas before. The last time however involved a manic depressive parakeet, the same parakeet which Rosy, the cat had promptly put out of its misery by devouring.
He fidgets with his pen.
“I’m not sure that’s such a good idea Mrs Thomas” he assures her, but she persists
‘I can handle it, help me to put her to rest for once and for all”
A nervous silence ensues, he clears his throat.
“It was a break down.’
‘I beg your pardon’ says Elaine, hand pressed to heart, her face the perfect portrait of despair.
‘Your Rosy died of a nervous breakdown Mrs Thomas.”

Naturally she is distraught, devastated. So much so that the vet and his assistant have to carry her to her car. Bed ridden, breaking out in cold sweats, intoxicated with grief, Elaine resolves to fill her days with ‘woe is me’ weeping, self flagellation. Adorn her walls with the felines portrait. Gold plaques: In loving memory of. She will let the guilt manifest, knot, rot at her from the inside. ‘I will die in bed’ she concedes, ‘Yes die of a heavy broken heart.’

Weeks pass, numb on mypradol, she passes the days watching damp stains forming on the ceiling. Until a revelation, sign- If anything that dreaded weekend away in Hermanus was useful in learning how to identify these cosmic indicators. She has read ‘The Alchemist’ under Linda’s recommendations, she has learnt all about omens and their significance. She must turn this into a positive, yes a positive, interpret Rosy’s untimely passing to be a cryptic blessing. She must pack up her bags, her life, book a ticket- relocate to Cape Town. Old age better spent in the company of her needy daughters.



I noticed him huddled amongst the harbor masters and hussies in a down town bar. I don’t recall seeing a sadder more dejected looking fellow. What with that crumpled hat pulled over ears, a newspaper Rollie dangling despondently from lips. Sitting there conversing with an empty bar stool in-between sipping on a triple. Ubiquitous to down town Durban, most would dismiss him as run of the mill street loony. Brain decayed by cheap spirits, the type you encountered either cursing reflections in shop windows or raving against the tides of on coming traffic.


But this man was different, different for the Accordion that hung from his neck. I was fortunate enough to discover their music, when in a fit of divine and drunken inspiration he launched into an impromptu session of Accordion blues. It was a set he had lovingly dedicated to that same vacant bar stool. A set that left his brow sopping, finger tips bleeding and us -the unsuspecting bar stragglers- inconsolable with our gin soaked weeping.


To say his music had an effect on whom ever heard it, would be to underestimate his gift all together. To listen to him play was to have ones sadness, ones silt simultaneously dredged to the surface. An experience that lead me to consider, that this man, most commonly dismissed as mere deranged mortal, might in fact be the closest thing our city had to covert angel.


I never forgot that night, the man, his music. A few weeks later, upon leaving a wharf side restaurant, I heard his Accordion again, this time like a stowaway rat in search of a piper followed its strains to find him crouched amongst the Veggies pier fishermen. They invited me to stay a while, to sip from their communal bottle, which I did, taking a few generous sips before attempting to strike up a conversation with the man. There are many things I hoped to discover. Such as: what had bought this poet, this sentimental loon to haunt the cities streets and shore lines with his music? Was it Booze, bankruptcy or heart break? And who was it that sat beside him on that bar stool Synonymously laconic in his responses (god knows how many journalists had tried and failed to extract the myth from downtrodden maestro), he sat for a while eyeing me skeptically through the cloud of cigarette smoke that spouted from his lips. Then finally he rose to his feet and threw open his arms, exclaiming: For her, for her’. The fishermen laughed as I strained my eyes in all directions, eventually allowing them to settle on object of his immeasurable affection- the twinkling Cityscape, toes skirting the water’s edge, clad in her skimpy nightgown of salt and humidity.


Then he picked up his accordion and began to play a slow bluesy tune, shuffling on the spot while he spoke. He told me how during the day he’d let her relish in her reputation as the city where the fun never sets, but come night he’d devote himself to loving her shadows, nursing her bruises- the faithful guardian who, wouldn’t, couldn’t forget. Once her suitors had satisfied their lusts, retired to their hotel beds, it was up to him to repair her broken heel, pull out a bar stool and buy her a drink. Then sing to her, sing her and her children to sleep.

‘Children?’ I had enquired.

‘Too many to name …without a name’ he had sighed impatiently . ‘The ones that haunt the East coast avenues, feed from restaurant bins, pawning their paradises from traffic islands. The one’s who follow her,-begging, tugging at her breasts and tearing at her hair.’


‘That quite a relationship you’ve gotten yourself into.’ I smiled, but he failed to find anything humorous about his commitment/ predicament. To laugh at him was to deny her existence, the veracity of their love-an unforgivable insult. Best accept his flights of unhinged whimsy as fact, relinquish all reason and succumb to a world, where it were perfectly possible (and not in the least bit unusual) for whole cities to seduce men. Even the fishermen seemed to accept his fantastical delusions with an unwavering conviction. They spoke of her ability to withhold the annual sardine run and therefore encouraged him to appease her with his music. Whether they truly believed this or not I couldn’t quite discern, but I got the impression that they were careful to renounce superstition in instances where their livelihoods might depend on it.


It was a love, the Accordion man went on to assure me that she reciprocated. Once she had discovered that he spent his days’ combing the Golden Mile beaches with a metal detector, she had conspired to assist him. She did this by concealing the wedding rings of careless weekenders in her sandy pockets. Rings disengaged from life long commitments to fingers, shallow enough for his metal detector to detect. Only once he had collected enough of these tokens, would he trade them in at Point Road cash converter. Such was his disenchantment toward love, at least the type that insisted on the insecure affirmation of golden bands, that he felt no guilt for the weeping brides clawing up the beaches in bids to retrieve them. This was how he claimed to provide for them both, foot the nightly bar bill, and perhaps more importantly save up to purchase the Instrument, I now watched heaving and wheezing between his bony fingers.


That night I stayed on after the Accordion Man had embarked on his nightly vigil, entreating the fishermen to fill me in on what sketchy details they knew of him. They spoke of how he had relinquished a life in the suburbs, a burgeoning blues career on the world’s stages, to be with her. How over the passing months, they had watched him drink his spirit dry, satchel her sadness, shoulder each and every one of her hungry orphans.


‘I worry about him,’ said one of the fishermen, piercing a hook through the mouth of a wriggling shad, before casting it back into the water.

‘She’s a jealous Stekkie, that Missus Thekweni. Each night we watch him sinking deeper and deeper.’

‘In love?’ I had asked but they had shook their heads in mutual disagreement

‘Sadness my bra, sadness.’


The Accordion Man however seemed stoic to his burden. Over the years, he could be heard (seldom seen, for he favoured the shadows) weaving his melancholic tunes through derelict shelters, rusted South Beach playgrounds, Point Road alley’s shrouded in lugubrious neon. His music offering glimpses of respite to the anguished souls sleeping in funeral home doorways, crutched on Addington Hospital benches or peeping from beneath cardboard shelters.


Inevitably, he’d end his evenings’ efforts’ back where he had started- the harbor’s edge. It was here, that he told me, that his love would reward him by mobilizing herself into a languid, mesmeric dance. Her machinery waltzing, yacht sails rippling, floating cities defiant of tug boat dictatorships breaking free to greet him. When he spoke of such occasions, his lips would spread with the first discernable traces of a smile, his down cast eyes flickering with wild childlike intensity.


It was silence that marked his disappearance, silence that swiftly set about reclaiming his nightly routes and haunts. An unsettling quiet that led me to scour the alleys, the piers, the dingy point road bars’, but to no avail. The following day’s newspaper headlines mourned the absence of the annual sardine run while on the sixth page of that same paper, I came across a small paragraph claiming that a harbor master had witnessed a lone figure, wading out into the rising tide in the early hours of Monday morning. A body that was later recovered and identified for the Accordion that clung to its neck.


I wept to think that this terse, unimaginative paragraph of news print was to provide the epilogue to my friends richly imagined and tragically lived fable. Suicide they suspected and we must forgive them for thinking so. I cannot help but see it differently, believing it was ‘sacrifice’ that led him weary and lovesick to the edge of that moonlit expanse. That it was she who had summoned him. Summoned him in salt whispers to seek out her arms from the loneliness of his shore. Beckoned him by hiking the tide of her skirt high above her knees, revealing both wasteland and wonderland-inky puddles that inverted her horizon into portholes to alternate universes. And him ,no doubt enthralled by her beauty while underestimating the portability of her pain (a pain manageable beneath concrete and stone but out here on this tentative marshy surface- less so) had set out to meet her.


With each irrevocable step, each sad note, he had sunk deeper and deeper into her arms. The silt rising to silence his Accordion lung, fasten tight that selfless singing tongue. Leaving the crumpled hat of a saint with no name- the final keepsake for her tides to claim.

Roll Up For the Magical Mystery Tour


Roll Up For the Magical Mystery Tour

A letter for Jill on her Departure

John Lennon sits on the edge of her bed, his wings folded neatly behind his back…any requests tonight Jilly? …. How about ‘Hey Jude’ she replies. So he plays ‘Hey Jude’ and when he finishes, he leans the guitar against the bed and then runs his fingers through her hair – then whispers ‘Roll up Jilly, Roll up for the Magical Mystery Tour, its coming to take you away’ , she smiles a toothless smile (they’re in the little yellow tub beside her bed) She wished that when John visited that she would at least remember to put her teeth in, but the angel always seemed to visit at such unexpected hours that she could never quite be prepared.

Thandi (the nurse) bursts through the door- swaggering her prodigious behind, toast (peanut butter and Jam) and luke warm Riccoffee in hand. She’s come to serve breakfast and clean the ash tray from Jill’s long night of smoking. Biggles the dog follows close behind- aware that persistence is usually rewarded with breakfast scraps. Jill, confused, glances around the room but John has vanished. All that remains is a single feather from his wing (Others will tell her it’s just from the goose feather pillow on her bed, but she is old enough to not have to justify herself to anyone anymore). Thandi finds an empty ash tray , Jill doesn’t touch her toast , and Biggles goes un fed.

Bodies can be so god damn unreliable– and hers being the big cumbersome piece of machinery it was – had begun to close down, rust shut .The spirit grown impatient, a soul ready to leap free but trapped in its faulty old cage .She has been prepping for her release- Last night Ricky (her Toy Boy) from the U.K phoned to talk to her, In a state of delirium she held the phone to her ear. ‘Hold on Aunty Jill I’m on my way to see you, wait for me okay! But she replies …’oh I’m afraid I wont be here Ricky …..I’m going to China in the morning’

John has offered her tickets on the ‘Magical Mystery Tour’ and what Beatle fanatic could ever turn down an opportunity like that. It appears the first stop might be China and well….. Who knows from there?

I helped her pack her bags- She always used to threaten Greg and I, as kids that if we didn’t stop fighting she would pack her bags and go back to Port Shepstone. Of course we continued to beat the shit out of each other – and Jill been the consummate actress she was, would fling her clothes into her old suitcase and pretend to leave the house in a rage…….That’s it …. I’m leaving! This would naturally reduce us both to fits of tears, and beg her to return….which (been the softie she was) she finally did.

This time, I’m twenty four years old and standing on the road trying to convince her to come back inside but I can’t make her stay. I can only sit with her in the bus stop of her bed room, hold her hand, and every now and then through a morphine haze, she opens her eyes and asks me to please stop crying.

Since Childhood our goodnight ritual went as follows – ‘ill see you later alligator’

And Jill would respond ‘In a while crocodile’ a mischievous twinkle in her misty blue eyes.

Last night I said ill see you later alligator Jilly? and she took my hand gently and shook her head. I knew then that Mr Lennon and the boys were heralding the final boarding call and that the Magical Mystery tour was only a few hours away from it’s auspicious departure.

It would be selfish of me to try delay this departure- Staying only means further suffering, I wouldn’t wish that for a second. But I want to make her coffee , just like I used to, stir in all the love and sugar I could heap onto two spoons- sweat and milky –coffee and cigarettes, sitting by her window and waiting for the Natal Robin to visit . Her secret omen. It arrived one day and she wept as I held her body up from the bed so she could see.

The memories prove relentless in times like this

I’m a new born baby, in the photograph, cradled in her mighty arms, tag around my wrist.

I’m a little boy in her bedroom, watching her dress for her shift at the Port Shepstone Hospital – rolling on her thick stockings, Shining her Sister Koll Badge, sliding pins through her thick grey hair. I’m remembering the latex surgical gloves she used to bring home so we could make ‘hand’ balloons from them. The damp smell of her old house down the coast –Parrot seeds, cigarette smoke and sea salt. I’m remembering Sheeba and his garage, (The one I hid in when Gorg’s fearsome Dutch friend ‘Mate’ came round for tea). The wild tangled South Coast garden, compost to the already fertile imagination of a six year old. Fresh water crabs the size of dogs. Tractor carcasses amongst the over ripe Popo trees

Nuzzling into her back for bed time stories. Floating in the swimming pool with her, her legs were buoyant here, painless and we floated through the summer evening stars together. Watching Floyd the boozy chef on TV, whilst earning extra pocket money by cutting her toenails

Her perchant for the mysterious, an insatiable appetite for all things Agatha Christie- Trips to the Library – her love of stories, reading, telling and creating them.

My campaign to ban smoking in our house by putting NO SMOKING signs all around her room and then even resorting to painting vinegar on the tips of her cigarettes in attempt to make her quit. Then as teenagers smuggling ciggies out of her room- Greg Lomas would distract and my nimble fingers would slip a few into the undies. Jill of course saw all, and been a sport, turned a blind eye. As they say if you can’t beat em , join em- and join her I did- eventually, only too happy to indulge with her in a few Styvie Blues and goblets of good old checkers box wine.

The last time I remember her dancing was with me, at my eighteenth birthday party. It was to her favorite song by Billy Holiday- the same song I always sang with her after that –even on the night of her departure, she could still find the strength to mouth the words.

Ill be seeing you, in all the old familiar places

That this heart of mine embraces

All day through

In that small café –the park across the way

The children’s carasole

The chestnut tree

The wishing well

Ill be seeing you

In every lovely summers day

In everything that’s light and gay

Ill always think of you that way

Ill find you in the morning sun

and when the night is noon

Ill be looking at the moon

But ill be seeing you

There were the dreams of Elephants and Dolphins –We were all in the bush together –sitting out on a verandah- the whole family –Jill in her wheel chair. Suddenly an Elephant tore through the foliage, hurtling towards us- we tried to wheel Jill inside but she begged us to leave her, which we did. The Elephant approached her- she sat unflinching until the venerable beast stopped in front of her – bowing its mighty head at her feet- at a distance where she could place her hand on the coarse patch between its eyes. We watched in awe as the animal then rose and Jill leapt from her wheel chair and began to dance, a wild youthful dance.

Then there was the dream where Jill and I were in a small little motor boat- Jill lying at the back, her one hand dipped languidly in the ocean- we were out on the Fish Hoek bay – a perfectly still and beautiful afternoon, the light golden on the waves- I drove the boat far out to where the sun was setting, and in our wake hundreds of Dolphins began to leap from the water, Jill and I filled with both laughter and tears.

Now the Cowies Hill morning rain breaks with patches of sun – The Monkeys Wedding is accompanied by an actual troop of monkeys –the ones that walk the tight rope on the neighbours Tennis court fence – Jill often watched them from her window-they provided her endless hours of amusement. Now they miss their audience member. The window that now frames an empty bed covered with rose petals.

 I can’t help but watching the baby monkeys leaping from branch to branch – discovering the possibilities, the agility and ability of their eager little limbs. I can’t help but thinking that Jill is leaping and dancing, kicking and Can Caning in a place where those very possibilities have now been restored to her.

So the Bus did arrive (I discovered a single feather on her bed this morning)– John had whispered ‘Roll up, Roll up for the magical Mystery Tour, its coming to take you away’ and roll up Jilly did. She once told me that, to die would be a great adventure- and at three thirty this morning –with a final hearty sigh –Jill boarded the bus and began her new adventure. No doubt Mr Lennon was at the wheel, passing around the joints. Natal Robins pecking at the glass on her window, Dolphins piercing the waves to welcome her, entire Elephant herds bowing to the ground and the spring flowers of Namaqualand bursting into a brilliant fragrant carpet of color – signaling the way to a glorious new and painless existence.

Today and forever I celebrate this extraordinary angel of a woman with you. Whose memory and spirit will long outlive the limitations of her tired body.

Obscurity of Objects


Her worst were the openings. Tim at the podium, reduced to an artist statement- a jumble of jargon, justification. Explanations he owed no one. Why them? Out of all people ‘the madding fucking crowd’ with their ignorant asides, sniggers. The cruelty of pedestrians, she thinks, going through life gazing at their shoes, congregating at gallery openings for nothing but the gratis cucumber sandwiches and box wine booze.

The obscurity of objects: whims that alienated most, delighted few. It would be different if they were in Amsterdam, New York but South Africa, Durban? This shitty gallery with shitty wine. He’s more than this, she’s sure he is. Years of watching him agonize over light, shadows, street lamps, telephone poles had offered her gradual access, a gentle initiation. He would make her pull the car over on holidays and she’d watch, initially bemused, later intrigued, as he set about photographing telephone poles from every conceivable angle. The way its chords hung out: ugly, austere things, lines sagging between. Only now, independent, strangely idiosyncratic. Till she began pointing them out off her own accord, stopping the vehicle before he had asked.

Perhaps you had to love him to love his art. She wouldn’t have had an inkling had she not shared his process, anxiety, bed. The evolution of an idea, momentary fragments, fleeting, ephemeral….. blah blah blah. Yet when he spoke it, the blah was oddly effecting, poetical even sensical. His reference- hers. Now it seemed there was no other way of seeing, that, that was frankly, how these things, things such as telephone poles, had always been.

She must not judge them. Must allow them their right to ignorance. She could have been one of them, perhaps secretly was still one of them. Walking brusquely past images that confronted her, challenged her, moving politely toward the prettier painting sections. Conceptual art or crawling up one’s own arse. People were dying, children starving and this, this was his response to the world- an unflinching commitment to the inanimate, to most- the mundane.

Was there room left in the world for such…such insignificance? Yes its’ insignificant but….. she’s tired of justifying it, sticking by it. A circular debate best left to that to the pontificating minds of conferencing academics. Another glass of dreadful wine, familiar smiles flashed from people she has no recollection of meeting. Exhausted by the pretence. Maybe he’s set himself up for this- splaying deconstructions, reconstructions …god whatever you call them, on gallery walls to tepid responses, the stirred interest of the elite few. He should have learnt the first time round. This is no way to make a living, not here: Amsterdam, New York perhaps but not here?

He could paint, was a fine painter, she wished he still painted. No, she wouldn’t suggest it again. He found such suggestions offensive. He had progressed, this was progression, progressive art. Progression: the curse of our times. Painting the primitive starting point to which there was no return. Still she wished he’d do one every now and then. A bowl of fruit, naked muse (she would even offer to pose) birdlife, something that appealed to the ascetic of the everyman, something her parents could respond to, something that didn’t make them feel stupid. His diversions only incited confusion, frustration. Good he would say: Art must illicit a response, discourse, vitriol, bring it on!

Still she feels the need to hide him, block his ears, conceal the work, take the bullets, at least turn up the music, drown out their irreverence. She mustn’t hear them, more importantly he mustn’t. He’ll turn their indifference into a triumph, he has the habit of doing that, shrugging them off, but skin, his skin is thin, at times transparent.

She watches from the bar, another glass of wine, something to busy the hands, occupy the lips. Tim flitting between conversations, the occasional ‘Save me from these Neanderthal’s’ glances thrown in her direction. They’ll celebrate him, she thinks. Celebrate him, perhaps when he’s dead, it’s always like that. Depressing, pointless business this art– obliteration before veneration– not now, later. Later they’ll pay exorbitant sums, cover their walls in telephone poles. Hypocrites- she’ll laugh at them, laugh if she’s still around to see it.

The barman smiles, slides her change over the counter. For a moment, perhaps a result of the low light, he resembles Ian, her brother. Scruffy old Ian, Ian now an ecologist on assignment in Brazil. Ian who learnt the Newman’s Bird book before bed, made them stop every few minutes on family excursions to Kruger Park. She hadn’t minded the raptors or hornbills, the ones she could name, the ones blessed with grace and plumage, the pretty ones. But the ones her brother called the LBJ’s (little brown jobs) those were the ones that annoyed her the most. The ones whose identification he had obsessed over, lining them up in his binocs, whisking through pages and pages of finches. ‘Finches- shit with wings’ her dad had joked. But to her this wasn’t amusing it was sabotage. Ian was testing the limits of their patience, his parents love, worst of all interfering with their joint conquest at ticking off the big five before sunset.

But it was because of their indiscernible differences (at least to the amateur, the sight seer) that they offered the only real test left to her brother-the aficionado. A boy who had conquered the raptors, kites and kingfishers, could spot them a mile off. But those, those fucking finches, drab skittish things with wings, those were the only ones left- the greatest challenge of them all.

Wendy the Weeper


Wendy stepped from out of the change rooms, usually reserved for sweaty sportsman, to meet a coliseum of twenty thousand followers. Upon her entrance some proceeded to cry out her name, flailing arms in a ‘holy sprit’ fuelled frenzy. Other’s blew horns, slugged beer, participated in half-arsed Mexican waves. Then Wendy did what she had come to do, the only thing she knew how to do. As the crowd grew silent, she laid a square of plastic at her feet and began to weep.

It was less than a year ago that she had been discovered in a primary-school talent show. The other kids had juggled and dropped balls, bribed pet poodles through hula hoops, attempted two key recorder recitals. Wendy however possessed no such talents, she was different and different is what the talent scout, scouring the joint for a ‘Shirley Temple’ like act to exploit in cereal commercials, had come looking for.

For a moment the girl stood before the curtain, stunned by the interrogatory spot light, below her a restless expanse of bobbing heads, rustling sweet papers, cleared throats. Then came the first tear, prompting gasps from the audience as it chartered a path down her cheek. Tears that began as a furtive trickle soon turned to a torrent. Tears that washed the stage floor clean and saturated the shoes of people sitting in the front row.

That night Wendy cried for the simple things that made her sad. She cried for: grazed knees, boiled eggs, for the blind, the deaf, people with amputated legs (She cried at the thought of their lonely cob webbed shoe). She cried for canned laughter, canned tuna and the dolphins that suffered to make it, for the rain forests that lay rotting in waste paper bins. She cried for her parents, now sitting on opposite ends of the hall, dreaming from separate beds. For the hunters, the hunted, her uncle’s wall- trophied with Bambi and his entire families heads. She cried from fear, frustration, for the future and for the past. She cried for the living, the dead- The living-dead, the ghosts she heard pacing in the attic each night. She cried for hobos, the dodo and for onions cause no one ever really did.

The audience, unburdened by the sudden catharsis, rose to their feet applauding and the talent scout, amazed at the lightness restored to his own heavy heart, promptly signed up the child to weep under contract: private functions, shopping centre openings, political rallies, funerals, inaugurations and benefit concerts.

Over the following months, Wendy wept for the homeless, the hapless, the headlines (lampposts crippled with god- awful news). For road kill and road rage, sickness, injustice. For war, false promises, pollution, politicians, prostitutes, priests, black eyes, bruised fists, abortions, overdoses, slit-wrists, smoking guns, veiled daughters and soldiered sons. For countries, continents she knew nothing of. She wept with the collective grief of orphanages. Cried for the suppressed, repressed, destitute, depressed, starving babies, empty breasts, the forgotten, misunderstood, the old, the lost, the tired, liars, losers, beggars, children and their abusers.

It wasn’t long before TV execs, offered her a prime-time Sunday slot where viewers could call in and dedicate the weeper’s tears to whomever they wished. Here Wendy found herself weeping for (amongst others) the rich, the greedy, the displaced, the needy, for people who think too little and the ones who think too much, for circus clowns, comedians, celebrity cellulite,midgets with super model aspirations, for lonely rock stars, dowdy check out girls, people cooped up all day in parking ticket booths. For abandoned things, stopped watches, car boot sales, pawn shop engagement rings.

And when she thought she had finally emptied herself of all tears (for entire oceans do not lie at one’s eye ducts disposal) the Talent Scout announced that she was contracted to fulfil a final obligation.

‘Please sir’ she begged ‘I’m tired of being sad ,I have no more tears left to cry, let me turn my heart to lead. I want to be like the other children, I’ll learn to play the recorder instead.’

‘We had an agreement,’ scoffed the agent, pawing a pile of coffee stained papers strewn about his desk. ‘I’m afraid you don’t have much of a say. Your tears don’t belong to you now, not since your greedy parents singed them away.’

And so standing reluctantly in front of her twenty- thousand fans, Wendy could think of nothing to weep for now, except their collective emptiness.

‘Take it, take it, take all of it’ they seemed to say, thrusting hands as if tossing bundles. Pissing, purging into her as if she were an open latrine, an empty well, now full. Knees buckled as twenty thousand tears trickled from her edges, tearing at her eyes, salt rinsing blood. And as they removed her body from the field (with the same amount of care one takes when discarding a soggy Kleenex) two solemn faced men in black-suits proceeded to display the plastic sheet of shed tears for the audience to first inspect then applaud. That evening the droves returning home sufficiently lighter then when they first arrived.


Ballad of -Frankie da Bum goes to Bollywood


From a road side stall-midnight-

I see my destiny reflected in a cold cuppa chai

You’ve been given the wings Frankie (I mutter to myself….prophetically …..pathetically)

It’s time Kiddo for you ta fly!

Now it seems, that dreams

can make a sane man do desperate things

‘Whats it all worth? Eh fuck it’ (I mutter)

and quickly collect my things

Thumb a ride

with a Punjabi Truck Driver

who swings open the door and utters

‘Well Sah, what you waiting for

Why don’t cha hop inside?’

‘Which way ya heading?’ …. the driver enquires

as I sip casually on a cigarette

(inhale)ahh to the land of all my dreams

(exhale) to quench the thirst of all desires

He turns the Key

ahhhhhhh Mumbai, that’s a little outta your neighborhood!

I nod

The engine roars

and soon were shooting through the veins of Bollywood

Rushing through the electric chaos

Touching the interminable void

Sipping on sweet cocktails

of sin and celluloid

Bright light -skin tight -thug fight

Hold on tight….

(This might shake you up a little)

I only got twenty bucks in my pocket

but already I’m soaring like a rocket

Through the stars-to become one

never looking back

Bought me a fancy second hand suit for a few dirty Rupees

Act like I care

Brylcream my hair

I’m a super star now

No longer the groupie!

Waiting -with midnight cowboy cool-

under this Mumbai street lamp

Feeling all swanky

though I smell like a tramp…

But I don’t give a shit

Cause just you wait till I hit

bolding like a giant across them movie screens

took my own advice

rolled the knowing dice

Now I can’t turn my back

on my Bombay dreams

No I can’t turn my back

on my Bombay dreams

But cars (as they do) come and go

with no money men

or eager agents

coughing up the contracts

let alone da dough

No dream makers

Only dream takers

Celebrity fakers -like myself

Lining up with the whores along the sticky Bombay boulevard

Residing in the lost

….never found

Here no one asks me ta do my Pacino..


…my Deniro ?

I can play the all singing, all dancing lover boy

I can be your Chandelier dangling hero

But they brush past this future Bogart

nonchalantly slouched out on the street

Then an old lady takes some pity

You poor sad thing! she says

and tosses a few rupees at my feet

The sun sinks down

as the coins tinkle on the ground

and another star crashes and burns on this lonely Bombay sidewalk

like a cigarette-stumped-

-gone out-

but still smokin

and this ‘wanna be’-'look at me’-'Just you wait an see!’

calls it a night

and finally packs his hope in

Turning his back on his Bollywood dreams

Turning his back on his Bollywood dreams

I slowly and sadly fold away my pair of wings

What’s it all worth? Eh fuck it (I mutter)

and quickly collect my things

Thumb a ride

With a Punjabi Truck driver

Who swings open the door and utters

‘Well sah what cha waiting for

Why don’t you hop inside?’

‘Which way you heading ,Sah?’

The driver beams

but I tell him there’s been a little change a plan

I’m going in search of new pair of dreams

How I didn’t find fame

Only shame

On those streets of Bollywood.

but take heart to know

There’s a lamp post and a second hand suit

waiting for me down in ol Hollywood.

Circles For So Long


Circles for so long

After the wake, after the last drunken mourner has left, I make my way to my grandmother’s room. Candle wicks burn in wax puddles at her bedside, the rose petals that were scattered on her bed at the beginning of the week, have dried, stabilizing the stale scent of her last cigarette with the fragrance of fresh pot pouri.

A box of her ashes rests at the centre of the bed, I curl around it, bury my nose deep into her pillow, inhaling her freshly shampooed hair (Colgate Apple). The mattress has in it, an impression of her cumbersome body .On either side, shallow curves where her baggy arms had hung. I sink into her cushioned negative, the shadow of a life that is no longer. The vacancy of the room, the radio turned off (in all her life the radio was never turned off) makes me cry.

The silver linings of empty cigarette boxes catch the candle light. Cigarette boxes with morphine induced scribbling’s across the backs of them. In her last weeks she had quite fancied herself to be an answering machine for the dead. Uncles and relatives long past had appeared to her, sat on the edge of her bed, some had sipped wine, others had massaged her aching legs with arnica. The ghost’s, always left with the confidence that their greetings would be conveyed to the living, and sure enough they were.

“What’s the matter Neilo?” I sit up, follow the familiar voice to my grandfather’s old blue chair in the corner of the room. The last of the candles has extinguished itself making the figure hard to discern. Only the orange glow of a freshly lit cigarette offers some assistance, revealing, with each steady pull, the distinctive lines of my grandmother’s face-younger, calmer, unembroidered by the anguished creases of the past months.

This is the reunion, she had promised me before her departure. Jill believed firmly in the mystical, the supernatural, swore she would employ it as a means for our ongoing communication. She never made promises lightly

‘That was a hell of a party’ she chuckles, lifting a glass of white wine to her lips.

‘Yip’ I nod, my clothes still sopping from the funeral parties final frenzied dance into the swimming pool. I wipe the tears from my cheeks; brush my fingers over the inscribed gold plaque, following the gentle cursive brail of her name- Jill Rosalind Koll.

‘Why do you look so sad Neilo?’ she asks

‘I was just thinking how strange it is to see someone so big, fitting into such a small little box’ I reply

She draws deep on the cigarette, heaves a gentle sigh that sends smoke rushing in alternate streams from her nostrils. ‘You think after all those years, I’d rest easy in that little tin box, not me Neilo! That clunky old contraption of a body maybe, a prison of blood and bone that’s all it was, but me, I’m free now, I have years of dancing to catch up on’

‘Do you remember the last time we danced?’ I ask , half expecting her to have forgotten

‘Your eighteenth birthday’ she quips, both of us taken aback by the speed and accuracy of her recollection.

‘On the patio, to Billy Holiday, we had had a lot of wine, you played our song. That night, I expended the last dance I had left in those useless old legs ’

I remember it well, the wine and music had managed to inspire in them a final courageous shuffle. She had discarded her walking stick, clung to my shoulders and shifted uncomfortably side to side, rasping the words into my ear ……

‘Ill be seeing you, In every lovely summers day, In everything that’s light and gay, Ill always think of you that way, Ill find you in the morning sun and when the night is done, Ill be looking at the moon, But ill be seeing you’……

I curl, fetal to face the empty fish bowl beside her bed- it’s pebble’s green with neglect. ‘Agatha Christy’ novels and the ‘History channel’ had failed to distract her from the excruciating pain of the final months and so I had brought her a Chinese fighter fish in the hope that it might provide a novel diversion. It seemed to work for a while. After witnessing the ‘fighters’ infatuation with his more ‘magnificent and magnified’ reflection in her bedside shaving mirror, Jill had named him Narcissus. Apt, for there had never had there been a more self- absorbed fish, consistently rapt in the fawning over and flaring out of his fiery crimson tail.

Sadly ‘Narcissus’ took a week to turn belly up, and in a spectacle, true to all dying kabuki Warriors (who enact their deaths in flailing red silk) sunk to the bottom of his bowl. I found Jill crying that day, convinced the fish had suffocated from a lack of oxygen, oxygen she blamed herself for having plundered from the air through her incessant chain smoking. I tried to excuse Narcissus’s untimely demise as a ‘kamikaze’ tendency typical to all fighter fishes of an Eastern origin, then reverted the blame to Thandi, (her gargantuan arsed nurse) for over feeding him. Jill was less convinced. ‘It was boredom’ she had finally remarked …. ‘A beautiful fish like that can only swim circles for so long’

I turn to her ghost, nestled in the shadows of the room, screwing the remains of her ciggie into the ‘Dunlop tyre’ ash tray.

‘I thought I’d find you in you in this bed, that’s why I been lying here the past few evenings, to be closer to you’

She smiles again, shaking her head ‘ Oh believe me, there’s no love lost between me and that old bed’ I spent enough years in it, staring up at the ceiling, watching the geckos stalk moths till the early hours of the morning. ‘But look now’ she says whispering excitedly ‘Look Neilo!’

With perfect grace and steadiness, she rises out of the chair, knees pulling tight, thighs sturdy and strong. She hikes up her skirt up to reveal silky stockings nursing plump calves. Gone are the withered twigs she departed with, shins gnawed by time and pain. She smiles, a familiar twinkle in her o’l misty blue eye, ‘I changed them for a dancing pair… A fish can only swim circles for so long’.

Seventy five strokes - a true story


At 5’oclock Mrs Webb was woken by the first signs of dawn flapping in the curtain. She rose quickly, taking a moment to rub arnica on her knees, fiddling with the knob on her bedside radio to locate the classical radio station- one of Chopin’s prelude’s were playing , minor or major she could not decide. She would remember to ask Dorothy Jennings over tea, Dorothy would be able to name it off a hum. She would not forget it.

While relieving herself in the bathroom Mrs Webb watched her false teeth grinning from a glass perched on the sink. Once she had secured fixed them in place she took a moment to scrutinise her reflection. She had been beautiful, had spent enough hours in her lazy chair flipping though photographs of her youth, to be certain of this. Now she searched for a semblance of that face - that girl- her existence indiscernible, retreated into a heap of wrinkles and wobbly chin skin. She mulled over the passing of time- her twenties (bliss) forties (surprise) sixties- (shock) and now seventy fifth? What now? ‘The years’ Mrs Webb muttered; ‘surreptitious little devils, creeping up on one when they least expected.’

Mrs Webb had her day carefully planned, birthdays involved accommodating more people then she was used to. She would swim at six, take tea at twelve, birthday lunch with her grandson at one and afternoon tea (to squeeze in her sister) at two. Should all the engagements run according to plan, she would be nestled in bed by half six. Only this morning she felt despondent- the sight of her tired face, the groan in her knees, aching back enough to make her reconsider facing the day at all.

 Morning’s were an open invitation to the deficiencies of age, things always seemed to get better as the day progressed. She must keep that in mind, must not be defeated, she must select a dress from the closet and finalize her decision over what jam she would settle for on her tea time scones. Strawberry or apricot? apricot or strawberry? Small things, trivial things that helped take one’s mind off the more pressing concerns.

Mrs Webb had read in her Readers Digest that specialists recommended the elderly keep their eyes and minds active by reading. She now read for twenty minutes each morning- usually a random passage from the Bible. While not particularly religious she had turned to the scriptures in preparation for the things one should start preparing for at her age. After a few psalms she felt suitably reassured, enough to unpeg her damp bathing suit and matching cap from the line and make her way across the railway track to the beach where the old age swimming club was out in full alacrity. Some waved, wishing her a good morning. The few, in possession of sound memory, added a happy birthday to the end of their greetings. Lil Morrison and Ethel Lewis were on the beach, watching their doddery old husbands breast stroking beyond the breakers, their conversation concerning ,rather predictably, the majesty of the morning (“Breathtaking isn’t it Lil!”) the water temperature (“Summer’s on its way, hey Ethel”) and wave conditions (“Still as a pond, not a ripple”). Mrs Webb, in no mood to feign perkiness issued a polite wave as she scuttled past. “Happy Birthday” Ethel shouted after her, followed by Lil “Happy Birthday old girl”. She would not compromise, not today- for it was through solitude that she hoped to forge some sort of a reconciliation with the first morning of her seventy fifth year.

Standing, with water circling her waist, Chopin still lingering in her ears, Mrs Webb took in the sight: the mountains stretched across the horizon, crisp and clear as the day they had been created. She turned on her back and let the water relieve all weight from her limbs. The chill causing a rush of blood to forgotten places, an instant and revitalizing burst of energy. Stunned by the sudden cold and overwhelming clarity of the world, Mrs Webb felt herself buoyant, reborn. Imagined she were seeing it all for the first time. She took a serene little sigh and let her eyes shut, beginning with her backward strokes –focusing now on the lapping in her ears, the meditative splashes of alternating arms. The sun inching higher, warming her face as it went.

“The last time I looked over at her” said Mrs Benson-a pre breakfast bather and bingo club acquaintance, in her tearful statement to the Fishhoek weekly that afternoon, “She looked like an angel, an angel in a little red swimming cap”.

Today, Mrs Webb thought, I shall do a stroke for every year I have lived-yes, seventy five was ambitious but not impossible. She would not let herself be defeated by a number- two seemingly insignificant digits. The first thirty strokes she accomplished with ease. It was on the forty-fifth that she worried she might not succeed, on the sixtieth she wished she had not lived so bloody long, and on the seventy fifth that she vanished from out of the ocean –and off the face of the earth—completely.

A strolling couple on the beach reported a brief disturbance in the water, the sight of Mrs Web slipping beneath the surface never to return.  A fisherman on the near by rocks however claimed he saw her backstroke right into the monsters mouth (its unmistakable grin and fin flashing in the morning light). Humming Chopin and smiling to herself, smiling (he said she was) as she imagined her grandsons face over the birthday lunch –that never was– or attempting to resolve the great jam debate: strawberry over apricot? Apricot over strawberry?

 It was a niggling in Mrs Webb’s side, no more inconvenient than what she had woken up with that morning, certainly nothing the nurse at the home couldn’t medicate when she returned to the shore. A concise pain followed by a pungent fishy smell, an epiphany of ‘Apricot!’ and then silence.

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