About a year ago, I wrote a piece that I entered in the Commonwealth Short Story competition, which carried a first prize of more than R100,000.
For a poor guy like me, that was a lot of kroon….
To be honest, I didn’t expect to win – and I didn’t.
In fact, I ran a knorp (as they used to say in the townships) of monumental proportions. But I enjoyed exercising my over-fertile imagination to write the story.
I called my ‘Great Work’ ‘The Queen of Dorchester Road’.
Most of its 4,600 words were set in a Walmer Estate type of area of Woodstock. It revolved around a family run by a matriarch called Aunty Dot, and her two daughters. The eldest one, Vaheeda (formerly Veronica) had married a taxi-owner named Ierfaan, while the younger one, Angeline, had hitched up with a Brit named Neville.
“ANGELINE GIVES THE BARMAN, BILLY’S SON, PAULIE, A BROAD SMILE AND ‘ANOTHER DRINK’ NOD. THEN, SHE ASKS, HOPEFULLY: ‘HEY, V, ARE YOU GOING TO BE VAHEEDA OR VERONICA TONIGHT?’
There were also two brothers – Richard, who I mentioned just once in the story, and Mario, also known as Whitey, who left home several years before to become a ‘half-naartjie’ white in Rugby, a suburb north of Cape Town.
I set the story in Aunty Dot’s yard, in which pride of place was the Dorchester Road Street sign (and pole) which the old man of the house had cut off in the street outside with an angle-grinder during the protests of 1985.
I included a lot of interplay between Aunty Dot, a devout monarchist, who ordered everyone to sing ‘God Save the Queen’ before they drank their tea out of her Charles and Di tea set, and Ierfaan, the ‘family politician’, who insisted on telling Neville how the family’s fortunes had changed after the collapse of apartheid.
‘SHHH,’ VAHEEDA WHISPERS TO IERFAAN, ‘HERE’S MA DOT AND EMILY WITH THE TEA. OOOH YITTE, HERE’S TROUBLE, DARLING. SHE’S BROUGHT OUT HER CHARLES AND DI TEA SET.’
Ierfaan loved telling the part of how rop Mario had been in that shortly after he became a half-naartjie, the railways (a prime source of sheltered employment for poor whites) had collapsed. He cackled triumphantly when he told Neville and Angeline about how the people Mario had left behind in Dorchester Road had started reaping the rewards of black economic empowerment.
‘IT WAS SO FUNNY,’ IERFAAN EXPLAINS. THE NEW DEMOCRATIC GOVERNMENT INTRODUCED A LAW CALLED BLACK ECONOMIC EMPOWERMENT, OR BEE. THE RESULT WAS HILARIOUS – TO ME, ANYWAYS. MANY PEOPLE WHO HAD PASSED THE PENCIL TEST, WHO HAD SUCCESSFULLY RECLASSIFIED THEMSELVES AS WHITE TO BECOME TRAIN CONDUCTORS AND BUS DRIVERS, TRIED TO BECOME COLOURED AGAIN WHEN THEY FOUND THEMSELVES WITHOUT JOBS.’
The story reached a climax when the family saw Mario begging in the street, holding a ‘Please Help – I’m Unemployed’ message written in black khoki on a piece of cardboard, close to ‘His People’ Church in N1 City.
It resulted in a moerste altercation between Aunty Dot and her Prodigal Son among the Clivias in the centre of the road.
‘MA WAS IN THIS GUY’S FACE, ADDRESSING HIM AS MARIO. HE LOOKED AT HER BUT SAID NOTHING. SHE SHOUTED: ‘MARIO, I KNOW IT’S YOU. LOOK AT ME, MARIO.’
Eventually, they forced him into their taxi and brought him back to Dorchester Road, where the neighbours immediately recognised him and, in typical clora style, said: ‘Aai, yitte, daai’s mos Whitey. Kyk hoe verniel is hy.’
Mario was less than cooperative, insisting on being called Richard (he still blamed Aunty Dot for giving him a coloured name). Although he was given a bed to sleep in, he disappeared during the night, with “certain items” that did not belong to him, including a Tupperware bakkie filled with snoek kuite.’
‘THAT GUY CAUSED CRAP IN THIS HOUSE. HE TOOK WITH HIM MOGAMAD-ZANE’S CRICKET BAG, LEAVING BEHIND THE BAT, THE BOOTS AND HIS OWN CARDBOARD CASE, BUT STEALING THE JERSEY, MY LIVERPOOL TOP, AND A TUPPERWARE BAKKIE FULL OF SNOEK KUITE.’