“Almost There.” (including the Ex-Pat Files 1995).
Mile Downe Manor, our new home, is a curious place, especially for those of us who have spent significant time and effort avoiding communal living since college. When forced into casual chit chat around the complex pool and clubhouse it becomes obvious that there are specific categories into which the majority of our neighbours slot nicely.
The first are the guys who have just left home for the first time, let slip their mother’s apron strings and wandered into the glaring light of adulthood. Sharing 3-bed flats with their best mates that they thought they knew really well. Best friends who are now writing their names on milk cartons, drawing lines on peanut butter jars and portioning out fridge spaces like Churchill at Potsdam. Playing out baby freedoms while gagging for weekends when they can flee home to proper food, clean clothes and ever-welcoming bosoms, to sob uncontrollably into their Sunday roasts.
The second are the hardened Afrikaners, forced from their Pretoria homesteads by work convenience they carry their unique blend of local foreigner as large badges of honour, refusing to converse in any language other than the guttural gargling and invective phlegm of their homelands. They stare in abject horror at us, with our long, long hair, our obviously decadent ways, constantly waving our easily come-by freedoms and oh-so-liberal attitudes in their serious. God-fearing faces. At best they see us as misfits and dysfunctional outcasts, at worst, infiltrators sent to defile their women and further dismantle the cause of the Afrikaans race. And that’s before they talk to us.
And finally, and by far most importantly to us, are the women, girls, whatever. Newly forced from the nest they’re desperate to parade their independence often with exhibitions of reckless, care-free chaos, they treat the complex as an extended holiday resort. They dash from gym to pool to party in their Citi Golf’s, constant streams of flashing blonde locks, sporty Lycra and clicking heels. It’s very refreshing after the social norms of North London. Every weekend the pool area is a communal cornucopia of crumpet, a writhing, glistening array of fun and sun seekers bound for a good time and not caring who joins in.
A young lady catches my eye and smiles in recognition, another problem when group living is coupled with an unsuccessful memory for so many names. As she walks over I realise she lives in the apartment opposite me, “Sarah,” she says in answer to 40 Watt’s raised eye-brow, she points at me, “We know each other, well, he’s seen me naked, often…”
“Occasionally,” I add, as 40 watts spits out his beer.
Not only does “Sarah” live opposite me, my bedroom faces what she probably refers to as her walk-in-wardrobe, actually the spare room where she piles her clothes up until required. Also the room where she dresses and undresses, sometimes as many as half a dozen times before work. Often, while in a state of delicious undress, she’ll wave to me and hold up a choice of two outfits for my consideration. It’s all very distracting, if gratifying, while I’m trying to find my way out of bed without flashing my ass in her general direction. How we came to this relationship is hard to say, it sort of progressed from the day I first peeked round my curtain-less window frame and came face to face with unavoidable nakedness, not that I was quick to look away you understand. Anyway, my naked friend now has a name and I compliment her on her choice of fluorescent pink bikini. “Chose it all by myself,” she giggles and disappears towards the bar. 40 watts is gnawing his hand off, gagging for information but I’m just sitting back and smiling my best Bond-villain enigmatic smile, which, in the reflection of the window looks more than a little psycho-leer.
He’s soon distracted by another young lady who claims brazenly to know Liverpool well. She’s chosen her target perfectly and is soon engulfed in phrases like “Liver Birds,” “The Phili,” and the not so subtle differences between The mighty Reds and the scum that are Everton. I silently hand him another cold Castle, lean back against the swimming pool wall and regard the scene before me. As usual it fills me with total disbelief, no one in the London commuter belt ever suggested this way of life way possible for a couple of long-haired ad guys from North of Watford. What on earth did we do right to deserve this?
40 Watts has just shouted, “Alright La… at his young friend, I think I’ll go and ask Sarah if she has other bikini’s she wants to try on.
Thursday 29th June.
The Traffic woman appears at door of office, her job is tell us what, where and when to do things, a sort of walking diary clutching job bags of varying interest.
She eyes us carefully, years of dealing with precocious egos have given her a certain aptitude to how to get stuff done. “You two okes still waiting for research?, fancy a road-trip?”
“We’re always keen to get out and meet real people, get hands-on experience,” Paul informs her, leering over her shoulder at her two young helpers.
“Cape Town? Sun City? Durban?” I offer hopefully.
Right then. I can sense 40 watt’s do-gooder clock starting to tick loudly, when stirred he positively hums with social awareness and left-wing passion, having grown up in a lefty-Labour house it’s a tad tiring. But hey, it keeps him happy and also means I can fob off any questions to him as we wander through what I presume will be the rather gentrified outskirts of Soweto.
Our driver has other ideas. We’re perched in an open-topped, open sided Jeep, bouncing up dirt roads and down dusty tracks, listening to our guide’s rather broad and somewhat spurious descriptions
“This is the school where the troubles started…” He intones, sweeping his arm in general direction of a knackered looking row of corrugated huts. “Of course they’ve rebuilt it…”
We get out of the Jeep and walk in and out of classes, everyone smiles at us and waves, we smile and wave back. The kids seem happy to have a distraction from the norm, a bit like us really. A little girl walks slowly towards me and touches my hair as I’m bending down to look interested in another kid’s drawing, then she hare-tails it back into the crowd, giggling out-of-breath, amazed at her own daring, her friends cheer. I feel embarrassed. Although it’s really just a more in your face version of the alien apartness that’s gradually settling in every day.
It turns out the object of the day is a Kelloggs store check in the tiny poverty filled stores of the township. And something horribly worse. A sort of client check-in to show they’re rooted in the community, to make sure we understand their key role feeding sugar laden cereals to poverty starved children. Then again, it’s just corn flakes, and who doesn’t like corn flakes?
We pull up at another school, the small, dusty playground is crammed full of shiny new pantechnicon emblazoned with the Kellogg’s cock. “Exactly”, I think. Wobbling around in-front is a large woman moving like Tina Turner on speed, she’s chanting and clapping her hands, a constantly moving blur of goodness and vitality. Every ten words or so a recognisable one pops out, “Vitamin B…” “Sunshine breakfast…” and, of course “Kellogg’s…” hundreds of little radiant faces uplifted to the small stage are reciting and singing the joys of everyone’s favourite cereal. Within a short time every single child is word perfect in the number of vitamins and minerals per box, 9 by the way. As a prize they’re allowed to keep the small box of cornflakes they’ve been waving for hours. The young, straight out of college with her six-week diploma in marketing, client is seriously pissed off, muttering darkly about brainwashing and “that’s the only cereal these will ever see.” I’m not convinced that’s entirely a bad thing if it means they’re spared the Kellogg’s sing-a-long again. But then, it’s better than Maths.
The New South Africa is of course full of these things, the townships are being improved in any way they can and who turns down the offer of a bit of fun for the kids, even if the intentions are not entirely honourable. Let’s be honest here, the so called shanty towns, now being renamed informal settlements, are shit-holes. Absolutely appalling, seething masses of humanity crammed into tiny, sweaty, half-built, half collapsing huts with no sanitation and no hope. 40 watts mumbles this to our guide who smiles his biggest smile and shouts, “ah, but now they have portaloos…”
We stop somewhere that claims to be the heart of Soweto for lunch. Wundy’s is legendary and everyone knows it. The car park is crammed with shiny new BMWs, each with it’s own guard or driver leaning against the hood smoking and shooting the shit with those around him. Inside it’s all 70’s Manchester curry house, walls of rippling plaster and flock wallpaper, chintzy lamps and flickering fake candles. The food is excellent, a sort of watery stew full of what might be beef chunks and handfuls of freshly chopped bird’s eye chillies, surrounded by chilled beers and loud, bouncy music.
As we leave Wundy himself appears from behind his beaded curtain, “If anyone tells you they’ve been to Soweto ask if they’ve heard of Wundy’s,” he intones with great pride, “ If they haven’t, they haven’t been to Soweto”. Fair shout I think, wondering if we could pop in for a takeaway on the way home.
In what we agree is the slummiest of slum areas we drop into a local store to do a spot check on sales and availability of our client’s range of products. It’s very neat, but very empty, the shelves remind me of those American stores after everyone has been in to stock up for the coming hurricane. Tins of something called Chakalaka and bottles of the ever-present Mrs Ball’s chutney are standing in rows guarding the spaces where real food should be. The store-keeper, a really big woman in a wild floral print, walks us down the road to her house, behind 9 foot fences topped with electric fence we’re shown around a six bed, 4 lounge, swimming pool paradise. She tells us her stock is down because teenager boys keep running in and stealing armfuls of stuff, “it’s been like this since my husband was killed three weeks ago in an argument over payments.” We make a lot of supportive noises and shuffle past her large golden bedroom, a Hollywood boudoir in African splendour. She tells us she was making it all right until her son shot himself in the leg on Saturday trying to get his dad’s old pistol out of his trousers to shoot the teenage shop-lifters.
We make the long walk back to the car, pausing to look at an average home on an average lane which turns out to have been Nelson Mandela’s house. Less interesting than you would imagine, but somehow that seems to be the point.
We hit a bar in Rivonia, shiny and white, and that’s just the clientele, we drink and remember, then we drink to forget.
30th JUNE 1995
“Fancy a drink?”, “In the bar?”, “Maybe…” “It’s free…”
“Fancy a drink?”, “Where?” “Rattlesnake Diner?”, “Mmmmm”.
The Rattlesnake Diner is a living homage to 60’s America, booths line the walls, jukeboxes and fake gold albums lean against the walls, the floors are black and white shining tiles. It’s a poor man’s Hard Rock with loud, crap songs you hoped you’d never hear again bashing your eardrums and cheesy menus full of bad puns to deaden your taste-buds. We love it, of course.
I’ve been here for hours now, leaning heavily on the bar listening Mick and the boys telling me “You can’t always get what you want.” “To true boys I mutter, clutching manfully a huge Vodka & Tonic I scan the bar in what I believe to be a cool sultry manner. Catch the eye of a young stunning lady, again. This has been going on for hours now, same girl, same eye.
Standing on the edge of what has become the dance-floor avoiding the eye of said girl, the place is heaving. Look up, she smiles, against my better judgement I smile back and she wanders over, says “Hi…”
“Hi…” I wittily retort, trying to straighten off the bar to a full standing position.
She looks absolutely horrified, stricken. Not by me, for once, I realise as a gigantic hand lands on my shoulder from behind ans spins me carelessly round. 6 foot 8 of shadow leans down into my face and yells, “Jaaargeeelsbburgg…”
“What?” I shot back at the large, dark shape.
It doesn’t matter. He’s not listening, he’s holding me up by my shoulder, showing me to his throng of mates as they muster what I can only suppose are nasty Afrikaans death threats.
His disbelief seems to grow ten-fold as he wiggles me around marionette-like and prods me continuously in the stomach with his huge pudgy finger. The out of nowhere he throws a huge, John Wayne in the Quiet Man punch right on my nose, and my specs, well all over my face really. “Ouch,” I shout, somewhat needlessly.
My immediate reflex is to kick him as hard as possible in the balls, and as soon as I’m dropped back to terra firma I do just that. He falls to the fall with a most satisfying thud. As I do, when his mate responds on my testies.
And that’s it. We wander off to different corners of the bar nursing manhood’s, all though I cant help noticing he takes the pretty girl who seems only to too keen to massage his family jewels back to health.
I will say that Armani specs can stand a damn sight more pressure than the old National Health ones used to.
Have many more drinks, go home.
1st July 1995.
Saturday morning… much pain, hardly surprising really. I linger round the gate of the complex like James Garner sniffing around the german sentries scrounging shit up for the Great Escape. Eventually elder brother turns up and we head over to the local motorbike shop, having decided the roads are just about as crazy as possible and I should try my hand at wobbling through the traffic on a two wheeled suicide mission. We wander in and out of row after shiny row of bikes, each one guaranteed to thrust me into the heart of Joburg’s daily chaos and free me from the ever lengthening waiting times of being driven up the wall by 40 watts and others who believe Africa Time is a real thing.
Buy a very sexy red bike that looks big enough to get me into trouble although probably not to get me out. There’s a metaphor or an analogy lurking ere but I’m way too hyped to see it. Instead we head off to watch 22 grown men beat the living crap out of each other, or a soccer match as they call it locally. It reminds me of the Rattlesnake Diner with a mass of Afrikaans expletives and untempered tempers. As elder brother and his team mates perform something akin to the Keystone Kops performing The Time-warp I doze carelessly balancing one of many cold Castles on my breathless chest, this sports thing really takes it out of you.
Half time turns up and forgoing the usual half-orange and bottle of water both sides set about several slabs of beer each, laughing and slapping each other as they reminisce over their first half goal-less attempts. Maybe this is how football was suppose to be played back in those internecine village on village matches where the ball was dead pig or something and violence was not only expected but encouraged.
The second half is over with a little blood, sweat and lots of whinging, and the ran is over run again, these guys do like a beer on a hot day.
The conversation, as always, wanders around like their centre-forward, trying to make some kind of impact but missing by a mile.
“So Ian, how are you finding it here?”
“Oh god… it’s err, okay, you know, fine…”
“But South Africa is the best place, eh?”
“God’s own country…”
“Wouldn’t live anywhere else…”
“Right, yeh, that’s why I chose to come here…”
“Yeh, you’ve got a bloody British passport, could go anywhere.”
And so it drifts on, everyone loves the country, everyone wishes they could leave.
“Gonna be big trouble soon.” A large guy leans into the group and waves a finger at me, “You wait, big fucking trouble… these okes they’re not all fucking Mandela… they want revenge, blood…”
“I think they want jobs and houses first…” Why on earth am I entering this conversation? This is like being back in Manchester and debating the “Irish Problem” with the guys who’d left home specifically to get away from it. Never-ending and seriously unwise.
“Let me tell you about the blacks,” the big guy is settling into his subject and I can’t think of a way to escape. I catch my brother’s eye but he turns away into his friendlier crowd, the traitor, one of his mates waves a beer in the big guy’s face and shouts “beer Johan?” This breaks the spell and we return to some safer ground like Israel.
I lean precariously against a wall which sways under the pressure, these portakabins are not great, I’ve become very aware that one punch could knock the thing down.
“We’ve booked you onto our fishing trip at the end of the month.” One of my brother’s mates, Alan I think his name is, is smiling hugely at me.
“Fishing trip? On a nice stream somewhere, dappled morning light glinting off trout as the rise through the mist?”
“More like stinky trawler surrounded by water full of cold beer and piles of Yellowtail.”
“Oh, the surrounded by water type of fishing… no, I don’t think that’s a good idea, I’ve seen Jaws.”
“Yeh, just the boys some beer and the elements…”
“All the elements of a disaster movie…”
“We go out to about 100 metres, it’s fantastic, no one but us nature.
“100 metres,? that’s not so bad, I can swim 100 metres”.
“That’s 100 metres down… about 20kms out…”
We drift over to someone’s house and fall about in semi-slow motion, clutching beers like our lives depend on them. I can’t really see and walking is just a bad idea. To compound this my other bad idea of the day is saying yes to the ridiculous fishing trip, I have no idea why I think it’s the right thing to do and have only shadowy memories of night fishing off Saltburn pier covered in North Sea salt and frozen air. Beer is a terrible thing.
To celebrate this victory of macho over instinct we just into a convoy of cars and sweep across town, too drunk to notice traffic lights or traffic cops, both of who wisely leave us alone. In a place called Rosebank we waddle into a huge Chinese restaurant and spread ourselves around a large circular table. We order several bottles of local, chilled Chardonnay while we wait for the food someone has ordered. The food reveals itself as an enormous Peking Duck, suspiciously reminiscent of the swans in the adjacent park.
Home, vodka, Raymond Chandler. The Big Sleep.
Sunday 2nd July 1995.
“I could do that… better than that… And that… What’s that supposed to be anyway? Nudes are my speciality…” 40 watts is in tremendous form.
Zoo Lake is a park, a wide expanse of water surrounded by grass and flakey looking hippies. We’re traipsing around looking for things to fill our flats, The Art Fair seemed like a good idea from afar, up close it’s full of stuff only an artist’s mother could love. Smudged pencil doodles of African village life, student work of bad futurism and fauvism colliding with an explosion of elephant, rhino and cheetah pictures. The Big 5 reduced to small canvases. I’m busy looking for weeping clowns and suspicious reproductions of Tretchikoff’s Chinese girl.
How the fuck do you live with a huge cheetah staring down at you? Especially one that’s been painted on the skin of a gazelle. I’ve lived near Camden Town, I understand tasteless, but this is just too splendid to contemplate paying money for. 40 Watts has engaged some little old bloke who claims to be an artist and is spreading his “I wouldn’t do it like that,” philosophy. In reality he knows a hell of a lot about art and stuff but this amateur stuff does rather get his back up.
A small, wizened woman shuffles out from behind a tree and shows her fine sense of humour by trying to sell me a piece of wood that’s been roughly hewn into a shape similar to but not exactly like a naked woman. Her friend a beardy, strung out guy mutters. “Hey, meeester, wanna buy naked woman?”. I wander off clutching my new, small wooden friend.