gail schimmel

The blog of writer Gail Schimmel: A bit of writing, a bit of parenting, a bit of thinking and some book reviews


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Foreigner

I wrote this story a long time ago – and the inspiration is from my student days when I worked in a bar. The couple who inspired me had better luck than the couple in this story!

Lifka hated brandy and coke, yet here she was, drinking one. The sweetness clung to her tongue as she swallowed, reminding her with every sip of her inadequacy. She wanted a glass of dry white wine, but that was too difficult. She knew that the two soft English “w” sounds would defeat her. And drinking the wrong drink was better than having the spotty barman look at her like she was retarded.

After the first time she ventured into her neighbourhood bar and found herself too tongue tied to order, she asked her English teacher to make her a list of drinks that the bar would serve. Together, they read the names, her teacher patiently repeating the strange syllables. Her teacher tried to convince her that she could master the pronunciation of any drink that she wanted. But Lifka knew better.

Lifka glanced around the room, cradling her unwanted drink in her hands. This small table in a darkened corner was becoming her regular spot, and if she carried on coming to the bar she’d soon be spared the humiliation of having to voice her order at all. Tonight, she thought she detected a shimmer of recognition in the barman’s habitually dead eyes.

She had a clear view of most of the bar from where she sat, but she knew that few people would notice the broad-faced blonde woman. Lifka loved feeling anonymous in her new country, but it rarely happened. She was bigger than most of the South African women that she saw. Her bones alone seemed to set her aside as a foreigner, and she knew that they regarded her with curiosity as she towered above them.

Her hair too was wrong. The wispy flyaway blonde that made her one of the most striking girls at her school at home looked out of place here. Yesterday, on the bus, a black woman reached out and touched Lifka’s hair, propelled by her need to feel its foreign texture. The woman’s embarrassment on realising what she had done was matched only by Lifka’s embarrassment that such irresistibly strange hair had the nerve to be growing out of her head.

Her complexion was another problem. In Lifka’s village her pale, clear skin was much admired, along with her modest disposition. When she read about South Africa before she arrived, she was relieved to realise that there would be other white people in her new country. But the white people here were nothing like her. They all had a healthy bronze glow to their faces. Lifka’s one attempt at sun tanning left her fire engine red, which had only the advantage of disguising her constant blush.

That telltale blush. Just thinking about it made the colour flood Lifka’s skin. What was perceived as a becoming humility at home backfired in the cutthroat world of Johannesburg high finance. Lifka only felt confident when left alone with the numbers that won her the coveted job in an international Merchant Bank. But her clients and colleagues turned her tongue to marshmallow in her mouth, and her carefully rehearsed English phrases would refuse to emerge.

The first time she wondered into the bar down the road from her unpretentious flat had been an act of desperation.
“If I sit at home contemplating the wall or trying to read a stupid English novel, I am going to end up slitting my wrists,” she told herself.

The bar had become her one outlet. Here, despite ample evidence to the contrary, she could pretend that she was just another woman having a drink on her own. Watching the people. And waiting for that one special man to walk in.

Every time she saw him, he was surrounded by friends. The thing that she noticed first was his confident laugh. That laugh had sailed towards her across the bar like a promise. She picked up the scent and followed it to its source.
The laughing man was dark and wiry. His body, compact and muscled, called to something deep inside Lifka. She cringed when she dared to imagine herself with him. To him, she would seem like a vast blonde giant, overpowering and daunting. Yet she responded to his body with a lust that was frightening and new.

It wasn’t just his body that mesmerised her. His dark hair was curly. Girlish, her mother would have said, disparaging. She imagined running her hands through those curls, and felt herself redden at how erotic the thought was. Surely, she thought, it is unnatural to find a man’s hair arousing?

Once, she met his eyes across the room. Dark, warm and chocolate. For a moment she felt she was drowning. He lifted his eyebrows, and she felt like a fool. What must this man think of her staring at him like some display in a shop? She dropped her head, humiliated. Yet still she watched him from her table in the corner. Sometimes, in bed, she relived the look that they exchanged and allowed herself to imagine that he was looking at her with the same admiration she felt for him. But in the bright light of the Johannesburg day, she knew that this was a fantasy.

Lifka limited her visits to the bar. To go there every night would be a self-indulgence that her Puritan upbringing would not allow. But every time she went to the bar the laughing man was there with his friends.

At first this made Lifka wonder if perhaps he had a drinking problem. She watched him carefully, and saw that he never drank more than two beers, unless it was Saturday night. No matter how drunk his friends got around him, he seemed to maintain the same level of easy friendliness. It was like he didn’t need alcohol to feel brave and confident. If anyone had a drinking problem, Lifka reflected wryly, it was her. Drinking a drink that she hated, simply to feel a glow of belonging so slight that it was pathetic.

Lifka knew in her heart that it wasn’t alcohol that was her demon, it was the visits to the bar itself. It was the fantasy that she allowed herself that one night a cool, confident Lifka would stroll across the bar and speak flawless English to the brown-eyed Adonis who haunted her dreams.

The only reason that she had not done this so far, she justified, was because his friends were too scary for even the fantasy Lifka. All she needed to do was wait for a night that he arrived at the bar alone. Then she would take her gamble. In the meantime, she sat in her corner and watched. Maybe tonight would be the night.

Lifka glanced at her watch. Nearly ten o’clock. It looked like, for once, he wasn’t going to visit the bar. She sighed, imagining him on a date with a small dark model that could simper up to him, exposing a deep tanned cleavage. The image seemed so vivid that Lifka felt it had to be true.

To distract herself, she thought of the letter she was struggling to write to her mother. Over the last few months her mother had been dropping several hints in her letters. At first it was a casual mention of “that handsome Hanz is back in town.” In the next letter she let slip that “that dear Hanz, so tragically single and eligible.” This made Lifka ask what was so tragic about Hanz’s single state. Was he widowed perhaps? Her mother’s answer arrived by return mail. It would seem that the tragedy lay in the fact that such a wonderful man was single at all. Now that Lifka had asked a question, her mother began to pepper her letters with phrases like “I know you’d want me to keep you informed about Hanz . . .”

Lifka originally felt nothing more than mild amusement at her mother’s desperate attempt at long distance match making. The woman lived in another time. Then she received the letter that alerted her to the fact that perhaps her mother was not alone in her plots. That letter had not referred to Hanz at all until the second last line. “It would appear that Hanz believes in the old ways,” her mother had written. “He has indicated that he is not opposed to arranged marriage.”

Lifka phoned her mother when she received that letter. “Let me make it absolutely clear,” she had ranted across the miles, “I will not be arranged into a marriage.” She slammed the phone down before her mother could answer her, and had allowed herself a second brandy and coke at the bar that night.
Apparently her anger had no effect on the tireless matchmaking of her home village. The letter she received today was simple. No greeting. One line carefully placed in the centre of the rose-edged writing paper that her mother favoured, “Just think about it.”

Lifka felt faint with anger when she read it. Did her mother really think that she would consider an arranged marriage when she was on the brink of a whole new life?
Yes, she occasionally felt homesick for the soft comfort of her own language, and for talk of a place that she alone in this city knew. But none of that warranted a mail order village husband.
She took another sip of the cloying drink in her hand. She could handle her loneliness, she told herself. Soon, she would know enough English to start making friends. The only barrier was her awkward tongue, because at home she had been the most sociable of the girls she knew.
It’s just that I can’t bear to sound like a brainless fool, she thought. I am so scared that they’ll think that I’m retarded or something. If I were at home I would have made my move on the man with the curly hair ages ago, friends or no friends surrounding him.

As if propelled by Lifka’s thoughts, a shadow fell across the entrance of the bar, monetarily blocking Lifka’s light. He was here.
Lifka waited for the compulsory gaggle of friends to follow him in, but only a chilly breeze slunk through the door. Tonight was the night she had waited for. He was alone.

Without thinking, Lifka downed her drink. She needed courage. And she needed an excuse to stroll over to the bar.
Fuelled by the drink, Lifka made a promise to herself. “If I loose courage,” she muttered in the language that only she understood, “Then I will accept this ridiculous arrangement of my mother’s. I will marry this Hanz.”
She took a deep breath and walked over to the bar, where her man stood alone. Again and again in later years she would replay that moment in her head. The moment that changed her future. The day she showed her true colours.

Her letter to her mother that night was brief, and within the month she was married to Hanz.

Lifka looked around the hall with curiosity. It seemed unbelievable that so many people from her country lived in Johannesburg, yet here they were. Hanz smiled proudly at her side. He loved community events like this one, and he was always the life of the party. Lifka knew the other girls envied her this burly blonde giant, with his cheerful ways. And she had to admit that he was a catch.

At first, choosing Hanz made her feel like a loser. She could not believe that she was the victim of an arranged marriage, and she fought against loving Hanz. But he was a good man. A good husband. And after all this time she could honestly say that she loved him. Not with a passion, but with a slow, steady glow. “Which is better than some teenage infatuation,” she often told herself.

She strolled over to the table of food and drinks, and took a wineglass. Helping herself to white wine, she thought back to the days in the bar and smiled. Those awful brandy and cokes. At least that was a thing of the past. For a moment her mind tried to remind her of the other things that she left behind, but she resisted.

“Lifka my love,” announced Hanz, behind her, in the ever-welcome language that they shared. “I’ve met up with a friend from home. A man from our own town, can you believe it.”

Lifka turned around, a smile ready on her lips.
The wineglass slipped out of her hand and shattered as she saw Hanz’s companion. This had to be a nasty trick of her mind, punishing her for thinking of the past.
Before her stood the dark man from the bar.
And this time she knew that the pain in his eyes mirrored her own.
He broke the silence first. In her mother tongue.
“You’re not South African.” It was a statement, not a question.
“Neither are you.” She felt her eyes fill up with tears that could never be shed.
“I never realised,” he said, his voice broken.
“Neither did I.”
Hanz interrupted, tired of this unintelligible talk.
“Didn’t I tell you I had a beautiful wife,” he beamed at his new friend, “Isn’t she wonderful, this woman of mine?”
**

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The Disaster

I wrote the following as a Writers’ group exercise, and I found it very funny. During the previous exercises that day, I had invented a character called Granny Mu, a querulous Chinese Granny. In the exercise that follows, we were told to write about the aftermath of a disaster. I think we might have been told to start with the sentence “I was the only survivor”. I hadn’t meant to reintroduce Granny Mu, nor to write a comic piece, but she was very insistent. It was a full page of writing in my notebook, but is just a tiny story here!

The Disaster
I was the only survivor.
I was in my bedroom when the shooting started, and, unlike the others, I didn’t go running out. I stayed, closed my journal, and hid it under the mattress. Only then did I leave my room. I’ll always wonder if I could have saved the others if I had been less obsessed with my own privacy. But Granny Mu says that I wouldn’t have been able to, and that now I’d be dead too. “Just another hungry spirit,” she says, like my mother and father, and my two brothers, all shot by the psychotic pizza delivery man.
“You should have ordered Chinese,” says Granny Mu, often.


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The Church Raffle

I wrote this story some years ago, and entered it in a competition. It was shortlisted but did not win – but I remain very proud of it. I hope you enjoy it too!!

The Church Raffle

Mr Nthombi’s youngest daughter has won a trip for two to Cape Town in the church raffle. Mr Nthombi is happy about this. He loves his daughter, and he approves of church raffles. In his 87 years he has never won anything in the church raffle. But he has bought lots of tickets. It is funny this. But he is happy that his daughter has won. He starts to tell her this.

“I have never won in the church raffle,” he says.

Mr Nthombi’s youngest daughter looks at her father. It is true, she thinks. He has never won anything. Even when they were handing out lives, Mr Nthombi was given a hard one. He left school after the first three grades to help earn money for the family. He worked hard his whole life to give his children better than he had. First he worked on the mines, and then he worked in white people’s gardens. It was hard work, and Mr Nthombi did not make a lot of money. But everything he made, he used for his three daughters.

When Mr Nthombi’s wife died, he was left to look after those three daughters. Other men would have given the daughters to the women to care for, but not Mr Nthombi. Mr Nthombi devoted his life to caring and providing for his three daughters. Mr Nthombi’s youngest daughter has a very good job, because of all Mr Nthombi’s sacrifices. Now she has enough money to buy many tickets in the church raffle. This helps, if you want to win.

“You have been a good father to me,” she tells Mr Nthombi.

Mr Nthombi is happy to hear his youngest daughter say these words. He is proud of how clever she is. Look! Clever enough to have chosen a winning ticket in the church raffle. This is something that he has never done himself. Yes, he is very proud of his youngest daughter. He hopes that this prize that God has sent her will make her happy. She will fly to Cape Town in an aeroplane. Mr Nthombi himself is frightened of aeroplanes. From where he sits, beneath the Mopani tree, they seem small as they fly through the pale African sky. But he has seen aeroplanes on his television and they are not so small. How does a big machine like that fly, he wonders. It cannot be safe at all. He is worried about his youngest daughter, although he knows she has been in an aeroplane before.

“I have never been in a aeroplane,” he says.

Mr Nthombi’s youngest daughter looks at her father. It is true, she thinks, he has never been on an aeroplane. She knows that once, he went on the train all the way to Pretoria. He often talks about that trip. She thinks he enjoyed it, the way he always talks about it. It is not right that such a good man has only been that once to Pretoria. She sighs at the unfairness of life.

Mr Nthombi hears his youngest daughter sigh. Maybe she is scared, he thinks. Maybe she knows that aeroplanes defy God’s rules. It is not natural for people to be flying, thinks Mr Nthombi, because if God had wanted us to fly, well then we’d all be pigeons and he wouldn’t have bothered about people at all.

Mr Nthombi thinks that Cape Town is far away. He knows that some people have been to Cape Town on the train, and some even on the bus. And it took a long time. Old Mrs Ledebe took the bus and she said that it took four days to get to Cape Town because the bus had to go slowly, with everybody’s luggage balanced on the top. Everybody had to sleep on the bus, and to go to the toilet they had to ask the driver to stop at the side of the road. Mr Nthombi does not like to think about this too much. He worries about the people who were too modest to ask the driver to stop. It is not good to wait a long time to go to the toilet. Mr Nthombi remembers that from his days on the mines.

Four days! In a bus! That is a long distance. It would take weeks to walk to Cape Town. Maybe even a month. Even if I took my bicycle, I would be riding for a very long time – especially as I don’t know where Cape Town is, thinks Mr Nthombi. Would I turn left or right at the top of the street? He chuckles quietly, imagining himself wearing his best Sunday suit and his church hat and bicycling all that long way to Cape Town. Wouldn’t that be a thing to see!

To his daughter, he says, “I don’t know where Cape Town is. I have never been there.”

Mr Nthombi’s youngest daughter shakes her head at the injustice of it. Surely, it is not too much to ask of life that you go to Cape Town. But her father does not even know where it is.

She thinks of all the things she can tell him about Cape Town. About how it is near a big mountain that is shaped like a table. About how it is full of people from Europe who pay amounts of money that Mr Nthombi could not imagine, for the privilege of living there. About the wine farms, and the cable cars. But the thing that Mr Nthombi’s daughter knows he will like the most about Cape Town is the sea.

“It is at the sea,” she tells him.

Mr Nthombi is happy to hear that his daughter will be going to the sea. In the old days, many of his friends were afraid of the sea, and spoke about it in soft voices. But listen to Mr Nthombi’s youngest daughter! Just like that she can tell him that Cape Town is near the sea. Without even once sounding worried about it. Mr Nthombi is happy that he has such an educated daughter that she is familiar with the sea. He nods. He has done well with his life that his youngest daughter and her two sisters are so clever.

Mr Nthombi tries to picture what it will be like for his brave daughter at Cape Town Near The Sea. But this is a difficult picture because he has never seen the sea except on television. Which is never the same, he knows. Pretoria is not at the sea, and that is the furthest that he has been from his home amongst the veld and trees. Haw! That was a long and frightening journey. He is glad that he will never have to go to Pretoria again. That business with his identity documents is sorted out now. And with the new government he is not sure that there is such a fuss about having the right papers anymore. It is a strange white thing, this obsession with papers. Then he chuckles again. He sounds like those friends who were scared of the sea, with his funny ideas about what is a white man’s thing.

“I have never seen the sea,” he tells his daughter.

Mr Nthombi’s youngest daughter nods. Of course, she knows that her father has never seen the sea. Lots of people her father’s age have never seen the sea, although they always ask for a bottle of sea water when they know somebody who is going there. But Mr Nthombi’s daughter has never really thought carefully about this fact that her father has never seen the sea. She has seen the sea many, many times. It is like an old friend, and she is always happy to see it again. But her father has not seen it even once. In eighty-seven years. Despite how hard he worked and all the sacrifices that he made.

Mr Nthombi is still thinking about the sea too. He knows that many black men his age have seen the sea, and were not scared. He thinks about Mr Mandela, who was sent far away to prison for many years, and had to stay on an island surrounded by the white man’s sea. Mr Nthombi often thinks about Mr Mandela, who is exactly the same age as Mr Nthombi himself. Mr Nthombi often imagines telephoning Mr Mandela to tell him about this wonderful coincidence of their ages, and to talk about their children. But he knows that even though Mr Mandela is a kind man, he does not have a lot of time to be talking to Mr Nthombi about his children.

Mr Nthombi knows that Mr Mandela is a very brave man, and that he would not have been scared of the sea. But it is funny to think of him, surrounded by the sea that his daughter will soon visit.

“Did Mr Mandela go to Cape Town?” he asks his daughter.

Mr Nthombi’s youngest daughter is happy to share some of her knowledge with her father. “Mr Mandela stayed at Robben Island,” she explains. “It is near Cape Town and you get there by boat. Nowadays, people can go there to see where Mr Mandela lived, and learn about his suffering. Maybe I will do that this time in Cape Town.”

Mr Nthombi is pleased to hear that his daughter knows all about Robben Island. It will be interesting for her to see where this great man was imprisoned, he thinks. Maybe, if Robben Island were in Pretoria, he would travel that way again to see it. But to go all the way to Cape Town to see Robben Island, that is something different. He hopes that his daughter will enjoy it. Yes, if it was closer he would certainly also want to learn more about this place.

“It would be good to see Robben Island,” he tells his daughter. He wants her to enjoy it; this is why he tells her these thoughts. “What else will you do, there in Cape Town?” he asks.

“I will eat prawns at a restaurant overlooking the waves,” answers Mr Nthombi’s youngest daughter happily. This is something that she has been looking forward to since she heard that she won the raffle.

Mr Nthombi thinks about this. He has seen prawns once when Mrs Nhlapo bought home some left over from when her Madam had a party. All the people in the street went to look at Mrs Nhlapo’s prawns, which she said cost R10 each, at least. Mr Nthombi thought that R10 was a waste of money for something that smelt like a rotten thing, and looked like the large red king crickets that are sometimes called Parktown Prawns. He chuckles. Maybe he will become rich selling dead crickets to rich white people. If they will eat those prawns from the sea, maybe they will eat the land prawns too.

“I have never eaten prawns,” Mr Nthombi tells his daughter.

Mr Nthombi’s daughter feels sad. Here she is, looking forward to her prawns, and her father has never even tasted one.

Mr Nthombi sees his daughter looking sad. Now he has reminded her that she has to eat these prawns, and after a frightening trip in an aeroplane. Really, he tells himself, I am a thoughtless old man. He tells himself that it is not right to upset his daughter about the prize that she has won in the raffle.

“I am sure prawns are very tasty,” he reassures her. He tries to take her mind off the prawns. “Are there mountains in Cape Town?” he asks her. Mountains are something that Mr Nthombi knows and would like to talk about.

Mr Nthombi’s daughter nods excitedly. “There is a big mountain that is flat on top so they call it Table Mountain,” she says. “One can go up in a cable car.”

Now Mr Nthombi is sorry that he mentioned mountains, because this does not sound like something that he knows about.

“What is a cable car?” he asks his daughter.

Mr Nthombi’s youngest daughter feels sad that her father, in all his eighty-seven years, has not seen a cable car. “It is a little room that is pulled up the mountain by an engine. Like the elevator at the shops in town,” she tries to explain.

Mr Nthombi is horrified. The elevator at the shops in town worries him. Once, Mr Skosana went in that elevator and the electricity went off for three hours. Mr Skosana was stuck in that elevator on his own for all that time, and nobody could tell him not to worry, it was only the electricity playing tricks. Mr Skosana’s hair went white those three hours in the elevator alone, and when he came out he made many sacrifices to his angry ancestors.

An elevator up a mountain! That sounds very frightening to Mr Nthombi, and he hopes that his daughter will not go to this mountain.

“Are you going to go in that elevator?” he asks his daughter.

Mr Nthombi’s youngest daughter realises that she has never been up Table Mountain, although she has been to Cape Town many times. “Yes,” she tells her father. “This time I must go.”

Mr Nthombi feels heavy for his daughter. This prize in the church raffle, he thinks, is a difficult and frightening thing. It is lucky that his daughter is so brave. But he knows that he must reassure his daughter, who must be worried that she must go up Table Mountain in a small elevator.

“That sounds like a big adventure,” Mr Nthombi finally tells her, hoping that this will give her some comfort.

The idea that has been growing in her head is nurtured by these words of Mr Nthombi’s. It is so obvious that she cannot believe she didn’t think of this before. She will take Mr Nthombi with her to Cape Town and show him Robben Island and the sea and Kirstenbosch and Table Mountain and they will eat prawns in a smart restaurant like he has never seen before. She is so excited.

Mr Nthombi can tell that there is something on his youngest daughter’s mind. He tries to think what would be on his mind if he were going to Cape Town on a big aeroplane to see the place that Mr Mandela was kept a prisoner, and to eat strange food that smells bad, and to go up Table Mountain in nothing but an elevator. Well, he would be scared, he thinks. What a thing to do! No wonder his daughter is thinking so hard, with this prospect ahead of her. He wonders what more he can say to comfort her.

“Baba,” says Mr Nthombi’s youngest daughter. “I will take you with me to Cape Town. It will be my pleasure.” She smiles, knowing that right now she is a good daughter.

Mr Nthombi looks at his daughter. Inwardly, he sighs. She is still his baby girl, and so if she is scared and wants him to come too, he will have to do it. Because he is a good father. And a good father makes sacrifices and protects his daughters – this is something that Mr Nthombi knows a lot about.

“It will be my pleasure too,” he tells her.