Friday, November 9, 2012
Notes for a Novel #2
... so I carried the smaller one to the house, while the other one followed me with small snivels through the dark garden. Mrs Kaartman put them both into a warm bath while I sorted out some soup and bread. Mrs K dressed them in two adult T-shirts; they supped their soup in silence, watching our every move with large, deep brown eyes.
We put them to bed in the spare room; Mrs K had the presence of mind to equip the bed with a plastic undersheet, a thoughtful move. Our own babies slept on; the dog was long in her own basket; the cat stalked outside somewhere in the night. By midnight everyone was asleep except Mrs K and I; we lay awake staring at the ceiling, our next move long talked out.
The morning was bleary but we felt it was necessary to find out what the story was. The father was a large man, an ex-policeman who had been fired from the force, not so much for his heavy-handedness with his arrestees as for being drunk on duty. It was a Friday night, of course. The children had been asleep in bed; the father was drinking with his poacher-friends around the outside fireplace; the mother was ... well, who knows. Wanting a bed for a friend who could no longer stand up, the father had woken the kids and chased them out. Discovering that one had wet the bed, he had started to take off his belt, whereupon the kids had escaped his grasping hands and run away.
The situation was dire; it was a very dark, moonless night and the streetlights of Plumfoot were, well, few and far between. The smaller boy had abandoned his wet, chafing onderbroekie, the better to run fast enough to keep up with big bro. With nowhere to go, the eldest had remembered coming to our house some weeks before, with his mother, on a begging expedition. It seems we already had a reputation of the “there be sandwiches” kind.
They’d arrived breathless, tearful and probably terrified and, they said, knocked on the back door, but no one had answered.
They must have knocked very softly, very timidly, because we had not heard them at all – and nor had the dog. With no options left they had decided to ‘nest’ under a bush in our garden ...
Well, we had to find them some clothes etc etc etc, and we sent them on their way, noting their names and addresses for the social worker who, if they were lucky, would visit Plumfoot some time in the next month or so.
We called them ‘the waifs’, and over the next decade and a half we would encounter some forty of them, mostly boys, one little girl. They had varying and different stories, though alcohol abuse was a common theme. Most came to us unbidden; some were reported to us by others, runaway kids who had built nests in the bush somewhere, and we had to winkle them out and persuade them to return to the real world.
Friday nights were the most common, and if we were away we would leave the outside room unlocked with blankets on the bed and plate of fortified biscuits. The biscuits were always gone when we returned; the bed slept in. One small boy spent an entire week at our house, alone, while we were on a trip. I don’t know what he ate; he never explained.
Saturday nights were less common, but did occur. Thursdays became frequent for a while, too, which surprised us until we realised why. Thursday was not a drinking night, but Thursday was the day before pay day. By Thursday the money had run out and there was no food left in the house. There would be food at the Kaartmans, of course.
Our youngest waif was four years old. He knocked loudly on the door late one Friday evening; the dog exploded. We opened the door; Bessie – his nickname, it means ‘berry’ in Afrikaans – was so small that at first we did not see him. He was the size of a two year old and weighed 9 kg. In the morning his mother came looking for him, anger in her bloodshot, hungover eyes.
“Kom!” she screamed at Bessie.
“Nee!” screamed Bessie, aged only four, “Ek wil nie ’n dronk ma hê nie!” [No, I don’t want a drunk mother].
The most we ever had all at once was six, but generally they appeared in a long, unbroken queue – sort out one or two, within days another would fill the vacant niche. They all came from unspeakably poor homes; they all had to be taught to use a flush loo – when you only have a bucket loo you stand on the seat, not sit – and warned not to jump into a hot bath until they’d tested the water. They were all terribly undersized and many were ill. One seven year old was literally fading away – he was riddled with TB and was too weak to feed himself. Our eldest son would hold him like a three year old on his lap – he weighed 11 kg – and spoon-feed him.
I have many more waif stories, but in the meantime South Africa was rapidly unravelling. In 1978 P W Botha took over from John Balthazar Vorster as Prime Minister and from there it was down hill all the way. Unrest at schools and universities continued; in May 1980 Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall” was banned. Bombs were going off all over and opposition politicians and press were being suppressed wherever the apartheid state could find them. In 1981 Desmond Tutu was arrested and his passport confiscated; Mandela and most of the ANC old guard were still firmly incarcerated on Robben Island. Our waif problems were finding no resolution in the face of a complete lack of interest by any form of ‘welfare’ authority. By 1982 we’d had enough; we went to the embassy and collected the forms. We took them home to Plumfoot, filled them in, and began to plan the logistics of emigrating, lock, stock, three kids and a small scruffy dog, to Australia.
Kaartman, November 2012