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Colleen Higgs

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Archive for the ‘Short Stories’ Category

The dog in question

Dog leadI wish I could have called this story The dog of marriage, but that title was already taken by Amy Hempel. That story and the title set me off writing this one.

The dog in question

I want to write about putting down a dog, not because he was old or ill, and his time had come. But about the time I put down a dog that was only six years old, he was a dog I loved, but could no longer live with.

It’s not a neat story, with a beginning, middle and an end. Putting a dog down, having a dog put to death, killing a dog, is not like that.

You could tug at this story in many ways; each tugging could lead in an altogether different direction. One tug is about the dog training, the many different approaches we tried or that one could try with a dog. K9 training (a quasi-police dog style of training) is one approach, there is dog whispering and there is clicking. I could tell you about countless Saturday mornings spent on a field with this dog, and with other dogs and their owners. My pockets filled with bits of dog biscuit and salami. I could tell you about how to be the Alpha Male so that the dog gets it, or at least how to act as if you are an Alpha Male, even if you aren’t one. I could tell you about being firm and consistent. About why a dog needs a choke chain, and about approaches that abhor choke chains. I could list all the books I read, all the people, the experts I spoke to and their different views about what I should do with my dog.

“All he needs is for you to be firm.”

“He needs clear boundaries.”

“He must know who is boss.”

“You must never let him on your bed.”

“He must never go into the front door ahead of you.” I could tell you about how I tried to train this dog.

I should mention here that he wasn’t even my dog. He was my husband’s dog. You know how that is, a dog belongs to someone, ultimately. That is another thread we could tug at. I am no longer married to the man who was the owner of the dog that I chose to have put down. See how I use the passive voice, to distance myself from what I did and from the man who is no longer my husband.

I could write about how our dog had mange as a puppy. How peculiar he looked, like a moth-eaten fluffy toy, a well-loved toy, how he looked like the Velveteen Rabbit. I could write about the weeks of smearing smelly unguents onto his patchy skin. About how I washed my hands afterwards and how the smell didn’t come out easily. I could write about how he whimpered when we washed him, whimpered and wriggled. I could mention that Rescue Remedy was used. And how my husband carried him around in a red towel slung over his shoulder, and how I took a photograph of my husband, the red towel and the dog. I could describe how after months of treatment his fur grew black and thick. And of how his fur came to have a reddish undertone in a certain light.

I could write about why I felt he had to be put down, and about why my husband didn’t want to be the one to do it.

These are some of my reasons. He snarled at our child. Three times. Savage snarling. Real snarling, like a dangerous, chained dog. Another species. A dog kept especially for dog fighting. It took me three snarls over several months to come to a decision. I could explore in detail how I watched the dog, how I kept the child away from him. Kept him away from the child. How it started with the dog chewing her toys, shredding her clothes, her baby-gros, her blankets, her tiny little jerseys, her booties. I could fill in some of the back-story of how he nipped almost everyone who visited us, perhaps even everyone. I should tell you that I tried to make out that it was just a nip, no big deal. People were afraid of him, afraid of visiting us. I could tell you how in the years that we had the dog, we had few visitors, few friends in our home. And in the same breath I could write of how much the dog loved me, how devoted he was, how he liked nothing better than to be right next to me, almost touching me, and how reassuring I found this.

As I said, I learned to be careful of where I left my little girl’s things – I came to know that the dog would destroy them. We had two dogs. The older dog was a little crazy, a hysterical maiden aunt sort of dog, but he would never bite a child. But the younger dog, the dog in question, I can’t say for sure. At the time I tried to think of what to do, to come up with a constructive solution. I tried to find the dogs new homes. They will be happier together, is what I told myself. I advertised in the Worcester local paper and in all the Classified Ads in all the Cape Town daily newspapers. There were no takers.

I could tell you more of the back-story of how the dog was born on a farm outside Grahamstown. How he grew up going for long walks in the veld, barking at monkeys, and sometimes even chasing buck. I could even tell you about how he and the older dog became a small pack. How they yelped in a particular way when they saw a buck and of how they didn’t come back till they felt like it. I could tell you about how the neighbouring farmer nearly shot them. How he phoned to warn us that he would shoot the dogs if they ever came onto his property again. I guess they were lucky not to be shot by the neighbouring farmer – the dogs – because we couldn’t control them. We tried, but we didn’t have a fenced-in yard. It was a communal farm. There were other dogs. We lived furthest away. I could admit that we never walked the dogs with leads on. I am not sure if this part of the back-story has anything to do with what this story is about. How I came to put down our dog. But I suspect it is central.

He was only six years old when I had him put down. He was my husband’s dog. But secretly he was my dog. He doted on me. He wanted to be near me. I think he was a little afraid of my husband. And I was a little afraid of the dog, in spite of his devotion.

Of course I shouldn’t forget to mention how many phone calls I made to animal rescue places, DARG, TEARS, the SPCA, how I tried to find him another home, and how futile it all felt. As an aside, I should say that at the time I had a full-time job, a child under two, I was forty-two. I was exhausted. Bone-achingly tired. I offer this to provide context, not an excuse. I knew I didn’t have what it took to drive him to Hout Bay or to Somerset West twice a week for three months to attempt to correct the dog’s behaviour. I knew it was beyond me. I also knew I could have the dog put down. This is how our world works; we can have dogs put down. It’s not a crime.

I discovered that I have it in me to kill a dog I love. I knew what I had to do and I decided to do it. To have a dog I love put down. I prefer the euphemism.

It was up to me; my ex husband wasn’t up to the horrible stuff.  It fell to me to do those things – the unpleasant things. I picked up the dog shit in the garden, took the dogs for walks every day, had them neutered. I knew I would have to do this thing too. I wondered, even then, sometimes, if I stopped picking up the dog shit, how high would it pile up? What would my husband do, would he hire someone to clean it up? Would he ask our child’s nanny to do it? Or would he just ignore it? Would he even have noticed?

My husband and our child waited in the car on the day I took the dog to the vet for the last time. I led the dog to the security gate entrance. He walked a little way in front of me as he always did. His ears down, but he wasn’t afraid, he trusted me. If he had been afraid he wouldn’t have been in front, leading the way. He would have resisted, sat down or pulled back. He didn’t know where we were going or why.

As I entered the vet’s surgery I avoided looking at the other people on the seats with their cats in baskets, their dogs on leads. The usual receptionist was there, a woman in her sixties. When she wasn’t answering the phone or taking payments, she knitted. I told her my name. Oh yes. She looked at me; she knew what I had come for. She waved me to a seat. I led my husband’s dog to the seat she pointed at; he sat close to me, leaning against my legs. I patted his head and fondled his ears. We waited.

I don’t remember much of the rest of what happened that afternoon. Inside the surgery the vet explained to me what he was going to do. I thought of the death sentence by lethal injection. I patted the dog softly on his side. He was quiet and gentle. The snarling dog was nowhere to be seen. I thought, panicking a little, ‘maybe I’ve made a mistake’. The vet injected the tranquiliser. I patted the dog, gently over and over. Sorry boy, I said, sorry. Sorry.

Then the vet injected the lethal poison. Our dog was already lying still from the tranquiliser, and before I knew it he had gone. He was gone. He had stopped breathing. I looked at him, lifeless, my hand on his side. I stopped patting him then, he was still warm. The vet unhooked his lead from his collar and gave it to me.

I re-entered the waiting room, carrying only the lead. I opened the security gate and crossed the pavement to the waiting car, to my husband, my child. Just before I climbed into the car I noticed the flower seller on the grassy verge and her buckets of brightly coloured flowers. Poppies, freesias, ranunculus.


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The interview

For Short Story Day Africa 2013, here’s my take:

Do you actually enjoy writing, or do you write because you like the finished product?

I like to turn back
it’s a compulsion
to look back with longing and regret.

I’ve been a writer since I was eight
but mostly too afraid to admit it

What are you reading right now? And are you enjoying it? (No cheating and saying something that makes you sound like the intelligensia).

Most Saturday afternoons she finds herself alone, reading the Weekly Mail from cover to cover, ironing, or listlessly reading a novel on her unmade bed as though her imagination stretches no further than reading.

Have you ever killed off a character and regretted it?

My eyes die of hunger
as I make up my life
look for forgiveness, dream onward

my face is sour, her face is hungry
for a cup of tea, for enlightenment
I’d choke her, make a stew of her carcass if I could

she has no name, she hurts all over
her teeth bleed, her memory hurts like logic
her life hurts like liquor, like broken dinner plate

If you could have any of your characters over for dinner, which would it be and why?

How I miss your arm
and red fly music.

Here dust tastes like a man
who appears unexpectedly in the distance.


Which one of your characters would you never invite into your home and why?

blue Boadicea riding a chariot
naked into battle
heroic and foolish

Ernest Hemingway said: write drunk, edit sober. For or against?

Whisper your name to me
I’ll tell you mine in return
get drunk with me
and let’s feel no remorse

If against, are you for any other mind altering drug?

being happy is not a thread or a quilt or a road
it’s like bees buzzing on a hot afternoon
separately, then disappearing

Our adult competition theme if Feast, Famine and Potluck. Have you ever put food in your fiction? If so, what part did it play in the story?

It’s easier to travel by foot.
People take time to greet each other.
The only food is mealie meal and vegetables.
It’s a poor country.

What’s the most annoying question anyone’s ever asked you in an interview?

Will you love me forever?
Will I love you beyond your death?
Will you die before me?

If you could be any author other than yourself, who would you be?

I’d like to polish the words of your poems with beeswax,
hold them close to my nose, sniff them like fresh washing, like an early peach.

If you could go back in time and erase one thing you had written from your writing history, what would it be and why?

Women of all shapes and sizes and races have bruises on their faces. Once or twice I’ve wanted to say something, but what? I see you?


What’s the most blatant lie you’ve ever told?

Lying isn’t always bad, but mostly it isn’t good
for the digestion, it’s like white sugar
or mixing your drinks


If someone reviews you badly, do you write them into your next book/story and kill them?

My mother is slowly forgetting her life
Who she is and what holds her together.
She forgets more each day
as though forgetting were a job.

What’s your favourite bad reviewer revenge fantasy?

The extra wors with the Sunrise breakfast – vocabulary of intimacy?

You always remember too much of what doesn’t really matter to anyone but you.

What’s the most frustrating thing about being a writer in Africa?

The past was too bright, too hot, too white
What’s left over, left behind
is a long piece of string


Have you ever written naked?

You asked me if we’d closed the gate.
I would remember if I had closed it, the memory would be in my body
the metal cold on my hands, the heaviness of the gate.

Does writing sex scenes make you blush?

Your body is heavy. I ache and long to go to sleep. That is how it is between us.

Who would play you in the film of your life?

The room is full of moths, beautiful velvety ones.

If you won the Caine Prize for African Fiction, what would you do with the money?

Sometimes we sit on the couch and watch the lava lamp.
It’s not like watching TV

What do you consider your best piece of work to date?

I vow to do it better
not to hesitate to bring a child downstream
like gold floating in
a bowl
or a cup

What are you doing on 21 June 2013, to celebrate Short Story Day Africa?

sticking all the bits together, painstakingly gluing each piece in the dark.

As a poet, many of the questions weren’t relevant, so I decided to answer with lines from my poems and a couple from short stories.

Halfborn Woman by modjajibooks

Lava Lamp Poems
Looking for Trouble

Book details

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eBook options – Download now!



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Looking for Trouble reviewed in Rapport

Always cool to get a review, especially one where you feel the reviewer read the book carefully and gets it.

Verhale spesifiek én transendentaal

Resensent: Christell Stander

Colleen Higgs se Looking for Trouble is een van die verrassendste boeke wat ek in ’n lang tyd gelees het. ’n Uiters gesofistikeerde balans tussen eenvoud en selfversekering straal uit elke verhaal én uit die samevoeging van die verhale.

Dit is Higgs se eerste volledige prosabundel, maar sy het al twee digbundels en kortprosa in literêre tydskrifte gepubliseer. Van die tien verhale in Looking for Trouble is sewe al elders opgeneem.

Haar bundel word opgedra aan almal wat al in Yeoville gewoon het, maar dis ’n versameling stories oor ’n tydperk in die Suid-Afrikaanse geskiedenis.

Dit is die tyd van PW Botha en sy vingerwysing; waarin die uitrol van die staat se militêre masjien tot sterker ondergrondse organisering gelei het. Dit was die tyd van die UDF, vrouegroepe, feministiese politiek, polities relevante navorsing en aktivisme.

  • To read the whole review in Afrikaans click here

Here is the translated into English version of the review (thanks to Karen Jennings):

Colleen Higgs’s Looking for Trouble is one the most surprising books that I have read in a long time. A greatly sophisticated balance of simplicity and confidence emanates from each short story, as well as out of the collection as a whole.

This is Higgs’s first complete prose collection, however she has published two poetry collections as well as short prose in literary journals. Of the ten short stories in Looking for Trouble, seven have been published elsewhere.

Her collection is dedicated to everyone who has lived in Yeoville, yet it is a collection about a specific time period in South Africa’s history.

It is the time of PW Botha and his finger-pointing; a time during which the rolling out of the state’s military machine led to stronger underground organisations. It was the time of the UDF, women’s organisations, feminist politics, politically relevant research and activism.

Looking for TroubleBook details

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Book Launch: Looking for Trouble by Colleen Higgs

NELM and Hands-On Books are delighted to invite you to a Grahamstown launch of Looking for Trouble – a collection of mostly Yeoville stories.

Looking for Trouble is a collection of short stories set in Yeoville from the mid-1980s to the early 1990s. The stories capture with a dark humour the lives of young people trying to make a go of things, given the constraints of the country and the volatile period. Most of the stories have been published in literary magazines; one of the stories was published by Femrite (Uganda) in a collection called World of our Own. A slightly earlier version of the title story was published in a collection of stories by South African women edited by Maggie Davey, Dinaane, Telegraph Books, London.

Comments about the collection:
“These wry, subtle stories are deceptively simple, completely compelling. Brave, evocative writing that takes you back to the intense milieu of 80s Yeoville, and to all the bittersweet sexual questing of youth.” Henrietta Rose-Innes (Author of Shark’s Egg, Homing, Nineveh, and Caine Prize Winner)

“Looking for Trouble is a book that will make you late for work. Like an unexpected fist in the stomach. Words that will stay with you long after you turned the last page.” Melinda Ferguson (Author of Smacked and Hooked)

“These stories awakened in me a sense of nostalgia, not only for Yeoville in the early nineties, but for being young, love’s fool and sexually reckless. At some point, experience forces us to lose our illusions and come of age, damaged by love but wiser. This spot-on collection captures that arc of life and, as I turned the last page, I felt we had lived well, if imperfectly.” Rachel Zadok (Author of Gem Squash Tokoloshe)

Event Details

  • Date: Monday, 21 May 2012
  • Time: 5:30 PM for 6:00 PM
  • Venue: National English Literary Museum, Eastern Star Education Centre, Anglo African Street, Grahamstown
  • Guest Speaker: Carol Leff
  • Refreshments: Come and join us for a glass of wine
  • RSVP: Colleen Higgs, Hands-On Books, cdhiggs@gmail.com

Looking for Trouble
Book Details


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Launch of Looking for Trouble by Colleen Higgs at Love Books

Looking for TroubleLove Books and Hands-On Books are delighted to invite you to the Joburg launch of Looking for Trouble by Colleen Higgs. Melinda Ferguson will introduce Colleen and be in conversation with her. Colleen will read from the collection too. Join us for a glass of wine and a snack.

Looking for Trouble is a collection of short stories set in Yeoville from the mid-1980′s and early 90s. The stories capture with a dark humour the lives of young people trying to make a go of things, given the constraints of the country and the volative period.

Most of the stories have been published in literary magazines or in collections both here, the UK and in Uganda.

Event Details

  • Date: Wednesday, 25 April 2012
  • Time: 5:30 PM for 6:00 PM
  • Venue: Love Books,
    Bamboo Centre,
    53 Rustenburg Rd,
    Melville | Map
  • Guest Speaker: Melinda Ferguson
  • Refreshments: Come and join us for a glass of wine
  • RSVP: Love Books,
    info@lovebooks.co.za, 011 7267408
    www.lovebooks.co.za

Praise for Looking for Trouble

“These wry, subtle stories are deceptively simple, completely compelling. Brave, evocative writing that takes you back to the intense milieu of 80s Yeoville, and to all the bittersweet sexual questing of youth.” Henrietta Rose-Innes, author of Shark’s Egg, Homing, Nineveh, and 2008 Caine Prize Winner

“These stories awakened in me a sense of nostalgia, not only for Yeoville in the early nineties, but for being young, love’s fool and sexually reckless. At some point, experience forces us to lose our illusions and come of age, damaged by love but wiser. This spot-on collection captures that arc of life and, as I turned the last page, I felt we had lived well, if imperfectly.” Rachel Zadok

Looking for Trouble is a book that will make you late for work. Like an unexpected fist in the stomach. Words that will stay with you long after you turned the last page.” – Melinda Ferguson

About Colleen Higgs

As well as being a writer, Colleen Higgs is also a publisher, she started the ground-breaking independent southern African women’s press, Modjaji Books in 2007. She lives in Cape Town with her daughter and cat. Looking for Trouble is her first collection of short stories. She also has two collections of poetry Lava Lamp Poems (2011) and Halfborn Woman (2004) all published by Hands-On Books.

Book Details

Photo of Colleen Higgs by Liesl Jobson


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The fabulous, the dark and the hilarious #flf2011

This is my fourth or fifth time of going to the FLF. I always go with my close friend and it becomes a weekend of relaxing, pleasure and work. Thankfully this year I did not have a launch organised, so was able to be much more chilled.

Over the past few years Jenny Hobbs has asked me to chair a session and I always say yes. Even when I am overwhelmed or know absolutely nothing about the topic, I say yes.

This year I chaired the session entitled Love Stories; panelists were Lindsay van Rensburg, editor from Kwela; Nani Mahlanga – Sapphire romance author and the inimitable Fiona Snyckers, who needs no introduction to BookSA readers. I was bemused to be asked to do this one as I am probably the least romantically inclined, the person least likely to have read a romance that I can imagine. But I stuck to my rule and said yes. I learnt the following: South African romance readers require a little more challenge than the straightforward Mills and Boon formulaic stories, otherwise they get bored. Sapphire promotes responsible sex, there will be a condom in the story at a strategic point. Romance is seen to be a gateway to other kinds of literacy, so could be a way of ‘growing more readers’. I was left with a number of questions, such as; is there a tradition of gay/lesbian romance fiction? I wonder why the ‘rape fantasy’ is becoming more prevalent in international romances? Where will this all lead? I was hugely encouraged by the way our writers and publishers this genre are approaching this opportunity. I look forward to hearing more as they see how sales go and how readers and new writers develop.

The fabulous
Seeing and greeting and chatting with friends and colleagues that one normally only has online contact with, meeting new people, eating divine meals in various Franschoek eateries with fascinating friendly folk, the weather, seeing Modjaji authors looking pleased with their Franschoek experience.

Lauren Beukes‘s sloth draped over her shoulders, she looks like a real celebrity!

Listening to Janice Galloway’s talk; I was fortunate to have read her memoir, This is not about me before the festival. Galloway was brilliant, vivacious, confident and I loved her Scottish accent. Her writing is dark, funny, devastating and brilliantly written.

In the Masculinities session, Melinda Ferguson carried off her “counterpoint” role with enormous charm and aplomb. What was puzzling was that the issue discussed by the panelists was race rather than masculinities. Maybe it was that the panelists were seated on a stage looking over a sea of middle-aged to elderly (mostly) white faces, and race is what came up for them?

the dark
My bag was snatched while I was at the BookSA celebration organised by Louis Greenberg and Sarah Lotz. During the main course, a waitress noticed a bag lying on the ground just outside of where we were sitting. My wallet was open and all my cash – which wasn’t much was taken. And then I noticed my cellphone was gone. A few minutes later the manager had security and the police on the case and my things were retrieved. I had to go to the police station to identify my belongings. It turned out that a gang of boys, between ten and fifteen years old were the culprits. My friend and I sat at the police station, we had to wait for the detective to arrive. Eventually we asked if we could go back to the restaurant and have our dessert and coffee and pay. This we did and then when we came back to the station the boys were in the front of the charge office sitting in row. They were apparently well known to the police. Feral boys. They had to wait for the parents to fetch them. By the time we left the station at about 12.30 only one mother had arrived. We heard that there were two armed robberies in the squatter settlement. A group of Somalians arrived at the station to lay the charge regarding the first armed robbery.

I decided to lay a charge against the boys, as this would mean that some of them might go before a magistrate and be put into a diversion programme for youth at risk. I will have to go through to Franschoek at some point and spend a day in court waiting for this case to come before the magistrate.

I saw the boys again on the streets on Saturday and Sunday, drifting up and down the main drag.

Sigh.

the hilarious

Justin Cartwright’s anecdote “Iris Murdoch’s method of writing was to lie on her back for three months on the floor and then get up and write the novel in a week.”

Zakes Mda saying something like this:
“I had never read a memoir or autobiography, so I thought I better read one or two. I started with Gunther Grass, after about ten pages or so, I thought nahhh, I am a storyteller, I have written all these novels, I can do this.” He then proceeded to write it in three months and refused editing suggestions, he wanted it to be shaggy (I think that is what he said).

Khaya Dlanga’s wonderful story, that I hope he will write one day, told us with how To Kill a Mockingbird hampered his love life.

Michiel Heyns’s dry humour as he spoke about reviews in that session, see below:

[48]: Critical Factors (Hospice Hall)
Is author hagiography taking the place of informed literary comment? Regular book reviewers Imraan Coovadia, Michiel Heyns and Tymon Smith discuss the rise and rise of the personal versus the critical with Cape TimesBooks Editor Karin Schimke.

The toilet saga and looming elections as a backdrop to the FLF. The toilet humour in the Sunday papers, particularly Ben Trovato’s Whipping Boy.


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Are you warm enough?

Just for fun and to cheer myself up from an acute case of ‘Not the London Book Fair Blues’, I thought I would post this story that was accepted for Urban 04 (Dave Chislett’s publication, which had to get shelved, due to lack of funding) and then was published in New Contrast. I can’t find my printed copy of NC, so can’t accurately give the volume and date, but it was either late in 2009 or early 2010.

Are you warm enough?

Do you remember that weird time in about ’92? Before the elections. There was a bit of a light at the end of the tunnel. Anyway you must remember my friend, Ruth – I bet you never heard that she had an affair with my brother, Grant? Ja, it wasn’t for that long, a couple of months at most. Anyway it was when he was a clown in a play at the Market Theatre, did you ever see it? So he got really trashed on something, white pipes, I don’t even know, I was never that au fait with all the options. Ja, apparently he couldn’t sleep for two weeks and he disappeared with the clown suit. No one knew where he was. Later we heard he’d been painting garden furniture at a friend’s parents’ place somewhere out at Fourways or Lanseria, and talking about becoming a tennis coach. He even spoke of getting an Arthur Ashe tennis racquet. Ruth was the only one who spoke to him while he was lost. And she believed him, she believed all the tennis coach stuff and she encouraged him. He sounded so convincing. Passionate, knowledgeable – you remember what he was like? I would have laughed at him if he’d told me that tennis coach shit. Except I would probably have cried instead.

So they had to cancel the play because there was no understudy and no extra costumes. It was some kind of improv play that had been his idea in the first place. Ag shame man, Grant’s name was mud with those okes, as you can imagine, for years, not just months. Some of the other actors in that play went on to star in big shot TV series like the one about Barney Barnato and Isidingo even. Grant was a brilliant actor when he wasn’t drugging, I always felt sad for him, he could have also been famous and that.

So anyway after the whole clown fiasco, Grant spent a couple of years on the streets, in Yeoville and then in Cape Town. I even heard from someone that he tried to score free Kentucky from one of his army mates who worked at KFC head office. He phoned the oke from a tickey box. Remember how there used to be tickey boxes hey? The oke pretended he didn’t know Grant, how blind is that? Even my Mom didn’t hear from him for at least a year.

Poor Ruth was a bit in love with him for a while; he was so sweet and fucked up, and he played the guitar and sang to her and made romantic gestures with flowers. He rode a motorbike, nothing fancy, just a Honda 250 or something like that, and he had this amazing World War 2 jacket he’d got from my grandpa. My grandpa was in Monty’s army in North Africa. Grant wore it all the time, it was the Real McCoy, he always had a soft spot for family memorabilia. And old Grant, he knew how to spin a line hey. The gift of the gab, my Gran used to say. When he was a kid all his teachers loved him, even though he was a cheeky little bugger.

Ruth had just broken up with Nathan when she got involved with Grant. Nathan was one of those single-minded okes, funny and bright, quick witted. Sports-mad. Ag in the end it had all got too intense for her with him. She began to wonder if the main reason he was with her was because her father was a famous political lawyer and he was hoping it would rub off on him. Ja, anyway, the next thing was, Nathan and I started sleeping together. I can’t even remember how it happened. It was like comfort eating. Suddenly you wake up and you smell the roses, or should I say doughnuts. One day it seemed like – there he was, I woke up and there he was, Nathan was in my bed. I remember some uptight friend of mine saying at the time that my bed was like a railway station. She really cheesed me off. Why is it better to only ever have slept with one or two men? Can you tell me? Look, I was being kind to Nathan. He was very cut up about Ruth. When we were alone he was sweet like some dogs are, you know golden retrievers, sort of soppy and well meaning. I couldn’t bear to see how sad he was, and I wasn’t involved with anyone else. And he and Ruth had broken up. So it wasn’t completely wrong?

Anyhow when Nathan heard about Grant and Ruth, he was over to Ruth’s like a shot. I was the kiepie who told him. Fuck, I wish I’d kept my mouth shut. So Grant and Ruth and Nathan had one of those B-movie scenes, only it happened in Muller Street. Grant climbed out of Ruth’s bedroom window onto the balcony, he was in his underpants and he sat there while Ruth and Nathan argued with each other in the lounge. Ruth didn’t really want Nathan to know that she and Grant were kafoofling in the middle of the day. I suppose she didn’t really want Nathan to know about Grant at all. That is the thing I feel the most shit about, even now, when I think back. I mean Ruth was my friend. Ja, so Nathan didn’t know Grant was right there. Luckily Grant was stoned enough to be fairly cool about sitting outside on the balcony half naked. They fought for so long he even fell asleep out there, or so he told me.

Grant lived in a flat at the bottom end of Dunbar Street. You didn’t ever see his flat did you? I only went there a couple of times. And the one time I visited him there he’d filled his whole flat with branches he’d brought in from when the Council pruned the plane trees in his road. He was so mal, hey. Bos bevok. He didn’t want to leave them there to die in the street like rubbish, he said. His place spaced me out, completely. Apart from the branches, which was enough to push me over the edge, his flat was dirty and I mean vuil, hey. Dishes and pizza boxes and crusty pots rotting all over the place and I’m not exaggerating. Stompies and bottlenecks – not even in ashtrays. The oke was living like an animal. I was glad my old lady couldn’t see how he was living, she would have turned in her grave. Well she isn’t dead yet, but you know what I mean. No furniture apart from the mattress and sheets and blankets so filthy you couldn’t tell what colour they were originally. It was worse than bergies, and that’s saying something. I couldn’t stop myself from tuning him, “Sies man Grant, how can you live like this? Are you a dog?” But you know what? Not even dogs, not even pigs live like that.

Old Grant was always such a joker, so full of life and laughs, I felt like a dried up old prune around him, even when we were kids. He could always make you hose yourself. But I’m sorry that flat was the end for me. Something inside me tightened. It scared me. I don’t think Ruth ever went there, she would have run a mile. Grant used to visit her in his leather jacket, somehow emerging from that bloody pig stye cleaned up enough for a person like Ruth to be cool with. No you’ve got to hand it to the oke, he’s pulled off some tricks in his day and getting involved with Ruth was one of those occasions – big time.

In any case, Ruth and I were never close again. I suppose she didn’t trust me after all of that shit went down. I still think about her sometimes, miss her even, but in the end there was too much water under the bridge. Nathan, the dweezil, told Ruth about his ‘fling’ with me as a way of tuning her for Grant. Yessis we were all so dof. Look it didn’t help him, Ruth never forgave him for that, nor me. Things between Grant and Ruth also cooled off, she lost interest, she was too cut up about everything. Grant was pretty freaked too; he really dug Ruth. She was older than him, and she was very mooi and soft and they’d had this lekker playful thing going between them. She was probably the classiest chick he’d ever got near.

*******

I remember this one night, we were all at Dawson’s. It was before Ruth and Nathan split up, she and I were still friends and somehow Grant came along for the ride that night. He used to pitch up at my place when he wanted something to eat and he couldn’t come up with a better plan. One time when he couldn’t find me he ate loquats from one of those big gardens in Jan Smuts near the Zoo, where the trees hang over onto the pavement. Anyway I think that was when they met, Grant and Ruth. The Radio Rats were making a comeback and Dawson’s was cooking. People like James Phillips and Johannes Kerkorrel showed up. Definitely the best jorl in Joburg that night. We all danced like mal, even Nathan, who wasn’t really a dancer. His heart wasn’t in it, but that night he was jiving with the best of us. That journalist who got shot a few months later in Katlehong was there too. Everybody was at Dawsons, even the short drug dealer who always wore that mustard-yellow felt homburg. When I think about it now, it was like we were celebrating the end of something terrible that we’d lived through our whole lives. It was like the war was over and who the fuck knew what would happen next?

******

After everything cooled down between the four of us, Nathan and I still slept together sometimes. He would drive past my flat, down Kenmere Road on his way home. He lived up in those larney flats behind the water tower. If my lights were on he’d phone from his place. It was before cell phones.

The conversation would go something like this,

“Howzit. Are you there?”

“Ja.”

“What’re you doing?”

“Reading.”

“Are you warm enough?”

“Almost.”

A few minutes later he’d be there, smiling and as pleased as all hell with himself, at my door. We would usually fuck and then curl up and sleep tightly wrapped together. Those nights with Nathan were quite lekker, a bit less lonely, you know. The mornings were sometimes a bit awkward. Deep down I knew I wanted more than a bit on the side here and there. One night I said “Ja, I am,” when he asked, “Are you warm enough?” and then he didn’t call again. Just like that. Can you believe it?

The next time I bumped into him he was dropping a video into the slot at that shop in Parktown North with his four-year-old daughter. I was living down the road in Blairgowrie. Married and everything. But that’s another story. She was only cute hey, his daughter, big blue eyes and wild, curly blonde hair. I couldn’t believe it, almost. If I hadn’t seen her with my own eyes. Somehow I’d never pictured any of us jollers with kids and all of that. He was a hotshot corporate lawyer about to emigrate to Canada.

I haven’t seen Ruth for years. Sometimes I hear about her, what she’s doing from mutual friends. The weird thing is that she also lives in Canada. She makes really short documentary films. I don’t know if she ever got married or anything.

Grant opened up a video shop in Mossel Bay with his wife, Jeannie. I don’t know where he met her, I’m too scared to ask. How she tamed him, your guess is as good as mine. But the life down there suits him (rather him than me – hey?) He fishes and surfs quite a bit. Drinks every night. But not too much. They take it in turns at the shop. He fetches and carries the kids, they’ve got two beautiful little girls and can you believe it – he designs websites in his spare time as a sort of a cross between a hobby and a job. He was always someone who was going to be able to reinvent himself. It’s not a bad life. Oh and he also has a fucking conspiracy theory blog, most of which he makes up himself.

Anyway I better dash. You look great, next time you must tell me all about where you’ve been.


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Beauty Came Grovelling Forward

Beauty Came Grovelling Forward: A Selection of South African Poetry and Prose on Big Bridge – Gary Cummiskey guest edited this new edition of the online magazine Big Bridge.
Here’s Gary’s intro:

The work contained in this Big Bridge feature is by no means a wide representation of contemporary South African writing. It is rather a bringing together of some writers whose work I respond to, and there are of course many fine writers whose work is not here. It is therefore not a general “anthology of South African writing”. It is nevertheless hoped this selection will give readers an insight into the diversity of creative voices in South Africa; a diversity that is in part reflective of the multicultural nature of South African society.

The voices range from established names such as Kobus Moolman and Kelwyn Sole, to newer ones such as Neo Molefe Shameeyaa. There is the performance-orientated work of Richard Fox and Mphutlane wa Bofelo, and the socio-political voice of Vonani Bila. There are mavericks such as Aryan Kaganof and Goodenough Mashego, and the subjective lyricism of Alan Finlay and Mxolisi Nyezwa. There are also several women represented: Arja Salafranca, Haidee Kruger, Janet van Eeden, Megan Hall, Colleen Higgs, Makhosazana Xaba and Neo Molefe Shameeyaa.

The short fiction selection is only a handful of pieces, but again it is hoped they will indicate the diversity of short fiction writing in South Africa: from the poetic prose of Haidee Kruger and fantasy of Silke Heiss, to the playfulness of Liesl Jobson. There are the parables of Allan Kolski Horwitz and the exploration of relationships in the realistic work of Colleen Higgs and Arja Salafranca. Pravasan Pillay’s story is a sensitive study of early adolescence while Gary Cummiskey’s surreal horror story touches on issues central to a historically divided society: isolation, the Other, uncertainty and violence.

I’m pleased to have a poem and short story published here and to see Modjaji authors Megan Hall, Arja Salafranca & Makhosazana Xaba (forthcoming); as well as Book SA’s Liesl Jobson featured here.


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The poet and the woodcutter

Green Dragon 6 now out – available from better bookstores and direct from Gary Cummiskey.

I have a prose poem in Issue 6 called – “The poet and the woodcutter”, here it is:

The poet and the woodcutter

The husband invited the younger man into his home, to build more shelves. He was a poet, the older man. He had small hands, rather like bear paws in a children’s book, and nearly as hairy. He could lie on his couch and visualize the new shelves. He couldn’t build them, or not easily and effortlessly. So he gave the younger man a job.

The younger man was down on his luck, between things, living in the forest. He was able-bodied, and had large, tanned, capable hands. He was dangerous because in spite of being down on his luck, he was tall, dark and handsome. He looked like the prince disguised as a woodcutter in a fairy story. He wore a black hat at a jaunty angle, smoked cigarettes that he rolled up himself. Sometimes he drove by on his way to swim at the dam on a borrowed motorcycle. Sometimes when he rode by he wasn’t wearing a shirt.

So, the woodcutter came to make shelves for the poet. The poet’s wife made him cups of tea and tried to think of things to talk to him about. He didn’t chat much but he smiled easily, and made her laugh when he spoke, his tone wry, his words few.

The poet’s wife was also a writer. Of course she couldn’t read her work to the poet, he was a real writer, a serious writer, a poet. He needed silence and he needed to listen to difficult jazz music. He needed to read the work of other serious poets who lived in Germany, Turkey, Israel and Poland – not the ramblings of his own wife.

The poet’s wife took to reading her work to the woodcutter; let’s call him that, the tall, silent, tender-hearted woodcutter. He listened to her poems and stories and she could tell he found them moving from the way his eyes crinkled softly as he listened.

The poet was often away on important business, giving readings, signing books, meeting with other famous writers in big cities here, there and everywhere.

The poet’s wife was often alone in the big house with the new shelves and the tin roof that rustled in the wind. Or she would have been if not for the woodcutter who came round sometimes for a cup of tea, or to listen to her reading. Some days he walked past instead of riding the bike. He stopped and asked her to go with him to the dam for a swim. One particularly hot summer’s evening she went swimming with the woodcutter and decided that she would go and live with him in the forest and become a real writer herself. And so she did.

Green Dragon 6 features lots of other stories and poems by the following:
Alan Finlay, Janet van Eeden, Vonani Bila, Daniel Browde, Ingrid Andersen, Cecilia Ferreria, Kai Lossgott, Gary Cummiskey, Kobus Moolman, David wa Maahlamela, Tania van Schalkwyk, Joop Bersee, Anton Krueger, Gus Ferguson, Mick Raubenheimer, Goodenough Mashego, Aryan Kaganof, Brent Meersman, Kelwyn Sole, Haidee Kruger, Allan Kolski Horwitz, Megan Hall, Mphutlane wa Bofelo, Mxolisi Nyezwa, Neo Molefe Shameeyaa, Arja Salafranca, The Litchis


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