I remember first meeting Stephen in my second year at the University of Cape Town. His physical beauty was an outward manifestation of something very unique inside; sensitivity, humour, nervous energy, self-deprecating wit – and daunting intelligence. I liked him immediately but it was, curiously, only once I had moved to Johannesburg that I began to feel really close to him. It started, I think, when he was giving a lecture at the Arts Festival in Grahamstown. I was there in my capacity as Arts Editor for Radio South Africa (as it still was at that stage) and I met up with him just before his talk, when he was in a high state of nerves. I remember him grinding his elbows into the podium as he delivered his lecture.
From then on, a trip to Cape Town didn’t seem complete without a visit to him. First, there was his home in Woodstock. It’s odd; when I eventually plucked up the emotional courage to read JM Coetzee, I envisioned the protagonist’s house in Disgrace as Stephen’s Woodstock house – maybe, subliminally, because they had been colleagues at UCT. Then it was his house in Rondebosch, before his retreat to St. James. All his homes have spoken so strongly of him in their quiet, spare, bookish elegance.
I have never lost my awe of him; his fierce, probing intelligence and his raw creativity. I treasure each and every book of his that he has ever given me. His creativity has been a yardstick for me. He told me once that a companion had said that when he was in an intensely creative mode he would hum – something he was unaware of. That space between consciousness and the subconscious, where absolute creativity takes place, is unfathomable to me. The capacity of someone like Stephen to create something out of nothing – in a poem or a piece of prose – fills me with wonder.
It is probably that other worldly quality of his that gives him the capacity to be so empathetic. I will never forget how dear he was to me during a rather drawn out emotional upheaval in my life. The long, patient phone calls and the face to face visits in Cape Town meant more to me than I think he knew. Most of all, I remember Cecilia Forest. I was not equipped for a long walk, and he lent me his running shoes and many pairs of socks to make them fit. There was no sense of the city, not even the thrum, just the sound of our footfall on the gravel pathways. It was hushed and dappled, the pines were redolent, and it was clear that he knew the paths like the back of his hand. I would have been lost if he had left me there. That was the metaphor. He guided me to a stream and showed me how to stoop to drink. On the warm day the icy water was startling, and it was so clear and fresh it seemed like liquid air. He knew, instinctively, how healing it would be.
I could probably easily have fallen in love with him, as countless women did, but I’m so glad that it has rather been this enduring friendship. I couldn’t have been more happy for him when he found his true equal and partner. In becoming a father he had to channel his creativity differently, but his legacy, in his writing, his teaching, in all the lives he has touched, is enormous. How blessed I am to have my life touched by him, and to feel this thread of my relationship with him, which has been an ebbing and flowing constant for me over time and distance.
There is a very real chance that I will not see Stephen again. Young as he is, he has been diagnosed with terminal stomach and liver cancer. It is difficult to understand why it is so often the exceptional people who are afflicted. We and he are luckier than some, though, because of the tangible legacy he will leave.