Cape Town is always so exquisite, and it is so wonderful to reconnect with dear and irreplaceable friends, that I find myself fantasizing if it wouldn’t be possible, after all, to return to live there. It is all so comfortingly familiar, I still know all the highways and byways, and it is full to the brim with memories. For instance, this time, I returned to visit Loader Street,which was the first place I lived in Cape Town where I moved there to go to university.
Before (a scanned snapshot) … and after …
I relived these years in a piece I wrote for the Seminar in Literature and Writing during the first semester of my MFA program:
On Loader Street
No. 17 Loader Street was a pink house with steep front steps and an orange bougainvillea climbing up the wall.
On Loader Street I lived as a student with my brother and a pair of identical twins. One was marginally more beautiful than the other. I would put my head around his door to say goodnight, and end up hanging on it for half an hour talking about things I can’t remember now.
Loader Street is in Cape Town’s Malay quarter. We lived there after it was first ineptly gentrified. The corner shop was owned by the genial Mr. Ali. He charged the proverbial arm and a leg for necessities like bread and milk when we ran out. Mrs. Ali’s samoosas were the best I’ve ever tasted. At regular intervals throughout the day we could hear the Muslim call to prayer.
I bought my first furniture: a Victorian wardrobe with a built in mirror. Opening the bottom drawer was an art. I also bought a second-hand chest of drawers. Inside I discovered a remarkably hideous vase that looked like a giraffe’s crotch.
Loader Street is narrow and winding. My brother in law came to spend the night. Next morning he complained, “Man, this is a noisy place! They never stop hooting.” It turned out he had parked badly and nobody could get through.
The street overlooks the harbor, which was then a dank, dark place inhabited by seals and lowlifes. The Waterfront was still a figment of someone’s imagination.
Loader Street is on an incline, which was useful because my brother’s Mini Minor started erratically. We had to run it down the hill to get it going. The cobblestones were hell on wheels.
I remember Loader Street in the summer with clear, blue skies and still days. The truth is it blew a gale much of the time, and the first winter it was difficult to negotiate the living room because of the number of buckets catching drips as the rain poured through the ceiling.
The facilities at Loader Street were across the back courtyard. The lavatory had a pull chain that required the technique of a church bell ringer.
On warm summer nights we’d carry bedding up to the roof and sleep under the stars.
Loader Street is on the slopes of Signal Hill, which forms the rump of Lion’s Head. Every noon the South African Navy fires a cannon from Signal Hill. Eventually, one sort of gets used to it.
The bergies came down from the mountain to drink methylated spirits in the shadow of the back wall. We would hear their choice language (“Jou blerrie bliksem!” being the mildest) and their intoxicated caterwauling late into the night. They’d come to the front door asking, “Yoo gott sum bredd for me?” in their lilting cadence. One day I found my offering in the bougainvillea bed.
Behind Loader Street the High Level Road runs between the city and Sea Point. You can see the most spectacular sunrises from there. Especially after an all night party.
One summer night my brother’s advertizing friend came by in his Alpha Romeo Spider. I was the only one home so he settled for second best and invited me for an impromptu supper. He drove me round Chapman’s Peak with the top down. For one night I felt like a woman of the world.
When I was living on Loader Street the police bludgeoned students in the sanctuary of the cathedral. Fellow students stood in silent protest in undergraduate gowns on the roof of the Summer House on the campus. We held an all night vigil in the cathedral. One of the twins and I crammed into a gathering at the City Hall and my glasses got smashed in the crush.
I got hepatitis. The window in my room became a picture frame. I’ve lived in almost twenty places since then but I’ll never forget how at the end of the day the sky would turn a luminous peacock blue then a velvety midnight blue.
But those times have passed. The country has moved on, and so have I, even if I still feel such a close connection. As tantalizing as it is, the reality of the political situation (which has not realized the promise of the Mandela era), the security concerns, and the feeling that people of European decent are more and more irrelevant there, makes me realize that, as much as a part of me will always be bound to that southern tip of Africa, my new life is here in America, even though it may seem quite barren at times by comparison.
While I was in Africa, I read Stephen Watson’s last collection of essays, “The Music in the Ice”. He might have been speaking for me when he wrote in “Afterword To a City”:
You meet them even now: … They left Cape Town years ago and for various reasons, all of them plausible, understandable. They have since become a part of the great global and globalising diaspora of English-speaking peoples. They have prospered in their adopted countries, become acculturated, long since taken out citizenship…
And yet whenever you should speak to them, and the many like them, the evidence is unmistakable: even after twenty years in Hampstead, north London, or London, Ontario, there appears something far-flung, lonely, lost about their lives…
Like exiles of all times, they know …, instinctively, why the act of homecoming … is always synonymous with peace and the re-discovery of peace. But they do not know this peace, or its healing properties. They know that a feeling for a place – that feeling that makes it a home – is one of the few consolations in life on earth that really does console; and that such things operate in genuine commutation of the sentence under which human beings are ordinarily condemned to live: that condition of being temporary, resident aliens all. But they know this only by default.
All this they understand only too well. And they know it all the more because there is something about the city they left long ago – so the evidence of their lives, of their every word, underlines – which suggests that they have never gotten over it. There is something about Cape Town – so one recognises afresh, as they talk on – which induces a homesickness the pure force of which is almost intimidating in its longing.