A painters memoir
At the age of 2 I was dressed as an angel, on a ship crossing the equator. I was crying apparently.
Around 1973 my parents emigrated to South Africa from Burnley. bThey hasd appl;ied to both South Africa and Australia, South Africa came through first so that is where they went.
We had been living in Waterbarn Street, Duke Bar, in Burnley.
What brought about this series of events? Really it started with the Second World War and the sinking of the Prince of Wales during the defence of Singapore. The Prince of Wales was Britain;s best battleship at the time. Alongside the Repulse it was sent to try and sink the Japanese invasion fleet, without air support.
The Japanese air force discovered them and sank them. My Great Grandfather, Stoker Coates died then.
The consequence of that, he left behind a wife and three daughters, Enid, Carole and Pamela, were devastating. At that point in history, everything changed, from pride to despair. The Prince of Wales was the ship used by Churchill to speed across the Atlantic to meet the US President Roosevelt.
It was fast, dangerous, strong, sunk, in the area near Kuantang Penang.
After the war my Great Grandmother Alice married a war hero, Sharp, who was in the RAF as a driver. He was a bus conductor before the war. During the fall of France he wore a German hat and drove a truck fgull of Jewish refugees to a port in the South where they escaped by ship. Grandad Sharp was a good man who kept a succession of sheep dogs called Shep.
Caqrole married Harry, a bricklayer, and they emigrated to South Africa, his twin went to New Zealand. Pamela stayed in Todmorden and married Norman, with a deep hatred for Japanese. Enid, my Grandmother, fell for an abusive alcoholic Irish miner. They had two girls, Eileen and Kathleen. He would not marry my Grandmother until she had a boy, which she did, James and John.
This Grandad, when they lived in Burnley, used to get drunk and leave the two girls at the steps of rich people. The police would bring them back and slap him about, but he only got worse.
Grandad Sharp bought Enid a house two doors from his in Todmorden. The abb usive Grandfather would break in when the train went past. Grandad Sharp had a fight with him in the street.
It seems he disappeared after that. So Grandma Enid brought up the four childre4n on her own. She worked at Stansfield view, the old workhouse which became a mental asylum.
My father, his mother died from Multiple Sclerpsis when I was one. His father was a bricklayer. My Mom left school at 15, straight into work. As the eldest she has responsibilities.
Is it a surprise at 21 they got the chance to emigrate they took it? They were so young. I don’t thiunk they even knew what Apartheid was. It definitely was coloured by the fact my Great Aunt Carole was already there, in Johannesburg, writing everything was fine. Carole never talks about politics, it is taboo in her company.
So here I was at two years old, sailing across the equator, sailing and crying, my Dad seasick.
My first memory is of walking into a pole. I got a bang that needed four stitches and I think it knocked me into consciousness. Also I remember having my tonsils out, feeling very bored in a prison like cot, and the nurse stole my toy car. I wouldn’t go back there. Toys were a rare commo9dity in South Africa. It was a silver racing car.
Around then we lived in a caravan in Richard’s Bay, Natal. We were surrounded by monkeys, it was my job to scare them away until the biggest one bit me. I saw two boers kill a green mamba in the elephant grass. Elephant grass is this huge long grass with razor sharp edges.
My brother Rob was also born around the time I was four.
Not long after that I was sent to kindergarten. I stood wailing at the gates for days on end. Eventually my mother got a job at the kindergarten and I cheered up a bit. I guess my crying worked that time.
As my mom was now a teacher there I was kind of left to my own devices. So I spent all day outside drawing on long rolls of paper while the rest of the kids had lesson. I used to draw vast panoramic battle scenes, battleships fighting planes, the air full of flak. I don’t know why, my childs subconscious was channelling something.
I think when I was around six we moved to Kempton park, eventually living on Pongola River Drive. Birch Acres. It was a surreal suburbia next to Tembisa township. Between these suburban homes and Tembisawas a veldt buffer zone, which was the playground for a gang I joined. Our enemy was the Afrikaaner gang. We had mock battles bin the trenches of foundations of unbuilt houses, and in the Africans houses pulled down in the land clearance.
I became friends with a Scottish boy. Only with the experience of time did I realise he lived in abusive family. His sister used to scream hysterically non stop. The father had a facial scar he said he got in a street fight in Glasgow. The Scottish boy encouraged me to steal, skip school, go into town and steal things. When eventually we were all caught, I got punished, and the threat of police, who would thrash our bare arses with telephone wire soaked in salt water. The Scottish boy tried to bugger me so I stopped having anything to do with him. His father later committed suicide by drinking bleach.
I made my own toys, out of mud, slowflying bugs would become pets on strings. I ran everywhere barefoot. I mostly occupied myself drawing, my dad would bring home crates of paper from work and I would draw on them, I had cupboards full of drawings. This energy of mine wasquite alien to my parents.
My Mom did a drawing of our bull terrier, which wasn’t bad. She had started driving the school bus. She had sent for a learners driving license and some bureaucratic error they instead sent her a HGV2 licence, which meant she was legal to drive trucks and buses, even though she never had a driving lesson. It caused her a lot of anxiety someone would find out, but she drove the school bus anyway.
As bothmy parents were working I was mostly looked after by Doris Mpanza, a Zulu lady who came looking for work. She lived with us for several years and was quite strict with me, but we had a lot of fun cooking together. She had her bed legs in tins of water because she wasscared schongolulus might come steal her soul. As she didn’t have the right papers, or pass as it was known, she was arrested once and my Mom went to get her out of jail.
She had a boyfriend and wanted to divorce her husband who had two wives, but her family could not pay the dowry back. She got pregnant, petrified her husband would find out, as the second wife was a nurse at the hospital. So on the advice of the witch doctor she drank a bottle of parrafin. My mom rushed her to hospital and she survived. She later had a second child she called Thompson, my Dad’s middle name.
One day my gang was chasing the Afriikaaner boys who were hunting two African boys. As I ran past her breathlessly she stopped me to ask what was going on. ‘We are going to stop the Afrikaaners from hurting those two Kaffer boys,’ I said. She slapped me hard across the face. ‘Don’t you ever say that word again.’ She said. So I didn’t, it was the only time she ever hit mje.
Our neighbour was German, the father was Gunter, an ex paratrooper in the war. He had hand grenades on the fireplace and a cellar full of guns. One time he called me over. ‘Boy if they ever come,’ he pointed at Tembisa, ;you come to me.’ He died waiting for that ap0ocalypse.
There was a lot of crime. One time everything in the house was stolen, even the carpets. The neighbours thought we were moving. My Dad was delighted as we were insured,
My Mom felt unsafe and debated whether to get a gun. In the end as a compromise she got a gun that shot indelible pinkink. She once demonstrated it to us kids at the bus stop. The pink staisprobably still there. A kid at her school found the gun in her bag and shot himself in the face. There was some explaining to do to the annoyed parent but at least he was bright pink instead oif dead. There was no more talk of guns after that except the ones I was given as presents every year.