My father’s first cousin was an eccentric redhead who lived in Bathurst, a small town in the Eastern Cape. The Pig and Whistle was his local pub and, I fear, he spent rather a lot of time there. My earliest memories of him were of him shouting at all of us “How’s your love life?” This was a difficult question because our love lives were complicated, even then. It is slightly weird to remember that, even at our young ages, romantic love featured as an issue in our lives.
Firstly, my older sister had boyfriends. A lot of boyfriends. I think we made her life miserable by our intense fascination with these boys. I know I did. Once, a boy called our house to speak to her and I shouted, “Its either John or Paul or Mark”. We teased her mercilessly – sang songs about love to her and made up poems. Her love life was endlessly interesting to us.
My earliest memory of my interest in boys was at nursery school- a bunch of girls and I charging after a small boy so that we could kiss him. When we had finally caught him, we pinned him to the ground and took turns to kiss him. I still remember his traumatised face. There was another boy, also at nursery school, who I quite fancied. Our mothers had arranged a play date for us and I was to go to home with them in their car. But I chickened out. I caught a lift home with our normal lift scheme and was lambasted by my mother for being rude when I got home.
I never quite got the hang of romantic love. When I was about eleven, I received a Valentine’s Day card from someone in my class. The card depicted dew on a leaf, artistically drawn. I finally tracked down who the boy was. His initials were D.E.W. Instead of appreciating the astounding creativity and plain sweetness of the gesture and, heady with new feelings of sexual power, I am ashamed to say that I was very mean to him. I’m sure that he ended up wishing that he had never sent me the card in the first place.
My father had a standard question for us whenever we came back from a date. It was, “Does he make you laugh?” I think that was because my mother and he laughed so much together. They found each other very funny. They had jokes that only they understood. I remember my mother telling my father about her day and him, listening quietly, and laughing.
Another Country, a movie starring Rupert Everett, Colin Firth and a very young Cary Elwes was a movie that played on MNet in the 1980s. It is based on the student life, at Eton, of Guy Burgess, a British spy. I saw it in my early teens – my middle sister and I recorded it- and we watched it over and over again – primarily to admire the Eton boys.
And, when I was fourteen, at our holiday house near the sea, I met a beautiful boy who looked like one of them. He was seventeen, a friend of my older cousin. I remember calling a school friend at home and saying, “I’ve met a guy who looks like someone from Another Country.” In the December holidays, when I was seventeen, I decided to pursue him, which proved to be more difficult than I had thought it would be. I spread the word that I liked him and spent an enormous amount of time getting ready each night to go out to the local disco at the hotel where I would see him. But he remained frustratingly elusive. He was an angry young man, fascinatingly cynical, with a great sense of humour. We kissed on New Year’s Eve that year. He was at university in Cape Town and I was in Johannesburg and so we wrote letters to each other throughout the years that we were apart. Remember writing and receiving letters? My middle sister vetted every single letter that I ever sent him ruthlessly censoring the romantic drivel that I wrote. And he and I spent time together every December.
That was joy. That was love. He made me laugh a lot- we laughed a lot together. We were best friends.
I was to marry that beautiful boy and lose him.