I sat as close to the fire as was possible. The flames leapt into the air, the crackling had a strangely comforting sound. As I gazed into the flames thoughts fought in my head for attention. The break up was fighting for prime position.
As the embers crackled and the flames leapt higher I could almost see the story unfold in the bright orange sparks.
Eighteen years old. I was so sure of my independence – so sure of my adulthood. I had just left school behind and my eyes were sparking with promise for what my future held. I loved my independence – my family had paid for me to take a “gap” year in a place of my choice. Where else would a small town girl long to be – long to settle - but Cape Town – land of promise – land of everything that is free and easy – everything except digs, food and entertainment that is.
I was soon to realise that nothing is free – everything comes with a price. That price may be good dirty money or it might in favours that build up.
I settled in my digs very quickly. It was almost a back packer’s lodge but the residents were not itinerants but all students looking for a way to pave their city with gold. I was an easy going girl so I quickly made friends. Some were mere acquaintances but three girls and I seemed to resonate on the same vibe. Sarah, Colette, Francine and I. Colette and Francine were French girls who had moved to Cape Town to experience life at a South African University. They were fun and imaginative in their quest for entertainment.
None of us had much money but we got by. Fortunately all of us were almost the same size and Collette seemed to have been born with tremendous fashion sense – it certainly wasn’t something that you could learn. It was an innate talent. A pair of trousers from Sarah, a jumper from Francine and Colette would make the whole thing sing with one of the many scarves in her collection - draped over one shoulder, tied in a knot around your neck, tied around your head with one strand clinging to your shoulder. It was amazing how she could change the look and feel of an entire ensemble with just a scarf. Sarah was studying theatre crafts so enjoyed practicing her makeup skills on us. When we were ready (dressed by Collette and made up by Sarah) the four of us would set out to inflame the coffee shops and clubs around Cape Town. Life was cheap if you knew where to look.
One night we were sitting in the Dubois Coffee bar when a group of guys walked in. There were four of them and four of us. Sarah recognised one the guys from her theatre class. Soon the eight of us were cavorting around Cape Town – making life happen for us.
Henry quickly made it known that he was vey attracted to me. I was a simple white girl from a very small town in the Karoo and he was a coloured guy from the Cape Flats. At first I was uncomfortable with his attention although I was very attracted to him. I wondered what my verkrampte parents would feel. A few glasses of wine later I was past worrying about minor issues like race. We were people and the outside surface did not matter one iota. What mattered was the attraction that we felt for each other.
No-one in Cape Town saw anything strange in our relationship. Cape Town was after all the artistic nerve centre of South Africa. Anything goes could almost be its motto.
At the end of the evening Henry tentatively kissed me goodnight and asked when he could see me again. We arranged to meet the next night in the coffee bar again.
As we went home Sarah laughingly teased me “Norma’s got stars in her eyes. How did they get there?”
Collette screamed “Henri plucked them out of the sky when his spirit soared at the first glimpse of Norma.”
I blushingly tried to sidestep their nonsense.
The next night we met at the coffee bar without our friends and we discovered that we had a lot in common. We liked the same music, the same comedians, the same movies. We hated rugby but loved soccer. He played basketball and I played netball. The coincidences were almost too good to be true.
As the year progressed so did our relationship. We couldn’t bear to be away from each other. He moved into the lodgings and we snuck into each other’s rooms at night. (The lodge was owned by an elderly lady with antiquated rules but we knew she was only trying to run a respectable lodging house so we “appeared” to be obeying her rules.)
Henry wanted to take me home to meet his mother. She wasn’t too happy about the relationship as she felt there were lots of coloured girls who would have made Henry a good wife. He felt that she just needed to get to know me.
The meeting was very stiff and formal and I felt uncomfortable in the face of her austerity.
When we went back to the lodgings Henry was very quiet.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
"I knew it was wrong to show you my roots. You have lost all respect for me.”
“Nonsense – I was uncomfortable because it was obvious that your mom did not like me.”
“She says you were stuck up and looked down your nose at our poverty.”
I was appalled. “What? I am not like that. I see people for who they are – I don’t care where they come from.”
“Mmph! You could have fooled me. You sat there so prim and proper, ankles crossed as if you did not want too much of your body being tainted by our pitifulness.”
I was very hurt and decided it would be best not to retaliate.
When we got back to the Lodge he said he wanted to be alone and left me abruptly at the door to my room that I shared with Sarah.
Sarah was lying in bed reading and looked up in astonishment when I entered.
“Not spending the night with Henry? Or are you just coming to collect fresh clothes for the morning?”
“No I’m staying here tonight.” The tears ran silently down my cheeks.
“What’s wrong poppet?” Sarah climbed out of bed and came and sat on the floor in front of me.
The tears broke through the dam wall as I tried to make sense of the evening.
Sarah put her arms around me and hugged me. “It’s always hard meeting the parents," she said.
“It's not that,” I sobbed. “Is almost as though he was ashamed of his home and tried to make it all my fault.”
“I’m sure things will be alright in the morning. Come let's get you to bed.”
She helped me to undress and when I was in my pyjamas she lay down next to me holding me tight until I fell into a fitful sleep.
Things weren’t better the next day. Our relationship was strained.
“Surely a fight should be over and done with by now?” I thought.
Henry was strange and withdrawn. He said that he would be sleeping at home for the next few nights because his mother was upset by our evening together.
I could not understand it but thought it was best to just let things slide for a while.
Henry was gone for 5 nights. The group seemed incomplete without him. His friends said he hadn’t been to ‘Varsity all week. I didn’t know what to do. I tried phoning him but it always went to voicemail.
On Monday, 9 days after my visit to his home, he showed up at the lodge. His eyes were bloodshot and he looked as if he had not slept for days. He came to me to apologise and suggested that we join the group for a late night picnic in the park.
As the evening progressed Henry got quieter and quieter and then suddenly erupted violently, swearing at us all and telling us that we didn’t know how to party. He jumped up and left. Greg, one of his friends, suggested that we let him go and sort himself out.
“Sorry Norma. You didn’t deserve that tongue lashing.”
Sarah put her arms around me and whispered in my ear. “He’s not worth it. Let’s enjoy ourselves. I’m sure he will come to his senses by tomorrow.”
But things were worse the next day and the next and the next. His behaviour became more erratic and he lost it frequently when we were out. I had decided that until he got his act together it was best that we only saw one another in the group.
One night when we were in the coffee bar Henry suddenly started shaking. The shaking got worse until it seemed that he was having a fit.
An ambulance was called and the paramedics said “Classic drug withdrawal. When did he last have a fix?”
We were all horrified. We hadn’t expected anything like this. Henry? On drugs? It was almost unbelievable until we started to put things together – his absence from ‘Varsity. His appearance. His mood swings.
The following day I went to see him in hospital and tried to remain positive but Henry was definite. He wanted to break up.
“Norma, I’ve seen this before. Once the drugs get you they have you for life. Once a drug addict – always a drug addict. I may be drug free for years but then something will happen and the habit will start again. I can’t put you though this.”
“But Henry. We’ll get you better. You can join a program. We will...”
“No Norma,” he interrupted. “I am an addict. I have been on and off drugs since I was eleven. I am bright and I managed to maintain my schooling and get accepted at the university. My dry spells have lasted a year, 6 months, 9 months – but in the end the drugs get me again. I love you Norma but I don’t want to have a relationship with you. You deserve better.”
And now it is the end of my gap year. I am at my farewell braai and all I can think of as I gaze into the fire is Henry – my first love – an intense love that has left me bitter.
(c) Vera Alexander 2017