In a previous life I sold sandwiches on Llandudno Beach. My then girlfriends sister (stepsister?), ever enterprising, had me up at 5am to catch a train to her place to butter slices of home-baked cheese and corn bread and spread them with ‘angelfish’ (actually Atlantic pomfret) and lettuce. On holiday weekdays I would sell these to office workers all over Cape Town and on weekends I would wander shirtless lugging a cooler box between the rocks, trying not to stare at gorgeous girls while ducking surfboards wielded like weapons by bronzed blonde dudes and dodging the local police because I did not have a hawkers license. I remember wearing faded holey jeans shorts that my sister and I ‘made’ with bleach and an old pair of hacked up Levis. I remember loving every moment of it.
My father visited a few weeks ago and brought a tattered box of my old memories with him. Could have sworn I asked for the box to be trashed a few times rather than bring it up to me but I hear old people go deaf pretty quickly, or was that selective hearing?
The faded brown paper sandwich bag silk screened with a hand-drawn sun brought back a flood of memories that just got stronger as I slowly picked through the pile of faded papers and crumpled reminders of my past. The phrase “digging up the past” could not be more apt.
A tissue thin birth certificate and folded anonymous letters on cheap feint line school paper are the only things that don’t jog any real memories for me. I was barely alive for the one and who the hell would remember an anonymous crumpled old note covered in hearts and kisses and promising to meet me somewhere secret at break time. Proof that women learn to be cryptic at a young age and just get better at it with time. I must admit I have not been asked to meet somewhere secret in a very long time (Are you listening Darling?). Why the hell I even kept the secret admirer valentines cards originally I have no idea. And some Dear Johns too. Grief, what the hell did I keep those for? I somehow think logic was not high on my priority list in those days. I even found a photograph and ‘love’ letters from my first girlfriend when I was 10 years old – you know, the one that you first take to movies and have to do that cough stretch to put your arm around her or nervously hold her hand in the presence of her parents as they explain that we will have to look after her younger brother during the matinée showing of The Jewel of the Nile (yes, even have the movie stub – R3.40 per seat!). Digging deeper, I could not resist a smile at finding an old school shirt scribbled with wishes from friends named “Chewys” and “Monkey” and telling me to follow the words of Bobby McFerrin or some other soppy 80’s lyric. Today, I do not think I could pick most of the people out of a lineup if my life depended on it, but somehow it makes me smile to think of the old times when all you had to worry about was your next soccer match, when the Boer War started and if so-and-so would sneak in some booze for the party on Saturday.
Old reports from pre-school and ‘Sub A & B’ (Grade 0 and 1) explain a lot … Phrases like “pay more attention”, “regular practice needed”, “Not so untidy and careless”, “not realising his obvious potential” make me think that the folks probably sighed in relief at the last comment from my first “big” school report : “Lance has passed Sub A”. At least I got As those days… The reports tend to go downhill from there…. rapidly. A copy of my matric testimonial does at least praise me for making a contribution as captain of various sports teams… along with the inevitable, “with a little more effort in his school work he could…” Strange to flip through things that caused such anguish at the time but in hindsight were almost irrelevant in the bigger scene of things – I do not recall trying to hide my reports but I don’t think I ever ran home waving the things for all to see either. School was a breeze compared to real life… just another of life’s small print no-one ever tells you about.
Other archeological discoveries also include a South African Post Office Savings Book (last entry from 18 years ago says I have R49… hmm.. wonder what the interest on that would be), a Western Province Blood Donors card (I remember donating blood and rushing off to play a first team in-door hockey match immediately after – note to self, not a good idea and one cookie was not enough to stop the sweats!) and a South African Defence Force call up – I was in the last compulsory call-up before it was abolished but I was studying and by the time I finished they never bothered me. An attendance certificate from “Outdoor School Aus” in Namibia confirms that my exciting (and terrifying) experience of being taken by truck blindfolded to a spot in the middle of the desert and told to find my way alone back to camp via expired cans of beans, snakes and an old gemsbok horn walking stick were not figments of my imagination. The Cadet competition certificate from 1988 was not a happy reminder of when one of our team caught and died of bacterial meningitis and we all had to be quarantined and take medication just in case – I think that was my first real experience of death and to this day when I hear the word, a cold fear creeps up on me. I now can’t say that there isn’t a bible in the house… the box contained some reminders of my failed foray into religion; a bible I got 25 years ago and even a certificate for completing a Baptist scripture exam – was not intending to keep the bible but my sister-in-law did remind me that my kids are probably going to need one for a project one day. My legs ache as I fish out a Big Walk diploma, Cape Town to Simonstown, 30k walking in just over 5 hours when I was 15 – all I remember, other than the pain when we finished, was the little Barone chocolate bars that my father would fish out of his bum bag at regular intervals along the way. (My mind has thankfully blanked out all memories of those obscene blue running shorts the old man favoured in those days). The box even contained old sew-on sports numbers and badges, a few from my stint at first team hockey and even one from my failed attempt at 110m hurdles at the Namibian (then South West Africa) athletics championships – and no, I can’t hurdle.
I did find a few really forgotten treasures at the bottom of the box – poetry and writing that is almost 25 years old. Strange artwork, poems of eagles and wolves and the start of a Fighting Fantasy book entitled Emerald Tiger with maps and background legends all penciled in. I really did want to write… even that long ago… I wonder what my life would have turned out like if I had taken the plunge way back then instead of just now?
I will not bore you with anymore of my arb past (too late, I apologise) and I’ll skim completely over the not so welcome reminders of my turbulent days of growing up with divorced and then remarried parents. It’s like a rollercoaster ride going through a box like this and after the initial excitement, I don’t really like roller-coasters that much. Things you don’t really want to remember come flooding back with all those you fondly recall and the natural conclusion of it all is to think of all the “what ifs” that may have been and things that will never be again – things that really have no place in the here and now. It’s like opening your own personal Pandoras Box and eventually realising that what you have dug up weighs far more than the papers and tattered photographs you hold in your hands.
I may keep a few of the souvenirs for the kids to laugh about their old dad, but I think I may put the rest back, close the lid and wait for someone to throw them away… and then I can smile and say “Oh well, don’t worry about it. It’s just reminders of my past. I don’t need them anymore.”