if you haven’t read the book yet (and if not, why not?!), read the free sample of the first few chapters, available on Amazon.
you will be hooked. promise.
if you haven’t read the book yet (and if not, why not?!), read the free sample of the first few chapters, available on Amazon.
you will be hooked. promise.
an excerpt from my memoir about the heritage of coloured hair.
The gangly man across the aisle to her left extended his hand in greeting. He coupled it with an earnest, overly zealous smile that made her want to projectile vomit onto his shiny shoes and punch him in his stupid mouth, with the tight fist she had formed in the pocket of her too-warm jacket.
“Peace be with you,” he offered.
She turned her entire body away from his enthusiastic greeting only to meet her father’s own skew fingers also offering the same saccharine blessing.
“Fuck you,” she hissed, inaudibly, and buried her balled-up hands deeper into the wool-blend jacket. Pungent plumes of incense singed her nose and burned her throat and she felt entirely overwhelmed and suffocated. She could not wait for this hellish church service to be over.
Della had stopped attending church exactly one week after she had been confirmed. She was 14 years old. She had not wanted to be confirmed in the first place but her parents had felt it the Right Thing To Do and Della had been dragged involuntarily to church ridiculously early every Sunday morning, and Confirmation classes every Wednesday afternoon for a full year to ensure her swift passage to Heaven in the event of her untimely demise. No one had even bothered asking her if she believed in an Anglican Heaven – or anyone’s version of God, for that matter – or if Paradise was in fact her chosen final destination.
Della had already concluded that organised religion was an elaborate scam. This had been firmly established when she had been asked to participate in the holy rite of Confession towards the end of the pre-Confirmation process. She had blatantly lied to the decaying, old minister through her braced teeth – omitting tales of premarital sexual lewdness and petty theft and devastating dishonesty – and she had been pleasantly surprised (and partly relieved) when she had not spontaneously combusted within the claustrophobic wooden walls of the confessional.
God had not seen her; He clearly neither knew nor cared.
So Della made a unilateral decision to no longer blindly follow the pastoral flock, especially not at 7:30am on a Sunday. A decision which her parents did not seem to mind now that their parental and moral duties had been effectively performed; until that Christmas eve, until that Midnight Mass.
It was an unspoken non-issue the entire day until about 8pm.
“Get dressed for church,” her mother stopped in at her room. She was expertly inserting a diamond stud into her left earlobe. Della lay stretched out on her bed, listening to The Stone Roses on her beloved Walkman.
She slid her orange foam headphones off her ears and around her neck, onto her shoulders. “I’m not going.”
“Yes, you are. Get dressed.” She pivoted and walked off to her own bedroom.
Her mother’s words held such fierce finality that they made Della sit upright and swear out loud.
Della untangled herself from the straps of her Walkman and the cords of her headphones and got up from her bed. She slowly peeled off her clothes and – standing in her mismatched underwear and stretched, cotton socks – surveyed the contents of her disorganised cupboard. Though primarily black, her clothes were a loud and confusing mixture of eclectic influences: outright teenage rebel, goth, punk, hippie and dysmorphic body image. Her style – and one would have to use that term rather loosely – clashed heavily with her mother’s last nerve. When Della arrived at any given doorway, her appearance always elicited a disapproving cluck of the tongue, a disparaging look or a sigh heavy with passive-aggression. Della had quickly learned how to ward off these critical expressions with a well-rehearsed attitude and heavily fortified armour of adolescent apathy.
Her mother took her dress sense so very personally: as though Della were intentionally trying to embarrass her or obliterate the family name through her choice of attire. The truth was Della utterly loathed her changing body and had no clue how to clothe it appropriately or how to externally adorn or express what was happening internally. Hence, she always looked like a bit of a fucked up mess; because that was her emotional reality.
Della chose an oversized black-and-white shirt that buttoned down from the neck to the knee and a black knee-length skirt. She considered wearing her 14 lace-up Doc Martens – the ones with the blue and green satin ribbons where shoelaces should have been – but thought they may be a tad disrespectful on Jesus’s birthday so opted for the more acceptable shoe version. She slipped her panythosed feet into the shoes and examined herself in the mirror, the edges of which were decorated with dried, very dead rose buds and carefully cut-out pictures of Keanu Reeves.
Acceptable, surely? She really did not want to piss her mother off on Christmas Eve.
She scraped her hair back and secured it into her uniform bushy ponytail and didn’t even bother trying to smooth down the wisps of coarse hair that puffed up defiantly at her hairline. She grabbed her prized hooded camouflage jacket that she had bought at Sergeant Pepper’s off Greenmarket Square in the centre of the city. She had diligently saved up for months to buy it and wore it all the time, even in the muggy December heat. She paused at the door, half-turned, then threw the jacket back on the bed.
Leave the jacket.
Just leave the jacket.
She hates the jacket.
Della walked down the passage to the lounge. He mother sat on one end of the beige upholstered couch smoking one of her Courtleigh Slims, dressed in an emerald-green jersey-knit dress with three-quarter length sleeves that came down to a modest length past her knees. The dress was cinched in at the waist by a thin, glossy black patent leather belt and accentuated her mother’s shapely figure. She wore black patent leather high heels, one of which was now tapping impatiently on the grey-brown carpeted floor. Her older brother sat on the opposite end of the couch, slouched over and immersed in a game of Donkey Kong on a small orange handheld console. Her father was finishing a drink he had just poured at the fold-out bar attached to ivory melamine TV wall unit, swirling the ice in his glass and downing the contents.
“What are you wearing?”
Della’s felt her stomach start to churn. She had really tried but clearly she had failed.
She knew this was the wrong answer.
“Don’t be a fucking smart ass. I told you to get dressed for church.”
“I am dressed for church.”
“No, you’re not. Go get changed.”
“This is what I’m wearing. I don’t have anything else, and I look fine.”
Della’s mother shot a look at her father who, like a seasoned Olympic athlete in a relay race, passed the facial expression expertly onto Della.
“Your mother told you to go get changed,” he interjected.
“I told you…”
The words were not given an opportunity to be repeated. Della felt the eruption of sharp pain across her middle back as it connected forcefully with the cold, hard concrete lounge wall. Her father had pushed her into it by shoving both his hands against her shoulders. Her head snapped forward and as it did, he dug his fingers into the base of her ponytail and twisted it savagely, forcing her entire head and body to turn too. She instinctively wrapped her hands around his hand and tried to pry her hair loose. Her scalp felt as though it might tear right off. She screamed and thick globules of saliva and bile caught in her throat and made her splutter and choke, drowning the scream.
“Why don’t you ever fucking listen?” he shouted, breathlessly.
She couldn’t see his face. He had her long ponytail now slung over his shoulder and was dragging and pulling her across the entrance hall, down the passage, by her hair. With his free hand, he slapped at her wildly, hitting any part of her body he could reach, her arms, her chest. She scraped her knuckles across the bumpy wall trying blindly to hold onto something, to make it all just stop, and eventually hooked her fingers around the door frame of her own bedroom door. But as she did, her father swung her around by her hair and towards the cupboard. She held out her hands to lessen the impact but was too slow and hit her forehead against the cupboard door. She bounced back and collapsed limply onto her back, onto the floor and lay there, feeling as though there were no longer any bones in her body.
He stood over her, panting, face reddened from exertion and rage. “Find… something decent to… wear.” He wiped the spit from his mouth with the back of his hand. “We will wait in the car.” He left the room.
And later – head, body and mind throbbing – Della found herself at the end of the cramped pew, in turns awkwardly genuflecting and standing and sitting; dutifully and ragefully playing her assigned role in the Christmas episode of Happy Families, alongside The Accuser, The Enforcer and The Perpetual Bystander. She was clad in an ill-fitting floral-paisley dress, a navy linen jacket (that had been mistakenly purchased because it had looked black in the distorted shop lighting) and had squeezed her feet into an old pair of black pumps that were one size too small.
As the minister’s sermon extolled the blessings of the birth of Our Lord and Saviour, Della was quietly and deeply outraged by the overbearing hypocrisy of so very many things all at once.
The church bells overhead and in the distance gonged and chimed midnight, heralding in the joyous Noël.
She wanted to scream.
The day Della-Jane decided to grow up and assume control over her life, she got 15 surgical stitches in her right foot. She was six and three quarter years old. It was a hot, sweaty, bloody day. That broken glass should never have been there.
It was like the battered-in bit of the bedroom door, the droplets of dried blood on the headboard, the cracked kitchen window, the haunting coffee stain on the dining-room wall and the other assorted battlefield debris that could be found scattered around her parents’ house, displayed like Pyrrhic trophies.
The purpose of these wartime fragments was an unspoken reminder to the other of their mutual unhappiness in their marriage, just in case it wasn’t already blatantly obvious. These broken bits and pieces remained unfixed for as long as was tolerable or depending on whether they would have visitors coming that weekend. Sometimes it took days to dispose of or repair; sometimes years, as was the bedroom door’s fate.
The visible wreckage of their violence pierced through the otherwise perfect façade of their suburban lives. Their reciprocal message was unmistakable:
This wasn’t over.
Della held enormous guilt about the yellow-brown coffee stain. On a Saturday morning, a month prior, she had been very whiney and vocal about the hardened state of the yolk of her fried egg. She could not stand the rubbery texture of hard egg yolks as it made her gag. Her mother had unceremoniously advised her to, “Eat her fucking egg.” Her father had picked his amber coffee cup up by its ear and thrown the steaming contents into her mother’s face.
“I hate the way you talk to the children!” he had yelled and sat down to resume eating his breakfast.
The sticky droplets of her father’s too-sweet coffee had clung to her mother’s hair then run slowly down her forehead and into her eyes which shone with a mixture of rage and surprise. She did not move to wipe it from her face.
She had pursed her lips tightly, shot a venemous look in Della’s direction then turned away silently, pushing through the wooden saloon-style swing doors leading to the kitchen. Her brother started moving a suddenly fascinating piece of toast around his plate with his fork, had mopped up some luridly red tomato sauce then put it in his mouth and chewed silently.
The trajectory of the vicious liquid had left a dripping splatter on the wall next to which her mother had been standing. While her stomach churned with shock and shame, Della remembered wondering how long it would remain there.
Two weeks. That coffee splatter had watched Della accusingly every morning as she ate her corn flakes for two long weeks, until she cleaned it off with her own spit and a used snotty tissue.
But on that blistering day, the glass was there, where it shouldn’t have been. That semi-smashed drinking tumbler, still stained with the last party’s rum and Coke, minding its own business in the blazing December sun.
Her brother chased her around the paved yard with the looping green hose pipe letting out whoop whoops along the way. He pushed his thumb over the end and a stream of water shot out forming a hard arcing spray in her direction.
They had been swimming after lunch which was already quite a precarious move considering the known fact that you should not swim after you ate. You just should not. All the adults said so. She had just towelled off very carefully and sunned herself on the warm bricks and was in no mood to get wet again. Seeing the imminent danger, she bolted. He raced across the back garden in hot pursuit, dodging sunburnt cousins and shrivelled pool noodles. They ran around the swimming pool, him brandishing the treacherous rubber hose. She screamed a few choice profanities as she sprinted away from him; words she had picked up from the drunken dialogue of reckless adults and of which she didn’t actually know the precise meaning. Except ‘fuck’. Andrea Petersen had told her what that meant during second break at school.
Della grabbed the rusty washing line pole and swung around it to escape the threatening jet-stream. He saw it first. He dropped the rubber hose and it snaked around the yard demonically. Like a slow-motion Saturday morning cartoon character, her brother looked at her sweaty face, looked down at the ground, looked up at her face, then looked down at her feet again. His mouth opened and shut mechanically but no sound came out.
This could not be good.
Della looked down to see that a massive shard of glass had cut through the sole of her right foot and the sharpened sliver now protruded out through the top, exposing white bone. A tide of her own thick crimson blood spread rapidly out across the cement courtyard and flowed towards her father’s prize dahlias and roses.
“Oh, fuck these people.” she thought, before letting out a scream that reverberated through her tiny, determined head and, she was later told, heard by most the entire neighbourhood.
Della stopped. She stuck her index finger into the back of her mouth and tried to prise the globby sweet out of her back teeth. It was definitely stuck. The mid-day commuters rushed past her, unaware of her current battle with the Wilson’s toffee. She sucked down hard against her palate then probed the sticky mass with the tip of her tongue.
Damn, this sweet was going to last forever.
“Della-Jane!” Her mother had noticed her absence at her side. “Hurry up! We’re going to miss the train.”
Della quickened her pace and hurried to meet her mother. Even in her 6 inch stilettos, Della’s mother’s stride was quick and purposeful. She always wore high heels. In fact, the higher the better. She had a corner cupboard in the bedroom dedicated solely to her shoes, boxes stacked from floor to ceiling of the most glamorous footwear Della had ever seen.
Every third Saturday, a man came around to the house with blue and white boxes with black lids bearing the name, “Indigo”. Inside were yellow, red, sequined, leather, feathered, any kind of shoe you could think of. Their commonality lay in their daring spiked heels. Della’s mother would slip her calloused feet and polished toes into those shoes and ask,”What do you think, Del?” and Della, seated cross-legged on the lounge carpet, would always clap her hands with delight as her mother sashayed across the room and say, “Yes! Those, those!” – even if she didn’t really like them – because she was so taken aback at the very idea of being asked for her opinion.
And then, when her mother was outside waving good-bye to the shoe man, Della would slip her little feet into the new shoes and shuffle unsteadily around the lounge, towering secretly over her little world, and making the dog nervous. She loved these stolen, shaky moments in her mother’s shoes. The uneasy feeling in her stomach, the ache in her calves. And then she would tumble out of the shoes from that dizzying height as she heard the front gate click shut as her mother returned from seeing Mr. Goliath off. She would place the shoes exactly as she had found them, folding the tissue paper over them carefully and smoothing out the creases, then patting each shoe gently before replacing the lid.
It was a black suede heel with a red trim that she hurried to catch that Wednesday lunchtime. It complemented the rest of her mother’s outfit perfectly. It always did. A black woolen knitted twin set with a deep cherry red three-quarter length overcoat. Despite her mother’s efforts, Della always managed to look as though she had just rolled out of a charity donation bin. She pulled at her chunky knitted tights which were gathering around her knees in folds. The strap of her black-and-white checked pinafore slipped off her shoulder again and she hiked it up with her thumb.
Della caught up with her mother and took her hand. It was soft and dry, the nails dark red and sharply manicured, contrasting against her fair skin. They walked down the sloping concourse towards Cape Town Station. It was slippery from the recent downpour and steam rose up from the ground. Della pushed her soles down and tried to make herself slide a little as she walked and her mother deftly jerked her arm to make her stop. Della dutifully, reluctantly, obeyed.
She loved coming into the city. She loved not being at school. It was a good day.
The visit to the Ear, Nose and Throat doctor had revealed that all of those things were Working Fine. That’s why they came: to see The Specialist. It was a Big Deal because her mother had to take off from work and they had to take the train because her father had Meetings.
When Della was nearly 2 years old, her mother had thought her belligerent and naughty. Her Ma Eileen had thought her somewhat deaf. A quick thwack of two hardcover copies of the Reader’s Digest a little distance behind her head – and no noticeable reaction – had proven her ma’s diagnosis to be more accurate. Multiple surgeries followed to remove her tonsils and adenoids and have grommets inserted into her ears. But her hearing, especially in her left ear, would never be one hundred percent. Especially when she didn’t like what was being said.
The sounds of city made her bones vibrate. The deep honks and shrill hoots of the urgent traffic. The melodic, persuasive sales pitch of the street vendors. The steady buzzing drone of electricity coursing under her feet, above her head. The insistent footsteps of people going… where? She wanted to know their stories, these strangers with their rectangular leather briefcases and damp, heavy coats. But they had a train to catch.
Her mother showed their tickets to the man seated at the gate. He clipped them without looking and they passed through the turnstile onto the large terminal. Her mother located a schedule which was affixed to a nearby facebrick pillar. She scanned it with her index finger, the finger hovering millimetres away from the grimy perspex cover, then pronounced, “Two” and hurriedly ushered Della towards the platform. As they passed the train’s engine, a man in a dark blue uniform stepped out of the door onto the platform and blew into a whistle.
“Hurry up!” urged her mother. Della broke into a half-run. They passed the open door of a carriage.
“Can’t we get in this one?”she asked.
“No. Further down.”
They jogged alongside the length of the maroon and silver train. The whistle blew piercingly again from behind her and the train let out a loud hiss from somewhere in its serpentine belly. Other people were now running down the platform too.
“This one!” yelled her mother, without warning, and deftly climbed up onto the steps of a carriage. Della followed her mother and clambered up, grabbing her hand to do so. The carriage was half-full and they shuffled down the aisle to find empty seats. Her mother sank into a window seat and Della took the seat opposite her.
“I’m hot. Can we open the window please, Mommy?” she asked.
She sat down. She stood up.
“Can we open the window please?”
Her mother looked in her handbag and withdrew her cigarettes and lighter. She lit a long thin white cigarette and as she did, the shrill whistle blew again and the train lurched forward as though her mother had engineered the departure itself. Her mother stood up and unlocked the window latch. The window dropped down suddenly and Della jumped back and laughed. Her mother sat back and sighed. Della kneeled on the seat and craned her neck out the window. The train was starting to move. Another ear-splitting whistle was heard.
“Look’s like we just made it, Mommy.”
The train had begun picking up speed. They were passing an industrial area which was dirty and blackened with grime. Della dropped back into her seat.
“I don’t understand why we had to run all the way down to this one,” she said.
Her mother regarded her for a few seconds then replied, “Different people have to sit in different carriages.” She looked out the window but seemed as though she was looking even farther away.
“What do you mean?” asked Della, leaning forward. “Different how?”
Her mother took another deep drag on her cigarette then exhaled. She leaned closer and whispered conspiratorially, “There are different carriages. First class in the front of the train; third class carriages at the end of the train.”
Della blinked, knitted her brow and waited for a further explanation. It came. But this time her mother’s tone was more accusatory.
“Well, if your skin wasn’t so dark,” she said, “ we would be able to sit up front in the Whites Only carriages.”
Della flinched and shut her eyes tightly as though she had been struck across the face. When she opened them again, her entire world had changed.
It’s strange that the fear that grips me so easily these days had no place in my 6 year old psyche. I voluntarily agreed to perform a nursery rhyme in front of the entire school and teaching body at the end of year prize- giving. It never occurred to me not to.
That morning my mother combed out my coarse, candy-floss hair and tugged it into tight, perfectly symmetrical plaits that started above my ear. She secured them with red Bobbles, round elastics with plastic orbs on the ends that I occasionally whipped around over my shoulders and sucked on when I was bored.
My hair was always a contentious issue with my mother. She had fair, fine straight hair. My hair was unruly and rebellious; and on special occasions had to be plastered down with Bryl Crème.
My grandmother called the wayward fluff that often escaped from their ponytail prisons “anoster bossies”: wild bushes, not a cultural term of endearment evidently. My hair could not deny my heritage.
On prize-giving day, I wore a red and white polka dot dress that flared out at my knee, white lacy socks that came up to meet the edge of the dotty dress and my black “tap shoes”. They were black patent leather Mary Janes which my mother had bought at Edgar’s but I wore them to dance furiously on the tiled entrance hall of our house, mimicking Mikhail Baryshnikov and Gregory Hines in White Nights.
Shuffle. Shuffle. Slide.
Until my father yelled at me to stop, which was often. Because he had a hangover. Which was more often.
I stood on that rickety stage in that vast hall and delivered a show-stopping performance of ‘Mary had a Little Lamb”, with actions. I was brave, I was fearless; I did not care for the opinions of others. And I loved the subsequent rousing applause.
Where has that courage gone? Why do I now, 33 years later, shrink at the prospect of standing out? Of taking leaps of baseless faith? Of basking in the brilliance of all that I am? Why am I drenched in insecurity and dripping with self-conscious anxiety?
Today, that changes. Today, I will take a wholly uncalculated risk.
Today, I will write.
What if I fall?
Oh but my darling, what if you fly?