When COVID 19 hit Asia we were paying it very little attention from our cottage in the Cape, in the middle of our annual escape to the southern hemisphere. It was very much, just the flu, far away, not a cause for concern, even when we saw passengers wearing masks in the airport, we rolled our eyes, an overreaction, performative. We are now nearly 8 weeks into lockdown in London, watching our friends don the very same masks and head to the frontlines. Lose family. Go stir crazy in the goldfish bowl of quarantine. Revel in the slowness of the day to day. Drown in the anxiety of what’s to come.
A family emergency unfolds, as they do daily, but this crisis is hitting mine and I am not there. I am in London, they are in South Africa. There is no way I could even get there if I wanted to. This global lock down in full effect. No ruby slippered passport to wing me there in under 12 hours. There is no way home.
Home is now a tenuous thing. It should be a centred thing, a tethering. A feeling of being on course. The people there are the blood and bone roots of the place, and we branch out, explore, but ultimately stay entwined. Now I feel the distance more keenly when we are forced apart. We watch the whatsapp light up with typing… and wait for the response. A beat behind, an hour ahead. We are all at home, sheltering in place, but not anchored.
Where would I rather be? Here or there? Between the places we are born and or where we bore our children? Post COVID this ability to skip shores and try on cities for size feels dangerous, deadly even. Careless.
Right now, without hesitation I would be back in the Cape. I would hire a car and head out towards to Whale Coast. Most tourists when venturing east of Cape Town head towards Hermanus, (for the whales) or for the very wild at heart out to Gaansbaai (for the shark diving). Most will take the scenic Sir Lowry’s pass over the mountains, and save a chunk of time rushing out to see the beasts of the sea.
But I would take the R44 past Gordon’s Bay, and into Rooiels, along Clarence Drive one of the most spectacular peninsula drives in the world. Featured in luxury car ads, movies and photoshoots, Clarence Drive has it all – unrivalled ocean views, hairpin turns, the occasional rowdy baboon troop and on the very rare occasion, the reclusive Cape Leopard.
My husband gets vertigo driving this particular stretch of the road, even as a professional driver he finds the view to distracting, the twists too intense, the imagined drop into the breakers too close. Although I don’t have nearly the same experience behind the wheel, I have driven this road countless times over the years and feel at home nudging its curves and shifting gears as the road opens up towards the mountains and closes again towards to sea.
This drive then has always given me that beginning of the summer feeling. It feels like freedom, and lightness and ease. The sense of peace and connection and, more recently a sense of rootedness, of history, of home. Which is complicated.
I left South Africa at the very beginning of 2003, a freshly minted BAHons in my hand, and a casual idea of pulling pints, picking strawberries and waiting tables in London. For a year. Just a year. I was 21, blissfully naïve and filled with all the courage that being so cavalier brings. That was seventeen years ago now, and here I am very nearly 39 a woman, dreaming of driving this road with my husband and 4 year old napping in the back seat of our rental.
Home is now London. That too is complicated. It has been for all of those years. I have had ten addresses in various postcodes over that time. A heady mix of sofa surfing (NW9), co-habiting (E14, SW19) house sharing (SW19, SW11, SW2), cohabiting (again W10, NW2) and finally purchasing our first home in 2017. Our mortgage has us here for the foreseeable, our borough caters well for the needs of our autistic son. I feel settled. I drive through our neighbourhood and I know the locals. I’m on first name basis with the wonderful owners of the café in the local park, we have found a great school. We are involved in the community, which under lockdown has been invaluable. Counting rainbows in the windows, waving to the kids at a distance, dropping off shopping for those that can’t leave their front doors. Lockdown is definitely bedding us in, like it or not.
But there is something missing. I get a taste of that something when I am negotiating the bends on Clarence drive, mentally checking off the points until we hit Betty’s Bay and I can breathe again. Over the years I have learned to make peace with this missing piece. This part of me that is inaccessible here in the UK and that opens up exponentially when looking out at the ocean from our cottage by the sea.
I get catches of it in the UK, the whiff of gas when I light the hob, the woomph of the catch. I remember my father lighting the gas lights in the bedrooms, while we waited to see if the 9’ oclock moths would flutters against the windows, or better yet the curtains, desparate for the light. Their wings soft and dusty. The flutter both horrorific (what if it got into your hair!) and exquisite. I catch it for a moment. Its safety and warmth and an irrevocable belonging. A foundation.
Some of my earliest memories are in this place, and my most precious. Collecting shells with my beloved gran – who would point out the rare ones, and talk me through their names (cowry with the crinkled curves, baby toes all pink and white and almost good enough to eat, fan shells intricate and in every colour of the rainbow), carefully folded into palms, pockets, skirts – rinsed with sea water, and taken back to the cottage to dry and varnish for safe keeping. I still have a collection. Faded and chipped, in my small bathroom next to a picture of the beach where they were found.
Fishing for ‘klipvissies’ (rock fish) next to the old lighthouse in Hangklip, with fishing wire and sticks and periwinkles skewered on hooks. My Gran very diligently showing us how to gut them and cook them, even though there was very little meat to find between their spiny bones
Swimming across the lake (a rite of passage at 8), being doused with sand by my endless array of cousins, hiking with bleeding knees and sunburned shoulders, sunning ourselves on the rocks in Palmiet river, weeks of eating fresh bread from the tiny village shop, biltong from the town, and endless tea and cake with aunts and uncles and our parents friends visiting.
And later, heading to the beach on the full moon, sneaking out a bottle of wine or a few beers, trying to get our lighters to work in the howling south easter. Making friends with the local surfers, heading to town to play pool, figuring out what constituted as easy or fast and that the Joburg rules differed massively to those in the Cape. Wearing too much make up to ever blend in, being so self conscious that I might fade away. Later still bringing friends and boyfriends to visit to reclaim some sanity, some calm, and a place to be.
For the past 12 years, my husband has come out with me once every 18 months or so, and he’s fallen in love with it too. We briefly entertained the idea of buying some property here, selling up in the UK and opening a B&B, and in fact it still a conversation we like to revisit, a comforting idea. So we explore it and build our perfect house with lovely Western Cape furnishings and dream it, with the freedom of those who know they won’t have to commit.
Unless we did.
I have been toying with the idea for years and have since put it on hold while our son was being assessed for Autism. South Africa has yet to embrace the neurodivergent community so that has been a huge consideration. Would my search for belonging mean he wouldn’t? Returning is a privilege, not often without price, and this feels too high to contemplate. This is the reality.
Like most immigrants will tell you, when you go home you bring the world with you. And the world is changed, home is changed. You are changed. I am not who I was 17 years ago. I left blindly optimistic and overwhelmingly sure of what I was leaving and going towards. I return feeling sure of very little. I don’t recognise street names, understand the local vernacular as effortlessly. This is the reality.
South Africa is conflicted, complicated and unsettling. So while there are these pickets of calm, shored up in my nostalgia, my history, the reality of my position there is not clear cut. Being descended from colonialists and voortrekkers, and brought up in the violent death throes of Apartheid, before the country birthed itself anew. State of emergency was declared as I was heading to nursery, and civil war threatening around the time I was finishing Grade 7.
I was not blind, but I was protected from the sheer brute force of it. My white skin afforded me, my family, my ancestors access to better housing, education, healthcare, security over generations – and while not being explicitly taught my entitlement by my left wing parents, it was implied and insinuated in our schooling and our socialisation. It is the cultural air you breathe, in the media consumed, in the in jokes in the playground. Hate and fear, like an accent, tainting everything. The reality is that it remains, quieter, different – but there. I hear it here too.
As Guante said, in his magnificent spoken word poem How to explain White Supremacy to a White Supremacist – ‘Remember : white supremacy is not the shark, it’s the water’
Confronting this privilege is deeply uncomfortable, vital – and I will be unpicking and unlearning for the rest of my life. With this comes my interrogation of ‘a home’, the idea that there is a place where you are welcomed without question. The very idea feels impossible now, almost an affront. How dare we even dream it?
London has given me back to myself time and time again. Sucker punched, disco danced its way into my heart and broken it. Served up my fragility in a church hall in Portobello, let me run through it streets with hundreds more, under the cover of night, chasing time. Let me weep on benches at 4am without a soul to witness it, made me laugh, mouth wide and careless, falling down stairs, into the arms of friends I will have for a lifetime. London delivered me a tattooed husband and a son more beautiful than we are ever able to express. This whirlwind carousel, I can’t help but think it’s time to give someone else needs a turn.
Perhaps those of us who had the privilege to choose where to be, get to ride that carousel, sacrifice that idea of home entirely. That is the price.
Would I pay it again?
I don’t think I’ll ever stop asking that question.
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, remembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.”
‘Remember: white supremacy is not a shark; it is the water. It is how we talk about racism as white hoods and confederate flags, knowing that you own those things, and we don’t… as if we didn’t own this history too, this system—we tread water’