Now as a fine lady, I deny this allegation completely and submit that should I emit any nocturnal sound at all, it is a mere gentle purring, not the bear-like grunts I stand accused of (despite the evidence on my husbands bedside table: a pack of bright orange ear plugs).
My poor partner suffers from insomnia rather badly though and is often prowling around the house at 03:28, (Why is it that insomniacs always waken at the same time?) having woken up and not been able to fall back asleep. He is also mosquito averse and will always be the one to be bitten, and I do sometimes get pulled out of my dream where I am meeting Brad Pitt in a Cadbury’s factory, to find my beloved balancing on the bed with a T-shirt in hand as he bounces around trying to swipe at the kamikazi insects, who leave little bloodstained epitaphs on our ceiling as they gasp their final farewell whines.
I confess that I have no such problems and if I do get disturbed, I can easily drift off again after responding to the inner calling of an abdomen that has survived five children pounding on its bladder with their little Irish Dancing womb-booties. But I can empathize with his nightly struggles.
Ironically, it is the Maestro in fact who introduced me to the habit of listening to YouTube as I fall asleep. We used to have QI on and enjoyed both the knowledge and humour of it before dozing off. Now, I just hear that music anytime of the night and I’m Pavlovian asleep again. It no longer helps him though, so being disturbed by my soft snuffling must be really difficult for him.
When I was a newly separated young single parent (before the Maestro had the joy of my gentle murmurs beside him) I played the radio all night as company – it made me feel less afraid. So I am comfortable with voices as a soporific aid. I do not need to be a sheep accountant. He has that kind of brain though that once he is awake, he starts to obsess about the next teaching day’s challenges… and… and… and…
The Maestro is tolerant of my musical mouth-breathing up to a point. I know he has reached the moment of considering a migration to the spare room when he sits up and demands I roll over onto my side, insisting, ‘That’s enough now!’ But I have done several things to make it better, like puffing on Vicks inhalers before bed, sleeping on my side, and even using hideous tasting drops; I don’t smoke or drink. To no avail: I continue to saw logs with the artistry of a seasoned lumberjack. They say one should lose weight as well.
My grandfather was born in McDonald’s in Greenpoint.
Of course it wasn’t Micky Dees then. In fact way back in the early 1900s it was a house called Race Stand House inhabited by Patrick Markey, a former Irish fusilier who has emigrated to Cape Town and worked as a policemen chasing smugglers around the Cape shores. PC Markey and his wife, Anne (I carry her name in mine, as my father carried his. Although mine has an ‘e’ in it, whereas hers is sans the ‘e,’ a sin subsequent Annes in the family will point out ) raised nine of the surviving eleven children there, of whom my granddad was the youngest.
Subsequently the 167 year old house which originally served as the official grandstand of the Greenpoint Race Track (hence its name) over the years became a golf clubhouse; housed a Restaurant (Seagulls); and was home to the arts as The Cape Town Art Centre.
This history is my only (tenuous) link to anything or anyone famous.
The nine children of Patrick and Anne (nee McFarland) went on to have many children and grandchildren (They were Catholic of course), and ever since the nineties, their descendants have been getting together annually on or around St Patrick’s Day to celebrate our shared kinship.
Last weekend, after two years of Covid restrictions, our cousin, Margie, hosted a get-together at her home in Rondebosch. There is nothing quite like reconnecting with folk with whom you share common ancestors, and it is rather satisfying to look around and know you are related to all the people around you.
Of course one could feel some sympathy for the spouses of all of us who didn’t realize that they were marrying a person more Irish than the Irish (as most immigrant Irish tend to be, no matter how many generations away they may be from the immigrant family, or how stalwart they are as citizens of their new country.) We’re all Irish on St Paddy’s day. Mind you, my daughter-in-law was rather chuffed to hear she is now on the family tree and the keeper of the family tree is the husband of my father’s cousin, having been married to her for almost 50 years, so they don’t all mind.
It’s the sense of belonging to something bigger than yourself as an individual though that is the essence of these gatherings. Seeing my late father’s face in his now-elderly cousin, I felt the bond not only with my uncle (first cousin once-removed actually) and myself, but a link to my own parents, a sense of the collective wisdom of the ages that comes from familial alliance. Even though one of my cousins decried the fact that every time we meet, there are faces he doesn’t recognize – that is precisely the joy in family. Laughing along with him, I wished I’d known him better growing up.
Singing along to the Irish ditties, as we always do (my goodness they are maudlin – everyone dies!) we celebrate the purity of Celtic voices lifted up in song and the talent of the few who can actually sing.
And then we sing our own anthem, with greater gusto.
They say one should try everything once (Google what Sir Thomas Beecham said about that!) I discovered that three times is the minimum: once because you should overcome your initial fear; once adding variety, and once pushing the fear factor.
Now in my middle age, I am no longer a daredevil physically, but I was itching to hurtle down the virgin slopes of the coastal dunes, and discovered that no more am I the first person to put up my hands for athletic feats. In fact, I was anxiety-ridden, not about making a fool of myself (That was inevitable) but of actually hurting myself. However a colleague and I plucked up the courage and went down (sitting) together in a ‘race.’ Well ‘down’ is an exaggeration. I slithered to a halt one metre after the guide stopped pushing me. But once we got going, what fun!
Then I tried standing up – for a while – and quickly realised that making like Kelly Slater on sand would be the quickest way to return with a broken ankle, but at least I can say that I rode the slope. (Two seconds is a while!)
Behind us was an almost sheer drop which three of us braved together – I participated in that madness only because I figured there were no bumps on the slope to stop me – I forgot about my behind – leaning back in fear of tumbling head over heels, I managed to embed my personal rear bump firmly in the hill and I had to paddle to the bottom, only to have to clamber on shaking legs back up the cliff.
But what exhilaration to conquer fear just a little. And sans Sally, I would not have done that.
2. Baboons share my sugar addiction
Baboons often damage protea plants seeking the sugary nectar beneath the flower head. Thankfully they stayed away from the chocolate stashes in the restaurant kitchen, but this chap was very interested in our cottage. Thankfully we had been warned to keep doors and windows closed.
The delicious food at the Fig Tree Restaurant certainly kept us well fed and the chocolate splendour of the final dessert elicited enjoyment utterances akin to that scene in ‘When Harry met Sally.’
3. Sometimes you should just dive in fully clothed
Returning from an entertaining game drive, I joined fellow heads of schools, who were hot and exhausted after a walk through the fynbos, at the infinity pool on the cliff. Our costumes were far away in our cottages and after some splashing from the wildlife already in the pool, we threw dignity to the gentle breeze and dove in fully clothed, like children.
So often as heads of schools, we are called on to be solemn and proper, and decorous; at school we are always on display, but it was good to be real and have unadulterated fun. I think that childlike activity added years to our lives and reduced several therapy sessions worth of stress.
There’s a life lesson in that.
4. Fynbos and women
Our guide jokingly told us, as he pointed at the cones on the (female) fynbos plants he was showing us, that here the women have the… er … cajones (The euphemism is mine – he was a trifle blunter). It struck me looking at the smattering of female faces in the group how necessary it is in life for women to have ‘cones’, and not just at work. Listening to the stories of the women around me, I marvel at the capacity of women to maintain stressful careers, raise their families and run their homes simultaneously. If I have learned anything working in my job and seeing the struggles of so many single (and married) mothers, it is that there is a core of strength within us that is indestructible. Tired, yes! Defeated? Never.
5. Fynbos and fire
And that brings me to the miracle of fynbos: as anyone local to the Western Cape will tell you, fynbos has to burn every 8 – 14 years in order for the seeds to germinate. We women are certainly forged in powerful fires if you pardon the mixed metaphor. It’s a bit sad though that we sometimes only come into our own when we have to face disaster. If I think how many women are defined by their single-parenthood, breast cancer survival; or rape survival, rather than being recognized first for their strength of character or talents. But perhaps it is only in a crisis that women allow themselves to show their steely core. Don’t mess with a woman who has been betrayed: she has learned she can live without you.
But the fynbos is not merely a metaphor for the might of women, it is a sign for all of us that sometimes it is trouble that makes us fruitful. We are most creative when we are under pressure. In every tragedy there is an opportunity – that is how we tap into the creative power of the Almighty.
6. Saying no is powerful
Our itinerary involved an exciting afternoon walking along the shore and snorkeling in crystal clear waters. I wanted to go, and suffered severe FOMO by not going, but I decided to listen to my body which was screaming ‘Kan nie meer nie.’ Strong people sometimes battle to say ‘no’ or to ringfence free time for ‘sharpening sword’ activities. I chose myself that afternoon and slept for 3 hours. As a woman, as a leader, and as a female leader particularly, I frequently feel I ought to, should do, have to do, must do it all so I do not appear to be under-performing or lazy and sometimes it is a potent decision to take back my own power and just say ‘no’… and I didn’t get sunburnt.
7. Conferences versus connection
I am so grateful that the organisers of our conference put the emphasis on ‘conferring’ and connection rather than on lecturing and instructing. What made this gathering unique was the absence of powerpoints and workshops, the focus being on relationships – and funnily enough, watching the finance guys rock the slopes on sandboards was infinitely more instructive and entertaining than spreadsheets; chatting late into the evening and hearing another head say, ‘Wow you are describing exactly the challenges my school has!’ was as beneficial as formal training on collaborating about how to solve similar problems; and shared laughter was a balm for tired souls at the end of a long term.
8. Don’t lean on stone walls in the veld
Mice and goggas live there…and therefore so do snakes. There is probably a metaphor for life in that, but there endeth the lesson!
9. Life comes full circle
Arriving home was like returning from a school camp, having bonded with colleagues rather than merely shared a conference venue. I think we came back more friends than peers, a powerful thing in a post-Covid world.
And as I climbed off our overland bus, there was my son, Michael, standing at his vehicle like a Viking with with his blood-red beard, ready to take mom home, just as I had done so many times after tours and camps for my children.
The dusk light is fading and I’ve put on my bedroom light in order to see to type. He comes in to hug me (well actually to nick my adaptor plug to charge his phone while he records a piano lesson) until he sees the street beyond in the gathering gloom below.
‘Close the curtains; everyone can see!’ yelps my husband, ‘We’re floodlit up here!’ This of course is rich coming from the exhibitionist who changes in clear view of passersby normally. (‘No one has complained yet,’ he declares every morning when I chide him for his flasher ways).
Of course the only passing traffic now consists of a rare police car or metro police, patrolling to ensure all citizens are home and adhering to lockdown, single roof light floating silently by like the whisper of a ghost . It is eerily quiet for a street that has at times been a racetrack for unsilenced motorbikes in the early hours, joggers, skateboarding youngsters and dog-walkers conducting the orchestra of protests from jailed canines at all hours, not to mention wandering Ubers, delivery vehicles and vibrating, wannabe-gangsta vehicles. Now the streets are empty. Quiet. Too still.
What I can see is the cute artwork of Mia, the littlun across the road who drew brightly coloured rainbows to festoon their wall – a sign of hope in these uncertain times. It rained today though so they droop melancholically damp on the wall and I hope… I hope she will draw again.
I hope her child’s eye foretells a joy I don’t feel when I see the statistics rising and fear for my staff who live so close to one another in overcrowded shanty towns around Cape Town.
It rained today (probably because I washed the windows last week because the achiever in me must!). I step out onto the balcony and breathe in the damp cool night air. I can hear the sea roar far away. A while back we argued about that sound, Andrew saying it was traffic. Now I know it’s the sea – so near and yet too far…
A siren breaks the stillness, screeching rudely, endlessly in the silence. Ambulance? Lockdown violator?