Between You and Me

North of Letaba there is a bridge. A bridge over the Letaba River.

A bridge between now and then. Between you and me.

 

In death, time becomes malleable. The convention of dates – minutes, hours, years – holds no power. Dad is here and now, there and then. Memories skip like stones on water, thoughts rippling out from each touch.

Here, now; there, then, Dad and I are standing on the bridge. The light has gone soft, diffused, more loving than the glare of only minutes ago. It is the end of another winter’s day in the Kruger Park and the sun rests on the horizon. Dad grips the railing looking downstream. His face is pale, drawn into itself, trying to hide the pain. It shows in his eyes, in the lines webbed across his skin.

Far below us are terrapins and sandpipers on the bank and a pair of giant kingfishers on the rail, watching the dark water. A lone elephant bull strides across the sand to drink at the Letaba’s dry-season trickle. Trees nesting in the tops of other trees and a buckled guardrail attest to the last flood, when this high bridge was metres under water. The old bull slurps long drafts, then sprays a jet of water over his back, between his legs. Careful, deliberate ablutions. The sight, like the moment, is binding.

*

I’m 6. Dad is 49. The acropolis is a ship, bright-white marble against the Athens skyline. Dad and I carry water bottles as the midsummer, midday heat is wilting us. My leather sandals, newly bought in the Plaka, are slipping off my feet from the sweat and it’s making me grumpy.

We climb the stairs, which is quite a thing for me, as they’re oversized, even for adults. My grumpiness increases. I’m not into architecture yet … and Dad is on one of his missions. Eventually we stand before the Parthenon’s bewildering forest of columns. ‘It’s like a giant sculpture, all carved by hand, by man,’ says my father. ‘So many hands. Isn’t it beautiful?’

‘Ja Daddy, but my feet are sore and I want an ice-cream.’

He hoists me onto his shoulders and we walk among the columns, him marvelling at the lines – embedding their shape and proportions for later use – me holding onto his ears and enjoying the ride. There’s a chocolate ice-cream in it for me when we leave the temple. Pleased as punch, we get back to the hotel and tell the family about our Acropolis Expedition.
Greece is now in both our blood.

*

I’m 12. Dad’s 54. It’s after midnight and we’re on a small yacht near Cape Point, caught in a storm. Everyone is seasick. The skipper has lowered the sails and we’re motoring past the kelp beds off the Cape of Good Hope, a towering crag in the dark. Then the engine cuts. The skipper turns the key. Nothing. He looks over the stern and sees that we’ve snagged a fishing net which is wrapped around the propeller. Clouds swirl above and waves as tall as the mast, their crests streaking, break around us. With each swell the yacht is pushed closer to the razor rocks.

Dad peels off his shirt and picks up a seaman’s knife. What’s he doing? He’s the oldest man on board! Before I can reach out to grab his arm, he’s stepped past the skipper and is lowering himself over the stern. The water is inky and churning.

‘No, Dad, don’t do it,’ I say weakly, but he doesn’t seem to hear.

‘No, Dad!’ I say a lot louder.

‘It’s okay, son, I’m just going to cut the net free. I’ll be fine.’

He slips over the side and I scramble aft and peer into the water. Dad has disappeared into the black Atlantic. Panic freezes me at the rail and I’m unable to utter anything. Dad gone!

Just then he breaks the surface, knife in his mouth. The yacht rides up a swell, then plunges into the trough, on top of him. Now Dad really is gone! But moments later he bobs to the surface, his face contorted in pain. The skipper throws him a line and he pulls himself up the stern. He’s cracked a rib, but the line is free and the propeller turns again.

Back on board he’s bundled below and into warm clothes. The moon comes out and we round the point into False Bay, calm in the lee of the peninsula. Dad’s done it!

*

I’m 17. Dad’s just turned 60. He’s not handling it very well. Age, age. He’ll fight it every step of the way. I’m writing matric exams, keeping my head in my books. Dad seems to be writing his own exam. A dark cloud fills our home. He decides to take up running, seriously, like it’s the antidote to aging. Six o’ clock in the mornings he’s jogging in Newlands Forest, next he progresses to Cecilia Forest, then he’s running to Constantia Nek and back before breakfast. He does his first marathon, starts borrowing my bike to prepare for triathlons and takes up yoga. It’s as though he’s training for UCT first-team rugby all over again, 40 years on. He’ll beat this age thing if it’s the last thing he does.

At the office one of his partners prepares a list of great buildings designed by men over 60: Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright, Mies van der Rohe. Dad’s heroes. The cloud begins to lift. He starts to believe he still has some of his best buildings in him. And he does – BankCity, UCT business school, the Cape Town International Convention Centre and V&A Waterfront Marina are not yet a twinkle in his eye.

After finals, Dad drives me from our holiday house in Simon’s Town to Wingfield military base where buses will ferry the new intake to Saldanha for basic training. It’s the dark days of apartheid and the rooi gevaar: will I end up a marine on the border or patrolling the townships in a Buffel? Dad reassures me, tells me always to do what is right in any given context.

We drive in his sporty convertible through Glencairn and Fish Hoek, along Boyes Drive. It’s a hot summer’s day, Christmas decorations still visible, families cramming the beaches below, surfers like seals in the Muizenberg backline. We listen to Cat Stevens’s Tea for the Tillerman on the tape deck. There’s the song ‘Father and Son’ – it makes little impression in the car, as I’m focusing on what’s to come: the opvok sessions, the breaking in. But later, I’ll remember the song and car ride with the southeaster in our hair and the sweet smell of summer fynbos shrill with cicadas.

At Wingfield Dad is strong, caring, brief. He gives me a firm hug and, in parting, hands me a slim volume of Rupert Brooke’s war poems. ‘I took it with me when we went up north. I remember reading it while lying in the bomb bay of a Lancaster as we crossed the Med. I could see the sea through the narrow slit of the bomb doors. If the pilot had bumped the lever by mistake … it would’ve been a long drop. The poems might help you.’

Late at night – after days of rifle-range practise, parade drilling, teargas and riot training, sailing instruction, thorn-patch leopard crawls and endless inspections ­– I’d read Brooke by torchlight under my grey blanket. And think of Dad, up north, doing the same.

*

I’m 28, Dad 72. Against most of the family’s wishes he has joined the ANC. He’d met with the leadership in exile at the Dakar Conference in 1987, and since then saw himself closely aligned with the cause. Now the president has summoned him to Genadendal and asked him to run for local government in the ‘Mandela ward’.

‘There’s no way I could refuse him!’ protests Dad as Mom voices her disapproval of him getting involved in the ‘dirty business’ of politics.

But as a family we soon get roped in, appending posters to lampposts, attending party rallies, wearing ‘Nelson Mandela will vote for Revel Fox’ T-shirts. It’s hard to watch Dad getting shunned by the good citizens of Newlands at shopping-centre recruitment stations, his tyres slashed, friends going cold on him. But this is offset by being part of this other family … like canvassing with Dad and the president. We pick dingy apartment blocks and start knocking on front doors: the look of confusion, and then delight, on faces as they open (in curlers or with fag in the corner of their mouths) to be greeted by Madiba, just popping by to introduce them to Revel.

Dad loses the election, by a mile, but gets elected on the proportional representation system anyway. Having spent most of his life outside the establishment, and losing government contracts because of it, he now finds himself embraced. ‘I’ve struggled all my life to bring a system like this into being,’ he tells me. ‘Here, at the end of my career, I’m part of making it happen. I’m inside.’

*

The sun is about to set and a cool breeze follows the lie of the river, nagging the big riverine trees. Dad is still at the rail, staring. I have an inkling that in my future, in my ‘post’ life, this moment will be hard to look full in the face. ‘Come, Dad, it’s getting dark and the camp gates will be closing for the night.’

He doesn’t move. I want to put my arm around him, like he has always done to me when I’ve been down: exams, girlfriends, Christopher Robin leaving for boarding school at the end of Pooh. But I hold back; I know he doesn’t want me to. I know you, Dad. I understand you. This is, I suppose, the true colour of love, this knowing.

Sometimes I think you’ve deprived me by not giving me something to push against. An Oedipal rebellion. There should’ve been teenage screaming matches, fights over paths not chosen, over the gap of generations. But your iron fist of love, your all-embracing empathy, have left me nothing to grapple with, no unfinished business. Yes, you’ve been the architect of the family, but it’s been by example, never forced. Pure lines, analytical thought, clean living, understatement, simplicity, a delight in beauty … above all joy. Sometimes I feel guilt: the guilt of idealism. Where was the fight that fathers and sons must have?

At this great bend in the Letaba, the eye reaches far downstream. Since the floods of 2000, there’s an even greater field of vision. But Dad’s eyes seem to reach much further, beyond the jackalberries and leadwoods, beyond the log-like crocs and Bateleur speck rocking in flight. What are you thinking, Dad? Are you looking back, or forward? You know what’s to come, don’t you? It’s worse than being trapped under a storm-stricken yacht, worse than Monte Cassino, worse than a wounded gemsbok with you in its sights. I can do nothing to prevent this. It’s the fight you can’t win.

*

Dad is 8. I am minus 35. My father’s father, grandpa, works in customs and excise at Lüderitz harbour. It’s a Bavarian-style village islanded by the Atlantic Ocean on one side and a sea of Namib dunes on the other. The year is coming to an end and little Revel’s trilingual exams – in German, Afrikaans and English – are finally over. The summer hols stretch away forever. Revel is busy as a bee: learning to sail dinghies in the bay, tobogganing down enormous dunes and cycling out to the ghost town of Kolmanskop, site of a shipwreck of abandoned houses disappearing below the waves of sand. Sometimes his father takes him out to sea on the pinnace or harbour lighters when Woermann liners of the Deutsche Afrika-Linien anchor in the bay. It’s a chance to get a glimpse of 1930s Germany: the bands, the fanfare, the fashions of the first-class passengers. Revel marvels at this exotic maritime world, so different to the Depression austerity of his colonial desert village.

Revel also looks forward to the Lüderitz cultural days, as well as Christmas and New Year. There’ll be beer festivals with dances and oompah bands when the town is draped in swastikas and grandpa, remembering the Somme, will stay indoors, grumbling. But Revel loves the excitement of it all. More frustrating are the rallies in the desert and camps at which the German boys train in gliders – soaring off the dune crests – and from which he and the other South African lads are excluded. The Treaty of Versailles had emasculated the Luftwaffe, but the ‘colonial boys’ will be ready when a revitalised fatherland needs fighter pilots.

And then there’s the gemsbok. After Christmas Revel is invited to visit a school friend on a karakul farm near Aus. The drive is through a stark landscape of red and black mountains, and the ranch itself stretches to the horizon. Huge gemsbok herds trail across the farm, heading for waterholes. Occasionally the men climb on the back of a flatbed truck and chase the antelope on wild hunting expeditions. Revel and his friend hitch a ride on one of these shooting trips, hurtling through the desert chasing a cloud of dust. Then they’re alongside the herd – painted warriors charging an unseen enemy, drilling hooves, shimmering flanks, sabre-like horns.

Rifles crack and a tall, powerful male slows to a canter, then stops, blood leaking from its shoulder. The herd passes and the truck begins to circle the wounded animal. Seeing the vehicle is grinding slowly through soft sand, Revel steps off the back to watch the hunters close with the dying animal. But as the vehicle continues on its circle, the gemsbok shifts its attention to the little boy, now isolated, and lowers its horns for a final charge. The child is in the rifles’ line of fire, the vehicle is struggling in the sand. They cannot risk a shot. Snorting, the gemsbok hurls itself at the boy who stands transfixed, unable to run. The truck’s wheels are spinning now. The beast with the black-and-white mask and sword-like horns is almost upon him when a bullet strikes. Only metres from the boy the gemsbok buckles under its own weight, sending a shower of sand. Revel has looked into the eyes of death for the first time.

*

Dad is 20; I’m minus 23. The column has drawn to a halt and there’s confusion up ahead. Trucks and jeeps are blocking the Sherman tanks. It’s late in the afternoon so their commander decides to pull off the road and pitch camp. For days now they’ve been inching forward, but there’s no way past Monte Cassino and the Germans have dug in round the sixth-century Benedictine monastery. It’s the strong point of the defensive Gustav Line. They know this is the route the Allies must take to get to Rome and break out northwards. The defenders are crack troops and will fight to the last man. Tanks can’t make it up the slopes so it’s the infantry that is sent forward to try to scale the heights and neutralise the German machine gunners.

Revel has friends among the footsloggers and he watches them marching forward, waves and wishes them luck. Within hours they’ll be back, some on stretchers, many in body bags. So it goes for days, weeks. The monastery and surrounds are pulverised to powder by Allied bombers, but the ruins only provide extra cover for the defending Germans. Tens of thousands of lives are wasted on Cassino, but eventually the mountain falls in the spring of ’44 and Revel’s column moves forward.

There will be many more dark days ahead. With tanks bogged down in the Apennines, the company will do night patrols on foot in the snow, probing the German line. ‘Terrible,’ Dad will tell me decades later. ‘Just terrible.’ He will scramble to dive under his Sherman as low-level German fighters strafe them. There’ll be the night after the Germans leave Florence, when Revel’s column is ordered not to enter the town until the following day so that scores can be settled. ‘All night there was shooting and screaming. So much screaming…’ he’d say to me much, much later. There’ll be the sight of an executed Mussolini and his mistress, skirt tied around her knees, strung up by their feet on the Piazzale Loreto in Milan, the crowd venting it’s anger on the corpses.

Italy will also provide moments of indelible pleasure. Like being pulled from foot patrol and driven in a scout car to play rugby on frozen Tuscan fields, or the relief of being holed up in the cherry orchard of a palazzo with a fine cellar of Chianti. But for Revel, the lasting memories will be architectural: the comfortable way an Italian village sits in a landscape, the classical proportions of Roman public buildings, Palladian villas set in rolling grounds, Renaissance cities and the urban culture they represent.

Near his death he’ll tell me of driving across a plain in the late afternoon, approaching the hill town of Assisi, columns of light between the clouds. The tall villas and spires stand like medieval apartment blocks against the skyline; Umbrian stone and tile, turrets and buttresses all aglow. I see him bronzed, lithe, his torso sticking out the tank turret. Revel’s watch is turned to the inside of his wrist to protect it from the recoil of the 75mm gun. His first-year architecture classes – to which he’d paid scant attention – suddenly fall into place: Professor Pryce Lewis’s lecture-hall drawings and Banister Fletcher’s A History of Architecture made flesh. Maybe there was something to be said for this course of study he’d chosen. Maybe when he got home there’d be less rugby and girls, and more dedication, more direction. This Italy had taught him.

*

Dad is one year gone; I’m 38. It’s Christmas dinner at the old holiday house in Simon’s Town and his presence is overwhelming. The rooms he added, the roof he fixed, the septic tank he repeatedly unblocked, the dead rats he retrieved from the rafters. Dad is here in the walls, in the smell of the house. The family wakes each morning half expecting him to rally us for a run to Glencairn, a windsurf at Water’s Edge, breakfast in Kalk Bay.

This year we’ve decided against the Christmas tree-felling expedition, as Dad was always commander in charge. He’d lead the troops up Red Hill with axe in hand to hunt an appropriate pine, us kids giggling in his wake. We’d return triumphant, the tree borne aloft like a trophy. But now the decorations – angels, Father Christmases and reindeers collected in Sweden – remain in boxes.

Evening falls on False Bay. A crescent of lights is framed in the big front door as we take our places at the table. In the absence of Dad, I – the youngest son – carve the ham. Outside a gentle southeaster nags the branches of the pomegranate, fig, lemon and olive trees. Dad’s terraced garden is almost 200 years old. As soon as we can find the courage, maybe after Christmas, his ashes will find a home beneath a stone wall in the far corner beside a gnarled frangipani.

Gifts spread across the floor around us, candles are lit, Dad’s whole family is seated. Mom makes a toast to all of us, to life, to absent loved ones. We are here, we go on, we don’t forget. Glasses are clinked, family faces are warm and smiling in the glow. But the hole fills up the night.

*

The present seems ghostly, as though carrying a future weight. It is so beautiful and sad here, in this gentle light. I can feel we both want to hold onto the moment, your last holiday. After this, it’s back to camp, then home, then a slide towards that which we both dread. It will spread into your spine and within weeks there’ll have to be a back brace, within months a walking frame – your athlete’s body reduced to skin and bone.

But these are still unimaginable horrors. You are too strong, too good, too present to admit such heresies. And you will shield those around you from the extent of the illness, protect us, for months to come. You’ll carry it alone right until the end. ‘Must get over this damn thing and get back to work,’ you’ll tell me.

‘Can’t have you loafing round the house getting in Mom’s way,’ I’ll try to joke. Does a part of you still believe you can beat it, can ‘run it off’?

Before the year is out I’ll be lifting your feather-light body in my arms, so that Mom can change your sheets. Before the year is out, when the holidays are upon us and Christmas decorations already hung, I’ll sit holding your hand, watching life drain from you. Will you hear me when I tell you how much I love you, that you are everything to me? Before the year is out two gentlemen in black suits will come and take you away.

But now, at least, we have this beauty together. On a bridge over the Letaba River.

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