Fiction Friday | 'Reggie & Me' by James Hendry
South Africa – 1976 to 1994
A time of turbulence as the struggle against apartheid reaches its zenith, pushing SA to the brink.
But for one small boy in the leafy northern suburbs of Johannesburg ... his beloved housekeeper is serving fish fingers for lunch.
This is the tale of Hamish Charles Sutherland Fraser – chorister, horse rider, schoolboy actor and, in his dreams, 1st XV rugby star and young ladies’ delight.
The tale of a boy who loves climbing trees in the spring and a girl named Reggie.
An odd child growing up in a conflicted, scary, beautiful society. A young South African who hasn’t learnt the rules.
The next day was Sunday, 11 February 1990.
Hamish woke up feeling dejected, his mouth dry. Light streamed in through the open curtains and a delicious smell of cooking bacon filled the house. He turned on to his side to look at Jane. She was lying peacefully on her front, her left arm cradling her head. Her full, taut lips were very slightly parted and Hamish longed to lean over and kiss them. She shifted slightly and Hamish quickly rolled over. It was then that he realised he had dribbled voluminously onto the pillow next to him. He felt a sudden and overwhelming sense of self-revulsion.
He slowly sat, turned over the pillow and headed for the bathroom to drink some water, clean his teeth and wash his face. Often when he drank water from a tap, he thought of carrying those heavy containers up from the river with Ayanda, a memory that helped him to put things in perspective.
From the bathroom he didn’t really know what to do. He could hear Mr and Mrs Emmerson chatting in the main bedroom, but didn’t think wandering in and saying good morning was quite slumber-party etiquette, so he drifted through to the kitchen, where he found Dorcas and Francina frying bacon, mixing scrambled eggs, slicing tomatoes and mushrooms, brewing coffee and chatting animatedly.
‘Sanibona, bomama,’ he greeted.
They turned with surprise.
‘Sawubona, nkosana,’ replied Dorcas, the shorter of the two. ‘Ufun’ikhofi?’
This was a step too far for Hamish’s Zulu, so Dorcas asked him again in English. Hamish didn’t drink coffee but it smelt so delicious that he accepted a cup and sat at the kitchen counter on a cane barstool.
The kitchen was very different from the one at home – ultra-modern, from what he could tell, with melamine counters and a dazzling range of brand-new appliances.
‘You sleep well?’ asked Dorcas.
‘Yes, thank you,’ smiled Hamish. ‘And you?’
‘Good, good,’ replied Francina.
Conversation flagged until Hamish remembered that Tina loved to go to church on Sundays.
‘Are you going to church today?’ he asked.
‘Today church?’ replied Dorcas wiping her hands on her apron. ‘No, not today, nkosana. Today we are watching TV in the afternoon.’
‘Oh,’ said Hamish. ‘Is there a good story on?’
Dorcas and Francina’s eyes met briefly.
‘No, nkosana, there is no story today. Today Nelson Mandela is coming out from the jail.’
Hamish remembered hearing about this on the news. Suddenly the excited atmosphere in the kitchen made sense and the boy realised it had nothing to do with serving breakfast to the Emmersons or their guests, hitherto sprawled about on the living-room floor.
‘It’s great that he’s going to be released,’ said Hamish lamely. ‘South Africa will be good now without the National Party.’ This was the extent of his political commentary – not that he was shy to express an opinion based on nothing but wild hearsay. ‘The ANC will be a great government. I’ll vote for them when I’m allowed to vote.’
Francina looked surprised. ‘You know the ANC?’ she asked, removing the bacon from the oven, where it had been crisping. She placed it on some kitchen towel.
‘Well … um … I … eh … know who they are …’
He remembered an incident from three or so years previously: he’d arrived home from school armed with a joke. As Stuart was fetching a light bulb from a cupboard in the kitchen, Hamish had wandered in.
‘Dad, did you hear about the dyslexic terrorist?’
Stuart retrieved the sixty-watt bayonet from the stock, grateful for his wife’s superb ability to maintain a supply of household spares. He turned to his son and raised an eyebrow.
‘No, I didn’t.’
Hamish grinned as he delivered the punch line. ‘He went to work for the CNA.’
The boy had expected his father to be most impressed by the topical joke's sophistication.
Stuart had placed the bulb on the counter next to him. ‘Hamish, you must not believe everything you hear at school, especially from your frie— … um … peers. There is a saying that goes “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.”’ Stuart saw his son’s eyes glazing over. ‘It all depends on one’s perspective.’
Back in the Emmersons’ kitchen, the lady of the house arrived in a cotton dressing gown.
‘Morning, ladies,’ she greeted and then she saw Hamish. ‘Oh, hello, Hamish – you’re up early.’ (It was eight-thirty.)
‘Good morning, Mrs Emmerson,’ Hamish replied standing up from the stool.
‘Now, Francina, please make sure that you mop up that extra bacon fat – not like last time.’
Later that day, all five Frasers, along with about twenty million other South Africans, sat glued to their television. Hamish noticed two things from the afternoon.
The first was that an industrious cameraman with an eye for detail spotted a man in the crowd – an enormous gathering of people dancing and chanting in the Cape summer heat. The man was sweating, dressed in rags – his trousers much too short for him, his shoes with uppers that had long since detached from the soles. He had found a tap outside the Victor Verster prison from which to slake his thirst. Hamish remembered it because as the image appeared on screen, he himself was sipping Coke from a glass filled with ice.
The second was that, eventually, the man who would lead South Africa into its uncertain future emerged from the prison dressed in a sombre suit, his wife, Winnie, holding his left hand.
‘He looks like a friendly grandfather, not a terrorist,’ observed Hamish.
Winnie Mandela then lifted her left fist into the air.
‘Oh!’ exclaimed Caroline, slightly alarmed. ‘She’s doing Black Power!’
- Extract provided by Pan Macmillan